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.

The Black Choir

Here’s a short that just never really found purchase with any magazine. It’s a dark fantasy piece about loss, family, hope, and what happens when that hope turns dark. Enjoy.

 

Qoth hated the sound the dead men made. He scuffled his feet in the dust and stone of the yard between buildings, the creak of the Wheel drowning out his meager noise. Frustrated, he sighed and looked up, the Wheel filling his vision. It was a massive contraption of solid oak boards, pegs running its circumference. Each of the pegs held a noose, though only one was occupied at the moment, and the boards underneath the nooses were stained deep brown and yellow, remains of the men condemned there. The man currently attached to a noose made thick gagging sounds as the Wheel turned, almost matching the pitch of the bearings that smoothed its motion. His feet kicked, the black hood billowing in and out over his mouth as he struggled to breathe.

Qoth shuddered, the sight still hard to see after so many years. He wondered which sadist cum mystic had first thought of the Wheel, the idea that dying men might, in their last desperate moments between life and death, gasp out visions from the other side. The Wheel turned another click, and the man in the noose sucked in a breath, then keened it out as his trachea was pinched, the sound like a fleshy teakettle. The boards beneath him took on a darker hue, the contents of his bowels spilling into his trousers and soaking through, and red-robed seers and the motley collection of peasants leaned in close.

This was it. This was the moment of prognostication. Or bullshite. The talkers that actually broke through on the Wheel tended to mutter incomprehensible trite, a fact that never bothered the seers as they carefully recorded each word and frenetically pored over every syllable afterwards – at least until the next poor cutter was hung. Qoth wasn’t sure what they intended to learn. The gods were mute, blind, and deaf as far as he was concerned. He knew. He had once been a priest, a man of Atiesh. At least until the pox caught his family in its black grip.

The square drew quiet and Qoth glanced at the Wheel. It had reached its apex and stopped, the man on it hanging at the noon position. A slight breeze stirred, rippling the hood over his head and then, a voice, creaking like branches in the wind, spoke.

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

From Winter’s halls

And swollen tongues”

The last came as a strangled whisper, hard to hear, and yet the words reached Qoth’s ears anyway. The fabric of the hood darkened as blood gouted from the cutter’s split throat. Qoth looked away even as the seers pressed in, urging their scribes to write faster. The peasants were already turning away, and Qoth joined them, heading in the general direction of the warden’s office. There, they would have a wagon and the body. There, the dead would be still, and his work could start.

*

Qoth watched a spider crawling in a corner of the room, rolling something wrapped in webbing ahead of itself. The spider rolled the ball up the wall and affixed it with a strap of web. That done, it crawled into the center of its web to wait. Qoth thought that was the envious life – eat, mate, and sleep. He wondered how things would be different if he had never met Irina, if they had never had Iliana. Would he have turned down a different path, been more like that spider, perhaps? Would he even now, be lounging in a sitte den? Would he maybe even be a predator, waiting in the alleys and warrens of the city for his next prey? He didn’t know. Because he was what he was. As he had been, because of Irina. Because of Atiesh.

The warden that approached him was short and thick, a tree stump of a man who wore the typical leather and steel of the wardens, a dagger at each hip, and a small crossbow on his back. He cleared his throat when Qoth didn’t look up right away.

“Body’s ready.”

“Thank you.” Qoth stood to go, heading toward the door in the back that would lead to the small yard and the wagon with the body.

The warden gave him a look, one eye squinted. “What do you do with ’em anyway?”

Qoth shrugged. “All things served Atiesh in their time. Perhaps they will serve his soul in the afterlife as well.”

“Better you than me.”

Despite the fracturing of his faith, Qoth knew that the proper application of a platitude, or the appearance of a man sweeping the steps of his temple kept most from questioning him, especially if he had kept that temple shuttered for some time. Some viewed him as eccentric, others necessary – handlers of the dead were rare in an age of superstition – even if everyone knew his faith had collapsed.

Qoth spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I do what I must.”

The warden grunted, and handed Qoth a sliver of steel. It was meager payment, but it would do. Qoth slipped it into his vest and left the room as the warden busied himself at a small desk with a pile of parchment and a quill. Outside, the sun was still and hot overhead, and the yard here as dusty as it had been in the Wheel’s square. A small row of tarps lay against one side of the building in shadow, the bodies beneath waiting purification from the surgeon inside. Behind them, a wooden cart, handles long enough for a man to step between, stood with another piece of canvas covering it. Qoth approached and situated himself between the wooden poles, grasping one in each hand. With a grunt, he kicked off, and the wagon began to roll behind him. He maneuvered it into the street and down the hill, keeping to one side of the road. As he went, men and women avoided him. Death was commonplace in the city, but no one liked to be reminded of it. Heedless, he continued on.

*

His mind drifted. It was a bit of a trot to his temple, and between the weight of the cart and the sun overhead, he wanted only to occupy his thoughts with anything other than the heat and the labor.

“What do you desire?”

They were curled up in their bed, a great goose down mattress under them – a gift from the parishioners. Irina snuggled in next to him, her nose and lips against his neck, sending thrills through his chest. He shifted a bit, and looked at her, nestled in the crook of his arm.

“You.”

She smiled, and her hand traced the hair on his chest.

“And you, my succubus?”

She lowered her lids and the corners of her mouth curled up, mischief shining in her eyes. “This.” She rolled herself onto him and pushed off his chest until she was straddling him. He watched the muscles in her arms and belly, the inward pucker of her belly button. He grinned back at her and opened his mouth, thinking to quip at her. She leaned in, her hair falling around him like a curtain, and her lips found his. They were soft, and tasted of strawberry and wax. He closed his eyes, and-

“Watch it, you gobshite!”

Qoth blinked away the memory and stopped. A man was pacing away, gesturing, his fingers held up in a vee, muttering curses as he went.

“Forgive me, sir,” he muttered, then sighed, and continued on his way.

*

The body was starting to stink. The heat wasn’t helping things, but it wasn’t like winter, when you could pack the dead with ice and snow and dally for hours before the first signs of bloating appeared. Qoth stopped and walked to the back of the wagon, lifting the sheet that covered the man. He was an odd blue-yellow, the whites of his eyes shot to blood, his tongue protruding at an angle. Livid bruises surrounded his throat, and a rend in the flesh by the man’s voice box was puckered like overripe fruit that had burst. Qoth poked the naked skin of the man, and it took a moment for the dent to recover. Bloating had already set in. He’d have to hurry. He picked up the handles of the cart and began to move faster, trotting a little to set a quick pace. After a while, his mind drifted again, and he forgot the stink.

“I feel like a yak.”

“You look much better than a yak.”

Qoth curled his arm around Irina’s swollen belly and pulled her close, his lips finding her neck. She swatted him away, laughing, and stood.

