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Fiction: Eyes of Green, Wings of Black

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

September 13, 2017

As the dusk slowly stole its way across the sky, the woman who called herself Nellie Vincent waved goodbye to the last of the schoolchildren and locked the door of her curio shop. For the ninth year running, she had made arrangements with the deli and bookstore on either side of her to sponsor a Lunch-and-Learn for the children from the horribly underfunded elementary school one district over.

Nellie dragged herself slowly upstairs to her apartment. She was tired, but a good tired. Tomorrow, she would be helping with the blood drive at St. Catharine’s Hospital, and then on Saturday her weekly visit to the children’s ICU with her storybooks –

“Envy,” said a man’s voice from the top of the dark stairs. She froze. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone else here. There certainly hadn’t been last night, and no men had come in today.

“What?” Nellie called, “Who’s there? What are you doing in my home?”

“I was Sent,” said the voice, and suddenly all the upstairs lights flared on at once.

The light, oddly tinged with sickly green instead of the usual cheery yellow, revealed a man. He had corpse-pale skin that hung loosely on his skinny frame, as though he had recently lost a lot of weight. He was mostly bald, though a few remaining tufts of hair were wiry black, and he was dressed in nothing but a pair of stained grey sweatpants.

Nellie was sure she had never seen him before. “Who are you? What do you want?”

The man had started coming downstairs, but at this his grim expression flickered into exasperation and he goggled at her. “This? This is what I’m talking about. You’ve been away so long, you’ve forgotten your brothers and sisters.”

She had reflexively backed down the stairs away from him, but by the time she reached the bottom, he drew level and glared at her. “I am Sloth!”

Nellie blinked in confusion. “That… that poor man from ‘The Goonies’?”

Sloth rolled his eyes and pushed past her, into the shop. “No! I’m not a movie character! I am Fourth of The Seven! Letalis Sopor!” He sat down at an ornate table clearly labelled “$1999” in Nellie’s careful handwriting. “I am the Sin of Sloth. I am one of Hell’s bishops. And so are you!”

“Sir, I do not know who you think you are–” Nellie began, but he cut her off.

“I just TOLD you! Oh, damnation, I’m tired of this. See for yourself.”

Sloth snapped his fingers. The click seemed to echo a long distance, as all the light in the shop flickered a deep, black-tinged red for a moment. When the light returned to normal, Sloth was carrying on his back a pair of huge feathery wings, as black as Sin – and so was Nellie.

“Now will you please, for the love of Beelzebub, sit down? I’ve been sent to give you a warning, and I’ve wasted too much time on it already.” He slouched in his chair and tried to look as unfairly put upon as a Sin could.

Nellie’s eyes, which had always been a striking rich green, flickered with verdant light and she frowned. “As if you would do anything other than waste time. You are the living embodiment of ‘wasting time’.”

He glared at her as she sat across from him. “You remember. That’s something, I suppose. You’re not the only one who thinks that; frankly, it’s why they sent me to talk to you. Pride couldn’t bear stooping to be a messenger; Greed and Gluttony kept demanding payment, and Wrath just yelled constantly at everyone to shut up. I agreed to come mostly because it was the easiest way to get away from them.”

“What precisely do you want?” Envy asked.

Sloth snorted a laugh. “It’s so weird to hear that from you. Wanting is your job.”

She glared and said nothing.

Sloth sighed. “Fine. Look, it’s like this. You’ve been away too long. We have a duty to perform, and a very irate Master to please. You have to come back Down with me, right away, or there will be terrible consequences. Which, I am pleased to say, I will not have to carry out. They sounded like a lot of work, all that drawing and quartering and so on.”

“Sounds rather serious.”

“It is.”

They stared at each other. Seconds passed by, marked by various timepieces on the shop walls that almost, but not quite, ticked in unison.

Finally, Envy broke the silence. “I’m not going.”

Sloth blinked and sat upright. “What? But… but you have to! This is an order straight from the Throne!”

“No. I am staying here.” With a rustle too quiet for human ears, a few black feathers dropped from Envy’s wings.

“You can’t! I’m not even certain you can escape punishment if you come back now! They know what you’ve been doing!”

She met his shocked gaze with stony resolve. “Oh, do they? What precisely do they think they know?”

“You’ve been –” Sloth stopped himself, then looked around furtively and lowered his voice. “You’ve been doing charity work! Helping people, smoothing out conflict, generally being an extremely good citizen. I hear you haven’t even unloaded a single cursed knick-knack on the locals in the last three towns – Lucifer’s toenails, what do you think they even gave you this shop for?”

“I don’t care. I’m done with all of that. You can have the shop back if you want it. I don’t find it very needful any more.” Feathers fell all around her, in a nearly-silent deluge.

“You… what? You can’t just quit! This isn’t some volunteer job at the soup kitchen – which I note you’ve been doing, too – this is forever! Sin is Forever!”

“I can, and I do. I’m done. You can tell them that for me – including the Throne.”

Sloth turned, somehow, even paler at the idea of carrying this news to the Prince of Lies. “I really don’t think I can. Damn everything! Who do you think you are!?”

“You tell me, my ‘brother’. Who am I?”

“Envy! Sixth of The Seven! Invidia Totalis!”

All the black feathers had fallen now. For the first time since her unwelcome visitor had arrived, Nellie Vincent – Envy – smiled at him, as behind her spread wings of purest white.

“Yes. I am Envy, who craves the joys others have.” Her smile widened and her eyes glistened, hinting at a kind of love never found in Hell. “Did you really think I would never meet an angel?”

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West Virginia style hot dog.

426

Fiction: Dogs Are A Clone’s Best Friend

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

August 31, 2017

“Syv, I’m bored.” Mech said.

Bullets ripped the trees in front of us in half with only a fraction of them actually hitting Mech’s shields below me. He was – or at least, had been – the Warhammer from the Glass Cannons and, despite the team name, he was far from glass.

“This Johnny was built wrong and his bullets aren’t doing anything.”

I chewed absently on a SlyEye chili dog while sitting cross legged on Mech’s flat head. I caressed the cold metal beneath me as I searched the dark ruins around us.

The hunting Johnny was camped out in the third floor of a crumbling apartment complex, the gold flashes I’d glimpsed through my scope marking him as the Big Johnny Four of the Sunbros. I hadn’t seen the Sylvia the Devs had sent after us yet though.

“Four’s gotten comfortable. He’s sitting on a chair. The other Deadringer is trying to flank us.” I said.

“We won’t win if we turtle Syv, all I know how to do is attack.”

I took another bite of the hotdog, peeling back the self heating wrapper and tossing it behind me. I chewed and took another look through my sniper scope. I sighed and slid the half eaten SlyEye into the bag on my hip.

“Go ahead Mech. Go get him,” I said and slid off of my boyfriend’s back.

“I’m gonna take you to pound town.” Warhammer yelled, his electronic voice cracking as he charged towards the bullet-spewing clone.

I stood and watched as the sunlight that filtered through the treetops sparkled against his smoky crystal armour. His hulking form smashed through both underbrush and rusted machinery as he pushed against the concrete building.

“It’s time for them Gripplegraps!”

I unwrapped the SlyEye to the sound of my Mech slamming the Sunbro noob into sludge. I smiled around the footlong and swept the area for more gold clad hunters.

We’d met during a match, my Greenskins vs. his Glass Cannons. I’d watched Mech from across the field, watched the way that he took down Crawler and Clone alike with a joy that was barely seen in those of us born for Superchamp. I’d dropped on him and left a note scribbled on a wrapper on his shield before he killed me.

We exchanged letters after that. Every time our teams fought, we’d pin them to the crawlers marching down each other’s lanes all game. Every night that one of us stayed in the other’s city’s away apartments, we’d flash lights at each other across the dark.

Then I was recalled for retirement and Warhammer said we should run.

“Woo! That attack sure fell flat.” Mech said.

He wiped the blood and dust off of his shields. Not far away from him was what was left of the Four. I trotted over to the gooey paste of clone and kicked the pieces around, looking for anything salvageable.

Hammer grabbed me from behind in a hug and I felt the heat from his exhaust fall over me. I leaned into him and kissed his hand.

“Good job, Mech. I’d kiss you if you still had a face.”

“Naw. You can still kiss me, and I’ll take you to pound town later.”

I turned and kissed between the camera’s that had become his eyes. He slid his colossal hands down my hips and rests them there. I giggled and leaned on his arm, letting him support me.

“We should move. The other one is still out there.” I said.

“I’ve got you Greeny, no one is hurting my girl.”

He cupped my crotch, lifting me up off the ground and pressing into the bulge hidden there. I moaned against him. And—

I was staring at the inside of a respawn vat. The green text in front of my eyes scrolled too fast for me to see. I punched the inside of the vat, frustration venting out my fist as pain. The front slid open and I tumbled out.

“Are you okay Sylvia?”

I scrambled to my feet, the feeling of newly cloned flesh making me shiver.

“What?” I said.

“I said, ‘are you okay?’ You usually don’t fall when they open that shit.”

A Four stood in front of me, his armour gold and black. He held out his hand, ready to grab me if I fell again. I shrank away from him back toward the open creche.

“What happened to Mech?”

“Who?”

I ran under his arm and away from the respawn vats. I heard him behind me, throwing the name Sylvia at me like grenades. I stepped down hard, my foot hit air, and I fell head first into a crafty table, food and drink flying everywhere.

I landed on the floor, my nose pressed against the toe of a leather cowboy boot.

“Yeehaw. That was a magnificent dodge by Deadringer Sylvia of the Sunbros. That landing gets a ten out of ten.” Jack Flack, the Superchamp announcer, said.

I picked myself off of Jack’s shoe and stood again. Jack stood in front of me, a coffee cup in one hand and a carafe of cream in the other. He stared at me as the remains of his coffee dripped down his vest.

“Sorry sir. I’m not feeling well.” I said to him and pushed past him.

“Don’t forget to buy a Battle Bright Taco™ and an 80 ounce Pistol Punch™ on your way out.” he yelled after me.

I ran through a hall made of curtains and searched the dark depths of swinging cloth as I passed, the sounds of footsteps behind me.

“Mech? Are you there?” I yelled.

Light fell ahead of me and I raced toward it.

“WELCOME BACK DEADRINGER SYLVIA!” The light said.

I shielded my face with my hand. Hundreds of seats hid behind the stage lights, each one filled with cardboard cutouts of the Superchamp clones clapping. Speakers filled the stage with the sounds of a crowd going bonkers, whistling and hooting.

“Y’all got dealt a bad hand in that round but don’t fret. The crowd’s with y’all still and the runners are still runnin’, so we’ll get’ch’all out there in a jiffy.” Flack’s voice boomed above the noise of the nonexistent crowd.

“WELCOME BACK BIG JOHNNY FOUR!”

I I looked back toward the curtain where Sunbro Four stood waving. He glanced at me through half closed eyes and raised his eyebrow. I flipped off the cardboard cut outs and stormed off the stage.

Two people in gray uniforms were picking up the spilled crafty. I kicked a stray Greenskin Gourmet Doughnut into the mess of curtains to my right. Fuck these people. They wouldn’t let me leave, so they can deal with smell of rotting anchovies and goat cheese.

“Sylvia. What in the hell is going on? Why didn’t you wait for me to get back?” The golden Four said from behind me.

“I don’t call myself that.” I said.

“What? Is this about D? I know you still miss her, I do too, but this shit isn’t going to help.”

“Fuck you.” I slammed my fist into the wall. I snatched a wrapped SlyEye out of the pile of spilled food and pulled the heating tab.

“You’re eating those now? Shit Sylvia, you have to stop this. You told me you got the SlyEye EyeBuy.”

The foil turned a bright blue and I tore the top off of the footlong chili dog. I bit the tip off and chewed it, my breath coming out of my nose in harsh bursts. I swallowed and went in for another bite when I noticed my gloves, the black, gold pattern on them.

“Fuck me. How do I get out of this nightmare.”

One of the attendants stopped picking up food to point toward a door marked ‘Exit’.

“Thanks.” I said through a mouth full of meat, beans, and cheese.

The ready room beyond the door was filled with guns, food, and anything you might need to hunt down someone dangerous. I grabbed a pack from the rack and started stuffing it with as much as I could.

“Are you going to talk to me? Or am I just going to have to keep following you around and shit?”

I looked at Four, pausing my packing for a moment to really look at him. His eyes were deep in his skull, the black rings around them made him look like a racoon. He swept his gloved hands through his grey hair, sticking it up with sweat as the ran through. I sighed and zipped up the bag.

“She’s gone. She’s not coming back. I have to find Mech.” I swung the pack onto my back and grabbed a sniper rifle with an Acog sight.

“Okay.” He said and got ready.


 

The ruins around Stygere were filled with the sounds of mutant animals going about their business. I ran ahead of the Sunbro Four towards the last place that I’d been with Mech. It wasn’t hard to find, the trail of ruined bushes and trampled rubble left by Mech’s huge feet kept me on track.

“Look, I know how you feel. I miss her too, Sylvia. I’ve been hinting that you can talk to me for over a year.”

I could hear the buzzing of the drone following us. They’d be watching our every move, the crowds paying by the minute for the privilege. The Four continued talking the entire trip, no matter how much I ignored him.

“I lay awake at night. Okay? I know you and D had a thing but you weren’t the only one with feelings for her.”

I slid into cover at the edge of the clearing where Mech had smashed Four’s previous body to paste. It was quiet, the animals in the area still shying away after all the action from earlier. One of the giant trees ringing the clearing had been felled since I’d been here, the trunk in splinters and another mangled body resting in the branches.

“Will you please talk to me? Please, Sylvia!” Four said, standing next to me.

“She’s dead, Four. Forget about her. Move on.” I said, the words erupting from my mouth before I knew what was going on.

He looked at me and his eyes darkened farther. He bared his teeth, about to say something but before he could the forest behind him blurred red, disgorging a figure in red cloak holding a double-bladed scythe in her left hand.

