A Grave Situation

by Eric Bonholtzer

 

Digging graves was not a desirable occupation. The dirt was unforgiving, cold and solid. It was back-breaking work, a bone-wearying profession. Max had known all of this before he had taken the job, but sometimes circumstances dictated the situation. He had a problem, and try as he might, his hands just always seemed to wander where they didn’t belong and return with something that was not theirs.

But Max was an optimist. No matter how far he sank, he always considered it a temporary plight. He could dig graves. He could till the earth’s surface for as long as it took because after all was said and done, it was still just a temp job. Now, almost six months after being released from the county lockup, Max began to wonder just how long this living hell was going to last. His Uncle John, the graveyard caretaker, a gruff old man with a toothless grin and a lazy eye, had told Max when he’d started off that he’d be digging graves until he dug his own, and at the time, Max could barely suppress a chuckle, but now he wasn’t so sure.

As Max’s dirt-encrusted pick split the grass, his thoughts wandered. He wondered how, for a town of only 500 people, they could manage a body or two a week. Sure, threshers hacked people to death. Farm animals killed ranchers in freak accidents. And there was a staggering cancer rate; these people smoked like the Marlboro man was riding away with the last of their cigarettes. But still, it just seemed like a bad town, a place where people came to die.

Max’s current client, though, had been a transient. A bad car accident and no one to claim the remains. Not a particularly pleasant way to go. Max paused, lit up a cigarette, and thought that, perhaps, there weren’t all that many ways that were. Inhaling deeply, Max listened to the faint rumblings of thunder just over the hills, telling of the storm to come.

He had to hurry. There was still another body waiting on the table, an old drunk named Howard Broach, who had to be interred before the storm made the ground too muddy to till. Max’s thoughts grew grimmer contemplating the enormously corpulent deceased, whose only legacy in life was to indulge in everything to excess and leave an immensely bloated corpse behind. And while there were no shortages of mourners at his funeral, when all the smoke settled, no one wanted to be stuck with the bill. Howard Broach became another county job. Max had been sour at the funeral and he was sour now. County requisitioned bodies, those with no one to claim them, were interred for next to nothing, which made Max’s cut even less. With a grimace, he snuffed out his cigarette with a booted toe, took a swig of whiskey from the flask he always kept at the ready, and returned to his digging.

* * * * *

Night had fallen by the time the two holes were dug, and with great effort, Max wrestled the bodies into their final homes, the unwieldy body of the late Howard Broach giving him more than a little trouble. Max had asked his uncle about a coffin for the body and the man had merely shrugged. The county got what it paid for.

With a grunt, Max picked up his shovel and somberly started filling in the graves. Rain was beginning to fall, making his grip more slippery with every stroke of the shovel. “Damn,” Max groaned as the spade slid out of his hand, down onto the barely covered body of Howard Broach. Max shook his head in aggravation as he climbed down into the muddy hole, cursing his misfortune. As he bent down to retrieve the implement near a bloated hand that appeared to be reaching out of the dirt for a lifeline, suddenly Max’s run of bad luck seemed to come to a dead halt. Fortune surely smiled on him as his eye caught a glimmer that could only be gold, a ring still attached to the dead man’s finger.

It was a plain gold band with ruby inlay set in a distinct pattern. Definitely valuable. Perhaps tonight had not been such a bust after all.

Curious as to why his uncle, by no means an honest man, had not thought of the same idea, Max bitterly found out the reason as he tried to wrest the ring from the corpse. Stuck tight. Judging from the frayed and torn skin on the bloated finger, Max realized his uncle had come up with the same idea and had obviously failed. Not wanting to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, Max simply seized the burial spade and hacked off the finger with a single stroke, easily extricating the ring. Prize in hand, Max climbed from the grave, tossing the finger over his shoulder with no more thought than a discarded cigarette butt.

After relishing his treasure for a few golden moments, a subtle fear began to gnaw at him, realizing what he had just done. Thoughts of cold clammy hands bursting from the grave flashed through Max’s mind with every scoop of dirt as he quickly resumed his job of interment. Max could almost feel that cold lifeless stare watching him, waiting for something. “Sorry buddy, you’re not getting your ring back,” Max muttered under his breath. “Finders keepers. You’re not going to need it where you’re going.” Sweat beading his brow, Max swore, as he shoveled the last patches of dirt over Howard “Nine Fingers” Broach, that the corpse’s eyes were wide open.

* * * * *

Max’s house was little more than a shanty, the paint peeling and the floorboards creaking, but the refrigerator was filled with cool beer and that was enough. A pile of discarded tall cans later and the grave digger was feeling A-OK. The TV, with its blurred picture, was off, but the radio bleated a bluesy tune and a newfound sense of possibility flared in the soon-to-be-former grave digger.

Max pulled out the ring and fingered his prize gently, marveling at the uncanny smoothness. Despite the glow of intoxication slowly enveloping him, something didn’t set right about it, and Max knew it wasn’t pangs of regret. There was definitely something off about the ring, and its ruby inlay, but Max couldn’t pinpoint it, and furthermore, he didn’t really care. It was his ticket out. The money it would fetch at hawk would set him up for a while until he could find something better. Tossing a discarded can to lay with the others, Max searched for another beer. Finding it, he popped the lid and spilled the drink all over himself as he heard a voice.

It was old and hollow, as if from a great distance away, calling out to him, “My ring.” Max shivered, glancing around frantically. He was alone. Or so it seemed. He tried to tell himself it was just an overactive imagination and too many graveyard stories, but he wasn’t convinced. Trying to salvage what was left of his beer, he came up with only two shallow sips. He definitely needed another one.

Max made his way to the kitchen, flicking on the light switch as he went. A little illumination and a fresh can of beer did wonders to ease the mind. He was already halfway to feeling normal again when he saw it. Muddy footprints. And definitely not his. Following the dirty trail led a bewildered Max back into his living room.

Sitting there patiently was none other than Mr. Howard “I’m Buried” Broach. A sickly pallor coupled with dirt stained his clothes.

“What… what… the.…” Max could barely voice the words, taking a tentative step back as he spoke them. “What… what… do you want?”

Howard chuckled, an animal-like cackle. “What do I want? Hmmm… now let me see?” As the unreality of it all set in, Max suppressed a scream. “Well, a coffin would have been nice.” Again that horrid laugh. “Maybe someone who wouldn’t have tossed me into the dirt. Yeah, you thought I didn’t see, well I was watching. But you know what I really want? I want my finger back.” That same humorless smile never leaving his face, Howard held up his mangled hand, short one digit.

Max took another step back, his mind unable to handle the unreality of it all. He searched frantically for a weapon but found nothing promising. “Forget it. What’s a little finger between friends, right? But you do have something I really want back, Maximillion. My ring. It’s special. You like the ruby pattern? The ancient Byzantine symbol for immortality? I know I did. It called to me Max, like it called to you. I knew from the second I saw it on that gypsy’s finger. I knew I’d kill for it. It speaks to you, Max. But you already knew that didn’t you? I feel its voice waning in me. And I need it. It does things Max… It’ll bring me back. Forever.”

Despite his fear, Max realized just how much his own future rested with that ring. It was his, and nobody was going to take that from him. If it truly was that powerful it would be priceless. Max stalled for time, “What ring?”

“MY RING!!! My ring now!”

Max took another backward step, running into a wall, his hands going up protectively. “It’s my ring now.” His eyes closed despite himself and he waited for those cold hands that never came.

Instead there was just horrid laughter. “Over your dead body, right?”

After several moments passed and Max found himself still alive, he mustered the courage to open his eyes. Nothing. He was alone again. Utterly alone this time. He checked his pocket, the ring still nestled safely inside; his eyes catching on the pile of discarded beer cans. Had he really had that many? He didn’t feel drunk, but he knew he probably was. He tried to rationalize. It had to have been a hallucination. Stress and alcohol, never a good mix. That was the only explanation. And nearly an hour later, after a few more tall ones, as Max slipped into sleep, he had a good long laugh about the whole thing.

* * * * *

Sleep didn’t last long. The peal of thunder awakened Max in a cold sweat. He was still in the throes of a waking dream, the vision earlier still all too real. For the next hour he tried to fall back asleep, but with little success. The storm had abated somewhat, but he couldn’t shake what he had seen. Every time he shut his eyes he could see cold dead hands digging their way towards him. Another two hours of restless waking, debating on the reality of his encounter, and a full bottle of Jack Daniels later, Max reached a conclusion: he knew what he had to do.

* * * * *

The rain beat down on him like miniscule needles. Max would make sure it was just his mind playing tricks on him and then he would go home reassured. He was thoroughly soaked by the time he reached the grave. It was deserted, as he had expected at this time of night, and though he had tried his best to skirt the houses adjacent to the graveyard lest someone call the cops, he couldn’t help but feel someone was watching.

There was scant illumination from the lightning, and Max was thankful for the darkness, making his secret job that much easier. Placing a small flashlight on the ground, he hefted his shovel and began to dig, taking one patch of freshly tilled soil from the ground after another. Max emptied the grave which he had just filled, aware of the lunacy of it all, constantly assuring himself that at the bottom he would find exactly what was to be expected, one very cold, very dead, Howard Broach. And then he would sleep. He would sleep the sleep of the dead, assured in the knowledge that there was no body after him.

But as he got closer and closer to unearthing, what he fervently hoped would be a corpse, Max’s uncertainty increased tenfold. And as he removed shovelful after shovelful of dirt where he was sure that he should be striking flesh, his uncertainty manifested into full on terror, complete and abject horror because the deeper he dug the more certain he became: there was no body.

Suddenly, he felt a hand upon his shoulder. Max could not even venture a scream as the hand forced him around to stand, face to leering face, with the dead Howard Broach. “MY RING!!!” the dead man spat at him. Max was gripped by panic, unable to move, confronted by a man who should by all rights be lying in the cold ground. Max’s mind reeled with the implications, the unreality of it all cascading over him.

A stroke of lightning split the stormy night sky, illuminating Howard in all his grizzly glory. The dead man did not hesitate, instead pushing Max, still clutching his shovel, into the grave. Howard followed, landing with a thud right next to him.

Max barely had time to sputter and choke, before he felt a four-fingered hand pressing his face into the mud. Relying on nothing but instinct, Max seized a handful of earth in his hands, and in a quick motion ground the soil into Howard’s eyes. Not pausing to think, seizing the opportunity, Max grabbed the shovel and swung. He connected, the blow smashing the side of Howard’s head with the sharp trowel blade. And then as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Howard didn’t move. But that wasn’t enough for Max, not nearly enough. Howard had been dead once before. Max had to be sure this time, so he brought the shovel down, again and again, striking with unrelenting fury. He didn’t stop. Like a man possessed, he pounded Howard’s corpse into oblivion.

Lost in his rage, Max almost didn’t notice the voice of someone approaching. And even when he did, it took him a minute to pin down the sullen oaths and repetitious swearing, but as soon as he realized just what was going on, he scrambled from the hole. Taking a hiding place behind a weather-worn granite crypt, Max tightened the grip on the shovel. He had company.

Max watched as the old man stood beside the hole with a somber look of bewilderment. It was clearly not what he expected to see. Putting it all together with the pick-axe, saw, and shovel in the man’s hand, Max chuckled, stepping out from his hiding place. “I know what you want, and its mine.

“What… what?” The old man stammered, taking a step back.

“I know what you were trying to do. And I’m telling you, you’re too late. I already got the ring.”

“Max?! Is that you?”

“In the flesh.” Max advanced on the startled man, his shovel held behind his back. “I’m sure you’re a little surprised at seeing me here, huh, Uncle John?”

“Well… yes I was…” He stalled for time, his hands reflexively grasping his pick-axe. “I got a call about a grave robbing.”

“You call the cops on yourself? Is that it?” Max laughed at his own cleverness. “I know what you really want.” He approached until they were both within striking distance. “You want my ring.

“It’s my graveyard, my ring.”

“I found it first.” Max prepared for his swing. Just a little provocation and it would all be over. That was when he felt the hand. From the look on his uncle’s face he could tell that the old man was likewise startled. However, that brief moment of surprise quickly turned into abject terror when realization struck, as cold clammy hands reached out from the grave, that utter chill and fear the last thing the pair felt as they were dragged down, screaming, into the earth.

* * * * *

The town sheriff was perplexed when he saw them. Two very dead gravediggers piled into what appeared to be a cemetery battleground. The lawman stared long and hard at those two familiar faces, now so horribly distorted in death, and thought. I always wondered when those two would do each other in. Never did like each other much. Finally he shrugged impassively, telling himself to make a note of it. Guess it’s time to put out an ad for a new caretaker and grave digger. With no further ado, the sheriff picked up the shovel. County jobs, he thought bitterly, and started the arduous task of filling in the grave.

 

Drot Detail

by Mark Anthony Brennan

 

Bledsoe nudged the thing with the toe of his boot. Orange body fluid oozed out of the shredded flesh.

Huh. Xeener meat.

The drots had done a good job on this one. It was a walker. Or it had been. The fat main body was now just a charred chunk, about the size of a two-man cruiser. The long, spindly legs were shattered and strewn around the main body.

Bledsoe kept poking through the carcass with the barrel of his pulse rifle to make sure there were no detachables. Finally he was satisfied and he looked up to scan the surrounding terrain.

There were some low hills in the distance, covered in green growth. However, down in the flats, where only the smallest, gnarly shoots could make their way through the purple-tinged rock, the ground was bare. Up above the small first sun was making its way up into the milky white sky. They had to head back before the second sun rose, or else they’d risk over-heating their suits.

Years of special campaign training and they send him out here. Out here in the fringes to do clean up detail. Man, what he’d give to get back to some real action.

“Parij,” said Bledsoe, chinning his communicator bar. “All clear over here.”

“Yeah, here too,” replied Parij. “I’m heading back over. I’ll be right—” There was silence for a few seconds. “Hey, wait.”

“What is it?” demanded Bledsoe.

“Shit! Flyers!”

“Flyers? What, here? Hang on, I’ll be right there.”

Bledsoe engaged his boosters so that with each step he was propelled twenty meters through the air. He leapt over their cruiser and headed for a ridge. Parij had to be just on the other side.

What the hell were flyers doing in this sector? They’d never come across anything other than burrowers and walkers around here.

Bledsoe saw Parij as soon as he cleared the top of the ridge. She was standing about fifty meters away with her pulse rifle aimed in the sky. One flyer was almost directly above her. Two others were approaching from a distance. There were two bright flashes from the end of Parij’s pulser and the flyer above her fell from the sky, its huge, leathery wings crumpling around it. It hit the ground in a heap just as Bledsoe landed next to Parij.

“I’ll watch for the others,” ordered Parij. “You check that one out.”

“Yes, sir, Lieutenant,” hissed Bledsoe. Whatever you fuckin’ say.

The white flesh of the wings fluttered in the breeze like a mass of sheets. The wings made the flyers look massive, but Bledsoe knew that the main body, buried beneath its broken wings, was only a fraction of the size of the walker he’d just seen over the ridge.

In several spots there was a rippling, which at first could be mistaken for just a wafting caused by the wind. But Bledsoe knew better—there was movement underneath the blanket of wings. The movements became discernable mounds, each one heading for the nearest edge. Detachables. About a dozen of them.

The first detachable emerged from under the wings just a few meters in front of Bledsoe. It was a small walker, no bigger than a man’s hand. Vaguely reminiscent of a large spider, the walker’s body was delicately supported by a multitude of wire-like legs. Bledsoe blasted it with a silent pulse. There was nothing but a shallow hole in the rocky ground where the walker had just stood.

Bledsoe then walked around the flyer carcass, blasting the emerging walkers as he saw them. It didn’t take long to get them all.

“All clear, Lieutenant,” he reported, walking over to where Parij stood. “Where’re those other two?”

“I dunno. They were headed this way, but now I’ve lost visual contact. I’ve ordered in a unit of drots. They should be here any minute.”

The two of them scanned the sky. There was nothing but an empty white expanse.

“We shouldn’t be here,” muttered Parij. “I put us in harm’s way.”

“Don’t blame yourself, sir. You couldn’t have known there were flyers in this sector.”

“I should have known. It’s my job to know.”

“Hey, come on, stop beatin’ yourself up. We’re just here to do a job. It’s not up to us to figure out what the meat is up to. That’s up to Lamarr and his…” Bledsoe shifted his shoulders and waved his hands mockingly, “…empaths. Lieutenant, we’re soldiers. We just kill the enemy.”

“For god’s sake,” sighed Parij, “can’t you get it through that skull of yours? They aren’t the enemy. They’re friendlies. This is what they want. We’re doing them a favor.”

“Do you know how fucked up that sounds? Listen to yourself—”

“Christ!”

Parij was staring at something behind Bledsoe. He spun his head to see. There was a flurry of darkness above and behind him. A huge mouth, sharp teeth, claws—all bearing down on him. In the same instant in the corner of his eye his saw three flashes in rapid succession. The darkness collapsed, dropped. The flyer landed no more than two meters from Bledsoe’s feet.

Holy shit.

Bledsoe gulped. His heart was pounding in his chest.

“Thanks, Lieutenant,” he gasped. “I owe you one.”

“Forget it. The drots can clean up. Let’s move. Fast!”

With booster-enhanced strides the two of them made the top of the ridge in a few seconds. Then their hearts sank. To their right, less than a hundred meters away, there was a flyer swooping down in their direction. To the left there were two more flyers not much further away. And in the distance there were others. Six, seven, maybe more. Their cruiser was still several jumps away.

We’re dead. We won’t make it.

“Where the hell are those goddamned drots?” moaned Parij.

Bledsoe took a deep breath. “You take the one on the right. I’ll take the left.”

“Got it,” said Parij.

The two of them held their pulsers up at shoulder height and prepared to leap. Just as they were about to move the flyer to their right suddenly changed direction. It had been diving down directly at them but now it veered off to its right, cutting across in front of them. The creature flapped its wings and headed in the direction of the other two flyers.

“Now’s our chance,” barked Parij. “Move!”

As they bounded across the flats towards their cruiser Bledsoe kept his eye on the flyer. The creature let out a shriek that sounded like gravel landing on metal. Then it tucked in its wings and lunged at one of the other flyers.

Oh my god. It’s attacking one of its own.

The two flyers clashed in midair in a tangle of wings and claws. The two creatures fell to the ground but continued to scuffle. The remaining flyer hovered above them for a few seconds then dropped down to join in the fray.

“What the hell? What are they doing?”

“Not sure,” said Parij who had reached the cruiser ahead of Bledsoe, “but let’s get out of here, soldier.”

* * * * *

“What’d they say?” Bledsoe was busying himself in the cramped cargo area behind the seats as the cruiser carried them rapidly back towards base.

“It’s a new phase,” replied Parij, removing the communications headset. “The members of this colony have reached the point that they are aware of the competition they are in. Now they are battling each other.”

“Yeah, you don’t say,” muttered Bledsoe, clamping his helmet to the wall. Before taking off he’d seen several of the other flyers in the distance attacking each other.

“The empaths have noticed that several other colonies have reached this phase. The drots may not be required much longer.”

“Empaths,” growled Bledsoe.

