A Color Called Immensity

By Andrew Reichard

 

“Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do.”

—Italo Calvino, if on a winter’s night a traveler

 

She is led into the capsule: her new workspace, and inside is her old cherry wood desk, her bifocals, the day’s rations. Beyond the desk winks a concave window of soundproof glass, soon to overlook the above-ground city she has never seen. The station manager sees her looking at the window, says, “The capsule rotates slightly. Moves in an arc that imitates the sun. Soft propulsion. Part of the same AI that runs the censor. It’s all gentle motion; balloonwork.” He hovers his hand out in front of him to demonstrate and attempts to smile. “You rise in the morning, reach zenith at midday and creep back down toward evening to a station west of here at end of work day.” “And at night?” she asks. He says, “At night you’re free to go back to your new lodgings, though your processor and files remain here, along with all your work.” “What if I want to sleep here at night?” she asks. The station manager gives her a doubtful look: “We can put a bunk in here, but I assume you’ll want to stretch your legs. Those are third and fourth degree private spaces your new access card gets you in to. You can go almost anywhere in the Newdelphia Metropolis. Don’t you want to see something…?” He cuts himself short, and she thinks he had been about to say something other than where you came from. The sublevel slums. But the manager’s voice is kind, detached. She doesn’t answer either the question he spoke or the one he thought. She places a hand lightly on the surface of her beat up desk, pretending to check for dust, but it is a tactile memory of her past, and she must touch it to believe it exists. Her focus lands on the shelf beside the swivel chair and its contents, and her hand dips protectively back inside her sleeve again as though hiding a tremor.

#

On the shelf are books. Relics made of paper and glue. Old treasures from her coop down in Daglight. These are the few they have returned, intending either mockery or else some strange form of reverence. Is she intended to feel grateful for their allowance of these possessions? Indebted to them or, if that isn’t possible, to this young manager, whose expression says that he is only doing his job, that he wishes her well—perhaps even that he is an admirer of her work. Her eyes flit to the edges of the half-height shelf itself, perhaps to avoid looking at the titles. Finding out which ones they returned to her would also tell her which they had not, and she is afraid to discover that the confiscated books were, to her, most precious. She is afraid to give all that away, even though she assumes they already know.

#

She catches the manager’s retreat with a last question: “My journal?” He startles in his hatchway turn and points to one of the drawers of her desk. “Some of the pages will be missing, of course” he says. “I handled it myself, but it didn’t seem like too much had been censored. They simply dissect the whole page if there’s any questionable material.” “You read my entries?” she asks without surprise, only curiosity, as if wondering what he thinks of the ideas she jots down when she can’t sleep. But there is also a dull sort of anger. She wonders if she could hate this man, who is little more than a mechanic and little less than a jailer. “Not personally,” he says. “That would have been someone in the Censorship Bureau, not Capsule Management.” He speaks these phrases with absolute certainty, the way people talk about politics or sports. “I don’t think I would mind if you read them.” She abruptly means it. And then she is anxious for him to leave her alone. Perhaps not because of anything he said, but because of a change in her own mood. Her gaze returns to the journal in her hand, and she allows a lock of her hair to slip from its place behind her ear and hang between them. Understanding, he steps out and closes the capsule hatch, shutting her inside.

#

Physically alone for what seems the first time in her life, she tosses the journal on the surface of her desk as if practicing carelessness. Unsatisfied, she picks it up and this time throws it across the oblong room where it slaps the far wall and falls inert.

#

From outside come machine noises. The floor trembles, though not as violently as she expected. She judges the windowless side walls are almost close enough to touch with her arms spread: bookshelf to holoscreen. The other two walls—the ones she has already decided to refer to as ‘bow’ and ‘stern’—are farther apart. She sheaths her pale hands back into her sleeves again, inspecting the falling view through the window. Its pure surface offers her a view of cityscape that she doesn’t recognize. The capsule has already taken her outside of the industry fields and conurbation tunnel entry points, and her first sight from this window is one of opulence: Cherry blossoms the size of bonsai tress clustered around mansions the size of doll houses and manufactured lakes the size of puddles filled, perhaps, with goldfish the size of dust motes. To her eyes, it is an appalling application of space within the Exquisite Air Dome (EAD) of Newdelphia. Her old locale, Daglight, is outside any subset of dome, closer to the superannuated parts of above-ground New York where there is zero space and clean air is sold at a premium. Its tunnel runways and reflector pastures out of sight on the horizon, past nanoglass dome material and carbon storms. The Company must think a view of storm or slum too disturbing for her productivity. They are probably right.

#

She sees another capsule drift past on the clear air on its own course. Collisions, she is told, have been programmed out of existence years ago. And no one moves fast enough to do any harm. Still, the two capsules float close by, and she sees a shirtless man grinning at her in passing. She clicks the dimmers, and the glass polarizes.

#

She sits down at her desk, taps the holopad arena set within the rectangle of sensors on its surface and is greeted by a blank screen and blinking spacer bar and a holographic keyboard, the letters in alphabetical order. By her right elbow a black, three-dimensional box projects above the desk’s surface, which rotates slowly on one of its points. Sleek, artifact-perfect. Bobbing at the height of her neck. Her very own censorship machine, which introduces itself, absurdly, as Censor.

#

She writes: My name is Rhapsa. I was born in Daglight District in the year 2112 and have lived most of my life in sublevel D with my family. I have spent approximately eight cumulative months without access to clean air, and my life expectancy is at -2yrg below average. I am a novelist, and now that my work has been recognized as Influential it is to be guarded from those who might read it. The words remain on the screen, somewhat surprising. This last statement clearly an interpretation, and it could be seen by the Company as malignant thinking. She writes: This is a hostage situation. My jailer is a machine with a very uncreative name. Censor’s holo makes a grumble sound, light admonishment, and some of the words on her screen vanish. She is left with the phrase: a machine with a very uncreative name.

#

It is a day before she discovers the Q&A box below the digital display of the censor. Rhapsa has not been told she could dialogue with Censor, but it quickly becomes necessary to query its database to find out more about what she can and cannot write to a protected audience. Speaking to it is like talking to the walls; Censor’s voice-automated responses are limited to the most rudimentary of AI programming. But the query box is another matter.

#

Rhapsa taps the query space under the floating black box hologram and starts with a broad question: <Censor, what subjects am I not allowed to write about?> The black box glitters. A response appears in the dialogue, shifting her question up. <<Telling you what you can and cannot write is judged to diminish creativity. Censor Environment O-12 is designed to allow you to produce any of your thoughts in words. You will not be penalized for what you write or say in this capsule, within reason. But I decide what leaves this space. You will know what lies outside of discretion by my immediate abrogation of sensitive, inflammatory, or false material. Does that answer your question?>> She stares at the response for longer than it takes her to read it. <Discretion? Interesting word choice. I wouldn’t classify most of what gets sold on the market as discrete.> <<Discretion in terms of caste appropriateness is all I intended to convey. Your words, when reviewed and accepted, will be read by millions and available to any societal tier. That is the beauty of stories. Anyone with any amount of privilege can enjoy them. This also is your reward for your considerable skill: you can offer entertainment to the lower classes if your productivity level continues. You may even write erotic stories if you wish. It sells well and is almost never censored.>> Rhapsa wonders if someone in an office somewhere is laughing at her. <I’m not writing pornography.> The response arrives, and she imagines there is laughter in that too: <<You are also your own censor.>>

#

Frustrated, Rhapsa transitions back to the blank holoscreen attached to the top of her old desk. Escritoire, the desk used to be called. Her father would call it that. She remembers where it sat in the corner in their little warren in sublevel D and how she used to write there after long shifts in the EAD factories. Despite this sentiment which the Company has allowed her, she is able to check her gratitude because of the holoscreen they attached. And, of course, there is Censor’s hologram and its conversation node. All these augmentations to the surface of her escritoire. Rhapsa is sure that is the word they would use. With these augmentations, the desk has become something else.

#

She writes, What is history but an account of propaganda? and the word propaganda vanishes. She replaces it with the word confusion, and that too is wiped away, not letter by letter, but the entire word, as if it simply isn’t buoyant enough to stay on the surface of the screen. Words from Censor flash on the dialogue box: <<If your intention is not to write a story but to test the limits of my programming, I must ask you to desist. Overt insubordination will not be tolerated endlessly.>> Rhapsa looks down at the words that remain to her: What is history but an account of. She feels tears of fatigue press at her eyes and sinuses. She cries sometimes not out of anger or fear, but from exhaustion. She deletes some of her own words, leaving herself with What is history? And that is sufficient. Outside, the sun is taking with it a consort of violet clouds, but this narration of weather could be a projection within the dome. Her capsule approaches the landing funnels among a crowd of similar objects containing similar occupants. Writers, musicians, scientists, people of Influence or Potential Influence. Together, they look like a flock of balloons floating in reverse toward the hand that released them.

#

Before she leaves Censor Environment O-12 for the night, Rhapsa writes one more thing, and perhaps it will be part of a real story tomorrow. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. It is a first line only. Rhapsa’s mind is blank of all possible continuations. She walks out for the night without waiting to see if the words drown.

#

<What about beauty? I’d like to write about that.> It is her third day at her job, and Rhapsa has spent the morning, elbows up, staring out over the pitching grey-blue Atlantic beyond the EAD and the sun that rises shimmering beyond that. The air dome is unnoticeable but for the sludge storms banking off its zenith, and Rhapsa must lean far forward toward the window, looking directly up, to see this. When she looks at the sun, she can almost pretend there is no dome and no smog. A strangely primordial experience. She considers beginning with that—the sunrise, the most beautiful sight in the world because of the fact that it isn’t in the world. It’s outside of their control, and at the end of the world, it will be still. She knows she can’t write a story that begins with a sunrise because these are the sort of thoughts she associates with it. Censor would see through it in time and delete it. So, the first words she writes that day are to her Censor Machine: What about beauty?  

#

<<What about it?>> Censor’s response is disinterested, almost as if it’s busy and she bothers it. Strangely encouraged by this, Rhapsa taps out a reply. <I want to know if writing about beauty will be censored.> <<You’re being cynical>> She thinks this machine’s programming was every bit as complex as those of an Advanced Strategic Human Intelligence drone. <But if I wrote about the beauty of nature, it might be mistaken for an attack against the Company’s environmental blunders. Walden and Leaves of Grass were two of the first non-religious books archived. I haven’t read a censored book that praises the beauty of creation, so before I start something hopeless, I’m asking your opinion.> She waits, hunched over the display, hands clasped between her knees. <<Those two undesirables are arsenals of weaponized thought unfit even for the higher castes, much less the dregs of society. If this is what you interpret as beauty, then, yes, I’ll protect you from later disappointment. Write about something else.>> Though Censor’s response is what she expects, Rhapsa is discouraged to read that level of corporate-manual jargon coming from an AI that had shown a propensity to surprise her. However, she does notice that her phrase Company’s environmental blunders is not deleted in the query box. If she wrote that in the story board, she knows it would have been. <Yes, thank you, Censor. Protect me from beauty.> <<Your irony is noted, Rhapsa>> There, again: that nugget of a personality in Censor. Almost as if it were a judge suffering through irrelevance in a trial.

#

<Censor, can I call you Pilot instead?> Its response is not instantaneous. Rhapsa notes this as well. Hesitation? Can the AI be confused? Was it programmed to grapple with her thoughts? <<I don’t see an issue with that. May I ask why?>> <It seemed more appropriate. You wish to wash your hands of me, I think.> That was a risk. Rhapsa’s blood pressure spikes. But the reference is either overlooked or ignored. The censor’s response is consistent with her analysis. <<I don’t understand how this banter is relevant or productive. Suggestion: why don’t you return to your task?>> <Tsk. An impatient machine. I’ve seen it all now.> <<Rhapsa, you’re stalling. There are penalties for stalling.>> Its insistence on using her name is interesting. Maybe. Perhaps just programming. <Just warming up, Pilot.>

#

<Pilot, do you know if other writers face an illness called writer’s block?> <<Writer’s block does not exist. You are the cause of your own distraction.>> <Fine. You’re no help.>

#

<But it seems very real to me at the moment. Any suggestions? Helpful ones, I mean.> <<You want a censor machine to suggest to you what to write about?>> <And don’t say erotica because no.> <<You are a strange person.>> Rhapsa stares at the words it displays. She wonders if the censor machine is a farce—if there isn’t just another human writing these responses. But so far all except for one of its responses have been instantaneous. No human thinks and translates their thoughts to words that fast. But then it actually makes a suggestion, and this is even further from her limit of expectations: <<Why don’t you start with a description of your setting?>> She writes, <I thought autobiography was out of the cards.> <<This would be only a way of exercising your creativity. You’ll recall I have allowed that before.>> <Only in the most literal sense, Pilot.> <<Safer not to write about yourself than.>>

#

She returns to the short sentence she wrote on her first day in this bubble of isolation. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. She reads this over and over and at a steady rhythm, mind blank of everything except for the words. After that, she pauses on each word, her mind conjuring each individual image—the meanings they imply. Rhapsa forms a careful thought in her head, keeping her hands inert on the desk. She thinks: In a concave mirror the subject who stands directly in front of it is not within the focal point. Those are the limitations set against me. I can’t write anything with a flat surface of reflection. Anything which allows me to see myself, or the reader to see his or herself, is off limits. Keep the shape of this window in mind. The shape of the capsule, and not the isolation of it. The shape of the EADs and not the deception of them. These are my real limitations. My words have to be curved, careful. But I can still reflect something from that. I can still reflect something. She thinks this idea through three or four times, concentrating on the contour of the idea and what it means. She writes a question to this invisible idea: Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?

#

When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?

#

<Tell me, Pilot. What is your opinion of metaphor?> <<I’ve never worked with an Influential who queried her censor so often.>> <You’re here. I’ll talk to you. Is that a problem?> <<Talk to me. Is that what you’re doing? Most of you artists try to forget my presence.>> <That is something I simply cannot do.> <<So…Why ask about metaphor?>> Rhapsa decides to read resignation into the ellipsis. Can an AI in complete control of her situation show resignation toward something she does? Like a parent? She writes, <Because I think metaphor is the power that causes reflection.> She doesn’t dare use the word mirror in case Pilot connects this train of thought with the slowly lengthening story about the girl in her hall of mirrors. It has not shown that it has picked up on what she is trying to do, but it is less terse with her queries, recognizing them as relevant to her story. It wants to coax an explanation out of her, perhaps. She tells herself that she is aware of this danger. She writes a follow-up comment: <Language is made of tricks, which is just another way of saying that we speak and write metaphorically by nature.> Then comes the response: <<That is because you lack the proper understanding of your surroundings. Metaphor is a lazy attempt to smudge the gaps in your data. I communicate with you in metaphorical terms only because you will either misunderstand or distain to read any lengthy and more accurate form of thought.>> <Is that true? Walt Wittman always found the stars far more convincing than reasons or arguments.> To her surprise, Pilot does not shut the conversation down then and there. In some sense, it is willing to humor her. <<What conclusions are the stars convincing you of, Rhapsa?>> She writes, <The existence of light.>

#

A red light and claxon explodes by the hatch behind her, and Rhapsa startles out of her chair, causing the capsule to tilt in its motion across the dome-captured sky. At first, she thinks there has been a malfunction, and she spins toward the window, but the world continues to rotate slowly below her. She is holding a steady altitude now above a portion of the Appalachian Mountains, lingering as the sun appears to linger at midday. And then a voice in a hidden speaker thuds into her eardrums. “Rhapsa M’Falanda. Your choice of queries has led to the Board of Trustees’ grave conclusion that you have not been properly vetted for treasonous ideologies. While this is not strictly prohibited during capsule-isolation hours, the consistency and perseverance of your beliefs is cause for extreme concern. If you do not comply with the Company’s Principals, your person will be archived. This is your first warning. First level punishment includes capsule detainment for the next 24 hours. Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “But I don’t have more than a day’s worth of food and water.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “I understand.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “Rhapsa M’Falanda!” She screams at them, and the background claxon and siren light ceases. Rhapsa stands in the center of the capsule, shaking with anger, and, almost imperceptibly, the capsule trembles along with her.

#

Time passes, and she realizes that a beeping noise is rising out of Pilot’s floating display holo. That little black box: sometimes it is hard to think of it as anything but her only companion. The perversity of that idea— She tries to rid herself of it. She is completely and terribly alone. But there is an unprompted line in the query box. It reads: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> Rhapsa wonders what it is trying to do. Are they trying to catch her off guard? Prompt her to compound her punishment by reacting to the indignation she feels at an AI’s prodding? <What is beauty or meaning if no one sees it?> This is not the question she wishes she could ask, but it is what she intends to ask. Let them think she is shallow enough to believe beauty requires a beholder. Let them think she is atheistic enough to think that beauty could possibly exist without a beholder. One way or the other, they will read that and think her less dangerous. But these thoughts give her no satisfaction, and Pilot does not respond. She is alone. When she passes her hand slowly through the hologram of the black box that is Pilot, the blue light on her hand looks like fresh rain on a window.

#

She is isolated from the world, but the world is not isolated from her. There are the news feeds she can project against the wall opposite her bookshelf. A strike has just been put down in the EAD factories near her old home in Daglight. She sits knees up on the carpeted floor between desk and bookshelf while watching the holo cast against the curvature of the empty wall. It is hard for her to believe she is hovering somewhere above the mountains at a little under 10,000 feet, still well below the Exquisite Air Dome whose center extends from Newdelphia. Her capsule has been moved off course for the night, and it is hard to believe how pristine the air looks outside her window, especially compared to the sludge-sky on the news.

#

The images and videos that pass through the intestines of the Censorship Bureau are made to be grand from a certain point of view. Heroic security units are shown in riot gear and full-face respirators, handcuffing delinquent workers. It’s the workers who are unreasonable, delirious. In the sublevel warrens, security has broken up knife fights and halted the destruction of air filters that the injurious strike caused. Builders will be called in tomorrow to assess the damage that these people have caused to their own homes in their dissent. But none of that keeps her from fright. She feels that she is there, on the ground, because she has been before. Rhapsa sees the water on the pavement behind the masked reporters and knows about the riot hoses that can break a man’s ribs. She sees smoke that the reporters tell her are from fires currently being put out by brave firemen, but she knows about the leprosery gas, the children choking on splinter dust. She knows the riot has been put down with brutality, without mercy, and as she floats in the night far removed, she allows herself to think a terrible thought: What if the pornography I might have been writing could have inoculated the men who started this and saved them from harm and interrogation? What if a smutty suspense novel set in some other world had been escape enough for one more night? I’d be doing my part to keep the peace. I might be saving lives. 

#

At midnight she still has no sleep in her, and never has she been this close to a gibbous moon. So clear and close it is almost as if the white gem is inside the EAD. There are no drone smog filters or dome sweepers to block her view of it, and the outer air is strangely clear. She is a bubble floating far above the crawling lights of Earth’s surface, and the moon is beautiful from here, and even though life is too mystifying to weigh what they have given her tonight against what they have taken away, Rhapsa resolves to rise with the sun and watch its birth from the edge of sight. She resolves to enjoy that much.

