Author Archive

Moonflowers

by Alex Gray

Ember blinked as a tiny flame guttered briefly on the bridge of his nose, and started to read from his clipboard.

“Jinx, Jane Doe, get your bony asses over to the The Park dock: angel security has intercepted a container full of satanists trying to get smuggled in. It’s getting ugly: there’s people taking the name of the lord in all kinda fucking vain, and tempers are fraying. Apparently Gabe himself is on his way, in a shit of a mood. Let’s avoid excess blood on the morning news, ok?”

Jinx raised a hand, silver chains and charms rattling: “Sarge, how much would you consider excess?

Ember stared hard for a moment, and we all tensed. If Ember was the barrel of gunpowder in the room, Jinx was the one always trying to apply a match.

“If Gabe draws his flaming sword, what follows will be very much the definition of  ex-fucking-cess. And it will be added to later by however much blood you have in your own scrawny little cadaver. Got it?”

Jane Doe delivered a hard nudge to the ribs and Jinx shut her mouth with a nod.

“Ovid, you and…”

“Aw Sarge, can you give it to someone else? I hate missing-person reports…” I whined, then froze.

Ovid carefully leaned his 300lb slab of a body away from me, with a whispered “You didn’t even let him say it, jerk!”

If there’s one thing you don’t do to Ember, it’s interrupt him when he’s handing out the night shift assignments. If there’s two things you don’t do to Ember, it’s interrupt him AND do so using your freak ability. Especially when he thinks your skill is about as much use as a fart in a spacesuit. And that was a quote. Minus some choice swear words.

I always assumed his temper was on account of the guttering flames that run up and down his body at random, but Ovid says he was just as much a bastard back before it happened in the War.

I thought fast, but talked faster. Which was a shame.

“Sorry, Sarge. Please, do go on…” The accompanying hand movement was meant to be encouraging everyone to just pretend I’d not said a thing, and to keep things moving along, but it came over like the Queen of England giving her tiresome subjects a bored wave.

Ember went even redder than usual: no mean feat for a walking spontaneous human combustion, and Ovid rattled his shaky wooden chair away from me across the rickety floorboards with a noise like Pinocchio being worked over with a two-by-four.

“Are you sure I should continue? I mean, only if you’re okay with it.” Ember rumbled in a voice that sounded like a pack of hunting wolves’ raised hackles looked. “In fact, why don’t you tell me what I was going to say next, Petal?”

Jinx snorted with laughter, then coughed and lowered her head, shooting me a look that was pure delighted malice. The others wore expressions that ranged from very mild sympathy to gratitude that it wasn’t them.

Petal isn’t my real name, I should point out. But whichever nickname sticks as funniest and least kind, that’s what you’re called here. I’d barely opened my mouth to introduce myself after the army chopper dropped me on Governor’s Island one dark night, when the Captain’s high, bored nasal tone had cut through the hot darkness of the landing pad. “Well, look what we have here,” he’d announced. “If it isn’t the most delicate little Petal.”

He’d stressed the capital P in Petal, too. At his side, Ember had grunted in what passed for amusement, a couple of ground crew rats had snickered, and that was that. In my defense, I’m not especially delicate looking, but I am skinny and pale, and he was of course testing me with the flower jibe. You see, no-one has the right to know where you come from, here in the Precinct. Your record, sure. But not your birth. Because none of the ways of becoming this type of cop are easy or nice, and it’s considered rude and sometimes fatal to dig too deep. But you can assume plenty, and this was the Captain’s way of saying he’d chosen to assume I was a Moonflower. Petal, flower, see? I thought it was about that funny, too.

More about Moonflowers later: time to get back to the present. Of course I knew what Ember was going to say next. It was a long, detailed and anatomically infeasible series of instructions for me to carry out. And he knew I knew, so that was why he was thinking that. But telling him that would make it worse, so I needed to defuse the situation. The trouble was, Ember had never really understood that I can’t read minds, so much as just know what people are planning to do next. So like a lot of folks, he gets all antsy round about me, as if I can look into his head and see his deepest darkest secrets. Instead, I just get a three-second warning. Which sounds amazing, and exciting, right? And it can be useful, believe me. But three seconds isn’t very much time to do much. Really, my ability is mostly just to look like the world’s biggest smartass. Which is what the army eventually concluded, and suggested I’d be of more use to the Precinct. Or anywhere that wasn’t the army.

“Sarge, you are planning to say how you realize that deep down I am honored and thrilled to be taking on another challenging missing-person case, and that you are happy I am planning to keep my mouth shut from now on?”

“Ass-kisser!” Jinx coughed into her hand.

Ember stared hard for a few seconds, then nodded. His skin mostly subsided to a dull glow, with only a few singes on the fire-resistant material of his uniform.

“As Petal was saying,” he went on, “he and Ovid will be delighted to go over to The Hook and sort out a report of a missing person, and because they’re so keen, also they want to look into a smash and grab involving a quantity of hellstones.”

Ovid shuffled and rattled his chair back across the boards like a long slow collapse in a lumber yard, and punched me hard on the arm. I knew it was coming, but thought best to just act normal for a bit, so yelped and rubbed the spot he’d hit.

Normally we’d all wait for the briefing to end, so’s we had a rough idea what the others were up to. It avoided misunderstandings and the occasional friendly fire incident. And gave the entirely false impression we were kind of a community, and cared for each other, rather than being a bunch of freaks and sociopaths thrown together like a supernatural band-aid.

This time, though, with Ember pissed, I raced to the front and took the briefing sheets from his outstretched hand, blowing out a smoldering flame on the corner, and me and Ovid scooted out the back door into the freezing night.

We paused on the porch to button our coats up. I have to say, Governor’s Island is one pretty place, even bathed in the hellish glow of The Hook just across the water in Brooklyn. We call it The Hook, because it was Red Hook long before it had the bad luck to be Hell’s home base on the East Coast of North America. If we’d come out the front door of the Precinct rather than scuttling out the back, we’d have been lit in a pure white light from the angels’ crib over on the southern tip of Manhattan. Heaventown, officially, but Battery Park on old maps, so The Park to us. We’re not so keen on the dramatic names: they’re for the tourists and thrill-seekers.

And here we are in the middle: neutral ground, and probably the best real estate for a police station I’ve ever seen. The island used to be 170 acres of parkland, complete with revolutionary war fort (now the jail and armory), a few dozen magnificent old naval officer’s mansions and even a church that looks like it was teleported from old England. It’s still beautiful, if you ignore all the hardware that a cop precinct dealing with Heaven and Hell needs, and the wandering devils, angels, diplomats and lawyers. And yes, the last ones are the worst.

Most of the mansions have been fixed up nicely and used for consulates, legal offices, guest quarters and a medical center that’s set up to treat the most imaginative injuries you can sustain in heaven or hell. Not forgetting an orphanage that makes the medical center look dull and predictable. The Precinct’s mansion is the exception, of course: it has a certain haughty elegance, and some fine old wooden staircases and even fancy pillars holding up the porch roof, but close up it’s a mess, and if you lean too hard on anything, it tends to break. Which isn’t a bad metaphor for the night shift, either.

Officially we make sure the two turfs are safe and law-abiding. In reality, we barely keep the lid on the places, and we do that through a mix of intimidation, fear, persuasion and blind luck. For the sake of clarity, as far as me and Ovid go, he’s the intimidation and fear, while I’m the persuasion and blind luck. The non blind luck on the shift is Jinx, who’s a total nightmare, but I must admit, a force to be reckoned with. Her talent is just that: luck. When she needs it the most. The downside? She takes the luck from people around her. That can come in handy when some demon is about to stick you, but less so if you need to work with her. That’s why she’s paired with Jane Doe: Doe is immune to all and everything in Heaven, Hell and between. Except sarcasm. Just don’t go there. Or ask her anything about herself. As far as Doe’s concerned, she didn’t exist before she turned up on the Precinct doorstep one night with signed papers.

Anyways, enough of the bios: I’d be all night trying to explain Pinky and Perky, let alone Phasers on Stun. Ovid is the muscle and I’m the brains, I like to say. He likes to say he’s the muscle and the brains and I’m a dead weight. Whatever, his talents lie in the physical: Ovid is a Hellvet: one of the soldiers who were flung into the initial invasion toeholds to buy time. Most died  in various inventive ways. Some went mad. A smaller percentage, exposed to the otherwordly energies that were flying around from both sides, picked up certain abilities. And also went mad, though in a manageable way, mostly. Ovid was a 200-lb Ranger. Now he’s a 300-lb cartoon of a soldier with skin that can stop a 50-caliber bullet and fists that can hit harder than one. Ugly as sin, mind, but somehow, that doesn’t deter the ladies. And here’s me, young, handsome, (in a sallow kind of way) funny and yet single. Go figure.

You should know that I just waffle on like this to keep myself grounded: we all do something mundane and ordinary like that for relaxation. Working where we work, and coming from where we came from, you need to ease off on the weird, sometimes. Ovid plays chess, Ember reads, Jinx knits. Me, I chatter on endlessly, and record it. I won’t tell you what Pinky does. I always say, if you’re hearing this, then it means I’m dead and you’re going through my meager possessions. A shoebox full of memory chips? Sorry, by now you’ll know they contain nothing more exciting than my audio diary. On the other hand, I do upload them all to my weekly podcast that nobody listens to, so maybe one day I’ll get a fan, and maybe that’s you?

“You with me, Petal?” Ovid grunted. He was holding the lightly singed sheets  up to the swaying porch light. Ember wrote in red pen, which was invisible in the red light coming from The Hook. “He’s smart: nobody can read them over in The Hook,” I’d said when I joined a few months ago. “He’s a bastard: we can’t read them either,” Ovid had replied.

“So what’s with the missing person? That’s hardly a big deal in The Hook,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to get my hood to stay up. The snow was horizontal and sticky.

Ovid grunted again—that was his stock response to any question, and often all the answer you were going to get. It was my lucky day, though, because he elaborated a little.

“It’s a big deal when your daddy is U.S. Ambassador to The Hook and The Park,” he said, waving a poorly copied photo at me. Slim, white, entitled looking late teen dressed in black leather. I rolled my eyes at the predictability of it all: all the rich kids thought they needed to look like Kate Beckinsale in those pre-War vampire movies. And she was called Winter Vandenburg. Winter. Why do these rich kids have such cool names? And why was I stuck with ‘Petal’?

I whistled. “She was in The Hook without a bodyguard?”

“Nah, she gave ‘em the slip. They were just civilian pricks.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a dig at me or not. Ovid didn’t like civvies. Technically I was ex military, which made me a born-again prick in his opinion.

“Here,” he thrust the sheet into my numbing hands. “Since you messed the night up, you can handle this solo. I’ll deal with the hellstone heist.”

I focused on him, then shook my head. “The fast boat is out of service: she sprung a leak,” I said, just as he started to say “take the…”

Ovid was looking at me oddly. Was that compassion? Sympathy? Probably just indigestion. “Kid,” he said. “There’s gotta be more to your talents than this sideshow stuff. You gotta be, I dunno, more…proactive.”

I stared, expecting something in the way of wisdom, or guidance. I concentrated and realized he was about to do and say nothing at all in the next few seconds. He stared back, then shrugged his huge shoulders and turned and walked away. I scurried to catch up.

We trudged through the accumulating snow to the armory in the depths of the old fort. For once, there was no howling/screaming/cursing/singing from the cells, and I noticed most were empty. The snow keeps the crazies quiet, sometimes. Or buries them where they fall, so they become the day shift’s problems. Dirty Harriet was on duty, and nodded at Ovid as we walked in, then squeaked off out of sight on her wheeled chair for a moment, returning with a cannon as big as my thigh. She slid it across the worn desk, along with a holdall of ammo. She looked me over, her ancient face wrinkled like a raisin, then rolled away again.

“This is going the be hilarious,” I said, flatly, a split second before she came back with a tiny silver-chromed derringer-like pistol, like the ladies and shady gamblers had tucked into a stocking top in old riverboat movies.

“I was wrong…you’re the funniest person I ever met,” I said in the same tone. Behind me, Ovid paused from sliding cartridges the size of hotdogs into the cannon and grunted with laughter. Just like he did every time.

Harriet gave a toothless smile and rolled away again, this time handing over a regular-sized automatic and webbing. Regular-sized for the Precinct, that is: like everything else, ordnance had to be kind of over-engineered to last long in the zones, and this looked like a pre-War pistol on steroids. It had two oversized ammo clips, one painted with a white cross, the other a rough dot. Different ammo for The Hook and The Park, to cover all bases. Truth is, it takes a load of firepower to take down an angel or a devil, especially on their home turf, and so both were basically heavy-duty slugs with a coating of whatever exotic metals and chemicals the lab boys had decided might give you the edge against your average supernatural foe. While we were never sure we could put one down for good, we did know that these things hurt like hell. Or heaven. Or something else belief-system appropriate—but painful. We also checked out walkie-talkies, flashlights, and a handful of ‘pick-me-ups’: basically Twinkie-sized locator-flare combos to summon the cavalry.

Ten minutes later we were waiting at the landing pad as a battered Osprey clattered down with a squeal and a bump. We tend to get mili-surplus, which means the previous owner wasn’t exactly a retired librarian who only used the vehicle to get to the senior-citizens’ lunch club once a week. Also, the screwy physics in The Hook and The Park take a heavy toll on anything electrical or mechanical that stays there too long. Not to mention most organics, other than us freaks who could handle it. Here on the Island, the overlapping energies had created a neutral zone, so it wasn’t too bad. Off to the left, the small red landing spot for demons was empty, while on the other side, an angel was coming in to land, his/her impressive wings beating hard to cope with the crosswinds. Awe-inspiring sight, except for the fact that the updraft was blowing his-her robes up, exposing a load more than was decent for a heavenly creature. Never could figure why they’d made the leap to modern body armor easily, but still insisted on those white billowing numbers underneath. At least the devils went for suits or leisure wear, which was way more practical, if a little gauche. I looked away, though: no sense of humor, these angels, and a visit this late had to be connected to the Jinx and Jane Doe’s case.

We clambered aboard the Osprey and as we lifted off I could see the pair trudging unhappily toward the pissed-off looking angel, and I took a moment to raise my middle finger to the window, just in case Jinx was looking up.

Old H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t far wrong when he wrote: “Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand.” His added: “As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side,” was pretty much true, too, and the cause of a lot of our caseload. Maybe he had the Gift, and knew what would happen? Or maybe he was just a crazy man. If he’d been able to see it right before the War, he’d have probably been just as dismayed at the way the yuppies were driving out the artists and hustlers and duckers-and-divers, stealing away the clapboard houses overnight and replacing them with tall thin condos. Or so I hear: I was born after the War ended, so have to take the old-timers’ word for it. Once Armageddon-Lite was damped down, all the remaining Hellish units on the east coast retreated to that almost-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood and barricaded it with a motley array of barbed wire, moats of burning oil and pretty much anything sharp they could find or make. Treaties were hastily signed and in time, official crossing points set up. As for the residents, most left, but some stayed and adapted. Or just vanished. And many new ones came flocking to enjoy the money-making delights the de-mobbed demonic troops had set up. Let that mix marinate in the gentle heat of Hell for three decades and you had a chunk of waterfront real estate that was a mix of Disney World, Atlantic City and one of Brueghel the Younger’s more ghastly paintings. Enough of the ancient history, though.

Nowadays the red lighting was part from the burning oil (a vanity that kept the local mob-run oil truck companies in business) and from a trick that made every light source and neon sign glow red or orange. Plus, it was always dusk or night there. Quite how that was managed was a mystery that sucked in a great many scientists. Some of them even managed to come back out, but never any the wiser. It was kind of obvious to us poor sods who worked there: when the gates to Heaven and Hell closed, they didn’t close all the way, and shit was still leaking out. Shame none of the eggheads ever asked us, really.

We were dropped on the roof of what had once been a warehouse, then a squat, then a trendy art gallery, and still was the latter, except the works of art were now alive, and tortured for the entertainment of visitors. And it was all official—there were always dumb thrill-seekers happy to sign away a few hours or days (time’s kind of vague in the zones) for exquisite torture. It’s not my thing, but hey, I’m not here to judge, except in a street-justice kind of way, and that deals with the physical rather than the moral.

The snow was falling here, too, except it was burning: no cliché is too much for The Hook. Not burning enough to set stuff afire, mostly, but more of a zap and a tingle. And it was blood red, of course, and yet cold. I don’t waste time thinking about things like that any more. The night was full of the usual smells and sounds of The Hook: screaming of all natures, music of all types, cars honking and screeching their tires, arguing, shouting, smoke, smog, fog, narco-fumes, sewerage, blood, vomit: basically every noise and stench associated with pleasure or pain or both at once. Behind it all, I fancied, there was the sound of dirty money being counted: The Hook had put pretty much every casino, brothel and drug den in a thousand mile radius out of business by offering what they did, except better, bigger, louder and more intense.

We didn’t hang around: we weren’t the only ones who came in by air, but we stood out by arriving on a beat-up army chopper. The high-rollers who came to party, or buy, or sell, tended to touch down in glistening hover-jets or sleek cruisers. The ones who didn’t want attention slipped in on stealthed powerboats. There were lots of rumors of tunnels, too, but more than one would-be smuggler had found out the hard way that the burning oil moats were dug real deep.

You’ve probably got that we aren’t cops in the regular sense. There’s no hope of patrolling The Hook or The Park: the devils and angels have their own official security, as well as various unofficial outfits. And don’t forget that every damned (or blessed) one of them was a soldier: when Heaven and Hell opened for that brief time, it was for war. And there are few real laws either: some things were agreed in broad terms, but it’s mostly a gray area. Reddish gray, and brightly lit gray, variously, but gray all the same. So we have a brief to tackle anything we want, so long as it involves a threat to humans. And really, if you try hard, you can make pretty much anything into a potential threat to humans. So long as you remember that you’re on the home turf of a few thousand of the toughest soldiers Heaven and Hell produced. So we need to be ready to act fast and improvise faster. And that means blending in, sort of. And not being too heavily laden. Ovid can pass for a bigger-than-average-sized devil when his face is covered (and even when not, I assure him when he’s really pissing me off), and tends to hang that ludicrous cannon down inside his greatcoat. Me, I look like a lot of the lost waifs that end up in the zones, and so don’t usually get a second look, unless it’s to judge how much I cost, or how easy I’d be to carry off. What isn’t obvious about me is that I’m unaffected by either the narcotic buzz that infuses The Hook, or the bliss that permeates The Park. I’m often taken to be Hookborn or Parkborn, but again, I lack the inbuilt subservience those poor sods have. Also, I have my gun. And my ability, such as it is.

Ferris Street was busy, as always. Kind of like midnight Friday in the main drag of any party town. But red. And times a thousand in terms of drunken debauchery. Devils, humans, thralls, thrill-junkies and a hundred other types, all mingling with no good in mind, streaming in and out of the bars, eateries and private clubs that had replaced the chi-chi ballet studios and yoga studios.

Ovid leaned close, eyes never leaving the street, and grated: “Kid, you head to Jezzie’s Bar, ask around. I’ll go check out the other matter along on Beard Street.” Then he was gone, the crowd parting to let him pass, then swirling closed behind him. I sighed. I wasn’t used to being solo down here. Not that I was scared so much as wary. Ovid was a pain in the ass, but a reassuring presence when the shit went down. Not that it needed to go down tonight, I reminded myself: this was a missing person, most likely a simple overstay. Jezzie’s was back near the East River, so I took a right down Sullivan. I concentrated hard as I slouched along, keeping my uncanny eye out. Most people and devils I passed were intent on carrying on doing whatever they were doing: walking, not bumping into anyone bigger than themselves, talking, drinking, inhaling. One in a few was like a live wire, their plans changing like lightning, alert for a chance to steal a wallet, snatch a bag, spot a mark to follow with malice in mind. I slid through the crowd, invisible, pre-warned to avoid any engineered collisions or muggings.

Jezzie’s is a feminist succubus bar. No, really. There weren’t that many succubi in the War, but those that did take part were much feared. And much adored, by people whose buttons that pushed. After the War, Jezzie decided she’d had enough of the shit that the female of any species had to endure, and so decided to create a safe space. With alcohol. And sex, though only of the consensual type. This might not sound too radical, but for a succubus, it was pretty out there. She employed only other reformed succubi, except for the door security: the thing about succubi is, they are pretty much tuned to drive anything male and most things female into a lustful froth, and so wasted passersby were trying to grope Jezzie’s colleagues, and tending to lose limbs when they did. Now, it’s a regular gorilla-sized demon on duty under the neon sign (the female symbol, complete with devil horns: iconic now, featuring on postcards and all kinds of licensed accessories). This one I recognized: a surly obtuse lump of obsidian. The thing was, Jezzie didn’t allow guns inside. Now, that didn’t apply to cops, but then cops didn’t apply to Jezzie. I concentrated and before he could open his mouth, I said: “I know. Tell Jezzie I’m here. Yes she is. Petal,” and I sidestepped with plenty of time to avoid the clawed baseball mitt of a hand he reached out to disarm me with. A thunderous frown had just started to creep across the rubble field he called a face, when his earpiece buzzed and after a second he ungraciously reached to the side and pushed the huge iron door open with one hand. I knew Jezzie would be watching through a cam: people are her hobby. And for my own safety I slipped my holster off and dangled it well off to my right, the gun butt close to the floor, and stepped inside.

If you’ve never been inside a feminist succubus bar, you might be be disappointed, at least by the decor. Jezzie’s looks like nothing so much as a pre-War hipster dive joint with the heat turned up too high. The punters are pretty ordinary, too: a mix of regular-shaped demons and seasoned human visitors and workers enjoying some down time. No torture, at least out front, no fights, just hard drinking and on Tuesdays, Bingo. Jezzie also runs a book club, but it’s mostly women, and anyways I was blacklisted by Jinx. Less ordinary by far are the bar staff, who look like a crazed Heavy Metal magazine artist’s wet dream. At least they do to regular humans: I’m immune to the charm, luckily, so to me they just look like ordinary super-hot women, assuming your taste runs to red skin and horns. Not really my thing, and anyways I tend to blush.

“Petal, my dear, you really must do something about that hair: you look like a stray cat,” a throaty educated voice purred from behind me. That was the thing about Jezzie: she could move silently. That was one of the things, I mean. There were a great many more, than made a visit both a pleasure and a worry. She reached out and took my holster as if picking up an old sock, mild distaste creasing her exquisite face. I instinctively raised a hand to try and flatten my hair, then stopped myself and focused, trying to regain some composure. That was another Jezzie thing: keep people unsettled and get information out of them. Red hair, freckles and no higher than my shoulder: Jezzie looked for all the world like a beautiful college grad in her 20s. Assuming that grad was naked and covered from toes to neck in tiny shiny blue-black scales. I always look Jezzie right in the eye, and nowhere else. She seems to find this amusing.

“So what can we do for you this fine night?” Jezzie inquired, taking a seat in a corner booth and motioning for me to do the same. She hung the gun down the side on a hook and rubbed her hands as if cleaning them.

“Missing person,” I said wearily, shrugging out of my parka and fishing the rumpled pic out a pocket. Jezzie traded in news and tidbits. Not about official police business, or anything as boring, but seemingly random gossip. I’ll never understand demons, I swear. But she did seem to have a genuine interest in keeping women safe, as far as that definition even applied in The Hook, so she was a good bet.

I focused on her as she examined the image. “Yes, she was in here two days ago,” was what she planned to say. But what she said was: “Never seen her. Sorry, Petal,” and slid it back across the table at me. I could see her expression close up, and knew I had one chance. Proactive, Ovid had said, and I thought furiously.

“So where was she headed?”

Jezzie frowned and for a split second I knew she was going to say “Baz’s mansion, with some choice demons you don’t want to mess with,” but she simply stared at me. And when Jezzie stared, you felt like you were being peeled.

“There is more to you than meets the eye, then Petal,” she said calmly, but her eyes were dancing with excitement. “The word is, you’re just a low level psychic, but this is something else, isn’t it?”

She was about to lean forward across the table and kiss me, and it’s a dead fool that lets a succubus’s lips touch him. I jerked back and saw her sitting motionless, smiling a little.

“Well, well…I think I need to find out a little more about you, Petal.”

I stammered something and lurched to my feet: the last thing I needed was for Jezzie to take a close interest in me. And the second last was for my ability to be common knowledge. I had precious few advantages as it was. I was at the door before Jezzie called “you forgot something, Petal,” and I turned just in time to catch the lazily tossed gun and holster. She had a strange look on her face, and I concentrated and knew she was about to add: “I don’t think this one wants to be found.” But of course, she didn’t say a thing, merely twitched a corner of her mouth when I involuntarily nodded. I stumbled out into the cold and dark.

I called Ovid from the relative quiet of a doorway down the block. Nothing, which meant he was either out of range or underground. Cells didn’t work in The Hook, or anything less robust than our kick-ass short-range radios. I shoved the walkie-talkie back in my pocket. This was a real mess: Baz was one of the senior Fallen, and a real piece of work. Some demons had settled into a low-key existence here on Earth. A few, like Jezzie, had changed their ways. But a handful, the oldest and most powerful, had set themselves up as feudal lords. They were limited in some ways: no human government—at least not the one in the U.S.A.—could turn a blind eye to actual hellish torture. But those old bastards were nothing if not cunning and had their ways. Baz’s name came up in pretty much every report of demon-human crime syndicates and at least one failed coup. Way out of my league, but what could I do apart from head over to his mansion and make a nuisance of myself as usual? I just hoped Ovid might surface by then.

Coffey Park was a little bit shitty back in the old days, but supposedly pretty enough for people to hang out, party, make out and occasionally get robbed in. Now, it’s beautiful if your taste runs to living trees that will snatch anything in reach, vampire grass that can penetrate think shoes and suck a half pint out of you, and various ornamental beasts that would benefit from an airdropped nuke, in my opinion. Still, a foot of bloody snow was making it all slightly less horrific. I was sitting on a bench at the edge, looking diagonally across at Baz’s townhouse. You’re thinking Gothic, right? With spires and maybe a skeleton or two in cages? Not at all: for no reason anyone can account for, Baz went for modern glass and concrete, even brought in a starchitect for the project. He got it—and Baz—on the cover of some of the top design magazines, too, which was pretty funny.

So basically, my half-baked plan to climb in looked kind of stupid in the face of all that sheer glass and concrete. I knew it was a modern, but had assumed there’d be some handholds. On close inspection, the human fly would have struggled to get a foot off the ground. So I just sat watching, with the momentary distraction of a really dumb stray bird landing on a tree and being snatched up in a tangle of feathers and tentacles. Then, as luck would have it, the louvered steel door to the parking garage under Baz’s house started to roll up. I sauntered across the street at an angle designed not to take me right to it, and had to jump smartly out of the way as a pair of vaguely embarrassed looking demons came buzzing up on vintage Segways. Funny sense of humor, the Fallen. I’d have laughed, except I was busy not being run over, and patting clods of smoldering snow off my pants. Also, these bodyguard demon types tended to be short on humor and long on temper.

A moment later a compact electric sedan came purring out. The windows were reflective, so all I could see was my own anxious pale face staring slackly. I had the first of my only two good idea of the night, right then: I fished one of the little pick-me-ups out a pocket and more of less accurately dropped it under the car via a sly flick of the wrist. They weren’t really meant for that, but some genius in tech had made them magnetic and sticky, and so we once in a while left them on a shipping container we wanted watching, or a vehicle we needed tracking. The actual electronic tracking effect was unreliable in the zone, but I had an idea, assuming it had actually bounced up and stuck, rather than rolling into the gutter. No way to know now, and no time to think about it. Then the car was gone, tailed by another two Hell’s Segwayers. That was surely Baz, and I looked wildly around for a red cab. Nothing. Also, if you were dumb enough to get in one and say “follow that car”, and the car was very obviously the one belonging to one of the head honchos in The Hook, chances are you’d be driven to the docks and the driver would stamp on the gas and thumb the childlocks as he jumped out.

I can’t say why I did what I did next, partly because I did it so badly that I lost consciousness for a second or three and details are foggy. I think I was trying to duck under the descending door like heroes do in the movies. In fact, I slipped on a patch of oil and slammed my head on the concrete ramp, stunning myself and sliding down the slushy slope like a long thin pizza into an oven. When I came to, I was a good ten feet down into the garage, and hurting all over. Slick.

Now I was in, I thought I might as well have a look around. If Baz was gone, maybe he left Winter? Or a clue, ideally a matchbook from a nightclub that would lead me to the truth: I know, I watch too many old movies, but you have to be an optimist, if you seriously work in a little slice of Hell.

I avoided the elevator, and so trudged around the garage until I found the stairs. Nice collection of cars, I must say: a couple of the oil-burners demons like to take out now and again to make a statement, and a dozen really cool Astons and Audis. I admit I might have keyed the side of a few as I walked past, out of sheer jealousy. The stairs were a trial, with my head still thumping, and I made myself stop every minute to listen out for voices. I heard a few muffled conversations: human thralls doing whatever they do there, and the bark of a shrill demonic housekeeper. I ducked past the windows to each floor, heading upwards. Demons might be from the deepest place, but like everyone else who thinks themselves important, they like to live up high. Maybe it reminds them of their pre-Fall days.

The stairs ended about ten stories up, and I paused, damp, sore and wheezing. I opened the door a crack, seeing a tastefully carpeted hall, and listened. Nothing. So, not giving myself time to think too hard, I stepped out, trying to look like I was meant to be there. That’s the thing: cop or not, if I was caught trespassing in the penthouse of one of the major powers, they’d be needing a sieve to catch the pieces of me as I floated down the East River. And that was if I was lucky. I pushed open the first door I came to: clearly Baz’s bedroom. And no, it wasn’t a black velvet rotating bed under a mirror, with exhausted slaves chained to it: it looked pretty much like something from Vogue, assuming the furniture was scaled up by a half. White bedlinen, too. I swear I saw slippers lined up, but now wasn’t the time to go looking for a demon’s Pjs.

Next door was the right one (no locks, I should mention: who’d be stupid enough to trespass in the penthouse of one of Hell’s major stars?), leading into a stunning open space with glass from floor to ceiling overlooking the park. Light on furniture and unlit save the constant flickering red from outside. I took a couple of steps, my fireproof Doc Marten soles making tiny squeaking noises on the polished stone floor. I could see what looked like racks of clothes stood near the front, and shoeboxes. I got about three-quarters of the way there before my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw that off to my right, in a deep alcove, was a colossal throne-like chair. And in the manner of the best fairytales, it was occupied. Baz was sitting in it, staring right at me, a huge well tailored shadow. I froze, very much not reaching for my gun: a big boss like Baz could drop me before I could even touch it. I focused on him, looking for an angle, something I might reply to whatever he was planning to say, in time to save my skin. Nothing. I don’t mean no plans; I mean there was nothing to read, like there was nobody home in that massive body. Not dead, either: dead bodies have traces, lingering thoughts and can be pretty weird. This was like he was made of stone. I did the thing my body wanted me to do least, and walked slowly towards him. His eyes were open, and glistening. But not focusing. With demons you can’t really get fixated on whether they’re breathing or not: sure, they follow some basic laws here on Earth, but they’re pretty much able to bend them, and eating, drinking and breathing all seem optional.

Then it hit me: Baz was there in body but not spirit. He was off possessing some poor schmuck, probably off on the town having awful fun. I left his body well alone and padded over to the clothes rails. First surprise was a small, mostly leather, outfit, with matching little biker boots, nearly racked. Winter: she’d been wearing that in the photo. Aw shit, was he inside Winter’s head? I assumed so, but then saw the second surprise: the other rack, that looked all red (of course) but was actually white. Like, all white, from the shoes to the wide selection of dresses, pants, tops, you name it. With a few empty hangers and one discarded shoe box. I wasn’t about to go double checking label sizes, but a blind man could see they were the same size as the black leather gear. So, unless I’m even dumber than people think, which is kind of impossible, Winter had changed clothes. And there was only one place you would be headed dressed like that, apart from a costume party. The Park. Shit. But she couldn’t be possessed, as the angels would know the second a demon was in their hood, and come down like a ton of vengeful bricks. Yes, bricks. You didn’t hear me swap the b for a p.

Things were starting to get really weird. I had about five seconds to think about that before the door opened and a human flunky stepped in with a clothes steamer in one hand, and about one tenth of a second later, a hefty automatic in the other. He shrieked, loudly.

The homicidal butler was broadcasting his intent loud and clear: he was not about to open fire anywhere near his boss’s vacant body. That gave me a second to scuttle closer to the chair and Baz, while considering my options. Then the door opened behind him and this time a trio of bigger thugs rushed in. One of them was either a World’s Strongest Man hit hard times and just done with a cheap facial peel, or what I term a thug-class demon: all muscle and attitude. Two had stun guns and the demon had hands full of claws like kitchen knives.

The way I saw it, which was through the filter of being in a total panic, was that I could try and shoot my way out or…well, there wasn’t an or. Except, I got a strong bump from the demon that he was about to flank me, to try and get me away from their boss before getting inventive. So I did what I always do: the opposite of what people want. I closed the distance between me and Baz and pulled my gun, pressing the barrel right up under his impressive chin. I didn’t have to say a word: they all did a variety of hand signs along the lines of “calm down” and “we’re stepping back now, we swear!” The biggest one was thinking hard: I could virtually see all his options bubbling to the surface then being discarded. The fact was, if I pulled the trigger and kept pulling, even Baz’s super tough hide wouldn’t save him, and thought he might not be permanently dead, when he came back to possess his own body again he’d be mightily sore and hugely pissed at his lack of a brain and face.

Which kind of left us at an impasse. And one that would at best land me in the biggest political and diplomatic shit-storm imaginable, the type that in the movies landed the hapless cop on traffic duty, and which in this precinct could be a million times less pleasant. I was focused hard on the plans of the demon and my head was aching like it was about to burst: this type of concentration was tough, and I already had a mild concussion. Proactive, Ovid said. Easy for him, sitting having tea in a fancy jeweler’s shop. I imagined him kicking in the door behind the trio, gun blazing. And a second later the window behind me shattered in a billion pieces, and the three goons were blown off their feet by a hail of heavy-caliber slugs. The concussions bounced and echoed off the floor, walls and ceiling and I shot a worried glance at Baz, who was mercifully still out of body.

I turned, stunned, to see Ovid dangling awkwardly from a rope, the kick from his cannon spinning him, cursing. “Did I MAKE you appear?” I said, jaw hanging open, as the big man hammered at his harness and dropped to the floor level, scrabbling for purchase.

”What? Get a grip, Petal,” he grunted. “An Osprey and a handy blizzard to hide it in, that’s what made me appear. On the roof. To rescue your stupid ass once I got the message you were outside the pad of the one of the biggest bastards in this town. Also, what the fuck?”

I nodded to Baz, and had the slight pleasure of seeing Ovid twitch a little. “Don’t shoot!” I shrieked, knowing his intent without reading him. “He’s not in there.”

I’ll give Ovid credit: he just nodded and said: “You got a pressing need to stay?”

The two humans he’d shot with his cannon were not ever getting up again. The demon was stirring and there were loud footsteps in the hall outside. Lots of them. I shook my head.

Ovid stepped back to the shattered window, and I noticed he was still clipped in. “Grab a hold, Petal.”

I don’t like heights so much, but I like being torn apart by a demon’s household goons even less, so I stepped smart and gripped the onto the heavy-duty harness Ovid had on.

“Are we going up to the roof for evac?” I shouted over the howling wind and snow, as Ovid fired a burst over my shoulder that left me partially deaf.

“Evac?” he actually barked out a laugh. “Kid, the only way is down.”

We made it about two thirds of the way, spinning in the blizzard and battering against the glass façade, when a hail of gunfire and a thrown pitchfork (retro gauche, these demons) came our way. I can’t be sure which of them severed the rope, but I can confirm that it was the pitchfork that hit Ovid in the chest. The rest of the way down was fast, and ended painfully.

Now, if I fell two floors onto a concrete sidewalk in the regular world, even one that was under a foot of snow, I’d be dead. Or at least being wheeled around by nurses for a year. But the zones are different. Sure, the demons and angels are pretty much unkillable on their home turf, but us poor schmucks who have the ability to come and go with no ill effects; we’re also a load tougher there. We need to be, or we’d be dead in a minute. So a fall like that, while it hurt a lot, and I was sure my ankle was broken, didn’t finish me off.

I knew from past experience to just keep moving, and most things would mend themselves well enough to make do. I contributed to the mayhem by firing back up towards the window we’d gracelessly exited from, but given the snow was falling thick, fast and glowing, and I’m not a great shot, I probably just grazed some poor non-innocents a few blocks away as the bullets came down again. Ovid, though, he was a worry: the big man wasn’t moving so well, thanks to six feet of dirty steel through his chest and shoulder. He wasn’t saying much, which was nothing new. But when he reached up and broke the shaft clean through, he hissed like a steam kettle, and I saw a gush of dark blood soak his heavy coat front.

“Get me to the park, we can call in a lift from there,” Ovid whispered.

I lifted one arm over my shoulder and heaved. Man, he was heavy, but mix of fear, adrenalin and guilt gave me strength, and the two of us tottered across the street. There was no return fire from the wrecked penthouse, which was good and bad: good in that we were still alive, bad in that it meant there was a legion of wickedness pounding down the stairs after us. Ovid must have been thinking the same, because he roused himself long enough to lob a handful of plum-sized grenades back at the building front. Note: Ovid has very big hands, so I doubled our speed, hoping my ankle and heart could take it.

We’d gotten about 20 yards into the park when there was a flash behind us that was like a supernova through the snowstorm. A muffled bang followed, then silence and we sank to our knees in the smoldering snow. I dug out another flare and hit the tag, hurling it a decent distance away, where it flashed like a second nova. That, and the resulting burst of hi-power comms would hopefully have base divert their nearest asset. If not, then me and Ovid would probably be discovered sometime in spring.

Well, I guess we got lucky, or at least stopped continuing to be quite so unlucky. My walkie-talkie squawked about two minutes later, and the Osprey thumped down clumsily in a glowing snowdrift 30 yards away. If I’d been the religious type—religious apart from obviously believing in Heaven and Hell because, you know, I worked there, I mean—I’d have said the big ugly shape was our guardian angel. But then angels were assholes and didn’t look out for anyone. I can’t say for sure how I hefted Ovid and got him there. I do know that left a long black trail in the snow, along the way. A crewman I recognized from earlier blanched but hauled him aboard, then reached down to help me. I paused, then shook my head. By my reckoning I had a lot of making up to do, and quitting now wasn’t about to help. I waved him away, shouting: “Do me a favor! When you get enough height, send out a pulse to all the active flares, would you? And if you see anything, radio me!”

As they lifted off, I could hear shouts from back towards Baz’s place. I turned to limp off through the park, and saw a glinting red spark in the snow. I mean REALLY red. Hellstone red. I looked closer and there were a few scattered around. I guess Ovid must have solved his case, stowed the evidence on his person and dropped them when he was hauled aboard the ride out. Hellstones are incredibly precious and also insanely dangerous: supposedly they’re made from the crushed essence of a dead demon. Sounds BS, but whatever, they glow with a cold fire that’s red even by The Hook’s standards, and swap hands for millions each in the real world. There are whispers that in The Hook, and back in actual Hell, they can be used to imprison demons and humans. Can’t say I’d ever seen one up close before, but reckoned Ovid might need them for the court case, so I grabbed up a gold chain inset with them, plus a few loose stones, then skedaddled.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone take a stroll in Coffey Park unless they’re armed and smart, and wearing thick boots, but really, with the trees and grass blanketed in smoldering snow, it was kind of pretty. I always had a good sense of direction, and trusted the blinding snow to fill my tracks, so just waded on towards the opposite side. I passed the big spherical wrought-iron sundial, so knew I was getting there. As usual, some poor sod was inside it, shrieking and burning, so I put my head down and tried to look inconspicuous, as he/she/it would tell tales if it meant a chance of release.

I needed time to think, but didn’t get it. The walkie-talkie buzzed and I thumbed it on. It wasn’t Ovid, but sounded like a crewman: “Got a flash, over on Bowne. Empty lot by the old tunnel entrance. Ovid says you’re a prick, and be ‘proactive’.”

Then there was just noise. Again, with the ‘proactive’ shit, as if I was just some self-pitying slacker who thought life owed me…I dropped that line of thought fast. Bowne Street was just a few blocks away, so I sped up and thought hard. The Hugh L Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, for those who care) used to go from Red Hook to Manhattan, passing right by and under Governor’s Island. When the respective demonic and angelic forces had retreated to their own camps, the tunnel was a flashpoint, and a pitched battle was fought through it’s grimy 9,000-foot length. Nasty stuff, by all accounts: word is that Ember fought there, once the U.S. Army got involved to try and force a peace. Whatever, there were some almighty explosions of Heavenly and Hellish ordnance down there, and the tunnel was flooded and then blocked at both ends. Now, The Hook’s border ran just the other side of the shattered highways that dipped towards the old entrance. Well, call me Sherlock, but if there’s a ‘impassible’ tunnel, and the villain and the damsel in distress are headed there, then clearly it is not in fact blocked. Easy! I might as well have called the case in then, passed it off to the big boys. But (a) they’d have laughed me out of the force, and (b) it was my fault Ovid was a 300-lb shish kebab, and I needed to at least show him I could do something right. Right? Right. There was also a (c), whereby I had no wish to try and account for my involvement in a gunfight in the penthouse of one of The Hook’s most important shits.

I shuffled along through the revelers, until the streets got darker and less busy. Bowne was the last stretch, a few low-rent bars and clubs catering to entertainments that were sketchy even by The Hook’s standards, then the old Brooklyn Motor Inn (now a casino where the stakes are easy: your soul. Seriously, it’s all drawn up in a contract and everything. And a real pain in the ass for us: the newly damned are really really stupid and think they’re immortal. A swift punch on the head usually clears that up) to my left, and down over the railings, the flooded entrance to the tunnel. Deep, dark, roiling red water, rather than the typical deep dark smelly East River. I once saw a two-bit Hook-born hitman try to swim it to get away from us. Officially, he drowned, but I saw teeth in the water, and won’t forget that in a while. On the other side, a raggedy section of fence, glowing hot, then a wide stretch of wasteland.

Half a block away, barely visible through the snow, I could see a guttering pink glow: the last of the flare, I was pretty sure, so I angled to pass rather than right at it. I was kind of surprised that my idea had worked at all: then as I got closer, kind of alarmed at how well it had worked. A smoldering chauffeur and four pissed-looking Hell’s Segwayers were standing around the burned out remains of Baz’s sleek electric car. Oops. I had a moment of sheer panic that Winter had been inside, but their body language was more irritated than anything else, and I was guessing that if they’d let their boss’s (possible) host broil, they’d be a lot more agitated. And I’d have been as well just walking right into the red water.

I fixed my attention on the driver, and tried to ignore my sore head. He was about to tell one of the heavies to “get in there and try and find them,” along with a nod of his head, but then dismissed that in favor of “Ok, get back to the base as planned. We’re not needed here anyway.” I of course couldn’t hear the actual words over the noise of the wind, The Hook and my crunching footsteps, but all five of them turned and headed back towards me, the Segway boys having to drag their comic vehicles through the snow.

