1. Plight & Fey
Might is grey. Easily thrown into the fray. It doesn’t matter whether you’re right or whether you just think you are: strength is always there, happy to defend the shrinking, shirking conscience that is sat playing games in the corner. By light of dismay, one might observe oneself, the displeasing, never easing fight to display a truly convincing guise for one’s feign. Do you ever feel like the flight of the grain transcends its coup and the cut of its plane? I’m running the way of the blood in the vein.
I’m on a collision course. You forget I have right of way. We kiss in the air and the time escapes, tell me you love me with a sigh of pain. I am invited to deign. If only I could, I would displace shins on the night that I pushed you away. I only rise when you lay, losing all feeling, spittle link chains.
The burden of plight to the fey. Lashings of spite will fend him away. Yet I still want and dream, one dream for night and one dream for day.
by Dan Hale
2. Justice for the Dead
The dead littered the ground. Corpses everywhere stinking the place up. Bullet-ridden bodies and bloodstained floors greeted the detective’s eyes when he entered the room. Death has a smell which doesn’t agree with the living causing the later all sorts of troubles. The smell of death mixing with the acrid smell of spent gunpowder just made the smell unbearable, making the constables gag and causing one of them void his stomach, the day’s breakfast meeting the ground; a sight none wanted to see. The detective walked around the room, poking the occasional body and turning a face here and there.
Why don’t people do a better job of staying alive? It’s always the stupid ones, poking where their noses don’t belong and stirring the pot that end up dead. Why in God’s name don’t they do their own shit and die of old age?
The telegram had come late in the night and kept him awake since and the travel here definitely hadn’t helped him sleep. He’s been ordered to investigate this case and as per the direct order of his superiors – seek Justice.
Justice, he thought, what a stupid notion. Justice for the dead is an excuse the living make to get revenge. There is no honor, not catharsis, no cleaning of the slate that is gained with justice. Just malice and bloodlust sated. The dead don’t care for justice. To right the wrongs done to them. The only thing these dead wanted, needed, was a goddamn burial.
But orders are orders and so he did what he did best. Investigate. And somewhere along the line, seek justice.
by Hrishikesh Purandare
3. Blood and Ink
Fierce waves lashed against the boulders, punishing it like a mother would to her mischievous child. She inhaled the brackish air and watched the seagulls flying and ringing above the shore. Dogs barked somewhere. The strange woman walked down the line between the sea and the beach, leaving footprints behind, thoughtful. It was, after all, a pleasant day. Walking further, her only remaining eye stared at the horizon, the sun was setting peacefully while her hands touched the mask, covering half of her face. She managed to take it off carefully, ever so softly. When the work was done, her right side revealed nothing but a hollow horror of violence, as if a mad animal had bitten on it. Strapped at her hip, a sword rested in its scabbard, attentive. Then, she pulled her sword out, putting onto the ground by her side, the sharp blade resting in the sand catching sparks of sunlight. A bag was opened and a smell wafted in the air, filling her nostrils, revealing fresh apple and baked bread inside, also a bottle of wine. She took a mouthful of bread and started chewing, feeling the sweet breeze stroking her hair into a mess. Her mouth curved into a smile. Then, she drained her bottle.
Minutes passed, but the woman kept still, her legs crossed. Sailors cursed on the shore, loading and unloading things with imperial bravado, almost in synch. The strange woman did not notice and stood up, ready to leave. Night was coming.
She gathered her items and lifted her hood, starting to make her way back. Sabatha started singing, her voice somehow iron and damaged. When she realised the price, her voice faded. A small boy giggled about, pointing a crooked finger to the figure albeit she didn’t seem to notice.
by Gabriel Rodrigues
4. The chase
Darkness surfaced at the edges of Days sight. Elation burned in her core, threatening to escape and deliver the world a glowing end. She held it, knowing Night would retreat from her embrace, for between them there was nothing but pain. But who else could they love if not one another, the music they once created shook existence itself. So they chased, and ran, and flew, while the humans below stared, and sat, and idolized them. “How can you love for so long?” They would ask. “Because we provide nothing for one another, but still we seek the others touch.” Her single whispered reply.
In time the world forgot Night and Day, resorting to hatred for each other, and the lovers looked on with pity. Day knew her time was ending, she was not as warm or bright, but still Night preceded her, readying the world for another morning. Soon the sky around her was nearly as bright as she used to be, great clouds of ash erupted from the earth darkening the sky, and all was quiet. For the first time in her existence she could see nothing, but, for the first time she could feel him enfold her and she smiled. “I can see you my love.” was the last thing she would ever hear.
by Riley Pettit
Jane. Jane. That was her name. The clerk at the gas station. She was a bright spot in his day. The way she smiled with unassuming levity took him back to a time when he was that naive. Before the world showed itself as the cold, uncaring place made clear through the lens of age. Still, it comforted him to know that all innocence was not yet lost to the world. After he was gone, at least one last person would hold on to it.
“You okay, Jack?”
The bar was stuffy, as crowded and loud as it was every Saturday night. Jack saw the concern on Bill’s face, his too often wrinkled brow turning him into a drunken caricature of himself.
Jack would have laughed on another day.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just thinking.”
Bill settled back in his seat with a dissatisfied huff, his head bowing and arm reaching for the next shot of whatever poison he’d settled into for the day. They spent most of the evening in somber reflection, Bill’s questions buried in sideways glances.
“It’s hard every year. For me too,” He said, shuffling from his seat and laying a hand upon his brother’s shoulder. “I just wanted you to know that.”
Bill lingered a moment before settling his tab and negotiating his way to the exit. Jack looked after him as the door shut, his figure silhouetted as he passed by the shaded windows. His thoughts wandered to the times before they were both hopeless drunks. When passion and opportunity were still a part of their lives. Those times were long gone, like the last drops from the bottle he still held in his hand. Maybe hope was something some people held on to, but for him there was nothing left to hope for.
by Kenneth Bragg
6. The Night That Gives the Day
‘Ah, a cell again, is it?’
Day ignored the warden’s question; he could take everything from her, everything except her perceptions. Day clung to those jealously.
This time, the cell was circular. The walls were rough-cut stone, glassy with moisture, and punctuated with a door of heavy iron. There were no windows – what was the point? – with only a simple wooden table and two chairs. Day sat watching the warden as he entered and closed the door behind him. He smiled bemusedly and took the seat opposite.
The warden’s skin was black as decay, as if each pigment had shrivelled and died. He wore what Day wanted him to wear: a uniform suit and starch-collared shirt. Even still, he blurred between the blinks of Day’s eyes – sometimes wearing a toga, other times a patchwork of pelt and leather, but most often a black suggestion of limbs and teeth and claws.
‘What would be the term, then?’ the warden asked. ‘Yard time? Is that it?’
Day lifted her hands from her lap and dropped them clattering onto the desk. Both wrists were chained in iron, the skin beneath red and raw and weeping.
The warden hesitated, drawing the moment out into an agony before sliding one black hand toward her. His spidery fingertips brushed her wrist, sending a shock of cold silence racing through her. Then he touched her manacles; they fell reluctantly.
The sensation was always the same. A flood of light and warmth and awareness. The cell bled away as Day did what she was born to do: shine.
The night hit her like the sea. She blinked, and her wrists were once again shackled, the iron seemingly tighter than before.
The warden stood, his bottomless eyes considering the cell. His lips quirked into a toothless smile. ‘Tomorrow, then.’
by Alan Brenik
7. Night and Day
Mr night and Mr day looked at each other through narrow, slitted eyes. Both of the men were covered in blood, the result of having to kill many henchmen to get to where they were now.
Mr night spoke into the silence, a silence that you could cut with a club never mind a knife, ”This is my hit, sonny. Why don’t you go home to mama?”
Day shook his head in sadness, ”Look at you you old fart, you’re half dead. You’ll never reach the target”
Day raised his loaded crossbow as Night moved to wipe a drop of blood off the tip of his nose, he cringed back even as he pulled his arm back to throw his poisoned dagger, ”Jumpy ain’t you? And you think you can kill him in that state?”
“We could take him together and split the money. Your experience and my youth, we cant fail!”
Night rubbed a hand along his chin, wiping blood across it. He looked like he’d been drinking it, “Fifty-fifty?”
Night held out his hand, “Shake on it.”
Day looked uncertainly down at the proffered hand.
“Come on, we haven’t got all day!”
Day and Night shook hands, then pulled away. Both of them looked surprised to be still standing.
“Let’s do this!”, Day said and they both turned towards the large oaken double doors.
Behind them, a figure slowly descended to the floor where it landed without a sound.
With a KERSHING the figure lopped of Mr Day’s head, and with a SHLINK it cut off Mr Nights.
“You can unlock the door now, sir, I have removed the intruders.”
A key was turned and a large man stepped out. He looked at the young lady before him.
“Thank you, Twilight.”
Twilight smiled, “You’re welcome, father.”
by Paul Lavender
8. Welcome Home
“Don’t you dare go near those woods” my Mother used to caution. Her lips tight and her eyes wide as she held my shoulders tightly. She knew curiosity was always a strength and a weakness of mine.
By day I would venture to the border of trees and society. By night I would stare avidly from my window as the treetops swayed in the gentle breeze, the rustle of leaves calling me on.
From below the trees looked different. Staring up the length of the great oaks trunk I felt a sense of kinship and belonging. As I travelled in, the hue of golds and greens kept my attention and satiated my curiosity, but still I was called onwards.
For a week I have heard calls and screams in the woods, the trees calling my name. They sound like my mother, but it is just my child’s imagination playing tricks.
Unmoving and unstirring, I lay amongst the brush and hear the trekking of feet, snapping the dried foliage and tiny twigs. They call my name but I have what I want. The woods have taken my curiosity away and left me happy. I hear cries. Uncontrollable sobbing and screams of agony, my Mother again. I feel the hands slide under my shoulders, separating me from the earth. “You shouldn’t go into the woods” I whisper “You don’t belong here”.
by Eoin Lynch
9. Wakeup Call
Night seemed to last forever. I woke from a peaceful dream in which my dead folks were saying something I couldn’t understand, to the jarring dissonance of sirens dopplering into the parking lot outside of a new day. The cheap, cracked plastic clock read 11:08 AM.
‘Overslept? OMIGOD, I’m going to lose the account!’ I thought. I was out of bed like a shot.
There was a knock on the door on my way to the bathroom. “Mr. Thompson? This is the police.”
“Don’t come in for God’s sake–I don’t have any clothes on!”
Another voice came from the hall. “I tolja already, I been calling since 5 this morning and the asshole won’t answer.”
“Open the door for us, please.”
I yelped and looked for a bathrobe, but there was nothing around. ‘Cheap roach motel!’ I thought.
The bolt snicked back and the door opened, then jammed against the chain lock. Someone in a blue uniform heavy hit the door with his shoulder, and the metal thing flew off as he crashed through, followed by another. “Mr. Thompson?”
I tried to cover up as best I could. “Good Jesus! What the hell’s the matter with you people?”
They ignored me.
I heard the motel guy call into the room from the hall. “Well?”
“Yeah. Forget the ambulance. Call the coroner.”
‘The what?’ I thought.
I glanced at the bed, saw the bloody mess there, and only then remembered/understood what my folks had said in the dream.
“Good to see you again, Johnnie. Welcome home, son.”
by David M. Hoenig
10. The Final Bridge
The air stilled as curling tendrils of mist were pushed aside, and the days break bled through the incoming penumbra. The sound of hooves slowed, stretched. A languid crushing of frozen grass and twigs. Slowly the shape became more distinct, light glinting from tack and bridle as the mare negotiated the path.
“You fail to heed my advice.” A disembodied voice. “A mistake, your last one.”
Faint whispers of a breeze stirred the mists, revealing the rider. From his viewpoint, propped between the roots of a burned yew, Stent could be forgiven in believing the peasants stories of Lord Wenden. Towering, foreboding, he seemed every inch the seven foot warrior of ale house tales. But Sten was not fooled. He understood the townspeople exaggerated the majesty of their ruler, such that they might feel a little taller themselves. It was, he surmised, a simple matter of perspective.
Sten rose, brushing frost from his trousers before crossing his arms and placing each hand deep into his armpits. Wenden towered still, seemingly as wide as he was tall, but Sten knew the difference between a fighters build and a man wrapped for the night.
“Welcome, I had hoped you might decide against venturing out. Cold here. Nice fur, nicer if it was round my own shoulders, Gods know I’d have appreciated that these past hours. Speaking of which, perhaps you might introduce yourself?”
“You know who I am.”
“Do the Gods?”
“You presume much to think that they would be here, now, watching over you.“
“Not me. You. Your mistake…” One swift movement and two wicked dirks were revealed. Sten settled into a crouch. “There will be a gathering when you pass over the bridge from this life. I’m sure I’ve been told so. The priests tell it so.”
by Dan Wilkinson
11. Birch & Boar
Faces where there should be none, old feet, cold and damp against ancient stone. Void. These are the subject of my thoughts as night draws near.
Limping, I make my way toward the stand of birch trees that will be my dwelling. This will be difficult in the wind, with my leg protesting the impending rain. Difficult is better than dead, which I would surely be, were I not to secure my hammock high between the swaying birch.
The leperboar pity not the lame.
I manage, just.
Sleep is slow to come. This is nothing new. Awful country eats the sleeping fear fails to keep awake. Nevertheless, sleep.
Day breaks and I wake with the world to death cries, and wet.
“It is far out, deep in the hills. Still, a fire is not safe this morning. It’s dried meat again, then.”
I have taken to talking to myself. It helps to shake off dreams of The Necromancer, Old Bill. Mother did the same to rid herself of night horrors. Father said she had a weak mind. Father was a wretch.
Lying in my hammock, soaked through, I wait for sounds of the boar to cease, and then wait longer. Their plague isn’t catching, but their tusks are crafted, deftly, for death. They usually won’t approach man, though these days they haven’t the luxury of choice when it comes to meat. Not here, not anymore.
Keeping myself company while listening to the sounds of the birch dripping life into the swollen loam, I pack camp and continue my inexorable trek to Old Bill. Prison is far too kind for his like. He is sure to be insane by now. That too is a kindness.
Piece by piece, he is to be broken.
I will finish his dismantling.
by Joseph Charles Coachman
12. Moon Prayer
The sun was blistering her skin quickly, her throat parched, and tongue swelling. Since morning, Alpha had been lashed tightly to a column at the corner of the square, unable to turn away from the scene in front of her, as was their intent. The bodies and charred ruins of their homes before her still smoked in the wake of the destruction. Bloodied and beaten, her hatred, sorrow, and anguish burned inside her body as hot as the merciless sun beating down and she prayed to Luna for strength to last until blessed nightfall. Centuries had passed keeping her people isolated from humanity, only myth to the world now, with powerful ancient wards to protect them from the eyes of men. Wards cast against mankind however, failed to prevent invaders who were anything but human.
The overwhelming swarm of creatures had taken the isolated village unaware at the break of day. Thousands of them. Her kith and kin slaughtered while sleeping after their hunting the night previous. The stinking brutes chattered in an alien tongue, a series of clicks, hisses, and whistles emanating from their porcine snouts, while pillaging the village stores and livestock, gore splattered on their rough reptilian hides.
As the sun set, Alpha, the leader of her people, felt Luna rising. Power growing by the moment. Flooding her with the rising beast within. She scented the presence of her rangers still hidden in the forest, and suppressed a small smile. Eyes glittering amber as the change broke her bonds, her wounds healing, she let out a roar. The answering howl from the forest edge was the sweetest sound. The Lycan would hunt tonight, and leave their shattered idyllic home, going out into the world to pursue the creatures, for even humanity deserved a better fate than this.
by Lynn Kempner
He holds her hand. Her skin is soft and cool in his,a little rough along the edges. He stares at her, tries to keep his eyes from watching the implacable sun trundle across the darkening sky. He tries to will a halt to the waning day.
A gentle mist rises up from the sea and wreaths the shore. She turns her head and to him she looks veiled, as a bride. Fitting, he thinks, for tonight she will be married to the sea. Her eyes, once a lively green, are endless pools of dark. Her skin seems almost velvety. She is beautiful, but suddenly strange. He grimaces. She sees his grimace and turns away to stare at the placid waves.
He takes a breath, searches for some kind of calm. Gently, he takes her chin and draws her gaze back to him. He offers her a broken smile. She mirrors one for him.
“What a miserly handful of sand we were given from the hourglass of time. If I had known how little it was, I’d have tried to steal a few grains more.” Her voice is quiet, rough with sorrow. She hesitates. “But true love is not enough to be a cure for all that lies between you and me.”
He nods, resigned. “Every bit of time was a treasure. I won’t regret a moment.” He promises himself his words are true. They had known it was a risk, that her blood might be less human and more fey. They had lost the gamble.
He tries to etch her every feature into his memory, but her form is already melting away. As the bright moon rises her limbs become short, her head round and sleek. His hand recoils from her flipper and she escapes. Lost to the waves and the night.
by Michelle Jacobs
14. My Night is Long, My Night is Wrong
The moon arises, the night begins.
Expunging sleep, from dreaming sins.
Sniff for cattle, the scent so sweet.
Taking flight, off idle feet.
We are alike, my meal and I.
We seek a drink, and a glorious high.
Flocked together, they hit the streets.
Find a club, and cavort to the beats.
Bodies moving, booze and sweat.
Makeup running, her nape is wet.
A man approaches, offers a drink.
She knocks it back, she does not think.
With her companion she departs, still I don’t care.
Once enthralled, I shall have that hare.
From the alley I spring, the man does strike.
I deflect the blow, say I wish not fight.
He punches again, I vacate him to the ground.
Lights blaring in the distance, will take him to the pound.
The bird does swoon, under my spell.
Little does she know, she’s headed for hell.
I take her to my home, a place of darkness and gloom.
My spell starts to wane, she yearns to leave the room.
Undulating my palm, prey wishes to alight.
I focus her neck and take myself a bite.
Screams with pain, the blood flows in.
Groan with lust, it trickles so thin.
With my victim’s collapse, I feel so alive.
This is my curse, it is my prize.
I soar through the sky, in joyous ecstasy.
The city below, all I can see.
My night is grand, my night is long.
Many others, would say it is wrong.
Night can’t endure, my prey must run.
Until next time, for you I shall come.
The coffin I seal, a place to hide.
Until moon’s rise, upon which I will ride.
I close my eyes and drift to sleep.
The day begins, the birds do tweet.
15. Battle of Myeonyang (1597)
Admiral Yi stared from his cabin at the three hundred wooden castles floating towards him at the day. If the Samurai won, the kingdom of Chosun was finished. The flag snapped in the wind as the horn blew from the Japanese ships. Yi stared back at his homeland, then towards the fleet. He gripped the hilt of his sword.
Yi bellowed. ‘Forward! Make straight for the Japanese ships. Aim cannons!’ he said. The drummers began to beat, as sailors prepared the sails, loosening the masts.
An officer shouted. ‘This is madness Admiral. We can’t possibly attack three hundred of their ships. Twelve won’t stand against them.’ His fear visibly etched onto his face as if a dragon had consumed him. Yi huffed. There was nothing left. His previous predecessor had destroyed his whole fleet in the night before. Now he would do with what he had. A cannonball crashed into the deck, causing Yi and the officer to stumble. The officer tried to retreat, dragging Yi off. Yi shoved him.
The third officer held the deck, cannon fire caused him to stumble, wood splintering into his legs. ‘We can’t stand against them! They are too powerful!’
Yi raised him up, standing relentless, staring at the fluttering flag of Chosun, his home. No matter how many corrupt officials came in his way, he would live to serve his homeland or die trying. Now the fate of Chosun rested on his hands. Yi turned to his officers, the ship creaking and groaning chopping through waves. The soldiers on his ship stood to attention as drums began to beat.
by Neil Sharma
The prince slumped on the stone bench, lost in thought. From the great hall beyond his chamber’s door floated the mournful notes of a lute, and the prince imagined the gathered nobles and clergy listening rapt as a bard shivered the silence with his song. It was his father’s favorite, a paean to promises kept and duties fulfilled.
The door opened and the steward entered carrying two cloth-wrapped bundles. He bowed to the prince, who sat up straighter.
“My lord,” murmured the steward.
The prince motioned for him to approach. “Frederick,” he said. “Is it time?”
The steward nodded and gently laid his burdens down on a table engraved with a map of the realm. “It is, my lord. You must choose a sword.”
The prince leaned closer. “Show me,” he commanded.
With great reverence the steward unwound one of the bundles, revealing a shimmering white blade. Even from where he sat a few paces away the prince could feel the heat radiating from the gleaming metal.
“Forged in dragonfire and then plunged hissing into a vat of quicksilver. The High Artificer has named this sword Day. He assures me that when it passes through flesh the heat will seal the wound immediately.”
“So no blood will be spilled?”
“That is . . . good. And the other sword?”
“He calls it Night.” The steward carefully unwrapped the second sword, exposing a blade so dark it seemed to drink the light. “And this one was fashioned from shadow itself – it is as cold as the heart of the fallen god. There will be no pain from a blow struck by this sword. Only numbness.”
The prince stared at the two blades for a long moment. “I choose Day.”
The steward sighed. “Then come, my prince. Your executioner awaits.”
17. Lily’s Light Show
A boy and girl crawled slowly through the bushes on hands and knees, careful not to be seen by the two teenage boys in the clearing. The teens were sitting on lawn chairs and looking at their phones as Nirvana played through a Bluetooth speaker on the ground.
“There’s Kirk the Jerk and his stupid cousin,” whispered Mark. It was a good name for their nemesis because it rhymed and because he was one. “Do you think you can do your trick? It’ll scare the crap out of ‘em.”
“Yeah, I think so. I’ll try.” Lily peered up at the overcast sky. The clouds looked about right. She had figured out by now that the clouds mattered.
Lily closed her eyes and scrunched up her face. She balled her hands into tiny fists and brought them close to her chest. Her cheeks and forehead were soon crimson from the strain. Any other time Mark would’ve been concerned for his little sister, but he knew what to expect.
After about a minute the sky turned dark with blue-gray clouds and the tree branches surrounding the clearing swayed erratically from a sudden wind. The teens looked up with faces showing worry and surprise. Passing thunderstorms were pretty common for a North Carolina summer day, but you usually had fair warning. As the boys stood up to make a break for home, the air flashed white and there was a deafening boom. A fountain of sparks erupted from a nearby tree and the boys hit the ground with their arms covering their heads.
Later that night, a tech in California was casually reading a data printout when an entry caught his eye. He scribbled “July 22, 3:51 pm, Clayton, NC” on a notepad and made a call to wake up his boss.
by Kurt Stahl
18. Perfect Camouflage
The monster watches me as I lay the child in the reeds – this mute foundling with the night-dark eyes. Five days ago, I dragged him scarcely breathing from the swamp. Fifty deaths later, I return him.
When day broke after that night of storms, a jagged tooth of metal – the monster’s lair – had erupted from the marsh. Lord Carolin’s knights assailed it. None returned. While we cowered in the citadel, the monster prowled howling beneath the cliffs.
I lean away beyond reach of the child’s fingers. When he blundered into the kennel of Carolin’s fiercest hounds – the dozen even the king cannot tame – I endured a furnace of fear. I dare not let his touch kindle even an echo of such emotion.
The monster shuffles across the soft ground. The marks on its carapace and the favouring of one limb show some knights at least struck a blow for their king. I retreat.
It gathers the child up in a shroud of thick tentacles and scaled blue skin, then lurches back towards its fortress. Just before they disappear through a fissure in the great steel shell, a slender green tentacle waves farewell at me.
A harsh alarm sounds. The swamp trembles. I run, thinking of Carolin’s untameable dozen – their frenzied slathering while I scanned the pen fruitlessly searching for the child. Only after the dogs had been driven out could I creep in and find him sitting oblivious, perfectly unharmed. The kennel master scratched his head and said, “I’m sure I counted thirteen.”
A convulsion of the earth flings me from my feet. The silvered fortress rises in the air, fleeing the swamp. Carolin will be angry. The child was precious to him too. But I have only done what any mother would have done … for another mother.
by P. Broke
Rumors are powerful things. Though they have countless natures, they take two shapes: That of a ladder, and that of a sword. Rumors set things in motion. They make lives and destroy them. They define reality. The true power of a rumor lies not in those spreading it, nor in those ascending it or receiving its pointy end. The power exists in the number of people believing it. A rumor backed by myriads is strong enough to burn the world and make it anew.
There were rumors that it wasn’t always night. That not everything was shades of grey. Legend has it that a thousand years ago, before the ascension of the Thirteen Gods, there were things called trees, food called vegetables, and animals other than rats.
Or so they say.
The warrior crossed the final steps and stopped outside the gate of Atarot’s temple. A rusty sword in one hand, a burned scroll in the other, the warrior stood silent. There was no need for words. His challenge was witnessed and accepted.
The warrior wasn’t special. He wasn’t a chosen one, or someone born and bred for that purpose. He was a simple man, who happened to believe in rumors. And there were rumors that the evernight would come to an end when the Gods met theirs. There would be something called day.
The warrior was here to kill a God. Not an easy feat, but the warrior had one thing, and that was experience.
After all, he had killed twelve others.
by Petros Triantafylloy
20. The Rose
“You think he’ll come?”
Jarome pushed Judd aside as the assassin’s star spun toward them, its spikes flashing in the firelight.
“Move!” he hissed.
But Judd was too slow. A star buried itself in his neck and he fell, useless hands clutching at the air as his precious life-blood seeped away.
Jarome grabbed his throwing dagger and threw it blindly into the forest before scrabbling on hands and knees for the safety of the night. Crawling, he fumbled for his short sword.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
He froze as a cold blade rested its death edge against his throat.
“My client says you should have paid on time.”
“I will!” He pleaded, “Give me one more day!”
“Too late. You knew the terms, and I have a contract to fulfill…”
“Wait” He cried. “I have it! I have The Rose!”
The blade paused as a thin line of blood oozed from the man’s neck.
“The backpack, I swear! We’re waiting for a buyer!”
“Up.” The assassin forced him back to the campfire, the blade all the while resting on his throat. “Show me.”
Jarome hastily pulled out a small wrapped parcel.
Trembling fingers unwrapped the cloth to reveal a ruby, the size of a man’s thumbnail.
“See, I have it, but don’t touch it…”
Jarome choked on his words as the blade sliced through soft flesh.
The assassin wiped his dagger on the dead man’s jerkin.
