Discussion in 'SHOWCASING' started by Jorick, Sep 30, 2016.

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  1. #1 Jorick, Sep 30, 2016
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2018
  2. MISC #1: A Brush With Death
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread

    Manager's Pick Winner: Copper Black by @HerziQuerzi
    Copper Black
    Copper Black

    She paced back and forth in the small circle of dirt allotted for her, guards stiffening every time she drew close. Six of them, forming a loose circle around her. Each well armoured, and hands holding tight to the hilts of their swords. Sheathed for the moment, but still a harsh reminder not to do anything stupid. At the edge of her vision, the light of the rising sun pricked at her, glanced off the copper discs hanging from her neck. Morning mist kept close to the ground, eddying around her scuffed boots.

    A short stone's throw away, a man leaned casually upon the hilt of his long steel, the accompanying short steel still sheathed at his waist. His eyes tracked her as she paced, an easy grin on his clean-shaven face, brown hair rolling down in carefully maintained waves to his shoulders. Unlike her, no circle of guards kept him under watch. A free, Cauldish man.

    Around them, people jostled each other upon the stands, eager for a better view. Nobles, dressed in vibrant colours off to one side, and commoners in drab greys and brown to the other. All kept at bay by a wooden fence, thirty paces across from one end to another. Inside, nothing but a circle of dirt, carefully flattened. Here and there, darker patches could be seen, a faint red tinge to them. Left over from yesterday's fights, fallen from broken noses and split lips during the Ladder of Swords. Soon, Sera knew, there would be fresh patches in the dirt.

    Far more, for while blunted blades had been used in yesterday's duels, the steel held now was keen and sharp. A proper fight, rather than a mere recreation.

    The crowds quieted and grew still as a figure stepped forward upon the raised dais in the heart of the noble's stands. A lavish gold and red cape draped the man's shoulders, and a diamond encrusted crown rested upon his head. King Visserine of Daeland, the famed mediator and proponent of peace. A wave spread around the circle, as those present knelt as well as they could, crowded together as they were. All except Sera and the Cauldish man opposite her.

    She, because defiance was all that was left to her.

    He, because Visserine was not his king.

    King Visserine looked out over the crowd, a look of mild distaste upon his soft face. As though the entire affair was an unfortunate annoyance he'd rather do without. "All may rise," he said, voice carefully neutral. He waited, as the crowds present rose with a loud rustling. "We are gathered here to bear witness to a trial by combat. Issued by Sera of Coppercove-" the guards around Sera stepped back, to better reveal her to the crowd, "-against Prince Beren of Caulder, represented by his champion Ser Lorel." The Cauldish man gave an extravagant bow to the crowd, to shouts of approval and scorn, depending on the individual's class and loyalties..

    Working his mouth sourly, the king moved as if to speak again before shaking his head and sinking back into his chair, an enameled and opulent affair. Beside Sera, one of the guards stepped forward and offered Sera her sword, belt strap wrapped around the sheath. Sera grabbed the hilt, felt the familiar grooves in the leather hilt, the hard core underneath. Calloused fingers tightened, flush as an old glove, and pulled the sword free, leaving the sheath in the guard's hand. She'd have no need of it here.

    Across the ring, Ser Lorel finished basking in the nobles’ praise and drew his own twin swords, their ornate blades making Sera's sword a cumbersome hunk of dull steel in comparison. With one final flourish, Lorel bowed to someone amongst the crowd. Following his gaze, Sera saw Prince Beren - the lecherous bastard, she thought bitterly - looking on with eager bloodlust, nose crooked and bruised where she had planted her boot last night.

    As one, the guards pulled away and left her alone in the ring with Ser Lorel, who was already walking towards her. Strolling even, his movements arrogant and languid. His blades hung loose in his hands, the tip of his long steel only barely kept above the dirt. Sera gritted her teeth, pride flaring at his carefree attitude. With a shout, she hefted her heavy sword and charged. When she was only a few strides away, she twisted, throwing her entire body behind the cleaving weight of her sword.

    But Lorel smoothly ducked underneath the blow, his short steel lashing out in reply. Sera shouldn't have been surprised to see a sword coming at her. She had seen plenty yesterday, during her success in the Ladder of Swords, and moreso had been anticipating this moment since she issued the challenge yesterday evening. Yet still, the glinting sharpness of the blade shook her, so clearly deadlier than the blunted blades she was familiar with. She lurched a pace back, and the steel flicked past her, skidding across the chain of copper discs around her neck.

    Behind it, Lorel's long steel came swinging around, Sera only just getting her own sword in the way in time. Before the shock of their blades meeting had even finished travelling up her arm, Lorel was spinning around, continuing the attack. Sera diverted one strike into the ground, the next into the air, and stabbed forward into the opening left in their midst. But the Cauldish champion danced past it, and nicked Sera in the leg with his long steel as he passed.

    Stumbling back, the roars of the crowed crashed over Sera, their excitement fueled by the sight of blood. Commoners, hoping to see her take the nobles down a notch. Cauldish dignitaries, eager to see her lowborn blood spilled. Hate, hope, support, scorn; all heaped upon her simply because of a brief brawl with the drunk prince of a foreign nation.

    As she struggled to ward off several more of Lorel's blows, Sera could already feel weariness beginning to set in. The bruises and batterings she had taken in yesterday's events piled on top of a night rendered sleepless by worry, and the heavy length of steel in her arm dragged her down, and down, and down. With each laboured breath, the weight of copper crushed her chest. Choked her.

    Once more the short steel lashed out, catching Sera's sword and dragging it to the side, the long steel swinging in through the gap. Sera closed her eyes against the blow, and felt it strike her in her left shoulder, set her spinning to the ground. She waited for the agony, gathered herself for it as she dragged herself onto her hands and knees. But when she opened her eyes, there was no blood. Lorel had struck her with the flat of his blade. Was making a game of it, of her. Even now, he strutted around the ring, shaking his steels at the crowd. Urging them to cheer harder, shout louder. He was making a fool of her. Nobody makes a fool of me.

    Anger boiled in her chest, pounded in her heart. Anger pushed her to her feet, brought strength back into her arms. Noticing her, Lorel smirked and faced her once more, turning his back on the surging crowd. Over his shoulder, Sera could see Prince Beren leering down at her, face mottled red and purple from passion and bruises.

    Refusing to let Lorel continue to dictate the pace of the fight, Sera leaped forward, blade swinging upwards to split the man from hip to shoulder. Yet once more, he casually shifted out of the way. The short steel retaliated once, twice, opening cuts on Sera's cheek and shoulder. Shouting, screaming, Sera let go of her sword with one hand and grabbed Lorel by the collar. Dragged him close and slammed her face into his.

    Once, twice.

    A sharp pain shot through Sera's side, and Lorel tore away, his short steel red with her blood. Gasping, Sera staggered back, clutching at the wound in her stomach. There was a glint of light, and Lorel's long steel caught Sera above the eye, continued past and removed the top of her ear. She managed to catch the next blow on her sword, only for his fist to crack her in the jaw, send her fumbling to one knee.

    Lorel was no longer smiling, as one eye swelled shut and blood dripped from his broken lips. His heavy boot caught Sera in the ribs, sent her sprawling on her back, sword falling from numb fingers. More kicks caught her in the shoulder, her stomach, her hand. Sera curled tight around the blows, face sticky with blood, limbs numbs, the wound in her side turning cold. Above her, she was dimly aware of Ser Lorel stomping around her. Shouting at her. Berating her, as her hand scrabbled for her dropped sword. Cursed her, as she rolling herself over and onto her knees. Goaded her, as the cold spread across her body. Challenged her, and upon receiving no response, raised his sword to deliver the finishing blow.

    But when he brought it down, it found Sera's sword held steady in it's way, a wailing shriek echoing out across the ring as the blades slid across each other. They stood there, frozen for a moment, both straining, muscles taut and pink-stained teeth bared, before Lorel found himself pushed back and away, stumbling. Then stumbling some more, as Sera’s heavy blade stabbed forward and left a shallow cut down the side of his chest.

    Before him, Sera rose to her feet, dangling like a loose marionette. Her head drooped forwards, tangled black hair hiding her dark face. Blood stained her tunic, soaked her hose, dripping from her chin. Her hands held her sword close, cradled it against her chest, one hand twisted and broken from Lorel's boot. And for a few moments, she stood there, silently swaying.

    Lorel began to raise his steels, and like that, the spell was broken. Sera's body grew rigid, and her head snapped up, teeth locked in a rictus of fury. Screaming, laughing, crying, her blade danced forward, it’s heavy weight forgotten in her rage. Screamed against Lorel's blades, tore through flesh and skin, left half a dozen cuts and then came back for more. The crowd had fallen dead silent, enraptured. Horrified.

    Inside, Sera's body was a battleground of it's own. Excruciating fire and numbing cold swirled and surged through her veins in turn, the world reduced to a blur of red and grey. An opportune strike from Lorel struck her in the shoulder, scraped against the bone, before she wrenched away, the pain quelled beneath her fury. Her need to unleash the fire within. To strike back after years of being spat on, overlooked, put aside, and left behind. Years that had left her stronger, harder, but brittle too. And now she had cracked, been shattered by the open wounds in her flesh, and the burning within surged out, scorching the world to ash. The morning light seared white-hot patterns through her eyes and branded her skull as the cold silhouette of Lorel danced and flickered, drew away.

    "Come on, you coward!" She screamed, her voice steel scraping against stone. Her spit flung like sparks from an anvil. "Finish what you started!" Her sword cleaved downwards at the grey shadow of Lorel, but it faded away and her steel shattered through the wooden fence, the sea of cowards behind it scrambling over themselves to get away. A line of fire flared up across the small of her back, and she whirled around, her steel returning the favour and catching Lorel in the shoulder, wind cleaving through fog. Triumphant, the blade lumbered back for more, impossibly hungry. Insatiable. The short steel came down to meet it, but too slow. Ever too slow. Sera's sword cut through Lorel's forearm with the sound of shattered bones and tortured metal.

    Confusion reached Lorel's face far before the pain, his gaze dull and jaw slack as he stared at his arm, at the thin cords of meat and gristle that left his hand uselessly dangling. Befuddled, frozen, he did not even react as Sera's blade curved back once more, and sheared off the top of his head at a sharp angle, one eye still staring downwards while the other soared into the sky, reproachful. Almost peacefully, it tumbled through the air and fell lost amidst the stands.

    Sera and Lorel collapsed as one, fell forward into each other’s arms, both their strings slit in a single practiced motion. The fire in her bones turned to ash, the ice in her veins to blood. Pain seeped back into Sera's consciousness, body too weak to scream, or even whimper. She simply lay there, gasping, as the searing light in her eyes faded away, and the grey shadows swelled to take their place.

    The last thing she heard, before she lost consciousness all together, was a single piercing scream from the crowd where Lorel’s lost head had sailed. The last thing she saw, a familiar worried face surrounded by a nimbus of blond hair leaning over her.

    Community Pick Winner #1 (Tied): I'm a Present! by @Nim
    I'm a Present!
    The sound of Heavy rain made its presence clear on top of the many umbrellas and people that stood nearby. The trees moved like crazy, as if they were drunk high school students in their prom with no super vision. But here, everyone stood still. Only one man spoke, and his voice reached to everyone.

    "May he always be remembered, and may he rest in peace."

    This caused several people in the group to start crying heavily while others shed tears or supported people. It was a hard time for all of them. But the tallest guy, and one of the three people who stood closest to the grave, simply stared. His entire body was soaking wet, but his pale blue eyes were dry. He had one hand on a woman's back, and another on a man's back, both of them crying hard.

    "Look at me Darren! Come on!"

    That same line kept crossing his mind. The sound of a young, eager and excited voice, constantly seeking the attention of his older brother. Darren kept looking at the grave as the people slowly begun paying their respects to the family and leaving, but he could not hear any of them. The voice of his younger brother haunted him. And he knew that it will be a voice that he is going to hear for the rest of his life.

    "Darren! Stop mowing the lawn and look at me already!"

    If he had only done so earlier, perhaps things would've turned out differently. There were plenty of factors that made this happen, his parents made that clear to him, but it was still hard for him.

    "Look at me, look at me, look at me!"

    Now his parents spoke to him, muttering words, but he barely understood what they told him. A couple of moments later, and he was alone besides the grave. Still staring at it, he dropped to his knees and hugged the gravestone. His eyes watered up quickly and he cried like he never cried before, choking up as he did.

    If he had only looked at his brother earlier, perhaps things could've ended up differently. He could've ran and push his brother from the path of the drunken driver's car.

    But all he did was watch his younger, eager, excited and barely 10 years old brother, in a cardboard box, get hit and sent flying away.

    "Finally Darren! Look!

    I'm a Present!"

    Community Pick Winner #2 (Tied): Human by @Verite


    A young, suicidal man muses on his beliefs and views, views that others might classify as delusions. After a failed suicide attempt, we read into his thoughts.

    - - -

    A myth I hear here and there about depression – a myth I'm sure made by people who don't have depression – is that being depressed basically means you're just sad all the time.

    But the reality isn't really like that at all.

    You don't feel sad. Generally, you just feel empty.

    It's the emptiness, the complete lack of feeling, that hurts more. The absence of feeling is what hurts more than any feeling. Being sad shows that you're alive. It shows that you're active enough to react to your situation. But being depressed... You can't even bother to react. You're just so defeated that you can't bring yourself to react to it anymore.

    Of course, this prompts someone to ask; what keeps you going then? Why haven't you gone ahead and tried to end it all already? Assuming that that someone isn't too afraid to ask, because I'm sure that some people avoid the topic because when it gets to that spot, they wouldn't want to ask that question, maybe because they don't want to accidentally give a person the incentive to just end it all right there like “Wow, you're right, good idea! I didn't think about that! I'll go end it all now!”

    It's a little annoying that people feel the need to walk on eggshells with that, because it feels like they see those kinds of people as dumb or not thinking things through.

    The only people that know about my death drive include this one guy I hang out with sometimes (just because no one else is willing to be in close proximity to me for a period of time) who likes to wear all black, has long bangs in his hair, bags under his eyes, and plays a disturbing amount of hunting games on his phone, and a “secret therapist,” who is really just this random girl from class who thinks she's a professional therapist and prides herself in her work because she aced AP Psychology back in High School.

    The former, I'm expecting to get a text from any day now that just ominously says “Don't come to class today,” and the latter, I'm expecting will drop out of college upon realizing that her intended psychology major is worthless and will just end up waiting tables the rest of her life.

    People always did say that I was overly pessimistic and generally negative, but that's just what I honestly felt. There is nothing positive to say about those people, and there is nothing positive to say about me.

    We are all disgusting inside.

    After I woke up from my failed suicide attempt, I realized it. It is human nature. To be disgusting. There is no flawless human being. No sinless human. Because that was it; to be a human was to be a sinner. Now, I'm not even any authority on religion, so I use the word “sin” a little loosely, but I think the point still stands. It's amazing what you can find out when you walk close enough to the abyss, and risk falling inside. For example, I used to wonder what made people so uncomfortable about talking about death, or my attitude toward it in general. And the thing is, in this youthful age in which most people have the rest of their lives ahead of them, they become uncomfortable when talking about death in general, or when they even notice my attitude towards it.

    I was never afraid of death, having always seen it as just a natural force. As natural and beautiful as air, gravity, light, darkness, and of course, life. I couldn't possibly find anything natural to be scary like that at all.

    Unless we're talking about bees, because I stay the hell away from those.

    The “secret therapist” once classified me as a low-functioning sociopath, I guess in contrast to a high-functioning one, though even then, I have to question the accuracy of that. Then again, I could never be bothered to look up what makes a person like that, so who knows? Though... I mean, I guess it's not completely out of the realm of possibility. I can easily say I just take what I want if I want it, but I mean, most of the things I want would be illegal to just take, like a video game or a ticket to a movie, and that'd be inconvenient for me.

    As in, I “lose.”

    In that regard, I think that's why I never did anything so crazy to make someone want to murder me. After all, as someone with a great death drive, wouldn't it have been best to just do something like that? Think about it. A lot of people plan their own suicides, but hardly their own murders. Unless you deliberately want it otherwise, the case is usually open and shut. You get murdered, your killer is convicted (or maybe not), and that's that. It was out of your control. Rather, it was in the control of someone else. Your life was in the hands of someone else, and they made a choice with your own life. I think, in that regard, because of that, I would hate to be murdered.

    Being murdered, again, would imply that I would “lose.” And call me a sore loser, but I would absolutely hate it if I were remembered as someone who died because I “lost” against someone in the struggle of life. It's different from dying in an accident, like a car accident or something else that also involves another person, because while it may not have been in your control, it wasn't in their deliberate control either. It was just a blunder that couldn't have been helped.

    That's why I think suicide is the most beautiful form of death.

    Even to the end, you remain responsible for your own fate. You are the one who stays in control to the very end.

    Well, that is, if you succeed.

    Because if you lose, then everything's different from there.

    And unfortunately, I lost.

    I attempted the end of my life on a day like any other, on a complete whim. I don't really know what the trigger is. I just woke up that day and thought to myself, “I should just kill myself.” Well, that's not necessarily true, actually. If it was, then I'd be going against my word and proving right those people who ask “Why don't you just do it already if you say you're suicidal?” I think it's that there wasn't any one definite trigger, it was a number of many factors that just gradually beat on me until I lost my willpower, such as the stress of student loans, older sister always asking for money, dad's still not around for anything, the girl I liked turned out to already have a boyfriend, and perhaps most tragically, this one video game I'd been waiting for like, ever, got delayed again. So with all that riding on me, I eventually just decided “You know, nothing good ever happens in life. Why should I have to keep going through this life full of pain with no payoff? I may as well just cut to the chase already.”

    And so, I did end my life that day. Or at least, I tried.

    The way I tried it, admittedly, was sort of flimsy to begin with, but not without its merit. See, I wanted to die quickly. I may have a death drive, but I'm not masochistic. I like death, not pain. Big difference, y'know?

    But at the same time, while wanting it quick, I also wanted it to be known that it was something that I did by my own choice. A snap decision that would instantly end it all. Not like overdosing on pills and sleeping on it, heart beating all night long, wondering if you made the right choice, or tying a nice little noose around your neck and feeling the tension build up, not just around your neck, but around your situation.

    So what method did I use? Why, the most elegant of them all.

    I jumped into traffic.

    Specifically, right in front of a speeding car. Even more specifically, one that I had hoped was going so fast on this road that he couldn't stop in time, but at the same time, one that I also was far away enough that people knew it was my choice.

    Looking back, I think that was an impossible feat.

    But I mean, it's too late to regret it now.

    I made the mistake of picking a driver who had quick reflexes, as he'd managed to barely stop in time. I mean, I still got hit pretty bad, enough to fracture a rib or two and knock me unconscious right then and there (or was it my head hitting the ground that knocked me out?). It hurt like holy hell, and I immediately regretted it. I distinctly remember the .07 seconds in which my mind had realized I screwed up. Of course, to clarify, I didn't regret choosing to attempt suicide. I just regretted not going about it the right way.

    Again, I don't like pain.

    Being knocked out was a strange sensation. I guess someone could say that calling it strange was just like calling “sleeping” strange, but sleeping was kinda weird too. Being asleep or otherwise unconscious is basically just being dead for a temporary amount of time.

    See, the thing about being unconscious is that you don't even really realize you're unconscious. In fact, you don't realize anything. Your mind is unable to comprehend even the simplest of thoughts, let alone its inactivity. Maybe every now and then you'll get a muddled feeling of consciousness that'd either be drowned out by your own unconsciousness or realized into full consciousness, waking you up before you knew it.

    But the thing is, I always saw death has just being asleep or unconscious, but of course, you don't wake up. I've heard many people also say stuff like that, but I think they only mean that in the superficial sense, like “Oh, everything's probably black forever.” That kind of depth-less thinking that never gets anyone anywhere. Not that I really consider myself a particularly deep thinker or anything, because that would just be pretentious, and I am the shining opposite of that, of course.

    To elaborate on what I was talking about earlier though, think about it. Try to imagine what it's like to be asleep. Try to replicate the complete black within your comprehension. No murky dreams or anything. Just the dark. But there's nothing to be afraid of in this dark. You aren't even conscious enough to be scared of anything, but even if you were, you could easily escape by willing yourself to wake up. But for death, it's different. There is no waking up from it. You're left to sleep forever, for as long as you want, and even longer than that. You're trapped inside your own mind, unable to break out and wake up, unable to even reach anywhere near the level of consciousness needed to wake up, unable to even be scared that you can no longer move, that you're forever bound inside the deepest trenches of your mind.

    After all, you're dead.

    That kind of description of death had always been what relaxed me the most about it. It's like sleeping, but nothing will ever bother you again. I couldn't possibly be scared of that. Not when I wouldn't realize that I'd be a bit lonely all by myself. Not when I wouldn't realize that it's all over.

    Of course, the tragedy was, I wasn't dead in reality. I was just unconscious. And needed to be hospitalized. I was unfortunately awakened and bothered by the affairs of the real world before me, with its dumb, real consequences and its stupid real pain.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    When I came to, I was in a hospital bed, wearing one of those embarrassingly revealing hospital gowns (though thankfully, I was obscured by a blanket above), attached to all sorts of weird, random machines, most notably the little do-hickey that measured my pulse. The constant beeping was an annoying, almost mocking reminder that I was unfortunately still alive.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    Oh, my god. Shut up. Stop it. Stop making fun of me. Cut that shit out. I get it. I get it already. I'm alive. Quit it.

    My thoughts angrily, frantically cycle through stuff like that as the heart monitor continues incessantly beeping, driving me into madness quickly. At this point, it was gonna try to make me kill myself again by hanging myself with the machine's goddamned cords or something. It's even more annoying to listen to than that one guy I knew back in high school whose voice sounded like Gilbert Gottfried, except not endearing and funny, so it was just annoying.

    Point being that in this inactive body in which I could barely move, probably doped up on a bunch of drugs and whatever so I didn't wake up screaming my head off, it felt like real hell.

    Living again made me want to die even more.

    That's another myth I've heard be thrown around. That people who fail trying to kill themselves end up waking up relieved that they're alive. But it wasn't until then and there, after just missing the cold brush of death, that I was even more depressed than before. And it wasn't even just because of the heart monitor's noise drumming in my head. I wasn't even sad because of some misplaced sense of shame that I had betrayed the trust of others or whatever. It was just that... I lost.

    I ended up failing at what I set out to do. There is nothing more humiliating than knowing that you tried something you so desperately wanted to succeed at, before realizing by the end that you had failed instead.

    Of course, like I said, I'm not really in a position to retry. So all I can do is just sit here in mental agony, writhing in my own pathetic pool of self-pity, until someone comes in and realizes that I'm awake. For the next several minutes, that's all I did. I sat in my bed, stared aimlessly at the ceiling, all the while trying to drown out the sound of the heart monitor.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    An hour passes. I get a little hungry. The nurse shows up. She's cute. She's happy to see that I'm finally awake. Probably because she gets paid more if I'm alive, I bet. She probably doesn't even really care about me in reality. Two can play at that game. I'm happy to see a cute face. Probably because it's the kind that I can think about later. I probably wouldn't actually like her if I got to know her. She tells me of my condition. Two broken ribs. Could have been way worse. I wish it were way worse. Not that I'm masochistic or anything. I swear. I quickly request some food. She fetches me soup. It feels strangely satisfying for her to feed me. Like she's my own personal maid. It tastes like shit. I eat it up anyway. Hunger is the best spice after all. Besides, I can't say no to a cute girl.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    Eventually, the drugs wear off and I can move well enough in no time. I decide to feed myself the soup to assert my independence. It's a little pathetic. I'm embarrassed of myself, but at least she doesn't know the intent behind my actions. She starts talking about me. I guess she thinks I'll feel inclined to pay her more if she's nice to me. It's not like she's a waitress or anything though, nor is she a working girl. I'll pay my bill, and then leave. I hope she doesn't expect a tip from me or anything. Even if I did want to, I'm too poor. I can barely afford student loans. I find a funny twist of irony in that statement and I start laughing aloud by accident. She laughs with me. God, she's so fake. She's not even laughing with me. She's probably laughing at me.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    I get a little pissed off. I can't even tell myself it's probably nothing. No one has ever been nice to me without a condition my entire life. The condition here, of course, is money. Nurses get paid handsomely after all. Not once does it occur to me that maybe I'm just going crazy. Or rather, I was always crazy. These drugs probably haven't really worn off, but instead made their way deeper into my system and giving me side effects. I hope one of them is death. Wouldn't that be a hell of a medicine? On one hand, you might die if you take this, but on the up side, your bad cough will stop.

    Jingle jingle. Jingle. Jingle jingle.

    My ringtone starts playing. Looks like they played my phone. The ringtone is “Stayin' Alive” by the Bee Gees. I can't even be embarrassed by it when the nurse giggles about it. She's so clearly faking being into this conversation. It's a bad joke. I can't even laugh at how bad it is. Shit. I just want to die. Let me end it all already. The nurse talks with the caller, my mother as I would eventually find out later, and she tells her that she'll be on her way to see me soon. She hangs up. She stays with me while we wait. I don't know what the hell she wants from me, but what I want from her is to leave me the hell alone.

    Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

    Please. Just leave me alone already. Stop trying to be my friend or whatever.


    She eventually leaves me the hell alone. I'm by myself again. I managed to shut out the noise of the heart monitor. My peaceful solitude is quickly interrupted when my mother walks in. She's concerned, but relieved that I'm alive. She doesn't seem aware. Looks like they all thought it was an accident. Guess that makes sense.

    She asks me standard questions. Predictable ones. Ones that are to be expected. How are you? What exactly happened? How did it happen? Will you be alright? Of course, I can't bring myself to really believe she cares. After all, it'd be better if I died, right? She's getting old. Soon, she'll be too old to work. The wrinkles on her face have been there for a while, but only now have I started to see her hair starting to gray. She may as well take this chance to collect life insurance from my corpse. That'd be the smart thing to do, right? The logical way to think. But I don't dwell on it. What she does won't be my concern when I'm dead. Nothing would be my concern.

    Oh, mother. Mom, mom, mom. What to say about you?

    There are two types of people who are raised Christian. Everyone goes to church, prays a lot, and hopes to be blessed with many fortunes in life, only to discover that the fortune in of itself was the gift of life. But what separates them is how they react to that kind of discovery. There are those who maintain their faith and accept that miracle in all of its glory, and there are those who are disappointed that there is no “real” fortune, and perhaps break away from the faith. I'm the latter, as you might have guessed from my beliefs, but my mother was always firmly the former.

    As such, her thoughts on death are a bit predictable. She knows that death is inevitable, and that it's the one thing people are equal in, though she wouldn't really say it like that. Still, it's ultimately simple. Be good, go to heaven. Be bad, go to hell. However, for all she says that death is unavoidable, that we shouldn't be scared of it, that our time will come when God says so, that it's simply the next stage of existence, I can easily peg her as the kind of person who will cling, tooth and nail, to life and a life or death situation, no matter how hopeless it might actually be for her.

    But I want her to think otherwise. I want her to know the truth.

    After all, that's human nature. We're not gods. We're monsters. We're savage creatures. We're beasts.

    I want to shatter that safe way of thinking. I have to. It's for her own good. I'm doing this out of the goodness of my own heart. I want to repay her for all that she's done for me while I was growing up by freeing her from this flawed, hypocritical way of thinking. That life was inherently the greatest thing ever, that it was inherently the gift given by God.

    It felt like something I absolutely had to do.

    We talk, but it's awkward. We haven't talked in a while. There isn't much to talk about. We never had that much in common. Our experiences, our mileage in life, were different and varied.

    So without any smooth transition to soften the blow or break the ice, I do it.

    I tell my mother the truth.

    In a horrible, monstrous, sickening, sociopathic, unredeemable, repulsive way, it feels good. It feels good to see her react. Me, her precious son whom she had brought into this world, wished for a way out. I tell her how long I've felt this, the truth behind the ordeal with the car, why I felt this (or rather, what I at least believed was why I felt this way), all of it.

    You see, mother, we are only human. And humans are fundamentally flawed creatures. We are arrogant beasts that think we can reach the sun, but really, we're only just beasts that learned to tell stories. But I'm done with stories. I want to close my book already.

    That's what I tell her.

    Initially, she's speechless. Shocked. All that jazz. I expected nothing less.

    But then. Something unprecedented for happens. She recovers. She starts talking. She refutes me. She goes against me.

    She tells me words that make me raise an eyebrow. Life was never inherently the gift, she tells me. It is not what you are given that matters, she says, but rather, what we do with them.

    Before she leaves, she apologizes to me. She's sorry that I had to feel this way. She feels sorry for me. She pities me. She looks down upon me. I want to clench my fist, but for some reason, I can't even get angry at her for pitying me. She finishes off by telling me that we don't live to vie for the sun. We live to vie to understand each other. But I could never understand anyone, much less myself.

    I don't know what to say. Now, I'm the speechless one. I'm too surprised to be embarrassed. But she has more resolve than me. Her perception of me has changed. Maybe her world has been shaken. But all she does is simply looks at me and leave me. She can't stand to be near me anymore.

    Now I really am alone. Loneliness had always been a bittersweet feeling to me, emphasis on the “sweet,” but now... the bitterness of it is emphasized. The piercing silence cuts into my ear like a wave, still deafening out the sound of the heart monitor. Life really is what you make of it, huh? Too bad I never did have a good poker face, or else I would have done something absolutely wild with the hand I was dealt.

    Now, I wonder if anything or anyone could ever help me.

    Especially since I can't do it myself.​
    #2 Jorick, Sep 30, 2016
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2016
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  3. MISC #2: A Certain Young Lady
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread
    Manager's Pick Winner: Reflections by @HerziQuerzi


    "Move it, shortstop." Laurel stumbled as she was shoved off the sidewalk and into the slush lining the gutters, the cold slurry splashing up and into her heavy boots. Looking up, she saw Beth and her cronies looking down at her. It was Beth herself who'd shoved her aside, hands shoved angrily into her pockets and glowering down at Laurel, her dark face and messy black hair a heavy contrast to the interchangeable tall pale blondeness of Cynthia, Sally H., and Godwyn, who were gathered cheerfully behind Beth. "People are trying to walk here."

    "S-sorry," Laurel stammered, looking down at her boots.

    "Y-you g-get that st-st-stammer from the thrift store too?" Cynthia - or maybe Sally H. - mocked cruelly. The other two cronies laughed, while Beth only continued to look down at Laurel, mouth working sourly and face unreadable.

    "Sorry," Laurel repeated, quietly. "I'll, uh, w-watch where I'm going next t-time."

    One of the blondes - Godwyn, perhaps - opened her mouth to make another jab, but Beth cut her off. "Yeah, whatever" she said, before giving a heavy yawn. "God, four o'clock and I'm still asleep. Can't believe I used to be a morning person. C'mon, let's grab some coffee or something."

    As they walked off, Laurel heard them asking Beth about her brother, when he'd be back in town, and if he'd have new stuff ready for them when he did. Casually moving on and forgetting Laurel even existed. Sniffling, Laurel wiped her cold nose clean with a colder hand and sat down in a nearby doorway, despondent. She didn't know what she'd done to draw their hate. Her cousins had never been like that, and her parents had taught her to be kind to those around her. Yet high school seemed intent on throwing that back in her face, drowning her in cruelty and pettiness. She missed the peace and safety of being homeschooled. Of laughing and learning in equal parts alongside her family.

    Laurel hunched down lower in the doorway, miserable. This wasn't how she'd thought school would go at all. She'd imagined late night study parties. Meeting close friends for life. Finding love, and kisses shared beneath a starry sky. Wiping her nose with the back of her hand once more, Laurel got to her feet and went to take the long route home, away from Beth and her cronies.

    "Do you want to be something special?"

    Laurel turned to see one of Beth's friends standing behind her. A small, quiet girl she'd never really paid attention to before, with wide blue eyes and a swirling cloud of almost white hair. "S-sorry," Laurel stammered, "what was that?"

    "Do you want to be something special?" the girl repeated, oddly grave. "Do you want to travel between worlds? Help people?"

    Laurel opened her mouth to voice her confusion, but the girls small hands shot out and enveloped her own. Her mouth shut with a jolt as the world seemed to flex for a moment, an afterimage of reality overlaying itself on top of the world, it's hue and saturation subtly wrong. She looked around in shock for a moment before the blonde girl caught her eye. And where the blonde girl's eyes had been, there was now only a gaping abyss. A glimpse into something wide and dark and unknowable. "Who- what are you?"

    "You can call me Shy," the girl answered. "And I am something not quite real. Something from a dream.
    The Dream. Please, will you help? I need your help-"

    Shy!" Down the street, Beth was shoving past her friends, staring at Laurel and Shy. her face angry and yet also oddly afraid. "Shy, get back here! Leave her alone!"

    Laurels hands clenched beneath Shy's cool grasp. She was sick of Beth, sick of being pushed around and looked down on. She wanted to be liked, to be someone important. "I-I want to be special," she whispered, voice hoarse with the need for it. "Please, let me h-help. I'll help."

    Beth was only a few metres away now, her footsteps hurried and fists swingly tightly by her side. Her friends didn't even bother to look as she continued to shout, but Shy only smiled and stood, hands still clasping Laurel's. "Thank you," she said, and pulled Laurel forward into the abyss.


    Inside the Dream, it was cold and vast and dark, as it always was. Scenes and people and objects flowed and merged together, as transparent and false as afterimages. These were the worlds of the sleeping, a faint bridge between the real world and the Dream.

    The Dream itself would not begin to take shape until it was acted upon, either by itself or by Laurel and Beth. They were the architects, their struggle giving form the formless.

    For half a year Laurel had been keeping the Dream in check, cutting out its roots before it could drag itself into reality at the cost of those whose dreams bridged the gap. For half a year she'd spent her sleeping hours in here, and it still felt impossibly strange and alien to her.

    Even stoic, private Beth admitted she felt the foreign oppressiveness of it weigh down on her, and she'd been fighting the Dream on her own for a year before Shy had first pulled Laurel in.

    Reigning in her discomfort, Laurel began to give herself form, drawing upon the latent possibility around her to recreate her body. Looking inward, she recalled the feeling of air moving past her body. Faced her imperfections and humbly accepted her strengths. She didn't rush the process, remembering the misshapen messes she had created her first few times. Even after she had learned to make something that looked human, it was weeks before it had actually been her. Once she was finished, not even needing to look to know she had gotten it right, she raised her head and conjured clothes. Where the body was an act of patience and self-reflection, the clothes were an act of improvisation and desire. Light was drawn forth from the abyss and wrapped around her. Revelling in the myriad colours and possibilities represented in that light, she willed it spin around her faster and faster before letting it settle into something solid. An extravagant, weightless blue gown, stretching from the top of her neck down to the base of her feet.

    Satisfied, Laurel raised her hand to the heavens and began to envision an arrow, its shape forming as light inside her forearm itself. She thought of it in movement, its speed and purpose, and it began to hum with tension, her entire arm tingling with its need to fly. With a grin, Laurel let go, and the arrow shot forth from the palm of her hand high into the black sky before bursting into violet light. For a few moments, there was only Laurel and the cascading light amidst the half-formed visions of the sleeping, then the space before her began to warp and out of it stepped Beth.

    Where Laurel chose to dress herself like something from a fairy tale, all frills and lace and extravagance, Beth was far more simple in her choice of apparel. Dressed in simple, low-cut black clothes, with green highlights that traced her curves, she looked at once both more mature and more competent than Laurel. At first that had bothered Laurel, made her feel inferior, but over time she had come to understand they simply approached the same problems in different ways. Neither better nor worse than the other.

    Beth laced her hands above her head and began to stretch, working out nonexistent kinks in her spine. "Ready to get started, then?"

    Nodding, Laurel knelt down on the ground, gown billowing around her, and dug her fingers into the soft surface of the Dream. Slowly exhaling, she let her eyes close and consciousness expand outwards, searching for roots. With people's dreams so indistinct, it was nearly impossible to find where the Dream had planted its roots simply by looking. Beth's solution was to simply begin tearing at the foundation of the Dream, rending it asunder until she encountered resistance. Laurel, however, preferred a more patient approach. Letting herself slip and fade as far into the Dream as she dared until she could feel the pulse of it, find it's energy and trace it to its burgeoning saplings.

    When she finally found a vein, she filled it with light to guide them to its end. Finished, she began withdraw when her mind brushed against another, weaker vein further out. Feeling uneasy, she marked it with light as well before fully pulling back into her imagined body. Above her, Beth was frowning out across the horizon.

    "Which line is it?" she asked, looking between two slithering tendrils in the distance. One strong and bright, the other dull and faltering.


    "Both? It's never grabbed two minds in one night before. Sure you’re not imagining things?"

    "I-I don't know, but I d-definitely felt two of them." Wringing her hands together, Laurel hesitated for a moment before continuing. "Y-you said there used to only be a few a week, right? Then one almost every night? And since I've st-started, there's only been a handful of empty nights."

    Beth worked her mouth sourly. "The Dream's getting stronger, yeah. But now we're going to have to split up to deal with them both." Beth cursed quietly. "Fuck. Fine. I'll take the bright one."

    "T-that's not going to, uh, work though."

    "You've been at this long enough," Beth snapped, "don't tell you can't handle one night on your own."

    "N-no," Laurel stammered, "that's not what I mean. If it's, y'know, getting stronger, we c-can't keep up with it forever."

    "We don't have much choice," Beth retorted. "It's that or let it send our friends and family into comas as it tries to drag itself out of here."

    Laurel swallowed, looking out at the two violet tendrils of light. Where they sunk into the boundary between the Dream and reality, and where they stretched back into the furthest unknown depths. "W-we could go for the source. St-stop it once and for all."

    "Don't be an idiot," Beth said. "Even the roots put up a fight when we destroy them. Imagine what the source would be like." But even as she spoke, she too was looking out to where the veins of light disappeared in the distance, eyes hungry.

    "W-we can do this," Laurel urged, "together."

    "We can do this," Beth muttered, then looked at Laurel, something approaching a smile on her mouth. "Let's do it."


    "What is it t-that the Dream wants?"

    Shy looked up at Laurel confused. The two of them were sitting in Laurel's room, surrounded by stuffed animals and scattered dolls. Childs toys, but things that Laurel found comforting. From the radio on her desk, light rock played softly, and downstairs Laurel's cousins could be heard stomping around, getting ready for soccer practice. Shy looked Laurel over for a moment, then turned to the window. "Did Beth not say?"

    "B-Beth doesn't, uh, t-talk to me much," Laurel admitted, "l-like, at all. I don't think she w-wants me around."

    "Oh," Shy turned back to Laurel, head tilted and wide eyes both blue and empty at the same time. "It wants to be real. It wants to live and breath and grow, and is willing to drag others back into its prison in order to pull itself free."

    "B-but you're a p-part of the Dream, right? And you're here. Uh, real."

    "No," Shy stated quietly. "I am not. I am only real to you, and to Beth. Everyone else sees me, but even as they look at me, they forget me. Something at the edge of their awareness, slipping even as they try to focus on it."

    "O-oh." Laura awkwardly began fidgeting with the hem of her dress, rubbing it between her fingers. "I'm, uh... I'm s-sorry?"

    "It's not your doing." Shy leaned forward, and as she did, the sunlight filtered through the window became caught in that swirling cloud of hair. Refracted and multiplied into a soft halo around Shy's peaceful, cherub-like face. But even then, those wide eyes continued to bore into Laura, impenetrably deep and ancient. "Just know that as long as you and Beth continue to fight the Dream, you are doing the right thing. That is all I need of you."


    The veins of light had led them further into the Dream than they had ever been before. Above them, the uniform darkness had given way to swirling constellations of stars, pulsating bursts of light that refused to remain still. Sometimes they seemed impossibly distant, further than the furthest galaxies, and other times they seemed to hang heavy over Laurel's head, ready to fall upon her in a cascade of stardust. Beneath their feet, the veins of light had widened into paths, twisting and flowing through each other. Until, eventually, they came to rest at the base of a mighty tree. Every time Laurel blinked, it seemed to take a new shape; at once a willow and a pine, an oak and a birch. It's branches stretched far into the sky, waves of pale blue light coursing beneath the bark. It sparked and thrummed with energy, reminding Laurel of diagrams of nervous systems.

    This far from the boundary between the Dream and reality, there were no afterimages of dreams. Only barren ground and bloated stars, shifting tree and writhing roots. When Laurel turned to Beth, fear and adrenaline holding her heart prisoner, she found Beth looking back at her, face dangerous and determined. There was a purpose to her, a sharp edge. Something that had always rested just beneath her skin, cutting and pressing forward in times of need. Now, in the heart of the Dream, those honed blades began to surface, forming as shards of green light swirling around Beth's hands.

    With a small nod, Beth signalled for Laurel to back away before turning to face the tree. The shards grew sharper and brighter, increasingly deadly and chaotic as even more were pulled from the void to join the turmoil. The storm grew larger and larger until finally it coalesced into a single massive swarm, directed by Beth's guiding hands. With a shout, she let it loose, the shards cutting into the roots and base of the tree. There was a maddened shriek as the bark split and charred, cords of lightning arcing outwards and gouging rifts along the ground.

    Hurriedly, Laura formed a protective bubble around her and Beth, the lightning coursing around it hungrily. The shriek of the wounded tree grew higher and higher in pitch, reaching far above the normal range of human hearing. But in the Dream, such limitations lost all meaning, and the sound continued to tear at Laurel's ears, sending her to her knees. Then, suddenly, it stopped. The last few sparks of electricity faded away, and the tree was still once more. Beth looked back to Laurel, confused, but Laurel had no answers for her.

    They stood there for a moment, wondering if victory had been so easy, when the tree began to shudder. Pale, gnarled hands began to grow from the wounds left by the shards. Scrabbling, clutching hands that pulled themselves further out, dragging arms and bodies behind them. Dozens of them, one from each cut. When they stood, they were crooked and unsteady things, somewhere between a person and a dried piece of driftwood. Cracked and pale, stiff and hollow. They moved in jerks and bursts, hardly seeming to transition from one position to the next.

    Without hesitation Beth darted forward, already summoning another cloud of green shards to swirl around her fists. Further back, Laurel gathered an arrow of light in her arm before shooting it out towards the furthest of the saprolings, piercing one through the chest before continuing onwards to remove the arm of another. The first collapsed, while the second changed course away from Beth and towards Laurel, apparently unhindered by the smoking stump left of its arm.. A few others nearby did the same, moving surprisingly fast with their jittering movements.

    Raising a series of floating steps, Laurel hopped away from them, shooting arrows back down at them all the while. Beneath her, Beth danced amidst a crowd of saprolings, ducking beneath their blows and shredding apart those who lingered in her presence. But even as they were struck down, others stepped in to take their place, dangerous by sheer volume, and Beth was slowly forced backwards towards the tree.

    Worried, and with the rest of those that had been hounding her struck down, Laurel lowered herself to the ground once more to steady her aim and began picking off those at the edge of the crowd, not wanting to risk hitting Beth by mistake. Together, they began to bring down the saprolings, though those that remained continued to back Beth towards the tree, trying to corner her. No matter how unpredictably she moved or how quickly she dodged, there was always another saproling there to throw itself in her way, regardless of it's own well being. Until at last, with only a handful of saprolings left, Beth went to step backwards only to find the tree at her back. Sensing victory, the saprolings latched onto her tight, forcing her wrists back, their wooden strength too much for Beth to overcome.

    Panicking, Laurel readied another arrow and let loose, her aim dangerously close to Beth. With a burst of violet light, two of the saprolings fell back, leaving only one gripping Beth's wrist. It froze for only a moment before lunging to grab Beth's other wrist, but Beth was faster, whipping her hand around and shoving a green shard into the saproling's featureless face. It staggered back, clutching at the light, before toppling to the ground.

    Sharing a sigh of relief, Laurel and Beth relaxed, the fight won. Around them the saprolings littered the ground, faintly smoking where the weapons of light had cut them. Some still twitched, defeated but not quite dead, long fingers scratching at the ground.

    Beth looked up at Laurel and smiled for a moment, before confusion washed across her face and she looked down at her feett. Following her gaze, Laurel could see the roots of the tree slowly settling around Beth's ankles, holding them tight. The two looked back up at each other in horror, before fresh branches shot out of the trunk and latched onto to Beth, and began to drag her towards it's hungry mass.


    "Why d-do you hang out with them?"

    The two of them were sitting around Laurel's kitchen table, working on math homework. The sound of Laurel's father mowing the lawn gently wafted through the open window, while upstairs her mother could be heard softly singing in the shower. Beth, meanwhile, seemed barely conscious, stifling yet another yawn as she looked up. "With who?"

    "Your c-" Laurel only just managed to stop herself before the word 'cronies' left her lips. "Friends. Cynthia, Sally H., Godwyn. T-them. You don't really seem like their type."

    "Their type?" Beth asked warily. "What do you mean by that?"

    "L-like, you're not... outgoing like they are. You don't obsess over makeup or g-gossip about boys or things like that. You're acad-demic and reclusive and... yeah."

    "You have a really childish idea of what my friends are like," Beth muttered, scratching down another answer to her homework. "Is there something you're getting at, with this? Or just shitting on my social life?"

    "W-well," Laurel shuffled some math handouts around as she gathered her thoughts, knowing she was on thin ice and about to step onto thinner. "You said you get them good deals on, uh, m-marijuana because of your brother, right? S-so, don't you worry that they just hang out with you for a ch-cheap high?"

    Beth was silent for a moment, face inscrutable as she studied Laurel before answering. "Whatever. Not your problem."

    "W-what?" Laurel leaned forward, face earnest. "I'm j-just, like, worried. That they're, you know, taking advantage of you. That they d-don't actually care about-"

    course they don't fucking care about me," Beth shouted, suddenly on her feet, knuckles white on the edge of the table. "You think I need some fucking princess like you to tell me that? I know they just put up with me to get deals from my brother. I've known since day fucking one. But what am I supposed to do, huh? They're the only ones who will hang out with someone like me, and it's a far sight better than nothing."

    "I-I was just trying to help."

    "I don't want your help," Beth answered hotly. "I don't need it. What do you know about any of this kind of thing anyway? Little miss perfect, with her doting parents and friendly cousins. Sharing laughs and smiles with everyone at school." Beth sat back down, head buried in her hands. "You don't even need to try to win people over. They just... like you," Beth snapped her fingers, "just like that."

    Laurel yearned to reach out and rest a hand on Beth's shoulder. To lend a comforting touch. But even now, after months of sharing the Dream together, Laurel couldn't help but be afraid of Beth. Of her anger and insecurities. "I-I didn't win you over."

    "No," Beth admitted, raising her head and letting her hands fall away, "you didn't." For a moment she looked as if she was going to say more, guilt and resentment both lurking beneath her dark eyes, before she turned away. "I need to leave if I want to have dinner ready for when my mom and dad get off work."

    "Beth, I didn't m-mean to-"

    "I dont want your pity, so please just... stop. I'll see you tonight."


    Slowly, inevitably, the grasping branches began to envelope Beth, pulling her into the tree’s embrace. "Laurel!" she shouted, reaching out desperately with her free hand.

    Stumbling over herself in her haste and darting around the twitching forms of the fallen saprolings, Laurel raced to Beth and grabbing the outstretched arm even as the branches began to pull it back. She dug her heels in the ground, trying to find the purchase needed to drag Beth free, but the tree was patient. Relentless. Its bark began to flow outwards and over Beth, making her a part of itself. Letting go with one hand, Laurel reached out behind her and summoned chains from the ground, ordered them to wrap around her and anchor her. To lash her and Beth's hands together. "I-I got you," Laurel stammered, straining. But even as she worked, the tree sent roots to entangle her chains, worked its implacable will against hers.

    Slowly, Laurel felt Beth's wrist sliding out of her grip. "Please," Beth begged, as branches began to stretch up her neck. A pale and gnarled necklace, pulsing with energy. "Please." Laurel could feel Beth's conscious reaching out to her even as her grip weakened, and Laurel responded in kind, their minds coiling around each other, desperate for purchase. And in their opposites, began to bond. Like the teeth of a zipper, hope found fear. Self-pity found self-hatred; love found loneliness; forgiveness, bitterness; and idealism, realism. All their disparities came together into a unified need for acceptance; for each other. Laurel's violet aura met Beth's green, and the two merged into gold. A gold light that filled them with warmth and with comfort. That washed away their fear and laid to rest their doubts.

    The tree began to writhe and shudder, the branches that held Beth catching aflame. Curling and turning ashen beneath the golden light, their hungry grip crumbled, and Beth tumbled out from the tree and into Laurel's waiting arms. Pieces of charred bark fell harmless from her skin. They clutched at each other, sobbing with relief, as above them the fire spread. Against the combined truth of all their pieces, their strengths and flaws, the falseness of the Dream was helpless. Clouds of blue and black ash flowed up into the void, blotting out the heavy stars. The branches cracked and twisted backwards upon themselves, sending thunderous shudders through the ground. And as the fire turned to an inferno, the entire tree began to collapse, folding inwards and downwards until all that was left was a hunched, smoldering form. A girl, with wide hurt eyes and a swirling cloud of sparks for hair.