I kept my head down and crunched on, and sensed one fleeting half-thought to challenge me, then just determination to get back to Baz’s place. I almost sniggered at what they’d find there, then remembered I was hurt, hungry, wet and singed, and chasing a missing person who might well be possessed by one of the original Fallen himself.

I was out of ideas, except the vague “get in there” the driver had thought. In where? He’d nodded his head, or planned to, but to where? He was going to nod diagonally to his right…but where was that in relation to me? I still had the mental picture—these things take a while to fade, so just needed to calculate where HE was facing, and where that might have sent his flunkey. Now my head really hurt. I changed course and walked to the smoldering car, not getting too close but placing myself where the driver had been.

His nod would have been towards through the driving smoky flakes, the ten-storey block of the old tunnel ventilation shaft. I’d never been there, but knew that in the early days, army snipers had been perched on top with orders to bring down anything with wings that tried to enter or leave The Hook or The Park across the water. Now it was right on the border and in theory, locked up secure. I sighed and trudged towards it.

In the movies, you always cut to a scene where the hero is inside wherever he planned to be. The usual little things are never a bother. Well, movies suck. Twenty minutes later, in equal parts numb and sooty, I’d found the doorway after ripping my pants on a jagged fence and falling in a pothole that busted my partially healed ankle again. There was the chunky officially sealed lock, guaranteed proof against any tampering. Which fell into the snow in pieces when I nudged it with my gloved hand. Nice. I pushed the door open, with a creak that totally gave my position away to anyone inside. Can’t say that’s not proactive, Ovid. Inside was a mess of things that I wasn’t about to shine my flashlight onto: decades of debris and illegal occupation at some stage. Also, there had been pigeons. Now, if you think the old pre-War pigeons were bad, you haven’t seen the ones that live in The Hook now. Pigeons from Hell, to steal Robert E. Howard’s line. They were big, mean, smelly and could shit their own bodyweight in a day. Acidic. I stepped carefully.

After another ten minutes’ sliding around cursing I found the staircase down. Old, rusted, slippy, and spiral. I’d say I took a deep breath and descended, but in truth I was trying to breathe only through my mouth because of the smell, so off I went, gasping. It was a long way down, and I fell on my ass twice. Finally, I stumbled out into a tunnel. A huge tunnel, that was most definitely not flooded. There were even lights, here and there. To one side, where the Red Hook exit would have been, a solid metal wall, rusted and glistening wet. In the other direction, a nightmare tangle of burned out cars and truck skeletons resting in a couple of feet of stagnant black water. Also, bones. Seared, twisted, big bones. Not human, either. This was where they slugged it out at the end, using angelfire and brimstone. That melts human corpses, but angel and demon bones are made of something else entirely. I heard that materials science came on by about a century overnight, after some engineers got hold of a few remains. I also heard that the angels and demons take a very dim view of humans who trade in their bones. So here I was looking out over a sea of priceless skeletons, none of which I would touch with a bargepole.

Lucky for me, the tunnel had a narrow walkway along one side, raised up above the ancient channel. I wasn’t so sure I even wanted to be bumping into Winter down here, assuming she had Baz on board. But that was the thing: no demon could get into Battery Park, in any shape or form. I had about 9,000 feet of thinking time ahead of me.

I’d like to say I had a great idea along the way, but all I did was limp along for what seemed an eternity, trying not to look too closely at the highway full of melted bones. The occasional lights had started off red, but the further away from The Hook I trudged, the more they started to turn yellowish. A door partway along was, I thought, the bottom of the ventilation tower that sat off Governor’s Island. I had a moment of thinking I’d climb up, but then reckoned I still hadn’t in any way redeemed myself, so was better off underground. Anyway, I was genuinely curious now. As a precaution I slipped my gun’s Hook clip into a pocket and replaced it with the angel-themed one. But much like The Hook, if you got to the point in The Park that you were seriously thinking of shooting one of the supernaturals, your goose was already pretty well cooked.

My best guess, which was a pretty poor one, was that whoever Baz was off gallivanting around in, it wasn’t Winter. Why? Because, logic. I know most physical laws only passingly apply to angels and demons, but a few are cast iron. Travel, for one: you do get approved and licensed travelers from both the zones, but the further they go from concentrations of their own kind, they weaker they become. When the gates to Heaven and Hell opened in the War, it was open season, and there were scores of hellish and heavenly hotspots around the globe. I’ve even been to a couple, and let me tell you, the angels and demons our religions cooked up are way less inventive than the ones some countries managed. I’m in no rush to get back to New Delhi. When the gates shut again without warning, these zones mostly evaporated or shrank. Also, few recovering countries really wanted powerful immortal beings fluttering around freely, not after the damage done, and so various religions’ own secret orders were dusted off and became monitors. Basically, most every angel and demon outside their home turfs was tracked and followed. And those possessing mortals for a joyride were sure to be caught sooner rather than later, because they gave off a signature that was visible for miles around, to those who could see it. And since the War, there were a load more humans who could see this shit.

And don’t get me started on the Moonflowers. That’s a whole other podcast. But I guess there’s some misinformation I need to clear up. First, the whole Moonflower thing is not cool. Moonflowers aren’t like those sparkle-vampires from the old movies or the demi-gods from the modern entertaincasts. They aren’t the X-Men. They’re just poor schmucks who had the bad luck to be born or conceived (or both) close to where a hellish and heavenly zone overlap. Not IN the zones—these saps have no special abilities at all, other than to be able to live there. But there’s something about the ebb and flow of the conflicting energies (do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Because I don’t) that makes special babies. Oh, and by special I mean 99.999 per cent are screaming short-lived monsters. And most of the others are mad as a brush. But some, once in a few hundred thousand, have a little something. And that’s that. It’s a curse. And don’t be going and assuming that’s me outing myself as a Moonflower. I’m not. Not really.

So anyway, where did that leave Winter? Baz’s driver had dropped her off, with the sure knowledge she was headed over to The Park, assuming her costume was the clue here. Maybe Baz WAS along for the ride but bailed out somewhere down here? Right now he’d be coming to and wondering why his room was all shot up and his servants dead.

So, Winter had an appointment in The Park. I should have done some research on her, as I was beginning to think I was missing something huge. I resolved that assuming I came up in lil’-heaven in one piece, I’d try and find Jinx and Jane Doe, who might have some insight. Not that I wanted to go asking them, but beggars and choosers and all that.

Finally, weary and sore and wanting nothing but my bed, I reached a rusty steel wall much like the one at the opposite end. The big difference was there was a wide concrete platform in front, lit by bright clear bulbs, and showing signs of recent activity, judging by how clean it was. Someone had hacked a hole in the tunnel wall, about eight feet in diameter and lined well, if not neatly, with concrete. I peered in, expecting another tough climb on shaky rungs, but realized it was an elevator shaft. I’ve always been the kid who pressed the button without thinking about it, and this was no exception. There was a clank, a distant electric whine and a few seconds a stout steel elevator cage appeared. No drama, which is how I like things. 30 seconds after that, I was stepping off onto a rough concrete shelf that sloped up into the gloom. I shrugged, adjusted my stained and torn parka as best I could, wiped some blood and grit off my soaked pants and squared my none-too-impressive shoulders.

It doesn’t do to be easily surprised in my line of work: once you’ve seen demons and angels in a bar-fight (ok, separate bar fights, but it’s fine to exaggerate a little) you tend to take most things in your stride. But still, coming up through the floor in the back room of a chi-chi diner full of angels was not what I’d expected. It wasn’t what the human cooks in the back had expected, either, but I wasn’t in The Hook any more, so rather than immediate assault, there was lots of whispering. I skedaddled out the front, past a dozen tutting angels, and was suddenly in the clean fresh air. And it is clean and fresh, mark my words. For all The Hook’s toxic smog doesn’t really affect me, it still stinks. And over here in The Park, the air smells like everything you ever wanted air to smell like, which is really not much at all. It was dark and snowing here, too: the angels like to observe the seasons, but the snow was gentle, white and clean. It didn’t even melt and slide down your neck. Streetlights were all giving off a pure white glow, too, and really, the mix of old buildings scattered through the park made for the prefect Christmas card.

Except for me: a shambling, battered and filthy blot on the landscape, like the result of one of those smart-ass cartoonists that draw robots on Turner paintings. Even at this hour the Park was busy, but thanks to careful and expensive permitting, a rota and queue system that would make Disney World weep with envy, and some very heavy handed optical effects, it looked just about the perfect amount of busy. There were a few animals gamboling in the snow, too: a bear cub or two, and I swear, a panda that was sliding down a little hill on its fat ass, to the delight of a couple of rich tourists. Angels were wandering, too: some arm in arm with paying guests, a few casually keeping an eye on stuff, and giving me looks that were a step down from disdainful. That’s the thing about angels: no matter their type (they go from the ambling cheery human-like ones to the twice-life-sized winged warrior angels, and a lot of variants in between) they all look a little like you’re just shit on their shoes. Well, they do to me, anyways: they seem to be adored by the humans who paid to come in here and get rested, young and healthy again. Did I mention the Spa day-rates here? They start at $100k and go up fast. Fat old shits go in and thin young shits come out. And the angels get rich. Except, it isn’t that simple, because there are clauses connected with entry to this peculiar little slice o’ heaven, and one of them is that if the angels find you wanting, morally, then you are subject to their judgment. That doesn’t seem to mean much, most of the time: I’ve seen more than a few seemingly corrupt politicos come and avail themselves of the facilities. But once in a while, one will just vanish, and that’s that. And sometimes, Gabe or one of the other boss angels will descend on the Spa in a righteous anger and drive out all the rich fatties, to usher in a legion of raggedy sick poor people from outside the Wall. Next day, it’s back to business as usual. I swear, I sometimes think I understand the devils better than the angels.

Right now, though, I was sure I understood just about nothing at all. Winter had surely come up in the diner in the park, but then what? If she’d been possessed, there’d have been wrathful angels all over the place. And if not, then she’d either been snatched by the angel security or had some right to be there, in which case I might never find her.

Dispirited, I wandered towards the Wall. Now, visitors to the Park don’t see the wall, as such. It just (I’m told) kinda blends into the heavenly vista. Us freaks, though, we aren’t fooled by these tricks, and to me, it was an incongruous 100-foot-tall elegantly contoured concrete cliff rising smoothly up along the edge of what had been the promenade. The main sea gate was just ahead, so I headed there, from want of any better ideas.

The gate was wedged open by a shipping container that had been dropped from a dockside crane, and what with the cluster of armed angels, a knot of bloodied or prone humans dressed in black, and a surging mob on the other side, it was my kind of scene. What made it even more entertaining was the sight of a diminutive and clearly livid Jinx standing atop the container with a bullhorn, shouting. Jane Doe was standing off to one side, being yelled at by Gabe. I wasn’t about to get too close: Gabe was old-school, and has a temper. But he’s an angel, I hear you say? Well, yes, but he’s a righteous warrior angel, and an asshole. Also he’s ten feet tall and has wings wider than a basketball court, and a flaming sword. Also an eye-patch, which made his remaining beautiful eye look even more scary. An eye-patch, yup, that’s what I said. In the battle of New Jersey, it’s said Gabe stood off a demonic horde solo, and lost an eye in the process of slaying their leader, Semyaza. Why he didn’t just regrow it is anyone’s guess. People tend not to ask.

Right now, Gabe was shouting. And Gabe shouts like Morgan Freeman sounds in old movies, but 100 times louder. Come to think of it, Gabe looks a lot like a young beefed-up Morgan Freeman. Jane Doe was just staring at him, blank-faced, which was Doe’s thing: even the angriest of people tend to eventually run out of steam when faced with that impassive attention. Gabe’s terrible flaming sword was out of  its man-high scabbard, which was bad, but pointed down at the ground, which was less bad. And not in full-flame hewing mode, so much as just the pilot light on. He was chewing Doe out.

He knew it wasn’t our fault that the Satanists tried to break in (again), but judging by the scattered body parts, he’d lost his rag and was trying to blame someone. I saw Doe nod, and point to me. That was one of her skills: she knew you were there without looking. I didn’t try and get a reading off either of them at this range, and anyway, the body language was clear: Doe was doing a version of the “and here’s one of our men now: he has a lead…” And Gabe was settling down a little. Lucky for me he didn’t summon me: Doe can lie to the best and worst of them, but a boss angel like Gabe would see right through yours truly. For the briefest of seconds I considered going over and blurting out all I knew about the tunnel, but then wisely shut my mouth: for all I knew, Gabe was in on whatever racket the tunnel was part of.

He turned his majestic back on Doe, and she impassively shrugged and loped towards me, a lanky figure in mismatched tactical fatigues from our endless stock of surplus.

“You look like I feel,” she muttered.

“I feel worse than I look,” I replied.

She raised an eyebrow dispassionately and gestured behind her. “Hope you’re having a more successful night than we are, though we got a message that Ovid is in the infirmary and you’re MIA.”

She paused for effect and added: “How did you get from The Hook to here?”

“Long story,” I said wearily. “But that missing person? I think she’s here…” I fished out the crumpled and stained photo and passed it over. Doe took it with a look of distaste.

“Sure, I know her. Some bigwig’s kid. She’s a regular fixture at the Forum, one of Han’s protégés…she’s very intense, big into the Homelands movement. Didn’t know she slummed it in The Hook.”

I groaned inside, and also outside. The Homelands fanatics were bad news. It boiled down to the simple enough idea that all the remnants of the Heavenly and Hellish forces on Earth could be corralled into one handy place. And then be given complete freedom in that place. Simple, huh? Except there was a real shortage of countries willing to step up and offer to evacuate for this to happen. Particularly those small-to-medium-sized islands with nice climates. The scheme was backed by a small but vocal element among the demon and angel communities, who were very much of the opinion that they should just take the territory and settle the legalities later. Well, that explained Winter’s connections with Baz and Han, but it was the first I’d heard of either name being in the Homelands camp. Baz did very well running most of the rackets in The Hook, and Han was about as high an angel as you could find: these sorts tended to not even acknowledge that they were on Earth, let alone plan real-estate deals. In a way I was happy enough: if this was political I just needed to track Winter down, give her a metaphorical slap on the wrist and deliver her to daddy. Then I could punt it all upstairs, let the Captain and his bosses decide what to do with it all.

“Ok, thanks,” I said with a little genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll head up to the Forum now.”

“Hold on,” Doe said with what might have been mild amusement in her voice, “Jinx wants to say hullo.”

I turned with heavy heart: sure enough, the tiny angry figure atop the container had spotted me. In typical enough Jinx fashion she shouted “Hey, asshole! You still alive? We hoped you’d gotten a pitchfork up your skinny ass!” What she forgot to do was lower the bullhorn, so she shouted this at about a thousand times the volume she intended, and everything went quiet. The angels frowned on profanity, especially involving their demonic foes. I saw Gabe turn and stride toward Jinx, who simultaneously shrank into herself and somehow puffed up with defiance.

“She’s going to need that luck,” I said under my breath, waving cheerfully at the mortified furious figure atop the container.

“I think I’ll wait over here for a bit,” Doe said causally. “Don’t get yourself killed on account of a rich kid, Petal.”

The Forum was in what had been the Stock Exchange building in Downtown Manhattan. The Park’s border took in Wall Street, across to Rector, jinking back and forth, the wall maintaining its height as it sliced into buildings and across junctions. Bankers were dislodged to make way for wankers, I heard Ovid say once, and I’d claimed the line as mine when he wasn’t around. The angels had done a bit of landscaping and shown the same love of soaring modern design that some demons had (this was not something they liked pointed out), so some of the more boring office blocks had been replaced by lovely white arching spires. A steady stream of politicians and spiritual leaders came and went.

They’d cleared out the junk on the actual main floor, needless to say, and it was now a very airy pleasant place to spend way too much time arguing about any old nonsense. Mostly it was angels, as their custom of all speaking loudly at the same time without stopping tended to confuse mortals. But a few die-hard agitators and angel-fanatics were always in evidence. This winter’s night the building was all dark, and snow was building up in (aesthetically pleasing) drifts in front of the doors. I stood there for a minute, just soaking up the healing air, and girding my loins for a visit to Han’s pad, when I heard a sound from inside. A voice, agitated, then another much deeper one. I sighed, and with a mental shrug, went in as quietly as I could.

“It hurts!” the first voice, echoing off the polished stone walls and floor. I couldn’t see anything yet: the faint heavenly glow that permeated angel territory was low-key and even my eyes took took time to adjust. I’d remembered that there was a balcony level, and padded up the stairs and crept forward to a doorway that would give me a view of the proceedings. That voice was a young woman’s: educated, indignant and distressed.

“You have to give it time,” a deeper resonant voice protested, without much conviction. “We knew it would be a difficult adjustment.”

“She’s right,” a new voice, harsh and angry, chimed in, “we cannot control this!”

“You have to leave!” the woman’s voice, Winter, I was sure, high and panicked. “I’m losing my mind!”

“We can’t just leave!” the deep voice, “you know what was involved, and what will happen here!”

“We need time!” the angry voice, “I cannot be cast out in this place!”

“Please!” Winter’s anguished wail hurt my head.

Now, I’m no hero, but nor am I a coward, and for reasons I am not about to get into here, I have zero tolerance for folks of any nature who mistreat kids. So, in typical fashion, with no plan, I stood up and shouted down at the group: “Police! That’s enough! Nobody move!”

Except the pearlescent light showed just one person standing in the middle of the room. Winter. She turned to look up at me, hope on her face, and blurted out: “Make them leave!”

A split second later her face twisted into a haughty anger, and the harsh voice came out her mouth: “Who invited this feeble excuse for a human?”

Before the words had even finished echoing off the walls, Winter’s face became calm and serene, and the resonant voice spoke: “You need to leave, mortal!”

Like I said, it doesn’t do to be easily surprised in my job. But I was pretty flabbergasted by this: unless I was mistaken, I was looking at the impossible: a double possession. Baz and Han were inside Winter’s body, alongside a conscious Winter, which was another oddity: possessions are pretty much meant for one entity to be in the driving seat. When it’s a demon, the original inhabitant is crammed away in a distance corner, bound and impotent. The angels pretend it’s more collaborative, but that’s a fiction: while they kinder to the host bodies, they don’t play well with others.

I tried to get a read on them, but it was like looking into the end of a fire hose and then turning the water on. The three of them were fighting to say something. I snapped out of it and opted for the old fashioned way: bluster.

“Unless someone tells me the what’s going on,” I yelled, “I’ll call in the cavalry. And you three can explain to your bosses and mine!”

That did it. Winter slumped a bit, the anger gone, just pain left. Which was a bit of a relief: I’d worried that Baz or Han might take the helm and leap up here and tear my head off: the host body gained some measure of the possessor’s powers, and I was shouting at two entities who probably hadn’t heard a voice raised against them in centuries.

“Who are you?” Winter asked plaintively.

“He’s nobody,” Baz replied, “a cop who shouldn’t have gotten nosy.”

“Winter is right,” Han chimed in. “This is not stable, and my own security forces will very soon sense what is going on.”

Tumblers clicked into place in my head, and I felt a weight lift. “I know what’s going on, and I can’t think of a good reason not to call the authorities, see what they think of your plans for a revolution.”

I saw surprise on Winter’s face, and indulged myself in a little gloat: “You think you’re so smart nobody can work this out? With both of you in there, you thought you could roam the world unseen, making your Homeland plan happen. Probably about to fly off and buy Madagascar, or New Zealand!”

I could see the medals coming my way now, and the newscast headlines. Heroic and Under-appreciated Cop Saves The World.

Then Winter laughed. So did Baz and Han. Not in recognition of my cleverness, either, but at me.

“How did this chump even find us?” Baz spat.

“I know of this one,” said Han speculatively, looking up at me. “He isn’t too bright, obviously, but he has a shred of talent that we are watching with some very minor interest. They call him Petal.”

“Hey, I’m maybe not the smartest,” I said, “but I’m not the one stuck in a double possession in the middle of the night.”

Han nodded: “Impudent, but fair. It’s not about the Homelands. ‘Baz’ and I go back a long way, to before the Fall. We were, then, friends, if you can believe it. And since things here on Earth took the turn they did, we have established contact again.”

“For what? To unite Heaven and Hell’s forces on Earth?”

Baz snorted with laughter again. “You watch too many movies, asshole! We…”

Han cut in: “No cursing!”

“Sorry,” Baz harrumphed and went on: “Screw…sorry…forget about those grand ideas, Petal. Do you think we like being stranded in tiny miserable enclaves on this ball of dirt? We used to roam the universe!”

“What he means,” Han said, “ is that we are trapped here in these pathetic little zoos of our own making. We wanted to be free, for a while, or at least as free as one can be on this dreary plane.”

Finally I thought I might have something right: “And you can’t do that in a single possession, because it’s too easily detected.”

Baz/Winter gave me a slow handclap. “You might some day even solve a case, Petal. Yes, all we wanted was to be free for a short time.”

“Like a vacation?”

“Nothing like your pathetic notions of holidaying, you jumped-up ape!” Baz raged.

“Steady, now…. This one is just needling you,” Han said calmly.

Winter herself stirred and took the driving seat: “And I wanted to help,” she said in a small voice. “So I accommodated Baz first, then Han at the end of the tunnel, right before we came up in here. It needed balance, for it to be undetectable.”

“Except it’s not working,” I chipped in. “Is it?”

A shake of the head. “It’s not stable. If they stay in me, I’ll lose my mind.”

“And I can’t leave from here,” Baz grunted. “This body needs to be somewhere neutral for us to withdraw to our own bodies.

“I sense my kind are aware of an imbalance,” Han said. “Time is short. We need to get back to neutral ground.”

“You need to get out of my head now!” Winter said, hysteria in her voice.

“She’s right,” Han said. “If she loses her mind, Baz, we are cast loose. There is no guarantee we would find our way back to our physical forms.”

They all looked up at me with Winter’s beautiful tear-stained face. I shuffled uncomfortably, hands stuffed in pockets as I wracked my tired brain. I could call in a ride, but it would take time and angel security would be all over us when we tried to get aboard. Then I had my second good idea of the night. Well ok, it was more chance than actually anything I thought of, but still, I’ll take credit. My fingers brushed against the hellstones I’d grabbed from the snow. I extended my hand, the chain with the inset red gems in my palm, and the scarlet light lit up the hall.

There was a moment of silence.

“We will be at this wretch’s mercy if we go into those!” Baz shouted. “What if he never releases us?”

“Whatever his limitations, and there are many,” he is not dishonest,” Han said. “And it would allow us to go unnoticed.”

“So long as Winter keeps us close,” Baz said grudgingly. “But these are dangerous: we might not ever be able to totally extricate ourselves!”

“I think I hear the flap of feathery wings,” I said as casually as I could. “Don’t take too long to decide.”

My brilliant plan worked about as long as it took to get out the front door of the grand old building. I’d reluctantly gone down to the main floor and handed the necklace over. Winter had slipped it over her head and then breathed deeply when the gems touched her skin. She smiled in relief.

“I can still feel them,” she explained, “they’re still in my head,” but only part of them. Now where?”

“Back to the tunnel,” I said. “We just need to look like we’re out for a stroll. And keep that necklace inside your tunic!”

Except that there was an angel security patrol coming in as we came out. Not angels themselves, thankfully, but three Parkborn humans in white body armor with stun guns.

“They’re in there!” I gasped, “they attacked us!”

The leader stared at me, then looked at Winter, and his face softened when she nodded and tears flowed. They bustled in, all heroic, leaving us standing in the snow, astonished. We ran for it, which is a sight easier in angelic snow than Hook snow, or even regular snow.

We put a block between us then slowed to a deliberate casual walk, as more patrols rushed past. With the big bosses mostly secured in the gems, Winter was presumably giving off a regular human scent. But it was only a matter of time before they realized they’d been duped somehow, and recalled a shabby young man and a crying visitor.

We hit the edge of the park, and I considered just heading right out the gate, but in the time I’d been gone the container had been lifted away and the massive doors closed. A cleanup crew was hosing and vacuuming the grass where the dissected Satanists had been. The diner it was: we strolled in and I made a show of looking for someone, bypassing the mildly curious customers: they tended to look at me, get suspicious but take me for a cop, or some other tainted official from outside, then saw Winter and nodded in recognition. Clearly there was a whole upper-class social network going on here.

“Through the back,” I whispered, and pushed the swinging doors open, walking right into the broad chest of a waiting warrior angel. Shit.

He/she was as surprised as I was, I think. But you tend to recover faster when you’re an immortal with the strength of ten men. I looked sideways at Winter, desperately hoping Han might pop up and bluster his way past, but he and Baz were lying low. Made sense, as there was no reasonable explanation for either one of them to be inside Winter’s head.

I was out of ideas. Again. Except ‘be proactive’. Ovid’s annoying and vague advice, that kept popping up to taunt me. It wouldn’t do me any good to know what the angel was about to do: he/she was clearly about to grab me, and strong though I am, that’s not a grip a mortal can break. Nor did I have the reflexes to get my gun out, even if I was minded to try and shoot an angel here on its home turf.

Proactive. Like, how? I focused, aware I had a sliver of time in which to come up with something. He/she was indeed thinking of just grabbing me and holding on, then doing the same for Winter. Simple, and flawless. I saw his/her plan, centered on me just standing there like I was now, open mouthed. Desperation gave me a dumb idea. What if for once I wasn’t about to just stand there like a chump? I tensed to jump back. And I saw his/her next three seconds change: a missed grab and then a longer lunge that nailed me. I changed my mind, to leap at him/her and I saw the future change: a moment of imbalance. I was out of time, so I jumped, and those big arms went over my head and I slammed into his/her chest, sending us both to the floor in the cramped kitchen. My head was sore, and I saw the next move: me being pinned to the tiles and pounded some. I changed tack, and planned to hit the angel in the face. My future changed, the punch doing little and the return blow breaking my jaw. I thought of the least tactically useful move: jumping to my feet. That would surprise the angel, and buy me a moment.

So I did it. From there, through a blinding headache, I ran through a dozen moves, most ending in my being knocked down, or out, or killed. One, the most stupid, and complex, had a future that didn’t end in me being dragged away, and so that’s what I did: I scrambled over a table and threw a tray of utensils at the angel. To an observer the next 20 seconds might even have looked slick: to me it was a series of clumsy and unlikely actions, each separated by a frenzy of options and decisions. I swept a pan of water off the nearest stove, drenching the angel, then started to leap over him/her before abruptly stopping and kicking him/her in the head. I ducked and feinted and fell and spun like a madman, taking a kick to the shin that broke a bone, and a punch in the eye that drew a lot of blood. But I landed a score of punches and blows with fists, cookware and even a poke in the eye with a forefinger. In the end, it was Winter who saved the day: the winning option was where I allowed the furious angel to backhand me across the face and in doing so turn his/her back on Winter, who had been discounted from the fight on account of her appearance. She did as I knew she would, and picked up a heavy skillet and hit the angel across the back of the head with it in a double-handed swing. Now, remember what I said about a host having some of their possessor’s powers? Well, Winter was clearly still channeling Han or more likely Baz, and hit that angel on the back of the head so hard the thick steel bent, like in the cartoons. He/she went down silently.

That was the end of that. We hauled up the trapdoor and slithered down into the dark. I think I remember making it to the top of the elevator when the shock of my injuries and the blinding headache got the better of me. I remember saying “Do I have a nosebleed?” and Winter looking at me oddly, and replying “there’s so much other blood I really can’t tell.” From the feeling in my head, a lot more than blood was leaking from my nose. I can honestly say I’ve never felt pain like it, as if someone had hinged up the top of my skull and was rooting around inside with a hot rusty fork. But worse. If there was a positive, it was that it made all my other injuries hurt less by comparison.

After that it was all a blur: a very long agonizing hobble along the edge of the tunnel, and me rabbiting on about the exit that would take us up to Governor’s Island, if it wasn’t sealed off. Then I blacked out. In the movies, that’s a smooth transition to a scene where we rejoin the hero in a crisp hospital bed and the credits run. For me, it was a segue to being prodded awake by Winter, who was yelling that I was too heavy to carry, and could I please wake the hell up and climb myself. When finally we got to the top, the door of the abandoned tower was locked, and so my last coherent act was to shoot at it. It made a load of noise, and fell off, and we stumbled out into the good honest regular snow coating the little pier that led to the island. Then I passed out properly as Winter cradled my head on her lap. Actually that last was a lie: she just let me fall over in the snow, and the last thing I heard was her bleating about being cold.

◊ ◊ ◊

“So just to be clear—and feel free to not interrupt until I’m done—you invaded the home of one of The Hook’s senior hellish dignitaries, shot the place up, got a woefully misguided fellow officer grievously wounded, blew up a car, sneaked into The Park through a tunnel that doesn’t exist, aided a possessed human and her unidentified demonic and heavenly passengers to escape justice, knocked a warrior angel unconscious and then somehow brought the aforementioned human here to the Island, where you offered her sanctuary, bringing down on my head the wrath of senior officials from both camps, plus a livid ambassador and a host of official complaints? You will note that that question mark at the end of my long sentence there is not actually a question, Petal.”

I could tell the Captain was pissed by the way he spoke even more slowly and deliberately than usual. I’d not actually been in his private office before: it was very nicely appointed, and in a beautifully refurbished mansion in the nicest part of the island. I was still on crutches, but we heal fast, us freaks, and soon I’d be able to see out of both eyes again. Ovid was sitting stiffly on a couch, a huge plaster cast covering his chest and shoulder, and Ember was standing on a fireproof mat, smoldering furiously. Outside, it was a nice night, really, clear and crisp with the snow sparkling where it lay. It was a welcome change from the hospital.

“Yes?” I ventured carefully. I’d had a nice view of the landing pads from my hospital bed, and had seen Baz and Han touch down and carefully ignore each other. Winter had visited me once, trailed by a couple of stern-faced Invigilators. She’d stared me in my good eye as she said that neither she nor the Invigilators knew who’d possessed her, or how she came to be where she was. Also, that it was too dangerous to remove the hellstone necklace she wore in order to find out. “There’s tiny traces of them inside, so I’m told,” she had said with a straight face. But no-one knows what or who they are.” She hadn’t asked how I was feeling.

Ovid had come to see me, too, grunting when I asked how he was, and unexpectedly slapping me on the shoulder and laughing at me. Then he left, without having spoken.

“Yes,” the Captain said. “Really, I have had the most interesting week. And it’s not every week we gain a reluctant and loudly entitled recruit whose family connections are so prestigious, and who comes with a piece of jewelry with supernatural occupants. I’d make her your junior partner to teach you a lesson, but you’re so junior it is not technically possible to have someone lower down the ladder than you.”

The Captain sighed: “So what do you think happens next, Petal?”

“We all laugh and the end credits roll?” I suggested hopefully.

“More like you get busted to traffic in The Hook,” he replied.

“We don’t have traffic patrols, chief,” I pointed out. “There are no driving rules there.”

“Well, I think you’re the man to change that as soon as you’re mended. Such as, in two days’ time,” he said brightly.

I turned to hobble out, and paused, because I knew what he was about to say: “One thing, Petal: how DID you manage to best an angel warrior. So far as I know, it used to take a whole squad to manage such a thing. A squad with heavy caliber weapons.”

Ovid grunted agreement.

I thought before answering. “I was proactive,” I said. “Sir.”

As I shuffled away, I heard Ovid grunt in laughter.

I paused on the porch, the sky to my right was white, to my left, red. Overhead, it was a rosy pink. “Best of both worlds,” I muttered to myself, enjoying the moment. Then Jinx rounded the corner, caught sight of me and grinned. I sighed, focused, and I saw lots of possibilities for the next three seconds. My head hurt.

—«»-«»-«»—

The Graveyard of Ships

by Deborah L. Davit

A thousand civilizations had used the gate system; none of them knew who had built the gates that spanned the stars. In ten thousand languages, the children of the galaxy spoke of the Builders, the Ancients, Those-who-went-before, the Sowers—all names for beings who had likely died out millions of years ago. Those who used the gates to hop from star system to star system, bypassing the usual laws of physics, understood the nexus gates dimly; they understood that each gate opened a wormhole, using dark energy to fuel a fold in space-time that caught up a ship, and transferred it elsewhere, in the time between seconds. The gates usually hovered in space in zones free from planets, presumably to prevent damage to their surfaces. All that a ship needed, really, was the map each gate provided, with coordinates of the ten nearest other gates in space, and their designations. Transmit a designation code by standard RF, and a wormhole would open unidirectionally and stay that way for about five minutes.

No tolls of energy or cargo; the Builders seemed to have created the system for public, free access. Some people among the billions who had used the gates over the millennia wondered how there could be no price attached. But those voices—when they were voices, anyway, as opposed to stridulations scraped along a carapace by a rapidly-moving foreleg—were usually drowned out by those eager to explore the galaxy, to colonize it, to find the riches of lost civilizations on planets yet unknown.

Wars had been fought for access to these vital gates. But over tens of thousands of years, every system, even one as self-repairing and self-maintaining as the gates, can break down. Some gates went off-line mysteriously. And, of course, the system had safeguards. When a ship entered a wormhole, perhaps having taken heavy fire, and looked apt to explode? The aperture sometimes closed around that failing ship, and nothing—not even debris—made it to the other side. A thousand species shuddered, and most decided that it was best to hope that the ships and their crews were instantaneously dispersed. It would be more merciful that way—assuming a species had a concept of mercy, anyhow.

But thermodynamics teaches that matter cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form, or be converted into energy. But converting matter into energy isn’t a lossless process. And the Builders?

They wasted nothing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Somewhere in the near-void at the edge of a galaxy, a red dwarf glowed sullenly; with a lifespan projected to outlast the universe itself, its continuing existence was as close to a sure thing as the cosmos could admit. Its light, dim and cold, reflected off metal—jagged hunks and twisted scraps. Occasionally, a battered fragment rotated towards the star, revealing painted insignia in alien languages, pitted and scored by the impacts of microscopic debris over time.

Ships. Or their remains. Hundreds of thousands of them, deposited here, the detritus of a thousand civilizations that had explored the stars before humanity had scraped fire from flint. All that metal and scrap floated in an endless ring around what might have once been a rocky dwarf planet. Encased in a fretwork of black cables, like a cat’s cradle or the lines of a hypotrochoid roulette, it looked like every other nexus gate in the galaxy, but larger. It drank the light even as it slumbered, a giant among the rubble.

And then the giant awakened. A mouth opened at the center of the lattice, and white light seared through the darkness. Two ships hurtled from of the aperture, spat out by the giant, which returned to its indifferent slumber almost immediately. Out of control, they plunged directly into the swirling chaos of the debris field, where chunks of other ships went flying in fractal patterns across a black sky so far from the galactic core that hardly any stars gleamed in it.

As if triggered by that motion, ships rose up out of the debris field—a half-dozen different shapes and configurations. Fired engines, spent hoarded fuel, desperate to reach the larger of the two ships first. Scarcely damaged, it didn’t appear to be military, lacking even basic weapons, and spun as if no hand tended the helm at all.

The second, smaller ship possessed armored plating and gun ports as well as torpedo tubes. It also had hull breaches, and escaping gas tossed it this way and that as it bounced through the debris field—almost unremarked by the scavengers descending hungrily on the larger ship. Then, what looked like a captured asteroid, studded with pieces of metal here and there, rose out of the field of scrap, moving as if displaced by a collision…and thudded gently into the smaller ship’s side. With uncanny accuracy, it had impacted atop an emergency hatch…and then stayed there, as if embedded. The ship and the asteroid continued to spin through the debris, a wild dance that would only end when a pilot’s hand took control—or when the ship tore itself apart.

◊ ◊ ◊

Saskia Voss returned slowly to consciousness. Her head hurt, and she dimly remembered being thrown across the engineering compartment of the Chimera while she and three others of her staff had been working to stabilize the dark matter fusion reactor. There was a battle, she thought dimly. We’d received a call from a passenger liner…their cover fighters had suffered engine trouble, so they needed an escort to the gate. And just when we reached it, they came out from behind a planetisimal and attacked…

Her eyes cracked open, and she realized that the world was upside-down, only dimly visible, and moving. Upside-down was nothing new; her sleeping bag periodically slipped loose of its mooring, and she’d drift in zero-g, gently propelled by her unconscious movements, till she’d thump into a wall, and snap awake in some contorted position. But this movement seemed purposeful, as if she’d launched herself across the darkened compartment, arse-first. Darkened—wait—no power? Not even emergency backups? Environmental’s probably down with it, too. Crap, I have to get my crew working on this—

She could feel her envirosuit around her like a comforting embrace. It had carbon scrubbers, so she’d have up to eight hours of oxygen, which she could feel tickling her face in a cool caress. Vague impression of pressure against her abdomen through the suit, and equal pressure around her feet. Cables? I got caught in the electrical? Tilki’s going to laugh at me for that— She kicked experimentally, trying to free herself. “This is Voss,” she said at the same time, keying her radio. “Anyone hear me? Sound off, we’re going to need damage control teams—”

She felt something grab her between the shoulder blades. Haul her upright her by the straps there. No light. No voices on the radio, friendly or otherwise. Just hands belonging to whomever had toted her here in a fireman’s carry, turning her around and giving her a firm push. Items in the air bounced off her suit as she found herself propelled to a hatch. Oh, god. Something has gone terribly wrong.

“Rodriguez? Tilki? Is that you?”

A forearm wrapped itself around her neck with enough compression that she could feel it through the flexible joint there. Her words cut off as the hatch opened sluggishly before her, as whoever was behind her used a free hand to cycle it manually. The radio must be out in that suit. She leaned her head back, bonking her helmet into a faceplate behind her, trusted to sound-conduction through the materials to carry her voice. “I need to get back to engineering—”

This time, the push had the force of an entire body behind it, as whoever it was launched themselves with her, and she found herself in an airlock. “Wait! What happened after I passed out? Is there a rescue ship on the other side of this door?”

No reply, again, as the door behind them cycled shut, and Saskia had had enough. She grappled with the arm around her neck, using her zero-g combat training, and tried to throw the other forwards by inverting herself into a somersault in air. With nothing to push off of, this had little effect but to irritate whoever it was. A growl of annoyance, and then an impact at the side of her helmet, which made her concussed head toll like a bell. Saskia gulped down a surge of nausea. Vomiting in zero-g was bad enough without filling her suit and helmet with bile before going out an airlock.

The outer hatch opened. And to her inexpressible relief, there was dim, reddish light filling another airlock before her, though she didn’t recognize the configuration. But she did recognize the crates and bundles floating in the adjoining airlock—supplies and gear from the Chimera. Computer cores. MREs. Memory crystals. Containers with the dark matter that fueled the engines suspended inside. Chemical CO2 scrubbing agents. “All right, then we are evacuating,” she said, relieved, and reached down to help move some of the bundles into the body of the ship. “Sorry for panicking back there,” she added, turning back to face whoever it was. “The Lacerta came out of nowhere. Captain wasn’t expecting so many of their ships. Don’t know what they wanted with a passenger liner, anyway….” Her eyes flicked to the side of the hatch, where a hand’s dim shadow pressed buttons to close it. The markings on the buttons were alien, a writing system that linguists on Earth had barely deciphered in forty years of war.

Her throat and mouth went dry. Another hatch opened behind her, and brighter light filtered in from whatever it opened onto, revealing a figure nearly seven feet tall and clad in the fully-armored envirosuit of a Lacerta soldier. Matte-black, with belts and harnesses for utility tools and weapons, it couldn’t disguise the three-fingered hands, the powerful chest and arms, slightly stooped shoulders, elongated neck, concave waist…or the long tail that rested against the outer hatch for the moment. Ah, hell. I’m a prisoner. The few people we’ve recovered say that they use war-captives as slaves—

A hand landed on her sternum, the tail gave a flick, and Saskia found herself shoved, powerfully, into the body of the new ship. Her captor had to hunch somewhat to move around in it, and once he’d pushed her in, he retrieved the rest of the stolen cargo from the hatch area, stowing it methodically in nets on the walls—all done in unnerving silence, while seeming to ignore her completely.

Where’s the rest of his crew? And mine? Why haven’t I been marched off to a brig yet? Saskia found a wrench in a nearby net, hefting it in her hand; it felt pitifully small and ineffectual. If I manage to crack his visor, that’s…well, that’s something, right? “What have you done with the rest of my crew?” she demanded.

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her along with him. She whacked his elbow with the wrench, which simply bounced ineffectually off the armor there. A shame he didn’t leave his gun lying around, for the convenience of prisoners, Saskia thought sourly.

He yanked her towards what certainly looked like a pilot’s couch and controls, and flicked on several viewing screens. Saskia stopped moving entirely, staring at what seemed to be outside. Concentric rings of debris spun around what looked like the largest nexus gate she’d ever seen. She spotted the passenger liner that the Chimera had been tasked with protecting, and saw that three ships had docked with it—most of them battered, held together with two-stage epoxy and hope. These ships were exchanging ranging shots with several other vessels—smaller, and even more dilapidated—which hung around the liner, like vultures waiting for the hyenas to finish with their share of a lion’s kill. “Oh, god,” Saskia whispered. “Where are we? We were nowhere near a red dwarf—”

An impatient tap on a different screen by her captor caught her attention. One of the vulture ships had broken off from its vigil around the passenger liner, and had set course towards them. Saskia’s head whipped towards the airlock hatch. “My crew?” she said, pushing off a bulkhead in that direction. “They need to be warned—” Captain Sung. Rodriguez and Tilki. Dr. Bhandari. The Chimera had eight officers and seventy-five enlisted, being a smaller corvette-class ship, designed for fast, light strikes as part of a cruiser or a carrier’s screen, or scouting or patrol duties. This Lacerta ship—whatever it was—clearly couldn’t hold the crew complement of the Chimera.

A hand hooked around her ankle, pulling her back into the cockpit. Even so, she wasn’t sure that she was a prisoner, at the moment. The Lacerta had provided information, and hadn’t hit her, shackled her, or thrown her in the brig.

The black helmet turned towards her, the faceplate polarized so that she couldn’t see inside. And then the head jerked from side to side, exaggeratedly. “My crew,” Saskia said, pointing at the airlock, as if repetition and volume would bridge the lingual divide.

The Lacerta reached into a pocket on the harness he wore over his armor, removed a device, and pressed something on it. Instantly, in the air over it, she could see three-dimensional footage of the interior of the Chimera, taken in night-vision, judging by the greenish tinge to the images. She swallowed, hard, when she saw the major hull breaches and other damage. Emergency bulkheads had engaged in places, but the Lacerta had been able to unlock them, hooking himself in before the atmosphere blew past him. Bodies whirled past the camera on that tide of air, limbs flailing limply. She raised her hands to her visor, closing her eyes.

