Drones

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Robert felt like he was floating for a moment, suspended in the darkness. The darkness had texture this time, grainy almost. Wafting down onto him, it was actually hair. Long, dark hair flowed around him and his eyes adjusted to see another pair of smiling eyes. They comforted him, he felt safe but did not recognize the face. It was beautiful.

The darkness turned darker and the face faded into a terrible caricature – smile pulled back painfully far to reveal larger teeth than they should have been with a terrible smell of rancid flesh steaming into his nose. He could not move and the laughter suddenly burst into his ears, his mind, and his body. The cacophony rattled his bones and he could not help but cry. No tears came.

The darkness opened to a tunnel, thousands of tiny points of light lining the walls and the floor and the ceiling. As he floated down the hall, body stuck in rigor mortis, he could hear that the laughter was coming from each hole. As the darkness enveloped him, he struggled to remember the face that brought him comfort, and he could almost remember. There was a name on the tip of his tongue, but his tongue was missing.

________________________________________________________________________

A car horn woke him up, followed by a loud shout of cursing and then glass shattering.

Robert rubbed his eyes. He hadn’t been this hungover since yesterday.

The window next to his bed had a thin layer of frost. He threw a shoe at the radiator and it rattled awake, coughing like he was.

“I gotta eat but I don’t want to cook…” Robert spoke to the air. The empty apartment listened intently to his sigh. “Another day of no work and a useless job hunt. God…” He trailed off as he opened the refrigerator, staring at the last remaining beer, a bag of broccoli, and ketchup. A holo-ad flicked on quickly and a dancing see-through hamburger stared into his soul. Opening his ration app, he saw he had enough for one more free delivery until the next week. He could either go and clean some delivery robots again today for pay or he could relax again and simply exist. Maybe sleep again before his next beer. Maybe he would have a good dream this time.

Maybe not.

A few clicks and a beep later, his phone chimed pleasantly to tell him that a large pizza was on its way, complete with pepperoni and spinach with a few slaps of diced garlic. His stomach growled as he ate a dry piece of broccoli to hold his hunger away. His dirty sink spat decently clean water into a nasty little cup he only rinsed out and never washed. He stared through the frost at the city outside, little tears of melting ice trailed down the window and pooled in the frame. He wiped his own tears from his eyes.

The dreams of his childhood were traded for this meager existence. The Great Layoff of 2040 was in full swing. If only he went to school for computer science or engineering… But he was not good with math anyways.

He sipped the water, a small chunk of something finding its way into his mouth. He swallowed without flinching as he watched the automatons flit about outside. Drones filled the skies with their lights, dancing in the early morning hours between buildings with their deliveries. On the ground, the automa-cars gently glided along, stopping for pedestrians. Sometimes the children would mess with them, pretending to jump in front of them to make them slam to a stop. Each time, the cars’ speakers would apologize for the inconvenience.

The sun climbed higher but the day grew darker. Clouds enveloped the skies as usual during this season. The shadows loved it, he imagined.

He was right.

Robert couldn’t tell, but the room grew darker just as began to hear the screams. Confused, he used his sleeve to rub frost off the window, smearing away the melting ice. Looking down the street there was a crowd of pedestrians, all talking amongst each other and gesturing down the street. He turned his head to see what they were talking about and saw another crowd scrambling around the corner. They fell in a pile, different color jackets blending together and sliding in the discolored winter slush.

A sickening sound, part crunch and part wet, echoed up the street. A automa-car plowed into those who did not make it around the corner in time, painting the sidewalk and part of the street in blood. It slammed into the opposite side of the road, which was his building. The building didn’t shake, but Robert did.

“What the fuck…” Robert breathed. The pile started moving outside as people clamored away from the dead and dying. “What a crazy malfunction… there hasn’t been a fatality from one of those autos in over a decade.”

The remainder of the crowd started piling into a cafe across the street from his window as another automa-car rocketed down the street and clipped the tail end of the crowd, creating a mist of red. Robert could see a severed hand gripping the door that swung on its hinges very slowly. He knew it was creaking, he visited that shop regularly. The neon flickered as he rubbed his eyes.

The chaos outside was complete now, people fighting to get inside wherever they could. One tried climbing into the broken automa-car, reaching into the window to unlock the door. The window rolled up and trapped them, their legs kicking frantically for a few minutes while other cars started rocketing down the road, slamming pedestrians into walls or driving over them entirely. Some even backed up and drove off to continue their rampage.

Everyone was leaning out their apartment windows now, screaming at folks to get off the street or just plain screaming in horror. Robert leaned out too, but he could not speak. He had never seen such gore and gristle, making him shake like a tree in the wind.

The shadows tingled with pleasure, watching and feeling what he felt and seeing what he saw. This channel was particularly fun. Thousands of eyes and twice as many ears.

Robert leaned quite far out the window, as it seemed this street was calming down. But cries could be heard echoing from a distance. Looking at the sky he noticed a few plumes of smoke coming from elsewhere in the city. His stomach growled, but he was not hungry anymore.

The people in the cafe stared out at the street, many in shock. An old man held an old woman closely, shielding her face. A strange sound came now, and everyone looking out the windows looked up.

Delivery drones hummed down from the clouds and started swarming the delivery chimneys for the businesses on the ground level.

“GET OUT! GET OUT OF THERE!” Someone shouted. “GET OUT!” More shouting now.

The drones piled into the cafe, and the faces turned away from the window to watch. Blood painting the windows within a minute, and no one could see what was happening. The drones, finished with their work, flew out of the chimneys again, scattering into the sky in a whirlwhind.

Windows began slamming as the drones turned to the apartments, automa-cars whooshed by on the streets still, but Robert saw one drone coming right for him, its red eye shining brightly.

“Fuck.” He spat as he tried to shut his window with icy fingers. It was jammed. He pulled so hard the wood frame splintered and a jagged edge sliced his fingers as he lost his grip and slipped down, falling to the floor and landing hard on his ass.

That moment, the drone screamed into his apartment, slamming into the wall. Robert scrambled on all fours under his bed. The drone hummed pleasantly, shaking off the impact. He could hear its delivery doors slide open, and it spat out a pizza box onto the floor.

“Your delivery, Ro-bert. James. Lowman. Has arrived!” The pleasant voice chirped.

Cold wind blew in, and he could hear the whir of the rotors keeping the drone level while it waited. It slowly started to patrol

It’sfuckinglookingforme, man.

He had to struggle to stay calm, then another drone flew in.

“We are trying to honor a customer service request. Please sign the screen.” The 2nd drone chimed happily. Both of their delivery doors were open, and their forklift-esque package-holding mechanisms clapped with the clang of steel. Not sharp, but enough force to cause some damage. They hovered around the room, and he waited under his bed.

Then someone started frantically knocking on the door.

“Please for the love of GOD let me in PLEASE PLEASE” knocking loudly now “PLEASE, PLeaAAS—-” A loud thud and the screaming turned to gargling. Robert could see two thick holes where a drone had rammed into the door. The holes were close to each other. The wood splintered and tore as the steel tips spread apart, ripping the door and causing blood and guts to pour inside onto his welcome mat.

“Have a great day!” The hallway drone beeped. “Customer served, successfully. Please rate us 5 stars.”

It whooshed away.

The bottom half of the door was splintered and torn. An already thin door was like a wet paper bag now, the blood soaking into the splintered wood.

“….Wow.” Robert James whispered to himself. The drones seemed to pick up on what he thought was inaudible. They whirred and hummed over above him. A jingle kicked on in the refrigerator though, the dancing hamburger causing the drones to cruise over and attack it. The fridge didn’t stand a chance, and neither did the drones as a John Brown-looking motherfucker kicked in the disgusting door, baseball slid through the guts with a shotgun and quickly pumped a slug into both drones, knocking them to the wall and the floor.

“You remember your wife yet?” The crazy man huffed as the smoke cleared, laying down while using some lower intestine for a pillow. The blood soaked his stark white hair.

