Devil At The Crossroads

Willie’s full of shit, Colton thought. This thing doesn’t lead to the devil. He glared at the brass compass duct-taped to the dashboard of his Chrysler 300. The black needle hadn’t changed direction for over an hour. It still pointed due east, further into flat, dusty, desolate Utah.

He ought to turn around right now, go back to Reno and kick Willie’s ass. He smiled at the image of knocking out some teeth with his fist or his nightstick. No, he would use his mini baseball bat. Then he’d break a couple of those saxophone-playing fingers. Well, maybe not Willie’s fingers – his music sounded too good now to ruin. He’d bust Willie’s toes. Did you need all your teeth to play sax? He’d ask him first.

He reached up and covered the pentagram-shaped compass with the palm of his hand. It gave him the same tingly, belly-flipping sensation that convinced him it was legit when he stole it out of Willie’s saxophone case last night. Reassured, Colton settled back into his seat and adjusted the angle of his counterfeit Gucci sunglasses.

He’d been on the road seven hours since he’d followed the compass out of Reno and onto the highway. He was surprised when it didn’t point south. He would’ve bet money the devil was in Vegas, but no. The needle summoned him eastward. He figured he was getting close when it steered him onto US-6. He kept watching the highway markers for those two missing sixes, but an hour into Utah it was still just Route 6. Where the hell were the crossroads? How much further could they be?

He had to take a piss. He shouldn’t have gotten that Big Gulp when he stopped for gas, but the cashier was too pretty to pass by. He’d hoped to hustle her back into the storeroom. She’d giggled when he offered to demonstrate the Cherokee method of going down on her (seeing as he was one-eighth Indian), but he didn’t have enough time to talk her into it. He had places to go and a devil to meet. It had taken ten minutes to get her phone number as it was, and he drank more of the Dr. Pepper than he should have while he was flirting.

The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby

Tan knelt in a narrow stairwell and reloaded his steam-bow. He grimaced as its familiar hiss filled the tiny space. The sword strapped to his back was both quieter and more elegant, but it was also ineffective against the terra cotta golems that were chasing him.

He was glad that his master hadn’t lived to see the way the world had changed. Steam-powered men policed the streets, and cowards hid behind weapons that killed from a distance. Even the people had changed. No one had moved to help or hinder him on his mad dash from Lord Chen’s palace. They had huddled in the shadows of their peaked roofs and turned their faces away.

The door exploded inward, its thin wood no match for a terra cotta boot. Tan fired on instinct. The bow recoiled into his shoulder, and a short metal rod burst from the end with another hiss. It blew a hole the size of Tam’s fist in the golem’s chest. Steam billowed out of the wound.

The golem used its last moment of animation to bellow an alarm and crumpled to the ground.

Tan vaulted over its cooling body and fled. He had to find someplace to hide–sooner or later, they’d wear him down, or he’d run out of bolts.

He almost wished he’d never heard of The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby.

A Dose of Treachery

I trudged up the gravel path as the summer sun attempted to smother me. Sweat dripped down my brow and stung my squinting eyes. Shoulders aching, calves straining, I pushed myself forward. I wondered, as I often did, why the temple had been built atop a high hill rather than next to the well. Water sloshed inside the buckets when I jerked back from a flitting insect. I daydreamed of pouring the water over the top of my head.

The trail, bordered on either side by flowering bushes and slender beech trees, led up to the place I called home—a squat, columned temple built from beige stone. Mid-day glare radiated off its graceful curves, rounded pillars and bulbous dome. Beyond, puffs of cotton floated amid an endless azure expanse.

Mistress Eskelle stood atop the rise in her drab prayer robes, long white braids dangling at her back. Two strangers, one tall and one short, stood with her. “Lazio!” called Eskelle, her tone urgent. “Leave the water there and come greet our visitors.”

I lowered the buckets and wriggled out from beneath the bar. We rarely received visitors. Apprehension stole over me as I hurried over.
The first of the two strangers was a girl, roughly my age, which is to say newly an adult. Auburn hair, green eyes, and a freckled face marked her as an Easterner. She watched me approach, but looked away when I tried to meet her gaze.