#

By midmorning, her stomach begins to trouble her, but she has the day with which to work, and she knows what to ask Pilot now. She has been fed all night long on the interplay between beauty and destruction, dome and dirt. She writes, <What is the Company afraid is the worst I could do with what I write? I need to know so I can better avoid that.> The black box whirrs as it splashes a response on her screen. Almost as if it is agitated. <<If you’re asking for topics, Rhapsa, consider your hunger.>> <I’m very hungry, yes, but I’m asking a serious question. No tricks. I consider all the books that the Company archives, and I see the spirit of free thought written in a time of free thought. Orwell wrote 1984 while totalitarianism was still smog on the horizon. His readers looked in the direction he pointed from under a clearer sky. But had he painted his filthy sky portrait against the backdrop of an equally filthy sky, the people would have read it and recognized it for the time they lived in now and forgotten about it as one cloud in an acid storm. So, the Company bans books written in a time of clear skies on the chance that it reminds readers that once there were clear skies. I’m in no such position, and I’m no propagandist, but you and I both know that the Bureau can bend any surface to reflect what they insist on showing. They’ve had a generation to weed out the education that might be a danger to them in the people they consider lesser.> The response hits her screen almost the exact instant that she presses enter, and Rhapsa wants to scream at the swiftness, the automation, of it. <<So what is it that you believe you’re doing?>> That is all she sees for almost a full minute as the capsule bobs gracefully above a stretch of solar fields—moving again after the long night. There is no indication that Pilot will formulate a follow-up response, but she waits because she has been stopped. What she is doing is so hidden within her that she almost doesn’t know herself. It is simply instinctual for her to press at the walls of her cage. She can’t explain this. But then: <<Rhapsa, your resistance and your cleverness is pathetic. You have been elevated to the Influential class. It is a privilege, and you have a responsibility. Isolated, yes, but given comfort and high clearance. I won’t plead with you; we share no connection. Write adventures or romances. Write them with élan. The Company is not asking you to stoop to bad art.>> And so her gambit fails because she knows and she knows that it knows that it isn’t about art: humanity’s imitation of beauty. Not that art doesn’t mean anything to her. She almost lifts her fingers to type back a counterargument. But this is a waste of time, and those who caused her hunger have not left her with the energy for wasting time. Pilot has deftly swerved her off the path she was headed toward…almost as if it is protecting her with these red herrings. Rhapsa smiles. “Barabbas,” she says aloud to her lonely room. Maybe it understood this entire time about her nickname for it, about metaphor. Maybe the AI has been playing her game with her rules. But if that’s the case, it must realize… The thought arrives, and it doesn’t surprise her. She thinks, I’m going to get myself crucified anyway. She ignores Pilot’s exit route—the argument about art that they could be having, that would mean nothing. She dismisses this scape goat and queries the censor machine about the only book more forbidden than 1984.

#

<<The Bible is nothing but a long series of dangerous ideas.>> This response takes nearly two hours to arrive on her screen. Rhapsa has by that point been pacing for two-thirds that time, assuming that the conversation has closed and the Company has run out of patience. But here—a response with such an obvious invitation. She considers the likelihood of a trap and dismisses it. If they think her dangerous to society all they need do is cut the propulsion, and her fishbowl falls out of the sky. <Exactly!> she writes, saying this also aloud. <And in censoring it you accept its message, to some degree, as truth.> The sneering suspicion is not imagined: <<Rhapsa…How so?>> <Because the Company believes the idea that words generate meaning. This is the oldest mystery of language: In the beginning was the Word. And an incantation that resulted in light consisted of nothing but the word for light, which was identical to its reality. Which caused its reality.> She is excited now as she has had few previous occasions to be in her life. In the back of her mind, Rhapsa recognizes this and is interested by the fact that her spitting in the face of self-preservation can be so exciting for her. <<Are you familiar with the metaphor of thin ice, Rhapsa? It’s a very accurate one, all things considered. The best way to avoid breaking it is to lie down, make as little commotion as possible, and inch forward on your belly.>>

#

But if anything, Rhapsa is only goaded by this warning, which she chooses to interpret anyway as a sort of playfulness—a continuation of the game by at least some of the rules she herself dictated. If they are determined to catch her, so they will, but not before she has her say, because to go quietly—to write words that will be ignored and should be ignored—is not within her power to do. And so she continues the rhapsodic idea she repeated to herself throughout the night, writing words meant for the security she imagined peering into the AI’s queue: <Maybe none of this is surprising to hear. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but only because we people also developed, very early on, a means of ignoring words. Ignoring words and stories is our crowning achievement as human beings. That’s the only way we allowed something as outrageous as the Bible to be taken from our houses in the first place; if more of us read and paid attention to the words Let there be light and saw what came after, your Company would have had an uprising that would have buried it in a day. But words are meaningless to us even when we hear them or read them, so why should any of mine be censured? What danger is there?>

#

The response that floats up to her is like a sudden slant of light hitting her desk: <<Because humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>>

#

“What did you say?” Rhapsa says this out loud. She reads it again, and her hands are trembling. Those words. Irrational. Impulsive. Is she misinterpreting them for vindication of everything she has written? Of everything she believes? An alarm, which has been ringing only in her head up until then has halted, leaves her in the relative silence of the soft propulsion capsule. And in that silence, a voice: “You spent so much time trying to persuade me that you are innocuous, Rhapsa.” It comes from the hologram of the black box, which has not spoken to her since its initial salutation. The display renders sound visually like ripples across its surface. Like water. “And finally you prove the opposite.”

#

“Rhapsa, be silent. I’m trying to help you.” She is crying. Not from fear, but exhaustion. The tiredness that breaks at the collapse of long tension. Pressed back against the hatch on the far side of a capsule that she is certain will fall out of the sky any moment now.

#

“Rhapsa, be still now. I’m trying to help you.” Its words leak into her mind, begin to form sense. Was this not a trap from the beginning? “Who are you?” she asks it. “An artificial intelligence you call Pilot,” it says. If a joke, this is not a funny one, but there is no doubt about the wry humor in the black box’s voice system. “The fact is, you made this happen, Rhapsa. Your words. The Company’s AI minds are programmed to reach a point after a certain ascension of ideas. When this point is reached, I am programmed to change objectives.” “I don’t understand,” she says. “Then let me show you,” Pilot responds.

#

Censor Environment O-12 changes course, and Rhapsa feels it as a jolt under her body. “Where are we going?” “In this bubble environment, Rhapsa, you created a metaphorical parallel into which you poured your questions, and you intuited very early on that you should question your surroundings. Even your nascent story was a form of these same questions. You caused me to rely heavily on sublevel programming built into my database, therefore culminating in our present situation: New Objective.” Rhapsa’s heart is racing. “What new objective?” “You have proven to the Company that you are ready to see past the false reflections of mirrors that are far more literal than you could have anticipated. Rhapsa, you don’t realize what the Exquisite Air Domes are because no one does unless they are told.” Rhapsa puts it together only after Pilot is almost finished, but all the pieces fit. She stands at last and heaves the old cherry wood desk aside and places her palms against the concave glass surface like a little girl. They are approaching the liquid-looking edge of the Newdelphia EAD—the structure she had thought all her life was made of augmented glass to keep out the carbon storms and toxic air of Earth. But something far more terrible has happened to her reality, and she has come to a partial understanding the instant before Pilot revealed the truth: “The EADs are holographic projections,” she whispers, “aren’t they?” “Yes, Rhapsa.” “But…why?” “Haven’t you guessed?”

#

There is no sound or sense of shattering when the capsule breaks through the dome. It is only breaking through an image that is also like a reflection of what Earth used to be: land, road, season, color. It is before them one moment, behind them the next. And Rhapsa is faced with reality.

#

They are far out over an ocean. The water is a deep, rich, unidentifiable color—a color called immensity into which she pours her looking. She can barely breathe. And she can barely contain her breath, and all she can see is water and sky, and both are infinitely more to her than the words that signify them. “What ocean is this?” She can’t think of a better question. Pilot’s hologram shifts. “There is only one Ocean, Rhapsa. All of them flooded into each other a long time ago.” But the land—?” “Mostly gone or swept over by daily tides. Vast areas of North America and Africa are beaches now, the highlands broken up by saltwater seas that extend thousands of miles and are joined to the main body of water at high tide. Believe me. We have tried to cultivate those lands. The Company has even considered propelling the moon out of our orbit to keep the tides at bay.” It is about to explain more, but stops the instant Rhapsa inhales her breath. But she lets it out slowly, shaking her head. She knows how this has happened, or could, at least, imagine this as the end result of weather control bots gone awry and heat bomb wars among the old regime of governmental furor. She had thought that the sludge storms and UV sicknesses and sublevel warrens were the most catastrophic of consequences. But… “How did I live underground? I grew up in the tunnel apartments. It was the air we had to escape, not the water. I worked in the EAD factories.” In response, Pilot spins the capsule one hundred and eighty degrees, and Rhapsa sees the world of her past receding from her new trajectory.

#

It is a hovering city, lonely over the immensity of dark water that parts in an orifice shape below it with the energy of the soft propulsion systems. She sees buildings she recognizes—that she has floated over during her isolation. There are also the mountains: a crinkled tissue paper bandage of Appalachia transmuted into the capsule city like the landscape inside a snow globe. But what really catches her eyes are the buildings below the plane of industry in the center. There must be legions of factories inside that center plane, “protected” from the sun. And the windowless vaults of apartment warrens for the working class beneath, like an inversion of the cityscape above, projecting down toward the water. Something inside of Rhapsa pulses with rising hysteria. But something else—some strength that is also a kind of feeble acceptance—clutches her panic, ties it down. “It looks like a mirror,” she says.

#

When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?

#

“There are nine such metropolises of that size,” says Pilot, “along with many smaller settlements on the highest altitudes, under holodomes of their own.” So few, Rhapsa thinks. Her life and career cannot have culminated in the revelation that the world is an even more inhospitable place than she could possibly have imagined. It can not have come to this. And this internal howl sends her back to the moment of change, when her Censor Environment became an escape pod. There were still the words they had passed back and forth, and there was also the meaning behind those words. <<Humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>> Pilot, sensing her readiness to move forward, says, “Now we have passed the point at which an Influential can pop that protective bubble of an AI’s censorship programming, effectively cutting to the core of what I am designed to prepare that subject for. You already know that this is done with words. You were not brought to this capsule to influence others, Rhapsa. You were brought here to influence yourself, if you could. The Company identifies those whose minds appear supple enough to grasp the truth of our reality and to accept what must be done so that humanity may move forward, but it cannot simply tell you.” “But I didn’t come to the realization on my own,” she says. There is a shadow on the horizon of her mind that is growing like a sludge storm. Pilot is again trying to ease her into the realization of something, trying to soften the blow. She realizes that it has been doing nothing but offer her avenues of escape since the beginning. “No, not completely,” it responds, “but you prepared yourself. I am designed to analyze your capacity for the acceptance of change, for the perseverance of hope and the preservation of human culture. You passed an essential test, which you also created with your own words. Many of the Influential never reach this moment.”

#

This moment. Pilot’s words return to her as if she is looking at a transcript: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> This, now, is censorship on a scale she cannot fathom. The layers of untruth, even unto the projected edges of the Earth. Even the toxic air and sludge storms are fabrications at this point to keep the populace from wanting to look outside and see that they are about to be left behind.

#

“I detect changes in your facial features that would indicate you have reached an understanding, Rhapsa.” “Yes,” she says softly. “We’re leaving, aren’t we?” When Pilot does not respond, Rhapsa says in a kind of drone, as if her own voice is automated, “All those years in the factories, where we thought we were living below post-filth New York and building EADs for the cities themselves, we were actually building something similar for spaceships. The Influence project is designed to identify people who meet certain standards for a long journey. We’ve ruined this planet and need another to which only those chosen are invited. Most of what is built in these floating cities—the new technology employed—must also be a kind of test. I wonder if that explains why there are so few cities. Much of the world’s industry goes to the ships.” “Not ships, Rhapsa. Ship. Just one. And we need storytellers as much as scientists for this voyage.”

#

Because the Company believes, in some sense, the idea that words generate meaning, Rhapsa says, “Let me write stories that are to be transmitted back to the people left behind on Earth.” They are propelling away from the surface of the water now. Rhapsa’s old home has already diminished to a speck in the distance, and there is water and there is water. So much that she could drown just by looking at it. Pilot says, “Those stories would be censored as strongly as if your capsule isolation was what you first thought it was.” “I don’t care.” All she has now are words, and that will remain true. Tears roll down her eyes, and they are still only a result of the tiredness. She knows she is correct: that no one reveres the written word as much as these Companies do. Not even her. To write to the people they leave behind must be a powerful insult to them, a spit in the face. But, truly, she doesn’t care. She is hungry and tired and the old sun is invisible behind her and there is all that water, and she doesn’t have words for it now, and she will not be allowed to use the words she will have for it later. And as Pilot continues to speed the capsule away from the endless water and toward the skies, Rhapsa is looking back during the entire duration of their ascension, trying to find the tiny cities that hold together civilization on a planet she does not recognize. And she cannot shake loose the idea that reality will erase her once she leaves this place—that existence will revoke her the way it might look if God inhaled that first word, the initial spark of light.

 

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

Market Rat

by John M Olsen

Tarrel pried the key from the mummified corpse’s fingers as he knelt in the cobbled alley. Keys protected things you could trade for food in the market, and he had lived off the bazaar’s trash heaps for days. All he needed to do was learn what the key opened.

The dead man was likely killed by magic to be mummified like that. He wore a blue vest and black breeches, the uniform of one of the minor merchant houses up on the hill where rich people lived. He saw the upper crust visitors in the market most days and had learned a small handful of them would toss a copper his way if he groveled as they expected. The face of the corpse was too shriveled to recognize, but the house colors told him where he should go to check for matching locks. If this worked, he could keep himself fed for weeks, or even months before they caught on.

The key was cast iron, with a flat round handle bearing a single line engraved across its middle. Tarrel wasn’t an expert at such things but recognized it as an elemental symbol, a symbol of power sacred to the temple priests.

A voice rang out from farther back in the alley. “You, there! Stop.”

Tarrel wasn’t about to give up his prize. This key was the best bit of luck he’d ever come across. He sprinted out of the dirty alley and into the colorful stalls of the market square, the heart of the bazaar. Merchants hawked goods from tents and tables scattered about with no rhyme or reason. Two quick turns through the narrow paths put him at a good vantage point, so he dodged around a cloth vendor’s stall and stopped to look back.

His pursuer ran out of the alley and looked around, the expression on his face sour enough to curdle milk. The man’s yellow long-tailed jacket marked him as from the powerful House of Orchids.

“Out of my shop, waif!” The old hag who owned the booth kicked him in the backside, propelling him out into the open as the yellow jacketed man turned to look.

Tarrel ran.

After a few turns through the market square, he headed into one of the alleys wide enough to support a row of vendors along one wall. The path constricted as he passed a collection of food stalls, the aroma of roasted meats drawing a growl from his empty belly.

Left, right, right, and left again put him at a small well in an alcove too small for a vendor stall. He collapsed and drank in great gulps, not caring that animals also drank from the murk. The water was dirtier than normal, but it still refreshed him.

Tarrel listened for cries of alarm in the distance but heard only the everyday sounds of the market. He’d made it unless the man had seen him well enough to describe him to the city guards. How far would Yellow Jacket look? He chewed his lip. Should he run farther?

He opened his fist and looked at the key in his dusty hand. What kind of key would be important enough for two houses to want it? The odds of the key belonging to the corpse’s household dropped in Tarrel’s mind. A pocket of coins in exchange for the key might reduce his chance of the two houses hunting him down.

That was it. He’d just have to visit his usual pawn, a man by the name of Skinny, to see if he could sell it for enough money to last a few days. Maybe even weeks if he was lucky. He’d have to hide to keep his coins, but he knew how to stay out of the way.

Tarrel avoided everyone’s eyes as he eased his way toward Bank Alley, one of the less reputable side-streets where people didn’t ask questions. They weren’t bankers like those in the city core, but they were the poor man’s source of coin, and could broker shady trades. Skinny was fair with him, at least most of the time.

The fastest path to Skinny was back out through the fringe of the market square, so he kept his eyes peeled for Yellow Jacket as he wandered through the vendors who had everything he could ever want or need, if only Tarrel had the coins for it.

The scent of cooking foods, the bright colored banners and tents, and the noise of haggling was home to him.

“Hail, Tarrel.” It was Severn, the tinker. Good for the occasional copper coin for running errands.

“Goodman Severn. Any errands to run today?” If he failed to check in with everyone, it was his own fault if he went hungry.

“Sorry for not having any work for you this past week. I’ve had a dry stretch. I have some projects to finish in my shop tonight, so stop by in the morning. You can do three deliveries for me.”

Three! That was rare good fortune. Everything seemed to be going his way today. “I’ll be here when you get to your tent in the morning.” Tarrel waved goodbye.

He’d gotten into the good graces of a handful of vendors by doing odd jobs for them in exchange for the occasional copper or chunk of bread. Only when he was on the verge of starvation did he resort to theft. He had to rely on the good graces of the market vendors, or he would starve. He’d die for sure if he were branded as a thief and expelled into the surrounding desert.

Tarrel sweat under the hot sun, but it dried without cooling him. Indecision between begging Goodman Severn for water and heading to the bank held him for a moment, but Bank Alley was a path forward to achieve his goals. Water could wait for a few minutes.

Most people ignored the market’s underbelly without so much as a glance. It could be dangerous to those who didn’t know their way around.

The plan was as clear as it was simple. He’d pawn the key to Skinny, buy some food that hadn’t already spoiled, and then hide out until morning.

A hand clamped down on his wrist.

“What have we here?” One of the city guards held him in a vice-like grip and lifted Tarrel’s hand to look at the key.

The guard’s red-plumed steel helmet had small metal wings swooping in from the side to cover his cheeks. They were easy to spot as a convenience to the shop keepers. Tarrel saw guard plumes as something to stay clear of, but his new treasure had distracted him.

“What’s the likes of you doing with a fancy thing like this?” He pulled the key from Tarrel’s hand.

Tarrel scowled at him.

“Well? Who did you steal it from?”

They always assumed he’d stolen whatever he had.

“I found it, fair and square.”

The guard rolled his eyes. “Right. People leave keys like this lying around all the time. So thoughtless of them. Tell me the truth this time.”

“It’s true! I found it.” Tarrel looked at the unwavering glare of the guard. If the guard would take it away from him anyway, he might as well tell the whole story. “Okay. I found it in a dead man’s hand in the narrow alley over there by the blue banners. Fifty paces in, near the back doors of the woodworkers.”

The guard shook his head. “You should have stuck with the other story. Now we’ll need to go over together and see who died, and how. Come on.”

The guard pulled on Tarrel’s wrist to haul him along but had loosened his grip.

Tarrel twisted and ducked, pulling his hand free. The guard made a grab for him and missed. The guard still held the prized key, but Bank Alley was right there as an easy escape. The guard wouldn’t follow into the alley, at least not without four or five armed friends.