Grinning, the assassin picked up the ruby. It was warm. His frown turned to horror as it grew hot. Eyes wide, he tried to release it, but flesh seared as it burnt into his hand. He screamed as fire, as hot as lava, coursed through his body, consuming him.
The Rose sparkled alone in the steaming pile of ash.
by Stephen Tanner
21. Vanishing Point
The trees, as ever, were watching. Those that stood closest to the edge of the man-made cliff had the best view, and whispered what they saw to other trees that cared to listen. Let no one ever say that the tall eucalypts let down their guard.
This is what they saw in the searing, dusty heat of the dwindling day:
The trees stood around the edges of an abandoned quarry. The walls were cut in steps, except for directly opposite the trees where a ramp ran from level ground to the base of this lifeless cleft. The trees grieved over their friends who once stood there, but they tried to protect this space too, and any innocents who entered it.
The girl started to clamber up to the first ledge on the wall beneath the trees. She stood on the edge and watched as her brother heaved himself to her level. She began to climb again.
It wasn’t long before both were panting, their mouths dry, but by then the girl was two ledges higher than the boy and night was well on its way. As he squinted up at his sister, her green eyes strangely bright in the shadow of the cliff, she vanished. The boy couldn’t even call her name.
Whatever dark magic had happened, the trees knew that it wouldn’t do to lose this boy as well. And so they weaved a spell of forgetting, as tight as a root system with nowhere to grow. Rivers forget their routes and form new ones, flowers forget the terrors of the world and bloom again, rain forgets the pain of hitting the ground and rushes down to meet it every time—and likewise the trees knew that the answer for continuing was to forget.
by Blake Curran
22. Undead Dance
Bubbles in the cauldron grew and popped, splashing the rancid smelling goo all over the grass. Where it plopped stalks and flowers fizzled and turned a charred black.
The little witch, Mia, danced around the pot, throwing in ingredients and avoiding getting splashed. Her squashed straw hat seemed out of place, with its large brim and sunflowers much more suited for blue skies and sun.
Overhead an owl glided by and spotted the glowing cauldron. He swiveled his head, watching the dancing witch with wide eyes. Circling around the owl landed on a tree branch and settled down for the show.
Crumbling a dried stalk, Mia dropped the pieces in the pot and murmured a rhyme.
“Dark and light,
Night and day.
Go and hide,
Wake up now
Time to dance.
Death can’t kill
The liquid in the cauldron bubbled faster and faster, reaching a rapid boil. Then it gave a great cough and released a cloud of green smoke that startled the owl.
Flapping its large wings in alarm it flew away and didn’t look back.
The smoke cleared and the ground in front of a headstone, nestled between two tree roots, began to rumble. Flowers were uprooted and the earth began to shift. A hand appeared and clawed at the ground before a man hoisted himself out of the hole and fell forward. He coughed and struggled to his feet, dusting the dirt off his tuxedo pants. He was tall and had a terrible case of bedhead.
Mia squeaked and rushed forward, falling into his arms. After his initial shock, the man smiled and bent to kiss the tip of her nose under her sunhat. Mia snapped her fingers and low violin music poured from the cauldron. Together they danced until dawn.
by A.E. McAlister
23. Hunter Becoming
The heat of day now leeched from her body, Kerrys Coranth lay attempting to muffle the sound of her teeth, crashing together as they were. The Hunter closed on her, darker than the failing night, but not so silent. A Flanir Hunter this size never completely cloaked its movement. It huffed, two spouts of steam visible in the remaining moonlight. She shivered again, redoubling her effort to stay still beneath the tangle of tree-vein.
A root snapped next to Kerrys’ head, broken by a shimmering, translucent talon. She tensed. Soon, sunrise would remove her advantage. The Hunter took another slithering, four-legged step, fleshy bottom bared as its wide stance brought it to rest just above her. Its long-snouted, feline face contorted, baring ribbed teeth that smoothed sharply at the tip, each one split like a serpent’s tongue. It shrugged lightly, a ripple flowing across the scaled body. The cloaking shimmered and faded; it sensed her now. Sensed her magic.
The Flanir twisted its head down, instantly snapping up a mouthful of roots. Kerrys had no time for thought. She snapped her hands and feet up, digging her fingertips and toes firmly into the stretchy flesh of each shoulder joint.
“Erias-tellar!” she chanted through gritted teeth.
Her body hummed like some thousand-thousand insects trapped, chill and cold now forgotten. First her hands, then the rest of her began to vibrate in time with the buzzing hum. Her eyes glowed faintly golden and met those of the beast. The vibration intensified, pulling her apart like a vapor. She flowed through her own fingers into the Flanir.
She felt its strength, the unbridled musculature of its neck and jowls. Three hearts beat as one. Its eyes began to glow golden and the creature smiled a haunting, satisfied smile.
by Tony Oleson
“january 14, 2052”
“Couldn’t sleep.” I look at my hand.
“no shit, sherlock. am i supposed to act surprised?”
AI had changed the shape of the world over the last decade and was hailed as Earth’s Messiah, preventing everything from WWIII to natural cataclysmic disasters.
“perhaps you should try disconnecting. mammals need sleep, remember?”
I guess nobody counted on AI turning into a narcissistic asshole.
“i heard that.”
“two females. one male.”
Work is beginning to take a toll. IRL, I can see the hollow shell of a man I have become. IVR, I am the handsome gentleman with ripped abs known as Jackson Steele. The ladies love me. So do the men. I don’t care. It’s a job.
“another shipment is due to arrive by saturday night, 9 pm.”
The membership is worth it. A drone delivering anything from groceries to clothes, straight to your doorstep. Genius.
My head begins to throb the same way it does every day. Headache, dry mouth, chills, shakes, IBS, sudden urge to vomit — all the usual symptoms of PSMOL — a condition from the overuse of VR.
VR social interaction was too much for people to handle. The reinvention of one’s self, and the false belief that inherently came with it, led to mental breakdowns worldwide. Suicide rates skyrocketed in the late 30’s. To avoid political and social backlash, big Pharma does what they do best and began to mass produce a new drug to counter the effects of PSMOL.
I look at my hand, waiting for an answer.
“Where is my damn pill?”
“you forgot to order them.”
“Isn’t that your job!”
Shit. I hate leaving my apartment. I enter the elevator on floor 345 and swipe my hand.
“i wouldn’t go.”
“I have to.”
by Matt Moss
25. Even The Mighty Can Fall
Words, the master of communication and destroyer of silence. It’s the most common method of expressing thoughts and emotions, creating relationships and even whole new worlds and experiences. For all the brilliance words in existence, there isn’t a single word that can describe the agony he’s feeling at this very moment.
He’s been called the ‘God of War’ by his comrades. Enemies quivered at the sound of his name. Angels wept at the amount of deaths he brought upon the world and devils bowed to his insurmountable strength. Despite being human, he has almost every necessary element to be worshipped as a god. He is too aware, however, that all his greatness aside, in order to truly join the rank of the Gods, perfection in all form of arts must be attained and he lacked mastery in one.
His path to perfection was hindered by that singular obstacle – the mastery of an endeavor that even peasants can lay claim to but one which he has yet to attempt.
Not once did he imagine that the battle he waged upon himself in order to remove this last obstruction barring his ascension to Godhood could torture him so since the waking light of that day. It was an unforeseen abomination, the hardest assault he has ever encountered, a potently expedient poison that ravaged his internal organs without end.
Night arrived, and he had been trapped helplessly in the same spot for hours. The pain lingered; he succumbed to a torment more agonizing than anything his opponents have ever inflicted upon him.
“Defeated by my own cooking, will I ever master this art?” Another splash of water responded to the question posed by the mightiest warrior in the world.
by Petrik Leo
Horus likes colors.
True artistry is in the proper tender of colors, this is where the master reigns.
The colors of day are bold, vibrant and majestic where the colors of night are calm, tender and humble.
The day shouts from a mountain while the night whispers in your ear.
Horus appreciates the subtleness of night but prefers day.
If the night is a gentle kiss then day is the climax.
Today Horus is perched atop the mountain peak enjoying the picture painted before him.
The valley stretches toward infinity while the colors tell the tale.
A soft breeze ruffles the greens. A fish jumps rippling the blues. An eagle soars contrasting the greys.
All the colors of nature woven into its infinite splendor.
Oh, the majesty!
As Horus’ exuberance peaks, reveling in this hypnotic scene his trance is broken.
A group of worshipers arrives, dressed in white and formed by columns. They chant his name.
Oh, the dismay!
These worshipers have no idea what makes Horus happy. Their simple minds incapable of understanding.
It’s not the sound that spoils the tone, one doesn’t listen to a beautiful painting.
It’s certainly not their smell. You don’t discount a masterpiece because the canvas smells of oil.
But this is wrong. As if the unnatural lines weren’t bad enough, this atrocious contrast of white offends the palette.
This is throwing mud on the Mona Lisa.
Horus flicks his talon. The motion barely perceptible, a mere blink.
An invisible scythe rents the air. An explosion of color and form.
White becomes all variations of red. Lines scatter into chaotic abound.
There are screams but they don’t distract, nor does the smell.
Where the white lines distracted, the red swirls compliment. The color is what counts.
Horus likes colors.
by Scott Provost
27. Torment of the Sea
The dark water of the sea churned as the midnight light shined on it’s waves. A reflection of moonlight stared back at the floating satellite. A romance between light and dark, of a solid rock that looked down at the quiet stillness that was the sea. This was what the sea dealt with every single night.
The moon pulled and pushed, it’s power of lust as the seas churned, under it’s power. For the moon loved the sea, and was cold to it’s reprieve. Gravity was the way in which the moon showed it’s love over the sea, but at the same time the sea did not submit to the moon’s advances. Despite it’s powerlessness the sea did not concede. For the sea persisted through the moon’s nightly torment.
To the sea, the moon was a cold tyrant whose embrace of it’s tides was helpless to stop. But, that didn’t matter to the sea. It would deal with the night like it always had, with irreverence. It was in this dark time that the children of the sea either slept or hunted. She watched as turtles washed ashore to lay their eggs, as squid hunted their own prey. A time for life, and for death. For the sea was proud of her children, despite the coldness that the moon showed her.
The reason she could be so calm, is that a light in the far east began to rise. The coldness of night faded with the warmth of morning. The moon still had power over the sea as the sun came closer. At least when the sun rose in the east it was then that the sea knew that she was not alone with night and was now together with her loved one the sun during day.
by A.L. Hornbeck
28. Kusanagi no Kusurugi
Night fell in a thick blanket and enveloped the mountainside. The leviathan of Mount Fuji was looming ever present. Minamoto Fujiki could feel its restless spirit like a crackling thunderstorm under his skin and in his bones. A foreboding feeling.
The darkness pervaded into the thick bamboo, a moonless, starless sky turning the world black. The camp fire set the darkness dancing, and eerie shadows played tricks on Fujiki’s mind. Rustling in the undergrowth did little to ease the young warrior’s fear that Tengu indeed roamed the mountains………….
His sleep was restless and fitful.
Day broke and cleansed the mountain of shadow. Morning dew glistened off the cherry blossoms, and a shimmering rainbow mist gathered over the forest floor. After a brief meal, Fujiki broke camp and continued to his goal.
By mid morning, he had made his final ascent, and stood at the mouth of an unmarked, innocuous looking cave entrance. Inside lay his goal, Kusanagi no Tsurugi…………
After what seemed like hours fumbling round in the near dark, his hands, knees and elbows bloody raw, his gas lamp near depleted, Fujiki came into a small antechamber off a side tunnel, a beam of light piercing down through its rough hewn ceiling. As he neared, a shape slowly consolidated in the light. The shape of a sword. The Imperial sword, Kusanagi no Tsurugi. A five foot Odachi, the guard made of solid silver, and carved with the Imperial seal, dragonbone handle wrapped in knotted silk, the pommel, a silver snarling dragon. Blazing fire rubies for eyes. Ancient kanji script carved on the folded silver blade edge coursed with otherworldly power, and as he drew closely, Minamoto realised, it wasn’t a shaft of daylight, the sword was radiating its own light.
by Chris Horrocks
29. Dance until Dawn
It was night. It had always been night. And it would have remained night forever, had the sleeping expanse not been visited by laughter and music and light.
The goddess danced from star to star, leaving young solar systems in her wake. She twirled with abandon, hands lifted high into the fathomless abyss of space. Music flooded from her mind, awakening stars and giving them voice so they might resonate in harmony with her song. Comets flew from her tresses in a trajectory they would keep until they met their end. Her laughter birthed the moons.
A glimmer in the distance caught her eye and she leaped lightyears. A small galaxy called to her, and she swayed in time with the stars as she planned. With a smile, she breathed out. The galaxy was flooded with light as life began to bloom. Each of the planets in this chosen realm stuttered, a heartbeat now pulsing from their cores. Their life completed her song. Day dawned for the first time, gilding the fledgling planets in a glorious, golden glow. She basked in the melody for a moment before spreading her arms wide.
Joy filled her until she shattered, splintering into countless beams of light. The beams raced toward the planets, falling to their surfaces and blooming into flesh. Eyes opened and bodies stretched. Gasps echoed across the galaxy as the first breaths taken by the new beings were held as they surveyed the splendor around them. On one of the planets, beneath the emerald trees and brightening sky and the glowing orb of the sun, a child giggled in delight. The goddess’s laughter lived on.
by Celeste Richardson
I believe that there’s a killer hidden in each and every one of us. If we’re pushed in the right direction, our survival instinct kicks in and the killer wakes to snarl back at the world. Some people, like the man standing right in front of me, keep their monster closer to the surface.
Movement drags my attention back and I try not to flinch as he leans towards me. His eyes remind me of the night sky, distant and endless, beautiful. I do not notice his hand rising but I feel his soft fingers wrap around my throat, sending spasms of pure panic through my body.
I try to scream but all that comes out is a strained hissing noise, his grip slowly crushing my trachea. The pressure building inside my lungs becomes acute, demanding attention. I fail to ignore it completely and a shadow of a smile creeps around his eyes. My fear is liquid and it seeps between my fingers. Pain gives way to numbness and soon I feel nothing at all.
A killer hides in each and every one of us. I catch a glimpse of mine and he greets me with a feral smile. I do not turn away. He whispers the words that shake me back into existence. He tells me this is not the day I die.
by Livia Cătălina
31. A History Of Dragons
The following letter has been found in a cave twenty miles away from the hills the local people call “Dragon Mount”. We believe this letter might contain the first confirmation of dragons on our continent.
“My Lord King,
I am writing this missive on the third day of Lucorna, the King’s year 103. Our scouts informed us that the enemy’s camp is no more than three miles away, hidden by the hills. Tomorrow is the day we face them, and it will be the day we will scourge this Eastern plague from the face of Duan.
As I am sure you have learned by now, General Tovrov’s plan to stir the local populace into action was a resounding success. The scouts he sent ahead to warn the villagers of the incoming battle have done their jobs brilliantly, and more and more men joi-” The letter is blotched by ink stains, and the writing is incomprehensible at times.
“…stimation is that three hundred thousand men are now standing alongside the Royal Army. General Tovrov had the captains of the Army drill and instru-” … Another large stain …
“…ame West to save their lives. The creatures are truly terrifying to behold. Their head is larger than a fishing boat and their teeth are sharp and long as longswor-” …
“… fight during the night. Eight knights managed to catch one under the cover of darkness and slew it. The creature didn’t se- …”
The rest of the letter is too stained to read, and in our opinion, impossible to translate. However, it is clear the writer saw what we now call dragons. We believe this letter proves the dragons crossed the Eastern Strait into Duan.
Excerpt from “Dragon Origins” – Mirco Valai, Demoktratic Republic Of Skrum, 1154.
by Victor Bercea
32. The Last Stand
A turgid silence blanketed the encampment as night settled. The enemy launched a devastating assault a few hours ago and more of the same was expected the next morning. It was a known fact that the Kilvan army will be severely outnumbered but to yield without a fight was not acceptable.
Alyx has sworn never to kill again. Too much blood on his hands. Too much pain and regret. But how can he possibly allow his homeland to fall into the hands of these barbarians when he has the power to irrevocably tilt the battle in their favour. He already failed earlier – his hands stayed and mind frozen by visions of the potential annihilation he was all too capable of delivering. When dawn arrived, though, he had a plan.
As day broke, shards of sunlight piercing through the morning mists revealed gathering silhouettes of another battle formation too large for the Kilvan forces to counter in a fair fight.
Alyx stepped onto the small rise overlooking the plain where the enemy gathered. Extending a sorcerous shield around his fellow countrymen, he began weaving an intricate pattern, his hands waving in both minute and sweeping gestures. The world moved – oscillating and accelerating as day became night and night became day. Faster and faster it spun until the perception of one from the other was not distinguishable.
He collapsed from sudden fatigue and the protective barrier dropped. The roar of soldiers charging in response to a booming command gave him cause to look up. The opposing infantry and cavalry were all on their knees, incapacitated from the disorientation, and retching their guts out as the Kilvans cut a swath of destruction through their ranks.
No blood on my hands this time. Well, at least not directly, he mused.
by Teik Sim Chan
33. Fickle Fortune
The body lay on the floor, arms and legs askew as if he’d dropped where he stood. Which he had, actually. An arrow in the back does that to a person.
I shuffled away from the wall and the window, cutting a wide circle around him. I nearly tripped over my bowl, still boasting my meager breakfast. I reached down, snatched up the chunk of bread, scraped the mold off with my thumbnail and shoved it all in my mouth at once.
The sound of footsteps reached my ears, ringing on the stone floor of the corridor. I’d been in the corridor, once. At night. With a bag over my head and the party end of a sword pressed between my shoulderblades. Still chewing on the bread, I stuck my head around the door, my eyes blinking at the dawn of another day.
While my tongue poked at my teeth, I wished for a tin cup of water. When had my desires become so ordinary? A cup of water. Food without maggots. A night spent without rats chewing on my toes. Just the simple things, really.
I stepped back and pushed the door shut with my foot. Whether a rescue or a revolution, I didn’t feel a particular eagerness to join them. But the footsteps drew closer, and a man entered, a soldier. One I barely recognized.
“My lord?” His eyes widened when he saw me, and he raised a bruised and bleeding hand in sharp salute. “My lord!” he repeated. “We’ve won. You’ll be returned to the palace immediately.”
I raised my own hand, not to mimic his salute, but to wipe the bread crumbs from my mouth. “Well done,” I replied, and wondered how long before their need for a new villain would return me to this cell.
by Quenby Olson
34. When a shadow comes alive…
Twilight – a fracture between day and night, which, if broken, would let the shadows escape.
Because shadows, just like it, wanted to be free.
It lowered its gaze, not to avert its eyes from the glare of the sun dropping below the horizon, but to stare at the point where it’s legs joined those of the little girl it was destined to follow to their collective doom – unless it freed himself sooner.
She stared, too. Though the setting sun framed her with a halo, the shadow could already feel night’s moon looming behind it. They stood, a world apart, separated by a line that neither one could touch, but both could feel. So very much the same, yet so different. Like day and night, mortal and immortal – or unmortal, depending on your persuasion– yet two sides of the same coin.
And in the end, that’s all it came down to. A coin toss. So long as the sun or the moon stayed in the sky, the girl would be safe from her shadow until the next twilight. But if both were absent, even for a heartbeat, the shadow would be free to do as it pleased.
And it would please it to kill the girl.
It coiled, ready to sink its teeth into sun-warmed flesh and drink its fill of day-bright blood, but before it could unshackle itself, the moon rose, taking up the baton in the celestial relay.
The shadow looked up from where their legs joined, and stared into her eyes.
“Not tonight,” she said.
“There’s always tomorrow.” It threatened, already fading, soon to its state of insentient servitude. “One day, or night, when the sun and the moon aren’t there to protect you, I will kill you.”
The little girl smiled. “Not if I kill you first…”
by Michael W Everest
35. The Boy Swallowed by the Sea
Long ago when glass was still new, a ship crashed against the shore one dark night. The next day, all the children of the nearby village swam out to the wreck and discovered gold and gems intermingled with the bodies of the drowned. So they collected the treasures by the handful and brought them to their parents, who were pleased by their industrious children.
But there was one gem, an emerald the size of a man’s chest, which was too large to move. Dozens tried, but all failed to dislodge it. So they gave up on the greatest prize in favor of the smaller treasures.
But one boy could not ignore the emerald, and while the other children filled their pockets with coins, he wrestled with the giant gem. And so his father chided him, saying, “Why do you ignore the easy and labor after the hard?”
“The other treasures are just baubles compared to the emerald. It is worth more than a thousand treasures from a thousand ships, and it will be mine,” the boy replied. So while the other families ate well, the boy’s family remained hungry.
Soon the seabed was picked clean, only the emerald remaining with the boy who would not let it go. He struggled and struggled and finally broke it free.
But what the boy did not know was that the emerald was the heart of the sea, the plug keeping the ocean from draining away. With the gem removed, the waters roared down the dark hole and sucked the boy along with them.
Then the roar stopped, and the boy swam back to the light. But the light was green because the waters had pulled the emerald back into place. And so he drowned because he could not let his dream go.
by Matthew Presley
36. Resurrection Day
In Emerald City, night slams down like a lid on a coffin. People blink for a second, shrug and continue on their way to their personal boxes. Their boxes shut out everything that doesn’t belong and whatever doesn’t compute. Inside, they stare at yet more boxes, the contents packaged and prepackaged, then repackaged again.
Some boxes glow. Some don’t. These boxes make people cry, laugh, and then cry again. Eventually, the box-watchers stare in slack-jawed, drooling silence. They can’t remember what they’ve just seen.Not that it matters. Just some random smiler raving about something fabulous in a delicious-looking box. Meanwhile, the box-watchers eat their own burnt offerings for supper, then scrape the remains into a box to save for later.
When they fold themselves up into temporary oblivion, they dream of boxes. Their nails scrape against the insides of the boxes of their minds. They keep scratching because there has to be light on the other side. Doesn’t matter if the box is made of cardboard, wood or skull-bone.
Eventually someone is the first to break through. They crawl out one by one, blinking. Amazed by their continued existence. Amazed that their world is still too darned square.
The wonder lasts for a few seconds. Then they remember to go back to their day-boxes and do their daytime things. If someone breaks out of their box, the ground shakes, but no one notices. They’re safe in their own silk-lined boxes.
Who needs light? Who needs air? They’re saved already, in hermetically sealed boxes. Every day is Resurrection Day in Emerald City.
by Jill Clayton
Her hair glowing in the firelight reminded me of nothing. Her face was red and blotchy from crying. It was a face I’d looked at every day for the past three years. I thought I knew each line and curve, each unique expression twisting round in the kaleidoscope. She looked a stranger to me now. A million miles distant from the person I had known.
The young man leaned over and took her hand. He spoke her name with great care, as though it would slip from his lips and shatter upon the stone floor. “Sarah, are you well? He hasn’t hurt you, has he?”
Glowing yellow hair fell forward and obscured her face, her large blue eyes, the guilt that flashed in them as she told the lie.
She would leave with him. This would be the last I would see of her. She deserved better, and deep down, I’d always understood that she would leave someday. But that day had always seemed far away. I never expected it would end like this. I never expected it to hurt so much.
I couldn’t stop remembering it—everything I’d done to her. The images of that night played over and over inside my head. I had stayed too late at the bar, and she was angry. An argument over something trivial. Soft skin beneath my punishing fists. Bright red blood against stark white flesh. Frightened cried as she begged me to stop. Screams when she realized I wasn’t going to.
“Are you ready?” the young man asked. “The car’s waiting outside.”
Too little, too late.
I closed my eyes. Glowing hair. Sad smile. Firelight.
by L.E. Harrison
38. Whispers in the Void
Wren knew this wasn’t the last of the dead they would stitch beneath her skin. This night the soothsayer would be forged into the finest jewel, and Wren would carry that hateful woman for all time. Already the sickly-sweet scent of roasting flesh clogged her throat.
Anointed in oils, Wren had been left to commune with the souls she carried, but never had their voices been quiet. Never had they let her be. Silence, how she craved it. Nights undisturbed. Days, her thoughts her own.
But the people had cut and carved and delivered their dead ‘til she was a shadow within a shell. Infested. Infected. The slow death of self.
Escape was all she had. And freedom meant retribution. With no Journeywoman to replace Wren, the clan’s spirits would be unprotected. Ripe for the Undergod’s pickings.
Beneath the Spirit House, blisters bloomed on her skin as she dragged herself past the furnace where the soothsayer sizzled and spat. ‘May the Undergod never shit you out.’
Wren stifled a cry; lances of fire a thousand-fold speared through her, the spirit-gems enraged at being so near their creators. Life-eternal they’d been promised, yet prisoners they’d become in an unwilling crypt.
They blazed their fury, but freedom meant pain. They would soon understand.
At the slag pit’s egress, the light of day stung her weeping blisters, and glinted off the jagged spears of metal below. Thousands of spirits she’d been burdened to carry. She would carry no more.
The drop from her perch was steep, and the dead began to beg. Without her, they were just whispers in the void.
Freedom beckoned. Her life her own, however fleeting.
No longer the caged bird she had always been, Wren smiled as she pushed from the edge, and for a moment, she flew.
by Amanda J Spedding
39. From the Ashes
Ash lays strewn about on the ground, much like trees after a forest fire. But there are no trees on the outskirts of Yoncrath, and no fires set ablaze. The dwindling farmhouses still stand on their supports, but their owners have returned to the dust. Only one remains: a woman, dead yet still alive. Her one purpose in the afterlife: to follow the commands of her master. Her once silvery blonde hair is now a sleek gray, her voluptuous body a carrion feast fit for a wake, but her power is greater than has ever been.
Night falls and she strides across the sooty landscape, her blood-red dress wafting ashes in a whirlwind, taking in and savoring all she has brought to fruition. And she smiles, for she knows he will be pleased.
Inside the gates of Yoncrath, a boy awakens with a startle. Fresh sweat and tears run down his face, creating lines like channels of the Ugnog River. He sits up and looks around his dilapidated quarters. Just another dream. But it felt so real. The heat from the flames. The smell of burning gristle, those farmers and their wives left smoldering. Their children, nothing but charred bones.
The light of a new day pours through the window, stealing into the room like an assassin and throwing blinding light in his direction. He throws his covers aside and heads for the door, contemplating the dream. What it stands for. What it means for him, his family, and his city.