    Laurel looked on with horror as Shy straightened uneasily amidst the ash, coals burning beneath her flesh, skin peeling back from the heat. "I'm sorry," Shy gasped, sparks drifting from her mouth. "I'm sorry. I only wanted to be real." She took a tottering step forward, reaching out towards Laurel and Beth, blackening face twisted with envy. "I wanted... this," with every pained word her voice grew quieter, more strained. One finger from her outstretched hand fell to the ground and shattered, scattering coal and ash. "I wanted you. I wanted-" With her next step, her leg collapsed, sparks flung forward as her body tumbled to the ground and crumbled, leaving nothing but a dark mound and a cloud of soot.

    Laurel clasped a hand to her mouth, fighting the urge to be sick. Beside her, Beth shuddered once before climbing to her feet. "We have to go," she muttered, half-dragging Laurel behind her. "We need to leave... this."

    Nodding mutely, Laurel let herself be dragged alone. The two of them followed the tendrils of light back to the boundary, puffs of soot drifting from them with each step. Their skin was dark and coarse from it, their noses clogged with the smell of burnt wood and burnt flesh. Beneath, the golden light still glowed softly, strongest where Beth gripped Laurel with ferocious strength.

    So weary was Laurel, that she didn't even notice when they reached the boundary, only looking up when Beth lowered her to her knees and forced her hands into the ground. "Let's go home," she said. "Let's go home."

    Community Pick Winner: Pew, pew! by @Pahndæmonium
    Pew, pew!

    Pew, pew!

    Simona hated working night shifts. The small convenience store was bordering the outskirts of the town, too far for most public transport -- which meant the young clerk had to walk a few miles after dropping off the closest bus stop. Glen’s Stop-By was a popular store for night owls, those who drove through the night between their town and the bigger city half a dozen miles away. They were usually two clerks at night, “just in case”, but tonight Simona’s coworker had called in sick and no one else had been able to take his place on such short notice. She wasn’t too worried though, as things were nearly always quiet, and for all the night shifts she had worked, not once had there been enough commotion to warrant for two night shifters.

    Winter was already closing up on them, and tonight was no exception. Glen’s Stop-By was in the middle of a whirlwind of snow, with its buddy building Frankendiner, which was also still open, a few yards away. The owner’s daughter, Ginny, came over once every couple nights to hang out with them and probably just to eat candy. Loyal to her habit, the little girl came dashing through the door, sounding the doorbell loudly.

    “Simoooona!” The cheeky little pest grinned at the clerk, her two front teeth missing. Her boots were untied and her coat was already unzipped by the time Simona stepped out from behind the counter.

    “Hey there Ginny! It’s just me tonight, Petrov is sick.” The woman’s voice was gruff and deep, and didn’t match her appearance at all. Ginny was probably the only person in the world who didn’t think this was odd. “I brought the movie Princess Bride if you wanna watch something.” A warm smile spread on the woman’s tired face, even reaching her eyes.

    The little girl clapped her hands and ran off to grab a chocolate milk bottle. Her father always paid her “tab” at the end of the week, something Simona thought was rather endearing. She pulled out her ratty laptop and pushed the DVD in, and within a few minutes Ginny was sitting comfortably on a case of soda cans, wrapped in a warm blanket. Simona sat next to her, before pulling the girl on her lap, and began brushing her hair. It was thick and black, resonating with the girl’s African-American heritage, but the clerk had the delicacy and dexterity to properly braid it. Ginny’s father was a widower, and he didn’t often have the time to do those little things with his daughter -- especially since she was one of five siblings.

    “Hey, Simona?” The girl’s voice was quiet, as though she didn’t want to disturb the people talking in the movie.


    Ginny shifted uncomfortably. “Why do some customers call you “sir”? You’re a girl!” The annoyance and indignation were crystal clear in her voice, which caused Simona to smile despite herself.

    “Some people are mean, or don’t understand those who are different. It’s all right, you don’t need to worry about me, little star.” She fussed with her braids again, before slipping the small girl back on the boxes.

    “Pfft! If they’re meanies, I’ll just pew pew them!” Ginny made a pouty face, but it didn’t last long once she saw Simona giggling and shaking her head. Her shoulders untensed and with a playful shrug, she went back to the movie.

    In truth, every time something like this happened, it etched a mark on Simona’s confidence. She was a woman for fuck’s sake and no one would ever be able to rob her of that. It hadn’t come to her attention that Ginny had been aware of those comments, and in truth it tore her to know the kid was worried about her. Those were not matters for a child to be upset about, and once again Simona had after-thoughts about letting her hang out here in the backstore… But she couldn’t bring herself to ever refuse to let the kid hang out here. All that was needed was a little bit more backbone, and perhaps a softer voice and a more delicate face… Simona shook her head. No, she couldn’t let herself think like this.

    For the next hour or so, while Ginny was laughing and watching one of the best movies ever, Simona cleaned up the store. First step was sweeping the floors (which felt quite futile considering how half of it was wet and dirty from the snow), followed by a good mopping. Those were her regular chores -- their manager had insisted she work mostly in the backstore, and do the majority of the cleaning. Sometimes the woman wondered if anyone else ever washed those damn floors; they were always so grimy, and spots she KNEW had been cleaned when her shift ended at 8 AM were somehow covered with badly wiped soda. She had an idea or two as to why this was happening, but she refused to give in to their torments.

    The movie was over a bit before Simona finished washing the bathroom. She could hear the young girl repeat some of the catch phrases, and it made her grin again. The little pest was beyond adorable, and it warmed her heart to have the chance to spend time with her. She was any babysitter’s dream.

    “Simona, the movie’s done! Can I play a game now?” Her braided head peeked out from the doorway, but she couldn’t find the clerk right away. “Hide-and-seek then!!” She shouted with renewed pep in her step. Just as she got to the front of the store, the bell jingled and a pair of older men walked in. They looked like truckers, or maybe just fat mechanics, but they certainly didn’t look like they were in a peppy mood like the young girl.

    The taller man eyed the little black girl. “Where’s yer dad, lil ‘un?” He was slurring badly, and Ginny recognized the smell of liquor, or whatever it was they served at her dad’s restaurant to older people. She took a step back and eyed the backstore.

    “Um, my dad doesn’t work here. Simona works here. SI-MO-NAAA!” She yelled for her friend, and just a few seconds later, the clerk popped out from the bathroom and made her way behind the counter. She ushered Ginny to follow her and smiled politely at the two drunk-looking men. “Welcome to Glen’s Stop-By!”

    “Hah! That’s yer dad, innit?” The second man replied, and both of them laughed throatily and without reserve. Ginny frowned and looked up at Simona, expecting her to tell them off. But she couldn’t – they were customers.

    “Ha-ha, funny, sir. I’ll be here if you need me.” Her eyes nervously watched the inebriated men as they headed for the alcohol section. The clock reminded her they had about twenty minutes left before she had to lock down the booze.

    Simona regretted her previous musings about how she didn’t need a second clerk with her at night. Those men were terrifying her, and she had to think of little Ginny whose mouth wouldn’t remain shut at the worst of times. “They’re being meanies, Simona. I’m gonna have to pew pew them.” The clerk shook her head and brought a finger to her lips, signaling Ginny to keep quiet. In return, a pout spread across her childish face, her dark eyes strangely focusing right through Simona. Those same dark eyes drifted away slowly in direct of the two men, who were still being loud and the taller one even broke a bottle, earning rocky laughter from his mate.

    Five minutes before she would have to lock up the alcohol.

    Okay, if they wanted an additional minute, she would not legally be allowed to sell them their booze. Hoping they would not berate her, the woman called out at them. “Um, sorry sir, county law says I have to stop alcohol sale in a minute. Let’s pay those first and you can continue shopping after!” Her deep voice felt like a stranger’s, entirely unrepresentative of what Simona looked and felt like. It was perhaps the most difficult aspect of her transition to accept, but there is was – the lady with a manly voice. Their raucous laughter reached the front of the store and soon enough they were dropping bottles and snacks on the counter.

    “Yer a pretty lady. Gotta show later ‘night?” More mocking laughs.

    “Yeah, yer as hot as my wife! Ha ha ha!” The two men were laughing so hard, tears were peeking out from the corner of their eyes. Simona forced a smile and began scanning their items, looking down and towards Ginny once in a while. The girl had taken out her little plastic gun, and was muttering Pew, pew, pew which managed to warm the clerk even just a tiny bit.

    “The total will be $40.50.” The items were placed in bags rapidly but the men seemed to be lazing around with their payment.

    “Y’know what tranny, I think we’re good here. Sure you can pay this off for us.”

    “Yeah, what he said.”

    Ginny knew that was a bad word, a terrible word. Her father had explained what it meant, and that mean people used it to hurt a trans person. With a frown, she got up from her hiding spot behind the counter and pointed her pink gun at the impolite drunkards.

    “That’s a BAD word! Say you’re sorry, mister!” Her voice was loud and unmistakably childish. The men peered over the counter at her and exploded in even more laughter. Simona’s eyes widened and she tried to hush the girl back, trying to grab the toy gun away.

    “Oh man, he even has a n***** daughter! Disgusting!”

    Simona’s cheeks turned bright red, but not because she felt embarrassed. She was fucking pissed now.

    “Look sir, either give me the money you owe, or get the fuck out.”

    “Ohh look at him getting all pissy! He’s a pussy a’ight!”

    Ginny gritted her teeth and slipped between the older woman’s arms to confront the two men. “SHUT UP! Pew pew!” She finger-gunned them angrily, her teeth baring and her other hand trying to reach for her toy gun.

    The girl was picked up by Simona again and she pushed her away this time. “Get out or I call the cops.”

    “Fucking she-man, crossdresser piece of shit! Ha ha ha! With his black bastard daughter, playing mommy!” The taller man chuckled but handed out his money, while the other man kept laughing and holding his sides, as though he was having the greatest time of his life. “Ne’er comin’ back here, unless it’s to take a piece o’that little black bitch.”

    Before his friend could reply something else, Simona’s fist met with his nose and everyone could hear the loud crunch. Blood splashed everywhere and the man yelled in pain, dropping his bags and clutching his face. The other one looked at Simona, and she could see how pissed off and slightly scared he was. “Fucking crazy bastard! Let’s get out of here!”

    “That’ll be crazy bitch, thank you. If I ever see you here again, the gun won’t be a pink toy!” She yelled back at them as they hurried out the door, leaving a trail of red on the freshly cleaned floor. “Fuck…” Simona shook her hand, the adrenaline probably taking care of her soon-to-bruise joints, and she looked at Ginny, preparing an apology. Kids shouldn’t hear or see that kind of crap.

    “L-look, Ginny, I’m so—“

    “OH MY GOD! SIMONA! THAT WAS SO COOL! WOW!” Her face was erased from any kind of anger or fright, instead replaced with admiration and excitement. “YOU WERE SO BADASS!! OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE HIS FACE?!” The little girl was jumping up and down, clapping her hands madly.

    “N-no, that was me losing my temper, Ginny. Grownups don’t do that.”

    “YES they DO! Those men were meanies and you TAUGHT THEM GOOD!” Her smile was so sincere, so innocent, that Simona let her shoulders drop and she sighed, hands on her hips and shaking her head.

    “We have a mess to clean up now. C’mon, little miss badass.”

    • Love Love x 1
    • Thank Thank x 1
  4. MISC #3: The Warrior
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread

    Manager's Pick Winner: You Smell So Good by @Gottkönigin Wen
    You Smell So Good
    You Smell So Good

    [BCOLOR=transparent]In a room that had once been spacious, but which these days were cramped with paintings, utensils, and discarded canvases, Yumi sat on a simple stool. The blonde woman was panting as if exhausted. Her long hair was wet and touched the floor. The room reeked of sweat, and paints which made one dizzy. It wasn’t a healthy environment to spend any longer period of time in, yet she spent her waking hours in there, painting like she was obsessed. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]On the walls hung two of the paintings she allowed herself to almost be satisfied with. One of them depicted an old friend in the act of casting a spell; the necromancer Johann, clad in a stereotypical garb with skulls, surrounded by purple glowing strands of magic erupting from his staff. The other depicted an even older enemy, long gone from her life. The dishonest and traitorous Lin. Yumi had painted her in a relaxing pose, surprised by a fairy, because who else would be surprised by something so mundane?[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]All the other paintings were strewn across the floor or leaned against the walls. There were more than fifty of them, and they were the reason she could barely get into the room. She’d attempted to capture Mirai on each of them. She’d failed every single time. There was no capturing such a raw and fierce and brutal force of nature. It was like trying to fit a tornado inside a glass bottle. The tornado would shatter its glass prison, sooner or later, and hurl glass shards everywhere. She would get cut, but she lived for the pain. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Again…” She panted, removing her right hand from her loose brown pants. The legs of her pants were stained with colourful splotches — grey, orange, red and blue. Remnants from all the times she’d tried to paint Mirai. Yumi only wore a beige breast band over her torso, so her stomach and arms tended to have their own stains of colour by the end of each session. Some days she didn’t wash them off. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi stumbled to her feet, tearing the unfinished painting from the easel in front of her, tossing it to the side. Retrieving another canvas from the bunch, she refilled the paints she’d spilled on the carpet. It was far from the first time she’d done it. The carpet was no longer whatever colour it had once been. It was a rainbow. Before taking her seat again, she picked up the brush she’d dropped on the floor when overcome by need. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She was by no means a talented painter. If she had been, this task set before her might have been completed by now. On the other hand, reliving every memory and moment she’d had with Mirai might mean that this was to be her prison for an eternity. Yumi had accepted that. She didn’t care. She just wanted it all back. One last kiss, or even one last look in her direction. Nobody smelled as good as Mirai did when she was covered in blood.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi began by dipping her brush into the colour grey. Grey was the colour of Mira’s armour, flag, and hair. It was a good base. The moment she dotted grey onto the canvas she was brought back to their first meeting. The witch that had put her spell on this exquisite brush had done an excellent job. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She had been a smith during those years; not because someone like her needed the money, but because Yumi tended to get bored. Smithing was one of those odd jobs she’d done over a lifetime. It was never meant to bring her into a position of power. She’d lived for power. She’d gotten bored of it too. Manual jobs put her in the middle of bustling cities, near the people that needed a smith, or a baker, or a tavern keeper, or a bard. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Humans were entertaining. They were always busy trying to survive. Either by working to put dinner on the table for their families or by fleeing from creatures such as herself. It was difficult for her to grasp how anyone had to struggle to stay alive. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Unfortunately for the people those years had been particularly tumultuous. Kings, queens and nobles may be able to avoid the worst aspects of wars, but regular people did not. Mirai was a conqueror. She’d besieged the city where Yumi had been a smith and given everyone a chance to surrender within a day. When they didn’t, she broke through the gates with the advanced siege weapons of her army and brought the city to its knees. She killed everyone unless they swore to convert to her religion.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi roamed those bloodied streets after Mirai’s attack, high on the smells of death. It wasn’t that surprising that the two encountered each other. She didn’t believe in fate. She’d lived too long and seen too much to believe in anything so silly, yet when her sensitive nose picked up on the smell of Mirai her body and mind went into overdrive. It was unique, and for someone like her to pick up on a specific smell when the streets were littered with bleeding corpses — well, it had never happened before.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She remembered spotting the woman in her bulky armour, striding up to her and cracking a smile. The conqueror probably hadn’t been alone, but she couldn’t recall anyone else there. It was the affect she had on Yumi’s senses. Yumi had worn her dirty apron and baggy working clothes. Mirai had worn the holy armour of the church, a long golden mantle, and more white than she could stomach.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“State your intentions before I slay you in the name of Meraini, the almighty!” Mirai had commanded when she had noticed her.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]What a greeting! What an awe-inspiring aura and attitude! [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I am but a humble smith, my lady,” Yumi had said, curtsying. “If I could serve a beauty such as yourself, that would be an incredible honour.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Mirai’s response had been to spit at the ground between them and unsheathe her sword. Yumi had her quick-thinking to thank for disarming the sudden tension.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Whoa, whoa!” She had jumped backwards, preparing herself for a fight. Mirai had hesitated to strike her down for some inexplicable reason. “I see your armour is in need of repairs, but it’s mediocre quality to begin with. Unfit for any mighty conqueror. No matter where they come from. I could create a new one for you. An armour that inspires fear and respect! After all, I am the greatest smith in this kingdom.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi might have been able to defeat the conqueror, if she’d unleashed her true form, but it was obvious to her that the beauty carried a blessed sword. It was bound to sting if it struck her. Swords did not sparkle like that by themselves. They required certain components during their creation to do it. Although, she’d seen fakes which peddlers had sprinkled fairy dust on.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I should kill you for heresy,” Mirai had said, but after a moment glaring at her she’d sheathed her sword. “Don’t ever compliment me again. You are no man. It’s plain as day that you are a woman. However, if it’s true that you’re the greatest smith in this kingdom, I do have need for you. You have to prove yourself.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I apologize for the compliment. I’m a barbarian,” Yumi had said, raising her hands, yet a grin had spread across her lips as soon as the conqueror had turned her back on her. The woman might know a lot about war, but it was clear to her now why she smelled like she did. It wasn’t just the blood she was covered in, even if it contributed to the marvelous sensation. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi stopped painting with the grey and breathed. Their meeting in the ruins of a fairly small city had been the beginning of a new adventure. Not the kind of adventure that fops, chosen ones, and the likes went on, but one of death and blood and battles. They had been so alike yet so different. Mirai had a practical need for a skilled smith. Yumi had a primitive need for a woman with her lack of experience. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She’d applied every little trick that she knew to befriend Mirai. She’d succeeded. Mirai had brought her into her closest circle of allies after two years. By then, they were in a stalemate with one of the mightiest empires in the world. Mirai had lost one of her greatest confidants in a strange accident one night and needed someone to replace him. Yumi was to blame for that, but nobody could prove that she was. She whispered into the conqueror’s ears, and she got her to trust her. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]It was torture to be anywhere near Mirai, due to her smell, especially during certain weeks every month. She learnt to live for the pain. She put everything she had on a distant dream. If Yumi could corrupt Mirai, and turn her from her faith into sin and depravity then that would be one of the greatest accomplishments in her long life. She could turn her at any moment, of course, but if the woman was unwilling it would be for naught.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi dipped her brush into the colour orange. Orange was the colour of the hilt she’d crafted for Mirai’s second blessed sword, and the colour of the necklace she’d given her. She dabbed it on the canvas and was granted another memory. Others might consider the price for these vivid memories too high, but it could never have been too high for her.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]The memory brought her to a familiar scene in Mirai’s private tent. One late night like many others they had spent together. The conqueror’s tent was the largest of them all, with a bed that looked comfortable compared to what Yumi slept in. Mirai had a lot of books and maps stored in chests along with her clothes. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“These have some questionable details…” Mirai said, as she inspected the hilt of the sword and the necklace. “The church will not approve of skulls.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“You are Mirai the conqueror! Who cares if they approve? Meraini has been depicted with skulls on his throne.” Yumi smiled, clapping her hands together. “It’ll be perfect. Trust me. Anyone who thinks they can play you again because you are loyal to your faith will think twice. You will inspire fear wherever you go if you carry these. I’ll understand if you don’t want to do it though… I should have spent the metals on something more useful. Ugh, I am an—”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“No, no…” Mirai interrupted, with that comforting naive expression which she never showed anyone else. She may be getting close to twenty years old, but thanks to the sheltered lifestyle the priests had pushed on her she was still a girl. She hung the necklace around her neck. Yumi couldn’t grin at her like she wanted, so she had to control herself and simply smile. “I’ll wear them. You understand the heart of these matters better than me apparently. You were the one who uncovered their plot, so if this is your advice to avoid further mishaps then I will obey.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]God, she wished she could make her obey her every whim. She didn’t like using the word god, but Mirai might be influencing her some as well. It went both ways. She was supposed to resist it.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I will have the hilt delivered to the priests tomorrow.” Mirai placed it on top of the chest by the end of her bed and took a seat by her table. “Are you certain that you don’t want to craft my new sword yourself? You are the best. You’ve proven that over and over again.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi wanted to prove herself, no doubt, but she’d rather not interact with priests or the components she needed to craft a blessed sword. It wouldn’t kill her, but it would be unpleasant. They had to shove it through her heart to kill her, and even then she would regenerate over the decades. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]There was a very specific way she wanted to prove herself to Mirai. If she’d only been a man, she could have flirted with her. She could have bent her over the table. Yumi had to keep her gaze from the bed, or Mirai’s figure, when she had thoughts like that. Once she’d slipped up, and Mirai had noticed. Oh, how she’d noticed! She’d threatened to have her strung by ropes to horses and pulled along the ground. Again, this would have been unpleasant to Yumi, but it would not have been fatal.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She took a seat at the other side of the table. As Mirai sighed, and her breasts heaved under the red shirt, she had to fight against the urge to leap across the table and force herself on the younger woman. Yumi shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It was what they called a headache between the two of them, but that was a lie. She didn’t get headaches.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She needed to reach a breakthrough soon, or she would go insane because of the smell alone. It permeated everything. She carried Mirai’s scent on her own clothes after she’d been in her tent. The smell was a constant hammer striking her core, like a thirst that couldn’t be quenched and kept growing. How had she survived two years under these conditions? It baffled her.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Do you want a glass of water?” Mirai offered.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]It felt so wrong, in the best way, that she was concerned for her like this. She couldn’t read her mind. The conqueror may be one of the most influential women in the world, but she had no idea who her best friend was or what she thought about her. She counted it all as sinful desires that had been cleansed by now. Yumi was a reformed barbarian to Mirai. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“That would be nice. Just give me a moment, and I’ll get it.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Mirai hadn’t offered to fetch a glass of water for her. She knew that when the conqueror offered someone anything it was out of courtesy, but she wasn’t about to get it for them. Servants would do that, or in this case Yumi had to do it.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Can the magnificent bard tell me another one of her fantastic tales tonight?” Mirai asked, as she put her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands. “I’d like that.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]They weren’t stories she’d made up. They were tales from her own life, from her past. She knew more facts about the founding of Mirai’s church than Mirai did. She’d been there.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Sure, I can,” Yumi said. “I’ll do anything you wish.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Anything I wish?” Mirai bit her lower lip, as she stared at her.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi had to focus her attention on something else — anything! This was a trap! She looked at the necklace that hung around Mirai’s neck, but that was an even worse idea as she detected the beginning of a frown on the conqueror’s face. She turned away to stare at the hilt on the chest instead, but that lay dangerously close to the bed.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Should I get the horses?” Mirai whispered, yet there was no anger or disgust in her voice this time. There was the sad disappointment of a girl. “I thought I could trust you.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi was brought out of her trance, back to the present. The painting was no better than the others so far. The witch had told her it wasn’t necessary to be a master, even though she’d suggested that she learn before she agreed to their deal. The brush seemed to have a will of its own. Perhaps if it wasn’t held by such an inept artist it would have finished the painting of Mirai in this pose by itself, and she could have moved on to a more interesting pose which might contain other memories.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Fifty paintings of the conqueror in the same pose didn’t do her justice. It didn’t portray her like the innocent girl she was. It didn’t portray her unwavering faith and strong will. There was so much this pose missed out on, yet she’d wanted to paint her like she imagined Mirai wanted others to see her. The great warrior in the midst of battle, covered in the fresh blood of her enemies.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Nobody else would do it. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]The church had distanced themselves from Mirai. It had created the greatest rift among its members in the church’s entire history. Yumi had aimed to corrupt the conqueror, and achieved so much more, yet none of it would ever be satisfactory when she’d lost the most.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Another year had passed in Mirai’s company after she’d presented her with her gifts. It occurred to her during those months that she could have put a curse of her own on the necklace. Mirai could have been made further susceptible to her charms. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier back then?[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]The worst possible thing that could have happened during that year came to pass. Yumi had wondered why the church had let a woman like Mirai remain unmarried. It became clear to her that they had intended to use her celibacy as a political tool. They found a suitable husband for her from the empire which Mirai couldn’t conquer fast enough for their liking. He was the bastard of the current emperor, so it would give Mirai an actual claim to their throne. He was a pawn.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi would have killed him without mercy, but she couldn’t do it. He was protected day and night. There was always a group of soldiers following him around. She could have killed them all, yet that would have risked her own position in the camp, as she would have had to expose her true nature. He couldn’t be poisoned either as someone always tasted his food for him. The bastard was paranoid, but he was in a camp filled with former enemies. It was logical. She could respect it.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]There was a second method she could have used. She had constructed conspiracies before to get rid off her worst enemies within Mirai’s ranks, yet that had taken months. It wasn’t easy to frame others for her own actions. It wasn’t easy to destroy every shred of credibility someone had once had, and make everyone believe that they were guilty of everything that the rumours said about them. She knew how to do it, but time was of the essence. They had given her two weeks before Mirai was to marry. The bastard was unworthy of someone like her. If she did nothing, he would get to revel in her innocence, and he wouldn’t appreciate it like Yumi would.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi stopped reminiscing and dipped her brush into the colour red. Red was the colour of blood. It was sustenance to her kind. She would become weak without it, and lesser creatures of the night would perish, but she was not like those. Mirai had often been drenched in the blood of her enemies. She had been more of a goddess in those moments than the god she worshipped herself. Yumi applied red to the canvas and was presented with one of her most treasured memories — her own breaking point.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“It’s a scratch, don’t worry about it!”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi could hear Mirai’s agitated voice coming from inside her tent. Her servants were pestering her again. The conqueror had returned an hour ago, from another bloody battle no doubt. She would have resisted the temptation to go anywhere near her after she’d been in a battle under normal circumstances, but she didn’t have much time left. She was getting careless, and she knew it.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi folded the flap of the entrance to the side and entered the tent. The two female servants in their simple dresses glared at her, before they realized who she was, then they turned their attention back to Mirai on the chair. The conqueror was holding a white cloth over her nose, while the servants tried to help her clean her face. There was a bucket of water on the ground.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Please, leave us,” Mirai commanded, with a voice that sounded like she had something stuck in her nose. “Now.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I apolog—”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Yes, my lady,” the two servants said, grabbed the bucket, and walked past Yumi. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Huh, she’d thought Mirai had meant her. She hadn’t been invited to her tent. Maybe they were past such formalities. That was a nice surprise.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Do you think he’ll still want to marry me?” Mirai asked, removed the cloth from her nose and laughed. It was a crooked and bloody mess. Shouldn’t she seek out a healer? Her nose appeared to be broken. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi felt her teeth twitch. Those two long fangs she could conceal due to her superior nature. Oh no. She hadn’t picked up on the smell at first, because she must be used to it on some level, but this was worse than it had been in a long time. It didn’t help that her motivation to control herself was crumbling.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“It’s no big deal,” Mirai said when she didn’t respond. “Some fool hit me in the face with the wrong end of her sword. Could have ended a lot worse. She could have known how to use a sword properly for one.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]The conqueror got up from her chair and turned her back on Yumi. She could stare as much as she wanted when she wasn’t watching her, so she let her eyes trail over her body. Mirai was a beauty by anyone’s standards. A crooked nose wouldn’t change that. Her curves were divine — her hips in particular.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I’m glad you’re in a good mood,” Yumi said, smirking. “I think you should go see a healer with a wound like that.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She had to act like a confidant when all she wanted to do was sneak up behind her, part her grey hair, and sink her teeth into her slender neck. It was a good place to start. She could take it from there. She knew that once she’d set the ball in motion she wouldn’t stop until she was satisfied. Three years was too long for anyone to wait for another. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Heh, I thought you’d encourage me. If I don’t tend to this wound right away, I’ll look like a warrior. Not some princess they assume can’t think for herself. You gave me the idea. I… I...” She paused, then spun around to face Yumi. She must have stared at her as if starved because Mirai flinched, but she remained calm. “I don’t want to get married. I know I shouldn’t question the church, but…”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She’d never seen an opening this wide in Mirai’s facade before. It broke her own resolve, washed it away. In an instant, she had moved from the entrance to Mirai, like she had teleported instead of walked.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Mirai put the cloth back over her nose and raised an eyebrow. Yumi had showed her a small part of her true nature, and she hadn’t been surprised. Was this a dream? She should have threatened her with death by now. The younger woman stood there, doing nothing. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi laid her hand on Mirai’s hand and removed it from her face. The cloth fell to the ground. She breathed in the smell of her bloody nose — the smell of a holy woman and virgin. She could suck a thousand bodies dry, and none of them would feel like her. Why didn’t Mirai fight her?[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“There is an alternative to marriage…” Mirai whispered. “I’ve given it a lot of thought.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Have you now?” Yumi asked, as she pressed her body against Mirai. The conqueror seemed to blush. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I’ve had suspicions about you for a long while. Others told me you were not to be trusted, that you were unnatural. I had no reason to believe you over them. I would have had you killed if I’d listened to their advice.” [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Still, she didn’t move or fight her. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“What kind of suspicions?” Yumi grinned, as she brought Mirai’s hand to her own lips. “Are you going to tell the priests? Should I be worried?”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“No, I need you more than I need them,” Mirai whispered, and she might not have heard it if she’d been human. “Meraini made a pact once with his sworn nemesis. The church prefers to not mention it, but he got what he wanted in the end. He wouldn’t have achieved as much without her.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Indeed, Yumi remembered. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I need you too.” Yumi put one of her fingers into her mouth to suck on it. She’d waited years for this taste. It was the taste of god and chaos, of rules and battle. It was Mirai, and she would never be able to get enough of it. She knew it in that exact moment.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I’m willing to make a trade, but I want something in return,” Mirai said, raising her voice so it became shrilly. She let her suck on her finger. “I’d rather deal with a demon than one of them. He will not be my husband because they say so. He doesn’t believe in my god or in me. I will show them.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“You’ve got a devious plan in mind. I can tell.” Yumi put a second finger into her mouth. If this was all she would get, she would savour it. She knew she’d lose control soon, knew she was playing with fire. Mirai would get burnt for this. Their relationship would end. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Kill the bastard, kill their generals, kill the emperor, kill them all. Don’t leave a child with noble blood alive,” Mirai said and laughed. No, she wouldn’t get burnt. She was already fire itself. “In return, I will give myself to you for one night. Not more.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi could do it. She wasn’t the violent type, but she had the strength and skills. She could slip past their armies, get into their capital, and wreak havoc. It would be obvious that a monster was on the loose, and she didn’t like being out in the open where hunters would target her, but she would do it for Mirai.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“It’s a deal,” she said, spat the fingers out of her mouth, and leaned into Mirai. Their bodies were as close to each other as they could get as long as they were clothed. She could feel her fangs extending from where they hid as she kissed the pale neck. “I’ve craved you for three years. If you want me to kill the rest of the world for you to be mine, I will do that too.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Don’t bite me.” Mirai put her hand on Yumi’s chest, pushing her to get distance between them. “I will burn you alive. I am still faithful to my god, and I do this for him.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Whatever she had to tell herself to sleep at night; Yumi wasn’t about to argue with it.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Very well, but I do this for me and you.” [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She grabbed Mirai’s chin, and the conqueror shut her eyes. Yumi kissed her. At first she was gentle, as she younger woman had no experience with any of this, but soon she prodded with her tongue at her lips. They tasted like Mirai’s blood. It sent her over the edge, and she breached the barricade that Mirai was putting up, entering her mouth with her tongue. The conqueror moaned, slightly, and laid a hand on her hip. Her fangs twitched once more and became fully erect.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]They had gone at each other like animals that night. Yumi was a patient teacher, and Mirai surprised her by being an eager student.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi stopped painting red on the canvas. She’d gotten stuck in this moment with her previous attempts. She’d had to relieve herself of the pent up need and desire. Vivid images of naked and sweaty bodies intertwined together were spectacular, but they didn’t bring her any closer to finishing her task. She could get lost in that night with Mirai. It was some of the best sex she’d had in her entire life. It reminded her of dancing in rains of mixed blood drained from nobles.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She honoured their deal, because Mirai had given her something precious. She thought that if she killed everyone that the conqueror wished death upon she would treasure her. It had been easy to do. Compelled by the idea that they would roll around in her bed again, she wasted no time. Yumi was powerful, so she could sway lesser creatures of her species to do her bidding. They descended upon the camps and the cities with her. Rumours about how the empire had angered one of their gods spread like wildfire.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She took great pleasure in slaying the bastard. Mirai lured him and his guards away from the camp to a location where Yumi could strike unhindered. She prolonged his suffering for days. He had almost stolen what was hers. It didn’t matter that she’d won. He had had the guts to stand in her path. There was no forgiveness or mercy in store for him.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]It became difficult to hide after she’d carried out her part of the agreement. Hunters had heard about what had happened, and they came searching for her in droves. They knew enough about her kind to realize that someone had been orchestrating the mayhem. However, Mirai treasured her as a secret weapon, and she did as much as she dared to do to keep her happy. The former virgin seemed to have become addicted to sex, like she was addicted to killing. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Two more years passed. There was unrest and rebellions in the empire that Mirai had conquered. The church wanted her to take the throne, but she kept stalling the ceremony. Mirai swore she’d gotten signs from god that it would end with someone’s death. She never explained whose death it would be, but Yumi suspected that she knew. She couldn’t delay it forever, and the ceremony was held in the middle of summer. A period of peace followed, but it was short-lived.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi dipped her brush into the colour blue. She hated blue, but she couldn’t finish any painting of Mirai without it. Everyone complimented her ice-blue eyes. Yumi thought they were the only mediocre aspect about the conqueror. She was larger than life itself. Her eyes were stupid. Despite Yumi’s superior nature, she couldn’t poke them out and replace them with red. She’d tried, kind of. As she dabbed blue onto the canvas, she was damned with her worst memory.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Guess I showed them,” Mirai whispered, coughed, and sputtered blood onto the marble floor. “Meraini still loves me… Even after everything we did… Or he wouldn’t have given me that warning.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi cradled her in her arms. She’d roared at the nearby servants to get a healer rather than stare like they were brain dead. Two men lay dead a few metres from Mirai. They had been priests of her own church. Maybe they had lied about their identities. Yumi didn’t know. She knew their heads were no longer attached to their bodies. She’d cut them off in one swift motion. An act born out of the rage she had felt when she saw them stabbing daggers into Mirai.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi was touched though. In what could have been her final moments, Mirai called out for her — not someone else. The servants had watched her kill the priests with a beastial lethality. Who knew if they would bring back a healer or a hunter? They were alone in the corridor for now, but she knew only one solution to this dilemma. She couldn’t move Mirai with her current wounds. It would kill her.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“You don’t need to die like this,” Yumi said, holding her tighter to her own body. “I can save you.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“No, don’t. He has chosen this path for me, so I will go to meet my maker.” Mirai caressed her cheek, smearing blood on it. She would have found it to be an aphrodisiac under different circumstances, but this was not that. “Don’t bite me. Let me sleep.”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]God, how she wished that she could obey. Yumi was not that strong. She may have powers that few possessed, and she may have lived for centuries, but Mirai’s imminent death was unacceptable. She had the cure. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“I apologize once more,” Yumi said, as she brought Mirai’s neck to her lips. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]The conqueror shrieked before she bit her. She didn’t let that stop her. She sank her fangs deep into her neck, and she transferred a trace of her own power to transform Mirai into a lesser being of her kind. Yumi was a firstborn. There was no method, known to her, which would give Mirai the same status and immortality. Mirai kept screaming the entire time, like she was trying to kill herself by exerting her last energy before Yumi could transform her.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi won. Mirai lost.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]It wasn’t a victory she would wish upon her greatest enemy. Yumi refused to paint any more with blue. She was finished with the eyes. They should have been red like the colour of blood. Mirai had killed herself as soon as she got the chance, driven a wooden stake through her own heart. Yumi would have protected her from the hunters, but she failed to protect her from herself. She’d declined the gift of eternal life. She’d gotten closer to Yumi than anyone else, liked what she’d seen, but her mind had always been poisoned.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]After her death, Yumi had killed herself as well — not once, but thrice. She’d eventually given up. There was no way for her to meet Mirai in the flesh again. There may be an afterlife, for sinners or saints, but she was welcomed into neither. She was stuck on this plane of existence with the mortals. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi caused the rift within the church. She revealed the truth about Mirai to its followers to redeem her. The hunters had blamed the supernatural massacre in the empire on the conqueror. Yumi had too much evidence for everyone to dismiss her version of the truth, and she had taken credit for the massacre. The conqueror had not been an unnatural beast, but she had fucked one to win her war in the name of her god. She hoped they would choke on that piece of reality. Some of them did.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She spent a lot of years searching for a reason to continue, or a method to restore what she’d lost. Yumi heard about a witch, across the sea, who put powerful curses on kings and queens. She went there in the hopes she would find another impressive woman, but she found a mother living in a swamp with her two daughters. Impressive as that may be; it wasn’t quite what Yumi was searching for. [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]She was invited to stay with them for a while as a guest since she’d travelled so far. Yumi told her story about Mirai one day. The witch offered to curse her so she could relive the memories. She insisted it would be a curse when Yumi smiled and thanked her. The witch wanted ten vials of her blood in return for this curse. People usually cursed their enemies, but they did pay. The price weakened her for months.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi sighed where she sat among the paintings. It was a curse, but she was lost since the death of her conqueror. At least she could relive what she’d once had as long as she had the brush. She rose from the stool.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Another day…”[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]This painting was a failure as well.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Maybe she’d do better tomorrow. Maybe she’d get a necromancer to raise Mirai from the dead, but even if that was successful she feared the woman would kill herself again. She could submit to the hunters, but what was the point with that? They’d keep her in a cell for as long as possible. She should snap the brush in half and be done with this. The past was the past.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]Yumi didn’t leave the room. She sat back down on her stool, dipping her brush in red.[/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent] [/BCOLOR]
    [BCOLOR=transparent]God, she wished someone would save her from Mirai.[/BCOLOR]

    Community Pick Winner: The Pitfalls of Family Necromancy by @Diana
    The Pitfalls of Family Necromancy
    The Pitfalls of Family Necromancy

    They say that Balador Val'deeve was a feared warrior. When the lines of an army split to make way for this tall, imposing figure dressed in black robes and generously decorated with skulls, grown men would whimper simply from the sight of him. With his face marked with scars and this unearthly glow of mist creeping out from under every step he took, no one questioned the assumption. Balador Val'deeve frightened people.

    Until they engaged him in battle.

    'Goodness no, you are swinging the staff all wrong! It should be at an arc!'

    Balador grunted in frustration. "Would you stay out of this."

    "Are you talking to your BELT?!" shouted his opponent in confusion. The armor clad man paused just long enough for Balador to take a second swing with his staff. This time skull capped wood struck against soft unprotected flesh, earning a stunned shout from the unnamed soldier. He regained his bearings in a furious instant to take a swipe at Balador with his sword.

    'Dodge it, DODGE IT!'

    'The boy knows how to evade a weapon, woman, shut your trap.'

    "I am trying to concentrate!" Balador stressed through his teeth. Quick as a flash of lightning, he slipped inside the man's guard. His swing had been too high; his form too shoddy. A small knife pierced in to the fragile curve between the soldier's neck and shoulder. Blood spurted and pooled. His opponent lay gasping in a surprised stupor.

    But Balador was already moving on to the next soldier.


    'Barty, didn't you hear him, he needs to concentrate. Stop that nonsensical blithering. '

    'You are the one who told the boy not to leave his cousin behind. Now we're trapped with the idiot for all eternity.'

    "AAAAARGH!" shouted the Necromancer. For those at a distance, the man's bellowing cry sounded like a dark terrifying omen. They'd watch as body after body dropped in his wake. If they survived, they told the tale of Balador Val'deeve and his violent assault. The scores of men slain by a single, ferocious individual.

    But those who faced him saw a different man. A man cursed by the endless chatter of voices, his family's skulls, strung along his belt and giving their uninvited commentary at every open opportunity.

    They say that Balador Val'deeve was a feared warrior. Everyone with family understood why.
    • Love Love x 1
    • Bucket of Rainbows Bucket of Rainbows x 1
  5. MISC #4: Choose Your Own Adventure
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread
    Manager's Pick Winner: What The Shadows Know by @Elle Joyner
    What The Shadows Know (open)

    What The Shadows Know

    || The Case of The Blackout King ||

    It was a dark and stormy night when the dame walked into my life. I remember it like it was yesterday. She was a tall glass of water after the rough day I'd had. A real bombshell, even dripping wet and shaking harder than palm fronds in a hurricane. Blonde, with eyes the color of the Mojave desert sand at sunset, red lips a choir boy would cry to kiss, a face built for the screen and a body built for the sheets. I remember thinking I was a pretty lucky bastard that of all the men in the joint that night, her gams came waltzing my way. Boy, was I wrong.
    She pulled out a stool and dropped down beside me, popping a Virginia Slim between those perfect lips as she crossed one long nylon-clad post over the other. I'll admit, I was a little bewitched, but I also smelled trouble.
    "Detective Gunn..." She started, her sultry voice rolling my name out like a red carpet, "I hear you're the man to see about a pest problem?"
    Staring into my half-emptied glass of bourbon, I frowned.
    "You got the wrong guy, Lady."
    "You... you aren't Detective Maxwell Gunn? I was told you'd be here, tonight... nursing bourbon, black trench coat... Fedora?" For emphasis, she tapped the brim of my hat and I had to fight the urge to scowl. Turning away, I downed the rest of my drink, before waving the bartender over for a refill.
    "I'm him." I said, flatly, "But I'm off duty."
    With my glass filled, I pushed back my stool and rose to my feet. She stood up as well and I was surprised by how defiantly she met my eyes. For a moment, I was a little embarrassed, but I was also on my fourth glass and had a case of Dos Equis awaiting me at my ramshackled apartment downtown.
    "Look, no offense meant," I continued, "But I'm not a PI... I work hourly, and my shift ended at ten. If you need to file a report, they can handle it at the precinct."
    "You don't understand. I'm being stalked, Detective."
    To avoid her piercing gaze, I tossed back the bourbon and turned away, "Lady, I'm not sure what you're lookin' for, but there's nothing I can do for you. Like I said... the precinct is right up the road. You can file a report there and someone will help you."
    Slowly, the woman shook her head.
    "If you won't help me, no one can, Detective." She turned on her heels and I watched her go, trying to ignore the sinking feeling that her words meant something more than I was grasping. I drank too much. I never drank on duty, but I made up for it when I was off. It was a vice, and I knew one day it would bite me, but some nights it was the only way I could forget. Forget that one case. The day everything went wrong.
    It was my rookie year, and I had just moved to the city. I was seeing a girl named Kate. A breath of fresh air in the stifling world of law and order. Kate was that bit of my world the darkness of my job couldn't touch. Or so I thought…
    It was the week before Christmas and the ring was burning a hole in my pocket. I've gone there to propose, but I knew walking up to her door something was wrong. The door hung open, the Christmas lights Kate had hung earlier trailing on the ground.
    The lights were out and the inside of the apartment was pitch black. I called her name, but knew I would get no answer. I’d seen it before. As a rookie in homicide, it was crucial that you familiarize yourself with the caseload. At the top of that load was a nasty SOB the newshawks were calling The Blackout King.
    He was known for leaving two very particular calling cards. I had found one when I walked into that darkness. The other when I felt for the light switch on the wall and my fingertips brushed the playing card taped over the toggle. I didn't have to turn the lights on to know that it was the King of spades. I also knew what that meant. Kate was dead.
    I avoided that light switch like the plague, until backup arrived to cover the scene. I sat there in the dark, feeling my world falling to pieces until the team arrived. Jack Vestrow was that first to come in. He was my superior in every way. Apart from being my boss he was also six foot four and about a hundred pounds heavier than me. And because it didn’t make any damn sense, he went by the nickname Tiny.
    "Hey. How you holding up?" He asked, but he seemed to know it was the wrong question, because as soon as he’d said it, I could see him dodging my gaze.
    "She's gone, Tiny. The bastard took her."
    "He's not gonna get away with it. we're gonna nail him this time, Gunn."
    But we didn't nail him. Kate had been strangled to death and I couldn't do anything to avenge her. These days, all I had left was the booze. The booze and that burning desire for payback.

    I left the bar that night feeling like the worst kind of creep, but halfway through my fourth bottle of Dos Equis, I stopped feeling much of anything. I woke up later in my Pop’s old armchair, to the sound of my phone ringing. The emergency line, never a good sign. With a groan, I rolled over, kicked an empty bottle out of the way and picked up my phone, flipping it open to answer.
    "Gunn, here."
    "Gunn. It's Tiny. He's back."
    They were the two words I'd been waiting half a decade to hear and they had only one meaning. The Blackout King was back in town, and there was another body.
    "Where do you need me?"
    "20th and County Line, Apartment 5A at the Westberg Complex."
    "I'll be there in ten."
    As I made my way up the five flights of stairs, a strange uncomfortable feeling welled up in my chest that I couldn't quite explain. By the time I reached the apartment, the lights were back on and the CSI were already at work. When I entered the crime scene, I suddenly understood that the feeling wasn't dread, as I had first thought, but guilt.
    The blonde lay face up on the plush blue carpet, dressed in nothing but a red negligee, her eyes glassed over, staring in fixed horror up at the ceiling. Her legs were curled under her, and an ugly black bruise had formed around her neck, where the cord had been wrapped that was used to strangle her. She was as much a knockout in death as she had been in life. It was the dame from the bar.
    I knew I looked like hell, and I was sure I felt worse than I looked, so I wasn't surprised when Tiny approached with a frown. He handed me a cup off coffee, before he spoke,"Hell of a night, hmm?"
    "To be honest, Tiny, I'm hopin' I'm still dreaming." I scratched uncomfortably at the five o’clock shadow itching my chin.
    "...It's a damn shame, yeah? She's a real stunner."
    "Yeah. Except she was a lot prettier last night. Damn, Tiny. This... this is all my fault."
    "What are you gettin' on about, Gunn?"
    With a sigh, I pinched the bridge of my nose, deciding I deserved the hangover and a whole lot worse.
    "She came to me, last night, in the... While I was off duty. Said someone was stalkin' her. I... I blew her off, Tiny,. Told her to go file a report. She said I was the only one who could help her, but I just walked right out. And now, she's dead... and I'm responsible."
    "Well, hell."
    "I should've taken her seriously, but I was..."
    "...Yeah, thanks."
    "So did she say anything else? Who she thought it was?"
    "Nothing. I didn't even give her a chance. Poor kid... Probably didn't even get out of the parking lot..."
    "You can beat yourself up for it later, Gunn. We got bigger problems. Namely... this." Tiny held up a plastic evidence envelope containing a blood stained King of Spades.
    "The blood is new...?"
    Tiny nodded, "He's upgraded his calling card. We're having trace run on it... couldn't find any evidence that it's her blood. No cuts or anything..."
    "You think maybe it's his?"
    "If it is, I highly doubt we'll get anything off of it. The guy's too smart to give up anything that easy."
    "He's playing games with us."
    "He's good at them. It's been five years since we've heard so much as a whisper, suddenly he's back... and he's back swingin'."
    "I gotta get him this time, Tiny. I can't... I can't let him get away, twice."
    As Tiny put the evidence back into his kit, two other officers approached. Lucas Mirano had been on the force as long as I had, and held more commendations than anyone in our unit. He was a stickler for the rules, but he was a good guy, and an even better cop. With him was Dill Streuss, my partner for the last year and a half. Dill was a good guy, too, but a little too eager, even for a rookie. He was the sort of guy that gave the impression he was gunning for your job. Some days, I wondered how he hadn’t gotten it, yet...
    "We got everything we need here. Just about ready to turn the body over." Mirano declared, and Tiny nodded.
    "I managed to get some scrapings from under the victim’s finger-OH!" As Dill reached to hand the evidence container to Tiny, the little vile dropped to the floor, and as Dill bent to retrieve in, the contents of his coffee mug spilled out on the hardwood. He straightened quickly, his ears reddening. At least I had an answer to my question, "Sorry. I... uh... I got some scrapings from under her nails."
    "Nice work, boys." Tiny said, "Let's get cleaned up and head back to precinct to see what we can make of all this..."
    Before I followed the other officers out, I took one last look at the dame on the floor. It was my fault she was there, but it wouldn’t be like Kate, this time. I wouldn't fail to bring her justice. This time, I would put the bastard where he belonged…
    Six feet under the cold, hard ground.