Robert looked around in a slow daze. Then he started laughing. He did not come out from under the bed right away, staring up at a roach hiding in the bed’s springs.

It looked scared, too.

Thanks for reading, I will keep writing as much as I can! If you happen to know a publisher, let me know ūüėČ

Don’t Tread on Me

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The crowd was bigger than expected, but so was the news.

The signs read a variety of slogans: Fuck the Chinese, Fuck the Government, Fuck Newsom. Basically the same as usual protests. But this was not a usual protest.

Everyone was brandishing their rifles openly, unslung. Someone even drove a technical, having converted a Dodge Ram into a badass anti-air gun. R.J. was just as quiet as usual. But behind his stoic face was a tense fear. A fear that seemed to make the shadows wet and darker than usual.

“So much for that stupid fucking stay at home order!!” Someone shouted. The crowd gleefully responded.

“They can’t tell Americans what to do! If the government doesn’t serve our interests…”

“Right! To! Revolt!” The crowd responded and cheered.

“That’s right!! It’s in the Constitution!!!” He pumped his fist in the air, spit flying from his mouth.

It actually was from the Declaration of Independence, R.J. thought to himself. But it didn’t matter. He agreed with the sentiment. The hand resting on his pistol trembled a bit, and he gripped it tighter. What if the Chinese really were invading?

“If the CHII-NEESE are invading… Why is it so quiet out here except for us?!” The crowd roared in response. One person, R.J. noticed, was not cheering, and was looking down at their phone. He continued chanting “U.S.A.” as he walked over to them. His job was to keep an eye out for Fed plants. Robert was always the observant one of their group.

“What is so interesting?” R.J. said as he grabbed their phone. They looked up in a jerk, the movement removing their sweater hood. It was a young man, maybe 15.

“I can’t tell what is real anymore, and what… isn’t…” The kid couldn’t be heard, but Robert could read his lips.

“Sorry kid, I thought… Wait what is this?” Robert looked at the phone screen, and was seeing a news broadcast of San Francisco burning. He radioed for Stephens to come over, away from his post at the edge of the protest. Stephens could barely hear his radio crackle over the din of the crowd, but he made it over.

“Probably fake.” He dismissed quickly. They all watched together as the Golden Gate Bridge slowly bent and collapsed into the bay. The kid snatched his phone back.

“I need to find my mom.” He said as he pushed away into the crowd. His own phone went off again in his pocket. So did everyone’s, apparently. Everyone stopped for a moment, the sound dying a bit as emergency alert sounds buzzed and beeped.

Warning. Please evacuate immediately. Stay at home order in effect. Barricade doors and windows. Turn on news radio.

The quiet began to give away to quiet chuckles and curses of skepticism and disbelief. But before the crowd got loud again everyone could hear it. A loud, constant whirring sound seemed to fill the air, growing louder. Men brandished their rifles in confusion.

“Everyone get behind the trucks.” Stephens spit into the radio. They set up a semi circle of trucks outside the Courthouse to protect from the cops that never came to stop their protest. Flags mounted in the back of some hung listlessly in the stagnant, hot air. “Everyone, stay calm!” he boomed. “They’re trying to scare us”.

Robert saw it first. High in the sky, a drone seemed to hang overhead. Something fell from it.

Orange. Red.

Ringing in his ears and an intense pressure in his head, he thought he would pop. His heart seemed to stop in his chest.

Black. Brown. Smoke, dirt. Red blood on a flapping yellow background, a snake seemed to spit blood.

“What the fuck is happeni-” Robert suddenly realized he was probably deaf now. He felt blood coming from his ears as he realized what had happened. Stephens strong arm stuck out from under a torn piece of metal, twitching slightly, finger on the trigger of his rifle. The gun was pointed at R.J., but he just stared at it for a moment. He could not hear, but he could smell. The smell of piss came from him. There was another smell though, something familiar.

Coppery. Blood. The area around him was a moving crater, filled with a sea of gore that twitched and moaned.

“What the fuck” Robert could feel himself crying but could not hear himself sobbing. He saw an eye floating, looking at the sky filling with dust and smoke. The cornea rotated downward to stare into blood and dirt. Robert vomited and tried to pull himself up.

The shadows were darker that day. It was not R.J.’s imagination. They watched. They were the real reason he felt so cold, it was not his terror. Not his disgust. Their eyes were innumerable, and they relished in the feast of flesh. They stared through Robert, some even using Robert to see. He felt his mind twitch inside his skull and he began shivering uncontrollably. He started to crawl away, pulling himself over a body that begged for help. Robert couldn’t hear, but he read the lips that bubbled and trembled as he passed over half of a face.


A boat off the coast of California bobbed easily in the waves.

An officer looked over the shoulder of a young man, and they congratulated each other as they looked at the computer monitor together. A greyscale view of a smoking city. Hot white flashes of white popped intermittently. Other young men at other computers were engrossed in their work. The sounds of computer fans whirring and clicking filled the room.

With a pat on the back, the officer walked briskly back to the CIC, informing the communications officer to relay the operation’s success. While the bulk of the forces made their land invasion, his detachment was already whittling away at the insurgency they knew would come after their initial invasion. There might even be a promotion, if the drones all make it back safely.

An officer in the August 1st Building in Beijing hung up his phone, smiling as he walked out of his office to relay the news. He nearly trotted down the hall, past rooms filled with personnel on computers, using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Helping to organize more “Freedom Rallies” in the United States and disputing the facts that American news services were sharing. A rumor had already started that the massacres of rallies in California was a False Flag attack, as was the invasion itself. Naturally.

Shadows hid inside of the keys of each computer, laughing as they greased them. Helping them type faster.


“This is… Fun.” A voice echoed in the infinite darkness between worlds. “Truly… Entertaining.”

“Yes. What a terrible universe.” Another shadow mumbled and muttered. “Terrible” the void echoed.

“Can we play more here?” Others hissed in agreement.

“We have work to do elsewhere. Another scenario. Requested.” The first voice rumbled. The others hissed and hushed.

“Work is pleasure.” Rumbles.

“Work is pleasure.” Replied.

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False Flag

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Cans popped off the fence quickly this time.

“Great aim, fellas.  This is what I was looking for.”  Stephens boomed from behind them.  10 men were lined up about 50 yards from the fence where the cans met their fate.

They were all a part of what they called a ‚Äėgun club‚Äô, but in private conversations they all knew that they were a quick response team in case anyone connected to them became accosted by the Feds.

“Let‚Äôs go get a drink.  I don’t even think mini-me missed one today.” Stephens tousled his teenaged son’s hair, getting laughter from the rest. 

They all walked together back to the big house in the middle of his property. 

Robert was a quiet man, never really said too much.  He had always been quiet, as far as he could remember.  While the rest joked about something, he was thinking about getting back home because of the way the wind pushed the tall grass here. Like waves on the ocean.

“Whatcha thinking about, R.J.? You look troubled.”  Jacob was a nice guy, always asking if everyone was OK or if they needed anything. A hospitable man who did not need to have you in his apartment to try to provide hospitality. 

“I‚Äôm alright, just thinking about the news again.  Always some fucking bullshit.”  Robert didn’t need to say more to get affirmative grunts from the rest.  All conversations now fixed on this tender point. 

“They just make shit up.  You can’t hardly trust anything on mainstream media these days, man.  I just stick with folks I met online and YouTube.  Get the news from people who are there, instead of some regurgitated crap.  All watered down and branded with a logo and an ideology.”  Stephens practically spat the last word onto the dirt as he kicked the dust from his boots. 

‚ÄúPoliticians.  And then you have these freaks in the cities, from who knows where smoking who knows what. And voting.‚ÄĚ  Jacob huffed, rubbing his Duck Dynasty beard with a big hand. 

‚ÄúNot even Americans in those cities anymore, I‚Äôm afraid.  You seen them burning everything down just because some dumbass got shot.  People get shot all the time all over the world.  Why freak out over another one?  Stupid as hell.‚ÄĚ  Kevin Stephens spoke for the first time since he got his hair mussed up. 

