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StoryHack Action & Adventure, Issue 0

StoryHack Action & Adventure Issue 0

Bryce Beattie

Jay Barnson

David Boop

Alexandru Constantin

Steve DuBois

Julie Frost

Jon Mollison

David J West

Keith West

Shannon Connor Winward

copyright © 2017 Baby Katie Media. Each individual story retains copyright by its author.

Shakespir Edition

StoryHack Action & Adventure Issue 0

  1. A Tiger in the Garden
  2. The Monster Without
  3. Hal Turk and the Lost City of the Maya
  4. King of Spades
  5. Desert Hunt
  6. The Chronicle of the Dark Nimbus
  7. Menagerie
  8. Daughter of Heaven
  9. Dead Last
  10. Books to Check Out
  11. Thanks
  12. Issue Zero

A Tiger in the Garden

by Alexandru Constantin

Fragrant smoke enveloped the tiny room. Small candles flickered throwing shadows across the paper walls bathing the small chamber in soft light.

Valan put the lit pipe to his lips and inhaled the sweet smoke, holding it in his lungs for several seconds before letting it out. He shivered as a wave of pleasure traveled across his body. Content he slumped back into the soft cushions. With his eyes closed, he could hear the pleasure girls soft breathing as she took her turn smoking. He heard murmurs of hushed conversation from the neighboring rooms and the hint of distant music from somewhere in the pleasure house. Sweat ran down his bare chest, a product of the tropical heat mixing with the mind-altering smoke.

“You treat your guests well,” he said propping himself up to face the girl.

“We reserve the best service for esteemed lords like you Master Valan,” said the girl, her accent betraying the rehearsed nature of the line.

“Indeed, I have been enjoying the best Angkasa has to offer. After being stuck on a ship for months I have quite the need for enjoyment.”

The smoky haze softened the light in the tiny room, making the elaborate tigers and monkeys that adorned the wall appear to vibrate and dance. Focusing his gaze he watched the girl preparing another pipe. She wore her black hair up, held by bone picks in the style of native courtesans. No doubt manufactured to play up the exotic allure for her patrons.

“How long will you be staying in our beautiful city?” she asked, handing him the lit pipe.

“Until the company ships are loaded with spices and the Governor gets his cut,” he said and inhaled the sweet smoke from the pipe. “But, let’s not talk about that. Merchants, sailors, governors. I have no interest in that sort of nonsense.”

Taking her cue the girl came closer and began to run her fingers across his bare chest. “I’m glad you chose to spend your time here with me,” she whispered into his ear, “you will have the most pleasurable experience.”

The euphoric effect from the smoke was reaching its peak. Valan could barely keep his eyes open. Every touch from her sent shivers of pleasure across his skin. He could hear her every breath, each inhale, each exhale. The smell of her body mingled with the smoke was spicy and intoxicating. In this drug altered state, he could forget the long voyage across the seas and the exile that brought him to this distant colony.

The sharp clack of the bamboo panel jarred him out of his reverie. Opening his eyes in time to see an old, stick thin man, walk into the room. He was dark skinned like the Kaff farmers who toiled in the tropical sun and looked to be well into his later years. Yet his face expressed a harsh, serpentine nature, accented by a long groomed mustache that reached down to the middle of his chest. Behind him, a monstrously large, shirtless native followed.

“Your services are no longer needed,” said the old man, dismissing the girl with a glance. She gathered her possessions and made her way out of the room. The entire time her eyes were fixed firmly on the ground avoiding his gaze.

Valan tried to focus. His mind was still scattered by the drug. He sat up and tried blinking away his blurry vision. He had no idea who these two were but being caught shirtless in a pleasure house by two dangerous looking men was never a good thing.

“I was just about to start enjoying myself,” he said and stood up.

The big man’s fist caught him right in the mouth, sending him sprawling onto the floor. He tasted blood and for a moment felt like he was about to go unconscious.

“Sit down Master Valan, you are our honored guest,” said the old man standing over him. His voice sounded distant through the ringing pain in his head.

Cautiously Valan brought himself to his feet and faced the old man and his huge partner. “Do I know you gentlemen?” he asked, rubbing his jaw.

“No, but we know you Master Valan. You have been enjoying the services of Black Tiger’s many establishments these past few weeks and my employer wishes to assure the payment for your many transactions.”

Of course, this was about money he thought. These were nothing but local thugs here to shake him down for all the credit and goodwill he indulged in for the past few weeks.

“Listen, I haven’t the vaguest clue who this Black Tiger is but my word is my credit. I’m the sixth Marquess of Lahnsted,” he said, mustering the most official tone he was capable of.

The old man gave him a crooked smile revealing a row of rotten teeth. “Black Tiger knows about your unfortunate circumstance, that you are disgraced, landless, and exiled. Black Tiger is understanding, but perhaps men in your situation should not enjoy such lavish pleasures.”

The conversation was getting tiresome. Somehow he had to talk his way out of this situation because shirtless and intoxicated he stood no chance fighting these two.

“If this Black Tiger, whoever he is, knows I have no money, what exactly are you doing here besides wasting my time?”

Another brutal fist connected, knocking the air from his lungs. Several more brought him down to his knees. He desperately tried to protect himself but the large man’s strength and the drug haze made his efforts useless. The brute easily overpowered him, pinning him down with his body and forcing his head into the ground. Clearly outmatched Valan submitted.

“Master Valan,” the old man continued, “you have until the end of the week to come up with sufficient payment. If you fail to reduce your substantial debt we will work out a suitable payment plan. Unfortunately, we can guarantee that you will not find those arrangements pleasurable.”

The brute’s weight on top of him was oppressive. He couldn’t take a breath to offer a reply. His mind raced, trying to make sense of the situation but the effects of the smoke left him unable to form a coherent thought. His vision blurred and went dark as he went unconscious.

~

ValanÕs head throbbed and his body ached as he got up from the puddle of vomit he was laying in. Looking around he realized he spent the better part of the night unconscious in the garbage pile behind the pleasure house.

“Looks like you had a rough night Sir,” Bartholomeus said. The big man, dark skin made darker by his tattoos, leaned in offering to help Valan steady himself.

“How did you find me?”

“I always find you in some gutter after a long night.”

Bartholomeus was not the most traditional of servants but he was honest and loyal. Valan found his forward demeanor and soft-spoken honesty refreshing. Besides, the fact that he was a beast of a man with a penchant for effortless violence came in quite handy in numerous situations.

“We happen to be in quite a predicament,” Valan said retrieving his crusty shirt from the garbage pile. “It seems our credit has run dry in Angkasa.”

Walking through the early morning streets Valan filled him in on the previous night’s events. The first light of the sun illuminated the narrow unpaved streets of Angkasas port district. Everywhere they looked peasant Kaff farmers were bringing heavy loads of product, tightly bundled on their backs, towards the trading houses. The Kaff grew in the deep jungle of Angkasa. A tough tropical crop native to the islands, grown by the locals and traded to the company merchant houses. The ripe Kaff was dried and roasted, then sailed back to the empire to be sold for exuberant profit.

“Where are we going to get the money to pay off our debts?” asked Bartholomeus.

“You mean me, you don’t owe anything.”

“I’m your partner, we are a team.”

The enthusiastic loyalty always amazed Valan. He was penniless, an exile wasting his days in pleasure houses and taverns, worlds away from his home but he somehow managed the loyalty of a good man like Bartholomeus. A not insignificant part of him felt unworthy.

Reaching the main wharf they made their way through the already busy docks. Company marines stood guard with rifles watching sailors and workers while they loaded heavy bundles of Kaff onto the company ships. Even at this early hour, Angkasa was busy with commerce. Merchants were haggling with fishermen over the morning catch. Native women were bringing baskets of jungle fruit for sale. The smell of the many exotic spices blended with the salty smell of morning sea was an intoxicating fragrance unique to Angkasa.

Valan led them to a small Kaff shop overlooking the bay. The place catered to colonial merchants and other foreigners. Inside the shop, it smelled like sweet roasted Kaff, spice, and cacao. They grabbed a table and ordered two mugs of the roasted Kaff from the old man behind the counter. Luckily word of his financial situation did not spread beyond the pleasure houses.

“We need to come up with a plan,” he said, taking a sip of his hot drink.

“Let’s run. Take a ship to another colony.”

Taking a ship off Angkasa was an option Valan considered. Unfortunately, he had no money to pay for even the shortest trip and no discernible talent to barter as payment.

“We could,” he said, “but I don’t think we can scam our way onto a ship in the next few days.”

The bitter spiced Kaff warmed him. It calmed his nerves and eased the pain from last night’s beating. No wonder Kaff was such a valuable commodity, it was an amazing substance. The Empire had several colonies devoted to growing the Kaff that flourished only in hostile jungles. Hundreds of company ships filled with the valuable bean made the perilous journey. Fulfilling the ravenous demand and making the company merchants extremely wealthy.

“Don’t worry friend, I will think of something to get us out of this,” he said taking another sip.

Valans thought was interrupted when a group of company sailors walked into the small shop. To his displeasure, they were led by Captain Henrick. Henrick was a successful young lord given command of several company ships due to his ambitious nature, charming personality, and significant family wealth. He was a driven and responsible man, quite the opposite of Valan.

“Master Valan, you look like you spent the night sleeping in an outhouse,” Henrik said.

“Alley actually,” replied Valan raising his mug.

Henrick was wearing the formal uniform of a company captain. Powdered wig, blue overcoat trimmed with gold, and a ceremonial sword hanging from his waist. He held his feathered hat and ordered mugs of Kaff for his equally sharply attired men.

“Look Bartholomeus, Henrik is making his crew practice for a dress up parade.”

“Actually, I am wearing formal attire because tonight I will be attending the ball at the Governor’s Plantation. It is my duty as the ranking company representative to attend.” Henrik took the Kaff he ordered and led his men towards the back of the shop, away from Valans table.

“The Governors ball, how could I forget,” said Valan.

“Well, you did enjoy a lot of local entertainment. It takes its toll.”

Governor Jansen, one of the wealthiest men in the colonies owned a massive plantation outside the port city. Due to his control of the Kaff trade, he wielded immense power and styled himself an imperial lord over Angkasa. Proud of his status and eager to display his wealth he was known to host lavish parties, inviting company officers, merchants, and dignitaries from the Empire.

“I think I have a plan,” he said smiling.

“We’re going to work for the governor?” asked Bartholomeus finishing his drink.

“No, we are going to rob him.”

~

“Presenting the Honorable and Distinguished Lord Valantijn, Sixth Marquess of Lahnsted,” Bartholomeus announced holding open the flimsy door of the rickshaw that brought them to the Governors Estate.

Valan stepped out into the sticky jungle night. He was wearing his finest outfit, dark leather overcoat, ruffled sleeves, and tall boots. His blond hair, well combed and powdered, held up by a velvet bow. A ceremonial dueling rapier hung from his belt. Sweat was already forming into heavy beads across his brow. He casually patted his overcoat feeling the familiar outline of his prized dueling pistols, readied with flint and shot in case of an emergency.

“You look like a true Imperial Lord,” said Bartholomeus.

“I am one, well at least I was one.”

The Governor’s plantation sat perched above the port city, carved out of the wild jungle that dominated the rest of the island. The massive colonial house was surrounded by a garden filled with lush tropical trees, hanging vines, and a multitude of colorful flowers. The garden was the Governor’s pride. He delighted in showing of his wealth to every visiting merchant and Imperial dignitary.

Tonight the garden was filled with revelers. Colonial women dressed in the extravagant Empire fashion chatted among the vines while sipping from crystal glasses. Their pale faces and high powdered wigs a stark contrast to the dark-skinned locals dutifully standing by to serve drinks.

Valan leaned in whispering to Bartholomeus, “Go work amongst the servants. Mingle, find out anything that might be of use to us. I’m going to get myself a drink.”

He grabbed a crystal of wine from a passing servant and began to stroll through the garden. Even at night the humid jungle heat was oppressive and did not agree with current fashion. All of the ladies, dressed in their massive layered gowns were drenched in sweat. Yet they dutifully pretended to be enjoying themselves. The gentlemen appeared even more miserable in their heavy overcoats.

Valan made his rounds, moving between groups of revelers making small talk. Most of them were new money colonials. Company merchants who made their fortunes on the Kaff trade. Important in Angkasa but considered uppity back in the Empire. The conversation consisted of ship schedules, market prices, and rumors of revolts from distant colonies.

Making his way through the garden, he came across a small marble stage covered in flowering vines. Two beautiful Angk women were performing some sort of traditional dance. Their bodies moved rhythmically while a third woman sat cross-legged, chanting a guttural, melancholy song. In each hand, the dancing women balanced a fast spinning orb on long shoots of what appeared to polished bamboo. He stood watching, mesmerized by their precise, serpentine movements.

“Beautiful isn’t it?” a voice behind him whispered.

Turning around he came face to face with a stunning dark haired woman. She wore a dress styled in the simple local fashion and her long hair hung down past her shoulders. But it was her necklace that grabbed Valan’s attention. A large, coal-black, gem of exquisite quality perfectly held by a silver chain. A piece of jewelry of this caliber was easily worth enough gold to buy several trips off this island, if not a ship itself.

“Lord Valan Marquess of Lahnstad,” he said, giving her a small bow.

“Lady Arabella Jansen.”

Valan somewhat remembered mention that the Governor had a daughter but he never imagined her to be a gorgeous young woman. He pictured her one of the overfed, crass colonial women who fancied themselves royalty and mistreated the locals. Arabella was nothing like them. Immediately something about her stood out as different. Her dark eyes, her tanned skin, unlike the other women she looked like she belonged here on Angkasa.

“Are you enjoying my father’s party Lord Valan?”

“It’s fine. Honestly, I’m not one for heartfelt conversation about trade regulations.”

“I find the whole thing dreadfully boring. My father likes to pretend he’s important by entertaining every company nobody that passes through.”

“Your father is important,” Valan said, interested in the conversation. “He’s the Governor of one of the Empires most profitable colonies.”

Arabellas gaze turned towards the dancers. “My father has no real power, the company runs this island. He is just a figurehead here to entertain, no different than the native servants.”

The chanting woman’s song became louder. The dancer’s movements more intense and frenetic. Suddenly the spinning orbs they balanced began shining brighter than torches. The orb light had an organic quality that reminded Valan of the fire beetles he used to chase as a child. He had no idea what trick they used to make the illumination but it was flawlessly performed.

“Khat-En orb dancer,” said Arabella, answering his unspoken question. “It’s jungle magic, practiced by the local women. My mother was the best orb dancer on Angkasa.”

“Your mother, she learned from the natives?”

“She was a native. My father took a native servant for a wife.”

Of course, he thought. This explained her exotic looks. His instincts were right, unlike the other women she did belong on Angkasa. This revelation made her even more desirable.

“So how long do these parties last,” he asked.

“Until everybody gets disgustingly gorged on food and completely pissed drunk on wine.”

Valan gulped his remaining wine and tossed the empty glass over his shoulder. “Well, looks like I have a bit of eating and drinking to do. But I keep getting distracted from my task by all the beauty surrounding me.”

“You won’t find any real beauty here in this garden. The true beauty is out in the jungle where the Kaff trees grow.”

“I have never been out there, maybe one day.”

“Maybe one day I can take you myself,” she said smiling.

Valan stood still, looking into her eyes. They were dark like her hair and reminded him of a wild animal. He wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of the night with her. She was intoxicating. But, he remembered his purpose. He needed to find something of value. Something to steal worth enough gold to pay off his debt and get himself and Bartholomeus off this island.

The silence was broken when Captain Henrik walked up holding two filled glasses. “Lady Arabella, I brought you a drink,” he said, handing her the glass.

“Henrik, thank you. It’s been so long. I heard your ship was in port and hoped you would visit me tonight,” she said and leaned in to give him a hug.

Valan stiffened up and casually straightened the lapels on his coat. Of course, he thought, finally he comes across an interesting woman who wasn’t a complete bore and she ends up somehow involved with an idiot like Henrik. Either way, the whole point of being here tonight was to rob her father, so any long term engagement would have been strictly hypothetical.

“Well, I will leave the two of you alone,” he said, giving Arabella a small bow and ignoring Henrik.

“Oh no Lord Valan, please stay,” she said. “Have you met Captain Henrik?”

“Of course. Who hasn’t heard of Captain Henrik. Our friendship goes back before coming to the colonies,” he said, grinning.

“You are not my friend,” Henrik exploded, unable to hide his irritation. “You are nothing but a debased vagrant, a disgrace to your now meaningless title.”

“I rather be a vagrant than a cheap imperial whore selling herself to the highest bidder for…”

Before Valan finished, Henrik red-faced, lunged and grabbed him by the neck. “I’m going to kill you!” he spat.

With a well-practiced motion, he reached into his coat and pulled out one of his dueling pistols, shoving the barrel between Henrik’s ribs.

“Are you now Henrik,” he said, attempting a smile. Hopefully, the idiot would fall for the bluff, swallow his pride, and back off. While the idea of shooting an asshole like Henrik was attractive. Killing somebody at the Governor’s party, in front of the Governors daughter, would definitely get in the way of actually robbing the Governor.

“Enough,” said Arabella, “displays of male bravado bore me.”

Her calm, commanding demeanor caught him by surprise. He lowered his pistol and relaxed his stance.

“The two of you can continue this nonsense some other time.”

“My greatest apologies Lady Arabella. I don’t know what got into me,” said Henrik. He stepped back and began to nervously adjust his uniform.

Valan bowed excusing himself. He needed to get out of this situation. It was time to regain his bearings, get some loot, and get off this forsaken island.

~

Valan spent several hours conversing with other guests, eating food, and trying his best to stay sober. Sometime in the night Governor Jensen came out and gave a short speech welcoming everybody, toasting the Empire, and wishing prosperity to the Kaff trade.

Wearing a newly acquired servant uniform, Bartholomeus approached Valan with a silver platter loaded with wine glasses.

“Wine sir?”

“What’s the deal?” whispered Valan, as he took a glass off the tray.

“The Governor’s bedchamber is on the second floor, facing the jungle. The window is left unlocked and wide open. I walked around and noticed that thick vines cover that side of the house. You should have no trouble climbing right in. Once inside there should be a large vanity filled with jewelry that used to belong to his wife.”

“Guards, servants?”

“The servants were ordered to avoid the second floor in order to allow discrete rendezvous between the guests.”

“Excellent. Give me half hour. I will go in, grab whatever I can get my hands on, then make my way to the far edge of the garden.”

Valan staggered through the party, taking the time to smile and engage several groups of revelers in simple banter before excusing himself. By this time the party was winding down and most of the servants were focused on keeping the inebriated guests happy. It was easy for him to slip unseen towards the back of the estate.

He walked slowly, making sure that he didn’t attract any attention. Once he made his way around to the back end of the house he was alone. Above him, on the second floor, he saw the large double windows, wide open, and conveniently crawling with vine just like Bartholomeus described.

Right as he was about to start the climb he heard a pair of whispering voices making their way towards him. He dropped down, rolling underneath a large tropical hedge.

“I will see you soon my love,” said a voice he recognized as Henrick’s. Followed by a soft feminine reply that had to belong to Arabella. He held his breath and held his body frozen until he felt sure they were out of sight before he rolled from underneath the hedge.

The second floor of the estate was dark, no light shone in any of the windows. He put on his tough climbing gloves and started making his way up the side of the house. Climbing the thick jungle vines was easy and when he reached the opened window he rolled inside taking care to make no sound.

He stood motionless, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dark. The room was spacious, its walls decorated with tall framed paintings that he could not make out in the sparse light. Dominating the room was a massive bed canopied with soft fabric, intended to keep the insects at bay. To the right of the bed, he saw his target, a large hand crafted vanity.

He took several slow, deliberate steps. His soft boots silent across the carpeted floor. Reaching the vanity he saw what looked like a lady’s jewelry box. If it held anything comparable to Arabella’s necklace he could easily pay his debt and get off this island.

Feeling uneasy he scanned the room one more time. The moonlight coming through the window illuminated a bit of the bed allowing him to see a bare foot sticking out from beneath the bed covering. Valan froze. His heart pounded in his chest. The Governor was asleep in the bed and he was standing less than three feet away.

He gently raised the lid on the box, keeping one eye on the sleeping figure. No movement. No sound. The old man was a deep sleeper. The jewelry box was full of necklaces, rings, hair pins, and a large brooch. He grabbed a handful and shoved it into his coat pocket, not worrying about the value.

Suddenly behind him he heard the metal latch clanking. Somebody was trying to open the bedroom door. Instinctively he dropped to the ground and rolled underneath the large bed. The door opened and light poured in for a few seconds then the intruder stumbled in and closed the door.

“Arabella,” slurred a heavily inebriated Henrik, “I’m here..”

From underneath the bed, Valan could see Henrik’s expensive boots as he shuffled around the room. The idiot was fumbling in the dark. Then he saw his coat and shirt drop onto the ground. Henrik was undressing.

Valan regretted not shooting him earlier. He was going to wake the Governor and bring down the entire household. Some servant was going to find him hiding under the bed and the entire plan would be ruined. Even his tenuous noble status could not save him from the noose if he was caught with his pockets filled with stolen jewelry.

He had to make a decision. Come out from underneath the bed, overpower Henrik, and make his way out the window to safety. Or, stay put and hope that the idiot would realize he walked into the wrong room and get out before waking up the Governor.

He put his palms flat on the ground. Tensed his muscles, and prepared to roll out. He would spring to his feet and hopefully take Henrik by surprise.

Right as he was about to put his plan into action the large door slammed open and light poured in. He froze, every muscle in his body wound up. Sweat ran down the side of his face. This was it. Hopefully, Bartholomeus would get away to safety.

“Henrik!” he heard Arabella. “What are you doing in here?”

Valan watched her walk closer to the bed. She wasn’t alone, coming in behind her he saw the heavy boots of two guards.

“Ummmm you,” muttered Henrik.

“Father, wake up.”

He felt the mattress above him move and compress as she put her weight on it.

Without warning, Arabella threw herself off the bed screaming.

“Murdered!” a servant shouted.

“You murdered my father!” she wailed.

The room erupted into chaos. Servants poured in, shouting, and screeching. Guards surrounded Henrik who put up no resistance.

“You and the Company plotted and murdered my father so you could take control of the Kaff production,” she said. “He always warned me about your treachery.”

“No, no, not true,” Henrik mumbled.

“Take the murderer downstairs. Have the guards arrest the rest of his crew and any company conspirators.”

Valan waited motionless, shocked by the unexpected turn of events. The guards exited the chamber, Henrik in their possession and Arabella followed right behind. He needed to get out of here and find Bartholomeus. If anybody discovered that he was underneath the slain Governors bed he would quickly overtake Henrik as the prime murder suspect.

A quick roll followed by a swift jump and he was up on his feet. The room was now well lit by several oil lamps. He saw the Governor, splayed across the bed. His face contorted in a permanent expression of shock. His throat slit from ear to ear.

Valan stepped over the pile of blood-soaked blanket and made his way to the vanity. He intended to close the jewelry box and hide any sign of his robbery when he noticed an ornate dagger next to it. He must have missed it in the dark. He picked it up and examined the sharp blade. It was covered in dried blood. This had to be the murder weapon. It was unique, finely crafted with a hilt carved to resemble a tiger.

He put the dagger back down, then checked one more time for any trace of his presence. Satisfied, he made his way out the window and down the vine. The garden behind the house was still, no sign of servants or guards. Silently he began making his way towards the meeting spot.

~

Valan found Bartholomeus at the agreed upon spot. He was creeping behind a spiny bush that did a horrible job of hiding his lumbering frame. He was holding a large bowl in one hand and shoveling the contents into his mouth with the other.

“We have a problem,” said Valan walking up. “Somebody murdered the Governor.”

“It was Henrik, they already captured him.”

“No. Henrik is an idiot but he did not commit this murder.”

“How do you know?” Bartholomeus asked shoving a mouthful of the rice gruel into his mouth.

“I don’t know who is responsible but it wasn’t Henrik,” said Valan. He dug around his coat pockets and grabbed a handful of the looted jewelry. “Whoever killed him did it before I broke into the house and snatched our prize.”

Bartholomeus put his bowl of food down and palmed the bundle of treasure. “Is this enough to pay the debt?”

“Should be enough with plenty left over for us to hire a ship off this island.”

They walked back around to the front of the house. The party had disbanded. Servants were tearing down decorations and cleaning up after the long night. Colonial soldiers swarmed the garden, sharply dressed and carrying muskets. Several of them appeared to be taking guests into the house. Valan had no desire to get detained, or worse questioned, so he urged Bartholomeus on.

The wrought iron gate leading to the road to Angkasa was wide open. Two soldiers stood guard. One of them was having what appeared to be an intense conversation with an old servant dressed in local garb, his face hid behind a wide brimmed jungle hat.

“Good evening sirs,” said Valan, bowing politely.

“Where are you two going?” said the fatter of the two. “Order from the Governor say nobody goes in or out.”

“Listen, I’m a great friend of the Governor,” smiled Valan, “and this is my man servant. We have important business to attend to back in town, so we must hastily depart.”

The other soldier broke from his discussion with the local and walked up, facing Valan. He was a hideously ugly man, with a nose that must have met the wrong end of a fist numerous times, and a mouthful of the most rotten teeth Valan ever saw.

The soldier looked Valan over, then stuck his palm out smiling. “Can you prove that you are friends of our Gov? Maybe if you showed me some proof.”

Valan frowned. Of course, he thought, this whole colony was filled with extortionist thugs. “Let me guess,” he said reaching into his coat. His fingers wrapped around the smooth butt of his pistol. He considered it. But the loud gunshot would bring every soldier and servant down on them. Instead of the pistol he palmed a ring from the bundle of loot and handed it to the soldier. “This should be all the proof you need.”

The soldier examined the ring grinning, a bead of spittle pooled at the corner of his mouth. Finally satisfied with his appraisal he waved them along. His fat companion began laughing like a dimwit. Valan guessed that the value of the ring was easily worth at least a years pay.

As he walked away he took one last look at the pair. He wanted to make sure that he would remember their faces in case he ran across them again. That’s when he noticed the old servant again. Something about the old man was familiar. He picked up his pace and caught up with Bartholomeus who was already on his way down the road.

“I know that old servant.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah. That’s the bastard that shook me down in the pleasure house last night. I didn’t recognize him at first because I was hazy from the smoke but I will put my honor on the line that it’s the same crook.”

Thinking over the events of the night he remembered the tiger motif on the dagger used to kill the Governor. “You know, I think that this Black Tiger had the Governor murdered.”

He quickly filled Bartholomeus in on the details of the night. What transpired in the bedroom, how he found the ornate dagger and his suspicions about the Black Tiger being behind the murder.

“It’s not exactly clear what’s going on here, but I think we should get off this island fast,” said Valan.

Bartholomeus stopped in the middle of the road. “We need to go back.”

“Are you insane?”

“If the Black Tiger murdered the Governor that means his daughter is in danger,” he said in his usual soft tone. “Also Henrik, he’s one of us after all.”

“I hate that guy.”

“But he’s not guilty of the crime.”

Valan considered the situation for a moment. Rescuing that idiot and Arabella could end up being a profitable endeavor. He would get a reward from her and be able to rub it in Henrik’s face for the foreseeable future. Also, if he could prove that the Black Tiger was behind the murder he might be able to get him out of the picture, allowing him to keep the profits from the stolen jewelry.

“Alright, I’m sold. We go back, find Arabella and explain the whole Black Tiger thing. Once she knows the truth, she has to release Henrik and reward us. Then we make the idiot give us safe passage off this island.”

~

Valan led the way back to the Governor’s Estate. He wasn’t sure if going back was the right choice, but it was a chance at getting out of debt and finally getting off this island.

“Ready friend?” he asked Bartholomeus as they approached the gate.

The two soldiers were still guarding the gate. The fat one stood leaning on his musket, swilling drink from a rusty flask. The other, started towards them, his smile exposing his rotten teeth.

“You two,” he said barring their way, “it’s going to cost you to come back through.”

Valan reached into his coat, pulled out his readied pistol, and pulled the trigger. The hammer came down, sparked, and fired hot shrapnel into the soldiers left knee.

Taking the cue Bartholomeus rushed the fat one, smashing his face with a rock. The soldier collapsed onto the ground in a bloody mess.

The shot soldier writhed and cried, pouring blood from his wound. Valan bent over, held him down, and searched the pockets of his dirty uniform, fishing out the ring he handed over earlier. Getting a hot ball of lead to the leg isn’t a pleasant experience, he thought, but if the man got himself to a local doctor in time he might prevent infection.

“Got it,” he said, admiring the topaz stone for a moment.

Valan put the spent pistol back in the coat and pulled out its twin, making sure it was loaded and ready. He walked over to where Bartholomeus was standing and grabbed the unused musket lying on the ground. It was a well made colonial long arm, suited for the rough conditions of the jungle. The satchel around the soldier’s waist held several paper cartridges filled with shot and powder. “Take this, use it to watch our backs,” he said, handing Bartholomeus the readied weapon.

They made their way into the garden, crouching low and keeping to the shadows. Valan held the readied pistol in his left hand, his right rested on his sheathed rapier. Behind, the massive Bartholomeus tried to keep a low profile, crouching, musket in hand. The garden was dark, all of the torches extinguished. In the darkness, Valan did not see any servants or soldiers. Ahead, he saw that the manor was equally dark. “Something’s wrong,” he whispered, as they approached the entrance.

Valan tried the main door and found it unlocked. He pushed it open revealing a poorly lit hallway. The house appeared empty, no sign of life. Arabella could have dismissed the servants for the night he thought, but that would have been an unusual act considering the circumstances.

“Did you hear that?” whispered Bartholomeus.

Valan shook his head.

“Listen.”

Holding his breath and opening his mouth he tried to focus his hearing. Several seconds he heard nothing but the strains of the old house reacting to the jungle moisture. Right as he was about to give up he heard several muffled screams from below. “There has to be a cellar beneath us.”

After a bit of searching, they came across a set of stairs. Valan led the way down into a large cellar. It was filled from floor to ceiling with wine barrels and sacks of Kaff beans. The air was cool and dry and smelled of sweet spice.

From the back of the cellar, behind a row of stacked barrels, Valan heard several voices, one of them sounded distressed. He checked his pistol and nodded to Bartholomeus.

“Tomorrow you will confess your crime,” said a voice in a thick local accent. “You will admit that you murdered the Governor on the orders of the company…”

Valan came around the corner pistol ready. He saw Henrik, bloodied and beat, tied to a wooden chair. Standing over him was the old, serpentine man and his large companion from the pleasure house. He raised his pistol aiming at the old bastard. What extortion this Black Tiger was committing was going to end now.

“Master Valan, welcome!” said the old man without turning around.

Valan pulled the trigger. Quicker than his mind could register, the old man threw his body aside. The shot missed, going above Henrik’s head and splintered into a barrel, showering everyone in dark wine.

The shirtless native charged, brutal fists ready for violence. Unlike the last time in the pleasure house, Valan was sober. He tossed the spent pistol and rolled away before the brute got on top of him. Unable to stop the momentum of his charge the goon went over Valan and collided teeth first into the readied stock of Bartholomeus’ musket.

Back on his feet, Valan drew his rapier and faced the old man. “I’m here to pay my debt to Black Tiger.”

The old man looked him over. His face expressionless. “You can do it in person Master Valan,” he said, gesturing towards the cellar stairs.

Valan turned around to see Arabella holding two readied pistols. One was pointed at Bartholomeus who was gently placing his musket on the ground. The other was pointed at him.

“Master Valan, you owe me quite a bit of money,” she said.

“They killed your father, it wasn’t Henrik,” he blurted out, not yet grasping the situation.

“I killed my father,” she said and motioned towards the old man, who silently followed the order, grabbing some rope in order to bind their hands.

Valan put down his rapier. “I don’t understand what’s going on here, and honestly I don’t care. Bartholomeus and I have nothing to do with any of this.”

“My father was a tool of the company, but I understand where the real power lies. In the Kaff, in the jungle. With Henrik’s confession exposing the company, proving them to be murderers, the colonials will follow me in becoming an independent state. We will be free of the Empire and parasites like you.”

“I don’t give a damn about the empire,” he said as the old man began to bind his hands behind his back.

“Oh, I know Master Valan. But I have plans for you and your friend,” she said turning away, “Take them to the temple.”

~

The old man led Valan, Bartholomeus, and Henrik out into the jungle night. They marched in a single file, hands tied behind their backs. In the rear, the big shirtless native carried the musket pointed at their backs.

The path took them through the plantation garden and out into the jungle proper. The night air was wet and sticky, filled with the constant buzz of predatory insects. The deeper they went into the canopy the more oppressive it felt. Valan could not banish the constant feeling that they were being watched.

He looked up at Bartholomeus who was walking silently in front. “Hey, this is what I get for humoring your sense of honor.”

“Nobody asked you to come for me,” coughed Henrik from behind, “I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“You never even came because of me, you most likely wanted to impress Arabella or rob the place.”

“Impress Arabella,” laughed Valan, “you mean like walking into her father’s chamber all excited like a giddy school boy.

“I was set up! She told me to meet her there.”

“You’re still an idiot.”

The serpentine old man whipped around. “Silence!” he yelled. At that instant, Bartholomeus tripped and fell face first over some tangled roots and vines. “Clumsy idiot! Get up before we shoot you.” He walked over and pulled him up. “If any of you talks or falls down again we are going to leave you bound in the jungle to be eaten by beasts.”

They marched in silence, their only light a small flickering torch carried by the old man. Around them, Valan heard the bestial screams of the jungle, his mind imagining the malevolent forces that dwelt in the dark. After what seemed like hours they reached a rope bridge suspended across a dark ravine. On the other side, Valan saw the massive shape of a step pyramid jutting out of the jungle canopy. Thick vines enveloped its base, snaking up the central stairway that led up to a torch lit platform. The architecture was nothing like anything Valan had ever seen. It felt ancient and sinister.

Crossing the swaying bridge, Valan tried to see how deep the ravine was, but the bottom was obscured by darkness. The closer they got to the pyramid the worse Valan felt. This is not what he expected. He figured they would be held for ransom, or sold to slavers. Something else was going on here. For the first time tonight he started to worry.

“What in the god’s name is this place?” whispered Henrik, his usually confident voice faint.

“I have no idea, but it doesn’t look good for us.”

With the bridge behind them, the three prisoners stood at the base of the pyramid. The wide rough stairway was lit all the way to the top by torches. The old man and his brute ordered for them to continue up. Valan looked around, there was nowhere to run, and with his hands bound behind his back, there was no way he would stand a chance against the musket. Ahead, Bartholomeus climbed the steps in expressionless silence.

“Alright, I get it,” began Valan, “you guys have a crazy ancient temple you want to show us.”

“There is much you don’t know about Angkasa. Now hurry up!” said the old man.

The top of the pyramid was a flat platform, its center illuminated by a circle of torches mounted on bamboo shafts. The floor was covered in patches of damp moss and littered with debris. The light from the torches threw monstrous shadows across the surrounding jungle making it seem like every tree was covered in writhing dark creatures.

The shirtless brute led them to one of the corners and motioned for them to sit down. Valan started to sit slowly when the old man grabbed him.“Not you, Master Valan, you serve a different purpose. When our demonstration is over Captain Henrik will surely cooperate.” He tied a longer rope around Valan’s wrists and pulled him towards the center of the platform.

“When this freak show is over I’m going to kill you!” spat Valan.

“You will do no such thing,” he grinned and tied the longer rope to a metal hook sticking out of the stone at the center of the platform.

Valan struggled but the rope was strong and the hook did not budge. Each time he pulled pain shot through his shoulders as the knot tightened, pulling him closer to the ground. Inside the ring, the torchlight was intense making it difficult to see anything past the edge of the platform. All he could see was the other two prisoners on their knees, hands bound behind them. Bartholomeus was silent and composed. His eyes focused on Valan. Beside him, Henrik was slumped over, covered in sweat. His eyes darted in every direction reminding Valan of a frightened animal. The old man and the brute stood watch, musket ready.

Suddenly silence, as if the jungle took a deep breath and held it in. Valan could no longer hear the buzz of insects or the screeching of the night birds. Something unnatural was going on. His heart raced as fear began to edge in on his thoughts. He should have tried to escape earlier, should have gone for that musket. His arrogance got in the way of prudence and he underestimated the situation.

He heard a sharp scrape from the opposite end of the platform. Something was coming up the side of the pyramid. Valan struggled to see what it was but the shadows and bright light obscured his sight. The scraping sound came closer. He looked around, hoping to see something that might be useful. But, to his horror, he realized that what he earlier thought was rubble was actually bone. The platform was littered with human bones. He took a deep breath and prepared himself to face the unspeakable.

A massive black tiger came out of the shadows. It was twice the size of any tiger Valan had ever seen and the wrong color. Its fur was midnight blue with ink-dark stripes that gave it a monstrous appearance. Its paws were the size of a man’s head and with each step, its razor sharp claws scraped the stone floor.

It stood still gazing at Valan. Its eyes were pure darkness reflecting none of the torchlight, betraying a sinister intelligence beyond any natural beast. Valan met the tiger’s gaze and shivered with dread. He knew the beast wanted not only to devour him but to consume his very soul.

The beast roared and began to circle. Valan pulled on the rope harder, desperately tried to slip his hands out of the tight knot. Nothing. The rope was tied well, all he managed to do was rub his wrists raw. The tiger stopped its pacing and crouched down. Valan began to panic, he was going to be eaten alive.

It pounced, launching itself through the air. Sharp claws flying at him. Less than a hands length from his face, Bartholomeus body collided with the beast mid-air, sending both of them rolling. A whirling mass of flesh and fur. Valan exhaled. Somehow Bartholomeus managed to get out of his bindings and rushed in at the last moment.