The second was an older man. Tall and thin, he stood straight as a pillar. His long black beard hung clean and well-groomed. Thick eyebrows, beneath a wrinkled brow, strained to meet above the center of his eyes. A thin-lipped frown gave me the impression he was used to looking down his nose at people.

“Lazio, our esteemed visitors are from far Abados. This is Paltos Xerax-Thal and his apprentice Lanna.” Eskelle motioned to each as she named them.

My mouth dropped open and my heart skipped a beat. A Paltos. Wizard-councilor to the King. I knelt immediately, bowing my head. “Your lordship,” I mumbled, not sure if I’d used the correct honorific.
“You may stand,” Xerax-Thal said. His voice rumbled like a landslide.
I straightened, keeping my eyes fixed on the tops of my shoes. The girl snickered at my sudden submissiveness.

“Come inside and rest. We will talk as my boy prepares us tea,” Eskelle said.

I glanced up to see the Paltos nod. “That would be most welcome. We have travelled far, and could use a respite. Even so, events unfold as we speak.”

Events? What events? We lived simple lives out in the lowlands, far away from the machinations of the great cities.

“Of course, Paltos. Please, follow me.” Eskelle turned and strode back to the temple. She rarely moved with such purpose of late. Her joints had been giving her problems.

Xerax-Thal and Lanna followed, and I brought up the rear. It gave me time to appreciate the Paltos’s apprentice. She had a lithe, feline grace that brought a blush to my cheeks. I admired the hypnotic sway of her hips as we entered the temple, noticing too late that Lanna had glanced back. A private smile and an arched eyebrow told me she knew exactly what I had been doing.

My Father’s Withered Hands

The strings of my father’s oud were broken. Unchanged for five cycles, the gutted strings snapped in the humidity like the arthritic sinews in his hands. Soon, mine was the only music left.


I sat by my father’s sandaled feet, the heavy bowl of my instrument resting between my legs. My left ring finger cramped as the final note resonated and hummed a gentle vibrato with the hot wind.

Children and their watchful parents lined the tent, listening with feigned indifference. My note rang. Surrounding brush and the heavy fibers of their tattered robes absorbed its final sigh.

When the venom took father’s hands, it damned him and rendered him feeble, unable to perform. There was no cure, the Crones said. Its cause was unknown. I refused to play without him until ghastly visions of my mother guided my unwilling hand.

A child sneezed like thunder claps and broke the lingering silence. My father tapped his foot, and the onlookers retreated. His yellow toes wiggled in the dirt that filled his shoe.

“Why that song, daughter?” He asked.

“Because you said it was her favorite.”

“It was.” Memories of her struck him. Deep wells around his black eyes filled. Tiny droplets ran down the dry canyons of his scarred cheeks, concealed themselves in the ruts of his face, and vanished. “And do you know who wrote it?”

“You did, Baba.”

“Yes.” He wiped his face on his sleeve and straightened his back. He wrote it for her during her final weeks. This was before the Crones’ assurances that her health would outlast his wandering the wasted lands for a remedy. In her moments of lucidity, she would happily hum the melody through her cracked lips. When he returned from the wastes, she was gone, and his limbs were ruined.

He stopped playing after that.

“So tell me what you did wrong,” he said.

“I’m slow. And the notes move too fast for me,” I said.

“This is all true, yes. But you’re forgetting something. It’s the most important part,” he hinted.

“My oud was out of tune?”

He shook his head. The white cloth around his neck unraveled. “Feeling. You must feel the notes. This only comes through possessing a true understanding of your subject.” He gestured for my oud. “Here, I will show you.”

I obliged, supporting the oud with both hands as I gave it to him, ashamed of my apprehension that his hands, which children mocked, would not be able to hold the instrument as they once could. But father clutched it in spite of the indelicate claws that had consumed him. There was pride in his eyes and poison in his limbs. He settled into a familiar position and smiled.

A smile like rain to end ancient droughts.

He watched the strings vibrate in anticipation. He brushed them with his knuckle to relieve them of their burden.

Father searched for notes with his fretting hand. His plagued fingers, which spent the recent months making crescents in his palms, refused to obey. Shadows of rage touched his face as he looked twice at his ailing hands. The strings whinnied under his touch, then brayed like horses. I strained to hear past fumbled notes, to focus on his intentions and the meaning behind his clumsy movements. But the sweat on his brow was distracting.

