Feel Again

“What do you feel?”  The question floated to me as if borne on a stiff breeze—the kind of wind that doesn’t stir or excite, but simply moves, brushing past you on its way.  The words did the same, lingering upon my ears for only moments before moving along.

What did I feel?  Nothing, really.  I opened my eyes, thinking that sight would bring some feeling with it, but my eyelids slid up to reveal nothing but a sterile white ceiling lit by harsh white light.  Still, I supposed I should answer the voice.

“I don’t feel anything.”

Hands fumbled across my chest, and with the metal on leather sound of straps sliding through buckles, pressure disappeared.  Funny, I hadn’t even realized I was being restrained.

“You may sit up now.”

I did so, and noted now the source of the voice.  Standing at the end of my bed, holding a folder, was a short doctor dressed in faded blue scrubs.  He was clean shaven, and his hair was cut close to the scalp.  He sniffled as he thumbed through his folder.  “Are you feeling better?” he asked.

“I suppose,” I said.  “I’m not really sure how I was feeling before.”

“You were feeling entirely too much.”  The doctor spoke without even raising his eyes.  “So many conflicting emotions.  You had a bout of hysteria—a bit of a breakdown.”

“And now?”

“Now?”  The doctor finally looked up, gazing at me over thick-rimmed glasses that I noticed for the first time.  I hadn’t really cared to look before.  “Well, I’ll have to run a few more tests, but you seem to be doing better.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said, and I supposed it was.

The doctor approached me, and I swung my legs off the bed so that I was sitting on the edge.  He held up a cautious hand toward my chest, and I raised my arms.  I wasn’t going to move any further—he didn’t seem to like the idea of that.  There had been something in his face when I moved, something fleeting but present.  Had it been worry?  Not that it mattered, it was gone now.

Now that he was sure I would stay seated, the doctor decided to reveal the contents of his folder.  He pulled out a picture and held it up to me.  “How do you feel about this?” he asked.

I took the picture and looked at it more closely.  In it, a masked man held a purse underneath his arm as he ran.  Behind him, an elderly woman was attempting to rise from a chair, her mouth open and arms outstretched.


I handed the picture back with a shrug.  “He shouldn’t do that,” I said.  “Theft is not permitted.”

The doctor jotted down a note.  “Yes, but how does it make you feel?  Angry? Sad?”

Angry.  Sad.  I turned the unfamiliar words over in my mouth, finding them largely meaningless.  Nobody truly felt that way anymore.  I shook my head.

More notes, and then the doctor handed me another picture, this one of a child sitting up against a dog smiling ear to ear.  The dog’s tongue lolled lazily from its mouth.  “How about this one?”

I shrugged again.  It occurred to me that the child was happy, and likely the dog as well, but I wasn’t sure if that made me happy.  “There is nothing wrong with this one,” I said.

More notes.  The testing continued for a while in the same manner, but none of the pictures stirred anything in me.  Sometimes the doctor prompted me, asking if I felt worried or scared or excited, but mostly he presented the image without commentary, and answered me only with a scratching pen.

Finally, when all the pictures had been set to the side, the doctor set down his folder and went to the door, taking only his notes with him.  “I’ll be back with your test results,” he said.  “It shouldn’t take long; you’ve performed admirably.”

He shut the door behind him, leaving me in a cube of blinding whiteness.  Everything was white—the bed, the walls, the folder—and were illuminated by such a harsh light.  Even the pictures I had been shown were black and white.

I noticed something then; inconsequentially, as one might notice that a wall is blue or that the sky was cloudless.  Poking out from the folder was color: a picture I had yet to see.

That stirred something in me.  It was something small, but harmless enough that I let it rise to the front of my mind.  It wasn’t an emotion—those were dangerous—but a nagging curiosity.  Why was it different?  Forgetting what I had promised the doctor, I rose from the bed and opened the folder.  Inside was a simple portrait of a woman smiling.

Immediately, this picture was different.  It was as if the color seeped from the image and saturated the room, lending its vibrancy to all aspects of my experience.  Emotions rose unbidden in me, raw and primal. There was happiness and sadness together, tied up in a sense of longing.  There was loss there, yes, but also hope, which permeated my mind and lent a glow of optimism.

