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Divide and Conquer Volume One, Page 1

Foil and Phaser

Divide and Conquer Volume One

  Sean Sandulak, Editor

  A Shift in the World – Copyright 2014 Heather Baver

  The Survivor – Copyright 2014 Jacob Lawrence

  The Pet Salesman – Copyright 2014 Cory Martinson

  Crossed – Copyright 2014 Denise Winters

  Prophecy? No Thank You – Copyright 2014 Sean Sandulak

  The Heaven Gate – Copyright 2014 Jon Jefferson

  AD EYES – Copyright 2014 Gord McLeod

  A New World – Copyright 2014 Lou Gagliardi

  Nothing Special – Copyright 2014 Sophie Anderson

  The Dragon, Nitusomin – Copyright 2014 D. Bryant

  All titles used by permission

  ISBN 9781311214522



  A Shift in the World

  The Survivor

  The Pet Salesman


  Prophecy? No Thank You.

  The Heaven Gate


  A New World

  Nothing Special

  The Dragon Nitusomin



  by Sean Sandulak

  In early 2013, the Sword & Laser book club and podcast announced that they were taking submissions for a short story anthology. On the group’s Goodreads forums, a discussion began about what could be done with all the entries which wouldn’t make the cut. A community blog, where authors could submit their writing and have it read and critiqued by their peers, was suggested by me as a solution for some those stories that didn't make the cut. The site, Foil & Phaser, is intended to be an opportunity for developing artists to hone their skills and network with other writers and readers.

  This collection of short stories is the product of a workshop where a group of authors collectively tried to complete the 2013 National Novel Writing Month challenge of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. The goal was to have the group submit their stories, and then they would peer edit to critique and offer suggestions to improve their writing. As a reward for their efforts, the finished stories were gathered into this volume to be published online.

  While ultimately we didn’t meet our goal of completing NaNoWriMo, we managed to get over 38,000 words down which is an accomplishment in itself. Foil & Phaser will continue to offer online writers workshops for beginning to intermediate skilled authors, so look for more of these volumes in the future.

  Visit us at

  These stories may contain coarse language and content intended for a mature audience. Discretion is advised.

  A Shift in the World

  by Heather Baver

  Evenings, after dinner time, were the worst. Most of the retirement community was “plugged in” in the lounge. An electronic bingo game was in progress in the back corner. A tall, silver-haired man presided, his wife by his side. Two rows of boisterous participants hunched over their screens, knobby fingers sweeping to mark the board each time a letter and number combination was called.

  Anna paced the lounge, sneakers softly padding the carpet. Hush, hush. The tennis balls on the back of her walker whispered against the short-pile carpet. Her left leg dragged behind every few steps, making its own protest. She frowned down at it as though it were a naughty child.

  Big puffy armchairs and sofa held counsel around an electronic fireplace in the center of the room. Tonight these were filled with an assortment of gray-haired men and women, their e-readers cradled tightly in their hands. Anna could see the reflections of the screens in their curved glasses. She walked on, half-tempted to go back to her own apartment. In an empty corner she stopped and reached into a deep pocket of her sweater. Her bent fingers caressed the cool object nestled within the fuzzy blue knit. Anna shook her head and pressed on for one more lap around the lounge. Then she headed down the dim corridor past the elevator.

  Anna hated the noise of the silence within her dim apartment. She opened the door and inhaled slowly, looking in the darkness for the faint sounds of neighbors on the wind. Sometimes she could hear a few dampened voices through the thin walls. Some of the residents liked to chat online with children in their own apartments, rather than in the lounge. It was more private that way.

  Anna exhaled with a sigh and wished for someone to call, but the only remnants of her family were a few cousins even older than she. With clicks of knobs and grasps of pull chains, she turned on every lamp in the living room. Then she proceeded to the bathroom. Down the hall of brushed navy carpet to the bedroom. Shhh. Shh, the walker whispered, as if it were trying to tell her to slow down. Anna pushed the silver frame into a soft corner by the window. She pressed her ear to the wall by the dark, carved wood of the headboard.

  ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

  Anna jumped back from the gray cream wall, her ear burning. The sound of metal biting metal ripped into her ears.

  No, George. Her lips moved silently against the smooth paint. Anna pressed her hands up and down the wall, searching for a heartbeat. Her ear journeyed along, only to hear some faint buzzes deep in the insulation and Clarence’s daughter asking him about what he had eaten for dinner that night.

  With shuffling steps, Anna reached out for her walker and glided into the hall. She stopped at the kitchen sink for a glass of water.

  ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

  Fainter this time, the sounds were muted by the splash and gurgle of water dancing against the stainless steel sink. Anna rested her knotted hands against the glossy countertop.

  No, George.

  ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

  Why did you have to, George? Couldn’t there have been some OTHER way?

  ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Thump.

  Anna’s shaking finger punched the start button of the dishwasher. She took a deep breath and held it, the air pushing against the hearing aids tucked in her ears. She exhaled, the air curling away from her trembling lips. Only a few glasses and plates jumped under the spray of water in the dishwasher, but it was enough to blot out any other sounds.

  Reaching inside her sweater pocket, she gave it a squeeze. The metal pressed cool waves against her sweating fingertips. They embraced for a few seconds. Anna slid her hand out of her pocket and reached for the buttery brass door handle. She pushed the door open into the dim hallway and followed behind her walker. The lights in the apartment cast weak beams of light into the gray night. With her good right leg, Anna pushed the door. It closed with a muffled click. She padded down the hall to the elevator.

  The elevator doors slid open as Anna glided past them. She turned right to go back to the lounge. Her left leg began to drag, pleading that she stop, turn back to her apartment. She looked down at it, encased in the thin worn jeans, so tired. No, I’m not turning back now. Come on. Come ON! With a jolt, she propelled herself forward, and the silver walker plowed right into a young girl.

  “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Anna felt the heat surrounding her face, the wrinkles burning hot trails along her cheeks. She looked into the young girl’s glittering brown eyes, the pink-red mouth open and startled.

  To her horror, Anna heard a dull thud at her feet. She could almost see a smooth, rounded object spinning across the carpet and hiding in its tangled floral forest. Her fingers clutched empty air inside the blue sweater cave.

  “Good evening.” The young girl smiled, remembering her training.

  “Good evening.” Anna forced herself to look at the young girl’s eyes. Talk to her. Distract her with words. You can look over every inch of this abominable carpet after she’s gone. On your hands and knees, if
necessary. “So clumsy of me,” she continued, picking up the stitch of conversation. I should have been looking where I was going.”

  “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” The young brown eyes bounced around the hallway.

  “You work in the restaurant, don’t you? I think you have waited on my table?” Anna looked for the girl’s name tag, but it was hidden under a worn olive drab jacket.

  “Yes. I’m Kat. My nametag says Katrina, but everyone calls me Kat.” The curly dark eyelashes flickered, scanning the hallway. “Aha! Found it!” Kat walked over to a corner of the hall and reached under a dusty fake plant. She picked up a dull metal ball. Her pink fingertips scampered over the cloudy metal. “Hey, this is a—”

  “Please. Give that back to me.” Anna spoke in a hushed whisper. Keep calm. Don’t sound like a crazy old lady. She took a deep breath and continued. “Thank you for finding that, Kat.” Anna held out her hand, the warped fingers trembling.

  Kat held the metal ball up to the flickering fluorescent light. One of her soft fingertips traced the pattern etched in black. R-1-3-5 and down to the second row: 2-4. She handed it back to Anna. “Cool shifter knob.”

  “How did you know?” Anna’s white brows flickered with surprise. “And keep your voice low, please.” She looked up and down the dark hallway. “Even though most people around here don’t hear well,” she added with a smile. Anna gave the cold metal knob a squeeze, feeling it warm up in her hand. Then she tucked it deep into her pocket.

  “My Gramp.” Kat tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “He used to draw pictures for me and my sister when we were little. He loved to draw cars best. But my mom was always hiding the drawings away. I once heard her tell my dad that she should have burned them up, but she couldn’t do that to Gramp. So she’d put the drawings up on a high shelf at the back of the closet. My sister and I would sneak up there sometimes and look at the car pictures.”

  “I wish I had known your grandfather. He doesn’t happen to live here by any chance?”

  “No, he took a cross-country transport a long time ago. I think I was about nine when he left.” Kat shook her glossy black ponytail. “And he refuses to be ‘plugged-in.’ We do write letters back and forth, but it takes a long time.”

  Anna sighed. “Now I really do wish I knew your grandfather. He sounds like a kindred spirit.” She glanced down at the digital clock glowing on Kat’s arm. “It’s getting late. Your mother will be worried.”

  “No, sometimes I stay late and help wash dishes in the kitchen. When we’re short handed.”

  “Well, in any case, we can’t stand around in the open talking about this anymore.” Anna’s fingers gripped the silver handles of her walker. She extended one hand, her dry white fingers closed around Kat’s warm pink ones. “Thank you for helping me. If you ever want to talk more, come visit me sometime.” Without looking back, Anna shuffled down the hallway to her apartment. Shh. Shhh. The walker whispered on the thin carpet. Behind her, she heard the door to the outside open and then close with a sigh of cold breath.

  Anna opened her own door and looked around at the glowing lights. Silence covered the walls and the cold spaces between windows and thick curtains. She sat down on the couch, thinking of the sparkle in young Kat’s eyes. Like metal flake paint on a street rod of old. She lay back against the velvet blue couch and looked over at the lamps winking back at her. Again she breathed in the silence. No neighbors could be heard. They must all be in the lounge, asleep, or possibly reading. Anna looked at the large bookshelf covering the wall across from her couch. Maybe somebody out there was turning paper pages instead being washed in the blue light of an e-reader. Anna sighed and felt her hands relax. Her eyes slid closed, and a blanket of memories covered her.

  “It’s over, Anna. I’m sorry.” George stood behind her, his hands stroking her shoulders. The grease blackened tips of his fingers made swirling patterns on her lilac shirt.

  “No, George.” She paused, touching the words with her tongue. “No.”

  “We knew this day was coming. It was only a matter of when.”

  “It doesn’t make it easier.” Anna leaned her head back, feeling the crisp field of her husband’s beard. Her car’s round headlights blinked at her in the sun. A few red curled leaves floated down to kiss its lemon paint. The square-jawed plastic bumper gave her a shy smile. The car still looked hopeful, feeling the dust and driveway pebbles beneath its tires. It knew no past or future. Just an unending present. A road that stretched and curved, stopped, waited, and stretched some more.

  “No more?” Anna shook her head, the skin creasing between her chestnut eyebrows. The day that never should have come was here.

  “They are coming tomorrow morning. I just got the call. The car must be disassembled and ready for recycling when they get here.” George sighed, his face burrowing into Anna’s hair.

  Pushing away from him, Anna spun around. “Why? They should do it themselves then. If they’re in such a hurry.” She looked over at her smiling car, waiting patiently in the driveway, unaware of the black words swarming on the horizon. Fingers of tears began stretching and closing around her throat.

  “We’re lucky, actually.” George stepped away and patted the car’s golden fender.

  “Lucky?” Anna’s tight throat could barely squeeze out the word.

  “Because we live in such a remote location. Everyone else had to turn their cars in at dismantling centers in the bigger cities and towns. Months ago. Years ago, in some cases.” George sighed again. He pulled Anna into his arms and they both leaned up against the warm metal door.

  “But how can we just give up? Like this? I can’t believe you don’t want to fight back.” She looked down through the dusty window at the black steering wheel.

  “I do, Anna. Believe me, I do. I’ve spent many nights sitting out on the porch in the middle of the night. Thinking. Making plans. Tossing them back. Making new plans.”

  “We could just get in the car and start driving. Run away.”

  “There’s nowhere left to run to. This is it. We’ve got the last gasoline pump in the county. And it’s almost empty. And what about spare parts? Tires? Oil?”

  “Okay. Okay. I don’t want to hear anymore.” The tears pushed up and up and began spilling out of her eyes.