Halfway across the world, a tremor shakes the countryside. Blood rains from the sky and fire erupts from beneath the surface. Corpses claw free of damp soil, unholy marionettes danced by a foul puppeteer. An army marches.
by David Walters
40. Her watch
At dawn, the gates swung open. The bells rang out and people shoved each other inside, pushing and pulling. Not caring for anyone but themselves.
All of them wanted to get inside. Mothers held their children close, constantly watching them with worried faces. If they lost them in the crowd, their waiting would have been nothing but a waste of time.
Tines grinned emotionlessly. Leaning over the balustrade, she watched as the court became empty again.
It was her watch last night. She saw the first and the last of them find their way in front of the feast-hall’s gates.
All here to see him. The Witchling.
Hoping that he would choose one of their children to make his ward.
She snorted disdainfully. As if this was the highest honour a child could get. As if it’s something to be happy and grateful about. As if… No. She wasn’t supposed to think like this. Not after they took her in, watched after her and showed her… things.
A distant smile creeped over her face as she thought about her first night in his parts of the keep. She’d been scared, more than ever before but also… excited. Expecting the wonders her ma had told her about in the dead of night when she had trouble sleeping. Things about magic. Real magic.
Her thoughts trailed off, consumed by memories of a childhood long gone.
Biting her lip and scolding herself for being an ungrateful thing, Tines pushed herself away from the balustrade.
Her watch was over now after all. Better to get a bit of sleep before they called for her to take the “chosen one” to him.
“Except for that, it’ll be like any other day,” She thought, while making her way down the hall towards her quarters.
by Dorina Prauß
41. The End of the Hunt
Drenched, exhausted, and terrified, Kip was two strides ahead of death.
The torrential rain made it impossible to see clearly. Despite the violent noise of the maelstrom, he could still hear the relentless tek-TAKK of the draith’s clawed footsteps scratching a death-knell rhythm on the cobblestones just behind him.
Kip stumbled, and hit the ground face first. He tasted blood.
The draith howled its menacing scream as it sensed the end of the hunt. Kip knew he had only seconds before a curved talon would sink into his back, delivering agony and darkness.
With the last of his strength, Kip rolled away from the draith and pulled an oblong stone from his belt. The artifact felt heavy and ancient, powerful and dangerous. His fingers traced the rune carved into its base as he recalled the command word written in his father’s journal. Kip clenched his eyes shut and whispered in an ancient language, long-forgotten.
A blinding nova of light emanated from the stone, turning night into day. The light bent itself into a perfectly round dome that enclosed Kip and the draith within. The midnight storm still raged its furious song, but no water or darkness leaked inside. Kip wiped the blood from his mouth and pointed the artifact towards the stunned dream-demon.
The demon’s carapace instantly shattered, and the sickly grey body within began to vibrate at an unnatural speed. The shrieking blur began to slough off its appendages, which melted into smoking puddles upon hitting the ground. Kip shut his eyes and waited for the nightmare to end.
When it was finally over, Kip pocketed the stone, and the dome of light dissipated. A deep, shuddering sigh racked Kip’s body as the rain began to pelt him once again. It was going to be a long journey ahead.
by Adam Weller
42. Clockwork Girl
She put the spring with the others, fingers wet from her efforts. “There’s too many of these,” she thought, a little bird fluttering in the cage of her chest, “I’ll never find them all.”
Far away in the night, someone screamed, the ragged, raw sound breaking her concentration. She gnashed silver fillings, jaw taunt, annoyed as she tore the gelatinous orb from its socket. Fingers dived, squishing and pushing, mining the little cogs and wheels from their fleshy concealment.
Dark waves obscured her vision temporarily, echoing the clockwork that whirled in her mind. She howled with frustration and spit another loosened tooth into the basin. It clanged like a trolley.
The empty housing that was her shin hung like an old, wet mop from her knee. Standing had long ago become elusive; she sat instead, on a bed which had become a nest of ivory tinker toys, the smallest of which pooled in an aluminum bedpan.
“I…am…a mechanical girl, my heart a mechanical pearl…” she mouthed, trying to sing as brass bumble bees swarmed in her ears. A hairpin wriggled into the base of her skull, catching on the wheels that clicked and clacked in measured intervals, like the pounding of an ax on wood. She tasted the coppery evidence with a sigh of relief.
Words spilled from the loose worms of her lips, muffed by the sheets she rested, finally, on. “Told…em, true, that day, I did.” A very large egg cracked somewhere nearby, exploding into the roar of a crowd. It frightened the little bird in her chest away, leaving nothing behind.
by Debra Knealing
43. Blood, Sweat, and Vinyl
The night air was cool as I made my way back to the decrepit old warehouse that somehow passed as the venue for tonight’s show. Esra stood outside the door, one hand pinching the cigarette held between his teeth and the other fussing over each spike of his mohawk with meticulous detail.
“All set?” he said. I nod and we both enter, the din of the crowd and the heat of their bodies bombarding us at the door.
I had spent the better part of the day practicing for tonight. Most people I knew rehearsed in front of a mirror, loosening up their vocal chords while simultaneously making sure their facial expressions weren’t totally ridiculous. I couldn’t do that, though. It was dangerous.
We took the stage, Esra lifting his guitar from its resting place against his amp. Jo appeared as if out of nowhere, sitting down behind her kit and spinning her sticks in her usual pre-show ritual. I slid the strap of my bass around my neck and grabbed the mic.
“Boston!” I yelled. “Our government doesn’t want you here. In fact, they’ve made it illegal for you to be here.”
A chorus of boo’s came from the crowd.
“But you are here! And tonight, we rock…despite this bullshit world they try to make us live in.”
The driving pulse of of Jo’s snare filled the room and was punctuated by the sharp chords of Esra’s guitar. My eyes found the gaze of the first person I could before I began to sing. My power wouldn’t work without it. My lyrics filled the room as I passed my gaze to each member of the crowd, not just suggesting and influencing their thoughts, but commanding. Controlling.
We would take this world back, one lyric at a time.
by Alex Schwartz
44. The Prophecy
“So, tell me what’s the latest on the prophecy. Have we managed to find the Hero who will turn up to save us from the Overlord of Night‘s oppressive rule?”
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“We-ell…there might be a slight problem. We think we found 4 potential candidates born on the day of darkness. Or when the solar eclipse happened, as non-soothsayers term it. Unfortunately, one of them passed away as a child. Caught some disease and no doctor was able to cure him. The second one got mugged a few months ago and passed away from the resulting injuries when he tried to fight back. And the third…it looks like she decided to become a lawyer instead. Made a ton-load of cash and emigrated. I don’t think she’s coming back. Final guy seems to have just disappeared. No one knows where he is.”
“You’re telling me that the chosen one is either dead, missing or a lawyer? I thought prophecy was supposed to force them into gaining the necessary skills to take down the Overlord. Otherwise what’s the point of it?”
“That’s the problem with free will nowadays. People don’t always do what they’re supposed to.”
“And we’re sure there’s no one else?”
“Unfortunately not. That’s the thing with prophecies, you can’t just pick some random off the street and pretend they’re the person for the task.”
“Yes we can. Go find some random. We’ll change the wording.”
“Uh…what? We can’t do that! It’s not a job advert!”
“Of course it is. What else do you think a prophecy is?”
by Daniel Sutcliffe
45. Between Lanterns and Corpses
I carried a lantern despite the full moon, not wishing to step upon a dead man’s face or slip in his congealing guts. Mikuzo waited ahead, just like that day beneath the willow tree. Its hanging boughs had protected us from the world, but upon the night-clad battlefield there was no such protection. The chill breeze bit my cheeks and brought rot to my nose.
He was there as I had known he would be, his boots firmly planted upon death.
We each bowed, me gripping tight to the Errant board lest it slide from my hand.
“How is your family?” he said.
“Well. Zuki is to marry in the spring. I have—” I pulled forth the letter from my sash with a shaking hand. “In case I don’t—”
A gentle laugh met this. “It seems we still think alike after all these years.” He took my letter and handed over one of his own. “For if you win upon the morrow.”
I slid the letter into my sash, unable to meet his gaze as we hunted clear ground. Between lanterns and corpses I placed the board, and the pieces he tipped out were carved with his family’s crest. He had never lorded his birth over me.
In silence we set our armies upon the board, just as we would when the sun rose upon a day we could not escape.
“Lead or follow, old friend,” I said, for if I did not I might say something else, something more, something I could not retake.
Almost I laughed. Had I not followed wherever he led? Now we had one last chance to be boys beneath the willow boughs.
He moved first. And there, kneeling amid the dead, I followed.
by Devin Madson
46. …And a fortress was built.
As it thundered continuously, the rain threatened from a far distance. Driveway street would host it soon. However soon the soon was to take place, most people hurriedly tried to shield themselves. The Elegant Eat-4-Two restaurant welcomed many “rain” customers. Past the incoming customers, Christie made her way out of the restaurant slowly. She needed to get home first. She craved for something hot to soothe her soreness. At least, that was what she thought would help. Her apartment was just down the street. The rain didn’t mean anything to her now, even seconds after it became heavy. It destroyed her perfect makeup. Her mascara and foundation dripped down her cheeks, staining her short gown which was now all shades of white. That wasn’t bothersome. She kept walking. She placed one foot in front of the other, as she numbered her steps incoherently.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” yelled the cab driver who’d almost hit her. She had left the sidewalk for the street unknowingly.
Christie’s thoughts kept drifting to Michael, her boyfriend of six years. The source of her soreness. With just few days to their Introduction, she would never be able to face the reality he forcefully exposed her to. She thought of how the words were spilled like soured milk.
“I’m getting married” he told her at the restaurant. Nothing was able to stop the tears that accompanied the thought. For what was supposed to be a twelve minute walk home that day, Christie walked till the early hours of the morning.
Familiar. Her heart felt unusually swollen. She gazed persistently at the street. The rain drizzled. The night she took the longest walk home rained in her memory as the rain soon blurred her vision. This time, Christie shielded herself.
by Adekoya Adenike
47. The Moswansicut Pond Necromancer
The murders of Moswansicut Pond were particularly problematic. The New England fall was dismal, the days were an even grey, and he wasn’t too happy to stay, but Titus Holloway wasn’t a folk hero who let things slide. Six people had been killed, with organs missing. The local and state police were helpless, unable to even put the murders together, but Titus had his own clues, he’d been close enough to the dark to know what it was. He began to loiter around the pond with moonshine for company and one night a thick fog rose up, seeming to promise terrible things.
A scream cut through the colorless mist and Titus started running, too slow to save the boy, his torso cut open, but he saw a dark figure disappear into the fog. Using all his ninja-like stealth he followed the killer to a ramshackle manor.
He slipped inside through a broken window. In the parlour a man was stooped over a large dining table where a corpse was laid out. The man mumbled to himself and Titus blew his head off.
Shotgun still smoking he glanced over the man’s notes, it seemed he had been some kind of a white supremacist necromancer. Trying to bring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of Ku Klux Klan, back to life. What an idiot, Titus thought, rolled his eyes and set the house on fire.
by Kimmo Häkäri
48. One Among Many
Argon didn’t know the sky could be so large. Every horizon where the ground ended, the night sky began—flecks of white and yellow cascading along a tapestry of black and blue. The taste of salt and iron like rust and bile was strong in his mouth as he licked his lips. The bloodlust had taken him again as he had seen the army rushing like termites fleeing from a broken stump toward him and his brothers. In each hand, he had held a short sword, his leather gloves had creaked as they clutched the hilts, knuckles white and palms slicked with sweat. Twenty-seven, by his count, had fallen to his swords when one lucky bastard slipped under his guard and caught him in the guts. That taste, like rust and iron, exploded in his mouth as his legs buckled. Collapsing to his knees, he thrust a wild counter-attack, taking the warrior’s throat with the point of his blade; number twenty-eight.
The cacophony of battle echoed around him for moments longer as the last of his brethren joined him on the ground. Argon had never thought about his death, never considered it for a moment until now. Grunts of exertion and cries of pain grew closer as the dying became the dead. A small circle of stars went black as the head of a man with hair like sunshine eclipsed them. With eyes blacker than the evening sky, he looked down on Argon.
“You’ve seen your last day, friend.” The man said as he slipped the point of a stiletto into Argon’s left eye. The pain, sharp and hot, lasted only a moment and was gone. With one final shudder, Argon exhaled as his spirit left him. One among many in life; one among many in death.
by J.L. Scritchfield
She knelt in silence beside the moon silvered ocean. Hair as dark as death’s veil draped her bare shoulders as she wept tears of bitter rue into the brine. Her hand trailed in the restless water and wavelets tugged at her fingers like the beseeching mouths of small greedy fish.
Far out at sea her sisters called, but she could no more respond to their cries, than she could charm the mackerel between her jaws or raise a storm at night, for the man had stolen her voice along with her true form.
She remembered nights, long years ago, they’d lain entwined beside their driftwood fire, safely nestling between protective dunes, their tongues tasting of wine and smoke. The man’s eyes were bright with fire and imagination, his bookish words laden with honey, his hands soft and persuasive. She’d never thought him capable of treachery.
He’d burned her skin, he told her one fraught day, his hand raised in anger, his voice harsh from whisky and disappointment. She’d known he was lying. Such a sundering surely would have killed her. The cold welcome of the waves called to her always, but she was as stranded as any netted catch.
The man watched from the rocks as his wife bowed her head to the water. The seal skin, finer than mist and more fluid than water, ran between his fingers, to pool, mottled silver and grey, at his feet. He’d let so much slip through his hands; his education, his poetry, his dreams of a fine life away from this island. His future forsaken for this lithe elusive siren, this savage passion, this possession, a rude cottage by the sea and a meagre subsistence scratched from the stony shore.
He thought about discarding it all, and clenched his fists around nothing.
by Gerald Doraine
A crow picked at the eye socket of a fallen knight, pulling sinewy flesh through a warped visor.
The King swept the battlefield through weary eyes. The blood of his soldiers fertilised the earth now. Trembling, he gripped the hilt of his sword with a slick palm.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“I know,” said the Queen. As always, she was composed and strong, stronger than he ever was. Her face showed no emotion, features chiselled from wood.
The thud of systematic marching on hard ground resonated through the air. It signalled their death. Finally. The King was so tired. Beyond the advancing army, a figure towered above the fallen like a God.
“Say something.” Please. He tried not to look at his Queen, his wife, his love. But trying just made his head turn slower.
“I’m going to kill him.” She was stoic, always had been. Only in the darkness of solitude did her emotions bloom for him. On the battlefield, there was just black and white.
“You’ll die before you get anywhere near.”
“I’ll go with you.”
A subtle melting of her hardened features, like a drop of water trickling down ice. “If you die, we lose.”
“We’ve already lost.”
The Queen nodded. Before he could say more, she unsheathed her sword and took off. The King’s eyes were glued to her, unable to turn away. They remained on her as she lunged into the oncoming soldiers, killing two before being butchered from all directions.
Their life together had been ephemeral but without her, there was no life at all.
The King was frozen as the Godlike figure approached. In another life, they could have been twins. In this one they were polar opposites, like night and day.
They smiled. “Checkmate.”
His antithesis skewered him through the heart.
by Harry M
51. All the Forevers
Two young silhouettes on a roof, sporadically lit up by mesmerizing spirals of light in the night sky, fingers intertwined.
“Will you love me?”
The silhouettes softly merge, before parting once more.
Two people duck inside a bakery to take refuge from the cold, and he whispers softly to her, “Do you ever regret… this?”
His hand, still in hers, is squeezed in response, frozen fingers mingling. “Never.”
He still seems unsure. “Would you do it again? Even without a house, or job, and your family doesn’t-”
He is hushed by a single cold digit pressed against his blue lips. “I would always do it again. Now and forever.”
Her finger is quickly replaced by her lips, pulling him in deeper.
Two figures leaning against a balcony laughing in the day’s light. “Would you want it to be a surprise, or expected.”
She laughs again, clear as a bell and twice as sweet. “That one’s easy! A surprise. It’s never as good when you see it coming.”
His eyes twinkle mischievously. “Well in that case…” He turns to her and falls to one knee, pulling out a small black box. “Would you do me the honor of-”
He’s interrupted as she lunges at him, laughing and crying and kissing all at the same time. As she pulls back, she cries out “Yes! Oh forever yes!” Before descending upon him once more.
He tosses and turns. “Don’t go! Don’t leave me!”
Her grip tightens. “I won’t. I’ll hold on forever.”
Two souls in a white room. He is on a bed, his thin bony hand encased in her warm young ones. “I’m sorry,” he says.
She leans down and softly bestows a kiss on dried lips. “Don’t be. You gave me everything. And I’ll always love you. Now and forever.”
by Samuel Rowles
52. The Last Chord
Rain stormed overhead, turning the already churned mud into a grasping hand that sucked the warmth from your bones and threatened to pull you into its embrace.
The last pennant flew overhead, providing the backdrop for the conflict unfolding beneath it.
Once, twice, three times, steel rang out. A world weary man stood above another, whom was once clothed in gold, but now mud was his armor and it weighed him heavily.
The other man, wrapped in flint grey, raised his sword again, bringing it down viciously, the muddy lord barely able to guard. Angrily, the grey man kicked hard, sending the sword spinning into the rain. “This country is mine. Mine to rule and ruin. Mine to enslave. It is filled with a weak people, led by a weak king and today it dies.”
Slamming his sword down again he severed the man’s arm at the elbow, painting the already dark earth red with fresh blood.
Through clenched teeth the beaten king raised his blue eyes to the grey man. “This land may fall and some enslaved, but they will remember. They may wear your yokes and flee your brigands, but they will remember. In their hearts they will store this day and pass it down every generation till it burns in their bones.” The king made it to his knees and yelled. “MY PEOPLE WILL REMEMBER.”
His head rolled into the mud and began to sink in its abyss.
“The era of kings is dead.” Spat the grey man as he turned and ripped the pennant out of the muck, snapping it over his knee.
The dark day of memory faded with the last chord, revealing the teary eyed audience seated in the night, sharing the destruction of their homeland.
The sounds of their army on the wind.
by Josh Lee
53. Harbinger of Destruction
The Road stretched endlessly before him and the dust of centuries coated his dark worn out boots while the night stretched above his head. A constant in his long lonely life.
Slowly the Moon sank behind the horizon and the shadow of the tattered man lengthened as the light faded away and reflected one last time in his bright blue eyes which bore the weight of ages in them.
They called him the dark wanderer, a figure walking the earth cursed by the gods for trying to challenge their will. He tried to save his people from catastrophe and was damned as its harbinger, forced to bring destruction upon those he met on his journey.
Ever walking never resting he slowly ascendent the mountains his path lead him to and the heavens shed their dark garment to cloth themselves in the color of the day as the sun slowly climbed over the horizon behind him, turning him into a dark silhouette upon the peaks his red hair gleaming like fire and his cloak fluttering in the wind like dark wings.
Before his eyes stretched a gleaming metropolis, a city in the height of its glory basking in the light of the new morning. Another to the myriad the wanderer has witnessed.
Feeling that the gods had chosen this city for their their punishment the wanderer lifted his arms and the Air around him seemed suddenly potent with energy and as the blue eyes scanned the valley and extended a hand a single bright lightning as shot down from the clear sky and struck the city beneath bursting open the ground and drilling deep into it before transforming into the god chosen catastrophe.
The earth shook and the city shook with it, humans screamed in despair. And the wanderer went on.
by Paul Ringkamp
Thomas absently stared out the tiny window of his cell. He was deep in thought as he gazed out at the dark void, scattered with pinpoints of light. His mind was racing, thoughts clambering for his attention. He took a deep sigh and reminded himself of the good times he had as a child, gazing up at the night sky in wonder. Thomas jerked at a gruff voice barking from an intercom speaker nearby.
‘We don’t know who you are, or how you got on our ship,’ the voice growled, ‘but you got about ten seconds to tell us what the hell you’re doing.’ Thomas hastily grabbed the intercom microphone he spotted earlier and spoke into it.
‘Consider a deal I have proposed for you.’
The gravelly voice replied with a long, deliberate laugh. ‘A deal? I’ve got my finger on the button that opens the hatch behind you. Piss me off and you’ll be sucked out to space before you can blink.’ Thomas simply held up his wrist to the nearest surveillance camera, revealing a band with a symbol on it. There was a long pause before the captain spoke again. ‘Where did you get that?’ he roared.
‘That’s right,’ Thomas replied. ‘If you kill me, the explosives I rigged on the ship will detonate, and this ship will no longer see the light of day.’ He paused for effect. ‘So here’s my deal: you let me take over your ship as the new captain, in exchange for stealing me away from my mother as a child.’ He stated the last half of the sentence with venom. His tone of voice was stone cold. ‘One more thing. You’re finished.’
He pressed a device to the door’s locking mechanism and it slid open.
He didn’t wait for a reply.
by James Salter
i am I again. One of two surrounded by twigs and wind and filled with hunger. i watch, attentive, each new place is a lesson; I will struggle so i can learn. I scream to have the hunger end, and food comes each day from above, rich and fatty. I struggle with the one next to me trying to get his share as well. I am exhausted and sleep until the hunger stirs again. More food, luscious wet and stringy. I jockey for position climbing on top of the other, up closer to the source of the food. Toppling, I feel air rush past me forever, and ever I am surrounded by nothing, no one. Am i leaving again? No! I stop, i am still here. Green, wet, solid, small things moving. I am taken by the back of the neck down a burrow. Other downy things move with purpose toward a larger creature. I smell food on the creature that the others are taking out of her. I try. If I turn my head to the side, I can do it. I work relentlessly for a thin watery food and barely survive. i think greed is this life’s lesson. I begin to change. My down does not become fur. Feathers replace each downy piece. My mouth has hardened Mama sometimes flinches when I get too hungry, but now I’m starving. I suckle and drift off one night dreaming of food from above, wet, stringy, meaty. Mama’s screaming I dig my talons in deeper. Mama never gave me food like this before. She’s angry! I won’t let her take this from me!
For the first time, I am full.
The others are terrified; they won’t come near me.
i know shame.
by Grae Llywelyn
56. The Promise
I moved, and the tavern stilled.
The hearth fire crackled, and smoke billowed up, grasping for the rafters. A mongrel in the corner chewed on an old bone. The other gamblers—mainly miners and goat farmers—sat slack-jawed. The way I flowed from sitting to standing, and the precision throw that had pinned the cheater’s sleeve to the table revealed what I was capable of. The insignia on the tomahawk axe told who I was.
Everyone had heard of me, even if rumors had me long dead. I leaned back and loosened my shoulders, and the coarse brown cloak slid away like a false skin. Underneath my doublet, black mail glinted. The smell of strong ale hung in the air, and the effects of it flowed like silk through my veins. Those who cheated me deserved death, though she wouldn’t have seen it that way. Fear held the others, but my promise bound me. I levered my axe free.
“Take the gold.” My voice was harsh from smoke and badly-fermented ale.
His eyes flickered across the room. Earlier, the man had been a veritable sewer of inanities; now, his words had run dry. Kill a cheater, and rid the world of a coward.
“No one escapes their crimes forever. But this is not your day.” Love and loss hardened my oath into permanence. “You have my word.”
The cheater hesitantly scooped up the coins. I left him to it. Having revealed myself, I’d have to move on. Enemies were never far away.
At the door, cold air washed over me.
My hand flashed, and my axe spun. Coins splattered noisily, and blood splashed silently.
The others remained frozen as I retrieved my axe, then I disappeared into the night.
What worth a promise to the dead?
by David J. Normoyle
57. The Aspiring Anthropologist
As night fell, village elder Tuen Pham squatted across from me on a rough woven mat of some unknown reed. His entire family warily surrounded us, distrustful of strangers from off planet. Uneasily, they were sharing their food with me as custom demanded. However, it was now my turn to be uneasy: before us, in a communal bowl, was doge masala. Mutated dog. The impoverished people of Hànhtinh ate whatever they hunted, including doge, despite doge’s origins as beloved pets that accompanied Tuen’s refugee ancestors 300 years before.
I’m an aspiring anthropologist, so I’m no stranger to odd foods. On Yer, I ate 10-legged hörümçək, similar to the tarantulas on Earth. But doge was different. This hit too close to home. Dogs, you see, are like family to me. I was raised with them on Earth, where my sister bred them for competitions.
I looked up from the doge masala, staring right into Tuen’s eyes. “I am honored to share this food with you and your family, Elder Pham,” I said with feigned confidence. “If you would be so kind, I would like a piece that does not remind me that I am eating doge. Back home dogs are like family to me. I hope you understand.” He shrugged and picked up his eating sticks and served me a single morsel from the communal bowl. There, on top of my rize, sat the paw with eight serrated talons protruding from eight toes. Supposedly the choicest piece of meat, I suppressed a gag. Sighing inwardly, I used my eating sticks and promptly put the paw back into the communal bowl. Elder Pham’s face flushed with crimson. I had just offended him and his entire family.
My first day on planet and my PhD dissertation was already off to a poor start.
by Nathan Cutler
“No more,” he said, his sword as dark as the night sky.
Each day, the Sun cracked a smile as his chariot zipped across the horizon, spreading light over the sky above, and joy over the Earth below. The others shone, their aura emboldened by its radiance.
He, was different. An average man; born into a house which had never seen extremes, grown into a body which had been modeled to a perfect sculpture of mediocrity. He had seen ups and downs in his life, but they no longer affected him. He had not smiled in aeons. Tears, too, were long gone.
All his life, he hoped the sun would pass on a fraction of its grandeur and make him shine brighter, so that he too could emerge from his facelessness. But the Sun, you see, is relentless. It beat down its glory day after day, illuminating many, but charring him. He took refuge in the night.
Late at night, when darkness enveloped the world like a cloak thrown over a child, he would emerge, and revel in the silence. He would lie there for hours, imbibing the darkness, speaking to it as if it were his closest friend.
He found closure in silence. When all else failed, he found a friend in the night. As the others spent the day in pursuit of glory, a spectrum of a million colors, he sat in the shadows, never seen. How he had longed to be noticed, to be cared for. How he hoped he would find a space for himself on the infinite chessboard of the universe.
As he plunged himself into eternal darkness, a single thought had taken his mind hostage.
“The Night has always been mine. The Darkness is my requiem.”
by Ronit Ray
I forgot her name minutes after she told me. It’s not something I wanted to know, not her name or the snippets of the sob story that she started to tell me before the drugs kicked in. She’s a donor, not a person. It’s easier.