“Hey Big Guy.” She said.

“What?” Four turned, his eyes wide in their sunken sockets.

“Sorry.”

She cut him in half, the blood splattering across the ferns and trees around us. He held out his hand as both halves fell to the ground in a heap of gore and flesh.

“No.” He whispered and laid still.

The sound of the drone had gone, replaced by the sound of trees swaying in the wind. I dropped my gun and held my hands, palms up.

“Hold it. I’m not here to fight. I just want to get back to my Warhammer .”

With a swipe, she cleaned the blood off of her blades. She leaned against the trunk of a clean tree and popped the tab of a can slung on her belt. She took a deep swig, the carbonated, yellow drink flowing down her jaw to sink into the cloth of her cloak.

“Hey Sylvia. Long time no see.”

“Stop fucking calling me that.” I screamed, “My name is Syv. It’s Syv. Not Sylvia. Not Deadringer. Not even Sylv.”

I started ripping off the gold and black armour, throwing the pieces into the pile of dead clone in front of me. The woman in red took a step back, her hand going to the scythe again.

“I’m not this Sunbro slut. I’m a damn Greenskin. I hate the colour gold. I hate their snobby ass attitude. I hate the way that they make it to the Superchamp stadium every year. I just want to go meet my boyfriend and live in the woods.”

I slung the bag onto the ground next to me and ripped off my chest piece. I stood in front of her, naked and painting, my skin chilling in the shaded forest.

The forest shimmered beside the woman and revealed a Lady Death clone in a patchwork blue, black, and gold suit. The Lady Death’s visor was cracked and partially missing, the woman’s black-almond eye looking through the hole. She held a golf club in one hand and a grenade in the other.

“Is everything okay D?” The new woman asked.

“I have no fucking idea, Blue. You take care of the drone?”

“Yeah, they never saw me coming.” Blue grinned.

“This is a clusterfuck.” D handed her scythe to her partner and unbuttoned her cloak.” We’re going to have to deal with this one, and our other new friends, before we can even think about going back home.”

She let the cloth fall from her shoulders with a shrug and let it pool in the crook of her left arm. The skin of what used to be her right shoulder was red and mottled, a deep scar ran through where her arm used to be. She took the can from her belt and drank.

“Well, get what you’re bringing Not Sylvia. We’re going to go join the others.” She said, exasperated.

For a beat I continued standing there shivering and stared at D, then grabbed the bag off the ground. I slid the sniper into the holster on the pack and then slid it back on my back. I left the armour in the pit of dead Four.

I followed the two through the thick underbrush. They were walking hand in hand, silently looking at the forest around them as animal sounds started coming back. I pulled one of the many foil wrapped packages out of my bag as we walked.

Vines spread open around the entryway to a half collapsed building, trees crowding the door with plastic wrapped cartons sprouting from their trunks. I pulled the cooking tab on my lunch as the two women moved through the crowded doorway, the smell of chilly and melting cheese wafting from the package.

“We’re coming in.” D called to the abandoned factory.

“‘Bout time. Y’all are late and I’m gettin’ grouchy. Ain’t that right y’all, Mama Harry’s gettin’ right ornery.”

Across the floor of rotted machinery sat four people; a woman with steel gray eyes and a pistol the size of my arm in her hand, a haggard older man with a shaved head and an arm missing, and the hunched figure of Mech with me in his arms.

“Fuck.” I and … the other I… said in unison.

There was a bloodstained bandage covering the eye of the me in Mech’s arms. She was stripped of armour and was wrapped in a white sheet.

“I should have seen this coming. The moment I saw those two alive.” I said, motioning to the two Lady Death clones now joining the group sitting on the loading bay. “The Devs are bad at this.”

“What’s going on?” Mech asked.

“I’m Syv.”

I tossed the Slyeye at my counterpart. She caught it and ripped open the package.

“We found her with Johnny following her, though I had to take him out. I feel a bit bad about that, we might have been able to use him.”

I sat and put my hands in my head. This was either a nightmare or bullshit, and neither were what I wanted. I was in a body that wasn’t my own with augments I didn’t deserve and a ghost of myself in Mech’s arms.

“Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me.” I whispered.

I felt a soft hand on my back and looked up to find my own face staring back at me. She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Mech was behind her, supporting her with one hand.

“So?” I said.

“So.”

“Are you okay, at least?”

She tugged on Mech’s hand and looked at him. He lifted her onto the flat platform on his head and then slid his fingers around my waist to do the same. His cold touch made me shiver but the warmth of being back in my boyfriend’s arms kept the chill away.

“The Sunbro Sylvia shot me. I lost my eye but it went through. Four says I’m lucky.”

“Don’t tire her out, she’s got the last of our bingo in her.” The bald man said.

“Anyway. Mech killed her. D and Blue found us. We came here.”

Other-Syv held out half of her hotdog to me and smiled. I took it and chewed, the sour taste of my self pity replaced by meat and cheese.

“You should have seen me, Syv. My gripplegraps were so good.”

I stroked my boyfriend’s head and smiled with my other. We ate together and Mech held us.


 

“All runners, you have two minutes before I come in there and kill you all.”

The forest outside the factory was dark, the air thick with the chill of night. The group had gone to sleep not long before with D watching over us all.

“Just go away, Johnny. We don’t have to fight.” D yelled back.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and stepped out from the shelter of Mech’s arms, where Syv and I were sleeping.

“She killed her, D, The Greenskin Lobi completely erased her.” Four’s voice sounded hoarse next to the sharp cold of the night.

Syv poked her head out of Mech’s embrace and the big cyborg’s eyes lit up. I put my finger to my lips and went to my pack. I checked my sniper’s breach and loaded it.

D was wired, I could hear the Energy Aid in the way her response wobbled from her mouth. “I know, Big Guy. I’m sorry, but we have wounded inside. Please.”

I hoisted myself onto the rusted catwalk that D sat on. She was looking out into the darkness outside, her scythe in her hand. I tapped the wall next to her to let her know I was there and then slid beside her.

“Can you see him?” I asked.

“No. It’s too dark and I don’t have a faceplate anymore.”

I flicked the Acog night vision on and steadied my rifle on the window ledge. I looked through the scope and gasped.

The forest was filled with crawlers. Hundreds of them stood, silent and waiting, just outside the carton trees. In front of them all, on top of the biggest crawler I’d ever seen, was Sunbro Four.

“We are fucked. Get everyone ready.”

“Thirty seconds and I’m coming in.”

Explosions ripped through the waiting crawlers and lit up The Taint. My night vision peaked and shut off before I was blinded. I blinked the tears out of my eye and switched my rifle to the other side.

D jumped from the window and out to the chaos below and then started chewing through bots with her scythe. Behind me I heard the stomping of Warhammer’s feet as he charged into the fray. I struggled to keep the fighting in focus as the fire burned and the bullets flew.

I began shooting. The bots were so close together, and so many, that each shot ripped through two or three. I saw the shimmer of Blue’s cloak float in front of me and then an explosion.

“I got a hunger and only mooks can suffice.” Mech warbled.

He charged through a group, bullets pouring into him from Four’s chaingun. This time his shield started buckling.

“Away. Hahaha.” he said and started running backward, shields up.

Syv crawled beside me, her own sniper in one hand and the pants from her armour in the other. She had wrapped the sheet around her waist, leaving her chest bare.

“I thought your dangly bits might be cold.”

She handed me the armour and I quickly slid it on.

“Thanks.”

Below us we could hear Mama Harry’s pistol booming, each shot shaking the catwalk. Syv and I smiled at each other as the sounds of the battle continued.

“Chili dogs?”

“Chili dogs.”

 


Holly Sophia McCrea is a poet, artist, and short fiction writer from Vancouver BC. She’s been published in The Drabblecast audio fiction magazine and currently has a chapbook available on amazon.

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340

Fiction: Wolf’s Weird

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

August 13, 2017

The Wolf dreamed, and in his dream he fell in love. The girl was young and wore a coat of rich red, and when he tasted her he knew he was hers forever.

When dawn broke, the Wolf left his den in the Dirkwood and loped across the plains to the city. That’s where the humans lived, among others, and the girl in the red coat was definitely a human. Wolves are practical, level-headed creatures, but every now and then one might come down with an awful obsession, and indeed this one had.

It was a long run, and the sun was drifting to bed in the West when the Wolf arrived at the city. The lights in the great Knight Market were twinkling alight, as the shops that did not sell their wares in daylight opened for business. The Wolf paused and stared at the signs; he was a smart Wolf, but had never been taught to read, and the signs were a mystery to him. Wolves do not give up easily, though, and he determined to go into every shop until he found someone who knew the girl in his dream, or had used them all up.

The first shop was an alchemist’s, its walls lined with shelves and the shelves lined with bottles in every color and smell of the rainbow. The alchemist was an old man, stooped, gnarled, and with a long white beard stained in many patches by his work.

“Good evening, Sir Wolf,” said the alchemist, whose customers were often not human.

“Good evening,” said the Wolf, “I must find a girl, can you help me?”

“You want a love potion, eh?” The old man stroked his stained beard thoughtfully. “Could do, could do. I don’t have one on hand for wolves, it’d be a special order.”

The Wolf shook his huge shaggy head. “Love I have, but the girl herself is missing. I dreamed a dream that must come true, of a young human girl with hair of midnight and a coat of scarlet. How can I find her?”

“A dream, eh?” The alchemist clicked his tongue in disapproval. “I’m afraid I don’t deal in dreams of sleep. I have not seen such a girl either. Perhaps you should see the fortune-teller at the end of the lane?”

The Wolf nodded his thanks and padded out. At the end of the lane was a small shop bedecked with curtains and lace, with tarocchi cards laid out in the window. Within, at the single small table, sat a robed woman with her eyes closed, swaying back and forth.

“Good evening,” said the Wolf, and he would have said more but was cut off.

“Hush! The Spirits speak. They speak of a new visitor, a handsome stranger looking for love. Is this true?”

The Wolf was forced to admit that it was. “I must find–”

Again she cut him off. “You seek a girl! Your lover-to-be! I see… hair like a raven’s wing… cloaked in the color of blood…”

“Yes! That is her, where may I find her?”

“First give me a piece of silv–” but the woman did not finish speaking; instead, she opened her eyes, saw for the first time that her client was not a handsome swain but a huge Wolf of the Dirkwood, and screamed and screamed!

“Please stop that! I mean you no harm.”

And still she screamed.

“Did the Spirits not tell you that you would meet a Wolf this night?”

And yet on she screamed.

“Very well. Good evening to you.”

The Wolf worked his way down the lane. Some received him courteously, some with great discourtesy indeed, but none could help. As the Eastward sky began to brighten, he arrived at the last shop, smaller than most, unlit, and set some ways away from the others. Inside was dim, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust.

The shop was strange; though its apparent wares of threads and bolts of fabric were present, they seemed ancient, and all was covered with cobwebs. Thinking the place abandoned, he was about to leave when a strange smell caught his nose and he realized he was not alone. Behind the counter, shrouded in a thick grey cloak, stood a figure. It seemed to be watching him, but he could not see its face in the shadows.

“Welcome,” the figure said, in a strange, fluting voice.

“Are these your wares?” asked the Wolf, his manners momentarily forgotten.

“They were once. They could be again, if need be. I am a Weaver. What do you seek?”

“I dreamed a dream that must come true, of a young human girl with hair of midnight and a coat of scarlet. Can you help me find her?”

“Ahh, dreams. Dreams can be woven, and unwoven. Let us see.”

The weaver laid out some threads, and with extraordinary speed and no other artifice wove them into a mandala, a square of many intertwined colors. When it was nearly done, the Weaver said, “I must have some of your hair: one from your head, one from your heart, and one from your tail. Only in this way can we know what must come next.”

The Wolf was surprised by this, but agreed. The Weaver approached him and with silent swiftness plucked the three hairs, seemingly all at once. Then it returned to the mandala, and wove the hairs within.

The Weaver stared at the finished mandala for a few moments, then showed it to the Wolf, to whom the patterns and swirls meant nothing.

“My dear Wolf, luck in love is not your lot. There is such a girl, but she is not to be found in the Lands Above.”

“But the Lands Above are all that is! If she exists, but she is nowhere in the world, where can she be?”

The Weaver chuckled, a very old sound. “No, Sir Wolf. The Lands Above are not all that is. There are Lands Below as well.”

“Can you get me there, to her?” He did not care what horrors this other Land may be beset with, as long as he could find his love.

“Space can be woven and unwoven. Time too, for those with the skill, and I am the last of the great Weavers. It can be done, but the price will be very high.”

“Hang the price! If you can do it, let it be done!”

“Terms first, Sir Wolf! I do not take payment in gold or goods, and this journey will take far far more from you than I would charge. You will lose your life.”

“What nonsense is this? You would see me dead?”

“Not dead, no. Not at all. But your life would not be your own.”

The Weaver lowered its hood, and the Wolf beheld an enormous slender spider, the last of the great Weavers.

“You would no longer be the Wolf of the Dirkwood. You would no longer remember that there had been such a place, or such a Wolf. Tell me, is your love worth the price?”

Every now and then a wolf might come down with an awful obsession. “Yes. For her… all that I am and more, which I would give her anyway.”

The Weaver flexed its fangs, the tips of which glittered wetly in the dawning light. “Very well, then. Farewell, Sir Wolf; may your choice prove wise.” It darted forward and bit the Wolf upon his great neck. The Wolf staggered, then fell forward into a darkness deeper than any he had ever known.

 


 

For Carmen’s 12th birthday, her parents had made a promise that they were already regretting as they stood in the doorway of the animal shelter. Carmen was beside herself with excitement, going from cage to cage, cat to dog to cat to dog to snake. Her parents were visibly relieved when she passed the snake by.

“Any of them? For me? Really?” Carmen said.