    Dill was waiting for me at my car. When I approached, he jammed his hands into his pockets, leaning back on his heels.
    "Big... big case we got, here? Huh? My first serial killer."
    “Try not to look so excited about it, huh kid?”
    Cheeks flushed Dill pulled open his door, and I slipped in after him, “Sorry, Boss. I forgot. He… he’s the creep who did your girl in, huh?”
    “Same creep…” I muttered, popping down the overhead visor for my keys. As they dropped into my lap, something else floated down behind them. Brows pinched together, I plucked up the photo, feeling my stomach twist in a somersault.
    “Boss? You alright?” Dill asked, but as he leaned over my shoulder to look at the picture, his breath hitched in a hiss, “Is that…”
    “Pretty damn sure.” I growled.
    She was blonde, green eyes - sultry, but soft - her pale skin streaked with dark streams of mascara ink. The photograph was just of her face, but I could’ve guessed her measurements from the look of her. She was his type… and she was alive. Turning the photograph over in my hand, I saw the scribbled writing Find her. Save her.
    “Hell…” I heard Dill mumble, and I jammed the key into the ignition, the engine roaring to life.

    Trace evidence on the photograph turned up nothing, but then, I didn’t exactly expect it to point us anywhere useful. Still, Dill and I spent the entire day searching - digging into nooks and crannies even I didn’t know the city had, showing off that picture like we were angling for a prize. At the end of the day though, all we had were more questions. By the time I dropped Dill at his apartment, parked my car at my own and walked the four blocks to O’Malley’s, the only question I cared to find answers to was whether I wanted my scotch on the rocks or not.

    The bar was packed that night, which was probably why I didn’t see her at first, but at the gentle tap against my shoulder I turned on my stool and came face to face with the girl in the photograph. Somehow, I was less surprised than I expected to feel. Staring up at those green eyes, rimmed in red, I shifted uncomfortable and gesturing to the seat beside me, waved over the tender to order another glass.
    She ordered a whiskey. Her voice was the sensual purr I anticipated, and as the tender set down her glass, she wrapped her hands around it and fixed me with a look that was almost expectant, “I’m April.” She murmured, then plucked up the whiskey and took a sip, “You’re Maxwell, right? Maxwell Gunn?”
    “...And you need my help.”
    “Damn. Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”
    A sigh escaped the broad and in one gulp she swallowed her whiskey. I might’ve been impressed if I didn’t feel like I was shaking apart, inside. I understood it, now. How the murdered dame knew my name, knew where to find me. This wasn’t just happenstance - this was personal.
    “I think you’d better start at the beginning.” I muttered, reluctantly pushing my own glass to the edge of the bar.

    It was nearing midnight when April finally finished her story. She’d been walking home from work two nights prior when a paneled van had pulled up beside her and she was dragged inside. For twenty-four hours, she was held in a dark room, tied to a chair. Her assailant spoke to her through a metal door , covering his face to muffle his voice. He explained that when he released her, she was to come to O’Malley’s and ask for Maxwell Gunn. He told her that I was going to help her - that I was the only one who could. She concluded by telling me that when he untied her, he had cut her with something… Not sharp like a knife - more like a paper cut.
    I didn’t need evidence to tell me it was the card from the crime scene, and I understood now what the bastard was doing...
    Deciding sobriety was a smart man’s game that I was in no mood to play, I plucked up my bourbon and tossed it back. April had ordered a second whiskey, but the glass sat clutched between her palms, condensation running along the outside, leaving beads of moisture on her soft, honey-toned skin. Looking at her, I couldn’t help but notice she kept her nails short and rounded, no polish. He knew my type and I hated the creep for it.
    “Anything you can tell me about the guy? What he looked like… how his voice sounded? Height, weight?”
    “...I only saw him for a few seconds, and it was too dark to make out much detail. But I didn’t get the impression he was trying to hide so much as he was... “
    “He was…?”
    Frowning, she trailed her fingertip around the rim of the glass, “It was like he wanted me to figure it out. Like he was…”
    “Playing a game.”
    “Did he… do or say anything that gave you the impression he was…”
    “Hitting on me? No. Hell, the way he talked? I thought maybe he was in love with you… Some kind of unrequited romance thing.”
    “Hero worship…?”
    “No. It… it was more than that. He knew you, Mr. Gunn. Pretty intimately.”
    Swearing, I lifted my glass again before recalling I’d already drained it. Slowly, April inched hers over my way and I didn’t hesitate much before throwing it back. It did little to ease the lead in my stomach, however, and the fog in my brain was getting thicker and thicker.
    “This isn’t about you, April.” I finally said, but when I met her eyes, they seemed to suggest she already knew as much, “I thought… I thought we were up against some run of the mill nutjob serial killer, but I’m afraid it’s more than that. Much more…”
    “You’re the real target, aren’t you?”
    “So it seems…” Rising from the stool and grabbing my coat, I looked down at April with a small frown, “Listen… I don’t think it’s safe for you to be alone right now, but I don’t want you to think I’m--”
    “If you’re offering me a place to stay, Mr. Gunn, I accept.” She rose as well, her hands knotting together in front of her, “I don’t want to go home… and he was pretty clear what would happen to me if I went to the police.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Something he said… I didn’t think about it till just now, honestly. He said that if either you or I went to the cops with this… he’d kill another girl in my place. I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing or not, but I didn’t want to bet on it… Still don’t.”
    Swearing bitterly, I slung my coat on, “Maybe you don’t… but I’m a little tired of being some child’s plaything. Come on... I need to stop at the precinct.”

    Later that night, I lay on my couch staring numbly up at the drop ceiling. Neon lights flashed outside, bathing the apartment in a noxious orange glow, but it wasn’t the strip club across the street that was keeping me awake. It was the tension in my chest, the creeping sense of anxiety. I knew I’d made a mistake. Pride, as it turned out, was as dangerous as my opponent, and I was having no luck against either.
    April had tried to talk me out of it, but at the time it made sense, and I was so determined to prove that I wasn’t some patsy fool that I wasn’t willing to hear her out. I had marched into Tiny’s office, tossed down my gun and badge and announced with assurance that I was taking a leave of absence.
    We’d made the trip back to my place in silence, but when I’d shown April to my room and announced I would crash on the couch, I could tell she was angry. Angry and scared, and she had every right to be. I was surprised then, when I heard the creak of floorboards and pushed up on my elbows to see her standing halfway between the bedroom and the couch. Even in the unnatural lighting, she was painful to look at - blond hair swept up into a bun, wearing one of my button downs like a gift waiting to be unwrapped. She met my eyes and stepped closer and I swore under my breath. I should’ve told her to go back to bed. That it was all emotions and tension and it was a horrible mistake, but as I swung my legs round to the floor and yanked her into my lap, the only thing that made sense was that if I didn’t kiss her, I was sure I was gonna die.
    Somehow, despite my fumbling, we made it from the couch to the bed, and there, clothing dissolved and stress culminated in what was probably a sloppy, drunk mess, but laying beside her a good while later, I didn’t feel much in the way of regret like I’d expected. April’s fingertips painted scattered lines across my bare chest and with an arm slung around her shoulder, I absently twisted a lock of blonde around my hand. For several minutes, we lay there quietly, soaking in the silence… then April broke that silence with the worst words I’d heard since Kate’s death was confirmed.
    “I’m scared, Max.”
    Brushing my thumb across the joint of her shoulder, I shut my eyes and breathed a sigh, “I know, Sweetheart. I know.”
    The thing was, I was scared, too.

    Somehow, after April had fallen quiet again, I managed to slink off to sleep, but it was the shrill shriek of my phone that woke me, early the following morning. Bolting upright, it took a moment or two before I worked out the kinks, but rolling over, I found the phone and pulled the receiver to my ear, “Gunn here…”
    “Max. It’s Tiny. Listen, I know you wanted a couple days off, but…” The voice on the other end carried a weight that told me what sort of day I was going to have, even before he finished speaking, “...There’s been another murder.”
    April and I dressed and were at the crime scene within the hour. I could see in his eyes it was bad, but as he led me up the steps to the woman’s apartment, I didn’t feel the sinking fear I’d felt the night before. It had changed, overnight, morphed into a winged fury. Stepping into the room, I unleashed a string of expletives at the sight of the pretty blonde, prone on the carpet. The scene wasn’t clean and orderly like it had been before - instead, it was chaos… Furniture toppled, pillows torn asunder, broken dishes and picture frames littered about. Around her body, hundreds of playing cards had been diligently laid out - the queen of hearts… her sorrowful face staring grimly up at him.
    “We think he make the mess after she was already dead. There’s no signs she struggled.”
    “She wouldn’t have…” I spat, and turning away, I slapped my hand against the doorframe with a growl of frustration, “He’s had her for days… Since he grabbed April. I’m sure of it. The bastard’s toying with me… I broke his rules, so he changed the way he plays. Goddamn son of a…”
    “I shouldn’t have called you in…” Tiny muttered, and I could tell from the look he gave me, I must have looked crazy, “Listen, Max… You’re my friend, hell… you’re like a brother to me, and I know you want this guy. But if you think he’s got your number? If you think he’s escalating because of you…? Maybe it’s best you steer clear? Maybe… maybe you should go home?”
    He was right. I knew it, but I didn’t want to hear it. I opened my mouth to speak, but as I did, Dill appeared on the steps, bringing with him two cardboard cups of coffee. As he stepped into the room, he whistled through his teeth, his freckled cheeks paling slightly,.
    “Damn. This is new…” Handing one of the coffees over to Tiny, Dill looked to me, frowning, “You alright, Boss?”
    “Max was just leaving.” Tiny murmured, “He’s taking a vacation.”
    “A… wait, really??”
    Shooting Tiny a glare, I glanced to Dill and shrugged, “Apparently.”
    “Look, Max. This isn’t some inept bureaucratic bullhocky, tryin’ to cover our butts, okay? I’m worried about you, and I think I’ve got a damn good reason to be. You’re too close, and you knew it last night, which is why you dropped your badge and gun on my desk. I should’ve listened, but I didn’t wanna keep this from you… Now I think maybe I should’ve. But I’m doin’ right by you, and I think you know that. Which is why I think you’re gonna turn around and walk outta here without trouble… am I right?”
    “ I want to know if there’s any developments…” I continued, apprehensively returning my gaze to Tiny, who bobbed his head in a nod.
    “You’ll be my first call if we find anything noteworthy. Now go home, Max.”

    Back at my apartment, April showered while I brewed up a pot of coffee. The robust scent that filled my apartment carried promise, but after sucking down two cups of the bitter black brew I still felt miserable and anxious. A few minutes later, April joined me in the kitchenette, wearing my shirt again and smelling like an ivory dream. She pulled herself up on the counter and crossing her ankles, pointed to the coffee maker.
    “Pour me one?”
    I did, but as I handed it over to her, she set it down beside her and slid her arms around my shoulders. It was strange, that even after what had happened the night before, it felt like the most intimate I’d been with a woman in a long while. Decidedly, I was too damn sober and idly, I considered a third cup of coffee with a shot of Jameson.
    Hands falling to her hips, a gesture that was oddly and irritatingly natural to me, I shut my eyes as she leaned her forehead to my chin and breathing in the scent of her hair, I exhaled a sigh.
    “This son of a bitch is gonna drive me crazy, April.”
    “...I think that’s kind of his point, Max.”
    “Should’ve been an accountant. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to accountants…”
    Pulling back, April lips curved in a dry smile, “I’m a waitress, Honey. This sort of thing can happen to anyone.”
    “You know I almost retired? After... “ Frowning, I lowered my gaze. I hadn’t told her about Kate. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, even now. She wasn’t the first woman I’d been with since Kate’s death, but she was the first that felt like anything more than a distraction. The silence stretched on, after my pause, and I knew she was waiting, but still I lingered… When the words finally did come, they felt hollow on my tongue, “This guy… he killed someone I was close to.”
    Straightening with a jolt, I stared down at her, but April only shook her head, continuing softly, “You forget, Max… This creep, he wanted me to know who you were. I… I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure if… if I should. I’m still not, to be honest...”
    “I’m sorry, April. I should’ve said something, myself. This is sort of unfamiliar land for me, you know?”
    “You kinda did… Maybe not out loud, but your eyes, Max… and your penchant for nightly bar visits? I probably could’ve put together on my own, you went through something pretty rough. Add in how you reacted to this guy…?”
    “Damn. Here I thought I was brooding and mysterious…”
    Chuckling gently, April shrugged, “Brooding, definitely. But for me, at least, you were an open book, sweetie.”
    “And you still stuck around?”
    “I guess I like complicated…”
    “You know that makes you crazy, right?”
    “Maybe you like crazy.”
    “Maybe I do…” Leaning in, I pressed a kiss to her lips, lingering for a moment before I pulled away. She sighed gently and picked up her cup of coffee, taking a sip before she spoke again.
    “So… why didn’t you, by the way? Retire…?”
    “Cause at the end of the day, it’s… it’s sort of in my blood, I guess? Being a cop. Just feels like part of who I am.”
    “Why’s that?”
    Frowning, I turned away, “For that…? I’m gonna need something stronger than coffee in me.”

    I’m a lot of things - a drunk, for one, and an ass on most days. I have a quirk about dressing like a 1940’s PI, and I can hold a grudge like I’m being paid to. I’m temperamental, strong willed and I’ve been told I’ve got a nasty way of sticking my nose where it’s not wanted. But one thing I’m not is a tragedy. At least, I make it a habit not to be. It’s part of why sitting on the couch in my apartment that afternoon, April became only the second person I’d ever told my entire past to. My parents were killed in a car accident when I was seven, but that wasn’t so much the end of my troubles as it was the beginning. For a few years, I got passed around the system, but for my eleventh birthday, things started to look up and I was placed with a family.
    They were good people, the Gunn family - the sort of people any kid in foster care hopes for, and for some inexplicable reason, they liked me. They liked me enough that a year later, they adopted me.
    They weren’t perfect, though…
    In every family, there are struggles, and in the Gunn Family, there was Sam. Sam was right in the middle of the three biological Gunn children, a few months older than me and to say that he was off would have been an understatement. He was the sort of kid who came home with notes from teachers that said things like ‘doesn’t play well with others’, the sort of kid who didn’t get invites to many birthday parties… and while they loved him, even Regina and Geoffrey Gunn knew he was off.
    But I don’t think anyone could have predicted he would go over the deep end the way he did. It happened one night, after Geoffrey had sat Sam down to explain that they were going to start sending him to a therapist. I woke to the first gunshot and without moving, without needing to, I’d known what happened. Paralyzed, I lay in my bed through three more shots. It was the crying that finally pulled me from my bed. Tommy was the youngest, and where Sam was strange, in a disquieting sort of way, Tommy was just a bundle of energy and excitement, and ideas. Always, he was full of ideas. Lying there, I knew that the next bullet was intended for Tommy… and somehow, the idea of that happening propelled me to move.
    I found Sam in the hallway, hovering over Tommy, the gun in hand. I didn’t think, didn’t have to. We were the same age, Sam and I, but I towered over him in height, and six months on the football team at our school had given me an advantage in strength as well. He was overpowered, but resilient. In the end, it was a wrestling match over the gun that ended Sam...
    But not before he had killed Regina, Geoffrey and their eldest, Rebecca. Not before he had traumatized Tommy to the point of near madness.
    I returned to the system immediately, Tommy with me, but it wasn’t long before I lost track of him.
    “By then, I was almost old enough to take care of myself, and as soon as I was released, I started looking into a career in law enforcement. I never wanted to be left in a situation where I felt that helpless… where anyone I cared about felt that way.”
    Somewhere in the middle of talking, April had taken my hand, but as I finished, I pulled it free to rake them through my hair, rubbing the palms over my face. I felt drained, and looking up at her, I could tell it had taken a toll on her as well.
    “God…” She whispered at last, and I found her fingers lacing around my own, again, “Max, I’m sorry. I can’t imagine what that all must have been like for you. And then Kate…”
    I knew she was thinking it, even if she didn’t say it, and maybe in a way that was because I was thinking the same thing… This was why I spent most nights in the bar. This was why I couldn’t hold down a steady relationship… Why the only family I knew was the family I chose, at the precinct. I wasn’t a tragedy on purpose, anyway…
    “You got nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart. It’s just the life I got dealt. But hell if I’m about to let this bastard take anything else from me.”
    She might’ve smiled, I don’t know, because at that precise moment, as I looked up to meet her eyes, the entire apartment was plunged into blackness.
    My eyes twisted to the window, but I didn’t need to look outside to confirm my suspicions. It wasn’t just the apartment…
    It was the entire city.
    The Blackout King was staging his grand finale.

    “You’re sure it’s him?” April asked, for what felt like the seventy-fifth time since the lights had gone out. Looking up, a brow quirked, I shot her an incredulous expression as I pulled back the hammer on my back up revolver.
    “I know…” She continued, and I could hear the tremor in her voice, “Too big a coincidence. I know…”
    “April.” Setting the revolver down on the counter, I moved for her, collecting her in my arms, pressing a kiss to the top of her head, “I’m not gonna let anything happen to you, you hear? I’m done with this son of a bitch.”
    I could hear her sniffle and felt moisture in the folds of my collar, but when she pulled away her eyes were already dry, and with a nod, she gestured to the gun, “Don’t have another one of those lying around, do you?”
    Smiling faintly, I shook my head, “No, but I got a bat in my bedroom closet…”
    “That’ll do…”
    “Probably a good idea you stay put in there, anyway, just in--” A knock at the front door interrupted, and while I’d swear against it later, I know I jumped. Edging April towards the bedroom, I picked up the revolver and moved to answer, “Who is it?”
    “B...boss? That you?”
    Frowning, I turned the knob and pulled the door open to find Dill standing on the other side, flashlight in hand, “What are you doing here?”
    “I mean… I sort of just… Well, you’re my partner, Boss. I guess I just figured if this was gonna come to some crazy head, I’d wanna help.”
    “Well, alright then…” He slipped inside and I closed the door behind him, clicking the deadbolt back into place. April’s cry came a second too late, and I turned just in time to see Dill’s arm swinging downward, bringing his flashlight with it.
    As I came to, I expected to feel a fog of confusion, but instead, was met with a sense of clarity I had not possessed for some time. My eyes opened, or at least one of them did, the other swollen shut, and I peered around the room, taking in what I could through the grim haze of darkness. Something wet trickled down my cheek from my temple and the pounding in my head came with a delightful ringing sound, but all those concerns were secondhand when I spotted April lying faceup on the carpet a few feet away.
    Panic gripped me with a relentless force and I nearly toppled the chair I was constrained to, as I tried to bolt upright. Dill's voice drove panic into rage as he spoke with saccharine tenderness, "Don't worry. She's not dead..."
    "You sick son of a bitch... I swear to God, if you lay one hand on her--"
    "Relax, Max. She's not my type..."
    "No, Dill? I'm pretty sure she's exactly your type..."
    "You're mad. I understand that. But if you'd just let me explain."
    "I'm not interested in your villain monologue, Dill. You're a twisted creep... End of story."
    "But... but that's not it at all, Maxie."
    A chill coursed down my spine and straightening in the chair, I tried to hide the shock, but I knew it was too late - that it had already registered on my face. A slow smirk spread to Dill's lips, and moving closer, he pointed a finger at me, "I knew it! I knew you'd figure it out..."
    "What the hell..."
    "I wanted to tell you. So many times, I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't. It would've ruined everything..."
    "...Hey, Maxie."
    I swore, and the jovial smile faded from his face.
    "You're not happy to see me?"
    "Hell, Tommy. Wh… what are you…”
    “You’re the hero, Max.”
    “… How… how long have you been-” But before I could finish, the realization stuck and with it, my stomach twisted into a knot, “Oh my God. It was you. It was you, wasn’t it?”
    “Poor Sam…” Dill mused, and I could feel the rope cutting into my wrists as I struggled against his knots, “Poor, misunderstood Sam. He was a sick freak, don’t get me wrong. But watching Becky undress? That’s about as weird as he got. But hell, I figured if everybody thought he was some kind of psycho, why not use that, you know? And hooboy, did it work. When he tried to stop me that night, and you came rushing in to save the day, though, Maxie? That’s when I understood why I was the way I was. That’s when it got real clear…”
    Moving across the room, Dill knelt down beside April and I pulled harder on the ropes, “Don’t you touch her!”
    But he had already straightened upright, smiling, “Don’t worry. I won’t. I mean… Not like that But I’m gonna kill her, Max. I have to… Unless you stop me. It's our destiny, see… like David and Goliath. This is our great battle…”
    “Our destiny… Are you insane?? You started this because you think I’m… what? Some sort of cartoon nemesis?? These are people, Dill ! Real, live people that’s your screwing with! People that you murdered!”
    “Yeah… But… but I had to, Max. You understand that, right? Why I had to do it?”
    “...You killed Kate.”
    “It had to mean something. Before then? They were strangers. It had to be something personal… Make it count.”
    “Make it… You bastard! You killed the woman I was gonna marry!”
    “Look where it’s gotten you, Max. Look how far you’ve come. I was gonna kill her, too…” He gestured down to April and I felt my chest tightened, “But then I saw it. When you got her picture… and then when you met her. You liked her… So I let it go. I let it build. Gotta admit, I didn’t expect you to sleep with her, but hell… it’s kind of perfect. Cause this last one, Maxie? It has to be special.”
    Staring at him, my eyes narrowed, “Special? You think… You think I give a damn if you kill her? Do it. She means nothing to me.” The words hurt, physically hurt, my stomach roiling as I said them, but I could hear my own voice, the anger, the disgust and I knew it had to sound real to him, because more importantly, I could feel the rope fraying... “Trouble is, Dill… you played your trump card, too early. You killed Kate… and no one’ll ever mean to me she did. And I’m not gonna help you build a legacy on her death. Blackout King? More like the Joker.”
    “...N...no.” Frowning, Dill shifted uncomfortably, his eyes twitching down to April, then back up to me, “No. She’s… It’s perfect. I planned it out perfectly!” Frantically, he knotted his hands together, and as he began to pace back and forth, I continued to shift, shuffling the ropes back and forth against my sore, swollen wrists. I could feel them loosening, the knots, the rope going slack...
    “Perfectly? No, Dill. You screwed up. You screwed up big time. Pushed too hard. Hell… I don’t even give a damn if you kill me, at this point. What do I have left, hmm? Some crap job I couldn’t care less about?”
    “No!” His voice had devolved, rapidly, into a shriek, his face blotched bright red, “No! You love it! You live for your job! You’re the hero, Maxie! I made you!”
    “Made me?? You stupid kid… You’re the one who broke me.”
    He lunged at the same time I yanked free of the ropes and I had just enough time to put my hands up before he crashed into me. The chair, and I with it, toppled backwards, but I managed to get a grip on Dill and as I fell, I looped my hands around his thin, wiry neck. His own arms came just short of my throat, but like a wild animal he wiggled, frantically, and I felt my grasp tightening, could see his eyes bulging wide.
    It was in those eyes I saw it… beyond the deep rooted madness, the animalistic glint of fury. There was mirth - pure adolescent joy.
    This was what he wanted, and like a damn fool, I was giving it to him…


    The Right Time to Say No (open)
    With a cry, I pushed and rolled until Dill was beneath me and freeing one hand, I reached for the ropes that had tangled in the rungs of the chair. He was still scrambling, but with his air receding, his batting hands carried about as much power as a mewling kitten. As his eyes began to roll back in his head, I snagged hold of the rope. Pinning him with my knees, I grabbed those hands and unlatching my other hand from his neck, I used the rope to tie his hands together. As I pulled the knot taut, his eyes snapped open and a rage-filled howl exploded from his mouth. In a split second decision, one admittedly propelled by my own anger, a right hook shut him up, the left rendering him unconscious.

    Sitting at the bar in O’Malley’s, I stared down into the fizzing glass of ginger ale with a frown, watching the bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass. It had been six months since Tommy Gunn’s arrest, and it was almost strange how everything seemed to settle back into place. Pushing the glass to the edge of the bar, I rose and as I did, a pair of arms snaked around my middle. Faintly, I smiled and looped my arm around April’s shoulders, patting my coat pocket where the ring lay, waiting for the perfect moment

    Almost everything, anyway.

    It was a dark and stormy night when the dame walked into my life. But as they do, the storm had passed…
    The Lesser of Two Evils (open)
    But the blood pounding in my heads was drowning out reason. He was going to kill April. He had killed Kate and those other girls… the Gunns. My hands tightened until my knuckles turned white and Dill’s eyes rolled back in his head. For a moment or two he continued to grasp and flail, then his hands drooped slowly to his sides… It was over.

    Releasing him, I pushed off his body, pushed back until I hit the rug. Suddenly, fingers looped themselves around my wrist and with a jolt I turned to see April staring up at me, a blur, through the tears making their way down my face.

    “What happened?”

    “He's gone.” Her fingers tightened, but I barely felt them, staring at Dill with a cold numbness,”He's gone…”

    O’Malley’s was crowded that night, the sounds of the fray resounding noisily off the glassware. Men shouting at the boxing match on the television, bets being wagered over the pool table. For me, the night held only a familiar coolness… one not tuned to the warming weather outside. A scotch rested between my hands, but I had yet to taste it. It had been six months since Tommy Gunn was pronounced dead. Still, his dark eyes and twisted soul haunted me. April had stayed for a time, even despite my best efforts to push her away, but eventually the coldness which had consumed my very way of thinking had bled into our relationship and she had left.

    But it was ultimately better this way. Eventually, my way of living would catch up to me. Could only throw myself into enough bottles before I drowned.

    Downing the scotch, I slid the glass across the counter to the tender, who frowned, but filled it.

    It was a dark and stormy night when the dame walked into my life… and storms sometimes have a way of lingering.
    April's Fool (open)
    But I couldn’t make myself care. My fingers tightened around his neck, Dill sputtering, flailing madly, his eyes rolling back in his head… I couldn’t let go, couldn’t stop myself. The rage, like a fire, burned through me until there was nothing left but my own anger...

    “...Max…” The voice came from behind me, and swinging my head back, I saw April push herself upright, rubbing the back of her head with a groan, “Max, don’t do it…”

    As if a spell had been shattered by her gentle pleading, I pushed away from Dill, who lay limp, his chest heaving in and out. My own heart pounded rapidly in my chest, but April had made her way over to me, touched my shoulder with a gentle hand. I grabbed for her, held her tightly, a lifeline to my sanity.

    O’Malley’s was buzzing that evening, but I cared little for the rowdy boxing match or wagers placed over pool tables. Six months had passed since Tommy Gunn had nearly died by my hands. His trial had been quick… Open and closed. He would serve the remainder of his life behind bars. For a while, I was a prisoner as well… shackled to the guilt over what I had almost done. Were it not for April, I might have dissolved entirely. She sat beside me at the bar, her hands balancing a glass of whiskey. She had struggled, too. With the realization of how near she had come to a terrible fate. And for a time, I had not trusted our relationship to survive. But it had… because at the end of the day we were two people who needed each other… and that was good enough.

    Setting my own glass aside, I looped an arm around April's slender shoulder and with a soft sigh she leaned into me. Looking down, I caught the barest hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

    It was a dark and stormy night when the dame walked into my life… but the skies were finally beginning to clear.

    Community Pick Winner: Two Tin Toy Soldiers by @firejay1
    Two Tin Toy Soldiers (open)
    “Two tin toy soldiers, came out to play.
    Two tin toy soldiers, got lost on the way.
    One brought me flowers that withered and died.
    One brought me nothing, he promised but lied.”

    A small girl’s high-pitched voice carried the melody through the cold air, drifting past the sparse trees and cookie cutter houses ominously. The only other sounds in the little suburb were that of sprinklers sputtering on. It was three in the morning. No one else was about at this time. The girl could not have been older than seven. Her short brown hair had been put into precise little pigtails, and her pink jacket was worn but clean. She was building something unidentifiable in a sandbox in the park, completely alone in the dark before dawn.

    “You’re really proud of that song, huh?” The boy who walked up to her looked to be about her age, but he had his hands shoved in his pockets as one might expect of a teenager.

    The girl looked over at him and her features lit up with a smile. “Johnny!” She picked herself up off the ground and brushed herself down. Then, she held out her right hand and the sandy-haired child swooped forward to take it and kiss the back of it- as if the two of them were in a ballroom only they could see- in an older time- in a different place. She giggled and he grinned and the two of them crouched back down to inspect the little dirt pile she’d made. The boy put his hand forward as if to brush some of it to the side, but the girl’s small hand stopped his. “Don’t disturb it. Or he can’t go to heaven.”

    “Huh?” He asked, a little perplexed, but not unpleasantly so. She had always been a bit strange like that to begin with.

    “I found Mr. Tribbles this morning in the street. I think someone ran him over.” She announced, solemnly. Mr. Tribbles… ah, that was right, the neighborhood stray. “And Papa said dogs can’t go to heaven unless they get a proper burial. It’s to prove that somebody loved them. Daddy told him not to tell me silly lies like that, but it doesn’t hurt, right?” She patted the mound down gently, busying herself with it as if it were somehow fragile. “Daddy and Papa always argue about things like that.” She said quietly.

    He cast her a scant glance, but the boy withdrew his hand respectfully, and the two surveyed the mound in the sandbox solemnly, somehow engrossed in silent discourse with it.

    “Why are you showing me this, John?” An old woman stood by a man in his late-twenties, the two of them watching the children from the shadows of a nearby tree.

    He didn’t look at her. “Because you need to remember how we were when I last saw you.” There was something in his voice that made her search his face carefully.

    “But that wasn’t the last time I saw you.” The old lady protested, speaking without condescension, despite the difference in their age. “Not…” She hesitated slightly. “Not when you last saw me, either. Not if we’re here now.” He still didn’t look at her. Though her voice had grown more certain through the last sentence, the doubt still lingered there. She was certain he must have felt it, too.

    “Yes it was.”


    Emmeline Fawkes-Hale had been adopted by the nice couple next door when John was five. Almost twenty years later, John still remembered his mother warning him to be nice to her. “Why?” He’d asked. He was a good kid. She’d never had to tell him to be nice to one of the other kids before.

    Mary Greene had given his father a Look, before scolding Johnny gently, “Because I said so.”

    He thought about this moment often.


    Emmeline had been six when the two of them had first really talked to each other. It had started when their parents had gotten together for dinner at his house. The adults were still talking and laughing long after he’d finished his food and been excused from the table. He’d been in the middle of playing a game on the couch of the living room when the adults had burst in laughing and turned on the music, starting to dance with each other.

    For a long moment, John stared at them in disgust, but then with a laughing shout, his mom said, “John. Grab Emmeline and come dance with us, silly!”

    It was only then that he noticed the little girl sitting next to him on the cough. She hadn’t said a word, so he had no idea when she’d started sitting there. He looked at her, then at his mom, face squinched up slightly. She gave a “be polite” glare. Sighing, he looked at the girl again. “Uh… I guess… do you wanna-’”

    “May I have this dance.” She corrected him pertly. Her voice was very high and thin. It had a strange, breezy quality that would normally be called delicate, but the sharp, imperious tone she was using was anything but. It struck him that he had never heard her speak in class before, beyond the odd moment their teacher had called on her.

    “Huh?” He asked, intelligently.

    “When asking a lady to dance, you say, ‘May I have this dance?’” She clarified, impatiently.

    Scrambling for his wits again, he followed her directive. “Uh… okay. May I have this dance?” He didn’t say it with anywhere near the emphasis she had, but he offered her his hand, and she took it graciously.

    The two of them had proceeded to dance without really knowing how. Emmeline had chattered on about ladies and princes, and about how one day she would marry a prince. He had thought then that she was a little strange, but humored her anyways – that day and many days after.


    Emmeline began taking interest in boys when she was sixteen. John, for his part, had started taking interest in girls when he was twelve, but his selfish neighbor had never really noticed, so far as he could tell. He always remembered the moment she told him about her first crush with terrible irony, as he had broken up with his own girlfriend just the day before. “When you asked me out, everyone said, ‘Watch out, Lizzy. You’ve gotta share John Greene with Emmy.’ And I thought they were joking. You know what? Go fuck yourself, John.” She had said, with a shake of her head. When Emmeline flounced up to his door the very next day and went on about some new kid in their grade, he couldn’t help but think that she’d been right.

    Even after making other friends, the quiet girl Emmeline had been had always turned to him first. Whether because her parents were fighting again, or because someone had made fun of her, whenever she was upset, she always came to him for help. He was the only one still allowed to call her Emmeline, though she’d made the switch to ‘Emmy’ when they were ten. John had always taken pride in their relationship, but he’d insisted to himself and everyone around him that he only ever saw her as a little sister.

    Seeing her chattering about her “first love” the same way she’d done about princes ten years ago, a sense of frustration welled up in the usually self-assured teen.

    “John?” Her voice saying his name hit him like a stack of bricks. “Are you okay?”

    Two pairs of brown eyes met each other. She looked worried. He didn’t know what he looked like at the moment, but he was pretty sure it was not good. The silence stretched between them. They had always been able to sit with each other in silence, comfort each other that way, no matter what was going on. This time, however, it wasn’t a comfortable silence. It felt… wrong.

    He coughed awkwardly. “Yeah uhm… Sorry, I just… broke up with my girlfriend yesterday. So I’m... kind of out of it.” He tried. Despite the truth of the statement, it surprised him how little it hurt him to say those words, to process the fact that he’d been dumped.

    Her demeanor changed in an instant. “OH.” She curled one long brown lock of hair around her finger – a nervous habit he used to joke would make her bald one day. “Ah. I’m sorry. You should’ve told me.” She frowned softly. “Shame. I liked Lizzy. Ookay!” She opened her arms. “C’mere, let your favorite little sis give you a hug to make you feel better.” The brunette teased.

    “You’re not-” He stopped himself. “Sorry, I’d just… rather go inside and think for a bit.” Just like that, he’d slammed the door in her face. Even then, though, he knew the next day he would pretend as if nothing had changed. He would go to school, pretend that Lizzy Vance was the reason he’d shut Emmeline out, and nothing would change as nothing had ever changed before.


    Emmeline’s fathers signed the divorce papers two days before she herself got married. She didn’t have a bachelorette party. She almost didn’t have the wedding. She simply cried a lot. She cried watching her father sign the papers. She cried sitting in the dark in the apartment she was preparing to move out of. She cried in the waiting room in her white dress. John knew because he was there. He didn’t want to be there, but he was.

    The day they were set to sign the papers, John received a phone call. The two of them had not spoken, really, since graduating high school. He’d gone off to college and she’d gone into the work force. Their friendship had been one of those relationships you expect to last forever – the type that doesn’t seem to last a week. He hadn’t even taken much note of the wedding invitation he’d received in the mailbox two months prior. Whenever he thought of the moment in the years to come, the thought always crossed his mind: if he had paused to look at the caller I.D., would he have picked up? Would things have been… different?

    Awkwardly, John scooped up the phone with his left hand and pressed the answer button before even checking to see who it was. He shoved the phone between his cheek and his shoulder, shuffling through papers, looking for something. “Hello? Who is this?” He asked, absent-mindedly. No response. His hands paused, and he strained to hear something from the other end. Still nothing. With a click of his tongue, John snapped, “If this is a prank call, I’m hanging up.” One hand reached up to grab the phone and pull it away from his ear to see if the number was familiar to him, when a most-definitely-familiar girl’s voice said one word and stopped him cold.


    All the frantic shuffling he’d been doing earlier stilled in a single moment. Finally, his right hand reached up and held onto the phone, switching it to his other ear and paying it full attention. He responded in like kind. “Emmeline.”

    As if her name alone was the final drop in a bowl about to overflow, she burst into tears. The sobs came crackling through the speaker, watering a piece of him he’d abandoned to die long ago. John sat there in his room and listened. He spoke not a word, as she cried until there was no crying left in her for a bit, then as she explained what was happening and discovered that there were more tears left in her than she had thought possible.

    Her fathers, she told him, had been planning the divorce for some time. It just so happened that they finally got their papers a couple days before her marriage. It was like fate, they had said. She would be their new hope for love and felicity, they had said. They wanted to come together, for the last time, to sign the papers as the good friends they would be from now on. Lies, lies, lies, lies. For how long had they been fighting, only to put up a brave front in front of her? She knew better. She knew that she had just been a burden in the end. The very thing they had tried to use to save their marriage had instead turned it into a shackle. They were taking it as fate, yes: they would take their shackles and put it on her instead. That was their revenge. And Tommy Mason didn’t- wouldn’t- couldn’t understand.

    John listened as Emmeline told him all of these things. He asked no questions, made no judgments, and gave no advice. She didn’t seem to care. Three years’ worth of pain had finally found somewhere to go, and that momentum wasn’t about to be stopped with just a little silence.

    She didn’t love Tommy Mason, she told him. She’d tried so hard, but things like that didn’t just happen. They were getting married because she was pregnant. The good man that he was had offered for her as soon as he’d found out. He was everything she should have wanted. They had met at her work. She was a waitress. He was a customer. She had bumped into him and spilled water all over him, but he had smiled and been gracious. She’d run into him again about a week later, completely by accident, only to discover he lived in her neighborhood. He was a couple years older than her and worked a stable job. It had been like a story. Everything should have been perfect. Everything. The way he’d confessed to her, the way he’d acted on dates, the way he had held her the first time, the way he’d proposed to her. Everything had been perfect. Except for her. She was the mistake in the program. It was all her fault.

    When at last all the words had faded away into empty sobs, Emmeline asked John, “Will you come with me?”

    She didn’t have to tell him when or where. His answer would have been the same if she had asked him to follow her to hell itself. “Of course.”


    Emmeline asked John if he wanted to go get drinks the day after her daughter turned two. After her wedding, they had stayed in touch and it wasn’t uncommon for them to spend some time together when they had time off. As a mother, she was often busy, but she had always made time here or there. For the most part, they only ever talked about mundane things. How is your daughter? How is your work? What’s changed since I last saw you? This time, however, stuck out in John’s memory because it was the day he found out a little more than he had wanted to know.

    They had gone to a bar, but it didn’t escape his notice that she hadn’t touched any alcohol. Instead, she had ordered copious amounts of soda and had been drinking that in utter silence for twenty minutes. None of the usual pleasantries had passed between them, and when he’d tried to strike up conversation, her answers had been monosyllabic at best.

    Finally, she put down her glass with a precise click and blurted out, “I’m pregnant again.”

    John stared at her, at a loss for words. Normally, that was something you’d congratulate someone for, but she didn’t look like someone expecting to be congratulated. She was resolutely staring down her glass, face expressionless. “Uh…”

    “I really… really wish I wasn’t.” She downed the soda in one gulp. “Jenna is hard enough as it is.” She continued without giving John a chance to respond. “Of course, Tommy’s thrilled. He thinks that another baby is going to… I don’t know, rekindle the magic he thinks we used to have. He’s stopped hitting me because of it.” John choked on the drink he had blankly raised to his lips. If Emmeline noticed, she said nothing about it. “It’s not that I don’t want another kid. It’s not like I don’t love Jenna. But I don’t know what I’m going to do when he figures out that this one isn’t going to save us, either.”

    “Emmeline. Stop.” John commanded, having gotten most of the coughs out of his system. “Since when has Tommy been hitting you?”

    She finally looked over at him, casting him a sideways glance briefly, before shrugging. “I don’t know. It just kind of happened. It only happens when we fight, anyways. He always apologizes afterwards. It hasn’t been that long.”

    “That doesn’t mean-” He started, but she cut him off, slamming one palm against the top of the bar. She looked straight at him then, turning her entire body towards him. Her eyes held a mix of things he would be hard pressed to describe. Her whole body was taut, and that expression of hers was hard as stone. He wouldn’t have called it cold – it was full of too many emotions to be called cold – but it was, on some level, unforgiving.

    “It doesn’t mean what, John? Do you have something to say about the state of my marriage?” The clear rejection slapped him in the face, and he found himself unable to speak a word. She turned back to her glass and the bar in front of them. “I thought so.”

    “This doesn’t explain anything.” The old lady said, from where the two of them stood in the corner of the crowded room. No one paid them any notice. Technically, they were too far away from the pair of people sitting at the bar to see or hear anything, clearly, but technicalities were not really important in this case. Besides, did they really need to see these things? It wasn’t like the two of them didn’t remember all of these moments anyways. “John?” He was unreadable as he had been before. She had always been able to read him. At least, that was what she had used to think.

    Since he would not respond to her, however, and made no move to show her anything else, Emmeline took the initiative. “None of these were the last time I saw you. It wasn’t when you died, either. They do not change anything. Here, let me show you.” She reached for him. “You remember, too, don’t you?” He looked at her, quietly.

    “I do.”


    John Greene was a few months shy of his twenty-ninth birthday when he died. It was her fault, as were so many other things. Guilt wasn’t what she felt when she thought about it, though. She had always known she was a little too selfish for things like that. It wasn’t relief, either, or grief. In the days following the tragedy that took two people from her, Emmeline shed not a tear of any kind. She’d never felt guilty for that, either.

    That day, she had left the house after a fight with Tommy had gotten particularly bad. She’d snagged her phone on the way out and called up the only person she could think to call, who was, of course, John. Who else? It was late at night, but she barely felt the cold against her skin as she waited for him on a park bench. Talking to John always calmed her down, as it had when they were little kids. She looked down at her hands. They were clasped tightly in her lap, still shaking a little with the rage. Their fights had gotten worse after Marcy had been born. It hadn’t taken long after the end of her maternity leave for him to go back to hitting her. Still, he’d always had the presence of mind to conduct any arguments in the privacy of their room, away from the children. He’d come home drunk today. Drunk. Jenna and Marcy were not so young anymore that these things would escape their notice. He’d been raving like a lunatic, asking her where she’d been a few nights ago.

    She bit her lip until she tasted the metallic tang of blood, lost in her thoughts. When she was young, she had blamed her parents for never working through their issues and for pretending they weren’t fighting even when they were. It was a little strange how well she now understood what they had felt. “Emmeline?” She looked up to see John approaching her. Relief spread through her entire body at the sight of him, and she gave him a rueful smile. “What happened?” He looked worried, pushing back his messy, sandy-brown hair away from his face. He had gotten here awfully quickly.

    She stood up to greet him, but another voice yelled, “Emmy!” She whipped around. It was Tommy. His face was a little flushed, but she wasn’t sure if it was left over from the alcohol or because he’d run here. He certainly looked like he’d run, his clothes in disarray. “I didn’t-” He stopped short, seeing John there. Come to think of it, the two of them had not met since the wedding, seven years ago. They seemed to recognize each other, though. She looked between them. They both were on guard, as if gearing up for a fight. “Why is he here?” Tommy snarled. John was not much better.

    He stepped past her and faced Tommy grimly. “What have you been doing to Emmeline?” His voice was solemn. Even from behind him, Emmeline could see the lines of his face set in an unfamiliar expression. Perhaps it was the bright, white light of the street lamp overhead, but the shadows of their faces seemed somehow deeper and more severe than before.

    She reached out a hand to try and stop him, but then Tommy shakily pulled something from his jacket and waved it at them. Both of them froze stiff. “Tommy, what are you doing?! Where did you get that?” Emmeline yelled, more angry than terrified.

    He wasn’t paying her any attention as his hands held the gun shakily. “It’s none of your business what I do with my wife or my kids.” He growled defiantly at John. “If they even are my kids.” John seemed just as confused by this statement as Emmeline. “Don’t give me that look. You’re the one screwing this bitch, aren’t you!?” He waved the gun in her general direction.

    It took a bit for that to process. When she finally got what had been riling him up, Emmeline’s vision turned red. Her fingers curled into fists, nails leaving marks in her palms that she would later come to stare at out of habit. “What the hell. WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU JUST SAY?!!” She shrieked at him. “TOMMY YOU LITTLE BITCH. I’VE NEVER BEEN UNFAITHFUL TO YOU.”

    “What, you thought I wouldn’t notice?! You’re always going out to meet him.” They were both shaking, neither really paying attention to John, awkwardly stuck in the middle of this situation that really had nothing to do with him.

    “As FRIENDS. What the- Why haven’t you ever talked to me about this. Dammit, Tommy!”

    “SHUT UP.” He roared, and then his finger curled around the trigger and a deafening bang split the air. Both of them were stunned into silence. Her husband stared at her. She frantically looked down at herself, looking for traces of blood. There was blood alright, but it wasn’t coming from her. It stained the purple blouse she was wearing, a spatter pattern that was, thankfully, not spreading. Her eyes trailed up the pavement until it hit a body. John’s body. There was definitely blood coming from that. It pooled on the ground around him, thick and black. Her brown eyes grew wide and she shakily turned them back upon Tommy. He was staring at John, too. Then he looked at her. They shared that single moment with each other, before Tommy lifted the gun to his own head and fired.

    John’s funeral was held on the same day as Tommy’s. Emmeline figured that was to ensure she didn’t come. His parents blamed her, after all. That was alright with her. She would have her own little service for him later. She attended Tommy’s funeral quietly, dressed in a black dress with her two daughters in tow. Marcy had cried a lot, but Jenna had just held on tight to her hand and watched in silence.

    John’s parents forgave her when Jenna turned twelve, five years later. They forgave her because they saw her in the neighborhood, having brought Jenna to his grave every year on her birthday since then. It was a tradition the girl had started by asking to see “the other person” on her birthday, although they only ever visited Tommy’s grave on the anniversary of his death. It was after bumping into his parents that her daughter finally asked her who “Uncle John” was. The two of them stayed up late that night while ten-year-old Marcy slept, and Emmeline told her a story about a selfish girl and two boys who had loved her. At the end of it, Jenna asked if she was sad. She shook her head and put the teen to sleep.

    John’s grave saw a new visitor when Marcy turned eighteen. Despite thirteen years having passed, the younger Mason sister had never really understood what had happened between the dead man and the rest of the family. All she had understood was that dad had died and it had to be someone else’s fault. She had always refused to go when Emmeline had taken Jenna to see him on her birthday, and Emmeline had not bothered trying to force her. There was no point visiting a grave in person when you hated them in spirit. She said she was going because she wanted to know “what the big whoop was about” before she went off to college. As Emmeline expected, though, she didn’t seem to find any answers there. She simply stood in front of the old headstone, glaring it down, then announced, “I miss dad,” before turning away. It was the first and the last time she would come see the man she believed was the cause of her father’s death. Jenna had stopped visiting his grave at the same age. Emmeline was fine with that, too. Those two girls had nothing to do with him, after all. It was best he stay a strange, incongruous memory for them.

    The last time John was visited by Jenna was after she gave birth to a baby boy, whom she named Timothy. Emmeline held her hand as the two women stood in front of the headstone. They had really gone to the cemetery to visit her father, to tell him the good news. She didn’t say why she had wanted to come see him, too, but as they stood there, Jenna said, “I hope Timothy doesn’t turn out like them.”

    Emmeline gave a sage smile and kissed her daughter on the forehead. “Don’t hope too hard, sweetheart. Just do the best you can.”

    John’s parents died of old age in their 90’s. They died less than a week apart, John’s mother following his father as if that was the natural course of things. Emmeline was well into her 60’s at the time, and both of her daughters were grown adults with their own lives to worry about. Emmeline had stayed healthy as ever, living alone in her own house, doting on her grandchildren when they came. She had continued to visit John once a year on Jenna’s birthday. It had become something of a habit that she couldn’t really explain. She had helped a little to pay for the funeral, covering what they hadn’t prepared already with Jenna’s help. The funeral was a lonely one. John had been their only child, and though some of their nieces and nephews had come to see them off into the next world, most of their generation had already passed. It was different, she hoped, from John’s own funeral. She wasn’t exactly young, herself.

    She brought extra flowers and took them to John. Sitting on the ground beside his headstone was, at that point, difficult for her, so she was there only a short time. As they often had in the past, she stayed with him in silence after having told him about his parents’ death. He probably knew that already, though. In her mind, they had simply gone to stay with him forever. She lifted her eyes to the sky and quietly laughed, “Here is to hoping they have found you safely.”

    “See?” Emmeline’s ghost told the young man, as they sat under the shade of a tree together, overlooking his headstone. “I never forgot you. You dying… it wasn’t the last time, either. Nor that time when we were seven.”

    Finally, John faced her properly, and she saw that he was smiling gently. He held out his hand to her. Her hesitation lasted only a moment. She, glowing, took his hand and she looked as she had when he had died, the two of them just a little short of twenty-nine. “You seem to have misunderstood something, Emmeline.” He said, still smiling the way he always had. “That wasn’t an accusation. I wanted you to remember how we were at the beginning and at the end, so you’re ready.” He gently tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and moved as if to gallantly whisk her away- as if the two of them were in a ballroom only they could see- in an older time- in a different place. “This is how you escort a lady into a ball, right?”

    Her eyes widened in slight surprise, then she laughed. “That would be correct.”

    “Time to go.”


    The very last time Emmeline visited John was a week before she died, at the full age of 92, surrounded by her two daughters and three grandchildren. Refusing any help, she had taken her walker and made her way with tired bones to the graveyard. After some time, she managed to sit down next to his grave. It was hard, but she’d had the feeling that it would be the last time, and this last time wanted to meet him where he was.