‚ÄúWatch your mouth, son.  But you‚Äôre right.‚ÄĚ   His father spoke softly, the clanking and shuffling of cloth louder than his words.  They didn‚Äôt need to be loud for everyone to really hear what he had to say.  They felt it. 

Jacob broke the rustling silence of the march with a ‚Äúgod-DAMN‚ÄĚ. 

‚ÄúNow what?‚ÄĚ R.J. said, causing some chuckles.  Jacob was always getting fired up over something online.

‚ÄúSomeone said that they see someone in their neighbor‚Äôs yard who is probably an alien, but they are doing yard work.  But look at how he looks at his phone constantly!‚ÄĚ He shoved the phone into R.J.‚Äôs face, instantly causing a headache.  He hated looking at screens, but it was the only way to make it in this world.  Sure enough, the video showed a man weedeating and stopping every couple seconds to check his phone and type something in.

‚ÄúProbably just texting his girlfriend.  Quit getting all riled up over mundane shit, Jacob.‚ÄĚ R.J. kept walking.  The rest made various ‚Äúooo‚Äôs‚ÄĚ and chortles.  Jacob turned red behind all his hair. 

‚ÄúProbably your girlfriend, Jacob!!‚ÄĚ Someone chuckled out. 

‚ÄúAt least I got one!‚ÄĚ He puffed.  Everyone laughed. 

The trees watched quietly.  The bugs were quiet, but no one noticed.

California air was hot and still that night.  The bugs now danced in the moonlight as R.J. slept in his bed with the itchy sheets he loved.  They reminded him of something he couldn‚Äôt quite remember, but he always got close to the memory when he was sleeping in that bed, when he teetered on the edge dreaming.  Vibrant reality stole him away from that place tonight. He was restless for some reason.  The bugs tried to soothe him with their song, but to no avail.

‚ÄúWater.‚ÄĚ  He stood and the floor of his trailer creaked loudly, scaring something out from underneath and into the woods.  As usual. 

‚ÄúRacoons‚ÄĚ he muttered as he got some cold water from the tap.  He opened his phone and went into his app rotation.  Force of habit.

‚ÄúChinese spotted off of Alaska?‚ÄĚ  Again?‚ÄĚ He gulped the water down.  ‚ÄúThey pull this shit almost monthly now.‚ÄĚ  It is not uncommon for the Russians and Chinese to dart in and out of our airspace occasionally, testing response times.  But the Chinese have been particularly annoying recently.

‚ÄúEvery time this happens people think they‚Äôre invading.  No one reads more than the headlines.‚ÄĚ He shared an article with the same sentiment of his attached as his personal caption. 

He filled the glass again, somehow thirstier than before the first glass of water. 

His phone went off suddenly with a loud alert tone, scaring the shit out of him and making him drop the glass and shatter it in the sink.  The phone leapt from his hand and into the sink in the same moment.

‚ÄúJesus Mary and Joseph‚ÄĚ Robert whispered to himself.  He cut himself just barely retrieving the phone and drying it off, reading the emergency alert message on his lock screen.

Stay at home order issued.  Chinese invasion of West Coast. Stay at home to allow military personnel to travel unrestricted.  Turn to your local news station.  Stay at home.    

Within 30 seconds, or about the 10th time rereading the message his phone rang out into the silence. 

‚ÄúR.J.‚ÄĚ He spoke

‚ÄúYou seein‚Äô this shit?‚ÄĚ  Stephens breathed heavily on the other line.

‚ÄúYeah, not sure what I think about it.”   Smells like bullshit.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúCall your guys and I‚Äôll call my half of the list, and we meet up at‚Ķ Rally point A?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúYeah and I will bring the signs we made last time, plus some blank ones.‚ÄĚ   R.J. was putting his wallet and keys into his pocket as he spoke. 

‚ÄúI‚Äôll add a link on Facebook to try and get more folks to show up.  This is obviously a false flag to do something worse.‚ÄĚ  Stephens chided.  ‚ÄúWe need a better social media presence.  We need all the good patriots to show up and show the government we don‚Äôt believe this, and that if it is true we CAN HELP!‚ÄĚ

Something about the way he said the last part riled R.J. up.  He did feel sort of miffed the government did not call on the militias they knew were all over the place. 

His turtle was watching him this whole time, stretched out under his heat lamp.  As R.J. walked out the door, it slid in the water to cool off.

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Bathing Betrayal in Blood

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The corpse of his bodyguard stood headless across from him.

The blade materialized into the hand of the carcass, and in one fluid motion it lowered its level and darted toward him.

Robert saw the puppet’s strings now, a slight light in the dark.¬† The light of the moon gleamed off them as he took a quick breath.

Would it be enough?

Robert pulled his sword back and steeled himself.  The body ran nearly parallel to the ground and its feet moved fast.  Impossibly fast.

Blood spurting from the neck stump, the puppet swung up — then straight forward in a fencing thrust.

Fuck.

Robert had already committed to the upswing, bringing his sword over and down at the wrong angle.

Dropping a foot back in a hard pivot threw out his knee and avoided the thrust of the corpse puppet.  Mostly. The sting in his side was nothing compared to whatever the hell happened to his knee, which screamed at him in agony.

Where is he –¬†

Another person appeared near him, behind him.

To the right..? 

A blade appeared at his throat, to his dismay.  Then, it fell away.  A limp body collapsed behind him.  Slowly, very slowly he turned to look and saw his son.  Much older than when he last saw him.

“Tristan?”

“I have news, m’ Lord”¬† He tossed a blade with the flick of his wrist into a bush nearby, and the bush screamed and out slumped the puppeteer.

“… Maybe call a healer first.” Robert grunted.¬† He stared at the dead puppeteer. an elf with a raven emblazoned on his forehead.¬† Green eyes staring angrily in death.¬† A strong glow emanated from Tristan’s hands, snapping tendons and miscellaneous sinew back into place, rippling visibly underneath his skin.¬† Robert grit his teeth and grunted in agony, to the delight of the darkness around them.¬† The coppery smell of blood lingered in the air.

Invisible hands rubbed together and ancient lips licked, smacking loudly — but Robert couldn’t hear.

“Thank you.”¬† Robert when did you learn that?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you.¬† The news I mean.”¬† Tristan grinned just like Robert and more often than Robert.¬† Normally it irritated Robert.¬† A laugh came naturally from both.

“I do have other news, sir.” Tristan narrowed his eyes.¬† Even his curly brown hair looked more serious.

“One half of the Ravens is willing to talk terms.”

They’re willing to talk?¬† And half?” Robert scoffed.

“They’re not monolithic, sir.¬† Many groups tire of the fighting and are willing to talk.¬† Probably half of them want to use this as a ruse to kill some of us.¬† But the other half of that –”

“So, maybe 1/4 of them is willing to talk?”

“But it is that small group that is important.”

“No…Impossible.”

“It’s exactly who you think it is.¬† They survived…” He stared intensely and paused, gauging Robert’s response.

“…However”.¬† Robert exhaled forcefully through his nose in a half laugh.

“However… they want a marriage.¬† And familial rights to the council.¬† Seats on the Senate.¬† Votes.”

Now it was Robert’s turn to pause.

“They seriously are willing to consider this?¬† What proof do I have?”¬† Robert rubbed his knee and stood.¬† A paper rustled, a sealed scroll.¬† Sealed with a dark wax.¬† Peace?

The scroll bore the ancient seal of Elven blood.¬† Something that hasn’t been seen for 30 years.¬† Describing the terms, concession of all Elven territory in exchange for representation.¬† A self-defense force for Elves.¬† Additionally, an illustration was rolled up along with the document.¬† A skillful hand had drawn a most delicate picture of a rare prize.

An Elven princess.¬† For Robert’s hand.

“But I am already married.”¬† Tristan stood silent.

“Father… You know she has been dead for nearly ten years now.”

They stared at each other.  The moon stared too.