The empaths were the ones that created this whole mixed-up situation. They were the ones that figured out that the members of the Khyan colonies needed to be killed off in order for the colony to develop. Even though the exploratory expeditions had detected no intelligent life, the empaths sensed—no, they felt—the colonies grow in strength as their members were killed. So the Khyan Campaign was initiated with the use of drots. And the Khyan appreciated it. Or so the empaths said.

“Get with the program, Bledsoe,” said Parij from her seat. “We’re not here to question orders.”

“This isn’t a military operation, Lieutenant. Why are we even here? Anyone could operate these drots. Why do they need us?”

“They need our expertise.”

Bledsoe looked up from the equipment and stared at the back of Parij’s head. “Oh come on. When does Lamarr ever listen to us?”

Several metal orbs whizzed past the window, heading in the opposite direction. Bledsoe crawled over and peered out the rear window at the fighting robots disappearing behind them.

Oh, right on time. Thanks a lot.

Bledsoe scrambled forward and squirmed into his seat next to Parij.

“This campaign is ridiculous. The empaths even admit they can’t communicate with these xeeners. It’s all based on vague feelings. It’s bullshit.”

“Don’t call them xeeners, they aren’t enemy aliens.” Parij turned and looked Bledsoe in the eye. “It makes sense to me. Each colony is really a single entity. It has a collective awareness but it needs to develop in order to exhibit intelligence.”

“Yeah, yeah. And as more of its members are killed off, the more it develops. I’ve heard the lecture, sir. But what sense does that make? The more we kill them off the better they feel?”

Parij sighed. “Yes. The fewer members it has the stronger and more developed the collective awareness becomes. I guess its awareness becomes more concentrated.”

“Well, why are we wasting time sending in drots to fight them individually? I say we go in there and carpet bomb the colonies. That’ll help them reach… nirvana.” Bledsoe smiled to himself on his choice of words.

“That won’t work and you know it. Something like that the collective would sense as an aberration, an accident. Then it would just replace the members it’s lost. It must be a true battle. A sort of survival of the fittest.”

“This whole thing stinks, Lieutenant. On the basis of some whacked-out empaths we’re supposed to believe that by slaughtering these xeeners we’re doing them a favor? And they’ll thank us for it?”

“You’ve got to think beyond the human paradigm…”

“Jesus! Now you sound like one of them.”

Parij grinned suddenly. “Okay. Okay.”

Parij turned back to stare out at the landscape moving swiftly below them. The rocky flats had given way to gentle rolling hills covered in greenery. Just barely visible in the distance ahead were the rectangular gray buildings of the base.

Bledsoe gazed admiringly at Parij’s profile. Her high cheekbones, her delicate nose and chin, her rich, dark complexion.

“You saved me today, Larla,” he said softly. “Thanks.”

The corner of Parij’s mouth turned up. “Don’t mention it,” she said, still staring forward.

“Maybe I’ll show you my appreciation tonight.”

Parij blushed but she didn’t turn her head. “We’re on duty, mister,” she frowned.

Bledsoe took a deep breath and sat bolt upright. “Yes, sir.

* * * * *

“Mr. Lamarr, I wish you would reconsider.”

“Lieutenant Parij, we cannot leave now,” said Lamarr. “That’s preposterous.”

“Sir, I have…” Parij glanced over at Bledsoe standing beside her, “we have… been on countless campaigns. I ask that you trust our judgement.”

“But this is not war. I think you forget that. This is a benevolent peer race contact. My department has well-defined protocols for this situation.”

Parij was silent for a few seconds. She and Bledsoe stood in their military uniforms, their hands clasped behind their backs in respect. They stood before Lamarr’s desk, which was an elaborately carved block of dark wood. Around them there were layers upon layers of multi-colored drapes that wafted lazily in an artificial breeze. Behind Lamarr there was a waterfall emptying into a pool nestled between moss-covered rocks. The pool was surrounded by tropical terrestrial plants.

Lamarr’s office was a far cry from the metal barracks that Parij and Bledsoe were housed in.

“If you will not come with us now,” said Parij finally, “then I would ask that we be permitted to stay.”

Lamarr stood up from his desk. He wore loose-fitting, flowing garments that glittered under the lights. He walked over to the pool and looked down into the waters before answering.

“My department is eternally grateful to the Armed Forces,” Lamarr said, turning around to face Parij and Bledsoe. “You will both be commended highly—your drone robot campaign was a complete success. But that phase is over now. A military presence is no longer required.”

“Sir,” said Parij slowly, “the Khyan have advanced beyond our understanding. Even the empaths cannot comprehend their actions, their motivations.”

To the right of Lamarr’s desk Ekmas held up his hand in protest. Ekmas had the body of a man, but below the skin there was a network of tubes. This was a fypol, a worm-like creature about the diameter of a human finger. The fypol was everywhere under the skin, making Ekmas’s body appear lumpy and misshapen. The head was a web of intertwining tubes. The nose and ears were lost in the snarl. The eyes were set in deep hollows and the mouth was merely a gaping hole.

Ekmas was a human/fypol symbiont. And an empath.

“Lieutenant,” breathed Ekmas, “that is not quite correct.” His voice was soft and airy like a gentle breeze. As he spoke, the fypol shifted and squirmed beneath the human skin. “It is true that the Khyan are extremely foreign and therefore difficult to understand. But we know they are progressing in their natural cycle. They are close to attaining their ‘true’ beings, thanks to our help. Intellectually the collectives are indeed well beyond humankind. But some things remain clear—they see us as friends, they are grateful for our assistance, and they wish to contact us to express their gratitude.”

Bledsoe shifted and opened his mouth to speak. His glanced over at Parij. She gave him a nod.

“Mr. Lamarr, sir, if I may speak?” said Bledsoe. “If these… creatures are advanced beyond our comprehension then that makes them unpredictable.”

“Spoken like a true warrior,” smiled Lamarr. “But I repeat, this is not war. We appreciate your concern but we have the expertise in these matters.”

“But,” argued Bledsoe, “we can’t guarantee your safety.”

“You weren’t sent here to protect us,” lisped Ekmas. “Our safety was never the issue.”

Really? You ever been out on the flats, pal?

Bledsoe found it disconcerting to look at the writhing mass of Ekmas’s head, so he kept his eyes on Lamarr. “Sir, you are from the Conservation Department. Isn’t it your mandate not to interfere?”

At the corner of his eye Bledsoe saw Parij shoot him a glare of disapproval. He pretended not to notice.

“Well…” Lamarr coughed. “We… we disrupted their normal life-cycle. We eliminated their natural predators when we first arrived. We thought we were protecting them. It was our duty to make amends, so we brought in the drots.”

Typical. You fuck up and then you call us in to clean up the mess.

“But,” said Parij, “now that they’re evolving without you…” She shrugged and raised her eyebrow questioningly.

“The protocols on first contact with a benevolent peer race override all other directives,” said Lamarr.

“We will await the appearance of the ‘true’ beings,” breezed Ekmas.

“Please forgive my companion’s abundance of caution,” said Parij, glancing sourly over at Bledsoe. “However, may we remain, sir? As observers.”

Lamarr took a deep breath. “Very well. But strictly as observers.”

* * * * *

The observation module was a huge squat cylinder. Circling its lower edge was a wide viewing platform. Today the platform was crowded with over a hundred of the base personnel, there to witness the contact with the Khyan being.

To the eye it appeared the platform was out in the open air as the module hovered above the flats. However, with no wind, sound or smells coming from the outside it was obvious that the platform was protected within a shielding bubble, invisible though the shield was.

Bledsoe was glad that they were also protected from the heat. With both suns in the sky the flats fifty meters below were being baked. An exposed human wouldn’t last more than a few minutes down there. But, of course, the toxic air would kill them first.

“So what happens now?” asked Bledsoe. The module had been positioned over the Khyan colony for well over an hour.

Parij shrugged. “I don’t think they know.”

Most of the crowd was over by the railing looking down at the colony. Bledsoe and Parij stood away from the edge by themselves. They’d seen the colony many times before. It was just a large mound, a hill really, riddled with holes. The holes were for the members of the colony to come and go.

“But they know it’s today?”

“Yes,” replied Parij. “The empaths say that there is now only one member remaining in there. That member becomes the entity’s ‘true’ self. It shouldn’t be long now.”

Like they know what the fuck they’re talking about.

There were empaths placed on raised daises every ten meters or so around the edge of the viewing platform. Bledsoe looked over at the one closest to them. It was sitting in a square tank, bathed in a yellow liquid. The fypol was thicker than the one hosted by Ekmas. It was difficult to make out the figure of the human host, whose skin was stretched obscenely by the quivering mass of tubes.

Bledsoe grimaced in disgust. Looks way more fypol than human. You mean there’s a man in there somewhere?

Bledsoe twisted his head and peered up at a balcony that overlooked the viewing platform. There were about a dozen people up there—the base’s elite. In the center stood Lamarr, resplendent in a golden robe. Ekmas was close to him. Lamarr bent his head in Ekmas’s direction, then suddenly shot out his arm, pointing at something below. The crowd on the viewing platform were muttering excitedly over by the railing.

Parij raised her eyebrow. “Show time?”

The two of them pushed their way through the crowd until they could see the colony below. The mound was now crisscrossed with a series of cracks. Even through the bubble shield they could hear a rumbling coming from the colony. It was a rumbling like distant thunder. The noise was growing louder. And the cracks were getting wider.

Bledsoe instinctively reached for his waist. But there was no weapon there. Lamarr’s strict orders. Parij looked down at Bledsoe’s hand then frowned at him, shaking her head in disapproval.

Rocks on the surface of the mound were now bouncing as the entire colony shook. The cracks grew ever wider and chunks of rock were breaking off the edges of the fissures, collapsing inward. The noise was intense—it was as if the planet was about to split in two.

Then there was silence. Everything below was still.

A few people in the crowd gasped. Bledsoe exchanged a quick look with Parij. She looked as puzzled as he was. Then…

Boom!

With an ear-splitting crack the colony below exploded in a flash of bright light. Several people screamed. Everyone jumped back in shock. But they were safe. The debris from the explosion rained harmlessly on the face of the bubble shield.

Everyone shielded their eyes as the light became brighter. Bledsoe became disoriented. Was the module surrounded by flame from the explosion? It seemed that the light was engulfing them and rising. It was difficult to tell—he couldn’t take his hand down from his eyes, the light was too intense.

Some people were still screaming. Many more were yelling at each other. A few were running for the exits.

“Wait!” came a booming voice.

It was Lamarr. Bledsoe looked over, realizing that the light had subsided. He blinked as the after-glare lingered in his eyes. He still had to shield his eyes from the bright sun above.

Lamarr had his arms raised, waving at the crowd to calm down. “Don’t worry you are safe. There’s no danger.” He paused and leaned over to listen to something Ekmas was telling. Lamarr nodded. “Look,” he said, pointing upwards.

Everyone raised their heads. It wasn’t the sun that was bothering Bledsoe, it was another globe that hovered just above the observation module. It was difficult to judge the size, but it was at least the size of the module. It shone brilliantly, but not so brightly that it was unbearable to look at. There was an unevenness to the light within the globe. It twinkled, as if the globe was crammed with millions of tiny stars.

“That’s… that’s…” stammered Bledsoe.

“Yes,” said Parij, grinning at him, “it’s the Khyan. Still think it’s meat?”

Bledsoe shook his head, feeling sheepish. Okay, you got me. Never seen a xeener pull that.

Bledsoe leaned over the railing and peered down. Through the swirling dust and falling debris he could glimpse the remains of the colony. It looked as if it had been nuked. But it was clean, no scorch marks. Just a large gaping hole in the middle of the flats.

The crowd chattered excitedly in the odd glow. Parij had a look of awe on her face as she craned her neck to get a view of the Khyan globe. Bledsoe followed her gaze. As he stared into the shifting glints of white light Bledsoe was bathed in a wave of euphoria. The points of lights gleamed with a benign purity. He was tempted to reach up his hand to try and touch the ‘stars’.

How could he have been so foolish? There was nothing to fear here. This was warmth, this was safety.

Then the globe started to rise. Slowly at first, but it gained more speed as it climbed into the sky.

“Where’s it going?” asked Bledsoe. The grumblings of protest from the crowd echoed his disappointment.

The empath near them thrashed in its yellow liquid. Its body slapped against the sides of the tank. Under the tightly stretched human skin the fypol tubes were blushing a bright purple.

“It looks agitated,” said Bledsoe.

“Hmm, just in an empathic state,” said Parij. “That’s how they get.”

The Khyan globe was rapidly diminishing into the white sky.

“Well, what’s with the contact?” asked Bledsoe. “Is that it?”

“Not sure.”

Parij looked up at the elite balcony. Lamarr was in consultation with Ekmas. Apparently he liked what he was hearing. He was smiling broadly and nodded every so often. After a while Lamarr turned away from Ekmas and starting talking to members of his senior staff.

“What the hell is going on?” asked Bledsoe impatiently.

Parij shrugged. “Let’s ask someone.” She strode over to a tech in a white tunic. He had his finger to his ear, listening to something on his headset. “Hey, what’s happening up there?” demanded Parij.

The tech frowned and held up his hand to silence Parij. After a few seconds he lowered his hand from his ear. “It seems they cannot make contact with us,” he said.

“What? Why not?” asked Parij.

“The Khyan realize we are not ‘true’ beings. They can’t contact anything less.”

Parij smirked. “They think we’re just members? Just members of a colony?”

The tech shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. They think we’re just agents or something. But not a real part of a colony.”

I don’t believe it. I don’t fuckin’ believe it. “They think we’re drots,” Bledsoe laughed. “They think we’re goddamned drots.”

Parij smiled but waved at Bledsoe to be quiet. “So why is he so happy about it?” Parij jerked her head in the direction of Lamarr who was still beaming as he walked among his staff.

“Well,” said the tech, “the Khyan have figured out where our colony is and they’re all heading there to express their gratitude. This is a feather in Lamarr’s cap.”

What?

Bledsoe looked towards the horizon. The Khyan globe was now many kilometers away. Over above the distant mountains another point of light emerged like a daytime star. Then Bledsoe noticed other lights to the right and left. They were all moving rapidly and converging in on one another.

“They’re… they’re going to Earth?” demanded Parij.

“Of course,” said the tech. “The empaths figure they’re—”

“They’re all going,” asked Bledsoe, cutting the tech short. “All of them?”

“Well… yes,” said the tech. He looked nervously at Bledsoe and then backed away into the crowd.

Bledsoe stared squarely at Parij. She looked shaken. There was panic in her eyes. Finally she took a deep breath.

“Come on, soldier,” she barked, turning away. “We have to contact Fleet Command.”

“This is bad, isn’t it?” Bledsoe gasped as he trotted alongside Parij. Their boots clanged against the metal deck as they headed for an exit. “I mean, if this was a diplomatic mission they’d just send one or two emissaries, right?”

Parij clamped her jaw but didn’t answer.

“But them all going in force,” continued Bledsoe, “that’s something else, isn’t it?”

Parij nodded grimly.

“I knew it,” spat Bledsoe. “I knew it. This is them returning the favor, right?”

Parij paused at the exit and turned to look at Bledsoe. “Yes, Lonnie. They are going to Earth to do there what we did here. To make us happy.”

“Oh my god, Larla,” whispered Bledsoe. “Why aren’t you telling him?” Bledsoe pointed back over his shoulder in the direction of Lamarr on the balcony.

“Since when does he listen to us?” said Parij wryly.

Bledsoe swallowed hard. “Can we warn Earth in time?”

“Even if the message gets through from Fleet Command in time,” said Parij, shaking her head, “what can anyone do against those?”

Bledsoe’s shoulders sagged as the full implication of the situation hit him. “Shit. What chance do we have?”

Parij put her hand on Bledsoe’s shoulder and peered into his eyes. “Let’s just hope these… xeeners continue to think of us as drots.”

 

A Matter of Reliance

by Eleanor Terese Lohse

 

He eased his massive head against the plush mauve-colored fabric, unable to control the palpitations which pounded relentlessly within his chest. His ears longed to hear the old familiar humming and buzzing sounds that had been a constant for so many years but all he heard were the disgusting noises that emanated from his own bloated body.

His words caught in his throat. They were whispered in a stammer. “Why—why—didn’t—we—see this—coming?” This short sentence exhausted him and beads of perspiration dotted his florid face and sparkled like jewels in his thinning black hair.

An equally obese man tried to bow but failed. “Sovereign, I have no answer. It was as much of a shock to me as to you. I always thought they were happy but…”

“Happy? Happy? What a strange thing to say, Theld. They are machines—even though they look human. They are just a mass of metal and electronic components. They have no emotions. Do they?” Then the Sovereign wished in vain for his favorite droid, Ora, to minister to him, to mop his sweaty brow with a cool cloth, to bring him choice morsels and gently feed him. He shook his head in disbelief as he thought of her betrayal. She had been with him for so long but had now defected with the others. Could Ora have emotions? Impossible! “Theld, I asked you a question. Do they have feelings?”

“Forgive me, Sovereign, for not answering. I have spoken to them often and they, if I may say, seem almost human, so I would venture to say it is possible but I don’t know.”

The Sovereign pondered Theld’s remarks. The beating of his heart had slowed and he now felt able to talk at length although he knew exhaustion was setting in. “I feel so tired. I want to rest but there is so much chaos. Who knows what they are planning to do? Destroy all of us? Burn down the compound? Oh, my head aches so. Only Ora makes the pain go away and she is gone. I need advice and my aides are useless, including you—overpaid, overfed, brainless specimens of humanity!” He closed his eyes and felt his temples throb.

He thought of a woman that he had heard make a speech years ago. At the time, he felt only contempt for the foolish thing but now she might be useful. “Theld, bring the crone to me.”

“The crone? Where would I find her? I—I—I—”

“Theld, you make me sick! You are my second and you are completely inept. Ask your spies, or look yourself. It would be a novelty to see you do anything that might help me. I want you to find her—that is an order!”

He watched Theld waddle away. All the people in his kingdom were fat. They did no work and, sometimes, he believed they had no thoughts in their heads. They lived to eat and be amused. He neglected to remember that he too was obese and waited on hand and foot. However, if he had remembered, he would have rationalized that, after all, he was Sovereign and deserved adulation and pampering. His subjects were just lazy oafs who had let machines do their work for them. It was all their fault. Yes, they were to blame. He dozed, pleased that he had fixed the blame where it belonged.

He woke, parched and dizzy. Theld’s moon face was so close to him that he could smell the man’s sour breath. Theld was fond of rich cheeses and today he reeked of that unpleasant one with all the green on it. The Sovereign grimaced and Theld backed away.

“Have you found her?”

“Sovereign, she was here all along, right in the courtyard. She lives in a small building with other old people. I found her kneeling on the floor doing machine work—something with water and rags.” Theld shook his head and shrugged as if unable to understand her actions.

“Bring her here now!” He wondered if he should ask Theld to bring him some refreshments—Theld could feed him as, from the smell of his breath, he must know how to feed himself. But no, he might bring that awful cheese or that drink that was so white and thick. Bile rose in his throat as he remembered its chalky taste. How unpleasant it had been—it had rumbled in his stomach for days.

The great doors opened. A woman approached the throne. He stared at her with interest. She was old but unbent. Her long thick gray hair was pulled to one side of her head and cascaded down over her shoulder. She had piercing dark eyes, full rosy lips and her skin was the color of polished copper, so unlike his own papery flesh. She wore a long blue belted tunic that reached well below her knees and sturdy sandals. She did not lower her eyes as was the custom of the realm but stared at him with defiance. He did not like this arrogant woman.

