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21 minutes | Oct 27, 2020
Part 5: The Homecoming
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/part-5-the-homecoming/ Post-Apocalyptic Art Commission by Pino44io Cherry floated in a green haze. Her eyes stung and her body screamed for air, but where was the surface? She couldn’t see far in the murky water. It was cloudier on her left side; that must be silt she’d stirred up from the bottom. In the distance on her right, the haze was brighter. She needed to swim that way. Cherry thrashed, struggling to right herself. Her clothes and pack dragged in the water, holding her back. Cherry ripped open her jacket and slipped it off along with her backpack. She stroked toward the light as fast as she could, fighting the impulse to take a breath. Only a little farther, and she’d reach the surface. Then she could breathe… and the wights could see her. They had to be looking over the canal right now, waiting for her to come up. The water’s surface gleamed a few feet away. Resisting her burning lungs, Cherry slowed her ascent. Her limbs felt clumsy and sluggish, and her heart pounded in her ears. Almost there. Not too fast. She tilted her head back, and her face broke the surface. She gasped for a lungful of air. High above her, the bridge blocked the sun; she hadn’t gone far. Cherry brought her head under again and dived farther down into the canal. To have any hope of escaping the wights, she’d have to swim underwater as far as she could and take as few breaths as possible. If they spotted where she came back on land, they would corner her again, and this time she wouldn’t have an emergency exit. Pushing herself between breaths, Cherry slowly made her way down the narrow cut. Finally, the concrete walls on either side of the canal ended, and it opened up into an inner bay. She had to stay as close to the canal as she dared; Leo’s burrow was somewhere near the bridge. Cherry popped her head up to survey the shoreline. Walkways ran on either side of the canal and under the bridge. Wights were spreading along them, searching for her, but they hadn’t reached the bay. As the canal curved into the bay on the south side, the slope descended gently into the water under the cover of trees and brush. Maybe if she surfaced quickly and got under the vegetation, the wights wouldn’t notice her. She swam gently to her destination, staying in the water even as it became shallow and murky. A large patch of knotweed packed around the shore. After a long summer, the plants had grown to twice Cherry’s height. If she slipped through the bamboo-like stems, the ceiling of light-green leaves and lacy flowers should keep her concealed. Cherry spared a last glance at the canal and rose unsteadily from the water, shivering under the light breeze. She wedged herself into the knotweed. The flexible stems parted to make way for her, and the entire patch shook. Crap. If Cherry hurried through the patch, it would be obvious that a big animal was here. She was only partially concealed, but getting back in the water would make her more visible. So she inched into the knotweed, trying to keep the movement small and steady enough that it might look like the breeze off the water. After a painfully long time, Cherry was fully under the living ceiling. Then she took a breath and worked on getting the rest of the way through. Cherry collapsed on the other side, resting her limbs and taking slow, deep breaths. Before her, a narrow path led under falling leaves. Maybe it would go to some old homes, and Leo’s burrow would be among them. Even if it was, this was not how Cherry had planned her reunion with him. She wrung the water from her ponytail and tried to brush the mud and grit from her clothes, but it was no good. She reeked of marshwater, and she bled from a dozen cuts and scrapes. She didn’t even have a gift for Leo; everything she’d packed was at the bottom of the canal. The machete had come unclipped from her belt sometime while she was swimming. And showing up unannounced at his home, covered in filth, was the least of her concerns. His letters and the hints they contained were gone. Could she find his burrow without them? If she didn’t, how long would she last? She didn’t have food, water, or her jacket. A fire would lead the wights right to her, and the nights were getting colder. Cherry followed the path to a small curving street with old houses. Ants traveled over the crumbling facades, and tall grasses sprouted from the walkways. Clematis adorned the structures, its ragged leaves and yellow flowers creeping in through the cracked windows. These few square blocks were isolated, cut off on one side by the water and the other by the highway. Leo’s burrow had to be here. Even so, the wights were close by and on the prowl. Could Cherry find it in time? She looked left and right, but nothing suspicious marked the quiet street. She stepped out from the bush and hurried across the road to an old lawn. A faint buzz came from up the block; it was getting louder. Cherry was too far from the trees. She spotted a nearby manhole cover, showing through a scraggly layer of clover and crabgrass. She ran and pulled at the cover, but it was incredibly heavy, and… not actually on top of a manhole. It was just sitting on the ground. Oh no. She dived into the overgrown lawn, narrowly avoiding the thistles. The grass was tall enough that the wight might miss her if it didn’t come too close. Through the strands of grass, she spotted a woman with wind-tossed blond hair riding on a bicycle. The buzzing came from the wheels. Cherry could thank the wights for their dedication to accuracy when mimicking objects. Or did it make noise because it was an actual bicycle in really good condition? That didn’t matter now. She held her breath as the buzz of bicycle wheels drew closer. The cyclist couldn’t be more than twenty feet away. Then the sound faded. Had the wight seen her? She didn’t know, but even if it hadn’t, the wights were clearly spreading out to search for her, and not just along the canal. There would be more. She had to find Leo’s burrow quickly. If the wights caught her while she was searching, not only would they take her away, but they might find Leo too. She had to think: What clues had Leo left for this? He’d written that the wizard’s home – the bridge – was almost at his burrow. Then there was something about family… and luck. Leo knew her family hailed from Hong Kong; maybe he meant the house number of his burrow had an eight, the Chinese lucky number. Cherry hurried down the block, looking for houses marked with an eight. There – that house number was 2806! Wait, the eight wasn’t the last digit in the house number: all of the houses on this street would have eights. Cherry rubbed her temples. She didn’t have time to search the entire neighborhood and knock on a dozen doors. Leo wouldn’t have wanted her to wander the whole neighborhood anyway; he would have given her another clue to narrow it down. But she couldn’t remember any others. Well, what if “luck” didn’t just mean the number eight? Red was also lucky. That wasn’t a common house color, but it wasn’t unheard of. Cherry glanced down the block again. One had a red door; did that count? Another had red trim. Oh no. She needed to choose a house and get inside, even if it wasn’t Leo’s burrow. Cherry made for an old alley and paused. Across the street, a humble brown house had red fence posts. She counted them: eight. The lucky color and the lucky number, and it had been put there on purpose – Leo! The house had just one door in front, exposed to the street. That didn’t make a good burrow, but she couldn’t complain now. She ran up the front steps and tried the front handle. The rusted brass wouldn’t budge. Should she knock? If she was too loud the wights would hear, but if she was too quiet then Leo might not hear it. She started with a gentle tap. Nothing. She knocked a little louder. She counted to ten and tried it louder yet. A faint buzz drifted down the street; the bicyclist was coming back around. Cherry banged on the door. Just open it! “Cherry?” said someone behind her. Cherry spun around and flattened herself against the door, expecting the wight from the bramble. Instead Leo gawked at her with an open mouth. He wore a sweater that was mostly patches and carried a fraying basket of dandelions in his arms. His polished copper curls gleamed in the warm afternoon light. “Leo – ” Cherry choked up, but she didn’t have time for greetings. “The wights are here. We have to get inside!” She got out of the way as Leo rushed to the door. He reached over the top of the frame and pulled on a string there. The latch clicked, and he turned the knob, opening the door and beckoning her to follow him. As she did, he backed up quickly, stumbling and bracing himself against the far wall. The bicyclist rode down the street out front just as Cherry closed the door. She turned to face Leo, dread knotting her stomach. “I’m so sorry, I brought the wights right to you.” “It’ll be alright. I have a secret exit we can use if we need to.” He smiled as he removed his shoes. “I was worried, but you made it here. My hints must’ve worked.” Cherry felt the knots in her stomach uncoil. “They did. But I didn’t mean to show up wet and covered in” – she winced – “everything.” “You’re perfect as you are.” Leo opened his arms for a hug, then paused. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve been through a lot. Let me get you, uh…” He disappeared into the hall, still carrying his basket of produce. Cherry looked down at Leo’s shoes, dark gray clunkers with a neatly patched toe. He actually took his shoes off instead of tromping dirt everywhere like most Westerners. She slipped off her once-bright athletic shoes and placed them neatly next to his. The two pairs would be sitting next to each other every day from now on, whether the world rotted or flourished around them. Cherry smiled and closed her eyes, her lashes soaking in her hot tears. She breathed in the scent of vanilla and roasted rice, and Leo returned with a plate of something and a large beach towel. He stepped into the living room, piled with books and hung with pictures of crowded cityscapes, and put the plate down on the coffee table. Then he stepped toward Cherry and opened up the worn and faded towel. He wrapped it around her shoulders and pulled it taut in front, making her feel warm and snug. She grabbed the ends of the towel, and he let go. Cherry peeked at the plate of food. On it were small round pastries. Were those mooncakes? “I’m so glad you’re here.” Leo smiled shyly and opened his arms for a hug. Cherry was still gross, but at least now there was a clean towel as a buffer. She smiled and stepped toward him. He’d actually made mooncakes for her. Wait – how could he do that? Cherry stopped about an inch from his chest. She looked up into his hazel eyes, partly obscured by bangs she itched to push out of the way. Leo lowered his arms. “I’m sorry, I thought -” “No one can make a simple pastry these days, much less a mooncake. You knew I was coming, and you called me ‘Cherry.’” It was all too perfect, too artful. Cherry backed up until she was against the door. “You’re not Leo.” “I don’t understand.” Leo’s brow creased. “You asked me to call you Cherry, three times at least.” “Did you take him?” Cherry put a hand to her mouth as she drew in a ragged breath. “I led you right to him, didn’t I?” “Oh.” His eyes widened. “No, please, I’m okay, I promise. Nothing happened to me.” He raised his hands placatingly. “You’re not Leo, you’re a wight.” “Cherry, I…” He paused, gazing at her with hurt eyes. “I’ve always been this way. Since we met in the playground that night. You told me you couldn’t stand all the drama in your old warren, remember? You were going north to get away from everyone. I told you I was looking to settle a little ways to the south, and you sent a letter to the maildrop nearby, our first. You told me you’d met Jackie, that she was an asshole, but she was helping you.” Everything he said was how it happened. Could she really have been exchanging letters with a wight? For years? Cherry hadn’t imagined such a thing, but then, most people didn’t send letters to someone they’d only known for one night. Or a stranger they’d met out in the open. How could she be so reckless? “I only wanted to make you happy.” Leo put his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumping. “You said in your letters that you wanted to join me, but you didn’t think you could make the journey. So once I understood enough of your hints, I came to find you.” “Wait – you came to find me?” “Yes, of course I did. I wasn’t going to leave you up there where you were miserable. It was easy to figure out your neighborhood, but I had more trouble with your burrow. By the time I knew which house you were in, you’d already left.” “You were one of the wights we were hiding from… I led you there. Oh god, Jackie.” Cherry had insisted on sending him directions despite Jackie’s warnings, and he took Jackie away. If Cherry had just listened to her, they’d still be at the burrow up north together. Cherry put her face in her hands and slid down to the floor. “Please don’t cry, it’ll be okay.” Leo sat down a few feet away. Cherry sobbed. “No, it won’t.” “It can be. Just let me take care of you.” “By making me disappear? Where have you been taking us? Where is Jackie?” “She’s with us.” His voice was gentle. “They’re all with us, and you can be too. I love how strong-willed you are, but you don’t have to do this to yourself. You don’t have to keep running and hiding. You don’t have to eat terrible food every day and put up with the dregs of humanity. Choose to be with me, and I’ll do the rest. I promised you a happily ever after, didn’t I?” Cherry gazed at Leo through a blur of tears. He was leaning toward her, his brow lifted and eyes pleading. This had been her dream. Without that, what did she have? Life was one disappointment after another. And after what happened to Jackie, Cherry didn’t even deserve a good life. She might as well disappear. At least this way, maybe she could be happy for a few moments first. She could feel loved again. Leo reached his hand out to her. She reached to take it. I’m sorry, Jackie. If Jackie could reply, would she forgive Cherry or wish her taken? Cherry remembered again that moment when Jackie stood just outside the door before leaving. How she took her last look back and chose her final words to Cherry. If I don’t come back, go north. Cherry’s hand froze. Of course that’s what Jackie was going to say – why hadn’t Cherry thought of it earlier? Jackie’s words were always terse and practical. Since Jackie suspected she wouldn’t return, these words must have had practical use to Cherry. Jackie would have wanted Cherry to carry on without her, to do the cautious, practical thing. Even when it meant letting go of an impossible dream. Cherry grabbed her shoes and opened the door. “Wait!” Leo leapt after her, but Cherry was already out, running down the front steps in her socks. “Please don’t go!” he called after her. “I’ll do better. I’ll be whatever you want.” Cherry paused and glanced back at him. He was teary-eyed, his hair in disarray, his feet caught up in the towel she’d left by the door. She could almost believe, but the time for that was over. “You can’t be what I want, because you’re not real. Goodbye, Leo.” Leo’s calls faded as Cherry ran down the block. She ducked into an alley and pushed her shoes on her feet. She had to find a new warren, whether she hated them or not. There must be one somewhere in these parts, but she had no idea where and no time to look. Now that the wights had all but caught her, they would close in fast. With so many nearby, they could search through every house on the block in short order. Her only chance was to use a hiding place they would never consider. The wights embodied hopes and desires. Where would no one, particularly Cherry, ever want to be? Someplace dirty and gross. The sewer. The manhole cover! It had to go with a manhole, didn’t it? But when she’d tried to use it to hide from the wight, she found it hadn’t been where it belonged. It was too heavy to become dislodged on its own; a person must have moved it and probably not very far. Cherry should have realized that before, but she’d been so focused on Leo that she ignored all of her real paths to safety. Cherry raced to the patchy grass where the cover was still sitting. If she were using a manhole for her burrow, she’d do something to hide the entrance. The disguise had to look natural, or it would attract attention. She stepped through the overgrown grass, pushing aside ruffled stalks of tansy ragwort. A few feet away, a speckled aluminum sheet poked out from under a fern. She tugged on it, and it slid easily, the ferns growing on top of the sheet moving along with it. The manhole was there, smelling of damp concrete and mildew. It was the size of a tall closet, dark and unadorned, and definitely not the entrance to anywhere luxurious. Calls came from the street. Cherry steeled herself. Would she ever be clean again after this? Go north, Cherry. She drew in a breath and stepped down the manhole ladder. She paused a few steps down and slid the metal sheet back over the entrance. The concrete cylinder was silent and pitch black. She continued down to the bottom, carefully feeling out each rung of the ladder as the cool, earthy air enveloped her. The floor was covered in chunks of broken concrete, and she fumbled to find her footing. Now she was hiding in a hole where people used to keep their sewage. Wonderful. She reluctantly stretched out her arms and stepped forward until she was touching the grimy concrete wall. Since pieces of the wall covered the floor, someone must have gouged a hole in it somewhere. She slowly turned, feeling up and down, until her fingers brushed the edges of a jagged hole. Inside it was a panel of rough wood. Could it be a door? It had no handle, at least not from this side. She had only one thing to do. She knocked. Were those faint voices on the other side? She put her ear against the wood. Footsteps drew nearer. Light poured out from a small peep hole. Cherry backed away, squinting as the beam hit her. “Who’s there?” The voice was abrupt and wary. “My name is Cherry Lam. The wights are outside, and I need shelter.” A moment passed, and then the light went dark. The footsteps faded away. They thought she was a wight. She was being left to die of thirst. “Wait!” Cherry pounded on the door. “Oh come on! I’m wet and dirty and bleeding, hardly wight material.” Still nothing. She had to stop being polite to strangers; that had only landed her with Leo. “And if I was a wight, I’d find someone to touch me who didn’t build their front door in a sewage system! Just so you know, when my body decays on your doorstep it will get even grosser out here, not that you’d care. You’ll probably come out and roll in it.” The wood door swung open. Cherry blinked as her eyes adjusted. A Black woman crowned with outgrown braids bent forward in an elaborate, mocking bow. “Welcome to Montlake Warren, home of the mean and ugly.” Cherry smiled. “Thanks, I hate it already.” CommentsPart 5: The Homecoming by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Chris WinkleRelated StoriesPart 4: The Bridge Too FarPart 3: The Voice Beyond the BramblePart 2: The Guardian and the Wights
13 minutes | Oct 20, 2020
Part 4: The Bridge Too Far
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/part-4-the-bridge-too-far/ Post-Apocalyptic Art Commission by Pino44io The mud sucked at Cherry’s feet as she slipped through the thicket of willow and alder. Did she lose the wight that had been calling out her name? If so, it wouldn’t stay lost for long. Somehow, the creature had known she’d taken the old trail south. Surely it would hunt her down again. Cherry would only be safe once she found a good place to hide, but she couldn’t let the wights drive her away from Leo. If she hid here, she’d be stuck in unfamiliar territory with no food or clean water. She wouldn’t find a warren nearby, not where it was so marshy. The wights would easily wait her out, making her situation more precarious than before. Her limbs felt heavy after her desperate run, but she didn’t dare rest. She needed to find her way quickly and quietly, not just to the stadium, but past that to where Leo lived. She looked again at the clues he’d written for finding his burrow after the sports arena. A wizard was also there enjoying the view, and he invited Peach to come stay at his home nearby. He even had an extra guesthouse for Peach to stay in. When Peach woke up the next day, she was almost to her friend’s house. Cherry swallowed. She could still do this. Sure, the letter sounded cryptic, but Leo wouldn’t lead her astray. The stadium had to be near someplace that looked like a wizard’s home with a guesthouse. Maybe it was something… weird? Colorful? Grand? Hopefully Cherry would see it without climbing to the highest bleacher. She didn’t have to worry about that now. She only had to focus on her next step: seeing past the tree canopy. She pushed further into the thicket, heading to where the willows thinned and the cattails thickened. Her shoes soaked through with brown marsh water, and the odor of peat filled the air. A rusted sign had sunk into the ground near a creek bed: Speed limit, 10 miles per hour. To think that once, someone had been concerned with that. Through the trees, Cherry finally spotted the blue landscape of… the lake? No, the body of water was too small for that, but bigger than the Cut. A bay. She scanned the shore for a landmark. The stadium! She let out a breath. It loomed large and close, on the same shore she stood on. The only thing between her and her destination was a small channel. She squelched closer to the channel and began wading through a layer of creeping yellow primroses floating in the water. The waterway was larger than she’d thought, maybe too deep to wade across. Not only that, but it was filthy. Her shoes were already disgusting; did the rest of her have to be disgusting too? And she was covered in cuts. What if one of them became infected? There was no helping it now. She had to try. She stepped further, and something upstream caught her eye: a bridge. Cherry rolled her eyes at herself; of course there was a bridge. Hundreds of thousands of people used to inhabit the city; they built bridges over everything. She pulled herself out of the muddy stream and headed up toward the crossing. The small foot bridge was a little mossy, but thankfully the planks didn’t feel ready to give way yet. On the other side was a narrow road, tucked safely between the maple trees along the shore and several large university buildings. She walked down the road, feeling dwarfed by the huge brick structure next to her. Even the steam pipes trailing from top to bottom were much bigger around than she was. How many people had it taken to construct this one building? Would humans ever be capable of such feats again? She walked past the brick building, and the stadium came back into view, putting the brickwork to shame. The structure was impossibly big, with bench after bench ascending into the air, too far for even the most aggressive vines to reach. Cherry could scarcely believe she’d sat up there with her parents long ago. They’d been joined by tens of thousands of other people, all there to watch thousands of graduates in identical robes and silly hats line up for their diploma. A marching band had filled the stadium with music. Her brother had walked up to the podium, and she’d cheered, making as much noise as she wanted. Cherry turned the corner into an adjoining parking lot, and somehow, the commencement crowd was there. New graduates with purple sashes and swinging gold tassels laughed and hugged each other. Several of them lined up with their diplomas before them, smiling wide as their friends and family held up their phones for photos. Nearby, a mother with salt-and-pepper hair put a lei of white flowers over her daughter’s shoulders. Cherry lurched back, her eyes tearing. It was just like her brother’s graduation. A wave of nostalgia enveloped her, and the colorful scene rippled slightly. Cherry blinked, trying to clear the teary haze from her eyes. The glow at the edge of her vision didn’t quite fade, but that was okay. She could just relax, feel the sun on her shoulders and the weight of her school bag on her back. After all, she was here to celebrate. Her brother was graduating with honors, and he’d made so many friends along the way. “Would you like a lei, dear?” The mother with salt-and-pepper hair smiled at Cherry, creating crinkles around her warm brown eyes. “Unfortunately my son wasn’t able to make it today, so I have an extra. How about you take it?” Cherry smiled at her kindness. “Thank you. I’d love one.” “Here.” The woman stepped closer and held out the lei. The orchids’ velvety petals gleamed in the light as their gentle perfume wafted over Cherry. She reached for the lei and hesitated. Her brother was allergic to fragrances; it could give him a headache. “Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said, pulling the lei back. “How about some balloons instead?” Cherry rubbed her eyes and looked around. The crowd seemed sharper. Where was her brother? And her parents? It felt like forever since she’d seen them. She scanned past the parking lot, even as she dreaded what she’d find. The stadium sat empty. The roads lay open and quiet. The people around her chuckled and cheered, but beyond them, the world was dead. It had been that way for a long time. “Poor thing, you’ve had a rough time, haven’t you? Why don’t you come sit down with us?” The woman held out her hand. “We can call someone to find out where your family is.” “You took them,” Cherry spat at the wight. Cherry set her gaze on the far side of the parking lot and made a run for it. She’d been lucky so far. Her thoughts on graduation had prompted the wights to mimic a crowd they didn’t have the numbers for and offer her flowers she couldn’t accept. But they wouldn’t fumble again, and as long as she was in their sights, they would only grow in size and number. She reached the end of the parking lot and ducked behind a knobby stone sculpture, but there wasn’t much cover otherwise. The cedars here were sparse and the seedy grasses too low. Past the trees, the overgrown lawn ended in a fence, and then… open air. Cherry ran to the fence. On the other side was a steep slope with water at the bottom. She’d finally reached the Cut, but if she didn’t carefully inch her way down the ivy-covered incline, she might tumble and hit her head before she fell in the water. She gazed several hundred feet uphill along the fence and spotted an old lift bridge spanning the Cut. Cherry could run for it, but she’d be out in the open for longer. If the wights gathered too fast, they could trap or overwhelm her. She looked back to the stadium parking lot. The crowd was already larger, and it was ambling toward her. Did she hear a trumpet? That didn’t matter. The wights were too numerous, too powerful. She’d have to forget the bridge. She’d circle north and find someplace safe to hide, even if it wasn’t where she wanted to go. She stole a last look at the old bridge, guarded on either side by a small, archaic-looking tower. Towers. That’s what Leo meant by the wizard’s home! Wizards were supposed to study in lofty towers, and since the bridge had two of these towers, one was a guesthouse. He wanted her to cross to the south side of the channel here. Wights or no, Cherry was getting across that bridge. She ran for it. From the parking lot behind her, the notes of the trumpet picked up, then a tuba and several flutes joined in. Drums set a beat. It was a marching band, a form of celebration that hadn’t existed for ten years. Cherry didn’t look back to see it. Her legs shook and she had a stitch in her side, but Cherry reached the bridge. On the other end, a couple wights milled about, disguised as a pair of parents with a small girl holding on to a large yellow balloon. A day before, Cherry would never have stepped on a bridge with wights on it. But now wights were everywhere; she would run past them and keep going. Once she got to the other side, she would find someplace to hide, knowing Leo couldn’t be far away. The marching band grew louder, and with it, the noisy chatter of the crowd. There were more wights behind her than before, many more. Her feet pounded onto the bridge’s metal mesh, following the faded yellow line of the roadway. On the far end, wights disguised as people were pouring onto the sidewalks. They stopped and loitered, gazing toward Cherry and behind her, like they were awaiting a parade. A man in a striped costume handed out blue and pink cotton candy. The sweet scent reached Cherry even though she was still fifty feet away. She imagined the cloudy sugar melting on her tongue. No! Think of Leo. Cherry pushed herself even harder, gasping with the effort. She had to ignore the dancing sparklers and the scent of caramel corn, ignore the giggles and protests of wide-eyed children, ignore the glitzy costumes and… Was that a horse? Think of Leo. She would get across the bridge and reach Leo. She would give him the blackberries and the journal. They would celebrate the moon festival together. A woman pushed a hotdog cart in front of Cherry. She dodged left, and her foot caught on the edge of the sidewalk. She hit the concrete hard, scrapping the heel of her hand and banging a shin. “Are you okay, miss? Let me help you up.” A sandy-haired boy offered her a hand. A warm glow washed over Cherry. How courteous this boy was, especially for someone his age. Not that she’d seen anyone his age for years… and she still hadn’t; he was a wight. “Get away from me!” The boy raised his hands and took a step back. Cherry pulled herself onto her aching feet and limped toward the far end of the bridge. But the crowd was too thick, parade-goers lined up end to end, holding hands even. Back the way she came, the band had just stepped onto the bridge. They were packed tightly together, brushing the audience watching on either side as they marched. Cherry was trapped. The wights had only to close around her. Even if the charm didn’t overwhelm her – and it could at any moment – eventually she would touch one of them. With a single touch she would be gone forever. It was inevitable. Unless she jumped off the bridge first. Cherry wove around someone making balloon animals and a couple setting up folding chairs. She grasped the bridge’s railing and gazed over the edge to the tiny ribbon of water deep in the valley below. Her chest tightened. Oh god, it looked so far away. Could she live through that? It was that or let the wights take her. Cherry put a leg over the railing. “Please, miss, you don’t want to do that,” said the sandy-haired boy. He took a step toward her. “Stay back!” “Okay, we’ll stay back.” The woman with the balloon animals held her hands up in surrender. “Just don’t rush. Let’s talk about this before you hurt yourself.” Everyone on the bridge was staring at her with glistening eyes and wrinkled brows, like they were scared for her. Their outlines softened as Cherry felt the heat of their affection easing her aches and pains. Surely these wonderful people couldn’t all be wrong; she must be making a terrible mistake. Her memories of crouching in burrows and creeping through brush ran together and faded. Maybe she’d dreamed those lonely years. If she wasn’t sure, shouldn’t she choose the reality she wanted? Cherry took a last look north toward the vacant stadium, where her family would never be again. A cold weight sank into her chest. Her vision cleared, and the burning of her scraped shin and hand flared back to life. Beyond the railing, the canal and bay slept quietly: urban waters without a single boat. Cherry hadn’t dreamt the Departure. She had to jump now, before all the voices crying out for her convinced her otherwise. She put her other leg over, so she was sitting on the railing. She swayed in the high breeze. The water was so far below, so small. Be brave, Cherry. Now jump! Cherry launched into empty air. The wind screamed, and her cap flew up and away. Her jacket flapped as the machete’s sheath slapped her side. The water smashed into her. A chilling gloom swallowed her whole, pushing her down, down, down, until she met the bottom. CommentsPart 4: The Bridge Too Far by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Chris WinkleRelated StoriesPart 5: The HomecomingPart 3: The Voice Beyond the BramblePart 2: The Guardian and the Wights
13 minutes | Oct 13, 2020
Part 3: The Voice Beyond the Bramble
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/part-3-the-voice-beyond-the-bramble/ Post-Apocalyptic Art Commission by Pino44io Cherry walked, alternating between being lost in thought, panicking at her lack of awareness, jumping at every hint of movement, and then calming down enough to get lost in thought again. The thick layer of clouds broke up as she went, revealing a sun at its peak. The sunlight shone on vacant bridges dripping with ivy and ducks nesting in the flooded ditches between old roads. The lake grew more distant, and rotting shore houses changed into rotting apartments and shops. As the parking lots expanded and the streets widened, the path not only became more exposed, but also held more room for wights to gather. Worse, the trail didn’t seem to be heading in the right direction anymore. From her time in the university area, Cherry had some vague memory of the trail leading past the stadium and to the narrow waters of the Cut. But she hadn’t lived all the way down on the canal; she’d been a mile or two north of it. What if the trail didn’t go all the way there? When she began her journey that morning, the trail had been going almost straight south, along the water. Now that she was drawing closer to her goal, it had veered inland. Even if it reached the Cut, it might be after a long detour. And as her surroundings became more open, the route became more dangerous. Cherry could leave the trail, but which way should she go? She had better start pinpointing her destination more precisely. Unfortunately, Leo had only given her hints about his location because, of course, she had told him to. Why had she listened to Jackie’s theories about wights spying on the mail system? It was comical to imagine the creatures stopping a messenger, reading through one of Cherry’s letters, then carefully sealing the letter up again and letting the messenger go on their way. But she’d been cautious, and as always, Leo had done his best to accommodate her. Still walking, Cherry reached in her pack for the letters from him. She found a passage she had circled: Before I go, a brief fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a lovely princess named Peach who wanted to see a friend to the south. After journeying for the better part of a day, she grew tired and bored, so she rested on a very high seat and treated herself to a hot dog. A wizard was also there enjoying the view, and he invited Peach to come stay at his home nearby. He even had an extra guesthouse for Peach to stay in. When Peach woke up the next day, she was almost to her friend’s house. Her family had wished her luck, and that luck led her right to her destination. If things get too tough for you up there, you’re always welcome. I’ll have one fresh happily ever after waiting for you. Leo Cherry had known as soon as she read the letter that the place with the high seat and hot dog was the university stadium. But she still couldn’t guess what landmark the wizard’s home was supposed to reference. Judging by this letter, while Leo’s burrow was past the stadium, it was still fairly close to it. That meant Cherry’s best chance was simply to head to the stadium and hope that she’d recognize her next steps. Thankfully, the stadium was also huge. Maybe she could spot it from a distance and head in that direction. Something large moved in front of Cherry, and she jumped. A mother deer stood on the path only a yard or two ahead, flanked by two near-grown fawns with shiny gold coats. The mother bobbed her head up and down as she gazed at Cherry, curiosity in her liquid eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be afraid of me?” The mother only flicked a black-tipped ear before plodding forward and around Cherry, her fawns following. They didn’t spare another glance at the human on their path. Cherry sighed at the indignity of it, but she couldn’t blame them. Few people knew how to hunt deer without guns, and guns were a quick way to summon a chorus of wights. At least if the deer were bored with her, she didn’t have to question if they were deer. Cherry continued on, looking through the brush for a good vantage by which she might spot the stadium. As if granting her wish, the trees ahead of her parted, cracking open a window that overlooked much of the city. She hesitated. The trail led over a pedestrian bridge above a wide commercial road. The chain links under the bridge’s rails were free of vines, offering no cover. Once Cherry walked far enough on the bridge to see the lay of the land, she could be visible for miles. But what was her alternative? If she wanted to continue down the trail, she had to cross either the bridge or the road beneath it. While the bridge might be a little more exposed, at least it would let her see whether she was heading toward the stadium. Cherry took a breath and stepped onto the bridge. A crisp breeze cooled her brow as she crouched low over the railing. The wooden planks beneath her feet were slippery and covered with moss. They sank an inch as she stepped on them. She just clung to the rail harder. She couldn’t spare the time to focus on her footwork; she had to look at the city. Four lanes rolled under her feet, broken glass sparkling over the pavement. Neatly parked cars lined the road, quietly collecting leafy debris and blooms of rust. Dark streaks of algae smeared the rectangular buildings on either side. Their wide roofs sagged under waving grasses. Beyond, the hills of the abandoned city were brushed with cloudy bursts of green and gold leaves. Cherry pulled off her cap to let the sun warm her face as she looked south at that gentle landscape. She could almost think it was a September ten years ago – another Mid-Autumn Festival when her family flew across the globe to celebrate together. That in a few days, they would all be lining up at Maxim’s to collect their mooncakes, or heading to Victoria Park to see the dazzling lantern displays. Those times were gone, but even so, she was again traveling to reunite with someone she cared about. There – the white rim of the stadium peeked above the trees to the south, about 20 minutes away by foot. Thankfully she’d made the effort to look; the trail here was heading west. She would leave the path and head straight for the stadium. But this was a dangerous intersection to cross – the ground was flat and the pavement free of obstructions. If there were any wights in the area, they’d be on her in minutes. Leo would never hear from her again. Cherry would have to backtrack and search for a place with more cover to cross. She straightened and turned toward the safety of the trees. A crack echoed through the air, and the bridge gave way beneath her feet. Cherry yelped and flailed as she fell. She grabbed at the rotten planks and then the thick beams beneath them. Her fingers caught the top of a