“What…?” Robert’s head suddenly hurt very badly and he had to sit down from the sudden wave of nausea.¬† Memories of her long black hair in his hands flooded his mind amidst the tears.

“We need to get you to a proper healer.”¬† Tristan whispered to him as he put Robert’s arm around his shoulder.¬† “Let us leave this grim place.¬† Rally the Halharken.”¬† Tristan now spoke loudly to the scouts gathered around him.

They stood unresponsive to Tristan’s command.¬† Tristan steadied himself under the weight of his father and prepared to shout again.¬† Omar stepped forward from the troops with a face as sullen as Robert felt.¬† He held a scroll in his hand.

“Tristan, step away from Robert.” Omar’s voice was barely a whisper.¬† Tristan scoffed.

“What?¬† Rally your troop and prepare to move to the capital.¬† We do not have time for this.”

Robert was feeling steadier, and stood on his own now.  Shoulder to shoulder with his blood.  He leaned to Tristan and spoke softer than Omar.

“Something is wrong.”

“BY ORDER OF THE KING, RULER OF ALL MEN AND ELF AND HALFBREED.¬† STEP AWAY FROM LORD LOWMAN.” Omar had drawn his weapon and stepped closer, in unison with the stomps of the Halharken closing their half circle upon them.

“Omar, what is this foolishness?”¬† Robert spoke as he pulled his sword.¬† He did not want to hurt his friends, but blood is blood.¬† He helped raise the man standing next to him.¬† Now they were back to back as the crowd closed in.

Omar stared, the smell of each others’ sweat could be tasted on the air.¬† “Robert… I… This scroll came just now by royal courier.¬† The Kingsguard sent their best hawk to bring this.”¬† Omar tossed a parchment that had been crumpled up in a ball to Robert’s hand.¬† Robert read it and paled visibly even in the shadows of the trees.¬† The shadows tingled with delight.

“Tristan… How can this be?¬† The King says you are a traitor.¬† You are collaborating with the Elves in a secret plot?”¬† Robert turned to face Tristan, who stared at him in confusion.

“NO!¬† I had just come here on the orders of the Court!¬† This must be a mistake!”¬† Everyone’s knuckles tightened on their weapons.

“There is no mistake, child.” Omar grimaced and took his stance.¬† Robert stared in horror as Tristan began muttering ancient words and his sword glowed with a foreign light.

The light certain Elves could imbue in their blades.

Omar and the Halharken dashed forward together, Robert raised his blade to protect his son against their curved sabers.  Tristan exhaled and the world exploded in ancient light.

Then darkness.¬† Slight steam rising from the ground around them.¬† Robert and Tristan stood in a small sea of corpses.¬† Omar’s face continued to grimace up at them from their feet.

Robert fell to the ground and screamed in a mix of rage and sadness.

Tristan still held his blade up.¬† “Did you hear that, Father?”

Robert just stared at his dead friend in silence.  His heart now a chunk of dead matter.

“We are still not alone… There was a strange scream just now, not the men here.¬† What wa–” A large burst of blood sprayed from his mouth onto the back of Robert’s head.

So warm

Tristan fell beside him, his body twitching furiously.  Blood spurted from his ears and nose with each heartbeat.  Steam rose from his body writhing in the dirt, and the steam quickly turned into a thick forceful blast as if a great furnace had opened before him.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Forbidden Tomes

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The parchment sealed, Elmyra hobbled outside on tired legs.  Wind breezed cold on her face, forcing her to squint as she walked to the small pigeon coop off to the side of her hut.  Sunshine felt far away.  A fluttering of wings and a bit of twine send the parchment into the sky, and old eyes stare after it.  Ancient eyes.

One pair of eyes belonged to the Elmyra.  The others? Well.


The bird wasn’t the fastest bird, or the most graceful. ¬†But it was the only bird Elmyra Cairon had. ¬†The others had fallen to the last winter, and she didn’t care to buy more.

She didn’t believe that she would be around much longer.

The bird fluttered along above the treeline, clumsily gaining altitude. ¬†Its yellow-red eyes stared out, blinking quickly. ¬†Were it a human, it would wonder if it was able to make it. ¬†But instinct drove the bird higher. ¬†Farther. ¬†The pigeon may not have been graceful, or fast — but it was old and reliable.

The parchment staggers its stride, but pigeon pride ensures that it reaches its destination just in time.

Finally able to descend, our pigeon makes an exhausted dive down toward the treeline, leaving what was left of the sun disappearing behind the Zephyr Mountains and entering the cool of the shade. ¬†It seemed to breathe a heavy sigh, swooping to land on the arm of a tall and lanky elf. ¬†The man gave a chuckle as he untied the paper from the bird’s quivering leg.

“Ch’arleh, a message came for us. ¬†Judging from the bird, its probably your mother.”

A snort-laugh came from a cave entrance behind the tall elf. ¬†The sound of a sword sliding into a sheath was followed by a whet-stone thudding on a wood table. ¬†Ch’arleh came out, auburn hair pulled into a high ponytail.

“That’s definitely my mother’s bird.” ¬†He picked it up gently and stroked its head. ¬†The bird cooed pleasantly. ¬†“She’s had this thing for as long as I can remember. ¬†Its time is almost up though.”

He set the bird onto a branch, and it sat and stared at him as he took the parchment back into the damp cave. ¬†Ducking to get into the opening, he stood and walked long strides into the mountain. ¬†Candles perched wherever they could, casting dancing shadows over shelves of scroll and tome. ¬†The oaken chair that used to be his father’s waited patiently for him, and he sat with a grunt. ¬†Cracked wax and rustled paper revealed the words with familiar handwriting:

Halharken East of the Zephyrs and travelling Westward.

Among them is one of your cousins from your father’s side and a¬†human noble.

He has some understanding of the arcane. 

Something is not right, son.  Please be careful.  With love,

¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Your √Ėntarii

Ch’arleh stared at the parchment for a long time, feeling its rough texture between his fingers.

How much magic did she use to get this information?  

He shook the concern over his mother aside and set his mind to work.  He had little cause to worry for her, considering his plan.  The Halharken have exposed themselves on this side of the Zephyrs during the peace.

“Hmph. ¬†Peace indeed.” He whispered to himself. ¬†Action needed to be taken. ¬†If the Halharken were here, it meant that the Crown was willing to risk exposing itself. ¬†What made this risk worthwhile?

“J’imh! ¬†Send word to the outposts to recall their troops back here.” ¬†Ch’ar shouted into the mouthpiece of a wooden tube that ran from beside his chair, along the ceiling and to the mouth of the cave. ¬†He removed his hair, and let it hang down to his shoulders. ¬†The flickering darkness intensified as the smallest breeze toys with the candles. ¬†A poison breeze that comes from within the cave. ¬†From the shadows themselves. ¬†Ch’arleh smiles to his invisible allies, whispering words that allows their dark energy to flow through him. ¬† Words neither human, elven, or even ancient orc.

He felt electric as his hairs seemed to throb with hungry power, standing on end.   A power no one knew of but him.  Not even his dear, sweet mother.

A fluttering of wings outside disappeared into the darkening woods, calling his Ravens. ¬†Ch’arleh opened a scroll he had read dozens of times before — a scroll that had the language he spoke inscribed in harsh, foul-looking scribbles. ¬†Scribbles that seemed to shift and change to an untrained eye.

The symbols surrounded an image of a particularly evil-looking mask.  He mouthed the words that titled the forbidden paper to himself with a smile:

“Khosst Am’ojaan”


Robert and Omar smiled at each other and took a swig of their water at the same time.  The plan they devised was perfect.  They finished with just enough time for the sun to retire and for a crescent moon to rise.  With the Halharken keeping guard around the makeshift campground, they both felt comfortable enough to get their rest.  They needed it in the day to come.  Omar fell asleep instantly, soft snores oozing from a wiry beard.

Hours passed, and the sliver of moon crept slowly above.  Robert tossed and turned on the hard ground.  He stood with a frustrated sigh.  Maybe a walk would calm his nerves.

