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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

Captain Jack

by Arthur Davis

seaside_townLights from the windows of Brennan’s Fishing Lodge seeped through the ground fog ahead—a welcoming beacon for lost souls.

Brennan’s rested in an oval spit of land that jutted out into the St. Lawrence Seaway in the heart of the Thousand Islands of Southeastern Canada just above New York State.

The traffic light turned green. The battered gray pick-up to my left pulled away. I remained trapped in thought at the intersection in the mist of a cold October afternoon. A car drove out of Brennan’s long, sinuous driveway, stopped and turned left towards Gananaque, a quiet town about five miles west. We’d go there and walk the village when it rained and it was impossible to fish. But mostly so my brother and I could buy fireworks—boxes of fireworks, every kind and size of fireworks. The rarest of adolescent contraband and parental indulgence.

We were teenagers, when we first came up to Brennan’s in 1966. My father and his friends had fished the St. Lawrence and Alexandria Bay for years before their poker group disbanded. One of the players had accused another of cheating and the other four were forced to take sides. A meaningless squabble breached a friendship that was born before my older brother. After that, we came up as a family whenever my father could afford it, which meant a long weekend every other year or so.

Brennan’s was a spacious private home that had suffered through several poorly thought out renovations. When their children married, Molly and her husband Bill decided to put their hospitality and excellent fishing location to better use. There were four bedrooms upstairs and two smaller ones on the first floor that were in constant demand.

Guests were picked up every morning at seven o’clock by guides who tethered their launches to the long dock that poked into the bay. Molly ran the kitchen and accommodations and smiled constantly. Bill arranged for the guides and managed the finances. Bill was the straight man, while Molly plied the small dining room after dinner, ladling out homemade vanilla ice cream on top of homemade chocolate layer cake mixed with local folklore and terrible jokes.

The body of water was so vast you could spend an entire morning without seeing another soul, overcome by the beauty of lake, land, and great natural bounty of the northern rim of the Adirondacks.

Under the calm of a Canadian sun, there were no distractions from this glade of isolation and retreat. And if you were skilled, but above all patient and fortunate, you might catch a pike, perch, or smallmouth bass. If the gods embraced you, a muskellunge or northern pike would take your line for an unforgettable ride.

The light turned red then green again. The sirens called as they had a week ago. So a phone call was made and clothes were gathered and my rod was taken from the closet and memories were dusted off and confronted.

It was Wednesday. By tomorrow night, the lodge would be filled with guests and expectations, and the few who longed for solitude. I unpacked, ate alone nodding cordially at the two other families steeped in laughter and familiarity. After dinner I withdrew, as is my tendency, and had coffee on the porch overlooking the seaway. Stars twinkled above as they had on my last trip and the one before it.

“What do you know that I don’t? Probably everything. Send me a comet, a flash, or bolt. A marker. A word of truth to save me from myself,” I said pondering the possibility that the almighty may be a woman who’s been humoring the assholes of mankind simply in order to continue the experiment. Mosquitoes darted around my ankles searching for dessert.

My alarm drew me from a deep, forgiving sleep the next morning. The wind rattled the windows on the west side of the home. I washed and dressed and was greeted by Molly who scolded me for being late. I should have known better, she said, concerned that Captain Jack would be pissed.

She was right. “Does the condemned man get a last breakfast?”

Molly was about to further her rebuke. “I’ll tell him your shower wasn’t working. Sit down and I’ll get you something.”

Molly’s something was bacon, eggs, sausage, blueberry pancakes, and steaming coffee. She remembered I liked oatmeal cookies and prepared a fresh bag offered with an affectionate pat on the head as I made my way down to the landing. Captain Jack Hutchinson sat facing the morning sun, his back to the lodge adjusting a reel. A lifeless cigarette slung from his lips.

A ripple rose on the lake surface a dozen yards out to my right and moved toward the dock. It struck the piling as I passed over then disappeared under the dock. It didn’t come out the other side. I stopped and waited, but the surface of the water to the left of the dock remained still.

The first thing that strikes you about Jack Hutchinson—besides the pinch of gray hair that slipped between his coat collar and baseball cap, his cracked canvass brown skin, slight hunch, and torn black turtleneck sweater—were his eyes—a fire of cobalt blue shaded by thick brows, receding into depth and distance, set in a wasteland of cracks and crevasses, etched lines marked an absolute intensity. Captain Jack wasn’t simply looking at you, but scanning your soul for flaws.

I introduced myself. He nodded thoughtfully. We were the last boat to clear the dock. It had to bother him.

I came here because I had to, only I wasn’t certain why. Just that this was the place for me to be this weekend. This is what I told my friends. They were silent, hoping that I would find a foothold out of the miasma that had held me in its grip for these many months.

Captain Jack attended to the helm and his intuition. The sun’s glare showered us from the east, the wind confronted us from the west. I pulled my reel from my gearbox and attached it to my pole. I threaded my line and opened the bait box. A swarm of minnows frantically looked for deeper waters.

His launch hummed along like a fine tuned musical instrument. We skirted the shoreline for another ten minutes until we came around the crest of Pelican Cove. Jack throttled back the engine and slipped past a bed of thick marshes and tangled horse reed. He let the boat drift a while then dropped anchor near the trunk of a half-submerged oak.

The boat settled. The sway felt good, comforting under foot. How many times had I set my line and sent it flying out across sun-speckled water? How often had I dreamed of being up here rather than working in New York City or flying to client meetings in Atlanta or Philadelphia or kidding myself that there was still time left for me to find happiness?

“You were out with Andy Larsen,” Jack said.

Andy Larsen. “A long time ago.”

“You caught a five and a half pound smallmouth bass off King’s Point with him.”

I let the weight of the minnow drag on the line then flipped it back and sideways twenty yards off the stern. It landed near the tree stump. I’d caught my first pike out here. I remembered the cove, and Andy Larsen.

“Terrible breath,” I said, working the line.

“As long as I’ve known the old badger.”

“He knows I’m up here?”

“His back’s real bad or he would have taken you out himself.”

“I gave him a hard time.”

“You caught the biggest damn smallmouth bass he’d seen in years and twice the catch everyone else caught for the weekend you were up here.”

“He’s a good man.”

images-boat“With a blown out back,” he added as the boat drifted toward a rocky outcropping close to the shore, “Give it a toss over there.”

I dropped my line again a few yards from the outcropping and let it sink. There’s no telling where a school might be. It depended on the weather, the time of day, the current, if others boats have been around in the past few days, and luck. Even the dumbest fisherman can get a bite if luck rides his line.

“I never got that fish.”

“I know. Bill was embarrassed. Molly too. Everyone round these parts heard the story.”

“It’s probably hanging over a mantelpiece a few miles from here.”

“A prize like that’s hard to pass up.”

It was stolen from Molly’s freezer before it could be picked up by the taxidermist. “Even twenty years ago?”

“I was the one who Bill wanted to mount it for you.”

I looked into those cold blue eyes. “You’re that Captain Jack!”

A fragile grin broke across his grizzled jowls. “Ain’t another within a hundred miles.”

Captain Jack! “That’s what Molly wanted to tell me.”

“I thought she had.”

“No. I was late getting down to breakfast. There was a problem with the shower. She fed me and sent me right out to your boat.”

“Watch you don’t snag your line there,” he said, noticing the boat was turning toward a sunken branch spiking up through the surface.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said again, to the man Bill Brennan guaranteed would give me the finest fish mount in Canada. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who took it.”

“I thought about it for a long while when it happened. Everyone around these parts was surprised. Doesn’t look good for business. When word got around what happened, the local who took it, and it had to be a local, wouldn’t dare brag about his good fortune.”

I was nineteen. It took me a half an hour to bring that fish to the side of the boat. Andy kept maneuvering the bow of the boat to keep my line clear. The fish sounded, and then ran off half my line. I took him square on my flimsy six-ounce test line and he fought until the end. Andy lifted the bass out of the water and dropped it into the holding tank with our other catch.

“A very big fish,” was all he said.

It was only when we brought it back to the dock and Bill weighed and measured it against the catch from the other boats did we grasp what I had landed.

Old Andy Larsen. “What if.”

Jack turned to me, “You say something.”

“You ever play, what if?”

“Never heard of it.”

That’s because I just made it up. “Something to pass the time.”

“How’s it go?”

“Ask yourself what if you could have whatever you wanted. Like change something in your past, or live to a hundred?”

Jack thought this through. “Longer.”

“Whatever you wanted. Anything.”

“A man asks himself that all his life.”

“Every time he sees a loved-one sick or dying,” I said.

“Or wishes he’d have said something instead of remaining silent.”

“Or what if he could have gone back in time to change his life?”

He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. Hard question to answer, I mean off-hand.”

I felt a sharp, biting tug. The line tightened and sliced left, then right, through the water. A fish will grab bait and swim with it in its mouth undecided as to whether it should be swallowed. Only if it’s swallowed can you set the hook. If you pull back too quick on the line, a fish will simply let go of the bait. The fish came around near the stern, swam on a little longer, and then released the bait.

“He’s down there,” I said pulling up my line.

Jack released the dead minnow and set a fresh one and I let it drop over the side. Jack lit up a cigarette and hung his legs over the side of the boat. He dropped the beak of his baseball cap over his eyes letting enough light in to see where my line had entered the water.

Tiny waves lapped up against the launch. I was glad to be back.

I could feel a nudge, a ping on the line. I was being tempted and teased. I moved to the center of the boat to steady my balance and gave a slight tug. Nothing. Another tug brought with it a tug in turn.

I dropped the tip of my pole closer to the surface. “What if?”

“What?”

“What if you could see the fish?”

Captain Jack came off his haunches. My line jerked to the right, then steadied itself. “What if you could see the fish?”

“Wouldn’t be much sport there,” I answered.

“It would be like hunting elk or lion. You set up the crosshairs and squeeze off a shot from a hundred yards out. Hardly call it a sport the way it used to be.”

“That’s what makes fishing different. You never see what you’re going after or what you’ve hooked until it comes to the surface. Could be anything.”

“You have to feel it, not simply pay an expensive, ill-mannered guide like me to shuttle you to the quarry.”

“What if you could predict where all the fish were all of the time? Would you still want to fish?”

He shook his head. “Not much thrill in that.”

“It’s more important to know where and how to stalk.”

“It’s about the journey.”

“That’s what most people fear.”

“Ain’t no point knowing everything.”

I gave a slight yank on the line and set the hook. Jack pulled anchor and let us drift as I worked the line. For the next ten minutes, I reeled in, then let the fish swim away as its strength overcame the tension on my reel.

“Nasty little critter.”

I pulled back some line and he surfaced a few yards out. “Pike. Nice one too,” Jack said reaching for the net.

“Not yet.”

“The tension on your drag is too taut.”

I immediately released the drag screw on the side of the reel letting my line run out faster. The fish ran out line and sounded again. We maneuvered for a few more minutes until he came to the surface for good. Jack scooped him into the net and held him out to me. “Got to be six or seven pounds.”

“Nice catch,” I admitted.

“Nice day’s catch.”

It was ten-fifteen. We went back to the lodge at twelve-thirty with another, smaller pike, two respectable smallmouth bass, and a large perch. No other boat did as well. The other guests sat at tables in the dining room while their guides went around back and ate in the kitchen or on their boats.

We returned to reality and went back out at one-thirty. The afternoon wasn’t as productive or as animated as the morning. We were relieved to see that the rest of the boats had fared as poorly.

The next day was cloudy and cool. A stiff breeze from the west set a coating of fine ripples rubbing the surface to a froth. Fish would be biting today as they came to the richly oxygenated surface. Guests were down early and eager. Breakfast was taken in greedy quantities, as if we were warriors preparing for certain battle.

We spent the morning combing Jack’s favorite spots, zigzagging across a body of water with no beginning and no end. Everyone should spend a day on this stretch of nature’s imagination—hold a pole in their hands and test themselves against a wily adversary who harms no one and provides endless hours of pleasure and, if you’re available, an opportunity for reflection. In the morning, I caught a sizable pike and had my line snapped clean, Jack insists, by a muskie he knew lived nearby. We went back to the lodge for lunch, reluctant to disclose our failures. By the evening, I had added three smallmouth bass.

As we tied off, Jack asked me if I would like to have dinner with him. I accepted. I told Molly about it. She said Jack never invited guests home. Guides never exposed themselves to such familiarity. But she approved.

West Benton Pond Lane. A winding, rolling dirt road that sprang from nowhere four miles out of town, marked by small, widely separated cottages and undulating stretches of Canadian grandeur. I was early and enjoying the scenic route. Jack said his house wasn’t much while Molly disagreed. Jack Hutchinson was an excellent cook who participated in life when his wife was alive. His daughter had moved down to Albany to work for the government. Molly said she was very pretty with her mother’s fire green eyes, her father’s sharp tongue, and a native innocence about her that belied a quick, resourceful mind. Jack saw her and his grandchildren every chance he got.

I turned onto the dirt road that twisted and rolled until a quarter mile later I saw the house that Jack built obscured by thick underbrush and a rangy stand of Canadian scotch pine. I got out with my bottle of wine in hand and knocked at the door. Something I judged as stew wafted down from the chimney.

The door opened. “Good evening,” the woman said, moving back from the door.

My first thought was that the woman in her early forties was his daughter. I strained for similarities around the eyes and mouth. A young girl in her twenties came out of the kitchen. She was as beautiful as the one who introduced herself as Gretchen. Younger, but here was a definite similarity in the high cheekbones, complexion, and the full, sensuous mouth.

Gretchen put on her coat and wished me a good evening. She kissed the younger girl on the cheek and closed the door. No other car or pickup was in the driveway. Laura introduced herself and asked me how I fared today. I recounted my mediocre performance. She curled up her legs and listened attentively. I was as captivated by her as she seemed to be transfixed by me.

She moved closer on the sofa. “You have sensitive hands,” she said taking my right hand in hers. She stroked my palm, examining the surface of each finger the way I searched for ripples on the water. “A long life and a strong mind and a willingness to explore new opportunities.”

“You can tell all that?”

She wrapped my hand in hers. “I can tell you a lot about yourself,” she announced quietly.

Her smile and charm was transparent and without guile. There was a childlike innocence and yet a depth of maturity. “Can you tell me where the fish are biting?”

She laughed. “No. I can only tell you where I am going to bite.”

I heard no other movement in the house. If Jack were about, he was either standing quite still or sleeping. “I feel at home here.”

“I’m glad.” She seemed genuinely relieved.

“And with you.”

“I felt that too when you came in. I’m usually not so trusting. Neither is Gretchen. I think you were quite taken by her.”

“She’s very beautiful. You both are.”

“And, if you had to choose one?”

“I’m very happy to be with Laura.” And I was.

“What if you could have us both at your side? Don’t most men think about that sometimes?”

“Maybe. I guess so. Maybe as often as women think about being in the company of two men.”

“Well, I think she was as taken with you as you were by her, and I don’t mind.”

“You’re very pretty,” I heard myself say.

“I feel very pretty with you.”

“You have a beautiful home.” She did. Or she and Gretchen did. Wouldn’t Molly have warned me about the possibility of a threesome? And Jack was apparently late for his own dinner. I was expecting something quite different, though what I could not immediately recall.

“I’m happy you came.”

I didn’t know who she was, or her companion’s purpose. I did not know who these women were to Jack Hutchinson. I was tempted by this girl but fought to respect my boundaries.

“We’re alone. You have nothing to be afraid of.”

“I’m not afraid,” I said and reached out and she fell into my arms.

I knew time had passed as I counted the kisses before I could count no more. She got up and took my hand and guided me to the bedroom. We held and touched and caressed, confirmed and relieved each other. I had come to Canada to find a sanctuary and had been delivered to this room not by circumstance but a design that I made no attempt to fathom.

The wind picked up outside. No one was in my room in the lodge. The wind would shake no one awake. My wristwatch said it was past midnight. I had been here four hours. Impossible! I turned and Laura curled herself into me.

