Fantasy

sword & sorcery, fairies and goblins, etc.

The Soul Factory

Somewhere not on the physical plane, there was a long room filled with machines, raw materials, and assembly lines: a factory. Its small, gray workers were stirring random mixtures of the black oil of various sins and the warm, sweet syrup of myriad virtues into a thick clay which could be molded by the machine at one end of each assembly line into the correct shape. Soulmaking: A tedious and exhausting job.

The soulmakers existed only for this job, though, and there were hardly ever complaints or transfer requests filed. The last worker to transfer out was one by the name of Chip, and the soulmakers idly discussed him as they worked.

“He said,” recalled the storyteller, a female soulmixer named Gold, “that this job had no meaning. What do you think of that?”

She got a round of shrugs in reply. It wasn’t that any of them were unhappy with the job. It was that none of them could imagine feeling strongly enough about anything at all to file a transfer.

“Got to be done,” grunted a worker called Smoke as he and his partner, Brick, lifted a huge vat of viscous black sludge between them and dumped nearly half of it into Gold’s mixing bowl. Brick and Smoke portioned out the more unpleasant qualities of the souls of men.

The Soulmakers were equipped with sharp minds in order to make decisions about how much of each material to pour into any given mixture. Their only task was to make sure that it all came out even at the end of the day, not for the individual souls, but for the net amount of each material used. In this way, the Soulmakers kept the balance of good and evil as new souls came into the world. What happened to the balance after they got there was the affair of the human race.

Smoke’s laconic answer reflected the group’s general sentiment. It had to be done, and who else was going to do it? They were the Soulmakers. There was no point, they thought, in not doing what they were supposed to, what they had been expressly designed to do.

This was why Chip’s story had reached the status of a legend among the workers. His choice to change careers would forever be a mystery to them.

Gold stirred a few more times and then pushed the mixing bowl toward Flint along the conveyor belt. Flint had the job of allotting talents and abilities, and had a brightly-colored selection of vials on his worktable.

The mixture before him was thick, dark and ugly. He looked up to glare down the line at Smoke and Brick, through the tinted lenses of his protective goggles. They just gave him twin shrugs of unconcern.

“Had to use it all somewhere,” Smoke said.

Brick just nodded. For some reason that no one cared enough to figure out, Brick never spoke.

Flint turned back to the task at hand and frowned briefly in thought. There were few substances that would be compatible with such an unpleasant mixture. He carefully poured in a large portion of a clear liquid from a bottle labeled Intelligence. It was absorbed quickly into the black mass and the conveyor belt whisked the bowl away.

Records indicated this particular concoction would be shaped into the soul of one whose heartlessness and hunger for power would drive him to rule over and crush a small nation. But Flint and the others did not imagine this future as the Soul Clay was molded by the machine and then deposited into the chute.

It never occurred to the Soulmakers to wonder about the fate of the souls they concocted. Destiny wasn’t their job, after all. Their attention was always focused on the next task.

Another bowl came whirring toward Flint and he could see from a distance that this one would be much easier to work with. The solution in this bowl was translucent and tinted with a pleasant purple color. He poured in some sweet-scented magenta Music and some gently bubbling Resilience. He was pleased with the new, smooth texture, though his face, like every Soulmaker’s, was all but unreadable behind the wraparound goggles and the pall of factory pollution and chemical residue. He sent the bowl along for its final mixing before it went through the molding machine.

The records showed that this soul would belong to a girl born in the poorest part of a city. Her unfailing positive attitude, sincere kindness, and remarkable musical ability would help her get out of the city, though, and she would make a brighter life for herself. But she would get sick before she was middle-aged, and her soul would leave the world too soon.

“Looks like you’re almost out of Intelligence,” Gold remarked, squinting over at Flint’s work station between mixing bowls.

“I can see that,” he replied shortly.

Gold had an irritating habit of commenting on things which were not only obvious, but also frankly none of her business. They all knew the assembly line didn’t run efficiently if the workers were constantly looking at each other’s work or in any other way trying to keep the big picture in mind. It was death to everyone’s concentration.

“Messenger?” Flint said, without taking his eyes off the bowl of clay he was perusing, “Could you fill this bottle, please?”

Yet another small gray Soulmaker, in goggles and coveralls, took Flint’s Intelligence vial and disappeared into the maze of workers and machinery, heading for the mysterious filling station which existed somewhere in the cavernous room.

The Soulmakers who had the job of refilling everyone’s supplies knew all the secrets and shortcuts of the vast Soul Factory. The rest of the Soulmakers, however, knew almost nothing about what lay beyond their specific assembly line, beyond the one task to which they devoted all their concentration.