Across the platform, the shirtless brute raised his musket and tried to aim, but the tiger and Bartholomeus were intertwined. He pulled the trigger right as Henrik leaped up and rammed his head into his gut. The barrel kicked up and the shot discharged high into the jungle. Henrik’s blow and the recoil from the musket sent him sprawling onto his back. Not wasting a moment Henrik followed his initial attack with several vicious kicks pushing the brute over the side of the pyramid and to most certain death down in the ravine.

Valan closed his eyes and pulled on the rope. He felt the muscles in his shoulders tearing. The coarse rope around his wrist ripped at his flesh. He bared his teeth and struggled harder against the excruciating pain. Finally, one bloodied hand slipped free. He spun around, grabbed the longer rope with both hands and pulled with all his strength. The iron loop he was tied to shot out of the stone platform right as the old man approached, deadly dagger in hand.

He spun the rope above his head, iron loop whistling through the air and smashing into the side of the old man’s head. Valan dropped the rope and leaped on top of him, smashing his fists into what remained of the man’s face.

“Valan!” he heard Henrik yell, “Behind you!”

Turning around, he saw the tiger on top of Bartholomeus. The beast was tearing chunks of flesh from his arms and chest. Blood was everywhere. He had to do something quick or his friend was going to lose the struggle.

He grabbed one of the bamboo torches and charged the tiger flame forward, spearing it right in its face. The beast let out a painful roar as it rolled away, its face covered with flaming torch oil.

Bartholomeus lay in a bloody heap, but he was still breathing. Henrik ran up to them after freeing himself using the old man’s dagger. He was shaken but unhurt.

“Get him out of here,” Valan told Henrik and turned to face the tiger.

The tiger’s face was badly burned. Its remaining eye fixed on him with a dark intensity. Valan slashed and jabbed with the torch. Each time he got close the tiger dodged out of the way and continued to circle. They danced in this fashion for minutes. The tiger trying to break Valan’s perimeter after each thrust of the flame. Valan knew this was no regular jungle beast, it moved and reacted with a human intelligence.

He went for a deep thrust with the torch. It was a mistake. The tiger seemed to anticipate the move and slashed the bamboo torch out of his hand. It leapt at him, digging its sharp claws into his shoulders and bringing him down. Its massive body pinned him onto the ground digging its claws deeper.

The pain was excruciating. The beast’s claws burned his flesh. It took all of his will to remain conscious. He looked up at the tiger’s open mouth and saw its dagger-sharp teeth dripping with saliva. He prepared himself for the end. That’s when he noticed what appeared to be a silver chain holding a coal black gem around the beast’s neck.

With his remaining strength he forced his head forward and bit the chain, jerking his head back he ripped it off the tiger’s neck. The gem flew across the platform and bounced off the edge. The tiger reared up on its hind legs, giving off a hideous roar. It rolled onto its side and began violently writhing on the ground making unnatural noises.

The pyramid shook and the jungle exploded with sound. The screeching of monkeys, birds, and other creatures was deafening. Whatever dark magic silenced them was no longer in control.

Valan could barely move. His vision was red with blood. He forced himself up, right as the stone beneath his feet began to shake and crumble. He ran. Pushing himself as fast as possible down the pyramid steps and across the rickety rope bridge.

Safe on the other side his legs gave out and he collapsed. Across the ravine, the pyramid was falling onto itself. His head spun, and he began slipping into darkness. The last thing he saw was the shape of a naked woman that looked just like Arabella.

~

Several days later the three of them stood on the deck of The Princess Eliza, Henrik’s flagship.

“Thank you for coming back to get me,” said Valan. He took a sip of wine out of his flask and raised it to his friends. After he lost consciousness at the edge of the ravine, Henrik managed to drag him out of the Jungle all the way back to the city. Once safe, he gathered his crew and quickly set sail without looking back.

“The two of you came back to rescue me,” said Henrik, taking the flask.

“You can thank Bartholomeus for that. I wanted to leave you.”

Bartholomeus nodded and raised the flask.

“Well, once I drop you off at the nearest port we will be even.”

“Not so fast. If what I saw wasn’t pain-induced delirium, that vile sorceress Arabella is still alive. That means that the colonial authorities still think you’re a murderer. You might need our help.”

Henrik nodded and walked away. A small part of Valan enjoyed the fact that both of them were now disgraced outlaws. But, he had to admit that for all his faults Henrik acted honorably back in the Jungle.

“So old friend, what do we do now?” he said, elbowing Bartholomeus.

“Knowing you, booze, smoke, and some filthy pleasure house.”

***

“A Tiger in the Garden” copyright © Alexandru Constantin

Alexandru Constantin is currently an active duty U.S. Navy Corpsman living in Japan. When he is not busy taking care of Marines and Sailors or adventuring with his amazing wife, he writes action packed Science Fiction and Fantasy. Check him out at BarbarianBookClub.com

The Monster Without

by Julie Frost

Nursing my second triple rum and Coke, I slouched at the bar in Chillin’ Out, my go-to nightspot after a rough job. My claws moved in and out on the surface and left more scratches in the already-scarred wood. Rob, the bartender, lifted an eyebrow, and I made a conscious effort to put them away. My wolf was way too close to the surface for comfort. Thus, I drank.

“Bad day, Ben?” Rob asked, polishing a glass.

“Case gone wrong. Missing girl. Horrible outcome.” I knocked the drink back. “It’ll be on the news. Shawna Reilly.”

Rob wordlessly made me another, waiting until half of it was gone in one long swallow before he spoke again. “Should you be alone? Where’s your wife? Or your boss?”

Nice of him to care. My issues didn’t rear their heads as often as they used to, but this case resurrected memories from Afghanistan I thought I’d buried–comrades killed in front of me by insurgents with rusty knives, fishing for information I didn’t have and wouldn’t have given them if I did. One in particular paralleled this one, and now I was caught between a killing rage and a panic attack. I twisted my brand-new wedding ring around my finger. Grounding myself. The panic attack subsided, at least for now. The killing rage was harder to quell.

“Janni’s working.” My hand moved of its own accord to the handcuff scar on my wrist, and my thumb worked over it in a tic I’d never been able to quite shake off. “Pam’s home. Bottle of wine. Romantic comedy. Ugh.” Talking in fragments. Should stop that. Didn’t know if I could. Rum hit me. Finally.

A sultry blonde in a fire-engine red dress cut down to there and slit up to here sidled up and sat on the next stool. “Get me a Manhattan?” she said to Rob, then turned to me. “Hey, cutie, why so down?”

I lifted my head slowly and gave her a level stare. She was older than she appeared at first glance–over thirty, although she wore it well. “Dead girl.” My expression, I was sure, would have put a champion poker player to shame. “She was sixteen.”

She had the grace to flinch. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” I fisted my hand in my hair and hunched my shoulders, staring at the surface of the bar again. So much blood. I squeezed my eyes shut, and the image went away. For now. I wondered if I’d ever get the scent of it out of my nostrils and took another swallow of my drink. More alcohol might dull my senses.

“A case?”

I gave her a sideways look without moving my head.

She shrugged. “I heard you work for a private detective. And that you’re good at… problem-solving.”

I barked out a sound that only a psycho would have mistaken for a laugh. “Not tonight, I wasn’t.” Too late, too late, too late, ran the litany in my mind. If I’d just figured it all out five minutes faster, maybe the killer wouldn’t have gotten away. Maybe the girl would still be alive. Her body had still been warm.

“I also heard you’re a werewolf.” She nodded at my hand. Had I popped claws again? Yes, yes, I had. This day just kept getting better and better.

I drained my glass and set it down harder than I needed to. “What d’you want, lady? Very busy doing nothing right now. Would like to get back to it.” Longer fragments. Still, fragments. “Another, Rob.”

Rob’s mouth tightened. “Last one, Ben. And then I’m calling you a cab.”

Probably a good idea. Not because of the booze. But I didn’t like being cut off and bared a tooth that was longer and pointier than normal. Rob wasn’t fazed–he’d seen it before. He set the glass in front of me, and I glared at nothing in particular while I sipped it. Might as well take my time. I wasn’t ready to go home to an empty house; Janni would be working at her catering job for a couple more hours.

“I want you to kill someone for me.”

I’d forgotten about the blonde, and I twitched violently. Fur sprouted on my back under my t-shirt, but she had my full attention now. My lips twisted. Either this was the most inept sting in the history of ever, or she needed to be whacked upside the head with a cluebat. “And what makes you think I’m willing to kill someone for a total stranger? Or even a very good friend?”

“I saw you in here the other night, when that guy dragged his girlfriend out into the alley and started smacking her around. No one stood up for her but you. You made him wet his pants, and you never touched him.” She gestured. “And the guy had a good six inches and eighty pounds on you.”

Oh, that. I had an instant and visceral reaction to women being mistreated in front of me. “I only threatened him a little.” And let my wolf off the chain some at the same time. More than one person had described me as a baby seal–with my less-than-average height and slender build, I didn’t look like much.

But I could be a scary little bastard when I wanted, and I didn’t regret at all the guy’s need to change his jeans after I informed him that his behavior was unacceptable. Of course, White Knight Syndrome could be a bitch sometimes. “She didn’t appreciate it much.” In fact, she had heaped abuse on my head and yelled at me to mind my own business. “Why’s a nice girl like you looking for a hitman in a place like this?”

“I’m in somewhat of the same situation, and I can assure you that I’d be…” The blonde licked her lips, eyed me up and down, and smiled. “Very grateful.”

I snorted into my drink. “I’m quite married, and you’re not my type.” Tall, blonde, and murderous. Pass. “Making a guy piss himself isn’t even on the same planet as killing someone. Now go away, please. I’m really not in the mood.”

She raised her sleeve over her left bicep. My jaw clenched at the livid bruise circling her arm. “He did this to me when I tried to leave him, and said he’d do worse if I tried again.” A tear tracked down her face.

Crying women, God, give me strength… I thought. “How about I just throw a scare into him like I did that other guy? Because, you know, I sympathize and all, but I’m not into killing people.” Usually. I’d done my share during my stint in the Army, and a few months ago I’d killed a fellow werewolf with my bare fangs. But I still had nightmares about that, and I didn’t need more. My PTS-emphasis-on-the-D didn’t care how motivated I’d been.

“He doesn’t scare easily.” She paused. “He’s a movie producer. And a vampire.”

I rubbed the space between my eyes and swore. “Lady, I am not going to kill anyone, let alone a vampire movie producer. My wife is trying to break into the biz, and I’m pretty sure that would be colossally bad for her career.” The supernatural set had its own way of taking care of problems, but I had no desire to get mixed up in it, even with as little as I liked vampires at the best of times. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“That I wanted to stay beautiful forever,” she snapped back.

“You wanted him to turn–”

“I thought he’d be different for me. I thought he loved me.”

I stopped and remembered to breathe for a few seconds. “Just how stupid are you? First, you get involved with a vampire, and then, big surprise, when it’s not all sunshine and sparkles, you try and hire a werewolf to off him? Seriously, not my problem.” I’d just insulted her. I didn’t give a rat’s ass. She’d bought her coffin, and now she could sleep in it.

My salvation walked through the door in the form of a tiny African-American woman in black slacks and a white button-down shirt with a nametag pinned over the left front pocket, her riot of ringlets pulled back into a scrunchie. Janni took one look at the blonde and my expression and said, “Leave him alone.” The blonde opened her mouth to say something, but Janni lifted her lip over a wolf fang. “Walk away. Now.” The blonde stomped off.

Something inside my chest unclenched, and I leaned on my wife with my eyes closed, limp and shaking. Inhaling, melting into the scent of mate, and home. “The cavalry, and not a second too soon. I thought you had to work, honey.”

She enfolded me in her arms and kissed the top of my head. “Mama called. She said it was a bad one, so I begged off. We were nearly done anyway.” Marrying the boss’s daughter had some perks. “How many of those have you had?” she asked, jerking her chin toward my nearly-empty glass.

“Just four?” I decided not to mention how strong they were.

Rob spoiled that plan. “Four triples, Janni. I cut him off after this one.” Traitor.

“Werewolf constitution,” I mumbled half-heartedly. I drained it before she could stop me.

Janni’s arms tightened. “Let’s get you home, sweetie.”

I settled my tab and left a generous tip, because, in all honesty, Rob should have cut me off sooner. My legs wobbled on the way out, but not because of the booze. The image of the dead girl I was too late to save blazed across my vision. Handcuffed to an overhead bar. Whip marks on her bare back. Throat cut. Blood everywhere. Just like Afghanistan.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve never flashed that hard in front of your mom before.” I made a noise down in my throat. “Not my best day ever.”

“Shh. I know.”

Apparently the day wasn’t done with me yet. A tall, muscular, pissed-off guy in an open-necked maroon silk shirt and black leather pants accosted us in the parking lot. Bared fangs and clenched fists–great, a vampire, just what I needed. “I hear you were messing with my girlfriend,” he said, all aggression and testosterone.

“You have got to be shitting me.” I straightened and put myself between Janni and the vamp. I had some aggression of my own to vent. “Your girlfriend? The one in the red dress and the bruises?”

“I haven’t left a mark on her she didn’t want. So, step off.”

“Well, you know, maybe I would if she hadn’t come to me, crying, and asked me to kill you.” My lip curled. “I assume it’s you she wants dead.” Something about the guy was off…

He scoffed. “I don’t believe you.”

“Your funeral. For the record, I turned her down. But if you don’t let me go home peacefully, I may have second thoughts.” I set my feet. “I haven’t punched anyone today, and I really want to. So, make a choice. I’m tired and pissed off and you’re a convenient target.” Wait, his fangs were wrong. Uppers only, no lowers. He smelled wrong, too. Alive.

Before I had time to process what that meant, the guy snarled and swung. I dodged, grabbed the arm as it went by, and spin-slammed him into a lamppost with his hand twisted up between his shoulder blades. In the same motion, I drew the Micro Desert Eagle concealed in my front jeans pocket and rested the muzzle right behind the guy’s ear. “I am not,” I said, breathing hard between clenched teeth, “in the mood for this.”

“Don’t–” the man started, at the same time Janni said, very calmly, “Ben.”

“Are we done?” A frantic nod. “Good. Because I really don’t want to decorate this nice streetlight with the brains of a fake vampire with fang implants.” Hollywood, where anything was available, for a price. I pushed the guy’s arm a little higher, wringing a pained squeak out of him. “Next time, I might not show this much restraint.” Using my gun hand, I pulled him down by the ponytail so his ear was by my mouth. “Don’t let there be a next time.”

A shove, and he landed on his ass on the pavement. I holstered the gun in my pocket, turned, and walked away with Janni’s arm around my waist. “Sorry, honey,” I said.

“He started it,” she answered as we got into her car, parked next to my Jeep. “People really need to stop underestimating you. It never ends well for them.” I leaned the passenger seat back, turning sideways towards Janni and closing my eyes.

“Seat belt?” She started the car and clicked her own closed.

“Not tonight, honey.” Restraints at the best of times accelerated my breathing and heart rate. At the worst of times, they sent me into a full-blown panic attack, and when it got really bad, the flashbacks started. I’d already had one flashback tonight. I didn’t need another. “Don’t wreck.”

She put the car in gear and squeezed my leg. I covered her hand with mine, and she left it there. “Do my best.”

Janni got us home without mishap while I sat there and tried to remember how to breathe. I managed to zone out a little, and was startled when she shut the engine off. “Bed?” she asked.

I could barely move. “God, yes.”

Exhaustion didn’t stop me from screaming awake from a blood-soaked nightmare three hours later, drenched in sweat and half-wolfed. Janni wrapped around me, whispering soothing nothings. I buried my nose in her hair, but didn’t get any sleep for the rest of the night.

~

“Out of our hands? What do you mean? That was our case, Pam.” I slouched in my partner’s office the next morning, still ragged around the edges. I hadn’t even bothered to shave, still too stressed to take care of anything more than rudimentary grooming. And now this?

“The cops’ve got it.” Pamela Coughlin was from Texas, and her accent tended to thicken when she was upset. It was quite thick at the moment. “It’s a homicide and not our deal any more.”

“According to who?” I leaned forward and meshed my fingers behind my neck, resting my elbows on my knees. My teeth were clenched so tightly I could taste blood, and my wolf was way too close to the surface for comfort. It wouldn’t hurt Pam, because she was pack and my mate’s mom, but I really didn’t like wolfing in the office.

Pam came around her desk and knelt in front of me, pulling my head against her ample shoulder in a motherly hug. “Accordin’ to the family that hired us. I know it’s tough, baby boy, but you gotta let it go.”

I let out a huff at the endearment–I’d been in wars both in Afghanistan and right here in LA, and still bore mental and physical scars from both. I was no baby, and no one knew that better than she did. “Not sure I can.”

“You also gotta quit blamin’ yourself. No one else figured it out, not me, not the cops. You were the first, and you should hold onto that.”

“I just feel like I need to finish it, y’know? He’s still out there. And guys like that don’t stop at one.”

“Harin’ off on our own don’t pay the bills. But–” She leaned back and tilted up my chin. “If you wanna try and find him outside work hours, I ain’t gonna stop you or bust your chops over it.”

“Okay.” She was tossing me a bone, and I’d take it. Breathe. “Okay. What’s on the agenda, boss?” I still called her that, out of habit, even though she’d given me a partnership in the firm as a wedding present.

Routine things, it turned out, for which I was profoundly grateful. Catching a cheating spouse beat finding a corpse. The familiar clicking of the computer keys eased me, as I hacked into the client’s husband’s accounts and revealed where his money was going in all its incriminating glory.

The day was over almost before it started, and I only had to put my head between my knees a couple of times to stave off the memory of Shawna Reilly. I even managed to eat when Janni brought me a turkey sandwich laden with bacon and stayed the entire time to make sure it went into my stomach instead of the trash.

She picked me up after work, and we decided to make an evening of dinner, a movie, and drinks. She put on a little black dress, and I donned a pair of nice jeans, a clean Pink Floyd t-shirt, and a gray blazer, because dressing up was relative for me. Janni ruffled my hair and twisted a few curls around her fingers before we left, and I made a comment about needing a haircut. It was all wonderfully normal.

We found our usual booth at the Chillin’ Out after an action movie full of explosions and snark, and that’s when normal died a violent and ugly death. The bombshell from the previous night stalked through the door, saw us immediately, and clattered over in silver heels that matched the belt around her dress, which was electric blue tonight. She gestured at her face. A large bruise decorated her right eye, and her lip was cut. My heart froze against my ribcage. “Thanks a lot,” she spat.

Janni said something unladylike, while I tried to get my breath. The boyfriend had escalated to leaving visible marks. One thing to be too late to save someone I couldn’t even find. Quite another to have a woman in trouble, standing in front of me with a puffy eye and a swollen mouth, begging me to do something. Or berating me because I hadn’t. Same difference. The image of Shawna Reilly flashed across the screen of my closed eyelids, and a metallic taste filled my mouth.

“Ben.” Janni’s voice, anchoring me, bringing me back before I went to a very bad place. Her warm hands gripped my cold ones.

“I’m okay.” Which was a lie, but she knew it was a lie, so it wasn’t a lie. I cringed, thinking of Janni’s reaction, but said, “Lady, if you’ll quit yelling at me and have a seat, we’ll talk this over.” Sure enough, Janni inhaled sharply–but she didn’t argue. She knew all about my demons and why they haunted me.

The blonde sat down opposite us and ordered a drink. “Did you really tell him that I asked you to kill him?”

I squeezed my eyes shut. That had not been my most shining moment. “I was exhausted, half-drunk, and pissed off, and you dumped an unwanted crisis in my lap. You’re lucky I didn’t kill you.” Not that I would have, but she didn’t need to know that. “Look, what’s your name?”

“Chrystal. Chrystal Silvermoon. With an H.” Of course it was. I wanted to bang my forehead on the table but settled for taking a giant gulp of my drink. She continued, “You beat him up in the parking lot last night, and he took it out on me.”

“Maybe you need better taste in boyfriends,” Janni said acerbically. “No matter how upset he gets, Ben doesn’t take anything out on me.”

I squeezed her hand. Little and fierce, that was my girl. “Claws in, Hermia–it’s not her fault he hits her. You know how many abused women we get coming into the agency? Putting a hit out on the boyfriend is new, but lots of them are too scared to leave.” I waved my hand. “And you can see why. What’s his name?” I asked Chrystal.

“Steve Steegman.”

“Sounds like a porn producer.”

She looked at me.

My hand hit my face. “Good God, you’re kidding.”

“He’s over two hundred years old.” I snorted, and she tilted her head. “What?”

“No, he’s not. I got a real good look, not to mention sniff, of him last night. He’s as human as you are.”

“But the fangs–”

“Implants. I assume you’re sleeping with him?” She gave me a don’t-be-an-idiot look, and I continued, “Didn’t you notice that he was warm and had a heartbeat?”

“Well, yeah, but he told me–”

“He lied, Chrystal. Probably about a lot of things.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “Don’t lose your nerve,” she muttered, and gathered herself together. “Okay, but still. I want you to kill him. I don’t think he’s going to stop.”

“See, here’s the thing. I’m not a killer.” I raised a finger to forestall her objection. “‘Werewolf’ does not equate to ‘murderer,’ okay? It doesn’t. I’ve killed for the Army. I’ve killed in kill-or-be-killed situations. I’ve never stalked someone with the intention of slaughtering them in cold blood.”

“But this is kill or be killed,” Chrystal said. “I’m really scared.”

“And talking to me in a very public venue is helping you how?” I pointed out. “Look, I’m not saying I won’t help you. I can make you disappear so he won’t find you, get you someplace safe. And then I can have a chat with him while you’re holed up.”

“I don’t want to be running for the rest of my life.”

“You won’t be. Let me make some calls.” Maybe helping Chrystal would erase the image of Shawna Reilly from my retinas. Or at least make it fuzzier around the edges.

~

Pam didn’t have anything for me the next day, which was Sunday anyhow. I made sure Chrystal was comfortable in her safe house, then spent the morning bouncing lines at Janni for an audition she had the next day and gathering up the pages of the script that she threw across the room more than once. She had the lines down, but the delivery was giving her fits–which was a wonderful bit of “normal” in the chaos our lives had become. Not that I’d tell her she was adorable while she was snarling with frustration and sprouting fur on her shoulders.

Eventually, she had something she was happy with and wandered off to the kitchen to see about feeding us. I started hitting databases looking for information on Steegman. I didn’t take long to get a pretty good idea of his hangouts, where he liked to spend his money, and where he lived. And exactly the kind of son of a bitch he was.

Janni plopped a huge roast beef and bacon sandwich in front of me. “Luck?” she asked.

“Some. This guy never met a restraining order he obeyed. He’s left a laundry list of beaten women behind, but in the end, no one presses charges.” I set the sandwich down, suddenly not hungry. “Makes me wish I’d just wolfed and ripped his throat out the other night.”

“That’s not you,” Janni said.

“Well, maybe it should be. In fact, I know where he lives. I could do the deed, be in and out, no one the wiser, and then Chrystal’s problem would be solved and I wouldn’t have to keep looking over my shoulder.”

“Sweetie, no. He’s human, and you have to let the humans take care of him.” She wrapped an arm around me and kissed my temple. “As much as that grates. That being said, he’s a serial abuser. If you can take him down legally, then do it.” Her arm tightened. “The fact that you’re a good guy is a handicap in a situation like this. Just be careful.”

I swallowed. “I can do that.” I tried to relax. “But right now I’m going to the police station to hit up Spence for info on the Reilly case.”

“Okay. I’ve got a gig tonight with the catering company. You gonna be all right?”

“Sure. I’ve got things to do instead of sitting here brooding. Always a plus.” I kissed her soundly on the lips. “I’ll see you after work, honey.”

LA traffic was its usual mess, but forty-five minutes later I was sitting in front of the desk of Detective-Sergeant Spencer Winslow, the lead on the Reilly case. I’d brought coffee to lubricate the conversation. It hadn’t worked. “Come on, Spence, you have to give me something.”

“I really don’t, Ben.” Spence was big, black, and bald. He was a guy comfortable in his own skin, even as his muscles overtaxed his off-white dress shirt. We had an understanding. Most of the time. “You guys are off the case. It’s none of your business.”

“Considering the fact that I’m the one who found her, I kind of think it is.”

“Considering the fact that you’re the one who found her, you might be a suspect.” Off my we-both-know-better-than-that eyebrow, he relented. “Okay, maybe not. But I can get in trouble for giving you information not available to the general public.”

“Spence, I came to you and asked nice.” I leaned back and crossed my arms. “I could’ve just hacked in, and you know it. Give me what you’ve got, and I’ll give you what I find.” My lips tightened. “I’m not handcuffed by the same procedural bullshit you are.”

Spence blew a breath out. “You didn’t get it from me.”

“Course not. Spill.”

“You saw the crime scene.”

I swallowed hard. “Wish I hadn’t. Too many bad memories wrapped up in a thing like that.”

“Was that a flashback you had? Because you scared me, dude.”

“Afghanistan. I don’t talk about it. Let’s just say it hit too close to home and leave it at that, okay?” He knew; he was a vet too, though his had been a different war. I rubbed my wrist scars. Harsh, permanent reminders of a dank cave and a fellow soldier I couldn’t save. Her image superimposed itself over Shawna’s, and I slouched down with my eyes shut, willing it to go away. It worked. Mostly.

“Sure. Anyway,” Spence continued briskly. “The only reason I’m telling you this is because you’re a werewolf. Anyone else would think I was nuts.” He’d found out about the wolf thing during another case gone bad. Mentioning it was interesting. It got more so when Spence said, “We think there’s a vampire involved. Pretty crazy, right?”

“Well, yeah.” I tilted my head. “Because if it was a vampire, why waste all that food instead of drinking it down?”

“That part, we don’t know yet. If you figure it out, tell me. But.” Spence leaned forward. “Fang marks and a hickey on her throat, under the blood. And other places.”

“Careless,” I remarked. They’d hustled me out of the room before I’d gotten more than a glimpse, so I hadn’t seen that. “Either that, or misdirection. Did you call the Protectorate? Supernatural law enforcement would want this one, if it was a rampaging vamp. They had ways of making problems like this disappear–problems human agencies couldn’t handle.

“Not yet, because we’re not sure.” He paused. “And she was raped.”

I half-crushed my coffee cup before I regained control. “DNA? Prints?” I sipped the coffee, trying to remember to breathe. She’d been sixteen…

“No prints, he used gloves, and this isn’t TV. We won’t get the DNA back for a couple of weeks, if we’re lucky.”

My claws sprouted, and I had a hell of a time getting them to go back. “Well, shit, Spence, he’ll have covered his tracks way before then. Descriptions from the neighbors? Car make?”

“Tall, longish dark hair. Which describes damn near everyone in this city but you. The car is something silver and sporty. Which describes half the cars I see on my way to work every day.”

Not a lot to go on. More than what I had before. “I saw a camera in the room. Anything in it?”

“Nope. The media was missing. We’re watching for the file to show up online, but nothing so far.” Spence’s jaw muscles bunched. “I do not envy the guys looking for the video.”

“What about the house? Who owns it?”

“A dummy corporation, which is the subsidiary of another dummy corporation, owned by yet another dummy corporation. We haven’t been able to trace it yet.”

Aha. “Let me have that. I eat dummy corporations for breakfast.”

Spence tapped at his keyboard, and his printer spat out a few pages. “This is really all I can give you, Ben.”

I squared the papers, folded them, and put them in my pocket. “Tell them you called me in as a consultant again if you get in trouble.” We’d danced this dance before, after all. I offered my hand, and Spence shook it. “Thanks, man.”

~

by the time I got home, Janni had headed out for her catering gig. I called Chrystal to make sure she was okay; receiving news in the affirmative, I hung up and started pounding away at my laptop. Whoever owned the house we’d found the Reilly girl in was careful–even I had a hard time cracking this one. I tracked it through six layers. And my cell phone rang.

I glared at it, irritated at the interruption, but picked up anyway. Chrystal’s voice, breathless and frightened. “Whoa, slow down,” I said. “What happened?”

“He-he-he found me,” she hiccupped through tears.

My hand tightened on the phone, making the plastic creak alarmingly. “Did the son of a bitch hurt you? So help me–”

“Not yet. But he’s really mad at you, and he said that if you don’t meet him, he’ll… he’ll do worse than hurt me.”

The more Steegman pushed my buttons, the more I wanted to kill him. Or maybe that was the wolf talking. Either way. “Oh, I’ll meet with him, all right.” I closed my laptop and grabbed my keys. “But first we need to move you someplace new. I’d love to know how he found you.”

“He wouldn’t say.”

“Sit tight. I’ll be there in a few.” I closed the phone and pulled into the driveway of the safe–ha!–house fifteen minutes later. She met me at the door. “Go inside, Chrystal,” I said roughly, not-quite slamming it behind me. “Sit down before you fall down.” I peered at her as she collapsed onto the sofa. “Did he hit you again?”

She buried her face in her hands. “Yes.”

“And that’s a new bruise on your wrist.” I raked a hand through my thickening hair and tamped the wolf down. “Dammit. How did he find you?”

“I don’t know! He’s got connections.”

I pinched my nose. “Go pack. I’ll make a call.” She fled to the back of the house, and I got on the horn to Pam. “Yeah, boss, we got a problem. I need the other house to put Chrystal in for awhile, until this thing with Steegman blows over. He found this one.”

Silence on the other end. “All right,” Pam finally said. “You sure you know what you’re doing, Ben? You ain’t exactly the soul of rationality when it comes to abused womenfolk.”

“I’m getting her tucked away, and then I’m going to have a chat with Steegman. How it ends is up to him.”

“Be careful.” Everyone seemed to be saying that to me lately. “You leave my little girl a widow this soon, and I’ll be mighty pissed at you. This guy ain’t a joke; I wouldn’t be surprised if he came at you with silver next.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not a joke either.”

A pause. “I love you like my own, you know that, right?”

My smile felt fragile around the edges. “I surely do.” She was really the only parent I had; mine had both been killed by a drunk driver while I’d been a POW. I never got behind the wheel even after only one drink, werewolf constitution be damned.

“Okay, then. You let me know how this all shakes out.”

“Yes’m.” I hung up with an unsteady hand as Chrystal walked back into the room, dragging her wheeled overnight bag behind her.

“You okay?” she asked, eyeing me sideways.

Breathe. I was lucky, in so many ways. That being said– “Not particularly. Let’s go.”

We piled into the Jeep, hit the freeway–and promptly got stuck in traffic. No doubt someone had a fender-bender ten miles up the road. Great. I banged my head on the steering wheel. I still didn’t have my seat belt on.

“Hey, at least as long as we’re here, Steve can’t mess with us,” Chrystal pointed out.

“There’s that.” My thumbs rubbed the handcuff scars, and I rolled my shoulders. It didn’t help. I felt trapped.

“How’s that case going, the one you were so upset about the other night?” she asked.

“What?” I frowned. “Why do you care?”

“Just making conversation. I think we’re going to be here awhile.”

“Mmph.” Shawna flashed across my mind again, and I clenched my fist and my jaw and tried unsuccessfully to stop fur from sprouting under my t-shirt. “Rather not talk about it. My control’s not the best right now.”

“I can see that.” She’d jammed herself against her door, almost as if she was ready to open it and flee into the stalled traffic. Panting a little, she muttered, “Don’t lose your nerve.” It was like a mantra with her.

“Sorry.” Breathe. Try for normal. “What do you do when you’re not being smacked around by your porn-producing boyfriend?” Normal was relative, and that had been kind of rude. Forming complete sentences was a chore.

“I’m an actress. He was going to help me with my career.”

Naturally. You couldn’t throw a rock in this town without hitting an “actress.” I made an effort and didn’t laugh. “How’s that working out?” I asked.

Her mouth turned down at one corner. “Not so well. But Steve was going to put me in one of his movies, and then–”

I held a hand up. “Stop. I don’t even want to hear that. You have no idea what you’d be getting into. None.”

“It’s a good opportunity!”

“Oh, bullshit. He’s fucking psychotic, Chrystal. God.”

“Watch it,” she snapped. “I still love him, you know.”

“I’m sure you’ll be very happy together as he beats the shit out of you every night. Besides, didn’t you ask me to kill him for you? What happened to that?”

“Thanks to you, choirboy, I changed my mind,” she said sullenly. “You’re right, that’s not an answer. We should go after him legally. Maybe–maybe if I show him he can’t get away with it, he’ll start being nicer.”

Traffic started moving again, thank goodness. My knuckles were white on the steering wheel. I never could understand why women would stay with men they were afraid of. Here I was, taking her to a safe house, and she was acting like this would all blow over and it would be rainbow-farting unicorns if she could just talk some sense into her abusive boyfriend.

And I knew all too well how often that worked. I had a sudden, disturbing, thought. “You didn’t call him and tell him where you were, did you?”

“What? No.” She crossed her arms. “I do want to talk to him, but not in person. I might be crazy about him, but I’m not crazy.”

About time she started showing some brains. I decided to keep that thought to myself and was profoundly grateful when she changed the subject back to the Reilly case. The irony of being grateful for that wasn’t lost on me. “Your dead girl–”

“Shawna Reilly,” I supplied, exiting the freeway and heading into a residential area. “The crime scene was like something out of a horror movie. You don’t want to know, Chrystal. Seriously.” Besides, Afghanistan had taught me all about keeping my mouth shut, even under dire pressure. I had the whip scars on my back to prove it. And I didn’t want to get Spence in trouble by blabbing. I pulled into a driveway and shut the engine off. “Your castle, milady.”

She looked contrite. “Sorry I was such a bitch.”

“Well. I wasn’t exactly nice either.” I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel. “I get tired of seeing you girls make the same mistakes over and over. Shawna’s a cautionary tale. I’m sure she thought that this once, the guy would be fine with her, even if he’d left a trail of bruises behind on other girls. This time, it’d be different.” I turned my head and looked her in the eye. “It’s never different, Chrystal. Never.”

Her lips tightened. “Thanks, Ben. You’re one of the good guys.”

“I try to be.” We got out, and I gave her a quick tour of the house. “Don’t call anyone but me, keep the curtains closed, don’t answer the door. You’re safe as long as no one knows where you are but me and my boss-lady. Okay?”

She sighed. “Okay.”

“Good. You’ve got plenty of food, cable TV, video games, and books. Will that keep you occupied?”

“I suppose so. Steve wanted you to meet him at the Chillin’ Out.”

I stiffened. “That’s the place I go to de-stress. If he makes it stressful, he won’t like the results.”

She gave me a small smile. “I get the feeling he won’t like the results no matter what.”

“Point. I’ll call you later, on the house phone. Caller ID’ll tell you it’s me. Don’t pick up for anyone else unless it’s Pamela Coughlin, or my wife.”

“Be careful.”

Now Chrystal was telling me that. Holy cow. “I always am.” I checked my Eagle to make sure a round was chambered.

~

“You little bastard–” Steegman started when I walked into the Chillin’ Out.

“Good to see you too, asshole.” My hand hovered over the concealed Eagle.

Rob coolly set a shotgun on the bar. “If you two are gonna fight, take it outside.”

On Tactical Mode Autopilot, my brain ticked off Steegman’s weaknesses. Tight leather pants were great for cruising but bad for fighting. He was overconfident, and he’d been drinking. “I won’t start anything,” I said. “But I’ll sure as hell finish it.”

“You can try,” Steegman snarled.

“Ready when you are.”

“Outside!” Rob said. “And pick a corner of the lot with no cars. I don’t need my liability rates going up.”

As a deliberate insult, I turned my back on Steegman and sauntered out the door. I’d nearly made it to a pool of light on the empty side of the parking lot when that idiot put his hand on my shoulder. I spun around, fist clenched and fangs bared, and he stumbled backward as I knocked his hand away.

“I heard you wanted to talk,” I said, putting my fur back.

“This is between me and Chrystal.” He shook his arm, and a knife appeared in his hand. Silver-plated over steel. Great. “Leave her alone.”

“Well, I would.” I stalked around him in a circle. “But there’s this pesky thing where she keeps asking me to help her. And I just can’t resist a damsel in distress. The more you warn me off, the closer I’ll stick to her.”

Steegman lunged, knife foremost. He was clumsy, though, and I dodged with ease but stayed alert. I wouldn’t put it past him to try and lull me into a false sense of security. Hell, I did that all the time. “Be better for your health if you walked away,” he said.

“And it would be better for your health if you’d stop being an abusive bastard. Looks like both of us might need a doctor.”

We’d gathered an audience. Apparently our argument was more interesting than anything happening inside the bar. I had enough inner turmoil without the risk of innocent bystanders getting hurt, and I swore.

Steegman lunged again, faster. Not fast enough. “It occurs to me to wonder,” I said, “why you didn’t just take Chrystal with you when you paid her that visit tonight.”

Steegman growled. “You’ve convinced her that I don’t have her best interests at heart. She didn’t want to leave, and forcing her would make your case.”

“I think the bruises were the first hint that you might not be good for her,” I pointed out. I hadn’t swung yet, half-afraid that if I started something, I’d end up Changing in front of God and everyone. My wolf, I knew, wouldn’t stop until it was gnawing on Steegman’s bones, and it was clawing at me, trying to emerge. I ruthlessly shoved it back. I wasn’t a monster. I wasn’t. “Remember, she came to me.”

“Which is something I’m going to make you regret, you little mongrel.” Steegman slashed at me again, backhanded, and I jerked away in time to avoid getting my throat cut.

He’d left an opening, though, and I punched him in the jaw. The wolf really wanted a follow-through. Scents intensified as it pushed forward again. Steegman staggered backwards but recovered quickly, shaking his head.

“Walk away,” I warned. “I’m not a killer, but if this doesn’t end, I might make an exception just for you.” It was becoming increasingly difficult to fight both Steegman and my wolf.

“You can try.” For all his size and bravado, Steegman really wasn’t very good at fighting. I knocked the knife aside yet again. Fur. Claws. Fuck.

No, I told the wolf firmly. He’s human. We solve this the human way. “I’m not a girl half your size.” To hell with this. “I tried–” My right fist hammered into Steegman’s ribs. “To ask you–” A left to his already-bruised jaw. Steegman stumbled away. “Politely.” Elbow to the cheekbone, not quite cracking it. He dropped the knife and fell to one knee. I kicked him in the face. Blood spurted from his nose, and he landed on his back as bystanders scattered.