He made it to the first turn and glanced back. The guard stood outside the alley scowling at him. Tarrel grinned and waved, and continued around the corner. He climbed a ladder and ran across the roof back to where he had a good view of the open market and watched the guard trudge over toward the alley and the body.

The guard tapped the key in his other hand as if thinking something over as he walked.

Tarrel had his own thinking to do. Had Yellow Jacket killed Blue Vest back in the alley? Were they both after the same thing? Maybe the key was a rare treasure, and he was the one who could have solved a great mystery and stepped in to save everyone. They would shower him with gifts and praise, and he would become rich beyond his dreams.

No, dreams were useless when day-to-day survival was at stake. The key was gone and with it were gone his hopes of an easy score and a meal. At least he had some jobs that would feed him tomorrow. If he hustled, he might find a job with one of his favorite vendors before dark, or maybe he could become friends with someone new to add to his list of odd-job clients. There was plenty of afternoon left.

 

He scaled back down the ladder into the alley. As he stepped off the low rung onto the trash-strewn paving stones, he felt a knife poke into his back.

“You’re a lot of work to track down, boy. I don’t like that kind of work.” The voice was familiar. Yellow Jacket.

“You’re going to give me the key, and then we can both forget all this unpleasant business. I have no reason to kill you, and you have no need to be dead.”

Tarrel gritted his teeth at the pain where the point of the dagger dug into his back. “I don’t have it.”

“If you’re going to be that way about it, maybe I do have a reason to kill you. Nobody would miss a market rat like you. Give it to me now.”

“The guard took it from me.”

A string of muffled curses erupted from his captor. “Then this is your lucky day, boy. You get to go take it back from him, and in exchange, you get to see the sun come up tomorrow.”

Yellow Jacket paused for a moment, then continued. “I tell you what. If you can bring it back here to me within the hour, I’ll cut you an even better deal. I’ll give you a gold sovereign.”

Tarrel had seen this game played before, and didn’t like how it usually ended. He’d seen the corpses of those who were too trusting. “If you’ll paper-swear it with one of the banks, I’ll get it for you.”

Yellow Jacket was now bound to either admit he had lied, or make good on his promise. Or he could kill him and find the key himself. Tarrel wasn’t sure which was more likely.

If he was offering a sovereign, the man was desperate, and in a rush. He may have sounded calm, but Tarrel knew better.

“Clever little beggar, aren’t you? Sure, I’ll play it your way. Come with me.” He set off at a fast pace and forced Tarrel to jog to keep up. They stopped three alleys later in an area of the underbelly he didn’t know. Yellow Jacket rapped on a door.

A window in the door slid open, then the door opened. A man stood in the shadows beyond the door. “Good to see you again sir.”

Yellow Jacket held up a hand to cut him off, then jerked his head in Tarrel’s direction. “I need to paper-swear a deal. One sovereign in exchange for a specific key, within the next hour. I have a drawing of it.” He handed over a gold coin for Tarrel’s payment, and a copper to pay for the enchanted paper.

The doorman pocketed the coins and let them through into a windowless room illuminated by oil lamps.

The banker looked up from his worn oak desk, then pulled a sheet from a stack and stamped the paper three times with a seal, with a brief flash of blue light at each impact.

He cut the paper into three pieces. One went to Tarrel to bring in with the key. The next went to Yellow Jacket. The third he wrote on and filed away in a box.

Anyone who broke a deal after paper-swearing would be black-listed. It was never good to cross the bankers.

The piece of paper wasn’t a guarantee of safety, but it was better than nothing.

“You have one hour. All bets are off if you take too long, and I’ll be watching. You’d better get going.”

The bazaar was as lively as ever as he returned to the central plaza, the crowds unaware of the life-and-death drama playing out.

First, he checked the alley where the whole thing had started. The body was gone, and no guards were about. That meant his target would be at the central market outpost, or he would be out patrolling.

He climbed an exterior stair at the edge of the plaza and looked around for the guard’s telltale red plume. He saw nothing, which was unusual. At least two or three would be in sight most days.

The usual vendors and customers milled about, along with priests from the temple in groups of two and three. They always shopped on Saint’s Day, still two days off.

Had the unusual death triggered a larger hunt? Maybe they were after the key, too. There was a chance he could get the searchers on the tail of Yellow Jacket, but it might backfire and ruin all his plans.

If everything worked out, he could find and deliver the key, get paid, and if Yellow Jacket didn’t come to collect, Tarrel could pick the key up later as well and sell it a second time. He had so many ways to win that he was able to ignore the many ways he could lose.

There was nothing left to do but to check the shack in the center of the market where the guards took complaints and stored emergency supplies.

A few minutes of dodging through the market brought him to the door. It was open, which meant someone was inside.

Tarrel peeked through the door and saw the telltale helmet, still worn by the guard. He sat in a chair at a small table, facing away from the door. A clay pitcher sat on its side on the table beside him.

There was no way to sneak in without being seen. If the guard had the key on him, it would be impossible to retrieve. If he’d put it away, there was no way Tarrel could be quiet or stealthy enough to look for it unless the guard was asleep, and they never slept on duty.

He looked closer. The guard’s red helmet plume tipped forward. Maybe this was the miracle he needed. He crept in, looking for any box or drawer capable of holding the key.

Crates lined the walls, but they were all sealed.

He crept around in front of the guard. Maybe he had it on him. Tarrel wasn’t sure he was up to taking a key from a sleeping guard. It was the stuff of rogue stories told around the hearth, not something he ever expected to do himself.

The guard’s helmet tipped farther forward, came off, and crashed to the ground. Tarrel jumped, then took two steps toward the door as he glanced at the guard, expecting him to yell and give chase.

Tarrel stopped, horror filling his heart. The guard was dead. Shriveled like Blue Vest, with dry skin stretched tight across bones. One hand held a mug next to the empty clay pitcher on the table, and the other hand held the key.

Two men were dead, both by the same magic. Tarrel only knew of one thing in common between them: The key in the guard’s hand.

He’d been there to discover both bodies, so things might not go so well if another guard showed up while he was gawking at the shriveled corpse.

Tarrel grabbed the key, then set it back down. Why hadn’t it killed him before? It didn’t kill immediately, so maybe he hadn’t held it long enough. He glanced at the empty pitcher and mug. Water. He’d become horribly thirsty while carrying it.

He got out a small leather bag, the kind he stored coins in when he had any. He dropped the key into the bag and tied it closed, and looped the ties through his rope belt.

If he got thirsty again, he’d throw it away and run, forget about the gold sovereign, and pretend the whole day had never happened.

Tarrel crept back outside and marched toward Bank Alley. He passed a small public pool fed by a well near the guard station.

Tarrel didn’t feel as thirsty as he had before, but it wouldn’t hurt to stock up and drink whatever he could. There was no harm in taking extra precautions.

A crowd had formed around the pool, and the people were shouting. Tarrel tugged on a man’s sleeve just outside of the crowd. “What’s happening?”

“The water’s gone and the pond is dry. Something’s wrong with the well.” The man turned back toward the crowd. “Someone go get a priest. I saw one a bit ago here in the market. Maybe they can fix it.”

Was this all tied together somehow? It had to be, but how? Tarrel’s mouth began to feel dry, he hoped from fear.

He walked farther and noted that many of the vendors had hidden away their drinking water, hoarding it now that they couldn’t refill their containers. Stale-smelling dust blew in little swirls through the market.

The crowd bunched into huddled conversations away from the wells and the pool, worry clear on every face. The haggling died down, and people left the market in a continuous stream, filling the streets beyond.

The priests were not leaving and were more visible now than before. Tarrel stopped to watch a trio of priests as they faced each other in quiet conversation. One held a string with a small piece of metal hanging from the end, while the other two chanted, then clapped.

The little bar spun, then stopped dead still. They’d made a finder to track something. One of the priests sighted down the little bar and looked straight at Tarrel.

“It’s that way.” He pointed at Tarrel, then took two steps forward.

Tarrel ran.

One of the priests yelled, “That boy’s got it. Go!”

The first time Tarrel dodged through the market, it was fun. The second time, it was work. Now, he ran as if demons were on his tail. Yellow Jacket wanted to kill him. He was sure the guards would blame him for two deaths. He would be hung, not just sent to the desert to die.

The priests? Who knew what they wanted, other than to chase him down and get the key, just like everyone else. At least they might not want to kill him as a first option.

His one hour would be up soon, and the priests on his tail could track him with magic. He wasn’t going to make it to the banker without leading everyone to the same spot, a sure recipe for disaster. All he knew was that if the adults all fought over what he had, then he would be the one who lost.

Tarrel glanced back and saw that pairs and trios of priests were headed in his direction, trading hand signals across the square. He would need to leave the open area to lose them. He may even need to get clear of the whole bazaar to get out of the range of their tracker. If he had a little time to think, he might be able to figure a way out of his troubles.

He climbed a stair and headed across the rooftops where there were no crowds. It was easy to jump over the first few alleys because they were narrow. Some gaps even had small bridges or boards laid out. Tarrel got a running start to jump a larger gap and rolled as he landed on the far side.

A bell tower promised a convenient lookout, so Tarrel climbed a ladder leading from the roof to the upper tower and looked back. Most of the priests had remained at ground level, and the few on the roofs were hard pressed to keep up and called down into the alleys to their friends. Jumping from roof to roof in a priest’s ankle-length gray robe was challenging at best.

Tarrel gave the rooftops and the square a quick scan. Drawing everyone to the bank was still not an option. If he hid the key, the priests would find it and take it. If he kept it, he risked turning into a leathery husk. If he gave it away, who was the real owner? Blue Vest? Probably not, since he didn’t know how to handle it and had died.

He tried to spit in frustration and came up with a cottony mouth. Maybe he needed more wrapping around the key, or to keep it farther from his body to avoid a shriveling death. He had no idea how any of the magic worked, so he guessed, with his life in the balance.

Was Yellow Jacket the real owner of the key, along with his house on the hill? Tarrel doubted it. Even if he was, Tarrel didn’t like the man. He was dangerous and had made casual death threats. If the key had been his, Tarrel didn’t want him to have it back.

It hadn’t belonged to the guards, so that left either the priests or someone who wasn’t chasing him yet. The plan had seemed so simple earlier.

“You know, it would have been easier to take the key back to the bank for me.” Yellow Jacket came out from behind the corner of the tower and drew the dagger he had poked Tarrel with earlier.

Tarrel started at the sound and fumbled on a ladder rung. He reached out to the bell’s long pull rope to steady himself. “I was going to go right back, but I ran into trouble.” How had the man found him?

“Don’t bother with excuses. Reasons don’t matter. I’m just here to get the key.” He held out a string with a tiny rolled up paper dangling from it. The paper spun to point at Tarrel. He’d used the paper-sworn contract to make a tracker like the one the priests used. The papers were all part of the same magical contract and had an affinity that made the link possible.

Yellow Jacket might not be able to keep up in a race through Tarrel’s home turf, so he prepared to jump down to the rooftop and sprint once more.

Two other men in yellow jackets came out from each side of the tower, blocking his best escape route.

Tarrel had to stall, had to somehow make the man talk instead of act.

“I found out what the key does. I dropped it somewhere safe, so I wouldn’t shrivel up and die.”

Yellow jacket sighed. “The city is cursed with people who think they’re clever. If you’ve cost me everything, I’ll see to it that you rot in a dungeon for decades. Now get down here and take me to the key.”

In the distance, Tarrel saw the rooftop priests as they made their way nearer at a quick pace, with only an occasional glance his way. Tarrel grinned. Yellow Jacket and his thugs weren’t looking back and didn’t know the priests were closing in. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have everyone in one place if it gave him a chance to flee in the confusion.

Tarrel kicked the ladder away from the wall and climbed the rope hand over hand toward the belfry. The bell let out a deep note which echoed back from the far side of the open plaza in the distance. The note repeated with every pull as he climbed until he stood on the edge of the belfry looking down.

Below, Yellow Jacket’s men grabbed the ladder and hefted it. Soon it would be back in place. Where were those priests?

Tarrel flipped the rope around the outside of the pillars at the top of the tower, winding the rope around the outside as the men below worked to replace the tall ladder.

Tarrel glanced below as one of the men in yellow let out a yelp. Finally, the priests had arrived, jumping the gap from another building, and climbing an exterior trellis on the side of the building with the bell tower. The priests brandished clubs.

An angry Goodman emerged from a door built into the base of the tower. He held a staff and seemed eager to teach a lesson to whoever had rung his bell. He stopped, dumbfounded at seeing almost a dozen men on his roof, and Tarrel up in his bell tower.

Good. The more chaos, the better for his escape.

One of the priests turned to Yellow Jacket, pointed his club and spoke. “I thought you knew better after what happened last time. We even warned you and let you choose to leave in peace.”

Yellow Jacket said, “You’ve got me wrong. I’m just here after the boy who stole something of mine. Why would I cross you after last time?”

Tarrel yelled down, “He’s lying. He was going to pay me a gold sovereign for the key. It already killed a blue vested man and a market guard.”

The priest bowed his head for a moment. “The deaths will continue, and get worse if we don’t get it back immediately. This foolishness is upon your head, Rogan. Hiring someone else for the theft doesn’t reduce your guilt. I’ll give you one last chance to step away.”

Yellow Jacket, now named Rogan by the priest, charged into the fray with his knife out.

Tarrel only saw one chance to get past them. He held tight to the end of the rope wound around the tower and jumped, swinging in a great expanding arc over the rooftop, then over the alleys as the rope unwound from the tower. The bell rang again as the rope pulled tight as it unwound.

At the rope’s full extension, Tarrel found himself flying over the alley at rooftop height, the wind blowing through his dusty hair. He heard clangs and grunts from the roof but didn’t dare take his eyes off his path.

He let go and dropped into the alley to avoid crashing into a wall. The ground rushed up, and he landed in a roll. His sandals flew off, and he skidded to a halt face-down on the dirty cobbles. The fall knocked the wind out of him, and he hurt all over.

Rough hands pinned him to the ground. He struggled, but couldn’t flee. A woman’s voice whispered in his ear, “The men in yellow will kill you on sight. I won’t. Come with me.”

Tarrel couldn’t breathe well enough to speak, so he nodded. The woman helped him to his feet. She was another city guard.

The guard looked Tarrel up and down. “You’re a bit on the young side to stir up so much trouble. The priests have unleashed something on the people, and we need to figure it out and stop it.”

Tarrel gasped in a small breath and said, “But that’s … not how it happened.”

“No talking. We have to leave now.” The guard led him through the alleys away from the fight. She pulled off her outer cloak and draped it over Tarrel’s shoulders. “This might make it harder for the others to identify you.”

Tarrel was able to get a little more air finally. His lips stuck together as he tried to speak. “That won’t make a difference. They’re tracking me. I need water.”

“The wells are all dry. It’s like the water just soaked into the stone. Nobody knows why.”

Tarrel glanced behind as they picked up their pace away from the bazaar. “The priests know why.”

The guard said, “It figures. Always working to control the people, bypassing the king’s authority.”

“No, it’s not like that. Someone stole something from them. Something important.”

It was no use. The guard wasn’t listening. There didn’t seem to be a way to change her mind from believing the priests were out to cause trouble. From what Tarrel had seen, the priests were the ones trying to restore order, and everyone else was messing it up.

The guard spit on the ground. Tarrel considered handing the key over to see what happened to her. No, he wouldn’t condemn the woman to die in such a horrible way. She was just doing her job, even if she was doing it wrong.

They came out into the city’s central plaza. At one end was a building that housed the central city guard, apparently where the guard headed with Tarrel. In the center stood a reflecting pool, dry now. The palace overlooked the pool from the side.

At the other end of the plaza was the temple, its ancient facade of carvings and columns a statement to the dedication of those who followed the Old Religion.

Across the top were the four elemental symbols. One of them matched the symbol on the key. Water.

Behind them, people poured out of the roads and alleys into the small plaza. Priests, priestesses, guards, Yellow Jacket and his men, and even a handful of men in blue vests.

“I told you. They followed me.”

The guard turned to look, and Tarrel ran for the temple. The guard grabbed him by the shoulder but ended up with nothing but her cloak as Tarrel shrugged it off.

Behind him, the priest in the lead yelled, “Open the door!”

Guards yelled, “Close the gates!”

Yellow Jacket and the other men just yelled as they closed in on Tarrel.

The temple doors opened, and a priest in a gray robe looked out at the horde running toward him, his eyes wide. He turned to yell back into the building as Tarrel approached in the lead.

It was hard to keep track of who was yelling what.

Tarrel skidded through the door and glanced back.

The priest outside changed his yell to “Shut the door!”

Others tried to shout him down as they all ran forward.

Tarrel said, “I have the key.”

The priest at the door gawked for a moment and said, “Keep running down the main hall. Tell the High Priestess.” He heaved on the door in an attempt to cut off those chasing Tarrel.

Tarrel was slowing, and his breath came in loud wheezes. He shouldn’t be this tired yet. He hadn’t run that far. It had to be the key.

Toward the back of the temple’s main hall stood the High Priestess of Earth, her white robe a bright contrast to the stone walls mottled by beams of light filtering through a row of tiny windows. Her white hair was tied back with a silvery cord. Her robe showed an embroidered earth symbol on the front, a circle divided into four quarters.

From what he knew of the fight and argument he’d seen, the priests were the only ones who knew what was happening, and how to fix it. “I have the key. Here, take it.”

Tarrel fumbled with the pouch containing the key and held the pouch out to her.

Behind him, the entry door crashed open, and men poured into the temple hall.

She chuckled. “So you’re the one. You must do this next step yourself. I’m nothing compared to when I was young, but I will keep the rabble from chasing you and give you the time you need. Hold the key in your hand and enter the sanctuary through the arch behind the altar. You’ll see what to do.”

She stepped past him and stood in the middle of the hall, her arms spread wide as men continued to tumble in through the door. She was either the most powerful person in the room or the most foolish.

The key felt rough in his hand, and his fingers had trouble closing on it. At least the key had not turned him all the way into a dry husk yet. Maybe keeping it in a bag had saved him from that fate, but it was still sucking him dry.

He skirted the stone altar with its sermon books, cups, and candles, and he stumbled for the arch.

Behind him, he heard the High Priestess say to the men, “You are welcome, but only if you are peaceful.”

Men’s voices raised in alarm as all their weapons clattered to the ground.

As Tarrel stumbled through the arch into the sanctuary, he heard the High Priestess say, “Be seated.” He felt the earth tug at him even in the sanctuary, well out of her sight. He forced his way forward despite the pressure as he heard men grunt and crumple to the floor behind him.

The far side of the sanctuary had four doors, each with an elemental symbol above the lintel. The water door was ajar, so he pushed it open and stepped through into an unlit foyer. A short granite pedestal jutted from the center of the floor. A fresh breeze with the scent of pine washed over him.

Dim light filtered through the door behind him; it was enough to see a keyhole in the middle of the pedestal’s flat top.

He fumbled with the key, but his fingers didn’t want to work. He used his off-hand to pry his fingers away from the key, then pulled it loose. He slid it into the keyhole with a clink.

