Guest Week Day #3: MaddiroseX

Department Chief

He was a creature so vast and horrible that they didn’t say he ‘slept’, they said he ‘slumbered’, and he had been slumbering for a long, long time. So long that when people used to call him ‘awful’ they meant he inspired awe, when they called him ‘terrible’ they meant he inspired terror. It had taken countless lives for humanity to buy themselves a mere thousand years’ reprieve, a reprieve that they had desperately needed. All throughout that thousand years he had chuckled deep in his slumber, dreaming of when he would wake.

Now, with that same chuckle in his throat, the Great Wyrm Zyxial opened his eyes.

It took him a while to climb out of his cave, but he was in no hurry. Inexorable and unstoppable, he had no reason to rush, indeed, he preferred to savor this. The smell of humans filtered through the mouth of the tunnel, and the Great Wyrm savored that too as rays of sunlight hit his scales for the first time in centuries.

The crowd gathered in front of his cave pleased him, for it meant the bards had spread tales of his return, and they thought they knew what to expect. These paltry few hundred wouldn’t pose him a challenge, but it meant he could begin feasting and savaging immediately, leaving only enough to spread news of his dread return.

Sectioned away from the mass by dark red ropes, two figures stood halfway between the crowd and the cave, waiting for him. Zyxial nodded, he was very familiar with this. The humans had gotten it into their heads that these heroes could defeat him, and they waited with bated breath to see if they had guessed right. It was the age old tale of the humans’ champion, potential savior of their kind, the tale of the dragonslayers versus the dragon.

Thus far, Zyxial had found that champions tasted just as delicious as any other human.

The taller one, a woman with red hair and thin spectacles, stood a little straighter, a little closer to him. Their main hope, then. She carried a small metal tablet and a stylus rather than a sword, but then, it had been a thousand years. It made sense to Zyxial that their weapons would be different, that apparently scribes had learned to fight like warriors. He suspected they would be no more effective.

“Shall I be gregarious,” the Great Wyrm said, rolling the word around in his mouth and enjoying its taste, “and announce to you the name of your doom?”

“That won’t actually be necessary, Lord...” the scribe consulted her metal tablet, “...Zyxial. As you can tell from the crowd, we actually knew that you would be awakening, although we did expect you ‘when sun reached its zenith’.”

The Great Wyrm Zyxial blinked. If he didn’t know any better, he would say that the little scribe's tone was reproachful. He knew of the concept of polite scolding, but didn’t know quite how to respond when it happened to him.

“Well, it took some time to climb out of the cave...” the terrible and awful Zyxial said uncertainly, “...I am inexorable and unstoppable, you see.”

“I’m sure you are, Lord Zyxial, I’m sure you are,” the scribe said sympathetically, “and it’s no trouble, it just means that we’re a bit behind schedule, is all. Normally there’s more pomp and ceremony that comes with this sort of thing, but I’m afraid we’ll have to skip that. My name is Amanda Willow, and I’ll be addressing your needs this afternoon.”

“I suppose that sounds reasonable-” Zyxial began, but then shook his head, “hold on, wait. Do you think to trick me, wordsmith? There shall be no ceremony, for all that awaits you is flame and death. Your cities shall burn, your Kings shall fall. Your only reprieve will be when I cross the seas to strike terror in distant lands, and even that will be a bitter mercy, for you shall quake at the anticipation of my return.”

Fear was a fairly standard reaction to Zyxial’s threats, when he got going. Perhaps anger and defiance, from champions. This scribe’s reaction, though, was new to him, and it took him a few moments to identify it; she looked patient. A polite smile on her lips, nodding in acknowledgement, waiting for him to finish. As emotions went, it was just about as infuriating a reaction as he could imagine.

“Do not humor me, speck!” he snarled, “do you think my threats idle? We will see if your foolhardy bravery remains in the face of my reign of blood and pain!”

“I’m actually going to stop you there, Lord Zyxial,” Amanda said primly, looking over her spectacles at him. It was starting to annoy him how perfectly she pronounced his name. “I have written here that humankind can provide you with a sacrifice which will appease your mighty hunger for a period of one-hundred-thirty-seven years, is that correct?”

“Now listen here,” Zyxial said, exasperated, “this is not how things are supposed to go. The sacrifice is supposed to be a secret, you’re supposed to hunt for mystics and oracles until you learn hard-to-decipher clues that you try as a last resort! It’s no fun if you know exactly how to appease me and exactly when the terror will return, it’s supposed to be ambiguous, so you all can...you know...cower, and things.” The crowd was making him very self-conscious, and a small part of him wondered if he should’ve just kept slumbering.

“Well I am very sorry to hear that, sir, it’s not my goal to keep you from having fun,” Amanda said with the air of one who is not sorry at all.

“Worry not,” Zyxial pushed forward, trying to get back into the spirit of things through sheer willpower, “it is easy to say you will make a sacrifice, but in practice...oh, but perhaps you do not know the cost. Perhaps you think me some meager drake, for whom a simple sacrificial serf will calm my hunger. No, I am Zyxial, the Great Wyrm, and my mercy comes at a much higher cost.”

“The life of a virginal princess, pure of heart, beloved by her father and praised by her subjects for all her eighteen summers?” Amanda suggested.

Zyxial deflated a bit. He did not care for this interaction, not one bit. He briefly considered asking if there was some other human he could deal with instead.

“Lord Zyxial, this is Rachel Walker,” Amanda gestured to the young lady standing next to her.

“Good afternoon, Lord Zyxial,” Rachel Walker said in ancient Alnatlarean, curtseying.

“Impossible,” Zyxial said, although he was so turned around that he wasn’t quite sure what he was objecting to.

“I don’t know if you care about the paperwork, but we have it here for you if you’d like a copy for your records.” Amanda waved a small folder in the air.

“I have no need of parchment,” Zyxial said sullenly.

“Very well, we can just go over the details here,” Amanda consulted her metal tablet. “Her father, King Jeremy Walker the First, was sworn in five years ago...no political power of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem...she’s lived for eighteen summers, although she’s nineteen years old, normally we try to be more precise but we only have control over so much. She is virginal-” Amanda paused, squinted at a line on her tablet, then raised an eyebrow at Rachel, “-technically. Since she’s had eight years and a team of very good counselors and therapists to make peace with this day, she is ready to face it, although I’m sure if it’s important to you she could give a fairly good ‘fear and terror’ impression?” She gave Rachel a questioning glance, and the princess nodded. “And as a bit of a bonus, she is one of three people in the world fluent in Alnatlarean, we threw that in just for you.”

“I don’t know about ‘fluent’, her accent is atrocious,” Zyxial grumbled, although even he knew he was just being finicky at this point.

“Well it is a dead language, sir,” the princess said.

“And you’re sure she’s beloved by her father and praised by her subjects?” Zyxial asked the scribe, grasping at straws, “positive that she’s pure of heart?”

“The young lady who volunteered to sacrifice her life to save her country?” Amanda Willow said quietly, “yes, I should think so on all three counts.”

Zyxial sat heavily on the ground, his enthusiasm gone. There wasn’t much to do at this point, of course. The humans had given him his princess, there was no real point to ravaging the countryside, but...it just wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as it used to be.

“Well...let’s go, I suppose,” he grumbled. His tail whipped as he turned to leave, clipping the scribe along the side of her neck, but even that petty vengeance did nothing to improve his mood.

The Great Wyrm Zyxial slunk back into his cave, followed by a princess who didn’t even have the decency to make a shrieking yet futile run for it or tearful plea to grief-stricken onlookers. The last thing he saw before turning the corner was Amanda Willow, ignoring the angry red mark on her neck, signing her tablet with a grim and satisfied flourish.

***

Tina leaned back in her chair and tried to focus on her computer screen, ignoring her body’s urge to slip into a post-lunch nap. It was a battle she was starting to lose.

“I’ve got to stop overeating,” she moaned to no one in particular. The lazy squeak of fans and the occasional creak of office chairs was the only answer she got back.

There weren’t a lot of quiet days in the Department of Preternatural Affairs, but this particular Friday was a lazy one. The Great Wyrm Zyxial was scheduled to rise from his slumber at noon, but it was the only thing of note that had happened all week.

At least she wasn’t alone in her laziness. A quick glance around the office showed that more of Tina’s coworkers were dozing or nodding off at their desks than were alert. Tina grinned and clicked back over to her news feed.

“Tina, would you mind coming with me for a moment?”

Tina yelped, trying to look both innocent and busy while simultaneously exiting her news feed and pulling up her spreadsheet. Amanda Willow, arms folded, raised an unimpressed eyebrow, and Tina blushed. How the hell did the woman move around so quietly? “Yes, of course, Chief Willow,” she said, and hurried to follow the long-legged captain through the quiet halls.

Willow was quiet as she made her way through the sleepy hallways, and her silence made Tina nervous. When the small conference room they entered turned out to be empty except for a matronly-looking woman with a manilla folder, her nervousness graduated to full-blown worry.

“Tina, this is Mary from HR,” Amanda Willow took a seat next to Mary, forcing Tina to sit across from them. “It’s procedure for our department to have an HR representative present for these meetings.”

“Oh come on, you’re writing me up again?” Tina groaned, “Chief Willow, no offense, but you’ve got to lighten up! It’s a really slow day, no one in the building is working. I barely have anything to do anyway, why are you singling me out?”

“I’m not writing you up for laziness, Tina,” Willow said, “and I think you know why I’m singling you out.”

Tina paused for a fraction of a second, her natural paranoia overcoming her happy-go-lucky demeanor. No...nah, there’s no way. Willow is good, she’s not THAT good. “I really don’t,” she pouted, “did I offend you or something?”

Willow turned and slipped the manilla folder out from the elbow of Mary from HR, who had started to drift off to sleep in her chair. “As you say, no one in the building is working. We’re usually one of the more urgent departments, but recently...well recently everyone has seemed rather sleepy and unalert, haven’t they? A bit...what’s the right word…‘drained’?”

For a moment Tina searched for another possible interpretation, but no, it was obvious by the way Willow was looking at her.

The Chief knew.

Tina relaxed in her chair, letting her teeth retract back into her skull and her fingers curl backward into their normal positions with a sigh. “Dang it, how did you know? I was so careful!” she said. “I even dyed my hair in case people noticed it was too black!”

Amanda Willow looked just as unimpressed with her transformation as she had with her attempt to look busy, folding her hands on the table and staring Tina down. It was a bit unnerving. Tina didn’t expect terrified screaming or anything, but a quiet and confident lack of reaction wasn’t what she had hoped for when she finally revealed herself.

“I’ll admit, it took much longer than it should have. I was overconfident, and I’m a touch embarrassed that I made such a human error,” Willow finally said.

“Aw, don’t feel bad, ‘to err is human’ after all,” Tina joked.

“We have, as a species, so many folk stories about monsters hiding in our midst,” Willow said, as if to herself, “and I thought I was being so careful. Blood testing for morphics, ID badges made of silver, ever-changing passwords to root out shapeshifters. Everything needed to catch someone impersonating my staff.”

“You don’t really think of us turning in a resume and interviewing for the job, do you?” Tina nodded sympathetically, “you humans aren’t really primed to be suspicious of the coworker who’s been working for you for years, it catches you off guard. Well, them’s the breaks, I suppose.”

“I suppose they are,” Amanda Willow said, regret in her voice. After another moment of silence, she resumed her businesslike tone. “You’ll notice I’ve put a Syphon-binding rune on the underside of your seat.”

Tina tried to rise, and found that she couldn’t.

“Well what do you know! I didn’t know humans had discovered that one yet,” she said with surprise. “Of course, you know you can’t keep me here. It’s wrongful imprisonment.”

“And eating the life-force of an entire department isn’t wrongful?” Willow asked.

Tina wagged a finger, “you can argue ethics all you want, Chief. You can’t legally imprison me in this chair whether you use a rune or a rope. Me eating three square meals a day isn’t legally wrong, I’ll starve without it.”

“You won’t starve, Syphons can live perfectly well on human food,” Willow said.

“Sure we can, but do you have an expert witness to testify to that?” Tina asked. “Are you willing to risk letting a judge make that call? A judge out there, who has probably never dealt with the preternatural before?”

The Syphon grinned. This was actually even more fun than she had thought. It had been a mere five years since the worlds had collided, all of her kind cast over to this lovely ball of water and carbon. Five years was long enough for the novelty to wear off, for humans to get bored of them and accept that they were just another thing that existed. It was long enough that the papers didn’t write about them whenever they sneezed. It was nowhere near long enough for the humans’ legal system to catch up with them.

“I’m part of this department, Chief, I get the memos,” Tina said, still grinning. “We have to be careful what lawsuits we attract, ‘cause every preternatural lawsuit breaks new ground, and we need to make sure it breaks our way. Do you really want to set the legal precedent on confining preternaturals with this case? The case of the office worker whose crime was simply feeding herself, a crime that barely hurt anyone?”

“You could feed yourself another way,” Willow repeated.

“And you’re sure you can convince people of that?” Tina sucked in her fat so that her bones protruded, going from healthy-looking to emaciated in a few seconds, “I can do a really good ‘help I’m starving I’m withering away’ if put under observation. Is that how you want this to play out?”

Willow pressed her lips together in a tight line. “No,” she admitted, “it isn’t.”

“Good.”

“I can keep you here until you confirm that you understand you’ve been written up, though,” Willow said.

Tina rolled her eyes and held out a hand, palm down, fingers up. “Sure thing, Chief, I’d hate to be informal about this. Give me the form to sign.”

“And I can slap you with an ‘Improper Use of Preternatural Powers’ charge,” Willow added, handing her the sheet.

“Mhm, mhm,” Tina said, scribbling her name down, “what is that fine up to these days? Twenty dollars?”

“It’s forty now,” Willow said.

Tina grimaced. “Ugh. Ah well, I guess that’s not a bad price for an all-you-can-eat buffet as it’s been. Here.”

Willow glanced at the signed form, and something about the way she glanced made Tina pause. She quickly reviewed the last several moments in her mind. The reactions, the halfhearted struggle, the defeated look...those were very human reactions, but they weren’t Amanda Willow. Willow wouldn’t give up that easily. She had something up her sleeve.

“The...uh...the rune seems to still be here on the chair,” Tina pointed out, after trying and failing to rise again.

“You know,” Willow said conversationally, looking over the write-up slip again, “it occurs to me that, since we are technically a governmental department, this is technically a legal document. You’ll have to print and sign your name.”

“Come on now, don’t play that, I did sign it,” Tina said, pointing. “It says ‘Tina Winkle’ right there! You may hate what I’m doing, Chief, but you wouldn’t lie or break the law, that’s not you.”

“Not ‘Tina Winkle’,” Willow said sweetly, sliding the form back to her, “your legal name. You know, the one your parents gave you.”

Tina paled as the blood drained into her face. “My...my True name? You can’t require that.”

“Legal document, Tina. I think you’ll find that I can.”

“I’m sorry,” Tina said. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ll stop eating peoples’ life-force, I promise.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Willow said, handing her a pen.

“Look, it’s not like I killed anyone, right? So I made them less effective for a few weeks, big woop. If I swear not to come back-”

Willow slammed her palm on the desk so hard that the wood rattled, the smile utterly gone.

“This is my department,” she said, quietly. “My department, my people. Every case that comes through that door is important, and this tiny little department is the only one who can understand half of them, much less has the expertise to deal with them, to answer the people who need help. Your gluttony means we haven’t been our best. We could’ve helped more people, we could’ve gained more traction, we could have been better. You come into my house, you mess with my people, and then ask me to lenient?”

Tina had taunted hunters and faced down bullets and blades, but for some reason the quiet voice across from her didn’t seem as funny as humans normally struck her.

“Sign the damn paperwork, Tina,” Willow said, “or I swear by two of the three gods I’ve met that I will walk out that door and wait a month before I ask you again.”

Tina picked up the pen and signed, keeping one eye on Willow as she did so. As soon as she slid the paper across the desk she felt the rune under her chair give way.

“Hexil, what a pretty name,” Willow said, her smile and sweet voice returned.

“Thank you,” Tina mumbled under her breath. A confusing blend of shame and anger and fear almost made her stumble on her way from the chair to the door, but any action that put more distance between her and Willow was a good one.

“Oh, and Hexil? Don’t ever feed on a human again,” Willow said, almost absentmindedly, as she filed the paperwork away.

Tina winced as the order melded with the power of her True name and bound them together like steel. It was cruel and unfair, but all things considered, it wasn’t the worst that Willow could’ve done. Judging from a few moments ago, it wasn’t the worst that Willow wanted to do.

“Thank you,” she growled. Yes, it would be difficult to find work again, and yes she no longer had the ability to feed, but manners were important to her, even in circumstances like this.

“Don’t mention it,” Willow waved a hand, “see you Monday.”

Tina walked down the hallway and through the department in a haze, her hearts still hammering. Half of her wanted to be furious that she could no longer feed, but the other half was too shaken, too aware that Willow could’ve taken much more away from her.

“Tina!” Aaron, the department secretary, was only packing up now. “I got back from my meeting late and they said Willow had taken you into the back, I was worried.”

“Thanks for worrying, Aaron,” Tina was too turned around to process much, but she remembered to extend her teeth when she talked to him, and to grab the purse with fingers that bend down instead of back. “It means a lot.”

“Hey, you okay?” Aaron asked, “you look close to tears, she didn’t fire you, did she?”

“I guess you could say that,” Tina was close to tears, for some stupid reason. “She wrote me up and then...and then...”

For a moment she paused, turning to look over her shoulder at the hallway. ‘See you Monday’, Willow had said.

“...and I guess I still have a job?” Tina finished, uncertainly. “Which is...good, I think? I mean, I guess I am pretty good at it...”

“That’s good, right?” Aaron said hesitantly, “look it sounds like you’ve had a rough week. I’m meeting Mark and Ann at the pub on 3rd, do you want to grab some food with us?”

Tina cocked her head to one side, trying to put a finger on the strange feelings rushing through her. “Yes, actually,” she said, surprised. “I think...I think I’d like that a lot.”

***

Amanda Willow, Chief of the Department of Preternatural Affairs, took a deep breath and summoned up all of her will. It took a special kind of steel to withstand torture like this, but after an hour, even that special kind of steel felt the strain. Across from her, her second-in-command David Thorne gave her an encouraging nod. It was the only help he could offer her, but she appreciated it nonetheless. They both knew that there were some monsters which only she had the power to face, and this was one of them.

Willow unmuted the phone on her desk. “Hello, Principal Anderson? Thank you for waiting, now where were we?”

In the end, it took another half hour to rehash the exact same points over and over again. Yes, she did realize how important the recital was to some parents. Yes, she did know Gracie Jones was the star performer. No, she couldn’t reschedule Mind Wake’s execution for a time more convenient to Bluelake Middle School. Yes, she was sure. No, another nine-year-old wouldn’t work, that was sort of the point of a “chosen one”.  Yes, prophesies were very inconsiderate.

When she finally hung up, Willow did so with a touch more force than was strictly necessary.

“You’d think he’d remember Wake’s killing spree from the papers,” Thorne said. “I’d have thought everyone would be pleased the execution.”

“Oh he remembers,” Willow said, a little bitterly, “he just doesn’t believe the prophecy that Wake can’t be imprisoned for more than one phase of the moon.”

“Civilians,” Thorne snorted, “totally on board with an evil sorcerer who can destroy memories, but a prophecy about who will kill him is too far a stretch.”

“Sometimes we just have to deal with the civies, Thorne,” Willow sighed and rubbed her eyes, then looked at the clock. “What the hell are you still doing here, anyway?”

“Moral support,” Thorne was already gathering his things, “and making sure you were okay. I saw the news footage, that wyrm got you pretty good with its tail this afternoon.”

“It’ll leave a scar, but I’ve had worse,” Willow rubbed the red mark on the side of her neck, “I could’ve done without the news airing that part though. We look pretty good on public events like these.”

“We still look good. You kept your cool, and I don’t think anyone can blame you for getting smacked by a dragon tail,” Thorne smiled. “Still. Long day.”

“Very long,” Willow agreed, beginning to pack up her own things.

“Listen...” Thorne paused at the doorway, “maybe take Seventh street home tonight, alright? Or First?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to take Eighteenth,” Willow rolled her eyes, making shooing motions with her hands, “now get out of here, it’s Friday night. Maybe grab some flowers on the way home for your wife, apologize for staying late. Again.”

It took Willow another quarter of an hour to actually leave the courthouse. She had to set the pixie traps, check the locks on the filing cabinet, lay out a comb of honey for the cleaning sprite, file the day’s paperwork, and wait until Bluelake Middle School finally faxed Gracie’s permission slip for Willow to sign. By the time she made her way down the steps, the moon was starting to rise.

Willow was just dialing home when her phone buzzed in her hand.

“I’m sorry, I’m on my way now,” she answered, “I didn’t get distracted, I promise, just had a busy afternoon.”

“I figured as much, haven’t even put dinner in the oven yet,” her husband Frank chuckled. “Just making sure you were coming home eventually.”

“Wow, you’re making dinner and everything?” Willow said, the worries of work already slipping away, “you spoil me.”

“Saw you on the news today, with that dragon thing. You did good, you deserve some spoiling.”

“Oh it was nothing,” Willow said, “I deal with dragons every day. I’ll see you soon, love.”

“See you soon...” Frank paused, and Willow could tell what he was about to say. “Don’t take Eighteenth street home, okay?”

“No no,” Willow laughed, “today was a good day, hun. I won’t take Eighteenth street.”

Her smile slowly slipped away as she hailed a cab. Behind her, the courthouse shone with a silver glow in the moonlight, glyphs and runes reflecting the stars.

***

It started to rain sometime during the cab ride, but Willow hadn’t been paying enough attention to pinpoint when. Her eyes were closed, her head leaned back, and she focused on the bumps in the road. The cab had a bad suspension, but they were more affordable than trying to buy a car in today’s economy, after the eldritch oil crash. She could they had arrived before the cabbie spoke, just by the way the bumps slowed.