Beneath everything was a promise of more.  As powerful as this emotion was—and it consumed me—it was but a memory of feeling, something false that would pale before the real thing.  And I was certain the real thing was out there.  I would find it.

Knowing that it wasn’t permitted, I lifted the picture from the folder, folded it once carefully, and slipped it into the waistband of my smooth white pants.  It was the first time I had noticed my clothing—stark, loose, white shirt and trousers.  They were rough.

I crossed to the door, feeling freedom beneath my bare feet with every step.  Remnants of my conditioned mindset rose to meet me in the doorway.  Leaving was not permitted.  Those thoughts were quelled quickly, overwhelmed by a wave of emotion that was all the more powerful now for its prolonged absence.

The handle turned smoothly on the first try and the door swung inward on silent hinges.  Clearly, my return to emotion had not been anticipated.  Or had it?  Was this a final test?  I took a deep breath, then felt for the picture in my waistband.  When my fingers found it, I pulled it forth and unfolded it, smoothing the crease so as to better see the woman in it.  Just the sight of her caused a new surge of emotion, and I knew that if this was a test, I would fail it gladly.  I would face any punishment before relinquishing this new feeling.  Stuffing the picture back into my waistband, I stepped through the door.

More of the same white walls lay beyond.  I had entered a long, blank hallway, marked only by doors at regular intervals.  On the wall next to each door was a picture above a name.  On mine, a picture of me sat above the name H. Scoville.  It was my name, I assumed, but I couldn’t remember what the H stood for.  Henry? Harry?  Clearly, not everything had returned to me.

A quick glance up and down the hall confirmed that it was empty, so I chose at random to turn right and to follow the hall until I found freedom.  I was confident in nothing but my own resolve.  With barely a memory, luck would have to favor me.

Moving confidently but warily, I started down the hall, very aware that freedom and danger grew closer with every step.  It wasn’t until I passed the fourth door that my stride faltered.  There, mounted just to the right of the door.  Her picture, and a name.

C. Wimm.

I don’t know how long I stood there staring at that name.  C. Wimm.  I had expected the name to bring memory with it, but nothing came but that same burning emotion.  It was more powerful now, strong to the point of overwhelming.  The hole inside of me was being filled so suddenly that emotions were nearly spilling at the edges.

  • C. Wimm. And beneath her name, ‘RELEASED’. I didn’t know what that meant; it didn’t matter.  My fingers played over the nameplate and brushed the picture.  I had no memories of her, but the feelings even her picture evoked were the strongest I could recall ever feeling.  If she was beyond this door, I had to find her.
  • The door opened silently, though I only moved it a few inches.  The hinges, newly oiled, stealthily gave way, opening a crack through which I peered through.  Between door and frame I watched as the woman from the photograph rose from her bed—identical to the one I had just been restrained in.  Moving as if she was in a trance, she slipped from her hospital gown and began to dress.  Fading jeans first, then a simple white t-shirt.  It was just after the shirt slipped down over her bare back that I stepped inside.

    “You are not meant to be here.”  She spoke monotonously and unthinkingly, barely looking up.

    “Cynthia,” I said, not knowing where the name came from, but sure that it was the right one.  “It’s me.”

    Cynthia fully raised her head this time, looking me over.  As her eyes wandered, they never once changed or showed any signs of life.  Her mouth stayed slack, her posturer slouched.  And then our eyes met.

    Her pupils dilated, and the frost melted from her irises.  Suddenly they were as they had been: deep, warm brown, and full of emotion.  Her jaw dropped, and she choked on the first words she tried to say.  Shaking her head to clear it, she took a hesitant step forward and tried again.  “Hank?  Hank, is it really you?”

    I nodded.  Strange, until that moment I hadn’t even been sure that I was Hank.  I held my hand out, and Cynthia took it.  Her grip was that of a drowning woman holding to a buoy.  Mine was no weaker. Hand in hand, we stepped into the white hallway.  And we ran.


    A sharp crack shattered the strained silence, echoing though the mid-morning fog.  Other noises followed, but they were quieter—more apprehensive.  A boot scraped the dirt.  Hands tightened on the hafts of spears, and armor clanked as the soldiers shifted from foot to foot.

    Twenty strong they stood, sweaty even in the biting cold, surrounded by silence.  To their rear, the town was deserted.  Open doors revealed cold hearths, and the streets were strewn with belongings dropped during the fleeing.  That had been days ago, and the still air smelled of rotting food.