She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, or held. Who she was pleased me immensely. She was darker than Gretchen. Possibly bigger boned, fuller in the chest and waist, though not heavy. Her youth wore her instead of the reverse. She was understated where Gretchen’s silhouette was more obviously seductive.

Her hands were never at rest, constantly stroking and probing and searching for delights and to please. She pinched and bit and laughed and her lips were always upon me. By the time I entered her, we had known each other forever. I did not want this night to end and was already burdened by the thought of leaving when I heard the front door open and close.

A jacket was being hung on a brass hook in the living room. Sighs of relief from the cold outside. Cabinets were opened and secured. Footsteps in the kitchen. I was concerned for Molly and Bill. These were good and decent people who deserved more in friendship than they were getting from me.

Laura turned away from me in her sleep. An omen I thought. It was an opportunity to get out of bed. Instead, I kissed the back of her neck and traced my hand down her back. I caressed her backside and moved it up in front until I could feel the heft of her breast in my hand. She moaned agreeably. I was erect and wishful.

Footsteps moved closer to the bedroom. There was no purpose in pretending nothing had happened. Laura’s touch and tenderness had vanquished the spirits that had seized my soul captive, which had shackled and burdened me. I was inspired and relieved. A sense of passion had been released and restored that I had not felt for some time.

The door opened to reveal a smattering of light from the kitchen. Gretchen came into view, turned towards the bed, and closed the door behind her. She went to the closet and removed her sweater and unbuttoned her shirt. She slipped out of her skirt. The light streaming through the bedroom door crack cut up her thigh and buttocks and shadowed her breasts. I could see the measure of her body—beautiful and full. She closed the door completely then came to my side.

“I’m sorry I got back so late,” she said taking up the corner of the comforter and slipping in next to me as though this had always been her practice. “I don’t want to wake her,” she said and set herself in the crook of my arm.

I left just before daybreak and parked in Brennan’s driveway as a delivery truck pulled out. I went up to my room showered and dressed and considered how I would reconcile with the friends I had betrayed.

I bounded down the steps as though I had been relieved of a terrible burden. I had been exorcised of a pall that had taken over and made my life less than what it could have been for too long. The casualty of my relief was that I had dishonored my friendship with Captain Jack.

Bill greeted me and Molly served me and the other guests. Molly made no inquiries as to how my evening went. When I was the only guest left, I got up and put my coat on and walked down the pier.

“Morning.”

“Morning,” Jack said and untied the bowline as I unhitched the stern line.

He got in and I pushed us away from the pier. I checked my pole and bait box. In the corner behind Jack’s seat was a long battered box tied off with a piece of string that cut into the corrugated as though it were born to it. I opened the thermos of coffee Molly had left on my table and offered a cup to Jack.

“No thanks,” he said throwing the boat into gear.

Instead of hugging the shoreline, we headed to the open bay and dropped anchor.

I set my bait and cast out. The minnow flew long and straight over the surface and arched down over the spot in my mind’s eye. There was a moment’s pause after it struck the surface then a stiff tug at the line. The fish sounded immediately. A few minutes later Jack scooped up the fat, thrashing pike.

“Let’s throw him back.”

Jack hefted the fish whose bright eyes and fins marked an adult with an excellent instinct for survival. He looked surprised. “It’s a prize fish!”

“I know. But let someone else bring him in.”

Jack examined the fish. “You don’t want to keep him?”

“Cut the hook and let him go, Jack.”

“Not a man on the lake wouldn’t give up a day’s wages for this one.”

This was something I couldn’t explain. It went in the face of the man’s job, what he did for a living. Bringing the fish back to the lodge was as much a distinction for him as it was for the one who landed it. “Cut him loose.”

Jack removed the hook and dipped the pike into the water. The pike started wiggling immediately and lurched out of Jack’s hands. He wiped off on his pants and picked up the battered corrugated box that was the size of a vacuum cleaner. “Here.”

I took it. “What’s this?”

Jack sat down on the engine housing still smarting from my largesse but with a grain of ulterior satisfaction. “I shouldn’t even give it to you after that,” he said making reference to my recent act of irrational generosity.

“What is it?”

“You’ll see.”

I put the box on the bait locker and cut open the string. The corrugated box nearly fell apart in my hands. There was a thick roll of old newspaper in it. I peeled back the newspaper that revealed another string that was tied around a smaller bundle of newspapers. I cut the string again and stripped away the final folds of newspaper. The first thing I saw was the eyes then the teeth, then the bony dorsal spines and finally the entire body of my prize smallmouth bass.

“Andy called me yesterday. He told me he’d have it for me after nine. That’s why I couldn’t make dinner last night.”

“Dinner?”

“Yeah. I left you a message at the lodge. Maybe you’ll come by tonight.”

I spread the newspaper back. How many years had it been? “I never thought I would see this. I gave up hoping decades ago.”

Jack came closer and examined the taxidermist’s handiwork. “Someone did a first class job.”

“As good as you?”

“This wasn’t done around here. I know the best in this province.”

“Then you know who took it?”

“Andy said he didn’t know. Only that someone called him and said they knew it was his and told him where to pick it up. What with his back and all, I went for him.”

“Just like that?” I believed him.

“After all these years and on the very weekend you’re up here; just like that,” he said clearing away the old newspaper, “you finally got your fish.”

We examined the sheets of newspaper. They were all dated the week that I had been up here. “And tonight?” I asked.

“If you’re up to it. You can tell me the story of how you caught it over dinner.”

“One-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane.”

Jack stood up and looked curiously at me. “You don’t want to go there.”

“That’s the address you gave me,” I said pulling the slip of paper I wrote out as he described for me yesterday before we docked.

He read from it. “One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane.” Then handed it back to me.

One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane. There it was. Clear and unmistakable. “Why not one-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane?”

“There is no one-thirty-two West Benton. West Benton is a rutted dirt road that was never completed. Not a house on it—one-thirty two or otherwise. Now let’s make the best of the morning and bring back enough fish to cover the lodge in trophies.”

I could still feel Gretchen’s biting my shoulder as she snuggled in beside me. I could still feel where Laura’s lips paused before she consumed me. I could still feel the warmth of love and desire.

I could still feel my soul sigh with relief.

One-thirty-two West Benton was as real as any fish I’d ever caught and as exciting as anything I’d ever done, and part of a weekend where all my ‘what ifs’ came true.

“Sounds great. Let’s make it so.”

—«»-«»-«»—

Arthur Davis

The Persistence of RAM

by Christopher Mowder

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I parked my dented Chevy Caprice in the hot asphalt sea of Beemers and Benzes. I thought about dinging the Lexus next to me. Bring a refreshing taste of anarchy into some yuppie’s life. I didn’t, though. Mr. Lexus probably deserves it, but I’m just not that kind of girl.

The five-story building looked like a hospital. Sliding doors whooshed open and too much air conditioning blasted me in the face. I turned right, following the signs for the Advanced Robotics Laboratory.

For the next mind-numbing half-hour, I did nothing but sign my name to waivers and releases. Considering the government requires me to be here, covering their ass with legalese seems like a pretty cowardly blanket. Even after reinstating the draft, mandating two years’ military service, and making voting compulsory, men in Congress still felt guilty forcing citizens to participate in government research. Oh, they claim this is no different than jury duty, that there’s no risk of harm to the test subjects.

With jokes like that, Senators could do stand-up.

piercingsWhen I finally finished the forms, an Asian woman in a white lab coat took me to a waiting area. I asked what to expect. She ignored me. “Please take a seat,” she said. “When the door opens, enter the room, and the experiment will begin.”

Before I could get another question out, she slipped back down the hall.

Whatever.

When I checked in, the receptionist confiscated my purse, phone, and my tattered copy of A People’s History. Nothing allowed in the experiment, she said. She looked at my jewelry like it might be off-limits too, but she can go to hell. I’m not taking out seven piercings.

No phone. No book. With nothing else to do, I kicked my black Chelsea boots up on the suede Ottoman, and waited.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

Looking down the rows, I saw no close spaces open, so I whipped my Range Rover into a handicap spot. I passed five of those, all open. Why waste so much prime parking? I suppose even secret military research must be ADA-compliant.

I adjusted my necktie in the rearview mirror, and headed in to find the lab.

My clients don’t mind if I’m a few minutes late. I bill by the hour, and twenty minutes is a rounding error in the legal profession. This receptionist, though, glared at me as I walked up. I smiled and introduced myself. I apologized for being late, and I even complimented her godawful hairstyle. She warmed to me after that. All sins forgiven.

ticketedI read through their legalese garbage, the standard (and poorly-written) government nonsense. I could tear it apart in court, so I didn’t mind signing it, even the non-disclosure agreement. Then an Asian chick in a white lab coat led me back to an empty waiting area. I gave her my smile and complimented her necklace, but her face remained flat and cold as steel. “Please take a seat,” she said. “The experiment will begin shortly.”

All business. Nobody has time for fun anymore.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01) x—x

A buzzer sounded, and the door slid open. I expected a stark white laboratory, beakers and test tubes and clipboards.

Instead, I stepped into a retro 1920s jazz club. Antique leather chairs and matching deep brown couch formed a seating area in the center. A dimly lit bar stood along the back wall, crystal martini glasses hanging from dark cherry wood, with rows of liquor bottles behind. Large plants chilled out in corners. As soon as I entered, a speaker clicked and light jazz floated down. Nothing romantic, just enough to set a casual mood.

For a government job, this was incredibly classy.

Only then did I notice the giant silver mirror on the wall—one-way glass, I’m sure. They’re watching me, I reminded myself. And they weren’t the only ones. Opposite me, another door had opened. A guy in a suit and tie stood there blinking like he just woke up.

We both entered, and our respective doors slid shut behind us, flush with the wall.

The guy came up to me and smiled. “Hi. I’m Jackson.”

“McKayla,” I said, shaking his hand. I got that same urge from before to create anarchy. Just reflex. I wanted to kick him in the shin. I resisted.

“This is…pretty unbelievable,” he said, hands on his hips and looking around. “I don’t know what I expected when I got the summons for the Advanced Robotics Lab, but it sure wasn’t this.”

“Please have a seat.” A woman’s pleasant voice floated down from speakers in the ceiling, the jazz volume lowered to bare background noise. Jackson and I sat next to each other in the leather chairs, facing the mirrored wall. “The Android Robotics Laboratory thanks you for your participation in Experiment 3F24. For your information, audio and video recording equipment will be in use today, and laboratory technicians will be observing the events.”

The technical talk sounded jarring and out of place in the smooth, suave surroundings.

The woman paused. “Today, you will be testing our newest model, developed here at the ARL.

“Our latest android unit resembles humans not only in appearance and operation, but in consciousness as well. The android model you’ll be testing today believes it is human.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

An android that thinks it’s a human? I laughed. McKayla shot me a look.

“That explains all this,” I said, sweeping my arm around the speakeasy. “The robot thinks it’s a human, so give it a human surrounding. They couldn’t have picked something in the era of television? The Nationals play this afternoon.”

“Shut up,” McKayla hissed.

Above us, the Asian chick droned on. “The android is programmed to believe itself a human being in every way. This android will remember fictional experiences, have preprogrammed emotions, and hold opinions. It will believe it has a life outside this facility. In fact, we activated it just a few minutes ago.

“You may interact with the android in any way you see fit,” the chick concluded. “Your goal is to convince the android it is a machine. Once you do, the experiment is over. Now, please make yourselves comfortable. We will begin the experiment in a few minutes.”

A third door to the room stood next to the silvery mirror. I turned to face McKayla, and watched the door over her shoulder. “So. Come here often?”

McKayla rolled her eyes. “Save it, unless you want me to call you Jackass instead of Jackson.”

If she thought I was hitting on her, she had nothing to worry about. From the shock of purple in her jet-black hair, her plentiful facial piercings and her personality like a nail file, I knew she was not my type. “Just making conversation.”

After a minute, she touched my arm. “Hey. I didn’t mean to be bitchy. Sorry. I’m just a little on edge.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I smiled at her. “What do you suppose this thing’s going to look like? I mean, they say it’s human, but I don’t buy they could make it flawless.”

“Judging by the atmosphere, I wouldn’t underestimate it,” McKayla said. The music played again. “Stan Getz,” McKayla said, after a moment.

“You know jazz?” I would have bet money she listened to nothing but death metal. “I like it too. I played bass guitar in undergrad, before law school sucked all my time.”

She nodded. The longer we waited, the harder it became to keep conversation going. She rapped her fingernails on the leather chair. My knee bounced involuntarily. I put a hand to stop it. We both stared at the door now.

“How much longer?” I called out to the mirrored wall.

The Asian chick’s voice crackled back over the speaker. “The experiment is about to begin.”

We both stood, waiting for the door to open. McKayla crossed her arms. I clenched my fists at my sides. “Whatever happens, let’s do this together.” She nodded back at me.

We waited a full minute I’d say. I looked behind me. No other doors opened. No one else entered.

“Where’s the android?”

The voice came over the speaker one last time. “The android is one of you.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I stared at Jackson, and staggered back a few steps. Oh my God. This guy is an android.

We stared at each other for a long time. His eyes struck me the most. They looked so real. They darted back and forth like a frightened animal.

Surely, this is a social experiment. What would a normal person do when she’s told she’s in a room with a robot?

Minutes ticked by. That scenario looked less and less likely. Neither of us sat back down. The silence became unbearable.

“When did you first learn you were an android?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’m not.”

“So androids can lie.”

“Apparently so, judging by you. I almost believed you were human in the beginning. Almost.”

I laughed, but it came out short and stilted. He can’t really believe it’s me. This is just part of his programming. “I’m no android. I remember my whole life, all the way back to childhood. It sucked.”

I was adopted. A website matched Midwestern do-gooders with orphans around the world. My ‘parents’ were Herbert and Judith Johnson. Lifelong residents of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was plucked up from Morocco by the two whitest Americans in the whole country. They named me Margaret, and when I turned eighteen, I changed it to McKayla. I couldn’t stand Margaret.

As I told Jackson all this, I studied him. Jackson is white in the way my parents would have liked: close cropped blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. He has a charmer’s face, the type of face that’s punched a lot of V-cards. He wore a light gray suit with expensive brown shoes, and he keeps smoothing his necktie and smiling at me as I talk. Not saying a word, just smiling.

I remember my asinine childhood. Herb went to the Elk’s Club every Friday night. Judy stayed home and read books where a cat solved mysteries. It’s no wonder I got addicted to pills before I graduated high school. I wanted to tell Jackson all this, but the more I talked, the more I felt I should stop talking. Abruptly, I shut up.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

I would never admit it to McKayla, but it devastated me to learn she’s an android. I found her fascinating, despite myself. And I much preferred the prospect of her and I facing an android together, rather than me facing her alone.

I know I’m not the android. That’s impossible. I’ve been married to Megan for ten years. I didn’t just imagine that, I didn’t imagine Gavin and Ashley. I didn’t dream up three years of law school and three more spent clerking for some jagoff judge in Baltimore, fetching him grande lattes every morning and driving him home from the bar every night because he got pissing-himself drunk. In another ten years I’ll be partner in the biggest firm in D.C., and my kids will be at the same prep school as the First Family.

I’m not the android, end of story. Which means she is.

Time to go to work.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not an android. I have memories just like you, a childhood with a mommy and daddy who didn’t love me and wouldn’t look at my baseball trophies. That doesn’t make a bit of difference. One of us is telling the truth and one of us—you—is saying what they were programmed to say.”

“What makes you so damn sure?”

“That I’m human? I do corporate trial law for clients from here to Boston. I know people, and people know me. You can’t fake the connections I have, honey.”

She smirked. “Or they made you think that, when they turned you on fifteen minutes ago.”

“You want to prove it?” I asked. I pulled off my jacket and loosened my tie. “Let’s prove it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. He was ripping off his clothes like we were drunk teenagers with our parents out of town.

“No matter how well the android speaks, something will be different physically,” he said, as he pulled off his white shirt. “Skin texture, bone structure, hell, maybe even a USB port or a ‘Made In China’ sticker.” He started unbuckling his belt.

I crossed my arms. “If you think I’m getting naked with a robot while a bunch of scientists watch, you have a serious bug in your programming.”

