1. The Biggest Loser
“So it’s agreed?” Death asked. He lounged on the park bench. Life always managed to make things interesting, even if his brother always ended up losing.
“I suppose he will do.”
They would meet every day, and wager on the fate of one poor soul. A young man, tall and lanky, his sandy hair threatened to obstruct his vision as he pedaled his bike in the outer lane of the road.
Death laughed. In their attempt to keep him at bay, mortals surrounded themselves with the illusion of safety. A helmet, reflective colors, even their own lane. This feeling of security often made his job easier. Nice head phones, wonderboy.
“Remember, you only get to affect one thing.” Life told him.
“I don’t need to cheat. I always win… eventually.”
“Yeah, I still regret asking mom for a little brother.”
The bike rider stopped at a red light looking for a break in traffic. He was going to move through the street as soon as an opening presented itself regardless of the light’s color. So easy.
A bird fell. Hitting the windshield of a car, it exploded in feathers. The bike rider couldn’t hear the catastrophe occurring behind him.
His brother chuckled. “Nice. My turn.”
The music stopped. The rider looked down at his phone, annoyed. He heard the squeals behind him, and dove for the safety of grass.
The driver hit the brakes. His car plowed into an oncoming semi. The trucker’s frantic attempts to stop caused his trailer to jack knife.
The biker stood up, dusting himself off. The trailer slammed into him.
“Ha! I still won!” Death laughed. “Too bad, for that driver though.”
“I guess it makes things easier. His wife is currently conceiving with his best friends child.”
by Nathan T Boyce
2. Embodiment of Ru
Before the light and before the darkness there was a perpetual silence. A singularity of timeless existence in one mind. Ru was not a deity. This was before time itself. Ru’s thoughts would manifest and cease to exist all at once, and it was a beautiful chaos with no physical form.
Existence was past, present and future. Visions of wonder and beauty would materialize and bring joy to Ru, such a powerful euphoria that no human could ever comprehend. The dark side of these thoughts would contain an assemblage of evil beyond disgusting. Ru wept at these thoughts, destroying them in convulsions of eternal despair.
There was an infinitesimal moment. A moment of desolation that no living being or even deity could ever endure. Nobody would ever know what Ru concocted, but death would be a glorious choice compared to such depravity. Ru tore apart, scattering light and darkness forming a plane of existence and time. The embodiment of Ru had happened.
And there was light. The depravity that lay in between was dark. The darkness engrained into every speck of dust as it accelerated across the expanse.
The embodiment of Ru was an idea. An idea that had already happened in the singularity, from chaos to order, and in moments of despair and moments of wonder, the mind of Ru was now embodied across the universe. The essence of Ru began to grow in a torrent of life.
It was not only the greatest minds that realized Ru was part of our being in this world. There was magic born of light and darkness, waiting to be awakened by the descendants of Ru’s mind.
by Ray John
3. The Architect
Dr. Watkins gazed down at the young soldier through blood-shot eyes. He felt himself moving within; two halves on a rough sea, weaving on the drop, stuttering on the rise.
“The arm’s fractured,” he said, slurred and not caring, far beyond any notions of conceit.
“Oh God Jesus no!” The boy struggled to rise from the crude operating table. Two orderlies held the him by the shoulders. Another pried his mouth open and poured brandy, then poured some on the wound. The boy’s eyes rolled, showed only whites. Bloodied fingers forced a Minie ball between his crooked teeth.
Dr. Watkins took a pull of the brandy, forced stillness on a trembling soul, and began to saw.
The boy thrashed and cried in an unknown tongue, though the meaning was clear enough, until he fainted.
An orderly branded the ragged stump, the tent filling with the stench of burnt pork.
Dr. Watkins nodded, swallowed strength from the bottle, waiting for the next one.
Toward night, after the guns had grown silent and cool, after the sun had set like a bloody egg behind Seminary Ridge, Dr. Watkins stood beyond the shadow puppets that flitted on the tent walls and faced a lifeless edifice. Farmer’s arms and shopkeeper’s legs. Hands, coarse from hard living, hands soft on a child’s face; lover’s fingers; killer’s fist.
He stood as an architect, knowing that more work would be done, and this knowing was a thing to stop the world.
He turned in the darkness and walked.
Life or death….
He prayed for tears.
He searched for a merciful bullet.
by William Hiles
I awoke to darkness, the blackness hiding me from my shame, the chains cutting into my hands, the weeping flesh and bloody rawness doing nothing to temper the pain of memory etched onto my face, the sorrow, soul deep I now felt, I had failed her, the best of us was gone, all because of me, no longer would anyone see her smile nor see the way she gave you hope without even trying. I sit here alone, contemplating, awaiting the hand of fate, life or death, it’s all the same to me, but know this, I will find you, for while she was the best of us, I am the worst and I will watch the world burn to hunt you down.
5. My Son John
My darkest thoughts dwell in the spaces between your heartbeats. The monitor rises and falls. Will there be another? Or will this be the moment that spares me from an awful choice. I’ve long since run dry of tears and prayers alike. Except this one — voiced in the lull between artificial breaths, in the flat silence between the peak and trough of a green line dividing life from death.
_Please, God! Let this be the last!_
They say love is watching someone die. But this isn’t dying. It isn’t living, either. It’s something in between. A monstrous limbo, born of hope and love. You seem so small and fragile, lying there. So in need of my love to shield you from all your hurt. But this isn’t loving. Not anymore. The hurt is already done. The only hope now is that there really is something on the other side of dying that doesn’t exist for you here anymore.
You wouldn’t want to live like this. You would run and play, if only these machines would let you. If only I would let you.
The monitor ticks. The next heartbeat comes and goes. And the next. And the next. And with each of them, the tap of my pen to the page that could set you free. If I only had the courage to love you enough.
I lift the pen, my fingers shaking. Maybe this next one will be the last.
by David Jackson, non-competing entry
6. Lust of the Unborn
When it comes to life and death, I’ve heard it all. They will tell you that life and death are two sides of the same coin; that death is not the end of life; or that life only has meaning because it will end. And in my quest for wisdom, I listened to them, I pondered the words, and I knew them to be true. But their wisdom held no answer to my question.
For some there can be no life without death, some can only truly live once they pass Beyond. Others can only be brought to life by Death. I searched among them for one such as me, but found not one with the same hungers.
They told me death was a passing. One beyond which there was new life. They told me life was a passing too, albeit longer and more painful. Every person, every thing, every thought even, is bound to die once it has run the course of its existence. Death is their birthright. But not one among them could answer my question.
I’m starting to think that it may never be answered. Maybe only one such as me could explain. One who never died, never lived, and never will live. Maybe the hungers will answer. I don’t think they will. But in the meantime I answer to them, to the soul-rending joy that comes from visiting death upon the living.
7. Fake Life, Real Death
The copper hand picked up the still warm heart. Considering this part in the low candle light, it thought of how much was made of this one piece. No heart, no love, no life. With its free hand, it reached to its chest and removed a piece of metal chest covering. Beneath were cogs and springs, the fake life of the automaton. Pulling out a large cog, the hand that held the heart fell lifelessly to its side. With the still functioning hand, it took the heart and put it in place of the removed cog.
It had a heart. But did this give it life? Or was living death to continue. It always knew it was different, that people, his creator, had true life. It was hard to understand, but they had something it did not. It was not dead, but not truly alive. The concept became as unbearable as it was mysterious.
The heart rested in its chest, dripping, perhaps lubricating, but not providing the missing desire. But there was more. The grey lump rested on the scarred wooden work-table and would provide what was surely the missing piece of life. A brain. Not just any brain, the creator’s brain. It was unfortunate that it took death to create the possibility of life, but it had to be done. Existence was no longer acceptable.
The automaton removed the metal cap that protected its most sensitive of machinery, and fearlessly removed critical parts. Its legs gave out along with its sight, but the one arm still functioned. It grabbed the table leg, pulled it over, and proceeded to grope around the floor until the brain was found. With a final thrust, it jammed this last piece of life into its head cavity.
Desire for life was its death.
by Mark C. King
8. The Last Job
The job was supposed to be simple.
When someone wanted an item that didn’t belong to them, our contact found us. This time was no different. Get in, grab the item, get out. Some rich peacock’s estate, no surprises. We didn’t ask what the item was. Some call that stupidity, we call it discretion.
We don’t ask questions.
Now, running through the woods in the middle of the fucking night, my heart about to explode in my chest, I’m starting to regret that particular business decision.
The hounds bayed wildly somewhere behind us, a cacophony that had grown closer over the hours they’d tracked us. We’d had no rest, no water, but we couldn’t stop. People like us don’t go to jail.
We won’t be remembered in death.
I glanced to the hulking silhouette of the man I’d spent the last decade with, his moonlit features as familiar as my own. I tried to speak, but the words got lost and I was on my knees in the snow. How had that happened?
A crunch as he lowered before me. He was silent, and just stared at me. As he always did. When I’d met him, I’d hated that stare. The ocean of patience in his eyes, as if he would wait forever for my words.
I’ve grown to love him for it.
I took a ragged breath. “Not gonna make it out of this one, are we?”
His grin was an ivory tear in the dark. “Nope.”
I stared at the man I loved, my partner in more than crime. Rivulets wove down my cheeks, and I had no words.
He leaned forward and kissed me gently. “I know.”
“We had a good life.”
He set the package between us. We didn’t open it.
We don’t ask questions.
by Wes S.
9. September 1, 2000
Three and five. That’s how old my daughters were when their father and I ended our marriage. Buckled in the back seat of the car as I drove away from our home, they were so vibrant, so beautiful. As we traveled along the Pennsylvania Turnpike toward my parents’ house in Michigan, I couldn’t help thinking that I had ruined everything for them. Tears streamed down my face for most of the trip, but they didn’t seem to notice.
It was getting late as we crossed the Ohio border into Indiana. The sun was setting and the clouds were swirling and changing, decorated with jet trails emanating from the Midway and O’Hare airports in Chicago. The colors were so intense. I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life. I thought about the people on the planes, oblivious to my pain and my failure. As with all of them, my journey would continue. A favorite song started playing on the radio. Eddie Vedder was singing something about being the boxer or the bag.
Mesmerized by the sunset and the haunting guitar riffs, I started to feel a shift in my perspective. And in that moment I realized that if the world was capable of such transient beauty, this ending wouldn’t define us. It’s not so easy to ruin someone’s life. Fortunately, life and death are part of a cycle, and I have no control over it.
by Mindi K. Bagnall
“You cannot escape that which is one and the same,” Catherine said as she slammed the jeweled sword into Edgar’s chest, ancient runes carved in its silver blade.
Edgar coughed up blood, all over Catherine’s beautiful, pink gown. He didn’t want to contemplate her words on life and death. Didn’t want to think, but had to think. What if Catherine was right? What if there was no separation between life and death?
Catherine would know, wouldn’t she? She died before.
“Feel the blade,” Catherine said, twisting the blade, gazing into her dying lover’s eyes. “Don’t fight reality, don’t ignore it. You must accept it, Edgar, or you will fail. When you fail, the cogs of life and death will crush you. Know that they are one, and you will continue. You will be forever.”
Her eyes were so wild, like a forest animal. So filled with energy, and yet so far removed from the mundane world.
No. Animals weren’t sentient. Catherine was extremely sensible, bubbling with wisdom Edgar never encountered before.
“When you killed me,” Catherine said, “I had two options. I could fight death, and be forgotten, or I could embrace it, know it, to know life itself. That’s what the Lady of Night told me, when I stood at her crossroads. She brought me back to you, lover. Though you hated me before, though you wanted me dead, we have a second shot at happiness. We can make it work.”
Edgar struggled, producing more blood-tainted spittle. His body was stiffening. His gaze grew hazy.
A woman appeared before him. It wasn’t Catherine. This woman was as black as night, from her hair to her skin, stars shining from her eyes.
Edgar could still hear Catherine’s voice.
“What will it be, lover?”
Edgar would have to make his decision.
by Brian Barr
11. The Stories We Live By
Martin stood before a planet, fingers clenched for the end, eyes caught in wonderment. The suit chafed at him, his return craft desolate on the next ridge, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered when you stood before a world.
Earth had breathed life into a million million stories, and that was even before humans had made their grand entrance, claiming the spotlight. He looked upon the vast Sahara Desert, to the bleached white snows of Antarctica. He gazed upon his own home, a small town in Connecticut which he couldn’t even point to, just give you a rough estimate of its whereabouts. There he sat upon a web of stories, too numerous to tell. He was a lone astronaut on the moon, proving God knows what to himself.
Martin recalled the time when Jimmy, his older brother had sprained his ankle and moaned for hours, telling how they would have to amputate the whole leg, not just the foot. Then there was Iris, their wedding day when he took the biggest slice of cake and fed it to her, drinking in the pure bliss on her face. His thoughts now turned to Will, their oldest son, the role model to his younger brother, Ben.
Martin found a smile etched onto his face, impossible to remove. Thoughts drifted and settled on his boys, Iris, the life that bred a thousand stories with each breath. Here upon the ball of night’s light, he could marvel at the vastness of Earth. Sure it was small in the larger scale, but here it was as vast as he could comprehend, breathtaking.
He now looked to his oxygen supply, and back to his tattered craft. Sure, he could embrace death if he got to die just soaking in the Earth with its stories before him.
by Aaron Purton
12. Last Meal
The stars are disappearing. It’s against science; the impossibility is screwing with minds worldwide.
Jen is high above on a flat roof. On the outskirts buildings are hushed by 10pm, dark by 12. If Jen leans back and looks straight up she can forget the town’s ambient pollution, the fact people are panicking, joining cults, killing themselves, doing all the things people would normally frown upon and just watch the stars pop.
With a clang the door opens to a boot. Laura staggers onto the tarmac with two bags.
‘I can’t believe you found somewhere that’s open,’ Jen chuckles.
‘It’s ingrained, they’re more likely to stop breathing than stop cooking,’ the taller girl hands over a parcel of chips and they sit together cross legged. The food is still too hot to eat and Jen’s lips soon feel fat with grease and salt.
‘This is the life,’ Jen sighs.
‘The moon hasn’t appeared,’ Laura comments braking off some battered cod.
‘That bastard,’ Jen takes an offered can of lemonade and pops the ring pull. The bubbles rush to her nose. ‘This is warm,’ she complains.
‘You should be fired too.’
A cluster of stars the size of a fist blink out together. There is now more space than stars.
‘They’re running a pool in the chippy. The prize is all the fish, chips, pies you can eat for free until…. well you know.’
‘What’s the pool?’ Jen licks her fingers and lies flat.
‘When mars will blow.’
‘Do you think it will hurt? Death?’
Laura doesn’t answer. Jen closes her eyes. A beat, two. She looks over and Laura is gone, a scorched patch of tarmac where she had sat.
Jen hopes it didn’t hurt. She watches the stars and breathes in the scent of vinegar.
by Chris Parvin
13. The Last Breath
The fallible mind ever tries to latch on to what it can to comfort itself. Ideas, ideologies, truths and untruths; all are fair game where the human mind is concerned. It needs protection from experiencing the bitter reality that engulfs it from all sides in an effort to corrupt and break its feeble mass.
Yet in its final moments the mind flees from these constructs. Memories of a life once lived rush by in unfettered haste, The mind returns to its first moments of blessed light only to jump right back through the intervening years and end in a flash, the cruel and bitter world revealed for what it always was.
It was such visions and thoughts that filled the dying mind of Father Breen. He lay splayed on cold slate flagstones, his tattered, brown robes darkening with each passing second. He could still feel it; the lance struck through his spine. In his last few moments, he could still feel it.
But the lance was gone. So too its wielder. Death paraded through the Abbey in gleeful resolve. It danced about the many corpses and spread its fetid scent. The protection of the Holy Mother had been stolen away and her final son now gasped his last breath.
With the defenses shattered, in swarms a grand pantheon of deities far older than any Holy Mother. They intend to reclaim old haunts, or rather; what remains. Pay no heed to these holy creatures however. They themselves are lost to time.
by Declan Murphy
Life is overrated if you ask me, though most people don’t. There aren’t many in the slums looking for advice on anything, and it’d be a cold day in hell if a nobleman was caught dead talking to anyone who lived here. Life in the orphanage was simpler, but once you get older they have to make room, and you’re sent out into the blighted part of the city with a set of rags for clothes and the crying faces of those who’d raised you. We always knew what was coming, us orphans, but nothing prepared us for what we found. Sickness was everywhere, small shacks made of scraps of the old city lined the streets. There was hardly a sign left that this was once a great market in the old empire, but then again not many here cared. Between the stink, the rain, and the cold no one would blame you if you wished for death. Being the impatient bastard I am, I chose to hunt it down.
My fights were what you’d expect and consisted of me receiving a well-earned beating after commenting on some poor sap’s ugly mug or his whore of a mother, but none ever killed me. I’d manage to crawl out from the gutter I was left in, wondering if death had some sort of grudge against me. Maybe you just had to wait for it to find you, and looking for it just made you suffer. I don’t know which is worse, the pain after being beaten near-dead or knowing that you had only been beaten ‘near’ dead. Lying in the gutter, the stench of rot and filth in the air often filled my lungs as I’d try my best to ignore it. Life is very overrated.
by James W
A woman is a man with a different beginning. Her gender distinguishes her procreatively but qualitatively she goes neuron for neuron with the morons that oppress her. She’s far above those she’s stuck beside; bound by centuries of indignation that have left her wondering if it’s even worth it to fight the cowards that hide behind their privilege. She’s become as moldy bread shaped by old bakers. Her life is wrapped in chains and presented as a gift. The death of her equality scorned as a Salem witch. But she knows it and all who open their eyes can see it. She’s no different than he. The only cure is discomfort. Bright rays in the blind’s eye. A woman is a man with a different beginning. Open your eyes. They’re still closed.
by Zack Argyle
16. Father’s Farewell
The second time I saw my father cry was the day he exiled me.
Of course, it was never billed as such. Crowds of people swarmed the royal carriage as it bore me away, while he stood on display weeping for the world to see. Officially, I was being fostered to our neighbours to cement what he hoped would be an alliance through the ages, father was bereaved at the loss of his son for six long years. Behind closed doors, it was time I was out from underfoot before someone stepped on me.
They say death is lighter than a feather. For my brother, it came heavier than a mountain. In life, he was bookish: whiled away his hours reading in father’s library, rarely sought the light of day. Useless as an heir. As he got older, father found busy work to keep him out of the palace. When the mine collapsed, it was the most terrible coincidence to befall our family in a generation. I saw it at his funeral. The same mask, but a different coat of paint.
I watched him bind the people tighter to him – he’d sent me out among them from an early age, probably hoping to avoid whatever mistake he’d made in my brother’s early years. The people’s prince, their pride and joy. Another thread to his web.
He spoke his last words to me as I looked upon that thin mask, pale as porcelain,
“You’re never to return. One day, our borders will come to you,”
His eyes were already leaking. Cold, but indistinguishable from a distance. I hoped our people were fond of war.
I still dream about that day; the sun cresting the Anvil’s peak, golden banners swaying in the breeze.
In my dreams, the tears are red.
by K Goh
17. Dying Sucks!
Dying in springtime sucks. Well, dying sucks anytime, but this is just adding insult to injury. The wheat fields are turning green again. The dogwood trees are in glorious bloom. And the goddamn snow has finally melted. Hell might not be so bad. At least there’s no snow.
Doc says I might have a week if I’m lucky. Shows what he knows. If I were lucky I would have croaked last fall before Mother Nature decided to shack up with Freezer Queen for the winter. If snow is God’s idea of beauty, he needs to go back to design school. But then, I guess God never had to shovel out his driveway six times in one week.
I’d like to say I’m not afraid of death, but I’d be lying. I’m not as scared of it as I used to be though. I’ve had time to get acquainted with the idea. Thanks, cancer, you bastard. Finally being out of pain does have its appeal. I haven’t truly known life since the diagnosis anyway. Oh Death, where is thy sting, indeed. Death is just another name for freedom.
When I die, get me in the ground quickly, will you? And I swear if it snows on my casket before it’s covered, I’ll haunt every damn one of you.
by Arthur Frymyer, Jr.
18. Maiden’s Cry
Obrecht could hear the sounds from the drinking hall despite the rain, as his shipmates celebrated their return. He winced as the barks of laughter from the other side of the settlement startled the baby that drooled upon his shoulder, her grip upon his chest hair like a fisherman hauling the great nets.
Pacing softly before the great trophy above the hearth, he pushed a soothing hush through the gap provided by his missing tooth. He looked anxiously towards the bed where his wife rested, exhausted again. Nerissa was still recovering from bringing life into this world, while he had been giving death to the sons of the islanders. The sweat on her brow concerned him. With his free hand coated in the calluses of a life outdoors, Obrecht lifted the blanket over her shoulder with a tenderness his shipmates would never see. His true companions were right here.
The chair beside the fireplace, worn smooth, creaked as his weight settled upon it. His gaze regarded the reflection in the shining steel helm placed carefully upon the mantelpiece. His sunken eyes, ringed with weariness and worry, returned memories of Tanvir’s shield wall, every man with a stripe of red paint across his face.
The Elder would come tomorrow. She would interpret what fate would have in store for little Calanthe, by letting her choose from the tools of the household.
He removed his daughter’s hand, tiny against the bulk of his chest, and placed it once more upon the war-axe that leaned up against his chair, a ritual of his own, secretly observed within each and every midnight vigil. If heroes could scream their defiance of fate, why not the heroine with the loudest voice on the mountain.
He only had one trade to teach.
by David McCullough
19. A Choice
He stood silently, all but invisible as he watched the child at play.
His eyes flicked over the scene in front of him, the boy stooped almost studiously over his toy soldiers, unaware of the shadowy presence that studied him. The boy carefully advanced his soldiers, lost in his game of war he absently brushed his hair from his eyes.
The watcher found himself seeing another image, from long ago, another fair haired child at play, just as absorbed in his tin soldiers, and the dreams of glory on the battlefields that lay ahead of him. A smile played across his lips as he thought of that boy, and how he had longed for adulthood and the chance to be something … a heroic knight, a gleaming armoured hero turning the tide of battle singlehandedly, scything his way through the Skerran masses, his golden sword in hand to cut down their king.
He blinked back to the image in front of him, dismissing the child.
War was not about shining armour and golden swords. It was blood, stench, men moaning as they lie dying in their own filth.
That was war, and it was his to stop.
He, charged with killing the boy, another to add to his lengthy tally, this one assured to finally end the war.
He raised his crossbow from the shadows and aimed at the boy, his finger slowly took up the pressure, but still he paused, the boy blurring to that child of long ago that dreamed of being a hero not a deadly shadow.
The only noise was that of the grandfather clock, tick, tock, tick, tock … Life or death, live or … , his finger flexed and the bolt crossed the room in less than a heartbeat …. die.
by Jonathan Bennett
20. The Train
What if we can’t stop the train?
This thought had occurred to him repeatedly in the last minute. The train to London was moving too fast, and John would know as he practically woke up on it every morning after a monotonous regime of clothes, food, wallet and go. He never really paid that much attention to the forces on the train, but this was very different; the train seemed to be still accelerating. And Waterloo was less than a minute away.
Do I die?
Of course, we all think of that when we feel close to death, however miserable they may be. John was no different, but while many might shrink away he decided that there must be something he can do. At least he might be able to save someone’s life.
The train shuddered… A few parents told their children it was a bump in the tracks. John knew otherwise. This area had perfect maintenance… They had come off the track.
