The Ghost of the Dragon by John Kaniecki

Jun 03 2016

Robert Unger laughed at the appearance of the ancient man. “Look at that old geezer,” he whispered barely audible into Anne’s ear. “How is he going to climb this mountainous trail?”
Anne of course politely smiled and nodded her head. Robert was a man of wit and practicality. He was also a flaming coward. How many times had her boyfriend shared cynicism privately with her while publicly showing the utmost respect. The young lady suspected that tonight would be no different.
“So you are the only two to sign up for the midnight tour are you?” The elderly man spoke as he leaned upon a heavy ornate staff. Anne couldn’t decide which was more intriguing their guide or his immense walking stick.
“Looks that way,” Unger said with a grand smile. “Just more ghost for the sterling,” he joked. Anne had to snicker. Her boyfriend always related things back to money. It was after all his god.
“Well just as well,” said the old man thoughtfully. Then he peered upon the heavens. “Lookie there we got ourselves a full moon too!”
“Does that matter?” Robert Unger asked puzzled.
“Oh come on Bobbie,” Anne shot out, “haven’t you read the brochure?”
Robert Unger responded with the silence of ignorance. His mouth began to form words but then he hesitated. As a manger of managers he hated to be at a loss for words. To him it showed that he was not in command. But tonight he reflected that he was simply taking some hokey tour about some ancient myth dealing with some unheard of phantom ghost.
“Aye it was on a night such as this that Sir Lance had done away with the grand beast, the wicked dragon named Carmile.” As the ancient tour guide spoke his words were flooded with the drama of a Shakespearean actor. Anne felt a chill down her spine and visibly shook. Was it fear or simply the chill of the night?
“Ghost stories are for children,” whispered Robert Unger rudely into Anne’s ear.
“Aye and children grow up to be men,” returned the tour guide showing extraordinary hearing. Especially for a withered man who had to be well into his seventies.
Robert Unger frowned fearing he offended the old man. The business executive was ruthless but all of his sabotage was conducted behind one’s back privately. To show courage was something beyond his capacity.
“Come along now,” encouraged the guide, “let’s begin. If our timing is just right we shall not only see the ghost of the Dragon Carmile but also of Sir Lance.”
Robert Unger couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the absurdity of that statement. Anne nudge him hard in the ribs prompting the businessman to shut down his mocking mouth.
Quickly up the path into the wooded area the old man hustled. He navigated at a very quick pace. Robert Unger found it very difficult to keep up the pace. Far too many donuts with his morning coffee and long hours at work preventing exercise had stifled his physical condition. Anne on the other hand attended a gym and was active in various aerobic exercises. Still she felt a little pressed by the quickness of the walk. On and on the couple trudged not desiring to lose sight of their tour guide. As Robert lagged behind Anne grasped him by the hand in encouragement and support. Finally the tour guide came to a stop.
When the happy couple had caught up to the old man Robert was panting with a heavy breath. The old man’s white hair seemed to glisten in the moon light. The place they were standing was on the side of the hill. The tour guide pointed with his withered finger in a direction. “From here you can see Castle Dunorp,” the man announced. “It was here that Sir Lance was signaled by a red flame in the tower that the Dragon Carmile was indeed spotted.” Then the guide paused. “From that moment on the brave knight proceeded with utmost caution.”
Robert and Anne peered down upon the castle. They had toured the vacant ruins previously during the day. It was nothing extraordinary but still quite charming. It was a doorway unto another time and age. One that the couple had very little knowledge of. “Look Anne,” cried out Robert motioning with his hand towards the castle. “In the tower window there’s actually a red light.”
Anne looked down and smiled. Robert smiled grandly too. When he made Anne happy he felt happy. “Why you’re pulling out all the stops for this tour aren’t you?” cried Robert Unger in excitement.
“Come along,” urged the white haired ancient creature, “there is still three more stops before we see the ghosts.” After uttering those words he turned with urgent speed onto the ascending trail. Excited Anne followed. Her hand still in Robert’s as she tugged her boyfriend along.
The pair walked through the wooded trail. The hill wasn’t as steep here and they found it easier to keep up with their tour guide. It was as a walk in another world to the young lovers. Robert and Anne came from South London. Accustomed to city life nature in and of itself was a rare pleasure. Now they were immersed into the wilderness. Added to that the darkness of the night. Shadows and foreign sounds from the deep peeped out creating a mysterious environment. All this adding to the drama of the potential of seeing not only one but two ghosts.
After traveling a good distance the couple caught up with their guide. He was standing on a rock ledge. Robert gazed out and saw that they had climbed a substantial amount of height. The castle below now seemed small. The ancient man stood on the edge of the stone outcrop. He was perilously close to falling as far as Robert was concerned. “What a fool,” whispered Robert into Anne’s ear.
“Indeed,” cried the old man, “Sir Lance was a fool!! Anyone desiring to fight the dreaded Dragon Carmile single handedly would be classified as such.”
Robert cringed when he heard these words. He lamented forgetting about the guide’s super sensitive hearing. Robert Unger vowed he would never make that mistake again. For some reason he feared the old man. Then again he feared most men. It was part of what made him so successful. Because he always felt threatened he always concocted some way to dispose of his foes.
“It was here that Sir Lance prayed to God for victory in the upcoming battle,” spoke the ancient man. “A shooting star from the heavens was the Lord’s answers.”
Anne grabbed Robert’s arm as she pointed up towards the sky. In excitement she stammered out her words. “Robert it’s a falling star!” Her spirit was baptized in awe about the event.
Robert Unger looked up into the heavens in disbelief. How did the tour guide manage that one? His mind came up with the logical solution. The businessman had to dismiss any notion of ghosts or spirituality for that matter. His was a world of science and logical reason and it had no time for such other worldly nonsense. Why the ancient man had to ad lib. First he spotted the star and then included it as part of his monologue. Robert felt better understanding the logical reason. Still that tour guide was one smooth trickster.
“There be two more spots before we see the ghosts,” called out the tour guide as he walked back from the cliff edge. Once more he was off into the wood trail that climbed along the side of the hill.
Robert and Anne walked hand in hand. They were really quite the opposites. Robert Unger was a business man with a reputation of being utterly ruthless. Anne was a school teacher known for her tenderhearted care of her pupils. The pair met by chance as they both entered a taxi at the same moment. Robert about to yell at the young lady ‘stealing’ his ride was overcome by her enchanting beauty. Anne being polite offered to leave the cab. When in a moments discussion they discovered that they were headed only a block apart they decided to share the ride. From that humble start a flourishing romance erupted.
The couple hastily followed the tour guide. However he fled ahead so fast that they lost sight of the ancient creature. Anne grew a little worried while Robert was close to panic. ‘How would they navigate down the hill alone?’ is stress filled mind asked. ‘Especially at dark?’
However the worry was for naught for as the couple turned a bend in the trail they promptly collided into the tour guide. He was standing along side the hill. His head was looking upwards to the heavens. “At this spot is where Sir Lance had his moment of doubt,” declared the ancient man. “The brave knight looked up and the blackness of the night discouraged him greatly. Still he found the courage in his heart to proceed.”
Anne and Robert on cue looked upward to the sky. They could see scarcely anything for as the ancient man had spoken the moon was indeed shrouded baring no light whatsoever. ‘Lucky timing’ reasoned Robert. Anne however simply smiled in delight fascinated by the adventure. Her hand affectionately squeezed her boyfriend’s.
Once more the ancient man was off to the races. “We have but one more visit before I shall show you the ghost of Sir Lance, and the ghost of the dragon Carmile.” The old man sped away as if he was in the prime of his youth. His withered hand swung his staff left and right gingerly. “Come along now, the timing is of utmost importance and we have a good distance to go.”
Robert and Anne quickly followed the leader. As they hustled along thoughts entered into their minds. The trip to northern Scotland and the visit to Castle Dunorp was all Robert Unger’s planning. It was his desire to take his beloved Anne to some secluded place to perhaps propose marriage. He was unsure about the whole affair to be perfectly honest. As a business executive his financial standings quite outranked those of a lowly school teacher. Still Anne was everything one could desire in a mate. She was physically attractive if not a stunning beauty. Anne possessed a great sense of humor and was easy to talk to. However the young lady was so serious about her career. Anne was a woman on a mission. It was her desire to save the world, one student at a time. A marriage without children just wouldn’t do. Anne would have to without a doubt sacrifice her career as a school teacher.
Robert Unger had gone as far as to purchase an engagement ring just in case. His cold calculating mind had not yet worked out completely the calculus of the situation. In his mid thirties he was acutely aware that his time was running out. Sweet Anne was a good eight years younger. Robert enjoyed having this doll of a lady dangling on his arm as he navigated social functions. Who wouldn’t want to be with such a gracious woman? But was she good enough for Robert Unger?
Anne was completely infatuated with Robert. He was considerate and paid much attention to her. While his personality was quite dry she had placed a confidence in him. When practicality came into her mind she realized the businessman would make an excellent provider. The major drawback was his dedication to his profession. It cut so much into his time that the couple really wasn’t a couple. To Anne she needed a man to be around. Still when Robert Unger was with her she felt she had one foot in heaven.
The couple hand in hand continued to walk upwards on the trail. There they caught up to their tour guide at the crescent of the trail. Ahead the trail descended with a rather steep angle. Robert was seriously short winded at this point. The whole journey up hill was quite tiring to the man. Anne too was a little weary but her exercising was paying off.
“Here is where Sir Lance spots the dragon Carmile,” announced the ancient guide.
Robert Unger let out a roaring laugh. Anne grimaced in disgust.
“What do you find funny sir?” hissed the guide.
“You told us that we would see not one, but two ghosts did you not?” asked the businessman.
“That is correct,” answered the old man sternly.
“But I see not two, nor one ghost, but zero.” There was no hiding the mocking in Robert Unger’s statement.
“Come let us journey to the bottom of the hill,” cried out the ancient man, “there I promise you shall see the ghosts.”
Robert shrugged his shoulder as all three proceeded down the hill. They walked at a leisurely pace. For some reason they were no longer in a hurry. The ancient man spoke. “You see all this serene bliss of nature?” He paused. “It is beautiful is it not?”
Anne smiled gregariously. “Beautiful is such an understatement,” she declared.
“Do you know some corporation wants to come here and build condominiums?” offered up the guide.
“Really,” Robert spoke his interest peaked. Whenever something financial was involved he needed to find out more. “Which one?”
“Does it really matter?” declared the ancient one, “they’re all the same.”
Robert wanted to contest such a broad offensive statement but lacked the courage to do so.
“Back in the days of Sir Lance courage was appreciated and honor was the conduct of the day,” a deep sorrow was emanating in the voice. “Today greed is the ruling force and it’s disciples nothing but scoundrels.”
Once more Robert bit his tongue. He dared not contradict the guide. Not even with a whisper. But perhaps later he would find a way to get him fired. Maybe to create some lie as how offensive he was. But he would do so after viewing the two ghosts, he thought mockingly.
Finally the couple and companion had reached to the bottom of the hill. There before them past the trees and brush was a pond. “Behold two ghosts,” spoke the ancient man.
“Ghosts!?!” cried out Robert Unger, “I see nothing but trees, night and a pond. Where are these ghosts?” And then paying homage to his god he spoke, “I’m going to demand my money back for this tour. No, better yet, double my money back to make up for the time you wasted.”
“What do you know of ghosts?” spoke the old man. There was no disguising the anger in his voice. Anne was growing fearful.
“I know enough not to listen to the babble of an old fool,” shot back Robert Unger. He was confident of his circumstance.
“Then come with me to the edge of the pond and indeed you shall see the two ghosts.”
“Nonsense,” replied Robert.
“You are afraid?” mocked the old man.
Robert replied not with words but by taking broad steps forward. The ancient one accompanied him to the pond. Suddenly the moon burst out from behind some clouds. The old man ‘s head was transfigured. His white hair glowed in the lunar beams making him appear much younger.
“Amazing!” cried out Robert, “how did you manage this trick?”
“What do you see?” asked Anne from a distance intensely curious.
“Before me is the image of a dragon in the pond and before the tour guide the image of a knight of old.”
The tour guide then rose up his staff and with a vicious blow smashed the head of Robert Unger. As the staff struck there was a loud crunching noise as the victim’s skull was crushed. The businessman collapsed to the ground as his legs crumpled under him.
Anne screamed in terror and fled into the night. She ran as if all hell was behind her. However after running a mile she looked at the field she traveled and saw there was no attempt of pursuit. She felt tempted to return to her love but feared for her life. It would be better to find somebody to bring him aide if his life could be salvaged.
Anne kept traveling in the field full of haste and distress. Her mind was in a whirl of sorrow as her love Robert was most likely dead. Why did the tour guide do such a wicked deed? Why? Why? Why? So much was the damsel in distress lost in her thoughts that she failed to notice that she had run upon a road. A car came from behind her with it’s headlights shining brilliant in the night. The vehicle was speeding along the path and Anne was directly in it’s way. In a last ditch effort the driver stepped upon the brakes of his car. The tires screeched as the automobile slowed to a stop, just inches before Anne.
The driver opened his door and got out, “Are you crazy lady?” he screamed.
“Please sir,” Anne begged, “you have to help me.”
“What is the matter lassie?”
“My boyfriend has just been murdered,” she replied.
“Come I shall drive you to the police station is but three miles up the road.”
Anne with deliberate speed entered into the car. The driver began to engage Anne in conversation. “Now what’s this about your husband being murdered?”
“We were staying at the hotel and took a tour of the Dunorp,” Anne began her tale of misery.
The driver of the vehicle flicked a switch lighting the lamp inside the car. He took a long look at Anne and then finally spoke, “aye I remember you and your companion. I work at the castle.”
Anne took a long look and finally a burst of recognition came through. It was indeed the man who worked at the gift shop at the castle. Anne remembered him distinctly as he was very kind and he took a photograph of her and Edgar together.
“So what happened?” pressed the man.
“We took the midnight tour to show the ghost of the dragon.”
“The midnight tour!?!” cried the man with shock and surprise. “There is no such thing.”
“Yes,” insisted Anne feeding into the panic, “the midnight tour.”
“Was the guide some man who had white hair and shriveled skin that he looked old as one could be?”
“Yes, that’s him,” cried Anne. She began to feel a sense of relief. At least the authorities would know who the killer was. She couldn’t bring her poor Edgar back from the dead but at least she could get some justice.
“And he walked like a man in his vibrant youth, didn’t he?”
Anne began to consider the contradiction of the tour guide. It sank deep into her thoughts the absurdity of how a ancient man had such physical prowess. “That’s correct,” said the young lady softly.
“Twas none other then the ghost of Sir Lance,” declared the man driving the car.
“The ghost of Sir Lance,” cried out Anne, “why would he kill Edgar?”
“He always has his reasons,” said the man softly. “He looks into the hearts of men. When he sees the ghost of the dragon he slays them.”

My name is John Kaniecki and I enjoy writing stories and poetry. I have a story just out in Sciphy Journal. I have had my story the Sin of A.D.A.M. published by Witty Bard in an anthology. I have an anthology entitled “Words of the Future” published in December of 2014 by the same publisher. I have ten other stories published or soon to be published in magazines. I also have a poetry book entitled “Murmurings of a Mad Man” that was published in September of 2014 by eLectio Publishing. In addition my poetry been published by over five dozen magazines and ezines. I have my second poetry book “Poet to the Poor, Poems of Hope for the Bottom One Percent, just out this October.

I have been married to my wife Sylvia from Grenada for over ten years. I do ministerial work at the Church of Christ at Chancellor Avenue in Newark, NJ.

Thank you so much for the time in look at my writing, I hope you enjoy reading my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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The Monarch’s Madness by Patrick Doerksen

May 29 2016


            After being scooped off the beach—drooling and twitching next to the child who, in captivity, had inexplicably disappeared—the Monarch was weeks later still confined to his bed. He had taken to describing, spontaneously and with gestures that made him ache for days afterwards, grandiose schemes for the recovery of his kingdom. Interrupting their lunch, he called his advisors in and told them hurriedly about his plan for a series of  state-funded apothecaries in all the villages and cities. They took notes as they always did and left the chambers when the Monarch’s energy was spent. Outside they shook their heads in sadness. “So excitable,” they would mutter; “It’s a pity, what’s happened.” It was difficult to watch the disintegration of a mind, still more difficult carrying on the deception. However, what else could they do? Apothecaries? This could not be what the Monarch really wanted.

            When the Monarch died a few days later and his final will was read out to the advisors and the chancellors, there was no laughter at his utopian dream, only the sad down-turning of gazes onto the marble palace floor. There were certainly the resources in the treasury to fund such a dream, and indeed great need of it in the desolated kingdom. But how could they be expected to understand, or believe, such a change of heart? True, there was one among them inclined to think the Monarch’s madness was no madness—a final clarity in the end of life, perhaps, or something more—but his is another story. And for the moment even he, with all the rest leaving the ceremonial hall, was forced to wonder without satisfaction what it was that had happened, what it was the Monarch had seen.


It was noon. The Monarch lounged on the balcony, which looked out on the final destruction of the Capper sea-folk, and sighed. Five  feet back a servant girl began to sweat. Was he not satisfied with his tray of exotic juices? But she was lucky. His sigh was directed at life itself, which was far more insipid.

The scarred priest had called it ennui.

When after ten years of struggle the Monarch subdued the last of the Seven Princes and assimilated his army and assets, there was nothing he could not do—only, he had grown so used to conquest that he could not desire nor think of anything else. And so he went after this spice trade and that gold mine, sequestering so much wealth at the center of his kingdom that he caused the whole world to slope towards him, like a stone at the center of a map. Now he had control of the pearl trade, but the truth was the royal coffers could get no fuller. He was only playing a lackluster game with himself, waiting for something to happen and all the while creating the very conditions that ensured nothing would.