  “Hey. Hey.” George held her tight, his blackened fingertips wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I don’t have to start right now. I’ll wait until after dinner. Why don’t you go for one last drive?”

  Anna found her hands gripping the silver door handle. She brushed past George with a half-embrace and fell into the waiting arms of the worn, black seats. The engine cleared its throat with a growl. Anna pushed the accelerator, scattering stones in the gravel drive. She turned and twisted up the farm paths, not sure where to go.

  She slowed down as the path became narrower, her hands dancing over the steering wheel. The remaining leaves of the trees above made freckled patterns on the dashboard of her car.

  After tonight it would all be different. They would walk to town during the daytime, and take a public transport if they wanted to go farther. Bikes and skateboards were permitted, but few people wanted to use them. They were a lot safer now, though, now that the roads were nearly deserted. Most people in town didn’t care to go anywhere anyway. They could sit in front of the big screens in their homes and video-call instead of visit, or order food supplies and have them delivered on the next big transport.

  The trees lifted their heads away, and she came to an open section of the path. The paved road was just ahead. Lifting her left foot, she pressed the clutch to the floor. Under her right hand, the shift knob pressed warm, polished metal to her palm, kissing the map of lines on her skin. She shifted up, her left foot slowly floating up as her right foot drifted down to press the gas. The car galloped forward, tires outstretched, ready to embrace the road. Again Anna’s feet and right hand went through the movements of the dance. She shifted up another gear. They leaped onto t
he road. Anna could hear the delighted cries of the engine as it spun faster, faster, wait—still faster…then release. Float, down with the clutch, and slide into the last gear. Anna put both hands on the wheel. The curves of the road came running to meet them like eager children.

  It had always been that way: the road, the car, her body, hands and feet inside, all parts of the dance. There had been fuel shortages, wars, but life continued, wheels spinning away the months and years. Sure, she knew that eventually the world would use all the oil. But not yet.

  Then they lost the war. So simple to say in so few words. Two years ago she heard things would change. But she did not believe. No, not yet.

  ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ. Pound. Pound. Clang! ZzzzzzzzZZZZZ.

  Too soon the darkness came, and the little car was parked for the final time. Anna stood at the kitchen sink, burying her hands in the dishwater. She turned on the sprayer to mute the sounds of George working in the garage below.

  The little yellow car, glowing like a firefly under the swinging fluorescent lights of the garage ceiling. With a hacksaw, George slicing the lemon paint skin, cutting, pulling, tearing—No. No. She had to block out the sounds. Anna dried her hands on a dishtowel. She turned on the TV in the living room. Walking down the hall, she climbed into bed in the back bedroom. Piling pillows and blankets over top of her shaking body, Anna closed her eyes.

  The last cries of the car pleaded on thick, moist air. The vibrations of death shook and rumbled beneath her.

  In the morning she opened her eyes to the motionless pattern of flowers on the sheet over her head. She waited, breathing the silence, watching the sun march along the floor. Hours slid along the polished wood, up onto the fluffy white rug, and up the dark wood of the dresser. A metallic gleam pricked at Anna’s eyes. There in the middle of the dresser, between the cranberry glass of her Grandmother’s lamps, lay the silvery polished shifter knob from her car. She pushed her cramped legs across the room and picked it up, her fingers trembling. As she held the little knob in her cupped hands, Anna heard a faint plastic buzz outside. She bowed her head and traced the black engraved gear pattern on the knob:

  R-1…She heard George’s voice answered by a low rumble.

  1-3…a thick metal scraping sound as the workers loaded up their prey. She hoped George did not have to help them.

  3-5…the click of the electric jaws, chewing, chewing, chewing. That’s what they did with tires and seats, or so she’d been told.

  2-4…the thunder of air being forced out as the recycling truck closed its giant mouth.

  “That everything?”

  “Yes, that’s it.” George answered, his voice warm, steady.

  “We got it all?”

  “Yes. All taken care of.” George’s voice slid over her hands. Anna tucked the shifter knob deep into her pocket. The ghost of a smile echoed around her eyes.

  Anna opened her eyes. The clock on the wall ticked softly murmuring to the gears behind its creamy face. Ten minutes after midnight. She swayed to the brass music of the pendulum. It played alone in the silence. Everyone in the retirement community would be asleep by now. Her wrinkled hand slid off the couch arm and into her sweater pocket. She took out the shifter knob. The polished metal winked at her in the lamplight.

  “Thank you, George. You did what you could, my love.” Anna pushed herself up from the couch and into the arms of her walker. Shh. Shh. She pushed herself over the ocean of navy blue carpet and over to the window. Parting the thick curtains, she pressed her hand to the cold glass. By the light of the moon and stars, far below the tall apartment building, she could see it, a dim outline curving away in the dark. The old highway. The concrete sides looked like bleached bones. The road between, a yawning canyon full of bottomless black, slumbering. Only an occasional transport floated over it now. Somewhere, far at the other end of that sleeping creature, lay Kat’s grandfather. Did he still dream? Did he still draw?

  Anna sat down at her desk in the corner of the room and began to write a letter.

  The Survivor

  by Jacob Lawrence (Writing as Henry Jakubs)

  Fires raged all around him, the smoke drifting out onto the streets, enshrouding the lone man as he blindly made his way through the ruined city. Cautiously, he stepped over rubble, downed power lines, and whatever else had found itself on the smoldering asphalt he now tread upon. The improvised head-wrap he wore, a salvaged shower curtain he had found in an apartment two blocks back, was one of the few things he had come across that had escaped the onslaught unscathed, and now it served a purpose for which it had never been intended; it protected him.

  After slicing holes into the thick plastic and wetting the canvas that backed it, the man fashioned something that made the harsh journey slightly bearable. It was poorly designed, ineptly created, but he had tried his best to protect himself from the smoke that constantly surrounded him, and the poisons he could be admitting into his body with each breath. Unfortunately, there was only so much that one could prepare for. The destruction that had been unleashed upon this city, the ash that blanketed the very street he walked on, was evidence of that. The cowl did nothing to stave off the ruination of his lungs, but its presence was a comfort he could not go without.

  The concrete shifted beneath his feet, almost as though it was trying to drag him down into the depths, to join so many others that had found themselves lost, entombed in the forgotten civilization that lay below the city, to rot where no one would ever find them. Just as he had held on to the past, the city did as well, yearning for what had been, even as it withered away.

  Explosions sounded off in the distance. Maybe a broken gas line had finally succumbed to the fiery temptation that danced around it, or a building had collapsed upon itself, embracing the painful demise it had been fated to. While those possibilities were terrifying in and of themselves, the man had learned there were greater things to fear.

  Carnage was always close behind. His very presence ensured the destruction of anything, or anyone, he had come in contact with, and the chaos that followed in his wake was an unfortunate reality, one that he could not ignore.

  Heat rushed over him as steam erupted from a nearby manhole, shaking him from his reverie. He turned, mouth agape, already shouting a warning before the emptiness reminded him he was alone. The faces of the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people he had failed, some he had known for years, and others he had only met when this hellish nightmare had begun, flashed through his mind. How long had it been since he’d last heard the sound of another? Since someone had said his name? Acknowledged him, if only in passing? Although he questioned it, he knew, he could never forget the last time he had seen someone else.

  Calling him a lost soul, a wayward son, destined to eternally search for what he truly desired, would be an understatement. He could accept such a label, because, inherently, he knew he was something far worse, a coward. There was a single truth that he did not want to succumb to, the possibility that there was no one else, and that he was the last of his kind. The isolation he now suffered had been forced upon him, and the devastation that surrounded him was a constant reminder of how truly frail humanity was. Escaping the truth allowed him to steel his will as he aimlessly wandered the city, searching, over and over, for something he might have missed, a clue that may have gone unnoticed, one that could lead him down the path of redemption.

  As he reminisced of what had been, he stepped on something, sinking into it with an audible squelch. He froze. Stumbling back, his body swayed dangerously, balance in question, as his breathing became ragged.

  He couldn’t see it, the smoke was so thick that it was a miracle he could even walk upright, but he had honed his other senses during the weeks he had spent amongst the flames. He knew the best way to determine what it was, but he was hesitant to touch it. He had seen things, atrocities committed against the people he had cared for, and those images, those deaths, haunted him every time he closed his eyes.

  Shaking, his mind
racing, he began to imagine what this poor soul had gone through. Even after everything that had happened, there were no bodies, no evidence that those people had ever lived. It was only the moments he remembered, the fleeting conversations, the bitter ends, that reaffirmed their existence; they allowed him to hold onto his sanity. He had no idea where the bodies had gone, why they had vanished, but here he was, with something lying before him, and he could feel that spark of hope reverberate deep within him as it flared back to life.

  There was never anything left of the victims, but here, here was something he could touch, tangible proof that he had never been alone, but even as he dropped to his knees, searching, he could feel cold despair seize hold of him. There was nothing but the concrete he had walked upon so many times. Whatever it was, it was gone, vanished into the smoke and mayhem like everyone else that had come before.

  Desperately, he groped about, blindly searching for what he was sure had just been there. Even the smallest clue would satisfy him, prove this wasn’t some insidious hallucination, a creation of his mind merely to alleviate the ever-growing sense of dread he felt with each passing moment. He knew it was futile, it always was. He searched the entire block, to no avail, hoping, just this once, that he’d be wrong.

  Finally, he left. The ground steadily became level, and the difficult terrain fell away, progressing into a well-traveled path. How many times had he walked this same road? Dozens? Hundreds? Like always, the confusion set in, and he couldn’t remember if he had created this, or if it had been there all along, leading him on this endless journey. It didn’t matter, he continued on, experience and intuition guiding each step as he avoided anything that may have barred his way. He knew this path better than he knew himself, and still he followed it, hoping to find something else at the end, something different.

  With each passing block, his paranoia grew stronger; the doubt and negative emotions that plagued him began to eat away at his resolve as he withdrew into himself. His instinct screamed as he felt the presence of others all around him, hidden from view by the very thing that had protected him for so long. His hair began to stand on end as he felt them drawing nearer. Something was wrong. There were sections of the city he didn’t dare pass through, but this route had always been safe, and yet his gut told him otherwise now.

  Blindly reaching out, his fingertips brushed against the brick buildings that ran beside him, the coarse material scraping against his scarred flesh. He moved forward, waiting for the breach he knew was coming, an opening into a home he had found days ago, part of the ever-changing landscape that surrounded him. Finally, he felt the jagged edge of the portal he had been searching for, and slipped inside, dropping to a crouch as he hid himself within a place that had once been a home, for people who had once lived.

  Long moments passed as he waited there, listening. Sweat beaded upon his brow as he strained his senses, but there was nothing, only the single constant he had become accustomed to, the crumbling of stone as the buildings wasted away around him. It had to be some sort of sick joke, he had felt it, the inherent knowledge that he was being pursued, and yet there was nothing. Then, just as he came to his feet, he heard it, faint but unmistakable. A cry for help echoed throughout the city.

  That mere sound, the voice of another, burned away his need for secrecy and caution. Barreling out of safety, he found himself running down the debris laden streets, drifting into the alleys that lined the concrete forest that surrounded him, snaking his way through the maze of ruined homes, shops, and apartment buildings with a grace that could only be attributed to the recklessness the situation had forced him to embrace.

  With each step, the cries for help grew weaker, more distant, and the need to find them, whoever it was, only grew stronger. The very thing that had protected him was now a hindrance, and just as he burst onto an unknown street, the smoke was gone, and the sun bore down upon him, its radiance blinding.

  The towering buildings that surrounded him were created to block out the harsh rays, and had they been restored to their former glory, they may have succeeded, but what was once beautiful, titans that had risen up in hopes of touching heaven, were now desiccated husks, shredded beyond recognition. Some had been reduced to piles of rubble, others had toppled into one another, but many were just leaning, threatening to crumble beneath their own might.

  The cries for help were gone, and as he spun around, searching, his eyes fell upon a small cafe, the storefront blown inward. He raised his hand, blocking the cruel light that was quickly disappearing as the clouds that blanketed the sky overwhelmed it. He saw movement beneath the rubble, a slight shudder as bits of concrete tumbled from the mound that lay inside the shop.