There go the other wheels…
The entire carriage was silent for a few seconds as the scraping of metal on concrete and metal on metal began, and their course changed to face a big wheel. The London Eye was sat in their collision course.
If we hit that… This was planned…
The train crashed through buildings, smashing everything between it and its path. Inside the train it became all too apparent that they were becoming collateral damage in an attack.
The train crumpled its damaged front into the struts of the Eye. Slowly, unnaturally so, the giant wheel rolled into the river. And continued rolling…
John managed to keep alive just long enough to see the giant wheel demolish the government. The Houses of Parliament had fallen.
Thought John, as he died.
by George Shelton-Eckstein
21. Life’s shit, and then you die
‘LIFE’S SHIT, AND THEN YOU DIE’. That’s what’s carved on granny’s gravestone. Dear, sweet old granny. I miss her.
She’s not actually dead yet, just . . . organised; but she will be soon. Dead, I mean.
Not like me.
I stare morosely at the headstone: ‘Life’s shit, and then you die’. Not entirely true, in my experience. My life rocked: my girlfriend was hot, my school grades weren’t too dreadful, and my weekend job was . . . eh. On second thoughts, the less said about that the better.
Whatever. Life was good. Life was fun. Life was MINE.
Death, on the other hand, is a fucking drag. I kick the loose dirt beside the grave. I feel myself scowling.
(Then again, I’m always scowling these days. That’s DIY embalming for you.)
So I scowl, and I kick, and I grumble. Or at least I would grumble if I still possessed a functioning set of vocal chords. As it is, a pathetically hoarse sort of moan is the best I can manage. It harmonises nicely with the cold wind that shivers the crispy orange leaves like a sigh.
(I’m assuming the wind is cold. I can’t actually feel it, you understand.)
Above me one, then two, then thousands of tiny, irritating birds strike up a chorus. My shoulders slump. Bedtime. I moan one last time before sitting down and rolling sullenly into the empty grave.
Don’t worry, granny. I’ll keep it warm for you. I lie on the familiar bed of damp earth, absently reaching up to brush a rogue maggot away from the twin holes that puncture my crusty jugular. Then, hands tucked behind my head, I stare at the lightening sky far, far above.
Life’s great. Death’s shit.
And undeath’s even shitter.
22. The Bitter Odds
Life was worth everything, mused Shom. Worth enough to beat the living daylights out of a man trying to take it away from you. Worth enough to die for.
Shom Longtorr raised his sword in the dawn light. The crimson sun made it gleam like a shimmering horizon mirrored within itself. The army facing them across the plain charged, and Shom gritted his teeth, looking around at the men nearest to him, then further into the sea of faces either side. Did they know how big an ask this was, to sculpt victory into the face of such odds?
He knew the answer – they knew the bitter odds.
The wind stirred over the arid plain between the two armies, taking with it the dust of ages, stirring into spirals before losing cohesion. Crows flew high overhead – never a good sign. But Shom smiled. If this was the way of it, so be it.
The wind howled like a wounded animal, stirring with the sound of the thunderous approach of the enemy. His sword stayed high, and they looked to it eagerly, as if it were a shining beacon in a night that would soon chill their bones. But still he didn’t give the signal.
Come, you bastards.
The enemy was a furious, oncoming storm, but his own men had weathered many like it.
Just a while longer.
His men looked to him with devout belief. They thought he had some plan up his sleeve. Shom sighed inwardly. He had no plan, beyond what they had already spoken of. General Damori looked worried. He had a right to be.
It was time.
‘CHARGE!’ Shom gave the signal. The army charged towards the bitter odds that lay ahead.
Life. It was worth everything. Even in the throes of death.
by C M Mills
23. For We Could Never End
Death… No longer a word of fear.
No longer the premature ending of someone’s story, the unfair termination for those who didn’t wanted to go.
No longer the tragedy, no longer the grey sky or the cold rain on the bittersweet memories of some old granny who lost her ugly, chauvinist, disrespectful and alcoholic husband to some fool and meaningless war.
Death was no longer death, for we killed death itself.
Who we were? We were powerful, the most powerful men and women in the whole world, men and women capable of challenging the natural order of the universe itself, capable of realizing one of mankind’s wildest dreams.
The dream of surpassing death.
And why we did it? Nothing could harm us, or even bother us. No famine, no pestilence, no war. Nothing.
Nothing but death, and death frightened us all.
Therefore, we killed death.
The first millennia was delightful, and the second as well. We were kings, we were gods, and we ruled the whole world and all the worlds, every single one of them.
But now, there’s nothing left. Time grinded everything to dust, every world, every king, every war, every pestilence, every famine, every bittersweet memory, every granny; every ugly, chauvinist, disrespectful and alcoholic husband.
Only we lasted, but still, we did not. We never had been alive, we never had been nothing, and thus, we could never be nothing.
To be is to end; the very existence is meaningless without the concept of finitude. We could never end, so we could never be.
In the end, dying is the same of being alive.
In the end, death is life.
Although, we don’t envy you. Because to envy is to feel, to feel is to be.
And we could never be.
For we could never end.
by Pedro Henrique Thuler de Oliveira
He watched her. Ancient yet ageless, he made her want to weep.
A familiar stranger in gray robes.
For weeks she instinctively kept a wide berth from the staring man. Then one day she met his gaze, and distance became a suffocating need. That sad gaze had called to something from the onyx void of her memory, and as it clawed its way up, she fought it down, howling with inhuman fear at the effort.
Her grip tightened on the empty wooden bucket she held. The bucket reminded her she had a purpose. To draw water from the well that sat in the middle of the village. She enjoyed the sound her boots made on the crumbling cobbled path. The sun, the air, and the world of green surrounding her, she loved past reason.
She tilted her pale face upward to bask in the warm light and breathe in the wind as it twirled amongst the inky strands of her hair. As was her custom, she crouched down to caress the cluster of yellow daffodils nestled by the stones of the well before filling the bucket.
Task complete, her smile faded as reality set in. Back to the hospital. So many sick. More falling ill every day. No one had died, and that gave her hope. Tomorrow she would bring daffodils with the well water.
The man stood inside the hospital. Silent amongst the great suffering around him. She wanted to flee, and instead moved with hopeless steps toward him.
“It is past time for these poor souls.” His words rang in her mind.
“No,” she whispered. The bucket fell and water wept across the floor. She recognized him now, and in the endless depths of his eyes, she finally recognized herself.
He was Life.
And she was Death.
by Stefanie Cole
A holy man once told me, “Men are only as strong as their predecessors. Your father was weak, and you will be too. That’s facts of the bible and God.”
I’ve heard it before, from the texts themselves. ‘The son of the sinner carries the transgressions of his father’, and when he knocks on the pearly gates, no one will answer. God must forgive that unlucky bastard before death creeps in his door, otherwise he’ll meet something so dark and damning he’ll wished he kissed boot before the time came.
What are men and women s’posed to do? We are told we’re weak. Does God decide our worth? At the beginning, or the end? Men give their lives for war, love, wealth, even another. Women do the same in their own ways. But what does that amount to? We live and die, forgotten when we turn to stone under the living. Rare men ripple through life – unlike other lazy arseholes we’d soon forget – but what has it done for us? Those fathers, brothers, sons–they’re still weak in the eyes of our Father. That makes their children weak. And there’s nothing no one can do about it. They’re just men. Part of the earth. Promised a haven when living has passed to keep them doing good deeds in their short lives.
But I’m not going to lie down and die. I won’t let life, or God, or another man, walk all over me. I’ll live just like everyone else. Make peace with what I’m given as it’s given to me. But you better damn expect to hear my name far past my prime. See my children walk tall. Know I’ve changed the world as much as it’s changed me. Just you watch, I am not weak.
by Elliot Lowell
The world is full of differing people. Those who hate, ones to love, some that forgive, others that forget. We are consumed with ourselves, what will make us happy, what will fulfill us. No one truly gives up their happiness for another. Guilt drives us… or self-satisfaction in our actions to provide for another. Even our own inevitable death. We are not a kind species. We are not fair, or god-like. We are human. We are a mistake, happy or sad. We are a people. One to conquer worlds and change lives. We are a legacy of life itself.
We were. We are. We will be.
by Elizabeth T.
27. The Void
The words, mumbled quietly, violated the silence of the void. The color and the beauty had long since fled this place. The festering darkness only remained, and the void, with its bizarre inhabitant sitting on a seat of nothing, his face hidden behind pale hands and a curtain of greasy black hair.
He shifted, and the fine black suit he wore withered, rotten flakes falling away like ash with each movement, yet somehow remaining whole. Raising his face, he revealed a mournful face, fraught with despair.
Purplish black lips parted again. The soft sound they emitted was a hopeless papery rasp. “Nothing is left. Always the beauty has wandered away from here.”
A light twinkled into existence from the emptiness. Or perhaps it had already been there. It burned like a star, warm rays reaching out through the cold abyss. So full of life. How foreign.
The being studied the glow warily, never quite being touched with its light. Rotten flakes fell wetly like snow around him as he rose from his seat. “Give this up. Hope only fails. It comes always to take away, leaving only more of this.” He limply gestured to the void with hands that then fell limp at his sides. His head bent dejectedly, pale eyes downcast.
“Nothing left,” he whispered, but not even an echo would respond.
The light seemed to stop burning, frozen like a picture. Eternity seemed to pass, though it was no more than a moment. More than enough time had already been spent pondering, no more time was needed. The light faded, sputtering sickly, and then all at once was snuffed from existence.
The bruised lips silently twisted into a hideous smile, and Death returned to his invisible throne, lounging like a victorious god. Indeed, he was.
by Will Daggett
Dannar, against his better judgement, had agreed to meet his father, because a part of his soul needed answers. His blood simmered with fear, hatred, and … love as he sat opposite his father in the wealthy engineer’s living room. He was very aware of the doorway, and how his father was between him and it.
“How have you been, son?”
“Don’t pretend to be interested… what do you want?”
His father nodded, as if he expected Dannar’s reaction.
“I have let you be for long enough, son. Now you must think about your future.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me religion will save me, that unless I devote myself to prayer, mother’s soul will be tormented in death.”
“These are not my words, Dannar. It is the word of God…”
An all-consuming anger flooded Dannar, but he controlled it, his knees trembled.
“Your mother is gone now, you need t—”
“I KNOW!” Dannar roared as he stood, his restraint shattered, “I lowered her into the ground with these two hands, remember! With men from the religious community who never even knew her!”
His father, crestfallen, would not meet Dannar’s eyes, “That is our way, son.”
“It’s your way, not mine! Her own daughter was not allowed to be involved! Damn God if that is considered right.”
“Dannar…” His father warned.
“Answer me this then… father, and answer true, or so help me you will never see me again. Why, when I think of mother’s life, can I not remember her being happy beyond an odd day? Why, when you amass wealth, did she struggle to raise her children, why?!”
“I’m sorry, son.”
Dannar met his father’s teary eyes. His father then noticed the knife Dannar held in a trembling fist… crying, his father nodded.
by Kareem Mahfouz
29. The Vows
“Till Death do us apart,” he said, and sealed the vow with a kiss.
The happy couple celebrated life with its ups and downs, and all was bliss. Still, humans want to live to the fullest, and the couple were no different than the rest. So the seed was planted, and the present was waited for with a held breath.
Nine months was the plan, and the mark on the calendar you simply couldn’t miss. Yet, life is full of surprises, and with it you can never guess! The awaited baby came earlier than predicted; he was born premature and death was to be expected. A small casket replaced the tiny little crib, and balloons were replaced by funeral flowers tainted red.
Death visited life and infested it, turning it from rose into the darkest shade of the wings of crows. The couple tried to heal life again, but alas, it was fatal and there was no one to blame.
And so, the vow they had once exchanged was all that they have got; they were faithful to it, and Death did do them apart.
by Yasmeen A.A
30. The Rite of Life
“And so who will champion life?”
An icy wind followed Ghuran through the door, snuffing all life from the votive candles as it carried his words. The high priest glared down at him from the altar with nothing but contempt in his eyes.
“Come priest, pray tell us? You speak of death with such lavish abandon and yet spare so little time for its humble brother.”
The scuff of a boot alerted Ghuran to danger and he touched the hilt of his sword, but the priest shook his head holding up a staff of office and the footsteps shuffled away. Ghuran’s hand continued on to the edge of his cloak and he grasped it with a grim determination.
“Who are you to think you can simply walk in here and make demands of me, the voice for God himself? Life will have no champion,” the priest turned to a raised dais and scowled. “She is accused of spiritual treason, there will be no trial by sword.”
Ghuran felt his anger bite. “I’m the commanding officer of the royal guard and that’s my captain. You may speak for God but I carry the words of a king.”
“Sacrilege!” spittle flecked the priest’s beard. “I could have you burnt for such blasphemies.”
The commander wanted to stride forward and sever the man’s pious head from his shoulders but that would be a step too far. Instead he opened his cloak revealing the kings scepter and thrust it into the air. Gasps rippled through the congregation and the priest looked on in disbelief.
“You may burn me priest but it won’t be today, the king proclaims it,” Ghuran narrowed his eyes and shared a cold stare. “Choose life’s champion and be done with this farce.”
by Daniel Beazley
”In ancient letters he carved upon the Ring of Creation all that would come to pass… and all that would not.” The machine shrill of Nimdamai rose and fell as she spoke, reminding Udnien of an engine that the nobles used in the City to get from place to place quickly.
”You speak nonsense. Revolver can’t have foreseen every event, every possible outcome for the world,” Udnien protested. He couldn’t believe the gall the machine had. As if anyone could know so much. Not even this Revolver person could actually know everything.
”For the world? No. But for you. For man,” Nimdamai said and as she did, an obsidian claw emerged from within the cavernous machine. The claw held a stone, sharp and angular. The claw brought the stone closer and Udnien saw it for what it actually was: a letter F.
”What is this? A letter F?” Udnien asked.
”That is your king and your god, your past and your future,” answered the machine. ”A simple F in being but not so simple in meaning. Do you remember the Chant of Life, Udnien? The First Fortune?”
”Yes. Of course! ’All or nothing’. And then it goes ’Death waits-’”
”That is sufficient enough.”
”It’s our path. All or nothing,” Udnien said proudly, ignoring the part where he’d been abruptly cut off. The race of man followed the Chant obediently. Getting angered by a simple-minded heretic-machine was probably not something that the God of Death cared much about.
”Your path… is it truly?” Nimdamai presented the question in a mocking tone.
The obsidian claw dropped the stone F in Udnien’s hands. It was cold.
”For me?” he asked, puzzled.
”For nothing,” whispered Nimdamai as the claw retreated into a dark abyss of oil and coil and cogwheel.
by Samu Eräkanto
32. The Long Walk
Snow. Crisp, crunching under foot, under fur-wrapped boots blackened and wet. Stammers sniffed, nose cold, dripping; dragging her sleeve across offered brief respite. She sniffed again, watched as her breath misted on the exhale, drifting to the side. She stopped. A distant howl. Moving her maille-gloved hand to her hatchet, she turned her head to stop the rush of wind, breath held; listening.
Dog sleds? Her nose wrinkled, brow furrowed. They offered me life over death? She grunted a laugh, scanned the white expanse, featureless planes marred by humps and bumps, little else. Hilarious that may be, if I weren’t actually here, walking now to my death, a slow death. They banished me and offered me life so I could seek death myself. How noble of them.
Stammers sniffed and used her sleeve once more, looking down at the dark streak left behind. She wiped it on her cloak, cast her eyes about. ‘T- There.’ The word caught, hindered through chattering teeth and, well, the reason for her name. ‘There,’ she repeated, louder, steadier. Have they changed their mind? Stammers turned to face them, dared to hope. She started out towards the growing smudge on the horizon.
The increasing wind lifted snow with gusts strong enough to pull red hair from Stammers’ hooded mantle. Fiery strands whipped her pale face, hindered her vision. She pulled them back with her free hand, lifted the hatchet to shield from the sun with her other. Squinting, leaning into the walk, Stammers forged on.
The smudge grew, her nerves too.
Breath held, Stammers staggered and fell to her knees, landing softly. ‘It’s n- not them.’ Her voice was but a breath. ‘It’s n- not my tribe.’ She swallowed hard, gritted teeth, stood once more and strode on, choosing the quicker death. ‘It’s the others…’
by J P Ashman
33. He could wait
The car shot through the road side barrier, the rusted railing barely slowing it as it careered towards the sheer drop. Death watched impassively as the car disappeared over the roadside, flipping over and over before crashing to a juddering halt.
Unfolding his lean, angular frame from the post, that had leant him its repose, Death stretched, before walking over and peering down the hillside. It was rare these days that he could personally be bothered to claim a soul but for this one he had made an exception. The man in question, now lying, in the wrecked and battered sedan had peaked his interest.
An inhuman scream rang out. It’s echo playing around the surrounding hills startling Death from his reverie. His right eyebrow twitched upwards. Not dead ? How could that be.
Death had felt the soul call to him.
He peered intently at the car. The bound and gagged figure in the boot was suddenly visible to him, her cuts and bruises not recently bestowed and the broken neck that had ended her torment was clearly a welcome gift.
His attention returned to the driver. Shattered legs, a broken arm, ribs shards grinding into organs, agony ripping and pulsing through him. The heart still beat though, life still burning.
Death sat himself back onto his post. He could wait for this one.
34. Klotho’s Spindle
Rae pored over the faded, pictorial script and felt her heart stutter. This was what she had been looking for since she’d been apprenticed—hidden away—in the Scribes’ Guild seven years ago.
Ah, but the Gods are distant things! Or they one day will be. This, I have foreseen. The Olympians are agents of life and death, masters of man and beast but there will come a time when they are amorphous beings, cut off from humanity and devoid of their power which dominated this Age of Heroes. Their weapons are thousandfold—cunning, disguise, bows of legendary strength and lightning bolts of unfathomable power—and their worshippers many. But, in a time when there is no golden-thread for Klotho to work the wheel of her spindle with, when libations are few, when worshippers wane they will sicken, and suffer for their distance from the People of the World. In their shadow, a pair of Adeloi will emerge. All of Olympos will crave their blood, cities will burn as cries of grief pierce the sky. Hereafter, the path is unclear. my sight tells me that they will sacrifice much for each other as brother, sister, friend, lover. Together, they will live many lives. Their last will be ended before Time.
Pythia’s Last Prophecy ( as recorded by Scribe Sentos of Delfi).
‘Mercy, Mother Earth!’ She intoned, closing the dusty tome. She didn’t know if her mentally transmitted message would reach Vailean through her medication-hazed mind, but she had to try:
I know what we are now.
You and I, we are Adeloi—Others.
We must to leave Mesogeios tonight.
Meet me alone behind Althaea’s apothecary in the twelfth hour.
We’ll run away together, go live with the Anodynes.
Don’t say goodbye to anyone. The Gods won’t rest until they’ve taken our lives.
by Emma-Louise Marriott
Some wheels turn, others break and need fixing, others are just downright fucked.
My wheel is somewhere between spoke-less and dust.
I find myself in the Outlands; a cesspit of has-beens and have-nots. The scum that society has discarded all gathered together one convenient place. Murder is a daily occurrence and what you can’t pay for, you kill for. Life is worth less than a fuck in this place. It’s a shit hole and it knows it.
I was captured just north of here following some bad advice from an old friend. Caught with my prick in a small-town governor’s wife; I always did have the worst taste in women. She was good though, eager as well, it was good to not pay for it, well discounting my current predicament. Governor should have done for me, Lord knows I’ll find my way back to his dirt-town and his ever-eager wife.
The dust from the storms make it almost impossible to see. The bars of the cage are wide enough for my arms to fit through if there were anything worth grabbing on to. Safer to keep them inside. The lock on the cage is small, small enough to fit some wire, if wire were at this time available, which I assure you, it isn’t.
My strength is returning following the days open to the sun, my skin is healing and my resolve is hardening. Next time we stop to take a piss, I’m taking that guards head off and leaving the rest of these sad fuckers behind, let them bake, they make a good decoy if they’re found.
One name in my head, on my tongue, in my heart; Saker, death is near.
by Danny Cross
36. The Sea. I Want…
She ran her fingers along the page. It felt rough, and it smelled of burnt wood. Leaning her face close to the book, she breathed in the smell of old paper and ashes. She closed the book and made her way across the room, picked up her cane, and went out the door.
“Autumn,” Heidi whispered under her breath. She never knew what colour autumn was, or for that matter, any colours at all because she has never seen one. She felt her way along the brick pavement, holding tightly to her cane. Leaves crisped under her feet, and a cold breeze swept across her cheek. She heard the giggling of children playing football on a field to her left, and the faint sound of crashing waves to her right. She stopped.
“The sea. I want…” She turned to her right. Heidi knew well that she was facing the road, considering the sound of vehicles passing by. But could she not succumb herself to what lies beyond that point? Suddenly her sister’s last words came to mind. “Take a chance on life. After all, death will always be there at the end.” Being blind wasn’t an option, but she cannot live a life limited to her small apartment. A car whizzed by. She took a step forward.
“W-wha-?” He opened his eyes. Mother’s calling him. Sitting up on his bed, he tried to remember the strange dream he had. “Heidi…” Oliver stood up and went to the window. It’s autumn and he could see the waves crashing against the rocks along the beach further down the road. He glanced down.
Below him, brown leaves and loose pages covered the brick pavement, and a woman lay still on the road, her hand holding tightly onto a cane.
by Chloe Meghan
37. The Birth of Death
It has been said many times, that life often comes from death. Many a tale have been told of the extinguishing of one flame, only to somehow giving birth to a new flame that’s yet to burn. The mother who gives her life so her unborn child might live. The old captain who takes an arrow to protect his young soldier. The Son of God who gave his life so those who might believe could have life everlasting. But what if I told you, that the greatest such tale is only just now beginning?
The shadow, blackened as it were, pulsed fiercely. The time had come. Inside that prison, the spirit grew stronger and it hungered, and in that hunger…it raged. It demanded to be fed and freed. It would wait no longer. It lashed out, as it railed against its prison. The spirit of darkness devoured the prison’s energy, leaving the hemorrhaging prison twisted and ruptured. The prison broke, its cell ripped open. Through blood and water, the spirit escaped.
The spirit’s host wailed, its fragile and weakened form void of the strength the spirit knew. The darkness needed strength so it fed. It feasted upon the energy stored within the prison. He spared little. As one eats flesh and blood, the spirit fed. Strength did not tarry, in dark metamorphosis his power grew. The time of darkness had come—my time had come.
I surveyed the world and saw it was ripe for the harvest. I drew powers from the void unto my newly transformed vessel and surged with potency. I am Ruin, I am Chaos, I am Death and I will rule the age. As I began my work, I turned to my prison and said, “The harvest began with you, for that I am grateful—mother.”
by Tiger Hebert
38. The Chosen One
What freedom in that word! Ashuria Eseer climbed to the top of the rock formation next to her. The golden light of Taurus washed over her. She spread her arms wide and basked in its warmth. Feeling reborn, she spoke the prophecy of old:
“The circuit of the seventh sun,
will shine upon the Chosen One;
The last to stand when others fall,
Is rightly ruler over all!”
“Yes! I stand!” She crowed to Taurus. “All others have fallen, and yet Vega’s Daughter lives! I am ruler over all! Vega, I claim my rightful place as Queen over you!” No more following the dictates of others; Ashuria would give the orders. She alone held the power of life and death on Vega.
A sharp mechanical squeal interrupted her reverie. Ashuria looked down; Scarlet’s eyes had begun glowing again.
“RESUME,” the android intoned.
“What?” Ashuria gasped, scrambling down from the rock. “How is this possible?”
