Old Soldiers Never Die

Old Soldiers Never Die

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Robert E. Waters

 

Rina peeled off a juicy wedge of orange and fed it to the head she was sitting on. She heard Captain Petre’s quick inhalations as he sniffed the fruit. He didn’t need to eat, she knew, but it kept him happy and his mouth moist. After two hundred years buried up to his rusty gorget, it was the least she could do. If she had enough oranges, she’d feed all of the heads lined up around her, row after row, as far as the eye could see.

Dried lips and yellow teeth snapped the wedge from her gentle fingers. No matter how often she fed the captain fruit, his quickness startled her. Though trapped in dirt and rock, he was still a warrior, strong and proud, and she tried to respect that. Rina felt herself lift as he chewed the fruit, his muscular jaw working the pulp. He was a big man; his head made a good stool, if not a little bumpy.

She got up and tossed aside the spent orange peel. She dusted off her dress and wiped her mouth clean. She then took a small kerchief from the tassel at her waist, bent down, and wiped the spittle and juice from Captain Petre’s face. It was a strong face, one cupped in a forest of red stubble. A face that never changed.

“Thank you, my dear,” Captain Petre said. His voice was gravelly and hampered by a tuft of grass in hard clay beneath his chin. “You are the sweetest little girl.”

Rina smiled. She liked the captain. She liked many of the soldiers she had met in this field. Many of them were her friends. But Captain Petre was special. He told good stories.

A commotion erupted to her right. She turned and saw her brother’s cur, Grey Jack, lifting his leg over the head of an old halberdier. The poor man tossed frantically back and forth to try and shoo away the mutt, but it did little good. A thin stream of piddle splashed across the russet helm, and a great voice filled the air. “For the love of heaven and earth, will someone kill this dog!”

Cries and whistles, and more than a few chuckles erupted across the field as the Chorus of the Sundered began. That’s what it was called. When the heads wailed in unison, their collective voices were heard for miles around. When the wind was up, or when a rain or snow covered the land, the moaning would go on for days, sometimes weeks. The song could chill the bone and ruin the flesh, some mystics said. But sometimes, when a pleasant eastern breeze wound through the valley, and the warm light of a generous sun brought daisies and wildflowers in bright beds between the columns of heads, their song was melodic and comforting. It lifted the spirit.

Rina shook the thought from her mind and chased the dog away. She stepped carefully between the heads, cautious not to catch a toe on an iron visor or catch her laces on a discarded sword. Many villagers and thrill-seekers had caught their death by the simple prick of the tainted steel that lay afoot. It was forbidden to be in The Field of Heads, and Mama had been most stern about the rule, giving Rina and her brother Kristof an oak switch across their backsides when she had caught them in the past. But Rina didn’t care. Playing among the heads was her favorite thing to do in all the world.

Rina removed the wet, brittle helmet. She recognized the soldier immediately. “I’m sorry, Binus. He’s just an old, dumb mutt. He doesn’t know any better.”

A foot came down on the soldier’s head. Rina jumped back. The crooked frown of her brother met her gaze. “Grey is not a mutt,” he said. “Take it back.”

Rina pushed against his leg, though she wasn’t strong enough to move the big bully. “He peed on Binus. That makes him a mutt to me.”

Kristof snickered, but knelt down and snatched the helm from her hands. He placed it back on Binus’s weathered, pale head. He rapped his knuckles across it as if he were knocking on a door. “He doesn’t mind… do you, old man? Why, it’s the first bath you’ve had in a hundred years.”

“Say you’re sorry!” Rina balled up her little fist and popped her brother on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but it threw him back and away. He stood up quickly to the roars of laughter from the heads nearby. Rina braced for a push, but her brother did nothing. Perhaps he was surprised by the soldiers barking at him; perhaps he was growing up a little.

“Don’t be so upset. By the gods, I was just having a little fun.”

A little fun is not what her friends needed nor wanted. Enough people had come to The Field to have “fun” with the heads. Kicking them, jumping from one to the next, leading their livestock through the maze of helms and pikes, letting their animals poop everywhere. And even more sinister and evil sorts would come and take knives to faces or bare throats. Clubs and shovels. Cleavers and axes. All in the name of fun. All in the knowledge that pain could be inflicted, but no permanent damage. So what was the harm? They deserved it, right? Isn’t that what the stories told?

Kristof tugged at her shoulder. “Come on. I want to show you something,” he said.

Rina hesitated. “What is it?”

But he had already trotted away towards the cobbled road. “Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”

Rina stamped her foot. She wasn’t a baby. She just didn’t like the heads on the other side of the road. They were the enemy, Captain Petre had declared. They were thinner and almost always bald with tattoos and other dark markings. And what helms had survived the years of torturous weather were sharp and many sealed to black iron mail. They were disgusting. She didn’t like them. But she was no baby. She stepped over the road and followed her brother through the sea of heads.

They were active this morning, barking obscenities and other foul things across the way, in an attempt to anger the other side, to get them to bark back. It was a game they played, and sometimes the shouting became so awful that Rina was driven from the field.

“Where are you going? Wait for me!” Rina yelled to her brother.

He waved her on, almost stumbling over a thick patch of helms, spears and barding.

There were a lot of horse bones on this side of the field. It was scary but Rina did her best. The horses had not been cursed, but they had been driven into the ground like their riders. Soon they all had died, their flesh and muscle rotting with the seasons, leaving bleached rib cages and leg bones and skulls in shifting heaps. A lot of it had been removed by smugglers and thieves, but enough remained to give off a blinding white glow when the sun was at its zenith. Rina shielded her eyes and kept moving.

Her brother disappeared into a patch of wood. Here, the line of ancient infantry was its thickest. It was difficult to step without kicking a head, and more than a few choice words escaped the mouths of the soldiers around her.

“Watch your step!”

“Do you mind?”

“If I were free and had a sword, I’d lop off your head!”

Rina was used to their nastiness. She couldn’t blame them. If she were stuck forever in the hard ground, she’d be nasty too. She ignored them, gave a few dirty looks, stuck out her tongue at one of them, kicked a little dirt into another’s eyes, and plunged into the woods. Near a cropping of rock, she saw her brother and his yappy dog. Grey Jack was barking and nipping at something, but this time, her brother held him back, keeping the dog from biting and scratching the sharp, dirty helm covering a head.

“What is it?” Rina asked, out of breath.

Kristof smiled and motioned her closer. “Are you ready for a look?”

Rina waited, her hands on her waist. Kristof pointed downward. He grabbed the pointy top, turned it slowly, then lifted it off.

Rina looked into the face of the head revealed. She gasped and fell down.

* * * * *

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a twin brother?”

Captain Petre turned his head from Rina’s inquiring eyes. She moved into his view. “Don’t turn away. Please tell me.”

“Tell her the story, Captain,” a head nearby said. It was Kellin, Captain Petre’s aide-de-camp.

“Yes, tell her!” A chorus of voices spoke up. Rina could feel their vibrations through the ground. It tickled her feet.

The cries became too great. “All right! Just shut up, the lot of you!” Petre screamed. “I will tell her the story, if you’ll just pipe down. Your yapping is making me ill.”

Captain Petre cleared his throat and looked up. “Sit down, child, and I will tell you about my brother Regan. He is dead to me, but I will tell you, if only to keep these bastards around me quiet.”

Foul curses erupted again. Captain Petre waited until it stopped. Then he began…

* * * * *

…the writhing mass of the grand army of Saint Fydorov excited him. He had seen them march before, when he was just a boy. But now, as a man, Petre Gorov looked upon the columns with renewed pride. His heart raced. Pike and halberdier, knights and swordsmen, as far as the eye could see. Their martial music marked tempo with the constant shift of boots upon the ground. Their colorful banners waved proudly in the misty air. If there was a time that he should join them, it was now. They were moving south. They were going to face Lord Hrudiz and his grand force of the Liebstag. They had met him many times before on bloody fields. They were going south, and they would return victorious… or not return at all.

“I must go,” Petre told his father that night. “There will never be a better time.”

His twin brother Regan stood nearby, listening intently, waiting to hear their father’s answer.

Father shook his head. “No. You are the eldest of the house, born before Regan. I am too ill to work the fields, and therefore The Saint can make no claim on you. You are needed here to serve me, your mother, your brother, and your sister. That is my decision.”

But that night, as the moon fell behind the clouds, Petre and Regan ran away. They followed the army south, and when they found it, they volunteered on the spot. Petre was made a swordsman, Regan a pikeman.

For years they campaigned against Lord Hrudiz, from the Shokolov Steppes to the massive pinewood of the Tandorov Valley. Tens of thousands of soldiers died, and a thousand score innocents who stood in the way. Both Petre and Regan rose through the ranks, gaining prestige and glory in battle after battle. But neither side could capitalize on the fortunes of their victories, and things grew desperate.

Then Saint Fydorov decided that the long-standing policy of officer exchange no longer applied. Lord Hrudiz countered. Then no quarter was allowed at all, as each side tried to out-murder the other. It was a time of terrible, bloody strife.

In this time, Regan Gorov was captured, and his brother Petre presumed him dead. Then one day, as Captain Petre’s men advanced onto a grassy ridge in the center of the Bitikov fields, he saw a familiar man atop a grey dun, wearing the red-and-black-stained mail of the enemy. The enemy charged, and Petre’s swordsmen stood their ground. The cavalry struck and a great battle ensued. Then in the midst of the slaughter, Petre saw the man again, thrown from his horse. His sharp helm fell away and what was laid bare to all enraged and saddened him. It was Regan, fighting and killing for the enemy.

Petre, feeling the tears well in his eyes, raised his sword and charged. The traitor counter-charged, and they fought.