“Here you are, ma’am, Jefferson and Eighteenth,” the cabbie said.

“Wait for a few minutes?” Willow asked, pressing the fare into his hand. The rain was cold, but the day had been warm enough that it felt good when she stepped out into the wet and dark. A few streetlamps and an everflame lit the sidewalk around her, but the locals had put up a string of lanterns along the walkway to light the entire wall next to it. Cass didn’t need the lights, but they lit up his mural like the work of art it was.

“Someone there?” Cass called out, tilting his head from where he worked.

“Hello, Cass,” Willow said.

“Ah, Madam Amanda Willow,” Cass smiled his toothless smile and turned his head in her direction. He kept spraying his spraypaint as he spoke, but then, a blind man didn’t need to look at what he was doing. Neither, for that matter, did an oracle. “How’s the mural looking?”

“Looks good, Cass,” Willow mused aloud, eyes locked on the huge piece. Cass nodded and happily went back to his work. It wasn’t a lie. Every line of the mural was beautiful, and the way they twisted and turned in and out of each other like knots was mesmerizing. The knots and colors formed dozens pictures, layered on top of each other but somehow all fitting together perfectly, so that one could look at the wall and see each vignette as clearly as if it was laid out on a page. Every one of them was of a tall red-headed woman with thin glasses, facing off against some creature or challenge.

It hadn’t taken long for the newspapers to identify the woman in the oracle’s mural as Preternatural Department Chief Amanda Willow, but after the initial buzz most people just accepted the mural’s presence. Even Willow didn’t depend on it for much insight. The dangers in the mural were usually only helpful in hindsight. Willow recognized a new image now, her sitting across from a Syphon whose back was to the viewer.

“A little late for you to visit, isn’t it Miss Willow?” Cass asked.

“Just wanted to see what you’ve added since I’ve been here last, Cass,” Willow lied. Instead, she walked to the end of the wall, to one of his oldest pictures.

No one knew how exactly Cass had conveyed it in the image, but everyone said they saw the same thing. The paint was a bit muted, but it still conveyed the scene perfectly. A red-haired woman, on her knees, glasses broken on the ground. The picture captured a moment of complete and utter defeat, a moment just before death.

Willow had wondered if it was just her own morbid interpretation, but everyone who saw it agreed. The woman in the picture had only seconds left of her life.

As she always did, Willow ran a hand over the long-dried paint. Smudged on the day it was painted, far too smudged to make out, the smear of purple and blue that stood over her fallen form still seemed so menacing. Granted, anything became menacing when you knew it would kill you. As she always did, Willow ran a hand down over the image of herself, pausing on her three hopes, the three details she clung to on nights like these.

In the image, Willow was missing her right ring finger, a severed and healed stump in its place. Willow ran her hand over her own finger, whole and healthy.

In the image, Willow’s ears were pierced, and little silver stars dangled from them. Willow reached up and tugged on her earlobe, smooth and unmarred.

In the image, Willow had an angry red mark on the side of her neck, like a magical burn that would never heal. Willow ran her fingers gently along her neck where Zyxial had whipped her with his tail, tracing the length of the angry red mark thoughtfully.

“Two hopes, now,” she said quietly.

“Oh, you still there, Miss Willow?” Cass called, “I thought you’d left.”

“I’m not gone yet, Cass,” Willow said, to him, and to herself, and to the vanquished figure in the mural. “I’m not leaving for quite some time.”

 

For more from Maddirose, check out her site at https://twistedcogs.wordpress.com/

Guest Week Day #2: Mathtans

TOUCH AND GO
============

“Hey Azure. What’ve you got there?”

Azure Vermilion turned to face her friend, who was now standing in the doorway. “Hi Faye. It’s just a necklace with a pendant,” she said, holding it up.

“Huh.” Faye came the rest of the way into the Vermilion living room, dumping her book bag onto the floor by the coffee table. “Where did you get it?”

“Second cousin,” Azure said. She looked back at the pendant as Faye sat on the couch next to her. The two Grade Nine girls had decided to study together that weekend, and at Azure’s house for a change, rather than meeting at the library.

Azure saw it as a step closer towards having a best friend. Since Faye was one of the few girls who didn’t seem to care that the Vermilion family had a reputation for being a weirdness magnet. A reputation largely due to Azure’s older sister, Chartreuse.

“Second as in you have more than one cousin, or as in you share a great-grandparent?” Faye asked.

“The latter,” Azure clarified. Holding the necklace up by the clasp, she flicked the pendant with her other hand. It was small, and seemed to be shaped like an hourglass. “Second cousin once removed to get all technical.”

“Huh,” her brunette classmate repeated. She leaned in for a closer look. “So why are older relatives sending you stuff? Is it your birthday or something?”

“No.” Azure grimaced, as she realized that she was slowly painting herself into a corner. How much more could she say here without freaking Faye right the heck out? She probably shouldn’t have opened up the package while waiting for Faye to arrive.

Chartreuse had been so insistent though. Almost as if her older sister had sensed that it needed to be opened that morning. To the point of shooing Azure off, saying to go do it, and that she’d get the door for Faye whenever she arrived.

“So what’s the deal?” came Faye’s natural follow-up question.

Azure sighed. “Stupid mystic stuff. Actually, you want this? I don’t want it.” She dropped the pendant and chain onto the coffee table.

Faye crossed her arms. “Won’t your cousin get upset if you don’t send back a picture of you wearing it or something?”

“No. Bridget lives down in the United States somewhere. We’ve never talked before. In fact, I don’t even know what she looks like.” Azure hesitated before adding, “The accompanying letter simply said she got this ‘impression’ that I should have the thing.” Azure made the appropriate air quotes. “Well, stuff that nonsense, yeah?”

“I guess?” Faye lifted an eyebrow before reaching out to pick the pendant up. “It doesn’t even look valuable,” she admitted. “Does this sort of thing happen to you often?”

“No, no, no, thank goodness,” Azure said, raking a hand back through her dyed-blue hair. “In fact, having anyone pick up vibes through the family line is pretty rare. I don’t think it’s happened to us since that time Chartreuse foresaw Fluffy’s death.”

Faye leaned away from her. “Death?”

Azure froze as she realized what she’d said. Crud, crud, crud. “It’s fine,” she said quickly. “The death was just that vision stuff my sister Chartreuse gets into. I’m not into it, not like her. I don’t even get impressions. Not from people like she does, or from ghosts like mom, or from objects like Bridget. I only have the historical-parlour-tricks-with-playing-cards thing as a handicap to being normal.” Still, it was enough to reveal things she didn’t want to see from time to time.

Faye eyed Azure. “Don’t talk to me like you think I’m going to run out of your house screaming about you being a witch. I’m not.”

Azure winced. “Sorry.”

“Don’t forget, I know all about family stuff that we can’t control, with both our sets of parents sucking at picking names. Plus you put up with my attitude, so we’re cool.” Faye straightened her posture. “But if you really don’t want it..." She pulled the hourglass pendant back against herself, reaching behind her neck to clasp it in place. “Does it look any good on me?”

“Looks fine,” Azure said with a shrug. The both of them were wearing typical T-shirts and jeans, though she supposed that Faye’s preference for black helped the small silver hourglass to stand out more.

Before Azure could say any more, a blonde girl wearing a white blouse with blue slacks marched into the living room. Acting like she owned the place. Chartreuse’s girlfriend. “Hi!” the senior student said. “Apparently you’ve got a new pendant, Azure? Can I... oh, your friend is already wearing it. Looks nice. Mind if I...?"

Faye reached up to smack the back of the blonde’s hand as she reached out to touch the silver item around her neck.

Azure jumped to her feet. “Carrie! What the hell? Go upstairs and make out with my sister or something. We’re studying here.”

Carrie cleared her throat as she rubbed her palm. “Yes. Well. Need to touch the pendant is all. Won’t take long. Then I’m gone.”

Azure turned to Faye, feeling equal parts anger and horror. “I am SO sorry, Faye. If I’d known that Chartreuse or any of her friends were going to act like lunatics today, I’d have had us meet at the library instead.”

“Feh. I know where the library is too,” Carrie pointed out. “Faye’s brother works there.”

Faye also glared at Carrie. “Azure, don’t apologize,” she said tersely. “It’s not your fault that certain high school seniors have delusions of grandeur.”

Carrie sighed and wiggled her fingers in the air. “One touch. Then gone.”

“Why?” Faye challenged. “You think you can do impressions like Azure’s cousin Bridget or something?”

Carrie blinked. “Is Bridget Irish? I can kind of mimic an Irish accent. But it’d probably offend a real Irish person.”

Azure palmed her face. “Go. Away. Carrie.”

“How about this. You can touch my new pendant if you get Chartreuse to do Azure’s chores for the rest of the month,” Faye decided.

Azure looked back up. Faye was now grinning, while Carrie seemed annoyed. The blonde teen muttered something that sounded like, “You try and be a good samaritan,” before nodding to Faye. “Fine, fine.”

Faye flashed a grin at Azure as Carrie reached in. But rather than tapping at the hourglass with her finger, Carrie closed her hand around the whole pendant, then closed her eyes. Her expression implied that she was concentrating on something.

“A-hem?” Faye said pointedly, after about ten seconds of that.

“Didn’t specify how long I’d touch,” Carrie muttered. “Don’t interrupt. Almost got a time that works... aha, there.” She smiled, finally releasing her grip, opening her eyes and drawing back. “Thanks. Also, Azure? You’ll need to call as soon as they clear out tomorrow. Otherwise the deal is off.”

Azure failed to come up with a witty retort as Carrie ran back out of the room. Namely because she was slowly coming to realize that this whole incident didn’t make any sense. How could Carrie have known about the pendant? The trinket had been removed from it’s shipping box mere minutes before Faye had arrived. Even Azure hadn’t known what it had been before that.

Had Chartreuse foreseen it or something, and then told her girlfriend about it? To prank them? That was the only explanation Azure could think of. I mean, it wasn’t as if Carrie had mystic abilities. Strange phenomena being a real thing wasn’t even known to over 99.9% of the world’s population.

Unless, had being with Chartreuse for all those meditation sessions mystically influenced Carrie somehow? Was that even possible?

“Ignore it,” Faye suggested, snapping Azure out of her confusion. “Ignore your sister’s obvious shenanigans and let’s get to the studying.”

“Uh, right,” Azure agreed. She shook her head and picked up her classroom binder from the corner of the table.

***

The robbery had been well planned. Azure had to admit that. The two guys had been in and out of the bank in less than five minutes. One of them had taken cash from the tellers, one had taken jewellery from the customers, and then a third person had driven them away in that black van. They hadn’t wasted time waiting for anyone to open the vault.

Which also made sense, Azure reasoned. This wasn’t a big town, so there wasn’t a whole lot in it worth robbing. The thieves were probably fleeing the community even now, leaving random chaos in their wake.

“Sorry Faye,” Azure moaned, tuning out whatever the bank manager was saying about the police having been called, and to please stay on the premises to make a statement. “If I hadn’t wanted you to come with me to the bank after school, you never would have been mixed up in this.”

“It’s fine,” Faye grumbled. “All they got from me was that pendant of yours, which I’ve had less than two days. And it was worth, what, not even twenty bucks?”

“I guess. They got my watch,” Azure lamented. Even as Faye’s comment about the pendant reminded her of Carrie’s remark from the previous day. Wait, ‘Call as soon as they clear out’...?

“You gotta react faster,” Faye said, pulling up her pant leg. She reached down to yank her phone out of her tall socks. “I got this hidden away almost before the guy finished saying ‘nobody move’. I am NOT letting anyone take it from me, took me forever to get enough to pay for the thing.”

“Faye, can you let me use that phone? I need to call my sister,” Azure said. It still didn’t make any sense, but then, neither did any of her family’s mystic issues. Such as the way having cellular phones in their house could interfere with their divinations.

“Your sister? I thought your whacky family didn’t own cell phones,” Faye pointed out as she handed it over.

“We don’t, but I bet I know who Chartreuse is with right now,” Azure said. She punched in Carrie’s number.

Carrie didn’t pick up until the third ring. “Hello?” came a voice ladled with suspicion.

“Carrie, the bank’s just been robbed. Is Chartreuse with you?”

There was the sound of Carrie repeating the information, then a beeping sound.

“You’re on, like, speaker, and I’m totally here,” Chartreuse’s voice said. “What happened at the bank?”

“Two guys plus a driver, they grabbed what they could from both tellers and bystanders, then took off in a van. We’re fine,” Azure added. “But they got a lot of stuff here, including that pendant that you and Carrie were obsessing over yesterday. So what’s the deal?”

There was a pause. “What pendant is this?” Chartreuse asked.

Azure rolled her eyes. “The pendant our second cousin sent me. The one you made me open right before Faye showed up on Sunday. The one Carrie fondled minutes later. Can you finally tell me what that was all about?”

“Wait, you saw me yesterday?” Carrie mused.

Azure glared down at Faye’s phone. “Oh, don’t. Don’t even pretend like you don’t remember what you did, Carrie.”

“Azure, I simply, you know, had the sense that you’d need to, like, open that package on Sunday morning,” Chartreuse said. “You’re saying it was a pendant? And that it was totally stolen minutes ago? By, you know, bank robbers?”

“YES. And if I weren’t stuck here at the bank needing to give a statement, I would track you both down and throttle you for playing games at a time like this.”

“Chartreuse,” came Carrie’s voice. “If this pendant was enough of a blank slate..."

“It looked like cheap jewellery,” Faye offered up, leaning in next to Azure. “I don’t even care. The thieves will probably junk it as soon as they realize.” She frowned, then looked more directly at her classmate. “Uh, look, Azure, it’s not that I didn’t appreciate the gift. I did, if that’s what it was. Just... yeah. Don’t sweat it, that’s all?”

Azure flashed Faye a quick smile. “I get you.”

Chartreuse was saying something on the other end, but with Faye speaking, Azure only caught, “...too dangerous. Azure, were the robbers armed? I bet they were, like, armed.”

“The two in here had guns, yeah,” Azure confirmed.

“So no, Carrie,” Chartreuse said. “No way.”

“Except it sounds like I’ve already done part of it,” came Carrie’s smug voice. “Don’t worry. Got a plan. Nobody messes with our town so long as I’m living here.”

“What are you two talking about? Will you lovebirds start to make a lick of sense any time soon?” Azure fumed.

Chartreuse sighed. “Not really. I’ll, like, be there as soon as I can though. I’m glad you’re safe, Azure. It’s important to be SAFE, right Carrie? Thanks for calling.”

With that, the connection cut out. Azure glared at the phone until Faye plucked it back out of her hands. “Gotta say,” Faye remarked, “as much as I hate my family situation since the divorce, at least my siblings are easier to read than your sister.”

“Next time, bargain freedom from a full month of chores for me, rather than the rest of the current month,” Azure suggested.

***

Sid chuckled as he pulled the van away from the bank. They were right on schedule. That made three robberies in six months. Enough to qualify as a crime spree? Well, he hoped the banks had been spread out enough in terms of location so as to not be connected.

It’s not like they were grabbing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Honestly, for him, it wasn’t even about the money, but rather the thrill of doing the deed. The money simply made it easier for him to recruit a couple of accomplices to do the dirty work, while he analyzed the best time of day to act, engineered a plan of attack, and so forth.

They hit a red light heading out of town, and Sid stopped. Not so much because of the single car of cross traffic, more that there was no immediate sign of pursuit, meaning no sense in getting fingered for a traffic violation. Blending in, that was the key now.

All the same, Sid tapped at the steering wheel as he looked at the countdown on the pedestrian crosswalk to the left, to get a sense of when he’d be able to get underway. 10... 9... 8... Zero? The light ahead of him was green. Startled, Sid mashed his foot down onto the gas.

He felt the van bump up over something in the road, the entire vehicle shuddering despite the very low speed collision. Then there was a popping noise as at least a couple of the tires blew out, and something hit the van’s undercarriage. He began to fishtail. Damn. Had he just struck a pedestrian? He hadn’t seen anyone.

The steering wheel was becoming unresponsive. Sid moved his foot to hit the brake. He was now in the middle of the intersection. At least this wasn’t a high traffic area.

“Guys! Bail,” Sid shouted to his associates in the back. “I hit something.”

He threw the driver’s side door open and jumped to the ground. Except as he turned to get a better look at whatever he might have run into, he nearly fell over. He’d stepped onto a large strip of adhesive paper, which was sticking to his shoes and hindering his movements.

Yanking his right foot free and stumbling back, Sid saw the problem. The van had run over a long board, covered in nails. No, TWO boards, as he now saw one jammed across the back tires as well. How was that even possible? There had been nothing in the road as they’d driven up. Certainly nothing that he’d seen, at any rate.

“Hey! Something grabbed my gun,” came a voice from the other side of their getaway vehicle. His two partners must have jumped out of the van’s sliding door. “Where did it go?”

“Mine’s gone too,” Sid heard moments later. He instinctively reached for his holster, pulling out his own gun and holding it tightly. He’d noticed a car coming down the road some distance behind them. Maybe he could get them to pull over, to make his escape that way. He turned.

That’s when she appeared. A teenager with long, blonde hair, wearing a white blouse with blue slacks. “Appeared” being the only possible word for it, because he hadn’t heard the girl approach, and yet now here she was, by his side. Holding onto his gun, apparently trying to pull it from his grasp.

Sid snarled, and tried to elbow her away, clutching tighter at his weapon.

“Oh hell,” the blonde girl gasped. She looked to be out of breath. In fact, moisture was streaming down her face, and there were sweat stains on her top. Almost as if she’d stopped by while in the process of running a marathon.

Her grip on his gun tightened too, probably to keep him from drawing a bead on her. Except she had to use both hands for that. Sid still had a hand free, which he now used to smack her across the face. He wouldn’t have hit a girl under normal circumstances, but right now, all that mattered to him was getting away.

She fell back in surprise, losing her grip. Sid quickly stepped away, heading to where he expected the approaching car to be. It had already pulled over to the side of the road. When had it had the time to do that? The guy inside seemed to be phoning someone. Probably the police.

Fine. “New plan,” Sid said, clicking the safety off his gun. He turned back towards the blonde teenager, reaching for her with his other hand. “You’re my hostage.”

“I gotta better plan,” the girl panted. For a moment, Sid could have sworn her eyes gave off a yellow glow.

She moved fast. Impossibly fast. The blonde’s hands were back on the gun before he could pivot away, to get it out of her reach. Now holding onto it again, she continued the turning motion he had begun, while pointing his weapon down, towards the ground. Her fingers reached the trigger, and she fired the weapon harmlessly into the asphalt.

Sid drew back his free arm to hit her again. Except he somehow couldn’t get his muscles to behave properly. It was as if his left arm was now underwater, meeting incredible air resistance as he tried to move it. In essence, his fist was moving at half speed compared to what his brain expected.

The gun fired again, and again, and then clicked. He was out of bullets. He hadn’t bothered to check if he had a full clip.

Finally, his arm decided to resume normal speed. Sid clocked the girl in the face, but the irregularity of his own arm movement made him stumble, off balance. As the blonde faceplanted into the roadway, his right foot hit that stupid adhesive paper again. With both his feet stuck again, he began to completely lose his balance, and found he was unable to throw his arms out in time to break his fall.

The last thing Sid heard as he hit his head, and felt himself losing consciousness, was the girl’s voice mumbling, “That could’ve gone better.”

***

“Chartreuse, please speak to me.”

The older Vermilion sibling said nothing, continuing to dab with the facecloth. Carrie tried not to wince as the cool object pressed against her wounded face.

“Aw, c’mon. Not even a tiny ‘like, you know’, huh?” Carrie said.

The pink haired girl in the rainbow dress finally pulled back, glaring with pursed lips.

Carrie sighed. “Okay. You want me to admit it? Fine. I did a stupid. But consider, I have to get better at using my weird time powers. People from the future might still come after me, and I can’t risk going nuclear on them every single time.”

Chartreuse flung the facecloth towards the sink. “Damn it, Carrie,” she said at last. “That’s why we, you know, train. Not run off and play at being, like, Supergirl!”

Carrie winced. “But training only goes so far. And to be fair, at no point in my plan did I think I was bulletproof like in that TV show.”

“Which only highlights the, you know, stupidity.” Chartreuse stamped her foot. “Carrie, you could have been shot. AGAIN. What plan did you even have there?”

Carrie raised her index finger. “Step one, time trip back to yesterday, to get a bead on Azure’s new necklace. Pinpoint it in the temporal river, and target a time shortly after the robbery, when it was not in motion.” She raised another finger. “Step two, obtain boards with nails. Time travel to the stationary necklace, aka the thieves’ vehicle, and time freeze it long enough to put the boards down to take out their tires.” A third finger came up. “Step three, repeat the time suspending to put down some flypaper as the doors opened, and disarm the villains in the ensuing chaos.”

“Except you couldn’t hold the time freeze,” Chartreuse challenged.

Carrie dropped her arm back to her side. “Actually, I think I could have held it. It was the coordination that tripped me up. As I dashed around, I had to keep flipping the temporal hold pattern on and off, so that I could grab the guns, and to keep the approaching car from seeing a freeze frame. That was more draining than I thought. But c’mon, even if the one robber who got a good look can describe me, they’ll never believe him.”

“And what about the, like, traffic camera?”

Carrie tensed. “There was a camera?”

“No, but there totally could have been. You didn’t even, you know, think.”

Carrie let out a quick breath. “Chartreuse, don’t scare me like that.”

“Don’t scare YOU? Ohmigod, Carrie, seriously?!”

Carrie raised her palms up. “Okay! Okay, Chartreuse, I’m sorry. Really. I wouldn’t have let myself get shot though. As it was, I sped up my personal time long enough to discharge the driver’s gun before my plan went too far south. I think accidentally including him in the time field even worked to my advantage, because his extremities moved weirdly. So, yeah, I got away, and the police were pretty quick to arrive.”

