Puck’s

by Kellen C. Parr

 

There is something unusual about Puck’s. Its façade is wholly unremarkable, not unlike those of half a dozen other bars and clubs on Ionia Street, or a thousand other establishments in a thousand other cities across America. The selection of spirits is respectable, while twenty varieties of beer flow from its taps. Puck’s clientele is ordinary, the expected mix of the young and the faded, beauty new-minted and tarnished, the pompously naïve and the casualties of a thousand concessions. It is neither the latest thing nor the proverbial dive.

Nonetheless, there is something unusual about Puck’s.

Since it lies not on the surface, nobody talks about it, few even acknowledge it. It is on the tips of tongues, the edge of awareness. If you step through its doors, you can sense the difference, but only as an indefinable thing best left ignored. Even the most obvious is often overlooked when it makes people uncomfortable, and the secret of Puck’s is nothing so glaring.

Thus, the patrons go about the timeless business of drowning sorrow and concern without reservation, ignorant and unafraid. Pints vanish over the course of the night, taking inhibitions with them. The people are happy, if only for the dark hours, and usually nothing happens that does not happen every night countless times the world over.

But, now and again, something occurs.

Somewhere in the fugue, people are lost. Never many, not terribly often, but it does happen. Patrons simply… vanish. It is nothing dramatic, nothing you can watch with your eyes of flesh and blood. Still, it happens all the same, as surely as the sun rises. Sometimes, people who go into Puck’s never come back out.

When it happens, it goes like this…

*****

Greta was twenty, though her driver’s license declared her almost twenty-two. Unlike most photographic IDs, it did not lie about her appearance—she really did look like the girl in the picture, who was lightly freckled, strawberry blonde, and wholesomely pretty, if not beautiful. More than once, she had worried that it was too good a photo for a license, a giveaway that it was counterfeit.

But she was cute, and disarmingly coy besides, so few doormen ever questioned the ID.

The burly guard at Puck’s scarcely glanced at it before admitting her, along with three friends (two of them legal) to the bar. They wound their way through the dark, warm press of strangers to the counter and ordered drinks. Greta got an appletini, and a wink from the thirtyish bartender.

The girls—for girls they were still, only pretending to be young women—drank and chattered, laughing and growing steadily drunker as the night deepened. They accepted the tithes of the men and boys who approached, full of hope and swagger and clichés. One of them was nice enough, and handsome enough, that Greta agreed to dance with him, although she knew it would go no further. Her friends took to the floor as well, a few paces off, close enough to keep an eye on her. They didn’t do so, because they were drunk, but they could have.

Soon enough, Greta lost the boy in the confusion, the tangle of limbs and swirling hair. She thought about sitting down for a bit, having a breather and maybe another cocktail, something vivid, tropical. But still she felt the lure of the dance floor, the energy generated by all those people, so she stayed. Through the flash and haze, she made her way over to her trio of friends. After a few seconds of shouting and futile gesticulating they abandoned communication, surrendering to the music. It pulsed and throbbed, in ears, chests, veins, compelling movement, urging all who heard it to let go, be free, live.

So, Greta let go.

She swayed and spun, stomped and thrust to the beat. Some time later, she noticed she was no longer amongst her friends, but it did not occur to her to worry. She danced. Before that night, prior to that moment, she had not believed people could be so moved by music. It resonated within her, intoxicating and wonderful. Reveling in the sound and color, Greta barely noticed that most of the faces around her were unfamiliar. She was not dancing with those who had walked into Puck’s that evening. There were faces from a myriad of ages, souls who had danced since first the music played. They moved with her, every dancer knowing the next footfall, the next twirl, the next gyration as intimately as she knew the curves of her own body.

And so Greta was lost.

Her friends left Puck’s with vague memories of her stepping out with that boy, or saying she didn’t feel well and would find her own way home, not to worry. It was all confusing, muddled in their minds. Then, gradually, they forgot. Even though they were truly her friends, one of them for near a decade, they forgot Greta. So did the world. She had slipped through the cracks, evanesced from a real person, to a memory, to nothing at all.

In the old days, the times when belief was as strong as anything, people spoke of fairy rings. Children were warned against such snares, told how they could become caught up in a reel not of the waking world. Back then, folk knew the danger of the music, the peril of such delight.

Today, they simply forget.

 

I Hope You Like Seawater

by Meghan Stigge

 

Oliver Wellton woke with sand in his mouth and thunder in his head. He blinked his dry eyes and wished he had stopped three cups earlier than he had the night before. Perhaps then he would have woken comfortable and cool on his mat within the acropolis walls rather than hot, on a beach of pebbles, and staring at the naked asscheeks of his friend just a few feet away.

As he rolled to sit up, Oliver inhaled the ocean breeze and shifted a bit further into the shade of the brush. He knew that the rising sun on the beaches of Rhodos shifted the air from life-affirming to brutal quite early.

He looked over at what he could see of Philip again and grinned despite his blooming headache.

“Wake!” he said, pelting Philip on the right cheek with a small stone. Philip flinched and fumbled at the pants around his knees as he rolled to see what had hit him. His face of alarm quickly turned to a sheepish grin as he met Oliver’s eye. It then bordered on embarrassment when the woman beside Philip propped herself up and straightened her dress.

“Good morning, sweet lovers,” Oliver told them both. He decided to face the situation directly. “May I express my delight that my presence did nothing to prevent your…” he coughed, “discourse last night.”

The woman looked directly at Oliver.

“Never fear,” he told her. “Philip’s secrets, and therefore, yours, are forever safe with me. And,” he added, “you can go home this morning assured that you picked a fiercely kind and honorable man to… engage in discourse with last night. Philip will do right by you.”

A solitary eyebrow went up on the young woman’s pretty face. Then a look came over her that Oliver didn’t recognize. “He did well enough by me already last night, sir,” she said. “I only regret that you were here.”

Oliver looked at Philip, who grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

Philip stood and offered his hand to the woman. “Please allow me to see you to Hedgerow Street,” he said as he helped her to her feet. “Oliver. I’ll see you in the acropolis.”

Oliver nodded, and bid the lady farewell. As they left him, he sighed, rubbed his sore neck, and tried to remember exactly how the three of them had ended up sleeping on the beach. The morning’s ocean breeze was gentle and it lulled him into a vague recall of the previous night’s events. He remembered the plan to have a few cups on the tavern’s terrace after a long shift in the acropolis guard.

Yes, he definitely recalled the tavern terrace. They had toasted with their fellow knights, they hoped for advances from the townswomen, and the birra’s intoxicating effects had convinced them that they needed to see the nighttime photoluminescence of the sea flora washing ashore. And so the two knights and the woman had parted ways with the rest of their party and set off to indulge in what the Rhodians called Light-Gazing.

Except that Oliver was the only one who had done any Light-Gazing.

The previous night’s recall complete, Oliver stretched his arms and contemplated returning to the acropolis, and duty. He closed his eyes and drew a breath deep into his chest, summoning the energy to plod home. When he opened his eyes, a woman stood before him, dripping with salt water. He startled, confused at her sudden appearance.

“You’re on my beach,” she said.

He squinted up at her. The sun was positioned just behind her head, shadowing her face and bestowing her with an eye-piercing halo.

Your beach,” he said, stupidly.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

He ran a hand through his hair, willing his mind to function. “Well,” he said, “that’s a rather unfortunate story.”

“Never mind that,” she said with impatience. “Please leave. I have work to do. And if you try to poach my beach, I will make sure you have a ‘rather unfortunate’ accident.”

Oliver stared up at the shadow that was her face, more confused by the second. “Work? Poach? What?”

She grimaced and turned on her heel. “I mean it,” she yelled as she walked away. “Leave!”

Oliver watched as she walked away. The eclipse that she had made of the sun slipped away with her. In one fluid motion, she stepped gracefully into the sea, raised her arms, and dove beneath the waves. He sat for a few more minutes, trying to make sense of their exchange, but he never saw her surface.

*****

The cool walls of the acropolis and a splash of water on his face cleared his head well enough.

He reported to his station for the day, relieved the soldier in place, and assumed an attentive stance outside the door of the Didaskalos at work. His thoughts first turned to what advances might be happening on the other side of the door at that moment. The Didaskalos stationed on Rhodos were a mind trust of sorts, gathered from afar to study, imagine, create, and heal. Their genius was renowned and valuable, necessitating the specialized order of guards to which Oliver belonged. His curiosity about their work never diminished, even after standing watch to their efforts for years.

His thoughts then turned to the events of the morning. The woman’s sudden appearance had not made sense; her sharp words had not made sense; her disappearance had not made sense. And how had she managed to not surface during the time that he had stared at the sea? Perhaps she had, and he had simply not seen her in the sun’s glare off the water. He leaned slightly back, taking pleasure in the cool touch of the acropolis’s stone walls at his back.

He startled at the sudden crash of the door opening beside him and turned on alert when a very large bearded man strode through, then stopped to turn and pull the door shut behind him with a slam.

The man, dressed in a simple brown tunic, noticed Oliver and let out a grunt. “Thank Theos it’s you,” he bellowed from deep in his formidable belly. “Come. I won’t suffer their ignorance any longer today! I need to sit and talk with someone with common sense.”

The man was halfway down the hall before Oliver realized that the man was talking about him.

“Simon,” he called after the man. “I cannot leave my post.”

Simon answered without turning or breaking his lumbering stride. “Damn your post, man! They’ll be fine for the three minutes it takes to find a replacement. Come!”

Oliver smiled with relief. When a Didaskalos commanded, one had to comply.

“What have they done now?” he asked when he caught up.

“They’re uncompromising, nearsighted fools,” Simon sputtered. He spun, nearly causing Oliver to collide with his great belly. “Tell me, do you think that it is more likely that illness is caused by humours within us, or by something from outside that attacks our bodies?” He waited expectantly.

Oliver considered this. “It seems to me, Simon,” he said, “that civilization’s problems come from infighting as well as assaults from outside. Perhaps both apply to the body and illness as well.”

Simon stared at him. A cat mewed from far down the hall.

“Theos’ eye!” Simon finally cursed. “You belong in that room more than the lot of them!” Simon slapped Oliver on the back, hard, but with good nature.

They resumed walking, now at a more controlled pace. Oliver was relieved to hear Simon’s breathing even out. The man’s temperament had to put a strain on his body, and it made Oliver nervous. They passed a boy in the hallway, perhaps thirteen years old, and Simon told him to fetch a replacement guard from the knights’ barracks. Eyes wide, the boy scurried off to do the Didaskalos’s bidding.

“Now,” Simon said, “what mischief have you been into lately?”

Oliver’s jaw dropped in protest, shaking his head, but the sparkle in his eye belied him. “I avoid mischief at all costs, Simon.”

Simon guffawed. “As well as I avoid meat, wine, and buttered bread. Come, now. The grey in this beard and the weight on these knees puts me in bed quite early these days. Let me live some colorful nights through you.”

“Its colorful nights you’d hear of? I thought you were after common sense?” Oliver nudged Simon in the ribs. Simon swatted his arm away. “Well,” Oliver relented, “Philip certainly got into some mischief of his own just a few hours ago. Perhaps you should be asking him if you’d like to hear of a colorful night.”

“Wine, women, or wrestling?” Simon asked.

Oliver laughed. “All three, in a way.”

They reached the sitting room adjacent to Simon’s bedcell. A serving boy drifted in and waited.

“Cold water,” Simon told him. He raised his eyebrows at Oliver.

“Same, for me,” Oliver told him. When the boy was gone, Oliver settled in to his chair. He welcomed a morning with the old man.

“Tell me what you think of this,” Oliver said, eager to hear Simon’s assessment. “A woman, appearing suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, dripping with water from the sea…”

Simon clutched his chest in mock ecstasy. “No more, no more!” he sputtered. “This old body can’t take description of a night that colorful!”

Oliver grinned, indulging his jesting. “But listen: a woman who then orders you away from ‘her’ beach, before diving back into the water and seemingly does not surface? Thoughts?”

Simon accepted the water from the boy and took a sip. He sighed with contentment as he settled into his chair. “Probably an urchin diver,” he told Oliver.

Oliver nodded thoughtfully. “That would explain the poaching comment,” he said.

Simon asked a question with a raised eyebrow.

“She threatened bodily harm if I were to poach ‘her’ beach,” Oliver explained.

Simon chuckled. “Yes, an urchin diver, most likely. They can stay under for quite a while. And there has been quite an array of urchins in the fish market lately. Now, enough of this mysterious aquatic maiden. Your music, how is it coming along?”

Oliver sat up, looking for the serving boy. “Simon!” he hissed.

“Calm yourself,” Simon replied. “The boy is gone. I wouldn’t risk your knightly reputation. The other fellows that make up the guard need not know of your vocal talent, but you should exercise it. If simply for your own soul.”

Oliver rolled his eyes. “My soul is fine.”

“Of course it is. But every soul can use caressing from time to time. Even if it must be done in private,” Simon advised.

This time the raised eyebrow was Oliver’s. He couldn’t resist. “Private caressing, eh?”

“Leave it, young Oliver,” Simon answered, his deep voice touched with amusement. “Go have another colorful night, and come tell me of it tomorrow. My own soul is telling me that I need a nap.”

*****

That evening, Oliver wandered to the fish market in search of a meal. He was also curious about the urchins that Simon had mentioned.

He strolled the stalls as the merchants barked, extolling the virtues of their catch. The voices of the tavern women competed as they attempted to lure men away from the market and into a cold drink. The night welcomed him, surging with laughter and noise, the brush of ocean air and the dimming light.

Oliver’s friend Philip had expected him to join him, as usual, at the tavern, but Oliver had demurred, mumbling an implication that he had a woman waiting for him. It had worked. Philip had sent him off with a wink and a clap on the back, and Oliver had set off alone for what the night would bring him.

And so, in the market, he found himself staring at a spread of urchins, some cut open and some straight from the sea, artfully laid out on a rough plank of driftwood.

“Best in the market,” the small hairy man standing behind the spread growled. “First one’s free for trying. Silver a’piece after that.”

“Silver?” Oliver protested. “You’re proud of them.”

“Silver,” the man affirmed with scorn. He held one up in offering, the warm wind ruffling his dirty, unkempt hair.

Oliver accepted. The urchin slid through Oliver’s mouth, all brine and velvet. He felt his eyes widen.

Then Sir Oliver Wellton happily handed over three silvers, and a copper for a cutting tool. He exercised restraint and did not eat the urchins immediately, but left the market in search of a quiet place to sit and enjoy the rest. He walked for a bit, anticipating the delicacies and enjoying his time alone. As the market and tavern noises grew faint, he realized that he was growing weary of the days and nights spent constantly in the company of so many people. He slept in a room with five rowdy and exuberant knights. He stood watch in an acropolis teeming with servants, intellectuals, and visiting dignitaries. He went at night to taverns swarming with the young and old. Perhaps Simon was right; perhaps his soul was knotted and in need of a caress.

He soon found himself back on the beach that he had slept on the night before, alone this time. As he slid the first urchin down his throat, he was thankful to hear the waves licking the shore’s pebbles rather than the sighs and frenzied rustling of lovers’ attempts to be discreet.

But the sigh was his own when he finished the last of the urchins and leaned back against a large boulder in contentment. He hummed a few bars, his eyes resting on the faint line of the horizon between the inky blue of the water below and the lighter sky above. Then he gave himself over to the words of the song, releasing them quietly into the night air. Even alone, Oliver was hesitant to fully release his voice.

“You sing well.”

The words came from beside him.

Oliver spun, reaching for his sword by instinct. In the dim light, he saw the outline of a woman’s form; she was not menacing, but standing casually beside him.

He relaxed.

“Those are mine.” She pointed at the urchin shells.

Recognition clicked in Oliver’s head, and he realized that he was speaking to the woman from the sea.

“Oh,” he said, fearing another angry outburst. “I didn’t take these from your beach. I bought them in the market,” he insisted.

To his surprise, her voice spilled warm amusement over him. “You called it my beach.” She sat beside him. “I believe you,” she said. “I caught the urchins. I knew they would be sold.”

He thought of the peevish little man in the market. “So, the man in the market…”

“Profits from my work,” she finished. “I hate him.” Another smile, sad this time, and inside Oliver felt like liquid.

He stared at her, unsure what direction their exchange would take. She stared out at the sea, the wind lifting her hair, piece by piece.

“I’m Oliver,” he said, abruptly, to fill the quiet. “You… were angry with me this morning.”

She smiled at the waves. “Yes, well, I’m accustomed to solitude in the early morning. And I had a quota to make.” She didn’t volunteer her name as he had.

“You threatened me with an ‘accident,’” he pressed her.

This time she laughed. “All right,” she relented, “my apologies. Is that what you needed to hear?”

“Do you have a secret lair below?” he asked, avoiding her apology.

She looked at him, startled. “What do you mean?”

It was his turn to smile, teasing. “You must be some sort of mermaid. I never saw you surface.”

She stared at him.

“After you dove in,” he clarified. “This morning.”

“Yes,” she answered. “I knew what you meant. I’m… a good swimmer.”

He sensed her discomfort. “And I thank you for your talent,” he said, lifting an urchin shell in tribute.

She stood. “And now I need some rest. Oliver?”

He peered up at her in answer.

“Please don’t tell the urchin merchant that you spoke with me.”

He cocked his head slightly, considering her request and what it could mean. “Why?”

“Because he won’t let me keep you,” she said.

“What?”

She smiled. “I said: ‘he won’t believe you.’ I’m shy and I don’t like talking with people.”

“Oh,” Oliver said. “I misheard you. I won’t tell him. I’d like to talk to you again, though,” he said.

She stared at the waves in silence for a moment. “Tomorrow night,” she finally answered. “Don’t bring anyone else,” she added, her voice low and serious.

The sea breathed at them both, and Oliver was taken with even more questions.

She relented a smile for him. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. I hope you like seawater.”

 

The Rage of Odonis

by J.M. Michael

 

“Odonis,” the witch matriarch Agnes croaked. “Why have you come? You know the Bastion is forbidden to your kind during the Ceremony of the Moons.” Despite these words the old woman did not seem greatly displeased, as she glided her hand over Odonis’ chest, pinching her tongue between her teeth in her pleasure.

Odonis stared at Agnes’ haggard face. Hatred burned in him for its every ridge and deep line, but he let his eyes reveal only cold. “You have my children?” he asked, knowing the answer. He smelled a lingering trace of them in Agnes’ chamber, mingled with the scent of old leather from her library. And he smelled their mother’s betrayal, bleeding from the very walls. The cost to her for presenting their issue to her coven sisters had been high.

“We cannot allow your kind to populate our world freely, Odonis,” Agnes answered bluntly. “They will be purged in water.” The wretch gave a twisted smirk. “But for your eldest. She is too near maturity and must be dismembered first.” She paused. “That should satisfy you.”

Agnes underestimated him still. She could not help it. The folklore of her religion insisted that demons cared nothing for their children and would as soon devour them at birth as leave them to die. The truth was believed mere rumor. Odonis’ kind cared for their offspring with constancy unrivaled by mortal bonds and would protect them from others with tales of depravity, claiming to have killed them while raising them in secret.

Odonis could do little more to protect his children from the witches because he was bound to them through his union with their coven sister Myce, his link to existence within a mortal shell. Still, though it had cost him much of his strength, he had chosen this union willingly, for only through Myce could he have given life to his children; his sons, Odem and Sirn, and his adored eldest Rynmya, a daughter, rare among all demons.

“Return for Myce at dawn,” said Agnes, returning her hand to her side. “We will not deprive you of her, though she defied our laws, secreting your offspring from us. She will merely be altered by blade to prevent such deception again. Would that you found the children when they were newborn and consumed them. It would have spared us this trouble.” Agnes turned from Odonis then and left her chamber, trailing crimson robes.

Odonis raged inside. She dared turn her back to him? If he were free he’d tear out her withered spine.

Forced to keep his rage shackled, however, he soon followed Agnes from her chambers, but not to leave the Bastion. For though Myce’s scent led through passages sealed by magic he could not oppose, it remained strong as though she had recently returned. He went to the Bastion’s gardens, an assemblage of rare herbs and other plants the witches used in their spells. Myce stood waiting for him there.

Her body looked young, but her eyes, like the violet of a late sunset, held the wisdom of a century-long existence. And they held pain. Black hair flowed in glossy tendrils over her back and chest, but otherwise she stood naked, having just finished communing with her gods no doubt. Odonis marched toward her in a fury, swiftly clasping his hand about her neck.

Myce flinched. “My lord, please. Forgiveness,” she pleaded. “My sisters discovered them by their own power. I did not have the strength to stop this.”

He stroked the ridges of her throat with his thumb, willing to crush them flat. And he could have done so. Their bond did not prevent him from harming her. Yet, were he to kill her, he would vanish from this realm of flesh. His children would surely be undone and cast into non-existence, and he would never see them reach their full strengths. The mere need for survival stayed his hand from destroying Myce, when once a different, stronger need obliged him to care for her.

His grip transformed into caresses upon her cheek and neck, and his lust for her surged. Rage did not still his desire for her. Myce was no fool, though. She averted her eyes from his, as tears spilled unrestrained from their corners. She, at least, knew of his affection for their children.

“It was Rynmya,” Myce said softly. “She is nigh unto maturity, and my sisters sensed her influence. We might have kept Odem and Sirn hidden had their time come first, but Rynmya’s power is too great. Even mortals can feel it. Her nearness inspires them with madness.”

“Rynmya is our power combined in a pure demon female,” Odonis rasped. “In her time she might have given birth to gods.” He paused. “And you surrendered her. A token of your allegiance.”

“I meant to spare our sons,” she said, meeting his eyes. Fury and despair held their beauty in sway. “We could have kept them in secret until their maturity, at which time they could have lived without fear of extermination. But Agnes no longer trusted me. She sought them out.”

Odonis sneered. “Deprived of the link they have shared with their sister all their lives, Odem and Sirn would lead hollowed existences, weakened and subject to their appetites. In the demon realm, Rynmya would stand as their queen, the core of their strength, and they would know few challenges to their power. Without her their lives would be forfeit. At best they would die, at worst they would live as slaves.”

“Odonis,” Myce cried. “Rynmya mustn’t be allowed to remain in this realm. You know this as well as I. Her life would end sanity itself and bring this world’s civilization to ruin. Humanity would not survive.”