“That’s how we got in this situation in the first place, you great horny goat.”

He chuckled and watched her as she tooled around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and setting a kettle over the fire.

“Will you do the meat?”

“Will you do the meat?” he asked.

She shot a look over her shoulder, and he joined her at the table, pulling a thick shank of beef from its paper, then a knife from the block. He set to work removing the fat and slicing it into thin strips for the stew. As they worked Irina began to hum. Qoth joined her.

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

Drop your trousers

Mind your dandy”

They burst into laughter, and laughter became tears as they fed each other’s good humor. Qoth looked at his wife, smiling, her eyes wet, and his heart ached.

The shadow of the Spire fell over Qoth, and he stopped the cart for a moment, glad to be from under the sun’s thumb. He stood that way for a time, wiping sweat from his brow, letting his heart ache. Atiesh would have approved. Through grief, joy. Through joy, service.

He waited until he had his breath back, and tears no longer stung the corners of his eyes, and moved on.

*

He was close. Qoth had entered the warren where his little temple stood. Small homes and hovels stood side by side, often wall to wall, their graying stone and rough wood competing for every inch of space. Once, this had been the heart of the city. But as the city grew, the warren was left behind. As are all things, Qoth thought. He thought again of how Atiesh had abandoned him. How he had run, desperate and mad with fear, from temple to temple, begging anyone – any god – to help him, and how he had been met with silence. His faith and family had died that day. It took him a long time – a year, maybe more – it all blended in the end. Finally, he had taken up care for the dead. Someone had to do it. Someone had to let the families of the lost know their loss was not in vain.

He rounded a corner, and saw the chemist’s shop. Memory flooded in again.

“Please, I need wort for my family!”

“Seven shims.”

“I don’t – look, when your sister was ill, who brought her soup every day? Irina. You were at Iliana’s baptism – this is a community, for gods’ sake!”

The chemist looked at him. “Wort is expensive, preacher. I’ve got a family, too.”

“Then loan it to me – you know I’ll pay when alms come in!”

The chemist shook his head. “I cannot. Please go before I call the wardens.”

Qoth let out a strangled cry and turned, fleeing from the door. He ran the distance home. He’d left them alone too long. He burst into his home, but it was too late. His daughter – Iliana, who had only been two summers, who he had sang lullabies to when the moon was just growing in the sky – lay in her crib, still as a stone. Grief constricted his heart, and he managed to stagger to the bedroom he shared with Irina. He stopped in the doorway, a scream escaping his lips. Only flies moved in the room, her eyes frozen to the ceiling. He’d fallen then, on his knees, and begged for the gift of resurrection. For the ear of a god – any god – to numb him, to take him, too. No answer came. No quarter was given for the grief he felt.

In the end, he had decided if he could no longer do for the gods or the living, he would find solace in the dead. That was where his family was, that was where he should be, or at least he thought. Yet every time he held the knife to his breast, fear stayed his hand. So, he collected the dead. He studied each one. And he made use of them, for the day he would be brave enough to join his family.

Not this day. Maybe not the next. But one day, surely.

*

Qoth rounded another corner, and the temple was before him. It was a small thing, clapboard and brick, with a steepled roof and the symbol of Atiesh – an open hand – on the peak. He aimed the cart for the back of the temple. He’d kept the place because it was perfect for his work. Being a religious institution, it was somewhat secluded from the bustle of buildings shoving each other for room in the warren. It had ample room on either side, and a spacious cemetery in the back. He reached the fence surrounding the cemetary, and dragged the cart in, then shut the gate behind him. That done, he dropped the handles and made his footsore way into the rear of the temple, where his living quarters were.

It was simple inside, a small living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Behind the temple stood a small water closet. The church had a little money for luxuries, usually reserved for promising students, and before they had installed him as preacher here, they had enchanted a pipe above the sink. It brought him warm but clean water from the well, saving him some work pumping. He touched it and a stream started, trickling into the basin. Qoth ran his hands under the water, watching it come away muddy as the dust was stripped from his skin. Next, he splashed his face, washing away more of the silt and sweat that seemed to make up so much of the city.

He touched the pipe again and made his way to the living area. He sat on a small chair and looked around, listening to the buzz of flies and the drip of water. A slow throb in his feet signaled a sleepless night, but it would be that anyway. He had work to do. He stood again and took down his knife, a simple sturdy blade, made for this kind of work, and went to the yard. He uncovered the body, the smell strong, but not overpowering. Someone had forgotten to close the dead man’s eyes, and he stared to the heavens. Too bad there’s not much to see there, Qoth thought, and got to work.

*

He dragged the body into the chapel proper. Two hundred eyes stared at him. One hundred mouths hung open, their muscles slack. It was a side effect of the words he’d carved into their chests. Calach – speak. Menoch – see. It had taken him some time to gather the bodies, each a hanged man from the Wheel. This one he pulled to an open spot on the wall, beside Irina. Her eyes saw nothing, and her lips were still, yet he felt as if she’d approve. He hoisted the body and nailed it in place with a steady hammering – spikes through the wrists and ankles. When he was done, he sat back, sweating. The bodies formed an unbroken chain that covered the walls and ceiling of the chapel, a tapestry of flesh he had meticulously gathered.

It had been work, keeping the stink down. He’d had to use a small battalion of charms to keep the decay and stench to a minimum. There was nothing he could do about the flies, though. Qoth stepped back and surveyed his work. Each word carved on the dead connected to other words, but for one – Iliana. Qoth moved to her, and with shaking hands, raised the knife. He could hear her small laughter in his mind. He carved the final word. Yanoch – live.

Fire raced across the words, connecting each to each, until the room glowed with it. As one, the dead groaned, and a voice spoke. It filled Qoth’s ears, and its sweetness made his heart ache.

“My love. Bring them to me.” In a corner, a rat that had been gnawing at the toes of one of the dead men burst, a spray of gore painting the corpse’s ankles.

Qoth fell to his knees and wept.

*

The doors of the temple of Atiesh were unbarred. Qoth stood on the steps, passing out fliers, smiling and chatting with passer-bys as they went about their day. Curious, Tvent – chemist by trade – approached. Qoth pressed a flyer into his hand.

“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”

“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”

“Found your faith again?”

“Never lost it, my good man. Now scurry along, and tell the others. The temple is taking new parishioners. You’ll want to hear this sermon.”

Tvent looked at the flyer in his hand and back to Qoth. The man’s excitement was palpable, and somewhat infectious. He walked away, and Qoth watched him go. When the flyers had been turned out to the last, he stepped into the temple, closing the door behind him. Candlelight glowed on a hundred bodies, and two hundred eyes watched as he approached Irina and stroked her cheek.