I got her onto the ground with her back to the wall, keeping her upright with my shoulder as I tied off the tourniquet and drew a vein to the surface. I inserted the needle, dipped my head to her elbow and began to suck.
The taste of blood is salty and metallic. The effect, on someone like me, is a gasp of air after drowning. It is the stuff of life, in a way that has nothing to do with biology. The blood revitalizes my body, my mind. The needle slows the flow, but is necessary. Teeth are for tearing out the throat and gulping down the vital fluid, taking life as well as sustenance. The needle lets the donor walk away. It keeps me from becoming a monster. It keeps me from becoming the hunted.
With my waking senses I felt the weight of the girl on my shoulder. I smelled cheap perfume and alcohol. Then with a wet sound her bowels gave way and she shit herself. My nose filled with the stench of her waste. It triggered a gag reflex I didn’t know I still had and my body convulsed, spewing out blood, dark red on her yellow dress.
What had started so well had turned disastrous. There was no disguising this feeding as a night of poor choices and illicit drugs. She looked like the victim of a brutal assault. This would be reported, investigated. I had to resolve this. Day was coming. I don’t do well in daylight.
by Adam Melendez
60. Bad Day
Thursday was out to get me. He’d had it in for me for weeks ever since I’d taken that little bauble in Atlanta. But we’re not allowed them anymore are we, leastways us grunts aren’t.
He’d been a shit since the mortals named a day after him but oh did we laugh when the Christians took his day and named it for their own. If he was bad before he was worse now. People suffered, people died and all the while his father turned his blind eye to it all. People stopped believing in him, in us. Thursday couldn’t handle that.
That’s when the rules came down from the high throne. If mortals had abandoned us then we were to abandon them. Not that the rules mattered to Thursday.
Two weeks ago there was an expedition led by Thursday to retrieve something that had been stolen. As usual with him in the lead things went bad quick. In the confusion I helped myself to something I saw as my right, I was putting myself in harm’s way after all. In Thursdays eyes I’d broke the rules, by right it was up to him to distribute the wealth.
Since we’d returned I’d heard whisperings, the Norns had cut my thread and Thursday was coming for me. I wondered if the trinket had been worth it but then remembered the night after night of pleasure it had brought me. Yes it was worth it.
So here I was waiting. I heard him coming from a ways off, he always liked fanfare. As the crowd parted I knew something was wrong. A deathly hush and the air had gone tight. The chariot pulled up, I knew was fucked.
Thursday had come for me and the fucker had brought Wednesday with him.
by Philip Norris
Bullets tore through the night, seemingly from all directions. Voices called from everywhere, commands and screams blending together. Metal plinked and glass shattered.
I dropped beside the car and shaped a shield of Air. Along the row of vehicles, soldiers took cover.
Not Kimara though.
The consort stood over the body of Lector Faydel. Her lover.
The look on her face…
I surveyed the street but Kimara’s expression had frozen in my mind’s eye. It settled, insidious, within. A tremor shook me. My chest filled with well-remembered pain. My throat tightened. I was on my ledge once more, warmth waking my flesh from petrified slumber, the distant skyscrapers forming uneven teeth silhouetted by the last of the day‘s sun. I smiled before agony overwhelmed me and I stumbled, struck my knee on the ledge, and fell off. I plunged ten storeys before I caught myself. I didn’t check to see what was wrong with my leg; I’d seen Silene’s broken perch as I’d fallen. Adrenaline dulled my physical pain as I ascended – refusing to look down – but dread prevented my lungs from expanding and made every sweep of my phantom wings an act of labor. I crested the ledge and found the bodies of three humans on my gravel rooftop, their blood pooling beneath them. But no Silene.
I have no word to describe what comes after dread but it had me then. Hovering in place, thirty storeys up, no more than five feet from the ruined ledge, I looked straight down…
Yes, I knew that look.
Never mind I needed her now the Lector was dead, Kimara’s heart had just been ripped from her chest. I might be Kehle and her Human, but we were kin now. I poured power into my shield, took a deep breath, and lunged.
by Bryan Cheyne
62. Bright Violence
There was a monster standing before him. Its breath was ragged, a grating grindstone, shoulders hunched, dark heap of hair plastered to its skull. Nostrils flared, steam rising. Fresh cuts across its face leaked blood eagerly as its jaw worked, teeth bared, a row of perfect white, not the way a monster’s supposed to have them.
The monster leaned closer, closer, and he felt its warmth of his face. He didn’t look away when he met its gaze, pits of shadow in the pale face, staring, hungering, blue stones forged in that unnamed village in the northern horizon, a cold set to them. In the eyes of darkness shines bright violence, Sahamet had once told him. So maybe it was darkness in the mirror, then. Probably it was just the reflection.
“Icepick. It’s time.” Arrahail, by the door.
Icepick turned from the mirror, faced the rickety door of the cabin. Arrahail thrust the scabbard in his hand. Their wristclocks glinted in the slight consideration of sun seeping through the boards. Her cloak was black against the gloom, warping her silhouette, golden cuffs shimmering faintly. Was that blood dripping off her fingers? She seemed so frail then. Icepick knew better.
The sounds from the yard trailed soft inside, soft, like a shore before the waves came. The iron lantern had burned out, the smell of oil thick in the air. A chill wind rattled their shanty hideout, threatening to bring it down. Arrahail stood rigid, watching, waiting, clutching her side. It was high time to go.
“Killing time,” he whispered, drawing the sword, opening the door.
The blades. All the blades, and the fearful faces, and the world fire around them. They had spent a day and a night in the Iron Republic. Icepick grinned.
He’d make them stay.
by Samu Eräkanto
63. Galeus the Storyteller
“Galeus!” A voice called from the back. A broad shouldered man stood blocking the blinding light as if he was the sun rising on a new day. “What stories do you have?”
I give a grand smile, though the pounding headache that accompanied my booze kept my mood low. Nevertheless, an entertainer provides distraction. “Enough to last till night.” I say.
They come to hear of Galeus the brave, Galeus the virtuous, but are not bored by Galeus the boaster. It is an art form perfected over years of drunken nights. As the story began to wind down into the crescendo of an ending, a bothersome child spoke up.
“Here she was, her skin drained from fear and—“
“Her skin drained?” A child asked.
“Yes.” I said pushing past the interruption. “Her—“
“Where was this?” The child asked.
“It is…was…” I say and move past it. “When she—“
The child sneezed, his snot dangling from his nostrils like the attention of my audience, not very well. “Boring…”
A rage overtook my senses. I gripped the child and pulled him to the ceiling. The muscles in my arm bunched and groaned, but I held him there. “Listen you snotty little brat! The hell do you—“That was when I notice the blood lust among the audience.
“Unhand the prince!” The haze of alcohol vanished as I noticed the golden haired child I held in a violent grasp was the fucking prince. The dangling snot fell onto my arm and I simply smiled.
A coward would drop the child and beg; a fighter would admit nothing and die. I drop the child and run. A good storyteller learns early in how to exit, for most will turn on you if they are left unsatisfactory in your story or you.
by Jesse Smith
64. The Gift
The air reeked of smoke and death as a night-stained sky wept bleak tears over the battlefield. His empty and distant eyes were tethered to a worn sword clutched in a trembling hand, as war-drums echoed a cold reminder of a long march and a debt unpaid.
“First time? What’s your name, son?”
The young man blinked away his atrophy as a bearded soldier framed in the penumbra of the boiling, black sky smiled down on him, his face carved with the lines of old and violent memories. A weary soul on the edge of eternity.
“It’s Paul, Sir.”
The graying warrior took Paul’s battered sword, replacing it with a polished blade of the finest craftsmanship. “She’s lucky,” he said. “I expect her back at daybreak. So, tell me Paul, who’s your reason to live?”
Paul pushed past a thick tapestry of fear and into the light. “Rhoswen. We’re to be married in the spring.”
A thunderous eruption of drums signaled a charge. The old soldier gripped Paul’s shoulder and winked. “For Rhoswen!” he yelled and charged forward into the night.
The other men followed the surge, echoing, “For Rhoswen!”
Paul looked down at the shining sword in his trembling hand; the sword he had never returned…
The sword of a fallen hero.
Bathed in its reflection, he saw the aged face of a young boy who had survived that battle so long ago. He returned it to its place above the hearth and stepped back. Shafts of morning gold illuminated the blade in the light of a new day.
A soft voice at his side whispered, “Do you think he knew it would matter in the end?”
Paul turned to his wife of forty years and smiled. “Yes, Rhoswen… somehow, I think he did.”
by Ken Kiser
65. Rainbow’s Fall
I walked long across the prairie, through frosty morn, past warmer noon, toward rainy evening. Late in the day—in the distant sky—with the world below just beginning to darken, a rainbow caught my eye. It arched across half the earth. I stood for a moment to watch it shine.
A great chiming rang the heavens. In a dozen places, the rainbow cracked, leaving behind thin black veins that began to drip color down the air. First came the magenta, the violet, the indigo. Then emerald into gold. Finally, the burnt orange and scarlet.
The cracks widened; the colors ran faster. On the horizon, one pigment over-painted the other, until at last all the distant hills and trees were red. Still the rainbow hung high, dark as smoky glass—until, with a sound like wild bells, the whole curve of it broke into pieces and tumbled the long way to earth. I watched its slow fall, felt tremors from where it hit the ground.
I had walked without purpose until this moment. Now I had a direction, a goal. I reached the broken rainbow just when night was falling. But there was still enough light to see. Silvery metallic pieces as big as boxcars lay strewn about, like a jackknifed train that had come off the tracks.
A black opening in the nearest section beckoned me within. I explored, drifting out of one piece into another, only to find them full of broken toys, cast off furniture, torn t-shirts, lost and leaking pens, worn-out skillets, bent bicycle wheels, and the waste paper piled up from a billion and more lives.
It seemed that rainbows, like so much in the human world, were full of trash.
by Charles Gramlich
66. Night comes and Day follow
The night came and so the day followed. He watched the mutation of linearity with interest at first but saw nothing of worth, only irritations and disinterest existed in his light gaze, he parted the abstraction and found vain solace in the act. There was nothing else he could do other than watch the light fade and swell, the man come and go, the animals sleep and walk.
The cat moved and stay still, its eyes reflected light and concentrated blackness when he found it. He parted it as well, and there was no material left. Day and night consummated day and night as the swelling continued. The light escaped the night, as contradictions become reality. The collapse of senses had meant nothing for him for now and quite a while.
Significance hardly grew as he saw the canvas simply grew bigger in size, filled with many more of nights coming and day following, and it would have suddenly seemed that the canvas had stopped growing. Only then he establishes that he was a conscious being, the ability to sense the temporary and insignificant pause in the drawing has cemented his presence to himself.
Night came and day followed. He tried to look closer again at linearity and only saw the needles occupied all side of the clock that did not exist.
by Johnny Broccoli
67. River Ghosts
There is a song that river ghosts sing. Eri knew it as a gurgling in the creek where she washed her clothes, wrinkled hands smoothing creased linen. They peeped out at her across clear water, eyes like the pebbles beneath their feet.
Eri kept chickens behind her cottage. Clucking hens wandered and pecked for grain. Sometimes when she tended the garden, she would hear splashes and the indignant scolding of birds. When she went out back, she would find feathers in the mud and ruffled chickens on the roof.
“You silly girls,” she would say. “Come on down, the ghosts don’t mean you any harm.”
So she soothed the hens until they came down to roost. Eri’s chickens gave her eggs, more than she could eat. She brought them to the market and came back with milk and bread, some of which she mixed together in a saucer and set out for the ghosts at night.
River ghosts liked milk and bread. She never found her saucer empty on the doorstep. The ghosts left her little presents from the riverbed – a polished stone that gleamed like day, a tiny green glass bottle. She placed them on a shelf and went back for her broom, to sweep away their webbed tracks.
When winter came, the river turned into a sheet of ice. In the coop, Eri’s hens huddled close for warmth. They cooed at her when she fed them hot mash. Stroking their silky heads, she worried after the ghosts.
At first blush of spring Eri hurried to the river. She took a step on thawing ice, wobbled and fell. Ice broke through and she cried out, falling into the river’s cold embrace. Then dark shapes swam up, reaching to pull her to shore, and Eri smiled through her wasted tears.
by Marcus Chan
68. Within The Moment
Clashing Steel filtered through the screams of the massacre down the valley.Witnessed by Mya, her mother and father.
‘Nothing can be done.’ Marc whispered.
His family could have been them, risks of marchants, bandits were just one.
No one heard Jackson behind them, but felt his presence, watching over them with fierce amber eyes that contain the darkest secrets. A feeling they grew comfortable in.
Mya barring tears, body shaking. Ella wrapped a delicate arm around her daughter, holding close to give comfort. Her daughter maybe in her twenties but will always be her child
‘Has to be..something.’ Mya’s voice cracked, wanting to let go.
For Jackson, it was not the screams that buried deep in him but Mya’s pain. She had changed him, ending what he was, she the day to his night; architect of his soul.
Her tears flowed.
He walked back to the caravan and opened an oil skin wrapping, one he had not held in some months, craving all moments not distracted by Mya. He incautiously pulled off the straps, revealing twin curved short swords, gripping them tightly. The song flowed through him once again, singing of battle, of blood.
The family was not unaware of the light in his eyes burning differently as he pulled off his cloaked, exposing his battle scarred strength underneath.
He walked back towards the ledge which they were witnessing the slaughter below, stride picked up the closer he came. He did not wish her to see him the way she might now, but to stop her tears he will stained that valley. His speed gathers and blades fan outwards as he leaps down into the fray. The screams changed, no longer women and children begging the mercy of violent men, but violent men begging mercy of the Butcher.
by Shamus Roan
69. The Great Tree
During the day we gather at the great tree at the center of town. Long black dress and white cuffs on show as if to contest who is more dedicated to the township, to avoid prying eyes full of both judgement and fear. One man stands out from the rest with long red garb and hat. He stands front and center of us all to deliver the days speech, encouraging hard work, worship and offering. Although, I can’t be the only one to notice that our Willow seems to hang lower and lower every day.
We gather at sunrise to appease the night. We can all hear it. The wind screams through the great tree, a howl of which is all not holy. We hear the footsteps of man and horse but no footprints to show their weight. The birds gather and perch on roof edge, either as a salute to the damned or to be ready for the carrion. The nights grow colder and the crops wither away with but a whisper of this specter. The trials will begin soon. We will find the cause. As for now… we do not look from between curtain cracks.
The man in red finishes off his speech to a raucous cheer. No one would dare not join in or sound any less enthusiastic than the morning before for to do so would be different. Do not be different. We turn and make our way back to the fields to begin our days work. I can’t stop myself from looking back at the great oak where our Willow hangs lower. I miss my sister every day, even if she was a witch. But we are thankful, for what would our little town of Salem be without our rituals.
by Matt Walsh
70. Spring Watch
Birds. Always the fucking birds.
Pre-dawn, yet already the budding branches shiver and squawk with horny abundance. Nothing quite like a graveyard tryst to get ‘em in the mood, apparently.
This. This is why springtime grates the most. Hard not to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by such conjugal reminders of what it is to live. To love. Night and day, spring and winter, life and death—and here’s me, stuck in between. Belonging nowhere, welcomed by none. So, yeah. Fuck spring.
‘course, winter has its own miseries—plenty of them, in fact—but they’re nothing compared to spring; when, like a nosy neighbour, the sun starts to raise its head earlier and earlier to better witness my daily torment.
Speaking of nosy neighbours: here they are now, right on time, with their designer coffee-flasks and their poncy cameras. You know who I blame for this shit? Springwatch. Wonder what that Packham bloke would say if he knew these wankers were driving me from my natural habitat? I’m the last of an undying breed, don’tcha know.
Still, I’m damned if I’ll leave before the very brink of sunrise. Risk or no risk.
One of the cheerful little gobshites flaps down from its perch. It hops towards me with post-coital smugness; somewhere above, its mate twitters contentedly.
Hunger twists what’s left of my insides. Then the screams begin. Feathers crumple and hollow bones crunch and the bird-watchers shriek as watery blood soaks my desiccated throat.
The day’s fingers creep closer and the watchers fall silent, beady eyes staring down from amidst the newborn leaves. Across the boneyard, sun flashes on a glass lens, and – there! – a red light blinks.
‘Fuck hiding,’ I gurgle. Black plumage muffles my words, but it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty sure Springwatch has subtitles.
by Demi Harper
71. The Dragon’s Rebellion
His boots sloshed through the dredge of the jungle. The humid air caked his entire body. But, worst of all were the incessant mosquitoes, gnawing at his ears.
“How much longer to the temple, my little Belle?” asked General Pierre.
“Nhi, monsieur, my name is Nhi,” the young girl replied, “Very soon. Past these trees and up the mountains.”
“Forgive me,” Pierre said, “But, my dear it is already late in the night. Perhaps, we should make a fire and sleep together.”
The pair continued their trek through the jungle with Nhi one step ahead of Pierre. Taking his time, Pierre’s eyes ogled Nhi’s body like a starved beast. Her silk garments were weathered, but still accentuated her taut figure. Her head donned a conical, straw hat with a bandana masking her face. On her shoulders were two woven baskets.
“My Belle, let me carry those heavy things,” Pierre said, “A girl like you shouldn’t be working so hard.”
“It is my duty to carry these baskets,” Nhi said, “They contain fruits for the temple. Those lonely monks will starve without my help.”
“I bet they will,” Pierre said, “I am surprised your father agreed to let me take you. After all, he is a good man. Now my love, let us drop the pretense.”
General Pierre brandished a golden pistol and cocked it at Nhi’s head. “My men should already be at the temple. Now where are those damn jewels? In there? Give them to me, or I will have those old fools and orphans reamed!”
Nhi turned around. She reached into a basket and pulled out a makeshift bomb.
“Day is coming, Pierre,” Nhi said.
A thunder roar reverberated through the jungle.
“My people don’t take too kindly to foreign invaders.”
by John Phan
72. Fidei Defensor
Henry pulls the rings from his fingers, all save one. They plunge to the floor in a tumble of gold and land with whispered thuds on the bearskin. Someone will retrieve them later.
Henry pushes the drapes from his bed. He longs for sleep, longs to dream of something other than the thick, rolled parchment that rests on a table in the next room. But a shadow at the door keeps him on his feet.
“I said to leave me for the night, William. Go to sleep.”
The shadow says nothing. Henry turns. It is a man. Slender, pinched into his high, black collar. He is a stranger to Henry, but the king feels no rush of fear.
“What do you want?”
“Do you not know?” The voice is thin but supple. “You can ignore what lies in the next room, Henry, but you cannot ignore me.”
“How do you know of that? What are you?”
“I am parchment and hot wax. Ink and words.” The man’s eyes close and he inhales deeply. “Some say I smell of smoke.” The word slithers forth and the hairs on Henry’s arms stand up. “I am holy law made flesh. The pope has cast you out, Henry. And so I come.”
Anger burns in Henry’s chest. “To take my crown? My soul? Let God himself do that on the day of my death.”
The man shakes his head and the room grows cold. “Your soul is still yours. And your crown. That is not why I am here.”
The anger vanishes. “What will you do?”
“I must mark you.”
“Will it hurt?
The candles flare for the span of a heartbeat before darkness snuffs them out.
by Bronwen Frost
He was dead, that much he knew. He wasn’t entirely sure how he knew that or how long he had been dead or what had killed him or where specifically he was. In fact, the list of things he did know seemed relatively short. He knew he was not alive, he knew he was a “he” and he knew he was corporeal… also he knew what corporeal meant, a fact that most likely wasn’t pertinent but he’d take what he could get.
He looked around. After doing so he somewhat regretted it. The landscape just wasn’t very interesting. He was near a dock on some kind of body of water but even that was somehow very dull. Everything was sort of the same color. Nothing stood out. There probably wasn’t even a day/night cycle, just a constant underwhelming light that never changed. This entire plane of existence seemed to be a place that was just slapped together at the last minute, meant to serve one singular and brief purpose. No one was supposed to be here for very long.
Since he was dead then he supposed there should be some sort of ferryman perhaps or at the very least up and down escalators. Unable to remember his past he wasn’t sure which type of afterlife he was destined for but he wondered if even damnation would be better than here.
Having nothing better to do he walked to the unimpressive dock. He looked out over the water, it was surprisingly clear. He could see almost all of the boat that had sunk beneath the surface. He reached down to pick up something floating nearby. It was a jacket that said Ferryman on the back. “Shit” he said. “I wonder how far swimming will get me”
by Joe Porter
74. A Rat’s Choice
The Gutterwitch walked without fear. She’d stolen the voice of a bard, the edge of a sword, faith from the Low Priest of Ciaphan. Lives and futures. The shadows of gods. There was nothing left worth fearing in this world.
She walked the streets of Casparan, the deepest snow in decades crunching underfoot. White and black ruled the night, frozen beneath a sullen moon.
The boy who walked beside her was interesting. He was tall and pretty, driven. He sought to brood but he didn’t have the talent. He looked afraid.
“You ask a terrible thing,” she said.
“A necessary thing,” he protested, hands eloquent, desperate.
“To you? Perhaps.”
She considered, but only for a moment. Truth, she was bored. An offer like this appealed.
“Very well. Ten days from now, give your challenge. When it is done, I will take my price.”
He hesitated, like cowards always did. No one wanted an unknown debt.
He agreed and left, as cowards did. Telling himself it was for the greater good.
“What will you ask of him,” one of the twins asked, slithering out from shadow.
“What can we take?” his brother whispered eagerly, remaining unseen.
She would fulfill her end. In ten days the pimp would die, and the boy would take his place. He would grow in power until he ruled half the city in all but name. She had seen it.
“Perhaps a choice.”
She felt more than saw the look they exchanged.
“The day will come,” she promised, shuffling on. “When I have need of his choice.”
“A rat’s choice.”
“Better a rat’s choice than a worm’s,” she replied. “His will open doors.”
“Open what doors?”
“Doors to bigger rats.”
The snow fell, and the Gutterwitch made her way. Her shadows followed.
by Ryan Deehan
75. The Calm
Ice and snow covered everything as far as the eye could see; colored red by the early morning sun. The wind heralded the arrival of winter, bringing with it storm clouds. Kalr surveyed the land with a face as cold as the ground he stood on. Not only did the snow arrive sooner, but the change came during the night.
He frowned. It didn’t feel natural. Something was coming.
He heard shuffling behind him and moments later he felt Nio’s arms around his chest and her chin on his shoulder. Her warmth eased the concern in his mind. The thought of climbing back under the blankets of fur with her was tempting, but he needed to speak to the elders.
Kalr found Glin, the tribe’s elder, sitting atop a boulder, wrapped in fur. His gaze was fixed toward the mountains shrouded in storm clouds.
“Do you feel it, Kalr?” Glin said. The snow crunched under Kalr’s feet as approached the base of the boulder. “Something evil approaches.”
A bolt of lightning illuminated the distant clouds and thunder rolled across the landscape until it reached Kalr and Glin seconds later. The wind shifted, and the storm descended in the direction of the village.
By the time Kalr had gathered the tribe’s warriors, the rushing clouds were upon them. It would’ve taken Kalr most of the day to travel the same distance on foot. They marched away from the village, wielding stone axes and long spears, to greet the storm. It passed through them like a dust storm, the cold wind stung and pelted them with snow and ice.
Then it vanished and the air was still. Everything was covered in white, from the low meadows to the very tops of the cragged peaks.
Everything, but the woman in black.
by Ben Stava
“Wait, heading where?”
“And how many?”
“Two thousand. More. I-I’ve been riding since noon, sir.”
Rold the Lobber chewed, eyes set on the outrider. Offland’s finest knelt, feathered headdress splayed across his goat-horn helmet in a mess that bore a striking resemblance to Rold’s mess of a kingdom. He addressed the supplicant with his fork while cutting with his knife and cursing the man’s belligerence. This is why I need guards on the doors. Those boots just ruined my carpet.
“Get Latmask. Have him marshal half our horse and get going. If they can muster in twenty they will arrive with well over an hour to spare. Have him… hide… in the hills, or something.”
“S-Sir, it will take three—”
“Four hours to get there, give or take an axle. I was just dining with my eldest son and his family no less than a week ago. Think I don’t know the roads between here and Banor?” He snatched a third potato.
“They were already at the border, sir,” the man said, overloud.
Rold gobbled down the potato half chewed so he could sooner upbraid the mongrel. Remain after being given orders? Utter pomposity! Plus he stinks of horse. Preparing to lash out, he caught a glimpse of the man’s trembling comportment. Caught the dust coating his boots and the length of their shadow.
Since noon, sir.
The room heaved under a sudden, suffocating weight he could not unsummon. His knife clattered away, a numb attention grasping at senses that each slipped free, bleary and useless. His mind slugged its way through the loathsome calculation, then, pushing back his chair, Rold the Lobber stumbled away to the balcony where he faced a depthless night cutting through the light of day.
by Joel Minty
Gestalt. Obdurate. Vere… viridian? Green. Plangent mercy, oh mother my, a deep and hallowed hello. Hallo!
Unless you consider the constant drip-drippings in the dark an adequate call-and-response, which, to be honest, sometimes I am tempted to do; that, my friend, marks the beginnings of madness. I feel it, sense it, lurking there on the fringes, a disquiet, a friend-in-waiting, washing its hands as it smiles tentatively at my back.
Waiting to be called to sit by my side.
Back, foul fiend! They may have taken my freedom, but they’ve not yet stolen my… tenacity? Sagacity? Loquacity?
Frenulum. Pendulum. Spend-you-lum.
Tease a tart-a-lingo, pockets for your fringo, ashes, ashes we all call his royal mistress a whey-faced, sinewy whore whose pubis effluvium doth wash and spleen its frothy –
But, mayhaps, we shouldn’t have said it out loud.
Though she did sit right square athwart my prow as we broached wave after wave that night, heaving high and then falling low, and her buttocks, each an anvil, did so delightfully smack as she bit her own thumb and said – and said –
Ah. Woe is me. And such wits they are, to leave me my lute after gently recurving my fingers. You would think I’d play my ballads backwards with backward bending digits, but alas.
It doesn’t pay to be earnest, my friends. To show your cards by day and tremulously, tenderly, tentatively ask that your paramour do the same.
Not when your competition shits bricks of brassy gold.
Anchorite. Bedlamite. Hag-faced grave wight.