“You were captured,” Petre said through ringing sword blows. “You were killed.”

“It isn’t so,” Regan said, parrying a thrust. “I live.”

“You are a traitor,” Petre said.

“No, that isn’t true,” Regan said. “I have seen the light, my brother. Saint Fydorov’s crusade is a perfect evil. He means to destroy the world.”

Petre jabbed with his sword again. “You lie.”

“It is true. Look around you. He was the one who first declared no quarter. He is the one who orders the slaughter of every innocent woman and child. He is the one dragging this war out infinitely. A peace has been proffered, and The Saint refuses to accept.” Regan held out his hand. “Come with me, brother, and help me end this war.”

Petre answered with a sword swing, but before further discussion could be made, reinforcement cavalry raced up the hill, and Captain Petre ordered his men into a fighting retreat. As they fell back, he could not take his wounded eyes off his brother, his younger by mere minutes. The traitor to his people, to his mother and father, to his own brother. And through the chaos and smoke of war, Regan’s face faded away…

* * * * *

“…and that was the last time I saw him,” Petre said, then closing his thin lips.

Were those tears in his eyes? Rina wondered. She had never seen the captain cry before. She didn’t know it was possible. “That’s so sad.”

“Yes. Regan’s treachery was profound.”

Rina shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s sad that you haven’t talked to your brother, or seen him, for so long. You never saw him again?”

Petre gave his head a little shake. “Jeshok, the God of All, hammered us into the ground before our armies could meet.”

“Do you miss him?”

Petre hesitated, then said, “Despite my better judgment, I do. I’m surprised of it, actually. I’ve spent so many years thinking about his deceit, his dishonor. But now… now that I know he lives, and just over the ridge, I—”

The captain could not continue. Another tear escaped his eye. It ran down his face, leaving a mark through a crust of dust and dirt.

The sun was setting. Soon, Rina’s mother would wonder where they were. Kristof had already gone home and so had Grey Jack, much to the joy of Binus. Clouds were forming in the east. The rains would come soon.

“It’s time for you to go, little one,” Captain Petre said. “Get on home to a warm meal and a good bed. You can come back tomorrow if you like.”

Rina stood. She waited for a moment, looking down at her friend, down at the uncountable rows of heads.

She wanted to cry too.

* * * * *

Kristof ’s eyes were fixed on Rina as they walked up the mystic’s path. “You’ve lost your head,” he said. “Mama will beat you silly when she finds out.”

Rina ignored him. She had already explained her plan twice. She was not about to explain it again. He had promised to come with her so she didn’t have to face the old shrew alone. He agreed. That was that.

She tapped on the door. It was dark inside. Rina could feel her heart race. Visiting mystics was definitely not allowed. They were creatures of magic and arcane lore. Some in the village used them for medical purposes and for divining the future. But there was never any account that Rina could remember of a mystic doing anyone any good. But she had no choice. What she wanted needed the power and experience of someone like Madam Plotka.

A withered crone opened the door. She was small and bent at the knee. Her black shawl covered a crooked frame of pale skin. The wrinkles on her face at first seemed sharp and angry, but as she waved Rina and Kristof in, they smoothed as a smile crept across the leathery landscape of her cheeks like the cracks of an earthquake. Rina liked her immediately.

“Come in, come in,” Madam Plotka said, waving them forward. “It isn’t often I have children visit me.”

The old lady moved past them slowly, her cane knocking around in front of her. It was clear that her eyesight was not the best. Rina hoped that she could see well enough to help them.

She ushered them onto stools, then took a chair herself. Her knees creaked and she gave a small yelp as her bony rump met the wood. Rina tried to keep from laughing. Madam Plotka caught the little girl’s smile. “There is no humor in getting old, child. Even your friends in the Field of Heads can attest to that.”

Rina’s mouth popped open. “You know?”

Madam Plotka laughed, a high-pitched squeal that tingled the ears. “Everyone knows about Jeshok’s Curse, girlie. And I’m a mystic. I can read minds.”

“Then you know why I’m—, why we’re here?” Rina looked at her brother for support.

“I know everything, child.”

Rina appreciated Madam Plotka’s confidence, but she doubted the old woman’s honesty.

“You doubt me?”

Rina shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough to say, miss. But I’ve been told that you sometimes… exaggerate.” Rina shrunk a little on her stool, as if she expected to be smacked.

Madam Plotka leaned forward. She ran a thin, dark tongue over cracked lips. She winked. “You are wise beyond your years, girlie.”

Rina wished it were not so. But she had grown up quickly. Her father had died of a stampeding horse when she was four. She had witnessed it. She remembered him looking up from the mud, his face covered in grime and blood. He had smiled. She had reached out to him. He tried to do the same, then went slack. She cried for days. It wasn’t easy, but she had gotten over it, tried to forget it. And living with Mother was difficult. A widowed woman had it tough in the world; she was not respected. Mother refused to marry again, though suitors had called upon her. Rina found it hard to make friends, especially with a brother who constantly teased. The heads in the field were her friends, and they neither judged nor criticized her. It was nice having friends that never died.

“So can you help me?” Rina said.

The old lady rubbed a finger across her hairy chin. “You want me to bring Captain Petre out of the ground, and his brother too, so that they may meet once more. Is that what you’re asking?”

Rina nodded.

“This is stupid!” Kristof said. He tried to get up, but Madam Plotka stared him down with a dark stare.

“Indeed it is,” Madam Plotka said, “but are you always this disrespectful in someone else’s house, young man?”

Kristof stopped, shook his head, then sat down. He crossed his arms and looked away.

“He is right, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. “It is a foolish thing you are asking. Fiddling with Jeshok’s Curse is a quick way to die.”

“But he’s my friend,” Rina said, “and he misses his brother.”

“He should have thought of that before joining that bloody war… and angering the gods.”

Rina had heard the story a million times. Captain Petre’s version was always the best, the most enjoyable, the most exciting, despite its sad ending.

The armies of Lord Hrudiz and Saint Fydorov had clashed for days on the Girtok Plains. It was the greatest battle in a war that had been waged for decades, and while both sides seemed infinitely prepared to continue the slaughter, the gods grew tired of it all, especially Jeshok, Lord of All. He was tired of seeing his creations kill themselves needlessly. Many peace offers had been proposed, but not one of them accepted. Jeshok’s children ignored his pleas for peace.

The armies lined up, row upon row of sword and pike and horse, all regaled in their finest plate and chain. Again, Jeshok warned them to stop, and sent his angels to urge their compliance. Again, Man refused. And just as the two forces moved to engage, dark clouds formed in the sky, as if a mighty flood would come. But what came out of the clouds was even more powerful, more devastating. Men looked up and saw a fist, dark and ethereal, a massive rock of black, angry smoke. Before they could run the fist struck, pounding scores into the bloody ground.

Nothing escaped, not even the squirrels in the trees. Everything on the field that day was hammered into the fold, up to their necks. But only the men were cursed, the soldiers who had shed blood, those who had defied Jeshok’s demands and had put themselves above the gods. Now they would live in a prison, never to grow old, never to die. They would endure the passing of time, the changing of seasons. They would know pain, anger, sorrow, fear, desperation, hopelessness. They would endure every emotion perpetually, year after year, century after century, in payment for those lives they had taken, for those they had killed and had denied the right to feel, to fear, to weep, to despair.

Rina would sit for hours and listen to Captain Petre tell the story. It was very exciting. But sad too. So sad. So many lives lost, and for those poor men out there, locked in the ground. How many of them were just following orders? Were they to blame for the decisions of lords and kings and generals… and captains?

“But you can bring them out, can’t you?” Rina said. “You have a way?”

Madam Plotka nodded. “Of course, girlie. That’s never been the question. There have always been ways to get around Jeshok’s Curse. The question is: Who wants to defy the God of All?”

Rina shook her head. “I don’t care about a silly curse. My captain wants to see his brother. It’s been long enough. They’ve suffered enough.” She broke down in tears, letting them run down her cheeks. “Don’t you have any family? How would you like it if you were never allowed to see your brother or sister or father again?”

If you can read my thoughts, then listen to me now. Rina stared deeply into Madam Plotka’s eyes, letting the old woman see her cry. Please help me, and I will give you something that you can use in your magic. Her eyes drifted to her brother who sat there bored, disinterested, looking up at the bare rafters of the house. Rina formed the image of an object in her mind, and she kept thinking about it until the old woman understood.

Madam Plotka nodded, a faint smile on her face. “Very well. I will help you and your captain.” She leaned forward, pressing her wrinkled hands into the nub of her cane. “You are bold beyond your years, girlie.”

* * * * *

Rina led Madam Plotka over the cobbled road separating the armies. The old woman found the light of the setting sun difficult to handle, and the constant shouts from the heads frightened her. In the comforts of her own hovel, she was master. Here, Rina led the way.

She had already freed Captain Petre’s brother, Regan, and the sky hadn’t fallen. No smoky fist had pounded the little mystic into the ground. Nothing, save for the shouts and screams of the heads at their feet. The heads were just as amazed as Rina was when Regan lifted out of the ground. The heads went mad when their comrade appeared, whole, now nearly naked with the passing of time, bits and pieces of mail and plate and leather covering his legs, back and shoulders. Kristof had agreed to help the old soldier walk, while Rina and the mystic worked on Captain Petre.

Teeth nipped at their heels. Word had spread among the heads that one of their own had been freed. From the noise they were making, Rina could not tell if it was a song of joy or sorrow. Some were crying, some laughing. Some seemed angry. But most were afraid, shooting glances skyward, waiting for the clouds to form and Jeshok’s fist to come and nail them even further into the ground.