    She placed one hand on the grass-covered mound where he was buried and surveyed it solemnly, engrossed in silent discourse with it. She gave a whisper of a laugh, when a memory came to mind – a melody she had come up with when she was just a girl, forgotten until this moment.

    “Two tin toy soldiers, came out to play.
    Two tin toy soldiers, got lost on the way.
    One brought me flowers that withered and died.
    One brought me nothing, he promised but lied.”

    Her old, fading voice carried the melody through the crisp air, drifting past the headstones and sparse trees as the wind itself. A lifetime’s memories woven into it.
    • Love Love x 1
  6. MISC #5: It's How You Say It
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread

    Manager's Pick Winner: A Single Step by @Greenie
    A Single Step (open)

    A Single Step

    “Simon… Dad’s dead…”

    It was a week ago when I received that call, in a rather trying moment when I was entangled in sheets, having the time of my life with a beautiful lady I had met in the bar. I always turned my phone off during my nights with the ladies, but for some reason, this time I’d forgotten. I don’t like to think about fate and destiny, so I say it was just a coincidence. I could’ve simply let the damn thing ring, but that night I had paused my attention to my lady friend and answered the phone. She hadn’t been too pleased, that much I remembered.

    The remainder of the night was something of a blur, and I can’t for the life of me remember when she even left. I vaguely remember missing a couple of hundred dollar bills I had in my wallet, but that was nothing to me. I wasn’t the sort of person who lived paycheck to paycheck; I was a budding businessman who had enough money that the loss of a few hundred dollars was tantamount to blowing them on a fancy dinner.

    And yet, I found a reason to find a flight four days later, rather than immediately, to fly back to my birth town for my father’s funeral. It was a cheaper flight than what I would’ve had to fly had I chosen to leave immediately. When I arrived and met my other siblings, a younger brother and sister, I gave them the feeble excuse of money for not flying right away. They saw through my lie, I could tell, but they weren’t bothered to say anything about it. Maybe it was because they understood why.

    The three of us had never forgiven our father for his infidelity. It was strange how bitter I felt about his sins of adultery, yet cast a blind eye to all of my own flaws and faults. It was always easier to look at others than myself, after all. Nevertheless, once my father’s tryst had been exposed and my mother’s heart broken, it wasn’t long before they separated, and later, divorced. We had been old enough to choose whom we wished to live with; obviously, we all chose our mother. Our father had expelled from the house, and pretty much our lives. Where he lived after that, I had no clue, nor did I wish to learn of it.

    Back to the present, even as I looked down upon his coffin in the grave, I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive him completely. That being said, I was curious. It had been more than fifteen years since I’d last talked to him. What had he been up to?

    It wasn’t like I really cared. At least, I didn’t wish to admit it to myself. There was a niggling thought in the back of my head, however, that just wouldn’t leave. So, the day after the funeral, I called a few places and managed to get ahold of my father’s address. A part of my mind was telling me I was an idiot for even thinking about visiting his place. The other part of my mind was winning the battle, and soon enough I was sitting in a taxi, heading his apartment’s way.

    I am not sure what I expected. Maybe a condominium apartment, or something of a duplex, perhaps. Instead, I ended up in a complex that seemed several years old, with cracked sidewalks and random graffiti on the faded red brick walls, though nothing too scandalous. I remembered these buildings from when I was a child; a few second cousins used to live here; maybe they still did. Apparently, it had been a den of drug use fifteen years ago. From the state of the place, I had no reason to believe otherwise. It looked stale, dusty, and frankly, not a place I’d want to visit.

    Still, I paid the cab driver and resigned myself to appease my curiosity. A few children looked up from their sidewalk chalk art as I passed by, one giving me a toothy little grin as she waved. I blinked, surprised, but then smiled, waving a hand back at her. The child's grin widened before she returned her gaze to her chalk drawing. I watched for a couple of moments before reminding myself why I was even here.

    The lobby was as I remembered, locked glass doors that would only open if someone let you in. I punched the number I had been given into a rather old number pad and waited, hearing the incessant ringing. It continued for a while, and I was contemplating leaving when finally someone answered.

    “Hello?” The voice, though staticky, was clearly female. “Who's this?”

    “Simon Morris, I'm here to see my father's apartment.”

    There was a moment of silence before a buzzer sounded and there was a clicking sound. Recognizing it as the door unlocking, I hurried over and quickly grabbed the handle, pulling the door open and heading into the main building. As soon as I entered the main hallway, there was the forgotten assault of stale mustiness and spices. I had to cover my nose with my hand as I hurried up a few steps and into the hallway that led to the number I was given.

    Why would he have chosen to live in such a place? I could not for the life of me fathom a reason. Surely there had to have been better places he could’ve chosen to rent, right? I assumed he had been renting, because who’d want to actually buy one of these apartments?

    After a couple of minutes of walking down a rather narrow hallway, I finally reached the door I was looking for. I took a breath before removing my hand from my mouth. “Here goes nothing.” Breathing out, I rapped on the door twice and waited. Not too long, mind you, as I could already hear footsteps from the other side of the door. There was the sound of a chain lock sliding, then a deadlock clicking, and lastly, the door actually opening.

    It was awkward, to say the least. The woman before me was about my own age, dressed in a tank top and shorts, wavy black hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Her eyes, though a striking green, seemed tired. She clearly lived here, that much I picked up from the way she was dressed as well as her stance in the doorway, judging whether I should be let in.

    Was this my father’s girlfriend? Or wife? She would have to be thirty years younger than him, at least. I probably shouldn’t judge someone for wanting to be with a man so much older than they were… but why? The only reason I could see my father living here was because he didn’t have enough money to live somewhere better, which would remove the incentive of any younger woman living with an older man… right?

    “Who are you?” I asked, a little blunter than I’d hoped for.

    She raised an eyebrow. “Kinda rude there,” she muttered. “I live here. My name’s Mary.” She looked at me with a rather neutral gaze and then nodded. “I suppose you want to come in. Well, come on.” She pushed the door open completely and moved to the side, motioning me to enter with a beckon of her hand.

    I complied, unsure of what to expect when I entered. More mustiness, perhaps? Or maybe something completely the opposite? It was neither. As I passed through the rather small entrance, I seemed to enter the kitchen, and beyond that, an attached living and dining room. There were three doors to my left, which I assumed were bedrooms and a bathroom. It was rather cramped, much smaller than I was used to. I could not help notice that it was neither dirty or messy, nor did it smell odd like the hallway outside. Obviously, someone took care of this place.

    “This is supposed to be my father's place.” I looked at the woman, Mary, and decided to get back to business. “I came to… see to his belongings.” Another terrible lie, but I had no better one in store at the moment.

    “Heh.” A small laugh left Mary, but she didn't seem amused. "You actually thought that you were the first? You were the last." She shook her head as she closed the door behind her, though she didn't lock it.

    “What do you mean?”

    “They came too, your brother and sister, but they came yesterday, with the same excuse.” Mary shrugged. “Not sure what you guys are looking for. Clearly, you didn't know him at all if you thought he had something worth snatching. And anything he did, it's with those people.” She motioned in the air with an impatient hand. “Those 'last will and testament' people, or whatever they're called. So you can stop lying about why you came and just spit it out.”

    “Fine,” I replied, irritation in my voice obvious. Who did she think she was, talking to me like that? Maybe she lived here, but this was clearly my father's place! At least… that is what I had thought. I was actually not too sure now. “Who are you? I don't just mean your name. What are you in relation to my father?” My teeth ground with frustration I still harboured. “Or were you just another girl he slept with?”

    By this time she had left the entrance and had made her way to one of the chairs in the dining room. I thought my blatant question might’ve offended her, but on the contrary, she seemed amused. “Not that it's any of your effing business if I was, but no, I wasn't sleeping with your dad.” The amusement passed and another emotion found itself on her face. Restrained grief.

    Mary looked at me for a moment before averting her eyes to look out of the window instead. “I know what you guys thought of him. He was the man who supposedly cheated on your mom. But to me, he was the father I never had.” Her shoulders lifted in a half-hearted shrug. “If it wasn't for him, me and my mom would've been in some homeless shelter I bet.” I looked away from her face to her hands, seeing they were clenched tightly around her knees. As much as she was trying to seem calm and collected, it was obvious to me that she was feeling pain.

    Yet, I didn’t feel sympathy. If anything, I felt jealous. The notion was ridiculous to me, yet there it was, gnawing at my heart until I felt a sort of dull pain. I should’ve been the one feeling grief, not her. He had been my father, not hers...

    What if he had been her father as well? It would make sense then, why he would want to take care of her. Some responsibility for the illegitimate child he created. Frankly, that thought gave me no comfort, but it did have sound reason.

    “So…” I spoke slowly, still standing rather awkwardly in the middle of the apartment. “He was your father too “

    Mary looked up at that, shaking her head. “No, I told you he was the father I never had. I don't have a clue who my real father is, and I don't give a crap about it either.”

    “Why did he take care of you then?” I knew I sounded impatient. I didn’t know why this was so upsetting to me. It shouldn’t have been, yet there I was, unable to remain calm. I did not like my father, so why did I care so much that he took care of another instead of me?

    “Because he was a good person?” Mary raised an eyebrow at me.

    “Bullshit,” I replied.

    “Look, you never said why you came here.” Mary stood up from the chair, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m being nice here, letting you come in my house, out of respect for your father. I don’t give a rat’s ass who you are, really.”

    I couldn’t help but bristle inwardly, because what she said was the truth, as much as I hated it. I was being a jerk, intruding on her privacy and acting as if she should care about my thoughts and feelings. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to apologize and admit she was right.

    “I came to see what kind of person my father was.” I let out a derisive laugh before nodding. “And I think I know enough now. He chose a false family over the real one he already had.” With that said, I turned and headed for the door.

    The door was halfway open when I heard Mary speak once more. “He never cheated on your mom, you know.” I heard footsteps coming close to me, but then they stopped. I had half a mind to leave but turned around anyway. She seemed a little less stiff now, as if unsure of herself.

    “You’re saying my mother lied?” I asked, a little incredulous.

    “No, not exactly.” She shook her head before sighing. “I just think she misunderstood, really. He told me what had happened… My mom and your dad, they used to be together when he met your mom. They broke up and your parents got together and I guess you were born. My mom had me around the same time…” She fiddled a little with the hem of her tank top before speaking once more. “Your dad wasn’t the cheater… my mom was. That was the reason your dad even broke up with her and got together with your mom.”

    My forehead wrinkled as I processed what she said. “Then why-”

    “My mom’s a cheat and a liar.” Mary seemed both embarrassed and upset. Clearly, this was a subject she did not like to touch. “She told your dad that I was his kid, and he… well, he was a nice guy, kind of gullible. He believed her… he believed I was his daughter. He got this place for us, all that time ago, and he’d been paying the rent for it. When your parents separated, he stayed here with us.”

    “And you’re saying my mother just imagined it all then?”

    Mary sighed and shrugged at my skepticism. “I’m saying my mom’s a liar and a cheat. She easily convinced your dad I was his kid, hell, we didn’t know any different until I was eighteen years old! It wasn’t hard for her to make it seem as if your dad was having an affair to spite him when your mom caught him here…” She sighed and shrugged once more, as if she no longer cared.

    “Look, nothing I say is going to make a difference to you.” Now she seemed resigned. “You can think what you want about him, it’s not gonna make a difference to me or you or anyone else. He’s dead and in his grave, you’re alive and…” She looked me over. “... obviously no longer in need of a parental figure.”

    “You can’t fault me for having a hard time believing you.”

    “I’m not,” Mary replied. “And I’m not even gonna ask you to change your opinion or give the benefit of the doubt. I’m not the boss of you or anyone else.”

    I had to admit, I did not know what to say after that. I wanted to be angry, and I had been, but it had all melted in the last few minutes, giving way to confusion. Closing a business deal was easier on the mind than this sort of thing. For a while, I simply stood there, not really looking at anything in particular, simply listening to the tick-tock of the clock hanging on the dining room wall.

    “Can- may I have some water?” Mary seemed as surprised as I was with my request.

    “Uh, yeah, sure.” She scratched the back of her head before heading over to the kitchen sink. She paused when she reached the counter, looking back at me. “His room was the middle door there.”

    Did she expect that I actually wanted to see his room? Once again, my mind was fighting with itself. I wanted not to care, but the part of me I’ll attribute to curiosity was adamant on seeing what lay behind the door. My teeth grit against each other before I nodded. “What the hell…”

    It was like any other room. A bed, a closet, a computer table and chair. There was a bookshelf on one side of the bed, and a night table on the other side. It had been a long time since I smelled it, but there was the smell of my father’s cologne. He’d always been a creature of habit.

    I hated that I felt a twinge inside me when I saw an old framed photograph of the entire family on the night table. How cliche, really. I felt like an idiot, yet I couldn't keep myself from walking over and picking it up. With my jacket’s sleeve, I wiped the dust off the glass and frame, all the while looking at the smiling faces of my family. I was fourteen in this picture, just a year before life had changed completely. The only reason I actually remembered when this photo was taken was because of my uncle’s beach house in the background.

    Debating for a moment, I nearly set the framed photo back down on the night table before changing my mind and slipping it in my jacket’s inner pocket instead. When I turned away from the night table, I saw Mary standing in the doorway, silently holding a glass of water.

    “Thanks.” I was the kind of snob who only drank bottled water, but at the moment, I didn’t really care. Acting as if I hadn’t just taken the photograph, I drank the water in less that three gulps. I had to admit, it didn’t taste any different than what I paid more than a dollar for.

    I exited the room, heading to the kitchen and setting the glass on the counter. It was awkward, trying to be cordial after the way I had acted earlier. I was sure Mary would be more than glad to see the back of me exiting her apartment. Yet, I couldn’t just leave without saying something.

    Taking a breath, I opened my mouth to speak, and stopped. Mary was holding out a piece of paper. “What’s this?” I asked, taking it from her.

    “My number,” she replied. Her hands were once more fiddling with her top. “If you, I dunno, have any questions or whatever…”

    “Oh, okay.” I was surprised, and it showed on my face as well. I hadn’t expected anything of the sort. “I…” Would I take her up on her offer? I wasn’t sure. “I’ll keep it safe.” I looked in the direction of the door, feeling a little easier about leaving now. “I should probably go now. Thank you for- thank you.” I decided it was best to just keep it at that.

    I thought about returning to the cemetery, but eventually, my cab reached my hotel, with no sight of serene trees or gravestones anywhere near. As fulfilling as that may have been, the truth was that visiting my father’s grave was not a step I was ready to take yet. The bitterness I had held within my heart for fifteen years, whilst apparently unfair, couldn’t be so easily washed away. It would take time for me to let go of my judgment, whether valid or not.

    The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, if I remembered the quote right. Maybe today had been that single step that would lead me on the journey to understanding my father and letting go of my grievances.

    As I later lay in bed that night, I looked at the piece of paper with Mary's name and number. I hesitated for a long time before finally adding it to my contacts. A second step?

    Perhaps tomorrow there would be a third.

    Community Pick Winner: Passage to Piracy by @KJDarKnight
    Passage to Piracy (open)

    Passage to Piracy
    “What was it like down there?” My grandson asks innocently, sitting on my lap as I rock in my chair. It's out on the patio so I can look over the sea, where my home truly is. In my old age though, living by the beach is probably the best for me anyway.

    “Ah child” I smile and close my eyes. "It was like I'd slipped, tripped, and fell into a pleasant dream." I say after a moment of contemplative thought. Jonas tilts his head and blinks. He doesn't need to say anything, I know why he's confused. Most don't think of dying as a pleasant experience.

    “Bad things happened yes, but my time down there was when the relationship between your grandfather and I changed” I smile, always happy to share my story with the children, it's a way for me to re-live it all.....

    “All hands hoay!” Shivers, the quartermaster, shouts down below deck. I know him as Kip but he'd asked me not to use it in front of the men, the affectionate nickname wasn't exactly one to strike fear. “Batten down th' hatches! Make sure them dead eyes be shut tight! 'tis shapin' up to be a bad un!”

    Startled by the shouting and the sudden upheaval of sleeping and lounging bodies, I stand up too and look over at the old man I was sitting beside. He's corking his flask as he heaves out a sigh. Bill is easily the oldest sailor I've ever seen, and he looks it. His eyes are sagging and half his face droops so that the rum dribbles a bit down his chin, he wipes it away and licks his thin lips.

    Greasy scraggly men rush about us, some stumbling over themselves having been dislodged from their hammock and dropped into a groggy wakefulness.

    Most of them are instantly alert, they move with purpose, a mass of organized Chaos, everyone knows their job and the dangers of a storm, except me.

    “What's he mean Bill?” I ask, old Bills been helping me learn the language used aboard the ship, the old salt has been at sea for the better part of forty years and intends to die out here when the time comes.

    “Storms a commin', a bad un” he answers and starts walking off. He's stocky and nothing but muscle beneath withered tan skin.

    “No I mean, What are dead eyes?” I clarify as I follow him. He's approaching sixty but I'm the one stumbling all over the place, the sea even more rough than normal. Even after months on the ship I haven't got my sea legs and the unfamiliar terms still confuse me. Try as I might, I'm beginning to think this life is not for me after all.

    “Dead eyes cover th' port holes, keeps us from takin' on water, an worse case, blowin' a hole in er side” Old Bill explains.

    “Shove aside land lubber!” One man says as he pushes past. As if I needed more proof of my shortcomings. Still, I shove back and give the best scowl I can muster, it's expected.

    “Mind your own way scurvy harbor dog!” I blurt out the first insult I can come up with. I have to keep up some resemblance of toughness.

    Close by I hear Bill bellowing at someone “Show a leg!” he kicks a man passed out on the floor beneath his hammock “Useless blaggard” he mutters and shakes his head as he moves on.

    As we reach the steps leading up to the deck. The storms already rocking us more violently and I can hear the rain pelting the sails, each drop sounding like a stone threatening to tear them apart. Thunder can barely be distinguished between the sounds of rain, waves and shouting men. I much preferred it when the ship was becalmed.

    I let more bodies jog pass, including Bill, who takes the steps two at a time. When I decide to attempt the assent, I grab any hand hold I can find. I stop when water crashes over the rails and waterfalls down around my feet, adding to the dread rising in me. If I can't handle myself well when I get up there, I could be dumped off into the sea and be lost to it. I freeze, one foot on the first step. I could go up there and risk death or stay down here and ensure being left at the next port, if I'm lucky, more likely, fish bait though.

    “Come on!” Bill shouts down impatiently.

    Prompted by Bill, I make a decision, I move again, taking another step up instead of back, my heart leaping into my throat.

    My legs feel like a couple of wobbly noodles, that's about the amount of control I've gained over them, only now they are wet noodles. It takes every bit of focus I've got to get them working right as I go up, slipping and sliding from side to side. The only thing keeping me from falling are the handholds I've found. I heave up the last couple of steps, using mostly my arms rather than my useless noodles.

    Just as I reach the top, the ship tilts violently towards the port side. With nothing to hold, I stumble, slip on the slick deck, fall and slide on my backside. I try to grab something but it's useless until I crash into the base of the main mast. Grunting I wait until the ship rocks back with a slap, then grab on to a dangling rope and haul myself to my feet, ignoring the growing pain in my ribs, I've probably bruised them.

    “Make fast swabbie!” Someone orders and throws a bundle of coiled ropes into my hands. I've been taught the knots, it's the one thing I can do well, so I quickly go to work tying the ropes to the jackline someone has already stretched from the bow to the stern on both the port and starboard side. Lives depend on me so I work as quick as I can, hanging the loose coils over an unused belay pin so I can work with one at a time.

    The salt air blasts against my face in angry bursts and my feet slide on the slick deck I have to hang on to the jackline as I move, tie on a rope that a man grabs as soon as it's tied, and puts it around himself. I'm surprised I'm not tumbling all over the place like some loose cannon ball. I can be proud of that.

    I had just grabbed hold of my own line and had it tied to the belay pin when I hear men shouting over the storm “Reef Sails!” beginning in the captains voice and repeated over the roaring winds by the quartermaster. After that I can't hear it. Men are already obeying the command, swinging up on to the rigging to furl the sails, leaving about a foot of stretched canvas to catch the wind and give the helmsman more control.

    “Alison!” I hear not a command but my name shouted over the noise. It's Shivers, the quartermaster again. He doesn't often address me directly and never by my full name. We'd managed to keep my identity a secret thus far. Not even the ship cat could counter the bad luck a woman at sea.

    I turn in time to see the horrified look cross Kips face. By the time I've realized my mistake, water is crashing down over my head and before I know whats happening my feet are off the deck and I'm plunging into the tempestuous sea's. My hands flail out searching for something but there's nothing but water, my securing lines been swept away before I could tie it around myself.

    As I'm swallowed by the rampaging ocean I feel like I'm being churned in a mixer ,I don't know what way is up anymore. I open my eyes but the harsh salty water bites so hard I clamp them shut again and decide to focus on not giving up what little air I managed to keep in my lungs. I'm going to need it.

    Desperate I pump my legs and swim in the direction I hope is up but I'm forced back and again flipped. I don't have any control of my limbs as I'm barreled deeper into the sea. My head begins to feel heavy and my chest grows tight. I'm going to die, I'm certain of it now. What little air I had is used up or knocked out of me by the strength of the seas punches.

    I stop struggling, letting my arms and legs go limp as I'm tossed yet again, there's no point in fighting her, she's angry and too strong for me. I'm not an old salt like Bill, I've no idea what I'm doing. I remember Bill telling me “Don't fight th' sea, roll wit' her, she's lived longer 'n if ye treat her right, she'll take care o' ye”

    I'm vaguely aware that I'm colliding with something but it's no use, I'm taking in too much water, the airs gone and I know I'm drowning, just as well, I'm not much of a pirate anyway, Kips always saying so. Taking Bills advice, I roll with her, let her claim me as an offering to spare the crew.

    "I know you'll come around eventually. I'm only doing what's best for you." My father says in a raised voice, it's not convincing when he says it like that. I don't look at him, I can't, if I do I'll scream at him again. We've had this argument before. Deep down I know he is trying, but, I know he wishes he had a son and not a stubborn daughter, I wish it too sometimes, just to stop the fighting.

    Sweetheart just listen, you're getting on in years and Lord Baxton is a perfectly respectable match and he's been nothing but charming. He told me himself just before dinner that no other woman has caught his eye like you have” My mother offers in a more gentle and inviting tone, I almost want to believe it. Her I can look at, so I do.

    My mother's been ill for months and she's become so frail. Looking at her I can't help but feel the guilt encroaching like storm clouds in summer. I know her one and only dream she has left is to see me married. Who am I to deny her last desire in life?

    Letting out a sigh I unfold my arms and let them fall. Nobody can break through my wall like she can. She's never done me wrong, only loved me. As I look at her, I realize that I have to go through with this, for her sake. If not Lord Baxton, then someone else. My father isn't wrong, he's been a perfect gentleman since he began trying to court me. Affable and a little proud perhaps, but most Lords are.

    I'll go talk to him” I finally say, I don't wait for an answer, the gleam of life brightening in my mothers' eyes is the only affirmation I need that I'm doing something right for a change.


    My eyes snap open and water gushes out of my mouth in a fountain of disgusting salty fish.

    Someones turning me to my side so I can cough up the rest of the water and replace it with air. I'm gasping and heaving for several minutes before I can begin breathing more evenly, my throat burns and my head pounds. Opening my eyes again, there's bright burning sunlight and blue cloudless skies before my eyes pinch closed again. Blinking more slowly I can adjust to the light better.

    “Gave us a scare” Kip says as he pats my back and holds a bottle in front of my face. I recognize it as rum but I don't fancy burning my throat farther and I've not yet got the taste for the stuff.

    “Water?” I choke out, pushing myself to sit up. It's only then that I notice the surface isn't hard like the deck, it's gritty between my fingers. Sand, that means we were run aground. Sitting up more quickly I look around and find The White Kings Revenge is on her side the main mast snapped in two and evidently the dead eyes weren't fastened tight enough as there are gaping holes in her side where the water pressure had forced it's way in.

    “Lost th' water, and most our other supplies when she went down, lucky she run aground here. Find enough of the men and we may get her afloat again.” Kip says and pressed the bottle into my hand “Drink” he insists so I take it and pour some of the stuff in. It stings but does help take away the bite of the salt.

    “I thought I was dead for sure” I say as I give the rum back. Seems to be all we have so I didn't drink much. Kip doesn't object, corks it and sets it aside in the sand.

    “Me too” Kip frowned “Old Bill dove in after ye but never came back up, his line snapped” Kip explained, his eyes somber as he looked out at the calmed sea. Neither one of us speaks for a moment. Bill was good to me and I know Kip liked him too “Suppose he got his wish” Kip said after a moment more. Then turning back to me, touched the back of his hand to my head.

    “Ye're warm, you need rest” He says and pulls his hand away and rises to his feet, offering me his hand. Hesitating, I take it and get shakily to my feet. It's a good thing he's right there because my head spins and I nearly topple over again.

    “Come on. Into th' shade wit' ye” Kip said and guides me to the palms hanging over the beach. The ship cant sail until she's fixed and without the men or supplies there's little chance of that happening. Kip and I can't do it on our own. We're marooned here until we find help or help finds us.

    Kip and I spent three days on scouring the beaches, picking up whatever debris we can and gathering it up by the shelter we've constructed farther back in the jungle. We found some food supplies that were salvageable, including more rum, much to Kips delight. I am more excited for the hardtack. It's not great but it's food and so far all we've managed are some under-ripe fruits which are just about as appetizing as hardtack.

    “Kip we aren't going to find em, we may as well get on to exploring, we need more fresh water and maybe we can find a town or something” I suggest, and not for the first time. After trying to walk around the entire island and not finding another end we decided it was a much bigger island that could have some civilization on it somewhere, probably on the other side of the jungle.

    “I know...I know but...” Kip fumbles. I know he's upset about the loss of the crew, he feels he's let them down but he'd done the best he could. Neither one of us say anything though, instead, we silently gather what little we have and trek into the thick jungle, Kip leading the way.

    After gathering what little supplies we've salvaged from the ship, we begin our trek through the tree's. I don't really know what to say to him, ever since I'd joined the crew, he's been more distant the last month or so.

    “Kip” I venture to try regardless of having no words.

    “You didn't want me here did you?” I ask the burning question I've had the last two months. I had been so insistent at the time, making a rash decision after probably drinking too much, we'd both had a lot to drink that night and the next morning I'd woken up the ship, underway already and my hair gone, dressed in some of Kips clothes. I'd thought the night had been a dream but I woke up to find it was all real. I was a woman, dressed as a man, on a pirate ship.

    “What are you talking about?” he asks, looking over his shoulder at me. I flush and focus on my bare feet, avoiding rocks as much as possible.

    “You brought me aboard the ship and you act like I don't exist most the time” I say, I haven't had a chance to talk to him like this since we set sail. “You may as well have left me there to marry some Lord. At least there I'm wanted in some ways....And useful...I can give someone an heir.... that's all I'm good for I suppose” I feel tears coming, I hate that I'm so week. I'm not paying attention so nearly run into Kip, I stop when I see the toes of his boots under my eyes.

    “Ali” he speaks softly, the way he had when I'd told him how unhappy I truly was back home. Like him, I'd made my situation sound much more glamorous than it was, it was easier to lie on paper.

    Looking up I see Kip looking down at me, his eyes soft. I don't say anything.

    “I told you in the tavern...Life on a ship is...well it's a whole different world, a delicate community. If I show anymore favoritism than I already have towards you, it could bring the entire system into chaos” He explains. “You just have to find your place on the ship and things will change...” he pauses, realizing there is no ship, no crew, he falls silent and his expression grows dark.

    “Kip I'm...I'm sorry...I was...we were drunk....” I said softly but he's already turning away from me again and I stop trying to explain, just follow as he begins hacking at the vines with a new vigor.

    As I followed, I found myself thinking of our childhood and the moment I had begun to love him.

    The prince and his soon to be bride were coming to our humble island and, as part of the entertainment for the feast, the most talented child in the city would perform for the prince and princess. A competition was to be held and the winner would sing before the royal pair.....

    My mother arranged for a voice instructor to teach me to sing and we fussed over my dress until it was just right.

    The morning of the competition, I woke so ill I couldn't perform, I was bitter, particularly because my best friend, Kip, had won. I should have been happy for him but I wasn't. I was mad, and when he'd come to see how I was, I'd refused to see him. Still, with his meager allowance, he bought little presents and left them at the door.

    I wouldn't admit it, but I eagerly waited whenever my mother brought me lunch, she'd bring me the gifts then. I pressed the flower in my favorite book and put the little wood pendant necklace around my neck and tucked it close to my heart. The rest I kept in my little chest where I kept all my favorite things.

    Finally the day the prince and princess were coming had arrived. I was well again and wearing my finest dress. The parade was so spectacular, flowers of all kinds decorated the main street, tied anywhere it was possible, blue and silver satin ribbons draping in glimmering waterfalls adorned every building.

    The chariot they rode in seemed to glide behind the six sleek black and white horses that pulled it, blue and silver ribbons braided into their mains and the chariot itself covered in draping deep blue silk.

    My father being a Lord, was invited to the feast and so, bitterly, I was to watch the chosen children perform. Kip, had gone last, he'd worn his cleanest set of trousers and washed the only shirt he owned, probably had stitched the holes up himself since he hadn't a mother to do it for him.

    I glared at him, he caught my eye, shifted and looked away from me before he lifted his head and he sang. It was soft at first but grew in strength as he got his confidence. It was a sad song of the sea, the room silenced so that only his voice was heard, rising and falling like the waters he sang of. Kip put every ounce of his emotion into the moment. I stared with the rest, only, his eyes had shifted back to mine and there locked for what seemed forever to me. It was like he sang only for me.

    After it all, I sought him out in the crowd, he was on his way out but I caught his arm.

    I'm sorry” I said quietly, Kip only shrugged

    I understand” he smiled a little, he always understood.

    "I understand now, why you were the one that they chose. You're special." I said hurriedly, wanting to let him know I understood too. “You're better than me”

    Nah, you would have won if you weren't sick” Kip answered

    I've got to go now, fathers waiting at the docs, I'm to go to sea with him. I've tried to tell you” Kip said quickly, he was late already.

    You'll write won't you?” I asked, he nodded in return. We'd known this day would come.

    At about midday I started to wear down, even with Kip cutting a path, the ground is uneven and hard on my bare feet that are used to the smooth surfaces of a ship. Besides that, every bit of exposed skin is itching and splattered with mosquito guts.

    Kip paused by a stream and stooped down scooping some water up in his hands splashes it over his face. He's just as much of a blood bank as me, I can tell by the lumps around his neck. As he brings another double scoop of water up to his chin, he tips forward, the cool water touching his lips as he sucks it up.

    I follow his cue and kneel beside the stream, first washing my arms and hands, then my face and neck, the water is cool against my hot skin, it helps to sooth the itching, but only for an instant after the waters run off. I watch it drip back into the stream before scooping up water and tipping it to my mouth.

    It's only half way through drinking that I feel his eyes watching me and I become keenly aware of the water catching on to my chin and dribbling down my neck. I try to ignore his gaze and just finish drinking.

    “ Rub mud on ye're skin, it will keep them blood suckers off an' sooth th' itchin'” Kip says, his voice dropped back to the more gentle man I prefer to Shivers, the quartermaster.

    Looking away from me again he quietly rubs mud up his arms and around his neck, I do the same.

    “That Lord Baxton is a right fool” Kip says, not looking at me as he speaks this time.

    “How do you mean?” I ask, I'd told him the whole story.

    “Any man be lucky to share ye're....uh” he stopped half way through but I get what he's saying and it makes me blush so I slap mud to my cheeks to hide it.

    “I don't want just any man though” I say after a moment, focusing my eyes down as I speak, then look over at him

    “And ye should have every right to choose ye're man, if you ever do” Kip answers and stands up again, he offers me his hand.

    “Do I?” I ask, taking his hand and standing up. He doesn't release my hand and just looks down at me and I look up at him, our eyes locking, my heart skips, I feel like he's searching my soul. Then his arm slips around my waist, he leans down and our lips touch. Before I know what's happening, I shove back and step away from him, stunned when I realize what I, just did.

    “I'm sorry” Kip said quickly and backed away a few steps “I thought you....I.....” I've never heard him stumble like that, he's always so sure and confident when he speaks. Right at that instant all the facade is stripped away. I desperately want to say something, explain I was just startled or something, but it's too late. Quartermaster Shivers is back, stern faced and cold.

    Turning away Kip picks up the cutlass he's been using like a machete and we begin again, in heavy silence.

    Neither one of us speak again until it begins to get dark, by then the mud is strikebreaking my skin and rivals the mosquito's itching bites. I've rubbed as much of it off as I can but I long for the stream again so I can bath in it's cool water, cleanse my body and relax. No such wish is granted, instead, Kip leads me to a tree covered in thick vines. Wordlessly he begins to climb up as deftly as he does on the rigging's of the ship.

    When I get up to where he disappeared he grabs my arms and hoists me up over the last couple of feet. The area is a tangle of branches that makes a nest where two people could fit in relative safety against inquisitive animals.

    “We'll rest here tonight, we can't light a fire so we'll have to keep each other warm” His tone is once more the firm voice of the pirate quartermaster. An instant later, it melts away “I mean...if uh..that's ok” Showing the Kip I briefly saw by the stream, only more uncertain, his confident demeanor broken, probably because of how I'd reacted to his kiss that afternoon.

    Smiling a little I nod, I don't want this to be any more awkward for him, I've never seen him like this before and I don't know how to react to it and don't want to damage him further. It's his self-assurance and strength that drew me to him and I may have fractured that part of him.

    “Right....” he muttered and took off the makeshift bag that carries our meager supplies. I can see the doubt in his features, plain as my own lack of confidence

    Whence we've adjusted I'm so close up against his side I can hear his heart pumping, it's quick, matching my own beat.

    Adjusting the blanket we salvaged from the ship we settle down for the night, sharing half a hardtack and some water we replaced the rum for. The rum hadn't gone to waste and I could still taste the residue in the water.

    Slowly Kip puts his arm around me, my head against his shoulder and my hand resting against his chest as I've nowhere better to put it. It's strangely comfortable, despite the distance that's grown between us. I don't want the silence to grow any thicker so I decide to say something, now, while he can't turn away and ignore me.

    “Kip” I said softly, drawing his attention, a quiet 'hm' indicates he's heard. “About today...at the stream” I begin.

    “Look I'm sorry Al, I shouldn't have assumed...I know I'm a pirate but I respect women none the less” Kip explained, though I already know that.

    “I know, I know that, I do” I assure him quickly “I just....I was surprised...that's all. I'm not mad” I can feel my face is hot but the suns gone down and he couldn't possibly see that.

    “you're not?” he asked, I can hear the surprise in his voice.

    “So if I did it again you wouldn't...” he doesn't finish, his voice soft and cautiously hopeful.

    “No” I answer, my voice just as quiet, I can feel his heart quickening along with mine but as he shifts, it slows. I feel his fingers tentatively tracing the line of my jaw from the point of my chin to the base of my ear as he tilts my head up. I oblige and look up, even in the dark I can see his eyes looking into mine and feel his warm breath brush my lips before we close our eyes and he kisses me so tenderly I feel tingles all over my body. I return the kiss, melting in to his embrace as he shifts so we're facing each other, not breaking contact with my lips

    Only when I'm held against his chest does he pull back and smile, I smile back but close my eyes again as his hand brushes my cheek, tickles down my neck and slides over my shoulder.

    He doesn't try for more, instead he kisses the top of my head as I lay it against his chest

    “Goodnight my Ali” he whispered, holding me against him. Smiling at his words I close my eyes and settle in for the night. There's that unspoken change between us now, I don't know what it means yet but for the moment, I'm happy, comfortable and easily find sleep.

    Lord Baxton stood on the porch, he'd been taking leave of our estate, no doubt because I'd insulted him. My mothers tried to teach me manners but sometimes I lose my temper, particularly when my mother is insinuating I marry someone who's my fathers age.

    Lord Baxton” I say quickly, realize I'm being rude and silence myself, waiting for him to acknowledge me. I've already done enough harm without offending the man further. He is my fathers friend.

    Lord Baxton sighed and turned back towards me “Did you wish to insult me further Alison?” he asks in a tight voice. He's upset, I can't blame him.

    I'm sorry” I say, keeping my eyes turned down to show I mean it, even though I don't, not truly. Lord Baxton doesn't bite and turns to go with a 'hmm' and muttered “Good day Ms Larson”

    Wait” I say quickly, my hand catching his arm. He stops and I drop my hand to my side again.

    My mother tells me I'm the first to catch your eye, I'm...Well I'm flattered” I say, trying to compliment him. He smiles and turns towards me again.

    Yes” he says carefully, though he's smiling the tone sounds too controlled, like he's holding back a storm of his own.

    She would tell you that” Lord Baxton said and breathes out slow and measured, then smiles, my own smile falters. Something's gone worse and I don't know what.

    "You actually thought that you were the first? You were the last." Lord Baxton says, his words are mocking but I don't fully understand their meaning yet. I can tell he intends to explain so I stay silent, only staring.

    My dear, my pretended interest in you was to entertain your mothers dying wishes. You are the last young woman I'd desire to spend more time with,He explained and smiled down at my shocked face.

    Good evening Ms. Larson” he bowed his head slightly and turns away again and strides away from me, no doubt a smile on that pudgy face of his.

    “Al?” Kips gentle voice breaks me away from the dream I'd been having. “Ye're crying” he said and brushes the tears in question off my face.

    “Just a dream” I answer and rub the back of my hands over my eyes. Kip doesn't ask for details. Both of us remain silent after that, just enjoying the bird song, a strange but beautiful morning concert. I can't hope to name all the birds the sounds belong to, I've never been to a jungle and know little of them.

    Just as I think I might drift back to sleep I feel something slimy climbing up the bottom of my foot, It startles enough that I jerk and kick, sending a small yellow frog flying up and then plummeting down to the earth below. Kip starts laughing lightly “Come on, le's get movin'” he said and smiles at my blush, teasingly tapping the end of my nose with the knuckle of his first finger. He's smiling yet, his eyes aren't, they tell me something is wrong. I don't dare ask what, for fear of ruining what promises to be a good day otherwise.

    “Alright, if I must” I answer and shift off of him, rolling myself over the side and reaching for the branch below with my toes.

    As my feet find purchase on the branch below our nest pain shocks through my feet and I want to jerk them back up but I can't. I've got to climb down. Biting my cheeks and fighting back tears I look down and descent, careful how I place my feet, though it doesn't matter much, each step feels like I'm stepping on nails.

    By the time I reach the ground, which isn't far, I've re-hydrated the cracking mud on my cheeks with tears and sweat, I wipe it away quickly but Kips already realized I'm in pain.

    “Sit” he orders firmly, I'm already doing it anyway, sinking down on to the ground, not caring that it's spongy and wet. I'm already filthy and damp.

    Only when Kip takes one of my feet in his big hands do I see that my feet have become the size shape and color of a plump eggplant. Cuts from walking bare foot through a jungle are angry, red and oozing cloudy pink liquid.

    Kip doesn't say anything but his jaw is tight and his eyebrows drawn, I know the look of worry he passes for a confident stare. I've seen him use that look even as a child.

    Calmly Kip pulls out our bottle of shared water and pours it over my feet one at a time. I try not to recoil but it stings. Kip paused when he heard me hiss through my teeth. “Sorry” he says softly and corks the bottle.

    “I'll carry you back to th' beach, I can scavenge th' ship to see if anything of th' docs kit survived.” Kip decides, we've already done that, but I don't remind him.

    Carefully he pulls my arm over his shoulders and he scoops me up as easily as a sack of apples, though more gently. One arm behind my shoulders and the other under my knee's.

    We haven't gotten more than two steps before my heart starts pounding in my chest like I've been running all morning. I feel my muscles clenching, first my feet tighten and it moves up my body. As it gets up to my chest I feel like my lungs are being squeezed like a lemon and my heart hammers all the harder as panic shows it ugly face.

    I feel my throat swelling up next, I can't breathe like I've got a hempen harness around my neck. My breathing is coming ragged and forced.

    I don't even realize Kips put me down until I feel the bile coming up. I can feel his strong arms around me, holding me up on my knees as I double forward and vomit on to the jungle floor, yellow slimy bile drips off my lips. Still panting, I feel the second wave coming already.

    My restricted airway burns with stomach acid and whatever else my body is rejecting. I plead with my body to stop but a third hurl brings up dark purple vomit. That can't be good. How can things have gone so bad within ten minutes of waking up?

    I breathe heavily but I think it's stopped, and I hope whatever poison or virus I caught has been expelled. Kip waits a few moments longer before helping me to lay down on soft ferns and spongy moss.

    “Hang in ther' Al” he whispers softly as he presses the glass of the rum bottle to my lips and slowly tips water between my parted lips. The water soothes my stinging throat. The relief is only momentary as another wave of vomit accosts my system, I can't move but Kip turns me on to my side in time.

    I can't breath, I can't move and for the second time in a week I know I'm dead only now I've more to lose, I've Kip now.

    Opening my eyes again I try to say something, anything, I don't care what it is! But my eyes are looking through a keyhole and my voice won't respond and I can't rasp another breath.

    “It's alrigh' ” I hear him whisper gently into my ear, then it's all gone black, the pain is subsiding and I'm slipping away, away into nothing.

    Only weeks later, my mother is gone. And the months after that are unbearable. My unbridled father is impossible to reason with. I explain how I want to leave our little island and go to school, I try to tell him I might meet a suitable man there. It doesn't work. He say's he needs me home one moment and tells me I'm to die an old maid if I don't quiet down and marry soon, I'm already old. It's all an impossible knot.

    I'm tired of it all, I don't want to be trapped inside some stuffy house continuing a life that has no purpose for me. Can't he see that? Isn't there more? Some purpose besides rearing up the next generation? If there is, I can't see it. Only walls closing in.

    After yet another argument with my father, I decide to go for a walk to cool off before I apologize again.

    Only when I come to the harbor side village do I realize it's night, Drunken men stumble out of taverns, laughing and falling over each other. I dodge a pair of sailors singing off key, arms draped over one anthers shoulders and zigzagging down the road together.

    Ms. Ar' ye lost?” The voice makes me turn around and right in front of me is a handsome young man, about my age I'd guess. He seems familiar somehow, I can't place it until I see his eyes, I could never forget those deep emerald eyes.

    Kip?” I ask, blinking in shock, I look over him more closely now. He isn't wearing something I'd expect a quartermaster to wear. His shirt is loosely hanging off of him and torn down to his tanned strong chest. A thick belt around his hips holds a cutlass. My eyes trail back up to his unshaven face. He's not at all the boy I remembered and not what I imagined him to look like as an adult. He doesn't have the comfortable budge that I've seen a lot of the other officers have. He has the look of a working man.

    I realize a moment later that he's been looking over me too and I blush. Men have looked at me before but somehow I feel more exposed standing in front of my childhood friend. I've spilled my soul to him through letters over the years and he's always been sympathetic and giving me advice. I've done the same for him.

    Ali?” he asks, equally as astonished. I smile in answer.

    The vile taste of salt water gurgles out of my mouth and threatens to go back in until I roll to my side spitting it up. I don't feel the same tightness in my chest and I can see again. I didn't die? And Why am I spewing up sea water again?

    There's sand under my hands but it's burning hot and the sun on my back is intense and dry, not like the wetness of the jungle.

    “Gave us a scare” Kip says as he pats my back and rubs “Get it all ou' now” he goes on when I don't answer.

    Blinking I look up at Kip “What...What happened?” I asked, confused by it all. Hadn't I just been dying in a muggy bug ridden jungle? And now, I look around, in a desert?

    “Where am I?” I ask and turn back to look at Kip, he looks confused too but more as though what I'm saying doesn't make sense.

    “You went overboard in th' storm...” he answers, uncertainty in his tone.

    “Yes yes after that, the jungle and I got poisoned, a frog I think, I've heard of those killing sailors who wonder into the jungle when their...” I stop, seeing he's just staring, not comprehending.

    “Come on, we should get out of the sun” Kip say's and helps me up to me feet as I look around more closely at my surroundings.

    High mesa's in a wide horseshoe around the otherwise flat orange desert served as a dam against the sea, water spills over the top mesa's but dries before the waterfall reaches the ground beneath. Seagulls call but never fly overhead, only over the shores I can't see.

    The baking sun has scorched whatever plant life might of graced the landscape, leaving only brittle twigs in bundles, easily tossed in the hot air.

    Kip pulls me under the brittle remains of a once great tree. “Stay here” he orders me before he darts off, leaving small divots in the soft hot sand. It's only then that I realize the sand doesn't burn my feet at all, I look down, they aren't covered, bare and unmarked, no longer purple and swollen, not so much as a cut from our jungle venture.

    “Kip?!” I look around and spot him dragging canvas from the ships tattered sails, her bones are scattered down the side of one of the mesa's, unrecognizable shambles.

    “You've got to stay out of th' sun” Is all Kip says as he throw's the canvas up over the top of the tree's lower branches and together we tie the tattered edges to the fingers of thicker dry arms, creating a tent.

    “Kip please, what's going on?” I plead for an answer this time, It has to be a dream, a terrible but pleasant one at times, like that night in the tree.

    “Alison” he speaks my full name, firmly but not with anger “You just have to trust me alrigh'? I'm goin' to keep you safe this time” he says insistently.

    “This time?” I ask, so he does remember the jungle after all. He doesn't answer but ducks out of the shelter.

    “I be goin' for water, don't move from this spot” Kip speaks firmly, not looking at me. I know he's avoiding my questions.

    “Christopher” I speak his full name with a frown as I step out into the sun with him, it stops him in his tracks.

    “Al...please” he speaks more gently, the gentleness I'd seen in the jungle. “I can't lose ye again” He goes on, still not looking at me yet I know that soft expression is there.

    “Kip, I'm scared, I don't know what's happening and I think you do know” I speak gently, hoping to coax him into answering me this way.

    “I know you are Al” he speaks gently again and turns towards me, looking at me intensely “Trust that I'm goin' to take care o' ye” he says, reaching across the gap between us to brush my cheek tenderly with the tips of his fingers. “Let me save you, then I'll explain” he speaks so softly that I can't help but nod and agree without further questions.

    Taking my shoulder he pulls me close in an embrace and kisses my hair before he pulls away and he's gone again.

    Deciding to listen I retreat back into the shelter and seat myself in the sand and lean back against the old tree.

    I sit there and wait for what I'm sure is hours but he's not come back and I'm getting anxious, very thirsty and hot even in the shade. It can't be any better in the sun so I'm more than a little worried about Kip. I resolve that I can't just sit here while he's out there probably dyeing.

    I follow the divots in the sand, again marveling that it doesn't burn. I walk on and on until I don't know if I've been walking in circles and just following my own tracks. I can't see our canvas shelter any longer and I can't tell the time, the sun doesn't seem to move, always right above me at high noon. I'm sweating terribly, grimy salt and sand itches everywhere, my hair is sticking to the sides of my face, and down my neck. I'm sure I'm sun burned by now, my lips are cracked and my throats so dry. I don't even have saliva to swallow.

    The orange desert is blurring in and out and my head slowly nods back and forth as I walk, my eyes growing heavy. Fatigue and heat exhaustion is nothing I've never experienced but this must be what it is. I tell myself this is just a dream and I can't really be feeling this miserable, it doesn't help at all. The fact is, I do feel like I'm being cooked in a frying pan, is this what an onion feels like in the frying pan?

    I don't realize I'm falling until I feel the sand on my knee's, my shoulders slumping. I'm going to die out here and who knows what's happened to Kip. Maybe the buzzards area already feasting. Thinking they might be circling me too, I look up but there's only a vast expanse of polished sapphire, a few clouds are dusted across it's otherwise flawless surface. Not even they stir, there's no air at all, only stiffing heat that burns to breath.

    I let my eyes close, head still raised to the scorching gold that's going to bring my demise for the third time.

    All at once my hair is whipped back by a strong hot wind and I can hear the rush of it roaring in my ear so loud it shocks me enough to make my eyes open and my head drop back to look forward. The wind keeps up and I have to squint and bring my arm up to try and shield the dust from scratching my eyes.

    Ahead of me is not the mesa I'd been walking towards, instead a wall, a wall of dirt and sand coming at me like the towering waves that threw The White Kings Revenge into this desert.

    Shocked I don't move for an instant, then start to stand but stop. The sandstorm is coming at me so fast, I can't hope to outrun it. What's the point anyway? I'm going to die again and wake up someplace else and die again.

    At that moment are cruel realization hits me. I'm dead already, I'm in the sailors version of Hell, Davy Jones Locker. I have to be! There's no other explanation for this! Teasing me with the affections of a man who's never shown interest in me before then killing me, again and again.

    “No!” I shout to the on coming storm. Filled with a new strength I stand up, my feet firmly planted and my eyes narrowed and glaring as if I'm staring down Davy Jones himself, personified as my impending death by sand.