A tug at her wrist, impatient, pulled one of her hands away, and she saw the footage enter the reactor area now. She recognized her own form, one of three hanging in the compartment. No air in the compartment; none of the bodies stirred from where they hung as the Lacerta opened the hatch. But on her form, the footage superimposed a periodic red flash—indicating, she realized, a heartbeat. No other survivors, she thought numbly. For a moment, all the alien lines and curves of the interior of this ship seemed thrown into stark relief, and her heart pounded in her chest. And yet, it all seemed unreal, detached from reality. Any minute, I’m going to wake up in Dr. Bhandari’s office with a bad concussion and vague memories of coma-dreams. Except…I keep not waking up.

She pointed at the main screen, where the vulture ships still approached. “What about them?” They’re…scavengers, right? And he is, too? Saskia glanced at the Lacerta. “Why are we just sitting here?” She gestured at him, made a circle with one hand, trying to encompass the ship, and then, after putting her palms together, slid the right one away at a sharp vector, trying to convey flight.

The Lacerta mimicked her gesture, and vocalized for the first time—a series of rapid tones, rasps, and chirps that she couldn’t fathom. He pointed at the screen, then back at the hatch. Brought his three-fingered hands together into a kind of ball, then brought them apart rapidly, forming a larger sphere. And then gestured to encompass the ship, and repeated her gesture, sliding one hand away from the other rapidly.

So we’re going to fly off, but only after they’re busy with the ship? Will the vultures be able to detect our life-signs?

At that moment, the Lacerta did something with the controls, and she could feel the landing clamps disengage—not an unfamiliar sensation. She found a strap on the wall and buckled herself in as the big hands moved with surprising delicacy over the controls. A light whump, and the screen blurred, showing that they’d started moving away. A more forceful whump of impact, and then the Lacerta jammed the control yoke steeply to the right, and touched another button—which resulted in a WHUMP! a second later that hit them like an explosion.

The world pitched and yawed and tumbled. Saskia hit her head on the wall again, and lost consciousness for several moments. Probably for the best, she decided groggily as she regained it. Less likely that I’d have thrown up… “Now what?” she asked, pulling herself upright.

The Lacerta tapped on a screen, and she stared at it, her stomach dropping into her boots. Fresh debris spun with recognizable colors and with shapes that she knew all too well. One of the vulture ships seemed to have been badly damaged as well, and the others hung back warily. “The Chimera…you blew it up? Why the hell would you do that, you idiot?” She unbuckled from the wall, heedless, launching herself at him and grabbing the shoulder plates of his armor to check her momentum. “It was a good ship. It had supplies and—”

He reached up and removed his helmet, and her voice died. She’d never seen a Lacerta outside of their armor before. Few had ever been recovered in one piece for autopsy; they all seemed to carry small explosive devices that, if they looked apt to be overrun or captured, were inevitably used to commit suicide. As such, shock crept through her. Humans called them Lacerta, or lizards. But that didn’t at all convey the iridescent red and blue sheen of the scales, the sharp acuity of the yellow eyes with their slitted pupils—or the fact that he had a ridge of spines, largely flattened at the moment, running from the pronounced muzzle, over the scalp, and down the back of his neck. His cheeks, like a dog’s, were incomplete, allowing the jaw to open far wider than a human’s, but unlike a Terran lizard, his teeth, as he bared momentarily, were not undifferentiated pegs. Slashing and cutting teeth predominated at the front, with large, sturdy molars at the back. Carnivore mouth.

Now that he had her attention, the Lacerta tapped on the image of a vulture ship. Pointed at her, and then wrapped his hands around something invisible in the air in front of him. And then pretended to bite into it, shaking his head side-to-side savagely. Watching him, Saskia could picture him tearing meat from bone. “You’re saying,” she said weakly, knowing her words were incomprehensible to him, “that they’re cannibals.” Eying the carnivorous teeth so close to her face, she thought, silently, And you’re not? Though if you were, I…suppose you’d have brought Tilki and Rodriguez aboard. Oh hell. Maybe he did. Maybe they’re in a freezer somewhere till he has a chance to gut and clean them? Still concussed, disoriented, and terrified, revulsion and fear competed for control of her mind and body.

◊ ◊ ◊

Everything took time. Chelakh had a better idea of that than many other members of his species. He took the human to the ship’s small mess, which he’d converted into a meticulous storage facility in the past eight hundred and twenty-four days—the passage of which he’d marked off with lines on one of the walls in here. Taking in a human—one of the enemies of the Sei’azhi, the citizens of the Empire—hadn’t been an impulse. He’d systematically looted what he could from the engine compartment before staring at the motionless form for about ten minutes, doing the remorseless arithmetic of survival in his head.

His ship, the Hauk Teleu’sarusa, or First Wind of Night, had been designed for a two-person crew—and for stealth, above all else. The hull had been hollowed out of medium-sized asteroid, reinforced on the interior with titanium crossbracing between this thick outer shell, and the sealed crew compartments. That thick hull prevented almost any scanners from detecting bio-signs, dampening the heat emitted by environmental systems and the engines. Maneuvering thrusters felt pitifully limited compared to what he’d been used to, when he’d piloted a fighter in the Imperial Armada, but then again, they didn’t need to be exceptional, given the ship’s original mission.

This vessel had never been intended to make planetary landings or engage in dogfights. Its objective had always been to drift quietly in enemy territory, gathering information about culture, troop movements, merchant convoys, or whatever else Imperial Command needed. And once that information had been obtained, they’d drift quietly to the nearest gate, open it, and depart as invisibly as they’d arrived.

Since the loss of his crewmate—and mate—sixty days into this endless existential nightmare, Chelakh had scavenged enough carbon-scrubbing materials, food, batteries, fuel, and other supplies to eke his way along. Bringing a second person of any species aboard presented a risk to his personal chances of survival, and he had information in his head that had to be returned to the Empire, whatever the cost. Bringing another person aboard meant that whoever it was had to be worth the risk. This female—he thought the human was female; these mammalian creatures exhibited strong sexual dimorphism as a species, though they lacked the color differentiations that marked male and female in his own—had been in the engine compartment. This suggested that she might have skills that he lacked.  Like Dayielzha, he thought, emptily, pushing down the usual surge of anger, grief, and betrayal that came with thoughts of his mate.

Chelakh was an expert pilot and data analyst. It had been his mate who possessed all their engineering expertise on their two-person team. He knew his own limitations. The number of warning lights on his consoles of late told him that soon, he might not have a ship left to fly, if the engines weren’t maintained and repaired. Which would be an effective death sentence in this graveyard.

He pushed thoughts of the past away. Given that he, an officer of good standing in the Imperial Armada and citizen of the Sei’azhi had captured this human, her life now belonged to the Empire. His rescue had rendered her chattel, and she owed service and obedience to the armed forces of the Empire. As he had no superior officers to allocate her services in a larger ship, that effectively meant that her life belonged to him, at least until such time as he could turn her over to his superiors. Which…might be never, given the accusing line of scratches on the nearby wall, a silent litany of his own captivity here.

Of course, outsiders didn’t tend to understand these things. Even members of his own species, who weren’t of the Sei’azhi, weren’t full citizens of the Empire, didn’t understand that being given food, shelter, and succor by the Empire meant unyielding obedience to it. Then again, those who weren’t Sei’azhi had no honor.

He gestured for her to remove her helmet, trying not to show his disquiet as she complied. Humans were just as alien as the Tarukhxi, the amphibians who’d become his people’s staunch allies in the past six decades. As alien as the Xi’a, the social and vaguely arachnoid creatures that had first come into contact with the People a century ago—and who had been at war with the People ever since. At least humans didn’t have multiple rows of unblinking obsidian eyes perched somewhere above twiddling mandibles. Their fur didn’t look as dangerous as the spiky tufts that protruded from a solider-Xi’a’s carapace, which could spring from the creatures’ bodies in a haze of needle-like fragments. Inhaling that haze usually resulted in ulcerated, bleeding lungs.

Humans were at least bipedal. Omnivorous, by all accounts. Somewhat color-blind, half-deaf, and lacking a developed sense of smell, they’d somehow managed to struggle to the top of their planetary ecosystem. By their own estimates, they’d done it by virtue of their brains. Shall see, he told himself with an inner shrug. This one had short brown fur atop her head, and her soft, unscaled skin looked vaguely like that of a larval worm—too smooth and glistening. Dark markings mottled the skin at the side of her head, beside one eye. He supposed that it might be an indication of injury. Her eyes, with those strange white circles around the tiny irises, seemed to be an unnatural shade of pale gray. Her scent, caught by his tongue as well as his nostrils, wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but held several unfamiliar chemical tangs.

Chelakh held out one of her human food packages, watching as her eyes focused on it. “Zhiyaessu,” he said patiently, and pulled his hand away when she reached for it. “Zhiyaessu!” he repeated, peremptorily.

A flicker of those too-small eyes. “Zey-ya-esu,” she repeated, her mammalian larynx closing down on the vowels, unable to reproduce them. “Food,” she added.

And with a grimace, Chelakh repeated the grunting sound she’d made. “Food,” he said.

No chirps from the sensors; this told him that they had time to eat, as the various scavengers that had closed in on her ship’s remains had yet to pursue the ‘asteroid’ that had been ejected with the rest of the debris. Have time, he thought, tiredly. Time in surplus. Everything else? Lacking.

She activated a device mounted on her wrist with straps, and began recording his words and hers. Chelakh made a chuffing sound of impatience and tried to indicate, with sharp gestures between her device and the lights, that she needed to conserve the device’s energy. Finally, he moved to the light controls to establish what her words for on and off were, so that he could point again at her device and grunt “Off!” She then flicked her unnaturally fine fingers in a gesture that he took to be exasperation. His ship’s computer did have a basic lexical understanding of five human languages, but tasking the computer to anything but maintaining life-support, sensors, and engines was a use of system resources that he’d prefer to avoid. His memory for sounds and songs should render her language simple enough to learn and replicate without computer assistance.

Once she’d eaten the mixture inside her ration pack—something that looked like worms in a red sauce—he half-pushed, half-led her to the engine compartment. Pointed to the various control panels, with their blinking warning lights, and handed her a data tablet, filled with technical specifications, system schematics, charts, and fault isolation diagrams all in the language of the Sei’azhi. He gestured from the tablet to the engines and consoles, and showed her where the tools were kept. Where he’d stowed the dark matter in its sealed containers. Where the parts were that he’d stripped from a half-dozen other derelict ships.

He hadn’t known what he needed. Most of the wrecks had already been picked over by generations of scavengers. So there were pieces and parts from a dozen ship systems, all with different measurements, different purposes, different labeling. But he’d organized this scrap as best he could, in cargo nets all through the compartment. And now he spread his hands, trying to convey the enormity of the problem before them.

Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly. The tablet drifted from her loosening fingers as her shoulders sagged. And she put her gloved hands to her exposed face, making an odd, liquid snuffling sound. Chelakh cautiously prodded at her shoulder with one finger, and her head came up, revealing a red flush through her face and eyes—gods and ancestors, that isn’t a mating flush, is it? Some sort of fluid secreted from her eyes, clinging to the fine hairs around each. Chelakh jerked his hand back as if stung.

Defensive mechanism? he thought apprehensively. Nothing in the literature on the species suggests that they produce venom… On reflection, however, the fluids smelled like salt, and not like neurotoxin. Wait, there was something about them secreting fluids when injured or ill. I would take one aboard who’s dying of internal injuries. Pyre’s ashes and damnation.

After a few moments, however, the human gestured at the tablet, the engines, and everything else, before beginning a long harangue in her growling language. Chelakh put his hands behind his back, just above his tail, and frowned. On the whole, she didn’t sound as if she were dying. The flush spread through her face, and he suddenly recalled some of the human video signals that he and Dayielzha had recorded at the edge of a human planetary system. Even the best computer-generated translations had still been baffling. Humans dedicated time both to things that were real, and had happened, and to things that weren’t real, and never had. But in one of their feeds about a recent attack by the Sei’azhi, Chelakh remembered seeing humans secreting fluids from the eyes. Ah. Distress. Emotional need, vi’ezhash.

Need and distress he could understand, if not this expression of them. He’d take care of a rifle’s need for maintenance, so that it would perform correctly when necessary; he could do no less for her, non-citizen chattel or no. And given that she was the only other person on this ship that made her…something of a crewmate. Crewmates tended to each other. “Vi’ezhale?” he asked, putting a cautious hand on her shoulder. You have need?

And when that did no good, he sighed and keyed the console beside them, bringing up the computer’s lexical database. Spoke, and then listened to the computer render his words into the flat, nasal sounds of human speech. Watched her head jerk up in surprise and perhaps a little fear. “If your computer can translate, why not start with that?” she demanded, and the computer rendered her words into the fluid song of the People.

“Because translating is not understanding. Must understand to survive,” he replied, and gestured at the tablet floating away from her. “Can use the computer to translate the schematics. But will understand them.” He pointed at her. “Don’t understand.” A thumb at his own torso. “Pilot, not engineer.” The word-bursts of translation into the grunts of human speech bothered him.

“Where am I?”

“Don’t know. Graveyard. Derelict ships and debris extend almost a full light-minute away from gate. Substantial field. Accreted a long time.” Chelakh exhaled. “Survivors not common. Consortiums of those who came here exist. Strong prey on weak. Oldest associations keep to center, nearest gate. Ships wearing out, but have the most people and weapons. Take first shot at new arrivals. Keep weaker, smaller associations at bay. Weaker groups, individuals who somehow survive…pick over the fringe, where there are only scraps of metal. And in lean times, when no new arrivals have come? Fighting between factions. Take captives, if useful. Rest of them…eaten.” He grimaced over the word, his stomach churning.

“How do you know that?” she demanded.

Chelakh closed his eyes. “Wasn’t always alone,” he replied curtly, pushing down the bitter memories of betrayal. “Had a crewmate.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Over the course of the next month, Saskia struggled with…everything, really. A kind of numb fog hovered over her—but remembering that every member of her crew had died because of the Lacerta—the species to which her captor/rescuer belonged!—brought a vivid flash of hatred. The hate usually subsided into a background throb after a few moments. She was alive, because a Lacerta had found her potentially useful. A piece of living scrap.

Wild thoughts of clubbing him with a wrench in his sleep and taking over the ship occurred to her—after all, the first duty of a prisoner was to escape—but those had faded, not least because it wouldn’t serve any purpose. He’d been stranded here for over two Earth-standard years; he knew the area; and she couldn’t fly or navigate on her best day, let alone handle an alien ship with an AI keyed to obey the Lacerta, and not her.

She struggled with the main Lacerta language, though she eventually learned to call them Sei’azhi. She asked what her rescuer’s name was, and the string of sounds promptly overwhelmed her: Taresh Chelakh sizhak’hauk’Hanakhaz sizhak’hauk’Iradala, zhaso’Sarusa’tashlak, Seddu’arak’Asakhax. Taresh turned out to be his rank, and some of the names appeared to mean ‘first-son of this male’ and ‘first-son of that female,’ along with a clan-name, regional affiliation, and planetary affiliation. When she asked, “So what do I call you?” he’d replied that crewmates usually called one another Ha’kha’esal, or one-of-many. She’d blinked and asked, “Don’t you have a name that means you?”

“Do,” had been the reply, with his crest flicking upwards slightly. “But is for close friends. Mates. Family. In military, all are Ha’kha’esal.”

“So it’s like someone in the Russian Confederation calling someone tovarisch.” She’d immediately regretted the comparison; it had required too many explanations. And in the end, since she had so many problems with the singing vowels, clicking sounds, and overtones, he’d told her just to call him Chelakh.

Somewhere in the fifth week, she realized that the reason why he struggled with English, was that his language had almost no pronouns—everything boiled down to endings, and prepositions tended to be implied by lilts of tone that she could barely discern, not directly stated. Pronouns were…just too indefinite for the Sei’azhi mind-set. It was too vague; table, however, was concrete and real.

He’d grabbed one of almost everything he could get his hands on while aboard the Chimera. As such, she had Rodriguez’ hygiene kit; the razor wasn’t much help, but the toothbrush was. But seeing the name stenciled in black ink on the side of the plastic bag jabbed her with grief and anger every time she opened it.

“Why do this?” Chelakh asked her in the midst of a jag of emotion.

“So that my teeth don’t rot and my breath doesn’t stink.” Saskia returned through the foam, her stomach churning. He couldn’t know how the words intruded. No privacy aboard the tiny ship, crammed with supplies and scrap. They both slept in the mess area, where Chelakh had fixed a cube of space between all the supply crates. They huddled together for warmth; the Sei’azhi were as warm-blooded as humans or birds. The close quarters chafed, but she couldn’t deny the necessity; running the heaters at anything above the bare minimum to keep the electronics happy was a waste of fuel.

Yet, staring down at the name on the hygiene kit, Saskia had added sharply, “You might do the same. Your rations are mostly meat-based. Doesn’t make for lovely morning breath.”

A blink of the yellow eyes, an inner nictitating membrane sliding across them before the outer lid swept closed, and his crest spines rose halfway. She’d learned that the expression suggested surprise or irritation. Then again, that was rude, she had thought, rummaging in a pocket of her filthy coveralls for a pen. She’d spent the next five minutes crossing out Rodriguez’s name. She felt as if she were effacing his memory, but if she went into a tailspin every time she saw it…

After that, Chelakh also cleaned his teeth once a day, though he noted, philosophically, “Weak teeth fall out. New teeth grow in. But for sake of harmony, well enough.” Hygiene remained an issue, nevertheless. Sei’azhi didn’t sweat, so they had no need for shower facilities, which forced her to resort to wrapping herself in a plastic sack to contain the water droplets for zero-g sponge-baths. Her efforts to control her odor invariably met with what sounded like a heart-felt chirrup of gratitude from Chelakh. Which was embarrassing, in a way. She knew she didn’t smell sweet. No one better, in fact. But at least my nose isn’t as good as his seems to be.

In the second month, the heating system gave out. “The air’s still moving,” she reported, trying to put it in Sei’azhi. “But the thermal units are dead.”

“Found what looked like heaters in remnants of Xi’a ship six months ago. Try?” he suggested.

Bundled into her envirosuit for warmth, Saskia worked for hours, trying to cobble elements from one alien system into another. In the tenth hour, Chelakh handed her an MRE and made her eat and rest; her hands shook from low blood-sugar, and frustration had set in. “Thank you,” she mumbled in his language. And once the food spread warmth through her, she found a box of connectors she hadn’t noticed, and coupled the Xi’a parts successfully into the system at last. “Going to be inefficient,” she reported tiredly. “There’s even a chance that the system could short out and cause a fire. The parts just aren’t made to work together. We really need your tech for this.”

“Did well. Could not have done same,” he told her, in halting English, spreading his hands. She grimaced, turning her head aside to conceal her reaction. His voice sounded like an intelligent African Gray parrot, at times. His gift for mimicry was such that he perfectly mirrored the inflections and tones of her voice, giving his low-pitched voice oddly soft overtones. Hearing her voice echoed in his disconcerted her, and put her on edge. It’s like the Uncanny Valley at times. “Can try to find a Sei’azhi ship for parts. But…every leaving of the ship is a danger. Every course correction must be cautious.”

She understood why. The computer handled the everyday flying on its own, narrowly dodging most of the debris spinning around them, while seeming to ‘bounce’ away from apparent collisions, in what appeared a wholly natural fashion. Saskia had studied the complex flight algorithm that the AI maintained, and even with her very limited understanding of written Sei’azhi, she’d recognized that the majority of the computer’s system resources and the engines’ power had been directed into this camouflaging flight pattern. “Takes a lot of effort to keep something about as flightworthy as a potato dancing like this,” she’d assessed.

He’d cocked his head like a bird, the spines of his crest flexing momentarily. “Potato?” Chelakh had asked, picking the unfamiliar word out of the sentence easily. His gift for replicating human words and remembering them had allowed him to pick up English much more quickly than she could master the language of the Sei’azhi, which irritated her.

“A root vegetable not known for being aerodynamic,” Saskia returned with mild irritation, framing an oblong shape with her fingers.

A flicker of the nictitating membranes over his eyes—not irritation, but humor. “There are roots that are flightworthy?”

“Carrots,” Saskia had replied, forming a more triangular shape with her fingers. “Nevermind. Probably not going to meet any of them here outside of an MRE pack.” Her words had reawakened another concern: the supply of human food would run out eventually. He’d raided the Chimera’s supplies as thoroughly as he could, but she’d have a year’s worth of food at most, if she stretched it thin. Unless another human ship comes through. And that’s a hell of a thing to wish for—for someone else to be trapped here just so I won’t starve.

In the here and now, Saskia muttered, “Might need to take the risk.” His disinclination to take chances seemed at odds with the image she’d had of the Lacerta; she’d been born sixteen years into the war, when these creatures had already bombed civilian colonists on Xian and Hadiqua, killing any who did not surrender—and often pursing those who fled. They’re aggressive and territorial, she thought, frowning. Everyone knows that. “We won’t survive if we don’t take risks now and again,” she added in English. And saw his spines rise in what she’d come to recognize as agitation.

“Risk is acceptable only for tei’aska,” he replied. His language had at least three words for need— tei’aska, rei’azha, and vi’ezhash. As far as she’d been able to grasp, the first meant things necessary for life—food, water, air, shelter, and medicine. The second word seemed to mean something like “assistance would be appreciated,” and the third revolved around bodily urgencies—the need to urinate. When she’d asked the translation program for how to say want or desire, the database had come up blank. And when she’d haltingly asked him how to express something that wasn’t a physical need, but would be appreciated—such as wishing for MREs that weren’t meatballs and green beans, for instance—Chelakh’s spines had flattened to his scalp in an expression identical to when he’d found dead insects in a ration pack. “To need what is not needed is…not to follow duty. To not be of service to others,” he’d tried to explain.

“Can you need the sound of a voice like your own?” Saskia had countered. Her yearning to hear another human voice remained strong.

The spines had relaxed. “Yes. That is vi’ezhash.”

So, bodily and mental needs were acceptable, but desire wasn’t, apparently. And he’d only accept a risk to their lives for urgent necessities. “Heat,” Saskia told him firmly, “is definitely tei’aska. I’d prefer for my nose not to fall off from frostbite…and don’t say it. I know that frost has no teeth.”

That waspish comment made his spines rise, and his inner lids flickered merrily for a moment or two in silent amusement.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, they surveyed their surroundings, not sending out active radar pings or anything so overt as that. But every ship fragment of any size that Chelakh had boarded in the past two years, he’d left sensor packs at, the size of gnats, and solar-powered. They passively broadcast whatever they saw on an encrypted radio frequency. So he had eyes scattered throughout the entire graveyard.

They watched the screens, both of them flinching as a vulture ship raked another vessel with bullets, and then forcibly docked with the victim while taking return fire. All within range of one of his cameras. “How do you know that others aren’t using your feeds for similar information?” Saskia asked him.

“Current Imperial encryption on them. Doubt any of the People here have…updated protocols.” At this point, he tended to revert to his own language mostly for difficult words and concepts. “That vessel,” he added, pointing at the vulture ship, a cold hand of memory wrapping around his crop, “is pre-Imperial. Two hundred years old. Much patched. Much welded.”

“Pre-Imperial?” She perked up at that. “Those are…Lacerta? Your own people?”

“No! Not mine. Not Sei’azhi.”

“Not your people, but your species.” Her eyes widened. “You’d attack them?” Saskia shook her head, clearly trying to formulate the right questions, ones they could both understand. “Why? And how can they still be here?”

Sei’azhi came to power when colonists first went to other worlds. Homeworld, Asakhax…divided. Many groups.” He groped for words as they stared at the screens. “First Empress grew tired of constant attacks, constant war. Ordered integration of other regions. Those who would not serve, sometimes fled to other worlds. Some did not arrive at new homes.”

“Integration? Sounds like conquest.” A hint of what he’d come to know as scorn in her voice.

He looked up the word. “Yes. Same thing.” A shrug. “Has been ten generations since the others were brought into the Empire as chattel. Like you.”

He didn’t know the English for the term, so she paused and looked up that word. Then her eyes narrowed and her flexible lips turned down at the corners. He recognized the expression as offense, accompanied by a whiff of her anger-scent. Not the chemical she called adrenaline, which went with fear-anger and combat, but just…regular anger. She smelled this way quite often, unfortunately. “I am not chattel.”

“Technically, would be if more of the People were here. Currently, more like crewmate. Don’t use superior-to-inferior voice with you.”

“What—?”

“Not that you can hear the difference in the intonation, but still, don’t use it with…you.”  He shrugged, using the English pronoun for as much specificity as the unnuanced language would allow. “But even chattel may become Sei’azhi. By being of service to others. Fighting alongside. Preserving life. Anyone who wants to become a full citizen, can.” He groped for words. Tried to explain that he himself, with only ten years in the Imperial forces, though born to two full citizens of the Sei’azhi, could vote, but that his vote carried less weight than that of someone who’d served twenty, thirty, or forty years in the military. That anyone, from chattel to the descendants of nobility, could choose to serve willingly, and earn the right to have their voices heard at the highest levels. But that it was duty to others, honor, and loyalty to the Emperor and Empress that allowed someone to become Sei’azhi. Not where they’d been born, what species they were, or what shape their bodies had.

He watched her small eyes narrow. “And why would someone who wasn’t part of the Empire want to join it?” the human scoffed.

Irritation surged in him. “Emperor and Empress not always hereditary offices,” he pointed out as patiently as he could. “Anyone who has won enough honor, enough glory, who has served the People for many years? Can become Emperor or Empress, and bring mate to honor, too.”

“Even chattel?” Saskia asked, her tone laced with skepticism.

“Has happened once. Male had been captured from one of the other nations of our homeworld. Rose through the ranks. Became a general. Then the Emperor and Empress’ most-trusted advisor. When died, the general who was once chattel was chosen as the most qualified replacement.”

Her mouth fell open, revealing her chisel-like omnivore teeth. “And he didn’t go about dismantling the Empire?”

A quick check in the lexical database. “No,” Chelakh replied, confused. “Why would he? He did strip many of his people of their status as chattel, but why would he destroy a system that had brought peace and prosperity to our entire homeworld?”

“So he just…drank the Kool-Aid,” Saskia assessed. “Or had the worst case of Stockholm syndrome in the universe.”

He didn’t bother looking either of those up. Human language tended towards the metaphorical, at best. Chelakh simply stared at her inquisitively, and she sighed. “Stockholm syndrome. Where captives begin to empathize with their captors. Take their agendas and values for their own. Maybe even fall in love with them, in some way. Give up everything they’ve believed in, because it’s just…easier to go along.” Disquiet in her tone.

Chel needed to take a moment to sort through the sea of pronouns she’d just employed, cursing inwardly at the human tendency to generalize, even in the very form of their language. “Humans fear change,” he remarked after a moment, cocking his head to the side. “Fear change in selves. Think that accepting new ideas, new…realities?…makes the person…not the same person? Weaker, lesser.” Chel chuffed between his teeth. “Seeing that a system that provides harmony and plenty is better than constant war is not being weak of mind. Accepting a new condition is not…surrender.”

She hissed between her teeth, a sound surprisingly like the irritation noise that one of the People might make. “Oh, like you’ve accepted the new reality around you,” she retorted. “If you had, you’d have… I don’t know. Grabbed the bodies on my ship and tucked them away as snacks.”

Stung, Chelakh felt his crest rise fully, and he growled slightly before he got his temper under control. Doesn’t know. Doesn’t understand. Probably never will. “Against honor,” he snapped. “Dishonors the life lost. And desecrate a body—spirits will follow. Forever. Weighing down every action. Tainting everything done by the hands that acted so, till…amends made.” Another struggle with her limiting language. “Ancestors…all around. Lives not just service to others, but to ancestors, spirits, as well.” And whether or not you believe that the ancestors linger, who wants to risk incurring the wrath of a foe’s ghost, and that of all their familial spirits, by dishonoring the fallen?

Startled, and she pulled herself closer to the wall of the cockpit, where she’d been floating, secured by one hand. “Sorry,” Saskia muttered. “I didn’t know you guys were religious at all.” An exhalation. “That being said,” she added, her tone still marginally truculent, “your lot wouldn’t have such a damned big military if you didn’t see a need to use it. And if you’re so very peaceful now—”

“Military remains the only path of service, advancement, citizenship. Keeps the peace at home. And was meant to build and protect colonies. Then ran into Xi’a a hundred years ago. Then your people. Others. Universe full of threats…plenty of opportunity for advancement.” His tone held no apology.

“Yes, let’s talk about how our people met.” Sarcasm now. “I seem to recall that the inhabitants of Xian and Hadiqua declined your people’s generous offer to become part of your benevolent dictatorship. After being attacked out of hand.”

“Were on planets the Sei’azhi had already claimed. Imperial officials placed territorial marker satellites ten years before human settlers arrived,” he returned mildly. “What would humans do, on finding intruders in territory? Smile and offer…cookies?” Some of these round objects, found in many of her MREs, seemed largely composed of carbohydrates, ground meal, and animal lactate, and had odors of exotic spices. He’d tried one, cautiously, but disappointingly, it hadn’t tasted as good as it had smelled.

Her brows lowered into a frown. “We were there first. Your officials are lying—”

“Possible. Can say that human officials have never lied?” Chel asked, using a hand to smooth his crest.

And to his muted satisfaction, his calm words took all the wind out of her sails. She bit her lower lip—an uncomfortable-looking gesture she used when she seemed uncertain. And then admitted, her voice low, “No. I can’t make that claim. History shows that our officials lie all the time. Sometimes seems to be what they’re best at.” A guilty look at him. “Er, you…shouldn’t judge all humans by that statement.”

Chelakh nodded equitably. “Of course not. Just a sign of your Stockholm Kool-Aid.” He’d pulled the words out of memory, juxtaposing the terms while mimicking her inflections, a jab at her so-human insecurity about her precious self-hood.

A spluttering sound, which became loud mammalian whoops and cackles. He stared at her, surprised, until she wiped at her eyes. Distress? She’s that worried that she’s losing her self here? Pyre’s ashes, I shouldn’t have spoken. It’s one thing to poke a crewmate to remind them that they’re one-of-many, not just one, but another thing entirely to cause pain.

Still wheezing Saskia cut into his thoughts, “Oh, god. I…shouldn’t laugh. It’s not funny.” Another hiccupping whoop, and then she added, “Except that it is.” A exhalation, and then she pointed at the screen in front of them. “So, survivors of your species who might live here,” Saskia said slowly. “If they were born here, they could never be Sei’azhi. Because they can never be of service to your Empire?”

Cold filled his crop. “If born, most younglings are probably eaten by parents,” he returned with brutal frankness, watching her mouth fall open with revulsion equal to his own. “Hard to keep younglings alive. Sap on resources. But a few have been strong enough to survive. Have…encountered descendants.” He pushed the memories down. He found it difficult not to admire the strength of those who’d endured here for two centuries. But at the same time, they’d done so by becoming savages. “Most survivors had colony ships to begin with. Tanks for growing plants. Protein-rich. Oxygen-givers.” These words were difficult. “And then integrating any others that come—”

“Conquering—”

“Yes, yes. Acknowledge irony.” Irritation in his voice. “But those who will not serve, they eat.” We integrate those who will serve, because we all do. Those who won’t serve, we use as chattel, yes. We execute the recalcitrant. But we don’t eat them. Gods and ancestors, there is a difference. Let her see that. Let her see that she could be just as much one of the People if she chose to be, as I am. It’s just living by a code.

“Pirates who prey on others,” she muttered, her voice sounding constricted. “No food supplies besides what each ship brought in with it—or what little can be grown on the colony ships. With no way to resupply, and tech wearing out. And then yes, it’s…either steal from each other, and hope that you can eat another species’ food, eat each other, or starve to death.” Her head came up. “You’ve never explained what happened to your other crewmate. They didn’t eat him, did they?”

“Don’t know,” he replied, tightly, not elaborating. “Attackers have boarded their target,” Chelakh added. “Heat signatures say only three left aboard own vessel. Will have weapons, know territory. But should have the equipment needed.” He swiveled his head to look at her. “Worth the risk?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Head still awhirl with new information, Saskia stood braced outside the Hauk’s airlock, her boots’ magnetic locks activated. Sure, their government sounds great in on paper, she thought, adjusting the seals of her envirosuit. The universe’s best meritocracy. Everyone has an equal shot at becoming the head honcho. She’d asked, before coming down to the airlock, “So, what about all the people who don’t enter the military? They don’t have a say, a vote?”

“They can talk to someone in their area who does. Voice concerns. But humans—all can vote, you say.” Derision in his voice. “But many do not?”

She’d been forced to admit that well over fifty percent of Earth’s residents didn’t vote. He’d chuffed and nictitating membranes had flickered over his eyes. “Then is the same. Those who aren’t interested, don’t participate. Those who are, do. Only difference? Sei’azhi earn rights. Appreciate more, perhaps, than rights that are just given.”

And the tales out of his people’s history, how was she to take them? Her sentiments told her that she should be firmly on the side of those of his species who’d fled their homeworld to found colonies far from his Empire. Seeking the right to self-determination in the face of what certainly sounded like a repressive, conquering neighbor. Of course, what these exiles were before they got here is one thing. What they are today is something else. Of course, I have only his word for it that they’ve been here that long. That they’re cannibals. That they’re pirates, I’ve already seen…on screens that he controls. Saskia closed her eyes, her thoughts running in circles. Occam’s razor time. Inventing complicated lies doesn’t benefit him. Paranoia clogged her thoughts, but at least it felt more alive than the gray fugue state she’d experienced since the Chimera’s demise. I have to decide if I can trust him, and commit to it, she thought tiredly. He saved my life. He’s the only reason I continue to live. But half of what comes out of his mouth, in that parrot-like voice, just makes me want to scream. Though I’m not even sure that’s his fault.  She knew that some of her reaction to him had to be comprised of resentment mixed with a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt admixed. Even thinking of that possibility summoned the image of a hygiene kit with a scrawled-out name. A dead man’s last, inadvertent bequest. And little enough to show for a life, god damn it.

Deep breaths, trying to calm herself now. If I trust him, it’s because it’s the rational thing to do. It’s not that I’m coming to agree with his world-view. I’m not going to convert to his idea of duty to the state or ask to join his Sei’azhi. It’s because conditions have changed, and I have to accept that. But god. How can I accept this reality?

Chelakh’s voice came over the radio. “Brace.” With only that for a warning, the asteroid crust that served as their outer hull slammed into something, and despite her grip on the strap beside the airlock, the impact flung her backwards. She reeled herself in as Chelakh lithely pushed himself over from the cockpit, securing his own helmet. To her great surprise, he handed her a gun. Principles of ballistics didn’t change from species to species, so it looked quite familiar in configuration, but the grip had been designed with a three-taloned hand in mind. “You trust me with this?” Saskia blurted, shocked.

“Trust that difference between ally and foe will be clear.” His eyes and face were invisible behind his polarized mask as he handed her several sacks. Most were empty. One was not. “Charges are for engine core. Set them. Remote timer. Leave nothing behind.”

Saskia opened her mouth to protest, and then shut it with a click. The Sei’azhi played by different rules than humans. Chelakh had determined that these people were enemies. They were useful, so long as they had something he needed. And once he’d engaged with them, there were only two outcomes—his death, or theirs. Nothing in between, and no loose ends left behind. Is it because they’re cannibals? Or is this the same war doctrine that they’ve been using on us—except that they haven’t been able to get through the gates to Earth yet? A chill swept through her. Of course, that’s because we seem to be a little ahead of them in at least one regard—we’ve deciphered some of the Builders’ code. Enough to scramble our local nexus map and direct the system not to permit ships lacking our encoded signals to come through to Earth and the few colonies we’ve managed to keep safe….

They cycled the airlock doors, and Saskia experienced a jolt of surprise when she realized that the asteroid had punched right through the hull of the marauder ship. Chelakh had docked far more considerately with the doomed Chimera. Then again, when they lifted away, there should be explosive decompression to speed their ship’s movements—and to hinder anyone who might try to follow them before they could…blow a damned reactor core. While the marauders remain attached to their target. Her conscience twinged. The victim ship could be blameless. But then again, were there any innocents in this graveyard?

No time to argue about the ethics, however. They’d entered what looked like some sort of a disused hangar, and the collision had drawn two of the three heat signatures towards them. Saskia spotted the too-familiar sight of Lacerta bodies in envirosuits, though these were patched and rust-colored, not the matte-black worn by Imperial forces, with ablative plates epoxied to the outside for added protection. The mere shape of them triggered an adrenal surge. And, given that they didn’t care about damage to the bulkheads or outer hull, it felt enormously freeing to lift her borrowed gun and fire.

Saskia wasn’t a marine. She didn’t have to do more than pass her quarterly fire-arms qualification. But she’d always enjoyed practicing the with small arms, and had natural aim. A good thing, because the alien pistol in her hand kicked hard. Even though she’d locked her magnetized boots to the deck, the recoil nearly sent her tumbling, and her first shot flew awry.

Crap. Not exactly unlimited supplies of ammo. Saskia recovered, pulling herself back upright, and fired again. Saw one of the pair spin away, visor shattering. Saw the peculiar beauty of blood spray in zero-g, glossy, viscous globules forming, distorting as air pressure pushed against them, and then wobbling away as if drunk—

And then Chelakh threw himself bodily against her, shoving her into the cover of what looked like a small, dilapidated probe of some sort. A bullet pinged off its outer casing, and Saskia flinched, her heart pounding in her ears.

She felt Chelakh lean out of cover. Heard the muffled report of his gun through her helmet, and then he hooked a hand around her shoulder. “Hurry,” his voice ordered over the radio, and for once, Saskia was all too glad to obey. She helped him loot the fallen of weapons, tools, and oxygen packs, and then they hastened up through an open hatch, Chel in the lead.

The corridors of the marauder ship dizzied her. Every time she expected a line, she found a curve; every time she expected a curve, a line confronted her. They passed through several compartment used for storage on their way to engineering, and in one, Saskia saw the first evidence verifying Chel’s words. The compartment was so cold that ice crystals formed along the floors, walls, and ceiling. Pinkish-red ice, in many cases, from where globules of blood, oozing from pieces of meat suspended from chains that hooked into both floor and ceiling, had suspended themselves in air in the zero-g environment, and gradually made their way to splash against some flat surface or another, mingling with water vapor condensing and freezing out of the air. And the flesh? She recognized Lacerta scales on one torso that hadn’t been completely flayed. Knew the eight legs of a Xi’a soldier dangling in a mesh bag. Probably tastes like lobster, she thought, distantly, and then almost threw up inside of her helmet.

Chel grabbed her shoulder and moved her bodily out of the storeroom. “Lucky. No humans,” he told her, his voice tight. “Harder to see, when species is own.”

“Lucky me,” Saskia agreed, her throat still constricted. Lucky, lucky me.

He used one explosive charge from the bag she carried to blow the locked door of the engineering compartment, and then hissed, “Quickly, quickly. First two have not reported success. Third will recall others from the ship they attacked.”

Hands shaking, Saskia tucked her borrowed pistol into her belt and got scrounging. Heater elements were foremost on her list, but tools, components, computer cores, usable lengths of wire—they all went into her bags.

She’d ducked behind the reactor core to set the charges when she heard the next shot fired, followed by a second, then a third, in rapid succession. Saskia peered around the edge of the engine, seeing Chel dive for cover. And held completely still as a smaller Lacerta form slid around the edge of the blown engineering hatch. “Chelakh,” a higher-pitched voice called, with harmonies buried in it that grated on Saskia’s nerves. Sweet-toned, liquid vowels interspersed with rasps and clicks flooded out, at a speed Saskia found indecipherable.

Dayielzha,” Chelakh’s voice returned, with a grating overtone that sounded like nails down a chalkboard to Saskia. She swallowed and kept setting the charges, an oddly clinical mind-set falling over her, in contrast to the fugue in which she’d drifted for months. Damn. Well, we knew this was a risk. I wonder if they’ll try to rape me first. Or would that be like screwing a cow before making steaks out of it? Think I’d rather hug the reactor when it blows, and ensure that the only pieces of me they find can barely be used for canapés. Another distant thought, as if spoken by an observer hovering behind her in the same zero-g environment: That one just called him by name. Chelakh, if we get out of this…you’ve got some explaining to do.

◊ ◊ ◊

Chelakh’s boots, magnetic locks cleaving to the deck plate, felt rooted in place. He hadn’t expected to see her on this ship. Hadn’t expected this at all. “Dayielzha,” he said. His former mate’s name meant dancer in the same way that his meant hunter.You’re looking well-fed.” A lie, that dig. He couldn’t see through her polarized mask.

A chuff of irritation from her. “You had the chance to come with me,” she chided, still aiming her gun at where he crouched behind a bank of controls. “I would have spoken for you.” Her voice held a note of caressing to it. “You can still join, you know. Be a part of something again. I know that’s important to you.

Of course you know that. You know me very well. But I never knew you at all. Chel’s crop tightened, and he peered around the console, getting a quick look at where she hovered in the cover of the doorway. “All I ever told them was that we had a stealth ship,” Dayielzha went on smoothly, persuasively. “When they asked, I said that it had a cloaking device. New tech. They believed me. I could have had them scouring the system for you and the supplies on that ship. I should have had them do that—after all, those supplies could mean life or death for my new companions. For me. But I didn’t.” She edged further around the corner, her weapon still raised. “You still mean something to me, Chelakh. You can join me here. The exiles are the largest, most organized group in this forsaken cesspit. You can be one of the strongest.

For a moment, yearning flooded him. The longing to hear voices like his own, not the nasal, flat voice of a hostile human. The almost visceral need to smell and touch and be among his own kind, after over two years of total solitude—so strong a need that it straddled the border between vi’ezhash and tei’aska, between an irresistible physical urge and a biological necessity. Part of him wanted to say yes. To be one-of-many again, embraced by her and her companions. Except they’re exiles and cannibals, his mind reminded him, sharply. None of them are one-of-many. They aren’t of the People. They don’t understand the concept. Or honor.

And then it hit him. She’s stalling for time, Chelakh realized. She’s waiting for the others to return from the other ship.

Without another word, he ducked around the console and fired, double-tap, at the center of her chest. Something clipped his helmet, and he numbly watched her arms and legs fly up as her body blew back from the impact, hitting the wall behind her. He pulled his boots free from the deckplating, feeling as if he were running in tar, and bounded to catch her limp body as it bounced off the wall towards him. Unlatching her helmet, he checked for vitals, finding a pulse, and noted that the darker gray-blue and white bands of her feminine scales looked dull, not glossy. Haven’t been eating well, in spite of the body parts left in the freezer, he noted distantly. That’s why they risked a raid.

He planted the gun between her eyes. Nerved himself. And pulled the trigger. This ghost, I won’t allow to haunt me, he thought, stripping her body of weapons and tools before calling over his shoulder, “Are the charges set?

In his inner turmoil, he’d forgotten to use English. Still, Saskia edged around the reactor core. “They’re set,” she affirmed. “Can we go?”

“Yes. No time left.”

Getting back to their ship proved difficult. The raiders had returned from the victim ship, called by Dayielzha, doubtless. Hand-to-hand combat and gunfire the whole way. To Chelakh’s surprised pleasure, the human female turned out to be much stronger than her short form suggested, easily throwing several opponents into bulkheads with enough force that bones made fragile by decades in zero-g shattered. “Homeworld has high-gravity?” he panted as they cycled the airlock, hearing bullets ping off the outer door.

