Bathing Betrayal in Blood

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 Öntarii

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!

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

 

Thanks for reading!

Until then, read this funny story I wrote about magic in modern times!

 

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

Click here for the part before

 

“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?”

 

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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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The Celestial Elder

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Jason Gathers looked back at the colonies being pulled into Earth’s gravity as he began to prime the small craft for a long burn.  Fire spread around the O’ Neill cylinders like fearsome flowers, orange mingling with yellow and red with a terrible fury.  The screams of millions of people burning alive went unheard as his engine spun up, and he felt a heavy sorrow grow inside his chest.

“I wish she could have seen this with me.  Who knew that revenge could be beautiful?”  Jason softly slurred to himself.  “Her hair was the same color when the sun shined just right.”  He felt a small pride that he had turned a group of exploited slave laborers into an efficient task force.  Each of their charges detonated at the right time, at all the right places.  The Earth’s gravity did the rest.

“They were good men…”  He whispered to the memory of his wife. “Friends, even.  But we all made sacrifices for this cause.”  As his engine kicked into gear and the long burn began, the charges he had secretly placed on their vessels exploded and destroyed all evidence of their involvement.  Shadows watched, pleased with the dark fruits of their labor.  Their suggestions in this universe have climaxed to this result.  A beacon he had dropped into orbit began an automatic broadcast on all channels, which had previously been completely jammed.

“People of Earth.  Escape while you can.  We are here to bring a new age to humanity.  We are here to show you that Earth is too small and too fragile a basket to put all of our eggs in.  We have played in this cradle for too long, and despite our advances the Earth cannot thrive under the weight of all of us.  Look above you, now.  See the terror the Republic and the Consortium have created.  They are destroying the colonies, and their sloppy work creates more destruction for the people on Earth, while they hide comfortably in their shelters.  They do not care for those in space.  We are expendable to them.  Rise up, and leave now.  We need your help to achieve humanity’s destiny, to spread our civilization to the stars.  Come, join us and prosper together in space.  Or stay, and die.”


Robert cried, his imagination showing him images of chaos in the major cities.  People fighting over each other to leave Earth.  Soldiers struggling to keep control and to keep their fingers from their triggers.  His wife alone in a crowd, trying to herd a group of small children.  There was almost no way for them to get out in time.  Not with an entire city trying to evacuate.  Hope was translucent, faint as a whisper in a thunderstorm.  If the colonies roaring into the atmosphere did not create the panic, then that broadcast that just played over the intercom certainly would.

In the cockpit, Jason’s accomplice cried too.  He was frustrated with his cause, knowing now that the people they condemned to die on Earth were mostly innocent.  There was no way to contact command and to call off Axis’ descent.  It probably had too much momentum anyway.  It could not be stopped.  Something else was bothering him.  Racking his brain, he could not remember why Jason ordered him to kidnap Robert James Lowman.  He couldn’t even remember the orders.  The shadows stared through him with smug, obsidian smiles.  They knew why.  Confused and isolated with his guilt, he programmed the autopilot to take Robert to the hidden fleet behind Axis, and sat back in his seat.  He stared at the blockade of ships in front of him that ignored this shuttle, turning to face the ancient celestial demon that doomed their home world.   Flashes erupted silently as he coasted above their firing solution.

“Useless.” He mouthed silently and put the small, silenced gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.  His body recoiled, and floated up.  Blood and brain vibrated strangely in zero gravity as the shadows laughed, dancing along with the crimson bubbles.  Whispers filled the cabin as the man’s dead body floated and dreamed of another universe.  Whispers from shadows that were always watching in pleasure.

Robert had moved ahead to the front of the craft to take Omar’s body and give it some semblance of respect by covering his dead face with his coat and placing it in a seat.  Robert could hear the raspy conversation, and stifling his tears he drifted toward the cockpit to investigate.  He gasped when he opened the door, seeing the corpse floating in the same moment as the whispers went silent.