“Yes, as long as you promise to take good care of them. This will be your responsibility.” said her mother.

Carmen went back to the cages, asking the amused lady behind the counter all sorts of things about all the animals. Finally, she reached one big cage and stopped dead. “Where did he come from?”

The lady came over to look. Inside the cage was a tiny puppy with grey and brown fur, staring solemnly up at Carmen. The puppy trotted to the cage door and stood on his hind legs, reaching for Carmen with one paw.

“We’re not sure, to be honest. One of the vets found him in the snow a few days ago. He’s got no collar or chip, but he seems healthy.”

“What kind of dog is he?”

“Probably part German Shepherd. It’s hard to tell, especially with strays.”

The little dog opened its jaws and barked once, a tiny ‘yip’, and Carmen’s heart melted. “I want him!”

The lady smiled and opened the cage door. As soon as she did so, the puppy ran straight into Carmen’s arms, squirming happily as he was picked up.

“Mom! Dad! Look at my puppy!”

Carmen ran to her parents to show off the dog. They were bent over the front counter filling out adoption paperwork. The puppy didn’t care about them, and just went about his business of licking her face all over.

The girl was young and wore a coat of rich red, and when he tasted her he knew he was hers forever.

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454

Fiction: Take You Home

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

July 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

On the seaside Red Cliffs where the gryphons built their aerie, storms are all too common, from the light showers of summer to the harsh monsoons of wet winter. But the cliffs gave them shelter, and the ocean gave them food, and the proud gryphon folk desired little else.

One particularly dark and cold winter, soon after dawn on the shortest day, there blew up a storm more terrible than any in living memory. The sky blackened like midnight, the waves frothed and beat against the red granite, and the strongest and smartest of the gryphons’ warriors and hunters exhausted themselves keeping the aerie’s nests safe and secure. The storm lasted three days and three nights, the heavens themselves shattered by lightning and thunder, and when dawn the final day finally brought calm, the gryphons patrolled their beach to see what havoc the sea had wrought.

There were fish and creatures well known to them washed ashore, which they gathered to eat, and the remains of their beach shelters washed away. Corals and shells from the briny deep lay scattered about, as well as bits of wreckage and debris from constructions made by some unknown hands. And there was the girl.

The gryphons of the Red Cliffs had never seen such a creature. Nor indeed had they ever seen a human, or else they would have deemed her to be like them, slender and clad in a garment of shimmering sea green, but unlike humans her pale blue skin bore the outlines of soft scales, and webbing stretched between her digits as well as between the spines of the fins on the backs of her arms and legs. They gathered, concerned, and sought the elders’ advice on what to do about her.

“Cast it back to the waves. It is no problem of ours,” said one elder. “Put it with the bounty of the storm, we shall feast upon it,” said another. “Kill it and bury it with haste, lest it attract more of its kind,” said a third. They and the others argued about how best to dispose of the creature, when a voice boomed over all of them, “NO.”

They turned and there stood the one called Yalos, eldest son of the chief, and regarded in all things a wise elder of the clan despite his youth. “Have you not listened to the tales? This is not a fish, nor merely some deeper animal. We must show compassion, lest in our haste and greed we commit a grave sin.”

The gryphons scoffed. How could this be anything but an animal? Did it not lack feathers and beak as well as tail and hindclaws? Such a thing could be nothing better than the bounty of the sea, and nothing worse than a pest. But Yalos stood over the creature and drove the others back with wings, claws, and beak. They hissed at him. “You may be our Prince, but that does not give you leave to break our traditions!” spat an Elder, the one who had wished to eat her.

In ones and twos they left, voicing their disdain, and when Yalos was again alone on the beach a soft voice spoke from between his legs: “You have faced your own kind… for me? Why?”

The gryphon stepped aside and peered down into the now wide open pale blue eyes of the girl from the sea. That she spoke his language surprised him, but that she spoke at all did not, for he had listened to the tales. “The right thing to do is that no matter who it is for. I am called Yalos, Prince of the Red Cliffs. May I have your name?”

The girl hesitated, then sat up. “I am Nehelennia of the Waves. And I think… I am lost. Where are these cliffs?”

Yalos indicated the tall cliffs of granite and clay that ran along the beach, but he understood her deeper meaning. “The Mourning Mountains lie further north, the forest we have not named lies further inland to the west. All else is The Sea.”

“The stars, the stars. I must see the stars…” Nehelennia said, though it was not a reply. She pushed on the beach, trying to stand, but was unable.

“Hush,” said the gryphon, shaking his head. “You have been injured in the storm. Rest here; I will bring you food.”

Nehelennia began to protest, but Yalos had already flown off. The prince was as good as his word, and over the following days cared for the nereid, for that is what she was, as though she was his own chick. And each night, as the black velvet sky shone with stardust, she became sadder and sadder.

“Why do you cry when you see the stars?” Yalos asked one such night.

“I am lost,” she replied, “This is not the sky of my home.”

“It is the only sky,” said the gryphon with some confusion.

“No. It is but one of many. When the storms between the worlds blow, they cross from sky to sky, and the storms…. they took me, years ago. I have been alone ever since, and do not think I will again see the sky over the Brightwater.”

And with that, she placed her face in her hands and wept sea foam.

Yalos’ heart broke for her, though he did not understand this talk of other worlds. He wrapped a wing around her in comfort and said, “Then let your loneliness at least be eased. I will take you home.”

The nereid shook her head. “No, you cannot! Even I do not know the way.”

“We shall find it together,” said he. “By the Egg of the Sun, I will take you home.”

Nehelennia protested further, but it was to no avail. A gryphon’s promise is neither given nor broken lightly, and a prince’s even more so. A fortnight had not yet passed when she dove into the waves to once again seek her home, and when she did so Yalos took wing and followed overhead.

A gryphon is a strong creature, and Yalos was both strong and wise, but they are not normally users of magic. A nereid, contrariwise, is formed of the magic found in the hidden depths. Nearby, water and ice moved as she directed it, and each night of their journey as the sun sank and Yalos’ wings tired from flight, she would make a pan of ice and there they would both spend the night, he curled upon it and she bobbing upon the waves.

Days passed. Nehelennia seemed to know where she was going, but each night when Yalos asked if they were drawing nearer, she would simply reply, “This is still not my sky.” Just as the gryphon was beginning to wonder what they sought, the girl pointed excitedly at the horizon. There, a huge storm was gathering against the darkening sky.

“That is the storm between worlds! We must… I must go to it!” said she.

“What? Go into the storm? We will be killed!” Yalos squawked.

“I must!” Nehelennia insisted. “You do not have to. Return to your people.”

Yalos shook his head. “I cannot. We are too far – but that does not matter. I have not fulfilled my oath.”

The argument would no doubt have continued, but no storm moves as fast as the one between the worlds, and it struck them as they spoke! The gryphon struggled, beating his wings hard and dodging the flashes of lightning and the worst downdrafts, as did the nereid, fighting to maintain control as the waves began to rise and tower nearly the height of the Red Cliffs themselves!

Nehelennia was losing the battle for control. A creature of the sea, she could not drown, but neither could she control where she was thrown. The waves buffeted and threw her about until, with a sudden jerk, she was yanked upward into the storm instead. Yalos had scooped her from the foam.

Traveling upwards within the clouds, both beheld a sight they had never seen before: as the clouds roiled and broke, between them snatches of land and sea could be seen – but not the sea they left. Worlds mundane and exotic flashed past, until finally the nereid pointed and yelled “THERE!”

Yalos threw them both through the gap without thinking about what he was doing, and suddenly the storm was gone. Instead, they floated above a calm green sea, with islands on the horizon.

“What has happened?” the gryphon asked, amazed.

“The storm between worlds, dear Yalos. We have crossed,” the nereid replied.

She looked around, and a smile began to spread on her face.

Yalos looked at her. “Is… is this your sky?”

“It is not… but it is one I have seen before. Perhaps we can follow the trail backwards. Through the storms.”

Thus began the hardest time in the gryphon prince’s life. Through storms and strife, barren worlds and worlds rife with deadly creatures, the two of them traveled, always seeking out the Storm Between Worlds when it touched down. With Yalos’ wings, they were able to choose between the worlds they glimpsed among the stormclouds, rather than being at the mercy of the waves to toss them through as Nehelennia had once been. Still, it was nearly a year and a half by Yalos’ reckoning when finally their journey came to an end.

They passed through the storm to a foggy world with no clear horizon, and touched down gently upon the waves. The fog bank proved to be nothing more than mist and blew away, and when it did, Nehelennia looked up and shrieked with delight.

“Look! The Dancers! The Anglerfish! The Waterspout! See the stars, Yalos? We are finally here! This is my sky!”

The gryphon smiled and flew a grand loop in celebration. With the familiar stars overhead, it was only one more night before Nehelennia directed them both to a lagoon surrounded by a reef – a lagoon within the sea. “This is the Brightwater. This is the place where I was born, and where my family…” She trailed off and watched him land.

Yalos settled down on a reef to rest. “Good, good. If this is the place, then you are home. I am glad. Allow me to rest here a short time, and I will… be on my way.”

They looked at one another, and at the same time realized what Yalos had done. He had crossed the storms, driven to keep his oath, and come as far from his home across as many worlds as Nehelennia had been when they first met. Nehelennia, for her part, looked about the deserted Brightwater and realized that she had not been the only one swept up.

Yalos put his head down on his forelimbs. “I cannot deny it. I am lost. But you are home now, my oath is fulfilled, and with guidance of the Egg I may yet find my way home.” He closed his eyes and shuddered, thinking of the journey ahead.

Nehelennia hopped up and sat beside him upon the reef. “You have shown me a greater kindness than I ever imagined. You have taken me across the worlds, and kept me safe, and never once thought of your own journey home.”

She laid a hand on the feathers of his head and stroked gently. It was the first time they had touched for a reason other than the necessities of the journey. “Let your fear be eased. By the Dancers on the Deep… I will take you home.”

The gryphon began to protest, but it was as futile as her own had been before. When Yalos left the reef, Nehelennia came with him, and together they plunged once again into the storms.

That is them there, as you may have guessed. Even in a place such as this, a gryphon is a rare sight, and it is hard to miss the blue maiden of the sea. You may wonder how they came here; why, they came as most do, blown in from the storm. And they have stayed, for one very important reason.

They did not tell each other at first that they were alone. Yalos’ actions on Nehelennia’s behalf earned him, if not the status of an exile, at least the status of an insubordinate, and among the Gryphons of the Red Cliffs that is nearly the same thing. Nehelennia’s home had been devastated by the storm, much more than she had known before her return; all that she had known was gone, and the work to rebuild would be great indeed.

But the reason they stayed was to keep their promises. For neither had promised to bring the other to a place, but rather promised to bring them home – and after the trials they had faced together, for each of them, ‘home’ could be anywhere…

As long as that is where the other is.

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406

Fiction: Clone Me Baby, One More Time

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 30, 2017

The rocket hit me in the face dead on. My teeth shattered, pieces of bone shearing the soft tissues of my tongue and mouth. My nose hollowed out and everything from its bridge down became pulp. The faceplate I wore saved my eyes, though it cracked and the display disappeared in a flicker of red. I wavered between consciousness and darkness as blood loss took its toll.

I respawned back at home base, my new body buzzing with fresh energy. This was my third death this game; my K/D ratio was going to go to shit if I kept this up. I grabbed an Energy Aid Cola from the drink machine — the price automatically deducted from the game’s winnings — and downed the methamphetamine laced drink.

My name is Lady Death and this is the life I was cloned for.

We were down two lane lengths, the enemy team’s crawlers pounding at our door, and I was playing like a newbie-clone who still needed her training bot to function. If we didn’t get a grip on this game then the Sunbros could say goodbye to our place at Superchamp stadium, and we might as well stop playing if it came to that. I grabbed a Lady Death Soul Reaper Scythe™ from the rack and breached the base’s doors to once again join the fight.

Big Johnny Four was waiting at the entrance, his black and gold exosuit glinting in the noon sun.

“Saw the replay of that hit, you okay Lady D?”

His immense frame towered over me, his right arm encased in a massive gatling gun.

“I’m fine. It’s just the crowd today. They seem more hostile than normal,” I said.

I could see small wars breaking out where the Sunbro fans met the Battering Bruiser fans. There was more gunfire going on in the bleachers than on the actual field. The Game Devs would have to step in if it escalated any more.

“Don’t let it get to you. The Devs just decided to make today free Battle Bright Taco Tuesday. I think they spike that shit with speed.”

Johnny patted my shoulder with his huge hand, his touch soft through my skin-tight armour.

“Come on, we have the the left lane to cover. Silvia’s all by herself and they’re pushing hard.”

I nodded and engaged my cloak, leaving his hand sitting on my ghostly shoulder. He hefted his gun and trundled toward left lane as I took my own, faster route. I ran toward the nearest wall, took a step up it, and flipped on top of it.

The entire field spread out before me, maze like halls with open tops and two uncluttered lanes winding their way through them. Above all was the multifaced big-screens that currently showed Deadringer Silvia holding off two enemy champions. I couldn’t tell which, but I thought I could see the tell-tale shimmer of one of my clone sisters weaving between the crawlers.

I jumped from one wall to the next, making time faster than Johnny who had to traverse the maze on foot. I knew every inch of this course, had been running through it and four others since I was barely out of the clone tubes. I’d run through it blind more than once.

I made my way to Silvia’s perch and tapped on the back of her helmet.

“Dead.”

She nodded and continued firing at the enemy crawlers. Each one she hit exploded in blue flame before disappearing in a mess of metal.

“Big J is on his way, it’s gonna take him a minute or two. I’m going to hit the crawlers on the back line, just keep our own in good shape.”

She nodded again as I jumped down to the lane and headed behind the enemy champs.