“Yes. Earth has higher gravity than all of our colonies except Apollo,” Saskia huffed as the second door opened, and they launched themselves inside. Chelakh, at the controls, detached their mooring clamps, tapping the maneuvering jets lightly to send them tumbling away—propelled, too, by the atmosphere venting from the stricken ship.

Bodies cartwheeled out of the hull breach in their wake. A few impacted on the outer hull with enough force to snap limbs. Hopefully, they aren’t alive. They could grab onto handholds. Survive on the oxygen in their suits till they can find the airlock hatch. The asteroid’s surface, however, was highly irregular. Then again, oxygen only lasts so long. Will only have remain wary for a day or two.

Survival’s cold calculus had rarely been such a comfort.

He watched the numbers tick by as they moved away. And when they hit the right combination, Chelakh told Saskia, “Detonate.”

The human drifted closer in the cockpit. “You’re sure?”

“Give controller. Will do it.” He couldn’t help how harsh his voice sounded.

She shook her head, lifting the remote detonator. Pressed the correct combination of buttons, and they saw the brief flash of light on the screen as the raider ship, still receding, exploded, tearing itself and its victim vessel apart. No fire, of course, beyond that initial flash. But a weak blast-wave of ionized particles hit them, pushing them along, before larger chunks of debris hurtled their way. A few pieces impacted, but caused no damage to the sturdy outer hull.

Chelakh put his head down on the control board. “Any scavengers watching,” he said after a moment, “might be suspicious that the asteroid was pushed away before the explosion. But might attribute to…crew inside ship making repairs. Too little, too late.”

He heard a distinctive click beside him, and stiffened, his crest rising as he turned warily to see Saskia holding the gun he’d given her. She studied the weapon for a moment, and then slid its magazine out, showing him the empty casings there. “It’s funny,” she remarked. “I didn’t even have an urge to use this on you. Them, yes. All I needed to see was that they were Lacerta, and years of training came up. No problem. Point and click.”

The odd metaphors of her language remained a minefield for him, so Chelakh just nodded as if he did understand. Then she handed him the weapon. “I’m going to go stand at the airlock with the biggest wrench I can find, in case any of them are hanging onto the outside by their claws,” Saskia informed him briskly. “But once we’ve had a chance to breathe, and I’ve fixed the heater units properly… I think you owe me a few explanations.”

Five hours later, they both hunkered over unappetizing trays of their species’ respective nutrient requirements. However, they felt much warmer, and no longer had to fear that makeshift repairs might spark a fire.

Into a long silence, Saskia asked bluntly, “So. How’d she know your name?”

Chelakh exhaled. The reprieve had been too short. “Was crewmate when gate brought the ship here,” he explained, feeling his crest sag to his skull. “Was also mate.”

“She was your wife?” Saskia’s voice went up in pitch, almost a squeak.

“Only ones for each other,” he tried. An important distinction—for him, anyway. “The exiles, those who left the homeworld, and those whom the Empire…integrated…lived as our ancestors did. Female prides, all sisters and mothers. One or two males in their prime who were mates to all—even to own daughters, in time. Young males sent out into the world. Formed nomadic bands, troublemakers, war-parties. Might find a new pride, killing or displacing the elder males. Maybe accepted by the eldest females, maybe not. Among the Sei’azhi, one, maybe two mates at a time. Elder males still have a place, not just…killed for being not in prime.” He grimaced. “Become teachers, lend experience. Strength of mind valued, not just strength of body.” Chelakh exhaled.

Saskia let her empty ration pack float in the air, her brows crinkling. “So it’s even more painful that she’d betray you. And what you believe in. Because you were each other’s only mates,” she said, startling him with the insight. “That’s…pretty normal, from a human perspective.” A slight frown as she added, “Still, you shot her. Barely any hesitation. I couldn’t understand what you two said, but…that still must have been more difficult than I can imagine.”

It wasn’t, he thought emptily. Perhaps it should have been. Again, too hard to put it into her language, but he tried. “Wasn’t who…once was. Not Dayielzha. Not even one of the People. By choice. If not born to it,” Chel struggled to explain, “doesn’t matter. Can always chose to become, or not. But to step outside? Become what the exiles are?” He shook his head. At first he’d thought about his former mate’s betrayal every day. After two years, he’d mostly learned how to push the thoughts down. “Was already dead,” he finally summarized, the words tasting like ashes. “Body didn’t know enough to fall over. And yet,” he paused, ruminating, “Dayielzha said that…had never told the exiles about this ship. Had lied to them. To protect me.”

A pause. Saskia, with a glance from her disconcerting human eyes, asked mildly, “If I were in your shoes, that would make me feel guilty.” She hesitated. “Do you believe her?”

A hollow feeling emptied his soul. “Not sure,” Chel admitted. “Probably a lie. Probably wanted a place to fall back on, last-ditch refuge. Was good at espionage.” A deprecating gesture at himself. “Could listen to broadcasts and analyze data, but Dayielzha? Understood how to …” he couldn’t find the words, “make people do what was…advantageous?”

“She knew how to manipulate,” Saskia supplied, twiddling her lifted fingers. “Comes from older words meaning to control something by hand.”

“Good word,” Chelakh replied numbly, and then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if lie or not. Either way, is my burden to bear.”

A pause. “So, how’d she wind up going darkside?” Saskia asked, her voice gentler than he’d ever heard it.

The metaphor seemed clear enough, for once. “Scavenged a usable one-person fighter. Had good engineering skills. Said would go out, scout other ships, associations. Keep this ship safe, a base.” He bared his teeth, acid filling his crop. “Didn’t return. Sent a message on an encrypted channel.” Chelakh exhaled. “Said was…insane…not to accept that conditions had changed. Should adapt to them.”

Saskia looked up at that. “You said something similar to me, just hours ago.”

“Is different.” Chelakh had to cling to that. “One thing to adapt to new culture, laws. Here? Only law is that the strong kill and eat the weak. Same law that existed before the People rose up. Made new laws. Better ones.”

She cocked her head, almost mimicking his own habitual gesture. “I’m glad that you feel that way,” Saskia told him, her lips quirking at the corners faintly. Odd human expressions. “Otherwise, they’d be finding out if humans taste more like pork or like chicken right now.” A sigh’s worth of pause. “No more secrets,” Saskia added, wagging a slender finger at him. “You say that anyone who wants to be one of the Sei’azhi does it by…being loyal. Working together. Well, I didn’t shoot you. We need each other, and we’re working together. So…put me down for membership. Tentatively.” That, with a scowl in his direction.

He chuffed with amusement between his teeth. “Very well.” A pause. “Why?”

“Because I want a vote in what we, the crew of the Good Ship Unpronounceable do next, and since it’s a Sei’azhi ship, I guess I need to do things at least a little your way to be heard.” A slightly rude noise from between her lips.

Now genuinely amused, Chelakh bowed his head, raising both hands, palms up, as if honoring her request to speak before a gathering of citizen representatives. Though he knew that the non-verbal joke would be lost on her. “Then speak. Vote. Be heard.” A chuffing snort. “Be one-of-two with me, if not one-of-many.” No need to tell her that ‘one-of-two’ is another way of saying ‘mated pair,’ in my language. She wouldn’t get that joke, either.

A snort of her own, and then she took a deep breath. “Survival isn’t enough,” Saskia told him after a moment. “And god only knows if I can live on your food without giving myself dysentery—”

“What?” A head-tilt for the unfamiliar word.

“I’ll explain later.” A quick hushing gesture. “Basically, it boils down to this. There is no long-term here. Not unless you’re willing to become them.” She waved a hand at the raiders they’d left to die. “So there are really only a few options.”

“Won’t consider suicide yet. Is only an option when alternative is capture,” Chelakh informed her bluntly.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Not where I was going with this. Shush for a moment.” Another exhale. “Neither option I see seems particularly viable,” she admitted. “One, we take over one of those big colony ships. Somehow. And run their gang of not-so-merry pirates more, eh, like your Sei’azhi. With something at least resembling integrity.”

The thought had occurred to him many times, when he’d been unable to sleep, listening to the chirp of the sensors and feeling the ship lurch unevenly through the debris field. “Difficult. Only two, not many. And then have to sit on pirates. Always be on guard, always be stronger, louder, fiercer.” He shrugged. “Not impossible. Just…very unlikely.”

She nodded, her expression glum. “And the other option is escape.”

He shook his head. “That is impossible. System is at edge of galaxy. Hundreds of light-years from known stars. This ship? Limited fuel. Not built for speed, but for concealment. Would die before reaching even the next star-system.”

She shook her head now, her expression tightening. “I know that,” Saskia said, tonelessly. “Was thinking more of trying to get through the gate.”

“Other have tried,” Chelakh replied dubiously. “Have watched new survivors try to escape raider ships. Transmit standard radio code to gate. Doesn’t open. And the wormhole generated when ships are brought here only goes one direction. So trying to enter, while another ship is sent here…even if could be predicted!…not possible.”

Saskia coughed into her hand. “Ah, Chelakh? Your people are ahead of mine in ship building, weapons…pretty much every tech there is, you’re ahead of us, right?”

He nodded, puzzled. It was nothing more than truth.

“So why, after bombing the living crap out of Xian and Hadiqua, have you had such a hard time finding our homeworld? I mean, we can’t get through your cordons of ships to get at yours, or your larger colonies. But you’ve never launched an attack on our home solar system.” Saskia swallowed visibly, the muscles working in her throat.

“Imperial Command hasn’t been able to locate,” Chelakh admitted. “Was part of mission for this ship. Had isolated location to one of several star systems before arriving here.”

A frown settled onto her face. And with great difficulty, she said, “If I had a way that might get us out of here, would you, out of duty and obedience to your people, turn over what might be the location of my homeworld to them?”

Chelakh stared at her. Put that way, it did sound like an impasse. “Have a way out of here?” he asked bluntly.

“Maybe. We, ah…we’ve had some success in reprogramming the gates.” That was a mumble, as if it pained her to say the words out loud.

He felt his jaw go slack. “Impossible! The language of the Builders is beyond everyone!”

She managed a half-smile. “No. Your language is pretty impenetrable. You encrypt all your signals. And we didn’t have anything to compare it with. No touchstone. Our local nexus array, however, well…when our ships first approached it, it sent us a, ah, grammar lesson. Among other things.” She shrugged as his jaw slackened. “Still took some of the best minds and computers on Earth about twenty years to figure out even the little that we know. But we, er, scrambled the local map of gate points. And anyone who doesn’t transmit our recognition codes gets junk results, and, well…for all I know, they might get shunted here.”

“No other species has ever received this knowledge,” Chelakh said, stunned. “What makes humans so special?”

Saskia grinned suddenly. “We’re lovable.” At his growl, she laughed uneasily. “Honestly, we don’t know. Some of the big brains don’t think the information pack was left by the Builders. I, well, I don’t know why. It’s pretty hush-hush.” She grimaced. “Hasn’t stopped people from speculating wildly, though. Everything from an ancient species experimenting on our ancestors on down. Doesn’t matter. Only thing that does is that I might be able to gain access to the gate.”

“Why not say so before this?” Chelakh demanded.

“Because I didn’t know if I can trust you!” Saskia retorted impatiently. “Technically, you’re still an enemy. Technically, telling you this was high treason on my part. You’re the one who goes on and on about honor—you do the goddamned math!” She folded her arms over her chest, and added, tightly, “Tell me that if we did somehow get out of this, and we wound up in your patch of the galaxy, that your people wouldn’t torture me for what I know. And god only knows if what little I do know, will be enough to get us out of here. I studied it in school. I know enough to change the recognition codes for my ship. Everything else is just theory.”

He felt as if a hand had clutched his crop for two years, digging in its talons, and now, suddenly released his grip. Chelakh curled in on himself, panting to release the adrenal heat that welled up inside of him. “Chel?” Saskia’s voice intruded, as cautious as the hand she now settled on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

He managed a jerky nod. “Yes. Just…did not know that hope could be vi’ezhash.” I needed this, he thought, dizzy. And I did not know how much so. Perhaps not as strong a need as tei’aska—not as strong as the need for air and water…but oh, ancestors, to think that there might be a way out.

Chelakh raised his head. “Can’t make promises. Everything depends on where in the nexus of gates we emerge—if we emerge at all.” He looked around at the scavenged food and equipment that they’d gathered. Enough to last perhaps four, five years, if he husbanded every scrap. But not enough for her. “But…one-of-two now,” he told her. Mates or not, she’s…part of this ship now. Part of me. Working together, striving together. That’s what matters, for the moment. “Worth the risk. And we need to try. Otherwise…this is all there is.” A gesture at the scraps and fragments around them. Survival is acceptable. Living is better. And neither is really possible, here in the graveyard.

◊ ◊ ◊

Everything took time. The potato-shaped asteroid tumbled through the debris field, slowly drawing in towards the sleeping giant that was the nexus gate. Three more ships came through in the next six months—none of them in shapes or configurations that either of them recognized, mute testimony to the size of the galaxy, and how sprawling the nexus gates’ reach must be. All three ships fell prey to the hungry vermin of the graveyard. And there was nothing they could do about it.

Each time, Saskia recorded the gate’s transmissions. Used the data locked in her wrist-pad and in her own memory to try to translate the Builders’ code. “It may take landing on the structure and plugging into it manually,” she told Chelakh unhappily at one point.

“Dangerous. Gates have safeguards. Prevent debris from impacting. Variety of…self-moving?…repair machines.” He’d been working at making his voice sound like less of a parody of hers, much to her relief.

“Autonomous,” Saskia said, providing the word for him. “Um…zha’rezhey’ei’e. I think.”

“That. Yes.” He drifted closer. “Can plug in directly?”

“I can try to assemble an adapter. Again it’s all theoretical for me. But worth a try.” She glanced up at him. In the past six months, they’d come to speak a mish-mash of each others’ languages on a daily basis And she rarely thought of him as a Lacerta anymore. Or an enemy. He was just…Chel. Stubbornly honorable, yet consumed by the need for survival—and oddly capable of adopting a complete alien as a crewmate, even friend. The red and blue bands of subtly iridescent scales that bracketed his gleaming yellow eyes no longer looked alien. Probably just what he’d call my Stockholm Kool-Aid, she thought wryly, and then another thought sobered her. If I ever get back to humanity—which is the goal, right?—am I going to stop seeing him as Chel? Will I stop seeing him as a person, and go back to seeing him as an enemy?

Unease churned in her. She’d gone down to only one human meal a day and cautiously supplemented her diet from his Sei’azhi ration packs—with a couple of allergic reactions that had required the use of antihistamines, but not the adrenaline needle in the sole human first-aid kit they possessed. This had stretched out her foreseeable future, but the only way out remained getting through the gate and finding their way back to recognizable star systems. “Chel,” Saskia reminded him unsteadily, “There’s a chance that even if I do crack this, it could take months of trying to chart our way through one gate to another, to another. It could take years. It’s a big galaxy, and this rock of yours isn’t really designed for landing on a planet for supplies—”

Chel put his hands on her shoulders, in spite of the filthy coveralls she wore. “Both make it,” he told her simply. “Or neither will. One-of-two, together.”

She nodded, her head tipped down, exhaling. She recognized that implacable tone by now. And felt oddly grateful for it. A smile quirked the corner of her lips. “I found that phrase in the lexical database,” Saskia told him. “There’s a note saying that it’s a colloquial phrase for a married couple. Don’t you think you should ask me about that sort of thing?”

A pause, and then a chuffing sort of laugh from him. “Expect that screaming and fleeing out of airlock without envirosuit would follow,” he informed her lightly. “Have…what are your words?…Bad track record with mates of own people.”

Saskia snorted herself now. “Everyone has a crazy ex. Yours was just an extreme example.” She felt her lips quirk up further, and teased, “Besides. I think I’m more Sei’azhi than she was. Lack of scales notwithstanding.”

His hands tightened on her shoulders. “Yes. Are.”

Startled, she tried to turn and look at him. “Conversation for later,” Chel told her, gently. “First, task at hand.”

The next day, they simulated a crash with a large chunk of debris that ‘deflected’ them into the side of the giant gate. To all outside observers, the asteroid traveled so slowly that it failed to set off the gate’s collision-detection sensors, and found itself trammeled among the miles of ribbon-like material that formed the outer edge of the gate’s event-horizon aperture—but not close enough that a random opening of the gate would annihilate their ship. They were also highly careful not to touch the surface of the gate; that would trigger the autonomous repair systems to come and remove the debris touching it.

Saskia borrowed the only EVA frame the tiny ship had—last used when Chel and his mate had scavenged the small ship that she’d used to flee to the pirates. It had, therefore, limited fuel. Fortunately, she didn’t need much to float to one of the control panels on the massive structure. Have about forty-five minutes before the repair systems get here, she thought, sweat trickling down her face as she strung a connector cord between her wrist-pad and the control panel. The schematics buried deeply in her old notes had been accurate, to her relief; the adapter she’d built, worked.

She uploaded what she hoped were requests for a change of interface controls, and jetted her way, carefully, back to the airlock, with fifteen minutes to spare. Chel met her there, and hauled her in. “Repair bots moving this way,” he told her, his voice taut. “Also, several raider ships have pinged this ship with sensors. Movement out of debris field always attracts notice. May have had good enough resolution to detect life-signs.”

“The ship was between me and them,” Saskia replied just as tightly, taking off her helmet. “But the moment we move away to try to open the gate, they’ll see the movement and know it’s not odd orbital mechanics.”

They didn’t need to say it. Either this worked, or they’d suddenly become interesting, anomalous prey to be hunted down in the graveyard. Or, if I’ve set the codes incorrectly, we might go through the gate and be annihilated, Saskia added mentally, swallowing hard.

Chel tapped the maneuvering jets, pulling them back to a safer distance. And swallowing, Saskia punched in the codes and transmitted them to the gate.

A brilliant white light suffused the screen in front of them as the giant opened a mouth filled with fire. Saskia, floating behind Chel’s pilot seat, grabbed onto his shoulder, giddy with excitement and fear. “Now or never,” she said. “I set it for a short-duration window, so no one can follow us.”

“Then go now,” Chel replied, and moved them forward. The gate seemed to loom larger and larger on the screen, shining white light through the tiny cockpit. Saskia could feel the wobble in the pit of her stomach that she remembered from every other transit through the event horizon. Instantaneous duration, my ass, she thought distantly. If it’s so instantaneous, how can I always feel when it happens?

The white light disappeared from the screen, replaced by the distant chip of a yellow-white dwarf. Saskia whooped so loudly that her voice reverberated from the walls. “We’re not dead!” she shouted, jubilation flooding her. Chel launched himself from the pilot’s seat, caught her, and spun her around in mid-air, his crest fully extended.

It took them a moment or two to settle down again. Chel had his computer scan the star’s spectral lines, while Saskia sent the standard query to the gate…and received the standard reply: a map of the ten closest destinations in the nexus. “I wonder why you can’t just input your end destination, and go there directly,” she muttered.

“Tolls or safety. Don’t know. Would be convenient.” Chel made an annoyed hissing sound. “Computer doesn’t recognize this star. Hopefully, in home galaxy.”

Saskia winced. That was a bad thought, and one that made her stomach curl. “At least, if we aren’t,” she said quietly, “it’s a different problem, right?”

Chel caught her hand in his taloned one. “Yes,” he said, and as if with careful deliberation, added, emphasizing the pronoun, “and is one that we’ll face together.”

—«»-«»-«»—

Bitter Bones

by Daniel Miranda

Oki held the last bone fragment in her withered palm. A child’s. Although she had washed the delicate rib, its surface was still blotched with darkened signs of blood. She waved a sakaki branch over the bone and laid it gently into the pit before her as the villagers approached with urns of salt. Hundreds of bones. Hundreds of souls wiped out by famine from a neighboring settlement a year earlier. Their pain and anger had fermented for so long it had created a monster.

A gashadokuro. The skeletal giant made up of the remains of the starved had been plaguing the countryside for the past two and a half days. Salt poured into the pit. It did nothing to muffle the unseen energy thrumming against Oki’s mind like the tides of a furious ocean, wishing to continue its grudge against the living. It wished to kill her.

The purification ritual was not yet complete.

Frantic, humidity-sheened men proceeded to cover the pit with dirt at Oki’s instruction, yet many of the woman and children huddled back to watch her work quite a distance away. They were afraid of someone, and it wasn’t the gashadokuro. Oki put them out of her mind for now and went to her knees.

“I bow before you, nameless spirit,” began Oki, lowering her head. “With great respect, I ask that you release yourself from the heavy burden of vengeance. Allow me to sweep aside the impurities you have cursed upon this land so that none shall suffer your affliction. Pass over this town and its people in peace and bear them no hatred.”

As if in response, a sudden burst of wind rushed off the distant sea, the villagers gasping from the force of it. The squall cut through the grass, Oki’s long white hair, then into the trees behind her. She kept her head bowed against the crisp branch in her hands until the pit filled completely.

Seconds later, the malevolent energy vanished.

Oki stood and dusted off her black hakama. She turned to a particularly dopey-looking man and tossed him the sakaki branch. “Get me the sake Muneshige promised me, ya half-witted arse. And the gold.” She shoved past a flock of startled women to recover her gnarled wooden cane resting behind them as the lickspittle fool bolted down the verdant hillock. “It’s over.”

She made her way down as well, shuffled past the gates of Kijimadaira, and headed towards the village leader’s house to collect the payment awaiting her. The townspeople got out of her way well enough. A particular gaggle of children ran screaming when Oki lurched close, and she had to remind herself that she was in her eighth decade with aching joints and a stiff back.

“Snot-nosed little urchins,” she muttered.

Even the vendors avoided her on the narrow street. They bowed and scurried back into their stalls of ripe green sudachi and striped katsuo fish and barreled rice. They looked at her as if she would turn into the gashadokuro and devour them. She was a fucking priestess. But, she supposed she couldn’t blame them since she constantly meddled with demons.

Fortunately for her, the creature had broken down before she’d arrived, its energy spent after rampaging the night through. All she had been hired to do was to purify its bones, which in turn purified this town. Easy gold.

A man in ministerial robes stepped in her way. “My lady—”

Oki rapped her cane against the man’s ankle and he stumbled past her.

“Oi, watch where you’re going!” she barked in passing.

The scuffle of boots and clanking armor sounded behind her, with an uproar of shouts and curses. She didn’t pay them any mind. Sake and gold. She just needed her payment and then she’d leave this backwater fishing village behind. They were lucky enough to have had her for this long in the first place.

“How dare you? Halt this instant, woman!”

Oki grunted and turned around.

The red-faced minister righted himself, but he wasn’t the one that shouted after her. If she could guess, it was the oaf of a man next to him, katana drawn, sweaty face pinched in anger. Oki leaned on her cane. All ten of these men in their lacquered, scaled armor and bright colors weren’t from this village. Too haughty for such a place. They were samurai.

She hated samurai.

“You have just assaulted a court officer,” growled the warrior.

Oki tapped her foot, itching to leave. “So?”

The samurai puffed up. “Impudent woman, do you know who we are?”

“It is quite all right, Junzo,” said the minister.

Another warrior stepped forward. “But Yunosuke-sama—”

The minister raised a hand. “I said it is all right.” He straightened his pointed cap and dusted the dirt from his white, five-layered uniform. “No matter how ill-mannered, we will not kill the sole person we have been searching for.”

“And who the hell are you?” asked Oki, patience thinning.

“My name is Yunosuke Goro. I am one of the emperor’s advisors.”

“The emperor? You mean that arrogant up-start who thinks he’s related to the sun goddess Amaterasu?” asked Oki grinning her toothless smile, brow raised. Not many things could make her laugh, but this came close. “Please, that little ankle-biter and his lackeys just want power. It’s all politics, I tell ya.”

Yunosuke’s eyes widened, body rigid. The eavesdropping townspeople stopped what they were doing and quieted into a shocked silence, allowing only the groans of cattle to swamp the cramped street. Some fell to their knees, heads bowed into the dirt as if to let the imperial men know they had nothing to do with Oki. Oki might have been a woman, but she refused to drop her gaze.

Every samurai ripped their katanas from their sayas.

Then again, perhaps she had gone too far with her comment, Oki thought, wiping her smile. Couldn’t be helped now. She just didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Even the minister’s pleasant face hardened at the insult. Already so loyal to this new emperor, huh? The man had only been in power for a year.

“I should let my men remove your head,” said Yunosuke.

Heedless of command, Junzo rushed past the minister with surprising speed, katana at his side in a two-hand grip. His face had lost its witless scowl. Instead, a dark, unflinching expression had replaced it, one set on murder. Before Oki could react, Junzo raised his blade, red sun flashing against its silver surface.

“Junzo!” roared Yunosuke.

The samurai stopped, eyes bulging.

“Short of harming the emperor,” said Yunosuke, glaring at his subordinate, “the crone can say whatever she wants. We need her. The emperor needs her.” He looked back at Oki, eyes narrowed. “But if there were any other priestess who could handle our problem, you would be dead right now.”

Oki shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Your reputation precedes you, Oki-san.”

“Does it now? I didn’t know I had a reputation.”

“You do. The people across the land know you well. Of course, in the capital, we have heard rumblings of a warrior able to calm demons and gigantic beasts. I arrived in Kijimadaira expecting to find a man, but the people informed me you were nothing of the sort.” He frowned. “Very insolent, however.”

“Thanks,” said Oki turning her back on Junzo’s half-raised blade and walking down the street to the gasps of nearby fishmongers and farmers. She needed to sit down, and this confrontation was wearing her out.

“His Imperial Majesty requires your help with a problem,” called Yunosuke.

“Too far. Not interested.”

“I’m prepared to offer you a position in the court.”

“Is that supposed to be an attractive offer?”

“I’ll pay your weight in gold.”

Oki stopped and turned around. “Whaddaya want?”

“You’re a priestess who has some authority on demonic activity, more specifically the disturbed spirits of gashadokuro,” said Yunosuke, face blanching merely from mentioning it. The samurai sheathed their weapons as he spoke, along with Junzo’s. “You see, two towns near the capital are suffering from one.”

“Why doesn’t your oh-so-divine emperor handle the fucking problem himself then? You probably have the armies. The resources. If those don’t work, he can call down Amaterasu his gods-damned self. You don’t need me.”

The big samurai’s sword-hand trembled. “Give me the honor of cutting her down, Yunosuke-sama,” he said, glaring, grabbing his hilt. “This decrepit wench needs to learn some manners.”

“And you need to learn how to lose some bloody weight, ya fat hog!” Oki retorted. “I’m straight baffled you were even able to stuff yourself in that shiny, pretentious outfit. How’re ya feeling? Is it a little stuffy in there?”

Junzo’s jowls shook, and his katana was near out of its saya again.

“Enough,” ordered Yunosuke, putting a firm hand on Junzo’s breastplate. He looked back at Oki. “We’ve sent warriors to deal with the monster several times, but they can never locate it. When the imperial troops depart, the gashadokuro returns to wreak havoc upon the region.” The minister shook his head. “The people believe this to be a bad omen to His Imperial Majesty’s recent ascendancy. We cannot allow this to continue.”

Oki stared. “Gashadokuro are twenty times the height of men.”

Yunosuke blinked. “I…didn’t know that.”

“Well now ya do! If the demon’s real, you woulda found it by now, unless yer soldiers are blind, deaf, and stupid. You and your emperor’s been fooled. Must be some other troublesome spirit, if it’s even a spirit at all.”

“Please.” Yunosuke bowed low, and his voice took on a pleading tone. “Please. If this persists so close to the capital, the clans will revolt. They will take these attacks as a sign His Imperial Majesty is unfit for the throne, that his legitimacy granted by the goddess is a sham.”

“Probably is, but it’s not my problem.”

“Investigate, and I will pay for your time nonetheless.”

Oki thought about it. The capital was certainly far…but the idiots were gonna pay her in any case. And she never usually had more than one job a month, what with the rare nature of gashadokuro sightings. The gold would keep her set and comfortable for a year or more. But to be honest, the odd behavior of the alleged gashadokuro made her curious.

This was too good to pass up.

She sighed. “I’ll do it under one condition.”

“Anything.”

“I want a gods-damned bottle of sake right now.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Yunosuke’s warriors escorted Oki to Higashiyama, the town directly affected by the gashadokuro, after a month on the road. Her bones ached. She wasn’t sure if this job proved worth it anymore, but a job was a job, and they had already paid her a small advance. Still, now she knew why the emperor’s soldiers had such a tough time spotting a massive giant of blood and death.

A dark forest surrounded the town, stretching over fifty leagues. It still wasn’t enough to convince her the skeletal demon manifested itself here. For one, it was the constant attacks. It took an enormous amount of rage to suspend the gashadokuro in this world. Because of this, the demon burned through its stored power within a day or so. Rarely longer. Oki hadn’t known them to be very intelligent either. They were made up of hundreds of angry souls, each one vying for control, which forced them to follow their base desire: to feed.

This odious mass did not hide. It massacred.

Despite it all, something was definitely wrong here.

As soon as she had entered the woodland, she passed into a sinister fog of energy. The metallic omamuri—protective charms—hanging along her braided sash buzzed, setting what was left of her teeth on edge. Even the samurai seemed to sense it. They always kept a hand on their hilts, and the slightest noise had their heads darting back and forth.

“Your samurai are making me fucking nervous,” said Oki.

Yunosuke glanced out of the large carriage’s window. “There’s a monster out there,” he said, wringing his hands, his own voice quivering. “My soldiers are getting you more nervous than the gashadokuro? We are very…vulnerable at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Oki took a swig of sake from her gourd. “I already told ya. It’s a different spirit. Clean out yer ears ‘cuz I’m not gonna say it again.” She stared deep into the dark, silent woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever afflicted this place.

Yunosuke paused. “I wasn’t aware priestesses drank.”

Oki gulped down the last drop. “They don’t.”

Eventually, the small convoy made it to Higashiyama’s gates, the town’s wooden walls rising almost as high as the surrounding trees. The security was heavy, but the guards seemed to recognize the imperial sigil. They opened their gates without question. Yunosuke’s carriage continued through the narrow, winding streets, unhampered by the non-existent foot traffic.

“These people are hiding in their own homes,” said Yunosuke.

Oki nodded. And the few townsfolk brave enough to wander out of their dwellings—expensive, well-kept houses with curved, thatched clay roofs—were terrified of their own shadows. One man in particular stepped out of an old latticed teahouse, hunched and wide-eyed, looking upon Yunosuke’s warriors with suspicion, rather than hope. He scurried into an alley and disappeared.

The convoy continued through the labyrinth of cobbled roads designed to confuse outsiders, then turned onto a discrete path lined with lanterns and bright red maple trees. They stopped at the town leader’s multi-storied manor. A band of opposing samurai blocked the entrance. Their white kimonos were pristine, but their faces told a different story: heavy bags under their bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, slouched postures.

These men hadn’t slept in a while.

“Announce yourselves,” ordered a scraggly-bearded guard.

Oki exited the carriage “Move it, ya—”

“My lady,” cut in Yunosuke. “Allow me to speak with them.”

Oki pursed her lips. “Suit yourself.”

Yunosuke stepped in front of her. “We come in the name of Emperor Jimmu, Kamuyamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto, and heavenly descendant of Amaterasu. I am one of his court ministers, Yunosuke Goro. I seek Seo Moronobu. Your leader will recognize me. I have been here once before with an imperial delegation.”

The samurai looked at each other.

“Yes, yes, I am coming,” a faint voice called out.

A decrepit old man hobbled over the threshold. His leathery dark skin was beset with deep valleys of wrinkles, while his lips pressed tightly together from having lost all of his teeth. Cataracts clouded his sightless grey eyes, his hair hung past his waist, and a black kimono hung off of his unnaturally gaunt frame like a stray wisp of cloth caught on a branch.

Oki raised her brows. She thought she was ancient, but this bag made her look like one of those beauty-obsessed, milk-faced courtesans with perky tits. He must be well over his hundredth decade. The man didn’t even need a cane to walk, unlike Oki. She scowled. Damned, bloody joints.

“Ah, it is you again,” said the man in a coarsened, weary voice.

Yunosuke bowed. “I promised I would return.”

“What is it you think you can do,” said Moronobu, “that I have not already tried? That your soldiers have not already tried? Your men couldn’t even locate the creature last you were here. Unless you have brought an army this time, that is, we might have a chance. Yet I see no army.”

“Yer blind, ya shriveled coot,” said Oki. “Ya can’t see shit!”

Moronobu’s samurai immediately unsheathed their blades. Yunosuke’s men did the same. Oki had to squint as the dawning red sun glinted off the barbs of naked steel surrounding her. She raised a bony hand to shade her brow. Everyone was so sensitive nowadays. She supposed she was lucky the emperor protected her now. These men would have had no qualms gutting her.

Moronobu waved down his samurai. “And you are?”

“None of yer business,” said Oki. “All ya need to know is that I’m being paid to solve yer problem, so I’d appreciate it if ya didn’t lie to me. First of all, has this town been chewing on some of those blasted mushrooms much lately?”

The old leader leaned in, squinting. “I beg your pardon?”

“You know, the ones that make you hallucinate?”

“What are you trying to say?”

This man might not have lost his ability to walk, but he definitely lost most of his wits. “All this talk about the gashadokuro is nonsense,” said Oki, grinding her cane into the dirt. “The demon doesn’t have enough power to survive this long. Yer people are fools. What makes ya believe it attacked this place?”

Moronobu’s back straightened, and his grey eyes hardened. “Because I saw it with my own eyes. It killed my soldiers.” His already soft voice lowered to a point where what he said was just barely audible to Oki. “It killed my son.”

Oki could usually tell when a person lied, and Moronobu’s face said it all.

“Gashadokuro don’t materialize outta nowhere,” she continued, moving on from the topic of the man’s son. Her voice took on a more serious tone. “Has this region experienced any mass deaths? War? Starvation? Natural disasters?”

With a nod, Moronobu said, “A year ago, a massive battle took place in this forest between Lord Nagasawa and a rebelling state. Only twenty leagues away from my town. Thousands died, and in the aftermath, the lord refused to bury his enemies.” His brow furrowed. “Is this where the beast was created?”

“Shit,” muttered Oki, unease creeping along her spine.

“What is it?” asked Yunosuke.

“A gashadokuro created by the violent deaths brought upon by murder is the worst kind ta come across. They’re bigger, hungrier, and a helluva lot more nasty than the regular ones.” Perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch the demon still wandered this region. With enough souls, the demon could last quite a while.

Oki tapped a finger on one of her wooden amulets. “Either you had something to do with the massacre, or the creature’s attracted to the piss-foul scent of your unshowered samurai. Why else would it keep coming back to this place?”

Moronobu simply stared, while his men bristled. Must be partially deaf too, thought Oki. She opened her mouth to repeat herself, but the old man said, in a firmer voice this time, “Leave this place, priestess. At once. I will not be requiring your services, especially not from such a brazen woman.”

There was a stunned silence. Even Moronobu’s samurai glanced at him.

Oki shrugged and turned to leave.

Yunosuke stepped forward and bowed low. “Moronobu-san, the emperor wishes to help in this matter. You cannot possibly destroy the gashadokuro on your own. Even if you do, someone must purify this land. Please reconsider.”

Moronobu bowed and shuffled back into his manor.

◊ ◊ ◊

The rumble of the carriage departing Higashiyama made Oki’s bones hurt all over again. She wouldn’t abide this for another month. Not without anything to show for it. The emperor’s men might have to respect Moronobu’s wishes, but she didn’t. A league into the journey back to the capital, Oki rapped the base of her cane into the wall behind Yunosuke, startling him.

“Stop this damn thing, will ya!” she shouted.

With a lurch and a confused clop of hooves, the carriage stopped. Oki opened the door and walked into the night as Yunosuke called out after her. She kept walking until the minister put a hand on her small shoulder.

Yunosuke didn’t let go. “What do you think you are doing?”

Oki slapped his hand off. “Performing the task I’m being paid for.”

“The gold is yours. You do not have to do this.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Oki, turning around, tired of this uppity imperial stooge. Her finger prodded the minister’s chest with every sentence. “This gashadokuro menace is my responsibility. It’s why I’m a priestess. This is what I do, and I don’t take orders from nobody, ya hear?”

Yunosuke took a step back. “If this is your wish, then—”

“You’re damn well right it’s my wish. Don’t follow me neither.”

“I cannot allow you to go by yourself.”

Oki snorted. “Ya think ‘cuz I’m old I can’t take care of myself? Your samurai would only get in my way, and their armor’s too damn noisy. I work better alone. Just wait for me here until I get back. If I don’t return by dawn, I was probably eaten, so you just go. Ya got it? Or am I gonna have ta repeat myself?”

“I…understand,” said Yunosuke. “At least take a lantern.”

One of the samurai picked off a hanging lantern attached to the carriage. Oki grabbed it out of his hand, inspected it, and turned on her heel. “Alrighty then,” she said satisfied, and resumed her trek into the forest.

“Good luck, Oki-san.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Attached to Oki’s sash, the hovering central talisman—a folded paper manikin inscribed with a magnetism spell—pulled her eastward. While it had taken her a good whole month to make, it’d been worth it. It picked up and reacted to the manifestation of evil energy. A very handy tool.

The talisman led her deeper into the ancient forest, a place of massive gnarled roots, moss, and trees as thick as houses. Yunosuke’s weak lantern only illuminated a short distance ahead. There wasn’t any moonlight to guide her way, and every step over the forest’s misshapen undergrowth burned her joints like ground glass beneath her skin.
She was getting too old for this. Hundreds of exorcisms and purifications in her lifetime, and just now she agreed to take on one of her most dangerous jobs to date? Insanity. She barely had the strength to walk, let alone find and take on an enraged gashadokuro in the dead of night.

Her talisman snapped off and darted into the darkness ahead.

Oki stopped. Her heartbeat spiked, and chilled sweat pearled across her brow. She’d faced plenty of gashadokuro, but this felt different somehow. The air didn’t taste right. And it wasn’t the stench of rotting flesh. Evil had its own scent, one Oki was well acquainted with. The malevolence thickened like a pall of poison fog, rancid on her tongue. She shook her head, then hammered flat her fear.

She refused to die in this hellhole.

Oki relaxed into a firm stance, setting the lantern on the ground as a faint rattling echoed through the trees, the gashadokuro’s death noise, and the only sound they made when one closed in on its prey. Somewhat of a blessing since the demons were naturally invisible, and unnaturally silent. The only way to defeat them would be to escape the area, or keep it moving until it burned through its collection of souls.

But Oki was a priestess, and she had other ways.

First step, of course, was unmasking them.

Keeping her eyes on the darkness ahead, she removed an unveiling talisman—a powerful object crafted by the Five Priests of Kyushu she’d won gambling—from her sash, and gripped the small wooden sphere with the tips of her fingers. She waited, but the gashadokuro didn’t show itself. Something was wrong. The demon should have attacked by now, what with the incessant rattling. Maybe it hadn’t seen her yet.

A whisper of frigid air licked the nape of her neck. Shit!

Oki spun around. An immense footprint sunk into the ground mere feet away, deep enough to be a grave for her and half the town of Higashiyama. The demon shouldn’t have been smart enough to stalk her like this. Overcoming her shock, she rolled the talisman across the ground. What looked like molten gold filled the engraved glyphs across the talisman’s surface. A lance of light shot out of its center, illuminating the sky and forest and the gashadokuro above.

Oki’s breath caught in her throat.

The demon’s eyes—purple orbs of writhing fire—froze her in place. Crouching against a low lichen-crusted, granite shelf, massive hands gripped a pair of trees, timbers creaking from the weight. Hundreds of thousands of bones clung together like some twisted mosaic of death. Even hunched, it was the biggest gashadokuro Oki had ever seen.

Taking a step back, her heel caught a root.

Her hip struck the hard ground and blinding, exquisite pain bloomed over her entire body. The demon lunged, teeth gnashing. With all of her strength, she dug her cane beneath another large root beside her and pushed, rolling out of the way as the red skull crashed into the undergrowth.

Chips of bone and teeth showered her. The gashadokuro removed its face from the ground, half of its jaw hanging loose, held together by decaying ligaments of flesh and cartilage. It roared. Thousands of tortured voices hit Oki, howling, screaming in rage and pain at their curse.

The giant lunged again. No, it wouldn’t end like this! Through muscle memory alone, she ripped off an ofuda from her sash and raised it as the monster slammed against her palm, shoving her backwards. Just when she thought her wrist would snap back, the gashadokuro went rigid.

“Bishamonten!” cried Oki.

The script along the hemp cloth amulet glowed red.

Thick smoke erupted out of the tightly-woven threads, curling behind the skeleton in a crimson mass of tendrils. They coalesced and took the shape of a frowning giant in fearsome armor, a facsimile of the god of war. Although the figure was only a physical manifestation of Oki’s spell, and less than half the size of the gashadokuro, it locked the demon in place with relative ease.

Immobilization. Step two complete.

Oki sighed. She used her cane to rise to her feet despite the throbbing agony and stared at the silent gashadokuro that had been brought to its knees. This creature…wasn’t normal. Well, as normal as these things could be. It had been smart enough to stalk her, hide from the townsfolk, as well as survive this long. No gashadokuro ever displayed such intelligence.

No matter. It was over now and she’d rather not find out more lest this monster discovered a way to slip its bond. Her spell would only last for another five minutes anyways, so she’d better get on with the final step: purification by fire. However, before she removed her last talisman, she stopped.

Something caught her attention. Looking past the decaying flesh and black marrow barnacling the titanic skeleton, there were thick black marks etched upon its forehead, shoulder blades, and kneecaps. She didn’t notice them before, what with how dark it was and all the blood, but she recognized them.

They were summoning glyphs.

Someone had conjured this demon. It was under someone’s control. No wonder it was so smart. She’d never met one who abused their power like this, but this had to be the work of an onmyōji, a trained sorcerer. A skilled one.

She’d always thought she was the last of them.

Oki scrambled back and stood, joints ablaze. She wrenched the cane out from beneath the root. The demon merely moaned now, the twisted mélange of voices bleeding from its hollow throat, fiery eyes dim, sorrowful. Her right hand trembled as she squeezed the head of her cane, tears threatening to fall.

Someone had conjured the gashadokuro before her. Someone had wrenched the restless spirits from the land and forced them into this warped, perverted thing. These poor souls suffered in life, and now they suffered in death. She could end this for them. Right now. Just finish it. But…she needed to find out who was responsible.

She would not let this atrocity go unanswered.

Oki never used her magic directly. But to hell with her gods-damned rules! She mustered the esoteric spiritual energy within her, reversing the glyphs burned into the gashadokuro’s bones, and released Bishamonten’s grasp. Now, it would return to its master. The terrible demon surged to its full height of one-hundred and fifty men, purple gaze turning eastward.

Oki closed her eyes. “Go,” she whispered.