“I must be going fucking crazy.” Robert muttered to himself.  He put himself in the pilot’s seat after softly pushing the corpse down and behind the chair.  Robert had no sorrow for this terrorist, regardless of his situation.  The only thoughts he could think were of Linda, horrified on the planet’s surface as humanity’s impending doom coasted toward them.  Remembering some basic flight controls, he began to flip switches and tried to move the yoke.  It was stuck in its programming, and he was unable to move the controls.  A notice flashed on the instrument panel:

PLEASE ENTER THE PASSWORD TO ACCESS FLIGHT CONTROL.

‘Password’ did not work.  ‘Guest’ did not work.  Robert slammed his fist in frustration on the flashing screen, which also did not work.  To the pleasure of the darkness, he was trapped in this thing on its way to the last place he wanted to be.  He pushed himself back into the cabin, searching for the escape pods in the back.  Their doors had been welded shut.  Probably a preemptive move by the terrorist to stop any escape.  Without options, Robert glided to the seats on the right, resigned to gazing down at the tracers within the barrage of hot steel.  Suddenly the front of the asteroid appeared underneath the shuttle, and he could see that the U.E.R.’s attack was barely whittling away at the surface.  The explosions were probably gigantic,  but the sheer size of the asteroid made it useless.

“Useless”, Robert muttered angrily.  He stared down at his elder, the massive stone rolling beneath him.  Pockmarked with craters, the ancient drifted underneath the craft for what felt like ages.  He tried to look off to see the edge, but the immense rock stretched out to blend with the darkness of space.  There were abandoned structures that dotted the landscape, old mining bases probably.  Finally the end of the space boulder appeared, and he could see mammoth thrusters that were darkened and cold.  Without realizing it, Robert had been crying this whole time, tears filling the space around his face.  He was startled into a scream as the V.I.’s voice broke the silence:

“Please buckle your seat-belts and prepare to dock.  We have arrived at our programmed destination.  Thank you for flying with The Consortium, where your comfort is our priority.”

Docking clamps loudly clamped onto the side, shockingly fast after this announcement.  He looked out the window and he could see dozens of ships surrounding the shuttle.  They were older transport craft, dirty and outdated looking.  There were massive guns on each of them, and he knew that they must have been jury-rigged to become a fighting force.  He saw the space around him disappearing as the shuttle was brought into a docking bay of a much larger ship.  Steel and chrome shined beneath the lighting inside as he saw the name of the craft painted high above the deck and the walkways.  The U.E.R.’s Gwaden.  The old ship thought to have been lost over 20 years ago on a deep-space patrol now closed around him.

The shuttle’s movement ceased with an iron screech as Robert’s heart pounded in his chest.  Who knows what these rebels would do to him?  They would probably think he killed the pilot.  He floated up and hid in an overhead compartment, not able to stop tears welling up in his eyes.  He was completely hidden, but he was not alone.  His fear was with him.  The shadows were with him, keeping him company.  And he could hear their gleeful whispers.  He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to fill his mind with his wife’s beautiful face.

Linda…

Suddenly he was seeing flashes of her in places they had never been.  Like lightning illuminating a darkened art gallery.  A beach at night somewhere, walking from a strange automobile that hadn’t been relevant for generations.  The same car at a 20th century drive-in theater.

What are these memories?  

He had no time to think more, as he heard the airlock start to open with a hiss and the creaking of metal.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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The Faucets

So, we all know cats are pretty weird. My cat is definitely no exception. Her name is Mrs. Gibbles, and she is probably one of the weirdest I have ever met. She loves to get to the sinks as I try to wash my hands or start the bath so that she can get the absolute freshest water possible. She will stare at the faucets in wonder as the water starts to come out, like it is some magical thing beyond understanding. It’s not uncommon for me to go home after working all day to find her in a cat-trance, staring at the faucets in one room or another. She will look at me as I make fun of her strange obsession, meowing needily.

“More water, Dad!” If she had her way, she would be a watterlogged piggy.