I heard a voice say, “Man, don’t mess with an Army Ranger,” but by this time I was done dicking around. I dropped down onto Steegman’s stomach with my gun pressed into the soft spot under his chin while my t-shirt strained to keep my enlarging shoulders contained.

Steegman froze and swallowed. “Don’t–”

“I’m not you.” I twisted the Eagle, and the flesh under it reddened. “But hear me. Get the fuck out of my town. Leave Chrystal alone. Do not call her, do not contact her in any way.” I pressed harder, fighting myself and not just the wolf. One more pound on the trigger, and there’d be a mess on the asphalt. My vision sharpened, which meant my eyes had gone from blue to amber. “Because if you do, I will hunt you down and kill you so dead they won’t find all your bones.” I leaned down, fangs foremost. “Got me?” Don’t bite him, don’t bite him

A frantic nod. I tipped my head, breathing hard between clenched teeth. “Good.” I stood and pinned the blade of the knife with my boot. “Go.”

Steegman scuttled away on his back for a few feet before scrambling up and taking off. I closed my eyes and went limp. “Wow,” someone said into the silence. “Someone oughta buy you a beer.”

And I desperately wanted one. Or something stronger. But I was driving, and I still had work to do. I leaned against the lamppost, trying to remember how to breathe. “Give me a rain check on that.”

~

I managed to stave off the panic attack until I pulled the Jeep into my garage. That had been mind-blowingly stupid. If I’d lost control, I’d be in jail right now, and that wouldn’t do Chrystal any good at all.

But. But but but. I’d kept it together. That fact helped me make it into the house without falling down. The liquor cabinet beckoned; I poured myself a Coke instead. Tonight was turning into an exercise in self-control. Sitting on the couch with my laptop, I dove back into finding who owned the house Shawna Reilly had died in. Work was a handy distraction.

Multitasking, I hunted through video websites in a different browser tab. Something as sensational as this case was bound to garner interest and thus money.

My gorge rose. There she was. Smiling at the camera, half-naked. Most snuff sites were faker than Steegman’s vampire fangs. Not this one, apparently. Input your credit card number for more. “My ass,” I muttered. Pam didn’t call me her “pet hacker” for nothing, and I bypassed that with a few keystro–

Holy shit. My vision actually went black at the monstrous image on my screen. I tried and failed to hit the mute button; Shawna’s screams and pleas resounded in my ears. Begging someone, anyone, to come save her. The timestamp in the lower corner mocked me with how close I’d been. Not enough air in the world, and I somehow ended up on the floor with my arms over my head. I repeated “Omigod, baby, I am so, so sorry,” over and over, my voice cracking. Most of the tears had been wrung out of me in Afghanistan. Most of them.

A distorted voice. “Don’t lose…” Couldn’t make the rest of it out through the roaring in my ears. I groped at the laptop lid and managed to slam it shut, mercifully cutting off Shawna’s cries for help. I felt like I’d failed her yet again, but if I had to listen to any more, I would literally lose what was left of my sanity. I took a long time to come down from this one. By the time I did, my rage was stoked to a scorching white blaze, and I had plans for the website once the cops were done with this bit of it. Plans that involved nuking it from orbit, hacking their financials, and donating every penny of theirs I could find to a rape crisis center. I covered my cyber-tracks and emailed the details to Spence. One more piece of the puzzle down.

But I needed to find whoever had uploaded that video, and I was still ferreting out the house info. Half an hour later, I had the answer to both. “Gotcha, motherfucker,” I breathed, and grabbed for my phone while I printed the damning evidence and simultaneously emailed it to Spence. I had a direct line to his desk, and he picked up after a couple of rings. “I’ve got our guy,” I said without preamble, as I grabbed my keys and snatched up my printout. “I traced the house and the website with the video. Check your email.”

“The Reilly case? Who is it?”

“Steve Steegman. Porn producer and fake vampire, which explains the fang marks and why the blood was wasted. I’m on my way to you right now.” I went hands-free on the phone and roared out onto the freeway toward the police station. “Also, his girlfriend asked me to kill him the other night.”

“Asked you to–Ben, you shouldn’t tell me things like that. Especially talking on a cell phone while you’re driving.” He paused. “You’re not wearing your seat belt, either, are you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Don’t have kittens; I told her no and I’ve got my bluetooth in.” I stayed quiet about the seat belt, because, no, it wasn’t fastened, which the state of California frowned on. “Get us a warrant, Spence. I want to take this bastard down.” My phone beeped. “Hang on a sec, I’ve got another call.” I hit the button. “Ben Lockwood.”

“Ben!” Chrystal’s voice, with more than an edge of terror. “He’s here–omigod, Steve, no!”

I heard a fragment. “… coming down around our ears…” And then the phone went dead.

“Chrystal?” Silence. I couldn’t get my breath. I fumbled at the button to get Spence back, almost hanging up accidentally. “Spence, he’s at the safe house where I’ve got Chrystal stashed. I’m diverting there now; you need to get all hands to it ASAP.” I rattled off the address as I exited the freeway.

“Ben, don’t go in alone, you need to wait for us to get there–”

I boiled over. “Bullshit. I’m a fully-loaded werewolf. He’s just a scumbag who’s underestimated me for the last fucking time.” I turned the corner into the residential area and skidded to a stop in front of the house. “Get here soon, Spence. I’m done jacking around.”

“Don’t make me arrest–”

I hung up before he could finish and jumped out of the Jeep. Kicking in the door of the house, I found Chrystal and Steegman in the middle of the living room. His arm was wrapped around her throat, and he held a snub-nosed S&W .357 revolver to her head, his knuckle white on the trigger. She was wilted but alive, her eyes wide with fear and tear tracks running down her face.

“Drop the girl and give it up, and it might go easy with you,” I said. “It’s over, Steegman. The cops are on their way to arrest you for the murder of Shawna Reilly.”

“Murder?” Chrystal cried. “He killed that poor girl, the one you’ve been freaking out about?”

“You crazy bitch!” he shouted. “I am not taking the fall for you. Lockwood, you don’t know–”

I made a cutting motion with my hand. “Shut up. Nothing you have to say can possibly interest me. Let her go.”

“You really have no idea, do you? Boy, Chrystal, you are one hell of an actress.” He shook her. “Lockwood, this whole thing was a setup, from the second she approached you in the bar. We knew the harder I pushed you, the more you’d stick to her. Hell, the hardcore bitch made me leave those bruises on her.”

The room whirled around me for a second before I got my equilibrium back. “What… ?”

He was babbling now. “You were the first one to figure out where the girl was, so you were obviously the smartest guy in the room. I asked around, found out about your issues. We needed to keep tabs on how close you were getting. But how Chrystal spent so much time with you and came back with nothing is a question for the ages.”

“I didn’t!” She struggled, pushing against him, which seemed like a bad idea, considering the gun. “Ben, you know he’ll say anything to try and get out of this.”

No arguing with that. My claws sprouted anyway, because his words had the desperate ring of truth. “Dammit, Chrystal.”

“It’s her production company,” Steegman babbled. “She was the one running the fucking camera!”

The voice. “Don’t lose…” your nerve, had been the end of that sentence. It came together for me then, but before I could do anything about it, Chrystal twisted in Steegman’s grasp and made a move for the gun. He lost his grip on it, it went skidding under the sofa–and that jackass launched at me.

I sidestepped and grabbed his outstretched arm, using his own momentum to slam him into a doorframe. My control had been itching for an excuse to flee the premises. An instant later, my clothes were in shreds around me, and my wolf, which was three times my mass, had Steegman pinned to the floor with a giant paw on his chest. Fangs the size of thumbs snapped shut an inch from his throat. The sharp odor of urine saturated the room as his bladder emptied. Growls rumbled in my chest, running up and down the register like an awful and atonal scale.

Steegman’s breaths came in ragged gasps as I pushed closer to his face. Ropy strings of wolf saliva smeared his cheeks. He gibbered “Please don’t” while Chrystal shouted “Kill him!” I barely had the presence of mind to take pleasure in the fact that this time, I was the one dishing out a panic attack. My jaws creaked open–

And cops poured into the house, yelling, Spence in front. They froze when they saw me. My tail lifted, my hair bristled, and I snarled. My prey.

Slowly, Spence holstered his weapon and walked over with his hands spread out at his sides. He crouched on my left, going below eye level. “Ben. I know it’s tempting to rip this guy’s throat out. I get the impulse. I do, okay, because I want to do it myself. But you need to stand down.”

My shoulders bunched and my head lowered. Steegman turned his face away, quivering, while growls rumbled nonstop in my chest. No. He deserves to die.

Spence’s voice was calmer than it had any right to be. “I don’t know how much of you is in there, but listen to me. You kill him, while he’s helpless under you? You’ll lose a piece of yourself.”

Willing to take that chance. My claws dug into Steegman’s chest, and he made a high-pitched animal sound in his throat.

“Don’t.” Spence put his hand on my chest. He clearly had the balls of a lion. Everyone else had backed far away, pointing their useless guns at me. “You won’t ever be the same. Not ever. I’ve seen it happen. To good men. Good cops.”

Didn’t care. Shawna’s cries for help that never came resounded in my ears. He’d been laughing while he raped her. I’d at least make it quick. I had that much mercy left.

“You’re not that guy. You’re not, Ben.” Spence gestured at the wedding ring, pinching my toe. “Janni didn’t marry that guy.”

Janni. I hesitated, trembling with the effort of not tearing Steegman’s face from his skull. My tail drooped slightly, and my lips lowered to half-mast.

“You’re better than this.” A fearless hand smoothed my shoulder fur. “You’re better than him. He’s a monster. You’re not. Janni wouldn’t want you to go down this road. Don’t break her heart.”

I blew a gust of air through my nose on Steegman’s face. He was openly crying now, reeking of fear. His throat was soft. It would be easy.

“No, Ben.” Spence was relentless. “Think of Janni.”

And… he was right. Janni, more than anything, made me raise my paw from Steegman’s chest and take a few slow steps away. I collapsed to my stomach on the hardwood floor, panting, shaking from reaction. “Good,” Spence said, petting my back like I was a big dog. I guess I was. “Someone want to grab me a blanket or something from the other room? Don’t move, asshole,” he said casually to Steegman, who hadn’t, actually. A uniform found a coverlet, and Spence spread it over me. “There you go. Back to human for me, now, okay?”

Before I could make the monumental effort to shift, a hammer cocked, shockingly loud, in my ear.

Focused on the wolf drama, no one had seen Chrystal scoop the revolver from under the couch, and she was on one knee beside me with the gun resting right next to my eye in a two-handed grip. Everyone froze. “This is loaded with silver,” she said, with an edge of hysteria. “And I’ll shoot him dead.”

“Who the hell are you?” Spence asked.

“The brains of the outfit.” Steegman had his own edge of hysteria going. “Believe it or not.”

“Shut up, you!” she said. “Silver bullets work just as well on people as–”

And that’s when I whipped my head to the side and engulfed her wrists in my jaws, crunching down and breaking them both. Her finger, unfortunately, convulsed on the trigger before she dropped the Smith with a screech of pain, and Steegman howled when the round hit him in the upper arm.

I managed to stop myself from biting her hands off. Barely. I held her there with just enough pressure to keep her immobile, and her blood filled my mouth while shouting filled the room. Her scream trailed off to whimpers. One tug against my teeth told her what a bad idea that was, and tears streamed down her face.

“Ben,” Spence said. I rolled my eyes to look at him without moving my head. “Let her go?”

I unclamped my jaws and spat her out, dropping my head back to the floor with a sigh. Fuck. I’d just made a werewolf. I had no idea what that meant. Nothing good. My ears were ringing, but that was fading. Lycanthrope healing for the win. “Now back to human?” Spence’s voice was plaintive.

I braced myself and Changed while a collective gasp went up from the assembled cops. I buried my head in my arms and breathed for a few seconds. “Spence.”

“You okay?”

“As okay as I ever get. That was an ugly cliff, though. Thanks for pulling me back from it.” Chrystal chose that moment to fill the air with hysterical sobbing, and I banged my forehead on the floor. “Oh, please shut up.”

“What did Steegman mean, she’s the brains of the outfit?” Spence asked, while everyone else started doing cop things–securing the scene, stanching blood, calling ambulances.

“She was the one running the whole show, Spence. I heard her on the video, but didn’t put it together until Steegman said something. They used voice distortion tech.” I was so tired. “It was her, though. ‘Don’t lose your nerve.’ I stopped looking when I saw Steegman’s name on the house, but I bet if we went down one more layer, we’d find hers.” I closed my eyes. “They raped and murdered a sixteen-year-old girl to cover up the fact that they’d been sloppy about her age when they started filming. Not only that, but I’m betting dumbass over there put the video on the internet without Chrystal’s knowledge.”

“You put it on the internet?” she shrieked, making my head hurt more. Cops grabbed her and held her still as she tried to leap at Steegman, broken wrists or no. “You were supposed to wait until the commotion died down!”

“With all the publicity, I thought we should strike while the iron was hot,” he said sullenly. “I want a lawyer.”

“You idiot,” she snarled.

My shoulders bunched. “Spence, if we don’t get either them or me out of here, I’m not responsible for what I do,” I said.

“Then… I guess we should get you some clothes.”

Fortunately, I kept jeans and a t-shirt in the Jeep for just such emergencies. Spence drove my car to the police station, and only snarked at me once about the seat belt. “Ticket me,” I said, and that was the end of that discussion. Eventually, we wrapped things up, and I found myself back at the Chillin’ Out, sipping a single rum and Coke. The stress bled out of my shoulders as I waited for Janni to finish her catering gig and join me.

My mate brightened the room just by walking in, and I met her halfway across the floor and lifted her in a bear hug, spinning her around. “Whoa,” she laughed. “Feeling better, sweetie?”

“We closed the Reilly case, and they won’t hurt anyone else.” I squired Janni to the bar and got her a 7-Up. “It was Steegman and Chrystal.”

Her eyebrows crawled up her forehead before squinching together. “Both? Did… did you kill them?”

“Came close. Real close. Spence talked me down from Steegman. I managed to beat back the monster within. This time.” Breathe. “I ended up breaking Chrystal’s wrists when she made the mistake of aiming a gun at me and not following the five-feet-of-separation rule.” I decided not to mention that Chrystal was a werewolf now. “But they’re going to jail for a good long time. And guys who rape and kill sixteen-year-old girls don’t fare too well in prison.”

“I’m just glad I’ve got you back. This was eating at you, Ben.”

“Yeah.” I drained my drink. “Ready to go, and I’ll show you just how back I am?” I waggled my eyebrows, and she laughed.

“Sure.”

And I didn’t miss her tiny sigh of relief when I buckled my seat belt for the drive home.

***

“The Monster Without” copyright © Julie Frost

Julie Frost writes every shade of speculative fiction and lives in Utah with her family–which consists of five guinea pigs, three humans, a tripod calico cat, and a kitten who thinks she’s a warrior princess–and a collection of anteaters and Oaxacan carvings, some of which intersect. Her short fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future, The District of Wonders, Cosmos, Unlikely Story, Plasma Frequency, Stupefying Stories, and many other venues. Her first novel, “Pack Dynamics,” was released in 2015 by WordFire Press, and this story takes place in that universe. She whines about writing, a lot, at http://agilebrit.livejournal.com/

Hal Turk and the Lost City of the Maya

by David Boop

1890, Guatemala

Hal Turk blew the last bits of Mexican sand from his nose. He reckoned the weeks spent crossing through the hot, dry desert would leave grit in the back of his throat ’til his dying day, but three days in Guatemala had removed the last vestiges of it. Not that the hot, wet jungle, and its ever-thickening plague of bugs, were a better trade off. They were already making his horse, Armageddon, upset. Hal knew they would have to take a steamer back to Texas when all was said and done.

He sat upon Armie while their guide and translator Diaz talked with three locals sitting in front of the trading post. All three men wore strange top hats, reminiscent of the ones he’d seen on the Creoles down Orlean’s way. Hal was sure these guys didn’t have a full set of teeth between them. Unlike Indians or Mexicans, they didn’t stare like they’d been broken or beaten. Dark pupils absorbed him in with a defiance that came from living within constant turmoil.

“It’s no good, Señor Hunter.” Diaz said when he returned.

Hal hated Diaz’s “affectionate” name for him. It told everyone in earshot that he was a bounty hunter; a fact he’d thought better left out of most polite conversation. He’d chastised the toad-shaped Mexican for it several times, but try as he might, Diaz would say, “, Señor Hunter. I will no call you ‘Señor Hunter’ anymore.”

Enough to drive a man to curse his creator.

“What’s no good?”

“The region. Since Barrios’s death, the whole country is a mess. Even the Caudillos from farther south are trying to get a foothold here. Now, there is a new El Presidente’ every couple of weeks. It will be hard to find a reliable guide into the mountains.”

The papers painted the last Guatemalan leader, Justo Barrio, as some sort of Lincoln. He did a lot to raise the country’s standards and wanted to unite all Central America. But, as with many visionaries, he started a war to end war, and found himself buzzard food on the battlefield.

“But they’re sure that’s where he went?”

“Sí, Señor Hunter. Javier Cavallas and his men stopped here not two days ago and bought supplies to cross the Sierras.”

Hal predicted Cavallas would take the mountain route through Guatemala into Honduras. Only a crazy man would follow him through the pass. Hal wasn’t crazy, but he knew if he didn’t get to Cavallas before the criminal reconnected with his dictator cousin, there’d be no way to drag him back to Amarillo for his hangin’.

Hal reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a small coin purse, one of several he kept stashed around. He didn’t believe in keeping all the eggs in one basket. He tossed it down to Diaz.

“Buy us what we need, and hurry.”

~

At night, the jungle sounds were so different from Texas that it made him long for Mexico’s familiarity. A coyote was still a coyote even with a Mexican accent. Here, monkeys scampered through the trees, screeching like children running around a barnyard. Hal saw glowing eyes, peering in from the dark. The owners never entered the hastily cleared out circle, the campfire keeping them at bay, but they watched. The paranoia and cacophony made for light sleep. Diaz, however, had no problem. As they progressed slowly up the overgrown path the next morning, Hal asked Diaz how he could sleep so well.

“Oh, Señor Hunter, I have no problem sleeping in noisy places. I had ten hermanos and hermanas.”

“Christ, Diaz! Your parents ever figure out what causes that?”

Diaz snickered. “Ah, but you must understand. My parents are devoted Catholics. The church says to be fruitful and multiply.” He looked away, a little embarrassed. “My parents took that one to heart.”

Hal had spent enough time in school to know that it wasn’t just the Catholic influence, but the restocking of a country nearly wiped out by war and disease that prompted the Mexicans to reproduce like rabbits.

The bounty hunter slapped his thigh. “Well, hell! Nothing wrong with two consenting adults enjoying what God gave us the tools for.”

“Sí, Señor Hunter, sí! And what of tu familia?”

The loud snort that erupted from Hal took him even by surprise. “Family? That’s a good one! The closest thing to a family I ever had was Father John and the nuns, and you can’t call people who would rather beat the devil out of you than recognize that kids are going to be kids ‘family’.”

Diaz’s eyes widened a little. Maybe no one had been so frank with him, or so openly spoke ill of Priests and Nuns. The Mexican’s eyes soften with pity and Hal hated being pitied.

“Listen, it done me good in the end. Made me tough. Also made me nicer to kids and bounties that had kids. I don’t want to make too many more orphaned bastards like me.”

Hal laughed it off. Soon Diaz smiled and laughed along, but the bounty hunter knew he had opened up too much with the hired help. Chalk it up to the weeks they had spent together tracking Cavallas. Hal started to think of this guy as a partner. That had to stop.

Partners died.

Hal slid into a tracking trance, blocking out everything but the trail. Cavallas’s group should be farther ahead than the signs suggested. The former Amarillo Councilman must be feeling invulnerable, as he had acted through his entire trial on racketeering and murder. Cavallas knew that he’d be freed by his cousin’s men long before he’d reach the gallows. His entourage were taking their time moving through the pass. Hal hoped that nearsightedness would be the twisted man’s downfall.

Statues appeared in the brush before long. The first one gave Diaz a start when lopped off a vine and discovered it.

“Mayan,” he said mater-of-factly, like he hadn’t almost pissed his pants.

“Who are they?”

“They were here before Spaniards, before Aztecs and Incas. Some people say they the direct descendants of first people on earth. That they still carried blood of the Gods within them. Their time ended when Conquistadors arrived.”

“So blood of the Gods didn’t help them defeat Cortez?”

“They thought Spaniards were Gods. They rode on horses, something Mayans had never seen. They thought beasts were part of the men, like ancient drawings. By time they knew different, it too late.”

Hal looked over at his jet-black horse, Armie, and gave him a shit-eating grin.

When Hal had gone to the stables to find a solid horse, Armie poised himself at the far back of stall. The stallion leapt forward at Hal, flaring his nostrils, eyes wide. The hunter had thought for a moment the devil himself had come for his soul, but then Armie backed away, as if auditioning. Hal inquired about him. Armie had been “broke” for a traveling rodeo and trained in trick roping competition, however, the horse had bucked too many riders to be of any use. Hal could sense the spirit of this beast; fast and smart. Despite a tumultuous first encounter, Hal knew that this horse would be the one to cast fear in his prey. “Turk rides on Armageddon’s hooves,” they had come to say about the two of them. Armie was the only partner Hal would ever trust.

“Their following of the false Gods cost them their birthright and their lives,” Dias continued. “Holy retribution came from the Gods in the form of war, plague, famine, and death.”

As a child, Hal had the Book of Revelations beaten into the back of his hands. He knew that Diaz referred to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse but, the way Diaz described it, he had made it sound like that wasn’t the testimony of John, but a Mayan legend.

Hal kept up the small talk as they continued their ascent. “So, what were these Mayan’s like?”

“Señor Hunter, they were like nothing else. Hard, yet honorable. Devout, yet caring. There was love in everything they did. From grand buildings to the sacrificing women and children. From educating their people to bloody wars costing men their lives by the thousands. Everything was to honor their Gods and bless the Maya. They truly felt every action, every moment was a blessing.”

Horrified, Hal spit. “That don’t sound like love to me, Diaz. What civilization knowingly sacrifices its people for the greater good?”

Diaz cocked his head at his employer, puzzled. “What civilization has not?”

~

A mist rose as the sun set. Hal and Diaz escaped the jungle once they climbed above its canopy on alpaca trails worn into the mountain’s side.

“What’s with the fog?”

Diaz sniffed the air. “Volcanoes, Señor. The lava under the mountain boils the runoff from the peaks. It will be tough going from here. Should we continue on, or camp?”

Hal debated. The pass would be treacherous, but he suspected Cavallas dropped camp not two hours ahead of them. If he and Diaz pressed forward and found the camp, they could set up an ambush for first light. However, they could also lose the element of surprise with one misstep.

“Let’s go a little farther,” Hal finally decided, “Maybe an hour. Then let’s skip the campfire and try to get an early start. We might be able to catch them while they’re still having breakfast.”

The translator nodded and they walked their horses further into the mist. Hal wondered how much light escaped the soup they traversed and whether lighting a torch would be worth it. Surprise was all they had. The bounty hunter thought about tying the horses and coming back for them later. Their hooves against the rocks sounded too loud for his tastes.

The duo made only fifteen minutes of progress before a shot rang out. One of Cavallas’s men, on look-out, fired prematurely, probably out of nerves. Diaz’s horse whinnied and reared back while he tried to hold it down. More shots hit near them.

Cavallas had five men with him. Hal reckoned it was only one man sniping at them. There was no communication, yells, falling rock as men sought better purchase.

Hal had spent enough time in box canyons to know how to trace gunshots. The trick was to filter out the sound from the echo. This pass wasn’t much different. He drew and fired towards the area he was sure the shots had originated from. He didn’t hit his target, but he’d gotten close enough. There was distinct cursing in Spanish.

“Diaz!” Hal whispered, “Take Armie’s lead. Head back down, making noise, but not enough for him to get a bead on you. I think he’s a bad shot, but not that bad.”

Diaz nodded in the lunar illuminated mist. Hal handed over the rawhide, and quietly made his way around to the left. A couple more shots zinged by, but Diaz cleared the area unharmed.

The bounty hunter worked his way up the side, carefully avoiding anything that felt loose, grabbing stones that came away during his climb and finding places for them. He got about twenty feet higher than where he had started and then slowly made his way around a bend in the trail. Hal listened intently. Maybe ten yards ahead of him someone breathed hard. He reached around and found a rock of suitable size. Hugging the wall, he crept forward.

An outline came into focus, lazily looking down towards the place where Hal and Diaz had parted company. Hal crashed the rock down on the hired gun’s head. The man tumbled off the cliff and landed below with a sickening thump. Hal turned quickly, gun in hand in case anyone else showed up.

When no one came running, Hal continued around the bend. It made more sense to find the camp now, even if he chose to wait until morning to attack. Finding the trail, he followed for half an hour.

Fearless, Cavallas and his men sat around a huge fire that did its level best to drive away the mist and cold. They were all alert and checked their guns to make sure they were loaded.

One man looked breathless from running. He pleaded, “We can’t just leave Jose back there alone.”

So, there had been a second gun, Hal thought, One who’d run to the camp to get help.

A black man answered. Hal didn’t know Cavallas had a negro on his payroll. “No, they’ll drop back, waiting until morning. We have the high ground. It would be suicide to attack now.”

“Then when Jose gets back, let’s continue on,” suggested a gaunt fellow, “Get some distance between us and these bounty hunters.”

“THIS,” a voice began, much stronger and more confident than the others, “This bounty hunter. There is only one. Only one gringo with cahoñes enough to track me this far.”

Javier Cavallas stepped up towards the firelight. Hal could see his face a blaze in reds and yellows cast up from the pit. The man looked more evil than ever. His slicked black hair, thin mustache and goatee gave him the unmistakable appearance of Satan.

“If that is indeed Turk,” Cavallas continued, “then no amount of running tonight will do. He’ll pursuit us into hell, if he sets his mind to it.”

“Well, boss…” The negro smiled ruefully. “You do have the largest bounty in history on you. It might attract a lot of hunters. Not just Turk.”

Cavallas shook his head. “No, money will only drive a man so far. Not to the ends of the earth. That’ll be Turk down there. If we don’t kill him, we’re never going home. Trust me. He’ll come tonight. We need to set up a trap for him. Something he won’t expect. No man can be prepared for everything. Not even Turk.”

Hal felt pleased with himself. The persona he had worked so hard to create worked its magic. He continued to feel that sense of accomplishment as he shot the armed man closest to him. Hal dove to the ground as bullets swarmed the spot he once stood. He slid across the ground snake-like and rolled onto his left shoulder.

Hal took aim on the negro gun-for-hire when a blur ran from out of the darkness and struck the man square in the chest. From where he laid, Hal watched the tip of a spear explode out the dead man’s back. More spears came and another of Cavallas men fell, his gun going off as he did. Cavallas and his last hired gun dropped their weapons.

Dark shapes carrying spears slipped out of the mist, blocking any chance of escape. A dozen, two dozen came, and faster than a flash of heat lightning, the outlaw and his remaining man disappeared into the dark. The fire was put out and the night claimed them all.

Holstering his gun, Hal belly crawled back out of the area, feeling there was nothing more to be done there.

Until he placed a hand on someone’s foot.

Hal looked up slowly to find a mask, not unlike the statue Diaz had uncovered earlier, looking down. Even in the half-light, Hal could see bright white eyes staring at him. Hal was a fast draw; couldn’t have lived this long without being one. Yet, as he went for his gun and drew, the club was already in motion. A resounding crack echoed into the night. Hal’s last thought stated the obvious.

That didn’t sound good.

~

“Señor Hunter?

“Señor Hunter?

“TURK!”

The blurry, yet obviously worried, visage of Diaz swam into view. The translator’s face was scuffed and scratched, his poncho torn at the shoulder. Hal assumed he appeared in no better shape. His head hurt on the right side, and his left eye couldn’t focus. Sitting up, Hal heard the crackling of a straw bed. They were in a room carved out of rock and, while there were no bars in the front, the room had an unmistakably cell-like quality. Two guards stood on either side of the open door. Their backs were to Hal and Diaz, but their brandished spears clearly visible. Their attire had a vague Indian look to it; only hardened, like it was designed for combat.

“Where are we?”

B’al Mayuy. The City Hidden by the Mist.”

It meant nothing to Hal. He didn’t know the area. “The people that clobbered me – and you – by the looks of it?”

“Mayans.”

“Mayans?”

“Sí.”

“Aren’t they dead?”

“Sí, or so one would think. This city, it has never been discovered. Not by Spanish. Not by Guatemalans. No one.”

“Cavallas?”

“Being kept in another part of the building. You special, Señor. You look like false Gods. They not have any news here for hundreds of years. They don’t know world has changed, however, they do have drawings of false Gods, white men, like yourself.”

Hal looked over to the bare legs of the guards. He didn’t think his skin was much lighter now-a-days with all the weeks spent in the Mexican desert. Yet, it wasn’t the naturally reddish-brown of the natives.

“So, are they going to let them go, and keep me here?”

A grave look passed over Diaz’s face; an unmistakable foreboding.

“What?”

“I don’t know if I do a bad thing, or not. When I come looking for you and find this place, they rough me up pretty badly, but because I look more like them, they asked me lot of questions. I recognized the most words as once spoken by mi abuelá, but I not sure if I got them all right.”

Hal didn’t like the sound of this.

“I explain you hunter of men, you hunt bad men. They understand justice, but don’t trust you. So instead, they are going to make us fight Cavallas and his man.”

“What? Like gladiator style?”

“No, Señor,” Diaz was sullen, “t’latchtli.”

~

Steps covered most of the city. Mayan guards marched their captives down steps just to march them back up others. Detailed carvings on each step made it seem they had some significance. A dozen stone buildings filled the area; some like Egyptian pyramids Hal had seen pictures of in books, while others more like fortresses. A couple buildings were carved right out of the side of the mountain. One looked like a stack of child’s blocks, barely able to support its own weight.

Scattered among these buildings were statues sculpted with horrible visages. Diaz identified some as Gods and others as representations of birds, jaguars and monkeys.

Hal’s left eye continued to bother him. The throbbing of his right temple made him woozy. He stumbled several times, only to be prodded in the backside by a guard. Diaz took to being his support, stepping in to lend a shoulder when Hal faltered.

A plateau, one of the highest in the city, opened up before them when they crested the stairs. An open-air building waited for them. The field inside measured about 70 feet long with 15-foot walls framing it.

Hal had noted they’d passed few natives in the trek from the jail to the grounds, and now Hal understood why.

The entire city sat there in fascinated amusement.

Like bandstands for a parade, stone benches contained thousands of Maya. Glancing around, Hal could see a definite difference in warrior classes versus the common man. Dressed in tunics, both men and women buzzed with anticipation. They adorned themselves with all manner of jewelry made of gold or precious gems.

Led to an alcove where more natives waited with stone knives, a man stepped up to Hal and shredded his clothes, cutting and tearing them off from the hunter’s body.

“Hey! Wait!” he argued in vain, “Aw! Those were my good chaps!”

When they had both him and Diaz naked, they redressed them in padded leathers that covered the men’s forearms, knees, feet and midriffs. To Hal, it felt little more than a skirt.

“Now, this is embarrassing.”

The final touch was a pointed hat that made him look like a dunce. Hal felt foolish, but he hated to admit, it was the most comfortable he’d felt since he started the journey from Amarillo.

The next set of natives came in with paints. As they set about marking him, Hal quizzed Diaz.

“What is this ta-latch-ta-lee?”

“A game, Señor. A serious one.”

“So how does one play this game?”

“See rings hanging from walls?”

Hal saw two identical stone circles each protruding from opposite sides of the arena.

“There is a ball, Señor. Small enough to go in that ring. Each team tries to get ball through ring more times than other team.”

“Okay, so that doesn’t sound so bad. Just toss the ball through the circle. Done.”

Diaz shock his head, “No, Señor. Not simple. No can use hands. Only legs and chest.”

Hal had chased a bounty to England once. Working with local constabulary, he caught the whore-beater, but the extradition paperwork took several days. He remembered palling around with the locals and even being invited to something called football. They, too, batted a ball around without using hands. He’d been drug into a pick-up game after drinking a few too many of their thick lagers. Hal ended up on his ass and never scored a single point. He’d been glad to get back to America with its good beer and baseball.

“Do you know the rules?”

Diaz’s lesson was brief, but thorough. As the two men were jabbed with spears onto the playing field, Hal struggled for a closer look, his eye still blurry. The hoops hung about ten feet off the level and grassy ground. The bounty hunter had no idea how he’d get the ball in there without his hands.

From the opposite side, guards escorted out two similarly dressed men. Cavallas didn’t look any happier about the situation.

“This is all your fault, mercenary.”

“That’s a right interesting way to look at it, dead man.”

Despite his bravado, Hal doubted his chances of winning after sizing up his opponents. Cavallas was a tall, slim man, all elbows and knees. He might be able to reach the ring without problem thanks to those legs of his. His henchman was shorter, but stocky, as if one of those Mayan statues had just started walking around cracking its knuckles. Compared to them, Diaz looked like nothing more than a pimple.

Diaz twitched nervously. He couldn’t hold his own against either one of them. Hoping to distract himself, Diaz pointed out the head priest sitting in a booth on the west side of the stands. When both parties reached the center, the priest stood up and started talking. The crowd fell silent and repeaters carried his words throughout the arena.

Diaz translated as best he could.

“We have come… sacred spot… justice done. Gods chosen wisely… story play out… field of battle. One side… victorious… other… sacrificed… atonement at Xiabalba’s hands.”

Hal’s eyes got wide as Diaz repeated this. “You never said losing meant death.”

The man tilted his sandy-brown hair at the ground. “Sí, Señor. Loser always dies at hand of winner.”

“And the winner?”

“Dies, but honorably. To protect the city’s location.”

The priest continued, his headdress resplendent in the morning light, “It fate … brought these men … face each other … like Hero Twins … faced God’s of death … very field. First team … four rings … victorious.”

“Daiz? Did they get Armie when they got you?”

“No, Señor. I leave him tied up not far from here.”

Hal took in the plateau. Sound would travel down from here, but only if everyone was quiet. There came a lull between cheers and Hal took the opportunity to whistle deep, long and loud. He hoped it would reach his partner. When the priest didn’t pick up his speech, Hal discovered every person in the stands looked at him in blinking disbelief. They waited on him to say something.

He spoke to Diaz.

“Tell them that they have interrupted the will of the Gods. Tell them that if they do not let us all go, their Gods will be angry and bring death to them.”

Diaz looked ready to pee. “No, Señor. I cannot say that.”

“Are you paid to translate, or what?”

“But Señor, you have yet to pay me.”

“DIAZ!”

Diaz turned to the priest and spoke the words loud that the repeaters could hear. Gasps and nervous murmuring followed the words as they finally reached the priest, who just laughed.

He called down, “You dare… same trick your ancestors… slaughter our people so long ago? You not think we are smarter? Gods protected us because our faith. Lead us here… shielded us from false Gods. You will lose this game and we will have the pleasure of watching you die.”

For the first time, Hal was impressed with Diaz. The more he heard the words, the better at translating he got.

Too bad he’ll die here with the rest of us. Hal shook that thought from his mind. No! Not if I can help it.

Hal shouted and pointed right at the spiritual leader. “I am the White God of Death and today, you will die!”

Diaz’s translation had the effect Hal wanted. The priest looked actually shaken for a moment, then regained his composure. He signaled the start of the game. Someone threw a small solid rubber ball, no bigger than a man’s head, into the center of the field between the two teams.

Cavallas’ man lunged for it immediately and met Hal’s knee. There were no rules against rough housing. In fact, it was recommended. The man landed on his backside with a small bounce, but scrambled back to his feet, adjusting his jaw with an audible click.

Cavallas had taken the momentary distraction to get in close and landed a right hook to Hal’s left side. He hadn’t even seen it coming. Regaining his momentum, Hal planted his right foot and returned the swing, but missed as the outlaw ducked under it. Cavallas planted another blow to the bounty hunter’s midsection. Hal tensed up his abdomen absorbing the strike, then balled his fists and brought them down on Cavallas’s back.

Motion to his right caused Hal to look over. Diaz kicked the ball towards a ring. Hal stepped on the sprawled Cavallas as he raced to catch up. The henchman bore down on Diaz, who was slow as molasses even when not kicking a ball across a field. The translator got lined up to kick the ball through the ring, but caught wind of the larger man as he launched toward him. Diaz ducked, expecting to be tackled, but found himself in the clear. Hal had bum-rushed the henchman into the wall; a solid hit both men felt. Diaz kicked the ball high, but it arched under the ring, several feet from its target.

Cavallas reached the ball before Diaz could retrieve it. He kicked it hard to the other side of the field and his long legs outdistanced Diaz with little effort. Hal gave his opponent a kidney shot before running toward Cavallas.

“I hope that hurts when you piss, you son-of-a-bitch!”

Cavallas had all the time in the world to line up his shot and sent it flying through the ring. The crowd cheered and the priest sat smugly in his box seat.

Hal reached the ball and kicked it toward Diaz at midfield. It would have gone over the little man’s head, but Diaz jumped up and bounced the ball off his chest. Cavallas’s second-hand-man lined up with Diaz, who ran like his “skirt” was on fire.

Hal would never reach the two in time, so he took on Cavallas instead. He tripped the gaunt man as they collided. Cavallas tumbled forward and crashed. Hal kicked the outlaw’s left knee hard. Not having boots on anymore meant that Hal felt it in his big toe just as much as Cavallas did in his knee. Hal hopped up and down on one foot while rubbing his toe. The outlaw rolled over and rubbed his joint.

Hal saw the henchman run past him with the ball. Searching for Diaz, Hal spotted him slumped against the wall.

“Diaz!”