  There was no hesitation as he threw himself at the pile of stone, metal, and wood, searching for whoever lay beneath. Even the largest pieces were easily tossed aside as an almost frenzied strength surged through him, and fiction shattered reality.

  “Help,” he could barely hear it, the voice was frail, feminine, the word drawn out, but it was real, and an almost fanatical sense of determination took hold of his pale blue eyes. Effortlessly, he dragged a large slab of concrete out of place, revealing ashen, torn, flesh. Digging through the debris, he began to expose more of her, delicate fingers trembling as the woman began to sob beneath him. She was growing quieter, weaker with each second, and as her strength faded, his seemed to flourish. He was going to save her, no matter what.

  Wrenching a rather large, and entrenched, light fixture from the pile brought about a horrifying discovery; a speaker, labored breathing coming from it, had been buried there. As the realization consumed him, there was suddenly an explosion, and as he turned, he could see one of the skyscrapers clearly through the gaping hole, falling towards him.

  There was no time to react as his fingers coiled around the cold, dead, flesh that had been planted there. The man watched as the high-rise came crashing down around him, and the skyline lost another of its beloved giants.

  As the dust settled, and force rippled through the dying city, the clouds darkened, and rain began to fall, almost as though the very sky mourned the loss of this lone stranger that had walked beneath its grace.

  Then, something began to move inside the storm, a swift, unnatural, motion that belied anything man had come to know. A drone descended from the clouds, lording over the graveyard of stone. Just as the first had revealed itself, others followed, until they riddled the sky, hundreds of machines poised above one of humanity’s greatest metropolises.

  Their engines roared, dancing upon the currents and updrafts that the flames so lovingly created. Hatches opened along their underbellies and turrets began to extricate themselves from the machines, barrels whirling, before they suddenly opened fire upon the downed building. The bullets shredded through concrete, and as dust wafted up into the air, the drones did not stop their onslaught even as the intense heat began to warp their weapons, mutilating their own bodies as they sought to cleanse the man from the face of the earth.

  It wasn’t until the Gatling gun clicked empty on the first drone, the apparent leader, that the seemingly endless torrent began to abate.

  There was nothing left, the entire block had been demolished, and only a knoll of rubble remained. As the drones flitted about, sensors buzzing, searching for any signs of life, the leader made its way down to the street, investigating the carnage they had wrought.

  Just as it reached the buildings it had so cruelly cut down, the drone began to shudder, metal shrieking as the hardened blast shielding began to crack, before suddenly folding in on itself, crashing to the ground. The other drones hovered there, waiting, as the debris slowly rose up to meet them, floating high above the leveled block as the man revealed himself.

  Although his clothing was torn, even the shower curtain he had so pitifully modified had been reduced to nothing, his body was perfect, pristine, there wasn’t a scratch on him. As his body began to shake, and hatred twisted his features, the earth shuddered in rage as his
gaze fell upon the machines that hovered so nonchalantly above the city they had so eagerly destroyed.

  The rubble suddenly stilled before raining down around him, entrenching him, as one of the drones opened fire, unleashing hell upon the man they had so desperately tried to kill. As the rounds slammed into him, the ammunition collapsed upon impact, falling inert upon the ground, useless against him.

  Then, without warning, he was gone, only a plume of smoke erupting at his feet betrayed any sign of movement. He had disappeared faster than the drones could process, but they did not idly sit by, waiting for him to show himself again. The entire swarm began to buzz about, whirling, like a murder of crows forced from their perch, as they searched for him.

  The surviving spires began to quake, their walls collapsing as an unseen force slammed into them. Dust rose from the buildings, a momentary indication of where he was, and the machines could only react. There was no way to predict where he may go, no algorithm that could account for his insane abilities. As the assailants began to fire indiscriminately, the concrete giants that humanity had created, which had housed their dreams and aspirations, were destroyed not by their fateful enemy, but by the strength of the lone survivor that had sought solace in their shadow. The weakest of them began to fall, girders screeching as it toppled down, taking its own revenge as many of the drones fell with it.

  They were cannon fodder before the might of a man that was in no way ordinary, that didn’t seem to be a man at all. The drones were never meant to succeed, that was never a possibility, and yet they remained, fighting a foe they could never equal. It was a battle against the impossible, fending off the improbable, but still they fought, not because of their coding, or the orders sent from above, but because something had to.

  Each of them met the cruel fate of the first, their components shattered, crushed to pieces, as their lives were viciously terminated. The man danced amongst them, his power passing through the very armaments that made them so deadly, rendering them impotent, before sentencing them to the harshest of fates. They weren’t just destroyed, the machines wasted away. Their composition rapidly aged in his mere presence.

  It was all conjecture of course; no one truly understood this man’s limitations, what he could do, nor did the machines care. They had but one objective in mind, that he, like all other humans, had to be eradicated.

  They fell in droves, joining the rain that was now eating away at the stone forest that they had been reigning over. Hundreds fell, and even as the last one began to fire indiscriminately, hoping for a lucky shot, to wound this invisible adversary, they too joined the trash that littered the city.

  As the final corpse fell, the man appeared, standing once again in that ring of rubble, his fingers clutching that dead, rotting, arm, the evidence that he had so desperately sought. Like the rest of humanity, she had fallen prey to something that no one had anticipated, a force that had laid waste to their cities, and heralded them into the age of extinction. As he looked down upon it, rain masking the tears streaming down his face, he didn’t notice the blur moving towards him, not until an earth-shattering blow slammed into the side of his head.

  Engines roared as the android moved at an alarming, unimaginable, speed, closing the distance between them instantly. As the man flew through the air, the machine vanished from sight, just before something slammed into his gut, rocketing him down into the earth.

  The small crater resulting from the blow cradled his body, and as he lay there, stunned, his nerves screamed with an unfamiliar sensation, pain. With that jarring introduction, the Hunter revealed itself.

  There had been rumors, back when resistance still meant something, of androids that took on the appearance of humans, programmed to infiltrate and take out specific targets. Some had called them Dolls, because of the porcelain-like skin that was draped across their face.

  “Subject 36009,” the Hunter said, its disembodied voice cutting through the mental fog that had fallen over its target. The man couldn’t tear his eyes away from its lips, watching them form each word with morbid fascination. “You have been designated a priority threat. Do not resist, do not postpone the inevitable, it is futile.”

  As that odd, metallic taste filled his mouth, the man stared at this thing, this abomination. His mind tried to make sense of it. Never had he seen anything like this before, never had he faced anything this powerful, and as this reality sunk in, something began to awaken inside of him. Maybe, if he was normal, he’d be afraid, or anxious, but instead he felt something else, excitement. Even as the blood seeped down his throat, he couldn’t help but laugh, his head thrown back as thunder raged down around them.

  The android, a machine that had taken the lives of so many others before this fateful encounter, was not amused by the disrespect this mere human was showing it, and as it sped forward, flashing out of sight, its blow met only air. The Hunter, a killer without peer, stood there, trying to comprehend what this meant, as the man’s fingertips effortlessly pierced through its exoskeleton, penetrating armor that no man-made weapon had ever been able to breach, and severed its arm, just as the automaton had begun its retreat.

  Darting back, the Hunter moved with a fluid grace, one that a machine, a culmination of hydraulics and pistons, should never have been able to achieve. For all intents and purposes, the Hunter was the machines’ answer to humanity; a better, more evolved and designed, version of the people that they had sought to destroy. The Dolls’ strength, reflexes, everything about them had been created for this, to topple a people that did not deserve to rule. As the Hunter stood its ground against this man, the machine’s doll-like face twisted with pure hatred, before springing forward, body rotating, as it lashed out with a perfect, textbook, spinning back elbow.

  Had it been anyone else, it surely would have connected, but the target, 36009, effortlessly slipped beneath it, his arm sweeping downwards in a beautiful arc, as his hand, fingers pressed tightly together, forming a knife, severed the Hunter’s weight-bearing leg, cleaving through it as though he was parting water. As the two warriors passed one another, it was the Hunter who fell.

  There was no hesitation in its actions, and as the android crashed into the ground, concrete cracking under its immense weight, its remaining leg was already opening, revealing the repulsor that was housed there. As the engine flared, preparing for the machine’s swift retreat, the man was there, glee plastered on his face as his foot came down on the Hunter’s remaining leg. The machine roared in simulated rage as it tried to drag itself away from the beast that was now tormenting it, metallic fingers digging into the asphalt, as it plowed through the street.

  The hysterical laughter that rang out behind it caused the Hunter to pause, to look back, staring in disbelief at the severed leg it had left behind, and the monster it had been sent to kill. The man was on it instantly, wrapping his hand, the delicate hand of a human, around the Hunter’s throat, lifting it from the ground as though it was nothing.

  The Hunter pulled back its arm, prepared to fight until the end, and as the fist hammered into the man’s jaw with the strength that could topple buildings, the power that had destroyed so many others, the android’s arm collapsed in on itself, the metal coiling, like a spring about to burst; as it screeched, the appendage snapped, flying off into the distance.

  Blood dribbled from the man’s mouth, coating his chest as it streamed down his body, and he smiled at the unmistakable look of fear that now seized the Doll’s face. There were so many monsters in this world, some that had been born, and others that had been created, but no matter how great one became, there was always something stronger, and like every encounter before, 36009 had shown the disparaging difference between him and the machines. He had not wanted this fight, he had never wanted any of this, but still he couldn’t help but relish in the feel of overwhelming power. The ability to survive was his, and while he was not the greatest enemy the machines had faced, he had grown into something they couldn’t help but fear.

nbsp; “What are you?” The Doll asked, its eyes pleading, oddly human, but all the man did was smile, that sad, demented, smile, as his hand thrust into its chest, the armored plating parting before his very touch, and his fingers encircled the Hunter’s heart, a micro-fusion reactor that was hidden within. The abomination began to thrash about, trying to escape, struggling to survive.

  Pale blue light began to emanate from the reactor, eradicating the dust that covered them both, shredding through the dirt and grime that had shrouded the man’s face. He was weary, the dark circles that hung beneath his eyes revealed far more than their fight ever had.

  Just as the light had appeared, it began to fade, vanishing entirely before erupting within the man’s flesh. Unbridled radiance streaked through his veins, speeding towards his heart, as he drew power into himself, stealing the android’s very essence as it watched, as those that controlled it watched. There was nowhere for it to go, nowhere for it to hide, its eyes began to glass over as its systems failed, and it fell before the very being it was designed to destroy.

  Lifelessly, it slipped from his arm with a flick of his wrist, as the tired warrior extricated himself from another kill. Standing there, his face turned towards the sky, he allowed nature to wash over him, to pacify the tragic memories that were storming their way through his mind, taking him away from this place, even if only for a moment. He could feel it setting in, the nausea that flared up inside him, the darkness that threatened to take control of his body, compressing his organs, as his vision blurred. Weakness, it always followed such a display of strength. The need to manifest his abilities began to overwhelm him as the hunger, the need for that power, set in.

  It was always like this whenever he used his gifts, there was a risk that it would consume him completely. It didn’t matter how powerful he became, there was always a debt that needed to be paid, and he gladly sacrificed the pound of flesh that seemed to satisfy the power that allowed him to survive.

  Dropping to his knees, his arms wrapped around him, the man could feel everything rushing back, everything he had pushed away during that brief moment of sublime violence. Shivering, the tattered rags clung to him, weighing him down as he knelt, feeling the stolen energy mix with his own, tainting him. Reaching out, he grabbed that rotten arm, clutching it to his chest before struggling back to his feet, not even sparing a moment to steady himself as he stumbled into a nearby alley, back into the land of smoke that concealed him from his enemies.

  He had survived, again, even if he didn’t want to, and as he walked those sullen streets, he prayed he would find someone, anyone, before he paid the ultimate price, and lost himself. It had been 4 months, 23 days, 16 hours, and 19 minutes since he had last seen another living person. The machines had attacked him hundreds of times, trying to kill him, but today, today was the first day he had bled.