That messenger could have vanished in any direction at all and Flint would not have known the difference, even if he had bothered to watch him walk away. What difference did it make what the outer reaches of the factory looked like, anyway? He was sure it was all in perfect working order.

“Brick,” Smoke spoke sharply from the other end of the conveyor belt, “Carry that over here.”

There was a pause, then, “What’s the problem? It’s not that heavy, is it?”

Flint sent the bowl along and glanced over, despite himself, feeling as curious as he ever got.

Brick was standing next to a big tub of something brown and thick; it looked a lot like mud, and it certainly looked heavy. But Smoke had less compassion than most Soulmakers, which wasn’t much to begin with, and he just said impatiently, “Come on, Brick. I need that, and I can’t get up right now.”

He was looking down intently at his work as he put a scoop of gelatinous green Envy into a bowl and recorded a measurement.

Brick reluctantly gripped the edges of the tub with both hands, lifted it, and began to walk around the conveyor belt toward Smoke.

Flint returned his eyes to his work as another bowl was deposited in front of him. He studied the solution and reached for the vial he wanted without looking up. His hand found an empty space where it should have been.

“Where’s the Intelligence?” he asked aloud, speaking to no one in particular.

The great events of the universe have started out with the tiniest of triggers. Brick’s foot slipped. There was something on the floor.

Blood Feud

In the beginning, I knew her only as Kalomi of the Plains. The name, the simple and only vaguely descriptive sobriquet seemed enough to know. She was my Apprentice in the Sisterhood, bound to my side by chance assignment and solemn oath.

Soon, by shared experience, she became my true and trusted comrade. Inevitably, increasingly I came to know her as my friend. But still—and despite her many evident complexities of heart and spirit—she remained to my mind simply Kalomi of the Plains.

It is truly said that I am drawn to explore the exotic, the unknown. And yet, behold the paradox—I often fail to wonder at the unguessed ingredients in the stew, bubbling in the homey and outwardly familiar pot before my very eyes.

So it was with my Apprentice Sister—with my comrade and friend, Kalomi of the Plains.

Coming Home

Trembling, Brettel touched the iron gate. It didn’t burn. She huffed. Foolish woman, why would it? She gripped a bar tightly and held onto the solidness of home.

Reaching through the bars, she raised the latch and pushed the gate open. Silently. Before it had made god-awful noises. Her breath caught. No. Oh, no. Holding the gate open, she studied the house before her.

She knew the sage bushes and willows that lined the path to the door. The swing hanging on the left side of the porch was an old friend. To the right stood the same rocking chairs that had stood there since time immemorial. Brettel smiled. This was home. This was where she belonged.

Someone had oiled the gate. In all these years, someone should have. It was a small change. Things would have. She had. But this was still home. Still where she belonged.

Wasn’t it?

She hurried up the path, took a deep breath, and knocked. She’d been gone too long to just walk in.

An adolescent girl yanked the door open a few heartbeats later. She looked Brettel up and down, raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”

Who–? Brettel frowned and shook her head. It didn’t matter. “Is this still the carpenter’s residence?”

“He takes orders at his shop.” The girl pointed to adjacent building.

Brettel sighed with relief. “Is his wife home?”

The girl turned away and hollered, “Mom! Someone here for you.”

Leaving the door hanging open, she disappeared into the house.

Brettel heard footsteps and braced herself. An older woman, auburn hair streaked with grey, came around the corner and walked to the door. “Can I–?” Her brow furrowed momentarily. Her jaw dropped open. She whispered, “Brettel?”

Brettel bit her lip. “Mom?”

“Oh sweet lords! Brettel!” Her mother threw her arms around Brettel and pulled her into the house in a bone-crushing hug. Through eyes swimming with tears, Brettel saw the adolescent girl creep up to the parlor door. Brettel pulled back a little. Her mother let go and saw the direction of Brettel’s gaze.

“Delial, run to your father’s workshop. Tell him Brettel’s returned!”

The girl raised her eyebrows and disappeared back around the corner.

Brettel’s eyebrows shot up. That sulky almost grown girl was little Delial? Her sister who’d been in pigtails when Brettel left?

Their mother’s eyes raked across Brettel’s face. “Are you home? Are you home to stay?”

“If you’ll allow me–”

“Of course, of course.” Her gaze dropped lower and the frown returned between her eyes as she took in the well-cut dress of expensive linen and the finely tooled leather bag hanging at Brettel’s hip.

