Fiction

The Stray

Masura Kazamune rode untouched through the packed but silent street. The fingers of his right hand brushed against the scabbard of his sheathed sword, his left hand adjusting the position of two large sacks tied to his horse’s saddle. A soft drip accompanied the beast’s nimble steps. The bottoms of both bags were stained a dark red.

He ignored every stare, jaw set, focused instead upon the padding of his stallion’s hooves upon the parched earth. It seemed as if every man, woman, and child in that nameless backwater town had gathered to watch his return. Faces lined the building walls, the doorways, even peeked through the open windows. But none dared speak. Not in the presence of a man such as him.

His destination was a large structure at the end of the wide dirt street. The thatch on its sloped roof was new. Lean wooden columns supported the austere frame, built upon a foundation of assembled stones rather than stout stilts like the other nearby dwellings.

Masura squared his shoulders. In the old days, he had accompanied Lord Akano through many towns similar to this one, though the reception then had been far different. Inquisitive faces would’ve peered at him as now, but the women would’ve clasped their hands in gratitude, the children cheering, the men giving low bows. Lord Akano would’ve waved back, dismounted and walked among the gathered crowd on foot. A sign of deep respect for the peasantry. The lifeblood of the Hiratan Empire.

An aging male servant in a loose brown robe greeted Masura at the sliding entrance door of the elder’s residence. The old man didn’t bow, though he kept his eyes downcast while taking the reins of Masura’s black Kiyoso stallion. Masura ascended the shallow steps, a soaked cloth bag in each hand. A second male servant wearing an identical robe beckoned him forward.

Two figures waited for him at the far edge of the audience room. Horio Tamekage stood erect, feet shoulder-width apart, his receding hair tied in traditional topknot fashion. But Masura gave the man only a furtive glance, his gaze lingering instead upon the kneeling woman beside him. Suroda Tamekage was far older, her posture stooped, strands of long white hair pinned back around her shoulders. Unusual for a woman out here in the Marchlands to retain the role of elder rather than passing it onto a son, though such practices were becoming increasingly common throughout the Eight Provinces. No doubt a result of the Luminous Throne’s influence?and that of Hirata’s new Emperor.

Another twelve men stood along the walls in their black and gray robes. Daylight streamed through the windows to reflect off a dozen hands gripping the hilts of their sheathed single-edged swords. None of the scabbards or hilts bore the mark of the yejin, unlike Masura’s own sekari steel blade. The tart scent of bowstring oil was rampant. They likely had archers hidden behind the one-way partition at the back of the room.

Masura’s mouth twitched, though he stopped it from becoming a full-fledged frown. He gave a slight bow. “I dispatched the brigands, as requested.”

He tossed the two cloth bags onto the floor before either of the Tamekages could reply. The sacks rolled forward with a soft squish and left a pair of red smears along the wooden planks.

Horio Tamekage used a foot to prod the nearest sack. Strands of close-cropped black hair protruded through the open top, still attached to their scalps.

“Where are the rest?” Horio wiped the bottom of his blood-stained boot across the floor.

“They couldn’t be salvaged.” Masura had tried being careful this time, but when it came to properly cutting off a criminal’s head or staying alive?priority went to the latter.

“You had explicit instructions.” Horio kicked the sacks aside. A nearby servant was quick to gather them up. “Bring back every one of those brigands’ heads, or don’t bother returning at all.”

“Too many to carry.” Masura shrugged. “There were twenty of them.”

Eyes widened at that. Horio’s and those of the guards. Only Suroda Tamekage’s expression remained unreadable.

“Liar.” Horio jabbed a finger in Masura’s face. “No lone stray could take down twenty armed criminals. Not honorably.” Several nearby guards nodded. “Tell me, did you resort to using a coward’s poisons? Or perhaps you slit a few of those men’s throats while they were sleeping?”

Masura neither moved nor blinked. Horio wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. Masura had caught the brigands by surprise. Most had been too busy with other less honorable pursuits to even notice him. Captured farm girls for their pleasure, along with an open cask of distilled liquor seized during one of their recent raids.

Criminals and their victims?more casualties of the droughts ravaging Hirata’s rice crop in the Glimmering Terraces to the north, now well into its fifth year. Destitute men could be led to commit all sorts of heinous acts.

“Nothing to say in your defense?” Horio paced back and forth before Masura. He tapped his thumb against the hilt of his blade. “You present yourself with only six of these supposed twenty, and with no further evidence the other brigands are dead. How do we know you didn’t just raid a farmer’s field upon our lands and cut off the heads of six random peasants?”

Masura inhaled a breath, but not too deep. The wound at his side, hidden beneath the folds of his blue robe, still throbbed. The brigands’ leader had been neither drinking nor whoring, and had proved a worthy opponent, more skilled than his nineteen subordinates put together. Another yejin turned stray, just like Masura. Bandaging the wound from that man’s marked blade had been a hasty thing. It would need proper treatment and suturing to prevent infection, and soon.

“Ride into the hills and take a look for yourself. I’ll even draw you a map.” Masura kept his gaze level. He wouldn’t lower his eyes or bow to anyone who dared call him a liar. “And if you’re still unsure, question the husbands, parents, and siblings of the women I freed from the brigands’ bondage.”

All but one, anyway, whom two of the criminals had gutted during the chaos in a failed attempt to bargain for their lives. The other women had fled once they realized who Masura was. None had even bothered to thank him.

Horio’s mouth snapped shut, instead matching Masura’s glare. The man’s grip tightened on his sword hilt.

“It is of little concern to us.” Suroda Tamekage’s voice was quiet and frail, yet it cut through the ensuing silence. “We will pay you what you’re owed.”

She signaled behind her. A young female servant approached, head bowed, and knelt in front of Masura. The girl held out a leather coin pouch.