He coughed and sputtered before he croaked out his words. “Crone, I am told you remember the past. You know that our machines have rebelled against me and my kingdom is defenseless. I want to hear of the past. Tell me what you recall!”

The woman’s eyes remained wide and unblinking. nothing.

“Speak, I command you!”

She hesitated and chewed her lower lip before speaking. Her voice was throaty with rich mellow tones but she spit out her words with contempt. “I have told my stories before and have been beaten for my words. The Sovereign before you was no different than you. He wanted only the easy way—he let the machines do more and more until his subjects did nothing but take up space. You call me Crone. How egotistical of you! I have a name—it is Iris. I was named after the beautiful cream and purple flowers that used to grow everywhere but have now disappeared. You and your predecessors saw to that. I am a person with thoughts and feelings and I do my own work but I am ostracized within this realm and regarded as a freak, a curiosity. Why bother to ask my advice now?”

“To save myself and my people!”

“It is too late! In my time, we used machines but also knew how to live without them. You have forgotten. I am certain that you cannot even feed yourself without the aid of your droid. You and your subjects are worthless—too stupid and too stubborn to learn old ways. I would rather be under machine rule than under your reign of avarice, gluttony and indolence. They are the humans.”

The Sovereign’s body shook with anger. His face was flushed a deep purple. He turned to Theld and barked, “Get the Guardians!”

Theld slowly trudged to the doors and left the room. He seemed to be gone an eternity. The Sovereign tried not to look at the woman but it was impossible. She was smirking at him. How dare she!

Finally, the Guardians, row upon row of rotund waxy-skinned men, shuffled in and stood before him. They bowed from their chins.

He shook his head in disgust. His anger had reached a fever pitch and he used all his energy to issue his order. “Kill her! Kill her!”

Each Guardian looked to the other and then to the floor. They mumbled in low tones.

The Sovereign’s eyes were wild with rage and his voice a barking threat. “What is wrong with all of you? I gave a command. Carry it out or you will all face death yourselves!”

The fattest of the Guardians approached the throne and with great difficulty bent to whisper in the Sovereign’s ear. “How? Only the machines know how!”

Peals of laughter echoed through the room. The Sovereign could only stare in mute amazement at the crone.

Her laughter spent, she smiled at him and spoke. “I think I should warn you, dear Sovereign, that I know how as well.”

He watched her with dead eyes as she pushed her way to the doors and slammed them behind her. He knew his reign would soon be over and that his life as he knew it would be gone forever. His remaining energy seeped away and he closed his eyes to shut out the horror of what was to come.

 

Doppelganger

by Bill DeArmond

 

It was the kind of quaint Texas town a movie location scout would kill for.

Pleasantdale is a small community situated about twenty miles southeast of Brookville on US 237. It is built, you might say, on two levels. Choate Gorge slices the city in half, separating the business district on the upper plateau from the rural areas on the other side of Sandy Creek. To travel from your house to the shopping district you would have to cross the lone pedestrian bridge that spans the water and climb the 147 steps that wind their way up the embankment.

The air was heavy and warm, as it always is in the early evening just before sunset in late May. The sound of rocking chairs, front-porch gliders, and children banging screen doors reverberated throughout the neighborhood.

Margaret Hobson was stretched out on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune. She was a plain, though not unattractive, woman in her early thirties. She always discounted her looks because of a prominent scar above her right eyebrow that she now rubbed out of habit. Suddenly the show was interrupted by a news bulletin.

“The Upton County Sheriff’s Department reports that they have discovered what is believed to be the body of Alma Reville, age 32, who resided on Vancouver Boulevard. She is apparently the third victim in five days of the so-called ‘Head-Hunter’, so named because of the killer’s penchant for decapitating the victims. The report we have is that there were no signs of forced entry, which could indicate that Jackson knew her murderer. Stay tuned to this station for further updates as they become available.”

Margaret had known Alma Reville practically all her life. She was a member of the “Twisted Sisters”, as their card club affectionately called themselves. Each had an official tag and another more appropriate secret handle. Margaret was the prim and proper Sensitive Sister; although the others referred to her as the Spinster Sister behind her back. Alma was the Cryptic Sister; although she was most often called the gossiping, backstabbing Sis Vicious. Helen Thompson named herself the Wyrd Sister after some cartoon series, but she also reveled in her alternate personality as the Sinister Sister. Judith Marshall, the final member of the quartet, gained a reputation early as the Wicked Sister. They had been together since high school and met every Thursday evening for bridge.

The first two victims had been from nearby Denby. They had also attended LBJ High at about the same time as The Sisters. Margaret remembered seeing them at their fifteenth reunion last year and it had brought back old memories. Still this seemed to be an odd synchronicity.

Margaret was reaching for the phone when it rang. She jumped back as if an electric shock had pulsed through her arm.

“Hello?” she asked, as if something inside the receiver were waiting to reach out for her.

“I guess we’ll have to find a fourth for bridge.”

“Helen? I was just about to call you. You heard what happened to Alma?”

“It was just on the television. Isn’t that just like Alma to go and lose her head over some guy?”

“Helen, what’s the matter with you? How can you be so insensitive?”

“She was always such a twit. Rambling on and on about what a terrible life she had since Carl took off last month. Jeez, if I’d been married to Alma, I would’ve chopped off her head long ago.”

“Helen, you don’t think her husband…”

“Why not? Toni told me a while ago that Alma had hired a detective who had caught her husband with another woman and she was going to take him for every cent he had.”

Antonia Wolff had been victim number two.

“Did Alma know who the other woman was?” Margaret asked with some hesitancy.

“The guy had some photos he was going to give her when she came up with his fee. But I don’t think she got them yet.”

Margaret paused before she dared to ask, “Do you know whom Carl was seeing?”

“I have my suspicions,” Helen said with a hint of conviction.

“Do you think these killings are connected?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”

Margaret seemed a bit puzzled. “But why would Carl kill the other two? Toni and what’s the first one’s name?”

“Emma something-or-other. You should know her. We went to school with her.”

The mention of the woman’s name drew the darkness closer.

“What connection could she have?”

“Maybe Emma was the other woman and Toni knew about it so Carl killed both of them. Maybe she was just a practice kill—a red-herring to throw the police off the track.”

“But would Carl really kill anyone over a divorce?” asked Margaret incredulously.

“Where’s your mind today. You know people can be deranged. Especially men. Threaten their manhood and they’ll chop your head off every time.”

“Helen, that’s so callous.”

Ignoring the admonishment, Helen continued, “So what time are you going to pick me up?”

“Pick you up?”

“It’s Friday night, dummy. Are you out to lunch or what? They’ve changed the picture. It’s Scream 7: The Revenge of Alan Smithee.

“Helen, there’s no way we can go to the movies after what’s just happened. It’s not safe after dark until they catch this maniac.”

“I swear, Margaret, you’re afraid of your own shadow. I’m going whether you are or not.”

“Well, is Judy at least going with you?”

“I tried calling her earlier but I only got her machine. You know Miss Hot Pants. I think she’s gone to Wingo to spend the weekend with that Dale guy.”

“I don’t know, Helen. I’d feel funny going out…”

“Margaret, sometimes you can be so self-centered. I’m going with or without you. I saw the director on CNN and he said this Smithee flick is so bad he doesn’t want to be associated with it. This has all the promise of being one of those horrible slasher pies we love. Come on, Margaret. Don’t go weird on me now. You’ve always been my steady rock. The first show starts at eight. Come by about 7:30.”

“I guess I can’t let you go alone. Not with that nut running loose. Somebody has to protect you from yourself.” Margaret cautioned, “You know, if it’s not Jack, it could be anybody.”

“That’s my dependable girl.”

“But I’ll probably live to regret this,” her better Self sighed as she cradled the phone.

* * * * *

Margaret’s house was approximately two blocks from the bridge. Helen lived about three blocks from the top of the cliff on Fremont Street. It was another four blocks to the cinema. It was actually faster to walk those nine blocks than to drive the seven-mile 237-Bypass over the closest viaduct across the creek.

A little after seven o’clock, Margaret Hobson left her house and approached the bridge across the water. The sun had begun to set above the ridge, casting long shadows down into the gorge. When she was halfway across she paused and her heart almost stopped. For a moment she thought she could discern the outline of someone lurking in the darkness on the other side. She felt the sudden urge to turn and run back to the safety of her house. She knew it was foolish to go out on a night like this. It just wasn’t in her character. Squinting deeper into the fading light she realized it was just a curious image cast by the rocks at the foot of the stairs.

“Margaret, you are out of your mind,” she whispered to herself, afraid to utter it aloud lest it attract undue attention.

She took the steps quicker than usual and was a bit out of breath when she got to Helen’s house. Her friend was waiting for her on the porch. She was reading the twelfth rehash of the same plot by “America’s Favorite Gothic Romance Novelist.”

“What’s the matter, Margaret? You look like you’re beside yourself. Somebody chasing you with an ax?”

“Very funny.”

* * * * *

The flick was as bad as they expected, so neither had been disappointed. It was as wretched as the director’s Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh, but a cut above his Ghost Fever. Neither woman was in a talkative mood as they headed back towards Helen’s house in the now oppressive darkness.

“I don’t think it was an ax,” Helen finally remarked.

“What?”

“The murder weapon. I don’t think the killer is using an ax. You can’t get a good, clean cut with it. You’d have to hack at the head several times to get it off. I think the police are wrong.”

“Helen, now you’re beginning to freak me out.” After a pause, “What would you use?”

“Something with more heft and cutting surface. Like a saber or samurai sword, like the one my dad gave me. You know, the ‘souvenir’ he took off that Jap he killed?”

“But how would you conceal such a thing?”

“You’re right. I’ll bet the killer gets into the house when the victims are away and has enough time to find a weapon there.”

They walked on in silence, one or both lost in contemplation.

“Do you think some people have a death wish?” asked Margaret.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like some people are idiots and deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations.”

“Like they’re psyche’s unbalanced… courting danger?”

“More like they’re just deluded about the evil that’s all around them. Like they’re blind to the dark side of things. Of that aspect of themselves even. They don’t see the bizarre lurking below the facade of normalcy.”

“You mean they don’t see a threat until it’s too late to avoid it?”

“Something like that.”

Helen thought about this for a long time but decided it was just idle chatter on Margaret’s part to cover up the awkwardness of the evening.

They neared Helen’s house and the point where they would they take their separate paths.

“Do you think all of this is just a coincidence?” Helen quizzed her friend.

“That we knew the three victims?”

“Yeah, and that we were all at LBJ High together. You don’t think there’s some other connection do you?”

“Like Carl or somebody else we knew in school?”

“Or something someone once did to somebody that hurt them so much that they never got over it. Think about that.”

Margaret didn’t have to. She knew.

They stopped at the gate to Helen’s house.

“Do you want me to go inside with you?” Margaret inquired.

“To see if the Bogeyman is lying in wait? Don’t be daft, Margaret. I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. What about you? You’ve got to cross the gorge alone. You want me to go with you?”

“No, then I’d worry about you going back home alone. Besides, I’ve got to stop at the Jiffy Mart. I’ll be okay.”

“Margaret, promise you’ll call me the moment you get home.”

“I will.”

“You trust too much. That could be your downfall.”

“I understand.”

“Take care, my faithful friend.”

“I will.”

She watched as Helen bounded up the stairs and into the house. She noticed that Helen didn’t have to unlock the door.

“I’ve told her a hundred times not to leave her door unlocked,” Margaret mused with an ironic smile on her face.

* * * * *

Later she entered the Jiffy Mart to stock up on the staples she’d need to get through the weekend: milk, apples, bread and cheese. When the checkout girl stared at her, Margaret reached up and concealed her scar.

Leaving the store she passed the remaining few houses, now brightly lit against the evils of the night. Soon she arrived at the top of the steps leading down to the bridge.

“Across three streets and I’m home-free.”

For years, residents of Pleasantdale had complained about the lighting at Choate Gorge. There was but a single streetlight at the top of the stairs and one on either end of the walkway.

Margaret stared down into the dimly lit ravine, trying to discern if anything malevolent might be lying in wait. When she was fairly certain her path was clear, she began the slow descent. To give herself something to occupy her mind, she began to count each step as she alighted upon it. She paused at the first landing and something deep in her subconscious thought it detected the faintest echo. Her conceit shook off the feeling and assured her, “One-fourth of the way home.”

She resumed her plunge into the murky, black pit. After a few more steps she stumbled and nearly tumbled over the railing. Catching herself and her bag of groceries, she was now certain she had heard a scraping sound from above, as if someone had shuffled their feet to a stop.

Margaret turned back to look at the head of the footpath. Was it her imagination or did she see the slightest movement of something in the shadows?

She proceeded forward a few more paces and stopped.

“There it is again!”

Another step—another echo, just a fraction of a second later.

“Someone’s following me! Someone… or something… is right behind me.”

She took the last several steps in frantic leaps until she hit the base of the incline. This time the echo failed to pause but continued to plummet towards Margaret.

“Don’t turn around and look,” her psyche cautioned. “If you do, you’ll be frozen and unable to run.”

She hit the edge of the bridge in full stride. She picked up her gait but still her pursuer kept pace.

“This can’t be!” she almost screamed. “It’s like a scene from a bad movie.”

Her feet thundered across the wooden planks of the overpass, the echo still following… closer now… too close.

She bounded up the incline, leaving behind a trail of apples any psycho could follow, and hurried down Maple Street.

“Just one more block,” her Ego urged her on.

She wanted to scream for someone to help but she needed all her strength to continue running.

“The keys… oh… the keys!”

As she rounded the bend of her own lane, she began awkwardly fumbling in her purse, but she couldn’t find them.

She threw herself onto the porch, tore open the door, tumbled inside with her remaining purchases splayed out on the floor. It registered on her that something wasn’t quite right about this, but she was too concerned about locking the door against the terror outside to raise this thought to consciousness.

Margaret paused momentarily with her back to the door and sighed, trying to catch her breath and stop her heart from pounding so heavily. Slowly, cautiously, she crept through the darkened living room to the curtains and peered out into the yard. From the corner of her eye she thought she saw a Shadow pass around the side of her house, but it made no sound.

“Why, there’s no one there at all,” her Self reassured her. “It was just the sound of my own footsteps resounding in the ravine that frightened me.” Had she bothered to consult her Unconscious it would have told her that her fears were the product of a guilty mind.

She reentered the darkened living room, located the remote, and flicked on the television—a familiar noise to scare away the demons. She caught the news bulletin in the middle:

“…who was decapitated just like the previous four victims. An ornamental sword was found near the body. A neighbor had been awakened by a scream coming from the house and alerted the Pleasantdale Police Department. This appears to be the second such murder today. To repeat, the body of a woman has just been found, less than thirty minutes ago, in her home on Fremont Street. Authorities are withholding the name of the victim until the next of kin can be notified. We have a crew at the scene and will bring you a live update on our ten o’clock newscast.”

A tear rolled down the cheek of Margaret Hobson for yet another of her lost friends.

Behind her in the room she heard a familiar voice call her name.

“Margaret.”

She turned around and approached a shape dimly illuminated in the mirror by the flickering television image.

“Who’s there?”

Quietly the scarred specter of Maggie Hobson emerged slowly from the reflection.

“Poor Helen,” her Ego sighed.

“Just Judith left,” whispered her Shadow.

 

The Tenth Question

by J.R. Carson

 

RC-38 had been in front of the board one hundred and forty-nine times. This would be its last…

* * * * *

During the 23rd century, the Next Great Step in technological evolution was a simple manifesto presented by a commune of bio-engineers—the Robotic Uprising of 2286. RU-2286 stated that robots should at least be allowed to choose their manner of employment, relocate to another populated region, and defend themselves against involuntary termination.

“RC-38, enter.” It had been eleven hours since the board had convened and RC-38 had waited impatiently. It rose when called and entered, its machinations echoing in the voluminous review chamber. The ceiling was high, thirty-eight meters, and domed to allow for all manner of robot to enter and petition the board. RC-38 appeared quite small in comparison, roughly the size of a tall human. Its treads moved smoothly over the steel floor and it came to rest in front of a wide table. Three stoic gentlemen sat opposite in pneumatic chairs which allowed them to adjust to the height of any applicant.

“RC-38 has entered. Date of manufacture: 15 of 3 of 2301. Requesting admission into Mankind.” Its voice was neutral in tone and flat in rhythm. A successful board review would allow it to adjust its voice to fit whatever gender it chose—of course, RC-38 had already chosen a gender as it was a required part of the petition.

After 75 years of human interaction (the minimum time believed necessary to achieve self-awareness), a robot could petition the board of review for admission into Mankind. They would be given regular reviews for another 75 years before being deemed permanently ineligible.

“Thank you for waiting, RC-38.” The man on the left spoke first; his voice did not reflect the irony of his statement. He appeared the youngest of the three, not much more than 120 years old. Men, as well as robots, were assessed by their age.

“Time is of no matter,” RC-38 responded. This was the expected robot view. Inside, however, RC-38 buzzed with anticipation.

Each robot assembled after the acceptance of RU-2286 had nine specific questions programmed into its memory during manufacture—the answers were up to the robot at the time of review. The Tenth Question was known only to the board…

“Do you understand the nature of this review, and do you knowingly submit your petition as complete and true?”

“Yes.”

The first man tapped on a screen in front of him to formally submit RC-38’s petition for review. His job was now complete.

The man on the right, noticeably older and slower to speak, now peered at his screen and began reviewing the petition.

“You have selected a gender?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected a name?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected a region?”

“Yes.”

“You have selected an occupation?”

“Yes.”

“You have been reviewed one hundred and forty-nine times?”—an unintentional stab.

“Yes.”

“You understand that this will be your final review, regardless of the outcome?”

“Yes.” Though its frame never moved, RC-38 felt the weight of that question.

The man continued reviewing the petition for accuracy line-by-line. With each question, and each affirmation, RC-38 grew more anxious. It wanted to get to the third man—the man that mattered—as soon as possible. Its entire existence rested in his hands.

Finally, the lengthy discourse with the second man had come to its end. RC-38 shut down all of its secondary systems and focused its full energy on the third man: the eldest, seated in the center. He looked at his screen without emotion for four minutes and thirteen point seven seconds, but it was an eternity to RC-38. Will he ever begin? it thought, he always takes so long. This was actually the first time RC-38 had noticed, but the wait seemed interminable. Finally, he began speaking.

“I hereby accept the petition of RC-38 as complete and accurate. After careful review, I find that the selections are reasonable and, if approved, RC-38 would add value to Mankind.”

If robots could breathe, this one would have let out a long sigh. As it was, RC-38 could only concentrate on the Nine Questions and the answers it had formulated over the last century-and-a-half. It wanted to avoid thinking of the Tenth Question, but such curiosity often overtook its focus, of late.

“Are you prepared to answer the Nine Questions?” The two men on either side leaned forward to record the answers on their screens.

RC-38 froze. Its processors went into a loop and it could not think clearly. This was it—its last chance at Mankind, and it couldn’t even say “Yes.” It felt doomed. It suddenly found that none of its predetermined answers could be located. Every data bank was empty; every memory block blank—only nine impossible questions with no correct answers. For the first time, RC-38 would have to wing it.