  The Pet Salesman

  by Cory Martinson

  “This is pretty good,” Ted announced around a mouthful of casserole. “What is it again?”

  “It’s called Tater Tot Hot Dish. I got the recipe from the Historical Cooking Society cookbook,” beamed Ann. She clapped her oven mitts together, very pleased. Her hair was done into a sweeping dome atop her head, tips curling up from the sides of her cheeks. She wore a white cotton apron over a smart red sweater with white lapels. A pearl choker adorned her neck. She glanced at the holoimage above the cooktop and straightened her posture, mimicking Betty Crocker.

  Everyone seemed to be getting into the spirit for the Tricentennial of July 4, 2076. Citizens were encouraged to examine and portray an iconic period of American history during the month of July, and Ann had enthusiastically taken part. Ted enjoyed seeing her so happy and decided to play along. For the month of July, their household, dress, diet, and recreation were straight out of the 1950’s.

  “It’s one of the more interesting recipes,” Ann continued. “It’s got cow’s meat and two kinds of cow milk products, fungus bits, high-sodium high-fat potato cylinders--“

  “I’d really rather not know the specifics. Between eating like this and smoking a pipe this month, I’m going to need a dozen procedures at Medical.”

  Ted leaned back in his chair and opened his “Newspaper”, a stack of flimsy folded paper with the events of the previous day printed in just two dimensions. Ted found it novel that people used to live like this. He’d spent the last two days of June instructing the OmniMaker in the garage to print out such oddities as “glasses,” a “mail box” for in front of the house, several odd and uncomfortable items of clothing, a “Jell-O mold,” and the tobacco pipe, for which he’d developed a growing fondness.

  “Well, honey,” Ted said, setting down the newspaper and buttoning his special shirt over the white cotton undershirt, “I’m going bowling with the boys.”

  This garment was another keeper once the Tricentennial was over. Embroidered with the nickname “Tedster” over the pocket and a 1950 Mercury gasoline-powered car on the back with “Fazio’s Service Station” sweeping across the top in antique script, the bowling shirt was a work of art.

  “Sorry, dear, but tonight’s the night the pet salesman is coming by. You need to stay for his pitch,” said Ann, delighting in the lingo.

  “That’s cool, dolly. I’ll hang out here,” replied Ted. He’d gone over the terminology several times and felt it was one of his strong suits. Ann giggled in response, and Ted gave her a wink.


  The “doorbell” Ted had installed outside sounded. Ted printed a plastic panel to cover the holotouch, leaving in its place a round button set in a rectangular box. Thus far, no-one seemed to know what it was for. And without the cameras, Ted and Ann didn’t even know who was at the—

  “Pet salesman!” cried the young male voice from outside.

  Ted chomped his pipe between his side teeth and opened the door. A young man stood on the porch, holding two suitcase-sized sample cases with metal corners. He displayed both rows of very nice teeth, and wore a dark blue blazer and slacks, a white shirt with a red tie, and a slate grey fedora cocked at a jaunty angle. The salesman set down one case and shot out a hand in greeting.

  “Nice ta meetcha! I’m Simon Anders from Darling Forever pet company!”

  “I’m Ted Pearson, and this is my wife Ann,” said Ted, grasping Simon’s hand and giving it two firm pumps. Ann smiled and waved an oven mitt from the kitchen. Ted motioned Simon into the house. “So pleased to see another man of my vintage. And come inside, make yourself at home.”

  Simon evidently had done his homework and picked up on the 1950’s theme. Ann popped out from around the corner, now holding an aluminum tray with an arrangement of “chocolate chip cookies” and a pitcher of “lemonade” on it. Ted could tell she was in her glory.

  “Have a cookie and something to drink, Mister Anders,” said Ann.

  “Please, Mrs. Pearson, call me Simon.”

  “Very well, Simon, call me Ann.”

  “And call me Ted. Set those cases wherever you like.”

  Ted raised his left wrist and glanced down at the “watch” strapped there; a device which just told time without a great deal of accuracy but had a certain charm to it as it ticked away.

  “Well, let’s get down to brass tacks here young man,” said Ted, “If we can wrap this up in half an hour I can still get ten frames in down at the Bowl-O-Rama.”

  Simon winked and took a knee, unfastening the clasps on the larger of the two cases. Inside was a dog, about 35 centimeters tall, embedded in molded foam. It had scruffy, sandy tan fur with lighter markings on his chest and darker around his eyes, snout and ears. Simon curled a hand under its chest and pulled it free of the padding. He set it neatly on the floor. It appeared to be a lifelike stuffed animal.

  “This,” announced Simon, “is the 2077 model Forever Darling Border Terrier. It’s one of twenty-six small dog models offered this year.”

  Simon pulled a palm-sized object from another void in the case’s padding.

  “You’ll have to excuse the technology, folks. This is a modern-day marvel. Space age, to be sure.” Simon winked again, setting the object on the coffee table. “This is your imprinter and control module. It starts or pauses the dog, allows you to name him or her, and lets you modify parameters as you so desire.”

  Ted pulled out his tobacco pouch and tamped a portion into his pipe. “Is this one…working? Err…alive?” he asked.

  Ann settled into the love seat across from Ted and pulled up a basket of “knitting” to fiddle with pointlessly. She hadn’t gotten the hang of it.

  “Yes sir. His name is Fido, he’s a demo model, and right now he’s on pause. Would you like to see him awake?”

  “Oh yes, very much,” said Ann. Ted lit his pipe.

  Simon shined his smile and laid his hand on the control device. “Wake up, Fido.”

  The dog’s eyes opened, then squinted while he shook himself as if he were wet. He looked briefly at Ted and Ann, then sat and turned his focus to Simon. His mouth opened slightly, revealing little white teeth and a pink tongue in a friendly expression. He barked once, then shuffled his front feet before returning to focus on Simon.

  “You can call him if you like,” said Simon.

  Ann clapped. “Come here, Fido!”

  The dog padded over to her, sniffing. Ann scratched his ears and Fido leaned into her hand, wagging his tail rapidly.

  “That sniffing feature is real,” Simon stated, dropping the 1950’s attitude in favor of a precise and scientific tone. “This dog has acute and effective senses throughout the spectrums. Chemical sensors which identify people and events before he can see or hear them, whether he’s in another room or if they’ve been there earlier in the day. He can sense your mood and your health from smell alone. He’s able to diagnose 117 different diseases, can tell you if there’s danger of a fire or electrical problem in your home before it gets out of hand. Even compounds undetectable by human senses like carbon monoxide. In outdoor environments, he can alert you to problematic particulate, chemical, or allergen levels.

  Fido licked Ann’s hand. “Oooh, his tongue is wet,” she said.

  “The new model comes with some very impressive optical improvements. We’ve upped the resolution and increased the spectrum. Fido now sees everything from U.V. to I.R., and has enhanced capability in low-light conditions. He can tell if you have a fever, and even sense your mood from galvanic skin response and flush level. He has macro down to the nanometer level and long-range vision better than an eagle.”

  As Simon continued expounding upon Fido’s technical upgrades, Fido enjoyed Ann’s attention. Ann was back over four decades ago, recalling her one real dog. Rover, a beagle, was her companion as a toddler. He’d taught her that dogs loved ear-scratching. His nose was cold and wet, and he’d been killed by a car before cars were finally outlawed. Then came DMBV, the Domestic Mammal Bubonic Variant, and the choice had to be made: risk the health of all mankind or eliminate living pets. As pet-loving as people claimed to be, the choice was made quickly and carried out with finality. Ann had never had another dog after Rover. And then there were no more dogs…

  “He’s responsive to your touch and requires an amount of attention that you can vary by command,” Simon went on. “This includes daily walks which can range in length and speed as you wish. He has tracking that will guide him home from literally anywhere, or to any other location you speak to him.”

  Fido trotted over to Ted and sniffed. He barked twice and sat at Ted’s feet, wagging his tail. Simon reached down and tapped the top of the control device. A holoimage sprang up, scrolling paragraphs of data; identifying tobacco smoke, particulate levels, carcinogen content, and so on.

  “The module will interpret Fido’s observed data into any language and format. Anything he sees or smells, anything he experiences, you can look over in easy-to-understand reports.”

  “Not to be negative, Simon,” said Ted, cradling the bowl of his pipe, “but it sounds like Fido here is an appliance. And a redundant one, seeing as our house has many of the features you’re mentioning.”

  “Oh, Fido’s so much more than that. He’s a mobile security system. He’ll follow commands ranging from sentry to lethal response.”

  Simon turned to the dog.

  “Fido, guard! Report activity,” said Simon in a firm tone.

  Fido bolted to the front door and sniffed the threshold. Nose down and snuffling, he continued along the wall into the dining room, the kitchen, and disappeared from sight. The information scrolling by on the control module holoimage began to display a schematic of the house’s floor plan. Alongside this appeared several parameters in green, such as electromagnetic radiation levels, heat signatures, vibration frequencies, and more data as Fido went about his business.

  “So he’s what, a weapon?” asked Ann, sounding a bit alarmed.

  “Oh, hardly ma’am,” Simon assured. “Fido is a primarily a lover, not a fighter. Fido, come!”

  Fido returned and sat attentively in front of Simon. Simon swept his hand over the control module and said “Pause.” Fido rose, assumed a perfect show-dog stance, and froze there. The life that sparkled in Fido’s eyes vanished; he was a stuffed animal again.

  “Please, Mrs. Pearson. Slide your hand over the control module.”

  Ann gave Ted a brief glimpse. Then she did. Fido shook, then scampered to Ann’s side, sat and placed a paw on her leg. “Well hello again mister Fido,” said Ann in lovey-dovey talk, scratching the dog’s head. Fido squinted in delight and wagged to beat the band.

  “At Darling Forever, we’ve distilled a pet’s relationship with his owner to its essence: dedication and reliance. Fido will be devoted to you, Ann, and you, Ted, for as long as you live.

  “I could go into a long-winded explanation about his predictive empathy programming, and the advanced proactive altruism he’s embedded with, but suffice it to say Fido loves you now as much as any pet ever would. Ever could. He senses your moods and will lift you when you are sad, celebrate with you when you are happy, and cower when you are angry. He doesn’t need food or water but will respond with real affection to your attention and contact. Studies have shown that this is not only gratifying to humans, but an effective stress reliever and coping mechanism for many psychological maladies common to society.

  “People who own Darling Forever pets live longer and more fulfilling lives, that’s a fact. Little Fido here is a life-quality improver.”

  “What’s in the other case?” asked Ted.

  “A cat.” Simon reached for the case. “Would you care to—“

  “Oh, we’re not cat people. Thanks just the same,” dismissed Ted.

  Ann, meanwhile, had picked Fido up onto her lap. He was sprawled on his back, lolling his tongue contentedly as she rubbed his belly.

  “I want one, Ted,” said Ann.

  “Fine and dandy. How much we talking here, Simon?”

  “You’re in luck, Ted. A promotional special we’re running today only will allow me to deliver the small breed of your choice for well under the listed price.” Simon exhibited his smile at full brightness.

  “And that is…” prompted Ted.

  “Right now, we can make you a lifetime pet owner for only one hundred seventy-five thousand dollars, plus tax and the incidentals.”

  Ann’s hand paused on Fido’s belly. Fido nudged her arm with his nose.

  “Whoa there, Lone Ranger. That’s a chunk of change!” said Ted, raising an eyebrow.

  Simon’s smile faltered a moment, but then regained strength. “Let’s talk financing!”

  “I don’t know. Really, it’s a bit steep for us. We’re early retirees, only two years into paying for the house, there’s expenses…”

  “Mr. Pearson, I have an option for you to consider.”

  Ted set his pipe down. “What do you have in mind?”

  “This is a new program. There are advertisers, corporations, who would be willing to subsidize your purchase in order to have
access to certain metrics, telemetry, and other data. With the right authorizations from you, your pet’s purchase price could be reduced by up to seventy percent.”