A wide smile spread across his face. “So. You have something to hide.”

miles-davis“Yeah, it’s called modesty. And safety. This may be tough for your hardwired male brain to grasp, but stripping naked with a strange man would be incredibly dangerous for any woman. So keep your clothes on, RoboCop.”

Jackson looked at the mirror-wall, as if pleading for an intervention. Nothing but the strains of Miles Davis came from the speakers. He looked down at himself, half-undressed, slacks around his knees.

“Fine,” he said, and yanked his pants up. “But the burden of proof is on you now. Make me believe.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

I finished buttoning my shirt, and watched myself in the mirror-wall as I retied my tie.

“Oh save it,” McKayla called over my shoulder. I deliberately took more time, and started over tying the knot. Why should I listen to her? She basically insinuated I was ready to rape her. What kind of scumbag did she think I was?

I pulled on my jacket and smoothed the flaps. She gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh for the love of God stop primping!”

I sat down in the chair, and crossed my legs. “Very well. Your turn. What do you suggest we do to figure out the answer?”

“I told you, I’m not an android—“

“And I told you, I could give a shit what you say.” My words shocked her, I think. She stared at me. “I’ve got no reason to believe you, and you’ve got no proof. What’s your next idea?”

I knew it came out a little harsh, but I wasn’t about to apologize. I let the sharp words hang in the air like suspended knives.

She thought for a minute, and then lifted her hands into fists. “Fight me.”

“Do what?”

“Fight me. You wanted a physical test. You’ve got me by at least fifty pounds and five inches. If I can kick your ass, then maybe I am the android, all metal and steel inside like the Terminator.” She smiled, and bounced back and force. “Or maybe you’re just a pussy who will get beat up by a girl.”

“I’m not fighting you.”

“Oh, have something to hide?” she mocked, imitating my voice. “C’mon, rock’em sock’em.”

“No.” Emphatic.

“Why not? Scared I’ll hurt you?” I heard a malicious taunt in her voice.

I adjusted my tie. “When I was twenty, my older sister Rachel married a fat Armenian named Tony. All the family knew he was bad news for Rachel.

“What we didn’t know: Rachel married Tony because he threatened to kill her if she didn’t. Nearly killed her anyway. Beat the living hell out of her four times in their first year of marriage.

“After three years, she finally told us what was happening. I stood between my sister and Tony the night she left him.

“So no. I won’t hit a woman. Even an android.”

All McKayla’s energy deflated. Her hands dropped to her sides, and she sank into the heavy leather chair. Above us, a sad saxophone crooned.

“Your turn,” McKayla said, without looking up.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

Jackson blathered on about his job, something about his record winning cases, his name in the newspaper, all that. I really wasn’t listening. He had no way to prove it.

“McKayla.”

Jackson had stopped talking, and was looking at me. “What was that? I missed it.”

“I asked what you do for a living.”

“It’s boring. You wouldn’t care.”

“Probably computer science, something an android would do,” he said.

What the hell? Did they program him with my bio?

That grin spread across his face again. “I knew it.”

“I’m a server admin—” was all I got out before he erupted in laughter. Bastard. What, is everybody in IT a robot? Millions of androids out there just because we’re smart enough to send emails without needing tech support? You can stop laughing anytime now, Jackson, before I slam your empty head into the wall.

Maybe my therapist is right. Maybe I do have some unresolved anger issues.

He finally calmed down, but still had this grin stitched to his face. I said, “When you think about it, a computer tech like me is the ideal person to evaluate the most advanced robotics available—like you.”

His smile vanished. “Nice try.”

After that we quizzed each other on current events. It turned into an obscure game of Jeopardy. We both got some and missed some and argued about others. I don’t know anything about golf. Neither do a lot of people. Who won the Masters this year? Who cares? That doesn’t make me the android, it makes me not a boring white bread sonofabitch.

Of course, when he missed one of mine, he got this smug look on his face. Said things like, “Oh, that’s right,” as if he knew the correct answer all along. What an enormous tool.

Plus, I don’t believe nobody’s buried in Grant’s tomb. Jackson can take his trick questions and shove them up his Brooks Brothers ass.

We’ve been in here for nearly an hour now. I can tell he’s getting antsy. So am I. But I’m going to break him. Any minute now, I am going to break this android, and leave his programming in pieces on the smooth tile floor.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” McKayla asked me.

I looked over at her. “What do you mean?”

“You heard me. The worst thing you’ve done, on purpose. Not, ‘Oh, I wasn’t paying attention and got in a car wreck.’ Did you ever steal money? Sell drugs?” She paused. “Ever kill somebody?”

I shook my head. “Why in the world would I tell you that?”

“Because everyone has something. C’mon, hotshot. I assume you signed non-disclosure agreements here, same as me. If you really believe I’m the android, then you’re just talking to a machine.” She sat forward in her chair. “But I’m betting you don’t have anything. Never got a DUI, never even missed your kid’s soccer games. You’re no more human than a microwave.”

McKayla seemed to relish her idea, and clung to it. She pushed, and pushed. I stood up and turned away from the mirror wall. I looked at the old bar and wanted to pour myself a drink. I knew what story to tell. Encouraging me, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane played “In A Sentimental Mood.”

“Nobody knows about Clarissa,” I began. “Especially not Megan.”

God, am I really doing this? I must be crazy.

McKayla closed her eyes. She could see where this was headed.

“It’s not an affair,” I said, to clarify. “It’s just about sex, which Megan and I haven’t had since Ash was born. I still love Megan, I love my kids. Clarissa is just…different.”

In truth, Clarissa lived in my peripheral vision. I only saw chestnut hair, long legs in a short skirt, not a whole person. Clarissa was a means to end, not love.

McKayla sat forward, chin resting on her hand. She tried to hide her gleeful smile. “You love your wife but you cheated on her. You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” She sighed. “How many times?”

“I saw Clarissa last Thursday.”

“It’s still going on?” McKayla practically shouted. “Good God, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“You asked.”

“Yeah, but I—“

“Before you start judging me, I want to hear yours.”

She paused, mouth open.

I set my jaw. “I said, tell me yours. You know my dirty little secret now. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, McKayla Johnson?”

She sat down. “I was going to tell you getting hooked on Vicodin and Oxycontin, nearly flunking out of college. But after hearing yours…” McKayla looked at me. “Why are you still doing it? You’ve got a wife, two kids. Why risk it?”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure. I wish I wasn’t. I just…can’t stop. I need it.” I decided against full disclosure: Clarissa wasn’t the first.

If there’s a hell, you’re going to it.”

We were quiet for awhile, although her words struck me as strange. If there’s a hell, she said.

“What do you think about death?” I asked. She gave me a funny look, as though I asked if she were pregnant. “Do you believe in God? An afterlife?”

“No.”

“Karma? Anything?”

“No,” she said emphatically, as if the matter were that simple.

“Just ‘no’?” I held my hands out, palms up. “Nothing more to it? All of humanity just sprang from nothingness for no reason? One day, we’ll all die, and that’s the end of existence forever?”

She crossed her arms. “Yes.”

“What about the human spirit? The soul? Are those just made up fairy tales too?”

“I didn’t— “ she started, but stopped. “I’m not getting into a religious debate with you.”

“Why not?” I asked. “You’re willing to argue everything else. You’re happy to say what I’m doing in life is immoral, but you clam up when I ask about your basis for right and wrong?”

“Listen to you,” she said. “The adulterer, lecturing me on morality. Spare me.”

I sat back, rubbing my neck. “I’m not exactly an every-Sunday churchgoer,” I admitted. “I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t always do right by everyone. Sometimes, I don’t even try.”

I paused. My necktie suddenly felt too tight. I tugged it looser. “That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for religion, I realize. Still, whether or not I personally do right, I believe there is a God, or another life after this, or something. Maybe there’s even a hell, but I hope not.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, her voice sharp and cold. “There’s not.”

Amazing. I had never tried to reach someone before. I ignore the doorbell when pimply-faced guys carrying Bibles come calling. But here I am, evangelizing, and I chose this as my first attempt?

“I read once that 90-some percent of people on Earth believe in a higher power,” I said, “be it God, Buddha, whatever. It makes sense an android wouldn’t believe in anything, though. An android’s god is a human.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I wanted to spit at him. That’s not the urge for anarchy talking. That’s all me. I despise Jackson.

One minute he’s telling me about screwing his mistress, and the next he’s judging me—judging me!—for not believing. He’s the churchgoing adulterer, the supposed defender of battered women who turns around and uses them for sex. What a hypocrite.

I tapped on the mirror and told the anonymous faces beyond the glass I needed to pee. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Jackson. He jumped up and said he needed to pee, too.

Of course. I bet an android looks human, but doesn’t have the same urges. If I hadn’t mentioned it, he might have gone hours, maybe days, without remembering.

Next to the cherry wood bar, a section of the wall slid open. Inside was a toilet and sink. Apparently, the scientists didn’t want us leaving the experiment for anything.

When I finished, I stepped out and Jackson went in.

Listening at the door, I have to hand it to the scientists. He pees as loud and noisy as any other man I’ve ever known.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

McKayla’s restroom theatrics were a nice touch, very believable. I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Time for closing arguments.

I laid out my case to McKayla this way. Science has obviously created an exceptional android, one that believes it is human. Thus, either of us should be equally likely to be the android. But only one of us displays other characteristics consistent with a machine’s thinking.

One: McKayla has a computer background. She thinks and speaks in computer lingo. I, on the other hand, rarely send my own email.

Two: McKayla has no biological connections. She has adopted parents, and no siblings. She doesn’t have a boyfriend—though she claims she has before—and she’s mostly a loner. Only a few close friends, but of course, she can’t prove even that.

Three: She refused to let me examine her body. She obviously has something to hide.

Finally, four: McKayla doesn’t believe in God, and isn’t spiritual. That’s very consistent with machine thinking, although almost all humans believe differently.

Judge, I rest my case. McKayla is the android.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

Fuck him. Pretty-mouthed son of a bitch. He stands up and gives a speech, always with an eye toward the scientists behind the glass, a pet performing for its master. He thinks that will trick me? Two can play at that game. Here are the reasons you, Jackson, are the android.

You’re a male bimbo, printed out of a catalogue. All surface knowledge and nothing underneath, no personality, no uniqueness, just like an android prototype. You’re a white male with a suit-and-tie job, a wife and two kids. That’s got to be Generic Android Model #1-A. Oh, that’s right, you also have a mistress. That doesn’t make you not an android, it makes you a shitty, amoral android. It proves you don’t give a damn about the feelings of other people, because you can’t feel anything yourself.

You don’t believe me? You want to find out for sure? I had a cutting problem as a teenager. Let’s dig into our arms, we’ll find out which one of us has metal inside.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

“Holy shit, what the hell are you doing?”

McKayla pulled off one of her many piercings, a huge one with a long backer, and held it like a needle above her forearm.

I jumped out of my seat. “She’s going to cut herself! Somebody,” I shouted to the glass, “if you’re watching this, get your ass in here and stop her!”

We both waited, the thick silence hanging in the air. No one came.

“We’re on our own,” McKayla said, the long backer poised just above her skin. “Still think you’re the human?”

Her program must be malfunctioning. Or maybe this is the last ditch effort. She knows she’s made. This is the only way to get me to concede, and fail the experiment. Imagine that: the human lies and says he’s the android, just to protect the machine.

“I’ve got another earring,” she said. Her voice sounded lower, half a snarl, like a dog circling an injured animal. “Are you too much of a coward to do it with me?”

Why haven’t the scientists come in here to stop this? Are they going to let us cut ourselves? What if we tried to cut each other?

What if we tried to kill each other?

She’s still got the thing above her arm, holding it like a needle. She says she’ll do it.

Maybe she’s bluffing. Maybe they programmed her with a fail-safe mechanism to prevent—

“Screw this,” McKayla said. She plunged the backer into her forearm, and pulled as hard as she could. She screamed, and I heard a tiny sound like the scrape of a dull knife against thick flesh. She collapsed to the floor, and held up her forearm, a long strip of skin cut away.

Nothing but silicone and metal showed beneath.

◊ ◊ ◊

The experiment must have ended after that. I vaguely remember the door buzzing open, the scientists carrying McKayla, unconscious, from the room. I think I talked to one of them, maybe filled out more paperwork, but these are foggy flashes from a dream. I was halfway to Virginia before I realized I was driving.

I knew McKayla was the android. I never doubted it, not for a second. How could I? I’m a human being.

Only, McKayla seemed no less committed than me. That frightened me, even from the beginning. Made me doubt. What if all my life I thought I lived, my childhood and college and Megan and kids, what if all that had been programmed into me, just before walking in that room? That was McKayla’s life, an entire existence lived on a flash drive.

The scientists told me afterward she wasn’t dead. They just shut her down to prevent more damage. This was the 24th experiment they’ve run with McKayla, and self-harm was a first. They will repair her, try to fix that particular bug. Next week is experiment number 3F25.

It was terrible to watch McKayla practically commit suicide in front of my eyes, but the worst is knowing McKayla has to live that tiny window of existence over and over, always being so committed to her beliefs, and always, in the end, being wrong.

When I got home, Megan was in the kitchen, on her cell phone and slicing peppers for dinner. In the backyard, Gavin chased his sister with a squirt gun.

McKayla may have been an android, her memories artificial and her passion a façade. Even so, the impact she left on me feels real enough indeed.

I opened the door to the backyard, and relished the delighted squeals.

«»-«»-«»

Christopher Mowder

Christopher Mowder is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, living in the Midwest. Most recently, his work “The Goblin’s Son” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @cmowder.

The Executioner’s Correspondent

by Kathleen Brogan

When Dornan Blackthorne was twenty-three years old, he began receiving strange messages from an unknown correspondent. Dornan had just been appointed Master Executioner in the city of Telvannath, after eleven years apprenticed to his father, and had never corresponded with anyone in his life. His father, the executioner in a much, much smaller town, had taught him how to read and write via the Scriptures, but that had been for God, not for letter-writing. And letters, Dornan knew, were something quite different from what he was receiving. They were longer, for one. Two, you knew where they were coming from. Three, letters came by post, not in your private journal.

The idea for the journal came from his father. Grellik Blackthorne was a sharp old man, and he knew the trade as well as anyone. “Write ’em all down, the poor sinners,” said Grellik, “Mark ’em down with a date, the crime, and the sentence. Show it to the city when you need more money. Proof of work performed.” And so Dornan did. There was no more honorable an executioner than Grellik Blackthorne, Dornan thought, so he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps the best that he could.

Dornan did not notice his first correspondence until after he had completed his second execution in Telvannath. He had pulled his journal from the shelf and sat down at his desk, a rickety old thing in the cluttered, unpacked room where his children would live if he had them. His wife, Caralee, sat in the floor hunched over a copy of the Scriptures. The right side of her face was horribly scarred–an accident from her childhood. She was the blacksmith’s daughter, and had an unfortunate encounter with a piece of hot metal. She’d fallen face-first on a rack of cooling pots and pans, and from what Dornan understood, she was lucky to be alive. Caralee was much older than him–thirty-five, she had told him, but she wasn’t sure. Her marital options were limited by her scarring, and Dornan’s by his occupation. No one wanted to marry the hangman. Dornan opened his journal and glanced over the first entry he had completed.

1. Jorund Faxil. Theft, rape. Death by the sword. Guilty

The sword. He snorted at the memory. The man deserved death by the wheel. The man would’ve been drawn and quartered back home, but they didn’t do that in Telvannath because they were progressive. His father would’ve caused a fuss, Dornan knew, but the executioner in Telvannath didn’t have that kind of power. Everything here was decided by Senate ruling. Dornan was naught but the instrument of the Senate’s will.

Dornan was still thinking about that, and a little bit of what he might’ve done differently had he the power, when he noticed something underneath Jorund Faxil’s entry. There was a word there, a word he had not included in his original assessment.

Guilty.

