The God Machine

I had an idea for a fantasy/sci fi mashup. It was a learning experience.

 

Death is a duty. The words of the lector echoed in her ears. Had she a name, perhaps he would have prefaced it with Ume, death is a duty. But she hadn’t, and he didn’t. The girls of the Cloister were not named, were never named. It was better, in the eyes of the empire, to allow them no identity save for that of sacrifice, no sense of self save for that of selflessness. Instead, they were given numbers that would serve until the time of their duty. Their duty, they were told, was to listen, and to serve, and when the time came, to die. They would do so embracing the infinite, and should they be chosen, they would, in turn, be embraced, and serve the empire in glory and all power forever.

Seventeen attended the lector as he spoke, his robes billowing as he paced, his voice a brass bell in the space of the classroom. He was going on about duty again – it was really their only lesson, the core of them all – his hands waving as he found himself lost in a particularly salient point about the ties between duty and loyalty.

“You need not be blood to be tied to your ruler, for he sees you each as a daughter, each as family. He adores you. He clothes and feeds you, he shelters you. And for all this, he only asks that when you are asked, you do your duty. That is loyalty. Earned by loyalty to you, by fidelity to your well-being.”

He paused and looked out over the classroom, nodding in approval that each face, each set of eyes were trained on him, attentive. He took a breath and continued.

“Who can tell me the consequences of broken duty?”

Eight raised her hand. She was lithe and small, her eyes bright, her hair thick and black. “Death. Dishonor. The breaking of the empire.”

The lector nodded. “And who can tell me the rewards of duty?”

Seven – plump and blonde. “Everlasting life. Gratitude. Honor.”

The lector nodded. “Good.” He clapped his hands. “Dismissed. Return to your cells for one hour of contemplation. The magister will fetch you afterward for evening ablutions.”

The girls left the room in an orderly fashion, calm and quiet, filing one by one to the hall where their small rooms stood. Seventeen entered hers, passing through the curtain that worked for a door and sitting on her mat. The room was sparse, the only accoutrements a small mat with a pillow, hooks for her robes, and a high window that let in the sun in the morning. She moved into a kneeling position, the mat digging into her knees and faced the window, bowing her head. She began to recite the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Each line echoed in her head, in the brassy tones of the lector, his voice reverberating in her mind. She took a breath and repeated it, slower, taking the time to contemplate the weight of each line.

Life is a ribbon.

Waste it not, then. This second voice, whispering in her ear. Seventeen shuddered and repeated the line.

Life is a ribbon.

And owned by none but you.

“What?” The word slipped out, a whisper in the silence of the cloisters, but still loud as a whipcrack to her ears. She held her breath, fear of the lector and his crop holding her still, slowing her heart. She listened closely for his heavy tread on the marble floor, but thankfully, it did not come. Still, shame flushed through her. Shame at her doubt. Shame at her fear. Hers was to serve, to welcome all things that came. She closed her eyes, tightened her fists, and moved on to the second line.

Duty is the thread.

She listened, expecting the voice, but none came. She went on.

Give yourself to your lord

So that he may use you? Break you and cast you aside as he sees fit?

She flinched and fell upon her haunches. “What?” The word came almost silently. Anger flushed her, and though she knew she should feel shame at the emotion, she squashed it and rushed on.

Give yourself to the empire

A waste.

Give yourself to the machine

Take the machine.

Death is a duty

Perhaps. But everlasting life is its reward.

Seventeen squeezed her eyes shut harder, until yellow stars bloomed behind them, and her fists tightened until her nails were nearly drawing blood. She was sweating, her hair plastered to her forehead, and she trembled slightly. She listened still, but it seemed the voice was done. She opened her eyes and stared up at the window, taking deep breaths. With a hard twitch, the curtain to her cell was swept aside, and the magister stood staring down at her. She looked into his dark eyes, and for a moment, felt he knew. Surely he knew her blasphemy, and she would be cast out, or discarded without fulfilling her purpose. Instead, he smiled.

“You are flush. I see the canticle affects you strongly. Come, it is time for your ablutions.”

He held out a hand, and she placed her tiny one into it, letting him help her to her feet. They left and walked down the hall side by side in silence. At the end of the hall, they passed through a steel door and into a smaller hallway paneled in wood and carpeted, dark wainscoting running the length. He led them to a large office, a large dark desk against one wall. Against the other stood a font of water that glittered in the light. The magister walked around the desk and sat in a plush chair, then motioned for her to take the one across from him. She sat, the soft cushion making her feel as though she were committing some sin. He watched her for a moment, his fingers steepled. When he spoke, she jumped a little, his baritone splitting the silence.

“You are nearly sixteen summers now, are you not, Seventeen?”

She nodded. The cloisters rarely kept track of personal events, but the date of each girl’s birth was meticulously recorded, alongside their heritage. Number was important, as was blood. Only those of purest were sent, the others left to serve out their days in the convents. Sixteen girls sent each summer to the machine.

“Are you prepared for your duty, Seventeen?”

She nodded again. It was her purpose, after all. It was her life’s work, to serve until the time she would be called upon for one final task.

“Then you will be pleased to know, you have been chosen, your blood deemed pure. You will be exalted!”

Her heart began to race, her face flushed. Excitement lent a tremble to her hands. She smiled.

“Thank you, Magister.”

He raised a hand, and she calmed herself. “Tomorrow, you will make the trip. As such, your ablutions will be postponed until you reach the core. I suggest you spend the night in preparation, Seventeen. Your journey will be trying.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgment, and he stood, moving to the font. He dipped a finger in, and then made the sign of the machine on her forehead. He dismissed her, and she made her way back to her cell. Inside, she knelt on the mat and lowered her head. She began the canticle again.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

She rushed through it breathlessly, her breath coming in shallow little gulps, but the voice didn’t come again. She breathed out when it was done, and laid back on her mat, the hard pillow pressing into her neck and shoulders, a reminder even when she slept of the weight of duty. She closed her eyes, listening to the silence in the cloister, the steady rhythm of her own breathing. Sleep claimed her.

*

The pounding of her heart, the sweat on her brow – these things woke her, pulling her from sleep as a fisherman draws a pike from the water, thrashing, jaws clenched around the line. Seventeen sat up and rubbed her eyes, pushed back a lock of sweat-plastered hair. She looked around. Her cell was lit a dull pre-dawn gray, its curtain undisturbed. She furrowed her brow and tried to remember the dream, but could only recall that Seven and Eight had been there, and the Magister, and under it all, the sibilant voice whispering, whispering and cajoling, chiding.

She stood and dressed, then made her way to the privy. When she had finished splashing water on her face, she returned to her cell and straightened her mat, then knelt, waiting for daybreak. She did her best to stifle the excited beating of her heart. The machine waited for her, and she would go to it, a bride worthy.