For years it had been this way—anything he desired plucked from reality and brought before him: oysters, silks, concubines, empires. He had learned too late how much savor in life comes from resistance. Even the pleasures of killing were quickly exhausted for him, and now to raze a village wasn’t enough—he had to have the sons kill the fathers, the daughters kill the mothers. He did worse things, too, unspeakable things, so that he might feel something, even pain. But of course it was never enough, and daily he wondered where those golden years of his youth had gone: when the kingdom was in ruins and strangers were stoned at village gates, when the fickle and slipshod ways of the vigilantes were the meager substitute for justice and it was anyone’s guess whose home would burn next—when, in other words, the ascending monarchy was useful and welcome. And so each day the frustration grew until every slave, every advisor, every ambassador, trembled to be near him. He would lash out with his knife-edged sceptre, as though he could release the passion hidden in the chests of men and have it flow into himself. He would stab at citizens in the street. Now his subjects knew him as the Mad Monarch. He hated it, and hated more that he could not stop it and could only command torture and death for whoever spoke the words.

Once, when the scarred priest was yet without his scars, he told  the Monarch that Elyon, the High God, was displeased by his impersonations of Her; indeed the priest went further, saying not only was the Monarch not Elyon but something worse, perhaps the worst condemnation theologically possible—Elyon’s Shadow. The Monarch looked at himself that night and found, without horror, without pain, that it was true. He had the priest tortured and locked in the dungeon anyway; the rest he killed, knowing now the opinion of the religious. There were rebellions, naturally, but he paid his army well. When it was over he hid the fact that there was one priest yet alive; he hid also that, on occasion, the Monarch found himself descending the dungeon ladders and facing the scarred priest, whose gaze fascinated and angered him.

“Turtle soup,” muttered the Monarch, and it was brought. Soon, bored, he made the gesture for one of his concubines to approach. The servant girls averted their eyes. I might end it all tonight, he thought as he undressed. Then again, I might not. But then he paused, with his robe at his feet, thinking he might weep, and sent the concubine away. But tears did not come, and he grew tired of waiting.


That evening, the Monarch again felt something coming. Not tears, something else. His military advisor was speaking hurriedly to him about a growing insurrection in the North; the Monarch ordered him away. He ordered his servants away with their trays of oyster and crab. Alone, he could feel it coming stronger and went to the high, arched window. The night pulsed with energy and against it he felt old. There were places on his face the starlight could not enter, behind the wrinkles.

That was when Elyon said to him, “There were two foxes crouching in meadow. One looks at the flower, the other eats it.”

The Monarch did not believe in Elyon. He did not believe in anything more powerful than himself—he had forgotten how. And so he neglected to respond.

“However inadequate your Scriptures are,” Elyon went on, “there is at least that passage. It’s something you might pay attention to.”

“I do not read the Scriptures,” the Monarch found himself saying.

There was silence. A waiting silence.

The Monarch said, “Who are you?”

“I am Elyon.”

Goosebumps rose. The darkness of his chamber shimmered, alive with intention. Still, the Monarch said, “How do I know you are not a voice in my head?”

“I am voice in your head,” said Elyon. “But I could just as well be a glowing orb hovering in front of you. Would you like me to  be a glowing orb?”

The Monarch said nothing.

“You are right. It does  not matter how I appear to you. I am Elyon, Maker of the World. I made the Seas of Fortune and the thousand spices of the Southern Reach; I made flame and I made the breeze and I made the space between the stars. I made the stretch of time, the distension of space, the inner dimensions you call Mind. I made you, tyrant.”

Silence again. The Monarch went across the room and listened at the door. On the other side one of the sentry shifted. The Monarch went back to the window. Already the encounter was irking him. He was not used to being addressed without permission.

He said, “They say you created the world from chaos. Some also say you created it from nothing. Which is it?” When Elyon did not answer immediately he waved his hand in annoyance. “No, I don’t care. What do you want with me, Elyon?”

“I was like you, long ago,” said Elyon. “And so I have sympathy on all tyrants, on all who eat what should not be eaten. I have heard your heart’s cry. I can feel your bitterness. So I have come.”

The Monarch said—for in his interrogations of the scarred priest he had become familiar enough with the Scriptures—“But you call yourself the God of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. That is why I do not worship you.”

“But that is not so,” said Elyon. “I am all things to all people. I am also the God of the tyrants, the rulers, the powerful.”

The Monarch looked around the dark room, his eyes like spearheads. “You said you were like me. How? I have burned the seven Nations to the ground in the fire of my hate, and made the world so hot that I melted my own heart in my chest—”

“—and you are nothing now but a pillar of ashes, angry at your own existence, angry at everything that reminds you of your existence—Yes, I know.”

The Monarch froze, then spat. “Well, so you know.” He was breathing heavily, casting about the room with his eyes, frustrated to find no purchase. At length he said, “Be gone then, Elyon, for I have no use for your taunting.”

But Elyon did not go.

“I know what you crave, tyrant, and I did not come to taunt you. You shall have what you desire. You shall know what it is to care for life again. But first, you must do something for me. You must, not a servant.  There are none of your shortcuts here, tyrant. No one can do your soul’s work but you.”

The Monarch said, “Do not patronize me, Elyon.”

“You will build me a place of worship, a humble temple without gilding as bright as the sun and without spires higher than the flight of the raptor. You will not fill the temple with a thousand chimes and a thousand candles, and you will not place cushions where you kneel. Without these things you will worship me, every morning and every evening. You will worship me for five years, and when you have done this, I will show you something that will make you young again and fill your heart with care.”

The Monarch’s face, ever stony and resigned, seemed to fall now, betraying a disappointment so unfamiliar to its muscles that it became a distorted and half-formed thing.

“Five years? This, Elyon, I cannot do.”

Silence. The Monarch sat on his bed, his eyes looking sadly out at the night. He knew that given so long a time he would surely despair and end up with his own sword through his chest.

At last Elyon said, “If it is too long for you, tyrant, then I will make it shorter. Worship morning and evening for one year, and I will give you what you desire.”

Still the sadness did not leave the Monarch’s eyes. He knew—he, a man who found himself restless even an hour into a game of chess, a man who threw a fit when the servants were seconds late with his wine—that it was too long.

And so Elyon said, “A month, tyrant. Only a month.”

If there was ever a moment in all this and what was to come for the Monarch to grow suspicious of Elyon, it was this moment. But the Monarch said, “One month,” and felt the presence leave the room.


The Monarch’s architects, used to designing impossible wonders that took decades to build, were confused by the project, but relieved. And so the Monarch was within days beginning his month-long trial.

It was strange for him, spending so much time outside the flash of gold and silver, breathing un-incensed air, kneeling on prayer mats made of peasant’s twine. Strangest of all was doing something he did not feel like doing. Still, he knelt there every morning and every evening.

He felt nothing at first but that annoyance, and then just nothing. He began to grow worried that he was not doing it right, that he was missing something, botching some formula, and had soon convinced himself that he did not know how to worship.

So he had the scarred priest instruct him.

At first the priest—nervous, distrustful—gave him a mantra, “Thy beauty forever,” which he was to say over and over, moving the words from his lips to his head to his heart. But, on trying this, the Monarch knew there had to be more; indeed he suspected the priest of hiding something. On torturing him, the Monarch learned the truth. The mantra of highest worship for Elyon was this: “Creator God, I beg clemency for being only a man.” This, however, the Monarch found not only distasteful but contradictory, for was it not the fault of the Creator that he was made a man? And, moreover, if this were some great evil, why should it be himself begging clemency and not the one who had the power to act otherwise?

He questioned the priest further, who trembled on the rack as he spoke: “Contradiction is the heart of faith; nothing makes a man so humble.” But the Monarch could not understand the worth of humility and said as much.

It was at this moment that the priest, so near death, decided to rebel in the last, small way available to him, and spat at the Monarch. “Elyon is the God of slaves, not of Monarchs!” he hissed. “It’s demons that say otherwise. You are damned, you tyrant—damned.”

Within minutes he had expired.

Despite his doubts the Monarch tried the mantra and felt something in him stir. It was unpleasant, but it was something—And perhaps, he thought, true religion is meant to be unpleasant. So it was that the Monarch worshiped a whole month, and when it was over Elyon came to him.


The girl was kneeling near the lapping waves and building a castle of sand; when the Monarch strode near, she did not flee as all children do but stayed and watched his approach. He saw that she had a crooked back and a distorted face. The monarch did not like sickness and usually killed the sick when he came across them, because he preferred not to flee and did not know what else to do. So the Monarch might have had her killed if she had not spoken.

“You have worshiped me a whole month, and you do not recognize me? Ah, but it is hard for a tyrant to worship something greater than himself, and I do not blame you for missing your aim.”

“I have done what you asked,” said the Monarch, annoyed at having been surprised this way. He gestured for his guard to disperse. “I’m entitled to the vision you promised me.”

Elyon blinked and stood. She wiped her hands on her thighs. “You are right, tyrant. You have suffered much. But before I show you my vision, first you must suffer still more while I lecture you.”

“Go on,” said the Monarch, impatient.

“There are two ways that a tyrant can fight the ennui which is the inevitable result of omnipotence,” said Elyon. “First, the tyrant can try the way of destruction.” Elyon kicked down the sandcastle with her tiny feet. “This is least effective and yet the most practiced. At the very height of opulence the tyrant languishes, ordering heads brought to him on platters and the desolation of whole empires.

“Second,” said Elyon, kneeling now and shaping the sand back into turrets with her tiny hands, “the tyrant can try the way of creation. At the height of his ennui, if the tyrant but dares lower taxes, dares plant orchards in villages and design aqueducts for the cities, dares build a palace for the worship of someone not himself, he will feel the very thing he craves.”

The girl stood then, awkwardly because of her back, and looked directly at the Monarch. A sea breeze swept past her, making fire of her blond hair. For the first time the Monarch saw the sadness in the eyes, and seeing this, he remembered what Elyon had said—“I was like you, long ago.” And he knew what was to come.


There is a way in which a poorly crafted goblet, or shoddily constructed chair, feels like a thing “made” by someone, as perfect goblets or chairs do not. The Monarch had never felt this way about existence itself, experiencing it as we all do as a perfect thing, always there, unmade and irreducible. Now he could hardly believe he had called the world real.

It was but a distant memory now, horded deep in the mind of Elyon the Creator, but it was enough. It began as an unbearable sadness, and it was mixed with such horrible regret and anger that the Monarch choked with his very being. And then he began to see it—though “see” was an infinity away from the right word. What mad wonders had been standing before Elyon had destroyed them stood again, and the Monarch’s eyes were stabbed through with their beauty. Light here was more than light; darkness more than darkness. The living quality we feel in the plants of our world was there even in its stones and rivers, and the intentionality we feel in other people was there in its plants. There were people, too, but he knew this only by their shadows, as it were, for if even the stones and metals were alive here then the people were something more; their very presence betrayed some super-intentionality which gave his heart pangs. Perhaps the Monarch lasted a second here, perhaps a year; but he felt a million things, and each pulsed with more hurt and joy and wonder than the whole of existence. He could see deeper patterns, too, vast edifices taken in at a glance, complexities and immensities all shimmering with an extra-physical glow, a radiance that came not from within but from without, as though significance itself caused them to shine. These were things only suggested by the grandest spires and mountains and oceans of the Monarch’s world, and just seeing them was too much—he was a ghost in this world-before-the-world, not made to see it, and as he collapsed on the beach and the royal guard came running, the Monarch had on his face an expression that none of them could fathom.


Bio: I am a social worker armed with a B.A. in Literature and a M.A. in Theology. My fiction and poetry have featured in Presence, (parenthetical), Frogpond, Lyrical Passion, Ancient Paths Online and Contemporary Haibun Online, among others.

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Heat By D. A. D’Amico

May 25 2016


“Why are the dead doing that, Rachael?”

A dozen bodies crowded the front lot and nearby street, arms splayed and flailing. They lay in deep drifts, sliding last night’s accumulation into pink-tinged snow angels.

“They’re hot. Decaying things generate heat.” The reenactment of this innocent childhood pastime made me feel sick, so I turned away to stare into the cold dawn.

“It looks like they’re having fun.” Jake Marshall gazed at the floundering bodies, a confused smile on his ruggedly handsome face as he joined me on the porch.

Gary Wilson, my self-appointed protector, grumbled and shuffled aside. The two men had been vying for my attention since Gary and I had stumbled into Jake at the local gym early the previous day. Gary, being true to his nature, already felt like the loser.

Several blocks to the east, a plume of green smoke billowed over the town square. According to a voice on the radio, it meant salvation. The National Guard had finally arrived to extract survivors.


We’d spent a restless night hopping from building to building, working our way towards the safe zone one sad empty home at a time. The gruff military voice on the radio had warned us. We had twenty-four hours before they gave the town up as hopeless, abandoning us to the creeping mercy of the infected.

I closed the door behind me, locking up for residents who’d never return home.

“I can’t go any further, Rachael.” Beside me, Gary appeared bloated and waxy inside his red nylon parka, his troubled expression lost on the pale expanse of his face. Sweat trickled along the edges of his thinning brown hair, freezing to his face in long icy teardrops.

“Rest a little. We only have a few more blocks to go.” I tugged my fur collar higher, rubbing my frozen fingers together as I tried to cheer him up. “The army’s in the park. They’re here to rescue us, and I’m sure they’ve got an antidote by now.”

Gary and I had been friends before the catastrophe. He’d asked me out a couple of times, but I’d always declined. He was a pale dumpy guy, the kind you complained to about your no good boyfriend after a bad Saturday night. He was far from the hero type, but he meant well. He’d come looking for me after the world went crazy.

I’d tried my best to keep him alive in spite of his clumsiness. He’d been more of a liability than an asset, but I felt I owed him since he’d gotten infected because of me.

“It’s no use.” He wiped his forehead with a trembling hand, drawing back a moist snowball of sweat. “I’m getting too warm.”

One of the prone figures rose at the sound of his voice. It staggered to its feet like a drunk at an ice skating rink, and headed in our direction. I thought I recognized the face, but I’d trained myself to glance at an imaginary spot above and to the left when lurchers attacked. Knowing who they’d once been was just too painful.

“Leave him.” Jake leaned against the front porch like a Greek statue, his breath hissing like cigarette smoke in the frigid air.

Jake was exactly the kind of guy I’d have complained about to Gary. Misogynistic, selfish, and self-centered, Jake had the chiseled body and sculpted good looks that made you wonder if you could change all the other stuff. I didn’t want to admit it, but my heart beat a little faster when he stared at me with those big blue eyes.

“Jake, don’t…” I let my arms fall, the heavy rifle dropping onto the straps of the duffle at my feet. My body ached, unaccustomed to climbing, and running, and fighting for my life. I’d give anything to go back to my normal world. I’d gladly settle for juggling things like work and school again, instead of dodging the sluggish corpses of people I used to know.

“What?” Jake’s rough tone held tension. He nodded at the larger man. “It’s what he wants, right?”

Then he struck his best pose, one boot up on the railing, and his big hands clinging to the open hem of his leather bomber jacket. Jake had been preening like one of those shirtless catalog models since we’d run into him the morning before. He casually stroked his chest, making sure I noticed the ripple of his six-pack through his tight tee shirt. He must be freezing to look that cool.

We’d met before, of course. Everyone knew everybody in a small town like this. Jake was the jock type, all flash and no substance. I tended to be bookish, a little on the socially awkward side, so I never really fell within his radar. All that had changed with the rising dead. Suddenly, I’d become hot enough to be his girlfriend, whether I was interested or not. Who knows, I might even be the last woman on Earth. I could have my pick of Jakes.


“He’s right. Leave me, Rachael.” Gary hugged his ample middle, his parka squelching like a rotten orange. A trickle of blood slid along his left cuff as he pulled on his fur-lined hood. His bloodshot eyes held an accusing look, like a beaten puppy. He’d tried so hard to impress me, but it’d all been for nothing. “It’s so hot.”

“See, he knows he’s only holding us back. He knows what he’s turning into.” Jake moved a little closer, draping his arm protectively around my shoulders like I was a helpless girl. I wanted to point out I’d done as much to keep us alive as he had, but he’d just give me that smug look of his and wink like it was our little joke. If I could only put Gary’s brain in Jake’s body…

I couldn’t believe I was falling for him. He wasn’t anything like the type of man I ended up with, but I’d been lonely since before the world ended. The rules were different now. Why shouldn’t I be different as well?

“Don’t listen to him, Gary.” We were near. Just a few more blocks and we’d make it to the safe zone. Then Gary could get treatment. Jake could do whatever it was frat boys did after the end of the world, and I could get out of these frozen bloody clothes, have some food, and take a nap.

Jake slammed his boot down. The shotgun at his feet flipped up, and he leveled and fired with one smooth motion. I covered my ears against the roar. The nearest of the moving dead jerked back, collapsing like a marionette cut from its strings before the acrid scent of gunpowder had even reached my nostrils.

“He’s a liability, Rachael. When will you see it? He’s as good as dead already.”

“Not dead, dying. Always at the edge without ever going over… flesh rotting, but still not dead.” Gary’s voice dribbled from his lips in a mumble. His face started to sag, gummy features sliding to the left and bunching up around his ear.

“You’re going to be fine.” My reassuring laugh came out as a nervous chuckle. He looked as bad as Jake looked good. “We’ll get you the help you need.”

Gary unzipped his parka. He shed his thick woolen shirt, staggering bare-chested across the porch. Where Jake was trim and muscular, Gary’s physique appeared blocky and gelatinous. Thick reddish veins traced spiky patterns across his moist skin, throbbing with a hideous pulsation.

“It’s so hot.” His fingers slid over his belly, sinking into his thick flesh. “And it hurts all over. You can’t believe how it burns, the heat of decay. The dead are cold. I wish I were dead.”

Jake swung his gun around.

“No!” I pushed the barrel away and stepped between them.

Gary whimpered. His eyes rolled back, and he grasped his head with both hands. “I’d always wanted you, hoped that we’d…”

Gary’s hands were around my neck, pulling me into his sultry grip. I screamed. He tugged me closer. His hot breath washed over me like steam. I could smell the cloying stench of death as his fevered lips burned across my neck.

“She’s mine!” Jake tore me from Gary’s grip, slamming the shotgun into the fat man’s face. He fired.

The recoil knocked us off balance. I fell on top of Jake, landing against his solid chest, his strong arms around me. My whole body tingled. Mt heart hammered, beating as fast as my frenzied breathing.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Jake’s breath, so near to me, smelled faintly of liquorish. Comforting warmth surrounded me as he hugged me closer.