Chartreuse was back to glaring. “You got lucky. I don’t know whether to, like, smack you for what you did, or kiss you for, you know, surviving and helping all those people get their valuables back.”

“I vote kiss,” Carrie said, grinning. “Come on, happy ending.”

Chartreuse planted both hands against the bathroom counter, on either side of Carrie. “Oooh, don’t you tempt me, Carrie Waterson! I mean, the other two crooks might have, you know, gotten away, if they hadn’t been weighed down trying to, like, take the sacks of valuables.”

Carrie shrugged. “They were caught.”

“You might have, you know, been knocked out and taken hostage.”

“I wasn’t.”

Chartreuse stamped her foot again. “Your ego is, like, driving me crazy here!”

“Crazy with loooove?”

Chartreuse let out a long breath. “Carrie, my temporal goddess, can you at least promise me that you won’t, you know, deliberately put your life in danger like that again? Not until we find a better way of dealing with nasty things like guns?”

Carrie gingerly probed at the largest scrape on her face. “That’s fair. And I am sorry for making you worry, Chartreuse. Really, that was not the plan. I learned a lesson today.”

“Good.” Chartreuse sighed. “I mean, I like that you’re feeling more in control of your power, and I know that you’re worried about being unprepared for the future. But you’ve gotta, like, think about the present too.” She made a face. “Because I’m not used to being the, you know, responsible one.”

Carrie nodded, hoping she sounded as contrite as she felt. “Understood. Thank you, Chartreuse. Seriously. Kiss now?”

“Love you too,” Chartreuse sighed, at last moving in close enough to brush her lips up against those of her girlfriend. And once their lips disengaged, she pulled Carrie into an embrace.

The two girls squeezed against each other, Carrie moving to run her palms up and down Chartreuse’s back. Then she cleared her throat. “Oh, one other thing. You kind of have to do Azure’s chores for the rest of the month. Because that was the deal for me getting a read on the pendant. Okay, Chartreuse?”

The hug became tighter.

“It’s just, your sister’s friends are sneaky. Look, I’ll help you, okay? Um, you’re squeezing a bit much now. Chartreuse? We’re still good, yeah?”

*

See more of Mathtans work at https://mathtans.wordpress.com/

 

Guest Week Day #1: L. E. Erikson

This week's post is by L. E. Erickson, author of Crowmakers.

Crowmakers

1: The River Rising

July 1806

Kentucky

Kellen Ward huddled beneath the leaf-heavy branches of an oak. The other three members of the Crowmaker scouting party crouched close enough that she nearly brushed knees with them.

"If they catch on we're out here, they'll try to lure us out. Nobody's gonna be stupid enough to fall for any shit."

William Jennett, whip thin and blond-headed, paused and planted his forearms on his thighs and leaned forward. He fixed icy blue eyes on Johnny Rawle.

Kellen hid a smile. This was serious business. Nothing was supposed to be funny right now.

"Nobody." Jennett's voice rasped like frayed rope against chafed skin.

Rawle scowled in response to Jennett's emphasis, creases rippling across his round face. Kellen didn't figure Rawle to be much younger than she was, but when you counted in the expressive face beneath the mop of brown hair and his overabundance of naivete, he was mostly an overgrown boy.

The fourth Crowmaker of their party only grunted at Jennett's admonition. Viktor Kalvis was a fair sight older than the rest of them, with lines of hard living etched across his typically-dour face and thinning blond hair. Add in Kellen's slighter build and chopped-short hair bristling around her softer face, and there wasn't much alike about them.

Except one thing. Despite their differences, all four of them wore the same uniform, white linen shirts and coarse gray linen pants with muslin hunting frocks a shade darker. Their gray uniforms and black hats merged into one over-sized shadow within the shadows.

They wore the uniforms easily by now. Kellen had grown so accustomed to the slanted black lines etched in v-shaped slashes across the Crowmakers' faces that she often struggled to remember what any of them had looked like before, without the tattoos. The only time she thought much of it anymore was when catching sight of her own reflection reminded her that those same tattoos criss-crossed her face, too.

Jennett kept his voice down, although Kellen wasn't sure their voices would carry anyhow. The Kentucky forest south of the Ohio River was more dense than anything Kellen could have imagined before the Crowmakers had left Philadelphia. Branches laced together like fat fingers overhead, blocking most of the meager light--but somehow none of the rain. Undergrowth snatched at her uniform jacket and tripped her feet. Sometimes the air smelled warm, like earth. Others it reeked of rotting vegetation.

And they couldn't use the paths, of course. Those belonged to the renegade Cherokee responsible for the attacks that had brought the Crowmakers here.

The Cherokee were also why the Crowmakers kept their voices low. Nervousness wrapped its fingers around Kellen's throat.

Don't need to be scared. Not anymore.

Over their heads, just above the treetops, four Crows circled tirelessly. Made of metal that was blacker than black and carried by massive wings, they were held in place by mental tethers. Kellen's felt like an irregular tug in the back of her brain. The sensation wasn't entirely comfortable, but she'd gotten used to it. If nothing else, it reminded her that she was strong now. No more need to run and hide from trouble if it came her way.

The part where they went looking for trouble, though--that she was still adjusting to.

"Perhaps we send a single Crow only, to check their position. This might lessen the chances of being noticed."

Kalvis's Lithuanian accent stilted his words and turned them formal. No smile tilted his mouth or crinkled the corners of his eyes. The deep lines carved in those places had to have come from too much frowning. He looked even rougher with two days of dark blonde stubble marring his usually clean-shaven jaw.

"I'm getting to it, old man." But the hard edge had gone from Jennett's voice, replaced by a mildness Kellen read as respect. Maybe even affection.

Kalvis's only reply was a grunt. No wasting words, not him. And although he included both Jennett and Rawle in his acknowledging nod, he didn't so much as glance toward Kellen. Nothing new there. She thought where Kalvis was concerned, she might be invisible.

Gnats swarmed Kellen's face, drawn by the sweat beading her brow. She squinted to keep them from her eyes and resisted the urge to fan her face. You couldn't hit the little bastards, and they'd only come back as soon as you stopped swatting them away. She hated to wish for rain, because it had been ever-present all this long summer, dripping from leaves and hat brims and down collars, inspiring the plants to overgrown, over-green heights. Between the rain and the humidity it left behind, Kellen couldn't remember the last time she'd been really, truly dry. But at least the rain discouraged the bugs.

"Ward."

Kellen snapped her head up and peered through the cloud of gnats at Jennett. "Yeah?"

Probably she should have called Jennett "sir" or something like it. He was in charge of their little squad, after all. But if her failing bothered Jennett, he didn't show it.

"We're gonna go high and have a look at the banks of that creek just to the west. You know what to look for?"

Hot-tempered and crass as he could be, Jennett looked Kellen in the eye and talked to her like she was just another person. Just another soldier. The whole reason for keeping her hair chopped short was to encourage the men to forget she wasn't just another one of them. With Jennett, she thought maybe it wouldn't have mattered, that even with long hair and something more girlish than a Crowmaker's uniform, he might still look her in the eye.

Which was funny, because the man could sure be a complete ass when he wanted to.

"Anyplace that looks like a crossing." Picking out where a trail came out of the woods on one side and went back in on the other wasn't anywhere near as easy as all that, of course. But it was an answer to Jennett's question.

Jennett nodded. "With a little luck, there'll be a big enough encampment that we can't miss spotting the Reds."

"Wouldn't it be better luck if there wasn't so many of them?" Rawle's voice wavered. Kellen thought about reaching over and punching his arm, but that would qualify as the something stupid Jennett had been talking about.

"You are an awful big boy to be such a little chicken-shit, Rawle." Jennett's gaze shifted to Kalvis. "Me and Ward are reaching out--two of us, so we can watch each other's backs up there. Kalvis and Rawle, you're watching our backs down here. Last thing we need is any scouts sneaking up on our asses while we're in the Crows."

Kalvis's nod was solemn, and his face showed nothing of whether he agreed or disagreed with Jennett's plan. Rawle nodded too, and maybe he was trying to look stoic, but his eyes were so big that the whites showed. His right hand drifted to the Ellis .36 on his hip, and he brushed his fingers across the holster like a preacher might touch the crucifix on his chest for reassurance.

 Jennett fixed Rawle with a hard look. "Just make sure if you shoot somebody, it's a Red and not one of us."

Kellen might have been tempted to smile again, but her own nerves were jangling now.

Jennett turned his icy eyes on Kellen. "Circle wide until you're high enough they can't tell we ain't real birds. If you have to come down for a closer look, circle wide again until you're buzzing the treetops. We ain't showing 'em what we got if we don't have to."

The Crow was waiting. Kellen couldn't see it with her own eyes, through the thatch of interleaved branches overhead, couldn't see the midnight-black surface that reflected no light or the eyes drilled into the sides of its triangular head that glowed faintly silver.

But it was up there. The tug in Kellen's mind never let her forget that it was. And it may have been only a hunk of metal--a well-crafted one, but just a hunk of metal. But it exuded a sense of vitality that crawled along Kellen's skin like a hot wind. Sometimes she forgot it wasn't a living, separate creature from her.

 Kellen probed at that ever-present tug in her mind until she found a buzzing awareness just beneath. She took a bracing breath and reached for that awareness, the link between herself and the Crow. It was like being drenched in freezing water and welcomed home, all at the same time, unsettling and yet somehow right.

When the link had steadied, she shifted her thoughts around just so and let the balance of her consciousness change. Her vision blurred, but she relaxed into it instead of fighting it. After a few seconds, the blurring cleared.

Kellen saw through the Crow's eyes. She looped to the east and to the south, wide spirals as the Crow climbed gradually higher. From the air, forested hills turned a hundred shades of green, from palest foam to emerald to near-black, a quilt of gem-like patches flowing into a seamless sea. The only sense Kellen could truly use with the Crow was sight, but its vision was so clear that she swore she could feel the wind whipping past, hear its roar, smell its bright breath.

Kellen didn't actually fly--her feet were still planted firmly on the ground far below--but that didn't stop her stomach from lurching and dropping. If this wasn't flying, then it was as close as she could get. She knew Kalvis and Rawle's Crows were still below, markers above the trees where her physical body remained. She caught sight of Jennett's Crow now and then, hard black wings against a flat blue sky, rising on a similar circular path as her own.

They weren't going anywhere, and neither were the Cherokee they were looking for, if they were really there. For a few seconds, Kellen let herself forget about Jennett and Kalvis and Rawle and Indians, and just soared.

"Should be high enough." Jennett's voice was low but perfectly clear. He was, after all, standing only inches away from her, far down in the forest below. Unlike the Crow, she had ears and they worked just fine. "Let's start easing west."

The thrill in Kellen's throat didn't have to do entirely with the sensation of flight. Just nerves, that's all. She didn't say a thing out loud. Rawle might be all right with Jennett calling him a chicken-shit, but Kellen couldn't afford to have accusations like that stuck to her.

They didn't fly directly to the west. Even though from the ground the Crows would be little more than specks, any unnatural movement might draw attention. Kellen kept up the lazy, swooping circles she'd used to gain the sky but let the Crow wander further west while tightening the eastern edge of its movements.

The Ohio River appeared a few miles to the north, glittering like broken glass in the rare sunlight. To the northwest, the sky had grown an all-too-familiar shade of dark and gray. The first lazy rumblings of thunder would start soon.

At least the rain will chase off the gnats, she reminded herself.

Far below, a more slender branch of water ran like a silver thread between the green and green and more green squares of a quilt.

"I see the creek," Kellen said into the darkness surrounding her physical body. As she spoke, she held everything else carefully the same inside her head. No jiggles of the link between her and the Crow.

"Follow it south," came Jennett's reply from the same darkness. "I'll trace it north to the Ohio."

Kellen tipped her Crow's wings and banked to the south.  

The creek wound through the forest far beneath the Crow's wings, in some places thinning so that the trees on opposite banks reached across and hid it from view, only to widen again further along. It winked as it vanished and reappeared and vanished again, like it was mocking Kellen's chances of getting it to give up any secrets.

She tipped the Crow's wings and kept looping further south, anyhow. Her nose reminded her that she stood somewhere in the forest to the east--none of them had bathed in a while, but Kellen could hardly complain about the men stinking when she didn't smell any sweeter. And with the day heating up now, the sweet earthy forest smell was giving way to the stink of molding leaves.

Still, every once in a while, Kellen swore she caught a hint of the brisk, sun-scented air the Crow flew through.

"Anything?" Beyond Jennett's voice, Kellen caught the sound of the other two men breathing: the brisk whistling that meant Rawle was all worked up and breathing through his mouth like an over-excited kid, and the steady, near-silent sound of Kalvis giving every bit of his attention to the task assigned to him.

Down below Kellen's Crow, the creek wound and winked and the forest spread out, unbroken. In the skies around the Crow, real birds wheeled and swooped.

"Nothing," Kellen replied.

"Not a bad thing," Rawle murmured.

The creek vanished into the trees. When it came out again, Kellen caught hints of loamy brown at its edges, maybe where the banks sloped on either side.

Then movement further west caught Kellen's attention. She squinted before she realized it wouldn't do her a bit of good. Crows didn't squint.

"Smoke," was what she said out loud. "This might be the crossing. And I think I see smoke."

"Keep circling. I'm coming your way."

"Shit." Rawle's whisper was more of a hiss. "You hear that?"

"Quiet, John." Kalvis's voice was as steady as ever. But there was a sense of listening to it that crept up Kellen's spine and turned the dank darkness surrounding her physical body suddenly unbearable.

I can't see. What's happening? I can't see!

She forced a deep breath in and then out again, reassured that she could feel the sensation of her lungs filling and emptying even though her sight was high overhead and a mile or more to the west. All she had to do was keep breathing. All she had to do was check back in with her own eyes and find out for sure what was going on.

Carefully, Kellen shifted things around in her head again--a little less pressure here, a little more there, like jimmying the lengths of a knot so that they fell into place just where she wanted them. With a dizzying little rush, but one Kellen was ready for since it was always the same, the sight of rolling green faded--not entirely, but until the forest she saw through the Crow turned hazy shades of grayed-out green that overlapped instead of obscuring her own vision.

Through her own eyes, Kellen could see the forest pressing close around her, not in sharp focus but well enough to see that Rawle stood with his head lifted, like a deer scenting trouble on the wind. His hand was on the butt of his .36.

But he hadn't drawn it yet. Neither had Kalvis, who faced the opposite direction and scanned the surrounding trees. Jennett remained where he'd been last time Kellen had seen him, the full-back tilt of his head and half closed eyes indicating that he was still fully with his Crow.

"Ward?" Jennett's mouth moved, but nothing else.

"Still here." She eased her mind back toward her Crow--not all the way, but more than the halfway here, halfway there she now held. There was no way to measure what she was doing. She had to remember how it felt, the exact balance of pressure and no pressure in just the right places inside her head. Like letting go and holding on, all at the same time.

The shadow-image of the forest below brightened from dull gray to ghostly green. There were the traces of white smoke lingering above the treetops, now behind the Crow's wingtips and dwindling. Kellen tilted the Crow's wings and started a slow loop to come around toward it again.

Through the flowing landscape of silver-thread creek and deep green, the images of Rawle and Kalvis and Jennett remained. No one had drawn a gun yet, and Rawle's squeaky panic-breath had eased some. That was good.

Kellen's Crow bobbed. Wobbled.

A thread of panic trickled up Kellen's spine. She sucked in a breath and made herself hold it a second. Ignoring the instinct to surge back into the Crow, she reached a little further out through that link in her mind--gently, calmly--and adjusted the Crow's wings.

The Crow steadied.

"Everything all right, Ward?"

Jennett had heard her gasp, of course. Through the half-solid image of unfurling forest beneath the Crow's wings, Kellen saw that Kalvis and Rawle had both turned to look at her.

The Crow banked steadily in a wide arc, heading back toward the smoke and the probable creek crossing.

"Yeah. I'm good." She made herself sound like she meant it. She did mean it. Everything was fine.

A whispering laugh burbled up from beside Kellen--no. Behind? The back of her neck tingled. The phantom voice reminded Kellen of rushing water and rising wind.

Her Crow lurched. Kellen spun around. She was dimly aware that the shadow-images of Rawle and Kalvis drew their .36s.

No one. Nothing was behind her.

Through the Crow's eyes, the green of the forest grew abruptly brighter and larger.

Falling. The Crow is falling.

"Ward?"

Jennett's voice, but distant and distorted. Dizziness clutched at Kellen.

The dizziness blocked her from that place in her mind that linked to her Crow. She reached desperately, trying to find the Crow again.

Through the Crow's eyes, the forest spun closer.

Reach harder. Oh God, help me.

That place in Kellen's mind where the Crow was flickered. She grabbed at the link, threw herself into it like someone trying to save a drowning man.

See more of L. E. Erickson's work at https://crowmakers.wordpress.com

The Guest Week Cometh

                Hey guys, Drew here. For those of you who missed the notice on the Bonus Chapters section and the entry in Upcoming Events, I wanted to take a moment to make sure you knew that next week (May 22nd – May 26th) is going to be a Guest Week. I’ll be out of the country, so some fellow web-serial writers have graciously offered to fill in to make sure you folks still get some fun content through the week. As is noted in the donation area, there won’t be a Bonus Chapter even if the fund is filled since I won’t be around a computer, but it will channel through to the next week. Also, expect things like comment approval and overall site updates to be slow, since I’ll have to do them from my phone when the chances come up. Hope you enjoy what’s planned, I’ve already seen a few of them and I think you’re all in for a fun week!

Guest Post Interlude - Week #7: Syphax

The final guest interlude is from Syphax, who writes the serial Stone Burners

Olivia hunched over on the couch in Ben’s apartment, threadbare blanket wrapped around her shoulders and wings. The tube TV across from her filled the dim room with flickering light and white noise. Outside, sirens cut through the night air, more than she’d ever heard in the last week since waking up for the first time. She tensed up every time it sounded like they were approaching, though they always turned away or stopped short.

I just met Ben. I shouldn’t just be sitting around on his couch, right? she thought. They’re looking for me, not him. Her clawed fingers idly fiddled with a corner of the blanket as she looked around the bare apartment. Ben kept little more than furniture in his living room or the kitchen. The only thing that caught her eye was a box of donuts on the kitchen counter.

Food. Food is good. It’s something. The bruises across her chest ached as she stood up. Her wings, folded up as tight as she could get them, nearly brushed against the ceiling. She lumbered over, her scaly tail dragging along on the carpet. Do any of them have cinnamon? She picked one out, then thought, Maybe Ben wants one.

Olivia grabbed the box with her free hand, claws punching small holes into the thin cardboard, and headed down the small hallway. She froze at a half closed door. The sirens had distracted her from sounds much closer. She heard faint screaming, along with much louder rasping. Is he OK? She nudged the door open.

As spartan as the living room was, Ben’s bedroom was chaotic. She saw three guns, including the long one he usually carried, leaning against the wall in the far corner. On the walls were a couple movie and videogame posters thrown up haphazardly, as well as a mounted crossbow. The closet was thrown open, clothes clean and dirty spilling out. A clock on the lopsided nightstand next to the bed read 10:14 PM.

Ben lay sprawled on the bed in pants and t shirt, sheets and blankets shoved aside and a controller by his limp hand. His black hoodie and gun holsters lay by his feet. On the other side of the room sat a solid wooden desk, with an idle game on a computer monitor. Bright lights flashed on screen, occasionally accompanied by a scream. Just as she was about to back away, he jerked awake.

“What’s that?” he mumbled, shooting upright. He blinked, bleary eyed, at Olivia for a moment. “Oh, hey there. I didn’t realize I passed out.”

Olivia stared, donut box in hand forgotten. Do I say something? Without waiting for a response from her, he rolled off of his bed and onto a swiveling office chair. He moved aside a small fake Christmas tree and a plastic jack o’ lantern to turn off his computer.

He looked up at Olivia standing in the doorway. “Excellent choice of donut. Cake ones are fantastic,” he said, rapid fire. After a moment, he added, “Don’t have to just stand there, you know.”

She crouched down to fit through the door. After a moment’s hesitation, she sat on the edge of his bed, curing up her tail so that it dangled next to her off the side. It’s OK to do this, right? Ben spun in his chair to face her directly. He looked at her expectantly, so she asked, “What were you doing?”

“Just playin’ a game. Weren’t you goin’ to sleep? It’s only been a couple hours.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” she mumbled in reply.

He nodded. “Gotcha. Not gonna explain that?” he asked, pointing to the donut box in her hand.

“Oh, right. Sorry. Did, um, you want one?” she asked, holding out the box for him.

“Shit, can’t say no to that,” he said, almost too fast to be understood.

He flipped it open and took one, leaning back in his chair to enjoy the donut. They sat in comfortable silence for a minute. This isn’t bad. No one is angry, no one is shooting. This is nice.

“Um, why do you have that big hammer?” she asked once they’d finished.

“Speak up, what was that?” he said, cupping a hand by his ear.

“The hammer,” she repeated, as loud as she dared. “Why do you have it?”

“Oh, right, that thing. I got it a while back, when I first started vigilante-in’. That a word? Fuck it, whatever. I got it thinkin’ I could break some knees to get some info outta targets. But that don’t work too well. They just spit out what they think I wanna hear. I’ve been keepin’ it around in case I come across some really big nails or some shit.”

Olivia stared at him, horrified. Why would you do that? That’s horrible.

“Like I give a fuck. They ain’t exactly nice people.”

“Still though,” she mumbled. “It’s not right. Those guys-”

“Hey, they were shootin’ you. They wanted you dead, no question about it. If you weren’t fuckin’ bulletproof, you would be. An’ look, all I can do is teleport a short way. You can tear apart a car, an’ you ain’t the only one. Gotta level the playing field somehow. That’s what they were thinkin’ when they shot you.”

“And you killed them.”

“So did you.”

“By accident! We did the same things they did.”

His grin didn’t waver. “Apples and fuckin’ oranges. I ain’t killed someone who didn’t deserve it. Neither have you. If you start enjoyin’ it for its own sake, that’s a real problem.”