    Twenty strong they stood, the only ones who stayed.  Twenty out of ten thousand, they stood at the end of the valley, facing the end of the world.  For before them stood the Last Wall, a god-built monolith of black marble that rose to the heavens and stretched from mountain to mountain.  And it was breaking.  Through the fog, the soldiers could see a web of glowing red cracks snaking across the wall—fissures large enough for two men to enter standing abreast.  Before their bleary eyes, another crack appeared like crimson lightning.  Its thunder shook the valley.

    The face of the wall mas now more red than black, so covered with cracks as it was.  Midmorning was made to look like midday by the angry glow.  Another crack shook the valley, and the soldiers stood like ants before a mountain, alone at the End of All Things.

    Help had never come, not that the soldiers could blame anyone.  Who wanted to face Death, certain it was coming, but uncertain of its form?  Everyone had heard the stories of what lay beyond the wall.  In that unknown hellscape the skies rained flame, and monsters roamed.  Some said they were beings of fire, with ever changing forms that could not be harmed.  Others were said to be armored in black chitin, with razor claws and suns for eyes.  Others still were nothing but shadows that stole life in silence.  Whatever lay Beyond, the soldiers meant to fight them.

    A final crack sounded, louder and more violent than all the rest.  Sensing the end, the soldiers stepped forward and lowered their spears, glad to finally be moving.  At long last, Death was coming.

    The cracks began to pulse, and there was a sound like an underwater explosion.  The wall didn’t fall, but seemed to dissolve into the crimson light, which grew more intense and began to rush towards the soldiers.  In the End, there were no monsters, only a cleansing fire that flooded the valley.  There was no fighting Death.

    We Never Heard Them Coming

    Deep inside the twisting wood, there is a house, in a gully.  And beneath the house, spreading into the earth like the ancient roots of the wood above, there are tunnels that end in caves and rockfalls and inky blackness that leads nowhere.  Papa told us to stay away from the blackness and the rockfalls, but let us play in the caves, where we clambered from ledge to ledge for hours at a time.

    Each cave was a different world to us.  There was the King’s Cave, where I ruled my siblings from the stone seat high on the wall, and they plotted to overthrow me.  The Sea Cave, its floor covered in shallow water, was the site of many naval battles.  My favorite was the Scorched Cavern with its burned walls and cracked floors.  It was the battlefield on which we fought the creatures from the blackness.

    One day, tired of defending our home, little brother suggested we take the fight to the creatures.  I was unsure at first—father had forbidden it—but he and little sister painted such vivid scenes of glory and adventure that I caved.  We pocketed stones, tucked sticks into our underarms, and began our quest.

    The blackness was well named, and it swallowed us whole.  I could feel little sister’s sweaty palm in mine as we marched forward, feeling blindly for the walls with our wooden weapons.

    We never saw a light at the end of the tunnel, growing stronger and brighter as we neared it.  One minute we were in the darkness, and the next we weren’t.  We were standing beneath long skies the color of little brother’s eyes.  Beneath our feet sifted ash the color of little sister’s hair.  It was better than the caves; this ashen meadow was truly another world.

    We never heard them coming.  Dark beasts the color of night that moved without form or focus.  We could not see them truly, we saw only patches of darkness, as if Papa had spilled ink across the dining room table.  They matched the birthmarks that marred his chest and arms.

    They didn’t hurt us.  They consumed us, swallowing us into a dark limbo where everything floated and nothing was known.  Our quest had failed, now I knew it could never had succeeded.  How can you fight darkness itself?

    I didn’t weep for our failure, though I could hear from somewhere in the darkness that little brother did.  I didn’t feel like crying, I felt like sleeping.

    Outside, three specks of ash fell gently to the ground.  Silence blanketed the meadow.


    I’m a walking stiff

    A zombie moving

    With frozen flesh like a corpse after death

    Vacant eyes and a soul so bereft

    Inside lie all the prizes of theft

    Stolen time behind a golden façade

    A gilded throne that was hewn from a log

    Half submerged in a bog

    Decaying flesh now a feast for the frogs


    With small steps I keep shambling on

    Rambling song as I’m trying to move

    Feeling like the woman trapped in the Louvre

    Desperate to prove that I’ve healed

    But past the face is not a beautiful field

    It’s a wall that’s reluctant to yield

    A shield meant to hide

    A rotting man with corruption inside

    Dreams of Death

    A Flash Fiction Challenge from the blog of Chuck Wendig.  The prompt: “A necromancer believes it is her destiny to poison dreaming.”


