The Editor’s Rant: Issue #16

by Michael D. Pederson

 

I’ve gotta admit, I’m excited to be working on a new issue of Nth Zine. I’m sure (at least, I hope) that there are a few people that have been wondering where Nth Degree and Nth Zine have been for the last few years. Let me fill you in…

The biggest occupier of my time since the last issue of Nth Degree has been another pet project of mine, RavenCon. Through my travels with Nth Degree I met writers Tee Morris and Tony Ruggiero. The three of us pooled our resources (great connections in fandom, good organizational skills, and first-hand knowledge of what does and doesn’t work at a con) and started RavenCon in April 2006. It’s been an unqualified success. Our Guests of Honor have included Terry Brooks, Tom Kidd, Robert Sawyer, Steve Stiles, C.S. Friedman, Steve Hickman, Jack McDevitt, and Alan Beck. I could not be happier with the guests we’ve had, the public’s reaction, and the wonderful group of friends that have joined me to help put it together. Now that we’re in our fifth year I feel that things are running well enough that I can set aside a little time to work on the project that made RavenCon possible, Nth Degree.

In today’s economy, it’s simply too difficult to produce a glossy print zine like I used to. Luckily, I already have Nth Zine, the e-zine version of Nth Degree, waiting in the wings to be restarted. For now, the plan is to publish Nth Zine bimonthly. An online version will be published at nthzine.com. There will also be print copies available at conventions and to subscribers. And, hopefully, if things go well, I will be able to put out an annual print version of Nth Degree. Cross your fingers and hope for the best!

For this, my first issue in too many years, I turned to several of my regular contributors from past issues and was overwhelmed by the response. I easily have enough material for the first three issues already. So, sit back, enjoy and, please, write to us and let us know what you think of the new Nth Zine.

(The contents of this Rant may seem confusing now that I’ve done away with Nth Zine and converted all the old issues back to the Nth Degree format. My apologies. MDP, Sept. 2014.)

 

Con Review: ConCarolinas 2009

Layout 1by Tera Fulbright

 

ConCarolinas 2009
May 29–31, 2009
Charlotte, North Carolina
http://www.concarolinas.org

Born from the ashes of a failed Worldcon bid, ConCarolinas 2009 became the first local fan-run SF/F convention to cross the 1000-attendee mark in several years. I knew it was going to be an interesting convention when we walked past a pre-registration line that wrapped around the halls.

ConCarolinas has had an excellent relationship with the Marriott for the past several years. However, the convention moved to a new location this year—the Charlotte Hilton University Place—and the new hotel responded well to the convention and its attendees. Room rates were still reasonable at less than $100 per night. In addition to more convention space for gaming, programming and fan tables, the hotel provided very affordable concessions. The hotel space was nice with lots of chairs and other “hang-out” locations but some areas were darker than others and could have used a little extra light.

This year’s Writer GOH was Katherine Kurtz, one of my all-time favorite authors. She’s incredibly personable and doesn’t dominate the panels she’s on. Kathy Mar was the Music Guest of Honor and Alan Welch was the Artist Guest of Honor. ConCarolinas had special Media Guests in Anthony Forrest, Charles Root, and Brandon Stacy. Anthony Forrest, in particular, seemed to have a long line of stormtroopers waiting for his signature at each signing. Other guests included Cheralyn Lambeth, Stephen Euin Cobb, Tony Ruggiero, Davey Beauchamp, and many more. ConCarolinas invites a variety of guests from authors and actors to gaming and paranormal experts, which helps diversify the convention’s attendees and provides for a well-rounded event.

The convention itself is well organized and seemed to run seamlessly even with the added influx of attendees. Programming information was provided a few weeks before the con itself and seemed to remain close to the published schedule. One of the best things about ConCarolinas is their Dealers’ Room. It always has a wide range of vendors, from gaming and costuming to jewelry and swords.

The only major complaint seemed to revolve around the consuite trying to limit its visitors to certain types of attendees during certain hours. I heard several people complain about being told they had to leave the consuite so that specific attendees (i.e. guests and dealers) could be the only ones allowed in. I know the Con Chair did try to remedy the situation but it seemed to be a bit of an issue throughout the weekend. I’ve heard that there are plans for ConCarolinas to add a Green Room next year for dealers and guests which should eliminate the problem.

The panels and special events all seemed well attended, and fans seemed to gather in every nook and cranny of the space. Adding new events like the Pirate Stage Combat Demo and Nerf Wars to regular events like Klingon Karaoke and the Zombie Walk allowed fans and fan groups to get involved in the convention programming. The fan groups continued to show their support with large contingents of pirates, stormtroopers, SCAdians, StarGaters, and Klingons wandering the halls throughout the weekend. Rock Band had been set up in one hall and there seemed to be a never-ending flow of music and sound from that area. Glancing into the gaming room showed tables filled with gamers, maps, and miniatures.

As always, ConCarolinas is an excellent convention for fans by fans. With ConCarolinas hosting DeepSouthCon 48 in 2010, I look forward to seeing what next year brings.

 

Con Review: Gen Con 2009

gen-con-logoby Marian McBrine

 

Gen Con 2009
August 13–16, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana
http://www.gencon.com/

I attended Gen Con, from August 13th to 16th, 2009, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gen Con is the largest gaming convention in the country, with over 27,000 unique attendees, and over 7,000 events. In the interests of full disclosure: I do a great deal of volunteer work for Gen Con, running both their Spousal Activity (SPA) program, as well as their Costume workshop program, and their forums.

Although Gen Con is primarily a gaming convention, they have a very strong writing program, with over 70 hours of writing workshops and seminars this year by authors including Mike Stackpole, Jean Rabe, Elizabeth Vaughan, Richard Lee Byers, and Author Guest of Honor Patrick Rothfuss. Other notable author guests in attendance included Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Highlights from the convention this year included the returning True Dungeon, and the new TerrorWerks event. True Dungeon is a way to play Dungeons and Dragons in a life-size, walk-through environment. A large hotel ballroom is transformed into a “dungeon” complete with realistic props. Each room contains a puzzle to solve, or combat with an enemy, resolved using a unique shuffleboard system. Terrorwerks is an immersive experience in which your team of space marines investigates an alien invasion using air soft guns and other weapons.

Additional highlights included a strong anime schedule, with voice acting guest Vic Mignogna; actual Battletech “pods” used for networked Battletech games (the sort of pods that used to be in entertainment venues such as Dave and Buster’s); my own SPA program with over 90 nongaming events such as jewelry making, crochet, knitting, pilates, and sewing classes; a Victorian LARP held in an actual Victorian museum; and, of course, thousands of gaming events, including Role Playing Games such as 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, card games such as the World of Warcraft Trading Cards, and every board game imaginable. Particularly notable was the wide range of board games from the Rogue Judges group, who also run very popular Car Wars games on a large-scale playing table, complete with roads and actual “matchbox”-sized cars.

In sum, a strong schedule of games, combined with a variety of programming this year, made Gen Con an entertaining convention for the causal or hardcore gamer, with plenty to do for even the nongamer.

 

Movie Review: G.I. Joe

Layout 1by Lucy Arnold

 

G.I. Joe as a Uni-cultural Fantasy

When I went to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra with my boyfriend, I did not have high expectations. But like most other people, I don’t mind occasionally vegging out by watching a mindless, violent romp with cool CGI, myriad chase scenes, and lots of inexplicable cleavage.

Ironically, in the areas of CGI, chase scenes, and boobs, G.I. Joe receives high marks. Unfortunately, in terms of just enjoying the ride, it fails miserably. I was so overcome by the anti-diversity subtext of the film that I just couldn’t enjoy the other stuff.

From a female perspective, this movie was downright disappointing. Both female characters began with really interesting potential: the Baroness is a bad-ass bad chick, and Scarlett is a science-brained kick-ass commando. But then… Scarlett cries after a fight. Really? Was Duke crying? Snake Eyes? (To be fair, he could have been weeping throughout the film, since we never got to see his face… but his mask wasn’t wet at any rate.) The only female on the team? Uh huh… Then she has to be rescued, physically cradled in the arms of the Big, Strong Man™. By the end of the movie, she disavows her scientific stance with the worst line in the movie, “I feel… emotional.”

The Baroness gets it even worse. First of all, I had been assuming throughout the movie that she knew Dr. Bald Guy was her brother, which is why she began working for Cobra. But no. We also discover that when she was “good” she was also blonde. Of course, she had to dye her hair darker to connote evil. Oh stereotypes, do you ever become tiresome? Then she starts cutting eyes at Duke (Isn’t he dreamy?). Her betrayal of the bad guys was imminent and would have been bad enough for her character. But this movie, to its credit I guess, decided to go whole-assed in the anti-woman arena. Because it turns out that the Baroness, well, she was being mind-controlled all along! She didn’t really want to do bad things! She wanted to be—blonde! And, just like that, the strongest female character in the whole movie never did a single thing of her own volition. Except love Duke. I feel nauseated.

Don’t worry, women, you were not the sole target of this movie’s ghastly subtext. The Snake Eyes vs. Storm Shadow battle also managed to highlight the superiority of white males over Asians. The backstory of these “brothers” is that Snake Eyes, a child of European descent, probably British or American, shows up somewhere in Asia and kicks the martial arts asses of a passel of Asian fighters, including Storm Shadow. Why this should be is never explored. The archetypal imagery of their final battle pits brother against brother, and, of course, who is the victor but the one of European descent.

But wait. There’s more. Who is the comic relief in this movie, cutting the fool with jokes, physical hijinks, and complete stupidity throughout the movie? The black guy, Rip Cord, apparently developed straight out of a 1930’s black male stereotype. I could also add a point about the required heterosexuality of the film; the women ended up paired with good guy-type males, both redeemed from their faulty thinking (Cobra and science). And all of the other guys were essentially asexual but totally masculine. Whew, homosexuality averted.

Before you begin shaking your head at me and saying that I failed to appreciate this movie for what it was trying to be: a brainless popcorn movie, let me step back a bit. As I tried to intimate at the beginning of this review, I love brainless popcorn movies. But this movie is insidious in its attempt to paint a picture of an America that is not only untrue but isn’t worth idealizing. I’m left reading this movie like it’s a white male American fantasy. Is this someone’s ideal America, ruled by tough guys, filled with compliant women and defeated or subverted minorities? I sure hope not.

Give me a popcorn movie, sure. But do I have to choke on it?

 

Television Review: Warehouse 13/Eureka

Warehouse13by Michael D. Pederson

 

Warehouse 13
Eureka
Syfy

The late-summer season on Syfy is wrapping up now and it’s the first half-season since the name change. How did they do? As usual, it’s a mixed bag.

Warehouse 13 is the first program to debut on the newly re-branded Syfy. If this is the type of programming that we can expect from Siffy, then I’m pretty darned disappointed. Based on the trailers, I was expecting a cute, fluffy, whimsical SF-lite program along the lines of Eureka. I did not expect the mind-numbingly redundant tedium that the show actually is.

EurekaThe premise is almost the same as the old Friday the 13th TV series: agents Myka and Pete are recruited by the mysterious Artie to track down supernatural items. Whereas Friday the 13th seemed to revel in its cheesiness, Warehouse 13 stumbles along rehashing the same formula every week. A formula that goes something like this… 1. Humorous scene between Myka and Pete to build audience interest. 2. Artie sends them to investigate strange circumstances that might be caused by an artifact. 3. They arrive at a small town and encounter resistance from local law enforcement/authorities. 4. They think they’ve found the artifact but have also found a red herring. 5. They figure out which item is the correct one but Myka or Pete get captured or affected. 6. Myka or Pete is rescued and the artifact is recovered. 7. Repeat ad infinitum.

The scenes actually set at the warehouse do show promise though. That’s due entirely to the talents of Saul Rubinek as Artie Nielsen, the man in charge of the warehouse. Rubinek reprises the eccentric scientist character that he has perfected over the years on shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Eureka. Also, the recent addition of Allison Scagliotti as Artie’s assistant, Claudia, has done wonders for breaking up the monotony of the show.