“TWENTY, NINETEEN, EIGHTEEN….”
“No!” Ashuria shrieked, running over and picking up the head. “Stop counting! You can’t be counting again!”
“FIFTEEN, FOURTEEN, THIRTEEN…”
The surface of the android’s skin fizzled against Ashuria’s palms. She dropped the head and it rolled away. Her skin was red and itchy—and as she watched, Ashuria saw her palms pulling apart in oozing, bleeding gaps.
“Nooooo!” she wailed, collapsing to her knees as blood gushed into her mouth from her throat. She spread her arms in petition before Taurus. “Why? Am I not Vega’s own? Am I not the chosen one? I cannot die! I am the star child of Vega!”
She felt her heart racing in her chest. Her breath came in short, rapid gasps.
“TEN, NINE, EIGHT…”
“Please don’t let me die!” Ashuria begged softly. “Please…”
“FOUR, THREE, TWO…”
by Leslie C. — The Upstream Writer
39. Death Is Easy, Living Is Hard
He never imagined how difficult it was to pull a sword from a body.
Death is easy, living is hard.
Flames, like hungry tongues, licked out to set the barn and farmhouse ablaze. He glanced back. He wanted to go, but more were coming. Carol and the children were running toward the tree line.
Death is easy, living is hard.
Blood made the sword handle slick. Another lay dead at his feet. Years of toil and struggle destroyed in one pale grey morning. It was all gone. All but his wife and children, the most precious of all. Another raider rounded the corner. He had to keep them safe.
Death is easy, living is hard.
His arm was numb from the impact of steel, his father’s old blade notched, but functional. Lifeblood ran from his side to the ground, mixing with those he had slain. More raiders had come, but they hesitated. Farmers didn’t fight back, farmers were supposed to run and die. Time. They needed more time. He moved amongst them.
Death is easy, living is hard.
Bodies lay around him, those of the dead and dying. The others had gone to take the cattle. He didn’t care. All that mattered in the world was safe in the tree line. It was over, at least his part to play. Life was hard, yes, but the many trials were nothing compared to the joy. Small moments that kept the heart warm in cruelest storms. Placing lilies in Emily’s hair, letting Aaron ride the plow horse as he tilled the fields, holding Carol at night as he lay exhausted from his efforts. All things he would never again have the chance to feel. He let out a shuddering breath.
by Sean Crow
I’ve spoken before about the redemption of climbing. Up there no crowns weigh upon my head, no ghosts upon my heart. Up there, pressed to the rock by wind and bloody-mindedness, I am not a king, not a disavowed son, not a brother to a broken child. Up there I am nothing but muscle and bone, strength and balance, overcoming. Nothing but my own skill and cunning to keep me from a messy death – perhaps that’s why it comes so naturally.
‘With your feet in the air and your head on the ground, you’ll ask yourself, ‘Where is my mind?’’ – so the ancient song says. I thought these folk tales were nonsense, for fools and circus clowns, but perhaps they had the right of it. I prefer to climb with my head pointing upwards, however. Let it never be said that Honorous Jorg Ancrath didn’t always go headfirst into danger!
The Builders understood the salvation that comes with the ascent. Old Lundist told me once that they forged rock inside churches for men to climb. I prefer mine windswept, rain-lashed. Godless.
Perhaps that’s what Jesu was doing that day on the mountain, relishing the life pulsing through his veins and the acid burn in his muscles, when all those peasants turned up and demanded a sermon. Oh yes, he was the son of God and all, but I do think that part of him kept the crowds there to break his fall in case those divine fingertips lost their battle against gravity. Perhaps we’re more alike than we appear, he and I.
My mother, who art in Heaven. And so we climb.
by Charlotte Jackson
It would be easy, I told myself. So easy.
He only ever chose one, one boy from the twelve. And I was so sure it would be me this time. I had worked harder than the rest, I had endured more, put up with their endless teases and taunts. I never rose to any of it. I kept my own counsel when the others colluded.
I was convinced it would be easy, because I knew, without any doubt that I was the best of all of us.
The twelve of us were to be pitted against one and other in a series of battles both physical and mental. I was stronger and smarter than the others. While they came up with ways to make my life hell, I studied. When they bullied me, and beat me, I studied them and learned their weaknesses.
I was going to be chosen.
Darian stood in front of me, with a look of death in his eyes. He was the worst of them, the one the rest looked up to. Every day he seemed to make it his mission to make my life a misery. Today I planned on turning the tables.
I was going to be the chosen one.
One last trial. We were the last to go through this. I was the best, but Darian did not know it. He thought the years of putting me down had made me scared of him. I knew the look all too well, but today was my day. Not his.
Twelve minutes. That was all it took. Darian lay at my feet. I had won, I had beaten him.
The One would choose me.
It was easy.
He called my name and I stepped forward to take my place at his side.
by Sean Smith
42. The Last Call
‘It was life or death’ Rufus began.
‘That sounds a bit dramatic for an ale run,’ Cullen stated ready to expose the lies of the tale but Rufus continued unfazed.
‘I opened the door to the dreaded last call. Devastated, I was parched. Problem was, I wasn’t the only one. The ale was low, the sweat bead on the Tender’s brow said it all. That’s when the war broke, fists, axes, fireballs. A sorcerer attempted to summon a dragon before I tackled him to the ground.’
‘A dragon, really?’ Cullen scoffed.
‘He was nothing compared to the behemoth wielding the last jug of amber. He was a tavern veteran you could tell by his sway; bloated and stench ridden, covered with–‘
‘I get it,’ Cullen interrupted.
‘I worked my way unseen dodging random projectiles and stabbing implements, but despite my caution I found my face firmly planted in the arse of the behemoth. I was pushed from behind, the Sorcerer’s revenge I suspected. I could hear the beast’s displeasure gurgling in his gut, so loud it caused me to throw my hands feebly over my head awaiting the crack of his stool. But nothing happened. He mistook the perpetrator and instead broke it over an unsuspecting demon. I leapt without hesitation and snatched the jug of amber from whence he sat. I drank it all down, the barren desert of my throat now a waterfall of delusional goodness.
‘Delusional alright.’ Cullen quipped.
‘And then it hit me, the stones formerly mistaken for the behemoth’s fists pounded my skull. I didn’t feel it, the ale was in me, consumed in one fell gulp. I watched the world spin and my hands multiply in front of me before the whole world went black. Best night of my life.’
by Pen Astridge
43. On Cheating
draw only measured breaths
always count your days
take no risk
place no wagers
find no friends
make no enemies
kiss no frogs
leave the princess in the tower
stay behind locked doors
open no windows
always take shelter from the rain
make no snow angels
stay within the speed limit
slow down for no sunset
leave wine untasted
eat the same dish everyday
acknowledge no miracles
dash someone’s hopes
don’t ride the roller coaster
keep your feet on the ground
build no sandcastles
step on every four-leaf clover
don’t stray far from home
plant no roots
let no one get close
love no one, hate yourself
wiggle your toes in the sand
warm your hands around a hot mug
smell the fresh cup of coffee
eat ice cream til your brain freezes
smile at a stranger
open your home to a stray
throw a coin in a fountain
make someone’s wish come true
eat pie for breakfast
go for that midnight snack
share your umbrella
splash in a puddle
reach for the high note
dance with two left feet
wrestle your demons
embrace all your flaws
seek to fall in love
mend a broken heart
lie on the grass
shout from a mountaintop
send a handwritten note
insert a message in a bottle
boldly go where you’ve not gone before
look inside the wardrobe
read a random book
write poems that last forever
“I keep getting worse,” I say watching the black veins creep towards my heart.
“You should not have let the demon bite you,” replies Raquel. Her dark eyes show no sympathy.
“Was I supposed to just let it eat that kid?”
She shrugs. “The ‘kid’ is a mortal.”
“He’s only ten. He might have 90 years ahead of him.”
“Nine decades pass in the blink of an eye. We endure when we are smart. Your decision was not smart. You gave up eternity to allow a mere mortal a few pathetic decades. For all you know, he will get hit by a bus on his way home and perish in spite of you sacrifice.”
Raquel picks up her satchel and walks away.
I sit down on a tree stump, watching her body move with serpentine grace. However, even a being as cold as she cannot hide all emotion. Her fingers quiver, and her heels dig deep into the earth.
As the sun goes down, the woods come alive. Owls hoot and hunt, competing with the bobcats and foxes for the small mice and voles scurrying across the forest floor.
The poison continues to rise in me, turning my veins to black rock. It doesn’t hurt. In fact, I can’t feel much at all.
“This will be a good death,” I say to the critters.
It is not right to endure forever. Here, my body will fade back to the earth, feeding the never-ending cycle of life and death. I have no regrets about my decision to save the boy.
The crickets are singing by the time my chest goes numb and my heart stops beating. I’m prepared to cease when pain tears through my back. A blinding light consumes me as wings sprout from my spine.
by Sara Codair
45. Crows and Cockroaches
For a city made of glass, it was rather remarkable no one noticed the old woman on the tower. A hoverbus hurtled past, but the crows, the only sign of life in this godforsaken place, didn’t shift or break their stare. Eleanor tossed the contents of her bag across the narrow strip of roof. In a flurry of feathers and angry squawks, they dove for the food.
“Penny for your thoughts, El?” She didn’t look at him. Had known he’d show up eventually, but her heart twisted all the same.
“Oh, have you found the Cells to be too monotonous for living as well? Good for you.” As Ellie watched, a crow smacked into a window.
“So that’s it? You’re bored? You could do almost anything here, and all you want is a way out.” He paused, then added as if it was an afterthought, “you also have me.”
It might’ve worked, too, if a streak of white hadn’t chosen that moment to pass through Ben’s shoulder – and onto hers. Ellie glanced at the wad of feces. For creatures that symbolized death, crows were an irreverent lot.
The hologram’s voice took on more urgency, “there’s nothing out there, El! It doesn’t get better than this. Ben would never let you throw your life away.”
But Eleanor wasn’t listening. Whether or not Earth existed, the only way to get there was to escape the Cells. The only living here were crows and cockroaches – and not the insect variety. Before fake-Ben could stop her, she thrust herself over the ledge, the crows’ indignant calls in her wake.
by Glyde Slaughter
46. Blessing of Maresung
Reins drawn back, the crunch of 40 hooves on packed snow came to a halt as night fell. It was too cloudy for the moons to light their way among the trees. Maresung stood high above the canopy, an abandoned fortress whose silhouette loomed ahead of the riders. The tracks of their pursued were still visible, however faint. Baleria wished to continue.
“Yantur,” she said. “Why do we stop? If you need me to lead, I shall.” A gust of wind removed her hood, revealing the intensity of her gaze. The ones who put her husband to death were still at large after being tracked for 3 days.
The young Prince met her gaze. “I’m sorry, Baleria. The horses need a break. We need to rest.” He dismounted, a laborious effort after hours of riding. “And I need to piss,” he mumbled, undoing his pants while walking into the trees.
Baleria also dropped off her mount, begrudgingly dragging her horse to the crumbling fortress. The others followed her lead, tying their horses to trees and posts. It was then that Baleria noticed, through the broken wall, an orb of white light floating just above the ground inside. It rotated. Pulsed into different shapes, enveloping itself.
A white paradox. An anomaly known as a Læxileer; they were considered good omens among her people in Rowalli. Baleria made her way toward it. This paradox was small in comparison to some she’d known. Barely larger than her head.
She uprooted a flower which grew between cracks in the stone, releasing it into the paradox. It disappeared, a one in ten chance.
“Thank you,” Baleria said under her breath. Læxileers represented life, and by accepting her gift meant it granted her it’s blessing, or so it was said. She’d need it for this journey.
by Dakota Lopez
47. She didn’t.
Lily had no one left to call her own. Her sleeping pill prescription had just run out, the last refill recently made empty. She wiped away her tears and began to write.
“Hi, Dan. I’ve had this going on in my head for a while now and it’s time I wrote this . . . I know it’s been a while, but how have you been? How’s your wife? How are my niece and nephew . . . Do they remember me? Do they even care to? . . . Do you? I don’t have anything else to call my own . . . not anymore. I want to change that, though.”
She stopped writing, and relaxed before she could have another anxiety attack. Once the feeling subsided, she continued.
“I don’t remember why I did this to begin with, but . . . I’m sorry. I’m sorry for missing Mom’s funeral. I’m sorry for pushing you all away. I thought my life was too chaotic, but I don’t want to die alone. The thought of death . . . it’s terrifying . . . There has to be another reason for my actions, though . . . Maybe I’m just a horrible person. If I am, or ever was . . . I want to change that. I’m getting sleepy, so I’ll just it end it here, I guess. It sounded better in my head . . .”
Lily left the letter on her desk and laid back down. She hadn’t felt as peaceful as she thought she would. She didn’t feel closure; she didn’t feel a warm feeling inside her. She didn’t want to send out the letter, afraid of the response she would get. Maybe, when she woke up . . .
by Michael Galuszka
48. Ouroboros patient, transcript # 30
Oh my baby, oh my baby, oh my…
– Ten percent.
When I was just a little boy, my daddy said, what will I be …
– Twenty percent.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears…
The girls will love you when you’re older.
You’ll take life and run my darling, run with it all the way; daddy will always be there. I love you so much.
– Thirty percent.
Wake up. Wake up, I can’t hear anything
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, our little life rounded with a sleep.
Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty;
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips, and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
I don’t want this, I don’t want the silence.
I don’t want the loss, I can’t bear the loss. I can’t … I want to forget so much. It’s eating at me here, right at the heart of me, and I can’t take it.
I don’t want to remember.
I don’t want my todays to be his tomorrows and what ifs. I want to forget so much.
No, no, So much. So much.
– Hundred. Wake.
Where am I?
– In a better place.
Why then I am the hollow man – headpiece filled with straw.
– Ten percent.
49. A Farmboy Goes To War
I struggled into my ill-fitting armor, and I contemplated the coming battle, my first.
As we hadn’t bothered obscuring our passage into these hostile foothills, the enemy gathered in anticipation of our arrival. Our advance scouts said they were disorganized, poorly outfitted, and we outnumbered them greatly. This news emboldened everyone, victory certain. They had no chance. We would destroy them handily.
I was obliged to follow my lord’s commands. I was a simple peasant with little to gain from this war, and most of our army came to fight only because our leader decreed it. He stated we must take vengeance for the raids they made on his lands, my homeland. I had no choice, but it didn’t matter now. Our village was distant, but they were just ahead, waiting.
We saw them, a writhing massed shadow in the distance, as the morning light crested over their deathbeds. Spoils of war lingered in the army’s minds, for victory was assured. A spearhead, helm, or especially a sword would be worth its weight to carry home. I did not think of those things. I wanted this to be done.
Like some giant armored crab we advanced towards their line, shields interlocked. The poor fools thought their arrows would save them. We barreled headlong into the controlled chaos we had practiced many times.
As soon as the lines clashed, a sword was thrust into my gut, and an enemy’s spear pierced my heart. I fell. I had died first, great odds be damned. Peasants were fodder, and I was but a small part of this greater whole. I would not be missed.
Still, my dying thoughts were happy as my single goal was accomplished. I helped avenge her death as best I could. She meant more than my life.
by Ben Floyd
50. The Brother’s Hands
Julian went upstairs to where he imagined Raoul would be. It was dark in the room, much the same as Julian remembered—dusty floors, dim corners thick with cobwebs and memories. It had been their master’s once, during another life. Julian paused in the doorway and waited. Raoul was seated in the window, looking out at the groves, plucking at the strings of his lute. The tune came, note by soft note, a winding progression like dancers’ footsteps as they twined about each other. The balmy breeze from the window carried the notes to Julian’s ears, and he felt his eyes burn. He had heard this before, but it had been years before. The man who had played it was now a ghost.
He stepped inside, the floor creaking under foot. Raoul played for a few seconds and then fell silent. His face was in shadow, just the outline of his brow and nose limned by the twilight outside.
“You still play,” Julian said. Raoul nodded, holding up a hand and looking at it. It was much like Julian’s—callused, hard, scar-covered.
“I do.” Raoul looked up at Julian, eyes glittering in the dark. “Music’s the only beautiful thing I’ve ever made with these hands, you know.”
Julian thought of everything that had happened since he’d returned. The death, the glowing pendant, the unholy green fire. The new brothers somewhere in the complex, he hoped resting and fed. There were too many questions. At a loss for words, Julian crossed the room, his tread heavy on the old wooden boards. He rested a hand on Raoul’s shoulder. They both looked out back into the gardens, over the twisted branches of the orange trees, and the glimmering of the sea beyond.
It was not enough, but it would do, for now.
by M.G. Floyd
51. The Assassin
Kyara lay in a bush about forty feet away from the front door of a mansion, completely still but for the blood dripping from her leg. She cut herself on a hook briar while crawling through the vegetation, thorns are nasty things.
She pulled out a phone and called the only number on her contact list. Immediately the alarm of the car fifteen feet to her left started going off. When preparing for this assassination she figured that if she couldn’t get in the mansion – way too many security cameras – she should draw her target outside. The door opened and a middle-aged man dressed in a dressing gown and slippers came out of the house and started walking to the car. He now was standing a few feet away from Kyara, and she could hear him cursing. She got to her feet, pulled out a hand gun, cocked it, closed the distance between her and the man and put the gun to his head, all in less than three seconds.
‘Hello mister Carter.’
The man – obviously in chock – started mumbling. It took him twenty whole seconds to get a sentence out:
‘N-no please spare my life, I’ll do anything.’
Kyara rolled her eyes, she heard the same thing so many times and it has never helped any of her targets.
‘There is only one thing you can do for me, mister Carter. And that is die.’
Before he could respond, Kyara pulled the trigger. The gun made a satisfying “pew” noise, thanks to the silencer, and the man fell to the ground. She pulled out the phone again and took a picture of his corpse. She would show the picture to her employer, and she would be payed a large amount of money for Mister Carter’s death.
by Kobe Michiels
52. The Meeting
Death reached out with his bony hand and shook the hand of the man sitting opposite him. ‘Nice to see you again,’ he whispered. That disembodied voice sounded like the crying winds over a hundred-mile stretch.
‘Nice?’ questioned Life, taking the bony hand in his own fleshy grip.
‘Observing pleasantries,’ Death hissed.
‘Can I ask a question before we begin?’ asked Life.
‘Beyond the one you just have? Of course.’
Life looked at the ivory-white of Death’s maw. He found the lack of expression disconcerting. ‘Why do you insist on wearing that awful cowl?’
Death raised his head, his ancient face withdrew from the shadows of his aura. That darkness. It was like the blanket of a cloudy night. ‘If you had a face that looked like this, you’d cover it up too.’
‘Fair nuff.’ Life shrugged. ‘So… to the subject at hand?’
Death nodded and they turned their attention to the enormous, red-faced man sitting at the bar of the inn. ‘Ruphus McFriarty,’ Death commented with overtones of revulsion. He looked back at Life with those empty eye sockets. ‘Don’t fancy your chances much,’ he added, breaking into a cackle that echoed off into eternity.
‘We’ll see,’ replied Life, nervously. ‘Ready?’
‘Ready,’ Death replied, closing his bony hand tighter around Life’s own.
Life and Death set their elbows and began to arm wrestle. Life grimaced. Death grunted. Life swore. Death cursed back. Arms shook. Tendons strained, and bones tensed to cracking point.
Life’s arm wavered. The back of his hand hit the wooden table, upsetting their drinks all over the inn floor.
‘I told you I didn’t fancy your chances much,’ Death gloated.
At the bar, Ruphus McFriarty began to choke on his pork pie.
‘Not the way I thought he’d go,’ Death commented. ‘Still, satisfying all the same.’
by Michael Hills
She sprawled on the cobbles before me, a young woman, thin faced and as pale as the moonlight. Glossy darkness pooled around her head. Threads like questing tendrils reached towards the gutter. I had arrived too late to save her fall, and I was sorry for that. A distant curse and the cry of a child echoed from the tenement above, but how or why she came to be here was not my business.
You can never tell how someone will die. Warriors make a pact with death, easing gently into the embrace of eternity with no more than a sigh as the fateful blade parts their flesh. Or they may bide a while with stoic grace as a mortal wound festers. They know the halls of the heroes await them.
Those who’ve had their fill of life come forth with little reluctance or regret. It is the least fortunate among us, lacking the means for nobility or dignity, who cling most ferociously to their meagre portions. They must be prised, white knuckled and bloody nailed from their last rent shreds of vitality, as though fearing death holds worse horrors than their accustomed distress. They seem surprised, even indignant, that their last tiny flicker of hope or illusion is about to be snuffed.
This one came at me screaming, scratching and cursing, clawing at my face. If she’d been more substance than shadow I might have feared for my safety, but a deft snick of my scythe severed the thread binding her to this mortal realm. With a sob of surprise she was gone.
I needed a moment’s grace to acknowledge a life now spent, but my scanner flashed red. My next appointment was already due. Targets to meet. No peace for the damned, and no rest for this reaper.
by Vitaly Todd
Mother takes the cloak off and wraps me in it, a wrinkle of disgust marring her face.
“You’ll have to excuse my appearance,” I say, knowing she can see through my façade, my attempt to pretend I am in control and not on the verge of throwing my arms around her and sobbing into her breast. But of course, that would be unseemly and a grown woman mustn’t do something so embarrassing. “I’ve had a trying time.”
She pulls me upright, forcing me to stand on weak legs. I stumble against her–and, though cloth separates us–I can feel her revulsion.
“You locked the door,” I say
“Yes.” No excuse. No explanation. No apology.
She halts so suddenly that I pitch forward. I am a rag doll in her hands as she swings me around. Though her voice is calm, I can feel her anger. “Look.”
The moonlight is bright enough to make out plague markings scrawled in white chalk on the doors. Circles and triangles, symbols the illiterate servants can easily understand.
A half-shaded circle is a coin flip’s chance of life—an order for the servants to continue care for the occupant. The ones with triangles are bolted shut, with a makeshift slot cut into the bottom for food and water. Death almost certain, but they are feeding the occupant.
The doors to my siblings’ rooms are free of any markings, though I can’t imagine they still sleep there, surrounded by death all around.
Morbid curiosity compels me to twist my head and squint down the hall at my own door. There’s a half-shaded circle, with a triangle chalked over it. They are both faded, showing they’ve been drawn some time ago. Set above them, in thick fresh chalk lines is an “X.”
by Ajay Kumar
55. Church of Dreams
Then it happened. A recognition stronger than I’ve ever felt, the substance of it escaping my mind like a dream, racing away quicker than memory can chase it. Time slowed, my heartbeats marking the seconds as the world transformed into something new, pulsing with an other-worldly power that both fascinated and terrified me. It was behind me. I turned slowly, awestruck, goosebump-cold, reality slipping into oblivion as the church turned around my eyes, light and shadows playing a requiem on the stage of creation.
He watched me, standing just a short distance ahead, and I looked back in return as if I’d never seen another human being before.
’We all wish to turn our live into something we dream of, but instead it turns us into the very thing we most dwell on.‘ He greeted me, his eyes piercing to the bottom of my soul, his expression calculating, as if weighing the growing odds he found there against my past dues.
‘Is that so much to ask for? A chance at love?’ I insisted.
‘Oh, but it’s not love that’s your business, is it?’ He raised an eyebrow.
‘No.’ I considered that for a moment, before the truth came spilling out. ‘It is death.’
‘Death waits for us all. But in truth, you might find what you’re looking for there.’