*

They came, one by one and two by two to the chapel. Families and friends, clutching the flyers he’d handed out, chattering of what it all meant. Inside, Qoth had hung tall white sheets he’d painted with scenes of family, portraits of Iliana and Irina. The congregation settled in the pews, and Qoth waited patiently for the last of the stragglers to arrive. Children darted between the rows and people chattered while passing around small cakes the local baker had made. It was a celebration, after all. A new leaf. A new life.

When they were all inside, Qoth closed the doors, and locked them. He carved a word into the chain of words around the jamb, closing the spell that would ensure nothing short of a giant’s axe could open them. He looked around, pleased. It seemed the entire warren had shown up. He took his time getting to the pulpit, stopping to greet Tvent – the man had brought his entire family – and the baker who had denied him bread more than once for fear his dough would be contaminated. Qoth smiled and shook their hands and asked after their businesses and extended family. Then he climbed the steps to the pulpit.

A low humming began in the room, and the congregation sat a little straighter, began to quiet. He took the rope in his hands that was tied to the sheets, and smiled beatifically.

“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”

He pulled on the rope. The sheets fell. The screaming began. It did not end until the goddess he had made broke them all. When it was over, Qoth sat on the steps of the pulpit, the bodies stinking in their pews. A low humming filled the room, sweet to his ears. It was the lullaby Irina would sing to Iliana as dusk fell.

Here’s the moon

I’ll see you soon

In the land of dreams

Don’t you cry

I’ll be by

To see you in your dreams

So tell me that you love me

Love me so

And don’t you cry

I’ll be by

I’ll see you in your dreams

Qoth closed his eyes and listened, and for a moment, he saw the sun-dappled room and his wife and daughter, side by side in the big chair, their heads pressed together as she sang.

It Has Always Loved You

She’s there for you when you step from the pines, your feet wet, the soles plastered with needles, and the detritus of the forest clinging to you like flotsam in the sea. She wraps you in a towel, your skin cold and damp, the towel warm from her body heat, the nap rough against your bird’s chest and too-sharp shoulder blades. She tucks you under her arm, a mother bird taking in her fledgling, and you can feel the softness of her stomach at your elbow, her breast at your cheek. It’s one of your first memories, the forest quaking behind you like a birthing goddess, your pulse loud in your temples. She looks down and smiles and her teeth are needles, her eyes pinpricks in the black of the sky.

You shudder and wake, coming from the dream like a bird flinging itself from a cliff. You fall, fall, fall, and then – wake, the room dark, the sheets cool and wet. The desert sits patiently outside your window, the rock and dust as ignorant of the moon as they are of man. You rub your hands together, the remnants of pins and needles dancing their way across your dry skin, and you reach for the glass of water there. The warm water washes your tongue, soothes your throat, and you stare out the window, the forest superimposed for a moment over the orange and yellow. A blink makes your lids rasp across your eyes, a swallow sends your throat bobbing like a fish coming up for air.

Aimee stirs in her sleep, murmurs a word – it’s unintelligible – and shifts. The play of muscles in her shoulder, the lay of her hair, the whisper of fabric over her skin- tiny tremors in your reality, and your heart clenches, a fist of fibers in your chest. You love her. It’s not a question. Still, there is doubt. Does she love you? Of course. She’s in this bed, isn’t she? She’s still in your life. And yet the question eats at you sometimes when you lie in the dark. It happens that way, all the questions you can’t ask in the daylight tear their way around your head like a pack of hungry wolves, devouring reason and rationality.

You reach out for her, your hand hovering over her shoulder. Do you wake her? Do you pull her close in her sleep and cling? No. Your hand drops. Would she understand? You settle for another sip of water and slip back under the sheet, your back to hers. She sighs small and presses into you, her shoulders digging into yours. Contentment wraps you like a blanket for a while. You sleep.

 *

She shakes you awake – no, that’s not right. The room shakes you awake, the neat drywall vibrating on its studs. Aimee is there, and she’s shouting something you can’t hear, her lips a pantomime of concern. It’s so hot, the desert is creeping in, and oh God why did you move to Vegas? You kick off the sheets and roll off the bed, landing on all fours, but the desert refuses to let you be. The heat crawls under your skin, and you’d give anything for the cool shade of the pines and the soothing wet of leaves on your feet. A lizard skitters up the wall – not unheard of in Nevada – and stops, its head hung in a judgmental angle, its eyes burning pits, and you know the desert can see you through it. You stand and shout and wave your arms, and it scurries up and disappears into a bad join in the wall.

Then Aimee is there, and she’s holding you, and though you are so hot, you let her, because her breath on your skin, in contrast to the hot room, is cool, and her tears are a balm for your fever. Then, her words come through, and you relax, sagging back onto the bed.

“…just a dream, just a dream. Shh. Shh.”

You close your eyes and lean your head against hers, and the room is cooling, and you wonder how she could ever love you.

*

“It’s time for a vacation,” she says. Then you’re driving north past miles of hot brown wasteland, and as you go, flat rock changes. It becomes tall rock dotted with scrub and then taller rock covered with snow, and then finally, blessedly, hills covered in trees and you don’t think you’ve ever seen anything so beautiful in your life, and you know here you can make it right, the terrors will stop, and she’ll love you.

It’s several miles in, and a way from home when she asks you. “Did you miss your mother?”

You shrug, your face turned to the window, the trees throwing shade and reflection at you. If you look up, the motion of the car makes the tops look like they’re dancing, and for a moment, you’re lost in the movement, a ballet of living wood. Then she asks it again, and you have to turn to her, because if she thinks you’re ignoring her, she’ll get mean, or what you think of as mean, and you don’t want to fight, not so close to home.

“I think so,” you say.

“Tell me about her.”

An image of a clearing, a thousand trees in every direction, green boughs still wet with morning dew, the smell of pine and loam, the squish-crackle of mulch between your toes. Warmth fills your chest, and you think of the woman-but-not-woman who met you when you stumbled from between the boles, the badgers and chipmunks and robins silent for once.

You struggle for the words and settle on “She was kind.” She was, after all. Only the men who came looking, the men with their knives and guns and loud, loud dogs were not, and then only for a short time.

“Is that it?” she asks.

You shrug again and then amend it. “You’ll see. Easier to meet her.”

You turn to the forest, fleeing past your window, and the soles of your feet ache, your tongue is dry. Not long now.

*

Aimee turns the car up a dirt path, little more than a rut in the road. After a moment, she stops it, and peers at the map on her phone. Magellan lost in the weeds. Her face scrunches up, her features a fist, and you smile. It’s easier now; the closer you are to home, to know you’re loved.

“Is this right?” She turns to you and jabs a finger at the map.

You nod. “Yeah. Just keep going.” And she does. She loves you, and she trusts you, and you smile again. So close now.

The car jounces and rattles, and every little scrape, Aimee cringes and lets a hiss out between clenched teeth. “She better be a damn good cook,” she jokes.