“What do I care for this world’s civilization, when its oldest and wisest people betray me while smiling insolently?”

“This is my home, Odonis,” Myce persisted. “I must protect it.”

“Agnes has decided you should never bare offspring again,” Odonis said. Myce’s eyes shut tight. For a witch such a painful fate held terrible consequences for her power. “For all that your heart clings to its betrayal, it shall never know peace again. Rynmya’s existence created links in us all. When she is snuffed out, you will lose your way, and I mine, and this world be damned.”

More tears wet Myce’s face, burning the flesh of Odonis’ hand. “I know,” she mourned. “I know, but I cannot stop them. I never had it in my power.”

“But I do.”

Myce gasped and looked away again. Odonis tightened his grip on her throat, until her pulse throbbed against his palm, for suddenly he stood closer to obtaining the last thing he would ever need from this woman. He could sense it.

“After what I’ve done you’ll never forgive me,” she said.

“No,” Odonis answered. He could not deny it. “But our children will. Know that I will take them from this world back to where they belong, and they will rule with your name and mine on their hearts. Your precious mortals shall be spared Rynmya’s influence, and the flesh of your sisters shall be used as ever for the continued procreation of my kind.”

Myce breathed deep and met his eyes once more. All that remained inside her gaze was profound sadness. “Then… Then I release you,” she whispered.

Odonis felt the tethers of their bond snap. At once his wrath poured from him with a snarl that echoed from the Bastion’s walls, masking Myce’s scream as she died in a shower of blood from her own heart. Still, as the organ beat its last in his hand, Odonis thought his rage misspent. Myce was really only to blame for her own weakness. At least, having once cherished the life Myce’s heart sustained, he found it in his capacity to forgive her after all. Death was release.

“Perhaps your soul will come to dwell in my domain,” he murmured to her corpse. “In that event you will cease to know suffering.” He left the gardens.

The witches’ magic could no longer oppose Odonis as he descended into the Bastion’s inmost reaches. Ancient stone corridors spat unseen hexes at him, but these glanced off his newly hardened skin. He soon found an immense chamber, like a field of cracked, gray marble. The chamber sat below ground, but its ceiling and walls were black as the open night and aglow with the light of twin moons. The witches had begun their ceremony.

A hundred of them stood randomly about the chamber. Another dozen stood surrounding Odem and Sirn, twin boys whose skin appeared bronze and whose shoulder-length hair gleamed black. They knelt before a pool of water that shone silver in the moonlight, while the witches chanted useless rites. And on the edge, bound heedlessly over a block of stone, was Rynmya, her skin gold and her long waves of hair like smoldering flame. Two blade witches stood at either side of her, clasping rune-etched swords. These masked women posed the only threats to Odonis now.

Agnes appeared before him. “Odonis!” she shrieked, her eyes ablaze with fury and magic. Her usually haggard flesh hung from her bones in a newly heightened state of decay, seeped in the demonic power she had been intoning. “How dare you come here?!” she sputtered. “How did you oppose our spells?”

“Were you so absorbed in your ritual, you did not feel your sister’s death?” Odonis growled.

Hearing this exchange, Odonis’ children raised their heads. They showed no signs of fear, for they at least sensed his coming.

Agnes started. “Myce?” Her emaciated hand gripped at her chest, tearing skin with her nails. “No…” she groaned. “Our sister lies dead!” Suddenly, a hundred wailing screams filled the chamber, though none of the witches moved. “She released you out of guilt for her deceit, yet you destroyed her,” Agnes muttered. “And now you come for your children, too. Why? When they would fall to our rituals as swiftly.”

“Arrogant hag! You have no claim upon the lives of a demon’s offspring. I’ve come to destroy you!”

The old witch’s eyes bulged in sudden understanding. “You want them alive…” she hissed. “Impossible.” Gaping in horror, Agnes turned from Odonis to face her coven. “Destroy them, now!” she shrieked.

It was the fool’s last mistake. Odonis embedded his fingers into her back and tore her spine cleanly from her body. “Offer your back to me and I will take it!” he roared, delighted to have at last snuffed out Agnes’ blight. Bright blood pooled around the old witch’s body where it fell.

Odonis glanced at Agnes’ spine. The ragged column of blood and bone writhed in his grasp, as though the witch’s soul still clung to existence inside it. In moments the stump that once held Agnes’ head grew fangs and a serpent’s mouth, becoming an undulating tongue of nerve tissue. With a deep hiss the thing’s mouth twisted toward Odonis’ face, striking him on the cheek. He felt the pain deeper, though. So a demon had burrowed inside Agnes’ ancient form. It was a lesser kind, a creature of base appetites. But its bite contained a potent destructive power. Already, Odonis felt the strength ebb from his newly won body.

He clutched the lesser demon in two hands and pulled it apart. Silently, its contemptible vessel fell limp. Odonis would follow it back to his realm soon, and when he found the creature again, he would extinguish it utterly from existence. But for now he had moments to act to save his children from that very fate. Odem and Sirn sat closest. The witches surrounding the boys descended on them as one, raising them from the ground to cast them into the water. As yet too young to resist the acidic effects water had upon demons, their bodies would dissolve almost at once. The boys writhed in the witches’ hands, snarling and scraping at them. Still at the chamber’s far edge, the blade witches stood ready to take Rynmya’s head, which they could not do while her brothers lived. Their strengths fed into her own, making her invulnerable.

From all around him witches lobbed spells at Odonis, some to immolate or restrain him, some to crack his ribs or freeze his blood. He absorbed them all without effect as he sprinted across the stone of the chamber and leapt, in a blur, straight into the pool. The calm surface of the water erupted around him, rapidly dissolving his skin until only his musculature remained. Viscous threads of blood and tissue clouded the water, corrupting it.

Odem was thrown into the pool after Odonis. Grimacing from pain as the water burned him, he twisted to free himself of the bond around his wrists, an invisible tether spell. Skin flaked from his face and hands. His eyes bled. But as his father’s flesh swirled around him in the liquid, his suffering eased to a stop and, slowly, the damage to his body reversed. When Sirn’s struggling form dropped into the pool moments later, the boy suffered no ill effects, for the water had been transformed.

Odonis drifted toward his sons, whom he could sense nearby in the gloom of the pool, and pressed his palms against their faces in greeting. The spells upon them broke at his touch. They were at last free. “Remain here,” he rasped, his voice distorted in the liquid. If his sons stayed submerged, faking their death, they would be safe. He felt them nod their heads in answer.

Odonis swam toward the pool’s edge and pulled himself out. Cool air lapped at his exposed muscle and tendon like a tongue of flame. He would have healed like his sons, if not for the lesser demon’s poison. His shoulders hunched in weariness. He had only minutes left. Around him the witches gasped and shrieked in terror at his appearance. They thought his true form now emerged, and with it the power to destroy them all with a sweep of his arm. In truth Odonis’ flesh bore no resemblance to the light and shadow of his demon state. Still, his current state served him well enough, making the witches flee from the moonlit chamber. All but two.

The blade witches raised their rune-etched swords simultaneously over Rynmya’s bound form. But the girl remained calm, drawing her brothers’ power to her to resist harm. She had indeed grown in strength, as Myce said. In the time since Odonis saw her last, she had begun her transformation into a mature demon. Soon her power would rival any threat the mortal realm posed. Odonis needed only to see that she survived that long.

The blade witches swung their weapons, striking Rynmya’s neck and legs with a rush of magic. Rynmya screamed from pain as her resistance broke just enough to leave red welts where the blades hit her, but these quickly healed. The witches stared at the ineffectiveness of their attacks, until realization dawned on them, and they turned to face Odonis. Then one of them charged. Without a weapon of at least equal power, a demon made flesh stood little chance against a blade witch, unless he was prepared to make sacrifices. And of what use was a body in decay, except to be sacrificed? As the witch rushed forward, she swung rapidly at Odonis’ exposed torso. Odonis leapt back from each stroke, but the witch’s blade nicked him several times. He pretended to stagger from one of the cuts, and the witch pulled back her sword and stabbed him through the guts, just below the ribs. Odonis clutched the blade before she could draw it back out. She struggled against his hold, grunting, as he pulled the blade deeper into his body, in turn pulling her closer. He then snatched her below the jaw and twisted her neck, and she collapsed to the stone, dead.

The mix of demon poison and witch magic surging inside Odonis now churned throughout his body, liquefying his insides as their opposing influences battled each other for dominance over their kill. Unable to stand under such an assault, Odonis fell to his hands and knees and vomited a pool of black tissue and blood. One witch remained now, and he could not stop her. She sauntered forward in the wake of her sister’s attack and stood at his side, raising her blade to take his head. She was younger than the first, and he sensed her thrill. He sensed something more as well.

Elsewhere, chains shattered audibly. The blade witch gasped, hesitating to make her kill, and that brief delay was all Rynmya needed to cross the distance to her and rake her face from her head with a clawed swing of her hand. The witch’s scream was smothered by a gurgling of blood, as her body hit the ground and rolled away. Her sword clattered in the distance.

Rynmya knelt before Odonis. Pressing her palms to his ravaged face, she kissed his head in gratitude and affection. Her hair cascaded about him, and he could feel her power, like molten ore. She was mature now. No longer a child. The witches could not harm her anymore. Her brothers, Odonis’ sons, approached them and stood at either side. Their sister’s new strength had made them stronger too. “Thank you, Father,” they all said as one.

“Rynmya,” Odonis wheezed, clasping his daughter’s wrist. “My sons. Will you return with me to the home of our kind?”

Odem and Sirn looked to their sister for their answer.

“No, Father,” Rynmya said. “I wish to stay.”

Odonis grinned, and his grin altered into coarse laughter. “My children…” he said, as what remained of his flesh began falling away. “You will find the people of this realm willing subjects.” With these words his body crumbled in a flurry of ash, and Odonis, lord of demons, returned home.

 

We Celebrate the Falling Leaves

by Michael J. Albers

 

Late fall flowers dotted the mountain meadow except for the area around a scraggly tree that stood alone in the center. A black ring surrounded it, as if the ground had been doused in weed killer. Mark’s nose scrunched as he sat by his tent, looked at the tree, and wondered how it kept everything away.

Still pondering the tree, he heard voices on the trail. Mark shook his head and muttered, “Keep moving, please. I don’t really want to spend the night with people. Especially not that couple I passed a few hours back. They’ll never shut up.”

He watched a couple walk into sight and softly groaned. A dishwater blond ponytail, just brushing the girl’s shoulders, bobbed as she walked. They waved. He forced a smile and waved back.

“Looks like it could rain tonight,” the man said as they walked up. “Seems like you got a nice spot. Mind if we pitch our tent here, too.”

Yes, yes I do, big time, but I must be nice, Mark thought. “Naw, go ahead. It looks pretty flat and sort of sheltered over there.”

“Thanks. I’m Roger, by the way, and this is Clarisse.”

Mark nodded. “I’m Mark.”

Their matching gray hiking shorts looked new, as did Clarisse’s backpack. Roger’s gear showed only enough wear to take off the shine. Both wore tennis shoes rather than hiking boots. Roger’s hair was cut very short; Mark idly wondered if he normally shaved his head.

Their new gear contrasted with Mark’s, with its unraveling seams and multiple patches. If it wasn’t for the cancer eating out his gut, Santa might have lugged a new backpack down his apartment’s non-existent chimney. As it was, the doctor had told him he’d see Christmas, but spring was iffy. With another round of chemo scheduled for next week and the weather turning colder, he doubted his ragged backpack would see the woods again.

Roger set up the tent while Clarisse watched. They chattered on about a TV show Mark had never watched. He shook his head. Their tent went across the slope, not up it. Whoever slept downhill was going to get rolled into. At least his tent was too small to share if it rained and theirs flooded. Or maybe he’d just let Clarisse in. He rolled his eyes at the thought, as if a girl as cute as her had ever spared him a second glance.

Their campfire cooking ability matched their gear. Frustrated from watching their stumbling incompetence, Mark ended up cooking their freeze-dried beef stroganoff as the last sky glow faded behind the mountain. The rain clouds had blown through, leaving behind a cloudless sky with bright sparkling stars. He was thankful they all sat in comfortable silence staring at the occasional flicker of flame from the glowing coals. When he finally announced it was his bedtime, to his surprise, Clarisse hopped up and gave him a hug. “Night. Thanks for cooking supper for us.”

Mark lay in his sleeping bag, listening to Clarisse and Roger get ready for bed. He smiled; they were clueless, but likable. He had been alone too long; only thirty-eight and already a curmudgeonly old man. Curmudgeon or not, he hoped they didn’t get noisy before they went to sleep. Their murmuring voices filled his tent as he drifted off to sleep.

Drums, flutes, chanting voices. His eyes popped open to loud music. What the hell were Roger and Clarisse up to now? Ready to growl, he stuck his head out of the tent. A twirling column of people danced and pranced on a wide road that extended into the woods in both directions. A road that hadn’t existed when he went to sleep ran through huge trees that had replaced the meadow. Glowing balls flittered around above the dancer’s heads, lighting the road. He pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed a t-shirt, and crawled out of his tent. Roger stood by his tent wearing just hiking shorts and Clarisse wore very short bike shorts and had her arms high over her head, struggling with a sports bra.

She paused and looked over toward him. “Mark, what is this?”

He finished pulling on the t-shirt, lifted his hands, and shrugged.

Five dancers with waist-length silver hair whirled off from the group, full multicolored skirts floating as they twirled, and approached them. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Clarisse grabbed her phone from her short’s waistband, took a picture, and then grabbed Roger’s hand. “Come on! It’ll be fun. We can put pics on Facebook when we get back. Everyone will be jealous!”

Clarisse and Roger skipped and twirled into the swirling crowd. “Hey, you know when you go with the fairies…” Mark shook his head as he watched them blend into the dancers.

The dancers moved closer to him, their arms waved in his face, and they motioned for him to follow. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

“What is this? One of those fairy things where I’ll return in a hundred years?”

The dancers joined hands and skipped in a circle around him. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

“No, I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Mark looked around and then threw his arms up. “Oh, what the hell. Why not? In a hundred years, they should have a pill to cure a bad colon.”

The dancers twirled and whirled down the road with Clarisse and Roger twirling and whirling with them. Mark walked, dodging the flailing arms. All three walked with bare feet and the spongy ground, which lacked thorns or rocks, tickled his feet.

The procession moved through the woods and approached a huge stone building. Large stones, many four or five feet across, formed the walls, which extended up about two stories with a crenellated roof. A heavy wooden double door blocked the end of the path. Mark noted how it resembled the deeply carved doors of medieval cathedrals he had seen during his college trip to Europe. The group danced up to the doors and formed a semi-circle around them. They raised their hands and chanted “Let us enter. Let us enter. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The doors swung open and the dancers swirled inside.

As Mark passed through the door, some of the dancers grabbed his arms and pulled him into a side room.

“Here,” one said “you must be properly dressed for the banquet.”

The dancers moved in and pulled off Mark’s clothes. He realized that other dancers surrounded Clarisse and Roger. In a moment, all three stood naked and, just as quickly, they stood dressed. Both Mark and Roger wore fine pale purple velvet tail-coats with tight black pants and knee-high boots. Clarisse wore a stunning pale purple velvet dress with a low-cut tight bodice and a full skirt that fell to just above her ankles. She smiled and flipped her hips, swirling the skirt.

“Now come. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The dancers grabbed them, pulled them through a different door, and into a huge room before they twirled off, leaving the three people behind.

More of the glowing globes floated around, lighting the room. Tables formed a large open rectangle. At the center of one end stood a huge chair with a high back. On that huge throne sat a man who wore a dark purple and red robe, dense with gold embroidery. A large golden crown on his head glittered, light sparkling off four large stones and many smaller ones. On each side of the throne sat other fancy chairs in decreasing heights, occupied by people wearing brightly colored clothes resplendent with gold and silver embroidery. The chairs on the other three sides of the rectangle looked normal sized and were empty. The close-set stone floor had a stair-step design that caused the side tables to drop down at one-foot intervals every few tables. The tables at the throne end were almost six feet higher than the other end. The large open space in the center contained an open stage set slightly higher than the throne table. Mark wondered if the people at the low tables could see the stage. He guessed the tables could seat a couple of hundred people and, looking around at the dancers still twirling around the room as more came in through the door, decided there could be that many.

Fast, rolling music came from the group of musicians set in the room’s corner. The group had a couple of recorders and flutes, three bodhrans of various sizes, and several stringed instruments he didn’t recognize.

Mark felt a touch on his arm. A girl with long silver hair wearing a green tunic stood beside him. He glanced at her ears and felt disappointed to see they were not pointed, but shaped the same as his.

“Come,” she said, “I’ll show you your seat.” She slipped her arm into his and led him to a side table that was only a step down from throne table level.

“Wow, a table so close to the bigwigs,” Mark said.

“You are our guests. Of course you sit at a high table.”

The dancers continued to stream and prance into the hall. When the last one entered, the doors slammed shut and the music cut off with the door’s bang.

The king, Mark decided since he sat in the biggest chair and wore a crown, he would call him the king, stood and threw his arms wide. “Come. Be seated. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

The dancers all moved toward their seats. From the way they moved, it was clear they knew their assigned places. Noting other people had sat down, he also sat and looked around. His shoulders lifted in a minimal shrug. Oh, well, he thought, thus far, except for the strange dance to get here, this isn’t much different from those medieval reenactment pictures Karen keeps bombarding us with at work.

“Mark, Mark,” Clarisse said as other servants, also wearing green tunics, led her and Roger to the chairs beside him, “isn’t this just so cool. I was trying to get some pictures and my phone just like died. Can you believe that would happen now? This is so cool.”

Mark sighed and looked at her. “Yeah well, I guess since we’ll be spending a hundred years here, it should be cool.”

Clarisse’s face scrunched up. “Huh? One hundred years?”

“Yeah. That’s how long the fairies keep you,” Mark said. “Haven’t you read those stories?”

“Oh really! Fairies! Be real. This is just so cool. I’ve got a group of girlfriends who get together every Tuesday for dinner and…”

The king clapped his hands and everyone went silent. He clapped again and the music restarted. From a side door, a troop of people in motley poured out, raced through the gaps between the tables, leaped onto the stage, and began a wild tumbling routine. Servants, all wearing matching green tunics, moved around the tables and placed clear goblets of a caramel-colored liquid before each guest.

Mark reached for his glass and then froze. Oh, yeah, he thought, going with the fairies is bad enough, but drinking or eating their food is seriously bad. He turned to Clarisse and Roger, “Hey, we really should… oh, too late.” He watched as Clarisse and Roger both took big swallows from their goblets and popped a little brisket from a basket on the table into their mouths.

Clarisse smiled at him, “What did you say?”

“Never mind.”

He picked up his own goblet and stared at the liquid as he swirled it. It seemed slightly thicker than wine. He gave a slow nod. “Guess you’re right, Grandma. In for a penny, in for a dollar.” He lifted the goblet in a toast. “Here’s to the next hundred years. May they be better than the last three.” A smooth sweetness rolled across his tongue and left it tingling.

The banquet continued with rounds of food and drink, each accompanied by a different group of entertainers. Mark relaxed and enjoyed the food and entertainment, but wished Clarisse and Roger would stop babbling about how cool everything was and how she wished her phone worked. As a group of jugglers ran off the stage, the king stood and pointed at the three of them. “Dance for me; for all of us.” He waved his arm and pointed to the stage. “Dance for me; for all of us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Clarisse and Roger jumped out of their seats and trotted up onto the stage.

A little tingle moved up his spine. Mark moved his head between the musicians in the corner and Clarisse and Roger, who had began to dance wildly to the music, their arms swinging in wide arcs. Her full skirt swirled; her legs flashed with high kicks. His head drooped. He didn’t like dancing, but he did feel obligated to dance a little to repay their host for his generosity. He certainly didn’t feel like dancing that wild ride Clarisse and Roger were on. He stood and idly wondered if once he started would he spend a hundred years dancing like a maniac? With a shrug, he walked onto the stage and picked a spot well away from Clarisse and Roger’s wild arm and leg flings. Shaking his head at them, he started to dance.

He stopped, stunned by the silence. The music surrounded him again. He started to dance again and once more the music went silent. Yet, when he stopped, it was back. Glancing at Clarisse and Roger and the party guests, it was clear the music only stopped for him. He stood motionless and let the beat of the bodhrans fill his head. Behind him, he heard a snicker. Glancing around the room, he noticed that although most eyes focused on Clarisse and Roger, a beautiful lady sat at the corner of the lowest level of tables smiling at him. Her silver hair was almost invisible beneath flowers entwined in it as they spilled past her shoulders and out of sight below the table. Her eyes bore into him, sending shivers through his body. “Oh geez,” he muttered, “One hundred years of dancing to no music?” He started to dance again and again it disappeared. He paused and the music returned. “Ok, now this is getting irritating.”

The servants distributed flower bouquets. The partiers cheered on Clarisse and Roger and tossed flowers one by one onto the stage. When a flower struck Roger or Clarisse, it stuck and they rapidly transformed into bouncing bouquets. The few flowers that struck Mark fell to the floor. He stumbled, slipping on a flower stem, and he saw a half smile cross the lady’s face. He turned away and shook his head to clear the distressing flashback of a bad college party where a hot sorority girl had teased him for a short time before flittering back to her friends.

Enough, he thought. He lifted his hands and shrugged at the king. “I’m sorry, but I can’t find the music and I’m not much of a dancer anyway. I’m sorry. Those two are much better.” He waved his hand toward the gyrating flower bouquets of Roger and Clarisse.

The king’s jaw dropped and color drained from his face. “Dance.”

Another light tingle moved halfway up his spine. Mark shook his head. “I’m sorry. No.” As he walked off the stage, he thought he heard a giggle come from the direction of the lady who had been staring at him. Damn it, lady, he thought, don’t make fun of me now.

The king leaped up. His heavy high-backed throne tipped backwards and crashed to the floor, drink trays flew as servants scattered and one yelped as it hit her in the shoulder.

The room went dead silent, except for Clarisse and Roger who kept up their wild gyrations with their feet stomping on the floor. Everyone stared at the king. He glared at Mark. “You, dance!” He stabbed his finger toward the stage. “DANCE!” His voice reverberated through the room.