Masura seized the offering with one hand and counted the hollow-centered silver discs in the other. With each metallic clink, more whispers and mutters flared from every corner of the residence. The guards, the servants, the archers lurking behind the rear partition, even the elder and her son. Convention dictated Masura should wait until the meeting was concluded before verifying his payment. A gesture of respect and trust to the other party, though he had long since dispensed with such pointless courtesies.

Lord Akano certainly wouldn’t have approved. It was easy to picture his master’s heavy-lined face giving him a stern frown, seated in the manor study by lamplight, calligraphy brush frozen between fingers and paper. Lord Akano’s desk would’ve been piled high with letters to his many contacts throughout the empire?correspondence to secure labor agreements for desperate Hiratans eager for work.

But the dead couldn’t protest.

“This is only a third of what we agreed upon.” Masura tossed the pouch back at the Tamekages’ feet.

Horio sprang forward. “Be grateful we’re even giving you that, you oath breaking?”

“Enough.” Suroda raised a hand, and Horio fell silent. Her dark eyes settled on Masura. “What we’re offering is more than generous, considering you only brought us six heads. Do you think you deserve more, based on our prior agreement?”

The guards reached for their weapons?thumbs’ lengths of sharpened steel now visible. Masura’s gaze remained fixed upon the partition behind the Tamekages. The archers likely had their bows drawn, aimed at his heart and head.

He grasped the hilt of his own sword. Deflecting arrows was no small feat at such close range, even with the ethereal nimbleness of his sekari steel blade. But it could be done, as could taking on a room of twenty odd men, if necessary. It seemed to be his lucky sign.

He’d fought that same number when pursuing his master’s murderers. Twenty assassins from House Narisane led by the High Lord’s third son, dissatisfied with so many of those lucrative labor contracts given to Lord Akano in his father’s stead. Each of the twenty had fallen to a single swing from Masura’s sword?a wildfire tale that had spread throughout Hirata to become legend.

As had the rumor of Masura’s refusal to die after Lord Akano had been avenged, as yejin tradition demanded. A life of disgrace chosen over an honorable death. The life of an outcast. A stray.

Masura tensed, a sneer splitting his facade. These Tamekages had called him a coward and a liar. With their deaths?he would simply be defending whatever shreds of honor he still had left.

He exhaled his held breath. And be branded a murderer, hunted down like a common criminal. Like the assassins who’d killed Lord Akano. Like the brigands he himself had executed. And like their leader, the former yejin he’d dueled and defeated.

Masura released the grip on his sword. There had been far too much death in these hills already. Lord Akano would’ve been aghast if he knew his old gift was being used for such a purpose, especially if he was watching from the Other world. The last thing Masura needed right now was another name added to an ever-growing list. Masura the Quick. Masura the Oath Breaker. Masura the Stray.

Masura the Butcher.

“Well?” Horio said. “What’re you still standing there for? Take your payment and go?or you won’t be leaving at all.”

Masura gritted his teeth. Horio wasn’t the first to utter such a threat to him, nor would this elder’s overgrown whelp be the last. But he hadn’t come all the way out to this backwater town to answer their pleas for help, only to cause trouble after.

Time to move on.

It took Masura considerable effort not to press his hand to the crude bandage beneath his robe. Probably better to enlist the services of a healer elsewhere, though the next nearest town was more than a full day’s ride.

“I thank you for your generosity.” He left the coins on the floor and turned, perhaps a little too quick. Careless of him. He might take a blade in the back for his trouble, just like Lord Akano had. Horio Tamekage would be more than capable of giving that order, even if he wasn’t the type to swing the sword himself.

Masura breathed easier once his boots touched the compact earth outside the elder’s residence. That same elderly servant waited alongside his Kiyoso stallion. Masura mounted up and rode at a trot down the main street.

The crowd still lingered, pulling back at his approach. Women clutched children to their chests, men shook their heads, youngsters spat at his feet. Masura straightened himself in the saddle, one hand on the reins, the other hanging loose at his side, as far away from the hilt of his sword as possible. It wouldn’t do to show fear among the peasant folk. Not under the terms of this continued existence.

If he’d had his way, he would’ve killed himself upon avenging his master’s death. A short blade to the gut, in typical yejin fashion, to join Lord Akano’s remaining retainers in their sojourn to the Other world. But it hadn’t been up to him. All of Hirata didn’t understand, would never understand.

He was no coward.

A silent messenger had delivered a sealed letter the day after Lord Akano’s murder. Masura had memorized its contents, the characters scrawled in his master’s elegant but unmistakable hand.

Masura,

The fact you are reading this means I have met my end in a most unexpected way. I bear no ill feelings against whichever house was responsible. Seek vengeance if you must, but I do not wish you to follow me into the Other world. Not yet. Thus, my final order to you:

Live.

Should the droughts continue, you and your talents will be of far more use to the troubled people of Hirata, even broken and reviled as you will be. Pledge loyalty to no house. Speak of this to no one. Protect those who cannot do so themselves for as long as you are able.

Your services will always be needed.

Masura had burned the rest, kept only a small crinkled fragment tucked deep within the sleeve of his robe. It bore but a single smudged character.

Live.

The thatched roofs of that nameless town faded from the horizon into memory. He would be visiting many more like it in the days to come.


The Colored Lens Is Looking For Slush Readers

The Colored Lens is once again looking to expand our staff. We are looking for a first reader to help us keep up with the submissions we receive.

We pride ourselves on our 100% personal responses, and aim to have a 48 hour response time for rejections. To do this, we ask readers to read 3-4 stories a week and provide short personalized responses that include both positive features and the reasons it’s being rejected.

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If you are interested in the position, please review the stories on our site and send us an email at editors@thecoloredlens.com. In the email, let us know two to three of your favorites, and write a sample rejection for two to three of them that you don’t like as well.

Hosts for the Rains

They came with the rains.

I had my suit on. Jane didn’t.

The turquoise sky just frosted over with clouds as quick as a finger snap, and the rains fell.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. To let her take her suit off. But she was desperate. You get that way sometimes. You just want to feel real air against your skin, the sun warming your hair. These tin cans can feel like a tomb and you just have to get out of your shell or you’ll go mad.