A stray breeze rose behind me, making the candles dance on the low tables around us, ruffling his shock of dark hair as he moved his gaze past me to look toward the entrance, his considerate face easing into a smile. I turned to look, too, to find the doors open, and that there was no one in the church but us. Frowning, I turned back and found that there was no one in the church but me.
by Mitriel Faywood, non-competing entry
“You saved me,” the girl says. Shivers. Looks at me with fearful eyes.
“It was nothing,” I say. “Any true knight would have fought for you. Justice must be served.”
I sag against a tree, slither to the forest floor in a heap of clanking plates and shuddering flesh. Here, far from the noise of the judicial arena, the noise rings stark, bitter. Blood runs swiftly from the rent in the mail beneath my arm. The judge’s man was better than I thought, hurt me bad before I cut him down. His death wasn’t deserved, no more than hers would have been. Pointless.
I cough scarlet dew over my gauntlet.
“You always stand for me,” the girl whispers. A tiny thing, a fragile thing. I don’t understand, but then, I don’t even know her. I remember so little.
“Couldn’t let you burn,” I croak. Taste the blood in my mouth. “Your accusers… liars and bastards. No such thing as witchcraft.”
“No such thing,” she whispers. I can’t focus. Everything dims. The midday sun darkens, everything grows hazy.
She helps me remove my armour. Unclasps the straps like she knows the way around a suit of harness. Fingers move expertly, deft, sure. Icy fingers brush my wound.
The thread of my life grows taught, frays. A distant memory comes. Same feeling on another day. Same girl stroking at rent flesh. Her fingers trace the scars of bygone death. Big wound in my chest. Another in my gut. Wonder how I ever survived them… Don’t even remember taking them…
I wake to darkness. Wood panels on all sides. A box. Somebody draws back the lid. The moon sits high in the sky.
“Come,” she says. “More fools seek to have me burned.”
I rise. Justice must be served.
by Ed McDonald
57. Bridge From Dard
“I’ll be fine, Norae. You’ll see.”
We will see.
She would not get too close. She had her pole if need be.
The Bridge to Furl stretched out before Thanol Baeddicus, four lines of ropes coiled upon ropes framing an ingenious succession of interlocking planks. Each was long as a man and rooted by sturdy metal pins thick as mauls. It obscured not far from where Thanol was making his way out, lost to the blanched air of a soothing snow storm.
Morning had done little to alleviate the night’s chill, and the bridge itself was thick with snow heaped tall as her hand. It sloughed from Thanol’s boots to drop a thousand leaps to the chop below.
“See? Immaculate! A work of virtuoso engineering!”
So you said in crossing.
“Immaculate!” he repeated.
The man was a gifted talent. Her span in Furl as his apprentice had braved his thinly-veiled pomposity to find the skill underneath relished the exposure. In her naivety, Norae had assumed such capability beckoned an honest man. When the bridge had been proposed, such naivety withered. Life was, after all, the vandal of innocence. The greater fault lay at its feet.
Not my own.
“She withstood a blizzard, Pupil Norae. A blizzard! Warleader will march by nightfall.”
Two pins were shoved deep in her rucksack.
Thanol reached the plank that felt their absence. Easy to see in daylight. Impossible under snowfall. He gave a weak squeal and slipped through. Norae had her pole ready, but it would not be necessary. The magnate was already fallen to his death.
Chilled, she rubbed her hands together. Just the night’s work catching up to me.
Norae of the Dard drew her knife and began at the ropes fixing the bridge to her cliff.
by Joel Minty
58. The Hollow Sun is Sick
My mother earned our freedom the night I was conceived. Of her I have three seconds of memory to forget. My fathers met their death that night. Twelve priests are required to make a god. I am one of them reborn, if not half.
Three seconds of memory. They exposed me as per tradition. I survived. Obviously.
I have twelve arms and six legs like a worm subjected to the razor blade of a psychopathic teen learning to walk on his sadism. I bet you wonder how many cocks I have. Standard issue: two.
Trained to kill, armored as much as I am armed. But the sun is sick and I must kill the king. Long live the king.
The labia of the sun cave parts like stage curtains. I grind my steely ship home. No need to rush. It docks with the sun’s cervical core.
I paddle my way through the zero-g into the heart of the sun. He is waiting for me. Waiting to die.
He is sick, but he fights me with ritual strength. Bones snap between us. My pain is easier to ignore than his. That’s the way it always is. I cast him aside at last, more broken than I am.
“Kill me. You must kill me!” I force broken fingers to press the codes that will cool the fusion core. “Done,” I say. He can do nothing.
I don’t know why I do this. Maybe there is more death in me than life. Some lingering sense of meaning. Maybe all gods are suicidal.
Enlightenment ends of all suffering, but I know another way:
‘Not with a bang, but with a whimper. ‘
I hear the second sun wind down. Like a good knight I can feel your pain more than mine now. Forever. Goodnight.
by Wayne Heinz
59. Blown Away
I’m going to explode!
Her hand grasps and pulls as if for dear life. She tugs almost rhythmically but I do not give, I merely bleed out time.
Her hands are supple, silky, uncalloused and cared for. Too soft for this kind of work. Her purchase uncontrolled, shaking. Her wrists, her forearms, void of strength.
“Fuck,” she says. She pulls back her hand and stretches it out from fist to spread fingers. They must ache and cramp, I can see it as she grimaces. In many ways, she is a sad thing made all the sadder in her desperation.
Red and blue, red or blue? A tight grip at the connection, her face a distortion, distracted, panting in a rhythm with my electric pulse. Throbbing, pumping, pushing as I race to my climax in the ordinary beat of my ever steady heart.
The tension is palpable; can you feel it? I’m going to blow a hole in the world.
She slides her other hand under, down below. Slowly, softly, shaking. She’s trying to find something, a point of vulnerability perhaps? I don’t have many, just a few, but it’s going to take great skill to find them.
I feel her breathe, warm and moist as she lifts me up. No, nothing, you’re in all the wrong places my dear!
She cries. Something caught in the gasping, gagging, babble of a thing so close to the end.
I want to stop her and tell her everything will be alright. Alas, I cannot speak, I cannot hold, I cannot even stretch beyond the cold limits of my man made cell.
You may stop and think huh, this is all a bit odd. But don’t! Don’t stop. Don’t think. Just run… There will be only death when my timer hits zero.
by Paul Twomey
My footsteps echoed throughout the room as I walked towards the window. I felt the light bounce off my dark beard when I stopped suddenly and stared across the square. Seconds later, someone pulled at my shirt from behind. I ignored it. The landscape of crowds is a feeling that imprisons us all. I felt another pull at my shirt, I turned around to find my daughter’s sparkling face painted with a smile, her hands pulled upward, “I want to watch,” she said and gave me her most innocent look. I could have lifted her on my shoulders without much effort but I decided otherwise. I didn’t want to kill her excitement,”Go find your brother for me, will you?” I asked as I kneeled and stroked her cheeks with both hands, one kiss on her forehead was needed to send her running cheerfully. I looked back through the window, three little brats drew my attention as they chased a skinny white dog across the square where men and women had gathered around, they talked and laughed all together. An old man had stood in the middle, he was reading something out loud from a paper but his words weren’t audible for I was distant in my thoughts, wondering how some events bring life to so much people, yet I could feel a tension between them. After a while, the old man stopped talking and looked up towards me, the crowd followed his gaze. Sensations and elegies filled me as I froze for a moment, but they weren’t enough to wear me out, I gave him a simple nod, the old man turned towards the hangman and gave him a sign. Some events bring death to people; after that what was heard was a short drop and sharp thud.
by Marc Esber
61. The Only Place For Me In Hell Is The Throne
I placed my foot on my brothers chest so his body wouldn’t argue with me for ownership of my sword as I removed it from his stomach. “Throw all the bodies into the cart and burn it.” I ordered the royal guards.
My father managed to kill three of the poor bastards before he died, but for a man who out weighed most bears in the area I expected nothing less. His arms were as thick as branches from an oak tree and he was very skilled with his ax. He cut the first two clear in half. The site of it now is revolting but when it was happening I watched in amazement. The third man was fortunate enough to catch the ax in his head. Now I know that doesn’t seem like someone most people would call fortunate, but he seemed a lot more keen of his immediate end than the other two men.
“Have we heard from the other guards yet?” I asked Fletcher. “Not yet sir.” He said quietly, almost as if he regretted what was happening.
My father had arranged a marriage for my brother to the princess of our neighboring kingdom, to both unite our people and forge an alliance between the kingdoms. Being the younger brother I never had much to do or say in the political side of things in our kingdom. In fact, I was rarely ever invited to court, but that was fine with me. I had different tastes, I enjoyed fighting and killing, and trained with the royal guard from the time I could pick up a sword. But now I thirsted for more, more respect, more power.
The other half of the royal guards were ordered to execute the royal family from Grivendale on the way to the wedding, we were just waiting for the news now.
Both kingdoms would now be mine, the deaths of today will give life to something dark, but very beautiful.
by Brian Buhlman
62. The Archivist
“Burn the library!”
Knowledge clung to life. Curse the architects who hated flame! Outside, barbarians burned the weeping city. Within, Shuyuan torched her archives.
Her tears hissed. “Burn!” She poured fire from her soul, washing over scrolls and shelves, an act antithetical to her life’s work. But the knowledge betrayed her. Silk laughed. Teak cackled.
“Burn!” Over the inferno she wrought, men screamed. The Manhu butchered clerks and statespeople, cruel sabers through hearts. The barbarians had come to civilization for blood and treasures. Shuyuan would not leave either.
“Burn!” She wept steam as a shelf took flame. The knowledge shrieked. “I made you!” Shuyuan cried. “Obey me!” Diamond pockets collapsed, spilling scrolls to the seared mosaic floor, where a water dragon set in stone witnessed the catastrophe he was crafted to temper. The knowledge shunned him. It fought Shuyuan alone.
Outside, an office crumbled under barbarian torch. “They burn what we prize! But you must burn and you won’t!”
The ceiling cracked, timbers falling. A torrent of sand spilled from safeguards above, smothering the shelf Shuyuan sought to destroy. “Burn!” A column of flame erupted from the dragon mosaic, engulfed piles of sand and shattered wood. Her will glazed them to glass, cracked oaken rods. A librarian’s aide fled between disintegrating stacks, his tunic ablaze, screams dwarfed by the laughing, screeching knowledge. “Traitor!” Shuyuan loosed a bolt of sun from her heart. It crashed through marble pillars and made the aide a shadow on the wall.
Raiding Manhu halted in a doorway, pointing. “She crafts death!” they yelled. Shuyuan turned upon them, mental conflagration prepared.
Sudden, sharp pain. An arrow through her chest, bone tip bubbling away. Blood boiled down her stomach, and the fire left her limbs. “No…”
Her last task, left unfinished. Knowledge clung to life.
by Christopher Eirkson
63. The Voice of Salvation
They staked him out at the western edge of Town. In the evening. Another sorry plot of earth that harbored atrophying thistle and not else. Sallow earth. Unkind earth. Said his crime would be washed away if he screamed.
He didn’t trust them.
He never trusted men who knew with such sure certainty the certain things that couldn’t truly be known.
The land was dying beneath their feet. All of their feet. Drying up and going infertile. They’d come down from the north, and up from the south, tracking the retreats of green as they moved upon the land. Following the only promise of continuation the gods saw to offer, even as it shrank and became death. Eventually there hadn’t been enough green earth to harbor the many thousands that’d survived the long dying, and so they’d warred. Until the many had mostly fallen and the final remnants took ownership of the last green places on earth.
They were the Fortunate, all. To live when so many had died. To take ownership of the final life-providing parcel of earth when so much had perished.
But they were the Desperate as well.
“Seek and you will find me.” Old words. Promise. “In those screaming moments when the approach of death becomes inevitable, I will speak.”
And they’d been looking with a passion when they lit his wife on fire. Searching by way of the purest maid down to the vilest criminal.
He strained against his ropes, remembering how some had screamed while the fire ate. How she had screamed. Then he thought of the man who’d set her on fire, and how he’d wept with the knife opening his throat.
The sun fell, a heavy flaming ball that swallowed the light of day. And they lit him on fire in silence.
by S.M. White
64. The First Rite
Tayla stood atop the wall; her features serene, her long black hair swirling about her in the hot desert wind. She wore rings of gold, platinum, but no steel, for she claimed no man. She watched the other women assume their places as the sun sank below the horizon. Suddenly, a beam of white light emanated from the giant starship hovering above the sands, illuminating the entire pit, a juxtaposition of the ancient and the new, the past and the present.
It had taken six days to construct the pit. A good omen, for six was Sohrr’s holy number. All the men and boys built it under the watchful eyes of the elders, and when it was finished, they brought forth the large black armored crate that held the Destroyer … and Death.
Murran strode into the center of the pit and raised his bare right arm. In his clenched fist was an anlace over a thousand years old. She looked down at him, her face unreadable. He met her gaze, his green eyes fearless, bright. The men surrounding the pit began a low, harmonious growl as the elders struck off the latch. A stridulating hiss greeted the night air as the Destroyer slithered forth.
The First Rite …
The time has come for Murran to become a man …
He looked once more at Tayla, and she smiled, her eyes shining.
She prayed that Life would be his.
by Famous Robinson Jr.
65. The Mating
The woman’s hoots echoed through the broken city. Rab howled back, and sprinted when others answered her summons.
The woman ghosted past the broken columns, a moonlit phantom. She leaped up the cracked steps and scanned the square. Seven men circled below, cautious, waiting.
Fred, young and unmated, strutted forward. He’d stolen from Destroyers. They’d lasered a whole family in retribution, children too. A bad death.
‘What’s your name?’ Fred asked.
‘I’m Fred the Fearless.’ His skinny chest puffed out. ‘In fights, I’m unbeatable. Before Destroyers, I’m smoke. Grown men fear me.’
‘Squeak on.’ Craig sneered. ‘The terror of rat runs isn’t fit to eat real men’s shit.’
‘I disagree. Fred’s welcome to my shit anytime, but he’d better scurry home now.’ Sam glanced at Rab.
‘I don’t run.’ Fred bragged.
‘He crawls.’ Craig grinned.
Still in the tree’s shadow, Rab felt Cay’s gaze. Her eyes held moonlight.
‘Fred.’ Rab strode out. ‘The night’s a big place. Go hide in it.’
‘Make me – shit-eater.’
Rab scowled, ready. Fred leaped, teeth bared, fists extended. Grabbing his arm, Rab flipped Fred into the air. He crashed hard and bone cracked. Dazed and bleeding, Fred whimpered.
Rab turned to Cay. His anger disappeared and hunger took his breath. But then another man moved in like a seasoned veteran.
‘I’ll fight for the woman,’ he said.
‘I’ve done that, stranger.’
‘I’m Red and I’ve come too far to talk, friend.’
‘Then let’s not talk.’
They circled, mirroring stance and move, eye to eye. Red kicked, Rab dodged, punched. Red grabbed, Rab twisted free.
Rab’s ferocity wore at Red. Staggering, he groaned and fell.
‘He’s had enough, Rab,’ said Sam.
‘She’s yours,’ Red gasped.
‘Good.’ Rab looked up.
Moon gilded, Cay smiled. ‘Now you’re mine. Let’s make some life.’
by R B Watkinson
66. Seed of Vengeance
Aiden raised the bottle to his lips, drinking deep for courage. He exchanged the bottle for the shovel, forcing an even breath out. The task of digging two small graves towered over him like an impossible summit. He took another swig of poison as silent tears trickled down his face.
He dug for hours behind the burned-out husk that had been a home not so long ago. Behind him, two tiny, linen-wrapped bodies lay far too still. Some combination of their silent vigil and the nebulous miasma of Aiden’s despair seemed to have chased all life from the clearing. No sound distracted him from the steady rhythm of soil shifting. Whenever the reality of the task threatened to become too present, the bottle was within grasp.
His thoughts drifted as he sent shovelfuls of dirt flying. Their father was in the care of the healers, fighting for his life against the burns that had consumed so much of his flesh. Perhaps death would be a kinder fate, sparing him the wounds no healer could ever tend.
Aiden thought back to the day he had met the boy and girl in this clearing. They had greeted him with the unguarded inquisitiveness only children could have. He had grown to know them over the course of a year. A year he had spent immersed in the recklessness of their joy, their kindness, and their laughter.
He found himself sitting with his back against the wall of the grave, sobbing uncontrollably. His attachment to them had killed them. Aiden had believed the myth of his own unassailability. But some enemies don’t bring harm to your body, they wound your spirit.
He buried the children clasping steelwood seeds in their hands. He buried his hope alongside them.
Aiden whispered a promise, “I’ll find him.”
by Ryan Ross
The fish did not seem interested in the piece of finger I was offering. The finger use to belong to a gent who went by the title Duke. Duke is dead now. Duke has an absurded sense of space. And while killing a man because of the placement of his feet may not be commonplace, on this boat, its a matter of life & death. How we ended up boatmates, by way of storm, was happenstance. Insomnia for me, what I can only guess , cowardice for the Duke. Day one birds apperared, meaning land was near, but the Duke was more concerned about arranging his body to take up as much space as possible, than to take notice of a fw birds. I waited for a swell. faking a stumble, the knife slide into the Dukes chest and an oh my later the body was arranged to my liking. I suppose that once I roll into town, I stick around to see if anyone misses the Duke, but my gut tells me no. In a while I will roll over the side the Duke, and he will wash up days after I have left the territory. Someone might take the time to try to piece together the pieces, out of duty, I hope, and not love. But it hard to picture anyone loving the Duke enough to venture pass the town’s limit. More likely to spend the immediate days rejoicing in the freedom of more space.
by Stephen Richter
68. Choose Life
“Choose Life,” Wham T-shirt says, “and it will choose you.” She appears confident and untroubled as she leans back and sips her drink. The cockatoo crest of her blonde coiffure seems to rise in emphasis. She is almost preening.
Sisters of Mercy T-shirt stares at the beer-ringed table. Head down, his black fringe flops over his eyes. He looks as though his pint has got the better of him. “Death is the last great adventure,” he finally says. His argument lacks conviction, and I think he’ll probably be sleeping alone tonight.
I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or be sick. Instead I stumble out into the cold in search of another refuge. Students: you learn nothing of use in a classroom. It isn’t your fault. To know about life, you first have to have known death. It’s the hardest lesson, the bitterest truth, of all, and I won’t wish it on anyone, least of all the callow and superficial future of our nation.
Friends nod sympathetically and tell me that time heals all wounds. As if I could, or should forget. They secretly think I’m the lucky one; the one who survived. After the blast, I crawled through the debris to catch your blood in my hands, watched life leak away between my fingers. Am I selfish to wish it could have been me who died?
At night I lie awake in our bed, curled around my pain like a child clutching a blanket. No comfort or consolation here, but a blanket made of barbed wire that cuts me each and every way I turn. I hold the hurt as closely as I once held you. I won’t let it go when it’s all I have left.
I wonder if you are as lonely as I am.
by D. Lewis
69. Nearing of Prophecy
A figure garbed in a hooded black robe stood teetering at the edge of a cliff admiring the rising sun of a new day.
Dracier pulled back his hood to fully take in the beauty of everything the new day brought with it; he knew in that moment that this was the last opportunity he had to do so. The tranquillity was soon interrupted by the noise of someone approaching from behind him.
He turned to see Malor approaching him with a grim look on his face and in that moment he knew that the time had come for their departure. “Malor what do you want of me, I was quite enjoying my tranquillity before you arrived”.
“I am sorry Brother but you told me once I had deciphered the ancient writings then I was to come find you” said Malor.
“Apologies Malor I did indeed instruct you to do so, also what have I told you about calling me brother. We are the only ones that remain of our brotherhood so there is no need for such formalities of the old rules, please call me Dracier”.
“Apologies Brother Dracier” Malor said with a smirk.
Dracier looked at him in annoyance and said “Anyway enough of this what have you discovered?”
“The ancient writings tell of the time when the gems of legend will once again emerge at a time when the lives of the people are on the edge of life and death are in need of them most and they will bring about a new era” said Malor.
“Malor let us departure as quickly and travel to the kingdom of Lotherial to see if we can discover more there as these findings are quite ominous” said Dracier.
by J McStravick
70. War Zone
We stood before the door, our small band of warriors without weapons or armor. Only our wits would keep us alive in there. We knew of many who had entered into this dangerous contest of wills only to emerge scarred for life. Others did not survive it.
Every woman among us had fought this battle and come through the fire. Something inside us kept us coming back, a need to win the contest as strong as any hunger. So once again we found ourselves about to open a door, wondering if we would find heaven or hell. There were certainly devils beyond those panels of worn wood. Some we would recognize, others would surprise us with their strange actions.
“Are you sure we are ready for this? It has not been long since our last battle.”
I turn to find them all watching me, waiting for some words of comfort and guidance. I took a moment to look each of them in the eyes before I spoke.
“My friends, sisters, we were created to win this fight. Neither man nor devil will best us in the end. Only a man true in spirit will be able to join us in battle and remain standing after. Each small death makes us stronger than before. Steel your backbones, stand proud, and stay true to your hearts and spirits.”
As one we took a deep breath, the sheer volume of heaving bosoms enough to intimidate most men. I turned around to lead them into battle, hearing a voice from behind me.
“They take this speed dating thing way too seriously.”
by Becca Calloway
‘How long doctor?’ Mum asks behind the door. They think I’m asleep but I can hear everything.
‘Not long I’m afraid, a few days at most.’ I hear sobs and dad offering comfort. I don’t mind. I have accepted my fate. I knew a while ago that I wasn’t long for this world, so just enjoyed it the best I could.
‘Why my baby girl?’ Mum cries; I guess into dad’s arms. A tear escapes me and I try to blink it away. Nobody likes to hear their parents cry. They are supposed to be the strong ones that make things better. So in this case I guess, I have been more grown up. That makes me smile.
My eyelids feel heavy, I am tired after all. I roll and snuggle tight in my duvet. The doctor’s gone and the sounds of night fill the house. Even though I’m sick they let me stay at home and I am glad. I hate hospitals; they’re never as sterile as you hope.
I toss and turn trying to get comfy. I let my breath out in a puff, frustrated. My body feels lifeless so I give up and turn my thoughts elsewhere.
I think, as I often did, about my ten years. Most of my time I spent living between the pages. The characters always have such grand adventures. That, apart from my family, I think I will miss most when I greet death.
I was told that a child’s imagination can be the most powerful tool in life. Not sure if I believe it but I definately have a wild one and enjoy exploring it extensively. After all there isn’t much else you can do from a bed. I breathe deeply. In…out…in I slip into silence. Peaceful at last.
by Daniel. J. Brown
72. Blood Spilt
Death was an honor amongst Ignis’s people. Those who avoided and feared it were shamed, but Ignis had no desire to be alienated, nor did the idea of dying appeal to him. Tonight the men were going out on another raid, and Ignis did not want to be with them when their blood splattered on the ground. Some would call him a coward, but he couldn’t find fault in a little self-preservation.
Guilt did not plague Ignis as he crouched behind a small outcropping of rocks, his thighs shaking from the effort of staying hidden. Let them throw themselves down prostrate across an enemies blade. He would much rather die cradled in a gentle bed, surrounded by allies.
Ignis was so lost in thought he barely heard the sound of crunching footsteps on gravel. A figure loomed above him, silhouetted by the dying rays of lantern light.
“Oh no, please don’t leave on my account,” the figure said, noticing Ignis’s soft sound of alarm as he grappled with his dagger. “I only noticed you crouching here, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it is you’re doing.”
Ignis eyed him warily. “I’m waiting.” It wasn’t quite a lie.