“I really appreciate the dinner,” Mark said, “and I did dance for a minute or so, but I’m just not into dancing, sorry. And your music. Nothing personal, but when I dance, I can’t hear the music.”

“DANCE!” The king pointed both arms at Mark, his hands trembling. He swung his arms as if to toss Mark back onto the stage. He clapped his hands. “Music. Play.”

The music resumed. As Mark plopped down in his chair, the lady at the end table burst into hysterical laughter.

Hey, lady, what is your problem? Mark thought.

The king pointed at the lady at the far end. “You, my dearest sister, silence.” He ran over, grabbed Mark’s shoulder, yanked him to his feet, and shoved him against the table. Goblets tipped and wine soaked into the back of his pants. His face hovered inches from Mark’s as he screamed, “DANCE!”

“Ow. Hey, damn it. I don’t care who the hell you are, you don’t shove me like that. My regrets, but may I be excused?” Mark unclenched his fists and glared at the king.

The king’s bright red cheeks pulsed. His head rolled back as he screamed. A room-shaking, terrifying scream.

Again the music stopped. Only the stomp of Clarisse and Roger’s feet and the increasingly hysterical laughter of the king’s sister filled the room. Mark realized she now stood beside him. She wore a pale purple dress that matched Clarisse’s. Her thick silver flower-entwined hair reached to her knees.

She placed her hand on Mark’s forearm. “Wait. You don’t want to be excused now. This party is about to get very entertaining.”

“And so.” She stepped up to stand face to face with her seething brother, who had a good eight inches on her. “You sold your soul to steal my throne. To rule until you couldn’t enchant a human.” She spat in his face. “Did eternity come quicker than you expected?”

Mark heard distant trumpets blowing.

A gasp went through the hall.

“I still rule. He will obey me.” He pushed the lady aside, grabbed Mark’s jacket, and pulled him nose-to-nose. Sour wine and spicy cheese breath filled Mark’s nostrils. “Dance! Now! Dance!”

“The Black Rider comes. Give me your crown,” the lady said, “For you, it is forfeit.”

Galloping horse hooves mixed with the trumpets, shook the entire building. Many of the guests, mostly from the king’s end of the tables, leaped to their feet and frantically looked around.

The king shifted his grip on Mark’s jacket and lifted his heels off the floor. He screamed, his nose touching Mark’s. “You will obey. You. Will. Dance.”

The sound of the horses and trumpets stopped.

The king’s face went pale. He turned his head toward the far wall and tossed Mark away. “No. He can’t be here. No!”

A loud trumpet blast shook the building. A section of the wall crumbled and large stones tumbled inward across the floor. Four riders, dressed in solid black on jet black horses, leaped through the hole and soared over the rumble. Three of them carried trumpets; the fourth rider rode up to the king and looked down on him.

“I believe you owe me a debt payment.”

“No, no. I can still make him dance. I know I can.”

“Silence.” The Black Rider laughed. “I upheld my part and now, my payment.”

The king struggled but said nothing. Mark realized that the command for silence had been more than a basic request to shut up.

The Black Rider reached down and pulled the crown off the king’s head. “These two stones are mine.” He grabbed the two largest jewels and ripped them out of the gold, twisting the crown and leaving torn edges around the settings. He dropped the gems in a pocket of his cloak. Then he pulled off a large purple one. “And this one is your sister’s.” He jammed the crown back onto the king’s head. “You no longer deserve such a fine crown. We should melt it down.”

Mark watched in horror as the upper edges of the gold folded over and sagged down. With a scream of pain, the king tore the crown from his head and flung it away. It clattered and bounced across the floor before coming to rest against a wall.

The rider reached into his cloak and pulled out a golden circlet. He pushed the purple jewel he had just torn from the crown into it, smoothed the gold edges with his thumb, and tossed it to the king’s sister. “Lentara, your crown and your power.” He bowed to her in his saddle. “I trust you’ll wear it better than your brother.”

“And now,” he pointed at the trembling king, “my payment.”

The other three riders began to play their trumpets in what resembled a fast swing tune. The king and many other partiers began to whirl, imitating Clarisse and Roger in their wild gyrations. The other riders wheeled their horses and, still playing, leaped over the rubble pile. The former king led the dancers as they clambered after them, slipping and sliding on the stones while they continued their dance. Clarisse and Roger, still covered in flowers, moved with the group.

“Wait,” Mark yelled, “you have no right to take them.”

The Black Rider spun in his saddle to face Mark. He tossed up his hand and everything froze. Dancer’s arms and legs hung suspended in space.

“What?”

Mark’s knees went rubber under the glare. “I said,” he gulped. “I said whatever deal you made could not have included Clarisse and Roger.”

“And how can you know that?”

I can’t, Mark thought, I guess I really can’t. He shook his head.

“I didn’t think so.”

“No. No, wait, I do know. If you knew they would be here, then you knew how the deal would end. That means you didn’t make a fair deal.”

“My deals are always fair.” For a long moment the Black Rider stared. Then he laughed. “Fine. Humans mean nothing to me.” He waved his hand and Clarisse and Roger disappeared. “They are back in your world where they belong. Satisfied?”

He turned his horse and everyone started moving again. He rode up to the rocks and turned. “Lentara.” He saluted the lady and then his horse soared over the pile of rocks. The trumpets stopped; silence echoed through the room.

Lentara smiled as she positioned the circlet on her head. The flowers entwined in her hair fell, surrounding her feet in a rainbow of color. She lightly touched Mark’s elbow. “Thank you. My brother stole my crown with a pact that he would rule until he couldn’t enchant a human. He was stupid enough to believe that meant forever.”

Mark looked around the room, now missing half the partiers. “So, am I stuck here, or do I go home to find a hundred years has passed?”

The lady laughed. “The hundred years is your world’s story. Time is time; even we can’t do that.”

“What did he do with Clarisse and Roger? Did he really send them back as he told me? They were irritating, yes, but they don’t deserve anything bad.”

Lentara started, staring at him. “The Dark Rider responded to your challenge?”

Mark nodded.

“Then he returned them. The Dark Rider is many things, but he never lies and doesn’t play word games.”

“That’s good to hear.” Mark buried his face in his hands. “Oh well. Now I can return to my life for the four months or so that I’ve got left.”

“Four months? No.” She shook her head, sending ripples through her long silver hair. She tilted her head, a puzzled look on her face and stared at him for several seconds. “No, you have a long life before you.” She placed the fingertips of both hands lightly on his forehead and slowly drew them down across his face. “I owe you my crown; we owe you a great debt. When you need me, I will be there.”

*****

Mark’s eyes popped open, the morning light faintly illuminated the top of his tent.

Gasping, he rolled his head both ways. “What the hell?” Finally, his eyes fixed on his backpack.

“Whoa! Yeah, I’m camping. What a dream. What a crazy-ass dream. Must be some delayed chemo drug or pain drug reaction or something.” He took a big breath. “Wow. If this becomes the norm, it’s going to be hell.”

He crawled out of his tent. The mountains still blocked the sun, but the sky was well lit. The spot of Clarisse and Roger’s tent stood empty. He frowned; no way could they break camp without waking him. The frown deepened. The ground where the tent had stood was undisturbed. Several pale purple flowers grew there.

“Man, were they part of the dream, too?”

He looked toward the meadow and stumbled as his knees turned to rubber. The lone scraggly twisted tree had transformed into a large tree, dense with leaves in flaming fall colors.

“No doubt about it, I need coffee. Lots of coffee. I wish I had brought whiskey. Lots and lots of whiskey.”

He tugged his backpack out of the tent and flipped it open to pull out coffee and a breakfast MRE. His jaw slowly worked up and down.

Trembling hands lifted the golden crown out of the pack. The three sharp edged holes showed where the gems had been ripped out, and the melted top had run down over a row of smaller gems. The base was dented and smashed.

“Oh, shit.” He looked over to the pale blue flowers.

“So, Clarisse and Roger were here last night. Oh crap! Does anyone know they were hiking here?” He looked down the trail into the woods. “He said he returned them. Are they ok? Where are they?” He set the crown down and swallowed hard. “I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.”

He lifted his head, forehead scrunched up. “Wait, she said I had a long life before me.” His hand touched his stomach where the constant pain of the past year was gone.

“I’ll just tell my oncologist the fairy queen owed me one.” He smiled. “Bet she’ll get me a fast appointment with a different type of doc.”

 

Tripping Reincarnation

by Jeff Tikari

 

Young Vikas sat dozing under the shade of a wild ficus, his back resting comfortably against the bowl of the large tree. Sounds of droning bees, the dappled sunlight, the gentle stirring of leaves in the upper branches induced a somnolence that glazed his sight and drooped his eyelids. His charges: four nondescript cows and a scrawny bull, grazed in the scrub—the mellow sound of the wooden bells around their necks added to the midday languor.

His slingshot slipped from his hand and lay on his lap.

Vikas had never been to school. Like some other children of small village farmers, he had started to help his family in cultivating the few acres around the hut from an early age. He could, however, write his name; the son of the village shopkeeper, who attended school, had taught him, and Vikas wrote his name in the loose earth and dust to keep his hand in.

Chakri village comprised twenty-three families that paid tithe to the Maharaja whose collectors came around after each harvest: sturdy, armed, heartless men who entertained no hard-luck stories, but extracted harvest dues rigorously.

*****

Salim alighted; his magnificent white horse threw its head up and neighed, stamping its feet impatiently; a liveried servant hurried up to take charge of the horse. Salim threw the reigns to him and strode forth across the lush outer lawns of the palace. Princess Aphsara sat with her maids-in-waiting beneath a tapestried cloth tent that curtained her privacy. She watched him approach—a handsome young man, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted. He smiled, bowed respectfully and raised his right hand to his forehead, “Salaam alaikum, Your Highness.” The princess Aphsara’s eyes twinkled happily to see him; she returned his greeting and patted the richly embroidered soft toshak beside her.

“Come Salim, sit near me. My eyes have been longing for you. I get lonely; I want someone to talk to, never go anywhere without my consent.”

“I’d never leave your side, Princess—you know that. But this heartless duty cruelly tears me away.”

The maids quietly backed away, bowing respectfully.

Salim and Aphsara hugged peremptorily. To be observed could mean punishment or worse for him. He was from a village and had impressed the Maharaja with his quick wit when the royal party passed through on a familiarizing trip around the countryside. The Maharaja, pleased with the lad, ordered that he be transported to the palace. There he was fed, bathed, and given clean clothes. A tutor was engaged to teach him the basics of reading, writing, and very importantly, the elegances of the Royal Court.

That is how the young Rajkumari (princess) gained a playmate companion. They grew up together… she in the opulent rooms of the Royal Palace and he in the barracks reserved for attendants. But in time, because of his closeness to the princess, he was allowed to occupy private rooms in the palace annex.

*****

A ripe berry fell, striking Vikas on the bridge of his nose. It annoyed him. He was enjoying his nap… did he dream? Was it a dream?

He remained slumped against the bowl of the tree. He could hear the soft cowbells and was reassured his charges were close by.

He had dreamt something—something that felt life-like; he scratched his head… perhaps a princess was involved… it was as real as the tree he was leaning against and the ant that was biting him through his dhoti. He slapped at it.

Time to head home. He tucked his slingshot in his dhoti and picked up a stick to herd the cattle. He whistled and yodeled to get the cows moving. The cattle emerged from different sections of the bush and desultorily followed him, nibbling at any piece of greenery in their path.

*****

Should he get off the path… no, he wouldn’t, Salim decided. The path was narrow and the Commander of the Palace Guard was approaching along the path from the opposite direction. One of them would have to step off to let the other pass.

The Commander was a respected man and all would step off the path in deference. But, Salim reasoned, he was more important, for while the Commander lived in the barracks, he lived at the palace annex and was known to have the Princess’s ear. The palace servants bent low when he passed. So he would just have to establish a pecking order here. He strolled along the path nonchalantly—hoping to convey the impression that his exalted state precluded even eye contact. He never saw the heavy muscled swipe that threw him off the path and sent him sprawling to the bushes at the bottom. The Commander continued on his way with unfaltering step. He did not tarry to view Salim’s swift demotion.

*****

The stinging slap brought tears to his eyes. He put his hand up to his burning cheek.

“You’ve been gone for hours,” his father glared with anger. “What kept you? Are you on opium? Your mother and I have done all the chores while you were gadding about somewhere. You are supposed to graze the cattle for only two or three hours. Are you secretly seeing a woman in the forest? You disappear for hours at a time… where do you go?”

Vikas looked up wide-eyed at his father… his guess was close… matter of fact, he had guessed right… he was seeing a woman… a princess! And he did not know if he was daydreaming. Perhaps he should tell his father about it… and very likely get slapped again for speaking such horseshit.

He saw his mother heading to the cowshed to milk the cows. They would each get a glass of milk with their evening supper. This was possible because they had a Mahua tree on their land. The tree was valued for the heavy sweet scented flower which when distilled made country hooch (Mahua). For the output of that single tree, the local contractor gave the family more revenue than they got from the produce of their farm or from selling milk.

Vikas pulled his slingshot and proceeded toward the fields. He may get close enough to a cattle egret to bag it. That would improve the rice and lentil soup they unerringly had every night. His father enjoyed the curry his mother made with the birds Vikas killed, but cautioned him to not over kill. “Once a week would be fine,” he said.

That night the meal was good; Vikas had surprised a large, juicy heron. Nevertheless, he had no appetite and ate sparingly. His mother worried:

“You don’t eat much these days, son. Are you all right? You seem to be growing strong and robust though. Are you eating jungle herbs?”

Vikas couldn’t answer that. It was true he often felt full and when he burped, the smell of rich spice was, bewilderingly, in his nostrils.

*****

Salim washed his fingers in an ornate basin held for him by a servant. The venison curry was spicy and he burped behind his fingers.

A pageboy appeared by his elbow, bowed, and informed him that the Rajkumari wished his presence for a game of chess. Salim rose and burped again. His body was muscular, taking on the heavy contours of a man. The combat lessons he had been attending at the palace grounds gave him large, steely muscles.

Other than her father, Salim was the only male allowed into the Princess’s chambers. He slipped off his richly woven house shoes and entered. The Rajkumari sat on a large, blue velvet carpet that covered the room. A central white ornate cloth was spread where she sat. Salim bowed low in greeting.

“As-Salaam-Alaikum, Princess. I trust your meal was satisfactory.”

“Shut up! Just come and sit down—and don’t try to impress me! You are going to get thrashed today… all your fancy moves won’t help you. You are going to slink out of here a defeated man!”

Salim smiled. Last time, he recalled, Aphsara had beat on his head with both fists when he had checkmated her white king.

“You stupid boy! You’re lucky you won last time… I lost concentration for a while that’s all.”

She was playing well today he noticed. Someone was tutoring her. She took time to think out her moves; and he spent that time looking at her: round face, a well-shaped nose with a diamond nose pin, beautiful lashes; her eyes were naturally lined black. Her hands and feet were beautifully formed and her young figure was in great shape. “Why are you gaping at me? Are you trying to make me lose my concentration?”

“There’s nothing in this room more easy on the eyes than…”

“Shut up or I’ll beat you up!”

She wrinkled her forehead in concentration. “Don’t imagine that you can purposely let me win this game to pander to me. If I win you’ll be banished to the hard beds of the barracks—so you’d better try your very best.”

*****

Vikas lay on the hard ground. They only possessed one bed, which his father used. There was no other furniture in the hut. Their cooking and eating utensils had been washed and polished with wood-ash and stacked next to the mud-plastered stove.

Father had consumed his daily bati of local hooch and snored loudly through the night. Vikas and his mother were quite used to the sound and slept through it. Any other sound, other than the snoring, would immediately alert them.

In the very early hours of the morning, when the moon was three quarters across the sky, there was a sound. All three sat up. It sounded like the latch of the cowshed had been raised and released. Father gently opened the door of the hut and crept out, followed by Vikas. Three men emerged from the depths of the cowshed leading their cow with a rope. All three carried lathis (stout bamboo staves) and crept stealthily forth.

Father challenged them. Two faced him with lathis on the ready; the third continued to quickly lead the cow away. Father hesitated—two armed men were more than he could handle. But Vikas strode forth. In two swift moves he unarmed one of the men and used his lathi to attack the second one. The fight was over quickly—both men were beaten soundly and all three took to their heels. Vikas led the cow back to the cowshed.

His father watched it all. Without any help Vikas had thrashed all three men soundly and done it expertly. He was awed and astonished. Where had his son learned to fight like that? He had moved swiftly without any hesitation—it was like he knew exactly what moves to make… very professional. Father waited until they returned to the hut.

“What happened?” asked Mother.

“Some chaps were trying to steal our cow, but we beat them up and they ran away,” said Vikas.

“That is not true,” said Father. “Vikas single-handedly wrested a lathi from them and beat them up. I had no hand in it.”

There was silence in the hut. “How did you do that, son?” asked Mother.

“I don’t know, Mataji. I just seemed to know what to do and how to fight.”

“Has someone been teaching you, son? Commoners are not allowed to learn the art of combat. We fight as best we can—untrained.”

“No one has taught me, Father…” he hesitated bewildered. “I don’t know… maybe someone did… my mind is all confused.”

His father saw his perplexity, “Was it in another janam (incarnation), son?”

Now it was Vikas’ turn to look baffled. “What other janam? I don’t know.” He searched his father’s face.

“Well, then how do you explain your prowess with a lathi?”

How? The boy questioned himself, how, how, how…? He was beginning to get a headache. Something was in the deep recess of his mind, but it would not surface. His skull was tightening and the pain was increasing.

“I’ll arrange a meeting tomorrow between you and the village pehalwan (wrestler) who has received training at the Royal Court.”

*****

It was morning of the big day. Eight boys who were training to use the lathi would pair off and compete for top prize. Salim was the only boy from the palace. The others were quartered in the barracks.

Tents were pitched, adorned with flags and banners. An air of festivity enveloped the maidan. Rumors said Maharaj Vishnu Singh may attend, as Salim was representing the palace—the Rajkumari was sure to attend and maybe her mother, Maharani Jahanara Begum, as well. A large ornate and colorful tent was pitched for the Royal entourage; stout bamboo fencing discouraged local entry to the Royal Tent. Street hawkers set up stalls to display their wares. They shouted in ululating singsong tones to attract customers. Street acrobats took up positions and exhibited their agility in exchange for a few copper coins. Little children, bare feet and half naked, ran around excited shouting to each other in the festive commotion.

Salim was tingling with anticipation. Since 3 a.m. he had practiced—lunge, parry, evade, swing—on the straw-filled, and now battered dummy. His body was oiled with mustard oil. Now he waited.

*****

The pehalwan arrived, accompanied by Vikas’ father. Vikas was sitting on the charpoy weaving a bamboo basket and seeing them coming stood up. He joined his palms in a respectful Namaste. The pehalwan measured up the boy—he was probably eighteen he guessed (he was wrong for Vikas had grown bigger than the village lads of his age).

“So, I hear you are quite an expert with the lathi, eh?”

“No, sir, I am not.”

“Where did you learn the art of combat?”

“I… I didn’t, sir. I mean, I just swung the lathi and was lucky.”

“That’s not what your father says. Here take this lathi and assume a combat stance.”

Vikas stood there holding the lathi awkwardly while the pehalwan circled him with lathi on the ready in combat style. I suppose I’ll have to hit him a few blows before he defends himself, thought the pehalwan. He did a few coordinated disciplines, taking wide steps and twirling the lathi above his head. It looked most impressive. Then with two leaps he brought the lathi down—not too hard—on the boy’s head.

There was a blur of bodies and lathis. The pehalwan found himself flat on the earthen floor with the boy’s father helping him up. Vikas had a bewildered look on his face. The pehalwan felt stung and insulted but ignored the pain where the opponent’s lathi had struck him rapidly on the head and legs. He saw now he would, very sadly have to attack seriously, breaking through the boy’s defense and, much as he may not want to, cruelly hurt the boy. He assumed his power stance ten feet away from the boy who stood stupidly staring at him.

*****

The opponent charged using the Maithul attack—the most difficult one to repel. Salim stood his ground till the last moment—as he had been taught—then threw himself flat on the ground and tripped his opponent with his lathi. He would now leap up and smash his lathi on his opponent’s head.

A loud cry of, “STOP” from the referee brought the match to a halt. The Maharaja had called off the tournament as four boys had been severely injured and he did not wish others to get hurt. These boys were being trained to join the elite arm of the combat interceptors.

Salim stood over his opponent breathing heavily. They both knew who had won. Salim put his hand out and pulled up his prostrate opponent and clasped him to his chest. A thunderous roar of approval greeted the action.

They stood side-by-side and bowed to the Maharaja, then proceeded to their different tents.

The Rajkumari, Aphsara, had clapped gleefully every time Salim won a point. The maharaja glanced down, smiling at his daughter’s joyful enthusiasm. Was she getting too fond of the boy? he wondered. She was sixteen now—a vulnerable and impressionable age. Maybe there was nothing in it… he took note and kept an open mind.

*****

The pehalwan blew into the tumbler and noisily slurped the tea, holding the metal tumbler with both hands. He addressed Vikas’ father.

“Well, I am pleased you persuaded me to break off the demonstration, for I may have hurt the young lad severely with my next move. That he has received training I have no doubt. But where and how is quite bewildering. As you have pointed out he is a cowherd and spends most of the day grazing your cattle and sometimes takes out your neighbors’ animals too. Plus, of course, there is no one in these parts that has any idea of the art of lathi combat.”

Vikas’ father, Ram Singh, offered him a beeidi. He’d better keep him in good humor for he could report the incident to the authorities and then who knew what action would follow.

They sat on a charpoy outside the hut. Vikas had gone off to the forest with the livestock. Vikas’ mother was making some fried tidbits to serve the menfolk.

“Are you sure you don’t know where your son learned to fight?”

“Of course I am sure. Who is there to teach him?”

“Another thing, Pehalwanji, just between you and me… I don’t know how to put this, but I notice he can read. Now, he has never been to school, nor have I, nor has his mother been to school, and he spends most of the day sleeping under a tree. How could he have learned how to read? It is quite baffling.”

The pehalwan was looking at him with a quizzical expression, “Eh, what’s that?”

“Read, I said he can read.”