“Isn’t that what ferals like me are supposed to do,” she said. “Just kill?”

“Shit. I dunno. Only other time I heard of a feral, it killed a dozen people before getting’ mowed down by the cops an’ the local supers. An’ besides, most ferals I’ve heard of are weird-ass monster things, like shovin’ an elephant through a human or somethin’ awful. You look like a real tall girl with wings an’ a tail stapled on. Don’t worry about it. You feelin’ guilt? That’s good, that’s empathy.”

“I guess,” she said.

“Speak up, talkin’ way too soft.”

“It was nothing,” she replied.

He grunted and said, “Well, if you ain’t sleepin’ we gotta kill time somehow.” He spun and leaned over to the side, starting to sift through a box under the desk Olivia hadn’t realized was there.

“What are you doing?” asked Olivia.

“I got a bunch of these fuckin’ things somewhere. Aha!” She heard several things thump in the box Ben was going through, then he came upright with several disks in hand. “We shall watch movies until our eyes bleed and our brains leak from our skulls! Unless you got somethin’ else goin’ on.”

 “Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

“What do you mean somethin’?”

“There’s a terrorist guy out there! He tried to shoot us. He did shoot me, a bunch. And it really hurt. And he’s got a bunch of other people with him and they also have guns and we’re just sitting here and I don’t know-”

He raised a hand, cutting her off. “Hold up. Take a deep breath.” Olivia forced herself to stop. Sorry. “Hear that?” he asked, once she’d calmed down.

I hear lots of things. “What?”

“Those sirens.” She nodded after a moment. “That’s the sound of the cops handlin’ that little issue. Keep in mind me bein’ a vigilante ain’t exactly legal, an’ the cops will shoot you on sight. We don’t wanna get caught in a crossfire.”

She nodded again, now more aware of the sirens than ever. Apparently it showed on her face.

 “You still bein’ a worry wart about everythin’?”

“Yes. I mean, I killed people,” she said, studying her knees. “I’m getting kind of flashbacks about it and they’re awful. That was me doing that. I attacked everyone. I hurt you too, I think.”

Ben set down the DVDs and rubbed his neck. He said, “To be fair, I jabbed a taser into your neck, so we can call that square.”

“Yeah, but you were trying to stop me from killing other people.”

“Yeah, but…” then he suddenly leaned over and jabbed her in the eye.

“Ow, why?” she asked, holding a hand over the poked eye. What did I do?

He considered her with a grin, stroking his clean shaven chin. “Interesting. You see, if you were a monster, since you seem to think you are, you would’ve bit me or attacked or somethin’. Instead, you’re making me feel as though I just kicked a puppy. Not a classic monster trait, I’ll tell you that for free. Also, I didn’t getcha too hard, did I?”

She blinked her eye a couple time and removed her hand. “I’m fine, but please don’t do that again.” He smiled and nodded, holding his hands up to as if to say ‘I’m innocent’. She sighed. “Why?”

“Huh?”

“Why did this have to happen? All of it, everything?”

“You want the short version or the long version? Never mind, I’ll tell you both.” He grinned and settled more comfortably in his chair, leaning forward. “The short reason is because fuck you. That’s why.”

She stared at him for a moment, then said, “That’s not helpful.” I am never asking you a question ever again.

He burst into laughter. “Oh God, oh, that was great. You have sarcasm after all.” His laughter subsided. “OK, OK, OK. Lemme explain. Long version. You an’ I an’ everyone else are insignificant specks on a chunk of rock, which in turn is an insignificant speck, hurtling through the icy screamin’ void of the infinite expanse of space. We mean nothin’. We can’t even perceive even the tiniest fraction of the universe. Everythin’ we do is ultimately meaningless. No matter what happens to you, trigger or no, means jack shit. That’s the truth. You with me so far?”

“I guess?”

“But you can’t look at it like that. It’s important to note that, in spite of what I jus’ said, people still do amazing shit. Apollo missions, the Pyramids, the concept of agriculture, an’ so on. You may be one in a billion, but you never know what’ll come outta what you do until you try. Ninety-nine point nine repeating percent of all 9.7 billion people on Earth wouldn’t care if I died, so why do I continue? Because I want to. Because I’ve got my brothers, I’ve got friends an’ acquaintances, I’ve got stuff I wanna do before I kick the bucket. It matters what you do more than anythin’ else. So what are you gonna do? Mope about somethin’ outta your control, or do somethin’? I watched you eat bullets. Bullets. There’s a reason we use those to kill each other, an’ you just shrugged ‘em off. You can do a lot of shit if you put your mind to it.”

He leaned back and took a deep breath. Olivia barely heard him breathe during that entire tirade.

“I get what you’re saying. But…I don’t know. I’ve been afraid of nearly everything for two weeks now.” Ben started coughing at that. “What?”

“Nothin’. Continue.” He waved her off, hiding his smile with the other hand.

Olivia was getting tired of Ben treating everything like a joke. “What, you’ve never been afraid that some government agency is going to swoop in and dissect you? You’ve never been afraid that you were going insane because you didn’t even know your own name? Never been afraid of how you’re going to get by day to day, if you’re ever going to get a job or fit in anywhere?” Her voice was raised at that point.

Unfortunately, he still grinned. So help me, I’ll…I’ll…do…something. Ben spoke up before she could think of something suitable, “You got a point. Several actually. Sorry ‘bout that. Never really thought about it. But let me tell you this: even without the whole dragon thing goin’ on, you look like you could break me in half, no problem. Damn near seven feet tall. So it’s kinda funny when you get all scared and uncertain. Kinda jarring.” He caught her look. “Hey, hey, it’s a compliment. The breaking in half part at least.”

 “Sorry,” she mumbled.

He looked incredulous. “What, you’re sorry? For what? That sounded like a normal conversation with me. You’ve spent more time around me without snappin’ than anyone who’s not my brother. I’m a jackass. My job is to hurt people. You saw me stab that one guy. Guess what? No moral repercussions for me. None”

 “How are you a good guy then?”

“I’m not, not really. My brother Rob, he’s a techie, goes by Gears. He’s in Pennsylvania as a freelance criminal, vague as that is. Sam never got powers, I don’t think. He joined up with Lock Corp a couple years ago when we split. Haven’t heard from him in a while. But I’m getting’ side tracked. The thing is, Rob said he’d go into the crime business, Sam said he’d be a merc. I said I’d be a vigilante, which is basically a criminal who hurts other criminals.” He motioned around them to the room full of weapons. “Hell, I stole most of this from criminals, or bought it with money I stole from them.”

“Why do you even have a job then?”

“Because if you’re tryin’ to figure out who the vigilante is, who you gonna pay more attention to? The ghost of a guy, no records to his name, or the minimum wage shmuck just goin’ through life? Gotta be careful when you’re wanted.”

“You were going to kill me if I was feral, weren’t you?”

Without hesitation, he said, “Yep. Wouldn’t ‘ave lost any sleep, either. But, you ain’t a standard feral, which I don’ think has been drilled into your skull quite enough yet, so keep that in mind. I’m thinkin’ you’re bein’ a bit hard on yourself for what happened today, and my patented ‘Get Over It’ technique seems to have failed. So I tell you what, how about we take this night off, regroup, an’ figure out a game plan tomorrow.”

“That sounds alright,” she replied, sitting up a little straighter.

Guest Post Interlude - Week #6: ClearMadness

This week's post is by ClearMadness, author of The Iron Teeth

The Iron Teeth by ClearMadness

Prologue: The Doom of Coroulis

Blood poured from the man's wounds onto the cold ground beneath him. He was dying, and beyond help now. He choked and gasped as blood filled his throat, but he fought to hold still and at least die with dignity. In his last moments, and in front of all these witnesses, he wasn't going to go out thrashing around like a fish out water.

He refused to have regrets! He had done the best he could, and died for what he had believed in. His would be the last laugh anyway. He could still feel the inhuman eyes that watched him, and blazed with hate. The fools had no idea of the forces they had unleashed and what was coming.

Yet, as the man's vision faded to black, scenes from his past began to play out before him. His last breath rattled through his teeth and he couldn't help but think back to how it had all began.

------Many Years Ago------

A younger man shivered as an arctic gust blew in over the city walls and slammed into him.  He pulled his heavy coat and cloak tighter in an attempt to keep the cold at bay, as snow swirled through the air around him.

The wind died down as suddenly as it had begun and the city around the man was revealed. He trudged past the stone and wooden buildings that lined the snow filled streets. Warm light leaked out from cracks in the doors and shutters of the nearby homes illuminating the surroundings as the sun set in the cloudy sky overhead.

Most the inhabitants of the city had long ago taken shelter from the dark and cold, and they were undoubtedly huddled close to the tame flames of their household fireplaces. The man grumbled as he pictured it. He hoped he would soon be sitting down beside a cozy fire.

After shuffling through the snow and wind for several minutes the relieved young man found himself standing outside his destination, a tall well maintained two story home. It was located in the merchant's quarter, and while it wasn't quite a mansion the owner was obviously well to do.

Wasting no time he moved off the street and over to the house's door to announce himself. He meant to knock politely but instead his fist pounded against the door loudly. He really wanted out of the miserable cold; it was freezing out here.

Nothing happened for a few seconds as the man shivered and rubbed his hands together for warmth. Then the door opened and bathed the man and the path behind him in bright light. The visitor peered though the sudden light to see that a tall well dressed man had opened the door for him.

“Jerack, by the gods man. Come on out of the weather. You must be absolutely freezing,” the master of the house said as he led Jerack inside. After quickly knocking some of the snow off of his cloak Jerack stepped eagerly inside.

The reception room of the house was lit by a steady oil lamp on a small table and decorated by various portraits and paintings. After a quick glance at his guest and taking in Jerack's sorry state the wealthy man frowned and turned to look down the hallway.

“Aness please get one of the servants to put some hot tea on for Jerack. The young fool walked here and is half frozen to death,” he yelled before turning back to his guest.

“Thank you uncle Reighur, it's brutal out there. I almost thought I wasn't going to make it,” the young man replied gratefully. Some hot tea would really warm him up. His uncle gave him a questioning look.

“I honestly thought you'd be staying home tonight. I didn't expect you to have to brave the elements when I invited you over. We could have always done this another time,” Reighur told his nephew. Jerack looked a little embarrassed as he hung his coat and cloak on the stand by the door.

“Oh, well it wasn't that bad out. Every real Coroulian can take a little ice and snow. Otherwise they would have moved south or back across the ocean to the Homelands,” Jerack joked.

“Be that as it may, it was still a somewhat foolish thing to do,” his uncle replied. “Well you're here now so let's get you somewhere warmer while we talk. The library fireplace is lit. Follow me.”

Reighur then led his guest down the hallway towards the library. Jerack was feeling much warmer already. They arrived in the library and Reighur pointed him towards a large cushioned chair. Jerack sat down and his uncle took the seat opposite of him.

There was a small ornate wooden table between them and the fire place blazed cheerfully to his left. The library was an average sized room and several bookshelves stood against the walls. There was lots of room for more books on the shelves though, as books were an expensive luxury.

As Jerack was making himself comfortable a young maid walked into the room with a porcelain teapot and cups on a silver tray. She placed the tray on the table and poured him and his uncle a cup of tea from the pot, before curtsying and walking away.

Both Reighur and Jerack took a sip of tea. Jerack found the tea delicious and it warmed him considerably as he sipped it. He shivered one last time as the warm liquid and heat from the fire drove the last vestiges of cold away.

“So your father tells me you want to join the guard. Why the sudden decision?” Reighur asked his nephew politely. Jerack frowned in response. He didn't think it was a sudden decision at all.

“Well you know what's going on in the world right now better than I do, uncle,” Jerack stated as his uncle nodded. “Teshura and Hulgaron have been at war for a while now, and while they are pretty far to the south it seems more than likely that Eloria and Deveshur will start fighting soon as well. If that happens we won’t be able to stay out of the fighting. It seems like we're going to need soldiers very soon.”

His uncle raised an eyebrow and displayed a questioning expression.

“So you want to join the Elorian army?” Reighur asked tentatively. Jerack shook his head vehemently in response.

“No uncle, I’m not a fool. I've heard you, father, and others talking. The king of Eloria may think he owns Coroulis but no one here wants to die for him. Half the city is from Deveshur,” Jerack explained. His uncle sighed before responding.

“I see you've put quite a bit of thought into this. So what do you think is going to happen then?” his uncle asked.

“Coroulis is the greatest city of the North. It's barely garrisoned, pays pretty much no taxes, and is run by the city council. I know you and father think that the city will break away before getting caught up in a southern war, and I think you're right. If it does separate then it will pull the rest of the North with it into a new country. I think that country will need an army and someone in the Coroulian guard would be well placed to rise when that army is formed,” Jerack continued passionately. His uncle looked thoughtful.

“You're not completely wrong,” his uncle replied after several thoughtful seconds. “Very well, I will help you get into the guard. I think that yours is not a bad plan.” Jerack eyes opened in surprise. He had not expected his uncle to support him. His father had been set against it.

“Thank you, uncle! By the gods I swear I will return the favor someday,” Jerack exclaimed excitedly. His uncle chuckled.

“No need to be so melodramatic, Jerack. I know your father disapproves of how much time you spend outside instead of working with him. The gods know it's dangerous outside the walls but you should do what you want with your life. That's how I became a merchant after all,” Reighur told Jerack.

After that both of them made small talk and discussed the latest events. Soon however the tea had grown cold, the fire had burned down, and they grew tired. Jerack yawned.

“Well I really should be getting back uncle. Thank you for having me over, and again thank you so much for your support,” Jerack said. His uncle looked surprised.

“Nonsense nephew, I won't have you going back out in such terrible weather at this time of night. You will stay over tonight and head back tomorrow morning. I will have the servants prepare a room for you,” Reighur insisted. Jerack thought about it. He didn't want his father to worry about him but at this time of night he was undoubtedly already in bed. As long as headed home at dawn before his father awoke it shouldn't be a problem.

“Very well, thank you again uncle,” Jerack answered. Both the men then got up and shook hands as they said goodnight. Reighur then called for a servant to take Jerack to his chamber, and the young man went to bed.

Jerack was awoken by the clanging of bells early the next morning. That wasn't right. What time was it? Groggily he got to his feet and opened the window's shutters. Outside the dawn sun was still rising over the snow covered city and had yet to banish the last of the night's darkness. Why were the city bells ringing so early? It made no sense. With a yawn he quickly got dressed and walked out into the halls.

The halls were deserted so he marched to the kitchen. There several servants were chatting excitedly amongst themselves. Most looked either very tired or very worried.

“What's going on?” he asked loudly and authoritatively as he entered the room. He hoped someone here knew. A sense of nervousness had been slowly building within him ever since he had woken up. All the servants turned to him as he spoke. They cast each other nervous glances before one answered.

“We don't know, sir. All we know is the city bells are ringing and Marial says it's the call to arms. Although the rest of us aren't so sure,” one older woman answered hesitantly. Jerack thought she was his uncle's cook.

Was it an attack? That made no sense. Who would or even could attack them in the dead of winter. Even traders stopped arriving for the most part when the roads filled with snow. Jerack frowned.

“Are my uncle and aunt awake?” he asked.

“We were just deciding whether to wake them, sir,” the woman answered nervously.

“Do so, and tell them I'm heading out to find out what's going on and should be back soon with some answers,” Jerack commanded them. He then turned around and swiftly made for the entrance. His hurried footsteps caused the wooden floor to creak beneath him.

Wrapping his cloak and coat tightly he stepped out the front door and back into the frigid white city streets. With a sigh he started stomping through the snow drifts towards the road. His breath was white and visible in the cold air, but at least the morning sun warmed him a little and the wind had died down.

The streets were mostly deserted, as was normal for this early in the morning. However a small group of people were huddled together in a nearby sheltered doorway. They looked apprehensive and uneasy to Jerack. He was just about to head over to them when he heard the clutter of horseshoes on stone. Looking over he saw riders wearing guard uniforms coming down the street. The guardsmen didn't seem to be slowing as they approached so Jerack called out to them.

“Why are the bells ringing? What's going on?” he yelled as loudly as he could. The riders blew past him as they raced toward their destination but one turned towards Jerack and replied.

“There's a drake lose in the city. It was last seen around Lowpoint. Please return to your homes citizens,” the guardsman yelled back before he and his fellow riders disappeared down the road. They left nothing but a long cloud of swirling snow behind them.

A drake! That made no sense; everyone knew they went underground into the Deeps for the winter. Wait, had the guard said Lowpoint? That was where his father's house was! The bells probably wouldn't have woken him; he had always been a sound sleeper.

Jerack had to go make sure his father was safe! He took off down the street towards his home. The snow crunched under his feet and took to the air as he kicked it up.

As he ran through the city the quality of the buildings dropped. They became smaller and less ornate with more wood and less stone or brick. His father lived in the workman's area of the city.

He passed several small groups of talking people as he ran. One group even called out to him but he ignored them all as he hurried home. He had no time for them. He had to make sure his father was safe!

As he turned the corner towards Lowpoint he was unprepared and thus overwhelmed by a sudden terrible roar. He stumbled in surprise and fright as the deep scream cascaded over him. Even his bones seemed to shake for a second.

Jerack had heard the howl of a drake before and seen their tracks out in the forest, but he had never seen one face to face. Few people had and lived. With a feeling of dread he realized that this drake sounded very close and very large. He paused in his run. Did he really want to run over there? He had no choice though, he had get his father to safety.

He started running again and soon new frightful noises reached his ears. He heard the sound of something heavy smashing into buildings and the sound of collapsing rubble. Screams of horror and pain quickly followed.

With a start Jerack realized people were dying. Then an unexpected splash of color up against a nearby wall caught his eye.

It was a shredded corpse. Its blue guardsman uniform and the crimson blood dripping from its ripped open stomach were the source of the colours.

Jerack froze and gagged. Desperately he tried not to vomit. Looking about he spotted another discarded human body, and then another. His eyes went wide with fear and he choked painfully as he spewed vomit onto the snow at his feet uncontrollably.

What was going on here? The terrible scene before him made no sense. Even a large drake shouldn't be this big of a problem for the guards, and it certainly shouldn't be crushing buildings! Jerack began to twitch and go pale as he panicked.

Suddenly he heard more screams, and these ones were alarmingly close. His head jerked to the right to see a small group of people run past him. They were a man and a woman clutching a small child to her breast, a family.

The terror on their faces was plain and struck Jerack hard, drawing out his own fear. They weren't even dressed for the weather. Something dreadful must have driven them from their home without giving them any time to plan whatsoever.

Jerack was terrified now. He wanted to continue on but he couldn't take another step forward, no matter how hard he tried. He was frozen in fear, and it shamed him deeply. His father...

A sudden gust whipped past and blew snow into the air all around him. He felt goose bumps rise on his skin as the temperature plummeted.

From somewhere out in the white haze that had risen around him a explosive cracking sound erupted. Jerack blindly spun around in fright as his heart tried to leap out of his chest.  Horror awaited him as the wind died down.

For a second he didn't believe his eyes. Crouched on the still crumbling remains of a casually demolished house sat the drake. The size of its grey scaled bulk defied belief. Surely it couldn't be real. It had to be a dream... a nightmare.

The beast dwarfed some of the homes around it. It balanced upon the rubble with four stocky legs that ended in curled claws meant for catching and ripping open prey. Its long thin tail swished behind it, throwing thick white clouds of snow up into the air. Its head sat upon a thick neck and bore a blue feathered crest. A line of blue feathers also ran down its back and stuck out from the back of its knees and the end of its tail.

However it was the dreadful beast's lizard like head that Jerack couldn't tear his gaze away from. The humongous drake calmly surveyed its surroundings with intelligent hungry yellow eyes. It seemed totally unconcerned that it was currently right in the middle of a human city.

Long sharp teeth flashed and blood dripped from its maw as it chewed its latest meal, the family that had just run past. It must have burst through the building and snatched them up in one lightning quick snap of its jaws. They hadn't had a chance.

Blood was splattered across the once pure snow where they had been just seconds ago, and stained bits of cloth fluttered away in the wind. If there had been anything left in Jerack's stomach he would have thrown up again. As it was he could only stand there and shudder uncontrollably with his eyes wide in horror.

One yellow eye of the beast flickered and Jerack thought it focused on him for a second. The beast continued leisurely chewing but Jerack had no doubt whatsoever that it was aware of him. It simply wasn't in a hurry, or maybe he didn't look that appetizing.

Time seemed to have gone still for Jerack, or maybe it was stuck in an endless twisted loop. There was only the fluttering snow and the gnashing of the drake's teeth, over and over again; every bite and chomping sound brought Jerack one step closer to losing his mind. It wore on him, like a countdown to his own demise spoken in a language he didn't understand. He was going to die.

Then the beast swallowed the last of its grizzly meal and to Jerack's surprise looked away down another street. Was it playing with him? Surely it wouldn't just leave him there. A buzzing sound built up in his ears. He didn't register it at first, but as soon as he realized it was there a hail of arrows tore down from the sky upon the drake.

The beast hunched its shoulders and turned its face from the unexpected barrage. The projectiles bounced and shattered on its grey scaly head. It was uninjured, but as it raised its head Jerack thought it looked infuriated. The beast roared again and the sound of its displeasure tore through the city, blasting away all other lesser sounds.

“Run you blasted idiot!” Jerack heard someone yell from behind him. It took a second for him to recognize the sound as language and another to move his stiff body and look for the source.

He turned to see a squad of guardsmen. The sergeant in front was mounted on a horse and bore a long hunting spear. He was motioning for Jerack to run.

Jerack cast a terrified look back at the beast, he was too afraid to move while it was still there. The beast however seemed to be descending from its perch among the rubble and was moving away from him towards the source of the arrows.

Jerack bolted. He didn't even think about it, he just did it. His feet carried him. Without looking back he rushed towards the soldiers. Please don't let it be following me! Please gods I beg you!