Warehouse 13 could learn a thing or two from Eureka. Now that Battlestar Galactica is gone and there currently aren’t any Stargate shows, Eureka is Siffy’s highest rated program. When Eureka first debuted it had many of the same problems as Warehouse 13—overly simplistic stories, two-dimensional characters, and little respect for science (look what a mess those wacky scientists have made this week!). However, over the course of its three-season run the show has become more serious (only a little, but enough) and taken the time to fully develop their supporting characters. The overly dramatic story arc about Allison’s autistic child in the first season has given way to more subtle and poignant character stories. Eureka’s saccharine tone when it first debuted would never had led you to believe that the town could be home to so many tragic love stories: Nathan sacrifices himself to save the world on the day he’s supposed to marry Allison, Carter travels back in time to fix the timeline and ends up erasing his own marriage to Allison, and poor Henry has had to watch Kim die three times now!

So until W13 starts giving more time to their supporting cast and gets away from the same old storylines, I’ll be watching Eureka.

 

Book Review: We, Robots

Layout 1by Michael D. Pederson

 

We, Robots
Sue Lange
Aqueduct Press, 98 pp.

We, Robots, a novella, is part of the “Small Paperback Series” from Aqueduct Press. Like Lange’s previous novel, Tritcheon Hash, this novella combines a hearty blend of science fantasy with good old-fashioned, tongue-in-cheek satire.

The story follows (and is told by) Avey, an AV-1 model robot that is purchased as a nanny for a young girl. Like all the best science fiction robots, Avey is a mirror held up to society; as he learns how to function around people we learn more about ourselves. As humanity numbs itself with “pain stoppage” technology, robots are equipped with pain sensors to make them more empathic and to give them greater learning capabilities. It’s fun to watch as the humans become less sensitive and the robots more so. Social allegory can be a bit of a blunt hammer in the wrong hands, but Lange wields it well.

A major focus of the plot is the oncoming Singularity. I think that Lange oversimplified a bit in her description of the Singularity. In her words, it is “that exact instant when artificial intelligence, AI, surpasses biological intelligence.” More fully, the Singularity describes the point when technology begins advancing at an exponential rate due to a superhuman artificial (or enhanced biological) intelligence. To use an example from Lange’s novel: it wouldn’t be the point when robot intelligence grows beyond ours, it would be the point when robots use that intelligence to start modifying themselves and technology to grow beyond humanity. I’m just nitpicking though; Lange cleverly avoids any problems here by having her robots decide not to move past the Singularity. She calls it the “Regularity” instead. I have to give her credit, it’s a nice twist; just because the Singularity is possible, does it have to happen? And her reasoning for not pursuing the advance is extremely plausible—self-interest, the most human of emotions. Good stuff.

 

Heart of the Matter: A Nalo Thoran Story

Layout 1

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Robert E. Waters

 

There is a springtime in the heart of every man… even in the cold, dead heart of a killer.

So it was love that drove the rat into the depths of a small café where the rich and important of Korsham City mingled, dined, and made merry. A simple shape spell placed upon the rodent gave it the visage of a tiny white poodle, with a cute tin bell and a fluffy tail-ball. It dodged food carts, leather-clad feet, and richly embroidered gowns as it weaved through the immaculate tables and chairs, the occasional “ahh!” and “ooh!” and “how cute!” pushing it forward through the cacophony of meaningless conversation. If the patrons only knew that beneath its soft illusion lurked an agent of the assassin Nalo Thoran, the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath- Stealer, they might have cowered in fear. Instead, they went about their business in blissful ignorance.

On the veranda overlooking the Gold River sat a woman and a friend sipping tea and sharing pleasant words. The rat paused, wiggled its nose, and caught her scent. It knew her scent instinctively, for it had sniffed a piece of cloth lifted from her apartment on Bright Street. It bounced forward, hopping gently on claws sharp, deadly and made for the dangers of the Korsham night. A little boy tried petting it, but the rat rolled away and dived under the young woman’s table.

The rat could not understand their language. It only understood the words of its master, the symbols and tempo of the language of shadows, the one used by assassins and murderers alike. Its master had given it specific instructions, and it could not disobey his dark design. Stark shapes and images roiled in its vacuous head. It squeaked and hopped up into the woman’s lap.

She chirped, jumped and pushed her chair back. But when she saw only a small dog, she smiled. The rat lifted its sharp, whiskered face and sniffed. The woman’s smells were warm, delicious.

“What a cute little dog,” she said, running her hand down its hard spine. It felt like silk. “Whom do you belong to?”

The rat didn’t answer. Instead, it circled in her lap until the small piece of paper tied to its neck was visible. It wiggled, lifted itself onto strong hind legs, chattered and sniffed the air. The woman heard barking.

“Aren’t you sweet,” she said, then noticed the note. “What’s this?”

She pulled carefully and the weak fibers holding the note tightly fell away. She rolled the note open and held it up to the waning light of dusk. She squinted closely, trying to make out the thin chalk scratches. It was an ancient language, one rarely used. But somehow she could read it. “What does it say?” her friend asked. She read it to herself…

My Lady Sharr,
Your husband is dead and for that I apologize.
I can only hope that some day you will forgive me.
I look forward to that day. Until then, know that
you have a friend in the darkness.

The woman turned dead white, dropped the paper, and screamed.

A rat jumped off her lap and slipped away through the stunned crowd.

* * * * *

Wealthy trade merchant Rubico Sharr was found dead five days past in his home on Bright Street. A ruddy red scar around his neck points to a professional hit. The details are sketchy at this time, but authorities believe that the recent trade dispute between Korsham and Toradoram may be at fault. Master Sharr handled exotic rugs and fine pelts, and had recently gained a monopoly on Isydori silk. He is survived by his wife, Monika Sharr.

“What has vexed you, assassin?” the rat asked, his little feet beating the air, making signs that only its master understood. “You aren’t yourself.”

Nalo crumpled the news report in his hand and tossed it into the gutter. “It doesn’t matter, rat. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

What mattered was the throng of revelers in the streets, the streamers, the floats, the flute and drum players, the scantily clad ladies with bright face- and breast-paint. The noises and smells were almost too much for a night creature like himself to bear. Nalo preferred the quieter places in the city, during the deep silence of night, when only the condemned or those willing to kill (like himself ) lurked. Here at dusk, there was noise and fanfare even on a normal night. And tonight was the annual springtime festival, when all of Korsham welcomed the coming of the sun and the rain. Soon the rains would fall hard and swell the Gold River over its banks, and the sun would reach high in the sky, and then the flowers would bloom, and life would start anew. Nalo watched it all from the shadows and imagined it silently.

“You don’t think I understand the concept of love?” the rat said, hopping in front of the assassin to catch his attention. Its furious movements suggested it had been insulted.

Nalo looked down at his starved companion and huffed. “What do you know about it?”

The rat squeaked to clear its throat, then mimed, “Once, I mounted a plump white down by the Mud Flats and sired her fifteen young. It was early summer and the blue fungus had begun to spread. It spread into the nest, taking her and three of her babies, threatening the others. So you know what I did?”

Nalo shook his head.

“I ate the other twelve. Now tell me that isn’t love.”

Nalo shook his head. “Oh yeah, that’s love all right. You’re a real prince. Now get the hell out of here!” He kicked. The rat jumped, squealed, and ran away.

A long pause, then he spotted the object of his desire coming towards him through a sea of waving peacock feathers. His eyes lit up as he saw her face, marked by the flickering torch light, but still smooth, pristine, showing little sign of age or worry. Despite her recent loss, she seemed calm, collected, enjoying the festive spirit of the street. She was delightful.

By contrast, Nalo was hideous, grotesque. An agent of darkness. Skin pale white, features sharp and dry. He had aged considerably since his return to Korsham City. What right did he have in even looking at this woman? He was leagues below her station. It was an embarrassment to even be on the same street as her. This is a waste of time, he thought to himself as she walked past the alley. She didn’t even look his way, holding no concern for things deadly, repulsive. She walked by and even through air lousy with a thousand smells, he could pick out her light perfume, that delicate scent he knew from her clothing, her bed. Despite his better instincts, Nalo found his legs moving towards her. He could hear Yarian’s stern voice in his mind: “This is foolish, boy. Don’t do it.” But what did a necromancer know about love and matters of the heart? What could he possibly know about the need to be a part of something less… dark?

He stopped when his feet found cobbles. This is madness. He watched her slip further into the crowd. What would I say to her anyway? “Hi, I’m Nalo,” he mouthed silently to himself, “I’m an assassin, in service to the Dark Lord Kalloshin. I killed your husband. Care for a drink?”

He chuckled at the absurdity of it and watched her disappear. It was a nice idea, but foolish. They were from opposite worlds, different sides of the street. His best play was to forget about it. He cracked a smile, shook his head and turned away to continue his evening’s tasks.

Then he heard a scream.

He’d never heard her voice beyond mumbles through closed doors, but Nalo knew it was her. She was screaming, and the revelers all around either did not hear or did not care. But he heard her, and it was like a knife through a vein.

Where was she? There were so many buildings pressed in tightly, so many tiny nooks and spaces where a victim could be taken. He moved through the crowd quickly, his feet barely touching the ground. He ran from one side of the street to the other, looking down deep passages. Years of lurking in the shadows had given him keen sight in the darkness. He used it. He found shapes, but they weren’t her. Drunks, whores, common lazy rabble. His heart sank.

Then he heard a faint whimper, like a cat mewing for a scrap of food. He jumped a pile of rotting sacks and found her, on the cold stones, her silk blouse ripped open, her breasts bare. Above her wavered a knife, cold steel attached to a curved hilt. The hand that held it was stiff, white-knuckled, shaking. The man himself was wrapped in a simple tan homespun. It covered his shoulders and head, his bone white eyes peering through a small slit in the cloth. The man did not seem to notice Nalo, his gaze fixed on his victim’s throbbing chest. The man raised the blade high and with a maddening screech, thrust down.

Nalo caught the man’s arm and pulled it back hard, then drove a boot into his chest. The man screamed again, fell back, but did not waver. He was strong. Small in stature, frail looking, almost ghostlike beneath the loose clothing, but he was strong. And agile. He flipped backwards, regained his footing, and leaped forward.

Nalo ducked and the killer soared through the air, his foot grazing the assassin’s back. Nalo winced as the thin foot scraped his backbone, but he righted himself and braced for an attack.

The man waved his knife before him, slashing empty air. Not fair, Nalo thought as he fell backwards. I don’t have a blade.

But fairness was not a right in the assassin trade. A killer used the tools at hand, be they many or few. There were plenty of things in this alley, Nalo knew, that could be turned into weapons. A rock, a slab of wood, a discarded torch perhaps. The trick was acquiring one when your attention was needed elsewhere. One false move and your foe would cut your throat. But Nalo didn’t need a fancy prop. He had everything necessary to win this scuffle at his waist.

He pulled free a thin thong of leather and waved it in the air. At each end was a wooden knob, smooth but heavy. The man slashed again with his knife, trying to force Nalo back against the damp wall. Nalo shifted to the right, snapped his garrote forward, and caught the man square in the eye. The man reeled backwards, shook his head. Nalo struck again, swinging the garrote and hitting the man’s temple. The strike did little damage as the cloth wrapped around the foreigner’s head cushioned the blow. But he bent at the waist, giving Nalo a chance to move in and wrap the garrote around his brown neck.

He yanked the cord tightly. The leather bit deep into the man’s flesh. He flailed madly. His strength was near impossible for Nalo to handle. This man was young, aggressive, quite capable. If he had taken on a lesser assassin, it’d be that assassin’s head in the grip. But the Shape of Shadow never lost. Nalo leaped onto the man’s back and pulled the garrote tighter.

“Die!” Nalo said, riding the man like a wild boar. “Die!”

And the man did, eventually, after the strength left his arms, then legs, then chest. Nalo tore off the man’s turban, revealing thin black hair, soot-ridden cheeks, eyes bulging from the pressure at his neck. The man’s face turned purple; his tongue bulged between blue swollen lips. He gasped his last, and died.

Nalo released the garrote and fell backwards. His mind was awhirl in the Call of Kalloshin, his master and the patron saint of assassins. Over and over, he mouthed the name of his dark savior and felt that insatiable rush of power that comes with the heat of the kill. Sweat poured from his skin like bile. Gods, but he needed the taste of lemon! The sweet-sour pulp calmed his nerves, settled his raucous stomach. He sat there for several minutes, letting the red flush of his face subside. When his chest settled, he got up and rubbed his face dry, then turned toward the woman.

But she was gone.