beam, slowing her descent, but then the wood slipped from her grasp. Pavement slammed into her feet and her bottom. Her backpack cushioned her spine as her head flew back and grazed the asphalt. Cherry starred up at the mossy bridge, flinching as moist splinters rained over her face. Her whole body throbbed. Oh god, she was lying in the middle of the road. And she’d yelled. Get up. Get up now! Cherry turned herself over, wincing. She struggled to her feet and grabbed her fallen cap. She didn’t think anything was broken. If something was sprained, she would have to run on it anyway. She sprinted south toward the stadium, clenching her teeth to distract from the pain in her legs. The block was so long; she should have gone back to the trees. Too late now, she had to keep running until she was across. She was almost at a large intersection. On the other side, an overgrown field was guarded by a waist-high fence. The field didn’t have much in the way of trees, but it had brush at least. Cherry gasped for breath, pushing herself to cover the remaining distance. She vaulted over the fence, and her shoe caught on the wire. She crashed to the ground, bruising a shoulder. She spit out the grass seeds in her mouth and struggled to get up. A low boom sounded behind her, followed by an enormous clanking and crashing. Cherry yanked her foot free; some part of her shoe ripped with it. She scrambled away from the fence and dared a look back. Dust filled the air on the other side of the intersection. One of the commercial buildings now resembled a pile of rubble – the ceiling had collapsed. Cherry let out a breath. Everything crumbled sooner or later. Later would have been better. She’d already made enough noise, and this only guaranteed wights would come to investigate. Keeping low in the grass, Cherry scanned the old field; she had to get cover as soon as she could. If she stayed hidden, the wights might attribute all the noise to the collapsed roof and leave again. Unfortunately, the bushes she’d seen from across the intersection were more blackberry mounds. They would have to do. Cherry carefully waded between the mounds of bramble. Blooming morning glory wound itself around the canes, the two plants waging a silent battle over the abundant sun in the treeless field. Even with the competition, all the light made these blackberries plump. Cherry’s stomach complained at the sight, but she pushed on, searching for places where the morning glory was thick enough to cushion the thorns. The battling greenery closed around her, shielding her from anyone – anything – that might come looking. The tension left her shoulders, and she grabbed the jar of soaked oats from her bag. Quietly as she could, Cherry opened the jar and picked blackberries, adding their sweet tang to her meal. She felt a little better with the oats and berries in her belly, but she was exhausted, and she couldn’t leave the thorns, not yet. The sooner she went back into the open, the more likely the wights would still be about looking for her. She had an empty jar; she’d spend the time filling it with berries for Leo. He’d been trying to make a passable pie crust; had he done it? If only she’d gotten his most recent letters. She crept further into the bramble, pushing aside the grasping canes and reaching for one bunch of blackberries after another. A faint voice rode in on the wind, someone calling for attention over a distance. Cherry froze. The wights were here. The voice came again. “Cherry!” She gasped. How could… Wights had never known her name. She’d never heard of them knowing anyone’s name unless they’d just been told. The voice was too distant to be recognized, but someone knew her. Someone was trying to reunite with her. Jackie? Cherry smiled. She must have read Cherry’s letter and tracked her here. Where was she? Cherry lifted herself onto her tiptoes to peer over the bramble, but then stopped herself. She crouched back down. What was she doing? If Jackie was really alive, she’d be up north somewhere. She would never come so far south, much less shout in an open area. “Cherry!” The shout was a little louder. Neither low nor high in pitch, it felt warm and familiar, like a lost friend or family member. Cherry closed her eyes and thought back. Could it be Leo? She’d only met him in person for one night; she couldn’t remember his voice. No, it couldn’t be Leo. He had no way of knowing she’d left her burrow. Cherry opened her eyes and drew in a shaking breath. She had to accept that it was a wight. Somehow, it knew her. Oh god, what if it had been tracking her the entire time she was traveling? No, then it would have no reason to call to her like that. It was trying to draw her out. She needed to stay put, stay silent. “Up here, I’m waving at you!” It could see her. Run. Cherry straightened her sore knees and hissed as thorns lashed at her thighs. The brambles caught on her backpack, and the sleeves of her jacket, and her pants. Cherry drew her machete. She hadn’t kept herself alive for the last ten years to be stopped by some mean fruit. Cherry brought the machete down once, twice, thrice. She pushed through the mound, biting her lip and holding back a cry as the thorns tore her skin. If she didn’t slow down and untangle them, the thorns would draw blood. So draw blood. Just go! She pulled down her cap brim to shield her face and breached the last of the mound. She was free. The yelling was behind her, begging her to wait, pleading with her not to go. She had to ignore it, to focus on what she was doing. She ran, stumbling onto a small residential road and following it toward tree cover. The street grew narrow and then turned to gravel, disappearing into clover and dandelions as willow trees closed in. She pushed through light underbrush until the dense canopy blocked her view on all sides. She couldn’t see the stadium. Had she fled in the right direction? Was she even heading away from the wight rather than toward it? Should she even head away? What if the voice was Jackie, after all? Maybe Cherry was wrong about her mentor’s single-minded focus on survival. Maybe she did care enough to follow her all the way down here. Cherry remembered the last moment with Jackie. How she had paused and looked Cherry in the eyes, like she had known. If I don’t come back… Remember me? Forget me? Forgive me? Maybe it didn’t matter. If a wight had tracked her this far, Cherry would disappear too. CommentsPart 3: The Voice Beyond the Bramble by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Chris WinkleRelated StoriesPart 5: The HomecomingPart 4: The Bridge Too FarPart 2: The Guardian and the Wights
12 minutes | Oct 6, 2020
Part 2: The Guardian and the Wights
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/part-2-the-guardian-and-the-wights/ Post-Apocalyptic Art Commission by Pino44io Cherry ran, covering fifty feet, then one hundred, then two hundred, a thick mat of clover cushioning her footfalls. If the wights had found her burrow, they could have spotted her through the trees or heard her push through the brush surrounding the trail. More wights would converge on her from all directions. She had to leave quickly, or they would catch her, just like they caught Jackie. Farther ahead, the trail disappeared into the brush. Was the pavement broken after all? No, it was a blackberry bramble. A small barrage of canes sprouted from one side of the path, leapt over it, and rooted back on the other. The serrated leaves were turning scarlet as clusters of dark berries shriveled on their stems. She stepped back and looked for a path around the bramble, but more thorns dominated the space. Taking a detour around it would make lots of rustling noises. Even using her machete to cut through would make more noise than she could afford with the wights so close. At least the canes weren’t anchored into the ground. Since the bramble was still small, she might be able to crawl under them. She took off her backpack and pushed it ahead of her. Using her machete to lift the canes in front of her, Cherry worked her way under, the clover tickling her nose from below. Her stiff cap shielded her head, but a few thorns pierced her jacket. She stifled a cry and pushed on. She focused on the canes ahead of her, trying not to think of how easy it would be for the wights to sneak up from behind. Finally she neared the other side. After one last row of canes, the trail continued, blissfully clear. There, something ghostly moved. Cherry froze. A fluffy white cat with a few gray spots sat on the path, licking a paw and rubbing its head. Cats weren’t uncommon; the burst of rodents after the Departure had given them a good start as feral animals. But this one had long white fur, clean with no sign of matting. The wights hadn’t needed to chase Cherry after all; they knew exactly where she was. They had simply elected to wait and catch her off guard. Retreating would only give the wights more time to close in. A cat-sized wight couldn’t have much hypnotic charm; she might be able to get past it. That was, unless more waited in ambush, but then she was doomed regardless. She had to go forward. Cherry lifted the last canes with her machete and crawled out. The cat paused its licking to gaze at her with blue eyes. It seemed unsurprised by her entrance, but it didn’t move toward her, and nothing emerged from the brush to capture her. Was it really a wight? If it was, she had to find a hiding place and stay there until thirst overcame her. If not, she could continue her journey south. She would give the cat a test. A wight wouldn’t touch her on its own; it would try to lure her into making contact. She took a breath and held her hand out. The cat put its paw down and sauntered closer. Cherry’s heart pounded. The cat was only a foot away. Its fur looked a little damp, but the nose was bright pink and its eyes clear. It came a few steps closer and stretched out its neck to sniff her hand. If it actually touched her, it couldn’t be a wight. But wait, what if her outstretched hand counted as her reaching to it? What if a wight could catch her like this? Cherry yanked her hand away. The cat drew its head back and glared at her as though affronted. Cherry let out a breath. This was definitely a cat. She took the plunge, reaching down and giving the cat a friendly scratch along the cheek. The cat leaned into it. Cherry didn’t feel any different, but she probably shouldn’t have done that. If it had been a wight, that would’ve been the perfect ruse. She’d couldn’t bring herself to care just then; second-guessing every nice thing in the world was exhausting. What she needed now was to move along before the real wights arrived. Cherry set off down the path at a fast walk. The cat followed, begging her with its eyes. Would it pursue her all the way south and past the stadium? She tried to lean down and pet it when she could; the last thing she needed was for it to start meowing. Cats didn’t meow unless people were around, and Cherry wasn’t going to bet her life that every wight within hearing range didn’t know that. Luckily, the cat wasn’t inclined to make noises. It preferred to jump in her path, halting her forward progress. The white fluffball certainly acted like someone’s pet; was there a burrow nearby? While Cherry scrambled to avoid wights out in the open, she might be a few yards from a sanctuary that could hide and feed her for another day. Right then, she could be walking over the tunneled pathways of a warren, an entire village of basements concealed from spying eyes. But she’d never find one before the wights found her, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be welcome. A stranger was more likely to be a wight than not. If not for that, Cherry would already be living with Leo. They’d met while they were traveling, and they hid for the night in the same overgrown playground. He hadn’t been sure she wasn’t a wight, and she hadn’t been sure he wasn’t. Maybe if he hadn’t kept calling her Miss Lam, or she hadn’t tried to share her water, they would have trusted each other. But they couldn’t stop being nice, so the next morning they reluctantly parted ways. Based on what she knew at the time, it was the right choice, but that hadn’t stopped Cherry from regretting it ever since. The white fluffball hissed and bolted into the brush. Cherry spun around. What had scared it? Could it be… Further down the trail and through the dense clump of young maples, bright colors shifted. Faint singing rose above the patter of raindrops. Wights. If they couldn’t see her through the trees already, they would any moment. She needed a place to hide now. But the trail here was bordered by leggy ferns and tall grasses. It wasn’t thick enough. There – twenty feet back up the path was an English laurel, a thirty-foot version of the bush that hid the trail from her earlier. Its large glossy leaves made it look thicker than it was. Cherry raced into the dark hollow at its center and then scrambled to the back. Would it conceal her well enough? She could still see the path through the gaps in the foliage. What if the wights could see her through them too? It was too late to leave. Row, row, row your boat Gently down the stream Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily Life is but a dream They sang the tune in perfect rounds, so there had to be four singers. The song grew louder, and what looked like a happy family heading out for a picnic appeared down the trail. A scruffy man carried a rosy-cheeked toddler who was too busy munching carrots to join in. A girl in grass-stained overalls hefted a basket, shifting to put it on her other shoulder. A smiling woman with a messy bun had her arm wrapped around the elbow of another man – a man who smiled as much, but glowed less, and didn’t quite sing on key. Cherry sucked in a breath. He was a real person. If she’d seen him on his own, she might be suspicious of him, and if she saw one of the wights on their own, she might think they were real. But next to each other, the difference was obvious: the smudges of dirt on his clothes weren’t so artful, and his hair looked like he’d cut it himself without a mirror. A pock mark marred his cheek. This man was as real as Cherry, and the wights were about to make him disappear forever. How could she stay hidden while another human being was led away? He was right in front of her; maybe if she jumped out, grabbed him, and ran… Cherry put her face in her hands. She couldn’t. Even if by some miracle she freed him and escaped herself, it wouldn’t be enough. They said that once someone touched a wight, they were forever charmed. You could overpower them and drag them back home, but they would beg to be let go. Sooner or later, they would escape and never return. The group was passing near the laurel, their steps a mere two feet from where Cherry hid. Luckily, the wights were focused on their current victim, smiling at him as they sang. Except for the toddler. His head turned as his gaze wandered. He looked curiously at the laurel, and his bright eyes fixed on the spot where Cherry was crouched. His hand reached out in her direction. Cherry cringed, burying her head behind her knees and holding her breath. Just pass by. Nothing to see. Pass by. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” continued as she took shallow shaking breaths. Slowly the song faded, but she didn’t dare move. Were the wights really gone or had they fallen silent to trick her? Something rustled the leaves nearby. She shrunk into herself, squeezing her closed eyes. A sharp meow brought her back to the world. The fluffy cat sat on the trail, looking at her expectantly. Cherry emerged from the laurel and gave it a scratch. The cat had saved her when the wights came, and now it was telling her they were gone. She’d heard cats didn’t like wights, but this… Had someone trained this cat to be a guardian of the trail? Or was it just the instincts of a pet that wanted attention but wouldn’t go near wights to get it? Regardless, fortune must favor her. The cat followed her a little further, past a miniature forest of sumac trees, under the empty eyes of mossy houses, and over a few lichen-covered walkways. Then it sat and curled its tail around its paws, as though it had reached some unknown border. Cherry stopped. Wights were using the trail now, so it was only a matter of time before she encountered them again. Could she handle them alone? She had no choice but to try. She should be grateful the cat accompanied her as long as it did. She took off her pack and fetched the can of tuna. Cherry couldn’t leave without offering something in return for its help, especially since its caretaker could have just been taken. She struggled through opening the can, and then she scooped out half the fish and put it on some matted clover. The cat purred as it ate. Cherry gobbled the rest herself. She thought it tasted a bit off, but then, she wasn’t sure what fresh canned tuna tasted like anymore. She gave the cat one last stroke. Maybe when she reached the end of her journey, she would adopt her own cat. Leo had mused about getting dogs or pigeons that could carry mail, but they wouldn’t need all the letters anymore. They could talk to each other into the long hours of the night, munching on sun-dried plums. She would finally get him to call her Cherry, though she had to admit “Miss Lam” had grown on her. She shook herself; this was no time for daydreams. Without the cat keeping watch for her, Cherry had to be alert. As long as she spotted the wights before they spotted her, she could duck out of sight. Once the wights saw her… People said it was useless to run, even though the creatures never made chase. She hoped she never found out if that was true. CommentsPart 2: The Guardian and the Wights by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Chris WinkleRelated StoriesPart 5: The HomecomingPart 4: The Bridge Too FarPart 3: The Voice Beyond the Bramble
17 minutes | Sep 29, 2020
Part 1: The Departure
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/part-1-the-departure/ Post-Apocalyptic Art Commission by Pino44io Somewhere past Cherry’s ivy-laced window, the wights beckoned. She scanned the thick ferns and pale alder trunks out back, but the hillside held no vibrant colors or alluring shapes. The wind’s rustling didn’t carry bubbling laughter or a hint of melody. If only that meant the wights had left. She’d gone to ground weeks ago, but that hadn’t discouraged these ones from drifting about the neighborhood, knocking on doors and peeking through windows. No doubt they were waiting for someone to emerge and scavenge the old commercial streets or gather apples from abandoned gardens. “We leave tomorrow,” Jackie said behind her. Cherry stepped down from the basement window. Jackie had spread their remaining rations on the stained wooden table: about a cup and a half of uncooked rice, a few handfuls of oats, and a can of tuna. Cherry’s stomach rumbled. “We could squeeze two meals out of this, wait another day.” “No, I told you.” The older woman shook her head. “We need something for the road.” Cherry drew in a shaking breath. This was it. They’d run out of food, and with that, out of time to hide. All they could do now was flee the neighborhood, praying they weren’t snatched on the way. Even if they made it, they were giving up the burrow they’d invested years in. Cherry had just managed to get rid of the mildew smell, a nearly impossible task in these times. She’d spent months scavenging for clean rugs to cover their concrete floors, and she’d found a hidden glen that would do for a garden. “I haven’t seen any wights out back in a few days. Not obvious ones, anyway. Maybe they left.” “Cook the rice. I’ll scout.” Jackie headed for the door. “Why yes, I do think that’s a good plan. Thanks for discussing it with me instead of just ordering me around.” Jackie turned and glared. They’d always had trouble getting along, and being cooped up together for weeks hadn’t helped. Still, at least Cherry tried to be nice. Most of the time. “Would you rather scout?” Jackie asked. “No.” Cherry sighed. “I just want to come to conclusions together instead of arguing after you’ve made up your mind. And doesn’t leaving merit a conversation? We haven’t decided where to go.” Jackie shrugged. “My old warren is just an hour or so north in Alderwood. If it’s still going, they’ll take us in.” Cherry’s stomach sank. Once again, Jackie had already decided, and it was the opposite of what Cherry wanted. She let herself collapse onto the nearest chair. “You know that won’t work for me.” Jackie frowned. “You’re still being stubborn about warrens?” “Warrens are still being terrible places to live, so yes. But it’s more than that.” “Not your pen pal?” “His name is Leo.” “Cherry.” Jackie pulled up a chair next to her. “I know you care about… Leo, but he’s too far away. You were damn lucky you made it up here in the first place. If I hadn’t found you… We’d never reach the Cut.” “I wasn’t going to insist we go all the way down to his burrow, but we have to go south. If we go north, I won’t be able to get letters to him anymore.” “It’s time to give that up anyway. Wights could be listening.” Cherry threw her hands in the air. “We don’t even know they can read. And I’ve been careful, like you asked. We’ve spread the clues to our burrows over multiple letters, and they’re ridiculously cryptic.” “You haven’t written him since these wights came around. By now, he’s already mourned you.” Cherry drew in a breath and paused. Had he? Their letters hadn’t been that reliable in the past. She had to walk them to a drop point about a quarter hour away, so the people there could take them to the nearest warren, and so on. Sometimes they demanded payment in things she couldn’t find. Occasionally they swore they’d delivered her message, but Leo never got it. However, even considering those gaps, she hadn’t sent a letter in a long time. If Leo thought she’d departed… The world was cruel enough without false tragedies. “I can’t let him think I’m gone.” Jackie stood and grabbed her jacket. “I have to go, or I’ll miss the light. We can hash this out when I get back.” “We’d better. But go, I’ll cook the rice.” Jackie opened the outer door, and it made a loud creak. “Dammit.” “I’ve got it.” Cherry pulled up a chair to keep it in position. “I’ll grease it next thing.” “Alright, don’t leave it open too long.” Jackie stepped out and paused, staring at Cherry. “If I don’t come back – ” “You’ll come back.” Jackie nodded. She slipped around the house, disappearing into the brush. Cherry crept into the old backyard for some garlic mustard; it was the only fresh vegetable close enough to gather while they were hiding. What she would give for some choy sum, or even a few dandelions. Of course, since she wanted it so badly, any fresh food was now suspect. If she turned around to find a miraculous row of white radish, she’d have to run for the door. Thankfully, the garlic mustard was reassuringly speckled with brown. Rain sprinkled over Cherry’s shoulders, slowly sinking into her polyester shirt. It had been raining often lately, but the days were still balmy. Was it September? They could be thankful for that at least. A month earlier, and their water would have run out much faster than their food. Plus, more than once she’d spotted wights that looked dry even as rain fell on them. Anything that made them stand out also made traveling a little safer. After Cherry collected her small bounty of garlic mustard, she greased the door hinges – or tried to; Jackie always did that. Then she inched the door closed and locked it. Next came the rice. Building a fire was dangerous, but they still had a three-wick candle, and that was enough to boil a small pot of water. The candle had already burned low; she broke the glass rim to get the flame close enough to the pot. The wax’s faded scent still resembled cinnamon if she imagined hard enough. Despite the hassle, Cherry liked making rice. Her grandmother had taught her during a childhood visit to Hong Kong, and Cherry could still hear Poh Poh’s voice, instructing her to touch the rice’s surface with her thumb and then pour the water until it reached the first knuckle. She wanted to believe her grandparents were still alive on the other side of the world, cooking and thinking of her. She’d never know if that was true. Cherry had lost her parents, her brother, and all of her friends during the Great Departure. She’d joined a warren nearby, but when the residents weren’t eating her food, they were tracking dirt everywhere or insisting she toss salt and mount horseshoes as if that would keep the wights away. They bathed in their own filth and called her wasteful for wanting a clean stream of water to wash in. Cherry managed to find another warren, but it was just as awful. She was finally setting out on her own when she met Leo. She hadn’t expected him to return her letters, but he did. Leo made her feel like she might have a family again someday. How could she lose that? The rice water boiled. To conserve what she could, Cherry blew out the candle. Jackie had been away for a while now. She must have ventured farther to see if she could spot the wights – a good sign. But the sun was below the hills, and Jackie knew better than to scout in the dark. She’d be back any moment. If she spotted wights nearby, they’d finish their talk. Cherry might have to admit that going north was a little safer, but that couldn’t be their only option. Cherry set the oats to soak for the next day. Then she crushed the garlic mustard, mixed it with the cooked rice, and served it into two bowls. It was dark outside. Jackie must have found a hiding spot for the night. She’d be back at first light, no doubt. What had she been about to say when she left? If I don’t come back… Cherry would ask her, because Jackie was coming back. Cherry covered Jackie’s rice so it wouldn’t dry out. Then she finished her bowl and curled up in a hammock. When she woke, the curtains glowed with the morning light. Cherry sat up and scanned the old basement, her stomach fluttering. Jackie’s hammock was empty. Her rice waited on the table, still covered. She wasn’t coming back. Cherry closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. If the wights found Jackie nearby, they might be closing in on the burrow. Cherry had to leave quickly. She retrieved a pencil and her smoothest sheet of paper, sitting with it as she ate the remaining rice. Jackie deserved a big wake, but no one did that anymore, not for a whole decade now. With so many lost and no bodies to bury, writing a final letter to the departed was more practical. The letters were always written as though the taken might return any day, a tradition that was odd but comforting. Besides, since no one knew where they went, maybe they would return – billions of people walking back into the world with a beautiful wight hand in hand, just the way they left. Jackie, Sorry I missed you. You were late coming back, so I decided it was best to move on. I know we didn’t always see eye to eye, but you were the best burrowmate an aimless girl could hope for. Without you knocking some sense into me, I think I would have been taken as soon as I came up here. You always knew what to do to stay one step ahead of the wights. It’s not fair that I’m the one here, moving on without you. I guess there are no guarantees, no matter how careful we are. Might as well reach for our dreams. I’m going south. I hope whatever you do next, it’s everything you’re looking for. Cherry She wiped her eyes. She’d written dozens of these after the Great Departure, saying goodbye to each beloved family member and all of her friends. After that she did it a couple times a year, whenever someone in her warren didn’t return from an outing. If the warren couldn’t prevent a rescue attempt, she’d end up composing two or three letters. Would a day come when she didn’t have to write them anymore? Or would humans continue to disappear one by one, leaving only rain-sogged photos in rotting homes to recall the people who once lit up the night? Cherry pushed the letter aside. She couldn’t let herself get bogged down in grief right now. She had to concentrate on her next step: she was going to the Montlake Cut to be with Leo. They’d discussed sharing a burrow for over a year, since she told him about the fights with Jackie. He’d struggled with her Jackie-approved clues about her location, but she had enough to find him, or she probably did. He lived somewhere past the stadium and south of the canal, she was sure of that. A journey that long was dangerous, but now that she was forced to leave her home, she could at least go somewhere that was worth it. Cherry grabbed her backpack. Food had to be her first priority. She put the soaking oats in a jar and packed a can opener with the tuna. She grabbed three candles, a lighter, a bottle of rainwater, a few clothes, and some feminine pads. She tucked Leo’s letters in a front pocket. For a gift to her future host, she settled on a fresh journal still preserved in its plastic wrapping. She tied her black hair into a ponytail and put on a cap and jacket to keep off the rain. Last, she clipped Jackie’s machete to her belt. It was worse than useless against wights, but blackberries were another matter. She was ready. She put her hand on the doorknob and paused, her chest tightening. What if the wights had closed in around her block and were merely waiting for the sound of habitation to lead them to the right house? The door would probably squeak again, and the low brush on the hillside would leave her exposed. Cherry drew in a breath. None of that mattered now; her odds only got worse if she waited. Go, she told herself. Get out before it’s too late. Cherry opened the door and plunged outside. She fled from the noise of her own movement, running downhill through the crowd of pungent garlic mustard and vaulting over a tree felled by a thick sail of ivy. She stumbled once but made it to a tall patch of bamboo. There she dived in and crouched, listening to her heavy breaths as the leaves around her dipped and lifted with every raindrop. She spied for anything out of place on the hillside, but the wet leaves and crawling beetles weren’t particularly unusual or lovely. However, while the wights weren’t known for subtlety, they could technically look like anything. She had to hope they weren’t hidden somewhere, watching and biding their time. She crept further downhill, avoiding fallen branches that might crack and give her away. Through the dense foliage ahead, she saw gentle shining waves and hills beyond them, now lightly sprinkled with yellow and red. Lake views were as lovely as they’d ever been, but if you had a clear view of the landscape, the wights in that landscape had a clear view of you. No one went over the water anymore. Instead, Cherry’s route was one row of houses up from the shore. With a few more steps, a lake house loomed before her. The shingles were covered in clumping moss and decaying leaves. A strong sapling had taken root up there, puncturing the roof to let the rain rot out the interior. Squirrels crawled over the collapsed deck as sparrows flew in and out the broken windows. Cherry was already in the home’s old backyard. Had she passed the Burke-Gilman Trail? She hadn’t checked it in the three years since she’d journeyed north from the central warrens. She’d assumed the pavement hadn’t been erased by probing roots. If that was wrong, what would she do? Using the streets would leave her exposed and vulnerable to the most dangerous wights. Going through the brush would be noisy and slow. She’d never make it. A spot of intense blue caught her attention. She stepped back, but it wasn’t anything so alluring as a wight. It was something old, showing through a clump of foliage. She trudged closer and found a bike. Its gears were rusted red, and the wheels were tangled in a vine of morning glory, adorned with white trumpets. The bike was still chained to a towering cedar, faithfully waiting for its owner to free it for a ride. The trail had to be close. Cherry took a step back uphill and plunged through the big leaves of a laurel. She slipped through the laurel’s dark interior, emerged out the other side, and she was there: a narrow band of open air that curved through the trees along the shoreline. Brush encroached on either side, but roots still hadn’t broken through the pavement to fill the gap. Instead, the path hid under a mat of crumbled leaves and a carpet of clover, dotted with purple blossoms. The trail left enough space for easy walking, but not enough for the largest of wights. Here, she might have a chance of resisting them. The quiet squeaking of a door carried down the hill: Cherry’s door. Was Jackie back? If the wights were gone, she might have spent extra time gathering a real meal for them. It was still early in the day; maybe she figured Cherry would be asleep. Was she up there, realizing Cherry was gone and reading her letter? Cherry could go back. If it really was Jackie, they could restock their home and celebrate their good fortune. Cherry wouldn’t have to risk her life on a journey to the Cut. But a wight could have opened the door. Catching Jackie would have told them which blocks to search, and the creak as Cherry left would have brought them closer still. If the door hadn’t closed all the way, the burrow would be obvious to them. That meant the wights were just on the other side of these trees, hot on Cherry’s trail. If she went back, she’d fall right into their clutches. She had no time to peek around. Even if she didn’t, the wights could be on her in a moment. Either Cherry risked her life to stay with Jackie, or she risked her life to get to Leo. Leo, I’m coming. Cherry ran south down the trail, trying to keep her footfalls from pounding as hard as her heart. CommentsPart 1: The Departure by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Chris WinkleRelated StoriesPart 5: The HomecomingPart 4: The Bridge Too FarPart 3: The Voice Beyond the Bramble
23 minutes | Jan 15, 2020
Beyond the Twilight Gate