◊ ◊ ◊

It took every ounce of Oki’s willpower to keep the gashadokuro under control, the translucent puppet strings attached to the demon threatening to snap from her fingers. The demon pulled and pulled, and Oki pulled back, jaw clenched, forcing it to slow down enough that it didn’t drag her through the forest at breakneck speed. The demon was leading her back the way she’d come.

Yunosuke and his samurai still waited on the main road, staring agape at the gashadokuro heading straight towards them. The group scrambled out of the way as the monster crushed the carriage underfoot, wood exploding in a shower of splinters. For a moment, Oki had thought the meek minister was the onmyōji, but the way the man trembled on the ground erased any suspicion.

She passed him by when the gashadokuro veered hard. She stifled a yelp as she was half-dragged down the same road. Towards Higashiyama. Distant alarm bells rang through the trees, men screamed orders atop the rumbling walls. Arrows whistled through the branches, but the gashadokuro simply ignored them, most of the projectiles snapping against its body.

The demon tossed aside the iron gates and crashed through town.

“Move, ya damn fool!” yelled Oki, shoving aside a gawking farmer.

Oki’s right arm moved frantically, maneuvering the strings to limit the damage and keep the damn, lumbering beast from trampling over innocents.  Even then she felt the strings of energy connected to the demon straining. It wanted nothing more than to devour these souls, to rip these men and women apart limb from limb and add it to its own body. Oki wouldn’t let that happen.

“Oki-san, what in Izanami’s name is going on?” asked Yunosuke behind her, trailed by his unsettled samurai reeking of warm urine. So he’d finally caught up with her. “You were supposed to defeat this demon, not bring it back here!”

“Stay out of this!” snapped Oki.

“How is this possible? It hasn’t killed anyone.”

Not yet, thought Oki grimly.

With a roar, the gashadokuro lurched into another street in the direction of Moronobu’s manor. Oki allowed the demon to tear the roof off the leader’s residence in a hail of broken tile. She couldn’t say she was surprised the demon had led her back to Higashiyama, but seeing Moronobu on the floor, a protective amulet raised above his head, did. She never sensed the mystical energy within the old man.

Oki pushed her way past a contingent of bow-wielding samurai and planted her feet in the shadow of the gashadokuro, a clear view of Moronobu in the foyer of his manor. “Don’t bother. You’re too weak of an onmyōji to wrest back control of your precious pet.” She grunted. “I’m going to let it tear your skin loose and peel it like hide from your bones.”

Moronobu looked at her. “I thought I told you to leave.”

“I never leave without finishing a job.”

“Oki-san, what—” said Yunosuke.

“I said stay out of this!” shouted Oki, rounding on him and blasting his men with a   concussive force of invisible energy. The minister and his samurai crashed into the wall of the house opposite and she turned back to her business.

“Why summon this demon?” she asked.

It was silent for a time, and just when she thought Moronobu wouldn’t respond, he said in his feeble, quiet voice, “The emperor is making a mockery of the faith. I wanted to embarrass him, make the people believe his rule was a sign from the very gods he touted to be descended from, but I never planned to kill.”

Yunosuke limped over again. Stupid fool. “That is treason!”

“I respect no king,” rasped the old man.

Oki’s pitch dropped to a bare, low whisper. “Politics.”

Moronobu just stared at her, a question in his eyes.

“You did all this because of politics?” she seethed. Oki relaxed the puppet strings in the gashadokuro’s right arm, allowing it to lower its massive hand over Moronobu, but held it up short before it grabbed him. Not yet. It would be too easy. She wanted to watch him suffer.

“Why are you doing this?” asked the man, amulet trembling now. “I never killed the villagers this gashadokuro was made from. Why blame me for protecting my people? This land does not need an emperor. We’ve been fine all this time, we will be fine for centuries to come.”

“You said your son died because of it. That wasn’t a lie.”

Moronobu’s eyes glistened, voice unsteady. “It wasn’t.”

“Then what happened?”

“My son discovered my plans. He did not believe in them.”

“So you murdered him.”

“No!” shouted Moronobu, louder than Oki’s ever heard from him. “No! He took some of my soldiers and went to go put down the gashadokuro in the dead of night, while I was sleeping. I had no control of the demon. It killed him.”

Oki’s anger boiled over. She loosened the strings again. The massive fingers closed around Moronobu, the amulet sparking, then guttering out. “You did something far worse than what those raiders did, than what you did to your own son. You took innocents from their graves and twisted them into this demon!”

An insidious, wicked energy seeped into Oki’s bitter bones, and she could feel the small man within her own hands, struggling like a helpless insect. She squeezed and Moronobu cried out as the gashadokuro’s fists rasped tighter, bone grinding against bone. This man deserved it. This man sinned against so many…but she couldn’t let this evil consume her like it had consumed him.

The frail, quivering old man stared into the gashadokuro’s eyes.

“Do you see him?” asked Oki after a time.

Moronobu nodded shakily, tears streaming down his face.

Oki pulled the strings back and the gashadokuro let go of him, maneuvering its arms out of the manor. She removed the last purification talisman from her sash and uttered the words of power. Holy fire streamed out of the circular, metallic braid, running across the demon like a bright net of chains. With a flash, bones spilled from the sky.

The sea of bones surrounded her, and Yunosuke’s samurai waded through it to get to Moronobu. They picked him off the ground and tied his wrists behind his back. Yunosuke looked at her. “The emperor will deal with him.”

Oki ignored him. She began picking up bones and stacking it in her arms.
“You are onmyōji,” said Yunosuke, after a moment.

Oki sighed and continued collecting the bones delicately in the crutch of her right arm. In her rage, she allowed an imperial servant to witness her magic. Sloppy. But nothing could be done about it now. “Are ya gonna help me bury this here skeleton or just stand around?”

Yunosuke hesitated for a moment, but took Oki’s lead. And so did the wary townsfolk as they wandered out of the safety of their homes. Hundreds of them. They gathered the remains, washed off the blood, and guided the souls out of Higashiyama and into a peaceful grove deep in the forest.

After the ritual, Oki painfully decided she valued freedom over the promised gold. Yunosuke was a good man, however, Junzo would have certainly informed the emperor of her sorcery. She slipped away, instead leaving the town with a full belly, new omamuri charms, and a little bit of sake.

—«»-«»-«»—

Ten minutes for Scarlet Omega

by Joachim Heijndermans

There’s the bell again. Thank God for that. Whoever comes next couldn’t possibly be worse than this last guy. What a creep. Bad hair and bad teeth I can get past, and I’m not one to brag when it comes to my own wardrobe though I overdressed for this nightmare, that’s for sure. But someone so desperate for female contact should not throw the words “ho’s” and “bitches” around like candy from Santa’s float in the thanksgiving parade, or brag about how many “skanks” he’s banged and how and where. Was he a twelve-year-old in disguise? Did he break the chains that kept locked him in the professor’s lair and wandered in here by mistake? And who still wears their cap backward?

Why did I let Janette talk me into this? “Try speed dating,” she said. “That’s where I met my Howie. It’ll be great. I bet you twenty bucks you’ll get a guy who’ll be quite a catch.”

I met Howie. If that guy, a nervous wreck who cowers when she’s having one of the tantrums, was her idea of a catch, then heaven preserve me.

Again, I ask myself, why did I come here? It’s not like they’re handing out free booze. Hell, there’s no booze of any kind. I can’t remember why I thought this would be a good idea, aside from having gone without a date in over seven months. Hell, I don’t even remember the last time I got laid. Ok, that’s a lie. I remember it all too well, and it had been fucking fantastic. But I remember the fallout from it even more.

It was stupid of me to come here. Was I just hoping to get lucky? Because dragging myself through this nonsense is not worth it. I should’ve stayed at home and worked on fixing the suit. The sleeve on the right arm needs stitching and the kevlar needs to be replaced.

“Hello,” says a soft but deep voice. “Are you available for the next round?” He’s a tall guy, dressed in a black suit. The first guy tonight whose outfit actually suits his face. Kind of, as it’s slightly too big for him. Older guy, in his mid-forties I’d say, with slightly graying hair at his temples. His oddly bright eyes catch my attention, but nothing too out of the ordinary. They remind me of a wolf’s eyes. Calm, but alert.

Broad shoulders too. Works out, but doesn’t want to draw attention to it by wearing the suit. Not a bad looking dude, all things considering. So naturally, this is where my famous friendly demeanor kicks in.

“So what’s your damage,” I snap.

He didn’t flinch at that. He even chuckles, rubbing his temples like he’s got a headache. “Bad night?”

“Ugh,” I grunt. “I’m sorry. I’m normally not like this at all. Well, maybe a little. But not trying to be a bitch. It’s just—”

“The timer is about to start,” he says. “But if you’re done for tonight—”

“Siddown,” I growl. He’s the last one. If this guy turns out to be another creep, I’m torching this whole building to the ground. No jury would convict me.

“You’ve got the next ten minutes to give me hope for the male gender. I’m having a shit night, so make this good.”

He takes a seat and scoots closer. When he clenches his hands, his knuckles crack loudly. He’s got some mild scarring on them. Light burn scars, maybe?

“I think I know exactly what you’re going through. And forgive me if this sounds sexist, but you might have it worse than I. The ladies I’ve talked with were…something else, but nothing I can’t escape from. As a woman, you might attract a more extreme personality type.”

I chuckle, but it ain’t a happy one. “You don’t say.”

“Am I wrong?” he asks, giving me the smug I know I’m right but I’m gonna needle you until you say so look. He’s smart and likes to show it off. But I’ve dealt with ‘smart guys’ plenty of times. I’m not worried.

“Don’t get me started,” I grumble. “I’ve talked to over ten guys tonight. It’s been a regular who’s who of creeps, losers, momma’s boys, and creepy loser momma’s boys. And they don’t serve liquor here either, otherwise, it would make this whole charade much easier to bear. But nothing I can’t handle. It’s just exhausting, you know?”

“I can sympathize. The women I’ve met tonight seem to fluctuate between the very needy to the outright frightening.”

“Yeah? How so?”

“Well, my first session I met a lovely woman, as well as her cat Tinkers, whom she smuggled along in her purse. Asked me if I wanted to meet his seven brothers.”

“I got you beat on that one,” I tell him. “There was a guy, who, after we said our hello’s, told me my hair was like his mother’s. But mine didn’t smell as good.”

“I’ll see your hair smeller, and raise it with a charming young lady who asked me if I could co-sign for her new car. When I told her that perhaps she was going a bit fast, she asked me when I was going to meet her parents.”

I fight the urge to laugh, so I give him an awkward smile instead. “You know, I’m almost tempted to ditch this joint and go into the conference door next room. Getting roped into a pyramid scheme doesn’t sound so bad now.”

“There’s a plan. You might get a white Mercedes out of it,” he says with a chuckle. He’s got a pleasant laugh, I’ll give him that. He extends his hand to me. “I’m Ellis.”

I take his hand and shake it. “June. And yes, like the month. I’ve heard that one enough times as it is.”

His eyes go over me. I know that look. It’s the look I give on an almost daily basis. Not the ‘I wonder what she looks like naked’ look, but the ‘what is her damage or secret’ look. Instinctively, I hide my hands in the sleeves of my jacket. He notices.

“Are your hands all right?” he asks? “You don’t need to hide them from me. I’m used to blemishes,” he says, tapping the mild burn scars on his own hands.

“Sorry. I have an active lifestyle, which leaves me with some scrapes now and then. It doesn’t bother me most of the time, but I get self-conscious about the scars on my hands.”

“Please, don’t be. I know all too well what that’s like myself. What sports do you do?”

And there it is. The inevitable subject that either causes guys to get scared or makes them act like even bigger meatheads. Here goes nothing. “Eskrima. It’s a stick-fighting martial art from—”

“—the Philippines. I’m familiar with it. I’m an Aikido man myself.”

Not bad. But I’m staying on my toes. Wouldn’t be the first time some douche challenged me to spar with him, only to wail like a stuck pig when I rough ’em up. “So what do you do?” I ask.

“I’m an engineer with R&D at Oberon. Jet propulsion and the sort. It’s how I burned myself. A little explosion that got out of hand a little while back.”

“You see a lot of explosions?”

He shrugs. “No more than most labs. They say fires are unpredictable. They’re not, just difficult to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you know how fire works, you can avoid losing your eyebrows.”

“You enjoy your work?”

“It’s fine. But it’s to pay the bills mostly. I try to be home more these days.”

“Really? How come?” I ask.

Ellis clears his throat. Another look I recognize. The ‘I hate talking about this super painful shit that happened to me and yet I’m constantly put in the position where I need to talk about it’ look. He takes his time, before hitting me with the sledgehammer that is the story of his life at home.

“My wife passed. About two years ago. So it’s just me and Phillip, my boy. He’s almost seven now.”

Shit. This is where most people come up with something comforting to say. Sadly, I’m not most people. Okay, June. Think of something that doesn’t make you sound like a total bitch.

“And most ladies aren’t into the single dad thing, are they?”

Goddammit, June!  Diffuse! Backpedal like you’ve never backpedaled before! “Shit!  What I mean, I…uhm,” I stutter. “Fuck, I’m trying to be nice here!”

Oh, thank Jesus. He laughed at that. “It’s all right, June.”

I sigh, relieved I didn’t just emotionally skewer him. My knack for verbal pratfalls has saved another conversation by being funny. It’s weird. Why am I so worried about what he thinks of me? Aside from the fact that he’s the first seemingly nice guy I’ve talked to tonight. But that don’t mean anything just yet. Night Racer was a nice guy. And that experience had been a cold, hard lesson when it comes to ‘nice guys’. ‘I swear baby, my doc says I’m STD free’ my ass.

Ellis reaches into his pocket. I clench up. My instincts kick in, but I can fight it. It’s fine, June. He’s obviously getting a photo of his kid. Not a gun. Not a knife. Settle down. We’re good. He hands me the pic. A black haired boy with a broad smile, missing two front teeth, holding a soccer ball. Cute. He has his dad’s looks as far as I can tell.

“He’s adorable,” I say. Was that the right word? I never know what’s the right way to describe kids? I hand it back. Not really sure what else to do. Shit, I hate being so awkward.

“Do you have any kids?” he asks.

“Nah,” I say, waving my hand in that dismissing way that my friends with kids hate so much. “No time, with my job and all.”

“And what is it you do?” Ellis asks.

Fuck! Don’t get flustered. That’s a rookie mistake. Count to three, like Captain Liberty taught you. One. Two. Three.

“Real estate,” I say, cool as a cucumber. “It’s boring, but it pays the bills. I spar on the side to take the edge off. But you don’t really meet the right people in my line of work.”

“Odd,” Ellis says. “I assumed you would meet a lot of people in your line of work. Everyone needs a house.”

One. Two. Three. “Mostly couples either with kids or expecting. Also, I make it a rule not to date my clients.”

“Ah, smart,” he says. “I’ve had colleagues who dated within their job. Always ends badly.”

“You damn right it does,” I scoff. “I’d been seeing a guy a while back. Works across town. Seemed great. But then the usual bullshit piles up. You miss a few dates when responsibilities get in the way. You bring your work home with you. Stress piles up. And when you try to spare their feelings, that’s when the lying starts. Then you find yourself staying up all night waiting for him to come home, or stalking him on Facebook. It’s what you get when you’re juggling secrets like bowling pins.”

“Secrets?” he asks, raising his eyebrow so high up it might start caressing his hairline.

One. Two. Three. “He was married. Didn’t tell me until it had gone on for a while.”

“Pah,” Ellis snaps. “What an arsehole.”

It’s funny. While I kinda noticed it earlier, when he said “passed” like “pahst” instead of the usual “past”, but it took me until he said “arsehole” to pin down his accent.

“British?” I ask.

“Partly,” he admits. “First three years of my life we lived in Cardiff. Left for the States after that, and never looked back. Can’t quite rid myself of the accent, no matter how hard I try,” he says, slightly embarrassed.

“Don’t,” I say. “It’s cute.”

Cute? When did I start calling anything cute? Oh, fuck me. Backpedal! Backpedal!

“I…uhm…I mean, it makes you sound more distinguished,” I mutter, shrugging my shoulders. Please don’t respond to that. Please don’t respond to that.

“Why thank you,” he says. “You’re quite charming yourself.”

And now my face is turning into a cherry tomato. “Glad to know that even after surviving the Battle of the Bridge, I can still be a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who blushes and swoons when boys compliment me.”

He laughs. Thank God for that. I lean back, stretching my neck. Ugh, no more awkwardness, please. It feels good to laugh for once. Ellis. I run his name through my head some more. Ellis. Ellis. Funny, mature Ellis. For a moment, I actually consider giving him my contact info, which is so not like me. Not a bit. Anyone could tell you that, be it my civilian friends like Janette or my work friends like the Lightning Lady. But he seems all right. Maybe, just maybe?

Then he notices it. “Good lord,” he gasps, “did you get that from fighting as well?”

The scar on my neck!  The one I usually hide with scarves or by not wearing anything revealing that shows of my chest. A little courtesy from Yokohama Sally and her kamas during a diamond heist three years back. Missed my artery by a centimeter. My jacket must have sunk down for him to see it. Fuck me for forgetting all about it for a second.

“Uhm,” I stutter. Dammit, count!  One. Two. Three. “Rock climbing accident. I fell and cut myself on some rocks. It’s nothing.”

I look at him, half expecting him to bail on me right there. But he’s seen the look in my eyes. Something he recognized. The shame, maybe? Or something else that was familiar to him. In either case, he smiled slightly. He then pulled up his sleeve on his right arm. Two scars, directly parallel from each other on each end just below his wrist. Entry and exit wound. But not from a bullet.

“Archery accident at a company retreat. Some dumb bastard let go of his bowstring prematurely. Nearly bled to death. These things happen,” he says.

I chuckle. No, I’m laughing. I have no idea why. I’m just glad he’s laughing too.

“And then there’s this,” he says, as he raises his pant leg. Skin grafts on his shins. I’ve seen those too many times to count. “I fell from a bike. Nasty fall. I’d been lucky, as I could have fractured my skull.”

“That beats my appendix scar any day,” I joke. That should deter any questions about it, should he see my stomach. Dammit, June! Don’t get ahead of yourself!

“Got one of those too. But I would rather keep my shirt on for now.”

We laugh, but it’s one of those weird laughs you share when you both are thinking the same thing. Change the subject! I raise my leg and tap on my knee. “I have a small piece of shrapnel in my knee from the Battle of the Bridge. Still scrapes sometimes.”

His face turns. His smile vanishes like sand in the wind. Fuck. Why did I tell him that?

“You were there?” he asks.

Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! One. Two. Three. “Bystander. You know how that goes with those people. Never see you until they drop a car on your ass, then write you off as collateral.”

His eyes turn dark. Is that anger? Or sadness? Does he not like the Capes? Fuck, I hope his wife wasn’t killed that day.

“Hey,” I say. For some reason, I take his hand. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“No, I’m sorry,” he says. Thank God, his smile is back. I can’t believe I missed it already after less than a minute. “I’m being childish. The ‘Supers’ just rub me the wrong way sometimes. Especially the way their fights end up affecting the general populace.”

“I get that. You’ve got your boy. You’ve got your job. I’ve seen people lose their family business just because Terrorsaur and Momenta are going at it on Seventh street and one of them chucks a police car through their building. It’s a weird town. I’ve thought about leaving.”

“Why haven’t you?” he asks, taking my hand.

One. Two. Fuck it. No lies.

“It’s…it’s like something compels me to stay. Almost like leaving is turning my back on something. Turning my back on who I am. If that makes any sense.”

“No, I understand. My son…my entire life is here.”

“Right,” I say, thankful he’s not digging deeper into that semi-confession. “And you can’t just stop being what you love, even if it is destructive.”

He nods. His eyes dart to the timer. One minute left. He gives me that look. You know the one. That one.

“Would…would it be improper of me to ask you out sometime?” he asks.

My face must be turning even redder than before because now he’s grinning like an idiot. “No, not improper at all. I’d love that.”

“Great,” he says. We don’t break eye contact. We just stare at each other like two dumb teens. Probably why I didn’t notice his hand reaching out to touch my arm.

“Ow, fuck!” I snap, wincing in pain.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps. “What’s wrong?”

Fuck. One. Two. Three. “I’m fine. It’s just something with my arm.”

Before I can protest, he pulls up my sleeve. He sees the bandage wrapped around my arm.

“How did this happen?” he asks. He recognizes the applied treatment within seconds.

“Were you burned?”

“It’s nothing,” I growl, slapping his hand away as gently as I can. “Just a little accident last Monday at the bank…”

I shut up before I blab even further. But when I meet his eyes, I’ve said too much. It’s all over his face. I don’t know this look. Is it horror? Or concern? Disgust? It almost feels like recognition. Wait, what is he—?

“Scarlet Omega?” he whispers.

My blood turns to ice. He knows! How did he know? I try to count, but I forgot the number after one. I want to laugh it off, and say “Scarlet who? I don’t know my wines.” Anything to segue from that name. But like an idiot, I do nothing. I just stare at him, wide-eyed like a deer on the highway. I want to say something, but anything I’d say would just come out as gibberish. How did he find out? Had he been there? No, there were only two guards, a manager, and a janitor. He’s not any of them. But there was one more person there. The one with the mask, shooting flames from his wrists. One of which scorched my arm with 2nd-degree burns. Right before I slammed my hard-anodized baton into his chest. Even with that body-armor, there’d be a mark. I lean close to him, peering at the neckline of his shirt. I catch myself praying I don’t see anything, that he was just a good guesser. A smart guy who reads the paper and memorized all our silly names and masks. Please, don’t let there be—

A bruise. Or at least, the edge of one. I can only imagine the blue mark on his chest. I almost want to rip his shirt off and check his left fibula, his lower back and his right femur for bruising. But there’s no point. His eyes say it. So I mouth his name.

“Blackfyre?”

We don’t need to nod. We don’t need to say a Goddamn thing. We know it’s true. What are the fucking odds?

“Shrapnel in the knee?” he asks, with a deeper and gruffer tone, halfway to his ‘work-voice’. No reason to lie now. Sorry, Cap.

“Mandy Molotov. The bridge part was true,” I reply. I catch myself using my own ‘work-voice’. No point in hiding that either. “Arrow in the arm?” I ask back like I’m parrying a tennis ball.

“The Azure Archer. My second heist. O’Neill bank.”

“Mnn,” I grunt, nodding along. It’s bizarre. I always assumed that the first time I’d confide in anyone about my night job, it would feel like a weight would be lifted from my heart. Instead, I feel a million targets are being painted on my forehead, and the guy with the fire resistant armor and the built-in wrist flamethrowers across the table from me is looking right at them.

My instincts are screaming at me to strike. I have a small retractable baton in my purse. Without armor, he’d be down in a minute. He’s clenching his fist. What does he have up his sleeve? A level-B supervill like him doesn’t go to a public place like this unarmed. Short-range flame burster, maybe, with a mini napalm pack in case he needs a quick escape. My eyes dart around. Eighteen civvies. No cops or backup. Can’t risk it.

“Thirty seconds,” the lady from the speed dating service calls out.

We look at her, then back to each other. We’re both running with itchy trigger fingers. My stomach does that thing it always does before a fight, where it goes queasy for a good minute, then steels itself like I’m about to take a bullet, which does happen from time to time. But there’s also this shitty sad feeling. That the one fucking guy who’s not a complete creepy dingleberry, had been actually very charming and I even briefly considered taking home with me, just happens to be the guy who incinerated The Wire during the Battle of the Bridge feeling.

These thirty seconds are beginning to feel like thirty years. Time crawls at a snail’s pace. We don’t break eye contact. We just sit there, running scenarios on how to cave each other’s skulls in through our heads. At least, that what I think he’s doing.

He breaks the ice by speaking first. “For what it’s worth, June, I had a lovely time with you.”

“Yeah,” I chuckle. “It’s been a good nine minutes.”

“And I hope I’ve restored some of your hope in the male gender.”

“To be honest, I’m so torn between the rules of the job and me actually liking you that I wasn’t even thinking about that.”

His eyebrow springs up. “You like me?”

I don’t hesitate. “I do. Or at least, I like this you. Not so sure about your other persona, seeing as fire hurts like a bitch.”

“And I like you, June,” he says. I can see he’s tempted to take my hand, but we’re both still aching for an opening to strike. “Now that we have a chance to be open, why ‘Scarlet Omega’?”

“Scarlet because I just like the color. Omega because my colleagues felt it needed more punch. Not my choice, but I got lucky compared to LiberGator, Reptile Warrior,” I chuckle.

He chuckles too. “What now?” he asks.

I shrug my shoulders. “I said yes to seeing you again sometime. Why don’t we see how that goes.”

“Yes. That seems reasonable,” he says. I can hear his voice cracking just the teeniest bit. “Have a pleasant evening, June.”

“You too, Ellis.”

The bell rings.

—«»-«»-«»—

The Spirit and The Body

by S. Bewley

I found myself on the other side of the door from the room in which my body was taking a beating that I could hear. This pissed me off more than I can express. I have never had a body that could toss me out like this one could, and had on occasion done. It always concerned pain. If the body experienced extreme pain, out my ass went.

This was completely unacceptable.

Over my existence I have occupied a hell of a lot of bodies. I do not know how or why this happens. I have forgotten many of the bodies I inhabited. But I do know what happens. I find myself a spirit again and in wandering around, I find a body that is empty. How they become empty, I don’t know. Didn’t really seem to be all that important. To me it simply meant that here was a receptacle that I could occupy.

Being a spirit without a receptacle sucks. There’s not shit that you can do. You don’t connect, you don’t communicate, you just are. Being without connection is a shit way to live.

My concept of time sucks balls outside of a receptacle, so I never really know how long I’ve been around between bodies. I just know that I’ve been around.

But this time, this time I knew exactly what was going on and I was pissed off way beyond any level I’d ever felt, corporeal or non-corporeal. DAMN. He had no right to do this. Stupid fucking body. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take a hit. I’d taken a lot of hits in my time.

I’d inhabited some bodies in some really unpleasant circumstances, and not one of them had ever tossed me out so that I couldn’t feel what was going on.

This body, however, was different.

All the bodies had minds. I didn’t control the minds, though I could influence them – somewhat. This one’s mind was a bloody fucking pain in my non-corporeal ass.

For instance, the worst body I had ever inhabited had belonged to a tiny Thai woman. I’d found her prostrate on a stone temple floor. I checked, because I have never, ever taken a body with a spirit in it. It’s simply not done. But she was empty.

I slipped in and we got up and went back to her miserable life. I’m not kidding. It was one for the books. She was married to this huge asshole who barely spoke to her, and when he did it was either to make demands or insult her. She had three kids. Two girls and a boy. Through her mind I knew who everyone was and understood what everyone said. We made dinner, we cleaned up, we helped the children get ready for the pallets that represented a bed. Then we went to lie down next to that bastard.

No sooner had we laid down than he rolled over on top of her, pushed himself inside of her, pumped about eight or ten times, ejaculated and then rolled over and gone to sleep. She was so dry we felt like we were on fire. I immediately decided to kill the bastard.

But I had to wait. I’d learned that you can’t just kill another human because they deserve it. I’d left a body or two in dire straits because of my rash actions. So I knew that I had to plan this, make sure she and the kids would be okay, and then I was going to kill the bastard.

It was a long while. Years. First of all, I had to be sure that the children would not end up in a similar position.

The son had already begun to imitate the father. Why not? It was the only male role model he had. It took some searching, but I found a guy who taught muay thai. He was a good man. We had sex with him and he agreed to take on the son as a student. First he beat the idea out of him that women were to be used.

The daughters were harder. One was pretty smart. Considering the malnutrition and other problems, the fact that she had enough sense to put two and two together pleased me. I encouraged her. I began to seek out someone who could help her further her education. I found a woman who had a spirit like a flame. I could see it in her. She taught at the local school, and she pushed the good students hard. She also was a miracle worker in finding ways for them to move on into further schooling. She had a gift for speaking, and she was not above using religious people for her own ends. I liked her a great deal.

The body and I approached her. We talked about the pretty smart daughter, and agreed that she had the skills to become a good teacher herself. She liked children. With the woman’s help, we found a way to get her to a school for teachers. She did well there, married a fellow teacher and moved far away from the place she’d grown up.  I was happy.

The second daughter was sweet, ignorant, and hadn’t the sense of a goose. I would have despaired, but the sweetness was something that could be used. There was a young man in the community who was very shy and not in the least bit handsome. He had a good job. He worked for a small factory that made bamboo furniture and exported it. His skill was well known.

I found a small puppy that was mostly healthy and I left it on his doorstep. The dog became his only friend, and he doted on it as though it were a small, helpless child. Second daughter loved animals.

Once she saw him with the dog, who was very active and cheerful, she was charmed. She began to talk to him about the dog, and then began to walk the dog with him, and soon they were spending time together taking care of the dog.

Their marriage was happy and they adopted many dogs, but had no children. I didn’t understand this, but it worked for them.

Now was the time to get rid of the big bastard. Night after night he had continued his abuse of the woman I inhabited. He considered it his right for feeding and housing her. When I first decided he should die for this, I had her begin to tuck away a few coins whenever she could. She was quite good at hiding things.

As the coins accumulated, I helped her change them into currency. Once it was in currency, we began a small loan business to other women in the community. The interest built up nicely, and I knew that it was time.

Cycad seeds are a very tricky thing. They are commonly made into flour and used in cooking, and there is some suspicion that they may be related to a neurological disease common in the area. I liked that. I liked the idea of watching him weaken.

So we began to make special treats for him. He’d always had a sweet tooth, and with the children gone, it was easy to prepare something that only he ate.

Time for the spirit is unimportant, but the body of the woman I inhabited was growing old. His body, however, began to collapse around him. First he became very heavy from the excess treats, which caused him to fall to sleep long before she finished the cleaning and came to bed. HA! A nice but unexpected side effect. Then the trembling and the mumbling and the lack of balance set in. I took great pleasure in watching him die slowly.

She did not last long after he did, and I found myself searching for another empty receptacle. But it was one of the most satisfactory resolutions of possession I’d ever had.

This, however, was not satisfactory at all. I could not even bang on the door, because I had no corporeal qualities. I could hear the sound of meat hitting meat. It’s a disgusting sound. Humans are SO brutal.

I loved that body. I wanted it back.

I had found him sitting on a bench facing the ocean. He wore lots of protective garments, Kevlar and such. He was a bounty of hidden knives and guns. A large pistol sat on the bench next him. He leaned forward, his hands clasped between his legs, his head bent down as though in deep thought or prayer. And he was as completely empty as any body I had ever found. The mind was good, but the spirit gone.

I slipped in, and oh my, the power! I could not believe the strength. I made a fist and the muscles of my forearm bunched like thick knots of wood. I pulled up the sleeve and I could see striations in the muscle. It was like inhabiting a god.

I stood and stretched. We were tall. Easily six feet six inches or more. I reached down and picked up the gun and it felt right in our hand. Memory immediately told me the make, model, ammunition, muzzle velocity, and range. Why the hell would any spirit abandon this body?

I holstered the weapon as naturally as though I’d been doing it all my life. Then I began to run. I wanted to know how long, how far, and how fast could we move. It was fucking exhilarating.  I had never experienced anything like it.

The run took us to his home. It was a small apartment in a quiet part of town. You might have expected that someone built like a god, and with so many weapons, either hid away in some hole, or resided in a penthouse. Nope. It was as middle class as they come. He didn’t even have Netflix, which I found amusing. Perhaps he wasn’t home enough to make it worthwhile. He did own a decent flat screen tv.

He seemed to have no real job. I had thought probably cop or something. But I was wrong. The apartment had its own arsenal in a walk-in closet. But otherwise it was non-descript. He had a name, a bank account with a decent balance, but nothing exorbitant. He didn’t seem to have any friends or contacts. There was a cell phone with no numbers on it other than a few take-out places in the neighborhood. One was Thai. I deleted that one.

For the first few weeks, we just existed together. The mind was reliable. It fed the body, cleaned the apartment and clothes. It knew where to find good food and the basics of life. And nothing else happened.

The problem with possession is that there is this notion that the possessor has access to everything in the brain. Nope. Not the way it works. You have access to the voluntary muscle functions. That’s about it.

Movies have pretty much fucked up the human concept of possession.

#1. We cannot really inhabit a body in which a spirit still exists.

#2. We do not have access to any memories the mind retains. They are simply exposed to us by things the body does out of rote.

#3. What do I mean by rote? I mean daily routine. If you wash your underwear in the sink each night, dry it on the curtain rod and then wear it again the next day, THAT I will know. Your deepest darkest feelings about your mother? Nope.

#4. We cannot make your head spin 360 degrees or cause you to levitate. First of all, if we rotated your head 360 degrees, we’d break your neck and then your body would be useless to us. Secondly, levitation is something easy to do as a spirit, so why bother to possess a body to do it?

#5 We live together and experience things together, but we are not one. In fact, there is no one there for the body. It’s me and the physical memory contained in the brain. No emotion remains from the body at all. Spirit is emotion. That’s where I come in. If the body still had emotion, I wouldn’t be there.

Got it?

So back to me being on the other side of the door. I was really pissed, because I liked this body a lot. We’d had some really good moments together.

There was the time in the grocery store when an idiot tried to rob the clerk. Now that was fun. The clerk nearly pissed himself in fear, but taking out a gun and blowing the idiot’s head off his shoulders had been one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Nearly as satisfying as watching that fat, Thai bastard take his last strangled, poisoned breath.

Why? Well, it was simple. The clerk was a small Pakistani guy. He was old. He was always nice to me. The idiot robbing him was calling him a rag head and waving around a 9mm like it was a cannon. Then he was not just demanding cash, he was demanding that the guy say, “Fuck Allah.”

I don’t really give a shit which god you believe in, because they all have validity. I’ve been around, I am a spirit, and this is my field.

So trying to make this very nice old man say something really nasty about his own personal god just didn’t go far in terms of making me have any sympathy for the robber.

Plus he was stupid. He hadn’t looked around the store to see if anyone else was there. I’m pretty sure he thought that having a gun made him some kind of superior being and that no one would be brave enough to take him on.

Wrong. Wrong and very, very stupid.

So I killed him.

The old Pakistani guy looked very shocked, and I felt bad about that. I’d have to shop somewhere else now. I asked him for his security tape and he pointed to a little room off the side of the store. I went and found the thing. It was ancient and still video tape. Hard to believe what people will put their faith in. I took the tape and left.

It was 3 am, so it wasn’t like the street was full of people, and once I was gone, I knew the old guy would come to his senses and call the cops. My only regret was that he had to see that. I hoped that Allah would give him some comfort from that nightmare.

The first time the body had thrown me out was when we’d been shot. Now there was a surprise. We were running through the park at night. I liked running, especially now that I had this spiffy body that was so fucking good at it. The night was clear and cool, but not cold. We’d gone out less armed than usual, because we weren’t really expecting any trouble. Who in their right mind takes on a six foot six guy with a face like eight miles of bad road?

But yes, there was a dumbshit ready to do just that. We came around a corner and there stood an idiot with a gun. He wasn’t a huge guy. There’s something about a gun that makes a small man think his size doesn’t matter. This is a very, very bad assumption.

However, I had also made a bad mistake. I’d been taking this same route for weeks. What kind of dumbass goes out running at night and takes the same damn route every time? This dumbass.

We did not have on Kevlar. Stupid. The idiot with the gun shot us in the chest, and when we dropped to the sidewalk, he began rummaging to see what we had. The pain of the shot surprised me. Apparently I had never been shot before. I cried out, and the next thing I knew, I was standing beside the body and the asshole was rummaging through the body’s pockets. He came up with a grand total of an unidentifiable house key that would open a door to an alarm system he would not know how to deactivate, and three dollars. He did not find the gun in the holster at my ankle, nor the knife sheathed on my wrist.

The shot did wake up the neighbors who promptly called the cops and the ambulance. I rode in the ambulance next to the body. I also went into the surgical suite with the body. I do not recommend it. One, the music selection was awful, and two, watching yourself (okay, so it wasn’t really me, but you know what I mean) cut open to stop bleeding and repair my insides is something no one should ever see.

I woke up in the body under the heavy control of morphine and pissed off.

The cops asked about the gun and the knife, and the body turned out to have permits for both. Surprise! Then they wanted to know if we could identify the shooter. We said no. Why the fuck would we let the cops take care of someone that we knew damn well we could find ourself and take care of in a much more final way?

Anyone who shoots first and then robs does not need to be on the street. If we’d been a lesser man, we’d have been dead. The fact that we had thick pectoral muscles that the cheap-ass gun just barely penetrated was what saved our life.

That was one dead fucker.

After our recovery, we went running again and there was the same dumb fucker. We pulled out a gun and shot him before we even got to his corner. Then we ran on. That was a very good run. We were on an endorphin high that didn’t seem to end.

We even went out and got laid afterwards by a very ugly woman who thought she’d hit the jackpot because despite our face, we were one studly attraction. We both had a good time.

None of this answers the question about why I was on the other side of the damn door. As best as I could figure out, it had to do with information inside the body’s head that I was not privy to. This displeased me greatly. You’d think the body would have enough sense of self-preservation to share information that could potentially result in death.

Apparently not. And likely why the body was without a spirit in the first place. Something in the past was so bad, he’d given up. He’d left. He’d wanted no part of his body or his life and he’d abandoned it.

So now I faced the possibility that this body was going to die on me and I would find myself alone in the world once more.

I looked around at where I was. There were two men on either side of the door. They both had guns, and they were both big guys. In fact, all the men inside the room were big guys. It was a like a big guy convention with all their favorite weapons.

What the hell had my body been up to before I got there?

Well, that didn’t matter now. I liked my body. I liked him and I liked what we could do together, so this was not going to end with me on the outside of this door while some giant beat my beautiful body to death. It just wasn’t going to happen.

I looked at the two guys standing by the door again. Rule number one is that a spirit really cannot inhabit a body that has a spirit in it. That conditional ‘really’ is the key to the rule. Two spirits are not supposed to inhabit one body. It’s a mess if you try, and mostly doesn’t turn out well for the habitee. Yeah, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me for trying to explain something that doesn’t exist for humans in terms a human might understand. Basically having two spirits can make the body go batshit.

I was considering batshit. I was really considering batshit.

Then I heard the body cry out in pain.

I was no longer considering batshit. I turned to the guy on the left and I went into his body. I don’t know why I selected him. Maybe because I like going left when most people go right. It’s a human thing.

It was like entering a fun house. Perspective was weird, and colors and sounds too bright. The guy’s spirit was not exactly what I’d call ready for the visit. He shouted surprise, and I raised the body’s gun and shot the guy across from him. I don’t know who was more freaked out, me or the body/spirit of the man I’d just taken.

We kicked in the door. That was fun. I’d always wanted to kick in a door. And then very precisely and quickly shot the three guys inside with my body. Then I put the gun to this body’s head and blew his brains out.

It was at that moment that I split—so to speak. I’m not much on death moments. They tend to be personal and I’d rather skip them whenever possible.

My body was tied to a chair. This was a problem. I was non-corporeal, and the body I wanted was tied to a chair. Fuck me.

My body looked at me and spoke. “You stupid shit-head,” he said. His voice was a little muddled because his mouth was really swollen and he was spitting out a lot of blood.

I had to agree, though. I was a stupid shit-head.

We looked at each other and he said, “You ever possessed a dead body?”

I thought, EWWWWWWW! Because that was just gross. But then I looked at the bodies around me and wondered. The one closest to my body had a knife. He’d been using it when I shot him.

“Give it a try,” my body said.

Fuck it, I thought. I’d already broken rule number one, what was another first going to do to me?

I entered the body and it was still habitable. It was warm. There wasn’t any blood flow or oxygen, but then I didn’t need those. It felt weird not having them and being inside. I sat up, reached out and began to saw at the rope around the body’s right hand. It made sense. If I could free that, he could free himself, and I could get the fuck out of this dead man.

When the rope frayed enough, my body broke it and grabbed the knife from me. I exited quickly, and did a full spirit shudder when I was out. That was creepy, and I never, ever wanted to do it again.

My body was struggling with the rope on his left hand, so I entered him and between the two of us we made quick work of the rest of his bonds. It’s a lot easier when you have spirit. The emotion of wanting out can make a body do things you wouldn’t think possible.

We got up and staggered out and away from the building. The thing is, we weren’t hurt all that bad. A broken nose, some nasty cuts, and bruising and a couple of broken ribs that were going to hurt like crazy until they healed. But there was nothing that couldn’t be taken care of at home.

So we went home.

We bandaged ourselves up, popped a couple of Vicodin that were in the first aid kit (I didn’t ask, but was damn glad it was there), and then my body sat in front of a full length mirror in a chair and asked, “Okay, what the fuck’s your story?”

Wow. I’d never been asked. Come of think of it, until my body talked to me in that room where he was being beaten, I don’t think anyone had ever been aware of me before.

“Talk.”

Well, I did share his mouth, so I told him my story. Not all of it, because we didn’t have eternity. But I told him about what I was and how I’d come to be inside him.

“How did you know I was here?” I asked when I’d finished.

He smiled. “Because I didn’t give a shit about anything before. I was sitting on that bench waiting for those fuckers to find me and kill me. I was done.”

Well, that was a surprise.

“You saved my life,” he said.

“Well, of course! You’re my body!” I answered. I mean, what kind of stupid shit would I be to let this fantastic body go to waste? It was amazing. Big, strong, able to kick ass like no one’s business. I’d had some strong bodies before, male and female. But I’d never had anything with the size, strength and skill of this one.

“I’m not a good man,” he said.

“Maye you weren’t. But I am a hell of a good spirit, and I like what you can do when I’m in you,” I answered.

“You don’t know, do you?” he asked. “You don’t know about me.”

I shook my head. “Not the way it works. Only know what you want me to.”

He took his time thinking about that.

“So what? You want to be a superhero or something?” he asked.

“Nope. Just like being able to kick in doors and kick bullies in the balls. Always wanted to do that.”

I think the sound he made was supposed to be a laugh.

“Okay. Okay, we’ll try it. But if you get me killed, won’t be anything I didn’t have coming,” he said.

“Well then,” I said, “I will have to work hard to keep you alive, won’t I?”

He got up from the chair and went to bed. We both slept. Me in my spirit dreams and he in his brain dreams. We would see what would come.
—«»-«»-«»—

River Witch

by Maureen Bowden

 

I first saw Melusina perched on a rock alongside the narrow river that runs through our local park. I assumed she was wearing a swimsuit, but her long auburn hair concealed it. She didn’t notice me, but I was close enough to see her pupils dilate when she looked at Freddie, who was posing with a football, showing off his prowess to the neighbourhood bimbos.

I sat beside her. “You fancy him, don’t you?”

She turned to me. Her eyes were so dark, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an open coalmine. “Why does that concern you?”

I took a mental step back from the black chasm. “I’m his sister.”

She laughed, and a shiver ran down my back. “Relax. Your sibling’s safe. I’ve vowed never again to get involved with a mortal, but there’s no harm in looking. Right?”

“Right,” I said, “but are you telling me you’re not mortal?”

“I’m not telling you anything. I was thinking aloud.”

“Well, keep doing it. I’m interested.”

She turned the coalmines on me again. “What’s your name?”