“Go away, old woman,” one of the heads said. Rina recognized the face but couldn’t remember the name. “You will ruin us.”

They ignored the snide remarks and kept walking. Rina could already see Captain Petre’s face. She had whispered to him last night what was going to happen. The captain cried again, silently so as not to alert his men.

“You should not do this, little one,” Captain Petre had said. “You are messing with forces you know nothing about. You could get hurt.”

Rina kissed him lightly on the head.

Now they stood in front of him. The soldier’s eyes were pensive. What are you thinking? Rina wondered. She could not read minds like Madam Plotka. The old woman must know his thoughts, but she kept silent, her bent form straining under the warm, setting sun.

“Hello, Captain,” Rina said through a faint smile. “We have come to take you to your brother.”

Rina could feel Captain Petre tense. She knew him well enough to know his expressions, how his jaw muscles flexed when nervous, how his teeth gnashed when excited or afraid. The ground beneath their feet vibrated with the shouting of the heads around her. On any other day, she would not mind. Today…

“Quiet!” Captain Petre shouted. “All of you shut up!”

The rows silenced. Other officers, captains and lieutenants, took up Petre’s call and quieted their men. The entire field fell silent. Rina was amazed. Even after so many years, respect and discipline was given to captains and lieutenants, colonels and generals in this field. Leaders were still leaders, and their men still obeyed orders.

“Get on with it, old woman,” Captain Petre said. “The day is waning.”

Madam Plotka reached into the pocket of her black dress and pulled out a tiny leather bag of powder. Rina led her around the captain’s head in a circle. With each step, the mystic uttered strange words and tossed ground bone and blackpowder onto the ground. Rina had not told the truth to Kristof when he came and asked what had happened to his dog. She feigned ignorance, and he was too stupid to figure it out. It was cruel and hateful what she had done, but this was more important than any old mutt. This mattered.

Madam Plotka finished the circle of blackpowder, then stepped back. With Rina’s help, she raised her cane to the sky, and spoke more gibberish. The heads around them held still and silent, their eyes fixed upon the old woman.

The tip of the cane began to glow white hot. Rina closed her eyes and helped guide the cane down until the burning tip touched the blackpowder.

A flash of smoke and ash flew up from the cane tip, and lightning reached around the blackpowder until Captain Petre’s head was ringed in flame. The captain’s eyes grew large, dark and round. He bared his teeth. A yelp of fear escaped his mouth. Rina wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she didn’t dare. No one entered the circle while the flame burned, Madam Plotka explained. Was she telling the truth? Rina wondered. But she had seen the magic work once already today. To doubt it now would be foolhardy.

With a burst of energy, Madam Plotka raised her cane and shouted into the sky. Rina fell back. Another burst of lightning sprang from her cane and circled the captain’s head. The old soldier cried out as if he were burning to death. Other heads cried as well, begging that it stop. The mystic kept her body rigid, her chant steady, until the fire circle began burning through the soil like a knife cutting out the core of an apple. Deeper it cut, deeper still, until the ground around Captain Petre looked like a shaft of black soil, rumbling and popping and sizzling as the fire seared rock and clay.

Madam Plotka reached out towards the circle and yelled, “Rise!” She lifted her hands again and again, as if she were personally moving the earth. Such a silly gesture coming from such a feeble little creature. At first, Rina had giggled when Regan was released, but she wasn’t laughing now.

The earth moved as Captain Petre rose from the ground, wrapped in a cylinder of dirt. Sharp rocks rubbed together like a millstone grinding grain, breaking roots as they crested the top of the hole. Captain Petre yelled as he ascended. Rina could see the fear and amazement in his eyes. It was really happening. He was being freed. She could only imagine the emotions churning inside him. She felt the roil of emotions inside herself. She would finally see her captain in full, not just his head. He would be a warrior again. He would walk the earth again. The very idea was almost too much for her young heart to bear. Tears flowed.

Rina moved Madame Plotka out of the way as the dirt cylinder fell over like a pile of crates. It rolled and came to rest against a line of heads and broken pikes. Those smashed by the cylinder yelled out their distress, but Captain Petre could do nothing but laugh.

“Help him out, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. Rina helped the mystic to the ground. The stress of the spell had taken its toll on the old woman. She lay there silently, her eyes closed, her mouth open. “I am too weak to do it.”

Rina went to the captain’s side and began to rake away the dirt with her bare hands. It fell away easier than she thought. Like opening a present or peeling an orange. Her glee grew stronger as each rock, each thick chunk of clay, fell away, baring legs, then arms, then chest. Like his brother, most of Captain Petre’s armor had not survived. But bits and pieces remained, along with stiff patches of leather and wool. She couldn’t imagine how heavy and hot such an outfit would be in the midst of battle.

Suddenly, he was free, the years of confinement gone. He just lay there, his bare arms and legs turning pink, then red, then white again as blood flowed once more into them. “I—,” he tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat. For the first time in ages, he tried to raise his head. He shook as old muscles found themselves again. He raised up on his elbows. “Please, help me.”

Rina came to his side. “We must get you up,” she said, and put her hand on his back. He sat up, breathing deeply, showing pain on his face. “It’s difficult,” he said.

“I will help you.” With all her strength, Rina strained to lift the captain to his feet. He struggled, the ground unforgiving and slick with fresh clay.

All around them, the heads exploded in cheers. “Yes, Captain!” “You can do it!” “Do it for us!” Their calls gave him strength, and he pushed himself forward, Rina holding his back for support.

“Come, Captain,” Rina said over the din of voices. “Your brother is waiting.”

She led him across the field. Every few steps, he paused to bend and tap the heads of his men. He smiled incessantly, giggled like a child, his tears flowing freely. Their wails of encouragement led him forward, toward the cobbled road.

He did not have the strength to crest the ridge. He fell to his knees and crawled the rest of the way, Rina holding him firmly by the waist. “You can do it,” she whispered to him. “You can do anything.”

Captain Petre pushed his bare feet into the ground, his old bones straining under the pressure. Rina pushed with all her strength. He let out a yell and fell onto the cobbles. He lay there a moment, breathing heavily.

“Hello, brother.”

Captain Petre stiffened at the sound of his brother’s voice. Rina sat quietly at his side, staring at her brother and Regan beside him, waiting on feeble knees. It was uncanny how much they looked alike. If it weren’t for the different uniforms and the different spread of armor and clothing, she could never have told them apart.

“Hello, brother,” Captain Petre said, waving his arm at Rina to give him aide. She did, and led him forward until he too was kneeling before his brother.

For a long while, the two brothers stared into each other’s eyes. It was like watching mirrors. The shape of their chins, their cheeks, the length of their noses, matched perfectly. Rina smiled.

Finally, Captain Petre spoke. “You look well, brother, for someone over two centuries old.” He cracked a smile.

Regan nodded. “As do you… brother.”

They fell silent again, neither man taking his eyes off the other. This is a good thing I’ve done, Rina said to herself. A good thing.

“Where is your sword, brother?” Captain Petre asked.

Regan looked to his side, where the remnants of a scabbard were held against him by a rotten belt. “I guess I’ve lost it, brother.” He looked up, his smile gone. “Where is your army?”

Captain Petre’s dry lips quivered. “They’re in the same place as yours, traitor.”

Regan leaned forward, a scowl leeching across his face. “You are the only traitor here, dear brother. You followed a murderer.”

“Wait,” Rina tried to say, moving forward. “Stop this—”

“You son of a bitch,” Captain Petre snapped back, his hand shifting to the pommel of his rusty blade. “I’ll kill you—” He pulled his blade and thrust forward, but his movements were slow. Regan fell to the left, avoiding the blow, and Captain Petre fell on his face.

Regan kicked with his right foot, driving his dirty toes into the eyes of his brother. Captain Petre screamed, grabbed his brother’s foot, and bit hard. Regan yelled and tried kicking away, but Petre was on him, pounding his fists into brittle ribs.

The Field of Heads burst into chanting, each side cheering on their warrior. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The echoes of their rage filled the darkening sky.

Rina screamed, “Stop it! Stop fighting!” She moved towards them, but Kristof held her back. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

“Let me go!” she screamed and tore away from his grasp. She threw herself between them, shielding Regan’s body from Captain Petre as he raised his blade and tried to stab down. Just in time, he noticed her and stopped.

“Remove yourself, little one,” Captain Petre said, trying to keep his balance. “This is not your fight.”

Rina shook her head. “No. You will have to kill me too if you kill him.”

“Let them fight!” a voice from the field said. “We want vengeance!”

“No!” Rina screamed, her voice breaking into tearful sobs. “The war is over.”

“It’s never over, girl,” said Regan. “It goes on forever.”

“No,” Rina said, standing up and moving in front of Captain Petre. “I gave you this gift, Captain. I thought you would be happy to see your brother, to talk with him. But you betrayed me. You knew all along that you would attack him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

Captain Petre’s eyes filled with tears. He shook, and tried to touch her shoulder. “You don’t understand, little one. You don’t—”

“No, I don’t. I don’t understand how after two hundred years, you think the war is still going on. Well, it’s not. It’s over. It’s over!”

Rina grabbed Captain Petre’s sword. He tried to stop her but she moved too quickly. He reached for her but she pulled away. She raised the sword high above her head. She teetered a little. Even in its decline, the sword was heavy. It had not been made for such small hands.

She stumbled down the ridge and into a small crop of rocks. “It’s over!” She screamed again. She brought the sword down hard. It sparked against the rocks. She hit again and again, each strike resounding across the field and sending sharp pains into her elbows. She brought it down again, and the blade splintered into a dozen pieces. She dropped the hilt and stumbled back. She landed hard, her bottom stinging on the gravel. She closed her eyes, her head swimming with anger and sorrow. I’ve failed. Failed.