“Are you married?” she asked.

Brettel shook her head. Her mother paled and briefly closed her eyes. “You’ve become as a courtesan.”

“Mother! No!”

Her mother waved a hand at her clothes.

“I’ll tell you both when Dad gets here, but I promise I’ve never sold my body for money. I had a job. My employer wished us to dress well and provided the clothes. The bag was a parting gift.”

Her mother still looked worried, but she closed the door and escorted Brettel to the kitchen. Her father burst in mere seconds later. “Brettel!”

His hug knocked breath from her lungs. As soon as he let her go, a young man pulled her into his arms. Brettel froze for a second and pulled away. He grinned. Oh, wow, how could she have not recognized him no matter how old her little brother had grown. “Garnan!”

Delial had returned as well, but she hung back. Arms crossed, she leaned against the wall.

“Where have you been all this time?” Garnan demanded.

Brettel looked at her parents. “You said if I wasn’t going to help out in Dad’s shop that I’d have to find work.”

Her parents exchanged a look full of pain and recrimination.

Brettel smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. I know I was an utter brat over the idea. For years I’ve wished I could do them over, and that wasn’t how you remembered me.”

“Ah, you were young,” her father said. He clasped her hand. “Only sixteen.”

“Sixteen is old enough to know when you’re acting like a brat.”

Delial frowned. So did Brettel. Delial couldn’t be that old yet.

“Anyway, I knew work was inevitable so I left that morning to attend the hiring fair.”

Her parents exchanged a look.

“Releigh had offered you work in her bakery,” her mother said.

“I remember, but I hated the idea. So I went to the hiring fair instead. There was a woman there, dressed much as I am today, looking for people to work at a huge estate. She said very little of the estate, only enough to give clue to its size and that it was on one of the islands, not here in Dwankey. When she offered me a seven-year position as an upstairs maid, I couldn’t say no. It sounded so elegant!

“A young man from a farmstead well north of us wanted work in the gardens, and a girl from the fishing huts took a position in the estate’s kitchens. We all followed the woman to the docks, where a beautiful white ship awaited us. It wasn’t any larger than the fishing vessels, but so dainty and well-kept.” Brettel shook her head.

“The woman ushered us aboard, but didn’t get on herself. She had served her time and finished her final task in hiring us and now could go home. She’d introduced herself at the fair as Trudy, now she told us she was related to the Millers.”

“Trudy Miller!” her mother shrieked. Her parents exchanged a stunned look. Garnan’s jaw dropped. Delial stepped away from the wall, her arms falling to her side and eyes wide.

“That woman claims she spent the seven–” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “Seven years she was gone on the White Isle.”

Brettel nodded. “That’s where the white ship took us. We had to restrain the fishmonger’s girl from jumping over as we drew near and it became obvious the White Isle was our destination.”

“I remember,” Garnan said dreamily. “I remember the Isle was visible that day. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time that morning watching the glitter of the sun on the white towers, discussing what it might really be like. Did you see the Fae? Did you see magic?”

Brettel shuddered. “Yes to both. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do with either. I was just an upstairs maid. I made their beds and cleaned their rooms and avoided them as best I could. My life wasn’t much different than a maid at any grand estate, I have to believe.”

“But what of the Fae? Who is the lord there? What is he like?” Delial took a seat at the table. Her mouth hung open.

“He–His name–” The name hovered on the tip of her tongue, but dissolved before she could form it. His image stayed behind her eyes. Tawny hair, chilly gold eyes. The image blurred. Brettel shook her head. “I’m sorry. They said it would all fade the further we got from the White Isle. I don’t seem to remember much of them. ”

“You were there for seven years. You must remember!”

Brettel’s brow furrowed. “I remember cleaning. I remember my friends among the human staff. The boy who came from the farm fell in love with one of them. He chose to stay on permanently.”

“One of the Fae?” Delial’s eyes were huge.

“Yes.”

“That’s so romantic!” Delial squealed. “What was she like? Is she beautiful beyond words? Will they marry?”

Startled, Brettel laughed. “No, I don’t think they marry. She was–she was beautiful. All raven blue locks and deep…dark eyes.” The image dissipated as Brettel tried to describe her. She shook her head. “I–I do recall she was beautiful.

“I served the seven years of my contract and came home. They did pay me well. I have money for the household.” Brettel started to dig through her bag.

Her father caught her arm and said, “Are you telling us that Trudy Miller knew exactly where you were all this time? She let our hearts break with worry for seven years and never did us the kindness of passing on your location?”