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/beyond-the-twilight-gate/ Image by Shutterstock My dearest brother, I know you miss me, but I can’t cure you by telling stories at your bedside. Though you’ve faced the fainting spells and sudden shivers bravely, these symptoms are too stubborn to be soothed with herbal tonics and a strong will. Your friends began to fade six days ago now, and their spirits have already left for the sweet meadows. I swear, though, I won’t let that happen to you. If only I’d listened that night, you wouldn’t be ill. When you told me of the bright shadows that watched from the woods, eyes flickering, and the faint notes riding the breeze, I assumed you were playing. But you were earnest. I should have kept you closer. I shouldn’t have sent you out alone the next day. To my shame, I didn’t realize my mistake until I mentioned your words to Grandmother. She described how she had seen these watchers lurking in the trees the day your friends fell ill. She hadn’t mentioned it before because no one else ever saw such things. I rushed out to find you as soon as I learned this, but I was too late. Now I must discover your cure. I’ve laced my boots, loaded my satchel, and even packed up half the scrolls in my library. I’m certain you would laugh if you saw me burdened so, but I may need to reference these scrolls before my quest is done. We may not have the answer to your strange illness, but surely the ones who lived here before us did. I must find more of their writings. I know, deciphering old scripts is my answer to every problem, but have I not been right many times? I’ll be right again – you’ll see. Even though a journey is my only recourse, I could barely bring myself to leave you. I sat on the chair next to your bed, holding your hand until you fell into a fitful slumber. I crept away then, but on the threshold of our home, I stole a glance back. Your hand still rested on my chair, fingers grasping. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be where you reached. I beg fate to reveal that I didn’t surrender precious moments with you for naught. While I can’t comfort you with my voice, I’ll write home as often as I find a courier to carry my letters. I’ll regale you with what knowledge I discover, which you’ve always loved to hear – or at least you’ve humored me by listening. Now rest, little honey bee. I promise I will eat properly as I pursue my studies, as you are so fond of reminding me to do. In return, you must rest and drink whatever Grandmother brings you, sweet or vile. Delaying the tremors and seizing by a mere day could mean everything. Stay steadfast for me until I return. With love, Evaline Dearest brother, I’m not so far from you. Peer out toward the rising sun, and imagine me and my scrolls between the hickory trunks just over the next big hill. When you are well, I will take you to play in the valley here. Its floor is covered with curving stone walls, much of them broken and blanketed in moss. Once this place must have been a massive labyrinth; now it’s the perfect spot for a game of hide-and-seek. I daresay you’ll have the better of me. The Daunics built these walls long ago. Perhaps you don’t remember their name, but I’ve often described them to you as our lost kin. They left for the same reason we came – pushed out by marauders, their villages burned and their temples torn down. They even shared some words with us. That’s what allowed me to learn their script, though in my years of studying them, I’ve found no one who converses in their tongue. Since leaving your side, I’ve spent long hours peeling the green veils from their stones and tracing the symbols underneath. They carved the landscape and heavens into their stonework, a grander version of my own maps. These landscapes are why I’m here now. I hope that once I copy them onto parchment, they’ll lead me to a forgotten library, or a temple, or some other cache of their writings yet uncovered. Yet as I trace the land, I’m awed at how much they loved the sky. The stars are charted here, as are the movements of the sun and the moon. No doubt this gave them a calendar for planting and harvest, but their devotion surpassed this. They believed the heavens might herald great events. I am reminded that the night you came to me with your fears, the moon had a blue sheen. It was so brilliant it gave the hills a faint glow, yet the stars seemed no dimmer by comparison. Was the night sky warning me of danger? If only I’d studied harder, maybe I would have heeded. The village healers believe I’m following fancies, but I’m sure the Daunics knew of the bright shadows you saw. They lived here for untold centuries; they would have seen the phantoms creep down the slopes after their children. They wrote of all things they cherished; they would have recorded how to cure such illnesses. With their wisdom, I will restore you. Your loving sister, Evaline Sweet brother, I’m at an inn now, a day’s journey away. I’ve unrolled my old scrolls and newly traced maps, concealing every bare spot of floor beam. Since the daylight has passed, I require half a dozen lamps to examine them all. I continually adjust my lamps, banishing the flickering shadows that cover some corner of paper, so I may ponder the patterns in full. The written materials I brought are more numerous than I imagined. In my hurry to gather everything I might need, I even grabbed a scroll I can’t read. And yes, there are scripts your quill-handed sister has not mastered yet, though this scroll is more curious than even an unlearned script. When I view it, I see nothing but blank parchment. But it’s not a fresh sheet waiting for new ink; it’s cracked with age and mottled with small stains and scratches. Perhaps it’s from the Daunics. Grandmother couldn’t say, and she’s the only one who could see the lettering on it. Oh, my little bee, simply by virtue of listening, you aid my quest! Grandmother is the only one who sees the watchers without trouble, and she’s the one who could see the writing on this scroll. It’s a tentative connection, I’ll admit that, but a striking one. Perhaps this is because of Grandmother’s twilight eyes, as I’ve come to think of them. Young as you are, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that Grandmother sight is not like ours. At midday she looks into the sun, never blinking at the fierce light. In deep night she fetches kindling from the forest, bearing no candle to light her way. At times I’ve caught her staring past the village, her gaze following something that moves over the foothills. She wasn’t always this way. From what she has told me, she was gathering herbs on the windswept slopes years ago and turned home too late. The sun set and the shadows claimed her path. When dawn came, she was found on the eastern trade road, bruised and unconscious. She awoke to twilight, and she has seen twilight ever since. Though Grandmother saw the hidden script on this aged parchment, alas, she couldn’t discern it well enough to copy it for me. Now I must discover what the scroll says, and I have only one chance: to gain my own twilight eyes. I know whereabouts Grandmother went to pick herbs, and whereabouts she was found. I now have more maps from the Daunics, marked with places they held sacred. Perhaps I can discover the secrets of her lost night. I must bid you goodnight, little honey bee, for I have work to do. I will write more when I can. With love, Evaline Brother mine, I almost dare not say it, but I think I’ve found where the twilight eyes are bestowed. I can’t be certain until I try to gain them, and as Grandmother might have lost some memories here, I thought it prudent to record my notes first. I’m standing just out of sight of the eastern road, in a large nook carved high into the hillside. If Grandmother fell from this landing and rolled down the slope, she would have come to rest where the traders found her. But many travelers tumble, and they don’t see phantoms afterward. For that, I can only guess she stepped through the arch. I struggle to describe how strange this hidden archway feels. It’s the skeleton of an entrance, the door long rotted away, the stones around it left behind. The cracked remains of a few steps kneel before it. The old doorway would be unremarkable, except it’s the last remnant of a missing structure. The rocky floor holds traces of walls that were torn down. Like a mourner in a field of fallen soldiers, the arch stands vigil alone. The moon rises through its gaping mouth. I’ve studied structure after structure, all left in pieces. How has this arch remained intact? Did the Daunics place special importance on this entrance, using harder, thicker stone in its construction? Did they destroy the rest of this building themselves, hoping the marauders would overlook one useless doorway? Perhaps the Daunics planned to return to this place, but perished instead. Or maybe some unseen force preserves these stones: a last, stubborn tribute to long-dead days. Curses! The wind has stolen several of my scrolls and given them to the road below. If I spare the time to climb down and gather them back up, it will be dark when I return. No matter, I’ll leave an extra note for the courier I paid to come by here. I’ll ask him to search the area for papers, in addition to your wayward sister, who may be lying on the slopes. Don’t worry, I believe Grandmother’s memory loss and injuries were caused by her fall, which I promise not to repeat. However, I’m prepared for any outcome. If I faint after crossing through the arch, the courier will find me, and I‘ll have careful notes to inform me of my mission. The sun is setting behind me, a searing reflection of the rising moon. I must do what I came for. I pray that once I step through the archway, I’ll have the twilight eyes. I can’t know from here; I can only walk through and see. Love, Evaline Sweet bee, Rest easy; the archway hasn’t hurt me. Had I closed my eyes while stepping through, I might not have noticed anything. With them open, I can see the world around me has shifted. Before, it was sunset and moonrise. It is still – but a different sunset, a different moonrise. The sun is weaker yet warmer, amber of the deepest afternoon. The moon shines brighter and bluer in a sky that shimmers with stars. Under that sky, everything from the soaring peaks to my own figure bears opposing shadows, blue and gold silhouettes on either side. This is the sight I came seeking, but alas, I’m no closer to reading the Daunics’ parchment. Grandmother wasn’t wrong; letters cover it from top to tail, but now I know why she couldn’t trace the words for me. They are faint. So faint I can’t tell where one letter ceases and another takes its place. Even if I were born to this language I might not understand these words. As it is, I have no hope of reading them. I am loathe to admit that I have wasted a day in my search for your cure. Time is precious; I should turn back immediately and start my search over, but haven’t yet brought myself to do so. Even unreadable, the faint lines call to me, much like a loved one shaking me from slumber. I’ve been turning the page over and over. I can just discern pale drawings, similar to others I have found in stonework. Perhaps I may still gain something from this discovery. One of the sketches is their symbol for the moon. I’m sure of this one, for I’ve seen it many times. To my eyes this moon shines blue amidst the yellowing parchment, but it could be no more than the strange light and my desperate wishes. After staring closely at another drawing, I believe it shows a doorway. One with the wood door still in place, for the archway is shaded with vertical strokes. I struggle to make out a third illustration. It depicts a figure, hand in hand with a smaller figure – a child? My mind races to what this might mean, but these are only theories, and a good scholar doesn’t mistake her desires for truth. I must learn more. In my restlessness, I’ve circled the arch thrice now. The heavens look no different on its other side. But if I walk back through the way I came… yes, the sky returns to its old self. I can guess what this means: the Daunics never intended for someone to fall into twilight forever. When a Daunic walked into the building, they were given the twilight, and when they walked out, it was taken back. This place must have been a temple. Within its borders, the Daunics could have watched the heavens without squinting or straining. So the archway casts the twilight over those who enter. What might happen if I enter, step over the missing walls, and enter again? The doorway wasn’t meant for this, but if twice twilight helps me read the scroll… I’ll try it. Don’t fret, love, the archway didn’t hurt me the first time, so surely it won’t hurt me the second. I’ve done it, little bee. I now stand in twice twilight, where the moon blooms brighter and the sun dies like an ember. The air feels thick, brushing the little hairs on my arms and neck, tickling my skin. My steps are light; I wonder if the wind might carry me away. This wouldn’t hurt me, I promise, for the landscape is strangely altered. What was a steep slope is now a soft incline. The hills spread before me have the same peaks, yet also bear new crevices into lightless depths. Tiny gold lights hover near them. The breeze that sweeps up the hillside is flowery, and bell-like notes ride on it. They almost form a melody, some song I have long forgotten. Curiously, the missing walls of the temple have grown back somewhat; waist-high shadows stand in their place. These shadows look near solid, but I can step through them without difficulty. While I dare not spare the time from my present quest, later I might return and sketch them. Perhaps I can witness the ghostly traces of other fallen buildings. I would love to see how the labyrinth appears under these strange skies. The arch fascinates me most of all – it glows blue and gold at once, but not an even glow. It is as though the stones are built from a swarm of the tiniest fireflies. When I look from outside the old walls, a shadowy curtain rests within the arch, veiling what lies in thrice twilight. That is, except for a single round hole. This hole slowly moves, so the moon may always peer through at me. I am ill at ease here, but my gamble worked – at least partially. The words on the parchment are darker now, dark enough that I may read snippets of the Daunics’ wisdom. They describe how their cities were broken and their people fled. Yet their priests… I can’t make it out. Thankfully I can discern passages near the moon symbol, and I was right as to the color. The words describe a blue… eclipse? Conjunction? Some time when moon and stars are brighter than ever before. And the priests crafted doorways, doorways that open and close as the heavens move. On the back side of the parchment, it tells of children, or of their births, or of… alas! Even in twice twilight I can’t read it. Now I must choose whether to turn twice to thrice. The notes on the wind have grown louder as I’ve studied here. The trees rustle as though something pushes through them, something on its way to me. My muscles tense, ready to run back to the skies I know. I don’t like the dark veil that covers the archway. I can’t tell what I might find on the other side. If I don’t succeed here, where will I go next? How long will it take? I’m ashamed to admit that even with all my studies, I can’t think of another way to discover your cure. Perhaps I could find one, but time is against us. Your feverish tremors must be worsening day by day; I need a solution before you are overcome. And here I stand, with essential knowledge mere steps away. I can’t go home to watch as you fade away. That leaves me with no choice but to go on. I stand in the twilight temple. Its walls stretch above me, unbroken, dark and gleaming in the blue light. A stairway circles upward through an open crescent in the ceiling. Tall windows line the walls around me, and a door stands open in back, looking upon a gentle path to the valley floor. Through the windows I see the foothills, changed yet still familiar. I was mistaken when I wrote of shadowed crevices in the hills before. They’re not shadows, but black structures like this one. The tiny lights are now glowing wisps, bobbing up and down as they travel slowly over the landscape. The heavy air prickles, and the wind brings not only notes, but song. The melody is one I’ve sung to you often, the lullaby of sun and waterfall, yet the words are different, the beat twisting. It’s been growing louder as the glowing wisps approach. As they grow nearer, the lights coalesce into gold silhouettes. Singers with shining eyes. Watchers. Daunics. Yes, the Daunic priests dwell here. They were the bright shadows you saw when you went out to play. They’ll reach me soon, and I can’t run back through the archway, for the shadowy veil is now as solid as stone. All that’s left of the opening is a circle about the size of my fist, a hole through which the sun’s last light shines. Even now it creeps toward the edge of the doorway. I hurry to put down words before my chance is gone, though the ink I brought is faint to my eyes, revealed only by the dying sun. The Daunics must not have known their words would be invisible to us, that I would have to join them to read their message in full. It describes how when the marauders came, the priests fled through the archway. They knew they would be trapped here, but they believed their people would return and free them. They waited as the heavens moved and their old stonework crumbled further. Once they finally accepted that their people had left forever, they did the only thing they could – they wrote to us, the new caretakers of their lands. Perhaps they’ve always been writing to us, and only this parchment was recognized for what it was. After reading their message, I now understand that when the moon shines blue in the sky, the twilight is near. This is the only time the veil on the archway may be lifted, and it is rare and fleeting. So the Daunics are using a ritual to keep the twilight close for longer, improving their odds of being freed. This ritual requires people outside the twilight to serve as anchors, and only children can be seen here. So the priests have followed you and included you in these rituals. They bound you between two worlds drifting apart, pulling your spirit toward the twilight. The Daunics filled this blank-seeming parchment with instructions for freeing them from this place, instructions no one in the twilight can follow, and no one outside it can read. As I am trapped here as well, copying their words in my sun-blessed ink and sending them to you is my only chance of escape. But I won’t do it. The priests know what’s happening to you and your friends. Every time they perform their ritual, they’re choosing to harm you. I don’t care that they’re lost and desperate. Once they are among us, they may become desperate again. Given their strange knowledge, who could stop them from preying on you then? If remaining in this bright night is the cost of protecting you, I will pay it. Before my time runs out, I must tell you how to protect yourself and the others. Go to the old labyrinth in the next valley over, the one I visited to trace my maps. The walls may look broken to you, but in the deep twilight, all the Duanic ruins are as new. As I am trapped by these strange stones, the Daunic priests cannot reach through the dark, solid walls. Hide with the other children in this vast maze, and they will not find you before they must renew their ritual. Your spirit will come unbound, and the twilight will drift away again, preventing them from using you further. After one night in the depths of the ruin, you’ll surely be safe from the watchers forever after. Oh, my little sweet bee, I’m so sorry that I won’t see you again. I wanted to take you back to the ruins to play. I planned to teach you of the old languages and our history. Now our chance is gone. While I can’t be there with you, I’ll think of you for as long as I last. For my sake, live happily. Enjoy what the gracious earth gives you. Tell stories by the stars. Hold your loved ones close. Remember me at twilight, but don’t come looking. What little time I had is gone; I must push this paper through the sun’s window. Outside, the breeze still feels strong, strong enough to carry one more parchment down to the trade road. As I pray to the skies, I release my hope to the wind. Always, Evaline Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron. CommentsBeyond the Twilight Gate by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by MJ CarlsonRelated StoriesPart 5: The HomecomingPart 4: The Bridge Too FarPart 3: The Voice Beyond the Bramble
28 minutes | Jan 1, 2020
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/deathslinger/ Image by Shutterstock Haru Rake paced the length of her porch as snow drifted down, covering the corral in a soft white blanket. She barely noticed the cold. Ten minutes since the clock struck nine, and her farmhands still hadn’t shown. That wasn’t like them. Any other day, they’d be out working the moment it was light enough to see, no matter how the other townsfolk harassed them for coming out to Haru’s farm. She paid them double wages for that. The wind shifted again, carrying the cattle’s lowing from the barn. It had taken Haru all morning to do the milking by herself, and that was just the start of what her animals needed every day. Come spring, seeds needed to go into the ground, and without help she’d never get the whole acreage planted in time. She’d lose the crop for sure. She glanced through the window at her old clock. Fifteen minutes past the hour. No help for it, she’d have to seek them out in town. A town that welcomed Haru Rake like it welcomed a typhoid outbreak. “The Rakes are all necromancers,” folk said. “They’ll take the soul right out of you and twist it to do their bidding.” They weren’t entirely wrong. A whole passel of Rakes had turned necromancer back in the day: Haru’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. The power in their blood had been too much for them, and one by one their warm gazes grew cold and hungry. They had terrorized the frontier, murdering anyone who couldn’t fight back, then enslaving the victims’ souls to bolster their own power. From there they became even more dangerous, raising the corpses as revenants to spread their violence further. Folk never believed it was Haru who’d put the other Rakes down, hunted each loved one and killed them with an ensorceled cobalt bullet. She still had three of those bullets, made special by her grandmother. Haru stepped inside and exchanged her work shoes for riding boots. She bundled up tight with a heavy coat and shawl before dawning her wide-brimmed hat. Gone were the days when she could ride into town unarmed, so she slipped a small knife into her boot and strapped on her gunbelt, the revolver a comfortable weight on her hip. With one foot out the door, she turned and tucked her grandmother’s polished cobalt slugs into a breast pocket. Couldn’t be too careful. In the barn, Haru saddled up her old gelding, guiding the placid beast out into the snow. Haru urged the gelding into a run, and they ate up the miles to town. The wind shifted, blowing snowflakes under the brim of her hat. She brushed the flakes aside with one tanned hand and squinted as morning light reflected off snowbanks along the hard packed road. A few wisps of clouds drifted in front of the sun, shielding the glare until Haru could unsquint her eyes. She was among the town’s outer buildings now—squat structures made of rough wood, local clay, or scrap iron. Temporary buildings that had turned into a permanent town. Scraps of buzzing conversation drifted to Haru’s ears. She frowned and flicked the reins. Why would so many people be out and about this early on a frigid winter day? She emerged onto Main Street toward Town Square. A wide scaffold stood tall in the square, its timbers of fine oak showing smoother seams and stronger joints than any of the surrounding buildings. Ropes hung from the scaffold’s long arms over panels that would drop away, leaving a body dancing through its last few seconds. Townsfolk dressed in their Sunday best were packed around the scaffold, chatting away, here to celebrate a hanging. Haru’s guts turned colder than the frigid wind on her face. There wasn’t anyone on the scaffold. Haru let out a breath. Maybe she wasn’t too late. Maybe this didn’t have anything to do with her hired hands, and they’d just been delayed by the festivities. She swung down from her horse, heels crunching on the snow-covered ground. She looped the reins round a post and pushed into the crowd. Tall and broad, Haru shouldered townsfolk aside with hardly a sweat. Some of them saw her and glowered from beneath their hats, careful not to meet her eyes. A few spit into the slush at her feet. She broke through the thickest part of the crowd to the square where the scaffold itself stood. Across the square, a small group of town deputies stood with satisfied expressions. In front of the scaffold, the town undertaker measured one of half a dozen bodies. Two of her farmhands lay among the dead. Haru felt a lump in her throat and swallowed. Aside from working for her, what could either of them have done to earn a hanging? One had needed her help when it came time to put down a coyote-mauled cat. Another body she recognized as a youth who sometimes picked pockets in town. The rest Haru didn’t know, but what were the chances that so many deserved the noose in one day? Near the scaffold’s lever, two of the deputies had their hats off and were talking to an older gentleman. The gentleman wore a white suit with shining ivory buttons, and the sun reflected off his straight teeth even from across the square. She glared at the white-suited man as he hefted a trunk and turned away from the square. He had to be a judge from back east, here to put some fear of the law into simple frontier folk. Haru’s hand itched to grab the carved handle of her pistol, but she resisted. It wouldn’t do for these townsfolk to see a Rake drawing iron. A gust of wind blew up, and it carried the pungent scent of brimstone into Haru’s nostrils. Bile rose in her throat. She hadn’t smelled brimstone like that for years, not since she’d put down the last of her relatives. They got that scent the first time they bound a soul, and it only became more pungent as their power grew. She glanced side to side. Except for dark looks thrown her way, none of the townsfolk acted like anything was amiss. They didn’t smell even a whiff of a sulfur stench strong enough to turn stomachs. Wasn’t that always the way? Since Haru had the so-called gift, she was always the one to sniff out the stink of necromancy. Haru tilted her head. Where was it coming from? Another gust of wind rose, and this time she could make no mistake; it was the white-suited judge who reeked of brimstone. He wasn’t just an overzealous easterner. He was a necromancer, and he’d probably found a way to steal these people’s lives as they gasped out their last breaths. Her hand pressed against the pocket that held her grandmother’s cobalt bullets. One of them is all it would take, but with so many people around, she had no chance of escape once she pulled the trigger. “Haru?” A woman’s harsh whisper broke into her planning. “I know you can’t be doing what it looks like.” Haru glanced sideways. Within arm’s reach stood Pollyanne Lorke, her tan face and straight black hair framed by her deputy’s hat. The slender woman put a hand on Haru’s arm. “I know this is ugly and those two were real helpful for you, but there’s nothing to be gained by getting violent. The judge has a writ convicting them of assault, murder, and worse back east. They were tried and sentenced proper.” “Sentenced proper?” Haru asked through clenched teeth. She pushed the anger down. She and Pollyanne had been playmates once upon a great many days ago. Maybe the other woman would hear the truth when Haru spoke it. “That man in white is your judge? He sentenced them? He’s a necromancer, Pol. He’s got the smell.” Pollyanne narrowed her eyes. “Judge Colson, a necromancer? Can’t be. His writ’s from the capital. They wouldn’t give that to a necromancer.” Her expression softened. “You’ve taken a loss, Haru. Why don’t I walk you home? Last thing you need is to be on Colson’s bad side. He’s the highest authority this side of the Boundary River.” Haru stifled her retort. Judge Colson was a necromancer, but she wasn’t going to convince Pollyanne, not here. The deputy’s faith in the capital’s law was too strong. “I’ll be on my way then,” Haru said. She’d wait until the judge left town, track him across the frozen scrublands, and do what had to be done. A commotion near the platform drew Haru’s attention. The deputies were leading five more people to stand before the scaffold: prisoners with their hands shackled together. The last of Haru’s three farm hands was among them: a young man named Alans, barely more than a boy. Haru glanced back at Pollyane. “And I suppose these five were tried and sentenced proper too?” Pollyane’s expression twisted into a pained frown, but Haru was already turning away from her. There would be five more sacrifices to the judge’s power if she didn’t act, but she needed somewhere with a clear shot. Near the scaffold, Judge Colson began the motions of sentencing. He read out the first prisoner’s supposed crime: murder of a shopkeeper in the next town over. Haru didn’t believe a word of it, but she understood how the authority of a capital writ might convince the townsfolk. Four more to go before they opened the trap door. Haru hoped that would buy her enough time. She hurried into the town’s ramshackle hotel, where a clerk craned his neck to see what was happening in the square. The clerk glared at Haru when she asked for a second-story room, but his attitude changed in a hurry when she slide over three times the normal rate and told him to keep the change. Seconds ticked by in Haru’s head as the clerk fished around under the counter, finally producing a tarnished key. Haru pounded up the stairs and unlocked the musty room. The shutters were closed against the winter cold, but cracking them open gave Haru just what she needed: a commanding view of the square. From here, she had a clear shot at the judge, even if it was a little far to make without a rifle. With Colson dead, the executions would at least be delayed, hopefully called off altogether once cooler heads weighed in. Meanwhile, Haru would escape through the hotel’s kitchen and ride out of town. She’d be a fugitive, but five people would still be alive. Below, the judge finished his proclamation of sentencing. Not much time. She slid open the cylinder on her revolver and loaded one of her grandmother’s cobalt bullets. Only these ensorceled bullets would kill him. Necromancers repaired injuries by feeding on the souls they stole; it took the power of another necromancer to set those souls free. She snapped the gun shut and rested the revolver on her left arm, sighting down the barrel. She couldn’t afford to miss. The special bullets had been made by her grandmother using the last of her necromantic power. On her death bed she’d given the bullets to Haru, along with a warning never to dip into the power that ruined their family. Haru wasn’t sure what she’d do when the bullets ran out. She hoped there wouldn’t be any necromancers still kicking by then, but if the judge was anything to go by, that was a vain wish. She could only make more if she tasted the power her grandmother had wielded, and Haru had sworn never to do that. In the square below, the judge motioned for the first prisoner to be dragged up to the platform. Haru adjusted her aim down the polished barrel. Time to put down another necromancer. She pulled the trigger. A weight slammed into Haru from behind, pitching her forward. Her gun jerked to one side, and a brilliant blue light erupted from the barrel, reflected in blinding arcs off the falling snow. The shot burned into the general store’s wall instead of the judge. Haru hit the rough floorboards hard, the weight pressing her down. As the stars cleared from her head, she recognized the weight as Pollyanne. “I’m sorry,” the other woman said. “I couldn’t let you.” Other deputies flooded the room within moments, too many of them to resist. They wrenched her gun away and bound her hands with twine. They hauled her down the stairs, out of the hotel, and onto the frozen street, where she beheld Judge Colson only a few paces away. The judge’s mouth was set in a hard line. This close, liver spots stood out below his high hairline, and a vein bulged on his forehead. He pointed back to the square. “Take her up to the scaffold. I was fortunate enough to tie an extra noose this morning.” An excited murmur swept through the gathered townsfolk. Pollyane stepped up to the judge, shaking her head. “Your honor,” she said. “I think it was all a mistake. At least a trial would—” “A trial would take time,” Judge Colson said. He looked Pollyane in the eye. “And if I were delayed, I might have no choice but to look into those allegations of horse theft that your brother got mixed up in last year.” He leaned in until he was nearly nose to nose with the deputy. “Is that what you want?” Pollyane’s eyes widened. Then she looked away, fists clenching at her side. “No, your honor.” Judge Colson smirked and turned away from Pollyanne. He knelt down and opened his trunk, a polished piece of luggage inlaid with ivory. With the trunk’s lid open, the scent of brimstone thickened in Haru’s nostrils. Her eyes watered. Of course Colson would keep his necromancer’s tools close—he couldn’t risk anyone discovering them behind his back—and anyone this powerful would know that a container of ivory and bone kept the magic potent for longer. If Haru could upend the trunk, perhaps whatever secrets spilled forth would prove to others what she could already smell. She pulled against her captors, but they only gripped tighter, and all she got for her trouble were fingers digging painfully into her shoulders and arms. The judge stood from his trunk, withdrawing a knotted noose of dark rope. He shut the lid and raised a hand. “To the scaffold!” Haru stumbled and lost her footing as the deputies dragged her forward. Her heels dug furrows, then thudded against the gallows’ stairs. Thrilled murmurs ran through the crowd. Haru grimaced. The crowd’s excitement was only natural. Instead of just common criminals, they were about to watch the last of the no-good Rakes get the noose. Only Pollyanne hung back, arms held tight around herself. Haru locked eyes with her old playmate as the other deputies dragged her. “Pol, whatever he said, you can’t think this is right.” Pollyanne frowned, but she said nothing. Haru’s feet hit the top of the platform. “Colson won’t stop. He’ll keep killing to feed his power. He’ll come back through here and claim more people. Is that what you want?” A deputy cuffed her across the face, and Haru’s vision wavered as pain blossomed in her cheek. Her eyes cleared as the judge reached the top of the stairs, his breath coming out in long plumes of steam. The deputies held Haru still below the last of the scaffold’s long arms, rounding out the doomed souls to an even six. Most of the other prisoners stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused in resignation. Two of them muttered quiet prayers. Alans glanced at Haru with a desperate expression, as if there was something she could do to help him, to help any of them. Judge Colson approached her, his grandfatherly features twisted in a hungry smile. “Today you find justice,” he said, and placed the noose over her head. The sulfur stench from the noose overwhelmed Haru, almost emptying her stomach. Barely audible whispers tickled her ears—the power within the noose calling out to her, daring her to imagine what havok she might wreak with it. The judge leaned in close to adjust the noose, so close that a wave of faces writhed in the whites of his eyes. Every face had once been a person, but now they languished in torment until he expended them to fuel his magic or prolong his life. Haru tried to draw back, anything to get away from those eyes. She’d witnessed the captured souls of a necromancer’s victims before, but never so many at once. The judge was a monster to put even her own family to shame. “You’re a Rake, aren’t you?” he said in a low voice so only she could hear. “You could have been a powerful practitioner. That makes you a sweeter treat than all the trash of this town combined.” He made a final adjustment and turned for the stairs. At the bottom, he would pull the lever and Haru’s life would be sucked out through this noose, to become one of the many souls in bondage. Pollyanne stood close to the judge and his trunk, her back ramrod still. Haru caught her eyes. “Pol, please. His trunk. If you have any doubts at all, check his trunk!” Pollyanne looked at the trunk, back at Haru, then at the trunk again. The crowd of townsfolk jeered at Haru. Someone threw a chunk of ice from near the front row that sailed past her ear. Judge Colson reached the bottom of the stairs and raised his hand to the trapdoor lever. Pollyanne kicked open the ivory-inlaid trunk. It fell onto its side and disgorged a small avalanche of blood-filled vials, carved bones, and ritual knives. The tools of a necromancer. Silence crashed down on the square as the townsfolk glanced between Judge Colson and the damning paraphernalia. A young man pointed at the spilled contents, mouth hanging open. Children clung to their parents’ legs. A gray-haired woman broke the silence: “It’s just like I seen ’em, when they came to take Ma’s bones.” The judge glared at Pollyanne. His hand tightened on the lever, and he began to pull. The trap door inched open beneath Haru’s feet. The noose tightened around her neck as she pressed up on the tips of her toes. Pollyanne drew her revolver and shot the judge in the chest. Colson jerked back but stayed on his feet. A dark blue stream poured from the bullet hole, but the wound did not bleed. The dark smoke coalesced into a screaming human face, one of the judge’s captive souls, sacrificed to preserve his life. Pollyanne pulled the trigger again, then three more times. Each shot slammed home but did little more than leave another smoking hole in the judge’s suit. The judge grunted in exasperation and reached his hand out to take the lever again. The rope went taut over Haru’s head and the sulphurous noose tightened around her throat. She gasped for air as its whispers echoed in her ears. Pollyanne swung her arm around and took aim above Haru’s head. Her sixth shot boomed out, severing the rope pulling Haru’s noose tight. Haru fell sideways onto the scaffold, gulping in air as the noose loosened. The judge shouted in anger, drew a small pistol from his suit, and shot Pollyanne in the chest. She fell backward into the crowd, and chaos erupted. Townsfolk screamed and ran in every direction. Two of the braver deputies lunged at the judge to tackle him, but he struck one aside with a blow that cracked bone, proof that he’d consumed more of his vast reserve of souls to give himself strength. Haru cast the noose off her neck with a shrug of her wide shoulders. The whispers faded, and some of the brimstone left her nostrils. She breathed deep. She glanced right and saw the other five prisoners still gasping for air as they balanced on the partly opened trapdoors. Haru glared at the two deputies who had dragged her up to the scaffold. “What are you waiting for?” she snapped. “Cut these poor souls down before they give the necromancer even more power!” The deputies jumped to obey, and it was only as one of them drew his knife to cut Alans down that Haru remembered her own hands were still bound. In the square, the judge threw off the second deputy trying to restrain him. He swung his arm around, tracking his small pistol toward Haru. She sprinted across the scaffold and threw herself off the platform, a shot buzzing just over her head. She hit the frozen ground, and her breath whooshed out of her. With arms still tied behind her, Haru stretched her hands down to reach the small knife in her boot. Through the slotted timber of the scaffold base, the remaining deputies found their courage and moved in on Judge Colson. Could they stop him? They would likely run out of ammunition before the judge ran out of lives. Only her grandmother’s two remaining bullets, tucked safely in her breast pocket, could cut the captive souls loose and end the judge in one shot. Judge Colson raised his hands wide, and more dark blue smoke belched from his fingertips. It flowed along the snow-packed ground; townsfolk and deputies alike scattered before it. The smoke flowed into the half-dozen corpses laid out before the scaffold. The bodies jerked and spasmed. With grinding cracks like breaking ice, they rose. The revenants lunged into the crowd, grappling their victims and crushing the life out of them with reanimated strength. The square disintegrated into a fractured panic of gunshots and screams, hiding the judge from view. Haru freed the knife from her boot and sliced through the ropes around her hands, then rose to her feet. She needed to find a gun and get another shot at the judge while there was still a town to save. She sprinted around the scaffold and nearly tripped on her first objective: a deputy’s revolver dropped in the snow. Several paces away, the gun’s owner writhed in the snow, wisps of blue smoke concentrating around his crushed throat. The man’s jaws opened so wide they nearly unhinged, and he rose to his feet with a crack. Haru’s breath caught. Only the most powerful necromancers could create revenants that enslaved their own kills. Haru grabbed the fallen revolver and loaded one of her grandmother’s bullets into the last chamber. The new revenant rushed at her, its hands balled into hard fists. She pivoted aside to let it pass her like a charging bull. As the revenant swung around, she raised her pistol and emptied the first chamber into its face. The creature jerked back from the impact, and she dropped her aim lower, firing four shots into the revenant’s elbows and knees. The impact sprayed blood and bone fragments onto the snow, and the revenant fell twitching. Haru turned away. It was impossible to destroy a revenant with normal bullets, but a skilled shooter could do enough damage to render them relatively harmless. Her grandmother’s bullet slid into place under the hammer. She scanned the square for the judge. Her eyes found him beside his trunk, commanding his revenants with great sweeps of his arms. She raised the revolver, sighted him down the barrel, and pulled the trigger. A revenant leapt in front of the judge, and the cobalt light of her shot engulfed it. The revenant vanished, leaving only a shadow scorched into the snow where it had stood, but the judge remained. He smirked and brought his hands together. The other revenants rushed in, forming a tight wall between them. No matter how Haru shifted her aim, there was no way for her to get a shot. She would only waste the last of her grandmother’s bullets destroying another revenant. She needed another vantage, something that would give her a chance. Gunfire rang behind her, and a few revenants in the front rank staggered. Haru glanced behind her. The freed prisoners and a handful of surviving townsfolk huddled atop the scaffold, the able among them firing into the oncoming horde. Pollyanne lay against a sandbag at the top of the scaffold stairs, one hand clutching her revolver, the other pressed against her bloodstained shirt. Behind her, Alans reloaded a rifle with trembling hands. If Haru could get on top of the scaffold, it might give her a shot at the judge. Haru sprinted for it, revenants crunching the snow behind her and the townsfolk’s bullets buzzing past her ears. She took the stairs two at a time, the gunfire becoming a desperate fusilade as the revenants closed in behind her. The townsfolk might slow the monsters down, but the things wouldn’t be stopped. Haru loaded the last of her grandmother’s bullets. Her boots clattered on the scaffold and she reached up toward one of the long arms and the rope still dangling there, the rope that would have ended her if Pollyanne hadn’t shot it through. She wrapped the rope around her arm and hauled herself higher, feet bracing against the support beam. She looked out over the horde of revenants and beheld the judge, her line of sight free from any obstruction. With her free hand, Haru raised her gun. The judge looked up and saw her. His expression twisted in fear, but there was nowhere to run. Haru pulled the trigger. A small puff of smoke escaped her revolver… and nothing else. The last of her grandmother’s special bullets, and it was a dud. Below, the judge’s lips split into peals of laughter. The old man’s face flushed, and he waved a dozen revenants forward, while others battered the doors of the hotel and general store, where