Or perhaps he had included it in his original assessment? He looked more closely at the handwriting, which at first glance could’ve passed for his own, but upon closer inspection it was far too neat. Dornan’s handwriting was serviceable at best. Besides, why would he, Dornan, write the word guilty as an addendum to an entry? Of course he believed Faxil guilty, or he wouldn’t have bloody executed him! It was justice!

The back of his neck was hot, flushed, and he thought that maybe he should open a window. “Caralee, love,” said Dornan. “Have you had any guests over that I’ve not known about?”

“No sir,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“Someone’s mucking about in my journal,” Dornan said. “I didn’t write this bit.”

Caralee appeared beside him and set her copy of the Scriptures down on his desk. She leaned in close to read the word–she had awful eyesight. The smooth, unscarred side of her face brushed up against his. “Goo-lty.”

“Guilty,” Dornan corrected. Caralee was not a good reader, but she tried very hard.

“Guilty,” she repeated. “You didn’t write that?”

Dornan shook his head.

“Maybe it’s someone having a laugh,” said Caralee. “Sneaking into the hangman’s house on a dare.”

“Maybe,” said Dornan, but he doubted it.

Caralee stood up straight and placed her hand on the Scriptures. “Maybe it’s the Lord talking to you. Telling you you’re doing the right thing, and that Faxil’s burning in a lake of hellfire right now.”

Dornan snorted. He hadn’t set foot in a church in years. Not because of any reservations against the institution (he had his Scriptures and he read them daily) but because no one liked seeing the executioner in church. In his hometown, Dornan’s father had been told explicitly not to attend sermons because it made people jumpy. Dornan didn’t want to make any good church-going folk uncomfortable, so he stayed at home with his Scriptures. He sincerely doubted that the Lord wanted anything much to do with him. “I guess that’d be a good thing,” Dornan said.

“Put it away somewhere safe,” said Caralee. “That way you know you’re the only one writing in it.”

That, at least, was a good idea. Dornan carefully wrote his latest entry:

2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword

And locked his journal in the box where he kept the money that he would send home to his father every month. Old Grellik’s eyesight was failing, and Dornan knew he couldn’t keep up the profession much longer. The pittance the town would give Grellik once the executions stopped would hardly be liveable.

◊ ◊ ◊

There was some period of time between his second and third executions. Dornan spent much of his time travelling back and forth between the Senate hall, located at the top of the escarpment that was the city of Telvannath, and Docktown, where his home was located. Every day he made the long trek from the bottom of the hill to the top, seeing if the Senate had any work for him that day. He was paid either way, and perhaps because of that he felt obligated to check in frequently to ensure he was completing his job to the Senate’s satisfaction. It was what his father would’ve done. He took to stopping by the cathedral on days that the Senate didn’t need him, again because it was what his father had done. “Church-goin’ folk don’t need a reminder of earthly punishments when they’re thinking of heavenly ones,” Grellik had told him. “But don’t let your Bishop be a stranger.” Telvannath’s holy man, Bishop Yelvin, never made Dornan feel unwelcome. More importantly, the frail little man seemed comfortable in Dornan’s presence. Perhaps it was because they had somewhat of a professional relationship–Bishop Yelvin gave the last rites to poor sinners before their execution.

Execution number three was Dornan’s first woman in the city of Telvannath, and also his first hanging in the city. It was a much more high profile case than his first two, and Dornan felt that this could really cement his position. In the days that led up to the event, Dornan worked himself up into a frenzy making sure that everything went off smoothly. He replaced the ropes in the gallows and then double-checked and triple-checked their integrity, using heavy sacks filled with stones. Caralee cleaned up his black leather armor with some oils she bought from the tanner, and she cut his hair. When Dornan had tried to go to the local barber, the man had shooed him out quickly, not giving him any definitive reason as to why. He didn’t have to. Dornan had seen the same thing happen to his father all of his life.

Elizabeth Baker, the poor sinner that Dornan would be executing, had been charged with killing her newborn child, caught in the act by her husband. As with the execution of 1. Jorund Faxil. Theft, rape. Death by the sword, Dornan was surprised that Elizabeth Baker was getting off so easily. His father had executed many women by the wheel, by drowning, even one drawn and quartered for the same crime. Not so in Telvannath. Elizabeth Baker was to be hanged.

Dornan did not sleep well the night before. He kept thinking of the journal, though he refused to look at it. If anything had been written next to 2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword (which, Dornan knew, was highly unlikely), it could compromise the sense of calm that was so important for all executioners. He had to maintain the impassive face of justice. Any showing of doubt or uncertainty could not only end his career, but start a public riot.

At high noon, Dornan led the procession from the Senate Chamber, flanked by soldiers in shining metal breastplates and blue plumage. Back with the sinner walked Bishop Yelvin, wearing no armor except for the heavenly kind, his long black robes brushing up against his boots. Bringing up the rear of the party was one of the town’s Senators, dressed in judicial red, who would be pronouncing judgment on Madam Baker. The streets were filled with Telvannath’s citizens, far more than for his first two executions. Dornan’s suspicions had been right–this was going to be a spectacle. They passed midtown, where merchants tried to hawk ‘holy’ or ‘blessed’ items to anyone who would listen. They further descended Telvannath’s hill, coming back to Docktown. The gallows were built against the southeast wall of the city, where the tang of the river’s smell mixed awfully with that of the rotting corpses the city occasionally left artfully displayed across Dornan’s workstation.

Dornan ascended the gallows steps with Madam Baker and Bishop Yelvin. Despite the bishop’s soft, gentle assurances at possible salvation, she did not repent. Dornan suspected that was more from the fact that she could not stop crying long enough to form words. The crowd was immense, reaching past the field of Dornan’s vision, but in that moment he was not worried. He had prepared as well as he could, and besides, he had the most experience with hangings. They were the execution of choice back home. The gallows were better constructed in Telvannath, actually containing a trap door so that the executioner wasn’t required to simply push the sinner from a ladder. The only other difference was that the sinner was hooded which, as far as Dornan was concerned, was kinder to the children in the audience. The awkward way the dying kicked their legs was enough to cause nightmares. The eyes bulging, the tongue flailing–no one needed to see that.

Elizabeth Baker was safely conveyed into the hands of the Lord, Dornan performing a near flawless hanging. The noose gave him no difficulties, the trap door did not stick, and the poor sinner did not kick–well, kick more than was to be expected, at any rate. Dornan did not let his impassive countenance drop as the crowd dispersed and, once he felt the body was safe from any sort of mob behavior, he decided it was safe to head home. They’d remove Madam Baker in a few days, once everyone had the chance to see her. Dornan thought about his journal and felt a sense of dread and apprehension, though he told himself that was foolish. It had been a fluke, a one-off trick by some street rat. That was the end of it.

In Docktown proper, the streets were largely empty. People were probably still hanging about the pub, talking about the poor sinner and what could’ve possibly motivated her to kill her own child. When Dornan arrived home, he noticed that some of the shingles had fallen from his roof and cracked on the cobblestone street. He would have to get them replaced.

Docktown as a whole had a slapdash feel to it, built from whatever materials were travelling through port at the time, but Dornan was making enough money to maintain a level of upkeep that his neighbors could not. Dornan knew that he could probably afford a house in one of the nicer districts, but he also knew that would never be allowed. It didn’t bother him so much. His was a nice little house.

Caralee was inside, trying to read. At first he thought that she was looking at his journal, but of course she was not. It was the Scriptures, as always, and he immediately felt guilty for his momentary suspicion. Caralee was one of the kindest people he’d ever met, and she deserved better. He didn’t give a damn about her scarring, but everyone else had. Now she was stuck with him, the son of an executioner who had no other job prospects. No one would apprentice the executioner’s son. No one would marry the executioner’s son–no one, except sweet Caralee. She glanced up at his entry. “How’d it go?”

“Off without a hitch,” said Dornan. “Talk about it in a moment.” He retreated to his bedroom, where he kept his lockbox underneath his bed. He took the lockbox to his office, hands shaking slightly, unlocked it, and retrieved the journal. Underneath 2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword, were the words Not Guilty.

The rage that burned through Dornan’s veins was like nothing he’d ever felt before. Not when a poor sinner broke his father’s wrist during an execution, not when he’d watched his mother’s body become riddled with boils from the plague. This was a personal attack. His lips formed words that never saw air, and he was suddenly sweating. It wasn’t his place to judge the sinner. That was the Senate’s job! Yes, he’d done it before, but not in Telvannath–that wasn’t his job. If he wanted to keep himself and Caralee in good health, why, he had to keep doing what the city told him. Besides, Wallace was obviously guilty. He’d confessed to Dornan three times under the screws, which he had done at the city’s behest. Who was this person to judge Dornan in his own journal? He was merely the instrument of justice!

Furious, he withdrew a piece of parchment from his desk and began writing some correspondence of his own. His father would know what to do.

I find myself in a situation that is perplexing and peculiar.

He had a dictionary and had to look up how to spell both ‘perplexing’ and ‘peculiar’.

I am keeping a career journal as you have requested of me, but someone is leaving notes in it.

He gave a brief description of the hangings, further consulting his dictionary three times. Dornan closed his note with his own suspicions.

I think that someone is breaking into our home and playing some sort of trick on me, though Caralee thinks it is the Lord writing these messages. This journal is well guarded and locked away. I would appreciate any counsel you could provide. With all of my love, your Son Dornan.

Writing the note had calmed him somewhat. He was giving this mysterious person what they wanted by giving into his anger. He shook his head as if that would actually clear it, then wrote the third entry in his journal:

3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging.

Dornan didn’t know what he would do if this one read ‘Not Guilty’. He placed the journal in a pouch, grabbed the lock from the lockbox and its key, and made for the front door. “What’s the matter?” asked Caralee.

“I have to go to the locksmith,” said Dornan, not even sparing his wife a glance. Perhaps it had been her, after all. He didn’t know what to think.

“Another note?” she asked, but he did not answer her. He slammed the door shut behind him and set off at once for Docktown’s locksmith.

The locksmith was a man probably close to Dornan’s age, but the way his skin pulled tight over his bones made him look much older. Dornan hoped he wouldn’t turn him away like the barber. Dornan looked to the lock in his hand and realized he was still wearing his executioner’s leathers. He cursed inwardly. No chance of the man not recognizing him. “I need a new lock,” said Dornan, when the locksmith did not initially demand that Dornan leave. He seemed to be testing a tumbler mechanism, fiddling with a pick in the keyhole. “I think someone’s figured a way to get into this one. I’ll gladly exchange it for a discount toward a new one.”

“That was funny about Baker, wasn’t it?” said the locksmith. “Bring me your lock.”  Dornan was not eager to speak of 3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging, but the locksmith continued. “Happy marriage. Why do you think she dunnit?”

“Who can guess the mind of a sinner?” asked Dornan. This was not a conversation he wanted to be having, and he hoped the locksmith would take the hint.

He did not. “I think–I’ll tell you what I think–I think that it was the husband that dunnit. I think he framed the lady.”

“I don’t make those kind of decisions,” said Dornan. “I just follow the will of the Senate.”

“Easier that way, I bet,” said the locksmith. He tossed Dornan a new lock, which he fumbled and had to retrieve from the floor.

“How much will that be?” asked Dornan.

“Two silver.”

“Two silver? Are you mad?”

“Two silver or no lock,” said the locksmith. His smile showed too many teeth.

Dornan grumbled but seemed to be without option. He handed over two silver to the locksmith, who inspected them closely.

“Thank you kindly,” he said, dropping the silver into his pocket. “Good work today, hangman. You did your job good.”

Dornan was still fuming about the price-gouging, but he had enough of a mind to remember his place. At least he hadn’t been refused service. “Thank you, good smith,” he said, his face becoming impassive only through years of practice. He returned home and locked the journal away in his lockbox with his new lock. He placed the entire box inside a larger box, which had some trivials inside–old dice, a hammer and nails, a piece of flint and steel, and the like–that he had not bothered to unpack since his arrival in Telvannath. Caralee came upon him there, in the space room.

“Another note?” she asked again.

Dornan snorted.

“What did it say?” Caralee asked.

He said nothing.

“You’re just doing your job,” said Caralee.

Her words echoed the locksmith’s, and he didn’t like it.

Execution number four was rushed through Telvannath’s courts because the poor sinner was considered a risk to both himself and others. His name was Marvin Addle and he was the closest thing the city had seen to a career killer in some time. He murdered women who looked like his mother, though from what Dornan could gather, she was a ripe old bird and he could almost understand Marvin’s frustrations. An unfortunate trio of black-haired, blue-eyed women fell to him before he was discovered by a stable boy, who had come to work in the early hours of the morning and discovered Marvin screaming at the corpse of his Master’s wife. The only reason Marvin was granted death by the sword was because the Senate wanted it over as quickly as possible. Dornan later discovered that one of the poor black-haired blue-eyed young women had been a Senator’s wife.

Marvin was a difficult case from start to finish. He babbled and flailed as Dornan’s assistants attempted to reign him in for judgment. He kissed Bishop Yelvin on the lips when the priest asked if he sought absolution for his sin (Bishop Yelvin took that answer as a ‘no.’) Dornan could hardly hear the Senator’s judgment decreed over the sounds of Marvin’s yelps. The Senator gave Dornan a helpful nod and then–in what could only be considered divine providence–Marvin stilled enough so that Dornan could give a clean cut. A good death. An excellent example of his ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. He considered writing that in his journal, though he knew he would have to look up how to spell “adversity.”

Following this particular execution, Dornan chose to accompany Bishop Yelvin and his assistants on their journey outside of town, to the mass grave where Marvin Addle’s body would rest. The Senators had insisted that his body be removed from Telvannath as soon as possible. Yelvin’s assistants sat in the back of the church’s wagon with the body, while Dornan sat next to Yelvin in the front.

“Bishop,” said Dornan. “I have a question, and it’s not going to come out right. I try to do right by the Scriptures, but it’s hard when I can’t come to church.”

“Ask away, Blackthorne,” said Yelvin. “And the Lord appreciates your efforts, even given your situation. Especially given your situation. You know that.”

Dornan ignored that statement. “Does the Lord speak to you directly?  Does he leave you messages that you give the church?”

“It is…” the Bishop paused. “A trifle more complicated than that. The Lord nudges my thought patterns, but he doesn’t give me words in the way that, say, he gave us the Scripture.”

“Oh,” said Dornan. The wagon creaked along, and the two men sat in silence for a moment.

“Don’t worry on it, Blackthorne,” said Yelvin. “Though he may not speak to you in a manner you understand, he guides your life in other ways. Especially you over others, as the instrument of his judgment.”

Dornan considered revealing his situation to the Bishop, telling him of the strange messages that no one else could possibly leave. But Dornan was afraid. The Bishop had close connections to the Senate and, well, if they suspected Dornan was mentally affected, then he would be removed from his position. What would happen to him then? And Caralee? So he remained silent, and looked on as the Bishop’s assistants unceremoniously dumped Marvin’s body into the stinking pit.

Instead of returning immediately home after his excursion with the Bishop, Dornan returned to the church with him and confessed. He confessed his desires for other women. He confessed his anger at the children in his community who threw horse dung at his windows. He confessed his doubt in the Lord and the judgments that he cast down on the poor sinners. Bishop Yelvin assured him that the Lord worked in mysterious ways, and Dornan agreed with that wholeheartedly. Yelvin gave him some special prayers to try over the coming week, and Dornan was grateful.

When Dornan finally made it home, dusk had fallen over Telvannath. He kissed Caralee and ate the pork chops she had made for him. She told him that his father had responded to his letter, and Dornan told her that he would check it when he was done with work that evening. He had put off the journalling long enough. Then he retreated to his office and locked the door.

3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging.

Then:

Guilty.

He breathed an immense sigh of relief. The word guilty had never looked so lovely. Of course, the mystery of the correspondent still went unsolved, but Dornan had exacted justice for Elizabeth Baker’s child. The shaking that had stirred his bones since Marvin’s death ceased, and he rubbed his temples, feeling as though he could smooth out the wrinkles that had taken root. Then he wrote:

4. Marvin Addle. Murder (3 counts). Death by the sword.

He breathed in, and out.