I hit a wall and ran on it, the sound of my boosters matching the whine of the crowd. There was the opening: the enemy’s Dirty Harriet was reloading and the blue clad Big Johnny was focused on a crawler that had made it past their defensive line. I slipped between them and toward the stream of crawlers behind.

The edge of my scythe cut through the ribbed bots like they were melting snow. Each one seemed to look around for whatever had hit it before puffing into a fireball. I swept through the advancing crawlers, taking them out two at a time.

Then I heard it: the mechanical trill of my sister Lady Death coming to stop me. I turned toward the sound, trying to spot her before she could close in. She was in-lane, a shimmering blue ghost heading directly toward me. I opened my booster’s throttle to full and jumped over her, her scythe missing me by inches. I rapped her on the back of her helmet with the hilt of my scythe and dropped my cloak before leaping over the wall into the maze.

She followed, still cloaked and probably mad as hell. If she was following me it meant that she wasn’t bugging someone who could do some real damage. I was done sweeping the oncoming crawler wave anyway, enough that Johnny and Silvia could gain ground.

I ran on the maze’s walls and boosted around corners, my mobility easily keeping my doppelganger behind me. She was just boosting along the ground; that meant she was still wet behind the ears with amniotic gel. That meant I could have some fun.

I jumped vertically off the wall I was on, tucked in my legs cannonball style, and boosted high into the air. As the ground fell away behind me I switched on my cloak. Between my golden armour and my cloak, the sunny sky would make me completely invisible. I swung myself around till I pointed at the ground and revved my jets. I came down right on top of her, scythe ready to cut her head open like an avocado.

Then I saw her face. She’d noticed that I was coming down on her and that there was nothing she could do. Her faceplate was just clear enough that I could see her wide, terrified eyes and her mouth hung open, twitching at the corners.

I had a wave of utter horror come over me then, remembering my first few matches when I still felt scared to die. Her face was so much like my own, a few less scars but still as beautiful. I hesitated and she cut me in half.

We won, somehow. Silvia and Big Johnny managed to beat back their lane till it was at the Battering’s base, then Warhammer — a guy on our team with so much armour a tank shell could hit him and he would still be standing — walked our crawlers in. The base exploded, fans cheered, and my ranking dropped six places.

I was still in the top ten rankings for Lady Deaths but it hurt my sponsorships. I lost my contract with Burger Boys and Ooze Energy drinks which meant I would have to start downgrading my equipment. Goodbye steel bones, I knew the well.

Back at the Sunbros’ group home. I sat on the floor of my shower and bit my nails till they bled. I could hear the rest of my team talking about today’s game in the living room.

“What the fuck was up with Lady D today? She was playin’ like a kid in a barfight!” Harriet grumbled, her southern drawl stinging my ears with every twang.

“It was the crowd. The Devs are going crazy with the sponsors lately and it’s getting to her.” Johnny Four said, “They’re getting to me too. Some of our fans had a higher kill count than us today.”

“Bullshit,” Harriet slammed her fist on to the table, “That stuff ain’t more’n a little more noise than normal, it ain’t worth losin’ a lane over. She’s goin’ soft. I watched the replays of that fight with the Batterin’ bitch, I know she hesitated. She’s gonna run soon and you know it.”

Silence came from the other room and tears mingled with my shower water. She was right, maybe I was getting too old for this shit. Maybe I’d overdosed on Energy Aid one too many times and finally snapped, my brain rewiring itself into an emotional stupor. Maybe running was a good idea. At least I’d get to die on my feet.

Johnny caught me leaving that night, his muscled body blocking the doorway out of the apartment.

“You don’t have to do this.” His hands shook at his sides.

“I can’t stay here. Harriet’s right, I’ve gone soft.”

“What about Sylvia?”

Just minutes before, I’d snuck into her room, leaving a note saying “Goodbye, thanks for all the fun times. I’m sorry it had to end like this.” I should have written more but there wasn’t enough time. I looked at Johnny’s feet.

“What about me?” he said.

I hoisted my scythe to hide myself behind bravado. “It wouldn’t have worked out. I like the ladies too much.”

I pushed him aside with it so I could leave. He let me pass and closed the door behind me.

I switched on my visor and the night vision painted the rooftop in sharp green. The Sunbros’ headquarters were on the edge of the mega city Keres — the Devs wanted to keep us as separate from the general population as possible and not even the most avid fans want to risk getting caught in The Taint beyond.

I walked to the edge of the building and looped a rope. As I descended down the building, I began flipping through TV channels on my HUD. Jack Flack’s face filled my vision and the Superchamp theme music began to play.

“Welcome y’all to this special edition of Superchamp, the game that keeps y’all’s blood running hot. As you know, when a Champ gets all cowardly and such, they have a tendency to run like cattle from a bonfire. When that happens, we gotta hunt ’em down like the dogs they are.

“Tonight, we got a little clone who’s a running, the woman in the black and gold, LADY DEATH OF THE SUNBROS!”

The crowd in the background screamed, their voices too loud in my helmet earbuds.

“For those of you who may have forgotten since our last runner, we got a bit of a reminder. When a Champ is cloned in game, they keep the core memories of the previous version. That’s so we get all the different kinds a personalities that y’all enjoy in the games. So the Warhammer from the Glass Cannons won’t act like the Warhammer from the Silverados.”

“But, we don’t keep those memories around after the games: they go right back into a Champ clone for storage. If a champ gets killed outside of a game, they’re gone for good.

“This Lady D has decided to leave her coop and bring all those cowardly memories with her, which is good for us. We have to get rid of em but why leave out all you people from the fun of it.”

Jack turned to the camera and gave the audience a wink.

“We’ve set up another, randomly picked, champ with their own cameras and we’re sending them after her into the wastes. Tonight’s hunter will be…” He turned to a screen at the center of the stage and swept his hand toward the flickering name, “Lady Death from the Battering Bruisers!”

I shut the feed down. Of course they had to bring that Battering Bitch in. I rappelled down the side of the wall as fast as I could. If I was going to get through this, I would have to put some distance between us before they released the hunter. As soon as I hit the ground I ran off into The Taint.

Two hours later, I was running along the edge of a cliff face with the last dregs of a can of Energy Aid flowing through my system. There hadn’t been much excitement other than the occasional man-eating plant. Games never lasted this long, and without the soothing life of a new clone body, the new sensation of sore muscles was wearing me down.

I slid down the steep cliff face, vines making the boost-assisted climb a nightmare. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up before I had to find somewhere to hide and let my poor muscles rest. My foot caught an outcropping of rock and I almost fell, just managing to hold on with my fingertips. Then an explosion thrummed through me.

To my right, a chunk of the wall fell to the ground seventy feet below. The explosion shook me off of the rock face and I plummeted along with the rubble. With help from my booster my fall slowed but I felt a deep crack as I threw my arm between my face and the ground.

Pain crested from my shoulder to my elbow. My ribs burned every time I took in a whistling breath. I reached into the pack I’d taken when I left and grabbed a Bingo Bandage (“With child friendly morphine!”) to slap on my neck. With the drug seething through my body, I grabbed my scythe from my back and stood to face whatever had knocked me from my perch.

“Whoa there D,” someone said from the edge of the rubble-filled clearing. “Don’t move or I’ll actually hit you this time.”

“Johnny?”

From the shadowed treeline stepped Big Johnny Four, his armour overgrown with moss but still showing the lime green underneath. He hoisted a golf club onto his left shoulder and smiled at me.

“You the runner or the hunter?” he asked.

I put my scythe away with my good arm and lifted my faceplate. “I’m running. They have Newbie after me though.”

“Good,” he said, shrugging his shoulder in a beckoning gesture, “We’ve got time to talk before she gets here.”

He walked into the forest and I followed after him.

“Greenskin Johnny, huh? You ran two years ago, right?”

“Yeah. I was slowing down too much in-game. They were about to retire me. So I ran.”

“I thought they’d killed you, though. Sylvia shot you in the heart. They got the vitals and everything.”

He raised his right arm as we walked. Where the chain gun should have been was a healed over stump poking out of the armour.

“She shot me all right. I lost the arm but she just missed my heart. It’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you too.”

We walked and the silence between us filled with the sounds of The Taint. Birds chirped as the crunch of the leaves beneath our feet fell into a rhythm. I took a deep breath and felt the cool air soothe my broken body. The morphine was beginning to wear off, the silver chill of it dissipating.

Johnny stopped, looking back toward the way we’d come.

“She’s coming. The shit around us just got too quiet. There’s a clearing not too far from here and my house is just beyond that. We can make a stand there.”  

We ran together as I fumbled in my pack for another round of Bingo and Energy. We breached the clearing. Vine covered cliffs fed in and out between too tall trees. It was a fun place for a battle and I was pretty sure I could outmaneuver a Lady D who hadn’t figured out wall-crawling yet.

“I’ll go set up behind the bush over there,” Johnny said and pointed his club across the clearing. He ran toward his hiding spot, his breath coming out in jagged gasps, and leaned on his club.

A camera drone roared into the clearing and began circling around me, its engine spitting up dirt and leaves around the clearing. Then came the hum of my pursuer’s cloak, so familiar even through the buzzing of the camera drone.

She came and I ran. I activated my own cloak and burst away from her. We moved through the clearing together, dancing around each other in playful arcs. Even through the adrenalin and knowledge of perma-death, it was still nice to be back doing what I was made for.

She finally attacked me and her blade slid across mine as I blocked. I felt the sting of my injured arm worsen and heard another crack, the limb falling from my scythe to hang by my side. I boosted away from her and toward the wall. She followed behind, the shimmer of her cloak drawing lines of sunlight behind her.

Johnny started hitting grenades then and the forest floor was torn apart. His signature move and the reason for his nickname lit the clearing up, the whack of “golf balls” preceding it. The Blue Bitch sped up.

I hit the cliff face and stepped up it with ease. Behind me followed the newbie and explosions. She’d apparently practiced after the last match; her wall-crawl was sloppy but existent. Behind us the cliff shed rock as Johnny put the heat to her heels.

I twirled and shifted back toward her. The dust from the grenades had overwhelmed her cloak and I could see her face again, just as scared as before. I hung in the air for a moment as my momentum fought my boosters.

“Fuck it.” I said to myself and tackled her, carrying us both into a grenade blast.

The pain in my shoulder flared brighter than the sun as the concussion hit me. I lost my breath and what was left of the two of us fell. I looked down at the ground coming to meet me through a broken visor and closed my eyes.

Johnny rested on his golf club and stared down at me.

“That was stupid, D,” he said.

I tried to push myself up but my arms refused to move.

“Just stay there, If you wiggle it’ll make you bleed worse. I wrapped it up as best I could, but…”

“Where’s the other one?” I felt blood flow from the split in my lip.

“Still in the pile of rocks. The cam’s gone so she’s probably dead,” Johnny pointed his club in line with my legs.

I flexed my arms again and felt my palms clench. I took two deep breaths, put my arm out to catch myself, rolled onto my right side, and kept rolling as my elbow never met ground. Blood smeared across the grass and pain punched through my morphine haze as the thing that used to be my shoulder hit the ground.

“That’s what I was talking about, D. Stay down.”

“She’s just a kid.”

I lifted myself to my knees and static filled the edges of my vision.

“I’ll get her D. Just lay down,” Johnny said.

The dirt tasted just about as good as I imagined it would. As I heard Johnny stomp off to the pile of rubble under the cliff, I enjoyed the feeling of grass on my cheeks. I turned my head and looked at the clearing around me.

Without the visor the world was closer, the light more severe. Glowing flowers lit the clearing and through the break in the trees, I could see tiny lights dancing in the sky. Something big moved far into the foliage around me.

“She’s still breathing,” Johnny said, dragging my clone’s Blue clad body behind him.

Her faceplate was cracked, the flashing light from the broken screen inside illuminating her eyes. I reached over and slid the useless tech off her. Her face was unbroken, except for a small cut under her left eye. Something was wrong, so similar but dissonant to the face I saw in the mirror. I reached out and stroked her short, black hair.

“She’s got a few ribs broken at least and there’s a rock sticking out of her leg that’s like two feet long. I don’t want to take it out ’til I have a proper setup though. There’s no telling how much blood she’s lost.”

Johnny started tearing apart cloth from a bag on his hip and wrapping them around Battering’s chest. She coughed and her eyes fluttered.

“It’s okay. Shhh, just rest,” I said. I grabbed her hand with mine and squeezed it.

She squeezed back. “They’re going to send another one.”

The lights in the sky shrank away as the twilight of dawn rolled across them. I squeezed Big J’s knee as he worked and then slid my hand back to Lady D’s.

“We’ll be ready.”

_____________________________________________________________________________

Holly Sophia McCrea is a poet, artist, and short fiction writer from Vancouver BC. She’s been published in The Drabblecast audio fiction magazine and currently has a chapbook available on Amazon.

If you liked this, then you can read more from Holly here.