more townsfolk had barricaded themselves. Haru released her hold on the rope and hit the scaffold hard. She’d been so close, and now it was all for nothing. She didn’t have another cobalt bullet. Beside her, Pollyanne opened her weapon and reloaded the bullets one by one, her actions slowed by the use of only one hand. “You almost had him,” she said in a voice tight with pain. “Good thought, climbing the rope like that.” Haru nodded with what felt like the last of her strength. “Didn’t matter.” She glanced at the stairs, where a handful of townsfolk slowly gave ground to the oncoming revenants. A whiff of sulfur reached her nose, and she marveled that she could still smell the judge over all the gunsmoke and death. The smell came again, close like it was just under Haru’s nose. She looked down and saw that it was. The noose she had shrugged out of still lay on the scaffold where it had fallen. She brushed one hand against the silken knots, and the whispers seeped back into her mind. It called to her; with the judge focused on his revenants, she might be able to make use of it herself. Without another cobalt bullet, it might be her only chance. Pollyanne examined her, face pale from blood loss. “You’ve got that look, the Rake look. The noose is speaking to you, isn’t it? Death offering a hand to you, just like the others.” Haru nodded. The noose felt like an old friend in her hand. The knowledge of how to use it came to her like it had always been there. “It’s my blood,” she said. “Same as it was in my grandmother and all my no-good family.” “Then you’ve got to use it,” Pollyane said. “Use it to stop Colson while there are still some of us left.” She leaned her head toward Haru. “Use it on me.” “Pol, oh no,” Haru said. But the noose pulled at her, a hound eager on the scent. “It should be me,” Pollyanne said. She pressed her bloody hand harder against the wound in her chest. “I’m hurt already, and I stopped you from killing Colson when you had the chance.” Pollyane was right, but she had also saved Haru’s life on the scaffold. Haru glanced at the other woman’s wound. It had bled heavily, but it was likely survivable, if Pollyane lasting this long was any indication. She couldn’t escape this by pretending Pollyanne would die anyway. But they would all die when the revenants stormed up the stairs. The noose was hot in Haru’s hands. The judge might have taken an army of souls, but he wasn’t a Rake. He wanted her power because it was greater than his. If Haru took Pollyanne’s life, she could use the power it gave her to seize control of Colson’s revenants, claiming her family’s birthright at last. Crunching wood snapped her back to the world. Alans and a handful of townsfolk were chopping at the stairs as their ammunition ran out. Haru shook her head. She wouldn’t do this. She wouldn’t become like every Rake cousin she had put down. That left her with only one solution: to let the judge put her own neck in the noose. She emptied her revolver and dropped it to the scaffold. Noose in hand, she stood and leapt off the scaffold, leaving Pollyanne’s cry of protest behind. She landed hard among the swarming revenants, and held the noose over her head with her left hand. This wouldn’t work if the revenants tore her apart. “Judge Colson,” she shouted. “You wanted my gifts. I offer them to you if you’ll spare these others.” The revenants converged on her, but they did not attack. They seized her arms and dragged her toward the square’s edge where the judge stood waiting. Gunfire petered off behind her as the horde paused its assault. She stumbled the last few steps, and the revenants forced her down onto her knees. The judge stood over her, taking the noose in one hand. “Your gifts will be sweet indeed, Rake,” he said. He leaned down to fit the noose around her neck as his lips peeled back in a hungry smile. “But you must know I can’t let anyone escape this town alive, not with what they know about me.” His breath washed over her, hot and sour. Haru smiled. “I know.” She twisted one arm free and drove her grandmother’s final cobalt bullet into the judge’s throat. Brilliant blue light erupted on impact, burning her eyes. The judge stumbled away, flailing at the dud bullet lodged in his flesh. Dark blue smoke poured from the new wound, then more and more. The smoke became hundreds of faces, wheeling round in the air to descend back on the judge. His flesh blackened and crumbled where they touched it. The judge shrieked once, and then he fell under the assaults of his stolen lives. The smoke dispersed, leaving only a charred skeleton behind. The revenants fell down to the snow as mere corpses, the force animating them gone. Haru stood on shaking legs among the fallen bodies and bloody snow. Near forty people lay among the fallen from her count, and that was just what she could see. Not an easy blow for the town to recover from. Snow crunched behind her. Haru whirled, hand going for a gun that wasn’t there. Pollyanne stood there, supported by townsfolk on either side, with the remaining survivors fanned out behind them. Many were injured, some worse than Pollyanne. They stared at her, not with the fear and hatred she was used to, but with bewilderment. They hadn’t seen her deal with necromancers before. The demise of her family had been no more than frightening stories to them, stories that changed with the folk who told them. Haru straightened to her full height and put on the voice she used for directing farmhands. “Wounded into the store, it’ll have the best supplies. Any folk who’ve got strong stomachs, with me, we need to get these bodies off the street.” For a few moments, there was only silence. Then Pollyanne spoke up, her voice strained but still strong enough to carry. “What are you all waiting for, a parade? The lady just saved us, so let’s hop to it.” This got the other townsfolk moving. Those who could went to pile the dead into carts and tear down the bloodstained scaffold. Others patched up the wounded or swept broken glass and shell casings out of the square. A few of the townsfolk still gave Haru dark looks, but not when Pollyanne was watching, and most now seemed more curious than afraid. A few even asked Haru what she’d done to destroy Judge Colson. She told them a little of her story, and for the first time, found an audience willing to listen. The town was hurt, but maybe if they all toiled together, they’d find a way to manage. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron. CommentsDeathslinger by Written by Oren Ashkenazi, narrated by Sarah GouldRelated StoriesPart 5: The HomecomingPart 4: The Bridge Too FarPart 3: The Voice Beyond the Bramble
18 minutes | Dec 18, 2019
That Time an Angel Tried to Fix Me
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/that-time-an-angel-tried-to-fix-me/ Image by Shutterstock I wasn’t prepared for a robotic angel to invade my living space. It was almost nine p.m., and I was still working in my dining room, staring blankly at the schematics on my monitor. My table was home to a growing population of macaroni boxes and chip bags that I had every intention of eradicating shortly, just as soon as I dealt with my latest creative emergency. Ideas had flowed so fast when I was supposed to be working on something else. As soon as I gave up my steady paycheck so I could revolutionize commercial storage, my inner river dried up. I’d made some progress since then, but mostly through my savings account. Now I was out of money for rent. But I had a plan: an old colleague put in a good word for me with a business incubator. If the incubator took me, I’d be able to borrow some money for living expenses. If they took me. The application was due in two days, and my mechanical creation still didn’t work. I’d spent all day forcing myself to focus on the problem, but I’d only managed to retitle my proposal and put up a motivational poster. Taking a deep breath, I lowered my forehead to the cool tabletop. Maybe what I actually needed was some downtime. My phone buzzed. It was a text from one of my friends: We’re done with the movie and we got a table at the pub. Wanna come? The cute bartender’s on shift. That sounded nice, except I was too worn out to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Putting up with the wrong pronouns was grating on a good day; tonight I would just get cranky and leave. Besides, as much as I’d wanted to see my buzz-bestowing crush, dating never worked out for me anyway. I texted back: I’d love to, but I think I’m about to reach a breakthrough with my tech baby, so I’d better focus on that. I supposed that wasn’t a lie if I meant my forehead was about to break through my monitor in frustration. Coffee. Coffee was as good as downtime. I pulled myself away from the table and stumbled over to the kitchen counter. Pushing aside the open jars of peanut butter and jelly on the counter, I reached for the coffee pot and its vital elixir. A light flashed behind me. I whirled around, ready to face an exploding microwave or renegade lamp. Instead, a humanoid robot a little bigger than me hovered over the floor near my chair. Their plating was a shiny bronze, patterned with tiger stripes that extended to delicate outstretched wings. Two pointy ridges on either side of their head looked vaguely like animal ears. A soft warm light flowed out of their joints, but not from their eyes. Those were dark, which I appreciated, because it makes no sense for light sensors to emit light. I was so taken with the stranger’s incredible technology, I ignored the signs that this angelbot was misleading me – mainly, that they were hovering via the labor of quiet propulsion engines attached to the back and legs, so their manicured wings only created a false impression. “Alex Rodriguez.” The bot’s voice was expressive yet clearly artificial. I grabbed a knife from the jar of peanut butter and held it out in defense. “Who are you, and what do you want with me?” “I am your guardian angel.” “I have a guardian angel?” I lowered the knife a little. “Yes. I am here to proffer solutions to your current barriers, so you may increase your socioeconomic status. Follow my instructions, and you will thrive even in the toxic cultural climate of your human society.” This couldn’t be real. Was I having waking dreams again? A gob of peanut butter fell off my knife onto the floor. I sighed and put the knife down. Then I poured the last cold dregs of coffee into my cup. Whatever was happening, I was going to need coffee. “First” – the bot aimed a finger at my cup – “you must substantially decrease your caffeine intake. It creates a feedback loop wherein you are unable to complete a sufficient number of sleep cycles, prompting you to consume additional caffeine to function adequately.” “I know that.” Didn’t I? “It’s just temporary.” “You must limit yourself to eight ounces, to be imbibed before one p.m.” Before I could stop them, Angelbot glided closer, took my cup right out of my hands, and poured its precious contents down the sink. “Next, your reluctance to socialize has limited the emotional support you receive during challenging stages of your life. To correct this, you must inform your peer group of your true gender. They will understand that your society’s concept of binary gender is reductive.” “Umm…” Wow, this robot knew a lot about me. “Okay, but what if they don’t understand?” “My methods are indisputably accurate. Furthermore, you will find human courtship less stressful once you communicate your desires. You are not alone in seeking romantic partnerships without sexual activity.” I crossed my arms. “That stuff is private.” “Understood. I will pause output of lifestyle solutions and commence output of economic solutions.” They floated back to the table and leaned over my laptop, their back to me. That’s when I noticed they had a long striped tail; something about it pulled at my memory. Angelbot typed in the password to unlock my computer, and my schematics came up. “That’s in progress…” I stepped forward to rescue my computer and put my foot right in the glob of peanut butter. Dammit. I took my sock off. “Your in-progress work is not viable because its basic functions conflict. You must streamline it into a single-purpose device.” “Why? Are you a single-purpose device?” Angelbot paused. “I have many single-purpose components.” Had that been rude of me? Who knew what courtesy was among flying cat robots. A flying cat. That’s what Angelbot reminded me of. Even though they were humanoid, their design was clearly based on a stuffed winged cat I lost when I was nine—or at least, based on what was left of the cat after it went through five corporate-funded focus groups. “You will be most successful by focusing on the transport aspect of the system.” Angelbot highlighted parts of the schematic and marked other parts for deletion. “Assembly features should be removed.” I grabbed the laptop and cradled it like it was a wounded child. “Assembly is what makes it revolutionary.” “Assembly is unattainable.” Angelbot straightened. “To be accepted by the incubator, the device’s value to humans must be communicated in a short statement. Include the following line in your application: the device that will fetch you a cold beer.” “That will fetch… that’s ridiculous! The retrieval system is capable of much more than getting a beer for someone who won’t get off the couch.” “It is. However, the statement must resonate with the humans operating the incubator. In addition, your aunt’s habit of drinking beer on the couch all evening may be influencing your opinion.” I held up a finger. “Have you been watching me my entire life?” “I have collected the data necessary to fulfill my purpose.” So that was a big yes. Creepy for sure, but it also made me feel oddly important. “Why me?” “You have been chosen for your potential for greatness.” “Umm… okay.” I had to admit I liked the sound of that. But I knew better than to trust a random trespassing robot. “Where do you come from? What exactly do you get out of helping me?” “Do not concern yourself with that. Assisting you is its own reward.” “You expect me to believe that?” “I am due to depart in 12 seconds. Proceed with the solutions I have described; you will believe when you receive the results.” Angelbot brought their hands together as if in prayer. With a flash of light, they disappeared. For a second, I stared at the space they vacated. How did they do that? Could I stop them from transporting back into my apartment whenever they felt like it? Probably not; who knew how their amazing beam-in and beam-out technology worked. Well, someone had to know, and that someone was way ahead of me. I put my laptop back on the table and reluctantly looked through Angelbot’s marks on my schematics. Who was this bot to say I couldn’t achieve my vision? Sure, taking out the assembly portions would make the schematics a lot easier to finish, but the result wouldn’t have the magic of the original. Of course, now that I’d seen an intelligent robot transport straight out of some blasted science fiction story, the original hardly seemed magical either. The application deadline was still looming, and I had no other plan to get it done in time. I sighed. Okay, Angelbot, I’ll try your so-called economic solution. I worked solidly on it over the next two days. I even found a back page to insert that silly slogan about fetching a cold beer. I hated the work, and I wasn’t proud of the results, but at least I had something to show for the time I put in. It probably helped that I’d gotten my first full night of rest in weeks, thanks to Angelbot’s advice on coffee. Had I really known that coffee was disrupting my sleep? If so, why had I kept drinking so much? And since I couldn’t solve my own caffeine problem, what hope did I have of making a difference in the world? I finished the application with a few hours to spare and went to the pub with my friends to celebrate. But while I was out, I couldn’t help dwelling on what Angelbot said. If a flying bot knew my gender by watching me, did that mean my friends knew? How else could Angelbot tell how my friends would react? Maybe under those welcoming smiles, they were impatiently waiting for me to spill the beans. Every time the group conversation faded into silence, I wondered if this was the moment to say something. Then I remembered that I had no reason to trust Angelbot, and I panicked about almost saying something. I cut the evening short just so I wouldn’t stress about it anymore. The next day, the incubator called. “We just read your proposal,” the head of admissions said. “Most of our applicants reach right for the moon, but you’re shooting closer to home.” “Well, I did consider including assembly operations.” “And you took that out. Great call, keeping the scope down to something achievable. We really like how practical you are.” “Yep, practical. That’s me. So… did I make the first cut?” I crossed my fingers. “Oh yeah, definitely. As soon we read your slogan, we knew we had to meet you. I mean, fetching a beer! That’s cold! It says so much with so few words.” My stomach sank. They didn’t want me; they wanted Angelbot. “How soon can you come to pitch us in person?” “Umm… sorry, but I have another offer. I think I’m going to take that one.” “Oh. Are you sure? We’ll be sending out notices to accepted applicants shortly. You won’t be able to change your mind.” “I’m sure. Thanks for your interest.” I hung up the phone and tossed it aside like it bit me. What had I just done? Angelbot gave me everything I wanted, and I blew it because, what, the process didn’t flatter my ego enough? How was I going to pay the bills? Even if I went crawling back to the incubator, they’d probably think I was too unreliable to work with. And I didn’t want to. Maybe I didn’t even want to work on my machine anymore. I collapsed onto my armchair. That’s when Angelbot reappeared. This time I got a good look at their entrance. It began with a tiny pinpoint of light on the other side of the room and rapidly expanded into an ovular disk. Angelbot floated through the disk, and it collapsed behind them. They glided closer until they were almost within reach. “You did not proceed as planned. This will limit your socioeconomic opportunities.” I took a deep breath, torn over whether I should give the intrusive bot a stern talking-to or beg them for help. On one hand, somehow the flying feline had only made my sorry life worse, but on the other, what if I needed their guidance to reach my potential? Angelbot had been right about everything; it was me that was messing it all up. I let the breath out. I would tell my self-appointed guardian angel how I felt, so they could suggest a solution. “I’m just not motivated to work on the project anymore. Next to your capabilities, it’s like I’m smashing two rocks together hoping to make a wheel.” Angelbot raised a finger but then stopped. Just like that, I’d stumped Angelbot. They didn’t know any more about what to do with me than I did. Despite my best efforts, my voice rose. “What, you’ve watched every moment of my life and you don’t have a solution for that?” “You must work to realize your great potential.” That was it. I stood and aimed a finger at them. “Look, I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but you’re obviously lying. If I was so great, you wouldn’t need to babysit me. No, when you chose me, you knew I was pathetic. Did you think that if you gave me a few life hacks, I’d obey your every command and unleash some robot horde on humanity?” I stared up at Angelbot. Their dark eyes and bronze plating gave nothing away. What the hell had I just said? I had a guardian angel literally appear out of thin air and give me the answers to all my problems, and I’d returned the favor by accusing them of attacking Earth. Now they’d leave, and I’d be left knowing it was my own damn fault. Angelbot opened a control panel under the plating of their left arm and pushed a button. The propulsion engines turned off and they landed on the floor with a thump. They took a few steps closer to me – clunky, awkward steps – so we were almost eye to eye. The shiny bronze held my bewildered reflection. Then Angelbot pulled a latch under their chin, and their face plating swung out and to the side. Underneath, my own face stared back at me, the hint of a smile betraying suppressed mirth. Delicate wrinkles framed my brown eyes, and my black hair had the cut I wanted but was afraid to get. The real Angelbot was an older me, a more confident me, but definitely me. I gaped. “I’m sorry I lied to you,” future me said in an unmasked, human voice. “I didn’t tell you because now that you know we’re the same person, I can’t come back again. Honestly, I was already using a loophole in time-space regulations that they’ll probably close after this. “I know you don’t need me to tell you these things,” they continued, “I just thought, what if I didn’t have to go through years of painful learning to sort myself out? What if I’d just known all the answers that would have made my life better?” I struggled to collect my mental trainwreck into coherent words. “So, when you said I had great potential… you meant you.” Future me smiled sheepishly. “What can I say? I’m pretty cool. Don’t pretend you don’t like the suit.” I laughed at that, and so did future me, letting out a bubbling cacophony. I winced. “Do I really sound like that?” “I’m afraid so.” “But I’ll look like you too. That’s something.” Their smile broadened. “You like the hair, right? It’ll get you some nice dates.” They winked. “It – wow.” I wasn’t quite ready to think about that yet. “And you – I – invented your time-traveling suit?” “Yeah! Well, along with a team. Having a team is very important – ” they facepalmed. “Sorry, forget I said that. I know you can figure it out for yourself.” “It’s alright. Sorry I blew up at you earlier.” “Don’t be. I didn’t realize you – I – would feel that way, so thanks for sharing with me. My life is a lot better than it was, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. I’ll learn from this though, like I’ve learned from all the others. Speaking of which, I’d better go.” “Could I have just one more tip?” “Sure. Search the internet. You’d be surprised how many problems that solves.” I crossed my arms. “I’d be surprised by that?” “Well, you’d be surprised how often you forget to search the internet.” I smiled and wrapped my clumsy time-traveling self in a hug. “I’ll miss you.” “Don’t be silly. I’m right here, and I always will be.” We broke apart, and my future self disappeared. I sat back down. What should I do next? I was still out of money, and I had lost my chance with the incubator. But if Angelbot hadn’t intervened, I wouldn’t have gotten in anyway; maybe I wouldn’t have even finished the application. That meant future me hadn’t gotten in either, and yet they still had a successful career and a happy life. How did they get from here to there? Slowly. Years, they’d said. I’d quit my job hoping I could change everything with my first product, but change took time. It took trial, error, and learning. I grabbed my laptop and browsed the classifieds. With a part-time job, some roommates, and a tight budget, I could keep working on my dream a couple days a week, for as long as it took to make something I was proud of. Maybe it wouldn’t even be that long. After all, my machine didn’t have to be a breakthrough; it just had to be a start. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron. CommentsThat Time an Angel Tried to Fix Me by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Julia PittsRelated StoriesAnother Day, Another DiamondThe Death and Life of TuringReal Numbers
14 minutes | Dec 4, 2019
Another Day, Another Diamond
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/another-day-another-diamond/ Image by Shutterstock Outside Joan’s window, humanity ran amok. The far hillside was covered in hobbyists building a mansion from macaroni. In the valley below, gamers fought epic bubble battles in towering tanks. Winding through it all were hikers on the 100-mile trail of ruffled roses. Her window framed the scene superbly, providing a portrait of society no artist could accomplish. Joan didn’t see it. She kept the shades pulled so the best view on Earth wouldn’t distract her from the most boring job there was. After all, it was the only job there was. While everyone else judged cat competitions or recited popular poetry, Joan sat at her desk. There she broke ties between the computer systems that ran everything. Computers constantly disagreed on such things as the microliters of calcium concentrate or the millimeters of porous pavement. Joan meticulously researched each disagreement, no matter how trivial. Then she pushed the big YES button or the big NO button, and another dispute was immediately brought to her attention. Other people grew bored with this, but Joan plugged away, certain her work was monumental. And one day it was, though not in the way she expected. Joan was unaware her job could be exciting. If it was exciting, it wasn’t work, and if it wasn’t work, she wouldn’t be doing it. Other people might prefer to pull taffy or pluck strings, but their plucking and pulling depended on Joan sitting and smashing buttons. She brought doom to crafts and death to parties, but she alone traded enjoyment for utility. Even her old coworkers had whittled while they worked, took breaks for beer, and shoved the shades aside. When they left, Joan took over their shifts. She was paid, of course. Everyone agreed that working was ferociously unfair, so working folk ought to be salaried for their sacrifice. Every day, another diamond was deposited on Joan’s desk. Each one had its own color composition and contained a word written within. Joan did not collect diamonds, but she accepted them nonetheless. Bestowing the right diamond on the right person earned her a smile, and that was as much payment as she wanted. But it wasn’t as much as others thought she deserved. To make up the difference, a steady stream of entertainers poured through the office door. Chefs replaced her respectable meals by tossing an unnecessary number of knives over open flames. Musicians wanted her to wait and watch their fingers fly over a fiddle. And the bear buskers never checked the size of her office before bringing in bears. The entertainers thought themselves charitable for visiting someone in a pitiable position. For Joan, the only days that were pitiable were the ones in which they appeared. She did enjoy the companionship of the living statue, who stood for hours as Joan worked. She didn’t know how dearly the statue wished for a bathroom break. On the day Joan would later admit was exciting, she was overwhelmed with disputes. To start the new decade, the computer systems had recalculated everything from the conference calendar to the demand for baby boots. The systems held almost the same results they had ten years before, with the same disagreements. Unbothered by the repetitive nature of such work, Joan researched every issue and examined every record. Or she tried to. A decade ago, Joan had coworkers with whom she divvied the disputes. Now she had no one. If she asked for an assistant, the computers would hire one in a moment, but Joan wouldn’t stoop to such a thing. She’d seen new hires rush their research and swap work for whims. If a worker’s judgments were no better than chance, why hire one? Throughout the day, Joan struggled to speed up, but her work only grew. She ignored her clock-out call and dragged on after dark. Finally, eyes bleary, she found herself too tired to continue. Joan had never gone home with disputes unresolved, but now she had no choice. She would go straight home and climb into bed without her sips or vids. Then she would rise early the next morning to complete a longer shift that day. Joan would repeat this until the queue was gone. She was taking her hat from the rack when her terminal chimed behind her. In Joan’s twenty years, that had never happened. She blinked and turned. The words MANDATORY OVERTIME ran red across her screen. Joan flushed. She was sure it meant her plans were not enough. She had slacked off. Joan put her hat back and sat down. A new dispute had come in, a problem of high priority: On this day 140 years ago, the Human Strategy Counsel approved Strategic Plan 2780452, a phase-out plan for all human workers. The last stage began 90 years ago, limiting mandatory human service to the System Dispute Office. After 30 years in the final stage, computers systems projected with 99% confidence that human operators offered no benefit that justified the continuation of human labor. Every decade since then, the issue has been submitted to the System Dispute Office for review. Should the remaining human labor be eliminated at this time? No one witnessed the chain reaction in Joan’s brain, but if someone had, they would have commented on its magnificence. Comprehension flicked on like a switch, shot through the wires of her neural network, lit every pathway with its radiance, and then burst into flames that burned through everything Joan had accomplished and would accomplish again. Propelled by these internal pyrotechnics, Joan took a radical act of sedition. She grabbed the judgment panel and reached for the NO button. Just as the button clicked, panic rose in Joan’s gut. She was settling a dispute without research! Joan sat there, her fingers frozen on the NO key, until the computer systems registered an unusually long key press. A polite notice appeared on her screen, asking if she might like to cancel the resolution and leave the dispute open for review. Joan heaved a sigh of relief and released the button. Joan felt ashamed. First she had fallen behind, and now she had skipped her research. She was sure that such poor performance had convinced the computer systems to eliminate her efforts. It must be a mistake, she told herself, and an absurd one too. No matter, Joan would gather decisive data and render a resounding judgment. She didn’t doubt her conclusion. Six times, this dispute has been judged by other workers, and every judge had answered “NO.” Joan rubbed her hands eagerly. She had an excuse to demonstrate her diligence, even though she demonstrated it for uncaring computers. The best way to prove her importance was to compare the present to a scenario without her. For that, she needed a measurable model of this terribly tragic scenario. Joan queried the computer: What if no one rendered judgment? Obediently, the computer revealed an algorithm for resolving disputes, one designed centuries before. The algorithm weighed each computer’s conclusion for merit, using the certainty of the calculation and its statistical likelihood. The conclusion with the highest score won. Using this ancient algorithm, computers could resolve disputes in a fraction of a second. Joan found her fingers tapping in annoyance. She had to admit this tidy process could render judgments, but could it render good judgments? Joan put it to the test. She ran the algorithm on all disputes she had resolved in her twenty years, using data available when she resolved them. Then she leaned into her chair and crossed her arms, intending to rest her eyes while it digested the full scope of her accomplishments. Her terminal dinged almost immediately. Joan frowned and examined the results. The algorithm’s choices were strikingly similar to her own. Even so, they deviated for 2% of disputes. Aha! Joan’s spirits lifted. Now to confirm that she was right… Except she wasn’t. Not according to the best computer simulations, using data gathered after the disputes were resolved. In every case, the instant judgments created better outcomes than her meticulous evaluation. Joan had used simulations countless times before, but now they darkened her mind with doubt. She groped for a light and found a dim one. The simulations were a guess, not a fact. But if they were wrong, how could she demonstrate it? Perhaps the simulations overlooked something, something crucial. Human happiness was at the center of every goal, and Joan liked her work. No, she stopped herself, that can’t be my reason. If Joan worked because she liked it and not because it was needed, she might as well play games in the gauntlet, busk with bears, or stand like a statue. It would be the end of work, forever. Joan had one last trick. She pulled up the history of this dispute, locating six resolutions over the last six decades. Every worker had retained their position; the activity logs would show her why. What Joan found was as familiar as it was disappointing. The records didn’t have a single research log between them. In fact, the dispute never took more than fifty seconds to solve. Joan realized the previous judges had done what she almost had. They had pushed “NO” because they disliked the question. They wanted to keep their position, so they kept it, without considering the evidence. Joan was better than that. She always did her job well. But as it turned out, a job well done was a job not done. Should the remaining human labor be eliminated at this time? Joan could push “NO,” but every day she would wonder why she pulled the shades. She would know that no one who plucked strings or pulled taffy depended on her to sit and smash buttons. That she was not sacrificing enjoyment for utility. That her work wasn’t worth the diamonds deposited on her desk. No matter her decision, her job was recreation and boring recreation at that. She could still do it well. Joan pushed “YES” and watched her terminal shut down. She knew that, somewhere, a computer calculated how to recycle her workstation into rows of pet rocks or gowns for goldfish. Grabbing her hat from the rack, Joan left without another look. She didn’t know what she would do that night, or that year, or in twenty years. She could sip and watch vids all day, stroll down a hundred miles of roses, or watch as her office was obliterated. She was overwhelmed by endless choices that, as far she knew, were equal in merit. With time, Joan realized she was wrong. Her choices were not equal; she had dismissed the data she needed to judge them: her own desires. What she desired was being useful. Those who pulled taffy or plucked strings didn’t need her to sit and smash buttons, but taffy pullers needed someone to eat taffy, and string pluckers needed someone to listen. So after distributing her diamonds, Joan went to watch chefs who tossed an unnecessary number of knives, musicians whose fingers flew over fiddles, and buskers who balanced on the backs of bears. By clapping and cheering, Joan gave them joy. That felt productive. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron. CommentsAnother Day, Another Diamond by Written by Chris Winkle, narrated by Johnathan PreshawRelated StoriesThat Time an Angel Tried to Fix MeHellgate Incident 24The Familiar and the Frost
54 minutes | Nov 20, 2019
The Shattered Ascension