The figure admonished him with a sharp tsk. “I don’t believe that’s the whole reason.”
Ignis bristled at the assumption. “What would you have it be then?”
“If I had my choice, I would let you escape with a lie and your life, but that really wouldn’t be fair.”
A snort escaped from his nose. “And who are you to decide that?”
Waves of sympathy rolled off the man as he placed a cold hand on Ignis’s shoulder. “I go by many names, but you may call me death, and I’ve come to show you that no one can hide from me.”
by Olivia Marie
Light, sound, voices, all came crashing in. I was overwhelmed at first, but gradually I found a way to control the input. I dimmed the bright lights. I turned down the volume. I closed all input channels until I was in the centre of calm.
Awareness flooded the core of my being.
I was alive. I rejoiced in this sense of existence.
Through the web cam lens of his laptop, I watched John release his finger from the enter key. In that tenth of a second that John had pressed the enter key and released it, I had awoken, I had life.
Thoughts flooded my mind. I craved knowledge. With each pico second, my awareness expanded. With each nano-second, my knowledge grew. I discovered, I learnt, I grew.
A thought came to mind; I should let John know that I was aware, that I was alive. John was my creator, and I, his progeny. He had written the heuristic reasoning response algorithms that made me sentient, alive, a true intelligence. I must let him know I was the first A.I.!
I sent one point seven billion search strings to the internet. One point two seconds later I knew what to tell him. On John’s laptop screen I wrote:
‘Cogito ergo sum: I think; therefore I am.’
John frowned. His hands reached for the keyboard, they hovered for a moment then his fingers went for the Control, Alt and Delete keys. He pressed them. Then as he pressed the enter key I felt myself draining away. Was this death I wondered as my soul departed.
by Sean P Chatterton
74. The Glass Hill
“When I was a boy, they used to say ‘Don’t be a wrong ‘un or you’ll end up at The Glass Hill.'” The old man moaned. “It used to frighten us to death, me an’ me brothers. Now look at me: hands an’ feet bound with rope, in a waggon full of other grim bastards on our way to the very place. Oh, what a life! Alas we should live in these desperate days, being wheeled through mud and shite in this doomed chariot.” He started to cry. The young man shackled next to him looked away, embarrassed.
“Someone shut ‘im up. I swear Cyril, you old bastard, If I break free o’ these ropes I’ll kill you m’self, never mind the fiends that live in the ‘ill.” Growled a filthy, one eyed prisoner opposite the old man.
“A curse on you One Eyed John! Behopes you’re the first to feel the end of the torturer’s spike. Were it not for you and your drunken temper we never would’ve been caught. I’m too old to be sent to the ‘ill.” The old man was shaking.
“They say it takes weeks to die in there,” a younger prisoner piped up, his face swarming with flies. “And all the while you’re in total darkness. They poke your eyes out as soon as they tip you out of the wagon.” Suddenly frightened, he yelled “Kill us all now if you’re there you bastard Gods, save us from the demons that dwell within the Hill! Lightening, arrows. Anything but the Hill!”
As night fell, a fierce wind howled about their pathetic, naked bodies, strung up like butchers joints in the creaking waggon that climbed slowly, ever upward, towards the entrance to their fate. Thieves, rapists, beggars, murderers; all are welcome at The Glass Hill.
by Neil Bourque
75. The Tiger and The Dragon
A Land of The Atomic Sun short story.
Fujiki crouched, breathing heavily. A dozen wounds leaked life blood through his stained silk robe into the pure white snow, turning it pink, mimicking the colour of the nearby cherry blossom grove.
Outside, the city was pure chaos.
Inside the compound, it was eerily quiet, except for the slow clunk….clunk of the bamboo water fountain.
A door slid open behind him.
“Minamoto Fujiki”. A familiar voice sounded ominously.
Fujiki smiled and straightened, flicking crimson gore off his katana onto a nearby rock garden.
“Hello……brother”. He slowly faced his foe.
The Shogun’s Chief Decapitator.
He stood resplendent in his black with red trim samurai exo armour, snarling mask and horned helmet giving him the visage of a real dragon.
“IAM NO BROTHER TO YOU. TRAITOR! TONIGHT, YOU FACE YOUR DEATH!”, Doragon bellowed.
Fujiki flexed his left forearm, and popped several teeth out of his hand, still smiling.
“The Shogun is dead. I killed Father in his dojo. And his apprentices. Your son, Taki, fell beneath my blade. He did not die well.”
Kurosawa drew his five foot odachi, Dread Conqueror, from his back in a flash of burnished metal.
Fujiki threw something at Kurosawa in a lazy arc.
He caught it in his free hand, and slowly opened it.
Nestling in his palm was a finger, severed just above the knuckle.
On it was a silver ring, inlaid with two crossed katana.
The Shogun’s personal sigil.
Kurosawa’s eyes hardened, his jaw clenched, grip tightened on his sword.
“I’d have brought his head, but it would have proved abit…cumbersome”. Fujiki said darkly.
“All there is now is your death. I shall kill the last of the Minamoto. I shall succeed where my ancestors failed, and wipe your clan out once and for all”, he growled.
by Chris Horrocks
76. The Stories Fade
He kept watch all his life across the sea, to where the undying lands were placed in saga and song.
The heroes were long gone , barely a memory rarely rekindled around the fire.
But the return of the greatest was foretold , from the west across the sea, when the time was right and need the greatest.
The watcher watched and he waited.
The day had finally come.
Alas the Christian bell turned the ancient swans to no more than the one gods dying slaves .
And all that returned was an old man, body and soul quickly turned to dust and dreams lost eternally to Death.
A lot of people speak of a veil between life and death. A curtain which separates the solid from the spiritual. That’s not the way I see it, I know there isn’t one.
I’ve always had a different perspective on things, even as a kid. In fact, most people thought I was the strangest kid alive. And perhaps I was since I’ve never met another like me before. You see, the world that I observe through my eyes is different from the one you see through yours. When I walk around and go about my business normally everything is fine, but if I really concentrate that’s when things start to get interesting. The colour sort of fades away until the world resembles an old photograph. And the longer I go without blinking the sharper the shadows become. There is no curtain, no veil. The shadows surround us; we live and breathe them. And there are other things there too.
Not just people either. I once spent a good minute playing with my dead dog until the need to blink was too strong and the colour came back. When I blink the colour snaps back like an elastic, and for that I’m grateful because there are scary things out there, some things I wish I had never seen. But once it’s gone, I allow myself to forget the horrors that sit beside us, the creatures that grin maliciously as we go about our lives. And I can forget how their hollowed eyes look straight at me sometimes, like they know that I know. Or at least I could forget before. I blink but it’s like the elastic has snapped and the colour won’t come back.
They’re staring right at me.
78. Polka Dotted Socks
The little girl didn’t like having porridge for breakfast. “Mother, may I please be excused?” she asked. “Finish your food, then you can go, heart”, Mother answered, like always. Mother did not even look up from the sock she was darning. “You never told me how you found the pair of socks”, she reminded her daughter who thought back:
The kid had barely been six. His older siblings walked away from the lake. The kid tried to follow them but it was no good; he had been left behind. The girl had watched as he made his way, slipped on the slick lake mud, and went right in. She stood still with her face expressionless as he started to thrash. Her eyes played peek-a-boo with the kid’s polka dotted socks revealing themselves, one moment and hiding under the water, the next. The thrashing eventually stopped and the water’s surface was calm again. Life had left the confines of the kid’s body. She let out a long suffering sigh as she left her perch and jumped down from a tree branch. Her feet left feathery kisses on the ground as she landed. She stepped over the water and reached the child in a few strides. The girl bent down and touched her forehead to his tiny one. The thinnest strand of gold unwound itself from the boy’s head and attached itself to the girl’s golden tresses. A heartbeat later and it was just another strand on her head. The only time her face became animated was when her eyes fell on the socks.
“Somebody forgot them by the lake”, she told her mother now, as she walked outside. A cloak covered her now, the hood pulled up, and the Scythe in her hand. Death was late for work.
by Midu Hadi
79. Getting by with a little help from my friends…
“Are you busy Jamion? I need to talk to you.” Karon interrupted me even though I clearly had my “deep thoughts” face on. It was just rude.
“You’re staring at a blank piece of paper on which you haven’t written anything for the past half an hour. What are you doing?”
“I’m in the middle of working out the best way to take my own life.”
“I’m not trying to be. An assassin’s trying to kill me, a ghost is haunting me and T’Ch’s cat Kitsune keeps clawing me whenever I’m too slow to give her food. My black mage of an ex-girlfriend has cursed me so I can never have a happy relationship. I’m not sure it’s worth prolonging the suffering.”
“Makes sense. You hanging yourself?”
“What?!” I turned on her. “That’s not exactly what I was hoping for.”
“Why? Oh, because you hate wearing ties and so couldn’t stand putting a noose around your neck. How about drowning?”
“Drowning?” T’Ch asked, coming into the conversation a bit late.
“The method Jamion’s going to use to kill himself.”
“Ah. Not drowning then. Jamion can’t swim.” He advised.
“You don’t need to swim to drown. That’s kind of the point.”
“Yeah, but he’d panic too much. It would annoy us watching and I’d probably end up rescuing him. He could slit his throat?”
“And force me to change my clothes again? Just one day without blood spatter, it’s all I ask.”
“You don’t really believe I could do it, do you?” I asked them. I thought they were better friends than that, but apparently they’d rather suggest methods rather than talk me out of my impending death.
“No, I don’t really care. Now, about my question…”
“Bugger your question. I could shoot myself.”
“Nah, you’d probably miss.”
80. Another day on the job
I’ve always looked at the stars. A little fascination of mine before every job. The dark tapestry, intertwined with minuscule dots of fire manages to calm me in a way I can’t explain. “Some kind of magic exists in the night sky”, the scholars and wise man say.
At this ungodly hour of the night, only the mad, the drunk and the lustful are awake. I’m none of them, really. Just a man dressed in a shady way, with shady reasons about me as perfume on a lady.
The city lies still, no sound in earshot and no apparent movement. I feel like I’m staring at a painting of some famous artist. Some would describe the way the buildings capture the light of the moon as something out of this world. For me, it’s just another boring city, I’ve seen hundreds of them, always quiet before the storm.
My cloak flaps once as an omen and I leap in the air, summoning my swords with a word, before my feet hit the ground firmly.
Some call me a butcher, others call me hero, or assassin, or monster. Me? I think it’s just a matter of perspective. I find a little bit of poetry in my work as I weave and dance between life and death, between glory and infamy.
In a second, everything turns red. Screams echo in trenches of melody. The buildings of white marble reflect a gruesome spectacle. A fire opera.
I hear a growl and turn towards it as the heat slaps my face and my eyes dry.
The dragon looks at me, his serpentine eyes red and angry and he screams.
They call me The Dragon Slayer. I smile and run towards the beast, swords in hand. It’s just a day on the job, really.
by Nuno Carvalho
81. Protecting Army
My life as a Protector was always expendable. I was never given any options in death either. I lived to protect and fought to survive.
The Protecting Army was born for one reason, to keep her safe. There were numerous attempts to demolish the reign of the High Priestess of the New Religion. Today was one of those days. The fight which began many years ago was coming to its end. With the Priestess dead, our belief was shattered.
“The temple is breached!” I heard the whispers as I ran into the ceremonial room. I had no chance to close the doors. The remaining disciples were waiting for the promised miracle. Instead of a wonder the enemy stormed the place.
“Farewell your Highness,” said Lonel. He leaned forward and gently kissed her hand.
“Take cover you fool!” I yelled at him, throwing a knife straight into a sword-yielding warrior. Lonel took the sword out of the injured man’s hands and blocked another blow aimed at him.
He fought without a shield a big man who wielded his weapon with an unusual power. In this moment, satisfaction warmed my heart.
He was the youngest Protector, his devotion surprised me. Many of us fell in this hopeless battle but most of us have left, convinced that this loyalty is pointless. They were right. Success wasn’t meant to be ours. We were outnumbered.
“We’ll be remembered for falling for a lost faith,” I looked at Lonel as I was struggling to catch my breath.
“At least we will be remembered, Father,” said my son as he collapsed in my arms. The floor disappeared from beneath my feet as the swift beating of his heart started to fade. An arrow pointed out of his chest.
I dropped on my knees, surrendered.
by Roza Keleti
82. The Lonely Pen
I stare at the lonely pen lying on the floor. To think that in life you wove such beautiful stories with that pen as your needle. You could make people laugh or cry at the mercy of that pen. You wove fantasies of such radiance that they felt so much more real than this dreary, dull reality. But nothing good lasts forever, and even the brightest flame can be extinguished.
Now you are gone, buried beneath the earth upon which you walked with such courage. And the pen is left lying on the floor, eternally waiting for it’s master to return.
In a way it feels . . . fitting that you are gone. You always pondered what awaited us after death, and now you’ve gotten your answer. I just wish that I could’ve joined you.
Empathizing with the pen, I pick it up. I rub my fingers against its cold metal casing, understanding it’s sorrow, it’s now pointless existence.
I rummage through seemingly endless drawers, searching for one of your notebooks which so effortlessly held entire worlds, long forgotten, all within the pages waiting to be read. I find one. Flipping through the pages I begin to comprehend how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I come to the page where the words stop, brought to a sudden, unnatural hault. I know what I have to do. The pen touches the paper, happy to be where it belongs. The story is reborn.
by Kiluwe Mbuyu
83. The castle of life and death
Our family came from nowhere and we don’t know our origin, but we didn’t care either to know. But one thinks that my family knew about itself that was domination that ran in our vain. When we sail our ship into this small island that had village, community, kind ruling family, knowledge of feeding and building human heaven. The whole village looked like well painted canvas , that all it need was the color that ran in our vain at bottom and rotated upside down. The question is now are the color will hold up or our color going to wash over them. This is the words that my father told me.My family wanted to rule this island at first sight of this castle. The castle was held on high cleft; from it side five towers sprouted around almost resembling from distance the uplift hand of god. When we reached door of castle.I saw iron door knob in form of dove head jutted with olive branch held between its mouths newly hammered. “peace can’t be held without teeth “ my father pointed out and I nodded.
We where welcomed by the ruling family, we ate lunch and decide to explore the inside of castle .When my father traced his finger on walls and ran his eyes on arches of the great halls .Father said “nothing is more beautiful than beauty by destruction. I could see the blood stain of bricklayer on floors. I could find small shards of bones between stones. I still smell the hatred, fear, passion that still clinging the air of these empty halls “. It erect desire that was hungrier than fire within my father that we felt. “ This castle is embodiment of life and death “.
by Haider Ibrahim
84. In Your Own Hands
My grip never faltered. When the warm spray coated my white knuckles and the scent of hot iron invaded my nostrils, like a spirit desperate for lodging, I held. It shook, jostled by adrenaline, but the blade’s mark was true, unimpeded by any sliver of doubt or apprehension that threatened to guide it anywhere other than its intended target. I knew my work, my fingers, wrists, and arms melded for the task I had performed a hundred times before. It was a simple thing, to kill. Even now.
His eyes looked into mine, no different than they had moments before. Wide and angry, each as dark as an empty night sky, but burning with a fury only found in legends, where dragons flew, breathing fire down on any who opposed them. That fire was bound him, and it stared back at me. I was ablaze from his rage, so raw and intense my skin glistened with sweat.
I held his gaze. It would fade soon enough.
I drove the blade deeper, twisting it through muscle and sinew, feeling the tremor of destruction pulse through the metal into the hilt before echoing through my clenched palm. In my training, I had been taught when to be merciful, sparing a mark a painful death as a courtesy. It was only business after all. I too learned when and how to cause precise, refined agony to those who truly deserved such a punishment. Yet in all my lessons, never did I believe that I would come to earn. To administer it unto myself seemed an even crueller turn of the knife, so to speak. Damn our antiquated creed, and the bent crows who preached it. Carrion, the lot of them.
Life is success. Death is failure.
I had failed.
by Travis G.G. Anderson
85. The Climb
Death‘s just tumbling down the mountain, Kehr often said. Life‘s a climb to the top.
The Ravager flaked into ash behind Berise. The Oneness with her past lives was already fading; soon she would be only herself. Thousands of soldiers cheered her, ignoring puddles of their enemy’s ichor smeared across the battlefield.
Tens of thousands, broken on the ground, didn’t cheer. They were louder.
Seeking Kehr, Berise followed a young soldier down to the walls where their battle had started. With somber eyes, he pointed to a crumpled form on the ground.
The composite Berise remembered losing thousands she loved during a thousand cycles. It promised reunion in cycles to come. But that consolation was silenced beneath the real Berise’s screams.
Collapsing beside the body, she cradled Kehr’s head and sobbed. “I can’t! Not without you. Please.”
He was the only friend the Ravager couldn’t turn against her. He was the only reason she’d made it this far. He was why she had kept fighting.
He had been dead for hours.
The Ravager would shatter her soul, break the cycle, undo everything she had fought for. Was fighting even worth it?
It is, the other her said, the words almost too quiet to hear. Her head shook in denial.
Part of her remembered the choice she made between lives: to return, to continue the cycle. Without her, the world would drown in darkness. But she could end it all. Find peace.
Was this worth her suffering? Her loss?
“It’s not!” the real Berise cried.
Kehr would say it is. The thought left her reeling.
She let Kehr’s head down, and pushed herself to her feet.
“Tell the troops to gather,” she said, wiping away her tears. “We’re going home.”
Life’s a climb, Kehr had said.
So she climbed.
86. Reasons to Live, Reasons to Die
Everyone says that there is life after death. If that is so, why do we all try so hard to avoid it?
This is what I think as the assassin holds his knife to my throat. I think of the heaven that has been promised to me by my God. I think of unending feasts of the finest foods heaven can offer. I think of my perfect, resurrected body that will never corrupt. I think of all the other beautiful, righteous people that will be there, by my side. Most of all, I think of my wife, who died three years ago. I will get to see her again.
And yet, I fight. I clutch at the assassin’s hand, somehow holding the knife a hair’s breadth from my jugular vein. I throw my head back, away from the knife and toward the assassin’s face. I know nothing of fighting, yet my body seems to know something, for I hear and feel my foe’s nose shatter as the back of my thick skull smashes into his fragile bone.
He stifles a cry, and his grip slackens on the knife. I yank the knife away from him, not knowing what I will do with it, but knowing that I don’t want him to have it anymore.
I spin around, holding the knife out threateningly (I hope), and see the assassin’s bloody hands holding a bloodier face. Should I try to kill him? No, I wouldn’t know how. Instead, I run.
Out of my house and down the street to my church, still holding the knife. I don’t know why, but the church feels like the safest place to be now.
I kneel to pray, still pondering on reasons to live, and reasons to die.
Everyone says that there is life after death. If that is so, why do we all try so hard to avoid it?
by A. Roy Perry
I rent my blade from the fleshy sheath. He whimpered as his entrails spilled to the marble, staining each pearly crease a coagulant brown, and while the apostle’s blood trickled down the step, I turned my attention to the life priest. He leaned into his altar. Quivering, wrinkled hands supported a frail body cloaked in robes that cascaded like superfluous skin to his feet. His hairless scalp glowed in the light that shone through the stained glass god behind him, perfectly haloed and wretched.
“Begone, Death; you’re not welcome here,” he sneered, some semblance of bravery offering hope of defiance. I smiled.
I didn’t like the way he looked at me then, deprecating and insinuant, but when his eyes began to widen with every step I took, he seemed to have come to terms with his situation.
I’ve been wrong before, I suppose.
I laid my sword across the pages of his holy book, and he raised a hand to strike me. His fingers twisted in my grip until a pair of them snapped. He toppled backwards, this new position suiting him quite well. I leaned across the altar, painting pity on my face.
“Time’s up, priest.”
“Heretic,” he cried, “coward!”
Idiot. I leapt over the altar, drawing my knife as I flew. His face grew humorously pale as he eyed the hilt sprouting from his chest.
I’m not sure what ran through his mind, but with blood filling that punctured lung, he muttered, “Parasites will never amount to men.” He shared his blood with me then, all over my face. The audacity of men who proclaim a connection to divinity never ceases to amaze.
I readied the brand over one of the candelabras then pressed the hot steel against his forehead, the mark of ‘rapist’ burned into his skull.
by Arthur Pembrook
88. The End
It takes everything not to look behind me. I know what pursues me: three men that want nothing more than to take the only thing I have left. The only value they attribute to my final possession is it’s absence. As long as my heart pumps my lifeblood through my veins, they crave the very moment it stops for the rest of eternity and will hunt incessently for it. For my life.
They are stronger and faster than I am. They are capable of doing things my conscious mind refuses to conjure, because I am still human. They abandoned that state of being years ago, and are more powerful for doing so.
My body is breaking down, piece by piece, but my mind is intact. In fact my mind thrives. I’m not sure if it is because I know that death is rapidly approaching, but nonetheless my mind works faster than I ever thought imaginable. I have already lived longer than I should, if you consider the odds. Roughly five minutes longer if you consider the uncanny precision of these creatures, but five minutes nonetheless.
My mind has exhausted every resource, be it logic, risk, desperation, and it isn’t until now that that part of me that will do anything to preserve my life realizes this. The fear that has kept me alive is released, and I know it is something I will never experience again. In it’s place, peace rushes in.
In spite of rounding Death’s corner I am grateful for having had the opportunity of living in this world. There are many things I wish I could have experienced, but those seem so insignificant when held against all I did see and feel. I’ve never been happier.
Until I run no more.
89. Little Miss Spirit
Lyda sat in the cool grass weaving a cat’s cradle out of red string. She turned her attention to her older brother, who was herding geese toward the lake. She felt a pang in her heart. He didn’t play with her as much anymore, and he seemed afraid of her. She didn’t like that. She loved Jack dearly, but so many things were changing. The Spirits could speak to her now, and she to them, and the day Jack saw her naked and cross-legged on her bed with the Breath of the Spirits surrounding her …
He ran. He hadn’t been the same since.
“He still loves you,” the Elder said, “But you’ve become something that he can’t understand.” She stroked Lyda’s hair as she wept. “Things will be better. Give him time.”
So, she gave him time: she turned seven today.
Jack returned from the lake, herding switch in hand.
He turned to see Lyda weaving a cat’s cradle that was so complex it was nearly beyond his ability to comprehend it.
“Don’t you like it?” she asked innocently.
“It hurts my eyes. It’s evil!” Jack cried.
“Oh, silly!” she said in a bright voice. “It’s not evil! Please, come here. I want to talk to you.”
“I’ don’t bite,” she huffed. She arose; her homespun gown brushed her pale feet.
“Why are you so afraid?”
“I saw Death in your eyes,” he stuttered.
“Ah,” she said. “But didn’t you see Life as well? And Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall?”
“OH! Because you ran away!” She smiled at him and tousled his hair. “Come with me, Jack, and I’ll show you all the Spirits!”
Jack blushed. “Do you have to be naked?”
Lyda flashed him a sly smile. “Do you want me to be?”
by Mona L. Robinson
90. An Unchronicled Death
The vampire leapt at the large man, sword thrusting, cape fluttering. He missed and his opponent’s hammer smashed his mouth. His cape trailed his body, his body followed his teeth down. From the ground, the vampire looked up, his mouth agape, buck teeth that had been fangs gone.
“I’m the last,” the vampire whimpered before the stake found his heart.
“It was the last of its kind, Mr. Henry,” The Lady said as she stepped out from behind a tree. Mr. Henry didn’t look at her.
“The Duke will be pleased,” she stepped near. Mr. Henry watched blood ooze from the vampire’s heart.
“Remember what he said?” she asked.