Brettel blushed. “She probably didn’t know whose child I was.”

“We asked all over town for months and months!” her mother exclaimed. “Had anyone seen you? Did anyone remember you leaving Dwankey on any of the carts from the fair? A couple of people have always insisted they saw you at the fair, but since no one could say and we never heard from you, we feared the worst.”

“I’m sorry. If I’d had any way of getting word to you, I would have. I didn’t understand when I accepted the contract where I was going. Not until we were halfway across the bay to the White Isle and even then I didn’t believe we were really going to the White Isle until we actually docked there. No one’s ever reached it before. How was I to know we’d stepped onto a Fae boat with Fae sailors?”

“But she knew,” her father said. “That bitch knew all along how distraught we were and that you were safe and–I’m going to kill her.”

“Dad, no.” Brettel shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment. She didn’t want to say this, but knew she must. “It was her final duty to find new servants. Few choose to stay on beyond their seven years. The estate is immense. You would not believe from the glimpses we see from shore, how truly big the island and the estate is. They need servants.”

“What are you saying?” her mother asked.

“It is the final duty for departing servants. To find replacements.”

“Today was the hiring fair,” Garnan said. “Sol and Nerles were planning to look for better work.”

“Brettel?” Her father frowned. “Did you go first to the fair this morning?”

Brettel nodded. “I had that duty, yes.”

“Who? Who did you send off to them?” her father demanded. Brettel shook her head.

“No, you can’t do this, Brettel,” her mother said. “You must tell their families. You cannot allow another family to go through the grief we’ve suffered. Who did you send to them?”

“I can’t remember.”

The Mark

The well water ran brown and grimy between my fingers. My eyes traveled to the well itself in time to catch the glowing jewels studding the well’s bricks winking out in a solid wave from the bottom up. Without the jewels, bricks toppled down the shaft and splashed in the thick water while others rolled lifelessly onto the street. Soon the water source was filled to the top with red sandstone and cracked brick, lifeless amethyst and topaz glinting in the morning sun.

I stumbled backward, my hand still coated with soiled water. People–Sorcerers–gathered around at the noise. Their shouts and talk reached my ears as a confused mess, but I caught one question: “Who was the last to use it?”

I dropped the pails and yoke, and I ran.

My mind buzzed with fines I couldn’t pay or days alone in a dark room until the Sorcerers thought I wouldn’t do it again. I would get back to the Village now, wait a little, then fetch water at another well. Nobody would know. I was too old for it, but as I ran, I pulled my shawl up over my head so that it was low over my eyebrows. Then nobody would see the Mark on my forehead, the circle shot through with two overlapping crosses. It was the glyph denoting the immortality spell, the spell only Sorcerers should have. My mother put it on me, got herself executed, and made me alone.

A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. My breath turned solid in my throat. It was a royal soldier, clad in a rich violet robe sewn heavy with turquoise and tiger’s eye. The cloak shimmered with unnatural light from each precious stone carved with protection and strength spells. I blinked hard. The cloak was unsettling.

“I don’t think we need any other evidence regarding who is responsible?” he said. “You were running away so fast.”

I shook my head, but I’ve never had the talent to lie. The panic rose, turned my face hot, and the words fell out. “My foster mother sent me to get water–that’s all I was doing, I swear, sir. I pulled out the pail and the water was bad and then it all fell down–”

“Why don’t you come with me? Chief Fullak has been wanting to discuss your talents.”

“Talents? But I didn’t–”

Something white and big as a horse swooped down from a nearby rooftop and knocked both of us off our feet.

Lights swam in my vision–I landed hard on my side–and silence engulfed the little square where we stood. As I blinked my streaming eyes, the Sorcerer servants who had been chatting nearby shook their heads and left. The few other Villagers, identifiable by their plain woven shawls and robes like mine, cleared out a little more anxiously.

I was alone in the square with a furious plum-faced soldier and one white, rose-eyed Embrizid.

“You’re getting too big for that, Tulkot,” I muttered to the creature as I clutched my side and lurched myself into a sitting position. “You’re no hatchling.”

The soldier struggled to his feet. His black hair escaped from the braids crowning his head, and the jeweled cloak slipped off one brown shoulder. He stuttered angrily, shooting looks alternately at Tulkot and me, as if deciding where to direct his rage.

Tulkot snarled at him. It wasn’t terribly intimidating coming from a half-grown Embrizid, but the soldier flinched anyway.

“You–you’re not supposed to associate with Embrizid. If that’s how you collapsed the well, then–”

“I didn’t!”