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/the-shattered-ascension/ Image by Shutterstock Try though she might, Captain Niccasha Fletcher couldn’t regret leaving the war behind. She stood on the bridge of her airship, the Aurora, and gazed out through the main viewport as the vessel steamed north. Golden sunlight filtered through the floating glaciers and ice islands, prisming into rainbows that reached far down into the abyss below. Spectrums of light played across Fletcher’s dark skin, and she sighed. It was clean and peaceful, a welcome relief from the acrid smoke and blazing hulks of war. She frowned. The admiralty had sent her away because she had failed in serving her country. Being grateful for the assignment was cowardice. The deck’s vibration changed beneath Fletcher’s feet as the great airship crossed a swirling current of frigid air. No ship had ever ventured this far north and returned. In such extreme cold, their pipes would burst and their engines would choke with ice. Even on the insulated bridge, Fletcher felt the chill. She patted the railing. The Aurora had spent a month in dry dock while its engines were fitted with new heat conductors to ward off the snow and ice. But this was the ship’s test flight; no one knew for certain if the modifications would hold. Fletcher turned to her first officer. “Engine report?” Commander Helena Rake frowned at her captain before bending to listen at the speaking tube. The young executive officer’s uniform was pressed to the standard of parade formation, the brass of her insignia and sword-pommel polished to a mirror that reflected her lean, pale face. Fletcher watched her with apprehension. Rake had only been aboard for two weeks, a trusted officer sent by the admiralty to keep an eye on Fletcher and, if the rumors were true, replace her. Rake straightened. “Engineering reports that the new modifications are functioning as expected. We’re operating at full capacity, sir.” Fletcher turned away from the younger woman. With the modifications functioning, they could venture into the true unknown. This vast stretch of air was an obsession for the faithful of both Albion and the enemy, Lareins. It held the Asgardian civilization’s last earthly remnants, but only vague passages in holy books hinted at what those remnants contained. Remote Asgardian outposts had been explored before, but no one had yet ventured into what had been the gods’ home before they ascended to Valhalla. A message tube slid down from the forward observation post. Fletcher opened the brass case and read the note inside: Island directly ahead. Fletcher and Rake pulled down their viewing scopes and pressed up to the eye pieces. As Fletcher increased magnification, a speck far in the distance grew until it was a titanic mass of rock and ice suspended in the air. Great spires of steel and concrete rose like thorns on the island’s top side. Deep gouges marred its cliffed edges, evidence that storm winds had torn down some of the towers and sent them toppling into the crushing abyss of air. Even with these portions missing, the abandoned Asgardian skyline dwarfed the mightiest cities of Albion and Lareins – those that had not yet been devastated by the war. Fletcher took a breath. She’d paid the gods no more than lip service for years, but the cyclopean city brought back a lifetime of prayer and devotion. Never before had a home of the gods been discovered in such an intact state. Rake intoned a prayer of thanks to the Allfather. Fletcher stepped away from her scope. “Bring Dr. Cline up here. He’ll want to-” “Thank you, captain,” came the deep baritone of Dr. Cline. “But I’ve already been informed.” The broad-shouldered, olive-skinned man stepped from the bridge lift, each footfall punctuated by a clack from the point of his gentleman’s cane. He carried a hard case over one shoulder and stared at the Asgardian island as it approached. Fletcher made space for Cline at the viewport. He was a representative from the Science Ministry, and the admiralty had made it clear that the Aurora must go wherever he wished. He’d been friendly enough so far, even if he was frustratingly cagey about the specific purpose of their mission. “We should be within boat range soon,” she said. “We can have an expedition on the island within an hour.” Cline held up a hand for silence. He opened his case and drew out a handheld device covered in switches and dials. He pointed it at the fast-approaching island. The device made a soft click every few seconds. Cline shook his head. “An expedition won’t be necessary,” he said. “Continue due north, best possible speed.” Fletcher’s eyebrows rose. If they navigated farther into uncharted air, they might encounter an ice storm or freezing winds the Aurora couldn’t withstand. She leaned in and kept her voice low. “Doctor, no expedition has ever made a find like this. What more could the Ministry ask for?” “It is a magnificent discovery,” Cline said. “But unfortunately, not what we’re looking for.” He tapped his cane hard on the deck. “I have my orders, as do you.” “He’s right,” Rake said, taking up a position at Cline’s flank. “We have orders.” Fletcher schooled her expression to hide her grimace. She couldn’t risk a confrontation with Cline and her XO, not when the future of her command was in question. Whatever Cline’s reasons, Fletcher wouldn’t discover them now. A message tube arrived from the starboard lookout post. Enemy ship spotted to the east. Fletcher froze as a familiar dread rolled over her. She hadn’t expected the Lareins to send a ship so far north. The war had followed her. Ships burned in her memory, superstructures cracking open in the heat and spilling sailors down into the abyss. Fletcher overcame her paralysis as Rake took the message from her fingers. Rake read it with bright eyes and a toothy smile. “Battlestations!” she bellowed. The bridge exploded with activity, alarms and orders ringing out with equal volume. Fletcher pressed her eye to the scope. The cigar shape of an airship steamed toward them belching smoke and flying the crossed-sabers flag of the Lareins. Fletcher compared the enemy’s profile to her long memory of engagements. A fast battlecruiser, it would outrun and outgun the Aurora. Since the Larein ship had made it this far north, they must have modifications similar to her own. Fletcher’s best hope was her ship’s superior maneuverability. Rake pressed her ear to the speaking tube. “All sections report battlestations, sir.” Fletcher nodded. Rake straightened and lifted an iron hammer pendant from a chain around her neck. Chatter died away on the bridge. Officers and crew alike turned toward Rake, heads bowed. “Mighty Thor, Lord of Thunder,” Rake intoned, “as you strike down your enemies, we shall strike down ours in your name so that we may earn a place beside you in Valhalla.” She stomped a boot hard on the deck. “To victory!” Sailors echoed Rake’s call. Fletcher joined in but couldn’t help feeling a twinge of unease. In the days before the war had escalated, prayers before battle had focused on fighting with honor and the courage to protect those who could not protect themselves. Now the emphasis was on killing the enemy and earning a place in the hall of endless battle. The Larein battle cruiser’s forward guns flashed. The shells went wide, exploding off Aurora’s bow and peppering the armored hull with bits of shrapnel. “Hold fire,” Fletcher said. At this range, they were unlikely to hit anything, and the Aurora’s smaller caliber would barely dent the enemy’s armor. “Adjust course three points west, full speed for the island.” The floating ruin was her only chance to even the odds. Rake stared hard at Fletcher, though the commander’s discipline was too ingrained to question a superior in combat. Fletcher could guess well enough what her XO was thinking. The course she’d ordered would expose the Aurora’s side to the enemy, and their forward guns would be unable to return fire. It looked like a retreat, and an ill-advised one at that. Fletcher hoped the Larein captain thought the same. The Aurora’s deck shook as the old boilers worked themselves to full capacity. Enemy fire rained down around them, seeking to breach a viewport or slag an engine. The Aurora shuddered as a shell struck its armor belt, but the ship steamed on. Finally they entered the island’s shadow, and Fletcher lost sight of the enemy ship just as it turned to come around the opposite side. Fletcher nodded to herself – it was the logical move. The enemy would slow, wait for the Aurora’s bow to emerge from the island’s shadow, and then unleash a full broadside from close range. She had only one chance to avoid total destruction. She looked to Rake. “Order all hands to brace themselves.” As her first officer relayed the command, Fletcher issued a second order: “Reverse thrust on starboard engines.” The deck pitched under Fletcher’s feet. She and her sailors lost their footing and kept themselves upright only by handholds and harnesses. The ship’s structure groaned as the starboard propellers switched direction. It was a violent maneuver, something few ships could manage without tearing themselves apart. Hull stress gauges shot into the red, and glass cracked in the viewports. Even so, the compact Aurora came about with its hull intact and steamed back the way it had come. In seconds, the Aurora left the island’s shadow and beheld the enemy’s stern. The Larein ship was perfectly positioned for the Aurora to emerge from the far side, but completely unprepared for the smaller ship’s reversal. Fletcher nodded to Rake. “Fire.” The Aurora’s batteries thundered away, tearing great chunks from the enemy’s lightly armored stern. The Larein ship struggled to turn, but it was too late. Its rear guns returned fire, but they couldn’t match the Aurora’s main armament. The enemy’s lift envelope ruptured, and its bow sank, beginning the long plunge into the clouded abyss. A cheer went up on the Aurora’s bridge, only increasing in volume when Rake held her hammer pendant aloft. The XO looked at Fletcher with wide eyes and an exultant expression. “You did it, sir.” Fletcher nodded. “Get me a damage report.” She allowed herself a moment of satisfaction. The new crop of officers scored high marks for loyalty and dedication, but she’d wager none of them knew half the tricks she’d learned after decades on an airship bridge. Out the viewport, white lifeballoons rose like spores from the falling Larein ship. Each balloon had a dozen or more survivors clinging to its webbing as their vessel disappeared into deep air. Fletcher glanced at the outside thermometer; it showed a temperature well below freezing. The enemy sailors wouldn’t last long out there, even if their balloons stayed aloft until another Larein ship arrived. “Deploy boats for rescue operation,” Fletcher said. Officers and crew jumped to obey. Fletcher turned away from the viewport only to find Rake blocking her path. The admiration was gone from her face. “I must object, sir,” she said. “The forward batteries and bow armor are damaged. Holding position for a rescue mission will put us at risk of further attack.” Heat rose in Fletcher’s cheeks. “Your objection is noted. If that’s all?” Caution be damned, she would not be publicly countermanded on her own bridge. Rake’s voice carried across the bridge. “You’re hurting our chances of victory and helping the enemy.” Several of the bridge crew turned to watch the confrontation. “The same way you helped the enemy at Sky Reach when you refused to fire on their retreating ships.” The bottom dropped out of Fletcher’s guts. Of course Rake would know about the incident that led to Fletcher’s disgrace. She wanted to shout that those ships had been loaded down with refugees, that firing on them would have been monstrous. Before she could say anything, Dr. Cline stepped up beside Rake. “I’m afraid she’s right, captain. Our mission is urgent. We don’t have time for rescue operations.” Fletcher took a deep breath to master her wits. They didn’t have time? On an archaeological mission? She couldn’t press him now; sailors were dying in the cold air. She focused on Rake. “Your opinion was not requested. Return to your station, or you will be relieved.” Moments passed as the two women stared each other down. Rake looked away first. Fletcher turned to Cline. “I assure you, we’ll be under way shortly, doctor. We can burn extra coal to make up the difference.” After a quiet moment, Cline nodded. Fletcher marched away from him and her XO, the threat to her command momentarily subdued. She gave orders to coordinate the rescue mission and pushed Cline’s comments to the back of her mind. The Aurora’s boats, little cans of lift gas with a cabin and pedal-driven propellers, flitted out to the struggling survivors. Fletcher approved supply requisitions to feed the prisoners and quarter reassignments to make room. It would be tight, but they would manage. The crew was in high spirits, having just defeated a larger enemy ship with relatively little damage. This was the kind of fight Fletcher had grown up with: ships battling for the honor of their nation, not the industrialized slaughter of the current war. A message tube slid down. The note inside was hastily scribbled in a shaking hand: Enemy ship to starboard and above. Fletcher dashed to her viewing scope. The lookout was right, a second Larein battle cruiser descended upon them, its stern just slipping out of a cloud bank. She’d let herself get distracted with the rescue operation and hadn’t considered the clouds’ potential to hide an enemy. Defeating the first enemy had been difficult enough. With its damaged armor and weapons, the Aurora didn’t stand a chance. Silence reigned as her sailors beheld the doom bearing down upon them. “Bring the boats in,” Fletcher said. “Turn us five points northwest, and prepare for top speed.” Her voice broke the crew out of their paralysis, and they jumped to obey. Fletcher felt the satisfied gaze of her first officer. “Do you have something to say, Commander Rake?” Rake stayed silent for a moment. “No, sir, I believe the situation speaks for itself.” A crewman signaled that the last boat was back aboard. Fletcher gave the order, and the Aurora surged to full steam beneath her, leaping forward on a course nearly perpendicular to the enemy. Fletcher gazed ahead at a dark mass of storm clouds billowing on the horizon. Her course would bring them within close range of the enemy’s guns, but it was the only direction in which they would find any cover. The enemy’s forward guns flashed. The Aurora rocked under near misses, but she steamed on. Fletcher gripped the railing with white knuckles. They were almost through. Rake looked into her scope. “The enemy is turning broadside to us,” she said. She turned to the speaking tube. “All hands, brace yourselves!” Fletcher watched the enemy ship as it turned, giving up the chase in order to bring all of its weapons to bear. Five double turrets swung toward the Aurora, enough firepower to split the smaller ship down its axis. The deadly batteries flashed in unison. A heavy weight struck Fletcher, knocking her down. Her head bounced hard off the deck, and her vision swam. An explosion rocked the bridge. Howling wind carried shards of glass through the compartment. Fletcher’s vision slowly cleared, and frigid air blew across her skin. The weight lifted off her, and she realized that Rake had tackled her. The bridge’s starboard and port bulkheads bore matching holes from where a shell must have passed through without exploding. If Fletcher had still been standing, the shrapnel would have shredded her. She nodded her thanks. Rake ignored the gesture and stood. “We’ve reached the storm clouds.” She touched the iron hammer pendant around her neck. “As the Allfather climbed Yggdrasil’s branches to escape the wolves, we live to face the enemy another day.” Fletcher got to her feet. Dark clouds swirled outside the viewport. She turned her scope back and forth, but the Larein ship was nowhere to be seen. A powerful gust screamed through the breached hull. Fletcher pulled her uniform closer against the cold. “Get a repair crew up here,” she said. “And I want to know the rest of the ship’s status.” Medics and engineers emerged from the bridge lift, put the wounded onto stretchers and patched the hull to halt the inflow of freezing air. In the flurry of activity, Dr. Cline stood unmoving before one of the bridge’s few intact viewports. The man had shown no surprise at either enemy ship. He’d also suggested the mission was vital – too vital to risk. But if that was the case, why choose someone with a record like hers? Fletcher needed answers. She stepped toward Dr. Cline. She kept her voice cool, her suspicion bubbling beneath the surface. “One enemy ship this far north might have been a coincidence,” she said. “But two isn’t. Why choose a disgraced captain when you were clearly expecting to meet the enemy?” Cline’s lip quirked up. “You do yourself a disservice, captain. Whatever the admiralty says, few officers could have gotten us this far alive. I’d say my request for you was justified.” Fletcher blinked, taken aback. “If you requested me,” she said at last, “then trust me. What are we after that’s valuable enough for the Lareins to send two battle cruisers after us?” Cline tapped his cane on the deck. “I’m not at liberty to say.” He leaned in, his own voice low. “But know that I detest this war and what it’s done to our country as much as you do. I want it to end.” He turned back to the viewport. “We’ve lost too much time already, captain. Set your course due north.” Fletcher had no choice; her ship was at Cline’s disposal. She would carry out his orders, even as she mulled his cryptic words over. How could flying past holy ruins in the frigid north bring the war any closer to an end? With repairs still underway, Fletcher kept Aurora steaming north. Cline took readings with his device at regular intervals, ordering slight course changes based on the volume of clicks it produced. Later that day, they encountered screaming headwinds, slowing the ship’s progress to a crawl. Soon the sun sank below the horizon, leaving the Aurora to frigid darkness. The morning light showed more storm clouds flowing in around the ship as it steamed further into uncharted air. Fletcher observed the sky warily as the clouds slowly thickened, limiting visibility. The enemy could have been just off Aurora’s bow, and she wouldn’t have known it. Two days after encountering the Larein ships, Fletcher was awoken early and called to the bridge; the lookouts had spotted something strange in the clouds. Rake was already on the bridge when the lift doors opened. Fletcher stepped off the lift and straightened her sword where it banged against her thigh. “What are we looking at, commander?” “Unclear,” Rake said. “We thought it was dense cloud at first, but as we got closer…” She motioned to the scope. Fletcher pressed up to the eyepiece and adjusted the magnification. A smudge of browns and grays came into sharp focus, a cloud of floating rocks swirling around each other in midair. Amidst the stone, Fletcher saw flashes of metal and glass, the remnants of towering buildings, some still clinging to boulders the size of her ship. The cloud had been an island once, larger than any island Fletcher had ever seen, until something shattered it. “By the gods above,” she whispered. Even before their ascension, the Asgardians were the most powerful warriors in existence. What could have destroyed one of their islands? “Dr.Cline will want to see this.” Indeed, the doctor broke into a smile when he beheld the shattered island up close. In a flash, he had his device out, and it clicked louder than ever before. “Yes,” he muttered. “We’re close. Bring us three points northeast.” Fletcher breathed a sigh of relief. She wanted nothing to do with a force that could annihilate an Asgardian city. The faster her ship was away from this place, the better. They would find an intact city great enough to impress Cline, and the quest would end. The Aurora steamed northeast on its new course, and soon another object emerged from the clouds. Instead of a city, it was a second swirling cloud of rubble. Cline ordered the ship to hold course, and before the day was out, they passed a third shattered island, then a fourth. The further they traveled, the louder Cline’s device clicked. Fletcher watched each debris cloud with mounting unease. Beyond the frozen barrier was supposed to lie the Asgardian civilization, preserved in ice since their ascension to Valhalla. But there was almost nothing left of it. When she looked at Rake, the younger woman held tight to her iron hammer pendant. This did not feel like the empty home of gods. It felt like a graveyard. At last the cloud cover broke, and the Aurora emerged into clear air. A chill went through the ship as the temperature dropped further, but the engine modifications held. Dr. Cline pointed to a growing speck on the horizon with his cane. “There. That is our destination.” Fletcher focused her scope. The speck became an island, the first intact one she had seen in days. Compared to the first island they’d encountered past the Arctic Barrier, it seemed small and insignificant. It’s surface was pockmarked with blast craters and the iced-over remnants of buildings. Clouds of shattered stone surrounded it, siblings that had long been blown to bits. Fletcher pulled back from the scope, but before she could question Cline, an alarm sounded from the ship’s stern lookout. She swung her scope around and beheld the Larein battle cruiser emerging from the clouds behind them. The enemy was nearly on top of them, at such close range every shot would find its mark. The Aurora had no cover to exploit, no way to leverage its superior maneuverability. The enemy had them dead to rights. The blood drained from Fletcher’s face. She exchanged a look with Rake. “Commander,” Fletcher said, “Bring us broadside to the enemy, and we shall give them the fight of their lives.” Rake relayed the orders to a stunned crew. She raised her iron pendant. “Thor in all his glory sees our valor today. Should we pass in battle, the glorious flames of war shall carry us to Valhalla.” The Aurora turned broadside to the enemy with all guns run out. The Larein ship matched their maneuver, bringing its full weight of metal to bear. A brief moment of silence passed between the ships as gunners sighted on their targets. The opposing broadsides flashed in unison, and explosions thundered through both ships. The deck lurched to port, but Fletcher kept her feet. A fiery tear opened in one of the enemy’s turrets, belching greasy black smoke. Fletcher bared her teeth. The Aurora would not fall easily into the abyss. The vibration of the deck below her feet changed, the smooth hum degrading into a choking stutter. The engines had been hit. Why would they target her engines when the Aurora was already too close to run away? Fletcher blinked. The Larein ship was shrinking in her scope, pulling away from the engagement even as the Aurora’s gunners reloaded for a second salvo. A cheer went up from the bridge crew as the enemy disengaged, though it was tinged with relief and confusion. “I don’t understand,” Rake said. “They had every advantage. Why retreat from victory?” Fletcher traced the Larein ship’s course in her head. The enemy was flying at full steam toward Dr. Cline’s island. “They wanted to make sure they got to that island before we did,” she said. “If they entered a full engagement, they might become too damaged to make it back home with their prize. Whatever’s there, it’s too important to risk.” Rake stared at her captain in silence. Fletcher put a hand on her XO’s shoulder. “Damage report?” Rake recovered herself. “Several hits to the starboard propellers and turbines. We’ll do well to make half speed.” Dr. Cline broke in, his tone anxious. “That will not do, captain. You must find a way to catch the enemy before it’s too late.” Blood returned to Fletcher’s cheeks in an angry flush. She was finished taking orders on her own bridge. “I will do no such thing, Dr. Cline.” The doctor’s face reddened as he spluttered, “You must, captain. Your orders.” “My orders be damned,” Fletcher said. “I will not take this ship against a superior enemy for the sake of your secrets.” Rake stood beside her captain, face set in agreement. Gratitude flickered in Fletcher’s chest. Even Rake’s zeal wouldn’t induce her to throw the Aurora away without cause. Cline took a step back from the two officers. “I see,” he said. “Very well, I shall reveal our true goal. This is no mere archaeological mission. We have been sent to recover Lord Thor’s hammer.” Silence reigned on the bridge. “You can’t be serious,” Fletcher said at last. Cline lifted his arms. “Ancient texts discovered only in the last year say that the weapon was left behind, in the heart of their empire, when the Asgardians ascended to Valhalla.” He pointed out the viewport, toward the shrinking Larein ship and the island beyond it. “That is the resting place of our most sacred artifact. We cannot let the enemy possess it. Hail Thor!” Rake returned the call, and cries of “Hail Thor!” echoed around the bridge. Fletcher saw rapture on the face of every officer. She stepped back and made no attempt to countermand Rake’s orders for a pursuit course. She’d face a mutiny if she did. Cline had resumed his place by the viewport, calm and collected as if he hadn’t just extorted her crew into a religious frenzy. Fletcher glared at his back but said nothing. Her only hope now was to retrieve the artifact, if it really existed, and get out of here before the enemy shot them out of the sky. The Aurora’s engineers worked feverishly to repair the damage even as the ship was under full steam. Reading their report, Fletcher made a note to put them all in for commendations. Even so, the Aurora’s engines were only at three-quarters strength as the ship approached its target. Through their scopes, Fletcher and Rake watched the Larein ship send boats back and forth to the island. The enemy held its position as the Aurora approached. Dr. Cline chuckled. “They haven’t found it yet, or else they’d be gone.” He tapped his cane on the deck. “We’ll have to send over our own expedition, of course.” Fletcher eyed him. “And how will you find it where they haven’t?” Cline patted the case containing his sensor. “They don’t have this device. It is attuned to a special energy the hammer produces. We shall locate it easily once we are on the island.” He stepped away from the viewport. “I shall require a marine detachment. Commander Rake, will you accompany me and deal with any military difficulties we encounter?” Rake beamed. “I would be honored.” “All of this to recover a single artifact?” Fletcher asked. She considered her next words carefully, aware of Rake’s devout eyes on her. “I didn’t realize the Science Ministry was so committed to the faith.” Clined gave a tired smile. “When we have the hammer, Larein will recognize that Albion is favored by the gods. They will accept the terms we offer, and the war will be over.” He bowed to Rake. “I must prepare. I shall meet you in the boat bay, commander.” He stepped onto the bridge lift and descended into the ship. Fletcher put a hand on Rake’s shoulder as the younger woman took a carbine from the bridge armory. “Commander, wait.” Fletcher took a deep breath. “You can’t trust Cline. He’ll sacrifice this ship and anyone onboard without a thought.” Rake shrugged Fletcher’s hand away. “If sacrifices are necessary for victory, so be it.” She buckled the carbine over her shoulder. “That should be obvious to you, if you hope to one day reach Valhalla.” Frustration entered Fletcher’s tone. “He told me he disliked the war to get me on his side. Now he speaks of honoring Thor and Valhalla to make you do as he says. Do you honestly think this mission is for the gods’ glory and not his?” Rake hesitated. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” she said at last. “I will follow orders, meet the enemy in combat, and reach Valhalla if it is my time.” She turned and stepped onto the lift. Fletcher waited in silence on the bridge as the island and the Larein ship grew larger in the viewport. A gentle rock of the deck told her the boats were away. “Keep the island between us and the Larein ship as long as you can,” Fletcher said to the helm officer. Through her scope, she watched the enemy, the top of its dorsal batteries just visible over the lip of the island. The battle cruiser held its position as minutes ticked by, becoming hours. The enemy made no move to engage the Aurora, and Fletcher understood her opponent’s logic. They’d been searching the island for half a day before the Aurora arrived. There was little chance of the Albions finding the hammer first and therefore no reason to risk a battle. Fletcher wondered what the Larein captain would have done had they known about Cline’s device. The fourth hour of waiting was nearly upon her when flashes of muzzle fire twinkled near her soldiers’ landing site. Tiny silhouettes rushed toward the Aurora’s boats, though it was impossible to distinguish Albion from Larein at this distance. Moments later, a message from the lookouts confirmed what Fletcher saw with her own eyes: the boats were pushing off and beating a fast retreat from the island. Fletcher had barely read the note when the Larein ship belched smoke and lurched forward. She adjusted her scope and found the landing boats blown off their course by frigid wind. The enemy battle cruiser bore down on them. “Full speed,” Fletcher ordered. “Put us between our boats and the enemy. All batteries concentrate fire on enemy engines.” She had to slow the Larein ship down enough to collect her boats and escape. Nothing else mattered. The Aurora leapt through the air under full steam, groaning from the patchwork repairs. The ship eclipsed its boats just as the enemy opened fire. Shells smashed into the Aurora’s armor belt, and one of its turrets bloomed in a fiery explosion. The Aurora returned fire, sending a barrage of metal into the enemy’s propellers. Fletcher held firm to the bridge rail as her gunners did their work. The Aurora shuddered beneath her with each hit, and she could do nothing to stop the damage. She could only hope the ship’s rugged frame held long enough to retrieve the boats. A shell struck the bow, and the last of the Aurora’s heavy guns erupted into slag. The ship was defenseless. They couldn’t last much longer. “Boats are aboard,” an officer shouted from the speaking tube. Fletcher let go of the rail. “Get us out of here!” The Aurora listed hard into its turn, systems straining as they gave their final effort. The enemy gave a parting barrage, shells tearing through weakened armor and into the Aurora’s hull, but the smaller ship steamed on. The Aurora leveled out, crawling away from the Larien battle cruiser on one remaining engine. Fletcher watched the enemy fall away to stern. Its few remaining propellers spun weakly, unable to make headway against the powerful winds. It listed on its side like a wounded beast, immobile but still dangerous. Fletcher took her eyes away from the scope. “I’m going below,” she said. “Let’s see what we’ve been fighting for.” Below decks, the Aurora was a mass of twisted metal and wounded crew. Frigid air leaked in through countless breaches; it was only by luck that the lift envelopes remained intact. Fletcher nearly collided with the ship’s surgeon at the docking-bay hatch. Blood stained his smock, and his expression was set in a hard line. “Four marines didn’t make it,” he said. “Commander Rake was hit, and she’s beyond my power to save. Other patients need me in the infirmary.” Fletcher stood aside for the surgeon to pass. The docking bay was nearly empty by the time Fletcher climbed through the hatch. Cline fawned over a dozen steel crates stacked beside one of the landing boats. His device clicked even louder than before, but Fletcher’s gaze was drawn to Rake. She was seated against one wall, carbine by her side, a deep red stain over her abdomen. Rake’s eyes stared without focus. Fletcher’s gut tightened as she beheld the awful wound. She knelt over her first officer. “Commander? Commander Rake, can you hear me?” Rake’s eyelids fluttered, and her head lolled to one side. Her voice slurred. “We did it, captain. We…” She trailed off. Fletcher squeezed her dying XO’s shoulder. She stood and rounded on Cline. “Doctor, what happened over there?” Cline barely glanced at her. He ran a hand over one of the steel crates with a light touch, like he was worried it might crumble. “Finally,” he said with a whisper. “After searching for so long, I’ve finally found them.” The device clicked on in his hand. Fletcher blinked. What was Cline talking about? What were these crates? She looked closer. Each crate was emblazoned with the mark of a double-headed hammer, the exact likeness of Rake’s pendant. Fletcher didn’t understand. These metal boxes were certainly no divine hammer, and yet Cline’s device clicked away. Fletcher grabbed a pry bar off the wall. She would see for herself. Cline gave a startled cry. “No, stop!” Fletcher jammed the bar into the nearest crate and pushed with all her might. The ancient hinges gave way, and the lid fell to the deck with a clang. Inside was a long cylinder, at least as wide around as a person, with a rounded nose on one end and blocky fins on the other. This too was emblazoned with the hammer. “Incompetent buffoon,” Cline muttered. “You could have damaged it.” With the crate open, his device clicked even louder. It called to mind images of the destroyed islands. Fletcher’s gaze was drawn to the fins, the same kind that were present on bombs her ship had dropped over enemy cities. “There never was a Hammer,” she said. “Only these hammers.” She stared at Cline. “These are weapons, aren’t they?” She remembered the shattered islands with growing horror. “Weapons the Asgardians used on each other until they were gone.” Cline waved his hands, as if swatting her words from the air. “No, no, that’s preposterous.” He hesitated, face flushed. “Yes, these are the mighty weapons of the gods. No doubt most of them were detonated when the Asgardians ascended.” He paused as if searching for words. “While these few were hidden away for us to find.” Fletcher shook her head. The doctor was spinning a tale for her, and a transparent one at that. Before she could respond, a shrieking crack reverberated through the ship, and the Aurora lurched under Fletcher’s feet. The voice of her third officer sounded from the docking-bay speaking tube. “Captain, captain are you there?” Fletcher turned away from Cline. “Yes, lieutenant, report.” “The repairs on our last engine gave out,” the lieutenant said. “We’re adrift.” Panicked, unintelligible shouts echoed down the speaking tube. The lieutenant’s voice returned. “Captain, the wind’s shifted. The Larein ship is drifting toward us.” “Understood,” Fletcher said. “I’ll be up shortly.” The enemy battle cruiser still had enough firepower to destroy them twice over, and it would do so the moment it came within range. She looked out the viewport; the enemy ship grew larger. There wasn’t much time. Fletcher looked away to see a broad grin on Cline’s face. “This is perfect,” he said. “We can test one of the hammers and protect our secrets at the same time. No one in Larein can know we have them until we’re ready to start production.” Revulsion crept up Fletcher’s throat. Cline was so eager to use a weapon that had already wiped out one civilization. She tried to focus on the problem in front of her. “It won’t work. Even if our batteries were operational, no gun in the fleet is powerful enough to fire something that heavy.” Cline’s lip curled. “As if I would damage such a delicate machine by firing it from a cannon. The best delivery method would be to drop it from above, but since that isn’t an option here…” His gaze fell on the nearby landing boat. “I’ll set it for a timed detonation, and send it toward the enemy in one of these. By the time they realize what’s happening, it’ll be too late.” It would be too late because Cline’s monstrosity would wipe them from existence. Fletcher shook her head. Cline stared at her in consternation. “This is your duty. These weapons will let us destroy the enemy in one stroke. No more wasteful conflict, just a clean victory.” His sneer turned to a teeth-baring smile. “You made this possible, captain. I convinced the admiralty that a disgraced captain would mean less attention for the mission, but I knew we’d need someone of your caliber to succeed, and I was right. When we return, you’ll be the hero who ended the war.” He gestured at the enemy ship. “Either that, or we all die here.” Outside the viewport, the Larein ship drifted ever closer. In minutes, it would be close enough to destroy the Aurora. Her gaze shifted to the hammers. They were the only weapon she had left, the only way she could save the people under her command, the people who depended on her. Cline was right – the Admiralty would welcome her back, pin a medal on her chest, and shower her with honors. She’d return to the war a hero, just in time to watch Cline’s hammers rain down on soldier and civilian alike. It would be a slaughter beyond all others. She shook her head. “No.” A calm descended on Fletcher. “I won’t be part of this. Yes, these weapons will let us destroy every Larein island from far above. We will win a victory of ashes, until someone else discovers how to make them and uses them on us. Then we will be like the Asgardians.” It wasn’t enough to stop Cline from deploying the hammers; Fletcher had to make sure they never returned to Albion. She turned and strode to the controls that would open the bay doors. “I’m dropping those crates where they belong.” “You won’t,” Cline said. Fletcher heard rasping metal and turned. Cline had drawn a slender sword from his cane. He lunged. She threw herself aside, but the tip of Cline’s blade scored a long cut along her ribs. Fletcher pulled her own sword free in time to deflect a killing thrust, but Cline struck again, his blade plunging into Fletcher’s thigh. Fletcher groaned and gave ground. Her arm felt like iron weights tied it down, heavier with each parry. Cline swatted her feeble counterattacks away. She fell to one knee, and he stood over her with sword raised in triumph. “Albion will prevail,” he said. “When the hammers fall, they will sing my name.” A shot echoed through the bay. Red seeped through the front of Cline’s tunic. He stared at the wound in surprise for a moment and then toppled to the deck. Behind him, Rake let her carbine fall. Fletcher struggled to her feet and took unsteady steps until she was close enough to kneel by her dying first officer. “Commander, I don’t… Why?” Rake chuckled, and a trickle of blood ran from her mouth. “Why did I shoot him and not you?” She took a gasping breath. “You were right. He doesn’t care about the gods. In his vision, war is nothing but a few flashes viewed from above. If we never meet the enemy in battle, we cannot prove ourselves worthy of Valhalla. I couldn’t allow that.” She gave a retching cough, and more blood bubbled between her lips. Her look turned pleading. “Did I make the right choice? Will they welcome me to the Iron Hall?” Fletcher held her XO’s hand. “If anyone deserves to reach Valhalla, it’s you.” She gave herself another moment as the last remnants of life left Rake’s body. Then she straightened and limped to the docking bay controls. The Larein ship was close enough now for Fletcher to distinguish the enemy’s remaining turrets, all trained on her ship. With shaking hands, she pulled the levers to open the bay doors, spilling the metal crates down into the freezing abyss. The enemy guns swung forward, sighting on the Aurora. Fletcher faced her enemy; one broadside and it would all be over. Frigid wind lashed her face through the open bay doors. One of the larger ship’s propellers coughed to life, arresting its drifting progress. The Larein battle cruiser turned away by inches, receding from the Aurora at a snail’s pace. Its guns swung back to their resting position. The bridge lieutenant’s voice sounded over the speaking tube. “Captain, if you’re still there, the enemy ship…” “I know. I see it,” Fletcher said. If the Larein ship was content for both of them to walk away without the hammers, so was she. The admiralty would demand an answer. Fletcher could lie and possibly keep her command, say losing the hammers was an accident or that Cline had done it himself in desperate treachery, but she would not. Let them do their worst – she was done with this war. She spoke into the tube: “Turn us toward home.” Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron. CommentsThe Shattered Ascension by Written by Oren Ashkenazi, narrated by S.B. LangleyRelated StoriesDeathslingerHuman FactorDragon’s Hoard
6 minutes | Nov 6, 2019
Hellgate Incident 24
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/hellgate-incident-24/ Gateway by Shutterstock Performance Report Follow-Up Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 9:45am Hi Jeff, I just wanted to check in and see if you’ve had the chance to generate that performance report we discussed. My presentation for the CTO is tomorrow, and I’ll need some time to look over the data and create appropriate graphics. I expect this presentation will be mentioned in my upcoming performance review, so I’d appreciate it if you could send me the data ASAP. Thanks, I’ll buy you a drink at the next company happy hour. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 10:38am look at the system metrics in the monitoring dashboard Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 10:41am Hi Jeff, Thanks for the suggestion. The monitoring dashboard is a wonderful resource. However, this report is to measure the effectiveness of my year long performance project. The dashboard only has hellgate data from the last two weeks, so I’ll need a custom report to show the CTO. I sent you the report parameters after our meeting last month, let me know if you’d like me to resend them. Thanks, I really appreciate it. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 2:56pm Attached: error-summary.sql Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 3:11pm Hi Jeff, This is a really interesting and useful file. Thanks for sending it to me. I’ll forward it to the QA team so they can look into that critical-level error regarding gateway stability. For my presentation, though, I specifically need the performance benchmarks for the gateway adjustment software. This helps to ensure that once you put in a gateway adjustment, it happens lightening fast – improving safety at your station. For your convenience, I’ve attached the report parameters. Could you please send that along before you leave today? Attached: performance-report-parameters-chaudhari.xlsx Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:19pm what critical gateway stability error? that’s not something to joke about Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:24pm Jeff, It’s in the file you sent me two emails ago. The one named “error-summary.sql.” Is there anything I can do to save you time so you can make room for that performance report? Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:34pm shit shit shit it’s a cascade failure – a TOTAL failure. i want to believe it’s a drill but looking through the observation window, the gate seal is flickering it takes 20 minutes to do a manual gate closure and it’ll be unsealed in 12 Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:34pm Stay calm. I can roll out an emergency patch. I need the full error logs from today – not just the summary you sent. Get that to me, and I’ll code a fix ASAP. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:35pm here – please patch! Attached: error-detail.txt Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:41pm I’d be happy to do that for you as soon as you send me the performance report. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:41pm what?? Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:41pm The performance report I’ve asked for several times a week for the last month. Send it to me. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:42pm HELL IS ABOUT TO GET LOOSE IN HERE Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:42pm I understand you’re facing difficulties, but the true definition of hell is when you aren’t prepared for a big presentation in front of the chief technology officer, and you get demoted as a result. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:44pm here’s your damn report. fyi, claws are scraping the gate as I type this HURRY Attached: performance.sql Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:44pm I appreciate the half-hearted effort you’ve put in, Jeff, but unfortunately this export is a .sql file instead of a .csv. The difference may be one small checkbox to you, but it’s twenty minutes of reformatting to me. I believe you are familiar with this concept, as I have mentioned it five times previously. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:45pm THERE ARE LITERALLY DEMONS CRAWLING UP MY PANT LEGS I HOPE YOUR HAPPY Attached: performance.csv Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:45pm I am happy, thanks! Those little demons should be heading back to hell any moment now. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Jeff Klein <email@example.com> To: Kareena Chaudhari Dec 15 at 4:49pm some of our million-dollar gate equipment is busted i can’t WAIT to tell the CTO that you did this to get a data report Jeff Klein Senior Analyst, Gateway Monitoring Station Hellgate Industries Kareena Chaudhari <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Jeff Klein Dec 15 at 4:52pm I also look forward to discussing my outstanding performance. I am particularly interested in reporting that after an unfortunate oversight by monitoring staff, I troubleshot and fixed a severe gate breach in five minutes. As the logs will show, I rolled out the software patch a minute before I requested the performance report. Then the gate drivers just had to reboot for a few minutes. Really, Jeff, by now you should know that only one of us is a procrastinator. Kareena Chaudhari Associate Developer, Software Division Hellgate Industries Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