“Yeah, I heard you—what does that mean, how can he read?” His chin jutted out belligerently, eyes glinting steel, “You hiding somethin’ from me?” He stood up, “I’m going to the forest to see for myself… the lad is up to something. Something diabolical.”

*****

Salim went in search of Aphsara; she would praise him and say encouraging things to him; things that pleased him. He stood outside her chambers waiting for a maid so he could send Aphsara a request to enter her chambers.

The door opened and Aphsara’s father, Vishnu Singh stepped out.

“What are you doing here?”

Salim fidgeted, “I thought I would have a word with the Rajkumari, Your Highness.”

“You haven’t got free access to the private chambers of the palace. Only if the Rajkumari sends for you are you to come here. Now, off you go.”

Salim bowed low and left; his heart heavy, he had offended the Maharaja. He went to the akhara (gym). He would work out to take his mind off the reprimand.

He worked extra hard, throwing himself into the intricacies of the advanced discipline. The guru noticed the heavy work. He was likely working off the frustration of not being allowed to win in the tournament, he thought.

*****

Vikas worked in the hot sun to complete a tree platform upon which he would sit to watch over the grazing cattle in the surrounding bush. The elevation would allow a larger area to be surveyed and he would be less likely to be surprised by an unwanted approach. Now he sat under the loft, out of the sun, and fanned himself with a leafy branch. He mulled over the earlier incident when he had repulsed the attack mounted by the pehalwan.

Had he just acted in self-defense? But how had he so expertly repulsed the onslaught? If he thought too hard about his prowess with the lathi, his head would hurt. He picked up a stave left over from the building of the platform and took a stance… similar to one adapted by the pehalwan. He would practice that move or what he could remember of it.

The pehalwan walked softly and soundlessly to reach the place where Vikas stood ready with a stave. He parted a bush and peered at Vikas. Ha! He thought to himself. So, this is where he practices…the wily swine. I wonder where his guru is.

Vikas shut his eyes and concentrated. He would try and remember every move. He bent low, scooped up some earth from the forest floor and smeared it on his forehead.

The pehalwan felt an excitement and his heartrate picked up. He would catch Vikas and his guru red-handed and report them to the authorities. He may even get a reward from the Maharaja and, if his luck held, he could be recalled to attend the Royal Court.

Vikas put one leg out in front—exactly as the pehalwan had done—he lifted the lathi above his head, bent his knee and launched himself in the air, twirling the lathi above his head and twisting his body 360 degrees to land cleanly on his feet with the lathi pointing menacingly at his opponent. Instead he landed in a heap in the dust—the lathi wrenched his shoulder and jerked out of his hand. He lay there with dust in his mouth.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” the pehalwan stepped from behind the bush and gave a helping hand to Vikas. “What was that, a pantomime performance?”

Vikas stood, holding his aching shoulder.

*****

“What happened to your shoulder?” Aphsara asked.

The princess had summoned Salim. He was still smarting from her father’s rebuff and was contemplating sending her a message saying he was tired and hurt and would present himself tomorrow, but thought better of it.

“I strained it while practicing in the gym after the tournament was called off.”

“You were practicing how to strain your shoulder?”

Salim kept quiet; he looked at the delight in her eyes, she was in a teasing mood.

She laughed elatedly. “Would you like one of my maids to massage your shoulder?” her eyes twinkled with mirth. “Or are you looking for sympathy from me?”

“God forbid!”

“I heard that.” She gave him a hard look. “Sit here; let me look at your shoulder.”

“I don’t know how advisable that is—we are no longer kids. I daren’t sit next to you with my shirt off, Princess.”

“Do you want a tight slap? Just sit here,” and she indicated a cushion next to her, “and take off your shirt.”

“I couldn’t possibly do that, Rajkumari… take my shirt off…? I don’t think so.” He took two steps back.

Aphsara jumped up—eyes blazing, fists tightly clenched… Salim had never seen her look so utterly ravishing.

“Listen, fathead, and stop calling me Rajkumari…”

The door opened gently and a maid bowed in with a carafe of sherbet and golden goblets on an ornate tray.

Salim sighed with relief. If she were to surprise them sitting next to each other… and him with his shirt off… her father would surely get to hear, and who knew what might have happened then… a caning would be the least.

The Princess stood, pretending suppressed rage—eyes aflame, lips compressed. The maid placed the tray slowly, very slowly on the white sheet. The princess was about to yell at her to leave it and get out! Salim beat her to it.

“Princess, may I leave, please. My shoulder is hurting and my Guruji will massage it.”

“GO!” Just the one word. Her shoulders slumped as she sat down—hurt and let down.

*****

The pehalwan rotated Vikas’ arm. He winced with pain.

“Is it hurting a lot—I will massage it for you.”

“Thanks.”

“What were you doing, anyway?”

“Trying to do what you did this morning… I’m afraid I am no good at it.”

The pehalwan put his arm around Vikas’ waist, “Come, I’ll take you home. Will the cattle be okay for a while without you?”

“I’ll whistle for them to follow us.”

Vikas lay on the charpoy in the sun and the pehalwan massaged him with warm mustard oil from a shallow dish. He wondered at his fit muscular body.

“Tell me, boy, do you have any idea how you learned to fight the way you did this morning?”

“No, Pehalwanji, it is a mystery to me. When I try to do it, I trip and fall down. I don’t know how it comes to me; it comes of its own accord.”

“Do you know swordsmanship?”

Vikas twisted his body to look at the pehalwan, “Sword… what sword? I have never even seen a real one.”

“I’ll take you to a sadhu, a sage; he may be able to resolve this mystery. You must tell him everything you know—hold nothing back. Will you come with me?”

“I’ll have to ask Papa—get his permission.”

*****

Salim asked permission to go to his village to see his parents. It was five years since he’d seen them. Permission was granted and he was allotted a warhorse from the Royal stables and a guard to accompany him… the roads are rife with dacoits, he was told; and the road to Allahgarh was a full day’s hard ride.

“When are you coming back?” demanded Aphsara when Salim went to bid her farewell.

“Soon, Princess, very soon.”

“Liar! You have no intentions of hurrying back. You are going to strut around in that chain-armour you are wearing and try to impress the local laundies there in the village. Probably get married to one of those slope-eyed wenches.”

“Princess, Aphsara, I am going away for a week and I shall miss you, Your Highness. Please don’t quarrel with me—I want to hold pleasant memories of you to recall on my lonely journey.”

“Then come here and kiss me.”

“God forbid! And have my limbs ripped asunder by the Maharaja’s elephants? I don’t think so.”

She threw a flower vase at him that glanced off his shoulder. Her regal eyes, brimming with anger, bore into him—he gaped at her loveliness. He cast his life to the winds, stepped up and gathered her petite body to his chest—clasped her tight and bruised her lips with his, in a long kiss.

“Put me down you brute.” She flayed her legs about. “I said kiss me, not devour me. Now go! And if your lips are cold when you return, I will know someone has stolen the warmth from them… and your life won’t be worth living.”

Salim bowed low and salaamed her.

He rode out on a sturdy white horse. A large turban shielded his head; half chain-armour covered his arms and chest; a sword hung strapped to his waist; a dagger lay tucked in his waistband; and a small flag with the coat of arms of the Maharaja flew from the horn of the saddle. An escort rode behind with a well-oiled lathi strapped lengthwise along the saddle. A formidable twosome that most would avoid an encounter with.

The midday sun was hot. Salim looked for a place to stop for an hour to stretch his legs and water the horses. He saw a temple atop a small hillock surrounded by large trees. The white temple walls gleamed in the sun and a red prayer flag fluttered from the dome. He swung his horse and headed for the cool shade of the temple trees.

A pundit greeted the travelers and provided water for them and the horses. He noticed the half-armour across Salim’s wide shoulders and chest and took note of the guard with him. He wondered if he would make a small cash contribution at the Lord’s altar, for he looked like a person of some standing. Salim, however, headed for the charpoy laid under the shade of a large banyan tree and lay down to rest for a while—the ride had been tiring.

*****

Vikas followed his father and the pehalwan. They headed for a small temple atop a small hillock. The bright white walls and a red flag atop the dome indicated it was in use. The wide branching trees were inviting, offering shade from the midday sun. Crows cawed loudly and hopped from branch to branch.

Vikas felt tired for he was carrying a pitcher full of water, a food parcel containing food his mother had cooked, and the shoes belonging to his father, the pehalwan, and his own. These items were tied with a large piece of cloth to the end of a stout lathi, which he balanced on his shoulder.

The pundit watched them approach. They would likely lay a copper coin at the feet of the deity and rest under the shade of the trees. They greeted the pundit who returned their greetings. He looked at the two men—one looked like a wrestler… and then his jaw dropped for the boy carrying their belongings was the spitting image of the knight who lay on the charpoy.

Vikas lowered his load and stretched to relieve his aching muscles. His eyes took in the slumbering knight on the charpoy. The effect was electric. He gasped and took a backward step. That was himself… on the charpoy. The face, the figure, the build, the hands, the feet, the deep scratch on his forearm… everything. Memories started to flood his mind. His name was Salim; he lived in the Maharaja’s palace; the princess Aphsara’s image loomed before his eyes; the palace rooms; his ride here on a horse from the royal stables… he looked around for the horse—it stood under the shade of a young sal tree, the guard sat slouched, eyes half shut, his back supported by the tree.

Vikas looked at his father; both his father and the pehalwan were staring in astonishment at the prone knight.

How could he, thought Vikas, be two people? And yet he was!

His father looked at him and beckoned him near.

“He is you in every detail!”

“He is me. And I am he!”

“What do you mean…?” His father peered into his face. “Has the sun got to you my son?”

“My name is Salim. My father and mother live five miles from here…” Vikas went on to relate his life in the palace, every little incident—almost a day-to-day chronology, but there were long blank areas too. The knight, Salim, lay eyes shut listening to Vikas. His breathing grew rapid. What the boy was relating… no person could have known. They were the most intimate details that only he knew.

This must be a djinn—a wandering spirit—that entered and exited his body at will… an evil spirit that had to be expunged.

Salim leapt off the charpoy drawing his sword. Vikas scrambled and grabbed the lathi that he had used to balance their meager belongings. The young men faced each other. Salim lunged with his sword and knew how Vikas would parry—deflecting the swipe by sloping his lathi to let the sword harmlessly pass by his body. He knew Vikas would change his grip and counter by applying a telling blow to his head. Salim ducked and brought his sword up to rip Vikas’ belly in a counter. Vikas stood firm, not moving forward, thus remaining out of range of the upward swinging sword. Salim threw his sword down and grabbed the lathi the guard had left by the charpoy. Now the two were equally armed and matched.

The young men smiled at each other. This would be an equal encounter and they knew there would be no winner—for they read each other’s minds and anticipated and knew the other’s next move. However, they were enjoying it. Dust was kicked up and hung over the battling duo. The watchers: the father, the pundit, and the guard were mesmerized. Never had they seen such an exhibition of pure talent. The fight continued for an hour, with neither of the combatants hurt. Sheer exhaustion forced the antagonists to break off.

Vikas’ father approached him, “Beta,” he said, “I do not understand this, nor can the pundit enlighten me. I gather Salim comes from a village not far from ours—his parents still live there, but the Maharaja took Salim away to his palace. I do not know how your mayas got mixed up, but that is the will of the Lord. Let us go our separate ways and try and understand this. You are one person in two bodies. I will not pretend to understand it. Let us now proceed to our village and pray to God for wisdom. Salim, you are my son too and Vikas is you! You cannot fight with yourself for you are both one. You are two bodies with one soul… and I don’t know how!”

“Papaji,” said Salim, “as you say, we are one soul in two bodies. But Vikas has intruded into my body and my thoughts, whereas I have not trespassed into his. I think he is evil! One soul can not occupy two bodies—one or both of us has to perish.”

Vikas addressed him, “Remember Aphsara told you to return with her kiss still hot on your lips—are you going to do that, or are you going to bicker with me?”

“How dare you! How dare you intrude into my most intimate moments? I will not have it! I will not let you! I will kill you!”

“You will kill yourself?”

“Maybe… so be it!”

*****

The pundit emerged from the temple with a thali of ladoos and prasad. He prostrated himself at the feet of each boy and offered them the sweets. This has to be a miracle—God’s mysterious way of showing his powers. He had chosen these two young men to showcase his supernatural mystique.

Salim took his chain-armour off. It was hot. He strolled a little distance away. His thoughts were in a whirl. He knew whatever he was thinking was imaged in Vikas’ brain. He could not let this continue. If he were to have an intimate contact with Aphsara, Vikas could experience the ecstasy too! Totally untenable and unacceptable!

He could not kill Vikas, who at this moment knew his every thought and move. Furthermore, if somehow he were to succeed in terminating Vikas, he would be arrested by the Maharaja’s forces for murder and placed in the palace dungeon and then probably executed: a despicable end and one that would desecrate Aphsara’s love for him.

Vikas was watching him with large wide-open eyes.

There was always a way around everything. Salim determined he would find that way. Vikas was not always sharing his being.

*****

Salim returned to the palace after staying ten days with his parents in the village. There he was feasted and fêted. Villagers from far and near came to visit him; the village belles eyed him shyly; the seniors with their garrulous wives praised the lord for guiding the Maharaja to this village to pick the son of the village sonar (jeweler) for such honour.

Salim found it difficult to not flirt with the girls who openly looked at him with invitations in their eyes.

On the fourth day, Dipti arrived. Tall and slim, she wore her skirt tantalizingly below her navel. Her choli (top) rode high on her ribcage exposing an expanse of sinuous midriff. She was there leaning against a tamarind tree at the common well. She stood out in a long yellow skirt and bright red choli. Salim excused himself and walked slowly and with a newfound swagger to where she waited.

“Hello, Dipti.”

A soft smile lit her eyes. She took her time to answer, “Hi… you look different… grown up.”

“So do you. I’ve been here four days… and now you come.”

She nodded her head slowly, “Yes… I don’t see you falling over yourself to come to see me, either!”

“I have been kept very busy with all these people coming to see me.” He let his eyes travel over her breasts and over her midriff. She had matured and had a certain confidence about her. “Remember we used to play in the corn fields over there?” he pointed.

“We were kids, then.”

“Yes.” Salim felt unnerved by her assessing eyes that studied every bit of him. They were childhood playmates; yet she had changed so tantalizingly that she was almost unrecognizable.

His leave passed in a blur and before he knew it, it was time to depart. He looked longingly for Dipti that day, but she was not to be found. He had been to her house twice. Eventually he bid farewell to his parents and headed for the Maharaja’s palace.

*****

Vikas bid farewell to his parents and headed for Salim’s village. He carried his tough buffalo-hide shoes balanced at the end of a lathi and some food: rotis and vegetables his mother had cooked for him—in a bag slung across his shoulder. A five-rupee note was securely tied at the end of his dhoti and tucked into his waist.

Dusk was closing in by the time he reached Allahgarh. A pall of cow-dung and wood smoke hung over the village. Cattle were being secured in cow sheds and oil lamps were being lit. The women had started preparing the evening meal.

Vikas saw a young girl standing by the side of the road and staring at him. As he approached she asked: “Salim, you have come back?”

Vikas smiled at her.

“Why have you changed your clothes? You look like a villager. Where are your fine clothes?”

Vikas again smiled at her.

“Are you going to your parents’ house?”

“Yes. Will you come with me?” That may be the only way Vikas would find Salim’s parents’ house.

“Okay,” she said and fell in by his side. “You are not Salim, you know.”

“No, I’m his brother.”

“He has no brother… you are the person Salim had combat with, right?”

Vikas stopped and turned to her, “If Salim has left, I may as well turn around and go back to my village right now.”

“It’s getting dark and these village roads are not safe at night. You could twist your ankle or even break your leg on a dark night like this. Come to my house: there is room for you to sleep the night. My parents are old and will be in their room already—no one will question you and you can stay the night in peace.”

Vikas agreed quickly. It would be difficult to explain his presence to Salim’s parents. They may not even allow him to stay there.

“What’s your name, by the way?”

“It’s Dipti. And yours is Vikas, I believe.”

“Yes.”

Vikas was led to a four-room long brick structure. The first room, he was told, was where Dipti’s parents lived. Dipti occupied the second room. Vikas was shown the last room. Dipti carried an oil lamp and pushed open the door to a room that was stacked with bags of grain—four feet high. A wooden plough lay on top. Large spider webs covered every corner and a rickety table stood to one side. Dipti spread a narrow durri for him to sleep on.

“Would you like some tea?”

*****

Salim walked to the kitchen for a tumbler of tea. He had seen the Maharaja and princess Aphsara descending the steps leading to the caparisoned horse carriages waiting for them. He stood to one side respectfully, head inclined, eyes lowered. As the royal party drew level with him, Maharaj Vishnu Singh addressed him: “Kaisae hoe, Salim?” (How are you?)

“With your blessings, I am well, Highness.”

“Salim,” said Princess Aphsara, “you must come and tell me all about the bout with your ‘soul brother’. I am busy now, but I’ll send for you in a day or two.”

“As you please, Princess.” And he bowed low.

They swept past, headed for the carriages. Horse-mounted soldiers would ride alongside.

Salim walked desultorily to the kitchen.

Word had it that the neighboring Maharaja Pratap was visiting with his young son. An alliance may be in the air between Princess Aphsara and the young Maharaj Kumar.

Salim took his tumbler of tea to his room. He sat on the bed and rested his back against the wall. A picture of the doe-eyed Dipti appeared in his mind.

*****

Vikas watched willowy Dipti spread a blanket and take his food to warm up in the kitchen. She returned presently with two thalis (eating plates with raised sides) of food and they sat side by side and ate. Afterwards they washed their fingers with water poured over the thalis. Dipti removed the sodden thalis to the rickety table.

“Are you sleepy?” asked Dipti.

“No.”

“Okay, let’s talk.”

They sat shoulder to shoulder with their backs resting against the grain bags. Though they were strangers, they spoke with a freedom that comes with old friendship. Sometime during the conversation she slipped her fingers into his. An excitement ran through their bodies.

Before she left to go to her room, she kissed him lightly on his lips. He was so sweet and humble, she thought, so unlike Salim.

*****

Salim awoke with a start. Had he been dreaming? It was something about Dipti—a kiss? Something exciting and as real as the wall he was resting against and the mosquitoes that drew blood from his arms and neck. He swiped at them.

And then he grinned, from ear to ear. He had his revenge!

Two can play the same game!

 

The Bishop’s Funeral Procession: An Anchor Tale

by Patrick Glancy

 

The following story was discovered in a manuscript containing the personal diary of George Logos, a middling poet/diplomat from the middle period of the Anchorian middle ages. Or as we call it in the Royal History Department, the medimedieval era. (Okay, so only I call it that. But I’m hoping it will catch on.) The story itself doesn’t have much particular historical significance, but in light of the recent exhumation of Bishop Salt’s tomb (see the November 2011 issue of Anchorian Scientist magazine for full details), I thought it might shine a light on a few things. Official Church records note only the date of the bishop’s death and his burial at the Mausoleum in Julia’s Crossing. In order to fill in the rest, I have taken the liberty of editing Logos’ journal entries into what is hopefully a more readable composition, while also adding snarky commentary when appropriate. And out of consideration to the reader, all poetry has been removed.
          Patrick Glancy
          Lesser Historian of the Kingdom of West Anchor

 

I.

We’d been in East Anchor for nearly two months when the head of the Anchorian Church, the honorable Bishop Ambrose Salt suddenly dropped dead. King Philo III had sent us as part of a delegation to negotiate the marriage of his son, Prince Philo Soon To Be The Fourth [his official title], to Princess Taffy, daughter of Oggie, King of East Anchor. [The East Anchorians have a penchant for ridiculous names.] It was hoped that such a match might bring a lasting peace to the peninsula. [To fill in newcomers to the area, West and East Anchor share a large peninsula off the mainland that is shaped remarkably like an anchor. Makes sense, right? And while roughly equal in total size, East Anchor got the short end of the stick in natural resources, strategically useful geographic features, a ruling class considerably less genetically predisposed toward mental illness, percentage of the overall population properly classified as pretty girls, and just about every other kind of desirable property an ambitious kingdom aspiring toward success can hope to possess. Think of the relatively one-sided relationship between the United States and Canada, only with a whole lot more fighting and no hockey.] Arrangements had hit a snag shortly after our arrival. The sticking point, as per usual, was money. King Philo had explicitly demanded a certain amount for the bride’s dowry, and East Anchor simply didn’t have any at all. It was said that they didn’t even bother to lock the doors of the treasury anymore, and I can personally vouch that this was true. I wandered down there one evening by mistake, only to find the doors thrown wide open and a stray chicken pecking about inside the empty room. [Stray dogs and cats are one thing, but what kind of country has stray chickens?]

Our party consisted of forty-five official diplomats, plus an extensive entourage to attend to the most senior members. The two leaders of our delegation, Duke Phillip [the king’s brother] and Bishop Salt were housed in the Royal Palace, while the rest of us were forced to seek accommodation wherever we could find it in Loserville. [The original name of the East Anchor capitol has been lost to history. Some time shortly after the civil war that separated the two kingdoms, they lost yet another war to West Anchor, who then magnanimously forced them to rechristen their capitol city Loserville. In a further show of mature diplomacy, the Western nobility also insisted on publicly administering wedgies to all the defeated generals who had dared oppose them. To overcompensate for this long-standing blow to their collective self-esteem, the capitol was recently renamed Awesome City by the East Anchorian Parliament with an abundance of hullabaloo and posturing. Before you start considering it as a possible vacation destination though, keep in a mind that a shithole by any other name is still a shithole.]

I was staying in an inn on Douchebag Street [no, nobody had ever made them rename their streets, so read into that whatever you want] and attending to my morning prayers, when a messenger knocked on my door and told me the bishop had died during the night. My presence was requested at the palace immediately.

The bishop’s quarters were opulent, at least for East Anchor. He had wood paneling on the walls and a roll of real toilet paper on his windowsill. [Think about it for a second and you’ll understand why you wouldn’t want to forget your umbrella if you ever have the chance to travel back in time to a medieval Anchorian city.] The floor was littered with empty wine bottles and his mitre was hanging from the antlers of a stuffed deer head hanging over the fireplace. One of the guards posted outside showed me in to Duke Phillip. He was sitting at the dining table, cracking his knuckles and chewing his lower lip. His page, a young boy barely old enough to sprout a hair or two on his chin, stood by his side.