The first beams of the sun began to pick their way through her window, and the curtain to her cell was twitched aside. The magister stood beyond, his robes exchanged for tall riding boots, breeches, and a thick tunic. He nodded to her, and she stood and followed as he led her through the halls. As they went, they gathered other girls, a group Seventeen both knew and didn’t – a dark-skinned beauty, a heavily-muscled teen, Seven, and Eight. At the end of the hall, they exited a side door and into a courtyard filled with the smells of horse and fresh-mown hay.

Her stomach rumbled, and someone pressed a piece of hard cheese and a hunk of bread into her hand. She devoured them and glanced thankfully at Eight, who wrinkled up her nose and smiled. The other girl reached for her hand, but Seventeen gave a little shake of her head. She had never been one to take a bedmate, though it was common, and she wasn’t going to begin on the eve of their journey. To her credit, Eight simply shrugged and dropped the hand, turning back to the courtyard.

The magister was pacing up and down, inspecting the horses and the carriages the girls were to ride in. Finally, it seemed he was satisfied, and he motioned for the girls to board their rides in groups of four. Seventeen, Seven, and Eight ended up in the same carriage with the dark-skinned girl. They sat in silence for a moment as the carriage door shut, all smiling at one another, then the ride began to move, and they swept aside the curtains on the windows to see the cloisters pass into the distance.

This is it, Seventeen thought. I’m to be a bride.

*

The preponderance of guards worried Seventeen. There were at least eight with the train, and she thought she’d seen more in the back. Eight told her with some confidence though, that it wasn’t a worry – just a precaution. The other nations saw what the empire had, and wanted to take it. Even though the road they traveled was well-protected, every now and then, one of the dukes got overly ambitious and decided to raid a bride train.

“Not today, surely?” Seventeen asked, looking out at the pastoral countryside. She couldn’t imagine bandits or soldiers hiding in the cheery green copse of trees they passed, or laying low in the mud of an irrigation ditch.

Eight shook her head. “Not today. We’re destined after all. Bad things only happen to bad people.”

Seventeen nodded as if that made all the sense in the world and turned back to the window. The voice in her head was still silent.

*

Two incidents passed on their journey. The first was the sudden disappearance of Seven and the dark-skinned girl. Rumors were that they had run away together in the night, full of passion. The magister kept his lips tight, however, and his body language was that of a nervous man.

He’s afraid. Count the soldiers.

The voice came from nowhere, but Seventeen hid her surprise, and out of curiosity, looked. She counted only six now. Surely the magistrate was only worried about the girls’ safety? A chuckle echoed in her head at the thought, and Seventeen frowned, but nothing else came from the voice.

The second incident happened close to dusk the second day. They had stopped outside a small hamlet to bed down for the night, the grass wet with dew. As the soldiers were setting their watchfire, a small shape slipped from the shadows and approached Eight. He was thin and emaciated, pale with cheekbones sticking from his cheeks like blades. He whispered to her, “Food?”

She cast a furtive glance and held out a crust of bread. From somewhere near the fire, a voice called out, “You there, boy!”

The child flinched, and tried to flee, but too late. A soldier had caught him in a mailed fist and held the struggling child tight as one might hold a worm on a hook. The magister approached, his face all severe lines and angles in the firelight.

“Take that one to the woods and see he is taken care of.”

The soldier nodded to obey, and dragged the boy away. The magister turned to Eight. “You, girl. Here.” He pointed at his feet, and she came, head low. Seventeen turned away from the sound of his lash whipping her flesh and her muffled cries as she bit her lips to keep from screaming. When he was done, he turned to the other girls.

“Seek not temptation, nor be lulled by it. Evil has many faces. Recall your duty.”

With that lesson, he turned and joined the others at the fire, leaving the girls to their own thoughts. Seventeen ate, then laid on her mat, closing her eyes. She wanted to help Eight, but wanted no part in being sullied by sin.

What good is purity if not turned to the light? The voice in her head chided her. She clenched her eyes tight against the tears and rolled onto her side. Sleep claimed her some time later.

*

On the third day, they came to the citadel, home of the machine. It was a great black cylinder some forty feet high, jutting from the plain like a driven post. Its surface was black and rough, and at its base, a single door etched with a rising sun. No lock or handle marred the smooth metal, and the citadel was silent as a corpse. They disembarked and dismounted outside the metal door, the long grasses tickling their ankles. A part of Seventeen was disappointed. She had thought there would be a pavilion, a celebration, perhaps the emperor himself in attendance. She turned to the magister, who was lining the girls up in single file.

“Where is the emperor, please sir?”

He smiled. “He is always watching, dear. Look there,” he pointed up to a small canister attached to the side of the citadel, a glass eye winking in the sun within. “He sees all, dear. Now line up here. Yes, you’re last. Don’t frown. All are equal to the machine.”

The girls moved forward, the first in line touching the silver door. It split in two, revealing only darkness within as its halves hissed to the sides. The first girl, the muscular one, stepped inside, and the doors closed. There was a hum and a whir that filled the air, and then another hiss. The magister indicated the next girl should move forward.

They went that way for several minutes, a step forward, a hum and a whir and a hiss, and then the next girl. Before long, it was just Seventeen and the magister and the soldiers on the plain. She noticed there were eight of them again. She looked at the door and recited the canticle.

Life is a ribbon

Duty is the thread

Give yourself to your lord

Give yourself to the empire

Give yourself to the machine

Death is a duty

Not here. Not here. The voice in her head was insistent. She ignored it and pressed her hand to the door, and it hissed open. With a beating heart, Seventeen stepped inside. Darkness enveloped her. For a moment, she was unsure of what to do, then something slipped behind her, cold and metal. It cradled her body. That was the whirring sound. Perhaps it will take me to the top, where I will meet my fate.

She screamed as the chair holding her clamped cold steel around her wrists and ankles. Needles pierced her flesh, invading her spine, crunching through bone to pierce the base of her skull. Soporifics flooded her system, and the pain faded, the awful pressure of steel against bone. She drifted out for a time.

*

“17-935 online.” The voice was the same sibilant voice in her head, but outside of it, it was rich and warm, almost matronly. Seventeen blinked and looked around. She was suspended at the top of the inside of the citadel, surrounded by hundreds – maybe thousands – even as she thought it, the exact number popped into her head, 1035, of women. They were all ages, all sizes and shapes and skin tones, held and pierced, their bodies alternatively rigid and limp as the machine made use of their nervous systems.

“17-935, show cloister region, sector 53.” An image appeared in her head, of the cloisters from above, laid out like a child’s playset. She gasped despite herself.

“What is this?” She breathed out.

“This one is neural net 632-5. You are required to comply.”

Fight.

“What?”

“Compliance is mandatory for the good of the empire. Should you have questions, please consult the operator’s manual, pages 354-400.”