Recently, she has been acting even stranger around the faucets. She’s been refraining from drinking the water, unless I put it in her bowl. But she still stares, and it has been all she does for a week now. Extremely unusual and out of cat-character. She sometimes even makes a racket while I watch TV or clean the house, swatting at the steel and chrome and meowing incessantly. Sometimes I thought that she was attacking a roach or something! She would hiss and go into crazy-mode, running around the house at maximum velocity with her fuzzy white gut swinging back and forth only to charge back into the bathtub and attack at the faucet. I would try to surprise her, to see what she was up to, but whenever I did she was just staring in wonder at the glistening steel. The same look she has when she stares off into the spaces in-between atoms, gazing at ghosts.

Bored and with some extra money, I decided to set up some cameras. I thought maybe I could get some prime footage and get onto America’s Funniest Videos or something along those lines. Maybe just make my folks laugh. That would have been enough. But I don’t know what to do with these tapes now. I’ve begun moving out because of these tapes. I stay in a hotel with my Mrs. Gibbles, only packing during the day.

The footage started as usual. Just her looking out the window as I drive away, then immediately she plodded over to the bathroom. The camera in there was at a downward angle, looking from a corner where the ceiling meets the walls. She sat on the edge of the tub, away from the faucet. Staring. Nothing remarkable happened for a while, and she crawled into the far end of the tub laying down where she could stare at the faucet. Very very boring. But then I began to see some movement at the chrome, and I was unable to understand how the water suddenly began to run when I realized it wasn’t water.

Slowly, over the course of several minutes I saw a purple finger stretch from the faucet. Unmistakably a finger. There was a long nail, black on the tip, cracked and moldy. It felt around the tip of the spigot and Mrs. Gibbles began to hunt it. She crept toward it, and suddenly slid to attack, swatting and hissing at it. No audio, but this was the thing that she would always do. Smack, smack, smack and the finger disappeared. She stared up into the faucet, cutely sniffing at what I knew to be impossible.

Then the finger crept up from the drain below her, bits of my wife’s long black hair entangling it, but then I saw it was unlike a finger because it was much too long and it had no knuckles. More like a tentacle than a finger. It poked at her with an intelligent curiosity, startling her tail into a big poof, coaxing her to attack again. Playing. It disappeared, and as she investigated the drain, it reached from above and tickled the back of her head.

She leaned into it like she leaned into my rubs. I vomited.

I googled some information on my address. A young girl had been drowned in the tub by her mother when she was only 6.

 

 

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Shooting Stars

 

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The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin and Robert stood frozen, clutching his suitcase.  He stared at the corpse of his friend as it floated eerily just above the floor, dead nose inches from the tacky carpet.  Gulping with a dry throat made him cough, and Robert covered his mouth involuntarily.  The man with the gun turned his sneer to a frown as he tightened his aim on Robert’s face.

“Don’t.  Move.  Slowly toss the suitcase down and put your hands up.”

What can I do?

Moments passed, and he tossed the suitcase to his side just as the man began to bloat with rage.  It quickly floated away and bounced around in the seats across the aisle.  He was in no position to negotiate here.

Here goes nothing. 

“You’re not going to get out of here alive if you don’t put down that gun.” Robert leveled his eyes at the man with a monotone drone his father used to use on him.  The man was defiant, like Robert used to be.

“Pfft!” The man expelled air in disbelief.  “No one in the U.E.R. knows this is happening right now.  No one but you.  And you have no way to contact anyone.”

He was wrong there.  This entire time Robert had been using his mobile to send a live stream of this attack to executive officials at the Consortium.  The communicator was floating now, dangling from his suitcase that hovered off to the side, above the seats.  If the man looked close, he could easily see a red light blinking softly.  But his attention was wholly on Robert, who continued his speech craft:

“Doesn’t matter.  You get to Persephone on schedule, you have security waiting.  You deviate from this shuttle’s flight path, you have military personnel just itching for action.”

The man stared with an empty face at Robert.  Slowly, the gun went to his side. Relaxing.  His eyes were deep in his face, and when the lights flickered for a moment he looked like a skeleton.  A slow smile found its way onto the tired man and Robert’s blood turned to ice as he spoke.