    The idea came to Zytheria in a dream, borne on the rotting lips of an undead phantom.  The realm of dreams, a celestial haven from the horrors of nighttime, could no longer exist as a refuge for the tortured.  Zytheria knew that a necromancer of her abilities would be able to poison dreams, and make people’s sleeping hours as terrible as their waking ones.

    “Have you had any dreams lately?”  Zytheria asked Janet over coffee.

    Janet looked up from her drink, confused.  She and Zytheria had just come from a yoga class, so they both wore workout clothes.  Zytheria’s blonde friend was dressed in short neon yellow shorts and a bright pink sports bra.  Zytheria herself wore long black yoga pants and a black dry-fit shirt.  They weren’t her dark, billowing necromancer robes, but they would have to do.

    “Weird that you would ask,” Janet said.  “I had one just last night.”

    “About what?” Zytheria kept herself from leaning forward and rubbing her hands together, but couldn’t hide the excitement in her voice.

    “Don’t get too excited, you weirdo.”  Janet sipped at her coffee before explaining her visions.  “It was just a weird dream about skeletons.  They were dancing in tuxedos.  What is this for anyways; one of your divination classes again?  Are you still keeping a dream journal?”

    Zytheria nodded, not wanting to admit to her dark designs.  Magic users were frowned upon in Seattle—necromancers most of all.  “My teacher told me that our auras interact with those of our friends, so there is knowledge to be divined from their dreams as well.”

    “If you can divine anything from dancing skeletons, be my guest.”

    Zytheria set aside her still-full beverage.  “Speaking of guests, are Sarah and Josh still staying with you.”

    “Yeah, they are,” Janet said.  “Sorry, I guess that means we can’t go to that midnight barbeque tonight.  Sarah is a pretty militant vegan, and I wouldn’t want them to ruin it.”

    “That’s fine,” Zytheria said.  “Be a good host.  I’ll find something to entertain myself.”  In reality, she was glad that Janet had cancelled their plans.  She now had the entire night to perfect her dream-poisoning ritual.  The skeletons in Janet’s dream meant that it had partially worked, but the undead should not have been dancing.

    Hours later, while Janet was dining on tofu and asparagus with her friends, Zytheria was weaving a web of spells around her room.  She had arranged candles around her in a dodecahedron, and a black crystal hovered above each stick of wax.  Energy from the crystals darkened the flickering flames, and a low thrumming could be heard as she chanted.  Zytheria didn’t stop chanting until the candles were depleted and the crystals dropped into the quickly-hardening wax.  When she was satisfied that dreams had been poisoned, she lowered herself into her silken sheets and cursed the lights out.

    That night, she dreamed, finding herself on a barren plain beneath purple storming skies, surrounded by a horde of skeletons.  Rotting flesh still hung from their bleached white bones, and their frames rattled with movement.  At the sight of them, Zytheria began to cackle.  Her ritual had worked.

    “Go forth, my undead army,” she cried.  “Invade all dreams and destroy that which is peaceful.  Replace contentment with strife, and bring hell to sleep.”

    At Zytheria’s command, the army began to move, but not into other dreams.  The corpses began to shamble towards her, grasping sharpened ribs in their bony hands.

    “What are you doing,” Zytheria screamed as they closed in.  “Go the other way!”  But for once in her life, the undead were not at her command.

    When the first skeleton reached her, it grabbed her shoulder and stabbed her with its own rib.  When Zytheria tried to pull away, the corpse pulled her closer, further impaling her.  All around her, she felt more bones pierce her body, but she couldn’t see them, for her vision was obscured by the first skeleton.

    Its gaping maw yawned before her, jaw barely hanging on.  Death and decay, normally such pleasant aromas, stank on its graveyard breath.  Out of control, Zytheria was falling from power.  Death was no fun when you couldn’t control it.

    Screaming, she shot up in bed, sweating ice.


