Fantasy

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.”

Old Boys

I came back from the war without hands. First thing I did was call up my boy. To do so I had to use the fancy voice phone, hands free, the army gave me as a parting gift. Guess they felt bad cause I couldn’t use my old one no more. I asked my buddy Kyle if he wanted to have coffee. Two years was all I’d been away, only twenty when they shipped me off. Kyle and I were going to be married. At least that’s what I told myself, it might’ve been pretend. He gave me his photo before I left, a high school picture with a blue ocean-looking backdrop, his graduation gown draped over his narrow shoulders. I couldn’t see no part of his body but his feet, at the bottom of the picture, showed from the legs of his tight blue jeans. And his hands I could see, folded into fists at his sides like he was angry at being photographed. Two green beads for eyes and his mouth pursed sour-like. In fact Kyle did hate having his picture taken. I took pride in knowing that little fact, like all the tidbits of his I picked up along the way. Part of why he always liked me was I no longer felt the high schooler’s need to capture everything on camera like all his track friends did. I’d been out of school a little while.

He agreed to meet me, and so I had Ma help me put on a flower-print dress, blue roses. In the mirror, if I hid my arms behind my back, I nearly looked innocent, but the fact of my hair, which had to be clipped down to the scalp and still hadn’t grown back, and the scar across my shoulder, one huge chunk of charred red skin like dry black lava, all of that kind of ruined the effect of the dress. My scars were still healing, so they couldn’t fit me with the temporary prosthetic, and all that was left of my arms were two stumps at my sides. Looking into that mirror, I realized I couldn’t have coffee with Kyle. Not only would he not know me anymore, I also couldn’t hold a teacup. Asking him to feed me through a straw would be too much for him. This was one of those facts I knew.

I had Ma cancel. I heaved my wilting body onto my childhood bed and didn’t cry. The army doesn’t cry. My hands were a gift to my country. No take backs.

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.

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.

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.

Where the River Runs – Part 2

Above me, the citadel’s irrigation turned on, sending a silent mist down onto the arbor. I tracked wet footprints to my room and wedged the desk chair under the doorknob.

I fell into a fitful slumber, but woke to an unchanged room. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Had I imagined it all? Somehow, that thought was less reassuring than the alternative. I got up, but my hands hesitated to remove the chair from the door. What if the fox or Kenn were waiting for me? What if they weren’t? I cursed my indecision. I was tired of being afraid, tired of being alone, and tired of being tired of everything.

I pushed the chair free and headed to the cove. It was time to find some answers on my own. I slowly eased myself into the warm water. My black hair fanned out around my shoulders as I took a deep breath and dived. The fish scattered at the intrusion. I patted down the walls in search of an opening, but it was clear after several attempts that it was far deeper. I clung to the pavestones at the cove’s edge as I caught my breath. I didn’t relish swimming beyond the light’s reach, but I had come this far. It seemed silly to quit.

I kicked off from the wall to propel myself into the depths. As the light dimmed, I felt around blindly. My hands scraped against rocks and tangled in weeds as I pulled myself deeper and deeper. I soon realized my folly. In the darkness, I had no way of knowing which way was up. I turned around and frantically pulled myself in the direction I thought I had come, but the water grew no lighter. My lungs screamed. Had the shadows finally caught up with me?

Kenn’s sinuous form suddenly coiled around me and hauled me to the surface. I greedily gulped air as he swam me to the pavestones. His arms held me there for mine were leaden.

“What were you thinking?” ask Kenn, his tone a mixture of concern and anger.

“I was looking for the entrance.”

“It’s deeper than you can swim on your own,” he said. “Promise me you’ll never try that again.”

I gave him a sideways glance. His expression revealed nothing, but the yellow of his eyes had swallowed the green.

“I have no desire to die like my little brother,” I said.

“He drowned?”

“He took his own life,” I said as I stared at the pavestones in front of me, “rather than fight in the war that killed our older brother and my husband. He was barely 16.”

“You were married,” stated Kenn, his tone inquiring yet tinted with a note of surprise.