You have not, little one.

A voice from the sky. Rina opened her eyes and saw storm clouds gathering. Large, thick and black. Angry clouds like those in Captain Petre’s stories. They blotted out the last of the sunlight. They billowed out over the field. Winds came.

Rina ran up the ridge. Captain Petre, Regan and Kristof lay on the cobbles, curled up like babies, looking into the sky and shaking uncontrollably. He has come, Rina said to herself. Jeshok is going to kill me.

No, Rina.

There was the voice again, ringing soundly in her head. She tried pushing it out, but its echo remained. She went to Captain Petre and hugged him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my fault. I’ve cursed us all.”

The clouds formed a hand. Not a fist like she expected, but a hand, smooth and soft. A fatherly hand.

You have not failed, Rina. You have succeeded. Indeed, the war is over. It has been over for many years. It is time to move on…

With that, the hand in the sky dipped down until it grazed the field. It then moved slowly left to right, and as it passed each row of heads, the imprisoned warriors were plucked out. They hovered in the air for a moment, then their bodies dissolved into white smoke and drifted away. Rina covered her face when the hand crossed the road. When it was gone, so too were Captain Petre and Regan. Only Rina and Kristof remained.

Rina stood up and watched her friends disappear. Those rows not yet released sang their song, a joyous sound, one of relief and happiness. Their nightmare was over. They were, finally, at rest.

“Wait!” Rina said as she stumbled down the ridge. A sinking feeling gripped her chest and she began to cry again. This isn’t what she wanted at all. “Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. Come back, Captain Petre. Binus. Regan. Come back to me!”

But there was nothing she could do. The curse was broken. Jeshok was gathering his souls. They were his now, forever.

She stopped running. Come back, Father!

* * * * *

It took several weeks before Rina could walk the field again. While local officials, priests, mystics and other dignitaries came to marvel at the sudden disappearance of the heads, she would not dare show herself. And though they tried desperately to understand why, after so many years, Jeshok’s Curse had ended, Rina would not speak. Even her brother Kristof, still upset at the disappearance of his dog, said not a word. Rina kept quiet about everything.

The field lay barren, nothing more than a sheer block of dark clay of weeds and rock. But it still held life for her, and memories of friends and good times. She would not abandon the field, though it had abandoned her. Jeshok had taken away her friends. She was angry about that, but she kept her anger secret. It was not wise to anger the gods.

She walked out into the field. The places where each head had lain were marked with a discolored patch of earth, and rains had sunken some of them to form tiny puddles of water. But not Captain Petre’s. Despite Madam Plotka’s unearthing, his spot was smooth and solid, as if nothing had ever happened.

She walked over to it and stood on the very spot where her friend’s head had been. She pulled up tight and straight, keeping her feet neatly within the colored patch. She smiled. “I miss you, my captain,” she said.

I miss you too, little one.

The voice was strong in her head. She turned and saw a figure, bright and tall, within a patch of trees. Rina started running toward the shape.

“Captain Petre!”

The shape put up his hand. Rina stopped. It was him. She recognized the forest of red stubble on his face. His armor was new, pristine and shining. His clothing red, green and fine. She smiled. He was a warrior again.

“How are you, sir?” she asked.

I am well.

“And Binus? Regan?”

All is well, child.

He smiled, but there was a sadness in his eyes, one he could not hide from her. Even as a ghost, she knew his expressions. She could not read his thoughts, but she knew what that sadness meant.

“This is it, isn’t it? You’re never coming back, are you?”

He shook his head. No, child.

She fought back the tears. “Goodbye, my captain.”

Goodbye, sweet one. Don’t forget us, he said, then slowly faded away.

She turned and on the place where her friend had laid, was a rock, smooth and head-sized. On top of it lay an orange, freshly peeled and waiting.

Rina went to it. She picked up the orange. She smoothed out her dress, sat down, then ripped a wedge of fruit away and popped it quickly into her mouth.

She sat eating… and remembered.

 

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.

Heavy is the Head

HeavyIsTheHead_MikePhillipsFinalCandidate

Illustration by Mike Phillips

by Robert E. Waters

 

An impish voice whispered in Palanor’s ear, muffling the bitter screams of his father. “Are you going to sit there and take his insults… again? Kill him! Kill him now!”

Palanor scratched away the voice, then drew his sword from its sheath and swung it wildly at his father’s neck, catching the old man in mid insult and knocking him off his horse.

Oh, the blood. Spurts and flows covering the road in deep crimson. His father’s blood. The king’s blood. More blood than Palanor had ever seen. His stomach turned. He looked down from his horse, down upon his father’s gurgling, moaning form.

“What will you do now?” There was that voice again. “Look at him. Even now, choking on his own phlegm, he mocks you. Finish him!”

Palanor jumped from his horse and raised his sword like an ax. Eyes wild, he brought the blade down into the gaping wound of the first cut, then again and again, until the head popped off like a ball and rolled across the road and down the gully wall.

Silence, save for the rustle of the head rolling away in the distance beneath the brown and red leaves. Palanor pulled a rag from his belt and wiped the blood from his sword. “You’re dead, Father,” he hissed, hovering over the beheaded man. “And you will never hurt me again.”

He tossed the bloody rag to the ground and stepped over his father, toward the gully where the head had rolled. A heavy suggestion of snow lay in the wind’s voice, whistling wetly through the trees, bringing to Palanor’s ears the first hopeful sounds of his life. Your father is dead and you will now rule, he thought to himself. No more shameful times. No more embarrassing moments in the courtyard, his father belittling him before his own mother and brother, his own countrymen, raising doubts about his mettle. No more feeling worthless. “Now you are the embarrassed one, Father, the weak one,” Palanor snarled at the head lying somewhere below. “You’ve lost your head, and your guard isn’t here to fetch it for you.”

Palanor stumbled down the muddy gully wall, supporting himself with the sword. His heavy boots scooped out dark cuts in the ground. Only now was his blood cooling in his face, though his heart was still beating strongly. As he descended, he wondered: How will I make it look? How will I convince everyone that we were jumped and I fought valiantly to save the king? He looked at his arms, his legs, seeking signs of struggle. None. The decision to kill had come quickly, per the advice of that tiny little voice, the meek whispery tickle on his ear that most assuredly had been his inner demon, his own conscience. No struggle except that which was now building in his mind, replacing the promise of the wind with screams of inner panic.

He reached the bottom of the gully and began poking through the leaves. It couldn’t have rolled far, being so fat and bumpy, like an over-ripe apple from a tree, popping off its branch and cracking on the roots below. He swept the leaves left to right, moving the broad blade of his sword like a broom. Where is it? He moved further down the gully, into the shadows where the ground was dark, so dark that he could only hope to feel the meaty thump! of his blade against the sallow flesh of his father’s head. His heart beat faster, forgetting the delight of a moment ago. Palanor dropped to his knees and started fishing through the sea of leaves.

“Are you looking for something?”

A childish voice from behind. Palanor’s head popped through the canopy of leaves. He whipped his body around to face the voice.

“Please don’t stop on my account.” There it was again, this time from the side and up in the trees. “But I can’t help but wonder if what you’re looking for is this…”

Palanor held his sword forward and braced for a threat. His face wild, he said, “Who’s there?”

“I’m up here,” the voice said. “Up here sitting pretty.”

Palanor turned right and looked up into the dark shadows of the twisted trees, up into a faint glow of magical light he hadn’t noticed before. And there perched his father’s head, delicately on a branch, swaying in the wind; lips crusted with drying blood, swollen, pudgy face, mangled white hair glued to a dead white brow. And eyes, covered in thick, ashen lids, accusing, mocking lids of eyes that could no longer pass judgment, but could still stir Palanor’s insecurities. The sight of his father’s face was too much for the prince to bear. The only thing that saved him from screaming was small legs crossed and resting on the bridge of the nose.

A brightly dressed pixy sat on the king’s head, subtle elfin-like lips parted devilishly, smoking a small pipe, blowing rings, swinging little legs, bouncing tiny shoes off cold flesh. Palanor fell back in terror, eyes fixed on the little imp. The pixy inhaled a long thread of smoke from the pipe, tossed his head up, and blew the smoke away. He seemed very content.

Finally, the pixy said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” It rapped its knuckles on the balding skull like knocking on a door.

Without thinking Palanor nodded.

“I thought as much,” said the pixy, cradling the pipe in its left hand. “I thought you’d come after it.”

Palanor finally gained his strength and stood. He looked around the base of the tree, searching for a way up. The steep, coarse trunk of the tree rose before him, its black roots peaking out of the eroding soil like serpents. Steps up. Palanor leaped for them, scrambling with hands and feet, pulling his way up the roots towards the little devil. His moves were violent and rash, clumsy and unprepared. It took several minutes to reach the branch where the pixy sat, but when he got there, the imp and the head were gone.

“Psst,” a voice from behind and up. “Over here.”

Palanor turned and looked up. The grinning, contented face of the pixy sparkled in the shadows. “It’s no use to try to catch me,” the pixy said, fluttering thin wings, “so I recommend we negotiate a deal.”

Breathless and dizzy, Palanor stumbled back down the tree and rested against the gully bank. Something about the pixy’s voice was familiar, but his mind could not place it. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“What do I want, you ask? I want what all men and fairies of good conscience want: World peace, a warm meal, female companionship, and a place to rest my weary head.” The pixy giggled. “But seriously, I’m no one special, and I don’t really want anything. I was just working my way through these woods, in hot pursuit of dinner, when I heard hooves on the road. My dinner spooked and ran off. Frustrated, I slipped up to the road to see who was coming and to my amazement, I saw the King of Trunkheim and his heir trotting along. I thought to myself, ‘Lucky me, I finally get to meet the great king and the prince.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when suddenly I see you draw a sword and lop the old man’s head off.”