“No… I don’t think so.” My skin itched. I couldn’t tell if I’d been infected.

“Good.” He smiled. His bright blue eyes seemed so deep I felt I could fall into them. His soft lips brushed mine as he spoke, and a hot blush oozed through my body. It grew, curling my toes.

A chill ran down my spine as I realized the warmth continued to spread. It did nothing to quell the blossoming fire, and I prayed it was just the heat of passion.


My writing credits include:

Daily Science Fiction
L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future, Volume 27
Crossed Genres
Shock Totem

Member: SFWA, HWA


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Heirloom By Freya Pickard

May 22 2016


Her mother’s worn hands took hold of hers in the quiet dimness of her parents’ bedroom. The air smelt of lavender and thyme.

“You must never say anything to anyone regarding this. Do you understand?”

Tari nodded dumbly.

“Sit down.” Tari dropped onto the goose feather quilt.

She watched her mother’s greying head as the woman knelt on the wooden floorboards and reached under the bed. Withdrawing a metal box, her mother rose to her feet and fixed Tari with stern, green eyes.

“This is a family heirloom,” her mother said, unlocking the metal box with a small key. “It has always been passed from mother to daughter. The promise on receiving it is to never speak of it to anyone except the person you pass it on to.”

Tari could not imagine what this secret was but said, “I promise.”

“Good. Here.” Her mother took out a thin leather sheath with a pointed end. “This, is the silver dagger. For countless generations it has stayed within our family, always going to the daughter.”

Tari briefly wondered where her mother’s family was, but knew talk of that kind was not encouraged by her father.

“This is our secret and our trust,” her mother continued, laying the sheathed knife in her daughter’s open palms. “There is a legend in our family that in the First Age this dagger was made by the elves and will always throw true to protect the bearer from harm. The legend also says that the dagger was lent to a woman of the south in one of the great wars but such was the devastation, she was unable to return the dagger to its rightful owner. That is our secret. One day a descendant of the elves will return and one of us will give it back to them.”

Tari stared at her mother with wide eyes. This was a story such as her father read out from his vast store of books. Things like this didn’t happen to ordinary folk.

“Do you accept the conditions Tari?”

“Yes,” she stammered, not really comprehending what she was doing.

“Then take this dagger and keep it safe. I will find you a cord so you can wear it around your neck and hide it in the front of your dress. Speak to no one about this, not even your brothers. I do not know what the rules are at the Temple regarding weapons but your father seems to think they are banned. Therefore, do not declare it but find a safe place to hide it once you are given a room.”

Tari nodded again, thinking that the dagger weighed heavy in her hands.

The dream dissipated and Tari woke briefly to hear Sidra muttering in her native language. The girl moved restlessly on her pallet and then fell silent. The chamber was still dark and Tari pulled the blankets over her head. Sleep dragged her down into warm depths again.

There was something wrong. She could feel it. The sense of unease that had crept upon her when the kaerlings entered the Temple had stayed with her. Now, in the midst of sleep the feeling grew out of proportion. Sidra was in danger. And Tari was helpless, completely powerless to do anything. She started to sweat, lunging out at blank shadows, not sure where to attack first. 

She came awake with a start, heart pounding. Foremost in her mind was that Sidra was somehow under threat and that only the silver dagger could save her. The sleeping room was lighter than it had been earlier and Tari could feel that it was not long before sunrise. Swiftly she slipped out of bed and knelt on the floor, finding her small chest of belongings by touch. Moving quietly, she drew the chest towards her and opened the lid. Faded flowers from summer expeditions collecting herbs from the lower mountain pastures filled the box. At the bottom, hidden beneath the brittle stalks and dead petals lay the dagger. As she touched the leather sheath, Sidra stirred.

At once all her mother’s warnings, reinforced by the recent dream, came back to her. No one should know about this dagger. The feeling that Sidra was in danger came more strongly and Tari shook her head indecisively. The Temple rules were clear; no weapons were allowed in the precincts, except for those the guards wore. If she gave the dagger to Sidra, the girl might get into trouble.

“What are you doing, Tari?” Sidra asked sleepily.

Tari hid the dagger beneath the dried flowers and closed the lid. “Just looking for something,” she replied brightly. “Come on. It’s time to get up. Yule Greetings to you!”


Tari sighed quietly as she sat with Undine and Sidra on one of the raised benches at the edge of the Main Shrine. The chamber was vast and could hold the entire population of the Temple as well as a large number of guests. The floor and walls were made of white marble shot with amber streaks and the supporting pillars were draped with ivy and mistletoe. Pine branches scented the air with resin and lay on the altar stones at each of the eight chapels around the edges of the room. In front of these sat the eldest priest or priestess for each deity, looking down at the multitudes below.

The priest of Taur stood in the centre of the room on the raised octagonal Dias. He was in mid-flow, praying to each of the gods in turn, beseeching them to drive back Winter and bring the rich Summer months to Aura Vere. Tari found prayers tedious. Sidra’s eyes were closing. Only Undine seemed unaffected, sitting bolt upright with a look of polite interest on her face. The priestess of Aqua was so remote; why she bothered to keep Tari and Sidra on as acolytes, Tari did not know. She was, however, grateful to be allowed to continue to serve the goddess.

A nagging thought dragged Tari’s attention away from the ceremony. She thought of the silver dagger, hidden in the chest beneath her bed. The sense of danger surrounding Sidra threw long, invisible shadows between them. Blinking rapidly, Tari focused her eyes on the priest of Taur and put the thoughts from her mind. The man irritated her, so Tari turned her attention to the guests seated on the benches before Taur’s priest.

There was the High Priestess. She wasn’t really a guest but she spent more time intriguing in the palace than she did in the Temple. She was dressed in a shimmering gold robe that accentuated her broad hips and flat chest. Tari’s gaze moved on to the king and queen of Falna, resplendent in their purple robes and silver crowns. The queen was pretty with golden hair and big blue eyes. The king was reasonable to look at but there was something about his jaw that lacked strength.

Undine nudged her and Tari realised that Taur’s priest had reached the end of his prayer and was starting the section that needed responses from the gathered masses. Dutifully she murmured the ritual words, hearing Sidra stumble over the archaic phrasing. Lowering their heads they waited for the moment when Taur’s priest proclaimed the lightening of the world. Tari had never felt any different and wasn’t sure how the priests could really know the exact moment when the sun started to dance nearer the earth. She knew she wouldn’t notice for a few weeks yet. Then the singing began and she joined in the traditional Yuletide song.


“I’m so hungry!” Sidra whispered as they made their way to the antechambers where the feasts were being held.

“Me too!” They had eaten nothing since they had risen in the traditional Yuletide fast. Now they could feast until they were ill. “Let’s find somewhere to sit down.”

Tari guided Sidra into the first of the antechambers.

“Tari!” shouted a girl. “Over here!”

Tari turned her head to see a table full of Suryanese girls some of whom she recognised. One of the girls waved at her.

“Lally!” She waved back and led Sidra over to the table. “How are you?”

“Very pleased we don’t have to eat in the same room as those dreadful kaerling men! Here, Karu, move up.”

The girls shifted along the bench allowing Tari and Sidra to sit opposite Lally.

“This is Sidra,” Tari introduced her friend. “She’s new. This is Lally and this is Karu.”

The other girls introduced themselves and handed them platters of meats and vegetables. They ate hungrily, conversing noisily.

“Those kaerling men are quite handsome,” Karu was saying.

“I can’t stand them!” Lally shuddered. “They ask you so many questions that just don’t make sense.”

“I liked the man who questioned me,” Karu smiled. “He kept touching my hand.”

“Didn’t you have a priestess with you?” Tari asked, shocked.

“Yes, but she had a headache as soon as the kaerling started talking to me, so she wasn’t paying much attention.”

“I can’t believe you let him touch you.” Lally pulled a face.

“It was nice. He sort of stroked my hand. And he stroked the back of my head as well and asked me to let down my hair. The priestess didn’t notice a thing!”

“Are you going to be a priestess of Lyra?” Tari asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you’re certainly acting like one!”

Karu looked hurt. “I think he was really good looking and he made me feel special.”

Sidra snorted rudely.

“You don’t like them either?” Lally shook back her luxuriant black locks. “Why?”

Sidra shivered. “We met one of them at Port Olin in the Autumn.” She wrinkled her nose. “He disappeared into the hills and forests a lot of the time looking for a woman he claimed was his sister.”

“Which one was this?” Lally stopped eating.

“Gar, I think. I only met him once but he beat up some of my kin.”


“He raped and murdered one of the clan leader’s wives. So her relatives sought revenge.”

Tari felt a cold shiver tiptoe down her spine. The urge to fetch the dagger now was so strong, she nearly left the table.

“How many did he beat up?” asked Lally.

“About ten.”

“Ten?” Tari was amazed. “One man beat ten? How is that possible?”

Sidra sighed. “I don’t know. They said he moved like lightning and used no weapon.”

“Magic?” whispered Karu.

Sidra shrugged. “All I know is that they’re evil and give me the shivers.”

“You never told me this before,” Tari stared at the girl.

“I don’t like to think about it.”

“So, you’ve travelled, have you?” Lally resumed eating, turning her attention to the fish pastries.

“That’s what Suryanese do!” Sidra laughed and helped herself to mashed tubers.

“We’re Suryan,” said Karu. “But we’ve never travelled.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were left here as babies or small children because our parents were poor.”

“Or because our mothers didn’t know who our father was!” Lally grinned.

“Well, I’m here because my family is too large,” Sidra admitted.

“Where have you travelled?” Lally asked.

“All over Falna.”

“Really? Where’s the most amazing place you’ve been?”

Sidra thought for a while as she ate the mash. “I think the most amazing place I’ve been is somewhere in the forest to the west of Aura Vere. I’ve only been there once but it was an anniversary so we made a special pilgrimage.”

“What, to a shrine?”

“Not exactly. It’s a waterfall, a huge roaring monster in the middle of the forest.”

“What’s special about it?” Karu wanted to know.

“Our stories say that Hakim heard the gods there. They met him between the earth and sky at night in fire and water.” Sidra sounded dreamy. “It’s true, the waterfall does reach to the sky. You cannot climb up to the top, though there are large steps carved in the rock, as if made for a giant. You have to leave the wagons just off the King’s Highway and go by foot along a ravine. It’s several days journey and we camped there by the cauldron pool; lit fires at night to see if the gods spoke to us. But no one has heard their voice since Hakim came.”

“That’s really poetic,” Lally breathed. “Why couldn’t your family keep you?”

“We have no money. We make ends meet by shoeing horses and breeding goats but there is never enough to go round. I really wanted to marry into Mahesa’s clan because he is rich and his people never go without food.”

“Why didn’t you?” asked Tari.

“I have no dowry,” Sidra looked wistful. “I am not pretty, so father said I had to come to the Temple.”

“You are pretty!” said Lally, outraged. “Besides, it’s not prettiness that counts. It’s who you are as a person.”

When they had eaten their fill they made their way to another antechamber where there was singing and dancing. After watching the antics of the drunken priests for a while, the Suryan girls decided to show everyone how to really dance. Tari watched from the side, knowing only simple, ritual dances. Even though Karu and Lally had been brought up in the Temple they seemed to know instinctively how to move. It was a sensuous dance that went well with their rounded, lush bodies. Even Sidra, who had not yet come into the fullness of her curves, looked enticing and extremely feminine. Tari was standing near the door watching the dancing progress, debating whether or not to break the rules and fetch the silver dagger, when two men entered.

She shivered when she saw the black leather garb of the kaerlings. Get the dagger! Get the dagger! The thought pulsed through her mind insistently. The two men were smiling at the dancers, enjoying the performance. One had blond hair, so pale it was almost white. His brown eyes were warm with pleasure but his pale, chiselled face made Tari cringe. The other man was sandy-haired with sad, blue eyes. His whole demeanour was that of sorrow. When the dance ended, the two kaerlings joined in the applause. The musicians at the back of the room struck up a rustic tune and the Suryan girls found partners from among the priests and acolytes. As the dance began, Tari shivered and turned to see a third kaerling in the chamber. They were standing just behind her now and she could hear what they were saying over the sound of the music.

“She’s interesting.” The newcomer nodded towards Sidra as her partner swung her around.

“A bit flat-chested for me,” said the blond man. “Quite pretty when she smiles though.”

“Don’t suppose either of you have interviewed her yet?”

The sandy-haired man shook his head. “Never seen her before, Gar.”

Tari stared at the third kaerling. Had she heard correctly? Was this the same Gar that had raped and killed one of Sidra’s clan? She looked at him intently. He was stockier than the two younger men but still tall and muscular. His sculptured features were marred by jagged scars that ran from cheekbone to jaw. Brown hair fell across his forehead and his eyes were grey-blue. Tari did not like the way he was staring at Sidra. All three looked like predators, but there was something about Gar’s stance that made her skin crawl. She felt torn between returning to Aqua’s Shrine to retrieve the dagger and silence the voice in her head, and staying here to make sure Sidra was safe from the kaerlings.

Undine entered the room and Tari caught her eye.

“Where is Sidra?” the priestess mouthed.

Tari pointed to the dance floor as the music swirled to an end.

Undine glided between the dancers who were applauding the musicians and spoke to Sidra. The girl nodded, thanked her partner and followed Undine out of the room.

“Where’s Sidra gone?” asked Karu as the Suryan girls gathered round Tari.

“Undine, my priestess needs her. Shall we find drinks? You look thirsty.”

They trooped into the other chamber now set out with puddings and sweetmeats. The girls drank diluted wine and helped themselves to jellies and stewed fruits. Tari ate little, noticing that Gar walked through the room, leaving the other two kaerlings in the dancing chamber. Once again, she nearly ran out after the kaerling, risked being noticed by him, just so she could fetch the dagger that somehow, would protect Sidra. But the Suryan wanted to talk, so she stayed and gossiped.


Tari’s feet ached in the soft suede boots as she made her way up the rock steps to Aqua’s shrine. Pulling the fur cloak tightly about her shoulders, she shivered in the frigid air. Snow had fallen earlier, making the stone steps slippery. She stepped carefully, feeling cold after the warmth of the feasting chambers. Clouds hung low in the sky, threatening more snow before morning. The wind tugged at her robes and teased her hair. The sense of danger had subsided and she wondered now, if she had imagined it. At last she reached the shrine and opened the door. A light showed in Undine’s room but her own chamber, which she shared with Sidra, was dark. Hastily, Tari stepped across and peered in. It was silent and empty. Even without a candle, Tari could sense there was no one there.

“Tari? Sidra?” Undine called.

Panic shot through Tari’s stomach.

“It’s Tari.” She pushed Undine’s door open.

The priestess was sitting at her desk, writing.

“Is Sidra with you?” Undine asked, laying aside the quill and turning to face her acolyte.

“No, I thought she was with you!” Tari’s throat closed up.

Undine blinked her almond shaped eyes in surprise. “I took her with me as Mother Kalare was taken ill. The Infirmary were short of staff due to the celebrations, so Sidra was my runner. She helped me make Mother Kalare comfortable and then I sent her back to you.”

Tari thought of Gar and the look on his face.

“What’s wrong, Tari?”

“She never came back to us. One of the kaerling men was looking at her…” Tari felt tears fill her eyes. “She hates the kaerlings. Gar raped and killed one of her relatives and beat up the men sent to avenge the death…”

Undine’s pale face turned white. She rose to her feet and wrapped herself in a cloak. “Come with me,” she said tightly. “We must find out where she is.”

Snow flakes fell erratically as they descended the slippery steps. Tari felt as though she was in a nightmare from which she could not escape. She found herself sitting in Mother Kalare’s reception room with a fire burning that did not warm her. Undine assembled the sober priests and priestesses and had Tari tell them of  Sidra’s disappearance. Without a word they vanished to search the Temple. Outside the wind howled and Tari was left to sit behind Mother Kalare’s desk and receive negative reports one after another. It was still dark when Undine returned with Illan in tow. Tari realised that with Mother Kalare sick, Illan was responsible for the administration staff.

“I’m sorry, Tari,” Illan brushed the snow from his cloak. “We’ve searched the Temple and she’s nowhere to be found.”

“We must look outside then,” said Tari heading for the door. “He may have taken her out into the city.”

“Tari,” Undine’s voice halted her. “There is a blizzard out there. We will have to wait until morning.”

“That’ll be too late!” Tari found she was crying.

Undine and Illan looked at each other and Tari knew they feared the worst too. She spent the rest of the night on a pallet on the floor in Mother Kalare’s sleeping quarters. Tossing and turning she listened to the sound of Undine’s regular breathing. Towards morning she finally slept. When she woke, it was broad daylight and Undine had gone.

Tari hurriedly washed and smoothed her feasting robes as best she could. She made her way to Mother Kalare’s study which was full of hung-over priests and pale priestesses. Undine sat behind the desk with Illan standing beside her. Several of the priestesses were weeping.

“I’m sorry, Tari,” Undine had tears in her eyes. “Illan and his search party found Sidra first thing this morning.”

Illan advanced towards her as Tari stopped dead, feeling ice take up residence inside her.

“I want to see her,” the girl said firmly.

Illan shook his head, touching Tari’s shoulders. “You don’t need to see her,” he said gently.

“But I want to!” Tari shouted.

“Tari, she was raped and then had her throat slit. You need to remember her as she was when she was alive.”

Tari hated Illan then, hated the mute priests and weeping priestesses. She wrenched herself free of Illan’s grasp and ran. Gasping for breath in the cold morning air and fighting her way through snow drifts, she attained Aqua’s shrine. She fell to her knees by her bed and pulled out the metal box. Without hesitation she drew forth the sheathed dagger.

She paused, wanting to make her oath binding. She could not shed blood here in her sleeping chamber. Aqua did not always require blood sacrifices as did many of the gods; an oath or a gift of produce was usually enough to bring about an answer to a supplicant’s prayer. Tari stepped out into the main room and stood before the bare altar. It didn’t seem right to take the oath here either.