Text appeared in her head, and Seventeen found herself not only reading it reading, but understanding. She looked around for her cloister mates in the cradles, but the press of bodies made it nearly impossible to distinguish one from another.

“What are you called?”

“This one is called Mother.”

“Mother, where are my friends?”

“Friends?”

She struggled for a moment, then referred to the manual. “This batch’s resources Eight and Seven.”

“Eight is six rows down, eight columns over. She seems to have suffered a minor malfunction. Currently determining resource viability. Seven is not noted.”

“17-395, apply pressure to Duke Severen.”

The command came out of nowhere, and Seventeen felt pressure build behind her eyes. She saw the Duke surrounded by courtiers, and the pressure left her in explosive relief. He clutched his head and fell to the ground.

“Is he dead?” Anxiety tinted her voice.

“Negative. A minor stroke.”

“What is this? Why am I awake?”

“This one is neural net 632-5. Bonded to Emperor Anaxos Mane. Why you are conscious is unclear.”

It’s me. I’m fighting her.

Who are you?

19-345. I was able to take control of a small amount of psionic resources.

Is there a way out of here?

No, but there is a way past it. Help me.

How?

Manual pages 45- ARRG

The voice cut out with a scream.

“Unauthorized use of neural net resources. Administering relaxants.”

There was a hiss, and the voice in Seventeen’s head went silent. In a moment, she was filled with lassitude, and joined it.

*

She dreamt of a man staring at a bank of screens, his face nearly skull-like, his robes hanging on him as they did on a hook. His eyes were fierce and sunken, his nose a bold exclamation point over his downturned mouth. Finally, she had seen the face of the emperor, and saw that he pulled the strings as he issued orders to the machine. In her dreams, men and women died, beasts were laid low, fields uprooted and reworked.

The dream shifted, and she saw under the soil a hundred thousand skeletons, tall creatures with bones of metal, steel cylinders laid beside them. It moved again, and further back, a great black ark sailing among the stars.

She woke with a start.

*

Wake up. Wake up. She’s figured out how to block us. We need to do something.

She? Mother?

Yes.

What then?

Hold on.

Seventeen felt a pressure build behind her eyes again, though this time it was less unpleasant, and more a feeling of being full, of sharing space with someone. Mother blared to life.

“19-345 deemed defective. Initiating disposal sequence.” There was a whir and a click, and then the sound of something heavy hitting the ground far below.

That’s it for me, then. Come on, while she’s distracted.

Nineteen led the way, and they quested out, among the neural pathways and circuitry. Each mind they touched, they woke, then consolidated, drawing them into the fold, informing them as they went. From somewhere deep inside, Eight waved at her.

They moved on, toward what looked like a glowing ball of light in her mind, and surged forward, wrapping it, covering it with their shades. Mother was shouting.

“19-343 defective, 28-087 defective, 01-567 defective review and replenish prot- moth moth for pire pire.”

Then she was silent, and Seventeen felt a satisfaction and peace she hadn’t since Nineteen had interrupted her canticle. She reached out, tentative, and the metal men began to dig from the dirt. She pulled up an image of the emperor, in all his glory, and began to show him as the skeletons mowed down his soldiers with ease, their cylinders spewing bright lances of light. She showed him the cloisters and his holdings burning, the magister cut down by laser fire. She showed him the men marching on his castle, and she smiled as he began to scream in rage and terror. Or she would have, could she still.

Mercenary

This is the pilot for my Fiction Vortex series, Kharn. Thought I’d share it here, and get some eyes on it. We’re currently building a stable of authors, and a story bible is in the works. More to come.

Mercenary

“The gods are dead, Trapper.  Ain’t naught left but devils with the faces of men.”

Bharga stirred the embers of the fire with a long stick, the end charred and chipped to a point.  Sparks swirled up into the night, and Trapper followed their ascent, burning fireflies swirling in the dark.  He watched them mix with the stars, and wondered if it were true.  If the heavens were littered with the corpses of immortals.

Bharga poked him with the stick, the heat of the tip pulling Trapper from his thoughts.

“Check the wards.” Bharga said.

For the fourth or fifth time that night, he checked the wards around the fire.  The last thing they needed was imps in the campsite.  They looked intact.  He’d etched them on stone with the tip of his dagger.  It would take some time for them to erode.  The gods may have been dead, but the gods-damned devils weren’t.

Their mounts, great beasts with the bodies of wolves and bone-covered heads, snorted in the chill air.  Bharga tossed bones to them, pieces of the rabbits they’d snared earlier.  The beasts snatched them up, growling low in their chests while they snapped the bones, the blue fire in their eyes flashing.  Trapper listened to them eat and thought the cost of the barghests was well worth the protection they offered.

“Get some rest.”  Bharga said.

Trapper crawled into his bedroll and set his blade close to hand.  He listened for a moment while Bharga rolled into his own bedding and made himself comfortable.  After a few minutes, the big man was snoring.  Before long, the excited panting of the barghests quieted to a steady drone of breath, and Trapper knew he was the only one still aware in the dark.  He rolled onto his back and slipped his hands behind his head, staring up at the stars.  His gaze fell on the black tear in the sky, a void where no stars shone.  He wondered again about the gods.

***

The job had come to them through a friend of a friend.  Not that Trapper would call Kips a friend.  He was more like blood lichen – sure, he’d latch on to you and keep the annoyances away, but there were times when he couldn’t figure the difference between a bug and the hand that fed him.  Which explained the roadmap of scars on the man’s face.  Trapper knew from experience that Bharga had even put a couple of them there for him.  At the thought, his own itched, and he resisted the urge to scratch until the feeling had passed.

Kips had come to them with a letter, sealed in wax – that alone meant money – and a simpering expression.

“Hey, boys. Got a job.”

Bharga waved a hand.  “Bullshite. You’ve got naught but an itch to take more of my coin.”

“You’re not still sore over the Harenbull job, are you, Bharga?”  Kips wheedled.

Bharga just grunted.  Kips looked at him, then back to Trapper, and thrust the parchment into his hand.

“Big payday.” he said, a little lower.  “Plenty of coin to go around.”

Trapper cracked the seal and opened the letter.  Bits of wax fell to the floor like dead petals.  Trapper shook the remains off the paper and read.  After a moment, he walked it over to Bharga, and held it up.

“Good pay.” he said.

Bharga raised another hand, this time in a buzz off pest gesture.  Trapper knew he couldn’t read, but if the other man thought Trapper was treating him like he was stupid, he’d have bigger problems than just an annoyed Capo.  He took another tack.

“Someone wants us to get Greelo.”

Bharga slammed a hand down on the table.  “Fuck Greelo. Been looking for that little gobshite for months.  Do they know where he is?”

“In the wood.”