  “I’m not sure I follow,” said Ted.

  “The dog tracks some of your activities and preferences, does some limited reporting back to a few sponsors, and they use that data anonymously to create better products and advertising. It’s minimally invasive. Plus, it can be helpful to you. Allow me a quick demonstration,” Simon said, then waved his hand over the control module. “Data collection authorization 017443 temporary. Fido, collect data. Report items of interest.”

  Fido hopped up and ran off again. Reams of information scrolled up the holoimage. Ted caught a few details, including the make and year of each piece of furniture, the wall paint colors, the contents of his e-reader, his DVR, and his net history. Also, what looked like the contents of his refrigerator and cupboards. Even the identity of people in pictures on the walls. The image scrolled and scrolled, until Fido returned and hopped back up to Ann’s lap. A message blinked in red on the holoimage.

  “See?” said Simon, pointing at the display. “There’s a recall on one of the cleaning products in your bathroom. It should be disposed of due to…it says here ‘carcinogenic potential’. Fido just found that out for you.”

  “Seems like he found out an awful lot,” Ted grumbled.

  “Oh, It’s just like anything else, Ted. It’s not like our data isn’t tracked every day anyway,” said Ann. The dog now relaxed, eyes shut, on her lap.

  “Sure,” said Ted. “Sounds like a deal to me. I mean, it’s not like we could get a real dog. They’ve been gone now for what, twenty years?”

  “Twenty-two now since DMBV, sorry to say.” Simon gently reached for Fido. Ann offered him up, and Simon packed him away with practiced efficiency. “I’ll leave you my card and this catalog. You can view it on your holocenter at your leisure, and select the breed and other particulars of your pet. Just call when you’re ready to order. Thanks, folks.”

  Simon snapped the clasps shut on his case and made his exit, again stopping to engage Ted in another firm handshake and grace both Ted and Ann with his blazing smile.

  “What a nice young man,” said Ann, fussing with her knitting. “Want to help me pick a dog, Ted?”

  “You pick your top three and I’ll weigh in later,” Ted said across his pipe, grabbing his new fedora from the hat rack. “I’m going bowling.”


  by Denise Winters

  Hannah skidded to a halt. Her bike stopped, but her heart beat a thousand miles an hour. She tried to calm her breathing. She was getting too old to be scared of haints and demons, of monsters that lurk in the shadows. It didn’t take her long to realize this had all the beginnings of a story she would keep to herself. Not because she could swear up and down this man had appeared out of nowhere, had just up and been standing in space that was once nothing but the intersection of a much used bike path cut in the grass and a not often used dirt road. And not because she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be on her way to somewhere she wasn’t supposed to go.

  She knew she would keep this story to herself because if she told anyone what she saw she would take a trip to one of the hospitals over in Pensacola or Mobile, one of the hospitals that people rode too in a drugged stupor so heavy they drooled and usually didn’t often come back from. Two cloven, furry feet were obscured in shadow and smoke that snaked from the ground beneath him and swirled around her like the elongated fingers of a grasping hand. Hannah dropped her bike and tripped over it trying to get away. She scuttled to her feet and tried to turn and run. The smoke scared her more than the creature. Hannah kept her balance well enough to move a few feet, sure that if they touched her she would be dragged down to wherever that thing had come from.

  “Just a minute sweetheart.” It doffed its hat to her and executed a slight bow with all the finesse and sincerity of a carnival barker. “You don’t have anything to fear from me.”

  Hannah kept running, forcing herself to look back in front every few steps. She wished she had held onto the bike. But in her defense, those were demon feet. And the smoke, good Lord up above, the smoke. Her skin crawled with gooseprickles at the thought of it. The only thing that made her slow down, made her take more furtive glances over her shoulder, was that the beast was not giving chase. Instead, it stood as though glued to those crossroads.

  Hannah stopped and turned around, her arms tense at her side and her heart still beating against her chest like a woodpecker. But she slowed her breathing enough to keep from passing out, and the smoke hadn’t spread any further.

  “In Jesus' name what do you want?” It was what her mudea had always told her to say if she ever saw a haint or demon. Those words were supposed to make it speak any message it might have and be on its way without trying to harm or scare nobody.

  The demon tilted its head and studied her, a faint smile drawing its thin lips up into a wicked little half-moon. Hannah took a step back, and went to turn around but found she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She wanted to know what was happening, even though fear became a lead ball in her stomach and caused her legs to hollow.

  “I just want what you want Hannah.” The half-moon mutated into a Cheshire grin that caused the lower half of the demon’s face to disappear. “And I know you don’t want any harm to come to yourself.” Its smile widened and it held the hat to its chest in a mockery of offering condolences.

  Hannah raised an eyebrow. This did not seem like no Prince of Lies, or even a Baron or Knight of one. The insincerity and coniveness was as plain as daylight in the creature’s every move. Hannah relaxed a little more, enough that her stomach didn’t feel like it had shifted the weight of her gravity, enough that she thought she could run without her legs shaking and her feet tripping over themselves. “Or your grandpappy.”

  There went the calmness. The knot of iron in her stomach returned like an anchor dropping and brought her to her knees, her throat constricting from air struggling to get in and bile struggling to get out.

  “What you want with him.” She felt her whole body convulse and she felt coldness pass over her from the inside out. “Whatever you think you get me to do,” she shook her head and tried to stand.

  “You misunderstand little darling. “ The creature spread its arms out in front of it and made a patting motion with its hands. “I’m offering you a chance to save his life, and maybe his soul.” The thing put its hat back on top of its head and placed its arms akimbo. Leaning forward and speaking just loud enough to be heard over the distance that separated them, it said, “And it won’t cost you nothing.”

  “Nothing.” Hannah gulped down air, trying to calm her stomach and keep her breathing steady. “I ain’t gonna have no kind of dealings with the devil, so you right, it won’t cost me nothing.” Saying that was like a balm to her forehead. Getting it out there made her less afraid. She was sitting out here in the middle of a field, chatting with the devil, and he wa’n all that scary truth be told. She knew better than to let him trick her into a deal, and didn’t seem like he could hurt her any other way.

  The thing leapt in the air like somebody had lit a fire under its feet. “You be careful what names you go throwing round.” It looked around the field, its head swiveling from side to side and even up in the air. “I ain’t what you said I am, not exactly. Well, not at all actually. I’m a little lower down in the hierarchy.”

  Hanna got to her feet. She looked at her bicycle, laying there within arm’s reach of the demon. She decided she wasn’t so unafraid of the creature as to try and get it back, not today. Not while that thing was there, and likely not ever. She would tell her grandmother that she had been out here and had a tumble. Better to take the whuppin for being out here than to try and go anywhere near that little crossroads by herself. She turned to go.

  “Wait girl Don’t you even want to know what I got to say.” Hannah could recognize how guile sounded by the l
ack of it in the creature’s voice now. Gone were the hoity-toity inflections and accents. Instead the demon sounded like a used car salesman at the end of a bad day in a bad week, or a child suddenly convinced its parents would leave her in the store if she didn’t stop showing out. “I mean it, I know where you was headed. You just win back something I gave away and your granddaddy will live and I promise that his soul won’t end up down below.” Hannah stopped in her tracks and snapped her head around. “Plus, you just try and win it back I promise he’ll live, and beyond that his soul will be in his hands.”

  She should keep right on walking. Nothing good came of making deals with devils or demons or any type of creature that popped into existence out of nowhere at a crossroads with goat’s feet. But she didn’t keep going, instead she turned around and strode back towards the demon, just out of reach of the oscillating tentacles of smoke,

  “How you so sure he gonna die?”

  “We know who on their way. And trust me sweetheart, that no good granddaddy of yours is on his way.” The demon sounded a little bit relieved but tried to cover it up. His words were like the baby steps of a stalking predator trying not to scare away its prey. “But it don’t have to be that way. Not if you just do what you planned to do anyway.”

  “Which is?” Hannah crossed her arms, going for indifference, reluctance, and interest tied together. Instead she felt as though she just looked nervous, wary, scared, and worst of all resigned.

  “Girl, you win that fiddling contest.”

  “Fiddling contest?” Hannah threw her hands in the air and stepped back. She stomped in a tight circle before facing the demon again. “What business you got in a fiddling contest?”

  The demon bowed its head and rubbed the back of its neck.“Well, I gave away something that wasn’t ‘xactly mine to give away. If you win that contest little girl, you get it back for me, and your granddaddy keeps his life and his soul.”

  Hannah’s mouth dropped and she was almost knocked flat out on her back with the realization of what the demon was saying. “The golden fiddle. You mean you want the golden fiddle?” First prize in the contest got to win a genuine gold fiddle. “You, you the one who lost to that boy over yonder in Georgia.”

  Smoke billowed from the creature’s nose, but the way its face fell Hannah guessed it was frustration and embarrassment more than any kind of anger. The demon dug its hairy hoof into the red-brown dirt.

  “It's not the losing so much as what I lost. Like I said, I wagered something that wasn’t mine to give.”

  She stood looking at the creature, sweat bubbling on its neck and rolling down the collar of its shirt. Hands worrying with the tan hat and toe twisting a hole in the dirt. Even with it standing there talking about my granddaddy’s life and soul like they was poker chips, she couldn’t feel fear of the thing anymore, or anger for that manner. Wasn’t ‘xactly feelin' pitiful for it, what with having lost the fiddle trying to bring a soul to damnation and all, but couldn’t feel scared of it either. The smoke billowing around him was still somewhat terrifying though,

  “How I know my granddaddy’s life or soul is yours to grant?”

  The demon looked up and grinned like it knew that her leg was inching towards the snare. “I’m the one he sold his soul to, that’s how.”

  She tilted her head. “Why’d he do that? And why’d anyone even want to accept it?” Everything she’d seen and heard seemed to suggest he was hell-bound anyway. At least that was what the preacher, and her daddy, and her grand aunt all said. She had never put much stock in it, her granddaddy was a good man as far as she was concerned. Always quick to smile and even getting her to her fiddling lessons after her ma had said she couldn’t be taking no more lessons from Mr. Davis on account of him being a heathen. She couldn’t care less who did what kind of drinking when, or laid with what kind of woman where. Truth be told, she knew all their denouncers, granddaddy’s and Mr. Davis’ both, didn’t have any kind of trouble running to this and that hoodoo man or women when things looked tough.

  “It's always good to sure up a deal, who goes where ain’t exactly decided how you may have been led to believe.” The demon’s smile faltered. “As to why he would do it, well, your grandmamma’s new man was awfully bad to her, But she wouldn’t leave him, you see.” The demon waved its hand, “ Still felt bad about leaving your granddaddy she did, and couldn’t bare to be a twice divorced woman.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

  It shrugged. “You don’t have to. But it's the tyrant’s honest truth. Your granddaddy knew she wasn’t gonna up and leave him, so he made the man disappear. And I made sure he got away with it.”

  It sounded too right, no matter how hard she tried to disbelieve it. Everybody in town thought her granddaddy had killed that man out of jealousy. Everybody. Didn’t even try to hide their suspicions from him. But there had never even been a trial.

  “And you can give him back his soul?”

  “Gladly, if you win me that fiddle.”

  “No. No, you give him back his soul if I agree.” She licked her lips and tried to stop her legs from jimming. They had started up again the minute she made up her mind, the minute she knew how she would change the deal. “You only gotta extend his life if I win.”

  The demon sneered, its lips parting slow and unnerving like a snake peeling its skin. “Now, why I’m gonna put myself in a position like that. Girl, you up and lose that contest and I’m outta a soul and still out the fiddle.”

  I shrugged. “Reckon you talking to me because you think I’m the only one got even a chance of winning it for ya. Plus, what if I get it for you another way?”

  A dark hiss squeezed from between its teeth and slithered onto the ground. “You got some kinda nerve, you little…”

  “Whatever nerve I got come from granddaddy. And that don’t answer my question. What if I don’t win it, what if I get it for you another way?”