Donor Rules

The ripeness of female expectation swelled through the subterranean Great Hall. Jostling waves fanned out through the assembled women, two hundred or more, and deepened as Mayor Noa, a tall woman with waist-length steel-coloured hair, stepped onto the creaking wooden stage at the front. Extra-ordinary meetings like this one meant only one of two things, and everyone had seen the wooden ballot box already present on stage.

“Settle, please,” said the mayor.

The cavernous, earth-muffled space emptied of sound as if a giant wave had swamped the hall and back-swelled, dragging the noise away with its monstrous suction. The two groups of women, those who were eligible for the ballot and those who were not, were conspicuous by their stance: the first could have been magnetised by the forward pull on their bodies; the second, far larger group, stood keen, erect and interested but apart. Shades of grey and white formed the colour palate of the second.

But for any observer who had witnessed the ballot before – and there had already been several since Harvest – there was an extra frisson to the air above the crowded women: a rumour had tumbled from mouth to mouth and there was a shudder of something unusual this time.

“If I can have your attention.” Every eye was already trained on her striking figure. “We are pleased to announce the arrival of the fifth donor we have welcomed this year. All of you who are eligible have now been date-checked and those within the window have been entered into the ballot. You have until sunset tomorrow night to have your names removed should you wish to withdraw for whatever reason, without prejudice. We will reconvene tomorrow evening at sunset for the draw. Thank you.”

The tall woman left the stage to a pattering of applause and the swelling buzz of the rumour circulating the hall, refusing to be squashed.

Like the Grains of Sand

I sit quietly on my log beside the fire as Rena gathers the ingredients for our breakfast. Normally I’m the one to do this–crack and roast the snails, wash the sea greens, brew the coffee. Normally, she can’t be bothered. Not unless it’s sewing she’s asked to do, and even then she shuts herself into her room and takes twice the time she should. But today, Rena insisted it was her turn to prepare the food.

“Sit down and relax, Gram,” she said. “Let me do it for once.”

Took me by surprise, that did. Even though Rena never knew her mam, she’d been like her since birth. Taunting the lighthouse ghosts with the boys who ain’t learned fishing yet, sleeping in the woods just to prove she didn’t need the sea, disappearing for days at a time. But looking into her black eyes, her mam’s eyes, I still see heart.

Not that Rena’d ever admit it. She’s also got her mam’s way of not wanting to seem weak, of not wanting to care about anything at all.

As Rena rinses the sea greens in a bowl of fresh water, I push my toes into the warm sand and start the telling.

No Other God Before Me

Darkness does not come gently to Chongjin. It doesn’t creep over the purpling hills and into the cracks, like back in Mexico City. It’s not Novosibirsk, where night falls like a cheap blanket, and you end up shivering even in the jaws of summer. There is no golden hour here, no photogenic streamers of twilight curling up through the flaking tenements, no calls of mothers to their children to find their way home. None of that, no. Over here, night is a sudden lead pipe to the back of the head. Breathe in while I’m turning a corner in one of the container crate shanty- towns ringing the city, still squinting into the desiccating crush of grimed daylight. Breathe out and everything goes black, a basement door slammed shut and nailed into place, right when I’d just managed to pick up the scent again. I try to relax, to give my senses some space to adjust, hoping the scattered doorframes of coal fires would be enough to illuminate the squeezing alleys with an ashen glow. But when my eyes keep drifting towards the poorly synched LED boards flickering to life, diffusing the maze of sheet metal and plywood into a limbo of dimly reflected Korean celebrities, I know it’s time to let the bike go before I smash myself into a wall. That’d be some future archaeologists wet dream, wouldn’t it? What’s this here stuffed between the rat skeletons, the packing peanuts and the inch-thick layer of feces? An Irishman having relations with a rental scooter? Surely there’s a prize for that.