So I let her.

And now the rains are falling all around us, plinking off our suits with tinny clinks, and we just look at each other through our fishbowls.

There’s an ocean between us, but not a word comes to our lips.

By now, they’ve wriggled in through her pores, burrowed straight down through her flesh and into a vein, caught a ride on some hemoglobin up into the brain, and are feasting.

I watch her pupils swell till her eyes become black holes.

And then I run.


I’ve this mad notion that I can reverse this. That it’s not too late. That I can somehow use the ship’s equipment to suck the squiggling tadpoles out of her grey matter and there won’t be just swiss cheese left.

I pound across the cracked earth in my titanium suit, shouting into the COM to open the ship’s door. Shouting for help.

I mount a red dune with just a couple of strides. I cross a desert with a bound. When I mount the final hill, I see the ship is gone. Just its square prints are left in the red earth.

They’ve left us.

Left me to die at the hands of my deranged wife.


From what I know, the adult parasites burrow in and live symbiotically with the host; whilst it’s the juveniles that live in the clouds who are hell-bent on life and death. They fall down with the rains, land on a host, and send it on a rampage, killing everything it can get its hands on. Then the bodies in its murderous wake become more hosts for the rains. And on and on the cycle of life goes.

But the adults are solitary creatures. They’re known to consume any competition in the host. They even heal a host’s body, give it life, vitality, which is why the Imperium pays us top dollar to collect them.

If I could just…

“Bruce. Can you hear me?”

My heart stops.

“Bruce, my sweet, sweet love. Where are you?”

My startled gasp frosts the front of my fishbowl.

It’s her voice coming through the COM, her exact voice. But she can’t be. She’s infected. They’ve eaten away her brains. She shouldn’t be able to even speak.

“Bruce. Where are you, my sweet love? Talk to me baby. Tell me where you are?”


I spend the day hiding in a crevice, crying my eyes out and listening to her call for me.

That moment where I tell her it’s OK, that I’ll watch the skies while she sunbathes in her underwear, plays again and again in my mind.

And I see myself run, like a coward. I throw it all away and just run because I was scared.

That’s the most unbearable bit of it all. In a split second, I abandon her after twenty years of marriage.

“Bruce. I’m scared. Tell me where you are? I need you.”

A terrible cry surges up my throat. I bite down on my lips to stop it from spilling out. Tears make the rocky, desert landscape a wavering, liquid sea.

I was on a collecting crew one time where some idiot forgot to keep his gloves on. He went mad. He became a senseless killing machine. Took a shovel and smashed open the foreman’s fishbowl, then crushed his windpipe with his bare hands. Then he lifted a girl up by her legs and dashed her like a doll against a rock.

But Jane seems sane. It hasn’t affected her like it’s done to others. Perhaps what I’ve read isn’t completely true?

A pebble plinks off my fishbowl and I look up into the chink of day.

She’s high above, bent over the crevice and looking down at me. Her long brown hair has fallen forward and pooled in her fishbowl, her face just a furry mass.

“Bruce! There you are!”

And then she heaves down a fist-sized rock at me and I’ve no time to react.

It hits my fishbowl square with a resounding gong that nearly splits my head it two. The world seems to separate and then come back together.

Cracks spread across my fishbowl, and there is a soft hiss as the outside pressure equalizes.

I can taste the planet’s air now, it’s arid and sweet.

And I run.

White Haze

Title of the story is: White Haze. The genre could be considered fantasy/paranormal. Word count is 8,226.

Sweat runs down my cheek and drips from my chin. My shoulders ache and my chest burns. I stab the shovel into the ground and look up. She’s looking at me with sweat glistening on her face from the harsh sunlight. I wipe my brow and tell her to hand me the seed.

From her pocket, she removes a tiny object, round, with hard ridges that are almost like spikes. She hands it to me. Sunlight graces the edge of the hole. I plant the seed and jump out.

She looks at me. “You have anything you want to say?”

I look to the flatlands behind us, the empty field and the house about three miles from ours. The sun bleeds orange light over the land like a severed artery, and though the world has its own set of colors—green, brown, and blue—all has been blanketed in the giant star’s saturation. The wind kicks and dust lifts from the arid terrain and funnels into a twister, rising high into the sky and dissipating. What trees surround us bend and sway with the wind, the pine needles howling as the air wisps through the branches.

I shake my head.

She closes her eyes and kneels before the hole. The shovel is next to her, and the shadow of her and the tool stretch out over the bull grass. She raises her clasped hands to her mouth and whispers. The gusting wind ceases, and I hear her say ‘amen’ before she runs her hands over her thighs, stands, and brushes her knees off.

“Let’s cover this little guy and get it some water,” she says and looks at me. “I hope this works.”


White surrounded me, silence engulfed me, and cold burrowed into my core.

Haze drifted with slow ethereal movement; swelling, then shrinking. Pillars were hidden in the fog, disappearing when the haze thickened. I sat up and noticed people walking about with empty expressions on their faces. Their footsteps were muted. Their legs were hidden in the haze. There was no color.

I rubbed my temple. Pain surrounded the left side of my skull. At the back of my head was an incessant urgency to remember something. Yet the pain stopped me from pursuing that need, planting me in this foreign landscape.

A stranger approached me, bent, and held out a hand. He had white hair and wire rimmed glasses. His smile gave just a hint of color to his otherwise whited-out face. I took his hand and he pulled me up. Cold gripped me from inside and I shivered. My teeth chattered, but there was no sound.

“Good morning,” the old man said, his voice cutting through the white and yet suffocated by it.

“Cold,” I said, then pushed hair from my face. “Why is it so cold?”

“You’ll get used to that.”

The pain in my head increased, pumping. The urge to remember returned, and I wanted to reach into my mind and pull out whatever was causing this great agony, what felt like would explode if I didn’t figure it out.