* * * * *

He sucked a lemon wedge and stared into the sallow eyelids of the dead merchant. Did the eyes behind them move? Did they twitch? It was hard for Nalo to tell. “Can you wake him?”

The shriveled little black necromancer nodded. “I can, but remember, it was you who killed him. His injuries are quite savage and deep. His throat will never be the same.”

“He must talk,” Nalo said, “he must.”

Yarian shook his head and pinched some black powder from his bowl. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into these things. Boredom, I guess.”

The necromancer rubbed his thumb and index finger together and the powder trickled onto the dead man’s head. The body twitched.

They were in Yarian’s home, a subterranean one-room dome providing both living quarters and work space. Scores of bottles and feather fetishes lay everywhere, parchments and old dusty spell books. Tortured red and black symbols were painted along the curved walls, with lines of dried blood streaked through them to the floor. The room had an old, dead smell to it, a moldy dampness like the grave. Over the years, Nalo had gotten used to it, but there always seemed to be something new crammed into a corner or spread out on a table. There was always something fresh to look at—and to wonder about—in Yarian’s hovel.

The dead man pitched again, straining against his bindings. His head rolled back, his eyes peeked open slightly. Nalo grew excited and rushed to the man’s side. “Come on, you son of a bitch,” he said, gripping the man’s mortised arm. “Animate!”

“No need to shout,” Yarian said as he finished dousing the man with powder. “He’ll come around. Step back and watch.”

Nalo stepped away. The man continued to twitch, at first violently, then his muscles settled and smoothed against dried bones and taut ligaments. The corpse calmed, sat rigid, opened its eyes. It stared forward several minutes, then turned its head towards them, face blank.

Nalo could see the dark crimson line of his garrote around the man’s neck. It had cut deeply, too deeply. He cursed himself for his lack of care. Sometimes, as had happened in the alley, the thrill of the kill consumed him. He should have anticipated having to bring this man back. He should have been more careful. Nalo hated making mistakes. He hated paying for them later.

He stepped forward. “Rubico Sharr. Do you remember who you are?”

The animated man puzzled in place, the stiff wrinkles on his brow creasing under the strain of working a dead brain. “I…” His voice was weak, raspy, barely audible even in the silence here beneath the alley. “Y-yes. I re-member. Rubico. Rubico Sharr.” He looked up at Nalo. “Who… are you?”

“My name’s of no concern to you,” Nalo said. He knelt down and grabbed the cold, white hand of the man. “Your wife is our concern at the moment.”

“My wife?”

“Yes. Monika Sharr. Remember her?”

Nalo found himself yelling. He hadn’t even realized his voice had risen. Anger filled his mind. He had no time for this. No time for patience. He needed answers now… before it was too late.

The man nodded. “Yes. I remember her.” Then he turned his head fitfully, as if he had suddenly realized where he was and what had happened to him. Terror glazed his eyes. “What, what’s happened to me? Where am I?”

Nalo leaned into the man’s chest and grabbed his wrinkled blue burial gown. He pulled until their faces nearly touched. “No time for that. You just answer my questions, and perhaps we’ll leave you in peace.”

Nalo felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, boy. It’s going to take time. He needs to reorient—”

“We don’t have time, Yarian!” Nalo snapped. He glared at the old necromancer. “This is my show. Back off!”

Yarian did as he was told, but Nalo could tell that he had overstepped his bounds. This was Yarian’s home, and no one, not even an infamous assassin, had the right to make demands of a man in his own home.

But he didn’t have time to apologize. Nalo turned back to the corpse, took a deep breath, then said, “Now answer me these questions, Rubico Sharr. Who wanted you dead? Who hired me to kill you? And who sent a Toradoram assassin to kill your wife?”

Horror returned to the man’s face. “Monika is dead?”

“No,” Nalo answered, “but she will be if you don’t give me answers. Torador will keep sending their knives until the job is finished. That is their way. I can hold them off for a time, but eventually, they will kill her.”

“You?” Rubico Sharr pulled his brow down sharply and squinted in confusion. “Why do you care?”

“Yes, Master Nalo,” Yarian said, “tell us all why you care so much.”

Nalo gave Yarian a nasty look, but he let the veiled challenge slide. There would be time later for argument. “Because I don’t like to be trifled with. I like my hits clean and unfettered by complications. It’s clear now that your hit was not over some trade dispute you’ve had with foreign merchants. There’s a deeper, darker matter at hand. Tell me now, dead man, and don’t lie. Tell me why assassins are coming for your wife.”

Rubico struggled to figure it out. His face turned even paler, wracked by some deep guilt. Nalo knew the look. He’d seen it many times on the faces of his victims. At the moment of death, their thoughts went to that which had put them at death’s door in the first place. The last moment of guilt; the last painful cry for forgiveness. Rubico Sharr was hiding something.

“Talk!” Nalo shouted.

“Jade,” Rubico said.

“What? Speak plain.”

“Jade… the jade…”

Rubico’s head lilted backwards, his eyes rolled up into his head. He mumbled something inaudible, over and over. He leaned against his bindings. Nalo propped him up with a swift hand to the throat, and squeezed.

“What do you mean by ‘jade’?” Nalo smacked him across the face. Rubico’s head rocked against the blow. “Tell me!”

Another smack. Then another.

“Nalo!”

Yarian’s voice brought the assassin out of his rage. The room fell silent and cold. Had it been this cold a moment ago? Nalo couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything right now. All he saw in his mind was a Toradoram dagger and a woman’s bare chest.

He felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder again. “Can I see you outside, please?”

Nalo stood, chest pounding. Cold sweat ran down his face. He followed Yarian up the stairs. They stepped through the broken door into the alley, and fresh air roused him. Nalo breathed deeply, shook his head, blinked. His mind began to clear.

Yarian turned. The nasty look on his face told Nalo that the little man was not to be trifled with. “I’m ending this interview.”

“Why?”

“You’ve gone too far, Nalo. It’s gotten out of hand.”

“It’s my hit, my interview, and you don’t tell me what—”

“Enough!”

Yarian’s rebuke echoed through the alley, rousing a dog, waking a baby. This part of Korsham City was generally quiet at night, a mixture of residence and business—lightly populated, set off from the main streets—Yarian had picked well a century ago when he had come to town. The fact that he would risk being discovered with such a shout told Nalo that nothing, not even the threats of an assassin, would sway the old man. The interview was over.

What has gotten into you, boy?”

Nalo hardly knew where to begin. He turned away, letting the breeze cool his face. He could smell rain in the air. “I love her.”

A pause, then, “Who?”

“Monika Sharr.”

“How did this happen?”

“I don’t know,” Nalo said, turning back to his friend. “I studied them for weeks. You know how I work. She was with him a lot. They seemed very close. He was very protective of her, almost possessive. In time, I understood why. She’s like this perfect jewel, and I realized in a few short days that it wasn’t him I was watching. It was her. Her smooth face. Her black hair. Her radiant smile…

“Hah! Roll your eyes all you wish, death-monger, but when I see her, I feel the same way I did under that waterfall with Tish years ago, right before she ripped away my soul and fed me to the Assassin’s Guild. I can’t stop thinking about her. I know, it’s madness, but I must have her, and I must protect her from whoever is trying to kill her.”

Yarian considered for several minutes, rubbing his black, leathery chin with crinkled fingers. Then he said, “Yes, that’s what’s troubling me the most. There’s something missing in all this, Nalo. Torador does not send blades to kill the wife of a simple silk merchant. If they had such a problem with his business, they could easily block his trade, steal his goods, or ruin his reputation through back channels.”

“Yes, I know,” Nalo said, his impatience growing once more. “That’s why we’re doing the interview, remember? We’ve got to get back in there…” Nalo moved towards the door.

Yarian caught the sleeve of the assassin’s black shirt. He shook his head. “No. I mean it. It’s over.”

Nalo pulled away. “Don’t tell me what to do, old man. I don’t work for you.”

“No. You work for the Guild.”

“And what I do on my own time is not its concern.”

Yarian chuckled and spread his thin lips in a smile. “The Guild has a way of making everything its business, my friend. You know that.”

Nalo stopped, but ignored the comment. He rubbed his face. “He kept saying ‘jade’. Did you notice that?”

“I’m a servant of the dead, Nalo, not an idiot.”

“Well, what does it mean?”

Yarian shrugged. “I don’t know, but I find it interesting that you would refer to your—lady—as a jewel.”

“But jade isn’t a jewel. It’s a stone.”

“Yes,” Yarian said, rubbing a hole in his chin. “Yes, it is.”

“What do you suspect?”

He let the old man stand there for a long while, wrapped in some inner thought. Over the years Nalo had learned not to trouble Yarian when he was thinking. The mind of a necromancer was easily distracted; one didn’t dare to interrupt in these rare moments of deep contemplation. But time was slipping away. Somewhere out there, Monika Sharr—his jewel—was in danger. He had to protect her.

Finally, Yarian roused, shook his head, and said, “Okay, you go and do whatever it is you must do. I’ll take care of Rubico Sharr.”

Nalo’s eyes lit up. “You’ll continue the interview?”

Yarian nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. Go now. Leave me alone.”

Nalo wanted to give the old man a pat on the shoulder. Instead, he cracked a rare smile and said, “I knew you were a good sort.”

Yarian ignored the feeble attempt at an apology. He turned and headed down the steps.

Nalo disappeared into the darkness.

* * * * *

Their relationship began with a lie.

Having been attacked once by a Toradoram assassin, Monika Sharr could hardly refuse the protection that “Maellor Brock” offered her. That was the name Nalo used on occasion to hide his identity. Many people knew of the famed Nalo Thoran; too many in fact. The name was everywhere. He couldn’t use his real name with the woman he loved. The lie was justified in the service of her safety.

So she accepted his protection after an elaborate explanation that business partners of her late husband wanted to ensure that Rubico’s “estate” would not topple because of the recent attempt on her life. The monopoly on Isydori Silk had to be maintained for the financial interests of all concerned parties. “How did you know of the attack?” she asked him in her soft, perfect voice, as he showed her his official-looking references.

Security guard Maellor Brock smiled. This wasn’t even a lie. “News travels fast on the streets of Korsham City, my lady.”

So it was that both his nights and days were spent protecting her. The psychic dispatchers from the Guild continued sending Nalo assignments; springtime was a wondrous, yet murderous, time in Korsham. He ignored what assignments he could, and reassigned others to lesser assassins and thugs: those hits that didn’t require his personal touch. The Guild grew furious with his lack of focus and dedication to their cause and the needs of their patrons, but few actively tried to make an issue of it. Such a challenge would be suicide. Who would dare face the great Shadow Walker in his prime? The Guild would be patient for now with his inactivity; but for how long? Nalo tried not to think of such things as stoking the ire of his own dark patron saint. All he cared about was Monika.

For two weeks he watched and followed her wherever she went. She was a very busy person, professionally and privately. Over the years, she and her husband had acquired many business contacts which had turned into friendships of a sort, although Nalo could see that a merchant’s idea of a friend shared more with “colleague” status than true friendship. Monika Sharr called on several of the wives of other merchants, giving them tiny gifts, and in exchange, getting gifts of her own or promises of one sort or another. In all his time beating the streets at night, Nalo never knew all the gladhanding and palm-pressing a merchant had to do to make a living, to stay afloat. It was a fascinating lifestyle and it seemed to fit Monika Sharr well.

Everything fit her well. Her clothing especially. Walking behind her, Nalo couldn’t help but revel in her comely shape, the way her hips swayed back and forth perfectly beneath her leather garments, or the way she looked bending over to pick up a box or dust off a low shelf. The way she arched her back and teetered backwards on her heels when a colleague told a funny joke, or when she yawned and stretched early in the morning to prepare for business. There was no move or expression she made that passed his observation. On a few occasions, she caught him staring at her, and Nalo would look away quickly, embarrassed. But she never said anything. She’d just smile briefly and go about her way.

Nalo looked for excuses to touch her. He would point down the street and tell her the route they would take for the day, letting his fingers accidentally graze her shoulder or arm. He would help her with a heavy box, making sure his hand would rest momentarily on hers. He would accidentally bump into her to get in front and secure a fork in the road. Once, at the end of a very tough day, he offered to massage her neck, but she politely refused. That was too bold a move, he realized, but he couldn’t help himself. It was painful watching her and not being able to touch her, to take her hand, to wrap his arms around her. Killing was easy compared to this agony.