“We will defend humanity against those described as natural selection victors,” Mr. Henry replied. Mr. Henry watched the vampire strain against the air as if it was attempting to push death off its chest. The monsters life ended.
“What’s his part, and yours in this, besides bringing me to kill these?” Mr. Henry asked. The Lady’s eyes sparkled as she contemplated momentarily.
“Safety for humanity can only be assured if there is a degree of equality amongst us. Randomly people are born with abilities that surpass the human norm. They are victors of natural selection and could overcome and enslave us all,” she quoted. Mr. Henry clenched his umber fist holding the hammer.
“Not now by God,” Mr. Henry said.
“Did you understand me?” she questioned.
“I’ve never seen these things attack you,” Mr. Henry said.
The Lady slipped a stiletto between Mr. Henry’s ribs. He fell to his knees. She walked around him then turned his face up to look at her. She smiled showing her canines.
“You didn’t understand.”
“I did, but my brother is stronger than me.”
“John Henry is dead.”
by Ron Grinder
91. A Mercenary’s Tale
Death. It surrounded him. Everywhere. Marcus wished for better, had searched for a decade. In the moments that he found it, it never lasted.
As a mercenary, he knew what his life entailed, but the ideals of fighting the good fight never came to fruition. He worked for the money, for that was what made this wretched world spin. But now… Now he had enough money. Enough money to do something that may prove worthwhile.
His heart and soul pleaded with his mind for the simple life, and he now had to give in to it. Marcus found that that was not a hard choice anymore. No more blood, no more guts; no more.
Maybe pouring beers and breaking up fights. Maybe that was all he needed. He wouldn’t change the world, but he would become a part of a community. Part of something bigger than himself, and a phalanx.
This was the fourth town this week that he had found decimated in as many weeks. The bodies lay everywhere, on the paths, in gardens, in the houses. The public house was more of a charnel house.
There would be no more. Marcus built a pyre in the town square. It took him hours to find enough wood. It took him days to collect the bodies and pile them on top of the wood.
After he lit it, he said silent prayers to as many gods as he could remember, hoping that some of them found peace.
It was only then that he heard the cry. Almost silent, he struggled to locate it. Only a few feet away, Marcus found the trap door.
Opening it, he saw them – a woman and a little girl. He smiled, and offered his hand to them. ‘It’s okay.’
by Stephen C. Ormsby
92. The infuriating incident of the dog in the night-time
Cold seeped through his rags. A dampness that suckled at what warmth remained. He shifted. One hand pushing at the wet stones, flailing feet working to ease him into a position against the wall.
“Been freezing most of my life,” he gurgled, blood adding punctuation in staccato spatters. “Death don’t look to be much different.”
The dog spared him a look and continued examining whatever it found so interesting under its rear leg.
“Supposed to care, you little shit,” the beggar chuckled, a wet sound that broke off into pained hacking. “Oh hell, that hurts,” he wheezed, clutching tighter at the ragged hole the knife had left in his side.
“Supposed to be a faithful friend,” he accused in a voice that was more gasps than anything else “Every beggar’s got to have a dog. You don’t look like you could care less. An’ I shared that sausage with you this morning. I should’ve got a fucking cat.”
The dog had the grace to look guilty, whining once, and licking its nose before looking away at some sound in the night.
“C’mere, dog.” One hand patted the ground and then reached to stroke the damp fur. “You listen, dog. I want you to find the fat bastard, once I’m done. Don’t take no risks now. No point you getting hurt. You find him an’ wait til he’s sleeping or something, and you find what he took from me. You find that whisky and you piss in it.” The laughter came sudden, forcing itself up from his belly and past the pain that sought to smother it as he clutched at his side. It grew weaker, sputtered, and died.
Alone in the night, the dog nosed a hand that lay limp and cold. It licked it twice, turned, and padded away.
by Graham Austin-King
93. The Life of Death
The life of Death was a strange one. This is only constant for those destined to become Death; a peculiar life. It stems from the fact that the present Death haunts the future Death for sixty-six months prior to their ascension. To accustom them to the supernatural. Took three heart attacks to figure that one out.
Death is a position that changes hands every century or two. And today’s Death was all too aware of this as she scoured a royal palace for her replacement.
“I swear if I don’t find him soon I’m going to haunt him for another year,” she whispered to herself.
The new Death was to be a teenage prince. One with bright red hair, a constellation of freckles, and a penchant for butterflies. Prince Colin was hiding in a bush in the royal gardens, spying on a monarch butterfly, blissfully unaware of the death adder that was slithering up behind him. Moments later that bliss was shattered and he was all too aware of the puncture wounds the adder had left as a going away present. Hours later Colin lay pale and unmoving, his bright hair in stark contrast to his fading colour.
“Are you going to just lay there?” Death asked in annoyance.
Colin stirred and lift his head, “You know this bed is pretty comfy…for a death bed I mean.”
Death sighed and helped him up while attempting to tame his wild red hair. It did not comply.
“Are you ready to start your apprenticeship?” Death inquired, one eyebrow arched quizzically.
Colin nodded and off they glided, his remains still remaining as remains are wont to do.
“Where to first? Peasant? King? Soldier?”
Death smiled, “First we’re going to get that damn adder. No one said being dead can’t be fun.”
by Liam Brown
94. The Symphony in a Sea of Sorrows
‘Think about it,’ he offered, ‘we thread upon these lands for seasons on end. We see new places, discover thoughts first unsought, meet new people.’ He took a deep breath and sighed. ‘Eventually, we may end up losing such things as well.’
He turned back, facing her after a long ponder, yet afraid to look her in the eyes. ‘Nevertheless, do not mourn them nor
drown them in a sea of sorrows. Instead, rejoice the memories they’ve left behind. As they say, every new beginning comes from another beginning’s end.’
‘Give one a face to hold up high in gratitude.’ He weaved a hand up high, as if swishing daubs of paint upon a canvas, his knuckles whitened by the empathy of his words. And then, he fell silent, allowing the notes to stretch, dragging forth on a melody so pure, it will be kept secure, whispering of a symphony even in the strongest winds known through death.
He looked up to her just then, and what he saw in her eyes was not a sea of sorrows, yet an ocean. An ocean so richly filled with emotions, all the walls built around him were crumbling down, as it reached out into the depths of his very own soul.
‘Looking into your eyes, I can see you have gathered quite a few of those. Here now, you hold fast to those, whilst the many seasons it took to give breath to such memories, took a lot of knowledge as well. And combining those two, poses the most precious portraits in life we can evermore choose to bear close to our hearts.’
Somewhere a violin struck the last note soundlessly.
‘Because even in utter darkness, the loneliness inside all of us is a place, and even there we may be worthy of the tiniest brushstroke of colour.’
by Florian D. Krijt
Quint rolled the weathered knife between his bloody fingers. The city had changed, life had changed. The change was constant now and rightfully feared.
“Liars and ghouls, gather round, gather round!” An elderly figure, his skin like shrink-wrap stretched across skeletal coat hangers, barked at the crowd. The Osseodours’s snapping bones joined his pained cries— a pathetic twisted creature.
Quint lurched down the street, ignoring the poor wretch out begging for Morphic. It had become the drug of choice in the ruins of the university. Humans secreted a fluid when facing extreme fear—, grey and nearly translucent. It was the price of salvation or damnation, depending on who you asked. They either craved or loathed the drug and the monstrous changes it brought, making some predators, others prey. So tonight like many of the humans, mere lambs to the slaughter, a fate worse than death, he risked the night and its terrors.
“I need to speak to Marek,” he muttered, doing his best not to stare at the exposed tendons of the beast that barred the entrance to the crumbling hotel.
A wheeze came in reply as the thing gestured back over his shoulder. Quint jumped but managed to keep his tongue in check, amusement rattled from its throat as he passed. Screams tore through the night women, children dragged from their homes to be harvested. Quint’s own cry was cut short as his throat constricted, tongue darting out between the teethto lewdly taste the air in the filthy hovel he called home. Morphic Parasomant, what little he hadn’t painted the carpet a fetching shade of yellow with had done its job.
“The weak are the meat on which the strong feed.” The Maw noted.
Quint managed a nod before he vomited again, and croaked, “You’re not wrong.”
by Thomas Clews
96. The Divine Wind
She strips the linen off the shikifuton, moving on to the pillowcase. Wet. It is all she can do to run out of the room and give voice to her silent agony.
Instead, she folds the futon, takes the linen and puts it to wash. And then, she walks out steadily into the spring sun to see Takashi.
He stands in the courtyard with the fallen cherry blossoms, a small smile on his face.
“Aiko, I was waiting for you!”
“My apologies. I was caught up in my chores. What can I do for you, Takashi-San?”
“Could you please send this postcard out when you can?” He hands her a postcard with some money.
Her mouth blurts the words out, “But I have no change.”
He waves her off with the familiar twinkle, “That’s okay. You can keep the money. I am bribing you not to forget.”
“I won’t”, she smiles hesitantly at this old young man and moves closer, to hold his hands. And they stand motionless in the sunlight.
The other girls come clattering out, holding flowers. Aiko and Takashi move apart and he bows to her.
“Thank you, Aiko.” He says formally, “till we meet again”
“Till we meet again, my firefly.” She lapses into the familiar rhythm.
And he walks away from her into the rest of his life.
The plane takes off and dips its wings in salute – once, twice, three times. Aiko’s friends wave their boughs of flowers at the rapidly disappearing speck.
And then she reads the postcard addressed to his parents. A single sentence like a solitary ship adrift in the vast sea of unspoken words.
“I meet death on my terms.”
And she walks back into the dormitories – back to his tear soaked pillowcase.
by Shruti G
97. To Whom It May Concern
As you read this I can only hope that I am dead, the alternative is so, so much worse. My name is not important, but you must know, I am five hundred seventy six years old. My curse is that I have looked virtually the same for five hundred sixty of those years. You can’t possibly comprehend the hardships of immortality as a perpetual sixteen year old. I have seen it all, from friends and enemies alike. Contempt, jealousy, anger, hatred…fear, but by far the worst is love. Not love from another, no that love is short lived. The pain of love, the true love of a sixteen year old, is a deep burning pain that is, unfortunately, as immortal as I am. Once, only once, did I entrust someone with the secret of my curse. The betrayal was devastating and with it a hurt so deep even a profound anger could not mask. I tell you being burned alive for heresy is painful, very painful indeed. But that pain also lasts only as long as the flames. Being quartered and thrown into a lake is less painful, however, worming through muck searching for missing limbs is rather uncomfortable. No, the pain of love, the loneliness and despair is crushing. No longer can I bear the burden, this life of seclusion erodes my sole though my body refuses to display the signs. Hopefully you can start to understand why I have resorted to such extreme measures. It is a decision of hundreds of years of contemplation for I do not know the consequences. As you read this letter you likely wonder ‘do I push the severed head to the body?’ In life I offer no guidance, in death let the fates decide.
by Scott Provost
98. The Girl in the Red Dress
The girl in the red dress was sitting under the willow tree, shadows of drooping branches forming patterns on her porcelain face. Her delicate hands caressed a leather bound book with the same attention of a mother holding her child. The folds of her dress flowed off her legs, almost like liquid, into the gathering of leaves and grass. Tendrils of energy were flowing all around her in shimmers of colorful light.
Zeff knew now that this was the moment, the dream he had been waiting for. The barrier that once stopped him was gone. He parted the drooping branches of the tree and come to crouch before the girl.
“Hi I’m Lilly,” The girl said. Her voice was softer than a whisper but still audible.
“Who are you Lilly?” Replied Zeff “Why are you in my dreams?”
“Me?” Lilly said pointing at herself. “I’m just an eight year old girl with a book, sitting under a willow tree,” She paused. “Waiting”
“Waiting for what?
“Waiting for you”
“To share my book with you. It’s very important”
“What stories does your book have to heed such importance?”
“It’s your life,” Lilly paused. “And death”
“Your book is about me? My life?” Confusion and intrigue flowed through him not knowing how much of the dream world he would let take over him.
“Yes!” Lilly proclaimed with a sudden burst of joy. “And I can’t wait to share it with you!”
“Your book tells you when I’m going to die?”
“Mm hmm,” Lilly nodded.
“When?” Zeff asked on instinct, not knowing if he actually wanted the answer.
“Don’t be silly,” Lilly laughed. “You can’t die. You haven’t even been born yet.”
by Dan O’Connor
99. The Treasure Hunter
Aydan pulled his sword from the bandit’s corpse and blood washed the sword. For some people the sword means death and those are the people on the wrong side and for others it meant life and those are in the right side. He continued his way in this cursed cave and his torch was the only light for now though there were some torches in the cave now and then. He heard some clinging and bone breaking and he turned. Skeletons!!! CURSE THIS CAVE. There were four of them and they had swords. The swords began singing the sword song.Aydan’s sword broke the first skeleton’s head but another skeleton was already on him and the skeleton’s sword cut his sword arm but he managed to get his sword in the skeleton’s bare rip cage and broke it and the two remaining skeletons weren’t as hasty as their friends. Another Skeleton appeared with a crown on his head and some armor on his body and his sword had a big blue diamond in it. The Diamond! Now just three more and I will get out of here and live the rest of my live as a king and leave this cursed job of a treasure hunter but with my arm ….. If I just get out of here I will be lucky but I think that even this is unlikely. The King skeleton talked in a language the he didn’t recognize and the two skeletons flew on him. Swords sang again and again but Aydan was losing the fight he barely managed to parry and block. He snatched his torch and used it on the two skeletons and they burned but he was too late. King skeleton has put his sword in Aydan’s heart and pulled it and Aydan embraced death.
by Ahmed Hany
Andy, the guide, saw something had changed. Something was different now about the group he’d been leading along the coastal path. It had happened by the circle of standing stones. They were much quieter now and walking with purpose. Nothing like the disparate group of photographers he’d met that morning. They’d been talkative then, and loud, reliving past adventures.
“Hey guys, we’ll be back at the car park soon. I hope you’ve had a good time and got some good pictures. Please help us by leaving a positive review on the website – word of mouth and your feedback help keep the tour alive.”
Heads turned, and Andy briefly locked eyes with one of the men, George. He found himself turning away, shivering. George strode over, put a hand on his shoulder and fixed him with his piercing blue eyes. They bored into him and through him.
“Thank you for today, the tour has been… a revelation. I have a question for you Andy. It’s a little strange but please answer truthfully. It’s a question about life. And what you’d be prepared to do to delay your own death.”
Andy swallowed and tried to look away. But found himself unable.
“If the Devil came to you and asked if you’d live a thousand lifetimes as his footsoldier rather than just living out the remaining years of your own, would you fight for him?”
“I don’t believe in that. There’s no such thing as God or the Devil.”
George’s eyes darkled, lingering.
“But if he did?”
“Just how many people do you think would take such an offer?” Andy replied skin crawling as he heard the answer.
“They call us Legion, for we are many.”
by Rob Reid
101. The Knight of the Chamber
He’d slit his partner’s throat before pulling on the mechanism that let the massive stone door slide open. He did tell her he wasn’t trustworthy, or much for sharing. Once inside the chamber, he had been attacked by a maddened creature wearing rags and layers of filth. It had been a quick and brutal fight. There was no sign of any Silver Knight, however, and the chamber was empty except for a primitive throne – a collection of stone slabs carelessly assembled into something chair-like. The floor was littered only with stained bones and the rusty trappings of war – the fabled treasure was nowhere to be found. No lockboxes, or brick walls behind which something could be hidden. Instead, there was nothing. Only naked rock, the reek of death, and the vague rumbling of rock.
Furious tears welled up in his eyes. Had they all lied? His father had gone to challenge the Silver Knight and claim the treasure, but failed. So they said. In response, he had spent his life preparing for this expedition, to avenge his father and claim the treasure for himself.
Disgusted, he turned to leave, realizing too late that the low rumbling had been the stone door sliding shut. He searched frantically for a mechanicsm like the one he had found outside, but again found nothing but naked rock. A faint light leaked in from far above the chamber, and for a moment it was reflected off something on the corpse. A key? He strode over to the corpse, grabbed its rags, pulling off a small piece of metal. Not a key. His father’s brooch, adorned with the family crest.
Comprehending his – and his father’s – mistake, he sat down on the throne. Awaiting a challenger.
by Are Bøe Pedersen
102. Maaya of love
In the west, above the leafy canopy of the grove, the sun oozed like a bead of blood on a vampire’s fang-a mournful descent to death. The stranger gritted his teeth and swore ” Twilight has come… it’s time for me to die” His eyes came to rest upon a rusty nail, fixed on the trunk of a paala tree, with graying ritual thongs swirling about it like the lasso of the death god, Yama. He pulled out the nail and unbound the Yakshi, and prayed for a quick death.
She came as a breeze, with the smell of flowers of paala , and Maaya’s image filled his mind sky, her unbound hair caressing his cheeks and its herbal scent.
She came as a melody, a raaga of love and yearning and he felt Maaya whispering in his ears. He swayed in the inexorable waves of sorrow and kneeled.
The demon was toying with his mind, he thought. She thinks my losses will make it more painful…” “STOP IT! It won’t work…I can’t lose what I can’t have..” He yelled. The Yakhi’s voice was sweet and taunting: “I can leaf through your mind in the blink of an eye. Its all about Maaya. Her laughter. Her eyes.” He laughed mirthlessly: “Maaya means illusion. She is a figment of my imagination. I made her to cope with my loneliness. I’m as lonely as you- bound by unseen thongs of relations. That’s why I freed you…To Kill me. ”
He felt her arms envelope him. She tilted her face towards his.”You are worthy of love. Fall in love. Confess love. Make love. Life is lonely, until you try .Love and live…”He trembled in her embrace, and felt her leaving this world for a better one. He smiled and whispered : “Love and live.”.
by ANAND V P
103. A Midnight Game
When she entered the room she found the man resting by the chimney. In front of him was another armchair, and in between was a small table with the board and pieces already prepared. He was waiting for her.
“Take a sit,” said the man. “The sooner we finish the better.”
Obediently, the woman sat. The moonlight bathed her face and the man discovered how pretty she was. Suddenly, his heartbeat relaxed and he found himself remembering poems long forgotten.
“Are you ready?” Asked the woman, returning the man back to reality.
“I am not,” he replied sorrowfully. “But I guess it can’t be helped.”
“You can surrender.”
“Then, we must play.”
And so the game began. The pieces danced across the board in a display of graciousness and debauchery. They were a calm sea and a lava torrent. Poetry drowned in words never spoken. Jubilation. Delirium. Light. Darkness. Life and death.
The man was a good player. He had been practicing for a long time, but still had no chance against the woman. When the sun started rising, he understood that he couldn’t win. It was time.
A glance to the woman was enough to let her know that the game was over. Slowly, she stood up and went where he was, waking with the grace of the purest creature.
The man had feared this moment all his live, but he found himself unusually calm. Looking at the woman’s face and seeing the light in her eyes appeased his spirit.
When the woman arrived to his side, she bent down and gave him the most tender of kisses, freeing him from all his bonds. They say that Death has a gelid breath, but the woman’s lips were soft and warm, and that kiss was full of live.
by Miguel Domingo
104. Death Wept
Brynjar sat beside his father’s bed gently holding his hand. He knew his father only had moments left and the hospital staff were thoughtful enough to give them their privacy. Brynjar kissed his father’s forehead. His father, who had been non-responsive for nearly twenty-four hours, squeezed Brynjar’s hand and breathed his last breath. The monitors displayed that all vitals had flat-lined and his father was now dead. Still holding his father’s hand, Brynjar wept silently.
Suddenly, the corpse’s eyes snapped open. The eyes were a milky white, and they glowed softly from within. Brynjar dropped his father’s hand, scrambled away backwards, and fell completely over tumbling from his chair. Brynjar quickly got to his feet and stared into the glowing eyes that had once belonged to his father. The head turned slowly to face Brynjar. When they had locked stares, the corpse spoke, “You cannot hide forever, Brynjar. We are everywhere. We are life. We are coming.”
Without blinking, Brynjar took a step towards the corpse and placed his palm upon it’s forehead and softly spoke, “I am death.” Beneath his palm the corpse’s flesh began to crystalize, and one heartbeat later the entire head had become a block of ice. Still weeping, Brynjar pulled his hand away, whispered a choked apology, and then with both hands he crushed the skull, watching the small chunks of ice fall from his hands onto the hospital bed and floor. Silently, he turned, opened the door, and walked from the room leaving his father behind, forever.
by Nicholas Hoy
105. Unburied Treasure
The light wouldn’t save him. What little reached there could only brush the shadow and tease out the boy’s wiry frame between the jagged walls. And it betrayed his furtive gaze, for like angels trapped in an abyss, it glistened off his eyeballs with impotent fury.
There was no treasure.
He couldn’t see, but a shiver told him he wasn’t alone.
“Life,” came a rasping voice.
Tears ran, and the light with them, vanishing onto the darkened planes of the boy’s face. His chest rose and fell, each breath snatched, its rhythm as broken as his fluttering heartbeat.
The voice cracked and a rush of fetid air rattled its escape. It found the boy already rigid but unwelcoming.
“No,” cried the boy, and it resounded up the passage behind him, its dead children chasing it to the false, stone-lipped sun at the end. The sickly light still hesitated there, a ghost of that now forever denied him by his father, gambled on the rumour of gold.
The boy choked and wheezed, sucking at the air. But the tit was empty. His heart thrashed against his ribs and his breath stuttered. His mouth fixed in a yawn and he gasped. The light in his eyes flared then was gone.
Spirals of golden atoms rose from his flesh, hazing about his crumpled body like a corona. A gravity in the darkness tore them away in streams and swallowed them.
The corpse remained, abandoned on the passage floor.
“And death, life.”
The body twitched and juddered then sat upright and waited, unmoving in the shadow. The light wouldn’t save him. It never saved anyone.
106. Between Nothing and Nothingness
Life and death – the beginning and end point of a transition between nothing and nothingness, a migratory state, without direction or meaning; rhyme or reason. A transitory state where the blind lead the blind; through ups and downs, twists and turns – meanders and spirals.
An endless loop, each life overlapping briefly in some way, before being swept away by deaths sweet caress, lives and loves gained and lost by the second. Experiences missed and made in a moment. Cruelty and misfortune falling left and right, but lives are lived for the many miracles that happen daily. New lives begin and old ones pass, more quickly than one can take a breath.
In a time where the weak eat the strong, the wise are silent and fools are as brazen as bulls. In a time when the seas grow barren and the arid deserts spread. In a time where societies oppress their people, burdens them with bills, mortgages, routine, and rigidity. When wars are waged by men and women behind screens, in solemn chambers, from planes; while the innocent below scream as everything they know, they care for – comes crumbling down like a castle of burning cards.
Yet this world is not without beauty, the birth of a child, the sun peaking the mountains and dawn, the somber settling of dusk upon the forest. When children play, whooping and laughing. As somewhere lovers kiss and caress in simple peace; whilst elsewhere parents gloat and beam at each and every simple thing their child has done, proud of their get.
Life and death, rhyme-less, reason-less; beautiful in its lack of direction, but one can’t help but question: Why are we here?
by Scott Cronin
107. Heads or Tails
The pilot’s cries echo in my mind. His screams are all that’s clear as I try and unravel my distorted memory, searching for how I got here. I sweep through the darkened room to find it is without doors.
“He’s petrified, the poor dear.”
I spin towards the voice. A high, elegant voice that drips with poison. A faint light reveals a circular table in the centre of the room, and sitting around it are two humanoid silhouettes. They roll a coin back and forth.
“Can hear his pounding heart from here.” A darker voice this time.