“For two months, before he went off to fight,” I said. “A month later, I was a widow. And now there’s no one left.”

“You’re still here.”

The angry scrapes on my hands glared accusingly at me. “I’ve come so close to death so many times. I’m beginning to think even it doesn’t want me.”

“Then perhaps there is something you still need to do.”

I snorted. “I’ve done everything that was ever asked of me. I have nothing left to give except my life, and I thought I had already given that. Yet here I am.”

“Jianna, why did you want to find the tunnel?” asked Kenn. “You know how dangerous it is outside these walls.”

I shrugged. “Just in case.”

“In case what?”

I bit my bottom lip, glad he couldn’t see my face. “In case you didn’t come back.”

Kenn shifted in the water to move beside me. “I would never abandon you here.”

The sincerity in his voice made me feel guilty for doubting him. I met his gaze.

His eyes darkened to green again. “Did something happen?”

“You were gone for so long,” I said. “I thought I must have offended you in some way.”

Where the River Runs – Part 1

I awoke to the day I died, which was more than I expected. Pungent blades of grass tickled my cheek. I inhaled its moist earthiness, but feared it would disappear and I would be back in the hell I had left behind—along with my life.

Steeled for disappointment, I rolled onto my back, but my eyes were met by blue sky. A small bird flew overhead, followed by another and then another. I sat up. There shouldn’t be birds. Not anymore. Had I truly found my way to heaven? Not only were there grass and clouds and birds, but tree leaves rippled in the breeze and wildflowers speckled the meadow in which I laid.

I had to be dead for I knew no place like this existed anymore. Not where I came from. Not where dust choked the atmosphere on the best of days and dimmed the sun even at midday. Not where we eked out a miserable existence trying to nurture what could not grow without water or light or insects.

This had to be heaven though I doubted my worthiness. Perhaps my last act had delivered me here. The dark cloud had rushed toward me behind a percussion of wind. I knew it would mean my death for there was nowhere to go. I had trapped myself outside the bunker to manually seal it, the remote locking mechanism fouled by the constant dust. I knew the price. My life was the only thing I had left to lose, unlike those huddled inside.

And yet I was alive and unhurt. If the bunker or the scorched earth ever existed here, both were now gone, hidden perhaps by the life around me.

Wood snapped with ominous volume from the nearest stand of trees. A flock of the birds erupted into the sky and a lone deer bolted into the clearing soon after. My inner voice screamed at me to flee from anything that would approach with such disregard. I resisted until a motley group of animals burst through the tree line. They were larger than any animal should be, and their eyes held an eerie, cruel intelligence that told me their intentions were no more admirable than those who had killed me the first time. I ran.

I managed to stay ahead of them, but just. I dodged and darted between trees, not unlike the deer, and with the same urgency. The same fear. A downward slope sped my feet until it leveled out at a wide river. My frayed skirt floated on the water’s surface as I waded in. The river was too swift for me to cross or swim, but I desperately hoped my pursuers would fear it for the same reason. I was wrong. They stepped into the water, forcing me deeper into the grip of the current where something slid against my leg. It occurred to me then that, unlike the dead rivers I knew, this one might be home to creatures far more dangerous than the animals. I prayed the river would take me first.

Instead, the lengthy, undulating body of a serpent surged toward the animals. They fled as if water had turned caustic. The serpent’s bone-pale body coiled back on itself in the shallows as it raised its horned head above the water to survey the prey banished to the shore. And then it spoke.

“If you wish to live, you must come with me.”

The serpent retreated back toward me. As it did so, the animals waded into the water again.

I hesitated.

“Hurry,” urged the serpent as it circled me in the water.

I grabbed the horns on either side of its head and dragged myself onto its ridged back, my legs hugging its sides as it surged forward with the river current. The animals were not so easily deterred. They raced along the shoreline, but the serpent easily out-paced them. The land soon fell away as the river emptied into a broad bay.

“You need to take a deep breath and hold on tightly,” said the serpent, looking back at me. “Can you do that?”