The bishop was at the other end of the table, a large, blubbery man, dressed in the gold cassock that signified his position. He had collapsed forward, most of his chubby round face submerged in a bowl of congealed green soup. The weight was enough to slightly lift the legs on Duke Phillip’s end of the table off the floor. “Hell of a sight, isn’t it?” the Duke commented.

His squirrelly page shook his head. “If only he’d been a little hungrier,” he said, noting the relative shallowness of the bowl in which he had possibly drowned.

I looked around at the bevy of wine bottles and his manatee-like frame. [I didn’t add that manatee part. Logos actually compares him to a sea cow. Classic.] “Yeah,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. I wasn’t sure if the kid was serious or not. “That was his problem.”

“’Tis a tragic loss for all the faithful,” the page continued, apparently not picking up on my sarcasm.

Duke Phillip nodded solemnly, so I had little choice but to do the same. [Apparently, Logos was not entirely convinced of the holiness of His Holiness.] “What can I do, m’lord?” I asked, offering my assistance.

He didn’t speak right away, but as soon as he opened his mouth I knew it was going to be bad. [I get that same feeling all the time around my wife. It usually leads to me cleaning out the gutters or attending some dreadful dinner party at her pretentious sister’s house.] “He’s got to go home to Julia’s Crossing,” the Duke declared. [Julia’s Crossing is the capitol of West Anchor. If you’re unsure as to its exact location, a map can be found in an atlas. Because I sure as hell don’t have one here. Or you might try your luck at the official website for the West Anchor Bureau of Tourism, assuming the guys in the Royal IT Department have cleared up that whole supervirus thing. In any case, it might not be a bad idea to check it out on a friend’s computer first, rather than your own.] “He needs to be laid to rest in the Mausoleum with all his predecessors.”

I looked anxiously at the mountain of girth slumped over the other end of the table. “You want me to take him back to Julia’s Crossing?” I asked doubtfully.

Duke Phillip nodded and rose to his feet. “Of course,” he said. “This backwater is no place for a man like the Bishop to spend eternity.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he cocked a thumb at his page and added, “Dougie will help you.”

“Oh, good. Dougie,” I said, trying not to look too enthusiastic. It was a remarkably easy feat to pull off. “You just wanna grab his haunches then, Dougie? I’ll get his arms and we’ll just lug the fat bastard home.”

The page looked slightly offended, but the Duke took little notice of my wisecrack as he made for the door. “I’d handle it myself, but we still have important business to attend to here. I trust you to take care of it, George. You have my full confidence.”

The page made an overly elaborate and ceremonial bow to the Duke. “It shall be done, my lord.” [We once had an intern a lot like Dougie here at the Royal History Department, I used to dump my pencil shavings in his soda. But he’s a judge now, and I still work in a dusty basement, so I guess we’re basically even.]

I gave the kid a sideways scowl, but the Duke hardly seemed to notice him at all. He was about to leave when he stopped in the doorway and turned back to me. “Oh, and one more thing,” he said. “My brother was very close to Bishop Salt. Break the news to him gently.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And how shall I do that, m’lord?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Write him a poem or something.”

II.

We were followed out of Loserville by a parade of prostitutes. [Or aunts, as I was taught to call them by my dad.] They were dressed in black [skimpily, I assume], and making a rather over-the-top show of their mourning. Their moans and wails alternated between unnerving and erotic. “Why are they following us?” the confused page asked.

I couldn’t help cracking a grin. “Who do you think the good bishop spent most of his time attending to?” I said.

He thought it over for a second and shook his head. “What an amazing man,” he said. “Clearly he was without judgment in his vocation.”

I stopped walking and turned to look him in the eye. “Were you raised on a turnip farm or something, boy?”

“I was, actually,” he said without the slightest hint of irony.

I could only roll my eyes.

Before we left the city, I had managed to rent out a plague cart. [He’s probably referring to the Laughing Plague, a decidedly unfunny ailment that ran rampant across the peninsula every few years or so during the middle ages. I’ll cover it in more detail at a later time.] After getting a local carpenter to build a massive casket, we loaded it onto the cart and hooked it up to a team of oxen I’d charged to the Duke’s account. I didn’t know the first thing about mustering oxen, but the hostler assured me it was simple.

“Just whip ’em if you want ’em to go,” he told me.

“What if I want them to stop?” I asked.

“Just whip ’em again.”

“Oh,” I said. “That sounds logical.” Damn East Anchorians.

The plan was to transport the body a short distance to the northeast of the city where the main East Anchor harbor was located. [The reason Loserville was not built directly on the harbor was because East Anchor had no real navy to speak of and such a location would have made it too easy of a target.] From there I had booked passage on a merchant ship called the Rosy Cheek. [Worst ship name ever.] Dougie had reservations about sailing though. “Is it absolutely necessary?” he asked. “I’ve heard stories about pirates. Are they true?”

“Every bit,” I took pleasure in informing him. “But it’s only a short trip and we’ll be hugging the coastline all the way. As soon as we get to the mouth of the Upside Down River, we can catch a skiff upstream to Julia’s Crossing and be done with this business. Then I can get back to working on my masterpiece.” [His masterpiece was a one-thousand-stanza poem entitled An Ode To The Muse’s Lament. It is every bit as awful as it sounds.]

“I don’t know,” Dougie said. “Still sounds iffy to me.”

I groaned. “If you’d prefer to haul this slab of a holy man over or around the Ringed Mountains by yourself, be my guest,” I told him. “But if you want my help, we’re taking the shortcut.”

That seemed to settle the matter. Onboard the Rosy Cheek, a leech offered to buy the corpse from me. [Leech was a common term for doctors of the time, derived from their most popular prescription. It’d be like if we called doctors Vicodins today.] It was tempting, but in the end, I decided a few silver coins weren’t worth the price of my head, which is what the king would have taken from me if he’d ever found out what I’d done. Dougie had gone below deck at my suggestion. He’d been feeling seasick and I told him it would be better down there. I had no idea if that was actually true or not, I just wanted to get him away from me. After a while, I must have started to feel guilty or something, so I decided to go down myself and check on him.

I couldn’t find him anywhere, but that wasn’t what really bothered me. In the cargo hold, someone had pried open the oversized casket. Bishop Salt’s hulking body was sprawled out across the table. Cautiously, I looked around. “Dougie?” I called out softly in the most non-threatening tone I possessed. “Unidentified necrophiliac?” [Interesting that his mind went straight to that.] I got no response and was about to rush to the captain for assistance when something completely unexpected happened. The ship blew up.

I remember hearing the boom and being lifted into the air, but then I don’t know if something hit me on the head or what. Whatever happened, I blacked out for a moment. Only for a moment though. When I came to I was in the water, a good distance from the ship, which was burning and already beginning to sink. There were no signs of other passengers around me, only splinters of wood and the bishop’s corpse floating beside me. [That manatee comparison is starting to look pretty spot on right about now, huh?] Not being an exceptionally strong swimmer, I grabbed hold of his ham hock of an arm. I could see the shore from where we were at, and there was little else to do but wait for the tide to carry us in.

When we got to the beach, I was surprised to see Dougie was already there. He was sitting barefoot in the sand and judging from his expression, he was even more shocked to see me than I was to see him. “You’re alive?” he said.

I shoved the bishop’s body into the sand and climbed over him, putting my feet back on solid ground. “Aye,” I said, casting a quick glance back at the smoldering ship, which was already almost completely submerged. “I don’t know what the hell happened, but it looks like we’re the only two that made it.”

That was not entirely accurate however.

Behind me, the bishop coughed.

III.

I scrambled back in the sand and fell over my own feet. Dougie continued to sit motionless on the beach, too stunned to move, I assumed. Less than ten feet from us, the dead bishop had risen to his feet, though he was nearly doubled over, hacking and wheezing. Being well-versed in zombie mythology, the first thing I did was cover my brain. [Good to know that zombie stories were just as popular in the middle ages as they are now. Sparkly vampires, on the other hand, would have struck the medieval mind as absolutely ridiculous. The fact that they don’t inspire the same gut reaction today is an indictment of our entire modern civilization.] A few moments later, the bishop got his coughing under control and spat out a disgusting gob of greenish-yellow gunk. Then he blinked a couple of times and looked over at us. Or more specifically, Dougie. I’m not sure if he had noticed me at all. “Why am I all wet, Dougie?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Did I soil myself while I was under or something?”

Dougie caught his breath, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. I glanced over at my bumpkin companion. “What’s he talking about, Dougie?” I asked. “How does he even know your name?”

The resurrected bishop raised an eyebrow and looked over in my direction for the first time. “What’s this asshole doing here?” he asked.

I didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, I jumped to my feet and bolted. “Get him, Dougie!” I heard the bishop cry out behind me.

I had a direct line to a copse of trees just off the beach, but I only made it a few steps. Dougie moved like a cat [a cat trained in ninjitsu] and swept my legs out from under me. As I tried to get up again, he buried his knuckles into my lower back and my whole body went numb. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was long enough for him to pin me down. “Sorry about this, old chap,” he said, pressing his knee into my sternum. [I added the old chap part myself, but Logos does say that his whole manner of speaking changed from the naïve farm boy shtick to something far more sinister. To me, that automatically implies some kind of ultra-British James Bond villain.] He reached into his tunic and produced a short dagger.

“Wait,” the bishop called out, staggering toward us. He tossed the boy his prayer beads. “Tie him up. We might be able to get something out of him if he’s alive.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but there wasn’t much I could do as Dougie bound my hands with the beads. The bishop surveyed our surroundings, his eyes still adjusting to the light. “Where the hell is Fulk?” he cursed. “We need to get outta here before anybody else sees us.”

I was still too confused to say anything, but a voice did shout from the far end of the beach. I was able to lift my head just enough to see the leech from the ship staggering toward us. He was as drenched as the rest of us, and he had several inflated pig bladders tied around his waist and arms. [Medieval floaties.] “God’s balls, fellas,” he exclaimed. “Was all that entirely necessary?”

Bishop Salt was still in the dark about what was going on, though not as much as it appeared I was, and Dougie simply shrugged. “It wasn’t my idea to get on the boat,” he said. “If you’d been more persuasive in trying to buy the body, I wouldn’t have had to blow the damn thing up.”

Tossing aside his dripping bladders [that just sounds bad], the leech raised a defensive eyebrow. “So, it’s my fault now?”

The bishop groaned and stepped between them. “Enough of that crap already,” he growled. He looked down at me and then to Dougie. “Get him on his feet. We’re leaving.”

IV.

“God’s rotten teats,” the bishop bellowed. “Any bloody idea where the hell we’re at?”

I shook my head at the language. “You are officially the worst holy man I’ve ever met,” I said. [Logos never had the misfortune of crossing paths with Fred Phelps.]

“Shutup,” Salt hissed. “Or I will have Dougie cut your tongue out.”

I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his threat. We’d been walking through the jungle that lay beyond the beach for what felt like hours. Through the occasional gaps in the treetops, I could tell that we were moving toward the foot of the mountains. My hands were still bound with the prayer beads and Dougie had been behind me every step of the way. He had never bothered to put his dagger away.

Bishop Salt walked ahead of me. The fat man was sweating profusely, and his steps had taken on an increasingly zigzagging nature. His skin was pale and his breathing labored. He was obviously still weakened by whatever had happened to him, and it only made him more foul-tempered as we went along.

Fulk the leech led the way, acting as our de facto guide. He claimed to know exactly where we were going, but I had my doubts. “We’re almost there,” he assured the bishop.

“Almost where?” I dared to ask.

The leech pushed aside a large palm and grinned. “There,” he said, pointing to a dilapidated cabin.

“Oh,” I said. “And here I was worried that it wasn’t going to be worth the wait.” [I love that Logos is such a smartass, but I have to wonder how much of this stuff he actually said. Considering that the only source for the story is his personal diary, I can’t help but think a lot of his best quips are probably things he wishes he said. Even if that is the case, I can’t fault him too much for it. I do the same thing when I tell people stories about working with my boss, Frederick, the Grand Historian of West Anchor.]

“Shutup and get inside,” the bishop snorted, giving me a firm push in the back.

Once inside, I was shoved into a corner and tied to a post like a horse. The place was fairly empty, except for a large wooden table, on which was placed a black bag. [Sounds like my first apartment in college. Minus the table and bag.] Dougie pressed his back against the wall and slid down to the floor to relax. The exhausted bishop took a load off on the table. “Do we got any food around here?” he asked. “I’m starving.”

“There’s a banana tree out back,” the leech informed him.

“Good. Why don’t you make yourself useful and go pick me some?”

The leech looked like he was about to complain, but thought better of it. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, slamming the door shut behind him. The whole cabin shook. [Yep, just like my first apartment.]

I looked over at Dougie, who was still holding his knife. “Look,” I said. “I know I’m just the innocent hostage here, but would you guys mind filling me in on what’s happening and how it concerns me?” I turned my attention to the panting bishop. “I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

The bishop chuckled. “Only temporarily,” he explained. “There was a dose of Creeping Death in my soup.” [Creeping Death is the street name for oxyclorosybocillin, a drug that causes a death-like state of catatonia, usually for between eight to thirty-six hours. For more information on its effects and uses, please see my translation of the classic Anchorian tale, The Minstrel Who Couldn’t Play, available in bookstores everywhere, should someone decide to actually publish it. I promise there are no shameless plugs in it.]

Well, that explained why he was breathing again, but not much else. “You’re here because you’re the fall guy, so to speak,” he continued.

“Fall guy? For what?”

The leech had come back in by now and tossed the bishop a banana. He peeled it and chomped half of it in one bite. “For the war,” he said with a malicious smile.

I looked over at Dougie, but he showed no emotion one way or the other. The leech was too busy poking his head around in the black bag to pay us much attention. “What war?” I asked. “Why would there be a war?”

“Because of this,” the bishop said, lifting up his vestments. [Most monks and clergy members in the middle ages did not wear underpants, so it couldn’t have been a pretty sight.]

I recoiled out of reflex, but other than the fat rolls, there wasn’t really anything offensive to be seen. “There’s gonna be a war because you can’t see your own dick?” I shot back.

He looked annoyed for a second, but quickly pointed to the side of his bulbous gut where his appendix should have been. It was bulging even more than the rest of him, and was discolored as well, like it was bruised. I could see a crude oval stitched around it.

“What in god’s name is that?”

He patted it gently and smiled. “The crown jewels of East Anchor,” he said.

Now it was really starting to make no sense at all. “I was under the impression that East Anchor was broke,” I pointed out.

“They are now,” the bishop said with a smug smirk. “This is the last of their movable wealth. A few rubies, emeralds, and cubic zirconias the king was hoping to pass off to a gullible pawnbroker.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “And you were willing to cut yourself open for that?” I said. “Good call.”

The bishop shook his head. “You don’t get it,” he said. “This is all East Anchor has. The king keeps these hidden in his private chambers. And who is the only person allowed to visit him in those chambers? Duke Phillip. Of course, no one ever takes notice of the inbred bumpkin attending to the Duke, who just happens to have sticky fingers. But when the king figures out they’re missing, he’ll fly off the handle and accuse the Duke. Insults will be traded, honors offended, and before long the kingdoms of the Anchor Peninsula will be at war again.”

I still wasn’t seeing it. “Okay,” I said. “But where’s the profit in it for you? I mean, other than a few trinkets that will barely buy you a cup of soup.”

I could tell he was getting impatient, but I didn’t much care. “The Pirate King of Mump has offered to pay us generously for smuggling out the jewels and ensuring the war starts as scheduled,” he explained. [Mump is the unfortunately named kingdom across the Rippled Sea from the peninsula. In the middle ages, it was a pirate stronghold and sanctuary for thieves and scum of all kind. Today it is overrun with lawyers and telemarketers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.] “He and his people stand to profit enormously as mercenaries and weapons suppliers. And he’s promised to set me up on a palatial estate of my own, where I can live out the rest of my obscenely wealthy life without having to look over my shoulder. Because as far as anyone else knows, I’m already dead.”

“Don’t you think someone might come looking for you when I don’t bring your body back to Julia’s Crossing?” I pointed out.

He shrugged, unconcerned. “I doubt they’ll spend too much time looking for a corpse, especially with a war on,” he countered. “In the end, you’ll probably get the blame for failing in your mission. At least that was the original plan. But you actually may have done us a favor. By forcing us to blow up the boat, they’ll just assume we sank at sea. And since we won’t have to cut your throat and leave you in a creek somewhere to make it look like you were ambushed by bandits or something, now we can sell you as a slave to the pirates for a tidy sum.”

“Gee, glad I could help you out,” I said, growing to hate him more by the second. The plan still seemed pretty ridiculous to me though. [I would have to agree. Keep in mind however, I never claimed it was a brilliant plot, only that I hoped it was an entertaining one. Try to think of the operation less in the mold of an Ocean’s Eleven and more like an executive meeting at Enron.] “It just doesn’t make sense,” I told him, unwilling to let it go at that. “You’re a bishop, the head of the Church. You already live a posh life. And if that wasn’t enough for you, all you had to do was embezzle more money and no one would ever call you on it.” [Pretty much every medieval bishop did.] I shook my head. “Why do you care so much if there’s a war and the pirates get rich?”

He leaned forward on the edge of the table. “You wanna know why I care so much?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yes.”

The bishop looked me square in the eye. “Forty-eight years ago, I was born in the Borderlands to a West Anchorian mother and an East Anchorian father…”

I waved him off before he could get any further. “No, wait,” I said. “I changed my mind. I don’t really care.”

He looked annoyed, maybe even a little disappointed at being interrupted before he could deliver his big, dramatic soliloquy, but he mercifully didn’t subject me to anymore. [I am exceedingly grateful to Logos for stopping him there.] Instead, he turned to the leech. “Cut these out of me,” he ordered. “We gotta meet the pirates at dusk and I’d like to have a nap before then.”

I laughed out loud in the corner. “A nap,” I chuckled. “Well, I guess you’ve thought of everything. Of course, there is just one thing you have overlooked.”

Bishop Salt raised an eyebrow. “And what is that?” he asked.

I shrugged, doing my best to exude an air of almost cocky confidence mixed with dismissive condescension. I didn’t have much to work with, but I couldn’t help trying to mess with the arrogant son of a bitch’s mind. “I don’t know, but guys like you always overlook something important in these types of situations.” [Something tells me Logos would have been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.]

That was the last straw for the bishop. He looked over at Dougie, who was still spacing out with his back against the wall. “Gag this asshole,” he ordered. “I’m tired of listening to him.”

Dougie ripped off part of his shirt, balled it up, and stuck it in my mouth as the bishop reclined on the table. Fulk the leech pulled a large scalpel out of his black bag and turned back to where Dougie and I were seated. “You might wanna turn away,” he warned. “This could get messy.”

V.

The meeting with the pirates took place at dusk as planned. The rendezvous point was on a ridge overlooking a tributary of the Upside Down River. Their ship was visible, docked in the inlet below. They totaled five in number, all decked out in the usual pirate garb: bandanas, parrots, and wooden appendages. Their leader was a man named Dreg. He seemed to have all of his arms and legs, but his teeth had definitely seen better days. Word was that he was a lieutenant under the current Pirate King, a vicious fellow with the rather unimposing name of Norm. [It is reported that Norm stole the equivalent of millions of dollars from the surrounding kingdoms and personally butchered over a thousand people throughout the course of his career. You’d think such atrocities would at least earn him a cool nickname.]

The bishop wasn’t exactly a portrait of vitality either by the time we arrived. Fearing Fulk or Dougie might try to pull a fast one on him while he was under, he had refused any kind of anesthetic for the operation to remove the jewels. Halfway to the ridge, he passed out. I was all for leaving him, but Dougie and Fulk were apparently afraid of facing the pirates without him, so they forced me to help them get him to his feet and prop him up for the rest of the journey. As they settled in to discuss business however, the bishop got his second wind.

“You’ve done well, preacher man,” the pirate Dreg greeted him. “The news out of Loserville is that Duke Phillip has been thrown into the dungeons for larceny and attempting to humiliate the kingdom of East Anchor. It’s only a matter of time now. Did you bring the jewels?”

Salt reached under his vestments and tossed the pirate a leather purse. Dreg loosened the drawstring, but threw his head back with a repugnant expression when he looked inside. “You couldn’t have cleaned them off first?” he asked.

The bishop shrugged. “We were running short on time,” he said. “Where’s my money? Did you bring it or is it waiting for me in Mump?”

To one side of me, the leech licked his lips greedily. [Is there any more disgusting gesture a human being can make?] On the other side, Dougie still looked sort of dazed. I’m not sure what exactly had gotten to him. He was clearly not the idiot he had played me for, but he still seemed in over his head. Maybe it was the latter realization that had affected him. Had I not been about to be sold into slavery, I might have felt sorry for the little bastard.

Dreg looked at me. “Who’s this, priest?” he asked, taking note of my bound hands.

“He’s yours if you want him,” Salt told him, obviously impatient. “Dougie tells me he’s a poet or something. But if you don’t want him, I don’t really give a crap. We can slit his throat right now for all I care. All I want is my money. You got it or not?”

A thin smile curled at the corner of Dreg’s lips. “We don’t have much use for poets in Mump,” he said. [Mump was apparently far ahead of its time and much more in tune with the modern world in this regard.] “And as for your money, why should I pay you a single cent now that the job is already done?”

Salt’s face turned bright red, almost purple, and he puffed for a moment before the words came. “Don’t you dare try and scam me,” he growled. “I’m still the Bishop of the Anchorian Church. And I can still bring hell down upon you and your boss back in Mump.”

Dreg took a step back and carefully considered the warning. “You’re right, of course,” he said finally. Then he stepped off to the side of everyone. “Gentleman,” he said with a subtle nod to his men.

“What—” the bishop started to say, but before he could get any further, the pirates raised their bows and aimed them at us. None of us had the wherewithal to move. We just froze.