The old man looked at me. “You doing all right? You look paler than most.”

“Most?” I said, and put the heel of my hand on my head. “What’s going on here? What’s with this place?”

He toyed with his glasses. “I couldn’t explain even if I wanted.”

“Where are we?”

The old man looked around. “Might be able to say it’s a holding station.”

I stared. “You mean a prison?”

He gestured to those appearing and disappearing from the haze. “You see any prison bars?”

Weariness kicked in, and standing became too much. “What’s happened?” I closed my eyes against the throbbing hurt. “Why am I here? What the hell is going on?”

The old man said, “There’s a bench over yonder, we should sit.”

Pain spiked my brain as if someone drove a metal stake into it. I held out my hand and the old man guided me. Out of the white, the bench appeared. He helped me down and I heaved a deep sigh that disturbed the haze. The old man joined my side, swinging an arm over the bench’s back.

People came and went—figures dressed and faded in white, forgotten when the haze took them—some passed glances, but there wasn’t an ounce of vitality on anyone’s face. The silence of their movements made me quiver; this wasn’t the world I knew, this was someplace else.

“Pardon?”

I looked at the old man.

“You said something.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t.”

“Yes you did. You said something wasn’t right.”

I rubbed my head. “What happened to me?”

“I can’t answer that. I have no idea where you’re from or what you’re supposed to be doing. But you are here, and there’s something you need to know.”

Screeching sounded from afar, and I raised my attention to the shifting haze. People who had been moving about halted and turned. The sound grew louder, and I recognized it as a subway train. The white parted and formed a pathway, revealing tracks and tunnel openings.

“This a train station?” I said.

“You could say that,” the old man said.

“Dear Jesus God!” someone shouted. People turned. The haze shifted. It was a woman, her hair brown with streaks of white around her ears. She wore glasses, the lines on her face copious, tracing around her features like race tracks. Her face was locked in an expression of realization and fear.

“I remember!” she said. “Oh my God, I remember what happened! I remember it all!”

The train entered the station. The doors opened in silence.

Everyone turned to the woman.

She whimpered. “Don’t make me leave.”

Red light beamed from the open train doors, coloring the colorless world, saturating a pathway from the train to her.

“What’s going on?” I said. “What’s she remembered?”

The old man looked at me. “What we are all here to do.”

“Please,” the woman cried. “I want to do so much more. I can’t leave. I can’t! I need another chance!”

The pain in my head grew worse. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temple. The woman’s cries filled my head, echoing within the empty caverns of my memory.

“I’m sorry,” she said, speaking to someone. I tried to look up, but the light created new pain in my head, putting pressure on my haggard brain. She continued to beg. “I’m so sorry! Let me talk to my husband. Let me at least tell him I love him!”

Understanding struck me and the pressure disappeared. I looked at the train, saw the woman enter the red light, pleading as she went, then the doors shut and her cries were silenced. The train began to leave.

I looked at the old man. “I’m dead!”

The man returned his attention to me and gave a single nod. “You got the first step right.”

The last of the train exited the station, and silence resumed its ironclad grasp upon the desaturated world. My eyes grew heavy, and I leaned over and closed my eyes.

The Interdimensional Megastar

Gull Stanton hurled a brick at the Public Information Booth and watched with satisfaction as the glass fell away, taking with it the garish poster of Captain Aerial, self-proclaimed interdimensional megastar. Sorting through the shards with his boot, he slid the poster towards him and ground his heel into the man’s face – a face that apart from a few subtle differences was identical to his own. It wasn’t fair. Why should that big-shot be raking in bluebacks hand over fist, while he had to work double shifts in a dead-end cleaning job just to buy food? He was everything Captain Aerial was. It should be him flying around arenas with his jetpack, singing songs to hordes of adoring fans.

From what he’d read in interviews, their lives had diverged five years earlier when they’d each received their share of the profits from the sale of his dead grandmother’s house. Gull had used the money to go on a year-long vacation, living a playboy lifestyle at the Hotel Métropole in Monte-Carlo, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and various other fashionable hotels; Captain Aerial had started a small salvaging business, specializing in the collection of obsolete satellites from the earth’s upper atmosphere, and discovered a revolutionary transportation device capable of opening doorways between dimensions aboard a derelict alien spaceship. The potential applications of such a device were mind-boggling, but Captain Aerial had chosen to use it to make obscene amounts of money, first by offering interdimensional tours to a rich clientele and then by launching a music career. The man turned out to have a pretty good voice, and once he’d hired himself a decent backing band, there was no stopping him. Flitting from universe to universe, he’d achieved a widespread fame like nobody before.

At Christmas the previous year, Captain Aerial had arrived in Gull’s dimension for the first time, and the moronic public had immediately started buying his albums. They chatted about him endlessly, blogged about him on social media, idolized him. It was all right for them! He wasn’t their counterpart. When they saw pictures of the bastard driving away in a Lamborghini, they weren’t constantly being tormented by the thought that it should have been them. Damn the man! Why couldn’t he have stayed in his own freaking universe?

Gull felt a shard of glass pressing against the side of his boot and realized he still had his foot on the poster. He stepped away quickly. Cops tended not to bother themselves with shitty parts of the city like this, but it was best not to take any chances. The last thing he wanted to do was to spend the night in a cell.

As if on cue, a siren sounded in the distance. He hurried onwards along the street. Concrete tenements covered with graffiti rose to either side of him, interspersed with liquor and convenience stores fortified with wire mesh, while at the end of the block there was a power station behind a high wall topped with security spikes, its four metal chimney stacks belching steam into the air above. People said the area was up and coming, but even though there were a few building sites in evidence, it had a hell of a long way to go before it arrived. Gull’s eyes shifted to the downtown area. It couldn’t be more than a mile or two away, yet how different it looked – a forest of towers piercing the sky like giant fingers – classic American skyscrapers beaming out advertising from three dimensional monitors built into their glass facades, the pagodas of Chinatown, the fantastical creations of the bioarchitecturalists with their treelike columns branching upwards to impossible heights.