The Halharken were notoriously silent and so Robert did his best to match as he walked.  The night itself seemed to absorb sound, as even the insects held their breath.  He felt lonely even though he knew he was under guard.  Finally, he saw a hooded figure standing next to a thick tree trunk.  Thinking some small talk might just bore him enough to sleep, Robert strode to the silhouette of his guardian.

“A quieter night I have never seen. ¬†And yet I cannot sleep,” Robert softly spoke as he walked up. ¬†“How goes your watch, tracker?”

Silence replied from the leaning figure.  a beat passed and Robert froze where he stood.

“…Tracker?”

More silence.

He kept his distance as he circled around wide, hand on the pommel of his weapon.  A cloud passed over the waning crescent moon, stealing what little light there was.  The hood still obscured the face of the figure as he came to stand in front.  Roberts nerves were frayed and he shouted over his own thundering heart:

“Speak or I¬†will cut you down!”

The figure jerked suddenly, no longer leaning against the thick oak.

“Oh, Gods! ¬†Sir! ¬†I apologize, I must have fallen asleep.” ¬†The man sheepishly admitted. ¬†Robert breathed a sigh of frustrated relief and chuckled as he looked down.

“You scared the iron from my blood!” ¬†Looking back up Robert saw the man’s face. ¬†Young. ¬†Eyes bulging in terror. ¬†Robert’s mouth hung open – unable to speak – as he saw a thin line appear across the youth’s throat. ¬†A thin line grew thicker and began to spray blood as his head rolled from his shoulders. ¬†The head plopped to the ground and rolled enough for the bulging eyes to reflect the light of the moon peeking back out from the clouds. ¬†The body remained standing perfectly upright.

Robert steeled his stomach against the urge to projectile vomit and drew his blade with a practiced hand.  Glances around him revealed no one.  Nothing.  The headless body still stood with an eerie stiffness.

Then it shuddered!

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tales of a travelling salesman final

Probably Just a Bug-Bite

I was working late in a rural school, when the power went out. I was the night janitor, a job I had always enjoyed because of the relative solitude. I could sleep all day and relax for a bit before driving to work. I would bring my headphones and listen to some Silversun Pickups or Andrew Bird while I swept and mopped up the refuse from the day. Every day the halls were left filled with broken pencils and crumpled up papers with forgotten love scribbled inside. Sometimes I read the notes, and chuckled at their eager egos reaching for some strange ideal of romance. Sometimes I just sneaked a quick bowl and zoned out into my work and the music. Each day blended beautifully into the next. Rent was paid, snacks were bought, and small bits of my check I managed to save. I was content with my confident mediocrity.

Until the night the lights went out, I was enjoying the relaxing waves of soft rain on window panes.

The darkness washed down the hallway I was standing in like a splash of obsidian. It’s difficult to describe the feeling I had, but it was not a normal, healthy fear of the dark. I felt… Unnerved. I knew it wasn’t true, but I felt like I was being watched by the inky black that surrounded me and touched by the silence that swarmed and swirled.

I stood still for some time, expecting to hear the backup generators kick on or the clicking drone of emergency lights. But the only thing I heard was a loud metal clanging that shot down the hall and into my bones. Frozen. Reverberations shook my bones. Helpless. I stood as if locked in a dream. I felt like a child, confused. Silence finally began to echo and ring and ring and ring in my ears.

It must have been a dream. I must have fallen asleep. This must have been a dream, right? I don’t even believe myself as I begin to think of how to write this…

The lights finally kicked on as the sound ended, with a hum and a flicker. And I saw I wasn’t alone.

I caught a glimpse of a large hominid whirling away around a corner. Legs were too long, and the arms were longer. Slender. Pallid. Vein-y. I remember the veins. Thick and purple on a skinny frame. I could have sworn I saw them throb hungrily.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in a chair in a classroom. I felt cold, and I shivered. I felt disoriented and my vision was blurry as a soft lightning flash illuminated the room with the slightest gleam. Slowly getting to my feet, my eyes noticed the room number posted on the board amidst reminders and notes. The room was in that hallway I was in, or that I thought I was in before…

I found my coworker after running outside into the breezy night rain and into another building. I must have looked wild, because he asked if I was OK. I wasn’t. I’m still not.

My partner said the lights never went out.

And it’s been two days, and I thought it was an exhaustion-induced hallucination because I hadn’t been sleeping recently. My dog has been constantly barking at the clouds and the squirrels that have moved into the roof of my home, constantly scratching and squealing.

But now I have a unusual dot where my bicep meets the forearm. Sight bruising, too. As if I had gotten stung or poked.

Now that I look closely, it’s starting to seem infected. The bruising is a dark hue, darker than even when I broke a bone as a child. And the veins are thicker around that dot. And my head… aches. Constant throbbing.

Maybe I should drive to the city hospital, an hour’s drive away. Those big-city doctors will know what this is.

Probably just a bug-bite, mixed with this fever and paranoia.

Yeah. That’s it. Still gonna go check and make sure.

Make sure it’s nothing serious.

Blood of the Ice

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“Bread?” Omar eagerly hopped down from the branch above.

“Yes, an old Elvish woman gave this to me for the trip I had ahead” ¬†Robert said. ¬†“There’s plenty to share.”

He held the bag out to his subordinate.  An arrow flew from his left and whisked the bag from his hand, pinning it to a tree with a vibrating twang.  Robert smiled and looked at the archer, eyes wide underneath their hood.

“You have a keen sense for magic, tracker. ¬†Omar, where did you find this one?” ¬†Robert beckoned for them to come from the brush and they stepped forward with a visible pride, nearly prancing like a show horse in the Capital on Parade Day. ¬†Omar smiled wide with white teeth shining¬†in the sun and gave a laugh. ¬†He and Robert stepped around the corpses and the small lake of blood forming around them. ¬†Flies already began to buzz¬†upon their corpses with the greedy instinct of insects.

“This one I found following us a few years ago. ¬†An elf, actually. ¬†A criminal from the ruins of their once glorious city” Omar chuckled¬†and clasped them on the shoulder. ¬†“He followed us for days, without any of us noticing. ¬†He has a natural skill that we made useful, and he is now a brother. ¬†One of the best. ¬†Lucky for him…” Omar squeezed him hard on his shoulders, causing the elf to wince in pain. …” he didn’t steal from us.” ¬†Omar gave a hearty chuckle and released him.

“I was… curious.” The elf¬†spoke more softly than Robert expected. ¬†Monotone. ¬†“These men captured a Raven without his group noticing. ¬†A Raven with whom I had a personal score to settle” ¬†A small smile curled the edges of his mouth. ¬†“You were testing us, earlier. ¬†With the bread. ¬†I waited to see if anyone besides me noticed…”

“But they did not” Robert finished with a grin. ¬†The elf smiled.

“I am Landar. ¬†I have a wider skill set than most.” ¬†Robert looked to Omar approvingly.

“You did well to find this one, Omar. ¬†He will prove useful in the days to come. ¬†You have elemental magic, don’t you?” ¬†Other hooded figures stepped from the bushes, forming a circle around them with their backs to the three. ¬†Protective.

“Elemental? ¬†Landar. ¬†Why didn’t you tell us?” ¬† The elf’s eyes were wide and staring back into Robert’s piercing glare. ¬†Silence fell between them all for a moment. ¬†Omar shouted to his men:

“It’s a bruin, don’t worry about it.” ¬†They apparently sensed the creature and mistook it for… something else.

“Why didn’t you tell us, Landar?” ¬†The stare continued. ¬†Then the wind shifted, the way the wind sometimes does.

The wind pushed its way through the trees, rustling the leaves above and around the group. ¬†The smell of the forest whirled into Robert’s nose, making him nostalgic for something he couldn’t quite remember. ¬†He stared through the elf, thinking hard about why he couldn’t remember. ¬†The smell of damp leaves and an air slowly growing colder spread a strange longing within his soul. ¬†The elf mistook this for the stare of a legendarily ruthless officer of the Imperium, a stare that meant impending doom.