I can hear her laughter still. A raucous, squawkous, ribald thing. Turns out it’s possible to flay the soul.
Hark! Squealing hinges. Footsteps! Her mincy gait? No. Not this time. A platter of goo. Next time, perhaps. Till then…
Gestate. Meditate. Oblivion.
by Poggio Bracciolini
78. A Panoramic View of the End of the World
We sat nursing warm beers in a deserted bar. The roof and the very front of the establishment had been ripped off by an enormous tentacle earlier in the day, not long after our ritual was completed. The three of us now enjoyed a panoramic view of the end of the world
Fires blazed on the horizon. Bedlam reigned supreme. Impossibly gigantic, multi-angled nightmares stalked about on eldritch feet.
Hodges rolled her eyes, set her pint down on the bar. “What now, Gaunt? Why can’t you ever be happy?”
Ankridge laughed. “Gaunt, the eternal pessimist.”
I scratched my head, ignoring the old man’s jibe. “It’s not that I’m unhappy, Hodges. We did what we set out to do. The Old Ones have been awakened. We’ve hit the cosmic reset. It’s just…I’m not sure we thought this through all the way.”
Ankridge slammed his pint down, angrily wiped foam from his graying mustache. “Who you accusing of not thinking this through, kid? We spent years perfecting the summoning spells and the ritual from the Mad Arab’s book. And we succeeded. Spectacularly. Enjoy this moment—we’re the firstborn of the new world order. The Old Ones’ll make us gods.”
“That’s just it,” I said. “Why? Why would these…things that have waited eons upon eons in the endless night between dimensions care one whit about us? Look around, Ankridge. They’re nothing but cosmic forces of chaos. You really think that these Old Ones have spared us a second thought? Do you really believe they’ll reward us now that they have what they want?”
Ankridge went quiet. Hodges twiddled her thumbs, then began drinking in earnest. I glanced again at the horrors we’d knowingly unleashed on the world.
I smashed my pint on the floor and began guzzling straight from the tap.
by Austin Shirey
“I’ll be taking my place now.” His was a statement of fact writ large across the domed marquee.
She tried to ignore him but even during her own solitary dance across the stage, he controlled the spotlight. Whether she appeared or not depended on his fickle grace. If only their audience had a say.
They were drawn to her. Their lifeblood ebbed and flowed with each passing. Many were lulled into a world of dream. But seen or unseen, they knew her.
“Very well,” she said.
Why she’d been banished to the night performances, she couldn’t say. On a clear day, when their stage lay unclouded and bare to the eyes of the crowd, she could sometimes be seen, a pale shadow in his magnificence. But this was never her time.
He came slowly through the curtain, his costume muted through the sheer layers. Back straight, head high, one purposeful stride then another, each layer peeled away ahead of his regal entrance. First red, then orange, then a dazzling gold drawn from deep within the veined earth.
When he took his place, the crowd became alert. As he paraded the length of the stage, letting them bask in his presence, a frantic energy built which she’d always taken for anticipation. Often she let herself be drawn to his performance to try and understand his genius.
But today was different. Instead of watching him, she watched those who knew her best.
Their attentions were elsewhere. On the faded seats. The threadbare carpet of the theater floor. The frescoed ceiling, every chipped crevice, every peeling flake illuminated by his passing.
In his hubris he’d given them a focus apart from the stage.
She timed his magnificent stride across center stage and stepped before him. All eyes were theirs.
by Russ Linton
80. The Price
Sunlight broke through heavy clouds for a moment before being swallowed once again. The day wept over a field of slaughter, mirroring my own mood. I plucked at lute strings warped by rain, discordant tones that set the dead’s teeth on edge. Careful steps brought me at last to my destination. I could make out a tattered banner—my own embroidered silver fox on a field of green—underneath the body of my bannerman.
I prodded the man’s flesh with my boot—stiff and unyielding, the corpse slid in the mud until it covered my silvered shame. I sat heavily on the muddy ground, soiling my regal clothes, and looked around at the bodies. Pitiable hunks of meat. Just yesterday they had been men, fighting for me—or perhaps my brother, it mattered not which in the end.
I plucked another chord before the full weight of the situation hit me. While these men fought and died, I had been passed out in the arms of a whore, too drunk to even recall the events of the night. Yet the bards would all sing of my valor on the field, as if I single-handedly turned the tide of battle.
My fingers began to dance over the strings, sharp notes melding into a haunting dirge for the men whose lives had bought me the throne. Tears mixed with rain ran down my cheeks. By the time the last note sounded, the sun had set and night had cloaked the battlefield in darkness. Fitting.
I stood and began to make my way back to my camp, my lute left in the mud. My world would no longer accept such sentiment. The Bard Prince had died today, and in his place the Fratricide King would rise. I had a brother to execute.
by Brian Decker
81. The Godmaker
Nobody believed. Nobody even listened – not more than once. He lived the remainder of his days on the frontier station Zero-Dark-Magi, a familiar fixture in the station bars.
But once, to hear him tell it, he’d been a virtuoso. A visionary, working with visionaries.
Rasconopolous hailed from a system once named Pax Ganimus, but which had for some ninety years been known as the Bunzolabe – and, for the past decade or more, as one of the most dangerous places in the galaxy. The Bunzolabe was the star system of Horatio Bunzo’s Funtime Happy World, and Rasconopolous had been one of the few to escape when the planet-sized amusement park had started to kill.
It was said that when Horatio Bunzo felt night approaching, he’d had his body preserved in a sleeper pod. This, Rasconopolous claimed, was not the case.
No. What beloved old Bunzo had done, Rasconopolous raved, was transcribe his consciousness into electronic form, gaining functional immortality in a computer cortex the size of a small continent. Thus reincarnated, he could continue to rule benevolently over his empire.
What actually happened when a human mind escaped its fragile flesh, its prison of sociocultural obligation, was … awful. Billions had died. A fortunate few escaped by the munificence of Bunzo – as had Rasconopolous, in a manually-operated, electrochemical death-trap of his own construction, just ahead of the evacuees. He’d been fortunate to have been found at all.
He had known what was coming. He’d known what the world was about to become. He’d known, he said, because he’d been head scientist on the very project which saw Horatio Bunzo’s mind peeled screaming out of its meat, and let loose into the electronic sphere.
Professor Mandon Rasconopolous didn’t call himself by any of his academic titles.
He called himself The Godmaker.
by Andrew Hindle
82. A Man Such As I Am
The holy writings inform us that day inevitably follows night. Perhaps it is night that follows day, but it is not for the likes of me to question the teachings of the Prophet. I’ve always seen the breaking of day, like the breaking of fresh bread or the turning of topsoil, as an affirmation of life. It is the same, whether I wake to sow seed in the furrows of home, or to reap the souls of men on faraway fields. My spirit ascends like the morning mist with the blessing of the sun.
Tomorrow will be no different. When the pearlescent hue of morning begins to bleed through the barred window high above me, I will greet the new day with anticipation, even some small pleasure, though Dawn will be the herald of my last day on this earth. No ransom will be paid for one of my low birth. I’ve understood this from the first. God has made us to be as we are, servants of his will. I pray my creator finds no failure in my devotion.
I’ve always taken pleasure in the small things in life, in the satisfaction of a day’s work done well. I believe there is a virtue intrinsic to a well crafted piece of furniture, or the finely honed edge of an axe. It is in such precision that truth or falseness will be revealed. I’ve undertaken my duty with the same purpose; to fight, to live or die in the service of my Lord for reasons often obscure to me. I’ve fought without passion or prejudice, but with determination, certainty and no little skill.
I pray that he who must part my head from my shoulders on the morrow will be a man such as I am.
by Adriano de l’Orange
83. The Nights of Death
Every night as the sun set, she was deathly afraid. Not of the things that lay in the dark, but of the powers that threatened to consume her from the inside. She had been foolish in thinking she could carry such a burden on her own. Her friend – oh, how they could have been so much more – had tried to talk her out of it, but she wasn’t so easily swayed. And now he was dead. And she, she was alive, but for how long? Her soul wasn’t made for the kind of weight that was now constricting it.
It wasn’t dark magic. She could have done something about that, at least. This was what people dare not even whisper about, for to acknowledge its existence would be too close to admitting that Death walked among them, every night. This thought drew a cold smile to her lips. Death was entwined in her every strand of being, now. She was him.
If she could have had anything, it would have been life, in its most mundane forms, so that she, too could go on pretending. She would have asked for puddles of water in her path, for the tears of pain after a heavy blow, to the body and not the soul. She wasn’t deluded enough to believe that to fix anything, for her being was past the point of repair, but she still wished when the pain softened enough for thoughts beyond it.
She felt the imaginary claws tearing at her existence again, and could tell she was going to destroy something that was, to someone else, irreplaceable.
She jumped awake. What had transpired that night, she didn’t want to know. Another day, and she was still here. So was he. Unfortunately, he needed her.
by Tuuli Toivonen
84. The Bard’s Warning in the Tavern
“Let me take you back,” a man in a dark overcoat spoke. His voice resonated a calm, low baritone, but it was one that everyone heeded, for there was a story to be told. Members of the backwoods tavern stirred as the man took a seat by the fireplace. He gently picked up his stringed instrument and began strumming a tune that was as powerful as his voice. “None of you were alive when this tale happened.” His long silver bow shone against the fire and brushed against the instrument to a softer noise that painted the setting and drew the attention of the crowd. This man kept the shadow of his hat over his eyes; only looking up high enough to peer over his immediate audience. The light from the bow touched each of them. This enigma had their attention and so began his tale and warning:
“Two hundred years ago was their birth — the twins Ichon and Devay. What you see out there is nearly as young as this day. Every fifty years their rebirth occurs. Especially now, the earth stirs. This warning is to save yourselves and your family. My wish is to avoid observing a calamity. This night they’ll return in some way. By the morrow, their wickedness will force the land to decay. Everything to ash is their goal. They’ll take nothing but your soul.”
The crowd was stunned. The man didn’t raise his brow, but pointed outside and directed them to go. Not shocking to the man, the patrons slowly shuffled out of the building in a trance. Plates and mugs clattered. The building was quiet after the patrons left, leaving the barkeeper and his wife. A gruff snort came from the barkeeper married with a cackle from his wife.
“Well played, hunter.”
by Arthur Brombacher
85. The Duality of Brass
Who he was and how he played were night and day, I thought to myself as I sat there in the bar on a Monday, babying my second whiskey while the band set up for their first and final set.
I knew the man, I knew him well enough compared to most everyone there, and the stark contrast startled me every time. Now, as strings were wound tight and the piano player leaned in to speak key changes with the drummer, as the cacophony of voices started their quiet transition to the chaotic symphony to come, he stood at the front, glasses on and pointed at the ground while he prepared himself for what was inevitable.
The slow pace of a run on the piano started the song. It was a beautiful piece that went on for maybe forty seconds. He still stared down. For him, it was about the build-up. He needed that explosion. The drums kicked up fast, then slowed down. The beat was syncopated slightly and it started to outline the man somewhat in shades of more blue than the gray of his suit.
I told him once three years ago that syncopation works for him but not you; he simply said that I never understood the truth of his music.
A solid, smooth, bass line started and fell into the middle of the rhythm.
Then everything quit; the silence held. There’s something pure about a rest in music. I don’t want to say that I’m much for religion but in that blank space between the notes, I truly would like to think we all found some God in there just before he played.
He looked up; a devilish smile came across his face before lips touched brass. A deep breath, and then…he showed us his hell.
86. The Lovers Eternal
“I attack by day so the conquered, slain, may know this Dame.”
“Lay your weary head as thou wont, I shall grant thee a final night.”
For a score and some odd more.
Lord laid siege to Day.
And Night defended her realm.
Until the Spring of Surrender.
To the nights we take flight,
Dawn’s malaise and the days we laze.
To the dining dancing dusks that follow,
And precede one more wing’ed night.
Lay me down.
Our sacred ground.
Bar the door.
Gods and Law — Out!
Crown me beloved, king, and clown,
With rose petal kisses and honeyed whispered elicits.
Chain me in midnight’s linen and lover’s laughs,
In the light of Day and the warmth of her light.
Such was their love the gods above stayed their reign eternal
Neither in the light of day,
Nor the dark of night,
But between the beats of these two hearts.
In these heavens, still they reign.
True lovers ’tis plain, they waltz without shame.
Through the times and ‘cross heavens,
Dance The Lovers entranced.
The light of Day, embracing dark Night.
by Maurice L. Robinson
87. A Tune of Twilight
As the night drew in, he felt the warmth of his fingers, his hands, and again tender arms moved. The tavern his castle, the stool a throne, he plucked out the music of love lost- never forgetting that time was fleeting. With a flurry of motion, the yellow-stained gittern sighed as nimble fingers played master to the strings. Moments later it would thunder with the heart of a lion. This was his time, yet as life- it was limited.
No man alive could best such passion, certainly not in this smoky hall, for the blanket of dark hours called his name as a Lord. Come midnight, the thin crowd grew thick and applause came in waves. They knew he would be here tonight. He was here every night.
Copious drinks would pass and tilt, and they’d yell, “Play the Lady Foster!” And as the lamps flickered high, too he would strum ‘Never by River’ and ‘Cover My Ale.’ The love affair between player and patron was wet and loud, if not brash, but it was his true calling.
Though, as the hours waned on and his mind drifted to thoughts of the coming dawn, swift fingers went daft. The weight of his arms grew, for time had left but a few grains of sand.
A numbing was on the rise.
Without much notice, tears rolled down his face. Soon, it would be over, and again he would have to set aside the instrument of his joy. It would happen too quickly, as it did every day.
The moment sun broke, his body would fall limp and frail. His brittle bones to bed, this curse would leave him only a longing mind- a shattered soul- not to move again till the draw of next twilight.
by A.J. Upton
88. Best Laid Plans
Cave slipped through the crowds, pulling the boy along behind him.
They couldn’t linger.
The streets were dangerous for the hunted.
Cave wore dry blood on his hands like burgundy gloves, sweat making it greasy and difficult for the boy to hold on to.
Before they entered the port town Cave gave the boy instructions.
No eye contact, no talking, no stopping, no nothing until they find Weaver, the one who can help them cross the Divide.
A barrage of sights and sounds filled the boy’s mind with questions he reserved for another time. A safer time, he thought.
People of species and nationalities strange and unknown to the boy filled the streets like river water, the air full of putrescent stink and the sound of trade. They gestured like strange beasts at stall owners, coins winking in the dying sun as they exchanged from one hand to another, their foreign tongues issuing languages as colourful and wild as their clothing. Foul taverns and worse brothels issued sleazy music like beckoning fingers. When the crowds parted he could see in the distance down the dark cobbled streets a complicated arrangement of masts, sails and rigging. It all stood tall, piercing the dying day. He had always wanted to sail the seas and be rid of this wretched pla-
The boy crashed into Cave.
He looked to see what had rooted Cave to the spot. Hanging by the neck from a post above the street was a flayed body turning in the wind, head yanked back like a keen astronomer.
A haze of flies snarled over the hanged man’s flesh, the intricate tattoo’s unmistakable to Cave, which hung from a nail on the post like a forgotten coat.
Cave looked at the boy. Eyes like a starless night.
‘We’ve found Weaver.’
by Mark Gates
89. The Elopement
Oran stole me and brought me to his Hall, dowerless, kinless, only a maid to stand with me. We passed through the timber gates, scarred by my father’s attack, to a warm welcome. His mother smiled as she pressed a jug into my hand, ceding me her place, and I filled Oran’s cup with heather mead.
“This is a kind place,” an inner voice said.
With Oran’s eyes following, I filled the cups of his warband, my smile cutting my cheeks. As my jug emptied, my maid refilled it, until the songs turned from tales of valour to loves lost. My maid tugged my sleeve.
“Scream!” urged the voice in my head.
I looked to Oran but his eyes, glazed by mead, slid past my own. She tugged harder and I followed her to the gate. We lifted the bar. My father’s men pushed past me, bronze flashing in the firelight. Screaming replaced song.
“You could have been safe here.”
It was my mother’s voice, I realised, not heard since I was four. My father murdered her to free his bed, for my stepmother, his soulmate in cruelty; the woman standing next to me dressed as a maid.
“What have I done?”
Oran defeated their direct attack. At the parlay they trailed me in front of him like bait. He fell in love with the idea of rescuing me and failed to see the hook.
The flames licked over the roof turning day to night and my stepmother smiled. The jug in my hand felt heavy. With two hands I smashed it down upon her head, and picking up a broken shard drew it across her white neck.
I turned the shard upon myself and let the blood wash away my guilt.
by Deirdre Beecher
90. His Shadow
That night, Astrid asked me what it’s like to be his son. I didn’t answer at first.
“Nothing,” I whispered, then turning to look at her I said “It makes me nothing.”
“You are your own man Erik,” she insisted.
She’s Wrong! I’m not my father, true, but I am not my own man!
I am his shadow. A dark manifestation of the things he wasn’t. Diminished to nothing at the peak of the day, when all the deeds must be done. Then stretched thin and bled into oblivion each and every twilight.
Mine, the sorrow of the sea, willing men to drown simply by being.
Astrid’s fingers lured me back from the abyss my mind had fallen into, arms pulling me tight against her nakedness. I felt the smoothness of her skin, deliciously spoiled with goose pimples fresh from the cold winter air.
As she held me, the turbulent seas of my worries subsided. I forgot the crushing weight of my father’s boots, and I sank into the embrace of the woman he had forbidden me to love.
I knew it couldn’t last. When the crown came to rest on my brow, there is no way it would let me keep her.
For now, I relished that she at least adored me for who I am.
The flap of the tent flew open, and my brother entered. Firelight danced across his face revealing a portrait of anguish; a tapestry of tears and blood.
He looked at me with father’s eyes, bloodshot and raw, consuming any fragment of joy.
He sank to one knee, and lowered his head.
“The King is dead,” he declared mechanically, choking back emotion. “Long live the King.”
A sick dread gripped my chest, as Astrid’s arms fell free of it.
by Paul Twomey
91. Up a Frozen Hill
The List was staked to the wall with the ice-rimed finger bone of his son.
An enormous binder bowed the center of his desk. It was open to its final page; another numberless milestone approached. The top drawer of the desk contained a pair of beaten wire-rimmed spectacles, with two overlapping loupes that further magnified his vision. He perched these atop his nose and lowered his face to the page, squinting, silently mouthing the last column of entries. The cramped letters in their tiny print blurred together, but he checked each record and verified its accuracy. This was his second survey of the binder; an indeterminate time later he reached the end of the column and so completed the penultimate commandment of the List.
Was it cruelty or mercy that had led his jailor to affix it to the wall with the last remnant of his doomed son Glaucus, crushed ages ago beneath a chariot’s wheel? Was it a reminder that death could indeed be final? Usually he considered it a taunt, but sometimes, this time, he took it as a sign that all cycles are finite.
He reached up to let his fingers brush the parchment on which the List was written.
Check names twice
“Make ready.” Hades had appeared, inevitably.
Outside, in the cold, eight doomed souls waited to carry him. He whispered his eternal hope to Hades. “This will be the last time, won’t it? One more endless night, and I can lay down my burdens?”
Hades chuckled. “Complete the journey, Santa Claus, and see what the day after brings you.”
He cringed. “Your scouring aeons have stripped me of everything, Hades. At least address me by the name men once feared.”
“As you wish, King Sisyphus of Ephyra. As you wish.”
by Dorian Hart
92. Big Blank Wolf
Bad is a subjective term thought the wolf. It’s not cut and dry like Night and Day. So, to be described as bad. He was definitely big and proud of that fact, but bad? Hungry would be the word he would have used instead.
The red cloaked girl had food. She was food. The wolf was going to where there was more food. The wolf was patient. The wolf was cunning. Few have their cake and eat it too. Though in the end, the wolf regretted the dress up masquerade. It was bad form to play with your food.
by Dominic Loise
Day broke when he stabbed my heart. Ritual sin cleansed by pain, my life leaked from that wound. I suddenly believed in ancient medicine. You could be bled to health.
He vomited. It splattered on my black duster and spike heels. I held him when it was done, my blood mixing with the detritus, oil and rainwash in the gutter. All washed away. He shuddered in my arms.
“It didn’t have to be this way, you know. Even now, you can stay, stop this.”
“The path always led here, from the moment I found the grail.” My eyes held his, commanding him to let me go.
He released me, turning away. The knife in his hand flashed, reflecting pink heaven’s arrival. “I’ll bring you home.”
The souls I had stolen began to pour from me like wine. Their aroma wafted over the rubble, over the sound of traffic, over the fumes of automobiles rushing above us. Luke, the kind doctor, with his laughter and his songs came first, rising into the light. Arya, the young wolfmother, burst out, gasped and was gone.
“Tyler,” I called, my voice breaking. “Watch. See.”
He was still walking, not looking back.
I crumpled to the earth, for the first time battling myself. He was right, I could stay. I could even now. But if he could witness this last thing, perhaps I’d find strength enough to hold me through it.
The little girl Hayden whispered in my ear before she faded. “Thank you.” The words, butterfly soft, kissed me. The others came then in a torrent, Maxwell, Stony, Shot Dooley and finally, Karn. I wept as they left me. I wept for us all.
It was done. Tyler stood above me, tears falling on my forehead, baptizing. “You did it.”
by Anne Miles
94. If It Smells Sweet, It’s Not a Treat
Buttermoon mushrooms taste like honey-soaked dates and sell for thrice their weight in gold. The duke can never get enough of them. They also look almost exactly like a sour Hobson Horn, which wouldn’t matter much except those will give you a vicious fever and night terrors for a day and night, until you start the bleeding and foaming, then that’s it for you.
My mother’s debts loom large, and the moneylenders have warned they’ll take the cottage by the first frost unless I pay up. The only way to make any real money in this miserable forest is selling Buttermoons, and the only way anyone with any real money will buy the cursed things is if you’re a registered mushroom-hunter. And of course, the only way you’ll ever get registered is by passing the guild’s test.
That’s how I ended up in the mushroom-hunter guild’s cramped office, with two small golden mushrooms before me and a choice to make.
The right one is smaller and paler. I frown. I’d read the guild’s pamphlet a hundred times, but it’s different, trying to do this on your own. I think back to the grubby parchment the wizened guild officer had lent me. Buttermoons prefer a warmer, sunnier place to grow. Surely that would mean they’d grow a little more robust than their cousin, the Hobson Horn?
The mushroom on the left is smooth, with soft velvety gills. I pick it up, and it smells a little sweet. Like honey? I think to myself.
I pick the left one, and pop it in my mouth. It’s bland, and a little sweet. I swallow it, and relax, until my mouth fills with a bitter sour bite.
by N. M. Fox
95. These Terrors I Bear
The day has passed when night falls, when night stands tall. The path that lies ahead which the past has shed pulls the filament of the heart that bled. He who rides upon the cold, desolate wreckage of those forebear dead.
My incorporeal visage strikes upon thee, shattered that brave, mighty and desultory. Run, flee, but do not mock by mechanical hand vast as the sea. May revenges be swift omissions of fate, contributing souls to colossal debris.
I laugh, for none have evaded my cynical cataclysm of night. For the day arises, only to be met by laconic might. Darker and darker I breathe, consuming those that bade of life, sheparding the dying of the light.
No man has walked the derelict lane and in this interlude remained. The man thinks, is not a moment of athanasy better than none gained? The grave of man his fate has brought, the cold, languid blood of those lineage has rained.
The end has come, brought by despair. The darkness thickens and it is of these words man becomes aware; “I am Death, most evil of evil, look upon my might and distain in the air. It is of these men whose terrors I bear.”
by Corey Adams
96. A moment in time
Once upon a time there was only Now.
Now was the queen of the world as it was, and had always been. She wanted her empire to grow, and so she decided that her son was to marry the enticing Shade. Night did not love Shade, yet he agreed to his mother’s wish.
Then, however, he met Day.
Day entered Night’s life as a beacon of pure light, and he never looked at Shade again. He refused to marry Shade, and she would not have a man who loved another. Night and Day then became lovers, and Night went to his mother to confess his betrayal. Day was with child and he would have none other.
Now was furious. She would have Night keep his vow or not be with anyone at all. She cursed the child and the parents to never be able to find peace in each other’s arms.
At the birth of Time, the world spun as the curse took hold. For with Time, there could be no Now. The curse had doomed them all.
Now would forever whirl into another fleeting moment, and as she had cursed the child, so had she lost her self.
Day and Night was not able to hold their child. And so, filled with sorrow, Day burst into a ball of fire– flooding the heavens with a searing light, so as to be able to watch her child from afar. Night, however, would forever have to kneel away from Day’s touch.
Regretful, Now found a point within Time where she could linger, but for a moment. Now held on as best she could as twilight allowed Night to touch Day, if only for an instance, in a bittersweet embrace.
And, by now, we’ve all forgotten about Shade.
by Linn Tesli
She speaks to me often, though she never calls me by name.
What’s the point of you?
I used to hear her from behind thick glass, as if she might have been pressed against it – clawing to get closer to me, face passive but her cold rage obvious. It burned in eyes I couldn’t see, even before her whispers became shouts – became shrieks.
I felt her there, mouthing the words, even as as they blew away on a warm wind or were snatched from the air by errant laughter from the lips of my lover.
Often my own voice reasoned with her, calming her clawing hands to send her scuttling back, hunched and withered – some night creature catching the daylight. And for a time I thought her gone – eaten up by her own darkness, scratched apart by her own claws. In moments of hubris I even entertained that I had driven her permanently away, shrunk her to nothing.
Now she drowns me out with hours of grey nothing – buzzing away in my ear, leaving me blank and incapable of focus. She learns to better imitate my voice, a scratchy imposter – though convincing enough.
And yet – an errant laugh, a light brush from my lover’s lips. The rich sound of a cat purring against my roaring head…
For a fleeting moment she is revealed and I see her; her wrath and her falsehoods – wearing pieces of my skin in her lust to become me. Her words return and fill my mind, but I have seen her.
The memory will fade, so I claw at it, holding it close enough that it burns into me and leaves a scar so I might remember longer.
I hear her.
But I know that one day I will see her revealed again. That is enough.
98. Celestial desperation
Drenza paused a moment, peering down into the cloudy water immersing his brown leather boots. Twisted, ghostly spectres weaved back and fourth through a dark red trail of blood on the surface of the lake. The stench of impending demise filled the cold eve’s air, it was thick on Drenza’s tongue. His prey was badly wounded, he could not be far. He waded further into the lake, the water rising to his waist. The figures beneath the surface scattered as he made his way deeper. The spirits of fallen warriors danced between one another, the horrors of death painted in their expressions. They feared the monster before them, a creature belonging to neither life nor death.