“Keep yourself under control,” the soldier said with a shaking voice as he backed away. “If you fiddle with another spell, there’ll be punishment for you. You’ll have a long sit in a cold room.”

He gave a curt nod, turned on his heel, and left.

“There,” said Tulkot. “With me here, they’ll fear you and your talents.”

I snorted. “It’s just awful luck, nothing more. You didn’t help.”

I brushed off my knees and started back toward the Village. Tulkot pranced beside me, chattering about Sorcerer gossip in his gravelly Embrizid voice. His white coloring was rare and handsome, and he would be grand when he grew out of his gawkiness. Like all Embrizid, he was a four-legged, winged creature, coated thick with feathers. His face was elongated and framed with a fanned, grandiose mane. Large erect ears poked from his crown of feathers, and a long tail trailed behind him. His five-fingered feet were reminiscent of human hands, save for the long, sharp claws extending from each digit.

“–hunters killing us off in the desert–”

I frowned. “Wait–what did you say?”

Tulkot shook his mane in irritation. “Sar said hunters are killing some of the Embrizid. That’s why things collapse. The spells break. A couple other bits of wall and statues came down a week ago.”

Sar was king of the Embrizid. He consulted with our own Chief Fullak and organized the Embrizid’s work with human Sorcerers in the Upper district. Embrizid provided the Sorcerers with the magic to perform spells.

“What hunters?” I asked. “Only Gearda can survive in the desert, and that’s with the heaps of spells over Minunaga to keep the desert out.”

“No one’s seen them, but Embrizid go out to hunt, and they don’t come back. Embrizid don’t die all too often, so we notice. And anyways, people are smart… maybe some from the west brought enough water and food. They could live in the desert.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I think Sar’s right.”

“Then why doesn’t anyone tell Fullak? Fullak would know what to do about hunters. I don’t want to keep getting blamed.”

“He doesn’t believe Sar,” said Tulkot, and he tossed his head.

He looked to the sun which was high over the horizon by now.

“I have to go–I have to study with the Sorcerer students today.”

“Go on,” I said. “I’ll find you later.”

Tulkot displayed his sharp teeth in a silent Embrizid laugh. “I always find you first.”

He pranced off in the opposite direction and took to the sky. As I watched, I felt a pang of jealousy for the student who got to work with him.

Villagers had to be careful about being seen with an Embrizid too much. If an Embrizid wanted to talk to you, that was fine, but Villagers never sought them out on their own, at least not in the open.

Sister Winter

We were just going to bed when the townfolk came, led by Mrs. Hutch with her know-all voice.

I climbed up the cabin ladder to the loft, careful to curl my toes over the rough beams of wood. Ma had fallen off the stairs just a week ago, and now she slept downstairs on the sofa. The cabin was just one big room, so she could still yell up at me and Minn to make us quiet down.

Minnie had the covers pulled up over her head. I could see her eyes shining out from a little hole, like a cat in her cave.

“Move over, Minn.” I swung my legs under the covers. She scooted back, and I pressed my feet against her thighs.

Minnie wrapped her hands around my feet. Their warmth prickled. “So cold!”

The underside of the covers twinkled with little points of light. Minnie touched her finger to the sheet. When she pulled it back there was a warm, red star there. She made two rectangles, a star in each corner of the boxes. An arc of stars lead from the bottom of one rectangle to the center of the other. My feet in Minnie’s hands.

“The two sisters.” Minnie pulled her hand away from the sheet, and I stared at our constellation. I wished I’d be able to see it when we went outside. But we were all earth-bound for now.

There was a knock on the door. I could hear voices outside. A few shouts.

I felt Minnie’s nose on my head, the warm air from her lungs. But after a minute my head started to get cold, and I couldn’t tell her breath from the outside air that flooded in as Ma opened the door.

“Good evening, Mrs. Hutch.” Ma always spoke like a town person, all polite and quiet, even when she was mad.

Minnie and I watched from the loft, the blanket covering all but our eyes.

Mrs. Hutch bustled in and sat in the big rocking chair. Ma’s chair.

“How’s the leg mending?” She hadn’t even taken off her boots at the door. Little bits of snow started falling from the toes, melting into water that would make our thin carpet smell sweet-sick.

Ma didn’t sit down. She rested her hand on the windowsill, her fingers touching the bit of frost on the pane that had been there since winter started six months ago.

“It’s on its way. Another week –”

“Another week and we’ll have already gone to each other’s throats.”