“I’ll have to roll you out of there.”

The car rounds a curve, and the road widens out to a flat drive, packed earth and pine needles, and you’re practically vibrating, and when it crunches to a stop, you leap out, your feet skidding in the loose dirt. Aimee follows, laughing a little at your eagerness, and then the door to the home ahead opens, and a woman, plump but not too much, old but not too much, stands in the opening, her smile wide. Her teeth are people teeth for this day, and her eyes a woman’s eyes, and she smiles at you, and then at Aimee. They hug on the porch, the overhang throwing them into shadow and mother says something into her ear, and they go inside, leaving you with the forest. You walk to a tree, your hand caressing the bark – just for a moment – and breathe in deep the smells of good earth, and not that blasted hellscape, and then you follow them in.

Inside, they sit across from each other – your mother and your lover – tall glasses of bright yellow lemonade sweating on the table between them. They’re chatting in low tones, and your mother pushes a tin of cookies – probably walnut – across the table, and they talk about little of importance while you drift through the house, your fingers finding every dent and rut of your childhood in the walls. In your room, the bed you spent so many summers on, listening to the rain pound the simple roof, smelling the ozone of lightning, is still soft and clean and cool. In the hall, finger paintings you’d done hang in crooked frames. In the closet, the bones of those long gone still sit in neat boxes, away from time and tide.

You make your way back to the kitchen, where your mother is alone.

“Where’s Aimee?”

Your mother chews her cookie, her needled teeth puncturing the dough like the blades of a thresher, and she chews, sips her lemonade. She gestures vaguely and then regards you with those pinpoint eyes.

“She wasn’t right for you, dear. Dragging you off to that damned desert. Dinner is in an hour. Go play.”

You step out the back door and pull off your shoes and your shirt, then place them next to Aimee’s body. The forest is so loud here, so close, and you only want to feel it beneath your feet. You look at Aimee, and you wonder – did she love me? I loved her. If she had loved me, she would still be here. She would have fought to stay.

You look at her a moment longer, her eyes staring at you, at nothing. The desert crowds into memory and you think of Aimee alone in that place had your mother sent her away. This was a kindness. Then the forest calls, and you step into the trees. It welcomes you, the wind through the branches the sigh of a long distant lover made close.

It has always loved you.

Gnome More

An old piece I picked up and finished, because the adage for every writer is ‘finish your shit’, and I tend to leave too many shorts undone. Enjoy.

 

Gnome More

                Arthur Pym was both surprised and a little dismayed to discover that his lawn gnome granted wishes.  After all, it wasn’t the sort of thing lawn gnomes usually did, was it?  Normally, they’d just stand there, the grass at their feet a little longer than the rest of the lawn, tall hat pointed toward the sky, beard resting across their belly.  Now though, it lay on its side, a bare patch of earth where it had stood exposed.  A single beetle trundled across the patch, and over one of Arthur’s fingers.

He sucked in a breath and clutched at his ankle.  He was sitting where he had fallen, having knocked the gnome over, his ankle throbbing.  He had stepped in a gopher hole and twisted his ankle, and at that moment, was having particularly vicious thoughts about rodents in general.  He sat for a moment, rubbing the bruised area, and when the throbbing abated somewhat, picked up the gnome.  He inspected it, checking for chips or cracks.  It seemed to be fine, so he set it down, his hand lingering on the hat.

His ankle gave another pang of pain, and he thought, I wish there were no more gophers.

There was a pop, like someone had sucked the air out of a plastic bottle, and a mild shock passed through his hand.  He jerked away and popped his fingers in his mouth, sucking the tips absently.  He looked around, hoping his neighbor, Cheryl, hadn’t seen.

After a moment, he turned his attention back to the hole he’d tripped over.  He froze in place, frowning at the lawn.  The hole was gone, and the mound leading to it, too.  The earth was smooth in its place, and littered with dandelions.  He looked around his yard and noticed more of the same, smooth green grass dotted with more dandelions than he’d seen in years.  He turned toward his garden patch, and noticed the row of carrots, which had previously been sparse and anemic, was full and ripe.  His brain struggled with the sudden change, as though someone had snuck in and done set dressing on his yard in the time it took him to blink.

He gathered himself, stood, and wandered back into the house, a bit dazed.   On the way in, he noticed his ankle no longer hurt.  He stepped into the house, letting the screen door bang behind him.  His wife, Renee, looked up from the kitchen table, where she had been reading a magazine with her feet up on a chair she’d pulled out.  Arthur went to the sink, and grabbed a glass from the cupboard.  He listened to the water fill the glass, aware that Renee was looking at his back.

“Hot out there?” She asked.

He took a long swallow of water.  “Yeah.  I think the gopher problem’s solved.”  He turned to look at her, but she was already back on her magazine.

“Mm-hm.  Good.”  She said.  He could tell she wasn’t really all that interested.  He set his glass down on the counter, and turned back to her.  He had opened his mouth to tell her about the thing with the gnome, when a knock at the door interrupted him.  It came again, almost immediately, loud and fast and angry.  He went to the door and peered out the peephole.

His other neighbor, Frank Cubbins, was standing on the porch, his fist raised to knock again.  He was red-faced and scowling.  Arthur opened the door just as Frank had reached forward to knock again, leaving the man standing for a moment with his fist in the air.

“Hello Frank.”  Arthur said, a hint of resignation in his voice.

Frank lowered his fist, but kept the scowl.  “When’s the last time you weeded your lawn?”  He asked, with no preamble.

Arthur shrugged.  “I have the lawn people out at least once a month.”

Frank shook his head.  “Not good enough.  Look!”  He pointed a fist over at his own lawn, which was overgrown with dandelions.

“Okaaay…” Arthur said.

“You’re costing me money, Art.  Get your shit together.  You can pay my next weed bill, or you can see me in court.”  That seemed to be the signal the conversation was over, and Frank turned smartly and marched back to his own house, slamming his front door shut with a bang that echoed in the quiet suburban air.

Arthur closed the door, and leaned against it.  He ran a hand over his face, then walked back to the kitchen.  Renee didn’t look up.

“Who was that?”  She asked.

“Frank.”

“Oh that’s nice.  Did you invite him to our barbecue next week?”

“Er – no.  Forgot.”

She sighed, as though Arthur’s memory was a burden, and said nothing more.  Arthur left the kitchen and walked into the back yard again, letting the screen door slam behind him.  He stood in the shadow of the eaves of his home, and stared out at his lawn.  After a moment, he walked over to the gnome, sat down next to it, and pulled it close to him.

I wish there were no Frank Cubbins, he thought.

The popping sound came again, as soon as he had the thought, and he felt a mild jolt, as though he’d just accidentally touched a live wire.  At the same time, there was a scream that came floating through the open kitchen window.  Arthur dropped the gnome.  It hit the ground with a soft thud and rolled on its side.  He stood, and ran into the house, banging the screen door behind him for a third time that day.