    “Kill me again and again if you want! See if I care!” I challenge.

    The sand and wind hits me so hard I'm thrown back on to the ground, sand ripping flesh off my muscles. I'm screaming as millions of tiny sand shards rip me apart and fill my mouth and lungs. This is worse than the frog, far worse! It's also faster, only seconds after the storm hits me, the worlds snapped into blackness like the candle has just been snuffed out.

    The next time I wake up spewing up water, it's marooned on an island that's so small I can step across it in five strides. There's no plant life, no water, no food. I die of dehydration. Kip holds me in his arms, singing softly, unable to do anything to stop it from happening. I take comfort in knowing I'm with him, I'm still scared though when senses slip away.

    The next time I die fighting alongside a crew of strangers, the cutlass through my stomach. I guess Davy Jones likes seeing me fail so miserably in a fight that he repeats that bit a few times. I'm proud to say I get better each time, with some help from Kip, teaching me tips and tricks. I stay alive longer each time. Just when I get excited about trying again and honing my skills with a blade, and thinking I might win, it changes.

    The next world I wake up in is high in the mountains, freezing cold and snowing. I've never seen snow and decide right off that I don't like it. It's colder than anything I've ever experienced. I don't even attempt to find a way out of this one. I just sit there under the bows of a pine, heavy laden with layers of the frozen crystals. Kip sits beside me, looking tired, we're both tired.

    “Kip...” I say softly

    “I'm here” he answers just as softly, putting his arm around me.

    “What's the point?” I lean against him, his warm body against mine is always welcome and familiar.

    “What else can we do?” He answers with a question.

    “Give in...Stop trying, then maybe he'll let us rest” I answer, referring to Davy Jones. I'd never believed the sailors stories before, but now I do.

    “I just...I wish I'd gotten to know you before” I say and settle farther into his arms. I don't want to leave his side for an instant. If I'm going to die again and again, I'd prefer it to always be in his arms.

    “We can't stop trying...I'd rather keep living moments with you than fade into nothing” Kip answers, kissing my head and curling his arms a little tighter around me, as if the closeness will stop me from dyeing again.

    “You'd rather I keep suffering in horrible ways?” I ask, trying to make him see the mental pain I'm in. I don't fear death now, only dread the pain that comes before.

    “No...No I don't want that” he answers and I can hear him straining and I realize the emotional trauma of watching me die over and over, must be horrible for him, yet, he's always been so strong, fighting to keep me safe, always determined that I'm going to live, encouraging me. I'd never realized how hard this is for him too.

    “I'm sorry Kip I didn't.....I'm sorry” My voice falls into a whisper, ashamed I'm being so selfish.

    He's been strong for me, maybe now I need to be strong for him. With a new resolve, I slip out from under his arm. “We aren't going to die this time” I say firmly, surprising him.

    “But..” he starts, though stands and nods.

    “What do we do?” he asks.

    “Well....Our first worry is keeping warm, water is no issue. We can melt snow for that...” My mind reals over everything I've read in books. Since my father never let me out, I had to satisfy my lack of adventures by reading about other peoples accomplishments from other parts of the world that I'd never see.

    “We need to build a shelter out of packed snow...” I finally say “Then find a food source” I smile, I can see hope again and I think Kip can too, I can see it in those eyes.

    Together the two of us construct a little hallow beneath the snow, packing it tight so it won't collapse. Kip hauls in branches we use as support beams and more to dry out and use for fire wood to cook our food. Kips proven apt at making small traps for rabbits and other small animals. Within a few days, we've made a cozy little home, we have to share Kips boots though so only one of us can be outside at a time but that's alright.

    It's been a week, longer than either of us has lasted. Exactly one week from when we woke beneath that tree, we're snuggled up together, Kips arms around me and my head against his shoulder.

    “Kip” I say softly

    “Yes Ali?”

    “Are you happy?” I ask

    “Immeasurably” he answers and smiles down at me.

    “Me too” I say before I close my eyes to sleep. It's been a long day.


    For the thirteenth time Sea water explodes out of my mouth leaving me coughing and heaving, I'm tired and don't care where I've woken up this time. Just let it be over. I didn't even die the last time, this isn't fair!

    For several minutes, I don't even pay attention if anyone else is there. Kip probably is, but what does that matter anymore.

    “Hey easy now” It is Kips voice. I push away his hand as he rubs my back.

    “Just go away!” I bark at him and climb to my feet. The the still choppy sway of the boat doesn't make me stumble like it had when the storm began and the boards beneath my feet are more familiar than any cobble stone road back home.

    When I look up I see Kip staring at me, I've never shouted at him before. Bill is staring too, his sun withered face and friendly pale blue eyes are a welcome sight and a new change to Davy Jones' antics.

    He's never been in these, dreams I suppose they could be called. Kip is the only face that's been familiar, the rest were strangers. Maybe Bill's died too. I don't ask, like Kip, I don't want to know, I'd rather believe them alive and well.

    “Ay! She got er sea-legs 'bout er now, guess old blue wanted to teach her a thin or two eh Kip?” Bill says and elbows the taller man in the ribs, bringing his attention off of me and to the old cook instead.

    “About time too” Kip says and shrugs “See that she gets water and food in her with the rest” Kip ordered, his voice full of the confidence and authority I remember, not the tender gentle Kip I've gotten to know since I died.

    “Don't concern yourself, Davy Jones is just foolin' with me again and I ain't having none of it” I say and grab hold of the rigging's and swing up and begin to climb, aware that crew-mates are gawking. They aren't strangers this time, the same crew I've been sailing with for months.

    Bill looks at Kip who only smirks in response to Bills stunned gaze. “Everthin' is gonna be fine now” Kip says before he walks off and starts barking orders, getting the men into action cleaning debre from the ship's deck. I tune it out and climb up to the crows nest and stand watch. My throat is screaming at me for water but I ignore it. I will not give in to these tricks. I just won't. I stay up there all day, ignoring any voices that call up to me.

    Finally night comes and eases the heat of the day. I'm sunburned, severely dehydrated and still obstinate. Kip doesn't talk to me until only the night watch is out. He climbed up into the crows nest beside me and sits with a flask of water and some bread and chicken from the galley “Drink, eat” he insists and shoves the items into my hands. It's clear I don't get a choice.

    I decide to give in and take the water first, drinking almost all of it in one go, I didn't realize just how thirsty I was until that moment.

    Kip sits silently beside me until I've finished eating too.

    “What's goin' on with you Al?” Kip asks, watching me carefully.

    “What do you mean what's going on?” I ask and look at him now.

    “ Ye're stubborn, I've always known that, but tis, tis is madness. Ye're goin' to kill yourself” he frowns.

    “doesn't matter, I'm already dead” I answer and look down at my empty plate.

    “Ye're not, Bill dove in after you 'n some 'o th other men pulled you back on deck. You were out for hours and I thought you were dead for sure. Couldn't get you to breath. But you aren't dead, Ye're here” Kip replies “Let's keep it tha' way eh?”

    I think over what he's said, maybe I had died but maybe I'd come back for real this time. Things are normal, the whole crew is there and Kips not been his gentle sympathetic self at all.

    “I'm guessin ye had a near death encounter with old Davy Jones” Kip goes on to guess when I say nothing. “I had that happen once, Just been made Quartermaster and went over just like you. I kept dyeing and waking up in different places, alone in some of the most hostile terrains where I'd meet my end in horrible ways...Then...Well it was Captain Davis who brought me back” Kip explained before he stood up and offered me a hand. I take it, staring up at him. Davis rescued him. So Kip saved me then? How was that possible? It's such an unreal possibility that I don't know how to process it. Yet, it has to be real, I just went through it all, just as he'd described his experience.

    “It was horrible” I confess

    “Hopefully not all of it was” Kip says and I catch a glimpse of him, in the eyes, the Kip from the locker.

    “No...Just the parts where I died” I answer, a small smile slowly climbing my face. “The rest of it was nice, thanks” I say, watching him as he smiles a little too.

    “ Ye're welcome” he answers me, giving my hand a gentle squeeze before climbing out of the crow's nest and down the rigging and away from me. I watch him, still smiling. There's no doubt in my mind that what we shared in the Locker was real and the connection we made there will last beyond death, literally.
    • Love Love x 2
    • Thank Thank x 1

  7. Manager's Pick Winner: Family Dinner by @Grumpy
    Family Dinner (open)
    ENTRY #01
    The rains came in the night, sending the earth above us all a-shaking and rattling the ceiling lights.

    At dinner Pa says it’s the wrath of God, thundering His displeasure down upon the heathens and unbelievers who have shirked the True Path for too long. Mama says Pa’s too busy waxing poetic to think about what the flooding and devastation above means for us. Quarry’s going to be plentiful and unaccounted for, at least for a time, but that could all easily change soon. The Feast draws nearer every day, and Mama says she’s the only one who seems to be truly worried about it.

    That’s not true, I want to tell her: I worry plenty. I know how important it is that we are ready for the Feast before it’s time comes due. What’s more, I know how hard it is for Mama and Pa to get things organised since we lost Albert on the last Collection. Susanne might be the eldest of us remaining children, but her eyes make it hard for her to function up top: she’s much better suited for life down here below. Jasper should be the one helping Pa now that he’s the oldest male son, but even Mama doesn’t love him enough to let him loose and unsupervised on the surface. “Too impulsive, that boy,” she often says. She always did have a talent for understatements.

    I might be the youngest, I gotta grant them that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t pull my weight, that I’m just the bookish one who likes to read and won’t help when it’s needed. I’ve been on this Earth fourteen winters now, and I’ve learned enough to know I’m ready to assist Pa in the COllection. Every year before now it’s been “oh Dagny, you too little”, “oh Dagny, you just ain’t ready yet” (or Jasper cornering me and hissing “ain’t no way Pa’s taking you out for something like this, bitch” before giggling).

    But maybe this time. Our family’s getting smaller every year, as Pa often grumbles. All the families that keep to the True Path are. It’s why the Feast is so important. Surely they’ll recognise that? Now isn’t the time to be prudish: the rain, the winds, they’ve created a perfect opportunity in the city above that we cannot afford to pass up on. Not if we’re to be prepared in time.

    I’ll make my case to Mama and Pa after dinner tonight.

    This could finally be my chance.

    ENTRY #02




    ENTRY #03
    Spent the night barely able to sleep so far, my head’s been buzzing so much. I know Mama has her fears about me going up (“not any place for a woman of this family”, she kept saying) but at least I convinced Pa with my argument. He was impressed: called me forthright. Pa doesn’t do compliments too often, so it means all the more that he said it.

    My stomach is still fluttering. Can’t tell if it’s pride or nerves.

    Maybe both?

    It’s not all smiles and praises, of course. Jasper is furious, like an angry dog that’s been kicked one too many times. Even after the mess he made last Collection, I think he had it in his head he was the one going up this time. Tried to corner me in the storage room, pin me up against the wall and choke me like he used to when I was just little.

    That’s Jasper’s trouble: he still thinks of me as that small waifish girl he could push around.

    I removed two of his fingers to remind him that isn’t the case any longer. He screamed like a little crybaby, but they’ll grow back within a couple hours. Just a warning shot, really.

    Susanne was all smiles and praises, but neither of them ever reached those wide, black eyes of hers. We’ve never been that close (Albert was always my confidante) but all the same we’ve always understood one another. I could hear the jealousy in ever compliment she gave: all I can hope that it doesn’t fester over into resentment. Already got one sibling out to get me, so I sure as Hell don’t need another.

    My gear’s all ready to go (I’ve checked it three times now). Mama’s laid me out new clothes, rugged and practical, for the Collection tomorrow. I still don’t know what to expect, truth be told. We spend so much of our lives down here, I can barely even remember the last time I was up on the surface. Nevermind the city. We keep to ourselves, after all, as do all families who hold to the True Path. For all I know I should sleep, my mind won’t stop racing with possibilities.

    Tomorrow, I finally get to show my worth.

    ENTRY #04
    “You sure you ready for this?” was the first thing Pa asked me in the morning, right outside the old mine shaft that connects our home to the surface. I nodded, probably a little too enthusiastically, and he was grinning.

    That’s how my first Collection began.

    Even with the sunglasses Mama had tucked into my new shirt, the light is still overwhelming. Dizzying, at points. The sky stretches above us endlessly, so vast and open I feel like I might be about to fall into it if I stare too long. The smells, the sights, even the noises all feel larger and more potent up here, from the greenery around us to the rattling grumble of the engine inside Pa’s truck. I can see the damage and devastation that the hurricane and water have caused from the passenger seat where I write, even though the city is many miles off yet. Trees uprooted and flung about, reminding me of the way Jasper used to break my toys and then throw them aside like old garbage. Water-choked roads that force us to veer around or else abandon them entirely in favour of the sodden earth that lies to their sides. The few buildings we’ve passed look like they’ve had chunks torn from them by a raging animal.

    I’m starting to think Pa’s talk of God’s wrath wasn’t all that exaggerated.

    It’s hard to imagine who else could unleash this.

    Within a few hours, we’ve started coming across the first sight of our Quarry: the city may be far off but they’ve spread far and wide. Huddled, damp shapes clinging together as they trudge down along the sides of the roads of else travelling along in their own vehicles. So many of them, enough that I rapidly lose count. More than I could ever have imagined witnessing, and we’re not even at the outskirts yet. Just a few moments ago I was turning to Pa, observing that at this rate we don’t even need to go into the city to finish the Collection.

    He looked and me and grinned, said I catch on quick.

    I get the impression it’s gonna be a busy day.

    Whole lot of Quarry to gather up, after all.

    ENTRY #05
    Perhaps committing this to paper will help me set my mind at rest. It may even lead me to the answers I seek.

    Because right now? I’m at a loss.

    The first Collection of the season has been completed. Five of our Quarry in total, stuffed into the back of the truck, bound with ropes and transported down into the holding cells we keep to the rear of our underground home. Pa is thrilled, spent the whole of dinner singing my praises (I could feel Jasper staring daggers into me the whole time). He says I’m a natural at this, that Albert must have taught me well. That at last he has a replacement for the assistant he lost.

    I should be thrilled, I know. My chest should be swelling with pride.

    Instead, it’s tying itself in knots.

    Sure, I’ve seen our Quarry before. Helped Mama prepare them and cook them in time for Feasts in the past, after Albert brought them back and Jasper harvested them. I always loved the feeling of involvement in those moments, the sense of being part of something greater than yourself: part of a long and powerful family tradition, stretching back generations for those who held to the True Path.

    But it’s different, seeing them up close.

    They don’t look like food.

    They look like Mama. Like Susanne. Like my own reflection. For all I try to repress it, I cannot help but recognise the emotions playing out across their faces as we herded them into their cells. The confusion. The panic.

    The fear.

    Fear of us. Fear of me. The two I captured myself? They don’t look much younger than me. Sure, their skin is darker. True, their nails aren’t long or sharp enough and their eyes don’t stretch as wide. The wound the eldest girl has on her shoulder (that I gave her) hasn’t healed yet, and it’s been hours already. But these are superficial differences, I can’t help but think. When I look at them, I don’t see food anymore: I see two kids not unlike myself.

    But they won’t look like that for long.

    Pa always lets Jasper harvest the meat. Mama says it’s what my brother excels at. Acidity released into the flesh during harvesting is what gives it the flavour our Feast demands, and nothing released those acids like fear. Like pain. The longer Jasper can make the harvesting last, the better.

    And Mama isn’t lying when she says he’s good at what he does.

    Used to be, this was the time I looked forward to most.

    But now? I’m dreading every minute.

    ENTRY #06
    I shouldn’t have done it. I knew nothing good would come of it, that it would only make the decision harder.

    But in the end curiosity got the better of me, and I spoke to the two girls I caught.

    The older one is called Kimberly. She was defensive at first: who can blame her? But eventually curiosity took hold of her too. The younger one is Lucette. She doesn’t speak to me at all, just lurks in the back of her cell whilst clinging to Kimberly. They’re sisters, apparently. Separated from their family when the hurricane struck. Travelling towards relatives when I cornered them in a collapsed shed. Kimberly has questions for me as well, naturally. Who we are, what we want.

    When she asks what’s going to happen to them, I do my best to dodge the question.

    She seems tough, Kimberly. Resilient. Looking me in the eye the entire time I’m there, jaw squared. I can tell she’s on guard around me, that she might even be scared, but as long as I’m the only source of answers she has she’ll face me head on. Lucette remains silent the entire encounter, but the way she looks at me all throughout says enough.

    I have never felt like a monster before now.

    It’s not a feeling I enjoy.

    We couldn’t talk for too long, not without being discovered by Pa (or worse, Jasper), but I promised I’d be back later with some water for them. Jasper always brags about he likes to dehydrate the meat before harvest, says it makes the skin pliable and easy to part. I can’t think about such things now without picturing my brother looming over those two girls, that leering smile on his face as he sets to work on them with his knives.

    Those girls that I dragged here.

    So no, talking to them did little to alleviate the guilt boiling away in my gut. But it did put something else in there, too.

    The beginnings of a plan.

    ENTRY #07
    What I’m considering right now? Part of me wonders if I should even be writing it down. It means going against everything I have known, against the very way in which I have known the world to work. I means betrayal. Of Jasper, sure, and I’ll lose no sleep over that. But also of Susanne. Of Mama and Pa.

    Of Albert, God rest his soul.

    All in the name of our Quarry.

    That’s how I’d have seen such thoughts even just two days ago: losing sleep over something lesser than me and mine. Something barely worth considering, let alone fretting over the feelings of. I have to acknowledge that there are differences between my two captives and I. But when I think about it even further, it seems clearer still than these differences aren’t enough to truly distinguish us.

    They aren’t just food.

    My family can’t see that. Won’t see that. We are the Hosts, come the time of the Feast. Every family that keeps to the True Path will be coming to this underground sanctuary to celebrate their adherence to our ways, and we will be leading it all. Nothing I can say or do is going to change them wishing to follow through on all this.

    But that doesn’t mean I’m going to just sit idly by. Not when two people I’m responsible for thrusting into this situation have their lives on the line.

    “Your mistakes are your own”, Pa always used to say, back when times were happier and we were all still together, “so own them, or they’ll do as much to you.”

    And though you may not have meant for it to apply in this situation, Pa?

    I’m sorry, but I think it does.

    ENTRY #08
    The plan could work, because no-one (not even Jasper) is going to see it coming.

    No, that’s negative thinking Dagny.

    The plan will work, because no-one (not even Jasper) is going to see it coming.

    As Pa’s newest hunting partner, I have access to the pens in the back of our home. The only other who has the keys is Pa, and when I put this scheme into practice I intend for him to be sleeping. With no-one else to interfere, I’ll have free reign of our prison. The issue is getting Kimberly and Lucette to the mine shaft and our escape without being seen or heard.

    Yet Jasper’s nature may have ended up indirectly working in my favour. Used to be I needed plenty of spots to hide out in during those times when my brother was bored and in search of entertainment. The end result is that I know the side tunnels and crumbling passages that network our home like old friends. There are plenty of opportunities for me to get my prisoners to safety without being seen. From there, it’s a simple case of getting Pa’s car keys from the lockbox that I can still access. Then we’re free and clear.

    Part of me wants to stay behind, once it’s done. Once I’ve fixed the mistake I’ve made. Atoned (at least in part) for what I did. Try to get through to them all, convince them of what I have come to realise. Part of me wants to go back for the other three that Pa captured as well, locked away in the deeper cells.

    But the sane, logical part of me knows that I can’t. The risk of being found out even when it’s just Kimberly and Lucette are high enough: three more people would doom us all. And however much I try to tell myself otherwise, I know my family will not be willing to see my way of thinking. Not before it’s too late. Not before we’ve further condemned ourselves.

    If there is a God, and He is just, He has to understand what I’m trying to do here. That this isn’t just a battle for my conscience, but a war for my soul. Ignorance may have protected me from the crimes my family has wrought before now, but as soon as I saw our “quarry” for what they truly were? I had a choice. I could bury my head in the sand and carry on as usual, or I could do something about it. My family are going to butcher those two girls that I brought to them. Skin them slowly. Consume their flesh. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just the natural order of things. As normal as the blood that runs through our lineage.

    I will not sit idly and let this happen.

    Kimberly looked completely thrown by what I was telling her when I brought her and Lucette water earlier. Like she’d been expecting anything else from me but that. All the same, she came round to the plan fast. Made improvements to it, even. We’re only bringing supplies and weapons because she pointed it out: I was so caught up on escaping that I hadn’t even considered what would happen if we succeeded.

    Lucette just looked at me through the rusty metal bars as I was whispering, as her sister and I refined our scheme. It wasn’t until I was about to leave that her small hand reached through to grip mine. Her wide eyes gazed up at mine, the fear from earlier gone. Replaced by a faint, desperate hope.

    “Please hurry”, was all she said.

    It was enough.

    This might be my last entry. Should this be the case please know (whoever you might be) that I tried.

    That if nothing else, I tried to fix my mistake.

    ENTRY #09
    Jasper might be dead.

    I don’t know.

    Oh fuck.

    I’ll start from the beginning.

    It was all going brilliantly. Pa had taken himself off to bed for the night, everyone else was busy keeping to their evening routines. My bag was stuffed with requisitioned food and water from our supply room, as well as Pa’s old revolver. Soon enough, Kimberly and Lucette were clear of the cells, following on behind me as we stole through the caves.

    I thought we were going to get away without a hitch.


    Stupid stupid stupid.

    He was waiting for us right outside the mine shaft. I’d forgotten how fast he could move: a blur plunging towards me out of the dark, only his leering grin distinct in all the motion. Before I could react, before I could so much as breathe, he was on me. Momentum and weight blasting against me, sending us both struggling and writhing against the rocky walls. The surprise had given him the upper hand: within seconds he had me pinned. I could smell his breath, feel his knife pressing against my throat.

    “Heard you whispering, bitch,” he was hissing at me, digging the blade into my flesh hard enough to draw blood, “you wanna play with our food? You can die like it, too.”

    I’m alive to write these words only because Kimberly reacted faster than either Jasper and I could have anticipated. Most quarry we encounter are docile, cowed. She was anything but. Just as the blade was starting to dig, as my own brother was tensing his arm to carve open my neck, she was on him. He body slamming into his, knocking him staggering.

    It was all the opportunity I needed.

    As Jasper staggered about and swung his blade wildly I threw myself to the side and snapped my arms out, gripping him by the neck and hauling with all my might. He was off his feet and in the air, his own weight coupled with my force to power his arc as I body slammed him down into the stones and earth. Part of me thought that blow alone was enough.

    The other part of me wasn’t willing to take that chance.

    I had his head gripped, hauling him up to send him plunging back down into the stone. Then again. And again. It wasn’t until I felt something wet and sticky running through my fingers, felt something breaking apart in my hand, that I finally stopped. There was a small hand clutching at me, dark skin twisting to grip my own pale flesh, pulling me towards the mine shaft. To our escape.

    I can still feel that sensation, even now as I write this. Of something once solid and familiar being reduced to mush.



    I’m gonna throw up.

    ENTRY #10
    Pa? Mama?

    You’re maybe reading this. I hope to God you are: I left it where you would find it.

    I don’t expect you to understand my actions. Not just yet. Maybe not ever, after Jasper. I know you’ve only ever done what you thought was right by us. That you raised us according to family tradition, following the True Path.

    But please listen.

    That path is wrong.

    Not just wrong. Evil, in the most Biblical sense of the word. The things you made me complicit in? They cannot be justified. They never could. What we have done, we have done to people like us. Whatever differences you see, they are not enough to justify such cruelty. Such savagery. I can’t be part of it. Not anymore.

    Kimberly and Lucette have invited me to come with them, to head back into the city. New Orleans, they tell me it’s called. You never told me that. A city filled with people like you and I, and all you ever saw it as was a larder. There will be relief efforts, people helping those affected by the hurricane. Perhaps I can contribute. Perhaps this is another chance to make up for what I have been a part of. Perhaps not. All I know is that I can’t go back to the way things were before.

    It could be that you’re planning to bring me back. Family is family, I know. But so long as you continue to cling to your “true path”, I cannot be a part of that family.

    I love you. I think I even forgive you.

    But I can’t forget what you’ve done.

    Don’t follow me.

    Your daughter,
    Dagny Bean

    Community Pick Winner: The Blood of the Covenant is Thicker Than the Water of the Womb by @neobendium
    The Blood of the Covenant is Thicker Than the Water of the Womb (open)
    Jonah Felton wasn’t sure exactly how this had happened, because...he was definitely not an approachable person. His armored frame was tall, lithe, and intimidating, and his face was almost always hidden by his helmet. His boots shook the ground around him as he walked, and the sword strapped to his back was long and sharp. Criminals that saw him coming scattered. Children ran to their parents for protection, their faces peering out at him with distrust and fear. He was trained since birth to be a killer, and that’s what he did to get his food. He liked to believe he didn’t have a conscience, a fact that was completely untrue despite his insistence otherwise. So when he felt a small tap on his thigh, he was more than a little surprised.

    The man glanced down, turning his head so his helmet’s luminescent blue eyes bore down on a small girl. He was silent, too confused to say a word. She licked her lips nervously and stepped back, her hand still hovering in the air. After a moment, the girl ducked her head and rummaged in her pockets before producing from them a small plastic bag. Jonah’s eyebrows furrowed for a moment as the redheaded child held it up to him. He could hear coins inside clinking against each other. She swallowed, huge green eyes darting from his helmeted face to the bag. Slowly, he reached out and took it, opening it to reveal a handful of coins, probably just enough to buy a small candy bar…if that.

    “I….what’s this?” he looked back to the girl, his quiet gravelly voice ringing with frustrated confusion.

    The child blinked, brushing her long, tangled hair from her face with small, thin hands. “I wanted to hire you. It that enough?” her voice was hoarse and nervous and she shuffled her feet as if preparing to run.

    Something was definitely wrong here. The mercenary crouched to get on her level and cocked his head to the side ever so slightly. “Depends. What do you want me to do?”

    “I need you to get rid of someone,” she said hesitantly.

    Jonah let out a small breath. “Who?” he asked gruffly. He assumed it was one of her little friends that stole something from her- her age group never really understood the concept of death….at least not like he did.

    Her next words were so quiet that if the mercenary hadn’t been straining his ears to hear them, they would have been lost to the wind. “My dad.” His eyes darted to her face, noticing for the first time the bruises and cuts that decorated it. Details began falling into place- her tattered, stained clothes, her bone-thin body, her huge, scared eyes that screamed for help even as she was silent. Jonah didn’t say a word, his eyes narrowed under the helmet as he envisioned the kind of person that would drag out the suffering of a small child like her. Even he allowed his victims the basic decency of a clean death. As his angered silence dragged on, the girl’s lip began to tremble and she ducked her head in shame. “It’s not enough, is it?” she whispered.

    Her words shook him from his stupor. Jonah stood up and rested his hand gently on her head, frowning deeply as she jumped at his touch. “What’s your name?”

    “Alyssa,” she mumbled in reply, looking confused at his question.

    “Well…” he handed her the bag back, watching as her eyes lost hope momentarily. “I’ll be seeing you, okay?” She licked her blistered lips again and nodded hastily. “Go on home.”

    She hugged the bag close and nodded once more, her gestures speaking more than any words could.

    The mercenary stood still as she ran away, waiting until she was nearly out of sight before finally moving to follow her. He claimed he didn’t have a conscience, that his feelings and his guilt was nonexistent, but that was far from the truth. Jonah shook his head slightly as he realized this, but he didn’t stop what he was doing.

    He trailed her all the way to where she lived- a small, shabby house that looked like it was being held together by duct tape. The door was hanging lopsidedly on two hinges, and one window was clumsily boarded up. When Alyssa opened the door and entered, he caught a glimpse of the interior. Trash littered the ratty linoleum floor, and the paint on the walls was badly peeling and stained with who knew what.

    Jonah crept down to the house and crouched under the boarded window to better spectate exactly what happened in this place. As the evening dragged on and the chemically-reddened sun dipped lazily below the horizon, he heard things he hadn’t really wanted to hear directed at that child. Within two hours, he had counted a total of fifty profanities being thrown at her, twenty slurs against her intelligence, fifteen audible cries and whimpers, and six crashes and sounds of glass shattering. Finally, everything had quieted down and it seemed as if a rare moment of peace had settled over the house.

    Taking his chance, Jonah snuck up the steps and eased his armored frame into the room, taking in the dimly-lit interior. Broken glass was scattered around the floor, and the choking stench of cigarette smoke clung to every available surface. He looked around, the blue glow from his helmet’s eyes acting as flashlights to direct him.

    He took in a breath and walked toward an open room, peeking inside. Alyssa was curled on the hard, peeling floor, a single, hole-filled blanket wrapped around her to keep her warm. His lips pursed in anger but he didn’t enter her room, instead opting to continue down the hall to another open door. There was her father. His black, scraggly beard was practically down to his belly- which was hanging over his belt and barely contained by the shirt he wore. As he took in the actual bed the man was sleeping on, his nice clothes, and his obviously well-fed stature, anger burned in Jonah’s heart. He felt his rage in full force, hotter than it ever was before.

    And then he did something he had vowed he’d never do. After slinking back to Alyssa’s room, he eased the door shut and stuffed a myriad of pillows under the crack between it and the floor, successfully soundproofing the room. Rage blinding him, he strode to her father’s room and drew his sword…..and he made him suffer. He drove his sword into the man’s body again and again, careful to avoid any of the fatal spots. His screams were music to his ears, full payback for causing the little girl so much pain. After an hour of this torture, he left the quietly whimpering man alone, letting him bleed out on the floor with pain racking his body. He wiped his sword on the bed and slid it back into his sheath, and left the room without so much as a glance in the man's direction.

    Jonah stole quietly into Alyssa’s room and gathered her thin body into his arms, watching in pity as she jolted awake at his touch. “It’s me,” he said quietly, allowing his helmet to fold down and reveal his head fully, auburn hair framing his face.

    She frowned, leaning away from him slightly.

    “I did the job.”

    Alyssa froze, staring at him in obvious shock. Her voice trembled as she finally spoke. “Really?”

    He nodded. “You can’t stay here alone.”

    She shook her head, eyes falling from his face.

    “…..Want to come home with me?”
    #7 Jorick, Jul 30, 2017
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 29, 2017

  8. Manager's Pick Winner: Miss deBourgh's Dilemma by @PoetLore
    Miss deBourgh's Dilemma (Pride and Prejudice fanfic) (open)

    Lady Catherine de Bourgh lie silent in her final resting place, being as richly appointed as her home had been upon this earth. Carvings of magnificent detail adorned the mahogany surface that surrounded her now lifeless body. Many were in attendance at the viewing and wake meant to honor her, but few had kind words for the woman who was more known for her intolerance and viciousness than anything that could be even remotely considered kind or charitable.

    Ever her steadfast patron, however, Reverend Collins flitted around the group, giving out his practiced and ill delivered well wishes to family and friends. His offering of condolence was well meant and sincere, though his words rarely seemed to convey such a truth. His longsuffering wife, Charlotte, tried her best to be solicitous of the people, for her husband’s sake, but she found them to be pretentious and lacking substance. Still, she was willing to endure because of her dearest friend, Elizabeth. Mr. Collins who bore his cousin no ill will for refusing his offer of marriage, was now offering his profuse and ebullient sorrow to Mr. Darcy over the loss of his relation.

    “Mr. Darcy,” he began as he bowed clumsily and deeply, “Please allow me to express the sorrow I must impart at this time of deepest grief at the deprivation we must now all endure in the loss of Lady Catherine. I feel it profoundly as I am certain you yourself must also, though you were estranged these many years. Such things are of little consequence when tragedy strikes. I feel certain she would bear no ill intent upon you for such events in the past. No, I am convinced Lady Catherine was of a large and generous heart in such things and would be pleased that you have come to pay your respects now that she is forever lost to us all.”

    Fitzwilliam Darcy listened with patience of a saintly nature and nodded, “Thank you Mr. Collins. I know she was fond of you. Rest assured you will not be forgotten in her absence. Anne has assured me that your position at the parish will be continued as before without interruption.”

    Mr. Collins looked shocked and a bit affronted, “I am pleased to know it, Mr. Darcy. But please do not suppose my grief to be ingenuine and of a nature as to garner your good favor for such an event as this. I am aware that you would have inherited Rosings Park and all its splendor had not Lady Catherine refused to entail it. She did express her displeasure at giving over her holdings to a man, but I know she was repentant at the end for her daughter’s sake. I am sure she trusted that you would care for Miss de Bourgh appropriately even though you had not been granted ownership of Rosings, and sent you a missive expressing such a bidding. Nevertheless, I do feel great sorrow over her passing.”

    Darcy nodded, “I do not doubt your sincerity, Mr. Collins. It is, I am certain, the reason for your continuance in service of Rosings Park.” He had no intention or interest in sharing any particulars about his cousin’s inheritance or dealings in any way, and so refrained from speaking on the subject any further.

    “Then I do indeed thank you, Mr. Darcy, most humbly I thank you.”

    Darcy dismissed himself from the man and went in search of his wife Elizabeth. In times of stressful and unpleasant dealings, she was his rock and strength. Catching sight of her standing with Charlotte and Anne de Bourgh, he made his way across the crowded room nodding to passing condolences and stepping up to the group. “How are you holding up Anne?” he asked gently.

    Anne was dressed in a lavish black gown, which her mother had chosen for her to wear at this occasion. “I am well cousin. Please do not fret over my condition. I am not as feeble as mother wished everyone to believe.”

    Darcy nodded, “I well know it, Anne. I do find myself wondering if you will continue here once you marry...”

    “Cousin, please...let us not imagine such things will ever occur. I know I am well past that age of desirability and my mother made certain no man would enter into my presence. I am content to live out my life in peace and solitude.”

    “Anne…” Elizabeth chimed in urgently and reached for her cousin’s hands, “Do not suppose such a thing to be set in stone. You are looking far stronger and bright, and I dare say, you will find many men will be desirous of your company and favor.”

    Anne looked at her with sadness and resignation, “And how am I to ascertain if any of those gentlemen would be sincere upon obtaining my good opinion of a pure and noble motive? And not just to obtain Rosings?”

    Elizabeth gave her hands a gentle squeeze, “This is precisely why you have cousins and relations to safeguard your heart and possessions. You know Mr. Darcy would never allow a man to deceive you.”

    Anne squeezed her hands in return and nodded, casting a gentle glance of appreciation to her cousin. Though her mother had always intended him for her, she had never seen him in such a light. He had always intimidated her greatly. She could see the rightness of his relationship with Elizabeth, where her mother never had been able to see anything but defiance and lack of class in the Bennet family.

    The remainder of the wake and funeral procession passed by with practiced precision and speed, for which the Darcys and Lady Anne were all grateful. Darcy and Elizabeth were agreeable to remain at Rosings for a period of adjustment and reorganization, and to assist Anne in learning to govern the household on her own. She apologized profusely for her lack of knowledge of the household, but her mother had not brooked any alteration to her ways in any thing even miniscule in nature. Anne could now see the huge disservice her mother had done to her in this. Luckily she was well educated and of a ready and diligent nature. Her cousins were well pleased with her willingness to grow and learn. It seemed that she blossomed before them, from the sickly, timid soul to an assured and even outgoing woman.

    Anne, at Elizabeth’s urging, planned to open Rosings for a large gala ball to announce Anne’s rightful place as Lady of Rosings Park, and to announce her to society, since Lady Catherine had never done so. The invitations were returned without a single refusal, which Elizabeth expected, but which Anne feared was people wishing to gawk at the awkward daughter of Lady Catherine, as she had come to be accustomed. However, Elizabeth was not about to allow such speculation in regard to her cousin. Especially since she could now be allowed to have a friendship with her, as she had often desired in times past. Pity for the girl’s closeted lifestyle had always burdened Elizabeth’s heart. For having to endure the constant presence of Lady Catherine surely, but also for being kept in such an isolated existence. Such things should never happen, and she dearly hoped that Anne would be able to recover the life that was kept from her in times past.

    To that end, Elizabeth went with Anne to choose the perfect gown for the occasion. They visited many linendrapers before finding a gown that was exactly perfect for Anne. The fabric was a fine woven brocade of deep maroon with a tiered Marie sleeve and cream colored lace inset in the front. There was also a matching cream colored shawl of the same fine embroidered brocade fabric to match. It was beautiful and elegant and Anne was glowing with enchantment over the perfection of the fit of it. Her golden hair seemed lighter as did her pale blue eyes against the bold color, and Anne could not even believe she was looking at her own reflection in the glass.

    Satisfied with their purchases, the women returned to Rosings to continue to plan the gala ball together. Elizabeth had been much helped when she had taken over at Pemberly by Mr. Darcy’s household manager, and she had been so ridiculously grateful at the time. The exact degree of her overwhelming ineptitude as well as her mortification at her lack of preparation to handle such a daunting task still haunted her even now. So, she was very glad to now be able to pour that same relief into Anne’s soul as a means of repayment.

    After many days of planning and fussing over every detail of the arrangements, the day of the ball finally arrived. The women spent much time in preparation, with their maids doing their hair and seeing that their garments were perfectly pressed, as well as placing the perfect adornments into their hair, and upon their necks. Once they were both satisfied with their appearance, the two moved to the main entrance of the great hall and prepared to greet their guests. Mr. Darcy stood with them, as was his duty, along with Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had only just arrived, having received notice of his aunt’s death with much delay regrettably.

    Guests arrived in a constant onslaught for what seemed hours, but finally all guests had arrived and the party retired to the main ballroom, to mingle and enjoy the ball. Colonel Fitzwilliam claimed Anne’s first dance and afterward, she did not sit a single one for the remainder of the evening. One man, someone who seemed to draw much speculation and inquiry, claimed three dances, setting himself apart from the other gentlemen in his intention.

    Elizabeth leaned close to Darcy and whispered, “What do you know of that man?” she asked, “He seems most intent on capturing Anne’s attention.”

    “He is Jacob Stanhope. He has only just inherited his father’s shipping empire and is to have the oversight of it for the foreseeable future. I do not know the man personally, but he is from a good family and has been long sought after for the matrimonial estate by many women and their families.”

    “Ah, that does sound a familiar epidemic among wealthy men, does it not?”

    “As you well know, my love.”

    “Indeed, for a young man with a mighty fortune must be in want of a wife else he perish of deprivation and solitude.”

    Darcy grinned and pressed a kiss to her temple, “I was informed as much, yes, upon many occasions.”

    Elizabeth gave his side a gentle poke with her elbow and then looked over at the young man in question.

    “Am I to surmise you wish me to investigate the man’s intentions?”

    Her eyes flashed as they rolled in less than patient forbearance. “If it would not trouble you too terribly much to do so. I believe we are to ensure your cousin’s safety from anyone who might be in pursuit of her merely for monetary gain, correct?”

    “Ah yes. So we are.” He bowed to her with a grin of impish devilry before parting from her and crossing the room to the gentleman in question. He bowed and made polite conversation with the man for a time before making note of his particular attention to his cousin Anne. Colonel Fitzwilliam was standing nearby as well, also feeling concern for his cousin, and listening in on the conversation furtively.

    “It does you great credit, Mr. Darcy,” Jacob noted, “To take such intimate care of your cousin. I do pay her particular attention because she is fully worthy of it. I find myself in a similar conundrum as Lady de Bourgh. I am pursued for the fortune women and their families seek to gain through a marriage alliance with me. It has become even more a problem since my father’s passing. How can one know if attention is genuine, or based upon you in any way at all? No, I am convinced that without exception I am approached by people who could not care for my happiness at all, but see only a safe haven of wealth for their child.”

    Mr Darcy nodded, “I have been in your shoes, Mr. Stanhope. Allow me to assure you that some women’s affections cannot be bought with wealth. Those women are worth the wait, and the effort involved to win them.”

    Jacob Stanhope nodded, “I fully agree. Lady de Bourgh is such an one. She is modest and gracious. Two traits that I find very appealing. Still, were I you, I imagine I would be wary as you are. I intend to prove my worth over time, not from one ball, if I may be allowed such a privilege.”

    “That would largely depend upon the wishes of my cousin. I will not speak for her in this matter. I will consult with her and return with a reply.”

    The rest of the evening passed in a blur for Anne. Jacob Stanhope was not the only man to express a wish to know her better and she was quite frankly overwhelmed by the attention and deferred all answers until she could clear her head. Something that both Darcy and Fitzwilliam both strongly advised.

    The next morning at breakfast Anne looked as if she had not slept a wink all night. She did not speak much and was very much within her own thoughts. No one pressed her or even intruded upon them, but allowed her the space to think through her options without interference. However, by the dinner meal her desire to talk had returned and she set before her family, some of her thoughts. She summarily dismissed the intentions of several men as obnoxious and a few others as unmannerly. She was then left with Jacob Stanhope and Neville Berkeley as the two men who had impressed her with their manner and wit.

    “I find I have no desire to be burdened with another person like my mother, of dour expression and cruelty. I wish to have joy and happiness in my life. I do not believe I am selfish in this desire.”

    “Of course not,” Elizabeth chimed in with a fervent nod of her head, “You should be pleased and happy with your choice, and allow yourself to find love. It is not unattainable, Anne.”

    Anne looked at her beautiful cousin and felt sure her words were true for a natural beauty as the Bennet sisters had been known to be. She however, had never been known for her stunning good looks. She was feeling better about her appearance of late, but she still felt she paled in comparison to Elizabeth and Georgiana. “Perhaps,” she conceded.

    Darcy spared her any further comment, “Then I shall inform these men of your agreeableness to spending a bit more time with them, and gently inform the others of your declining of their attentions.” His idea of gently may be different than hers but the deed would be done without her having to pain herself with the task.

    Colonel Fitzwilliam was trying valiantly to hide his smile, but it could not be suppressed. In an attempt to contain his growing humor at Darcy’s comment he looked to Anne, “Shall we invite one of these gentlemen to dine with us?”

    “Dinner.” Anne looked terrified.

    “Dinner would be a perfect opportunity to take their likenesses,” Elizabeth said as she looked around the table. “And we can help you...if you wish it.”

    Anne looked at Elizabeth with something akin to grateful terror. Her facial expression at that moment was an exact mixture of apprehension and hope. She did have romantic dreams. What woman did not? Hers were merely very well hidden and buried deep within her heart, but they were there.

    A week later the first gentleman appeared at Rosings park for dinner. Neville Berkeley was dressed appropriately, though a bit plainly. He was not a showy man in his outward appearance, but his manners were gentle and cheerful in nature. He spent a good deal of the time before dinner regaling the group with stories of his various adventures as a barrister, leaving out the names of course to protect the identity of those he was poking humor at with his tales. He had a way about him of drawing in a whole crowd to attend to his every word, and once he had that attention he did not relinquish it. Only the dinner bell being rung broke his string of amusing anecdotes.

    Dinner was a slightly quieter affair, with Darcy and Fitzwilliam each asking a few questions of the man, for their own reasons and to take their measure of the man’s character. Fitzwilliam found the man very likeable, and a good match for Anne’s more reserved manner. Darcy was not as quick to give his good opinion, nor was Elizabeth. Still they passed the evening enjoyably and all saw the man to the door before they retired to the music room.

    Darcy was thoughtful and quiet. Elizabeth watched him, wondering what could be troubling him, though she too had misgivings she could not identify of her own.

    Fitzwilliam poured himself a brandy, “Cheerful fellow that.” he said breaking the silence in the room.

    Anne smiled, “He told such stories as we danced,” she offered, “I was quite entertained.”

    Elizabeth, having been in the past completely taken in by a happy manner and open nature, was not so easily persuaded of good character. “He is a good storyteller. He would do well as an author I imagine. Who would not wish to read such amusing tales to divert their mind from troublesome times?”

    Darcy huffed, “The weak minded?” he interjected, “Forgive me love,” he said placing a soft kiss to her temple, “I could not for all the money in the world listen to such drivel for many nights together. He does have a way of speaking that is engaging, i will give him that much. But though it was entertaining, it was underpinned with a cruelty that took a bit of the humor from it in my estimation.”

    Elizabeth thought back on the stories and she could not disagree with her husband’s observations.

    Anne shook her head, “Oh Darcy,” she said as she gasped in a surprised breath, “That cannot be so,” she said, “He was merely taking the humor of the situations and creating a way for us to be at ease. I cannot believe he intended any negative thought or feeling toward his clients, or his profession.”

    Darcy dropped the matter for her sake, but he was not swayed from his initial opinion.

    A week later the second gentleman appeared at Rosings for dinner. He was dressed with a bit more color and formality than Mr. Berkeley had been, but his manner, while pleasing and polite was not as gay or engaging as his predecessor. He was very attentive to Anne, asking questions and attempting to honestly befriend the entire group. He even managed to convince Elizabeth and Georgiana to play for them all before dinner. Dinner was again a time of quiet questions and polite conversation after which they once more retired to the music room. Jacob lingered for a bit of time after dinner, and even played at the harpsichord for their entertainment.

    “You are too kind,” he said of their complements, “My mother was very ill when I was younger and music helped her to pass the days with less discomfort. Since her passing it has been a source of comfort to me, and a reminder of her memory.” He thanked them all for a delightful evening and his wishes to have them all join him at his family estate not far from town in one week’s time.

    Darcy took the man’s hand but it was Anne who replied for the group, “We have no set engagements. We would be pleased to join you.”

    Jacob smiled a full and joyful smile and gave Darcy’s hand a firm squeeze, “Shall we say six then?” and when he had a nod in the affirmative, he bowed to the ladies, “Thank you for the lovely and delicious dinner, dear ladies. I look forward to seeing you both again in one week’s time.” And having said as much they walked him in like manner to the gate and saw him off before retiring to the music room.

    Anne sat and watched the group, “So, what think you of him?” she asked, “I know you all have thoughts.”

    Elizabeth chuckled, “Indeed, how can we not? We are attempting to guard your heart and safety.”

    Darcy poured himself and Fitzwilliam a glass of brandy, “He has a bit more substance, and he was not attempting to hide himself behind tales of humor. But I will reserve my comments until after dinner next week, if you do not mind.”

    Anne made a face, “I mind, but I doubt it will avail me at all.”

    Fitzwilliam laughed loud at that comment, “I fear you are correct Anne. For my part, I saw no glaring fault in him. He is not as jovial as Mr. Berkeley, but as Darcy noted, he seemed a bit more genuine especially as concerns you. He at least spent time seeking to know you, and us too for that matter.”

    Elizabeth had to agree on that point, but like her husband she was not speaking her mind without further exposure to these men and their character. She had learned caution, realizing only after painful experience that not everyone is as they appear upon first acquaintance. The difficulty in this for her was that she sincerely wanted Anne to be happy, and it seemed that Anne preferred the cordiality of Mr. Berkeley. Her husband’s comments about that man’s manners was creating such a quandary for her. Was Mr. Berkeley trying to cover up for some great personal weakness by being so jovial? Was Mr. Stanhope honestly interested in Anne, or did he too have an ulterior motive? Surely the dinner they would share at his home would allow her a bit of enlightenment and direction in advising Anne properly.

    The week passed quickly, as Elizabeth and Anne worked on learning the ins and outs of properly overseeing the care and provision of Rosings Park and her many constituents and employees. Anne was pleased to be able to make things better for everyone, under Darcy’s advice and direction. She allowed for more wood to keep the huge estate warm and not as damp, which she noted had most of them feeling much better. She made many changes in the way things had always been done by her mother, because she had come to see them as selfish and unnecessary. Rosings produced more than enough money to afford to give the employees of the great manor a fair and comfortable life, and Anne intended to see that they had it. With every passing day she became more sure of her own abilities and that she could indeed manage things on her own.

    With that knowledge however, came the secondary thought that she would lose her newfound freedom to make these choices to better others’ lives, if she were to choose to marry. Did she wish to accept the governance of another again? Was she ready to place her life in someone else’s hands? The many questions that crowded her mind regarding being a wife, began to make her more afraid of choosing than of being alone for the rest of her life.

    Finally the night of the dinner arrived and once again the three women, for Georgiana Darcy had arrived that morning from school, spent hours being fussed over and pampered before they were ready to leave for their engagement. The invitation had been extended to all of them, and so Colonel Fitzwilliam joined them as well in the carriage as they made their way through town and out a bit into the countryside. The house set back down a long drive and as the carriage approached they were impressed by the immaculately sculptured gardens that could be seen just beyond the trees that lined the drive. The house itself once it came into view was crafted in the not English styles of the time, but looked rather like someone had literally dropped a french ornate chateau in the middle of the Kent countryside. It was very large and sprawling nearly half of the circle pull around and was ornately detailed at the roof eaves and the windows with what appeared to be gold corbels. The design included many interesting shapes which nearly forced the onlooker to desire to see the spaces inside. Anne found herself much impressed since Rosings was elegant, but not at all as interesting from without as Mr. Stanhope’s manor.