“We have seized Persephone, and the Prime Minister’s office there.  He’s surely been executed by now.  Justice… Justice is almost here.”  The man’s whisper was below a breath, and Robert only saw his lips move:

“Any minute now.”  The man was very assured of himself.

“Justice..?  What “justice” is this? Whose justice?  Who are you?!”  Robert shouted now, and the gun raised again in response to his agitation.

“We are the remnants of those you sent into space — those you sent to DIE!”  The man shouted at him, gun flinging wildly around with each gesticulation.

“What are you talking about?  Forced colonization ended over two decades ago!  Reparations were made!”

“Fool!” The man screamed. His teeth were bared with his lips pulled back in a snarl.  It took all the will he had left to keep his finger from the trigger.

“You think that those “contractors” you use are willing employees?!  What man would willingly take his family on the first deep space colonization?”

Families?

Robert only knew that the contractors the Consortium used for deep space were paid well, and supplied well.  He was under the impression that they were all willing scientists and engineers and workers.  Everyone in the world was.  Robert could only stare blankly at the angry terrorist, too confused to speak.

“What do you think happened to the colonists from before?  They just lived on like usual!?  Why did we need to have mass incentivized immigration to the Lagrange colonies then?!  They should have had plenty of people there already!  Are all of you so stupid?!”

“We thought there were casualt–”

The man slammed his fist into his chest loudly, grabbing at his heart.  His teeth were grinding, and Robert could hear them.  They sounded as if they would explode into dust any second.  Several seconds passed.

“You had… no idea?  No one did?”  Tears poured from his eyes in steady streams.  He did not sob, but the tears would not stop.  Robert shook his head.

“I have no idea what you are talking about.  We thought the contractors were all professionals looking for new frontiers.  ‘Pioneers and Adventurers!’ Haven’t you seen the promo commercials?”

“Good God.  It was only the execs who knew?   How could they keep such a secret, so many military personnel were used to move us all…” The man’s voice cracked.  He looked even more tired now, older.  Weaker.  Smaller somehow.

“Jason got us so riled up.  We were away for so long… No contact, or news… We just thought you all had forsaken us, and just used us up and tossed us aside.  But…”  He trailed off, staring out the window just over Robert’s shoulder.  The Earth stared back at him pleadingly.

“Hey… What is your name?” Robert asked quietly, with caution.  He slowly lowered his hands, and the man did not react.  His unblinking stare reflected the glow of the lights inside the cabin.

“It doesn’t matter.  All of this will be over soon.”  He sounded if he had already died.

“What do you mean?”

“Axis is coming.  It’s probably almost here.” The man whispered with great reverence, as if speaking of a mighty, vengeful god that could hear him.

“Axis?  What is that?” Robert asked, egging him on for more information.  If he noticed that comm device, all of this tenuous trust would fly out the airlock.  Robert needed more information.

“Axis is the reason you came up here, Robert.  But we lied to you about the specifics.” A sardonic snicker.  The man looked down and shook his head.  Robert was confused still but the shuttle’s autopilot interrupted, announcing that they would soon be docking at Persephone.

“I’ll get us away from the station.  There’s no reason for you to die there anymore.”

“Wait!!” Robert exclaimed as the man began to duck back into the cockpit.  “Why did you want me?  Why me?”  The man paused for a moment, and without looking back he spoke to Robert.

“I’m sorry about your friend.  I am.  And your family on Earth.  But there’s nothing we can do now.  Looks like you’re coming to space with us.  We will find a way to make you… useful.”  The door shut behind him, and the man whispered to himself in solitude as he flipped switches.

“Maybe.  I believe you enough to let you live, but my friends…  They probably won’t.”

shooting-stars-1

Robert drifted over to his phone, and ended the live stream.  He pulled himself into the seat and looked to his left out the window.  The vastness of space stretched itself before him, and he could see the blockade of frigates created in response to the alien discovery on Luna.  Something wasn’t quite right though, and he couldn’t place his finger on it.  He stared, confused at a shadowed part of space behind the ships.  A large place without stars.