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340

Fiction: Goblin King Rising

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 23, 2017

Below the homes and below the streets there is a place where vermin dream, where castoffs live and work and breathe – where nothing is what it seems. Here is where the worst go to thrive, where fever dreams are kept alive. The hidden and mad go to ground and sunlight is beaten, broken, drowned.
The Get of Kingu conquered myth and tale, they devastated the sacred veil, bound those creatures to a treaty and placed their children in the Undercity. Down and down go these black roads and the secret stories only they know, the powers that were left to linger smothering every light bringer. Blood is shed and shadows swell and no one knows where bodies fell, they hold their secrets and this truth, they hold the end and blackened youth.
Some children of Kingu live down there, those whose power inspires fear – not powerful enough to hold their own they retreat into the dark and live alone. Or so they think and learn to dread, for here terror lives in waking heads – waking hours offer no respite and sanity doesn’t seem so right. The consequences of taking seed are the children no one ever needs and they are shoved down and left to die but still they breathe and still they strive.
From continents that were torn undone come those who fear the sun, eating dead flesh left to rot; and though they’re here you’d swear they’re not. Their tunnels are below your feet and all around you unseen they creep, a breath on shoulder never felt, the dead their only source of wealth. They fear the living and feed on death, bones knitted beneath their flesh – and though you might think you’re safe there is no escape from that which waits.
But worse that those that feed on death are those that seek to surcease breath, those that bathe in battle’s gore, they born from atrocity and war. Grey skinned they look and ill, muscle like wire driven by will, hair a pale fluttered gray until their knives cut away. It’s pain that feeds them and makes them rise, bathing in viscera freed by knives, covered in insides still steaming, devouring they that die screaming.
From emerald isles across a pond they came, for those called snakes they were to blame, their crimes carried beyond those who could to exile those who understood. Yet down in the dark they found a place and one born of them is their face, a champion anointed upon her brow, called Falciamar she stands unvowed. Her people are the Dearg Capini, the ones who rage and ravage cities, like bomb and mortar they come to kill, like knife and spear with blood to spill.
Yet even they respect the whispering dark, where the Sluagh perfect their art. Led by a coven steeped in rite and never caring for the light; the Sluagh dwell in the darkest places with rarely seen yet pale faces, gaunt and tragic and sunk of eye, they whisper hushes and terrible lies. How could you stand their gaze, they who see the ghostly ways? How could you find their meaning in whispered chalk scratch quiet screaming?
Below them all, the furthest down, the children of Mountain built their town. Brilliant and tied to the core of earth, strong as boulders below the dirt. They stand alone and they stand apart, gifting aid with their art, and those that come on bended knee can here find what they might need.
And past them all and past the stair, there’s one who stands everywhere – the one hunted broke on olden moors, of murmuring madness – the Lord of Doors.
Feeding on scraps and always in danger are the ones their gods made strangers; forever outside and never trusted, their existence makes other disgusted. Call them Goblins if you must, but whisper the word and check the dust. For while they walk about unseen they leave tracks in what’s not clean. So it’s said and so I’ve been told, and wisdom is age and I’m quite old.
They were hunted, hated, and cast down, unwanted by all in the undertown. Staying quite far and staying quite hidden, keeping their secrets and always unbidden. Outside of company and outside the light, not one soul trusting them to be right, their children in the darkness hide and sometimes you can hear them cry to lay the groundwork that others might grieve, so they might betray those who believe.
Give not a Goblin sympathy, for your slavery is what makes them free.
And to this fell Academy came two more Goblin children, two supposed innocents come to be better villains. They stepped into the southern lands and found someone to take by the hand, and one child trusted and one did not, and one become a slave while the other did not. They were not brothers, not age old friends, but Goblins learn to themselves defend, for they are weak and sad when young and those who took them were quite strong.
There is a place above the Undercity, the Academy where walk the pretty, and some of them seek to enslave others and revel in breaking one another. One trusting child to the breaking was took, the other beaten and left bleeding shook – that one escaped down into the dark, to mend the flesh that had been cut apart.
Maricurius was this Goblin’s name, and at that moment he did not know the game. He knew only that a child had been taken and that no one cared and so his soul was shaken. Not even the other Goblins cared, not even when they were made aware that one of their own had been taken for pleasure, that the shattered soul would be another’s treasure.
He begged for food that was not given and stole scraps and rags and plotted sedition: if none would help him save his own he’d venture forth and do it alone. He stole a knife from Falciamar’s pack and ran without looking back. He struggled for food and struggled to eat, found cracked concrete in which to sleep, stole old blankets and stole clothes, stole what he needed to the system oppose.
Stepping into the light he walked unseen, using a Goblin’s gift to fit the scene to scout the place where slaves were taken without alerting any of this break-in. He saw what was done and he saw the locks, he saw as much as he could without shock. He left the place and wretched and sobbed, but then he stood and his tears did daub.
“This is wrong and this will not stand. There must be one to lend a hand.”
But Goblins stand apart and are not to be born, and everyone knew they were forsworn.
He went to the pariahs who hid from their kin, but even they despised what he’d been. He went to the ones who ate the dead and was chased beyond the watershed, down into the depths and into the tunnels, escaping through the sewage funnel.
From there he went to Mountain’s children and they were not pleased with a guest unbidden. “At least that one’s wanted,” they said and smiled, “perhaps you should think on that awhile.” Dejected, he walked towards the slaughter where ruled war’s atrocious daughter. Falciamar saw he carried her knife and hunted him to take his life. He offered it back and offered his breath if she would but follow him into death, but even she would not take his oath and he escaped barely and still alone.
He next sought out the Lord of Doors and pleaded his case without succor. His own people would not give aid and no other could ever be so brave. And so Maricurius went alone to the place with a Goblin’s unseen grace; he steeled himself against every terror and caught the guards unaware. He fought and stabbed and found whom was lost, but too late and too late and life was the cost; all that rage and all that hate and because he was alone he’d come too late.
Dejected, despairing, he walked in lands of light, turning to the Academy’s center in the night. There, every name is writ on a wall and beside every name is a title to call, and Maricurius found to his surprise that his actions had made his name rise – someone was watching and someone approved of what he’d done in the interfluve.
That judge had placed him above his kin, had raised him as Goblins had never been. He stared and stared and got to asking how Goblins had lived in the masking – had they always lived in fear, or was there a life he could commandeer? He walked south towards stacks of books and peered in tomes and in finding looked:
A time had passed when Goblins stood without being beaten, and this time had been in every land and season. What happened was a story worthy of operetta, a tale of woe and bloody vendetta. There’d been a time when Goblins accepted hate, but those that acted upon it met their fate – a Goblin killed meant another life lost as Goblins sought vengeance regardless of cost.
This had ended when the others wanted peace and signed a treaty to make all sides cease the slaughter carried from generations towards a final destination. His people remembered what others forgot, but they’d broken their promise and the Goblins had not. He turned from the book to the knife in his hand, the knife that he’d taken and taken again.
So he moved away from the books and away from that treaty and took all his rage to the Undercity, and there he listened to Goblin’s cries and when he heard those that caused them died. He killed while being hidden and was never seen and the murderous debt was wiped clean, and other Goblins took note of his skill and bound themselves to follow his will.
It did not take long for the others to learn that when you kill a Goblin it’s you that gets burned, and when they sought to attack en masse they found that the Goblins had vanished and passed; who can fight an enemy you cannot see? Can you adapt when bullying is not free?
Maricurius threw the Undercity into uproar, where the powers that be weren’t powers anymore. “Why should there be a price for what we’ve always done? Why disturb what has always been fun? Don’t they know it’s meant to be this way? Why do those we hurt think they’ve something to say?” Abusers do not like to admit doing wrong and do not like to admit they are weak and not strong. The Goblins had found a better way to live and the Undercity shivered to find them combative.
“The natural order has been disturbed, the social contract and unwritten word – why can’t things go back to what they were, when Goblins trembled and we were assured that our way was true and our power was just, when we could satisfy more than lust? How can we show them back to their place when we can no longer see their face? The Goblins are missing, the Goblins are gone, and all this social disruption is wrong.”
Down and down and deeper to Mountain’s children, these abusers now turned their vision. They sought answers in the iron way but those children had nothing to say; they were not willing to pay the Goblin debt, the promise that was as much a threat.
“But your inventions could find the Goblins, yes?”
“Perhaps, but we now know what would come next.”
And Mountain’s children show the signs of pact, the vow’s markings on their back. The Goblins had gone into the depths first and there they’d bargained for what they were worth; Mountain’s children would not interfere and the others were angry to cover their fear.
The Slaugh wailed in their quiet way and turned their magic to saving the day, but they had more and more to dread as the Goblin price promised bloodshed. They could not scream above a whisper when Goblins came from yon and hither and they could not slip from Goblin eyes, whose irises saw through illusions and lies. The shadows could not offer safety but still they thought their secrets may be the way for them to stave off death and rob the Goblins of their breath.
Down in the darkest places they gathered, the coven using fell magics to shatter the will the Goblins had finally found and drive their hopes into the ground, but they never saw the flashing knives that slit their throats and took their lives. Maricurius stood among the dead and demanded that the Slaugh be led – that he would take them under his protection or kill them all for their provocation. And so the Goblin promise accepted, written in flesh and now protected.
“Finally,” said Falciamar of the Dearg Capini, “we have a target in the Undercity.” She led her people against the Slaugh’s kin and with ragged knives they opened skin, bathed in blood and wore their guts and fed their rage fueled by bloodlust, but Maricurius was as good as his word and came to the aid of those put to the sword. Goblins appeared around the Dearg Capini and slaughtered war’s children without pity.
“No, no, step out of where you strike and are hidden,” Falciamar demanded the Goblins be bidden. “Fight fair as I demand and come fight me now, there is no other outcome that I’ll allow!”
Yet the world was silent except for the killing, and the Dearg Capini found their courage slipping. The war was fought with savage pride and they that were mighty were barely alive. When Falciamar next demanded a duel for pact, Maricurius stepped out from where he’d been hidden at last.
“I accept your duel and here are the stakes – if I win then your people must hold and wait until I am dead or until I am gone, your people will slumber, your violence withdrawn.”
“Yes and alright, I accept your terms,” Falciamar said and was about to learn. She drew her sword and washed blood in her hair and so came fighting awake and aware, but Maricurius could not be seen and how does violence fight a dream? He cut her down over hours and hours, slicing her flesh and her fury devoured, but it was not until he threatened to her dismember that she accepted the terms of surrender.
She would face exile into nightmares and screams, her madness haunting sleeping seams – for so long as he ruled and drew breath she would not inflict any more death. Non-interference was the invocation that was demanded by the Goblin nation and Falciamar’s sole choice was to accept and so was driven without recompense.
And now Maricurius came to the eaters of death to discuss the matters of shibboleth. Their leader was a creature who’d learned to think ahead, sometimes taking those who were not quite dead and letting them stay chained and crude until his people needed them for food. Had Maricurius anything to offer they could not take, with patience and jaws and the promise of fate?
“Yes, I have, an offer you’d like,” Maricurius said, putting down his knife. “Bodies to be brought to you should you keep to yourselves, a zero-risk investment of your only wealth. And if you listen to what else I have planned there is no door from which you will be banned.” Curious, the death eaters listened to the plan and took Maricurius by the hand, agreeing to his idea and his terms and fading from sight not to return.
But of the dangers there was one more – the madness called the Lord of Doors.
Maricurius was going to see the wall that had inspired him to change the all, but that meant passing through the frame and that was when I took his name; your narrator was splintered on ancient moors, called Fhioscath to some and the Lord of Doors, and there was none that could stay my hand and my attention turns clay to sand.
He stepped from one place to another and was robbed of all his brothers, all he’d done and all he’d built taken as a sign of guilt. I surrounded him and him alone and kept him from his deserved throne, peering long into his mind and so all he’d hidden I would find – the eyes are doorways to the soul and thought a place where I might stroll.
I stepped inside all Maricurius could ever be and what I found set neither of us at ease – my wanderings had driven others insane but he just stood and learned my name. We walked through all his memories and came to know accessories; he would kill and he would in blood bathe to make a world he felt worthy to save and through his will this is what he’d done, a feat dreamed but never done.
How could I stand in the way of this? I anointed him with my kiss and brought him to the blackened wall where we saw his name would never fall; I promised that I would sleep so long as his will defined the deep. He was lord and he had risen, breaking what had been a cultural prison and from the grime and gore and gritty become the Goblin King of the Undercity.

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331

Fiction – World of Mercedes Ketch – From the Wheel

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 16, 2017

Keira stared at the hourglass shaped board in front of her, considering her options. She’d used a Surcess Opening, had been surprised when her opponent had not followed suit – she had thought he was planning something she might not expect but had found his subsequent moves efficient but easy to predict. It was a dangerous weakness to expose in a place such as this.

They were playing in the living room of an apartment in the eastern part of the Sengri Academy. She was Keira Turn, a recognized genius with dangerous friends. He was Lucio Amadus, the younger of twins, and it was his sister that had set this appointment in an effort to socialize her brother. Keira hadn’t liked the sister but had done her the favor anyway, mostly to sate her own curiosity.

Kinguim children were typically raised by their parents or by their parent’s servants, taught the rudiments of the world and left to discover what they wanted to on their own before coming to one of the six Academies at the age of nine. There, her people learned to harness the divinity in their blood and learn what it was to be the Get of Kingu.

One of the first things they learned was that there was no law against murder, either among the adult Kinguim or among their children here at this school. Within the first week, they were marched over to the Trypper’s Tower, where a withered old man named Pitch taught them that their souls would always return to bodies with Kinguim blood. He even showed them a method to see this happen, so there could be no doubt.

Keira had trembled, helpless to do anything but watch as Pitch slit the throat of two grown men from the outside world. They had been collected for just this purpose: the Adama had been screaming for mercy, but the Kinguim had smiled at the assembled children, had waved at them before Pitch killed him.

It wasn’t the first time Keira had seen someone die and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d likely see the exercise repeated that afternoon. It was just that she’d never seen someone willingly go to the slaughter like that.

Pitch showed them how to watch, to trick their eyes into seeing the soul of a thing. Five hundred children had gasped when the weak soul of the Adama fell apart and drifted away like flotsam on an ocean tide, but the soul of the Kinguim began to glow sapphire blue, sinking into a shimmering net to await a body to inhabit.

She’d been there when Lucia and Lucio Amadus had been exposed to this horror and neither of them had flinched. She wondered how Carmen would react, her finger tracing a path along the edge of the table upon which the board was set as she tried to distract herself from the time and studied her opponent and his consideration.

There was a piece in this game that could only eliminate other pieces. It was a useful piece but it was unable to touch the me, and thus unable to affect the single means by which the highest amount of points that could be collected. It was meant to show that murder was useful but ultimately wasteful. She could reach over the snap his neck and no one would punish her. The sister would be mad, but Keira could kill her, too. She knew that would make her enemies, make people wary of her, and that she would die at the hands of the Amadus line. Instead, she studied his slight frown, his narrowed eyes.