  “I don’t care how you get it truth be told, just get it for me.”

  Hannah nodded, wondering what it meant that the fiddle didn’t have to be won back fair and square.

  The demon reared back and sneered. Hannah stumbled back a few steps before realizing the demon had started laughing. “Okay girl, okay. It's a deal. You just agree to try and win that fiddle back for me, and he gets his soul back. You win, and it's his life.”

  “I agree to,” Hannah brought her hand to her chin. Her nervousness was returned, and she struggled to not let it show. She could still be tricked, and she had to make sure the wording was right. Say what it wanted, she still didn’t trust this creature as far as she could throw it. “I agree to do my best to get that fiddle and for that you will give William T. Freeman back his soul. If I get the fiddle to you, you will ensure that William T. Freeman lives, with no complications from his illness, and dies of old age and in comfort.”

  “Done.” The demon snapped its fingers and Hannah jumped back as it went up in a puff of foul black smoke. She was worried about how quick he had been to accept. Hannah bent down and picked up her bike. She could see no remnants of the demon’s presence, not even an after-smell in the air. She was more certain than ever she would tell no one of this. She couldn’t even be sure it had happened herself. The only thing giving her faith she was in her right mind was the fear and disgust memory of the fog brought up. She was more sure than anything that no one could imagine anything that would make them feel so off, like terror itself was riding after them. Hannah needed to get on over to Mr. Davis’ house.

  “You sure you wanna do that girl?” Mr. Davis sunk deeper into his couch. He picked at a hole in the olive green cover, pulling out pinches of yellow fluff while his cigarette dangled between his teeth.

  “I’m sure, my momma and daddy would whip me raw if they found out I got up there on that stage.” Hannah leaned forward in the wing-back, her feet just touching the ground. “Mr. Davis please?” She elongated the word and clasped her hands in front of her. “I have to get in this contest.

  He waved his hand at her, letting a cluster of fluff drift to the scuffed up floor. “Okay. But I find it awfully funny you did not seem to care about all that before.” He shrugged and rolled his shoulders, “But I guess even you can get some sense scared into you from time to time.”

  He shook his head as he hobbled over to the kitchen table. Mr. Davis didn’t look to have eaten at the table in years. It was covered in yellowed newspapers and phone books, old bills stamped with “Past Due” in big red letters faded to the color of old blood, and big photo albums. The albums were the only thing on the table that weren’t faded and hadn’t been there so long the disappeared into the surroundings. Well, the albums were the next to only thing.

  Mr. Davis lifted his fiddle case from the table and motioned for her to follow him into the den. Hannah relaxed the moment she entered the space. Being in what passed for the old man’s music room always left her in high spirits and capable of seeing the positive in everything.

  He motioned for her to sit down across from him. Hannah bent down and got the practice fiddle out of the case. It was smoothed by years of use and dozens of hands. Mr. Davis had been teaching the fiddle for a long time, even to those so broke they couldn’t afford their own. After her parents made her stop spending so much time with her granddaddy, Hannah had paid the cost of continuing to learn with raked yards, washed dishes, and folded laundry. Until her parents found out about that too.

  “I got an awful lot that needs doing before tomorrow.”

  I nodded. “Just a warm-up then.”

  Mr. Davis nodded and listened as I started on my scales. I stayed to the simple pieces and tried to ignore the mistakes and stumbles along the way. Mr. Davis’ face was as impassive as ever, betraying nothing with regards to what he thought of my music.

  “That’s enough.”

  I nodded and put away the fiddle. “Are you going to be playing?”

  “Girl hell no. What I need a silver-plated doodad for?”

  “So, do you know why the under 16 category gets the golden-covered and not the silver?”

  Mr. Davis stared at me over his glasses and leaned back in the chair, hands crossed over stomach. “No. Something the contest organizers decided.”

  “But you are one of the organizers.”

  He shrugged. “it's shinier. You younguns like shiny.”

  I opened my mouth but clamped it shut. Mr. Davis wasn’t one to converse with most of the time.

  I listened for the sound of my parents puttering around in the kitchen, my heart in my throat. But they must have went straight to bed, and would likely stay there for a while. It was always like that when they worked the night shift, but if they were going to pick a morning to not go straight to bed, it would be just like my luck for them to choose this one. I inched up the window, stopping every time it caught and the glass rattled. It was a hard sound to make out over the sound of the blood in my ears roaring like the sound of the ocean in a sea shell. I got the window up just enough to squeeze through before I slipped out and lowered it back down behind me.

  The evening was cool, in the way an oven is cool a half hour after it has been turned off. I looked back at the house over my shoulder, then cut cross the yard at a crouch. I wasn’t sure what that would help exactly, but it seemed like the right thing to do when sneaking away.

  She hesitated at the entrance to the path. Large bushes flanked the narrow path. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, ducking beneath the branches of the short trees and turning sideways to avoid being scratched. Stepping into the field felt like entering a new world. The ordinariness of the field in the morning light felt like a betrayal, a false conveyer of comfort and familiarity in light of what she had seen here earlier in the day. As a matter of fact, the normalcy seemed exaggerated: the sunlight brighter, the grass greener, and the path less defined so that the field appeared unmolested. It would be easy to turn back, sneak back in and climb into her bedroom, but her granddaddy would die then. He would die and that good-for-nothing, no-count demon would have his soul.

  Hannah kept moving, her hands in her pockets and trying to ignore the itch between her shoulders. She was glad she was alone. She ran as fast as she could, even closing her eyes for fear she might see something she could do without seeing. All of a sudden, her plan felt foolish and not a little bit ridiculous. But she was more sure of where Mr. Davis kept that fiddle, and who Mr. Davis really was, than she was sure she could have won that contest. Or at least she had better have been, because it was an awful big gamble to have taken.

  She crouched at the edge of the field closest to Mr. Davis’ house. All the lights were off. She crept closer, trying to pick up on any sounds. It was a rare day that no music drifted from the house if he was there. If he wasn’t playing, or teaching someone else too play, then he was playing this or that record as loud as that stereo could make it. But there was nothing, nothing but silence.

  Hannah took a deep breath and ran off across the tall grass, the tips of the blades stinging her bare legs and her breathing heavy from exertion and fear. She ducked under his bedroom window and listened again, just to be sure. Nothing, nothing but a silence as unnatural for his house as well, as the thing she did not want to hold in her head.

  She reached up and cut around the screen with her pocket knife. When she felt it loosen, she pulled it out and jumped back as it fell to the ground bringing a rain of rust and paint chips with it. She pulled herself up onto the window ceiling and clutched on to the top of the lower window pane with one hand. Her legs shook but kept just enough purchase on the bottom of the window ledge for her to use her other hand, wrapped up in one of her old t-shirts, to punch through the window pane. Two things came at once: a crash loud enough to raise the dead and the realization she should have used a rock.

  She reached through and unlocked the window, her hand dripping blood onto the top of the window. Hannah jumped down and pushed the window up and crawled in. The house had looked dark from the outside, but inside it was hard to tell that the sun had not already set, let alone that it would not be setting for another hour at least.

  There was only darkness and shapes and shadows in the room. Hannah flitted forth, pinching her nostrils shut by pushing up her top lip. The room smelled of alcohol and rot, and the smell that accompanied snakes and moldy leaves in graveyards. The thought of a graveyard focused Hannah and she crept over to the tall book case. She felt her way in the darkness, trying to shake the itching between her shoulder blades and the fear that every time she reached her hand forward, she was going to feel something reaching back for her from the darkness.

  Hannah’s hands caught the edges of the plywood bookcase. Standing on her tiptoes and knocking from the top to the bottom, she listened to every sound and echo, looking for one that might sound different. The knocks resounded through the room, the emptiness swallowing them as they floated more than a few feet. Hannah stopped. She tapped that space again, and then again. The echo sounded less muffled.

  She bent down and felt beneath the bottom of the case, trying to see if she could get enough purchase to pull away the side panel. She felt something furry brush against her knuckles and yanked her hand back. There was no time for this, she needed to move fast, no matter the cost. She knew kids who had been to juvie and the stories scared her, but she was sure she could be okay. Her granddaddy would be okay, and right now that meant more than anything.

  Hannah’s hand still dripped blood, plus she thought it would be a lot harder to knock in wood than a window. She backed up, right to the edge of the cluttered bed and drew back her leg, bringing her knee into her stomach. She kicked as hard as she could and felt as much as heard the wood splinter and crack. She drew back her leg again and drove it forward, harder and faster this time. Her right leg and left hand now made a matched pair. She ignored the sting and approached the broken panel.

  She took a big breath, noticing the small sounds that filled the room now that the loudness from the kicks were
gone and the pounding of her heart had slowed. A clocked ticked in the background, and the scurry of feet could be heard between the walls and rustling the papers scattered around the wound.

  Hannah pulled away the splintered wood as much as she could, dust irritating her nose and throat, making her scratched up hand and leg burn even worse. Smoke wafted from the panel, a deep gray fog that made her gag. She started to cry. There was a great deal she had been prepared to deal with, to risk, but having to put her hand in there, to have to touch that fog, let it touch her, crawl into her was almost too much. Almost.

  She slid her hand inside and her hands found threadbare velvet. She let her hand roam over the bag until she found what should be the fiddle’s neck. She pulled it out and held it at arm's length. The bag seemed to pulse and the fog fit itself to the contours of her arm. Hannah felt as though she was about to faint, as though her knees were about to buckle. But she fought through the nausea, fought through the dizziness of her vision.

  The front door seemed too far away, and would involve walking through the rest of the house. She staggered to the window and fell more than climbed out, falling to the ground on her knees and rolling to keep from breaking the fiddle. The cooling air was a relief and chased away her queasiness. Hannah got to her feet and started out at a trot, then a run, and last a sprint.

  Her balance was off, trying to run and hold her right arm out in front of her to avoid snagging the fiddle on branches that lined the path, trying to keep the pulsating, vibrating device as far from her as she could. She burst from the wooded path into the field.

  Her lungs burned and her scratches ached. Her vision was blurred by tears and fear, and she felt worse laying still at the crossroads than she had while running. She laid with her head low, trying to keep her entire body below the height of the grass to make sure she could not be seen from the dirt road, just in case a car decided to choose that moment to come rolling by. The dirt caked up in the rivulets of her drying blood, and the grass stung like ant bites. Hannah raised her head just high enough to talk and not take in mouthfuls of the brown dirt.

  “Hey you,” she whispered, figuring that shouting wouldn’t be much use. Where this thing was coming from, it would either hear a whisper or it wouldn’t hear nothing at all. “I got what it is you want. You come on up to these crossroads and you can get it.”

  There was nothing but the deep croaking of bullfrogs and the high--pitched chirping of crickets for a few moments. But then, the air shimmered, right where she had seen the creature before. And he was there. Cloven feet, pale tan hat and overcoat, and black shirt. Hannah stood up and crossed the dirt road, staying out of the reach of that damn fog.

  “You got it?”

  Hannah held out the bag in answer. It occurred to her that it was odd she had never even checked to see what was in that bag, but it had seemed so unnecessary at the time. What if the fiddle wasn’t in here? And she had already taken her name off the lists for the contest. Would begging to get back on look suspicious? She shook her head, shaking away the doubts. Even if she doubted that this was what she had been sent after, she did not doubt the demon’s reaction.

  It cackled and jumped in the air doing a turn and a jig. “Damn girl, you came through. Now come on over here and give it to me, and then that little deal you and me done made is good and done.”

  Hannah felt the fiddle beating faster in her hand. “I can throw it to you.”

  The demon frowned and bit down on its lower lip. “You have to hand it to me. Come on, I done made a deal and I ain’t gonna go back on it. You just make sure you don’t renege on your part. Now just step on over here and hand me that fiddle.”

  “Why? Why do I have to hand it to you?” She looked down at the fog. The grayness lapped at her feet, coming just short of touching her. She took another step back.

  “Because, whoever owns it has to give it back to me freely.”