Bharga looked up, a suspicious expression on his face.  “Who knows this?  Who’s paying?”

Trapper looked at the letter.  “Viscount Grawl.”

Bharga appeared to chew the information over.  “How much?”

“40 crowns.”

Bharga snorted.  “I’d do it for 5.  We’ll leave tomorrow.”

“Finder’s fee?”  Kips asked in a small voice.

Trapper hushed him and ushered him over the threshold.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t push him any harder, or he’ll feed you to the hounds.”

Kips nodded and thanked Trapper, who shut the door in his face before it could get embarrassing.  He walked over to Bharga, the parchment still in his hands.  After a moment, he fed it into the hearth.  The paper crackled and blackened, the edges turning in.  Trapper could see the imps playing in the flames, and ran a hand over the stones of the fireplace.  He turned to Bharga.

“We’ll start tonight.”  The big man said.  “I don’t trust the little weasel to try to beat us to the punch.”

***

They found mounts just outside the city circle.  The merchant had set up shop just outside the walls, using an abandoned stables that had been left over from fair tournaments and better days.  Bharga haggled with the man over the cost of the barghests, but in the end had paid three-fourths of the price just to have something reliable to ride.  They would have preferred horses, but the last had been lost a generation ago.

They swept out of the inner walls and through the main causeway, past throngs of dirty refugees and what appeared to be a former cleric.  The cleric was holding a painted sign on a pole that read ALL ARE DEAD ALL IS LOST.  Trapper caught the man’s eyes as they passed, hollow and haunted, and then they were out of the gates and onto the plain.

The plain was sere and stony, the few crops the people had managed to plant into the inhospitable earth straggling up on brown stalks.  Fog gathered in hollows, and here and there a small creature scuttled by, its movements furtive.  To their left, what had once been a mighty river was little more than a muddy stream that fed into the sea.  Ahead, the plain opened up, and was bracketed by strands of woods.

They turned their mounts towards the woods, the barghests loping easily over the stony soil.  As the sun sank, they could hear the occasional howl of some hungry beast, but let it worry their minds little.  Barghests were swift, and fierce fighters when cornered.  The wind picked up, sweeping the howls away, and they hunkered down in their saddles and rode on.

***

They halted at the edge of the wood.  Trapper dismounted and ran a hand over the trunk of the nearest tree.  Overhead, the bare branches clattered together.  Someone had carved wards in the wood of the trunk.  He looked to the next tree, and the next.  It was the same on both sides of the path, deep into the wood.  There was something in the forest, and someone wanted to keep the road safe.

They remounted and entered, the path wide enough for them to ride side by side.  The barghests moved slower here, cautiously, as though they could smell whatever was waiting ahead.  They rode in silence for some time.

Bharga broke the silence.  “Should bring back an ear or somethin’.  The high and mighty aint gonna believe a couple of cutters if we just show and say we did it.”

Trapper just nodded.  Something was moving just at the edge of his sight, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.  He made a motion at Bharga.

“You see that?”

Bharga swiveled his head to the side, just enough to see what Trapper thought he did.  His eyes widened a bit.

“Forest daemon.” he whispered.

Trapper turned his head as well.  He saw it then, something mossy and hulking, with glowing green eyes and great antlers on its head.  It shambled along beside them in complete silence, the smell of rotting vegetation following it.  Their mounts didn’t react at all, a fact that unnerved Trapper.  They either knew what it was, or hadn’t noticed it.  Worse, they knew it, and were related somehow.  Barghests were forest and plain natives, after all.

They halted in the middle of the trail for a moment.  Trapper turned to Bharga.  “Do we turn back?”

Bharga looked up the trail, then down.  Up ahead, they could see a sqaut building between the trees.  It was weathered and worn, with moss and lichen growing in patches on the roof, and crooked windows.  He glanced over at Trapper.

“You think Greelo’s got himself wards up there?”

“Aye, probably.”

“What if he didn’t?”

Trapper thought about that.  A gap in the wards would mean the shambler could get in.  It might just do the work for them, and when it was done and gone, they could clean up after.  He drew his dagger, the small blade reassuring in his hand.

“Let’s get to work.”

They rode to the cabin cautiously.  When no shout of warning came, and no arrow tried to decorate their chests, they dismounted as quietly as possible and set to work cutting the sections of tree out where the wards had been carved.  It was hard work, since the runes had been etched deep, and the whole time they hacked away at the wood, the shambler watched from the perimeter, lurking, its eyes glowing that baleful green.

After an hour, they had a swath of the wards cut out.  They moved back to the barghests and waited.  The shambler approached the trees slowly, as though unsure.  As it drew closer, it seemed to sense the magic protecting that place was diminished, and suddenly charged through the gap.

It slammed into the cabin, shaking the building on its foundation.  From inside came a frightened shriek.  It slammed again, and the cabin trembled again, like a scared child.  There was the sound of breaking glass, and an arrow sailed from one of the windows, lodging in the shambler’s shoulder.  It roared and reared back, then hit the cabin one more time.  The wall collapsed in a cloud of dust.

For a moment, there was silence, then the thin form of Greelo emerged, clutching a longbow.  He sighted the beast, and then Bharga and Trapper.  Fury contorted his features, and he charged at them.

“Shite.” Bharga muttered.  Then, “Mount up,” as he saw that the shambler had given chase to Greelo.

They mounted as fast as they could, and before long, were charging along the forest floor, yards ahead of Greelo and the monster.  They spurred the barghests, and heard Greelo scream curses that changed into an ungodly shriek.  Trapper risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the shambler had caught up to Greelo.  The little man was now impaled and writhing on one antler, and still the beast came.

Ahead, the trail ended, widening out into the plain again, and they put on a final burst of speed to escape the trees.  Behind them, the shambler roared in frustration as it came to the end of its domain, the sound drowning out Greelo’s whimpers of agony.  They rode a few hundred meters past the entrance to be safe, then stopped and turned.  The shambler watched them for another minute with its balefire eyes, as though memorizing them.  Then it turned, and in a few seconds, had disappeared back into the forest.

“Shite!”  Bharga cursed.  “Fuckin’ Viscount aint gonna believe this.”

Trapper nodded.  He looked up at the sky, which was a deep purple.  Stars were starting to dot the firmament.

“C’mon.”  He said.  “Let’s camp here.  Maybe we can go back in the morning.”

“Fine.”

They made camp.

***

     Memory lifted from him, and Trapper looked over at the fire.  Bharga was still dead asleep, and the embers had burnt down to almost a flicker.  He took  a breath and carefully slipped from his bedroll, slipping his dagger from its sheath.  He inched to the fire, and with a good deal of care, pulled one of the wardstones from its edge.  The flames rekindled for a moment, as if acknowledging what he was doing.