Gull cocked his head to the side, listening intently. That flaming siren was getting closer. He needed a place to hide. He spotted a bar on an intersecting street and jogged towards it.

A sign above the door identified the place as ‘Pitchers and Pitchers’, so he wasn’t surprised to find it was baseball themed. The walls were hung with photographs of famous players and other memorabilia, and there was a waxwork figure of Babe Ruth standing in the corner. Probably, it would have been a nice place to spend some time in its day, but now, there was a distinct air of neglect. Most of the seats had tears in them and there were patches of mold on one of the walls.

Gull paused in the doorway, surveying the customers. They were blue collar types – construction workers, truck drivers, mechanics.

He groaned as he noticed a television behind the bar projecting footage of a Captain Aerial concert. Perhaps he should accidentally spill a drink on it to see if he could short out the circuitry. No, tempting as it was, that kind of behavior was a good way to get himself thrown out. Instead, he sat down on a vacant stool and ordered himself a bottle of beer.

He stared moodily at the image of Captain Aerial prancing about on stage as he raised the bottle to his lips. He could move better than that if only someone would give him the chance.

“He’s really something, isn’t he?” said a voice from the seat beside him.

He turned and found himself looking at a middle-aged woman with a chubby face. She was a desperate singleton by the look of her – skirt ridiculously short, hair dyed neon pink and swept up in a gravity defying style, a thick layer of pale foundation smeared across her face to hide the wrinkles.

Assuming she was referring to Captain Aerial and having no inclination whatsoever to talk about him, Gull ignored her.

“You look a little like him, you know,” the woman went on, unperturbed by his lack of response. Actually, you look a lot like him. What’s your name?”

Gull sighed. “My name’s Gull, and I don’t look like him; he looks like me.”

The woman’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Is there a difference?”

“Yes there is,” Gull snapped.

“I take it you’re not a fan, then?” said the woman.

Gull took another swig of beer and slammed his bottle down on the bar in front of him. “No, I’m not.”

“Any particular reason?” the woman asked.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Gull replied.

“But that voice…” said the woman, half closing her eyes in dreamy contemplation. “How can you not love a voice like that? It’s so full of passion. And those lips… what I wouldn’t give to be kissed by a pair of lips like that.”

Gull blinked. This was a come-on, wasn’t it? He looked her up and down. She wasn’t close to attractive, but he wouldn’t say no if she was going to hand herself to him on a plate. As a lowly hospital janitor, he wasn’t exactly inundated with romantic interest. He puckered up his lips. “Your wish is my command.”

The woman looked unimpressed. “Sorry sugar, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

“Maybe not,” said Gull, “but it’s the closest you’re gonna get.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you believe it. Captain Aerial’s playing the Rainbow Arena at the weekend, and I’ve got a ticket and a plan to get in his pants. I’m going to hang back until he plays “Every Me Loves Every You,” then I’m going to jump the stage and twerk for him.” She smiled smugly as if this was truly inspired. “It was nice talking to you.” With that, she turned away and began chatting to a man on her opposite side.

Gull felt a pang of disappointment. Why was it things never went his way? Because they were too busy going Captain Aerial’s, that was why. He gulped down the rest of his beer and went back to studying the television. What was the singer’s secret? Why was he so damn popular? Gull stared into his eyes as the camera zoomed in, but there was nothing there that he hadn’t seen thousands of times in the mirror. Suddenly, he had a burning desire to see Captain Aerial in person. Perhaps then, it would all become clear.

Once the idea had occurred to him, it was hard to shake. He thought about it as he stepped out of the bar a few hours later, he thought about it as he watched a group of girls taking pictures of themselves with a billboard poster of Captain Aerial through the sky-bus window on his way home, and he thought about it the following evening at the hospital as he dragged an industrial strength vacuum cleaner around the maze of insipid corridors. Yes, he needed to do this, and the gig at the local arena was the perfect opportunity. All he had to do was buy a ticket. It would cost him a small fortune no doubt, but that was life. If the worst came to the worst, he could always sell an organ to raise the money. He’d done it before. In this day and age, the artificial replacements they were giving out were almost as good as the real thing.

So it was that when the time came for him to take his break, Gull headed straight to the staff room – a soulless basement affair with three vending machines and plastic furniture – and posted an online ticket request with his phablet. Within minutes, he was inundated with replies, all saying the same thing – the concert had sold out months ago.

Gull tossed the phablet onto the table in front of him and went to buy a packet of potato chips. As he did so, an advert on an interactive notice board beside the vending machine caught his eye. He was in luck. One of the E.R. doctors had a ticket on sale. He would have to move fast, though. At the price the doctor was asking – face value for a quick sale – people would be lining up to buy it. Tucking his potato chips under his arm, he punched out a response on the on-screen keyboard.

Gull received a call from the doctor before he had even sat down. It turned out the man had not yet finished work for the day and wanted to sell him the ticket immediately. Gull agreed, went up to see him, and after a moment’s hesitation when it came to actually transferring the money, the deal was done.

The Ruritanian Duke of Kunlun

Winslow North suspected a diplomatic incident afoot from the moment Arthur Armitage invited him to take tea at the finest club in Ruritania’s capital. Five minutes into his first cucumber sandwich, Winslow, who subscribed to – not pessimism, surely, but a certain bracing realism – found his prediction rewarded.

“Oh, Your Grace,” sighed Arthur, looking distressed indeed, with his face pulled long beneath his strawberry-blond curls. “I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for your friendship, and how wretched I feel for calling on its services in so gauche a manner. Nevertheless” – here, he heaved another gusty sigh – “the trouble cannot be otherwise helped. I feel a damnable fool, in truth. Do you think me a very great fool?”

Winslow, over the rim of his teacup, said rather dryly, “I find I cannot make a proper assessment of a man’s foolishness, great or small, without first knowing its cause.”