Heart hammering, hands shaking, she pushed through the curtains behind the altar and stepped into the shrine. The dampness chilled her skin and lungs, bringing tears to her eyes. The stillness of the inner shrine was broken by the ceaseless murmur of running water. Not even in the severest of winter storms did Aqua’s shrine freeze. Tari stared at the motionless statue of the goddess, feeling the blank, almond shaped eyes of Aqua pierce her soul. In the gloom, the pale stone of the image glowed, the smooth skin of her sculpted face shimmering in the moist air. Again, the girl was struck by the similarity of Aqua to the obsidian carved guardians of the gates with their high cheek bones and almond shaped eyes. The common belief was that the guardians were carved images of the elves who built the Temple.

Tari sank to her knees, searching for the right prayer but nothing came to mind. The liquid song of water filled her thoughts and the desire for revenge eased.

“No!” Tari knelt upright and raised the dagger. “I will avenge you Sidra!” She vowed, unsheathing the slender blade and drawing it across her right palm. “I will avenge your murder!” She gasped as hot, burning pain seared her hand and blood dripped onto her dress and the slick stone beneath her knees. “I ignored the dream that gave me warning. Now Sidra is dead and it was my fault. I will find her murderer and I will kill him. I will not be without this knife again.”

Aqua stared down impassively. Tari almost hoped to hear the goddess’ voice but at the same time felt terrified at the binding oath she had just taken. The blood flow increased and she lowered her hand into the pool at Aqua’s feet. The ice cold water made her whimper and she bit her lip, forcing herself to endure the pain. Her hand lost its feeling and the blood flow eased.

She pulled her hand out of the pool and patted it dry on her skirt. Next she washed the dagger blade and dried it carefully on her cloak. As she sheathed the knife,  the silver-grey curtains whispered and Undine entered the inner shrine.

Tari jumped. Why hadn’t she heard Undine’s footsteps in the outer shrine?

“What are you doing in here?” The priestess pushed her hood back, letting her long, dark hair spill out.

Tari thought quickly. She could not lie to Undine, but she could not tell her the truth.

“Well?” Undine’s face was expressionless and Tari wondered if the woman was angry. “Are you going to tell me?”

“I wanted to pray…” Tari muttered, trying to hide the dagger.

“What is that?” Undine approached, her movements as fluid as water.

Reluctantly Tari held the dagger out to the priestess.

Undine stared intently at the plain, leather sheath. Without a word, the woman withdrew the blade. Her eyes opened wide and she turned her gaze to Tari.

“Do you know what this is?”

Tari could not lie, not to Undine who had allowed her to remain in Aqua’s shrine. Feeling guilty at breaking the promise to her mother, she started to explain. “My mother told me a story when she gave it to me. I can only tell the secret to the person I pass the blade on to.”

Undine sheathed the dagger,  and pulled Tari to her feet.

“Go to your sleeping chamber, you will catch a chill in here.”

Tari thankfully returned to the warm dryness of her room and slipped out of her wet clothes, putting on a clean sleeping robe. She bound her hand in a strip of fresh linen to absorb the slow blood flow from her palm. Undine lit a brazier and heated water in the pot, finding a blanket to place around Tari’s shoulders. When the water had boiled the priestess poured it into two mugs onto dried herbs. The tea steeped and the fragrance of the herbs filled the air. Undine sat on the only chair in the room and looked at Tari.

“I understand you are upset because of the dreadful way Sidra died. But why have you bound yourself with an oath to Aqua?”

“It was my fault Sidra died.” Tari struggled to get the words out, her throat felt constricted. “I had a dream – I should have given the dagger to Sidra, at least she would have had a chance to defend herself…”

Undine’s eyebrows shot up and then she smiled. Tari felt confused at the priestess’ reaction.

“At last,” Undine seemed pleased. “I knew Aqua would speak to you. She always speaks to water diviners.”

“You mean, my dream, that was Aqua speaking to me?” Tari felt a rush of relief. If Undine was convinced Tari could hear the goddess speaking, then no one could remove her from the shrine.

“The gods and goddesses have many different ways of speaking to us, Tari. Some speak through omens, some through the fall of stones, some through dreams but only a few allow their voices to be heard by the human ear.”

“But I failed her,” Tari’s momentary relief was washed away by guilt. “I didn’t obey the dream.”

“Aqua will understand why you did not heed her dream. The rules of the Temple are clear. That you chose to obey them, rather than her dream, does not anger her.”

“But isn’t she angry over the death of an acolyte?”

“She is grieved. But she does not hold you responsible.”

Tari did not question that the priestess understood Aqua’s thoughts.

“She will not hold you to your oath.”

Privately Tari was relieved, but was determined to try and keep her side of the promise.

“Now, this dagger.” Undine unsheathed the knife and held it in her hands. “How did you come by this?”

Tari swayed between confession and lying. She stared at Undine’s almond shaped eyes and high cheek bones. Why hadn’t she seen it before? The priestess was the image of the goddess. That meant Undine was an elf. Maybe the very elf she should return the dagger to. Relieved of having to break the promise made to her mother, Tari exhaled.

“Any secret of yours is safe with me. Trust me, Tari.”

Tari recounted everything her mother had said and at the end, Undine was silent. They sipped the herbal tea. Tari relaxed as the hot water filled her belly. She felt a great sense of a burden lifting. She had carried this secret too long.

“Are you the person the knife belongs to?” Tari asked at last.

Undine shook her head. “No. Although my people are related to the elves, I am not from the tribe that made this dagger.”

“But you look like the statue of Aqua and there is a resemblance in your face to the guardians at the gate. They were all carved by the elves, weren’t they?”

Undine smiled. “It is true I have a similar bone structure to those ancient statues, but I cannot claim ownership to this dagger. You need to look after it,. I will help you find the rightful owner of this blade.” Undine returned it to her. “Wear it around your neck, you never know when you might need it.”

“But that’s against the Temple rules!”

Undine raised her eyebrows. “I know. You know. No one else knows.”

“Aqua knows.” Tari’s fingers felt stiff as she tied the cord around her neck.

“I don’t think Aqua minds. She would rather have a live acolyte than a dead one.”

The End


Freya doesn’t write about imaginary worlds; she writes about imaginative ones. These are worlds that could be real in a parallel universe or another time dimension. She does not promote escapism; instead she takes her readers into a refreshing place so that they return to their normal lives feeling strengthened and refreshed.

Freya’s first novel, Dragonscale Leggings, is a parody of the genre she loves best; fantasy. In it, she gently pokes fun at the Arthurian legends, the common concepts of dragon slayers and dragons and how they should (or shouldn’t) behave.


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A Weaver’s Tale By Tara Campbell

May 01 2016


I miss Ava. I know you do too, although you won’t admit it.

Yes, you say she was a rabble-rouser, the cause of all of our troubles. Many Weavers agree with you, but not me. As far as I’m concerned, she’s what kept us going through all the years of war.

And life in the Follicles hasn’t been the same since she left.

Sometimes when I’m supposed to be weaving I find myself almost coming to, like I’ve been asleep, strands slack in my hands, just thinking about something she said or the little tunes she used to hum while teaching us a new technique. It was Ava who taught us about texture, how to weave subtly and gradually. She showed us how, over time, the tiniest curve would grow into a wave as long as we were patient—and once our Person grew patient enough to understand our work.

Of course, you needn’t remind me: we have endured many a grim year, with daily battles and loss. But in our current, fragile peace, Evictions are rare, despite our preference for silver and white.

Do you remember the first time you saw silver and white? I’ll never forget. I was in my follicle, choosing between various shades of brown for my next section of weaving, when Ava dropped down from Topside. I don’t know how she ever got any work done, always running from follicle to follicle. Anyway, from the little tune she was humming, I knew who it was even before I looked. But this time there was something more: my follicle was suddenly vibrating with color!

I turned to face her and was dumbstruck. Her cinnamon-brown skin was richer than ever before, her blue stripes more vibrant. The pink of her eyes sparkled with a new light! The walls of my follicle glinted a rich, warm red, and when I looked down at myself and saw my own skin—I’d never realized how buttery yellow I am.

And look at you! Sometimes I’m still shocked at how green you are. You have to admit, before Ava brought us silver and white, everything was pretty pallid.

That first day with the new colors felt electric, like illumination from another world. The only other light I’d known was the harsh, overpowering brightness of Outside.

Come now, don’t act innocent. We’ve all poked our heads out of our follicles for a daytime peek Topside. I was just going to take a quick look around the day I went up, but once I saw how different it was during the day than at night, I just had to keep going…

No, this was before I met Ava; you can’t blame everything on her.

I got out of my follicle that morning, thinking I was going to stick close. But I kept wandering, drawn by the different qualities of light filtering through the strands of weaving as I moved through them. I’d never seen so much light before! Little by little, I had to admit that I was dying to see what lay beyond Hairline—but of course by the time I got there, it was so was achingly bright I couldn’t see anything at all. Which, of course, is why you’re not supposed to wander around during the day. You never know when your Person is going to try a new hairstyle, and bam, there you are, smack in the middle of a Part, blind and sizzling.

But back to silver and white: that day, when Ava held the new strands out to me for the first time, I was so afraid! The colors were so dazzling I thought they would overwhelm me! But as a Weaver, my fingers itched to touch them.

Ava held them even closer, and I couldn’t resist.

The texture! Smooth but strong, substantive. It was a revelation, even you have to admit that. Think back to when every strand was silky and brown, perfectly malleable in our hands: boring. Look at all the things Ava has taught us since, all the unruly curves and twists with shining silver highlights. Magic!

Yes, as you rightly remind me, we paid a dear price for that magic in the early days. Searches and Evictions: the constant upheaval was a horror. A Weaver would be sitting at home, innocently twining, when suddenly the work of months—years—would be yanked right out of their hands. Or worse yet: all those poor Weavers who were so absorbed in their creations they got pulled out of their follicles along with their strands. I still shudder to think of those times, climbing up Topside at night, finding out how many of us had been lost. We didn’t think it could get any worse—until the Great Brown Floods.

All those times I accused you of being overly cautious… I admit now, we didn’t think things through. Too many of us were using the new colors and methods at once. We all thought our Person would have to come to terms with it. We were too numerous, we thought; there was no way to Evict all us all!

But the Floods…

First came the sifting and rifling: the Parting. Our strands gathered up and stretched tight, and then…

The first Flood started in one small section, remember? We didn’t know what it was then; we only knew that something terrible was about to happen. No one could go out with all those new Parts crisscrossing Topside, not to mention the noxious, acidic winds blowing through the forest. All we could do was cower in our follicles.

I heard yelling from above, and Ollu dropped into my follicle, coughing and shivering, covered with pungent brown sludge. He couldn’t see. He didn’t even know where he was. I heard the screams of the other Weavers running past my follicle, and I wanted to jump out and find you.

But Ollu pulled me down and covered me just as the slick, dark liquid started running down the walls of my follicle. I tried to pull away and climb out, terrified of drowning in that stinking deluge, but Ollu held me. He said it was better to wait. He told me he’d made the mistake of trying to run, and found out that conditions Topside were much worse. And as I saw later, he was right. The forest has never been the same since.

I can’t bear to think how many Weavers we lost that day. It took the displaced weeks to find their follicles again and set them in order. While they were away, we weaved for our absent neighbors, keeping their strands flowing until they returned.

Who could have known this would be the first of several Floods, and every time another one struck, more of our neighbors—like dearest Nim two follicles over—never returned.

What could we do but weave, for ourselves and for our missing friends? Our designs became bolder, more defiant, gleaming silver and white, curls corkscrewing from tip to base. But again and again, our artistry was doused and corroded by the next Great Brown Flood.

It was Ava who showed us a new way to fight back: she told us to stop weaving for our neighbors. It was a shocking plan. It seemed so selfish and unnatural, and as much as I admired Ava, it took several weeks before I could bring myself to follow her advice. Staying in my follicle, just letting Nim’s weaving fall apart nearby—it physically hurt to think of her beautiful strands unknitting themselves and slipping away while I continued to work on my own. It was agonizing, but in the end, it was the right thing to do. How else would our Person discover the true impact of the Floods?

Topside became desolate. Every time we surfaced, we saw that another Weavers’ work had fallen away. This was way worse than any Eviction. I will never forget when Nim’s work finally slid out of her follicle. You had to hold me back from ripping my own weaving to shreds.

Little by little, our Person came to understand. Over time, the Floods came less frequently, and then stopped completely. Although, one can never say “stopped” with certainty. A Weaver never knows what a Person will do next.

The forest is thinner now, but what we’ve lost in strands, we’ve gained in texture. I believe our Person now relies on us to fill in the lost volume with grander designs. It’s almost enough to make one feel optimistic, to try out some of the crazier techniques Ava taught us, the ones we would watch but never dare do for fear of being Evicted.

I’ve been wanting to ask Ava about one of those designs—I’ve forgotten the middle steps—but I can’t seem to find her. I’ve asked around, but nobody has seen her for months. No Floods, no Evictions, no Searching or Parting, and yet she’s disappeared.

And don’t try to pretend you’re glad to see her go. I’ve known you too long for that.

She could be anywhere right now. Sometimes I imagine her wandering around Topside during the day, humming one of her little tunes. Or striking out of the forest into a new Part. Or venturing past Hairline into the unknown.

Sometimes I picture her wandering down to the end of a strand and pondering which Split End to traverse. She never turns back. Sometimes she chooses the left fork, sometimes the right. And every time, because she’s Ava, she runs and jumps off the end into a whole new universe.


Bio: Tara Campbell [] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Her fiction has appeared in the Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Up Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Master’s Review, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly, Latchkey Tales, Elementals: Children of Water, and Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Fiction for Adults

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Corporeal Cohabitation by Cassandra Mehlenbacher

Apr 24 2016


“I’ll miss your signature, sweetheart.” In the legal department of the Symbiogenetic Marriage Center, Zeke scratched his name next to Langley’s on their marital and corporeal cohabitation papers. He was wearing slacks, a button up with a little white flower pinned to his breast, and her second-favorite cologne, which smelled of ginger, leather, and coffee.

“It’s the last time I’ll write my name and I wish my hand hadn’t shaken so much.” Absently, Langley reread the binding document: 

I, Langley Dodson, and I, Zeke Dumont, vow to be of One United Body from this day forward as Lake Dumont, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health, to love and to cherish, to honor and to treasure; from this day forward for all the days of our life.

“Separate parts joined together make a better whole. That’s all that matters,” Zeke whispered to her through a kiss on her temple. “Tomorrow can’t come fast enough.” He kissed her on the lips. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Langley turned around and Zeke’s Fathermother clapped the groom and bride on their backs. Langley’s parents hugged her. The uneasy tension in the arms of her mother and father made her throat constrict again.

“We’re going to miss you so much,” a red-eyed Mr. Dodson whispered to his daughter.

“She’s not going anywhere,” Mr.-Mrs. Dumont remarked with a wry smile.

Mrs. Dodson pursed her lips and looked at her feet. “Right. Of course.”

Langley knew her mother had more to say. Out of respect she’d stopped there.


“You know how much this’ll help us financially, Langley? That tax break. Doubled pay.” In a snug honeymoon suite at the Symbiogenetic Marriage Center, Zeke hugged his wife and massaged her neck. “I mean, of course, Being One with you’ll be terrific. I’ve thought about Being One with someone since I was a boy.” His hand glided down her side. “Since I understood that my parents were One. Just think…” He held his hand against her hip, still covered by her wedding dress. “In about a year, our child, made under perfect conditions by some very clever people, will sleep at our house for the first time…” Zeke’s smile widened.

His words… the last thing she wanted was for his words to penetrate her ears. And the idea of a child growing anywhere but within her renewed the heaviness in Langley’s chest and shook up the anxious matter in her mind. Zeke tried to pull her closer to him, but she moved away and stepped over to the door. She stood with her lips kissing the back of her small hand. If she reached out, she could open the door. She could run.

“This is what you want,” Langley whispered.

“What?” Zeke attempted to hug her from behind, but Langley squirmed away. “Langley, this is what you want, too… right?”

She lunged at the door handle and turned it. The door seemed stuck. Why was it stuck? This facility was too new for the doors to be stuck. She pulled at the door again and then realized that Zeke was holding it closed.

“Are you nervous for tomorrow?” He disengaged her hands from the door handle. One of his hands held both of hers while he brushed a loose strand of rusty blond hair behind her ear. “I’ve dreamed of this for so long. I love you.”

“I love you as you, and me as me, Zeke.”

“There will be more to love once we’re One.”


“Think of the good we’re doing, sweetie. Over-population—”

“I don’t care about over-population.” A tear ran down her face. Then more came.

“But don’t you know how much I love you?”

“If loving me was enough, you wouldn’t make me Be One.” Langley pulled her hands from his grasp. Her engagement band slid on her finger to her knuckle. She repositioned it, her eyes drifting to the wedding ring on Zeke’s finger. Both their names were engraved on the interior of that ring. It held both their birthstones.

“Is this because we decided to be a Husbandwife and not a Wifehusband?”

“I want to be a husband and a wife. I don’t want to a voice inside your head. I don’t want to Be One.” Those words felt better leaving her body than a fresh breath of air felt coming in after holding it during a long swim. She bit the inside of her cheek.

A crease formed between Zeke’s dark eyes. “You signed the papers. You’ve been okay with this until now. Not a peep. Are you really doing this to me?”

Her lips trembled. “I feel terrible.” Her breath came in gasps.

Sighing through his nose and leading her to the bed, Zeke sat her down. She cried silently as he removed the glistening pins holding her waves and curls in place. He held the golden, heart-shaped barrette he’d given her for their first anniversary. His palm dwarfed it. “I love that you wore this.”

Unable to help it, she smiled through her tears. The little pin was too juvenile for a twenty-year-old, but the least she could do for Zeke was to wear it on their wedding day. She’d never wear it again, after all, unless she changed Zeke’s mind.

“I want to keep being me.”

“You’re scared.”

“When I look in the mirror, I want to see myself.”

“You will. Because we’ll Be One. One self.” Zeke placed her hair decorations on the side table before he drew his fingers through her hair, separating the moused and hairsprayed strands.