Impossible.  Must be a trick of the light. 

He stretched his vision to see as best as he could toward the ominous darkness out there, beyond the frigates.  Robert passed several painful minutes in silence and he saw the shadow slowly grow.  A couple more stars disappeared within it. The darkness had been gathering its strength beyond the blockade.

“Fuck.  It’s a giant asteroid.” Robert breathed.  He pounded his communicator’s speed dial and reached electric along with his soul for his wife, searching.  Hoping.  He begged for her to pick up, but it was a Monday, and she was probably still in class.  Looking at his watch as the phone rang, he pleaded for some cosmic being to tell her to pick up the phone.  But nothing was listening.  Nothing good, at least.  Unknown to Robert, his extreme emotions and fracturing psyche were the source of macabre delight to the demons that placed him here in this universe.  He was nothing more than a pawn.  His fear and frustration and existential horror tingled the shadows and made them dance with delight.  Lights flickered in the cabin.  Whispers of their ritual leaked into his mind and tickled his ears, and Robert whipped around to find what made those sounds.  A language he had never heard but for some reason found too familiar.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

In this moment he finally reached the front desk of the school, and he asked to speak to Mrs. Lowman, with as much normalcy as he could muster.

“Linda… You need to dismiss class and get everyone out of there.  You need to go to the emergency shuttle outside the city, a panic will start soon.  I know it.”

“R.J., wait, what are you talking about?  Everything is fine here.  Nothing is wro–“

“Listen to me, Lin.  You have to trust me.  Get out of there, please.  Please.”  Robert began to cry.  “There’s an asteroid coming.  It’s terrorists.”

“Robert James, this isn’t funny, ” Her voice cracked and gave a nervous laugh.  “You got me, OK?”  Suddenly he could hear a siren go off in the background, and the kids all screamed in unison.  “Robert, oh my god. It’s on the Persephone camera feed.  You weren’t lying!  I have to go, but how did you know?!  I can’t do this alone R.J.!  Where will I meet you?!”

“I’ll find you!  Don’t go to Persephone! It’s a trap!  Linda?  LIN?!” But the line was already dead.  He looked at the communicator and saw that there was no service at all.  The Consortium must have alerted everyone, just like he had hoped.  But there was no way to prepare for something like this.  A mass evacuation plan had been discussed, but there were nowhere near enough shuttles available for an exodus like this.  He could only imagine the chaos his wife would have to endure trying to escape.  If she could even get out of the city.  But why was the service cut off so suddenly?

He floated over to the other side of the empty passenger cabin to look at the Earth.  He felt cold as he stared at massive shooting stars entering the atmosphere, and he couldn’t understand what they were.  But then he realized that they were the various O’Neill colonies slowly falling into the atmosphere.  New Sydney, New Beijing, New London.  They were being ripped apart by the Earth’s last line of defense.  Several million people lived in each of them.

Something suddenly slammed into the window Robert looked out of, and he screamed at the unknown horror as it drifted away.  Then he noticed that it was a human corpse.  More of them were tumbling by, and it sounded like a hail storm outside.  The ship turned away from Earth as he watched the burning colonies returning home.  A bright flash lit the night side of Earth below him, as one cylinder hit the Indian subcontinent.  His view turned with the ship, and he saw what was left of the great crown jewel of humanity’s first steps into space.  Persephone was now nothing more than a blossoming flower of twinkling glass and steel that spread partly into space, partly into orbit, and partly into tiny lines of fire streaking down to the Earth.

The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin, a steady rhythm to accompany the sobs of Robert James.  The shadows watched him and trembled with pleasure at his hopelessness, whispering among themselves in impossible tones.

On the Earth’s surface, a child in a rural area stared up in wonder at the great streaks of light flying across the sky.  He giggled and laughed as he held out his arms like an airplane, running back to the house as fast as he could.  He wanted to share this moment with his mother, who waited inside crying as she watched an emergency broadcast repeat itself.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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