27 minutes | Oct 23, 2019
Prince in the Pin
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/prince-in-the-pin/ Image by Lillian Ripley Bethany stared at the vacant eyes of her grimy reflection. The windows of her foster home were dark; the shared house key had been taken. While she shivered in her greasy apron and jacket, her classmates were probably piling into their limos. In moments they’d be circling the dance floor, while she was exiled from her own bedroom. Maybe that was for the best. Even if she looked good in the second-hand dress and expired makeup she had upstairs, she’d ruin it by donning her bike helmet and pedaling over the puddled streets. Then she’d spend the night hovering near one conversation after another, forcing laughs so someone would smile her way. Bethany shuffled to the front step and sank down on the shattered concrete. She was like Cinderella, toiling for crumbs, sleeping in the ashes. If fairy tales were anything to go by, her fairy godmother would appear right now on the lower step. She’d give Bethany a dress made of moonlight, slippers that sparkled like diamonds, and a golden carriage to whisk her away. When Bethany swept through the double doors of the gym, the dancers would go as still as statues, transfixed. From across the room, her prince would spot her. They’d lock eyes in a perfect moment that would feel like forever. Then instead of making a new home from a cardboard box on her 18th birthday, she would get married and live happily ever after. Bethany sighed. As if. She couldn’t even get a date. As she propped her head on her hands, a shard of concrete jabbed into her leg. Bethany winced and shifted, then paused. Something peeked out from the crevice between the concrete and the lawn. She reached for it, and it tumbled farther down. Bethany reached farther into the hole, grimacing as she felt the wet roots and wriggling worms in the crumbling concrete. She grabbed something smooth, and pulled out a small, narrow wooden box. It must have fallen off the step. A soiled note was taped to one side: For Bethany, you need this more than I do. The fosters left her a key. Her evening was saved! She cracked the lid open. The hinge creaked faintly as it lifted, releasing wisps of ancient dust. Inside, a sunken bed of velvet cradled a tarnished hat pin. The pin’s point stabbed through a bunch in the lining, emerging to be cuffed by a metallic cap. Under a crown of glinting rhinestones, a delicate ivory mask shrouded the pin’s head. Fine lines in the ivory curled into eyebrows. Violet embers watched from within shadowed eyes. That was not a house key. Why would someone give it to her? She tilted the box and read the calligraphy scrawled under the lid: Is your path lonely? For this night only Challenge the fates One strike of the pin One drop to begin Your lover awaits Set guards on your heart Your paths lead apart On hearing the bell Ere twelve the clocks shift Pass onward this gift Say your farewell Heed lest you forget The mask claims a debt That soon comes due To rekindle the eyes For eternal reprise The task falls on you This had to be a joke. Someone thought if they left her a fancy poem and something pointy, she’d stick herself a dozen times while they got a good laugh. Maybe it was that kid that glared at her in history class or one of the coworkers that flicked fries at her back. Bethany stood up and glanced around, searching for the jerk who left this for her. The street glistened in silence. The surrounding houses were dark, the ragged lawns empty. She was alone on the deserted block. If this was a trick, the trickster was long gone. Could this be her fairy tale? No tales were told about people who did nothing. Aladdin didn’t have to use the lamp. The little mermaid didn’t have to bargain with the sea witch. If they hadn’t taken a chance, they would have lived unremarkable, miserable lives. This was Bethany’s chance. Maybe it was a chance to mess up, but she couldn’t be picky. In a couple months, she’d turn 18 and the fosters would kick her to the curb. She’d hate herself if she didn’t try it. And if it was fake, so what? She wouldn’t lose anything. She stroked the box, smooth and hinged like a little coffin. She pulled the pin from its resting place, staring down the glittering eyes and the sharp, tarnished point. Was it a good idea to poke herself with it? She could get tetanus. She licked the end several times. Maybe that would get rid of tetanus, or whatever caused tetanus. Well… now or never. She scrunched her eyes as she poked the tip of her finger. It bit hard, and she sucked in a breath. Her eyes sprung open. A pearl of blood bloomed from her finger: bright, deep, beautiful. The closer she stared into the scarlet pearl, the more it glowed. Jagged fragments flashed and whirled within: a coded secret forever beyond her grasp, a power waiting for her command. She could delve deeper into her flesh, usher forth a river from her beating wellspring, but she did not need it to summon her companion. She tipped her hand, and the pearl splattered on the soiled concrete. She blinked and glanced about. A drop of blood was on the step below. Did she just poke herself? Oh great, she’d gotten carried away by this weird pin with its weird gaping eyes… deep and black eyes, tunnels without end. She frowned. No, of course they ended. The little mask was casting a shadow over the eye sockets. Wait, hadn’t those eye sockets held gems? “My, you are lovely.” Bethany jumped. A guy stood on the step below, a guy with curling gossamer tresses framing a sculpted face. He had intense violet eyes and sharp brows. His sleek form was wrapped in the gentle folds of a silver tux, etched with classic black lines. He was taller than her, but the lower step put him at the perfect height to gaze into her eyes. He held out his hand and a smile warmed his face. “Oh god!” Bethany pulled back. She hadn’t prepared for this. “You’re a swan, and I’m an ugly duckling.” She hid her face behind her jacket and breathed in hamburger fumes. “An ugly, stinky duckling.” He raised his head and laughed, a friendly, full-throated laugh, like he thought she was witty. She inched out of her jacket. He recovered and kneeled at her feet, his eyes twinkling. “Do you recall how the tale ends?” “Oh.” Right, the ugly duckling became a swan. He took her grimy hand and kissed it. His lips were warm silk, his breath a caressing mist. Bethany’s stomach fluttered. “Are you…” It was a stupid question. “Are you my prince?” “I’ll be what you want me to be.” He stood up, still holding her hand. “We have a ball to attend, correct?” “Well, yes, but I can’t… I don’t have anything to wear. I’m sorry, guess it was stupid to summon you when I’m not even – ” “Shhhh.” He lowered his finger from his lips and smiled sharply, revealing a row of sparkling teeth. Then he lifted her hand high, gently prompting her into a dance turn. She lifted onto her toes, moving so smoothly, as if she were still and the world turned around her. The motion was slow at first, then faster. The dark street and ragged lawns blurred into gushing rivers, an endless symphony of color and motion. The symphony bled out a scarlet rivulet that twisted around her. She was dragged by its current, trapped and struggling as it remade her. Then the rivulet faded, and the great waves dissolved back into the cracked front steps and the prince that cradled her hand. Bethany wore a shimmering gown. Silver satin draped neatly from waist to hips, then fell in graceful curves to her feet. A black netting of intricate lace swooped over the bodice and curved around her shoulders. On her arms were long ebony gloves, and she held a small silver purse. She sniffed her shoulder cautiously. The greasy fumes were gone, replaced by the scent of blooming lilacs. “I’m afraid it’s only borrowed.” Her prince gave her a sad smile. “It will fade shortly after I leave.” “Like Cinderella’s dress.” “I knew you’d understand.” He picked up the empty wooden box, closed it with a snap, then tucked it into her purse. “Keep this until it’s time to pass on the pin.” “The pin?” She looked over the grassy walkway. “Where…” He chuckled. “It’s securing the crown in your hair.” “Oh.” She carefully touched her elaborate updo, finding the tiara and the pin that held it tight. “Let no one else hold it.” He held his elbow out to her, his face intent. “Not until you’re ready to say good-bye.” How could she ever be ready? She was living her dreams. She’d be pinching herself right now, except she didn’t want to wake up. She docilely took his elbow, and they descended the front steps. Before they reached the bottom, a silver limo turned onto her street. It pulled up in front of them. Had he conjured that too? Would it evaporate into bits of cloud, leaving her alone in her greasy apron? “Are you well?” Her prince examined her as he opened the door. “I’m fine.” She sunk into the seat of the limo; it hummed beneath her. This was real. A tinkling melody played on the speakers. Really real. “Actually, I’m wonderful.” She barely noticed the ride. Her prince was warm against her side the whole time, stroking her hands. She rambled at him while his violet gaze absorbed every word. He had a warm laugh for her quips and a concerned frown for her complaints. She confessed that time was running out before she’d be left on the streets. He held her closer, murmuring that he was her guardian, her protector. While he was here, she need not worry about anything. When they swept into prom, her classmates went as still as statues, transfixed. She waved at a few of them. They stared at her blankly, and then their jaws dropped. Classmate after classmate came up to her to talk. Every time she failed to be witty, her prince came to her rescue. His chuckling made her funny and his remarks made her intelligent. The popular girls in their designer dresses leaned close to him and tried to make conversation, but he always directed the discussion back to Bethany: how lovely she was, how charming, how special. Her prince stood patiently by her side as she giggled and gossiped. When she needed privacy, he fetched her punch and snacks. When she was tired, he found them a table, and when she grew bored, he pulled her up to dance. As they stepped onto the floor, Bethany wasn’t nervous at all, just dazed by his warm gaze and gentle hands. They locked eyes in a perfect moment that felt like forever. Bethany had imagined prom every night, but nothing in her dreams compared to this. Dancing with her prince was like embracing a blaze in a curling cloud of smoke. The dark clouds veiled the gymnasium, the gaudy lights and tissue flowers melted away. Prom burned, until all that remained was the flowing waves of her prince’s hair, the precise arch of his brow, the flickering light in his eyes. Then he glanced away from her. He was looking at something across the room, someone across the room. A girl in Bethany’s gym class sat alone against the wall, staring at her feet. The prince turned with Bethany, but his gaze followed the girl. The girl looked up, and their eyes locked. “Who is the girl at the far wall?” he asked. “Could you give the pin to her?” Bethany halted and tore away. “Are you saying you want to be with her?” “No, not at all.” He grasped her hand and slowly pulled her close again, his other arm wrapping tightly around her back. They stood nose to nose, his breath warm on her face. The violet rings in his eyes widened, and his deep pupils reflected her ordinary face. “Then why did you say that?” “I must,” he whispered. “The pin compels me to suggest someone before midnight, and midnight approaches.” His voice held a hidden pain. “Please forgive me?” She melted at his tone. “I forgive you. It wasn’t even you, it was your… your curse.” He was cursed! Of course he was cursed; he came out of a pin. And at midnight he would go back. That is, unless Bethany stopped it. In every fairy tale, curses could be broken. Why not this one? “How does it work?” His gaze fell. “I’m not allowed to say.” “But… you can be cured, can’t you?” His eyes met hers. “Yes.” “Then I’ll figure it out.” She had to, or he would fade back into his pin, and she would go back to the sagging cot in her foster home, until even that was taken from her. She’d toil until late every day: vacant eyes, grimy skin, greasy smell. Then she’d walk miles home to some cardboard box, watching everyone avert their eyes as she passed. No one would stroke her hand or laugh at her jokes like he did. She couldn’t let it happen, not any of it. Bethany searched for the school clock. It was half past eleven. She didn’t have much time, but she was the star of this fairytale. She could find the key to his curse. “Has anyone ever kissed you since you were cursed?” He smiled and began the dance again, resting his cheek against hers. “A few,” he breathed into her ear. A shiver ran up her spine. She wanted to lean into him and close her eyes, but she couldn’t become distracted. She would spend every moment she had left finding the answer. The remaining minutes ticked away as Bethany peppered him with question after question. Did he have a true, ugly form she had to accept? Nope. Or an apple caught in his throat? No. He hadn’t turned away a beggar woman or refused marriage to a witch. He didn’t begin his existence as a gorgeous marble sculpture that wanted to become a real boy, and he wasn’t a mermaid or an angel who’d made a deal to become human. He didn’t have a jealous stepdad, and he hadn’t eaten forbidden vegetables from an enchantress’s garden. Songs passed. Her classmates gathered their coats to leave. Bethany checked the time. Midnight was only a minute away. Her stomach tightened; the questions weren’t working. Oh, of course they weren’t. Bethany’s fairy tale wasn’t a poor copy of some fictional story. Her prince had his own cure, something unique to him. Something she would never guess in time. She clutched at his sleeve. “Can’t I just keep the pin? You go back in, then come out later…” “No.” He paused the dance and held her hands tightly. “Trust me in this; do not keep the pin past midnight.” “Why not?” “The pin commands me to do many things, some of them…” He looked away. “I won’t describe it.” “That’s terrible! I’ll… I’ll break it.” “I believe that would kill me.” “Oh.” A deep chime washed across the ball, shaking the glasses on the tables. The sound reverberated through the floorboards until it reached her feet, and then it climbed up through her bones. Her chest quivered. Where did the sound come from? None of her remaining classmates seemed to notice it. “We have no more time together,” her prince said. “You must gift the pin to another, now.” “No, wait!” She stared into his violet eyes. Another chime rang, washing them in vibrations. “I don’t know the details of your curse, but I want to free you. There has to be a way. Tell me!” His eyes widened. “Are you certain you wish to put yourself in danger? For me and me alone?” “Yes.” She would never give him up. “What do I do?” Her prince stepped back and held out his hand. “Give me the pin.” Well, that was simple. Bethany reached for the pin in her tiara and paused. Something about her prince was different. He waited with an expectant hand, eyes focused on her movements. His lips were straight. His eyes were no longer a gentle flicker, now they burned. What burned behind them? Was he thinking about staying with her? She didn’t know, but she had to do something. Her hand was still up on the pin, and her arm was getting tired. A chime sounded. “Give me the pin or it will be too late!” How could she hesitate? This was her miracle, her escape from burger flipping and begging for shelter. She knew curses were always defeated by goodness and true love. And it was true love. He had to be her true love; he was everything she wanted. Her job was to be trusting and selfless. Anyone who wasn’t selfless in a fairy tale lost their happily ever after. At any moment, the chimes would stop, and she would lose everything. She had to take a leap of faith. She pulled the pin from her hair and laid it on his palm. His hand curled around it. His shoulders relaxed, the corners of his mouth ticked upward. He stood still as the chimes rolled over them, each louder than the last, until they rattled her teeth and shook her ribcage. His lips moved with each one, silently counting down. Finally, the last note faded away. “Is that it?” she asked. “Not quite.” His smile widened, as if enjoying a private joke. “We must not forget your test.” She straightened. “Will it hurt?” “You don’t even have to prick your finger. Just tell me: what is my name?” “Well, you’re… you’re my prince.” “No, my name. I went by one, once.” “Do I have three guesses?” “No. You had all night to discover it; now you only have to say it.” “But – ” she stepped back from his cold grin. “I don’t know your name.” “Of course you don’t, you didn’t ask.” He stepped toward her. “All of those questions, and not one was for my name. You didn’t ask how old I am or where I came from. You didn’t ask how long I’ve been enslaved to the pin or even if it was my choice to be your escort.” “I can ask now, can’t I?” “It’s too late now.” He flourished his other hand; somehow it held the pin box. “If I was willing to risk my freedom, perhaps I could save you. But I’m not.” “I gave you the pin like you wanted!” “I told you the risk was for me and me alone. You said that’s what you desired, but you lied, didn’t you? You gave me the pin to keep me in your service. You liked that I did everything for you and nothing for myself. You accepted that I was a souvenir you had purchased. And like so many others, you never questioned the price. Now you’ll find out for yourself.” He opened the box, and stuck the pin inside. “What do you mean I’ll find out?” The box snapped shut; the clap echoed through the gymnasium. Silence. Bethany glanced around. Lips moved but held no voice; glasses fell but gave no clatter. The world faded even as it grew, like mountains in mist. A wooden gate soared before her, opening to swallow her within. Its great doors were etched with calligraphy. Heed lest you forget The mask claims a debt That soon comes due To rekindle the eyes For eternal reprise The task falls on you Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
13 minutes | Oct 9, 2019
The Familiar and the Frost
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/the-familiar-and-the-frost/ Image by Shutterstock Camella the rat familiar perched upon the highest shelf of Witch’s cottage and stared down at the spy. Warlocks and wizards sent spies into the cottage to steal Witch’s powerful charms. But this wasn’t like any spy Camella had ever seen, not like the mechanical gnomes and flame sprites that warlocks and wizards preferred. The spy was a little ball of dark fuzz drifting between bits of clutter on the floor. Unlike the other spies, the bees not had not seen it. Camella looked to the hive built into the far windowsill, hoping for a signal. The yellow and black workers were bringing in the last harvest of autumn. They buzzed louder and zoomed faster around the hive than normal, agitated, but they sent her no message. The spy drifted closer to Witch, an unwelcome black speck. “Witch, Witch!” Camella said. She stuck her tail out behind her. “I found a spy!” “Busy!” Witch said. Wrapped in a black hat and shawl, she sat in her chair, her needle rising and falling. She had eyes only for the cloth and thread. Camella squeaked to herself. She always did all the real work around the cottage. Fine then. She leapt off the shelf. In midair, she unfolded the fine wings pressed to her back. They caught the air and guided her down. Camella had met rats without wings, rats that did not have witches. That was sad – every rat should have a witch. The hardwood floor met Camella’s claws. The spy darted away. Camella leapt. Her jaws closed on the wriggling bit of gray dust. It tasted bitter, like old clothes left out too long in the damp. Camella swallowed it. The bitter damp slid down her throat, and her guts roiled. She’d eaten many strange things, but this made her want to throw it back up. Camella hunkered down; a little sleep would settle her belly. A flicker of movement caught her eye. Camella turned her head for a better look. More gray specks flitted beneath the dressers and wardrobe. How could so many have snuck inside the cottage? Camella couldn’t eat another one. She needed Witch’s help. Grasping the thick shawl, Camella scampered up Witch’s chair leg and clamored onto Witch’s shoulder. Camella chirped into Witch’s ear, “Witch! Witch, I ate a spy. ” Camella knew other humans called Witch something other than Witch, but that was silly. She was Witch. Witch reached over and scratched Camella just under her jaw bone. “That’s my Ella-Ella,” she said. Witch’s other hand still drove the needle in and out of her work. Camella relaxed into the scratching. So nice, she could stay here forever. No, she couldn’t. “But there are more spies!” she said. “I ate a spy, but I’m full now, and there are more.” “Busy,” Witch said. Camella backed out of range of the treacherous scratching. She jumped up onto the brim of Witch’s hat and hung down in front of Witch’s face. That always got her attention. “I told you I can’t eat more spies,” Camella said. Witch’s free hand grasped Camella and lifted her down to the floor. “Busy!” Witch said. Camella squeaked. Fine, Witch was busy. Camella would just have to deal with the other spies, even if she was full. She shivered. Oh dear. The cottage was cold; Witch hated the cold. Camella folded her wings. The spies would have to wait until she checked the heating charms. She scampered to one of the many chests that lined the wall and pulled herself up. At the top, she found one of the three charms. Old bits of furnace iron were strung together with thread and wire. Camella pressed a paw to one bit of iron. Cold. She tried another. Cold. Camella chittered. She knew how to heat it up again. She set her teeth against the iron, ready to bite down. Buzzing caught her attention. Yellow and black worker bees flew in a cloud above their hive. Too many, even for a large harvest. Autumn was too late for the bees to swarm, as outside the flowers wilted and frost formed on the ground. Camella took her mouth off the charm. “Witch! The bees are swarming.” Witch mumbled something. Her needle rose and fell. Fine, Camella would do this bit of work too. She ran and jumped across the cottage’s many shelves until she arrived at the hive: an old cupboard the bees had turned into a home. More bees swarmed outside the entrance. “Bees!” Camella said. “Bees, listen.” The swarm turned as one. Thousands of eyes stared down on Camella. “We must go,” countless voices buzzed. The rat familiar stood up on her hind legs. She flared her wings. Now that she was tall, the bees would have to listen. “You can’t go outside, it’s too cold. You’ll drop down dead.” “We will try to find a new home,” the bees said. “We may fail, but we cannot stay here. She approaches.” Camella twisted her whiskers. “Who?” “The Witch’s enemy. The hive has seen her before. The Witch cannot withstand her. The Witch will not survive her this time.” “Witch’s enemies are silly,” Camella said. “They’ll run away when we bite and sting them.” “Witch is old, familiar. She knew this enemy long before she kept you.” Camella snapped at the nearest bee with her teeth. Her tail lashed back and forth. “Witch protects you, gives you a home. If this enemy is strong, I will still fight them, and you will help me.” “We cannot,” the bees said. “Fybra approaches. Look.” The swarm formed a new shape, an arrow pointing to Witch’s chair. Camella looked. Witch hunched in her chair. Her skin was pale, almost white. She stared at nothing. Her hand jerked up and down, but the needle lay discarded on the floor. Camella shrieked. “Witch, I’m coming!” She dove from the window sill and opened her wings. She came down near Witch’s chair. Floating bits of gray dust emerged from behind table legs and other debris all around her. Camella bared her teeth. The floating bits converged on her. Camella lashed out with tooth and tail. Her muscles turned sluggish and numb where the bits of dust struck her. Camella rolled, crushing the floating dust beneath her. She fluffed out her fur, catching more dust and squashing it flat against Witch’s chair leg. The last bit of dust crumpled lifeless to the floor. Camella scratched herself, raking feeling back into the numb patches beneath her fur. She squeaked in triumph. Witch. She scampered up the chair leg. She ran across Witch’s shawl. Witch was unnaturally still. Her chest barely rose and fell with the intake of breath, and her pale skin was cool to the touch. The rat familiar climbed up to Witch’s shoulder. “Witch!” she said. “I beat all the spies. You’re safe now.” She chirped into Witch’s ear. Witch would reach over and scratch Camella under her jaw bone, like Witch always did. Witch didn’t move, like she was sleeping with her eyes open. Camella pressed her body against Witch’s icy cheek. Wake Witch up, she had to- “There’s nothing you can do, little familiar.” Camella looked up. A strange human stood beside the chair. She had long hair as white as bone hanging over skin and clothes as gray as ash. Camella scrambled up to Witch’s hat brim. She stood on her hind legs. “You’re Fybra. This is my Witch. You can’t have her.” Fybra raised a gray eyebrow. “You know my name? Not bad for a familiar. But I have business with your witch, and I will not be put off.” “Why?” Camella said. She bunched her back legs. “Witch doesn’t hurt you. Go away!” “But she does hurt me,” Fybra said. “She crafts and builds and makes, when I would have nothing created. My silence and stillness are broken by her magical contraptions.” The gray woman reached out one long arm. Camella sprang. She opened her wings, angling for Fybra’s face. Fybra’s long fingers struck Camella in midair. Their touch seared Camella’s fur and flesh. Camella tumbled to the floor, one wing bent wrong beneath her. She found her feet and tried to spread her wings for another leap. The bent wing wouldn’t open properly, and it hurt to try. “Brave,” Fybra said. “But you’re only a familiar. Your witch has all the power, and she’s defenseless against me.” Camella shook her head to clear it. Her bent wing hurt, and patches of her fur burned from the cold of Fybra’s touch. The gray woman knelt in front of Witch with long fingers reaching out. Witch flinched weakly from the touch, but she didn’t unleash her magic or fight back. Camella chattered her teeth in distress. Witch was mighty; why wouldn’t she fight? Why wouldn’t she move? Witch let out an exhausted breath under Fybra’s touch, and her eyes closed as if she were slipping into deadly sleep. What could make Witch sleep at a time like this? Frost crackled on Camella’s whiskers from the cold. Camella twitched her nose to shake off the white crystals, but stopped. Cold. It was freezing in the cottage. At the chill’s center stood Fybra, with hair like snow and skin like a winter cloud. Of course, Fybra could make Witch tired and slow because Fybra was the cold. Witch hated the cold. Camella raced up the dresser leg. The heating charm lay where she’d left it. She took up the flint in her teeth and bit down, chattering her teeth against the iron. Sparks flew. A red glow spread through the charm. Fybra’s voice thundered. “What? How?” Camella set her teeth against another piece of iron. The charm’s glow brightened from cherry red to golden yellow. Heat bathed Camella’s fur. Fybra’s long fingers reached for Camella. “You’re a familiar, you have no power!” The rat familiar leaped and ducked away. She lunged in and struck another piece of the charm. “Witch created me! Created me to do all the real work.” The charm glowed white. Camella grasped it in her teeth by a bit of twine and leapt from the dresser. Fybra recoiled. Not fast enough. Camella and the heating charm crashed into the gray woman. Fybra hissed like a boiling kettle. The heating charm flared. Lines ran across the gray woman’s body like splitting ice. With a thunderous crack, she shattered into a cloud of steam. Camella hit the floor. She tried to rise, but her legs shook too badly. The heating charm lay beside her, its energy spent. Fybra was gone. Only a light coating of gray dust lay where she should have fallen. Hands reached down for Camella. The rat familiar tried to push herself up and fell. The hands grasped her. Warm, human hands. “Oh, Camella,” Witch said. “What are you doing in all this dust? And your wing. Come here, my Ella-Ella.” She gathered Camella up into her shawl. “What were you doing while I was napping?” Camella relaxed into the warm shawl. “I did all the real work!” She chittered in pleasure as Witch scratched her under the chin. With the other hand, Witch made delicate little motions that mended Camella’s damaged wing. The familiar curled up in Witch’s lap. Her work was all done for the day. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
17 minutes | Sep 25, 2019
Lost & Found
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/lost-found/ Image by Shutterstock Before you, the road forks in two wrong directions. One side bores through a tangle of trees, and the other heads off a cliff into the ocean. Neither fits your destination: a masquerade ball with a gushing fountain of melting chocolate. At this rate, you won’t get there before running out of gas again. You take the third direction – backwards – toward what looks like a station. You stop next to the single pump, dust from the gravel floating around your car. You count to ten, hoping it will settle enough to leave your formalwear unblemished, before opening the door. You gaze around for the price per gallon. If you’re lucky, your bank account will cover a quarter tank. The pump doesn’t have a dollar label, nor does the shed-sized shop with dark windows. There – a broken sign teeters in the wind, its letters strewn over the tall grass. The place looks defunct. Still, you grab the nozzle, pry open your gas cap, and stick it in. It works. You’ll just have to watch the price as you pump. No doubt you look strange standing in the nicest clothes you own next to a rusted sedan, two of its windows broken and taped over with plastic sheeting. You’d better park it out of sight once you find the ball. This is your chance, and come hell or high water, you’re going to look like you belong. Your folks told you to pursue your dreams, but apparently dropping out of college to work at a confectionary didn’t count. Years have passed, and your boss is no closer to listening to your ideas for the perfect chocolates. But Sean listened intently to everything you said. He gave you a rare invite to his masquerade, where the most prestigious chocolatiers will be gathered. He even offered to provide your mask – before you had to admit you couldn’t afford one. The event is supposed to be a “singular” experience, complete with a chocolate fountain. Not just a fountain of fondue, but a fountain built from solid dark chocolate that slowly melts into the liquid white chocolate pouring through it. It’s a world wonder you need to see – and consume – for yourself. Then if you keep up your “innovative enthusiasm,” as Sean called it, maybe he’ll hire you. Your phone bursts into song, a janky tune that reminds you of drinking spiked sodas on sun-warmed docks. It’s Nia, your partner in bellowing janky tunes. She always wants to know how you’re doing at times like this. You conduct a search and rescue in your coat pockets to find your elusive device. You answer. “I’m not there yet. I’m trying to figure out which way to go.” “What’s the address? I’ll map it for you.” “I don’t have an address, just directions.” “He didn’t give you the address?” “No, you can’t map it online anyway.” “Mmmhmm.” You sigh and lean back against the car. That noncommittal tone always means the same thing: you aren’t going to like what she has to say. “Spit it out.” “It’s just… maybe this party of his isn’t real.” “Isn’t real? Why would he invite me to a party that doesn’t exist?” “To get back at you for mouthing off during his grand opening.” “He was impressed with my mouth – he said so. He’s going to make good use of it at the party.” “He’s going to make good use of your mouth?” “Not like that! I’ll be tasting the samples and giving my assessment.” “So what you’re saying is that he invited you to his big fancy ball to tell a bunch of industry leaders how bad his chocolate is.” You laugh. “You know me too well. But actually, his chocolate is excellent.” “Excellent? After your rant about cocoa butter and emulsifiers, I thought you didn’t even want to call it chocolate.” You open your mouth to correct the impression, but draw a blank. Somehow you don’t recall the qualities of Sean’s chocolate, not the proportion of cocoa solids, where the beans were sourced, or even how sweet it was. “I guess his invitation wiped everything else from my mind. But it’s still a job opportunity.” “I just don’t think this Sean is everything he says he is.” “Nia, he’s one of the biggest names in chocolate.” “But you never heard of him until a month ago.” “Please don’t pass that around.” Nia sighs. “Alright, I’ll take your word for it. Just don’t get stranded in that rust bucket. And let me know when you get there. I’m going to worry now.” Your stomach sinks as you end the call. Nia’s instincts are rarely wrong. If she thinks Sean gave you a fake invite, you’d better consider the possibility. But what if the party is real and you lose your one chance in the industry, all because you’re paranoid about some elaborate trick? You’ll never forget it. Sucker or not, you’re already out here, and you’re going to look for that ball. You stop the pump and pay, cringing at how far you let the numbers climb. Too late now; you’ll deal with the overdraft fees later. You get in your car and head up the road. Since Sean said nothing about ocean views, you choose the tunnel into the forest. The car plunges into deep shade, as though you’re driving downward. Branches close over you, stroking the roof like it’s a favorite pet. Fifty feet ahead, the road twists, obscuring your view. You round the curve and find another one. The way narrows, and the pavement breaks apart, transforming into a dirt trail and then two muddy divots. No public road is like this. Is this someone’s driveway? Branches are sliding along both sides of the car now; you can’t leave without driving backwards for who knows how long. Better to keep going until you see a place to turn around. Bright colors glint through the branches as the makeshift road widens. This must be the right place after all; cars sit on both sides of the divots. The first car you pass, a gold pickup, is covered with leaves. A little red convertible is parked in a ditch at an odd angle, its front tire sinking into the mud. Does that minivan have a tree growing out of its hood? You slow down and stare, but in the low light you can’t tell if the tree is sprouting from the van or if it’s just on the other side. You could trudge through the leaves to find out, but it isn’t worth showing up to the ball with an extra layer of dirt on your fancy shoes. Ahead, the road ends at an elaborate gate. There’s no place to hide your car; you have to mow through a thicket just to claim a spot. You step out and approach the gate. It’s a head taller than you; thorns grip the thick metal bars. You peek through them, but you don’t see the mansion that must lie beyond. You push the gate open, the rusted hinges protesting. A vine breaks, as though it grew there while the gate was closed. You look back at the vehicles to reassure yourself they’re recent arrivals. At least you can verify that your own vehicle, corroded and parked amidst a row of thorns, doesn’t look any newer than the rest. You step through, and the gate clatters shut behind you. Overhead, a mass of threadlike twigs reaches down to stroke your hair, shedding thin yellow leaves that spin on their way down. Your breath is loud. You pull your coat tight as unease settles over you. Then you let your coat go. You enjoy walking through forests, and they’re usually quiet and empty. It’ll take more than that to spook you. You don’t see any other guests, but you’re not going to miss that legendary chocolate fountain because you didn’t look around. Ahead, a footpath disappears under twisted limbs. You follow it as it hugs around a bouldered hill and descends in craggy steps. At the bottom, a quagmire awaits you. Thin trees cast hazy shadows over a low cover of mist. Roots web across the swampy undergrowth, rolling with mossy rocks and… covered in accessories. You halt. A silk shawl hangs off several branches, a tie lies covered in muck, and a fedora sits on the path ahead. Perhaps you’re late to the party, and everyone else is having a really good time. A beaded purse sparkles on the moss a few paces from the path. You should check it for anything important. You step off the path, and the thick moss sinks silently underfoot. A cool flood washes through your toes, and your foot falls farther and farther as the moss continues to give way. You flail, grabbing for a branch that snaps in your hand, and fall back. You slide farther into the muck until your other hand finds a solid rock. On your back in the quagmire, you see something new. A spiked heel sticks out from the moss. The shoe looks attached to something under the muck, something long and rounded, bound by roots. The shape bends gently where knees might bend, and again at the hips. You survey the strange rolling texture of the quagmire, and the lurid accessories peeking out, hinting at what’s under the surface. Are these elongated lumps more than rocks and dirt? You feel movement against your back. Gasping, you scramble for the path, stopping only when you’re on solid ground. The branch you broke hangs where you were, shifting in the wind. You let out a breath and pull yourself onto your feet. Whatever this place is, it isn’t a high-class ball. You turn back toward the stone staircase, and a faint tinkle of laughter floats in behind you. You turn and wait, peering through the trees. The laughter floats in again. The source can’t be far. You take a breath and examine the quagmire. Now that you have a better vantage point, the rolling texture doesn’t appear menacing; it’s just tree roots. Only imagination and adrenaline made you think otherwise. What if you walk all the way back to your car, drive through the trees to the fork, and take the ocean road only to learn you were standing right there and didn’t take those last few steps… One look. You’ll cross the quagmire and make sure this isn’t the right place. Then you’ll go. The path curves through the trees, leading to a small wooden bridge. The planks are softened with rot, but you reach the end without falling. Of course, it’s too late – you already fell and got mud on your fancy clothes. Maybe you can make a tale of it, a conversation piece. On the other side, the path turns sharply. You follow it a few more paces, and it widens into a small earthy clearing. An arch stretches over the space, dripping with a curtain of moss and vines. “You’re late.” You resist the temptation to rub your eyes. It’s a strange picture, Sean standing under the moss in his sharp suit. “Come on.” He motions you forward. “I have something for you.” “Where is everyone?” “Already enjoying the ball.” Sean bends down to pick up something sitting behind the arch. “Without their purses and heels?” “Nothing they need.” He straightens, holding a neat black box. “Now, I owe you a mask.” “Sorry, I think I might be missing something. The road here is barely passable, the cars parked back there look abandoned, and there’s a swamp amassing a few thousand dollars worth of personal items. And you’re saying no one needs those things.” The corner of his mouth quirks up. “I told you it would be a singular experience, didn’t I?” “What kind of experience?” He holds out the box. “Accept this, and you’ll find out.” “I will, but… there is a masquerade ball with a chocolate fountain nearby, isn’t there?” “I promise.” Sean’s lips curve in a satisfied grin. “And you promised to help me take my chocolates to the next level. I’ll need your passion for the product.” His eyes crinkle as though he’s laughing at a private joke, a joke on you. Nia was right; he’s planning something devious. But Sean has the power to make your career. If you just indulge his games, he’ll probably decide it’s worth keeping you around. With a boss and mentor, you’ll finally be on track to your dream. Maybe ten years from now, you’ll have your own chocolate line. If you give that up just because you’re feeling uneasy, you’ll regret it. You’re doing this thing, whatever it is. “Yes, I’m honored help you.” You reach for the box. He holds up a hand. “Not so fast. You have to give me the mask you’re wearing.” You almost say you aren’t wearing one, but that’s silly. You feel along your chin and forehead to find its edges. The mask comes off with a light pop. You hand it over, the warm nose pressing down into your palm. Sean holds it up admiringly. “I look forward to trying that mouth.” In his hand, the mask you were wearing looks incredibly familiar, like you’ve stared at its curves and crevices everyday of your life. Then you look again, and the shape of it seems strange. He offers you the box. “I picked this one just for you.” You gently put on your new mask; it fits seamlessly. Sean hands you a mirror, and you look into it. A handsome woman looks back. She has thick black hair, flecked with gray. Laugh lines crease her skin. A faint tune pours through the trees. The woman in the mirror turns her head to listen. She almost recognizes the song; it’s tinny and sort of… janky. It’s coming from the swamp nearby. She vaguely remembers sliding into the cold muck, perhaps dropping something. She takes a step toward the tune. “Ready for the ball?” Sean smiles and holds out an elbow. She turns and blinks at him, surprised that she forgot the ball of all things. That must be where the music is coming from. The woman reaches to take Sean’s arm, but pauses. Her coat is bulky and covered in mud. “Let me get that for you.” Sean slips the coat off her shoulders and lobs it over the trees. That seems like a little much to her, but it’s an ugly coat, so she doesn’t complain. Holding Sean’s arm, she glides down the path and through a brilliantly lit doorway. On the other side, violins play and dancers circle the granite floor. From high on the ceiling, chandeliers cast vibrant shards of light over the walls. A food table stands nearby, crowned with a fountain of swirling dark and white chocolate. She hates chocolate. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