He skidded to a halt on the linoleum, his shoes letting out a squeak of protest.  His wife was standing by the table, the chair she’d been sitting on tipped over backwards.  She was looking at her belly, terrified, and running her hands over it.

“What is it?”  Arthur asked.

She looked up, tears smudging her mascara, her mouth distorted in an ‘O’ of shock.  “My babies!”

She lifted her shirt, and Arthur could see that her pregnancy had ended.  The skin of her stomach was taut and smooth, and her bellybutton was once again inverted.  He stood there staring at her for a moment, then looked around the kitchen.

He didn’t see blood, or amniotic fluid, or any other indicator that said she’d had a miscarriage or a surprise birth in the middle of the kitchen.  He only saw that her belly was flat, and she was distressed, and then he remembered his wish, and a cold rage worked its way into his stomach.

No more baby.  No more Frank, no more baby.  No more.

Renee was still staring at him, as though he might have an answer.

“Well?”  She demanded, letting her shirt drop.  “Are you going to say anything?  Are you just going to stand there?”

He struggled with himself for a moment.  Rage flowed over him, through him like cool, clear water.  It was refreshing to see the world for what it was.  He choked down the shout that had bubbled to the surface, and said through tight lips, “No”.

He turned on his heel, and walked through the back door, and across the lawn.  He picked up the gnome.  Then he made a very specific, very purposeful wish.

I wish my wife, Renee, would go away, and never come back.

                There was a pop, and a jolt, and then quiet.  He was aware of a bird singing in the sycamore tree in the corner of his yard, and the way the leaves rustled together as the wind blew the branches.  After a moment, he heard the slam of his front door.  He put the gnome down, and went back inside.  He got a glass of water, sat down, and began to think.

Wishes.  Are they unlimited?  I’ve already made three.  Maybe it’s only three.  What else do I wish for?  Pfft, that’s easy.  Money.  Cheryl?  Am I being petty?  World peace?  Hm.  What if it’s only three?  One way to find out…

                He stood, went to the back yard one more time, grabbed the gnome, and brought it inside.  He set the figurine on the table, ignoring the bits of dirt from the base that smudged the finish.

Something simple, he thought.

He put a hand on the gnome.

I wish I had a ham sandwich, on rye.

The familiar pop and shock came again, and a sandwich appeared on the table.  Arthur peeled back the top layer of bread.  No mayo, cheese, or lettuce?  He made a face.  He’d have to remember to be more careful with his wording.

He got up and rummaged through the fridge for a moment.  When he was done, he added some mayo and cheese and lettuce to the sandwich, then took it back to the table.  While he ate, he tried to think of what to do next.

You’re thinking too small, too petty, he told himself.  You need to be helpful.  You need to do the most good where it counts.  You need to be a hero.

The idea struck him, and his brain rang like a bell.  Some deep-seated part of him stood up taller, imagined a cape blowing in the wind, maybe reporters gathered around, and the strobe of flashes.  He finished his sandwich, feeling much happier than he had in the past couple of hours.  He picked up the gnome and carried it into the living room, where he sat on the couch, cradling it in the crook of his arm.

He turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels until he got to the news.  A middle-aged anchor in an Italian suit stared out at him, bobbing his head in time to his words, his gray hair absorbing the light.

“…and in other news, thousands of owls and hawks have been dying all over the world.  Experts say they were likely suffering from severe malnutrition due to a lack of readily available prey, most notably, gophers.”

There was a pause as the newsman shuffled his notes.

“In international news, the drought that has plagued Syria over the past few months has steadily grown worse.  An estimated three million families are now without water.  The Turkish government has said it is now seeing the biggest influx of refugees since the civil war.”

The newscaster went on, but Arthur had tuned him out.  A chance to save three million people?  Perfect.  He pulled the gnome close.

I wish there was enough water in Syria for all the families.

                The now-familiar pop sounded in the living room, drowning out the TV for a moment, and Arthur almost dropped the gnome as the shock passed through his arms.  He yawned and set the gnome to the side, then turned off the TV.  He’d done his good deed for the day.  He thought he would sleep well for the night.

He left the gnome in the dark; made sure the house was locked up, and went to bed.  His last thought as he turned out the light on his bedside table was an image of him having coffee with Cheryl while he revealed his secret to her.  He smiled slightly in his sleep.

*

                The next morning, Arthur woke with a grin on his face, and excitement tingling his nerves.  He threw his covers off, and ran down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  He walked to the living room with a spring in his step, and flopped onto the couch.  He set his coffee down and rubbed the gnome’s hat, grinning as he did so.

“So, shall we see what we’ve done?”  He asked it.

He grabbed the remote, and turned the TV on.  It took a minute to warm up, and as it did, he sipped his coffee.  The quiet in the living room was broken by the newscaster’s voice, sounding grim.

“If you’re just joining us, the nation of Syria is gone.  It was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea.  Initial reports are still coming in, but the estimate is that of more than 20 million lost.”

An icy pit of fear filled Arthur’s stomach.  His coffee threatened to come back up, and he felt acid fill his throat.

“Okay.  Okay.”  He said to the room.  “Okay.  I can fix this.”

He grabbed the gnome, and closed his eyes.  I wish to undo my last wish.

Nothing happened.  There was no popping sound, no jolt of electricity.  He tried again.

I wish Syria was normal, and all those people were alive.

Still nothing.  He swore furiously under his breath.

I WISH THOSE PEOPLE WERE STILL ALIVE.

                There was a pop, and a surge of electricity.  Arthur let out a sigh of relief, and opened his eyes, and then watched the news.  As usual, they had gone to commercial break.  Sure, all the world’s dying, but here, buy some soap.

I wish the commercials were gone.

He thought it before he had a chance to stop himself, and with a look of horror, pulled his hand away from the gnome.  PopZap.

The commercial ended mid-sentence, and the picture went black.  The newsman was back on, and looking somewhat confused.

“Oh?  Oh, all right.”  He said.  His hand went to his earpiece.  “Oh.  Oh God.”

The picture cut to a coastline, where the shot was shaky, and Arthur could hear the chop of helicopter blades overhead.  Dark shapes were emerging from the surf, in an unbroken line that went on for miles.

“This…this just in.”  Came the newscaster’s voice over the feed.  “Something is coming out of the sea that used to be Syria.  Eyewitnesses on the ground claim it to be the – no.  No way.  I’m not reading this.”  A sigh.  “Fine.  The dead.  They claim the dead are walking out of the sea.”

Below the pictures being beamed back, the stock scroll was nearly all red.  Arthur noticed, and blanched.  He’d done that, as well.  Without ad dollars, companies were failing.  The dollar would be worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper at this rate.  He thought of his pension, and his plans for a little boat.  He thought of his ideas for a future with Cheryl, and cursed under his breath.