When Hal got to him, he could see the little man’s nose was broken. Blood gushed from it and Diaz seemed too dazed to staunch its flow. Hal slapped him awake and put Diaz’s hand up to pinch the orifice.

“Just squeeze it. I know it hurts like hell and it’ll bleeds a lot, but you’re going to be okay, you hear?”

Diaz nodded.

Hal figured he had counted off enough time in his head. He waited until the crowd stopped cheering from another Cavallas score, then whistled again. He was sure he had given enough time for Armie to have found his way up to the plateau.

Like a demon from Hades, Armageddon came charging from around the corner. His nostrils flared and Hal could have sworn he saw smoke emit from them.

Must be the mist, he figured, but was glad at the reaction he saw in the crowd.

They sat motionless, dead silent.

As the horse passed, Hal grabbed a hold of the saddle and pulled himself up. Armie turned on the spot at Hal’s command and barreled toward his opponents. Hal talked into Armie’s ear and the horse reared up in front of the outlaws. Then coming down gently, the horse kicked the ball away from them. Hal drove Armie and the ball back to the other side, where the horse deposited it by Diaz. Seizing the opportunity, Hal’s Mexican guide kicked the ball with a vengeance and it sailed through the ring.

“Man and horse as one?” Hal questioned Diaz.

A pained smile crossed the Mexican’s face. “Sí, Señor Hunter, Sí.”

The crowd watched in dumbstruck awe as Cavallas’s team was repeatedly thwarted by Hall and Armie. Demons of the past were still too real to the Mayans, despite their proclamation of being a wiser people. Hal passed by the High priest more than once, pointing at him and smiling.

Nothing Cavallas could do slowed Hal and Armageddon. Horse, bounty hunter and guide were too much for the outlaw and his henchman. In moments, it was over.

Guards came out, twice as many as before and prodded all five into the center. Cavallas screamed bloody murder.

“You cheated! You Goddamned filthy maggot!” He turned to the priest, imploring, “This is unfair! You can’t let him get away with this!”

Hal leaned over. “I don’t think he can understand you. I’ll have Diaz translate.” Hal winked at Diaz, who spoke to the Mayan spiritual leader. The priest nodded to his guards, who then kicked the legs out from underneath Cavallas and his man.

Kneeling they screamed, “WHAT? WAIT!”

The Mayans blades took off the heads of the two men quickly and cleanly. The bounty hunter figured it was better than the gallows.

Hal asked Diaz, “What did you say to him?”

The translator looked like the cat that had gotten the canary. The bloodied face just added to the image. “I just told him Cavallas admitted defeat at superior power of White God and asked for quick and honorable death.”

Hal snorted, “Diaz, you dog!”

The priest spoke again and a new set of guards entered the arena, these ones with long spears. Hal reached over his left side and into the saddle hostler. He whipped his rifle around and long armed it. He had positioned himself so he could use his good right eye.

“I told you I was death.”

He shot the priest cleanly through the head. Screams erupted from the crowd as Mayans panicked and fled the stadium. Armie reared back again, which forced the immediate guards to back away. Hal reached down and pulled Diaz onto the saddle behind him. As they galloped toward the exit, Hal suddenly got a thought. He turned Armie around and raced back. Hal slid sideways off the saddle, almost upside down as he rode past the body of Cavallas and scooped up his head.

“A souvenir, Señor?” Diaz said with a laugh.

“We’re going to need this if we’re going to be paid, eh?”

“Sí, Señor Hunter.”

They raced out of the arena without difficulty. Most of the crowd too scared to form any sort of blockade. They stopped only long enough to transfer Diaz to his own horse. Together, they sped through the mist, letting the horses guide them down. Once clear, they pushed the mounts at top speed until the Lost City faded back into the mist.

Hal and Diaz followed the San Isabella River to Saint Thomas and charted a steamer. The first available was a coffee boat headed for Boston. Hal figured it would be better to be on their way and take the train from New England back to Amarillo.

“Plus, I know this guy who works at the YMCA round those parts. Odd fellow, he’s Canadian, but he helped me out of a problem once. It’d be good to see him. I’m sure he can put us up for a couple days.”

The two men leaned against the rail, watching the Bay of Amatique pass beneath them on their way to high seas.

“What does he do?” Diaz inquired.

“Oh, something called Fizz-ed. Don’t rightly know what it is, but he says he plays a lot of games. I want to tell him about the t’latchtli thing. Bet he’ll get a hoot from it.”

“Sí, Señor Hunter.”

“Diaz. Call me Hal, please, or at least Turk. I think my days of being a hunter are over. My eye still hasn’t cleared up. I might have to wear a patch, and that’ll make me weak on the left side. I won’t last long if word of that gets out. Better to retire on the bounty from ol’ Javier here.” Hal patted the satchel they bought to keep Cavallas in. They’d wrapped the head in cloth, hoping to keep it recognizable until they reached the county courts in Texas.

“So, what will you do now, Señ - um- Hal?”

“I have no clue, Diaz. Maybe head up to the Rockies. A man can make a fortune on silver mining or gold panning. Maybe I’ll just take a stake in a card game and let people bring me money. I hear tell Drowned Horse is booming again.”

Hal looked up from the waters to his companion. “If I do that, I’ll need me a pit boss. Someone fluent in several languages could be helpful. Want the job?”

“Sí, Señor Hal. Sí!”

Hal laughed and figured that would do.

Footnote: Basketball was invented in 1891 by an instructor of physical education at the YMCA in Springfield, MA.

***

“Hal Turk and the Lost City of the Maya” copyright © David Boop

David Boop is a Denver-based speculative fiction author. Before turning to fiction, David worked as a DJ, film critic, journalist, and actor. As Editor-in-Chief at IntraDenver.net, David’s team covered Columbine making them the first internet only newspaper at an event. They won an award for excellence from the Colorado Press Association.

His debut novel, She Murdered Me with Science, was republished by WordFire Press. David also released a prequel, A Whisper to a Scheme. Additionally, Dave is prolific in short fiction, such as the weird western series The Drowned Horse Chronicle. He’s published across several genres including media tie-ins for Predator, The Green Hornet, and Veronica Mars. Recently, he edited the anthology, Straight Outta Tombstone, for Baen.

[]

He’s a single dad, part-time temp worker and believer. His hobbies include film noir, anime and the Blues. You can find out more on www.davidboop.com.

King of Spades

by David J. West

1. A Trophy Stolen

A horned moon hung aloof in the sky granting but pale light to the palace below. Soft quick footfalls betrayed the thief’s deft hands though his haunted burden might also have been too large to easily steal away. His shadow slipped away over the wall to a waiting horse bare seconds before David’s guards sealed the gates and awoke Jerusalem town.

“My Lord,” called Joab, as he roused his king from a deep slumber with voluptuous Bathsheba. “There has been an intruder.”

David had already drawn a dagger from beneath his pillow and he looked to his general with all the wiles of a cornered wolf. “Assassin?”

“I think not. He was seen in your library carrying off something beneath his arm.”

Leaping up, yet retaining his dagger, David made his way to the library. Thoughts raced through his mind over what could have been stolen. All manner of kingly ransom was contained therein as was his plan for a holy temple.

Oil lamps flickered, casting an eerie glow upon the walls. Shelves loaded with scrolls and parchments sat collecting the dust of ages. Finely wrought tribute still captured the sheen of red fire. Golden crowns remained as did even David’s personal holy ephod.

“I see nothing amiss,” said Joab.

“Nor I,” mused David, still glancing over his miniature mock up of the temple.

“Your tribute from the Edomites is untouched and still in the counting stacks of last week.”

“What about—?”

“I have already asked my Lord, and the Levites have assured me the Ark is safe.”

David nodded almost unhearing. His eyes scanned the burdened shelves, his finely polished armor, the bow of his dear departed friend Jonathan and even his grim prize, the sword of Goliath. “It’s all here.”

“No, it is not,” intoned Nathan the prophet, his voice echoing in the darkness.

Joab sneered, “Prattle on storm crow. What is missing?”

“What was once a triumph shall now be turned against the house of David. I see an evil rising to test you once again.”

“What’s missing?” David’s gaze narrowed, “What evil?”

The wizened prophet’s finger pointed at circular space free of dust.

“Your first triumph and I imagine your final test,” said Nathan.

“No riddles,” shouted Joab. “What is missing?”

“Goliath’s head.”

2. A Black Deed Done

Near the valley of Elah is a fortified hill interwoven with caves and holding deep unspeakable mystery. Its name is Adullam, which means ‘resting place’ and indeed it was once for a giant of a man.

A contingent of fine horses and camels were tended by a score of scimitar bearing warriors bedecked in the spiral helms and white cloaks serving King Maacah. They were joined by the hard-bitten men of Beth-rohob’s King Toi; fighters and mercenaries of King Hanum as well as cutthroats and sell-swords from the Egyptian pharaoh. All of them had been assembled on the whims of Hadadezer, dread lord of Syria. He alone commanded the respect of the others.

Sharp-nosed Hadadezer dismounted his fine stallion and beckoned the four kings to follow him into the waiting maw of the sephulcre. Accompanying them was a beautiful woman with hair dark as a raven’s wing. A large sack draped over her ivory shoulders.

Musty air met their nostrils as the nameless woman clapped her hands and torches alit from the sharp sound. Suffering to show no fear before the witch, the kings acted as if such sorcery were commonplace. Hadadezer led them on down into the bowels of the earth.

“Strange is it not? That we conspire against David in the very place where he strengthened himself and conspired against Saul.”

Maacah grunted, “Irony is a fickle lover, I find no humor in caves. Especially those as dark as this tomb.”

“This was the only suitable place to commit the ritual. After all, most of the body lies here still,” said Hadadezer.

They continued down serpentine paths into the gloom until a wide chamber opened before them. At the far end where torch light hardly penetrated, was revealed a great stone box.

“Behold, the original throne of David, the very crypt of Goliath!”

The darkling woman was the first to touch the stone lid which she caressed like a lover. “Open it,” she hissed. Though this was her only command, so sure and strong was her voice that the kings obediently complied. It took all five together as one to remove the sarcophagus lid.

Within, a huge and armored, yet headless body waited. Desiccated skin hung tightly upon massive bone. A frozen six-fingered hand reached in vain for the spear handle, large as a weavers beam resting at his side.

From her sack the woman removed a great skull, so large it could have been placed over any one of their heads easily as a war helm. She then placed a small stone into the broken indentation just above the temple on the skull. “And now you are joined,” she said in triumph. She lit candles and gibbered softly calling forth the cursed names of Nephilim and Asmodeus, Baal and Dagon all while tracing strange forgotten symbols upon the crypt and skeleton, every now and again a mirthless chuckle escaping her lips.

“I need your men. Bring them, now!” she ordered.

“How many?”

The witch gave him a harsh look like a disapproving mother.

“A dozen?”

“All of them.”

The crowd of retainers, warriors and sell-swords flocked into the chamber, each man curious and wondering at the witch’s unholy spectacle.

She began a bewitching song that was ancient when Abraham strode the earth. Tender as flame but cold as the grave, its harsh melody awoke something. Her voice raised as a dank wind blew through the cavern inviting terrible awe in the men and still she grew louder, rejoicing in the summoning.

Some of the king’s men witnessed specters floating through the air and all felt cold ghostly hands rubbing lasciviously over them.

The witch’s cacophony of devilish song grew ever louder until an ear shattering climax made the horde of warriors clutch their hearts and fall over dead in an orgy of stifling terror.

Each man became a husk of their former selves, drained of essence, shrunken and used, but the life did not merely evaporate, it flowed elsewhere. The giant skeleton gained flesh and hair, his very armor filled as muscle rocked into the tomb.

The kings froze in terror astride their scores of dead men.

“These things cost and with a blessing must come a curse.”

Hadadezer spoke, “But the pact is not complete. The giant does not yet live.”

“I need more,” said the witch.

“I will lead the horses down,” said Maacah.

The witch shook her finger, pausing her dark invocation to demand, “Human life for human life.”

The prickle of a thousand invisible spiders welled over the kings. Hanum screamed clutching his chest. Toi fell convulsing. Pharaoh turned to run but fell to his knees. Maacah stumbled against the crypt.

“We were not to be harmed, Lilith. You promised,” gasped Hadadezer, as he felt his own life draining from him.

“What care I for the plans of petty kings and fools? I go to break the Creators heart.”

Maacah willed the last of his strength to raise his sword and strike down the laughing witch.

A titanic fist shot from the tomb grasping him by the neck, snapping his spine like dry reeds.

Lilith cried in exultation, “It is done! Go and destroy the Creators favored child! He who is dearest after God’s own heart! Slay your murderer!”

Dead Goliath rose alive, his mottled skin gray and his red beard wild. Eyes like cloudy pearls saw in the dark and fixed on some faraway place. Hunching to clear the passage, the giant grunted while Lilith yet still laughed at the chaos she birthed.

Hadadezer alone of the kings still lived though he appeared to have aged thirty years.

Lilith eyed him without pity. “You alone may yet have some use,” she cooed into his ear, before shouting. “Return to your kingdoms. Rouse your folk, the Philistines. Let them know that Goliath of Gath rises again and will yet have his revenge!”

3. Second Coming

The host of Israel marshaled before Mount Gilboa across from the confederate forces marshalled under Hadadezer and the lost kings. Banners proclaiming forces from all the cities of the plain and north were represented, even foes from beyond the Euphrates had come.

“Who could have rallied these fools?” grumbled Joab. “How many times must I kick the same dog?”

“Three times our number?” questioned David.

“Some accounts say four. But they have arrayed themselves pitifully, leaving the left flank precariously open against those hills. They have no will to fight. Looks like they are waiting to watch Ashtoreth’s nude priestess dance, not a battle.”

“A trap?”

“Certainly. That depression is a killing field. I imagine they hope to contain our chariots there and roll stones upon us. We’ll go around back,” chuckled Joab, “and cut the head off the serpent.”

Joab signaled a kinsman to wave the flag for the cavalry and chariot.

“Hold,” commanded David. “I think your priestess is coming out to dance.”

“Is she naked?” Joab asked excitedly.

“No.”

Joab frowned, shaking his head. “Then she is no priestess of Ashtoreth, lets attack.”

A dark-haired woman in a black gown raised her pale arms calling for silence. The wind lifted her wild hair like a nightmare crown and her voice carried from her ruby lips on the breeze with strength and malevolence. “Hear me, Host of Israel, and know that you serve a false king and a false God!”

An uproar of insults flooded from the Hebrew side countering the witch’s statement. A few stray arrows darted and quivered in the earth near her.

“Hold!” commanded David. “Her words take no power from our faith. It is well known whose God is mightier and true. Am I not his champion? All know this well. Speak further devil woman and damn yourself with more lies.”

Lilith smiled that the bait was taken. “And so, if you are his champion of yesterday—are you still today?”

“All know that I am!”

Joab urgently whispered, “She is baiting you. It’s a trap. There is nothing down there but death from a thousand arrows. Agree to nothing.”

Lilith cried again, “And would you face a champion like yourself? Perhaps even one who was cheated long ago? That he may regain his honor?”

“I deny no man their honor. Men are what they themselves choose.”

Joab cursed softly, “Ba’als Devils! My lord, do not do this.”

“I can slay whatever warrior they choose to bring against me. This is theatrics, nothing more,” said David, before shouting, “Bring on your foul champion!”

“Then come and die!” shouted Lilith. She beckoned for the champion and the crowd of Philistine soldiers parted like the Red Sea for Moses. A giant with a massive helm strode through the philistine ranks, a war club made from a small tree in his hands.

“He’s big,” said Joab.

“I’ve killed giants before.”

“Yes, but he’s really big. Goliath big.”

“I killed Goliath remember?”

“Did you? I remember a swift youth killed him twenty years ago. You’re no fleet-footed boy anymore.”

“I can do this.”

“Of course, you can.” Joab grinned, “Bathsheba hasn’t exhausted your will to slay then?”

David checked his sword belt and adjusted his crown. “When this is done, I’ll have to give you a laying on of hands.”

“Yes, my king,” laughed Joab.

David stalked into the vale as the armored giant loomed behind the dark priestess. “All know me as David Ben Jesse, King of Israel. I am the champion of light and of the one true God. Who do I face this day?”

A halting deep laugh echoed behind the helm, it sounded as if echoing from a cavern. Massive grey hands lifted the burnished mask and David beheld the awful countenance of dead Goliaths face. A small black stone lay embedded in his skin, just above the temple on his right-hand side. White eyes stared beneath the red bushy brow and hideous crooked teeth grinned. “You thought me dead, David Ben Jesse. I merely slept, dreaming of this reunion.”

David stepped backward aghast, not from fear of death, for there was none, but from the very idea that his faith so immovable, so inviolate, was—wrong. “God of my fathers! Why have you abandoned me?” He went slack, ready to faint, dropping to his knees as Goliath raised his war club.

4. Burnt Offerings

David knelt, spirit broken.

Goliath raised his club to deal a crushing blow.

The throng of Philistines cheered. Saul had died here, Jonathon died here—David would die here.

Joab raced down the slope and flung a javelin with all his might into Goliath’s breast. The finely-honed edge pierced the giants scale armor.

While Goliath was pushed back with the sudden impact, he gave no cry of pain nor hint at death but merely reached and pulled the brazen dart out and dropped it unceremoniously on the ground.

Several of the most valiant of David’s six-hundred bodyguard, rushed in behind Joab. Swift Abashai slashed his great sword across Goliaths exposed calf before the giant cast him aside with a sweep of his mighty arm.

More of David’s men moved in as did the Philistines. A tidal wave of men crashed together and the cry of death burned the heavens. Horns blared and men shouted, each calling on their respective God to grant them the strength to triumph. Victory danced upon the chaos, teasing with either side as blood flowed freely upon the cursed Mount of Gilboa.

“David! Get up! Fight! Fight!” cried Joab, as he slew a pair of Philistines that almost closed the distance to the stricken king.

A mob of Hebrews threw themselves against Goliath and were in turn slain as the giant batted them aside like children.

“David!” screamed Joab, against the din. Casting his gaze about through the heat of battle, a flickering light caught his vengeful eye. A torch for fire arrows burned. Racing for the flame, Joab struck down a pair of Philistines. He captured the torch and ran counting heartbeats. “Take this my king!”

Warding blows, David yielded, “It is him. I never slew him. Lord, my God why have I been abandoned?”

Joab slashed his gory blade across yet another encroaching Philistine bravo. “I’ve never believed in anything but you my king. And I know you can do this again!”

“I’ve been abandoned by the Lord. It is done.”

Joab reached out and slapped David, before turning to strike back at Goliath himself. “It’s a trick! Don’t you see it is only Goliath’s son! It’s a trick!”

David glanced up at the hideous mottled face of Goliath. “No, it is him. Back from the dead.”

“Nay, it’s a trick. Shake these fears from your soul and slay the devils that mock you!”

David looked again, a burning in his bosom kindled into a roaring pyre against the malevolent grin leering from Goliath’s face. The king rose and readied his sword, the very one he claimed from Goliath, and he leapt screaming his wrath at the monstrous golem of flesh.

They hacked at the monster, chopping the man-mountain down to size despite his own strikes and blows. Blood ran down David’s face, a sacrament, a baptism of faith against this most hated foe—doubt. Chopped to pieces, Goliath crumpled to the ground, and as years before, the enemy Philistines fled at his defeat. Joab used his torch and crippled the giant before throwing more fuel on to eradicate the grotesque mass of zombie flesh.

What became of Lilith none could say, but over the course of the summer, through four more battles David was told he slew four more of Goliath’s unknown sons. Each corpse was burnt by Joab and yet the giants came again and again.

Nathan the prophet was of no help, for he said that David would never have peace from the sword so long as he lived because of his indiscretions. Joab cursed him and the prophet left the kingdom for the space of many moons.

The crafty general knew it was time to find another way, because though each time they had won, slowly but surely their armies’ numbers dwindled. And with each triumph doubt crept back in, weakening the Israelites resolve. Soon, that doubt would overcome their hollow, pyrrhic victories.

5. Witch versus Witch

The cave beckoned like a hungry mouth. Joab dismounted and blew a Shoah thrice to announce his presence.

An old woman appeared at the door. Withered and skeletal, she wore a long faded green robe. “Speak your business and be quick about it. My time is soon and the king does not look kindly upon my talents.”

“Oh, Witch of Endor, it is on behalf of the king that I have come.”

“Is it now?” She gave a half smile and gestured for Joab to follow. Within her sanctum, a dozen differing scents pummeled Joab’s nostrils. Spices from Ophir, Khitai, and Cush, purple potions and green extracts, scarlet cloth and black iron. Cats strutted through her home and a bestial ape man brooding in the corner grunted.

“What need for me can the anointed king have?”

Joab flinched at the ape man’s sudden jerky movements but the creature remained where it was. “The armies of King David have been beset as of late by a returning specter—the very corpse of Goliath raises again and again. I have burnt the bodies, staked them and even cut them into a thousand pieces and given same to the beasts of the field and fowls of the air and yet every moon they arise again. I cannot fight an undying man forever. What can be done against such sorcery? I should also tell you that Lilith is behind it.”

The Witch of Endor frowned at that. “Her power is greater than mine—but not my Master’s. If I deliver the answer, Adam’s wayward wife will seek retribution against me. I would be foolish and call down doom upon myself were I to help you.”

“That I know, but you are wise and we seek whatever help you can offer.”

She pondered a moment and said, “I am not long for this world. I will help, if only to see the kingdom restored to glory as my husband wished it so long ago. My name will ever be soiled through Lilith’s powers and sway, but I shall help for the sake of the kingdom.”

“Anything. I shall heed you.”

“Three things. First, only that sacred sword, which was once known as Goliath’s own sword can truly sever his head and spiritual bond to this realm. Two, the stone which laid Goliath low must be removed from his skull only then will Goliath’s spirit return to the land of the dead—and stay dead. Three, salt and water must contain the unholy monster’s body to prevent Lilith ever raising it yet again. You find the best way to complete that incantation yourselves.”

Joab bowed. “I thank you Witch of Endor. My best to your departed husband, the prophet Samuel.”

She thanked him with a wave of her hand and disappeared back into the gloom of her cave.

6. Heads Will Roll

Joab rode out at the head of David’s armies into the Valley of Gob. Here they would meet the latest Philistine contingent and if God so willed it, crush them.

True, they had won each previous engagement but every time David’s forces were whittled down, each time they were weaker, every man that failed to return home afterward made another desert from the field. It seemed that though they slew a like amount of men from Hadadezer and Lilith’s forces, more and more enemies came joining with their foes, inspired by the return and indomitable Goliath.

The rag tag army had lost its nerve and marched always glancing behind, planning a way of retreat which foretold of imminent disaster.

Joab whispered, “They need a speech, something David, they need to be inspired or we walk directly into a rout.”

The King nodded but looked almost as somber as his men. “I have lost the will myself. How many sons could a dead man have?”

“Do the numbers matter? We have won and will keep winning if you keep faith.”

“I kept faith with the Lord God but for one mistake and I will never have peace from the sword. What was once a savage joy, a bloody honor, has become painful. A duty of scorn rather than to be celebrated.”

“Now you sound like the prophet Nathan, no sense of humor that one.”

“Did he offer any counsel on defeating Hadadezer?”

Joab snorted, “He offered only a blessing and the counsel that we should again throw off the shackles of our vanity and serve the Lord better than we have so far.”

“Then we have no plan, no strategy on changing this cycle?”

“I did not say that my King. I do have a plan, but my concern is being able to carry it out. You must win the day for us now that I can end the threat.”

“So full of mystery, what did you discover? To whom did you speak?”

Joab grew quiet.

“Answer me,” David commanded.

“It matters not my King.”

“To whom did you speak?”

“The Witch of Endor.”

David cursed aloud and his marching army almost froze.

Joab glanced about fearful at the armies waning courage. “My King, hear me. Do not lose your nerve, we must rally to win the day!”

“Rally? Win the day? When my general consorts with sorcerers behind my back and we march against godless doom and you want me to rally?”

The marchers stopped at David’ tirade against Joab. Too many looked back the way they had come and some few shuffled backward.

“My King, we must use all weapons available to us. We must win no—matter the cost!”

David dismounted and looked upon his wavering troop. “You men of Israel. If we have lost the mercy and grace of God to fight, perhaps we had best return home and spend our last moments—”

“David! Stop! We must turn this day or the Syrians will run us to ground. If they see the army turnabout and flee now they will give chase like hounds and cut us to pieces!”

“But—”

“No! You know I am no godly man, but I am your man! And we must fight and destroy this Goliath to end this. I can do it! But you must rally the men. Convince them we need win one more battle!”

David looked over the faces of his men. From the predatory looking veterans to the frightened farm boys and shepherds who were not so unlike himself years ago. “Men of Israel! My general, Joab, claims he can break our enemies and end this horror! Will you stand with me, your King, and end this evil!?”

Sword and spear tips were raised as cry went up from the host. They would follow this king anywhere so long as he was glad of it.

~

Hadadezer and Lilith watched from across the vale like vultures waiting for a corpse to realize it is dead. Hadadezer said, “So they will indeed fight on, but we have almost twice the men and this time we shall overwhelm them.”

Lilith, whose scarlet robes flapped over her body like a tempest, laughed, calling for Goliath. “Come warrior and defeat him finally.”

Covered in scars and bizarre unfitting accruements, the massive dead man strode to the forefront of the battle. He had been robbed six times already and now he would claim his due.

~

“See how he leads them like the point of a spear? We must break him my King!”

“Isn’t the point the weakest?”

“Aye, but it is also the sharpest. We are with you. We shall prevail!” cried Joab.

David led from the front, his scale armor gleaming in the golden sun.

Goliath strode forward, his own men cowered more than a dozen paces behind, fearful of being struck down in the great swath of his death stroke. “I send you back to the dark, little king.”

David said nothing, but steeled himself to face the towering foe.

Something in Goliath’s eyes dazzled the King. He stepped backward but his foot slipped upon a smear of entrails and blood. He staggered back barely dodging the sudden clashing of steel. Screams of the dying cut through his grim facade. He wanted to run. How could he fight a man who could not be killed?

David dodged away, desperate as Goliath’s swift spear split a man behind to the chin.

Goliath swung the shaft back, cracking David’s right side and sending his helm flinging away.

His sight was replaced with stars swirling in blackness. He struck back blindly feeling his sword sink into human flesh and hearing Goliath howl in pain.

Blessed luck! He had struck his foe blindly while he could not with sight! Arms grabbed him about the shoulders and pulled him away from the giant’s attack.

Goliath’s rage sprang out like oil catching flame. He slammed his sword into the hedge of men and steel behind David.

With his back against Joab and the royal bodyguard, David parried and smote through the madness of the fray, a great voice thundered in the flashing instant he caught a glimpse of the giant form charging through his men. Goliath threw his club. The great bludgeon flew ever closer, like a comet, it brought doom from the sky and then the world crashed into fire shot blackness.

7. Back to the Abyss

Consciousness returned slowly. David was aware of the swaying rocking motion of his whole body laid out in the bed of a wagon. He felt bound up with cords. He could hardly move, hardly feel his hands from the bindings. He knew now he must be a prisoner of Lilith, Hadadezer and the Philistines. They would have some grim torture in store for him, of that there could be no doubt.

The dull throbbing in his head brought nausea. He sought to move and raise his hands when he realized he was not bound as a prisoner but was wrapped in blood-soaked bandages. More blood soaked the bed of the wagon.

His efforts to bring his hands to his face and tear away the bandages were suddenly stopped by a young woman. She responded with a wave of her fingers and a soft voiced, “You were grievously wounded, my king. You must rest. General Joab’s orders.”

“Where are we? Did we lose the battle?”

“We are nearly to the Dead Sea,” she responded. “You must rest. You lost so much blood.”

“So, we were beaten?”

“Oh no, it was a victory, but the general says it is not over.”

“It’s never over,” David lamented.

He struggled to sit up. Looking behind them in another creaking wagon, he saw a massive lump of body parts. Black, it was because it had been singed and hacked to pieces with more than a score of arrows jutting from its corpse like a sea urchin’s spines. Joab rode up beside him. “My King.”

“What happened, Joab?”

“The tempest has been raging yet we prevailed. We must act fast, my King.”

“Where are we? What are we doing? If we are the victor’s, why are we fleeing the field?”

“We succeeded in taking down Goliath a seventh time. But they still outnumbered us and fought to regain his corpse for the sorceress to raise again.”

“You knew it was him all along!”

“I did, but I had to have you rally the men. We will end this soon.”

“How?”

Joab tossed a small black stone into David’s lap. He recognized it. “That is the first stone you ever used. It is one of many things in the magic’s that I must deal with. You keep it, my King.”

“Where are we going? This is not the road back to the palace.”

“The Dead Sea. Soon you’ll understand my King.”

In a short while, the wagons came to a stop on the sandy beach of the Dead Sea. David remained in the wagon but stared as Joab dismounted and braced his feet. He was bandaged and bloodied too.

“Where are the Syrians and Lilith?” asked David.

“We took Goliath, that is all that matters without their champion they are beaten. I just need to be sure that he can never rise again.”

“You lied to me. It was devilish magic. I was abandoned by God!”

“No, my King. Something beyond even your priests understanding took place here but this will put them to rest.”

It took more than a dozen men to move Goliath’s body to the deck of a raft. The head had been cut off and the black stone removed from his temple. The same men worked feverishly tying strips of cloth and chains to stones. All the weight on the raft was barely keeping it afloat.

“Hurry now. There is not much time,” called Joab.

Two fishing boats side-by-side the raft guided it out into the Dead Sea.

“Watch my King. You will see. This will end the madness.”

When the fishing vessels and the raft were more than a half-mile away from shore, Joab had a flag signal them. The workmen tipped the raft over and the great body wrapped in chains sunk to the bottom of Dead Sea.

“We know that will work, David.”

As a storm covers the sea, rage billowed across David’s face.

Joab continued, “Disposing of his head, your stone there and soon enough the spell will be broken and he will rise no more!”

“Trust in more sorcery?” spat David.

“I swear it will work, my King.”

“Swear to join the host of hell,” snarled David, raising up Goliath’s massive sword in a slow deliberate arc.

Joab didn’t move to defend himself. “My King I did everything I could have done. If you must release me of your service now, so be it. But I have done my duty.” Joab laid his head low and exposed his neck, ready for the killing stroke.

David raised his sword, sunlight glinted across the edge. There was a gasp from the serving girl but the men stood hushed.

Red rage washed over him. His God had abandoned him. He was left with nothing but pagan servants who would conspire with witches and do more damning magics. David drew a breath and raised the sword higher.

But something gave him pause. He no longer saw Joab offering his neck, but his old, dear friend, the departed Jonathan. Had he come to this? To despair and punish those who served and loved him?

Suddenly, the great sword of Goliath dropped to the ground. David grabbed his general about the shoulders and pulled him up taking the man in an embrace. “I’m sorry to have doubted, these were trying times. I’ll not forget your service.”

Joab stood, with watering eyes. “My King. I would do it all again though the gods damned me for it.”

“They likely will, but I’ll stand by you.”

“Let us rebind your wounds, then we’ll run Hadadezer and Lilith to ground. We’ll string them up for good!”

David nodded. Judgement would come swifter than eagles and stronger than lions. “Let us ride!”

***

“King of Spades” is copyright © David J. West

David J. West writes dark fantasy and weird westerns because the voices in his head won’t quiet until someone else can hear them. He is a great fan of sword & sorcery, ghosts and lost ruins, so of course he lives in Utah with his wife and children. More about him can be found at kingdavidjwest.com.

Desert Hunt

by Jon Mollison

A symphony of destruction sounded in Karl’s ears. The angelic tinkle of breaking glass interspersed with a demon scream of twisting metal, all underscored by the heavy crunch of vehicle-on-vehicle collision. The truck’s head rest hammered the back of Karl’s head, and the brilliant blue of the morning Sahara sky flashed to jet black.

No sooner had the rusted pick-up truck come to its abrupt halt, than Karl leapt out of the driver’s seat. His work boots hit the hardpan of the desert and drove him toward the gleaming silver SUV whose crushed front leaned against the back end of Karl’s stolen pickup. Steam hissed and billowed out of the silver engine compartment.

The driver of the SUV lay insensate in his seat, his face pressed against the bent upper arc of the wheel. The rear door started to open, and Karl’s stride turned to a leap. He hit the swinging door with both feet, driving it back into the large man clambering out of the SUV, firearm first. He had one foot on the ground, but no leverage to withstand Karl’s assault. The door smacked him in the face and chest, and the gun spun away into the desert. The stunned man’s motion carried his body to the ground where it threw up a thin cloud of dust.

Karl landed on both hands as well. Quick as a cat, he pushed against the ground, and rose to a crouch. He glanced under the carriage of the SUV and spotted two sets of black boots backing away and spread out to circle around the wreck from either side.

Armed only with his knife, he stood no chance against the two men, each sure to be armed to match the unconscious man that lay next to him.

The rear door of the SUV had bounced open after stunning hired gun, and remained so. The portal into the cool, dark interior of the luxury ride showed Karl a means of salvation. In the center-rear seat sat a spindly man dressed in a western style suit, nothing like the local attire of his four hired guns. His thinning gray hair was close cropped and the bulging eyes and knife-edge sharp chin seemed familiar, but Karl had no time to search his memories. He dove into the back seat of the vehicle, whipping an antique knife from the horizontal scabbard that held it in place against his lower back. The man didn’t flinch as Karl’s grabbed him with one hand and used the other to press the point of his eight-inch blade against the man’s neck.

Karl heaved the man out of the SUV. He accommodated the indignity with surprising grace. He shoved the man against the side of the vehicle, braced him there with his left forearm. Pressed chest to chest with the man, Karl found himself face to face with evil. The man’s eyes were as dead as a shark’s. Even in this moment of moral peril, they were shockingly inhuman.

Of course, Karl’s judgement was most likely clouded by his knowledge of the man’s business.

~

Karl hated Cairo for the same reasons he hated New York City. It was loud, dirty, crowded, and foreign. As a child of the wide open Montana spaces, every city was foreign to him. But third-world cities always aroused in his heart a bleak feelings of hopelessness for the future of humanity. The cloistered bustle of the people around him, their rabid selfishness and laziness and desire to wrest what they could from everyone around them by hook or by crook always left him longing for the friendly, open, and trusting citizens of his small home town.

He longed to be there, chopping wood to prepare for a long winter or maybe riding through the wide open spaces, but hiding from the world wouldn’t solve its problems. You had to get out into it and grapple with the world’s evil with your own two hands if you wanted to make a difference.

And Karl wanted to make a difference.

One man couldn’t solve all the world’s problems. He knew that. He also know that most of the civilized world saw little difference between criminals and the vigilantes who delivered justice to them. None of their arguments could convince him that he was the bad guy here. Maybe they could convince the dozens of children Karl had ripped from the hands of human traffickers over the years, but he doubted it.

Waiting was always the worst part of the process. He sipped at the small ivory mug of what the locals assured him was coffee, and grimaced. The ambiance of the run-down and near empty night-café was as bitter as the brew in Karl’s cup. The lingering heat of the afternoon had been chased out by a cool desert breeze that carried the scent of dry dust and ancient tombs. The breezes did nothing to cool the cold anger that burned in his chest as he waited across the street from an unmarked building that careful inspection revealed was built like a fortress. The depravities he knew occurred inside its walls filled him with a righteous wrath that was not reflected on the still features of his face. He could do nothing about that building tonight, he thought, turning a page of the unread book in his hands.

He only grudgingly tolerated making discreet inquiries of the concierge at his tourist hotel, but it was the only reliable first step he had found. He disliked posing as the sort of degenerate who preferred to purchase the sexual favors of minors, but that was the only way to reassure the purveyors of said flesh that he could be trusted. He detested the need to add more American dollars to the city’s underbelly, but that bait was necessary to gain access to the consumer facing portion of human trafficking.

But most of all, he hated the waiting. His corded muscles ached to spring into action, to grab the man he had been following and throttle him to within an inch of his life. He longed to beat the information out of the man. He would have done it already if he could have gotten away with it here and now, but Karl was a foreign man in a foreign land. Worse, his size and demeanor marked him as the worst of all foreigners in this city–an American.

The only justice he could count on finding in this stinking city would be justice wrought with his own two hands. The only instrument of justice he would rely on in this city was the eight inch Marine knife that rested reassuringly against his lower back. His great-grandfather had carried it across the length of Europe in his day, then passed it to his grandfather who carried it through Asian jungles and then passed it on to Karl. Karl had carried it through desert storms before quitting the military in disgust. The knife was as much a part of him, combined with a diminutive of his full name–Karl Barber—to inspire the men of his company to christen him with the nickname, K-Bar.

As he turned another page, a weather beaten white pick-up truck squealed to halt across from the café. Its brakes needed work, Karl thought, as it backed into a dark alley to one side of the nondescript building. A familiar face climbed out of the cab, circled around, and knocked on the steel door across the way. Karl gulped the last of the thick, black brew, and threw a trio of tattered dollars on the table. He snapped the book shut, and casually left, just another tourist dressed in dark jeans and a black shirt, walking back to his hotel, oblivious to the dangers of the Cairo night.

The café owner shook his head as he watched the naïve American leave the café. That one would be lucky to make it back to the hotel still in possession of his wallet. The generous tip the American had left distracted him then, and he did not notice when the man ducked into the dark alley across the way.

~

The back of the creaky pickup truck was stifling and smelled of diesel and old tobacco. While hiding in its dark shadows, Karl had found a small pink plastic barrette. It lay amid the loose detritus scattered about the truck, lost among the bolts and empty soda cans and cigarette butts. He fingered the pink plastic flower and eyed the blacked out windows, grimly amused that the precautions the man had taken to shield his young, unwilling passengers from prying eyes provided a hiding place for the instrument of the man’s doom. As usual, evil had planted the seeds of its own destruction.