Minn growled, her lip arched. I put my hands on her arms, whispered no one listened to Mrs. Hutch no ways, but it took a glance from Ma to quiet her.

When Minn was silent Ma turned back to the woman in her chair. “We can bring in more Aurora. The full moon is on her way – it will be bright as lamplight outside.”

Mrs. Hutch shook her head, her fur bonnet still edged with frost. “This winter has gone on long enough.”

She turned to the loft and we ducked back under the covers. “Lux, come down.”

Minn crossed her eyes and made a face and laughing made me feel more brave, even if I had to laugh quiet, beneath my hand.

I wiped my feet on the carpet so the sweat wouldn’t make me slip, and went down careful, rung by rung.

Mrs. Hutch waved her hand at me, telling me to come close until my feet were right next to hers. Her face was red from the wind, with wrinkles worn into her skin like tiny roads. Beautiful eyes. Like the winter moon or maybe the summer sky, both kind of together.

She looked at me for a long time, so long I looked over to Ma to see if I could go. But Ma wasn’t even looking at me. She was watching Minn, who’d pulled her head out of the blanket and had curled her fingers over the railing.

That’s when she did it – slapped the palm of her hand straight onto my chest. “Lux, light-bringer, I charge you to change the seasons.”

Items of Thanks

He stood on the cliffs over the river and waited. The wind whispered through his thin wings, and the rocky ground was hot beneath his bare feet. The human tribe always took this path–always crossed his river here. It had always been safe before. But spring storms had weakened the trail that wound down the cliff. The weakened stones would crumble under human feet.

He had seen it. But he could stop it.

The line of figures approached over the horizon. He waited till he was sure they had seen him. It didn’t take long. Their eyes were keen, and they were constantly scanning for threats.

He spread his wings and took to the sky.

The tribe found another way down the cliff.

They left him offerings as thanks for his warning. A shiny rock, a handful of shells, and a cornhusk doll. A veritable fortune. He treasured them.


He stood on the shore of his river. The deep waters here looked calm, but hidden eddies waited to pull travelers down to the rocks below.

He watched the new tribe approach, then took flight when he was sure they’d seen him.

They continued toward the river.

Surely, they’d change course. They must understand his warning.

The first of them reached the river, took a step into the water. If they continued, they would all die.

He had to stop them. He swooped down waving his arms. They fled.

They found a different spot to cross the river.

They left no gifts.


He perched in a tree, above a couple that would die crossing a bridge. Unless he stopped them.

Warning the humans had grown more and more difficult. He had failed many times, and each memory was a weight on his heart. He wished he could make noise as they did. Maybe then they’d understand. But his throat was not like theirs.

He relied completely on fear now. Slowly, the humans had learned to look at him and not see. Their eyes cut straight through him. They crossed his river and died.

He wanted the two below to be different.

When they didn’t see him, he pounded on the roof of their vehicle. He threw dirt, then stones.

Finally, for an instant, they saw him. Their eyes widened in terror. He tried to warn them–tried gestures he’d seen humans use.

They didn’t understand. They fled. He tried with others. Again and again.

They all died on the bridge.


He withdrew from them. He watched their tragedies without trying to stop them. He told himself that it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t believe it.

He curled in a bush and listened to the water rage over rocks. It was dangerous today.

And there were humans coming.

They were young. Just past adolescence, holding hands and laughing. The boy carried a picnic basket. The girl a bag on her shoulders and a worn blanket draped over her arm. Both wore swimming suits.

He stood to better see their faces, to remember. The girl stopped and stared at him.

He waved her away from the river, even though he knew it was useless.

The boy tugged on her hand, but she shook her head. They spoke for a few minutes, then turned and walked back up the path. Away from the river. Away from their deaths.

He remembered how victory felt.

A few moments later, the girl ran back down the path, and his heart froze.

But she stopped. She pulled a tiny ragdoll out of her bag, kissed its forehead, and sat it against a tree.

He would treasure it.

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. Her fiction has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists, and she’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

Magic Hands

Ritha unfolded a square piece of red cloth on the table, caressing it with her palm to get rid of the wrinkles. She pulled a candle closer and lit another one to brighten the room.

Today she couldn’t hate Mr. Pierre more even if the bastard were to walk in through the door right now and spit in her face. One day, she thought, one day

“Good for nothin’,” she mumbled under her breath and picked a needle from the sewing kit.

Ritha stuck the thread through the needle’s ear in one shot, just like her mama taught her. She chuckled. Mama… If she were here, all those bastards would be screaming in pain right now.

But mama was dead and Ritha was out of job and short on rent.