“Make it right.”  He said, rubbing the gnome’s head.  “Make it right.”

Nothing happened.  He dropped his head.  In the background, the newscaster was drifting between the two stories – the living dead in the Middle East, and the fall of the dollar.  There was already talk of foreign markets falling as well.  The president was due to make a statement at any minute now – not that Arthur thought much of him.  Weasel of a man, hiding behind his vice-president’s skirts.  Weasel of a man.

Pop.  Zap.

                Cold dread fell into Arthur’s stomach like a bomb dropped down his throat.  He watched the news, horrified, as the feed cut to the White House lawn, where the Secret Service was chasing a man-sized weasel in a blue suit around the perfectly manicured grass.  The weasel was squeaking, and the reporter’s mic kept picking up noises that vaguely sounded like ‘USA USA’.

A knock at the front door interrupted Arthur’s frozen, horrified viewing, and he clutched the gnome close and got up to answer it.  Halfway there, it came again.  He wondered who it could be.  The CIA?  Secret Service?  Pizza guy?  He doubted the last one.  He opened the door to find Cheryl standing there, a worried look on her face. Her hand was still raised as if to knock, her mouth open. She lowered her hand, and a frown creased her forehead.

“Is that – is that a gnome?”

Arthur nodded.

“Why?”

He shrugged. Once you’re holding a garden decoration outside of a garden, it’s hard to explain why. He suddenly wanted her to touch it, though he couldn’t say why. In his head, an elaborate fantasy spooled itself out – Cheryl loving the gnome, and then him. Then he could share his secret. There was another pop, though distant, weaker. As if on cue, one corner of her mouth curled up and she reached a hesitant hand out.

“May I touch it?”

He held it out like a child happy to present his favorite toy. She took it, stroking its cap. Arthur blushed. She looked up, and the other side of her mouth joined the first, a Grinch smile if he’d ever seen one. Her sea-green eyes sparkled as they stared into his own mud-brown.

“Oh, I love it! I may never let it go. May I come in?”

He nodded dumbly, and she passed him, her hips brushing his, her free hand tousling his hair. He stood at the door, looking out. He almost wished someone had seen her going into the house. Sudden pain flared through his head, and he staggered. Arthur craned his neck to see what was happening, and caught a glimpse of Cheryl raising the gnome for another blow.

“Wha-” he managed to get out.

“I just love you both so much – there’s no way I can let you go. I just wish you could be mine forever. You’ll see, Artie. It’ll be good.”

The gnome descended, and blackness followed.

*

                Arthur woke in the garden. It was hard to move. It was hard to blink. Not that he could do either. His eyes were frozen open, his body rigid. On the upside, his head no longer ached. He tried to call for help, but his voice came out a thin squeal, like the world’s tiniest teakettle. The back door to his home opened, and Cheryl stepped out, cradling the gnome. She placed it next to Arthur and patted first it, and then him on the head.

“I don’t know what did it, Artie, but my wish came true. I have you, and this gnome, and we have our own little place. I’ll come out and visit you every day. We’ll be so happy.”

She turned and went back into the house. Black smoke rolled across the sky from the corner of his eye, and from the open door, Arthur could hear the newscaster. “They’re in the city! The dead are in the city!”

He wanted to sigh. He wanted to close his eyes. He couldn’t do either.

 

 

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.

Ferryman

Here’s an urban fantasy piece that might have gone somewhere, but I felt it was too weak. It’s an older bit, and kind of an exercise in character type and world-tinkering.

Ferryman

 

I drive the dead.  It’s a job.

 

If you were to ask how it started, I couldn’t answer.  The cab has always been there, just like the apartment on 34th, and the clients.  I’m always hard-pressed when I try to explain how or when it began, the gaps in my memory like dark chasms between neurons.  It’s the same black blank that comes to me when I try to make sense of the fact that I can see and speak with the dead, or that I should know the roads they travel.  After so many years, it just is, and I’ve learned to accept it.

 

Still, on some nights, when I’m sitting in the cab, and the meter’s off for a bit, in the silences that come between the drumming of rain on the roof, or the voice of a fare, I catch glimpses.  My mother, dressed in black, humming lullabies in a dim room, twilight filtering through.  My father, a hulking man, dark like mahogany, and depending on his mood, wearing either a fierce scowl, or a smile like moonlight.

 

It was one of those nights when she came to my cab.  Pale skin, the color of milk, and auburn hair that rippled and strayed in the wind.  She was wearing a knee-length dress, the kind of red that reminds you of dark roses, or wine.  She smiled through the window, her teeth straight and just white enough to let you know she’d lived, and got in.

 

My heart ached and let out a pang that let me know if she hadn’t already been gone, I would’ve never had a chance with her.

 

She got in, and closed the door behind her.  In the space of that second, I could hear the wind picking up, playing music on the concrete of the city while the rain increased its tempo against the roof of the cab, as though it wanted to go where she was.  More importantly, I could smell her.  Not in a creepy let-me-borrow-your-hair way, but in the way you notice someone when they pass by.

 

I could smell jasmine and vanilla, the wet musk of her hair, and the cloth of the dress that clung to her like a second skin.  I was trying not to stare in the rearview.  I reached for the meter, and stopped.

 

Her clothes were wet.

 

                You might think a thing like that shouldn’t surprise me.  The thing is, regular people, everyday people, with jobs and kids and mortgages, and most importantly, lives, don’t see the cab.  You only get a glimpse, a chance to ride if you’re already gone.  For this woman to get into my cab, she had to be very close, practically knocking on death’s door herself, and yet I saw only a healthy, rain-soaked lady.

 

I looked into the rearview again, and met her eyes.  They were the kind of dark green you only see on grass in the summer after a good rain.

 

“You sure you want this cab, miss?”  I looked for an excuse.  “I’m off-duty.  Should be another along in a few minutes.”

She smiled at my reflection.  “Yes, this is fine.  I’ll match half your fare if you can take me home.”

 

I thought about it.  I usually kept a pretty tight schedule, but it wasn’t like the dead were short on time.  I turned the heat up in the back a bit, and put the cab into gear.

 

“Where to?”

 

“42nd and Broadway.”  She said.

 

I eased into the street, traffic sparse that time of night.  The cab’s headlights cut the dark, revealed the edges of buildings, sidewalk, and asphalt, the white lines throwing back the light and glowing with a ghostlike quality.  Here and there pedestrians strolled beneath umbrellas, the glow of streetlamps making the black fabric glow in the night.

 

As I drove, I snuck quick glances into the rearview to check on the woman.  She stared out of the window, watching the city slip by.  Streetlight and neon lit her face in flashes as we passed.  She had begun to dry somewhat, though her hair still clung to her neck, and her clothing looked like it would be chilly if she stepped into the wind.