He had expected being the instrument of righteousness to involve less anxiety. Already, he was wondering what the journal would say for Marvin. When would his bones begin to quake again?

Deciding that it was not a topic for the moment, Dornan locked his journal away, putting it in the same place it had been before. It was obvious that there was no hiding it. Dornan found Caralee, who gave him the letter from his father. It was short, and it was simple, like his father always was.

My dear Dornan,
Send your correspondent my regards. I have retired from the profession and am glad to finally be free of his incessant judgments.
                        G.B.

Dornan frowned and read over the letter again. And again. He checked the back of the paper to see if he had missed something, but he had not. He looked up to Caralee, who wore an expression of mild concern. He knew that he should apologize to her for having been so cross lately. For suspecting her of being responsible for this foolishness. She really was too good for him. “What did he say?” she asked.

He did not have a ready reply. He looked back to the paper and thought of his father, poor Grellik Blackthorne, and how the old man was to survive with the pittance paid to a retired executioner. “He’s retired now,” said Dornan. Maybe he could stay in Telvannath with him and Caralee. Dornan could clean out the spare room.

“Oh,” she said. “Did he say anything about…” She did not finish her sentence. The smell of the pork chops from dinner lingered in the air, and it nearly made Dornan sick. There was innocent blood on his hands, and there would be more. Innocent blood bought his livelihood.

“Someone playing a trick,” said Dornan. “Must be. No need worrying our heads about it.” He gave his best attempt at a smile and took her hands in his own. She raised her eyebrows at him, but did not question him further.

He wore the mask for the rest of the evening, the mask he knew he would wear for the rest of his life. It was not so different from the stern indifference he wore when working at the gallows. But it was a lie then and it was a lie now. What would be written underneath his name, he wondered, were it written in his journal?

Dornan Blackthorne. Murder, innumerable counts.

He never wanted to know the answer.

«»-«»-«»

Kathleen Brogan
Kathleen Brogan recently received her MA in English from Marshall University. She works as a librarian in Huntington, West Virginia.

Eisin, an Eastwise Folktale

by Laura DeHaan

One sings the tale of Eisin, in her grave before her time
                 A grave made not of ash and earth, but hoarfrost and hard rime.

The tale they sing is false. It’s not the ice that holds the wench but the summer sun and the seaward breeze, and the love of a youngling fool.

I sing then the tale of the youngling fool, who fell in love with a maiden of ice and broke her heart thereby. I sing for her parents, the poor witless fools, I sing for the witch and her wretched assistance, I sing for the summer and sunshine and sweetness and I sing for the silence that follows a sigh.

I sing then this song.

Oldmother Taige and Oldfather Fallow had wished for a daughter a very long time. They had not always been old, but they had always been barren, and this was a source of marital strife. One could not even blame the other, for both were as sterile as swampwater boiled. Perhaps they went mad. Perhaps they were mad. For certain as summer, something had snapped.

This thing snapped in winter, as many a madness-related things do. The snows were thick and stuck like thistles, the wind was quiet and biding its time. Oldmother Taige and Oldfather Fallow scarce could open a window or door without a snowdrift drifting inside. With no way to leave and no one to visit, what else could they do but go out of their minds?

A daughter they fashioned from snowdrift and ice, a tiny thing first for she would melt and puddle into the earth. With perseverance (and madness— never doubt, this was madness) Oldmother and Old-father crafted themselves a lovely shining maiden.

By then the outside snows had melted and winter was merely a memory, but inside their home the winter remained.

Oldmother said, If we open the door, our daughter will melt.

Oldfather said, Then let us stay inside and die, so that our daughter may live. Is there a greater act of love than this?

And so Oldmother and Old-father stayed inside, growing weaker and weaker, their ice-daughter watching them with no eyes at all. They would have died, and should have died, but for the witch passing through the woods.

Most witches keep to themselves and their hovels, waiting for fools to come before them. This witch then was different, nosy and meddling, peddling her bargains at tuppence a head.

Misery and maledictions! came her cry to the winter-locked door:

Misery and maledictions,
Fortune-telling and predictions,
Quaffs for coughs and all afflictions:
Misery and maledictions!

The old couple heard this and made their lament:

Mercy, not misery, Wise One, oh Witch,
Succour and sustenance, salvage and scrap!
Mercy, not misery, Wise One, oh Witch,
Fold us in kindness, let love be your wrap!

The witch, she went to the door and knocked. Who asks mercy of a witch? she said. Who thinks they have the right?

No right, said Oldmother Taige, no right and no hope, but we are hopeless and have something to lose, and so we ask mercy, oh wisest of hags.

And what would you ask of me? said the witch, who knew better than to open the frost-rimed door.

Save our daughter, said Oldfather Fallow. Give her our lives, that she may live.

And what do I get? said the witch.

Oldfather had no answer, but Oldmother said, Take our memories before we die. I’ll not have my daughter living with the shadow of our sadness over her well-sculpted head.

Done! said the witch, and in a trice the ice-girl breathed her first and her foolish parents breathed their last.

The witch swung open the cottage door and gestured grandly to the outside world. Your inheritance! she said, and buried the bodies and swept the floor and started a fire in the crusted old pit. The ice-girl never moved, never spoke, never saw. She lived, and that was all, and so the witch stayed in the old couple’s cottage and practiced her doings within.

Those who lived nearby knew to stay away from the witch and her newly-bought daughter, but there would be travellers with more stuffing than brains, more romance than reason in their well-meaning hearts. They saw this girl, this beautiful cold creature who merely breathed and shone and did nothing at all, and they proclaimed that they would give her their all, for so beautiful a creature should not be cursed with the mere heavy burden of living. One foolish young fisherman gave her his eyes, one foolish young troubadour gave her his tongue, one foolish young roustabout gave her his movement, one foolish young cripple-boy gave her his ears. This left the cripple-boy with nothing of his own in the world and he joined the old couple in the bottom of the garden.

From herself, the witch gave the girl the name Eisin and thereafter largely ignored her. The girl was a gift-grab but useless besides; her voice was most pleasant but her songs passing dull, her conversation was limited and her intellect null. Still, she inspired the travelling fools, and the witch continued making her bargains and trades.

At last came along the most foolish of our travellers, a young man so in love with the idea of love that his every breath was a sigh and every blink was a bow. When he saw the crystalline form of Eisin outside, glowing and radiant and casting dancing drops of sunlight over the woodland floor, his sweet young heart burst and broke and scattered itself.

I love you, he cried incautiously, and her first response was a smile. She would have smiled if he’d called her a dunce or a sluggard or a sloth, but he didn’t know it and that was that.

Did you hear me? he said when she did nothing but smile. I love you. Haven’t you any response?

Still she only smiled, and the witch stuck her meddling head out the window and called to our youngling fool:

Flittering and flattering,
Not a thing is mattering.
Run and dance and smile and sing,
But she cannot do everything.

I care not for what she cannot do, said our Young Mister Foolish.

You should, said the witch. You spoke of love, and Eisin here hasn’t a shred nor a morsel within the whole of her being.

Then Eisin spoke, and our boy’s heart shattered anew: What is it, to love?

Our young fool gathered her hands in his. Cold they were, and slick and yielding; she smiled at him and murmured nothing.

To love is to replace yourself with another, said our youth. It is to take them within yourself. One who loves has a blessed existence; one who loves may never die.

Eisin looked to the witch in the window, and the witch, she smiled too. May I have this love? asked Eisin.

Our boy, he answered for the witch: Take it, he said, there is nothing else worthwhile in life if one such as she cannot love.

And what do I get? asked the witch. If she is getting your love, which is the only worthwhile thing, then what dregs do you plan to throw to me?

Take the rest, our boy said wildly, all that remains of me after, whatever is left I leave for you.

Barely worthwhile, said the witch, but worth enough. All right then, keep holding her hands and enjoy the feeling while it lasts.

And a surge, such a surge that our foolish young idiot felt! Eisin’s hands grew warm in his, warm and slick and yielding, plumped instead of sculpted. He smiled, she smiled, and the wider she smiled the less he cared, and the less he cared the more she melted.

Melted! Ah yes, melted; how else should this story end? When Eisin loved, she became truly human, but a human heart’s too hot to hold a figure of ice and snow. She melted, did our Eisin, and her hands ran to water in our youngling’s foolish grasp. The drops of sunlight became drops of herself; the tears she cried were her eyes.

I love you, she told our witless hero, and in the next moment his ankles were damp with her self.

I’ve killed her, he said.

The wonderful part, said the witch, whose heart was a stone full of maggots and holes, is that she never would have died if you hadn’t told her to want something that was not hers by right. Tell me, is it better this way?

Our boy looked at the water seeping into the earth, steam rising from pockets and splotches and springs, cooling and misting in the hollows of tree trunks, fading and fleeting and gone.

She will return in the rain, said our boy. In the morning dews, in the winter snows, in the water we drink and the tears that we cry. She is larger than herself, as love is larger than self. And he himself fell dead at that, for his life was for love and his love had melted, scattered to summer and the seaward breeze.

«»-«»-«»

Laura DeHaan
Laura DeHaan is a healthcare practitioner in Toronto. Her first novella, Becoming Beast, comes out in October 2016 with Grace&Victory Publications. You can find the lists of her other publications on her website I Am In Your Eyebrain, or follow her on Twitter @WritInRooster if you need to kill like five minutes of your day.

Time Like a Rope

by Lou Antonelli

Time is like a rope.  –  Ray Bradbury

This is a story about how I traveled along a loop in the rope of time. It starts with what I was told by the little old lady in Pasadena.

Okay, I know you are hearing that Jan and Dean tune in your head. No, it wasn’t that little old lady. Yes, she was a little old lady, but she was English, and I met her in Pasadena, Texas. It’s a suburb of Houston, where I grew up. I was fresh out of the UT journalism school, on my first newspaper job. They didn’t trust me with any hard news stories back then.

The managing editor called me over to his desk. “We have a local hookup with the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic,” he said. “There’s a woman living here now who is a survivor of the sinking.”

“Wow, how old is she?”

“She’s 82. She was saved in a lifeboat with her English family. She later married a petroleum engineer and moved to Texas. She didn’t like to talk about her experience on the Titanic while her husband was alive—she said it bothered him to hear about it—but she’s widowed now and living alone in Pleasant Estates.“

sinking-of-the-titanic-reuterdahl“That’s a real link to history,” I said.
He handed me a slip of paper. “Here’s her address and phone number. Her name is Nancy Atkins.”

* * *

Her face was a tracery of wrinkles, but her eyes were bright and blue and seemed to glow from within. She came from a good English family—her father had been a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Asquith during the First World War.

She explained that one reason she had been happy to live in America was that she had a younger brother who went to Cambridge, became a Communist professor, and was recruited as a spy during the Cold War. He was exposed in a scandal known for the most prominent member of the conspiracy, a man known as Kim Philby.

Her brother fled in the middle of the night to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was never heard from again. She said living overseas with her Texas husband helped her avoid the recriminations at home.

She and her other siblings sailed on the Titanic with their mother. She explained her father—a conscientious man burdened with Liberal Party duties—had planned to sail with them but was held back by work and sent the rest of the family ahead on a holiday to Upstate New York with a promise to catch up with them later via another steamship.

It was a lucky accident—the family was saved, for he might have very well been left behind aboard the doomed ship. “My mother never castigated him again concerning his work habits,” she said.

She had a clear, sharp, very British way of speaking. At times, with my East Texas ears, I would have to ask her to repeat herself during the interview.

We spoke for 45 minutes and she gave me a wealth of personal details and observations. She was a bright, curious young girl at the time, and it was a fascinating first-person account of a historical tragedy.

When we finished, I apologized for the many times I asked her to repeat herself because of our different dialects. She smiled. “Do you recall what George Bernard Shaw said about American and British English?”

“That the United States and England are two nations separated by a common language?”

“You’re well-educated and intelligent, young Mister Patton,” she said. She paused. “I wonder whether I could ask you to help solve a puzzle for me.”

“Of course, if I can,” I said.

“Do you know when the song ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was written?”

That took me aback. “No, I assume it was written recently, it was the number one pop song last year. Why do you ask?”

“I heard someone sing the song on the Titanic,“ she said. “When it was on the radio last year, I recognized it. I hadn’t heard it since 1912.”

“I suppose someone took an old tune and wrote new lyrics,” I said.

“That’s the odd part,” she said. “When I heard the song on the radio, I recognized the lyrics. They didn’t make any sense to me when I heard them on the ship, though.”

“That’s impossible, Bette Davis was in pigtails in 1912,” I said.

“Nevertheless, the Texan sang the song to me and my girl friend.”

“There was a Texan on the Titanic?” I asked, a bit surprised.

“Yes, apparently he was a stowaway,” she said. “We saw him when the First Officer took him on deck, but kept him in handcuffs.” She frowned. “He died with all the others.”

“Ma’am, how could a Texan have stowed away on a ship that sailed from Ireland?”

“I have no idea, I was a girl of twelve at the time, and I didn’t think about it,” she said. “I’ve never a told anyone about this encounter, because it never made a whit of sense to me. I hadn’t thought of it for years, until I heard the song on the radio last summer.”

I pulled my chair closer to the table and opened my note pad again. “You need to tell me this story.”

* * *

She sat back down after serving hot tea for both of us.

“As I said, my mother, my older brother, my younger brother and I were off on a holiday to New York,” she said. “We were going to Saratoga. Another family we knew, the Davies, were also on board, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth Anne, who was the same age as I was. We knew each other from school, and we were constant companions on the ship.

“We were on the First Class deck when saw the First Officer with a man in handcuffs,” she continued. “The stranger wore an ill-fitting jacket that was obviously borrowed and was shivering violently, which we both thought was unusual. We didn’t feel it was all that cold, it was only 45 degrees that afternoon.

“The way the First Officer minded him, it was obvious the stranger was a prisoner who was taken above deck for some air. We overheard some nearby adults say that he was a stowaway, and from his manner of speech, a Texan. Then another officer walked over to the First Officer, who spoke to him briefly, and then undid his own handcuff and hooked it onto the railing.

“The First Officer followed the other officer through a nearby door and began to talk into a speaking tube inside. It was obvious he had been called away on an errand. As he spoke he watched the prisoner through a window.

“My friend Betty was somewhat mischievous, and she said to me, ‘Now watch this.’

“She took a few steps backwards in the direction of the prisoner, still facing me, and then called out: ‘Are you a real outlaw?’

“The man didn’t turn his head—he knew he was being watched—and said, ‘Ahm a prisoner of war.’

“He was heavyset, with steel gray hair and a receding hairline that was obvious even in profile. His eyes were coal-black behind his spectacles.

“‘You’re a liar,’ Betty called out. ‘You are too young to be an American Confederate rebel.’

“I was the leader in the Second Texas War of Independence,’ he said firmly.

“‘My name is Betty Anne Davies,’ she said, winking back at me. ‘What’s yours?’

“The stranger reeled off a long name that I couldn’t repeat or remember. It sounded like an Italian soup. He then added, almost as if to himself, ‘They put me here to die. They have abolished the death penalty, but they want me dead. So they put me here.’

“That startled me, and Betty, who said, ‘What do you mean by that?’

“‘You’ll find out this morning,’ he said thinly.

“The man was clearly unhinged.

“‘So your name is Bette Davis, eh?’ He pronounced it back like the American pronunciation, Davis not Davies. I don’t think he could hear the difference.

“Then he began to chuckle, almost maniacally. He said to himself, ‘It seems so long ago’, then and he began to sing to himself, low but clear. The tune was unfamiliar, the words nonsense.

Herr Harris hollow cold,
Herr lipser Swede supplies,
Herr Hansa nevah coiled,
Sheesh gat Bette Davis Ice.

“Betty Anne drew back to me. ‘The man’s a raving lunatic,’ she hissed.

“The First Officer was coming back out on the deck. We could tell he knew something was up.

“‘Let’s go,’ Betty hissed.

“The First Officer looked at us, and then at the stranger, whom he grabbed, and—after retrieving his handcuff from the railing—hustled below desk.”

“That’s the last you saw of the man?” I asked.