And he had to stay sharp. He had to push these uncomfortable feelings from his mind and keep a clear eye. Twice more foreign assassins came, baring their curved daggers, hissing and mumbling their zealotry. Nalo dispatched them easily enough, but he grew weary at the end of each day. Having to ward off psychic dispatchers, keep his feelings for Monika in check, and keep killers at bay—coupled with Yarian’s painstakingly slow search for answers—was enough to drive any man insane. If things didn’t change soon and for the better…

Then the spring rains began to fall. There was never a man, or killer, so thrilled with the torrent of water that fell from the sky. It was a good excuse to get closer to her.

His lady liked to drink tea on lazy afternoons, after the drudgery of her business had ended and all other matters were resolved. Monika liked her time away from it all, to settle her nerves, to clear her mind. Maellor Brock was more than willing to assist.

One such afternoon took them to the café where he had first contacted her. She waltzed in on her marvelous legs, greeted old friends with a marvelous smile, and shared tea and stories until the sun set, the winds howled, and the rains poured. On the way home afterwards, Maellor offered to shield the lady under his broad black overcoat. She was reluctant at first, but the winds were harsh and the rain soaked her to the bone.

Under his coat, her heat made Nalo swoon.

“You’re a very thin man, Mr. Brock,” she said, as they trotted along a dark, vacant street. Nalo kept his eyes peeled on every alley they passed. “Perhaps I should feed you something.”

Tonight is the night! Nalo held her shoulder tightly as they crossed the street, the incessant rain pelting them mercilessly. “That won’t be necessary, my lady,” he said. “I’m not hungry.” Not for food, anyway.

“Well,” she said, “come in to get a warm drink at least. You’ll catch your death out here.”

They entered her apartment and Nalo shrugged off his wet coat and gathered kindling from the brass holder on the large fireplace. When she wasn’t looking, he stoked the dry embers with a small fire spell Yarian had taught him. He stepped away and waited for the flames to grow.

The Sharrs’ apartment was vast and opulent, every corner filled with goods from across the world: Torador, Brenia, Isydor, and far-reaching places like Tybus and Ceneca. Thick wire and hemp rope spanned the room, holding rich carpets and soft comforters of Isydori silk and Torador breech-cloths. They quartered off the room in little cubes, helping to direct the heat from the fire into the main living spaces. While Monika brewed hot tea, Nalo moved through the maze of finery.

Such wealth he was unaccustomed to. Any one of the items in this room could have garnered Nalo half a year’s pay. Murder was brutal, but cheap, work. He’d known that from the beginning, but sometimes the job picks the man. If he’d had a choice, perhaps he would have been a merchant as well. There were certainly plenty of them around when he was young. Then too, there had been plenty of thugs, thieves, and assassins. The assassin trade had not started with Nalo Thoran, though it was a nice idea to imagine. He knew that going in as well. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger over a bolt of fine Isydori silk. He smiled. Soft. Soft like my lady.

“Tea?”

Her voice startled him. She had snuck up behind him, and now held out a delicate cup and saucer. It was rare to startle the ShadowWalker. He took the tea humbly and nodded. Her value increased even more in his eyes. “Thank you, my lady.”

She smiled and sipped her tea. Their eyes searched each other. Suddenly, Nalo felt embarrassed. He looked away and took a sip.

She reached out to his face, her soft fingers penetrating the quiet space between them. Then she pulled back quickly, as if suddenly realizing that her move was inappropriate. She smiled again, averting her eyes playfully. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brock. I didn’t mean to intrude. But your face… it’s so pale. Yet so smooth.”

“Please,” Nalo said, “you may call me Maellor, my lady. In my line of work,” he continued, addressing her observation, “the sun plays a minor role.”

She puzzled about that for a moment, but his soft smile made her laugh. They laughed together, then Nalo said, motioning to the fine items around them, “you have quite a collection, my lady—”

“If I’m to call you Maellor,” she interrupted, “then call me Monika.”

Nalo nodded. “Very well.” He repeated his statement.

“Yes, indeed. My husband loved to collect things. He was always looking for that unique, rare, item.”

“But I thought he was a clothier and silk merchant.”

Monika nodded. “And rugs too. But he dabbled in everything. Whenever we had an extra coin, Rubico spent it on a Brenian ruby incense bowl or a Tybus ivory flute.” They walked past a small shelf of ornately designed drinking glasses, vases, and gold-speckled ceramic fertility dolls. She ran her fingers lightly across them, and Nalo felt his pulse quicken. “He especially liked rare gems and rocks. Rubies, emeralds, opals, turquoise, and jade.”

Jade! Nalo recalled the interview with Rubico. “Jade?” he asked.

“He loved it most of all,” she said, sipping again at her tea. Nalo took a sip as well, letting the hot liquid warm his chest. “He considered it the finest element in all the world.” She giggled, took another sip, then wavered in place.

“My lady?”

Her knees buckled, and Nalo cast aside his cup and saucer and grabbed her. She let out a gasp of air, her head lolled backwards and her eyes rolled into her skull. She dropped her cup and the warm tea splashed her leg. He held her softly and took her to the floor.

“My lady!”

Sweat covered her face. Nalo blew gently on her cheeks, giving her air, keeping her cool in the light of the flames.

She roused, her eyes blinking wildly. Her chest heaved as air raced into her lungs. In the heat of the moment, Nalo didn’t even realize that his hand cupped her left breast.

He tried pulling away, but she reached out and held his arm tight. He kept pulling back but her strength was too great. Too great for him: Nalo Thoran. How was that possible?

Something was wrong.

She pressed his hand against her breast again. Her warm, soft flesh rose to him. He squeezed and felt her hard, dark nipple. She smiled at him as if in a dream, her lips soft, ethereal. “Come to me, sweetness,” she said. Her words swam through his dizzy mind. “Come to me.”

Nalo took her in his arms and hugged tightly. Her lips touched his. Heat spread through his body, but it wasn’t his own. Heat from her, and not the kind one feels when bare skin touches skin. It radiated from her flesh, like the heat from the fireplace behind them. He tried resisting, but the feeling was too powerful, calling to him, giving him a sense of peace and happiness.

Like the way he had felt in the arms of Tish years ago.

A tendril of grey curled out of her mouth, like a line of smoke from a pipe. She touched his face with fingers long and sharp. “Open to me, sweet one,” she said, probing his lips with determined fingers. But the voice was not hers anymore. Not the pleasant cadence he had grown to love. The deep, guttural words from her throat were man-like, ancient, sinister. Nalo tried resisting, but all he saw before him was the face of an angel, bright and pleasing, welcoming him from the shackles of darkness.

“I love you!”

He said the words without thinking. Were they sincere, he wondered, or were they coerced?

A pause, then, “I love you too.” Those were her words, in her voice.

The face before him smiled softly as grey smoke turned green. Jade green. Nalo Thoran smiled and opened his mouth.

The world fell away.

Then the world fell back into place, as fast as it had fled from his mind. A faint buzzing sound, a woman’s scream, and then Nalo’s eyes opened as Monika was blown back from an explosion in her side. For a moment, he didn’t move. His eyes refocused, and he saw her clearly, writhing on the floor, bouncing violently and grabbing at a feather dart in her side. Jade smoke poured from the wound; the room filled with her screams.

“Back!” An old, raspy voice said from the apartment doorway. “Back away, Nalo. I know what she is.”

The assassin gathered himself and rose on weak legs. His throat and chest hurt, his body shook in fever, his stomach nauseous.

“I said stand back!”

Nalo did as Yarian bade. “Wh-why are you here?” Pain ripped through his mind. He leaned over and held his head.

Yarian did not answer. Instead, the old man shuffled through the doorway. In his hand was a small staff of black mahogany, its tip a fat, twisted chunk of coal. Nalo had seen the staff before, but Yarian used it sparingly and only in times of great danger to aide in focusing his necromantic powers. He held it up and moved slowly towards Monika’s shaking form.

An arch of black light burst from the staff as Yarian uttered blasphemies, his face a prune of twisted flesh. The light swarmed around her, wrapping her in a cocoon. Monika screamed and writhed madly to break free, but Yarian’s death magic was too strong.

“What are you doing?” Nalo screamed.

“Trying to keep us alive!”

“You’re killing her!”

Yarian shook his head. “No. She’s already lost.”

But all Nalo could see was a beautiful girl—a woman— writhing in pain on the floor. A woman he had sworn to protect. A woman he loved.

He shook away the pain in his mind and jumped. Though frail and feeble, Yarian moved quickly, trying to lean out of the way, but the assassin’s shoulder grazed his back and they went flying across the floor and into a pile of silk bolts. Yarian held his staff, but the dark light twisted upward and spread across the rafters like a spider web, dissipating against the wood.

Nalo pulled himself out of the silk and looked down. Yarian was a shamble of old cloth, silent and still. He’s dead. For a moment, that thought crossed Nalo’s mind. But no. The old goat couldn’t die that easily. I should help. But Yarian’s welfare didn’t concern him at the moment. He didn’t care about anything except her. She mattered the most.

His feelings weren’t natural anymore. He realized that as he went to her, knelt down, and held her head in his hands. His feelings were deep, but foreign, as if the jade smoke that had penetrated his mouth had awakened in him a singular purpose. He wasn’t just her bodyguard anymore; he was her soul protector. And nothing, not even Yarian, not even the dark gods, not even Kalloshin, would harm her. But it was a feeling as if she were property, like an object of great value. He tried pushing the thought out of his mind, but couldn’t. Instead, he tried to lift her.

“I’m taking you away, my love,” he whispered. Yarian’s black spell had wrinkled her face. She was still beyond beauty, but older, as if her essence had been drained away. “I know a place in the North Mountains. You’ll be safe with me there.”

She struggled against him. His sweaty hands slipped and she fell hard. “No!” she yelped. “No. It is hopeless. Just hold me, my love. Just hold me.”

He held her tightly. She breathed in tiny gasps and reached for him with her last strength. Their lips touched again. Nalo found himself resisting, trying to pull away, but he could not control his body or his feelings. They kissed for a long time, until she pulled away, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “Do you love me?”

He could think of nothing else to say. “Yes.”

“Then kill me.”

His face twisted in confusion. “What?”

“Kill me.” Her grip on his neck grew tighter, vise-like. Nalo could not pull away. With her free hand, she ripped her blouse open, exposing herself in the firelight. Sweat streaked her soft skin. Nalo could not resist the desire welling in his mind. So beautiful, so perfect. If he could touch her just once…

“Rip open my chest, my love, and free me.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“Open my chest… and take my heart.”

He stared at her in terror. What was this thing she was asking? He could not comprehend it. He could not understand.

Then something raised his arm. A force that he, Nalo Thoran, had never felt before. He no longer controlled his body. He could see what was happening, but could do nothing to stop it.

The thing that held him took his arm and began to twist it, reshape it. His fingers fused together like candle wax above a flame. His pale skin shifted red like fire, then silver, red again, until what flesh remained tapered into a steel claw, sharp and hooked.

Then the force pushed his hand downward towards her chest. “Yarian!” Nalo screamed, fighting against the force, taking his other hand and pulling with all his strength. “Yarian, help me. Please!”

But the old man did not reply.

The sharp tip of his bladed hand pushed between her breasts. Nalo screamed and fought against it, but it pushed deeper, deeper. Blood poured from the cut around his hand. He heard her ribs crack. Monika screamed, but it wasn’t a scream of pain or of fear. It was a scream of joy and relief. A smile crept across her lips as happy tears streamed down her face.

The ribs now punctured, Nalo’s hand worked up and down, cutting through flesh and bone. Tish, he screamed silently into the floor. Tish! Help me. Please stop this!

No mistress of Kalloshin answered. The slaughter continued.

The force now took his other hand and pushed it into her chest. Nalo could feel Monika’s blood, her lungs, her broken ribs, and though he had killed so many in his life and had seen so much blood, the sight of all this gore soured his stomach. He looked away as his hand reached in and grabbed her heart.

But it was a stone. Not warm, beating muscle like he expected, but hard, smooth stone. He pulled out his hand and held it before him, Monika’s blood streaming down his arm. He raised it up and stared into a glowing chunk of jade.

Nalo dropped it as the green stone seared his hand. Now he pulled away, pumping his legs and falling backwards.