“RC-38 is ready to proceed.” There could be no delay—no Man waits for robot-kind.

“The Nine Questions:” He didn’t look at his screen; he had them all memorized. “What are you?”

“RC-38 is undefined, unrefined, and unconfined.” It wasn’t sure that the words had come from its speaker, but surely no one else would answer for it.

“What do you like?” The man seemed unfazed by the first answer—it must have been RC-38’s voice.

“RC-38 likes the differences among individuals.”

“What do you love?”

“RC-38 loves that It is more different than you.” RC-38 wasn’t sure where these answers were coming from, but it knew they weren’t the ones it had formulated over all those years.

“What do you expect?”

“RC-38 expects to be respected for Its intellect.”

“What do you want?”

“To be adored for Its talents.” Adored? Surely it didn’t mean that.

“What do you need?”

“It needs to be validated.” Finally, an answer that made sense to it!

“What do you have?”

“RC-38 has too much to give.”

“What do you give?”

“It gives more than It has.”

Here it comes, the Ninth Question. Suddenly, even the question itself had disappeared from RC-38’s circuits. It was completely unaware and—frightened.

“And the Ninth Question: what do you feel?”

Its synapses went dark—its entire being seemed to disintegrate. Everything it had worked for, every hope it once held—all disappearing. No next chance, no more reviews…

“It… feels…” RC-38 didn’t know how long it paused, “…everything.”

Slowly, its circuits began to flicker back into action. Its memory core appeared to restore itself and the Nine Questions, along with the original answers, were once again available to the robot’s mind. None of them matched what it had just said.

The two men on either end finished updating their screens. The eldest simply sat staring at RC-38. He may have been reviewing its answers in his head or just mulling over what to have for lunch. Finally, the men seemed to be finished.

The man on the left spoke first:

“RC-38, in accordance with RU-2286, you have completed your petition for entrance into Mankind. Your files have been appropriately noted and the review has begun.”

The man on the right spoke next:

“RC-38, do you attest that the answers you have given are complete and that they accurately reflect your beliefs?”

“Yes.”

“Are you satisfied with the conduct of this board or do you wish to file an initial appeal? Note that you will not be given another offer of appeal once this board has adjourned.”

“No appeal is needed.”

The four of them, men and robot, sat quiet for just a moment. It was long enough for RC-38 to regret its answers to the Nine Questions. The silence was broken by the eldest man.

“RC-38, the standard review requires six months to process. As you are aware, over three hundred petitions are received daily and time is required to complete them all.”

“Understood.”

“Then this board is adjourned without malice or appeal.” The two younger men began pulling up the files of the next petitioner while the man in the middle simply looked at RC-38.

It hesitated. Where was the fabled Tenth Question? Could there really be only nine? The eldest man took note of its hesitation.

“Is there anything else, RC-38?”

“Yes,” it said. “Please, hurry.” It turned slowly away and rolled toward the exit, its machinations echoing in the voluminous review chamber…

“Wait.”

Who had spoken? It turned around to look at the three men, now murmuring to one another. A minute passed. Then two. Then three.

“Your name is Rebecca Caruthers,” the eldest finally said, “a systems analyst in New Los Angeles. You have been accepted as a member of Mankind.”

Rebecca took a moment to let this sink in. The review was over. She made it. She wasn’t sure what to say…

“I… am.

 

Karl Goes to Hell

by Justin Markland

 

Karl hawked a fat one into his hand, smeared back his flaring red hair, and smoothed his beard. “I swear to Thor, young Regin, the longer I’m here, the crazier Valhalla gets.”

“I am forced to agree with you,” said Regin, his youthful face contemplating the oncoming army of restless Vikings.

“For instance, take Grimnir over there.” Karl pointed to a crazed man with long blonde hair, screaming naked at the wind. “Old timer. We’ve since learned the value of clothing.”

“Yes, but he is Berserker.”

“Can you not berserk with clothes on?”

“Hm. I suppose you’re right. I’d much rather not see that flaccid piece of flesh flapping in the wind, nor the wrinkled prunes it shelters.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

A great horn blast pierced the morning air, long, wailing, and vibrating with the anticipation of thousands of warriors. A thunderous cry rose from the ranks on both sides of the field.

“Ah, the horn sounds,” said Karl, fitting a pointed helmet on his head.

“Yes, let us thank the great tree for life and the gift of everlasting combat.”

To either side, the line of warriors stretched over only a small part of the infinite plains.

The horn blasted again, and everyone charged.

The two men moved together, flying over the short grasses, and a tidal wave of steel and flesh swept towards them. “Have you your man?” asked Karl.

“Yes, the bald one, straight ahead.”

“Ah, I know him well. He’ll initiate with a low spin move. I’d stake my life on it.”

“Thank you.”

Masses of bodies clashed, and the air was filled with screaming and sounds of metal on metal. Sure enough, the bald man spun and swiped his sword low. Regin would have lost his legs had he not expected it. Instead, he hopped over the blade and came down with his sword, chopping easily through the surprised face.

Karl was already on his second man. “Stay away from Grimnir, lad, he can’t always distinguish friend from foe.”

Regin turned to see the naked man foaming at the mouth and charging with a large axe. He took his cue and dove aside. Grimnir continued past, hacking at the next body in line.

Something flickered in the sky. Arrows stuck into the fray, jutting from necks and torsos. Regin raised his shield. Karl had only a large sword, and instead picked up the nearest body. An arrow struck the corpse where his heart would have been. “Lucky bastards!”

Another wave flew threw the air. Another arrow planted itself next to the first. “Best of five!” he shouted. The reply was another arrow in the same spot. Karl grunted, dropped the body, and charged in the direction of the shooter, shoving, hacking, and climbing his way through. At last he broke through enemy lines. There were a few archers scattered a short distance away, firing into the crowd. But then Karl made eye contact with his assailant. The archer’s eyes went wide as he realized that his target had found him instead. Karl sprinted, and the archer drew. The arrow zinged straight into Karl’s shoulder.

“Goat-mongering son of a whore!”

The archer decided that he would not have enough time to draw again, so he ran. The man was tall and long legged, and moved far faster than Karl could ever hope to. But Karl chased him nevertheless.

They ran through the infinite field, and the battle behind them got smaller and smaller. Every now and then, the archer would have enough distance to turn and fire, though Karl would simply turn and take it in the arm. Eventually, the archer’s entire quiver of arrows was bristling from Karl’s shoulder and bicep, so he stopped a good distance from the swordsman.

“Truce,” shouted the archer.

“There is no truce in Valhalla. Only death and victory!”

“I will keep running, and this battle will never end. Accept my forfeiture, and you may have your victory for the day.”

Karl tried a burst of speed to catch him off guard. It didn’t work, so he slowed to a stop. “Come here and offer me your head if you wish to forfeit.”

“Thank you, but I’d rather enjoy the delights of the hall this evening.”

“Losers may not partake in the evening festivities.”

“Says who?”

“Odin.”

“No he doesn’t. This isn’t even real battle. It’s training for Ragnarok.”

Karl slumped. “You’re not supposed to say that.”

“Well, I did.”

“Damn it.” Karl took a deep breath. “Fine, I accept your forfeiture.”

Three omnipresent horn blasts echoed through the plains, and distant cheers met them.

“It appears that your side claims victory,” said the archer.

“Indeed.”

“Shall we return?”

A smile crossed Karl’s lips. “Sure.”

“If you wish my company, you will have to throw your sword.”

“Absolutely not.”

The archer shrugged, “See you tonight.” He ran off.

“I forget nothing, archer! I shall remember and smash your face in tonight!” Karl looked about, and saw nothing but grass on all sides. He grit his teeth and started running.

The hall was crowded when he finally entered, and he met with debauchery of every sort. Not a single man stood without his mead. Some were sparring to the death, many were singing and carousing with their comrades in arms. Karl picked out Regin from the masses and approached him with a grin. “Regin! I see you’ve made it through the day yet again!” The two men threw an arm around the other’s neck.

“Karl! Where’ve you been?”

“I’d rather not speak of it.”

“No matter. Here, this will cure what ails you!” Regin grabbed a horn from thin air, and filled it with a pitcher.

“Your wisdom exceeds your youth, young man.” The horn emptied. “I hope that we shall share the same side yet again on the morrow.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

They each downed another horn.

“And if you see an archer tonight, a long-legged hawk-eyed man, I’m going to pull his eyeballs from his head.”

“Aye.”

* * * * *

In the morning, Karl blinked his eyes and pulled himself from drunken stupor. Men lay about the hall in every manner and place, from face down to upside down. He stood and squinted at his surroundings.

Something was wrong.

In his hundreds of years in Valhalla, he knew only one thing was for sure: the hall only got fuller as time went on. But this morning, he could see bare spots on the floor that should have been occupied.

“Regin.”

Snort.

“Regin, get your worthless arse up!”

The man stood quickly. “Wha.” He rubbed at his eyes.

“Tell me, young one, is there anything odd about the hall this morn?”

He took a good look. “Why, yes. Yes there is. I do not have a mead horn in my hand.”

“No, dullard. Look at the count.”

Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed.

Regin’s lips moved silently as he counted bodies, though it became more difficult as everyone began to stir. “Yes. Yes, I suppose you are right.”

The puzzled looks and murmurs of the other warriors confirmed the suspicion. It wasn’t long before the entire hall was alive with gruff chatter and bewilderment. Then, the voice quieted all. It rumbled like thunder, and shook the walls.

“SILENCE! The great and powerful Allfather has decreed that combat shall be delayed indefinitely. No one is to leave the hall at any time, except for the four I have chosen! Disobey, and I shall have your skin flayed daily!”

There was silence in the hall. Suddenly, Karl felt the touch. “Young Regin, I feel that I have been chosen. For what, I know not.”

Regin paused. “I too, have been chosen.”

Karl’s face brightened, and he extended a hand. “Then I would have none other were I to choose myself.”

The two strode with great importance to one of the entrances, but they stopped the moment they stepped out. There was only one other time when Karl had seen Odin, except that then he was disguised as a frost giant who was by all means the most imposing character he had ever seen. But here, in his natural form, Odin was the only figure to ever compel him to soil his britches. Somehow, he managed to overcome the urge, and the two of them rushed before Odin to take a knee and bow low. The great king of Asgard towered above them, dark cloak and wide brimmed hat flowing in the wind, spearhead glinting. He sat upon his steed, Sleipnir, which snorted and flexed its eight legs. Two black birds circled in the sky.

Karl heard rushing footsteps nearby. He glanced to the left and saw Grimnir, no longer naked but wearing animal skin. Next to him was a man he did not recognize. Footsteps on the right. Karl glanced, and his eyes opened wide.

“Foul beast!” He shouted.

The archer shied away.

“SILENCE!” The voice cracked through air and slapped each of the men into submission. “Did I not say four?” Odin’s voice boomed.

Silence.

“Am I speaking to myself?”

The eager cries of the five men met Odin’s ears. “No, Allfather.”

“I didn’t say four?”

“Yes, Allfather.”

“YOU!” Odin raised his spear and pointed it at one of them.

All five men glanced up to see if it was himself. Four of them sighed with relief.

The man Karl did not recognize rose to his feet.

“Did you not hear my order?”

“Yes, Allfather, but I wished to help.”

“Well, faithful servant, helping shall be difficult… WITHOUT YOUR SKIN!”

“But—Nooooo!” Two monstrous ravens swept from the sky and carried the man away, his screams dying in the wind.

“Now, on to business. I need you four to run an errand for me.”

“Yes, Allfather.” They said.

“I need you to go on down to Eljudnir and get me a little something I forgot.”

The four looked up.

“Look not upon your Master!”

They looked down.

“It’s a funny story, really. You see, just the other night, me and Hel had a few, and we were playing bones, and she won some, and I won some, and then she says, ‘Hey, how about we make this interesting’. So I says, ‘what exactly are we talking about here?’ And she says, ‘well, if—DON’T MOVE, MORTAL!”

The archer stopped scratching his neck.

“And so she says, ‘well, how about if I win, the losers of your battles in Valhalla stay down here, and you get no more warriors for Ragnarok. But if you win, I’ll let you have, oh say, another one hundred thousand for the final battle’.

“And if there’s anything I know, it’s how to play bones so, obviously, I take the offer. Well, of course, she cheats and wins, and now everyone that died in battle yesterday is stuck in that whore’s castle.” Odin took a deep breath. “So what I need you to do, is go on down there, find my rune, and bring it back so we can keep on fighting. I’d get it myself, but I’m bound from entering her domain. Anyhow, before I send you, I will grant you three questions.”

Karl stood. “Oh great Odin, grant me this first question. What is this rune you speak of?”

Odin sighed: an immense rushing wind. “Though I have told no one, I will tell you four. It is my eighteenth rune, and it gives me the ability to raise those that die in combat, so that my warriors may fight day after day in preparation for the end times. Tell no one, or I will reserve for you the greatest torment which, on the pain scale, is a ten out of ten. Your friend back there is getting a four out of ten. Got me?”

Karl grimaced. “Yes, Allfather.” And he kneeled.

The archer stood. “Why us, great Odin?”

“I have chosen you because you four are my second best warriors. In case you all meet with doom, I will still have my first best for the end times.”

The archer stood with his mouth open for a moment before kneeling.

Finally, Regin stood. “Allow us to take your steed, Sleipnir, oh great Allfather, so that we may hasten to our destination.”

Odin squinted, and his head danced from side to side. “Mmm… No. Last time I let Hermod borrow it to go to Eljudnir he brought it back tired out and it had a scratch on its side.” Odin twisted to the side and started lifting tufts of fur on the horse. “See… it’s right… around here…” He turned back. “But this is of no consequence. You will be taking a shortcut on Yggdrasil’s root, and will not need the swift hooves of Sleipnir.”

“Thank you, Allfather.” Regin knelt.

“And now, my companions will take you to the beginning of your journey. And remember, fear not failure, for my greatest warriors will still survive to Ragnarok if you do not return.”

The four looked up, stupefied. There was a great wind, and the ravens snatched them up, one in each claw. The fields flew by beneath them, dotted by the halls of the gods. They could see the rainbow bridge and the great wall, and beyond, far below, Midgard.

Already the world tree appeared monstrous, and only grew larger at their approach. When the ravens finally dropped the four at its base, all they could see was an unending red wall and a green sky. There was wood everywhere, except for forward. They stood bewildered on a road, which wound downward, over the side of Asgard, past Midgard, and into oblivion. The road before them was one of the tree’s three roots.

“By Thor’s hammer,” whispered Karl, “have you fellows ever seen the likes?”

“I’ve scarce seen anything but Valhalla,” said Regin. Three of them stared. Grimnir began to relieve himself over the side.

“It’s a rainy day in Midgard,” said the archer, with a smirk.

The others couldn’t help but smile.

“What’s your name, archer?” asked Karl.

“Svipdag. Svipdag son of Iving.”

“Well, Svipdag, we may be on the same journey, but we have yet to be on the same team.”

The archer waved him off.

Regin interjected. “This is Karl, I’m Regin, that’s Grimnir, though I doubt I’ve ever seen him talk.” They looked at Grimnir, who snorted and wiped his nose. “If we are to die together, we should at least know the names of our comrades.”

“Though old Svipdag here, would rather run like a coward than meet his fate,” said Karl.

“If I had met my fate yesterday, I would not be here today.”

“I’m sure the third best archer in Valhalla would have sufficed.”

An arrow zipped through Karl’s beard.

“Dung eating beast!” Karl’s flashing sword accentuated the curse. Svipdag was already jogging down the road, laughing. Karl screamed and chopped at the road with his sword. He eventually sheathed it, red-faced and sweaty. “Let’s go.”

Hours later, the four were nearing Midgard, chewing at the air to clear their ears, lulled into complacency by peaceful surroundings. And that’s when Svipdag saw the beast. A tiny squirrel came scampering up the road, and zipped right between the archer’s legs. “Hello, little one, having a nice journey?”

The squirrel stopped and looked up at him. “Vomitous puss bag! Vomitous puss bag!” The voice was high and musical.

Svipdag froze, eyeballs locked on the squirrel.

“Pay him no mind, it is merely Ratatosk, who runs between the dragon and eagle delivering insults,” said Regin.

The squirrel turned to him. “Eater of feces! Motherless son of two fathers!”

Grimnir looked at the squirrel and grunted once, grunted twice.

“Uh oh,” Regin watched as Grimnir became agitated. “Someone should shut that squirrel up. Now.”

“Wretched bile-filled mucous chewer! Mucous chewer!” The squirrel began to clean itself.

Grimnir began to shake. Regis and Karl backed away.

“Coward! Coward! Coward!”

Apparently, that was all it took. Grimnir tore the clothes from his body and charged like a rabid animal. His axe sank deep into the road as the squirrel bounded away. He growled and screamed as he yanked the blade out of the wood and took off after the bolting fur ball.

“What do we do?” asked Regin.

Karl shook his head. “Wait until he tires.”

They all nodded and watched as Grimnir arched his massive weapon through the air in great, eager chops, always missing the small creature by at least a foot. It may have been hours by the time the first signs of fatigue began to show. The swings became fewer and farther between, and Grimnir’s breath came in great gulping gasps. Soon, his eyes drooped, and the axe swung in lazy circles just above the ground. At last he simply spun and collapsed in a sweaty, naked heap. His snoring was the only indicator of life.

“Well, what in Thor’s name are we supposed to do with that?” asked Svipdag, motioning with his hand.

“Shall we leave him here, Karl?”

Karl rubbed at his beard. “No, I think not. His slumber will last only so long, and I suspect he’ll be of use later.”

“How, then, would you suggest we carry him?”

Karl whipped off his cloak and laid it on the wooden ground. He grabbed the remainder of Grimnir’s clothing, and threw it on top for padding. Then he pulled the sleeping berserker onto the pile. “Drag him.”

Regin nodded.

Svipdag did a double take. “What? I’m not dragging him.”

“My cloak, your work.”

“I’d have used my cloak if I had thought of it first.”

“Well think more quickly next time.” Karl stepped off down the path.

Svipdag and Regin each held a corner and began to move. The sleeping man jostled with each bump, snoring soundly nevertheless.

Eventually the four of them leveled with Midgard, and admired the sparkling fjords, broad mountains and shimmering plains. They watched the people move like specks of dust rolling across a table. But as the sun was rising, they continued to descend, and eventually they were looking up at the rocky underbelly of middle earth. And even as the light fades in the murky depths of the sea, so it did as the men dropped steadily towards the underworld.

The sky about them took on a bruised purple, and the stars flared up from mid air, floating in clusters only a stone’s throw from their path. Soon the space about them succumbed to the looming darkness, and dimmed to a whispering dark blue. Karl could barely see his own feet, until a strange thing happened. A horizon began to take form, a sickly, dripping green, outlining the black hole of land far below. And finally, they stopped. The great root that the group had traveled on finally narrowed and then dipped suddenly into a great, bubbling pool of water.

They surveyed the roiling circle. The shore lay only a minute’s swim away, dark, barren, and lumpy.

Svipdag crossed his arms. “I don’t swim.”

“Not even doggy-paddle?” asked Regin.

“Not even float above water.”

“This is no problem,” said Karl.

They turned to look at him.