I closed my eyes and waited for the blow to come. But it never did. I heard the twang as the pirates let go of their bowstrings. The whoosh of the arrows taking flight. I felt the wind from them. Heard the thump of their impact. But when I opened my eyes, I was still standing. The bishop, Dougie, and Fulk were not so fortunate. They lay on the ground beside me. Fulk and Dougie had an arrow apiece lodged in their foreheads. Bishop Salt had three, one in each eye and one in his open mouth. [Typical of most medieval manuscripts, the actual description of the wounds in Logos’ diary is far more graphic, but I’ve cleaned it up for more sensitive modern audiences. Yes, people today are total wusses.]

Momentarily ignoring the fact that an even worse fate may have likely awaited me, I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. “That’s what they overlooked,” I said out loud. “Never trust pirates!”

Dreg reached into his tunic and waved a small gold shield in front of my face. With his other hand, he expertly brandished his sword and cut the prayer beads wrapped around my wrists. His men lowered their bows. “We’re not pirates,” he said. “We’re undercover agents in His Majesty’s Secret Service.” [Am I the only one who thinks Dreg and his men would make excellent material for a TV series? You don’t have to say it. I know I’m the only one. But it would still be awesome.]

“What?” I said. My mouth was hanging open. Even after all that had happened to me in the last twenty-four hours, I was completely unprepared for this latest left turn.

The suddenly very business-like Dreg ignored my question though. Instead, he tossed the bag containing the East Anchorian crown jewels to one of his men. “Prepare the ship to set sail,” he commanded. “Time is of the essence.”

Then he turned back to me. “We’ll see that the jewels are returned to Loserville,” he told me. “You just make sure to get the bishop back to Julia’s Crossing.”

I nodded without thinking about what I was doing, and then I raised an eyebrow. “Whoa,” I said. “Hold on. You still want me to take him back? After everything he’s done?”

Dreg placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Nothing good can come out of a scandal that brings down the Church,” he said. “The fewer people who know the truth about this sack of crap, the better. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. And the last thing the peninsula needs now is more unrest.” [It seems that many in the modern Church have adopted Dreg’s philosophy and applied it toward certain members’ inappropriate interactions with little boys. I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind when he essentially suggested turning the other cheek, but I digress.]

I wasn’t so convinced, though I was hardly in a position to argue. Still, there was a rather large logistical problem that remained. “Okay,” I said. “But the guy weighs two tons. How am I supposed to carry him myself? I don’t even have a cart.”

Dreg rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking over the matter carefully. Then he pulled his sword again, and with one lightning quick gesture struck the head from Bishop Salt’s shoulders. “That much should do,” he said.

He paused for a moment, then he chopped off the head of the other two conspirators too. He tossed a burlap sack on the ground beside them. “Take them too,” he said. “King Philo can display them on the walls and say they poisoned the bishop if he wants to. I don’t know, there may be some angle he can use to his advantage there. Farewell, George Logos.” [F’ing politics, man.]

He left without saying another word and I could only wave weakly. After watching the ship sail out of the inlet, I collected the heads in the sack and made my way back down the ridge. Two days later, I walked into the Royal Palace at Julia’s Crossing. I was exhausted and filthy from my ordeal, and simply dropped the bag at the foot of the king’s throne. “I’ll mail you a poem with all the details, your majesty,” I told him. “Otherwise, consider me officially retired as of right now.”

Perhaps there was something in my tone or my expression or my generally ragged appearance, but the king did not even try to stop me from leaving or demand an explanation.

 

If such a poem was ever written, it has not survived. Likely, it would have been destroyed to avoid any embarrassment to the Kingdom and the Church. It is not known if Philo ever implicated Dougie and Fulk as murderers, but, as mentioned earlier, there is nothing in the historical record about the bishop being poisoned. However, unofficial rumors have persisted for centuries. This was the primary motivation in the exhumation of the bishop’s tomb, the hope that modern science might finally be able to prove once and for all whether he was murdered or not. Imagine the scientists’ surprise when they pried open the casket only to find three arrow-riddled skulls instead.

As for the crown jewels of East Anchor, they were returned as promised by Dreg and war was avoided. Peace, however, would be short-lived. In typical Anchorian fashion, war would break out just three weeks later over a piece of undercooked chicken at a state dinner. But that is a story for another time.

 

Blood and Shadow

by Emile DeWeaver

 

The heat was a mask against Ransu’s copper skin when he staggered into the hell he defended. Peat smoke boiled slowly over the red-lit cavern, a quarry-turned-infirmary, and scraped Ransu’s throat as he breathed. In front of him, down a ramp, a gallery-shaped pit spanned two hundred feet where men had once bled beneath the lash as they excavated granite. Behind Ransu, distant rumbles from Dakahl Rock’s war drums beat against his back. The infirmary pulsed with the sound like a thing living, but it was a place of dead rock and dying men.

“Cheers to Death.” Ransu’s brothers greeted him and taunted the god Death in the same breath. Descending the quarry ramp, Ransu raised the two picks he’d tied together to fill his massive grip, saluting. Pain spiked from bite holes in his side, but Ransu—broken chains jingling from the slave shackles around his wrists—pushed his picks as high as his seven-foot frame would carry them.

As he weaved his way to a bench, midwives who served as healers paused their work to touch him. Ransu’s lips stirred, too tired to return their smiles, and he found a seat against a cratered wall which rose to a fractured, domed ceiling. When he sat, his chin hit his chest. His gaze dropped to his chain shirt. There, he stared at the trog blood that had congealed between his links.

“Child, must you wear them?” Mishe waded through the trog blood’s stench and, crinkling her flat nose, picked a jellied piece of trog from Ransu’s dreadlocks. They fell past ropes of muscles that tightened around shoulders three times as wide as Mishe.

“I see the toll it takes, killing trogs,” Mishe said, unlacing his mail. “Those children caged in their bellies, their souls hostage. You have to believe the gods will find a way to save them. They always find a way, child.”

“I know,” Ransu lied. The gods were gone, but Ransu lacked the heart to burden her, or anyone, with that secret.

“You know, but you come back looking like you bathed in trog guts. Maybe you think you can wash the toll away with their blood. Maybe all this blood heavies the price.”

“Maybe they’re just sticky inside and out.” Ransu didn’t smile. It was a black humor that had him, bitterness risen from a bottomless hole that swallowed prayers whispered to deaf gods over dying friends. The Age of Chaos had come, and with its arrival, the gods had their own battles to fight. Humanity would have to win theirs alone—or lose them. No amount of trog blood could wash that truth away, and Ransu didn’t care whether blood heavied the price. Dakahl’s fiends and blackhearts, the Fallen, had no gods to fear. So be it! Let these monsters die with the fear of Ransu booming through their hearts.

Mishe looked at him, and bright eyes strained against heavy wrinkles on her face. She slid her hand over his patchy beard until her thumb rested beside his large, hooded eyes. She smiled, gazing into another world. “You have a dreamer’s eyes, like my boy had. Half in this world, half in another. His father liked to say it was a wise man’s gaze, but he was just a boy. You’re tall as a god, but you’re just a boy.”

Mishe never treated him as if he raised mountains or parted seas, and he loved her for that respite. Ransu sighed and some of the tension rolled out of his shoulders.

“I’m okay, Mishe,” he said.

She blinked and pulled her hand back, apologizing as she left him. She limped to get an iron that roasted in one of the braziers marching in soot-stained pairs down the middle of the infirmary.

Holding the boiled linen that Mishe had left against the bite in his side, Ransu surveyed his brothers by peat’s red glow. A quarter of them glistened with fever on makeshift litters, their wounds smelling like poisonous, sweet lotus in a stagnant swamp. Another quarter howled, in turn, through clenched teeth as their weeping wounds sizzled beneath midwives’ red irons. Others cleaned and sharpened weapons, or they smiled grimly into shadow, waiting to return to the battlefront. Once, Dakahl had made them slaves, but they’d been reborn beneath their father’s heel, determined to unmake their maker. They were the Sons of Dakahl.

Clearing dreadlocks from his face, Ransu turned his survey to the breach in Dakahl—the Serpent’s stronghold in the desert beneath a mountain. Before the rebellion, Sons had tunneled two lanes along a granite outcrop for its removal. The outcrop ran for a mile, but Sons had continued digging, in secret, until they had reached the mountain’s natural tunnels that led to freedom.

Ransu couldn’t see the lanes because the rubble wall they’d constructed as the last defensive line blocked his view, but those lanes were hot lines through his awareness. Without them, the stronghold was impregnable. It was not only the one way out, it was the only feasible way in, so Ransu had to hold them until Anhor and her jinns arrived from fighting the army that Dakahl had sent south to intercept her. If he could, if Anhor’s army even survived to storm the fortress, Dakahl would be ruined and its remaining slaves would be freed.

Too many ifs, but Ransu held to them when Mishe returned with the searing iron. When strong arms braced him and the quarry disappeared in a white nova of agony, he pushed furrows through the hard dirt with his heels and held to them. Pain filled him until there wasn’t room for loss, rage, or despair; yet, Ransu filled the world with a scream and held to them.

*****

Ransu woke to the stink of his burnt flesh filling his mouth, startled by a boy’s battle cry. Waving a chipped dagger as he fought imaginary foes. Nefan skipped out of the lanes, leading the recently liberated iron miners and the Daughters of the Sun who’d remained. When news about Anhor’s army—outnumbered three to one by Dakahl’s soldiers—had reached the rebellion, most Daughters and fighting slaves raced to help Anhor. But knowing the Sons were too few to hold the tunnels, they’d promised to free the miners on the north end of the mountain before they left.

Ransu moved to greet the iron miners. The infirmary’s vault dropped to the low ceiling more characteristic of mining as Ransu neared the makeshift gate. The gate was an opening in the rubble wall shored up by sled-boards set between the rollers they’d used to haul granite. Nefan sped through the gate, slapping Ransu’s arm before another Son called the boy. Behind Nefan, Marhea rode in on an arrogant wind, victory’s light dancing in the Iibyan’s emerald eyes. She knew the gods were gone too, but she joked with her sisters about tall trees and tall boys.

Her cheer irked Ransu, but he swallowed the dust in his mouth and said nothing. Though once bed slaves and gladiators who’d enjoyed the most privilege among Dakahl’s slaves, the Daughters had been the first to rebel, and Marhea had been one of the first to lead them.

“Cheers to Death. I’m Kalis.” An ebon man with sagging flesh around one eye broke away from the newcomers. He offered a forearm forked with fat veins for Ransu to clasp. Kalis bore a soldier’s tattoo on his scalp, and when he spoke, Ransu imagined that before slavery, Kalis’ baritone had boomed across many battlefields.

“What can you tell us,” Kalis asked, “as far as tactics?”

“Kill the jinnlings,” Ransu said. “We’ve counted six.”

“Six dark jinns? World below,” he swore.

“Dark jinns marched south,” Ransu said. “Jinnlings are the apprentices they left behind. Mostly, they poison our minds and break bones, but one’s strong enough to conjure fire. An Atephan; ebon skin; scar, right here: we call him the Demon.”

Kalis nodded, repeating the Demon’s name. They continued to talk tactics while they crossed the infirmary toward the ramp: how to use a canine trog’s bite reflex to break its neck, the safest way to weather a rumy trog’s charge. When Marhea joined them, Ransu arched his brow at her spear arm which hung in a sling. Her back had been torn open to the shoulder blade, and though she hailed from a race of pale, desert warriors, Ransu didn’t imagine their one-armed fighters were any less a liability.

“I need one arm only, for throwing these,” she said, brutalizing Ransu’s language. She shouldered a tarred sack filled with canines’ chakrams, S-shaped throwing discs with keen, silvery edges.

“Help Mishe if you want to stay useful,” Ransu said.

“I’m able as any warrior.”

“Are you?” Ransu seized Marhea by her throat, spun her, and trapped her against his chest. “Were I a canine, you’d be breathing bubbles.”

“Release me,” Marhea hissed.

“You’re a liability.”

“Your point’s made, Ransu,” said Elise, the first Daughter to draw sai. They’d mastered the pronged blades in Dakahl’s gladiator rings. “Don’t make us make ours.”

Ransu released Marhea, but as he mounted the ramp, she shouted his name. He turned, cursed, and ducked before her chakram whistled over his dreads. He touched them, expecting one to fall off. Marhea stalked up the ramp and thrust her face near Ransu’s, her thin lips flattening over clenched teeth. When she glared up at him, short, brown hair fell back exposing freckles and proud cheeks shaped like saucers.

“I was warrior at ten. First man I killed, broke my ribs and cut my throat before I did it.” She raised her chin, showing a shiny scar just shy of the pulse visibly beating at her neck. “We’re over-numbered, and I am able. I go.”

Her breath cooled on Ransu’s throat while the infirmary waited. As haughty and irksome as he found her, Marhea’s certain demise wilted Ransu, and that angered him. He had no right to mourn her, not more than he mourned the Sons that Ransu had known would die when he convinced them to rebel.

“Cheers to Death, Iibyan.” Ransu tapped his picks against her chest and continued up the ramp. On the catwalk. Mishe stopped sweeping to cradle him with a look. Before she breathed a word, she froze.

Sentries cried alarm.

A part of Ransu denied the alarm, for Dakahl’s war drums still rumbled in the distance—the battle for Dakahl’s stone quarry couldn’t reach the infirmary this soon! They needed time, but when Ransu bolted into the tunnels, two Sons rounded the corner running. Dark clouds tumbled after them like a black sandstorm. From the strange clouds rolled the wet growls of the dog-headed trogs called canines. Ransu couldn’t see the bound faces, but as the billows swelled and the light waned, he could feel the children—like heat off a furnace—trapped in each trog’s stomach, their faces twisted in voiceless screams.

“They come in black clouds!”

As Ransu rushed back into the infirmary, Kalis barked order into a swarm of chaos, directing Sons to haul the wounded to the lanes behind the wall.

Mishe, grabbing at her bad leg, hobbled down the ramp.

Ransu scooped her under his arm, and they raced the clouds. The storm was faster. It crashed over them, snarling in his ears and clawing at his eyes. Stunned, blind, Ransu tripped.

Mishe slipped from his grasp, crying his name. Claws scraped the catwalk. Knowing the canines’ noses would guide them to their kill, Ransu felt doom settling over himself and Mishe like a smothering shroud.

He reached toward Mishe’s scream, but instead of getting a grip on her, he stubbed his finger on her head. Her hands fluttered like moths off Ransu’s elbow before they tightened desperately around his forearm. Then she was gone.

A canine snatched her, and the sound of Mishe’s bones crackling punched the breath from him. For a moment, Ransu couldn’t move. Canines blew by; they brushed him, yet they didn’t tear out his throat. Enraged by the reprieve, he roared and lunged. His picks missed, but he slammed into a speeding canine.

The two reeled. The ramp slipped from beneath Ransu’s toes, and his arms leapt around the only anchor there, the canine. The trog yelping, Ransu cursing, they tipped off the ramp and jarred against the ground.

Stars flared in Ransu’s head, warping the ringing dark. Hot jaws chomped on his armored forearm, and cool slobber splashed on his bare face. Ransu hugged the beast’s neck, groping with his free arm. The thing was hairless and slippery, but Ransu braced and broke its neck.

The snap seemed to signal the storm’s retreat, for clouds pulled back like a black sheet yanked off the infirmary, revealing carnage. Daughters and Sons lay chewed and contorted between splintered benches. Beneath overturned braziers, canines twitched and burned. They looked like hairless gorillas with odd, elongated torsos and the heads of thick-jawed dogs. Canines were fast on all fours, and they could butcher standing on two feet, so they could’ve easily overrun the infirmary in the dark if not for their inherent gluttony. From the ramp to the rubble wall, they’d abandoned their assault to feast.

Sons abandoned the wall, shouting and charging as they rushed through the gateway to avenge their brothers.

Ransu staggered to his feet, alone.

As one, six canines who’d straggled to feed dropped their meals and turned on him. Gray ears flattened above sickle teeth. As they rose to stand on two feet, sleek skins stretched across long trunks, and flat muscles rippled. They wore crescent blades on their backs, and the violence of drawing swords shook strings of bloody spit from hungry chops.

They were monsters, but Ransu killed monsters. The deformed faces caged beneath each trog’s ribs, however, ran his blood backward. The children tried to scream, but silence emptied from bloated lips.

Ransu tore his gaze from one whose eye swam in a swollen socket that leaked red tears. He steeled himself and charged. Bulling and dodging his way through, he blocked three blades and staved a canine’s skull.

The trog and the child trapped in it died.

Ransu hardened himself again. Bellowing a ragged challenge, shoving the dead canine like a shield to clear his way. Ransu vaulted a claw and raced down the corridor his archers opened. Chakrams glided after him, whining as they missed.

Ahead, Marhea raced with two Daughters to help. Yelling for Ransu to drop, Marhea cocked a chakram.

He dove, twisted to face a pouncing canine. Its fangs gleamed pink. They gnashed with a clunk when Marhea’s chakram thunked into its chest, and then the beast piled into Ransu’s swinging picks.

As Ransu lay pressed beneath softening flesh, horror galloped through him, for the bound child squirmed against Ransu’s belly. Its final breath sliced through his mail shirt; the child’s soul died with the trog. Ransu hardened himself—and shattered.

He shoved the trog aside and smashed its head again. His picks rose and dropped, dripped and crunched, over and over. It wasn’t enough. He punched to feel it squish. He drowned in its slaughter until someone yelled his name. Clawing his way out of the deep to see who, Ransu choked on his gasp when Marhea tackled him. A chakram whirred over their scalps.

Marhea flopped off him, moaning while clutching her bandages. Ransu raised and turned cold. The chakram meant for him had hit Elise in her throat. Blood spilled over and under the disc as Elise sank in one of her sister’s arms, gulping breath she couldn’t swallow.

She died before they could drag her behind the wall. Crouched in its shadow, Marhea reached over Elise’s corpse to shake Ransu’s gory mail. “For this, she died. So you could beat corpse.” She head-butted him, hauling on his links and breaking his nose.

“She died because they killed her, not me!” Ransu’s shout sprayed blood on Kalis who’d wedged himself between Ransu and Marhea. “What do you know—”

“I know.” Marhea shoved Kalis out of their way and tilted her face to Ransu’s, defiant. Her face hardened to speckled sandstone. Then her emerald eyes softened, and Ransu flinched from falling into them. They reminded him that she did know—the gods had abandoned the world.

“Blame them, then.” Ransu left her squatting over Elise, mounted the wall, and threw himself into the nearest clump of trogs. The war drums had arrived, and they boomed like world-ending thunder. Ransu shouted over them, cursing Death and then laughing at how little courage that required in this new age. The god of decay and destruction couldn’t hear him.

But few knew that. Sons flocked to his laughter and embraced Ransu’s battle call. They waded through rivers of heat and snarling flesh until the rumies—giant, ram-headed trogs with four arms—rampaged into the infirmary. They lowered their horns, charged, and the Sons of Dakahl buckled.

They counted less than a hundred when archers covered their retreat through the lanes.

Defeat thickened the dust where the lanes ended in a slump-floored cave. Daughters dropped with Sons to rest among the wounded, and Ransu, squatting before one of three tunnels, gazed past bowls of peat that lit the way to escape. While he stared, whispered prayers burned his ears. Closing his eyes, he wrung the shattered chains on his shackles until his hands ached. He wanted to tell them the truth about their faith, to scream at them to stop praying for what they had to do themselves. Ransu opened his eyes as Kalis knelt beside him and met the old soldier’s sagging eye.

“We should fall south and join Anhor,” Kalis suggested in a low rumble.

“No,” Ransu said.

“If we charge back,” Marhea said, “we get bottled in lanes and butchered. South, we have help. We start again, then.”

“Assume the Fallen scour the mountain for our exit,” Kalis said. “If we give them too much time, they’ll crush us between hammer and anvil.”

“And when time goes out, they’ve their cloud, now,” Marhea said. “They tested it with canines. Next, maybe they send krakes, and krakes won’t stop to feast.”

“Three real problems.” Ransu looked from the lit tunnel to the dark ones, grasping at solutions. “These tunnels lead somewhere. Maybe a thin wall to dig another way in.”

“For all we know, they lead to hell,” Kalis said. “The Fallen will find us already cooked.”

“Let them. That’s fewer hands to seal these lanes.” Ransu grasped Kalis’ nape and shook him, as brothers did to stir the spirit. “Kalis, we’re not going to hell. But if we do, we’ll bronze the Serpent’s tongue next to Death’s balls before we return.”

Several straightened and grinned.

“I want Anhor’s help, but she could be crushed beneath Dakahl’s armies, and we wouldn’t know until we marched into them. Salvation for the slaves trapped in Dakahl lies not in the heavens or in Anhor, but here.” Ransu swept his picks to include their weapons. Pounding a Sons’ chest, he said, “Dakahl’s destruction lies there.”

“Destruction and death, die and kill—that’s all you think,” Marhea said. “You’ll not burn us with your demons—”

“Dakahl will wall these lanes up with the bones of our dead! We’ve one shot—I feel it. We can slay this beast. This monster that stole your sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, and made them hate us.” Many of the jinnlings and soldiers had been culled from captives and turned against their families, Ransu’s little brother among them. “Our most innocent, they rape their souls…” Ransu rocked his head back to gaze at the ceiling. The gods were busy fighting their war; could they not at least send strength? “They tear the souls out of our children to make their trogs.

“Go south if your heart takes you. I don’t know where these tunnels lead or what to do, but I do know we can’t do anything from out there.” Ransu studied his brothers. They would follow him down strange tunnels or back through the lanes, wielding rocks if they didn’t have picks. He wished they wouldn’t follow, for he’d never lead them home.

“Bring a torch if you’re coming with me.”

*****

Ransu mulled it over as canines’ howls hurried them through tunnels of eroded quartz. Only the Demon commanded enough power to conjure the dark storm. He’d be in the rear, far from harm, so Ransu needed to get fighters behind the canines. Marhea suggested they use the dead-end side passages that veined their pebbly path, but Kalis insisted canines would smell anyone hiding in those narrows.

“Then what?” a gray-bearded Son named Tem grumbled. He glared with his good eye at his child, another Son, on a stretcher. “All hundred of us gonna wade through a thousand trogs, blackhearts, and krakes?”

“For now, we rest.” Ransu laid Nefan, who slept, in the daylight that slanted through natural vents in the ceiling. The rays whispered of a warmth few had felt in months. The canines’ howls, however, chorused a cold dirge, so that Ransu hovered near Nefan, as though the boy might be snatched away like Mishe. Worry for the boy conjured the canines’ pursuit in Ransu’s mind—their sleek bodies pumping in the dark, earth ripping beneath their thick claws.