  “I don’t see how that make much sense. Why does it matter? If you just want the fiddle back, how does it matter how you get it back?”

  “Listen.” the demon’s nose steamed in the growing darkness. “You just listen here girl. You want that deal we made about your granddaddy, then you get over here and you give me that fiddle. Just hand it off to me, that’s all you got to do.”

  Hannah brushed one of her braids back behind her ear. “Please, just take it.” She drew back her arm and started to throw the fiddle at the demon.

  “Stop.” The demon held out its hands in front of it in the sign for stop. “Stop okay, just stop. Don’t you dare throw that fiddle.” It brushed down its blouse and then rocked back and forth from heel to toe. “Is it the fog? You don’t have to be afraid of that, it's just a side effect that’s all. You give me that fiddle, and I promise you that it will be the last you see of this fog.”

  Hannah gulped, her heart and stomach fluttered in unison. She took a step forward, and then another. She let out one single sob when her feet were enveloped by the fog but she kept moving forward, and forward, and forward. She kept the fiddle out in front of her, her arm outstretched. It felt like moving a mile through molasses, but she came to within grabbing distance of the demon.

  It smiled wider than Hannah thought possible and then clamped down on her arm. Hannah dropped the bag and screamed but the demon drew her closer, its mouth widening and widening. She pulled on her arm, she kicked at its leg. She bit at its arm and she screamed some more. She clawed at its eyes and tried to stomp on its hooves, but the grip got tighter and tighter.

  “Please stop. Let me go. Please let me go.”

  “No, no, no, the devil always collects his due.”

  Hannah sobbed. “The fiddle. You said you came for the fiddle.”

  “I lied.”

  Hannah kept pulling until her head swam, until her knees buckled and she sank into the soft ground. Until the fog crawled up her legs and scurried up over her chest and neck. She looked up and opened her mouth to scream but the fog snaked into her open mouth and down her throat. The demon spoke in her voice, “Oh sweetheart, you lucky in a way. I mean, just think about how easy you will be able to trick some hapless kid into coming to you. Why, I been working this here crossroads for years and just now found out the more complicated you make a request the more a human child will trust you.” She glared at the bag on the ground and the demon shrugged and scrunched up her nose.

  “Oh this?” The demon with her face chuckled her chuckle and Hannah watched as the bag was absorbed into the fog. The demon tapped its head and then its mind. In the distance Hannah saw a bright red apple, a golden fiddle, a bright white harp and a dozen other shapes. “You will find that humans are masters of seeing what they want to see and finding whatever they think it is they need to find.”

  “Granddaddy?” Hannah coughed out.

  The demon stepped onto the dirt road and bounced up and down. Hannah rolled over onto her back and tried to sit up, but her body was heavy. Her body was so heavy that it felt as though she was sinking into the dirt, the fog, her fog, digging the ground out from beneath her body. She heard a voice that was her voice, singing in the distance, and she felt legs that were her legs, growing heavy with coarse matted fur.

  Prophecy? No, Thank You

  by Sean Sandulak

  Cravan idly swirled the last bit of his beer around in the bottom of his flagon. It was a weak brew, wholly unsatisfying, but it also represented the last of his coin, so he had been nursing it for almost an hour. Adventuring was not always the profitable endeavor that he’d imagined in his youth. With a little luck however, that would soon change.

  He stroked his beard as he debated whether to ask his companion for yet another loan. On his left, Mor stared into one of his musty books, entranced by a world only he could see. He would sit like that for hours sometimes, lost in his own thoughts with his nose buried in some obscure tome. Cravan mulled that he would have preferred the company of a young woman of questionable morals, or even a bog troll to slay — anything to c
ut through the boredom of sitting here waiting. He tossed his head back to drain every drop from the cup before bringing it slamming down on the wine-stained tabletop.

  "Dammit, where is she?"

  "Right behind you."

  Cravan turned toward the voice and frowned. It was Rieki, the mysterious elven thief and vagabond. She wasn't the girl of ill-repute that he had been hoping for, but at least with her arrival there was finally hope of some excitement and, more importantly, profit. As she slipped into the chair across the table from the two men, Mor continued to stare down at his book. Cravan snorted and turned back to the girl.

  "Did you find her?" asked Cravan. "Are we in business? What took you so long?"

  "One question at a time, my friend," she answered. Her voice had the lilt and musical quality that all of her race possessed, but she added a sarcasm that was all her own. "I have located a girl who bears the Mark. She works as a milkmaid on a farm on the far side of the next valley."

  "A milkmaid!" His outburst filled the common room and heads turned in his direction. Rieki flashed him a stern and mocking glare, but he had already realized his mistake. He leaned in close to the elf and whispered, "Not a warrior? Or even a mage? Just a run-of-the-mill, gods-damned milkmaid?"

  "So it would seem," said Rieki. She tipped the empty flagon towards her and peered inside. Frowning in disappointment, she set it back down.

  Cravan folded his brawny arms across his chest. "Maybe Mor has missed the mark again."

  "The prophecy is true," said Mor without looking up. "The girl is our salvation. She will slay the beast and deliver us to prosperity. It is written."

  "Oh, decided to join us in the real world?" asked Cravan, but the wizard just ignored him. Cravan grunted and turned his attention back to the elf. He held out his arms and looked up at the ceiling in his best imitation of a travelling preacher. "It is written,” Cravan repeated. “You can't argue with that."

  "Now, now," she said. "You know as well as I do that the wizard's aim leaves something to be desired, but when it comes to interpreting dusty old scrolls there are few who can match his skill."

  "Aye, I'll give you that," he said. "But a milkmaid?"

  "Sometimes great destinies are born from humble beginnings. Who can say what the fates hold in store for each of us." Rieki stood up and moved behind Cravan to whisper over his shoulder. "Speaking of humble beginnings, I assume you bought the supplies we need before you drank your purse dry?"

  "I did."

  "Then let's be off," she said. "I want to be back at the farm before the sun gets too low."

  "Oh? Good-looking was she?"

  "On the contrary, she was rather plain and smelled of the stables." Rieki paused for a moment and then smiled. "However, with the right lighting and a good bath…"

  "You'll never change," said Cravan. "Need I remind you that's how you nearly ended up in the gallows in Homelyn."

  "How was I to know that she was the magistrate's daughter?"

  "Your lusting will be the end of you," said Cravan. "I swear you'll hump anything that moves."

  "That's not true," she said. "I would never touch the likes of you, for instance."

  "Fortunate am I to be spared the plague between your legs." He gave Mor a rough shove to roust him from his daydream. "C'mon. Let's go before Lady Firecrotch starts groping the innkeeper. We've got a dragon to slay."

  They collected their horses from the stable, plus the two extra nags that Cravan had just bought - one for supplies and the other for the girl. It was a long walk to the dragon's lair, and the time until the alignment was short. The stars would not be in this particular pattern again in their lifetime. Not that such things mattered to Cravan, but Mor was the expert in things mystical. If they needed to spend all their money on a couple of mangy ponies to get there on time then so be it. Besides, it would make hauling away all that gold that much easier.

  They made good time across the valley. The roads were practically empty and the recent lack of rain had left the trail hard-packed and dry. Rieki led them to a place where they could hide and watch the farmhouse. She had seen only the farmer and his daughter, the one with the mark. There were usually three other men around explained Rieki, but a neighbor had told her that the two eldest sons were in the next town selling their extra cheese, and the youngest was sick in bed. The wife had died of a fever years ago.

  From his vantage point in the bushes, the girl sweeping the porch seemed unremarkable. Cravan studied her for some hint of a great destiny waiting, but all that he saw was a farmhand with a dirt-stained, sackcloth dress and greasy hair tied up in braids. She could have been any of a thousand farm girls he had seen in his life. "Are you certain she's the one?" he whispered.

  "If there's one thing I know, it's women," answered Rieki.

  "Aye, and men," he said. "And probably dogs and horses from what I gather."

  "Jealous?" she quipped. "Look there, the five pointed star on her neck poking out above the collar."

  "Looks more like a rash than a mystical sign of prophecy," he said.

  "She is the one," said Mor. His monotone pronouncement was apparently meant to end all debate. He strode forward from their hiding place directly towards the girl. Rieki looked at Cravan and shrugged before following the slender man towards the farmhouse. Cravan felt stupid sitting alone in the bushes, so he had no choice but to go after them.

  The girl leaned on her broom as the three approached and she frowned. "Good evening to you," she said politely. "What business do a dwarf, an elf, and a mage have on our little patch of dirt."

  "I'm not a dwarf," insisted Cravan.

  "Oh gods, here we go again," Rieki muttered at Mor.

  The milkmaid looked perplexed. "I'm sorry…what?"

  "I'm not a dwarf," he repeated. "I'm five-foot-two. That's a respectable height for any man, if a wee bit on the lower side of average."

  Rieki turned to Mor again and whispered, "Aye, but four inches of that is in his boot heels." Mor broke from his usual taciturn expression to giggle at that one.

  The girl continued, "I'm sorry, but what with the beard and the axe…"

  "Now that's just racist," said Cravan. "Let me tell you…"

  "I'm sorry to interrupt," said Mor, "but we are on a mission of some urgency. It seems you have been selected by the Fates to perform a sacred duty and rescue the land from its torment."

  She looked at Rieki and asked, "What's he saying now?" The elf just shrugged.

  Undeterred, Mor went on, "We need you to come with us and slay a dragon."

  She burst out laughing. "No, I don't think so."

  Cravan's face turned an even brighter shade of red. "What do you mean, 'No'? It's a bleeding prophecy! It's like it has already happened. You can't just say, 'No, thank you. I'm a bit busy at the moment. Could you come back next week?' You're the chosen one, for gods' sake!"

  "Your gods, not mine." She resumed sweeping the porch, purposefully pushing the clouds of dust towards the three adventurers. "Me, I've got a decent life here with a loving family. I've caught the eye of the blacksmith's son Torn, and he's likely to propose any day now. Why would I want to give up all that to go tromping through the forest with you lot and get myself killed?"

  "She makes a good point," said Rieki.

  "Quiet, you," said Cravan. "You're not helping."

  Mor stepped forward and pointed at the red, raised patch of skin on her neck. "In the time of Tragain, when the Lands were at war and the mystical beasts first walked in our world, it was written that a woman who bore the Mark of Cilandil would free the world from a great evil."

  The girl pulled up her collar to cover the blemish. "What, that? It's just a birthmark. It doesn't mean anything."

  “The stars are aligned, and the Mark is revealed. It only remains that you accept your destiny for it to be realized."

  "Bloody hell, this one's going to talk me to death," said the milkmaid. She pushed her head in the open doorway and called out, "Hey, Poppa. There's ano
ther bunch of religious nuts at the door."

  In moments, a large, burly man emerged from inside the home. Brandishing a huge meat cleaver, he stood between the trio and his daughter. "Clear off you lot. We don't worship snakes or spiders around here. Nobody wants any part of your silly cult."

  Cravan, still flustered, was looking for a fight. He twisted the shaft of his axe in his hands, feeling the weight of it. Rieki drew her bow and nocked an arrow, ready to let fly if things went bad.

  But Mor was still determined to solve the situation peacefully. "Good sir, I assure you that we have no such intentions. We merely bring word that your daughter is needed for a quest…"

  "There's not going to be any quests," the man bellowed. "Nor adventures, nor missions neither. Now get of my land before I carve you up and feed you to my pigs."

  "I'd like to see you try!" Marching forward, Cravan stood only a few paces from the enraged father, close enough to see the rage in the man’s eyes. He was just about to charge when his knee gave out under him and he fell to the ground. Cravan spat out dust and curses before trying to get up, but the lithe form of Rieki climbed on top of him, pinning him to the ground. As he started to protest, a wave of purple mist passed above them. He recognized Mor’s handiwork and stopped struggling, keeping his head low to the ground. The cloud engulfed the farmer and his daughter who both collapsed on the farmhouse's porch, fast asleep.

  "Dammit, Mor," said Cravan. "I had it under control."