    Pholius Primus, barefoot in a loose fitting tunic and long trousers, stepped calmly from the airlock of the Queen Comet into the cold vacuum of space. Staring into the inky blackness of the void, he reached with an outstretched hand and called it to him. The darkness began to coalesce around his chiseled body, slowly forming pauldrons, greaves, a cuirass, until Pholius was fully incased in midnight armor.  From the glow of a distant star, Pholius created a shining blade, six feet long and sharp as light.

    A short distance away Pholius's opponent had created a set of plate and an axe from the orange light of the sun beyond. Behind him, like the one behind Pholius, was a massive battleship, the Supernova.  Both ships were in rough shape, heavily scarred across their hulls by extensive laser blasts.

    "Pholius."  The other knight nodded in greeting as he floated close, using his sorcery to transmit his words mentally. Space remained silent.

    "Gallun."  Pholius returned the nod.

    "Why have you called this parlay?" Gallun asked.

    "You seem to have taken extensive damage."

    "And you have not?"  Gallun glanced back and forth between the two ships.  "It seems to me that our vessels are equal in their wounds."

    "And if we continue as we are, they will be equal piles of junk."

    "So, what do you propose?" Gallun asked warily.

    "Should we fight this battle to its end, both of us will die, as even the victor's ship will be too damaged to reach port. Even now that may be beyond our capabilities."

    "Get to the point, primus."

    "The two of us will fight. The victor will take the other's crew captive and enough parts for a safe journey."

    "Why would I do that, when I can continue to pummel you with my cannons?"

    "Are you listening?  In the time it will take you, my crew can render you incapable of space travel."  Pholius raised his gaze to the bridge of the Supernova, where Gallun's crew stood watching the discussion.

    "Very well," Gallun said. "Let us fight."  He roared, and his armor blazed bright. The light lanced towards Pholius's eyes, but his black helm lowered a thin film across the visor for protection.

    Gallun , expecting Pholius to be blinded, shot forward with his axe held high for a vicious blow. But eyes covered, Pholius saw only Gallun's unprotected chest, and he thrust his blade at it. The strike failed to pierce Gallun's blazing armor, but sent him spinning away.

    Yelling telepathically, Gallun advanced again, this time holding his axe ahead in a low guard. As soon as he neared, Pholius danced forward with a flurry of strikes, his starlight blade flaring with Gallun's axe as they collided.

    From the bridge of the Queen Comet, Pholius's crew watched nervously as the two knights filled the space between ships with their battle. Gallun, in his flaming armor, flew around making wild sweeps with his axe, which trailed fire as it went. As a counterpoint, Pholius was nearly invisible in his black armor, so the crew had to look for his bright blade. He allowed Gallun to soar around him, keeping up a patient defense.

    The two titans struggled back and forth until suddenly, almost imperceptibly, a mistake was made. Gallun over exaggerated an overhead swing, and Pholius had time to deliver a thrust to his hand. The axe flew from hand and slowly dissipated into embers. Unarmed and overmatched, Gallun could do nothing as Pholius stabbed him through the chest. His flaming armor flickered and faded, leaving his mortal body impaled on a blade of starlight.

    Pholius pushed Gallun's body from his sword and let the blade fade from existence. The silence of space was punctured only by his labored breathing.

    Seeing the battle was won, the Queen Comet enabled their thrusters, moving to make its conquest of the Supernova. Pholius took his place in front of it, looking every inch the conqueror in his midnight armor with his battleship at his back.

    The Supernova lowered its remaining shielding, ready to accept the victors. Gallun would have telepathically informed them of the duel's stakes. The Queen Comet did away with her shields as well, and began extending a bridge to the other vessel's airlock.

    The bridge was only halfway across the intervening space when Pholius noticed something wrong. A nearly invisible sheen covered the Supernova. Her shields were back up!  Gallun must have told his crew to attack whether he won or lost. Pholius tried to mentally shout to the officers in his bridge, but he was too late. The cannons on the Supernova blazed to life, and beams lanced through space into the unprotected side of the Queen Comet.

    Pholius felt a burst of hot pain and was sent hurtling backwards. Looking down as he spiraled through space, he saw that a laser had sheared through his armor. Cold was already seeping through the wound.