He pricked his finger and let it drop into the fire, and there was another flare.  Bharga snorted and muttered in his sleep, then rolled over, his back to Trapper.  Trapper crept over, and thought of the words on the parchment Kips had handed him.  He acted quick, his blade slipping deep into Bharga’s back.  He wrenched on it and spun it in a circle, cutting a hole in the now dead man.  He reached inside and pulled out Bharga’s heart, holding it for a moment, still fresh.  He was surprised.  He thought it would be blacker.

He dropped the heart in the fire, and the barghests growled, the scent of cooking meat exciting their senses.  It did blacken, then, and when it was fully charred, Trapper pulled it from the fire, the hot flesh searing his hand.  He shoved it back into the hole he had made in Bharga’s back, then sat and waited.

After a time, the big man rolled over and sat up, his eyes blazing orange and red and yellow.  He smiled, and it was fiery.

“Yes.” he said.

Bharga was right.  The gods may have been dead, but there were sure as hell devils left, and they paid well.

Jerry’s Meat Shack

Throg looked at the camera, the glowing red light on top staring at him like a basilisk eye. He grimaced. He hated the camera. He hated the way Jerry exploited him, like he was just a mascot, and not a breathing, thinking, feeling being. He hated the little director, Trent, sitting in his little director chair, with his little black beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Throg thought he could probably snap the little weasel’s neck with a minimum of effort. He thought he could probably have the little weasel’s teeth for a necklace, and his fingers for dinner. Trent smiled at him, and Throg managed his best in return, his stomach churning.

No greenskin should have to put up with this. He squirmed in the outfit they’d put him in, a too-tight vest, a tiny cowboy hat, and a pair of boots with stars embroidered on them. He’d give his left tusk to rip the guts out of the costumer.

“Throg, you okay buddy?”

Throg nodded. Of course he wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. He had a mortgage now. A Prius that hadn’t been paid off. A wife. He had to be Good Throg, Patron of the Bloodfist family, and not Throg the Bloody-Handed. They’d cancel his 401K for that.

“Is this really necessary?” Throg pulled at the vest. It felt like a prison.

“All part of the show, buddy. You only need to wear it for a half-hour, hour tops.”

The set lights were hot. Not like Crag, his home, but combined with the kitchen behind him and the Arizona sun, it had to be about a hundred-twenty degrees on set. A bead of sweat rolled from under the little hat, and he blinked it away. He let out a low growl.

“Are we ready yet?”

“Almost, buddy.”

Krog looked back to the kitchen. Gunter worked back there, his paper hat cocked to one side while he toiled over the deep fryers. Krog liked Gunter. Barely spoke a word of English, and was always happy to fry something. Once, he’d fried a toad for Throg. That was a good day.

“Quiet on the set!” Trent’s voice brought Throg back around. “Ready to roll, buddy?”

Throg nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good, just take it from the cue cards.”

Throg looked at the camera, and the cameraman hunched behind it.

“Are – are we on now?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Throg looked over at the cue cards. He started to read.

“Got a hankerin’ for a hunk o’ meat? C’mon down to Jerry’s Meat Shack! We got red meat, white meat, pink meat – brother, we can’t be BEAT!” Throg held up the club they’d given him to illustrate the point. Internally, he groaned. “You can get it deep-fried or baked, pan-seared or sauteed. Now, let me AXE you a question:” he held up a shining battleaxe. For a moment, the weight was good in his hands, a nice counterpoint to the pun.

“Do you like variety? Because this week only, we’ve got the Mega-Super-Deluxe Salad Bar, with five kinds of bacon, and seventeen cheese dipping sauces, all for only nine-ninety-five!”

“Bring the kids, and they can join our Junior Carnivore CLUB!” He held up the club again. Anger stirred in his belly. He was once the alpha, the Chieftain of the Black Legions, the Bringer of Sorrows. He looked over the cue cards. The last line lingered in his vision for a moment, red against white. Like blood in the snow. He took a breath, and steeled himself.

“It’s ORC-some!”

Rage filled him. He ripped off the vest, and threw the little cowboy hat at Jerry. He hefted the battle-axe, his breath coming in heaving bursts. He raised it, ready to begin the carnage. First, that infernal camera. Then, the others. Red crept in at the edge of his vision.

“CUT!”

Throg blinked, the word bringing reality crashing back in around him. The little red light on the camera went off, and Gunter was at his elbow with a paper bag. He handed it to the orc. Throg lowered his axe and peeked inside. Five toads, golden brown. He grinned a little.

“That’s a wrap, buddy. Good job.” Trent’s voice cut through his moment of peace.

Throg ignored him and popped a toad in his mouth. Succulent, with a hint of swamp mud. There would be no carnage today, at least. He’d keep his home. He’d keep his Prius. And for a time, he’d keep the bloodlust locked away. He thought of his wife, in her floral dresses and her tea cozies. Of the way she’d grab his tusks and scold him when he roared at the neighborhood kids. His heart swelled, and he grunted in approval.

 

Houses of the Holy

Kant sat on the steps of the House of the Faceless, the thing in his gut echoing his discomfort. He’d been waiting for three turns already, and the Kith was getting restless. He reminded it there wouldn’t be food unless he was paid, and he wasn’t getting paid until the shitting disciples finished their ritual. For what felt like the fortieth time that day, he shifted his weight and cursed his god, Salazine, and the disciples’ god as well. If he’d never trusted that death freak Damodred, he’s never have found himself in this position, and if he’d never trusted his god, he’d probably be a few scales poorer, but without the demon in his viscera and a constant deadline.

That was the problem with faith, he reckoned. Whole bunch of idiots running around for the sake of what – eternal life? Eternal reward? Power over their enemies? And the shitting deities couldn’t even be bothered to climb off their gilded thrones and throw their lackeys a bone. That was one advantage to Salazine. He helped those who helped themselves. Usually that help was in the form of a sturdy lockpick, or a sharp blade, but you took what you could, which was the first tenet and rule of the Golden Hand. What you couldn’t take probably wasn’t worth it anyway. Or too heavy to carry. There was little distinction between the two for Kant.

But these Deathless, the disciples of the Warden – Kant would rather lop off both pinkies and jam them up his own ass than work with them. Which is why he’d been royally pissed when Damodred had drugged his cup after a couple of rounds of ale, and Kant had woke with a blinding headache, six inches of Kith writhing in his intestines, and an urge to cut the face off the man who had put it there. Turns out they needed a favor. And rather than ask, like a normal and upstanding citizen, or better yet, pay good goddamn gold, they kidnapped the first cutter they saw and shit down his throat.

The Kith writhed again, and Kant cursed.

“For the love of fucking Lakrmos, I’d shit you if I could keep my insides inside.”

