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?”


“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.

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

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


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--


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.


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.


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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.”


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

Guest Post Interlude - Week #3: Marn

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


                “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.”


           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.”


           “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.”


“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