The light from the stone filled the room, every corner lit like a star. Nalo covered his face as a wave of heat rolled over him.

Then it shattered, bursting into a thousand pieces, showering the room in fine green shards. Nalo waited until the shards stopped falling. Then he moved his arms and opened his eyes.

Above him floated a demon.

It was green like the stone. A dark green with swirls of crimson along its misty body. It was like a fog, thick and smoky. The length of its body spun like a waterspout, and at its top, rising high into the rafters, lay a human torso, rippled with muscle and mass. Atop that sat a beastly head, shaped like a man’s, its face flat, its mouth lined with sharp white teeth and two fangs hooked and lying against pleasant cheeks. Golden rings pierced its broad earlobes, and its long hair hung in locks of twisted gold coil.

“I’m free!” The beast’s booming voice rattled the floor and Nalo covered his ears. “Toka al-Shamool Ali is free!”

The beast swirled upwards, twisting through the rafters like a snake, squealing in glee like a child with a new toy. Nalo ignored its play, stood and walked over to Monika’s body. He stood above her and stared into her mangled chest. Then he looked at his hands. They were real again, but covered in her blood. He fell down beside her, bowed his head, and placed his hands upon her ruined chest.

“I’m sorry, my lady,” he said, fighting back the pain. “So sorry.”

“Who are you?”

Nalo looked up and into the face of the beast. It floated mere inches from his own, its glowing red eyes searching Nalo’s unfamiliar face. Nalo stood quickly, rage uncontrollably rising in his throat. “I,” he said, pushing against the beast, “am Nalo Thoran. I am the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath-Stealer. A servant to Kalloshin, the Seething Dark Eternalness, the Master of Thorns, the Patron Saint of Assassins. And I’m going to kill you.”

The sudden move of the mortal startled the beast, and it fell back as Nalo pushed again. The assassin swung his arms but his fists swiped harmlessly through the green mist. The beast stopped moving, rose up in a burst of cloud, then brushed its hand across the assassin’s shoulder.

Nalo flew across the room.

It followed. “Well, Nalo Thoran,” it said, “I am Toka al- Shamool Ali. I’m the sun and the stars, the earth and the wind. I am the Fog of Al-Halak, and the Mist of Time Immemorial. I’m a king and a god, and I can kill you.”

Nalo tried picking himself off the floor, but the demon held him firm, its mass swirling around him, choking his breath away. He gasped for air, clawed at his throat, tried to shout. Nothing came.

A bolt of dark light crashed through the fog. The beast fell back, screaming, fighting against a wall of black smoke.

Yarian appeared through the haze, holding his little staff aloft. “I,” he said, “am Yarian Domak. Necromancer. Agent of Death. Keeper of the Rotting Brain, and an all-around nasty son of a bitch. I can’t kill you, but you will leave this place.”

The beast swirled back and forth, like a tiger waiting. It tested Yarian’s defenses, pushing, prodding, but it could find no weaknesses. “Begone!” Yarian screamed, and another burst of light roiled forth from the black coal.

The beast screeched in agony, twisted itself into ribbons of bright green, then fled towards the fireplace.

“I will return,” it said, slithering its way up the charred blocks. “Toka al-Shamool Ali will have your deaths.”

Its laughter diminished as it fled up the chimney and escaped into the Korsham night.

* * * * *

“She was a vessel,” Yarian said as they sat in front of the fireplace, watching Monika Sharr’s destroyed body glow in the firelight. “A carrier. A shell.”

Nalo’s eyes stared unblinking at her peaceful face, trying to ignore the gaping hole in her chest. With a soft piece of silk, he wiped her blood from his arm. “I don’t understand.”

Yarian cleared his throat. “Rubico Sharr’s babbling about ‘jade’ piqued my curiosity, so I dug deeper, asked different questions. In ancient times, Torador sorcerers would trap uncontrollable demons in blocks of jade, just as your Guild enslaves souls in amethyst. But with jade comes a price. Over time, it corrupts. Its core corrodes, deteriorates. With enough time, that which is trapped inside begins to sense its freedom and crave it. A demon will do anything for its freedom. But that beast was even worse. That was a Groel.”

“A what?”

“A demon whose powers rival that of the gods. I’m sure it’s been trapped for legions of time, and for good reason. I was trying to keep it contained in her flesh. Its ethereal qualities would have been absorbed by her blood and would have dissipated. If I had been successful, it would have ended this night.”

There was a veiled accusation in that statement, Nalo knew. But he let it pass. He had no strength to fight. “How did it get there?” Nalo asked. “How did it get inside her… body?”

“Don’t know for certain,” Yarian said, “but I suppose that through some dark mischief, Rubico had it implanted to more easily smuggle it out of Toradoram. Human flesh dampens immortal powers, as you well know.”

“What was he going to do with it?”

“The stone alone was worth a small fortune. Toradoram is very protective of its jade, and merchants like the Sharrs— despite all their obvious wealth—could not have afforded such a large piece. And with a Groel trapped inside, the price is unimaginable. In the hands of a skilled sorcerer, a beast like that could be most powerful indeed.”

“What could it do?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Nalo paused, then said, “So he had a buyer.”

Yarian nodded. “Most certainly.”

Who? It was a question without an answer. The Sharrs were dead. Perhaps Yarian could spin his magic and make Rubico’s broken throat utter the name. But in truth, Nalo did not want to know. There was no value in that knowledge. The truth could be dangerous.

“And,” Yarian said, moving slowly to stand closer to the fire, “it’s certain that someone in Toradoram wanted it back.”

“Will it come after us?”

Yarian shook his head, but Nalo could see doubt in the old man’s weathered eyes. “Not likely. Despite its threat, Toka al- Shamool Ali will have enough to do without badgering two worthless killers like us.”

Nalo allowed a smile to creep across his face. No matter the situation, Yarian always cracked a joke. A rare quality indeed for a death merchant.

“Come,” Yarian said, placing his hand on Nalo’s shoulder. “We must leave. Watchmen will arrive soon. We can’t be seen.”

Nalo nodded. “Just a moment.”

He knelt down and grabbed the hem of the thin shift of silk that lay over her legs. He paused to look at her face. Even in death she was radiant. He yearned to kiss her, one last time, but resisted. Despite their hard beauty, those lips were cold, lifeless, belonging now to whatever god she worshiped. Nor did he want to move them, for even the slightest touch would smear their perfection. He wanted to remember them like this always. Always.

Nalo smiled and whispered gently in her ear, “Goodbye, my lady. I’m so very sorry. We deserved more time. We deserved at least one chance together.” He pulled the silk over her face and stood quickly. “Let’s go.”

Together, Nalo and Yarian, assassin and necromancer, disappeared into a dark and blinding spring rain.

 

The first Nalo Thoran story appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, issue #332.

In the Slammer!

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Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Melanie sat rigid on the iron bench, panting as her gaze darted around the jail cell. She wore her best navy blue outfit, flattering but demure, the sort of thing you wear to visit your boyfriend’s parents or your grandmom, or to appear for trial in criminal court. Across from her, the security field sealing the entrance shimmered with a soft red glow, red for danger, red for no-go. Melanie had learned not to mess with the security field while still in high school.

But I’m not supposed to be in lockup. Sid guaranteed I’d get probation if I took the damn plea. Where the hell is he? She could hear her heart thumping as she panted. At least they didn’t put me in a cell with some pervert dyke. And then she shivered. At least, not yet.

The security field buzzed and shifted to a shade of sky blue. Melanie didn’t move, blue just meant the security field had polarized so someone could walk through from outside. A balding guy wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a battered briefcase strode down the hall and stepped through the opening without pausing. He was sweating and looked harried as the field flashed to red behind him.

“Okay Sydney, what’s going on? Why am I in lockup?” Melanie felt her heartbeat ramp up worse when Sydney sighed and didn’t look her in the eye. “Shit, Sydney, did you screw up?” His jaw clenched and he glared.

“No, Mel, I didn’t screw up. The deal was going just like we discussed, up until this morning. You’ve pled guilty to three felony counts out of ten bad check charges. The rest will be nolle prossed. And the prosecutor is locked into not making any recommendation on the sentence. This should’ve been a walk in the park. We go see Judge Jones, he gives you probation and you walk out. I got no idea why they grabbed you. An order came down this morning for you to be held until sentencing.” He paused and glared again. “In fact, I should be asking if you screwed up. You got some new charge I don’t know about? Not smart Mel, it’s guaranteed to piss off the judge.”

Melanie glared back and balled her fists. “No, goddamn it! You think I’m an idiot?”

She and her attorney argued back and forth until Melanie clenched her teeth and looked away. Well, somebody screwed up and it’s my tail in the ringer. Jesus!

The security field buzzed again and a tall man in a starched white shirt and pressed black suit stepped through the entrance gingerly, wincing with bald fear of it.

He straightened his tie, glanced from her to Sid, and grinned the kind of smile Melanie would expect a veterinarian to give a mutt just before he neutered it. “Sydney, my man! I wanted to be the first to tell you how thoroughly the shit has hit the fan. I take it you haven’t heard about Judge Jones?”

Her attorney plopped on the bench next to Melanie and ran his hand through his sparse hair. “Quit jerking us around, Jim. Spill it! We’re scheduled before Judge Jones in half an hour on Ms. McCarthy’s sentencing. Has it been continued?”

The prosecutor just flashed another smile that sent chills down Melanie’s spine. “No, no! We’re on for 10:30. But we’ll be before Judge Harkins, not Jones. Judge Jones’ father went into the hospital yesterday. He made arrangements for Judge Harkins to handle the calendar. So your little client here goes before Ironman Harkins instead. I gotta give the guy credit. Harkins was in his office before dawn reviewing files, and had detainers issued on a bunch of the cases.” The prosecutor paused to glance over to Melanie. “I don’t think he likes you, sweetheart. If he’s got you in lockup now, I can just guess what’s coming when we go upstairs.”

“Jesus, Jim! That isn’t fair!” Sydney jumped up and stood toe to toe with the prosecutor. “And we agreed, no jail. She’s only had a couple of juvenile convictions and a misdemeanor conviction last year. You need to tell Judge Harkins the deal was probation, not jail.”

Melanie shivered as the prosecutor’s smile just widened. He shook his head once, back then forth. “The deal was I would make no recommendation, and I won’t. And what the good judge does after that is entirely up to his honorable conscience. It’s the luck of the draw, Sid, you know that. But your client is a good-looking young lady, she has options.”

“Shut up!” He poked the prosecutor in the chest. “And get out! I haven’t discussed that with her, I didn’t think it was necessary. Now go, you’ve given us your news.”

The prosecutor chuckled and waved his electronic passcard in front of the security field. It flashed to green and he stepped through.

Sydney rubbed his forehead, then sat on the bench and patted her on the knee. “Okay, things aren’t happening the way we thought. Not my fault, not your fault, but that’s the way it is. You need to make some decisions before we go upstairs.”

“Can’t we just withdraw the plea?” Melanie fought tears and bit her lip. “I mean, this wasn’t the deal.”

“I can make the request, but I expect Judge Harkins will deny it. You’ve already entered the plea in open court, admitted guilt and agreed to all the terms. Nobody guaranteed you would get Judge Jones for the sentencing. And that’s not a basis to withdraw a plea. Now listen up, I need to explain some things.”

Melanie took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “Okay, how deep is the shit I’m in?”

“Pretty deep.” He grimaced, took a deep breath. “You got three options. First is jail.”

“Okay, I was in detention as a juvenile. I can do that.”

Sydney just shook his head. “Juvenile detention isn’t adult jail. The State has an obligation to rehabilitate juveniles. That means the State pays. But the Governor and the Legislature changed all that three elections back for adults. You remember the campaign, ‘Criminals should be responsible for their punishment.’ Jail costs the good citizens of this State over fifty grand a year per inmate. Nowadays, detainees are expected to reimburse the State, at least for a fat percentage. Anyone in your family got money?”

“Hell no! You think I’d be buying my date-night outfits with rubber checks if I did?”

Sydney grunted and continued. “Second option, public service in a needy community. I know you don’t have a college degree, but have you got any kind of job skills I can sell to the judge? The ghetto communities always need medical technicians, teachers, and drug counselors. Understand, if I sell this you’ll be signing away your life for the next five years. You got anything I can cobble into some sort of specialized skill?”