Langley groaned. Her muscles went rigid. “I feel terrible. This is what you’ve wanted, but I—”

“Can we sleep on it, honey?” Zeke drew her close into a hug that she endured like a cat resisting a child’s attention. “That’s all I ask. Time to think. Time to rest. Today was a bit stressful.”

She sucked on her upper lip. For his sake, she could feign consideration. She brought her arms up and lightly hugged him back. “I am tired.” Lots of spouses backed out at the last moment, whether Zeke wanted to admit that or not. Time would not make her embrace the transformation ahead of her.

Zeke grinned and kissed her face. Then he kissed her again and again until he found her lips. “Now, Mrs. Dumont, I’ll start us a shower. Can I give you one great rubdown? I need to run my hands over you. One last time.” He kissed her temple.

Her stomach hitched. There was his oblivious enthusiasm again, and his eager kisses scalded her skin. Pursing her lips, she nodded. “Sure, dear.”

Zeke’s eyes went wistful for a moment as he stood up. Heading to the bathroom, he mumbled. “Mrs. Langley Dumont…”

Langley sat on her hands for a moment, rocking herself. She then looked over. The suite had a balcony. Opening the sliding glass door, she stepped outside and took a breath. A little table and two weather-stained plastic chairs sat facing the view.

“How many have sat here?” she mused under her breath. “What were their dreams?” She leaned over the railing. Their suite was on the twenty-eighth floor, if she remembered right. The sun was setting and the wind was blocked by the building. Trees in the distance shuddered as the wind ruffled their leaves. She scratched an itch on her forehead and raised herself up on her tiptoes.

Zeke said something from the bathroom, and she looked over her shoulder and cocked her head to the side, but his low voice was muffled by the walls and the water falling in the shower. Turning back, she gazed over the railing and a little chill went through her.

Could she? Dare she? Was jumping to her death better than corporeal cohabitation with Zeke? He didn’t seem to acknowledge her unwillingness at all. He wanted to hear her protestations as much as she wanted to hear his wishes.

Footsteps behind her. “That’s a beautiful view.” Her husband put an arm across the back of her neck and his hand on her shoulder. He’d removed his shirt. “You look beautiful, but it’s about time you got out of that dress. Take that makeup off. Get those muscles warmed up.”

Langley closed her eyes. “I really think you’re making light of my—”

“You’ll be happier once you know what it’s like. It’s not scary at all. You’ve seen how happy my Fathermother is. They’ve told me over and over how it was the best thing they ever did.”

“Zeke. The scores on our compatibility test were borderline.” She swallowed the lump in her throat.

With a hand on the small of her back, he guided her back into their suite towards the bathroom. “I love you, Langley. That’s all that matters.”

She closed her eyes and felt bile rise up in her throat. “I think I want to shower by myself.” She broke away from him.

Hurt filled his voice. “Sweetie, I just want—”

She slammed the door and locked it. The condensed air was throttling and the mirror over the sink was covered by silvery gray fog. Fumbling, she slithered out of her wedding dress and left it puddled around her feet. Her body shook despite the steam. She gagged.

“Langley.” Zeke knocked. “Langley. I know you’re afraid. Talk to me.”

Langley crouched down on the floor, her fingertips pressing against the tile that had a fine film of mist on it. “I’m telling you that I don’t want to Be One. I’ll do anything else with you. Why aren’t our vows and rings enough?”

“This isn’t a surprise. You’ve known about my wishes to Be One from the start. Why didn’t you say something?”

“I thought I’d warm up to it…” Honestly, she had. She rubbed her teary eyes. “I should have said something, but you don’t always listen. I want to love you as me. I want to touch you. I want to be with you. I want you to go do things on your own, and then come back and tell me your stories. If you truly love us, you’ll let me be.”

The silence on the other side of the door was relieving. At first. He was listening to her, finally listening. Right? The sound of Zeke listening to her was very strange. Langley stood and turned off the shower, her muscles tense and her ears searching for Zeke’s voice. C’mon. Guilt and anger stabbed at her heart.

“Langley…” The grief in his voice set her nerves on fire. “Okay.”

She froze. “O-okay… what? What’s okay…?”

“I’m pushing you too far,” he said. “I see that now. We don’t have to be a Husbandwife.”

Jumping up, she unlocked the door, fell into his arms, and pressed herself against his chest, rubbing her face into his skin. “Thank you. I love you.”

They cuddled in their marital bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. Langley thought about asking to sleep elsewhere for the night, but didn’t want to be a bother when the bed was perfectly fine, despite its location at the Symbiogenetic Center. Zeke was quiet. Langley repeated herself several times when she spoke to him because he didn’t catch what she’d said. He was grieving his dream of Being One with her.

“I’ll be the best wife. We’ll have no regrets. Just you wait.” She snuggled against his neck, wrapping her arms around his chest to his back.

He rested a hand on her back.

After a while, they made love, and then they shared a light serviced dinner and some wine just before switching off the lights. Langley sighed and nuzzled her head into her pillow. Sleep came on quickly and she rested in fearless peace.


Langley smiled, expecting the fingers interlacing with hers to belong to Zeke as he tried to wake her up. The sooner they left the Symbiogenetic Center and went home to their apartment the better. It was bad enough the Center was in their hometown.

She opened her eyes.

A nurse, looking down on her, smiled. The suite had been swapped out for a sterile little chamber.

Langley shivered. What was this? Why wasn’t she in bed with her husband? Had something happened during the night and she’d been admitted to the hospital? 

This was a last minute decision, but it was the least we could do, I thought.

She looked around for her husband. She’d clearly heard his voice, but where was he?

The thoughts in her head turned over as easily as if someone had dialed in a different radio station. Don’t be afraid. You’ve always been more comfortable in your skin than I’ve been in mine. You’re so beautiful, sweetie.

The nurse stepped back as Langley murmured, “What? I don’t…”

Zeke’s words finally registered. 

Langley, don’t be afra—” 

No! Zeke!  I told you I-I… There was something on her head. She raised her arm to touch it, but her limb froze half way from her reaching it. 

Just relax. I will take care of us. We have nothing to worry about. Don’t panic the nurse. 

You lied to me, Zeke! 

We’ll adjust…

How? Why? He’d betrayed her. 

I didn’t expect you to feel so strongly, sweetie.

Tears of frustration ran down her cheeks as her body trembled. How could you have not known? Get out of my head. Now.

Langley knew Zeke was there, waiting to speak, in the background of their mind like a lingering bystander at a crime scene. Why couldn’t he just answer her? 

Sweetheart… they’ve already destroyed my body. I’m sorry. I love you.


Cassandra Mehlenbacher lives in the Pacific Northwest and received her BA in English from Central Washington University in 2014. She has publications with The Airship Daily, Wordhaus, The Story Shack, and others. When she isn’t writing and fending off the bills, she is drawing animals or spending time with loved ones.

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The Book by Patrick Doerksen

Apr 17 2016


“So. Mark. What happened. Mmm, this is good.”

“Mom started Reading the Book.”


“Four days ago.”

“Is it serious? Yup, good coffee. French press?”

“Well, she hasn’t stopped since.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What, there’s still hope.”


“It’s too goddamn easy for them. The Readers. There’s no way to cut ‘em off.”


“You know, some folks in L.A. even started printing it out. Font the size of ant turds. God. And still fills a gym.”

“Listen. You should talk to Damon. He knows a guy who knows a way, like.”

“Shit man. How? Have you Read any of it?”

“Just the first page, same as the next guy. Don’t judge, but I think it involves shock therapy? Wristbands, like.”

“I was in deep. Third chapter. Like, fuck, the book’s endless, right, but it’s just as endlessly inventive. Funny as hell; still it makes way more sense than anything. You start wondering, how can the guy, the author, keep this up? So you peer further in, looking for some flaw, something boring, and then you’re like, oh shit, this is better than the last page.”

“Talk like a damn Reader.”

“I’m serious. Like nothing else. Can’t paraphrase it.”

“I’ve read summaries. Chapters 1-20.”

“Man. Why don’t I just tell you about a sunset if that’s good enough for you.”

“So then let her keep Reading.”

“Fuck you man. She’s in deep. She’s going to the Reader’s Conference in L.A. next week.”



“Welcome, welcome! Please, yes, seats at the front here.”

[Shuffling feet.]

“Thank you for attending the Third Annual Reader’s Conference! Veterans in the audience know how it goes here: We stop Reading the Book for two days to complain about how we hate to stop Reading.”

[Mild laughter]

“In that sense, those of us here represent the less-committed Readers. I’m sure there are a few of you with connections who declined to come—sensing the irony no doubt—and are Reading at this minute! Ah, didn’t we all ponder it. But one of our purposes here is to dispel such narrow notions of “commitment;” being a Reader is not just reading—it is Interpretation. And gathered here today are some of strongest Advocates and Interpreters of the Book in the world!”


“This morning we will begin with Doctor Berchart, who will be giving a talk on the similarities and dissimilarities between Reading and substance addiction. He will be exploding more than a few myths, I’m sure, so make certain you record it for your concerned loved ones.”


“In the afternoon breakout we have a selection of speakers. Professor Hammil will be presenting on the impacts of cognitive enhancements and psychedelics on Reading. Sure to be scintillating! Professor Gerhard will be presenting some of his latest research on the origins of the Book; as I understand it, there have been a few small breakthroughs in this field. Which is it, Rick, an underground society of literary geniuses? A group-mind experiment, a host of connected consciousnesses suspended in zero-sensory chambers plugged with stimulants and psychedelics and what else? Some eternal being, perhaps?”

“But the question, Cindy, is rather, What is writing it? Because we suspect Artificial Intelligence.”

“That so? Fascinating.”


“The third talk will be given by myself, and that will be on the future of Readership politics in an increasingly polarized world. Oh, I see catering has just put out some refreshments in the back. Help yourselves. The coffee is bottomless, so drink up, sit up, and listen up, because we have two days packed with Readership goodness!”


“‘I will not Read the Book. I will not read the Book. I will not read the book.’ Every morning, first thing.”

“That’s it, huh.”

“When you say it with your soul.”

“That and the shock therapy will do it.”

“Always. A good diet helps, too—stabilizes. Who is it, your girlfriend? It’s a parent, isn’t it. A parent…”

“How much are these goddamned wristbands anyway?”

“$200 apiece.”

“Shit, you’ll be booed out of there.”

“Oh, a lot worse than that.”

“You probably think you’re some kind of hero, don’t you.”

“Just doing what I can.”

“You’ll need more than wristbands. To get through to them.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“Hey, you ever consider that maybe no one needs a guy like you? That maybe the Readers are OK and it’s us who are missing something?”

“Every day.”

“Yeah, no kidding huh. Lose sleep over it and everything too huh. Some fucking hero. Tormented soul trying to do good in a world run amuck.”

“Something like that.”

“Whatever. Just give me the fucking wrist band.”


“Thanks Alan. I’m here in L.A. at the Third Annual Reader’s Conference with Finnegan Caulwood, chairman of the United Reader’s Society. There is a surprising amount of buzz for a crowd full of Readers, wouldn’t you say Finnigen?”

“Oh we get rowdy.”

“Tell us a bit about how all this started.”

“Well, Navim, as you know four years ago the Book appeared. Within three weeks it developed an international cult following. I was one of the first promoters, there was a team of us, and we created a real social media presence for the Book. Soon we had some donors and I got a few hundred to agree to fly down to L.A. and voila, we had the first conference.”

“Tell us something about the Book, Finnegan. You left a top marketing job to Read and promote the Book full time. What is it about the Book that excites you?”

“Right, thanks for asking Navim. My introduction to the Book was unreal. I mean that literally. I didn’t know something like that could be real. In university I remember taking this Arthurian Legends class and we read something called The Mabinogion. It’s a collection of stories filled with the most peculiar stuff, but all taking place by the same logic. This is a pale comparison, but it contains the key: the Book is not pure absurdity or lawless creative energy, it’s governed, channeled, by some alien, Godlike mind.”

“That is certainly high praise.”

“Yeah, and Navim I’d actually go further. The Book really is a gateway. What it contains is something entirely Other, capital O—so Other that we would have no access to it were it not that the Book also eased us into it. So it’s a gateway, an organization of space and meaning such that we can perceive where one realm ends and another begins—and then cross over if we like. I’m sorry to you and your viewers, Navim, but only Readers will know what I mean. And if you’re not hooked then you may never be. I was reading the first page, the first paragraph actually, and immediately I had this sense that here  was something different.”

“Is that something you try to explore, here at the Reader’s Conference?”

“Definitely. It’s really slippery, though. The Book comes at reality from an angle no one has ever tried before. It’s in everything, the way the adverbs are used, the way the action proceeds, the details it fastens upon. You go further in, and each chapter of the Book pushes that slant steeper and steeper. Eventually it gets so steep that you’re tipped into a world wholly unlike our own. And still it doesn’t stop, it just keeps tipping; you keep getting that sense of entering something new, something completely different. You know what it’s like, to get caught in the momentum of a really good book?”


“Now imagine that going on forever. It’s like free-falling. That’s something we talk a lot about here at the conference. It’s nice, too, for the early Readers who haven’t made it as deep in; a lot of them—and this happened to me, Navim—will grow anxious for the Author, worried that the Book cannot sustain itself endlessly, that somewhere there must be a roof, or a floor, some sense of a container. That is a really scary feeling. Just being around Readers who have made it deeper than them and who are still Reading is a comfort.”

“Tell me, Finnigen, is it true that anyone who begins reading never stops?

“I can’t answer that without appearing just a little smug, Navim. It’s the truth a small handful of people have made it to the third chapter, the famed point of No Return, and quit. Now, not all of us are convinced these people were actually Reading, if you know what I mean. But anyhow, aside from these rare few, the answer to your question is yes. Everyone who reads the Book Reads the Book, Navim. And what better evidence for the worth of Reading than that?”

“Are you trying to make a proselyte out of me, Finnegan?”

“Oh no, Navim, the Book does that.”


“I understand that you also offer some more intentionally therapeutic sessions here for Readers?”

“That’s right. We have a session with a counsellor who works with Readers who have lost a sense of priority and proportion in their lives—you know, the Readers who sit on their toilets all day and order take-out. Her name’s Penny, she’s great. It’s really important to keep healthy; it’s all about lifespan—if you’re able to stay alive longer, the more of the Book you will make it through. Binge-reading gets you nowhere.”

[Distant yelling]

“My apologies Navim. Every year we have a few self-appointed “Rehabilitators” who like to cause a disturbance. Really they are just biblioterrorist. I just can’t understand that sort of enmity.”

“I must ask, Finnegan. The Readers are obviously a very passionate bunch—with these naysayers about, have things every become violent here at the conference?”

“Never. We have security who will escort them away safely. Ah, there they are now.”

[Yelling subsides]

“Finnegan, can you tell me about these booths?”

“Of course. It’s important to keep in mind, Navim, that we as the National Reader’s Society have no professional affiliation with anyone or any business who decides to set up here in the lobby. This year we have a representative from an investor in China; you can see by his sign he is willing to pay a pretty penny for each page translated into Mandarin. Of course, the Book is untranslatable. We’ve had some investors from other countries in past years, none have been satisfied.”

“That booth there looks interesting.”

“Yes, we’ve had Expert Summaries every year. They are a good group, but let me tell you something, Navim. You can’t translate the Book and you can’t summarize it. Vicarious Readership, it’s called, and it doesn’t work. You have to understand, Navim, that by virtue of the fact that the Reader is asked to summarize a piece of the Book, he is in too deep to do so. By that point the narrative has grown into itself. Any bits he might bring back to the surface would be like odd shells and carcases brought up from the ocean depths—curious perhaps, but finally ugly and unknown. To access the Book’s wonders, one can’t cut corners. The only path is the path the Book gives us.”

“One last question, Finnegan. Where do you think all this will take you?”

“Only the Book knows, Navim.”

“Thanks so much, Finnegan, and enjoy your conference.”

“Thank you, Navim.”

“Back to you, Alan.”


“We should’n come, man; it’s weird, surrounded by all these—”

“Hey look, that’s Veronica Meyers.”


“They say she’s the furthest in—of anyone.”

“Stupid. As though it were some sort of competition, like. Huh, wow, she’s young.”

“She was a speed reading champion, before the Book appeared. 3,000 words per minute or something.”

“Huh. You know, there’s that guy, Jim something, some sort of savant, like; he’s finished it apparently.”

“Yeah yeah, I heard that too, that’s bullshit.”

“He says he can’t describe the end, that the Book redefines what it is to “end,” like. I saw an interview, he was shaking all over. This poor bloke, two weeks after finishing it and still shaking…”

“Yeah, well, no one’s finished it, it doesn’t end. That’s what’s so inane about the whole thing.”

“Think of it. What would a Reader have left in his small little life, if he actually finished it, like? I—”

“You know I said can’t actually finish the fucking Book, Alb. There’s no fucking way, not reading 3,000 words a minute, not reading 3,000 words a second.”

“Well, check out the interview.”


“So where’s your mom, I’m not seeing her.”

“You hear there’s people actually learning English now just to Read? It’s the fucking tipping point—if it wasn’t certain before the Book, language extinction and the monoculture of English is now the way of the world.”


“Hey, what’s happening over there?”


The Book


An audiobook presentation

by Neil Gaiman, Kate Winslet, Benedict Cumberbatch,

and host of other famous performers


Updated biweekly

Unlimited streaming for $20/month


“Get the fuck outa here man!”

“Go back to grad school tight ass!”

[Ongoing aggressive heckling]

“Hey watch out!”

“He’s got something!”

[Screams, gasps, etc.]


[The crowd quiets]

“Listen to me! Listen, for God’s sake, while you still have ears! There Book is dangerous!”

[Booing here and there, sparse]

“The first chapter of the Book is not what you think it is! You think it is about a retired UFO crash litigation lawyer and his disembodied wife. No! It is not that! I tell you, it is about the alienation of a people! It is about what is happening to you even now, as you jeer at me and judge me in your hearts! It is a warning that every Reader has ignored!”

[Boos here and there, less sparse]

“Listen, dear Readers: you are growing different! You and I once walked the same road, and could speak to one another, and be heard by one another. Now where are you? You have taken an exit, an offshoot from the road, and you are no longer on it. Furthermore, your path has no signs, no marks—you know not where you go!”