    As the Queen Comet was torn apart above him, Pholius stared into dark space, and drew power  from it. As he held the dark energy, he gazed back and forth between his ship and the hole in his armor. He only had so much power to use.

    Should he use it to destroy the Supernova?  Even if he did, his men would die a slow, stranded death–their ships was irreparably damaged.  Turning away from the battle above, Pholius touched a black gauntlet to his broken side, and saved himself.

    Hunting Heathens

    “You shouldn’t be here.”  The words came from behind me, and I froze upon hearing them.  How had I, nervous as I was, not heard anyone approach me?  Fear rose in my chest. If Thul’s minions had found me, then he had found the others, and everything was lost.

    “This is Bloodblade territory, and you, my friend, are not a member.”  My assailant pressed his knife firmly into my back.  “The way I see it,” he said, “you have two options. You can hand over some gold for temporary membership, or I can gut you here and now.”

    Well, that was a relief. He wasn’t one of Thul’s, and that meant that the knife digging into my back was mortal iron.

    “I’m not going to take the first option, so if you would like to gut me, by all means, feel free.”  I turned to face him and he panicked, thrusting the knife deep into my side. The blade slipped through layers of skin and muscle.

    “What are you?” he asked. I suppose he was right to ask, but the question surprised me at the time; I had forgotten how mortals reacted to my kind.

    “What do you think I am?”

    His expression changed from one of fear to one of terror as my flesh, quickly knitting itself back together, expelled his knife from my body. It clattered to the cobblestones, and he stumbled back. Without giving an answer, the would-be thief turned tail and ran.

    I put a hand to my side and felt around for a wound. My fingers passed over smooth skin. Normally I would never have checked, but nerves were getting the better of me. Keeping my wits about me, I continued on towards the tavern.

    The Brass Bear was a squat, ugly building smashed in between a brothel and a butcher’s, yet I hurried towards it like it was the Gate of Heaven. I kept my head in a swivel as I approached the door. The encounter with the thief had rattled me; not because he had posed a real threat, but because he had been able to sneak up on me. I reached the door without incident.

    The taproom was quiet. The patrons had finished their drunken shouting and fallen into an inebriated slumber. The only unimpaired eyes were in the far corner, and they were on me as soon as I stepped into the room. Six pairs, all full of fear and worry and anger.

    “There you are, Althis,” Caliun said. The goddess gestured impatiently for me to sit. “We were worried something had happened to you.”

    “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

    “So there was something?” Opin asked. He was nervous and twitchy, as he had been since we had been expelled from Heaven. “Thul’s minions? Are they here? Do they know about us?”

    I raised a hand to cut him off. “We’re safe here. It was only a thief from one of the local gangs.”

    Opin sighed, but didn’t really relax.

    “Did he recognize you?” Caliun asked.

    I shook my head.

    “Then we should be safe.”

    “And we can begin to plan our revenge on the being who cast us from Heaven.” The new speaker was Davir, the largest and angriest among us. “Thul must suffer for what he did to us.”

    “He will,” Caliun said.  “I have something in mind.”

    Whatever she had in mind I never got to hear, because as she leaned in to tell us the tavern door burst open and ten men in black armor stormed in. After a quick scan of the drinker patrons, they approached our table.

    “I heard quite the tall tale from a member of a local gang,” said the leader of the group. “He told me that he just met a man who could walk away from a knife in the gut. Have you seen anyone like that?”

    Caliun opened her mouth to deny it, but Opin’s reaction was faster. He squeaked and shot a look at me, terrified.

    The armored man noted the reaction. “That’s what I thought,” he said, and plunged his sword in Calium’s breast.

    I sat there, stunned as Caliun fell to the floor. I was dimly aware of Davir exploding with anger around me, and the other three gods and goddesses leaping into action. All I could focus on was the sword buried to the hilt in Caliun. How was it still there?  Why wasn’t she healing?  Then I noticed the dark metal it had been forged from. Thul had given his men godsteel.

    “Get up Althis.”  Davir pulled me to my feet. “Leave Caliun. We have to go.”

    The tavern was leveled around us. The floor was littered with dead bodies and the ceiling was nowhere in sight. Eyes locked on Caliun’s body, I allowed Davir to drag me away.