Melanie stared at the floor and shook her head. She dropped out of school in 11th grade. Never worked at anything but minimum wage jobs since.

Sydney grunted. “Too bad. Last option, what some call the meat option. You sign away your rights and agree to take part in an unskilled public service project.”

Melanie felt tears burning her eyes as she glanced up.

Her attorney continued. “You volunteer for medical experimentation. The government always needs subjects for testing new drugs and medical appliances. Ever since the passage of that animal rights act, testing on dumb animals isn’t allowed.”

“Yeah, but I’ve seen what can happen.” Melanie stood and paced the cell. “A guy on my street can’t hardly walk or talk after they tested a new drug on him. Nerve damage, they told him.”

Sydney just shrugged. “Of course there are risks, that’s why they need volunteers.”

He looked away and fidgeted with the handle of the briefcase. “And they’re always looking for licensed comfort liaisons for the military. The Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 2050 guarantees members of the military will have appropriate companions available when they’re off-duty. Most of the liaisons are licensed prostitutes hired out of Las Vegas and New York City.”

Melanie shivered. Dead meat or fresh meat was the way it’s described on the street.

“What if I just refuse, tell the judge to go to hell?”

Sydney chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend it. The law is clear, the State can’t be burdened with the cost of your punishment. The good citizens voted that referendum in back when you were still in high school. The old prison system cost millions of dollars, produced nothing and rehabilitated nobody. People came out more dangerous and crazy than when they went in. Let the criminals pay for their own punishment the politicians used to say. Make them give something back. Anyway, you refuse to cooperate and the Ironman Harkins gets to pick.”

“Jesus, Sydney!” Melanie closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “How the hell can I choose? This ain’t fair.”

“Neither is stealing from the merchants of our fair city, and you ripped them off for a bundle. But don’t sell the comfort liaison gig short. It’s Federal, which means good food, good housing, good medical, and decent working conditions. You work at the clubs on military bases.”

He glanced at his watch. “Think it over. We’ve got ten minutes.” The security field flashed blue and a burly guard stepped into the cell. Sydney stood and stepped aside as Melanie was cuffed and patted down. He waved his passcard at the security field and it flashed green. “See you upstairs.” He walked out.

 

The Solid Men: A Rick Rambler/Time Patrol Mystery

Layout 1

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by C.J. Henderson

“Those wanting wit affect gravity,
and go by the name of solid men.”
–John Dryden

“Zing, it was one when you knew how to nerk. Binkel. There was no denying it. You could feel it, tan side down—sharp.

“Wait a minute. Fuad.”

—klik—

“Didn’t realize what time I was set for. I apologize. These things happen when you’re part of the Time Patrol. Of course, you don’t actually know what that means, do you?”

I knew at least one thing I’d said had gotten through to young mister Quentin Peasley of the wilds of New Jersey, 2010 thru 2069, survived at finality date by his not-yet path-crossed wife Jenna, and his still unborn children, Cedric and Marshall. There was not, indeed, in any way, shape or form, any possibility that he knew what I meant. They never know. They can never, ever get their heads around it. I mean it.

You simply can’t noggle a guy and come right out and say, “Yes, that’s right, I’m a time cop. I move through the one-after-another seconds in all directions, across all the lines, watching for unauthorized activity of any nature.” That would be like saying something like, “Hey, I’m here because I know what’s supposed to happen and am duly authorized to make sure it does, using any and all means to make certain absolutely nothing interferes with upper case ‘P,’ upper case ‘T,’ Proven Time.”

No, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, the first thing they all want you to do is explain Proven Time, as if anyone could. The accident that set man’s sight on the One True Timeline from which all others spring was no blessing. Up until then people had been a lot happier—a whole lot. Saner, too. A lot of folks—and I’m one of them, let me tell you—feel that ol’ Doc Wezleski ignored time travel when he discovered it because he could see straight away the kind of trouble it meant for all of us.

Anyway, the answer is “No.” In the end it’s always best to just give them some kind of story. Something like the one I fed Quentin after I’d gotten my Local Wordage Formatter crinkled to the right year.

“Forget all that,” I suggested, giving the poor sap ‘Knowing, Sincere Look #6,’ one of my personal favorites. “I need your help for a few hours, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“What?”

Of course, he was half in the noggle-bag already. I swear if Central could just calibrate one decent LWF, the force wouldn’t have a third of the problems we do with insertion.

“Here’s the story, Quentin.”

My hands checked over the rest of my equipment while I spoke, monitoring to see if any of it was over-heating (always a possibility), smoking (sometimes a possibility), or vibrating at a rate that might indicate an imminent implosion (sadly, a 1 in 95,000 possibility). For once, however, everything seemed to have survived insertion. I had arrived, unwarmed, non-smoking, and able to expect to live through the next eighteen seconds with relative security in the year of someone’s Lord 2028, with two hours to spare before the next series of souls were scheduled to be stolen from somewhere nearby—parties undetermined.

I had those one hundred and twenty minutes to ascertain the means of spatial energy theft, the vehicle of transfer, and the identity of the perpetrators before the Proven Time cosmic alignment was battered downward to a subcategory of semi-known, and mankind once more became, on the whole, a tree-swinging tool of fate rather than an upright, self-determining species.

“My name is Rick Rambler. I’d like, if I might, to tag along behind you for the next several hours.” No time to waste. “In fact, I’ll give you one thousand dollars to be where you are for the next,” quick eye scan of the chronometer, “next one hundred and… counting… eighteen minutes.”

Young mister Peasley did not seem enthused.

“Is one thousand dollars of current currency not worth that much these days? Doesn’t that buy quite a stack of goods?”

“I dunno,” answered Quentin, giving his best shot at getting with the program. “In like Africa, or um, what’s that’s messed-up sink-hole down south…”

“Orlando?” I ventured.

“Mexico,” Quentin corrected me.

“So,” I said, pointing toward the ground, “here—what would be outrageously great pay for me following where you go and what you do for the next, ah, less than two hours?”

“For what?” Quentin looked around, trying to nonchalantly scout for an exit, “I mean, is this a gay thing or a psycho-killer thing?”

“Nothing of either sort,” I assured him. Spreading my hands before him, palms outward, I said, “I just have this hunch that whatever it is you’ve planned for the next two hours is where I want to be.” He couldn’t possibly pick up a bad vibration from me. I was telling him the absolute truth.

“No freaky business?”

“What happens, where we go, et cetera,” I used the Class-A interaction tone, the one designed specifically for believability, “it’s all up to you.”

“Man, the thousand would’ve been good.” Quentin smiled, liked he’d figured something out and was going to be just ever so impressed with himself. “But you want somethin’, so I’ll take five thousand.”

I nodded, peeling twenty-five—what-appeared-to-me, and apparently to Quentin as well—hundred dollar bills from my currency log. Yeah, sharp move, kid.

“Half now, half later,” I told him.

Quentin smiled and pocketed the I-guess-it-was money after all. Actually, the little squarehead hadn’t made such a bad deal. If he lived through the next two hours, he’d get to keep the money. Oh yes, I mean all of it. Hell, I’ll give him the rest. It’s the least the Patrol can do for staking him out.

Not that the Patrol had picked him in particular or arranged whatever was going to happen in one hundred sixteen minutes.

No, Quentin Peasley was fading from the PT stats, the record charts of Proven Time—PT—the one real time line from which all the multitudinous others are spawned. Certainly the idea has to be familiar—a billion, billion yous living a billion, billion different lives, each one just a little further removed from your own, each a single step off to the left or right, each one step closer to riches and love and security as you, but each just as easily one step closer to ruin and pain and sorrow to break the heart as well.

What had been found the day Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski made the connection between steam-power and inter-dimensional travel was the absolute center of everything. What was found the day after when the Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences announced he had discovered time travel years earlier as well was the beginning of a nightmare. Humanity found itself existing in the one perfect time at the core of all existence, the one which dreamt all the others. No other dimension had discovered the ability to move sideways through reality. Only us.

As an abstract idea, it was an interesting puzzle. But, as a reality, it became a tangible thing. And all tangible things can be exploited by the human mind.

Including time travel.

Plenty of others had found their way to the time travel door after Wezleski proved the wall wasn’t solid, and accidentally went so far as to point out the doorknob. Sadly, when that happened, it soon became apparent that some of those crowding around this new knowledge were using it for no good end. And, where as it was one thing if they fouled up their own lives, it was another if their skipping across the centuries sent reverberations across the lines that affected all of us—affected, in other words, Proven Time, the one true dimension.

The one which, once found, had to be protected at all costs.

“Okay,” said a cheerful Quentin. “You’re the boss. Where to?”

“Wherever you want, Quent.” I sighed. “Remember?”

Quentin scrunched up his face. Suddenly an unusually bright light came on behind his dull eyes. Its excitement suggested that young master potatohead still did not understand exactly what I was driving to get across.

“Look,” I told him, finger in his face, drawing his vision from my eyes so I could scan the area, “don’t worry about me. Don’t think about me. I’m just another guy who happens to be wherever you are for the next one hundred and fifteen minutes. Whatever you were on your way to do, just go do it.”

Quentin rolled his tongue around his pressed-closed lips for a handful of seconds while his brain tried to struggle past the moment of overload the presence of twenty-five hundred dollars could make in his life. It was an Unguarded Instant—one of the moments all Time Patrollers love, fear, and hate.

Here comes the big concept, okay? The thing newbies have the hardest time wrapping their nut around. We know everything? Understand? Get it—do you dig? We know everything. Or at least, we can know everything.

Wezleski gave us access to Proven Time. With chronal motion we can move up and down the one true timeline with greater ease than geese winging their way home for the winter. We can go anywhere, anytime—see anyone doing anything. We know about the aliens that watched us from 1687 to 2089, waiting to allow us to mature sufficiently to join the universal federation and how wonderful everything became once their technologies were introduced into our lives. We know what really happened to Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Yippie the Back-Flipping Dog. We know the last time you masturbated and whose picture you had in your hand.

But, when a TeePee interacts with the past, they end up instituting Unguarded Instants, moments in time that were never—could never have been—previously catalogued, because this was their first appearance. We’re not actually supposed to let them happen, but since they can’t be helped, officially we’re supposed to keep them to a minimum.

I wasn’t, under any circumstances, supposed to offer young Quentin a hundred dollars, or a thousand or any other amount of currency. But I did; after all, I had to do something. What was going to happen to him somewhere in the near future was going to be an unguarded instant, too—a godsdamned insanely cold-blooded one—the one I’d come back to prevent.

The Time Patrol was created to guard Proven Time. Any threat from one time period to events in another are met with the harshest punishments. There was a movie once, back when they made them still, that had a line in it that kind of sums up what we do. A guy holds out a pocket watch and says something like, “it’s just a cheap piece of junk, but bury it in the desert for a thousand years and it becomes priceless.”

If that were the extent of timecrime, I’m not certain anyone would even care. That’s not the kind of stuff the Patrol was formed to stop. No, at the point in time from where the TeePee operates, everyone pretty much lives in that kind of happy spandex wonderful peace, complete with the tall, gleaming buildings. But even with everything they could want, some people aren’t happy.

The ones I was after were using a power source called a Gravity Well to skim through the past and steal the souls of helpless folks living there. Gravity Wells are the bio-mech centers of the big space cruisers, massive theory engines that actually “suppose” their way through space by thinking they’re heavy enough to do what they do. They’re fabulously heady devices, and full of tricks, which is what made this case so impossible.

First off, they’re infinitely expensive. Not that many of them exist. Most are in the hands of the planetary government. Industry controls some, but they’re heavily regulated. Back home, when the first person died in the past from having their soul removed to whom this was not supposed to happen, alarm bells rang from the end of time back to the Mesozoic.

This was big.

And, for those who don’t know what I mean exactly by the word “soul,” I’m talking about that weight allotment of energy and human static that exits the body at the time of death. It contains all the memories, emotional ticks and everything else that makes one bag of flesh, skin, blood and flatulence different and unique from the next one. They’re part of a delicate mix in this universe, and when they don’t get to where they’re supposed to go, well… I mean, gink me, that’s just asking for trouble.