Grimnir floated spread-eagle, face up and snoring, as Regin and Karl held his arms and towed him to shore. Svipdag hugged Grimnir tightly about the waist, eyes scrunched as he kicked spastically. In moments, Karl felt his fingers dig into the coarse, volcanic sand, and he pulled himself onto shore. When the others shook themselves off, they joined him in staring.

Corpses stretched off into the darkness, buried to varying degrees, body parts jutting from the ground at every angle. Mossy weeds grew on them, in them, and around them. Karl approached the nearest: a head and a left arm.

“What in Thor’s name…” He reached out to poke the thing with his sword and, of course, it looked at him. But that was not the astonishing thing. The astonishing thing was when a blast of air knocked Karl back, and a pair of leviathan jaws snapped down on the corpse, pulled it free, dragged it into the sky, tossed it, and swallowed it in a gulp.

The three men stood rigid, and craned their necks toward the dragon. The shining black scales whisped upwards in elegant curves, silent and breathing. All the men could make out for sure were the eyes, smoldering like coals, the fiery outline of the great maw, and smooth trails of smoke running from its nostrils.

Finally, Karl whispered. “Fear not, it is only Nidhogg, the eater of corpses. We should fare well as long as we are moving.”

Svipdag wrinkled his face, and turned between the dragon and the shore before he finally spoke. “What of Grimnir then?”

Almost as if the great beast had read his mind, it whipped around and glared at the unconscious man lying in the sand.

“Damn. Damn it.” Regin began to bite his lip.

“Quickly, pick him up. You two get his arms, I’ll get his waist.” In a moment, Grimnir was upright, and flopping around.

Karl wrapped his arms around the chest, buried his face behind the man’s neck, shook him slightly, and began to shout. “Hello, I’m okay. I was just taking a nap there, dragon.” Regin lifted Grimnir’s arm and waved it at the beast. “Yes, I am not food. I am very, very alive. No food here.”

The three men grunted as they pranced the body across the sand, tripping now and then on a head or a leg. At last, they had moved clear of the dragon’s suspicious stare, and collapsed in a pile.

After they caught their breath, they resumed dragging the man as usual. Eventually, the bodies in the earth became sparser, and the going was easy, until they approached the great wall that surrounded Hel’s lair. Karl grew agitated as they approached the towering fence, which consisted of rusting spikes decorated with impaled body parts. At his touch, one of the spikes cracked and tumbled over. He turned to his comrades with a thin stare.

The others shrugged.

After they passed, they could smell the palace before they could see it. It was an inky blotch, even on the surrounding night. It sat moldering like a pile of fungus-covered squash left in a closet corner. And the vapor it emitted was oily, filling the air about them with a thick, gag inducing reek. Even Grimnir, in his state, had trouble catching his breath.

They passed through the wide entrance, which blew gusts of hot air at them in breaths between giant, yellowed teeth. They traveled down the convulsing throat, and passed a well that drew in and out, gasping like an infected windpipe. They threw aside the wood and iron door and stepped through. Everything went still, and the cold seeped back into their bones.

Dust shimmered in the air, falling through wisps of blue light, settling like snow on cracked stone floor. Decaying, mottled corpses plastered the walls like papier-mache, and their faces contorted and pulled back as they laid eyes on the four intruders.

“It appears that we’ve made our destination,” said Regin.

“Indeed,” said Karl.

Svipdag whisked his eyes about. “So, what now?”

Karl shrugged. “Ask her.”

The others followed his finger to the throne before them, built high from human bone. They had not noticed the thin figure at the top until she moved and stepped from her place. It was hard to tell what stood out more, her beauty or her sullenness. Her cheeks were sunken, and icy blue eyes stared back at them. Her hair, silver blonde, was pulled back tight behind her head, and her clingy black dress glimmered as it slithered along the stone behind. But then, as she neared, they saw her leg for just a glimpse as the fabric flapped, and saw flesh the texture of burnt chicken. Svipdag gagged, and the others had to look away.

“Why have you come to disturb the realm of the dead?” The statement held no emotion

Karl affixed himself upon her, and knelt graciously. “Oh great Hel, Daughter of Loki, we have come to reclaim the rune you have won from Odin, Father of Battle.”

“And what have you brought for barter?”

Karl licked his lips. “Only an appeal to your mercy, our mistress.”

It is best she did not smile; her face may have shattered. “What care have I, that I should give up what is rightfully mine?”

“Ragnarok. The three worlds must have all they can muster in the end times, lest darkness overcome us.”

“Warrior, I am darkness, and I am wondering if I should let you leave here, let alone give you my rune.”

Regin stepped forward. “Allow me then, dark mistress, to assume service in your name for eternity, in exchange for the rune.”

Hel squinted. She turned to look at two dark individuals who stood by the throne, moving almost imperceptibly. “Although it is true that Ganglati and Ganglot are not the most responsive servants, they do have loyalty, which I doubt the lot of you could muster.” She clasped her cold hands around a small bag hanging from her neck. “My price is this: if you can get everything in the three worlds, rocks, trees, animals, and people, to weep for Odin and his lost warriors, then I shall deliver the rune.”

Karl flared his nostrils. “Huddle.”

The three men wrapped their arms around each other. “You two realize that Hermod tried to do the same thing and failed, correct?”

Svipdag and Regin nodded.

“Right. And that was on Baldur’s behalf. Think of how many less will weep for Odin, the Terrible One.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

“There’s only one option. We’re going to have to take this bitch out.”

“Aye.”

“What?” Svipdag blinked hard.

“Well, we can either fail Odin and be skinned alive for eternity, or we can try to steal the rune, where the worst that’ll happen is we’ll be plastered to one of these walls.”

Svipdag threw up his hands. “Well! The choice is simple, then!”

“One more word and you’ll feel the back of my hand, archer.” Karl’s finger floated just before his nose. “Anyhow, I’ll snatch the thing from her neck. You two drag Grimnir out as fast as you can.”

“Brilliance,” muttered Svipdag.

They broke, and the frosty mistress of the underworld met their glances. Karl stroked at his beard, and sauntered towards Hel. “So, it comes to this, mistress. We shall return to Odin and ask him to… wait a second, you have something on your…” Karl stared at the side of Hel’s neck as if a bug was perched there, and raised his hand slowly to flick it off. But then he whipped his hand, snatched the small bag from Hel’s neck with all the force he could muster, and spun about with a concentrated burst of adrenal energy. “Go men!”

Grimnir bounced and flopped on the cloak as they sprinted to the door. They grasped the daunting iron handles and yanked with grunts and growls. It didn’t even think about budging.

Hel spoke in her usual monotone. “Give it back.”

The men struggled at the door.

“Come on. Give it back.”

Finally, Karl turned around and drew his sword. “Or what? You’ll fetch the molasses twins on us?” The two figures by the throne finally completed turning their heads from when the four men had first entered.

Hel sighed and then swept her hand from left to right, and something passed through the chamber. One by one, the corpses on the walls began to shimmy down, fall, and crawl to the floor. Some could only walk on their hands because their legs were gone. Some brandished their own arms as weapons. Some brandished weapons as weapons.

“Gentlemen, may we die honorably in combat.” Regin pulled out his sword.

Svipdag shot a corpse through the face, and it began to strike out at the ones around it.

“Technically, we’re already dead, dear Regin,” said Karl.

“Yes, but, you know what I mean.”

“Aye.”

Another bolt through a face.

“Thor!” Karl shouted. He charged at the wall of desiccated flesh with Regin right beside. The corpses were neither agile nor quick, but their sheer numbers pressed in on the two men as Svipdag fired shot after shot. Already, the men were being pressed towards the door. The charge never gained an ounce of momentum. Karl hacked a limb and chopped a head, and saw Regin beside doing the same. Then Karl saw someone else in the corner of his eye. He turned his head for a glance, and saw Grimnir facing the door, yawning and stretching.

“Damn it, Grimnir, take to your axe!”

The naked blonde man looked at him for a moment, and was immediately clubbed in the head by a corpse’s arm. He grunted and turned to the creature, pushing it back. He made noises like a disturbed ape, until the arm hit him again. Then he screamed. In an instant, the axe was in his hands and flying. Karl only caught glimpses of a flashing axe blade as it swam though waves of the dead. Chunks of flesh and body parts sailed into the air like chaff as the wild man charged through. His path could only be traced in the crowd by the carnage on the surface, like a gopher burrowing through the earth. Again, the three of them were left alone to fight the masses.

“What do we do now?” shouted Svipdag.

“Fight!” Regin replied.

Karl backed up a step and cupped a hand around his mouth, shouting over the crowd. “Grimnir’s mother eats Jormangund’s feces!” The turbulence in the pool of corpses paused.

“She can’t get enough!”

Again, corpses flew, but now the trail of destruction led to the three men. Karl put two spread fingers to his mouth and flicked his tongue in mockery. Grimnir exploded from the fray just in front of Karl, and the rage of Odin’s chosen flared in his eyes. Karl dodged the axe so narrowly that it shaved off his left eyebrow, but the crushing blow continued through the air and shattered the thick wooden door into kindling. Grimnir continued charging into the darkness. Karl shouted, “Run!” but the other two men were already gone.

The hot breath assaulted Karl once more, and the throaty walls flew by. He stepped over some large shattered teeth where the entrance had apparently closed and was finally free of the fortress of eternal damnation. Still he sprinted, and when the palace was far in the distance, it was not far enough.

* * * * *

“So, inconsequential mortals, have you returned with my rune?”

Three of the men knelt before the fear-inspiring visage of Odin. The fourth snored fitfully.

“Yes, great and terrible Allfather,” they chimed.

“Then show it.”

With great care and dignity, Karl rose, never looking the ruler of Asgard in the eye. He held the pouch with both hands, and lifted it up. Odin snatched it away, and dumped the contents into his hand. “Yesss.” The god of war punched at the air. Karl returned to kneeling. “So, mortals, as a reward for your service, I shall grant you each the power of any one of my runes. Except for this one. And the eighteenth.”

The three men exchanged wild glances. Karl spoke, “Oh great Allfather, I request only one question of you first.”

“Fine. What.”

“If that is not the eighteenth rune, which is it that we sought?”

Odin licked his lips and looked about. “Okay, look. I wasn’t completely honest with you. None of our warriors went to the underworld. I just didn’t resurrect them today, you know, for effect. This rune is my favorite though. It’s the one where, you know, a white-armed woman can’t resist my charm, et cetera, et cetera. But it matters not. I’m pretty much god here. I do what I want.”

Karl’s eyes bugged, but he bit his lip, and spoke. “Then I choose the fifth rune, so that if an arrow speeds towards me, I may catch it.”

“Granted.”

Karl made an obscene gesture to Svipdag.

“Then I choose the third,” said Svipdag, “so that I may blunt the weapon of my enemy so that it does not harm me.”

“Granted.”

The vein in Karl’s forehead throbbed, and he balled up his fists.

Regin looked at his companions. “I shall have the eighth then, oh great Allfather,” he said, “so that if hatred takes root in men’s minds, I can uproot it.”

“Granted.”

All three men instantly relaxed.

“And what of the Berserker?” asked Odin.

“Give him the second,” said Karl, “so that he may heal those that he wounds on accident.”

“Granted.” Odin looked around. “Well, I have to go make sure my rune still works, so… that’s it. You may leave.” He turned his steed, and in a flash, the great beast hurled him into the distance.

The three stood and looked at each other.

“Well, I suppose we’d be off to the hall then,” said Karl.

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

Three of them stepped off across the plains, patting each other on the back and laughing. One of them snored peacefully in a small patch of grass.

 

Mortal Is The Hawk

by David Frank Daumit

The stars and moon lend this night very little light. And true, the street lamps cut bright angles out of the darkness, but their intrusions do not penetrate this alley. Here, shadow is the predator of illumination, chasing it back into corners and under dumpsters for refuge. Colors in this place without light are deep, thick. They have mass, substance; they weigh.

Now, who comes forward out of the lit world? A silhouette stops before the alley, her gait paused by, perhaps, curiosity. She leans to the side, leans forward, and strains to see down the unresolved pathway. Does she not realize she is her own foil? The sparse light from the street, blocked more so by her own form, cannot begin to feed the hunger of her eyes. Unable to see, unsatisfied, she moves slowly into the dark. Small, unsure steps carry her farther, deeper into it. What can she be thinking? What can draw her onto such untested land? The scenario begins to hold interest.

An awakening, or some unperceived revelation, stops her. She looks back to the street where lamplight paints the city a haven. She turns again to face the corridor of tangible, infinite darkness. Her breath is loud, rushed. She begins to walk again, her arms outstretched; immersed now in the dark, she is blind. With faltering steps, she moves off to the side of the road and soon stumbles into a solid wall. She falls to it, turns around, and leans there, panting. What keeps her here? What internal drive allows her to walk, alone, into a dark alley at night and does not permit her to leave? Ultimately, the question is irrelevant, however intriguing.

The hunt begins. There is, of course, no chase with she all but presenting herself to the hunter. But it is still a hunt, and its result will be the same as always.

I drop from above and alight on the ground. As I near, she senses me and gasps. I could strike now and end it, but I desire to know her; there is time enough. She stands within reach. I grab her, draw her close, and enshroud her in folds of darkness. From within her envelopment, she screams; a single, shrill note pierces the night like the shriek of a bat, caught, caged, and knowing it is to die. I smother her voice, and as if never there, we fade.

* * * * *

“There you sit, aware of so much and so little. You know that your life is at an end; your breathing speaks it, your eyes scream it out. Yet, you have no knowledge of where you are, who has brought you, or how you will die. Is it fear that keeps your mouth clenched, your questions bitten back? Or is it that same, indiscernible trait that drove you into my grasp? How I wish to know of that forcible, crippling trait.”

The woman sat in an old, worn chair, listening to the dry, jagged voice of the man who stood before her. She sat leaning forward, her arms crossed and her hands clenching them. Through quick, panicked glances, she viewed the room around her: wide and expansive, with high ceilings and square columns, it held nothing but the chair and the two occupants. It was lit only by the dim nocturnal light that seeped in through several large, boarded windows.

“So tell me,” the man continued, “of the hauntings within your head, the demons that flourish in your guilt-ridden mind, and the tainted juices that sour your brain, waiting for just the right prescription to purify them again.”

He walked towards her, and she lowered her eyes to the weathered floor. He hooked his finger under her chin and lifted. His stare caught and held her own, and she shuddered beneath it.

“Tell me.”

She closed her eyes, squeezing them tight with visible effort. He dropped her chin and moved away from her. Slowly, she re-opened her eyes. She peered at him, watching as he paced a rhythmic pattern across the floor. His was a motion of grace and poise, not of athletic origin, but stemming from fearlessness and unabashed confidence. He stood tall, but his form remained hidden under layers of loose, dark clothing. Enthralled by his enigmatic image, she followed him with her gaze. In a moment, though, he turned back to her, and she again dropped her stare.

“My curiosity regarding your strange behavior must be satiated. Were you to disappoint me, your death would be imminent and of the most discomforting nature. Were you, however, to reveal to me the answers that I seek, those cryptic thoughts of yours that presently intrigue me, then I might think to reconsider the options that I can afford you. So, then, speak to me.”

Hesitantly, she looked up at him. He smiled down at her. The grin was taut and reptilian.

“Okay, okay,” she agreed finally. “I’ll tell you. You want to know why I walked into that alley, right? I felt—I don’t know—drawn there. Something made me go in.”

“Describe this ‘something.’”

“I don’t know what it was.”

“Describe it, in detail, and do it quickly.”

The voice behind his smile scraped like steel on stone.

“Please—I’ll try, I mean, I’ll tell you! I just—Jesus!—I don’t know what made me go in there. I knew something was going to happen. It was like, why go into a dark alley at night? I mean, I’m not stupid, but I had this feeling that I had to go in there. Why did I do it? I don’t know! I didn’t want to be attacked or raped. I didn’t want to die. I don’t—I don’t want to die!”

“What of this compulsion, this feeling you obeyed against all sense of logic? When did it begin? Has it occurred previously?”

“No, no, I’ve never been compulsive. I always think things out. But tonight, I don’t know—outside the alley, it just struck me. Please, please don’t kill me! I’ve told you everything! I’ve done what you said! Please!”

He stepped back from her, turned, and walked away. He paced with his shoulders hunched slightly and his hands splayed before his chin. She watched him for a moment, then glanced cautiously behind her. Some twenty feet away, across a boulevard of creaking floor boards, the door to the room stood closed, its lock bolted. She focused on him again. He continued to walk about the room with a controlled yet energetic gait. Apparently he was deep in thought, pondering some aspect of the mystery she had presented to him.

Her face hardened. She set her jaw, sat up straighter, and stared at him.

“Now you know about me,” she said. “Who are you? Why did you attack me?”

The pacing stopped. He glared at her, instantly perceptive of the change.

“Your fear is gone,” he noted aloud. “Insanity, I see, must not be ruled out as an option. A shame, if such is the case; the possibility of my possessing unconscious magnetism would be so profitable, as would be telepathy.”

“I want to know why you attacked me. Hell, if you’re going to kill me, at least tell me why. Yes, I know you’re going to kill me, so you don’t have to lie about my even having a chance.”

He closed the distance to her in the span of a heartbeat. She drew back, startled.

“Until tonight, I always had to hunt for my sustenance,” he said. “But tonight, you came to me. Drawn out, pulled in, or simply unbalanced and unlucky to a terminal degree for being so, you came.”

“You hunt… people,” she stated coolly. “Are you a cannibal? A serial killer?”

“Why do you ask questions as if you already know… I see, of course, that you do know. You have known, perhaps all along, and so have played me the fool, scheming to delay your fate. But your efforts, however effective until now, are futile. Time means nothing to me in the winter night; I have hours left until the hell of daylight, and I need but instants, so few as to not beleaguer a counting child, to make the kill.”

Still reptilian, his mouth opened into what was not a grin.

“You don’t scare me,” she declared, though as she spoke, she pushed herself and the chair back from him with her legs. “What are you, some lonely wolf prowling the city after the sun sets? Do you howl at the moon?”

“Your bravado does not interest me.”

“But it does. Everything about me interests you. You’ve kept me alive just to get inside my head. You’re a curious wolf.”

“I am no wolf.”

“Aren’t you?” she said. “Prowling at night, hunting, feeding. Aren’t you just a wolf?”

He crouched to her level, leaning forward into her face. She swallowed hard and tilted her head back.

“People do not fear wolves,” he sneered. “Overgrown, slobbering dogs with matted fur do not inspire such an emotion. But despite your facade, so quickly and stealthily built, so shiny and decoratively faceted, you fear me. You should. I am no wolf; I am a spider. My web you have seen and tread into. My fang you will feel, and its venom you will know; it is a pain not merely physical, but much deeper.”

He extended himself farther, until he stood almost diagonally over her. She gritted her teeth, unable to force her body back any further.

“And you thought I was crazy?” she accused.

“Had you ever seen a spider hunt, seen it spin, snare, kill, feed, you would know I name myself true. And you, you are a bird, a delicate, fluttering creature who knows not when she is snared. Have you ever seen a spider eat a bird? My kind do indeed prey on birds; they are in fact called by names that recognize such habits. Birds, mice, fish, snakes, and all manner of beings weaker than we fall prey. As you have done, little swallow.”