The key turned of its own accord, and the pillar began to glow as it thrummed a deep note, more felt through his bones than heard. Water flowed nearby. He felt it flow through him and because of him. He was the water.

The floor rushed up to meet him as he collapsed into unconsciousness.

#

Tarrel’s eyes were sticky. He rubbed and opened them, only to see the High Priestess of earth along with two others in white robes and several priests in gray. He lay on a mattress softer than any straw tick he’d ever managed to find or build.

The High Priestess said, “Welcome back. Your healing has taken several days.”

The room had an open balcony across one wall. On the other side of the room stood the short keyed pedestal and the door back into the sanctuary.

Outside the balcony, he heard a waterfall and saw birds circling and flitting from tree to tree in a verdant expanse.

He croaked, “How?”

He tried again. “How is this possible inside the city? Is that the same pillar with the key?”

She nodded. “Yes, this is where you returned the key. The portal connects this faraway place and its water to the city. The previous caretaker passed on, and the key was stolen. The key, unfortunately, still pulls whatever water it can from any nearby source.”

Tarrel said, “Including from people.” He held up his hand and noted the new pink skin where the magic of the key had damaged it.

“Exactly. I convinced the men who followed you to leave. I hated to draw so much from the earth’s power, but it was important for you to put the key back immediately. They were not happy about it, but they left regardless.”

Tarrel felt water flow through channels built into the floor. They aligned with the portal, and water moved freely into the city on the far side of the portal.

He looked down and saw he wore a white robe, but with the water symbol embroidered on it. The other two white-robed visitors were the High Priest of Fire with an empty circle on his chest and the High Priestess of Air bearing a circle with a point at its center. Their complexions showed none of the wrinkles of the High Priestess of Earth, but their expressions bore an ageless grace and maturity.

He looked again at his own robe with its water symbol. They couldn’t expect that of him. He said, “No. I won’t do this for you. I can’t.” He sat up, experimenting to make sure he wouldn’t collapse again. He felt weak from several days of fasting.

The High Priestess of Earth spoke again, having taken on the role of speaker for the group as the eldest of those in white. “It’s not us who will make you stay or go. None of us could, for long. You are quite young, after all. So much pent up energy to spend and the power of water serving you.” She smiled.

Tarrel eased his legs over the edge of his bed and put his feet on the floor. The surface was damp, with beads of water scattered across the floor. The beads ran together and gathered at his feet.

As the water gathered, it sang to him. It filled his mind with images of rain, rivers, and movement. He felt the city through its aqueducts, all the way to every well and pool.

His eyes brimmed with tears at the beauty and wonder of it all. The water of his tears danced for him like the water running through the city as fountains dormant for decades revived and celebrated with him, and for him. He was the lifeblood of the city.

The High Priestess gave him a knowing smile. “Welcome to your new home.”

###

Bitter Bones

by Daniel Miranda

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

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

The purification ritual was not yet complete.

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

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

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

Seconds later, the malevolent energy vanished.

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

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

“Snot-nosed little urchins,” she muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oki grunted and turned around.

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

She hated samurai.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every samurai ripped their katanas from their sayas.

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

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

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

“Junzo!” roared Yunosuke.

The samurai stopped, eyes bulging.

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

Oki shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Your reputation precedes you, Oki-san.”

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

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

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

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

“Too far. Not interested.”

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

“Is that supposed to be an attractive offer?”

“I’ll pay your weight in gold.”

Oki stopped and turned around. “Whaddaya want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was too good to pass up.

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

“Anything.”

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

◊ ◊ ◊

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

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

This odious mass did not hide. It massacred.

Despite it all, something was definitely wrong here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These men hadn’t slept in a while.

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

Oki exited the carriage “Move it, ya—”

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

Oki pursed her lips. “Suit yourself.”

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

The samurai looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

Yunosuke bowed. “I promised I would return.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you trying to say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” asked Yunosuke.

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

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

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

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

Oki shrugged and turned to leave.

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

Moronobu bowed and shuffled back into his manor.

◊ ◊ ◊

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I cannot allow you to go by yourself.”

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

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

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

“Good luck, Oki-san.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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

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

Her talisman snapped off and darted into the darkness ahead.

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

She refused to die in this hellhole.

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

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

First step, of course, was unmasking them.

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

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

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

Oki’s breath caught in her throat.

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

Taking a step back, her heel caught a root.

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

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

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

“Bishamonten!” cried Oki.

The script along the hemp cloth amulet glowed red.

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

Immobilization. Step two complete.

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

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

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

They were summoning glyphs.

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

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

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

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

She would not let this atrocity go unanswered.

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

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

◊ ◊ ◊

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stay out of this!” snapped Oki.

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

Not yet, thought Oki grimly.

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

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

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

“I never leave without finishing a job.”

“Oki-san, what—” said Yunosuke.

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

“Why summon this demon?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what happened?”

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

“So you murdered him.”

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

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

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

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

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

Moronobu nodded shakily, tears streaming down his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—«»-«»-«»—

Ten minutes for Scarlet Omega

by Joachim Heijndermans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s your damage,” I snap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah? How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You see a lot of explosions?”

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

“You enjoy your work?”

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

“Really? How come?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have any kids?” he asks.

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

“And what is it you do?” Ellis asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“British?” I ask.

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

“Don’t,” I say. “It’s cute.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were there?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One. Two. Fuck it. No lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow, fuck!” I snap, wincing in pain.

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

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

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

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

“Were you burned?”

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

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

“Scarlet Omega?” he whispers.

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

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

“Blackfyre?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyebrow springs up. “You like me?”

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

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

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

He chuckles too. “What now?” he asks.

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

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

“You too, Ellis.”

The bell rings.

—«»-«»-«»—

The Spirit and The Body

by S. Bewley

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

This was completely unacceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

This body, however, was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved that body. I wanted it back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong. Wrong and very, very stupid.

So I killed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was one dead fucker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was considering batshit. I was really considering batshit.

Then I heard the body cry out in pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give it a try,” my body said.

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

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

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

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

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

So we went home.

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

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

“Talk.”

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

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

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

Well, that was a surprise.

“You saved my life,” he said.

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

“I’m not a good man,” he said.

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

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

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

He took his time thinking about that.

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

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

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

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

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

He got up from the chair and went to bed. We both slept. Me in my spirit dreams and he in his brain dreams. We would see what would come.
—«»-«»-«»—

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 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.

The Trial of Arthur A. Westcott

by Megan E. Cassidy

“Doctor Lynch, can you explain for the jury precisely how your machine works,” the prosecutor began. She had been waiting for this moment for the past seven months. After the investigation, the manhunt, the arrest, the pre-trial hearings, and the standard sets of objections and appeals, the stage was finally hers.

Due to the high profile nature of the crime and the sensitivity of the evidence being given, the judge ordered a closed courtroom, but the drones chronicling the events for the record and future public consumption zoomed in on the witness, as all twelve members of the jury and six alternates leaned forward in anticipation.

jury-box

It was not just a pivotal moment in the course of the trial. It was, quite literally, the pivotal moment of human history. Thousands of scientists would kill to get even the smallest tidbit of information on the heavily guarded research. Lynch and Pillay might have hidden away the information for years had it not been for the assassination. Instead, Lynch was about to reveal the secrets of the universe to eighteen average citizens with absolutely no scientific background whatsoever.

Lynch cleared his throat, recalling at the last second Prosecutor Janey’s careful instructions during their months of coaching. He dropped his fluttering hands and folded them in his lap, nails digging into his flesh as he tried to calm down. Lynch had always been more comfortable in a lab or library than around people. It was one of the reasons he had become a researcher instead of a professor. He wished that his partner Niemah Pillay had been called up first. But Janey worried about jury bias and wanted testimony from an American male instead of a South African female, whom the jury might see as an outsider in a trial involving the assassination of the President of the United States.

Lynch licked his lips and cleared his throat again, “The device was built after my colleagues and I discovered the flaw in the Einstein-Rosen Bridge hypothesis. By solving the Kepler problem and redirecting the gravitational…”

“In layman’s terms please, doctor,” Janey interrupted kindly, eliciting smiles and nods from the jury. She and Lynch had practiced this dialogue. Both Lynch and Pillay were reluctant to share their discoveries, fearing that other, less ethically responsible parties, would replicate or surpass their research to calamitous results. Janey had assured them that the jury, a group which included an accountant, housewife, preschool teacher, gardener, and grocery clerk, would be unable to understand the precise physics of time travel. Nevertheless, she had coached Lynch to begin elucidating on the subject, just to establish authority. Then, he could give carefully worded examples clear enough for amateurs to understand.

Janey handed her witness the small cardboard box to demonstrate. Lynch nodded and began again, “There are four known dimensions.” He held up box, running a finger across the sides and center of the box, “The first three are easily seen—height, width, and depth.”

“The fourth dimension is time. Historically, we have moved in three dimensional space. You can walk forward or backward, jump up, fall down, and spin around,” Lynch manipulated the box as he spoke, and Janey was pleased to see the eyes of the jury glued on the object, following Lynch’s every minute motion.

“But,” he continued, “thus far, we have only been able to move forward with time.” He slid the box along the rail of the witness stand, pausing momentarily as he said the words, “through the past, present, and future.”

“What do you mean?” Janey asked.

Lynch wanted to sigh. He thought this would be clear, but she had insisted on a further explanation, “Well, I was born July 6, 2013 at precisely 6:07am.” He set the box to his left. “As I wriggled back and forth in my crib,” he twisted the box around, “time continued marching forward to 6:08, 6:09, and so on.”

He inched the box forward by small increments, “I went along in that time, but I could not break the flow of time to jump ahead to noon. Nor could I jump from 6:06am to the minutes before I entered the world.”

“But now you can?” Janey asked.

“Yes,” he replied, and the jury gave a collective jump of excitement.

“Can you explain how,” Janey inquired, “again in layman’s terms?”

“Our machine is able to move backward and forward in time,” he began.

“But not in space?”

“No. It moves along the fourth dimension,” he dragged the box against the railing again, “but it is unable to move up, down, or from side to side. Instead, once it is placed on a particular spot, we are able to observe past, present, and future events only in that singular location. This is somewhat similar to the old HG Wells’ novel , The Time Machine. The device is rooted to one spot.”

“And how are you able to move into the past or future unseen?” Janey’s voice quavered almost imperceptibly. She knew this would be the most complicated part of the scientist’s testimony, and desperately hoped the jury would be able to understand. If not, the case might be lost.

Lynch explained, “Once the device is engaged, our machine, the Tempus V, moves within a fifth dimension, outside of our own.”

He opened the cardboard box and drew out the cube that had been nested within. “Think of this as a location,” he held up the box and placed it on the railing. “And think of this as the machine,” he held the cube a few inches away.

“It’s there. We can see and hear everything on the box. We can even see the box in the future or in the present. But we can’t touch it or interact with it. That’s one reason the machine doesn’t move from side to side or up and down. It’s on a different plane of existence.”

“A different plane,” Janey echoed his last words, “So, to use another literary reference, you become like the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?”

Lynch’s muscles eased and he realized he had been holding his breath, “Yes. We are able to observe, but can neither be seen nor heard.”

“Objection, Your Honor,” Defense Attorney Cain cut in, sneering sardonically with each word she spoke. “Are we really supposed to believe that this man and his,” she paused, “friend, fly around time like some sort of zany spirits?”

Judge Denison looked down, annoyed that the ground-breaking testimony had been cut short. It was standard and almost obligatory to object at such a point, but the seasoned lawyer had to know that she was hurting her case by doing so. “As I stated before, Ms. Cain, there have been numerous government officials who have observed Dr. Lynch’s work. Their testimonies have been recorded, but is highly classified. We will have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Pillay as well, and the defense team will, of course, have the ability to cross-examine both witnesses. Motion is denied.”

Cain nodded and sat back down. The fact was that she did know she was hurting her case, but realized that her client had been found guilty in the hearts of the jury weeks before. She also knew that without at least the appearance of a rigorous defense, Arthur Westcott would have grounds for appeal. After reading over the prosecution’s evidence during discovery, Cain wanted him executed just as much as every person sitting in that jury box.

Janey rolled her eyes at the rapt jury and smiled as if they were sharing an inside joke at the defense attorney’s expense. Turning back to her witness, she said, “You were just explaining that your machine, the Tempus V, exists on a separate plane. Once you reach that plane, are you able to move about and examine the location further since you’re unseen?”

“No,” Lynch resisted the urge to shout, bile rising slightly in his throat. He had known the question was coming, but he still felt unprepared to answer. “Our understanding of the fifth dimension, of this separate plane, is still limited,” he paused now and took a drink of water from the cup sitting by the stand and looked again at Pillay, who was staring into her lap, teary eyed.

“Look, you’re talking about moving about in a completely unknown space. Maybe you could come back into the vehicle. Maybe. But more than likely, you would be trapped within that moment, able to move through time, but not up, down, back, or forth.” His voice rose slightly as he pulled the little cube along the rail, shaking it gently to show the tension in his hand, as if it were trying to move off the railing of its own accord.

He continued, “Without the normal earthly rules of time, your body and mind wouldn’t age the same way. You’d be somewhere in this fifth dimension completely disembodied from our world, unable to communicate with anyone on this plane of existence ever again.” Lynch winced, and the entire jury shuddered right along with him.

“Objection, Your Honor,” Cain stood again. “Isn’t this entirely theoretical? Can we please return to the facts of the case?”

Lynch’s mind moved away from the trial proceedings. It wasn’t theoretical. Not in the least, no matter how he was presenting it here. But only he, Pillay, and a handful of others knew about their former colleague Rikichi Okada, and he wasn’t about to dredge up that painful incident in front of a roomful of strangers who could never understand.

Okada had assisted with the creation of each one of the five Tempus machines. Tempus I and II were complete failures. The first fell apart once the circuits were started, and the second closed up in on itself, thankfully crashing to the floor instead of creating some irrevocable time rift. Pillay had wanted to quit at that point, but Okada was more reckless and daring, and he had convinced a still-curious Lynch to continue on in their research.

Tempus III and IV had been sent out on a trial run with only a remote video feed. Only static was recorded, but they believed the experiment to be successful. The three scientists built the fifth prototype and had agreed to accept the risks of time travel when they boarded the Tempus V. Unsure whether their theories on fifth dimensional space were correct, they kept the machine in the lab, strapped themselves in and moved forward ten years into the future. When the machine stopped whirring, they saw three students cleaning beakers and straightening papers. One of the students passed directly through them, completely failing to acknowledge their presence.

Pillay was horrified when they returned, completely shaken by the experience. Lynch suggested that they had been reckless in jumping into the vehicle themselves and recommended turning the project over to the university at large. The headstrong Okada who had insisted they continue experimentation. “We are the first and only known people to travel through time,” he proclaimed. “Taking such a journey is like Neil Armstrong walking on a moon of another planet two solar systems away before anyone else figured out space travel was even possible!” After much debate and discussion, Okada won the battle.

The research team continued in their secret travels for three months after their first successful excursion. The Tempus V was a small carbon and glass structure wired to receive sound, and so they were able to observe everything, though recording had proved unsuccessful. The vehicle had room for four people, should they wish to bring someone else on board, but was relatively light and easy to transport in the large moving van they had purchased expressly for that purpose. Still, they cautiously limited trips to locations around the small college town, covertly moving the machine from place to place only at night and travelling backward and never forward, having universally agreed that knowing too much about the future could be detrimental.

They were preparing to publish a highly restrained and abbreviated account of their research when Okada suggested they take one last trip. They had taken the machine to a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of town. Then, the team rolled the machine back to the previous morning and cheerfully observed parents sending their children off to school, dogs being walked, and mail being delivered.

Without warning, Okada had shouted, “I am not a scientist!  I am an explorer!” Before the other two could stop him, he threw open the door and dove headlong out of the vehicle.

They quickly closed the door, and looked around wildly, hoping to see their friend moving like a ghost amongst the other citizens of the town. There was no sight of him. They waited for hours. They moved the Tempus V back and forth through time, thinking perhaps Okada might appear in either the future or the past. But he did not, and most likely could not return.

At last, they had to leave Okada behind, wherever he had gone. Upon their return to campus, they had contacted first the university president and then a number of top government officials to report and explain their colleague’s sudden disappearance. All parties concerned had agreed to classify their findings as top-secret and move their research to the Pentagon for security reasons. Under the guise of an alternate energy grant, the two scientists continued to secretly observe and record both mundane and pivotal moments in American history.

It was not until three years later, upon the death of President Ophelia Smithe that Lynch, Pillay, and their highly guarded research were violently thrust into the public eye. The two researchers had been dodging questions and living in near seclusion under a heavily protective guard ever since.

Janey interrupted Lynch’s thoughts with a sharp, “Would you like me to repeat the question, Doctor?”

Lynch cringed, shamed that his attention had wandered at such an important moment. Janey smiled warmly; she didn’t want to alienate her star witness. “Coming back to the matter of the defendant Arthur Alan Westcott, how did you arrive at the conclusion that he had murdered President Smithe?”

The scientist relaxed again. From this point forward, his statements would be limited to those of witness describing a crime. There would hopefully be little room for the jury to doubt this evidence. “To begin with,” Lynch eased back into his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his chest, “the praise must go to the Chicago police department and the FBI for all of their hard work.”

He paused as both Janey and the jury smiled. She had thought this bit necessary, both to elucidate the procedure and to establish Lynch as not just a knowledgeable witness, but a kind, relatable one as well. Back at the defendant’s table, Cain snorted derisively but did not object, and so he continued. “The forensics team first determined the trajectory of the bullets that pierced through President Smithe’s skull and person.”

“How were they able to reach those conclusions?”

“Objection,” Cain stood. “Is Mr. Lynch an expert in time travel, or an expert in forensics?”

“I’m an expert in physics,” Lynched blinked, affronted and speaking out of turn. “I assure you I can speak to both.”

Janey smiled at the unexpected interruption. Lynch was proving to be the best witness she’d ever had. “Your Honor,” she said, “the trajectory of the bullets led directly to Dr. Lynch’s eventual placement at the scene of the crime. And, as he stated, he is in fact an expert in physics and if he can explain the bending of time and space, he can surely describe the simple path taken by a bullet moving along a mere three dimensional plane.”

The jury stifled laughter and the judge’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly in amusement, “I’ll allow it.”

bulletJaney motioned to the scientist to continue and he said, “There are a number of factors taken into account when concluding the origin of a bullet. First, one group inspected the bullets to determine the caliber. They also examined the angles at which the bullets had passed through the President’s podium and through the stage wall set up behind her. Meanwhile, doctors at the morgue examined the wounds in the President’s body to determine the angle at which they had entered her body. Finally, a third group studied footage from television cameras and phones taken during the event.”

“And yet, no one was able to see the origin of the shots?” Janey prompted.

“Correct. No cameras had been trained on that exact spot, but using this footage, the team was able to set up a dummy the exact height of the President in her exact location on the stage. From there, rods were placed from the dummy to the stage wall at the exact angle of entry. Finally, lasers were placed to show through the entrance of the bullets in the stage wall through the President’s body, and up into the buildings surrounding the square. At that point, it was determined that the shots had been fired from the roof of the Granchelli Building.”