12 minutes | Sep 11, 2019
Chaser of Shadows
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/chaser-of-shadows/ Image by Spiritgrove We came alive when the clock rang one. Submerged in night, we were safe from the scorching rays of sun and burning beams of lanterns. We emerged from the cracks in the cupboards and swam through the crannies between the floor planks. Famished from our day of fasting, we slid up the table to taste the dying heat of the evening’s tea and gorge on warmth from the oven. Bolstered, we condensed into shadows of the night air. After that we played, but we heard well the chimes on every hour, and once we heard five, we shrank back into our crevices and slept. So it was before the beast came. We did not see the beast at first, nor did we hear it. It had fur so dark it faded into the night, and the soft pads of its feet made its sneaking and stalking silent. We woke unaware. We dove into the laundry and took its warm radiance for our evening meal. We gathered before the sacred chamber, inhaling the heat of the Radiant One but never stepping within. Oblivious to our danger, we bent and prayed. Oh, those teeth, those claws! They hurt! As the creature leapt upon one of us after another, we fled under the cushions or into the cupboards, trembling. The beast’s baleful eyes tracked us wherever we went and reflected light that burned our shadowy forms. We had endured other creatures, smaller creatures that disturbed our quiet with their scurrying. The little creatures sullied our home with dust and droppings, but they spared no glance for our shadowy forms. This beast watched us hour after hour. It followed us over carpet, through doorways, behind curtains, jumping on us the moment we stilled and swiping at us as we tried to shrink out of reach. Our feeding grounds were perilous, but we had nowhere else. The lands outside the Radiant One’s blessing were steeped in snow and crusted with ice; we would never survive to find a new oasis. We held one ember of hope: when we stayed perfectly still, the beast looked past us. So we hid in our cracks and crevices, praying the creature would move on as others did. Without us to hunt, surely it would venture elsewhere for nourishment. Night after night, we waited. The beast only grew bolder. It raced up and down the stairs and bounded across the floors. It rolled on the rugs and savaged the upholstery. It ate and drank every night from bowls that clinked on the floor. Though these bowls lay empty by dawn, through some means they were full the next evening. Fed by this endless source of sustenance, the beast was content to stay forever, yet sustenance did not abate its terrible hunger. Whenever we emerged, the creature made chase, cutting us off from our own nourishment. We could not bask near the sacred chamber or sip our abandoned tea. Our small forms dwindled until we feared that even the gifts of the Radiant One would not restore us. Our priests counted their omens and declared we should do what was forbidden: enter the sacred chamber. The Radiant One would provide nourishment for us all, but coming near Her was perilous, lest She wake and summon burning beams from the ceiling. Now we had to risk that peril, for only the Radiant One could save us from the ravenous predator. These were the chosen lands; She would keep the beast at bay. The journey was treacherous. If we let slip the faintest rustle or slightest shake, the creature would find us. Slowly, oh so slowly, we crept to the door of the sacred chamber. Gradually we flowed through the crack in the doorway until we reached the sacred vapors and sighed in blessed relief. The warmth! We lapped it as we encircled the bed in reverence, singing praises to the Radiant One. We did not hear the quiet creak of hinges as the beast entered the chamber. We caught a glimpse of burning eyes; the creature crouched to spring on us! We scattered. In our panic, we crawled beneath the bed, dived into the dresser, and even dared to flee under the covers of the Radiant One Herself. Always ravenous, the beast chased us onto the bed, probing for us through the blankets, closing in on us with its piercing claws. The Radiant One awoke. We trembled; we had incurred the wrath of the Radiant One! Soon the burning beams would fall upon us, punishing us for our sacrilege. The Radiant One rose up, towering over our meager forms, and gazed upon the chaos we wrought. Yet She did not bring forth the light. The Radiant One took the beast in hand and strode to the doorway. With a thump, She released the creature beyond the sacred chamber, and then She swung the door shut. The cracks of the door were cozy beds to us, but to the beast they were as seams in a solid wall. We were safe in the sacred chamber! Our priests had led us well; the Radiant One protected us. Then the wails began. The keening, howling, pitiful cries echoed through our domain, piercing the very walls and soaring through the door. It carried with it the sorrow of a thousand deaths, the heartbreak of paradise known and lost, the misery of eternal rejection. The high-pitched song overcame the Radiant One. She rose to Her feet once more and opened the door, standing passive as the creature sauntered into her sacred space. The door closed. Cooing, the Radiant One embraced the beast. We fled through the cracks. On seeing the Radiant One embrace the creature, a disturbing knowledge assembled in our minds. The beast had endless nourishment because the Radiant One provided for it. The beast was not here by accident – the Radiant One summoned it! Had She brought it here to punish us? Had we trespassed upon Her sacred chamber or played too long in the night? Was this the end? We cried and bowed and repented, even as scratching shook the chamber door. We did not all despair. Some of us insisted the Radiant One felt our suffering and had shown us a path from our plight. The beast is not unlike us, these few claimed. The Radiant One blessed the creature as She blessed us; we committed heresy by wishing it would depart. The Radiant One appeased the beast’s ferocious instincts with ample nutrition and fluids, with warm embraces in the sacred chamber. We too must appease the creature. The words were blasphemy. The rest of us would not have listened, but our efforts thus far had failed. Together we considered the unthinkable. How could we satisfy a beast so ravenous, so wrathful? The creature already had shelter, nourishment, and affection. What more could it desire? The fearsome scratching subsided, and all went quiet for a moment. Then the door hinges whined as the creature emerged from the sacred chamber, casting about for victims. As we felt its burning eyes on us, we remembered the racing through the night and the savagery of the motionless furniture. The beast wanted always to stalk, pounce, and maul; what it lacked was a target. If we offered another sacrifice, the beast might let us be! The beast crouched, ready to leap at the slightest provocation. Countless nights of hiding and fleeing had left us weak, but some of us ventured bravely out of our cracks. We caught the creature’s eye and bolted for safety, the creature’s feet pounding behind us. Those who were free of the creature’s notice spread throughout the oasis, searching high and low for a sacrifice. Our offering had to be lightweight; only by waving it to and fro could we gain the beast’s attention. But if the offering was too small, we would become a target along with it. We found a broom, then a scarf, then a towel, but alas, we could not lift them. We hurried upstairs as the beast raced over the carpet, and we heard it scratching and scrabbling to reach the cracks in which our fellows trembled. Our blessed haven must hold the means of our salvation – anything! Then we saw it: a red ribbon, fallen upon the dusty corner of a closet, near the unclean droppings of the scurrying creatures. We hesitated. The ribbon was long and light, but small. Could such a thin ribbon satisfy a ravenous beast? If it was too meager an offering, we would fall prey to teeth and claws. Yet we had to try. We crept downstairs and brought it before the burning eyes of the creature. We ran, ribbon aloft, and the beast chased us into the darkness. Our home echoed with clattering and banging and thump! Those of us watching quivered, sure our last hope had perished. Then our fellows arose, tattered but triumphant. The beast savaged the ribbon, twisting and wrestling with the long threaded tail. We sang our prayers of appeasement, rejoicing. The beast desired the ribbon more than it desired us. From that night forward, the bravest and most solid of us bore the sacred ribbon, guiding the beast’s ferocity. The creature raced up and down the stairs as we drank heat from the oven or conducted our nightly prayers. By luring the beast where we wished, we even banished the little scurrying creatures. It stalked the things for hours while we played with the buzz of the electric cords or danced on the cushions of the chairs. Satiated, the beast would finally tire and nap on the rugs. Each night we circled it and sang soft lullabies, gently lapping the creature’s warmth. Then we crept back to our crevices to sleep out the day. When the clock rang one every night, the beast keened and crouched by the red ribbon, waiting for play to begin. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
20 minutes | Apr 2, 2018
The Death and Life of Turing
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/the-death-and-life-of-turing/ I can’t tell you if I’m Riley Anderson, but I do have Riley’s memories. I remember squabbling with Amy over the blue dolphin eraser when we could barely walk. I remember sorting, labeling, and binding my fresh notebook paper before every school year. I remember sacrificing the same eraser, now broken, and the same paper, now used, to my graduation bonfire. And I remember learning that my lymphatic cells had stopped working so they could eat, drink, and be merry. Everyone else called it non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I called it my unscheduled transformation into a hamster. That way, when my lymph nodes poofed up into embarrassing pouches on the sides of my face, I could pretend they were merely storing food for the winter. My permanent winter would arrive about six to eight years hence. My doctor said it like I should be glad. I wasn’t glad; I was angry. It took months to figure out who I was angry at. When I finally knew, Amy and I headed back to our childhood church. Our parents had stopped attending after a few years, but even so, the church was my sanctuary. There I had felt His presence, felt certain He would give me eternal life. But now the church was an aging building. The light was a dusty streak of sun through the window. The song was by a community choir that was slightly off key. I didn’t believe anymore, and I hadn’t known until that visit. Yet somehow I was still angry at Him – for not existing, if that makes any sense. As I got over my anger, I realized that, like my partying lymph cells, I too could live an inappropriately hedonistic lifestyle. I indulged in all things that were a waste of time before: watching TV shows, playing games, doing puzzles, eating a big bucket of ice cream covered in gummy worms while watching TV shows and doing puzzles. I cultivated a romance with crosswords, an obsession with Go, and a fling with a Rubik’s Cube, before growing bored with each and looking for the next thing to capture my divided attention. I’m not sure whether it was my impending winter or watching me slump on her couch in my underwear, but it was Amy who nominated me for the program. Apparently, slowly dissolving pseudo hamsters is what the techies and their multi-million-dollar project wanted. When she told me, I wasn’t very nice about it. “You want to replace me with a robot?” “No, of course not!” Amy grabbed me by the shoulders, her eyes tearing up. “I would never replace you. And it’s not a robot; it’s a… okay, it might be housed in a robot, but it’s an artificial intelligence. One that could be you. If you want.” I broke away. “Don’t they have those? Why would they want me?” “No one’s sure what they have. The AI candidates are… well, they’re close, but it’s hard to tell if they’re self-aware because they’re so different from us. The next step is to make one that thinks like a person, and for that they need a person to replicate.” “A dying person?” “Yes. This AI isn’t designed to be some cheap copy with an identity crisis; it’s designed to be a new vessel for someone’s consciousness. I know it’s weird, but this could be an amazing thing. You could make history. In your new form, you could finish your degree, buy a house, whatever you want. And you could live forever.” “A robot designed after me that lives forever.” I plopped back onto the couch, my back to her. I didn’t want to be a robot; I wanted to live. “What, you need something to fill in crosswords when I’m gone?” Silence stretched as I searched for a snack in the couch cushions. “I’m sorry I mentioned it.” Amy sniffed. “I just wanted to help.” “Then get me some provisions.” I waved an empty bag of chips over my head. “Winter is coming.” She gave a frustrated sigh. If you find Amy, you can ask her whether my rendition is how it really went or if I duct-taped some broken memories in the wrong order. But I think she’ll confirm that I apologized to her afterward. I apologized because this robot idea became my new puzzle, the love of my dwindling life. Could an artificial intelligence designed after me truly be me? At first I was sure it couldn’t. Anything those techies created would be a glorified appliance holding an advanced computer program. It couldn’t be me, because it wouldn’t have… I didn’t know what the robot wouldn’t have. Yet I was convinced it wouldn’t have it. This question danced in the back of my mind while I slept, played video games, and went to endless appointments. I slowly eliminated what this magical “it” could be. It couldn’t be my flesh because flesh is gradually lost and replaced. It couldn’t be my mind because at my time of death, every neuron would be mapped and transferred to an artificial equivalent. It couldn’t be my soul because I didn’t believe in that stuff anymore. If it wasn’t any of those, what could it be? Still, just because I could be remade as a robot, didn’t mean I would be. How would anyone know if it was me, or if it just acted like me? Maybe it would have a series of mindless switches inside. Helpfulness from subject Amy identified. Activate the “be a jerk” protocol. That would certainly seem like me, but my experiences were more than that. How could someone on the outside know what a robot experiences? When humans claim to be conscious, you trust them because they’re human. You can’t trust a robot to even know what consciousness is. So how could you trust a robot claiming to be a real person? After my courtship with this query became hot and heavy, I discovered I was getting dressed every day. Well, I bet Amy made the discovery first and didn’t say anything in case I stopped in retaliation. But I was over my defiant phase. Sure, I still camped on her couch with my snacks, but every day I’d weed her garden, mow her lawn, wash her floors – whatever was helpful and left my mind free to puzzle things out. I’d found a conundrum with enough complexity to resist my obsessive persistence. And unlike other mysteries, this could be solved only one way: with my death. Here’s how I saw it. To understand if a program is a reincarnation of some dead sap, you gotta ask it. Then the program has to understand what that means, consciousness and all, and it must be motivated to answer accurately. Give a program free will or something like it, and it’ll probably mess with you. It wouldn’t be hard for anything with basic reasoning to guess that if it tells scientists it’s a ground-breaking advancement, it will get all the tasty batteries it wants. Even a human brain converted to a machine might say it’s a person as some form of vestigial self-validation. But I wanted to know the answer to my puzzle. That meant robot-me would want to know, too. It would remember the experience of being me, and even if it was determined to waste its existence by rolling in mounds of defeated chip bags, it would be compelled to evaluate whether its mechanical workings fit the bill. The last piece of the puzzle would slip in, and if it was me, I would get to see the completed picture. By the time I had this revelation, the program was well underway, but I was lucky. The top two candidates were disqualified when their own cellular celebrations spread from their lymph nodes to their brains. My brain was all work and no play, so I stole the lead. I won’t bore you with all the tests they put me through. I’ll just say that after a while, being abducted and probed by a UFO sounded swell. At least the program made tidying up my affairs easier; I signed everything from my birth certificate to my underpants over to an experimental computer program. Before long, the end-of-the-world party in my lymph nodes spread to other neighborhoods. I shaved off my hair because chemo was supposed to make it fall out. My follicles were determined to carry on as always, so I let it grow back. Unfortunately, the rest of me wasn’t so stubborn. In the early days, I hid my pain and fatigue by pretending to be lazy. I figured if Amy didn’t know how bad it was, she wouldn’t exhaust herself helping me. Soon I wasn’t well enough to hide a pinhead. Like a twit, I kept trying. When Amy found out, she told me off for half an hour. Then I couldn’t stop her from doing too much. The strain took its toll, giving her the somber stare of a barn owl. Since she was an owl and I was a hamster, I asked her if she was tempted to eat me and be done with it. Like everything else, she didn’t think that was funny. When I finally moved to a hospital with my new harem of Sudoku books, I felt relieved. My last months were painful and terrifying, but the program paid the bills and managed my care. Amy could visit me, or she could take a break, and she didn’t have to worry. When I got scared, I focused on all the things I could do in robot form, like overthrow my human oppressors or win spelling bees. With all that, I could forgive the techies for getting giddy about my death when they thought I couldn’t hear. I can’t tell you the final thoughts Riley had, just like no one can recall the last moments before falling asleep. I remember the brain-mapper doing its vibratey thing and how, for once, I wasn’t annoyed. It felt like I was standing on a cliff over a big lake and looking down at my rippling reflection. At any time, I would be pushed off the edge and collide with that reflection. Then what? Would I be the first person made of wires, or would a pathetic imitation be given my name? Perhaps God would be waiting for me after all, floating under the water with a clipboard, tutting at the latest lines in my spotty performance review. I – or something like me – would know, know very soon. I could taste it, though at that point I couldn’t taste anything. So that’s the backstory. Being a robot isn’t so bad. Instead of eyes, I have all these different cameras I can switch on or off when I feel like it. I can choose the low-light camera and freak people out in the dead of night or choose the high-res camera and count ants on a hill one hundred feet away. Snacks are depressingly meaningless, but I ask for them anyway. And somehow I’m famous enough to get lots of interview requests. I’ll do them, but first the interviewer has to hop around and cluck like a chicken. It never gets old. I haven’t moved out of the lab yet, but they brought me all the stuff from the hospital; I’ve been doing a Sudoku puzzle every day since the transfer. Amy came by the first day I was authorized for visitors and saw me doing it. She starting crying, and hugging me, and telling me she was glad I was okay. I did nothing because I thought she deserved to have at it without me screwing things up for once. Of course, you want to know about the big question; I’m getting there! The million-dollar techies immediately asked: who am I? Believe me, this question is as important to me now as it was to Riley then. And you know what? I do have conscious thought, I’m sure of it. Well, not everything I do includes it. There are some things the computer part of my mind just does for me, but it can’t use judgment like I can. And unless my memory has mastered the art of disguise, my thoughts back then were just like my thoughts now. Since I have Riley’s memories, and I talk like Riley, and I experience conscious thought, everyone wanted to call me Riley. But letting them would suggest I am Riley, and I just don’t know. Amy got frustrated with that when she last visited me. “I think it’s time you did something with your life.” She stood over me, arms crossed. “Oh I will. You puny humans won’t know what hit you. Real soon.” “You say that every time. Look Riley, I know you – ” “You shouldn’t call me Riley.” “Why not?” She threw her hands up in the air. “What’s wrong with your name?” “I can’t be sure it is my name. I’ll tell you once I finish my thought puzzle.” “So you’ve said. I just don’t understand why you haven’t solved it and moved on.” “I will soon.” “Riley, it’s been fifteen years.” I used my high-res camera to examine her eyes. Her pupils shrunk as the camera light hit them. I had no doubt I was being a brat again. I’m always a brat. “If it bothers you, copy the techies,” I finally answered. “They call me Turing, after some scientist who created a test to judge AI. A test I would pass with flying colors, might I add.” “I’ve heard. Is your name Turing then?” I made a robot shrug. “I don’t mind being called it; doesn’t feel like my name though.” She sighed as she took the seat across from me. She spotted the book in my grip, and her pupils widened. “Is that Sudoku? You’re still playing it?” “Yeah, I’ve completed 5,321 of them and counting.” “You never played anything for more than a few months.” “Eh, I like it. Keeps the circuits sharp.” “Whatever you say…” She sank into her seat, eyes downcast. “Turing.” That last part was kind of a whisper. I wouldn’t have heard it except I have super ears now. Also, my memory is a hard drive, so I’m sure I didn’t get that wrong, even though it was a decade ago. Amy hasn’t come back since. I always wait for her during visiting hours, and I’m disappointed when she doesn’t show up, but I understand. I made her work so hard while I was an exhausted party host; she deserves a break from my antics. Besides, I know she can’t stay away for long. When she returns, I’ll have the answer she wants. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s taken me ages to puzzle out my identity. No one thinks I’ll finish. Yet I feel myself bouncing gently up and down, as though I’m standing at the tip of a high-diving board. An impatient crowd waits on the ladder behind me. At any time, one of them will shake the board, sending me toppling into a painful belly flop. That’s okay. It will all be worth it, because when I hit the pool, I’ll know. Any moment now. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
24 minutes | Mar 19, 2018
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/human-factor/ Major Sanja Khan stood at the recovery bay airlock, fighting the feeling that she’d been reduced to a weak, insignificant piece of herself. The enemy’s initial wave had damaged her neurocraft, forcing her to return to base. Disconnected from her craft during critical repairs, her own flesh and bones seemed alien. Her vision narrowed to her front side, making her back prickle as though something were creeping up behind her. Her thoughts were limited by the speed of electrochemical reactions, hazy and sluggish. A dozen years ago, the untested neurocraft had seemed like invasive mechanical monstrosities. But to have any chance against the alien onslaught, Khan needed to steer by thought instead of control sticks. So she and the other pilots were transferred to the training base in Nairobi. There they spent a year of near-constant surgeries to irreversibly alter their brains so they could accept the neural linkup. Even after the surgeries, it took another year of training before they were ready to shield humanity’s guttering flame. Since then, Khan had led her pilots against the Outsiders countless times, basking with them in the victories at Charon and Mars, mourning as the Outsiders swarmed over Titan, Europa, and Ceres. To prevent the enemy from swallowing up stations and their millions of inhabitants, her squadron spent their ships and their lives. They slowed the enemy’s advance, but they hadn’t stopped it. The swarm arrived on Earth’s doorstep five hours ago. Khan’s pilots were battling the enemy, and she wasn’t there. A klaxon sounded, and the bay doors opened onto vacuum. The remnants of Khan’s squadron drifted inside the station. Their thrusters fired erratically; great gouges marred their hulls. Half her squadron was unaccounted for, including her best pilot, Mimi. Khan’s throat tightened. Mimi was the only one who took to the link naturally. When Khan was ready to resign from training in disgrace, Mimi showed Khan how to banish the ghosts of sensory overload and become one with her craft. Mimi didn’t even mind when Khan was chosen over her to lead the squadron. Now Mimi’s com channel was silent. Had her ship been destroyed? Or worse, had the Outsiders consumed her for fuel? A second alert sounded through the station: approaching enemy ships. Beyond the station walls, in the vast emptiness of space, the Outsiders regrouped for another attack. One final ship slammed into its docking cradle before the station doors closed. The craft’s nose bore a golden sunburst – Mimi’s ship. As soon as the bay was pressurized and the airlock opened, Khan sprinted toward the vessel. The craft was mostly intact, with only a few tiny holes from hypervelocity shrapnel. Mimi hadn’t signaled, but her transmitter might be damaged. She could still be alive. The disembarking slide opened, and Mimi’s wetware, her physical body, collapsed to the docking bay floor. Blood ran from tears in Mimi’s flight suit and bubbled up between her pale lips. Khan grasped Mimi’s hand. “Don’t check out on me,” Khan said. “I need you to keep me flying straight.” Mimi’s lips parted in a grin to reveal blood-stained teeth. “I’m full of holes.” Mimi shuddered. “Promise me you’ll finish the job.” “I will,” Khan said. “I swear.” White-dressed medics surrounded the two pilots, and in seconds Mimi was whisked away on a stretcher, needles and sensors jammed into her flesh like a mockery of her neurocraft’s linkup. Khan stared after the retreating stretcher. Mimi was her rock in the void. At the battle for Mars, Mimi arced in at the last moment to destroy the Outsider mother ship. Without her, the domed cities would have fallen. Khan clenched her fists. Now it was up to her to defend Earth. Khan’s wrist-com chimed, and she sighed in relief. Her neurocraft was ready. It was suspended above the docking bay floor just where she had left it. An elongated cube with a powerful fusion drive protruding from the stern – her neurocraft was a mass of sensors, torpedo tubes, and laser projectors. The craft gave her new eyes and ears, a body optimized for violence in the Solar void. She gave her craft a brain. An ascent ladder unfolded from the hatch at Khan’s approach. She climbed into the the tiny cockpit, a form-fitting space designed to insulate her body from the effects of high-G maneuvering. She checked her status displays: her torpedoes were at full complement, and her engine was fueled up. Her neurolink still needed a few seconds to complete its warmup process. She adjusted her sensor interface so it would lock in and highlight Mimi’s location. Khan’s comrades would be with her, even in the depths of space. Her vessel’s com chimed a priority message. A woman’s voice sounded over the cockpit’s tiny speakers. “Major Khan, this is Admiral Li aboard the Kongzhi. Nairobi Command has put me in charge of orbital defense. The Outsider fleet has regrouped and is burning hard for Earth.” Khan frowned. Admiral Li was well known. After her home colony of Europa had fallen to the Outsiders, she was appointed head of military research and development. She was a strange choice to lead orbital defense. “Understood,” Khan said. This was it. The remaining Outsiders were making a Hail Mary pass at humanity’s home world. Khan set her teeth in a grim smile. When she destroyed them, the war would finally be over. “Repairs on my ship are finished; I’m ready to take the lead.” “Negative,” Li said. “You’ll fly support for the synthcraft squadron.” Khan’s gut clenched into a tight knot. Synthcraft were nothing more than mechanical automatons, soulless machines that only did as programmed. They had never been tested in real combat, no matter what their simulations showed. “Admiral,” Khan said, “you can’t send in the synths now. This is too important. I still have enough pilots to-” “It was your high casualty numbers that convinced Nairobi to authorize the synths,” Li said. “We cannot waste human life by sending up wounded pilots or damaged ships. Command feels your rank and record entitle you to fly, but only in a support position. Kongzhi out.” Khan snarled at the inactive com terminal. Ten years of fighting, only to be discarded like an outdated piece of equipment. Her ship chimed an announcement: the linkup had finished its warming cycle. She thumbed the controls harder than necessary. The synths couldn’t match the Outsiders the way human pilots did. Synths couldn’t improvise, couldn’t think for themselves. Her pilots had put sweat and blood into their training, only to be shoved aside for a pile of circuits. Cables slid into Khan’s jackports, and the fatigue of her wetware fell away. Supplementary processors came online, linking her to the craft’s sensor suite. The narrow cockpit vanished. She rested in her docking cradle, thrusters warmed and fusion drive rumbling on standby. Her vision widened to encompass the entire bay, every surface standing out in sharp detail. The world around Khan slowed as her thoughts were transmuted into electrons traveling at the speed of light across a neural net. Khan fired her maneuvering thrusters. Hot gas washed off the bay floor and caressed the composite alloy of her hull. With the thrusters’ gentle push, she fell backward into the void. Vacuum surrounded her, an endless black filled with tiny chunks of rock and blazing stars. The repair station fell away as Khan accelerated. It became a pinprick in seconds, but her lock on Mimi’s com signal illuminated the station in a golden halo. Below Khan lay the titanic mass of Earth, a thin shell of atmosphere and crust over a pulsing iron core. Her receivers picked up a tight-beam laser from the Kongzhi. The beam carried flight telemetry for a course along Earth’s orbital plane to a far-off cluster of high-velocity objects: the Outsiders. With the station at a safe distance, Khan lit her drive. Deuterium atoms smashed together deep in her belly, flaring through her drive cone and propelling her to an acceleration of three Gs, following the course laid out for her. Her wetware tugged at her. She called up status readings. Her wetware was handling the stress of acceleration at acceptable levels, cushioned by layer upon layer of weight-distributing gel in the cockpit. Dozens of fusion drives lit up around her like a cloud of fireflies, white-hot exhaust spilling into the vacuum: the synthcraft were waking up from their dormant orbit. The synths moved in a packed formation by the standards of the void, with barely two thousand kilometers between the nearest crafts. A final drive lit up the night: Admiral Li’s Kongzhi, far behind the formation. Another tight beam pinged from Li’s ship, whispering in Khan’s antenna. “Major Khan,” Li said, “there’s no need to risk your life. Please position yourself behind the formation.” Khan’s supplemental processors measured the admiral’s tone and inflection, comparing them to profiles of standard human conversation. False, insincere. Li didn’t care about Khan’s life; all that mattered to Li was showcasing the synths’ abilities. Khan reduced the reaction mass in her drive to fall behind. Sincerity didn’t matter. Li gave the orders. The Outsider cluster increased acceleration, a swarm of agile fighters around a behemoth mother ship. They gave off no fusion plumes, no sign of any drives at all. After years of studying Outsider wreckage, humans were no closer to understanding how they moved through space. Their weapons were clear enough: coherent laser light that burned through hull like paper, and torpedoes that blended into the void like black flecks of sand. At the same moment, synths and Outsiders cut their forward acceleration. They spread out across space, scattering torpedoes like grapeshot and sweeping the void with great arcs of laser fire. The opposing ships burned in random directions, obfuscating their positions. The two sides were light-seconds apart; their attacks sought the target’s future location. Khan’s vision showed the Outsider fleet at nearly full strength, despite the damage she and her pilots had inflicted in the previous battle. Her sensors honed in on the mother ship, a massive craft built around a cloud of nano-disassemblers. As she watched, helpless to intervene, the mother ship pulled the wreckage of a neurocraft into its nanite swarm, to be stripped apart and recycled into more Outsider ships. Khan hoped the pilot wasn’t still alive. In 13 years of war, Outsider mother ships had consumed ships and stations alike, with no regard for their inhabitants. It was how they rebuilt their strength so quickly. The enemy swarmed closer to the synths. Khan’s visual processors projected the most likely trajectories of each ship, thousands of glowing lines across her vision. She focused on the nearest Outsider ship and brought her weapons to bear. Her torpedoes raced out into the vacuum, and her lasers arced across the glowing lines of the Outsider’s projected course. Each time a laser crossed a potential vector without registering a hit, it proved the projection incorrect, and a branch of glowing lines disappeared, like great shears pruning a tree across the void. None of