    A footman appeared from the gate to help them out of the carriage and usher them inside where Mr. Stanhope was awaiting them at the main doors. He bowed to them and welcomed them all with a friendly, inviting cordiality and ease that had them all instantly comfortable.

    Elizabeth spoke first, “Your home is quite astonishingly beautiful, Mr. Stanhope.”

    “Is this french architecture?” Anne inquired.

    “It is indeed Lady de Bourgh,” he replied as he led them into the music room to relax before dinner, “I thank you for your kind words Mrs. Darcy. My mother was from Lyon and this was my father’s attempt to help her feel less homesick for her native land.” he looked around the room they were presently occupying and a sad smile appeared on his lips, “This was her favorite room,” he said and the brushed off the thoughts and turned his attentions back to his guests. “I do hope you did not find the journey too long?’ he asked as a beautiful young woman entered the room. She was dressed in nearly regal finery and her dark brown hair was adorned with pearls and flowers in a most becoming twisted braid.

    The gentlemen all stood as she arrived and Darcy and Fitzwilliam both bowed to her.

    “Please allow me to present my sister, Joelle Stanhope,” he said formally, “Joelle, this is Lady Anne de Bourgh, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and his sister Georgiana Darcy and finally Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

    “It is my great pleasure to finally meet you all,” Joelle said with a brilliant smile, “I have heard such lovely things of you all from my brother.” Her attention turned to Anne then, “Forgive me for being unable to attend your ball, Lady de Bourgh, I had much anticipated it but that day I had the unfortunate luck to be beset by illness and the doctor forbade me to travel.”

    Anne smiled kindly, “I am sorry we missed the opportunity of meeting you earlier. I do hope you are restored to full health now.”

    “Oh thank you, yes,” she beamed, “I am grateful to report that I am.”

    Jacob was about to speak when the butler announced that dinner was ready to be served and the group retired to the dining room. The conversation around the table was lively and cheerful, much due to Miss Stanhope’s friendly and outgoing manners. The meal was extraordinarily lavish and prepared to perfection. Once they were all seated comfortably in the music room again Joelle played and sang for them all.

    Darcy leaned over to Jacob, “Take very good care of your chef, I am tempted to lure him away from you.”

    Jacob chuckled, “You would not be the first. He is well paid and I am blessed to have him.”

    Joelle left the piano after playing two songs and singing for them. Like her brother she was gracious and humble in receiving their appreciation. “Thank you all, I am glad you were pleased, but I understand that all of you are talented on the pianoforte as well.”

    Georgiana shook her head, “I fear my shyness forbids me singing before people as you have, I quite admire your boldness.”

    “It is selfishness honestly,” Joelle admitted, “I enjoy it far more than my hearers I am convinced of it.”

    Anne smiled, “I highly doubt it. That was superb.”

    The remainder of the evening was passed in pleasant conversation, with Colonel Fitzwilliam spending a fair amount of time speaking with their lovely hostess. At length, the evening came to an end and the group climbed into the carriage and made the journey back to Rosings.

    “I would not be adverse to spending more time in their company,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said once they were out of the circle and back on the long drive off the property. His smile had not diminished since he had begun speaking to Joelle Stanhope.

    “OH?” Darcy said with a devilish gleam in his eye, “You did not find Miss Stanhope overly accommodating?”

    Fire flashed in Fitzwillliam’s eyes, “What? Surely you did not think as much. She was charming and gracious.”

    Darcy laughed, “One meeting and you are smitten.”

    Elizabeth placed and hand on Darcy’s arm, “He has a fine eye. She is lovely.”

    “And I dare say she has the dowry to garner your interest cousin.” Anne offered as she tipped her head to look at him.

    Georgiana stayed quiet as she listened to their conversation. She had a few suitors but no one had ever made her feel the rush of emotion she had once felt for Wickham in her gullible youth. Though he had been unworthy, she still wanted that type of connection with her future partner, and the more she saw her brother and Elizabeth together the more firmly the notion became fixed in her mind.

    The Colonel did not gratify them with a reply from that moment on about any possible favor he might be feeling toward the lovely Joelle Stanhope. The expression on his face was telling enough, though he was unaware of the fact.

    At breakfast the next morning Anne seemed a bit out of sorts, “Are you feel well Anne?” Elizabeth inquired.

    “I am well dear Cousin...I did not rest well is all.”

    “Is something troubling you?”

    “Actually yes,” She admitted openly, “May I ask a question of you cousin? It is of a rather personal nature.”

    “Of course.”

    “Thank you.” She paused a second to gather her words, “Do you ever regret marrying?”

    The shock on Elizabeth’s face could not have been contained for the power of her reaction, “No, not ever. What brings that question?”

    “I have always been rather terrified of my cousin, though I know it was my mother’s fondest desire for us to wed. Do you not feel...couched in? Being subjected to his authority?”

    “Oh I see…You cousin has never made me to feel that way. He is sensible of my feelings and attentive to my needs, but I have great freedom to do as I desire, within the realm of propriety of course. He has in fact helped me a great deal to further the prospects of my younger sister Kitty, and gives me total freedom in the management of Pemberley. I believe I enjoy more freedom than most women can boast.”
    Anne nodded, “I would have to agree in light of that reply. It has occurred to me that if i choose to marry I will lose every bit of freedom I now enjoy since my mother’s passing. Forgive me, I know that sounds incredibly selfish…”

    “It most certainly does NOT sound selfish!” Elizabeth vehemently denied, “You have been forced to live according to another’s bidding your entire life, and that was much to your own detriment and disadvantage. Forgive me for speaking so of one who can no longer defend themselves from my criticism, but you mother treated you so poorly. It always bothered me, Anne, truly it did. And for you to now value the ability to decide for yourself is not selfish but wise. What I suppose you must decide dear cousin, is if you want to spend your life free and alone or take a risk on a man being willing to allow you a certain amount of freedom and share your life with him.”

    “Yes, I suppose that is my dilemma.”

    The next month passed in a blur of activity. Both Mr. Berkeley and Mr. Stanhope appeared several more times at Rosings, and the family enjoyed several more dinners with the Stanhope’s Estate. Anne was no closer to a decision between the men than she had been the night of that first ball, nor even had she concluded whether she wished to encourage either of them at all.

    It was Mr. Berkeley however that appeared at their doorstep one day uninvited and unannounced. The Butler showed him into the parlor and summoned Anne in response to his visit.
    He stood when she entered and waited for her to take a seat before he sat himself in a chair close to her but not next to her. He folded his hands together and leaned forward a bit in his chair. “Miss de Bourgh,” he said softly, “You can be in no doubt of my intentions for our acquaintance. I know this may be considered abrupt, but I have no choice in this matter, as I must leave soon on business. Will you consent to be my wife?”

    Anne was alarmed at the change in his demeanor and way. Gone was the jovial man and in his place was one that was overly serious and demanding. At least she felt his manner in that way. “I thank you for your request Sir,” she began but before she could continue he stood and was glaring down at her.

    “You surely do not have the audacity to decline.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Honestly? You are the most pathetic creature I have ever encountered, and you are going to turn away an offer of marriage? Had I not the need of additional funding for my business I would never have considered you. I can assure you, that everyone else is of the same opinion. Good day Madam, consider my offer lifted and your burden to answer as well.” He stormed out leaving her shaken and shocked.

    Georgiana saw Mr. Berkeley leaving and noted the brusque manner of his movements and was instantly taken back to a similar exit from her life long ago. She tentatively moved toward the door to the parlor and saw Anne sitting on a chair transfixed. She frowned and moved to her side kneeling before her and taking both Anne’s hands in her own. She did not speak for she knew there were no words for times such as this, but merely offered her support silently.

    Elizabeth entered upon this scene unwittingly and stopped at the door, fearing she had intruded upon some private conversation, but Georgiana motioned for her to enter. Once she got closer she saw the look on Anne’s face and concern instantly filled her, “What on earth happened in here?’ she asked as she pulled a chair closer and sat next to the other two.

    Anne stared at the wall and told them the entirety of the conversation in explicit detail, though with in a far less emotionally charged manner than had actually taken place.

    Elizabeth and Georgiana exchanged a meaningful glance. Georgiana left the room quietly and went in search of her brother. “Anne,” Elizabeth softly called to her, “Surely you realize he was completely in error…”

    “Was he?”

    “Yes, Anne. He was.”

    Anne just stared at the wall reliving every encounter with the man and trying to ascertain how she could have so totally misjudged his character and comportment. It shook her to know her judgment was so wholly wrong. Could she trust her judgment in regards to any man? Was she this gullible and desperate for a man’s attentions? The resounding answer echoed in her brain, yes. She did not speak but left the parlor and went to her room. Elizabeth followed her for a time, but allowed that time alone was more than likely what Anne needed most.

    Darcy appeared at her side with a puzzled expression on his face, and Elizabeth gave him all the particulars of the encounter and he hissed out an exasperated breath. “I knew he was a fraud.” He left Elizabeth and went out into town to find the man in question and confront him, but he found no evidence of such a man even existing, nor a company, nor any record of such a man staying at any place in town. How had he happened to be invited to the ball? He wondered. Was the real Mr. Berkeley the victim of foul play? Surely Anne had avoided a far greater tragedy than having to endure a verbal scalding. He went to the authorities then and reported him as an imposter and gave a description of the man in great detail before returning home.

    Unfortunately, word of such things had a way of getting around, and the very next day Mr. Collins appeared at the door asking to console with Lady de Bourgh. Anne appeared in the parlor again and sat not knowing why Mr. Collins might be there, except possibly to check on her condition since the passing of her mother.

    “Miss de Bourgh,” he said in his normal awkward manner, “I felt it my duty to come to you this day and offer my sincerest apologies and offer my services of counsel regarding the horrible manner in which you were thrown aside just yesterday by a man of great promise and wealth. How bitterly you must feel it! To have lost such an opportunity at marriage at this advanced state of life must be intolerably painful! I must say though, that he has deprived himself of far more than you shall be deprived of since he will have no further communion with Rosings, in all her glory.”

    It was at this moment that Elizabeth returned from her weekly visit to Charlotte and happened to overhear what was being spoken in the parlor. She entered the room pulling off her gloves as she did so and moved to stand next to Anne’s chair, “Mr. Collins,” she said, “I have only just come from spending the morning with your wife, and she was mentioning something about the archbishop coming for a surprise visit…”

    Mr. Collins stood up and blinked, “Surprise?” he repeated and gathered his things and fidgeted about, “Forgive me Miss de Bourgh. I must attend to other matters. But know that I consider this man a rogue of the worst sort, for your sake.” And with that he exited the room and quit the place altogether.

    Elizabeth put a hand on Anne’s shoulder, “There is not a stupider man upon the face of God’s earth, Anne….well with the exception of Mr. Berkeley. Though my husband informs me that he was more than likely in imposter, and is in fear of the real Mr. Berkeley’s life. In that event perhaps it is unwise to call that criminal by an honest man’s name.”

    Anne frowned, “Darcy had not expressed such concerns to me. I cannot say it surprises me given the violence that was seen by me of the man who claimed to be a gentleman, but it just confirms in my mind that I am incapable of making any sort of right conclusion about a man. I believe I have decided to live out my life in contented happiness at Rosings, Elizabeth.”

    She once again stood and left Elizabeth to ponder her going.

    It was not long after Anne declined an invitation to dinner from the Stanhope’s that Jacob requested an audience with Anne. She could not find a way to decline his polite request in light of the fact that he had done her no harm, and had treated her family kindly. So with much trepidation she agreed to his request.

    Jacob had not seen Anne in nearly two weeks, and he was curious as to why their friendship was so suddenly ended. Word of the violent and less than gentlemanly behavior of his rival had indeed reached him, but he did not attribute that occurrence to this. He had hoped that they were at least friends, and that she would not treat a friend with such little regard. He appeared at the appointed time and was led to the music room, because Anne was growing to hate the parlor. He was confused by this, but he sat and waited for her to appear. She looked pale and sad, but he did not comment on that fact, just stood as she entered and waited for her to be seated.

    “Good day to you, Mr. Stanhope,” Anne said formally. “How may I help you?”

    Jacob looked almost insulted by her manner of address and even by her question. “I have never required or asked for any help, Miss de Bourgh. Why you would ask such a thing at this time, I am not sure. It has been many days since I have had the privilege of being in your company, and I was concerned for you. Fearing you had fallen ill traveling late at night from dinners in the country, and feeling the burden of my own selfishness at making the requests, I wanted to meet with you and ease my mind and know your condition first hand. I am sorry if my appearance has caused you discomfort. I did not intend to do so.”

    Anne frowned as she listened, “Forgive me, Mr. Stanhope. I have been remiss. I am not accustomed to people taking note of my absence. I did not mean to distress you or your sister. I am physically fine.”

    Jacob watched her and it seemed to him that she was pulling into herself, and closing herself off somehow. It was horrible to watch, especially knowing he could do nothing to prevent it. “No, I am presumptuous. I can see that my feelings in this matter are far different from yours. Forgive my intrusion on your time and please give my best wishes to your family.” He stood then and bowed to her formally and then with one long look at her he departed.

    Anne sat in the chair, stiff backed with her hands folded on her lap for a full thirty minutes. She could not bring herself to move, though a lot of her wanted to run after him and beg him to love her, truly and honestly love her. She felt dead inside though, and the idea that she would never have true love filled her liked a cancer and ate at her soul. She did not appear at dinner that night, alarming her family greatly. Leaving a message with the staff that she did not wish to be disturbed, not even by family, they had little choice but to honor her wishes.

    However, when she did not appear for breakfast the next morning, Darcy sent Elizabeth to check on her. Knocking on the door, she waited for a bit, and then called out to her, “Anne...please...are you well? We are worried for you.”

    Anne went to the door to her rooms and pulled on the heavy door, “I am well cousin. I am well.”

    Elizabeth looked at her and frowned, “Forgive me Anne, you do not LOOK well. What is wrong? Can you not confide in me? We are cousins and more importantly friends. At least I had hoped that we were, now that we can be.”

    “Of course we are Elizabeth,” She felt the tears sting her eyes as she spoke seeing and hearing the hurt she had caused Elizabeth. “It seems I can do nothing right of late.” She turned and moved to sit on the side of her bed. Still in her nightclothes and robe, she pulled the robe tighter around her as her head fell forward and she allowed the pain to leave her in wracking sobs.

    Elizabeth went to her and sitting next to her on the bed wrapped an arm around her and held her, whispering words of comfort to her. Crying was often times cathartic and well Elizabeth knew it. How long had she spent crying over Mr. Darcy’s letter? Over Lydia’s thoughtless destruction of her family’s good name? Over Jane’s loss of her only love? Letting her cry while she patiently waited was not difficult, waiting for her to speak was, but still she waited.

    Anne collected herself after much time and quietly told her cousin about Mr. Stanhope’s visit. “Oh Elizabeth, how he must hate me now. He offered honest friendship and I threw even that in his face. I am a wretched woman.”

    “You are not wretched Anne. You have been through a lot in a very few days, I am sure if you explain…”

    “Explain what? That I am an imbecile?”

    “Well, if you feel the need to confess such a thing, then yes.”

    Anne chuckled then, which was what Elizabeth was hoping. “He would at least know I was in earnest I suppose.”

    “He will know in any event, I feel sure. And...what have you to lose at this point?” Having said her peace and giving her cousin a firm hug, Elizabeth left the room and went to report to Darcy what she had discovered.

    Anne however went to her desk and penned a letter to the Stanhopes. She had no expectations, but wished them to know that she was sorry, and attempted to explain her confusion and fears. She was brutally honest in the letter and did not spare herself the blame of anything. Sealing the letter with her signet, she stared at it for some time before deciding to actually send it.

    Many days passed and Anne feared she had done irreparable damage to a dear friend’s good opinion of her. Maybe he was like her cousin, and once his good opinion was lost, it was lost forever. She went about her duties and made ready for Darcy’s family to return home. Colonel Fitzwilliam had been forced back into the country long ago, and she knew that once they left she would be truly alone for the first time in her life.

    The day finally came when they were packing to leave and she felt like her heart would shatter completely. All the things her mother had told her about the both of them had been utterly false. They had proven themselves to be her friends over and over again throughout this two months they had stayed, which was far longer than usual or likely planned. She could not ask more of them, Darcy had things to attend to at home, as did Elizabeth and Georgiana. She was not above making them promise to return at their earliest convenience, which they happily agreed to do.

    Sitting in the music room listening to the echoes of the staff moving around the large estate, she felt the chill of her choice settle deeply into her soul. “I am just as foolish as my mother…” she said softly to the walls. She let out a heavy sigh when she heard a carriage round the park. “Please God, not Mr. Collins. ANYONE but Mr. Collins.”

    She stood and waited to see who was there, if anyone. It could be a delivery. It was often difficult to tell where a carriage was going, whether to the main entrance or the scullery entrance in the rear. Her butler knocked on the door to the music room, “A Miss Stanhope to see you Miss.”

    Anne was relieved and so very glad to have this visit. She had addressed her letter to both of them, feeling that necessary to her repentance. When Joelle entered Anne smiled a bright smile, “Thank you for coming,” she said and ushered her in, “Can I get you some tea? Have you eaten?”

    Joelle shook her head, “Thank you, no.” she said as she sat down and Anne followed her example and sat as well, “I have come to ask you a very direct question Miss de Bourgh. Your letter was honest, and I assume your reply will be as well, for that reason.”

    “It will.”

    “Your letter mentioned being afraid of your own judgment and I can understand that, being in a similar situation myself. I cannot tell you the times my brother has saved me from infamous men. Too many to count, honestly. What I wish to know does not concern me, but my brother. He would never ask for himself, so I am asking. Do you care at all for him? Did you ever care for him?”

    Anne was shocked to hear that Joelle had been fooled by men as well. Perhaps it was not her then that was at fault in this matter, or even her judgment. The realization of that created a light inside her that she felt she had lost forever. “He is the only man who has ever attempted to be my friend. I am tortured daily by the thought that I have lost his good opinion forever.”

    “So you think of him as a friend…”

    “He has expressed no other wish to me. Miss Stanhope, I am well aware that I am lacking in certain aspects that gentlemen seek in a marriage partner. I am quite resigned to the fact that I will spend my life as I am. But losing friends, when I have so few, breaks my heart. It is even more distressing when it was my own insecurities that caused it.”

    Joelle looked at her like she was crazy, “You lack what?” she asked pointedly. “Kindness? Humility? Charity? If you refer to appearance, there is nothing about you that is offensive. I have little to recommend myself aside from my outward appearance and the money I can offer someone, but you have so much more substance than I. I quite admire you for it.”

    Anne protested, “You are genuine and kind, and of a sweet nature. What man would not be blessed to have you as his wife?”

    “And yet you see none of this in yourself?”

    “No, I do not.”

    “Well my brother does. He has been impossible to live with, and if you tell him I said as much I will of course deny it.”

    “Of course,” Anne chuckled.

    “If I were to tell you that my brother loves you, what would you say?”

    “I would say you were mistaken.”

    “No Anne. I am not. I heard more of you in one week than I have ever heard about another woman in my life. After the first dinner at our house, he was begging me to tell him he did not do anything offensive or improper. He was so concerned for your favor and good opinion. He knew there was another man in the picture, that he was not as cheerful or witty. He had seen as much at your ball. He felt himself horribly inferior and lacking, and he did not know how to make himself acceptable to you.”

    Anne listened and the more Joelle spoke the more her expression became one of bewildered awe. She was silent for a time as she absorbed everything Joelle had disclosed. “I wonder if you might do me the favor of waiting while I pen a letter to your brother.”

    Joelle smiled, “Since I could not imagine a better sister, I will wait.”

    Anne blushed prettily, “He may not forgive me. Some men find it difficult to overlook faults such as those I have confessed.”

    Joelle just smiled and motioned to the desk in the corner.

    Anne stood then and wrote another letter, this time to only Jacob.

    My Dear Friend Jacob Stanhope,

    I pray you will indulge me in the reading of this second letter, since I have something of import I feel I must tell you and since I fear you may not allow me to do so in person, for the wrongs I have inflicted upon you, this is my only recourse. Forgive me for presuming upon your time and attention, both are greatly appreciated.

    There are times in life when one must take stock of their choices, both the wise and foolish, and accept the consequences of both as their just due. I find myself earnestly desirous of mercy, and forgiveness instead of the condemnation I rightly deserve. How can I convey my sorrow over the loss of your company? How can I convince you that I feel completely devoid of joy and peace? How can I even dare to hope that you feel that same loss?

    It is highly presumptuous I know, and even arrogant to believe that I might in some way matter to you in any way. But, Dear Jacob, I must tell you that I miss you. I felt the light die within me when you walked out of Rosings with such a disappointed expression on your face. I wish I had been strong enough to run after you as I fervently wished to do, but I was a coward. Given another opportunity, I would chase after you and beg you not to go. Given another opportunity, I would offer a broken and damaged heart at your feet, knowing that only you could mend those pieces and create a new heart within me.

    Am I too late? Have I done irreparable damage to your good opinion of me? I sincerely hope I have not.

    All my heart,

    Anne de Bourgh

    She sealed the letter as before and presented it to Joelle. “I can only hope now.”

    Joelle hugged her and kissed her cheek, “I will welcome you to the family now, Sister.” She said and then left almost skipping out of the room in her joy. Her brother would complain for a second, about her interfering but she would soon be forgiven she knew. The ride home seemed to take a million years, but finally she arrived and flew into the house in search of her brother. She felt sure he would be the same place he had been for a week, sitting in his office staring out the window.

    She moved into the room, closing the door behind her and then stood between him and the window looking down at him with a positively disgusted look on her face, “How long are you going to mope about in this ridiculous manner?”

    Jacob looked up at her and he could not even muster the emotional response her words should have elicited.

    “Oh for pity sake Jacob. Snap out of it, or I will not give you the letter I have for you.”

    He waved a hand, “Let me be, Joelle.”

    “Very well, I will tell Miss de Bourgh you did not care to read her letter…”

    He was up out of the chair and standing between her and the door faster than she ever remembered him moving. “You will do no such thing.”

    She smiled sweetly, “You can pretend to be angry that I have interfered.” And handed him the letter before she kissed his cheek, “I do love you brother.”

    He was wondering exactly what she had done, but he was more interested in what the contents of that letter might be. He sat and looked at it for a time before drawing up the courage to break the seal. He read the letter five times and then rushed out of his office, nearly plowing Joelle over, as she was listening at the door.

    “OH!” she gasped as she nearly fell to her bottom.

    “That is what happens when you make yourself a busybody.”

    “Luckily you love me.” she replied cheekily, “Now go get me a Sister.”

    He kissed her cheek and went to get his horse, rather than waiting for the carriage. He did not have to stay to the roads that way, and made it back to Rosings in half the normal time. He handed the reins off to the doorman and then requested to see Anne. He was led to the music room, where Anne was pacing nervously. She looked up and stopped cold in her tracks, afraid to speak and afraid not to speak.

    He did not give her the opportunity but crossed the room and pulled her tightly into his arms and held her close. He then released her and pulled a box from his pocket, “Miss Anne de Bourgh of Rosings Park, will you please consent to be my wife, share my life and build a future together? I have been in love with you since the first night we met. I can no longer see any future life for me without you in it.”

    Anne looked at the box and then back at him, “Nor can I.”

    “Is that a...yes?”

    “It is.”

    Community Pick Winner: You Can't Take The Sky From Me by @Elle Joyner
    You Can't Take The Sky From Me (Firefly fanfic) (open)

    You Can't Take the Sky From Me
    A Firefly Fanfic


    Damn funny name for a ship that had seen so much. For Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity was home, but it hadn’t always been. Six months had passed since Miranda. Six long, tiring months, and not for the first time, Mal found himself missing Shadow. It was a charred lump now. No more life to it than a coal briquette, but once, a long time ago it had been something to see. He wasn’t a sentimental type - more than half the time, folks took to asking if he had much of a heart at all, but maybe that was the problem. Home is where the heart is… and his had been bombed to hell.

    A clattering drove him from his reverie and turning, he looked to find Kaylee half bent to scoop up a wrench. Struggling upwards again, her cheeks reddened as she spotted him staring, “Sorry Cap. You was all quiet like, too. Just… Hands are all butter now.” The palm of her free hand pressed to the swell of her stomach and Mal shook his head with a dry smirk as the mechanic continued, “Anywho. Grav Shaft shifted and I’m lookin’ to fix her up before we’re skybound again. Won’t take more’n a minute… ten if she’s jumpy.”

    “...Can you even fit back there, anymore?” Mal asked, and Kaylee’s expression shifted, her hand dropping to her hip.

    “Hell, Cap! Not you, too! I ain’t even that big, yet!”

    Chuckling, Mal rose, patting Kaylee on the shoulder, “You look good, Kaylee. Comin’ along nice. Simon stop cryin’ or is he still all emotions and blubbering?”

    “Since I told him. Hell. I thought womenfolk were the ones ‘supposed to be emotional when they got pregnant. Not the other way ‘round.”

    “I didn’t think girls could get other girls pregnant… So I guess we all learned somethin’ new.” Jayne’s voice interjected, as he leaned up against the doorframe. Kaylee turned and hurled the wrench, Jayne ducking in time for it to fly over his head, clattering to the catwalk behind him. Chuckling, Mal shook his head

    “You gon’ let her--”

    “I ain’t about to tell her what to do, Jayne. You best apologize, before she chucks somethin’ harder to dodge.”

    Making a face, Jayne straightened, “...I was just teasin’, Kaylee.”

    Eyes narrowing, the mechanic pointed a finger at him, “You best be…”

    “Hell, if I ever knock a girl up, I hope she’s half as pretty as you are. And… round?”

    ”Round?”, Mal grimaced, and Kaylee reached into the tool chest, grabbing a pair of plyers, “Round!? You’re gonna have a hell of a time knockin’ anyone up without any--”

    Their voices faded into the background, as Kaylee chased Jayne from the room and shaking his head, Mal looked across the bridge to the small sprig of a girl, sitting cross legged in the pilot’s chair. Her hair hung in a curtain around her pale face, eyes roving over the page of the book in her lap.

    “The gestational period for a pachyderm is twenty-two months.”

    “...You read that in your book, River?”

    Looking up, a brow quirked, and River shook her head, “No.”

    “The facts you carry around in that superbrain of yours… Hm. How’re we lookin’ for take off?”


    “Ah. Soon. My most favorite time of day… Just… try to give me a heads up this time, hm? I don’t fancy runnin’ up the bay doors like last time.”

    “I like the way your coat flaps around when you run.”

    “Shiny.” Shaking his head, Mal rose and left the cabin, two steps at a time. At the bottom, he plucked up the wrench that had been tossed at Jayne and straightening, came face to face with a pair of smoldering, dark eyes.

    “Zoe. I was just comin’ to find you.”

    “Kid scarin’ you again, Sir?”

    “Like a damn phantom, she is.”

    “What did you need me for?” His first mate asked, and Mal’s expression shifted. Every day Zoe made great strides in getting back to normalcy, but there would always be a weight to her now that time wouldn't heal. She never entered the bridge anymore, and Mal had to think it was because she knew what she would never find there, again. They had all lost something on Miranda. But none more than Zoe.

    “Got a letter I need you to take a look to.”

    “You got a secret admirer, Sir?”

    “It's from Ben.”

    “Oh. Damn.”

    In the mess, Mal handed the crumpled paper to Zoe, who took to reading as he paced back and forth. Twice, she looked up at him and the third time, her hand shot out to stop him, “Makin’ me nervous, Sir.”

    Frowning, rubbing a hand over his face, Mal shrugged, “You think it's cause for concern?”

    “Seems like it might just be…”

    Dìyù hé gāo shuǐ… It's been years, Zoe.”

    “That it has. He never…?”

    “Not once.”

    “Says a lot, Captain. None of it the kind that bodes terribly well.”

    “Would you go?” Mal asked, a brow raised. Zoe seemed to consider the question, her expression a mask of indifference that dark, exotic eyes mirrored.

    “Wouldn't feel terribly compelled. Ain't my letter though.”

    Pinching the bridge of his nose, Mal reached out and Zoe returned the letter, “Piece of unwarranted advice, Sir?”

    “Best kind there is.” Mal noted, with a dry smirk.

    “Talk to your wife.”

    A sigh escaped, and Mal dropped his hands to his sides, “Hell. That sounds like a terrible idea.”

    “Sir, I would--”

    “Last I tried to talk to her about anything this risky, she near about tossed me out the shuttle bay. Got a remarkably strong arm, that woman.”


    “Not to mention it ain’t exactly a thing we ever came round to discussin’... My family.”

    Rubbing her brow, Zoe shook her head, “No, it wasn’t. But don’t seem like you got much choice, now, Sir.”

    “Well, sure I do. I just keep my trap shut and--” At the soft guttural sound behind him, Mal paused, and smirked, “...And she’s right behind me, ain’t she?”

    “...Wearin’ her best scowl, Sir.”

    “Zoe… Would you please be so kind as to shoot me?”

    “No, Sir. I’ll leave that your woman.” Giving a small salute, Zoe turned and laughing, slipping out of the dining room. Turning around, Mal flashed a sheepish smile.

    “My treasure.”

    “Don’t... “ Inara hissed, holding up a finger. The dark haired woman started forward, cupping her fingers beneath Mal’s chin, “Sickness and health. You remember that one? Those vows we made three weeks ago?”

    “Vaguely recall those words in some particular order, yes?”

    “...Do you want to test them? Or are you going to start talking?”

    “Or we could just… skip to the part where you yell at me, and then I yell, and then we're both yellin’-- hell, let's just skip to making up?” His hands slipped to her waist, but with a solid smack to his forearms, he retracted them, “Damn it, woman. You don't play fair. Sit down, Àirén, it's a long one…”

    As Inara sank in a chair, Mal laid the setting on the table before her, “What's this?”

    “It's from my brother.”

    “Your… you have…? Mal.”

    “It's like I said. Long story.” A sigh escaped his lips and Mal sat down beside Inara, “Grew up on Shadow, small rock of a planet, not much to look at, but it was home. Worked the farm for my mom, most days it was just the two of us. My pop cleared out when I was six. Didn't possess a whole hell of a lot of paternal instincts to begin, but turned out it was Mom gettin’ pregnant again, threw him off the whole notion. About seven months in, Mom had some complications and the baby came early. Ben was weak from the start… most folks didn't think he'd make it, but he survived. We all did.

    When the war hit, Ben was one of the first in our town to sign up. Trouble was, not even the Browncoats had a terrible use for a skinny kid with ambitions. Guess he got told ‘no' too many times, so he ran off. Decided he didn't need an army behind him… That he could make somethin’ of himself.”

    “...What happened?” Inara asked, her hand cupping his. Her thumb traced circles across the edge of his wrist, and Mal shivered. Sometimes, it was so hard to see the former companion in her, but there were times when all those years of training were impossible to miss.

    “Near got himself killed is what. Stole a flag ship from the Alliance… Ran the damn thing into a regiment. We thought he was done for, rightly should’ve been. Trouble is, they don’t ever do what you expect them to, do they?”

    “I’m starting to think it’s intentional.”

    “Anyway. Just before the war ended, we found out Ben was still alive, rottin’ in Alliance lockup. Zoe and me, we scrounged together a small band… tried to break him loose. Got damn near close to it, too. Till Ben showed up on the wrong side, starin’ us down the barrel of a Alliance grade Laser pistol.”

    “He turned…?”

    “I shoulda seen it, Inara. He was a dumb kid, lookin’ for a chance to prove himself, and that’s exactly what they gave him. Anyway… We made it out, but we lost a few men and a week later, Shadow got bombed to hell.”

    “Did you hear from him after?” Inara asked, looking down at the letter, “Before this?”

    “Not a damn word. Part of me thought maybe he died, after all. Still did, till that showed up.” Pointing to the paper, Mal shrugged, “Doesn’t matter, far as I care. Fool me once…”

    Turning her honied gaze down, Inara read over the letter, shaking her head slowly as she did, “Doesn’t sound like you, Mal. I’ve never seen you leave anyone behind. Even when they deserved it.”

    Jaw clenched, Mal turned away, “We all got limits, Inara.”

    Putting the letter on the table, Inara rose and leaning forward, pressed a kiss to Mal’s cheek, before resting her palm against its warmth, “...Read it again, Mal. Think it over…”

    Her footsteps receded to the door and with a sigh, Mal’s eyes glanced across the letter again, before he snatched it up.


    I know I’m probably the last person in the Verse you wanna hear from, and maybe that’s fair. I know I made some mistakes - or at least that’s how you see it. But none of that’s important now. Thing is, it took me close to a year to find you, and I’m not giving up, now that I have. I need your help, Dà gēgē. Got no right to ask this of you, but family is family, like Mom always said, and I gotta think that counts for something.

    After that whole mess between you and I. Didn’t sit well, what went down, and I guess I just lost the taste for it. That life. I know what you’re thinking. That I got myself into it. And that’s fair. I did. And I know you won’t believe me, but I didn’t know it was you, Mal. When they told me what was goin’ down.

    But that’s not why I’m writing.

    I ran into trouble a while back. Wound myself up on Santo, of all places, looking for work. Alliance didn’t have much use for me, see, when the war was over. Anyway, work there was scarce, like it is most places, and I guess I got desperate. No, Mal. I got stupid. That’s the thing. You know me. I always get stupid. Took a job for some tah mah duh hwoon dahn. Thought it was legitimate. Turned out it wasn’t, but by the time I realized it, well… I guess I was just caught up, you know? For a long time it was pretty tame stuff… Meds, drugs… the occasional shipment of guns. But a few months back, they started getting shadier with the details. Then one day, one of the guards was a little slow closing the shipment crate.

    I saw them, Mal. Dozens of them. Girls. Dunno what they’re doing with them, but you can bet it isn’t anything good. Anyway, I started looking for you, soon as I realized. Asking around. Finally came to Persephone and some peacock named Badger says you got yourself a smuggling business on some fancy Class Five. So I started sending out post, figured eventually you’d get one. And hey.. If you’re reading this, I guess I did something right for once.

    But now I need to do something else right. And I need your help, Mal. These girls, some of them were just kids. Don’t sit right with me, doing nothing, Anyway. I get it if you can’t. I know I messed up, and I won’t blame you for writing me off. But on the odd chance you got it in you to give me one more chance, I’ll be waiting at a place called Gal’s in Santo’s shopping district. I know I got no rights to ask you for anything… Just hoping…


    Crumpling the paper, Mal rose and shaking his head, he left the Mess, heading back to the bridge in purposeful strides. As he arrived, River glances up from her book again, a single brow arched as Mal sank into his chair.

    “Set a course for Santo, River.”

    “Blood of the covenant…”

    “Other way ‘round, this time, Kid.”

    Santo came into view, a swirling marble of blue and white, on the border of the white sun. As River slowed in preparation for their descent, Mal rose from his seat to find Inara standing in the doorway, wearing a small, satisfied smile.

    “...Not a word, Woman.” He remarked, as he slipped past her.

    An hour later, Zoe and Jayne were waiting by the bay doors, the latter sporting a blue cap with bright orange pom-poms. It was the latest gift from the man’s mother, in a long string of hideous and succinctly ‘Jayne’-esque headwear. Rolling his eyes, Mal swung into his duster and unclipped the hostler at his hip, “Can’t say what this’ll entail… and I ain’t askin’ you to risk your lives for my kin.”

    “We’ve got your back, Sir.” Zoe noted.

    “Plus, the pay…” Jayne noted.

    “Ain’t no pay, Jayne.”

    “No p-- Hell. Forget th--Augh!”

    With a smack to the back of Jayne’s head, that sent his hat to the floor, Zoe repeated with exaggeration, “We’ve got your back.”

    “Yeah, whatever.” Jayne grumbled, picking up his hat, “Let’s just get this over with.”

    “Inspirational as always, Jayne.” Mal smirked, gesturing to the bay doors.

    Gal’s, as it turned out, was a Gentleman’s Club on the outskirts of the city, which was just enough to boost Jayne into a more helpful mood, until Mal informed him they weren’t there to play, driving the Gunslinger back into a state of perpetual sulking. It was a disposition befitting the circumstances, however, and as Jayne’s expression soured, Zoe’s flashed darkly.

    “Ten o’clock, Sir.” She chimed, and Mal’s gaze drifted to the bar.

    Ben hadn’t aged much, since Mal had last seen him. He was a tall beanpole of a man, with a shock of dark brown hair that stuck out at odd angles, and a lopsided mouth that fixed his features into something of a smirk. His face was bare, a family trait it seemed, and eyes, a glassy blue were rimmed by lashes far too pretty for a man. The weakness he had carried with him as a child, and into his young adult years still clung in the straight edge of his jaw, in the thinness of his wrists and elbows. He was nursing a mug, and there was a tremor as he lifted it to his lips.

    Before Mal could stop her, Zoe had already started forward and he swore under his breath as the woman plowed her fist into his brother’s face, sending him and the contents of his mug flying with the crack.

    “Oohee…” Jayne howled, grinning, “And I was worried this’d be no fun.”

    By the time Mal reached the bar, Ben had righted himself, rubbing his jaw with a sheepish grin, “‘Lo Zoe. Guess she’s still mad, huh?”

    Zoe gave a jolt forward and Mal put up an arm to keep her at bay, shaking his head, “Not a great start, Ben.”

    “Story of my life…” Rising, he sank back into his seat and lowered his hand into his lap. As Zoe straightened, Mal sat as well and for a moment, an uncomfortable silence stretched out. It was Ben who broke it, clearing his throat.

    “Right, so… I guess you got my letter.”

    “This ain’t just some hell of a coincidence, Ben. I got it.”

    “I was worried you wouldn’t… I mean… I kinda figured you might just… I wouldn’t have blamed you or anything, but I guess I’m just glad you’re here.”

    He could feel Zoe tense, behind him and Mal clenched his jaw, “Ain’t a family reunion, Ben.”

    “Right. The job.” Clearing his throat, Ben nodded, “So… shipment usually comes in pretty late. Two crates, big red metal things. I only seen inside that one time, but it’s the same cargo. Sometimes, you hear ‘em… cryin’.” Grimacing, he lowered his gaze, “Tried once, to get in, but I almost got caught. Last guy they pinched tryin’ to steal from the boss wound up in seven pieces… I’ll let you guess which pieces.”

    “Who’s the boss?” Zoe’s voice broke through, cool and definitive, and Mal looked back at her, before he returned his eyes to his brother.

    “Guy named Carp. Don’t exactly strike fear, but the man’s an animal, no pun intended. Seen him shoot a guy, just for interruptin’ him, once.”

    “Sounds charming… Let’s say hi.” Jayne commented, and Mal shook his head.

    “I take it he’s guarded?”

    “Like a damn princess.” Ben confirmed, nodding, “Arsenal is pretty high grade, too. And the place is a fortress.”

    “Can you get us in?” Mal asked.

    “Reckon I can get you through the door, sure…”

    “That’s all we need.” Mal rose, brushing off his slacks, “But after this, Ben? We ain’t gonna get matching sweaters and meet for holidays. We go back to pretendin’ your little backstabbin’ mission succeeded. We clear?”

    “Crystal.” Ben muttered.

    “Shiny. Jayne.. Get Serenity on the comms. Let the good doctor know we got powerful need of his sister. Ben, Zoe. Let’s roll…”

    Fortress, as it turned out, was not an overestimation of Jim Carp’s enterprise. All the place needed was a few turrets, and a moat. Arriving by the front door might have intimidated any average man, but the crew of Serenity had seen too damn much, been through too much to put stock in ogres and dragons. Ben’s credentials got them through the doors, and after that it might’ve gotten tricky, except that they had a secret weapon that not even Carp and his men were prepared for.

    River Tam was a force to be reckoned with… And reckon, she did. By the time they reached Carp’s office, the petite brunette had taken out a score of armed guards without breaking a sweat. The last three had run before she’d turned the corner, leaving the office door unmanned. Inside, Carp sat behind his desk, wearing a scowl that suggested he was privy to the fate of his men… and there was an unmistakable quiver to his voice as he spoke.

    “Who… who the hell are you?”

    “Don’t much matter.” Mal answered, leaning against the doorframe, “I heard tell you got yourself some merchandise ain’t exactly aboveboard. Me, I don’t take much offense to illegal matter, ‘cept trouble is, you? You’re sellin’ people, and that rubs me all sorts of wrong ways.” Straightening, he rested his hand on his sidearm, “So here’s how it’s gonna work. You’re gonna stop. Tonight. No more shipments in or out. Closed for business.”

    “And what makes you think I answer to you?”

    “You don’t… You answer to her.” Gesturing to River, he smirked, as the girl turned her eyes up to Carp, “Names River. And she’s got a powerful mind in that pretty head of hers. You heard of what happened up there, on Miranda? She did that. Near single-handed. Scares the hell out of me, and me she likes. But you? She don’t take a fancy. So either you get compliant… or I walk away, and she sticks around to finish our chat. Word of warning, she don’t like to talk much.”

    Swallowing, Carp leaned back in his chair, “...I’ll be ruined.”

    “My heart bleeds for you. We got us an accord? Or do I let you two get acquainted?”

    “...I ain’t scared of some little girl.”

    Grinning, Mal shook his head, and looked to River, whose own mouth twitched up in a subtle smirk, “...Wrong answer.”

    Three hours brought them back to Serenity, where with a yawn, River announced she was going to bed. In the end, Carp had agree to their terms with certain resignation, that resignation probably having something to do with the fear of losing his teeth. Mal was met by Ben, standing on the bay plank, his eyes wide as he stared down at his brother.

    “What happened? Did you get in? Did something go--”

    “Deal’s done. Carp’s out of the shipping business.”

    “Wait. That’s it? You just… walked in and asked him to stop?”

    “I said pretty please.”


    “Thing you gotta know about my crew, and me, Ben… We get the job done.”

    “Mal, I… Thank you. It’s been hell… knowin’ what’s happenin’ to those girls. And I guess… well, I guess that’s it. Deal’s done. I’ll get lost.” Fidgeting, he knotted his hands together, and Mal glanced up to Zoe, who had paused by the bay door, watching with a lifted brow. He shrugged and the woman smiled, rolling her eyes with a shake of her head, before she turned, walking away.

    “Other thing you gotta know. We’re family here. It’s screwy, and it’s gone through a hell of a lot of changes, but it’s all some of us got. We trust each other. We got to, cause ain’t nobody else out there got our backs.”

    “I get it, Mal.”

    “No you don’t, kid. You never did." With a sigh, Mal turned away, "Thing is, it’s my fault… what happened all that time ago. I didn’t have your back, and you went off to find people who would. Just turned out they were on the wrong side. It don’t excuse what you did, and those men that died, that’ll ride on your mind for the rest of your life. Does mine. But it ain’t no use hatin’ you for it…”

    Staring at Mal, Ben’s brow quirked as he studied his brother’s face, “...So, I guess I’ll write, then?”

    “...Or you can stay. Your choice.” Brushing past Ben, Mal moved off into the ship, wearing a smirk.

    For Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity hadn’t always been home, but as it turned out, sometimes, that didn’t matter much... Cause home found you.

  9. MISC #8: A Matter of Tradition
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread

    Manager's Pick Winner: Festival of Dark by @Greenie
    Festival of Dark (open)

    Festival of Dark

    “Mama, please don’t go. Don’t leave me.” The little girl reached a hand out to her mother, shaking with fright. “Mama, please stay!”

    Her mother was dressed beautifully like a bride, in a long white dress with flowers in her shiny black hair, lips painted pink and blush added to her cheeks. Her eyes shone with held back tears as she stepped closer to the door, shaking her head.

    “Ana… I… we will meet again.” Her voice hitched and she clutched at the front of her dress. “If not here, then in the next life…” She smiled weakly, her lips trembling as reached out and cupped the girl’s face, wiping the tears that were quickly cooling in the afternoon breeze.

    “It’s time.” The little girl looked at the man who was standing in the doorway of their house, waiting to escort her mother to the palanquin waiting by the path that ran down to the main road.

    The girl named Ana felt her mother’s hand leave her face. “Don’t cry,” were the last words she heard her mother speak as the lovely woman turned and quickly exited the house.

    “Mama…” Her hands clasped over her mouth, shaking as she tried to keep her sobs contained. She watched as her mother entered the palanquin, the curtains hiding any last trace of her. It wasn’t long before four men lifted the litter and started down the road.

    “It’s for the better of the village.”

    “Her sacrifice will not be in vain.”

    Words that meant nothing to little Ana, not until night fell. Villagers gathered out of their homes and made their way to the village gateway, staring at the bridge that lead into the stronghold of the Dark Lord Nawaki. The castle was black save for the fire that lit the ominous tower, purple flames dancing boldly for all in the vicinity to see.

    The sun had just set when the earth began to violently shake, forcing people to grab others near them or to simply lose their balance and fall to the ground. Then, just as quickly, everything stilled.

    “The sacrifice has been accepted!” boomed a voice, causing everything to tremble, from the bridge to the trees and most of all the people. “You are spared another year. Rejoice.”

    And the people did, all throughout the night, lighting candles and lanterns throughout the village before departing for the village square, where a large bonfire was held. There was song and laughter and drinking, all to honour the sacrifice and hoping for prosperity in the next year.

    As for Ana, she stayed hidden at home, despite her grandparents pleas for her to join the festivities. For her, this was a day of mourning.


    Thirteen Years Later

    As the sun creeped up from below the horizon, warming the night’s frost into dewdrops, the villagers of Kinaya were rising as well, readying for yet another yearly festival. It was aptly named Festival of Dark and no one had ever deemed to change it. Every year it was the same, one week before the festival a house would be chosen by the Dark Lord, the sign of which was the mark of a black hand on the door, blatantly placed where no one could miss seeing it. The elders of the house were to hand over their daughter for his consumption. It was said that he ate them like marrow, sucking out their life energy and souls, discarding their bodies like empty useless bones.

    “Stupid.” The word was uttered by a young woman standing near the bridge, looking at the looming castle on the other side. On most days everyone acted as if it didn’t exist, tending to business and worldly affairs as usual, but for Ana it was always there, whether she was home in bed or out in the fields, helping her grandparents with the gardening. The purple flames haunted her from her childhood, and even now, having passed the cusp of adulthood, they taunted her, never dying no matter the weather.

    She had been hoping her house would be chosen this year, though she had refrained from telling anyone so as not to be thought completely insane. Ana didn’t have a death wish; in fact, unlike most of the other villagers, she didn’t wish death on any of the other youth of Kinaya either. No, she had wanted to be picked so that she could finish that cursed Dark Lord once and for all. In her mind it was simple- if he was no longer living then this tradition would cease to exist.

    It was said that a warrior from the old and esteemed Birak family had stormed his way across the bridge to attempt to put an end the barbaric sacrifice of the village’s fair maidens. Unfortunately, he had been struck with fire as soon as he had stepped into the stronghold, leaving nothing but blackened armour and bones behind, the rest of him having turned to ashes. That year, a mere four years before Ana’s birth, a handprint had been placed on not just one but two house doors; the Dark Lord had not been pleased and had demanded even more sacrifice.

    I’m not an idiot though, Ana thought to herself as she walked closer to the bridge, her gaze shifting to the river that separated the village from the castle. She had been ten years of age when she discovered she had powers others did not. It was not too rare for humans to have magic in their blood, though most used their given powers for mundane tasks. Smiling a little, she splayed her hand over the edge of the river’s shore before pulling upward; as she did, a handful of rocks rose out of the ground and piled one on top of the other. Swords are useless against someone like that. Or for that matter, anything she could think of that was normally used in fighting, like arrows and lances and axes.

    The only way way to figure out his true nature and weakness was to actually enter the damned place, something that was impossible except for once a year for the one sitting in the palanquin. Ana had been banking on it being her, having spent most of the last year attempting to look like a proper marriageable young woman, hoping to attract the dark handprint to her house’s door. However, that honour had gone to the Elik family, who were none other than the richest family in the village as well as the man of the house being the de facto chief of Kinaya.

    “Anahita!” She jerked at the mention of her name and turned around, looking down at the familiar wrinkly face of her grandmother. “What are you doing just standing here? And in those clothes?”

    Ana looked down at herself, shrugging as she did. She was dressed in her usual work clothes, a comfortable light blue shirt, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, her usual dark trousers and trusty old boots. Her hair was pulled up and out of her face, which had not the least bit of makeup on it. “What’s wrong with my clothes, Granny?”

    “For shame, tonight is the sacrifice.” There was a scolding tone in her grandmother’s voice and a scowl on her face. “You should be preparing for Nari’s send off rather than heading to the fields.” She shook her head morosely, heaving out a loud sigh as she clutched Ana’s hand. “We are so lucky we have been spared. We must be grateful and show it by bidding her farewell. Her sacrifice will not be in vain.”