Where is that picture? She rummaged through her pocket and took out a pack of photographs kept together by a rubber band. She shuffled through the stack, pulled one photo out, and leaned it against her teacup.

Pierre–you dirty piece of–. Ritha slapped herself over the mouth. ‘We don’t use those words,’ mama used to say. ‘If we do, we ain’t better than the rest o’them.’

Ritha grabbed a handful of yarn and arranged it in a ball over the red cloth.

She glanced at the photo– not that she had to, but that’s how mama had taught her. ‘Always look,’ she used to say. ‘Through your eyes the power flows. Let the image seep inside your head, Ritha, and the energy will come through. From your eyes it will flow into your fingers and into the needle.’

She grabbed the corners of the cloth and pulled them together over the yarn. She held them tight with her fingertips and stuck the needle through.

Ritha used to make one in about twenty minutes, but today there wasn’t a lot of time. She glimpsed at the crib, hidden in the darkest corner of the room. She needed this one, she needed it badly. Nobody gave a damn about the little one, especially Mr. Pierre.

Ritha clenched her teeth and continued to sew.

At the end of fifteen minutes she put the red doll next to Mr. Pierre’s picture and smiled. Mama would’ve been so proud.

The clock ticked louder, signaling the top of the hour. 8PM. Only fifteen minutes left.

She grabbed the doll and the photo and ran into the enchanting room. She put them both gently in the center of a circle made from colored salts, on top of a metallic tray. She dropped a few locks of hair on the sides and lit the sands from a match.

As the salts burned slowly, releasing a sweet smell of burned sugar, Ritha closed her eyes and recited the magic poem, the one passed to her by her mama. She waved her hand through the smoke and sprinkled drops of oil through the air.

Ten minutes later, Ritha was exhausted. Her chest was heavy and her breath bitter. The salts had burned completely and the doll lay there unmoving, like a dead man in the middle of a forest fire.

She took the doll and ran back. 8:15.

The phone rang and she grabbed it after the first chime. She glanced at the crib, biting her lip. The baby was still sleeping.

“Hello?” a voice said in the receiver.

“Yes, I am here.”

“Ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Pierre, I am. How much today?”

Her heart thudded in her chest. How much humiliation today, she wondered. Enough for milk, at least?

“Ten dollars,” the man said.

She lifted her brows. That wasn’t half bad.

“Oh, thank you–”

“Cut it out, Ritha. I’m in a good mood. Don’t ruin it.”

She bowed, instinctively. “I understand, sir.”

“Did you fix it? Last time–”

“It’s brand new, sir, brand new.”

Silence on the other side.

“Okay, then. Go ahead, the usual. Shoulders, neck and lower back.”

Ritha pressed the speaker button and put the receiver on the table. She grabbed the red doll and turned it face down. With her fingers, she began to massage the doll’s shoulders and lower back.

Pleasure grunts came out of the phone. “Oh, that’s good, Ritha, keep going.”

She continued to massage the doll, her eyes fixated on the kitchen knife, only ten inches away from the doll’s head.

Her heart pounded a few times, pumping hot blood through her temples. She extended one hand toward the knife…

The baby giggled in the crib and turned on one side, his sleepy face pressed against the crib’s bars. Ritha looked at him, startled, her hand suspended in the air.

“What’s going on there?” Mr. Pierre screamed. “I am paying for two hands, dammit!”

Ritha grabbed the knife and threw it far away from her reach.

She gestured a kiss toward the crib and put both her hands on the doll.

“I am here, Mr. Pierre, I am here,” she said, tears dripping down her cheeks.

Mr. Pierre responded with a long moan.

The baby giggled gently in his sleep, and Ritha continued to cry in silence. ‘Be happy when there’s reason to be happy,’ her mama once said.

And Ritha was happy because tomorrow the baby gets to eat the good milk.

Damned

The spell to start my car didn’t work that evening, so I contacted the repair service and walked home from the office through darkening drizzle, rather than being ripped off by the Instant Transportation System. Rain insinuated itself inside my upturned collar. Typical: they spend a fortune on improving the fireballs and blasting spells, but nothing on controlling the weather.

“Can I see your papers, sir?” said a voice behind me.

I turned with the practiced air of having nothing to hide, but my mind was racing. Had he heard my thoughts, and would he consider them disloyal? I’d always doubted the rumours of the police using mind-reading devices, but I wasn’t so sure at that moment.