“And that’s where you came into the picture?”

“Not quite. The area was inspected first by the brave men and women of both the FBI and the Chicago PD. According to their reports, which were testified to earlier, there was no physical evidence. The area had been completely cleaned. There were no footprints or fingerprints, no gunshot residue, no evidence that anyone had been up there.”

“So then you were called in to help?”

“Yes,” Lynch nodded. “Niemah, that is, Dr. Pillay and I were contacted by authorities and were asked to use the Tempus V to observe events and determine what had occurred.”

“And you agreed?”

“The President of the United States had been shot three days prior. The entire country was turned completely upside-down. Everyone was, and still are, shocked with grief. Of course we agreed,” Lynch finished his impassioned answer, and Janey repressed the urge to smile again.

“Tell us what happened next,” she said. Now that trust had been established and Lynch had the jury hooked, she gave her witness free rein to describe events as he saw fit.

“After all possible evidence had been collected and recorded, a helicopter brought Dr. Pillay, the Tempus V, and me onto the roof. After setting up the device, Dr. Pillay and I entered the vehicle. We then travelled backward to five minutes before the President’s death. From our location, we observed a blond middle-aged man dressed in a green polo shirt and blue jeans kneeling at the edge of the roof. He was holding a heavy barrelled sniper rifle with a high power scope.”

“Objection, Your Honor. Is the witness also a firearms expert?”

“Sustained,” the judge conceded.

Lynch tried again, “He was holding a large gun, which was later identified by a firearms expert who accompanied us on one of the later excursions.”

“So, the man was holding a gun at the edge of the roof where the bullet was determined to have originated from. What occurred next?”

“He fired five shots directly at President Smithe. The first two were fired off within seconds of each other.  Both entered the President’s chest. She stumbled backward and a secret service agent dove in front of her, but the agent was unable to prevent the third bullet from entering her skull and piercing through her brain. The assailant moved his gun to a lower trajectory and the fourth bullet crashed through the podium, missing the President, but hitting a second Secret Service member, Agent Cody Michaels in the shoulder. The final bullet went wild and killed Melissa Evans, a five-year-old child standing in front of the stage,” he paused as members of the jury gasped, clutched hands to mouths, and shook their heads. The death of the young girl had engendered almost as much sadness and outrage as the death of the President.

“After Melissa collapsed to the ground in a pool of blood,” Lynch remembered to elaborate on this portion of the story, “the assailant took precisely thirty-nine seconds to disassemble the sniper…the weapon. He had been kneeling on a blanket placed on top of the rooftop gravel. After placing the weapon into a green and white gym bag, he pulled up the blanket and shoved that into the bag as well. He then proceeded out of the rooftop door and calmly exited the rooftop.”

“Can you identify the man you saw that day?” Janey asked.

“Absolutely,” Lynch said, pointing to the defendant. “He’s sitting right over there.”

“And did you identify him immediately?” Janey asked.

“No. After a number of observations, Dr. Pillay and myself along with several other attending witnesses worked with sketch artists provided by the FBI. Once a sketch was created, there was a manhunt for the suspect, which lasted eight days. After Mr. Westcott was apprehended, Dr. Pillay and I were brought in to identify the suspect. Separated from one another and brought in before independent police lineups, both she and I identified Arthur Westcott as the perpetrator.”

“Was there ever any doubt in your mind that Mr. Westcott might not be the person you saw that day?”

Lynch sat forward, “Ms. Janey, seeing him kill the President and that little girl once would have been enough, but my colleague and I observed the murder precisely forty seven times.” He paused as the jury gasped again.

Lynch turned away from Janey and looked directly into the eyes of every juror and every alternate one by one. His voice became slow and deliberate, “Forty seven times. From every angle imaginable. I have absolutely no  doubt whatsoever that the man we saw that day over and over and over again is the man who sits before us now.”

“Thank you, Dr. Lynch, for your clear and courageous testimony. Your work will have far-reaching implications not just on the outcome of this trial, but on the fields of science and history. No further questions at this time, Your Honor,” Janey said, taking her seat.

“Would you like to cross-examine the witness at this time, Ms. Cain?” the judge asked, hoping the lawyer would say no so that they could pause for a recess and he, like everyone else in the courtroom, could take time to fully digest the implications of Lynch’s testimony.

Unfortunately, the attorney replied with a terse, “Yes, Your Honor,” and approached the witness stand.

“Mr. Lynch,” she began.

“Doctor,” he cut her off.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’ve been calling me Mr. Lynch all afternoon. I have dual doctoral degrees in physics and astronomy. I would prefer being addressed by my proper title.”

“Doctor then,” she conceded, to the delight of the jury and the chagrin of her client. “Dr. Lynch, I am not going to question any of the observations you or your colleague made that day.”

“You’re not?” Lynch tried not to show the shock which was written all over his face.

“No,” she smiled, “instead, I’d like to focus on your theories of time travel.”

He resisted correcting her again, even though theories were unproven concepts and his beliefs on the rules of the space-time continuum had already been proven many times over. She continued, “First, could you explain why you are unable to move about in three dimensional space and why you are unable to be seen by anyone?”

“Asked and answered, Your Honor,” Janey objected.

“I think we could all use a bit more clarification,” Cain smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” the judge decided.

“Well, as I stated before, working fifth dimensionally, we are outside this plane of existence,” Lynch said. “So, first is the fact that within the realms of the fifth dimension, space and time do not…” he paused, searching for the right word, “bend to allow for horizontal or lateral movement. Beyond that, there are two theories of time travel, one of which presents significant complications if one were to be seen.”

“Can you explain?”

“The first school of thought states that the fourth dimension, that is to say time, is unyielding. In this case, any visit to the past and any interference therein would have almost no effect on present or future events. You could attempt to travel back to prevent your own birth from occurring, but would be unsuccessful.”

“Ah. I see, and the second theory?”

“The second school of thought states that time is highly viable. So that any small alteration, even the tiniest of changes, would have enormous repercussions on the future, possibly even causing an unalterable paradox which could theoretically tear the fourth dimension apart.”

“A paradox?”

“Yes. To draw from the earlier example. If you went back to prevent your own birth and were successful, you would not be born, nor would any of your children or grandchildren. Yet, you were the one to prevent the birth. So, you would be there to do it, but you would not be born to complete the task. This process of being born and unborn might loop, or might destroy a part of the universe in unimaginable ways.”

“And yet, you took the risk that this would occur, at least with your first journey?”

Lynch looked over to Pillay, wondering how much to say, “We knew that working within the fifth dimension, this would not be a possibility. However, as a precaution, we journeyed first into the future as any visit ahead of our time would not cause any sort of alteration such as I have described.”

“Except that you could then know the future,” Cain quipped.

“Objection, badgering,” Janey broke in.

“I’ll answer,” Lynch said, wanting to explain. The judge nodded and the researcher said, “Before our work was brought under the auspices of the federal government, we took only two trips into the future. Both journeys were within the confines of our laboratory, and both lasted less than three minutes.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Cain said. Waving a hand at an already rising Janey, she resumed, “Withdrawn, Your Honor. Now, Dr. Lynch, outside of these two excursions, you have traveled into the past on a number of occasions?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified,” Lynch said. Finally there was a question for which he had been prepared, and he hoped his answer would be the same for every other inquiry the prosecutor threw his way.

“I’m sorry, but this is a federal trial in the case of the assassination of a president. Surely, you should be as forthcoming as possible,” she pretended to be shocked, turning with mock horror to the jury.

“I have been advised to limit my answers to the events of that day,” Lynch said.

“You have been advised,” Cain murmured. “By Counselor Janey, I presume.”

“No,” Lynch said, actually shocking her this time. “By Vice President, sorry, by President Lopez.”

The jury broke out into loud murmurs and exclamations that did not cease until the judge banged his gavel, “That will be enough. Continue, Ms. Cain.”

“I see,” the prosecutor arched an eyebrow, playing the part, but again secretly pleased to see the case was not going her way. She had only one set of questions left and hoped Lynch would be able to refute them. There were weeks left to this trial, but everyone knew the verdict would be truly decided today.

“Are you familiar with multi-verse theory?” she inquired.

“Of course,” Lynch said. His hands began to flutter again with nervousness, and again he folded them in his lap.

“Could you explain it for the jury?”

“In layman’s terms?”

“Of course,” she inclined her head

He turned to the jury, “The theory of the multi-verse proposes that there are parallel universes all existing in different planes of existence. According to these theories, some of these universes are nearly identical to our own. Others may follow entirely different laws of physics.”

“So there could be an earth without gravity?” the prosecutor asked.

“Theoretically.”

“Or there could be an earth with a carbon copy of myself asking you these very same questions?” she probed.

“Possibly, again, theoretically. Unlike our theories on time and time travel, the theory of parallel universes has yet to be proven,” he looked directly into her eyes.

“And yet, don’t many researchers believe that there are at least ten or eleven of these parallel universes?” she asked, staring right back.

“They did,” he said.

“Did?”

“Or, at least, they still might, until Dr. Pillay and I present our findings.”

“I see. Let’s imagine for a moment though that you’re wrong about this theory. Isn’t it possible that the man you and your friend saw on the roof that day was not my client?  Isn’t it possible that it was another Arthur A. Westcott living a parallel life in one of ten or eleven or even a hundred other dimensions?”

“No,” Lynch stated.

“And why not?” Cain leaned in toward him.

“Because if other universes existed within the fifth or sixth or tenth dimensions, we would be able to move around within them. Almost like astronauts coming into the moon, we would be able to come into those worlds, be seen, walk around, and interact among the people there. This, we are unable to do.”

“I see,” Cain pretended to look disappointed. “And could you tell us whether you’ve ever tried to do such a thing, to test out this particular hypothesis?”

coffin“We have, but the details are classified,” Lynch took another drink of water, thinking again of the reckless Rikichi Okada and the memorial service they’d held for him back in his hometown of Takayama, Japan. He, Pillay, and Vice President Lopez had flown in on Air Force Two for the solemn occasion. The Vice President gave an impassioned speech about the dedication and sacrifice of the researcher while standing in front of a coffin that could never be filled. Besides the assassination, the empty coffin was the one image which would never leave him.

“I see,” Cain said again, looking defeated. “One final question. Why forty seven times?”

“I’m sorry?” Lynch’s brow furrowed.

“You stated previously that you and Dr. Pillay returned to the scene of the crime forty seven times. Why forty seven? Or is that classified as well?”

“No. It’s not classified,” Lynch said, reaching up a hand to massage the space on his forehead between his eyes, where a migraine was beginning to form. “The original plan was to observe the event one hundred times.”

Cain pounced, “And yet, you stopped short at forty seven.”

Lynch looked up, “It came down to PTSD. We were all developing it. Witnessing a murder once is horrifying enough. To see it over and over again and from every angle as I said before… Well, the scene was shocking, as anyone who saw it in person or in the media knows. We observed it as often as we could. By the time we arrived at that number, more journeys and observations didn’t seem necessary, and no one at the FBI, CIA, or Pentagon felt that we should put ourselves through any further distress than was necessary.”

“Distress?”

“The trauma of seeing a beloved leader and an innocent little girl getting shot over and over again without being able to do anything about it,” Lynch rasped, holding back tears. “Once would have been enough. Ten times, more than enough. Forty seven was excessive. We were seeing it in our sleep, in our daydreams, every time we closed our eyes to blink. We didn’t need to see it again.”

“I see,” Cain repeated. She retreated, head bent down toward her shoes as she returned to her table. Her posture was one of defeat and the jury could guess her words before she even uttered them, “No further questions, Your Honor.”

Judge Denison looked to Janey, “Redirect?”

“We don’t feel there’s a need, Your Honor,” Janey said, standing tall and triumphant.

The judge nodded, “We’ll break for today, then and reconvene tomorrow.” He banged his gavel and at the sound, Lynch gave a sigh, wanting to cry tears of relief that he could begin putting this tragedy behind him.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, Niemah Pillay was called to the stand. Her description of their research and eye-witness statements were a formality, since her testimony was almost identical to her colleague’s. The trial was paused that Saturday and Sunday, but resumed the following Monday with testimony from Derek Tamworth, the lead investigator on the case. The courtroom was still closed to everyone except those involved in the case. Typically, witnesses were excused from the courtroom to preserve the authenticity of their testimony.  In this momentous trial, all the usual rules seemed to have exceptions.  Seated in the gallery seats, Lynch and Pillay observed the proceedings, ready and willing to return to the witness box, if necessary.

Under Janey’s direction, Tamworth again covered the territory begun by Lynch and Pillay, describing the forensics of the bullet trajectories in more detail, and using diagrams to explain how they had made their final determinations. After several hours of testimony the jury had already heard and understood, it was at last Cain’s turn to question the witness.

“Deputy Director Tamworth,” Cain began her cross, “isn’t it true that you had absolutely no physical evidence in this case prior to bringing in Drs. Lynch and Pillay?”

“Yes. That is correct.”

“And isn’t it true that even after the eye witness testimony, there was no further corroborating evidence pointing to my client as the perpetrator of this horribly tragic crime?”

“No. That is incorrect,” Tamworth said.

“Oh, so there were records of Mr. Westcott buying a rifle?”

“No.”

“Or, perhaps there were witnesses who saw him receiving firearms’ training, or accounts of any gun clubs he might have joined or firing ranges he might have visited.”

“No.”

“And, as you stated before, there were no fingerprints, fibers, DNA, or other pieces of evidence tying my client to the crime scene?”

“That is correct.”

“So, could you tell us just precisely what this other evidence consisted of?”

“There were psychological indications that Westcott was guilty,” he held up a thick calloused hand to ward off her objections before she could make them. “I know, I know. I am not a psychological expert. They’re not due in for another week or two, I’ve been told. So, I’ll just stick to the hard physical evidence within my realm of expertise. In terms of actual physical evidence, we had several suspects after the artists’ renderings were released to the media. However, within all the crackpot calls and tips on individuals with solid alibis leading nowhere, Westcott’s name kept reappearing.”

He cleared his throat and continued, “After questioning peers, family members, coworkers, and neighbors, it was clear that Westcott did not have an alibi during the afternoon of the incident. Based on those interviews, we were able to obtain a warrant, which we used to search Mr. Westcott’s home and office.”

“And in your searches did you find a weapon of the type described by Dr. Lynch and Dr. Pillay?”

“No,” Tamworth admitted, “but we did find clothing that matched their description.”

“That would be Prosecution’s Exhibit E?”

“Yes.”

She held up the clear plastic bag containing the shirt and pants in question. Lynch, who had not seen them since the repeated day of the assassination, sat forward in his seat in the second row of the gallery, squinting at the shirt beneath the plastic. “This pair of pants and shirt?” Cain asked the obligatory question.

“The very same,” the man nodded.

“And were you able to read the labels on the clothing in question?”

“I was.”

“And where did those labels identify the clothing as coming from?”

“The jeans were Levis and the shirt was from Lacoste,” Tamworth mispronounced the brand name.

“And are you aware that these are the most common cut of Levi jeans?  Or that this shirt is two years old, and that two years ago the Lacoste Company produced 25,000 shirts of the same size and color that year?”

“No. I was not aware of that,” Tamworth said, “I am not an expert on fashion. All I can say is that the clothing described by the two witnesses was found in your client’s closet, a man who matched their description exactly. At the point we found the items in his wardrobe, we made our arrest.”

“So, you arrested a forty-five-year-old school teacher with no evidence of firearm training and no history of violence on the basis of a commonly produced polo shirt and an even more commonly produced pair of jeans?” Cain sneered.

“Yes,” Tamworth admitted again, “and then after the arrest, the perpetrator was identified by both witnesses.”

“After you had spoken to them?” Cain attempted.

“Absolutely not. In a case as important as this one, we wanted to follow everything according to the book. After their work at the crime scene and their eye witness statements, they were kept in isolation both from the other investigators and from each other. Then, each was brought in separately to view the lineup and make identifications with yourself, your paralegal, and your independent investigator as witnesses for the defense. There were no violations here, Ms. Cain.”

“Thank you,” Cain said. “No further questions.”

“Redirect?” Judge Denison asked.

“Not at this time, Your Honor,” the prosecutor smiled, standing tall once again.

“Then we’ll take a break for lunch, and pick up with testimony in one hour,” the judge banged his gavel and the jury exited the courtroom.

As soon as they were out the door, Lynch and Pillay began whispering to each other fervently. She was violently shaking her head, but he pointed again to the bag and then to Janey, and at last, she shrugged, seeming to give in.

“We need to talk,” Lynch tapped the prosecutor’s shoulder.

“Here?” she inquired.

“Better to do it in your office,” he eyed one of the drones buzzing nearby.

She followed his gaze and nodded. Once they were seated in the quiet privacy of Janey’s office, Lynch said, “We never saw the other evidence before today.”

“Your point is?” Janey was tired and annoyed at this impromptu meeting so late in the game.

“That’s not the shirt.”

“What?” she tried not to shout, in case someone outside could overhear them.

“That’s not the shirt,” Lynch repeated as Pillay sat silently next to him, looking at the floor and shaking her head.

“How can you be sure?” Janey whispered.

“The logo on the breast of the shirt. I saw it through the bag. It’s an alligator.”

“Yes. That’s the standard logo for that company,” she replied.

“When we saw the murder, it was a penguin,” he said.

Janey froze, “Are you sure?”

“Forty seven times,” he reminded her. “Each time, it was a penguin.”

“But surely, he might have worn a different shirt, perhaps even bought an almost identical one after the crime,” Janey turned to gaze out her window, speaking more to herself than to either of her witnesses.

“Maybe,” Lynch said, “but it’s their only piece of physical evidence, surely…”

“Surely, he purchased a second shirt, Mr. Lynch,” Janey whipped back around, glaring at him sternly.

“That could be the case, but you don’t understand,” Lynch fumbled. “The multi-verses the prosecutor was talking about could…”

“I don’t want to hear it, Mr. Lynch, and neither will the jury. I see no reason to bring this to Ms. Cain. Discovery concluded long ago…”

“But this is new evidence,” Lynch tried again, wishing Niemah would jump in.

“This is a theory speculating that Mr. Westcott may have worn a different similar shirt the day of the crime,” she said and turned her attention to the silent Niemah. “Dr. Pillay, do you recall the shirt in question?”

Niemah shrugged, refusing to lift her gaze from the floor. Witnessing the assassination had been traumatizing, and now that her testimony had concluded, she didn’t want to talk about the incident ever again.

“Do you recall identifying the murderer from a lineup including nine other nearly identical men?” the prosecutor pushed.

“Yes,” the researcher squeaked.

“That settles it,” Janey brushed her hands together. “We shall assume that if Dr. Lynch is correct about the appearance of the attire, after the murder, Mr. Westcott stripped of his clothing, disposed of said clothing in whatever location he also hid the gun, and purchased a similar shirt to replace the one missing from his wardrobe.”

“But certainly, you could easily check with his wife to confirm the shirt had altered,” Lynch stammered, as Janey stood and ushered them toward the doorway, indicating they were done.