As he reached the soldiers in their blue uniforms the sergeant spoke again.

“Keep running lad, head for the fort,” he told Jerack before motioning to his men and leading them after the beast. Doing as he was told Jerack ran past them. He scampered desperately through the snow towards the end of the street.

Surely he was safe now? The guards were here and they had mounts and spears for hunting drakes. The beasts were far from invincible, even unusually large ones.

Jerack ran over to a barrel someone had placed up against a house and threw himself behind it. There he began to suck down air as he tried to catch his breath. When his lungs no longer felt like they were burning and the dark terror that had clouded his mind begun to die down he risked a look out from his hiding spot.

Dozens of guardsmen had the drake surrounded. Several groups with swords and spears circled it, working in unison to keep it at bay. Every time it tried to go after one group then archers hidden among the buildings would distract it with a rain of arrows.

The drake was hissing and growling as it twisted and turned madly in an attempt to catch its tormentors, but they hadn't hurt it yet. Its hide remained unbreached.

Suddenly one man got too close and the drake lashed out viciously. Its teeth closed down on the unlucky man and with a jerk of its neck it sent his corpse sailing through the air and over a building in a rain of blood.

The sergeant didn't waste the opportunity his man's death had created. He lowered his spear and spurred his horse into a charge at the beast's unprotected flank.

Jerack felt his heart soar. He was seeing something out of a story! He wanted to join the guard more than ever now. He wanted to be like the sergeant, fearless and skilled.

The mounted officer's horse launched itself forward and the clatter of horse hooves echoed through the streets. As he approached the drake it turned towards him. Jerack knew that was alright; its head was even more of target than its flank. A good strike there would bring it down instantly!

Jerack watched with anticipation as the two combatants closed. Surely the guardsman would be victorious.

Suddenly out of the corner of his eye Jerack noticed something strange. An odd breeze had begun to blow around the drake. It circled it like a slow whirlwind. The guardsmen closest to the beast begun to falter and retreat; some pulled back while others simply collapsed onto the ground and curled up in the snow.

With what seemed like a vicious smile the great grey drake then opened its mouth and roared towards the charging guardsman.

Its breath picked up the snow and blew it forward. What was it doing? Opening its mouth just made it an even better target. What was going on? Jerack felt his earlier dread creep back. Something was very wrong.

As the wave of blown snow reached the mounted officer he seemed to stiffen and his horse slowed. Jerack almost thought he saw white frost build up on them. Then they both stopped moving completely, right before impacting the drake. Jerack gasped in uncomprehending horror as the brave soldier and his mount toppled over stiffly to lay unmoving at the beast’s feet.

With a hissing noise that sounded almost like a snicker the terrible monster flicked its tail out and smashed the guardsman. Frozen chunks of meat were thrown into the air as he shattered. The crimson broken pieces of the man then fell to the ground and rolled through the snow.

The drake turned towards the other guardsmen and blew another blast of freezing breath towards them. They struggled futilely and fell as Jerack looked on trembling in numb despair. This couldn't be happening!

No wonder the beast was so large and active during the winter. It was a mutant. That wasn't fair. What were the chances of such a huge beast surviving being twisted by such powerful magic! How could the gods allow such a cruel joke?

As Jerack watched the mutant drake scatter the remains of the guardsman, leaving some of them standing as unmoving frosted statues, he had a dreadful premonition.

He knew the city was doomed. The beast would tear through Coroulis and no one could stop it. The entire city would be brought to its knees by the unholy thing. It would feed freely on men, women, and children. The guardsmen, nobles, and probably even the mages would be helpless before it and its killing magical cold.

In despair he realized most of the city's residents wouldn't even be able to flee. The roads were closed with snow, and very few of them would have the supplies necessary to make the journey to safety through the winter.

Some of his neighbors would die as they cowered in their homes until they starved, froze, or were eaten. Others would try and evacuate only to collapse along the road one by one as they struggled futilely to make the dangerous journey.

Coroulis and all it stood for was damned. Soon it would be a place of bloody terror, and soon after that a frozen graveyard. Jerack began to weep in despair as he stumbled blindly away.

See more of ClearMadness's work at http://www.ironteethserial.com/

Guest Post Interlude - Week #5: Dennis N. Santana

This week we have Dennis N. Santana, writer of The Solstice War

Breakout

25th of the Aster's Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice -- Tukino Village Outskirts

At first the sound of caterpillar tracks was a whisper in the distance.

Then the bright yellow beam of a spotlight sliced across the forest.

Though they could not yet see the enemy tank, it had become terrifyingly corporeal.

There was no escaping that light. To survive, it had to be put out.

Within a thick cluster of nondescript bushes the group crouched close and still. Silence was of the utmost importance. They left their rifles on the dirt. Keeping them shouldered or holding them would make too much noise moving and hiding in the bush. Instead, their steady fingers wound tight around knives, pistols and grenades. Breathless, they waited.

To pull the pins; to dig the blades deep; to rap the trigger until the gun clicked empty.

And then, to run over the corpses, as fast and as far as they could from the track sound.

That track sound that was everywhere. Surrounding them; a perfect circle of metal.

Biding time and breath, they waited for the enemy to come closer into the trap.

They heard the sound of bushes displaced, and fallen trunks crushed under the tracks.

Though it was crucial that they know, they could not tell whether the tank was one of the bigger ones or the smaller ones. Both of them burned when the Anti-Tank grenade exploded on top of their engine hatches. But the bigger one always killed a friend.

From the bush, an excited voice. "It's a small one. I can tell."

Everyone urged Hasim to silence. He bowed his head, ashamed.

Though the tanks were always nearly blind and almost deaf, they were never alone. 

All of them were accompanied by the same black-helmeted, gray-coated ghosts that had become so hated by the defending soldiers: the Panzergrenadiers of the Nocht Federation. In the shadows they were little more than the suggestion of a coat and coal scuttle helm with a long rifle in hand. Their footsteps couldn't be heard beneath the racket of the tank.

They always seemed to kill a friend too, no matter what one did.

Closer, and closer, came the sound of the tracks. 

Then the beam of the spotlight shone across the front of the bushes.

Gray-white ghost men with steel skulls wandered in from the shadows.

Hasim was the first to stand.

He primed his grenade and threw it amid the screaming men.

Rifles flashed in the dark. Green tracers flew through Hasim's chest and neck.

He fell, bleeding and choking and dead before anyone could say another word.

His dying aim had been miraculously true.

Among the Panzergrenadiers, the grenade went off. 

A cloud of smoke and metal burst skyward between them as the frag grenade exploded. Hundreds of invisible knives flying faster than anyone could fathom tore through the enemy, and they fell as if without cause and without wounds, swift to die but slow to bleed. All among their number realized then what was happening, and scrambled.

"Granate!" they cried in their alien tongue.

More grenades flew toward the invaders, pistols sounded from the bushes, and the forest was momentarily lit with flash fire and then the fleeting light of tracer rounds from the enemy's rifles as they retaliated. Gunfire flew in all directions in a great sudden confusion. Men drove into bushes with bayonets seeking the ambushers. Men threw themselves on the ground at the sight of sparks or flashes or the merest glint of movement.

Amid all this chaos, the tank, nearly blind and nearly deaf, maintained its composure.

Several dozen meters away from the battle the tank tracks ground to a halt.

In the next instant many ambushers dispersed, sweeping left and right in small groups.

With a roar that overtook the petty gunfire ahead, the tank opened fire.

A single heavy round plunged into the bush and exploded with the harshest flash yet seen.

At once, it seemed, that old hiding spot disintegrated.

Two men ran screaming from the remains of the bush, maimed and aflame.

Machine guns on the tank's front lay a curtain of gunfire in their way, finally killing them.

Everywhere else there had been to run, the remaining ambushers ran, and now watched.

This was definitely one of the larger tanks.

Its turret panned around the forest, hungrily seeking targets.

With an ominous noise, its tracks got turning, and it trundled forward to cover its men.

Huddling around the tank, the remaining Panzergrenadiers shot blindly into the wood.

Over every bush, around every tree in front of them, the spotlight turned.

There was no retaliation. The invaders were doing all the shooting.

Meanwhile the ambushers were on the move, around the flanks, toward the rear.

Something then clanked atop the engine compartment.

A grenade like a food tin packed with explosives.

On top of the tank it detonated with a brilliant fireball. Under this violence the engine exploded, melted down into slag, and the burning fuel set ablaze the floor of the tank and set ablaze all of the stored ammunition. Rifle rounds went off like popping firecrackers and shells exploded one after another. Every hatch on the tank flew off, and jets of flame erupted from them, and the side armor burst open and perforated the huddling men.

From safe positions all around the tank, the dispersed ambushers emerged.

Between their groups there was the burning tank and all of the dead men.

There was no time for anyone to celebrate.

Survivors quickly regrouped, and used their Pyrrhic victory to distance themselves further from the enemy. There would be more patrols, more tanks. It was a temporary reprieve.

This is what they had lost friends for. It was all they could do to escape.


In more than one way the sun had set on Tukino.

Tukino, the village; Tukino, the battle; Tukino, the brave last stand of a doomed army.

Tukino, the home; it was all gone. A shadow behind the backs of fleeing men and women.

It was now whatever the Federation of Northern States decided it would become.

Provided safe passage to the Ayvartan border by the treacherous nation of Mamlakha thousands of Nochtish troops marched swiftly into the southern reaches of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and made short work of the border guards. Divisions of fast-moving Panzer troops quickly engaged the defending Ayvartan Battlegroup Lion, guardian of the southern Ayvartan territory of Shaila, and there the Panzers and Panzergrenadiers trapped the bulk of the confused, stubbornly-resisting Shailese army in the Tukino kettle.

It was a hopeless battle. From all sides, the tanks penetrated any defense. Indigenous tanks like the Goblin and Orc could guard against the smaller M5 Ranger used by the bulk of the enemy army. But when the terrifying M4 Sentinel medium tank appeared, it took with it Goblins by the dozens. Staggering losses in matériel and the disintegration of their supply lines left the defenders in Tukino stranded and nearly unarmed for modern war. Nearly a hundred thousand troops were trapped, either to perish or to be captured.

Brave officers fought to the last and died. Those least deserving of escape fled early.

Slowly, trapped inside the ring of steel, Battlegroup Lion bled itself white.

Now Tukino was a ghost town of sandbag emplacements and wooden bunkers dug into hills, all abandoned. Guns lay discarded. Remaining tanks were destroyed and dumped on the roads as obstacles to slow down the advancing enemy. Now, bravery and cowardice became meaningless words. Survival was paramount, and the communist soldiers fled in every direction, hoping to escape the pocket before the enemy could lock it all down.

Private Sahil Pushkar was one of those driven to escape.

He had fled Tukino alongside twenty other riflemen and women.

He had fled into the wood with them, hoping to make it into the open country where, they all hoped, there was still an army fighting the imperialists to protect the motherland -- and themselves.

Enemy soldiers were everywhere. Every step of the escape was bloody.

One patrol had cut his group down to twelve. Last night four men had died.

Now, it was night again.

And the remaining eight in the group had to convene. There was a grave issue at hand.

Within a circle of berry bushes, they prepared for a difficult decision.

"We have a chance to make it out, but to do so, we'll need a distraction."

Sergeant Siya was a tall, dark woman with close-cropped hair. She had once proudly worn a peaked cap, but had long since lost it. Sahil had served under her and respected her greatly during the battle for Tukino, and she had been crucial to their subsequent escape. But this was as far as she went; they were all aware of this miserable truth. Everyone in the group kept their eyes away from her leg, where her pants were ripped. It was a fragment wound, clearly infected, yellow and black. How she moved at all was anyone's guess.

She was the strongest of them. She had already decided to stay behind.

Sahil wanted to protest, as one last show of his gratitude and solidarity.

But he was too weary to say anything. They all were. So they silently went along.

"You can hear the tracks, can't you?"

Sahil could hear them in the distance. During the day, everyone hid wherever they could and tried to ignore the distant sounds, and tried to ignore them even as they closed in. There were imperialist patrols everywhere, because the imperialists were everywhere now. They controlled a circle all around the village. That was undeniably what a kettle was. 

Now they could not ignore it. Judging by the distance they had already traveled, any one of them could potentially escape to friendly lines beyond the kettle. It was night again, and the enemy was still searching, and it was time once more to run for their lives.

"I'm going to need two people to stay with me. You'll fight until I tell you to run, then throw smokes, and peel away. I'll stay here, come what may." Sergeant Siya said.

"How do we decide who stays?" asked a young woman among them. She was nearly unarmed. She still had her pistol, but her knife had caught in a man's face and all her grenades had set fire and metal upon the imperialists. They were all in a similar state.

There was no pretext that anyone wanted to volunteer anymore. Bravery was past them.

Sahil vehemently did not desire to volunteer for this.

Though he had no idea what life he wanted to live, he knew he could not die here.

He felt that he had been running all of his life, and he had more to run from than ever.

"Forgive me my old fashioned ways," began Sergeant Siya, "but I think the least cruel thing we can do is give first shot to those who have wives and children and dependents outside this hellhole. So if you've got a family to care for, you can run now. And if you lie, well, let that be on your conscience. I cannot stop you. I can barely stop them."

She gestured over her shoulder with a pistol.

Everyone was somber. Sahil felt a shot of panic in his chest.

"I have nobody. I guess I am staying." said the young woman from before.

"Do not consider yourself dead, comrade." Sergeant Siya said. "I am dead. You will escape. And by staying behind you will insure all of your comrades can escape. Fight proudly."

Far from inspirational, this notion sent fresh anxiety like electricity through Sahil's body.

One by one, the remaining members of the squadron quickly listed the family that needed them. Wives, children, sisters and brothers, parents that needed care. Sahil felt dread with each voice that spoke that wasn't his. It felt like every whispered declaration was followed and accentuated by the sound of the tank tracks coming closer and closer. He felt himself be spirited from his body, and he looked as if at himself, wondering what he would--

"Sahil?" 

Sergeant Siya, and the rest of the squadron, looked at him.

Despite everything their faces were calm, resigned. They had gone through their panics already. They were dull of emotion. They had seen death and they had seen the seemingly inevitable power of the enemy, encroaching on them again and again and every time taking someone with them who would never come back. Maybe all of them were ready to be that someone, but Sahil simply wasn't. He was the youngest among them, the least experienced -- perhaps the least useful. He didn't even know all of their names.

"Sahil, please."

He snapped out of his paralyzing panic. Sahil drew in a breath.

"I have a son." He said.

Those were dire words. Those were the words that set him running.

It was no lie, he had a son. Or at least, someone thought he had a son.

He had no wife, but people said he had a son. He himself had never said it until then.

He had no son before, but now, in this moment of cowardice, he concretely had a son.

"I see."

Sahil felt a hand on his shoulder, patting him.

From among his squad a young man joined the young woman at Sergeant Siya's side.

"You go on, Sahil. Having a kid takes precedence over my old folks."

Sahil struggled to remember his name. Tamir? Tamur? He dared not say anything.

He merely nodded in stunned silence and gratitude and felt a deep, sick feeling in him.

He almost felt like staying, like dying. Those words he had said once felt to him like death.

"Alright. Everyone knows what they're doing--"

Sergeant Siya was cut off.

Suddenly the forest had lit up.

From behind them and over their heads, the searchlight shone.

Everyone handed their ammunition and grenades to the distraction group.

"Start moving, quietly at first. When you hear gunfire, run." Sergeant Siya said.

Struggling to hold back the tears in his eyes, Sahil was the first to disappear into the wood.

He left the group behind in every way. He did not flee with them. He went his own direction. He did not sneak, not as instructed. Choking back the boyish sobbing in his throat he closed his eyes and ran with abandon, beating back bushes, stumbling over logs, tearing through the undergrowth with his steel-toed boots. He felt as if all of the mistakes of his life were coming back in this instant to haunt him. He felt lower than the lowest rat.

When the gunfire started, and the grenades sounded, Sahil opened his eyes and cursed.

When he heard the tank's gun firing, he felt everything spill from his mouth.

He was screaming, sobbing, crying with desperation.

That should have been him, back there.

No; he should have accepted responsibility. Tukino was not his home, it should not have been, it should not have been his to defend. He cried out her name. And his son's name.

He cried out in apology.

Had he not been a coward then he would not have to become a greater one now.

Losing all direction in the darkness of the night, and the thickness of the forest, Sahil briefly stopped, leaning forward against a tree and catching several violent breaths. He felt his chest heaving as if his ribcage wanted to flee from under his skin. His stomach churned like a cauldron of acid. His legs shook. There was no part of him not sweating.

Everywhere around him was indistinct darkness.

Save for what seemed like kilometers behind him, where he could see the brief, distant flashes of rifle tracer rounds like fireflies, specks of light in the shadow. 

Maybe if he escaped, he could say he was sorry and acknowledge all he had done.

Sahil knew this was foolish and unrealistic but it was all that kept him moving.

He pushed himself off from the tree, and started to run again.

Overhead, he heard a macabre whistling, much closer than the sound he left behind.

He ran headlong, harder and faster, pushing his legs until they felt like jelly.

He plowed through a string of bushes and felt a strong breeze ahead.

There was a light. Two lights, even.

Raising his head, he found himself outside the forest, under the moonlight.

He saw the road, and the open countryside, stretching before him, broad and green.

And he was under the spotlight of a tank. One of the smaller ones -- an M5 Ranger.

It had come in from all that country. It had come in and it had found him.

Along its side, a purple stripe and the words Konnigin adorned the hull, along with marks for kills. There were over ten such marks. Despite being called the "small" tank, the M5 was over a meter taller than Sahil, its boxy armored bulk playing host to a turret with a large rear bustle and a small, long-barreled, thin but acccurate 37mm gun. Sahil stared down the barrel of this gun as it descended to meet him. It was ten or fifteen meters away.

For a tank, this kind of range was equivalent to a knife fight for a human.

Sahil had nothing but a knife. He had no grenades, he had no guns.

He raised his hands and swallowed his cries.

For moments the spotlight shone on him. 

He thought to plead for mercy, but he could not speak the Nochtish tongue.

He knew only one word, a word that filled him with shame.

But his drive to survive was stronger than his pride then.

"Zivilist!" he screamed at the tank.

Civilian.

Not a proud communist fighter, defending the motherland from the imperialist invasion.

Just a helpless civilian begging for mercy.

He heard a mechanical sound from the tank and knew he was done for.

It was the sound of the turret ring, turning.

Moments passed and he continued, somehow, to live.

Speechless, Sahil raised his head and ceased to cower.

The Konnigin turned its turret away from him. It raised its gun to its neutral position.

Swiftly and without warning it maneuvered around him and back into the forest.

For an instant Sahil had thought it meant to run him over, but it did not.

He was alive. Alone, under the moonlight. Not for any of his own power.

Everyone had spared him. They had carried him to this place.

Despite all of his running and all of his cowardice, he survived and they all had died.

"Chanja, Sahil, I'm sorry."

He mumbled their names, over and over. That girl; and his son.

She had named the baby after him, before he fled. Before he left them to fate.

His legs shook out from under him, and he fell to the ground, sobbing.

There was so much country ahead of him, but nowhere to go anymore.

What he had had not taken from himself, the Federation of Northern States now took.

All he could hope for then was that there were better people than he still fighting.

And that they had better reasons to fight than his own.

 

Read more of Dennis's work here

 

Guest Post Interlude - Week #4: Jim Zoetewey

This week we have Jim Zoetewey, writer of Legion of Nothing

 

Friday Night, 2 am

We floated up to the top of the building the same way we always did—Daniel used telekinesis while I hoped he didn’t get distracted. I could have used the rockets hidden in my backpack, but that wouldn’t have been quiet.

Besides, part of the point of coming up here at all was nostalgia, hanging out a little bit like we had in high school before we’d turned cape and everything went crazy. That meant dressed in normal clothes instead of costumes and with only as much of our gear as we could hide.

It also meant that we were standing on top of a store that was part of a regional grocery chain (we’ll call it Meijer). Why? Because at 2 am, no one was watching the carts.

Daniel and I looked out on the parking lot from above the secondary entrance, the one they closed at eleven. The parking lot was almost empty except for near the main entrance. That had a few cars.

I looked to see if anybody was walking to their cars. When I didn’t see anyone, I thought at him, “Is it safe?”

Daniel didn’t reply immediately, but eventually thought back, “No one’s in any of the cars or looking out the window."

"Great," I replied. "Do you remember who won last time?"

He shook his head. "I think we last played in September of our senior year—almost two years ago. We've been busy.”

We had been. During this summer’s training program, we’d been indirectly involved with bringing down another country’s government, and then ended up fighting a dragon. I’d nearly lost part of my arm in the process.

Out in the parking lot, carts began rolling out of the spaces they'd been left and joining up into one line. Then they rolled around the side of the building, clanking and clattering.

We walked toward the side where they'd gone, still talking telepathically.

I caught a flash of Izzy’s face in Daniel’s thoughts, and asked, “Are you meeting with Izzy soon?” Isabel was Daniel’s girlfriend.

“We’re meeting in Chicago next weekend. I’m staying at the Defenders headquarters, and she’ll suit up and fly here after her last class.”

I shook my head. “I can’t believe Berkeley starts this early. I also can’t believe the University of Chicago starts halfway through September.”

Daniel shrugged. “I didn’t make the schedule. So, what do you think? Bowling?”

I looked up at him. “It sounds better than Jenga.”

Memories went through both our minds, specifically a silvery cascade of falling grocery carts. Grocery Cart Jenga had seemed like a good idea, but we’d overestimated Daniel’s strength. The idea was to build a tower of carts and then remove carts from the middle. The person who made the tower fall down lost. Unfortunately when the tower finally fell, it all fell, and Daniel couldn’t catch all the carts.

Several had shattered when they hit the ground, the noise summoning half the people in the store. It had been winter and we’d had to crawl across the roof through the snow until we were sure we couldn’t be seen.