I should have a plan to hide the bike away for later, but realistically, what were the chances it or I would be here again? So I hand the keys to an anonymous pair of outstretched hands and bowl the helmet down a septic drain. Without the wind and the visor I can really suck in a good bit of the world. The world immediately obliges back, crawling down my throat and up my nose before nesting in my paranasal attic. I take a few half-steps one way, then backwards again, spin half a clock. Calm down, try again. At least it’s not Nampo, no rusting helicopters constantly tumbling overhead, no roving bands of masked gunmen picking through the abandoned resorts for underprepared chaos-touristas. It’s actually still long enough for me to sort out the distinctive chemical trail from the sifting clouds of cooking oil, rotting garbage, drifts of methane. I lean west, there, closer, I can just about tongue the slot, when a trio of kids on ATVs scream past, each one carting a trailer piled high with corroded car batteries. The acid snaps at my membranes and immediately wipes the trail away. Well then. Fuck. Time to resign myself to an old fashioned hunt-and-peck.

Head down, micro-fiber scarf wrapped around my face, I barrel into the human smog of the open market. I get some strange looks, some defensive tugging at waistbands for a weapon, a phone, who cares. I’m not worried. Sometimes I believe I’m protected by the lingering halo of several decades of oppressive propriety, a shepherd still faintly recognized by the sheep. Or maybe I’m just another pale white asshole in a long line going back to the first sails that pricked their horizon. Either way, no one has the energy to bother with a foreigner sniffing around their blackened chickens and cisterns of baby formula.

It’s in the third row of makeshift tents, among a jungle of antiquated three-prong power cords, that I get another taste of it. I tug at my scarf. Barely there, just a few dozen molecules. Difficult to describe. Something like a pop of color, or a memory trapped in the back of your mouth. Just a hint, but more than enough to start pushing me back towards what I am. If you ask my employers, they’ll insist on labeling me a warrior, a samurai, their blessed servant of honor and virtue. Watch their faces and you’ll know it’s bullshit even as they say it, because what I really am is their dog, a bloodhound or a beagle, something low to the ground. That’s what they pay me to be, in cash and in life. Besides, from the scraps of history I’ve read on the subject, real samurai weren’t really known for their shoving through crowds and inconspicuously smelling the backs of stranger’s necks. And I’ve yet to find a museum with a woodcut of a samurai passed out in a filthy hotel room, bruised prostitutes weeping at his feet.

Soon I’ve caught another scent ribbon, purer this time, a solid synesthetic burst of lemon yellow. I ducked under the rubber tarp and there she is, a shriveled old woman peeking out from behind a stack of Batman t-shirts. Gentle cataracts, skin like onion paper. In the right light, she could have been one of my parishioners, back two lifetimes ago. Except … she stinks of it, packed into every wrinkle on her ancient face, balled up in her tear ducts, matted into her tightly knit hair. My anus clenches at the smell.

I stand in her cramped stall, filling what little space she had with my presence, my palms open between us as if to receive the rain. I withdraw the crucifix from the folds of my jacket and ask her one simple question, one of the few Korean phrases I’ve bothered to memorize, other than How Much and Like That and Get The Fuck Out Of My Face. But this one I know the best. I can say it in over a hundred different languages and dialects. It’s critical that I get it right every time, because this is how the Procedure starts.

“Do you believe?”

Back at the seminary, people always asked why the phrasing is so important. Why those exact words? The monk patiently explains the simulations, the models, the millions of A-B tests run against every personality type. He tells us, even if it seems too obvious, we know this is the right question, that it will open the door to grace almost every time. Then some cocky smart-ass, usually an American, invariably a Texan, inevitably raises his hands and says what about the times it don’t?

The monk sagely taps the Procedure and drags his finger to the bottom of the scroll.

Then, my child, you have permission to skip to the end.

The old woman doesn’t budge and I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those rare skips, but then her eyes suddenly widen as if I had just appeared out of thin air. A creaky grin sprouts from the wrinkles on her chin and she nods and the blue veins on her neck throb with life. I dangled the crucifix again in front of her face. No reaction. I make sure no one else can see us and with a magician flip of the wrist replace the crucifix with a porcelain cameo of Kim-Il Sung. She blinks at it, her thoughts stuttering again, then with a little sigh she shakes her head and disappears under the counter. My muscles instinctively tense, but all she dredges out is an ancient, dinged-up laptop. The hard drive lights flutter and photos start fading in and out of each other, tinted in false sepia. I don’t have to understand her words to know what she’s saying. This is my grandmother. This is our family farm. This is great-uncle whoever. This little girl, this is me, and I realize that she can’t be any more than thirty years old. This country ages its people with a rare furiousness. When I first crossed the abandoned border into the former DPRK, it was like walking into the pages of a dim fairy tale, and everyone I met was a ghost or a gnome.