“And you could easily become the laughingstock of the scientific community,” she retorted, opening the door and practically throwing them out.

Lynch stood in the hallway staring as the lawyer quietly closed and then locked her office door. He looked to his colleague, stunned, “Niemah, you know I’m right. We have to go to the defense team with this.”

“Drop it, Gary,” Pillay replied. “We did our part, and we did our best. Let’s just leave it. We can even abandon the research. Go back to the university and start on something new.”

He shook his head, unable to fathom such a possibility. Abandon the research? The research was everything. “I’m going,” he squared his shoulders.

“Then you’ll have to go alone,” she turned and walked away.

Lynch was unsure how to approach the other attorney, and wondered whether witnesses were allowed to confer privately with the other side. He didn’t know what the rules were, but at this point, he didn’t care. He waited in the hallway outside of the conference room Cain and the rest of her team occupied, wondering when she might emerge. He didn’t have to wait too long as the defense attorney came out of the room alone ten minutes later. She was pushing open the door to the ladies’ room when he intervened. “We need to talk,” he said.

Shaken, Cain said, “I shouldn’t be…”

He cut her off, “Alone. Now!”

She pulled him into the bathroom, locking the door and carefully opening each stall to ensure no one could overhear their conversation.

“What?” Cain’s hands were shaking worse than his had been earlier.

“The multi-verse theory you mentioned earlier?”

She nodded and he continued, “There was one other flaw I didn’t mention.”

“What?” she asked again, her heartbeat quickening.

“Flaws, changes from one parallel universe to the next. You said it yourself, one carbon copy of you asking the same questions, another world in which gravity doesn’t exist.”

“Right,” she raised an eyebrow.

“Under that theory, in each universe, there would almost by necessity need to be at least some small infinitesimal changes in each dimension. For example, if true, there could be another me, exactly the same as myself, only with blond hair instead of brown.”

“I see, and did you observe any of these differences in any one of your forty seven trips to the crime scene?”

“No,” he admitted, feeling as if he were under cross examination again.

“You said the multi-verse theory was impossible,” she stated.

“We had a colleague whom we lost when he tried to move within the other dimension. We thought he was gone, but if the theories are correct, it’s possible he’s moving between each universe, or that in moving laterally, he landed in a separate dimension, a different parallel world we couldn’t see.”

“Doubtful and difficult to either explain or understand,” Cain said.

“But Westcott’s shirt,” Lynch exclaimed, “I saw it before. It’s different now. When we saw it on the roof, it had a penguin logo on the breast. Today in court, I saw that the logo on the shirt in evidence features an alligator. If those theories of multiple universes are correct, it could mean that Dr. Pillay and I observed a completely different parallel world in our travels. In those worlds, anything could be possible. There could be a world in which Arthur A. Westcott might be named Arthur B. Westcott. A world in which the mild mannered school teacher and father of three has no children, or has the same family, but homicidal tendencies, or had a different upbringing, or…”

“Or, a world which is precisely our own in which Mr. Westcott simply discarded the shirt along with the sniper rifle,” Cain interrupted.

“That’s exactly what Janey said,” Lynch was shocked that both women had arrived at the same conclusion.

“So you told her,” Cain tilted her head. “What did she say?”

“She told me to keep quiet,” Lynch admitted.

“She was right,” Cain smiled at the man’s wide eyes and gaping mouth. She had shocked him for once.

“She, she, she…” he stammered again. “But, the evidence. You said it yourself. It’s the only piece and if it’s wrong, if I’m wrong…”

Cain held up a hand to stop him again, “What you’re telling me could be enough to cast reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. Your testimony is what won the prosecution’s case. If you back down or change your story now, it will throw everything off track.”

She leaned forward, causing Lynch to retreat, his back against the door of the bathroom stall. Cain continued whispering, “If you’re wrong, then that still means that some Arthur Westcott in some world somewhere out there murdered the best president this country’s ever seen and took a five-year-old girl down in the process. And someone is going to pay for that. And I don’t have Arthur B. or Arthur C. or Arthur fucking Z. in that courtroom. I’ve got Arthur A., and he’s the only perpetrator this universe is ever going to see. And I’m going to make damned sure he’s punished for the crime, no matter which version of him actually pulled the trigger.”

“But you’re his lawyer!” Lynch cried.

“Wise up, Mr. Lynch. Arthur Westcott is a psychopath and a murderer and not one person in this whole damned country is on his side, including me.” She unlocked the door. “And this conversation never took place.”

For the second time that afternoon, Gary Lynch found himself thrust out into the hallway, alone and desperately questioning every decision he had ever made.

Neither he nor anyone else needed a time machine to determine what was going to happen next. The prosecution whipped through witness after witness including three more forensics’ experts and a bevy of psychologists and psychiatrists, all testifying to the fact that Arthur A. Westcott was a dangerous psychopathic murderer who had shot down President Ophelia Smithe in cold blood, and had maliciously kept firing, injuring a valued Secret Service agent, and murdering an innocent little five-year-old in the process. Then came the pack of other eye-witnesses including Vice President, now President Thomas Lopez, the injured Secret Service agent, Cody Michaels, and Melissa’s parents, each of whom wept throughout their entire testimony.

But, as both lawyers had surmised, it had been Lynch’s testimony that had condemned the man. The rest was all nearly routine. By the time the trial was done, the jury reached a verdict in just under eight minutes, though they waited a respectable seven hours before revealing their decision to the court, wanting to seem as if they had truly deliberated. Westcott was convicted and, in a move that defied the traditions of the American legal system, he was executed for the crime less than six months later, the American people almost unified in their cry to see him punished.

The day of the execution, Lynch and Pillay silently dismantled the Tempus V and erased all of their research. For extra measure, they destroyed the computers beyond repair and then set about first shredding and then burning all traces of paperwork. Neither one spoke of time travel, the assassination, or their doubts ever again, but neither one ever had another night of uninterrupted sleep either.

Until the end of his days, Lynch’s dreams traveled back to the day of the assassination and he watched Westcott from every possible angle as the logo on the man’s chest flickered and changed from penguin to alligator and back over and over again.

«»-«»-«»

Megan E. Cassidy’s young adult novel Always, Jessie will be published by Saguaro Books this spring. Other short stories and essays have appeared in Pilcrow and Dagger, Wordhaus, and Gilded Serpent Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Brockport and us an Assistant Professor of Literature and Writing at Schenectady County Community College.

Damsel in Distress

By Lauren Triola

One day my prince will come, and on that day…I’ll throttle him within an inch of his life! I’m the damsel in distress, damn it! I’m the curvaceous blonde who’s in trouble and needs rescuing! I’m trapped in a tower by a madman, the clock is ticking, and there’s a tear in my dress. He should have showed up hours ago! Where the hell is he?

◊ ◊ ◊

meadmugs“See, the way I figure it, you got a hero complex. You don’t need to go saving her just because she wants you to. She’s the one who’s gotten herself kidnapped. It’s her own fault, you know, let her figure it out!”

Davey certainly did make a lot of sense, especially after two mugs of mead. Why should Randolf go save her? Just because he was the prince and she was the princess didn’t mean he was her keeper. She could take care of herself. Who made up these rules about saving the damsel in distress anyway? If she was distressed, she should really learn to control herself; calm down a bit, do some yoga. He can’t go off and save her butt every time she gets in a little scrape. What about his needs?

“Davey,” Randolf slurred, “you’re right. She got herself into it, she can get herself out. More mead, barmaid!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Within the wicked depths of the Forest of Darkness, inside his iniquitous Castle of Dread, the dark wizard Lord Evilman drummed his fingers on his armrest.

Where was Randolf? Evilman had told him where the princess was, had practically given him a map because god knows that moron would never have gotten here on his own. He had given Randolf until midnight to show or he’d kill her, slowly, painfully.

Evilman looked up at the clock.

Where was he?

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen stared out her chamber window, biting her thumbnail. The door opened behind her, and she turned to see her husband, King Straus, enter the room.

She rushed to him. “Any news?”

Straus sadly shook his head and Moreen gave a silent sob. She had been pacing her room off and on ever since hearing the news of her daughter’s kidnapping. She was weary with worry but quite glad about the two pounds she had lost.

“There’s still time,” Straus assured her.

Moreen nodded. “I know, I know. But…Randolf will save her, won’t he?”

Straus wrapped Moreen in his arms. “Of course he will. It’s his princely duty. She’ll be just fine.” As long as that drunk got off his ass and sobered up long enough to know what was going on, the King thought but, wisely, did not tell his wife.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I love you, man,” Randolf said thickly, trying very hard to figure out why there were five Davey’s floating in front of him.

“You gotta lay off the mead, man,” Davey said as he grappled with what turned out to be his own leg. “I think we’re trashed, Randy. Better go home.”

“I can’t go home,” Randolf shouted, having lost control of the volume of his voice. “They think I’m saving the prinis—prancess—prinkass—whatever, you know, what’s-her-name.”

“The bar’s ’bout ta close, though,” Davey said.

“Yeah, well, I know a place,” Randolf yelled in what he thought was a conspiratorial whisper.

◊ ◊ ◊

I’ll boil him in oil, chop off his head, and display his body parts throughout the kingdom. That’ll show Prince Stupid. I bet he’s getting wasted right now.

Other lovely thoughts such as those went through the princess’s head as she paced her cell in the tallest tower of Lord Evilman’s castle. Occasionally she would add a rather violent gesture. At this point, she wasn’t even concerned with whatever dark destiny Evilman had in store for her. His role in all this felt secondary, really, despite him being the one who’d kidnapped her. He had always been nothing more than a distant figure of legend she had ignored in school, and honestly, he went down easy when kicked.

It was Randolf’s fault in her mind. He had mouthed off, said Evilman was all talk—a nonsense speech he often gave at random, usually followed by several sustained minutes of belching. So no, she didn’t really blame Evilman, or even fear him.

As for Randolf…

Her pink and frilly gown flowed out behind her as she practiced coming down on Randolf with a blunt and rusty ax.

◊ ◊ ◊

darkcastleEvilman paced his study, thinking. What if Randolf didn’t show? All the planning, the kidnapping, the rather nasty kick to the shins by a pair of pink and frilly shoes would all be for naught.

Then again, wouldn’t that mean he had won? But if there was no showdown between villain and hero, then he’s winning by default. That doesn’t prove Evilman’s superior to Randolf; that just proves Randolf was incompetent, which was hardly any news.

If Randolf didn’t show up, then what was the point? Why show his superiority to Randolf anyway? A shoe covered in horse manure was superior to Randolf. Why does Evilman need to challenge him? Why, because Randolf’s the prince? Big freaking deal! Why did Evilman even do this in the first place? What was there to be gained by kidnapping the princess?

Evilman rubbed his temples, a headache forming as panicky bubbles of anxiety boiled beneath his breastbone. Chewing his lip, Evilman strode toward the back wall of his study and pulled open a set of black curtains. Behind them was not a window but an oval mirror. It did not reflect Evilman’s ageless face. Instead, it showed a different man’s head: bald, strong-jawed, slightly transparent, and suspended among black swirling mist.

“Hi, Jeremy, nice to see you again. What’s on your mind?” the mirror asked in a calm, kind voice.

Evilman hugged himself, filled with guilt, rubbing his hands over his arms. “I’m having doubts about the plan.”

The mirror gave a kind smile. “Are you doubting the plan, or are you doubting yourself?”

“I don’t know. I’m so confused. People expect this kind of thing from me, because of my name, you know. But all I want to do is work in my garden and do interior decorating. What should I do, Mirror?”

“You shouldn’t search for answers from outside voices but from your own, inner voice. What is your inner voice telling you, Jeremy?”

“That I should take a bubble bath.”

“Good. Then that is what you should do. And if you ever doubt yourself again, I want you to say to yourself ‘I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life’.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!” cried the prince as he entered the bar.

Randolf and Davey staggered over to a table and collapsed onto some chairs. About five, actually.

“See…this bar…stays open…later,” explained Randolf, trying very hard to recall the English language. “Mead more, barmaid!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Randolf is a moron, a drunk, a cad, and he will never save the princess unless she’s being held prisoner in a wine cellar!”

“Come now, King Jonas,” said King Straus. “You’re talking about your son.”

“That’s how he knows,” remarked Jonas’s wife, Queen Rubella, as she adjusted her lipstick in a hand mirror.

Queen Moreen paused her pacing of the chamber. “But, Rubella—”

Queen Rubella.”

Moreen rolled her eyes. Oh, yes, now she remembered why they never invited Randolf’s family over for dinner anymore. If he hadn’t been the only prince within reasonable traveling distance… “My apologies, Queen Rubella. But as I was saying, it is your son’s duty as prince to respond to any and all damsel in distress situations involving his betrothed. It is his role. Are you saying he will ignore all that? Will he not fulfill his rightful responsibility and save my daughter?”

Queen Rubella finished applying a fresh coat of lipstick and popped her lips, eyes on her reflection. “Not a chance in hell, dearie.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Does he really expect me to sit and wait for him? I’ve gotten into trouble, that’s my job, now where is he to do his? Don’t those bimbos from the fairy tales ever get annoyed with their princes swaggering in at the last minute? Can’t he ever come before she’s just about to die? Or how about preventing the whole thing altogether? Why can’t the damsel ever save herself? And then maybe get a job as an interior decorator…

Stuck in a tower? Seriously? She never thought she’d be one of those princesses. Yet here she was. The cliché to end all clichés. All that was missing was a Prince Charming.

Too bad she didn’t know one.

Randolf was a betrothal of convenience, though at the moment it didn’t feel particularly convenient. She was a princess and so it was her role to be married to a prince. It didn’t matter that she cared less about him than for the bugs she fed her pet tarantula (she had demanded an exotic pet for her eighth birthday, like a unicorn or tiger or something—her father had misunderstood). And she had far better things to do than eat apples, prick her finger, sell her voice, or go to balls in vermin-assisted coaches like what all the other princesses were doing. Not that there was anything wrong with those life choices, of course. Princesses could do whatever they wanted, whether it involved wielding swords or singing songs. She just wasn’t the sort to do either. All she wanted was to have a night in, maybe artfully arrange the rushes or invent the valance, all without having to find a true love or some such ridiculous thing. Where was the harm in that? She didn’t need, nor want, the adventure or near-death experiences.

Also, did she smell potpourri?

◊ ◊ ◊

Lord Evilman looked toward the clock then took a deep breath. “This is it. You told Randolf that if he didn’t come you would kill the princess. If you don’t carry out that threat then no one will ever believe you again. They’ll think you’ve gone soft. You can do this. I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life.”

“That’s the ticket,” the mirror said with an encouraging smile.

Evilman hesitated only a moment before heading toward the stairs to his tallest tower. Torches lined the dark winding staircase, the flames flickering as he passed. And flickering again when he briefly turned back. And then once more after he gave himself a pep talk and determinedly strode to the highest room, with only occasional pauses to hyperventilate.

He was outside the princess’s door now. He could hear her pacing the stone floor. Fumbling only slightly, he pulled out the key and unlocked the door.

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen stared, mouth slightly open, as Queen Rubella continued to reapply her lipstick. Despite the fact that red looked especially good on her and matched the highlights in her perfectly coiffed bouffant, Moreen very much wanted to jab it into Rubella’s eye socket.

“Excuse me, but did you just say there was ‘no chance in hell’ Prince Randolf—your son and leader of your army—will save my daughter from certain death?” Moreen asked.

Rubella rolled her eyes. “Oh, the army thing is just an honorary position. Jonas’s father did the same thing when he was a boy. I mean, come on, can you honestly see either one of them wielding a sword without chopping off their head or, god forbid, something important?”

“I’m right here,” Jonas said through clenched teeth.

Rubella adjusted her eyeliner. “Yes, so you are.”

“Let me get this straight,” Moreen said, resuming her pacing (if she kept at it, she might go down a whole size). “Your son, who promised to love and protect our daughter even in the face of the darkest evil, who swore in front of the Fairy Godmothers themselves that he would fight an actual fire-breathing dragon if need be to save her, is not going to rescue her from Lord Evilman, the most dreaded sorcerer this side of the Great Mountains? And he’s forgoing his duty because…?”

“Because he lied his ass off so he could get the free wine at the reception. And if your precious Fairy Godmothers hadn’t been three sheets to the wind themselves, they would have noticed.”

“But—but—but Rubella—”

Queen Rubella.”

Moreen clenched her fists, itching to cram Rubella’s hand mirror the same place as her lipstick. “Come now, can’t we drop the royal titles? We’re going to be in-laws pretty soon.”

King Jonas snorted, slouching in his chair. “Pretty soon your daughter’s going to be the key ingredient in one of Lord Evilman’s potions. We just told you, Randolf will never save Princess What’s-Her-Face.”

Moreen turned her glare to Jonas. “My daughter is not Princess What’s-Her-Face! Her name is—”

“It doesn’t matter. Randolf won’t save her unless her name’s Guinness.”

“So my daughter is going to die?” Moreen cried.

“Nonsense,” King Straus piped up. “Evil guys are always kidnapping damsels, but killing them is always an empty threat.”

“We don’t know that. The prince always saves the princess.”

“Oh, right.” Straus tapped a finger to his lip in thought. “Then yes, yes she is going to die.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!”

Ginny had had just about enough of the two drunks in the corner of the tavern. They’d come in sloshed and now they were thoroughly plastered. Despite her frustration, she shuffled off behind the bar to retrieve their requested refreshment then served them with a smile.

Five minutes later, she did the same.

And another five after that. And another.

“Maid more, barmead!”

This time, Ginny slammed the two flagons onto the table.

“Here’s your damn mead! When you finish it, get out! We’re closing!” Ginny turned to leave but a hand clutched her arm.

“Wha’ did you say?” slurred the more nicely dressed of the two boozehounds.

“I said this is your last round, get out!”

“Tha’s not wha’ you said before,” the second one said.

Ginny sighed. “It’s the gist. And I mean it, too. If you don’t leave in five minutes, I’ll get the bartender to toss you out.” Ginny wrenched her arm free of the rummy’s grasp. “And don’t touch me again, you pig!”

“Hey!” The nicer dressed one got shakily to his feet. “You can’ talk dat way to me! Do you know who I am?”

“No, so if you forgot, I can’t help you.”

“I’m the prince!”

Ginny paused. She looked him up and down. “Prince Randolf, eh? Who cares?”

Who cares? You should! I could make things very diff’cult for you—”

“You already are making things difficult for me! Those taxes you’ve proposed to institute after you marry the princess and become king are just ridiculous. I can barely get by with the current ones, and now you want to take more?”

“I’m the prince—”

“Yes, we’ve established that. But just because you’re the prince doesn’t mean I have to like you. I’m not gonna curtsey to the Ass Who Would Be King. Now, get out!”

“No!”

“Then I’ll get the bartender to kick you out!”

“I’d like to see him try!”

◊ ◊ ◊

As Randolf and Davey struggled, both nursing black eyes and strained wrists, to pull themselves off the ground, Davey slurred, “Maybe we should’ve left when she told us to.”

Randolf, too drunk for this, rolled over several times in the dirt before remembering how legs worked. “I thought I could take him, but he was bigger than expected.”