Drenza inhaled the intoxicating scent of his prey once more. No more than ten yards away now. He moved round a small island of land set in the centre of the lake, his gaze following the sanguine trail to a shadowed figure slumped at the edge of the water. A crooked smile swept across his face, giving glimpse of razor sharp teeth. Only a dim, orange glow resisted the night now as darkness began to fall. Drenza moved across to the figure. Deep, rasping breathes filled his ears.
‘End it’ said the figure.
Drenza regarded him, studied his deep wounds, like an artist admiring his work. ‘What did you expect, Danniel?’
‘…Salvation’ he whimpered.
‘You are no more deserving of salvation this day than I’ replied Drenza with distaste. ‘No, I am not here for salvation, Danniel. I am here for deliverance’
‘Look at yourself… what you’ve become’ said Danniel.
Drenza looked into the water. The undulating form of a soulless fiend stared back. He swiped at the water, then drove his blade through Danniel’s chin. Blade met skull, then oblivion.
by Jon Birkens
99. The Patient
The execution chamber was cold and tenebrous as a Winter’s day, but it wasn’t that which made Doctor Edward’s body tremble.
Handcuffs coiled around the boy’s delicate wrists, binding him to electrodes and two-thousand volts. Edward rubbed his hands together, trying to rid the chill in his fingertips.
“What is your name?” the Doctor asked.
The boy glared at him through eyes dark as a starless night, pupils hunting his own. Edward wanted to run. Look at the one-way interrogation mirror, shake his head at the audience, and run. But he had to stay. He had to ask the questions.
“What is your name?” he repeated.
The boy’s thin lips curled into a grin, and Edward’s gut clenched. “You know my name.”
Zackery. He was breaking news. “How old are you?”
“You know that too.”
Sixteen. Sixteen, and a diagnosed narcissistic psychopath. Clearly, the boy wasn’t crazy. Every word he spoke was calculated, every gesture like a practiced orchestra. “Where are you from?”
Zackery tilted his head, showing white teeth through a malevolent smile. “Why don’t we skip the crap, Ed?”
Abandoned by his father at birth, raised by his single mother. The doctor tightened his fists to fight his trembling soul.
“Why did you do it?” said Edward, unable to meet the boy’s slit eyes. Why did you butcher your mother until she was an unidentifiable mess of flesh? Same questions, same result. This was the last time he would ask them. Bile coated the back of his throat.
He stood not as a doctor to patient, but father to a lost son. He created the boy but engineered the killer.
Why did you do it?
Edward shook his head at the interrogation mirror. The generators hummed. The transformers crackled. He left the chamber before the electric current struck.
by Harry R
100. Double face
I didn’t want to go here tonight. The Underground wasn’t exactly my type of setting. Grimy atmosphere, no rule fights where women and men alike where fighting mercilessly to the profit of a boisterous public. Still here I was, tagging along after Seth my best friend who has picked my curiosity while repeating again and again that I had to see some undefeated firegirl since weeks. Pushing our way through the throng, we made it to the first row of seats, just on time to see a hooded figure clad in black stepping onto the ring under the cry of the crowd. “There she is”, said Seth nudging toward the hooded figure while taking our seats. The figure still clad in her cloak-like wear was small, almost fragile beside her giant male opponent with 200 pounds of muscles and a fierce air. Then she undid her cloak…NO WAY. Seth’s fighter can’t be Ms Jane Redson, mother’s housekeeper? This person on the ring, now wearing a fitting short and a little top, was all brashness and nimble. And I have to reluctantly agree with Seth, she fights well, with speed and precision, too swift for her massive opponent. She has nothing in common with the prude and stiff Ms Jane, in fact they were like day and night. Yet now I understand where she got her bruises and occasional shiners she sported on when I see her at mother’s sometimes. Mother, who was found of the brat, was complaining once and again to him that the “poor and amazing dear” must have been beaten by her boyfriend. She’ll have a stroke to find that she was somehow right, for the beating and her being amazing too. Because she has defeated the giant to the uproar of the audience, me included.
by Ando Mialisoa
101. Day’s Endless Night
Arthus Day’s knees buckled, his head spun. Only the trunk of the oak tree at his back kept him from toppling down the hill he stood upon. Day willed his bloodshot eyes to open.
There were two armies below. On one side were five-thousand horsemen accompanied by twenty thousand footmen. Half of the fighters had forged spears or swords and were clad in mail. The rest were fairfolk, their weapons instruments of the farm. Flying above the host were the banners of the great lords, and highest among those was the golden sun of the Arthus Day, sixth high king of all men.
Day had been the first high king to confront the monstrous vore. His ancestors had dithered, but not King Arthus. The Light of Justice–that is what the high septon had named him after his men had burned the Hagel Forest. From there the vores had wrought unholy magic, causing two years of harvests to fail. He had not been fooled by their offerings of food to the nearby villages. They had fed hundreds, while thousands starved.
No man could have known that the vores were so many, or so fierce. Yet here they were.
The horsemen charged into the leaderless mass of vores, who had not even half their numbers. The footmen followed in the wake of the horsemen, determined to save their loved ones who lived just beyond this valley. Holy versus unholy. Blade versus talon. Mankind’s last army. The outcome could not be in doubt.
King Arthus Day blinked again and saw every man and horse dead. Vores fed on the corpses of man and beast alike. The high king sunk to the ground, a vore talon in his chest. Day’s vision faded, and his eyes closed.
Humanity’s endless night had arrived.
by Julian North
102. The Last Great Bard
“There once was a man revered as a hero, who slew his foes with ease,
The very same man who would venture across the lands,
And bring mortal men to their knees.
He wielded “Bloodletter”, the crimson blade,
Stained with the blood of its foes,
And with each new life it took,
More food was left for the crows.
He’d met with gods and goddesses,
He’d met with demons and ghouls.
But now he met his greatest threat,
The monster “Ysmonuel”.
The beast was the height of four men,
And its terror knew no bounds.
But now it reared its ugly head,
And it sent out terrible sounds.
Our hero found it quickly,
And began their fated fight.
The two great forces met at last,
And the duel lasted into the night.
And when day at last appeared,
The sun waking from its slumber,
Ysmonuel fell dead,
But our hero made a blunder;
In his confidence he did let slip,
His one and only weakness:
Now a wound took over him,
And he succumbed to sickness.
Now that hero, weak and feeble, does spin an epic tale,
Within an inn, not far from here,
And do his work for ale.”
“Is that enough for you, are you happy now?”
The soldier leans in to me, terror in his eyes, “Graelurn, the son of Ysmonuel, has come to kill us all – he knows that you killed him.”
“I am in no condition to fight him.”
“We need your aid. None of us can kill that sort of beast.”
“Then your kingdom will fall before its time.”
“And so will every kingdom within a thousand miles.”
“Then perhaps I had better take up my sword and shield, and reclaim my title one final time: I am the Last Great Bard.”
by Joshua Brougham
103. The Burden
The two had fought all through the night, streaking the darkness with displays of their power. The cause of their quarrel was considerably relevant to the preservation of this realm, of that she was sure. But in that moment, as the golden light of day broke over the horizon and the weaker of the two warriors lay dying at her feet, she found it difficult to concern herself with the details.
She knew the end when she saw it. She had been to this place countless times before.
She had stood at the crossroads of destiny, her pen wavering over the page as she committed to the strokes that would snuff the life from her beautiful creations.
This time would be no different.
Through a sheen of tears, she would devour this carefully crafted personality. She would sever the threads of his existence in this world, and it would feel as though she were setting her heart on fire.
As the champion turned his back on the site of the battle, she would write of the final, gasping breaths taken by the fallen in an ink made from her own blood.
Her duty was to capture events as they happened, to disregard the fractures that sorrow carved into her soul for the sake of an accurate record. In many ways, she was Life, but in more important ways she was Death. For that is the burden of a storyteller.
by Mary Cart
104. Twilight Years
Henry shuffled home as fast as his aging body would allow, past rows of derelict houses, wild lawns, and dogs with spiked collars barking furiously behind rusted fences. Despite the downward slide of the neighborhood into crime and drugs he clung to the old house where he and Miriam had raised their children, celebrated the joys and sorrows of a solid, comfortable life – until her loss two years past. He trudged on trying not to get lost there, in the past. It was harder with each passing day.
The plastic grocery bags hurt his arthritic hands. He shifted their weight between his crooked fingers, ignoring the pain. He had to make it home before night fell. Deacon had taken to checking up on him at odd hours to “make sure you’re okay”. Henry grimaced. He knew what was what. The boy was looking for signs of frailty, an excuse to put him in the prison of an old folks home. He would not allow that.
It didn’t help that his own brain was starting to betray him. “Sundowners” his doctor called it, explaining that it was not uncommon in someone his age. Henry was doubtful but could scarcely deny the evidence. One morning he awakened to a bloody mess on his kitchen counter, feathers scattered from one end of the house to the other. Last month he had found the torn collar of a drug dealer’s dog on his stoop with no sign of the animal it belonged to.
He stepped onto his porch. Deacon stepped out of the shadows. The moon shone above.
His bags crashed onto the peeling wood with a clatter. Henry grew hairy, and big, and strong. His gray muzzle was nearly toothless but his claws were long and sharp.
“D-Dad…” Deacon stammered.
by Melinda Pouncey
105. Archaic Cycles
The tribe of gathers met once more to feast upon the stories told by the elders under the night sky. Around each of the many campfires, a different story was told repeatedly. The people held torches to light their way in the darkness, weaving paths between the various centers of lore as though shooting stars in a sea of suns. The rhythmic distant thunder of drum circles gave the area a trance like focus of sacredness. It was here in the green open fields of the central planes that culture, history and knowledge were handed down between the generations, thus ensuring an unwritten record as long as one tribesmen remained. Having fasted the day before, the event continued all through the night until upon day break a great festival of culinary delight greeted each tribesman from the great oak table. Upon consuming till none more could be eaten, each picked a spot on the open lawn to rest as single maidens of melody provided soft lullabies to give thanks to the gods for their existence.
by Jon Ray
106. The Long Night
Chilby looked up the stars and waited. He heaved a mechanical sigh, his pistons clenching. It was still dark. And cold too. Only the warmth of his uranium core kept Chilby warm. His solar panels were limp at his sides. Useless. Four hundred years has passed by on his internal chronometers, but still the night had not lifted. Chilby was starting to wonder if the humans would ever arrive. He swivelled on his tracks and continued his long trek up the hill.
As he climbed, the sky turned from pitch to purple. Chilby felt a thrill. Was this daylight? He stopped, waited, but there was no further change. His claws squeaked in irritation. Would the day never come? Chilby trundled onwards, gaze turned up. The stars were no longer visible, lost in the sea of bruise-blue clouds. The clouds drifted lazily on the breeze.
Chilby reached the end of his climb. The grey valleys were stretched out before him, teeming with construction machines. They were still building, even after all these years. At least they kept hope that the humans would come. Chilby watched them in silence. He blinked his headlights in greeting when a constructor raised its head, but received no response. Chilby stopped, and looked up at the passing clouds.
As Chilby watched, the clouds were ripped aside by a blaze of orange. His antennae perked up. Could it be? It had to be! The engines of a migration ship, adjusting for landing. The humans had come. He sent out the signal. The humans have come! The humans have come!
But Chilby was mistaken. It was not his fault. The centuries of solitude had decayed his systems, so that he no longer recognised dawn. Day broke over the world, and swept everything aside in a wave of fire.
by Alex Hormann
107. The Twins
We were born on the same day, my sister and I. Though not at the same times of day. Mother had labored hard over my sister who was born first while the sun was still shining but she couldn’t bring me out herself so I had to be cut out several hours after my once beloved sister had come squawking and kicking into the world, the sun had already set when I inhaled the world’s air for the first time. I often find myself wishing I’d never taken in that first breath, that I was robbed of it by some complication during the birthing process but here I am.
Here I am standing on a giant boulder I’ve stood on before, long ago when my sister and I had first fought. Back then I was trying to stop her from abandoning us, from abandoning the orphanage we were raised in for the people who’ve made her what she is now. You see, I’m looking right at my sister now, she’s standing on a giant boulder opposite mine, a broad river between us.
She speaks but I don’t know why or of what, the distance between us and the roaring melody of the river’s flow prevent any words that aren’t yelled from being heard. But then I see it… She works her magic on the boulder beneath her feet and it comes to life, what was once mere stone becomes a ferocious beast with the brightest white lights I had ever seen for eyes and it screams a teeth shattering scream. I work my own magic now, draping myself in a black cloak, conjuring a black, pulsating sword out of thin air. I look into my once beloved sister’s eyes for what might be the very last time as the beast and I leap across the river at each other, my sword in hand. Then the old man’s words come rushing back “The daughter of the day and the son of the night will clash.”
by Awale Ismail
108. Fuck Fridays
Leo and I traversed a darkened section of the highway where flyover construction was progressing during the day.
“Damn, it’s dark,” Leo said.
“Yeah,” The darkness was complete. Without lights or moonlight, it felt like a void. I cursed a car which zipped past and swerved back in front of us. Moments later I was forced to slam on my brakes when three cars ahead, all traveling parallel to each other, hit their breaks.
“What the fu—“ My commentary died off as the car on my left braked harder than the others and we came even. A mannequin struck the passenger side windshield and slid off the hood. The car lurched, trampling the figure with its back tires.
It took a moment to process, but I realized it had been a person, not a mannequin, the car had struck. My tires protested the harsh braking as I slammed my foot down, traumatized.
“Lena, you can’t stop here.” Leo’s voice boomed.
Unable to speak, I eyed him in the dim interior lighting.
Behind us, tires squealed and a panel van swerved, hit a bump, and raced around the stopped cars. I pulled off the road and checked the occupants of the damaged car. Both passengers were dazed, and the woman’s nose was broken. Someone else checked the double impact victim. It sounded bad.
“The victim just walked in front of our car. We didn’t see—” the driver choked out. Stunned into silence, I swung around to look at the approaching flashing lights.
Later, a policeman taking my statement bent an ear to his radio. “That van ripped off the transient’s leg when it swerved to miss everyone. Both were discovered several miles away,” he said, tone incredulous.
I stared at the cop, mouth agape. Fuck Friday night it was the worst.
by JJ C Ashton
109. The lying lute
My lute was a great listener, but an even better liar. After escaping to the ale house, it rested patiently on my lap and listened to the hate in my heart. With each pluck of its strings, I seethed and simmered in humiliation.
That was the day I caught my Gwen bouncing on the smithy from across the river. I walked into our home after an early morning visit to the market and found them. They were right in the middle of it and made no effort to stop.
Gwen laughed at the sight of me. She slowly peeled herself off him, and propped herself up on his chest. She settled into an even deeper rhythm as she giggled and groaned. I had suspected something salacious going on between Gwen and the blacksmith, but lost the race to speak first.
“Bugger off!” He barked. “Or go cook us something for when we’re done!”
Gwen started to laugh at me again, but interrupted herself with the beginnings of an orgasmic moan.
I couldn’t help but continue watching them throb against each other. I was shocked. Once the realization sunk in that they were neither phased nor threatened by my presence, I jerked up my lute and shuffled to the ale house.
Everything went blurry from disbelief as I walked. And my only plan after stumbling upon the repugnant scene was to make my mind even blurrier. Ale would fix that. That, and some music on my dear lute.
I returned that night, thoroughly intoxicated. The ale had helped transform my humiliation into rage. I didn’t wait for any laughter or instruction to go cook this time. No. I stabbed them both to death, and listened to my lute lie. I strummed it and told myself that everything would be all right.
by Jeramy Goble
She cradled the newborn in her arms. It should have lived. She had been promised it would survive the night, why else would she have carried it to term? To be cast out from her village and fend for herself while it grew within her, leeching the strength from her body and the purity of her soul?
But then it took a breath, revealing a row of sharp teeth, and her heart leapt in her swollen breasts. Its eyelids fluttered open to reveal two black orbs. She could see her reflection in its eyes, beautiful and worn.
He had told her she was beautiful, that day beneath the bridge. The day she conceived it, her perfect child. He was gone now, burned alive at the stake. But the child lived. It would carry on his lineage, and pay them back for everything they took from her.
She put it to her nipple and winced as it pierced her flesh. She felt it drawing her life away, taking everything she had. Blood spilled down her thighs, sticky and warm. The child would survive, but she was fading.
She took a breath.
by Thomas Grayfson
111. Memories of Kisses
A wind-soft kiss is all I remember from that night. I wish I remembered more. My memories of her? Time erased those, replaced by all the fighting and killing and screaming. Looking for that man-turned-king. I just have those death screams, with her kiss floating between. Like a fine mist waiting to vanish in the heat of day.
Now I find myself attempting to make a new memory in the night. A kiss, for a memory of a kiss. A fair trade I presumed. As I sharpened my blade the sound traveled over the fire to the edge of the small camp, like a lover beckoning in the dark. A different kind of kiss would come off this blade, one that would take all memories from the man who took her from me that horrid day.
When you aim to kill a king, it’s important to do so at night. Keep your numbers low and keep quiet. Storming castles is for armies and idiots. If all you want is to kill a single man, and don’t much care about escaping, stick to the shadows. Sneak down the halls and kill your man. Deal with the consequences the next day.
So here I was, my numbers as low as they come, sticking to the shadows along the castle corridors, wrapped in the dark provided by the night. My blade, curved and ready to kiss. I pushed through the chamber door, to find the fat king sleeping in bed. He remained asleep, until I covered his mouth and let my blade kiss across his neck. Memories of her kiss vanished, replaced by his: of shock and the vibrant red that spilled to the floor. I ran, hoping I could escape and live to remember this traded-kiss for another day.
112. Don’t like to sleep alone
The night is yet wary of the day, and stalks in shadows by the ancient track.
The traveller, already weary of his way, slows to shift the nascent burden on his back.
The wind speaks soft and stirs the heath, leeching warmth with creeping breath
The wanderer sucks, nervous, at his bitter teeth; for none come here but seeking death
The marks are faded from our stones and mounds have crumbled with the frost
Would he now pick amoung these bones for all we were, for all we lost?
Dull pick, blunt saw and rusty spade all these he brought to buy his way;
Another fool whose fancy strayed and thought he’d make his betters pay.
The stone proves harder than he thought the pick axe shaft is rotten through;
His fruitless ardor is our sport, he’s bitten stone, now let him chew.
The day brings sweat and ceaseless toil and we withdraw for fear of light,
Sleeping deep in hard clutched soil, waiting eagerly for the parole of night.
The day is leery of the dusk and seeks to hide behind red clouds.
We wake, bleary, shedding antique musk and creeping from our ragged shrouds.
Our visitor has proved his worth and split the seal with his need;
He stands upon the new-turned earth, caught between his fear and greed.
A little closer, past the light, one short tumble to the floor;
A little nearer, yes that’s right, you’re welcome through our broken door;
A little sound not worth your notice; a little shift beneath the stone
Now you have found despite your protest – the dead don’t like to sleep alone.
by Toby Bennett
He kept two days in his pocket, along with a soundbox brimming Cymerian thunder and the final, scratched link of the golden bracelet his bridewife had got him. They weren’t long days. The first, the frozen winter solstice on which his bridewife had died. The second, the day Idris Han was born. They felt like any old coins against the rub of his thumb. Thinner, even.
“I’d like to make the trade.”
The grimskolfen’s hollow ran deep beneath the Petulant Hills, a swathe of dark rock dripping white from the Kingswater above it. The grimskolfen herself sat upon a model ziggurat carved into the stone, bearded face wrapped in soiled linens, black rags enshrining her shapely curves. She brought her face low, close to his, her curling iron horns all but grazing his cheeks.
“The deal is off the table,” she said.
He stared into her eyes—distant dying stars encompassed by night—and curled his burnt fingers into fists. He had not survived the Womb of the Sun to turn back now.
“Make the trade,” he managed, lifting the soundbox. “Or the hollow returns to the river.”
The grimskolfen snatched her head back, returned to her sutra position.
“To threaten me is to threaten time itself,” she said.
After a stubborn moment, the grimskolfen’s eyes flashed. She dipped two of her arms into the shallow pool at the base of her throne, turning the water a pale, sickly blue. The thousand tiny mouths on her neck whispered ancient chants as she stirred.
Sighing, the man withdrew the two days from his pocket and tossed them into the water, seeing reflected for the first time the sorrow in his eyes of which his bridewife had spoken with her final breath.
“You look so sad, Idris,” she’d said. “Smile.”
by David Wade
114. The Dead Road
One by one the mourning lamps are lit, their gentle gleam sparking slow firebugs in the gloaming. Myth follows, each footstep dragging gravel as he joins the throng easing its way along The Dead Road. He’s not ready to light his lamp and clutches it in numb hands.
Lamps are for the long night, the beauteous gems to light the way for souls seeking their atonement. But his dreams don’t beckon, don’t declaim the burden of sorrow that weighs down his kin. Yet they would have him tread the same path, make him bear a shared mantle of sin.
The words of the lament adhere to Myth’s tongue; he cannot form them, cannot give them voice, but he mouths them anyway, lest his kin mark his heresy.
“Our time is over; we march to the close of day. Go gentle now, to the eternal sleep, fall away.”
From the corners of his eyes, as he shuffles along, he glimpses strangers watching, the Young Ones, done wrong by his people. Hesitant faces, peering from behind tumbled masonry and the ruins of the Great Temple, come to see off the last of their former oppressors.
One by one, Myth’s people drink from the cup their elder holds in taloned hands, cabochons’ gleaming eyes in his silver rings. Gems that will go with him to the deep hall, to fall off rotted bone, to never reflect the sun- or moonlight.
A shudder runs through Myth as he examines his own hands, the flesh still plump, the skin fine, unlined. He can already taste the bitter elixir that will accompany him to the twilight realm.
He stops before the elder, looks up even as the poisoned chalice is offered.
Myth sets down the lamp, shakes his head. “This is not my burden to carry.”
by Nerine Dorman
115. A moment of rage and clarity
The night closed in around him as he pushed the body away from his battered form. Exhaustion sapped his strength but gritting his teeth he removed the foul thing from where he slouched. Blood dripped upon the earthen floor as he surveyed their battleground, his life’s blood a small pool now around him. The mass of claws and distended jaw looked smaller now in death but during the wild melee it had been a figure or terror and fury. Only the light of the day had weakened it and still it had very nearly killed him. Holding the broken remains of his sword in one hand, the burnt cross in the other, he marveled at his survival. He should be dead. That thing had tossed him around like a rag doll, his body a mass of broken bones and bruised muscles, but still he clung stubbornly to life. Grunting with pain he struggled to his feet, furrows pushed into the soft earth as he found purchase to push his form upwards. Twice he stumbled but through plain obstinance he forced himself up. Sliding the broken blade into the scabbard at his waist he took the first step forth, fury building as realization dawned. They had sent him here to die, those bastard villagers. That was a mistake he would make them regret. Rage a fire slowly stoking within his gut he put one foot in front of the other and staggered out into the night. Strength returned as that fire blossomed and with dire purpose he drifted out into the embrace of the night.
by Darren Cable
116. The Commodity
“This one’s no good.” The cinderblock of the hotel’s sub-basement muted Maria’s voice.
“We call them guests.” Vincent’s arms dangled lazily atop the housekeeping cart.
“Don’t be smart. You’re just a day hire.”
“I’ll soon make full-timer. Manager asked the agency especially for me.”
“Did you check the register, smart guy? You’d know this one’s leaving tomorrow.”
Maria flipped the bedsheet off the slumbering conventioneer dumped in the cart’s bin and smoothed out her uniform.
“Should I get another?” Vincent asked.
The steel doors at the end of the hall creaked open, belching ichorous smoke.
Maria shook her head uncertainly.
“Anyway,” Vincent squeaked, “the owner should like him. The maids said he perved on them. He’s totally wasted. Won’t nobody notice if he sleeps in and misses check out.”
“Their souls are supposed to marinate. Hookers. Drugs. Gambling. Tastes better if they’ve done more than a night.”
Low rumbling emanated from the open doorway, reverberating through their bodies, beckoning them. They trundled the cart past Maintenance, past Linens, past the boiler room.
The owner waited in the shadows. A black, glistening appendage extended from the depths beyond and ripped off the sheet. A sucker-like tip prodded the unconscious man’s head. Vincent affected a casual smirk.
Hot vapour blasted out of the darkness as the owner groaned. It withdrew from the guest, slapping the sheet down. The appendage swung to Vincent, wrapping around his head and open mouth, sucker planting on his forehead with a squelch.
Maria spun the cart around and whistled, rolling down the hall while the owner pulled Vincent into its suite. His soul would be succulent. Anyone so casual about this service was nicely tenderized already. It would take Vincent maybe a week to recover. That was alright. He was just a day hire.
by Darius Jung
117. Red Dawn
Darkness bled through Jabil’s fingers as he watched beyond the wall, red dawn setting ten thousand forms ablaze. His other hand lifted the pistol eye-level, let it slide down. Good for one more shot.
“You’re still here.”
He lowered the barrel as recognition came. Brenkt. “Where else?”
“Dead below, some might hope.” Brenkt approached, one hand tucked in his coat, eyes flicking to Jabil’s pistol. “But you always had a penchant for triumph.”
Triumph. So this was its definition. “The victory is yours. Or didn’t you turn coats again?”
Brenkt shrugged. “The Emperor left me no choice.”
“So you said last time.”
“True then too. Maybe day is night, and night day—funny how one always becomes the other.”
“Tell that to the Emperor.”
Brenkt shrugged again and stepped nearer. “When it came down to it, I asked myself: is it worse to be the butcher? Or mistaken as the martyr?”
“Have to be dead to be a martyr.”
“I guess you do.”
Brenkt’s hand whipped from his coat, and Jabil dove as stone shattered behind. He came up, aimed, fired.
Brenkt fell, scarlet blossoming from his gut. “Damn,” he hissed. “Damn.”
“You always were shit at lying. Too much fondness for the truth.” Jabil knelt next to him.
“‘Least I loved something,” Brenkt gasped.
Much good it did. Darkness heaved onto the stones. Jabil touched his own weeping wound. “Night’s coming now. Or maybe—maybe another day.”