“Fiona. What’s yours?”

“Melusina. I’m a river witch.” She slid off the rock, into the water, and I caught a glimpse of her true form. “You can Google me.” She flicked her tail and swam away.

Google was illuminating, as always, but not necessarily true. No problem, I thought. I’ll check the details when she comes back. I knew she would. How could a badass version of the little mermaid resist Freddie with his pop-star smile and ballet dancer grace?

The following Saturday afternoon I spent an hour in the park sketching my brother, as he lounged on a lakeside bench, playing his guitar and singing a self-penned protest song about oppressed workers: ironic, as he was a stranger to anything resembling work. The song was mediocre but he was a good model: blond hair gelled to rigidity, high cheekbones and hips as slim as a Barbie Doll’s. You know the type.

I finished the sketch, packed my pad and pencils into my satchel and left him basking in the adoration oozing from his latest squeeze, Sophie Melancamp, the receptionist from Vision Express. She lay on the grass at his feet.

I walked alongside the river that fed the lake, and I wasn’t surprised to see Melusina swimming close to the bank. We reached her rock. I sat on it. She stayed in the water.

She didn’t preamble. “What’s your brother’s name?”

“Freddie.”

She sighed. “That’s what I used to call Siegfried. He reminds me of him.”

“Google said Siegfried was your one true love. Was he?”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember. A thousand years is a long time to hang onto trivial emotions. What other pearls of wisdom did Google cast before you?”

“You left him and your children because he spied on you taking a bath. Why so modest?”

“I didn’t wish to see fear or repulsion in his eyes when he witnessed my transformation.” She pulled herself out of the river. Her tail shed its silver scales and divided into long slender legs, and she draped her hair across her shoulders, covering her naked body.

“Yet you allowed me to witness it.”

“You’re not a man.” She made it sound like a dismissal. Why should she care about my reaction? I didn’t matter.

“Was he frightened or repulsed?” I said.

“I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d warned him. I’d stay with him if he promised never to watch me bathe. That was our bargain. He broke his promise.”

“But how could you abandon your children?”

“I knew they’d manage without me, and they did. One of their descendants married the English king, Edward IV. Your royal family are of her bloodline.”

“Do they grow tails when they’re in the bath?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the bath.” She reached for my hand and kissed it. “May I stay with you for a while, Fiona?”

My stomach fluttered. This was a disturbing turn of events. I knew she was dangerous and I should scream and head for the hills, but she fascinated me, and I didn’t pull my hand away.

“You may, if you let me paint your portrait.”

“You’re an artist?”

“Trying to be.”

“It’s a deal. Bring me some clothes.”

I brought her a summer dress, sandals and underwear. She pulled the dress over her head, slipped her feet into the sandals, and threw the bra back to me, “That won’t fit,” followed by the panties, “They’d get in the way if I had to transform in a hurry.”

I took her home to my one-bedroom flat and led her into the living room that doubled for a studio. “You can have the bedroom,” I said. “I’ll use the bed-settee in here.”

She looked at the paintings leaning against the wall. “They’re good. Have you sold many?”

“Not yet. I make my living illustrating children’s books, but if I can get together enough paintings to hold an exhibition I hope people will start buying them.

“I can make it happen.”

“How?”

“I’m a witch, remember? Put my portrait in your exhibition.”

We began next day. She posed naked. “Can you make the tail come?” I said.

“No. I can only transform when I’m submerged in water.”

“I could fill a bucket and chuck it over you.”

“If you do I’ll hit you with the bucket.”

I painted the tail from memory.

Our time together was the happiest I’d ever known, but I knew it wouldn’t last. She was interested in Freddie, not me. She examined my sketches of him serenading Sophie in the park. “Is he a musician?

“No, he’s a university student.”

“What’s he studying?”

“Social interaction via the medium of graphic novels.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t seem to involve much work.”

“Does he visit you often?”

“Yes, whenever he wants money.”

He turned up one evening with an empty wallet and a winning smile. Melusina was sitting in my antique rocking chair plaiting her hair.

Freddie ignored me, sat cross-legged on the rug beside her, and said, “Hi. I’m Freddie.”

“I know,” she said, sliding out of the chair, and joining him on the rug. “I’m Mel.”

I sketched them getting acquainted: the whispers, sly, predatory smiles, and touching fingers. The following week she moved in with him. I coped with my desolation by focusing on my artwork. The sketches would form the basis of the final painting for my exhibition.

It was a success. Agents for two foreign businessmen offered me obscene amounts of money for my portrait of Melusina with the tail. I sold it to the highest bidder for enough to finance a comfortable lifestyle even if I never sold another painting. I did, however, sell others, and continued to do so as fast as I could produce them. My reputation as an artist grew. So did my bank account.

I found a new apartment. It had a large studio situated to catch the setting sun’s blue and gold light, and two bedrooms, in case Melusina came back. I had everything I wanted except her. Freddie had her.

I sent them details of my new address. They sent me a ‘Good Luck in Your New Home’ card, bearing a picture of a country cottage. I suspected it came from The Card Factory’s discount shelf.

Six months later she turned up at my door, pale, trembling and her hair in a mess. She sat in the rocking chair, gave a deep sigh, and closed her eyes. I placed a cushion behind her head and poured her a brandy. “What’s up?” I said.

“Your brother’s given me a gift I didn’t want.”

I knew what she meant. I’d anticipated this. “You’re pregnant.”

She nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

“I came here to say goodbye. Freddie won’t want a child and he’ll lose interest in me. I’m leaving before that happens.”

“Don’t go,” I said. “When the baby’s born bring it here. We’ll raise it together. I’ve always wanted a child.”

She drained her glass and passed it back to me. “So, why don’t you have one of your own?”

“I don’t like men.”

“Use a sperm bank. You can afford it.”

“I’d still have to give birth and I don’t want to do that. Please bring your baby here.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You may not like men, but I do.”

Of course she did. I’d been fooling myself. “So you’ll flick your tail, swim away, and in a thousand years or so another pretty boy will take your fancy.”

“No. I’m done with mortals.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“Yes, but I’ll have my child with me this time.”

“I thought it was a gift you didn’t want.”

“It was, but maybe motherhood will help me to grow up.”

“Mel, please don’t go.”

Her dark eyes seemed to see into my soul, and I knew she understood. “You don’t want just any child. You want mine.”

“Yes, if I must lose you.”

“Alright. I’ll stay until the baby’s born, I’ll give it to you, and then I’ll go, but there’s a condition.” I held my breath. “I’ll come back in seven years time and you must allow the child to choose between us.”

I had to agree. If I refused I’d never see the baby.

I spent the next five months stocking up with everything a new baby would need. I was terrified, but happy. Seven years might be all the time I’d get to be a mother, but it was better than nothing.

She returned late one night. Her belly was distended and she leaned against me for support. “When’s the baby due?” I said.

“Sooner the better. I’m in labour.”

My throat dried and my heart pounded. “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No,” she screamed. “Nobody must see it when it’s first born. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. You can help me.”

I barely remember what I did, but it was an easy birth. After we cleaned and dried her son his tail split into legs. We laid him in his cot and he slept.

I made her comfortable. “Will you be alright?” I said.

“Yes. I heal quickly. Thank you, Fiona. Now go to bed.”

When I awoke next morning her bed was empty.

Later that day Freddie came looking for her.

“Where’s Mel?”

“She’s gone,” I said.

“Where?”

“I don’t know, but she’s not coming back.”

He glanced at the baby in my arms. “Is that—?”

“Yes. It’s your son.”

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

“Leave him with me. It’s what Mel wanted.”

He looked puzzled, but not distressed. He was always too selfish to be distressed for long. He and Mel had made a good match. I wondered if the outcome would have been different if she’d revealed her true nature to him and he’d accepted it. I doubted it. “I suppose you expect me to give you money,” he said.

I laughed. “Oh sure. Like I expect the Tooth Fairy to show up when required, and leave a gold coin under his pillow. Close the door on your way out, Freddie.”

A month later he phoned to say he’d left University and was taking a gap year, exploring the Australian Outback with Sophie Melancamp. It’s more likely that they were sunbathing on Bondi beach.

I named the baby Alexander. Each time I bathed him his chubby legs fused into a golden-scaled tail. I took him to a deserted beach on moonlit nights, and we played in the breakers. He swam, dived and twisted, gurgling with contentment in his natural element.

I sketched him, painted him, and added his image to one of Melusina’s portraits. I told him stories about his mother: the beautiful mermaid. He was interested, but she couldn’t compete with Spider Man and the Ninja Turtles. I also told him about his father, but as Freddie had no super powers to recommend him he had no place in Alexander’s list of priorities. I did. He called me Auntie Fi, he loved me, and he was dearer to me than his mother had ever been. We were happy, but a dark dread haunted me

On his seventh birthday I took him to the river. Melusina was sitting on the rock where I first saw her. “Xander,” I said, “this is your mama.”

She slipped into the water and beckoned to him. “Come and swim with me, Xander.” I resented her using my pet name for him.

He pulled off his clothes and joined her. His legs fused into a tail and he laughed and reached for her hand. I sat on the bank and watched them. He waved to me. I waved back and tried to smile while my heart was breaking.

“Would you like to come and swim with me in the sea?” she said to him.

He called to me, “Can I, Auntie Fi?”

“Yes, if you’re sure you want to go with her, but she won’t bring you back.”

“You can come with us.”

“I can’t, Xander. I don’t have a tail.”

Melusina said, “You can come, Fiona. I’ll transform you, and I’ll take care of you and the boy.”

I thought about what she was offering me: a life of freedom, roaming the oceans with the only two people who were ever important in my life. If I refused I might lose them both, but I knew she’d never change. She’d continue to leave discarded lovers and children scattered across the five continents, and some day she’d discard us too.

“Thank you, but no. I’m a mortal and I belong on the land.” I turned to Alexander. “You have to choose between us.”

He pulled himself onto the bank, transformed, and ran into my arms. I kissed his wet hair and held him close, waiting for his answer. “I want to stay with you, Auntie Fi.”

The fear that had oppressed me for seven years scuttled off into the sunset. Good riddance. It could take the river witch with it. I looked at her, expecting to see either sorrow or anger in her coalmine eyes, but I saw relief to equal mine.

She inclined her head in acceptance, dived beneath the rippling water, flicked her silver tail, and was gone.

—«»-«»-«»—

Maureen Bowden

On the Other Side

by Melanie Bell

 

“On the other side of the mirror there’s a real forest,” Gavin said.

“What are you talking about?”

“You should know, Sabrina. You’re the one who gave me that box.”

A treasure box had seemed like the perfect birthday gift for a little brother who was always collecting things. At six, it had been hockey cards. At seven, the bones of whatever unfortunate animal carcass he could find around the yard or the beach. At eight, dried leaves shaped like needles and ovals and squares. At nine, the sayings from every fortune cookie received by family members in Chinese takeout packs. He’d needed a place to put all that.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sabrina had picked the treasure box out herself, bought it with saved-up allowance, and she was quite proud of it. The lacquer shone on the wood. She’d learned about the different types of wood and chosen oak because it meant strength. She’d picked this particular box because it was big and had a mirror inside.

“Let me see that forest?”

“Maybe later. I want to keep it to myself for now.”

“Then why are you telling me about it?”

“Because you gave it to me, stupid! I thought you’d like to know.”

He walked off, fists swinging, back to the room and that stupid box.

It was a year ago that they’d stopped playing pretend games. How many times had they hidden themselves in the big hall closet, hoping to run into talking beavers behind the bedsheets and cleaning supplies? It had all ended one day with Gavin’s folded arms and declaration, “Beavers can’t talk. That’s stupid.” The truth had struck Sabrina one night as she was failing to get to sleep, distracted by cars rumbling sporadically outside the window: she’d needed the games more than Gavin had. And now that there was some magic landscape in the box, he wouldn’t show her.

Forests weren’t that exciting anyway, she told herself. There was one just down the road. It had raccoons and skunks in it. If that’s what he wanted to imagine in his box, let him imagine it.

◊ ◊ ◊

First, Gavin made sure that his door was locked. His parents didn’t like him locking it, and would yell at him if they discovered he was keeping others out, but sometimes it was necessary. He ran his hands over the smooth, shiny wood. Slowly, he opened the lid and looked into the glass that lined the top.

His features stood out crisply, and then began to blur. Bushes bloomed over his nose. A spruce sprouted from his forehead. He watched as a tiny rabbit tracked across the ground—boing, boing, boing. Branches moved with the stirring of a minuscule wind. Soon there was no face in the mirror at all.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sabrina took her book into the yard, which smelled of decaying leaves and sounded like cars rumbling past. She was on the last installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. The battle was bloodier than usual for that kind of book… Tash was revealed to be an evil god, Aslan a benevolent one…almost to the end now…

◊ ◊ ◊

It was past Gavin’s bedtime, and raining. The kids in Narnia ascended to heaven, a disappointment. Susan was excluded because of her interest in lipstick. Sabrina decided that if she ever wrote a book, the queens would wear lipstick and no one would care.

She wondered what was going on in Gavin’s forest.

She hadn’t meant to do it, but her hand moved to her brother’s doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It wasn’t like Gavin to lock the door. “Best leave him alone,” sang her mother’s voice in her head, while a younger, stronger voice called out “Go in there!” She’d read a detective story that explained how to pick a lock once, and practiced on her old diaries until she could produce that satisfying click. She’d never tried it out on a real door, but she did have a hairpin.

Her feet clumped through the dark room, past the night light with its tiny flicker, to the lump on the floor that was the treasure box. On the bed, her brother stirred and Sabrina stopped in her tracks. His breathing remained even.

Slowly, slowly, she knelt beside the box. Lifted it. Stood up, careful not to make the floorboards creek. Carried the box into the hallway, where the light was on.

Fingerprints smudged the gleaming oak surface. If she’d known the box would smear so easily, she would have bought Gavin a different one. No—they weren’t fingerprints but paw prints, tracks left by an impossibly small animal. Her breath caught in her throat as she lifted the lid.

—«»-«»-«»—

Melanie Bell

Dead End

Dead End

by J R Alfieri

Autumn leaves lightly showered the midnight road. Moonlight drenched it.

The roar of his engine and the sharp whisper of the wind cut through his open windows. Slipstream fingers reached in with the noises and tousled his hair. Beneath skeleton branches that scraped across the black ocean known to mankind as the night sky, Arthur drove. With every mile he put behind him, the world itself seemed to grow more distant, as if it were only a waypoint on a road he had so long ago visited. A road his memory darkened with night and shrouded with fallen leaves. A midnight road.

Upon reflection he saw staring back at him in the mirror of his mind only two things, that his Latin mother had named him Arthur and that something called Bliss had been stolen from him. Which was a most disturbing discovery, especially when considering the pools of blood brimming the two backseat footwells.

Whose blood, Arthur could only rule out himself, as no one else occupied the car with him, bleeding or otherwise. For a peculiar reason, though, perhaps because a vague shape was manifesting itself in the mirror of his mind, the blood seemed to Arthur perfectly natural—a memento he had taken from that waypoint the world, a trading token, maybe, he had once exchanged for that stolen possession of his called Bliss.

But like the world, the blood swished and swayed behind him. And soon the road would ribbon behind him too.

Up ahead drew his inevitable destination, the light at the end of this forest tunnel. Through darkness, through dead and dying leaves, through the black ocean he saw it rising ahead. And when his engine whimpered and the wind shushed, when slipstream fingers withdrew from his open windows and his hair flattened, he found himself there, parked at the entrance.

The skeleton branches had swapped themselves for a porte-cochère, and the midnight road had clumped itself into cobblestones. Before Arthur could even motion for it, his car door swung outward—an arm presenting his destination, saying in its silent way of gesture, “After you.”

Arthur hesitated, and not because the door took him by surprise, but because the valet boy who pried it looked nothing like a valet boy and everything like a cancer patient.

Huckleberry-kissed lips, skin so anemic in the right light you could probably see his organs failing underneath, eyes sunken and haloed with purple rings that attested to sleepless nights, the only thing missing was the hospital gown, and maybe also a grieving parent to be his personalized storm cloud, always raining teardrops over his buzzed head.

“Good mornin’, mister,” the valet boy grinned, his voice as crumpling as his appearance.

Arthur, who understood morning as the time of day when the sun yawns and night as the time of day when darkness gathers, gazed past the boy at the gathered darkness, and yet, upon validation, found he had not the heart to correct him. “Good morning, son.”

Overly pleased with the response, the valet boy now regarded Arthur how a child might regard an adult who just agreed to imaginative play.

Take it before you step out of the car,” the boy urged in a low, prison-yard whisper.

“Take what?” Arthur whispered back. For the briefest of moments he thought, I have no buckets.

It was only when the boy said, “look in your glovebox,” that Arthur realized the backseat blood wasn’t of reference here.

With a yank and a click, the glovebox’s lower jaw hung open. Inside the gaping oyster Arthur closed his hand around a pearl he had seen before, had caressed and squeezed before, a Glock 22. When he returned his eyes upon the valet boy—questions springing from his expression before they could spring from his mouth—the valet boy bounced an index finger off of his pursed lips.

Shhh,” he caution furtively as his eyes sprang about searching for eavesdroppers. Then, in a louder, more official voice that almost seemed to invite spying ears, he announced, “Welcome to Here. Is there anything I can help you with before I valet your car?”

Arthur burrowed the pistol into his waistband, veiled its identity with the hem of his shirt and stepped out of the car. He too scanned the porte-cochère. Though his search came up short of eavesdroppers, it came up long of oddities.

The first among them was the lighting source, which was exclusively firelight, absolutely no electricity whatsoever. Medieval torches sputtered their spiral flames and tallow candles wept their teary wax.

At the heels of that was the vacancy of this place. Why the valet boy had felt the need to whisper, Arthur couldn’t tell you. But he could tell you that even the air smelt strangely hollow, strangely dead.

And finally, lastly, most importantly, what mystified Arthur more than the boy too young to be a valet driver, too sick to be alive, was that he had not the slightest clue what this place was or why he had come here.

“Yeah,” Arthur said as he pressed his car keys into the boy’s ice-cold palms, “there is something you can help me out with. Where am I? And what is this place you call ‘Here’?”

Sunken, cancer-punched eyes skittered to and fro before they fell still upon some point of interest behind Arthur. The boy gave a curt nod to whatever, whomever it was, and in that official voice again announced, “Why, you are at the end of the midnight road, of course. And this place,” he presented it how Arthur’s car had presented it, with a sweeping arm, “is home now.”

As the car spun its tires and left Arthur dallying under the porte-cochere alone, the target of the valet boy’s final fixation revealed itself; a man standing in the hotel doorway, who by his mess jacket and flaring lapels could only be a bellhop.

“Come, come!” the bellhop beckoned.

As Arthur crossed the cobblestones, he noticed that the flare of the bellhop’s lapels came not from their size or particular style, but from the rose brooch pinned above his left breast.

“No luggage, I take it?” the bellhop asked.

Closer now, just about in handshaking range, Arthur wobbled his head no.

“Not to worry, good sir. Inside you’ll find everything you could ever possibly need. Let’s head in and get you squared up with the concierge.” Just as the bellhop said this, he turned into the hotel doors and the abundant candlelight glowing within.

Arthur, as he passed through the hotel threshold and into the steady light, thereupon recognized that the bellhop’s rose brooch wasn’t a brooch at all, but a dried wine stain, or some other form of liquid capable of producing a likewise hue.

The inertia propelling him forward soon did as an Easter lily might do under direct sunlight; it shriveled, wilted and died. His legs stiffened, his heart stiffened, and he stopped moving altogether. Though being stationary, being idle, made absorbing what laid ahead no easier.

Among the torches and candlelit sconces mounted onto the walls, Arthur noted and duly felt the eyes of a hundred beasts weighing down on him. All horned, black-eyed, and awash in the many flicking tongues of firelight, the taxidermy on display appeared almost sinister. And amidst this heat, that appearance seemed less of an appearance and more of a reality.

This heat, this godforsaken, rolling, wafting, energy-sapping heat that swam about the lobby crashed over him. Opening all hatches, all windows, he gaped his mouth, flared his nostrils and tried siphoning as much air as possible. But this heat, this godforsaken heat only apportioned him shallow lungfuls.

“Oh now, Arthur, it’s not that bad! You look like a fish out of water!” the bellhop chuckled as he clapped Arthur on the shoulder.

Arthur wished he hadn’t had done that, chuckled. The lobby and its undercurrents of dark air needed no chuckling or, for that matter, clairvoyance. A fish out of water was exactly how he felt—plucked from his world and thrown into a frying pan.

“What’s wrong with the AC?” Arthur asked. He hooked his one finger into his collar and stretched it out.

Another chuckle, this one slightly more unhinged, “Hasn’t work in ages, Arthur, in ages!” The bellhop retook the lead and began escorting Arthur across the lobby to the concierge’s desk. But before they reached it and parted ways, Arthur slipped in one final question.

“My name, how do you know it?”

“We all know it, Arthur.” Just as the words rolled off the bellhop’s tongue, they approached the concierge’s desk.

The woman behind it verified the bellhop’s claim almost immediately, “Good evening, Arthur.”

Evening…good evening the concierge said, whereas the valet boy had declared it morning.

Muddled, discontented and now wearing a headband sown of sweat beads—one that was coming apart and running down his face as quickly as his sanity—Arthur wanted to know, “how?”

The bellhop and the concierge traded looks. And also grins.

“Because we’ve been expecting you,” the concierge said matter-of-factly, as if this were as obvious as the color of the sky, or perhaps more appropriately, as obvious as the time of day.

The grin smeared across the bellhop’s face split wide like clamps on an operating incision, and from it bellowed that chuckle, that awful, sinister-accentuating chuckle. “For about as long as the AC hasn’t worked! Ages, Arthur! We’ve been expecting you for ages!”

Even after the bellhop and his chuckle strolled out of sight, the concierge held onto her grin. She was, by far, the oldest woman Arthur had ever set his eyes on. Looking like the great grandmother of Father Time, she reminded Arthur of someone he had formerly known, someone he had met at that waypoint the world. From the rather peculiar manner in which she grinned at him, he had a feeling she reciprocated this notion.

When Arthur spoke next, he unintentionally sprinkled salt on the curved slug that was the concierge’s lips. “Have we met before?”

Her grin squirmed a bit before it dissolved. She leaned her torso left so she could peer behind him. Then with cataract-clouded eyes she combed the lobby. It wasn’t until she rectified her lean that she whispered, like it was their little secret, “Once upon a time, my dear boy.

Then, with a much more pronounced voice, she covered up and buried her whispers, “You’ve arrived just in time, Arthur. Tonight the Master will be throwing a grand feast in His chambers. And He has personally asked that I extended to you the invitation. So what do you say? Shall we send you up?”

“Thank you, but my appetite—”

“Oh, but I insist! It would be exceptionally improper to decline the Master’s invitation. So few are every graced with such an honor.” She paused, flashed her cataract eyes at him and under the concealment of her breath mumbled, “Please. You have the gun. Save us. Save yourself. Kill—

Eclipsed by her own secondary voice, “The Master is waiting, Arthur!”

An internal battle seemed to wage across her entire being, two sides fighting over and only momentarily attaining control. “Shoot Him in the head, Arthur. Not the heart. I don’t think He has one.”

The instant Arthur had retrieved the Glock 22 was also the very instant he had concealed it, its nose shoved between his belt loop and hip bone, its rubber grip cloaked underneath his shirt. So how, how could this hoary old woman see past the white film blighting her eyes at the faint outlines of the pistol?

Before Arthur could parrot this question and for the millionth time utter the word ‘how’, he bit down on his tongue. He knew no answer would satisfy because even the true answer, one naked to the ambiguity these folk seemed so fond of, would be an impossibility, just like the valet boy’s omniscient knowledge of the gun in the first place, and the sheer existence of this hotel, which, Arthur was now concluding, was not much of a hotel at all, but a point at the end of the road, a dead end.

So Arthur no longer concerned himself with the understanding of ‘how’ and instead shifted his attention onto the two reflections he saw staring back at him in the mirror of his mind, that his Latin mother had named him Arthur and that something called Bliss had been stolen from him. Everything else melted away at the feet of that.

“This Master,” Arthur said and henceforth dived into the rabbit hole, “does He know anything of Bliss?”

Something embedded within his voice must have pricked the concierge, for the clouds of cataracts in that old woman’s sorry eyes were now releasing their rainwater. Tears streamed down over the wrinkled gorges and riverbeds carving up her wizened face.

Her reaction answered him far better than any words.

“Where? Where are the Master’s chambers?”

Choking on her sobs, she hefted a gnarled, arthritic-inflamed finger down the nearest corridor. “There’s a stairwell at the end. It’s connected to the tower, where the Master resides. Take it all the way to the top. That’s where you’ll find all that you seek. Hurry, now.”

Then the whispers wrested and ultimately won control, “And don’t forget what I told you.” That gnarled, arthritic-inflamed finger curled inward and tapped her forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose.

On last look at her and Arthur couldn’t help but to feel the familiarity she vented. “I’ll remember,” he promised, and little did he know how much that promise would cost him. With that he made way for the corridor. As he treaded through its carpeted throat, he heard her shout behind him, the final warcry of her whispers, who at long last achieved their victory.

Carpe noctem!

In both comprehension and agreement, Arthur reached near his belt, chambered a round into his pistol,  and entered the Master’s tower. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Spiraling stairs and spiraling senses, Arthur rose up through the madness of it all. Past the first floor, the second floor, then the third and fourth, as he breezed by the fifth he began intercepting the smells. Sour wine and spiced meat fused the air. But, quite queerly, noises of the feast never reached him…except for the subtlest gnashing of teeth.

Whirlwinded and dressed in a full gown of sweat, Arthur shouldered through the door marked with the number 6.

Expecting another corridor and instead finding a grand banquet hall, he stopped dead in his tracks.

One long refectory table extended before him, overlaid with candelabras ablaze and cutlery untouched. Flopped dead along the table were suckling pigs chewing on apples and other such forms of roasted meat. The benches sat about thirty men and women on each side, all of whom had turned to stone upon Arthur’s entry.

Some were clutching onto drumsticks, others were stuffing their fingers into their mouths, and a few were even caught lapping at the trickle of blood that had escaped down their rolled-back sleeves. Half-chewed meat puffed some of their cheeks, and mouthfuls of sour wine pruned some of their gums.

Whatever pose they struck, they struck it so while gazing at Arthur. These hundred or some odd eyes weighed down upon him heavier than the horned beasts decorating the lobby walls. And heavier yet, heavier than all, was the cast from the head of the table, the only figure who hadn’t stilled on Arthur’s arrival, the Master.

So youthful He looked, so entitled and regal, Arthur might have mistaken Him not as a master of this place, but as a prince of something else entirely. Arthur might have made this mistake, had it not been for first the eyes—possessive of their targets, seeming to know a million secrets—and second the voice—defiler of sound, seeming to carry with it unlocked wisdom.

“Welcome,” it resonated across the banquet hall, slicing through the distance against an opposition of none. “Arthur, sweet child of mine, my heart sings to receive you. As do the hearts of my lieges.”

At that, the stone mold fragmented. Everyone lined along the refectory table nodded in accord.

“Do sit, Arthur,” the Master waved His arm at a chair set all the way at the end of the table, a few steps from where Arthur was standing. “Please, I implore you, indulge beside your brothers and sisters. You must be rightfully ravished from your travels.”

Only half obliging the request, Arthur squatted down into the seat, but he did not help himself to the nearest apple-gnawing pig. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry.”

“No?” the Master titled His head askew.  “Can I not interest thee in even the slightest tastes of nourishment? The apples, Arthur, the apples. You must try them. I am confident you will find they are most pleasing. Down here they are just…”

And at that exact point in time Arthur saw clearly, across the entire table, a repulsive development occur. The Master began salivating from the corners of His mouth.

“…they are just oh so decliousss.”

“No,” Arthur refused rather bluntly. In response the candelabras ablaze burned deeper, hotter, as the red tips of their branches turned a dead-lip shade of blue, a huckleberry blue.

“A taste, my child, a bite, a nibble, you must, you must. Otherwise however will you know? However will you open your eyes and see that it is neither night nor day?”

“The hour is of no concern to me.”

Those eyes, opened and drowning in the million secrets they harbored, simpered with elation. “Ahh, but I know what is. I know all things, for I have not only tasted the fruit, but have planted the seed myself. You and I, Arthur, we are one and the same. Both the victims of theft. Something has been stolen from me, my Kingdom. And something has been stolen from you, your Bliss.”

Silence, during which the Master allowed time for His words to sink in and grow a new strain of thought, a strain much like a seed that would soon germinate and bear fruit.

“Eat of the apple, child, and the fog enshrouding your memory will surely evaporate. You will see all. You will see Bliss.”

Just then the apple nearest Arthur wiggled free from its entrapment and rolled itself until it filled his empty plate. Arthur looked down upon the orb, its stem sprouting a single leaf, its skin a twilight blend of sunrise yellow, blood red and emerald green.

“How do I know I can trust you? That this isn’t poison you’re feeding me?” With this question Arthur unintentionally watered the seed of the Mater’s words.

“Because you know me. All your life you’ve known me.” That simper in His eyes now spread down to His slobbering lips.

“Know you? I don’t know you.” And with this Arthur unintentionally nursed the sapling.

“Oh yes, child, you do. How could you not? You walk with me every day. You sleep with me every night. I am the shadow on the face of the moon. I am the dead space between the stars. On your left shoulder I sit. And in that same ear I whisper. When it is not my voice you hear, it is the countless works brought up in my name that you see. I am everything you have ever feared. And most frightening of all, I am almost everything you have ever loved.”

“Almost,” Arthur echoed over the eyes reflecting firelight, the meat oozing blood, and the wine inviting indulgence.

“Yes, almost. There are but two loves of yours I cannot claim as my own. Two, I must admit that is quite impressive. At least double that of the average man. One is what you seek. Bliss. Bite into the apple and I will show you both.”

So there was two, then. Two footwells in the backseat of his car brimmed with blood. Yes, two.

Arthur knew who the Master was now. He knew the temptation that manifested itself as a twilit orb. He knew the sapling had blossomed in full. And for all that he still picked the fruit of the tree. And for all that he still bit into the apple.

And the very moment his teeth sank into its juicy, acidulous flesh, he felt it. Chaos, anarchy, the sense that whatever natural order had upheld his life thus far, with its many rules and restrictions, had just disbanded, tucked tail and vanished, or as the Master had claimed, evaporated. Freedom would be one way of putting it, though not freedom in the sense of a caged bird released, but of an astronaut untethered and drifting aimlessly through the deep chasms of space.

And his eyes shucked open, all three of them. Memories swam around and around in the pool of his irises, like ships orbiting a maelstrom, or exiled members of an asteroid belt tracing the rim of a black hole, soon to be sucked into the vortex, into the darkness.

And so he fell. Into the wormhole. Into the memories where Bliss lied.

And in the past he landed. As an unseen shadow pitched against the wall, Arthur fixed his eyes on his childhood room, and on the boy sniffling under the covers. His carousel nightlight, which circled around and around just like the memories, just like madness and chaos and order and life, staved off so little of the night, and the monsters who dwelt within it.

And the sniffles coming from underneath the covers grew in volume and intensity. Arthur remembered then, the childhood monsters who had harrowed him so. Not imaginary ghosts, ghouls or goblins hiding in his closet, but imaginary fathers hiding in his dreams, who explained to him why they had left, and why they were never coming back.

And for the third time this week, the nine-year-old Arthur wailed, “Mom! Mom!” Footfalls raced outside his door. The shadow pitched against the wall knew who would come to the rescue before she came to it. With his third eye open, Arthur knew all, and that knowledge cost him dearly. He paid for it in a currency of unmeasurable pain.

And his bedroom door blasted open. Through it whisked a woman whose smile lines would in time beget wrinkled gorges and riverbeds, and whose eyes would in time cloud with age.

And now the nine-year-old Arthur wasn’t the only one wailing after his mother. The shadow pitched against the wall wailed after her too, though no one could hear or see him. His mother sat down on his bed. Clasped in her hands was his favorite book, The Once and Future King—an account of the man he shared a name with, King Arthur of Camelot. His mother had long ago decided that if no father figure could be the hero in her young son’s life, King Arthur would have to do.

And as his mother cracked open that book, she stifled his sniveling with just four magic words, four magic words that weren’t in the text, but were in her heart and in his, “Once upon a time”.

And Arthur understood then that the concierge, his mother, had said those very words to him after he had asked her if they had ever met before—a desperate attempt to breathe life into his memories, to keep him from the apple that would forever tarnish his soul. Though now it was too late, as his eyes were open and he was seeing—

Adulthood. Invisible, occupying the passenger seat of his car, he looked upon the driver and there looked upon himself. He heard some woman moaning discomfort behind him. Twisting around and peering into the backseat, his heart imploded.

Legs splayed, hair plastered across her brow, hands clawed onto her bulbous belly, Arthur’s wife roared, “SHE’S COMING, ARTHUR! THE BABY IS COMING!”

Then they flew beneath a red light, honking their horn and blinking their hazards. Sirens whooped and blared not far behind, but Arthur, the driver, showed no sign of slowing. In fact, he gave the steel rocket they soared on more juice. Those sirens belonged to a buddy of his, his partner on the force who was catching up to escort them.

“WE’RE ALMOST THERE, HONEY! HOLD IT IN!”

Then they were killing themselves laughing, absolutely loosing it at the absurd prospect of ‘holding in’ a child as if it might be some urgent bowel movement.

Then amidst their laughter, their bliss, his wife’s relaxed, unclenched pelvic muscles released to them a gooey sack of crying life.

Then they were all crying together—their first activity as a family. The ghost in the passenger seat wept with them, though not out of joy, but out of pure heartbreak. Arthur, the driver, gazed up at the rearview mirror and beheld his two loves clutching each other in backseat. Just when he lifted his attention off the road hurtling below them, the ghost screamed, screamed and hollered and blubbered through his tears. But no one could hear.

Then his wife whispered, “Welcome to the world, Bliss,” and Arthur, the driver, repeated the name on his lips just so he could enjoy its taste. “Bliss.”

Then as they flew beneath another red light, the world offered Bliss quite a different welcome. It slammed into them in form of a diesel truck, T-boned them in the center of a four-way intersection.

Then glass shattered, life shattered, bliss shattered and the all the lights flicked off. When Arthur came to, and peeled himself up from the steering wheel, he reached over the ghost bawling in the passenger seat, pulled open the glovebox’s lower jaw, and retrieved from it not a pearl, but the instrument of his doom.

Then the police-issued Glock 22—which he had carried with him always, thinking of himself as King Arthur armed with his modern day equivalent of Excalibur—rose up and pointed its nose outside the passenger side window, where, past a dented hood and behind a spider-webbed windshield, sat the man who had crashed into them.

Then Arthur fired two bullets into that man’s head, that man who was no longer a threat. One bullet for his wife, one bullet for Bliss.

Then Arthur spun around, saw blood brimming the two backseat footwells, and thereafter fired a third bullet, this one for and into himself.

And, then, the drowning, reminiscent pool spat Arthur back out. At the end of the midnight road, sitting at a feasting table inside the Master’s chambers, in the tallest of towers in the highest of rooms, Arthur dropped the apple.

That twilit orb bounced off his plate twice. The skin he had bitten through showed him an inner ugliness that so starkly contradicted the apple’s outer beauty, an ugliness infested with worms and maggots and tiny little spiders. He went to regurgitate his bite, but he had already swallowed and digested it, and now there was no getting rid of the foulness inside him.

As the worms and maggots and tiny little spiders crawled out of the apple, they began inching their way across the table, back towards the place from which they came, the Master.

Warming His perch at the head, calling upon His throng, the Master raised His arms towards Arthur, “Behold my lieges! It is he, Arthur, great King of man!”

With disconcerting obedience, all sixty heads rotated through the firelight and found in Arthur a new home for their gaze.

Suddenly there came an abrupt peep, a hiccup, really, that sounded like maniacal laughter. The Master had birthed it, and his lieges raised it. Soon the entire refectory sung a cackling chorus, one that knew no rhythm, structure or order.

The hysterics, with all their horrific, high-pitched, hyena-giggling inflections, blew through the lieges uncontrollably. Laughing so hard, clutching themselves, slapping their knees and pounding their chests, they too raised their arms at the butt of the joke wallowing at the butt of the table, Arthur, the hero who wound up here, sharing a table with murderers and thieves.

All at once the merry winds died, killed by the screech of the Master’s pushed-back chair. As He gained His feet and stood tall, He flattened the wrinkles on tunic.

“King,” He said lingering above His seat, chewing the word and addressing Arthur. “It seems to me all you are King of is self-destruction and woe.”

But Arthur, trembling softly in grief’s cold embrace, wasn’t paying the Master any mind. All his efforts were instead concentrating on remaining whole, on not collapsing beneath his agony and succumbing to what felt like a barbaric torture device pilling him apart limb by limb.

“My mother,” Arthur mumbled to no one in particular.

Incited, the Master cupped a hand around his ear and bent far over the table. “What’s that now? Don’t be shy, speak up, speak up!”

Arthur spoke up. “My mother!” he cried and for the first time since emerging from the memories reared up out of his hunched-over position.

Initially he thought the tablecloth had changed colors. But after a moment’s hesitation he realized that no, those were just the worms, maggots and tiny little spiders, the hundreds and hundreds of worms, maggots and tiny little spiders that now blanketed the table, rolling, squirming, and skittering about, pushing themselves out of pig eyes, apple cores and unseen burrows hidden inside raw meat.

Worse than all this, Arthur saw the sixty men and women at table eating off of it, cherry-picking this juicy worm over that spindly spider, and tossing said creatures down their throats.

As swift as a jump is to a fright, for this was essentially his action, Arthur floored back his chair and shot up. Now he and the Master stood tall together, both above the ensuing smorgasbord.

“What’s the matter, Arthur? Lost your appetite?”

“My mother, you have no right to her!” he said as a tear he never felt slipped down his check.

This seemed to only spur on the Master. “Oh child, faithful son, you are dearly mistaken. My hold on your mother’s soul could not be more firm. But you should know this. And in fact you do. Look, Arthur. Look, and you shall see.”

Arthur was too afraid to look, too afraid to slip under again and experience another train wreck he couldn’t prevent. So he wagged his head and closed his eyes. “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” he begged himself, though he knew no matter how many times he said this, or how many times he clicked his heels, he would not wake up. For this was no dream. This was no nightmare.

“Let’s not get silly, now. We’ll want to keep our heads for what’s next.”

“What’s next?” Though he squeezed his eyes shut, he could sense a grand smile rumpling across the Master’s face.

“You refuse to look, so I am afraid I must show you. I must tell you how your mother came to be in my possession. Before—”

“No,” Arthur said and restored his sight. “Please, no.”

But the Master had already begun. He had turned and was now striding towards Arthur, down alongside the feasting table, His hands folded behind His back, His presence composed and oh so superior to the carnivorous mayhem.

“—you were born, your mother committed adultery against her fiancé, the man she had accepted a ring and then a house from. I would call him your father, but he had as much involvement in your raising as he did with your birth. You are the product of infidelity, Arthur.”

About halfway down the table and drawing nearer with each step, each word, the Master’s approach forced Arthur back.

“No…I can’t…stop!”

“Furthermore, you are the only survivor of that treacherous womb, where two fetuses met their deaths at the point of a coat hanger. Your mother would sooner exterminate the lives inside her than exterminate her relationship with her fiancé. But you, Arthur, ruined all that. The coat hanger never reached you, and when your mother’s fiancé realized the child wasn’t his, he left.”

“You’re lying. You’re lying!” Arthur howled as he retreated. Only an easily-bridged gap separated him and the Master.

“A bastard, not a king. A misbegotten child. Fatherless and—”

BANG, the Glock 22 ruptured fire and lead. The bullet easily bridged the gap. Then it drilled a hole into the Master’s forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose.

Before blood, ichor or crawling critters could seep from it, the hole mended itself. Just as the last stretch of skin grafted over the hollow, Arthur felt the deepest pressuring welling up inside his own forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose. He inspected the area with his fingers, and upon contact, the slightest touch, bone caved in.

Skin followed and a black rose bloomed. Arthur took on the likeness of his corpse, of the shell his brothers in the force had lowered six feet under and had fired a three-volley salute over, of the dead driver who had consigned himself to oblivion.

The Master reached out and molded His hand over the gun barrel, which puffed into black, smoky wisps. And like sand those wisps escaped through their fingers.

“False hope,” the Master explained. He guided His arm upwards and tenderly grabbed a hold of Arthur’s jawline.

At this intimate range, Arthur could make out details previously indiscernible. The Master’s eyes, they held the darkest shade of the deepest night, yet among their blackness glistened a million stars, a million secrets.

“There’s nothing crueler than giving hope where there is none. And no better way to welcome a new resident. You thought you carried with you Excalibur. So did everyone else. For they too have bitten into the apple, and know all that they wish to see. Excalibur, yes, and here I, an evil Merlin, wicked sorcerer who was supposed to fall beneath your heroism. Quite a tale, Arthur, quite a happily-ever-after.”

Arthur pulled away. Three backpedaling steps later, his heels clouted into the chamber door.

The Master let out a series of clucking noises in the same mantra as tsk, tsk, tsk. “But you know now that such tales are folly. This,” the Master looked back at the lieges gobbling up vermin, the firelight and the spilling of blood, “is your happily-ever-after. So without further ado, I would like to welcome you to Hell.”

Fear rode his bloodstream. Grief settled itself into his heart. And panic set fire to his world. Arthur flipped over and jiggled the doorknob, but it refused him. Locked, trapped, condemned…

Then those dead, merry winds took to the air again, resurrected and back in full force. Laughter from everyone, from the lieges snorting and howling through spider legs wedged between their teeth, from the Master throwing His head back and shouting rejoice at the ceiling, and maybe also at the heavens past it, laugher from everyone.

Amidst His glee, the Master flicked out His arm. The door magically brushed open. Just how the car and valet boy had presented Arthur his destination, the Master presented him the spiraling staircase, and the madness of it all.

Arthur hurled himself through the frame. As he descended upon the stairs, he heard the Master’s disembodied voice chasing after him, “You can check out anytime you like, Arthur,” and, after an interruption of cackling, “but you can’t ever leave!”

And Arthur never did.

—«»-«»-«»—

J R Alfieri

The Bones of Olak-Koth

by Pierce Skinner

I

The current roared over the black clay of the plains of Shoorm, carrying with it the thick burnt scent of the volcanic wastes. Sunlight was scarce this close to the Verge, falling to the plain like a bloodfog.

Jaltha swam beside a litter of males, harnessed by barbed wuorn-tentacles hooked through their beaks’ dorsal ridges, their bellies scraping the plain. Ten had already died, since the caravan had set out from the kryndyr city of Chorgaan three days ago. It had happened yesterday when a strap on a handler’s yoke snapped, and the litter had been freed. The idiot creatures had immediately swum toward the sweet, seductive aroma of a grove of bloodsponges, the only things that survived the bleak lifelessness of Shoorm. The entire litter had been caught by the sanguivorous things, and only three had been able to be saved, though not unscarred.