 

Despite her condition, her eyes had begun to droop, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before she was asleep.  I reached up and shut the meter off as quietly as possible, and heard her stir in the back.

 

I turned my attention back to the road, made a right, and drove on.

 

*

 

 

Bram Stoker once wrote that the dead travel fast.  Those dead had never come over the Jefferson Bridge at bar close.  I slowed the cab to a near halt, and waited for traffic to move along.  While I did, I kept an eye out for bicyclers who were crazy enough to still be riding this time of night and for the occasional case of road rage that might flare up and result in the cab being trashed.

 

What I said before – about the living not being able to see the cab.  It wasn’t exactly right.  The living can see the cab, in traffic, or in passing, but not when they’re looking for one.  They won’t go out of their way to hail me, or try to get in.  Most will even walk an extra few feet out of their way to avoid it.  To those people, the cab is dim, a shadow of a shadow in the waking world.  As a bonus, that instinct for the living to avoid it has kept my insurance premiums down.

 

I flicked a glance to the back of the cab.  The woman there slumped halfway between the seat and the window, her cheek pressed against the soft fabric.  I worried that she had passed, and I hadn’t noticed.  I watched for another moment, and saw her chest rise and fall, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat.  I turned back to the road, and crept forward with the traffic.

 

As we moved, traffic began to thin, revealing a small crowd of uniforms and flashing lights ahead.  Behind an officer directing traffic, was a group of about five others, police and EMTs, gathered around a twisted wreck.  Blood ran from the passenger door, either torn or cut off from the accident.  It pooled on the asphalt, shimmering in the flashing emergency lights, darker than the rain.

 

Between two officers, a black bag lay on the ground, zipped closed.  They stood over it, watching the scene with cool detachment.  Neither could see the middle-aged bespectacled man dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, staring at the bag.  As I approached the officer directing traffic, the man looked up.  He raised his hand, and waved.  I shook my head and gestured at the back, and he let his hand drop.  The look on his face went from hopeful to annoyed, and then, as though he realized he had plenty of time, he nodded, and waved me off.

 

Like I said before, the dead understand.  They have all the time in the world.

 

The officer waved the cab through, and I took the right, moving toward the upper side of town, and the young lady’s home.  I still didn’t understand how she had found my cab.

 

*

 

I pulled onto 30th and Jewel, at the lower end of the shopping district.  Markets and boutiques, small bakeries and specialty shops nestled against one another here.  Tasteful awnings and big plate windows declared the names of the shops, and showed off their merchandise.  Out of the heavier traffic, I relaxed, and slowed the cab a bit.

 

With the meter off, most cabbies would have hurried their fare to the destination, regardless of altruism.  One off, one on, equals more money.  Unlike most cabbies and their fares, I had plenty of time, and no real money to make.  To be honest, the meter was more of an affectation anyways.  Besides, I was enjoying the quiet time.  The rain on the roof of the cab beat out a steady hypnotic rhythm, the woman in the back was sleeping contentedly, and also, she smelled nice.

 

I turned up a side street, and a pair of headlights that had been behind me for some time separated from the stream of cars and followed at a discrete distance.  Probably just a late-night window-shopper, I thought.  My gut knotted, and I doubted the idea.  I took a couple of more turns at a leisurely pace, so as not to let on I had seen the car.

 

I can’t explain why the car behind me, a late-model grey sedan, bothered me so much.  It wouldn’t be the first time I was followed, and probably wouldn’t be the last.  With so many people around, you’re more than likely to share a destination with more than one of them.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not dead yet, and don’t plan to be any time soon, if I can help it.  So, when trouble rears its head, which it does from time to time, I do the only thing I’ve ever really known.  I drive.

 

When zigzagging through the streets didn’t work, I picked a block and circled it, hoping the car behind me would think I just had a window-shopper on board.  He followed, still at a discrete distance, though I got the impression that he didn’t so much as care about being seen as he did about how I’d react.  For the situation being unnerving, I thought I was reacting well.

 

Ten minutes of driving aimlessly hadn’t shaken the car behind me, and I watched in the rearview as it began to gain ground.  The action made my mind up.  I sped up, and pushed the cab around the nearest corner, and then again, making a quick left and a right.  The sedan kept up, and inched closer.  Again, I whipped into a turn and a turn, and the grey car kept up.  In the back, the woman in red stirred in her sleep and murmured, but didn’t wake.

 

Clive Barker once wrote that the dead have highways.  I weighed my options, and did the only thing I knew.  I drove them.

 

*

                I took a left, turning off from the circle I had been driving.  Ahead, the road diverged, splitting into left and right forks.  The fork hadn’t been planned by an engineer, nor laid in a pique brought on by a panic triggered by a lack of roadway.  It was a secret road, laid by a divine hand, and it led to one of a hundred thousand afterlives.

 

I pulled onto the fork while it wended and wound its way between and around buildings, over the river, and past factories and homes.  The road ahead shimmered with a pale haze, as though it had been baking in the sun all day.  The city began to drop away, buildings and utility poles replaced with trees, the lights replaced with stars.

 

I glanced in the rearview, and nearly drove the cab into a small pond that had sprung up beside the road.  The grey sedan was still behind me, a feat that should’ve been impossible for anyone else.  It was still gaining, as well, and I put the pedal down, hoping to at least keep them at distance.  An alarm bell was going off in my head, and I shifted my gaze to the woman in the back seat.

 

She was still sleeping in that easy slouch, though it looked as though she were dreaming now, her eyes dashing out Morse code behind her eyelids.  Whoever she was, and whatever her situation, the alarm in my head was screaming this woman was Trouble, capital T, and if I didn’t get her home soon, I might be better off kicking her out on the side of the road somewhere.

 

I rejected that idea out of hand.  I may deal with the dead, but that doesn’t make me immune to compassion for the living.  Besides, my shallow side said, she’s gorgeous.  She was, at that.  I flicked a glance back at her one more time, taking in her delicate cheekbones, the gentle curve of her neck, and her full lips.  I swallowed hard, and returned to the road.

 

Not wanting to dump a damsel in distress off in the middle of nowhere left me with one option.  Get her home in one piece.  I glanced again at the sedan behind me.  For the first time, I noticed the windows were tinted, and what would normally be chrome on a car was a black matte that seemed to drink in the light.  Something about that one detail, the black instead of chrome, made me uneasy, made my stomach clench for the second time that night.

 

Around the car, the landscape changed in bits and pieces, as though sets were being rolled on and off an enormous stage.  Copses of trees came and went with small ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks.  Grass was replaced by tall waving stalks of wheat, mountains and rivers in the distance.  Here and there, stone benches and homes dotted the fields, and the night slipped to day, the rain tapering off.  The sun shone, and the air took on the hazy yellow quality of a high summer afternoon.