She rubs her hands together and repeats the same invocation over and over again. Her fingers brush gently against a ceremonial bottle of wine and a bowl of steaming white rice. Ancestor worship. Not uncommon around these longitudes, just another variety of the sectarian froth that bubbled over the peninsula after the bloody pop of their totalitarian cork. Not that the particular flavor of faith makes a difference, not to me, certainly not to the Procedure. The only thing that matters is that it is unearned.

I break out my most benevolent smile and wave my hand in a circle, shrug my shoulders, point to her laptop. I show her my crucifix again, still warm. I pat my heart and in my best, mealy-mouthed translation, wonder aloud: Where Can I Get Some? She rewards me with a silly look, as if I was asking for directions to Neptune, and I’m already mentally preparing for another week in this shithole, sleeping in the corner of an abandoned shipping crate. Then she raises her finger and points over my head, out of the market, to the crystalline glow of the illuminated cranes clustered along the port. I raise my eyebrows, More Details Please? She taps the wine bottle, looks eastward again. I quickly duck under the tarp and make a tentative sniff towards the scab of supply warehouses and truck depots between us and the water. Nothing. Wait. On a feather of sea-wind, the hint of a memory. A glass of gin with a twist of lemon.

I thank her and bow deeply. She bows back, smiling, nearly giddy to have helped a fellow believer. The lines on her face melt away and I catch an idea of the girl she could have been. We appraise each other quietly. I’m counting the seconds in my head. The Procedure notes that the next step can be taken up to a minute later. I always wait that entire minute. I never start early.

Forty seconds. More ATVs roar by, accompanied by the jeers of youthful exuberance.

Fifty-two seconds. The woman gazes at the images on her laptop. I hear the rattle of her phlegm-drowning lungs. I smell the flush of sweat down her back. Love fills her body.

Sixty seconds.

The hilt is out of my pocket and in my hand. In a microsecond, a needle pricks my thumb, scans my blood, and the Word scalds the air between us in milky light. She raises a single finger, as if to shush me. Then her finger is gone, her arm is gone, her guts spill out onto the ground and then those are gone as well. I step into the space where she just was and cross myself, an old habit, before smashing her laptop under my boot. The digital spirits of her family tree flicker away in a crackle of plastic and silicon.

At two-hundred seconds, when the explosives go off, I’m already making my way towards the blue-haloed lights of the port, trying to ignore the sudden caress of thermabaric heat, carrying maroon notes of smoldering rubber, charred meat. Ashes to ashes, yes, I know.

Citali’s Song

Eleuia examined the tracks that led into the cloud forest and gripped her father’s macuahuitl. Sharp obsidian blades glinted in the morning light, and the heavy wooden handle was comforting in her hand.

She could use all the comfort she could find. None of the warriors who’d seen the beast that took Citali would venture after it. Most were curled under piles of blankets, crying. A few stared blankly and giggled at nothing, and one had fallen into a stupor. Any rescue was up to Eleuia.

“You can’t go,” Eleuia’s mother said. She clutched at Eleuia’s shoulders. “You’ll die, then who’ll be left to take care of me?”

The weapon’s weight kept Eleuia’s hand from shaking, and she was grateful for that, too.

“Someone has to go.”

“If you come back, you’ll be mad or broken, and no man will ever want you.”

Eleuia shrugged her hands away and strode into the cloud forest. She’d been looking for ways to avoid marriage for years.

The creature’s tracks were unlike any Eleuia had seen before. Each footprint had four thick toes, but they protruded at angles that made her head ache when she looked at them directly. The creature had also left behind a strange, rotting-cacao smell that made Eleuia dizzy.

Eleuia thought of Citali’s smile, of her deep brown eyes, of the warmth of her fingers. Of their friendship, and the deeper feelings that they never spoke of. Citali was the only person who could make Eleuia smile. She gritted her teeth and followed the tracks into the jungle.