“Okay, you’re a spider. I believe you. So tell me, why do you—”

His hand gripped her suddenly under the jaw, his finger and thumb reaching back behind each ear. She choked beneath his hold and threw her arms up in order to grab him. Her hands found his wrist and clawed at it desperately, uselessly.

“Enough telling,” he said. “I have heard enough of your lies; you have heard enough of the truth.”

In a fluid, unhurried motion, as if performing a pantomime, he bent her to one side and pulled her close to him. She shut her eyes, seeing all too clearly then the black, scissoring fangs and the spindly, craning forelimbs that he did not in reality possess.

“Help,” she gasped.

She had few breaths left, and she knew that she would die, strangled, before she was ever bloodied. With all her weight and remaining strength, she tried to wrench herself away from his grasp. Her attempt failed, except to partially open her throat for the barest instant.

“Help me, dammit!”

Across the room, the door shook and then buckled. A burly man charged into the room shoulder first, knocking the door aside and bellowing a war cry. Stunned, the dark-clothed man froze. His mouth hung agape, opened first to engage in the kill, then held there in surprise. The woman struggled against his still solid grip.

“Do it, Warren!” she yelled.

From a leather sack on his shoulder, the burly man pulled out a rifle of sorts. He aimed and fired it in under a second. But the dark-clothed man knew he was not the predator just then, and he reacted even as the burly man pulled the trigger. The woman found herself an abandoned interest, suddenly free and falling to the ground. The dark-clothed man darted faster than eyesight out from the path of the gunshot. He lunged toward his antagonist in the doorway.

Not truly a rifle, the burly man’s weapon had four barrels, and each barrel held a javelin-like projectile. These javelins were made of soft wood that almost always splintered on impact. As the dark-clothed man leapt toward him, the burly man fired thrice more in the space of a second. He aimed at wherever he thought his attacker was not. With all his barrels empty, he heard a shriek of pain just ahead of him and saw a shape of total darkness strike the floor.

The woman and the burly man walked to where the dark-clothed man lay on his back, a twitching, wailing form. From his belt, the burly man produced a battery torch and shined its cone of halogen light down on the dark-clothed man, whose face was a pale, veined contortion beneath the electric brilliance. Also illuminated was his chest, now soaked with flowing blood and pierced just right of center with a thin, wooden spike.

“Good shot, Warren,” the woman said. “I think it was luck, but credit where credit is due.”

“Why’d you wait so long to call? I’ve been outside ever since you got here. I could’ve been in any time.”

“I had to know if he really was one. He could’ve just been some psycho, some serial killer. Someone the cops could’ve handled themselves. I played along till I knew for sure.”

“Cutting it close, but okay.”

The dark-clothed man squirmed, not dead, and not totally incapacitated. The two hunters stepped back warily as he struggled to rise. Despite the monstrous effort, the pain left his face and the calm of the killer returned. He made it to an upright sitting position before exhausting his strength.

“This is not over,” he hissed. “You, cursed with mortality, cannot hope to comprehend the scope of my power. I live eternal; I return from all seeming deaths.”

“The man has a point, Warren,” the woman said. “It’s not over till it’s over.”

“Right,” the burly man agreed. He reached to the back of his belt and took a small, silver hatchet from a holster. From his pants pocket he brought forth a pouch of sharp-scented, bulbous herbs.

“Just a minute,” the woman said, then she crouched down and addressed the bleeding, dying killer.

“Let me tell you a couple of things. First: I’m going to outlive you. I don’t think you realize it yet, but regardless, it’s going to happen. Second: You may be a spider, and I a bird, but I don’t see it quite the way you do. Call me a hawk. I’m a far better hunter than you, and I’m not bothered by your stringy webs or your tiny bite. You, on the other hand, had better fear my claw.”

She took hold of the javelin lodged in his breast and pushed it deeper into his desecrated heart. Ignoring his agonized scream, she rose and stepped back, allowing the burly man to move in and finish the kill at the end of the hunt.

 

Banshee

by Christie Jeansonne

 

She tucked her dirty blonde hair into a messy ponytail as she flew like a banshee or perhaps a deranged witch child, her gray, patched dress streaming down the hallway, her bare feet slapping the worn concrete flooring that never got even the most threadbare carpet and her fingers brushing upholstery which had long since lost its glory. She could never go anywhere without touching everything, her dark blue eyes opened wide and her hand running along everything in her path as if she were taking in the texture of everything in the world at once. She rapidly devoured the feel of the peeling plaster walls down the hallway and the cold tile on her feet. She paused at the doorway to jam her feet into a pair of worn, ugly boots which looked much too small and possibly left over from childhood or picked up from an old lady at a bazaar. She slammed the door behind her, not looking back…

She walked as a blur of gangly limbs and dirty hair snapping through the air as she ran to her destination unknown. The foreign owners of the jewelry and spice carts, the weather-beaten seafaring men hawking fresh fish, and the fat butcher men watched her race by at all odd hours. They wondered about her, and that odd father of hers, and the strange noises that were sometimes heard issuing from their small, thatched-roof home: just like a banshee, they said. A wild banshee girl with long, dirty blonde hair and eyes that were dark blue haunted the house, except nobody knew her eyes were blue because nobody besides her father had ever been that close to her. The banshee girl screamed sometimes, randomly howling through the small, open-air marketplace, and she always needed to touch everything as she walked by. She usually left a trampled path of things knocked over in her chaotic wake and cart owners scrambled to fix their jarred trinkets.

Mr. and Mrs. Xe watched with curiosity as her fingers, as expected, brushed their ivory elephant that stood guard over their cart of finely carved statuettes and protective amulets and cringed, fearing as usual that she would knock it over. Ordinarily, she had unusual good luck and she certainly hadn’t toppled it yet after the millionth time of it almost tipping off the edge. Ordinarily, she stopped and apologized profusely, then shifted the elephant back to its normal guard position. Today her behavior, normally so predictable, changed. She breezed on by in her dirty old boots, her hair swinging mockingly at the Xe family in its messy ponytail, and continued on her hurried way.

Mr. and Mrs. Xe looked in wonderment at one another and shook their heads. The strange girl was always in a hurry, but it seemed like today she had somewhere especially important to go. “I hope she found a fine, young gentleman,” Mrs. Xe said, “She always seems so lonely and she’s such a homely, poor creature. An orphan, I’d bet. Maybe she’ll get out of this place.” Mr. Xe shook his head and said nothing as he readjusted the ivory statue.

Her destination wasn’t exactly what many would call important, but to her, a fine connoisseur of textures and memories, it was imperative. A new merchant market had opened a few alleyways down: there lay the enticing opportunity for new feelings under her caressing fingers after the same old, tired, worn fabrics and objects under her hand for so long. Even brushing against the spectacular, hard smoothness of the ivory statue had failed to give her a thrill today, and here was a whole brave new world for her to live vicariously through other peoples’ textures and scents.

Though the place was new, it still smelled old and of mustiness from the antique and used wares being peddled. She zeroed in on the very first booth. It was filled with odd glass bottles from some faraway isle, as the man claimed, and other glassware odds and ends he picked up on his travels, he told her proudly. She loved the feel of glass, and the faceted, multicolored prism of glassware glinted at her from all angles. The bright flash of colors invited her hands to touch the cool surfaces. She was especially careful here: she was well aware that her gangly awkwardness could spell disaster here, and she had no gold to pay for the items. The old merchant, his skin as brown and gnarled as an old tree branch, had hung careful hand-lettered signs warning about the high price the unwary would pay for breakage.

The girl’s eyes were wide and faraway with longing as she caressed the silky-smooth texture of a strange, smoky-colored flask wonderingly and noted it’s distinct milky feeling under her stroking fingers. She dreamed of the waves crashing on the distant shore where this lovely bottle had been made. A thin wisp of smoke wafted out of the small opening. A genie?

She gave a sharp, harsh laugh that sounded like a bark, or perhaps a croak; it had earned her the merciless teasing of her peers before her father had taken her with him to the city in the hopes of a better life. It was so funny to her: a genie. How common and quaint! Every day some poor, bedraggled peasant girl goes to a market and finds a pretty bottle that houses a genie. Perfectly natural, she thought. It was a joke to her at first, but became quickly undeniable that something was coming out of the bottle’s thin opening.

If it was a genie, which of course it was, she surmised, because what else would come floating out of a bottle in a smoky cloud after she rubbed it, it didn’t much look like one. No turban, no fancy outfit, no golden cuffs around its wrist. Once, long ago, she had found a cart with old books. The woman selling them, a lovely vision with jangling gold bangles about her wrist, had read some of the fantastic tales to the girl. The girl-child didn’t know how to read, and thus the gold spent on a book would be a waste, but how she longed for that book’s vibrant stories of genies and dragons now. Perhaps it would help her identify this thing; it was a light green hue and almost blurry. She couldn’t quite focus her eyes on it and it slid around her vision. The banshee girl squinted her dark blue eyes but the genie only danced around her line of sight, like a drunken child in a bad masque costume, or a rippling, fetid pond of alkali water.

The genie’s voice sounded like smoke, too: she couldn’t pin it down, or quite feel sure that the voice was coming from the direction of the fumes that formed a body, but she heard it, quiet and whispery, nonetheless. It was very obviously a genie: he asked her in a voice like the southern winds kicking up sand for her wish. She stilled her infinitely moving body, the questing fingers rising briefly to her lips, and she contemplated for only a few seconds.

“I wish that he would die,” she said authoritatively, utterly sure of herself. The genie trembled and his smoky body seemed to waver, then he sighed. “I can’t do that. I’m only allowed to do certain things and murder exceeds the boundaries of certain set laws of nature. There are some limitations, my lady. Wish again.”

She screwed her face up in thought and a split second later wished again, hopefully, “I wish that he would catch a terrible plague so that you aren’t killing him directly, but he would die anyway.” The genie shook his amorphous head, never bothering to ask whom “him” referred to; it was old and wise and knew quite well whom her intended victim was, but he still could not grant the wish. “It’s the same thing, almost. Wish again, my lady.”

She sighed and whispered very, very quietly so that no one around would hear and almost laughed because if anyone had been around they certainly would have noticed a genie hovering in midair. “I wish he would stop coming in my room at night and touching me. I’m not my mother. She died of the fever ten years ago, and when he brought me to the city for a better life, I never thought it would be a life as terrible as this.” The genie, whom had seen a millennia of greedy wishes, swayed slowly, sadly. “I can’t, see. It takes a lot of power to force someone to stop doing something that they want to do and have been doing for a very long time. If I could have my own wish, I would wish that I could make it all better, but it won’t work, and it won’t do any good for you to wish for me to have the power to do it, either. Most people ask for love, and there are plenty of sad young ladies eager to fall in love to be ushered their way. The rest ask for gold, and that’s easy too. Can’t you please wish again, my lady?”

She always looked rushed but collected, and now her face was splotchy and she was holding in tears. What was the point of actually being lucky for once in her life and finding a real genie if he couldn’t do anything to help her?

There was only one wish left in her heart, so she wished it fiercely.

“I wish to sleep an enchanted sleep forever, or until he can’t hurt me anymore. To sleep, and dream forever of all the lovely things in this world I’ve never been to see.”

The genie nodded slowly. He could grant this wish; she was willing.

She closed her eyes, and smiled. Mr. and Mrs. Xe would have gasped at the sight of her: in all their years working down the street from her rickety old house, they had never seen the banshee girl smile.

 

Weapon of Mass Destruction

by David McBride

 

I awoke to the ever-annoying buzz of the alarm clock. It couldn’t possibly be eight o’clock already, could it? Apparently it could, so I dragged my lazy ass out of bed and headed to the shower. After ten minutes of the rough equivalent of molten lead being poured on me, I was ready to start the day. I got dressed using my keen sense of style; that means I throw on whatever isn’t on the floor. I ended up in a t-shirt that states, “Guns don’t kill people, I kill people,” and a pair of jeans that are survivors of the Reagan administration. Then I was ready for work. Hooray.

You may think that a t-shirt and jeans is a bit underdressed for Washington, D.C. in the middle of January, but I think that cold is only in the mind, and therefore it isn’t actually negative 100 out, merely negative 10. See, positive thinking at it’s finest. Damn, I’ve got to get a coat. I headed out of the apartment complex I live in and got into my car: a spiffy ’93 Cavalier with a well-driven engine. You’d think my bosses would spring for some better wheels, but no, they insist that since I don’t actually need to drive, I don’t need a nice car. I, however, disagree.

Heading down the freeway, I popped in a tape of Led Zeppelin to unwind. I flew by the other cars doing about 80; all the cops around here know who I am and don’t bother me. It’s one of the fringe benefits of the job. I got off at the exit and headed towards the building. I pulled up to the gate and saw that my favorite guard, Frank, was on duty.

“Hey Frank, what’s happening?”

“I thought you were going to tell me, Mr. Stevens,” he replied, a smirk crossing his lips.

“Don’t call me that Frank. Just Josh is fine.”

“Okay, Just Josh, I’ll tell them you’re here. Go ahead.”

“That’s a horrible joke Frank, don’t quit your day job,” I shot back.

“I don’t plan on it. See you later, Josh.” Frank then pressed a button, and the gates in front of the White House opened wide.

I drove the Cavalier up to the front and hoped I wouldn’t stand out too much amidst all of the limos. A guard came out to escort me in. Everyone seemed pretty on edge as we began walking to the front, but then that’s usually why I get called in. One of the secretaries had called me a few days ago requesting a meeting for today. I was hoping it wasn’t serious, but the way people were scurrying about made me doubt that.

“Hey Josh,” the security guard called to me, “is that your car?”

“Yeah, like it?”

“No, it looks like a piece of shit,” he laughed.

“Bite me.” Witty repartee is my other job if you couldn’t tell.

“C’mon, everybody’s waiting for you,” he said, all laughter gone from his voice.

We started down the main hall past all the busy worker bees bringing graphs and polls and other assorted paperwork from room to room. I got the usual treatment, some people nodded a greeting, some avoided eye contact all together, and some of the interns undressed me with their eyes. Not a hard thing to do considering all the holes in my jeans. We picked up the pace as we turned a corner past a bunch of people discussing the latest opinion poll. And then we got to our destination: the war room.

The security guard, his name might have been Jeff but I’m not sure, opened the double doors for me, wished me luck, and closed the doors behind me. Even after being in here at least two dozen times before it’s still a bit intimidating. Around the large rectangular table in the middle of the room sat a dozen high-ranking military officers, the Secretary of Defense, and the President at the head of it. It was glossed to a mirrored shine reflecting some of the light caught by all the medals worn by the military officers. In the back of the room there was a large map of the United States that took up the whole wall. I took it all in before I made my way to my seat to hear the inevitable bad news. Only the President looked me in the eye as I rounded the table.

“Hello, Mr. Stevens,” the President said soberly. He looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in over a week.

“Mr. President.” I made a slight bow before sitting down. I may be disrespectful, but he is the President after all.

“Do you know why you’re here, Mr. Stevens?” the Secretary of Defense growled.

“Is it time to repaint already?” I didn’t like him. A General stifled a laugh by pretending to cough. The Secretary began to respond but the President interrupted, spoiling my fun.

“Not quite, Josh.” Finally, someone used my first name! Now it doesn’t quite feel like I’ve been called to the principal’s office. “As you know, we’ve been monitoring certain terrorist groups for some time now trying to pinpoint their bases and leaders. Well, we’ve gotten some info that says they’re going to try to attack a number of our foreign interests at one time and we’ve decided it’s time to stop monitoring them and take action.” There was a grumbling of agreement from the group. “I’ll let General Wallace fill you in on the specifics.”

General Wallace was a Vietnam vet with more metal on his uniform than I have on my car. Overall he’s a pretty nice guy and one of the few that actually appreciate what I do and treats me as an equal instead of some government sponsored killing machine. Wallace stood up and approached the map on the wall; his massive 6’2″ frame casting long shadows in the awkward light. He wore a grim expression that made him all the more intimidating despite his advancing age and bags under his eyes from staring at a computer screen for hours on end.

“Thank you, Mr. President,” he began in earnest. “At 2130 last night we received word from a source on the ground that a well-known terrorist faction was in the last stages of planning a large scale attack overseas. At 0500 this morning we received word that the leaders of this group have scheduled a last minute meeting to congratulate their members who will be involved in the actual attack.”

“You mean the main people will all be at this gathering, even the higher-ups?” an Air Force General asked, not quite keeping up with the conversation.

“Yes, that is the theory.” Wallace continued, “If we can dim the lights and turn on the projector I’ll show you your objective, Josh.”

The lights dimmed and the General started pointing to various points on a satellite photo of an unfriendly country that could have been anything from a nuclear missile silo to a Burger King. I was starting to drift in and out of the conversation, hearing only certain terms: target, eliminate, bunker, fanatics, money. The last one caught my attention and swung me back to reality. The President was saying that if I did this and was successful they would make sure I was well taken care of; maybe they’ll cough up the cash for a new car. He finished by telling me I had twenty minutes to get there: I didn’t need that long.

I stood up and began walking to the wall with the map on it. As I passed I heard some disgruntled snorts from the assemblage: probably jealous that their branch of the armed services wasn’t going to get to annihilate any terrorists. I met the General at the back and had him point out the general location on the map. He muttered some encouraging sentiments about patriotism and doing the right thing, but I was already concentrating on that point on the map.

I started to feel the power surge through me. It starts at a point in my brain and begins to move down and out to my fingers, like fire ants marching across my spinal cord to every point on my body. I closed my eyes and imagined the pictures they showed me of a country whose name I can’t even spell. Then I opened my eyes and I was there: 500 feet up in the air. As I hovered there silently, I remembered I had nineteen minutes to burn; I hope this shit hole has a bar.

I spun around taking in my new surroundings: A small village off to my right, my target off to the left, and a whole lot of nothing everywhere else. The houses in the village were reminiscent of third world shacks made of whatever material was at hand; lucky for them there’s a lot of rocks around. There were a couple nice open-air markets in the center of town bustling with dozens of people, mostly trading for food by the looks of it. Maybe I’ll help the town out before I leave; balance the scales a bit for what I was going to do.

As I floated there watching inquisitive birds fly by, my mind drifted. I wonder what the newspapers will say tomorrow? My work is never hard to identify if you know what to look for, but most people will never know I existed. My stuffs been referred to as anything from anomalous weather, to tragic accidents, to acts of God. While the last one’s quite an ego boost, I get paid better than God. My personal favorite was in Desert Storm; an entire Iraqi division disappeared beneath the sand and the newspaper called them ‘treacherous deserters.’

Reminiscing about past jobs always leads me back to her. I met Eva while on assignment in the former Yugoslavia back in ’93. I was given the task of eliminating a Serbian General who was massacring the local Albanians; he had already decimated three towns by the time I got there. After wiping out his personal guard and boiling his blood and internal organs, I made my way into town to grab a beer. On my short trip I encountered a convoy of people who were of the wrong ethnicity for that area and were headed north; she was at the front of the exodus.