He was cute and of West African descent, younger than her but brilliant, younger than the person she was waiting for, his fingers thrumming a gentle constant rhythm that mirrored his decisions. She had offered to put on some kind of music but he’d asked her not to, favoring the soft percussion of his fingers. She might have found it annoying had his talent for music not far exceeded his talent for Rafael.

“It’s five minutes since the last time you checked,” Lucio said, not looking up from the board. She bit her lip, took a deep breath.

“There’s someone coming today,” Keira said, watching his fingers keep their steady pattern. She was eleven years old and he was eight but very bright, and the girl coming today would be all of nine. “Someone I’m looking forward to seeing very much.

“A sister?” Lucio asked, looking up, a flicker of interest passing through his features.

“My sister is older than I am,” Keira answered. He nodded sympathy; Lucia was, Keira had been given to understand, thirty-six minutes older than Lucio. Their parents had not been expecting twins. Keira knew this because she was inquisitive and liked to know things about the people she was going to have to deal with and she expected Lucio to ask her questions about her sister or the person coming.

He didn’t.

Sitting, silent, he stared at the board and considered his next move. She could understand why the parents Amadus had sent their kids to the Academy so early. Lucia was gifted at getting people to do what she wanted, so much so that Keira now sat here playing Rafael with this strange boy. Lucio himself was a gifted mathematician and she could see how that played into his decisions even upon the hourglass between them.

Both twins liked music and languages. Lucia wielded all three like weapons. Lucio seemed to love them for their own sake, but there was an alienness to their gifts that frightened some of the other Kinguim. Keira was not so afraid; she, too, had talents that set her apart even from those with divinity in their blood, and while she did not like Lucia she felt a strange kinship for Lucio, a kinship the parents of these twins had not felt.

Lucia had told her all about it. For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.

For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.

He made a move. She countered. He frowned, staring at the board, moved again. She boxed him in. The two of them were still experimenting with the nuances of the game, both getting a feel for what the game said about themselves and one another. She offered Lucio’s scowl a shy smile, moved another piece.

She was thinking of trying the sport later that year, trying her hand at joining one of the wings that represented the school. There was power that came with being a celebrity but there was risk in becoming a public figure and she wasn’t sure yet how to balance the two. She wasn’t even sure what position she would try out for – a searcher, maybe?

Biting her lip, she checked the time again.

“Six minutes,” he muttered, staring at the board, frustration beat out in the gentle pounding of his fingers. He looked up at the ceiling, never once meeting her eyes, the hand not drumming on the table running through a complex pattern that she realized were all the moves he’d made so far. “I’d say your mind is elsewhere, but…”

“I’ve got a head for games.”

“Ya-huh.”

He moved again and this time she started eliminating his pieces, removing them from the board as she made her way towards his me. He struggled, but she could see his patterns now and was able to counter them – she wondered what he’d be like in a full game, but they had agreed on single rounds today, feeling one another out, getting to know one another and the game itself.

“My plan should have worked,” he said, once all his pieces were gone.

“You’re looking for perfect games,” Keira responded, “and you’re looking at the most amount of direct movement. You’re playing like a mathematician.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No.”

“She’s looking to win.” Keira had a small apartment all to herself and she had made only two spare keys. One dangled on her chest, safely kept in waiting. The other belonged to the newcomer, a boy she’d known since childhood. His name was Christian Kennedy.

He was a tall boy, skim, filling out nicely as puberty set in. He wore his hair long, white pants and gray shirt, eyes gray and cold and patient, snake eyes, the sort of eyes that should have been a warning. He moved like he owned the world, opening her fridge and grabbing a drink, looking over at the hourglass as Lucio reset the pieces.

“You weren’t even here,” Lucio muttered. “How could you know that?”

“Because I know the two of you,” Christian answered. He grabbed some glasses from Keira’s cabinet, poured another couple drinks for Keira and her guest, all the time acting as if it were his home that they were in and not hers. He looked at Keira as he offered her the drink, giving her a smile that was anything but shy as he nodded towards the board. “Do the thing you do.”

She kept her face neutral as she turned to the board, silently asking permission from Lucio. He hesitated for only a moment, but his love of language extended to the silent words of stance and breath and he moved back, nodding.

Christian saying do the thing you do was a code; he was uncertain how to pronounce the word eidetic and probably couldn’t spell it, either, but he knew that Keira’s memory was exactly that and loved to take advantage of such. She went through the game they had just played, move for move, Christian studying the changing hourglass until the game she and Lucio had just played reached the ending.

“It’s weakness,” Christian laughed, sitting down on a chair between the two of them as he leaned in close to Lucio, careful not to touch him. “You think you’re playing with set equations, but the game is algebra.”

“Algebra?” Lucio frowned.

“You know what you wanna do and you know you want to win,” Christian explained, leaning back with a pleased smile. Tonelessly, tunelessly, he began to tap his feet on the floor. “What you don’t know is what she’s going to do, but you think you do and so you’re playing a game that suits what you think instead of what is. Solve for x.”

“I don’t understand.” Lucio actually looked him in the eye. “Isn’t that what we all do?”

“No,” Christian shrugged. “Everyone plays this game differently. I’ve only seen you do that, which isn’t good or bad, but it’s your perfection that kills you. Anything that’s perfect is perfect for a single moment in time. Then it stops and becomes imperfect. Like, what were their names?”

“The Verenes.”

“Them,” Christian nodded, thanking her for remembering the object lesson when it came to failing despite the divinity of Kingu’s blood. “Don’t assume you know what another person is going to do, or what their game is. And don’t have any set game yourself. It’s easier to break a rock than it is to break water.”

“I don’t understand,” Lucio repeated. Christian turned to Keira, frowning, wondering if he was explaining this wrong. Now it was her turn to shrug, she moving and letting the other boy take her seat.

“Okay, tell you what… we’re gonna play a game, and then I’m going to walk you through why I’m doing what I’m doing and you’ll do the same, okay? Or you can just ask questions. Whatever you’re cool with.”

“You said okay twice.” Lucio’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the hourglass “You’re up to something.”

“Yes, but nothing malicious.” Christian smiled, making a steeple of his fingers and looking past them at the small genius sitting across from him. “Trust me.”

They started playing. Christian began explaining his actions at first, but quickly let those explanations slip when it became obvious that Lucio was not paying attention to them. Keira watched for a few more minutes as Christian began breaking his wing down, taking control of the board and smothering anything that Lucio tried.

“Do you even have a plan?” Lucio asked, frowning at the board and trembling.

“No,” Keira answered, Christian grinning and silent. “I reacted to your moves and forced you into circumstances that worked for me. He’s looking for weaknesses in your moves and then crumbling the support you’re using. You’re ignoring us both in favor of claiming the me.”

“Start trying to solve for x,” Christian added, resting his hands behind his head. “Don’t forget that your opponent is part of the equation, so you need to know your opponent to win. I like to think of it as turning numbers into fractions and breaking them down. That make sense, genius?”

“No.” Lucio actually growled.

“Well, we’ll let you think on it,” Christian said, standing up. He offered Keira a hand, smiling. She didn’t take it, and that just made him smile more. “C’mon, she’s nearly here.”

“Lucio…” Keira began, standing, but Christian cut her off.

“Let him stay and study the board,” he said. “We’ll be gone, what, an hour? Two?”

“Fine,” Keira muttered, not happy about leaving the strange boy in her home unattended.

“It’ll be fine,” Christian said. “Don’t burn the place down or anything.”

“I won’t,” Lucio said, his voice serious and his eyes not leaving the board. “Thank you.”

Keira thought about saying something, but bit her tongue and grabbed her jacket and sword, following Christian as he buckled his blade around his hips and stepped out the door before cursing herself, hurrying up to stand beside him instead. If I follow him, it looks like he’s in charge, she thought, if I stand in front of him, I’m exposing my back. Neither option was good; the best option was to stand beside him and hope for the best.

She didn’t lock her door, and her keys felt heavy in her pocket the further she moved away. She risked a glance back and Christian noticed, chuckling softly to himself.

“You really think he’s a risk?” Christian asked. “I mean, his sister maybe, but him?”

“I notice you’re in no hurry to leave people alone in your home,” Keira said, pleased with the primness in her tone.

“If it were him, I might,” Christian replied, shrugging. “Besides, we’ll know if he did anything.” Keira stared at him, the two of them continuing to walk.

“Did you leave bugs in my home?”

“No more than usual,” Christian grinned. That’s not a good answer, she thought. “No more than you have bugs in mine. And if he bugs your home, well, that tells us something about him and his sister.”

“And you’re willing for me to take that risk on your behalf?”

“No, no at all,” Christian said. “You have better self-control than I do, so if they do bug your home – and it would be the sister, not the brother, that would do that – you’re the one more suited to feeding them false information.”

“It’s still a risk.”

“Certainly,” Christian laughed. “But save the conversation – it’ll be a good introduction for our good friend, maybe help instill a healthy paranoia.”

“As if Pitch’s welcoming display won’t do that.”

“There’s a difference between a healthy paranoia and fear.”

“Fear? You?” Keira scoffed, kicking at a stray rock and watching it bounce ahead of them. “You’re staying behind to help check the place.”

“I’ll even grab dinner,” Christian nodded, agreeing. “Besides, it’ll be good to catch up with Carm and see where her head is at.”

They walked in silence for a time, watching the alleys and side streets, but no one seemed to be paying them any serious attention.

“You really think you’ll learn anything?” Keira asked.

“Not really, but it’s the thought that counts.” Christian slipped his hands into his pockets, a sign that he thought they were in no danger. “Besides, neither of us are that important, not yet.”

“Your brother runs the Academy.” Keira kept vigilant, her eyes on the people around them, a greater number of them heading south to greet the newcomers. “And your brother knows you, knows what you’re capable of.”

“Yes, well, I know him, too,” Christian shrugged. “Can you believe he’s not in charge? The Halkett Bloc. Pah. Have you ever even heard Jay speak? All he does is shoot things and look intimidating and wave that empty gun of his around.”

“I saw him shoot someone once,” Keira said, shuddering. She remembered the crack of the pistol, the way the teacher had fallen twitching to the floor.

“Let me guess,” Christian muttered. “No bullet was found, the wound was worse than it should have been?”

Keira nodded.

“Yeah,” Christian sighed, looking around. “Jay shoots entropy. Not sure if that’s something he inherited from his father or a gift of Kingu.”

“He’s not of the Old Blood.”

“It’s not just the Old Blood that sometimes have Kingu’s gifts,” Christian said. “And there’s other powers, like whatever Pitch is. Or Ashley.”

“I’m not scared of the elf,” Keira growled, fingers tightening around the hilt of her rapier. “Our people already conquered his. His being here is proof of that.”

“Right,” Christian smirked. “Nothing to worry about, then. And as for my brother, well, he’s got other things to worry about right now and I’m not exactly rattling a saber in his direction. He’ll leave me alone right now. Priorities and all that.”

They continued to walk south in silence, covering one another’s blind spots, keeping one another safe as the crowd got larger. There were maybe a few hundred people around them now and they kept towards the back of the platform where the Aswasi’atar would come, their backs to pillars in a small and defensible alcove.

Both of them knew that the chances of being attacked here were small. There were traditions that spoke against violence around the Aswasi’atar and there were eroseeqhi – Kinguim sorcerers – whose duty included the enforcing of those traditions. Challenging a sorcerer in his home was not a good idea, and breaking a tradition without good cause was a good way to draw all sorts of bad attention.

None of that made that tradition a law, though, and there were those that would risk anything to get what they wanted.

“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” Christian asked. “A year?”

“You’ve been here as long as I have,” Keira said, shuffling and nervous, staring at the place the Aswasi’atar would come to. The eroseeqhi had already gathered, drawing their etchings on the ground, lighting candles and incense to keep the ground holy.

“Your memory is better than mine.”

“What? Yes. A year. It’s been a year.”

“Nine-year-old Carmen Rosencratz,” Christian said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the pillar. “This should be interesting.”

Keira wasn’t sure what to say to that and so said nothing. There was a smugness to her ally that she often found grating, and this was one of those times. She wanted to hit him but swallowed the bile in her throat and the rustling in her belly – they needed one another, their alliance a mutually beneficial one that had worked out well since they had been children.

Purple-pink mist began to swelter out of the aether on the platform and an excited muttering began to waft through the crowd. The massive and shining black scales of the Aswasi’atar began to solidify out of nothing, the creature pulled out of the soul of the planet and made real. The eroseeqhi approached the creature as it faded from dream to flesh, using hand signs and words that crawled along the skin like spiders, lifting scales the size of cars up and open and revealing the people within.

A gaggle of nine-year-olds spilled out of the creature that had brought them here, brushing past the Aswasi’atar. Some returning students, older than the others, also made their way out – they all looked much more certain, pushing past the assembled children without paying them any heed.

Keira scanned the mass, looking for any sign of the girl that was more precious to her than anything else in the world, but all the kids were dressed in shades of purple and few of them carried anything from the world outside. Their parents would have warned them about standing out in the early days, Keira knew – her parents had done the same. It was important to be invisible until you had some place to retreat to once those you never wanted to notice you, did.

“Do you think you’ll spot her with that thing you do?” Christian asked. Keira grit her teeth and ignored him; he knew full well that wasn’t how an eidetic memory worked but he also liked to tease out the weaknesses of others and she wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.

Instead, she kept silent and continued to scan the crowd, in this instance no more skilled than anyone else might be when looking for someone important to them. She knew Carmen had always been on the small side, the slight side, and a small slight pretty girl coming alone to a place like this was a scary thing.

When she’d come here she and Christian had one another, had watched one another’s backs and had gotten themselves to the point where they were reasonably secure. The Amadus twins had come with one another and though their age had drawn interest, Lucia had been able to strike deals with people on the way in, deals that had served her well.