“Not quite,” said Mrs. Atkins. “Yes, we learned early in the morning what he alluded to, when the ship struck the iceberg and were all on deck, waiting to board the lifeboats. His reference to ‘ice’ seemed foreboding. While I waited with my family to board the lifeboat, I saw the man again, on the listing deck. He was clinging with one hand onto a funnel, trying to stay on his feet. He was no longer in handcuffs; I assume he was abandoned to his fate.”

“Did he say anything else you?”

“No, he was on the far side of the ship. He looked very cold and very angry.”

“Did he go down with the ship?”

“As our lifeboat pulled away, I saw him, still clinging to a handhold on the tilting deck, shivering violently. His mouth was moving furiously. I couldn’t tell if he was praying, or cursing.”

“That’s amazing, certainly a strange encounter,” I said rather lamely after a pause.

“I hadn’t thought about it for years until I heard that song on the radio,” she said. “Like you, I assumed it was an old tune with new lyrics, but then I recognized the words that hadn’t made any sense to me so many years ago. The pop song now has only made the mystery, as Alice said, ‘Curiouser and curiouser’.”

She smiled like a grandmother. “You’re a clever young man, and as the saying goes, ‘journalists are generalists’. Perhaps you will find an explanation for this.”

“I appreciate your confidence, ma’am,” I said.

But I never did.

* * *

I did later learn that “Bette Davis Eyes” was an original song, and it wasn’t written in 1981, but 1974. Kim Carnes just lucked out with the best cover, helped with some of the cutting edge electronic music technology in the early 1980s.

The few times I saw Nancy Atkins afterward, we never spoke specifically about the stranger on the desk of the Titanic. I think she was uncomfortable with the strangeness of the story, and so was I. Fact was, I’m not sure I believed it—until now.

* * *

Nancy Atkins died in 1991. She had told me Betty Anne Davies died during the London Blitz, while serving as a nurse. So I suppose I’m the only person alive who knows about that doomed Texan on the Titanic.

You’ve probably read and heard how, after the most recent election, more Texans than ever support secession or autonomy.  Texans don’t like being on the losing side of anything.

The supporters of secession, the Texas National Movement, has gained thousands of members since the last election. And its headquarters are in another Southeast Texas city, Nederland.

I’m the managing editor of the paper now. Our staff has been shrinking steadily in recent years now, thanks to the national Recession as well as turmoil and difficulties in the newspaper industry. So when I put a story on the Texas Nationalist Movement onto the news list I decided to do it myself.

I drove to Nederland and pulled up to the headquarters in a strip mall. The storefront office was a bustle of activity as volunteers assembled and mailed out membership packets. They all wore t-shirts with the TNM symbol that reminded me of the old Texaco gas station logo.

A young man walked out. He was heavyset with dark hair that was just beginning to gray. He had a burning gaze and coal black eyes. He held out his hand.

“Dan Millieriestri, pleased to meet you.”

Something went Ding! in my head.

“Did you say minestrone?” I quipped.

“I get that a lot in Texas,“ he said, “being an Italian-American. My parents immigrated to Texas after World War II.”

We walked into his office. “You can just call me Dan.”

He was intelligent, intense, forthright, and subversive—just the kind of guy to light the powder keg of a second Civil War. It was a long interview, and as we wound down, I had a thought.

“I want to add something by way of a humanizing touch,” I said. “All we have been talking is politics. Do you have any hobbies?  What do you do for relaxation?”

“Of course I spend a lot of time working with the movement, but you know the saying, All work and no play…” He laughed. “Sometimes I strum an old guitar, when I am trying to think and relax.”

He pulled a battered case from behind his desk and pulled out an old acoustic guitar that looked like it cost all of fifteen bucks in a pawn shop.

“I’ll just plunk away and play acoustic versions of old pop tunes. I like the ‘80s stuff a lot, they still wrote lyrics then.”

I played my hunch. “Do you know ‘Bette Davis Eyes’?”

He smiled. “Sure do. That was the Number One song the week I was born in 1981.”  He began to play. “I’ve memorized the lyrics.”

* * *

Back in the parking lot, I put my elbows on the roof of my car and my head in my hands.

Nancy Atkins and her friend thought the Texan was referring to “ice” with the song lyrics he sang on the deck of the Titanic—which was ironic in light of what happened to the ship.

They were not familiar with a Texas accent.

Our local pronunciation of “eyes” and “ice” sounds very similar—especially if you’re British, I suppose.

As Bradbury said, time is like a rope, and now I’ve travelled completely around this loop.

I remembered what the little British girl saw as the lifeboat pulled away from the sinking ship:  “He was shivering violently, and cursing or praying.”

It was eighty degrees on that late November day as I stood in the parking lot outside the Texas Nationalist Movement headquarters. Unremarkable weather for a native Texan—who would freeze in a snap if thrown into the cold North Atlantic in April.

I know how this story ends.

Some day, Dan Millieriestri will reach the end of his rope.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lou Antonelli

The Father Paradox

clockby Judith Field

Dad always insisted that there was something priceless in the house. Towards the end, words that might have told me what and where, abandoned him. I couldn’t see anything worth more than a few bob, and neither could the house clearance dealer.

I stood by the kitchen window looking at the back wall separating the garden from the churchyard where he was buried. The sky was solid grey and a gust of wind bent the branches of the trees into arcs. Bloody English summer, I bet the sun was baking the pavement in Barcelona. I’d be looking at orchids, thyme and hibiscus, if I could buy a place there. But not on a medical physicist’s salary. Dad left his entire estate to the University. Congratulations, folks, don’t spend the whole fifty quid at once.

Archie, gardener and churchwarden, was in the final stages of wrenching a rose bush out of Dad’s flower bed. I banged on the window. “Come in and have a drink when you’ve finished.”

He wrapped the rose’s root ball in an old sack and stomped into the kitchen. I found a bottle of lemonade, not quite empty, inside the fridge. I poured him a glass, put the empty bottle on the table, turned off the fridge and pulled out the plug, ready for the new tenants.

Archie downed the lot and leaned back. “You sure you’ll be able to plant these roses properly at your place? Get someone to help you.”

“How hard can it be? I’ll do it on my own, I’m a big girl now.” Once both your parents are dead, you finally feel like you’ve grown up. Even when you’re in your fifties.

“I’ll go and dig that dwarf apple tree out for you next,” Archie said, “but then I’ll have to get off, I’ve got more gardens to do. Get another apple if you want fruit. I told your Dad to buy more than one.”

“He wanted to plant a mini-orchard. That tree was going to be the first of many. I’ve got to take it with me. The next tenant might want to chop it down, I couldn’t stand the thought of that. Dad loved his garden.”

“Oh, aye. Good at digging, your Dad was. I suppose he had to be, in his line of work. Bit different from Egypt here, though. I remember him planting this tree, just before he went mad…er, was taken ill. You know, there’s a lot of it about, in this little street. All started around about the same time as your Dad.” Archie pursed his lips and looked upwards. “There’s four others, no…five. Going downhill, really fast.”

“I suppose that’s what happens when folk retire to a place like this. All the same age, all getting senile.”

Archie shrugged. “Dunno about that. Kevin two doors down, he’s got the dee-mentia. He’s only forty-five. I’m going to do his garden next, sweep up the leaves.”

“That’s kind of you.”

He smiled. “Now your Dad, he never let the leaves lie, I’ll give him that. Always had a bonfire going.” He got up and headed for the garden. “See you, Kathleen. I’ll be back in a bit, help you get those books into the car.”

Dad used to call me Kat, but that stopped when people only he could see began coming through the bedroom wall when he lay awake. Then, he called me Kathleen, the Thief, who stole from him. He would get up in the night to hide money around the house–half a £50 note among the pages of a book and the other half inside the toaster. I told him he didn’t have money to burn. “Burn, yes,” he said. I wrinkled my nose as I remembered the time he set the kitchen alight. Saved by the smoke alarm.

Towards the end, he forgot my name completely, and the places where he had hidden things. One day he pulled every book off the shelves that lined the walls and I found him throwing them across the room. “It’s all true,” he muttered, “priceless.” That again. But nothing had turned up and now the house was nearly empty.

Every happy memory I had about the place seemed to have been blotted out by Dad’s becoming what I came to think of as ‘the Father-thing’, some alien creature who had assumed his appearance. Whenever I thought of the house I felt a cold hand clutching my insides.

One more room to empty and I’d never have to come back to the house again. I picked up the charity shop box and headed for the living room. A mouldy smell hung in the air and stains edged their way up the walls where the furniture had been. The front door, opening directly from the room onto the street, shuddered in the wind. The sky outside darkened and rain blobbed against the window. There was still work to do, on a shelf-full of books that the dealer had refused to take. A woman from the charity shop was coming to collect them. I looked at my watch–she was due in an hour. Better get a move on.

I saw a blue book on the shelf. The label on the front read “The Quantum Multiverse–could it resolve the Grandfather Paradox?” The Paradox was a time travel thing–if you went back and killed your own grandfather before you were born, how could you have been born to go back and murder him? It was my final dissertation for my degree, and I’d been much taken with the idea of an infinite number of possible universes, like bubbles, all coexisting but never interacting. Dad took one look at the dissertation, said “too many hard sums for me”, gave me a kiss and put the book on the shelf. It had probably been there ever since.

I pulled out a Bible bound in black leather, gold leaf letters on the spine. Inside, the inscription “Maurice Farthing, November, 1933”. He’d have been thirteen, I remember him telling me that was the age he was when he first became interested in Egyptology. I took it into the kitchen and put it on the table, on top of the pile of books to take home.

Back in the living room, in the gap behind where the book had been, stood another one, a battered hard-back with a dull red cover. The British Way and Purpose, consolidated edition, prepared by the Directorate of Army Education. The book fell open between chapters called ‘Working for a Living’ and ‘What we Produce’, held slightly apart by an envelope containing three dried leaves, burnt at the edges. Another toaster job.

A few pages further on, after ‘What We Do with the Products’, I found two letters. One was from the Royal Botanic Garden, at Kew.

We have been unable to identify the leaf you submitted as there is nothing comparable among our herbarium specimens. However, we believe it to originate from a species of thorn bush.

The letter was dated October 2013, a month before the dementia caught hold of Dad. It must have been the last thing he worked on.

The second letter, sent a week later, was from the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the University.

The papyrus, the ink used in the writing on it and the plant sample you submitted are between 3500 and 4000 years old.

I picked up a pristine copy of A Brief History of Time, flicked through it. Some of the pages hadn’t been cut  ad anyone actually read the book? Behind it was another copy of The British Way and Purpose. Between ‘Better than the Rules’ and ‘Does It Matter What We Believe?’  was a letter from the Department of Semitic Studies at the University, dated November 2013:

“we concur with you that the text on the “papyrus” allegedly from Mount Horeb, of which you sent us a photocopy, is Hebrew, written in a form of early Semitic script. You say that you found it in 1942 but the fact that you have not consulted us until now leads us to assume this is some kind of hoax.

In the margin, in Dad’s writing Yes – I took a break after El Alamein. And No carbon dating till now, you buffoon! I read on.

However, here is the translation of what we could read: “My brother Aaron, these leaves are from the bush I told you about…on fire and yet not consumed… I will be who I will be…my name forever, the name you shall call me… I am not a man of words—not yesterday, not the day before…speak to the people for me, speak to Pharaoh Thutmose…meet me in the desert.” We cannot discern a signature on the document but would be happy to examine the original.

I felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room and the floor seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. Where was the original papyrus? I struggled to catch my breath. I clawed at the books still on the shelf, dragged them onto the floor, but there were no more copies of The British Way and Purpose. Pages clattered as I hurled the remaining books across the room, but nothing fell out as they hit the wall.

I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the toaster, turned it upside down and shook it till the works rattled. Nothing. Had there been a dull red book among the ones the dealer took? Why hadn’t I made a note of his phone number? Where had I found it—Google? I wrenched my phone out of my pocket. No signal. I flung the window open. “Archie! Quick! Have you got a local paper?”

Out in the garden, he didn’t seem to have heard me. He knelt on the lawn pulling something red out of the ground where the apple tree had been. His stood up. “Your Dad. Daft old bugger.” He held out a clear plastic bag. Inside was a book with a dark red cover.

“Give that to me!” I ran towards him, my feet slipping and sliding on the wet grass. I snatched the bag and ran back into the house. Archie followed me.

My heartbeat pounded in my ears. The bag slipped out of my shaking hands onto the table. I panted as I tried to tear it open.

“Here, let me do it.” Archie took a lock-knife out of his pocket and pulled out the blade. I gasped. “Don’t look so worried,” he said. “I’ll be careful.” He slit the bag, took the book out and put it on the table next to the empty lemonade bottle. I grabbed the book and it fell open. The pages had been cut away, leaving a space containing a cylindrical grey pottery jar about three inches high. The lid of the jar was shaped like the head of a pointy-eared jackal, with long striped hair. I pulled the jar out of the book.

Archie peered over my shoulder. “Looks old. Valuable, is it?”

I took the jackal head lid off and upended the jar over the table. A roll of paper dropped out. It was brown with tattered edges. Through the surface I saw the outline of unfamiliar texts. Not paper. Papyrus.

My mouth dried. “More than you know.” I touched the papyrus with the tip of my index finger. The air glowed blue above it I felt a buzzing inside my head and an image of sand, and the occasional scrubby bush, flashed across my mind.

Archie leaned in front of me. “It’s clever, lighting up like that. Let me look at it properly.”

“No!” I reached out to grab the papyrus, knocking the pile of books to the floor. I looked out of the window. “I think it’s stopped raining. I don’t want to keep you. Kevin’ll be waiting. Time to go!” A phoney laugh stuck in my throat.

“OK, calm down. I’ll say goodbye.” He reached out to shake my hand. I felt bad. Archie had helped me find something wonderful, even if he didn’t know it. I’d send him some money, anonymously. Once I’d sold the scroll.

I put my arms round Archie and hugged him. He reddened. “Give over. I’m only going to rake up Kev’s leaves. Not create the hanging gardens of Babylon.”

I released him. “That was for me. For all your help. You must let me give you something,” I said. “Take anything you like the look of. Before you go.”

Archie tugged at one ear. “Sure?”

I nodded. He looked round, frowning. Archie picked up the Bible and leafed through it. “I wouldn’t mind taking this notebook, for my little grandson. Loves to draw, he does.”

“That belonged to Dad. I don’t think anyone should be scribbling on it.”

“Make your mind up. But I’m sure your Dad wouldn’t have minded a little lad having a bit of a draw. It’s not like it’s got writing or anything. Well, just a bit at the beginning and I’ll make sure he leaves that.” He shoved the bible towards me, flicking through blank page after blank page.

I took it. “Where’s the New Testament?”

Archie shrugged. “Where’s what?”

Genesis was there. Exodus stopped in the middle of a sentence about Moses tending sheep. After that, blank pages.

“But it was there. I saw it.” My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. “Where’s the rest of the Bible gone?

Archie raised his eyebrows. “Bible?”

“This.” I jabbed a fingertip at the cover. “Look. Read.” I turned the book so that the spine was uppermost. No gold text. Had I imagined it? Dementia wasn’t contagious – was it?

The chair squeaked as I flopped into it. I pushed my fingers through my hair.

Archie put his hands up. “OK, OK, keep your Dad’s book. Didn’t mean to upset you.” He looked away from me. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He shuffled out of the back door. I locked the door behind him. I took a deep breath and told myself to think rationally, to remember I was a scientist. The Bible must have been printed in some kind of disappearing ink. And as for Archie, he must be losing his memory. Poor man.

I went back into the front room. A beam like a full-on car headlight shone through the window. The charity shop woman must have come early. I looked out of the window into the empty street. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, as though someone was watching me. I locked the door.

I put the Bible back on the table. I had proof that what it said was true. Dad was right, it was priceless. “It’s not too late,” I said to an empty room. “I’m going to make you a household name, Dad.” I decided to be patriotic and offer it all to the British Museum first. The jar alone must be worth something. I picked it up and reached out towards the papyrus again.