Rilask, the caravan’s leader, had punished the clumsy handler, who was called Malune, by forcing her to take the place of the males in the litter that pulled the bladdercart loaded with heavy criggn shells.

It was Malune that had first noticed the callused scars upon Jaltha’s belly.

“What happened to your Mooring?” Malune had asked, rather abruptly last night. Typically, the caravan’s hired guards formed their own sleep circle around the males and the shells, while the traders and male-herds kept to theirs. Malune, however, being shunned from the latter, had found her way to the former. It was death, after all, to sleep alone on the plains of Shoorm.

Jaltha had been unsure of how to respond, for she was always careful to keep the past concealed beneath the kelp-leather harness that held her sheath.

“My mother wore such scars,” Malune had said, meeting Jaltha’s scalding glare, “The scars of one who has drawn a warclub from the sheath a thousand times. The only ones with such calluses are those that have lived long enough to become Chieftains, or have suffered the scathing halls of the monasteries.”

Jaltha had bitten off another strip of uilka skin.

“It would be strange to be here,” Malune had continued, “hired by an aging, desperate trader like Rilask to protect a few pearls’ worth of males and criggn shells, if there still were a Mooring to protect.”

Anger had flashed through Jaltha, and she’d known that the lightning brightness that surged through her would be visible in the darkness. Over the years, she had ground many a young salathe’s beak into the sand for such impertinence. The young, it seemed to Jaltha, always had a laughing lilt that accompanied their words like a persistent gamra fish. And yet, her anger faded almost immediately. In its place, something else rose, like a domefish from beneath the sands. Somewhere within her, near the swell, a voice stirred.

Can it be? it asked. Jaltha, the wanderer—

Jaltha grunted, silencing the voice within her.

“I am no chieftain,” she’d answered Malune, “I have no Mooring.”

Malune’s beak had clicked in the darkness.

“Then you are a Shaman,” she’d deduced, “Serving your Penance by traversing Shoorm. What god do you serve?”

Jaltha’s body had gone rigid. She stared through the darkness, the lifeheat pulsing through Malune the only way she was still visible in the utter night of Shoorm.

“No god,” Jaltha had said.

Malune had chittered irreverently, perhaps taking some joy in the discomfort she was causing the way that males seemed to cherish the chaos they caused when freed from their bindings. It was the way of the enslaved and the punished to find joy in the misery of others. And, yet, Jaltha looked upon this creature, the exiled daughter of a deposed chieftain, lashed now as a common slave, who laughed from within the darkness. Jaltha felt something stir within her. For so long, she had thrown herself into her own past, seeking that fulcrum, desperately hoping to find a single moment where things could have gone one way, but instead went the other. Here, now, she looked upon Malune and realized that such a quest had been futile. Here, in the dark and lifeless night of Shoorm, where so few things were brave or desperate enough to venture, was precisely where she belonged. The tangled tentacles of the Fates had led her here, she knew, and finding a discernible pattern within them was impossible. The feeling that welled within Jaltha as she stared at Malune’s lifeheat was a confusing blend of terror and freedom. Here, Jaltha knew. This is where she would always have been. For here, too, was Malune.

The voice stirred within her, as it was prone to do whenever she found herself too deep in reverie.

What is it about the darkness that brings out such things in fleshcreatures?

She hissed at the voice.

“Very well,” Malune had laughed, backing away, believing the hiss to be directed at her. “I’ll ask no more tonight.” She had laughed again, and then slept. Jaltha had watched her lifeheat cool as her breaths slowed, and before long Jaltha, too, had settled herself on the plain, focusing on the breaths passing through her gills, perfectly still but unable to sleep.

The following night had been the same. Only this time, Jaltha had not been so terse. The two had shared an uilka skin and Jaltha had listened to Malune tell stories of her old Mooring, which she had fled after her mother, the chieftain, had gone mad and nearly killed her. Jaltha nearly spoke, but stopped herself several times. Malune’s life was too eerily similar to her own, with only barely enough variations in her history to prove she was, indeed, a separate individual and not Jaltha’s own reflection, or an illusion produced by the cursed plain. Yet somehow, instead of the wrathful beast Jaltha had felt herself becoming over the past several seasons since Fate had razed her life to the sands, Malune looked upon the detritus of her life and laughed, as though the world were not a wild, carnivorous thing, but a clumsy creature causing only accidental mayhem in its blundering. It was this, perhaps, more than anything else that drew Jaltha to her. She did not say so, unsure of how she would be interpreted if she did, but remained silent and contented herself to listen until Malune’s voice was replaced by the soft roar of the currents, and both fell asleep upon the plain.

Morning had come with the ferocious barking of Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. Malune had been taken and strapped into a yoke beside the males that pulled the bladdercart. Jaltha had taken her position with the other twelve guards. The journey resumed.

Jaltha looked up from the litter of males to the bladdercart, the criggn shells rattling against the cheruon bones, the whole thing rocking on the air bladders onto which it was lashed as the currents picked up, lifting a thin haze of silt from the black clay. Malune struggled, thrashing her tail wildly with the males, desperately trying not to lose the cart. If she did, Jaltha would not put it past Rilask to have her killed. She swam toward the cart, drawing the attention of two other guards who followed her, struggling to steady the cart by pushing against it while Jaltha took up a barbed cord from a fallen male and helped tug the cart beside Malune.

Malune, breathless, her beak grinding, her gills flared as wide as they could, her whole body thrashing, managed to nod thanks at Jaltha. One of the other guards shouted over the rushing current, pressed her flank against the cart, stabilizing it.

“Twice have I been to Olm-Daki by this very route,” the guard cried, “and never have I seen such a storm!”

The guard beside her shouted in reply, “Let the kryndyr have trade with Olm-Daki! Let the damned crustaceans brave the black plain! This is no place for a salathe!”

It was strange, and they had all thought it so, that the Mooring of Olm-Daki should be so secluded. None knew the history of the Mooring, only that it had always been within the caves at the base of a dormant volcano beyond the plains of Shoorm, just west of the volcanic wastes, and that it only survived because the currents that swelled out of the abyss beyond the Verge scattered the volcanoes’ poisonous clouds north. The journey to Olm-Daki was one of several days across bleak emptiness, the only life the immortal bloodsponges that anchored themselves upon the stones and the fossils of ancient monsters that rose from the plain like jagged black teeth. The journey was, however, a worthwhile one for those salathes like Rilask brave or desperate enough to take it. The Mooring of Olm-Daki was, after all, carved from pure volcanic stone. The obsidian’s weight in pearls could make a trader wealthy enough to retire or, at the very least, as in Rilask’s case, pay off dangerous debts.

Jaltha pulled at the cart, every muscle taught and burning. Malune struggled beside her, their long, sinuous bodies slamming against one another as they thrashed against the screaming current. Jaltha was aware of male-herds shouting through the building gray cloud kicked up by the storm, and of guards and traders panicking, thrashing against the current.

“The plain doesn’t seem to be all that fond of us,” Malune managed to laugh between pained gasps.

A tearing pain tore through Jaltha’s body and she howled, though she kept her claws wrapped firmly around the barbed cord. She looked down. There, across her tail, a gash as long as her forearm, leaking a cloud of blood that blended with the gray mist before being carried away by the current. Beside her, Malune screamed. Jaltha turned her head and saw a similar wound open across Malune’s back, just below her gillmound.

Then, all around them, screams of pain and clouds of blood. Jaltha saw the two guards beside the cart abandon their efforts, fleeing into the storm, vanishing in the haze, desperately trying to escape the sideways hail of wounds that the plain was throwing against them.

Malune screamed once more. Jaltha released the cart.

“No!” Malune bellowed as another wound widened across her bare shoulders, where the yoke was lashed to her. Jaltha unsheathed her warclub as the cart toppled in the gale, the leather lashings coming undone as the invisible daggers slashed them into tatters. The air bladders ruptured, great silver bubbles gushing out of them. The cart’s detritus tugged Malune back with it, the yoke strangling her. Jaltha brought her obsidian-spiked warclub down on the yoke, shattering it, freeing her friend. The males were gone, pulled backwards into the blinding haze of silt and blood. Jaltha pulled Malune down with her, pinning her to the plain by pressing her left arm across her gillmound. More pain came, more wounds opened across her back, and the silt clogged her gills. All around, the sounds of screams, thinned and muffled by the current. Jaltha threw her gaze in every direction, but could see nothing but gray…

Then, a flash of silver…and another…like brief daggers of moonlight slashing through the world…

“Razorfish!” Jaltha screamed. A great swarm of them.

Pain lanced into Jaltha’s left arm, just below her elbow. She looked down and saw a razorfish, its small, dagger-shaped body lodged in her flesh, her blood clouding its black eyes…but then, no…its eyes were not black, for it had no eyes…nor scales, nor flesh…only bones…

She panicked and released her hold on Malune, flailing to be free of the thing. As she turned, her fins caught the current. Jaltha tumbled through the haze, screaming Malune’s name into the storm.

II

When Jaltha woke, she was alone. Her body had come to rest only a few tail-lengths away from the Verge itself, beyond which there was only eternal night. Only a few more moments, or a slight shift in the current, and she would have awoken to the crushing death and utter blackness of the abyss. She flexed her muscles, felt the wounds from the razorfish throb. Her bones and muscles ached, but none of the injuries seemed particularly life-threatening. Her left arm hurt the worst, and she suspected that the razorfish had struck bone before becoming dislodged. Her first full thought was that she was, indeed, alive.

Her second thought was Malune.

Rilask, Jaltha knew, had plotted their path a full thirty miles north of the volcanic wastes, slightly closer to the Verge than was typical for treks across Shoorm due to recent rumors of increased volcanic activity. Still, their caravan never skirted closer than ten miles from the Verge. Tales abounded of the ancient strangeness that lurked near the abyss. None in Rilask’s employ would have permitted her to push them any nearer to it.

And yet, here the storm had left Jaltha, at the very mouth of it, a day’s journey at the least from their course, where the storm had struck. She looked around, hoping to see a scrap of debris or, miraculously, another salathe from the caravan, even a voiceless male, anything that would mean she was not utterly alone, here.

She found it. A shard of cheruon bone, stark white upon the black plain. She swam to it, lifted it, sniffed it with her gills…traces of the nall-leaf oil used to strengthen it…the scent of the males lashed to it…the sharpness of salathe blood…

Jaltha dropped the bone, sensing something drawing near, from behind her. She spun, flaring the spines from her elbows and around her gillmound.

There, only three tail-lengths away, floating through the thinning gray haze leftover from the storm, was a creature Jaltha had never seen, though she knew it well from the sleep-circle tales of her fellow guards. A grogglin, it was called. Its body was as wide as Jaltha’s was long, a massive, quivering white sphere from the sides of which jutted long bones that stretched translucent, veined flesh into torn, tattered triangles. Its jawless mouth was a permanent circle lined with a thousand teeth, each as long as Jaltha’s arm from shoulder to wrist. The teeth were set into muscled organs that each flexed and relaxed on their own accord, so that its mouth was ever in motion, the teeth rippling within like the tentacles of an anemone. The eyes set into the sides of its loathsome girth were nearly as large and hideous as its mouth, the milky darkness behind them soulless and ever-hungry. The tales the guards told claimed that the grogglins lived in the abyss, and only ventured out of it when they were near death from starvation, driven mad by hunger.

She reached for her warclub only to find her sheath empty. The voice from the aether sang through her mind.

Now may be a fine time to bring me forth.

“No,” Jaltha hissed. The grogglin was still drifting lazily, as though it had not seen her. She knew better. If the stories of the guards were true, the monster was incredibly fast. When it decided to strike, Jaltha would be rent to pieces by the autonomous teeth before she’d be able to scream…

Call me! The voice insisted.

“Silence,” Jaltha murmured. She remained perfectly still, hanging in the water. The grogglin’s pulsing white mass drifted nearer, following the Verge, one of its fins hanging over the black sand, the other jutting out over the abyss. She watched its tail fin ripple gently, almost hypnotically…the muscle at its base throbbing softly beneath its pulpy flesh…

Damn you! If you die, do you know how long I’d have to wait for someone to—

Jaltha leapt sideways, toward the abyss, spitting forth a black cloud of fearspores. The venomous cloud trailed her, and it was through this that the ferocious maw of the grogglin darted, its speed incongruous with its bloated, ugly form. The monster brought itself to a halt, thrashing its ugly spheroid body, trying to expel the toxin from its gills. Jaltha took the opportunity. She fled, swimming straight out over the abyss, following the Verge, taking care not to look down at the infinite nothing below her and the horrors it held…

Something slammed into her left shoulder with the speed and force of a god’s fist. She screamed. Her body went rigid as her vision went white with fear and pain. She fell…

Her vision cleared and she saw above her the grogglin, descending toward her, the Great Wall of the verge rushing past her, retreating toward the light as the world was swallowed by darkness.

You’re going to godsdamn die, here, Jaltha.

Jaltha felt the pressure building as the light retreated, the grip of the angry, ancient dark tightening around her. The last of the light formed a ring around the grogglin, a macabre eclipse as the monster’s maw reached her, and she felt the heat from its flesh, felt its teeth dance across her skin, almost gently, like the touch of a lover…

“Malune,” she thought she said.

Pure blackness, then. No light.

III

Jaltha’s eyes opened as quickly as she could force them. Her vision was blurred. There was soreness in her wrists, in her tail and across her back. She looked down at her hands…

Below her webbed claws, two holes had been punched through her wrist, between her bones, leaking wisps of blood. Below the wounds were shackles attached to thick chains of kryndyr steel. Her tail was similarly bound. She followed the chains to hooks set into the the wall behind her. The wall was a strange, porous stone, and pure black. There was a wide, circular opening in the wall not far from her beyond which was thick darkness and the sound of groans. The sound of torture. The mouth of the cave was only two or three tail-lengths away. Beyond it, she could see the last remnants of day sift down through the world like offal.

Jaltha swam backwards, pressing her aching body against the wall. How she had come to be here, when her last memory was of the grogglin’s devouring maw, she had no idea…perhaps, she reasoned, this was the afterlife…

Don’t be foolish, the voice from the aether trilled, You are still very much alive.

She tried to speak, but pain and exhaustion had weakened her to the point of muteness. The aether knew her thoughts, however, and answered them accordingly.

The grogglin brought you here, it said. Some sort of cave network, set into the wall of the Verge. The aether paused. Jaltha could feel it withholding something. She closed her eyes and focused, directing her thoughts to the aether.

What? Speak, damned thing!

The voice seemed to sigh.

When we arrived, Rilask was already here.

Jaltha’s eyes opened.

It was Rilask that bound you, so. It was she that put you in chains.

Jaltha’s mind raced. What the voice claimed made little sense to her. Still, it meant that Rilask was alive, at least—

No, the voice said, She isn’t.

What? Jaltha asked. You said—

Jaltha, this is very, very bad, the voice interrupted. The grogglin venom in your blood has slowed you. I…I do not think you can summon me…your mind is too weak to call me forth…

Another voice cut through the aether. It spoke aloud, not in her mind.

“You have a touch of magic in you, Strange One,” it said.

Jaltha turned to see two figures swim through the wide circular opening to her left. Salathe females, both of them. In the darkness, she could barely see them but for their lifeheat. They swam over to her, their tails wafting lazily in perfect unison, until they came to a stop midway between Jaltha and the mouth of the cave.

There, by the soft almost-light beyond the mouth, she could see her captors. The one nearest to her was an Eldress. Her hide was thick with pus-colored calluses, her beak nearly white with age. She wore the kasp-leaf robe of a Shaman, but somehow Jaltha knew this was no mere God-Speaker. There was a sinisterness to her, an unmistakable aura the color and viscosity of venom. Beside her, there was Rilask.

“Rilask!” Jaltha coughed, snapping the chains taught as she strained against them, “Rilask! What is this? Release me, now!”

Rilask did not respond, did not move at all except to wave her tail to remain in place. Jaltha shook her head, unbelieving.

“Rilask!” Jaltha barked. Rilask did not move. Razorfish wounds, hundreds of them, crisscrossed the trader’s body from the top of her skull to the tip of her tail. One of her eyes had been ruptured, its milky remains drifting out of the socket like a wuorn-tentacle.

Rilask, Jaltha knew, was dead. The Old One clicked her beak and swam closer to Jaltha until her beak nearly touched Jaltha’s own. The clouded eyes bored into Jaltha, played across her.

“But it is not a magic I know,” the Old One whispered, “and I know many. Still, it has touched you. As such, I have decided to keep you near.”

Something stirred in the darkness behind the Old One, and Jaltha shook as she beheld it…the grogglin, swimming lazily past the mouth of the cave. For the first time, Jaltha noticed the enormous black gash in its side, behind its eye. A great chunk of flesh was missing from the animal, its translucent bones and milk-colored organs bloodless and decayed. The grogglin, she realized, was dead. It was dead, and yet it moved, serving the will of the Old One. Jaltha’s mind trudged through her memory until she found the razorfish buried in her elbow…its eyeless head, its near fleshless body…

“You…” Jaltha croaked, “you are a necromancer…”

The Old One chittered, flared the spines around her gillmound. “The dead are often more willing servants than the living,” she shrugged, and chittered again. “The living require either pain or reward. The dead ask only to live. Once that price is paid, they will do whatever is asked of them.”

Jaltha quivered, straining against the chains.. It was useless. The toxin reduced her body and mind to mere caricatures of themselves…crude illuminations…

“I am called Olak-Koth,” the necromancer declared. “And you are called Jaltha, once chieftain of the Olmregmai.”

Jaltha edged away, her back colliding with the wall. Olak-Koth continued.

“I have seen your mind, as I see all of my prey. It is rare, but it does sometimes happen that one of the living may be worth more to me alive than dead.” She extended a bony claw towards Jaltha. “I believe you to be one of those.”

Jaltha, I kept her from what I could, the voice said. It sounded frightened. Her magic is strong, though. She knows I’m here—

The necromancer’s eyes twitched, her beak jerked upward, her gillmound quivered. Her eyes rolled and the protective white membranes flicked over them sporadically.

“I…can feel it…your mind, reaching out and touching it…near…it is very near…” the necromancer lowered her head, composed herself, ground her mandibles together before continuing. “What magic is it, Strange One, that speaks to you? That guards your mind from probing claws? What darkness is it you carry within you? Answer, fool! For it is this, alone, that has saved you from the fate your friends now suffer!”

Jaltha heard the groans of pain once more, echoing out of the cavern behind her…

“Malune!” Jaltha cried.

She pulled hard at the chains, throwing her tired weight against them, felt them bite into her flesh, felt them draw blood, but the kryndyr smiths were stronger than she, and the grogglin venom made her dizzy and filled her vision with tiny blinding suns. After a moment, she became still once more, drifting limply to the cave floor.

Olak-Koth swam nearer to her, looked down upon Jaltha. “Once,” the necromancer croaked, “you had a Mooring. Power. This, I have seen, and I needn’t have looked within your mind to see it. You were feared. Adored. Some felt that hate which is reserved only for gods and chieftains. And now, behold! Ruled by a fear strong enough to force you into the service of a fool trader,” her claw jabbed backward toward Rilask, still hovering in the water, staring ahead, seeing nothing.

“Though, somewhere along your path, magic touched you. You know its name. It speaks to you, protects you. It is ancient. Strong…” The necromancer’s voice trailed off. Her eyes rolled over white. Jaltha felt something like a breath of cold, putrid current across her thoughts. Within her, the voice roared like a guardian beast. Olak-Koth’s eyes opened and she shook her head, flared her gillspines, clicked her beak. She grasped Jaltha’s beak in her claws and stared into her eyes.

“Do you not crave what you have lost? Do you not crave that power?”

Jaltha tried to open her beak, but Olak-Koth’s grip was too strong.

“I can give you that power, Strange One. I can give you a world that fears you.”

Jaltha! The voice screamed through her, making her body go rigid, Jaltha, I know! I have seen it, what she plans!

Jaltha shook her head free of the necromancer’s grasp.

“I have seen enough of magic and those enslaved to it,” she spat, clicking her beak in disgust. “Do what you will with me.”

Jaltha, what are you doing—

“Silence!” Jaltha screamed. The tiny suns burst, leaked blindness through the world. She shook her head, which only made things worse. She shut her eyes and breathed. Above her, she heard the necromancer’s voice.

“So be it, wretch,” said Olak-Koth. “What comes next will shake the very foundations of the world. If you will not surrender your magic to me, your blood will suffice.”

Jaltha… the voice strained to be heard, but was drowned out by the grogglin venom, the pain in her broken shoulder, the gashes in her flesh…

Jaltha…

The grogglin’s venom seized her, then, having had its time to settle within her. Her body spasmed once, and then was still, as if molten iron had been poured into her bones. She could not move, could scarcely breathe as she settled on the cave floor like a cheruon bone. The blindness faded, though her gaze was as fixed as her bones. All she could see was the mouth of the cave beyond the shadows of the necromancer and her revelation slave.

She heard Olak-Koth say to Rilask’s living corpse. “Take her to the others.”

IV

Rilask’s strength was otherworldly as she dragged Jaltha’s paralyzed body through the dark corridor toward the sounds of torment.

They entered an immense cylindrical chamber, lit by ancient bubbling kryndyr flames set into sconces in the walls. The walls were rounded, following the curve of lengths of strange stone, almost like the ribs of some giant beast. As Rilask swam through the chamber, Jaltha’s unmoving eyes beheld the horrors within.

There, upon the curved, rib-like stones, were the members of her caravan…Gaka, the second in command…Dejeme the male-herd…Kalmara the navigator…all writhing, screaming, their eyes wide portals that opened onto worlds of agony. Gouts of black fearspores erupted from the vents below their beaks, instinctual, animal reactions to fear and anguish.

They were all bound to bloodpsonges. The vampiric things lined the rib-like stones, clustered upon it, and the salathes hissed and died slowly, slowly, as their life was drained from them…

Malune!

Rilask shifted Jaltha in her claws just as they passed the bound, quivering form of Malune. Her arms were stretched out, her tail torn, broken. Malune’s life was reduced to a weak light behind her eyes that dimmed as it was pulled into the bloodsponge on which she was bound.

Rilask turned and swam toward the wall, toward an empty bloodsponge further up, directly above Malune. Rilask spoke, then, though not with her own voice, but with the rasping hiss of Olak-Koth. “I have seen your affection for this one,” the revenant chittered, “You may watch her die.”

Rilask turned Jaltha’s body so that she stared into her dead, eyeless skull. Though Jaltha knew what was happening, the truth of it was still a distant thing. Buried beneath confusion and pain and the harsh magic that held her limbs, there was the voice, crying out to her through the void.

Jaltha…Jaltha…

Pain like sunfire burned across her back, down her tail, from her wrists down her arms, through her veins and everywhere, everywhere at once. She gasped, flaring out her gills, and tried to move. She felt the mind-numbing toxins of the sponge’s million mouths as they hooked in and sucked at her flesh, draining her slowly…slowly…

She screamed. Olak-Koth laughed loudly through Rilask’s beak. A cacophony of screams, of terror and blinding, pulsing agony, the laughter of the necromancer…the scent of the blood-infused sponges…Malune just inches below her, helpless, all of them…all of them doomed…all of this blended, melded at once into something pure and solid and white, the way a pearl is made of a million broken stones…

Jaltha! The voice screamed. She could hear it, now. She could focus. Rilask’s corpse swam away, back toward the entrance to the chamber of horrors.

I cannot heal you if you cannot summon me, the voice said, The grogglin venom will soon be overtaken by the bloodsponge’s own toxin. It will numb your mind as well as your body.

The voice paused for a moment.

Jaltha, it said, I am afraid.

All around her, the screams fused together into a deafening silence, and then there were only the sounds of her own blood and the voices within it.

What…what is happening?

The voice answered, When she entered your mind, I was able to enter hers, but only briefly. I have seen what she is, what she plans.

Jaltha was able to move her eyes again. She strained against the bloodsponge’s suction, but the combined venom of the undead grogglin and the sponge itself took the strain and turned it into a tearing nausea that threw acidic vomit out of her beak and caused her bowels to rupture. She moaned low and was still, casting her eyes about the vast fire-lit chamber, the twisted bodies, the blood leaking from the gluttonous things upon which they were dying.

This is not a cave, the voice continued. It is a massive skeleton, the fossilized remains of a gargantuan beast from your world’s prehistory, a kind of predatory serpent. By my estimates, the skeleton is nearly three hundred tail-lengths long. It has been hidden here, beneath the sediment, set into the wall of the Verge for eons. Olak-Koth had found the monster years ago, and sought a way to bring it forth from death.

Jaltha’s eyes were torn reluctantly down, to Malune, whose eyes were closed behind white membranes. Jaltha closed her own.

She practiced her death-magic here, within the skeleton, until she found a way to bring life to the dead by use of bloodsponges, transferring life from a living thing to a corpse with the vampires as the medium. Here, she waited, capturing stray travelers across the plain until our caravan came, and she drove the storm of razorfish to scatter us toward her.

The voice threw visions of the past upon the surface of Jaltha’s mind…visions of the past…Olak-Koth, once a revered Shaman of Olm-Daki, draped in silken leaves and pearl and obsidian jewelry…a black dagger in her claws…imprisonment…banishment…years wandering the black plain…the yawning maw of the predatory beast, trapped within the stone, its ancient, empty eye socket like a cave within the Verge…

With these lives, the voice said, with this blood, the beast is soon to rise from its tomb. Guided by Olak-Koth’s terrific will, it will be a siege engine with which she will visit her vengeance upon Olm-Daki. At the end of it, she will have more slaves. More lives. Enough to fill the bloodsponges set within the ribs of a hundred more fossils…enough to raise an army of the prehistoric dead…

She saw it then, painted upon her mind, twisting and fading and reforming with the surges of bloodsponge venom…Olak-Koth’s vision for the future…all of the Moorings of the salathes and the cities of the crustacean kryndyr razed, all of Dheregu United beneath the skeletal claws of an undying Empress of Death and her army of blood-stained bones…

Why do you show me this? Jaltha thought. She could almost hear the screams again, could feel the burning, gnashing pain of the bloodsponge’s mouths start to numb into a soft, almost pleasant sensation. If I am doomed to die, what does it matter to me the fate of a world none can save?

The voice answered, We can stop this. We alone, perhaps, can end this before it begins.

Jaltha opened her eyes, looked down at her weakened corpse. The color was already almost gone from the flesh of her tail.

You said…I could not summon you…that my mind…was too weak…that it was impossible…

It is, the voice said, and Jaltha felt it tremble. But you must try.

Jaltha’s gaze drifted past her tail, past the monster upon which she was splayed…to Malune. The only creature toward which she’d felt drawn since her Mooring was slaughtered, since she had inherited Nakaroth from the mad fiend Kalzahj, since she had been broken and scattered to the wild currents of Dheregu. In Malune, she felt the pull, the almighty command she had once felt in the gods she had abandoned, and she knew not why, only that she must obey it. In this, for the first time in a hundred seasons, she felt the mighty cry of purpose.

Focus, Jaltha! You must try!

The walls shook, suddenly, and would not stop. The great ribs of the creature to which the hapless salathes were bound trembled, dislodging themselves from the stone in which they were entombed…

It is beginning…the voice said.

The screams were drowned out by the thunderous crack of stone, and a booming, echoing voice roared through it all, the voice of Olak-Koth, speaking empowered words no living tongue save hers could form as the mighty, long-dead beast shook itself free from the cliff-face, alive once more, fed by the blood of a hundred salathes and the will of the necromancer in its eye…

A stone struck Jaltha as it fell, and the last thing she saw was the darkness of the abyss opening below her, a mountain’s worth of stone pulled free from the Verge by the living bones of the great serpent, sent tumbling into the eternal night.

V

It was a noxious heat that shook Jaltha awake. For a long moment, her venom-slowed mind forgot where she was. She looked around in confusion and tried to move. Then, she remembered.

The sunlight fell down through the world in gray, muddied torrents of light. All around her, the bloodsponge-lined ribs of the great prehistoric monster rippled and swayed as the skeleton swam forth. The light was stronger, here, not far from the worldbreak. She looked down. Malune had stopped moving, stopped screaming, as had most of them. Her eyes were closed. It was likely, Jaltha knew, that she was dead. The thought couldn’t penetrate her slow, clogged thoughts deeply enough to elicit pain. For that, she felt a small amount of gratitude.

Below Malune, a league or more below them all, there lay the wide, burning landscape of the volcanic wastes. The heat of it, even at this distance, had been strong enough to tear Jaltha from the grip of the bloodsponge toxin.

She is taking the beast over the volcanoes, the voice said, She hopes to reach Olm-Daki by nightfall.

She hissed as she felt another wave of nausea roar through her.

You must focus, Jaltha.

She vomited again, though there was little left in her but bile. She surveyed her body. Almost a translucent white against the bloodsponge, she swore she could see her very soul as it left her, fled into the bones of the reborn titan.

Jaltha…

She closed her eyes. The venom swirled beneath her membranes, a visible thing, a swarm of gray tendrils. She forced herself beyond that, deeper into the darkness, toward the core of it, where the voice lived…

Nearly, Jaltha…nearly…

She heard the humming song, the high-pitched trill that rang outward from the aether…

Bring me forth!

…and she saw before her the visions of Olak-Koth, a world of a million corpses, though even this moved her only slightly. Pain was the wide world’s blind author, and it mattered little to Jaltha who it selected as its scribe, be it Olak-Koth or some other fiend. But, there, in that vision of a million bloodless corpses, she saw only one.

The rage built, and the high, humming song burst into the world around her, outside her mind, and she felt the burning in her arms and chest, the painful toll the summoning took from her now a small, insignificant thing.

Her mind bellowed, full and deep into the aether, I call thee forth, Nakaroth, Blade of the Void!

Her eyes shot open to see the air in front of her left hand shiver and fracture into alien geometries. In the midst of this, a widening point of darkness appeared, the high shrill screech of reality suddenly deafening. Then, the point erupted into a thick, black triangle of serrated steel, the blade of Nakaroth. The hilt sprung from the blade into Jaltha’s webbed claws, which she closed around it. The song became silence.

Instantly, she felt the sword’s power course through her, replacing in moments what the bloodsponge had taken hours to steal. She roared, and in one mighty forward motion, tore herself from the bloodsponge’s thousand hooked mouths. Her blood trailed from the wounds, but she felt no pain, only rage and a ferocious swell of might borrowed from the timeless aether. She spun in the water and slashed at the bloodsponge. The thick black sword passed through it easily, lodging itself in the thick, stone-like rib beneath it. The wounded sponge and the enchanted bone released great scarlet clouds of her own blood, and the wounded resurrection quivered in pain and surprise from the attack.

She knows, the sword said. Hurry!

Jaltha darted down to Malune’s sponge, burying her claws into it to stay with the monstrous skeleton as it moved. Jaltha pressed the flat edge of the blade against Malune’s chest, and a dozen yellow runes glowed upon it. Malune’s eyes shot open and her gills flared. She looked about her, struggled against the bloodsponge’s grip.

“Be still,” Jaltha said, drawing back the sword.

Malune watched in horror as Jaltha brought the sword down. The blade bit deep into the bloodsponge, missing Malune’s tail by a fangwidth. The vampiric thing shuddered in panic, and Jaltha relished in knowing that, had the creature a mouth, it would have screamed. It released Malune in a thick cloud of her own blood.

Jaltha took Malune in her arms and swam away from the skeleton, struggling against the pull of it as it passed them. They looked at one another. Malune was still weak though even with the tiny amount of power granted her by Nakaroth she found herself able to swim on her own. She pushed away from Jaltha, suddenly terrified of the salathe in front of her, wielding a great black blade, surrounded by an aura the color of a dying sun.

“Malune…”

“J…Jaltha? What…what’s happened?”

“Can you swim?”

“I…I can.”

“Then swim south. There is an abandoned kryndyr outpost near the Verge, according to Rilask’s maps, at the southern tip of the wastes. There should be supplies there which will permit you to return to Chorgaan.”

“What…what’s happening? What was that creature…?”

Jaltha’s gillspines flared in anger. “Go!” She screamed. Malune backed away.

“What…what about the others?”

Jaltha’s gaze remained fixed on the living fossil as she said, “I will do what I can. For many of them, I fear it is too late.” Jaltha swam forward, past Malune.

“Why did…you save me, then?” Malune asked.

In reply, Jaltha barked, “To the outpost!” She stopped for only a moment, turned, and said, “If I live, I will meet you there.” Then, she was gone. Malune was behind her. Olak-Koth and her beast lay ahead.

VI

The power that surged outward from the sword propelled her through the water at an incredible speed. She caught up with the fossilized tail of the undead titan within moments. The pull of the beast’s mass through the water caught her, further accelerating her progress. She darted beneath its tremendous vertebrae, each one as wide as a grogglin and twice as long. The creature’s size dwarfed even the largest of the white cheruons, who themselves could reach a size of over two hundred tail-lengths. If Olak-Koth succeeded in raising an army of such things, Jaltha found it hard to believe that anything would be able to stop her from claiming all of Dheregu as her own.

She entered the cavernous ribcage by darting between two mammoth ribs. All around her, the dead and the dying…the reek of excrement and fearspores and blood. The serpent’s bones, she thought, carried the scent of war within its belly.

She swam over to the nearest of the tortured captives, a young caravan guard named Taati. She could smell the death rising off of her, could see it in the empty, open eyes. She took a long breath in through her gills, then drove Nakaroth through the corpse, into the sponge. Blood gushed forth. The monster shuddered. The thick blade severed the corpse in two, and the top half fell away to the hissing wastes.

Something is coming, Nakaroth said.

Jaltha ignored the sword and swam the seven or so tail-lengths to the next rib, to the hapless creature bound upon it. This one, too, was dead. She did not know her name. Without ceremony, she plunged the sword in. Blood rushed out.

Biting, slashing pain lanced into her side. Jaltha roared and spun. Buried in her tail up to its dead, empty eye sockets…a razorfish. She tore it out and crushed its bones in her fist, its bladed nose biting blood from her palm. She discarded the broken thing and looked up. Pouring out from the porous skull three hundred tail-length’s ahead was a swarm of razorfish as thick and full as the gouts of blood pouring from the ruptured sponges. The swarm moved as a solid entity, rushing across the skeleton toward her, an angry, bladed cloud.

Hurry!

Jaltha darted upwards following the wall of curved black bone until she came to the next bloodsponge. This one held Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. She was alive. Her eyes flickered open as Jaltha dug her claws into the sponge behind her head.

“You…one of…the guards…” Gaka rasped.

“Be still,” Jaltha commanded, and lifted the sword—

A razorfish tore a hole through the webbing below her right arm. She hissed as another slammed into the blade of Nakaroth, shattering itself upon impact with the magical steel. The swarm was upon her.

The living daggers encircled her in a cyclone. She lashed out with Nakaroth, swinging the blade in wide, mighty arcs, crushing dozens of them at a time. Still, they were able to attack, stabbing at her from all directions. They were too many.

The aura! Nakaroth cried, Use the aura!

Jaltha bellowed in protest, “No! I am too weak already!” A wound opened below her jaw. She swung her sword wildly, tearing holes in the wall of the cyclone that immediately healed itself as more and more of the necromancer’s minions poured forth from the titan’s skull.

Jaltha, you must—

“It will drain too much of us both!” Jaltha screamed over the roaring swarm, “It was you that said it’s meant only to be used as a last resort!”

Another dagger in her tail fin, then another near her spine, and another in her elbow…

Precisely! The sword countered.

Wounds opened like polyps across her back and shoulders…

She closed her eyes and hissed at the sword, “Very well! Do what you must!”

The sword’s mind bored into her own, pulled a portion of her soul into itself…

A great jagged sphere of yellow light burned the world around her body into a bubbling roar. She felt it tear at her soul, feeding off of it. Her arms threw out to their sides of their own accord. The destroying aura expanded outward from her, swallowing the razorfish, dissolving the swarm in a matter of seconds. When it was over, Jaltha hung in the water in a cloud of dust that was all that remained of the razorfish, pulled forward only by the mass of the great skeleton-beast as it glided forth.

She turned her head slowly as her strength returned. There was Gaka, still bound upon the bloodsponge. The aura had burnt Gaka’s chest and arms, and singed the bloodsponge itself. Gaka, however, still lived. Her eyes were fixed upon the great triangle of steel in Jaltha’s left hand.

“What…what are you…?” She whimpered.

Jaltha felt the sword’s diminished healing power slough through her, slowly sealing the wounds inflicted by the swarm. She stabbed the bloodsponge, releasing Gaka.

Gaka listened numbly to Jaltha’s commands, to the directions to the abandoned kryndyr outpost. Without a word, stricken dumb by pain and terror, she swam away.

“Wretched thing! Infidel!” The great, trembling voice of Olak-Koth filled the world, echoing out from the titan’s very bones.

Jaltha turned, then, and saw the corpse of Rilask leap out of the titan’s skull and turn, wielding a spear of fossilized bone, rushing down the winding length of ribcage through the scarlet fog of blood Jaltha had loosed from the vampiric sponges. Jaltha thrashed her tail and rushed forth, toward her enemy…

Their weapons collided like a clap of thunder, sending each of their wielders tumbling through the water. They each gathered their bearings, and struck again. Jaltha ducked beneath a supernaturally powerful thrust of the thick spear. The weapon passed over her gillmound and Jaltha swept upward with Nakaroth, slashing her enemy open from its abdomen to its throat. White milky tendrils of intestine burst forth from the wound.

The revenant lunged, dragging its bloodless entrails behind it. Jaltha, still slowed from the use of the aura, moaned in despair as she labored to lift Nakaroth to block the attack. She was too slow. The spear punched into her left side, slipped between her ribs. She screamed and grasped the bone spear’s wide shaft, brought the sword down upon it, slicing it in half. The revenant’s lonely eye flickered in anger as it looked down at its broken weapon. With the spearpoint still inside her, grinding against her ribs, Jaltha roared, flashing Nakaroth outward, severing the corpse’s head from its eviscerated body. The head fell away beneath and behind Jaltha, drifting down to the burning wastes a league below.

Jaltha looked down at the wound. If she pulled the spear out, she would only bleed out faster. Nakaroth would clot the bleeding for now, but could do little to save her from the death the wound would bring. The blade would have to return to the aether to replenish the power spent on the aura, and in that time, she would die.

She looked around at the hundred or so more bloodsponges left to be severed, at the corspes of the salathes that she could not save, and felt her grip on life loosen further. There was no way to stop the serpent. Even crossing the distance to the skull, to kill Olak-Koth and break the spell, would take more of her lifeforce than likely remained. She looked down, where Rilask’s headless corpse had fallen. She blinked, realizing something. She looked up, at the spine…

Yes, Nakaroth said. Do it.

Jaltha swam for the vertebrae.

Before you die, the sword said, send me back into the aether. I would rather wait there for another to summon me someday than perish utterly in the fires below.

Jaltha silently agreed. She was nearly there…nearly there…if she could sever the spine, interrupt the flow of blood through the bones, perhaps it would slay the beast just as it had slain Rilask.

She lifted the sword, thrashed her tail…almost…almost…

A screech behind her. She turned.

Olak-Koth, wreathed in a black aura that boiled the world around her, tore through the water, her claws bared and full of gnashing magic…

“Infidel!” She howled.

Jaltha tried to raise Nakaroth, but the sword was too heavy, emptied of power. She tightened her grip and prepared to send it back to the aether, fulfilling her promise.

The necromancer threw her claws outward, casting black, moaning beams through the water. Jaltha darted to her right, following the length of the spine. The black beams slammed into the vertebrae, scarring the fossilized bone. The great length of the titan shuddered. Olak-Koth screamed again, spun as she reached the spine only a tail-length away from Jaltha.

Nakaroth, she began the spell to send the blade back to the aether…

The necromancer’s hands pulled darkness into them from nowhere, her eyes wild, her tail flashing. Jaltha remained where she was, prepared to die.

Blade born of the starwinds…

The necromancer grasped Jaltha’s throat with a burning black hand.

…to the starwinds I command thee go…

Jaltha felt her flesh bubble and char beneath Olak-Koth’s grip. She met the necromancer’s eyes, saw the red and raging void, a future of corpses and blood scratched into sand-scoured stone…

Something lurched. The necromancer screeched in pain. Her black hand was torn away violently from Jaltha’s throat. Jaltha backed away, dizzy, dying, blinking blood out of her eyes.

Olak-Koth’s body was impaled against the titan’s spine by a length of broken bone. It was the half of the spear that Rilask had fallen with. Now, it was pushed upward through Olak-Koth’s abdomen, out through the back of her neck and into a fissure in the serpent’s vertebrae. At the other end of the shaft, Malune glared up at the necromancer, thrashed her tail, forced the weapon deeper into the necromancer.

“Now!” Malune turned and screamed at Jaltha. Jaltha did not hesitate. She swam forth, lifting Nakaroth with both hands and all her strength, though her dying muscles cried for relief. Olak-Koth opened her beak to scream, but no sound came before the sword had passed through her, the weeping cloak of souls suddenly silenced. The necromancer’s body separated below the arms, the bottom portion trailing black blood, like a dark comet on its way to the wastes a league below.

Jaltha and Malune’s eyes met for a moment before Malune’s gaze fell to the spear in Jaltha’s side. They grasped each other as Nakaroth vanished from Jaltha’s hand, flickering back into the aether. Malune took Jaltha and swam out of the serpent’s ribcage as the bones fell apart from one another. No longer held together by the necromancer’s will, they collapsed and crumbled, following their master and dragging the dead after them into the fire.

VII

Somewhere in the deep darkness of a wounded sleep, Nakaroth spoke.

You have done almighty work, Jaltha of Dheregu.

She opened her eyes, suddenly fully awake. Over her head, there was pure black stone, baroquely carved. She lifted her body from a slab of the same obsidian. There was a pain in her ribs, and deeper, and she remembered…

“Jaltha!” She turned. There, in a finely decorated threshold, was Malune. She swam into the small chamber. Behind her followed a regal-looking salathe Eldress, wearing the headdress and shoulder shells of a chieftain.

Malune took a place beside the wide berth of volcanic glass upon which Jaltha lay. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while, perfectly silent. The chieftain waited, patiently. Words formed behind Jaltha’s beak, but she kept it shut. The silence was far more appropriate.

At last, Jaltha turned from Malune to face the chieftain.

“Where are we?” Jaltha asked.

It was the chieftain who answered.

“You are within the Mooring of Olm-Daki,” she said.

“A hunting party had spotted us,” said Malune, “They saw the bones of the serpent fall, and they found us among the debris. You’ve been asleep for many days.”

The chieftain lowered her heavily ornamented head. “It is likely that all of Olm-Daki owes you our lives.” She straightened, crossed her strong arms. She stared hard at Jaltha. “The kryndyr surgeons here have repaired your wounds, and assure me you will live. I wanted to personally extend my invitation that you remain here. All will be taken care of, of course. You would want for nothing. It is the least we can do.”

Malune and Jaltha both looked at the chieftain, then at each other. Malune nodded. Jaltha said, “For now, at least, we will remain.”