    It took everything she had not to make a face at her grandmother’s words. Over and over they were repeated, and every year they seemed to ring less true. Yet she kept quiet, knowing there was no point in telling her grandmother otherwise. Perhaps it would do best to placate her… after all, this year she would be the one in the palanquin.

    “You’re right, Granny.” Ana smiled as she lightly patted the older woman’s shoulder. “Sorry I dragged you all the way here, looking for me. Come, let’s get you back home.”

    Home was a five minute walk for her, but with her grandmother it became a fifteen minute stroll. While a little impatient, she reminded herself that this might very well be the last time she saw Kinaya again. She didn’t know if she was going to leave the Dark Lord’s castle unscathed, or at all for that matter. It was best to appreciate what she had before she had to leave.

    It seemed her grandmother already had a dress prepared for her, black and somber, full sleeved and touching the ground. Ana did not really enjoy wearing dresses, but after a year of practice she was quite used to the uncomfortable and movement restricting outfits. Her hair, as black as her dress, was made into a simple plait, which she quite appreciated due to its practicality.

    As soon as she finished dressing, she stood up to leave once more, this time with a valid excuse. “Granny, Grandpa…” She looked over to both, smiling respectfully. “I’d like to visit Nari one last time, please. We were… close friends…” She cast her eyes downward as if keeping herself from crying.

    “Oh my darling!” Her grandfather hobbled over, taking hold of her hand and patting it in his own cool, bony one. “Of course you may. Just remember to come back in time.”

    Ana nodded, looking up at him. Though her sadness had been faked in regards to Nari, she couldn’t help feel emotional as her grip tightened on his hand. He had already lost his daughter, and now without knowing, he could very well lose her.

    This won’t be in vain, she thought, forcing herself to remain determined. There will be no more sacrifices and no more feasting for the dead.


    The plan had been quite simple. If there was one thing she could count on, it was that humans were selfish beings who cared only about themselves and their own. Ana had been quite sure that if there was any way the Elik family could save their daughter, they would concede to it. The day after the handprint had appeared on their door and the knowledge that Nari would be the sacrifice was common, Ana had taken the long route from her house to the fields, paying a visit to very distressed Chief Keluar.

    He had been suspicious at first, not that Ana could blame him. Who wouldn’t find her strange when she was willingly offering to sacrifice herself? Thankfully Ana had prepared a long winded story from before hand- she felt it would finally give her peace to follow after her mother, she wanted to do what was best for the village, she wanted to assure her grandparents would be rewarded and no longer have to work in their old age. Chief Keluar had not agreed that day, nor had he the next; it was only two days before his daughter’s looming death that he finally conceded to Ana’s terms.

    And so, she now found herself dressed in a beautiful white dress over her plain work clothes and a veil over her face so that no one would know the difference; in both height and weight, she was similar to the chief’s daughter. That being said, Nari had been hidden elsewhere, the knowledge of which even Ana didn’t have. She didn’t care either way, as long as what she was planning wasn’t interfered with. Insincere hugs were given to her from the members of the Elik family which Ana returned in kind. She knew they had to be relieved that their precious daughter was safe; a cynical part of her wondered if they would have forced someone else to replace their daughter if Ana hadn’t come up with this plan.

    As for her grandparents, hopefully they just thought she was being insubordinate yet again and had gone home or to the fields. She could only hope Chief Keluar would follow through with his promise.

    Finally settling down in the palanquin, Ana let out a breath, hands momentarily tightening on her knees before she lifted one to pull off the veil that was covering her face. The feeling of being lifted and carried was rather smooth, as if there weren’t any humans carrying the palanquin at all. Of course… they’re probably his minions made out of shadows. It would make sense, seeing as any other human who tried to cross the bridge would end up burning to death. It was an unsettling thought at first, but the more Ana thought about it the more she was relieved; she wouldn’t have to worry about using her powers against actual humans.

    The sound of flowing water caught her ears; they were coming to the bridge at last. Farewell for now, Kinaya. Ana was not the sentimental sort, not since the day her mother had been sacrificed to keep the village safe. Leaving had always been on her mind, but there had literally been no way. Kinaya was situated on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by rough waters that crashed against the craggy cliffs. Whilst there was a makeshift dock and a couple of ships, it was only for merchants or rich folk to use. As tempting as it was, Ana had not wanted to run away from the village; she wanted it freed once and for all and thereafter leaving it behind her forever.

    A sudden chilling and overbearing feeling came over Ana; she carefully took hold of the curtain hiding her from sight and pulled it open a crack, peering outside. It was darker than she had expected, the ground covered in grey ashes, the air dense with dark mist, making it hard to see any further than a few feet ahead. However, nothing distracted from the sight of the castle looming above everything else, its walls dark yet reflective, as if made of obsidian. And of course, there was the fire, the heat of which could now be felt.

    Ana let go of the curtain. Her heart was beginning to race, feeling hints of panic climbing her like ants. From the village it had seemed easy enough, but now she was beginning to think that she had overestimated herself. Thankfully she had long ago learned to deal with such feelings by keeping them hidden. It was too late to back down now; she had to go through with her self imposed task, whether she succeeded or failed.

    The palanquin came to an abrupt stop before falling to the ground with a thump. It wasn’t more that a couple of feet, but it was disconcerting to say the least. Ana quickly pulled the curtain back and ducked out of the litter, spinning around just in case she was attacked. There was no one though, just her and the abandoned palanquin. Biting on the inside of her lip, she took in a deep breath before letting it out and looking at her surroundings. She had been deposited right by the castle’s main entrance, the drawbridge and gates already having been passed.

    First thing first, she thought to herself, I need to figure out how to get in-

    The large, ominous looking doors at the main entrance let out a loud scraping sound as they began to open, but it was nothing compared to the thunderous, booming voice of none other than the Dark Lord Nawaki.

    “One year I have waited for you. Enter now."

    Gritting her teeth, Ana yanked off the dress she was wearing and pulled out a dagger she had hidden under her clothes, just in case. She hadn’t actually planned on using anything other than her magic, but it was just comfortable to actually have something in her hand. Carefully, she stepped over the threshold and past the still opening doors into a large high ceiling hallway that seemed to go on forever. The walls to either side had carved arches that did not actually lead anywhere save for small alcoves, each housing a torch that was lit by purple flames. Ana looked at it disapprovingly, though she reached a hand towards the fire. The heat it emitted felt strange, both cooling and burning her at the same time. She pulled her hand away before heading further down the hall, unsure of where she even had to go.


    Her forehead wrinkled, hearing the sudden voice. She looked around discreetly, trying to figure out where the sound came from.

    “Over here…” She blinked; that voice wasn’t coming from anywhere around her, but from her actual mind. “Look down in front of you.”

    Hand tightening on her dagger, she looked down, shifting her gaze to the dark floor beneath her feet. Her narrowed eyes widened when she saw a small, floating ball of light. “Follow me.”

    “What?” Whatever this was, how did it expect her to simply follow it? She gritted her teeth but then nodded. “Fine, show me the way.” Whatever it was and wherever it was leading her, it was better than standing cluelessly in a hallway that didn’t seem to end.

    The ball of light seemed to flicker for a moment before moving further down the hallway, followed closely by Ana. Unable to hold back her curiosity, she spoke up. “What are you? How do I know you won’t hurt me?”

    “I know you’re not the sacrifice.”

    Ana’s eyes narrowed once more; the ball of light began to speed forward and she had to pick up her pace to keep up. “There’s no way you could possibly know that,” she snapped.

    “Your indignance at my statement further proves to me that you aren’t.” The voice was beginning to sound smug, and it was irritating Ana. Was this the Dark Lord? Was he purposely misleading her?

    Surprisingly, it seemed that she had followed the ball of light straight to a door at the end of the hallway without realizing it. “How could…” She looked over her shoulder and felt her heart skip a beat- it seemed there was actually no hallway at all, just a rather large entrance with two alcoves on either side.

    “Illusion magic. It seems your powers aren’t as strong as I presumed. You may need some help after all.”

    “You had best come out straight and tell me what you are.” Ana’s hand was splayed as she tried to pull at any source of earth she could find. Alas, there was none here. Her free hand slackened though her grip on the dagger tightened.

    There was a moment of silence before the ball of light flickered out. In its stead stood a man, tall and slim with long black hair and enchanting blue eyes. He was dressed in rather loose and flowing clothes, nothing Ana had ever seen in the village. For a moment she was almost certain she saw something like wings behind him, but as soon as she focused she saw she was mistaken.

    “I am Jahan,” the man said, finally introducing himself. “I know you’re not the sacrifice because you are the first person who has ever seen me.” He reached out, placing his hand on Ana’s shoulder; it felt light but real. “Nawaki does that on purpose. He summons those without magic, because if someone like you, someone with power came, then there would be a chance for me to finally escape.”

    He turned away from Ana and headed to the main doors, ready to open one, though he stopped when Ana spoke up. “Enough with being cryptic. How are you in here? Who are you really? I’m not going to follow you any further unless you tell me now.”

    “If you don’t follow me, your death is assured.” Jahan looked over his shoulder at Ana before taking a deep breath. “Well, it does me no harm in telling you. I am the true ruler on this castle, and I have been kept hostage by the Dark Lord Nawaki for over thirty year.”

    “A ball of light can’t escape? That doesn’t sound right.” Ana was beginning to get frustrated as well as antsy. This was a distraction from her original mission here. “How do I know you’re not Nawaki?”

    “If I was, I would have just consumed you now and be done with it.”

    “Or maybe you like sneaky games,” Ana retorted. “Many are like that, they enjoy watching their prey run around before catching them… like cats.”

    She watched the man let out a small sigh before nodding. “Very well.” Despite the dark mist that remained in the entrance, he seemed to glow before disappearing completely… or so she thought for a mere second before she heard his voice. “I’m here.” The voice itself was rather small, and she couldn’t find the source until she felt something poke her nose. Going cross eyed, she could finally see him.

    He was a mere four inches tall, and while he looked the exact same, there was a pair of light blue wings on his back, allowing him to flutter in the air before her.

    It was hard for Ana not to break out into laughter. “Pffft.” For the first time in a week, an actual sincere laugh escaped her. “You’re a fairy?”

    “I’m a being of light,” was the reply. Jahan had a teensy frown on his face, clearly not amused by Ana’s reaction. “Stop your laughter, we need to get to work.”

    “Yes, oh Mighty Being of Light.” Ana let herself smirk one last time before returning to her usual neutral face. She didn’t need to be reminded that she was here on an important mission. “Tell me then, how do you suppose I can help you out and get rid of Nawaki for good? I’m assuming that this dagger of mine won’t work on him.” By this time, the very small Jahan was standing on Ana’s shoulder, deciding to take a rest from staying aloft in midair. She wasn’t sure if she actually appreciated being used as a platform, but that was a thought that didn’t last more than a moment as there were far more important things to deal with.

    “It very well would if was imbued by my magic, but as you can probably tell, I am not exactly in an imbuing state at this moment.” He sat down on her shoulder, arms crossed over his tiny chest. “This castle has not just sealed me in here but also drained me of most of my magic.”

    “How?” Ana asked, hoping for a simple reply. She had heard of fairies as a youngster and knew them to be beings of light that were neither weak nor unequal in their abilities to creatures of darkness.

    “The same way I have managed to keep his physical body contained in his chamber. Unfortunately for me, he had both a plan and time to prepare for sealing me in the castle. I on the other hand had nothing save for two crystals that weren’t even my own. They had been given to me by my parents a long time ago.”

    Magic was a well known fact in the world even if most humans shied away from practicing it, and the knowledge of how certain magics were used was common knowledge. Ana knew full well of magic crystals and how fairies and other creatures of light used them to created seals and wards to keep darkness at bay.

    “Wait.” Ana held up a hand to keep Jahan from continuing onward. “”Do you mean Nawaki used crystals to seal you in here?”

    “Yes, yes, the same way I had to use them to keep him here.”

    “I didn’t know dark beings use crystals too.”

    Jahan rolled his eyes and shrugged his small shoulders. “Dark and light magic has nothing to do with who uses what. Crystals can be used by creatures of light and creatures of dark. Light doesn’t necessarily mean good nor does dark always mean evil. Someone using light magic could very well be evil while someone who knows to use dark magic could be a good person. This is just something humans more often than not misunderstand-”

    “Sorry for misunderstanding,” Ana interrupted, sounding a little impatient. “Should I assume you are the one who is good here or should I be helping Nawaki?”

    “No of course not- I see, you’re being sarcastic.” Ana resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she turned her head, looking at the small man. He seemed like he was deep in thoughts, with his eyes closed. “There is still time for him to wake up. Hurry now and leave the entrance through the door you entered.”

    “Go back out? But I just came from there!”

    “Yes, but that’s where the crystals are buried.” He stood up once more and took to the air, wings flapping and causing a small stir of air. “Four in total… and one inside here. With so much interference from the crystals outside, I cannot tell where the one inside is. But we can deal with that later. Hurry, we mustn’t waste anymore time. We have no less than an hour before he stirs…”

    Ana grabbed the handle of one of doors; just like the flame, she felt an unpleasant cold yet burning feeling, causing her to let go. Turning her hand around, she looked at her palm. Gasping, she stumbled back, almost dropping her dagger in the process; from what she could see her palm was a bloody mess.

    “It’s an illusion!” Jahan quickly flew over and landed on her hand, his own glowing white as he slapped it against hers.

    It was only a split second before her hand looked completely normal again, though she was quite shaken, feeling sweat trickling down her sides. “If he’s contained then how…”

    “I’ll explain, but we need to hurry.” The fairy nodded encouragingly as he once more flew up and seated himself on Ana’s shoulder. “Open the door, you will be fine now.”


    Thankfully Jahan had been right, much to Ana’s relief. This time, with him on her shoulder, she was able to touch the handle without feeling any pain. It was a strenuous task in itself to open the doors, seeing they were very large and made of a very strong material she was quite sure wasn’t wood. Still, it wasn’t long before she was outside in the courtyard, which remained as gloomy looking as before. The palanquin was still there, untouched, though it seemed almost aged and battered now, the curtains ragged and the wood splintered. It hadn’t seemed that way to her when she had been sitting in it.

    “Well?” she asked as she started for the main gate, waiting for an answer to her earlier question.

    “As I mentioned before, I had only two crystals with me to seal Nawaki in his chambers. It take nine crystals to seal something in such a complete way that eons could go by and you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Five to seal something for a very long time; you could say forever, though it is much easier to break that seal than the nine crystals one. Three crystals would be something done in an emergency…”

    “And you had only two,” Ana completed, letting out a breath. Now that she was no longer under complete illusion, she could see the courtyard was even more ghastly than it had first seemed. Skeletons of humans and animals littered as far as the eyes could see, even beyond the gates. “So Nawaki’s influence has been leaking from this place and that’s why every year Kinaya has to sacrifice a girl…” Her voice came to a stop, gritting her teeth in anger. “Why young maidens? Why not young men? Is there even any difference?”

    “None whatsoever,” Jahan replied. “Unless you mean Nawaki’s personal preference, then yes, there’s a difference. He prefers women, it would seem. Other than that, a human is a human. Male, female, young or old, it doesn’t really matter. All this tradition of sending a maiden for sacrifice is amusement for Nawaki.”

    “Why just once a year then?” Ana demanded, finding every bit of new knowledge even more upsetting than the one before it. “Why not just destroy us all immediately and be done with it?”

    There was no answer from Jahan until after he slid off her shoulder, transforming into a ball of light. “It’s a game to him, and the wait and anticipation is part of the fun. Now follow me, I can sense two of the crystals now. Hurry, and keep close.”

    Frowning, she nodded and set after the ball of light, trying to stay as close as possible. Now that she was no longer in physical contact with him, the courtyard was once more illusioned to hide the more unpleasant secrets littered throughout. She wondered momentarily why Nawaki wasted his energy in hiding them rather than openly flaunt what he could easily do. I will never understand these beings…

    They had finally reached the far end of the courtyard near the walls enclosing the actual castle. “It’s here, I can feel it.” The ball of light hovered over the ground before floating back up and landing on Ana, once more reverting to Jahan. What had simply been ashes and mist was now a deep and dark hole in the ground, sparingly filled with spider webs and desiccated corpses of various small animals.

    “Nice hiding spot,” Ana muttered, not liking in which direction this was going. “And this is just the first one…” At least they were outside, where she had the elements at her disposal. Even if this place felt smothering and foreboding, the fact that there were dead animals here caused her to realize that if animals could cross through, then perhaps it was really just humans that the stronghold forbade to enter.

    Unless that was all an illusion as well? She turned around, looking at the skeletons. Were these people who had entered and lost their way in here? Did they die because they were unable to leave-

    “Focus!” Jahan’s voice broke through her musing. “We don’t have much time, Nawaki will soon be wondering why the sacrifice hasn’t come to him yet.”

    “Apologies,” Ana snapped back, irritated with herself for getting distracted by mere thoughts. She took in a deep breath, spreading her hands out before her, palms facing the ground, fingers hooked as if she was grasping at something. “Here… goes!” Her grasp on nothing tightened as she yanked her arms upward, feeling the earth at the bottom of hole rising as she did-

    “Careful-” The words had only escaped Jahan when Ana saw what he was about to warn her about. Not one, not two, but four large and hairy spiders flew out in the open, each the size of a very big cat. “They’re venomous! Quick, you need to get rid of them!”

    “A little help would be nice!” Ana replied as she backed away, catching herself from falling over a skull.

    “I would but that requires leaving you, which in turn would make you blind to these things!”

    “How inconvenient,” she growled, eyes jerking from one spider to the other. Two were still trying to right themselves, having landed on their backs, but the remaining ones were already scuttling towards her. “Hold on tightly then!” She switched her dagger to her right hand and raised her left one, making a grabbing motion as she raced toward the two that were beginning to right themselves. As soon as she reached her targets, she slammed her dagger into one and then the other. At the same time, her free hand closed and as it did, the ground rose around one of the approaching spider, closing around it.

    “Behind you!” Jahan shouted, but it was too late. Ana could feel the pain of the bite as well as the sudden woozy feeling from being poisoned. “Kill it! I will take care of the poison!” Knowing she had no other choice but to leave it in the fairy’s tiny hands, she did as he said, shoving her dagger forward, attempting to stab it. She managed to get one of its eyes, causing it to frantically retreat. “Use your power, like you did with the last one! Quick!”

    The urge to tell Jahan to quiet down was overpowered by the urge to get rid of the eight-legged creature. She let the dagger drop from her right hand, yanking her arm up into the air and closing it into a tight fist. The earth shot up from the ground, enclosing the spider within. Ana tightened her fist even further, nails digging into her palms painfully, and as she did, the earth itself tightened around the arachnid until it was pulverised. Finally, she turned towards the last spider that was still writhing from having first been caught. Hand splayed, she slammed it down in midair, causing the dirt and rock encased spider to be be crushed as it was forced into the ground.

    Panting, Ana fell to her knees, feeling exhausted. Practicing secretly with magic was one thing; fighting for her life with it was something else all together. She really had overestimated herself, and the sudden realization caused unneeded tears to sting her eyes. If four spiders caused her so much trouble, then how could she even think of facing Nawaki? Maybe it would have been better to wait longer… But that would have required more maidens being forcefully sacrificed to keep Kinaya safe.

    “You did well.” Jahan broke the silence, standing up on her shoulder. “And I managed to remove the poison from that bite.” Ana blinked; she had forgotten about that. She looked to her ripped sleeve and pushed it away from her arm. There was still a red angry wound, but at least she wasn’t feeling the effects of the venom any longer. “I can’t heal it completely, not the way I am, but I can make sure you don’t die.”

    “Thank you,” Ana replied, sounding sincere.

    “Of course. I need you alive. You are my only hope in the last thirty years.”

    Thirty womenWell, thirty-one, and your sacrifices won’t be in vain. “I’m going to break this tradition.” Ana tore off the ripped sleeve before wrapping it around the cut. “There will be a festival tonight, but it’s going to be to celebrate Nawaki’s death.”

    She felt Jahan leave her shoulder yet again, fluttering before her, a small but confident smile on his face. “As long as you stay smart,” he said, tapping at his head with his index finger, “we will get this done. Now…” He closed in on her face, pressing his hand against her cheek so that the illusion was broken once more. “If you can move so much earth, then you should be able to feel the magic crystal. Bring it up.”

    Ana was uncertain but nodded, once more heading towards the hole while Jahan made himself a seat on the top of her head. She wasn’t sure what he was doing up there, but she felt a little more confident. Concentrating, she searched the dirt and the rocks, though she didn’t have to for long, feeling the magic before the actual crystal. She reached out in midair and made a pulling motion.

    Out of the hole flew a rather large crystal that was as long as Jahan was tall, the colour of obsidian. Ana reached out to grab it-

    “Stop, don’t touch it yet!” Jahan leaped from her head and flew straight for the crystal, grabbing it in midair. She watched without moving as he wrapped his arms around the crystal, glowing a bright white. Whatever had made the crystal so dark was squirming within as what seemed to be light was pushed inside. At the same time, Ana could feel the ground beginning to shake.

    “Jahan?” Her voice wasn’t as steady as it had been earlier. “What’s going on?”

    The fairy didn’t reply, in fact, she could hardly see him anymore save for his blue wings, both he and the crystal being surrounded by light. The ground stopped shaking as the light finally dissipated, leaving behind Jahan holding onto a now softly glowing crystal.

    “Is it safe now?” Tentatively Ana moved her hand forward.

    “Yes, I forced the dark out with my own light.” Jahan let out a sigh of relief as he landed on Ana’s hand, letting go of the crystal. “It took some energy from me, but now that the seal has been interrupted, I can feel my own power slowly getting stronger.” Ana watched as the look on his face became full of resolve. “Three more and then we destroy him. We must hurry though… I can sense he’s feeling what’s happening.”


    It wasn’t long before she was standing at the main doors of the castle once more. Gathering the remaining crystals had been a much easier task than the first one; Ana and Jahan had made their way to the three remaining corners of the castle grounds, where she had sensibly decided to kill the spiders in the actual holes first and then coax the crystals out with her magic. Each time the dark magic was forced out and replaced with light, and the ground shuddered just as it had the first time. They seemed to lessen in their intensity, however, and in the same way it seemed Jahan was becoming stronger.

    As Ana pushed open the doors to once more enter the actual building, she looked back at the courtyard one last time. It seemed to her as if the dark mist had lessened, though it was hard to tell whether it had simply cleared away or actually retreated elsewhere. That is, until she finally walked through the castle doors. Inside, it seemed as if the shadows had increased, the purple flames from the torches no longer emitting much light. Jahan hopped off her shoulder and turned into a ball of light; he was so bright now that the shadows seemed to momentarily disappear. He remained that way only for a moment before shifting forms yet again. This time he was standing tall in the human form she had seen earlier, seeming more solid than when Ana had first seen him.

    “Hand me your dagger,” he instructed, holding his hand out to take it. Ana looked at him strangely for a moment before recalling what he had mentioned earlier about not being in an ‘imbuing state’ at that time. Perhaps it was possible now? Either way, she was glad she’d had the sense to pick up the blade from the ground after she had dropped it.

    “Here.” She pulled it out from where she’d stuck it under her belt, laying it on the palm of his hand.

    “The crystals as well,” Jahan added. Now that was a surprise for Ana, who looked at him curiously.

    “What are you going to do with them?” she asked as she reached into her pockets, pulling all four of them out, each of them radiating with light. Setting them in his free hand, she waited for yet another answer she figured she wasn’t going to receive.

    Stepping back, she kept her eyes on his hands, and it wasn’t long before the light began to exit all four of the crystals, twisting and turning in the air to form a bright globe of glowing white. It remained like that for only a moment before what Ana could only think of as diving into the dagger. Not meeting any noticeable resistance, it seemed the dagger had accepted the light magic. Ir remained the same in looks save for a slight shimmer that could be seen on the blade.

    “That should aid you,” Jahan said with a nod, holding the dagger out for Ana to take.

    “It feels the same,” she muttered after she took it back, turning it around in her hand. “It doesn’t really feel… empowered.”

    “That’s fine,” was the reply. “It will get the job done at the very least.” He looked away from the dagger and up at her, eyes rather intense. “There is one last thing…”

    “What?” Ana wasn’t sure she liked the look she was receiving.

    There was no reply as Jahan was a ball of light once more. Without warning he struck Ana, causing her to stumble backwards, though it was more in shock than actual force. “What did you do that for?” she demanded, looking around for him. Where has he gone?

    There was silence before she heard him in her head. My apologies. You probably wouldn’t have agreed to this, which is why I had to without prior permission.

    “What are you even talking about? Show yourself!”

    “I cannot. You see… I’m now part of you.”

    “W-what- what are you even…” Ana couldn’t bring herself to speak coherently, staring at her outstretched hands, dagger shaking as she tried to keep it still. “Get out!”

    “It’s the only way we can destroy him. Don’t worry, I will leave as soon as we finish this task. I promise.

    Anger taking over, Ana’s hands clenched tightly into fists, eyes narrowed as she stared at the ground. “You best be telling the truth.”

    “I am. Now hurry. Go through the door. And stay vigilant. I will try to keep you from dangers.”

    There was nothing more that could be done, regardless of how upset this made Ana. That being said, she knew Jahan was right; they had to hurry. Now that he was a part of her, she could feel Nawaki and his dark magic, and the light magic within her seemed to almost pull her in the right direction, almost like a magnet. Even as she passed through the door and made her way through countless hallways and climbed plenty staircases, she found she was no longer affected by any illusions; everything was plain for her to see. The torches in the various alcoves no longer seemed to burn purple flames but were now a normal orange white. The walls, flooring and ceilings no longer seemed to be made of obsidian, rather grey stone that may have once been polished but now lay dusty and cracked due to lack of care.

    There were no more spiders that came to attack Ana, nor any other sort of creature which was a blessing of a kind. The impending meeting however was beginning to cause panic within her once more. It would have been comforting to have even the small Jahan on her shoulder at this time rather than him sitting silently in her mind.

    “I can speak to you if you want. I was under the impression you’re still angry.”

    “I am,” Ana replied, though she relented almost immediately. “I’d rather be angry than scared though.”

    “Fair enough.” The was a small silence before he continued. “I don’t know your name yet.”

    “Can’t you just read my mind and find out?”

    “I’d rather not. I like to respect the privacy of others.”

    It was hard for Ana not to let out a snort at that. “I suppose invading someone while you’re a ball of light doesn’t count.” She took a deep breath before releasing it, keeping her eyes on the path before her, yet another infernal hallway filled with shadow beings. They reached out for her just like the rest, but once again a light seemed to emit from her, causing the shadowy tendrils to retreat.

    “Anahita, or Ana. That’s my name.”

    “I feel like I’ve heard that name before… a long time ago. I remembered it because it was quite different than most I’ve encountered.”

    “Maybe you heard it from my mother,” Ana suggested quietly. “She was the fifth sacrifice.” The placid smile on her face wavered as she stood in place. “I still remember the day she was taken… everyone aside from me and my grandparents were so… relieved. They celebrated with song and dance during the night… even my grandparents had gone, but I refused to. Every year I refused.”

    “Is that why you came? To avenge your mother?”

    “I’d be lying if I said that I was here solely to stop this cruel tradition,” she admitted, still standing in place. “I suppose it’s both. I want to avenge my mother… and I want my village to be free.”

    “Then it’s time to avenge all those who have fallen, and gain freedom for the rest. We are nearly there, Ana.”


    At last they came upon the final door at the top of the tallest castle tower, the one that had taunted the villagers of Kinaya for decades. It was hard to keep the trepidation out of her heart, but Ana persevered, grabbing hold of the door’s handle and pushing it forward. Stepping inside she was greeted with the sight of a man sitting on an elaborate four poster bed, drapes of blue and purple decorating the wooden posts. Ana’s eyes merely skimmed the elaborate decorations, much more interested in the blue winged man. His head was lowered, black hair curtaining most of his face even as he spoke.

    “So, you are here at last.” There was the sound of mild laughter, and then the man lifted his head, light blue eyes looking straight at Ana. “Welcome, my dear, I am Nawaki. And you… you must be the one who has interfered in this year’s sacrifice.” He tapped at his chin as if in deep thought. “Was I not merciful, keeping the sacrifice for only once a year? Yet you take advantage of my mercy and disrupt my defences.”

    Ana could not find the words in her. She understood what the man was saying; it was the same bile that she heard in plays and stories. No, it was his face that unsettled her. He looks… why does he… why does he look like Jahan?!

    The man looked rather amused, seeing the stunned expression on Ana’s face. “Why do you look like that? Could it be-” he giggled before continuing “-that you have met Jahan? Oh, of course that must be it! And you are now wondering how it is that he and I both look oh so similar.” A smile danced on his lips as he smoothly rose to his feet and stepped off the bed, landing on the floor gracefully. “He must have forgotten to tell you that we are the same person.”

    “It doesn’t make a difference who he is or who I am. What matters is to end him. You have a dagger of light and I know where to strike him to end this once and for all!”

    “Why didn’t know tell me?” Ana asked, though she knew it was pointless to; she already knew the answer.

    “You wouldn’t have trusted me, Ana, and you know this. Any sane person wouldn’t have.”

    “You’re right, I wouldn’t have.” Bitterness was dripping from her voice; while she was upset that she hadn’t been told, he had a point. All that set to the side, she had to end Nawaki. Ana knew the light magic would work, having already seen the effects of it.

    “Accept your fate,”’ Nawaki intoned as he lifted off the ground. He wasn’t using his wings to take flight, rather the shadows and the accumulated dark mist. “Just like the rest of the sacrifices before you, and just like the many that will come!”

    “That’s where you are wrong,” Ana replied, shaking her head. “You think I’m going to let some facts about you and Jahan stop me from destroying you? No, Nawaki. It’s time for you to be the sacrifice. You are going to be leaving my people for good!”

    “Little girl, I have lived more years that you can ever dream of living.” A haughty laugh left the dark lord as he rushed towards Ana.

    “I’ll take care of him!” Just like that, a barrier of light formed before Ana, stopping Nawaki in his tracks. “Just like with the spiders, Ana! Trap him and be rid of him!”

    Ana was about to retort that they weren’t outside, but then she realized that didn't matter anymore, nor had it mattered ever since they had removed the crystals. With Nawaki attacking the shield with his shadows and dark mist, it was beginning to crack. Nodding, she spoke to Jahan. “When I tell you to, remove the shield.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Now!” Ana ordered, ignoring the question. The barrier disappeared immediate. Nawaki shot forward, arms outstretched and ready to grab Ana. However, her hands had already lifted high above her, and as they did the stone floor shot upward, grabbing on to Nawaki and slamming him against the ceiling. It then returned to its previous position as the floor except with the dark lord in its grasp.

    Ana was not going to let this moment escape her. She ran over to him, dagger in hand. “Straight into his heart, that’s where the crystal is!” She didn’t need to hear that twice. Her free hand now wrapped around the one holding her blade, she fell to her knees and struck, aiming straight for the heart.

    Nawaki let out an outraged cry that elongated into an unearthly wail, “Steady and keep holding the dagger. And now is where I leave you.” It was as if a burden she didn’t know she was carrying was lifted off her shoulders, and Ana had to force herself keep holding on to the dagger rather than slump over as her body wanted to. Aside from Jahan’s words, the sight of the dagger was what kept her vigilant.

    It was hard to miss what was happening. The dagger shone bright with light, so bright in fact that the weapon could no longer be seen, and that light only kept increasing, surrounding the entirety of what could be seen of Nawaki’s body. Shadows were trying to get past the light but found themselves being overtaken, one tendril after another until any shadow that had been sentient was swallowed and no more. As if that weren’t enough, a loud thunderous sound rang out, there was a flash of light- and then it all subsided. The dagger fell to the floor with a clank, its hilt destroyed and the blade having lost its shimmer.

    For a good minute everything remained quiet, the silence only broken when Nawaki’s hand twitched.

    Ana gasped, crawling towards the dagger. “Wait- Ana… it’s me. It’s Jahan. Nawaki- he’s gone now. Dead.”

    “How can I be sure?” she demanded. Looking to the man still mostly encased in stone, she found he was looking back at her, a slight smile on his face. His hand twitched once more as a small orb of light formed on his fingertip.

    It was hard to figure out how she was supposed to feel about all this. Nawaki was dead, but Jahan was still there… in Nawaki’s body… or was it his? “I don’t understand,” she muttered, smacking her hands against her knees in frustration. “Why were there two of you? How do I know you’re not just… going to turn back into him?”

    “He wasn’t really me,” Jahan replied weakly, a soft sigh escaping him as he looked away from Ana and up at the ceiling instead. “I was young and reckless… and gullible in my youth and easily persuaded to let in an evil spirit. Nawaki had come in the form of a beautiful woman and-”

    “Spare me the details,” Ana replied, shaking her head. She knew enough about village boys and their trysts with girls.

    “He forced me out of my body, wanting something corporeal,” he continued, closing his eyes. “I was merely a…” he paused to let out a small chuckle, “... shadow of myself. As for the rest, you already know.”

    “Indeed.” Ana took hold of the dagger and carefully tucked it in one of her pockets before standing up.

    “Before you leave… do me a favour.”

    “I- What is it?”

    Jahan looked to Ana’s hand that was still near the pocket with the dagger. “I need to atone for all that has happened to Kinaya. Nawaki, the sacrifice, if it wasn’t for me-”

    A scoffing laugh escaped Ana, the look in her eyes rather harsh as she looked at Jahan. “Your death won’t atone anything, Jahan. They’re dead, and nothing can change that.” She looked to the side and let out a breath. “There has been enough death. If you really want to atone for what Nawaki did, then your life is what’s needed. The people of Kinaya will need something new to celebrate now. Perhaps it’s time the Festival of Dark was changed to the Festival of Light.”

    Hands splayed out before her, Ana moved them to either side, pushing away the stone that had been encasing the fairy, who in turned struggled to his knees before transforming to his tiny form. “If you don’t mind,” he started, sounding rather sheepish, “may I sit on your shoulder again?”

    Ana’s eyes rolled upward. “Fine,” she replied, a small smile sneaking up on her lips. The past would take a long time to get over, but perhaps for now even a smile with the promise of more in the future was enough.


    As for the village of Kinaya, from henceforth they would gather yearly with drinks and songs to tell the tale of the defeat of the dark lord. Even long after the story has changed and is forgotten, the Festival of Light remains.

    Community Pick Winner: Day of the Dying by @Holmishire
    Day of the Dying (open)

    Match brought to wick, and a candle was lit.

    The dim candlelight did little to light up the study, but was enough to cast a paltry glow upon the desktop on which it sat—as well as upon the tired face of a middle-aged man.

    Pulled from the breast-pocket of the man's coat, a sheet of parchment was laid out before the candle. By its light, ink formed letters; letters, formed words; and words, a letter.

    The man did not read this ink, for he know the contents of this letter well. It would not be the first time that he'd scrawled a name on a parchment such as this, and would certainly not be the last. A solitary line—blank, for now—awaited new ink; and from this ink, a name.

    A name not his own.

    His hand shook as he dipped the pen in ink, and yet shook as he held its tip over the page. Cursing, he slammed his hand once, twice, against the desktop—his hand held steady.

    With an arm lifted to wipe tears from his eyes, he did not look as the pen danced across the line; he did not need to, for his mother's name was as familiar to his hand as his own.

    The deed done, he tossed the pen aside, folded the parchment over, and sealed it with wax, his family crest emblazoned proudly upon it. The man then pushed the letter to the side, put his face in his hands, and wept.

    Silence had fallen upon the fields as the sunset lingered in the sky.

    Garlands hung from the threes, reaching up to the highest of branches. Tents, now abandoned, had been erected in droves, offering treats, trials, and trophies—all without price to pay. Flowers, of petals white and black, now lay scattered throughout the trampled grass.

    The man stood tall beside and elderly woman, seated comfortably in a wheeled chair of wood. His eyes were wet, expression sombre—and yet while she too shed tears, her demeanour was one of contentedness. She knew well the struggle he endured, for it had been hers many years ago, but the cycle had come to fulfill its promise again in this town of theirs, and she was ready to accept her faith.

    Where elsewhere they had been scattered haphazardly by the more enthusiastic of the children, before the man and his mother the black-and-white flowers had been laid out more delicately into a soft path, leading up to a stack of wood topped with a single wooden coffin, all resting on the crest of a hill.

    This spring, seven more paths had been lain out, with families waiting silently at the foot of each. For many, two coffins had been placed upon the wood—married couples, granted the honour to pass on as one.

    At the blare of a horn, a youthful girl rose up from behind the hill, her circlet of silver catching the last rays of the sun. At this cue, the elders began their ascent up the hill towards their coffins. The man stooped to lift his mother from her chair, and carried her in her arms up the path.

    The coffin was of simple make, a bed of soft cloth within. As he gently lowered his mother inside, he found his gaze drawn to a circular recess laid into the wood, from which emanated veins of ivory spreading throughout the wood.

    His mother lifted a hand, and he grasped it with his own. "I'm ready," she mumbled, and he smiled, for her sake.

    "You'll be missed."

    So focused was he on his mother that he had not noticed that the princess had already passed by the three previous coffins—now three uniform columns of fire amid the darkness of the night.

    The princess looked to be no more than seventeen—as she had looked three years ago, at his father's passing; thirty years ago, at his grandparents'; and more than fifty years ago, when he had first laid eyes on her as a child. Long, black hair trailed on the grass behind her, mixed with strings of flowers and leaves no doubt placed there by the children. In her hands, an orb about the size of a melon—seemingly made of glass but with clouds of grey swirling within. Her eyes were blue, and though saddened she nonetheless bore a smile on her face as she greeted him. "Are you ready?"

    He nodded, giving his mother's hand one last squeeze before releasing it.

    Delicately, she placed the orb in the circular recess carved into the end of the coffin, and began to speak with a near chant-like quality:
    "As you pass on, I thank you for your gift;
    Souls hereupon kept from passing adrift.​
    My life your spirit will help to prolong,
    And may I steer our people to stay strong,
    So each child
    Brave or mild,​
    May live a life free of strife.​
    "Thank you, kind mother." At these words, the princess gently closed the woman's eyes, placed the orb of souls into the slot, and drew from her elderly body the last dredges of her soul. Bright white shone out from the ivory veins of the coffin, slowly coalescing inside the orb, before all was dim once more.

    As the princess left for the next coffin, the man fell to his knees whispered another farewell, and match brought to kindle, a blaze was lit.
  10. MISC #9: Genres on Parade
    Announcement Thread
    Voting Thread

    Manager's Pick Winner: Function Interval by @HerziQuerzi
    Function Interval (open)

    Overhead, the skies were less grey than usual. A dismal and heavy presence rather than its usual tumultuous hellscape. Between the resource scarcity, dwindling stores of magic, and pollution feedback loops, the experts all agreed the world was on the downswing. That it could support two, maybe three more generations before calling it quits. But looking at those light grey skies, Peter could almost believe the world was bouncing back.

    Hell he thought, I can see almost ten stories up through the smog. He suspected that might have been a record for visibility. At least during his lifetime.

    "Can you believe this weather?" he asked, mentally filing it away as a sign of good luck. After a few seconds of no response, Peter turned from the train window to give his sister a questioning look.

    Marcie, apparently, hadn't mysteriously apparated out of existence, and was still sprawled across the seat next to Peter with one foot dangling out into the aisle. She wasn't asleep either, according to her open eyes. Those eyes were, however, glazed over with shifting lights. Meaningless to outside observers, but an immersive VR program to Marcie.

    The lights stopped as Peter gave her a light backhand to the shoulder, and she looked up with a hard done by sigh. "I was watching something."

    "I know," Peter answered cheerfully. "Since when do you mute outside noise when watching VR?"

    "I don't. I was just ignoring you."

    "Hurtful. Outright rude. Most of all, unwarranted."

    "Very warranted. You've been borderline manic all week. It's starting to stress me out. Even more than I was already."

    Peter shrugged. "What's there to be stressed about? The preparations are perfect, and the plan tight enough that even a faerie couldn't throw a wrench in there." He gave Marcie a shit eating grin and looked back out the window. "All we need now is the crew."


    "Professor Flowers," Peter said.

    "It's been too long," Marcie continued.

    Before them, a cornered dryad looked between the two of them, a desk planted before her like a bulwark. "Ah. Ms. Plodder. Mr. Plodder. Hello?" Attempting to collect herself from her startlement, Professor Grace Flowers straightened and focused all her nervous energy into the rapid and blind shuffling of papers. "Hello. Yes. How are you two?"

    "Oh, just excellent," Peter grinned, hopping up onto the corner of the desk to sit.

    "And you?" Marcie asked, leaning nonchalantly against the other corner.

    "Oh. Well. I've rediscovered peace and quiet, in the years since you troublemakers graduated," the words were scolding, but a twinkle of amused reminiscence entered the dryad's eye. That had always been the way of it, back when the Plodder siblings had been getting their degrees. A front of disapproval atop an inner well of impressed support for the ingenuity of the Plodders' mishaps and misdeeds. "What can I help you two with?"

    "Well," Marcie said, "we're looking to take that peace and quiet and put it firmly into the past tense."

    "Looking to do something bold," Peter agreed.

    "When it comes right down to it, Professor Flowers..."

    Peter leaned in conspiratorially. "We're looking to empty the vault at Hextech Energy."

    Grace spluttered - an impressive feat for someone with nothing to drink and dry bark for lips - and looked around as if to find some sort of trick lying in plain sight. "You want to what?"

    "Rob them," Peter explained, a laugh tucked away in his voice. "Hoodwink. Swindle. Bereave. Divest. Plunder, raid, ransack, and outright sack."

    Marci nodded. "Take them for everything but the thesaurus; it looks like we're good on that front."

    "Thanks. Now, Professor- is it okay if I call you Grace? I'm going to call you Grace. We all go way back. Grace." Gently, Peter reached out and took away the sheaf of papers the dryad was intently attempting to escape through. "I know this sounds mad - is this real paper? Jesus, Marcie, look at this - but trust me when I say we have everything we need to pull this off. The plan, the prep, the gall, and the crew. Everything except you."

    "Good God, who uses actual paper," Marcie muttered to herself before looking up at Grace. "Peter's right. It's all good to go, except... we need someone who can dispel the wards. Hide us from scriers. Unlock the magically locked."

    Grace opened her mouth to protest, desperate to get a word in against the two-pronged assault. "I'm not-"

    "Now, now," Peter intervened, "we know what you're going to say. You're not interested. You're a law-abiding citizen who landed a good job here. Stable prospects. Why risk it all on a crazy heist? We'll tell you."

    "We've been keeping tabs on your research," Marcie explained. "Your idea on how to rewind the past century of pollution? Admittedly we can't make head or tails of it-"

    "Not our area of expertise."

    "Exactly. But we do know you've applied for a research grant, what? Six times now?"

    "Just in the past three years alone."

    Marcie gave a sad shake of her head. "Denied every time."

    "Rough track record, to be honest with you."

    "Likely never going to happen at this rate. But," Marcie held up a finger, "maybe you don't need the grant. You know what they have in that vault? Stored mana crystals."

    "Tons of it."

    "Enough to supply the city for years. The country for a month, maybe. Sitting around, unused, unloved. Waiting for an idealistic and dare I say attractive dryad like yourself to lay hands on it and put it to good use."

    In the expectant silence that followed, Grace stared between the two of the, bewildered and overwhelmed. The desk beneath her hands gripped like a piece of floating flotsam amidst the proverbial flood of the Plodder siblings' back and forth proposition. "Why me?" Whether it was a question for the Plodders, or directed in a more heavenly manner was unclear. But the latter remained silent, and the former continued to be anything but.

    "You're the best disenchanter around," Peter answered. "Anything magic made, you can make unmade."

    Grace cleared her throat and straightened, attempting to regain the superior position and gravitas of Professor Flowers, but Peter could already tell. She was in, caught on the hook and happily chewing on the bait. "It won't just be magical wards, surely?"


    "That's where you come in."

    Across from Marcie sat another young woman, skin dark and thick eyebrows darker. Behind her, a kaleidoscope of monitors provided an intimidating backdrop of light to her silhouette. A few played the news, muted, with subtitles on. Two more showed forums, another an instant messaging service. But most showed code. Lines upon lines of it, indecipherable to the uninitiated. And on one final screen, close to the center-

    "You forgot to close your cartoon, dear," Marcie pointed out.

    "Oh shut it," Mbizi replied, surreptitiously shifting her chair so that she'd block it from Marcie's sight. "It's a daring idea, I'll give you that. But I can't hack anything if I'm not inside, with direct access to their systems-"

    "Peter and I have a way in, don't worry,” Marcie grinned. “ You remember that internship I applied for?"

    "What little I was able to pull out from between your tight lips, yeah."

    "Tight lips? Mbizi, my love, lets keep this professional-"

    "Oh shut it," Mbizi interrupted, shifting in her seat once more. "I'm not- wait. Are you serious? You got an internship at Hextech?"

    "Peter too. Only the best for us Plodders."

    "With your foot in that door, you'd be set for life."

    "Nail on the head."

    Mbizi leaned back in her chair, eyes closed, and a smile starting to form on her lips. "So of course-"


    "You're going to rob them."

    "Blind. And 'we'. We're going to rob them."

    Mbizi made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a groan, and opened her eyes once more. "I haven't said I'll do it."

    "If you do," Marcie said, twisting a finger in her hair, "I'll do that thing you like."

    "The dishes?"

    "God no." She paused. "Maybe. Will that make you say yes?"

    "You know what? Sure. I'm in." Mbizi leaned forward. "So, how many are in on this?"


    "Five, once you say yes." Peter lounged in his seat, the noise of the cafe requiring him to raise his voice slightly in order to be heard. The chair itself was uncomfortable - likely to discourage customers from loitering too long - and Peter himself felt too wired to not be constantly on his feet, but standing would've been rude.

    The dwarf sitting at the other side of the small table sat silent for a moment, deliberating as they drank their faux latte. A touch of foam got caught on their carefully maintained beard, which they were quick to wipe away. "From the sounds of it, you have a solid team coming together. Where do I fit in?"

    Peter clapped his hands together, eager to explain. Eager to impart his enthusiasm and anticipation. "There's a lot of moving parts in this, Taikki. Three groups, all told. One for the vault, one for surveillance, and one to get us a way out. Which means we need a way to communicate. But radios can be jammed, scanned, and listened in on. Magical alternatives can be sensed and nullified."

    Taikki gave an understanding nod. "Which leaves me."

    "Which leaves you, yeah. Innate telepathy, a great gift. Very handy. Bypasses everything, impossible to interrupt or pick up on. Just the thing we need to pull this off."

    "It's tempting-"

    "I knew it would be."

    "But I'm not committing until I know the plan. Especially how we're supposed to get out."

    Slowly, Peter began to grin. A tap on his temple signalled Taikki to form a telepathic link. < Now, this is where it gets fun. >


    The intern dorms at Hextech Energy were a dimly lit and quiet building. What few residents weren’t studying late into the night were desperately trying to catch up on lost sleep, and neither appreciated disturbances. In the Plodders’ room, normally crowded with just the two siblings, five people waited. Their moods running the full course from anxious to eager.

    “How much longer do we have?” asked Grace, one of the former, into a moment of silence.

    “Shouldn’t be long,” responded Peter, the embodiment of the latter. “Right, Mbizi? How are we coming along?”

    “Got into the system about five minutes after I got here. Overrode the cameras ten minutes after that.” Mbizi raised a hand as Peter began to open his mouth. “The past two hours have been making sure I can keep them overrode.”


    Mbizi shrugged. “Good to go.”

    Peter clapped his hands together. “Great. Amazing. Okay, let’s do this. Masks, everyone.”

    Marcie stood from her place and began handing out the masks, special balaclavas interwoven with a mixture of magical wards and shifting nanomachines. Meant to obscure their identities from any means of recording, they were the most expensive investment for the heist. When everyone had theirs on, she opened the door out into the hall and gave a small bow, signalling for the others to file out.

    The hallways were empty, that late into the night. The interns were trusted not to cause much in the way of trouble, not was there anything of value in the dorm building to cause trouble over in the first place, so no guards wandered the halls. And what security cameras there were turned a blind eye to the motley crew, under the careful guidance of Mbizi and her tablet.

    It wasn’t until several hallways and staircases later that they came to their first proper obstacle: the door separating the intern dorms from the headquarters proper. Double wide and made of thick steel, the door stood beneath an impressive array of sensors, scanners, and cameras. Runes were etched into the metal, from which a dangerous glow emerged. It was an intimidating beast of a door, all together.

    And it was by far the weakest point of a building otherwise built to be an impenetrable fortress. < Grace, Mbizi, > Peter began, thoughts relayed to the others through Taikki, < work your magic. >

    < Only one of us is working magic, > Mbizi shot back as she sat down before the door, legs crossed beneath her. Grace knelt down next to her, the nooks and crannies of her bark seeming to catch and condense the light cast by the door. Thoughts passed between the two of them came dimly to Peter through the link as they studied the various safeguards in place.