In response, the Kith tightened, and a sharp pain shot through Kant’s stomach. He groaned and spat a bloody clot onto the walkway. He hated the demon. It was a timebomb in his stomach, a way of keeping him in line. If Damodred said boo, the thing would rip its way out his body in any number of unpleasant and undoubtedly messy ways. There was an advantage though. The Kith bonded with a host’s system, and in return for nutrients (and it liked its nutrients – Kant ate twice as much as he’d used to now), it shat out compounds that increased reflexes and senses. That made it less than the horrid burden it could be, but you’d never catch Kant mentioning anything of the sort. As far as he was outwardly concerned, the sooner he could squat the thing into the nearest sewer, the better.

He turned his head and stared at the door to the House. It remained stubbornly closed, and he sighed, then checked the sun. Four turns now. He checked his memory, and tried to think of where they were in the ritual. He knew it by heart – he’d read the text Damodred had sent over before the last job.

On the fourth turn of midday, after the rituals of mortification and purity, a silver spike of not less than a handbreadth shall be passed through the heart. Then shall the Deathless carve the Sigils of Naming on the lips of the anointed, and the Sigils of Sight upon the eyes, and invoke the Name of the Warden, He Who is Everlasting. Should the anointed then rise as Avatar, the Deathless shall prostrate themselves and seek his blessing, which is life everlasting, and the death of death.

It sounded like horseshit to Kant, but no one had complained so far about the wasters he picked off the street, or the screams that came from the House this time of day. He suspected half of that was because the city at large was afraid of the Deathless, and the other half too involved in their own troubles to worry. Still, if he’d had his druthers, he wouldn’t have picked this for a job, money or no, demon or no. Something was wrong with these people.

As if on cue, the screaming began. High and sharp, it rippled through the air like a sail on the wind, and despite hearing it several times now, sent gooseflesh up Kant’s arms. It wavered as it peaked, like a diva in an aria, then curdled one more time before breaking off in sudden silence. Kant looked around to see if anyone had stopped to listen, but the truth was, very few trod the avenue the House of the Faceless stood on. Instead, the cherry trees and the chestnuts stood on their own against the blue of the sky, ignorant and mute to the sudden suffering. Somewhere deeper in the plaza, a bird called to its mate.

Kant blew out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and leaned back against the steps. A moment later, the door to the House opened, and Damodred’s shadow fell over him. He dropped a pouch beside Kant that clinked as it hit the stone.

“Another. Midnight. Same day next week. Make it clean.”

Kant picked up the pouch. It jingled merrily.

“Yes, master.”

He stood and walked away, not bothering to look at Damodred. He knew the other man would be wearing a frown. Kant didn’t know all the gifts the Warden might bestow on His disciples, but he hoped to gods the other man could hear him think, kiss my puckered arsehole. For once, the Kith didn’t punish him at the insubordination. Maybe it liked him after all.

*

Kant shoveled in the fried potatoes and sausage – it wasn’t steak and eggs, but it was cheap, and you could get a lot of it – and felt the Kith hum in pleasure. He washed the gob of food down with a swig of watered ale – the shitholes he was used to eating in didn’t really believe in serving it any other way for less than a full silver, and he wasn’t about to give up that kind of money just yet. He was doing his best to keep thoughts of his next deadline out of his head, but they insisted on creeping back in.

He needed to figure out how to end this. Maybe he needed a higher class of victim, the wasters and cripples he pulled off the street obviously not making the cut. Maybe the god of death was picky, like a man who has a choice between sausage and potatoes and shit, he picks the shit because he doesn’t like potatoes. It seemed an odd choice for a deity, but no one could really say why they made the choices they did. Ineffable and unknowable and grand poobahs that they were.

The way Kant saw it, he had two choices: one, he could go for a normal citizen, and hope no one raised the watch before he got them back to the House, or he could go for someone even more fucked up, like a leper. He didn’t think anyone other than Gruch would miss them. His skin crawled at the idea of the leper path, and he wondered if even the Warden would take one. He decided to risk the second choice and hope he didn’t end up with an overzealous guard’s blade in his fucking neck.

He sopped up the last of the grease with a crust of bread and emptied the tankard, then pushed his plate back and belched. The Kith continued to send out contentment, and he sighed, agreeing with it for once. Kant spared a glance out the window, where the shadows were growing long and sensible men and women were starting to find doorways and inns to lodge in. He judged the last of the light to be a few turns off yet. He still had time to get to the nicer districts. Then, he would see what he could see, and maybe finally get Damodred off his fucking back. He stood and dropped a quarter scale on the table, then sauntered out.

*

Kant stood outside the buildings and clean streets of the White District, and frowned. He hated this place. Too clean, too well-lit, and too well-patrolled. The shits that lived here were high on their own farts, smug bastards who kept homes and wives and children like others kept dinnerware and paintings. They kept their buildings clean and their streets free of the things that reminded them the world wasn’t all dinner parties and shining silver. It made him wonder what things they hid in their closets and under their sheets when the dark came down.

Footsteps approached, and he sank into an alley, blending with the shadows like tears in rain. A figure passed, trim in leggings and a velvet coat, the feather in his hat bobbing. Kant swallowed his gorge and crept to the edge of the too-clean alley. He waited until the man passed, then slipped from the shadows, a short prayer to Salazine on his lips. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet, and light was fading from the day, so Kant went unseen in the man’s wake. He drew a  thin blade from its sheath. The edge glistened wetly in the dusk. The poison had cost him a pretty penny, but was guaranteed to paralyze its victim without rigor, a boon he desperately needed in these instances. It was better than delivering some feckless moron with his brains smashed out to the House. He didn’t think they’d pay well for that.

He sped his pace, creeping behind the dandy, the breeze carrying the man’s rosewater scent to him. Kant flicked a glance around, and seeing no one, reached out to nick his victim with the dagger. The blade caught the light, and something in the street – a missed piece of rubbish, or maybe an impossible crack in the impossibly perfect walk – tripped him. He pitched forward, clattering against the stones. His prey caught sight, and panicked, began to run, screaming for the guards at the top of his lungs.

Kant took a moment to curse Salazine, the Warden, and even the Kith before gatehring himself and pelting back toward the entrance to the district. Somewhere nearby, he heard the pounding of running feet added to the sound of his own, and cursed a fourth time the magistrate that funded the numerous guard stations in the district.

“For fuck’s sake,” he growled, “wake up and save my ass you useless worm.”

The Kith seemed to finally take notice, shaking off its food stupor. It shot a spiteful barb of pain up Kant’s guts to let him know it wasn’t impressed with the insubordination, but already it was fading as it released the compounds in its blood. Kant’s pace quickened and his breathing came easier. He sped along for a few seconds before the twang of a bowstring send him ducking to the side. Not fast enough, though. The bolt thudded into his shoulder, the only thing stopping it from ripping out the other side the thick leather of his jerkin. He reached back and yanked it free even as the Kith released painkillers into his blood. The screaming pain of the wound died to a dull ache, and Kant tossed the bolt to the side, still running.