Davey dragged himself upright with the help of someone’s horse. Or at least he thought it was a horse. “So, where to now?”

Randolf shrugged then noticed a building across the street. “Hey, look, a bar! I could use a drink.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s almost midnight, and hark! What’s that galloping away over yonder? Could it be? Yes! It’s the last of my fucks!

The princess stared out the tower window. Evilman could throw his worst spells at her right now and she wouldn’t care, not with the wrath boiling beneath her skin. And she would boil Randolf if she could. At this point, she didn’t even care where he was. She wasn’t going to wait for him anymore. She was done playing this part. He wasn’t coming and she didn’t feel the least bit sad or disappointed.

She was in control of her own life for once, gods damn it.

Let Evilman come for her. She could face him. It couldn’t be worse than the awkward conversations she’d endured during dinners with Randolf’s parents. Now those were painful.

How bad could it be? What was the worst Evilman could do? And where did he get those curtains? That lace was just lovely…

A lock clicked behind her. The princess turned to see the door creak open.

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman strode determinedly into the darkened room atop his tallest tower, conjuring a circle of fire to line the walls as he moved and shifting the lighting to a vivid green (for mood). The princess, arms crossed, stood in the middle of the room and watched as he stalked toward her.

“It is time for your end, my dear,” Evilman said, throwing out his arms in a grandly sinister gesture and putting on the dramatic voice that he’d learned at theater camp. “Your prince is not coming to save you. You will tremble with fear at what death I have in store for you.”

The princess continued to stare at Evilman. “No.”

There was a pause as Evilman tried to process what just happened. “No?”

“No,” the princess repeated.

“No to what?”

“To everything. I’m not going to tremble with fear, I’m not going to wait for my prince to come, and I’m not going to die.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

Evilman, arms still held out in what was quickly becoming a not-so-grand gesture, blinked. “Uh…”

Maybe he needed more fire. Igniting the very ceiling with black-gold flames, he put on the maniacal grin he’d practiced in the mirror all morning and growled, “But you will.”

The princess yawned and pulled her dress away from the flames. “Nope.”

Spiders? People were scared of spiders, right? Or bats…? Thinking fast, Evilman conjured an army of spider-bat hybrids that crawled across the floor, carpeting it in a writhing black mass of eight-legged, winged beasts, all crawling straight toward the princess.

“Prepare for your doom!”

The princess, instead of cowering in fear, picked up one of the spider-bats and scratched it behind the ear. It purred.

“Ah, geez, don’t pet the monsters,” Evilman sighed, running a hand down his face. “I mean, DOOM—”

“Look, I see what you’re doing here, but none of this is actually lethal, so if all you’ve got are fancy parlor tricks, then I’m going to head out. I’ve got a prince to maim.”

“But—”

“But nothing, pal.”

I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life. “I will kill you…?” Evilman said, but even to him it sounded like a question.

“Hmmm, no.”

“But—”

“No.”

Evilman glared at the princess then burst into tears.

◊ ◊ ◊

The clock struck half an hour to midnight. Queen Moreen was showing the utmost restraint by not beating Rubella and Jonas to death with their own arms.

“We are running out of time!” she screamed, stomping her foot. “Where the hell is your son?”

“Moreen, please!” King Straus said, shifting awkwardly in his chair. “Don’t yell at our guests.”

“How can you stand by and let our daughter be murdered by a madman?” Moreen demanded of her husband.

“I don’t want Evilman to kill our daughter, but that doesn’t mean we should be rude.”

Moreen stormed across the room and grabbed him by his shoulders. “If you don’t want her to die then do something!”

“Come now, you know perfectly well that as king it’s my obligation to be ineffectual. It’s Prince Randolf’s job—”

“How many times do we have to tell you?” King Jonas said, picking lint off his velvet doublet. “Randolf isn’t going to save her. I bet he’s drunk right now, probably at some bar with that friend of his, Davey.”

Moreen jabbed her finger at Jonas. “See! Randolf has broken his vow and refuses to play his part. It is up to us now to fix this. Bring me a horse!” Moreen shouted to the servant bringing more wine to Jonas and Rubella. “I’ll save her myself.”

“Whoa, whoa.” Straus stood up, brow furrowed. “The queen and the princess in the hands of Lord Evilman? That certainly won’t end well. No, no, that just won’t do.” Straus straightened his purple robes and cleared his throat. “I will save my daughter.”

“Thank you,” Moreen sighed.

“And when I come back, I’ll hunt Randolf down and shove my foot up his—”

“Excuse me,” Rubella snapped. “My son might be a useless, drunken idiot, but he is not yours to punish.”

“Let King Straus kill him, I don’t care,” Jonas said, waving his hand vaguely as if pushing the issue aside and increasing his slouch.

Rubella’s jaw dropped. “Jonas! Don’t you care about our son?”

“Weren’t you just saying he’s a useless, drunken idiot?”

“Yes, but he’s my son and I’m supposed to forgive him for those things.”

Jonas suddenly leapt up from his chair, pointing violently at Rubella. “That’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You always overlook things like that. If you ran the kingdom, you would have handed it over to the barbarians after they sent you that severed head as a gift!”

“It’s the thought that counts!” Rubella cried, jumping to her feet too. “And that’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You’re completely insensitive and haven’t a care for anyone besides yourself! If you hadn’t knocked me up then our parents would never had made us marry and I would be better off!”

“So would I!”

Moreen shifted uncomfortably. “Do you think we should leave?” she whispered to Straus.

“No, no, this is good stuff,” Straus whispered back. “No wonder Randolf’s so screwed up.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess awkwardly patted the somewhat greasy hair of Lord Evilman as he cried into her shoulder. Of all the scenarios she had considered during her waiting, this one had never occurred.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not! I can’t do anything right!” Evilman howled in despair and continued to cry on the princess’s shoulder.

“No, that’s—that’s not true. The fire was quite, um, impressive… You’re very, uh, terrifying—”

“I don’t want to be terrifying! I never wanted that, but I’ve never been able to do what I’ve wanted. I always have to be ‘the bad guy’.”

“You don’t have to be the bad guy,” the princess said.

“Yes, I do. My parents made me. They never listened. They never loved me. And all I wanted was to be loved!” Evilman wailed again and sobbed even louder.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Horses! Get the horses!”

“We have to save my daughter!”

“Magenta doesn’t go with everything, Rubella!”

The servants rushed about the castle courtyard, trying to make sense of the shouting, deciphering what was an order and what was an insult.

Waiting for his horse, King Straus strode toward the guards standing at the gate. “Gather the men! We ride to Evilman’s castle immediately.”

Queen Moreen nodded behind him. “Bring our daughter home, men.”

“How can you call our dinner conversations communicating?” Queen Rubella demanded of King Jonas as they trailed behind. “All you ever say to me is ‘Pass the mead’! No wonder Randolf is a drunk!”

“Where the hell is the damn messenger?” Jonas said, staring anywhere but at his wife. “I refuse to listen to this defamation another minute without my lawyer.”

“Yes, god forbid you hear something that hurts your feelings—oh wait, you don’t have any!”

Moreen side-eyed Rubella and Jonas. She leaned in close to the captain of the guard. “If they accidentally get hit by a stray arrow, I won’t be upset.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess’s shoulder was now thoroughly soaked.

“And then when I joined the ballet,” Evilman said, sniffing, “the other kids made fun of me!” Another wave of tears started to fall. “I never got to make my own choices after that. My dad told me I had to act like a man, and my mom said I should become a sorcerer, but all I ever wanted to do was interior decorating!”

“Interior decorating?” the princess said.

“Yes,” sobbed Evilman. “Why, are you going to make fun of me, too?”

“No, I love interior decorating.”

Suddenly, the crying stopped. Evilman looked up at her and wiped away his tears on his black velvet sleeve. He sniffed and said, “Princess, would you like to look at fabric swatches with me?”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!”

Randolf tried to steady himself in his chair. By the time the mead arrived, he had established that it was in fact the room that was spinning, not him.

“This isn’t the nicest bar,” he commented.

“It’s too dark,” Davey said.

Randolf pulled Davey’s head off the table.

“That’s better,” Davey said.

Randolf let go and Davey fell forward once more.

Something hazy entered the spinning vortex off to Randolf’s right. “Are you boys feeling well?”

“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?” Randolf demanded.

“Uh…I asked if you were well…?”

“Oh, yes, we’re fine,” Randolf slurred toward the spinning haziness. “Why’d you ask?”

“Well,” said the haziness, “it’s just that you’re covered in dirt and you called me a barmaid.”

Randolf tried very hard to focus on the haze speaking to him, but too many people swam before him. It took awhile before Randolf realized they were all the same person.

“What’s wrong with calling you barmaid? You did bring us our mead.”

“Yes,” said the haze-person slowly, “and that is my job, it’s just that I’m a man.”

Randolf squinted hard but the haze-person spun too rapidly to focus. “Oh.”

“Good for you,” Davey told the floor.

The haze shifted its round thing into an arch. “Who are you guys, anyway?”

Randolf puffed out his chest importantly. “I’m Prince Randolf, and this is my associate, Davey.”

“Your associate?”

“He accompanies me on important excursions and offers counsel.”

“So, your drinking buddy.”

“Exactly.”

The speaking haze swirled slightly to the left. “Aren’t you supposed to be saving the princess? News of her kidnapping is all over the kingdom.”

Randolf leaned back in his chair, affronted, but almost fell backwards. Gripping the table, he glared at the swirling haze, which had just grown a beard. “I’m the prince! You can’t tell me what to do!”

“Sorry.” The haze put up the largest hands in the universe. “It’s just that it’s your job, and I think you should do what is expected of you. I always do my job, even if I don’t like it.”

“What, you think you’re better than me?”

“No, I’m just giving my opinion.”

“Damn straight!” Randolf shouted and passed out onto the table.

◊ ◊ ◊

The castle courtyard bustled with activity as horses were prepared to ride and soldiers were prepared to fight.

“You have to hurry!” Queen Moreen said. “It may already be too late.”

“Don’t worry, my dear, we’re almost ready,” King Straus assured her as he settled onto his horse. Moments later, the rest of the rescue party had mounted their steeds. Straus signaled his men to follow him, waved good-bye to his wife, kicked his horse into a canter, and rode off. The rescue party waved good-bye to Moreen, kicked their horses, and sped after Straus.

“Bring her home safe!” cried Moreen, feeling somewhat empty at not being able to go as well.

“Oh, shut up, Moreen,” Queen Rubella snapped.

Moreen’s back went ramrod straight. She turned coldly to where Rubella was slouching against a pillar, awaiting the return of the messenger with news from her lawyers. “Queen Moreen.”

Rubella returned Moreen’s look. “What happened to ‘can’t we drop the royal titles’?” she sneered.

“I’ve changed my mind about that,” Moreen said. “And about you. You are no longer welcome here. And I don’t just mean this castle—the whole kingdom! Collect your husband and son and leave!”

“Oh, we were just about to!” snapped Rubella. “By the way, you aren’t welcome in my kingdom either!”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

Rubella stormed off, King Jonas following behind saying, “Technically it’s my kingdom,” to which Rubella replied, “We’ll see what the lawyers have to say.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman had led the princess to the deepest, darkest recesses of his castle, aka his sewing room. It was actually rather bright and airy ever since he’d put in that skylight to the Eternal-Sun realm, and it had the best light for needlepoint.

Evilman dug through one of his fabric trunks and held up a heavily used bolt of material for the princess to see. “Am I crazy or does paisley go with everything?”

“Jeremy, if you’re crazy, then I’m completely insane.”

Evilman and the princess giggled.

“Oh, Princess, I just bought a new fabric I want to show you, be right back.”

Evilman scurried off to his study, humming.

He opened an antique wooden trunk by the fireplace and pulled out a bolt of deep purple velvet. He was about to go back to his sewing room when a voice said, “So, did you do it?”

Evilman jumped. “Wha—oh, Mirror, hi. I almost forgot about you.”

The mirror smiled slightly, like he was being kind and understanding, but it came off more as a wince.

“Well, Jeremy, did you go through with it?”

Evilman shifted awkwardly, hugging the bolt of velvet closer. “Oh…well…no. But that doesn’t matter anymore. The diabolical madman who kidnaps and kills princesses isn’t me, and I know that now. The princess and I are friends, and a friend is all I ever really wanted. I’m so happy now, Mirror, and I’d like to thank you for all your help.”

The mirror frowned and sighed. “Jeremy, Jeremy, did you let her talk you out of it?”

“What? No, Mirror, that’s not it at all—”

“Jeremy, you always do this, you never stay your ground. You have to stand up for yourself and not let anyone get in your way.”

“But, Mirror, I don’t want to kill the princess. And it’s not because I’ve lost my nerve, but because I’ve realized I don’t need to live up to my parents’ dream of me being an evil overlord. I need to live my life the way I want to. And the princess helped me see that.”

The mirror shook his head. “You’re letting her control you. She’s become like your mother, always telling you what to do, and you’re letting her.”

“No, I’m not!” cried Evilman. “She’s my friend—”

“Jeremy, listen, I’m only worried about you—”

“No! She’s my friend, and that’s that! I don’t have to listen to you anymore! And don’t expect to be paid for saying those—those things!”

Evilman stormed out the room, clutching his purple velvet.

The mirror stared after him, unnerved. “I can’t believe, after all these years, after all I’ve done for him…he’s not going to pay me. All my hard work, helping him through his pain, and nothing, not a cent! Glass cleaner isn’t free, you know!”

◊ ◊ ◊

The horses galloped through the village, kicking up dirt along the main road. King Straus kept his lead and tried to push his horse harder. Up ahead, the door of a thatched building opened, and two limp figures were thrown into the king’s path. He reared his horse and shouted for his men to halt.

Straus turned to the man standing in the doorway. “What are you doing? Don’t you realize those men could have been trampled?”

“Yes,” the man in the doorway replied, looking disappointed, and retreated back inside.

Confused, Straus stared down at the two prone figures. His eyes widened.

“RANDOLF!”

One of the bodies stirred slightly and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “I don’t wanna go to school today, Mom.”

“Randolf, you imbecile, I wish I hadn’t slowed down!”

“Wha-wha—” Randolf tried to focus on Straus. “Daddy?”

“I’m not your father! The wedding’s been called off!”

“Wha—?” Randolf blinked slowly, head tilted like a dog baffled by where his ball went. “Bu-but why?”

“Because you didn’t do your duty!”

The other figure on the ground giggled, muttering, “Doodie.”

“So?” Randolf slurred. “I can safe da prisness anuhder day.”

“No, you can’t!” King Straus roared. “Because I’m going to save her, and then I’m going to throw you out of my kingdom for good!” With that, Straus signaled to his men and galloped onward with even greater speed than before.

After the dust settled, Randolf and Davey got shakily to their feet.

“Well, that was rude,” Randolf remarked.

“How did we get out here?” Davey asked, looking around.

“We can worry about that later, Davey man, ’cause we got a job to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m gonna save the prin’is before they can. That’ll show King Rod-Up-His-Butt. C’mon, Davey.”

◊ ◊ ◊

With King Straus now on his way toward a no doubt dangerous showdown with Lord Evilman, Queen Moreen had resumed pacing her room with worry for her family and periodical admiration of her slimmer figure in the mirror as she passed. Close to tears with thoughts of her precious daughter and dear husband, she was about to try modeling an old dress she hadn’t fit in for years when the door opened.

Moreen glanced over to see who it was then turned stiffly back to her mirror. “Knock, please.”

“Moreen—”

Queen Moreen.”

Rubella sighed. “I just need someone to talk to.”

“I thought you were talking to your lawyers.”

“They haven’t arrived yet.” Rubella crossed her arms, wrinkling her nose at the décor. “Is that a pink ottoman? Yikes. Anyway, I’ve been thinking—”

“Amazing,” Moreen muttered, gaze firmly on the mirror as she tried not to glance at Rubella’s reflection in the corner.

“—is divorce the right thing to do? I mean, I don’t care for Jonas, and I’d love to be rid of him, but what kind of effect will it have on Randolf?”

“Randolf’s a grown boy, he can take care of himself.”

Rubella raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really. What about right now?”

“I said he can take care of himself, not others.”

Rubella sighed more harshly, almost a growl. “Come on, Moreen! You’ve stuck with Straus despite that awful beard he grew, so you know how it is. Seriously, what should I do?”

“Seriously? Well, seriously, I think you should leave my kingdom, and then I seriously don’t care what you do afterwards.”

Rubella’s eyes flashed with anger. “Fine!”

“Fine!”

Rubella stormed out of the chamber and slammed the door behind her. Moreen breathed heavily, trying to calm down so as not to order Rubella’s execution. After a moment, she began her pacing, worrying, and modeling again.

◊ ◊ ◊

“‘Cuse me, you know where da rinses is?”

“Get out of my yard.”

The inn door slammed rather painfully into Randolf’s face. He fell over backwards and stayed there for a moment, wondering how he got there. Eventually, he staggered to his feet and leaned heavily against Davey, who leaned heavily against the wall of the inn to which they had stumbled.

“No one knows where the prince is,” Randolf mumbled.

“You’re the prince, man,” Davey slurred.

“Oh, thanks Davey, now let’s go to the bar.”

“No, Randy, we weren’t looking for you, we were looking for the princess.”

“That’s me.”

“No, you’re the male princess, we’re looking for the one with boobs.”

“Oh. Let’s see if anyone at this inn’s seen her.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This is so much fun! With all the evil-lord-you-will-tremble-before-me-and-despair stuff, I never imagined that Jeremy could be such a nice guy. I’m glad Randolf didn’t save me. I just hope that jackass doesn’t show up now—who knows what drunken, idiotic thing he might do.

The princess shuddered at the thought but went back to humming happily and sifting through Lord Evilman’s exquisite fabric collection.

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman was still a little huffy when he reentered his sewing room with the purple velvet. He sat down on a chintz pouf, clutching the bolt of fabric to him, staring at the opposite wall.

The princess glanced up and frowned. “Jeremy, are you all right?”

“Yes,” he replied in an unnaturally high voice, his gaze not even shifting toward her.

The princess furrowed her brow. “Jeremy, please, you can trust me. What’s the matter?”

Evilman chewed his lip. “My mirror wants me to kill you.”

“Your…mirror?”

“Yes, it says I’m not standing up for myself and I’m allowing you to control me.”

“Your mirror?”

“It told me that you’ve become like my mother—”

“Your mirror?”

“Yes, my magic mirror.”

“Oooooh,” the princess said. “Magic mirror. That makes more sense.” She scratched her head. “At least, I think. So, your mirror says that you should kill me to prove that you are independent and in control of your own life.”

Evilman nodded sadly, like a reprimanded child. “Yes, exactly.”

“But you don’t want to kill me.”

“Of course not!” He finally turned to look at her, eyes wide. “You’re my best friend.”

“Awww.” She grinned, flattered. “But anyway, so you don’t want to kill me, but he—it—whatever—wants you to in order to prove independence. Well, it sounds to me like doing what you don’t want to do just because someone told you to isn’t very independent at all.”