After a wait of twenty minutes by Karl’s watch, the man arrived. Karl kept his face turned to the bed of the truck, an un-necessary precaution given that the man never glanced his way. He opened the passenger door, thrust a girl inside, and slammed it shut. The truck rocked and squeaked as the man clambered into the driver’s seat, and they were off. The high warble of rock music played with an Arabic flavor sounded from the truck’s speakers. In the bed of the truck it sounded tinny and distant, and Karl dozed for a time.

After an hour, the jerking and swerving and irregular passage of the truck changed to a more consistent hum as they left the city streets behind and passed onto one of the major highways leading out of Cairo. Karl didn’t dare lift his head to check their direction, as the driver might have spotted him through the window into the cab of the truck. At least the window allowed a draft of cool night air that eased the stink of the atmosphere.

The ride grew rough when they left the highway to travel by roads barely worthy of the title. They bounced along dirt tracks and open terrain for another hour before grinding to a halt.

The soft clicks and pings of the cooling engine sounded loud in the still night air. Karl heard the creak of the springs in the driver’s seat as he shifted. The man drummed on the steering wheel and muttered something in Arabic. Long minutes passed.

Karl heard a slap and the glottal staccato of the man’s voice raised in anger. Another slap, the girl’s soft cry, and Karl reached for his knife.

He told himself not to be stupid. Killing the bottom rung suppliers of this organization, furtive men meeting in the trackless Sahara by night, would do little good. In order to cut the head off this snake, Karl needed information, and that required him to remain hidden until the girl was delivered to the next link in the chain. Saving this one girl from a night of terror might well cost the lives and innocence of dozens or hundreds of others. The smart play was to sit and wait until he had the information he needed, and then deliver his own brand of rough justice.

That might be the smart play, but it was a cold and ruthless thing to do. In the cold desert night, Karl couldn’t mistake the tear choked cry of that one real girl just a few feet away. The fate of countless victims up and down this supply chain hung in the balance as his rational mind fought to control his empathic heart.

The sound of the man fumbling with his belt buckle sealed his doom. Silent as a wraith, Karl rose up. By the pale light of the dashboard, the man gripped the girl by the back of her head and pulled her towards his lap. The man had to lean to his right a little, and this put his head directly in the square frame of the open window between the cab and the covered back of the truck.

The driver’s death was relatively painless. He felt on two heartbeats of shock when a hand covered his mouth. Two heartbeats was all the time it took for the sharp severing of his spinal column to end all feeling, forever. Karl held the man steady for two long minutes as blood and clear cranial fluid sluiced down behind the bench seat of the truck.

It was a humane death, and too good for an animal like him.

The girl’s sobs turned to a wail when she spotted the ghostly hand holding the scary man’s face still. She flinched away, unable to see through the dark windows to the man who had delivered her from evil. She fell into a fetal position and covered her face with both hands, terrified into silence.

It wasn’t until she felt a gentle hand on her back that she slowly turned around. Instead of the hawk-nosed and dusky skinned man with the knit white cap leering at her, she found the fierce, yet sad, eyes of a westerner – an American by his size and dress. He reached his arms out to her. When she hesitated, he wiped her tears away with two gentle thumbs. The dam broke and she leapt into the safety of his arms. He muttered something reassuring. She did not speak his language, but she understood their intent, and tears of fear turned to tears of relief.

Then the stranger placed her back into her seat, straightened her hair and dress, and snapped off the cacophonous radio with a sneer. He had dragged the dead body out of the truck, and now left to stuff it into the bed of the truck. Returning, he slid the dividing window behind them shut. She did not understand when he settled comfortably into the seat and began watching the trucks mirrors and the horizon like a caged animal waiting for its next meal. They could leave now. Just drive off into the night. Was he a simple thief who meant to sell her into slavery too? Her mind began to race, what if he was just another –

His hand patted her on the knee, and smiled her way. He had seen her growing distress, and sought to ease it. She looked into his face. He was a good man, she decided. He hadn’t hurt her yet, and deserved her trust. It was a poor reward, but it was all she had. So she pulled his hand over her shoulder and nestled into the crook of his arm. After a moment of tension, he chuckled and held her close.

She did not know how long she dozed, but the sky was bright when the man startled her awake. He thrust her away, and his hand darted to the ignition. As he gunned the truck’s engine he held one arm across the young girl’s lap and barked a command. Steering one handed, his eyes glued to the rear-view mirror, he aimed the rear of the truck straight at the grill of an on-rushing SUV. There was a crash, and then he was gone into the desert.

~

“The only way we survive this is together,” Karl hissed at the dead eyed man as he pressed him against the hot side of the silver SUV.

The man spoke in a flat voice, dry and sardonic. “Do you know who-–,” but the gleaming steel of Karl’s knife pressed hard against his neck, and he fell silent.

“Tell your men to turn around and start walking,” Karl growled.

The slender man did as commanded, and added a reassurance that he’d be fine. Karl peeked around the back end of the SUV. The one man in his field of vision looked to his unseen companion, nodded, and then turned and began making his way across the hardpan toward a towering yellow sand dune. After a minute, the second thug came into view as well, matching the first’s pace and direction.

“Get in the truck,” Karl ordered his prisoner. “Wait. Grab your laptop case first.”

The man sighed and complied, straightening his cufflinks as he allowed himself to be led to the battered white pickup truck.

Getting into the cab of the truck required a subtle and dangerous dance that involved Karl entering first through the driver’s side door, then pulling the older gentleman in after him. Doing all this one-handed was not easy, but it wasn’t Karl’s first trip to this deadly rodeo. The old man wasn’t fazed fazed by the presence of the frightened young girl crouched on the floor boards. When the two were seated and Karl buckled in–he denied the older man’s request to buckle up, as he wanted the old man as vulnerable as possible–Karl ordered the old man to drive.

The pickup had borne the brunt of impact on its rear, and after a short grinding, burst loose of the ruined SUV. The two bodyguards turned and ran at them, the barrels of outstretched pistols winking in the distance.

Karl’s tight lipped grin was savage. The SUV would never drive again, and it was a long walk back to Cairo. Even if the pair had satellite phones and plenty of water, they were in for a bad day. Either way, they would pose no more threat to him.

For his part, Karl’s prisoner followed every order with a dry, sardonic look on his face.

When they were a few minutes away from the wrecked SUV, Karl snapped at the man, “Where were you taking this girl?”

He chuckled, “She is beautiful, isn’t she? A rare find in this part of the world. A Yazidi by the look of her.” Karl agreed. He had expected the dusky skin so common in the middle-east, but was struck by her brilliant green eyes and blonde hair. “There’s no reason not to tell you, you won’t survive long enough to tell anyone. I’ve been charged with taking her to a small private airport just outside of Cairo. A plane is waiting there, a Lear jet, to take her to a small Greek island where she will be put to use entertaining the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. She is the finest of those taken from Syria. Unspoiled, she is worth a small fortune.” His dead eyes did not match the dry laughter that followed.

“Who do you work for,” Karl demanded.

He laughed again and rattled off a list of powerful CEO’s and politicians, men whose faces appeared on the covers of magazines.

“You’re lying,” Karl accused the man.

“There’s no reason not to tell you. You’ve already signed your death warrant.”

“Not the first time.”

“Indeed. Took me a moment, but I know you now. You’re Karl Barber.” An icy feeling washed over Karl. Anonymity and solitude were part of his strategy. One unknown man could often do things well known and massive organizations could not. “You’ve been some trouble in the past, but my superiors were content to let you chip away at the edges. When they learn you are trying to work your way higher up the organization, they’ll end you.”

“And how are they going to learn in time to stop me?”

“Easy. I’ll tell them.”

“Dead men don’t–”

The man’s sharp laughter stopped him. “Please. You’re no murderer.”

Karl jerked a thumb towards the bed of the truck and the corpse it contained. “You sure about that?”

The man’s reply was as swift as it was painful. His right elbow shot up and under the hand that held Karl’s knife. It circled and caught his jaw at the same moment the vehicle’s engine revved. The truck bucked, and threw Karl backwards, and in that moment of distraction, the man threw a vicious backhand with the knife-edge of his right hand.

It caught Karl on the bridge of the nose, and blood exploded in his sinuses. Karl lost his knife in the confusion, and he lunged at the man barehanded. He got one hand on the steering wheel, and fought to control it. The rocks and ruts of the hard ground raced past at breakneck speed.

The old man was a wiry bastard, and convinced Karl that maybe he didn’t know every trick in the book after all. His arms writhed like snakes, and even seated he used his hips and shoulder and elbows like a surgeon. The man’s experience and cunning negated Karl’s size and strength as they grappled. Somehow Karl wound up with his chest between the man and the steering wheel. One hand held the stability bar over the passenger side door, the other vainly sought purchase on the driver’s door. He snatched at the door lever and the driver’s door cracked open.

The old man grinned triumphantly and stamped on the brake. The momentum carried him into Karl, crushing him against the steering wheel. The door flew open wide, and Karl felt the back of his head crack against the door frame.

Karl had shifted his right hand to the wheel, and with his left still gripping the emergency handle above the girl’s head, he was able to pull himself away from the old man. The old man stamped on the accelerator and the pickup leaped forward. Karl heaved himself across the cab, got his knees up, and thrust out with both feet. The old man’s eyes bloomed as he pitched, hips first, against the swinging door of the truck. It gave instantly, and the man tumbled out onto the dusty desert floor. Karl fumbled at the buckle of the lap belt that still held him fast, and finally managed to squirm over into the driver seat. He pulled the door shut, and checked the side mirror.

In the distance, and rapidly growing smaller, the old man lay on his hands and knees amid rocks and scrubby grass. The bright white sand dunes towering behind the man made a silhouette of his form, and Karl regretted that he could not make out the expression on the man’s face.

~

The old man stood up and dusted himself off. He had gotten a good look at the trouble maker. Whoever he was, he would be dead within 48-hours. All it would take is one phone call. He sneered and reached for his jacket pocket. He shook his head at the damage the fall had wrought on his suit. Italian. It would cost a fortune to replace, but he had several fortunes squirreled away in banks across Europe. He’d pay extra to have that man taken alive, just as soon as he found his satellite phone. It had to be here in one of his pockets. His casually certain search became frantically futile.

His face fell as he spun about, nothing but sand and scrub in all directions. He was already sweating from the hot desert sun. An hour’s drive meant a sixty mile hike. Two days of travel in the best of circumstances. In these shoes, and with no water…

A ring of black shadows took to their wings and began to form overhead.

~

Karl grinned and smashed his hand down on the dashboard of the truck, shattering the man’s satellite phone. Men like that never understood that fighting to kill was a fool’s errand when more subtle matters were at play.

He let the shards of the broken phone fall to the floor and smiled reassuringly at the green-eyed girl. He didn’t know how to reunite a Christian girl in a Muslim land with her far-off people, but a Coptic priest in a Cairo suburb he trusted would know.

He also knew a guy that could crack whatever security the old man had installed on his computer. It hadn’t gone as planned, but he was satisfied. He had hit the mother lode of information about this human trafficking ring, and the future looked bright.

He smiled again, broader now, and held the girl in one protective arm. She nestled in a little closer and sighed in contentment. This was always his favorite part.

***

“Desert Hunt” is copyright © Jon Mollison.

Jon Mollison serves as a proud front-line fighter in the Pulp Revolution. He has previously written the well received “Sudden Rescue”, “Five Dragons”, and the newly released “A Moon Full of Stars”. He works as a scientist in Honolulu where he dedicates his time away from the keyboard to a loving wife and large number of children. Additional Karl Barber adventures can be found in “Street Fight: The Karl Barber Collection”.

The Chronicle of the Dark Nimbus

by Keith West

“Are you sure you’re fit for this night’s work, Rodrik?” my liege Prince Balthar asked, sliding his sword into its sheath and turning to face me.

“Aye, my lord. Never better.” I rotated my left arm in a complete circle to demonstrate and tried not wince from the pain at the top of the arc. The truth was I could have used another week of recovery, but I was tired of sitting around waiting to finish healing. It was my duty to be beside my liege if he were truly facing danger, whether I was injured or not.

“Then let’s be at it,” he said and gave my shoulder a comradely slap. This time I did wince, but Balthar had already turned and was leaving our chambers. Sometimes he literally didn’t realize his own strength, a side effect of the curse.

If anything were to happen, it would most likely be tonight. Andrus had been sure of it. Tonight was the night of the new moons, when both of them would rise with the Sun, and the morrow was Winter Solstice. The only thing that had happened since we arrived at Gaspar’s keep two days ago had been unending snow.

We made our way without speaking along the corridor towards the wing in which the thaumaturgist Gaspar had his work area. Our footsteps echoed as we crossed the main hall. A few tapers lit the way to the stairwell visible through the entrance on the other side.

I had to admit guard duty was a nice change from traveling, especially at the dead of winter in these climes. Gaspar was surprised to see us, although he remembered us from his visit to the palace five years ago. He would have offered us hospitality in any event, but when we shared Andrus’ concerns with him, he went out of his way to make us welcome. Of course, we were there to protect him. We all wished Andrus’ vision had been a little clearer regarding what we were protecting him from.

As we reached a wide landing at the top of the stairs, the flambeaux lit of their own accord and the door to the main workroom swung open to admit us, the doors to the other rooms remaining closed. Gaspar’s work area. If anyone other than Gaspar, us, or his steward Diocletian had ascended the stairs, nothing would have happened. The lights would stay on as long as we were in the room.

Lamps in the workroom lit in the same manner as the flambeaux revealing tables covered with flasks, beakers, mortars, and pestles. The stair ascending upwards to the left and giving access to the roof was opposite the door, a single window above the stair and a blazing fire in the fireplace to the left where the stair met the ceiling. In spite of the cold and the clouds, Gaspar would be on the observation platform. Neither Balthar nor I were sure how he could take measurements of the heavens with all the clouds, but he had assured us he could. A sagging shelf of books, scrolls, and parchments stood against the right hand wall, its contents poking out at odd angles and the whole things looking like it would collapse under its own weight any second. Against the wall opposite the bookcase were more shelves, containing jars, vials, reliquaries, and wooden boxes of various shapes and sizes. On the workbench in front of us was a jar half-full of what I had learned were Harpy eyes. Several of them swiveled to track our motion as we entered the room.

On a different table, to the left of the center of the room a good distance from anything else, was an enormous bell jar containing a homunculus as tall as my forearm is long. He rolled over, rubbed his eyes, made a rude gesture in our direction, and laid back down. Soon we could hear his tiny snores echoing within the jar.

Prince Balthar surveyed the assorted apparatus and instruments on the tables. A casual glance suggested clutter, but a closer inspection revealed a subtle level of organization. Gaspar stored things where they were easy to reach, often meaning in the work area.

“The only way anyone can reach Gaspar now is through us or by flying,” Balthar said.

“There is still that possibility, my liege,” I said. As if to contradict me, a gust of wind rattled the shuttered window over the stairs.

“Gaspar doesn’t think it likely in the storm.” Balthar turned as he spoke, his eyes taking in the details of the room, the angle a knife lay on a table, the number of flasks on a shelf and the colors of their contents. “He’s as stubborn as Andrus about conducting his magical studies. He’s more concerned about someone stealing something from his workroom.”

I picked up a pestle, twirled it in my fingers, and put it down. A red residue remained on my glove. I wiped the dust off on my cloak. “Andrus has had no further visions?” I asked. Andrus communicated with Balthar by the means of an ensorcelled scroll upon which appeared writing that only Balthar could see.

“No, just the original vision. All he can tell us is that someone will try to break in to Gaspar’s work area sometime leading up to the night of the new moons. That only leaves tonight. This person must be stopped, or else the consequences could be dire. His additional scrying reveals there is more than one possible outcome to this event, each with its own harmful results. Beyond that he isn’t able to say anything definite.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Something amuses you, Rodrik?” asked Balthar.

“I was just thinking of the irony of the situation, my liege. Us, guarding against a thief.”

Balthar smiled. “Sometimes it takes a pair of thieves to capture a thief.”

“Indeed, although I look forward to the day we leave that aspect of our lives behind us.”

“Me, too, Rodrik. Me, too.” There was a wistfulness in Prince Balthar’s voice I seldom heard. At times like these I was reminded of how long we had been in exile. He seldom mentioned his father anymore, but I knew they both desired the curse to be broken so that they could be reunited. King Mordecai didn’t want Balthar to bear the guilt of patricide he suffered under, nor did he desire to die by his son’s hand, so we were exiled until the curse was broken or the king died of natural causes.

We said nothing else for some while. Instead we paced the room. Occasionally Balthar would pick up a tome and leaf through it. I preferred not to take chances by touching them. It grew steadily colder, in spite of the fire. Gaspar must have placed an enchantment on it, for we never had to add wood though it blazed steadily. By midnight we could see our breath on the air.

Then the lights seemed to grow dim. At first I thought I was getting drowsy, then I realized that all the lights, the ones on the landing as well as in the workroom, including the fire, were getting dimmer.

I heard a chirp and turned towards the bell jar. The homunculus was awake and on his feet, his hands placed against the sides of the jar facing the door. He began to move from side to side, never taking his eyes from the door.

Balthar and I looked at each other. Without making a sound, we drew our blades. He stood inside the door while I positioned myself to watch the stairwell. The lights grew gradually dimmer. From somewhere below, a clock chimed midnight. It sounded like the one in the great hall, but Gaspar was obsessed with the passage of time and had numerous others scattered about his keep. The only room free of clocks, surprisingly, was the workroom.

The dimming of the lights stopped. The room wasn’t in total darkness, but it was difficult to make out details more than a few feet away.

We heard a sound, like a boot sole scraping a step. A minute later we heard another.

The homunculus began bouncing around inside the bell jar, trying to get out. I thought he would knock himself senseless, he was hitting the walls of the jar so hard.

Balthar moved to stand beside the door. I was between two workbenches forming an aisle facing the stairs. There was no where I could go, so I prepared to confront our intruder.

The lights in the stairwell dimmed some more as a figure made its way to the top.

It was a woman with long, unbound auburn hair. She was dressed in grey moleskin boots, brown breeches, a green shirt, and brown leather gloves. A hooded blue cloak flowed behind her, clasped at the neck by a silver amulet holding an obsidian. At first I thought it was a trick of the dim light, but then I realized the edges of the cloak merged with the shadows. She wore leather epaulets, and a leather vest covered her breasts. Two emerald bands clasped her right thigh. A leather scabbard, the scratches on it visible even in the dim light, hung from a leather belt with a horned visage as a buckle. Her right hand held a wicked looking scimitar.

But it was what was in her left hand that disturbed me most. Held aloft, she carried a wand with another obsidian mounted at the end. This one was different than the one in the clasp. It seemed to be pure black and darkness literally radiated from it. As it passed in front of one of the flambeaus, the light from it vanished, even though the end of the wand was a handbreadth below the flame.

The woman mounted the remaining steps deliberately, with an even tread. She moved in a crouch, as though she were expecting trouble. At the top of the stairs, she stopped on the landing. I could see a slight reflection of the light in her eyes as her gaze passed across the open doorway and knew she saw me.

Her eyes turned pitch black as they passed over me.

Instead of threatening me with her blade, she raised the wand and flicked the end at me, similar to a horse master’s use of a whip to make a trained horse perform in the arena. A ball of darkness came rolling towards me. From it trailed tendrils resembling smoke. They dissipated as they broke off. Whatever it was, I was sure the nimbus was something other than smoke, and far more deadly. It was moving slowly enough I was able to duck as it reached me.

That was a mistake.

As the ball of darkness passed overhead, she brought the wand down sharply. I was enveloped in the darkness.

Not only was I blinded, but all sensation was cut off within the cloud. I couldn’t hear, nor could I feel the draft from the window that had been caressing my cheeks moments before.

I inhaled in surprise. Another mistake.

I felt as though all air had vanished from my lungs. Instinctively, I gasped for breath. That only made the sensation worse. Growing dizzy, I began to fall to my right. I put my hand out to try and catch myself and dropped my sword in the process. My sense of vertigo increased.

Not knowing what else to do, I dove forward, my hands reaching out in front of me to break my fall. I wasn’t sure of any direction now but up and down, and even they were uncertain.

I came out of the cloud at an angle to the direction I’d been facing. My shoulder screamed as my left arm brushed along the side of a table leg. At the same time I inhaled a great breath of the frigid air. Never had anything so cold felt so good. In the background I could hear the homunculus screaming, but whether in terror or rage I couldn’t say. It sounded a like a little of both.

The clash of steel on steel made me look up. Balthar had seen enough to strike at the woman as she entered. Life on the road had convinced us of the futility of courtly ideas of chivalry. When someone was trying to kill you, you had only one choice if you wished to remain alive. That was fight back, even if your attacker was a woman. It had been our experience that some of the deadliest killers were members of what troubadours called “the fairer sex”. There was nothing fair about how some of them fought.

The example Balthar was facing was no exception. His greater size and strength had her pinned against the doorframe. Her blade was slowly lowering as he pressed it backwards. His left hand squeezed her throat, and I could hear her breath wheezing as he cut off her air. Given the lack of air I had just experienced I was less than sympathetic.

She still held the wand in her left hand, but the strange dark glow around the obsidian on the end was gone and her eyes had reverted to normal.

The woman shifted her weight onto her left foot and brought her knee up into his groin, not once but two, then three times with increasing strength. His grip broke, and the pressure he was applying with his sword decreased enough for the woman to straighten her arm and force him back. He crashed into a table, doubled over.

I didn’t have time to try to find my own blade. Instead I grabbed the first thing my hand touched on the table top. It was a jar about the size of a small melon. I hurled it at her as hard as I could.

She was already moving towards Balthar when the jar left my hand. It clipped the back of her neck and bounced out the door and onto the landing without breaking. She turned towards me, more angry than hurt. I noticed the black nimbus had begun to reform around the end of her wand.

I didn’t dare take my eyes off her. My left shoulder was throbbing. I reached behind me and felt about for my sword without success. I hoped the first nimbus she had hit me with had dissipated because she was about to hit me with another. She raised her wand again. To my right I could hear the homunculus going berserk. As her eyes began to go black, Prince Balthar lurched to his feet.

“No!” he bellowed and charged.

His sword came up in a backhanded swipe and caught the wand as it was dropping to release another nimbus. Sparks flew at the impact, but the wand didn’t break. Balthar’s sword swept the wand aside as he followed through on his stroke.

The impact of his strike turned the woman towards Balthar, and the nimbus went wide. At first I thought Balthar would be hit full in the face by it. Only his curse-induced reflexes allowed him to duck in time. Even then a portion of the nimbus brushed the left side of his head. The two of them went tumbling over the workbench, scattering paraphernalia in their wake. Glassware shattered and powders filled the air. I could hear hissing where some corrosive liquid had spilled and was eating through the granite tabletop.

A part of me wondered what Gaspar was doing and why he hadn’t come to investigate. Even if he couldn’t hear the commotion over the wind, surely he had some type of alarm set up to alert him of intruders.

Balthar’s momentum carried them into the shelves, which collapsed under the impact, dumping scrolls and ancient tomes down on top of them and in a semi circle surrounding them. A cloud of dust expanded out into the room, carried away by the draft from the window. The dust had a musty smell, not unlike what I’d smelled while robbing countless tombs.

While they tried to excavate themselves from the pile, I retrieved my own weapon. In spite of her smaller size, if the woman were to free herself first and launch another nimbus, she would be more than a match for Prince Balthar.

I must have kicked my sword while in the nimbus earlier, for it was on the other side of the workbench behind me, next to the homunculus’ table. The homunculus was beside himself. The creature was screaming and beating himself against the side of the bell jar. I scrambled under the workbench to retrieve my blade, my shoulder blazing with pain.

I grabbed the hilt and stood up. That was when I noticed something. I’m not sure why it registered, but it did. The bell jar was rocking back and forth as the homunculus threw himself against it. That shouldn’t have been possible. I had spent enough time around Andrus to know that there should have been a spell on the bell jar to prevent just what I was seeing.

The nimbus must have either hit or grazed the jar. There was no sign of the nimbus now, but it was some sort of magical weapon. It must have negated the spell when it came in contact with the jar, and the homunculus, a magical creature, would have sensed that.

Before I could think how to respond, the homunculus threw himself against he jar one last time, and the jar tipped over, shattering when it struck the floor.

I expected the homunculus to try to escape from the room or hide. Instead the tiny creature leaped to the workbench I’d just crawled under, took two strides, leapt to the far workbench, and launched himself at the woman.

She was on her feet. While she still held the wand in her hand, she’d lost her sword when Balthar plowed into her. She was holding the wand in front of her in a defensive position, waiting for Balthar to rise from under the pile of debris. She seemed to have forgotten about me.

As he landed on the woman’s back, the homunculus let out the most bloodcurdling scream I’ve ever heard. His hands wrapped around her head, tiny claws reaching for her eyes. She staggered forward past the pile of debris and nearly dropped the wand.

The woman reached up with her free hand and somehow managed to get a grip on the thing’s right arm and hurled it towards the back of the workroom. Speaking for the first time, she cursed the creature in multiple languages. I recognized only one, a northern dialect shared across several kingdoms, but her accent was from the tropics. I noticed rivulets of blood flowing down her cheek from cuts just below her eye, like crimson tears.

The creature hit the wall above the stairs with an impact that should have broken bones. Instead, he bounded back, still screeching and jabbering. The woman swatted him away with her wand. Small clouds of black mist erupted from the wand as it made contact with his skin.

The screams of the homunculus turned from those of rage to sheer agony. He bounced off the workbench and went sliding across the floor. I didn’t see where the thing ended up, but I could hear it whimpering softly.

The woman started to turn her attention to me when the shelf beside her lifted from the floor. Prince Balthar had been pinned under it. As he stood, he shoved it aside. The former contents of the shelves littered the floor around him, and a small book slid down his back as he straightened to his full height. This produced a second cloud of dust. He shook his head, still stunned.

At the sound of Balthar rising, the woman backed to the stairs and faced us, panting, wand held aloft. We had her trapped, like a snow sabre-tooth, and like one of those great cats, she was at her most dangerous when cornered.

We stood that way, facing each other, none of us daring to make the first move. The nimbus at the end of her wand was beginning to reform. She would launch it at whichever one of us attacked first. I had no desire to experience the thing again, and I’m sure Balthar felt the same way. Even if we attacked together, one of us would probably be taken out. We were both too far from her to reach her before she could launch the thing.

As soon as she launched the nimbus, whether at Balthar or myself, the other would be on her before she could summon another. She would be wise to strike at Balthar, for he was the greater threat. To what extent she realized this, I know not. Even if she could neutralize Balthar, something I had to do everything I could to prevent, the outcome of a fight between us was uncertain. While not of the skill level of Balthar, I am an accomplished swordsman, and I was motivated to recompense her for the pain she had caused me. However, I had seen her skill with the wand as a simple club; I wouldn’t have an easy time of it.

In order to protect Balthar, I decided to attack first. That was when the trap door to the roof banged open behind me. Snow swirled into the room, and the wind stirred the papers scattered around Batlhar. The increased chill made me aware that I was sweating in spite of the cold.

“It’s about time you showed up, Gaspar,” said Balthar. “Some help would-”

Whatever Balthar had been about to say died on his lips. I turned and to my amazement, the figure on the stair behind me wasn’t Gaspar, but his steward, Diocletian. We had thought him below, in the main part of the keep. Before I could respond, he withdrew a dagger from his sleeve and threw it at Balthar.

My liege was able to twist so that the blade glanced across his ribs. The chain mail he wore under his cloak should have protected him. Against any ordinary blade it would have, but Diocletian’s blade must have been ensorcelled. The links on Balthar’s armor tinkled as they hit the floor. They were a reddish color, partly from Balthar’s blood, partly from having rusted on contact with the dagger.

“You assured me you could handle them,” Diocletian growled at the woman.

“Ordinary men, yes, but that one is no ordinary man,” she said, gesturing with her wand at Balthar. “That will cost you extra if I get out of this alive. You didn’t tell me he was magically protected.”

“He shouldn’t be. Gaspar didn’t give either of them any protections.”

Balthar pressed his left hand to his side. His wound was bleeding steadily, but as the flow wasn’t heavy, it didn’t appear to be life threatening. Probably just a flesh wound. Still it would slow him down.

I turned back to Diocletian. He was drawing another dagger from his sleeve. I wasn’t sure who his target was, me or Balthar, but I could ill afford to wait long enough to find out. I launched myself at the woman.

She was the greater threat. Balthar could dodge a thrown dagger, now that he was expecting to be the target, and deal with Diocletian. If I were the target, I would be harder to hit. I also had the faint hope that Diocletian wouldn’t throw at me and risk hitting his accomplice.

The woman was unprepared for my assault. I brought my blade up in a thrust at the end of my lunge. I had the satisfaction of feeling steel pierce her thigh. It didn’t penetrate far, a few fingers’ width at most. Stepping forward out of my lunge, I prepared to rip my sword up through her leg and hip, crippling her with a wound that would cause her to bleed to death. If someone didn’t kill her first, something I had every intention of doing.

She must have anticipated my strategy, for she blocked my blade with her wand and stepped back. Somehow in doing so, she managed to pull her leg off the end of the sword.

My arm tingled when the jewel at the end of the wand made contact with my sword as the wand slid along the steel.

She stepped forward again as she swung the wand a second time. In spite of her injury, her timing was perfect. I was still stepping forward out of my lunge as she moved. Her forward momentum, coupled with the impact of her swing, prevented me from regaining my stance, and I was forced to take a step backwards. Part of the impact I felt was when her leg buckled, throwing her against me. Instead of pressing her advantage, she raised the wand.

I looked for somewhere to duck, but there was no place to go. I had been forced back between the two workbenches.

Rather than hitting me with another nimbus, as I was expecting, the woman brought the wand straight down to the floor. I would describe what happened as a flash, except a flash isn’t dark but bright. Whatever the darkness was that the wand projected, it erupted, filling the room. Everything went black. This time I had no difficulty breathing, at least not until something hit me in the gut. It felt like a fist.

I was hit hard enough I slammed into the table to my left. My shoulder experienced a new wave of pain. It was nearly a minute by my reckoning before the room cleared enough to see. The wind from the open trapdoor accelerated the process. In the dimness I could see Diocletian leaping over the debris, trying to reach the door. His long robe hampered his efforts. Balthar came at him from over the table, taking him down by flying through the air and hitting him with his full weight.

I heard Diocletian’s breath leave him as Balthar drove him into the floor, an exhalation so great I could see Diocletian’s chest compress beneath Balthar’s weight. He didn’t rise when Balthar pulled himself to his feet.

The prince’s side was still bleeding, and his exertions hadn’t diminished the flow. I managed to regain my feet. To do so required me to lay my sword down, something I was loathe to do. I had no idea where the woman had gone. While I much preferred to believe she had fled, until I had evidence that such was the case, I chose to be cautious. I picked the sword up again as quickly as I could.

I limped over and stood next to Prince Balthar. Somewhere in the room, the homunculus was crying.

“Are you all right, Rodrik?”

“Aye, my liege, well enough. It will be another few weeks before my shoulder is healed, though.”

He nudged Diocletian in the ribs with the toe of his boot, none too gently. Diocletian groaned weakly, and his eyelids fluttered open. He lay there gasping like a mermaid out of water. “I wonder what led him to betray Gaspar? I suppose we’ll learn soon enough-”

He stopped, and we looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. I headed towards the stairs. As I mounted them, I saw Balthar grasp Diocletian’s robes in one hand, lift him from the floor, and smash his fist into the steward’s face. He tried to throw the unconscious man over his shoulder, but his injury prevented him from doing so. Instead he drug Diocletian by his robe across the room and up the stairs.

I ascended the stairs as fast as I could climb them. When I reached the roof, I was panting. The cold was bitter, burning my throat and lungs, and the wind cut through my clothing, tearing away any bit of warmth.

I had never been up on the roof of Gaspar’s tower. The trap door opened near the crenellations, and I had to turn to view the main part of the roof. It was mostly clear of snow, something that had to have been accomplished by magic, as the snow continued to fall a few feet away.

Along the walls were various devices. Some I recognized as astrological instruments, others were clearly timepieces, while some were totally unfamiliar to me. Of the ones I thought I recognized, several were larger and more complicated than I had ever seen. The area was illuminated by six crystals twice the size of a man’s head. Each was a different color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and white. They occupied the points of a huge six pointed star in the middle of the work area. A black substance encircled the star, which was white.

Gaspar was in the middle of the star, on his back, his eyes open, staring at the sky. He lifted his head as I approached.

“Help,” he whispered. He must have been magically projecting his voice because I had no trouble hearing him over the howl of the wind.

“How?” I asked. I stopped at the edge of the circle. Association with Andrus before our exile had taught me caution where sorcery was concerned. I had no desire to break or cross the circle unless Gaspar told me it was safe to do so.

He raised his hand. I could see a dark stain on the stonework beneath him. “Bring me the amulet. Cross the circle.” He pointed to an amulet hanging from a complicated apparatus I didn’t recognize.

I picked it up. The stone was iridescent and warm to the touch. I could feel its heat through my glove. It felt good; my fingers were beginning to go numb.

I saw Prince Balthar standing next to the trap door. Diocletian lay in a heap beside him.

In spite of Gaspar’s instruction to cross the circle, I took care not to touch any of the lines. I knelt beside him, and he took the amulet from my hand. Covering it with both hands, he held the amulet to his breast and muttered an incantation. This time he didn’t project his voice; I couldn’t tell if he was actually speaking or if his lips were merely moving.

Through his hands I could see the amulet begin to glow. After a couple of minutes the glow subsided. Gaspar sat up. I reached to help him to his feet, but he waved my hand away.

“I’ll be fine,” he said in a normal voice. He strode to where Balthar was waiting.

“It seems I owe the two of you a debt,” he said to us. Gaspar knelt down, grasped a handful of Diocletian’s hair and forced his head up. Diocletian’s eyes widened. “And you as well, my not so faithful servant. I always pay my debts. All of them.”

~

Gaspar bound Diocletian in some type of cage and proceeded to interrogate him. The steward had tried to steal the amulet. He’d been assisting Gaspar with his thaumaturgy when he stabbed the sorcerer. Unfortunately for him, Gaspar had locked the amulet into a spell which was still active when he was attacked. Diocletian had intended to wait until the spell ran its course, but he had come down to aid his accomplice. Gaspar had deactivated the spell before he asked me to hand him the amulet.

We never found out who the woman was, but she wasn’t in the keep. We were at a loss as to how she came and left. We were over a dozen leagues from the nearest town, and any normal person would have frozen in the storm. The woman was some sort of sorceress; beyond that, everything about her was a mystery. Gaspar used all his sorcery to try and find her without avail. Diocletian was not yet forthcoming with any information about her. We left before he changed his mind and talked. Gaspar wasn’t able to use the amulet to heal my shoulder or Balthar’s ribs since it was attuned to his life energy. However, Diocletian’s screams were enough to make us continue our wanderings in spite of our injuries.

***

“The Chronicle of the Dark Nimbus” is copyright © Keith West

Keith West has been a fan of the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and historical adventure genres for more years than he’s willing to admit. By day he teaches impressionable young people his bad habits (of which there are many) and by night he tells lies for fun and profit (more fun than profit). He commits dayjobbery in the field of Physics where in addition to teaching he occasionally writes cross genre documents known as grant proposals, consisting of science fiction (the proposal), fantasy (the budget), and horror (the reviewers’ comments). He and his wife make their home in West Texas with their son (adopted from Kazakhstan) and two dogs (adopted from the animal shelter). He denies having an addiction to using parentheses. Keith can be found online at www.adventuresfantastic.com.

Menagerie

by Steve Dubois

“The Confederacy?” The tall, flinty figure turned to his companion in surprise. “Really?” The thick Irish burr of his voice resounded across the deck of the HMS Dauntless, pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet. The verdant green of the tree line was plainly visible in the distance above the indigo waters of Florida’s Atlantic coast.

“So it seems, Sergeant Curragh,” replied the smaller man. He was older, perhaps sixty, with a short, well-groomed white beard, his head crowned by a distinctive red leather Marlow. If the Irishman’s voice was a harsh blast of North Channel sleet, his companion’s was a velvety London fog, subtle and insidious.

Curragh shook his head, a scowl crossing his craggy, scarred countenance. “Buncha slavers, that’s all they were. Got knocked flat fer it. Turned night riders, hidin’ under hoods and scarin’ the daylights outta innocent folk who just wanna make a livin’.” He spat over the railing. “An’ now, they’re thinkin’ o’ givin’ it another go? Right buncha gombeens, the lot of ‘em. An’ if y’ask me, Professor Runciter, the Empire’s well rid o’ the whole continent.”

Runciter gave a small smile. “Well, the Empire wants what it wants. Wiser heads than ours make those decisions. The head of our patroness, for one.”

“Lady Basingstoke? Aye, she’s a shrewd one, especially for such a wee slip of a girl. Pretty little head on ‘er too, if that’s not too familiar a remark.” His mouth puckered in concern. “Wish she were a bit less eager to risk that head, gallivantin’ about the world like she does, followin’ in our wake…”

The comment earned a short laugh from Runciter. “In our wake? Rather the converse, I think. One might as well wish for the sun to rise in the west as for the Countess to remain in Hampshire, hosting tea parties and cotillion balls. No, Curragh, it is she who leads, and we who trail behind her, as the tail behind the head of a comet. She our keeper, and we her ‘menagerie’, as she puts it. But I was, in any case, referring to our…other patroness.”

“Ah. Her Ladyship’s…friend.”

“The very same,” Runciter replied. “Her Majesty’s government enacts the popular will, and popular passions may at times be disordered.” The older man’s gaze turned again to the shore in the distance. “When Her Majesty’s own priorities do not match those of her ministers…well, then, it is time for Her Majesty to call upon her special friend, is it not?”

“Aye,” Curragh agreed. “And her friend’s friends.”

The conversation went no further, as a third man joined them at the rail. He was the youngest of them, but looked the oldest—sickly pale and stick-thin, with rheumy eyes and a neck as wattled as a turkey’s. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he wheezed. “Her Ladyship awaits you below.” He turned and ambled unsteadily across the deck to the trap door through which he had earlier ascended.