“The trouble began with my school,” said Arthur, stirring his tea with a melancholic air. “Poor school! How it suffers on my account.”

Winslow frowned. “School?”

“You know the one, Your Grace –”

“Winslow, please,” said Winslow, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. He’d lost count, in truth, of how many times he’d corrected Arthur on matters of address. Winslow massaged his temples. “I am only properly a duke in the Kingdom of Kunlun. Dukes in my grandparents’ country hardly deign to run companies, or take tea with Western businessmen, as I do here in Ruritania. They consider the handling of money and the willful fraternization with foreigners uncouth, and never quite forgave my father for adopting an English surname for our business purposes. My family in Kunlun would hardly approve of our friendship, Arthur. Which,” Winslow added, to forestall any perception of insult, “I of course hold in the highest esteem, regardless of any elderly great-aunt’s antiquated misgivings.”

Arthur beamed. “I do so admire your humility, Your Gra – ah, Winslow. Indeed, it is a quality I most admire in Kunlunese people like yourself. That is why I started the school, you see,” he added earnestly. “Surely, you’ve heard about the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. I teach the martial arts course for gentlemen myself. My father was terribly proud.”

“Indeed,” said Winslow, taking care to curb the wryness of his tone. He had no doubt regarding Armitage Senior’s satisfaction in such an enterprise. The Armitages were businessmen, and trade deals recently struck between the young Western government of Ruritania and the forward-thinking, great-aunt-scandalizing Crown Prince of Kunlun had made all things Eastern abruptly fashionable in the West. Kunlunese magic – and its accompanying martial traditions – had won particular favor with Western gentlemen of a certain class and sensibility.

“The school has been quite the success, as I’m sure you know,” Arthur went on. “I have the grand tour I took across the Asian continent in my boyhood, not to mention my month-long education in Chinese sorcery fundamentals, to thank for that.” He winked. “I do, unlike most Western Ruritaneans, know my Kunlunese enchantments and martial practices.”

“Surely any obstacle at your School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments could be overcome by a full month’s worth of Chinese magic instruction,” replied Winslow.

“But that is just the problem!” exclaimed Arthur. “Some – perhaps misunderstanding my history, and indeed, the nobility of my intentions – do not approve of my school.”

Winslow sat up a little over his cooling tea. “Really.” Now, this was interesting. Not many in Ruritania dared quarrel with the Armitages, even over something silly enough to be called the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. Winslow frowned. “Perhaps they disapprove of an institution of Asian sorcery.” Ruritania, for all its young government’s earnest talk of peace and progressivism, also gave home to those who misliked the growing repute of Asian and African Ruritanians. A certain cosmopolitan aesthetic which sampled the occasional Persian chemise pattern or Vietnamese soup course was all very well, but Western nations, with their notoriously delicate constitutions, could only stomach so much of the strange and exotic.

“Oh, it is not a matter of intolerance,” said Arthur, drooping further still, “which is a shame, really. To snub the intolerant is quite fashionable in respectable Ruritanian circles now. Unfortunately, the critic I speak of is herself a Kunlunese. One Miss Mabel Lee, though she went by a properly native name in Kunlun, Ming-ling or Mu-lan, or some such thing.”

Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “She?”

“Indeed.” Arthur leaned across the table with enthusiasm. Subtly, Winslow rescued the tray of miniature fruit tarts from Arthur’s flailing elbow. “A female magician – and a martial practitioner, at that!”

Winslow felt his eyebrows climb higher still. Women martial-magicians, sworn to the code of Jianghu, were rarer than their male counterparts, and according to the old sages of Kunlun, rarely as strong. Still, such women were not unheard of. “What seems to be the young lady’s complaint?”

“It is the most unconscionable thing!” replied Arthur. “She came to the school – for lessons, I thought – but no, the heartless creature wanted merely to pillory me. Going on about how my teachings lack authenticity. Mine! I, who spent a full year traversing the Asian continent.”

“It contains a good many countries,” said Winslow, comfortingly. “Pray, do not spill your tea over such a trifle. One disgruntled young lady, Jianghu disciple or not, should not provoke such emotional excesses.”

Arthur sniffed, curls flopping over his forehead, where they clashed unfortunately with his reddening face. “Perhaps my honor and reputation are a trifle to you, but I expect you should care rather more about the honor of your royal family.”

“Ruritania has no royal family,” said Winslow, puzzled. “I’m given to understand the young government is quite proud of its democratic achievements –”

“Don’t be daft, man! I speak of the Kingdom of Kunlun, of course.” Arthur’s gaze darted about the club, a bit nervously, as he adjusted his cravat. “In truth, I had not wanted to spread such gauche gossip about your homeland –”

“I was born in Ruritania, Arthur. And all gossip is, by definition, quite gauche, otherwise it would not be worth gossiping about.”

“– but I am privy to certain rumors. My father’s business associates, you know, they do go on. It seems the young upstart who impugned my teachings has also impugned the reputation of the Crown Prince himself. It is a scandal, of quite literally royal proportions!” Arthur looked triumphant. “Is the Prince not your own flesh and blood?”

“Prince Tai?” Winslow frowned. “I am a cousin of his, yes. However, save our blood, there is precious little in common between a rising head of state in a remote mountain kingdom, and a displaced duke who runs a Ruritanian company and takes tea with Western gentlemen.”

“But the thickness of that shared blood must stir even your wretched heart!” exclaimed Arthur. “I must say, I do so admire the Kunlunese devotion to family. I am sure your noble cousin would agree that the Lee girl is a cross-continental menace, and must be stopped.”

“Now, Arthur, you cannot simply class every woman who wields a sharp tongue as a menace, or the men of Ruritania would have none left to wed. Besides,” added Winslow, a bit impish-grinned, “I daresay I would not fare any better with such women than you do at your father’s Winter Ball.”

Arthur’s color deepened further. “I am being serious, Winslow. And it is not for nothing. Speak to your cousin. A conversation between family is not such a difficult thing.”