“You saw nothing!” Palanor screamed and flung a glob of mud.

The pixy ducked. “Not only did I see something, I felt it too. The king’s head flew right into me and knocked me down. It pushed me into the mud, it did. See…” The pixy stood up and turned, revealing a mud-streaked pink vest and wings. He sat back down and giggled again. “A pixy goes through his whole life thinking nothing like this will ever happen to him, and then it does. I feel like I’ve been hit by lightning.”

Palanor bared his teeth. “You saw and felt nothing, you miserable whelp. Now give me my father’s head.”

The pixy rubbed its chin and considered. It shook its head. “No, no. That won’t do. I think we need to talk a little more. Get to know each other better.”

“I said give me—”

“Shh!” The pixy put its hand out and pressed it down. “Don’t talk too loud. You don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?”

Palanor shut up quickly. He had forgotten the way voices carried in these woods. A childhood memory flashed in his mind: he and his brother running through the gullies, each casting his voice to confuse the other. Find me! Find me! They’d scream. Over here! No here! And then the booming voice of their father or a court aide calling them home, ending the fun. How many times, Palanor wondered, have I gone through this very gully? How many times had he climbed these very banks and flung this very mud?

Palanor breathed deeply and said, “Okay, what do you want?”

The pixy knocked the tobacco out of its pipe. “Like I said, I don’t want anything. The big question is what do you want? Political assassination and fratricide is a big step in a young prince’s life. Was it worth it?”

Tears welled at the corners of Palanor’s eyes. “He was a hateful man. He deserved it.”

The pixy nodded, tucking its legs away, still perched on the head. “He must have been. But it must have been equally hard for you to deliver the last blow…”

“Not at all.”

“…and it’ll be even harder for you to explain how it happened.”

That realization hit Palanor hard. He had forgotten that small detail in the scuffle to find his father’s head, and how he searched for excuses. “Self defense.”

The pixy shook its head, yanking a long strand of white hair from the king’s scalp. “I didn’t see any struggle.”

“The struggle wasn’t physical. It was internal and brought on by years of abuse.”

“I see,” said the pixy. “So you’re the victim in all this, huh? Please tell me more.”

“My father was ruthless,” Palanor began. “All my life he treated me and my brother like dogs, shaming us before our mother and our countrymen. When we were young, he would beat us and laugh. How many times did he call me ‘worthless’ or ‘unfit to govern’ or ‘wasted seed’? And for years I took the abuse. For years I let him humiliate and shame me. But not anymore.”

Palanor dropped down and began to cry, a cry of many years, a cry that wailed through the trees, echoing back like the howls of a lost banshee. And while he cried, the pixy flossed its teeth with the strand of white hair. “Yeah, it sounds like he was a bad man. I never knew that about the king.”

Palanor sniffled. “Few do.”

“Well, how are you going to cover it up?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We were attacked by thieves. How’s that?”

The pixy shook his head. “I don’t remember any thieves.”

“Nobody knows that.”

The pixy smiled. “I do.”

Palanor jumped up, his wild, sweat-soaked hair smearing his vision. “You little rat bastard. I’m the king now. I order you to bring down my father’s head.”

By this time, the pixy was lying on its stomach and reaching over and pulling up one eyelid and then the other, left, right, left, right. The cold, glossy eyes beneath, each time they were flashed, drilled holes into Palanor’s soul. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? Your eyes, Father, know the truth. I killed you in cold blood.

The pixy reached for the bloody mouth and pried the lips apart, opening and closing, opening and closing the hollow, dark mouth. “You are a bad son,” the pixy said, casting his voice lower, mimicking the king’s voice, opening and closing the jaw with each word. “You killed me and you will pay.”

“Shut up!” Palanor’s words bounced through the wood. He flung another glob of mud and this time hit the pixy square and sent the head tumbling down through the branches. But the pixy had disappeared again, flying into the shadows. Palanor scrambled forward, trying to catch the head before it struck the ground. He lunged and grabbed a handful of hair. He hit the ground hard, the weight of the impact knocking out his wind. But he held his father’s head firmly. Palanor brought the bloody orb to his chest and hugged it like a doll, lying in the mud and weeping loudly.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he whimpered, stroking the white hair. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean—”

“You know,” said the pixy from somewhere behind, “I think you ought to come clean on the whole thing. You’re the king now. What can they do?”

Through his whimpering, Palanor saw the truth in the pixy’s words. It’s right. What can they do? I’m the king now. Mother cannot even touch me. Suddenly, fear and despair were replaced with hope and optimism. He cracked a smile.

“You’re right,” Palanor said, turning his father’s head around to stare defiantly into the wrinkles. “I am king now, Father. It doesn’t matter who killed you. I can’t be touched.”

“That’s right,” trumpeted the pixy, suddenly appearing on Palanor’s shoulder with a flutter of wings. “They can’t touch you. And judging by how terrible he was, you did Trunkheim a favor, wouldn’t you say?”

Palanor’s eyes beamed with delight and he looked at the pixy, forgetting his desire to crush the little imp in his hands. “Yes.”

“Sure. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if they—” The pixy stopped and turned his ear to the wind. “Do you hear that?”

Palanor listened. Faintly, the sound of clinking hooves and jangling armor came from the road above, faint and distant, but growing stronger.

“The body!” Palanor said, suddenly remembering that his father’s corpse was lying alongside the road. He tossed the head aside and scrambled up the gully, like a dog, clawing at the mud and leaves. He reached the top and crawled to the body. Up the road, in the direction he and his father had been riding, came a single horse. On the horse was a man, a man of equal height and build as Palanor, but younger. A man of equally brief facial hair, but sharper. A man Palanor knew well.

His brother Roth.

Palanor rose up on his knees, but he didn’t try to hide the body, nor did he show remorse. What purpose would it serve anyway? Roth had experienced the same shame and humiliation at the iron hand of father. Surely he of all people, Palanor thought, would understand and give thanks. On his knees, he smiled faintly and watched his brother ride up.

Roth looked down from his horse, shifting his eyes from father to brother. His chest started heaving violently, his handsome face growing red with anger. “What is this? What have you done?”

Palanor spoke proudly, “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him.”

Roth jumped from his horse and drew his sword, moving close. The sun was setting fast behind him. “I came looking for you because Colonel Gregor had sent his falcon forward with word that you and Father had slipped away from the knight’s tourney early this morning without the protection of his guard. I’ve been looking for you and this is what I find. Are you insane?”

“Roth, it’s over,” Palanor said. “Our misery has ended. I am king now.”

Roth lowered his sword, and Palanor rose to his feet and laid a hand upon this brother’s back. The young man began to weep.

Palanor pulled him close. “It’s all right, Roth. It’s all right. We’ll make it right.”

Through sobs, Roth asked. “How? How are we going to do that? What are we going to say?”

“We’ll carry the body back,” said Palanor. “We’ll tell Mother that we were attached by brigands and Father fell fighting bravely.”

Roth nodded. “But what about the absence of the guard? Why weren’t they here? Why were they left behind?”

Palanor shook his head. “I don’t know. Father slipped into my tent this morning and ordered us away. When I asked him about why we were leaving, he told me to shut up, so I didn’t press him.”

“You know,” said the pixy, setting down upon Roth’s saddle and coolly filling his pipe, “I witnessed the entire thing, and I don’t recall any brigands.”

The brothers stared at the imp on the saddle. “No one knows that,” said Palanor.

The pixy smiled, lighting his pipe. “I do. And besides, what with the story about your father’s ruthlessness that you explained to me, everyone will immediately assume that it was a conspiracy: Brothers conspiring to kill their father.”

“Wait,” Roth said, pulling away from Palanor. “I didn’t kill my father. There was no conspiracy.”

“No? Please forgive me.” The pixy stared deeply into Roth’s eyes. “Am I to assume, then, that the bag of gold you gave me two days ago had nothing to do with your political aspirations?” It giggled and patted the velvet bag tied around its waist.

“What’s it talking about, Roth?” Palanor asked, raising his brow.

Roth turned and threw up his arms in confusion. “I’ve never seen this imp in my life. It’s lying.”

“Lying?” The pixy’s little face wrinkled as if wounded. “Then I guess that knife you’ve hidden in your boot is for show and not for your brother’s chest.”

Palanor grabbed Roth’s leg and tugged down his leather boot to reveal a long blade tied to the calf. He pulled the knife out and pushed Roth back.

“Palanor, believe me,” Roth said, trying to calm his brother. “I always wear that knife. Always.”

“I’ve never seen you wear it,” Palanor snapped, throwing it to the ground. “I trusted you, Roth, and now I see that you planned the whole thing. Conspiring with Colonel Gregor to somehow lure Father and me away from the tournament early, leaving me alone with him out here in the woods, knowing full well that I’d be the center of his wrath, hoping that I’d lose it and kill him. And then you’d come looking for us and sob and weep and act the understanding brother. And when the moment was right, you’d kill me and take the throne.”

Roth backed up and raised his sword. “You treacherous bastard. You’re insane. You’re the one conspiring with Colonel Gregor, not me. You and Gregor and this pixy, luring me into a trap.”

“Me? Why you—” and Palanor raised his sword.

Roth braced and met Palanor’s attack. The swords met again and again, clanging violently in the waning light of the sun, filling the woods with the clamor of battle. The brothers moved over their father’s body, stepping on loose parts of the royal robe, stubbing their toes on his stiffening flesh, stumbling over his legs and arms. Arms stripped with cuts, legs weak and waning, the brothers cut and thrust and swung their blades, all in the presence of a small pixy humbly perched on Roth’s saddle.