Pins and needles shot through my palm. My hand opened and I dropped the jar onto the table. After a second pause it rolled, apparently under its own power, onto the floor where it smashed on the stone tiles. The air seemed thick and I felt like I was moving under water. I heard a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth.

The shadow of a man appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, but not on the wall. It stood in the middle of the room, on the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle of the shadow. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into the figure of a dark-skinned man. He stepped out of the space and into the room, flecks of light crackling around his shaven head.

He wore a white tunic, with fringes hanging down by his legs. He had bright green shadow on his eyelids, and a black line circled each eye. He held out his hand.

“Give me the scroll of the slave Moshe.”

“Can’t…move.”

He clapped his hands and I felt as though weights had fallen away from me. “You took the scroll from the jar. Give it to me.”

“Who the hell are you? Get out of my house.” He stood motionless. To get to the landline phone in the hall, I would have to get past him. He reached for the papyrus.

My breath rasped as I grabbed the empty lemonade bottle. I smashed it against the stone tiles of the floor. “You heard me. Get out.” I grasped the neck of the bottle and held the broken end outwards.

The man held his palm up and took a pace back. “I am Khusebek, magician of Pharaoh Thutmose. I serve Sekhmet, goddess of plague. You cannot harm me.”

“Don’t be too sure.” My mouth dried and I felt sick.

“The scroll is mine.”

“I’m not going to give it to you. It belongs to me. Me and my Dad.” I took a step towards him, jerking the broken end of the bottle forwards.

The man said a word I did not understand, which would probably take pictograms of reeds and eyes to write down. An invisible force grasped my hand, twisting it round. The bottle smashed on the floor, with a crash that seemed to go on and on. I rubbed my wrist.

His eyes narrowed. “You will not stop me. My magic is the breaker of bones. The tearer of flesh. Next time I will rip your arms from your body. The scroll is cursed. If you do not give it to me, the curse will fall on you.”

I backed away, my fists clenched, until I was pressed against the wall. “Go on, take it.”

He reached out. With a crack that made my ears ring, a flash of light burst out of the scroll. He jerked his hand back.

“The power is too great. I may hold it but I may not pick it up. You must give it to me.”

I dropped the scroll onto the table. “Then, you’ve got a problem, because I’m not going to. I don’t believe all that nonsense about curses. So just sod off.”

“I have waited many lifetimes. Dead. Asleep. Waiting for the scroll to be released from its captivity. The scroll is the destroyer of brains. It is a tool of great energy, it makes two times touch. Things are shaken loose in their time. You released the power when you took the scroll from its jar. It called to me through time, dragging me through an opened door between my world and yours.”

His gaze followed mine, to the shattered remains of the jar on the floor. “Why do you think your father, the tomb robber, kept it in the jar? Now the scroll cannot be put back, its power cannot be contained.”

“What are you on about, power?” I remembered my day job again. Caesium could give off blue light like the scroll had, if it got damp. “You mean radioactivity? Calm down. If that jar kept it in check I’m sure it’s nothing a few inches of lead can’t block.” The museum would be able to shield it. Wouldn’t they?

He moved towards me. I dashed to the other side of the kitchen, my feet crunching on the broken glass and pottery. The table stood between us. He leaned towards me.

“My master Pharaoh Thutmose found the scroll abandoned in the wilderness, after the slaves escaped. He kept it, hoping to use it to get them back. He never did. When he died, he took the scroll into his tomb. It watched over him for thousands of years. And your father crept through the doorway stole it.”

“Liar. Dad was no grave robber. He must have dug it out of the ground.”

He raised a palm. “It was in the tomb. And it was never in the tomb. The doorway opened and let your father steal the scroll before we could put it in. I have followed your father through the doorway.”

“So Dad got hold of the scroll before you had the chance to stash it. Although it was already stashed. And then, it appears here? I don’t think so.” My head ached, and I remembered the idea of the bubble universes. Perhaps, in one bubble, Pharaoh kept the scroll. In another, Dad got it. Somehow, the power of the scroll had made my bubble collide with the other two. “I don’t care how you got here, or why,” I said. “Just trot off back through that doorway. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got a press release to write.”

“You do not understand. The curse has already come on you and your people.”

“I don’t believe you. Stay here if you want, but I’m off.”  I slipped the scroll into my pocket and turned away.

“Then fear—” he cleared his throat “the power of Sekhmet. You will lose your mind. Your fellow-men have already done so. Your father looked upon the scroll too many times and was no longer your father.”

I had looked at it. The image was in my head, when I shut my eyes.

“Hear me,” he said. “The scroll released is more powerful than the gods. Your father’s wits were smashed. The spreading destruction that cannot be undone, the eater of minds, a swarm of locusts devouring all in its path. It attacks even the minds of those who have not seen the scroll. There is no healing. No escape, now. Without the jar.”

I looked at the shards on the floor. “I’ll burn it. And that’ll stop up your precious doorway as well.”

“Your father tried fire. And failed. As you will.”

I remembered the burning kitchen, the garden bonfires. Dad, Kevin, others…brains turned to mush. Archie, forgetting the Bible. Next me. Dementia, spreading.

“The eater of minds has taken root in me,” he said. “Only if I return to my own time, with or without the scroll, will it be checked. But I cannot travel without the scroll.”

I pulled it from my pocket. “OK, you have the vile thing. Then just get lost.” He put out his hand, palm upwards. I reached out.

The air shimmered silver. I caught movement in the corner of my eye and flicked my head towards it. I heard a noise inside my head, whining at a higher and higher pitch until I could only feel it. Then nothing. Another shadow appeared. A man stepped out, dressed in what looked like a woollen coat, over a knee length shirt. He had a close-clipped beard and on his head he wore a piece of cloth that draped round his shoulders, held in place with a cord round the forehead.

He thrust his out his hand and snatched my wrist. With his other hand, he grabbed my free arm and pushed it round my back. I let the scroll fall and kicked it across the floor.

He spoke from behind me. “I—I am Moshe. Do not give the scroll to Khusebek. If you do, we will b-be as nothing and s-s-so will you. Pick it up. Give it to me.”

Moshe. Moses, who stammered. His brother as spokesperson.

“Do not listen to this slave,” Khusebek hissed.

I turned my wrist, kicking out at Moshe.

“Listen, or I b-break your bones,” he said. “I beg of y-you. I am slow of tongue, b-but I have had to come alone, this time. This doorway is, is unsafe. It destroys. When two have entered it, in all but a single time, only one has come out.”

I bent forward as pain shot up to my shoulder. My eyes watered. “I’m giving it to Khusebek. For all our sakes.”

Moshe leaned forward, let go of my wrist and snatched the Bible from the table. “In his world, Pharaoh found the scroll before my brother could read it. And now his world, mine and yours are bound up with each other. If you give it to him it will be as though we Israelites had never lived. We, and our children, and our children’s children.”

Holding the front cover of the Bible, he shook it in front of me. The empty pages clattered in my face. Moshe dropped my arm.

“Now, will you listen?”

I nodded.

“Our worlds are woven because your father took the scroll from Pharaoh’s and from mine and brought it to yours. We never left Egypt. We withered and died out. God has forsaken your world. That is why the pages are blank.”

“Give the scroll to me,” Khusebek snarled.

Moshe reached out a hand to mine again, but I dodged and ran to where the scroll lay.

“Now listen,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I have to stop the dementia.”

“You would help a few people, and condemn your whole world to eternal misery?”

I heard a voice outside in the street, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio. “What could be worse than your brain turning to mush?” I said. I turned to Khusebek. “Just take this and get lost.” My hands shook.

The light shone through the window again. I ran to shut the curtains. A spotlight beam swept along the front of the house, coming from a streetlamp right outside the front door. Mounted on the lamp post was some sort of camera, swivelling to follow the path of the beam. I heard another crackle, from a loudspeaker mounted at the top of the post.

The voice spoke again. “Worship the one true goddess, people of the faith!”

I shut the curtains.

“Woman of dwelling 38! We know you are there. You were warned before.”

There had never been a streetlamp outside the front door, there can’t have been. How would we have got the car off the drive?  Dementia must have caught hold, in me. I felt my heart race.

“This is your final warning. Attend worship or pay the ultimate penalty.”

Something drew me, staggering, to the window. Outside, the colour faded from the world, draining away to a view like a sepia photograph. A van drew up outside the house. On its side, letters read “Honouring the One True Goddess is our Way and Purpose”.

Without sound this time, another shadow appeared, glowing blue round the edges. I smelled something aromatic and smoky, like tobacco. Moses and Khusebek froze. From the shadow a man stepped, aged in his twenties. He wore an open-necked khaki battledress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, baggy shorts, knee-length khaki socks and scuffed black boots. On his head was a black beret. Below that, a face I had seen in seventy year old photographs. Dad. With his whole life ahead of him.

“Hello, Kat,” he said. “I thought I’d better join the party, now that lot are at the door.”

I reached out and touched his face. The skin was warm and rough. “Dad? What’s going on?

He stepped towards me, leaving sandy footprints on the floor. “Is that it? No hug, for your Dad?”

I squeezed him tightly. He kissed the top of my head and unwrapped my arms.

“Let a chap breathe. Curious, I’d have expected to see myself here.”

“You won’t. It’s 2015 and you’re…you live somewhere else, now.”

“You mean I’m dead. Well, I had a good run for my money. I must have been…ninety three?”

I felt a lump rise in my throat. “I’ve missed you. Every day. But look, this scroll you found. I’m giving it back to the Egyptians. Sorry.”

“No. Give it to the Israelites, before it’s too late.”

“But, the dementia—”

Dad put his palm up, his mouth set in a line. “Shut up. The scroll, created on holy ground, became charged with great power. It can make a stammering man speak clearly. It can warp the fabric of existence so that space-time bends back on itself. But there’s just about enough time to undo it all. If you give it to Moshe.”

I folded my arms. “No, Dad. I’ve made my mind up. You haven’t seen dementia take away someone you loved. You haven’t mourned someone who was still alive.”

Dad reached out and squeezed my hand. “A cure might be found. But there’s no cure for world-wide tyranny. You have to do what I say.”

I shrugged. “Why? Things seem OK to me.”

“Listen. You’ve felt as though you’re being watched, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “Ever since I opened the Bible .”

“That’s because you are under surveillance. Every one of us is, now. Because Aaron never saw the scroll, there’s no Judaism. So there was never a Jesus. And there was no Islam. The other religions of the world never flourished—”

“—I don’t care. Religion is behind all the problems of this life. We’re better off as atheists—”

He grabbed both my hands. “Atheism? Forbidden. Because there was nothing to believe in, something cold and harsh arose to fill gaps. An evil that murders non-worshippers.”

I heard the letterbox rattle.

“They’re coming,” Dad said. “Give the scroll to Moshe.”

“But Khusebek will be left behind. And his presence is giving everyone dementia. It killed you. It’s taking everyone in the street, in the town, in the country. It will take the world. One by one.”

I heard footsteps outside the front door. The letterbox rattled. The loudspeaker bellowed. “You have twenty seconds to pray in repentance before we enact the ultimate penalty. May the one true goddess have mercy upon your soul.”

Dad bent down and grabbed the scroll. “I started this mess. I have to undo it. The line of time has been spliced and recombined. All realities are superimposed. You could call it The Father Paradox. The only way to sort it out is to cut it off and start again, to overwrite what might happen. I have to take it back myself, so that I never found it. This is the only chance we have.”

“Take me with you.”

Moses opened his mouth. “Fool! Did you not hear me? This doorway is unsafe. Two in, one out.”

“You said that once it worked for two people. I’ll take that chance.”

Dad’s hand trembled as he took mine. “If you come with me, who knows which of us will survive? And whether the scroll will come through intact?”

Tears ran down my cheeks. “Do you think I care what happens to the bloody scroll? I can’t let you go again. I won’t.”
Judith Field

Dad dropped my hand, and wagged a finger at me. “Language. I might be much younger than you are, but I’m still your father. Sorry, I’ve got to do it on my own.”

“Then come back again afterwards. Come back to me.”

He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to leave it there. And time travel’s not possible without it. Goodbye, Kat. Chin up. Who knows what life will be when the scroll was never in it? We’ll probably still be together, and you won’t be older than me like now.”

“Or you might have gone under a bus. Or broken your neck falling off some ancient temple.” And I might still be alone. “Take me.”

Dad shook his head. He put the scroll into his pocket. All motion stopped and he looked like a photograph. He dimmed to black and white. I saw the room behind him.

“No!” I grabbed his arm as he faded.

* * *

Archie unlocked the front door and stepped into the living room. A boy aged about ten looked up from the book open in front of him on a table, and smiled.

“Hiya, Grandad!”

“Hiya, Joe. Is your dad in? I want to chat to him about the New Year holiday.”

Joe shook his head. “He went to see the Rabbi.”

“OK. Getting on with your homework? Good lad.”

“Yeah. Nearly done. I had lots.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “maths—those flippin’ decimal sums—”

“—give you a hand, if you like.”

“No, you don’t do it the same way as Miss Bradshaw and I’ve got to show my working out. Anyway, I’ve finished it. Now I’m on history. I’m doing a project about the Egyptians.”

“You know they took your guts out when you died?”

Joe mimed putting his finger down his throat. “Yeah. They used to stick them in jars.” He picked up a postcard. “I got this from the museum. I copied the picture into my book.”

“Give us a look.” Archie took the card. It showed a stone relief of a man and a woman facing each other, smiling and holding hands. Each had placed their free hand on the top of a jar with the head of a jackal for a lid, standing on a table in front of them. Hieroglyphics ran across the bottom of the carving. “Perhaps that’s one of them gut jars, with the dog’s head on.” He turned the card over. “Yes, I was right. It says “From the New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties, 1550-1069 BC). Shows Canopic jar for preservation of body parts, with head of Duamutef. Inscription (possibly referring to the goddess Bast) reads Dad and Cat were here.”  His eyes narrowed. “If you’ve finished with this, can I have it?”

“If you want.”

Archie slipped the card into his pocket. “OK, I’ll be off now. Tell your dad I’ll pop in later.” He walked to the front door and reached out to the handle. He stopped. “Hang on.” His hand dropped and he walked back across the room.

“Why are you putting the card in there?” Joe said.

Archie put the book with the dull red cover back on the shelf. “Dunno, lad.” He frowned, and stroked his chin. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Judith Field

 

Borden’s

by Joshua Storrscigarette

Margo’s cigarette swelled orange and a mist floated from her mouth, the smoke mixing with her breath in the cold night air. She leaned back on the railing of  my balcony. Her elbow brushed my arm. The city lights shone through her hair, adding a glow to the red and purple dye I helped apply the night before.

“I can’t really say where it is,” said Margo. “I think it’s in a different spot for everyone.”

“And the double, it’ll be in there? Guaranteed?” I said.

“He’s not an ‘it’, Simon. He’s you. He’s got your experiences and your personality. He’s existed up until now and he’ll keep existing after you leave. Well, unless you, uh…”

“Unless what?”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”

“So he’s like a doppelgänger?”

Margo made her cigarette glow again and shook her head. “No, because a doppelgänger is an evil twin, and he’s not evil. He’s just another you. Identical and separate.” Smoke puffed from her mouth with each word, like an engine fighting the cold.

I had always been too scared to try, but I didn’t mind Margo’s smoking. I enjoyed the way it looked. The smoke and the sparks and the glow. It was like she carried the last burning moments of sundown with her into the night.

I swallowed. “So this place…”

“Borden’s”

“Right, Borden’s. It’s the only place you’ll find him?”

“Yup.”

“Why?”

“Why, what?”

“If he exists now, and he keeps existing after I leave, what stops me from just running into him on the street? Now or after?”

“I think it’s like, he just lives somewhere else.”

“If he lives somewhere else, then he can’t have my exact experiences.”

Margo shrugged and tried to hide her smile behind her cigarette.

I bent over the railing, intentionally leaning into her arm, but not too much. My apartment was on the second floor and I could see all the way down the street. I lived a few blocks south of main street, just past the border between downtown and the area with a lot less working street lights. Margo and I spent many nights walking up and down these streets, sharing stories. I knew this area like it was a part of me.