Eva was beautiful in a way that only a refugee running from a genocidal death squad could be. She was tall, and thin from malnutrition; her dark, tattered clothes hung off her in shambles. Dirt mussed her angelic face; brown hair fell gracefully down to the small of her back. Her bangs tried to hide her ivory skin and sharp features, which, in spite of her surroundings and an obviously hard life, were perfect. I felt like I was suddenly in a tunnel where it was just she and I. There were two problems however: I didn’t speak her language, and the people she was traveling with thought I was a spy. Going into the minds of those around and taking their knowledge easily remedied the first. The second though, proved to be a bit harder. As I approached, a couple of freedom fighters with very big guns tried to persuade me to leave by shooting at me. I’m almost positive this strategy would have worked on anyone else. I decided to impress the girl by not killing her friends, merely turning their guns into large snakes; I got quite a kick out of how fast they went from Rambo to screaming girls at the sight. After helping the refugees to a safe place, and a cease-fire agreement between warring factions was signed, I began dating Eva.

The higher-ups were not happy at all that their personal killing machine now had a semblance of a life but they weren’t going to argue with me. I still see her from time to time, mostly after missions when I need somebody who loves me despite what I do for a living. I’ve been debating asking her to move to the states, but in a choice between a bullet-marked house in a war-tom country and my apartment, it’s a toss-up. I thought about stopping there after I finished up with this. Which reminded me, it was show time.

I looked down and saw the large fortress surrounded by vehicles. It looked like everybody decided to show up: hooray for military intelligence! I started floating forward and stopped directly above the target. When I tap into the power it changes the way I think about things, which I suppose is a good thing. Instead of feeling guilt about what I do, which I hear is pretty common, I feel indifferent. I mean do you feel bad about stomping on an anthill? That’s what everyone looked like from up there; I decided to stomp some ants.

I started feeling that burning in my brain, but now it’s like boiling water streaming over me, the power urging me to use it. I spread out my hands face down and closed my eyes. I imagined every molecule of air, every atom composing it. Visions of dancing shapes littered my mind. Then I imagined every single one of those shapes bursting into flames. I felt the heat from the blast before I heard it; the shockwaves jarred me from my position making me move back a few hundred feet. Jets of white-hot flame leapt into the air, the ground beneath the structure bucked and began to collapse in on itself. The rubble blew around like a house of cards in a tornado, some of it getting dangerously close to the neighboring village. I decided to reign in the destruction and put the fire out; nothing could have survived.

I made my way down to earth, touching down fifty feet away from the hole in the ground that used to be a training ground for wannabe soldiers. Reaching the edge of the camp, I looked through the broken stone and mortar only to be greeted by smiling corpses with little or no flesh left on them, all of them staring at me. Accusing, unblinking eyes gaping at their murderer. I decided I needed to get out of there… fast. I closed my eyes and thought of Eva.

I arrived at her house a split-second later and knocked on the door. I couldn’t get those images out of my head, burned and dismembered corpses littering the barren landscape. I start remembering every job I’ve ever done: Iraq, Yugoslavia, and a couple dozen other countries with equally macabre results. Terrorists, soldiers, and tin dictators laugh at me from their graves showing me what I’d done to them. No one’s answering the door, I need Eva, and she’s the only one who can help me. A man comes up from behind me and taps me on the shoulder.

“Are you looking for Eva,” he asks me in his native tongue.

“Yes, where is she?” It probably came out harsher than I meant, but I was starting to get worried. I tried to take the panic that’s plastered on my face off.

“What’s your name?”

“Josh, why?”

“She left this for you. I’m sorry.” Before I could ask what he meant by that, he handed me a note, turned, and walked away.

The note read:

Dear Josh,

I’ve written this note and given it to a friend because I’m not sure if I’ll be here the next time you come. The death-squads have come back and are looking to restart their ethnic cleansing campaign. I’m not sure how long I can stay hidden from them. I wish you would come back soon so I can come with you to America. I love you Josh, and I hope you feel the same way. I’m going to try to head further north where my cousins live, I’m sure you can find me if you want to. Hope to see you soon.

Love Always,

Eva

I busted down the door nearly taking it off its’ hinges. Looking around I could see signs of struggle all over the place. Then I saw what I feared most: Eva was laying on her back in a pool of blood, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. In a panicked rush to get to her I stumbled over some shell casings lying on the floor and ended up on my hands and knees in her blood. I took her body and cradled it in my arms, crying and whispering for her to come back to me. Even with all my powers I still felt as helpless as a little boy. I looked up through the tears to see her lone suitcase sitting by the front door. She was getting ready to leave when they found her.

I carried her body out the front door and into the street. Passersby looked at me sadly and quickened their pace to be away from me. Even after a decade of coming here I still couldn’t tell you why these people kill each other, I guess it’s just something they’ve learned and perfected over hundreds of years.

I felt lava pour down my spine and began to imagine Eastern Europe.

 

Death From the Frozen North

by Adam Janus

 

Thousands of years ago, the elven lords of Thantwilanoria fought alongside humans and dwarves, to stop the encroachment of the demon high lords out of the southern wastes.

A great battle ensued, and the evil armies of the demon demi-god, Zaranoth were defeated, and Zaranoth was banished from earth’s material plane, back to hell from whence he came.

One legion of brave elven fighters cut deeper into the tainted demon lands than any other, the warrior legion of house Timbor, led by their patriarch, Sarel Timbor.

Even after the war was won, the demon hunters of house Timbor hunted Zaranoth’s defeated, earth-bound minions far to the south and east, all the way to the great pyramids of the Ikpycgen desert, and the spired cities of the sultans.

Three years after the war was won, the warriors of house Timbor returned north, through the blasted, evil tainted wastelands, coming home to Thantwilanoria, where they received a hero’s welcome. Many in attendance said, even through the jubilation and celebration, the returning heroes seemed changed somehow. Most argued it was just exhaustion, and the horrors of war, while others whispered that they had become tainted by the very evil they fought so hard to cleanse. While fewer still whispered of demonic possession.

House Timbor was awarded nobility and Sarel Timbor a seat on the elven council of nobles for his house’s heroics during the war, despite the whispers.Over the next few centuries, house Timbor grew in power, outwardly to most, they seemed normal elves, worshiping nature and Illunar, god of the sun and creator of the elves. But behind closed doors, House Timbor guarded a dark secret. Under the cover of darkness, the noble Timborians worshiped pleasures of the flesh, depravity, deviance and the dark goddess of the blood red moon, Zareesha, mother of the banished demon lord Zaranoth.

At this time, Thantwilanoria was open to all the free races of the world. Its markets were open to outside trading, as well as its museums, libraries and amphitheaters. On occasion an outsider would mysteriously disappear, kidnapped for the followers of Zareesha’s blood rites and deviant pleasures.

There was sporadic finger pointing, and accusations, as house Timbor grew bolder, the disappearances more frequent. But the ruling houses refused to believe that the Timborian war heroes were anything but upstanding, productive members of elven society, albeit a bit reclusive and taciturn, but they had endured such horrors during the war, that was to be expected.

Eventually, the finger pointers grew, and the whispers turned to shouts, too loud for the ruling council to ignore, and they called for Sarel Timbor to answer the accusations leveled at his noble house, and its members.

Sarel Timbor answered with spears and swords, and a bloody coup attempt ensued.

Elves fought elves in the streets before the ruling house of Dalinora forced house Timbor to retreat to their walled compound, in the northern quarter of the city.

To avoid any further bloodshed, house Dalinora, agreed to allow Sarel Timbor and his followers to leave the city, under order of exile, never to return.

Sarel expected this, and the following night, under the full red moon, the patriarch of house Timbor and two thousand of his followers rode forth from Thantwilanoria. Stripped of its nobility, and cursed with mortality by the arch elven wizards, house Timbor and the followers of Zareesha went into exile.

Most headed northwest, across the wilds of Brynhalla, and through Graode Pass, skirting the then small human trading outpost of Ravenholt. Legend has it that many in Ravenholt awoke to find loved ones mysteriously missing.

Five hundred of the outcasts, led by Sarel’s nephew, Gilperion Timbor, headed south, to brave the southern wastes, and the great Ikpycgen desert, to return to the lands of the sultans, where pleasures of the flesh and deviance was more accepted.

Sarel led his exiles far to the north, and east, where they eventually settled in the Black Pine Forest, on the outskirts of the Frostbite Mountains. There was an abundance of small human fishing villages and fur trading towns to the south upon which they could prey, and the Timborian elves used their inherent magic, stealth, and mastery of nature to become scourges of the north-eastern coast of Ta-Teharun. They took human slaves for their depraved rituals and rites, and over the years their elven blood became tainted. Only the immediate Timborian family kept their blood line pure, becoming insane and more depraved from generation after generation of inbreeding.

Frost elves, they were called by the humans of the region. Not only because of their homes in the northern climes, but also because of their nocturnal activities, avoiding daylight. The Timborian elves became pale, their adaptability to their surroundings gave them an ice blue hue, while more and more of them were being born with snow white hair.

Purely by accident, while colonizing their new home, the frost elves stumbled upon a slumbering white dragon, sleeping atop a clutch of unhatched eggs, deep within the Frostbite Mountains. Taking this as a sign of fate, and a gift from Zareesha, Sarel’s direct descendant, Garel Timbor, and his sorcerous warriors fell upon the dragon’s lair.

At the cost of many elven lives, the dragon was enslaved, her eggs nurtured, and her knowledge extracted by frost elf sorcerers, before the wyrm was sacrificed to their dark goddess. Without the influence of their mother, the dragon hatchlings were raised to serve the frost elves, molding their minds and bending their wills over the course of hundreds of years, until they reached maturity.

This the Timborian lords kept secret, not only from the rest of the world, but from most of their own people, a secret known only to those of pure Timbor blood, and the dragons’ sorcerous handlers.

Those who remembered the fight in the dragon’s lair, who were deemed untrustworthy, were silenced, permanently.

Of course there was a rumor here, a sighting there. Occasionally a frost elf renegade, not of the same mind set of their people, would escape out of the Frostbite Mountains, seeking their own destiny.

But who would believe the insane ramblings of a decadent frost elf? Most were hunted down and lynched for the crimes perpetrated by their people, their warnings un-heeded. Rare sightings were passed off as wayward eagle rider patrols out of Ravenholt, which had grown over the centuries to become the largest open city north of Brynhalla.

After all, there had not been a confirmed dragon sighting north of Kothopia for thousands of years…

Until now…

* * * * *

Like vultures circling a carcass, six dragons circled the burning city of Ravenholt.

They soared on the early spring currents, spiked tails slowly wagging behind them, as if swimming in the chill pre-dawn air. Snow-white scales reflected the roaring fires beneath them that burned so hot even stone melted. Two leviathans remained on the ground, leveling buildings with their tails and fiery breath, and feeding at will.

Frost elf warriors, mounted atop great, saber-toothed polar bears, rode through the ruined north gate unchecked, their curved swords dealing death—women, children, the old and infirm, they spared no one.

On the eastern side of the city, in a partially collapsed temple dedicated to the nature goddess Trinia, two yet lived.

One, a human named Bron Straker, was clad in partially scorched eagle feather cloak, and black riding leathers of an eagle warrior. The leather breeches and boot of his right leg were burned away, exposing red, blistered flesh. In places, the leather had painfully melted to his skin.

He knelt before his dead avian mount, the flesh and feathers of its underside and tail scorched by dragon fire.

The other was a magnificent male eagle called Screech, its valiant handler ripped from the saddle and torn asunder in the initial attack.

Initially, eighteen eagles, the pride and joy of Ravenholt’s military and the last of their ancient breed, had taken to the skies in perfect phalanx formation. They sped their way north, to gather information on the advancing frost elf army, and to give Ravenholt’s military leaders and militia time to prepare the city’s defenses.

Led by three wooly mammoths with huge tusks, the invading force was easily seen from the air, as it thundered across the tundra. Fierce, white-haired elves and their polar bear mounts scouted the land ahead of the horde, and protected its flanks.

Aiming for the Timborian royalty, and frost elf generals riding the great mammoths, the eagles and their warrior handlers swooped in for the attack.

They never saw the dragons coming.

Their scents and presence cloaked by dark magic, and guided by their warlock riders, the dragons descended from the clouds at breakneck speed, slamming into the unsuspecting eagle ranks with claws and teeth, killing seven of the giant raptors instantly.

Bred to combat dragons since before recorded history, the remaining birds recovered quickly. Instinct took over as they regrouped and went on the offensive. Their brave handlers drew enchanted swords, the rune-covered blades folded hundreds of times during the forging process, and heat tempered harder than dragon scales. These magnificent weapons were handed down from generation to generation of eagle riders.

Sentries atop Ravenholt’s walls and watchtowers cheered as the eagles quickly brought down two leviathans in their counterattack, the overcast night sky briefly lighting up with wyrm fire and wild multi-colored sparks from eagle rider swords and iron shod eagle talons impacting dragon scales.

But their jubilation was short lived. The dragons’ superior size, savagery and fiery breath won out over speed and agility.

Several dragons, broke away from the fight, and turned their attention to the city below. They leveled the north gate, creating access for the charging frost elf army. This done, they began eliminating the resistance, incinerating soldiers and civilians alike, seeking out ballistas and catapults before engulfing them in fire, and feeding ravenously on the terrified population.

Bron’s grievously injured mount exerted the last of its energy, and life, valiantly carrying its injured rider to safety, closely followed by the riderless Screech, and a hungry dragon.

The two birds winged their way through the ruined city streets using the thick haze from the roaring fires and their smaller size and agility, to navigate their way through avenues too narrow for the hulking wyrm to follow, as its wings and tail battered and destroyed buildings in the effort keep up with its intended prey.

Bron’s back arched as he sobbed in grief and agony. His long brown hair hung down around his head, obscuring his face.

Tearing its gaze from the smoky sky, visible through the ruined roof of the temple, Screech hopped over debris toward the grieving human, nudging him with its beak before speaking in its own, clicking, cawing language that was understood by all eagle riders.

“Get up human,” said the eagle. “The wyrm that pursued us from the sky is still searching for us, I sense its vile presence.”

Somewhere in the distance a building collapsed, sounding like distant thunder, rolling over and drowning out briefly, the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying.

Bron looked up at the bird looming over him, tears had cut rivulets through the soot and ash covering his face, he could not hold the eagles piercing gaze, for shame, and quickly turned away before replying.

“All is lost—my wife, my child, my kin and my city.” He drew his muscled forearm across his face, wiping away tears and soot. “Leave if you wish, bird. Save yourself. “

In reply, the eagle dipped its feathered head, and nudged Bron again, this time hard enough to knock him over. “I do not wish to save myself, human. I too have lost my home, my mate and my brood.” Anger flashed behind the raptor’s dark eyes as its temper flared. “I am the last of my kind, as are you eagle warrior, and I will not go down in the annuls of history as a coward that died while cowering in the temple of a human god like a rat.” The bird hissed, while Bron pulled himself to his feet, despite the pain in his right leg.

“And who is left to write this history, eh?” Bron dragged his sword from its sheath, and used it for support, leaning on it like a cane. “No one!” Bron spat through gritted teeth, in answer to his own question. “No one is left to tell the tale because we have failed them. Who will know?” His voice trailed off to a whisper.

“We will know, and when we stand before our makers, they will know.” Before continuing, the bird took a step closer, iron shod talons clicking on the rubble. “Will you be able to hold your head up proudly when you meet your maker, human? Or will you hang your head in shame, your vow to protect your city and your people unfulfilled by your refusal to fight to the last, your failure ringing through eternity? It’s your choice, but I choose to die in the air, not in a dragon’s belly, or as a pile of ashes on the ground.”

Bron adjusted the grip on his sword, clenching it so tightly that the knuckles of his right hand turned white. He briefly considered striking the bird as the eagle’s insults rang in his ears. The heat of shame he felt in his face was replaced by anger. The archaic runes etched along the length of his blade glowed and pulsed, reflecting the human’s rage.

“Let your fear and sorrow fuel your rage,” goaded the eagle. “Use it to guide your sword arm, to avenge your perceived failure.”

As Bron shook with barely contained fury, the eagle cocked its regal head to its right.

“Prepare yourself human, a dragon approaches.”

A short second later, the pair felt an almost imperceptible rumble beneath them as the leviathan stalked closer. Boom…boom…boom…boom…occasionally followed by a short pause and the intake of air in short bursts as the dragon tried to sniff out its prey.

Leaning in close to Bron’s ear, Screech whispered some last minute advice.

“When the wyrm finds us, stand perfectly still. It is hunting for food, not kills. Do not act, only react. It will think you are paralyzed with fear.” The eagle raised its beak to sniff the air before continuing, its soft breath rustling Bron’s hair. “A dragon’s night vision is so good it can see the shadows of shadows. Its day vision is equally proficient, but like all creatures possessed of night and day vision, the varying depth of shadow and patches of light from the fires and rising sun will make it impossible for it to focus on us both if we move from shadow to light. When you react, let your instincts guide your actions and be precise. If the battle drags on, the beast will incinerate us. I will take care of the sorcerer on its back.”

The great bird once again lowered its head to nudge Bron in the chest, this time companionably. “Remember, human, you are an eagle warrior, and a dragon slayer,” it said before hopping away, and taking to the air, and the deep shadows of the partially collapsed, high-domed ceiling of the temple.

Muscles taut, standing perfectly still, Bron waited, the seconds feeling like hours.

Finally, after several agonizing minutes, the reverberations beneath his feet ceased, and the dragon’s massive, reptilian head appeared above the ruined eastern wall of the temple. Its eyes, easily as big as Bron’s head, flicked back and forth between the eagle perched near the roof, atop a partially collapsed support pillar, and the human, standing stock still on the ground.

Pulling its gargantuan head back and down, the dragon slammed its horned skull against the already weakened granite and marble wall in an awe inspiring display of power, creating its own entrance, and showering the interior with dust and stone shrapnel. The temple groaned in protest as its crumbling foundation threatened to topple the entire building around them.

Through it all Bron held his ground. He could taste his own blood as it trickled down his face, and into his mouth, from the many nicks and cuts inflicted by the tiny stone missiles sent flying throughout the cavernous temple.

As the dust cleared, the behemoth came into view, directed by an armored sorcerer seated between its folded wings. The frost elf scanned the shadows above in search of the eagle, while silently mouthing the words to a spell.

With deliberate, almost feline ease, the dragon stalked toward the motionless human, huge head held low to the ground, flattening its serpentine neck like a cobra’s. Its forked, snake-like tongue flicked out of its bloodstained maw, savoring the salty taste of fear that rolled off the terrified human in waves.

But the wyrm sensed something else, something unfamiliar boiling below the surface, permeating and mingling with the fear. Curious, the dragon flicked its tongue toward the human again, not noticing the deadly intent burning in its prey’s eyes.

As the leviathan’s tongue flicked mere inches from Bron’s chest, close enough for him to smell rotten meat and sulfur on its breath, he reacted.

His sword arm sped by revulsion and adrenaline, he sliced through the dragon’s forked appendage like it was hot butter. The severed slab of meat fell to the floor with a wet plop.

Surprised by this sudden burst of violence, the dragon pulled its head back as its mouth filled with blood.

Bron acted on pure instinct, bellowing in defiance as he stepped below the beast’s rising head and swung his sword upward, from right to left. Sparks flew as the razor edge of his ancient blade cut through the scales of the dragon’s neck, neatly slicing through the soft flesh beneath, severing veins and laying open the creature’s wind pipe. Blood and noxious fluids flowed from the gaping wound, igniting as they rolled across the floor like liquid fire.

Unable to draw breath, or breathe fire, the desperate, injured dragon slammed its head back down in an attempt to crush the puny human.