He smoked his pipe.

And like before, a tiny voice entered Palanor’s ear and guided his sword home, deep into Roth’s neck at the vulnerable spot. Another blow, and another, and Roth’s head popped off his neck like a dandelion. Palanor dropped his sword and fell to the ground, chest aching for breath. More blood, even more than before, covering his father’s drying blood like a second coat of paint on a fence post. Palanor could not stop his tears.

A small body with a flutter of wings set upon the prince’s left shoulder. “You know,” whispered the pixy, “this is quite a mess we have here. In more ways than one.”

Palanor felt the pixy’s breath on his ear. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. This is all your fault.”

The pixy nodded and smiled, shoving his smoldering pipe into his velvet bag. “It’s true, I must admit. But I’m merely a small player in a very big game.”

Right then he should have grabbed the imp and crushed him. But no. Doing so would not bring his father or brother back, nor douse the pain in his heart. He’d killed them. He, Palanor, the Prince-cum-King of Trunkheim had cut off their heads. And now lying in their blood, he didn’t have the strength to be angry.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” Palanor asked the imp. “I can’t be king now. What would I tell my mother? How could I show my face to the people with so much blood on my hands? So much shame. What do I do now, Imp? Tell me what to do.”

For a moment, no answer came. But then it did, not as a voice but as Roth’s knife, floating up from the ground and hovering before him, suspended in a magical white light. Palanor stared at the knife, and a little voice whispered in his ear, “Take the knife, my good prince. Your father commands it. Take the knife and finish the job.”

Palanor snatched the knife from the air, turned the blade toward his chest and drove it home.

* * * * *

In the dim light of the setting sun, the pixy rolled the severed heads up to Palanor’s head and arranged them in descending order. Father, Palanor, Roth. Oldest to youngest, left to right. It crawled up onto Palanor’s forehead, lit its pipe, and drew deeply. The warm smoke felt good curling down its throat. It took the chill off the bitter wind. It crossed its legs over the prince’s nose, smoked, and waited.

In time, a steady, slow clapping of horse hooves came up the road from behind. The pixy knew who it was. It could smell her perfume.

Without turning, it said, “It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it? An ancient one of hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and pain. Father sires son; son grows up weak and wanting; father hates son; son kills father; brothers kill each other. Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?”

The clapping of hooves stopped. “Spare me your drama, Imp. I’m not in the mood. Did you have to arrange them like that? Right next to each other? So morbid.”

The pixy chuckled. “I thought you’d like to see them all together one last time, my lady.” It jumped up and faced the queen.

She was wearing a black robe with a thick hood clasped tightly at her neck. She was beautiful in black, it thought, admiring how her green eyes accentuated the darkness of the fabric cupping her face. It studied that face for some sign of remorse, some measure of guilt. Yes, yes, perhaps there it was. A flash of red in the eyes? A spot of tear on the lash? Was she, too, a victim in all this, it wondered. But that was a silly question, for it knew the answer to that already.

“My husband accepted your plan to lure Palanor here and pick a fight?” the queen asked.

“Yes,” said the pixy. “Once I convinced him that his sons were conspiring to seize the throne, he couldn’t wait to get Palanor alone. And when the moment came, I locked his arms against his side with a simple lock spell and he couldn’t defend himself.”

The queen looked down at her son’s bloody chest. The hilt of Roth’s knife stuck up like a tomb. “Palanor did what you told him? No troubles?”

The pixy sniffed, feeling the chilly air, fighting back the growl in its empty stomach. “Clay in my hands, your Highness. Clay in my hands.”

“And Roth’s knife. It was where I said it would be?”

The pixy nodded. “That was a nice touch.”

“Thank you,” the queen said smiling.

Men riding up halted their discussion. Ten mighty warriors of the royal guard lead by Colonel Gregor. They pulled up to the edge of the dried pools of blood and stared at the bodies. Gregor, garbed in the silver and red of the Trunkheim army, rode forward, eyes fixed upon the queen. She stared back. Gregor nodded politely. The queen responded in kind. Then together, they leaned forward over Palanor’s body and kissed.

The pixy cleared his throat. “Pardon me for interrupting this warm and cuddly moment, but we had a deal, your Highness. I do you a favor, and you do me one.”

The queen pulled away from her lover’s lips. “Very well, Imp. Name your price.”

“Full access to your royal grain stores and wild game reserves. Plus, if it won’t be too much trouble, a comfortable rat-hole somewhere in the castle. Winter this year, I fear, will be harsh.”

“Access to my grain? My animals? My castle? Impossible!” She looked at Gregor for support.

Gregor nodded carefully… very carefully. “It seems fair, my love.” The colonel then looked at the pixy. The little creature gave Gregor a quick wink and a smile that only the colonel could see. This tragic tale, the pixy knew, was far from over.

The queen shook her head, but said, “Okay, Imp. You have a deal.” She pulled the reigns of her horse, turned around, and motioned toward the three dead bodies, two headless. “You men clean this up,” she ordered, “and forget what you saw here today.”
Trotting up the road, the queen and the colonel held hands. The pixy flew between them, coolly smoking his pipe. “You know, my lady,” it said, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving me access to your food supplies. After all, there are three less heads at the dinner table now.”

Behind them, a guardsmen picked up the king’s head and placed it in a leather bag.

 

The Cassini 500

by Robert E. Waters

 

What promises did you make, Bringer of Old Age,
That would send so many circling your belly,
Dust and ice and meteor splendors chasing
And chased, wrapping your radiance like so
Many rocks on parade.

Atlas, Prometheus, and Pandora, your shepherds all,
Their whispered resonance herding your sheep,
Molding and marshaling the march to solar slaughter,
While Pan pipes tempo from Encke’s bosom, rousing your
Nebulous children in the heat of your helium rain.

Slipping, moving, passing,
Fighting for the cup,
But never in a billion years,
Would you wave the checkered flag.

The Cassini 500

Illustration by NASA/Cassini 500

 

Sister Sonata

sister sonata

Illustration by Billy Tackett

by Robert E. Waters

 

“And it was the white blood that sent him to the minister, which rising in him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and reality, into the embrace of a chimaera… It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment.” — William Faulkner, Light in August

My sister Mira turned herself into a jewelry tree at thirteen. Earrings, nose rings, brow rings, tongue ball, titty rings, navel rings. And scarring too. Deep purple galactic swirls across her stomach and back, and when the light hit them right they sparkled and rotated like hurricanes licking the Virgin Islands. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee became her favorite musicians (“my burden so heavy, I can’t hardly see…”), replacing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “Sonny and Brownie are an institution,” she’d say. “Poster children for the modern age.” Then she’d crank it up and stop living.

Our parents couldn’t take the stress of her change. Couldn’t justify the body mutilations to the neighbors or the social clubs, and certainly could not take her newfound anger and disrespect. My father would ask me, “Paul, why is she so angry? What does she have to be angrier about than I did when I was her age?” But I couldn’t answer him, for I wondered the same thing.

Things came to loggerheads by her sixteenth birthday.

Mom was ladling out fried potatoes at the dinner table. Mira slunk down in her chair, with the new violin mom had bought her punched through the center and worn up on her bicep like some twisted badge of courage. The world stopped turning, the chunks of potato dangled at the edge of the spoon like swords of Damocles.

“What the hell is this?” Dad said, lips shaking with nervous anger.

“What?” Mira said, taking a sip from her water.

“You show your mother disrespect like that?” He motioned to the violin, whose strings were broken and curled every which way like octopus arms.

Mom’s eyes moistened. I could say nothing, eyes glazed in shock.

“It’s mine, isn’t it?” Mira said, defiantly. “I can do what I want with it.” And she stared into Mom’s pale face, silent and still, waiting for the swords to fall.

Dad bolted out of his chair. “That’s it, damn you! Get out!”

He grabbed Mira, ripped off the violin and smacked her across the face. Mira fell back, screaming, kicking, crying.

“Get out!” Dad screamed, going after her, his face also streaming with tears. “You’re not welcome here anymore.”

And they went on like that for a time, back and forth, until dad finally picked her up and threw her off the porch. I watched silently, doing nothing, wanting to intervene, but not being able to move. What’s the matter with you, Mira? What’s going on? I asked myself these questions over and over as their battle raged. I wanted to stop Dad, but I agreed with him. I was so mad at her. So mad.

That was fifteen years ago. I hadn’t seen Mira since.

An emaciated drug-monkey with Elvis sideburns tried to give me clues. “Last time I saw her,” he coughed, dragging on a holographic cigarette, “was a couple months ago at Eddie’s Data BBQ with some mutant friends of hers, licking net sauce off a dead pig’s ribs, and spinning music out of her body like some goddamned symphony. Don’t mind my asking, why you looking for her?”

As if it were his business. “There’s been a death in the family.”

His eyes lit up and he forced air out of his mouth like he was trying to pop a balloon. “Wow, tough break. I guess that happens sometimes. Do you remember…”

He went on about a bottle of vodka he had bought for some underage kids, but I wasn’t listening. Eddie’s Data BBQ, the finest virtual pork shop in the tri-state area. All the flavor without the fat. Some biotech guru from South Haven, Mississippi had come up with the idea. Take textured data matrices shaped into prime ribs and sauté them with the binary code of barbecue sauce recipes. Flavored Zeros and Ones. Delish! Trouble was, the taste of all that smoked data created pork junkies. People would eat nothing but virtual pork and die, eventually, of real starvation. Progress has its martyrs.