The chieftain chittered in excitement. “I will have a more permanent living arrangement prepared near the top of the mountain, close to the worldbreak. The sunlight there is legendary! Why, I myself retain a home there…” She was still speaking excitedly to herself as she turned and left the chamber.

Malune knelt and clacked her beak, just once, against Jaltha’s before turning and following the chieftain. “I will return,” she said. The sensation lingered, mingling with the sound of Malune’s voice as she absently ran her hands over her arms, her tail and felt the scars there. She stared up at the obsidian ceiling, at the myriad carvings, vines and tentacles entwined and knotted like the ways of the Fates that had led her here. It was useless to try and find a pattern, she knew. But she would have time.

Even as she followed them, the carvings seemed to blur, and she looked away, out the narrow window of the chamber toward the bright orange horizon, where the volcanoes breathed, and thought of Malune, and how they two alone had lived, how very many had died and for no good reason, and how old the world was, and how many more would live, and how many more would die, and how truly surreal it was to be anything, anything at all. On its own, her beak opened and she chittered. She thought she felt the world stumble then, as though she had joined Malune in learning its secret.

Outside, the fires burned forever, and the currents roared, and the souls of ancient monsters rode planes of sunlight to the sky.

Inside, Jaltha laughed.

—«»-«»-«»—

Pierce Skinner

The Desolation

by Dana E. Beehr

Across the cracked and broken wastes, two figures came walking.

They were a man and a woman, under a darkened, starlit sky. The man was tall and slender, his skin, eyes, and hair all pale, as if bleached by years or decades of handling power. He was dressed in a dark tunic and trousers with dark, belted outer robe. The woman was shorter, all cinnamon, with hair and eyes the color of fine coffee; she wore a sleeveless top that left her midriff bare, and loose pants cinched in at the ankles above soft leather boots. The man’s hands were bound behind him with glowing chains, and more chains fettered his ankles. Around his neck rested a collar of solid light, and a lead ran from it to the woman’s hands.

An air of subtle, habitual cruelty hung about the man: an icy chill that suggested he was capable of terrible things. The woman gave away nothing, her dark eyes limpid and unreadable. Yet there was something about her—in the way she moved, the easy lightness of her stride—that spoke of danger; and indeed the man regarded her with the respect he might accord a venomous serpent. The woman carried a curving sword, though the edge of the blade was dull; the man was unarmed.

After a time, the man spoke, quietly. “What is this place?”

The woman glanced back at him over her shoulder with one eye. At length, she responded, “This is the Desolation.”

“And what is that?”

“This is the place broken things go to die.”

 ◊ ◊ ◊

They walked on, the woman leading, the man trudging after, his steps shortened by his fetters. Around them, the vast, lifeless plain stretched out, littered with detritus that might have fallen from the sky: smashed houses jutting out of the earth at impossible angles; splintering carts; broken tables and chairs; jagged wheels embedded in the ground, their spokes sticking up like fangs; ruined child’s toys; crumbling walls and sections of towers. The plain was speckled with these things as the sky above them was speckled with stars. From time to time, they passed flickering, transparent human shapes—thin, hollow-eyed, dressed in rags—hovering over the wreckage. These shades stretched out beseeching arms, calling soundlessly; the man and the woman ignored these mute pleas and walked on.

The man’s eyes were cast down, but not in humility. He was thinking. At length, he looked up.

“And you are to leave me here? Is that to be my punishment?”

Again, she glanced back at him. “No one returns from the Desolation.”

“It is hardly necessary, you know,” the man continued, in that soft, almost gentle voice. “Nor are these—powerless as I am now.” He worked his shoulders, indicating the chains.

“You are not powerless, Edan,” the woman said. “I will not make the mistake of thinking you are.”

His pale lips curved in a smile. “You flatter me.”

The smile faded under the woman’s wordless stare. He averted his eyes in a show of submission that failed to cloak seething anger.

At last they came to a toppled section of a stone tower, lying on its side like a giant, downed tree trunk. A flash of recognition crossed Edan’s features. Holding the lead in her hands, the woman turned and commanded, “Down.” His knees folded under him like a puppet whose strings had been cut. More anger flashed in those colorless eyes. The woman fixed the lead to an iron ring in the side of the wall.

“We will stop here,” she said.

“Terathena—” the man began.

“Do not say my name.”

Edan drew a breath, clenched and relaxed his fists behind him. “Please,” he said. It was clear that “please” was not a word he cared for. “Will you—do you really mean to leave me here?”

Terathena turned that flat brown stare on him. “No one returns from the Desolation,” she repeated stonily.

His brows drew together; and then his fury broke. “You can’t!” he raged, helpless. “You can’t abandon me here—I am Edan, the Lord of the Nine, Starkiller, Highest of All!  How dare you!  You’re no more than a—a tavern dancing girl from a long line of dancing girls, and you think that the few tricks you know allow you to stand equal to those who have spent a lifetime studying the names of the stars! I—I command you!” he shouted. “I command you to bring me back with you, you hear? I—” He ran himself into the ground and knelt there, panting in fear and despair.

Terathena simply regarded him, arms folded, displaying no visible emotion. Without a word, she leapt lightly onto a fallen block, then lowered herself to a crosslegged position with her back to Edan.

Edan wet his lips. His mind was clearly still working. “Tera—forgive me, Thena,” he corrected himself. “Please. Will you bring me back with you? I will—will reward you beyond your dreams. I can give you things that—” He looked up at her. “Thena?”

Terathena turned her head to look at him. After another moment, she said, “No one returns from the Desolation.”

Edan stared at her. Dawning awareness lit in his eyes.

“It is as I told you,” Terathena said. “The Desolation is where broken things go. To die.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan began to laugh, a strange, carefree, almost joyful sound completely at odds with the chill that hung about him.

“So, then. This punishment is for you as well. I had wondered why a tavern dancer had been assigned as my escort.” His voice turned soft, sympathetic. “What wrong did you commit that you were ordered to this fate along with me?”

When the woman answered, it was with a strange air of sufferance, perhaps even resignation. “I chose this duty freely. I am the last of my trio; my sisters sacrificed themselves to defeat you, Starkiller. It is just and fitting that I follow them into death.”

“How very noble of you.” Edan spoke the word as if it were the vilest profanity. “If you—”

“Enough.” Terathena turned her gaze toward the distant horizon. “Soon, the Dead will come.”

“The…the Dead?”

“In this place, all must face their sins. They will come, and soon.” She nodded to the distance. “There, they are gathering now.”

Edan went still. He followed the direction she indicated, and paled further.

Some distance from them, a bright mass of light flickered into being, moving toward them, slowly and surely; then it broke apart, into a host of human forms.

There were thousands of these forms, if not tens of thousands. Men, women and children, reduced to transparent, colorless images that flashed against the night sky. They drifted toward the segment of tower where Terathena and Edan waited, passing through the shattered relics littering the flat plain, past the shades orbiting the relics. Edan steeled himself.

“Who are they?”

“Your victims,” Terathena replied. “Those you wronged. Those you killed.”

“What will they do to me?” His voice was iron-hard.

Terathena gave no answer. Above him, she rose to her feet, alert. The horde drew closer, their faces gaunt and haggard, their hair matted, their eyes empty sockets. Many of them bore the wounds that had killed them; some were missing limbs or gaping chunks of flesh. Blood streaked their clothing, dark and clotted against their transparency. They came, limping and staggering, stretching out their hands and crying, “Edan!  Edan!

“See what you’ve done to us, Edan!”

“You murdered us, you monster!  Monster!”

“Your life in vengeance!  Your life!”

Edan recoiled. His pale face went waxen; his features set, rigid and harsh. “No,” he snarled, barely audible beneath the howling chorus. “No…no, it wasn’t like that, you— You know nothing—You have no right to judge me, you can’t— Leave me!” he cried suddenly. “The Stars’ sake, leave me in peace—!”

The Dead paid no heed. They pressed onward, until they were almost close enough to touch him. Edan shrank away…

Then Terathena leapt down from the block, yanking the sword from her back.

The golden blade lit with eldritch blue flames. She passed close enough to Edan’s head to make him flinch back; as she landed, she lunged into an attack. Blue fire lanced from the blade, striking perhaps a score of the Dead; they boiled away like mist. More pressed forward, but Terathena danced among the shades as a thresher among wheat, slashing with sword and fist. Azure light burst and sparkled with each blow, as more and more of the shades evanesced into nothingness.

Yet the Dead paid the dancer no heed; all their attention was on Edan. They struggled toward him, but none could penetrate the circle defined by Terathena’s flaming blade. Cautiously, Edan straightened, watching with bright interest.

On and on Terathena fought, showing no sign of exhaustion, and the great host of the Dead diminished.  Finally, the very last of them winked out; she lowered her weapon and was still under the dark, starlit sky.

“Well done,” Edan murmured. “I would not have thought you frivolous dancers were capable of such power.”

“This was not a battle,” Terathena said flatly. “These were your Dead. They had come for you. They could not harm me.”

Edan’s pale brows drew together. “They came for me.”

Terathena nodded.

“Then why did you not let them take me?”

Again, that weighing, measuring stare. “A quick death is too easy for you.” She looked to the distance. “It is too easy for me.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan followed Terathena’s gaze, and tensed again. Two more shining figures were drifting toward their fallen tower like dandelion seeds caught by the wind.

“Are they—”

“These are here for me.”

“Will they harm you?” he asked as they drew closer.

A muscle quivered in her jawline. “No. Their purpose is other.”

As they drew nearer, Edan saw that they were both female, Terathena’s age. Colors were muted in the flickering wash of their bodies, but one seemed as pale as he, with large, blue eyes and long blonde hair caught up at the top of her head; the other was dark as burning rock, with a complex hairstyle of tiny braids gathered at the back of her head and studded with pearls and other precious stones. Their clothing marked them as Deep Dancers like Terathena: the midriff-baring top, the loose breeches gathered into low, soft-fitting boots, the coin scarf at the hips. They too had swords at their backs; but the dark one carried a veil wound about herself, while the blonde one was laden with rings, bracelets, and necklaces. They stopped perhaps half a dozen paces away, gazing at her.

“Who are they?”

Terathena looked down at him. Again, when she spoke, there was an air of resignation and acceptance; if this was a punishment for her, then answering Edan’s questions was clearly part of it. “They are my line-sisters and members of my trio. Teraisë and Teramin.” She nodded to the pale one and the dark one in turn.

“Ah.” Edan pondered this revelation. The two women continued to watch Terathena, profound grief in their eyes. “Why do they not speak?”

“There is no need.”

“Why do they not attack?”

“What makes you think they are not?” He looked up at her, startled, as she continued: “The strongest attacks are not always physical.”

“I see.” Edan cast his eyes down, thinking. “They must be very angry with you, to come to you so,” he said, his voice laden with false sympathy.

“Angry? No.” Terathena watched her line-sisters. There was a strange depth in her dark eyes: almost a wistfulness. “Reproachful, perhaps. We all agreed on what had to be done. It was the only thing we could do… ”

“I could say the same,” murmured Edan, a small smile playing around his lips.

“But that does not change the fact that I survived, and they did not.”

“And what was it that you did?”

Her eyes hardened. “Save your breath, Starkiller. You will need it. The attack of conscience is next.”

Edan began to laugh again. “Attack of conscience? You are wasting your time, dancing girl. I don’t have one.”

Terathena extended her sword. “You will.”

In the sky, a dark cloud was gathering.

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan followed the line of Terathena’s pointing blade and saw it: a thick, dark, roiling mass. It looked something like a thunderhead, far off, yet swiftly drawing nearer.

A sound drifted to them: a high-pitched, whining noise that seemed to drill into Edan’s brain like a diamond-tipped blade. He knotted his hands into fists behind him and looked up at Terathena, to see if it was grinding on her too; her face was as stony as ever, but there was a new tightness around her eyes.

The cloud boiled closer still. It seemed to be made up of fine particles of some sort, but he couldn’t tell what—and then it struck him.

Insects.

Thousands, perhaps millions of tiny insects, milled above them in the starry, empty sky. The cloud wafted over them—then bent and twisted back upon itself, and arrowed straight for them.

“Thena!” he shouted in warning.

But Terathena was already moving, tracing a circle around them, her feet weaving an intricate pattern of steps. She swirled and tossed her sword so that it flashed in the air, a flowing snake of blue-gleaming metal. Where she stepped, a shield of blue flame blazed alight, arching over them in a perfect dome. With the shield complete, she raised her sword to a guard position and set herself.

The insects came for them, squealing mercilessly. They were hideous, bristled creatures: each as long as a thumb, black bodies banded in sickly gray or blue or green and ending in inch-long, gleaming stingers. Their tiny heads were a twisted parody of human features; they called in voices rendered shrill and tinny by their size, and it was this that made the sickening whine. They were so repulsive that Edan drew back, shaking; then the creatures in the leading edge of the attack struck the barrier and flashed into flame.

They blazed out as quickly as sparks, and the entire cloud halted. It lifted away from the barrier, milling in buzzing confusion.

Edan hesitantly looked up. “Will they leave us?”

Terathena shook her head. “No. They will be attacking again in short order.”

“They are so ugly,” he mused.

“They carry vile deeds.” Terathena tightened her hand on her sword hilt.

Edan lowered his eyes in thought. “And how many of these insects have come for you, Terathena?” he asked her, with that same false sympathy.

She did not give him so much as a glance. But she lifted her free hand and held up fingers—one, two.

Teraisë and Teramin. He laughed again, while above, the cloud came for them.

◊ ◊ ◊

The full mass of insects struck the shield with a roar, like waves crashing on rocks. Hundreds of them went up almost instantly; Edan squinted against the brightness of the little creatures’ funeral pyres. Another wave came at once, and another—until under the onslaught, Terathena’s defenses began to weaken. The blue fire of her shield bowed inward, growing thin. In the shadow of the surging insect cloud, he shuddered.

“Your barrier will hold?”

“We can only hope.” Terathena swept her sword along the places where the shield was injured. More blue flame followed the curving path of her blade, but for every damaged section she healed, another appeared. Edan watched, fascinated. He had always dismissed the Deep Dancers as tavern wenches; he had not dreamed they had such power.

“If you free me, I can help you, Thena,” he offered.

“Be silent,” she snapped. She danced within the shield, faster and faster, and yet more and more of the insects flung themselves against her defense, until a section of the barrier was worn paper-thin.

“Thena…” Edan’s shoulders tensed.

“I see it!” She whirled to face the new vulnerability. Yet as she threw her fire at it, more rents began to open up in the fabric of the barrier. A huge section of the dome split open from top to bottom.

“Terathena!” Edan shouted.

With a cry, Terathena extended herself in a wild lunge, sweeping the blade down the gaping rend as if opening an opponent’s belly. The wall of the barrier flowed back together, but a high-pitched whine announced that some of the insects had slipped through. Edan felt three searing pains at the base of his neck.

With a choked cry, he collapsed flat on his face, pressing his forehead against the hard earth. His guts were filled with lead, his heart with ice. Guilt!

He saw them clearly, three faces. Narelan, his first victim—his friend. Selchie, his mentor. Demeald, his faithful follower—the last, futile death. Had he not repaid their kindness with betrayal and murder…? Only three deaths, out of the thousands he had caused, and yet now their weight was crushing him. Edan clasped his hands over his head, crying “Terathena, help!

It seemed like a lifetime before the three points of heat were swept from the base of his neck. The burden lifted; even so, Edan kept his face pressed to the ground, lacking the strength to move. The after-effects of that horrible guilt were still with him; he trembled, terrified that it would return. He lay there, helpless, hearing Terathena’s blade sing as she danced, defending him.

Finally, as the last edge of the insects’ hum died to silence, Edan raised his head.

Terathena stood with her back to him, her sword clutched in one hand. Her back was straight, her head high; her countenance was grim, rocklike. The blue, flickering shield was gone. Around them, a perfect circle was demarcated by ash and insect corpses piled in tiny mountains.

Outside the circle, Terathena’s Dead remained, watching her with deep sadness. Something in the set of Terathena’s hard shoulders showed that she was acutely aware of their presence. Edan looked closer.

Clinging to the back of Terathena’s neck were two of the same, wasp-like creatures that had stung him.

Thena,” he said harshly.

She turned her head.

“Your neck—”

Absently, Terathena reached up and slapped the wasps away.

“Did you know?” Edan asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“I knew.”

“Then why—”

“My conscience already stings me; the insects could not hurt me further.”

Edan watched the Deep Dancer in dawning awe. “Name of the Triune, what did you do, Thena?”

Terathena shifted her eyes to Teraisë and Teramin. “I killed them.”

“Killed?” Edan laughed a little, though it was hollow. “That, I do not believe,” he chided her mildly. “I cannot think you capable of such a deed; not one of you dancing girls. Those of your order have never understood true power. If I—”

Now Terathena glanced at him again. “Be silent, murderer.”

Edan raised one brow. “Have you not said you were a murderer yourself?”

“I am,” Terathena said shortly. “That is how I can recognize such crimes in another.” She reached out and touched the pale strand of light that led from his collar to the ring in the wall. “Silence.”

Edan’s voice died in his throat. He almost choked from the force of it, from his own rage and anger. Terathena resumed her position, staring out across the plain of wreckage and shades, simply watching.

Time passed. Edan shifted restlessly. Anger at Terathena was foremost in his mind; he thought of how he would like her to die—her, and the others who had condemned him, the High Council of the Nine Cities. If I still was what I had been, they would never have dared, he thought with a petulance that even he recognized as rather childish. They would not dare to do this to…

But they had: the High Councilor, Kilantra Rasheman, the other councillors, two from each city. As they had passed sentence, he had burned their faces, their names into his mind, swearing silently that he would revenge himself on them…all of them…they…

Suddenly the realization struck him that he could not remember the others. Even their faces were misty. Had there been the full eighteen councillors? He tried to recall the details—but they slipped away. With a bright spark of fear, he reached further back, for that last, disastrous battle where his forces had been overthrown and he had been enchained. He could remember staring out over the walls of his citadel, built in the ruins of the City of Starlight, seeing the forces arrayed against him across the Plain of Stars; could remember his fury at their defiance, at his own subordinates’ failures, but little beyond that. He knew that the walls had been breached, that it had come to hand-to-hand fighting within the citadel itself…but the memories themselves were gone.

He could only remember three things with clarity: the faces of his Dead.

Burn the Triune, he thought viciously. Above him Terathena watched the skies.

Silence stretched out; minutes turned into hours. The faces of his dead filled his thoughts. Edan slowly realized he felt a chill…as if strength was draining from his bones. A strange lassitude seemed to be creeping into his body. He started up with a gasp.

Terathena spared him a glance. After some consideration, she reached out and touched the strand of light that served as his tether. “Speak.”

Edan exhaled sharply. “I feel…weaker.”

“Yes.” Terathena nodded. “I feel it as well.” Her rigid, upright stance was starting to falter. “It is the Desolation. It drains you of your strength, your life, until there is nothing left, and you become…”  She nodded toward a pair of shades sitting on a shattered oven: a sobbing outline of a man holding a child.

“And my mind—” Edan broke off. “It is going. I cannot remember—”

“The Desolation takes everything from you except the wrongs you committed.” She faced her own Dead. “Those remain with you always.”

The chill inside Edan deepened into panic. Narelan, Selchie, Demeald—their eyes bored into him. And behind them, more— hundreds, thousands… “Why? Why was I sentenced to this? What purpose can it serve? The dead are dead; this will not bring them back—”

“Not ‘the dead’,” Terathena corrected him. “Your victims, Edan. They deserve justice.”

“No,” he whispered. “I cannot—”

“You have no choice. Neither do I.” She returned to watching the wastes.

Edan gritted his teeth, angry not just at her response, but at his own weakness. I will not speak to her again, he vowed silently.

More time passed; there was nothing but that gnawing, cold lassitude. Terathena’s sword sagged, as if it were too heavy for her to lift. Edan found himself shivering as if he were standing in a blizzard. Yet the cold did not seem to be physical. There was nothing to do but to contemplate the end.

At last Terathena took a seat on a stone block that had fallen from the tower. It was the ruined Tower of Stars, his citadel; he had recognized it at once. Seeing the ruins here had shaken him; it seemed almost purposeful.

If Terathena recognized it as well, she showed no sign; she settled with her back to the wall, resting her sword on the ground. Her eyes were distant. Her Dead moved to stand beside her, each still watching her with identical expressions of deep grief. Seeing them grated on Edan’s nerves.

“Thena,” he said at length—for a moment he had not been able to remember the name of the woman who held him prisoner, “why do you not drive them away?”

He saw a brief blankness in her eyes, as if she were struggling to remember, too. “I can’t,” she said at last, and looked down. It took Edan a moment to realize what was in her voice:  Helplessness.  The thought flickered that he could use this to his advantage, but it was distant. He realized, with dismay, that he was coming to accept that no escape was possible.

“Why not?” They bothered him, those Dead of hers; their silence, their piercing gaze.

She shook her head dully. “They have earned whatever reproach they see fit.”

“For the Triune’s sake, Thena!  At least tell me what you did, that you believe you merit such punishment.” His own Dead hovered, demanding. As she considered him, he offered, “It will help pass the time at least.”

She hesitated, then gave a sigh. “It is little enough to tell.” Again, he could see that she felt this to be a part of her punishment. “Do you remember your taking of the City of Night?”

A small smile came to Edan’s pale lips, tinged with bitterness. “Of course. That is where I earned the name Starkiller.”

“After the fall of Night, you seemed unstoppable.” Her dark eyes were distant, as she looked on things long past. “When it became clear that the First City, Elean the City of Dreams, was your next target, there was panic.”

Edan said nothing, but that small smile remained.

“The Grand Assembly met for three days and three nights. All the Great Houses, the merchant nobles, the heads of the sorcerous orders—all gathered, searching for some way to respond to the threat. Who could know how to fight an army such as yours? Creatures forged from the bones of the living—unnatural, twisted, in torment—”

Edan’s brows drew together. “No, you are wrong. Those who followed me were content to serve me. They were—”

“If they were content, it was because you had stripped their minds away and turned them into empty vessels for your will, Edan Starkiller,” she retorted. Edan fell silent, seething. Terathena continued.

“Elean, the City of Dreams, is not the City of Blades—Elean rules by wealth and splendor, not by iron and steel. They had few defenders to send against you. I and my sisters—” She looked over at Teraisë and Teramin, and Edan gritted his teeth at the emotion in her eyes. I did not take them from her; she did that herself, by her own admission.

“The Council was divided. Some thought we should join the other Free Cities in the field, hopeless though it might be. Yet just as many believed that to contest your might would bring destruction, and that it would be best to surrender to your will.”

“Wise,” Edan murmured.

Under Terathena’s gaze, his smile withered. She went on. “Those who argued for peace pointed to the City of Night. There had been a few brief reports conveying that they had been treated well after your conquest. But my sisters and I—no. I did not trust them.” She lifted her eyes to her sisters again. The sorrow in their faces deepened immeasurably.

“I suggested that we should go to the City of Night ourselves, to learn whether my worst imaginings were true. They…they agreed. We had pledged our lives to each other: that we would face all dangers together, that where one of us went, so too would the others. We had pledged…” She trailed off.

“We were perhaps a week on the roads, before we crested the Mountain of the Sun and saw the City below us, in all its dark and jewelled glory.”

She brushed at her forehead again.

“There we cast lots. Two of us would go on. One would remain, to carry the tale back, if the other two did not survive…” She pressed her hand briefly to her eyes. “I was chosen to stay behind.”

“I watched as they approached the city gates; as they were surprised, overpowered, and taken to the holding pens. I watched, from the heights of the hillside, as they were thrown into the great forging vats in the heart of the city; as they were remade into mindless, obedient thralls. When the transformation was complete and they were sent out to walk the roads, I confronted them and slew what was left so that they would not suffer the fate to which I had abandoned them. The fate that, by right, I should have shared with them.

“The rest is known to you,” she said simply. “I returned, alone, and gave my testimony to the Council of Nobles. They argued and protested, but in the end, they believed.  Elean joined the other Free Cities, and together overthrew your stronghold in the City of Starlight. If I had not returned, then they would still have been debating when your army appeared at their gates. But…”

Again, a single muscle quivered along her jawline. “But my sisters are still dead. I sent them to corruption and ended by taking their lives. If we had held to our pledge—if I had accompanied them into the city, the three of us might have stood a chance. At least we could have died together. I broke our vow,” she murmured, addressing her Dead directly, “but you paid for it. And for that, my sisters, I will never forgive myself.”

The two shades shared a glance, joining hands. A deep and aching grief was in their faces.

Terathena spoke again. “That is what I have done, Edan Starkiller, to merit the Desolation.”

Edan lowered his eyes once again, thinking. The fatigue drained him, clouding his mind. He was beginning to find it hard to breathe, and more and more memories were fading. Her sisters…Teraisë, Teramin… He thought he could see the shadows of his Dead behind them. Everything else was faint.

“You should not blame yourself,” he said at length. “You did not act out of malice…”

“They are no less dead for it.”

Edan managed to shrug. “What purpose does such blame serve now? It will not restore the Dead. Would it be not better and as just to simply live?”

“Is that your philosophy, Starkiller?” Terathena goaded him. “Tell me the names of your Dead. If you can, there are so many.”

“I can,” he said quietly. “Three, at least: Selchie. Narelan. Demeald.”

The names seemed to abash her, but she rallied. “And what else do you know about them? They aren’t people to you. They never were.”

Edan thought at first to dismiss her question, but then paused, considering. What else was there to do in this place?

“Perhaps you are right,” he admitted at last. “To me they were just…means to an end.” His thoughts circled morbidly.

Narelan. Selchie. Demeald. “Narelan was…my friend.” Was he? a small voice whispered. “We had both hoped for an apprenticeship with the same master; I was more skilled, but Master Selchie thought his temperament was better suited to advanced study. So I…cleared the way.”

“How?” Terathena asked.

“Poisoned wine. I knew he would take it from my hand. He took one sip and fell dying at my feet.” Narelan’s eyes haunted him. “He knew, at the last.”

“Something to be proud of,” Terathena said coolly.

Anger flared; Edan felt his face harden. “He had no right to stand in my way.”

Terathena did not respond. Wearily, she placed her sword crosswise at her feet. “And the second? This Selchie?”

“Selchie…” She had been a slim, rugged woman, all sharp angles and crags, as if the rigor of her discipline had pared everything nonessential away. Short silver hair had shaded piercing green eyes over a face like a stone outcropping. “Selchie took me on after I disposed of Narelan. I used to wonder if she suspected. But I was careful always to show myself the good apprentice to her.”

“I remember,” Terathena said slowly. “There was some upheaval in the City of Starlight… The Revered Speaker Selchie had been proved a traitor, dabbling in forbidden magics… She was sentenced to the Stone Death…” The Deep Dancer shook her head. “The details are gone. But—” She studied him. “Was it you, Starkiller?”

Edan nodded. “She did not see what I was doing until it was too late. She thought my interest in the Dark Speech was for pure scholarship. I had not planned to move against her as swiftly as I did, but she came upon me, late one night in the catacombs under the tower, and saw what I had conjured. She tried to expose me, without realizing that she was tripping the jaws of my carefully laid trap. By the time I was done with my revelations to the Greater Circle, I had them convinced it was I who had come upon her speaking the Darkness.”

“No one believed her?” Terathena asked.

“No.” Edan shook his head slowly. “The more she struggled, the deeper she was ensnared. They dragged her to the Plain of Statues, even as she still screamed the truth. She cursed me vilely as the Stone Death took her.” He paused. “They were all so grateful to me that they immediately moved to make me the new head of the Grand Council, though I had been raised to Master less than a star cycle before.” He gave a small laugh. “Revered Selchie and the Statues of the Plains were among the first recruits for my army.”

“Your walking statues, Starkiller,” Terathena said scathingly. “And her, Edan? Do you take pride in this too?”

He put his head back and looked up at the sky. The subtle chill that hung about him deepened momentarily; if Terathena had been a lesser woman, she would have quailed. “It was the neatest trap I ever laid,” he said softly. “It was truly a thing of beauty.”

“You did not answer the question, Killer of Stars,” Terathena pressed.

For another moment, Edan remained with his head thrown back, looking up at the sky above him; then the line of his shoulders slumped. He shrugged. “It was necessary, that is all. She brought it on herself.” His brows drew together. “Stop asking me.”

The eyes of her Dead rested on him.

“And you as well, shades,” he snapped.

“The third one, Demeald—why him?”

Edan started to flare, then stopped; he was too weak for anger.  “When I slew him… Everything was falling apart by then. Your armies were at the gates. My hold over the minds of my troops was going. If you had only understood—” His anger surged again, hot and welcome against the creeping chill. “Triune above, Terathena, if you had only seen what I wanted to give you—”

“If we had only allowed you to enthrall us? Is that what you wanted, Edan?”

“Well…yes,” he admitted, stonily.

“What sort of world would that be?” Terathena sounded as weary as he felt. “A world full of mindless beings who followed you because you had left us no choice?” She regarded him with outright incomprehension. “Why would you desire that?”

“Because no one would follow me any other way!” he burst out. He dropped his eyes and stared at the ground, working his hands behind him; a slight flush stained his chalky complexion, though Terathena, watching, could not tell if it was shame or rage. Perhaps both.

There was silence for a time, and then Terathena said again, “Demeald?”

“Demeald was the only one who chose to follow me.”

“Why?”

“How should I know,” Edan said, scowling. “Why does anyone follow anyone? Why did your Dead follow you? It was enough that he did.” He jerked irritably at the manacles.

“He came to me after Selchie’s downfall, and asked to be my apprentice. He had no aptitude for magic, but he was loyal and an able commander. That day he came to tell me that the Citadel had been stormed. I knew a rite that might still strengthen my defenses—the darkest of all magics, one that required a human life. And since Demeald had failed me in battle…I thought he might serve me another way, with his blood. So I slit his throat and drained his body of life.” Edan gave a bitter laugh. “And it was useless. He failed me again.”

Terathena was silent, but her eyes rested upon her sisters. Edan felt sudden irritation prick him.

“At least the deaths of your sisters were not for nothing. Comfort yourself with that.”

“I will never forgive myself.”

“Then you are a fool,” he said.

“What do you know of forgiveness?” Her eyes were still on her Dead. “You haven’t even forgiven your victims.”

Edan felt that harsh, tight anger rise in him again. “Why should I?” he asked her sharply. “It’s because they failed me that I’m here!  Don’t talk to me about forgiveness when you have no use for it yourself.”

She was still watching her Dead. It grated on him.

“You think I should seek forgiveness,” he said sharply, wanting her to look at him, the living. “Then why don’t you seek it from them?” And he nodded to her Dead.

Terathena’s stony visage cracked a bit. “From them?”

That got her attention, at least. “Yes. Shouldn’t it be up to them?”

He saw her frozen expression with some satisfaction. Teraisë and Teramin watched her somberly. Terathena started to speak…then closed her mouth. She leaned back against the rock wall and turned away. “Be silent.”

Edan shrugged. He was tired of talking anyway. He wondered briefly if Demeald had been in the horde of Dead that Terathena had slain to preserve him.
Again, silence descended.

◊ ◊ ◊

“So, this is it?” he asked sometime later. “The two of us just sit here until we fade?” His voice was thin, weak.

“If…we are fortunate,” Terathena replied.

“And if we are not?”

“There are deaths here…that can make fading look like mercy.”

He leaned back against the wall of the Star Tower. “How long?”

Terathena shrugged. “No way…to tell. Time is not the same here as it is above.”

“And then we will become—Shades.” He glanced toward a fire-blackened table in the distance; a young woman sat on it, gazing blankly into space. “Well—” he managed a laugh. “They seem happy enough.”

Terathena said nothing.

“Is there truly no way out of this place?”

“Some say there is: if you find your Dead, and they give you resolution. Or if you somehow can find that resolution in yourself. Still others have whispered of other ways. All the same, no one has managed to return.”

Find resolution… “You slew my Dead.”

Terathena shrugged again. “They were only stories.”

Suddenly, a strange alertness came over her. Her eyes fixed on the distance. “Ah,” she said, reaching out to touch the sword that she could no longer lift.

“What is it?”

A faint smile flitted across her lips.

“Another way out of here, perhaps.”

And she nodded toward the horizon.

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan looked toward the line where the star-studded sky met the blasted earth. There was a strange thickness, as if he were seeing a distant object. As he watched, the horizon line strengthened.

“It’s approaching.”

“Yes,” Terathena confirmed. “Here it comes.”

The thickness became an indistinct shape, drawing nearer. Edan felt a chill.

“What is it?” he asked Terathena.

That faintly bitter smile ghosted across her face again. “A Devourer.”

Edan could see it now: a great dense fog drifting toward them. It looked like an elongated cone of swirling smoke, with a tail that lashed from side to side. As it came in contact with the pale, wailing shapes clinging to bits of debris, both shapes and wreckage winked out of existence. It is consuming them, he realized with a start.

Its head swung toward them: there were no eyes, no nostrils, no features of any kind, only a giant circular maw lined with row upon row of teeth. Even at this distance, a tremendous roaring sound came to his ears—the sound of its feeding.

“What is that monstrosity?” he demanded.

“Some say the Devourers were created to clean the Desolation, to make room for new lost souls. Others say that they are born from the despair of the place, searching endlessly for escape from their grief. They have been here as long as the Desolation itself.”

The Devourer swallowed a boulder orbited by three young women; two chairs; and a cart with a horse skeleton in the traces. Edan shuddered. “And what happens to those it consumes?”

“No one knows. Perhaps, nothingness; or they may go on to another realm. It is possible the Devourers are doorways into another world.” Terathena managed a half-laugh. “We should soon find out.”

“Nothingness.” It sounded strangely seductive. The creature was closer than before, its droning noise louder. “Can we avoid its notice?”

She shook her head. “It is drawn to the fire of life, and that fire burns more strongly in us than in anything else here.”

Even as she spoke, the creature again swung in their direction. Its gullet was all the shades of red in the world against its dull smoky exterior. Its tail lashed over a ruined forge as it began to drill toward them.

Triune, it must be huge. Edan’s spine chilled. Despite the distance, he estimated that he could stand inside the creature’s throat, stretch his arms up above his head, and there would still be room to spare.

“Can it be stopped?”

“My strength is spent; even were I whole, it might not have been enough.” She grasped her sword. “Yet I will do what I can.”

She pulled her weapon forward laboriously, then levered herself up. She almost fell more than once. Finally, leaning on the Tower wall, she reached her feet. It was painful to see her thus, and Edan looked away, working his hands in the manacles. Her Dead watched mournfully.

“You can’t fight this, Thena.”

She shook her head. “I must.”

“You can barely stand—”

She raised one dark brow at him. “You believe you could do better, Starkiller?”

“Yes,” Edan said bluntly.

She managed a laugh. The roaring of the creature was a grinding hum like a storm wind. “You cannot.”

“I can,” he said, reaching for anger and not finding it. “Or try, at least. You’ve wasted your strength defending me, Terathena. Let me fight for you now.”

She regarded him skeptically. Her Dead folded their arms and glanced at each other with that same disbelief. They watched the Devourer’s approach without emotion; perhaps it held no fear for those already dead.

“You’ll be killed.”

He gave that carefree laugh again. “Perhaps that is what I want.” The Devourer augured closer, ingesting a chandelier to which a young man clung, two women in a broken boat, and a crumbling monument. “To have a quick death rather than slow fading. To die as…a shadow, at least, of what I once was.” The roaring of the creature was louder. There was a breeze now, brushing against their faces. “I slew my Dead for nothing, in the end.” He sought for the anger that had accompanied thoughts of them before, and was faintly surprised to realize he could not find it. “Let my death at least serve some purpose.”

Terathena’s face might have been carved of granite. “Do not pretend to remorse.”

“Not remorse, exactly, but by the Triune, Terathena, it just seems fair. Cannot a man wish to do some good despite his nature?” She studied him, unimpressed. He sighed heavily. “As you would have it, then. Think of it this way instead. I am done with existence; I seek only oblivion. Besides, even if I wanted to escape this place, you know I cannot. What harm could there be in releasing me to fight?”

She looked from him to the Devourer, her expression flat. The ground was beginning to tremble now.

“It would be foolishness for us both to die in that creature’s gullet,” he told her, softly serious.

Terathena tightened her hand around her sword. Her arms tensed, but she no longer had the strength to raise her weapon one-handed. “We are almost certainly both going to die anyway.”

“You might still have a chance if you release me. To fight that thing is suicide.”

“Yes. Suicide.” Her eyes remained fixed on the creature; at once, Edan understood, and felt anger.

“So this is your penance?” he demanded. She shifted her unreadable eyes to him. “I have slain far more than you. If you wish to suffer so much—” He jerked his head in the direction of her phantasms. “Ask them for forgiveness. That’s suffering to you.”

Her dark eyes narrowed. The Devourer drew nearer, the ground shaking, its roar filling the air. It inhaled a huge dragon skull, then the top of an ornate carriage; the elderly man in senatorial robes who had sheltered beneath it went to his doom without complaint.

At last, Terathena released her sword and dropped to one knee behind him. Edan felt the manacles and fetters fall away. She touched the strand of light that chained him to the tower wall, speaking a word, and the collar lifted from his throat.

Edan shook his wrists to restore the blood flow, then sought to rise, almost overbalancing; he had underestimated his weakness.

He faced Terathena, meeting her steady gaze. The Devourer roared like a terrible gale. Wind screamed in his ears.

“Ask, Terathena!” he called above the gale. “Your Dead. Ask them for forgiveness. I want to see that of you before I die.”

She crossed her arms. “And what will you do if I do not?”

Edan laughed. “Nothing,” he said, “but I would still like to see it.”

She studied him. Then, as if this too were something she must endure, she turned to face her sorrowful Dead.

“Teraisë,” she said. “Teramin.” And her stony façade cracked, to reveal a pain greater than Edan would ever have guessed. Her shoulders trembled, her iron voice shook. Tears glistened on her cheeks  “My line-sisters. Forgive me. I sent you to your doom, while I remained. I know I have no right to ask, and yet I do—Forgive me?”

“Well done, Terathena,” Edan said quietly. She seemed not to hear him, focused entirely on her silent, watching Dead. Edan dismissed her, and turned to face the Devourer.

It was almost upon them. Its fog-like tail lashed. Its maw loomed up above him, twice, three times his height; its throat seemed paved in fire. Long, gleaming ivory teeth studded its gullet in concentric rings, all the way down its throat. The ground shook so hard Edan could barely stand, and a great blast of scorching-hot wind made him stumble  The creature’s roaring filled his world. Still, he felt strangely light hearted; he had chosen and by the Triune, he had no fear of the end. One last time he thought, without rancor, of his Dead—Narelan, Selchie, Demeald—and then all that was left was a heady sense of freedom.

Edan laughed again, a bright, carefree laugh. Terathena saw him spread his arms wide, and he began to call upon the Nine Names of the Stars, the words that had given him his strength in the world outside. The fog skin of the creature began to split. Fissures appeared, running the length of its body; smoke trailed from them, streaming into the air like blood in water. Its tail thrashed; it writhed in evident agony, and the roar of its breath grew high, keening.

Edan was reeling too. With each Name, he paled a little further, swayed a little more. By the time he spoke the Third, he almost fell; with the Sixth, he collapsed to his knees, and tried to rise but failed. His lips moved, but Terathena could hear nothing above the din. He was trembling in every limb.

As he knelt there, panting, the Devourer reared up into the sky and then plunged downward. Its howls sounded like the shredding of the world. Edan lifted his head and spoke one final word.

The Devourer began to shatter, streaming smoke so thick that Terathena’s eyes stung with it; and Edan gazed straight at his doom as with its dying breath, the Devourer swallowed him whole.

Then, the fog creature crashed to the ground, shuddered, and was still.

Terathena approached the carcass of the dead beast. It lay like a beached whale, stretching on forever. Smoke still streamed like blood from the cracks in its surface, though it was thinning to a trickle. She reached out and laid one hand on its side; fog pooled around her fingertips.

“Well done, Starkiller,” she murmured.

“Terathena,” a voice came from behind her.

She turned, one hand going to the hilt of her dance sword, though she was so weak she could barely lift it.

Teraisë and Teramin stood hand in hand, shining so brightly that Terathena could scarcely look at them. Their terrible grief was gone as if it had never been. Instead, a radiant joy filled their faces, shining straight into Terathena’s heart.

“My sisters…” The tears in her eyes were not from smoke.

Our sister.” Their combined voices chimed like the ringing of bells. Almost blinded by emotion, Terathena reached out to them—but then realized with a shock that they were disintegrating before her eyes.

“Wait!” Her own hands were thinning, becoming transparent. Desperately, she reached for them again, but her hands passed right through them. “Stay—forgive me, if you can—”

“There is nothing to forgive. It is not we that keep you trapped here, Terathena; it is yourself. Forgive yourself, we beg you,” they chimed. “Forgive yourself and go, with our blessing and our love.”

“Teraisë—Teramin—wait!” She longed to take them by the hands, to hold them with her just one moment longer. The world was fading; her line-sisters were no more than featureless outlines of light. Yet still she could see their eyes, shining with love and joy.

And then Terathena knew that the grief in their eyes had never been for themselves, but for her.

◊ ◊ ◊

A light breeze was playing across her face. She was lying on something soft that felt like grass.  She opened her eyes, and sat up.

Terathena found herself in a grove of trees. Oak, sycamore, rowan, hazel, maple, ash, walnut, mulberry, cypress: the trees of the nine cities. It came to her that she was in the Forest of the Nine, the grove where she and Edan had been transmuted to the Desolation. The trees’ branches formed a solid wall of green leaves around her.

She looked up at the sky. It was night. The Stars blazed forth in the heavens. The light breeze brushed her cheeks and stirred her long curls.

Beside her, on the grass, lay Edan’s lifeless body. Starkiller—who wrought so much devastation in life—looked almost peaceful in death.

She looked up at the sky again. She was here. She was here.

Slowly, she rose to her feet, stretching her arms up to the heavens, giving thanks to the Triune Mother that she had returned. Survived. She then looked down at the dead man and nodded to him as well. Thank you, Starkiller, for your final request of me. Had he wanted her to have the release he could not have sought for himself? Her thoughts turned toward Teraisë and Teramin.

“Thank you, my sisters,” she whispered aloud, remembering their grief, their joy. “I will never forget you.”

She reached back, touching the hilt of her dance sword, then straightened her shoulders. In one smooth movement, she drew her weapon, then held it out, pointing it straight at the tree limbs forming the barrier. They uncurled from each other to create an archway. Beyond was a long, grass-covered hill, sloping down to a rippling river. Low, forested mountains loomed beyond, dark shapes against the brilliant stars. Terathena felt buoyant, as if a weight had been lifted. She drew a breath and then stepped through the arch in the foliage. The night lay before her, open and welcoming.

The leafy archway closed again behind her, hiding Edan’s lifeless form from view. She sheathed her weapon and started down the grassy hill, toward the world that waited for her.

—«»-«»-«»—

Dana E. Beehr