“Please… you must understand that it… it’s not something I… like to use. ¬†Or for others to be aware of. ¬†But you knew?” ¬†Landar was visibly shaken. ¬†As a cloud passed over the sun, draping the group in shadows, a Halharken blade appeared before the throat of the elf, held by a hooded man who appeared¬†with the shadow’s passing. ¬†The ancient darkness within the shade of the forest trembled with lustful anticipation. ¬†More blood may come on this scene. ¬†Blood that may only begin to quench their thirst. ¬†Robert and Omar’s silence coaxed more words from the fearful elf.

“You know it drains my life, more so than other magic. ¬†I have nearly no¬†control over it. ¬†I fear that I use… too much when I do…”

“Which element?” Robert snapped back from his daydream. ¬†He was tired, but there was so much more to do on this day.

“…Ice.” Landar whispered. ¬†Omar grinned, and waved to the silent man behind the elf. ¬†The curved steel whistled as it flew back into its scabbard. ¬†The elf breathed heavily, horrified.

“Normally we would kill you where you stand,¬†ele-mental.” The word dripped with acid from Omar’s lips. ¬†“But you will come in handy with a mission we have in the future. ¬†Some of us may actually survive with your skill on our side.”

The elf flicked his eyes between Omar and Robert, not entirely convinced that they would let him live.  Robert spoke words of reassurance.

“We really do need you. ¬†We won’t wait until you fall asleep to slit your throat as if you held the blood¬†of the flame.” ¬†The sunlight trickled through the trees into Robert’s eyes, and he looked up. ¬†“Omar, let’s get moving back to the mountains. ¬†We have some planning to do.” ¬†As the sun danced between the leaves, glittering gold, Robert had a strange image flash into his mind’s eye. ¬†A beach, at night. ¬†Then some strange house, with green grass surrounding it. ¬†Perfect grass. ¬†He shook his head involuntarily with a odd twitch, and the images vanished. ¬†The sun still glistened between the leaves. ¬†Nostalgia again.

“Strange” He muttered to himself, and he cracked his neck. ¬†The Halharken disappeared into the forest like darting birds, and he began to walk. ¬†They could not be seen or heard, but he knew they would escort him as he walked. ¬†Invisible. ¬†He rested his hand on the pommel of his sword, feeling the design as he had always done. ¬†But somehow, this time it seemed foreign and unfamiliar. ¬†As if it was his first time feeling it. ¬†He tossed the old woman’s staff into the woods to his side and walked down the road.

 


 

The old woman hissed as she sensed him throwing the cane away.  She had no way to track him now.  But she had heard some of what was said between the group despite the distance.  Halharken on this side of the mountain.  An elf that held the Blood of the Ice.  She tossed her anger aside as she scribbled furiously onto a parchment, arthritis shooting pain up her wrist.  She gritted her teeth and sealed the roll with a bit of wax and a stamp.  A stamp with the image of a raven holding one snake in its mouth and another in its claw as the two serpents twisted around its body trying to strangle it.

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tales of a travelling salesman final

Suspicious Silence

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Her bony finger tapped Robert forcefully on the shoulder, snapping him out of his awe at the glorious vista before his eyes.  He turned and looked at her, and threw a glance at the bulging bag of bread she held out to him.

“Thank you, this kindness won’t be forgotten. ¬†Perhaps if we have a good harvest, I’ll bring my son with me next time I travel to your lands.” ¬†Robert smiled genuinely at her. ¬†The bread was some of the best he had ever had.

“Yes, perhaps!” The old woman replied¬†with a forced smile. ¬†Being so good at lying, it didn’t show. ¬†“Well, be careful on your travels. ¬†Better get a good start while the day is somewhat young.” ¬†Robert nodded, and turned away.

“Wait!” She burst out. ¬†Robert whirled back to her as a bird chirped. “Take this with you! ¬†Your legs are still weak. ¬†You have no horse.” ¬†She held out her gnarled wooden cane.

“I cannot take an old woman’s cane from her.” ¬†He said laughing and shaking his head.

“Please, I have plenty more. ¬†This one has no significance to me. ¬†Take it.” ¬†She held it out with both hands, and he saw that it was a very dark wood. ¬†With lines curving up the side in strange spiral stylings he had never seen. ¬†He hesitated, but took it from her. ¬†He might need a weapon in Elven lands, his throbbing head reminded him.

“Thank you. ¬†I will return this one day.” ¬†Robert lied¬†quietly. ¬†His hands tightened around it, feeling the smoothness of the staff before holding it to his side to steady himself. ¬†His legs were beginning to find their true strength again. ¬†He walked, the staff longer than he remembered it in the shade of the hut. ¬†The woman stood in the doorway watching him as he walked away through town, toward the mountains that were close to the borders of the Imperium. ¬†Before those stony peaks lived the¬†forest that Robert was found in, beaten and robbed. ¬†The old woman cackled and coughed as she went inside, closing the door behind her. ¬†The spell she cast left her tired, her bones ached more than usual. ¬†It was time for a nap.

Robert continued walking through the town, feeling the stares of all the Elves looking him up and down. ¬†A lone human in a land that despised him. ¬†Looking¬†to one merchant’s wares, some beautiful red apples gleamed¬†in the sun and Robert glanced up with a smile at the owner. ¬†The man stared back into Robert’s eyes with burning hate. ¬†Robert could see crow’s feet beginning to form around the Elf’s eyes.

Signs of aging.

Robert looked back down and continued to walk, the hateful glares urging him to increase his staggered pace.  Children suddenly appeared out of thin air, singing some Elvish taunt as they threw small bits of rotten fruit at him.  Robert understood.  This was something to be expected.  Children act on impulses that adults bury deep within their hearts.  Well, most adults.  The children disappeared as quickly as they appeared.  Robert continued to walk along as quickly as his legs would take him, both hands on the staff that steadied his steps.  A rock flew toward him from behind as an instinct from his younger days tilted his head to the left.  His right hand reached up and without looking he caught a rock that was meant for his skull with a loud slap.

The crowd watching him was more silent than before. ¬†He was quick despite his age. ¬†A reaction that a farmer shouldn’t have. ¬†Avoiding confrontation, Robert simply dropped the stone and continued down the hill out of town. ¬†Heading into the forest valley below. ¬†The people watched in suspicious silence as his head disappeared behind the road.


 

“Jah’sahn, are you sure that we should go into the Imperium again? ¬†Maybe we should just go home.” ¬†The young elf was nervous, and hungry. ¬†His hands played with the string of his bow.

“We have to.” Jah’sahn replied as he carved up an apple to share with his friend. “This is our last apple, and I am not going back to farming. ¬†I told you that already.” ¬†He took a deep breath to quell the anger he had within. ¬†Looking up at the clouds through the trees, the light glittered between the leaves. ¬†His father used to have a word for it, before he died and left him an orphan. ¬†His mother had died when he was a baby, during the Reclamation. ¬†A stupid name for a stupid war. ¬†Jah’sahn’s hands fiddled nervously with his sword resting in its sheathe.

“Fine, fine” His friend replied. “I just don’t want to beat up any old men again. It’s… not right. Human or no.”

“I understand, Brielbeh. How could we have known? After we tripped the horse up we had to follow through…” He paused for a moment in carving the apple. “But… I felt strange after that last encounter too. Even if the money we got for selling the horse kept us fed for a while. Did your sister recover with that medicine we got for her?” Jah’sahn offered an apple slice to him.

“Mostly. The fever’s almost gone, and she is talking again.” Brielbeh sighed and took the slice from Jah’sahn’s outstretched hand. “Its probably the only good thing that’s come of all this.” He muttered as he munched.
“Hopefully we can score something big. Maybe some information to give to the Ravens¬†for a price. Maybe they’ll even let us join up.” Jah’sahn mused, tasting the sweet fruit as a small bead of juice trickled into his stubble. “But probably not.”

“Yeah, probably not.” They both were sitting in a tree high over the road, looking at the dancing patterns that the sun created through the trees on the ground below.