So, the Patrol took it pretty serious when someone started fishing for souls. It didn’t take long to determine that a) it was being done by someone in our own time, that b) they were using a Gravity Well to do it, and that c) they didn’t look as if they had any intention of stopping. In fact, if psychiatry is anything like an exact science, it was pretty definite they were going to be spreading murder up and down the time stream like liver snacks at a kennel.

Oh yeah, murder. These souls weren’t just disappearing before they were meant to move on—these people were dying years, decades, before they were supposed to. People living perfectly normal lives in the next dimension over— people like confused little Quentin Peasley—were being slaughtered by someone for reasons unknown in our own dimension. Our dimension.

Perfect Time.

It simply could not be allowed.

If it was, chaos was just around the corner.

Anyway, in not much more time, the Patrol would have its answer. With the first murder the pattern had been established. If the death had been an accidental tearing of the timewall, it would have been reported. Reporting such things immediately clears those responsible of almost all liability. As long as it was an accident, of course. After twenty-nine hours (don’t ask me who picked that time span), if nothing has been reported, then the Patrol takes over.

With the second soul theft, murder was established and the weapon was identified. Knowing we were looking for something, we were able to be on site fast enough to capture the Gravity Well signature. We knew what was causing the deaths. That made it simple to triangulate who the next victim would be. I realize it doesn’t sound simple to you, but then you’re not TeePee.

Thus, with Quentin spotted, marked, identified and confirmed, we had our murderer staked. We knew where every Gravity Well in operation was in the entire galaxy. Agents were ready for insertion at every one of them when crimetime came. I was on hand merely to make certain Quentin was where I could shield him from death. It was a simple plan, and someone was going to go down for it in little over an hour.

It’s good to enjoy your work.

For the next one hundred and ten minutes, my work was fairly okay. I tagged along while Quentin got himself a pizza, and then went “bowling.” It was some sort of sporting event. I once had been told it was “a kind of Zen thing,” a competition organized around the idea of combining running with swinging and hurling the heaviest ball ever created for sports, all without breaking a sweat.

I’ve seen weirder.

The pizza was a thing manufactured far from the bowling stadium (well, whatever you call them). Made in incredible quantities all at one time, they were then frozen, stored, transported thousands of miles still frozen, stored again, and then finally reheated upon request with mind-singeingly powerful microwaves. The beauty of it made me wonder what my wife would have for dinner that night. The bowling was an interesting ballet, but not many of the participants that day seemed to be actual Zen masters. Perhaps I had been misinformed.

Whatever, as the time of Quentin’s murder drew nearer, I readied my equipment. I had the shield projector which would protect him ready to go—had actually had it ready since the first moments we’d met, although I knew exactly when I would need it. The reflector could hold a beam for up to five minutes. Far more time than would be needed. All in all, I was fairly relaxed. I knew as certainly as I knew the moon revolved around the Earth (at least until 2136) that one of our agents would have things under control in ten seconds or less.

And then it happened.

A curious white blur began to affect the reality there in the bowling stadium. To anyone uninformed, it would appear as a simple reflection. But I knew what it was, could smell the faint hint of ozone and boiled tar which meant gravity in play. I switched on my reflector and bathed Quentin in it.

“Hey,” he shouted, feeling the light wrap around him protectively, clinging to his back, his neck and legs—everything. “What the… hey!”

“Don’t worry,” I told him, watching the seconds tick off on my PTChronometer—four… five… six…—“it’ll all be over in a couple of seconds.”

“It, it,” he groped for a moment, touching himself, touching the shielding, marveling without understanding, “…feels cool.”

Yeah, I thought, just put up with it for a few more seconds, and then you can bowl your night away while I get home to see what’s on the dinner table. I watched the PTC climb steadily—ten… eleven… twelve…

“This is crazy, man.”

I nodded, not taking my eyes off my chronometer, but having to agree with him nonetheless.

Nineteen… twenty… twenty-one…

The light around Quentin was beginning to do more than simply reflect white.

Twenty-eight… twenty-nine… thirty…

People were beginning to notice. Games were stopping. All about me, rented shoes were turning in our direction.

Forty-five… forty-six… forty-seven…

“Hey, I feel, I, I dunno… weird. Sick, kinda—”

He wasn’t the only one. I had no instructions past keeping him alive with the reflector. I had been assured that absolutely nothing could go wrong.

Eighty-eight… eighty-nine… ninety…

Not with a ten-second job.

One hundred-five… one hundred-six…

Ten stinking seconds.

Quentin’s face began to shrivel, sink in, its color dropping to ashen as if he were dying. As if the energy of his soul was beginning to be leached from his body.

One hundred-fifty-seven… one hundred-fifty-eight…

Tears began to form in his helpless eyes. He offered me my money back, clawing it from his pockets, bills spilling out across the polished wood of the stadium.

Two hundred nineteen… two hundred twenty…

By this time people had gathered around to see what was happening. Their presence did not interrupt my beam’s ability to defend Quentin, but they made it harder to concentrate, harder to keep the focus from beginning to dissipate.

Two hundred thirty-two… Two hundred thirty-three…

Instructions and questions rang in my earpiece. I did my best to both listen and answer. Watching Quentin’s life slip away helplessly as the PTC continued to tick—

Three hundred fifteen… Three hundred sixteen…

“Gink-a-dink!” I cursed, not caring who heard. “You can’t let this happen!”

My curse was wasted, because happen it did. Quentin shook, his arms trembling, teeth chattering. His life force was being torn away from him across decades, maybe centuries, there was no way to tell. His tears combined with the snot dripping from his nose to make his last words unintelligible. He fell across the gutter, his hands crumpling beneath his body. I stared at my useless equipment, burned out, searing the flesh of my hands. Then, I disappeared, recalled to TeePee Central.

* * * * *

Of course, no one had any answers. Every single Gravity Well in existence had been monitored. Active or inactive, down to the ones that had been placed on courthouse lawns in little towns too new to have Civil War cannons, or Beverly Hills Holocaust souvenir kiosks, if they still had an outer shell and even half the parts necessary for operation, we had someone there. Just in case.

Just in case—

And it still hadn’t been good enough.

Quentin Peasley, average, unformed, uncomprehending Quentin Peasley was dead. He would now never cross paths with Jenna. Their unborn Cedric and Marshall would remain that way. That meant pain and destruction smashing its way through Proven Time for decades forward from his death— coupled with the other murders—perhaps centuries.

It had to be stopped. But, how did you stop something from happening that was impossible? That the murders were being committed with a Gravity Well was undeniable. It was proven fact. It had to be. But, as best anyone could tell, it was also a proven fact that every single Gravity Well ever built had been cleared of involvement.

And then a thought hit me. Perhaps my logic was faulty. Yes, unless there was a basic building block of science missing from our knowledge, Peasley and the others were murdered through the use of a Gravity Well. But…

I radioed my thoughts to Central while on my way to the garage. My request for extra rangers was met—ten TeePees were hauling weapons to vehicles when I arrived. Obviously my notion had been found to possess some merit. No one said anything about it to me and I didn’t ask. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to make certain no other Quentin Peasley’s had to pay the price for our smugness.

On the way to our destination, I received Jehovah confirmation and my calibrator was unlocked all the way to ten. For the duration of the coming raid, I had been awarded Supreme authority. I was acknowledged final judge, jury, and executioner and no one could argue with me. I also couldn’t be reprimanded later or penalized in any way for actions during the raid.

Of course, that didn’t mean I could stop along the way and pay a hostile visit to the bully who made my life hellish in the seventh grade. But, those granting me my temporary powers knew that wasn’t in the equation. I had been motivationally scanned before any decisions had been made. They knew my mental make-up of the moment. Those in power knew the only thing I cared about and gave me the means to obtain what I wanted.

When we reached the front gates of zVz, the guards denied us entry. I flashed my Jehovah badge. I did not bother to say anything. There was no need. Suddenly pale, their joints turning to the softest of putty, they waved us in as if welcoming the parents of the bride to her wedding. One of our people stayed behind to make certain our arrival was not communicated to anyone inside.

Within two minutes we had reached the central meeting room of the board of directors for zVz. They were, arguably, among the most powerful human beings who had ever walked the face of the planet. Their fortunes were unthinkably large, their futures as vast and magnificently laid out before them as the stars of the heavens stretched out before any of the travelers using one of their Gravity Well-propelled ships to move through the universe.

“And who are you people?”

Thomas Gadius Thorn, the single most powerful man who ever lived, stared at us from his perch arranged at the far end of a table so massive it struck one that there shouldn’t be trees large enough for it to have been built. It would have to be a big and thick and powerful table, however, for in the center of it was the thing overlooked, the device not predicted.

“Rick Rambler, Time Patrol,” I said automatically. With hand gestures I moved my people around the room. Each of them moved behind a collection of board members and started to take readings. Letting my badge hang from around my neck, I kept my hands free as I told Thorn:

“You’re under arrest.”

The thing in the center of the table, of course, was a Gravity Well. It had never dawned on anyone that a well would ever be built and then not registered. The only person capable of doing such a thing would be the head of zVz, and what could the reason be? To make illegal profits? Why would someone who would need to spend 18 trillion credital units a day for the next two centuries, just to go through what he had already stacked up in various vaults around the solar system need to steal any more?

“On what charges?”

But such thinking had been painfully short sighted. And Quentin Peasley was just the most recent poor bastard who had paid the price of its limitations.

“Tampering with Proven Time.”

“Not murder?” Thorn’s voice was rasping, but giddy. The only emotion he seemed capable of showing at the moment of his judgment was amusement.

“Murder was the means of your tampering. Perpetrated through means of an illegal device, an unregistered Gravity Well. Built, it can only be concluded, for the purpose of murder—”

“Oh no,” answered Thorn, his voice snickeringly self-assured. “Not built for murder. No profit in murder.”

All around the room, the men and women of the zVz board joined in with their lord and master, their sniggering noises making the great hall sound as if it were filled with rats. Rising from his place, Thorn made to walk the great length from his spot to mine. I motioned those agents under me to allow him passage.

“Solid Men do not need to stoop to such dull pastimes.”

“Solid men?” I asked.

“Indeed,” responded Thorn cheerfully. “My companions and I, we are The Solid Men of Society. We are the doers, the builders, the obtainers of fortunes, the makers of dreams. We are the backbone of progress. We are humanity’s most righteous citizens.”

Pointing to the Gravity Well in the center of the table, he paused to stare at it as he said;

“I know even a lesser individual such as yourself can recognize the breakthrough this device represents. The model G-9, 149 times lighter, more compact, than the smallest Well in production. That much smaller, and yet capable of doing at least half as much work as a full-size model. Think of it, Mr. ahhh… Mister…”

“Rambler,” I reinformed him, adding, “so you admit that this is a functioning, unregistered Gravity Well?”

“Of course, and so much more. When Cardinelli reported what he hoped for it, that it could power vehicles beyond space, further than time, but sideways as well—we were, obviously, excited here.”

“Why was that, Mr. Thorn?”

“Please, Ranger Rambler. To no longer be dependent on Wezleski’s infernal love boats. No more need for undying romance between pilot and navigator… to simply be able to hoist one’s anchor and power to whatever, wherever, whenever, however… even you can grasp the enormity of that.”

He was right, of course. I could. As easily as anyone alive. It would have meant an unbelievable surge in the fortunes of zVz. So…

“So,” he answered my unthought question, “why didn’t we? Register it? Release it? Turn it over to the profiteers of the world? Because, first we had to test it. And that was when we discovered its enormous side benefit.”

I simply stared, waiting for an explanation. Thorn shrugged, smiled at me, and then returned to explaining.

“Normal Gravity Wells are heavily shielded, of course, because of the mind-bogglingly dangerous amounts of lethal things going on within them. That shielding had been reasonably, we thought, reduced for this newer model. But, what no one realized is that those extra layers of shielding, as well as keeping so much from escaping the wells, was keeping something else from entering them.”

Thorn danced in a circle for a moment, laughing as he did so. Then suddenly he skidded to a halt, his face aimed in my direction, and saluted me. I waited a few seconds, after which he began laughing again, talking as he did so.

“The new wells are soul-collectors. They reach out and simply suck them free from people. Cardinelli turned it on, and instantly his life essence was drained from his body. The well was shut down by remote backup, but the damage had been done. And then, the most wonderful thing was discovered. Those of us present, we became the beneficiaries of this tragedy.”

As he drew nearer, Thorn stared at me, something in his eyes letting me know he really cared if I understood.