“Time t’ do some soldierin’, then.” Curragh sighed. “Ah, well. Round up that boy o’ yers, Professor, it’s time we earned our keep.”

Runciter smiled thinly. “Jack departed two days ago, sergeant. You probably don’t remember, as you were…indisposed.”

“Was I?” And, through a haze, the memory returned to him…a night of cards and carousing with some of the lesser lights among the crew, a purloined key, secret access to the ship’s store of grog. “Ah. Ah, yes. I was.” He puffed out his cheeks and exhaled explosively. “Was I ever! That stuff had a kick like a camel. Musta been brewed with a pincha gunpowder.” Even the recollection of the hangover was enough to provoke a wince. “So…where is Jack, exactly?”

~

The smell, rank and musty, ripe with decay. The moist, fragrant air bringing a thin sheen of sweat to his deeply bronzed skin. The chatter of insects in the undergrowth, and the odd rumble from the swamp’s larger creatures. Feels almost like home, thought Jack. It had been a full decade since New Orleans, since Professor Runciter’s men had chased down a young starveling in order to recover the Professor’s hat. Their eventual capture of him, following a six-hour pursuit, proved the luckiest event of Jack’s life, for the London sophisticate had taken an immediate shine to the mulatto orphan boy, had lifted him out of his wretched life and into his own peculiar, meandering orbit. Since then, Jack had circumnavigated the globe several times over, had acquired an education second to none, and had seen more different kinds of trouble than he’d dreamed existed as a small boy in the back streets of a city which was plenty big, but seldom easy.

This was not New Orleans, though. This was an even rougher neighborhood, as was evidenced by the burly, grey-uniformed men on each of his shoulders—Blondie on the left, Goatee on the right, hauling him up the mucky trail, down a short dirt track between fields of cultivated sugarcane, towards the limestone fortress that loomed suddenly before them. The iron manacles about his wrists and the accompanying leg irons were, in a way, another reminder of home. Jack had, in his wayward youth, been called before the local magistrate on numerous occasions, and had even spent a few nights behind bars. Often enough, he allowed himself to be caught for the sake of shelter and a free meal, for it was well-established that, even as a nine-year-old, no cell could hold him except by his consent.

Jack’s captors ushered him to a wrought-iron portcullis, which rose slowly, then into a dim, ill-kept courtyard—where, sure enough, the Confederate banner flew. As he entered, he passed a column of chained black men, marching grim-faced out into the surrounding fields, accompanied by a rifle-armed overseer. Jack was half-dragged over to a corner in which a tall, raw-boned figure stood idly picking his teeth.

“Brought ye another ‘un, Colonel,” Goatee said. “This’n was in chains when we found him. Might be an escapee from a work gang, we figger. Led us a hell of a chase afore we ran him down.” But not half the chase I would have, Jack thought, if I hadn’t wanted to be caught.

The tall man nodded. “Might be. Might be this one’s got a little cream in his coffee, too. Check out the green eyes on him. No matta; one droppa darkie blood’s enough.” He glared down at Jack. “Y’ got a name, boy?”

Jack gave his best impression of shuffling deference. “Jack, suh,” he muttered, staring at the ground in front of him. He hoped he’d managed the dialect; his travels had long since deprived him of the accent he’d grown up with.

It must have been good enough, because the tall man nodded. “And I’m Colonel Alvin Winslow, Confederate States Militia. That surprise ye, boy?” Jack feigned intimidation, shuddering under the man’s glare. “Reckoned it might. Make no mistake, boy, we’re back in business. Never left it, truth be told, though we’ve had to play things a mite bit quieter lately. Not to worry, though; the rebel yell’ll sound again, soon enough. Let’s see those hands…” Jack’s captors grabbed him roughly by the wrists, lifting his palms towards Winslow, who prodded at them as if testing a piece of produce in the market. “Hmmm…hard calluses on this ‘un. Wiry, but with good shoulders. Dressed in rags…field hand, no doubt. Y’ been sharecroppin’, boy?”

Jack figured silence was his best bet. Winslow’s fist, flashing across in a sudden, sweeping backhand, informed him that he’d figured wrong. He suddenly found himself on his knees, the taste of blood in his mouth. “You’ll answer when called on, boy!” shouted Blondie.

Jack stammered out an affirmative response, and Winslow nodded, inspecting his own knuckles. “Nothing personal, boy,” he muttered. “Just necessary to remind ye of yer place. Work hard, keep quiet, won’t be no need for no more of that.” He raised an eyebrow. “Now, mind ye, boy, you’re no slave. Wouldn’t dream of it. That’d be illegal, ye see.” Blondie and Goatee both gave a chuckle at the comment, but Winslow continued, straight-faced. “Any time ye feel like leavin’…” Winslow gestured broadly back at the portcullis. “…feel free to hop that wall an’ set out. Nothin’ but fifty miles o’ alligator-infested swamp between ye an’ civilization, an’ ye in irons acourse, cuz we wouldn’t dreama deprivin’ ye of the property ye came here with.” Another sycophantic laugh from Blondie and Goatee.

Winslow, however, wasn’t done. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and withdrew a single grey banknote. “And ye bein’ a free laborer an’ all, figure I might as well advance ye yer first month’s pay. One Confederate dollar. Don’t spend it all in one place.” He folded the bill carefully, then tucked it into Jack’s left palm. “Hang on to that, boy. Could be that soon enough, ye’ll find its value appreciatin’ sharply. Meantime…” Winslow raised his gaze to the men on Jack’s left and right, “…y’all introduce young Jack here to his quarters. He starts in the fields tomorrow.”

~

The Countess of Basingstoke and her companion occupied the largest cabin aboard the Dauntless; even so, it was a cramped fit for five occupants. Runciter and Curragh had to duck their heads to enter. Their eyes adjusted slowly to the light from the paraffin lantern. A tiny, shadowy figure addressed them in a melodious soprano: “Gentlemen! How good of you to come.”

Runciter executed an elaborate formal bow. “Lady Basingstoke,” he intoned. There she sat, resplendent in a tea gown of flowing blue silk, occupying a ship’s stool of splintered oak with all the regality one would expect of a queen on her throne. The room was sweltering, yet somehow there was not a single bead of perspiration on her fair skin. Her hair was honey-blonde, cut scandalously short. And given my own well-publicized inclinations, Runciter thought ruefully, I know a thing or two about scandal.

To Lady Basingstoke’s right stood Dr. Lepellimer, pencil-thin and turkey-necked, gazing intently at the flickering flame inside the lantern. To her left sat…well, sat was not really the word for what Fatima was doing. The giantess had been, in essence, folded up for storage. She squatted on the floorboards, her knees very nearly up around her ears, the only possible way her Brobdingnagian proportions could fit into the chamber. It must, Runciter thought, have been miserably uncomfortable, yet her face was perfectly impassive and she offered no word of complaint.

“Lady and gentlemen,” Lady Basingstoke began, “as you will have gathered, we are again called to Her Majesty’s service. The snake that is the Confederate States of America once again rears its head, this time in the person of a Colonel Alvin Winslow, operating from a former Spanish colonial fort in the Everglades. Her majesty has no fondness for the politics of that would-be nation-state, and wishes to see it quashed once and for all. Doctor Lepellimer can explain Winslow’s plot in greater detail than I. Doctor, you are over the worst of your seasickness, I hope?”

Lepellimer grinned amiably. “Yes, Ladyship! I am pleased to report that my vomitus no longer contains any individually recognizable foodstuffs, which suggests that I am indeed deriving nutrition from my meals before spewing them back up again!” There was a long, uncomfortable silence. “Ah. I trust that this was one of those things which Your Ladyship mentioned earlier, that I would be wiser not to say aloud?” She gave him a small, sad smile. “In any case,” he continued, “this Winslow is not a military leader by trade, but a chemist, and a formidable one. And the samples we have procured suggest that his war upon the Union will be not military, but chemical and economic in nature.” He fumbled through a pile of bric-a-brac on a small table in the corner of the cabin, and at length emerged with a small silver flask. “Rum, or in any case a derivative of sugarcane. But fortified with an additive of Winslow’s own devising. Delectable, or so they tell me. But highly addictive.”

This, it seemed, had aroused Curragh’s interest. “Delectable, ye say?” he inquired, eyebrow raised.

“But highly addictive, sergeant. In any case, Winslow’s scheme seems to be to bring the product to market as widely as possible throughout the United States. Then, with the population in his thrall, to extract political concessions from them in exchange for continuing the supply. Independence through dependence, one might say. Oh, and there is one other thing. The substance is, in addition to being highly addictive, also highly explosive.”

“And don’t you just love that, Doctor,” said Runciter.

He didn’t deny it. In fact, there was a strange light in his eyes as he spoke. “I’ll admit, it does present certain…possibilities.” He could not quite keep the grin from breaking through. Rodentish teeth between thin lips; the man looked almost feral.

“Be that as it may,” Lady Basingstoke interrupted, “our mission is to infiltrate Winslow’s operation, put it out of business, and if possible, take the man himself into custody. This we shall achieve through a scheme of our senior adviser’s design.” She nodded at Runciter, who inclined his head in response. “We shall take advantage of Winslow’s need of capital to expand his operations. He has already been contacted, it seems, by…” Her voice suddenly changed tone, retaining a veneer of sophistication but adopting a drawl thick as molasses. “…a most well-connected Southern belle, a young lady of means, eager to invest in the cause.” She turned to Runciter, her original accent restored. “Is the voice satisfactory, professor?”

It was Runciter’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Uncanny, in fact, my lady. Though my ward Jack is, of course, the true expert in the dialects of the southern states. I trust you obtained his approval prior to his departure?”

At the mention of Jack, Runciter thought he saw her mask of composure slip for a moment—an expression of worry flitted across her face, then was gone. Interesting. Her composure restored, she spoke soothingly. “Indeed I did. As for Jack, he is…already occupied in this endeavor, having sought to infiltrate the facility in a very different role than our own. For the rest of us—well, time to familiarize ourselves with our tools. Doctor?”

Lepellimer nodded. “Lady Basingstoke will carry the usual item in a hollow portion of her corset. Runciter, you will be posing as her butler, and will carry with you the concealed blade in your walking cane. I myself will be playing the role of the lady’s footman, and will be bringing several sticks of the ingenious explosive recently invented by Doctor Nobel, which I shall secret away at a designated location inside the fortress for Jack to make use of following our departure. Combined with the explosive power of Winslow’s own chemical additive, the result should be extraordinary!” There was the ratlike grin again; to Runciter, he seemed practically giddy with anticipation. This is why, for all his brilliance, the man was expelled from Cambridge. We will be fortunate to survive this adventure unsinged. For once, I won’t be the only one who’s flaming...

There was a rumble from the corner. For one of the world’s largest women—one of the world’s largest people—Fatima had a knack for going unnoticed. “Do I take it,” she intoned, her voice a resonant bass, “that I will not be joining you?”

Lady Basingstoke smiled sadly at her. “Not at first, Fatima,” she said. “I fear there is no adequate cover story to explain your presence. I’m sure you will understand.” A glance suggested that she did, but that she was not happy about it.

“However,” Lepellimer interjected, “for you, madam, one of my most prized inventions yet.” He handed her a small black box, perhaps four inches square, with a carbon-arc bulb in the center. In her massive palm, it looked minuscule. “Wireless telegraphy!” he announced. “A product of my experimentation with electromagnetic waves. Your ladyship, if you’d be so kind as to press the button.”

In her own dainty hand, Lady Basingstoke held the twin to the device, but with a large red button where Fatima’s held a bulb. She pressed it, and across the room, the bulb on Fatima’s lit up. “I take great comfort,” Lady Basingstoke intoned, “that I may summon my beloved protector whenever I may need her.” She favored Fatima with a smile, which the giantess returned, displaying blackened teeth in a prognathic lower jaw, beneath a heavy brow and bulbous nose. Every bit as formidable in her strength, and in her Muslim faith, Runciter thought, as she is unfortunate in her appearance.

Curragh clapped his hands together. “So, that’s that, then,” he said. “What’s my role in the play? Manservant, I expect? Got to hold the door of the coach for ye? Fine use o’ my talents.”

Lady Basingstoke favored him with a smile. “In fact, sergeant, your talents will be needed elsewhere. I shall require you to wait nearby with Fatima.”

A brief pause, then an explosion that might have done even Lepellimer proud. “Are ye mad?” Curragh roared. “How’m I supposed to keep cover wit’ this great, stupid cow? She’s always prostrating ‘erself an hollerin’ at God! Every day! Five times!”

Simultaneously, from Fatima: “Allah help me! Work alongside this drunken sot? His sins are a stench in the nose of the Almighty! He will turn His face from our enterprise! Amelia, please, you must think again…”

Between them a small palm was raised—and the tumult stilled. “Please,” she said. “For my sake. I will be in great danger. I cannot take you with me into the lion’s den, but I will have need of both of my protectors.” She fixed each of them in her gaze, first Curragh, then Fatima. “Declan…Fatima…please. This one time. Please try to see in one another what I have always seen in each of you.”

A long, tense silence descended. The two of them shot sidelong glances at one another. Then, slowly, each nodded.

“Aye, Lady Basingstoke,” said Curragh. “This one time.”

“At your command, Lady,” Fatima replied. “But only by your command.”

Runciter stood speechless. Two of the most stubborn souls I’ve ever met, he thought, and she turned them to putty with a soft word. “Menagerie” is the right word for us. We’re a bunch of big, dumb animals. Freaks, degenerates, and washouts to a man. Yet somehow, under the command of a nineteen-year-old girl, we’re something more.

Lady Basingstoke beamed at Curragh and Fatima. “Wonderful,” she exclaimed. “All of my fears are quite dispelled. I could not possibly be in safer hands.” She spread her arms to encompass the whole room. “To the success of our enterprise, then. God save the Queen!”

~

Jack lay back on his pallet and groaned. He hurt in places where he hadn’t known he had places. Snores filled the dormitory as his fellow field hands, packed three to a bunk on cheap straw, collapsed into the sweet relief of oblivion. Jack yearned to join them, but that would have to wait. As he fought for consciousness, his thoughts drifted back to their usual unsafe harbor.

Amelia. Lady Basingstoke. That perfect, porcelain figurine of a woman. Beautiful, of course, but so much more than that. Always dignified, equally at home in a royal court or in a smugglers’ den. Whip-smart, always a step ahead, always thinking long term where he could barely see beyond the next obstacle. And forever beyond his reach. Yes, Jack, he scolded himself. Certainly. The most desirable member of the British peerage is going to ditch her dozens of suitors in favor of a half-negro of unknown parentage, without even a surname to call his own.

His heart ached, but it had ached before. His body hurt, but it had hurt before. Put it all aside, he told himself. There’s work to be done.

They had stripped him bare, burned his clothes. There was nothing left of his possessions save the irons that bound him. Which is just as the Professor planned, he thought, with a wry grin. He squatted on the edge of his bunk and reached down to where the leg iron bound his right ankle, and worked his fingers inside the cuff. Sure enough, there it was—a steel rod, thin as a needle. Pulling it free, he inserted it into the almost imperceptible pinhole in the cuff that bound his left wrist—and with a soft clank, the iron sprang open. Some of Doctor Lepellimer’s best work, he thought. He repeated the process with all four limbs, then massaged the raw flesh he’d exposed, grimacing at the pain.

Picking up the leg irons, he worked the inside of the right cuff with the rod. A hidden compartment sprang open, and there they were—torsion wrench, snake rake, double round, and all their loyal brothers. His lockpick set. He’d learned much from Runciter, but he’d been a wizard with these before the two of them had ever met.

Slow and steady, he thought, moving silently off of the bunk and over to the dormitory’s locked door. For once my skin is an advantage. I am a shadow. He went to work on the door lock. Out of the dormitory, and get the lay of the land. I’ll need to examine it all, learn the location of every key area of the fortress, and be back in bed, back in irons, by morning. In particular, I’ll need to find the brewery. Soon, Lepellimer will be leaving a present for me there.

His mangled wrists and ankles oozed blood, but he never noticed. Silently, he worried away at the door. I’ve got to get this right. Soon, she’ll have need of me…

~

Doctor Lepellimer wasn’t much for social cues, but so far as he could tell, the initial introductions went smoothly. Lady Basingstoke—aka Miss Sophia Forrest of Memphis, Tennessee—descended the steps of her carriage in chiffon and splendor, assisted by her two servants. She was greeted in the fort’s courtyard by Winslow. The party toured the grounds, and “Sophia” fussed and cooed over the grandeur of the surrounding fields, the enterprise it had taken to clear and drain the land, and the general perseverance of Confederate manhood. It wasn’t until the bunch of them adjourned to dine that things went sideways.

“I must ‘pologize, ma’am, fer the low quality of the vict’ls,” Winslow remarked. “We live rough here, and, well…” He cleared his throat. “Money’s a bit short at the moment.” Seated well below the salt, Lepellimer found himself compelled to agree; the beets in particular had an odd taste to them. Undercooked, perhaps, he thought. Someone should set them on fire.

“Why, Colonel, not at all!” Lady Basingstoke cooed. “The ability to make do with what one has is the noblest characteristic of the southern gentry. And, I must admit, I’m rather looking forward to the entrée. I’ve never actually eaten alligator before.”

The conversation was confusing to Lepellimer; Winslow and “Sophia” were playing a game the rules of which were alien to him. He had always been aware that most people possessed subtle ways of understanding one another and of concealing uncomfortable truths, but he, who had relentlessly sought truth all his life, had never developed the knack. It was frustrating, as was the chafing from the six sticks of nitroglycerin he had bound to his torso with a length of fuse. He found himself staring absently at the candelabra in the table’s center. At the wick on one of the candles. At the flame that flickered there. Exothermic, he thought. Oxidation of hydrocarbons. Vaporization of the paraffin under the heat, creating a sustained reaction. A golden maiden, dancing. Art and science, united as one. So very beautiful.

The discussion between Winslow and Lady Basingstoke was taking an odd turn. “Sophia” had an uncharacteristically slack expression on her face as she spoke. “…an organization, as I’m sure you’re aware, headed up by my beloved Uncle, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and numbering many thousands of men sympathetic to your aims.” Lepellimer found himself drifting off, and had to bite his tongue to remain alert; surely, he thought, the conversation wasn’t that tedious?

“So, as you see, Colonel, I am well-disposed to be of help to you.” There was little doubt of it now. The Lady was even paler than usual, and there were clouds in her cornflower blue eyes. Something was amiss. She pressed on, regardless. “If you could see clear to showing myself and those with me to the chamber in which you compose your quite remarkable spirits, I’m sure I could…” Her accent was slipping noticeably. “I could…” She paused in confusion.

The door opened behind Winslow, and a cohort of soldiers trooped in behind him. He picked up the abandoned thread of the conversation. “Gotta admit, Miss Sophia, I thought right highly of yer offer. All th’ money we’d need to get off the ground. Was so impressed by it that I was kinda amazed t’ get another letter, just a week back.” He reached into his coat pocket, and withdrew a sheet of stationary. “This ‘un from none other than General Forrest hisself. Your ‘uncle’. Makin’ us, as it happens, th’ same offer you did.” He looked up at her, sharply. “Makes no mentiona you, though. Odd, that.”

Lepellimer’s head weighed a thousand pounds; he couldn’t keep it upright on his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Runciter trying to push his seat back from the table, reaching for his cane, and failing to grasp it. Lady Basingstoke herself seemed to be moving in slow motion, poking repeatedly at a spot near the waist of her gown. “So happ’ns chemical additives work right well in food, too, not just in liquor. As the threea ye could probably say, if y’all could open up yer mouths at the moment.” He smiled grimly. “Reckon we’ll keep ye three on ice for a coupla days, until th’ General gets here. Let him straighten ye out.”

What a disgrace, Lepellimer thought, to be outsmarted by a ruffian of this quality. Someone should set him on fire. Blackness closed in.

~

In learning English, Fatima had often been fascinated by the way similar-sounding words often seemed to carry similar meanings. In this case, the pairing that sprung to her mind was infidel and imbecile. It hadn’t been ten minutes since the bulb on Fatima’s wireless telegraph had lit up, and Curragh had already gone all to pieces, racing around the outer wall of the fortress like a decapitated chicken.

“Bloody hell!” the Irishman jabbered. “How can there be no handholds? It’s a two hundred year old fortress, how can the walls be smooth? And why didn’t I think to bring a grapple?” The guardians who’d once roamed the outer wall were nowhere to be seen, perhaps drawn inwards by whatever disturbance had sparked the Countess’s signal for aid.

“Quiet, you fool!” she hissed. “Be calm. There must be a way in.”

Curragh plowed up his brow. “Sewage,” he declared. “Sewage, an’ water. One comes outta a fort, the other goes into it. Gotta be a pipe, a passage o’ some sort. Near the base o’ the wall.” He raced off in search of his quarry.

Good, Fatima thought. Now that he is gone, I can think. ONE of us has to. Her eyes drifted to the massive iron portcullis that barred the way to the main entrance. Through the bars, on the inner wall, she could see the lever which operated it. She placed her hands on the bars and squeezed. Old iron, but well-maintained, and free of rust. Above all, heavy. She glanced down at her feet. There was, perhaps, an inch of clearance between the lowest horizontal bar and the grooves into which the portcullis’s spikes were inserted.

Allah, she thought. In your mercy, you saw fit to deliver Amelia to me, to use her as your instrument to free me from bondage. Great is your generosity, O Allah! Show it to me again. Allow me to be your instrument, to return to her the boon she once granted me.

Fatima turned her back to the gate and squatted low on her haunches. Her fingers found the gap below the lattice. She tightened her grip. _My strength is not my own, Allah. All strength is yours. Grant me, I pray, the gift of your strength, that I may perform righteous deeds in your name. _

She drew in a deep breath, then exploded upwards, every sinew straining. In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful. Her teeth gritted, beads of sweat upon her brow. All praise is for Allah, Lord of the Worlds. The most gracious, the most merciful. A trembling groan from between her teeth—and, was there, perhaps, an answering groan from the metal behind her? The only owner, and the only ruling judge, of the Day of Judgment. And now, just the slightest shift in the ironwork, but she wedged all of her will into the space it made, and heaved. It is You we worship, and You we ask for help. An inch of space, now two. Guide us to the straight way, the way of those upon whom You have bestowed grace, not those upon whom there is wrath, nor those astray. A river of might flowed through her, sprung of the divine and meant to make the world bloom, and when she opened her eyes again she was standing erect, trembling yes, but standing erect, the gate in her hands behind her, the weight of mountains in her fingers and all along her back.

And there was that fool of an Irishman, of course, staring at her, his coat filled to bursting with weapons of every kind, a bristling pufferfish of a man. “No,” he was saying, his eyes wide, his jaw slack. “Can’t be.”

Somehow, she found the additional strength to hiss four words at him. “GET…UNDER…THE…GATE.” And then, two more. “YOU…JACKASS.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed; he scrambled to comply. She stood straining for additional moments that weighed like years, until her burden was lifted from her, the gate rising of its own accord. And she collapsed, prostrating herself in the dust.

All glory is yours, Allah.

~

The fort was a small place. News of the new arrivals, and of their subsequent imprisonment, reached the field hands within hours. Jack took out his frustration on the sugarcane, hacking with blistered fingers. And brooded. And above all, Jack planned.

He and the other field hands were spooning gruel into their mouths that night when a sudden commotion arrested his attention. Distant shouts, a faint whiff of smoke—the sound of gunshots? Ah, good, he thought. It’s started. I was getting tired of this.

He took stock of his surroundings. Only a single overseer, strolling the aisle between the two tables, gun at the ready. Jack waited until he had passed and his back was turned; subtly, his hand wandered to his right leg cuff, withdrawing the pin. He quickly worked the ankle locks free, but left the chains loose upon his legs. As the guard turned back around at the end of the aisle, Jack returned his gaze to his bowl. The guard advanced. Ten steps away, now five.

At two strides away, Jack made his move. He grabbed the bowl, surged to his feet, and flung it full in the guard’s face. The guard gave an outraged shout and his hands flew up involuntarily to clear his vision; Jack seized the moment, kicked free of the loose cuffs on his legs, spun on his heel, and kicked the rifle from the man’s grip, sending it spinning across the room. In a flash, Jack was behind his opponent, his arms up over his head, then outwards and down, securing his chains around the man’s neck. Jack arched his back, crossed his arms, and twisted. The guard thrashed, went purple in the face—and suddenly, the other laborers were on their feet, surging to Jack’s support, pummeling at the overseer, first with their fists, then with the butt of the rifle. What Jack eventually let drop to the floor was barely recognizable as a man.

The field hands broke into a ragged cheer, but Jack quickly raised his chained hands to silence them. Bringing his wrists together, he worked deftly at the pinhole, and his chains dropped to the ground. This earned him a murmur of appreciation.

“We’ve all got that ahead of us, gentlemen,” he announced, “A rendezvous point nearby has been established. We can get each and every one of you out of the swamp safely. And you can pay back your tormenters, gentlemen. You can have payback and to spare.” He quickly explained what he had in mind.

Five minutes later, Jack was out in the hallway, making his way downstairs toward the holding cells. From the courtyard, the din of combat was intensifying. He slipped quietly into an alcove, letting three soldiers in grey rush past, then descended a flight of stairs.

He was waiting at the bottom, burly and cruel, a perpetual sneer upon his face. “You again, boy? How’dye get those chains off ye?” Blondie. The broad-shouldered figure held a cavalry sabre, and the scar across his cheek and down his jawline suggested he’d had hard experience of blades. “No matter. Knew you were trouble first time I laid eyes on ye. Shoulda taken the lesson the first time, boy. Shoulda known yer place…”

Jack took stock. He had the high ground on the stairs, but the passage was too narrow for effective defense against a sword. No matter what his advantages in terms of elusiveness, he’d be cut to ribbons. He glanced about him and saw the opportunity he needed. As Blondie advanced slowly up the stairs, Jack retreated towards the landing above him, just out of reach of the sword. As he felt the ground level out under his heels, he reached back towards the wall and yanked a lantern free of the wall mount. He hurled it overhand, and as Blondie brought up the sword to deflect it aside, Jack hurled himself forward in a dive to the man’s right. His hands caught the second stair and he brought his hips around above them in a handspring, catapulting down the stairs and into the vacant room below.

Above him, Blondie cursed. Jack, however, was on familiar ground; he’d mentally mapped the facility during his nocturnal tour. Rather than keep running, he darted left, pressing his back to the wall just inside the staircase opening. Blondie rushed the room, snarling and waving his sword. Finding nothing but empty space in front of him, he turned; Jack set his left leg and launched his right foot in a crescent kick. His momentum met that of Blondie’s spin, his foot meeting Blondie’s jaw with a sickening crack.

The big man collapsed jelly-legged to the floor. Jack was astraddle him at once, fists at the ready, but it was instantly apparent that his opponent was out cold. I’ll have to remember to thank Sensei Itosu next time we’re back in Okinawa, he thought.

In the meantime, the cells—and Amelia—awaited.

~

It was red work, no doubt about it, but Curragh had to smile. It was for this sort of thing that he’d been made.

He and Fatima had made it as far as the courtyard before the alarm had sounded and all grey hell had come rushing down upon them. Now they were ensconced behind a pillar opposite the central building, and there were nineteen men arrayed in the cover opposite them. Yes, exactly nineteen—a single glance at the terrain had seared their deployment into his memory. Five on the balcony overlooking, one behind each of the three pillars opposite, two behind the abandoned coach and one back of the farrier’s forge. And eight dead, scattered hither and yon with neat little holes between their eyes, courtesy of Curragh’s sharpshooting. He was under fire, which meant he was in his element, and woe betide the man who stood between him and the lady he served.

Curragh worked the lever on his Martini-Henry, loaded a cartridge into the breech, held his breath, spun around the pillar and squeezed off a shot. As he twisted back into cover, he saw one of the men on the balcony drop. Ten, he thought. He tossed the rifle and a handful of cartridges in Fatima’s direction. “Reload!” He reached into his coat, withdrawing one of several revolvers, spun again around the pillar, and fired off several shots in the direction of the pillars opposite. He just did manage to get back into cover, heard the zip of a cartridge past his ear as he did so. Nine. He tossed the pistol aside, drew another. “Reload!”

As he ducked around the opposite side of the pillar for another shot, a grim sight confronted him. The man behind the left column had been replaced, and there were two new additions on the balcony. If this keeps up, he thought, I’ll run out of ammunition. Or, worse, they’ll realize their advantage, pin us down with covering fire, flank us. We’re sitting ducks here.

He turned to toss the revolver to Fatima and saw that she was still holding the first pistol awkwardly, a quizzical expression on her face. The cartridges remained scattered on the stones in front of her. “Oh, for blast’s sake, woman!” he shouted. “Don’tcha know how to use a pistol?”

She glanced up at him for a moment, then stood, back to the pillar. She darted into the open and hurled the weapon. As she ducked back into cover, he heard a meaty thump in the distance, and a cry of dismay. Their glances met, and she shrugged. Eleven, he thought.

There was a vast roar from the direction of the main building, a pounding and a clashing of metal. Curragh chanced a look, then stopped and stared. The courtyard was alive with the ragged figures of chained black men, more of them pouring out of the doors on the balcony and ground floor with each passing second. The men in grey had been caught completely by surprise and were being overwhelmed, pounded to a bloody pulp under harsh iron and unforgiving fists.

“Well,” he said. “That’s that, then.” Fatima, he noticed, was gone; turning his attention back to the battle, he saw her sprinting across the courtyard toward the building’s entrance. He drew yet another pistol—only four left, I’ll need to come properly equipped next time—and raced to her aid.

~

The hammering on the cast-iron door to the cell block was incessant, almost drowning out the cacophony from outside. Their guard, an ill-groomed young man in a scraggly goatee, seemed less than eager to answer it. “Who is it?” He called. “Ye know damn well we’re on lockdown ‘til General Forrest gets here!”

“Open up, ya idjit!” The voice certainly carried a southern tone. “It’s Piper! The field hands done got loose somehow! We gotta get th’ prisoners moved afore this whole place comes down ‘round our heads.”

Piper, thought Runciter. Lady Basingstoke hadn’t missed the signal either. Her corset, thankfully, had been the one item that had remained undisturbed when they’d been searched, and she was reaching into the neckline now, as the guard turned his back on them and proceeded towards the door. She withdrew a thin reed pipe and raised it to her lips. As the guard reached the door and peered through the visor, she gave a quick, sharp puff. The guard staggered back, hand to the back of his neck, and turned to them in rage. In a matter of moments, however, the color in his cheeks faded; his expression slackened as first his face, then his whole body went limp. He collapsed to the floor.

“Oh, well done, my lady!” Runciter exclaimed. There was a rattling on the other side of the door, which ended in a click, and it burst open, revealing Jack. He leaped over the threshold in a fighting stance, but upon seeing his only potential opponent comatose on the floor, exhaled sharply and looked up. “I take it my Lady has been working on her marksmanship?”

“Jack!” she cried. “Oh, Jack, your wrist!” The sleeve of his tattered garment had slipped down his arm, revealing flesh still raw from his manacles.

Jack merely replaced the sleeve. “A trifle, my Lady. Think nothing of it.” He glanced at the lock on the cell door, drew another lockpick and wrench, and went to work. “It will heal, and I’ll have an interesting scar and an excuse to tell the story.” He flashed her a wry grin. “Scars impress girls.”

“Oh, I dunno about that, lad,” said a voice from the doorway. Curragh was slouching amiably over the threshold and favoring them with a grin. He gestured broadly to his own face, which might once have served duty as a chopping block. “Never worked so well for me. Too mucha a good thing, I suppose.”

“Welcome to the party, old friend,” said Runciter, grinning back.

“A party requires candles.” Lepellimer stared between the bars at his explosive sticks and fuse, which were sitting in plain sight on a desk near the door. “The key, Jack, is right in the belt of the…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence before the lock in the cell door clicked open. “Ah. Never mind.”

“Sergeant,” Lady Basingstoke interjected, “I am delighted to see you of course, but Fatima…she hasn’t come to harm, has she?”

“What, her?” Curragh replied. “Yer ladyship… should harm be so foolish as t’ cross that woman’s path, she’ll pick it up, shake it by the neck, then break it over her knee like kindlin’.” He shook his head. “Runciter, yer not gonna believe what I saw her do…”

Lepellimer took no notice; he was steeled in his pyromaniacal purpose, already assembling his accoutrements from the desk. “Now, er, if I can only find the chamber in which the chemicals are stored…”

“Just down the hall and around the corner,” Jack replied. “Follow me, Doctor.” He pranced out of the room, a wild-eyed Lepellimer in eager pursuit.

“The full length of fuse, please, Lepellimer!” Runciter called after them.

Curragh shook his head. “No knowin’ with that one. Best we make our getaway quickly. With me, lads an’ lasses.”

The three of them rushed the doorway and turned the corner to the stairs, only to find them blocked by the hulking mass of Fatima, descending. Over her left shoulder, she bore a limp, grey-clad man. Seeing Lady Basingstoke, a wide smile creased her face. “Amelia!”

“Fatima!” Lady Basingstoke didn’t bother with formalities; she ran to the huge woman and wrapped her arms around her as far as she could. Fatima bellowed a laugh, easily picking her up off the ground one handed and swinging her freely through the air as though she were a toddler. “I might have known they couldn’t put a dent in you…”

“No dents, my Lady,” Fatima replied, setting her patron back down on the floor. “More than a few dents in them, though, courtesy of this one.” She gestured at Curragh. “A sot, perhaps. A shot, certainly. Never have I witnessed the like.”

“All well and good, of course,” Runciter interjected. “But, er…what is it that you’re carrying, exactly?”

Fatima stared blankly for a moment, as if only then remembering that she was toting a full-grown man over her shoulder. “Oh, this one? He attempted to accost me.” She wagged a finger at them. “The Qur’an strictly forbids a man to lay his hands on a woman outside of marriage. However, the prophet does not speak to the question of a woman laying hands on a man, so I gave him a brief lesson in theology. As you see, he has found the peace that comes only with submission to Allah.” She hoisted up her burden and dumped him unceremoniously on the floor. “He wears much gilt and braid upon his uniform, so I figured he’d be a pretty present for my Lady.”

Runciter gave a low whistle. “I think she’ll be keeping this one, in fact.”

“Indeed she shall,” Lady Basinstoke agreed, staring down at the unconscious body of Colonel Alvin Winslow.

~

There were sights aplenty to warm the heart of Amelia Owen, Countess of Basingstoke, as the sun set over the swamp. The glow of the firelight from the blazing fortress reflected in Lepellimer’s eyes, and the rapt expression on his face. The American magistrates gathering in the grey-uniformed rebels, and striking the chains from the black laborers. The firm, respectful handshake between Fatima and Curragh, and Runciter’s warm embrace of his ward and protégé.

And Jack himself, of course. Always Jack, with his devious smirk and his flashing green eyes. With his knack for the moment, his tactical mind and his instant adaptation to circumstances. His skill in all things! There he was, embracing each and every one of the newly freed Negroes as he would a brother, and they gripping him back with equal fondness. What did he care for breeding? And why should he? He himself was the ultimate disproof of the idea that a man’s birth was evidence of his character. Or, she thought guiltily, a woman’s.

What had she to offer a man like that? She, a little girl playing at statecraft. He, a man of action and of the world. It was preposterous. It didn’t bear thinking about. And yet, she never seemed to be able to stop thinking about it.

She did not deserve him, could never have him. But what she could give him was a forum for his talents. Tasks worthy of him, and gallant causes to serve. So that even if he would never be hers, he would be always before her eyes.

You would never take what I want to give you. So instead, I shall give you the world entire.

She clapped her hands for their attention, and instantly they assembled before her—the five truest friends a lady could ever wish for. “Ah, my menagerie,” she intoned. She was trying to look stern, and failing utterly; the fond smile kept breaking through. “My magnificent beasts. An awkward venture, but a successful one.” She paused. “No rest for us, though, it seems. I have received correspondence from our mutual friend and benefactress. It seems an unfortunate incident has arisen involving the fabled Golden Stool of the Ashanti, an incident which must be handled with our customary delicacy. We ship out at daybreak.”

Jack cleared his throat. “If I may, your Ladyship,” he said, “I’ve a brief bit of business to conclude first.”

~

Winslow kneeled, his face a mass of bruises, as the police bound his hands behind him. Glancing up, he found Jack looking back down at him. “Well, I’ll be. Bit o’ a role reversal, eh? Well, don’t wait fer it, boy. Take yer shot. Put me in my place! Y’already took everything from me, stole m’ future an’ m’ fortune from me.”

Jack shook his head. “As it happens, sir, your fortune isn’t entirely depleted.”

Winslow stared up at him. “Howd’ya figger?”

Jack smiled down at him. “Well, sir, you are owed the balance on the month of labor I failed to complete.” Jack reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a single grey banknote. “One Confederate dollar. A wise man once told me to hold onto it, as it is likely to appreciate in value.”

Jack stepped behind Winslow, and gently placed the bill into one of his close-bound hands.

“Don’t spend it all in one place.”

***

“Menagerie” is copyright © Steve DuBois

Steve DuBois is a high school teacher from Kansas City. His fiction, musings and meanderings can be found at www.stevedubois.net.

Daughter of Heaven

by Shannon Connor Winward

1.

In the time after their lovemaking, a thousand empires rose and fell. Stars were born. Stars died. Little supernovas, bright white aftershocks of pleasure. She lay atop Her lover for millennia, Her body languid, Her belly heavy and full of frantic life. His work was done; Hers was beginning. She felt the stirring of labor in Her womb; Her body widened, swallowing whole galaxies, drawing space in upon itself to make room for what was coming. She closed Her eyes against the Dawn – a generation more. A moment. One more shared breath, His lips on Hers. Their limbs entwined, almost indistinguishable, as They had done as children. As They had been in the first Dawn, before the worlds were born. She liked to let it linger, this bliss.

This is what They were made for.