Emanating a sinking feeling, Daniel thought, “Don’t remind me of Jenga, That was a terrible idea.”

“So,” I thought back, “definitely bowling.”

We bowled, and it went fairly well. We didn't damage any carts. Daniel had a wide variety of psychic powers, and the combination of a few seconds of prescience and telekinesis meant thathe could sense which carts were about to get smashed, and prevent any real damage.

The combination of telepathy and telekinesis made Grocery Cart Bowling possible in the first place. I didn't have powers to speak of, but thanks to our telepathic connection I could use his telekinesis to direct the carts myself.

Our grandparents had been nervous about how much we used his telepathy as far back as when we were five. Once his father and grandfather had determined that the only side effect was an unusually strong connection between the two of us, and rudimentary mental shields for me, people stopped worrying.

I got a strike and watched as all ten carts tipped over in a crash of metal.

That meant that Daniel hadn't caught them, and now that I'd stopped thinking about directing the carts, I could feel his unease.

At the same time, I heard him think, "Get off the roof."

Knowing what he meant, I jumped into the alley next to the building, trusting him not to let me hit.

We both landed softly.

"What's going on?" I considered looking around the corner, but depending on what was going on, that might be a bad idea.

"I don't know. Go around the corner immediately, but look casual. Whatever happens if we wait or look scared is bad."

I stepped around the corner, Daniel just behind me, and nothing looked different than it had from the roof. We still had a nearly empty parking lot and a warm night in early fall.

"Keep on walking," Daniel's mental voice sounded calm, but I could still sense that he wasn't really.

"It feels like something big," he replied to my unasked question.

Meijer's stores were huge. We passed the pharmacy entrance (which was closed at 2 am) and walked past at least seven rows that would normally have been full of cars. As we came closer to the main entrance, a big, blue pickup truck pulled into the lot, parking in the last row, but the closest spot to the far end of the store.

“That’s it.” A hint of nervousness came over with Daniel’s words. “The truck has everything to do with what’s coming next.”

The far end of the store was three rows of cars away from the main entrance. I wondered if we should go around the corner where the store took deliveries.

Another wave of nervousness from Daniel. “We most likely die if we do that now.”

“Seriously? What should we do? Standing around in the front of the store seems like a bad idea too.”

“You know how this works,” he thought back at me.

I did. Daniel’s codename in costume was “The Mystic.” His powers gave him a good sense of whether something was likely to work, but wouldn’t tell you how to solve the problem. You had to come up with that yourself.

It fell in line with a long tradition of oracular powers not being nearly as useful in real life as you might hope. On the other hand, I hadn’t killed my father, married my mother or become King of Thebes yet, so you could argue I was still doing better than Oedipus.

I felt Daniel’s attention turn toward my thoughts. “You’re not helping. I’m trying to get into--”

A woman stepped out of the truck, and as she looked in our direction I felt a wave of desire. It wasn’t my desire either. It was hers. For Daniel.

It would have been nice if this were a product of his telepathy, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do mind control. This happened because he was tall, fit, naturally tanned, and good looking in a baby faced way. In short, he was literally tall, dark and handsome.

This wasn’t good news for him at all because I’d recognized her. In a comic book, she would have looked like a supermodel. In reality, she would have passed as a twenty-something professional on the way back from working out--her hair was in a ponytail and she wore a t-shirt and yoga pants. Unfortunately, she wasn’t. She was Tabitha Ward AKA “The Cleveland Crusher” a name that had always struck me as more appropriate for a pro wrestler than a superhero.

It was a moot point since she’d gone on the run after allegations of domestic abuse two years ago. I’d seen the police’s pictures of her boyfriend. The damage wasn’t pretty.

As a supervillain though, her name worked great. Well, except for the fact that there was no way she could stay in Cleveland. I resolved to think of her as Tabitha. It was simpler.

A balding, fifty-something year old man in a hoodie and jeans stepped out of the other side of the truck’s other door.

I felt a sudden sense of recognition from Daniel, followed by a wave of tension, and suddenly, a kind of static. Daniel’s frustration broke through the static for a moment, but then he made the noise stop, probably by cutting the connection.

“Crap.” Daniel stared out into the parking lot. “That’s Null.”

Null, unsurprisingly given his name, blocked psychic powers--telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation anyway.

I pulled out my phone. It was time to send a distress call to the rest of the Heroes’ League. We weren’t going to be able to take them out with barely any equipment on my part and no powers on Daniel’s.

The phone showed “no signal.” That might be a coincidence, or it might mean that they were the sort of criminals who planned ahead for local supers.

I looked up. “My phone’s down. How’s yours?”

Daniel shook his head. “They’ve got a device in the car that jams cell phones.”

In response to my unasked question, he continued, “My dad told me that Null can’t block prescience or any of the powers that allow you to remotely watch or listen. They work differently.”

“Sounds like it,” I said. “We should get out of the jammer’s range and call for help. I’ve got a rocket pack. Did you fly or take your car?”

“Flew, but it doesn’t matter. If we leave we have a pretty good chance of dying, and not just us. Other people too.”

“How?”

Daniel shrugged. “Too far in the future. We need to do something now.”

In the parking lot, Tabitha and Null started walking toward the loading docks on the side of the building.

I grinned at him. “Maybe you should chat her up?”

He stared at me. “No. Fu--” He began, and then lapsed into silence. “That actually improves our chances. I’ll talk to her. You’ve got the stealth suit on, so you can change once we’re around the corner. Then you can stop whatever’s going on as the Rocket, or maybe turn off the jammer and call in the rest of the team. You’ll figure it out.”

Tabitha and Null disappeared around the corner.

Daniel turned and began to run after them. I hoped he wouldn’t get punched, my mind flashing back to the pictures of Tabitha’s boyfriend’s bruised and dislocated shoulder, his crushed ribs. Daniel stopped and stared back at me, thinking, “I heard that.”

Static roared in the background. I thought, “You can get around him?”

“Not intentionally and only with you. Weird.” He started to run again, disappearing around the corner.

Checking around me and backing up to the wall of the store, I touched a spot on the inside of the right pocket of my “leather” jacket. When I pulled out my hand, I felt my jacket, shirt, and pants combining with material from my backpack to cover my body with light ceramic armor. It wasn’t really the Rocket suit, but it was more durable than my body. It could take more than two tons of force without shattering. Unfortunately, Tabitha could generate more than four, meaning that going one on one with her was not a good choice.

Setting the suit to “camouflage,” I began to walk across the parking lot. It wasn’t invisibility. A program changed the color of my suit to match whatever was on the other side of me. As long as no one was looking for me, I wouldn’t stand out.

My helmet gave me a 360 degree view of the parking lot. To my right, I could see Daniel talking with Tabitha. He was smiling, and so was she. Null appeared to be gritting his teeth.

That wasn’t all. In that moment, I saw what was behind them. An armored truck was parked by the door next to the loading dock. This was probably the weekly bank deposit. Crap. Well, it had to be something.

I made it to the Tabitha’s truck without anybody noticing, stopping on the far side, next to the driver’s seat. The device wasn’t in the truck bed. I checked the cab, and there it was, a black box in the middle of the driver’s seat. I thought about my next step. Picking the door’s lock had to be next. I had my tools on my utility belt.

As I reached down to take them out, I heard Null’s static and felt Daniel’s alarm as the loading dock door opened, and two people stepped out, both of them middle aged wormen in red Meijer polo shirts and tan slacks. Null pulled out an automatic pistol. He pointed it at Daniel, shouting at Tabitha.

The light above the loading docks made it easy to see Tabitha leap up to the door, standing on the stairway and grabbing locked money bags that were roughly the size of briefcases away from the woman, throwing the bags to the ground, and pushing the women back inside the store.

Giving up on the idea of picking the lock, I pointed the sonic weapons on my forearms at the car. The window shattered first, and I punched a hole in it with my now gloved hand. Pointing it at the device, I set it to the collection of frequencies that were particularly likely to resonate with electronic parts, setting the power on high. It vibrated, and I could feel its warmth next to my forearm as a series of cracking noises came from the black box and points inside the cab.

That meant I'd probably broken every computer in the truck, but My helmet's HUD showed a renewed connection to local wireless towers--good news all around.

I sent a red alert to our team for all the good it would do.

Zooming in on Daniel showed how bad the situation really was. The armored truck was gone, pulling out of the loading dock when Tabitha attacked the women. It was now on the road and pulling away, tires screeching, the engine roaring.

Tabitha jumped after it, nearly catching it, or more accurately, catching the bumper and ripping it off the back of the car. The armored truck didn’t stop. Only slowing when Tabitha grabbed the bumper, it jerked forward when the bumper came off, barrelling through the nearest intersection, and miraculously missing any cars.

Meanwhile Null pointed a gun at Daniel, missing only because Daniel must have predicted when Null would fire and moved at exactly the right moment to avoid it. Normally he used telekinesis and prescience in combination, prescience to sense bullets before they were coming, and telekinesis to knock bullets away.

He wouldn’t be able to keep up dodging with purely human reflexes. Worse, he was already firing, and I probably wouldn’t be able to stop him quickly enough even if I aimed myself at Null like I was some kind of human missile.

As Daniel jumped sideways while simultaneously ducking, the static increased in my head for a moment along with the word “telekinesis!”

I got the meaning. If our unusual telepathic connection meant that we got past Null’s block, why couldn’t I use Daniel’s telekinesis like I did when we were bowling?

Letting the static fill my head, I concentrated on one of the locked cash bags, one that was particularly thick. It may have contained coins. Feeling Daniel’s presence like I always did when we were in range, I reached out.

The bag moved. I had control. Unfortunately, Daniel fell, and Null stood over him, aiming his pistol in what he clearly intended to be a final shot.

He didn’t make that shot.

I put all my fear, hope, and everything into that final push, and the bag left the ground like a bullet. It hit Null in the back of the head--hard--and knocked him unconscious.

I hoped he was unconscious, anyway. I didn’t want to kill him.

In the same moment, the static stopped completely, and my head was completely clear except for Daniel’s continuing presence. Even as the static went away though, Daniel thought at me, “Nick, jump away from the truck!”

It felt urgent, so I didn’t ask why. I jumped to the side. With the stealth suit’s artificial muscles, this meant I jumped twenty feet sideways, landing in the next (empty) row of the parking lot. In almost same moment, Tabitha landed where I’d been standing, her momentum leading her to hit the driver’s side door.

She dented the door, but pushed herself away from the truck unharmed. Obviously, she’d given up on catching the armored truck, and noticed only one person wearing a costume--me. From the curl of her lip, it was obvious that she believed it was all my fault.

She launched herself toward me at a speed that left her little more than a blur.

I blasted away at her with the sonic system on each arm, and she faltered, covering her ears. As she slowed, a grocery cart came out of the sky, throwing her across the empty parking lot. She flipped end over end.

I hadn’t done it.

Before she stood up, she’d been pulled into the air. Immediately she began digging into her pockets, probably looking for something to throw, and probably at me. Bearing in mind her strength, I looked for the nearest cover, realizing that it was still her truck.

I didn’t make it there before she fell asleep, something Daniel couldn’t pull off in a fight, but could manage afterward.

As my heart rate slowed, I realized that people from our team were on their way, that the police were coming, and that I had multiple messages listed in my HUD telling me so.

Daniel’s voice broke into my thoughts. “We’d better get out of sight. The last thing I want is to have to answer questions about what happened as myself.”

“No kidding. I’m at least in a costume, so I can handle the police if you leave. You want to try again with bowling?”

I felt his amusement. “Maybe in November. It’ll have to be too cold to rob the store by then.”

“We can hope.”

 

 

Read more by Jim at InMyDaydreams.com

Guest Post Interlude - Week #3: Marn

This week's post is from Marn, the writer of Antlers, Colorado

Lacrimosa

                “Is this everything, sir?”

           The cashier looks at me expectantly - I blink at her, not used to being a “sir”, and try to smile. It must be the gray hair. I used to dye it, but I stopped a few months ago. People aren’t used to seeing anyone in their mid-twenties with gray hair, and so I get treated like I’m older than I am, most times. It doesn’t bother me. I think it’s kind of funny, actually.

           I look at the shopping bags next to the cashier, bloated with cleaning supplies, painkillers, batteries, a single utility knife. I hope it’s everything. I should have made a list, at least on my phone or something. I don’t want to drive half an hour back to the lake only to realize I’m missing something important and have to turn around. I don’t have time for that. It’s my fault, really, for waiting until the last night possible to do all of this. Six months to prepare and I still need to go out and run errands beforehand.

           “That’s it,” I tell the cashier, and unfold a wad of cash out of my pocket. She smiles at me and waits for the receipt to print all the way before giving me my change, folded up in the flimsy paper.

           “Have a great evening.”

           “Thanks.”

           I scoop up two bags in each hand and emerge victorious on the other side of the sliding-glass doors, hefting the weight of my purchases as I cross the vast expanse of parking lot outside the grocery store. The sky is clear, and the full moon is plastered on it like a giant spotlight, orange and looming. It was supposed to storm, but the weather’s held up so far tonight. I’m glad. Rain means the lake expanding outwards, overlapping the shore and butting up against the porch like it’s trying to drag the whole house under.

A bag boy rolling across the parking lot with a train of shopping carts waves at me. I nod back. I don’t come into town very often, if I can help it. There’s too many lights and sounds; and besides that, the people are too nosy for their own good. Everyone’s got to be in everyone’s business. I didn’t move all the way out here to Colorado to get quizzed about my life every time I try to introduce myself to a neighbor.

           It’s not like I’m unused to the lack of privacy - I used to be in a band before I moved out here, and we were popular, I guess. We played on daytime TV a couple times, that kind of thing. We had fans. Then we all went off to do our own thing, and I moved into the lake house. We all didn’t talk much after that, not for years. That was my in for getting them to come visit when I needed them. Pick a bandmate, call him up and ask if he wanted to fly in and spend a few days together out at the lake, the two of us, palling around like old times. Every one of them was flattered that they were the one I thought to call when I got lonely, so of course they agreed.

           Wes is the only one left, now, and soon I won’t even have him as my last resort. All my reliable resources, gone. I don’t know what I’ll do next time, but at least I have six months to think about it. I’m glad that I don’t have to produce a body for the lake every week, or I would drive myself insane doing it. I still might drive myself insane.

           I throw the bags in the passenger seat and twist my keys in the ignition. Maybe I can cut the trip down to twenty minutes if there’s no speed traps on the road.

*

              The drive back to the lake is almost calming. It’s late enough that the roads are mostly unpopulated, and I only see a few other cars the whole way, their headlights drifting up in front of me. The moon hangs in my rearview mirror, like a backseat driver peering over my shoulder.

           I punch the radio on, but it’s hard to pick up any good stations out here, so I switch it over to the CD input. The droning guitar lick of Beck’s “Loser” blares out at me nigh instantaneously – this must be the mix CD Danton gave me when he came to visit half a year ago. I forgot I had it in here. I reach over to twist the volume knob up, but the CD skips.

           Why don’t you kill…kill…kill…kill…kill...kill…

           “Jesus,” I say under my breath, pressing the button to play the next track. Pain lances through my neck muscles. Ben Folds’ soft, high voice gibbers non sequiturs through the speakers, bits and pieces ripped from “Brick” and reformed as pidgin sentences.

           It’s time to…sleep…freezing…feeling…cold…

           “What do you want?” I snap at the radio. It’s done this before – the lake, I mean. This is how it communicates. Through bastardizing other peoples’ words. It likes music, I think, but it’s stooped to diner menus and billboards before to get me to pay attention.

           He is…dying…dying…dying…dying…for…me…

           “I know. I’m running a little bit late on that.”

           Drowning…drowning…drowning…drowning…drowning…slowly…

           “Yeah, I got it.”

I almost change the track again, but I don’t feel like finding out what the lake will do to “Wonderwall”, so I turn off the radio. I can live with another fifteen minutes of silence.

*

Malcolm is waiting for me in the foyer, standing dead center on the rug and watching as I strip off my layers and kick my boots into a corner. The dramatic looming is nothing new, but nonetheless a little unnerving, especially with the six inches of height he has on me. Mal looks a little like a mad scientist, bony hands dangling down at his sides and his hair sticking out at unruly, haphazard angles. The only light inside the lake house is the full moon streaming through the windows, and it glints off of his glasses, hiding his eyes. His tan skin is bleached in the glow.

           “I’m home,” I say to him. He doesn’t answer, but his mouth twists into a scowl. I turn my back on him to hang my coat up on the rack next to the door. “Did you talk to Wes?”

           “Danton’s trying,” Mal says flatly.

           “Yeah, but did you-

           “What’s the point?” he snaps, but doesn’t move from the rug. “He can’t hear us. As far as we know, only you can.”

           “Danton seems to think it’s worth a shot.” I pick my convenience store bags up from the doorway where I left them. Mal follows me into the kitchen, where I set to work unpacking, laying everything out on the table in elaborate order.

           “You can’t keep doing this, Landis,” he says over my shoulder. “It’s not sustainable.”

           I pick at the blister pack around the utility knife, trying to wedge my thumbnail between the clear plastic and the cardboard backing. “I know that.”

           “Wes is the only one of us left. What are you going to do when you’re done with him? Start luring strangers here? Toss yourself in the lake?”

           “I won’t throw myself into the lake.” I finally get a hold on the plastic and peel it away, freeing the knife. “The lake’s my responsibility.”

           He’s right, though. I’ll have to make a new strategy once I’m done with Wes, but I knew all along that this would happen. I’ll have to start picking up strangers. It’s the only way. But maybe only people that no one will miss, or people who would be better off dead. It’ll be almost like I’m doing them a favor by throwing them in the lake. At least they’ll be serving a larger purpose.

Mal sidesteps me and passes through the table, standing so that it bisects him. I’m still not used to seeing that. I know that if I turned the lights on I would be able to see the dust particles floating through him like he’s an image projected on a screen, but it’s easier to trick myself into thinking he’s still solid. He’s just the same as he was before I killed him, anyway. They all are.

           “Whose responsibility was it before? What happened to them?” He folds his arms over his chest. “Did they murder people too, or is that just you?”

           “I don’t know,” I say. It’s a lie. I know from the news reports that she slit her wrists on the back porch and threw herself in the lake. Her body didn’t wash up until weeks later, after she was reported missing and the police came out here to look for her. The lake talked to her, too. I know that from her diary, which I found in a false-bottomed drawer in my bedroom’s nightstand. She got caught trying to abduct another woman from a gas station not too far from here, and decided that death would be better than letting the lake go unfed because of her mistake. I don’t know who owned the place before her, but someone must have. You don’t just leave a place like this alone. There has to be a caretaker.

           I carefully lift the utility knife out of its torn packaging, flicking the blade of the knife up and down, testing the weight of it in my hand. It might be my best idea yet. At the very least, it’ll make things quicker this time around. It’s funny how you never really stop and think that there’s a certain science to efficient, painless murder until you have to figure out a way to do it.

           “I could take hitchhikers. Or people whose cars are broken down,” I say, mostly to myself.

           “That’s serial killer talk.”

           The voice isn’t Mal’s, and I look up in time to see Jeremy drift into the kitchen. His hands are crammed into the pockets of his jacket, and he won’t make eye contact with me, a nimbus of blond hair drifting around his head like he’s moving underwater. He’s the most recently dead, and sometimes I think he’s still angry about it, because he doesn’t say much at all. Jeremy pretends to lean up against the fridge, but I know that he’s probably straining to keep himself from falling through it. Even though he’s shorter and stockier than Mal and Danton, they all drift through solid things just the same.

           “Jeremy’s right,” Mal agrees, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “People start disappearing off the road every few months, someone’s going to notice. It won’t just be picking off your band buddies from out of town anymore.”

           “Someone might even notice that we’re all gone before that, and come out here to investigate,” Jeremy says pointedly.

           Mal shrugs his skinny shoulders up to his ears, making a non-committal “eh” sort of noise. “I mean, we didn’t have that many fans.”

           “Both of you shut up.” I massage the side of my neck with the heel of one hand, squeezing my eyes shut and feeling the muscle flare up in pain as I twist my head down towards my left shoulder. I took two painkillers in the car, dry, but they haven’t kicked in yet. “Let me think.”

           “You’ve had six months to think about this.” Mal’s voice is steely.

           “Yeah, well, in a house where I can barely hear myself think-”

           “Oh, yeah, whose fault is that?” Mal raises his voice enough to make me open my eyes and look at him. His hands are balled into fists, held up in front of his chest like he’s anticipating an attack. “Maybe you should have considered that before you started killing all your friends!”

           He slams his fists down on the table. At first I think they’re just going to go through the wood, as intangible as the rest of him. And they do, eventually. But before they pass through, everything on the tabletop jumps – just the same as if I’d hit the table myself. I jump, too, and so do Mal and Jeremy. I guess none of us were expecting that.

           Mal lifts his hands again, opening them and scanning his palms as if his heart line or his life line can tell him anything about what just happened. I look over at Jeremy, whose eye I manage to catch for a split second before he looks down at the floor. I sigh.

           “I didn’t exactly plan on having to talk to you after I killed you.”

           “Yeah, ghosts are never part of the plan,” Mal is dripping with sarcasm. “That’s our bad for coming back to constantly remind you that you’re a murderer.”

           “Murderer is a strong term.” I match his tone.

I can feel him and Jeremy glaring at me, and so I take the utility knife with me into the living room. Wes is asleep in the recliner in front of the television, his feet propped up, the bottle of hard lemonade he was drinking when I left still miraculously in his hands and not on the floor. I guess it didn’t take long for the pills I put in it to take effect, even with the TV still flashing the evening news. Wes’s head is tilted back, exposing the long, pale strip of his throat and its jutting Adam’s apple. I flick the knife blade up and down again. I could have him drowning in his own blood before he even woke up. Then again, I’d have to drag him all the way out to the lake, and it’d make a huge mess.

           “Hey!” Danton exclaims, levering himself through Wes’s torso like a swimmer suddenly emerging from the still waters of a pool. “You’re home!”