He felt them shooting by him in the infirmary, cloaked in their black clouds, and he massaged his throat. How had he survived on the ramp when Mishe had died? It had been as if the canines hadn’t known he’d stood among them. Ransu froze—staring at the trog blood tightening on his skin. They hadn’t known he was there. “The blood.”

Kalis stopped talking with Marhea.

“They couldn”t smell me through their blood.”

“Get your head on together.” Marhea pounded Ransu’s chest, concern—possibly for his sanity—showing through her frown. Her scowl deepened when Ransu explained why he could hide in a side passage, and get behind the Fallen.

“You don’t know they’re not smelling you,” she said.

“He makes sense, though,” Kalis said.

“I hide with him, in case he’s wrong,” Marhea said.

If Ransu were wrong, he’d get her killed. If he were right, she’d get him killed. So they argued until Kalis pulled Ransu’s arm, his eyes rimmed with alarm. The howls had ceased.

Every eye turned, and behind them, ebon billows tumbled around a bend. Twenty fighters formed three lines, withdrawing slowly to check the canines’ advance. Marhea grabbed Nefan and ran with the rest to regroup as far away as the twenty’s blood would buy the next line of defenders. Ransu backed deep into a rocky narrow before the black swallowed him.

It shrieked and slapped at him as canines shot past the opening, snarls crackling in their throats. A woman screamed, and battle added its clamor to the storm while Ransu waited for a canine to catch his scent. Straining his ears against the storm, he listened for a careless chakram scraping rock, a creeping claw grinding dirt. He started to hope when he heard only the storm and battle.

He hoped, but he couldn’t relax. As battle grew distant, krakes—the Serpent’s reptilian spawn—sped by the opening. Ransu knew them by their stench, like curdled milk, but he didn’t know if trog blood mattered with them. Krakes had a cold intelligence that trogs lacked. The cunning reptiles, as a matter of course, might sweep the tunnel’s offshoots.

Ransu reversed the grip of his lead hand and turned sideways, so he had room to thrust his picks. His manacle banged rock, scraping.

A screech that pealed like fierce hawks and rusted hinges tore into the narrow as krakes rushed toward him.

*****

In the golden fields of the Undying Lands, gods died. While the Serpent’s Fallen prepared to subjugate men in the mortal world, ara’angeid boiled like tar from cracks in Entropy’s prison in heaven. Ara’angeid: it meant, in the First Tongue, the end.

When the end began, gods made swamps of smoking blood from their dead, but the ara’angeid were inexhaustible. Where one fell, two smaller rose; from two, rose four; then again—smaller and smaller until they were tinier than dust, until they rode the gods’ very breath to destroy them from their insides.

It was the Age of Chaos. Entropy would lay heaven to ruin and seal what gods survived in a prison beneath his throne.

One god, called many names, tended a white lotus. The flower waned in a pond choked with ash which fell from the sky so thickly it seemed air and light had broken out with blight. The Gardener slid the stem between the middle fingers of one hand, cupping the bulb, and it spread its petals rising to face its father. With his other hand, he stirred the pond’s sludge, and clean water bubbled up to relieve the lotus.

It offered its heady fragrance in thanks, a brief relief from the burnt, powdery smells of a dying realm, but the Father found no solace. He cast a resigned eye to the wheat field that surrounded his favorite clearing where once golden stalks as tall as trees now bowed and cracked beneath sooty drifts.

With a sigh, he returned to his work. Ash choked the pond once more.

“Time to go, brother,” came a voice from above. It rumbled like wildfire.

“Have you come to drag me off then?” The Creator, called many names, didn’t look up.

“Divest me? You’ll find that difficult.”

“Must I take your power? Will you not give obedience to your king and do your duty?”

“What is the duty of a father to all he’s created?”

“The age has turned. You cannot save this land.”

“There are lands that can be—”

“Enough!”

Heat washed over the Gardener who shielded the lotus with both hands.

“It’s no wonder young gods rebel when you profane my rule.”

The Father finally looked up from his work. Above, the sun-god shone like a star in the falling black, but the ashes drank his light, spilling more shadow. The flakes nearest his golden skin curled and flared red. It seemed the sky burned down around him.

“They rebel because we promised humankind we’d reward those who keep our commandments.”

“That age has passed.”

“And the last time that age passed there wasn’t a man or woman left the Serpent didn’t transform into something else. Krakes, foulings… worse things than trogs.

“I betrayed their faith. Not again.”

“The Halls hold ten-thousand,” the King said. “I gathered the Chosen; we’ve saved those we can—”

“We did not promise ten-thousand!”

“So what will you do? Pour the power we need to survive here into the mortal realm, for what? In ten millennia, they will have used it all, and they will curse you for abandoning them in five more, for their memories run short. Meanwhile, the shell of your godhood will watch here as even the Halls fall.

“Are you not the father of all you’ve created here too? If you do this, others will follow. It will truly be the end, here—for now, through the next age, and forever. You will trade one creation for another.”

The Creator’s hands trembled around the lotus, and he pulled them away lest they tear the bulb. Would there were ears to hear gods’ prayers! How could a father choose among his children who would live or die? The Chosen and ascended souls of eons deserved their promised reward as much as the mortals below. He wouldn’t assure their destruction for the guilt of another age.

The sun god alit on the pond’s bank. Dark eyes like collapsed stars drew the Father toward the King’s truth. “Come, brother. We would only torment them with false hope while sacrificing the hope of Eternity.”

The Father took a last look at his blighted land, turned to follow the King, and an idea, a chance to save heaven and men, stopped him. “No. Hope cannot be false while it lives.”

“I am your king.” Hot wind that moaned with men’s unanswered prayers wrapped around the sun-god, scattering ash and embers. Eleven more gods, the king’s cohort, appeared before landing in the clearing. “Do not force this.”

The Creator sealed his lips, and gathered his power. The land began to tremble.

*****

Screeching krakes rushed into Ransu’s narrow, and he immediately started climbing. Braced between walls, Ransu listened as krakes clawed at the rock beneath him, searching. They hissed and spat, seeming to conspire, and Ransu waited to hear them climb. They didn’t. A screech outside the narrow drew them, and their feet scrabbled over the rocky floor as they hurried to catch up to the battle.

Ransu finally exhaled when the storm vanished like a magician’s trick, relieved to find himself alone except he wasn’t alone. Slowly, to keep his chains quiet, he climbed down and prowled to the edge of his nook.

One way, three krakes guarded the way they’d come, sweeping the dirt impatiently with their tails. Dust covered their black scales, and frosted, crescent nails twitched at their sides. Behind two more krakes, a short sprint to Ransu’s left, a rumy thumped back and forth. It burst with muscles, so much so that its brawn ripped through the skin on its four arms in wet, pink clusters. Thankful to the shadows that hid the soul in the rumy’s belly, Ransu turned toward two jinnlings standing between the rumy and the krakes. His gaze settled on the boy with the scar down his forearm. The Demon.

The scar glistened like an asp against the Demon’s black skin as he gestured furiously, lost in the trance jinnlings entered to re-gather their power. His mate scrutinized everything that ticked and floated in the barren tunnel, poised to unleash his power should even a mote drift off kilter. Fear, joy, and lust charged Ransu’s skin.

Cheers to Death. Ransu hurled a rock and raced it to its target. The watchful jinnling lashed out with his hands, shadow warping around his fingers, but then he had to duck the rock. He recovered on the points of Ransu’s picks. Broken chains ringing like tomb bells, Ransu whirled to kill the Demon, but not before two krakes tackled Ransu, raking and hissing. He heaved them aside and dove clear of the rumy who charged.

It smacked the wall, horns-first. Ransu rushed the Demon, bowling a krake before the two he’d thrown pounced on his back. Their nails slipped through gaps in his mail while their feet raked his legs, slicing a gash in his thigh. Gasping through his teeth, Ransu hurled one into its friend. The other, he rammed against the wall and crushed.

The krakes who remained spread to protect the Demon whose gestures began to slow. Gristle popped between mammoth bones as the rumy got up and flexed its four arms, pink muscles ripping through more skin. Reaching behind its pauldrons, it hauled out a two-headed axe broad enough to crowd Ransu’s grave.

It swung twice; Ransu sidestepped and ducked. Pain lanced through his leg where a krake had opened Ransu’s thigh, and Ransu stumbled into the giant who caught him with its lower arms, snatching him into the air. When it snatched him. Ransu heaved with the momentum, catapulting his picks into its groin.

The rumy’s knees knocked and gave up. Braying as if it were on fire, the rumy hit the ground with Ransu’s picks wedged between its legs, scattering rocks with its impact.

Weaponless, Ransu looked up as the Demon finished gathering. The jinnling’s hands hovered before eyes still glazed with power. Ransu dragged the trog’s axe off the ground, and krakes halted to eye its vast curve. Ransu watched the Demon who’d soon add fire to the fray, cooking the flesh off Ransu’s bones. Swinging the axe in an orbit, Ransu hurled it with a prayer that just one god was listening.

Krakes tore at him as soon as the axe flew. The Demon blinked, free from his trance, and the axe hit him with its flat rather than its edge, knocking him over but not out. Prayer soured to a curse. Ransu cracked a krake’s head on a spike in the wall, and charged.

The Demon sat up, palm to his jaw. As his eyes cleared, his face smoothed with murder. His lip curled over a broken tooth, and his hands raced to conjure doom. The motes around him flared, transforming into swirling embers. Ransu leapt. He flew and landed his heels in the Demon’s chest. Bones cracked, and the boy tumbled like sparking coals hurled from a bucket. Before the Demon could wheeze in enough breath to groan, Ransu dropped on top of him and snapped the Demon’s neck.

Grabbing the axe, he lurched to his feet with a battle cry that sent the last two krakes running. They disappeared around a corner, and Ransu dropped back to the ground where he paused to ache, to feel the life that burned through his limbs. Before he climbed to his feet, he tried to staunch his wounds with dirt, but by the time he staggered after the krakes, past his dead friends, toward battle’s distant bells, Ransu’s blood painted his feet.

As he grew colder and weaker, the murmur of battle changed. More yelps and reptilian squeals than people’s cries echoed through the tunnel, and the noise grew louder—a retreat.

Ransu slumped inside an offshoot as the Fallen raced by and bled a while before Kalis found him. He helped Ransu out of the narrow where hands tugged and seated him, undressed and tended him.

Ransu commanded his eyes to focus after fading in and out a few times. “How many?”

“Thirty-three dead,” Kalis said. “Damn krakes slipped past us, slaughtered five midwives…

“But we have the blood,” Kalis said. “Now that we know it works, we’ll slip past them.”

Ransu looked from the midwife who had him tracking her finger to the Sons and Daughters who were smearing each other with trog blood. The blood would ruin the canines’ hunt, but it wouldn’t get anyone back inside Dakahl. With half the fifty left who were in fighting condition bleeding into fresh bandages, attrition would kill them. They needed Anhor to retake the infirmary. Ransu whispered when he voiced this, for it sounded too much like defeat.

“Then forget the infirmary,” Kalis said. “Humor me: the bulk of Dakahl fights Anhor in the south. Here, Dakahl strains between fortifying the infirmary against our return, hunting us, and policing the hundreds of slaves in Dakahl’s villages.”

“Dakahl’s spread thin.” Ransu perked.

“I think thin enough to knock on their front door and see who’s home. Push for a village, arm the slaves—”

“Ransu.” The midwife gaped, pointing.

Ransu looked at the gouges in his chest. Slowly, one unpuckered and closed, healing.

Ransu shot to his feet. Disbelief swept the crowd; they wanted to see it again, and so did Ransu. Light-headed, he marveled as a gash across his ribs healed.

“Gods,” Tem said. A tear dripped from his good eye. Ransu blinked tears too, for what else could it be but the gods? Light glowed in this dark age. A miracle.

Relief took Ransu by surprise. hitting him in a bowling flood. Arms caught him, embraced him; grown men kissed him.

“Kalis!” Ransu said.

The old soldier’s face surged from the crowd, roaring laughter.

“Let’s see who’s home,” Ransu crowed.

*****

They slipped into the desert, which surrounded the mountain, and entered Dakahl through the front entry that yawned in the rock. Past a warren drowning in the stink of empty krake nests, Ransu peeked around a bend in the tunnel. Above, the rock gave way to a grate that served as a ceiling for any who approached the iron gate beneath Dakahl’s gatehouse and a catwalk for the guards who manned the fortification. Behind Ransu, Nefan trembled as he smoothed the Demon’s black robes. Marhea rubbed Nefan’s hands, and then she passed them to Ransu who stared at the healthy skin on his own fingers before taking them.

It had taken an hour for Ransu’s wounds to heal, after which he’d cut his palm. He’d needed to know whether the miracle would repeat itself. Though he’d healed again, Ransu wondered about the limits of his gift. Would it suddenly end? Would enough abuse kill him? Did he want to live if everyone else died? If Nefan crumpled beneath crossbows’ fire because Ransu had asked him to play at manhood? Certainly, the boy had a man’s courage, but as Nefan moved toward the gate, foreboding hollowed Ransu’s gut.

“Lord Apprentice!” Shadows darkened murder holes in the ceiling where blackhearts scuffled to their feet. Nefan hesitated, and Ransu squeezed his picks, willing the boy on.

“The rebels fled south,” Nefan said, “I’ve come for reinforcements.”

“My Lord, we’ve no men to spare. Let the desert kill—”

“You dare direct me!” Nefan stepped forward. “Open this gate before I open it. Then I’ll float up there and… open you!”

Ransu flexed his toes for the coming sprint while a guard trampled the stairs to unbar the gate. The wait proved too long for Nefan’s nerve. The gate swung open, Nefan stumbled with his hand caught inside his robes. The hesitation was brief, but it was enough to alert the guard. Nefan untangled his dagger from his robes, thrust it, and crashed into the blackheart’s fist.

Alarm exploding overhead, Ransu flew for the gate.

Nefan hit the ground, wailed, and lunged, pinning the gateman’s leg. The guard ran Nefan through.

Ransu screamed.

He roared at the dead man who fumbled to get the gate closed. Before Ransu reached him, a bolt knocked Ransu sideways. He banged into the gate as the bar clanged into place, but the impact shoved the guard down. Falling, himself, Ransu jammed his picks between the grating and yanked the bar off its rack before he hit the ground. Three more bolts hammered into his back and side. The gate blew open before the Sons’ charging tide.

“Cheers…” Nefan said. His head lolled, and dirty blood stained his smile. Shielding Nefan with his body, Ransu nodded, but he fought the urge to scream, no.

Strong hands dragged them; Ransu bumped in and out of consciousness. In his waking moments pain, dust, and shouts confused him. He strained to see if he was healing, but nothing worked—his head wouldn’t move, his eyes wouldn’t focus.

Life dimmed then darkened. When he woke next, Marhea swam through his vision. She was bleeding and swollen and smiling.

“Anhor’s here,” she said. “We’ve won. Ransu, they’re here.”

*****

“Ransu.” Keara had said the night the krakes had come to Fig Village and stolen Ransu’s life. She traced the tops of his heavy eyelids before she spoke again, and he in turn caressed the freckles on her cinnamon cheeks. “Can I hear your poem again?” she asked. “ The one about my eyes.”

Ransu breathed in the sight of her a moment longer before he began. Her eyes were perfect for star-gazers to spend nights under, but his poem praised more than them. It revered the divine Sun that shined both in the sky and in her smile. It cherished the green life of spring that slumbered three seasons in her kisses.

“My gentle giant sees so much in me.” Keara laid against Ransu. She felt delicate in his embrace. Holding her, he felt fragile himself.

“I’ve a surprise for you.” Keara kissed his eyelids and climbed from the loft. When she returned, she posed inside the stable’s door, hiding something behind her back. “Ta-dah!” She spun a pirouette and waved a papyrus sheaf. “For your poems.”

Her grin slipped. Behind her in the night, the staccato of the village’s sentry drum shattered the Fig’s peace. The Fig hadn’t heard that alarm in a century, since Iibyan tribes had spilled from the desert with iron spears. Frowning, puzzled, Keara stepped to the edge of the lamplight by the door.

“Keara, get away from the door.” Ransu clambered down the ladder. He’d heard that Iibyans killed the women they didn’t rape, but when a screech rent the night, Ransu knew things worse than Iibyans lurked outside. With the dread lurking in his chest, Ransu again called her away from the door; but there she stood, transfixed.

A stench like curdled milk rolled into the stable—Ransu would never forget that stink. Then Keara cried Ransu’s name, and krakes flooded through the door in a tide of black scales. One snatched her, flexing its nails against her throat.

“Don’t—please! Don’t hurt her.” Ransu said. “What do you want?”

A krake thrust its curved nail at the ground, pointing. “Kneeeezs,” it hissed, and flickered its forked tongue over its blunt snout.

Ransu dropped to his knees. He let the monsters claw and kick him, prayed that if he howled loud enough, it would sate them—that he could die for both himself and Keara. But they’d beat him until his ears swelled shut and the ringing drowned out Keara’s screams.

They’d hurt him until his eyes had bruised shut and Ransu couldn’t see her. Though in his nightmares, Ransu always saw her. He always wept as the starlight died in her eyes.

*****

Ransu woke in one of the small quarries, healed. His eyes opened to rosy light and to peat smoke escaping through cracks in the ceiling like spirits rising to heaven. While he’d slept, someone had washed the blood from his skin and removed the manacles from his wrists. Straddling a low bench next to him, Marhea turned the broken shackles in her hands. She dropped them once he woke, and lamplight danced to the faint music of distant celebration, turning emerald pirouettes in Marhea’s eyes.

“Anhor’s jinns healed me,” she said, when Ransu frowned, confused by her smooth, freckled cheeks. The last time he’d seen her, bruises and cuts had puffed her face. “They healed everyone. Except you.”

“Nefan?”

“Alive,” Marhea said, ladling gritty water for Ransu. “Anhor came, and they rained forked fire that shook Dakahl.”

Just then, the quarry shuddered. “That’s them,” she said. “They raze Dakahl’s citadels and forges. Your monster is dead.”

Ransu waited for peace, but it didn’t come. Dakahl had been destroyed and its inmates freed. Satisfaction suffused him, but he sensed it would wane with the day.

“Sorry about Elise,” Ransu said. “I’ve always been sorry.”

Marhea shook her head, as if he hadn’t needed to apologize, but then she nodded in acceptance. The quarry shook again as a citadel or its like rumbled to ruin. The celebration swelled with cheers, and quiet grew around Marhea and Ransu until it burst.

“Who is Keara?” Marhea blurted. “You shouted her name while you dreamed.”

Ransu’s jaw tightened around the story.

“There’s too much hurt in you,” Marhea said. “Makes me feel stupid. People see you, and they fill with their hopes… when it’s quiet, I wish I could fill you.” She smiled tightly before she changed the subject.

“They’re calling you slave-king, you know,” she said. “King of hundreds who held against thousands.”

“We held, but we haven’t won.” That’s why peace eluded him. They’d won a battle in a war whose ashes would shadow the sky for millennia. The Age of Chaos. While gods battled for creation, fiends sowed the earth with flame and sorrow. Ransu’s miracle proved humanity wasn’t alone, but the gods no longer guarded human destiny.

“They celebrate out there because they think they’re going home,” Ransu said. “That I’ll lead them home. You know better than any, I’ll only lead them to Death.”

“Then cheers.” Marhea kissed him. Her cool lips were like peace.

 

More Hallways!

by Michael A. Ventrella

 

Darvin stared at the floor. It was better than trying to meet the eye of the king. His right knee shook against the plush carpet, and he was certain he would tip over if he did so much as breathe. What if not looking at the king was an insult? What if His Majesty decided he had had just enough of this ridiculous architect and was waving to his executioner who was on his way at that very moment to turn Darvin into two distinct parts?

“Oh, stand up already,” King Franklin said.

Darvin rose, heart beating steadily, arms clutching his latest drawings.

The king stood before a massive oak table bathed in sunlight from the high windows in the royal meeting room. The table was barely visible under a pile of papers held in place by weights shaped like little knights in battle. Darvin recognized some of his designs partially hidden under notes covered with scratchy, primitive sketches that made his hair stand on end. Doesn’t this person know how to use a straight edge?

“I’ve made some improvements on your drawings,” his liege said. “Here, come see.”

Darvin shuffled closer to stare at His Majesty’s work.

“I wanted the best and safest storehouse for my treasure vault, but your design missed key features we need.” King Franklin stroked his gray beard and nodded proudly at his own work. “For instance, you didn’t have enough hallways.”

“Hallways, Your Highness?”

“Yes, hallways. I want lots of hallways! Hallways that go on for great distances and then end for no reason. That’s what we need.”

“But Your Majesty…”

“And then you have windows,” he said, throwing his arms up to emphasize the ridiculousness of the situation. “We don’t need windows! This entire thing must be completely underground, like a dungeon.”

“But the cost…”

The king ignored him and jabbed his finger into one of his drawings. “Over here is where we’ll have a room for the treasure guards. Another room will be over there. And we’ll put orcs in one room and trolls in the other, all armed and armored.”

Darvin swallowed. “But Your Majesty, won’t they just fight each other like they always do? And how will you feed them? Plus, you haven’t put in any privies…”

“Of course, we’ll save the best armor and weapons and place them in chests located randomly around the halls,” King Franklin continued, ignoring Darvin’s protests. “And the final touch will be this great room at the end of the last hall. That’s where we’ll place the treasure. It’ll have massive metal doors with unpickable locks and thick walls to prevent unwanted entry.”

“Oh.” Darvin let out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s a good—”

“And off to the side here, on the wall, we’ll place the riddle.”

“Riddle.”

“Yes, of course. The riddle. So that when you figure out the riddle, the door will open, allowing you to get the treasure.”

Darvin reached behind him blindly, found the arm of a chair, and sat, risking angering the king. “Your Majesty, I have to ask. Hallways that go nowhere, underground design, monsters that wait, treasure randomly scattered in chests, and a riddle to get the treasure? Surely you can’t be serious.”

King Franklin looked down his nose at the timid architect. “I am deadly serious!” he bellowed. “What do you think this is—a game?”