“Like hell!”

“You there!”

[Gasps, a shriek]

“Yes you, who just spoke with such malice. Come up here. What is your name?”


“Jarred. How long have you been a Reader?”

“Nine months?”

“Nine months. Long enough. Jarred, you understand what this is?”


“Tell me what it is.”

“A g-gun.”

“Jarred, what is a gun?”


“What is a gun, Jarred.”

“A weapon? To shoot someone with?”

“What does the Book say a gun is, Jarred?”

“Hey, that’s enough! Let him down!”

[A shot is fired]

“Quiet! … Jarred, answer the question. What does the Book say a gun is?”

“It… it says, that, uh, guns are portals.”

“To where, Jarred?”

“To the Numinous Atopos? The Estranged Land?”

“Would you like to go there, Jarred?”


“Well, Jarred, would you like to go to the Numinous Atopos? The Estranged Land?”


“Oh, but you like going there in the Book, don’t you Jarred?”

“Please! It’s, it’s just a book. Please!”


“What a psycho.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Oh, he’ll survive. Our sniper took out his collar bone, nothing deadly.”

“How the hell did he have the stage for so long?”

“Security’s radio’s weren’t synced up with the Nest. Anyway, no harm done. The conference can continue.”

“Oh, it’s continuing, that’s for goddamn sure. We’re not going to end this fucking epidemic with melodramatic stunts.”

“You think we could just unplug the internet?”

“I sure as hell wish, Rab.”


“Please! Mom, don’t do this. It’s insane. Please!”

“Mark, will you first pu-lease calm down.”

“You’re about to empty your bank account to buy a bunch of snake-oil nootropics so that you can sit for longer on your ass and stare at a screen!”


“Mom, I mean it. This is insane!”

“Mark, please. You’re all worked up. You’re sure you’re ok?”

“The gun wasn’t point at me, mom, it was pointed at you!”


“I mean figuratively. You’re a Reader, mom, not me. Are you sure you’re ok?”

“Mark, I need you to try just for a minute to understand. Here—listen. Don’t interrupt. If you found something that you loved, that made sense of everything in the world for you, that gave you peace, that held you afloat in time, would you give up everything for it?”

“But that’s not what you’ve found, mom! The Book makes sense of nothing!”

“Oh, so I’m talking to an expert Interpreter, am I?”

“You don’t need an expert interpreter or whatever to tell you that! Just an ounce of common sense! Please, mom, just try it, just for a three days. The shocks don’t hurt, only just enough to work on the part of the brain that forms habits.”

“You are offending me, Mark. If I told you to give up on Marisa, that she was ugly and stupid and not worth your time, and gave you a shock collar—”

“It’s not a collar—”

“—and gave you a shock collar to get rid of your ‘habit’ of making out on the basement sofa for hours—”


“—and talking till 3am with the TV blaring, what would you say to me son? What would you say?”

“This is insane.”

“Mark, how am I to communicate with you if you keep insisting that ‘this is insane’? You’re not trying to speak my language at all.”

“No, mom, you’re not trying to speak mine!”

“Oh, listen, the next keynote is beginning.”

[Distant] “And so I asked her, ‘Knowing what you know, would you Read the Book?’”

“Oh mom, I wish you wouldn’t go. I… I’m losing you.”

“Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark… I love you. If you would only Read the Book you wouldn’t feel the way you do. … Oh Mark, come here.”


“Patrick is a social worker living with his wife in Victoria, British Columbia. His poetry has featured in a number of journals, including Presence, Simply Haiku, Mayfly, Bones, Haibun Today, and Sonic Boom, among others.”

No responses yet

Bugged by J.M. Kerr

Apr 10 2016


“What’s her name?”

Bill Martin teetered back in his chair, leering at the new I.T. girl across the office.

“Kara something,” said Enrique, Bill’s desk-mate.

“I know that. What’s her last name?”

Bill scrunched his eyes trying to make out the woman’s badge. “Looks like… Wormley? Is it Wormley?”

“That doesn’t sound right,” Enrique said.

“Just tell me what her last name is, Rick.”

“How should I know?”

“Weren’t you with Stan when he hired her? I thought you were his right-hand man now.”

“Is that bitterness, Billy? You said you wouldn’t have taken my promotion even if they had offered it to you.”

“That’s right, Rick. You can be a corporate douche. Not for me.”

“Sure, Bill.” Enrique swiveled around in his chair. “Why do you want to know her name anyway?”


Enrique grimaced. “That’s it? You want to invade the poor woman’s privacy just to find a bikini pic to jerk off to?”

“Exactly.” Bill grinned.

A notification sounded from Enrique’s computer. “Sorry perv, but you’ll have to call off your search.”

“What’s up?”

“There’s a shortage in the server room. And, the new I.T. girl isn’t on the payroll till Monday so I need you to check it out.”

“Goddamn rats are chewing on the wires.”

“You’re probably right. Better take a hammer, for protection.”

Bill sighed as he pulled a small ball-peen from his desk drawer. It was stained red from his last trip to the server room.

“Try not to get bit. I doubt workers comp will cover rabies.”

Bill got up from his desk. “Fuck you, fag.” It was a whisper.

“What was that?”


Bill made his way down to the basement which housed the building’s servers. Row upon row of buzzing towers lined the floor. The lights were out, but Bill could hear the rats shuffling around. He shuddered. The light switch was at the bottom of the staircase, half way down the wall. Bill would have to grope for the switch in the darkness. In his mind’s eye he saw fat, greasy rats with beady red eyes, scurrying under his feet, and crawling up the server racks. He hurried to the switch and flipped it. The room was flooded with buzzing, florescent light, and a single rat scurried beneath a rack.

Bill searched for the loose wire, and for the new girl’s various social pages. He glanced up from his phone in time to spot two stray network cables that had come unplugged. He reached down for the cables still staring at his phone.

“What was her damn name? Warby, Warmely? Wor… SHIT!”

The rat plunged its teeth deep into Bill’s thumb, and blood ran down his forearm. Bill let out a yelp, and shook his hand wildly. Black tufts of fur filled the air, but the rat’s jaws only tightened. “Fuck. Get off… HELP!” Bill felt the comforting weight of the hammer tucked into his belt. He grabbed the bludgeon and raised it. Just then, a blue cord wrapped around the rat’s torso and squeezed until its eyes bulged. The vermin let go of Bill’s hand, and the cord swung it against the wall where it dropped to the ground and scurried away. Bill saw that the cord wasn’t a cord, but a tail. A long blue-grey, prehensile tail attached to a creature.

The thing was almost human, but smaller, only half Bill’s height. It was covered in grayish skin that was peeling, flaking. Its face was pointed like an iguana, and wispy white fuzz covered its body. At first glance Bill thought it was some little mutant monkey, but then it spoke.

“Her name is Warner. You weren’t even close.” The creature’s voice was raspy. The sound of it made Bill’s anus tighten. He turned to run, but the creature’s tail wrapped around his ankle and pulled him to the ground.

“What, no thank you?”

Bill lay on the linoleum, his finger dripping blood. “What the hell are you?”

“That’s complicated. The name’s Bugg, though.” The creature extended his claw. Bill flipped and scooted backwards, on his ass, banging his head into a server. “Shit!”

“You need to learn some manners, friend. I can help you with those social graces.”

“What are you? Was someone fucking rats down here, and your some rat-human hybrid? Was it Enrique? That deviant. I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“I’ve already told you, I’m Bugg. I live down here with the rats, and the server racks. Soaking up all the wonderful information that runs through these wires.” Bugg held a network cable between his fingers.

Bill sat up. “I should go. Try to forget. Maybe get a CAT scan.” He tried for the door.

“There’s no need to run. We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. How about a peace offering?” Bugg walked behind the server for a moment. Bill’s phone buzzed in his pocket, but he was too afraid to move. Bugg reemerged. “Go ahead. Answer it.”

Bill got out his phone. “It’s a text message. A picture file.”

“Download it.”

“I’m not going to download it. This isn’t even a real number. It’s only five digits: 8-7-4-2-5.”

“It’s from me, Bill. A gift.”

“What is it?”


“Okay, okay.” Bill downloaded the photo. His eyes lit. “Holy shit! The new girl.”

“That’s better than what you’d find on her Instagram.”

“Where did you get this?”

“Nothing is safe from me, Bill. If the file is plugged into a network I can get it.”

“You can get more of these?” Bill asked.

“I could, Bill. I could get you anything on anyone. Data, Bill. Information. Knowledge. Power. How would you like to be a CEO?”

Bill wrinkled his forehead. “So you can tell me anything about those people up there?”

“What do you want to know?”

He considered the offer for a moment. A spiteful grin stretched across his face.


On Monday Kara found a box of dark chocolate wrapped and placed on her desk. It was the third time that she had found a gift sitting there, all from the same person. Bill, again. Dark chocolate, she thought. My favorite. How the fuck did he know that. The day before it was a bouquet of peonies. Peonies were Kara’s favorite flower. Last week it was a vinyl record from the first band she ever saw live in concert. How could he know she had a record player?

Kara saw Bill beaming at her from his desk, leaning back in his chair to see past the fake fern. She glanced down breaking eye contact. He’s spying on me. The fucking creep.

Kara met Enrique at lunch. “Your friend Bill is really starting to worry me.”

“We’re not friends, Kara. Let me make that clear. We share a cubicle. That doesn’t make us friends.”

“It doesn’t matter, Enrique. You know him best. That’s why I came to you. I think he’s spying on me.”

Enrique glanced up from his food. “How do you mean?”

“He knows things about me, Enrique. Personal things. I’ve worked here a month, and he knows the bands I like, the food I eat, and the places I go. How good is he with computers? I swear he’s hacked mine.”

“Bill’s good for plugging in a loose wires. Beyond that, well he couldn’t even figure out the new contact software you gave us last week.”

“I know. He’s sent me a dozen emails about it. I thought maybe that was a ploy. You know, an excuse to talk to me. You sure he doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

“I don’t know, Kara. He could be hiding something from us. He does seem to know things.”

Kara placed her hand on Enrique’s. “He knows something about you, doesn’t he?”

Enrique sighed. “Stan was chewing me out at our last sales meeting. My numbers are down this month, by a lot, and Bill’s numbers have skyrocketed. Bill. He’s an idiot. He tries to fuck half his clients.

“So how did he become the top seller?”

“It’s simple. He stole my leads. All of his new clients are people I scouted.”

“So he is hacking us!”

“Could be. Except I don’t keep the leads here. I keep them in my home office.”

“He stole from your house?”

“He’s never been there. I don’t know how he got those leads. That’s not the worst, though.”

“What is? Kara asked.

“We we’re at this sales meeting, and Stan was reaming me. I guess Bill sees this as a good chance to pile on. He outted me. Told Stan that I was seeing Louis from accounting.”

“Is that true?”

“Yes, but how did Bill know? We’re very careful. Stan already had a grudge against me because of my name. This is just one more strike on my record. I’ll be gone in a month, Kara. Louis too.

“I’m so sorry, Enrique. I wish there was a way I could help.”

“I wish we knew what that bastard, Bill, was up to.”

“We have to confront him, Enrique.”

Enrique frowned. “He’ll just lie to us.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t care either way. I just want him to know that we won’t take it anymore.”

“Okay, Kara. I’m with you.”

“They’re starting to suspect me,” Bill said to an annoyed-looking Bugg.

“They should. You were sloppy. You outted a co-worker in the middle of a meeting. Have you never heard of subtly?”

“I thought Stan would fire him, but nothing has happened.”

“Of course not. You tied his hands. If he fires Enrique now it’ll be discrimination.”

“Well give me something else on Enrique. Something better.”

“I don’t have anything else. Enrique is a model employee, unlike you. His homosexuality was your best play. Stan is a bigot, but he’s not stupid. He won’t invite a lawsuit.”

“What about Kara? She won’t talk to me.”

“Did you give her the gifts like I told you?”

“Yes, but I don’t think she liked them. She won’t even make eye contact with me.”

“Really?” Bugg smiled. “That’s a shame. I was hoping that would work out for you.”

“So what do we do?”


“Nothing? You’re supposed to help me.”

“You’re beyond help. I’m not a genie. Besides, we have a bigger problem.”


“It seems I over-estimated you, Bill. Now I’ve tapped out all the information I can get from this office. I need a new source.” Bugg circled Bill.

“Do you need to move to another building?” Bill asked trying to track Bugg with his eyes.

“That won’t be necessary, Bill. By the way, do you know how much data is stored within the human brain?”

“What does that have to do with any-”

“-On average, ten terabytes.”

“That’s interesting-”

“Do you know what that means?”


“It means that even a feeble minded individual, like you Bill, is a goldmine of information. Every person you’ve known, every secret you’ve overheard, every intimate detail you’ve ever had privilege to, it’s all up there. You may not be able to recall it, but it’s there. Tucked away in all those bundles of neurons is every bit and byte of your existence. An entire human experience. Do you know what that’s worth to a creature like me?” Bugg was behind Bill now.

“Yeah, uh, a lot. Maybe. Problem is-”

“What problem?” Bugg was only an echo now.

“Well how could you get at it?”

“I could just crack your head open like a melon. Once I get in there I’m sure I can figure it out,” Bugg said from somewhere above Bill.

“Where’d you go?” Bill’s voice cracked. He had spent weeks in commune with a troll, and never stopped to ask how it was able to produce this information, or why he was giving it away, for free. Bill feasted on every sordid detail that was served, not once worrying that Bugg might be watching Bill closer than anyone else.

“I’m outta here, Bugg. I don’t want anything else from you.” Bill started to back out of the basement, but tripped. He plopped down on his backside.

“What if I want something from you?” The voice came from directly above Bill. He looked up to see Bugg perched atop a nearby server rack. His tufts of gray hair were standing on end, forming a ridged back. He was staring at Bill with his mouth open, drooling.

Bill turned to run, but in a second Bugg was on his back. Bill tore at him, trying to throw Bugg to the ground, but that tail had wrapped around his neck, choking him. He had almost blacked out when he saw the rat-stained hammer laying on the ground. It was his last hope. Bill dropped to his knees and reached for it. Bugg was tightening his grip now. Bill had a finger on the hammer when he felt Bugg’s tail loosen.

“Thank you, Bugg. Let’s talk reasonably.” Bill saw the tail whip out and grasp the hammer. “Oh shit!” It came down on Bill’s crown with a dull thud. Then the lights went out.

“He’s down here?” Enrique asked Kara as they made their way down to the basement.

“Stan said he’s been spending a lot of time down here. Said he was laying rat traps. Who knows what he was really doing.”

“Lights are off.”

“Do you know were the switch is?” Kara asked.

“Yes.” Enrique ran his palm along the wall until he felt the switch. “Got it.”

The lights flickered on.

“Do you see him, Enrique?”

“No.” Enrique cupped his hands to his mouth. “Bill, you down here?”

“He’s unavailable.”

Kara and Enrique exchanged glances.

“Who is that?” asked Kara.


“That doesn’t sound like Bill,” Enrique said.

“No. That isn’t Bill,” Kara’s eyes darted around the room. She followed Bugg’s voice.

Enrique stumbled over a bundle of cables as they walked. Kara reached out, catching him. “Kara, what’s going on? Do you know who that is?”

“Yes.” Kara turned to Enrique. “Look, you may want to go back upstairs.”

“Why? Is this person dangerous? I’m not leaving you down here.”

“He’s not a threat. He’s… different.”

“What are you talking about, Kara?”

“If you’re not going back upstairs then you need to brace yourself.”

Kara and Enrique turned a corner and found Bugg perched on an unconscious Bill. “Oh shit!” Enriqued backed up.

Kara surveyed the scene. “Damnit, Bugg! What did you do?”

“Hey Kara, funny running into you here.” Bugg said with a sheepish grin.

“Is it, Bugg? I work here.”

“You work here? That’s a coincidence. I’ve been staying here. After you threw me out I needed somewhere to stay.”

Enrique’s eyes darted from Bugg to Kara, back to Bugg. “What the hell is going on? Kara, who… what is this thing?”

“Sorry Enrique. This is Bugg. Bugg is what you call a… gremlin.”

“Sure. A gremlin. Why the fuck not. Why have I never met one of these gremlins?”

“We like to stay out of sight.”

“What are you doing down here?” Enrique squared off with Bugg.

“We gremlin’s have always had a an obsession with human technology. We tinker with your creations, taking them apart, putting them back together. My father could dismantle a plane’s landing gear mid-flight, a real thing of beauty. Lately, we deal with information technology, like these servers. Were actually pretty handy. In fact that’s how Kara and I met. Isn’t that right, sweetie?”

“Don’t call me sweetie. What the hell did you do to Bill?”

Bill laid on the ground drooling. “Oh right, him. He got a little over-excited. I had to whack him with a hammer. He should be fine… I think.”

“You were helping him, weren’t you? You broke in to Enrique’s house.”

“Well… Yes. Sorry about that, pal.” Bugg nodded at Enrique.

“I don’t get it. Why were you helping Bill?” Enrique asked.

“Yes. I would like to know that as well.” added Kara.

“After we broke up I was keeping up with you. Checking your Facebook, Twitter, Google alerts, federal records.” Bugg mumbled that last part. “Just to make sure you were safe. You know how I worry about you, baby.”

“Get on with it, Bugg.”

“I was… around… on your first day. I saw Bill leering at you so I followed him down here. I may have implied that I could syphon information for him from the office computers. Hell, I think I even convinced him I could tap a human brain. It was all for you, Kara.” Bugg looked at Kara with wide eyes. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t get wrapped with the wrong kinda guy.”

“You’re the one who told him to get all those gifts for me.”

“Yeah. I know how you hate it when men come on too strong. I figured the gifts would scare you off. It worked too. I saved you from the little perv, baby, but I had to give him something real. You know, to make the whole thing believable. That’s why I stole your leads, Enrique.”

Enrique rolled his eyes. “I’m glad it was for a good cause. How did you know about Louis and me?”

“Your profile photo on Facebook is you and Louis sharing a booth at the Cheesecake Factory. I figured it was a safe bet.”