It was reassuring that his fireball-thrower was still in its holster, although his hand rested on it, but his face was blank and unreadable as they always were. I fumbled the papers from my inside pocket and tried to stand calmly while he scanned them. Everyone feels paranoid in this situation. Or maybe just me. It’s not as if anyone discusses it.

He looked up at last. “Seen any of the damned, sir?”

The question threw me, as was no doubt the intention, but I was able to answer truthfully, “Of course not. I’d have reported it if I had.”

The policeman nodded, pushing his face into a smile that didn’t suit it. “I’m sure you would, sir. Sooner there’s not a damned left, the better. Evening.”

I nodded vigorously as he hand my papers back, though his words disturbed me. The damned were abominations, to be sure, but there were rumours of them being fed alive into furnaces when caught. Probably just propaganda by the damned-lovers, I reminded myself. The government knew best.

I glanced about as I trudged through the dreary streets, searching out subtle signs of the damned. There are ways they can pass for normal, but it’s said you can always feel the difference. That man there, wearing dark glasses in the evening? No, I didn’t get a sense of wrongness from him. Perhaps I should have followed him, but it was cold, and I was probably mistaken.

It’s not just the physical differences that make the damned revolting. All of us use magic, and some are talented enough to manipulate it, making and repairing the devices we rely on and the spells that drive them. The damned, though, live within magic and use it to interfere with our minds and souls, bewildering decent people into their foul clutches. There’s nothing natural about them.

Some Say in Surf

When I finally reach the beach, I begin to relax, confident that the angry mobs howling for the blood of my kind have been left behind. Wind whips the soaring causeway as I cross the sound onto the barrier island. Leaky and exhausted though my car is, I imagine the cold more than feel it.

The jersey wall is scarred with impacts. The only other car is wrecked from both front and back at the causeway’s bottom, island-side. On any other road these details would slip into the glaze of civilization’s accelerating collapse, just one more mysteriously wrecked car. Here though, the mangled hulk stands out, alone and forlorn.

The beach is drenched in bleakness, the cold bleaching the land and sea to grays and slates. The smell of salt makes the air sag in a sky dark with the threat of drilling rain. I wonder again what I’m doing in this place. Already I’ve seen half-starved humans scavenging along the older country roads. They watch my passing with nebulous looks, between yearning and hunger, in their eyes. Some are even armed, clutching at their weapons in intense debate.

The small barrier island appears completely deserted. Perhaps the human mind really does move in inescapable tracks, and a beach in winter is meant to be desolate. This is a good thing. I’ve come for the solitude. It’s the only thing likely to keep me alive.

Flames in Flesh

“He should be up there,” Kevor said to me over his shoulder. He was barely panting, the bastard, but then he wasn’t hauling half his weight in a pack. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought the firestone after all.

Kevor stopped where the path briefly leveled, and I was happy to pause and catch my breath. The wind was at our backs, blowing as though it needed a running start to get up the mountains ahead. It twisted his cape around his legs, so that the twin streaks of flame on the black cloth seemed to dance even without their enchantment. But he didn’t notice. He was watching me.

I let my bag slump to the ground. We had only left the Occultarium an hour ago, and already I no longer cared how the rocky road would treat the albino ox leather I had paid so much for. My own cape, a dreary black, was stuffed in the bottom of my bag, but my velvet doublet kept the wind out and looked phenomenal to boot.

“You don’t have to do this, Dasper,” he said. His whole face seemed clinched with anxiety, an expression I hadn’t seen on him in the months since his own Venture. It was a welcome relief from the flat, grim face that he’d worn recently.

“Sure, I do. Headmaster Laren will expel me if I don’t.” I didn’t add, and probably even if I do.

He put his hand on my shoulder, gently, as he once had. “It might be better that way.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve already earned your sword and cape.” I gripped the ten-inch athame at my belt to contrast the blade at his hip.

His face slackened as he began to withdraw again into his melancholy, like there was an ice fortress in his eyes in which he could hide.

“I’m sorry,” I said after a sigh. “I know that something happened to you during your Enkindling.” Something he wouldn’t tell me, or anyone save his fellow Blazes. “But each Enkindling is different. Everyone’s price is different. I’m not afraid.”

“Then you are a dolt.” His eyes were cold again, the icy gates had closed. He looked away from me, up the path, and pointed.

A man, surely my client, stood where the mountain trail met the sky, silhouetted against rolling clouds.

I picked up my bag and began my trudge. Kevor did not move.

“The price is always the same, Dasper,” he shouted after me. His voice echoed through the foothills so I would hear him half a dozen times as I hiked toward my client.

“As much as you can bear.”