~

The artifact was delivered to my warehouse on Liber Station 1 with a shipment of antiquities from South Asia; a fist-sized, egg-shaped bit of ivory, carved in bas-relief and pierced at one edge so as to be strung on a cord. An amulet. Not unusual for the period, but I knew as soon as I unwrapped it that the piece was not native to the rest of collection. A fragment of its carving reminded me of the Sanskrit Saranyu, but the image fell off at the edge and might have been anything. While I sat on an unopened crate to study it, my employees unloaded the rest of the cargo.

It looked like nothing I had seen out of sub-Himalayan Earth or anywhere else. Leaving my crew to process the rest of the shipment, I took the amulet to my workstation. I barely noticed as the Earth ship disembarked.

The carving was offset, like a coin misstruck, but I didn’t believe this was accidental. The workmanship was too exquisite, stunning in its intricacy. This was intentional. This was… special. I logged its measurements, analyzed the material, traced the microscopic tool marks left by its maker.

In the ship’s manifest, the amulet was listed only by a number. I scanned the carving and uploaded it, but the databases found nothing comparable. Or, rather, the results showed me too much to pinpoint its origins. Parts of the carving were reminiscent of civilizations across ancient Earth, and yet, as a whole, belonged to none of them. Nothing made sense.

Hours passed. The crew finished and clocked out, leaving me alone with the groans and echoes of an empty hold. Eventually my dock supervisor, Bo Huan, found me hunched over my station. He laughed when he saw what I had.

“What the fuck is that?” Teeth clenched on a nicotine stick, he peered at the amulet over my shoulder. His dirty finger jabbed the air. “Aramaic. Inuit. And what. Hopi? That’s New Age skiz, Doc Pheonix. Flip it over, it’ll say, ‘Made in China’.”

I shook my head. “It’s old.”

“How old?”

“Very.” I held the artifact under the carbon-reader to show him, caressing its ancient, yellow-white surface with my gloved fingers. “This is mammoth tusk.”

Bo huffed. Bent to study it again. “An old tooth, but still skiz. Give it to Rhodes.”

Rhodes was a colleague on Liber 3, a supplier of rare organics to scholars and hobbyists in the colonial sectors. If I held onto the artifact for another few months I could ship it out with the fossil fuels that were due in from the Antarctic rigs.

Bo held out a storage tray. The nic bobbed up and down as he chewed, waiting.

“Not yet,” I said, turning back to the scanners.

“Sssssskizzz.” Bo replaced the tray and limped off to his locker. A short time later, the lights dimmed and the doors slid shut, leaving me alone.

More often than not, I agreed with Bo in these things. His eye for value was the reason I hired him. And he was right. Rhodes would have paid me sweetly for a bit of real mammoth ivory.

But something told me there was more to this amulet than the rarity of what it was carved on. Studying it under the soft glow of my equipment, I became convinced there was something reverential in the work, an exultance that could only be religious in nature and therefore might, to the right person, provide a clue to its origins – and thus increase its selling price. There was nothing to be lost in digging a little more, and a lot to gain.

If nothing else, it gave me an excuse to go to Mars.

Within the hour, I packed a bag and booked passage on a shuttle under the pretense of chaperoning a transit of Egyptian gold to my associate at the university city of Arabia Terra. The amulet went in the bag in a small protective case. It had the look of a gift, which in a way it was – not the artifact, but whatever ancient knowledge it contained.

I sent a message for Bo, which he didn’t answer. It was the end of a work-cycle; he would have been in the rec station, drinking and spending his wages with the rest of the crew. I boarded the shuttle.

~

In my youth, I was a hungry man, eager to explore. I answered the call to adventure in every principality of Gaea Nova; the sea beds beneath the Hubble colonies, the gaseous moons of Saturn, the giant peak of Rheasilvia. I loved best the wilds of the home world: the Amazon jungle, the ruins of Chicago, Moscow, Paree.

My drive was not just the challenge of the physical body, but of the unknown. I was drawn most to history, that Pandora’s box of humanity, pushing up her secrets through meters of earth, of rubbish, graveyards of bone and of steel. So much to learn. In spite of war, cataclysm, exodus, the voice of history was always speaking. As a purveyor of Earth antiquities, I was her translator, and at a healthy profit.

In that life, I had no wife. No family, by choice. I loved my work, and that was enough. Still, I was not immune to the charms of beautiful women. Particularly, academic women. Particularly, one woman.

I found her in a busy corridor in the University’s East annex, rushing from a lecture hall to the administrative wing. Zahirah Nayar, Dean of Global Studies, Egyptologist, expert in early Earth religions. Her copper scholar’s gown billowed behind her as she walked, revealing shapely legs, round hips. She wore her thick, dark hair in a loose bun, with a few seductive strands dangling free. She assessed me with her large, kohl eyes as I caught up with her.

“What have you found, Dr. Phoenix?”

Dr. Nayar never wasted time in casual greetings. Referred by a mutual friend in Martian government, I’d been consulting the esteemed professor for over seven cycles. Her insight on certain artifacts had proven invaluable, but her small talk was terrible. I had yet to hear her use my given name.

“An unusual piece,” I said, matching her stride. “Millennia old. I can’t place it, but I suspect it’s apotropaic.”

“A charm?”

“An amulet, I believe.”

“Material?”

“Mammoth.”

Her pace slowed. “You have it with you?”

“Yes.”

“Show it to me.”

I removed the satchel from my shoulder and extracted the artifact in its protective case. I pressed my thumb against the sensor, unlocking it, and handed it to her.

Now and then, I had seen Zahirah smile over something I brought her. A Venus figurine rescued from a collapsed museum. A prehistoric flute made from a human ulna. After the first time – fleeting, breath-taking – I’d made it a challenge to repeat the experience.

As she took my offering this time, Zahirah did not smile. She stopped in mid-stride, looking at what I had given her. As the flow of university students parted around us, I watched Zahirah’s face. Her beauty was bone-deep, elemental – and her expression was as dark and unreadable as the mountains framed in the window behind her.

“What is it?” I asked. “Do you recognize it?”

“I…” Her fingers were white where they clutched the case.

“Dr. Nayar?”

“I must go,” said Zahirah. “I am due to meet with the Board.” Her deep, husky voice had crumbled to a whisper. “I must…”

“You must what?”

Zahirah tore her eyes away from the amulet. “You truly don’t know what this is?”

We had paused by a ventilation panel. I felt cool air seeping into my clothes, sending goosebumps rippling over my skin.

“Do you think I brought it here on pretense, just to flirt with you, Professor?” A half-truth, showing in a ghost of a smile on my lips.

She stared at me. She gave the box back, then shook her head as if to clear it from bad dreams. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. You have come from the shuttle, you must have things with you. Luggage?”

“Only this.” Puzzled, I indicated the satchel over my shoulder. “I wasn’t planning to stay long. There’s a shipment in customs, I–”

“Never mind that. Come with me… Carter.” Without another word, the professor turned back the way we had come, her sharp heels clicking on the marble floor.

I followed, curiosity fanned even brighter by the sound of my name on Zahirah’s lips.

~

In the vestibule of the lecture annex, the professor removed her copper robe, folded it and left it on a bench.

There was a line of students waiting to ride the tube. Still wearing a badge that identified her as high echelon faculty, Zahirah lifted this off her neck and used it to clear a path for the two of us. She ushered me on to the tube and forbid anyone else to board. The doors sealed behind us.

“Where are we going?”

I was still holding the artifact case in my fist. As the pod raced across the Martian plains, red gravel and sienna sky, Zahirah took it from me, removed the amulet, and dropped the case on the floor.

From beneath her blouse, she drew out large, flat black pendant, held with a golden chain around her neck. Her hands shook. I noticed what appeared to be a Kemetic image on the outside of the pendant before Zahirah passed her fingers over it. The black circle split and began to dissolve, revealing an edge of creamy white.

“What…”

“You have heard of Neuth and Geb?” she asked.

Of course I had. “Children of Shu, primordial Egyptian god of the air. Sibling lovers. He was the earth and–”

“She the sky.” Having shed its outer casing, Zahirah’s pendant proved to be an arc of carved ivory. Zahirah took my hand in hers and put it to her pendant. In that way, we joined the two amulets, the ovoid and arc merging seamlessly. The carvings I had thought to be offset were an exact match to Zahirah’s crescent, forming a perfect circle.

“You had this all along?”

“I have had this all my life. I am a priestess of Neuth.”

“A priestess?” I echoed, taken aback. It was one of the last things I’d have expected her to say. Though religion ranked among the disciplines of study in centers of learning like Arabia Terra, it was seldom practiced, save in backwater colonies and the most intransigent places on Old Earth.

“My order is called the Handmaidens of Heaven. We are the keepers of the arcs of Neuth, since before the time of the Pharahos.” She laid a finger on the amulet, two separate pieces now whole. “We have a brother order, the servants of Geb, who keep the discs. Carter, the discs of Geb are holy beyond all measure, an instrument of the Gods. How can you have brought one to me and not know what it is?”

“It came to my warehouse, mixed in with other artifacts. Perhaps there was a mistake.”

“The Gods do not make mistakes.”

“Well, I’m here… Zahirah,” “What does it mean?”

Zahirah raised her eyes and gazed at me with wonder, and with fear.

“It means the end of the world.”

I almost laughed, but stopped short, seeing that she was sincere. Before I could think of a better response, the transport pod lurched under our feet.

I tumbled sideways, slamming into a bench. Zahirah maintained her footing, but as she put out a hand to help me, the shuttle lurched the other way. The two of us went sprawling, Zahirah crushed under my weight.

We were jolted apart once more as the pod was enveloped in a sudden cushion of air with a great hissing sound. The pod slowed and righted itself, but the shaking continued. Zahirah looked up, her dark, disheveled hair framing her face.

“It’s begun,” she said.

~

An automated voice came over the com, informing us that emergency protocols had been initiated. As the announcement went on, urging caution, we moved to the emergency hatch in the floor of the pod. I wrenched it open, revealing a short drop into a dimly-lit maintenance shaft. Zahirah kicked off her shoes and slipped over the edge, landing barefoot in the tunnel below.

Once on the ground, the reason for the sudden stop was apparent. Tremors roiled under our feet, echoing in the long tunnel and in our bones.

A sprawling metropolis, largely underground, Arabia Terra had been built to withstand high levels of seismic activity. If there were tremors strong enough to shut down the transport pods, the extent of the danger was significant. I met Zahirah’s eyes, dark and grave.

“The end of the world…?” I managed. “Any chance you meant that metaphorically?”

Zahirah eyed the massive transport tube over our heads. “No.”

We moved out from beneath the tube to a railed walkway, where modules along the tunnel walls displayed our location, with an exit route in vivid red pointing to the last station we had passed.

Zahirah took my hand. “There’s a maintenance depot just ahead. My residence is not far from there.”

“This entire sector is being evacuated,” I said, touching the module. “There could be structural damage ahead.”

Shaking her head, Zahirah pulled me towards her. “Carter, nowhere is safe now. I need to get to my quarters.”

“What…”

A violent shudder coursed through the floor, interrupting me. Tiny cracks sprouted under my hand where it lay on the screen, which flickered out. Letting instinct kick in, I ran in the direction Zahirah had urged, steering her ahead of me. Getting out of the tunnel seemed more important than arguing.

After about a kilometer, we reached a t-shaped junction. At Zahirah’s gesture, we veered right. Soon, the maintenance depot came into view. We vaulted up the steps and threw open the door.

The depot was empty, though a voice in a heavy Martian accent could be heard issuing orders over someone’s abandoned comm. On the depot’s modules we could see schematics of all of Arabia Terra, screaming in multicolored code: systems failures, structural compromise. Several city blocks had collapsed on the lowest levels. What stopped me dead in my tracks, however, was the interstellar news ticker on the far wall. I saw mention of Liber 1: communication with all commercial stations had been interrupted due to immense geomagnetic storms. Approaching the module, I scrolled back to the last incoming reports.

Zahirah made to keep moving, but I grabbed her arm.

“It’s not just Mars,” I said. “How can there be earthquakes on every planet in the system?”

“The reach of the Gods is great,” Zahirah shrugged, averting her eyes from the modules.

“Did we do this?” I thrust my free hand at the city schematic. “With the amulets? Did we make this happen?” It sounded ridiculous to me, this talk of gods and doomsday, but the evidence of my senses begged the question. Even as we stood there, the walls and flooring rattled. A mug danced off the edge of a desk, spraying coffee over my shoes.

“We are the result, not the cause. The joining of our amulets is a herald, that the time of prophecy is upon us.”

“Then what do we do now? How do we stop this?”

“Our task is not to stop it, Carter,” Zahirah said, trying to draw me away. “Our task is to survive.”

Our task,” I echoed, grasping what she had not voiced. “You and I, you mean? Only us?”

Zahirah’s body was tense, ready for flight, but she made an effort to calm herself. “In Arabia Terra, perhaps. But there are over a thousand arcs of Neuth in the hands of priestesses across Old Earth and her provinces, and a disc of Geb mated to each of them. The others have come together, just as we did. The chosen will live, but we must–”

“Two thousand? There are half a million people in this city! How many more, on other worlds? What about them?”

Exasperation began to show on Zahirah’s face. Whatever her training as a priestess, she had not expected to have to explain herself to an uninitiated antiquities dealer. “It is the end of this cycle. Sky Mother and Earth Father join and part. The worlds between them die, and a new Dawn is born. It has happened before, in time before memory. It will happen again. It is for this that our Orders have prepared, for thousands of years – to serve the Gods.”

“To serve them how, Zahirah?”

Zahirah sighed. Her grip tightened in my hand. “We will be the parents of a new generation. A new kingdom, to worship in Their glory.”

I stared at her. “This is crazy, Zahirah.”

Another tremor rocked us, more violent than the ones that came before. The schematics flared red, new messages of damage and death blossoming like wounds.

“This is happening. It is our destiny. You must trust me, Carter – or we are doomed, along with the rest of them.”

~

Did I trust Zahirah? I didn’t know. I followed her, though, as if in a fever-dream. It occurred to me that, perhaps, it had all happened too easily, from the time the disc of Geb arrived in my warehouse. Had Zahirah sent it to me, baited me, knowing it would peak my curiosity, and lead me to her? The alternative, that these two matched artifacts should find their way to each other across millennia and space – it seemed too impossible a coincidence. Yet the reports from the maintenance comms burned in my brain. The quakes and the destruction were real. Could one woman, however exalted among the Martian echelon, have manufactured a catastrophe so widespread, with such exquisite timing?

We exited the maintenance depot and found ourselves in one of the city’s metro junctions – a normally bright, open star-shaped space containing shops, eateries and offices. The central plaza was packed with far more people than it was intended to contain, as a handful of city guards attempted to siphon the crowd into the eastbound avenues that branched off the junction. Dozens more refugees arrived by the minute, spilling in from the western avenues and underground stairwells. The lifts in this sector had been shut down with the transport system, forcing citizens to evacuate on foot.

Shock-absorbent shields rippled over the domed ceiling, obscuring our view of the sky and creating an unnatural pall. The terrible tremors continued, underscoring the din of so many people. We were confronted with a sea of worried faces – though, to their credit, the people of Arabia Terra crept forward in controlled chaos, trying to heed the guards’ instructions.

We made for the nearest stairwell, fighting the flow of people. I lagged behind, keeping Zahirah in my sights while taking out my personal comm. Though the noise in the plaza made it impossible to talk, I could attempt to send a message. I tried to get through to Bo Huan, first, then others I knew on Liber 1 and elsewhere. Each time the signal failed.

Zahirah paused within a great archway and noticed that I was not with her. For the first time since the quakes began, I saw a streak of panic cross her face. I was a head taller than most men, though, and easy enough to spot. When she caught sight of me only a few paces behind, she turned away in a huff before I could attempt to speak.

We were forced to edge sideways down the stairs, against the surge of citizens from below. It felt like madness to be heading down, like an underworld descent out of myth, ominous and dark, thinking at any moment the stairwell might collapse and bury us all. But Zahirah kept going, unswayable from her mysterious errand, and gods help me, so did I, questioning my own sanity with every step.

I counted six floors before Zahirah turned off the stairwell. We navigated a few smaller avenues to a security check, where a pair of stalwart guards directed stragglers towards the higher levels. One of them seemed inclined to forbid Zahirah entry, but with a flash of her badge she elbowed past him, her authority apparently holding sway even in a natural disaster.

Beyond the checkpoint was an affluent residential neighborhood, with deep black walls, reflective as a crater lake at night, and blue gas pillars that illuminated our path. Few residents remained outside, most having evacuated or chosen to hunker down in their homes. It would have been tranquil here, I imagined, were it not for the cracks and the quaking, and the constant automated broadcast spewing evacuation orders from unseen comms.

We reached Zahirah’s quarters. Once inside, Zahirah muted the household comm, dropping us into a silence that seemed unnatural after the chaos outside. I was left with the echoes of it in my head, and the rapid beating of my heart.

There was a strange intimacy in being in Zahirah’s apartment. Like the corridor, the walls here were dark and reflective, and Zahirah’s image seemed to swim through them as she moved. The dream-feeling overwhelmed me, the sense that I had stepped from the platform at the transport station into a realm of absurdity over which I had no control, only a need to run – but to where? To do what? Zahirah had shed her robes, her essence as I knew her, transforming from an admired acquaintance – the distant, pragmatic scholar – to a mystical guide who held my hand and spoke of our mutual destiny. We will be the parents of a new generation.

I trailed Zahirah to the door of an adjacent room. As I took abstract notice of the surroundings – a lushly draped bed, some large clay object on the wall, accents of brass or gold, and Zahirah’s scent, everywhere, like incense – Zahirah stripped off her blouse and knelt in her chemise before an armoire. The pendant hung between her breasts, stark against the delicate fabric.

Two halves, separate then united. Earth and sky, God and Goddess. Lovers.

I fumbled for a thread of logic, to bring myself back from the confusing rush of my emotions. “It doesn’t make sense,” I muttered.

“What?” From the armoire Zahirah produced a sack, and began to fill it with garments, boots.

“Neuth and Geb. Sky and Earth.”

“Yes?”

“Sky and Earth. Geb was a god of Earth. This is a prophecy of the home world. “

“So how is it that the ground shakes here on Mars, and on Mercury, and Vesta, and not only Earth…?” Zahirah said, finishing my thoughts. “Because, Carter. As we are made in the image of the Gods, so are Gods made of us. Neuth is not mated to Earth, one planet among countless worlds. She is mated to flesh. To humans.” She glanced at me, almost shy. “She’s mated to us.”

“So I’m to mate with a Goddess, then? Is that the destiny you’ve been speaking of?”

Zahirah averted her eyes. “Religion is both specific and metaphorical.”

I had heard Zahirah say this exact same thing somewhere before. A memory hit me; Zahirah kneeling, like this, scanning hieroglyphics into a tablet, preparing a temple wall for installation. I’d tried to work the translations into conversation to impress her, and she’d lectured me on syntax for a full hour, in this same pedantic tone. The museum had been closed, our voices echoing in the great hall as if we were the only two people alive. A pleasant illusion, at the time.

Now the idea felt claustrophobic. “How will we get to the others?”

“The others?”

“The other– chosen.”

Zahirah tensed. She paused in what she was doing, a small toolkit clutched in her hand. She didn’t answer, but shoved the item into the sack with some violence.

Chafing at her inscrutability, I lashed out. “As a priestess of the end of times, shouldn’t you have had your bags already packed?”

“This is for you.” Rising, she thrust the bag at me. “Go to the kitchen. Fit as much water as you can into that bag. Food rations. Then wait for me by the door.”

Dismissed like a troublesome child, I fled, and Zahirah shut the door behind me. In the kitchen, I located several packages of food, and tossed them, grumbling, into the pack. I set to filling canisters from the tap, feeling more than a little absurd. Was water meant to protect us from the wrath of ancient gods? I shoved the last canister into the bag, and then paused, realizing that something had changed.

“The tremors had stopped!” I called out.

When Zahirah did not respond, I switched on the kitchen module. The emergency broadcast resumed, overriding every channel. There was no other news. Try as I might, I still could not find an off-world signal.

When I muted the comm, I heard Zahirah speaking. Leaving the pack, I returned to her door and opened it.

“Tikhonravov Crater,” I heard her say. “We are leaving the city soon.”

“Who are you talk–”

Zahirah shushed me. She knelt by a comm beside her bed, her back to the door. She was half-dressed in a utilitarian pantsuit, her teaching clothes disregarded.

I could see then that Zahirah was recording a message – the comm was not live. A static image filled the screen, Zahirah in a military uniform, I thought at first. With another look I realized the picture was of was someone younger, though just as beautiful.

“I will stay near Arabia if I can. If not, I will get a message to you, somehow. If nothing else, go to the Palm of War, and you will know… Soroya, I…” Zahirah paused. “I can think of nothing that will not take too long to say. Be well, my darling. May the Mother bless and keep you.” With that she switched off the recording, and bent her head over the module to finish the transmission.

“What about Tikhonravov Crater?” I asked.

“I told you to wait.”

“You told me we must hurry, too, but you paused to make a vid recording.”

Zahirah clenched her jaw. She pushed up from the floor, pulling her suit closed.

“Who was that, Zahirah?”

Zahirah did not show me her face when she answered. “My daughter.”

The ensuing silence was painful. I had not thought of Zahirah’s life outside of the University. I had not asked who owned the men’s clothing she’d put in the bag. I thought of the image on Zahirah’s screen – a young soldier with her mother’s eyes.

Zahirah brushed past me. From a compartment by the front door she pulled another bag, as full as mine, and slung it over her shoulder.

“Did you hear what I said?” I asked, when the silence drew on too long. “The tremors have stopped.”

Zahirah withdrew something else from the closet, secreting it into the pocket of her suit before I could see what it was. She turned towards me. “And you think that means that you are safe,” she said, her voice dull and soft. “I think I’m beginning to envy you, Dr. Phoenix.”

2.

[_Every time was different. Just as every climax sang through Her a different hymn of ecstasy, each labor brought a new understanding of pain. This time it laced Her womb in intricate whorls, a dance of agony, and pleasure, too – oh, yes. There was the joy of Their joining, the grief of separation, and there was this. There was completion. _]

With the firmament of her Brother Lover between her knees, the Goddess rose up. Completion filled Her, and rent her apart. Constellations scattered. Her great belly heaved, loosing the ocean of her womb to flood the worlds below. Her children squirmed within Her, eager to taste life.

The long Night was ending, making way for the Dawn.

~

We retraced our path through the residential corridors. The guard station was empty now. We joined the trickling flow of people in the stairwell and made our way back to the surface.

There was still a considerable crowd in the metro junction, but not as thick as it had been. Though the quakes had ceased, the automated announcement urged the citizens of this sector to convene in the Curiosity Entertainment Arena, where an emergency center and triage had been established.

Disregarding the broadcast, Zahirah crossed the plaza and took one of the northern avenues, through an administrative wing on the sector outskirts. Tikhonravov Crater. My pack hung heavy on my shoulders, far more than we needed for a day or so in a refugee assembly.

“You’re not really thinking of leaving the city,” I called after her. Zahirah didn’t answer, though within a short time it became evident that leaving was exactly what she intended.

We had reached an Exit Station.

“Does that badge of yours give you clearance to exit the city on a whim?” The last time I had gone to the Martian surface, on a climbing trip with friends in the Victoria canyons, it had taken six months to obtain an exploration visa, health screenings, liability waivers. Zahirah meant to arrange this in an instant, while the city was in lockdown, no less.

“The badge, no. But there are other ways. My order has not survived millennia by accident.”

We approached the Exit Station, where a guard was just looking up from a panel.

“The evacuation orders for this sector are still in effect… Madame,” he added, as he caught sight of Zahirah’s badge. He was a young man, proud and fit in his sleek black uniform. His demeanor said he had been through hell this morning, and had no time for pushy faculty. “You must proceed to the Curiosity Arena until protocol is lifted.”

A second guard stood several feet away, monitoring the comms. She paid no attention to us; her eyes scanned the transmissions coming through rapid-fire. “Marcus, are you getting this?” she said over her shoulder.

The first guard put his hand to his ear. “Move along,” he said to us. “Now.”

“Marcus! East tunnel!”

From behind us, sounds of pandemonium rolled outwards from one of the avenues. The flow of human traffic had stopped; citizens milled about the opening of the tunnel, confusion blossoming into fear as the noise within the avenue became a chorus of shrieks. Those nearest the junction began to try to back up, blocked by those still waiting behind them.

“Get them into the shops!” cried the female guard, turning from her comm.

“Back! All of you, get ba–” The guard called Marcus began, stepping away from the Exit Station door, but was cut short.

Zahirah held a pistol beneath the young man’s chin. In the time it took his partner to reach for her weapon, Zahirah fired. Marcus’s chin opened, spilling blood over his uniform. He dropped at Zahirah’s feet.

I staggered backwards, noting in horror the blood on my own clothes. Zahirah never flinched. She had turned her pistol on the remaining guard.

“Put your hands where I can see them,” she said, calm, though loud enough to make herself heard over the din. “Take us inside.”

An eerie screeching sound split through the screams of the crowd. The guard jerked, torn between the need to act and the pistol pointed at her head. I could see the calculation in her eyes, judging one crazed citizen with a gun to be the lesser danger.

“If you want to live to help these people,” Zahirah told her, “do as I tell you. We will not hurt you, and we will be gone in moments. Think about it.”

The screeching grew louder, closer. The guard moved back behind the gates, into the Exit Station, and Zahirah stepped in behind her. “Carter,” she said, her voice commanding.

I almost left her, then. I turned away, searching for a path through the mob, which had begun to press away from the tunnel in hysterical terror. Then I saw the black forms sweeping along the roof of the avenue; some flying like giant bats, others crawling upside down, diving into the throng. It was a thing of nightmares; people snatched up like fleeing rats, shredded, disappearing into the maws of moving shadow. The Exit Station seemed infinitely preferable. I dove in after the women, sealing the gates behind me.

The guard had not yet seen what was happening in the station, but she still had a comm connected to her ear. Her eyes had gone wide, as she backed against the wall of the station.

Zahirah hadn’t seen them, either, but I had no doubt that she knew. She had always known.

“Carter – we need radiation suits,” Zahirah ordered. To the guard, she said, “Activate the decompression chamber. When we are gone, I suggest you put on a suit as well. And hide.”

While the guard turned to the module, shaking, I located the suits. My own hands were unsteady; I dropped the garments and had to fumble to retrieve them from the locker floor.

At Zahirah’s direction, I put mine on first, all but the hood, while she kept her gaze locked on the guard. When I was done, she held out the weapon to me.

Our eyes met. She knew what was roiling inside me; horror at what she had done, and the greater shock of what I had seen in the metro junction. She was not asking for my forgiveness, but she needed my trust – and my help. I could refuse. I could take the weapon and turn it on her, instead.

Her eyes were dark as night in that moment. The amulet lay on the outside of her clothes, glowing white as a moon under the bright station lights. Two pieces, united in a seamless whole. She could not do this without me.

“Gods damn you, Dr. Nayar,” I managed, taking the weapon.

Zahirah breathed an ironic laugh.

I held the weapon on the guard, who had finished her task. The compression chamber hummed, active, while Zahirah donned her suit and fit the hood in place.

As I handed the weapon back, the station shook with sudden impact. All of us turned to see the Exit Gate buckle, then crack. I had time to imagine the impossible strength required to penetrate the structure – the same material used on the outer hull of the city itself – before a black appendage snaked through the new opening.

It seemed to have the consistency of smoke, or liquid, both, shifting its shape into something that resembled claws. As the guard began to scream, another appendage appeared, and the fissure in the gate widened, breaking apart.

As the thing flowed into the station, a good-sized space made miniscule by the creature’s size, Zahirah grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the compression chamber. I heard the guard’s screams dissolve in a gurgle of pain.

Zahirah slammed her fist on the inner module. The chamber doors began to slide shut, but stopped as a black tentacle slipped through, reaching for me.

“Get in the cruiser,” Zahirah shouted through her hood. Mine was still tucked under my arm. I held it in a death-grip. I stumbled backwards, groping for the hatch of the waiting cruiser while the black form bled into the tiny chamber.

Zahirah did not try to run. She could not have made it, in any case, but as the shape piled upon itself, growing arms and claws, sprouting a snout, I screamed her name, urging her to move.

Then, as the thing’s mouth widened, sharpening into black fangs, Zahirah lifted the amulet from her breast. She held it out before her, her arm trembling.

And the creature stopped.

“Get in the cruiser!” Zahirah shouted to me again. I did, pawing at switches to bring it to life.

I pulled my hood on, and the airlock began to open. Atmosphere rushed around the creature’s black body. Unaffected, the thing swirled in on itself, pulling its mass back into the station. Zahirah dove into the cruiser beside me.

The cruiser glided through the bay doors. Arabia Terra fell behind us as we entered the vast and empty terrain. Ahead, the rim of mountains was the only thing between us and the dark vault of heaven.

~

Or so I thought.

What looked at first like a storm, brooding on the horizon, was in fact a swarm – amorphous in the distance, but separating into shapes as it neared the city. I turned to stare from the cruiser’s rear window. A cloud of dark, churning beasts fell from the sky onto Arabia Terra, a column of black limbs, shifting bodies. As the cruiser picked up speed and the outline of the city grew large behind us, I saw thousands of beings perched, ape-like, on the domes, scaling the walls. They tore away the outer shell and crawled inside its fissures. The sky rippled with the city’s atmosphere, pouring through the holes, dissipating into the void.

“The coupling of Sky and Earth is complete,” Zahirah said, her gaze fixed on the red terrain ahead. “Neuth prepares us for new life.”

[_Life? _]“What… what are they?” The blackness crawled over Arabia Terra, devastating in its completeness.

Zahirah grimaced. “They are the birth waters. The Goddess gives life,” she said, “and She takes life away.”

~

After that, we did not speak.

I lay with my eyes closed as Zahirah guided the cruiser east, across the Martian desert. I could not bear to look at her – nor did I wish to see the grim weather churning in the skies. Neuth’s birth waters. A dawn of death.

Soon, though, the images behind my eyes were too much to bear, so I opened them again, and took note of where we were headed.

Tikhonravov Crater.

~

There had been talk for decades of renewing the Naktong-Scamander-Mamers lake-chain system – the channels were there, waiting to serve Arabia Terra’s ever-growing demand for water. The University’s elite science community looked forward – had looked forward –to a promised day when terraforming would be not so much science fiction, but a vivid reality. As of yet, the technology had not caught up with their enthusiasm.

Thirty kilometers north of city, the edge of the world gave way to the great, barren chasm. Spanning nearly 400 kilometres in diameter, the ancient lake opened for us as Zahirah pointed the cruiser towards its dusty mouth. I imagined us driving over the edge, into the abyss. In that moment, I might not have cared.

But Zahirah stopped at the base of a butte, one of many that fringed the crater, carved out by millennia of erosion – the slow art of time.

Dubbed by early astronomers as “the palm of war”, the butte Zahirah chose was vaguely hand-shaped. When asked what why this spot, Zahirah muttered something about alignment and coordinates. Her voice was muffled by the atmosphere hoods we wore as we climbed out of the cruiser. We switched on the communication link between the suits, but I didn’t ask more. The effort of climbing discouraged conversation, even had I been inclined to keep talking.

We had to scale the last thirty meters, a feat that made me wonder if my being chosen to accompany Zahirah into a new age was based solely on my experience in rock-climbing. At the top I rolled onto my side, breathing hard. The light had turned purple while we climbed. I was relieved to see that the black cloud of death was gone – the faint shape of stars showed through a murky sky. In the distance, sunset was sinking over the hulk Arabia Terra. I looked back towards the ruins of the city, though now there was little left to see. The domes had collapsed, reduced to rubble. The swarming creatures had either abandoned the carnage or disappeared below the surface.

I turned to Zahirah, who crawled to the center of the butte and started to make scratches on the ground. As I got to my feet, Zahirah motioned for me to join her.

Soon, she had encircled us both with symbols in the dust. To my amazement, I found my curiosity stirred – an urge for life, perhaps, struggling against the blackness of despair.

Studying her work for a moment, I realized Zahirah was recreating the carvings on the amulet. “The hieroglyphic for Neuth,” I acknowledged. I squatted beside her and pointed to a section of ground; table, urn, upturned bowl. “And here, the ladder. But what are the rest doing here?” Hera, Yahweh, Tezcatlipoca, Saranyu. I recognized them all, now – a cornucopia of deities of earth and sky.

“As I said before: religion is both specific and metaphorical.” Zahirah completed her drawing and sat back on her heels. “The Handmaidens are not native to Egypt. We’re older than that; we existed in every major civilization. When I speak of Neuth and Geb, I speak only with the language that was passed down to me by my mothers. There are others…” she gestured towards the sky. “Wherever they are, they will be drawing together in many names. The reality is the same.”

“The reality.” I looked upwards. Zahirah rose to stand beside me. She took my hand.

“The sky,” I pointed.

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

~

The stars that had been vague spots of light now appeared much closer, brighter. Even as we watched, they seemed to be drawing nearer, as if the sky were falling.

Zahirah began to chant. I could not imagine how this would save us from being crushed under the atmosphere, but I didn’t have any better ideas. I clung to her.

We were not crushed. The air around us underwent a spectacular change, growing light and shimmering. Winds crept up, mild at first but growing fiercer very fast. A storm of dust blew across the Martian surface. I saw our cruiser roll away, taking our packs with it.

Zahirah and I remained safe inside the circle. The wind arched around us, as if blocked by an invisible sphere. I raised my hand but felt nothing. Only space.

I don’t know how long this went on. After a time, the winds disappeared. I peered into the heavens, so close it seemed I could almost touch them. I thought perhaps it was finished, and held my breath, but then the firmament shifted. An immense column of atmosphere rose upwards – not a column, I saw then. A torso. I fell to my knees, realizing what I was seeing.

Neuth. The Goddess had risen.

The world as I understood it had come unhinged. What I knew as the sky was now a separate piece of life, swirling, starlit against a deeper blackness. Gazing on this other darkness made my stomach drop, my consciousness shrivel to a point of terror. What was out there, beyond the body of the sky goddess, was not space – that dangerous, airlessness between worlds. Space was something humankind had surmounted, something through which we could travel, exist. This was different. This was not a thing I had encountered, but somehow I recognized it, and feared it.

It was void.

In time, I could perceive an arm, stretched taut against the supportive rock of the planet, then reaching outwards, upwards. I craned my neck but saw no head. It was too far up.

Beside me, Zahirah raised her arms, palms pointing toward empyrean.

The body of Neuth rose higher, the mountain of her belly swallowing the vista where stars and planets should have hung. In the west, where the sun had fallen an hour – a millennia –ago, loomed a massive cloud of atmosphere that could only be a thigh. I looked to the east and there stretched its mate. The sky goddess was straddling the cosmos.

The winds had ceased, the air having risen into the body of Neuth. Exposed to… space, to beyond space, the land around us appeared lunar, ethereal. I expected to be sucked out into that void, yet somehow Zahirah and I remained rooted within the circle.

Zahirah’s chanting reached an end.

“What…” I managed. “What happens now? Is it over?”

She turned to me, blinking dreamily within her hood.

No. It was not over.

~

Next came the beast.

I don’t know how else to describe it. At first, I saw nothing – east, south, in all directions, the landscape spread out dark and quiet beneath the twin towers of Neuth’s thighs. Then, a tremor began, rolling in a great crescendo until the world rocked with a violence that made everything we had felt earlier seem like ripples in a puddle. All around us, bits of rock broke free of the crater’s edge. The Palm of War swayed, and I thought surely we would be thrown into the depths below. Zahirah and I fell to the ground, I reached for her, and we clung together, waiting, until the tremors stopped.

I saw it in the distance, then – a great slithering shape. But unlike the black birth waters, with their many biting forms, this – thing – remained whole. I could discern something like a head, and a tail, with moving fore and hind parts that propelled it towards us at an impossible speed.

“Zahirah…”

Heedless of me, and the knife’s edge of terror I heard in my own voice, Zahirah walked to the edge of the butte. Lightning fast, the thing slid through the canyon and encircled us. Over the rim of the butte appeared something like a snout, curved sharp as a sickle, with teeth the size of a man. The snout lifted upwards, its tip a huge wet black nub sniffing over our heads.

A forked tail rose up, flipping and writhing, and started to slide across the ground. When it reached the circle, the two forks paused, quivering. They twined together as if conferring, then the long appendage receded. We heard a thud as it plummeted over the side of the butte and hit the ground below. We felt the vibration in our bones.

The creature gripped the butte in razor-laced claws. It towered over us, a wedge-shaped head on a shaggy body. It raised a claw, as if to flatten us into the rock.

The being let out a shrill whine. I put my fists on either side of my hood, cringing, until the noise softened and became almost plaintive. The thing bent, lowering itself until we stood facing its one enormous black eye.

“There, there,” I heard Zahirah breathe beside me. She was shaking, but she lifted a hand to caress the beast. All that was within reach, though, was its eye. She took a step forward. “There, there.”

For me, the scrutiny of this eye became an unbearable thing; in its reflective black sheen I saw myself, staring, helpless, while all the worlds I knew were ripped to shreds. Other faces crowded in the eye; Bo Huan, my friends, the University students waiting for the tube in Arabia Terra, the people in the metro junction, all dead. Madness rushed over me. I found myself screaming like a wild man, clawing at my atmosphere suit and hood as if they burned me.

I wanted to attack the thing. I wanted to break it. There was nothing within reach but the circle, Zahirah and myself, so I tore at what I had. I heard Zahirah shouting my name in horror as I yanked my hood free from the suit.

I was buffeted by air so full of dust it stole my breath. It did not occur to me until later that, even without a hood, I had breath to steal. I was caught up in rage, not caring if I lived or died. My only thought was to lash out at this giant thing with the beautiful, alien black eye. Still screaming, I hurled my hood. It hit the eye and flopped to the ground.

The creature blinked and reared back, whining its siren sound. Without my hood to protect me, the sound pierced my skull. I went down writhing.