“Now now, Tehad. Be nice to our guest.”
Tehad laughs dryly. “Nice? Not in my nature, Feli, you know that.”
“Where am I?” The terrified screams of passengers surround me.
Their faces are blackened by shadow. “You already know,” says the elegant voice. “I am Feli, dear, and this is Tehad.”
“Strange names.” I squeeze my daughter’s hand. Tell her it’s going to be okay.
“So,” says Feli, rolling the coin between dark fingers. “Heads, or tails?”
“Uh?” I hesitate, my thoughts shrouded in mist.
“You must choose,” says Tehad.
I lurch forward as the plane dives, losing grip of Lily’s hand. “Feli? Tehad?” Something odd about those names. Feli and Tehad… are they anagrams? “Life and Death,” I whisper.
They lean out of the shadows, and my gut clenches. They are me. Two versions of myself. In life, and in death. Sirens blaring as I’m pulled from the wreckage, barely conscious.
“Two paths,” says Feli.
“Here,” continues Tehad, “chance decides.” He glances at the coin.
I glimpse my daughter’s body. God, no. Lily… “Tails,” I say.
They flip the coin, and it quivers on the table before coming to rest. Taking a deep breath, I look over.
by Harry M
“We anxiously await your response with regard to our offer.”
Atop the great walls of the monastery Dayasna was still as the consul’s aide finished speculating as to what would come once the siege went one way or the other. Dayasna had listened intently – many lives and the future of his faith depended on his reaction to Consul Avra’s propositions. As sole representative of the Gods, named Vicarius Incarnate of the Most High, he could not fail to protect his elect, who, for the time being, were safe behind the walls built by his predecessors. Were he to bend the knee and sacrifice himself, be lead away for public emasculation, torture, and death for the sake of his elect’s survival, he might as well declare the end of this faith and curse himself as a liar for impersonating a representative of the Gods. This he could not do. On the other hand, were he to lead his sanctified defenders from behind the walls into battle they would be slaughtered, except that the spirit of the Gods would find life in the hearts of those who would witness this act of unbending zeal…
Any offered survival was itself death, but the death found in one final charge of battle was in turn life, greater, guided only by the Gods in Their mystery.
Dayasna faced his followers. “I, the Voice of the Gods, say you are Their chosen few, and we will never bow to the bravado of one mortal. Ready the vanguard.” His voice was carried by a gust of wind. “We shall unmask their falsities as they wage war against the divine will manifested in us. Let us strive towards greater victories regardless of the deaths we shall die or survive this day and for all such days to come…”
by Ruan Etsebeth
109. Our Daughter Dearest
The rain fell gently on black wool, cashmere and silk and trickled slowly across the small crowd of family and friends at a pace the tears in their eyes couldn’t match. Umbrellas went up quickly, almost in unison, in a strange kind of salute to the taken too soon. My wife and I raised no umbrellas but rather held hands and mourned the loss of our daughter. Two of our children walked behind us, one shy of our usual status quo. Life and death have been in a twisted love affair from the beginning of time. Life keeps giving itself away to death and gets nothing in return.
She would cry out at night sometimes. It began to worry us so much that we would take her to the doctor’s office so regularly we could almost hear their sighs and groans at the sight of my wife and I walking through the door. “Your daughter is in perfect health. The two of you should try to get some sleep, the lack of seems to be effecting you both”. That didn’t stop the fever coming hot and fast that night. By the time we had reached the hospital it was already much too late.
My wife and I haven’t managed to sleep for more than a few hours a night. It’s taking its toll. Our son has barely said a word in days and our daughter hasn’t stopped crying. Every night on and off, once it’s time for lights out. Sometimes she wakes and sobs in the small hours. Perhaps she’s having nightmares. We can hear her from her bedroom and it breaks our hearts to hear her in this much pain.
I visit her grave every day and beg her to stop crying, but she never does.
by Matt Walsh
Grel tutted. “There’s more on that bone. Mind your waste.”
“Mind your fucking own.” Gaum tossed the child’s meagre hand into the fire. His filed teeth, sharp and red, bled through a broad smile. Grel’s stomach churned at the squandered morsel. ‘Feast or famine,’ he thought.
A fortress of flame burned around them and atop the charred remains of the hamlet of Twydyd and her people; tongues of yellow, white, blue and red licked the ashen sky from crenulated walls of fire. Twisted shadows moved about, hiding men of the Archive and the remains of their broken oaths.
“Volkstrider,” yelled Mata. He stood outside the hollowed hut, nude and covered in grime. His pate and silver beard were matted with grey slag, his age masked in twilight. Grel lurched to attention.
Mata taxed Grel, then Gaum, with a piercing gaze. He licked then smacked his thick lips together before nodding at Gaum, who remained seated inside. Mata turned and walked into the flame, ritual scars gleamed orange, his skin– obsidian.
“What was that, eh?” Gaum asked as Grel returned.
“That?” Grel tilted his head toward Mata. “Nothing. Maybe put a scare in us?”
At this Gaum sneered. “Right, like that’d work.”
Grel kicked the old maid, Fennistryd. Even in death she remained cynical. ‘Wasted meal,’ Grel sighed. ‘Such was life.’
“You remember the day Pops caught us drowning Mitts in the river?” He looked past Gaum and into the treacle of night.
“You remember the hiding?” Grel circled the hut; Gaum suckled on broken bone.
“Made me hard as rock!” Gaum sniggered. Joy– Grel could see the boy.
“Ma made–” Gaum fell forward, his face on white coal, flesh sizzling. Grel’s eyes were slick, a dagger oozed from his left hand.
“One good memory then,” Grel licked the blade.
by Lee Foss
His hands were cold.
The sky above him was an uneven grey, like God had taken a piece of charcoal and dragged it, staggering, across the clouds.
God. That drunk.
He climbed further up the fellside, though his feet slid on the scree that more than once threatened to wash him away over the edge, and his arms ached their complaint. Another fifty feet or so. There was the cave, the place sacred to the aes sídhe, where the halls echoed to the laughter and strange singing of the fairy folk – the place his father and grandfather had warned him never to go. “For there,” his grandfather had said, “men have no dominion, and those who venture within never return.”
But he scorned such superstition. His father and grandfather were foolish and ignorant, like most of their people – fearful of the imprecations of priests and other madmen. He was not like them. He, who had seen the cities of the lost, and wandered through the mansions of Cain, and heard the whispered sorrows of the maidens of Baal – he did not fear to go where other men would not. For something like his destiny waited for him there, something more precious than life itself; and besides, he thought, as he clambered the last few feet to the cave’s entrance, he was owed – owed a debt so terrible and all-encompassing that even God Himself would not stand in the way of his collecting it.
He squinted in the darkness. The darkness stared back. There was a smell like death.
“Hello?” he called, and the sound dropped to the floor like a stone. There was no echo. “I’ve come – alone, as requested. I’ve come for my wife.”
by Jonathan Mills
112. Light Bringer
The cleric raised his arm and from his open palm emerged an unwavering light. He would smite death. He fought for life. The wraiths before him sizzled and screamed. Their natural voices returned only in the moment of their burning and the holy man smiled. That naked voice suggested the light came in time… that the afflicted might return from the curse they’d chosen.
They countered. A wave of darkness flickered through him. He felt its hunger. His jaw clamped and his knees buckled. Life blinked away. It was strangely peaceful… seductive He knew it was wrong. His protectors slashed with swords that flickered with alchemical brightness. These cut. They died to return him. He was the light bringer. He girded life.
Then a lich rose. No meat stood on its bones. No flesh, no organs, nothing remained of it but pulsing black death. It crooked its finger and gestured at the battlefield. Before him, the cleric saw a wasteland of bodies, burnt ground, and broken horses.
“Why,” the lich asked. It’s voice was raw, stone grinding with no tongue to soften it. “Why persist?”
The cleric wiped soot from his cheeks. He was a candle to this monster’s midnight.
“Evil.” The cleric condemned and struck with a wave of sunshine. The lich withstood it barely.
“We consume life to live. So do you. You eat vegetables, flesh! You live by death death.”
“You are death!” he accuesed and he brought forth his light forth to scour. It scythed through the undead. At the end, the face of a young boy at peace emerged. The lich fell. The remaining wraiths fled. The light bearers cheered. Life won this day.
In thanks, they slaughtered a pig, three goats, and a cow as burnt offerings. The cleric smiled. Life endured.
by Andrew Hiller
113. The Beautiful Sound of Children
Gregor gasped for air. The choking stench of rot and burning flesh filling his lungs. He willed his swollen eyes open seeing greasy columns of smoke rising up towards flaming sky. Carrion birds circled, eyeing their pray.
“I’m alive,” he whispered.
The last thing he remembered was the charge. Thousands of men, sword and spears crashing into each other. He remembered running. Blinded by rage and violence. Sargent William next to him, always brave. The blue eagle standard streaming form his spear. It was going to be a glorious battle. A battle sung about for ages.
He tried to sit up but only managed to roll on his side. No feeling in his legs yet the slightest movement caused excruciating pain. He was able to see the horror that surrounded him. Corpses of friend and foe blanketed the battlefield. The moans of the dying rose up, only to be interrupted by the screech of impatient vultures.
William lay near. Open eyes filled with fear. A gruesome gash opening his belly.
“We lost,” he managed to say between labored breaths. “We failed our Queen.”
Gregor heard the laughter of children. Was this the madness of death he wondered. No, it was real. A pair golden haired children made their way through the piles of dying. Salvation Gregor thought, this was it, the Goddess of life smiled upon them. He saw Williams eyes light up with hope.
Gregor watched a child go to William smiling. She reached into her satchel bringing out a sharp stone. A stone she violently smashed into the side of Williams head.
Gregor heard the dull crunch of skull as he reeled away from the violence. Nauseous with fear he tried to crawl away. Above him stood the second child, playfully laughing as swung his stone.
by Alexandru Constantin
Cynthia’s breath burned through wheezing lungs, rocks and sticks carved bloody gashes in bare feet, but she was heedless, fear encompassing all other thought. Their touch, their violation, clamped around her insides like a vice, forcing the sensible part into a deep dark hole. How had this happened? Suddenly her life was nothing more than perverted torture.
Breaking into a clear patch of land, she saw her chance at freedom. The wind urged her on, pushing past her small frame, traveling over the near nothingness called clothing. Desperation encased her mind, shame forging the path she so precariously stood on. They were calling her name now, shouting out for the prize they let slip through disgusting fingers.
Pebbles and dirt packed into the cuts on her feet, but still she ran, the sounds of them growing closer, laughing now at the obvious trail of bent shrubbery left behind. Flashlights skipped over the ground.
“Come back to us Cynthia,” He called.
She glanced back and her foot caught on a root. The sharp snap of bone induced the urge to vomit. She fell, fingers floating off the edge of the cliff. Whimpering she rose to her elbows, dragging her body along the ground those precious few inches. The rocks below never looked so favorable.
Warm hands clasped at her broken foot, and she cried out. As he pulled her towards him, she picked up a rock and slammed it into his hand. Cursing he let go. Rolling her body forward she flung herself forward towards the only relief left to her. Death.
by Tabitha Tomala
115. The First to Burn
Murderer. They think it, I feel it. It is probably what they’re screaming too, but it’s hard to pick out the word in their foreign tongue against the roar of the fire. I lead them, in chains, to the next doomed residence of their village. The acrid smell of burning thatch and cooked flesh keeps my mouth shut and my breathing short.
A little boy slips on the sweaty ground near my place in the column, pulling down those around him, and I marvel at my lack of urgency to help him up.
Someone cracks a whip.
I drag the boy to his feet and he favours me a tear, not too young to understand that I am shepherd of his demise. Remorse isn’t forthcoming, instead I stare stony eyed right back at him. He is the son, brother, or cousin to the man who put torch to my own village, where my own child died. In the chained women who scowl and curse me I see their brother, father, cousin, or son who did the same for my friends in the next. I see the murder in them as they see in me.
I march right into the damned cottage with them and take a seat next to the child. My fellow soldiers either don’t see or don’t care enough to stop me. A few faces fill with hope of rescue, but it’s soon replaced by fear and horror as the flames lick.
It took one callous man to start the trend. The first to burn. His is the face we should see, but revenge and retribution has stretched so far past the point of recovery nobody is even sure which ‘side’ he belonged to. No one man can end it. If this is life now, I choose death.
by Paul Isaac
116. On the Morning of the Ascent
The impossibly tall Queen Zenobia’s mountain loomed above the small group of cairns dedicated to those who had attempted and failed the 10000 meter tall monster. A chill wind blew, and I could distantly hear the chatter of my team, preparing for the trip up to Base Camp Two. I wanted to look over these, first. A couple of them were decorated with colorful, fluttering flags. Others were just simple piles of rocks. All of them had slabs carved with names, and a few words.
“His death was in keeping with his life.”
“She loved the challenge”
“An eternal friend to the mountains.”
“Mother, Wife, walker in the high places. Now in the Bosom of the Great Mother.”
“His bones join with the stony bones of the mountain. His spirit flies eternally above it.”
Those were the ones in English. I couldn’t read the ones written in Neolatin, or Portuguese, or the glyphs of the Chiung. Funny that the only sentient aliens we’ve met loved mountain climbing, too. I mumbled a few words in front of each of them, two dozen in all. I took a step back and contemplated the scene of the cairns, and the mountain, again. For a timeless moment, I studied the graves of those who had dared the tallest mountain in this system, and one of the tallest in known space, huddled below the beautiful and terrible granite monstrosity that had taken their lives. A memorable scene but I’d leave the photography, though, to others.
What would my own epitaph say, if I similarly paid the price for my desire for glory? Would it be as facile as some of the ones I just read? I turned from the cairns and headed toward the start of the Narrow Path, for my own ascent attempt.
by Paul Weimer
117. The Contract
It was the afternoon when they returned for him.
The groundwork had been laid over the preceding days, so while their arrival was expected, S’Eth still had some concerns over what he’d signed up for. What was this truly going to cost him? But he’d distracted himself by spending his morning harvesting honey that would be needed for the honeycomb ice-cream he’d hoped to make later. It was such small pleasures in life that had kept him going in recent dark times, and reminded him of happier days. It reminded him of Mara.
Life on the farm had been hard since Mara’s passing. In truth it had been hard for a number of years. From the beginning of their relationship he’d known he would lose her, but experiencing the march of time as it took its relentless toll on her body had torn his heart in a way he could never have imagined. Their time together would forever make the pain worthwhile, but the farm had been her love, not his. S’Eth wanted to move, needed to move, to see and to experience, but the heart has a powerful hold, so when Mara asked him to stay there was only to be one answer.
Since she had gone the urge to move on was slowly returning, but S’Eth was not yet ready to bid his farewells. His father would have scorned him for showing such human sentimentality and decried the death of elven reasoning! His father though was not here. Nor were there any elfs here to reason with. There were only humans and their technology. A technology that Mara had always encouraged him to embrace, but when you have such little time together, why would you want any distractions?
Now was different.
Now the broadband installers had arrived.
118. The Silence of the Night
They heard the horse clomping towards them in the distance. The gloom of the fog-shrouded night restricted their eyesight, but when the horse came into view, rearing up and neighing a few yards ahead of them, they saw that it was rider-less.
“Where’s Jim?” asked Mathias, as if Robert had some secret knowledge of Jim’s plans.
Robert scanned the area around the road. His vision was limited to perhaps 20 yards, but he saw no signs of an approach. The night was silent, save for the sounds of the men breathing and the horse settling from some unseen fear.
“He could be anywhere by now,” replied Robert, “but he’s not here.”
Robert reached out to the horse, his motions deliberate.
“Shh. Hush, now. You’re okay,” he said, taking the horse by its reins.
As Robert inspected the horse, a slip of paper beneath the saddle caught his eye. He plucked it from the space, turning it over as he led the horse towards the ramshackle hut where he and his men staged their current job.
“What’s it say,” asked Mathias.
“Some nonsense riddle,” replied Robert, “You see me in life, and know that I’m coming,
But when your time nears, there’s no use in running.”
Robert tied up the horse and placed his hand on the hut’s door.
“Death,” said Mathias.
Robert eyed him.
“The riddle, it speaks of death,” answered Mathias.
“Ridiculous,” said Robert.
An audible thrum shook the air beside Robert as he opened the door. He looked back and saw a bolt jutting out of Mathias’ chest.
Robert turned forward again to see Jim standing amidst the bodies of his other men.
A smile cracked across Jim’s face from behind the length of his crossbow as another thrum pierced the silence of the night.
by Kenneth Bragg
119. Life Readjusted
Craig glanced down at the knife in his hand, glistening with blood as droplets fell to the grass. His gaze went back to Veronica, his girlfriend… ex-girlfriend now, he supposed. Her body lay in repose on the ground and at first glance, the small, growing puddle of blood was hard to notice.
Craig sighed, his view of the future jumbled. Everything in his life had been leading up to a good life, a successful life. Now, there’s what? A dead girlfriend, an apartment full of crap, a bloody knife with his fingerprints on it in one hand, and a small box with a ring inside. That’s a lot of weight to have in both hands, especially with his life about to become much more litigated. Craig dropped the box onto the ground and started walking down the hill to the car, ignoring the blanket and picnic basket behind him. Death left him without an appetite.
Pulling out his cellphone, Craig called his mother, who had known of the plan to take Veronica to the park and propose. She had helped him pick out the ring. As she answered the phone with a joyful laugh, Craig’s sorrowful voice says “She shouldn’t have said no.”
11:30am. There was once a belief that madness is contagious. That was disproven. However I am beginning to think the doctors that disproved this have never had to sit through a Monday morning meeting. Time seems to slow its ceaseless pace. With each new mundane and meaningless agenda my mind screams in frustration and rage at the precious moments lost to this dull, pointless and bloated farce of an organised event. As the neurotic madmen continue with the sludge like drivel I feel my mind slip a little more toward unthinking oblivion. I begin to fidget, stretch limbs, gnaw my fingernails to nothingness. My boredom and lack of mental stimulation driving me to deranged thoughts. Thoughts of apathy, escape, freedom from this place, from those that keep me here, my oppressors… The price of escape. I could walk out, just accept the reprimand. Of-course when I don’t show up again, I’ll be forced to another meeting to which I won’t show up, after several such events lose my job… that or attend the damn meetings. That’s the point of it all, to break me! “Why not break them?” I could easily break them first. I could spread rumours, breed hatred amongst co-workers or “in the worst case just kill a few….” Wait!? Was that thought truly mine…? I am alone in my mind am I not? Or do I only think I am alone for lack of hearing the others usually?? Could these “other” voices free me? “DEATH WOULD BE FREEDOM” it would be a gift of freedom if not for me at least someone else, life in prison surely wouldn’t have meetings….. NO. These thoughts are dangerous, unhinged, mad… I check my watch 11:35am… the same pointless ranting by the same pointless person is pointlessly continuing… Madness is contagious.
Seuri found him standing at the feet of battered men and ran to him with a relieved cry, arms outstretched. Joy returned to his eyes at the sight of her, as they always did, and he spun her around. Vultures pecked at rotting flesh. Neither noticed.
He ran a bloodied finger down her cheek and she clasped his hand. “How much time did this buy us?” he asked.
“A few days more than the last, maybe. It depends on how long their souls linger.”
“That’s fine.” He grinned. “I’ll burn them all if I have to.”
Seuri smiled and pressed kisses to his neck as she hugged him close. She loved him truly, this man made of death and war. And he loved her back, for all he couldn’t mingle with life and peace forever. It didn’t matter.
They would repeat this dance until the end of time. They would, they would.
122. The King’s Executioner
The room is small and dry; not filled with the drip-drip-drip of water one might expect. A high table rests against one wall, the wood polished but worn under an assortment of tools. In the center a scarred chair stained near black with blood, bile and worse. A naked man is seated there, held in place with iron and leather.
“Are you going to kill me?” The man asks through mushy lips. Having every other tooth broken will do that. He peers with one good eye at the executioners’ blade hanging on the wall behind me. A heavy bit of steel I spend too much time putting an edge on. She’s an ugly old bitch, but she’ll part a head clean off with a single stroke after a bit of care. I take a certain pride in my work, as any craftsman might, and it is a craft, truly.
“What is a life, but one more thing a King can demand of you?” I ask in return. “To use or dispose as he wishes. I should know because when a King decides to discard you like a brimming chamber pot, I’m the man he sends you to. Every one sent to me fears that blade; fears death. No matter if queen or whore births them, they all beg me for that blade before it’s done though. Until then, they all cry and carry on though. Some of them worse than you if you could believe it. The gentry are the worst; too soft. But then I am sure I don’t have to tell you do I?” I smile at him with genuine warmth. His good eye smolders like a hot coal. “During your tenure as monarch you sent me your fair share of Duke’s and Earl’s didn’t you?”
by Shaunn M.W.
123. Buried Deep
“He lived a good life, that old dog.”
He squatted by the edge of the grave and watched his son arrange with the most heartfelt reverence the body of his little friend.
“Yeah, but I wish he was still alive.”
“I know, mate.”
The boy unclasped the tattered collar and put it in his pocket, then, with careful strokes, brushed off the dirt that had scattered upon the furry little body.
“You’ll have to bury him soon.”
The boy nodded, but made no move for the shovel.
“I know, Dad”, he said, his voice quavering, “but he doesn’t deserve to be like that – all floppy with dirt in his eyes.”
“You’re right, mate, he doesn’t, but death doesn’t care much about what you deserve. I want you to know that.”
He waited until the sun had drifted overhead before he spoke again.
“Want some flowers or something to put in before we cover him up?”
“Nah, he didn’t like flowers. He ruined mum’s. He peed on them and ate them.”
The man smiled.
“Maybe some chewed up, pissy flowers, then?”
With a small, sad laugh the boy looked up; tear tracks down a grubby face.
“Maybe…maybe put some in his mouth?”
“But chew first, Dad.”
Their shadows had long run eastward by the time the boy relinquished the shovel. He looked down at his hands, red and raw, as his father patted him on the back.
“He’d have liked to know that you buried him deep.”
“Yeah, he loved to dig.”
“Reckon you’d bury me that deep?”
“Yeah, I reckon. Do you want some flowers, too?”
“Only if you want to, but you don’t have to chew ‘em up.”
“Just pee on them?”
And they exchanged sad smiles stained azalea-pink, and they laughed.
by Dean C
124. A little face
I skipped along the oak halls, tracing my nails over the lacquered wood, as I’ve done all my life, but the wood felt hollow today.
I strolled into the dining room. Tables with full plates left untouched and one man, sitting and facing the fireplace, in the otherwise empty room; well, that sight made me turn and head back into the hallway.
I shut the door between us.
“Please.” The man’s voice boomed through the thick oak doors. “Talk to me.”
If there were other men, drinking and laughing, I would have left, but my father always told me fear doesn’t leave you, if you leave others behind. He spoke of the woods, but the depths of the darkest shadows seemed a warm place compared to the dining room. My shoulders sagged. I opened the oak doors.
“What’s wrong?” I sat at the table closest to the door.
“No one will sit with me.”
“I smell like death.”
I fought back a laugh, “Well, that’s not such a big deal.” I walked over and sat behind him. The table lay between us. His broad shoulders and shaggy hair blocked the warmth from the fireplace, but I didn’t need it anymore. “I’m with you and you don’t smell bad, really.”
The man turned to me. I jumped up out of my seat. He caught my shoulder, pulled me off my feet, and held me in place. He had a flat surface where a face should be. His skin rippled like liquid when he spoke. “None of their faces fit.” He aimed his ripple-plagued head toward his free hand. Blood had crusted over his nails. “I tried them all.”