    My Palms Are Sweaty

    My palms, slick with sweat, slipped on the leather hilt of my knife.  I went to wipe them on the black cotton of my tunic, and as I passed the knife to my left hand, it slid free and clattered to the cobblestones.  The striking of metal was a shout in the silent streets of Armoede.

    Bending over to pick up my weapon, I noticed that my hands were shaking badly.  I scooped the blade from the street and tucked it into my belt, not trusting myself to hold it firmly.

    The moon, which had been clouded over earlier, had emerged, cast a ghostly light over the run down houses and poorly cobbled streets.  By its brightness I picked my way through winding alleys.  Alden had agreed to meet me when the moon reached its peak, and it had already begun its descent.  I needed to hurry, but could only force my legs to move slowly.

    My heart beat like a war drum, and I shivered in the warm night.

    When I finally reached Alden, he was turning back and forth in the alley we had chosen to meet in, flicking his eyes from side to side in nervous glances.

    “Great Ano!” he cried when he saw me.  “I was starting to worry.”  He grimaced at the sweat straining my clothes.  “Why are you so sweaty?” he asked.

    “I had to run,” I said.  If the drum in my chest had been beating a steady march, it now called for a charge.  It beat so loudly I feared Alden would hear it.

    “Shit,” he said, “I know I told you to hurry, but you could have just walked quickly.”

    “What did you want to talk about?” I asked.

    Alden’s face clouded over.  “The Treasury is putting pressure on me,” he said.  “I don’t know how long I can last before I give them what they want.”

    “You know you can’t do that,” I said.  “If you get caught moving assassins for them, it’ll be your head on a stake above Aumont.”

    “And if I don’t do it my head will end up in the sewer.  One of their bruisers was in my house last night.  My house!  He slammed me against the wall and threatened to strangle me then and there.  I’m not safe anywhere.”

    “They won’t actually hurt you,” I said.  “If anything happens to you, they have to spend time and effort to scare the shit out of the next harbormaster.  Their bruisers are only there to scare you.”  I prayed that Alden would see sense, so I could avoid carrying out my plan.

    “Well, they’ve done a damn good job.  I’m scared out of my mind.  I see assassins around every corner.  I can’t resist much longer.”

    “You have to!”

    “I can’t!”  Alden collapsed into tears.  “What am I going to do?” he asked.

    Tears on my face mirrored those streaking down Alden’s.  “It sounds like you’ve already decided.”

    For a few moments, only his terrified crying broke the silent night.  Then, he steeled himself.  “I guess I have,” he said.  “I know it isn’t right, but I have to do what they say.”

    My heart stopped its frenzied beating and simply fell from my chest.  “I was afraid you would say that.”

    “You have to understand.  Lord Jaspin might catch me, but the Treasury will kill me.”

    “I understand.”  I pulled Alden into a hug.

    “And you’ll forgive me.”

    Fighting against the shaking of my hands, I pulled the knife from my belt and slammed it three times into his back.  “No,” I said.  “That I cannot do.”


    Bleak Bluffs

    I stood at the edge of the ledge, cloak pulled tightly around my armored body as the wind screamed past me.

    Before me, thirty longships were being pulled from the water below, warriors flooding from their wooden bellies and building massive bonfires on the rocky beach.

    Behind me, on our shelf of stone halfway up the cliff, one man sat calmly at a flickering little fire, slowly dragging his whetstone over the blade of his great sword.

    The odds were not in our favor.

    “This looks like the end of our rebellion,” Joran said, setting aside his sword.  Using a thick branch, he struggled to his feet and limped over to join me at the edge.

    “Not how I expected to go out,” I said.

    Two days ago, thirty of us had been clustered on the shelf, preparing to make the journey though the soaring peaks at our backs.  Twenty eight bodies now lay rotting in a cave further along the ledge. Among them was the corpse of Vaeron IV, the late emperor.

    “You’d think they would give up after we fought of the first two attacks, or after they killed Vaeron.”

    “Houd doesn’t think like that.”  I thought I could see him on the beach, the hulking usurper directing his warriors with frantic gestures.  “He won’t rest until everyone loyal to Vaeron is dead.”

    Joran limped back to the fire and lowered himself gingerly.  “He’ll be able to rest soon, then.  The two of us—well, the one and a half of us—” he lifted his maimed leg “won’t be able to hold them off.”

    “We’ve done all we could.”