“Carter!” Zahirah threw herself in front of me just as a monster hand whisked across the butte. At the last moment the beast draw back. Zahirah was not eviscerated, but she cried out as the tip of a retracting claw sliced across her back.

The beast shivered and whinnied. As Zahirah turned to face it, I saw the long gash in her suit, a line of fresh blood on her skin. Only then did I realize the atmosphere around us was not only intact but hospitable to human life; with her suit compromised, Zahirah would otherwise have asphyxiated.

Zahirah had realized this as well. She tore off her hood and, lifting the amulet from her breast, began to chant again.

The beast rocked back and forth. Its forked tail rose into the air and wrapped itself around the body, a child calming itself under a mother’s song.

“You must not fight her,” Zahirah said under her breath. “You must not. She will not harm us if she knows us as her chosen ones, but if you show anger you will confuse her.”

“She?” I shouted. “What is she?

“She is an Avatar of Neuth, Carter! Can you not see that?”

At first I could not see anything but a towering vision of death before me; but soon the horror of snout, claws, and tail came together in my mind. Gods with the heads of animals, composites of beings.

“Seth,” I stammered. “Those… it looks like depictions of Seth.”

“They are of the same bloodline, born of sky and earth. This… She…” Zahirah paused, her voice overcome with emotion. “It is She that Neuth has labored to bring forth.”

“She gave birth to Her own avatar?”

“We are like mites, to the Sky Mother; we would shatter if we heard Her true voice, or gazed upon her true eye. In Her great compassion, She has given us Her offspring, so that we may commune with Her…”

“What does she want with us?” I shouted, growing impatient with the ritual of it all.

“She–”

But the creature, too, had had enough of conversation. It – she – let go of the twining tail and reared up to full height. It bellowed, shaking the ground, and then soft white light poured from its mouth.

Zahirah stretched out her arms. The tendril of light swirled around her face and drifted inside her mouth, eyes and nose. Zahirah remained still, allowing the light of the Gods to enter her, to take root. Her body began to glow.

I watched in a daze, helpless to do anything. At last a tendril of light fell from Zahirah’s mouth and dissipated into the air. The creature pulled back, unsteady on its feet.

Zahirah dropped her arms. Her eyes glowed with starlight. She called my name in a voice that was not her own: “Carter, of the Phoenix. He who rises from the ashes. Now is your offering required. The Daughter of Heaven awaits you.”

In panic, I glanced from this strange and terrifying Zahirah to the creature towering over us with its vicious teeth and claws. For a moment all thought left me but a desperate plea: run – but run to where? The only safety was here in the circle where Zahirah in her glowing aspect began to remove her radiation suit, and then the clothing beneath. And of course, I remembered, what else had all of this been for? The amulets had drawn us together to be united in the image of Neuth and her lover, the joining of Heaven and Earth – of gods and flesh. What else had I to offer but my earth, my body, myself?

I can say, a part of me shrank from this. That I had been chosen to father a new generation of my kind could not erase the knowledge that I had also been an agent in its destruction. That I had been chosen and not asked. That I was expected to perform under the gaze of a monstrous golem, with the stink of death in the air. I can say, yes, a vestige of pride did rail against this, even as Zahirah came to me in her lovely nakedness.

But man is of the earth, and answers first as he is made to. Earth rises to the sky. Flesh rises to life. Man cleaves to woman, helpless and small in the sight of Gods.

~

Zahirah rose, after, and raised her arms into the air. All of creation, it seemed, waited for her bidding.

“It is done,” she said. “Disperse, my children. It is done.”

The creature swayed, then slunk to the ground as if it had become boneless. For a moment Zahirah and I were alone on the butte, alone in the world. Then the creature began to crawl away across the crater floor. To the east, a great tide of black washed from the ruins of Arabia Terra.

I do not know how long the exodus lasted. The sky darkened, the black forms rising. In time, the swarm of fleeing bodies became indistinguishable from the void. When this was done, the great starry column of Neuth stretched from one horizon to the other, retaking the arch over the worlds of men. Soon I found myself blinking into a perfect, starlit sky. The winds had been stripped from Mars; the air laid around us fresh as mythical earth – and with it a silence that stretched across the world in every direction.

Silence, until Zahirah turned to me, blinking, and in her own voice, breathed the first new words into life.

“The new Dawn has begun.”

~

The sun rose as it has not, on Mars, in the memory of man; azure skies received it, and the dusty red plains blazed with fertile light.

The cruiser was found several kilometers from the butte, dented but functioning. We returned to Arbia Terra to search the flattened, broken shell for ways inside. Within the wreckage, we salvaged components to start again; clothing, building scraps. Stored water and, blessing of the Gods upon us, an agridome stocked with a full catalog of embryonic flora and livestock.

And, here and there, survivors. Not priests or handmaidens, but regular people. At last count we numbered forty-seven; mostly women and children, some elderly, and a beagle we rescued from the university library. We named him Libris.

We created a camp, on the grounds near a collapsed Exit Station, our days spent mending the injured and extracting what we could from the ruins of our city. But on the fortieth day, the sun rose into a sky not blue but a burnished purple. By midday, storm clouds stretched across the horizon, an eerie reminder that left us cringing and terrified until the clouds cracked and released rain. Simple rain.

We met this first with joy, filling cups, laying out clothes, standing naked in the torrent to wash the filth of devastation from our skin. But as the rains kept coming, the canyons filled. The ground beneath our camp bled red, becoming swamps that sucked at our feet. Soon the mouths of the city were filling with water. We were forced to higher ground.

The rains continued for a month. We huddled in a complex of caverns, watching the moons turn in the sky. When finally the clouds rolled away, the canyons that had been our home had birthed a network of lakes, rivers and rapids. Arabia Terra was lost.

But in the wake of the rains, the mountains flourished with vegetation. We came down from the mountain to find a new green world.

~

In a verdant present, it is pointless to regret. Surrounded by the faces of our children, remorse seems almost sacrilege. Now is our springtime. Now is our Eden. Or, as Zahirah says, now is our Dawn.

I’m not unhappy; nor, I think, is she. We have all that we need; food, the love of family. Community. We work well together, as leaders, as lovers. There is satisfaction in that.

Zahirah cuts a striking profile, looking out over what we have built. Zahirah, gazing skyward, is our symbol of faith. She is a pillar of strength for us all.

But we are not gods. We’re only human.

At least, I am only human. Of Zahirah, I sometimes wonder.

Even now, when we lie together, when we create new life, a light comes into her eyes, reminiscent of that night on the palm of war. I will not say that it terrifies me, still, but it is a reminder.

I remember Zahirah in simpler times – a Zahirah that was beautiful as just a woman, not a Daughter of Heaven nor the mother of a people. I am not supposed to speak of this, but I think it.

Zahirah speaks only of tomorrow, but by now I know her nature. I see what shifts within her black eyes when she considers on our sons and daughters.

Zahirah mourns.

As we lie in our bed at night, gazing through our window into the belly of the sky, there is blackness where stations used to be. So much distance. So much space to learn, again, to conquer.

But, there is Mercury, spinning fast. There is Earth, still, a bright point of hope.

Perhaps, somewhere among those other kingdoms, there is another priestess, not so young now, looking with her mother’s eyes at the promise of the stars.

***

“Daughter of Heaven” is copyright © Shannon Connor Winward

Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook, Undoing Winter. Her writing has earned recognition in the Writers of the Future Contest and the Delaware Division of the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship in literature. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Pseudopod, The Pedestal Magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, Persistent Visions, Cast of Wonders, Flash Fiction Online, and Star*Line, among others. In between writing, parenting, and other madness, Shannon is also an officer for the Science Fiction Poetry Association, a poetry editor for Devilfish Review and founding editor of Riddled with Arrows Literary Journal.

Dead Last

by Jay Barnson

The gym stank of generic cleansers and stale sweat. A handful of unevenly spaced fluorescent tubes created patchy pools of light. I imagined that they made the facility seem larger and in better condition than it probably looked under the full glare of the halogens during working hours. I glanced at my partner and said, “You take me to the nicest places, Crenshaw. I really don’t know what to say.”

Crenshaw’s face was mostly mouth and teeth under a nose that looked like a shark’s dorsal fin. He growled. “Show some professionalism, Flint. Unless you really want to be stuck as an L2 forever.”

Our charge, a confident, comfortably overweight thirty-something named Mike Rosefield, half-turned to face us. “Okay, from here out, you two keep quiet. These Tycho folks are small-time players, usually trustworthy, but definitely not on friendly terms with us. Just let me do the talking, okay?”

Crenshaw glared sideways at me, and nodded. We followed Rosefield past the treadmills and exercise bikes towards the weights. From the rear of the facility, a voice called out, “Okay, that’s far enough.”

We stopped. Four men in business suits approached, their features unclear in the shadows. At a word from the leader, they all held short of the center of the room, standing perfectly still in the shadows as Rosefield’s counterpart stepped forward to join us.

The leader was tall and thin, in his mid forties. He was not as well groomed as Rosefield, but he moved with at least equal confidence. His antique-styled spectacles with gold frames made him appear scholarly. “Glad you folks could make it tonight.” His voice held a trace of a New York accent.

Rosefield spoke with more reserve than he’d shown all night. “Likewise. I confess, was expecting Devon here tonight.”

The older man shook his head. “No, he couldn’t make it. I’m Travis Combs, Devon’s assistant. It was our understanding this was a simple hand-off. If you came to try and renegotiate, I’m not authorized to do any of that.”

Rosefield held up a hand. “No, no renegotiation. I just need to authenticate the piece. Can we turn on the rest of the lights in here?”

Combs shook his head. “I’d rather not let anyone know were here after hours. We don’t want any interruptions.” He placed his briefcase on a bench, and popped it open. Inside was a primitive mask made of ancient leather, set with topaz stones. “The Mask of Jupiter. One of the five Planetary Masks. Go ahead and have a look, but no touching.”

I keyed my mic. “One of five?” I murmured so that only the mic could pick it up. “Do we get a prize for collecting the whole set?”

Crenshaw scowled at me. Rosefield’s eyes bugged out as he held in either a laugh or an angry shout. Megan Villanova, our backup and mission leader parked in a van a block away, answered, “Yes, the prize may include the destruction of all human life on the planet if brought together, so try and show some respect. Now cut the chatter and pay attention, Alpha Two.”

Rosefield produced a jeweler’s loupe and used it to inspect the mask. Crenshaw kept his eye on Combs. As curious as I was about the trade we were about to make, I kept my eye on the other three men just outside of the light, and my hand well away from my concealed holster in my belt. Things were going smoothly, and I didn’t want to make my counterparts twitchy. They were doing a better job than I was, standing rock still. Professionals every one, they didn’t fidget or even let on that they were observing us. I couldn’t even tell that they were breathing in the shadows. Their complete lack of motion bugged me.

Part of my special little talent that attracted the Order of Ascarion’s attention to me was that I’ve got an eye for illusion and misdirection. I was one of those annoying kids at magic shows who figured out half of the magician’s tricks as he performed them. When I did, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut explaining to anyone around me how he was pulling it off. I wasn’t trying to ruin the performance. I was just excited about spotting the deception, and couldn’t wait to share it with people.

What attracted my interest in the Order of Ascarion was meeting a man who could do the same thing with no deception at all. That, and receiving a promise I could learn to do the same. That, and getting to act like James Bond or Indiana Jones. Eventually, that is. The intense training I received as an L1 recruit was purely non-magical. As an L2, I served as a glorified security guard for two years. This mission was my first field assignment, a “milk run” to prove my readiness for promotion. I just had to avoid screwing up for an hour.

Each of the three bodyguards wore a dark suit—all the better to hide the print of a gun. Darker shadows on two of the coats didn’t match the incoming light. I pretended to fidget and take an interest in a suspicious barbell, and inched my way towards Crenshaw.

Meanwhile, Rosefield nodded and put away the jeweler’s loupe. “That does look like the real deal.”

Combs closed the briefcase, but didn’t lock it. He grinned at Rosefield. “Of course it’s authentic. Now, not to get crude or anything, but now that I’ve shown you mine, its your turn to show me yours.”

Rosefield chuckled, and placed his own briefcase on the bench next to Combs’. He smoothly unlocked and opened the case, revealing the oldest book I’d ever seen. The Order of Ascarion maintains a lot of very old books, so that’s not an insignificant statement.

I pretended to stare at the book while Combs examined it, and I whispered to Crenshaw, “We may have a problem.”

Crenshaw’s words were barely audible even inches away. “So help me, Flint, if you screw this up…”

“His bodyguards have bloodstained jackets.”

“What? Bullsh…” But Crenshaw looked. To his credit, he did so while appearing to scan the room in a glance.

Combs glanced briefly at us as he bent over the book. His casual smile never wavering, but his forehead creased. He’d noticed.

Crenshaw cleared his throat. “Hey, Mike, I hate to interrupt, but can I talk to you when you have a moment?” Rosefield looked up, his own casual smile in place, but his eyes glared daggers at Crenshaw.

Combs licked his lips. A little too eagerly, he said, “Actually, gentlemen, I’m satisfied here. Shall we conclude our business, then?” He motioned hopefully towards Rosefield’s briefcase.

Rosefield touched the lid of the briefcase with one hand. “Not just yet. I’m sure this won’t take but a second.”

Combs smiled and shrugged, but a moment later he called out, “Minions, kill the agents!” He dove forward, tackling Rosefield and knocking him and both briefcases over the workout bench.

I drew my gun much faster than our three opponents, and Crenshaw drew even faster than me. There was little cover to speak of in the gym, so we ducked and moved to make ourselves more difficult targets, all while lighting up the gym with gunfire. Our opponents, on the other hand, stood rock-still as they took aim. Even in the bad lighting, I knew I’d hit my target at least twice. He never even flinched.

They opened fire.

“Zombies!” I called out.

“No shit!” Crenshaw called from behind a rack of dumbbells. “Aim for the brain.”

I wasn’t aiming for much of anything as I had took cover behind a leg press machine which seemed to be made of cardboard and aluminum foil for all of the protection it provided. Two of the gunmen (gun-corpses?) shot at me. Even when fired by slow and inaccurate walking dead, a bullet was a bullet. I thought thin thoughts as I tried to put as much of myself as possible behind the stack of weights in the machine. The assembly rang and vibrated behind my head with each shot like a cheap carnival game.

Agents in the Order of Ascarion were taught to use magic, although not the same kind as what the top level administrators and merlins practiced. Agents mastered quick-and-dirty magical spells to enhance their physical abilities. Top-level operatives could pull stunts that would put action-movie heroes to shame. Add to that top-of-the-line technological gadgets and the occasional use of magical talismans with amazing powers, and the “eyes and hands” of the organization was the sort of thing Ian Flemming never dreamed of.

That was all academic for a junior-level agent like me. At my level, we trained the old fashioned way, so that we had a foundation to build on. Magical enhancements should augment our skills, they taught us, not be used as a crutch. While I was no slouch on the range or on the obstacle course, I would have appreciated the crutch right now.

There was only one bit of magic I knew, and it was nothing the Order had taught me. It was another aspect of my “gift.” I could create illusionary sounds, a bit of misdirection of my own. On a good day, I could even convince people they heard a familiar voice. When I was a child, I thought that was how performers “threw their voice” with ventriloquism. I had no idea that my own ability was unique. It was a great skill for pulling practical jokes around the barracks. Unfortunately, it was useless in a firefight. I’d much rather have the spell that turned me into the hero from a John Woo movie.

I dared a peek around the weights, and took the chance to shoot at one of the zombies in its head. It didn’t go down immediately, leaving me to assume I’d missed. Behind it, Rosefield and Combs ducked low, moving towards the exit. Rosefield carried both briefcases. Combs carried just a gun, which he pointed at Rosefield.

Crouching as they were, he was actually pointing the gun at Rosefield’s butt, which would have been comical if it wasn’t so deadly serious. Actually, yes, it was funny. My “inappropriate sense of humor” has been noted from time to time on our semi-annual performance reviews. My superiors need something to complain about, so I provide them with something they feel needs improvement. It makes them feel useful.

One of the zombies spilled onto the floor exactly like a lifeless corpse. I experienced a moment of victorious thrill until Combs called out, “Devon, shoot them!”

The door to the men’s room opened fifteen feet from me. An ash-skinned middle-aged man wearing a blood-soaked shirt and tie stepped through, carrying an MP5 submachine gun. There was no cover between the two of us.

“New hostile!” I called out to my partner as I leaped forward. Slack-jawed and dead-eyed like a shark, the animated corpse of our Tycho contact was no faster than his companions. I closed and pushed the barrel handguard to the side just as he opened fire. The weapon sprayed flame and lead for one of the longest seconds of my life, and then went silent. The zombie repeatedly squeezed the trigger, heedless that nothing more fired. It made no move to reload.

I hadn’t been shot in the back yet by the dead guys who had perforated the weight machine. Assuming Devon was done shooting, I whirled around. One of the zombie agents aimed at me, the slide locked back on his handgun. The other two had collapsed.

Crenshaw sprinted out the exit door, where Combs and Rosefield had presumably fled. “Finish them off, I’ll get Combs!” he called over the radio.

Villanova’s voice came over my earpiece seconds later. “Alpha, what’s going on? I heard gunshots.”

Zombie Devon raised the muzzle of the MP5 to my head and pulled the trigger. Even knowing it was empty, I flinched. I took a step back, raised my Glock, and shot it in the head. It dropped. I repeated the procedure on the remaining zombie, and shuddered involuntarily. Fortunately, no one was around to see my reaction. For a highly-trained agent of a magical cabal, I was having trouble acting like a badass. These things were still fresh enough that they looked like people.

Crenshaw hadn’t answered Villanova yet. I was angry he took off without me, and the ringing in my ears from all the gunshots didn’t help my attitude. I keyed the mic. “A necromancer going by the name of Travis Combs ambushed us with zombies. The Tycho team is dead. Combs has our liaison hostage. Alpha one is after him.”

“What about the cargo?”

“Combs has both.”

“Acknowledged. Alpha one, report if able.”

There was no response. I slipped a new magazine into the Glock, then keyed my mic again as I pushed through the exit door. “Alpha two is following,” I said. This was code for, “Please don’t be surprised by my appearance and shoot me.”

“Bravo One is also in pursuit,” Villanova responded. She was leaving the van to join the fight.

Outside, the street was deserted. Ridgeview isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. Our van was parked around the corner a block away to the east, where Villanova would have a good view of the rear exit. If she wasn’t in a flat-out run or wearing magic shoes—something not outside of the realm of possibility in our line of work—she would take a minute getting here. I went west.

Blood ran down the sidewalk and into the gutter under the streetlight on the western corner. The figure laying against brick wall was alone, which meant it was one of ours. I scanned the street for a sign of an assailant, but there could have been dozens lurking in every shadowed corner, alley, or rooftop.

I drew closer. It was Crenshaw. Blood soaked the front of his shirt and coat, and gelled under his nose and the corners of mouth.

I keyed my mic again. “Crenshaw’s hurt bad,” I said before correcting myself. “Alpha one is down. We need immediate medical.” But even as I said it, I knew it was too late. Crenshaw stared vacantly down at his own right hand, glassy-eyed and unbreathing. His shirt was sliced open like in a cross of long strokes that had gone deep into his belly with an extremely sharp blade, likely slicing the aorta. He’d bled out in seconds.

An unfamiliar radio lay beside him. Had he taken it from the necromancer? Beside the radio, he’d scrawled the capital letter “B” on the pavement in his own blood. A tail from the lower left corner of the letter trailed down diagonally to where his hand now rested on his handgun. The mark looked like a bizarrely elongated serif.

“I think he’s already dead,” I continued into the radio.

I caught the flash of taillights down the road as an SUV came to life. Comb’s voice crackled in the radio by Crenshaw’s body: “Minion, kill the man in front of you.” The SUV peeled out, and Crenshaw stirred. He twitched and raised his handgun.

I reeled back as he fired, and I felt the bullet hiss past my ear. If it really had been Crenshaw trying to kill me instead of an awkward robot wearing his skin, I’d have been dead. I staggered back, firing several rounds into the head of my former partner. His arm slumped back to the ground and he was still.

Megan Villanova raced up to me with her gun drawn, looking between Crenshaw’s corpse and me as if unsure which of us she should shoot. I had a brief mental image of her putting a bullet through my head as I said, “Wait, let me explain…!” That’d be a terrible way to go, but funny. My inappropriate sense of humor knows no bounds.

“Zombied,” I said instead. “I think Combs just took off in that SUV. He had Rosefield with him last I saw.”

“Damn it! Let’s get back to the car.”

“What about Crenshaw?”

“We can’t wait. Someone will have heard the gunshots, and the cops will be here in moments. I’ll radio this in, and our people will handle the mess. We’ve got to stop that necromancer!”

We raced back to the van. “Take the wheel, Flint,” Villanova said as she threw me the keys. She jumped into the back of the van and closed the door.

I started the engine and asked, “Where do I go?”

“Follow in the direction they left. I’m casting a locator spell.”

“The briefcases protect the relics from being located.” That was me being helpful. Contradicting a superior officer was a sure path to career success!

“I’m not locating the relics, I’m locating Mike. I hope our necromancer still wants to keep a hostage for a while longer.”

I turned on the overhead GPS and drove. I couldn’t figure out how Travis Combs could manage a frontal assault with a knife against Crenshaw. Crenshaw wasn’t perfect, but he was skilled. He wasn’t the kind of guy to let something like a hostage get in his way, either. He’d probably feel bad about getting his partners killed, but still sleep well at night knowing he’d completed the mission. There’d been no time for a struggle, or any sign that Crenshaw had put up a fight. The best he could do, when it was all over and he had seconds of consciousness remaining, was to draw the letter B on the sidewalk. Or a sloppy number 13.

A zombie required a corpse, a dead body with the previous occupant good and gone. Call it a spirit or just the firing of neurons that makes someone someone, it has to cease for the necromantic energies to take over. Crenshaw had gone from chasing down Combs to a lifeless corpse ripe for zombification in less than three minutes. If Combs could do it to Crenshaw, he could probably do the same to Megan or me. I guessed Crenshaw’s drawing was some kind of warning, but I had no idea what it meant.

“I’ve got him,” Villanova said. “About two miles ahead of us, still moving.”

I looked back at her through the rear-view mirror. “Do we have any other resources nearby to assist?”

“It’s just you and me. We chose this town because it’s far from anyone else’s influence.”

“If Rosefield’s still alive, how do we get him back? Do you have some mean Jedi skills I don’t know about?”

She sighed. “I hate to say it, but Rosefield is tertiary. Our first priority is getting that book back, and the mask is our secondary objective.”

“If the book is so important, why were we going to give it to Tycho?”

“Because we knew they were not going to use it. It’s a book of ancient necromancy. Knowing them, they’d have destroyed it.”

“Did we make photocopies of it before handing it over?”

She held up a crystal and looked through it at the GPS. “I think they have turned East now. Look for an eastbound road in about two miles.” She lowered the crystal. “Back to the question: The real power is bound up in the book itself. What’s written inside is secondary. But yes, I’m sure we did make a copy.”

“But we wouldn’t want the necromancy book in the hands of a necromancer.”

“No. We acquired it sixty years ago from a necromancer who used it to slaughter a dozen agents and at least two of our researchers. This Combs guy has already managed to kill one of our agents, and an entire team from Tycho. I don’t want to imagine how dangerous he’d be with the book as well.”

“Speaking of dangerous, how did he turn Crenshaw or those Tycho agents into zombies so quickly? How long does that process take?”

Villanova shook her head. “I don’t know. A lot longer than that. I suspect he has some kind of relic. That would allow him to do it instantly, but it wouldn’t bind them to him very well.”

“What does that mean?”

“That he can’t give them complicated instructions. He probably has to give them constant verbal instructions to do anything.”

“That would explain why the dead guys in the gym didn’t know enough to reload. And why he left a radio by Crenshaw.”

She nodded, and double-checked the GPS image through her crystal. “If he takes control of Rosefield or anyone else, our best bet is to silence him so he can’t give any more orders.”

“Killing him would silence him pretty well.”

“I’m sure the Order would prefer that we take him alive for interrogation.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I’m confused. In the whole book-mask-Mike-Combs priority scheme, where does the priority for keeping Combs alive for questioning land?”

I watched her knife-sharp eyebrows came together over her scowl in the rear-view mirror. “Last,” she answered. “Dead last.”

I turned onto a two-lane highway that seemed to meander off into nowhere. “So if this book is so dangerous, you’d think they’d have briefed us on that,” I said to myself, loudly enough that I was sure she heard.

She lowered the crystal into her lap. “Neither of you were supposed to know. You weren’t supposed to know that book even existed. Be glad. You are the one person on this team who isn’t going to be subject to a massive investigation to figure out who leaked the information.”

“Well, me and Crenshaw.”

She didn’t answer. We drove in silence for several minutes, and then she said, “They’ve turned north again.”

In the darkness, it looked like we were riding through rural nowhere. The roads intersecting the highway were few and far between. As we reached the turn, Villanova announced they’d stopped moving. We turned off the lights and drove the last mile by moonlight, parking short of the location and hopefully out of Combs’ sight.

Villanova took one last look through her crystal. “They are still here. Or at least Mike is.”

“Do you know if he’s still alive? Or if he’s been zombied?”

She shook her head.

We followed a dirt road to a farmhouse. No lights were on, but the SUV I’d seen back in town was parked near the barn. The barn door was open, and a Cessna 172 sat ready for flight in the darkness. Villanova motioned for me to go to the car, while she made her way towards the aircraft.

Rosefield sat in the passenger seat with his hands cuffed behind him, and a wad of rags held in his mouth by a generous strip of duct tape. He was locked in and bound, but at least he was alive. His radio earpiece was missing. He looked neither relieved nor surprised as I drew close. I spoke quietly to him through the window. “Does Combs know we’re here?”

He nodded fervently.

“Crap.” I glanced over at where Megan was hiding by the barn door. I didn’t dare key the mic, but I had other resources available to me to get a message to her. I willed the sound of my own whispered voice next to her ear. “Combs has the radio. He knows we’re here.”

I knew she was aware of my ability, but it still surprised her. She pointed her gun in the direction of the sound, then saw me and nodded. Then she slipped through the barn door.

I turned back to Rosefield. He looked out over my shoulder, and his eyes grew wide just before he ducked down in the seat. This confused me for a moment, then I threw stealth to the wind and launched myself over the hood of the SUV. I hadn’t quite put the car between myself and whatever was behind me when a shotgun blast took out passenger side window.

I dropped to a crouch behind the front wheel on the driver’s side as more shots rang out. Shattering glass rained beside me. I guessed three shooters, but I didn’t dare stick my head out to count.

“Minions, cease fire,” Combs’ voice called out. “You behind the car, please toss your gun over here, or I will shoot your lady friend in the head.”

I couldn’t see Villanova from my vantage point, but I heard a pair of footsteps coming closer. One stumbled. I ducked lower and tried to look under the car, but it was too dark to see anything on the other side.

“I mean it,” Combs continued. “I don’t have to leave any of you alive. In six seconds, I promise that all three of you will be dead. You know by now I am not bluffing.”

Defeated, I threw my handgun over the hood of the car.

“Now step out with your hands behind your head. I wish to… negotiate.”

I did as he ordered. Combs stood in front of three zombies—an older couple and a younger man. I guessed they were the family that had lived in the farmhouse. They’d been dead at least a day, stinky and bloated. They all had firearms.

At first glance, I feared Megan had been changed as well. She stood limp and unsteady in Comb’s firm grasp, head hung low as he held a gun to her temple. He grinned, his eyes twinkling behind those golden spectacles. What had he done to her?

Crenshaw’s bloody, scrawled message came to my mind. The letter “B” with the weird tail could have been his dying effort to draw a pair of glasses. Was it a warning? I averted my eyes, staring at the top of Villanova’s head instead.

“Look at me,” Combs demanded.

“No thanks,” I answered. “Not that you are ugly or anything.”

Combs chortled. “Figured that out, did you. You’re clever. It’s too bad I can’t trust you, I could use someone like you in my organization. Minions, aim at the man in front of me, but do not shoot.”

I stared down the barrels of the three guns. At this range and without cover, they didn’t have to be very good shots. Still, I forced myself to look anywhere but at Combs’ spectacled eyes. How long could I stall him? How long would Villanova be under his power? I kept talking. “What organization is that?”

“That’s not information I’d want to get back to Ascarion. By not telling you, you know that I intend to keep one of you alive, don’t you? I need a hostage for a while. Since you seem to be the last agent standing, I’ll offer you the choice of who dies, and who gets to be the hostage.”

“What kind of offer is that?”

“A very logical one. You are what? An L3?”

I couldn’t tell if Villanova had recovered. Knowing her, she’d fake her condition until she seized an opportunity, and she couldn’t clue me in without alerting Combs.

“I’m just an L2,” I said.

“Oh, perfect. You’re too junior to have drunk their Kool-Aid. I trust a clever kid like you will make the smart decision. Of course, that’ll put you at odds with Ascarion, which means you won’t ever be able to go back.”

As he spoke, I used my power to create another whisper in Villanova’s ear, so tiny that Combs wouldn’t hear. “Keep your head low.”

She raised her head just enough to look at me with an intense, brief stare. I interpreted it as, “You’d better know what you are doing.” Unfortunately, I didn’t. I figured there was a better than fifty-fifty chance I’d be dead in the next sixty seconds. She let her head drop again.

I shook my head at Combs’ ravings. “More likely, you’ll kill me as soon as you are safe.”

“No need. If you go back, Ascarion will do that for me. They’ll make an example out of you. They aren’t very forgiving of even forced betrayal.”

I was about to say, “No, you’ve got them all wrong.” But really, why convince him of the error in his calculations. Instead, I asked, “What makes you think that?”

“I have a history with Ascarion. I suspect I know far more about them than you do. And since I also suspect your friend here is beginning to regain her wits, this conversation is at an end. Make your choice.”

“Why don’t you kill me, and let these other two go.”

“That’s not an option. I’m only taking one hostage.”

“That’s my only answer. I’m not choosing.”

“Too bad. If we had more time and you weren’t so misguided, maybe we could have been friends.” He glanced back at the zombies.

“Wait a second!” I hoped the desperation in my voice sounded authentic, because it really was. He hesitated, and looked back at me.

I’d heard enough of his own speech that I could mimic it with my power. I positioned an auditory illusion as if it came from his own mouth, and imitated his voice to command, “Minions, shoot me in the head.”

Combs said, “What was…?” Then the guns went off.

Bloody, shattered spectacles with gold frames fell to the ground.

~

An hour and a half later, we were driving home. Villanova sat in the passenger seat, and Mike Rosefield snored in the back. Next to him, both magical relics rested in their protective briefcases. A cheap cardboard box held the human finger bone that served as Travis Combs’ relic to help him create and control zombies. Beside it, the remains of gold-framed glasses lay wrapped in tissue. Personally, I couldn’t wait to have all of them taken off my hands by our merlins and researchers back at HQ.

Rosefield’s snores grew in volume. I turned up the volume on the radio to compensate, and glanced over at Megan. “I have to admit, I really miss Crenshaw.”

“I didn’t really know him well,” she said.

“Me neither, but on the way down he’d elbow Mike whenever he’d start snoring. I miss that.”

She snorted. “Do you ever stop with the jokes?”

I shrugged. “Rarely. It’s a coping mechanism, I guess. That, and life’s too crazy to take it too seriously.”

After a few moments, she asked, “So why didn’t you take Combs’ offer, Donovan?” It was the first time I think I’d ever heard her use my first name.

“Did you hear everything he said?”

“Yes. I was out of it most of the time, but I heard. If your plan failed, you’d be dead.”

“I’d be dead either way. It was a ridiculous offer.”

“I think he was sincere. A lot of agents would have accepted, between that and certain death.”

“Would you?”

She was silent for a few seconds, and then said, “I’d like to believe that I would not. Anyway, you impressed me. For all that’s worth. It might not make much difference in the next few days.”

“Why? It wasn’t our fault the milk run went pear-shaped. And all this talk of food is getting me hungry.”

She didn’t even crack a grin. “Maybe it wasn’t our fault, but there were plenty of mistakes all around. I should have been more careful before sending you into the gym. Crenshaw shouldn’t have chased after Combs alone without backup. The inquiry will take weeks to resolve. And in the meantime, there will be a hunt to find a potential leak on our end.”

I drummed the steering wheel with my fingers in a vain attempt to match what was playing on the radio. “So what you are saying is that I should wait a few days before soliciting your recommendation for my promotion?”

That got a smile from her. “A few days, maybe.”

***

“Dead Last” is copyright © Jay Barnson.

Jay Barnson is a writer, software engineer, and an award-winning video game developer. He has written for The Escapist and Cirsova magazines, and has been published in several anthologies. He is the first place winner in the 2016 DragonComet writing award. As a programmer, he likes making jokes about how issue zero of a magazine is a proper enumeration, much to the editor’s dismay.

Books to Check Out

Down to Sheol

by M.T. White

A dark crime thriller set in rural Texas…

Jack McGregor had the land they wanted but fought them tooth and nail to keep it. Now he’s dead.

Corrupt D.A. Michael Kubicek just needed to cover up the killing committed by his in-laws, the violent Chambers brothers. Decadent real estate developer Jimmy Morgan just needed to pay off Jack’s feeble sister so he could turn the land in to a thriving, monetary oasis. The men in this crooked cabal thought their troubles would be over.

But the trouble has just begun.

They didn’t count on Jack’s son Clayton, an Army vet returning full of distrust and a hair trigger. They didn’t count on Bree Morgan, Jimmy’s wife and Clayton’s ex-girlfriend. And they didn’t count on Clayton and Bree joining forces.But as Clayton investigates, he crosses paths with the Chambers’ and discovers there’s more to his father’s death than meets the eye while Jimmy stumbles upon Bree’s secret plan.

The guns come out and everyone is caught in the crossfire.

Available now on Amazon

***

The Seals of Abgal

by Woelf Dietrich

Bookstore owner and novice antiquarian, Sebastian Kaine is proud of his new profession and even prouder still of the collection of antique books on the occult that he keeps locked away in the basement of his bookstore.

But his little utopia is shattered one night when he wakes up in that same basement, bound and bloodied, and his prized collection all but destroyed.

Making matters worse are the two strange men responsible for the carnage. They want The Seals of Abgal and insist Sebastian is in possession of it.

As he tries to stay alive, Sebastian discovers The Seals of Abgal is far more than just an ordinary grimoire for it holds powerful secrets. Secrets that are older than time itself, and these men searching for it are no ordinary thugs.

Available now on Amazon

***

Swordcrossed Frostbite

by Bryce Beattie

The dead man had threatened her with all manor of atrocity, so she didn’t feel guilty about checking his body for coin. She should have been watching out for his conjuring partner.

A sword & sorcery novelette by the editor of StoryHack Action & Adventure.

Coming May 2017.

Thanks

Special thanks to all who helped spread the word about StoryHack, from the call for submissions to the cover reveal. You guys are the best. So thank you, in no particular order:

  • WhenUrukFell * David_JWest
  • PlanDefCom * RampantCoyote
  • Cirsova * CastaliaHouse
  • EscapeVelo * Twitlysium
  • SCWinward * DonShirts
  • tuesdayreviews * lonewolfandJD
  • AdvntrsFntastc * DocConstantin
  • NotJonMollison * Daddy_Warpig
  • carynlarrinaga * jpfeinauer
  • DeanMcsmith * CameronWood65
  • P. Alexander from @Cirsova for some good advice early on.
  • deuce from the Swords of REH
  • whomever posted the call for submissions in that facebook group
  • everyone else who has blogged, tweeted, posted or otherwise promoted storyhack

Issue Zero

Oh, no!

It looks like this is the end!

But you can help hasten the next Issue.

See how at:

storyhack.com


StoryHack Action & Adventure, Issue 0

StoryHack Action & Adventure is a brand new pulp magazine. This issue contains: “A Tiger in the Garden” by Alexandru Constantin- A disgraced and exiled noble, stripped of his status, spends his days drinking and whoring in the exotic jungle colonies. When pressed to pay his debts he gets entangled in a deadly plot involving deceit, murder, and the dark magic of the deep jungle. “The Monster Without” by Julie Frost - A werewolf private eye with serious save-the-damsel issues is on the hunt for the killer of a teenage girl. When a woman hires him to protect her from her abusive boyfriend, the cases collide in a way that may cost him his sanity-if not his life. “Hal Turk and the Lost City of the Maya” by David Boop - A Texan bounty hunter has chased a criminal through Mexico and into Guatemala. Can he survive when he and his quarry fall captive to a bloodthirsty, long-forgotton ancient civilization? “King of Spades” by David J. West - What happens when the dead come back to haunt us? General Joab has to find a way to free his king from the rising specter of a long thought dead Goliath. “Desert Hunt” by Jon Mollison - The first steps in Karl Barber’s hunt for the leaders of a human trafficking ring land him in the ancient city of Cairo. His investigation takes an unexpected turn when the fate of a single girl compels him to strike before he’s ready. “The Chronicle of the Dark Nimbus” by Keith West - A cursed prince, is living in exile with his squire until the curse can be broken. They have been sent by their royal sorcerer to protect a thaumaturgist from assassination. “Menagerie” by Steve Dubois - In the Victorian era, a teenage countess and her motley band encounter a plot to restore the Confederate States of America. “Daughter of Heaven” by Shannon Connor Winward - A dealer of ancient artifacts flies to Mars to identify a particularly interesting piece. Can he survive when he triggers the fulfillment of a world-destroying prophecy? “Dead Last” by Jay Barnson - A junior-level agent for a modern-day magical cabal on embarks on his first field assignment. When a necromancer turns his contacts into gun-toting zombies, he must use every bit of his wits, talents, and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor to survive.

  • Author: Bryce Beattie
  • Published: 2017-05-04 20:05:19
  • Words: 63746
StoryHack Action & Adventure, Issue 0 StoryHack Action & Adventure, Issue 0