There’s an ambitious creature, Keira thought, smiling. I wonder what Carm will think of her…?

Most children coming to the Academy would have at least one ally, but Carmen’s difficulties kept her isolated mostly. The only people that she’d ever relied on that were her own age were Keira and Christian, and that was why Keira felt it important to be here and now and why Christian had come with her.

Carmen was all alone.

The crowd was noisy and nervous and a little scared. The eroseeqhi directed the kids away from the Aswasi’atar and the new arrivals would have had a chance to look over their pamphlets and maps and make their way to their new homes. Their parents and the pamphlets would have warned them to make alliances with others on the Aswasi’atar, to map a route to where they’d be living, to waste as little time as possible getting to the place they were supposed to be: Pitch’s people would be along in the morning to walk them through breakfast before taking them to the Trypper’s Tower to give them the same demonstration that still haunted Keira and had frightened Christian.

Better that, though, than some of the other horrors the Academy could offer. Custom kept people from attacking and nabbing the kids and the eroseeqhi would deal with violent offenders, but they could not be everywhere. Thomas Kiker, the person currently in charge of the slave pens, had some of his people here pretending to offer guidance to children that looked scared or lost. Keira could pick them out of the crowd easily enough, their smiling faces and gentle motions, the lies they spun to get kids to walk into the charnel house that Kiker called home.

She looked at the small groupings of frightened children that gathered around those faces, breathed a sigh of relief that she did not spy Carmen’s face among their number. She felt bad for that relief, though, and thought about saying something, doing something. There was a small girl with a cane who moved with halted half-steps, and the look on her face – the smile that curved her lips – was the saddest thing that Keira had ever seen, gratitude given to a slaver.

“Don’t,” Christian whispered, his hand brushing her shoulder. “They didn’t notice. We’re fine. There’s nothing we can do about it now.” She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.

She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.

A tug on her sleeve nearly made her jump out of her skin.

She turned, ready to draw her sword, a battle-cry dying on her lips as she took note of the person who now stood beside her, looking up at her.

“Keira?” asked Carmen, purple eyes wide. Her hair was a deep rust and she’d added a crimson streak to it, but she looked as good as ever had, looked better than she had in the dreams Keira told no one about.

“Carmen.” There was more warmth and wet in that single word than she’d meant to let out but in that moment she forgave herself. She let go of the sword, sweeping the small and slight frame into her arms, holding her, soaking in her scent. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“I found you,” Carmen whispered, her fingers playing along Keira’s spine, her shoulders.

“Hey, I’m here, too,” Christian said. Keira let her friend go, let the two of them embrace as she took point, watching the milling crowd and some of the other people her own age who were watching with interest. She met their eyes, stared them down.

“We should leave,” Keira said. There was a milling group of five girls standing there, looking at them, girls that Keira didn’t recognize. Carmen let go of Christian.

“How do you always find us?” Christian grinned, ruffling Carmen’s hair as if she were a pet. It bothered Keira, the way Carmen pushed up into the ruffling.

Carmen had always been intuitive, always found her way around in the dark, always managed to catch up to people even when anyone else might have been lost. Her parents said it had something to do with her difficulties, but there was no sign of that in her eyes or stance right now and Keira had learned what to look for over long hours – a shadow in her eyes or a cruel twist to her lips or twitching fingers. Right now she was simply Carmen and that was all that mattered.

“I made some allies on the Aswasi’atar,” Carmen said, motioning at the five girls that were staring at them, looking nervous and fidgeting, keeping a polite distance from their small troika. Behind them, the eroseeqhi were preparing to send the Aswasi’atar on its way.

“Allies, eh?” Christian said, studying them with interest.

“I’m Keira,” Keira said, releasing her sword and stepping forward, keeping her tone polite and letting a little of the gratitude she felt slip in. “This is Christian. Who’re you?”

“My name is Michelle,” one of the girls said, pushing in front. She was pretty – some mix of European bloodlines, with an echo of the arrogance that Keira had come to associate with the Old Blood. “This is my bloc – Darcy, Jackie, Robin, and Helena.”

Keira smiled at the hubris of the statement; strong alliances at the Academy were called blocs: six individuals who tied their fates to one another, working to keep one another safe and further the interests of the group. Most people waited a year or two before committing to a bloc, if they ever did; she and Christian had been here almost two years now and the only close alliances they had made were with one another.

“You’re one shy of a bloc,” Christian noted, slipping his hands into his pockets and leaning back against the pillar, his eyes lazy and head tilted back.

He’s measuring them, Keira thought, looking for weakness.

“We make do,” the one named Jackie said, smiling. She had golden hair and a pretty face and stepped up with an easy familiarity. She was used to this, trained for this, and even at nine years old she was good at it. She drew attention like light attracting moths, but Keira had seen people more practiced at it than her and was able to turn away, to notice the way the small girl named Robin was staring at them, studying them with an intensity that mirrored Christian’s.

“It’s okay, guys,” Carmen said, but she had always been a little naive, a little confused, a failing inflicted on her by her unique circumstances.

“Your bloc,” Christian said, a lazy smile spreading across his lips without touching his eyes. He shook his head. “You just got here and you’re already talking blocs. You have any alliances? Know anyone else here worth knowing?”

“We have each other,” Michelle said, one hand on her hip, the other dangling uselessly by her side. “And we’re open to new faces.”

“There was someone on the Aswasi’atar that was following me,” Carmen said, tugging on Keira’s sleeve. “People my age, but they wanted… I had a feeling about them. When I ran I met these girls and they took me into their link.”

“You have a private link?” Keira asked, suspicious. “A whole link to yourselves?” That took a serious amount of wealth and pull, pacts with the eroseeqhi that were beyond the ability of even most Kinguim to grant. The sort of people that had their own links on the Aswasi’atar were dangerous and more than capable of setting up circumstances to fool poor slight girls who would already be nervous about coming here.

She thought about the people that had that sort of pull, the names of the Old Blood families cycling through her head. She didn’t know these girls, didn’t remember anyone of import named Michelle, didn’t know why someone just arrived would command the pull she clearly had on the other four girls.

“People that come here with a bloc in mind aren’t opening themselves up to new experiences,” Christian drawled, his tone keeping attention on him; she knew he was drawing their ire on purpose, letting her feel them out.

“We’re open to alliances,” Jackie said, her voice polite.

“What bloc are you?” Christian asked. “What title have you given yourselves?”

Michelle and Carmen both looked about to answer, but Keira realized who they were and beat them to the revelation, speaking the name out loud.

“Verene,” Keira said, staring, spitting the name as she spoke it. “These are the Verenes.”

“The Verenes?” Christian sneered and shook his head. “Kingu’s greatest failures? I didn’t realize there were any left.”

“Just us,” Michelle answered, but her eyes had narrowed, her shoulders tensing. “We make do.”

“Carmen, get behind me,” Keira demanded, holding up an arm protectively, her other hand going for her sword. One of the girls, bigger than the rest – Helena – stepped in front of the others. “It’s okay. Thank you for your service. You can go now.”

“Oh, by your leave,” the small girl, Robin, said. Her voice was mocking, her exaggerated bow an insult.

Keira paid it back with the exact amount of vitriol that motion deserved.

“Fuck you,” she said. The small girl looked like she might try something but Michelle put a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head when Robin looked back at her. Robin muttered something, shaking, as Michelle pulled her people back, eyes never leaving them as they moved away and into the crowd and were gone.

“Why,” asked Carmen, licking her lips, “why did you do that?”

“She wouldn’t have been good for you,” Keira said, taking her hand off her blade and looking at her friend, hoping that she could make the other girl understand. “Do you know the Verenes? Who they are? What they did?”

“No, but I know she kept me safe,” answered Carmen, hugging herself.

“It’s okay.” Keira brought her closer, held her, thrilled a little to feel Carmen’s small arms wrapping around her, hugging her back.

“I don’t understand,” murmured Carmen. Keira could feel her tears through the shirt she wore.

“We’ll bring you up to speed,” Christian sighed. He pointed with his eyes and Keira followed his gaze, noticing that Kiker’s people had taken a casual interest in them. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ll talk once we get back to my place.”

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421

Fiction: Eyes Like Boxes, Mind Like Fire

Books & Writing, Culture

June 15, 2017

The boat was old, something they’d dug up from the mid-forties that looked more like a battleship than a commercial vessel, all sharp lines and doorways with wheels instead of handles. I squinted across the gangplank towards the party boat we’d rented for the weekend, my dreams of a picture-perfect first kegger party dashed.

“Where did Jason find this thing?” I asked my boyfriend, Justin. “It looks like a submarine fucked a sailboat.”

“I like it,” he said, wrapping his arm around my waist. “It’s bad ass. We don’t have to worry about breaking shit.” He grinned at Jason, who was in the process of exploring, opening doors and climbing up railings to look at the above deck. “Besides, we didn’t have to pay much for it, which means we have more money for beer.”

On cue, the rest of our party showed up: two teenage girls with a keg of beer between them, gasping from the weight.

“Hey Twins,” Jason called from his perch on one of the railings, his feet dangling over the water.

“Hey yah,” they said in unison, their voices strained under the weight of the keg. They set it down and studied the boat in front of them. They weren’t really twins; Puck was a year older than Pan, and they looked different enough that the non-familial connection was obvious. Ever since grade school, they’d been inseparable, though, and thus the nickname.

Jason ran off the boat and helped Justin take the keg from the women; “All aboard who’s going aboard. Welcome to your home for the weekend.” They walked up the plank, the dock bobbing under the weight of them and the keg.

“This looks safe,” Puck said as she joined me next to the boat.

“Safe like broken bottle,” said Pan. She hugged me before carefully walking across the black water below and onto the deck.

Puck followed her other half and left me alone on the dock. I looked over the side of the bobbing wood below me and into the inky black. I really didn’t like the look of any of this; it was all so different in my head. Nothing like how I’d been fantasizing all through school last week. I stepped onto the gangplank and started up to get ready for our gathering.

The walls were coated in faint scratches near the bottom and icy cold, the metal of the place quickly shedding what heat it had gained before the sun set an hour earlier. The upper deck had the wheelhouse, two bathrooms, a few sleeping quarters, and an extra room that was empty, probably for meetings. The bottom deck was a twisting maze of halls with a few more bathrooms and a galley that had a table perfect for our partying needs.

Justin already had the keg set up with a row of red plastic cups waiting to be filled ringed around it. I went to the cooler we’d brought along and began to help dishing out the food. Cupcakes, sandwiches, a few cliche party hats, and one big bowl of candy were soon spread out on the metal table.

As I unwrapped a Lemon Head and popped it in my mouth, I noticed Puck staring at something on the ceiling. There was a hole, the inside made of a of stained and slick looking synthetic cloth. I went to stand by Puck and examine it further.

“And more weird shit,” I said. “What do you think it is?”

“A garbage chute maybe? I don’t remember seeing anything upstairs though.”

Someone slipped their hands around me from behind and I smelled Justin’s cologne. He tightened his hug and nibbled on my ear. “What’s up, pup?”

My breath quickened. “Nothing. Just something weird Puck found.”

“Then come and have a drink with me.” He took my hands in his and led me to the drinks, giving me one of the red cups. I drank from it, the bubbly liquid making me blanch with its bitter taste. I kept drinking as Justin and I sat together on the floor, my head resting on his shoulder.

Across the room Puck and Pan were doing the same, the weird hole forgotten with drink and cuddling. Jason was eating a sandwich and watching an episode of some show on his tablet. I pressed myself into Justin and kissed his jaw before taking another sip of beer.

Sudden music came from Jason’s tablet, something by The Killers that was calm and frantic at the same time. He grinned as the Twins got up and began swaying to the music. I set my beer aside and stood, grabbing Justin’s hand and dragging him to his feet.

We danced, all of us together. Jason danced by himself, using the cheesiest moves he could think of. Puck and Pan, with fits of giggles, swayed next to each other in a way I was sure I’d seen in a cartoon when I was a kid. Justin and I took each other by the hand and started a fast paced waltz, his hand drifting slowly down as mine stayed on his shoulder.

The Killers gave way to the Gorillaz and the Gorillaz gave way to a techno song I’d never heard. Between the dancing, the eating, and the making out, we spent a few hours in bliss. My head felt heavy as I watched Puck kissing Pan, my face half pressed into Justin’s leather coat. Jason was on the table, lost in his own world as he continuously danced the grocery basket.

I smiled into my boyfriend’s chest and breathed deeply of his sweat-tinged cologne. I felt my way under his jacket to slide my hand along his stomach. Perfect night, perfect smell, perfect friends. I was glad Jason had found this place, glad for the music and the frothy liquid in my stomach. I leaned up to kiss Justin’s lips and let this perfect moment be even better.

A squealing came from the door at the far side of the room and over the music, I could hear the clunk of the lock falling into place. Jason stopped the song with a tap on his tablet and jumped off the table to inspect the only door out of this room.

“What the fuck?” Justin said.

“The door done locked us in, pard,” Jason said as he twisted the wheel inlayed in the door as hard as he could.

“Well shit,” I said.

“Is there another way out?” Pan asked.

Justin stood up and went to help Jason open the door as I went to look for another way out.

“Well, there’s the hole,” Puck wandered over to her discovery and stared up at it. “It’s got to lead to somewhere.”.

Justin and Jason walked over to the Twins and me, sweaty from the exertion of trying to pry open the door. We all stared at the hole above us, the opening looking yonic and wet.

“Who’s going first?”Jason asked

“Fuck that noise.” Justin hit Jason in the arm.

“I’ll go,” I said.

Justin boosted me up; his strong hands felt good and warm. I touched the cloth with my fingers and was surprised to find it was silky and dry. I grabbed a fistful of the lining and heaved myself into the blackness above.