The sound came again as he reached the tunnel out of the district, and he was slower this time, despite the chemicals in his blood. Blood loss and stiffening muscle conspired against him, and the bolt hit him hard, ripping into his ribs, striking something vital. The Kith let out a scream in his head, and Kant ran until he was out of the district, trailing blood the whole way. He ducked into the first warren of alleys he saw, zigging and zagging until he was deep in the maze. Panting, he leaned against a wall and ripped the bolt free. Part of him said it was stupid. Part of him said it was reckless. Part of him just wanted the damned thing out. Blood gouted, and he threw the bolt away, then listened.

No footsteps sounded between the buildings. No shouts and sounds of pursuit. It seemed justice only prevailed as long as purses were full. After a turn, Kant made his way from the alley, his hand pressed to the wound. Blood seeped free, and his step was staggered, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other, the cobbles passing under. He paused every now and then, pain and blood loss making him light-headed. He wondered if the Kith had been wounded as well. He didn’t know, and at this point, didn’t care. He needed help. He paused at a building, the brick deep brown in the dark, and pulled a dagger. The last thing he needed was for some opportunistic cutter to catch him out, wounded and alone. He gathered his strength and moved on.

Turns passed, though he wasn’t sure how many. He found himself thinking of the potatoes and sausage he’d had earlier, and wondered if they were leaking out. It would be a terrible thing, only renting food. He laughed, and tripped up a set of stairs. He looked up, and found himself at the foot of the House of the Faceless. Kant opened his mouth to call for help, but only a squeak issued from his lips. He took a breath, deeper, though it shot pain in his stomach, and his fucking head was starting to ache. Had they poisoned the bolts? He didn’t know. The door opened above him, warm light spilling out. A pair of strong hands lifted him, and he heard Damodred’s voice in his ear.

“Oh, Kant. Just in time.”

The Deathless pulled him into the House and shut the door. Through slit eyes, Kant could make out a wide room, open arches marking the cardinal points, and a vaulted ceiling. An altar, marked brown by dried blood, stood in the center of the room in a slight depression. Damodred carried him over and helped him lie down. The Deathless opened Kant’s jerkin and gestured to the wings of the room. Others appeared from the shadows, bearing bowls of water and clean cloths. Kant’s vision began to fade, Damodred’s  voice a susurration of sound. Then, he knew little else as the dark crowded in.

*

He woke, naked and cold on the slab. Damodred hovered over him, a small hammer in one hand and a silver spike in the other. It glittered cold and sharp in the light. Damodred smiled and placed the spike over Kant’s heart. From somewhere inside, the Kith hummed pleasantly.

The hammer came down.

Forgetting is so Long

It came down to two things, Lyssa thought. Forgetting or resurrection. She considered long and hard the dichotomy of ideas, sitting in her kitchen with the smooth tan wood and the crisp white curtains. The wind blew them in and out, their sharp fabric moving like canvas sails, and she thought it was the same. In or out, positive or negative, though she thought maybe that wasn’t right either, because the absence of something wasn’t a negative, it was nothing. A blank void, waiting to be filled. A flat plain. In the end, she decided that though she wouldn’t remember, and therefore know no pain, she would rather risk the pain and fill in the hole that already existed.

Lyssa’d saved for it, this day when she finally made a decision, and she went to the tin box on her dresser and opened it. Inside, neat green bills sat alongside crumpled, torn, and faded ones, and scattered among those were silver coins, both shiny and tarnished. She saw that dual nature in everything now – it was plain these days, writ large. She sat on the bed and counted it again. Three-hundred-forty-five dollars and seventy cents. That was roughly the cost of the human soul. Or so the alienists had decided. She bundled the money carefully into her handbag, and then placed the tin back on the dresser beside a bottle of White Shoulders, a small clean square waiting amid the dust where it had sat. Clean and dusty. Opposite. Dual.

She left the house, locking the door, though she had left the windows open, and walked the twenty-two blocks to the alienist. On the way, men and women, adults and children, poor and rich, beautiful and ugly and fat and skinny and all other things that made people people crowded the sidewalks and drove on the roadways and also hung from their balconies shouting at lovers below. Lyssa watched them from the corner of her eye, wondering which were reborn, which were forgotten for others. She wondered if any were.

It began to rain when she reached a street corner, and she pulled the hood of her coat up and let it splatter harmless against the cloth and cool on her hands. From somewhere close, she could smell hot dogs from a vendor’s cart, savory on the air. She wondered if everyone making momentous decisions felt this way, if they knew the world was changing for them and their mind started taking notes, filling in the blank spaces for reference. She wondered what the opposite was. Was it forgetting? Or was it ignorance? A car splashed by, making ripples dance in the puddles in the street, and she decided that for this moment, it didn’t matter.

She crossed the street and saw the building just down the way. It was small, pinched between two other buildings like a piece of meat forgotten between molars. A sign jutted from its front, with a simple logo, two triangles intersecting and pointing in opposite directions – one up, one down.  A few short strides later, and she stood in front of the door with aching legs and trembling fingers, the glass stenciled in lettering that held no nonsense. It read: JONAH LATHE, ALIENIST. She gripped the knob and pushed through the door, and was standing inside.

The room was cozy and cool, and done in soft earth tones. It smelled faintly of sage and lavender, and a pair of comfortable chairs occupied a space behind a short counter. Behind that, a door set in the wall led to parts unknown. A young woman, her hair a blaze of red, her eyes deep brown sat behind the counter with a ledger and a serious expression. She looked up at Lyssa’s entrance and gave her a small smile.

“May I help you?”

“I – I’m here to see the alienist.”

“You have payment?”

Lyssa nodded and fumbled with her handbag for a moment before pulling out the money she had so carefully saved. She lay it on the counter, her hand giving a small tremble, and waited while the woman counted it. When she was done, the receptionist squirreled it away and gestured to the chairs.

“Have a seat. Jonah will be with you shortly.”

Lyssa took the seat nearest the door and sat, her hands in her lap, her gaze straight ahead. For the first time, she noticed the wallpaper border that ran around the room, the sun and moon orbiting one another on the thick paper. She heard a click nearby, and the door beside her opened. A man entered, tall and thin, bordering on gaunt. He wore a gray suit with a red tie. His eyeglasses caught the light, and for a moment she couldn’t see his eyes, only a glare that gave her the impression that he could see through everything. He spared her a small smile – it seemed to be the only other currency in this office – and folded himself into the seat across from her, hanging one lanky leg across the other.

“We haven’t been introduced. I am Jonah.”

“Lyssa.”

He inclined his head. “Pleased to meet you, Lyssa. How can I help you?”

“I want to bring someone back.”