Brenkt laughed, dark and bitter. “With my luck, it’ll be naught but drizzling twilight.”
Jabil knew what he’d find. The red dawn had already come.
He held his old friend’s hand until he choked out his last breath, then stood and looked over to the ten thousand below. Not too late to add one more.
He descended by the stairs.
by J.D.L. Rosell
118. My Private Hell
A flash of red branded my eyes and all sight left me.
I slid down the vines wrapping my sanity in a tightly wound net of horrors, only to land on a heap of smouldering dreams undreamed, discarded to the recesses of a younger tomb. I lay there, still and safe among a child’s slim hopes, cocooned in a lair reality would never deign to uncover. Death brushed over me as it searched the battlefield, the elixir it craved drawing it away from my wounded soul to a boy barely of age. I heard the catch of his breath that night, though my warded thoughts robbed me of its true meaning.
Memories tugged at my sanctuary, tentatively unravelling the web closing in around me, squeezing sensations through my shrivelled heart. Agony rocketed through me and I howled. I scrambled away from my emotions as if they were living things, capable of stringing their arms around my neck and throttling the life out of me. I had always believed it was not feeling one should fear, but the lack thereof. To stand before something, having logic tell you a response of some kind is required, and instead face a blank wall of inconvenience. To thrive in such emptiness would tear a man down and build a monster of him. I had never before understood the appeal.
Yet in the seconds it took to resurface from my private hell, I considered the world of such a monster. A few moments more and I may have leapt off the cliff, hurtling into a world of hollow wickedness. I would have revelled in it.
But I woke before I chose, and although I never again thought of it after that day, a part of me always wanted to know what lay down there.
by Michelle Reichert
119. The Last Sunset
I piss myself with the second cut.
But it does the job.
My last day’s going slowly. I’m following the sun as it descends to the horizon. I have the most magnificent view. But I don’t appreciate it. She does, though. I’m sure she’s enjoying it somewhere right now. The beach, probably.
She loves sunsets. But I don’t – they remind me of Lori. I still see them lowering her coffin into the ground. Her body as cold as the silence she left between the two of us. We’ve watched her together. Our sweet thing leaving us with nothing but memories.
I think she doesn’t believe me when I say I miss Lori too. We talk about her a lot. She gets excited when we watch her photographs and tries not to think of her when we make love. I’m not sure she even enjoys my body anymore. But I can’t help but to enjoy hers.
The night falls. She’ll be here any moment.
I hear her opening the front door of the house. I’m struggling to stay alive for at least another moment just to see her face for the last time. Her steps echo through the living room. She’s looking for me. Another drop of blood falls to the red pool as she opens the bathroom door.
I smile when I see the lines of the face I deeply love. She looks so much like her.
My eyes close and I hear her last words.
“Are you alright, Dad?”
by Dominik Čičević
120. Into space
“Five, four, three, two, one. We have lift off.” Captain Ndlovu announces as the Biochronium Shuttle shudders with G-Force.
The shuttle rockets into the stratosphere. Rose watches the black billows of oily smoke glide past the porthole, then looks down at her daughter asleep within her biocrib, her chubby legs curled warmly in the tiny astrosuit. Rose swallows a sob, her mind turning to the Home they’re leaving behind, wearing the night like a funeral shroud. The once -healthy earth now nothing more than a cataract, or glass eye, blinded and useless.
Rose closes her eyes, giving her body up to the force as the shuttle rockets toward their future. A moment of heat, then, weightless as the blue shuttle clears the atmosphere and slides into space, an expanse of stars ahead. Sunlight bathes the twelve survivors in gold and vermilion.
“The light is so beautiful.” Rose’s quiet voice is loud in the confines of her oval helmet. “Just like the stars.”
“I forgot how the daylight feels,” Duncan says. “Not just on my skin, but in my soul. Six months of nothing but night, now here sit the last of us, and it’s a new day.”
“A new day,” Rose breathes, remembering the dead.
“We’re going to make it, honey,” Duncan says and reaches for his wife’s hand. Rose grabs Duncan’s hand and squeezes it; much like her smile is squeezed from her heart.
Static crackles in their earpieces, however the Captain’s voice is clear.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the final Biochronium Shuttle, Mars Thirty. Chryosleep will be initiated for those who wish to utilize this feature. Our estimated time of arrival at the Mars Colony is in approximately seven months. So from me and the shuttle crew, please sit back and enjoy the flight.”
by S.J. Lucas
The vicious heat sweated his burned scalp. Red and bubbling, the skin rose and cracked. Crusted sores leaked viscid pus, sealed, and cracked open again. Night passed to day. A black bird cawed, landing on the wooden cross’s limb and eyed him. More than likely, it coveted his gelatinous orb. Pluck the eye out, tilt its throat upward, and swallow. His head twitched back, but the bird waited patiently. Near dead was good enough. The bird leaned in as though for a kiss. Its sharp beak tore a strip of flesh from his shriveled upper lip.
Did she feel searing pain when he bit her lip?
Blood trickled over his brown stained teeth. He sucked at it. Swollen tongue wormed out to lap the warm liquid. The black bird’s head twitched. Its sharp beak lunged again, pinching the spongy flesh. His tongue tried to retreat back to its dark cave, but it was weak and the bird stronger, hungry for its day’s meal.
He groaned, hungry, too.
She knew his hunger. Knew it before she entered his room and slipped off her dress. Why was she so surprised when his teeth sank into her lips, her blushing cheek? Why did she scream?
The black bird leaned back, wings flapping, his tongue pinched in its beak. Hollow shriek trapped in his throat. Something tore in his mouth, tang of blood pooling in his jaw. The bird slackened and settled on the limb for one final pull. He waited. Waited for it to jut its head a little closer. The black bird shot its beak forward, he opened his mouth wide. Teeth clamped down on its hard skull, crunched. The headless black body tumbled off the wooden cross. He chewed. Cracked, torn lips smiling. For the moment, his hunger was sated.
by Matthew Johnson
122. A Sure Thing
“As sure as night follows day.” The phrase rang through Korin’s mind. It was a tired phrase, it had endured for millennia.
“But its time had finally passed.” Korin thought.
Korin’s gaze wandered out through the transparent wall, seeking the angry red ember that was the sun’s remnant. There the sun sat boiling in a sea of pitch soon to blossom consuming the inner planets; only then to shrink back on itself and fade like a smoldering coal suffocating in its own ash.
Korin turned away and the wall became opaque eliminating the faint red cast on the far side of the observation deck. Even as the light of the distant sun was cutoff from the room it was replaced by the antiseptic glow of a blue-white ribbon illuminating the path to the bridge.
There were so few humans left in P-Space that it had only taken one ship to whisk them all from the solar system. The ship was large, it had to accommodate the thousands of stasis pods and billions of servers which hosted the trillions who lived in C-Space.
From the bridge it was a simple matter to review the health status of those pods and servers. The lights showed green across the board, Korin considered the winking green lights indicating the simulations were fully operational. “I suppose the cycle was still a sure thing, in the right simulation.”
But the thought was a fleeting one as Korin moved towards the stasis pod located at the back of the bridge. Tasks complete, Korin could sleep.
For Korin at least, the cycle was broken. Even in those periods out of stasis, as the ship streaked further into the darkening void there would be no day to follow the endless night.
by Michael Macklin
123. The Beginning
Flames tore up into the night sky burning away the darkness. The roaring, crackling noise of the inferno was penetrated by primal screams. Hoarse voices howling in grief and fear.
Black-clad men stalked the streets dispatching those who escaped their burning homes. The raiders had struck quickly and without warning. Half the town was now afire, blanketing the air with dense clouds of torrid smoke.
Stumbling onto the street, a young boy looked back in horror at his family home. He watched, unable to look away, as the garden his mother had lovingly cared for blistered and withered away. Angry red flames burst from the upper windows causing the boy to step backwards, shielding his head with raised arms as a scorching wave of heat washed over him. With an agonised groan the roof sagged inwards, collapsing and causing the already weakened walls to shatter and give out. Breathless and choking, Alwin screamed as the only home he had ever known burned with his mother still inside it.
Memories of days past flitted through his mind, too fast to cling to. His father’s deep voice, humming as he brushed down their horse. His broad, armoured shoulders as he walked from their home for the last time. The excitement on his brother’s face as he waved, joining the chattering crowds of boys leaving to fight in the King’s war. His mother’s sobs soaking his hair, as she clutched him close that night.
Lungs searing he fell to his knees on the dry grass oblivious to the approaching raider until a rough hand clenched his shoulder. Gazing upwards, Alwin foresaw his death in the black eyes and pitiless snarl twisting the man’s face. Fear froze the boy in place as a sword, glinting in the light of the fire, rushed towards him.
by Marie Srbic
124. Sometimes barstard
My wife told me I can be a barstard sometimes.
We were at my best friend Roy’s funeral. He’d been run down by a female motorist on her phone whilst driving. His brother, Adrian, was ranting and raving about the driver of the car jumping the lights because she was on the phone. He was pretty wound up when he asked me my views.
Shit happens I said. Is that all he cried incredulously?
Yes. He went into one again, spittle flying this time.
When he calmed down to take a breath, I asked him if he had ever used a phone whilst driving. No he said forcefully. I knew he was lying. I’d been in the car when he had been driving and texting his ex-girlfriend, so I pointed this out. He flew off the handle and shouted that he’d never mown anyone down in any case. As if that made all the difference?
Listen, I said. How many times had you or Roy broke the speed limit? How many times had you or Roy answered the phone; or text someone whilst driving? How many times had I heard Roy exclaim “shit that was close”? It used to be pretty much every Friday night after a few drinks when we were younger. Remember the day three us had to push his car out of a ditch where he misjudged a corner?
This young lady driver has got to live the rest of her life knowing she has killed someone. Not only has she taken his life, and ruined that of his family. But hers will also be forever affected.
So; in summary, I said, accidents happen; shit happens; its life. Dave turned red and stormed off unable to speak.
That’s when my missus called me the sometimes barstard.
by Sean P Chatterton
125. Night and Day
The world changed within a day and a night. When Taint and his team had left for their space voyage, it was day.
Three years had passed since. . .
Now, when they arrived, it was night. Director Rot held a press conference; the following morning.
After two failed voyages, Taint’s team were the first to discover life beyond their planet. Life, however, is always bent on one thing, and knows one thing only: survival.
‘. . . We can now safely say that in the vast darkness that surrounds our Moors, we’re not alone.’ Director Rot’s speech was met with thunderous applause. ‘And we present to you; the proof— of life beyond Moors.’
A glass box filled with a radiating, indigo-coloured, starfish shaped substance—which moved sideways, across the box—was placed at the centre of the podium. A gasp escaped across the room when the substance enclosed within itself.
Mankind always looked up to the sky for a miracle to get through a day, yet never taking up the means to act. To survive.
Food grew scarce, population doubled, politicians waged wars, yet meaningless explorations were fed, while hungry mouths weren’t. Spacecrafts were constructed, while farms crumbled. Nothing changed with miracle, everything changed with science.
The world changed within a day and a night. When Taint and his team were greeted for their heroics, it was day.
Three hours have passed since. . .
The room is filled with corpses. A putrid stench hung in the air above the shattered pieces of the glass. The glimmering substance moves no more.
When Taint—with glowing blue wounds across his arms and knees—leaves the room, the city is fast plunging into night.
by Debdip B. Cohle
126. The Slow and Quick End
not in here
for others likely
not for me
there’s just darkness
no beam to spare
even for shadows
my shrunken world
no up, no down
no left, no right
should just give in
but i rage, whimper
laugh then wail
i gird my loins
but they resist
sound envelops me
my head throbs
my stomach growls
my throat seizes
i’m covered in sweat
caked in dirt
awash in tears i can’t spare
bladder full to bursting
no relief in sight
ought just let it rip
yet i still hold it
refusing to give in
to the final indignity
take short breaths
damn it, fight!
don’t give up
it’s not the end
it cannot be the end
something will happen
someone will come
you’ll find a way–
the ultimate cruelty
thrashing trust, blind optimism
seeking to find purchase
uh oh, i’m a *you* now
an ominous portent
i’m detaching, disengaging
not happening to me
but to someone else
an amorphous *you*
time stops or
slows way down
feel every tick
sense every tock
waiting for the cuckoo
to say, “time’s up!”
time winds down
on all my desires
my bucket list is full
never to be emptied
ironic to be so ready to live
right when i’m about to die
i can still feel pain–
heart yet beats
mind still churns
spirit even grieves
there’s breath left in me
but i’m good as dead
nah, i’m just resting
at home in my bed
not running out of air
here i lie, lie in wait
still alive, but not for long
by M. Brill
127. Get Good
Nort sat sharpening his dagger under the headless statue of the Night Goddess. No one could remember her real name or what had happened to her statue’s head.
There was a sudden stillness in the air and a sound like distant thunder. A knight appeared from out of thin air, clad in rusty armour and holding a broken sword. Nort did not react, he just sheathed his dagger.
‘Where I am?’ said the knight in shock.
‘You are at the shrine of the Night Goddess,’ Nort replied
‘No,’ said the knight looking around and staggering as if drunk. ‘I am in the game!’ Nort reasoned that some sorcerer must have magically transported this poor knight in from somewhere far away.
Nort got up from under the statue and walked to the befuddled knight. ‘This is the shrine of the Night Goddess, it’s plain as day,’ he said with a gesture to the statue.
The knight steadied and focused on Nort. Beneath the knight’s helm, Nort saw wide blue eyes. ‘I was just sitting at my computer and started playing Grim Spirits and then …’ Nort had no idea what the knight was talking about.
‘Calm down, breath slow,’ advised Nort. The knight paused and closed his eyes. Nort pulled out his dagger and slashed the knight at his exposed neck. The knight toppled to the ground gargling.
Once dead, Nort took the knight’s armour off and threw the body over a nearby cliff. Then he went to his cart behind the statue, which was full of rusty armour and broken swords and added them to the pile. It was a small fortune in scrap metal.
Though Nort wondered, could his cart could hold a little more? He returned to the statue, sat down and started to sharpen his dagger.
by R Smeeton
128. Death Awaits Us
Night and day do not exist here. Only an endless darkness. Manmade fires and mechanically generated electricity brighten up our ecosphere inside this cocooned, black dome. The town of Hemsley – forgotten by the rest of the world. The massive structure exists to keep the creatures away from the townsfolk. Successful for the most part of the last five decades with only the occasional incident, where one of those things made their way breaking through the shield via tunnels under the dome.
Even though our guards are quick and able to eradicate the monsters before they inflict too much damage, their speed does not prove enough to save the four or five families killed each time because of the beast’s agility. I personally did not see any of the horrid monsters, but the tales are enough to leave me sleepless for days. They’re said to be hideous horned beasts, with dagger–like teeth covering their tails. Their faces bare no eyes, yet their sockets burn holes into ours should we only glance at them momentarily. They carry with them the stench of death, putrid and unfathomable. Dangerous beings to encounter, no one knew where they came from, only that we were moved to this place upon their arrival. Some say those things are human-turned-monsters, mutated by the chemical explosion when the Earth’s Ozone Layer ruptured because of the pollutants and nuclear waste caused by man. It seems we’re being punished for our own negligence.
It remains unknown if there are other humans outside of the dome, without interactive radio contact we fear the worst. Dread keeps us within this self-made sanctuary. There’s talk of another attack soon, a bigger horde is suspected to arrive. Either way, we’re almost out of resources due to the constant attacks. Death is imminent.
by Nerisha Kemraj
Screams reverberate off the walls. But it’s just the TV blaring as they lie on the floor, watching the lights dance across the ceiling.
They can feel their heart. Arrhythmic, maybe even painful. It beats like the drums behind their eyes. Cold coffee in a plastic flask, chugging back until it spills over the edges of their lips. Keep drinking, keep blinking, keep watching. Until night becomes day. Then they can sleep.
The light of the TV screen glances over their face, glances over the empty cans of red bull and the trail of empty coffee cups leading to the kitchenette. The mobile phone plugged into the speaker system screeches with sound. An alarm. One alarm every five minutes.
Every five minutes until the night is done.
Sometimes, they consider scrolling through and turning every single one of those wailing alarms off. Consider letting the flask slip from numb fingers, turning off the TV at the plug, rolling over into the blankets…
Then, they remember the dirt.
They remember how it is ground tight under their nails. The strange murky dull colour of mud and congealing blood. They remember waking the first morning in rags of silk and leather, with feet raw from running, skin scored by a hundred thousand thorns. A sluggish head. A throbbing, pounding sensation somewhere behind their eyes. A hangover, but with an aching mouth that tasted of honey.
The second morning dawning after falling once more into sleep…waking in the shower, drenched in blood, eyes filled with the glint of silver mail, lips torn by the gnawing of sharp white teeth, ears filled with high clear laughter and the thunder of a thousand hooves.
They can not run. You can not run from the hunters.
Instead, you must outrun sleep.
by Katherine Rhiannon
130. I Keep the Picture
Tan and age-spotted, gnarly knuckles shiny like the top of his head. Eyes that twinkle and mouth with a quirky smile. Sitting quietly waiting, hands resting on the table, watching people come and go. In no hurry, with no compelling anxieties to pursue. The train will come when it comes, as it does every day.
May I share the table? Of course, if I like. Life is funny, and we talk about coming and going. I tell him about what a hard time my family gives me, and he comforts me. He tells me about being alone and how hard it is at night. I comfort him. Nothing we want from each other or need. No demands or judgments.
I miss my gramps. Can I adopt him? I can barely take care of myself yet.
As day transitions to night, we ask the waitress to take our picture with my instant camera. The flash glares against the big window and merges with an orange sunset. Smiling with our heads leaned together we look intimate and important to each other. For this day, we are.
A train comes and I leave. I don’t know his name but I keep the picture. I still have it in my album. People always ask who that wonderful old man is.
I don’t know, but we sure were happy with each other for a little while.
by Sheila Oranch
“Just tell me where he is.”
“You’re the fucking Google here. Figure it out by yourself.”
The guy was a great pain in the ass. I was thinking of whether or not I should kill him. Well, he would definitely go and rat me out to the Mother Board–sparing his life then, I guess, was not a smart option.
“Listen, buddy. I am no ordinary girl. Let’s just bury the hatchet, right? I need his location and you get to see another day.”
My grip tightened around his neck. I could tell that he was scared shitless. I would have been if I were in his shoes. How could he not? Imagine a female cyborg with silver eyes and a mechanical hand of extraordinary power holding you hostage.
“Why the fuck do you care about him so much? You have your list, go and kill those in it!”
He was really getting on my nerves. I loaded my hand and the grey at the very centre of my palm turned into black as night.
“Extra laser weaponry in here, mate. Your choice.”
I wish he told me the whereabouts of the guy who butchered my parents. I wish I didn’t have the option of turning myself into a killing machine to juice the intel out of his brain. Still, he was not talking. I ordered my executive system to hack into his brain. I started scanning it and he screamed until his voice faded out.
In a matter of seconds, everything I needed was laid out on a three-dimensional white screen in front of me. I could finally track down the one robbing me from my family. I had to step over another corpse to make it to him, though.
by Sophia Maria Nicolopoulou
In that moment when the light of dawn first pollutes the darkness, I am ripe. I teeter on that turning point, that precipice between night and day, searching for a mind to occupy. I find one vulnerable, and I plunge.
Whoever he is, he has bitten his fingernails to stubs, and his hands rest on the pages of a book. I’m not surprised. Reading opens the mind a crack so I can seep in. I turn the page, enjoying the feel of paper against skin. Smiling, I find, with a pleasant tickle, that I have a mustache.
To fully occupy, you must learn your host. I read aloud to discover my voice, deep and saturated.
“Insomnia, insatiable lust, sudden shifts in mood or personality, unexplainable knowledge of subjects previously unknown…”
The heading is “Symptoms of Demonic Possession.” That’s not the word I’d use. It conflates residence with ownership.
Probably my host is a warlock. How intriguing. I close the book and consider his desktop, strewn with diagrams and trinkets. I lift a blue-stone pendant to my nostrils. The chain is iron and smells delightfully like blood. The cool, round stone feels seductive in my hand, and its flat side is inscribed with runes. A circle on one of the symbols has been left open, an error obvious to any demon.
I must leave a gift my host covets. It is my way, and this will do. I rummage through the desk drawer, find an awl with a smooth wooden handle, and etch the circle closed.
The pendant sucks in my consciousness. I howl, plummeting, until I reach a place without sound or motion. I’ve made myself into the gift, locked in the stasis of the stone. Here, there is no more night or day or in between.
by Eleanor Frisch
133. Wanderer of the gate
Once a wanderer of the forbidden gate, your life changes. The wolf kid knew it, he had waited for what seemed like centuries at the gate. He didn’t want to get this particular night, he had tried before unsuccessfully, but he needed to see the shadow man before the night ended.
Lust and destructive pleasures showed themselves each time the entry, hidden in the not so secret bookcase, opened. Tempting the wanderers, making them stay, giving them hope. But hope was all they get, in the shape of false promises. Soon the desperation and the rejection invaded their minds while images of the drunk gods laughing at them projected in the dark road.
The guardians of the gate fed themselves by choosing, abusing their power. No begging or bribery would make them violate their orders.
The woman from the high gardens, only noticeable at night were always welcome, but the wolf kid was none of that.
Time passed, fights emerged, cries of rejection exploded from the wanderers mouth into the guardians ears, giving them more satisfaction.
They all started to leave, looking down, either to a brothel where they could find undeserved love or to the Big King’s dirty castle, where sorrow invaded their intoxicated and lonely hearts.
Except the wolf kid. He stayed. Defying them. Didn’t speak a word, didn’t feed the shallow guardians. He just stood still and looked the guardians in the eyes, judging.
He didn’t make it tho, the shadow man decided to leave the private library and released the wolf kid from his desires of vengeance.
The wolf kid left as the night turned into day, as his rage turned into peace. But his legend stayed at the gate, forever. The kid who stayed, the wolf that didn’t break.
by Guido R.
134. Let This Song Be the Last
The sun was jealous of the stars I created. That she must bask in their light for a time measurable against eternity was, I must infer, a brand of torment heinous enough to justify upending the cosmos. Her celestial cohorts set my world spinning in their vain attempt to slap me away. The skies were scorched and the ground churned. My stars spun away overhead, skewed in their feverish transit. And the sun blinded them out completely as she burned the light of day into being. Even with the earth between us, I could hear her laughter.
What was I to do? Spinning like a child’s toy, sick with the movement, I plucked blades of grass from the roiling earth and made a whistle and I sang. I sang of anything and everything. Before long, I drowned out her laughter so completely there wasn’t a thing in all the universe could hear her at a shout.
At this she was… discontent. With all her power she roared and the very air was disturbed. Moving through the hills and forests, fierce winds overpowered my songs.
I escaped into the deepest vales, but the sun wrung out the clouds and nearly drowned the world.
Another audience, however, emerged from clay. Temporary, though they were, even the shortest of memories are a threat to cosmic theatrics. It’s wonderful, how they look to the sky that has so denied them agency in this universe and use that denial to fuel ambition. They weave that ambition into my song, along with all worldly memory as generations pass.
One day they will rob the sun of her satisfaction. My audience: the night has vouchsafed your road through its domain. Let my song hold your memory, for memory is the last act of defiance.
by Anthony Lowe
135. A Whisper in the Forest
Night fell too quickly in the Whispering Forest. The air, heavy with tension and smoke, brought back old memories for the Swordsman, a sad murmur through the trees.
If you could save the boy, would you?
A sharp remark cut through his thoughts and the question remained unanswered, as it had years ago. There were seven of them gathered around the small campfire. Hardened men, but that alone wouldn’t save them here. The argument was heated yet their voices were quiet, strained.
Before it could escalate beyond hushed undertones, the Captain cut it short. “We have our mission by order of the King. It stands above all other matters. We cannot risk our lives trying to play heroes in this place. The boy is no longer our concern.” His voice did not waver. His eyes did.
The Swordsman’s temper flared. There could still be time for a rescue.
Tonight he had an answer.
He finally spoke up, “You say he doesn’t matter? You think he’s not worth it? Our orders are more important? Fuck you. I say he matters. I think he’s worth it. There is nothing more important.”
He rose from his log daring any to stop him. His eyes reflected fire and none returned his challenge. Torch in hand, he disappeared into the dark.
Because I can.
“Should we follow?”
“No. Stay together, stay safe. Stray from the path and you’ll never leave this Gods-forsaken forest. He’s a good man and a good sword. Maybe he’ll also have good luck.” Again the Captain’s eyes betrayed his fear, but his men made no comment.
Because he shouldn’t need to be scared.
Dawn rose reluctantly, clawing through the trees. The party of six hardened men continued through the forest in the weak light of day.
by Michael Hladky
136. Bound in Heat
She drifted in blindfolded darkness, night or day, she couldn’t remember. She stretched her wrists against the ropes. A fruitless effort. They weren’t going anywhere. They pressed together, bodies grinding, and slick with heat. This heat was their world and they writhed within it. They groaned softly, hands slipping up and down, legs sliding and fingers clutching. She bit her lip in frustration, beads of sweat streaking down her neck and onto his chest. He breathed against her ear, fingers stretching, extremities almost sore.
“Got it.” He sighed. She groaned with relief.
Click. Pause. Click. Click. She stopped testing the bindings.
“What’s going on?” She asked.
“Damned things not turning on.” Click. “Must be out of batteries.” Her face fell.
“I told you to replace them!”
“Yeah, yeah.” He sighed. She felt him twitch and go limp. A sodden splash hissed and popped from below. “Whoops.”
“Please tell me you didn’t drop it.”
“Right into the lava. Damned pocket laser was slick, and my fingers were numb and sweaty. ” He shrugged. “Things happen. Oh, hey! There you go.”
She felt a tug on her blindfold and blinked in the new light as the black cloth tumbled through the heated air into the lava pit directly below the suspended and bound super-spies.
“At least we can both see now.” He smiled optimistically. She glared at him and down at the scummy remains of the pocket laser on the surface of the magma.
“When we get back to HQ, I’m filing a requisition with the Quartermaster for a new laser.” Her eyes narrowed. “And a new partner to go with it.”
He pursed his lips thoughtfully and nodded.
by Alexander Lindsay
137. A Simple Invitation
I had no idea that she was like this …
Colder than the coldest granite of the tallest mountains by day…
Hotter than the thermonuclear maelstrom of a nova weapon during the night…
I never dreamed she had such flawless skin: the color of a Mordrian midnight, jet and cobalt.