The darkness pressed against me as I climbed, the cloak of cloth sliding against me and reminding me of the soft skin of my grandmother. The fistfuls of cloth made it easier than I expected and within a few seconds, I’d made it to another opening. Blue light met me as I climbed out onto the deck above.

Something was wrong with the light, the way it shone off the walls and the shadows it made. I stepped from the hole, my arms tired from the strength I had to use to ascend. I looked around for what was making that strange blue light and came up empty.

“You okay?” Justin called from below, his voice muffled and far away.

“I’m fine. You keep trying the door, I’ll look for a way out.”

I looked around the room I was in, really taking it in for the first time. It was like the rest of the ship, all steel and devoid of anything comfortable. Beside the entrance, I’d come from was an old-looking sledgehammer and a panel that would just fit over the hole, with a box of bolts beside it. Across the room was a door, the same as the others but slightly ajar.

“I found something,” I called down to my friends. “I’ll be right back.”

I stepped toward the open door, the blue glow strengthening as I fully opened the door. Outside was a hallway that stretched out in both directions, the glow coming from the walls. The steel of the ship had turned wrong, the rivets holding it together placed at random. I felt cold; the warmth from Justin’s hands still lingered on my hips and made the chill of the hallway more noticeable.

“Hello?” I called. Something answered, its whimpering carrying softly down the hallway from my left. I shivered at the inhuman sound, and anxiety spread through my stomach. “Is someone there?” I asked as I crept towards the noise.

The hallway curved in front of me and within a minute the door I’d come from was lost behind blue steel. I dragged my fingers across the wall as I walked, the steady bump of rivets keeping my tipsy mind focused on the task at hand. In front of me the whimpers continued, and seemed to be getting closer.

I stopped my march. I’d lost track of how much time had passed since I started but it didn’t seem possible for this hallway to fit in the boat I’d seen at the beginning of the night. Drunk or not, this didn’t feel like a good place to be. I had to find a way out fast.

The wolf stepped from behind the curve in front of me. Fire dripped from its lips as drool, spilling onto the floor to settle between its huge paws. It growled and moved closer as I froze in fear; a small gasp escaped my throat. I stared into its eyes, pupils square and black, as it tilted its head to let out a howl.

The howl was returned. From all around me the sounds of a wolfpack rebounded and turned my knees into jelly. From behind the wolf came a pack, each one as otherworldly as the one in front of me. They growled and I turned to run.

My heart thudded in my ears as I ran the way I came, the wolves close behind. I could hear their great paws thudding on the steel, echoing my footsteps. My leg muscles began to seize up as the dancing and drink of the night caught up to me. My vision started to blur, just as I saw the doorway peek out from behind the curve ahead.

Teeth clamped into my thigh and I fell. Pain spread from the bite, cold fire and needles. I kicked out with my good foot and felt the soft impact as the wolf let go. I was only a few feet from the doorway and — if I could get it closed — safety.

I pushed myself up, my leg screaming, and bolted through the doorway. I tried slamming the heavy metal shut behind me but it refused to close, the metal warped. I dragged over the box of rivets and braced the door as the wolves slammed into it. It wouldn’t hold for long.

“Tessa! Are you okay?” Puck called from below. They were still trapped down there, waiting for me to come back with news of a way out. Justin was still down there and if I ran the wolves would follow. I couldn’t let that happen.

I lifted the plate that I’d found earlier, the holes drilled in it matching up perfectly with holes ringing the yonic entrance I’d entered from. It slid into place and I put rivets into the holes; each one fit snug. I grabbed the sledgehammer and lifted it above my head, the wolves behind me growling.

The metal clanged as I brought the hammer down, slamming a rivet into place. Slam, clang. Another one home as the door creaked and began to move. Slam, clang. The door burst open, the box of rivets spilled out and across the metal floor. Slam, clang. The final rivet hit home as the wolves hit me in the back and knocked the hammer out of my grasp. I screamed as the wolves fell on me, their hot breath stinking of rotten eggs and grass. I began to cry as I waited for them to tear into my throat but instead I felt the soft touch of a tongue against my cheek. A wolf licked away my tears.

“Tess, come down! The door’s open and you’re scaring me,” Justin called from below. The wolves raised their heads and let out a singular howl.

==========


I stumbled on the graveled shoulder of the road. My injured leg burned and throbbed. The last thing I remembered was the wolves howling as tears streamed down my face and then I was walking down the road to my house. I could almost believe it was all a dream except the blood still caked on my pants.

The first rays of dawn stretched across the sky as the cul-de-sac where my house was, came into view, the street empty save for two figures walking along the shoulder. I recognized them and started running. It was Jason and Justin. I didn’t know how, but I was glad.

I screamed his name as I ran, ready to hug him, kiss him, press my face into that ridiculous leather jacket he always wore. As I put my arms around him from behind, they passed through him and I felt them touch. He stopped and turned, his eyes wide.

“Jason. Did you feel that?”

“What?” Jason turned and looked around for what was bothering his friend.

“I felt really cold all of a sudden, like, really cold,” Justin said.

“Must have been the wind. Either that or you’re still in shock.”

I deflated, all of the joy I had a moment ago drifting off and replaced by dread.

“Justin?” I tried to say, but all that came out were whimpers. I collapsed to my knees and stared into my boyfriend’s eyes as tears started flowing. Then there was pain, all through my body. I reached out to him, my fingers shimmering and morphing as they brushed his shirt. I screamed but all that came from my throat was a dog’s whine.

“Come to me,” said a voice, and the sky glowed with the blue light from the corridor. The wind picked up, swirling my hair around my face and biting into my bare shoulders. I screamed and my voice became a howl, others joining in all around me.

“The fuck man,” Jason said,” We should get inside fast. The cops will be here soon and we don’t want to get eaten by the some wolf before that.”

Justin stood, staring at me, looking through me. I tried to reach out for him again but my hands were useless now, my fingers turned to pads. I felt heat in my mouth and the aroma of rotten egg mixed with grass engulfed me. I looked into Justin’s eyes and my tears dried up.

I turned and ran, the voice still calling and my boyfriend still waiting for something to happen.

 

__________________________________________________________

Holly Sophia McCrea is a poet, artist, and short fiction writer from Vancouver BC. She’s been published in The Drabblecast audio fiction magazine and currently has a chapbook available on amazon.

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236

Fiction: Dearly Beloved

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

Time passes here, though not always in step with the many worlds it touches, and even here there is change. Consider the proprietress, the young silver-haired woman all in white whose true nature is betrayed only by the small nub of shimmering ivory in the center of her forehead. She accepted the task when her predecessor tired of it, the latest in a line of innkeepers stretching back through time immemorial – the latest in a long line of beings who found so much solace in the World’s End that they chose to remain here for much of their lives, abandoning the worlds that birthed them. They had each their good reasons for doing so, each a past so riddled with sorrow or anger that ‘home’ lost all meaning.

The lands of the fey are very beautiful, as are many of the fey themselves. The lands of the fey are also deadly to the unwary, both in body and soul, as are many of the fey themselves. Even in lands of such magic and beauty, a unicorn is a rare thing indeed, and much hated by the darker fey for its purity of nature and its magical light. Most of them are for this reason shy and retiring, preferring to hide among the ever-present foliage in the Summer Queen’s Great Forest, but this one could not.

Dahlia Shining Sun named herself in traditional fashion for the flowers that grew around her birthing nest when she came of age, for unicorns are not born of unicorns, and no matter their good intentions, her sire and dam could never hope to understand their daughter. Dahlia was never by nature the sort of creature that could easily hide. She grew at first bored and soon deeply frustrated with the self-imposed exile, and craved friendship; more than that, she craved adoration.

And this is how she nearly lost her life.

To we outsiders, the fey seem capricious agents of mischief. And indeed they are, but within the chaos is a core of rigid order. All fey owe their unswerving fealty to either the Summer or Winter courts, to lofty Oberon and distant Titania, or to dreaded Cernunnos and mad Maebhe, and the main part of that fealty is war. The Summer and Winter courts have been at war for so long now that not even the Kings and Queens remember why, but it is a deadly and vicious war for all that.

Oberil Wheatwhistle was born to and was for many years a member in good standing of the Court of Titania and Oberon. Their orders were easy enough to fulfil until the focus of the War shifted to bring the fey of the Wheatwhistle lands into direct conflict. Oberil was and is a pacifist, claiming that choosing to harm another creature, even a vassal of the Winter Court, is the greatest sin there is.

Thrice did the Queen and King of Summer ask Wheatwhistle to take up arms for the Summer; thrice the refusal came. This was itself an honor beyond measure – not the order to battle, but the three times asking. The monarchs of the Fey brook no disobedience and have destroyed others on the spot for far smaller infractions. Oberil may have somehow been blood of their blood to receive such a favor, as well as the sentence passed: exile instead of death outright… though exile from the lands of Summer means only the realm of Winter, and death would still be the inevitable result.

In the Winter lands, the sun had not set thrice before the young elf noble encountered a disturbing sight. In a clearing were many lesser creatures of the Winter court, boggarts and redcaps and kobolds, trolls one and all, stood in a grand circle laughing and jeering. In the circle was the unicorn, battered and bloodied but unbowed; the creatures had found her in the Summer fields and lured her with promises of love and adoration to the Winter lands, where they began their terrible sport. Whichever way Dahlia faced, whichever way she tried to charge to end the torment and break free of her captors, the rocks and arrows and blades that harried and tortured her came always from behind; in front, she encountered instead pikes and torches that would drive her back to the center.

Oberil’s heart melted at once. Here was a better reason to take up arms than a thousand thousand years of politics. If protecting innocence was not a noble battle, nothing was. So the exile charged into the ranks of the trolls and scattered them to the four winds; they were no match for the singing blade of a full-blooded Summer Court warrior, exile or not.

This done, the elf went to render aid to the unicorn, but instead of gratitude was met with fury. Blinded with rage and terror, Dahlia charged her would-be savior, her horn cutting a furrow into Oberil’s side. Realizing she thought herself still under attack, Wheatwhistle ran; and when Dahlia gave chase, the young noble realized that after all this time in the dark lands, the only way to save the unicorn would be to lead her back to the light – despite the terms of exile imposed by the Summer Queen.

For three days and nights they ran, and whenever they met Dahlia inflicted another wound on Oberil before the elf evaded her and ran again. Oberil refused all this time to simply escape, leaving Dahlia still in the dark, until finally they burst into the Summer fields, where the noble collapsed.

Dahlia rushed in to destroy her quarry, believing this would free her once and for all, but at that moments the clouds parted and the shock of the bright Summer sun after all the darkness cleared her mind. The unicorn realized she was free, and it was her liberator she was about to kill. She fell to her knees instead and cried over the still form of the elf that risked everything to bring her back into the light.

They say unicorn tears can heal. Sometimes… they are right.

True love does not come at first sight, no matter what the stories say. But sometimes it is fated, and blossoms from even the harshest of beginnings. Oberil Wheatwhistle is an exile from two lands of the Fey that both promised an undeserved death, and finally found solace here beyond the end of the worlds. And Dahlia is here because there is nowhere else in all the worlds or beyond she would rather be than here, with the elf who proved more noble than Summer and Winter combined.

And she calls herself Dahlia Dearly Beloved now, because after all those years, she finally is.

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Fiction: My Bad Dream

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

May 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

Among them, strangely even for this strange place, is a child. A girl of eight or nine in a nightdress, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed, the very picture of innocence. One might be worried in this place that she is somehow a trap, a monster hiding, but it is not so. Goldie really is a little girl, but she is a dreamer.

Goldie fell asleep one night. It was a strange falling asleep, but she remembers nothing more about it. Then the terrors began. Night after night, week after week. The teeth in the woods, the house of blood, the gray faces, each more terrible than the last, the nightmares haunted and tormented her. Even in sleep, there was no rest.

But time passed. It always does, even if it moves strangely beyond the veil of worlds. One can eventually get used to anything, and though Goldie really is a little girl, she had been a little girl now for a long, long time. One day, with the teeth snapping at her heels again, she tired of the chase. She sat under a gnarled, blackened tree, picked up one of the fallen branches, and waited.

The snarling and howling stopped the moment she sat, and in short order, intrigued, the nightmare appeared to her, taking the form of a tall, dapper man whose body seemed to be made of black fire.

Why do you not run? it said, the words being remembered without ever being spoken.

“I’m tired.” she replied.

But you are asleep, it said, For years now. How can you be tired?

“Not sleepy,” said she, “Tired. Tired of running. Why do you torment me?”

The nightmare paused. This was something it had never considered. How could it? Do fish wonder why they swim, or flames wonder why they burn?

Finally, it spoke, without speaking: I am your Nightmare, it said.

“Mine?” Goldie asked.

Yours and yours alone, it said, as long as need be.

The girl stood. “You… are mine? You belong to me?”

Confused, the nightmare nodded, for was that not what it said?

Years of darkness change anyone, even someone who really is a little girl, and there in the gloom and the dark Goldie smiled for the first time in years, and ran forward, embracing the burning man who did not really burn.

“You’re MINE!” she said. It was the first time she could remember that anyone or anything was truly hers, even from before the strange sleep began. And the Nightmare, for it was made of her dreams as much as her fears, to its surprise wrapped its burning but not burning arms around her and hugged her back.

This, gentle traveler, is how you may meet the dreamer who has been young for so long in the place beyond the end of the worlds. Beside her always is her traveling companion, her Nightmare, which brings her from dream to dream wherever darkness touches, teaching her now the joy and laughter that lives where light doesn’t reach, for it already taught her everything it could about fear and pain. The nightmare is itself, himself, young in many ways, and does not always understand the places they travel. But it knows two truths that are clad in iron.

Firstly, he is HER Nightmare. Without her, he does not know what he would be, perhaps the nameless dread in the dark again, and it would be awful to go back to that sort of nonperson after finding this richer life.

And secondly, he looks really good in that hat.

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