 

Men and women and children walked among the wheat and sat on the low stone benches.  They were young and old, dressed in togas and Victorian garb and modern clothes.  They spoke and gestured and laughed, and the children played in the sunlight.  Idyllic.  A soft sigh escaped me, and the woman behind me echoed it.

 

I checked the rearview, and noticed the sedan still there.  It made sense, in a way that nothing else about it did.  Elysium wasn’t exactly a dangerous road.  They would have nothing to fear here, no reason not to try to catch up, to waylay us.  Even as I watched, the car sped up again, and closed ground.  Curiosity led me to stay the accelerator, and I let them get closer.

 

The sedan sped into a car length, and I got a good look.  In addition to the tinted windows and the matte replacing the chrome, the car wasn’t a true grey.  What I had mistaken for grey was a mottled steel color, blotches of paint spreading across the surface like diseased skin.  Its headlights, which the driver hadn’t bothered to shut off since coming out of the rain, were a pale yellow, and its tires seemed to bulge and ripple, as though they were living things.

 

The sun shone through the windshield, piercing the tint for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the driver.  A wide figure swathed in the interior shadows of the car, its head resembled that of a bat.  Pointed ears stuck up on either side of a face marked by small black eyes and a pug nose.  Then, we passed a copse of trees, and shadows filled the tinted glass again.  I turned back to the road and tried not to think too hard about what I’d seen.  Things like that only showed up on the deep trips, the ones where men and women with black souls went to burn.

 

I thought about the gun under the seat.  I didn’t keep it for the dead.  It wasn’t like a bullet was going to worsen their condition.  I wondered how it would affect the Neverborn, and hoped I wouldn’t need it.  I pressed the pedal down, and the cab leapt forward again.  Another thought entered my mind, and I wondered how long the engine would keep up.  The gas gauge still lay at three-quarters, and the tires still whispered against the asphalt with hardly a bump.

 

I looked around.  Elysium had always been my favorite destination, what I imagined true Paradise to look like.  The thing behind me didn’t belong here, and I had the feeling if I gave it the chance, it would stop, and wreak as much havoc as possible.  There were places it did belong, however, and I briefly weighed the safety of my passenger against the danger.  In the end, I decided the only safe route was through that danger.

 

Ahead, the road forked again, and I took it.

 

 

*

 

The road down is always quicker than the road up, though no easier.  We drove, and the blacktop began to show wear and cracks, small potholes and ridges in the asphalt.  The shimmer above the road took on a sinister reddish tint, and black clouds slipped over the sun.  Whoever designed the afterlife had a flair for theatrics.

 

As we drove, wheat and fields of grass and trees gave way to sere earth, cracks spreading through the dried sod.  Rivers and ponds became black and brown and brackish, and rocks and boulders replaced the smaller bushes and clusters of flowers.  Each feature of the landscape rolled in and out again, changing the face of the land as we drove, becoming more alien with distance.  Eventually, the cab rolled into a landscape dominated by grey spires of rock standing sentinel over black earth, the cracks glowing with a sullen red light.  Asphalt gave way to red rock, worn smooth over millenia.

 

The sedan behind us had begun to change as well, becoming a sleek grey thing, resembling a long spider with black legs and eyes, its driver a huge man-bat strapped to its back.  It scuttled and moved faster than its size indicated.  Even in the cab, I could hear the scuttle on the rock of the hooked bones that served as its feet.

 

I pushed the cab faster still, and she leapt forward one more time, though with a shuddering protest.  I knew any harder would kill her, and that would be the end.  Still, it wasn’t enough, and the scuttling of bone on rock became louder, the spider’s legs echoing in the landscape.  It reached one of its considerable legs up, throwing a shadow on the hood, and I juked the cab.

 

We zigged to the left, though not fast enough, and the leg came down.  Bone squealed against metal, making my eyes water.  It ripped a hole in the roof, and I tugged the wheel right, tearing free with another screech that set my teeth on edge.  Again it came, and again another hole was punched into the cab before I was able to shake free.  Through the opening above, I could hear the driver making wet grunting sounds in anticipation of the kill.

 

Ahead, the land dropped off, and the road narrowed.  I felt my pulse double as I realized the glow coming from below was fire – not lava, but true hellfire, and I realized where I had driven us.  Even as the cab approached the bridge, something huge and dark rose from the hellfire, wormlike, and slammed itself into the stone.  It turned toward us, its lower half disappearing into the depths, and its mouth opened, a nightmare of impossible angles and razor teeth.

 

A shadow fell across the hood again, and I did the only thing I could think of, a thing I had seen in Top Gun once.  I grabbed the emergency brake, while spinning the wheel.  The car slugged to a hard stop and began to spin.  I felt a weight slam into the seat behind me, and I prayed I hadn’t broken the woman’s nose.  I felt there was a very strong possibility that had she not been asleep, she would definitely be unconscious now.

 

When the cab hit a full one-eighty, I released the brake, and stomped the gas.  For a moment, it seemed the car was going to ignore my request and simply give up the ghost, and then the engine roared, and we shot in the other direction, and under the spider.

 

In the rearview, the spider had reached the bridge, but it was too late for the bat and the bug.  The thing on the bridge opened its mouth, and tentacles sprayed forward, wrapping around both, and pulling them in.  I drove on, with the screams of the damned echoing in my ears.

 

When the land had returned to trees and fields and lakes, I stopped the cab, and check on my passenger.  Still asleep, though a little askew in her seat.  I decided I didn’t want to wake her up quite yet, and started the engine.  We were almost there.

 

*

 

Country gave way to city, and city gave way to residential.  I pulled up to 42nd and Broadway, and cut the engine.  The rain had stopped, and I could see the stars through the holes in the roof.  Behind me, I heard a yawn, and looked in the rearview.

 

She stretched, and smiled back at me.  “Thank you so much for the ride.  How much do I owe you?”

 

She pulled out a wad of cash, and I waved it away.  “Don’t worry about it.  I ended up going a bit out of the way.  I’d hate to charge you for it.”

 

She smiled, shrugged, and put the money away.  A part of me was cursing over that.  The roof was going to cost an arm and a leg to repair.

 

She opened the door, and the wind caught her scent and swept it out of the cab.  It spread her hair, and moved her dress.  She walked to my window, and leaned in.  I could smell her – clean and sweet.  I wondered why they had wanted her, and consoled myself with the fact that you don’t always get answers out of life, poor consolation that it was.

 

She kissed me on the cheek, and walked to the entrance of her apartment, fishing the keys out of her purse.  When she had the door open, she turned one last time, and waved.  I returned it, and pulled out of the drive.

 

On Broadway, I took a right, back downtown, and toward an accident, and a middle-aged man in khaki.

 

After all, I drive the dead.