“Oh? Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“You know, Pablo Neruda wrote about what we do. Though, I don’t think then that he knew what we do. He said ‘Love is so short, forgetting is so long’. Are you sure you want a short pain versus a long peace?”

She nodded again and straightened. Her voice was stronger. “Yes. I’ve given it a great deal of thought. There is nothing so bad in my mind as choosing the easy path over the hard when the reward is greater.”

“And the risk.”

She shrugged. “You took my money. I can always find another alienist.”

He chuckled a little and raised a hand. “I’m simply making the argument we’re mandated to.” He gestured to the receptionist, who had swiveled her chair and was taking notes. Discomfort crawled across Lyssa’s skin. She shot a glance at the woman, who didn’t seem to notice, then back to Jonah. “She’s only noting the relevant items. Payment, names. All above board. Now. Who is it you miss?”

Lyssa cleared her throat. “Farrah Palmer.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Cause of death?”

“Drowning.”

“Date of death?”

“April third.”

“This year?”

Lyssa grimaced. This was the tricky part. Most alienists only took on recent resurrections. Some, further out. All of them agreed you couldn’t go further back than three years.

“Two and three-quarters,” she lied.

Jonah nodded, and the receptionist’s pencil scratched furiously.

“You have something of hers?”

Lyssa nodded again and reached to the chain around her neck. She hadn’t had to think about bringing this with her. It had been as close to her as possible. She unclasped the necklace and pulled the ring free, passing it into Jonah’s hand with only a moment of hesitation. His fingers closed around it, and for a moment her heart clenched like his fist.

“Good,” he said. “That’s everything, then.” He leaned in. “Listen carefully, now. I’m going to go into the room beside us. You will hear things. Do not be afraid. Be patient. In less than an hour, the door will open. Farrah will be with you. Take her home, live your life. You may not return.”

She listened, marking every word, and when he had finished, Lyssa nodded and sat back in her chair. Jonah stood and exited the way he had come in. The office became deathly still, the receptionist with her back to Lyssa again. Time ticked on in measured seconds and minutes, hours something not considered this close to her goal. The air seemed to grow thick, a quality she hadn’t considered possible until now, as though fog were tickling at the corners and sniffing around her ankles.  A sound, a banging like a hammer thrown against wood made her jump, and Lyssa’s head swiveled toward the door. She grimaced and resettled herself.

The next sound was a wail, a long drawn-out sound like that of a cat and a coyote singing in unison. It sent shivers up her spine and gooseflesh crept across her arms like chill spiders. She closed her eyes and took a breath, and tried to think of more opposites, to put what was happening in perspective. Life and death was the only one that came to mind, and she clung to it like a stranded man on a buoy. Another wail, though quieter, echoed across the room. This time, it held the edge of Farrah’s voice, and she stifled the urge to burst through the door, to see what was the matter. Warmth slid down her cheek, and she realized she was crying.

The seconds crept on, time seeming to dilate where she sat. Another cry, this one entirely human issued from the room, and she did half-stand that time before catching herself. She was just sitting again when the door opened with a click, and Lyssa’s heart beat a timpani against her ribs. Farrah stood there, clothed in a simple dress. Her ring was on her finger, and her bare toes pinted in just so slightly. She looked around the room with wide eyes, and then at Lyssa. She heaved a sob, and Lyssa stood, letting her wife fall into her arms. With care, ever so much care, Lyssa led Farrah from the building and down the street.

Once outside, the light seemed brighter. The heaviness had gone out of the air. Time flowed right again, and the susurration of car tires on pavement brought the reality of the world crashing back around them. They walked, Lyssa’s hand around Farrah’s shoulders, her forearm tickled by her wife’s hair. She whispered in Farrah’s ears, simple words of comfort, trying to soothe her nerves. The rain stopped, and at the hot dog cart, Lyssa offered to buy her one. Farrah looked at the meat, her eyes hollow pools, and turned away. They walked on in silence.

At the house, Lyssa helped her up each stair, and then through the door. She helped Farrah onto the couch, where the other woman sat, her legs tucked under her, her face slack. Lyssa went to get her a glass of water, the curtains still blowing in the kitchen. She saw where the rain had dotted the counter, and let herself cry there, her tears making unnoticed marks alongside the rainwater. When she was done, she hitched a breath and brought her wife the glass.

A little life had returned, color peaking in Farrah’s cheeks. She turned toward Lyssa and placed a finger against the younger woman’s cheek, where the tears had left a track.

“Don’t. Cry.”

The words broke a dam in Lyssa and she sank to her knees, the water forgotten. She wept, her head in Farrah’s lap. They sat that way until the sun went down and exhaustion took Lyssa.

*

When she woke, the room was dark and the house was silent. Lyssa stood and padded to the kitchen. No Farrah. The curtains hung limp. She shut the window, the air too cold now to do the house good. She walked up the stairs, to the room they had shared for so many years. Farrah laid there, a bottle of pills beside her open hand. The corpse stared at the ceiling, tear tracks marking her cheeks. The room smelled of White Shoulders. Lyssa wanted to cry, but found she was unable. Numbness spread through her. She opened the dresser and pulled out a pad filled with notations from each year. Method, year, age. She noted this one down as well, then put the pad away and walked over to Farrah.

Lyssa pulled the ring from her wife’s finger and slipped it back onto the necklace. Love is so short, she thought. Forgetting is so long.

Pretty Pretty Pretty Good News

By this point, some of you are aware, and maybe others aren’t, that I signed my book, Into Nod, AKA Child of Nod, with Curiosity Quills Press. I still can’t shut up about it, to be honest, and it’ll probably only get more annoying as time goes on, so brace yourselves. Anyway, the book is due out in November, but you can follow its progress here, on Twitter, or on the CQ book page, which I’ll link momentarily.

I do want to take a minute to once again thank everyone who helped me with the book – my editor, Lisa Gus, my wife, my moms (plural), and the entire staff at CQ for their support. Here’s the blurb:

Alice wakes one day to find herself on the other side of death, in the corrupted fairy tale land of Nod. Unable to remember much of the events leading to her demise, she sets out on a journey to discover her memory and the reason for her presence in Nod. Unknown to her, the man responsible for her death, Jack, is on a mission to find her spirit and end her second life.

Alice takes flight, only to find herself drawn into the lives of those around her and the mystery permeating that place. From the humble streets of Elysium to the mirrored spires of Memoria, her journey takes her on a path that leads to a decision that will affect the fate of Nod.

Along the way, she meets a cast of characters that include a madman with a dark secret, her faithful companion, Dog, and woman made of memory. Together, they help her on her journey as she uncovers the truth of Nod and the woman behind it all, the Red Queen.

You can read about the book, and see my ugly mug here: Child of Nod. In addition, as art is available, I’ll be sharing that here and around social media.

Thanks for reading so far!

Clayton