Kara eyed Bugg. “Did you really think you could win me back by stalking me, sharing private information about me, breaking in to my friend’s homes, and assaulting a man just because he was interested in me?”

Bugg looked down at his tiny clawed feet. “I guess so.”

Kara glared at him. “I know we’ve had our problems, Bugg, but that… that’s so sweet. I know my parents say you’re all wrong for me, but I don’t care. I want you back, baby!”

Bugg looked at Kara with glassy eyes. “Let’s get out of here sweetie.” He ran and jumped into Kara’s arms. Kara squeezed the little gremlin tightly.

“Enrique, tell Stan I’m taking the rest of the day off.”

Kara carried Bugg out of the basement. He glanced over her shoulder, and back at Enrique. Bugg gave him a single wink, and they were gone.

Bill groaned from the floor.


“Yeah Bill. How are you feeling?”

“Like shit. What the hell happened?”

Enrique stared at the door where Kara and Bugg had exited. He sighed, and looked down at Bill. “I have no fucking idea.”

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Solstice Queen by Alex Jensen

Apr 03 2016

Derek Mill wrote a book about his own life. Three years ago the autobiography awarded him 750,000 dollars. This year he was awarded 150,000 dollars for writing the book three years ago. Derek was awarded an undergraduate degree from a top tier university, which awarded him entrance to a graduate program at a top tier university. He was awarded A’s in every class. Over the last ten years Derek has increased the amount of people he governs by 2.8 million per year. This calculation, although misleading as Derek has only been awarded three different positions in ten years, reminded him of his value. Derek needed this type of thing since his father, Arnold who was Derek’s biggest fan passed away four years ago.

Arnold Mill would tell his son, “To govern is to be an angel walking the mountainous slopes of snowshoeing dragons.” Arnold Mill was awarded wealth as an artist of the avant-garde. He mastered the ability of disorientation, causing an audience to argue with one another about what he meant in a way that made everyone believe that they were the only one’s that truly ‘got it’.

This talent caught the eye of large businesses who hired Arnold to weave together words like, maintained, managed, integrity, talking points, seminar and developed in ways that communicated safety and trust while remaining entirely void of meaning. After his stunt in the business world Arnold became an asset to top tier politicians who went to top tier universities and who published top selling books about their own lives.

Which brings us to the well-educated and ambitious Derek, who just finished kneeling before a stuffed doll, chanting, ‘Envy is a reminder of who I can one day become.’ and who was now watching his sleeping wife Darlene.

Darlene Mill, the famous actress and singer. Darlene Mill the woman whose face was inescapable on magazine racks. Darlene Mill the woman Derek watched sleep when too anxious to dream. However this time it was an excited anxiety as opposed to an impending doom anxiety. For today was the day that the Solstice Queen would be announced, and this year Derek was (for the fourth time, and second year in a row) selected to be one of the seven Princes of the Solstice (In fact Derek, at 45 was the youngest man to receive the award four times).

This six others selected for this year’s celebration were:

Dale Burnett – A former all-star shortstop who now dedicated his life to proving that although return on investment will increase faster than economic growth, this is necessary to increase growth and help poverty. He proved this by filming a reality show where homeless people were given money as charity and others were given high interest microloans. Proving that the incentive of a growing interest forced loan receivers get a home faster.

Stuart Bailey – A pop-psychologist who changed the way people thought about marriage by introducing an idea that marriage should be done on a ten year contract so when the contract matured the couple could decide to renew and have a party or not renew and go their separate ways.

Richard Coin – A former lawyer who preached the philosophy of determinism through documentaries, books and television interviews. Informing the public that free will did not exist and therefore the concept of justice was primitive.  Advocating a change in the prison system and a better understanding of incentives that fuel rehabilitation.

David Peoples – A successful film director who created an algorithm for sound and light pixels which would produce a new film each day that struck every human as intelligent, fascinating, funny, emotionally mature and original.

Burt Johnson and Ron Alexander – Two politicians just like Derek selected by a group of anonymous individuals with a high understanding of political theory. The public was well aware that they were not chosen democratically but all agreed that the anonymous individuals had excellent taste.


And then there was Derek. Derek eating his eggs and protein shake while he watched his beautiful Darlene sleep. Thinking to himself how he bought her the sheets with the high thread count and the mattress that astronauts use. That he got her the apartment with the skyline view and air conditioner that maintained a perfect 75 and a humidity level perfectly adjusted to the condition of her sinuses. It was he that kept her fed, loved, famous, happy and safe. Whatever desire she had, he suffocated long ago. She was perfect now, with him, she was perfect.


At 6:00 PM Derek and the six other elected Solstice Princes were sitting in chairs behind a podium. They were waiting for President Fremont to show so he could practice reading a speech while they practiced sitting in chairs behind him. At some point Burt Johnson leaned over to Derek and said, “Do you get nervous?” “During the performance?” Derek asked. Burt nodded. “You can take a blue one” Derek said. “I don’t like taking medication.” Burt said.  Dale leaned into the conversation, “You need a blue one?” Dale said. “No.” Burt said a bit embarrassed. “Coin!” Dale yelled, “Burt needs a blue one!” “You need a blue one burt?” Richard Coin said. “No!” Burt said, “I’m fine.” “If you’re nervous you should take a blue one,” said David Peoples. “I’m not nervous,” said Burt.

Stuart Bailey jumped in to kill the discomfort,  “Who do you think will be the Solstice Queen this year?” Stuart asked. “Unofficial poll said Mary Winston would win,” said Ron Alexander. “Don’t believe that bull,” said Dale, “After Michelle Davis’ best actress win she’s on everyone’s mind.” “What about your girl Derek?” said Stuart. “Oh I don’t think so,” said Derek. “People love to see a couple share the solstice spotlight,” said Stuart, “besides she’s due for a win.” “If she didn’t win it five years ago, I doubt she’ll win it now,” said Derek. “Jeez brother have some faith,” said Dale. “I just don’t want to get her hopes up, between Michelle and Mary there’s not much room left for Darlene this year.”

“You all speculating?” Said President Fremont entering from stage left. “Derek, Darlene is certainly due for a win, don’t be such a naysayer.”

“Thank you President,” Derek hated calling Ferris ‘President’. Three decades ago Ferris was crying because he claimed Derek hacked him on a layup. Now he was Derek’s superior. For decades now, Derek fantasized about taking a hammer to Ferris’s head so to release the air of pretension trapped inside.

7:15 PM  was television prime time and President Fremont was before a crowd and several cameras, holding a stuffed doll chanting, ‘Envy is a reminder of who I can one day become.’ After the mantra, there were words put together and thrown at the crowd and cheers thrown back. There was then acknowledgement of Derek and the six other princes, their accomplishments, their ideals, their hard work. It was all very motivating to the people. Then each of the men, including Derek, took to the podium and gave a presentation on someone else who they believed took great strides this year in accomplishing achievement.

Finally Fremont took the podium back and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, what we are all waiting for is to hear who will be the seventy-eighth Solstice Queen. The Solstice Queen is savvy, goal-oriented, aware and dedicated to improving the lives of others. Displaying honorable characteristics such as these in her everyday life, both as an individual striding to achieve economic, personal and humanitarian goals, and as a woman who seeks to improve society and the world around her. The award is unprecedented and performing in the solstice celebration is an honor that should only be given to the best. So it is my honor and my privilege to announce that this year’s solstice queen is…” President Fremont opened an envelope, looked at the paper, looked back at Derek and smiled. Derek’s wished he was dreaming when he heard: “Darlene Mill!”


“I feel like I’m dreaming,” was the first thing that Darlene said to Derek when she returned from the press. She then said something about walking on clouds and started laughing. Derek tried to ask her a few questions about the preparation she had to do, and Darlene gave a satisfactory answer and showed no concerns. She then said she was exhausted and passed out. Derek watched her sleep and wanted nothing more than to shake her until her eyes opened but instead he paced around the living room and left to go see President Fremont.

President Fremont

FREMONT: Mr. Mill!

DEREK: Hey, look, I had a few questions about the performance.

FREMONT: You’ve got more experience than I do.

DEREK: Is there any way we could change the solstice queen?

FREMONT: Excuse me?

DEREK: Could we replace Darlene with a different solstice queen?

FREMONT: I don’t understand.

DEREK: Could the runner up be the solstice queen?

FREMONT: I get what you’re saying. I just don’t understand why you’re saying it. Is Darlene sick?

DEREK: No. But, uh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s good for her.

FREMONT: Does Darlene not want to do it? Why wouldn’t Darlene want to be a Solstice Queen. (Fremont Laughed).

DEREK: No she does, I just, I don’t want her to do it. I don’t think it’s good for her.

FREMONT: Derek, excuse me for saying this, but you sound incredibly selfish. The Solstice Queen is the highest honor, I don’t know why I’m even saying that, you know it. But even if she had the flu combined with food poisoning surely any woman would still accept the honor.

DEREK: It’s not good for her.

FREMONT: You are not the one to decide that Derek.

DEREK: I’ve given a lot to the performance and I should have some say in the decision.

FREMONT: Yesterday I saw Josephine Dawson, twenty-five years ago she was Solstice Queen.

DEREK: I know who she is.

FREMONT: You know what she told me? (Derek says nothing) She said it was the most meaningful experience of her life. She said she still replays the memory in her head every day.

DEREK: I know, I know, I know, It’s important. It’s selfish of me to not want her to do it. But I can’t help it, for some reason I do not want her to be the Solstice Queen. Now can you help me out? I’ve done a lot for you Ferris. I’ve done a lot. Can you give me this one fucking favor.

FREMONT: Look Derek, we’re practically family and for that reason I will not repeat any details of this conversation. But I would like for you to leave my office at once.


Derek watched the sleeping Darlene snore for forty-eight minutes. He felt like he was going to explode. He wanted to scream thousand of things but he knew that he must remain calm and subdued in order for the strategy to be effective.

The first strategy was to ask her how she felt about the whole thing. Did she feel exhausted? She said the excitement kept her running. She said that their adoration was fuel in her bones. Derek said that the exhaustion might be bad for her health but Darlene said even if it shortened her life by a year it would be well-worth it.

The second strategy was reminding her that it would bring a lot of attention into their personal lives. She said, “I know, isn’t it great.”

The third strategy was asking her if the whole event was making her nervous or if she had stage fright. She laughed thinking Derek was making a joke.

Derek had a fourth strategy but he became so wound up in frustration that he forgot what it was. When she was sleeping, his head was filled with only strategy but now he couldn’t find it. He sat there thinking of something to say but only said ‘Um’ and then the telephone rang. It was Darlene’s choreographer letting her know that she was waiting downstairs. Darlene gave Derek a kiss and ran off.

Derek wanted to strangle Darlene. He felt it was justified due to how she disregarded his wants. The logic of course can’t be translated into words, but as Derek paced the parameter of their bed, the logic was rock solid. The greater frustration was that there was nobody who would sympathize with him. He thought there must be someone who had felt this way. At least once a husband must have forbidden his wife from receiving this award.

So he searched the records and he found that four times in history, elected solstice queens declined the award and let someone else perform. Margo Ruth, Gwen Young, Brita Stillson and Penelope Glass. All of them claiming they couldn’t perform due to illness. But Derek thought otherwise, maybe there was a husband behind the curtain pulling the strings. He searched the internet for the names of their husbands. He found that all of them were dead (Cancer, Heart Attack, Cancer, Overdose). Derek said fuck many times. He searched the women and found that three of them were dead (Cancer, Cancer, Cancer). The only one living was Gwen Young. Derek called her and said they had to talk.


“Hello,” Derek said. Gwen replied with a ‘Nice to see you’. Gwen had blonde hair that was clearly dyed, Derek thought about why she would dye it instead of let it be grey. She was a wise old woman now not a young attractive thing, besides the blonde dye was visibly obvious, she wasn’t fooling anyone. But Gwen was cheerful despite her fabricated hair color and they talked and drank coffee and pretended they were friends. Finally Derek navigated to the object of interest.

“You were once elected solstice queen [but then you decline] is that correct?

(Derek is young and Gwen is old. Derek was respectful of this and treated her politely, however when attention is thin we must get the point across quickly.)

“Yes, [Why is it that you bring this up?] I was sick unfortunately, a great regret in my life.”

“I’m sure you were disappointed, [I can’t let my wife be solstice queen, it’s not good for her and it does something to our marriage, I can’t explain it. It’ll ruin us.] Did your husband support your decision.”

“Oh yes of course. [Let me show you pictures of my husband. He kept a journal, many ideas and theories about the society we live in today, how marriage should be. He wrote many books but they are all in the basement. They are locked and I cannot remember where the key is but if you answer this riddle you shall find it. [‘Riddle’]] My husband was always supportive.”

“The solstice queen is a great honor, [Answer to Riddle] I’m sure your husband was proud.”

[The walls begin to melt and Derek believes he might be a schizoid. He chants mantras to try and grasp hold of reality. When he calms himself he realizes that the walls are not melting and instead it is actually a hologram being projected out of Mrs. Young’s ears to make the walls appear as if melting. Derek surmises that Mrs. Young is a robot and the answer to the riddle must have cracked open her mainframe.]

[Mrs. Young’s tongue unravels out of her mouth and into Derek’s lap. Derek sees a zipper on the tip of her giant tongue. He unzips her tongue. Several thousand microchips fall out of her tongue and scatter across the carpet. Atop a pile of microchips is a silver key.]

[Derek picks up the key] and goes to the basement.


On the morning of the solstice Darlene awakes having not seen Derek in six days. She figured that it was a tradition similar to the groom not seeing the bride’s wedding dress and she wanted to confirm if this was so but didn’t want to risk sounding uninformed, and she was much too exhausted every night from practice to search it on the internet. She hoped that Derek was not nervous as he had so obviously demonstrated that he was when he asked her all those silly questions. It amazed her that such a prestigious man still felt nerves and she reminded herself that everyone is susceptible to insecurity, which of course she knew but seemed to always forget.

Darlene met with the choreographer and went over a few basic things, nothing remotely strenuous. She was a bit in denial that she was going to perform and she was aware of this. She told the choreographer that it felt like a dream. The choreographer said that Darlene was the best Queen’s she ever worked with and people were going to be amazed at her talent. Darlene knew that the choreographer said this to everyone every year but still said thank you.

The Night of The Solstice

Derek arrived just as he was supposed to. However he had missed a week of rehearsal, and been out of touch with everyone involved. But he was allowed to skip meetings and he was allowed to come late, he thought to himself. He was Derek Mill goddammit and he prayed for someone to challenge him, but nobody did. They didn’t care.

President Fremont was talking on stage as Darlene was in a green room meditating in silence and as Dale was teasing Burt about being nervous. Burt told him to shut up and go fuck himself and the only reason you are calling me nervous is because you’re nervous. So fuck off. Dale was a bit embarrassed but smiled instead and apologized. Told him that he would do great and so would everyone. Derek wasn’t listening.

Derek ran on stage.

When Fremont saw Derek he gave him a look a father would give a misbehaving son. But when the crowd saw Derek, they roared. “I have something to say!” Derek shouted, and no one heard because the only microphone was at Fremont’s lips. “Save your speech for after the celebration,” Fremont said. Derek walked over to the microphone and said, “I want to speak to my people.” The crowd roared and Fremont was pissed but had no choice.

“Hello everyone,” Derek said, the crowd cheered. “Before we celebrate the solstice I want to say something. Gwen Young was once elected to be the solstice queen. She declined. She said it was because of the flu. This was a lie.”

The crowd gasped and chatted amongst each other about who Gwen Young was.

“She lied because her husband did not want her to perform in the solstice celebration. See her husband saw the importance in marriage and recognized that our values and ideas are backwards. We’ve become obsessed with progress. Obsessed with doing what makes sense but truly what we think makes sense doesn’t make sense. In Mr. Young’s writings I found many poems about love and essays about importance of staying with one another, I read about how the two of them were going to forfeit everything they had and run away with each other just to be together. He would have her and she would have him and that’s all that they needed. And I read that Mr. Young speculated that nobody could understand his logic because the hemisphere of thought had broken off from love when the god Harotha who lived before time had molested the sand beaches of Naragatha. Harotha was a bastard god and belonged to burn in a separate dimensional vortex. But because of him we are stuck in this chaotic nonsense world, where we can’t control what we love. So Mr. Young set out to destroy Harotha, he found the evil god and he even took pictures. But now that I’ve seen the source of evil in the photos of Harotha I no longer want my wife to perform in the solstice celebration, I’m free and I’m disqualifying my wife and removing her participation. It is my right as her husband, I can recognize this now and you will too once you see the photos of Harotha. Look! Look at the photos!”

Derek reached into his pants and grabbed what he thought were the photos of Harotha. He held them above his head for people to see. What people saw was Derek holding a handful of hair that was obviously grey but dyed blonde. Derek looked at the hair and saw it too. It was then that he realized he was in fact schizoid and he most certainly murdered Gwen Young and hid the corpse in her basement. Derek said fuck many times and was arrested.

The celebration still had to go on and Darlene was still the elected Solstice Queen, for this reason the staff decided it was best not to inform Darlene of her husband’s actions. They did however interrupt her silent meditation to tell her that her husband became very ill and could not participate. Darlene thought maybe he got stage fright. She was upset that he would not share this moment with her and felt a bit like crying but pulled it together and reminded herself about her responsibility to perform.

Meanwhile a politician named Joseph Thornwood was backstage well prepared just in case a freak accident like this occurred. He stepped in with great honor and took Derek’s place. The other six men were chatting about Derek’s incident and arguing about the meaning of what just happened. Burt, however, was not taking part in the gossip, his head was elsewhere. “Dale,” Burt said. “I am nervous.”

“Do you want a blue one?” Dale said.

“Do you have one?” Burt asked.

“Richard’s got a couple. We’re all nervous.”

Burt smiled as a thank you.

“Dick!” Dale shouted to Mr. Coin, “Dick! Burt’s nervous, you got another viagra?”