“What do people do there?”

“That’s up to you,” said Margo. “That’s kind of the point. Not a lot of people talk about it. I know of one person who didn’t say anything. He didn’t think his double would have anything to offer him. Like, no information or stories that he didn’t already have. So they just kind of looked at each other. He got a drink and he left. There’s someone else I know who—well…”

“What?”

She paused, her cigarette staying at her side. “Okay, a friend of mine told me about when she found it. She went in there, saw her double, and killed her.”

“Whoa, what?”

“Yeah, right?”

“Why did she do that?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think she should have gone in there in the first place. She’s not exactly the most ‘together’ person. Lots of insecurity issues. She always puts a lot of effort into making herself unique, and I guess she really didn’t like the idea that she wasn’t.”

“So she responded violently, like to a threat.”

“Yeah, I guess. Maybe she didn’t know exactly what to expect, like it hadn’t been explained to her properly, so what she saw scared her. I’m not sure. She kinda started crying on me before she got to the motivation part of her story.”

“Shit. Wow.”

“I know.” Margo stuffed her cigarette in my flowerbed, lighting another before the first finished smoldering. “It’s actually kind of scary to think about. I mean, what if you go in there and your double decides to kill you?”

I thought about that. “I think, if your double is one hundred percent you, then that’s something you’d know to be worried about before you walked in.”

“Hmm, that’s a great point, dude.”

“Still, I wonder.” I hesitated.

“What?”

“Do you know if there have been any suicides related to this?”

“Not that I know of, why?”

“Well, it’s like the other side of the coin, isn’t it? If you’re someone who puts a lot of pride into being unique, finding out you aren’t is like a punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you. You might even get violent. But depending on your view of things, that violence might be directed towards yourself instead of your double.”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Think about it, you come out of Borden’s and a thought occurs. Maybe it’s immediate, maybe it comes to you slowly, like a sickness. But it’s the thought that, if you died, it would have no impact on the world. That after all is said and done, you are not important.”

Margo looked at me, maintaining eye contact—a rare thing for her. “Simon, you’re scaring me.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, touched by her concern. “This isn’t something I’d do. I’m just trying to empathize. This is interesting to me.”

“I can see what you’re saying. But the problem with that is that you shouldn’t value yourself based on how useful you are, like it shouldn’t be your reason for living. That’s how people get used.”

“Right. No, I completely agree. I’m just speculating.”

She held my gaze for a moment, then gave a tentative nod. “Okay.”

“Still, which is worse?” I said.

“What’s worse?”

“Suicide or murder?”

“I think they’re the same in a lot of ways.”

“What, because it’s your double?”

“No, just in general.”

We took a deep breath of silence.

“What about the guy who didn’t say anything?” I tried to keep my words level, to match Margo’s, but I knew at this point something else was seeping into my voice. It was apprehension—fear, mixed with the excitement of exploring uncharted lands—a potion both hot and cold.

“What about him?”

I turned towards Margo and shrugged.

She met my gaze, then returned it to the street. “I think it’s kind of selfish to be honest.”

“How so?”

“He didn’t talk to him because he didn’t think his double could offer him anything. As if every conversation has to get him something.”

“Hmm, well okay, what did you do?”

“What makes you think I’ve found it?”

“Because when I asked you where it is, you said you couldn’t say, not that you didn’t know.”

She smiled and took a long, slow drag, thinking about her answer. “I guess I took it as an opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can truthfully say they know themselves, y’know? So for one night I was able to talk to myself as an outsider. I mean, I think of becoming my ideal self as my life’s goal, so it really helped me get perspective on stuff. When I was in there, it was like a time-out from everything, where I could take a good hard look at myself before moving on.”

“So you’re glad you did it?”

She nodded. “Absolutely, dude.”

Past Margo, the street below us faded into the night. I let my eyes relax. The thoughts drifted through my mind and settled like a snowfall—my double out there, somewhere, living my life, me in every way that mattered. I noticed a light flicker on in the distance and it brought my vision back into focus. It was a neon sign, half purple, half red. “Borden’s.”

I straightened.

Margo turned to face me, her back to the sign. “You see it, don’t you?” she said. Her voice grew excited, her eyes widened and she smiled with her teeth—something she never did.

“What are you gonna do, Simon?” she said, watching my face. I didn’t answer.

Leaving Margo on the balcony, I walked through my apartment and out into the hall. I half expected it to disappear, but when I emerged from my building and turned toward the darkness, there it shone. It did not surprise me, not really. When the sign flickered on, it was like it had always been there.

I did not turn around, but I could feel her on the balcony, probably on her next cigarette by now, watching me pull open the door, and walk inside.

◊ ◊ ◊

Joshua Storrs

Joshua Storrs is a writer living in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He writes for The Communicator  and conducts interviews for a podcast called Worlds Longest Voicemail. He has previously had poetry published in the fall 2015 issue of Confluence. Joshua enjoys live music, mac ‘n cheese, and sleeping in strange places.

Coffee and the Kobold

by Elizabeth Hopkinsonkobold

A soldier returning from the wars was weary both in body and in mind. He limped along the highway, using his old musket as a crutch, until he came upon a roadside inn. The warm lights and sound of singing were a welcome distraction after so many miles on the road.

He went inside. Within an hour or two, the soldier’s belly was full and his head pleasantly fuzzy. The innkeeper gave him a seat by the fire, where he could warm his one good set of toes. But, once the other guests had gone to bed and the fire sunk to an orange glow, the room felt cold and empty.

Another beer would help me sleep. I shall fetch one from the cellar, he thought.

Taking a lantern from the bar, the soldier crept downstairs. He was just about to drain off some beer, when a scratchy voice spoke from somewhere near his knees.

“What are you doing here? Don’t you know that this is my beer cellar after dark?”

The soldier looked down. Standing beside him, no higher than a four-year-old child, was a little man, dressed in a musketeer’s jacket.

As a boy, the soldier had heard many tales from his grandmother about the kobolds, a motley race of little people who live all over Germany. They are full of magic, but hot-tempered and quick to take offence. The soldier decided that, if the little man was a kobold, it would be wise to treat him with respect.

“Forgive me, son of the rocks,” he said. “I am but a poor soldier, wounded in the wars and down on his luck. I mean you no harm.”

The little man cocked his head.

“You won’t find your luck at the bottom of a beer barrel. What you need is a job. And a wife to keep you warm.”

“Not much hope of either for a man with one foot and only one good eye. I heard news on the road that the King hires wounded soldiers as coffee sniffers. Ever since he closed down the coffee roasters, the only legal coffee in Berlin comes from the royal roastery. The king needs men to sniff out the contraband. I was headed for Berlin in the hope that he might take me on.” The soldier shrugged. “But so many have been wounded in this last war, I doubt there will be a job left for me.”

The little man’s eyes twinkled with a silvery light.

“I can give you such a gift that, when the king’s spymaster meets you, he would dismiss his own brothers to employ you. All I ask in return is that you take me with you to Berlin and allow me to share your home and a little of your food.”

“What gift?” the soldier said.

“The gift of smell. I can give you a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame. You will be able to tell a Java from a Mocha at a distance of leagues. You will be able to stand in the Tiergarten and sniff out the apartment where the bishop’s servant is preparing his brew.”

“And all you ask in return is a little food?” His grandmother’s tales had led the soldier to believe that kobolds hunger for gifts as men hunger for food.

“There is one condition,” the little man said. “You must never watch me eat. If you do so, the consequences will be terrible.”

“I give you my word as a soldier that I will never intrude on your privacy.”

And, with that, the two shook hands on the bargain and agreed to set out for Berlin in the morning.

* * *

When he arrived in Berlin, the soldier found everything to be just as the little man had promised. The moment he crossed the city boundary, a world of scent burst forth upon his senses. He knew what the passerby at his shoulder had eaten for breakfast, whether he was happy, angry or afraid. He could sniff out the mice in their holes and the sparrows in their roosts.

He lost no time in seeking out the house of Count de Lannay, the king’s spymaster and chief revenue collector. As the little man had promised, the soldier was recruited immediately, and soon rose to become first among the coffee-sniffers of Berlin. There was no illegal roastery that his keen nose could not smell out. Soon the former soldier became a rich man. He left the poky garret he shared with the kobold, and took a fine set of rooms in the Stechbahn. With his fabulous nose, he was sought out as a coffee-taster for the royal roastery. No longer must he wear the worn boots and jacket of his soldier days. In their place came buckled shoes, embroidered waistcoats and a periwig for his head. And, in time, he wed Widow Doebbert, proprietor of the Stechbahn’s famous coffee house, and settled down to a comfortable life.

All this time, the soldier had not forgotten to set aside a portion of food for the kobold. He never saw the little man, but as the plate was always emptied, he assumed the kobold had eaten his fill.

But the more the soldier advanced in society, the harder it became to persuade his wife to lay out a plate of food on her clean parlour floor. Widow Doebbert was a city woman, brought up in the king’s new ways of reason and enlightenment. Kobolds, she said, were all very well for grandmothers in the country, but this was Berlin. A respectable Hausfrau could not have dirty plates on her floor; it encouraged vermin. How could they be sure that a rat wasn’t eating the food all along?

The words of his wife cast doubt in the soldier’s mind. He had been rather drunk that night at the inn, and his eyesight was not of the best. Yet he remembered his encounter with the little man so well. Could it have been in his imagination?

That night, when the rest of the household was in bed, the soldier kept watch behind a curtain. On the stroke of midnight, a stealthy padding of feet was heard across the floor, followed by the faintest of snuffles.

The soldier peeped out. Hunched in a corner with the plate on his knees was the little man, exactly as the soldier remembered him. But he did not pick up the food between his fingers. Instead, a long tongue, dark blue with two prongs on the end, shot out from the little man’s mouth. With it, the little man speared his food, which shot back into his mouth on the end of the prongs.

The soldier had seen many disgusting sights during the wars, but the sight of that tongue caused him to let out a sick groan.

In a heartbeat, the little man leapt to his feet. His eyes, white like lamps in the darkness, fixed on the soldier.

“You have betrayed me!” he cried. “All these years, I have given you the best and asked for nothing in return but my daily bread and the privacy in which to eat it. Well, you’ll be sorry now, soldier boy!”

As he spoke these words, the little man’s appearance began to change. His eyes grew bigger, his belly rounder. Hair sprouted from his ears and his lips grew hard. His boots and jacket melted away, leaving the kobold naked as a needle, with dark blue skin and a round light glowing in the centre of his belly.

“I shall take everything away!” he screeched.

A sound of shrieking rose from under the floorboards. The walls of the house trembled, then shook, and finally disappeared altogether so that the soldier was suspended in mid-air. A blue whirlwind seized hold of him and carried him away, until he found himself back outside the inn on the road to Berlin with no more sense of smell than he was born with.

* * *

Having nothing better to do, the soldier went into the inn. No one recognised him, as he was now dressed as a burgher and could afford a room upstairs with a feather bed. Here the soldier ate his miserable supper, and lay awake.

Could a man defeat a kobold? The soldier thought hard. In his grandmother’s tales, kobolds came from underground. They were born of the rocks, and whenever humans had dealings with them, it was in a cellar, a mine, a dungeon. He had first met the kobold in the beer cellar of this inn. Could this be a door to the realm of the kobolds?

The soldier got up and dressed. He left some silver for his host and crept into the cellar, just as he had done years ago. Holding up his lantern, he searched high and low for any unusual crack or handle. At last, he came upon a glowing circle at the height of his knee, exactly like the one he had seen on the kobold’s belly.

The soldier touched the flat of his palm to the circle, and a doorway appeared in the cellar wall. He clambered through and found himself in a narrow tunnel, whose damp walls glowed with phosphorescence. For a man with his injuries, the journey was not an easy one. The stump of his toe ached with the cold, and several times he grazed his hands on the wall.

Just as he felt he could go no further, the passage opened out into a cavern of pure cobalt, whose ceiling was festooned with stalactites. Arranged in uneven tiers, a hemisphere of stalagmites formed an underground arena. And on every stalagmite was a kobold, dark blue with a glowing belly.

On the centremost stalagmite was the kobold king. His hair and beard were silver, and he wore a crown of iron. When he saw the soldier, he narrowed his gleaming eyes and leaned forward on his throne.

“What do you here in my realm, son of men? This is the kingdom of the kobolds, and we do not welcome idle visitors.”

The soldier held up his head.

“One of your kindred has stolen away my wife and all that I own. I have come to bargain with you for their return.”

“A gambler, eh?” said the kobold king. “I enjoy a game of chance myself. Let me set you a little wager.”

He stood and made a noise like the sound of chisel on stone. A whole squadron of kobolds came scurrying from a hidden chamber, carrying between them three wooden chests.

“Tell me, soldier, which of these chests contains the prize of greatest worth? Answer me correctly and I will return your wife and goods to you. Fail and you will spend twenty years in my underground prison. What say you?”

“Very well,” said the soldier, and he scrutinised the chests. In his grandmother’s tales, two of the chests would have been inlaid with jewels and pearls, the third of plain wood. And the third would sure to contain the prize.

But these three chests were all of a likeness. Made of oak, with patterns marked out in brass studs, there was little to choose between them.

“May I touch them?” he said to the kobold king.

“Touch. Smell. Taste. Anything short of opening them.” The king’s belly light glowed more brightly.

The soldier knelt by the chests, ran his fingers along jointed corners. He put his ear to the lids, his nose to the keyholes. And from the centre chest, he caught the breath of a scent more familiar to him than his own. A scent he needed no special powers to detect.

“This one, “ he said, pointing. “This contains the treasure of great worth.”

The waiting kobolds threw back the lid. And, as the soldier had known it would, a rich aroma filled the cavern. There, piled high to the top of the chest were hundreds of oak-dark beans, each with a double crack running through the middle.

“Wrong!” The kobold king leapt from his throne in exultation. “You have failed, soldier. Look!  Nothing but burned, blackened nuts. Useless for planting, useless for eating. Now, away to the dungeon with you!”

The soldier held up a finger.

“Not so fast, king of the rocks. I propose a second wager. If I can prove to you that this is the prize of greatest worth, you restore my wife, house and former life to me. If I fail, I spend a lifetime in your dungeon.”

“Done,” said the kobold king.

The soldier grinned.

“Then have your people bring the items I shall now list.”

And the soldier went on to list all items usual for the brewing of coffee. Kettles and coffee mills, coffee pots and silver spoons. The delectable smell in the cavern grew stronger; the kobolds on the stalagmites rumbled with excitement.

When the coffee was brewed to perfection, the soldier poured it into dainty Meissen cups. He handed the first one to the kobold king. The king lifted the coffee to his lips, inhaled the fragrance and took a sip.

The soldier waited.

The king took a second sip and bade all his kobolds do the same.

The soldier waited.

The king took a third sip. Meanwhile, the other kobolds were grunting with excitement. They were waggling their ears, swapping cups, digging their neighbours in the ribs.

The kobold king put down his cup. He fixed the soldier with his lantern eyes. Then he gave a great guffaw that resounded around the cave.

“This is heaven!” he exclaimed. “This is the best thing I ever tasted! Bless the day you came to us, soldier, to show us how to make this wondrous drink. We shall drink it every day, and you shall supply us with the burnt nuts.”

“As the king’s chief coffee taster? Not likely!” the soldier replied. “If you want coffee, you must rely on humans, as you have always done, and respect the laws of the land. Now you must keep your promise and restore me to my former life.”

The kobold king grunted, but he could not undo his bargain with the soldier. He began to hum, a low sound from the depths of the earth, and all the kobolds hummed with him. The circles of light on their bellies spun faster and faster until the soldier became too giddy to stand. He fell into a deep swoon and, when he awoke, he was back in his house in the Stechbahn with his wife beside him.

* * *

The former soldier lived a long and prosperous life in Berlin, eventually rising to become Burgomeister. He never saw or heard from the kobolds again. But every night, before he and his wife went to bed, they left a small pot of coffee and a cup on the corner of the parlour floor. Just in case.

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Elizabeth Hopkinson