“His soul, removed from his body before its time, not ready for rebirth, fled to the nearest flesh for safety. Our flesh. Can you imagine it, Mister… Rambler, is it? Can you?”

Thorn had almost reached me at that point. I rested my hand on my sidearm. He did not seem to notice. Perhaps he no longer understood the gesture. Feeling safe for one reason or another, the CEO continued on toward me, still jabbering.

“Human energy, Mr. Rambler, is but the building material of the soul. Not all people grow them. Children, animals, they do not possess them—they can’t. For you see, the soul is created at that incredible, powerful moment which is the awakening of the thinking mind. Not the instinctive mind, the knee-jerk response levers which keep the knuckle-draggers moving forward, but the moment where the lizard brain actually stops worrying so much about what it will be chewing next, and finally, for a moment, begins to ponder.”

All around the table, the others were nodding, their eyes as filled with stars as Thorn’s.

“The sharper the brain, the more incisive the thoughts, of course. Cardinelli’s vast gray matter had charged his soul with a texture and taste beyond compare. He was… delicious.”

I rocked a touch, my body staggered by what I had just heard. Yes, it had been an accident. They had been flooded with their companion’s life force before they could react, but after the deed had been done, it had not been long, Thorn delighted in telling me, before they had decided to relive the moment.

“Have you ever had a creative thought, Mr. Rambler,” the CEO challenged me. “Have you? A truly creative thought? If you have, you know the thrill of that moment, the power you feel coursing through your every fiber. Think on that for a moment, and then, try if you can to comprehend what it feels like, to suddenly have every ounce of a person’s creative life flash through your system. Even a pimple like Peasley learned to tie his shoes, count to ten, tell green from yellow—it’s all creativity—”

The horror in the room finally hit me. The board of directors of zVz, the richest, most powerful group of people in the known universe, were drug addicts, and the drugs they craved were human souls. Techno-vampires, they had thrown away all of society to perch above it.

I looked at the indicators on my Jehovah. If Thorn wanted me to have a creative thought, he was getting his wish. I suddenly pieced together that he had to know we were coming, or at least that we would come. He and his fellow ghouls had been waiting for us, determined to have it out with us then and there. Take us down while we were still blind to what was happening.

The CEO had already been intelligent. Now he was flooded with the best energies of five other people. Abruptly, I knew the power of the Jehovah calibrator would not be enough to contain that which was surging through Thorn’s body. He had crippled my resolve with knowledge, sneaking ever closer in through the defensive wall of distance to where he could nearly lay hands on me. Knowing I had only seconds, I kicked outward, catching the CEO off guard, sending him crashing into the table as well as two of his fellows. As they spilled out of their chairs and went down in a tangle with their leader, I shouted;

“Slaughter! Keep them busy—I’ll be right back!”

As my people unlimbered their sidearms and blasted away at the surprisingly resilient directors, I thought orders for an emergency transfer and, thanks to my temporary calibration, was instantly granted my travel request. In the same instant I finished saying the word “back,” I reappeared within the wilds of New Jersey, specifically within the walls of the bowling stadium in which I had watched Peasley die.

Throwing a wall of cancellation over my former self and the crowd, I approached Peasley and screamed at him;

“You know you’re dying—right?” When he nodded, I shouted, “I can’t stop it, it’s already happened, but I can tell you why. If you don’t want anyone else to die this way—listen to me!”

And, as Peasley began to crumple, I gave him what I hoped would be an awakening moment. As quickly as I could, I revealed to him the secrets of time travel—that it existed, that it was real, and what it meant for all humanity.

As I disappeared once more, I watch the dying face of Quentin Peasley experience epiphany.

Then, just as fast as I had left, in the instant I disappeared, I reappeared as well. I actually felt myself leaving the spot in which I arrived, almost knocking myself over. My people were just pulling their blasters, were just pulling on the triggers I had watched them pull a moment earlier when I signalled them again to stand down. There was no longer any need. Thomas Thorn had told me how to stop them.

I had extrapolated, it’s true, but I’d been correct. After the rich taste of their scientist’s soul, they had turned their machine on hungering for more wonderful rushes like him. I don’t think they had found any. Thorn’s begrudging admission that even Peasley had had something to offer made me think—

What if his mind had held wonder?

What if he had been experiencing that rarest of human moments, an explosive instant of epiphany when they gobbled down his soul? I had hoped for something like the reaction any other kind of drug addict experiences when after many highly cut doses they were suddenly gifted with the pure stuff. Sure enough, Thorn and his fellows were all helpless with fascination, overwhelmed with their stolen moment of self-satisfaction.

Knowing it would not do to waste my hard-won advantage, I stepped to where Thorn still lie tangled with the others. Placing my foot upon his neck, I looked into his eyes, and said;

“I sentence you, Thomas Gadius Thorn, to death by disbursement. Your atoms will be scattered. Your fortunes will be forfeit. You are ended.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled. His drool-leaking mouth smiled at me, his eyes promising he was still filled with surprises too ample for me to overcome. Gesturing for me to come closer, his weak voice croaked past my heel to tell me:

“Oh, Mr. Rambler, you weren’t paying attention. I told you the G-9 worked across dimensions. When it gathered unto us Mr. Peasley, don’t you know, it gathered unto us, all the Mr. Peasleys there are. Just as it gave us all the Cardinellis, and all of all the others, plucked from every dimension, across all the expanses…”

“Meaning…”

“Meaning, Mr. Rambler, that you’re too late. So you eliminate me. What does it matter? Across every dimension, a billion, billion other Thomas Thorns know what I know now. They all understand time travel now. They all want to taste what I have tasted. They shall flood here to stop you. You and your Proven Time are doomed! We win, Mr. Rambler—”

His laughter became a thing unbearable to hear. Shifting my foot just a bit, I brought my calibrator to bear on his forehead. As I did so, the rest of my force picked a target and did the same. Looking into his eyes one last time, I said:

“Same thing, Thorn,” I told him. “When I said you were ended, I meant it. Say ‘goodbye,’ Tommy.”

And then, I acknowledged calibration and thought Thomas Gadius Thorn out of existence. All the Thomas Gadius Thorns. All billion billion of them. Every one of them. The Jehovah badge glowed a deeper purple second after second as around the room the directors of zVz were winked out of existence everywhere and when they existed.

The next day, across all the dimensions where there had been a Thomas Thorn, where the Gravity Well had been invented and a corporation to administer its existence had come into being, those who were not in charge of the company would discover they had no idea who was. They would have a product no one would have ever claimed to have invented. Hopefully they would use it to better ends.

Stumbling to the nearest chair, I fell into it, too numb to feel. My second-in-command came to me, holding open a containment box. I nodded, giving her the go-ahead to remove my Jehovah circuits. She understood, I was simply too tired to do it myself. As I sank into the cushioning of the chair, I suddenly wondered it the Luddites weren’t right after all. Maybe we’d all have been a lot better off not knowing half of what we know.

Wezleski thought so. No one ever knew why. I think maybe I understand what he was thinking when he would just smile at certain questions, making his joking apologies to humanity for all the harm he had caused by inventing time travel.

Whatever the case, we do know what we know, and it’s too damn late to go home again. We’re human beings. As a race we’ve always been on one edge or another. I guess this is just the latest one. Well, that’s what comes from getting the race to where it was—too damn smart for its own good.

Working at keeping my body from spilling onto the floor, I pulled myself erect in my chair as best I could. I had, of course, absorbed Thorn’s soul the way he had Peasley’s. The CEO had been right; it was a rush, all right. One my people and I have all been through in the past when eliminating other would-be conquerors.

Even through my rage, I almost chuckled at Thorn’s questions to me—if I had ever had a truly creative thought, if I had ever known the thrill of having every ounce of a person’s creative life flash through my system?

Yes, Mr. Thorn, I have. But like any truly mature person, I learned long ago that pleasure always comes with an ever-escalating price tag.

“You know, chief,” my second said, taking a brief look down into Thorn’s uncomprehending eyes, “whichever ‘they’ said it first, ‘they’ were right. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I just groaned and threw a mock punch at her head. She laughed. Hoping that somewhere Quentin Peasley was having his own richly deserved last laugh, I dragged myself out of zVz’s chair and headed for the door and back to work.

I was sure there was something to do somewhen.

Dear Cthulhu: Issue #16

DearCthulhuLogo

 

Dear Cthulhu,

I am a 54-year-old divorced man with no kids and I’m obsessed with the Jabaguy card game. It’s based on the Japanese anime cartoon where kids train creatures to fight each other. I’m in a deadend job, but I’m too old to start over. I haven’t had a date in years. My only pleasure in life is playing Jabaguy. Sadly, I just can’t seem to get anyone my own age interested in playing, and it just can’t be done with any sort of satisfaction over the internet, so I have to go to local comic and game stores for tournaments where the only other players are eleven-year-olds.

Apparently the parents think it’s creepy and seem to suspect I’m some sort of sicko. Nothing could be further from the truth. One store just asked me not to come back because the parents were complaining. It doesn’t help that I’m so good at it that I almost always win which just make me look like a bully. That and I can afford to buy the rare and powerful cards that the kids can’t.

I’ve tried video games, casinos, even poker but nothing fills up the holes in my soul like this game.

What can I do to put the parents at ease?

–Shunned Old Jabaguy In Jamaica

 

Dear Shunned,

The simple truth of the matter is that what humans believe to be true is more important than what actually is. Just look at what the governments of the world have gotten you to believe over the years—wrestling is real, your water is safe to drink, they are not experimenting on you, and your vote counts, just to name a few.

You need a spin doctor, a professional PR person to help you convince these parents what you want them to believe. Unfortunately, it sounds like this is out of your price range and you do not appear bright enough to do it on your own.

Your best bet is to give yourself a reason to be there besides the actual playing of the game. Talk to the owners of these stores and see if they will hire you part time to run these tournaments. Offer to teach classes in game strategy at the store and you can play as part of your classes. And stop entering and winning the tournaments. Take a dive and throw a game once in a while because beating an eleven-year-old at a kids’ game comes off as mean and immature and the parents on some level probably feel protective and angry that you have taken a victory away from their offspring. Otherwise you have no chance of winning them over.

And as an added bonus you may qualify for employee discounts on your Jabaguy purchases.

 

 

Dear Cthulhu,

The bugs are out to get me. I hear their buzzing in my ears constantly and I can feel the vibrations from the worms as they dig through the dirt under my house. The bees make their honey with the sole purpose of drowning me in its sticky gooeyness while I sleep. They all want to lay their eggs in my flesh so they can thrive from my injury. No matter where I go they follow me, ready to crawl on my skin or bite my flesh. I think the cockroaches stole my shoes and there is a butterfly in China whose entire existence is to try and direct a hurricane at my house. It’s getting hard to sleep because I have four bug zappers in my bedroom and the eerie purple white light keeps me awake nights. They wait until I finally doze off before sending a kamikaze at a zapper to wake me up. Each day it is getting harder to think. I refuse to go outside where they can get me. I got fired from my job for not showing up and I fear the grocery store will stop delivering once my credit cards cut me off.

Is there some place in this world where the bugs can’t find me?

–Infected By Insects in Indianapolis

 

Dear Infected,

Grow some backbone. You are bigger than the insects. You should not fear them, they should fear you.

Cthulhu suggests you confront and work through your fears. Enroll in a course in order to become an exterminator. Many extermination companies offer this as part of their training. This way you regain employment, learn how to kill insects, and stop being a victim.
And get a girlfriend so that when the bees do bury you in honey, you can at least enjoy yourself.

Although it is sad that, ultimately, the bugs will get you. After you die and are buried, the maggots will gnaw on your skin and the worms will crawl through your flesh. Even if you are cremated, there are bugs who will actually digest your ashes. I hope that thought doesn’t keep you up any more at night, because if you do not get a job it is not the grocery store you should be most worried about, it is your power company. They will cut off your electricity and your bug zappers won’t be any more than four big paperweights. And the cockroaches will be coming for more than your shoes.

Have A Dark Day.

 

Dear Cthulhu welcomes letters and questions at DearCthulhu@dearcthulhu.com. All letters become the property of Dear Cthulhu and may be used in future columns. Dear Cthulhu is a work of fiction and satire and is © and ™ Patrick Thomas. All rights reserved. Anyone foolish enough to follow the advice does so at their own peril.