“They say you have to be pretty skilled with magic” Brielbeh chuckled. “The only magic I’m skilled with is making food vanish!” They both laughed through their nose with a short exhale.

It wasn’t the first time they had this conversation, or laughed at this joke.
Robert was walking down the same road they were watching, his legs steadily gaining back their strength. That stew the old woman made revitalized him unlike any meal he had before. He didn’t have to rely on the cane so much now, and he carried it at his side. ¬†The birds were chirping all around him when he first came into the forest road, unfamiliar tones that made him yearn for home. ¬†Now, they were mostly silent. ¬†Robert’s hand tightened on the staff, as he felt a familiar fear creep into his body. ¬†The urge to stop and go relieve himself¬†on a nearby tree was overwhelming. ¬†Ahead of him, hidden in the trees, the two young men noticed him walking.

“Jah’sahn! ¬†It’s that man from before.” Brielbeh whispered. “What should we do?” ¬†Jah’sahn stared at him coming down the road. ¬†Thinking.

“Let’s see if we can’t help him. ¬†To make up for what we did.” They both smiled at each other and began to make their way down the tree branches, swinging and leaping with the dexterity of youth. ¬†They landed at the same time on the road, several paces from where Robert stood brandishing the staff at them.

“You two!” Robert snarled. “I won’t be taken by surprise again.” ¬†Jah’sahn moved forward, palms out.

“No! ¬†We felt bad about what we did, we want to –” An arrow materialized in his face, pushing his right eye from the socket. ¬†It hung in a muddled mass at the tip, before falling into the dirt. ¬†“Wee.. wahnt…to..” Jah’sahn slumped over and died in the dirt. ¬†Brielbeh screamed and ran toward his dead friend, but three arrows thumped into his back, one cracking through his rib cage and poking from his chest. ¬†His eyes bulged and he coughed, spewing blood over his white tunic. ¬†He fell on top of his friend with outstretched arms. ¬†Robert was mortified, glancing around at the trees and the bushes. ¬†A voice came¬†from somewhere in front of him.

“Aww, look at them. ¬†Two little lovers.” ¬†The words were laced¬†with an audible sneer. ¬†Small laughs came from the foliage to Robert’s left and right. ¬†The voice was familiar enough to put him at ease.

“Omar! ¬†I knew you and your men would come sooner or later.” Robert called out, placing his staff at his side again. ¬†“Come forth, and have my thanks!”

Hooded figures¬†came from the shadows, bows slung over their shoulders. ¬†The curved blade of the Halharken¬†Order rested on their hips. ¬†The Imperium’s best trackers. ¬†“I do think that these young men were going to help me… But…” Robert spit on their corpses as blood pooled underneath them, turning the dirt to mud. ¬†“They also got me into this mess. ¬†Stole my horse and everything.”

“Lucky you didn’t have¬†this” Omar appeared above him crouching on a tree branch. ¬†He tossed a sheathed sword to Robert. ¬†“Or they would have known who you were straight away!” ¬†It was Robert’s sword. ¬†Shorter than a longsword, greater than a knife. ¬†Forked at the tip like a trident. ¬†Carvings along the blade, runes that no longer worked. ¬†The pommel was resolved with the face of a bear. ¬†Emerald eyes.

“Yes, that would have been extremely unfortunate.” Robert whispered, strapping it to his waist. ¬†“Are you and your men hungry? ¬†I have some bread for us.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Candescent Clarity

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His heartbeat thundered painfully in his ear, mixing with the strange whispers that came and went like a terrible breeze between rotting trees.  He swore that he could feel spit spewing from empty space next to him as the strange language dripped into his ears.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

He shivered so hard he thought his back might spasm.

Robert knew that his wife would never make it off the planet, like most of those on Earth. There were only so many shuttles that were capable of escaping the gravity-well.  Not nearly enough.  They never made enough.  A terrible case-study of financial Darwinism.

He heard the airlock open, a whooshing creak accompanied by shouts and boots thumping into the passenger cabin.  Voices other than the ones from the darkness trickled through the flimsy plastic door to the suitcase compartment he crammed himself into.  A thin line of light gave him the air he needed to breathe and allowed him to hear his soon-to-be captors.

“Well, looks like Brillby finally offed himself. ¬†Poor bastard.” A gruff chuckle.

“Have some respect, Clark. ¬†The man lost more than most.” A¬†reverent voice said.

“Hey — I said ‘poor bastard’. ¬†Just… keeping it light.” Clark grumbled. ¬†Slow, heavy footsteps.

“Jackson, what do you think?” ¬†Silence. ¬†Boots thumped around, and he heard the steel click of a rifle loading a bullet into its¬†chamber.

“There will be no need for that, Clark. ¬†Robert and I know each other.” ¬†Robert felt frost spread within his gut.

Who is Jackson? ¬†I don’t know anyone named —

The compartment clicked open and light flooded fiery fluorescence into his retinas. ¬†Squinting, he saw the familiar sight of a gun barrel leveled at his face. ¬†A man’s eyes came into focus, eyes dark as coal looking furiously at him. ¬†A large hand came from the side and pushed the gun barrel down.

“God, Clark. ¬†You still can’t listen. ¬†You want to be stuck on sewage duty again?” ¬†The older voice chided like an irritated father.

“No, sir.” Clark still stared¬†at Robert with hateful daggers, unblinking. ¬†He backed away, and allowed the older man to step forward and stare at Robert. ¬†A shock of white hair on top of his head was contained by a small black beanie, a large and regal white beard covered his face and went down to the center of his chest. ¬†The bluest eyes Robert had ever seen. ¬†Like clear ice over a frozen lake. ¬†He had seen this man somewhere before. ¬†Somewhere. ¬†But where?

“Robert, get on out of there. ¬†Out of the shadows.” ¬†Robert sheepishly climbed down with the awkward movements of an older, out of shape man. ¬†A foot down onto the chair below – with hands still in the luggage hold – he began to slip and the artificial gravity caused him to fall — but Jackson caught him. ¬†Strong despite his age and taller than he expected, Robert was set down onto his feet by Jackson holding him under his arms. ¬†Like a parent sets up a toddler. ¬†He felt the blood rush to his face. ¬†Recovering quickly, Robert spoke:

“You said you knew me. ¬†Explain.” The men erupted in laughter around him.

“This one has balls, lieutenant.” ¬†Lee giggled.

“Leave us.” Jackson whispered. ¬†The two guards exchanged glances.

“Sir?” They both said together. ¬†Jackson remained silent, simply looking at them from the corner of his eyes. ¬†They both looked at each other and shrugged in unison, walking toward the airlock.

“We’ll be right outside, sir.” ¬†Jackson waved his left hand at them, his right on his sidearm.

“I know why you’re here, Robert. ¬†Do you?” ¬†Jackson asked as he stared¬†unblinking with wolf-eyes. ¬†Robert replied with silence and a stare.

“I finessed my way into this universe. ¬†I followed you from outside your real home, back on Sedgebrook Drive. ¬†You fell through quite the rabbit hole. ¬†Again. ¬†Do you know what’s happening yet?”

“What are you talking about? ¬†Sedgebrook? ¬†I lived outside of the city, within view of the Great Elevator. ¬†What do you mean, ‘this universe’? ¬†Who are you!?” ¬†Robert said.

The older man shook his head.

“When you think of your wife, what memories do you see?” ¬†Robert’s heart skipped a beat. ¬†Those strange memories of a different timeline flashed again into his vision as he conjured the image of Linda’s face. ¬†Something was horribly wrong.

“I… I don’t know what’s happening to me. ¬†These memories aren’t –”

“Those are your true memories, Robert. ¬†Each time you slip between worlds, they become harder to see. ¬†Given enough time, they will vanish completely. ¬†You have to focus, focus on your love. ¬†That’s the only thing that they don’t understand.”