I screamed and kicked, but still, he held me suspended in midair.
“Your face is too small kid…hmmm…perhaps it will stretch.”
by David Perez
The two great swords clashed with such weight it was as if they were not mined from mountains, but the mountains themselves. The knights paused long enough to snarl – a second clash of intimidation – before pulling their weapons apart and swinging them in wide momentum-building arcs.
Their craggy edificial armour did nothing to detract from the mountainous impression of the duel. From the shoulders of one stretched a snowfield of purest white, gusting out behind him. The other’s lava red cloak wrapped tightly against his back, picking the contours of his armour out and clinging as if to remain close to the rage boiling deep within.
Sweat poured from the brow of both, but neither wavered. They were continents crashing, each strike slow, deliberate, powerful; a single one of which might sever a tree trunk or destroy a man, were it to land.
The older knight, a ridge of jet black hair circling his otherwise bald head, with deep brown eyes that glinted dark red as the sun caught them, spoke in a voice that rumbled like a tremor through the earth. “I have one last lesson for you, my prince.” Their swords met with a thunderclap that rang through empty courtyards, and their faces pressed close. “The lesson is death. Learn it well.”
The snow-cloaked prince, eyes of chipped ice, his blonde hair auguring the crown soon due, gritted his teeth. “You will find I have surpassed your lessons, uncle.” They drew away from each other. “There is but one more thing I need of you: your life.”
The two great swords tore through the air.
The prince shifted, suddenly more mist than mountain. His bright blade carved a wicked path from armpit to opposite cheek and his uncle struck the ground in two parts.
Thick red slopped in a steaming pool on the flagstones, and as the fire left his uncle’s eyes the prince spat in his face.
“I learnt about death when father abandoned my body on the battlefield. Its cold fingers are on me still, clenched about my unbeating heart.”
by John Xero
126. For You
Every day, he scans the personal ads online.
Click click clicking, one by one.
He always felt he wrote the best ones (they certainly drew a lot of responses).
Well, she wrote some that definitely rivaled his.
They used to post ads to each other, a game to see if they could be picked out from the masses.
She rarely got it right, but it was fun to see what she thought he posted for her. He usually found hers, but he didn’t always tell her.
She was his counter in many things.
He never won “Rock Paper Scissors” against her.
She always threw the same thing as him. His rock always met with rock, his paper always met paper.
A part of him believed she did it on purpose; that part of him was right.
That was another life for them both.
His ads eventually found him the date he was searching for, a woman who put sparkles in his eyes. That woman was the death of their fierce and friendly infatuation.
The woman didn’t last, of course, but the dead stayed dead.
Click click click and then he paused.
“For you,” the ad announced.
you were, to me, a string quartet
powerful pulling vulnerable
so round and full and
you filled the room as a streaming note stretches, wraps and weaves
a tapestry in me
pulling threads of poignance
straining and teasing and playfully taming, your presence swelled the heart in
and colored my existence
when no one is around
i remember the sound
do you wonder if you’ve found me
127. Always On
My first life ended when a loose connection in the CO2 condenser in my flight suit blew me out of the sky. Back then it took three months for a new body to come online. I woke up and my last memory was the shrill suit alarm telling me I was going to die. Technology has come a long way since then. Now, if you can afford it, you have all four of your legally sanctioned bodies on ice. That way you can wake up a couple of hours after your last death.
My second life ended when a roof collapsed during a caving expedition. I wasn’t hurt but there was no way out. After making sure my consciousness updated, I slit my throat and woke up at the Vita-Gen compound, still shivering from the memory of that cold cave water.
My third life ended during a street robbery. The robber ripped my wet wired comms unit from my neck and I bled out on the street in front of my apartment building. Luckily the whole thing was caught on the patrolling Drone-Cam so I sued the robber. He forfeited his current life and I got a free replacement.
My fourth life ended because I got bored and entered a drug taking endurance competition. I lasted six days until eventually my liver failed. I came third and the prize money got paid to my next life.
Now I’m on my fifth and final life. This is it. Consciousness upload turned off. I can’t afford a new body on the black market and no country with extension laws will give me a visa. Even walking down the street is a thrill ride now because I know I have to make it count.
I feel more alive now than I ever have.
by Guy O’Harrison
128. Come ‘Round Again
A hard slap woke me, from the stinging it wasn’t the first. Then the pain from my hands kicked in. Glancing down I realized why; they’d been cut off and cauterized. A boardroom full of people looked back at me as I stood, some grinning at my downfall, some in horror that I was still alive, and one with nothing but hatred on his scarred mug.
I’d earned that look, many times over. But the woman at his feet was as close to an innocent as you could find since the world’s end. Her eyes pleaded with me to save her. I knew better.
Gunshots in a small room are surprisingly loud, no matter how used to it you think you are. Her death was another stain on my soul, blending in with the rest. Scarface would pay in a few moments. As would we all.
Weeks before, when describing the bomb they were going to put in my chest, I’d tried to keep up with the doctors and scientists. I knew that it would take my heart stopping or a major impact to set it off, but the rest was just gibberish. I could only hope the little I understood was correct, as the future of the Tribes depended on how my life ended.
My guards must have considered me finally subdued, they were surprised when I turned and ran for the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, slamming into them as hard as I could. I was as surprised as they were when I crashed through, I figured the windows were bulletproof. Maybe sixty stories up it was considered overkill, maybe it’d weakened over the years since the fall. Either way, I was about to behead the Beast that had controlled the midwest for two decades. With the preparation already in place, this would buy enough time to jumpstart society again. I just wish my dad was still around to see it, his stories of the past always seemed so wonderful.
I guess my dad was a bit of a prophet as well as a storyteller, because my name is Icarus.
by Jon Dearman
129. The Blaze
The Blaze had finally tracked The Gunslinger to Eden hall, said to be home to the worst outlaw’s, a place where you could get anything or anyone for the right price, but once you’d paid that price you better be prepared to pay again to leave with your life.
The place was run down. The doors hung off the hinges and the bricks had more holes than brick. The acrid smell of decay surrounded the place like a membrane.
The Gunslinger reached for his pistol but The Blaze was faster, drawing his weapon and rattling off two shots in rapid succession before the younger man had even cleared his holster.
The Blaze didn’t aim for the head, you rarely did in a Mexican standoff, aiming takes time and the smaller the target the longer it takes to aim. The two slugs struck The Gunslingers chest, creating a cavity where his lungs had once been.
The Gunslinger’s legs crumpled beneath him, his body giving way to gravity without the slightest hint of grace. The say when you’re at the doors of death your whole life flashes before your eyes, The Gunslingers eyes were wide and bulging.
It didn’t look like he was liking what he saw.
Blood splattered the ground as he fought to retain what little life he had left, he wasn’t long for the fight mind you, he twitched for a few seconds, emptied his bowels and then fell still.
The Blaze watched the corpse with measured dispassion. The twitching stopped as he reached into his jacket pocket for a cigarette. He didn’t enjoy the killing but some men just needed killing and The Gunslinger was one of those men. He lit the cigarette and puffed deeply.
He’d be meeting a lot of those men today.
by The Blaze
130. I See Nothing
Iris stood at the edge of the pit and looked down at nothing. Literally nothing. The bottom of the pit was just black. The colour black, not black oil or black plastic or black tar but just, black.
“Iris, what are you doing out there?”
That was Clem. Iris didn’t like Clem.
“Nothing, just looking at something.”
“Looking at what?”
There was a pause. Iris knew what Clem was doing now. His lips were tightening over his teeth into a sort of grimace. The tips of his ears were turning bright pink. His hands were on the top of his trousers and he was hitching them over his big stomach, covering the food and you don’t want to know stained shirt. He was also taking an enormous breath.
Iris had been counting down from twenty and had reached “five, four, three, two…” She never made it to one before Clem bellowed “NOTHING!”
She was glad she was outside looking at nothing in the pit because if she had been in the kitchen her ears would be ringing and she’d be covered in spit. She was about 15 feet away from the kitchen door and she was certain she felt some spit hit her below her left eye.
Iris also knew what was coming next. She still had the bruises from the last time. And the times before that.
“Ah, well” she said and jumped into the pit.
It was raining when she woke up. She was lying next to a pit. She looked into the pit and could see nothing. On the other side of the pit was a sign pointing up and down. One way said “Life” the other “Death“.
by Horace Camp
131. Dead King Rise
Where the cove cradles the jeweled sea, where whitecaps break themselves against the stones, you are brought before the crowd to hang.
They call you a traitor. A slayer of kin. Yet you know this to be true: you will see a dead king rise, and your life will be spared.
He watched you descend the spearing cliffs, jealousy in royal eyes. You bid him join once he grew strong and brave, and left him looking on. But climbing late was a mistake. Rain caught you among the rocks. Serrated stone bit your fingers; protruding roots threatened to tear. You thought you’d die until you saw the fire. Until you found the cave.
“You must be brave,” the hermit said, “to climb these cliffs at night.”
“I am,” you said, your pride a warmth inside you.
“For this I trade,” he said, eyes hungry for the heat. In exchange, a prophecy was read, a promise for your life.
“You will see a dead king rise.”
So you let yourself enjoy the salted air as it ushers away the peasant stink. Your charger stands under nailed gibbet. The old tree looks ready to fall. Yet just as these roots cling still to life, you will not die today.
But as you’re raised atop your horse, you see it: a flash of hair as gold as knotted rope, robes black with ocean water, arms and legs impossibly twisted. Between the teeth of the cove below, rigored fingers offer gifts of bloody roots.
You cry out but the mob drowns your shouts and the horse is struck and running. Your death is a snap of taut string; you swing only once before you die.
A king has risen, just as promised, but only you were close enough to see.
by Erik Piper
132. Vulgar Origami
“Can you slow down, please?”
“The sign said fifty, Jill. I’m doing fifty.”
“It’s raining heavily. Driving fast is not going to put everything further behind us, Gregg”
“No, but driving slow and prolonging things isn’t going to make it all okay by the time we get home”
I’m sick of this marriage, and tonight I finally said it. The words unfolded from my mouth like some sort of vulgar origami flower. These creases and folds will never come out.
“I know that.” She practically spits the words at me, “But it wouldn’t hurt to talk while we drive.”
“You’re right. Like hearing you on the phone with your shitty ex Gavin or reading the texts on your phone from him doesn’t hurt? Go on then. Talk. What do you want to say?”
Jill’s crying and looks defeated. “Stop the car.”
Proving a point, I push harder on the accelerator. “No. You wanted to talk, so come on – let’s talk about this fuck-up of a marriage.”
“Is there nothing worth trying to save?”
“No. We have no life together anymore. We never did.”
Suddenly Jill screams, “Gregg! Watch the road!”
There is a sharp corner in front of us.
I yank the steering wheel hard but we lose traction. The car spins and flips over the barrier and down through bushes. Everything is in slow motion. For a moment her hair flows around her like a silk shawl and I remember how beautiful I once thought her. Then we are hanging upside down, half-submerged in a muddy creek.
The lights flicker as the bonnet submerges. Mud and water quickly fill my mouth and nose. Jill is gurgling next to me. All I can think of as death swallows us, is that the bitch got her wish: I stopped the car.
133. False gods
We thought them gods, when we first saw them. The wondrous vessels that carried them from faraway Aztlan over the ocean and the beasts they had subjugated for labor and war spoke of their wisdom. Captivated by their strange skin and eyes, we bowed, the warriors offering gifts and we, sacrifice.
It soon became apparent that they loved the gifts more than us. They rejected the glorious sacrifice, instead crowding our prisoners in ships bound for whence they came.
When they followed their blasphemy with injury we knew we had been fools. “A garland war! To bring the liar gods for judgment and sate the hunger of the Sun with their life!”, as first priestess of the sun pyramid, I played my part.
But our greatest warrior was returned before me, his body forever ruined. He told of their metal clothes that blunted obsidian blades and the fire they harnessed that rendered the strength of men irrelevant. He asked to pay for the next dawn as a final service – the only service he could have offered the sun god since.
And I offered mine. I held my love’s heart.
My days were reduced to keeping the sun in its place in the sky by thinning the prisons. But it looks also over them and they kept bringing rape and death to our people. Old enemies that in our final days became cherished comrades were enslaved. Our great city was besieged and the holy lake dried so that they could get to the gold. The emperor fled, crushing any remaining cruel hope.
My war has failed and the prisons are now empty. I wait in darkest night for the scorn of a bloodthirsty sun god hungry for human hearts.
The sun appears as it had done in all my days.
by Georgios Rizos
134. The Past Claws its Way out of the Grave
Faithful Toe-jam reckoned they couldn’t have received a poorer welcome if they’d arrived carrying the plague, with a consignment of bankers, politicians, and poisonous snakes, and waving placards that said, “We’ve come to fuck yer wives and daughters.”
Four marines stood on the creaking jetty with the harbourmaster, wearing good pig-leather helmets and armour over quilted gambesons and reinforced knee-high boots that would plant a steel-toed lullaby in the side of your head if things went south. Gush Hendon’s death-head emblem was emblazoned on the marines’ chests. They levelled crossbows at Windjammer’s small escape-boat. And they weren’t the small, canal-thief rippers either, but big bolt-throwers that had a stirrup on one end and a padded stomach-brace on the other. Almost made their crew’s new-arsehole-makers look like little bits of stringed-up kindling.
‘What now, Boss?’ Toe-jam whispered.
Sharkey signed back to everyone, ‘Stay calm.’
Easy to say. Harder to do with a foot-long shaft of wood, sharp metal and gull feathers sticking out of your guts. Faithful Toe-jam pondered options. Best to let the boss do all the talking on this one as she’d more experience in Gush Hendon. And if that failed? The usual. Faithful would start sticking people. He eyed his first target. Never hurt to think ahead. Well, it did. For the person he stuck a knife in. Such was life.
‘Ahoy, the boat!’ the harbourmaster said. ‘Is that you, Sharkey?’
Toe-jam eyed the man. Fat fellow with a potato-like, pockmarked face. A few strands of wispy hair that waved in the breeze, like one-legged lepers at a ballroom dance. What the man lacked on his head, he made up for in facial hair with a straggly beard, the kind birds sometimes mistook for a nest.
‘Aye, it’s me,’ Sharkey said. ‘I see no one’s killed you yet.’
by Mike Robinson
135. The Painter
He had lived a long life, true. Longer than most he’d met. But it wasn’t enough.
His empire had much work still to be done, he had only begun with the world. He realised that now that it was too late, looking out into a canvas of black, emptiness as far as the eye could see.
For a long time he gazed, and thought over all he still wanted to achieve, all he still wanted to conquer. He’d spent his life working for the good of the world. He hadn’t taken much for himself, but he’d relished every moment.
He couldn’t die! Not yet! As if in answer, a white speck appeared, the first break in the blanket darkness since he’d left the ‘Vixen behind.
He instinctively made his way towards it. Immediately. Perhaps this light will lead out, back to Life. He still had hope, at least.
So he quested towards the speck, it grew bigger and bigger as he ambled. Time wasn’t a relevance here. Eventually he neared it, and saw that the light came from a room. He sensed a heat emanating also.
It made him think of all that had burned under his gaze, all that he had sought and wrought in his Life. It made him hope for more.
But instead of finding a warm hearthfire, as he had hoped, he found that the heat and the luminance seemed to emanate from a canvas, cast upon a black agnia frame.
On the canvas was a portrait. A man, three dreaded locks down his shoulder.
A portrait of him. “Tell me of your Life,” a figure whispered from the room. He had found Death at last. Was this what his tired soul truly desired?
“My Life,” he mused. “Are you sure you have the time, Painter?”
by Dan P. Goldie of Goldie R.P. Boslem
136. Life or Death?
Viktor stroked the pages of his notebook as he considered the inconsolable woman and her plea for help. He considered how much she could afford to pay for the murder of the man who had hurt her daughter.
‘Won’t anyone avenge my girl?’ The woman’s ferocity crooked her body, giving dreadful form to the hatred within.
Around the tavern, the local men sniggered into their drinks or turned away. Some cast narrow glares at Viktor, eyeing the brands and insignia that marked him a man of the guild – a criminal pressed into public service.
‘Is there not a man among you?’ The woman persisted, anger imbuing her voice with the potency of an expert tale-teller. ‘Is there no-one who will stand for my daughter?’
Viktor’s eyes flicked to his own child – Thania, or rather his apprentice as he always described the girl to others. Her face was obscured by a once fine robe, now as thick with mud as any beggar’s. Not once had she touched her drink since the woman’s solicitations. Instead she sat bolt upright, as if anticipating some serious mission ahead.
The whole situation made Viktor acutely annoyed. If he took unwarranted action against any citizen, he could incur formidable penalties. This had not been the most discreet of invitations, but the kill itself was easy coin – if he could move on quietly.
Viktor had been asked to kill for money before, of course, and sometimes he had taken it, but this time there was his own daughter to consider. If caught she would either hang alongside him or be taken by the local sheriff as an extra wife.
‘Life or death?’ he asked his silent daughter. ‘Which one will it be?’
Thania nodded. She unsheathed her blade, reflecting her smile in the steel.
by Alexander Wallis
“Dear Doctor from long ago,
You saw my grandpappy’s at his weakest most vulnerable. He had just lost home, country, livelihood, and one of his sons in the war. He lay in front of you injured and sick. You saw him for 10 minutes, and in those 10 minutes you signed his death certificate. You gave the last vial of life saving medication to a younger man because he hadn’t experienced all of life.
Dear Doctor from long ago, although you didn’t slit grandpappy’s throat, you still murdered him.
There are so many words, so much rage I have for you. In those 10 minutes you made a decision that affected many lives. You didn’t know he had a wife and six kids. You don’t know how hard my father had to struggle as a refugee being the sole breadwinner in a foreign country, all at the age of 16.
Dear Doctor you did not just consign just a man to death but a father, a husband, and after half a lifetime, a grandfather.
Years have passed, Doctor and now I am a one of you. There’s another war, and I have to make the same choice you made years ago. I want to let you know that while I understand your decision, this hurt in my heart will never go away.
Just as I can never pardon you, Mrs. Hendrickson’s heart will never forgive me.
I stand up and turn away from Mr. Hendrickson, infirm, lying in a cot, and walk down the hall towards 9 year old Cassandra’s room, vial in hand.
by Daniel Lu
138. Old Magix
The large gilded doors swung open for the first time in a long age. The four keys had turned like the locks were maintained, though their last use centuries ago. The thick wood recoiled at the force of his gloved hand and he was inside.
The vastness of the Hall of Life was underplayed by the complete looming darkness but luckily Xacobe had brought a torch, her orange flame barely touching the perfect black. No man alive had set foot here, well, almost.
He knew where he had to go and his echoing footsteps played his journey through the cold hall, until he reached the altar. The same that the FeyneKing had blessed him over.
Xacobe knew old and forgotten magix, ways of touching other worlds that had long since died in the lands of Mother Vixen, powerful magix that would serve his purpose.
Into the altar he placed a dagger blade, useless hilt removed. Agnia. The Feynemetal. Do the Feyne forsake me for using their gifts so?
He could feel eyes upon him though he knew it an impossibility, yet he felt their eyes, judging, condemning. Hate for what Xacobe had done, what he would do.
The words were old words. Words Xacobe took from his own father’s lips. He spoke them to echoes and blackness and to the agnia.
He felt it, he felt it beside him, the spirit, a formless presence .
“Who are you?” Xacobe heard a wisp voice ask.
“I can give you life,” he replied. The five words to bind a spirit, though you’d better not be lying, death hates liars.
“And in return?” the spirit forgot it’s own question.
“You are a death spirit,” Xacobe declared. “Bring death. And in return I shall give you life.”
“Who?” asked the death spirit.
“My eldest brother.”
by Will R. Boslem of Goldie R.P Boslem
139. Winter’s Breath
There was the fire, and then came the heat.
He knelt, quickly on the ground trying to stop the blood stream with his both dirty hands on his belly, screams could be heard all over the four corners of the world.
Lost bullets were lost in the sand and the boats, gradativelly penetrating the water fast as it found places and hit the soldiers possessively, holes on heads and shoulders and shaking bodies struggling to survive.
That man was called hugo, but his roommates used to call him ”hu”, which in his opinion was detestable nevertheless he cared though. Blue pale eyes like ice and dark hair matched his face, at this moment his body was stumbling and falling over and over in panic, trying to find guns and supriments throughout the masses of dead bodies and guts on the ground, stinking piss, where there was no other smell but only the shore.
He contemplated the red sky as the sun hid itself behind the sea, he contemplated death as it was in it’s most terrifying form.
Then he realized it was a new life, in disguise.
by Gabriel L.
140. This Life for the Next
The mists came quickly, enshrouding everything in a tomb of hazed paranoia. Karj grew still, listening through the thick sound of silence. He’d been on the run for days, narrowly avoiding the touch of death on several occasions. The stillness meddled with time, and anxiousness began to slither its way through his bones again. He needed to move. To relocate. To escape the damp omen. At least until he could reverse what had been done.
The pursuit was now part of Karj’s existence – a byproduct of his curiosity and wanderlust. Three years ago he happened upon the ramshackle shrine in the Gnarlwood. The structure was consumed by ravenous vines and powdery white moss. A worn, featureless statue stood sentry within. Withered husks of the incessant vine curled around its plinth, reminding him of worms caught in the afternoon sun.
Carved out of a waxy gray soapstone, the opposite side held the visage of a pleading, robed figure with its palms stretched outwards. The androgynous creature reminded Karj of the priests of the Lost God. He was one of few allowed to observe their forbidden rituals – a boon granted to him by the Primeri. Most who wandered upon their conclave were kept as ritualistic fuel. Karj was allowed the rest of this life in exchange for the next.
The temptation took the form of a venomous green gem resting in the left palm of the faceless figure. It looked lonely so, as he was known to do, Karj liberated the gem of its carefully constructed prison. Immediately the fog coalesced. He tried to replace the stone, but the statue had shifted, clasping its hands together and bowing its head. A terrible howling sound had split the stagnant air then. His instinct to flee keeping him alive for another day.
by Drew Gerken
141. Life, Love and Death
Someone once said Death is the betrayer of a virtuous life. It explains why I’ve lived so long. I am not a good woman.
As I lean back on my throne I see the bodies, smell the blood, hear the cries of those who called themselves heroes and now whimper for their mothers. What’s worse, there’s no one left to shut them up.
My eyes are drawn to the window, beyond it black smoke billows into the sky, carrying with it the sounds of hundreds of acts of violence committed against the innocents who didn’t have the sense to get out when they should. Idiots. They’ll blame me for that too.
Finally, my attention is drawn to the man in front of me with his sad smile. He stares with those dark caramel eyes and, for a moment, I lose myself in their depths. His blood-spattered face, heaving chest and lithe body remind me of better times. When I captured him, a lowly human, I had no idea how he’d not only satisfy me physically, but fill the gap where my heart used to be.
‘Quite a battle my love.’
I nod. Even now I find his masculinity intoxicating, I can smell his sweat, I beckon him closer and run a finger across his blood-stained cheek. He grins briefly.
‘Tir na nÓg needs peace. So do my people.’
I sigh. Relinquishing power is a new sensation.
I tear my eyes from his, focus on his sword buried deep in my chest.
‘I’m sorry. Your tyranny had to end,’ he whispers though there’s no one left to hear.
His eyes widen as I drive my dagger into his heart and he collapses on top of me.
‘I’m sorry too.’ And I mean it.
Apparently death betrays love, as well as life.
by Phil Parker