Winslow thought, wryly, that Arthur clearly had little experience of Kunlunese house-matrons during his year-long tour of the Asian continent, but refrained from saying so.

“I shall make it worth your while,” Arthur continued. “If you do this small thing for our friendship, I will entreat my father to stop nipping at the heels of the North Enterprise, as it were.”

Winslow froze, staring at Arthur. “How do you know about that?”

“I know some may think me an empty-handed dandy,” said Arthur, heaving his grandest sigh yet, “but I have ears. As I said, I am privy to certain rumors. My father has been attempting to snap up your family’s company since spring.”

“And I have expressed, time and again, my refusal. What does the Armitage trading empire need with a quaint little research company? We fund minor magical inventions and spell-work experimentation, not trading routes.”

Arthur shrugged. “Kunlunese magic is in fashion. My father is a businessman.”

Winslow’s fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly, on his teacup. “If I speak to my cousin of this Miss Lee of yours, you will ensure that your father puts a stop to this nonsense about an acquisition?”

“I shall speak most firmly to him,” promised Arthur. His curls bounced up and down when he nodded. “You have my word.”

Winslow leaned back in his plushly-cushioned seat, and cast a long-suffering glance toward the tea room’s finely-painted ceiling, a delicate imitation of Moroccan tile. “It will be good for my constitution to exercise my scrying mirrors, I suppose.”

My Grandmother’s Garden

My grandmother was a witch.

By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.

I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.

When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.

I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.

The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.

My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.

I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.

The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.

One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.

“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”

Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.

“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”

That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.

Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.

To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.

Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.

Until now.

I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.

As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.

“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”

“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.

“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.

“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.

“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.

It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.

An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.

“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”

I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”

“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.

The Science of Alchemy

“Math doesn’t lie,” I insisted.

“Well then, maybe you mistranslated it,” Haley replied.

“No. I’ve found a second way to conceptualize the world.”

I’d driven up the western coast of Michigan with my girlfriend. We both deserved a break from twelve-hour days of research for our fellowships at Harvard.

Hundreds of walkers streamed by us. Once a year on Labor Day, they open the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge over the straights between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to pedestrians. Folks probably assumed we had stopped to admire the unobstructed view, but I was in a different world. I held a scribbled page of equations up in the wind. “Look at how beautiful this is. All three of these variables cancel, leaving a second entropic local minimum–call it EM-2. There must be a set of simple real-life physical concepts behind it.”

Haley pulled away the strands of auburn hair the crosswind had blown across her face. “Okay, Martin, now you’re talking crazy. Since when was your handwriting beautiful?”

“Smartass,” I said and pointed to the top of the paper. “Look. This is Boltzmann’s Law. It equates the entropy in a system with the randomness in a system’s microstates.

I moved my finger down an inch. “Boltzmann’s law is promiscuous–it applies to any physical property–but it’s normally used for pressure and temperature like this.”

I moved my finger down again. “But here I have an orthogonal set of concepts. These equations play together so nicely with Boltzmann’s Law that it has to mean something. A second local minimum implies there is a second way of conceptualizing the world.”

“You sound like the Ojibwa medicine man who gave me the Petoskey stone. White men run so fast they have forgotten they can fly.”

“No this is science, not superstition.”

“And when he called you a great winged warrior of grandmother Earth, that was superstition too?”

“Of course. That jumble of words could mean anything. I’m talking about a mathematical truth. Though I admit, I’m in the stage Einstein was before he understood the implications of his equations of space-time. But eventually, he came up with things like mass increasing with acceleration and gravitational lensing. And it all began with a simple set of beautiful, formal equations like these.”

“So now you’re comparing yourself to Einstein?” Haley said.

“That’s not the point. New laws of science mean new technology. New technology means new inventions for the benefit of everyone.”

Haley waved me aside. “Chill out. I can see this is important to you, but can we start walking again? My headache is coming back. Maybe we shouldn’t have left the Petoskey at the motel after all.”

“See,” I said. “That’s how superstitions spread. Now you think you have evidence for the Petoskey stone curing your headaches. But if you hadn’t gotten a headache, you wouldn’t have counted that as evidence the stone didn’t work.”

When we got back to the motel, Haley’s chronic headache went away. We changed clothes and went out for dinner, leaving the stone behind. Her headache came back. We retired for the evening. Her headache went away again. Haley was excited, but I knew better. Coincidence. Random noise. These things happen.

The next morning, I set up a double-blind experiment to prove that the stone did not possess magical healing powers. I got two identical boxes from the McDonalds next door and, out of Haley’s sight, put the Petoskey stone in one and another equally sized rock in the other. Then out of my sight, Haley put a sticker on one box, so I didn’t know which was which. I used a coin toss to pick which box to bring close to Haley’s head first, behind a blanket, so she didn’t know which box it was.

After ten trials, the score was Petoskey 10, other rock 0. I couldn’t believe it. I got two different boxes and made her do ten more, then ten more after that. The stone really did cure headaches.

We hurried to the town plaza where we’d met the Ojibwa, but he was nowhere in sight. We asked around, but nobody knew who he was. The owner of a local bookstore said he’d noticed the medicine man hanging around yesterday, but had never seen him before that. We browsed in the bookstore while we waited for the medicine man to come back. He never did, but we found some interesting books.

In the antique books section, Haley found an illustrated Hamlet. She opened it to a picture of some men talking while a ghost lurked nearby. “How appropriate, don’t you think?” she said. “‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”

“Alchemy,” I said.

“What?”

I had opened a fat tome titled “The Science of Alchemy.” I read a passage from the introduction. “You must become as a child and encounter the world for the first time, for that which is fundamental to alchemy is not in the ordinary way men perceive the world.”

I leafed through the book. How to select the right plants and minerals. How to distill concentrated solutions. Recipes I didn’t understand.