Gateway to Knara

When the portal dumped us in a trash-filled alleyway, I knew this world was worse than the last.

I collapsed against the closest wall, stomach retching from more than the stench of rotting meat. The violent passage through the contraband portal had racked every cell of my body. With a few slow breaths, I managed to calm my nerves and settle what little food sat in my stomach.

Darkness shrouded the alleyway. I ran a hand through my hair, pushing short brown locks from my eyes, and looked up to survey the night sky above. I’d hoped the constellations would disclose where the portal had discarded us, but only a pair of moons peeked between the rooftops of the alley, offering little hint of our location. Though the nausea still washed over me in cool, prickling waves, I pushed myself off the wall and obeyed the voice within.

Keep moving.

The words repeated in my mind on an endless loop, like a mantra. A mission statement.

I forced myself onward and stumbled through the shadows, plastic wrappers crunching under step. The Armed Guard was still searching for Adrianna. They wouldn’t stop until I got her somewhere safe.

I found her on the alley floor, hair swept across her face. I knelt beside her and brushed aside her strands of flaxen waves to reveal closed eyes and parted lips. My breath caught as I stared down at her lifeless expression, and I felt for a pulse until one twitched against my fingertips. Relief flooded my body as I realized the jump had only knocked her out, though the satisfaction was short-lived. Peering down at her, she looked so tiny next to my large frame, but more than just her size had carved my perception of her frailty. Together with her pallid skin and hollow cheeks, it triggered the question that ravaged my mind after every portal we crossed.

How many more could she survive?

As I lifted her from the ground, wondering how I’d drag her unconscious through the streets without notice, her eyes fluttered open and met mine. She smiled. Through the darkness and stench of the alleyway, Adrianna found a way to smile. She always did. Despite the softening sensation in my heart, I didn’t return the expression.

“We can’t rest here. Can you walk?”

She nodded.

The hood of her cloak lay flaccid around her shoulders. I pulled it up, tucking the chin-length waves of her hair inside. Once the shadows of the hood masked her face, I took Adrianna under my arm and led her through the city’s maze of backstreets and alleyways.

Let’s Go Find Karl

Melinda Koi flexed her right hand, enjoying the new freedom the tune-up gave. The thumb still felt a little gummy, but it was better than it had been in months. Someday, she thought, she was going to get the whole prosthesis replaced. Mercedes were making some nice parts these days, but that would take a lottery win.

It made her think of Karl. She had to remind herself that it was okay to be not in love with him because he wasn’t really Karl anymore anyway. Her hand was a constant reminder.

“Earth to Mel,” Damon said.

“Sorry,” she said. She came away from the apartment’s balcony. Beyond, out over the bay, a gull called, looking for somewhere to settle for the night.

Inside Damon lay stretched out on the lie-low, staring up at her curve.

It hung over him, bowed and floating like a jellyfish.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Like I was trying to tell you. Messages from Karl. He wants us to bring out his lobotomy fragment.”

Melinda flexed her hand again. “Bring it where?” She glanced over at the icebox, glad that she’d been able to give the disgusting thing back to Damon. She had a tiny inkling that Damon had only shifted apartments so that he didn’t have to have it around. It had seemed like a favor, but four weeks with a piece of Karl’s brain in her refrigerator was a month too long.

“He says the DeCataur brothers want their money.”

Melinda sat on the velour squab next to the lie-low. Pulling up the side of the curve, she looked in at the display. Her thumb twitched.
The curve twisted a little, the display daughtering across and reformatting to her view. It showed her a news ticker. The DeCataur company facing more litigation and class-actions over the state of the Delaware Bay.

“Here.” Damon sat up. The curve flowed away, settling on the vertical, looking less like a sea creature and more like a television. The weather appeared as if it was going to rain once more. Damon spread his hands and the news ticker and weather faded into thin, faint strips around the edge with the ads for Coke and Hyundai. His mailbox filled the main part of the display. “Here,” he said, pointing at one of the messages.

Fourteen million. Can you get that through today?

“Fourteen!” Melinda said.

“Keep reading. It’s not that bad.”