“…she’s probably not there now, though,” the drug-monkey chimed in again. “Sunday being the Sabbath and all.”

“It’s closed on Sundays?”

“No.”

“Then, do you know where she might be?” I asked, putting her photo back in my pocket.

He shook his head. “I don’t know if she’s on the ground at all anymore, or somewhere uploaded.”

“Thank you,” I said, and walked away into the haze of the hot Memphis dog-day.

*****

Eddie’s Data BBQ stood at the corner of Mendenhall and Winchester, in the old building where the U-Haul used to be. At the beginning of the new century, U-Haul was quickly bought up by the Taiwanese, when it was learned that all solid structures (like bedroom furniture) could be easily broken down into data strands and shipped across the net or on DVDs. Why bother with bulky trucks and trailers, when you can ship your goods around the world with one click and have it all reconstructed perfectly at the other end? The Taiwanese changed the name of the rental company to “U-Phase Shift It” and business boomed.

“Yeah,” the pale waitress said, handing back the picture, “Mira comes in here once in awhile, but I got to tell you. She don’t look like that anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, tucking away the picture.

“She’s pure stingray now,” the ashen princess said with a throaty chuckle.

I shook my head. “Not familiar with the term.”

“No?” the waitress chuckled again. She obviously thought our conversation was quite humorous. I wasn’t laughing. “Sure, she’s still got the facial features, but they’re all flattened out, you know? A stingray, friend. Flat, leather gray body. Leathery wings. Sharp razor teeth in her flat mug. You know what I’m talking about: the kind of creature they used to scare us with at the aquarium when we were little. Those goddamn flat fuckers that looked like spaceships. Stingray! Of course, they aren’t called stingrays actually. But you get the gist.”

I nodded. “Well, what do they call them?”

She crunched her shoulders. “I’m not too sure. I mind my own business, understand? I’ve got my own troubles. I don’t go for those genetic mutation experiences. Straight, old-fashioned grass is my mantra. But some folk, like your sister, can’t help themselves, you know? Can’t help but feel a kind of cell music when the changes start happening. It’s like morphing into those blues brothers BB King or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Buddy Guy. They spray themselves with some kind of weirdo shit that seeps into their skin and changes them, and it’s Graceland all over again, know what I’m saying?”

I did not.

“But that’s what your sister is up to,” she continued, edging past me to push aside a dead patron to clean off the table where he had died. “She’s a fanatic. A real user… and a pusher too, if my cards are right. She’s gone overboard, used too much. Now she’s a stingray. If you’ll excuse me…”

“Wait,” I said, tugging at her light blue uniform sleeve. “Do you know where I might find her? Where would someone like her hang out?” She sighed and blew back a strand of dirty blond that covered her left eye. “Try Chirpy’s Agora on Beale Street. I hear a lot of mutants hang out there.”

*****

Chirpy’s Agora is the kind of place you dream about after a bad taco. From a distance, it’s kind of blurry like you’re looking through hazy desert heat. But as you draw closer, the window front changes colors rapidly like a chameleon. Yellow and white and deep blue and gray and purple, rotating and flashing over and over again depending upon your point of view. A pure human like myself has trouble reaching the door, because the colors swim around so quickly it makes you sick. An effective way of keeping out undesirable DNA. This was definitely a mutant’s hangout.

With some serious trouble, I reached the front door, turned the lions-head knob and walked in. Immediately, my stomach stopped flopping, but my nose caught the sweet, pungent odor of rotten boards, moss and mushrooms. It was humid too, like I had just walked into the Amazon. The light was dim but I could see well enough to shuffle my way slowly up the aisle. I was afraid to put too much weight on the floor; damn floorboards were soaking wet.

Chirpy’s must have been some kind of head shop in the early days. There were still dusty old water pipes and nitrous oxide bullets and clove cigarette packs scattered along the shelves. But now the poisons of choice were tiny pre-packaged Score Slugs and earwigs and perfume spray bottles of all sizes. What those bottles contained I didn’t want to know, but I can tell you that some of them looked at me. They didn’t have eyes per se, but I felt eyes burning through the glass just the same.

They say the mutant culture is heavy on sprays, burrowing insects and mollusks like slugs, because when placed on the skin, a slug can pump the sound right to the vein. That’s what they call it: Pumping Sound. I’ve seen a Score Slug in action. Kind of reminds you of quackery and blood-letting; only this time, the slug mills around for a while on the receiver’s flesh until it finds a juicy spot to pump, and then the receiver goes pasty white and eyes dilate in an almost orgasmic stupor that (according to the accounts I’ve heard) feels like the hand of God. And then you hear a high-pitched, sustained note, a frequency almost too high to detect. The music the little monsters pump is a hyper-mutable junk DNA that grates along the receiver’s true DNA strand, and the friction creates music, “melodies of the soul” or “the voice of God” as they call it. I don’t buy that shit, though. Drop acid or snort a line of coke and you get the same result, as far as I’m concerned. See, the problem with mutants is that they think they are wholly superior beings. Homo-orchestrous. Homo-symphonic. A new breed of man… or woman… or whatever. Perhaps they’re right.

But I hadn’t come all this way to debate the existence of mutants. I had to find Mira, and find her now.

This gangly mutant behind a broken cash register wiggled his bat ears at me, lifted his chewy upper lip, and spoke through crooked teeth. “No humans allowed in here.”

I walked up to him slowly. “Yes, I can see that.” I tried to be polite. “But I’m here all the same. You must be Chirpy.”

He nodded. “Like the sign says.”

“I’m looking for Mira. Is she here?”

He unraveled his arms and spread them out to his sides, revealing furry brown wings. A flying fox. A fruit bat. Chiroptera. Impressive. He looked at me, wriggled his nose, and flicked a fly off his lips with a knife tongue. Pulled his cheeks back like smiling. “What business do you have with her?”

“I’m her brother.”

He stopped smiling. “No shit?”

I shook my head. “None.”

He folded his arms back against his body, and leaned forward. A cigarette he’d been smoking was lying dead in a tray to his left. He took awhile to pick it up, light it, and take another drag. I didn’t know bats smoked. “She might be here.”

“Well, if she is,” I said, growing ever more annoyed by this bug-eater, “can I see her?”

He flapped his wings and I thought he was going to launch, but instead he pulled a small velvet box out from behind the counter, sat it before me, and clapped twice. It flickered blue and then a little holo-man popped out, a black guy, holding a mike and wailing against the twang of a blues guitar: “If I don’t ever see you no more, baby, you know that’s too soon for me. I got my problems, I don’t want you to mess with me.”

“Know who he is?” the bat said.

I chuckled. “No.”

“Buddy Guy. Best blues man ever.”

“I thought all you Memphians liked BB King.” I leaned over and put my index finger through the stomach of the little screamer. I could feel his song.

“I’m from Chicago. You keep Buddy company. You listen good. He’ll teach you something. You stay right here.”

He waddled away and disappeared behind a door of beads.

“…I said, if I don’t ever see you no more…”

Above the riot of words coming from Buddy’s little mouth, I could hear muffled voices in the back, winding through the beads. Lyrical voices. Not like words, really. Music. Question, answer. Question, answer.

“…I got my own problems…”

The voices grew angrier, shouting. I tried to lean toward the beads to get a better listen. My sister was back there. I could feel it. Butterflies in my stomach. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years. God, what am I doing here? Why did I come? I started to sweat, which was funny because I hadn’t broken one pore since I walked through the door, even though it was as hot as hell. Cold sweat, the kind you get before a heavy bowel movement. I wanted to throw up. Damn you, Sis. Why have you put us all through this?

“…I don’t want you to mess with me…”

The fruit bat returned, scampered up to the counter, and snatched the box away from me. “She’s here!” he snapped, looking very flustered. “She’ll see you for just a few minutes.” He motioned to the back and through the beads.

I walked slowly. Buddy Guy was singing in my head. What would I find? I wondered. How different would she be? I took a deep breath and continued.

It was a jungle in the back. Right past the beads I stepped through a small, dark hall and down three steps into a greenhouse. Hot as hell! Steam. Humidity. Difficult to breathe. The floor a soft moss, the path lined by thick green sword-shaped leaves and snakeplant. Muted calls from toucans and Argus pheasant echoed off the glass walls from giant ivy-covered speakers, and water trickled cool down porcelain rock faces to pools of pure crystal at the end of the path. I couldn’t see them, but they were there. Mutants. All around me, shuffling behind the lush flora. Lizards. A spider monkey. A sloth. I knew that each mutant Agora had its own theme, representative of the basic mutations in the local group. In Arizona you commonly had rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, and peccary. In Florida, raccoons, bobcats, and Key deer. I would have expected the Memphis Agora to contain samples of the Mississippi, but what do I know? I’m human. But it troubled me. If my sister was a stingray as the waitress had said, then what was she doing here in the jungle? An outcast even here.

I walked up to the crystal pool and said, heart pounding, “Mira?”

Something moved at the bottom of the pool. A school of koi, but something was propelling them forward, scattering them like a predator on the hunt. I screwed my eyes tightly, peering through slits like Clint Eastwood. And then a large white shape emerged from beneath a rock formation. Not white, actually, but a light gray, almost white. Wings like a stealth fighter, but more oval, and they fluttered on the edge, like fingers clattering across a keyboard. I saw a thin tail, a wispy, spiked member flashing behind the mass, spreading the koi in its wake.