A thunderous explosion shook the Gwaden, and they both lost their footing and fell into seats across the aisle from each other. ¬†They locked eyes and Jackson stood remarkably fast for someone his age. ¬†He leaned over Robert and put his left thumb in the middle of his forehead with a soft force and his right thumb into the skin over his heart. ¬†An electric current rushed through Robert, and memories he had forgotten about rushed back to him in an instant. ¬†The cold forest. ¬†The sands of post-war America. ¬†The lights flickered and died inside the shuttle as another explosion rocked the Gwaden, and the red glow of emergency lights filled the cabin. ¬†Whispers violently hissed, forcing fear to flow into Robert’s body. ¬†A fear laced with anger. ¬†He remembered everything now.

But for how long?

“They hate me, Robert. ¬†I try to save the souls they keep. ¬†You are not alone in this game. ¬†Millions of people over the course of human history have become trapped in their game, replaced by the elites of their malevolent society…”

A blast rocked the ship, cracking a hole in the hull of the Gwaden.  Air began to rush out of the docking bay, and he could hear the screams of Lee and Clark as they were sucked into the vacuum of space.  The artificial gravity created by rotation was stopped as the frigate lost power, and Jackson skillfully glided over to the airlock and pounded his fist on the emergency seal to force the door shut.

“They are going to kill us both, Robert. ¬†Fill your mind with thoughts of your wife, and your life. ¬†Maybe they will be strong enough to –”

Another explosion rocked the ship and there was the monstrous sound of steel being ripped apart, violently tossing the shuttle out into space.  Crashing and tumbling, Robert was bounced around inside the cabin along with Jackson.  He protected his head the best he could, and pissed himself only a little bit.

“Dream of her to escape, Robert. ¬†You must dream of ¬†-”

A stray slug of iron tore into the shuttle, tearing it in half like a wet paper bag. ¬†Robert’s eyes dilated from fear. ¬†Remembering the first time he was knocked out by the vacuum of space, he could not help but let fear wash over him. ¬†There were no happy thoughts to be had. ¬†Clutching at his throat, his lungs burned as the air was pulled out of them. ¬†He felt his eyes bulge, and begin to pop.

Stars looked on, devoid of emotion.  They had seen this all before.

And they would see it all again.

 


 

A washcloth woke him, icy on his steaming head.  Comforting.  Soft.  A skillful hand dabbed his fevered skull with the caring touch of a mother.  Almost settling back into the pillow, Robert began to sit upright and pain shot through his body, driving him back into the bed.  His legs were like hard, dead rubber.  Forcing his eyes open, the natural light made him squint.

“Hush now, don’t try to move. ¬†I found you in the dark wood. ¬†You should know better than to go there. ¬†Bandits love to ambush travellers. ¬†You had nothing but the clothes on your back when I found you.” ¬†Robert’s eyes had adjusted and focused on the elderly woman who was tending to him. ¬†The corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly upward, the tiniest smile.

“Where -” A cough thundered from his chest, labored. ¬†He felt exhausted and weak. “Where am I?”

Who am I? 

This thought he kept to himself.  Robert knew his name, but his mind was a terrible mixture of shadows and fog.  He was scared, and tired.  So tired.

“You are far from home, ser. ¬†Human land is a week’s ride from here, with a fast horse. ¬†And we don’t have any of those left.” The woman sighed. ¬†Something about the sighs of the elderly make one feel an existential despair, and it weighed on Robert’s fragile psyche. ¬†Tears began to form under his eyes.

“Shhh. ¬†There, there… ¬†Don’t worry. ¬†You have surely heard tales of Elven hospitality?”

 

tales of a travelling salesman finalClick here for the next Tale!

 

Calcutta, 1946

This is a story recounted to me by my Indian grandmother, who is now in her 80s. She lived in Calcutta through the late 1930s to 1947, when her family moved to England to escape the violence in the region. She was about 9, according to her memory. This period was just before the British Partition of the region based on religious population, where Pakistan and modern-day Bangladesh were created as a separate country for the Muslims, and India was made to be solely for Hindus and Sikhs. This action created the largest population exchange in human history. The story takes place on August 16th, 1946. A day that first was supposed to be known as Direct-Action Day, but became known as the Great Calcutta Killings. Within a short time, over 4,000 were left dead. Even more homeless after the fires died down. This event sparked several days of violence across India, with Hindus attacking Muslims, and Muslims attacking Hindus — the “Week of the Long Knives”.
My Grandmother’s family was upper-middle class, and their home stood tall and clean. They were able to hire housekeepers and pay them well enough to provide for their own families. She was raised Catholic, since the family was close with the British and wished to remain so, but the city itself was predominately Hindu and had a large Muslim population. The Direct-Action day was supposed to be a Muslim-organized peaceful protest to show defiance to the British rejection of the proposed 2-state solution, but quickly turned violent after the heat and fiery speeches turned the hearts of men darker than coal. There are conflicting reports on who started the violence, but both sides were guilty in participation of slaughter and ethnic-cleansing. Skirmishes lasted for days. Factories where Hindu workers lived were invaded and the walls coated in blood and gristle. Homes where Muslims lived were chained up and burned to the ground.
What she remembers is being on the roof of their home with her sisters, taking the day off because of the planned protest scaring her family into isolation. They had a milkman, whose name she could not remember, coming down an alley delivering his goods as usual. He was a young Muslim man, probably no more than 18 years old. Door to door he went about his rounds, and as he drew closer they waved to him. He smiled and waved back as several Sikh men appeared from the shadows and stabbed him with their knives and sliced with their kirpans, each taking their turn thrusting the young man between his ribs, back, and eyes as his screams turned to gurgling noises and silence. They continued their stabbing even after he was dead until they were exhausted and blood filled the alley. The sisters were frozen in horror on the rooftops, as one of the men noticed them and spoke:
“Sorry to have let this filthy Muslim get so close to you, friends!” They dragged the man’s corpse and shoved him down a nearby manhole and left cheering to themselves. About this time, smoke could be seen from the downtown area, as fires were being set to businesses and homes. 

Her and her sisters finally broke from their shock and ran inside, horrified. Luckily their father had the foresight to prepare for this. A detachment of British guards had been sent to their home to protect the family, and all day they remained inside. Screams and crashes mixed with crazed laughter and chanting echoed outside in the city, and crept through their windows. They were inside all day, mortified of what was happening outside.
As night fell, the violence subsided slightly. Every night she would go outside to look at the stars before bed, and out of habit she snuck away from her parents and sisters to go to the roof again. Smoke made the stars blurry this night, and fires burned creating strange shadows that flickered and danced to the music of chaos. She heard the awful sound of metal scraping against concrete, and ducked down behind the low wall that ran along the border of the roof. With the curiosity inherent to a child, she peeked over the wall to look down into the alley where their acquaintance was brutally murdered earlier. The manhole was being pushed aside from below, and when the creaking stopped there was a terrible silence for a moment. A man, clothed in shockingly white robes, came from within the man-hole. He climbed out, and looked around for a while. She recognized the young man from earlier, the milk-man.
“Impossible” she told me. “It was impossible for him to have survived that attack. And his robes were so white and clean, even coming from the sewers of Calcutta! But that was when he looked at me. I felt cold, but not the type of cold from an icy wind from the North. This cold came from my heart — no — my soul! I felt frost inside of myself, and I could not help but cry. I felt so scared and alone then, in that moment. And then he nodded to me, and began to walk away. Something was off, and I couldn’t figure out what! And then I looked closer. His feet appeared beneath his robes as he moved slowly away. They were twisted backward, completely opposite of a human’s feet. He walked toe-to-heel, as we walk heel-to-toe. My father always told me of bhoots, mostly as stories used to entertain us. But now, I have seen one. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision of tears to get a better look. But he was gone. The silence was broken again and more screams came from up the alley. A woman’s scream, and men’s laughter. I ran back inside to be scolded by my Father. I never told anyone in my family this, for fear they would think I was crazy. But the next day we left the city under British escort, and my sisters protested as they complained about leaving their friends alone. But me, I just wanted to get away from that alley. From that angry, lost soul.”

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

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