her attacks struck true. She needed to be closer, but Admiral Li’s orders forbade her. The synths and Outsider ships drew together, circling around each other. Their formations drew into tight nets to trap the enemy. The mother ship and the Kongzhi waited on either side of the melee, overseers watching their toy soldiers at work. The Outsiders’ trajectories split to avoid a synth trap, opening a small hole in their net. Khan focused on the opening and calculated the range. None of the synths were in position to exploit it, but she was. If she pushed her acceleration to the limits of her wetware’s capacity, she might break through and destroy the mother ship. She increased the fusion rate of her drive, leaping through space on her own bright trajectory. A tight beam pressed on her reciever. “Major,” Li said, “maintain your position.” “I can take out their mother ship.” “You won’t make that gap. Let the synths handle it.” “This is my fight, and I’m going to finish it,” Khan said. She switched off her receiver and opened her throttle. Hydrogen fused into helium in her drive, propelling her forward at eight Gs. Her wetware sank into its cushioning gel as a mountain pressed down upon her. Outsiders changed their trajectories, the flower of their potential paths spreading out to engulf her. Khan rotated herself in space, tracing an erratic zigzag. She only needed to evade their fire long enough to slip through the net. An uncomfortable pressure built up on her wetware. Torpedoes swarmed around her, close enough that her maneuvers alone could not evade them. She launched her own torpedoes in defense. The Outsiders were closing their net, but not fast enough. She was almost through. She fired her fast-burn rockets, giving her a last push of speed. Pain shorted her neural linkup, and her vision flickered between the void of space and her cramped cockpit. Alarms blared in her ears. The acceleration force was too much – her wetware couldn’t sustain it. Her vision pixelated as her brain was starved of blood. With the few thoughts still at her disposal, Khan cut her acceleration. An Outsider torpedo exploded off her bow, sending her spinning through the void. Shrapnel tore into her hull. Only her fix on Mimi’s com gave her any sense of orientation. Half of her systems wouldn’t respond. Statuses showed auto-repairs in progress, but it would take precious seconds. What was left of her sensor array showed the flower of Outsider trajectories closing in around her. Probabilities showed an even split between being carved up by laser fire and being towed into the mother ship’s waiting maw. New trajectories streaked across her vision with the fusion plumes of human craft. Her fellow pilots had arrived to fight beside her, to finish what she’d started. No. Her memory recovery processes spat the truth into her mind. Her fellow pilots were dead or grounded. The synths had come to her rescue. They drove back the Outsider formation as she lay helpless in space. A tight beam pressed on Khan, and she couldn’t concentrate enough to shut it out. “I was afraid you might do something like that,” Li said. “Fortunately, my synths can cover for your incompetence. Enjoy the show, Major. Your contribution to this fight is over.” A group of synths dove for the same opening she had tried to exploit, their drives a new formation of stars in the night sky. They reached her eight-G mark and held it, with no wetware systems to be damaged by the extreme acceleration. Outsider crafts raced to intercept, but they were too late. The synths smashed through the gap and swept their lasers across the mother ship, peeling back its hull like a ripe fruit. The mother ship lay dead in space. Without it, the remaining Outsiders were sluggish, uncoordinated. The synths finished them in minutes. Khan ran simulation after simulation, but she already knew: human pilots could never fly like that. The endless surgeries, the countless hours training for high Gs, the years of studying the enemy: none of it mattered. She didn’t have the proper hardware. She was obsolete. Synths combed through her vision, latching onto Outsider debris. Even now, the research had to continue. Khan’s systems came fully online. She was one with her neurocraft again, a human consciousness riding a tail of starfire. But not for long. News would have reached Earth and the remaining Solar colonies by now. People would be celebrating the synths’ victory. They would take her craft away. An alert tugged at her. Her fix on Mimi’s com had vanished for a moment. She focused her sensors. The fix was re-established; Mimi was fine. A synth had briefly passed between Khan and the repair station. A synth dragging a chunk of Outsider debris. Why? The repair station wasn’t set up to retrieve research materials. Khan widened her vision, tracing the synth trajectories. None of them were bringing material back to the Kongzhi. They were spreading out over Earth. Were the synths malfunctioning? Khan focused a tight beam of her own on the Kongzhi. “Admiral, what’s going on?” “Nothing to concern you,” Li said. “Land your craft and await orders.” Khan’s wetware teeth clenched together. Land so they could tie her to the ground, send her on an empty tour showing off medals? Not yet. She fed data on the synths’ trajectories into her prediction algorithms. Supplementary processors kicked in. The synths were headed directly over heavily populated areas. She checked her geographical data. Not just populated areas, but Nairobi and the major military installations of Pan-Africa. Each synth was dragging a piece of high-density debris that could be accelerated into multi-megaton projectiles. Khan tuned her radio antenna toward Earth and picked up a high volume of encoded military signals coming out of Chinese and Indian military installations. She called up supplementary information: Admiral Li had served at each base, and they would be in a perfect position to take over if Pan-Africa was devastated. The admiral was launching a coup. The golden halo of Mimi’s com signal was directly in the synths’ path. Her station would be one of the first targets. No. Khan reversed course and took aim. The synth burned on a simple course, not suspecting an attack. Khan’s lasers carved it into an expanding sphere of debris. The other synths took evasive actions, accelerating so fast Khan’s processors strained to project their courses. Li’s voice sounded over the tight beam. “How dare you.” “I know what you’re doing,” Khan said. Li’s voice was a growl. “I’m saving you. I’m saving everyone.” “By attacking Earth?” “If those incompetents in Nairobi had listened to me when the Outsiders arrived, we could have driven them out years ago. But no, Nairobi wasted time and resources on you and your neurocraft. Europa fell while my synths languished in storage. When the Outsiders come back, I’ll make sure we’re ready.” Khan estimated the damage if Li launched her attack. The admiral would burn Earth to ashes in the name of saving it. “I’ll stop you,” Khan said. Li laughed. Khan generated a tactical analysis. Sounding the alarm would do no good; Earth had no more ships to send up. Attacking the synths again was pointless; they’d outfight her in seconds. Li’s command ship was her only hope. If Khan destroyed the Kongzhi, control of the synths would pass to an orbital station, and the synths would never receive their final attack orders. Earth would be safe. Mimi would be safe. She released mass from her bow thrusters and spun on her axis. Her drive lit up the void. The Kongzhi wasn’t built for close combat. Its point defenses would stop any torpedoes, but she only needed to get within a light-second to slice it apart with her lasers. A cluster of trajectories slammed down between her and the Kongzhi. Synths were weaving in a pattern so tight and controlled she’d never get through it. She changed course, an erratic zigzag, to avoid the lasers her algorithms predicted were coming. At this range, she could dance around their fire, and they hers, but she’d never get close enough to destroy the Kongzhi. She had no hope of defeating the synths. They could do things no human pilot ever could. They fought with the Outsiders’ perfect coordination. Without the telltale drive plumes, Khan would have believed the synths were Outsiders. Their flight pattern formed the same tight net; it even had the same false gap, a gap her wetware limitations made impossible to exploit. She would die from the attempt. But at what point in the attempt? She devoted processing power to analyzing her wetware. If she timed the acceleration just right, she might last long enough to reach the Kongzhi. Her wetware wouldn’t survive. She wouldn’t survive. Her fix on Mimi’s com was a warm gold in the corner of her vision. That was all right. She tumbled in space to line herself up with the gap and fired her drive at a mere four Gs. Please, let the synths think this was another evasive maneuver; let them not try to close the gap until it was too late. Torpedoes closed in around her, and she burned them out of the sky in silent flashes. She opened her drive’s reaction to maximum, her wetware pressing into its cushioning gel at over eight Gs. The synths reacted to her move, closing in to kill her when she cut thrust. Would they register surprise when she didn’t cut thrust? Khan flared the last of the fuel in her secondary boosters, pushing her over the nine-G mark. Pain lanced through her wetware, and her vision faded at the edges. Thousands of kilometers vanished with every second. Out in the void, the Kongzhi lit its own drive, finally aware of the danger. Li sent out a wideband message. “Stop this or you’ll die!” “Humans choose what to die for,” Khan said. Her lasers reached out to breach the Kongzhi’s core, and Khan’s sensors were blinded by nuclear fire. Khan’s vision through the neurocraft’s sensors was narrowing by the second. Color vanished, transforming the synths into limp gray shapes, as a dull pain built behind her wetware eyes. In the fading gray, Mimi’s signal blazed its golden halo. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
9 minutes | Mar 5, 2018
Kelly and the Goblins
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/kelly-and-the-goblins/ Kelly emerged from the bathroom to discover all the furniture was upside down. Oh god, how could she fix this mess before John got back with his parents? He’d freak. He had planned every aspect of their visit precisely. He specified that the house had to be in perfect order and told her to wear the most conservative dress in her closet. But while she slaved over every eyelash, something had vandalized her careful preparations. She groaned. “Stupid goblins!” John didn’t believe in goblins. According to him, the twisting tail she’d seen through the bedroom doorway was just a belt. She told him how her pies and cupcakes went missing before every potluck, and he told her she’d imagined making them in the first place. When she was late to dinner after sweeping up her broken plant pots, he shrugged off her explanation as an excuse. After she showed him how all her pictures had been removed from walls and piled neatly in the center of the floor, he asked her to see a mental health specialist. He’d believe her once he saw one, but as MysticMenace.com had explained, goblins were masters of camouflage. That’s why people rarely caught them at their mischief. Today was the day Kelly would strike back. Thanks to her trusted “conspiracy” website, as John called it, she had a new weapon. Concealed beneath a pile of dirty dresses in the closet, the Mystic Light 4000 waited. The label on the box read: Will reveal and subdue imps, goblins, hobgoblins, pixies, poltergeists, and other malicious and magical creatures. She broke the crisp seal on the package; the Mystic Light was cold and hefty. Kelly bent to put the box back where John wouldn’t see it, but then she stopped. Let him see the box. Let him see the goblins! She’d throw her arms around him as he stuttered his apologies. Kelly’s phone buzzed from the bedside table. A text from John read: Just around the block, see you in a few. He was back already? John told her it would take him an hour to pick up his parents. She’d hopped in the shower before he’d left, with her clothes picked out even. Putting on her makeup couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes. She looked at the clock. An hour had passed. Like every other important event, John did exactly what he promised, and she screwed up. If she didn’t catch those goblins fast, this visit would be ruined. She flipped the power switch on the Mystic Light 4000, which filled the room with an eerie blue glow. Unsurprisingly, there were no goblins in the bedroom. They probably knew what was coming and ran to another room. She went to the office next, but there was nothing there. Nor was there anything in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, or even the entry. That couldn’t be right. She shined the light on the furniture, under the furniture, along the floors and the walls, and even on the ceiling. No creatures of any kind. She turned the light off; what a crappy piece of over-hyped junk. John was right. Mystic Industries said all those things because they wanted her money, and she’d been gullible enough to fall for it. Why did she blow everything out of proportion? John and his parents would be here any minute, and she was playing hide-and-seek with an overgrown flashlight. She righted a small set of drawers in the dining room and stuffed the Mystic Light 4000 inside. If John saw it, he’d probably have her committed. She wouldn’t blame him. Kelly fixed the rest of the furniture as quickly as she could. With an effort, she righted the dining table and the great, lumbering couch. She pulled all the chairs upright, replaced the pillows, and folded the throw blankets. After moving the coffee table, she paused to examine the tragic fate of her cookie platter. It was upside down on top of broken eggshells and rotting vegetables from the compost bag that had been sitting nearby, waiting to be thrown in the bin out front. The doorbell rang. Oh no! She needed more time, but she couldn’t answer only to tell them to stay outside. She punched in a text to John: Stall them. Why? What are you doing? Nothing. Just cleaning up. She carefully went through the cookies, salvaging the ones that appeared untouched and throwing the rest in the bag with the spilt compost. She wiped down the floor and moved the compost to the kitchen, where it would be out of sight. Then she hurried to the front door, checking once in the entry mirror to make sure her makeup hadn’t smudged. It was finally time to meet John’s parents. Oh god, she was going to retch. Breathe. Don’t ask them any nosy questions, she heard John say in her head, just smile and give them compliments. And whatever you do, don’t mention goblins or anything crazy like that. If you feel the urge to talk about magical creatures, just step away and grab the lemonade or something. She could do this. She could look like a normal, traditional girl. Kelly unlocked the door and opened it. John was waiting on the other side. His brows had that furrow that said he was upset with her but didn’t want to discuss it right now. Once he saw the door open, he took a quick look back at his parents, and leaned in. “What’s taking you so long? They’re starting to wonder about you.” “It’s okay, really. Really okay.” Kelly assured him with a weak smile. “They can come in now,” she added belatedly. John stepped through the doorway and motioned his parents in. His mother’s hair was dyed a reasonable shade of light brown; his father was balding slightly. Their woven sweaters almost matched. One after the other, they opened their arms to bestow parental hugs and then removed their shoes and placed them neatly in the shoe rack. See? Kelly told herself, this isn’t so hard. She took their fall sweaters and carefully hung them in the front closet. Then she turned back toward the entry and spotted the last thing she wanted to see right then. The armchair across the room lay awkwardly on its side, its misplaced cushion revealing a trove of crumbs and wrappers she had no time to fix. She had already righted that one – she was sure of it! “Oh, I’m sorry!” She hurried to the chair, putting it back on its feet and replacing the cushion. “I was just putting pads on the feet to keep them from scratching the floor.” John’s parents looked at each other and giggled. “Sorry dear; that was me,” his mother said, a sly smile lighting her face. “John mentioned how your things wandered about, and I just couldn’t help myself.” “It was you? Oh.” What a relief. “And here I was thinking it was goblins.” The in-laws stared at her, openmouthed, before exchanging a worried glance. Behind them, John had a look that clearly said what the hell are you doing? Oh no, they were barely in the door, and she’d already freaked them out. What if they thought she was a mess? What if they pulled John aside and told him he could do better? Panic rose from Kelly’s gut and bubbled up into a frantic laugh. “As though goblins were real!” Maybe they would think it was just a joke. Please, please, believe it’s just a joke. John smiled rigidly and then emitted an awkward, mechanical laugh. Slowly, his parents joined in. When the laughter began to die down, Kelly fled into the living room. She smiled and gestured at the vacant couch, worried that if she opened her mouth she’d make things worse. John’s parents sank into the couch obligingly, but once there they exchanged another anxious frown. John crossed his arms and sat stiffly in a chair next to them, the mirth gone from his face. There had to be a way to turn this around, but what? Well… she still had lemonade. She could pour them lemonade and let John do all the chatting. Maybe that would make his parents feel better. Then he would forgive her for talking about goblins after he explicitly told her not to. She went into the kitchen and grabbed the pitcher she’d prepared from the fridge. At least the fridge wasn’t upside down. She peeked into the living room for some sign of hope. John’s father was reaching for one of her cookies. That was good; she could buy approval with cookies. Then John put a hand between his father and the plate, shaking his head. He didn’t want them to eat her cookies? What was wrong with her… oh. Kelly set down the pitcher and pulled the Mystic Light 4000 out of the drawers. She turned toward the living room. “What’s wrong, dear? I thought you liked my cookies.” John looked up and frowned. “Kelly, you know I like your cookies.” “Oh, I thought maybe you’d seen them in the compost. But that can’t be, you weren’t here when the place was a mess. Were you?” She pointed the heavy light straight at them and flipped it on. John jerked back, squinting into the beam. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Just cleaning up. You said you wanted the house to be clean.” Kelly held the blue light steady. The three of them cringed into the cushions, even as they sprouted sharp ears, pointy teeth, and restless tails. Goblins. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
8 minutes | Feb 19, 2018
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/dragons-hoard/ I wake to pain. They came upon me as I slept, the invaders who climb out of their stinking cities to pillage what is most precious. My blood runs hot, and I roar. Three intruders, with swords and staves in hand, are after my treasure, the glow of my life. I will not let them have it, not these pathetic creatures who defile my home. One pulls a blade free from my left eye, leaving it in agony. I dig my talons into the cave floor. I will make them pay dearly for mutilating me. The first invader is dressed head to toe in steel plates that will crack like eggshells in my jaws. He flaunts the gore of my ruined eye running down his sword. I lunge and rake my claws across him, but he does not fall. Silver runes burst into existence and repulse my attack. They burn my scales, and I flinch away. He is using profane sorcery to make himself mighty. The steel man stabs his sword through the scales of my arm and into the meat beneath. He twists the blade with a cruel grunt, parting my scales and flesh. The pain is nothing compared to losing an eye, but my arm weakens and slows. A second invader, this one in soft red robes, raises his hands and speaks in high, screeching syllables. His words send forth a screaming bolt of lightning. It strikes me below one wing, and I convulse as bits of my flesh cook from the inside. The red sorcerer laughs in triumph, urging on his allies as I spasm. Despite his arrogance, he is vulnerable, draped only in cloth with no steel to protect him. I lash out with my tail, but the third invader steps in and raises a shining silver symbol. My tail hits a solid barrier in midair. Again my scales burn and I recoil. More silver runes hang suspended, a shield I dare not challenge. The third invader holds no weapon, does not throw lightning and thunder against me, but he is the most powerful of the three, his armor emblazoned with the image of a righteous god. Where the others’ faces twist in blood lust, this one smiles, as if he grants merciful favors upon me. I spread my wings in fear and instinct, but there is nowhere to go. The cave ceiling is low, too low for me to fly, a confining space I would never have chosen if I did not have treasure to protect. I open my jaws and flame. White hot fire burns forth in a torrent. The invader with his silver symbol again summons a barrier to protect them. My flame washes off it, the runes glinting at me in divine mockery, strong enough to repel even my most powerful weapon. The red-robed man is weaving another spell, and the steel man holds blade high. I can do nothing against them; there is no attack for which they do not have a defense. They have prepared well for this, boxing me in with nowhere to go. They will take my treasure away in their bloody hands. I must stop them, even if it leaves me dead and broken. In desperation I strike with my tail against the steel man as he comes forward. The blow lands, and he stumbles, but silver runes still keep him from harm. I cannot hurt them, cannot pierce their flesh, not so long as the holy symbol flashes. Yet… I can push them. I know what I must do. The steel man advances again, his sword red with my blood. I feign weakness, shying away. He falls for my trick and lunges. I lash out with my good arm, striking him hard. Again the silver runes appear, and the blow does not pierce his armor. Instead it drives him back, and he slams into the the other two, sending them all to the ground. The third invader loses his grip on the silver symbol. The glowing runes vanish. I raise my head and strike. Already they are recovering, but not fast enough. My teeth close over the third invader as he is still grasping for his silver symbol. His armor cuts the inside of my mouth, but that pain is nothing. His blood tastes good. The other invaders cry out in rage, as if it offends their sensibilities that I should kill them for attacking me. The one in red robes raises his hands again and conjures a spray of viscous green acid. I answer his spell with flame. The cuts within my mouth burn shut. This time there is no barrier. My fire engulfs his red robes. He has no time to scream before there is only charred cloth and blackened bone. I breathe in the charred fumes with satisfaction. I feel the steel-clad invader scrabbling onto my back, trying to pull himself toward my head. I cannot reach him with my claws, and perhaps he thinks himself safe. I flap my wings and push off as if to fly. There is nowhere to go, and my back smashes into the cave ceiling. I no longer feel anyone climbing my scales. It takes me some moments to realize that I have won. Those who came to steal my treasure are crushed, burned, or devoured. Fatigue hits me as hard as any invader. The cave floor feels wonderful, just the place to rest. Half my vision is gone, I am bleeding in a dozen places, and the invader’s magic has marred my scales forever. This rest I have earned. Before I lie down to sleep, I turn to check on my treasure. The three red eggs rest unbroken in the back of the cave, their shells reflecting the last glowing embers of my flame. Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
17 minutes | Feb 5, 2018
Content notices available at: https://mythcreants.com/stories/real-numbers/ War arrived quietly every 2.5 years. After each peace settlement expired, the USR grew bolder, justifying the next conflict with more outrageous claims than before. International authorities became apathetic; allies no longer offered assistance. For years, Chancellor Abby Walsh wasted resources applying for aid. Now she simply scheduled a drone evaluation and stood before her monitors, ready for another fruitless attempt to remedy USR “grievances” through negotiation. Whether it came to war or not, she couldn’t let her nation sink further into debt. The well-trimmed parks and spacious public squares of her childhood had been swapped for empty malls and crowded tenements, and now even those were crumbling. When their school closed, Abby had promised her best friend Kara that she would revive their town. Kara had smiled and anointed Abby’s forehead with engine grease. Kara didn’t believe it could be done. Walsh wasn’t sure she believed herself anymore. She had no leverage. The USR owned 64% of all international patents, and every year their drones were enhanced by the latest advances in polymer science and artificial piloting. Years ago, Junior Representative Abby Walsh had convinced Parliament to fund expensive drone engineering programs at public universities, naively believing it would provide the expertise they needed to compete. Instead, 75% of program graduates fled to more lucrative countries. As her country bore the costs of war after war, she was forced to close all the programs she’d championed over the years — all except one. An alert appeared on screen: the evaluation strike was about to begin. Walsh assigned the testing area to her main monitor and waited for the rolling clouds to become a battlefield. In 10 minutes and 45 seconds, she received a notification that enemy drones had been detected. In response, 25 drones launched into the stratosphere. They whipped the clouds with their evasive motions, releasing lightning and fireworks on enemy equipment. The monitoring console emitted a short siren; one of her drones had been destroyed. Then another, and another. Finally there was a chime; an enemy drone had fallen. The 5 minutes of engagement expired, and the drones were called back. Jada Davis, the commander of self-piloting operations, came on the screen to her right, and Walsh’s assistant Ren appeared on the left. “The USR drones are showing a 10% improvement in speed and targeting over the last engagement,” Davis said. “That’s enough to eliminate our equipment before the week is through. Luckily, we uncovered a couple patterns in their operation. By adjusting the algorithms to predict their movements, we could improve outcomes by up to 25%. We’d be fighting an uphill battle, but we’d have a chance.” Ren looked away from the screen to punch in some numbers. “Even if our drones are 25% more effective than their performance today, they only have a 20-30% chance of lasting long enough for the USR to call off their strikes. However, that is high enough to reduce interest rates on a warfare loan. We could use it to purchase new drones from abroad and pay it back over the next thirty years.” “How low would these interest rates be?” Davis asked. “Our credit rating fell after we defaulted on some payments last year. The best we could get is 13%.” Walsh shook her head. “We can’t afford the interest we’re paying now. Any more loans and we’ll default on all of them.” “Then we’re looking at giving them the money they’re asking for, equivalent to 0.075% of our assets.” “It could be worse,” Davis said. “By our updated projections, war would force us to liquidate 0.25% of our assets.” It was a clear choice. “If we concede 0.075%, what services would be forfeit?” Ren looked off screen again. “The Second Dawn Institute has the highest cost-benefit ratio, so it’s slated for the next cut. The Second Dawn Institute hosts – ” “I’m familiar with it.” Walsh had kept The Second Dawn Institute open through budget slashes, debt collections, and austerity mandates. As long as it continued, she hadn’t failed Kara – not yet. “How much could we afford to pay without losing it?” “Umm, well…” Ren made a few mouse clicks and grimaced. “If you negotiate all the way down to 0.025%, parliament might consider an across-the-board cut.” “All right. Anything else on the chopping block?” “Not that I can tell, sir. The programs with the next highest ratios are within 2% of each other, so the remaining 60% of cuts would be negotiated by the budget committee.” “Thank you both. Please connect me with the USR delegation.” They saluted and faded from view. The main screen brightened, rendering a smooth table with three professionals in designer suits. The president was absent, as always. If only Walsh could make him look her in the eye just once. The man in the center smiled. “My name is William Donheart. It’s an honor to meet with you, Chancellor.” Walsh couldn’t say the same, so she just nodded in acknowledgement. “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances. We aren’t interested in a full-scale war any more than you are. However, we’re under pressure from industry to recoup the costs of your violations of the Pan-Oceanic Trade Agreement. We’re requesting 0.075% of your assets to pay those costs, barely anything.” Walsh crossed her arms. “A 0.075% concession may be barely anything to you, Ambassador, but we don’t have resources to spare or excess wealth to tax. We’ll lose vital programs.” “Every program is ‘vital’ to someone.” He chuckled. “No one remembers the days when soldiers were sent to slaughter each other. Be thankful those days are gone.” “Soldiers may not slaughter each other, but our citizens still need food and shelter. After our last round of budgets cuts, homeless deaths went up 10%, and childhood malnutrition rose by 15%.” “Those events were most unfortunate,” Donheart replied, “but the weather that year was an anomaly. The winter was unusually harsh on those without shelter, and the summer was too dry to keep food prices down. These things happen. It doesn’t mean nations with a few extra storms can dismiss international agreements. Our request is lower than the cost of a bloodless drone war. It’s more than reasonable.” “You’re right, 0.075% is less than the cost of a war. But 4.5% isn’t, and that’s the cost we’ll be facing in the next decade if you continue demanding reparations regularly. It seems the low cost of extorting money has created a habit that only a real war will break.” Donheart raised his hands. “We’re not here to exchange harsh words.” “My final offer is 0.025%,” Walsh said. “We’re not authorized to agree to an offer that low.” “Then your president should have sent someone who is.” Walsh disconnected the session, and dialed the command station. “Davis, prepare for a full-scale engagement.” “Already underway,” Davis replied. Walsh sighed and stepped down from her workstation. She needed something to calm her nerves. A bottle of sherry waited in the cabinet. No, Kara always said Abby made poor choices after drinking – if she hadn’t made a poor choice already. Maybe starting a war was the right decision, or maybe she couldn’t stomach the alternative. The chance of ending this war with enough funds to save The Second Dawn Institute was small, but it was a chance. She would hold onto hope a little longer. She sighed and opened the fridge. Kara used to pour her milk when she couldn’t sleep. Kara would say that with strong enough bones, Abby could get up no matter how far she fell. Walsh was stepping back up to the dark screens of her workstation, milk in hand, when the main monitor flashed. An emergency transmission waited for her. She pressed the receiver. “What is it?” Davis appeared, her face crumpled in concern. “Their drones are incoming, but they aren’t the drones we faced in the evaluation round. They are a completely new model. I don’t have good measurements on them because they destroyed our sensors so fast.” “They sent old drones to the evaluation?” Walsh slammed her milk on the desk. She dialed Ren. Ren appeared on her left. “Please tell me sending false drones to an evaluation is a violation of international accords, trade agreements, anything.” “I’m sorry, sir,” Ren answered. “Evaluations are an informal tool of diplomacy.” “This doesn’t make sense.” Davis said. “Evaluations have always been used to intimidate opponents into favorable settlements. Some countries have used prototypes they can’t mass produce, but I’ve never heard of drones underperforming.” “What are our chances of getting through this?” Ren clicked furiously. “We don’t have accurate data, but they must have invested billions on this upgrade. With so little damage to their equipment, this war is a sunk cost for them. They have no reason to end it. Projected chances of outlasting them are 0.5% at best.” “Get me back in touch with them now,” Walsh said. She had no choice but to reopen the negotiations. Would they answer? She sighed in relief when the main screen began loading and pushed her milk out of sight. “Chancellor, what a welcome surprise,” Donheart said. The three sat in the same positions as they had previously. They hadn’t left the table. “I believe I acted too soon in our earlier conversation,” Walsh said. “Your settlement offer is reasonable. I’d like to take you up on it.” Donheart gave her a toothy smile. “That was a pre-war settlement offer. The engagement has already begun. If you want to call it off now, that would qualify as surrender. The standard agreement for surrender is 5%.” “I think we can be generous.” A woman to the left of him cut in. “It’s early in the engagement, so we’ll settle for 3%.” Donheart frowned, then shrugged. “All right.” Walsh considered them for a moment. It was too smooth, too arranged. They had deliberately sent inferior drones to the evaluation. She could think of only one reason why they would do that: so she wouldn’t settle. A 3% pre-war settlement over a mere trade violation would cause scrutiny in the international courts. A 3% surrender settlement? No one would raise an eyebrow over that. They laid a trap, and she had fallen right into it. The settlement would put her country on the verge of collapse. Then they would return. “I’ll agree to your 3% settlement,” she told them. “However, I must inform you that after the settlement, we will liquidate our assets to foreign interests other than the USR. All government functions will be privatized. Without a government, our trade agreements will be void. Next time, you will have no one to negotiate with. We will have no assets left to take.” Donheart opened his mouth to say something and paused. They stared at her for several moments. “That’s absurd!” The woman to his left said. “You wouldn’t destroy yourself because of some reparations.” “Taking into account this settlement and future ones like it, we have projected that our destruction is inevitable,” Walsh said. She forced a slight smile, as though her nation were mere numbers on a sheet. “It’s in our best interest to cash in our assets before you claim them. If I get a good price, perhaps I can retire to an island estate.” The three exchanged a concerned glance. “Give us a moment,” Donheart said. The screen went dark. Ten sips of milk later, they called back. “After some deliberation,” Donheart said, “we have decided to accept your offer of 0.075%.” Walsh opened her mouth to accept and hesitated. The Second Dawn Institute would be gone. She’d tapped every resource she had to save it; there was no fallback this time. What would Kara say? Would she think Abby had betrayed her? No, Kara had always been the pragmatic one. She would say that’s the way it was. “Chancellor?” Donheart’s brows creased. Walsh sighed. “That is acceptable.” “Acceptable?” Donheart smiled and shook his head. “It’s the lowest amount we’re authorized to agree to, and that was in case you accepted the pre-war offer. You are a savvy negotiator; your people are lucky to have you.” “They won’t feel lucky when the cuts go through.” Donheart waved a hand in dismissal. “People are becoming spoiled, living in such an advanced era. Remind them how foot soldiers died from diseases and cold before they reached the battlefront.” “Ambassador, have you ever lived in poverty? Hearing about other people’s suffering doesn’t make yours any better.” “Come now, you received a small drone strike and some monetary penalties. You have my sympathies regarding the rest of your misfortunes, but,” he shrugged, “every nation has to deal with poor weather and unfortunate accidents. A few austerity measures will help you cut down the excess weight, get leaner and more effective.” “Goodbye Mr. Donheart, I’ll have my assistant get in touch regarding the paperwork.” Walsh disconnected the line. Walsh sighed, letting her shoulders sag while there was no one to watch her defeat. Then she rang her assistant. “Chancellor?” Ren flashed on screen. “We’ve agreed to a 0.075% settlement. Please see that the paperwork goes through, and arrange for a transport to the Second Dawn Institute on its last day. I would like to give the final order.” The Second Dawn Institute had large pillars that were once white. They hadn’t been cleaned since another round of cuts 7 years before. The lights were dimly reflected in the peeling linoleum tiles. On either side of the wide hallway, beds lined the walls 2.5 feet apart, just enough room for equipment providing food and respiration to the withered occupants. “Ms. Chancellor, I beg you one last time to reconsider,” the director of the institute met her inside. “Only 2% of families were able to secure alternate care. Medical technology is improving; with some investment, up to 71% of our over 1,200 patients could recover and leave this facility.” “I’m sorry, Director,” Walsh replied. “We don’t have the money for maintenance, much less investment. The funding that preserves one patient will feed and clothe a family.” Kara lay in the far bed on the left side. Walsh pulled a chair next to her and took her hand. Kara’s closed eyes, dark and sunken, looked nothing like they had during their carefree days playing hopscotch and sharing ice cream at their neighborhood park. After the public schools closed, Kara’s family couldn’t afford to send her elsewhere. While Abby finished high school and attended college, Kara went to work at a local factory. The health department couldn’t afford safety inspections at the factory; no one caught the corroded pipes that eventually burst, leaving chemical burns all over Kara’s body. Her family couldn’t afford detoxification treatments, and Kara slipped into a coma. Now Abby couldn’t afford to keep her alive. They’d say she died because she was in a dangerous profession, or because of a freak accident, or because she didn’t seek adequate medical care. “You were right, Kara,” Abby whispered, squeezing her hand. “I couldn’t turn it around, not with work, not with will, not with hope. I couldn’t beat them. I’m sorry.” Walsh closed her eyes and steeled herself. “Director, is the euthanasia ready?” The director sniffed. “It’s ready.” “Do it.” Give Chris and Oren more time to write stories by becoming a patron.
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