She must have read my mind.
She knows this is forbidden. Its death … I’m sure she knows.
Why me? I’m nothing special.
I’m just a simple soldier living a simple life.
When she turns her head and smiles at me, I know she’s heard my thoughts.
Her eyes are wise, yet mischievous: alabaster irises set in wide onyx orbs.
Her name is beyond my skill to pronounce, but she laughs with delight as I try.
Silver bells in the night…
Her hair is the color of the finest silver and cascades over her neck and shoulders. It pools, sparkling at her hands as she kneels forward. Her scent is like lavender and myrrh as the cool breeze chills my skin.
I dare reach out to her, and she leans into my touch.
Why, my lovely? Why?
Silver bells in the night …
Her body is a wonder: young, strong, and hard. Her skin is as soft as a newborn’s. Her eyes are bright and eager. She winks.
I’m just a simple soldier, all alone with our ship’s Psi Navigator.
Sister Navigator all dressed in a severe, blue skinsuit, floating weightless in the Visualization Chamber…
Now nude in the red Kor Moss in the deep of night, her skinsuit torn apart, our ship a broken hulk in the dark…
She did it all for me.
She presents her rear to me, the slick sheen on her vulva bright in the light of the moons.
It’s a simple invitation.
by Famous Robinson
138. Green Eyes, Red Wings
“Damn that idiot.”
Del didn’t like where this was going. She thought about making him stop- best to just let him talk his way through it.
“Damn. Damn. damn.”
Kai clenched his jaw. She’d rub it for him later… maybe.
“You’ve seen me practice day and night. You’ve seen me fly Ghost Gulch with a blindfold. And they give their spot to that blithering but beautiful IDIOT that flies like… like a rock with a cape.”
Del saw his green eyes flash towards her searching for answers to this great injustice. He was cute when he was angry. Like a puppy being serious about attacking a dog 10 times its size that couldn’t care less.
“I just don’t get it. Akeh got his tattoos on a whim 5 years ago. Remember? He went to that race with us after -“
“You invited him- yes dear- I remember. I was there. I remember that you were excited that Akeh cared. I remember the fire in your eyes as you told him that the ritual, the tattoos, the training, that it was all worth it for the sky.”
Kai had the decency to look away from her. A sigh escaped through clenched teeth.
“I just- you’re right- I’m happy for him. I don’t want Akeh to have not made the team. I just want to have made the team 2 years ago.”
Del reached up and put her hand on the center of his right shoulder blade. His Scar. Every flyer had one. She poured her love, her wish for him to succeed, Hell-her wish for her own success as well- into his scar and into her own.
Scarlet wings rose ethereal from the ink that covered nearly half of their bodies, solidifying a moment later.
by Michael McLendon
139. Shakespeare 101
Class always starts the same. It’s the third class. On Monday. Every Monday. At 3:00. And I sit next to her. The desks just sort of worked out that way, the way they do. You show up on day one, find seat, and that is your seat until the semester is over. I sit down. I have no love for Shakespeare. This class is all about Shakespeare. That’s a lie. I have plenty of love for Shakespeare. His prose, his poetry. I read it all.
I read it all because Shakespeare knows me. Or at least it feels like he knows me. He writes about me. Some mornings, I wake up and I’m Macbeth. I fear the prophecy on the lips of my peers, all witches with words over caldrons with their mocha lattes. “He’s gonna snap. You know he is. He dresses like he belongs in a Halloween parade. And he never speaks.”
Other mornings, I wake and I’m Petruchio, desiring the fire of Katherine. On those days I want to know her, to spar with her. To let our tongues sting each other. And I want to hold her. And let the shrew’s blaze consume.
And then other mornings still, I am Prospero. I am the master of magic. A sorcerer with many fates under my spell. I feel the power. I am in control of my destiny.
But today is not one of those days. Today, I am Bottom. I am an ass of a man, a foolish man. She’s a creature of fantasy. If we lay down together, it is only a dream in the night. And my words in reality fumble out.
You will feel this, too, dear freshman. Welcome to the class of the master. Welcome to Shakespeare 101. Watch for your Juliet.
by Daniel Garrison Edwards
140. A choice
All he has left is will.
The will to breathe through burning lungs. The will to move hollow, shaking legs, to bend weak arms. The will to blink away the night and live in the day.
He rises onto all fours, arms shaking and lurches upwards, one shaking foot then the other. He stumbles, falling back to the muddy floor. Crashing onto something. Someone. A body.
Dead eyes, inches away, stare through him. They call to him, ‘Lay down. Surrender to the night like me. You’ve suffered enough.’
A shadow moves over him.
He roles, the dead eyes echoing in his mind: Surrender to the night. Let it all stop.
An axe slams into the floor where his head was moments before. His arm moves, stops suddenly. The shadow fades.
He stares at the figure on the floor. A sword stuck half way through its shin. His eyes follow the sword away from the man, find it held in a hand. His hand.
A tug and it’s free. Suddenly he’s straddling the man, sword raised two-handed.
As his sword descends, time slows. He sees it in the figures eyes, in the time between thoughts, a choice is being made: surrender to the night, or suffer in the day.
In that fraction of a second an arm loses the will to raise an axe and block a sword. A man decides he’s suffered enough.
His will remains. A man dies, sword in chest, as he stands.
Dying eyes stare up at him, empty as the corpse, and he knows: he didn’t kill this man, the man chose the painless night over the suffering day.
He looks around.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of men locked in battle. Each making their own choice: suffer in the day or give up, surrender to the night.
by Gavin Hubbard
141. A brief respite in moonlight
Reine dropped her pack to the wet forest floor and ungracefully followed it down, so she lay half-slumped against the old oak. The branches overhead obscured the moon’s silver glow, leaving the grove in near darkness. She could just make out the black form of Arko as he slunk through the trees to stand beside her, his yellow eyes glinting as they caught the moon.
When the light of dawn drifted through the grove they would once again have to flee, stopping only to quench their thirst, until they found a defensible spot to rest the following evening. It would be another grueling trek, over treacherous ground with their pursuers slowly closing the gap. There was slim chance they would make it to the safety of the city alive.
‘There are enough troubles brought with the night. Do not bring the problems of the day as well.’
Reine grimaced as Arko’s voice floated softly through her mind. Sometimes their bond was curse.
She was ever envious of the big cat’s view of the world; his focus on the here and now, with no thought as to what tomorrow might bring. He was right, of course. The Wers hunting them would not stop to rest and there were other, darker creatures that made their lairs in the shadows of these woods. There was no point worrying about the day if they would not make it through the night.
‘Rest. I will keep watch.’
Now they had stopped moving, exhaustion crept into her bones and the panther’s calm quieted the storm of thoughts circling her head. So, for now, with Arko prowling guard mere feet away, she rested her head back against the bark and closed her eyes.
by Samantha Turner
142. A Rat-Race
Presephone staggered through the leaves of the thick jungle underbrush. Her boots were already damp from the moistness of the forest, her nose reddened from the night chill. She hopped through vines clutching her black pointed hat tightly to her head. The tiny bells made to sense magic that were embroidered on the hem of her skirt chimed softly at the nearness of fluff wisps. The mushrooms were beginning to lose their luminescence, shadow hours being chased away by the coming dawn. But Presephone couldn’t let the day in. Light kills wisps and they were the only breadcrumbs to the wall. Walls in time were hard to find, and even harder to make holes through. Her thoughts flicked to Eli. Bastard. Had he already beaten her? Enchanters were vexatious, with their alchemy and tinkering. She refused to let their clockwork win. Pre-piccaninny dawn was terrible light for navigating, so it was rather unceremoniously that Presephone slid off a branch face first into a puddle. Grumbling she reached for her fallen hat only for her hand to hit something which was trying it’s hardest to be invisible. White teeth grinned in a muddied face. She’d found it. There wasn’t a flash of light, just a blip in the fabric of the world and the witch was gone.
A blink and she was standing atop cliffs looking at beauty unseen by any eyes before. Noise and light polluted the air even at this hour. Beasts with lights for faces ran in lit lines and squared towers reached toward the heavens. She’d done it! Persephone had not only changed worlds but travelled time. Only when she was mentally ticking her bucket list and thinking of the bet money she’d just won did she heard Eli’s slow clap.
“Well look who decided to show up.”
by Mae Walker
She screams; unheard.
A bastard of the streets far below and the towers of steel and sweat that hold half her family in the air. She once was awake, but now she’s asleep. Turned inward when the sharpened edges of perfection drove her into a place where she could find confinement; trapped in her own mind she is free, for it’s shackles are comforting in their agony.
Once she was awake. A child running through green fields made of smoke; playing in the dwindling fire and the rising steel. Soft flesh uncut by brittle burning glass. A smile that opened the world, eyes that promised it didn’t open for nothing. A child of two families; the clean and the sharp. Both of the them beautiful and both of the seen as beautiful. Night and day coiled and stretched around her, but she slid through them like a fish flies across calm waters.
Now she’s asleep. An outward image of unkept hair and bladed words, a smile that mocks joy and eyes that crack the concrete they rest upon. Quick teeth that bite, and skin like steel and just as brittle. A lie; a sloppy caricature drawn over an image that once burnt the eyes with its brightness. An image still just visible; like a knife carved from a olive tree branch, so sharp you don’t see the stillness. But trapped now, between nowhere, and seen as nowhere. Day and night sweep her away, engulf her; she can only seem to breath when she’s drowning.
The beast that stole her had a face, but was it her face? Her mother’s? Father’s? It must have had a face, for once its faceless we can let it go. A simple irrelevance. The wrong change in a million changes; so unlikely and yet so inevitable if the beast dies. The same, shift and shift. Apply a face to one, equally mistake the other; and so she sleeps in nightmares.
If only she screams loud enough, maybe someone will hear her.
by Laurence Walker
144. Daystorm and the Knight
Sly Joe examined the haul by starlight. The two men he had guided into the Free Southern State’s Great Desert had struck the mother-lode and no mistake. The desert’s ancient cities gave up their treasure infrequently and begrudgingly — a find this big was unprecedented. Old Sir Humphrey and Kelvin Daystrom hailed from the Central Kingdom, called themselves crypto-historians, whatever the fuck that meant. Said they believed in the old tales about men coming to this world across the stars in ships that sailed in the heavens. They’d hired Joe as their guide because of his vaunted knowledge of the region.
The knight and Daystrom, Joe reflected, farinaceous blue-bloods both, dead now by his hand, which left the artefacts all to himself. They’d fetch a good price in certain quarters. He looked forward to pocketing the proceeds, along with his guide’s fee.
Hell, what did those two fools expect, hooking up with a man who went by the monicker Sly Joe?
Joe had heard all the stories about the arks as he’d grown up, had thrilled to them when he was younger, but he was a man grown now. Time to put that bullshit to one side. Tek, he thought, shaking his head. What kind of a word was that? He picked up one of the objects the two archaeologists had unearthed and turned it over. Words on it, faded but still recognisable as Engerlish, by God!
“ SET TIMER. FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY? “
Was that round thing in the middle meant to be pressed? He poked it and the thing began to make a bleating sound. Startled, he dropped it and stepped away.
Returned and leaned over to see what it did next.
Night turned instantly into brilliant day.
by Dale Harker
145. Fiddler’s Green
He sat on a low stool that he had pulled from the kitchen of his tiny home. She sat on the aged, sagging wood of the deck, ignoring the dampness creeping up the seat of her jeans. The surrounding trees were happy for the rain. She didn’t mind the wet, or the bugs, or the cruel bite of humidity as long as he continued to play.
The lights cast shadows on his face. His rust colored hair fell into his brown eyes, and no matter how many times he paused in his playing to push it aside with his hand. It always fell back when he placed his bow back in place to begin again. She’d offered to cut it once, but he’d laughed. His eyes were deep and warm and rivaled the color of the amber liquid swirling in the whiskey bottle at his side. A hand rolled cigarette tucked behind his left ear, unlit.
He’d not thought twice about trading his humanity for his music, he’d told her. He was proud of that, even if he had learned too late that fae bargains should be specific. He had music, he had eternity to play, but he no one to play for; just the bugs and the night. He couldn’t leave the forest.
He’d been lonely.
She’d been lost.
She’d spent the day lost on the gravel roads of the wood. Her car radio had picked up the mournful, dirge of a fiddle through the static before she’d swerved to miss a wild deer. The doe’s eyes had flashed in the headlights before her car had met its end.
She’d wandered the gravel roads until the music found her again. She wasn’t the first to find him, but the first to stay.
Now, she too could never leave.
by Kayleigh Webb
It was dawn, and night passed the sceptre on to day before disappearing behind the orange morning sun. In these early hours she glimpsed her love as the light banished her to the other side. Always looking. Always chasing. Always a few steps behind.
She lived for a glimmer of day, only ever minutes away from her love.
Day had no choice but to advance and extend his reach until twilight, where he just brushed his hands with night until the darkness banished him. He handed the sceptre back to her, and his heart with it. Always looking. Always chasing. Always a few steps behind in purple sky.
Sometimes the sun darkened, eclipsed by the moon, and day could to kiss her love unexpectedly, their hearts fluttering for a precious twinkle in time.
North, where perpetual snow brightened the endless twilight, they could be closest to each other. There, night decided to no longer take the sceptre.
If she didn’t meet day, at least he could rule with eternal radiance, but day decided it was her who deserved the skies with silver stars. If he didn’t meet night, her moon would bring happiness to mankind in his stead.
Shooting stars announced their departure as their existence faded at the same time, and mankind was left with an empty sky.
by Olivia Hofer
147. A Recurring Dream
“There’s going to be a fire,” said Davy.
He was wearing a wetsuit and snorkeling mask while coral diving in the Red Sea, so his voice went up the snorkeling tube with a rush of breath.
It did not matter where he was. In his dreams there would always be a fire. In a crypt in the catacombs of Rome. In the sept of the Hagia Sophia. On the steps of Notre Dame where loud-mouthed peddlers sold selfie sticks. No matter where he was, the fire would find him, lurch out and wrap its flailing self around his careful imaginings.
But Davy had studied dreams and knew how to manipulate them.
Davy had a scuba tank now. He dove deeper.
The sea weighed on his skin. The daylight grew feeble above. Davy was alone in the water’s night.
Then he saw a goldfish swimming toward him. A household goldfish, but it was not household size. It had scales the size of cars, eyes as large as Big Ben’s face with timeless pinpoint pupils.
Davy did not move. The fish had not seen him. There was not enough light.
Then the fish stopped swimming. It inhaled a deep breath and spat it out with a bubbling woosh.
The bubbles parted to reveal a window floating in the sea. It was rimmed in mahogany and looked out at an autumn field on a sunny day, where a line of birthday balloons drifted above the dead grass.
The goldfish inhaled. Its scales sparked like an electric eel.
“No,” thought Davy, as the goldfish blew a breath at the window. The balloons burst. The field ignited.
“The window will contain it,” thought Davy.
But flames licked around the mahogany and crept into the sea. An octopus of fire: jolting, thrashing, seeking him.
by Alex Hintermann
148. Let’s Try This Again
“This day can’t get any worse,” Chew said. He brushed the dust from his shirt and pants as they walked along the rough wooden pathway, and the motion seemed to make him stoop even lower. “I don’t think today is the day.”
“Tonight! It’s my night, just like all the others.” Dip stood taller as they made their way toward the saloon, his spurs tinkling with every step.
Chew brushed the dirty hair out of his eyes and glanced down. “You sound ridiculous. No one uses those any more you idiot. What are you spurring? You’re going to draw attention.”
Dip winked. “That’s the plan, remember? All eyes on me.” His spurs grew completely silent, but, if anything, his pace quickened as they rounded a corner and the sign came into sight.
The sign banged with the wind against the well-worn wooden siding over the doorway, but they both knew what it said without having to wait for the sign to settle.
“I’m quiet as you now, feel better?” Dip nudged Chew with his elbow. “You think too much.”
Chew touched the package tucked inside his waistband and glanced over his shoulder, trying to hide the motion behind the act of fixing his hat.
“Do I need to say the obvious here?” Chew asked.
Dip’s smile was audible if not contagious.
“You know what happens if he catches you right?”
“Nothing, because he won’t. Like I said, tonight’s my night, even if today wasn’t your day, my friend.”
The two men slowed as they approached the doorway.
“Any ideas on how this time is going to be better than last time?”
“Because this time I know more about what not to do.”
Dip’s spurs clanged as he pushed in front Chew and entered the room.
by Alan Hayes
149. Reality beckoned
As she stepped into the lobby elegantly, it only took two seconds for the people around to know that the boss lady was around. She wore a beautiful patterned Gucci skirt with a blue chiffon top and Zara shoes to match. She was an hour glass: an exemplary lover of glasses of any kind. Usually, they would strap up to acknowledge her presence. With a nod and a brief smile, she would respond.
Every business tycoon and extinguished personality knew the hardworking Alexandria Henshaw-Scott, the first child and only daughter of business tycoon, Richard Henshaw. At the age of twenty-five, she was the head of several companies owned by her father. She did the job excellently. She was loved by everyone.
All the world’s happiness were in her palms. Her father was everything to her. Her husband, Tomiwa Scott, gave her all the love she needed. Her mother, Toyin Henshaw, a socialite, loves her. At least, a love that shows she raised her. Her siblings were never bothered about her being the sole head; they loved her dearly.
At the time she thought it was the peak. The day turned night. She received the hardest news of her life. The death of her father. She was shocked. The thought of how full of life her father always was flashed in her memory. She couldn’t believe she’d just lost the man with who all her worries usually becomes dead. To think she was beginning to adjust. More bricks fell on her. The inheritance news hit her. She had no dime in her father’s property not even the position she occupied.
“Why did he do this to me?” She muttered.
While she battled with that thought, Toyin Henshaw explained.
“You weren’t ours to begin with…”
The semantics dawn on her.
by Kehinde Nusirat
Getting stabbed didn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it would. It felt like I had been punched in the gut, but I was already halfway through cutting the bastard’s head off, so in the grand scheme of things it didn’t seem like a big of a deal. I was fighting harder than ever yet I felt my movements getting slower. I saw another blade cutting through the air, too fast to block. This time I felt it. I hit the ground, and the world exploded. The pain was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I believed I was too good to be defeated so quickly. I was a rising star, skilled enough to go through years of training with barely a scratch. I practiced day and night, memorized every block and counter until I could perform the dance in my sleep. All it took was a few minutes of real war and I was done.
I knew I was dying when the shaking stopped and the pain became a distant throb. My eyes were unfocused and every movement around me left a trail of color. I caught a glimpse of her, our commander. She led us into this doomed battle. Our enemy outnumbered us fifteen to one and against those odds it didn’t matter how much better we were. She knew we were going to lose, but she led us anyway. She delivered a rousing speech about standing up for justice and whatnot, but those words seemed to have lost their shine now. What did it matter whom we bowed to as long as everyone got to keep their heads? As darkness finally came for me, I cursed her name and hoped it would drag her all the way to hell too.
Sunbeams speared the darkness, illuminating motes that swirled in the musty room.
Shrugging off an arm, he got slowly to his feet.
Looking for a chamber pot but settling for a wine jug, he released stinking piss that had sat brewing inside for who knows how long.
Couldn’t make it taste any worse.
Rubbing his face, wincing at the pain behind closed eyes, he spat.
What am I doing? Two girls slumbered in the furs. He remembered the blonde from the night before, but the raven he’d no recollection of at all.
A gilded-trimmed lute lent next to the door and he almost breathed a sigh of relief. Two snapped strings hung loose, bringing back a raucous memory from last night’s performance. Then he did chuckle. If only the guild could see him now…
He kicked around till he found his bundle of clothing. Pulling his pouch, he ripped a piece of sticky tar and thumbed it into his pipe.
This needs to end. He lit a taper, and eyes closed against the sudden brightness, pulled the flame through. Coughing the toxic smoke out, he observed the girls stirring.
Commoners were just so much fun. Well, not any more fun than at court, but at least here there were less consequ—
The door burst open with a crash.
‘Leeya!’ A brute of a man raged, silhouette heaving in the brightness of day.
Slinking backwards with a futile attempt to cover his nakedness, he wondered briefly if a commoner consequence wasn’t just as deadly as a courtly one after all.
by Joshua Edey
152. Eden Underground
Susanna took three things with her to the afterlife: a pocket book, a pair of sunglasses, and a gaping wound in her chest.
The river that spirited her along was impatient, rushing around turns and over drops. It turned out seasickness wasn’t an issue, with no stomach to speak of.
The lid of her coffin kept the water out. It also blocked the scenery, but she hadn’t come for sightseeing. She hadn’t come by choice at all.
The coffin scraped against a shore. She stared at the grain on the lid.
A wiry-haired woman peered over the coffin’s side.
“You need to get up,” she said. “You’re blocking the entrance.”
Susanna didn’t move.
The woman pursed her lips. “For the life of me, I can’t see why you won’t hurry along.”
Susanna thought it had to do with the hole in her chest. The woman shook her head and bustled away.
Susanna felt in the pocket of her tattered uniform and put on the sunglasses. Hazy darkness sharpened into diamonds studding a ceiling, or stars in a night sky—if it could be called night.
Susanna went for a walk.
The tendrils of mist cleared in the day—if it could be called day. The trees had metallic leaves and branches like bones. She sat against a trunk and watched a bird.
“Any spare names?” the bird asked. “I lost mine.”
It was black with a red stripe on its shoulder. She took out her book, a wildlife field guide, and flipped through. Her companion nibbled a fruit.
She glanced up. “You look like a red-winged blackbird.”
The bird twittered. “I am!”
It flew off.
When Susanna got back to the river, her coffin was gone. She turned around and followed the bird.
by Jonah Pollens
153. My Sun
She was like day, bright like the sun and warm too.
I remember the first day we met. She was carrying boxes filled with fish down the pier, as per the angry instructions of her father. My father had business with him, you see, so as a young child I had nothing better to do than wander off and ask what she was doing. I can’t remember exactly what she told me, but it made me laugh for the first time that week. I didn’t want to like her, I was a miserable little shit at that time, but something about her was easy to relax with. I knew – really knew – that there was something special about her. I had to find it, explore it, enjoy it. It was mysterious, enticing. It came as a shock to learn that what I loved most was her ability to accept life as it is, something I struggled to come to terms with. She brought light to my everlasting gloomy nights. A glow to my dark mind. A way out.
We were best friends for many years. At first I didn’t want to admit that I took a liking to her, but eventually there was no shame. She opened me up to the possibility in believing in a new future. She pushed me to achieve my dreams, say no, accept who I was. No one did that for me… but her. I loved her.
I regret that her life was short, even if it was so bright. There’s so much she could have done – lives she could’ve changed. Now the night has returned, and I’m without a light to guide me. The only thing she ever did wrong was help me. If she’d learned to abandon a broken things, she’d still be alive.
by Elliot Lowell
154. Tom and the cat
Two armoured men turned the corner, eyes wild, stained with old dust and fresh blood. He thought the enemy would appear more exotic in their brutishness, but there were no horned helms or fancy swords, just a pitiless hungry gleam to their eyes. He raised the jar to his mouth and drank deep, struggling to keep his eyes on his enemy while tilting the vessel high enough to dispense the pitifully inadequate contents down his dry throat. A feral cat, one he had fed since a kitten rubbed at his ankle and he looked down, the oblivious creature, nicknamed Cabbage looked up, straight into his eyes and meowed loudly. Tom had never envied a living creature so much in all his life, completely unconcerned, this war held no terror for Cabbage, it would however provide a long night of scraps.
Watching them writhe, through the crack in the door, Jack felt himself disappearing into the silence. He contemplated what a man should do. Burst in? Scream? Cry? How does one know the correct retribution?
There should be a sign, he thought, padding downstairs to the kitchen, it’s easier with a sign. Reaching for the expensive scotch, Jack contemplated the front door. He stared at the undone latch, and thought of walking out, of returning as the Jack of yesterday, of today morning, of an hour back. He stared at the well-worn welcome mat, and thought of stomping around, of giving voice and waiting for the scramble. He stared at the rifle mounted next to the door, and thought of how old it was, how unused, how serviceable.
These are the times, Jack thought, amongst gulps of scotch, when a God comes in handy. Noticing the canary-yellow of a sticky note fallen off the counter, he stooped to pick it up.
Milk. Jacks laundry. Waxing. All items neatly crossed out with a severe, black line. Jack tried remembering the last time he had bought the milk, or done the laundry. Jack tried remembering the last time he’d noticed the smoothness of her body. The list looked quite finished.
Pouring another glass, he noticed the blotches of ink seeped from the other side. Flipping the paper, he read the last item.
Take out trash.
Uncrossed, and free of any dividing lines.
Jack took a swig of the whisky and stared at the page. Night was falling, and he could hear footfalls upstairs. Finishing the glass, he made his way to the door.
156. Who Stalks the Night
“The Tiger will get you,” she said, glaring at them across the campfire.
“The Tiger Who Stalks the Night?” the first bandit said, reciting the full name. “You won’t scare us with that old wives’ tale.”
“I heard the Tiger killed a hundred men,” the second bandit said. “In one day.”
The first bandit waved a hand. “Impossible. Anyway, we work for the magistrate, who works for the governor. No man would dare.”
The prisoner shrugged – one of the few gestures left to her, wrists bound at her back.
“See, even she agrees.”
The second bandit scratched at his beard. “But the Tiger works for the Emperor – may He live forever – not the governor. What if he’s found out?”
“Found out?” His colleague’s look would have curdled goatsmilk. “There’s nothing to find out. We’re collecting tax.”
“Does that always involve tying up taxpayers?”
He turned his sour gaze on her. “Only when they don’t agree to pay.”
“Don’t worry,” the second said. “When Sarge takes his inventory, we’ll work out how much you owe, and then you can be on your way.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” a new voice said. “Not until you tell us what a peddler is doing with *this* rolled in a mouldy old carpet.”
The third bandit – Sarge – stomped into the firelight and shook a sheathed sword under her nose. Gold glinted from the hilt, and flames danced along the curved length of lacquered wood.
Then a hand shot up, cord dangling loose around its wrist, and the sword hissed free.
Two men stood as the third staggered back.
“Hey now, lady, don’t make trouble for yourself. Who do you think you are?”
She rose smoothly to her feet, sword steady in her fighting stance.
“I am the Tiger Who Stalks the Night.”
by James Latimer