“Alchemy is the answer,” I said. “Alchemy had a well-developed, empirical, alternative way of conceptualizing the world before science came along and displaced it. Alchemy will help me develop EM-2 theory.”

Sedate and Transport

Another stupid dryad was loose in the park.

Of course it had to be a day that I was working, right in the middle of my shift. Of course. I was always the worst at these types of emergencies. Nymphs were quick to say the least, and I’d always been lacking when it came to athleticism. It was only natural that one spontaneously decided it was going to have a lark on that day.

We’d previously gotten a pretty good hold on keeping the local dryad population away from us, after a long struggle that began with the park’s inception in the area. They’d all but successfully migrated to an empty forest a good few miles from the park, but they’d continue to occasionally slip past our gates and onto the property, seemingly wanting to at least attempt to reclaim their old stomping grounds.

Normally, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. We got all kinds of creatures coming in and out of the place. Harpies would rest in the trees some days. We caught water nymphs slithering around in the lake all the time. That was just life in the park.

The vital difference was that other creatures usually did their thing and got out before closing. The tree nymphs still thought they owned the place, running around and disturbing the other guests.

“Look, just catch it and take it back to the forest,” Chief Condor had said before sending me off equipped with nothing but the usual dart gun. “You know the protocol by now. Sedate and transport.”

Yeah, they were easy instructions when you were the one who got to sit behind the desk.

I visualized my two weeks’ notice with particularly imaginative detail as I headed off into the depths of the property. The day I dropped that on Chief Condor’s desk seemed infinitely far away, relying entirely on my acceptance into my postgraduate program. Then I could look at dirt under microscopes instead of performing wild goose chases and giving directions in it.

I’d become tired of my part-time job long before that day. I always remained low in rank, given a title that sounded more powerful than it was. It was like being an overworked waitress with a different backdrop.

The fantasy of working in the nature that I so loved to study had lost any novelty that it might have previously had, and had been morphed into nothing more than a sign that I wasn’t moving forward with my life. Nymph wrangling was just a particularly annoying reminder nestled within it.

I was stalking through an especially wooded section of the park when I first caught a glimpse of her, skipping through between the trees in a way that let me know catching her would take more than the bare minimum in terms of effort. She glanced in my direction for a sliver of a second before darting out of sight.

“There it goes.”

I turned around and grimaced at the voice I, unfortunately, was able to recognize. Cora, who had apparently showed up behind me sometime in the past few minutes, was smiling quite proudly at me when I did. This day really couldn’t stop improving.

“Did you have to be so loud?” I asked. “You probably just scared her off for me, so thanks.”

She smirked, looking to be having far more fun with this than I ever could. “Please. She ran away before I said anything, Heather. As if you’d have been able to get her, anyway. It was practically playing hopscotch and you just gawked at it.”

I stomped down one of my boots with indignation, ignoring how childish it made me feel to do so. The tiny bit of catharsis was worth it.

“You try catching it then!” I said. “I’m tired of playing zookeeper.” When I’d applied to work at the park, I’d hoped it would give me the biology-adjacent experience I needed for my studies. Within weeks, I’d come to realize that ranger duty around here didn’t give much to my brain besides migraines.

“Chief didn’t tell me to go after the thing,” she argued, walking a bit closer. “I just came here to watch the fun. I’m on ‘general patrol duty,’ anyway, so I can technically be here.”

I groaned and briefly wondered if I ought to report her to the front office. Surely this counted as slacking off, regardless of her loopholes. The more I thought about it, though, it didn’t feel worth it. They never took me seriously up front. If anything, I’d get scolded for Avoiding a Highly Important Duty, Ranger Kim.

Maybe I could use a sidekick, anyway.

“If you’re gonna watch, then you better help,” I said, knowing that she probably wouldn’t. Cora didn’t seem any better equipped than I was for this, so the only benefit I could really hope to glean was company.

I headed off further into the trees without bothering to see if she’d follow.

Drop Serene

Prologue

I didn’t read it for a long time. Really, I wasn’t aware of it for a long time. Those were busy times for the infernal horde, what with all the dime store necromancers queueing up to mortgage their souls. Western society’s emergence from the darkness spawned enough bad ideas to keep us all hopping for a couple centuries. That kind of overwork doesn’t really leave anybody in the mood to curl up with a long, challenging epic poem.

By the time I read it, the Blind Poet was long dead. By the time I read it, Frankenstein’s creature had already read it, and all the daffodil sniffers had embraced it to a degree that was embarrassing to witness. By then, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a little bit of a shock to recognize our story. That was nothing compared to the shock that followed.

At first, I was confused and a little miffed. It seemed like the poet mentioned everybody in Hell except me. I read through that whole tremendous list, and the only one missing was me. I’m not suggesting that I’m a particularly big deal in the grand scheme of Perdition, but one hates to be left off the cast list if one is in the show.

Then the real shock followed.

It was the perspective that gave it all away. It wasn’t just scenes where I was present – It was scenes shown from my point of view. It slowly dawned on me that the Blind Poet didn’t leave me out of the narrative because he didn’t like me, or because he thought I wasn’t important enough. He left me out because he was seeing the whole thing through my eyes. Somebody gave him access to the whole story by giving him access to everything I saw.

Now who would be able to do that?

As I read on, it became clear that while the Blind Poet had total access to what I saw, he only sometimes had the soundtrack to go with it. At these times, he just took his best guesses at what was being said and why. Really, he did a pretty good job of the guess work, all things considered. Sure, he got some things totally dead wrong, but he did it in ways that made for a good poem.

I’m not writing to refute what the Blind Poet wrote. For as few of the facts as he got right, he ultimately captured the truth. I’m also not writing this because I got left out of the Blind Poet’s work. I’ve long since read the Italian Pilgrim’s poem, and I’ve got a real juicy part in that. Juicy enough to more than make up for my absence in the Blind Poet’s epic. Really, I just want to set down my thoughts about my dearest friend. I want to let you know about my pal Lucifer.