And then she emerged. My sister. Arms and legs unfolded from beneath her flat body, lifting her cartilage out of the pool, slowly, cresting the skin of the water patiently, deliberately. Her eyes set in deep brow ridges, now slanted slightly to the sides, but they were her eyes. Light blue. She pulled completely out of the water and I heard flutes. Dreamy flutes from Debussy’s “La Mer,” pouring out of her back like the droplets of water running down her spine. She rose up before me, the bottom of her body encasing her flat face, her mouth two powerful rows of teeth. She pulled herself onto the edge of the pool and looked at me, her flat cheeks turning tender pink in the humid air.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t believe this was her, and yet it was her. I found myself on the verge of tears, but she spoke through the din of french horn. “What do you want, Paul? I don’t want you here.”

Her speech was slurred. Had to be, with her jaw the way it was. She didn’t seem comfortable talking. I could tell it hurt to do so. She seemed content only when she let the music speak for her, the color of her leathery skin shifting hues like Monet flowers. She was angry… but she was beautiful.

I found myself speaking. “I have something to tell you.”

She waited, the mad flutes trilling up and down in a chaotic dance.

“Dad died.”

The music stopped, the color of her skin grew deep red. Was she crying? I couldn’t tell. Did she even have tear ducts? Could she even understand fully what I was saying?

“I said Dad is de–”

“I heard what you said,” she barked, resting her mutated bulk against her shortened legs. “When?”

“A week ago.”

The jungle behind me rustled with life. I was afraid to turn around. I think some of them had come up behind me, perhaps lured by my voice. Some mutants were so changed as to lose their connection with humanity. It slips through their fingers, after being different for so long. The changes seep into their souls, into their bones, translates their marrow.

“It doesn’t concern me,” she said. She was turning to fall back into the water.

“The hell it doesn’t! It concerns you all too much, Mira. Goddammit, you really hurt him.”

She turned back to me and bared her teeth. “He hurt me. He never understood me.”

“No one ever understood you, Mira,” I moved forward, not caring about what was behind me, not caring if she had friends in the shadows. I was going to have my say. “You and your stupid anger. We did everything we could to make you happy, and you shit on us.”

Furious violins screamed out of her back, and her stomach swirled with purple rain clouds. “That’s a lie. You never took real time to understand me at all. You never stopped once and asked, ‘What’s wrong, Mira? Why are you feeling this way?’ No, I was just an embarrassment to you all, an embarrassment to your snobby friends. And you tried to buy my happiness with stupid gifts… like that violin.”

“Oh, bullshit, Mira,” I screamed back at her through the cacophony of violent strings. “We did everything we could to reach you, we tried–”

“You didn’t try hard enough!” And she lost her balance and fell into the water, forcing the koi into full panic against the deep waters behind the rocks. The music stopped, I stopped, everything stopped. Silence. And then when the ripples subsided, she said, her skin turning a sobbing blue, “You didn’t try hard enough.”

Slowly, I knelt down before her, my face wet with sweat and tears. I put my hands out. I wanted to touch her, to rub her back, as if touching her would make me understand, would make the anger and hurt go away. “Make me understand now, Mira. Make me understand… why.”

She sat there in the water, looking at me. She said, “Do you remember that time when we were kids and I killed that bird with a rock?”

I nodded. “Vaguely.”

“We were in the back yard, and you were teasing me that I couldn’t hit anything with your slingshot. And I got so mad that I yanked it out of your hands, picked up a rock and put it in the pouch. ‘I’ll show you,’ I said, and aimed it at a little song sparrow, perched on a branch in our maple tree. I pulled back as hard as I could, and let it fly. And I hit it. We couldn’t believe it. I really hit it, and you were shocked, and the sparrow fluttered a couple times and then went down. We rushed over to it, and there it was: its wing broken, flopping all over the ground. I picked it up, and we took it in to mama, showed her the broken wing. She was mad, upset that we let this happen. I told her I’d take care of it; I’d make it better. I remember taking it into my room, and wrapping toilet paper around it, hoping that that would keep the wing tight against the broken bone, and perhaps it would heal. And we tried to give it food, remember? We tried to feed it leaves and worms and bits of apple. But it wouldn’t eat anything. And day after day, it grew weaker and weaker, until it died.”

She stopped. I waited. She didn’t say anything else.

“You became a mutant because you killed a bird? Come on, Mira, there’s got to be more.”

A somber bassoon flowed from her back. “There is, but you wouldn’t understand. But the bird was a critical moment, a memory that keeps floating back to me again and again. No, I didn’t become a mutant because I killed a bird. Not because I killed it, but by killing that innocent, beautiful little bird, I realized that sometimes a person makes decisions that she can’t take back, no matter how badly it hurts. She can’t control it. I had reached out with my anger towards you, I had pulled back a piece of rubber, and had hurled a rock into a tree… and as indiscriminately as God himself, I killed a living creature. I took away its song forever. I was human, and it was in my nature to do this. And when I was old enough to make the right decisions, I decided that I would never have to make that choice again, that I would never allow my nature to get the best of me.”

I sat there with my head in my hands, the memories of Mira as a seven year old, me as her older brother. Playing in the backyard. Man, those were good times. Back when we understood each other. Good times. Well, no more of that. I didn’t have time for this.

I jumped up and said, “Look, Mira. I don’t give a damn what you are, what you have become. All I know is that dad is dead, and the least you can do is come to his funeral. I want you to come.”

She shook the water off her face. “Why? What good would it do? He’s dead, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

It was time to go. I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and laid it at the foot of the pool. “These are the directions. I won’t make you come. Do what you think is right.”

And I left. I think she called to me in her own way, calling me back to her, perhaps to explain further. I heard an oboe, a pleading voice to see things her way. But I couldn’t face her. Not like this. I remembered too much of how she used to be.

*****

But she did come to the funeral. She showed up at the gravesite. An El Camino relic, all rusty and popping with backfire, circled around the yard and stopped fifty yards from our father’s coffin. I was there with my wife and my little boy, and around us our friends and my father’s friends. Mother had died years ago, and at that time I couldn’t find Mira, though I had looked for her then too. And as the preacher began the final prayer, I watched Chirpy and another mutant climb out of the El Camino, go to the back, and flip over a canvas wrap. My sister was underneath it, in a plastic tank.

As Chirpy and his friend pulled the tank out of the back, those gathered started looking over to them, and I could see them shift in their shoes. A mumble here and there, a whisper in the ear of a spouse, fear in the eyes. They tried hard to contain their disgust. Mutants and humans don’t mix too well, and here, on hallowed human ground, the sight of my sister and her friends was almost more than they could take. Even the preacher stumbled a bit, but recovered with a quick glance at the dirt mound at his feet. As long as he didn’t look up, he could finish the job.

They brought her up to the edge of the crowd, and set her down. Her tank was covered with a glass top, and Mira was settled at the bottom, half in and out of sand. There were guppies and minnows in the tank with her, swimming around. My little boy pointed to the tank, but I put his arm down.

“That’s your aunt, honey,” I whispered to him and rubbed his head. “Don’t stare.”

But I stared, deeply, into her eyes as she swam up to the edge of the tank and peered through the sun glare. She looked at me, at Father’s coffin, at the mound of dirt, at the people. She knew some of them. She had been in their houses, had played with their children. She looked at me, and it sounds funny, but I swear I could hear music piping from her tank. Not flutes or horns, or mad violins, but the deep, slow voice of a Blues musician. One of Chirpy’s favorites, no doubt. Lightnin’ Hopkins. “One kind favor I’ll ask to you, see that my grave is kept clean.” No one else seemed to hear the words, but I could see her skin change color as she sang, and the ripples on the water as each note percolated from her spine, like fart bubbles in a tub. I sort of snickered, as if we were sharing a joke. She seemed to laugh too, and Lightnin’ bubbled up and up in honor of our father. I winked at her. I was tired of fighting and feeling ashamed. I was tired of blaming her for something that was my problem… not hers. She was a mutant, and that was that.

The preacher finished and the crowd slowly faded away. Some of them tried to approach the tank, but most just slipped away, too afraid to take another step. My wife took our son to the car and waited. I asked her to. This was Mira’s time and mine.

I walked up to her, and Chirpy and their friend stepped back. Mira put her webbed hands against the side of her tank, and I touched them through the plastic. “I’m glad you came,” I said, smiling.

She smiled too, as best as she could, and rubbed my fingers through the barrier between us. For now and all time, I realized that that barrier would always be there, keeping us apart. Her songs were different than mine now. She had made choices that would forever keep us apart, and eventually she would forget about me and her father and mother, the way all mutants finally do. She would lose her connection with us, and live the rest of her life (however long that might be) in peace with her new kin.

I had listened to her at the foot of the pool. I had listened to her reasons for becoming a mutant. She said that she would never fall victim again to her nature, but look at her now. A creature of water, shaped and mutilated by the musical notes of life. She couldn’t stay out of water for too long; it hurt to speak; her eyes gummed over if they touched too much air. She flew through schools of fish like a bird, and found scraps of food at the bottom of tanks. It made me wonder. Was she so different now than before? Hadn’t she merely replaced one set of “natures” for another?

I rose up and said to Chirpy, “Take her away now. It’s time for her to go.”

As I watched them place her back into the El Camino, my thoughts drifted to William Faulkner’s character Joe Christmas in Light in August. Like the confused white and black blood flowing through Joe Christmas’ veins, Mira had been trapped between the races, trapped between the musics. It was her human music that defined her misery. It was her mutant music that defined her joy. It was her human music that had driven her away from us and into the embrace of a chimaera; and it was her mutant music that had swept her into an ecstasy beyond the very touch of God.

The car faded away beyond the hill, and I realized something. We have a lot of tough days ahead of us, we Homo Sapiens and Homo Orchestrals.

I began to cry. Sister was right about one thing: It is in our human nature to kill. Joe Christmas had been killed by the mob; Mira’s mob was yet to come.