    Joran snorted.  “We’ve done nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”

    “We must have killed two hundred of those damn rebels.  Twenty eight men died!  It counts for something.”

    “Those men died so that Vaeron could live, but now he’s feeding the same worms.”  Joran lay back onto the rough stone, setting his blade his chest and his hands on the cross-guard.  “Believe what you wish, if it makes your last night easier.”

    He closed his eyes, leaving me to stare bleakly at the men massing below.

    “Wake me up when it’s time to die.”


    I stood and watched as the thick roots crept forward, strangling the city with their unstoppable progress.  They crawled inexorably up the sides of buildings and shot quickly down the streets, wrapping up anything in their path.

    Hordes of terrified men and women sprinted past me, their eyes wild.

    “Run, you dumbass!” one cried.

    But I couldn’t.  Jason had told me to wait for him beside the statue of Sherman, had promised to meet me.  He would be here.

    He would make it out.  I had been repeating the thought to myself, but as the roots stretched forward, and he remained away, I was becoming less and less certain that he would ever show.

    “Move it kid!” another of my fleeing neighbors yelled.  This one, a balding man who I had seen once or twice at the Laundromat, stopped to see what might be wrong with me.

    “I can’t,” I said, my gaze fixed on the writhing forest consuming my home.  “Jason is still in there.”

    “If he hasn’t gotten out by now, he never will.  The city will be forest by nightfall.”

    “He’ll make it.”

    The man shook his head, disgusted at my inability to see reason.  “It’s your funeral,” he said, turning to sprint away.

    He would make it out.  No.  I was kidding myself.  The mass of roots was moving ever closer—now only twenty yards away.  The smart thing to do would be to turn and run.

    I did, but not away.

    “I’m coming, Jason,” I called, though there would be no way for him to hear me.

    Pushing my way through the fleeing crowd I charged into the expanding roots.

    “Jason!” I kept calling his name as I moved deeper into the forest, past gutted cars wrapped in wood and skyscrapers sheathed in the stuff.  Wherever I stepped, thick vines sprouted around my feet, attempting to seize them.  One wrapped all the way around my ankle, but I slipped from my shoe before it could fully tighten.

    Less one shoe and stepping lightly, I pressed on.  By the time I reached Costeau Street, sunlight just barely filtered through the vines above.  The only signs that I was even in a city were the cars and stoplights being strangled by the forest. The previously bustling metropolis was dead, choked into an eerie quiet.

    “Jason!” I called again.  At this point, I was repeating his name as a comfort to myself.  My words no longer rang true to myself.  He will make it out.  The words were empty, and I knew it.

    “Frank!”  The shout rang through the silence and shocked me into stillness long enough for the vines to resume their clutching at my feet.  It was definitely Jason’s voice.

    Slipping out of my other shoe, I sprinted after the call, my bare feet strong against smooth bark.

    “Frank!”  Terror in his voice made me redouble my efforts.

    I finally found him hanging ten feet in the air, rooted to the side of a building.  The shifting vines covered his entire body up to his neck, slowly and unstoppably moving higher.

    “It’s too late for me, Frank,” he said, eyes wide with terror as a thick vine wrapped around his head, pulling it harshly to the skyscraper’s wall.

    I shifted rapidly from foot to foot, not allowing the roots to take hold.  “It’s never too late,” I said, looking around for anything that could cut him free.  “We can both get out of here.”

    There.  A hardware store two doors down.  “I’ll be right back, I promise.”  After shattering the window and shuffling through the tools on display, I found a handsaw and raced back to my brother.

    Only his dark brown eyes and a corner of his mouth were visible.  “Save yours—” A vine slipped over his mouth, muffling whatever was to come next.

    “No!”  I leapt against the roots and began to climb.  If I could get to Jason before his breathing was cut off, I could free him.

    But climbing with a saw in hand was harder than I had thought, and was slow going.  Before I could reach my brother, a root the size of a small tree shot out and wrapped around my left arm, pinning it to the building.  I tried to cut myself free, but the roots and vines moved quickly, as if sensing danger.  They moved across my chest and pulled my right arm to my side, squeezing on the wrist.

    The saw fell as my hands went numb.

    Weapon gone, I kicked and screamed, but was instantly subdued by my living bonds.  Jason was jut out of reach.

    We won’t make it out.