 

Letters

by Liz Milner

 

Look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead. Mr. G.—I’d rather not call him by his real name, that could be trouble—came here from Prague a long, long time ago. Big, hulkin’ sonofabitch. You gotta wonder what Rabbi Loew was thinking.

What do ya mean, “Who was Rabbi Loew?” Rabbi Loew of Prague was the holiest rabbi of the 16th century and perhaps of all time. Anyway, he got tired of all those Czech goys spitting on his gabardine, trashing his schul and defenestrating his congregation. So he goes down to the Vltava and out of river mud he builds a giant clay doll. It’s huge, with muscles the size of beer barrels. Okay, so he’s there on the riverbank with his live action super hero doll, but the one thing he hasn’t got is action. So he takes a stick and inscribes Hebrew letters into the clay doll’s forehead. The letters form a word: the secret name of God. A person who knows the true name of God can command the primal energies of the universe.

Sure enough, the doll gets up, stretches, and immediately sets about his work of defending the synagogue. Not only does he defend it with zeal, but he also fetches wood to heat the building and does chores. He doesn’t even mind when the local housewives use him as a convenient place to hang their laundry and gossip.

Rabbi Loew, however, found the creature’s zeal a problem. The golem (for that is what he is) didn’t just deter Czech ruffians, he destroyed them.

So, Rabbi Loew sat the golem down—the vibration of the golem’s bottom hitting the floor shook the building and caused some damage to the masonry—and read him the text from the Talmud, which tells Jews to be twice as merciful to goyim as they would be to each other.

But because the golem was created by a man, not by God, he was fundamentally flawed. He had no mercy in him. In the midst of the rabbi’s reading he sensed that a goy was pissing against the wall of the synagogue. He leaped up, raced outside and literally liquidated the poor goy before the rabbi’s eyes.

The rabbi pondered what to do. He could not let the golem continue defending the schul, but he didn’t know how to stop him. He couldn’t kill him, for murder is an abomination in the eyes of God, and since he created the golem, he was in a sense, the creature’s father. What kind of father kills his son? Also, the rabbi had used the holy name of God to travel through time and he knew of the horrors that awaited his people in the future. Perhaps a rabbi holier than he could teach the golem to defend the Jews without unnecessary bloodshed.

Finally the rabbi went back to the Vltava and gathered more mud. He returned to the schul and he and the golem went to the attic store room. The rabbi had the golem lie down and then he took the mud and smeared it over the golem’s forehead until the name of God was totally obliterated. The golem froze. Its eyes glazed over. Its breathing ceased. It became nothing more than a large clay doll.

The rabbi covered the golem with blankets. He’d visit regularly because he worried about its comfort. The secret of the golem was passed from chief rabbi to chief rabbi for generations.

Secrets, however, have a way of getting out. It was during the Holocaust that the chief rabbi of Prague got an offer he couldn’t refuse. A boatload of Jewish refugees would be guaranteed passage to New York City if the golem was included in the ship’s cargo.

“A Mafia don who likes to play with dolls,” the rabbi thought. “Many lives can be saved and what harm can it do? The holy name of God was lost to mankind in the fires of Auschwitz, so it can never be reanimated.”

And that is how the golem came to America. From New York it was trucked to Chicago where it was the centerpiece at many secret Mafia meetings.

The golem would have remained as an over-the-top decorative accent had it not been for a story by science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke. In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” scientists used computers to list every possible combination of the alphabet so as to discover the secret name of God.

An imaginative don saw the potential in Clarke’s story and made a deal with the U.S. government. After an impressive payoff, the golem became the property of the U.S. Army. First on mainframes and then on PCs and then in the cloud, every letter in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages was combined and recombined in every possible permutation. This project was folded into a super secret cyber program.

The prototype came off the assembly line a couple months ago. This sucker is made of steel not clay, and the name of God is etched onto the solid metal of his forehead. You’d need a blowtorch to stop him. And he’s not being run by a sweet old rabbi who just wants to be left in peace. He’s in the army now.

So, as I said before, look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead.

 

The Megalith

by J. Patrick Carr

 

I first encountered the megalith as a young man, lost and wandering deep in the Greenwood. I found it standing tall in the center of an open glade. Its black granite was smoothed by countless years of weathering and it had no markings upon it save for a perfect circle on one side, carved into the hard stone about three-quarters of the way up its towering body. It was regal and majestic then, rising high above the trees with its tiny crystals reflecting the summer sun. My hand grew warm when I touched it. It felt safe and welcoming.

I was a newcomer in the woods then. I was looking for a land to call home, a place to settle down and begin my life; maybe even start a family. Somehow, I felt invited by the megalith. It must have been raised there sometime in the unknowable past by a forgotten people. Maybe they were my wandering ancestors, hoping that their children would visit here in the ages to come. That night, I camped in its warm shadow. I did not need to light a fire; the megalith warmed me from within. It shielded me from the night winds and I found berries growing at its feet. The high, lonely howl of a pack of forest wolves startled me, but never did they enter the clearing to threaten me. I could see their gray-brown coats through the trees and their glinting, hungry eyes reflecting the silver light of the moon. They watched me for some time and stalked about the edges of the clearing, but they never approached out of some primal reverence for that place. I managed to drift into a dreamless sleep.

“Stay.”

I awoke the next morning invigorated and content, choosing to stay in that land. I scanned the woods for a place to build my homestead. I did not wander from the megalith’s clearing, always keeping it in range of my eyes. It was the spring of the year, and the thin trees had only the barest of bright green sprouts on them, searching the earth for warmth and sustenance. The thickest grass and the highest trees grew near the megalith, including a copse of massive oaks that ringed it on all sides. Often I looked back at the stone to keep my bearings, searching its lone marking for some advice. I eventually found a nice spot close to a spring that issued clear, cool water. I drank from the spring often, and the fish in the stream it birthed were always plentiful.

In the beginning, my life was hard. Every day I toiled in the elements to build my new life. However, I never felt alone out in the wild by myself. There was always the megalith. I tended to visit it in the evenings, even to talk to it to offset my loneliness. I felt always as if it approved of my presence. During my long days, I hunted in the forest for wild deer and labored to cut wood for my home. From the highest tree I could see a village on a far green hill, many miles away. I did not wish to go there at first, fearing that the people might not welcome a stranger in their land. I had left my own home after a feud with my overbearing father. We had foolishly fought over the land, him wanting to give the largest and most fertile share to my older brother. I hated him for the greater love he bore Jakon and for his constant desire for control over my life. I was hard-headed and young then. I did not wish for any new trouble with my distant neighbors.

After I had been in the woods for many moons, a party of trappers happened upon my camp. They were simple folk, farmers and hunters. I felt as though they knew their land well, and lived a life close to nature, in harmony with the earth. Their clothes were simple leathers and most wore basic linen shirts of brown or white. The sleeves were long and rolled back away from their hands, quite unlike the vest I wore. A few had boiled leather bracers clasped about their wrists and a quiver of yellow-fletched arrows over their shoulders. Almost all of them had a deep green tunic over their garments, an attempt to better hide in the colors of the forest. The men shaved their faces neatly, and the varied colors of their hair stood dramatically apart from their tanned skin. All were kind to me, unsuspicious of my presence there. Their leader, a tall man with graying hair and patient eyes, spoke to me. His words were heavy with a strange dialect, but I understood him well enough. He reminded me of my grandfather.

“What is your name? Why do you stay here alone?” he asked.

“I am called Joren. I am new to your land, and I stay here to build my new home.”

“You should visit our village. We don’t get visitors often. Autumn is coming soon and we will have our harvest festival.”

“I think I would enjoy that,” I said smiling at him, sensing his genuine hospitality.

The man’s daughter was with the group. She was a few years younger than me and beautiful to my eyes. She said nothing to me then, but I did notice her watching me, taking my measure. I was struck by her green eyes and perfect skin. Her auburn hair was a flowing mimicry of the deepening colors of the fall forest. She never left my mind after that first meeting.

“Go to her.”

The next month, I walked those short miles to the village and stayed for the festival. I took along cured venison and many deer horns which I knew were valued almost like gold by the people. I had more than enough to trade for the supplies I needed for the coming winter and some left over still to negotiate for an ox to plow my fields in the coming spring. I lingered in town that day awaiting the start of the festivities. All of the rugged faces I met that day were warm and kind.

The village square was decorated for the harvest festival. Vegetables of all sorts were stacked high in various places, a towering mix of orange pumpkins, green squash, and yellow corn. Several wooden tables were set out and adorned by red and brown linens. The square itself had been swept clean, and a small stage was erected there for use by the players. A great bonfire was piled neatly in the exact center of the village and fair-haired children raced around it, anticipating the excitement to come. The place had a rustic charm about it and I was reminded of the home I had left.

At sunset that evening, the festival began. I saw the trapper’s daughter again and watched her from afar. I hid my eyes tactfully by raising my cup to my lips and quietly cursed the men, and a few boys, who had the audacity to ask her for a dance. But, the girl refused them all. She was wearing a beautiful dress in the colors of the season. Brown, green, and gold mingled with her auburn hair to weaken my knees and steal away my confidence. For some reason, I stood after a few nervous minutes and looked back to the Greenwood, to where I knew the megalith was standing and watching me, supporting me. It might have been the tangy spiced cider or the spirit of the festival in me, but I waited until the musicians began another song and then I asked her to dance. She said her name was Tana, their word for a summer flower that grew in that land. I gently took her white hand and we turned to the dance floor.

“Are you enjoying the festival?” she asked, smiling.

“I am, but I fear I am not much of a dancer,” I confessed.

“You’re doing fine. You are quick on your feet.”

“Thank you, hunting and working keeps me strong.” My words sounded stupid to my ears, but she smiled through the awkwardness. I hoped that the red on my face was disguised by the bright bonfire.

“Why do you stay there, alone in the woods? Have you no family?”

“I left my father’s home to make my own place in the world. I hope to have my own family one day. I will need a wife and children to manage my farm.”

She blushed then and turned her eyes to the ground. My words were too bold, even though I was not directly thinking of her when I spoke them. We finished the dance in silence and then I returned to my table to drink some honey wine. It helped to lighten my mood. The players kicked up a quicker tune, a reel I knew from my own childhood. The lead was played by a tall, lanky man with long, thin brown hair. His skinny fingers flew across his fiddle and his bow moved like a blur. The bassist thumped right along with him and the six-string and the flute popped in and out to play quick, vibrant solos. They had the look of travelling professionals, smiling and winking at the locals and enjoying the click of the coins that landed in their open instrument cases. Their playing had everyone clapping and stamping their feet to the rhythm. Some folks called out in a yelp in answer to the wild music, and one spry old woman stood on her table to dance a simple step. Across the village square, I saw the trapper raise his cup to me and I returned his salute. He then raised his eyebrows and smiled in the direction of his lovely daughter. She was approaching me again.

“I bet the next tune is an easy one to dance to, if you are up for it. Nice and slow.” Her kindness was refreshing, and I hastily accepted. She smiled again, her face warmed by the firelight. The flames reveled in her eyes and danced across her glistening lips. I kissed her.

“She will be yours.”

The following summer we were hand-fasted in a ceremony in the glade under the approving gaze of the megalith. I wore my finest, and Tana wore a simple gown of pure white. A motley array of the summer flowers adorned her long hair. The base of the megalith was piled high with the gifts of the sweet summer: honey, fruit, and bottled red wine. Our home was expanded and improved with the aid of some of the village men, and I had broken the soil early that spring to plant my first promising field. The life I had wanted was coming to be. I almost felt guilty for the treasures that I had received. Unbeknownst to her father, she was already pregnant with our first son.

He was born that autumn, almost one year after my first festival with the villagers and the timing seemed so fitting. He was healthy and hale at birth, but we struggled for some time to name him. It was their custom to name the firstborn after the father’s father, but I did not want that. He was my son and I would be the one to choose. I alone.

“Nathen, after your father.”

“Let’s name him Joren,” I said to my wife.

“Yes, let’s. It’s a fine name, it’s your name. My father might not approve, though. It’s not our custom.”

“He’s my son. I’ll name him as I see fit.”

The winter that year was hard. A bitter cold lasted for many months and the ground often shook beneath our feet. The plentiful stream was frozen over too solidly to easily find water, and the beasts of the wood were absent, save for the hunger-maddened wolves who circled much too near my home. My son was anxious and distracted, refusing my attentions. He would lie in his bed, tiny head turned to face the glade with a distant stare in his eyes. The villagers grumbled nonsense about the gods being angry, but my small farm had produced well and we had more than enough food stocked away to last until the sun’s return.

We planted the fields together that spring. I turned over the soil with much difficulty, the ground still cold and frozen from the harsh winter. My ox bellowed in complaint, but I urged her onward with the whip. The men said I was starting too early, but I ignored their advice and toiled hard. Tana and I both seeded the ground, her eager to help after putting Jorenson to bed. I noticed that she was placing only two kernels in each hole, unlike my method of placing three.

“Tana!” I called out across the field. “Place three seeds in each hole.”

“Sorry, I just thought that two would be plenty.”

“Three is best, in case the crows get at them. Why did you only drop two?”

“I’m not sure; it was just a thought in my head.” She looked back over her shoulder toward the glade, where that black rock stood. My heart filled with anger, and I retraced Tana’s steps to place an extra seed in each and every hole. The soil was dead that spring, dry and gray, nothing like the moist, dark peat that I had planted in the previous year. My corn grew slowly that season, and stood only as high as my chest by harvest time.

My farm was not the only one so afflicted. All of the villagers’ farms produced much less than the year before, seemingly healthy livestock died, and the harvest celebration was a somber affair. The women pretended to be merry, and the men sat about whispering about what had gone wrong. Even the travelling players hadn’t returned this year. Their jovial music was much needed and much missed. I went to the festival with my family; it was in many ways also my son’s first birthday party, but we sat alone. Few of the villagers acknowledged us, and none had a kind word. Even Tana’s father remained a stranger to us, stealing sly glances but never coming over to join our party. I could see the hurt in her eyes.

After an uneasy hour, one of the village elders came to us. The man wore the traditional garb of the towns’ elders. Over his pure white shirt he had a short coat of the brightest red, embroidered with a crisp yellow and displaying polished brass buttons. His pants were wool, dyed black; his boots were knee-high and made from fine leather. A graying mustache was twisted to a point at the ends, but otherwise he was clean shaven. His sun-browned, rough skin contrasted with his wizened hair, and his eyes shone out a brilliant blue. He seemed polite and kind at first, but he was clearly uncomfortable. The other villagers could scarcely hide their fascination with our talk.

“Joren, friend, I am glad that you brought your family in for the occasion,” he said.

“Thank you sir, I only wish the mood were higher, but it was a disappointing growing season.”

“Yes, but we’ve been through this before,” he said, raising his troubled eyes to the woods. “So, I never met your son, what did you end up naming him?” He dropped his gaze to look at my boy without lowering his head. It felt contemptuous, and I sensed that this was his true reason for speaking with me, but I could not understand why.

“We decided to call him, Joren, after his father,” answered Tana. I smiled at the child and tousled his yellow hair.

“Is that so? Not much for tradition, I guess.”

“I am not from your land, my traditions are different.” My tone was far more hostile than I intended it to be, and I regretted my words as soon as they were spoken.

“I see. You are your own man. But, some of us here are very old-fashioned. They believe that failure to follow the old ways brings misfortune. Your ways are strange and foreign to us, friend. You don’t honor your own father’s name, you plant your crop in an odd fashion, and, if it weren’t for Tana, you’d just live out there all by yourself. You ought to mind our ways and try to respect what you don’t understand. Many think you have brought this trouble upon us all.”

I lost my head and stood up quickly, forcing the older man to back up suddenly. He stumbled and fell to the ground, landing with an embarrassing thud on the hard earth. It wasn’t my intention to tumble him over, but I was seething from his words to me. And yet I said nothing, but did not offer to help him either. Two younger men, probably his kin, came over scowling at me and helped him to his feet. They skulked away without another word, only shooting hateful glares over their shoulders in response. The villagers’ eyes were all on us now, and some even narrowed their gaze at my young son, as if he were somehow to blame.

“Joren, maybe we should go,” my wife quietly whispered at my side. It felt as if the black of the dying year was pressing in around us; that the spirit in the community was being drawn away.

“Walk back tonight? It’s late already and the distance is several miles.”

“But, I don’t think we are welcome here.”

We rose from our table. Tana carried Jorenson on her back, and I carried our packs and the goods we had purchased earlier that day. It was well after evenfall, but I felt that she was right. Our walk would be long and dark, the child would fuss, but the sentiment there was blacker than the night and colder than the chilled air.

We trod slowly, my torch our only source of light along the road. I looked ahead, toward the glade, searching for the megalith looming above the trees. It was far away yet, and the night was dark, but I caught sight of it. It was there, among the ancient trees, darker than the sky surrounding it. I felt as if it were angry, brooding and drawing in the light around it, consuming the energy from the land and even the sky. I begrudgingly admitted its power to myself, its pull on the land and the simple folk who lived there. I had felt it myself, right from the very beginning, but I did not know to respect it, fear it, then.

We walked in silence, both of us feeling the gloom around us. I listened to the erratic fall wind blowing the trees and scattering the myriad leaves. It was not very cold, but the gentle chill of the harvest season urged us to walk close together. Often I heard sounds just off the road, irregular movements and unexplained rustlings of the bush. My hunter’s eye scanned the dark, but I was blinded by the close light of my fire. The wind kicked up the brown dust of the road and tricked my eye with ghosts of pale dirt and swirling leaves. Tana looked at me with concern, and we hastened our step.

“Submit.”

Turning to look behind us, I could make out dark figures following us on the road. They carried no light, and stayed far enough behind to escape ours. They seemed to be only following, but for how long and why? I stopped and turned to face them in defiance.

“Who are you, and what do you mean by following my family?”

“Joren,” spoke one voice as they closed in, “We need you to give us the child.” He pulled back his hood and I recognized the man from the village. He was at the festival, one of the many unfriendly faces.

“Tana, run,” I spoke quietly to my wife. I could see the panic in her eyes, but she turned to go, following my word. “You’ll have to take him from me,” I called out in challenge to the men. I had no weapon except for my strong body and my hard, workman’s hands. Rage filled my mind then, and I recklessly charged at the men. They broke apart, scattering around me, and moved to my vulnerable flanks. I managed to lash out and grab one of them. I smashed his nose into his face with a bloody splatter. However, there was a hard crack on the back of my head and a quick flash of white light. The road rushed up to meet me. In the distance, I heard my wife screaming and my baby wailing.

When I opened my eyes again, I was in the clearing, on the ground before the hateful stone. I was bound by coarse, thick ropes about my chest, hands, knees, and feet. It stood there, triumphant above me, the light of dozens of torches licking its black body. A sanguine harvest moon languished in the gray sky. My head was thick with pain, my vision red with the blood in my eyes. My mouth tasted of iron. Time crept. Tana was there too, but she was a madwoman, writhing on the grass and howling for them to stop in an unnatural, visceral voice. She often called out for her father’s help, but I saw him nowhere in the crowd of people from the village.

On the ground before the megalith a pile of wood had been collected, and the elders stood around it, speaking in a lost tongue. They had my son. I tried to speak, but my mouth was swollen shut, my throat crushed. I tried to stand, but my bindings were too taut. One of the men noticed me then, and shoved me back down each time I tried to rise. I caught his eyes with mine and pleaded, wordlessly, for his aid. But his face was cold; dead to me and my plight.

“Sacrifice.”

I was forced to watch as they placed my only child on the pyre. He lay there naked against the cruel wood, but did not cry. He never cried out, neither in fear nor pain. The elder who had spoken to me just hours before now took a torch from his attendant and set it to the wood. Fire crackled to life as he said a few more arcane words, face gazing upward to the eye of the megalith. All around the megalith, the chant was repeated in low tones until it rose up in a great crescendo, louder than Tana’s wailing and the thundering of my own heart. I could not remove my eyes from the macabre scene. As the flames stretched up to consume my son, the ground beneath us trembled and the villagers gathered there cheered in relief. Tears ran down my dumb face. The wolves sang deep in the dark forest around us.

They enjoyed a very mild winter that year.

Tana and I had been allowed to leave, and she assured me, over and over, that she had no idea what her people were capable of. There had never been a failed crop in her lifetime, and most thought that the old ways were lost. She had fleeting memories from her childhood of her father and others leaving the village to visit the woods, but she was always told that they were hunting, or simply “walking.” I believed her and we left that place together. We traveled back to my home country, and meekly lived in my father’s house for a time. We never spoke again of our ordeal in her country, not even to one another. It was hard to return to my father’s house and admit my failures. I only gave him vague, ambiguous details. I was afraid of the megalith’s power, even here. I did not want it to find a way to hurt the rest of my family. I remember our first words after those quiet years well.

“Father, I am sorry and ashamed of my actions when I left. It wasn’t my place to question your decisions with your own land. I should have been thankful for anything that I received.” The words were easier to say than it was to look into his hard, gray eyes. But in them I saw love and immediate forgiveness.

“Son, those days and those words are gone like a cloudburst of cold rain. I am happy to see you and your beautiful wife. You are welcome here, and I and Jakon will help you in whatever way you need. I know of an abandoned old farm not far from here. Maybe you can make a new start there.”

“My brother and his family are well?”

“Yes, but you have been missed. You look so much like your mother, and when you left, I felt like I had lost a great part of her again. Welcome home, son.” At that, he embraced me and I felt the hasty deeds of the past being erased.

I did start up a farm not far from my father’s, and he helped me with some land and the use of some tools. With his guidance, my land prospered and Tana and I found some measure of happiness together again, but we were never able to have another child. Jakon encouraged us to visit and to care for his two little ones often, but it wasn’t the same; perhaps it made things worse. It broke Tana’s heart. She died some years later and all of the hope was gone again from my life. I buried her next to my mother, and visit their namestones every nineday.

I still feel the megalith sometimes. I’ve seen it in my dark dreams at night. It’s still standing there, watching me from afar, somewhere over those blue hills and through the wide green valley on the other side. Mile upon mile separates us now, but I am still cursed by its ugly power. If I were a better man, I’d return in secret and beat upon it with my bare fists until I reduced it to rubble, but I have nothing left but my hate and the bitter memory of my failure.

“Despair.”