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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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

Heedful Hospitality

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“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily. ¬†His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun. ¬†Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings. ¬†It was a modest hut. ¬†A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood. ¬†A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames. ¬†It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food. ¬†This was¬†my Grandmother’s recipe. ¬†So you can guess that it’s an old one.” ¬†She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do. ¬†She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait. ¬†Her silver¬†hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip. ¬†All at once completely alien and somehow familiar. ¬†Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of¬†his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman. ¬†My name. ¬†But who… am I?¬†

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl. ¬†Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out. ¬†A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast. ¬†Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva. ¬†Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth. ¬†The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional. ¬†He was missing someone. ¬†Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth. ¬†He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide. ¬†He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed¬†to even know at all. ¬†Robert remembered some of who he was. ¬†They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face. ¬†Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched. ¬†His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them. ¬†He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda? ¬†Who is she? ¬†A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.” ¬†The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young. ¬†When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t¬†let her¬†know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

¬†“You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name. ¬†Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think. ¬†His name was infamous¬†enough that he knew to¬†hide it from even this frail woman. ¬†And she was so pleasant! ¬†The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility¬†of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite. ¬†He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut. ¬†As if the potato was wrapped in guilt. ¬†Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him. ¬†He knew he had to get back to safety. ¬†His mission was a failure, but he gleaned¬†some important¬†facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East! ¬†You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes. ¬†My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.” ¬†She laughed softly and shook her head. ¬†“Ever since that one¬†day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear. ¬†Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed. ¬†He winced as the woman put her hand¬†softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest. ¬†Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could. ¬†He must have been here for days. ¬†Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand. ¬†He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care. ¬†I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home. ¬†We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die. ¬†Even if we do.” ¬†He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing¬†as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real¬†respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness. ¬†For now I must¬†leave.” ¬†She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers. ¬†He was startled, and looked into her eyes. ¬†Hazel, but darker. ¬†He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People РElves Рwent about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed. ¬†“Roger Theregin? ¬†More like Lord something-or-other.” ¬†Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine. ¬†She flicked her eyes¬†over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag. ¬†The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker. ¬†Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows. ¬†The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human. ¬†To think that I would believe such a poor lie. ¬†And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth. ¬†Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause. ¬†The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans. ¬†This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family. ¬†The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming. ¬†Resisting the urge to take the large knife from¬†her left and cleave it into¬†his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented¬†son. ¬†So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world. ¬†Even the Capital of the Imperium itself. ¬†Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

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!

 

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.

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

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