           I take a step backwards, reeling, and almost drop the knife. My first instinct is obviously to yell, but I force my voice to come out in a hiss so that I don’t run the risk of Wes waking up.

           “What the hell are you doing?”

           “Just hanging out with Wes,” Danton says, his eyes wide and earnest beneath a thick mop of dark, shaggy hair.

           I’m almost beyond words, but I manage to choke them out of my throat. “Well, stop it.”

           “Why should I?” His expression sours. “It’s not like I could wake him up if I tried.”

           “Then what’s the point?”

           “I wanted to watch TV. You never turn on the TV when you’re by yourself.” Danton frowns at me, and I shrug.

           “So, get a hobby. Not my problem.”

           “Yeah, hobbies are real easy to come by when you’re incorporeal.” He pulls a face, unsticking himself all the way from Wes’s body and hovering briefly above the recliner before touching down on the floor in front of me. Like Mal, Danton is taller than me by at least half a foot, but he wears the height in a less gangly way. He looks down his beaky nose at the utility knife in my hands. “Aren’t you gonna feel crappy when all your friends are dead, Lan?”

           “What are you, my conscience?” I try my very best to smile.

           “I’m serious.” Danton glances from me to Wes and back again. “Do you really want to be some crazy guy who lives by himself in the middle of nowhere and talks to ghosts and kills hobos every once in a while?”

           “That’s not my choice to make.”

           “Then whose choice is it?”

           Danton’s voice is too loud, louder than the echoing voices of the newscasters on the TV screen, and the question hangs in the air between us. He cocks his head like I owe him an answer. I don’t. Everyone here thinks I owe them something because I killed them and gave their bodies to the lake. Maybe it would be news to them, but that’s not how murder works under any normal circumstances, and that’s still not how it works even though they’re still hanging around to bother me postmortem.

           Although maybe it is a little bit my fault for assuming I could get rid of them so easily.

           I elbow through Danton and jostle Wes by the shoulder. He smacks his lips, grunts, and rolls his head ever so slightly, but doesn’t open his eyes. I nudge his cheek with the butt of the utility knife and his eyelids crack half-open.

           “S’cold in here.”

           He brushes a few stray locks of hair out of his face. It’s the longest I’ve ever seen it get, pulled back into a little ponytail at the nape of his neck.

           “I had a weird dream…about Danton, I think?” Wes scratches his cheek, peppered with stubble. “Have you heard from him? He hasn’t been returning my calls-”

           “I wonder why,” Danton says dryly, at the same time I say “No, that’s weird.”

           “Right?” Wes is still groggy, and struggles to his feet from the recliner, wobbling where he stands. He clutches at my shoulder for balance. “Hey, what time is it?”

           It’s not a bad question. I glance over at the clock on top of the TV and grit my teeth – it’s almost midnight. I need to be quick or I’ll miss my time window. Were the others trying to stall me? Or did I just take too long getting back from the store?

           “Dunno,” I lie through my teeth. We need to go outside before I run out of time to do this. Or before I lose my nerve – but I haven’t yet, not even with Mal, who was the first. I rub the side of my neck. “You look like you could use some air, Wes.”

           Wes blinks slowly. “I do?”

           “We should go outside. On the porch.”

           “Sure, I guess,” he mutters. The words are slurring together behind his teeth, which means he’s still decently drugged up.

           “Don’t-” Danton starts loudly, before presumably realizing Wes can’t hear him. He follows us into the kitchen, where Mal and Jeremy are waiting in silence like shadows. They join him in drifting out to the back porch with me and Wes. I wish they wouldn’t all breathe down my neck so much. It was hard when it was just Mal, watching me strangle Danton with my bare hands and a bit of rope.

           The lake is vast and roiling and silver in the light of the moon. The normally glassy surface of the water ripples almost violently, a private earthquake, waves noisily lapping against the bank closest us. Wes teeters for balance and catches himself, leaning heavily on the porch railing.

           “What’s wrong with the water?” he asks, his words all slurring together.

           “I’ve never seen it that bad,” Mal says, the five of us all stopping to stare at the lake.

                Mal’s right. It wasn’t like this even on the night that I killed him. Almost as bad, maybe, but not quite. Just bad enough for me to realize things were serious, and that I hadn’t been hallucinating the weatherman on the news telling me that the depths hungered for blood, the car insurance commercial lady saying that a sacrifice had to be made. I wonder if the woman who owned the house before me ever got to see the lake like this. I wonder if it was like this before she took a razor blade to her wrists.

                I flick the blade of the utility knife up. Something’s breaking the surface of the lake between the waves, rows of long, spindly things waving like cattails in the late-autumn wind. I watch as the moonlight catches one and realize that it’s a hand, lolling at the end of an emaciated, rotting arm. Reaching towards the porch. Towards me.

                “Shit,” Danton breathes.

                “Landis.” Wes sounds a little more sober, and a lot scared. “What’s going on? What are those things?”

                “I don’t know, Wes.” My voice sounds hoarse and tired, even to me. I step up behind him without taking my eyes off the lake.

                I brace my free arm on his back so that he can’t turn around, and slit his throat from ear to ear with the utility knife. His blood washes over my hand, spraying on the knife and the railing and everything. This is the first time I’ve tried killing someone with a knife. The gurgling noises coming out of Wes and the bubbles of blood inflating and popping at the corners of his mouth make me wonder if it’s really more humane after all. Maybe I should have strangled him like I did the others.

                I don’t wait for him to stop moving before I steer his body towards the lake. It’s easier to start before he goes limp – I won’t have to lug his whole body weight that way, just push and pull a little. I picked that up last time, when I killed Jeremy. Murder’s a real trial-and-error thing.

                I tip Wes into the water front-first, so that I won’t have to stare him in the face while the hands jutting out of the lake drag his body under. Almost as soon as they do, the lake calms again. Deceptively, eerily smooth for another six months out of the year. Another job well done.

                My legs are shaking, so I sit down on the single, dusty lawn chair on the back porch. There are dirty red flecks on the arms that could be blood, or rust. It’s hard to tell.

                “Do you think he’ll come back, too?” I ask without looking behind me.

                “He’s just as stubborn as the rest of us,” Jeremy answers, choosing his words slowly, like he’s afraid that it’s not what I want to hear.

                “Hey, if you go nuts and kill yourself, we could do a reunion tour,” Mal says. I can hear the tiny smirk in his voice. “Séances across the country.”

                I prop my elbows on my knees, letting my head hang down and lacing my hands behind my neck. “I’m not killing myself. What do you think happens when no one’s here to take care of this place?”

                Mal doesn’t have an answer for me. None of them do. I think about going back inside, where it’s warmer, but I stay where I am instead, feet rooted to the rotting wood of the porch. Wes should be coming back anytime now.

 

Read more of Marn's work on his site for Antlers, Colorado

Guest Post Interlude - Week #2: Billy Higgins Peery

This week’s guest blog is by Billy Higgins Peery, author of the web-serial A Bad Idea.

 

“Your Honor, in my defense,” Anne muttered to herself, using a laser blade to saw the corpse’s leg off, “the victim surprised me while I was working on science. If you’d been working on a plasma blaster, and someone had surprised you, isn’t it possible you would have shot them in the face? You know, accidentally?”

The work was slow-going, since the corpse was some dumb-ass vigilante with super-tough skin. His name was ‘The Exxterminator,’ and he was about as dumb as the name made him sound. Really, Anne should have gotten an award for shooting him in the face.

She continued muttering to an imaginary judge because it amused her, or perhaps because she was crazy. “You wouldn’t have been working on a plasma blaster? That’s a good argument, but I think it speaks less to your innocence and more to a lack of the intelligence which is required to work with plasma.”

The laser began grinding through The Exxterminator’s bone. If it’d been normal human bone this wouldn’t take so long. But he was an alien — Renflaxxxian, to be precise — whose bones were tougher than normal, because the gravity was three times as strong on Renflaxxx as it was on Earth.

Unfortunately, she’d been working on her plasma blaster in the bedroom, which meant that she was now sawing up a corpse in her bedroom. As if she didn’t have enough trouble falling asleep.

The laser saw sputtered a bit, when it got past the bone. Anne held her arms steady.

Why would this dilettante come after me? Anne asked herself.

A million thoughts exploded in her head. She could’ve inadvertently pissed him off during one of her many attempts to take over Boca Raton. Or maybe he was after a piece of her technology. Someone could’ve sent him here, or he could’ve just been patrolling the area, looking for some bad guy to beat up.

Did someone send him here to kill me? Anne asked herself.

She wiped some sweat off her forehead, trying to think of who could possibly want her dead.

She shrugged, shaking her head. “Why would anyone want to kill me?”

The leg had been severed, so she moved towards an arm.

After several slow, agonizing minutes spent sawing through The Exxterminator’s flesh, Anne realized she needed help.

She dug her hand into her jeans, then whipped out her cell phone.

She called a friend. “I need your help.”

“What sort of help?” the friend asked.

“The sort I don’t want to talk about on the phone.”

That was the nice thing about having a friend who could teleport — she didn’t need to give a verbal response to what Anne had just said. Instead, the friend teleported through shadows.

Her hand appeared from under Anne’s bed. The friend crawled out of the shadow of the bed and into the light. She had long, straight black hair, which contrasted with her pale skin.

“Holy motherfuckin’ shit,” she said. “You done fucked up.”

“It was in self defense, kinda,” Anne explained. “I thought you dealt with murders all the time.”

“I do,” she said. “I do. I just don’t usually see the body hacked up like this. He really piss you off or something?”

“I thought it’d be easier to transport him if he was broken into pieces.”

“I’m a transporter,” Shade said. “Transportation isn’t going to be a problem, here. Blood — blood’s gonna be the problem. Are there any sensors in this school? X-ray vision, heightened sense of smell, fifth sense?”

“No. Most of the supers who go to FAU are fighters.”

Shade didn’t know what Florida Atlantic University’s population looked like, since she didn’t go to college here. Or anywhere, for that matter. She was in her late twenties: Anne had met her in jail, back when Anne was in high school.

“That’s good. Sensors are bad news for people like us. Pack a bowl while I try and figure this out.”

“Alright,” Anne said, taking a book off her bookshelf. There was a little bag of weed there, which sat next to the pipe. She wasn’t much of a smoker, but Shade was, and she figured Shade would be more likely to hang out here if there was weed around.

To tell you the truth, Shade was pretty nice-looking. She was good to have around when Anne needed advice for being a super criminal, but Anne probably wouldn’t have been so nice to her if she didn’t like the view.

After Anne had packed the pipe, she took out her lighter and handed it to Shade.

Shade took a hit off the pipe, her chest rising as she sucked the smoke in. She blew it out, then looked back at the corpse.

“We need to bag the corpse,” she said. “You got a trash bag?”

“Yeah, I’ve got boobs,” Anne said, the Freudian slip probably indicating how much she was thinking about Shade’s boobs. “Uh, bags. Bags. Yeah, I’ve got trash bags.”

--- --- ---

 

Shade said that Anne didn’t need to know where the body was buried. The less she knew, the better things were for everybody. So Shade transported the chopped up bits to whatever hiding spot she’d come up with, while Anne just had to figure out how to clean all the blood up.

First Anne took a nice, long shower. Scrubbed all the blood off her body. Then she went on a walk down Spanish River Boulevard, towards the closest Walgreens.

The walk to the store was hotter than balls. Not that she knew how hot balls were. She was just guessing that the weather was hotter, because it was so damn hot out.

The Walgreens depressed her. She wondered if the fact that she’d murdered someone was depressing her, and the whole ‘getting depressed by Walgreens’ thing was just her projecting.

But she didn’t think it was. Honest to god, the Walgreens depressed her. They’d just changed the layout of the place. Before, the white linoleum floor and overly bright lights had felt like home. But now?

It just didn’t feel right.

The bloodstained carpet back at her dorm was white, which made things a little easier. She grabbed some bleach, then made her way towards the checkout. Figured she’d console herself with a candy bar, and maybe even one of those cheap bottles of wine they were always selling.

She went and grabbed one of those cheap bottles of wine. Gave herself an imaginary pat on the back for forging a fake ID. Though really, compared to building a giant death mech, forging an ID wasn’t very hard.

It wasn’t until she had the bottle in her hand that she noticed the superhero standing next to her: David, her arch nemesis.

“Hey Anne,” David the arch nemesis said, holding a card and envelope in his hand.

“Hey?” Anne said, standing in the Walgreens, holding bleach and a bottle of wine.

“Don’t switch the labels,” he said, pleased with himself for being so funny. “Haha.”

“I–”

“Sorry, bad joke. Bleach humor.” Though he said it was a bad joke, in truth he thought he was god’s gift to comedy.

“Right. Well, this has been a good talk, but–”

“You’re smart,” he blurted.

“Can’t take the credit,” she said. “Genetics was–”

He interrupted Anne. Again. She began wondering if acid would burn through his pretty boy flesh. If not, she figured she’d just have to come up with something stronger.

“I know we’ve had a lot of differences in the past, but–”

This time she interrupted him. It felt good: “You punched me in the face and had me arrested.”

“You built a giant death robot.”

“Death mech,” she said. “Robots don’t have pilots, mechs do.”

“Right,” he said. “Either way, you caused a lot of property damage.”

“True,” she said, “but it was cool.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry that I punched you in the face, and that you got thrown in jail. Back in high school, things seemed a little–”

“Simpler?” she asked.

“Right,” he said, looking at her like this was the first thought he’d ever had in his life. “Simpler. I should’ve tried to help you, after everything you–”

“It’s fine. This was nice and all, but I’ve got some laundry that I want to do. So I’m going to go buy this stuff now and be on my way.”

“It’s Ricky’s birthday today.”

Ricky AKA The Exxterminator, AKA the guy she’d just killed.

“What’s that got to do with me?” she snapped.

He looked a little taken aback, but it’s not like Anne gave a shit. What did The Exxterminator’s birthday have to do with her?

“The Owls are throwing a party for him,” David said, the Owls being the superhero team that he led. “I was hoping you’d come.”

“Oh,” she said. That really came as a surprise.

God, his birthday, she thought. I killed the asshole on his birthday.

She decided not to give a shit. After all, he shouldn’t have been snooping around on his birthday. He shouldn’t have been doing the vigilante shit on his birthday. That was his fault, not hers. What he did was dangerous business — could’ve died any day, at the hands of anybody.

Shit, vigilantes got killed by cops as often as they got killed by bad guys. Killing a vigilante didn’t say shit about who she was. Didn’t mean she was good or bad. She just was.

“What’s the time and place?” she asked. She figured that saying no would have been admitting to herself that she was afraid, or guilty. But she wasn’t afraid, or guilty.

So she’d killed a guy. He had it coming.

“Tonight at five,” he said. “At the base. Please don’t bring a gift. We’d worry about it being a camera, or a bomb, or a camera bomb, or a robot that takes pictures of us in our sleep, or a–”

“Fair,” she said. “Five at the base. I’ll see you, then.”

“Yeah,” he said, walking off. He wore a bit of a smile. “I’m glad you said yes.”

Asshole, with his fancy smile and fancy base and powerful friends.

He was worried her surprise was going to be wrapped in some box? Nah, she had the greatest surprise in the world: she’d killed the guest of honor.

She tried opening the wine bottle, to take a swig from it. But then she remembered the cork. She probably looked awkward, just standing there.

Walking towards the checkout, she realized he hadn’t given her any shit about trying to buy wine underage.

She wondered what that meant.

---

 

The Owls’s superhero hangout looked out of place. It was a couple blocks from campus, surrounded by smaller houses across the street and a church right next door. There were a bunch of cars parked by the church — some sort of wedding, probably.

The house itself stood three stories high. Looked like a mansion.

Anne stood outside, holding her present. A bronze statue of an owl hung above the front door. The sun was setting, which gave the owl a more ominous look.

David opened the door. For a brief moment, he had a wide smile. Then he saw the box in her hands, and the smile soured.

“You weren’t supposed to bring anything,” he said.

“It’s a small gift.”

“Tiny death robot?”

“No,” she said.

“Something that has a camera in it, that you’ll use to track our every move?” he asked.

Anne sighed. “That’d be cliche.”

“You’re sure it’s not a tiny death robot?”

She almost got frustrated, but then she caught the smirk on his face. He was fucking with her.

“You motherf–” she began.

But David yelled inside the house, “Marja, can you come here for a minute? I need you to look at something.”

He turned back to Anne. “I’m trying to be nice, you know. Let bygones be bygones. The least you could do is try not to kill us.”

“That’s the least I can do,” Anne said, “but I like to think of myself as an overachiever.”

He stood there, wearing a stupid grin. Truth be told, he was being nice. Anne almost appreciated that. But it made her more comfortable to make them a little uncomfortable. She figured he knew it, too.

Jeanine came to the front door. Her short blond hair was slicked back. She wore a suit. “Marja’s sleeping.”

“Right,” David said. The way he said it made Anne feel like there was something she didn’t know about Marja. She filed the information away for later.

This was great. Their act of kindness was giving her a whole new insight into the team.

It was stupid being here — when they could find out about The Exxterminator’s death at any moment. Yet being here brought with it a sense of comfort. She could keep tabs on the team, gather information about them, be ready to deal with them if need be.

She made sure to keep a smile plastered on her face, but inside she was reeling.

If they find out what I did, I might have to kill them all.

 

For more work by Billy Higgins Peery, be sure to check out the web-serial A Bad Idea.

Guest Post Interlude - Week #1: Chrysalis

The first of our guests posts is by Chrysalis, who writes the web-serial Anathema

 

Florida, USA

Saturday, the 18th of May, 2011

02:38 p.m.
 
 
“Emily! Get away from the water!”

Mom’s voice drifted across the pool with a pitch that startled people and dolphins alike. She was standing beside the souvenir shop in her garish yellow spring outfit, waving her arms as if her shout hadn’t been loud enough. The floppy-brimmed straw hat she used to ward off sunburns overshadowed most of her face, and her long auburn locks spilled from beneath to blow in the wind.

Emily rolled her eyes. She was used to her mother’s overprotectiveness by now, but being exposed to it in public was more than a little embarrassing.

I’m not a baby, Mom. Geeze. I’m eight, she thought disdainfully as she wiggled her toes in the pool’s turquoise water.

“It’s too deep!” her mother went on. “What if you fall in?”

Some of the other kids turned their heads to flash Emily knowing looks. Fortunately, most kept their attention on the dolphin trainer, eager to hear everything about a dolphin’s diet.

She turned her head to shoot a pleading look towards her father, who was a picture of relaxation as he lounged on a nearby bench in a sleeveless shirt with his sunglasses perched on his head. Her dad, at least, trusted her to know the difference between shallow and deep water. When he met her gaze, he waved.

Taking a cue from her his relaxed attitude, Emily inched forward to let her more of her legs dangle into the water. One of the dolphins nudged her knee with his long nose. His beady black eyes peered up at her as if to ask if she’d like to dive in.

“I can’t swim, Skippy,” Emily explained. “I tried to learn, but all I do is sink. I’m weird, I guess.”

The dolphin bobbed his head up and down, then plunged his nose into the pool to send up a wave of spray that sprinkled Emily with water. She wiped her face, laughing.

Some of the other kids were staring again, but she didn’t care. She didn’t have to be friends with those dumb kids, or listen to the trainer’s dumb presentation. She already knew everything the woman was talking about. Besides, she was more comfortable here, sitting at the edge of the pool and doing her own thing. Talking to her own dolphin.

“You understand me, don’t you?” she asked him. “You’re way smarter than any fish.”

The dolphin nudged her submerged foot with his nose and Emily laughed again. It tickled something fierce.

“I’ve got a cat, but he’s not as smart as you,” Emily continued, pulling her foot away. “He’s fat and lazy, and he can’t swim either. Maybe that’s why I like him.”

She glanced over to her dad on the bench. His arm was stretched out over the backrest and his face was tilted towards the sun. Kinda like Mr. Tibbs when he’s sunbathing. She couldn’t help but grin.

As if he had overheard the thought, her father opened his eyes and met her gaze. He gave her a broad smile and a thumbs-up, prompting her to flick her thumb up in return. When she turned her attention back to the pool, the dolphin was bobbing his head at her.

“You know what thumbs-up means?” Emily asked with a giggle, repeating the gesture for the dolphin’s benefit.

Just then, a rush of dizziness hit her like a tidal wave. She’d experienced something similar in the car during the drive to Florida, but this was way more intense. Suddenly her entire sense of perception was shifting, surging like a tsunami to break through her bobbing thoughts.

The air lost its odor of fish and the hum of voices morphed into something different, expressing moods rather than words. All sense of direction and her own position magnified. She was acutely aware of not just the world around her, but also above and below.

Her hands felt strangely misplaced on the ends of her arms. Such useless, scrawny things. Where were her fins? And what was she doing out of the water? She shouldn’t be here. She belonged with her kin.

Her kin.   

Their collective sadness permeated her consciousness, interspersed by memories of her lost pod in the great blue ocean. She remembered the sound of all the name signatures she hadn’t heard since her world had shrunk to the size of a puddle. She recalled the desperation that had turned to boredom, occasionally interrupted by thoughtless interactions with the slow, clumsy land dwellers.

Affronted by the hard plaster of the pool’s edge beneath her bottom, Emily tilted her head back and released a series of clicking noises in an attempt to find her bearings. But she could barely interpret the echoes that bounced back to her useless ears. Had she gone partially deaf?

Some of the other dolphins picked up on her mood and clicked distressed replies. She struggled to interpret them until finally it dawned on her.

Come, they were saying. Join us. It will be better.

She threw her head back to release another series of clicks. Yes, I will join you.

And with that thought, the Emily-dolphin let herself glide into the water. But as the water surrounded her she realized just how sick and twisted her body was. Her air hole was in the wrong place. Worse, she couldn’t breathe.

I’m coming, she thought as her deformed limbs oscillated through the water. But her graceless flailing brought her no closer towards the others.