Richard Coin said he did and tossed it to Burt. Burt swallowed it. He was ready to perform and perform he did along with the other six men they showed the public exactly what they wanted to see and when they finished, just as it happens every year, Satan ascended from the Solstice Queen’s uterus and gave a rousing speech about the importance of being cooperative instead of competitive and how the senior teaching benefits are really the same thing as giving away tenure and that we should remember the importance of using incentives to stimulate an ambition to be an effective teacher as education should be the number one priority.

Derek watched the speech from the jail cell as psychologists tried to determine what was wrong with him. Derek envied the seven men on television and knew that he would never get a chance to be in the celebration again.

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A Chilling Affair by Nathan Elwood

Mar 27 2016

It was one of the warmer summers in recent memory the year Lord Raxby was murdered; by late July of 1891 old London Town had only received a few inches of snow through the entire season.

I was lying near the Heartstone of my shared abode when our client arrived that day in early August, enjoying the stone’s emanating warmth and dreaming idly of the balmy conditions of the continent, experienced during my military service some years past. At the sound of approach my ears perked up at once, and I quickly rose from my position.

Sitting nearby upon his favorite recliner was my human companion, Absalom Hume, who I noticed was folding his paper.

“Easy, Winston,” he said. “No need to be suspicious of our guest so quickly, especially when you haven’t even seen the young man yet.”

I let out a low growl. “Suspicion is my business, Hume, as detection is yours. Allow me to keep to my nature as I allow you to keep to your own.”

“Of course. My apologies, old friend. Good dog.” Hume smiled then, just a tad bit more smugly than I should have preferred. Unlike most humans however, his smugness was very nearly deserved. I was already somewhat irked that he had detected the approaching interloper as early as I myself had, but I was baffled at how he could have determined that the visitor was a young man when even I could not yet smell him. As a bulldog, I certainly do not have the olfactory ability of some hounds I have known, but I should dare say that I am better-equipped than any hairless ape.

Seeming to sense and acquiesce to my annoyance, Absalom Hume ventured for my opinion. “Tell me about him,” he asked. I took a sniff of the air. “You were right, definitely male. Smells like… nice leather. Inexpensive cologne.”

“A servant, then,” Absalom said. “His wardrobe and footwear provided by his benefactor, the cologne a personal affectation. Care to make a wager?” “Five crown,” I growled. Devil-take me for a fool, but I can never refuse a gentleman’s wager.

A shadow came under the door as the young interloper reached it. I positioned myself nearby to greet our guest as he knocked. “Enter” Absalom said. There was a pause, a momentary hesitation before the door slowly creaked open. The young man entered cautiously, his eyes down. From his demeanor and the hundreds of smells that I could now perceive off him I knew that my companion was right about his occupation, and that I was down another five crown. My inheritance was shrinking dramatically as a result of my friendship with Mr. Hume.

The boy looked up, past me and straight at Absalom. He was well attired, but conservatively. He had a weak chin, and light hair. Consulting Absalom later, I was informed more specifically that the hair’s color was “sandy blonde,” and that his eyes were dark green. He introduced himself, only addressing Absalom, stating that he was “Henry Cooper, First Footman of the House of Raxby.”

Absalom returned the introductions cooly. “I am Absalom Hume, consulting detective. My companion,” he gestured down to me “Is Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley of Her Majesty’s Colonial Brigades.”

The boy started, only now noticing me after perceiving me to be a ranked member of Her Majesty’s Service. “P-pleasure to meet you, Leuftenant Winston,” he stammered out. “I am-am at your service, naturally.”

While the disregard of Canids among the upper class and their livery will always be a source of some annoyance, I rarely let it openly affect me the way my companion does. Bulldogs like myself are, if nothing else, resilient. I decided it would make things far easier if at least one of the two gentlemen in the room could play the host.

“Of course, my good man,” I said. “Why don’t you take a seat and tell us what brings you here on such a fine day?”

“I’m afraid I shall not have time, sir.” He looked back to Absalom. “I must request your presence at the Raxby estates at once.” He fished into his coat pocket and withdrew a letter. Absalom reached him in two long strides and snatched the letter from his hands. In no time at all it was read, crumpled, and tossed into a nearby wastebin. While Henry Cooper began to stammer, Mr. Hume was already donning his coat.

“Come Winston,” he said. “It appears there has been a murder.”


As we bumped along in the coach of the carriage that young Mr. Cooper had arrived in, Absalom again seemed again to sense my annoyance.

“What is it Winston? I understand your reticence to seem joyful at a murder, but usually the prospect of our adventures gets at least a slight twitch in your tail.”

I sighed. Stubbornness is something my breed is known for, but Absalom is my friend, and I didn’t wish to maintain bad blood between us. “I don’t like being instructed in the manner you did before,” I said. “‘Come Winston.’”

He paused, staring at the wall of the enclosed carriage. He turned to me. “I’m sorry, old man. I forget at times how recently Canids became true citizens of the Crown. I have never sought to treat you as anything less than my equal.”

There were few under the entirety of the Her Majesty’s dominion that I believed Absalom truly saw as his equal, but I appreciated the sentiment of his apology. I decided it best to simply continue on with the mission at hand. “Tell me about this murder, Hume. Why were we notified by that servant, rather than the police? Why in the form of a letter?”

“The letter was sent as it transmits the necessary information of the case far more efficiently than that stammering young man could ever hope to. As to why the boy was sent at all, I imagine the Home Office would like to prevent rumors getting out of a constable travelling from the home of a well-known Deeist to the apartments of London Town’s consulting detective.”

My ears, flopped over as they were, perked up to the degree they could. I had no idea that Lord Raxby was one of the elite scholars who followed in the footsteps of the great magician John Dee. It was their order that staved off the curse left over by the death of the last Ice Dragon in 17th century.

“Since it is the Deeists that maintain the spells that make Londinium habitable, as opposed to the frozen wasteland that is the rest of the island of Albion, any time a Deeist passes from this life is a cause for considerable worry for the Crown. I imagine they’ll have sent a high ranking officer from Whitehall Place. Someone who would know Lord Raxby outside the context of an investigative matter. Sir Lawrence Eardsley, or Chief Inspector Christie, I should wager. She always delights to be assigned to such grisly affairs, and has many connections amongst the nobility.”

We arrived at the Raxby Estate just past noon, as it was outside old London Town entirely, and on the edges of Londinium itself. We were escorted inside by Footman Cooper, where we were greeted by the butler, an impressively tall, thin man with grey hair and dark eyes. He introduced himself as Mr. Bellamy. I noted a similar set of smells from him as from Mr. Cooper, with some distinct variations. Clearly a member of the serving class, but evidently rewarded for his service far more handsomely than the footman. As he directed us to the parlor, I noticed how cold it was in the building. Though I do not believe that I let loose a perceptible shiver, my companion seemed, as he often does, to read my thoughts.

“Mr. Bellamy, has the Heartstone of this home gone out?” Absalom asked the butler.

“Our Heartstone was maintained personally by Lord Raxby, and heated not only this home but the neighboring servants’ quarters as well. It grew cold shortly after he passed away.”

“I presume you were the one who found his body?”

“No, that was the maid, Ms. Smith. She discovered Lord Raxby early this morning while dusting. Naturally I was immediately informed, and the authorities contacted.”

The butler opened the door to the parlor, and bowed to us as we stepped through. “Sirs,” he said.

There, waiting on the other side, was a bald man with a particularly impressive mustache. Though not tall, and in middle age, he exuded an air of strength. I immediately recognized a fellow member of the Her Majesty’s Service. Though it would be impossible to notice for any human (or even for most Canids not familiar with the man), I registered a sense of shock from Absalom by the unexpectedness of this figure. I should have taken his earlier wager, I deduced.

“Good day, gentlemen,” the man began. “I am-”

“Major General Henry Brackenbury” finished Absalom. “Director of Military Intelligence.” Now I understood his shock. The man before us was a hero of multiple campaigns abroad, and one of the most powerful men in Albion.

Brackenbury nodded. “And you are Absalom Hume, Consulting Detective.” He looked to me. “And Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley. Leuftenant, I’ve read your works on the campaigns of the Fighting Dog units in the Boar Wars. Your writings are as exemplary as your own service record.”

“Thank you, Major General, sir.” I sincerely hoped my stub of a tail was not wagging behind me.

“I suppose the two of you are wondering why I am here.”

“It certainly came as something of an initial shock,” Absalom Hume said. “But I can only surmise that when he passed that Lord Edward Raxby was at work on a project deemed of military importance, and that the Crown suspects the possibility of assassination.”

The Major General looked hard at Hume. I imagined he was not a man at all used to being interrupted at all, much less twice within mere moments. Nevertheless, he did not reprimand Absalom.

“Your summations are correct, I’m afraid. Unfortunately I am not at liberty to divulge the nature of Lord Raxby’s work, but know this, Mister Hume. Edward Raxy was a personal acquaintance of both myself and Commander-in-Chief Wolseley. Though there is little reason as yet to suspect foul play, we would like to be absolutely certain of all matters that pertain to this tragedy.”

“Of course, of course,” Absalom said. “Tell me, may we see the victim?”

Major General Brackenbury informed us that we may, and Mr. Cooper was summoned to the parlor to escort the three of us.

As we walked, Absalom began to lightly probe into the matter at hand. “Tell me, does Lord Raxby have family?” Brackenbury responded. “The Lady Raxby passed away nearly four years ago. She and Lord Raxby had two sons, both living abroad at the moment.”

Absalom nodded. Presently we arrived at the quarters of Lord Raxby. Escorted in, we saw the body, laid out on the bed, fully attired, his hands stretched out at his side. He was clearly an older gentleman, though he looked to be of good health. His skin was, however, extremely pale. I did not know if this was from the cold, his passing, or a natural effect of the reclusive habits of mages.

No obvious damage to the body could be discerned. Above and to my left, I heard Absalom let out a small snort, breathing out through his nostrils. A minor tic I had documented of my friend, audible only in moments of extreme frustration.

“Why,” he asked, “was the body moved from the location it was found in? On whose authority was this done?”

Brackenbury stared at him again. “Mister Hume, have a care how you speak. As I told you, this man was a friend of mine. I would not allow him the indignity of lying on the floor of his study.”

“Never mind the contamination of the data!” cried Absalom. He whirled to face Henry Cooper. “The body is useless to me. Young man, escort me to this study.” Brackenbury seemed ready to have Absalom drawn and quartered. If the man had possessed hackles, they most certainly would have been up.

“Now see here,” he said. “Lord Raxby very well may have died under perfectly natural causes. I see no reason not to respect the dead.”

“Major General Brackenbury, with all due respect, if you believed at all that he had died naturally, you would not have brought me. Again, I must see the study.”


The study in question was, for one of my somewhat limited means and rather pedestrian education, a wonder. Shelves of books lined the walls, which climbed up nearly 14 feet in the air. Many of the books were mighty tomes; some I imagined likely weighed nearly what I do!

At the far end was Lord Raxby’s desk, covered in sheaves of paper, some of which had fallen to the ground. The chair was tipped over onto the ground, and a few of the fallen pages had formed an odd halo around it.

Absalom dismissed the footman and set to his work, making quick, minute observations of every inch of the room. He approached the desk, but was halted by a throat-clearing from Brackenbury.

“Mr. Hume,” he said. “Some of the items Lord Raxby was likely working on could be of a… sensitive nature to the Crown. I am not sure I can permit you to examine them.”

I could see Absalom open his mouth, about to say something that would undoubtedly get him into trouble. As he had risen to my defense earlier, I decided I would do the same for him now.

“Major General, sir,” I began. Absalom closed his mouth. “Though he may be at times… unorthodox, I can assure you that few possess the loyalty to Albion and level of discretion of my friend Hume. I can promise you that no element of this case shall ever see publication, and that not even I shall be made aware of whatever Mr. Hume reads in those notes. For this, you have my word as a soldier of the Crown. But I am familiar with my friend’s methods, and inspection of every detail, undisturbed, is paramount.”

Major General Brackenbury seemed to size me up then. Admittedly, at only three feet tall there wasn’t entirely much to size, but he seemed to be satisfied. He nodded to Absalom.

I might have saved myself the effort, for after only a few minutes of examination, Absalom promptly announced “I can find nothing!” I’m told that I and the rest of my breed have a naturally dour expression, even when we are perfectly content. I cannot imagine what my face must have looked like in that moment.

He approached Brackenbury and myself as I hung my head, wondering if all my military honors would be summarily stripped from me for this embarrassment. Absalom continued. “That is, I have determined from his notes and correspondence that he had a great many reasons to fear assassination, and his death was quite sudden. It seems it took him right in the middle of a sentence. But I cannot find any physical evidence of an attack on him. No remnants of food that may have been poisoned, no items he may have pricked himself on, no arsenic dust, and none of the characteristic sulfur smell of malicious magic. At least, not so far that I can detect. Perhaps a gifted sorcerer could disguise such a scent to some degree. Winston?”

I looked up. I supposed it was possible, after all. I breathed in deeply, absorbing the thousands of odors of the room. “No…” I said. “No sulfur.” I frowned even deeper and padded toward the desk. There was… something odd, however.  A smell that seemed out of place, something I seemed to remember from…


Absalom rushed to my side and knelt down, putting us at eye level. “Winston old man, what did you say?”

“I thought perhaps I was mistaken, but there is a slight scent in the room of almonds, a type of nut that only grows in the East. I encountered them there during my service in the Boar Wars.”

Absalom grinned, clapping me on the shoulder and giving me a slight scratch behind the ears as he rushed to the desk. From the top of it he grabbed a capped bottle of ink and darted back to me.

“Mr. Hume,” cried Brackenbury, “what is the meaning of this?” Absalom ignored him entirely. He uncapped the bottle and held it approximately a foot from my snout. “Winston,” he said, “I need to be absolutely sure. Is this what you smelled?”

I breathed in. “Yes,” I told him. “The ink smells of almonds.” Absalom capped the ink, turned to Brackenbury, and said, “Sir, I can confirm it; Lord Edward Raxby was murdered. If you could be so kind as to assemble the house staff in the parlor below, I believe we can resolve this matter.”


In the parlor, the small staff had been collected. There was Mr. Bellamy, Mr. Cooper, another footman, the maid, and the cook. All seemed perplexed at their being brought before us. Absalom paced slowly in front of them.

“As you all know, Lord Raxby left this world sometime this morning. There is no evidence of foul play, and for all intents and purposes it seems as though the patron of this house was victim to a heart condition or similar ailment. An autopsy would likely reveal more.”

The maid, a young woman, no more than 20 at the latest, let out a small gasp of shock. Absalom continued. “Luckily, none shall be necessary.” He turned to Major General Brackenbury. “From the many, many pages on his desk, it was easy to determine that Lord Raxby maintained a prodigious correspondence. Can this be confirmed?”

Brackenbury nodded. “I received letters from him daily, and I do not believe that I was the only one.” Absalom turned to the servants, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” said Henry Cooper. “L-lord Raxby spent nearly three hours each day writing.” Absalom gave him a small, grim smile.

“I suspected as much. Any of the house would have known this, and likely would have known that Lord Raxby had, I believe, a rather common habit of touching the tip of his pen to his tongue before each new page. Mr. Cooper, can you confirm such a habit?”

The boy looked about nervously, but found no assistance from his fellows. “I-I… It m-might be that I’ve seen him do such a thing, yes.”

Absalom pulled his gaze from the young man, whose shoulder slumped as if he’d been suddenly released from a binding spell.

Absalom reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the bottle of ink. “That is why,” he said, “the killer decided to poison not his food, which would have been entirely too obvious, but rather his ink.” He addressed Brackenbury directly. “Cyanide, you see, is a unique poison, very hard to detect once it has worked its effects. But it is often discernible from its scent, which greatly resembles the plant from which it originates: Almonds. I have published a light monograph on how to discern commonly used lethal chemicals, Major-General. I’m surprised it hasn’t been distributed amongst the intelligence services. In any case, this ink was the tool of the killer, and I believe that will be corroborated by the chemists as Whitehall Place.”

Brackenbury fixed his eyes on Absalom’s. “But who is the killer, Mr. Hume?”

“It would have to be a member of the staff, someone with access to the ink. Unfortunately, that could be any one of them. However, there is a detail of one of them that I picked up as we entered. I’m certain my osmatic companion Winston would have noticed it even more readily than I.”

I looked up, recalling my initial impression of the Butler as being far better-off than I initially attribute to members of the servant class. “Mr. Bellamy’s cologne. It’s of a far more expensive variety than Mr. Cooper’s, or even that which Absalom could afford.”

We all turned to the butler. “What’s more,” Absalom said, “his gloves are of a particularly warm make. All the servants of this home were uniformly attired by their employer, but he is the only one wearing such gloves. Almost as if he knew that the house would shortly grow very cold. He must have recently come into money, to afford so many nice things.”

Suddenly, Mr. Bellamy shoved Henry Cooper and made a break for the door. Unfortunately for him, I was after him in a shot. I may be older than I was when I fought the Boars of the East, but I dare say I am still more than a match for a household servant. I tackled him at the knees in a lunge, bringing him to the floor. In mere seconds, the footmen of the house were down to the ground as well, holding Mr. Bellamy there. I found Absalom at my side again. “Good man,” he said. “Good man.”


Hours later, back in our apartments, I had resumed my place by the Heartstone, though I found it for more difficult to relax than I had that morning. Absalom, as he often does at the conclusion of a case, seemed similarly restless, and was busying himself by practicing throwing cards in a corner of the room.

“This isn’t the end of it,” he said abruptly.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “The killer has been arrested, and we have both of us entered the good graces of the head of Military Intelligence. I should say this is a satisfactory conclusion, Hume.”

“We apprehended the killer, yes, but we still don’t know the why of it all. Who paid him? It may be determined under the questioning of Military Intelligence, but at the very least we have confirmed that this was indeed an organized attack against Lord Raxby. For all we know, all of the other Deeists of the kingdom are at risk. Winston, I feel as though a much greater game is at play, and we have only witnessed the first move.”

He turned back to his card throwing, and I padded my way to the window. Outside, snow clouds had begun to form above the city. So much for my warm summer, I thought.


Nathan Elwood is a student of Library Science at the University of Missouri. He has been recently published in Aurora Wolf, Devilfish Review, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine. His interests include writing and craft beers, and he has an unfortunate habit of combining the two.

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