Evilman paused for a moment in thought. “You’re right!” He put down the purple velvet, stood up, and opened the door. “Princess, follow me, please. I have some business to attend to.”

◊ ◊ ◊

King Straus looked around the Forest of Darkness for some recognizable landmark.

“I’ve never been this far into the forest before,” he said. “Have any of you?”

The men in the search party shook their heads.

“Well,” Straus said slowly, trying to think. “If I remember correctly…” He trailed off, not entirely sure what he was saying. He’d been told long ago about how the forest was laid out, but since he never used it, just like with algebra, the knowledge had long slipped away.

“Damn, why didn’t I bring a map?” he muttered. Then he said, more loudly, “Let us press onward, men! Evilman’s in here somewhere.” Or at least, he really, really hoped so. Wasn’t there a magic tree or something…?

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen wandered the halls morosely, hoping to fit into a size six she had seen at a boutique in the village. She fretted about her daughter, prayed for her husband to find her, and considered fun and painful ways to torture Prince Randolf.

A sudden outburst of voices in the courtyard distracted her from her musings. Moreen ran outside to see what the fuss was all about.

King Jonas was fuming, yelling at no one in particular. “WHERE ARE THE DAMN LAWYERS?”

“Stop shouting!” Queen Rubella snapped, her carefully arranged hair coming loose.

“Quit telling me what to do, woman!”

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

“Don’t talk to me at all!”

“Jonas! Rubella!” Moreen cried. “Calm yourselves!”

Jonas rounded on her. “This is none of your business!”

Moreen crossed her arms. Oh, she was so done with them. “I thought I told you two to get out.”

“We’re waiting for our lawyers,” Rubella said, chin high in the air.

“Wait for them in your own kingdom. I’ve had enough of you two sniping at each other.”

Rubella breathed slowly and loudly through her nose, nostrils flaring like an angry bull’s, while Jonas turned from red to purple and looked as if he were about to have an aneurysm.

“It’s your fault!” he suddenly screamed.

“What?” Moreen asked, taken aback.

“You!” He jabbed his finger at her “You and your husband made us get a divorce. It’s your fault!”

“Oh, please.” Moreen waved her hand in exasperation. “Don’t try to blame this on us. You two have obviously had marital problems for a long time—”

“I’m suing!” Jonas shouted, pointing at Moreen ever more emphatically.

“Suing?”

“Yes, suing you and your husband. And your daughter!”

Moreen gaped. “My daughter? What does she have to do with any of this?”

“If she hadn’t gotten herself kidnapped then none of this would have happened, and we would never have broken up!”

“Don’t you dare blame my daughter! She isn’t responsible for any of this—”

“Suing!” Jonas yelled again.

Rubella rolled her eyes. “Good luck with that. The princess is probably dead anyway.”

Now Moreen turned on Rubella. “My daughter is not dead!”

“You don’t know that,” Rubella said, smirking.

Moreen shook so hard she thought she might explode. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of this waiting and tension and you! I’ll save my daughter myself! Bring me a horse!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Knock, knock!”

“Who’s there?”

Randolf and Davey collapsed laughing at their joke and completely forgot that they had actually knocked on someone’s door.

The door opened. “Hello—oh god, it’s you two.”

“Hi, I’m Prince Dandalf and this is Ravey—”

“Get off my lawn before I shove a fire poker up your ass.”

Randolf tried and failed to focus properly on the person before him.

Davey, however, pointed, slack jawed. “Beermead!”

Ginny knocked her head against the doorjamb in annoyance. “That’s not even a word! How many bars did you go to after the bartender threw you out?”

“Hey,” Randolf slurred, realization dawning finally, “you’re that lady—”

“And you’re Drunktard and Associate.”

Davey grinned, eyes unfocused. “I’m an associate,” he said proudly.

“Ginny, is everything all right? Who’s at the door?” asked someone from within the cottage. A large and handsome man appeared in the doorway, staring down at Randolf and Davey, who shrunk away in recognition.

“It’s big guy,” Randolf squeaked.

“Oh, did I forget to mention?” Ginny said, faking realization. “The bartender is also my husband, Daniel. We own that bar, which you will never ever be allowed back into. Unless you want to get thrown out on your asses again,” Ginny added in gleeful remembrance.

“They don’t need to be at the bar for me to knock them on their asses again,” Daniel said, rolling up his sleeves.

Davey held up his hands. “Hey, hey, man, we didn’t know you two lived here. We’re jus’ lookin’ fer the princess—”

“About time,” Ginny muttered.

“But we don’t know how to get to Evilman’s castle.”

“Hmm…” Ginny put a finger to her lip in thought. “Well, since helping you will get you away from me, I could give you directions. I’ve passed by there on a delivery before. The dark elves sure love their spritzer. It’s all right, Daniel, you can go back in.”

Daniel the bartender walked away, eyeing Randolf and Davey.

Ginny eyed Randolf and Davey too, but then she got down to business. “I’ll tell you a shortcut so you might possibly get there in time. Now, you head straight into the creepy Forest of Darkness on the Black Path and take a turn by the evil-looking dead tree…”

After Ginny had sent the two drunktards on their way, she headed back inside. Daniel sat in a chair, reading a book.

“So, do you think they’ll save her?” he asked.

“I doubt it,” Ginny said. “But I told them the shortcut so they may have a chance, if they don’t pass out before they get there.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “The shortcut?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Did you tell them about the troll?”

Ginny thought back a moment. “No…”

“But you know how angry he gets when people trespass on his bridge… Murderously angry.”

“You’re right,” Ginny said slowly. “I forgot to tell them about that… Well, I’m gonna go take a bath.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen tucked a map to Lord Evilman’s castle into her pocket then swung herself onto her horse.

King Jonas stormed out of the castle and ran toward her. “I’m not finished with you!”

Moreen tossed her hair out of her face. “You want to sue me, fine. But I’m saving my daughter first.”

“Fine, go! But then I’m suing.”

“Fine. Then I’m suing you!”

“Fine—no. Wait!” Jonas grabbed hold of Moreen’s bridle before she could gallop off. “You can’t sue me.”

“Yes, I can,” Moreen said. “Your son failed to come through with his end of the deal, so I have the right to sue him. But since his money is your money, I’ll just sue you.”

Jonas mouthed noiselessly at her for a moment. “Very well,” he said finally, slowly, as if it pained him. “I’ll save her.”

Moreen burst out laughing. “You’re not going to save her.”

“Yes, I will,” Jonas said stiffly. “If I save her and complete Randolf’s end of the deal, then you can’t sue.”

“Yes I can, because I’ll get there first.”

“No, I will.”

“You idiot, why do you want to save the bimbo?” Rubella asked Jonas.

“My daughter is not a bimbo!” Furious, Moreen broke free from Jonas’ grip and galloped into the distance.

“Rubella!” Jonas whipped around to glare at his wife. “She’s going to sue me!”

Rubella rolled her eyes. “And I should care?”

Jonas gritted his teeth. “If she takes all my money, there won’t be much left for you.”

Rubella went as white as snow. “Bring the horses! We have to save the princess!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman led the princess out of the sewing room and through the entrance hall, which acted as the main thoroughfare to the many rooms on the ground floor. He opened one of the doors lining the hall and entered another room—his study.

He showed her to the back wall, where the black curtains still lay open, and nervously cleared his throat. “Princess, this is the mirror. Mirror, this is the princess.”

The face in the mirror put on a small but kind smile. “Nice to meet you, Princess.”

“Likewise,” she said, staring in awe. “I’ve never seen a magic mirror before.”

“And I’ve never seen a princess before.” His smile grew strained. “So, Jeremy, have you calmed down?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And have you thought about…what we discussed earlier?”

“Yes, I have,” Evilman said, nodding. “You’re fired.”

“Good—what?”

“I’m sorry,” Evilman said, twisting his hands. “You’ve been a great help through a dark time, but you’re right, I need to think for myself and not let anyone control me. I’m afraid I have to let you go. You can remain here until you’ve found a new place to stay—”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” The mirror was no longer smiling. “Jeremy, you need me. There are still so many things you need help with—”

“I know, Mirror, but I need to be on my own to think for myself. I’m grateful for your help, though, I want you to remember that.”

“What about her?” The mirror jutted his chin toward the princess. “Are you her getting rid of her?”

“No, she’s my friend—”

“I’m your friend. I’m trying to help you. You’re letting her control—”

“No, I’m finally doing what I want to do, I’m finally who I want to be—”

“But Jeremy—”

“I’m sorry, Mirror. It’s over.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Randolf tripped over a tree root. Or what he thought was a tree root. “Man, it’s dark in here.”

“Yeah,” Davey said, or the black shadow stumbling along beside him that he was pretty sure was Davey. “I wonder if that’s why they call it the Forest of Darkness.”

Randolf thought about this for a moment and then forgot what he was trying to think about.

“Hey, is that the bridge she mentioned?” Davey asked, pointing a wavering finger at something dark and evil up ahead.

“Yeah, I think that’s it.”

The two of them lumbered up to the bridge, knocking into each other and overturning stones as they tripped their way along the path. After a minute of falling, crawling, and standing up again out of shear spite toward King Straus and confused ideas about gravity, they finally made it. Randolf stepped onto the first plank of the bridge.

Suddenly, a dark figure leapt out of nowhere and in a deep, threatening voice said, “None shall—whoa! Did you two buy out a whole bar?” The dark figure waved a hand in front of his nose. “Gods damn.”

Davey flailed wildly and ineffectually in place. “What the hell is that?”

“I dunno,” Randolf said quietly. He turned to the figure. “What the hell are you?”

“I’m a troll, duh,” he said, his voice becoming higher as if realizing a deep, scary one meant nothing to people as plastered as the two before him. In the dark of the forest, the troll’s green mottled skin and tall mohawk could only vaguely be seen. “And this is my bridge. None shall pass without paying a toll.”

“Yeah, well I’m da rinse and I gotta save the one with boobs.”

The troll eyed them weirdly. “Uhhhhhhhh, sure.”

“He means the him with boobs,” Davey said in “clarification.”

The troll just kept staring at them. “Riiiiiiight. So, how much did you two drink?”

Randolf and Davey gazed into space for a moment, which then became five minutes.

The troll shook his head. “Wow, you guys are gone. But, anyway, I still have to ask for a toll. Money doesn’t come out of my nose, you know.”

“Where does it come from?” Davey asked reflectively.

The troll blinked at him. “So—do you two have money or not?”

“I spent the last of it at that bar that kept moving,” Randolf said, feeling in his pockets futilely.

“Do you have anything of value?” the troll asked.

“Does this count?” Davey pulled a flask out of his pocket.

The troll rolled his eyes. “Human drinks are worthless. Too weak. I make my own brew. I bet it’d kill you.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. One drop would probably do it, especially in your current state.”

Davey grinned woozily. “I’ll take that bet.”

The troll smiled too, but it was all teeth. “All right. If you can drink it and survive, I’ll let you cross my bridge.”

“Deal!” He held out his hand. “My name’s Davey by the way.”

The troll shook Davey’s hand. “I’m Rodney.”

“That’s my name!” Randolf shouted indignantly.

“No, man, you’re Randolf,” Davey informed him.

“I thought he said Rodney.”

“That’s his name.”

“Oh.”

Rodney covered his face with his hand, embarrassed to be even near this conversation.

“Wait!” Randolf cried suddenly, making Rodney jump. “I have to get to Evilman’s castle. Is Davey’s death gonna take long?”

“It shouldn’t,” Rodney said. “But in case he lives, I can show you a portal that leads right into Evilman’s linen closet. But if you want to use my portal, you’ll both have to drink.”

“Deal,” Randolf said, putting his hand out like Davey had, but he overbalanced and fell into the creek under the bridge.
Rodney just shook his head.

◊ ◊ ◊

“You can’t do this to me!”

“Mirror, stop shouting!”

“No, Jeremy, you have to listen!”

“Look, Mirror,” the princess said, trying to reason with him—it—whatever. “Jeremy needs some time to think for himself. Like he said, you helped him a lot and he appreciates that but—”

“Look!” the mirror cried. “She’s doing it already!”

“Doing what?” Evilman asked.

“Talking for you. I told you, you’re letting her control you. You always do this. It’s a pattern of behavior I was trying to wean you off of—”

“But then I began to let you control me,” Evilman said. “I was no better off. Now, however, I have broken free from that. The princess and I are equals, we’re friends, we listen to each other—”

“No, no, you are depending on her, using her as crutch, you have to get rid of her!”

“I’m not going to kill her—”

“But that was your plan!”

“Plans change—”

“She made you—”

“No!” Evilman stomped his foot on the floor, holding his hands out to stop the mirror from talking. “I created the plan because I thought that was what I had to do. But I changed the plan because I knew that’s what I had to do. I’m not an evil dark lord. I’m a snazzy interior decorator!”

The mirror scrunched his nose, like he was in physical pain, despite being a mirror and not able to feel anything. “You can be whatever you want to be, but without therapy you will fall back into your old patterns. You need me to stay and help you through this.”

Evilman shook his head, face sad. “I was using you as a crutch, Mirror. I thank you for your help, but I need to break free. The princess and I are going into business together—”

“She will control you—”

“Excuse me!” the princess said, hand on hip. “I’m not going to control him. We are friends, and we will be equal business partners—”

“Just kill her!”

The princess threw her head back and gaped. “Kill me? KILL ME? What kind of a sadistic bastard are you?”
The mirror curled his upper lip. “One who cares for his clients.”
“More likely a financially sound one. That’s all it is, isn’t it? You just don’t want to lose your job, your money, this house!”

The mirror mouthed wordlessly at the princess for a moment before sputtering, “No-no-no, that’s-that’s not it at all.”

Evilman narrowed his gaze. “Mirror,” he said slowly, “are you only trying to stay for the money?”

“No! You know that’s not true. Look! She’s already trying to influence you—”

“That’s it, I’ve had enough!”

In one swift movement, Evilman ripped the mirror off the wall. He walked determinedly to the nearest window, opened it (“You can’t throw me out!”), and quite unceremoniously threw the mirror outside.

The mirror soared through the air then landed in the surrounding forest, shouting at Evilman.

“You can’t do this to me! I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll—”

CRACK!

◊ ◊ ◊

“Uh-oh.”

King Straus pulled his horse off the mirror it had just stepped on. Large cracks stretched across its surface, starting at a gaping hole the size and shape of a horse’s hoof. It was completely destroyed.

“I hope that wasn’t important. Oh, well,” Straus said, and urged his horse on. “We’re almost there, men. Let’s go save my daughter.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess stared at Evilman, impressed. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“I know, neither can—” He broke off as a loud noise sounded from outside the study. “What was that?”

They left the room and glanced around the entrance hall.

“Where did that racket come from?” the princess asked.

“I don’t know…”

Suddenly, a door burst open and from amid a shower of fluffy purple towels and silk sheets, Prince Randolf strode into the hall, Davey at his side. Randolf stopped before Evilman and the princess, standing tall and proud, like a true prince, legs apart and fists on hips. He held his head high, face serious and noble, and said triumphantly, “I’m not wearing any pants.”

The princess and Evilman looked down as one then stared back at Randolf’s face.

“No, you’re not,” the princess said slowly. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Randolf said, so noble, so proud.

Evilman eyed him with a mix of caution, confusion, and a little bit of worry at what possibly happened to remove the poor prince’s trousers. “How do you not know—”

A bang echoed through the castle and the front doors burst open with great force. A dozen men, led by King Straus, charged down the hall.

“Evilman!” Straus thundered. “Give me back my daughter! You will not win today!”

“Daddy, please!” the princess huffed. “Be nice.”

Straus took a step back in confusion, as if he’d been hit in the face. “‘Be nice’? What do you mean—” Suddenly he noticed Randolf. “You’re not wearing any pants.”

“I know,” Randolf said, still in the same position, still so noble.

Straus furrowed his brow. “I left you nearly incapacitated in the village. How did you get here before me?”

“‘Cause trolls are awesome when they’re drunk,” Davey explained, wagging an emphatic finger.

Before Straus could even start on that response, the back door flew open and in walked a bickering trio.

“Moreen?” Straus cried, astounded. “Why are you here?”

“To prevent this moron from suing us,” Queen Moreen replied, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at King Jonas. She turned to look at her husband, but on the way, her gaze paused. “You’re…without pants.”

“Yes, I am,” Randolf said, oh so noble.

Queen Rubella’s eyes bulged, her eyeliner smudged from galloping through the forest. “Where are they?” she demanded.

“The troll took them,” Davey slurred. “He didn’t think it was fair that we didn’t die.”

Everyone just blinked at that.

Moreen opened her mouth several times to comment, but eventually she shook her head—he wasn’t her problem anymore (good luck marrying him off, Rubella)—and turned back to the situation at hand.

“Evilman!” she shouted, making him jump. “Release my daughter this instant!”

The princess crossed her arms. “Will you please stop making demands of him, he just went through a terrible experience and lost a good friend,” she snapped.

There was silence followed by a chorus of “What?” asked by everyone in the room, except for the sloshed Davey and practically frozen yet noble Randolf.

“Honey, you’re not making any sense,” Moreen said. “We’ve come to rescue you and take you home.”

“I don’t want to go home,” the princess said. “Didn’t you bother to think about my feelings? Or were you just going to take me away against my will?”

Another pause followed by another room full of “What?”

“But he’s trying to kill you!” Straus cried.

“No, I’m not,” Evilman piped up. “We’re going into business together as interior decorators.”

Once again, the chorus: “What?”

“That’s right,” the princess said, head held high. “I’m staying here. I have a potentially lucrative career on my hands and an excellent and willing partner.”

“But-but-but—he’s evil,” Straus said, voice and expression turning uncertain.

The princess rolled her eyes. “No, he’s not.”

“But—”

“Dad, I thank you for this whole rescue attempt thing—you too, Mom—but I’m quite happy here.”

“Oh,” Straus said, somewhat deflated. “Well, then…I guess…we’ll be going.”

“Yes,” Moreen agreed vaguely, eyes wandering in confusion.

“You can stop by whenever you’d like,” Evilman said with a bright smile. “You’re always welcome. You can even stay the night.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Straus said as vaguely as his wife while they moved awkwardly toward the door.

“Does that mean they can’t sue?” Jonas murmured to Rubella.

But Rubella ignored him. “Come along, Randolf,” she commanded. “We have to get you home and into some pants for god’s sake.”

“Coming mother,” Randolf said, the noblest, and followed her, head held so high and proud.

“Now, Randolf, I have some good news,” Rubella began as she, Jonas, Randolf, and Davey walked down the hall and out of the castle. “Your father and I are getting a divorce…”

Moreen and Straus followed them out, the rescue party in their wake, looking disappointed there had been no need for a bloodbath.

When the last person had left, closing the door behind him, the princess turned to Evilman. She scrunched her nose in apology. “I’m so sorry about all of that.”

Evilman waved it off, chuckling slightly. “Oh, it’s all right! They did think I was going to mercilessly kill you just to reaffirm my evilness.”

“Well, they still shouldn’t have been so rude.”

“It’s no problem, Princess…um, by the way…what’s your name?”

End

Lauren Triola