Up above, the sound of land dwellers in distress was loud enough to be heard beneath the water’s surface. Down below, her dolphin family gathered around her, clicking questions of confused concern. Now that she was among them, they suddenly wanted her gone. She didn’t understand why.

Up, one of them signaled with a wag of his tailfin. Two of her kin sliced through the water to her side and tried to push her back up to the surface.

I belong here, she replied. But even as she clicked the message, her air-breathing lungs were filled with water and her throat constricted.

Then she heard a loud splash, followed by a blur of bubbles. The next thing she knew, she was being dragged up through the water by a pair of rough land-dweller hands.

But I don’t want to go, she thought. Then there was nothing.

 

***

 

Emily came to with a painful heave that emptied the contents of her stomach onto the paved ground surrounding the dolphin pool. A distressed buzz of voices filled her ears. Even though they sounded familiar, it took her a moment to place them.

Mom. Dad.

“Emily! Wake up! Oh god, someone call an ambulance!”

Emily opened her eyes to the over-bright sunshine and found herself face to face with her dad. He wasn’t so relaxed now, even though he struggled to compose himself for her benefit.

She made an effort to speak and coughed up more water instead. Someone grabbed her shoulders and rolled her onto her side, causing her stomach to turn upside down again.

“Please calm down. Our emergency team is on the way.” This time, it was a stranger’s voice that assaulted Emily’s ears. He was crouching at her side, but quickly stood to address a spattering of onlookers. “The worst is over, everyone. She’s breathing on her own now. Please, go back to watching the show. There’s nothing more to see here.”

The crowd’s collective curiosity scattered like a swarm of bees, drifting on to other matters.

This stranger was mad at her, Emily knew. She sensed it somehow. She’d made a big boo-boo— something that could have gotten him into a world of trouble. Caused him to lose his job. She wanted to apologize, but her words came out as a cough.

“Emily, can you hear me?” It was her father’s voice again. His love surrounded her like a warm blanket. It felt good, almost as good as being underwater.

“Hey, Dad,” she managed. Words, not dolphin noise.

“Emily! Thank god! How many times did I tell you to get away from the water?” her mother fussed, bending over her and blocking out the sun.

Emily closed her eyes in an attempt to shut out her mother’s anxiety, which was assailing her like blows from a hammer. She shrank away, closer to her father’s love.

“Em?” her father urged over the noise of her mother’s angst. “What just happened? Did you pass out?”

Emily’s lips quivered. She was slowly beginning to understand what had happened, but she didn’t want to tell. If she did, the uniformed dudes she’d seen on TV would come to take her away. She’d have to answer all sorts of questions and might never be allowed to go home again.

And, worst of all, Mom and Dad would have one more thing to argue about.

“I … I slipped,” she finally said. “I’m really sorry, Dad. Can we go home now?”

She could feel him soak up her explanation without a hint of doubt. He radiated unwavering fatherly love like a miniature sun.

I love you too, Daddy. Emily wrapped her wet arms about him, feeling the warmth of sunlight on the skin of his neck and arms.

“Alright,” Dad said. “Let’s get you checked out and then I’ll bring the car around.”

 

 

***

 

 

Atlanta, USA

Friday, the 2th of September, 2011

05:53 p.m.

 

“Em, are you sure your parents are gonna be okay with this?” her friend’s excited voice came over the phone line just as Emily began to walk up her driveway after school. “Didn’t you say your mom freaks out whenever you mention sleeping over?”

Emily soaked up her friend’s mood over the phone connection until she was as giddy and excited as Maria was. She could just imagine the look on her new best friend’s face: Maria would be nibbling on her bottom lip, squinting down at her little Hello Kitty day planner. There would be a note about tomorrow night’s pajama party at the bottom of the page, surrounded by cute drawings and colorful question marks.

“That was a couple months ago.” Emily lied with practiced ease as she approached the front steps. “Mom’s gotten better since her and Dad stopped fighting so much. But I’ll double-check and call you back, okay?”

“Okay!” Maria chimed through the phone. “I really hope she says yes! Steph’s already said she’s coming, and Jodie’s gonna ask her parents tonight.”

“Sounds fun,” Emily said, truthfully this time. This whole having friends thing was still new to her, but she liked it. Making friends was much easier now than it had been a few months before.

“Yeah, it will be!” Maria enthused. “But I gotta go take the dog for a walk. Ask your parents and then call me back, okay Emmy?”

“Okay, I will. Later,” Emily said before hanging up her cellphone.

After tucking the phone into her pocket and setting her backpack down on the doorstep, Emily raised her hands to adjust the Mickey Mouse hairpins over her pigtails. She hated pigtails, and she hated the Mickey Mouse hairpins even more. They made her look like a baby. But her mom thought they were cute, and Emily needed maximum cuteness to obtain parental approval for her request. She dropped her arms when she heard the angry and all-too-familiar buzz of shouting through the kitchen window.

Not again. Emily puffed her cheeks out in exasperation. You agreed to be nice to each other and even try going on a date tonight, remember?

Why couldn’t her parents just get along and stop making her head hurt? She wondered they were fighting about now. She didn’t pick up any emotions just yet, so she knew her parents must be in the kitchen or on the back porch, beyond her range. They hadn’t seen her come home yet.

For a moment she considered turning around and heading over to Jodie or Stephanie’s house. Trying to fix adults was getting old fast. Especially now that she’d figured how they always fell back into the same old patterns when she wasn’t around.

You’re going on that date together, Emily decided. She’d been looking forward to some alone time all day. Movies, potato chips, and no adult emo poop whatsoever. She’d have to watch in her room, though. Her parents’ fighting had polluted the rest of the house with too many negative feelings.

The muffled sound of their angry voices accompanied her all the way to the kitchen. They fell silent at the sound of the kitchen door opening, however. Emily armed herself with an ubercute thousand-watt smile.

“I’m hooooooome!” she called into the kitchen, dropping her schoolbag on the floor.  

A second later, her mom returned an all too cheerful greeting. It would have been a good act, except for the buzz of latent anger and frustration ringing through the foyer like static on a broken television set.

A quick peek through the kitchen doorway revealed that Emily’s dad was standing next to the kitchen counter, his shoulders tense. Her mom was sitting at the kitchen table, fussing with her wedding ring. Mr. Tibbs looked on warily from next to his food bowl.

Emily took a deep breath and slipped through the doorway.

“Sneaky pouncing tiger attack!” Emily shouted, throwing her arms around her mother’s sitting form.

Her mom gave a startled laugh. As expected, the bad feelings drained away from the kitchen until they were reduced to bearable background static. Emily tilted her head back and flashed a wide-eyed puppy dog face before burying her face in the folds of her mother’s dress.

At least she’s already dressed up in a nice date-worthy outfit, Emily noted. It was a start.

“What about me, Sweetpea?” her dad asked with a laugh.

Emily dropped her arms from around her mom’s waist and rushed over to him.

“Hi, Daddy!” she squealed, leaping eagerly into his outstretched arms. She nuzzled her face into her father’s neck and giggled. When the last of the bad feelings had dissolved from the room, she wriggled free from his grasp.  

“Did you get your history test back?” he asked as he set her back down on the ground. Emily felt some mild concern emanating from him. Standard parental worry-type stuff.

“Yep! And the teacher gave me a smiley face sticker on it and everything!” She said, pretending to be proud.

Her father beamed back the feeling, only his pride was genuine. She tried to ignore the twinge of guilt that was tugging at her consciousness.

“Are you guys excited for your date?” she asked. “If you don’t get going, you’ll be late for your dinner reservation and then you’ll miss the movie!”

“I’m ready to leave,” Emily’s father said, then turned to his wife. “Are you?”

Mom didn’t respond. She was looking down at her wedding ring, tracing it absently with her thumb.

Emily tapped her fingers in a practiced rhythm against her thigh. Three short taps to focus and submerge. A pause to conjure up a tiny spark of her mother’s consciousness within herself and let it blossom. Then a press of her thumb to her hip snapped her out of it before she absorbed too much and forgot who Emily was. The series of taps revealed the emotional struggle her mother was going through at the moment.

Broken promises. Lack of appreciation.

“You promised me you guys would go and have a fun time, remember?” Emily said with her best sad face. “And besides, Daddy tried really hard to get reservations at that restaurant. He wants to see you happy, right?”

Cue the big puppy dog eyes directed towards her father.

Her dad nodded, and in an instant her mother’s mood shifted like a kite rising with the wind. Woosh.

“You’re right, Sweetpea,” Mom said. She even smiled a little, sweetening the moment. “Honey, do you have the car keys?”

Dad pulled the keys from his pocket and let them dangle from his index finger. “Ready when you are,” he said.

Emily flashed Mr. Tibbs a victory sign behind her back. I fixed it! Perfect mood.

“Hey, Mom, before you go,” Emily began, feigning casualness. “Can I stay at Maria’s place tomorrow night for a sleepover? Her parents are doing a barbecue party.” She scooped Mr. Tibbs up into her arms and held him against her chest; two pairs of kitty-cat eyes looked up at her mom. “Mrs. Myers is going to be there, and Reverend Mitchell too. Maybe he’ll let me join his bible study group if I ask real nice?”

Emily felt chords of approval being struck at the mention of the names and the bible study group.

“Alright, sweetie,” her mom said, getting up from the table and checking her wristwatch. “Your dinner is in the oven and the babysitter should be over in twenty minutes. Don’t forget to do your homework, okay?”

“You promised to do your homework, remember?” Dad added with a playful smirk.

“Okay,” Emily agreed. She grabbed one of Mr. Tibbs’ paws and waggled it in her parents’ direction. “Now have fun, you guys!”

“See you soon, Sweetpea,” her dad replied. He was gently pulling Mom towards the foyer.

Emily set the cat back down on the floor and watched them from the kitchen doorway. Just as her parents left the house, she heard her dad say something about how amazed he was at what a social butterfly Emily had become lately.

She kept her smile until the door thumped closed behind him. Maybe I’ve been cheating just a teensy bit, she admitted, but only to herself. Her parents would be so mad if they ever found out about the powers she still hadn’t told anyone about.

After she heard the car engine start, Emily picked up the home phone and pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her back pocket. She smoothed it out against her pant leg, then dialed the phone number that was written on it and held her breath, her eyes peeled on the front door.

Let’s hope the babysitter doesn’t show up early.

As Emily listened to the ringtone echo half a dozen times, her fingertips began tapping out their rhythm against her leg. The pattern was more elaborate this time, complex enough to let her absorb her father’s voice and speech mannerisms without losing herself. She was just about to hang up when the call connected over the telephone line with a click.

“Romero,” a familiar male voice answered.

“Good evening, Mr. Romero. This is David Bell calling,” Emily said with her father’s voice. “You know, Emily’s father? I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”

“It’s quite alright, Mr. Bell. How can I help you?”

“I’m calling about Emily’s homework assignment. That long division worksheet that’s supposed to be handed in on Monday? I’m holding it right here in my hand, or perhaps I should say scraps of it. I’m afraid the cat got it.”

“The cat?” Mr. Romero laughed. “Usually it’s the dog that eats the homework.”

Emily faked her dad’s hardiest chuckle. “That’s why I wanted to call you myself. Otherwise, I knew you’d never believe it.”

Mr. Romero echoed fake Dad’s laugh. “The truth is stranger than fiction, I often say.”

“Well, from what I could tell, she would have done well on it. But I’ll see to it that she does it again— that is, if I could meet you at the school to pick up an extra copy of the question sheet?”

Emily felt her math teacher’s apathy over the phone. The first week back at school after summer break had been exhausting for him, and the last thing he wanted to do was think about his students over the weekend.

“No, that’s fine,” Mr. Romero replied. “If you say she understands the material, I’ll take your word for it. But thank you for letting me know, Mr. Bell. That’s one for the books!”

Emily belted out her dad’s laugh again. “Yes, I suppose it is. Thank you for your understanding. Have a good weekend, Mr. Romero. You’ve earned it!”

Emily heard a mewing sound as she hung up and glanced to the window. Mr. Tibbs was perched on the window sill, his orange tail twitching in disapproval.

“Don’t give me the evil cat-eye,” she said. “Besides, who’s got time for stupid math homework when there’s a sleepover to go to?”

 

***

 

Forty minutes and a plate of lasagna later, Emily was lounging on her chestnut sleigh bed, wielding the TV remote in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. The evening wasn’t turning out to be quite as much fun as she’d anticipated. The only shows on TV were boring news programs or cartoons for babies, and the babysitter was occupied on the phone, talking to her boyfriend as usual.

As if to defy her, Mr. Tibbs was looking up at her smugly, as only a cat could, from the crook of her left arm. Her parents usually forbade Mr. Tibbs from climbing onto the beds, but Emily had allowed him the indulgence. She enjoyed the feel of his purr as a faint quiver against her skin. When she reached down to stroke his orange fur, the quiver intensified.

“You’re like the cat in Alice in Wonderland, grinning all the time,” Emily said. “Think I could make my parents as happy as you are someday? Maybe then they’d stop leaving bad feelings all over the house.”

Mr. Tibbs’ only response was a twitch of his pointy ears.

Emily took that as a no. If she wanted to understand how cats managed to be happy all the time, she’d have to figure it out on her own.

She put the remote down on her pillow and hugged her knees to her chest, allowing the cat to nuzzle his nose into her neck. She tapped her fingers on her pant leg until her mind submerged into the cat’s consciousness. Three short taps to focus, a pause to soak up what it felt like to be feline and absorb the surge of cat memories. Then a stroke of the thumb to remember her own body.

When Emily found the cat’s contentment, she let herself drift away into a newfound awareness of warmth, safety, and playfulness. She sank deeper and deeper until a satisfied purr filled her throat.

Mr. Tibbs sat up, curious. Then he leaned in nose to nose so they could explore each other’s scent. They were different, but friendly. Familiar. Satisfied, Mr. Tibbs lay back down and stretched out beside her, willing to share his territory.

A human voice drifted from downstairs with an inquisitive pitch. A friendly Hairless, she deduced, but not a feeder. The cat didn’t understand what was being communicated, so she ignored it. She licked a hand and stretched it out lazily.

When the voice came again, it had a sharper edge to it. The cat lifted her head in unison with Mr. Tibbs, pondering whether they had been spotted in this soft, forbidden place. The distinctive thuds of a Hairless approaching came through the door. Both cats leapt off the cushy warmth onto the carpeting. But while Mr. Tibbs landed gracefully on all fours, Emily-cat hit the ground with a clumsiness that startled her. She voiced a mew of dismay and padded to the doorway, keeping her head low.

The Hairless blocked the way, making more inquisitive sounds with increasing disapproval. The cat rubbed herself against the Hairless’s legs and purred, knowing it would elicit approval. Perhaps even petting.

But to her confusion and dismay, there was no petting. Only more harsh words.

Negative feelings rushed into the bedroom like a black thundercloud. Quick as she could, Emily-cat scratched the Hairless across the leg to express her disapproval of the treatment she was given.

The Hairless screamed.

 

 

San Francisco, USA

Monday, the 28th of May, 2012

11:03 a.m.

 

Emily sat quietly on her chair, eyeing the girl in the grey hoodie on the closed-circuit television screen. Mr. Turner and some other government officials were discussing the teenaged detainee as if she was someone they knew personally. She wasn’t, though. Emily knew the reports as well as any of the adults in the room did. Those reports contained hundreds of pages of assumptions about what Christina Chung might or might not do in the future.

People were more complex than that. Emily knew this better than anyone.

Athena stayed out of the discussion for the most part, just listening and occasionally making notes on her laptop. She didn’t argue or make any judgments. She assumed nothing.

That, among other things, was why Emily liked the Covenant heroine better than all the rest of the government people in the room combined. She didn’t radiate any of that holier-than-thou attitude that was polluting the office and threatening to make Emily gag.

“You don’t need to do this if you don’t want to,” a voice said, breaking Emily out of her thoughts.

Emily looked up to see that Mrs. Clarence, the Wardens therapist, had scooted her chair next to hers. The rest of the decision-makers continued to swarm Mr. Turner’s desk, tossing circuitous arguments around.

“I’ll be fine,” Emily assured her. “Just spiffy. Don’t worry, Mrs. Clarence. I can do it!”

“Are you sure?” Mr. Clarence asked, radiating enough concern to compensate for all those nameless government suits who didn’t give two hoots about her.

Mr. Turner cared, sort of. And Athena did, too. In fact, Athena was nearly as worried about this whole situation as Mrs. Clarence was, though for different reasons.

Athena thinks we need this antisocial girl because she’s a Guardian and the world is going to end.

Emily looked up at Mrs. Clarence and put on her best smile. Emily had spent hours upon hours practicing it in front of a mirror. She’d named it ‘Kidtastic Sunrise’ because when she got it just right, it improved the mood of anyone who saw it.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Clarence,” Emily repeated, assembling her words with the same amount of care that she’d applied to her facial expression. “Everything’s going to be fun-tastic.” She wasn’t a baby, but she’d discovered early on that teens and adults responded positively to little bits and pieces of baby talk.

As expected, Mrs. Clarence rewarded her with a smile.

“Besides, it’s nice when I can do my hero thing to help someone out,” Emily added for good measure.

“Is Emily ready?” Mr. Turner asked from his desk.

On cue, all the government big-wigs turned their heads to look at her, like sparrows on a windowsill.

Emily gave the therapist’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Yes, I suppose she is,” Mrs. Clarence replied. “But I can and will put an end to this if I get the slightest idea that the child is uncomfortable.”

“Do we have approval from the Bell family?” one of the boss-men standing beside the desk wanted to know. He radiated concern about bad press and some additional documents everyone else didn’t know about.

I know you’re all just using me, Emily thought. But it’s for a good cause, right?

“Yes, I have Mr. and Mrs. Bell’s signatures right here,” Mrs. Clarence said, holding up a briefcase.

“Alright, then.” Mr. Turner turned to look at Emily for the first time all morning. “Emily, we need your help to determine whether this young woman might be dangerous, or if it would be safe to introduce her to the Wardens.” His voice was sickly sweet.

“Okay,” Emily said, hiding her distaste behind a Kidtastic Sunrise.

“You ready?” Mrs. Clarence asked.

Emily nodded and accepted the envelope that Mr. Turner was holding out to her. Inside were various school pictures of the Guardian girl, as well as snapshots of her room in the Chung family residence. The look of the room surprised Emily. It was neat and orderly, without any of the boy band posters that teenaged girls usually plastered their walls with. The only art on the white walls was a single picture of an ocean coastline illuminated by a rising sun. She doesn’t like spending much time at home, Emily realized.

By now, the process of submerging into another mind had become almost as easy as slipping on a glove. Emily’s fingers drummed against her leg without thought or effort. She knew how to pace herself, having learned how to withdraw just in time to keep from losing herself in the target consciousness.

But Christina Chung proved to be a new kind of challenge. The girl’s mind felt as unyielding and defiant as a wall of moody bricks. Emily recoiled, the drumming rhythm of her fingers interrupted.

“Wow,” she said as she sank back into her chair. “That’s weird. She’s all walled in.”

“Does this make you uncomfortable, Emily?” Mrs. Clarence asked in comforting tones. “You don’t need to keep trying if it’s too hard.”

Mr. Turner radiated annoyance. “Do you think she noticed something and is deliberately shutting you out?” he asked.

“No, that’s not what it feels like,” Emily said. “It’s like all her thoughts and feelings are inside a bottle, and she’s not letting them out.” She glanced over at Athena, whose frown had deepened at Emily’s words.

“I can try again, though,” Emily offered brightly, knowing all too well what they’d brought her here for. She didn’t want to disappoint. If the world really was ending, then this was important.

Mr. Turner surprised her. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve already been a big help.”

“What are you going to do with her?” Emily asked. Now it was her turn to frown. “You’re not gonna kill her, are you?”

“No,” Athena said. “Unlike some other Evolved, we believe that she can be confined, and she may be able to save lives. Although I would prefer if we knew we could trust her.”

Emily knew she could trust Athena’s words. But even if they weren’t planning on killing the girl, keeping her locked up in that little cell for so long had to be pretty horrible, too.

Determined to help, Emily looked down at the pictures of Christina Chung that were scattered across her lap. In all the snapshots, the girl was looking off into the distance, away from the camera’s lens. It was like she thought that no one understood her.

“I’m trying again,” Emily declared earnestly.

This time, she forced herself to sink deeper and deeper, letting the ocean of Christina’s negative emotions engulf her. The deeper she went, the more tangible those emotions were. But just when she thought the sadness and isolation were going to choke her, she broke through the wall. Everything that came afterward was a blur.

Emily remembered the bad words, though. There were a lot of them, and they were coming out of her own mouth. There was a moment of near brightness and clarity when someone grabbed at her and yelled her name, over and over again.

“Emily. Emily. Emily!”

When she came to, pain was pulsing through her right hand. She opened her eyes to find herself in a brightly lit room with pretty flowers on a windowsill. Her cheeks felt raw and wet, as if she’d been crying. Understanding bloomed in her mind as she remembered the sadness she’d felt in Christina’s mind.

Though fading fast, fragments of Christina’s memories were still drifting through her consciousness. The strict father who was so different from her own. The guys at school who didn’t know the first thing about her, and who didn’t care to find out because she was so weird. How she’d drifted away from her sister over the years, being unable to keep up no matter how fast she ran.

And then the most painful memory of all: her inability to do anything to prevent her sister’s death, just like she’d failed to save her baby brother. And the look on her only real friend’s face when he’d finally begun to understand it all.

I’ll be your friend, Christina, Emily decided. Her eyes were already tearing up again.

“She hates being trapped in that tiny cell,” she murmured weakly.

“Emily? Emily! You’re awake!” her dad was shouting from somewhere in the room.

“Hi, Daddy,” she managed. Emily brought her hand up from the bed and gave him a little wave. Her knuckles still hurt a bit, but she was okay. She struggled to sit up.

She had a friend to make, and she knew exactly how to pull that off.

 

For more work by Chrysalis, be sure to check out the web-serial Anathema