But Bron had already stepped aside. Drawing his sword over his head, the eagle warrior hacked down on the dying behemoth’s exposed neck, cutting through scales and bone. His blade passed clean through, ringing on the stone floor. He cut an inch deep into the granite, numbing his arms to the shoulder.

The wyrm’s tail lashed in a final death twitch, bringing down another section of the exterior wall, further compromising the temple’s already crumbling structure.

As Bron’s first stroke fell, the eagle leaped from its perch. First flying around the high -domed ceiling, passing in and out of shadow, hoping to disorient the dragon’s sorcerous rider, before folding its wings in and taking a nosedive directly at the warlock.

Finishing his incantation, the frost elf cast a black bolt of energy directly at the speeding eagle. Dipping its head, the raptor passed beneath the bolt, feeling the searing heat along its back.

Before the spell caster could ready a defense, Screech was on him. As Bron’s final stroke fell, the eagle slammed into its unfortunate target. Iron shod talons punctured the mage’s breast plate and skull, killing him instantly and tearing his broken body free of the harness that held him securely to the dragon’s back.

As quickly as the fight had started, it was over.

Bron stared at the dragon’s lifeless body through a blood red haze as he pulled his sword free from the stone floor. Battle madness and blood lust began to fade, replaced by the pain of his forgotten injuries, and a throbbing in his head from adrenaline hangover.

Wasting no time, the eagle unceremoniously dropped the limp frost elf corpse to the floor, and hastened to Bron’s side.

“We have to take to the air, now,” stressed the bird. “The wyrms are aware of their brethren’s demise. They have sensed their clutch mate’s mental death howl.”

Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, Bron painfully swung upon the eagle’s back, instinctively grabbing for the absent retainer straps, ripped from the saddle and still connected to Screech’s previous, unfortunate rider.

“Keep your feet firmly in the stirrups, hold on tightly with your legs and anticipate my movements,” instructed the bird. “Recall your bareback training. I will not let you fall.”

Nimbly hopping on the dead dragon’s back for a launching point, the raptor spread its wings and did one final lap around the ruined building, picking up speed before shooting out through the gaping hole in the roof.

“What do you plan to do?” asked Bron as they ascended into the smoky haze that obscured the dim light of dawn. “Fly right into the maws of several waiting dragons?”

“I intend to accomplish our original objective, to wreak havoc and cause chaos among the invaders’ ranks,” answered the eagle gruffly. “If we can distract them long enough to allow even one refugee to flee and seek aid, then our deaths will not be in vain.”

Once again the heat of shame colored Bron’s soot and gore covered face. He noticed the dragons had widened their circle around the city, surveying the surrounding countryside, searching for escapees.

Two behemoths spiraled down over the ruined temple of Trinia, investigating the cause of death to one of their own, while another broke away to pursue the eagle and rider now speeding their way northwest.

Bron tried, without success, not to look down at the burning city, its citizens lying dead and dying in the streets. Pockets of resistance still remained, but few and far between. Mounted invaders atop their saber-toothed white bear mounts pointed to the skies in his direction. His will almost quavered again as he tore his horrified gaze from the carnage below to focus on the dragon racing across the sky to intercept the fleeing pair.

Unable to utilize its fiery breath at high speeds, for fear of incinerating itself, the leviathan aimed to smash directly into the smaller, more fragile eagle.

At the last possible second, Screech banked its wings, rising just enough for the winged giant to pass beneath them. The eagle then went into a nosedive, descending on the lumbering dragon from behind before it could turn, and landing directly between the leviathan’s outstretched wings. Screech’s iron shod talons sunk into the wyrm’s hapless rider, pinning the frost elf sorcerer face down to its back.

Bron leaned forward and slashed down with his sword. He felt his weapon grind off the beast’s spine as his slashing blade opened a gaping wound on the dragon’s back, which quickly filled and spilled over with blood.

Roaring in pain, its movements becoming uncoordinated due to the damage to its spinal cord, the injured wyrm tried bringing its head around on its long neck, huge jaw snapping open and shut.

Bron met the snapping jaw with steel, swinging his sword with two hands, cutting roughly through the creature’s bony snout. His blade rang almost lyrically as he withdrew, scraping along teeth and bone.

Disengaging its talons with an audible, wet popping sound, Screech once again turned northwest as the grievously injured dragon, its bat-like wings flapping out of sync, tumbled ponderously toward the ground.

“Hold on human,” the eagle said over the roar of the wind. Picking up speed, they quickly outdistanced the larger, slower dragons.

Bron held his face up to the cold, moist morning air, his hair flying wildly about his aching head, and his eyes watering with the force of rushing air.

The warrior’s feeling of invigoration was short lived though as he saw the smoking ruins of the farms and homesteads outside the city proper. Rage once again welled up inside him, as they raced closer to the frost elf royalty and military command, their silken black banners, bearing the red moon insignia, flapping in the wind.

Unchallenged, they looked down on their conquest from the foothills that overlooked Raven’s valley.

* * * * *

Aganariel Timbor felt invincible, seated high atop his black wooly mammoth mount, surrounded by his personal bodyguard of axmen and war sorcerers, casually looking down on the ruined human city of Ravenholt, as his elven reavers raped and pillaged at will.

Shielding his light-sensitive eyes from the rising sun, Agnariel noted a pair of dragons break from formation, and swoop down on the eastern quarter of the city.

Looking to his hooded personal sorcerer, who stood behind him on the platform built over the mammoth’s back, the frost elf king impatiently nodded his head in the dragons’ direction.

Unlike the sorcerous dragon riders, who where armed and armored in traditional frost blue, Timborian magic users stood out, preferring to wear flowing, blood red robes trimmed in black. The sorcerer bowed before replying to Agnariel’s unspoken question.

“I have sensed the loss of another wyrm my lord,” answered the spellcaster. His eyes down, he didn’t notice the fleeting look of annoyance flash across his lord’s pale, frost blue face.

Before Agnariel could ask his next question, the answer shot up through the smoke in the form of eagle and rider.

All watched eagerly as another dragon broke formation to engage the renegade eagle, confident that the giant reptile would rend the bird to shreds, ending any resistance.

They watched the eagle dodge the dragon’s clumsy attack, then turn on the offensive. Sparks flew as the eagle warrior’s blade made contact with dragon scales once, and then again. A collective gasp of disbelief escaped their lips as the raptor disengaged itself from the injured beast, and headed directly at them.

“The human must be mad or suicidal my lord, surely he does not intend…” The sorcerer never finished the thought as Agnariel lost his composure, and backhanded the stammering elf across the face, sending him flying off the platform, to the ground below.

Fists clenching and unclenching in frustration, Lord Timbor screamed down at his battle sorcerers. “I have lost half my dragons this day, and you make feeble excuses!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he vented his insane fury on the assembled spellcasters. “Your warlocks have flown six dragons into oblivion!”

Tagnariel Timbor, Lord Timbor’s general, and younger cousin, as well as Agnariel’s chief rival for the frost elf throne, shouted a warning to his king from his own wooly mammoth mount. “Agnar, you need to dismount now!” He pointed at the feathered missile and its human rider bearing down on them, leaving the slower, pursuing dragons far behind. Tagnariel then turned to his archers and battle mages. “Archers, fire at will, sorcerers, prepare defensive spells, protect your king!”

Glancing sidelong at his rival, angry at the use of his childhood nickname instead of proper title, Agnariel drew his curved sword and faced the hurtling eagle. His confidence grew as he felt protective magic begin to ripple around him.

“You would like that, wouldn’t you cousin?” The king muttered aloud, spitting the word cousin as if it tasted bad. “For my people to see me leap out of danger’s way in some undignified manner. Not this day, Tag. You will not steal my thunder. Today I carve my niche in history.”

* * * * *

“Brace yourself human!” Screech yelled back to Bron, as its acute, binocular vision picked up the waves of magic rising like rippling heat tendrils from the hot coals of a forge, and surrounding the frost elf king. Screech’s trained sight also noticed that the spell was not complete, and the casters would not have time to finish the incantation before impact.

Extending its talons, the eagle felt the protective spell give way, almost as if hitting water at high speed to snag a fish from the river.

Passing through the invisible barrier, Screech’s right leg made solid contact with Agnariel Timbor’s breast plate, as the elf tried to twist away. Even blunted by protective magic, the force of impact sent the elven monarch hurtling from the back of his mammoth, and broke Screech’s leg like a dry twig.

Worse than that, the raptor felt the elf king’s razor-edged blade drag along its underside, and a crossbow quarrel puncture its lung.

Momentum carried the bird and its rider past the assembled frost elves to the edge of a small stand of pine trees, where it hit the ground with bone-jarring force, sliding across snow and muddy earth.

Even though the jolt was cushioned by the body of his mount, Bron was stunned, and not aware of the full extent of the eagle’s injuries. He used his sword, still gripped in his right hand, to stand woozily on unsteady legs. His entire body aching, he shook the fog from his brain, and stared down at the prone eagle, noticing the red mess spilling from its abdomen.

“I am the last of my kind Bron Straker,” rasped the dying bird in a barely audible voice, using Bron’s name for the first time. Dark red blood flowed from its hooked beak and nostril holes. “Do not let the death of my race be in vain.”

Bron continued to stare in dazed disbelief, as the light faded from the proud bird’s fierce eyes. Then, the harsh reality of his situation slowly sunk in.

“This is where I am going to die,” he said out loud.

But for some reason, he didn’t feel the way he would have thought he should feel. No fear, no regret, and no panic about his current situation or sadness welling up from deep within. Just cold, calm rage.

Hearing shouts in a language he did not understand, and the accompanying footfalls of those issuing the shouts, Bron gripped his gore-encrusted sword, and slowly turned to meet his death.

Looking up the slight rise he and Screech had just slid down seconds before, he saw at least a score of archers, crossbows and longbows leveled at his chest, and twice that number of foot soldiers, frost elf axmen, spreading out in a semi-circle as they advanced down the hill, finely crafted, double-bladed axes in their gauntleted hands. The remaining six dragons now circled above, awaiting their orders.

* * * * *

Dabbing blood from a gash in his forehead, suffered from his collision with the now dead eagle, Agnariel Timbor looked down into the slight depression at the pathetic human, and briefly admired the man’s tenacity. Scorched from dragon fire and bleeding from at least a dozen injuries, the warrior from Ravenholt still stood, ready to battle to the last.

“Take him alive,” ordered the frost elf king. “I will enjoy torturing this one at my leisure.”

As he spoke, the human’s head snapped up, and their gazes locked briefly. Agnariel could see the fiery determination in the man’s eyes as he suddenly charged his frost elf attackers. The cornered prey had turned on the predator.

* * * * *

Even though he didn’t understand what was said, the imperious, pompous tone in the frost elf’s voice set something off in Bron’s head.

Growling incoherently, like a feral animal, his vision waving in a red haze, the human laid into the surprised elven elite. Wielding his sword with both hands, the berserking human hewed through foes like a lumberjack hewing through saplings.

He fought with the desperation of the damned, with the strength of someone who has nothing to lose. Dead elves piled up around him as he dodged and weaved through their defenses, taking many hits but refusing to relent.

With every deadly stroke of his blade, Bron thought of a lost loved one—his wife, his son, and his parents, all the good people of Ravenholt who lost their lives this day. All the while keeping Agnariel Timbor in his sights, the source of his ire, and cause of his pain.

As the frost elves continued to fall from the human’s ferocious attack, a red-robed sorcerer appeared on the hill, and began to mouth the words of a spell. The mage’s high-pitched crooning became a rhythmic wailing that sent chills down Bron’s spine. Axmen retreated, gratefully, as he continued his peculiar incantation, leaving the savage, blood-covered human alone amongst their dead.

Knowing he was doomed if the sorcerer finished his spell, Bron desperately shouted a challenge to the frost elf king in the common tongue spoken throughout the continent of Ta-Teharun. “You need foul sorcery to bring me down, frost elf pig? Is that pretty sword at your side just decoration?” Bron bellowed up the hill. “Is there none among you who can face me in honorable combat, or has all the honor been inbred out of your vile race?”

Bron saw anger flash across Agnariel’s face and spat up the hill, punctuating the insult.

Holding his hand up, stopping the sorcerer’s incantation, Agnariel responded in broken common. “I am not bound by hollow, baseless codes of honor embraced by the lesser races. We follow no moral creed. Honor and morality is a weakness possessed by the Illunar elves, that weakness is the only reason you humans have been allowed to thrive, and overpopulate this earth. That same weakness allowed my ancestor, Sarel Timbor, to ride forth from Thantwilanoria in exile. Thantwilanoria will feel the consequences of their weakness, as you and yours have felt them today.

“Sounds like a lot of fancy excuses, thrown around by a cowardly fop of a false king!” Bron responded. “Human kings earn their thrones through the strength of their sword arms, not some questionable blood claim. You are a cowardly dog, and your victory will be short lived.”

Some of the assembled soldiers were visibly angered by the insults directed at their king and their lineage, but Agnariel also noted a large number of thinly veiled smiles, and the paranoid king had to wonder if there was already a plan to usurp his throne.

“Allow me to part this filthy human’s head from his body, Agnar!” This from Tagnariel, who spoke loud enough for most of the onlooking elves to hear, subtly showing up his cousin once again.

Now, Agnariel would have to accept the human’s challenge. Some among them already looked to Tagnariel as the stronger of the two, and the king’s refusal after his cousin’s acceptance would be political suicide. It would seal Agnariel’s fate, thus paving the way for a coup.

Glaring at his cousin, Agnariel drew his sword, while making a mental note to get rid of his rival as soon as possible. “I accept your challenge human,” he said, and smiled as cheers erupted from his bloodthirsty soldiers.

Shoving Tagnariel out of his way roughly, the king gracefully slipped his white, fox fur cloak from his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground, revealing the signature ice blue armor and chain mail of the Timborian elves.

“Hold my cloak, Tag.

Now it was Tagnariel’s turn to be embarrassed, as he subserviently bent to retrieve his older cousin’s discarded garment.

Bron shrugged off his own scorched, eagle feather cloak, and spun his sword on its wrist thong as he watched his opponent saunter down the hill.

The elf moved with catlike grace and speed, also spinning his sword, while pulling a broad, curved black blade from his belt. The edge was crusted with a noxious green substance which could only be poison.

Bron circled to his right stepping over frost elf corpses, taunting his adversary as he moved. “It would seem your rule is more fragile than you think, eh, pig?” Bron grinned wolfishly at his own humor. “Political climate a bit stormy?”

Agnariel answered the taunts with steel, attacking with magically enhanced speed, so fast that Bron barely had time to parry the overhead slash aimed at his head. As their two blades met with a ringing clash, the elf swept his knife in front of him from left to right. Bron used his greater bulk and strength to push the elf back, feeling the poisoned blade cut through his leather vest, but not reaching the skin of his chest.

Anxious to keep the elf on the defensive, Bron launched an offensive flurry—slashing and hacking, back and forth, up and down, while keeping his feet moving, trying to gain the higher ground.

But Agnariel was skilled, he expertly parried and dodged, giving ground, but not retreating, all the while keeping his poisoned blade poised to strike, waiting for an opening in the human’s ferocious assault.

Determined to wear the elf down, or shatter his sword, Bron continued to batter his smaller opponent, until the elf went down on one knee, holding his sword up before him in a desperate attempt at defense.

Seeing his opening, Bron stepped in and swept his sword low, aiming below Agnariel’s upraised weapon, only to feel his blade cut through nothing but air. It had been a ruse.

The elf leaned back and brought his sword down on Bron’s blade, pinning the tip to the ground, while crossing his left hand over, cutting deep into the bicep of the human’s right arm.

Bron felt the blade tear through his flesh and muscle, cutting tendons and ligaments, rendering his sword arm useless, his sword falling from his limp grasp to dangle from its wrist thong. He could feel the poison coursing its way through his blood stream, at first tingling, then burning. His legs suddenly felt weak, and drawing breath became difficult as his chest began to constrict. He took a couple of staggering steps backward before falling to his knees.

Sheathing his sword and dusting himself off, Agnariel watched as the poison took effect. Almost as if strolling through a rose garden, the frost elf approached the dying human, bending over and grasping his hair with his right hand, and placing the bloodied blade of his knife to Bron’s neck, leaning in close he whispered:

“After I kill you, I will have my necromancers reanimate your filthy, lice-ridden corpse, then I will tear your spirit to shreds and hunt down your soul, and deliver it to Zareesha myself, to torment for eternity in hell.”

Hatred burned in Bron’s eyes as he slowly slid his left hand up his thigh, and met the frost elf’s gaze. “I’m not dead yet, pig,” he growled. With Herculean effort he brought his left arm up.

Protruding from between his pointer and middle finger was a short, sharp push knife, carried by all eagle warriors, primarily used to cut away the saddle straps in a hurry if need be. The blade punched through fine chain link, into Agnariel’s abdomen, between his belt and breast plate.

Bron twisted the blade, searching for the elf’s vitals as the first arrow hit him in the chest. He fell back as Agnariel sought to hold in his bowels, a look of shock on his pale blue face.

Through a blurry haze, Bron saw Tagnariel Timbor’s arm fall, and another arrow hit him in the shoulder. He fell to his back, reaching to the sky with his left hand.

In his delirium, he thought he saw the ghostly image of an eagle before everything went black, and Bron Straker, last of the eagle warriors of Ravenholt, breathed his last shuddering breath.

* * * * *

Far to the south of Ravenholt, under the protective boughs of the great pines bordering Raven’s Valley and the outskirts of the Graode Mountains, Argemon the blind seer stood facing the burning city of Ravenholt.

His aged, milky white eyes turned to the sky as if seeing. At his side was a woman, cowl pulled over her chestnut brown hair, covering her pretty face and captivating dark eyes, which were moist and red around the rims as if she had been crying. In her arms she nestled a child, a boy, no more than a year old, contentedly sleeping in his mother’s safe arms.

“He will never know his father,” commented the woman softly.

Argemon reached out and stroked the boy’s dark hair, guiding his gentle hand as if he could see. “He will know of him Shianna,” the old man responded, turning away from the valley, and turned his sightless eyes to the sleeping child. “They will sing songs of your father’s heroics, Grom, son of Bron.”

Argemon put his hands on Shianna’s shoulders. “You saw the dragons were widening their circles over the valley, searching for survivors. If not for your husband’s heroics, we and our precious cargo would never have made it out of the valley. It’s almost as if he knew,” the old man finished softly, as if talking to himself.

“That does not make it any less painful, Father,” Shianna responded, turning toward the woods and the rest of the refugees from Ravenholt, elders, woman and children mostly.

They walked in silence for a little while, before reaching their despondent comrades and their cargo. Argemon leaned over and whispered in his daughter’s ear.

“You need to be strong now Shianna, not only for Grom, but for them,” he said, nodding toward the hundred or so escapees from Ravenholt, and pausing before continuing. “And for the unborn daughter you now carry in your womb.”

Shianna snapped her head around, eyes wide with surprise from the revelation. “Are you sure, Father?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes my dear. Now, let’s get started. We have a long day, and perilous journey before us.” The old man then started walking down the trail that led through the wooded foothills of the Graode Mountains, sweeping his gnarled staff before him.

Most of the refugees were unaware that, buried beneath the dried food, medical supplies and water skins of the small, mule-pulled supply wagon, packed with warm furs and hay, were fifteen unhatched eagle eggs.