  Rieki was already on her feet offering her hand to help him up. "If by under control you mean about to have your ass handed to you by a man twice your size, then yeah, I'd say you had that one."

  "Killing these people will not help us," said Mor. "I suggest we gather up the young lady and be off before they wake."

  Cravan slapped Rieki's hand away. "Go and get the horses. I don't want to have to carry her all the way to the wastelands." She waited until he was half-standing before she put a boot to his rear. Cravan lost his balance and fell face first into the dirt again. Grunting and panting, he managed to stand back up using his axe as a crutch. Rieki had already vanished so he turned to Mor to vent his anger. "And you. Your aim's getting worse all the time. You almost hit me with your sleeping spell again."

  “If you don’t want to get hit by my magic,” said Mor, “then stop blocking my line of fire. We needed the girl alive, not hacked into pieces. When we have a horde of orcs or some firewood to be chopped, I’ll call you. Until then try to contain your enthusiasm.”

  When Rieki had returned with the horses in tow, Mor and Cravan lifted the sleeping girl up onto a horse, and Rieki tied her to the saddle so she wouldn't fall off. For good measure Cravan gagged her with a wad of cloth torn from the hem of her dress. It was going to be difficult enough smuggling the girl out of the valley without her calling out for help. When they were confident that she was secure they left the farm and headed west, sticking to animal trails and unused back roads to avoid attention.

  It was almost nightfall when they came to a small clearing in the woods where they could camp. The girl had woken an hour or so before and had immediately tried to get free of her bonds. Mor couldn't cast his spell on her again without knocking out the horse as well, so they left her to struggle in vain. Rieki knew a thing or two about tying people up; the girl was not going anywhere soon.

  Cravan made a passable stew from the supplies they had brought. He did all the cooking, not because he had a great love or even skill for the culinary arts, but because he didn't trust either the thief or the mage not to put something unpleasant in his food. While he believed that they wouldn’t poison him outright, both had an expert knowledge of plants that could knock him out or make him soil his britches, and they were not above pulling pranks.

  Mor and Rieki had pulled the girl down off the horse and were guarding her. When Cravan approached her with a bowl and a crust of day-old bread, Mor pulled the gag from her mouth. The wizard took the bowl from Cravan and set it on the ground beside him, tossing the bread on top to soak in the juices.

  "When my father and brother find us, your skulls will decorate our fence posts. Let me go now and there's a chance you might get away with your skin intact."

  “Brave words, but unnecessary,” said Mor. “I apologize for the manner in which we came to be here, but if you'll give me a moment to explain…"

  "I don't want to hear it," she said. "You're all crazy. Just cut me loose and I'll find my own way home."

  "I first would like to point out that calling the people who are holding you hostage 'crazy' may not not be the best strategy. But that aside, once I have had my say, I will cut you loose and you can do anything you choose."

  "What kind of trickery is this?" she asked.

  "No tricks, my dear," he answered. "Only truths. As I was saying before your father interrupted, there is a prophecy that the one who bears the Mark of Cilandil will slay a great beast at such and such a time and such and such a place. That much you know. What I didn't get to say is that there is a great sickness sweeping the Lands, and its only cure requires the blood of a dragon."

  "I don't see what any of this has to do with me," she said. "I'm no dragonslayer."

  "Then many will waste away and die," said Mor. "If you cannot complete this task, I'm sorry to say that your younger brother will be one of the first to perish."

  "What? Not Jerald!"

  "Yes, I'm afraid so," said Mor. "It would seem that you are left with an impossible choice. Either you do nothing and watch your brother, possibly your whole village, die from a plague, or you accept that there is a higher power that has a plan for you." He pulled a knife from his belt and cut the ropes on her wrists and ankles. "I leave it to you to decide which is the worse fate."

  Mor stood up and walked towards Rieki and the cooking fire. She leaned close to him and whispered, "Was any of that true?"

  "Well, dragon's blood is a powerful curative in skilled hands."

  "And her brother?"

  Mor hesitated. "Probably has grave rot from watching the pagans dance naked under the full moon. It's a common enough affliction in boys his age. He should be fine in a few days if he stays in bed. The witches are occasionally spiteful but rarely cruel."

  She flashed him a wicked smile that went from pointed ear to pointed ear. "Is that wise to let her go like that?"

  He turned his head to look back at the farm girl. She was quickly devouring the bowl of stew that he had left next to her. "She's not going anywhere. She thinks she's the savior of her entire village. Still, keep an eye on her. If she tries to run, tie her up and put a bag on her head until we need her."

  Mor scooped a helping of stew and handed it Rieki before taking one for himself. Cravan, already having finished his portion, was reclining against a fallen log and picking his teeth with a twig. "You're a devious bastard," he said. "Lucky you're on our side."

  It wasn't until the next afternoon that they reached the scorched earth that marked the edge of the dragon's territory. While it would range over a hundred leagues when hunting, it always kept to the fire-blasted crags of the wasteland while it slept off its last meal. From the sightings by the nearby villagers, Mor had concluded that it was a newly matured adult, probably a male. That meant it would hunt every fortnight, on the new and full moons. Last night's moon was two days past full, so the timing was perfect. The beast should be fast asleep.

  The lair was easy to find, marked by the charred bones of the monster's previous meals. The horses would go nowhere near the place, so they were forced to tie them to the remains of a tree a mile back down the rocky trail. As they approached, the smell of brimstone grew stronger, and the ash that was stirred up by their steps stung their eyes. A cluster of boulders overlooked the flat plain in front of the cave entrance, so they took cover there to plan their next move.

  "So what happens now?" the girl asked.

  "Now you go down there and kill the dragon," said Cravan.

  "What?" she protested. "I'm not going down t
here alone. I'll be killed."

  "Trust me," he said. "It'll be fine. Mor says he's asleep. Just sneak in and stab him in the eye."

  "With what?" she asked. "I don't even have a knife."

  Cravan looked around until he saw the remains of an unfortunate previous adventurer. He pried the sword from the skeleton's grasp, shattering a few of the finger bones in the process. He forced it into the girl's quivering hand. "Here you go, lass."

  "Uh…thanks," she said. "That didn't do him much good though, did it?"

  "He wasn't the chosen one," said Mor. "You have destiny on your side."

  "If it makes you feel better," said Cravan, "you can dress the part." He turned back to the skeleton and grabbed the poor soul's chainmail armor by the shoulders and shook it until the dead man's arms and rib cage fell out of the bottom and rolled down the incline.

  The girl covered her mouth with her free hand. "I think I'm going to be sick."

  "What? It's good armor." Cravan held it up in front of him to model it like it was a debutante's ball gown. "It's nice, isn't it? I wish I'd had this when I started adventuring."

  "I think that might be too heavy for her," said Rieki.

  "Hmm…maybe you're right," he said. "How about the helmet though?" There's always falling rocks and low-hanging stalactites in caves." Cravan reached into the headpiece, pulling out the skull that was still inhabiting it. He tossed the grinning head over his shoulder before shoving the helmet down on the milkmaid's head.

  The brim came halfway down her nose, so she leaned back and squinted from underneath. "I can't see a thing in this."

  "Trust me," said Cravan. "I've been in many battles and you're far better off not knowing what's going on around you." He picked up a fallen, half-burned shield from the ground and strapped it to her arm. "There you look like a proper warrior princess now."

  "I can't believe I'm doing this."

  "Just think of all the lives you'll be saving," said Mor.

  "And we'll be right behind you," added Rieki.

  "All right. Here I go."

  They watched as she slid down the embankment to the flat ground in front of the cave. After taking a few steps forward, her nerve seemed to fail. She looked back to see Cravan, Mor, and Rieki giving her encouraging smiles as they motioned for her to continue. The girl took a few more steps before there was a hissing and a deep rumbling growl from inside the cavern which made the ground vibrate.

  "Forget this," she said. "I'm getting the hells out of here."

  She turned to run, but this time the three adventurers were crouched down behind the rocks with only the tops of their heads showing. A shadow rose up leaving smoke and ash in its wake. She slipped on the loose gravel and fell hard to the ground. When she sat up, she was looking straight at the monster. Its body was the size of a house; the head alone was bigger than a carriage. The dragon eyed her hungrily. The beast's serpentine neck drew the its gaping mouth back before the monster came rushing down at her. The girl's screams were abruptly cut off as the wyrm swallowed her up whole.

  "Okay that didn't work," said Cravan. "Anybody got any more bright ideas?"

  "I don't understand," said Mor. "The prophecy was true. I'm sure of it."

  "What a waste of a perfectly good farmer's daughter," said Rieki.

  "Poor…did anyone catch her name?" asked Mor.

  Below them the dragon began to cough and spit fire, seemingly at random. After a few moments it started to thrash violently, knocking over piles of rocks and smashing bones. It bucked like an enraged bull and then spread its wings out to their full extent before it finally collapsed on the ground in a heap and was still. The three adventurers clung to the side of the rock until they were sure it wasn't going to start up again.

  "What happened?" asked Mor.

  "I think it choked on the milkmaid," said Rieki. "Let that be a lesson to always chew your food, Cravan."

  Mor rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. "Well technically she did kill the dragon, so…prophecy fulfilled?"

  "The fates can be cruel," said Cravan, "but they can also be hilarious."

  "That blacksmith's son that she was going to marry is going to need some consoling," said Rieki.

  "Leave that poor boy alone. Hasn't he suffered enough already?” said Cravan. "But I think we're forgetting the most important thing. There's an unprotected dragon hoard down there somewhere. Tonight the drinks are on me!”

  The Heaven Gate

  by Jon Jefferson

  Locked. The blasted things were locked. George had told Eric to meet him here, even mentioned stepping inside the gates because the neighborhood wasn't the best. “Doesn't always go your way though does it?” Eric thought.

  Eric rattled the bars again, just for good measure. He was at George's mercy and couldn't change anything. Eric needed a favor, a huge one. The odds of this going his way were slim. Sitting outside the gates to the warehouse like this though, well that took the cake.

  Eric paced in front of the gates. The winter air cut through his thin coat. The pacing kept his blood circulating, kept him warm. He hated to think what might happen if he sat down for too long in this weather.

  The headlights came around the corner, alerting him to a car coming soon. With any luck it would be George. Bastard needed to hurry his ass up and get here soon.

  The car passed by. The dash lights reflected off the two occupants, girls from what he could tell. Still no George. Eric knew he was playing a power trip now.

  "You coming in or what?" The voice came from behind Eric, the other side of the gate.

  Eric gripped the .38 in his jacket pocket. "What the fuck dude? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

  "I thought you were meeting me inside?" George pushed the gate open so Eric could join him.

  "Gate was locked," Eric said.

  "Thought you had a key," George said. "I've been here for an hour waiting for you. What was this favor anyway?"

  "Let's get inside. I've been out here freezing my ass off."

  On the surface, George ran a building supply business. Hidden behind that, he laundered money for several "businesses" through the warehouse. Low key work really, but there were risks. Accurate books for the warehouse were a must.

  They sat in George's main office, not the one the regular customers saw. They were in his business office in the subbasement. A hatch leading to this office was covered by a filing cabinet upstairs. He kept accurate records in this office too. The books could put quite a few people in jail for a long time.

  "What's so important we had to meet here?" George asked.

  "They found it. I don't know how, but they did."

  "Found what? You're speaking in riddles."

  Eric looked him in the eye. "The package we buried a few years ago."

  George went white. "How did they find it? We lost that shit."

  "Eddie the Mouse called me this morning," Eric said. "Said they were digging around where they shouldn't be."

  "How do you know they found it though? Just because they were in the area doesn't mean they found it."

  "He described it to me. The Mouse never saw it."

  "Shit, fuck noodles," George said. "What are you going to do?"

  "Dammit George, that's why I came to you." Eric smacked his fist down on the table.

  "What do you expect me to do?"

  Eric released a heavy sigh. "You are going to have to pull some strings. If this gets out I won't be the only one that goes down because of it."

  "Let me make a couple calls. I'll get in touch with you tomorrow."

  "Keep me in the loop."