    < -never seen a merged system like- >

    < -the runes are feeding into the circuits- >

    < -a power source. an alarm will trigger if- >

    < -I’ll have to redirect- >

    < -synchronous break- >

    < -reverse the flow- >

    Soon their exchange of thoughts transitioned from words to the far more efficient realm of concepts, and Peter tuned them out completely. Meanwhile, Marcie stood watch off to the back, watching the way they came.

    Eventually, the background barrage of thoughts came to a harmonious conclusion, and Peter turned to see the door swinging open. < Stage two, > Marcie thought, coming up behind him. < Let’s keep this ball rolling. Grace, make sure we don’t set off any wards. Mbizi, lovely, keep an eye the cameras. Don’t want to walk into any patrols. >

    Another series of hallways and stairs followed, all leading down and deeper into the building. Every now and then they stopped so Grace could unravel some arcane tripwire, or they’d double back a few twists and turns to avoid wandering guards.

    Until, finally, they came to it. The vault room. In one moment, they were walking through a monotonous hallway identical to all the others. In the next, they pushed through a set of doors and found themselves in a vast cavernous space. Easily over a hundred meters per side, it was filled with dozens of isolated smaller rooms, each a bunker in its own right. And in each and every one, vast wealth to be had. Some in mana crystals, others in cash, or jewels, or bonds, or trade secrets.

    There were a few moments of awed silence shared between them, before Mbizi spoke up. “Which one is ours?” she asked, tapping away at her tablet. “I heard Grace mention mana crystals, so we’re looking at either-”

    Peter cut her off, turning to Marcie and Taikki. “Your turn, you two. I’ll get things ready down here.” Marcie nodded and turned back, Taikki quickly following suit, and the two disappeared through the doors they had just entered, Marcie looking down at a projection of a map emitted by her watch.

    “Marcie! Wait!” Mbizi whirled on Peter. “What the hell? Where are they off to?”

    “Upstairs,” Peter answered absently as he pulled a rod of blue metal from his coat and began etching lines of pale light along the wall. “Marcie’s going to disable their spatial mirror.”

    “Their what?”

    “It, uh, prevents teleporting,” Grace explained. “Both in and out. The size of the field depends on how much energy is fed into it.”

    “And Hextech has plenty of energy,” Peter continued. “The entire building is in the field. It’d be a shitty security system if people could just teleport wherever they wanted.”

    “Please, please correct me if I’m wrong,” Mbizi snapped, “but doesn’t the entire plan hinge around us teleporting out of here?”

    “Mhmm. That’s why Marcie is going to take it out.” Peter stepped back for a moment to look over the four metres of wall now marked with his etchings before pulling out another rod and handing it to Grace. “Could you start copying this? You go that way, I’ll go this way. We want to get all the way around. Oh, and don’t worry about accuracy; they’re self correcting. You just need to get it kind of close.”

    Grace nodded and began to get to work, while Mbizi gaped. “Was I the only one left in the dark about this?”

    “Well,” Grace began hesitantly.

    “Yes,” Peter finished confidently. “Definitely.”

    < You’re very overprotective, > Mbizi started as Marcie’s thoughts cut in, < and I love you for it, but we knew you’d never be on board if you knew the plan involved me taking on half a dozen armed guards. >



    For a painful second, Marcie’s head was flooded with an impressive string of curses and admonishments before Taikki closed the floodgates. Marci gave the dwarf a thankful nod for the reprieve before turning back to the job at hand. Peeking around the corner, she could see the room housing the spatial mirror at the far end of the hallway, it’s door slightly ajar. Voices and lights spilled from the narrow crack, hopefully loud enough to mask her footsteps when she crossed the distance.

    Not taking her eyes from the doorway, Marcie addressed Taikki. < You stay here. If you hear anyone else coming, give my head a ring. > Thumbs up of understanding were exchanged, and Marcie began to make her way down the hall.

    She rolled her feet as she walked to lessen the sound of her approach, one hand trailing along the wall beside her. It seemed to be enough, as the conversation on the other side of the door never haltered, even as she drew up before it, palm flat against it, ready to push.

    A pause, to collect herself.

    Another, to ready herself.

    And then, action. Shoving open the door, Marcie leapt into the room and took stock. In the center of the room, a whirling mass of mirrors and strings floated above a metal table. Around it were eight guards, all told. More than they'd hoped for, but still within expectations. Three standing, four sitting, and one in the process of falling backwards off their chair. All armed, but only one with weapon already in hand.

    Before dealing with that however, Marcie had to make sure they didn't call for backup. When a building housed a large enough fortune to buy a city or two, it was advisable to keep a fighting force on in hand to repel assaults.

    Hextech Energy had settled for a small army, and Marcie was certainly assaulting.

    She focused, and in an instant all the guards’ radios were spilling out the door and into the hall. A stronger magic user like Peter could have simply thrown everyone into the ceiling a few times and been done with it, or at least forced their weapons from their holsters, but Marcie was not a strong magic user.

    She'd have to give it a more personal touch.

    Pushing off with both body and mind, Marcie vaulted the table and fell flat to slide under the spatial mirror. As she reached the edge, she flipped back up and lashed out with her foot, kicking the gun out of the guards hand. Meanwhile, the falling guard finally came to earth with a loud crash. Only then did the fight begin in earnest.

    The space was too small and crowded for firearms, and the guards who followed that first instinct found themselves futilely trying to get a clean shot. The rest pulled out stun batons, and entered the fray.

    Ducking under one heavy swing, Marcie retaliated with a punch to the stomach. The guard, instead of simply doubling over, was flung backwards into the wall as Marcie empowered the blow with a burst of telekinesis. Another guard was sent sprawling with a kick to the shin, and a third with an elbow to the back.

    But they were resilient, and well armoured, and quickly got back on their feet. Those who had initially pulled guns had now switched, and one came for Marcie with an overhead swing.

    She intercepted the blow, her forearm to his, and a focused blast of kinetic energy reversed the blow. As he fell, Marcie ripped the baton from his hand and flung it at another guard, catching her in the face and sending her to the floor twitching.

    But more guards came after them, and more after that, forcing Marcie into a spiralling dance of blocking, dodging, and counter attacking. There was no opportunity to go on the offensive, no moment of reprieve to drop her defenses even for a second as she battled for control of the room.

    < Hey, Marcie? >

    < Taikki, I hate to be rude, but I’m a touch preoccupied at the moment. >

    < More guards. Sounds like at least ten, coming straight for us. >

    < Are they running or walking? >

    < Walking. >

    < Then they don't know what's going on. Stall them, please. > With that, Marcie used a push of energy to close the door and returned to the fight. Just in time, as a stun baton grazed her back and sent her jittering to her knees. The follow up was quick, the guards eager to capitalize on the opening.

    But Marcie was quicker. She deflected one guards jab into the knee of another, and an uppercut as she climbed to her feet gave a third a new glassjaw.

    Taikki’s voice filled her head again. < Marcie. >

    < Still busy. Keep stalling. >

    < They starting shooting stun rounds on sight. I’m coming in. > On queue, the door burst open to admit a carefully groomed dwarf, an event distracting enough to let Marcie land another solid blow. Rather than blasting the guard away as normal, she grabbed the man and flung him around, sending him flying into the spatial mirror.

    As it shattered into a hundred prismatic refractions, she reached out through the telepathic link. < Peter, > she thought, < we’re going to need you to hop us out of here. >


    < Not possible, really. > Peter answered, walking some ways apart from Mbizi and Grace. Mbizi was still on soft mute telepathically, but that did nothing to quiet the worried and angry hacker in person. < Teleportation runes only work at the point of origin. I can't do anything from the destination. Hold tight, I'll figure something out. >

    “Peter, I swear to God, if you leave my girlfriend behind-” Mbizi snarled, coming up from behind.

    “My sister, you mean? As if. Pull up schematics of the building.”

    “Rescue mission. Okay. I'll find us the quickest route-”

    Peter cut her off. “We’re staying here. Those guards will have sounded an alarm the moment they saw Taikki, so the hallways will be filled with armed men and women looking to get us, stun us, tag us and bag us, then lock us up.” He rubbed at his chin. “Just get those schematics. There is a plan. Grace! Finish laying those runes on the walls; we’ll still need those.”

    Pulling another metal rod from his coat, this one white to the previous one’s blue, Peter made his way over to one of the vaults and began etching.

    The walls of the vault were perfectly smooth, bereft of not only joints or seams but doors as well. The only way in was teleporting, which in normal circumstances meant only when the spatial mirror was briefly shut down. But if Marcie had asked him to teleport her out of her predicament, then the mirror must have been successfully destroyed.

    Laying his hand hand across his quickly drawn runes, Peter closed his eyes and channeled. When he opened them again after a brief flash of blue light, he was inside the vault itself.

    Shelves filled the steel walls, each crammed full of labeled boxes, visually identical except for the words written on them. In the center of the room sat a permanent circle of runes, meant for moving the goods out of the vault when needed.

    Scanning the boxes until he found the one he needed, Peter indelicately dragged it off the shelf and carried it into the circle. Another brief channel, and he was standing back in the overarching vault room, the large door they entered through a few dozen feet in front of him. “Perfect,” he said, pulling out the white rod once more and getting to work.

    “Seriously, Peter?” Mbizi asked incredulously as she saw him reappear with the box. “You’re still trying to pull of the heist?”

    “Part of the plan,” he answered, not looking up from his work. “You have those schematics? Yeah? Great. Direct Marcie and Taikki to wherever is directly above where I’m standing right now.”

    Outside the vault room, he could hear the approaching sound of dozens of footsteps. “Oh,” he continued, a note of adrenaline fueled eagerness entering his voice, “and find you and Grace some cover to hide behind.”


    The room was in tatters. Guards lay sprawled across chairs and table alike, and shards of mirror hung suspended from tattered strings when they weren’t serving as a walking hazard on the floor. Outside, more guards were industriously trying to ram open the door, to increasing success.

    “Are you finished getting ready?” Marcie asked, a note of exasperation entering her voice as Taikki continued layering on pieces of body armour salvaged from the unconscious guards. A loud crash reverberated through the door and into Marcie’s bones as the guards knocked the hinges loose another precious millimetre.

    “Just about-”

    “Good enough.” When the next crash came, Marcie made no effort to oppose it, letting the door fall almost completely loose, dangling from one strained hinge. Through the resulting gaps, Marcie could see a swarm of guards filling the hallway beyond, far too many to take on.

    < Immediate right? > She asked.

    < Yes. > Came Mbizi’s tense reply. Marcie sent comforting vibes back her way, then promptly kicked the door clean off its hinges and back into the hall. Grabbing Taikki by the scruff of their neck and slinging them over her back, Marcie lept out after the door in the ensuing confusing and bolted down the right hand hallway.

    “Taikki?” She panted, already feeling the weight of the dwarf in her knees and back. “I hope you’re fine with being my shield.”

    “Not really,” Taikki managed, “but I understand.”

    “Thanks.” Marcie ducked around another corner as shots rang out behind. < We’re on our way. What’s the next turn? >


    The guards reached the vault room the moment Peter stepped back from his work. Three interwoven circles of runes, ten feet across all together. Peter himself stood inside a separate, much smaller circle of runes. Two lines extended out from it; one towards the interwoven circles, and another towards the blue runes on the walls. Each line had a small break in it, large enough to fit a single rune.

    In the doorway, the guards came to a halt and leveled their guns, but didn’t immediately fire. Peter gave them a small wave, almost giddy from the tension, as he knelt down to open the box pulled from the vault.

    “Stop!” one of the guards called out. “Stop, or we will fire with deadly intent.”

    Peter only laughed. “I’m sure you will.” In response, the guard fired a warning shot aimed well above Peter’s head. Not that the aim mattered in the end. As soon as the shot reach the interwoven runes, it was dispersed and disappeared. Peter laughed harder. He had never felt this alive, this kind of burning beauty filling him from head to toe. < How far out are you? >

    < A hundred metres, give or take. >

    Another warning shot was fired, and it too was dispersed by the runes. “One circle to ward and absorb,” Peter muttered as he pulled his treasure from its box. A giant mana crystal, growing red and blue and yellow with energy. It seemed at times edged like obsidian, and at others fractal like a diamond. The direction of light seemed meaningless to the shadows dancing along its surface, and Peter’s hands began to hum as he held on to it. < Give me a countdown. I need to know exactly when you reach it. >

    < Eighty. >

    More shots were fired, now aimed directly at Peter, and they too were absorbed. Beneath, the runes began to faintly glow. Then moderately, then vibrantly. With each shot, the runes grew brighter and brighter, a thick orange, casting shadows of its own across the room.

    < Sixty. >

    “We’re overloading it,” one the guards shouted to her fellows. “Keep firing!”

    “Yes,” Peter cackled. “Keep firing!” The runes continued to swell with energy as shot after shot was absorbed, until it seemed the light itself would burst and shatter into a thousand pieces. But instead, the light started to pull back, dragged away into the second circle of runes.

    < Forty. >

    “Another to channel and reform,” Peter said to himself, as the second circle began to glow yellow. Meanwhile, in the doorway, the guards started to move forward into the room. Briefly channeling the energy in the mana crystal, Peter send out bolts of lightning to push them back into the hall. “Stay put,” he called out cheerfully.

    < Twenty. >

    “And the last to amplify and emit.”

    < Ten! >

    Leaning down, Peter marked down the missing rune to finish the first line, and both the orange and yellow light disappeared, all channeled into the third circle, where it became a blinding red. If the orange light had looked ready to shatter, the force of the red light looked ready to warp reality itself. The crystal in Peter’s hands vibrated as he struggled to use it as a foundation, a way to hone and stabilize the massive amounts of energy he was building up.

    < Five! There! Peter, we’re in a pretty rough- >

    < Hold on! > Peter interrupted, and released. Around the edges of the circle, the red light folded in and upon itself until it was a thin and impossibly dense sheet of light running around the outside edge of the runes. It seemed to freeze there for an age, though Peter knew that it wasn’t even a fraction of second, that it never stopped moving, before surging upwards in a glorious hollow pillar. A loud screeching sound filled the vault room as it pierced the ceiling, and the smell of burning air and metal filled Peter’s nose.

    Then just as quickly, it was gone. Not even spots of lights remained to cloud Peter’s vision. It was as if it had never happened. Except, from above, the sound of rushing air. Before Peter, a large hunk of masonry, of steel and tile and pipes that had once been a ceiling, crashed into the ground where the interwoven runes had been. A few second later, a second followed suit.

    Thoughts of panic flooded the telepathic link, but Peter ignored them. Ten floors up, that was where the room holding the spatial mirror had been held. A third chunk of building crashed to the ground. With a flick of his hand, Peter used the crystal to shove the door shut, completing the string of blue runes around the room, and began to channel energy once more.

    The fourth chunk fell. All around, the room began to fill with blue light. A piercing blue light, that filled matter and banished all trace of shadow. The fifth chunk fell. Through the individual vaults, Peter could see each box in exquisite detail. Visually rifle through t contents of each. The sixth chunk fell.

    He could see Grace and Mbizi running out from where they had been taking cover, yelling and waving their arms. He ignored them, focusing solely on drawing more and more energy from the crystal. The eight chunk fell. Inside the crystal, the dancing lights began to grow dim in reverse correlation to the increasing brightness of the runes. Cracks appeared in the walls from the sheer mass of magic being readied.

    The ninth chunk fell.

    Letting go of the crystal with one hand, it remained impossibly stuck to his remaining hand, casually defying gravity, as he pulled out the blue metal rod. The tenth chunk began to slip through the hole in the ceiling. Above it, Marcie and Taikki fell as well, speeding towards a rapid end against the ground. Peter shut them out as well, and drew one final rune.

    The crystal shattered, and with it the blue light. It escaped the boundaries of the runes, of the vault room itself, and replaced the world with itself. Outside the vault room, there was nothing but blue light. The ceiling faded into nothing. The walls fell away, cropped down to where the line of runes snaked its way across.

    The tenth chunk froze.

    Everything froze. Sound emptied, light diffused, movement became forgotten. In this blue light, a single moment was eternity, and a single space was infinity.

    The crystal shattered.

    Shards became slivers, and a faint whistling sound - a sound that was more than mere vibrations - filled the bubble of reality.

    The crystal shattered.

    Slivers became dust, and the world roared back into being. There was no transition, no fading of the light. In one moment, it was everything, and in the next, it never was. Overhead was only the sky, a lighter grey than usual. A sign of good luck. No skyscrapers obscured it, no city smog filled the air. Not that the air was clean.

    But it was better.

    Around them, surrounding the misplaced and broken vault room, was nothing but fields. Vast plains of dry, twisted grass and the dust coated remains of what used to be trees.

    Marcie and Taikki fell the last few feet to the ground, rolling down the hill of rubble that the other chunks had formed, and were quickly fussed over by Mbizi and Grace. But Peter knew they were fine; his spell had worked. A deep warmth filled his core, and burst out his mouth as laughter.

    His heist had worked.

    Community Pick Winner: Pathfinder by @Grumpy
    Pathfinder (open)

    “I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
    The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
    Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
    Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
    Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
    Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
    And men forgot their passions in the dread
    Of this their desolation; and all hearts
    Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light”
    - ‘Darkness’, Lord Byron

    I can see the triplet pillars of the City’s space elevators lighting up the grim night sky, a dying planet’s very own North Star, as our truck peels its way through the grey slush towards the meeting point.

    Sidrovich claims it's just a simple excursion outside the City, nothing to worry about: hand over the goods, get the payment in return, head back. But that’s what Sidrovich says with every job, and the fact that he’s gone to the trouble of sending me along has our new friends worried. You don’t come loaded for war unless you’re expecting a fight, and you don’t send me on a job unless you’re anticipating it being far less than simple. That certainly seems to be the conclusion our two companions for the evening have drawn, going by the way they eye me nervously as the truck’s electric engine hums along calmly. Local muscle Sidrovich has sent as backup, all vat-grown muscle implants and thick beards. Good for show, but no telling how useful they’ll be if things go south. My partner Levi occasionally glances at them with amusement from the driving seat: two years we’ve been working together, and he still gets a kick out of the reaction I garner.

    The truck’s heating is cranked up as high as it can go, but even still I can feel the chill from outside pushing its way in. Doesn’t matter how many layers of thermal clothing, body armour and jackets you might be wrapped in: there’s no escaping the cold in this day and age. We pass beneath the shadows of the towering, brutalist residential blocks, laid out in uniform rows like nails driven into the snow-clad ground and somehow looking even darker than the sky from this angle. No beauties even when they were built, the years of exposure to Earth’s crippled environment have done little to improve their looks. Still, they offer a roof over the heads of workers and their families, walls to keep out the cold that aren’t made from plywood or plastic, even some protection to the background radiation.

    There are people in the Shanty City that would kill for such luxuries.

    That isn’t me employing poetic license.

    Soon we’re past the blocks and out towards the south gate checkpoint, security drones drifting overhead as City security step towards us. The expression on the officer who Levi rolls down the window asks what the hell we’re doing driving out towards a snowstorm before he opens his mouth: the card my partner flashes him stops him from ever needing to ask it. With a brief nod he waves us through, tapping at his arm-mounted AR rig to open the gates and allow us out beyond the City limits.

    The end of civilisation’s vestiges. The beginning of the wastelands.

    Before long the wind is crashing against the truck and snowdrifts are surrounding us. Not often someone in my line of work will find themselves doing deals outside the City, but when we do we can be sure no-one will be snooping unless they have the means of staving off both the chill and the radiation. The ideal location for exchanging goods the City authorities might frown upon, assuming we do it right.

    A couple hours of silence drifts by within the heated truck, the snowstorm kicking into full gear around us, until finally the windscreen’s enhanced HUD brings the sight of our destination into view. The warehouse we’re working out of today has, to put it mildly, seen better days, it’s roof having fallen in long ago. But it’s shelter from the elements and a space to make the exchange. As Levi brings the vehicle to a halt I turn around in the passenger seat to speak to our companions.
    “Here’s the ground rules. No open carrying, keep your weapons out of sight unless you need to use them. No talking, that’s Levi’s job. Just follow my lead, make sure the exchange goes smooth, and we all go home richer. Ponimat?”

    The two men share a glance between them, probably not used to having a wiry caucasian woman talking to them in this fashion. But they’ve been briefed: they know who I am and why I’m here. Looking back to me, they nod curtly. “Good. You set, Levi?” In response my partner finishes sealing his face behind his helmet and reaches down to haul up a case from his right, tucking a heavy matt-black handgun into his shoulder holster as he does so.
    “All set, bratan,” he replies, “let’s go get paid.” The cold hisses in like a nest of angry hornets, doing its level best to pierce through my armour and reach my skin, as we push the doors open and step out into the open air. Grey snow crunches beneath my boots as I reach up to engage my helmet's sealing sequence. There's a hiss of air as the world briefly goes dark, then the helmet's HUD blooms into life. With a blink my view of the warehouse goes from gloomy to saturated and stark with contrast, a picture passed through a filter as the mask get to work making sure I can see my surroundings. Old military tech, a customised overlay pattern ready to highlight any sudden movements that step into view.

    Levi falls into step next to me, thick padded coat rippling with the wind and the case containing our payload clutched tightly in one gauntlet-clad hand as our hired help trails behind us. I nod approvingly as both begin to follow the footprints left behind by myself and Levi: not complete amateurs, then. Out here in the open we’ve got absolutely no protection from the elements, so we need to move fast. Were it not for the helmet’s HUD filters compensating for the deluge of powdery snow and ice being pulled from the drifts and kicked up around us, I would barely be able to see my hands. Another point in our favour: the only people out in conditions such as these are either the desperate, the suicidal or the well prepared. It’s my hope that the four of us fall into the final category, as we stride towards the abandoned warehouse that our contacts are expecting us in.
    “Almost there,” I rasp into the sub-vocal mic built into my neck seal, the tiny device picking up the vibrations of my vocal chords and processing them out onto our team’s comms, “sound off for mic check.”
    “Priyem,” Levi rumbles back.
    “Da,” mutters the first of our hired help.
    “Receiving,” mutters the second. Holding up a thumb to confirm we’re all good, I reach a hand into my jacket to grip the weight of the collapsed VIPER I have tucked at my side: coiled like a spring, ready to burst into action upon command.

    We all have our rituals right before we walk into a situation we might not walk back out of.

    At least mine are practical.

    * * *
    They’ve brought more men than Sidrovich told us they would.

    That’s the first red flag.

    Second one comes from the men themselves. From the way my shitbag of a client was talking I was expecting professionals: Tai Huen Chai, maybe, or private contractors. Wiry experts in smart weather gear, perhaps, or old post-war environment suits. These clowns, though? A ragtag half dozen in cold weather suits that barely look functional, weapons proudly displayed like they’re at a fucking gun show as they watch us enter the crumbling, half-collapsed warehouse. Mostly asian, a few slavic faces interspersed, all of them hidden behind crude weather masks or else open to the elements with nothing but rebreathers to protect them.

    The man standing at their head doesn't inspired confidence either. Hunched over, stocky little shit, his face riddled with pockmarks. Only his environment suit lends him any credibility, even that is mostly hidden beneath a ratty, worn overcoat. Chinese, if I had to guess, most of his head hidden by the hood that’s drawn up from his suit: what can be seen is behind a crude layer of smart-glass, a low-tech variation of the helmets my people wear. He smiles, almost apologetically, as we draw closer. The clowns behind him are watching us like hungry animals, gaunt faces barely blinking as they do.
    “This feel off to you, Koss?” Levi intones into his mic, the motions of his vocal chords hidden by his neck seal.
    “Very,” I respond, “eyes sharp, khorosho?” I can feel our two companions tensing up, no doubt taking in the sight before us and not liking their odds were this to go badly. Bad form for a trade-off, one side spooking the other. I don’t know what the hell these guys are playing at, and I sure as shit don’t like it.

    Coming to a stop in front of him, the Chinese man at the centre of what I’m worryingly starting to think of as the competition gives Levi a nod and a grin.
    “Huānyíng. You guys here for Sidrovich?”
    “Deal was to come with three others,” Levi grumbles back, not bothering to return the hello, “not six.” Our contact turns his palms up apologetically, bowing his head again.
    “Very true, very true. Wǒ dàoqiàn, there was a... miscommunication, between ourselves and your boss.” He smiles again, something simultaneously obsequious yet alarming about the display. “You understand, yeah?” Levi’s voice remains flat, expressionless.
    “No. Not especially.”
    “Extra backup is your first strike,” I interject, “fact that they’re waving their guns around is the second, and you’re not getting a third. Lose the weapons.”

    The spokesman blinks, his gaze snapping over to me with irritation before looking back to Levi. My companion simply shrugs, still expressionless. Eyes narrowing, the spokesman finally deems fit to reply.
    “Not all of us got Mr Sid’s budget, nǐ míngbái? Got to make do with who we can find. Dangerous times, yeah?”
    “Can’t be doing too bad,” I retort, “since you brought two extra bodies. Guns away, or this deal’s off.” His jaw tightens, sickly smile looking more like a grimace for a few seconds. Then his head bows again, and he twists about to motion downwards with one arm at his men as he barks,
    “Shōu qǐ tāmen! Xiànzài!” There’s a short pause, as the half dozen ragtag enforcers look between themselves and their apparent leader. Then slowly, sullenly, the firearms are holstered or else tucked over shoulders. The spokesman turns back, pointedly ignoring me as he looks again to Levi. “There, no more guns. We can do business now, yeah?”

    Levi and I exchange another glance, our shared concerns not needing to be spoken aloud. You survive long enough in a world such as this and you learn to get a read off people, and the spokesman here is already making my skin crawl. Still, he’s told his guys to back down and holster their weapons upon request and I suspect that Sidrovich isn’t going to accept ‘rubbed me the wrong way’ as a valid reason for scuppering the deal. Going by the resigned shrug that Levi makes, he’s come to a similar conclusion. I return the shrug: no going back now. My partner turns back to the spokesman and gives a brief nod.
    “Da. Business, then. You have the payment?” That sycophantic grin is back on our opposite’s face as he nods furiously, reaching into his jacket to produce a battered, metal-encased data stick.
    “ERC commands and credits, just like Mr Sid asked for. You can verify, no problem.” He’s still nodding, his gaze trailing down to the case at Levi’s side like a Freudian slip. “You got the goods, yeah?”

    I’m frowning now, something about this head-bobbing little shit making me want to inch for the door or start shooting even as Levi shrugs again and brings his payload up to chest height. His gauntlet-clad fingers punch in a passcode and the seals are released, allowing him to pull open the metal device and reveal its contents. Sidrovich has, as usual, overdone things for effect. The case interior has been draped with faux-velvet, the two power cores stored within laid inside carefully shaped hollows. Perhaps it’s to try and compensate for how uninspiring the devices look themselves: a pair of battered, weather-stained steel chunks, clearly showing their age.
    “Pre-war, as was request. Picked up by licensed requisitions team, thoroughly tested to ensure they are fit for purpose.” Levi raises an eyebrow at the spokesman. “They are to your satisfaction?”

    There’s an intensity to the spokesman’s gaze as he nods, something almost akin to a hunger as he speaks the words, “they are, yeah.”

    That’s the moment when the red flags turn into blaring sirens and I know the whole exchange is about to turn into a shitshow.

    The guns that were just seconds ago politely holstered and out of sight are suddenly being reached for, half a dozen grubby hands reaching to pull them free. The movements are clean, practised, not the work of bumbling amateurs, but despite that I’m still faster. My arms move like pendulums as they reach down to my side and into my jacket, one finger carefully brushing the side of the collapsed VIPER in just the right spot. As I pull it free and bring it to bear, what initially appears to be a gunmetal rectangular package expands outwards into a stocky little instrument of death as internal pneumatics propel the weapon’s parts into place. I hold the VIPER at an angle, letting the motion of my draw propel it into a sweeping arc as I send a raking volley of gunfire across the assembled mob of would-be thieves. Through the helmet’s filters I hear the guttural rattling of hollow-point rounds going off, the yelps and screams as they meet their mark.

    Instinct and training are pitching my rational mind out the driving seat as I lunge to the left out of the path of potential return fire. My two hired hands are pulling on their own weapons, to their credit, and also diving for cover: plenty of it to be found in a partially collapsed warehouse. Levi, though, is too busy trying to re-seal the case to draw or dive, head no doubt filled with repeated demands by Sidrovich not to let anything happen to the package.

    The spokesman of our would-be double-crossers moves with a speed I didn’t think possible for a figure as hunched and stocky as him, closing the ten metres between himself and Levi before my companion can react. I drop into a slide, hoping to propel myself behind a nearby collapsed section of ceiling as I try to bring the VIPER to bear on the man. Before I can, his right arm is darting out towards Levi’s neck and something is bursting loose from the sleeve of his overcoat.

    The holdout pistol clears his jacket and nestles into the spokesman’s hand just in time for him to jam it against Levi’s neck and pull the trigger.

    The gunshot rings out through the confused, and Levi drops like someone’s just cut the strings that were holding him aloft. I feel myself going cold, a numb absence of emotion creeping across my thoughts and motions as I line the spokesman up through my smartlink and squeeze the VIPER’s trigger with a sharp twitch of my finger. The impact sends him tumbling across the concrete and scattered metal that makes up the warehouse floor, his other hand clutching at the case he’s just ripped from Levi’s dying fingers. Don’t linger on the dead, echoes the old mantra as I continue to unload the rifle across the room, nothing you can do for them now. Focus on the fight, on doing what you have to do to stay alive.

    Levi’s face gapes blankly up into the ruined ceiling through his mask, like doll’s eyes have replaced the very real ones I had been meeting just a few minutes before.

    Screams and the rattle of gunfire blares up behind me, and I twist around to see my two companions go down in a hail of bullets. Before I can react something like a cross between a freight train and a shuttle engine slams into my back, knocking me sprawling and sending all traces of breath from my lungs. The dizzying pain that rolls across my torso confirms that I’m not dead, at least: dead people don’t hurt this much. Snarling and gasping for air, I twist about to face this new threat as my helmet’s HUD confirms that I just took a blast from some form of automatic rifle and that my armour’s integrity is in an even worse state than I am. Sucking enough air back into my lungs to curse furiously I return fire at the figures advancing through the snow mists outside the warehouse. Where the hell these new threats might have come from I don’t know: the only people crazy enough to have been waiting in ambush out in the rad-infested snow are the sorts of people who don’t call the City home. And if that’s who I’m up against right now, then I’m even more fucked than I thought I was ten seconds ago.

    Hauling myself over the collapsed roof to find cover from our new attackers, I reload the VIPER just in time to see a few of the spokesman’s grunts pulling him out the doors of the warehouse. It’s spite more than anything that has me pop up and loose another stream of automatic fire in their direction, blowing apart the shoulder of one of the spokesman’s would-be saviours and sending the other two diving for cover. A stupid, amateur move: I’m letting my emotions make combat decisions for me, and I quickly pay the price as another two rounds impact against my armour’s chest plate.

    God snaps the breaker switch to zero, and the world goes dark.

    blood pumping in my ears so loud it’s making my head hurt and I’m glad of that pain cos it’s a distraction from the agony swelling across my chest always knew I was gonna die loud and stupid that’s what they said about my kind

    Footsteps crunching through frozen snow, coming from very far away. Like I’m hearing an echo rather than the real thing.

    survive the end of the fucking world survive the initiation into the regiment and them cutting you up to stitch you back together again stronger make it through all the shit that comes after the collapse of everything humanity once knew to be real only to go out like a common thug you fucking

    Voices, muffled like I’m hearing them from underwater.
    “The fuck was that?” one of them is exclaiming, “bitch took a MAG round in the back and kept on coming! Jen-sin said this was gonna be a cakewalk!”
    “And you believed him? More fool you, húndàn. Now stop moaning and get her piece, we got wounded to haul back to camp.” The first voices mutters darkly under his breath, and there’s the scraping of metal against snow-coated concrete.

    The footsteps drift away and are lost in the howling of the wind.

    always knew you’d die alone in the snow and this was a long time coming dunno why you’re acting so surprised...

    * * *
    As always, it’s the pain that tells me I’m alive.

    My breath comes in ragged swallow bursts and for a good few seconds I’m convinced that something’s blinded me before I manage to blink the swirling cacophony of black spots from my vision. HUD’s flashing like a fireworks display, all manner of panicked red-tinged warnings all begging to tell me the myriad ways in which I am fucked. Except for the spot where my helmet visor has cracked completely, reinforced smart glass broken and shattered to let the elements in. Parting gift from the spokesman and his wastelander cohorts, no doubt. Smart move, too. Why waste a bullet when you can just crack someone’s helmet and let the radiation finish the job for you? Anyone else would be glowing with the rad intake in just an hour or so, assuming they even got back up at all.

    Muscles aching and straining from the effort, I haul myself onto my knees and then onto unsteady feet with a groan.

    Spokesman and his cronies did good. Stripped me of my gear pretty well, left only the battered armour and expended VIPER rounds behind. But they didn’t factor in the subdermal antirad injectors in my legs and arms. They didn’t know about the weeks of gene therapy treatments me and mine went through back in the day, the ceramic bone-lacing and synaptic boosters they implanted into every member of a regiment sent out to try and carve out a small sliver of sanity in a world that had lost its mind.

    Or, to put it less politely? Spokesman and his cronies didn’t know who they were fucking with.

    I’m going to let them know very soon, though.

    Getting ahead of myself, though. First things first, assess the damage and take stock of the situation. Find a weapon. Regain contact with Sidrovich and let him know his wonderful little ‘outside the City business deal’ turned into a gargantuan clusterfuck and his merchandise is gone. That ought to get the fat Ukrainian shit into gear. Helmet’s screwed six ways till Sunday, so I won’t be getting through to him via it’s broadcaster: I haul the now useless hunk of metal and superpolymer layers off my head and let it hit the ground with a muffled thump. Still unsteady on my feet, I manage to haul off my overcoat and chest plate, leaving only the silver nanowire-lined bodysuit underneath. Internal power is still kicking, at least, heating the wire and keeping the chill at bay: if it wasn’t, I’d be little more than an icy block of flesh by now. Other small mercies include the holdout pistol that I have stowed in the chest plate’s internal pockets, which managed to avoid the rifle fire I took. It fits snugly into my hand, the ceramic components feeling flimsy and small in the midst of the swirling grey snowstorm I stand in. Better than nothing, though.

    Strapping the remains of my armour and jacket back on, my eyes dart about the shell-strewn remains of the warehouse for Levi’s body. My partner lies where he fell, face-plate stripped and shattered by his killers. Ice is starting to form on his skin, lending him even more of an inhuman, waxwork-like quality. The dead never look like they’re sleeping, and whoever claimed otherwise was a fucking idiot. Limping over to him, I drop down to one knee so my hand can brush those staring eyes closed.
    “Ostavaysya spokoyno, bratan,” I mutter quietly, the words almost lost in the wind, “I’ll send them on after you soon enough.” Nearby, the corpses of Sidrovich’s two contractors are also starting to frost over. As I reach down to close the eyes of the second man, it suddenly occurs to me that I never even learned their names. Didn’t care to, just another pair of faceless grunts I was to work with and then forget. I look down at his face, lined and scarred, bearing the marks of a man who had witnessed the end of the world and lived long to tell the tale. Survived all of that, only to die here in the snow for a pair of pre-war power cores.

    Outside of the ruined warehouse and into the open elements, it quickly becomes apparent that the wastelanders have been thorough in their efforts to steal or destroy anything Levi and I brought with us. The truck is battered and smoking, flames still smouldering up from the engine block where the battery rows have been stripped or smashed. Nothing I wasn’t anticipating, but the sight still sends my stomach spiralling further: vehicles like that don’t come cheap in the City, and it had been Levi’s pride and joy to own one. Staggering over to it, I do a quick assessment of the damage and realise they’ve not been quite as thorough as they intended to be. Though the tracks are broken beyond repair and the engine is thoroughly totalled, they’ve missed one of the survival gear compartments my partner had added to his truck for these very occasions. I remember laughing at him over it at the time, and my chest tightens a little at the thought. Kneeling down near the back end of the vehicle, I tap the location of the compartment with the right rhythm to reveal a AR-projected keypad. After a moment of struggling to remember what sequence we used for this spot I’m staring at a small cylindrical compartment tucked into the armour of the truck, stocked with the essentials for not dying of exposure in the frozen wastes. Nothing fancy, but enough to keep me going: survival rations, spare power supply, goggles, a sat-linked rebreather that I can use to get back in touch with Sidrovich, and Levi’s battered old urshanka that he’d promised me he’d thrown out six months ago.

    Strapping the rebreather and goggles into place, I hesitate for a moment before pulling the fur-lined hat on as well. A small memento to bring with me as I go after the people responsible for his death, I suppose.

    The goggle’s HUD boots and syncs with my suit’s internal systems, the rebreather linking in and finding a connection on a nearby satellite network. Almost immediately I’m bombarded with messages and alerts, all of them Sidrovich, all of them in increasing stages of fury. The last one is a particularly tasteful threat in Ukranian that actually manages to provoke a smile from me. Let the fat prick simmer a little more, I need to figure out just where the hell I’m going first. Turning away from the ruined truck and facing out towards the snow-strewn wastes around me, I start hunting for signs as to the direction my attackers headed off in. The goggles run a scan for footprints, but in this weather it’s a lost cause: snow drifts will have covered their tracks within minutes. Frowning, I opt for a different route and start cycling through nearby networks to see if I can’t find any others connected to them. Can’t be too many people crazy or stupid enough to be wandering around in these conditions, so anyone that is will stand out.

    Bingo. A quartet of signals linked to the same sat-network as me, pinging roughly five klicks to the south-east. I drop my search immediately, before my newly acquired targets notice that someone on the network is hunting about for others, and set off after them without looking back as I place a call to Sidrovich.

    To his credit, he doesn’t take long to accept it.

    “Ebatʹ nareshti!” a furious, rumbling voice barks down the line at me, “Koss, if you and that partner of yours have tried to play me I’m going to pull out your fucking--”
    “Levi’s dead,” I inform him, cutting him off mid-threat, “so are the two guys you sent along with us. You set us up on a deal with wastelanders, ty zhirnyy kusok der'ma, so don’t start throwing around accusations.” Sidrovich comes to a stammering halt, then comes back with full force.
    “Suka, what the fuck are you talking about? The deal came from a reliable middleman, properly vetted! The fuck is this bullshit about wastelanders?”
    “You want helmet-cam footage? Cos I got the whole thing. Us going into the warehouse, them drawing on us, Levi getting shot in the fucking throat for your power cores. Whole goddamn thing, suka.” There’s an angry pause, then Sidrovich growls,
    “Send it.”

    I oblige, my suit transmitting the stored footage of our deal-turned-gunfight from my position in the ass end of the world’s end to Sidrovich’s comfy office in the City. Through the call I can hear my client’s breathing grow shorter and sharper the further he watches, and by the time he’s finished watching he all but explodes back down the line at me. “SHCHO TAKOYI LYUDY! Who the fuck do these valenki cocksuckers think they are, robbing me?!” His voice takes on an echoing quality as his head turns away from the mic. “You! Suka! Get Vasily and the boys round to that dealer's house, pravyy chort zaraz! I want to know what he was thinking setting up deals with wastelander scum!” His voice returns to normal as he begins speaking to me again. “You. Koss. Tell me you’re going after them.”
    “They shot Levi in the throat.” It’s all the answer he needs.
    “Dobre-dobre. Tell me what you need, and it’s yours if you return my product to me.”
    “And if it’s long gone by the time I catch up?”
    “Then you bring me the head of the valenki who thought he could rob me with impunity.”
    “That I can promise you.” Sidrovich chuckles darkly.
    “Knew there was a reason I hired an ex-Pathfinder. One second, let me find out just where the hell you are.”

    Another pause, as Sidrovich no doubt pulls up satellite feeds to pinpoint my location. “Svyate derʹmo, of course you’d be right in the eye of the fucking radstorm! No way to get any backup out to you, not in those conditions, but I can send an AV with supplies if needed.”
    “My armour’s totaled and the bastards stole my gun. It’s needed.” I can hear Sidrovich typing as he talks.
    “Zrozumiv, won’t be a problem. AV will be with you soon, so long as your connection holds. If it doesn’t, I’ll set it to wait for you at these coordinates.” My HUD flashes with a map marker that has just been sent to me, three klicks along my route.
    “Understood. You got a bead on the guys that pulled this? Aerial footage?” My client grunts.
    “Nemaye, snowstorm is kicking up too much interference. You’re only seeing them because you’re on the ground with them.”
    “Old fashioned way it is, then. Get that AV out to me ASAP, or else I’ll be fighting these guys with a fucking pea-shooter.”
    “Their heads, Koss! You bring me their fucking heads--”

    Rolling my eyes, I cut Sidrovich off before he descends into another round of insults and incoherent snarling. I’ve met men with shorter fuses than that Ukranian black marketeer, but few so willing and able to apply it as literally as him. Still, he pays well and his jobs are usually simple enough.

    At least they were, before this one.

    My feet crunch down into the grey snow, my goggles doing their best to filter out the swirling maelstrom of snow, ice and radiation that flies around me. Thought I’d given this shit up years ago, marching off into the unknown in search of people needing shot. Pathfinders are long gone, a product of a more troubled time: most of us are dead or off-world by now, and here I was thinking I was just working cushy City-based jobs with Levi now. Fate has a sense of humour, it seems. Or it’s just a fucking asshole.

    Either way, the spokesman and his cronies are out there, lurking in the wastes and no doubt thinking they’ve pulled off their little robbery nicely. Wastelanders were always ones to labour under the delusion that these open expanses of dying earth belonged to them and them alone, even back when my regiment was still operating. Since then, they’ve only grown more overconfident.

    But they were wrong then, and they’re still wrong now.

    These are my woods they walk in. They’re among wolves now, even if they’ve forgotten it.

    They’ll remember soon enough.

    * * *
    We used to say that when it came to waste excursions, if it wasn’t the elements or the radiation that got you it would be your own head.

    The human mind craves stimulation, visual imagery for the brain to process and comprehend: faced with nothing but a vast, swirling expanse of grey and white it quickly starts getting antsy. Time seems to slow, and without any signs of the day’s progress it’s all too easy to succumb to that horrible, quiet but growing thought process that tells you that you’re trapped in some frozen, snowbound limbo. That you’re lost, never to be found, in the white.

    I hear engineers up on the orbital platforms and colonies can suffer from the same thing if they get stuck out in open space for too long.

    The human mind isn’t able to process a concept like infinity.

    They prepared us for this during the selection process, figuring out who could hack extended isolation whilst keeping their shit together before we could progress to the next stage of Pathfinder training. What it comes down to is knowing how to compartmentalise, knowing how to focus on the situation at hand and not let your mind wander. Lucky for me, that was a part of the selection process I excelled at.

    Lucky for me, the wastelanders I’m after have given me the perfect thing to focus all my attention upon.

    Out in the white progress is always going to be slow. All the technique and practice in the world isn’t going to make you navigate your way through drifts of rad-choked snow any faster. I’ve learned to think of it as a rhythm rather than a race, a slow and trailing dance across the corpse of the Earth. My heavy boots have their cleats distended to help my progress, and I know from the occasional signal check that I’m making good time: the wastelanders must still be carrying their wounded because I’m catching up.

    After what feels like at least a day but what I know objectively to have been maybe an hour, Sidrovich pings me with a single message: ‘Middleman for the deal is dead. Looks like he was tortured for info. You and I have both been played. AV approaching, enjoy the gift package. BRING ME THEIR HEADS.’ Sure enough, I soon hear the steady hum of a powerful electric engine over the swirling din of the wind. Turning, I spy the squat, angled form of the AV as it’s treads push their way through the snow and come to a stop before me. Another perk of working for the Ukrainian: he’s reliable. Crouching down next to it, the AV’s storage compartment snaps open and I haul out the set of armour I’ve been provided with. Older and bulkier than the stuff I came out here with, but at least this new set hasn’t taken a MAG round in it’s back plate recently. Shrugging off my old set and letting the new protection slide and snap into place over my chest and back, I reach inside for the second item I’ve been provided with then frown slightly. Old Kalashnikov stock, aftermarket railgun barrel modifications and a scope that’s probably older than I am. Heavy and ugly, not my style in the slightest, but still a hell of a lot better than my holdout pistol in a fight.

    Sliding the extra magazines I’ve been supplied with into the armour’s webbing, I re-seal the AV’s compartment and sling the rifle over my shoulder. There’s a certain reliability to the weight, I suppose, the knowledge that I’m carrying a weapon born of two centuries worth of conflict and warfare. Jabbing at the touchpad on my left wrist, I scan again for other connections on my satellite network. Once again the wastelanders connections bounce back my way, more of them this time, maybe half an hour now from my position. Setting my shoulders, I move off through the snow once again towards my intended targets. The numbers aren’t in my favour, and I know from bitter experience that you should never underestimate a wastelander in a fight.

    But they don’t know I’m coming. That’s all the advantage I need.


    Wasn’t expecting a camp. Wasn’t expecting so many people.

    Wastelanders are full of surprises today.

    From a ridge line overlooking them, I peer down at a small cluster of vehicles and tents that my quarry has stopped at through the Kalashnikov’s scope. Maybe a few dozen or so, including the spokesman and his goons that I’ve been trailing. They’re the only major threats I can identify: the rest are disheveled, hunched figures and children bundled in as many layers of clothing available, looking more like refugees than wastelanders to my eyes. It’s a bizarre mix, but I’m not seeing any animosity between them. Well, save for the clear animosity between the spokesman and a tall, pale-faced woman. The two have been standing in the centre of the camp since I got here ten minutes ago, each of them taking turns to scream and shout at one another.

    It’s a division I can use to my advantage, if nothing else.

    Maneuvering around the camp to view things from a different angle, it quickly becomes apparent what the argument is about. They have it tucked in behind the hollowed-out remains of a pre-war building, hidden under white tarp: damn thing is a relic, probably barely functional, but I know an orbital shuttle when I see one. Two of the spokesman’s goons are inside the cockpit, Sidrovich’s case lying abandoned outside it as they struggle to fit something within the craft, and it finally clicks why these people were so desperate for pre-war power cores. These are indeed refugees, people hellbent on getting off-world whilst there’s still a world to escape from.

    A plan starts to form in my mind.

    For maybe another ten minutes the two men scramble about in the shuttle’s cockpit and the spokesman argues back and forth with his refugee companion. I can feel the cold starting to set in around me, even through the nanowire-lined bodysuit, feel my muscles start to strain from continuous doses of anti-rad injections. My ribs ache from the gunshots I’ve spent the day walking off, and even with the stimulants I’ve been taking exhaustion is beginning to set in. Nobody can keep this up forever.

    But I don’t have to.

    I just need to wait for my opening.

    Sure enough, it comes when the two wastelanders finish installing the power cores with a triumphant stream of shouting, leaping down from the shuttle and running towards the main group. The one on the right is one of the men I recognise from the warehouse ambush, so he’s the one I take aim at with the rifle. There’s a crackle of energy and a brief jolt from the Kalashnikov and then suddenly the man is howling as he collapses onto the snowy ground, his kneecap atomised by the round I just put through it. Panic ripples through the assembled crowd of refugees and wastelanders: most of them scramble for cover, a few start going for weapons as they scour the nearby area for me. The spokesman looks ready to bolt, but the three rounds I land around his feet locks him in place like chains. The modulator and booster on my rebreather kick into effect as I call down to the group from my position.
    “No-one fucking move. I see hands going for weapons, you lose them.” Silence hangs then, the men I’ve followed and their refugee counterparts looking between each other nervously as the spokesman glares up in the direction of my voice. It’s the pale woman next to him who speaks up first, her voice impressively level despite having just been fired upon.
    “You’re firing at women and children, you understand?”
    “See me hit any women and children?” I retort.

    She spreads her arms out and takes a step towards me, the universal symbol of ‘look no scary armaments, please don’t shoot’.
    “Why don’t you tell us what you want, and we can resolve this. I don’t want anyone else hurt. Are you from Toecutter’s people?” I chuckle darkly, keeping the Kalashnikov at the ready.
    “Never heard of him. I’m the person your friends who just got back shot three times. The guys they stole those cores off. They tell you about that?” The look the pale woman throws at the spokesman tells me that no, they did not, and I smile. This is all coming together.
    “They told us they’d bought them.”
    “Sure, with bullets. Rat-faced pizda next to you shot my partner in the throat, left me to die in the snow.” At this, one of the thieves from the warehouse decides he’s going to make a move, reaching into his coat as he lunges towards cover. With a sweeping motion, I put two rounds through his upper thigh and he collapses with a scream.
    “Měi gèrén, bǎochí lěngjìng!” the pale woman is shouting over the cries of distress that ring out in the wake of my shots, “Just stay where you are!” She looks back up towards me, and finally I can see the strain on her face. “What do you want? I’m sorry for what Jin-sen did to your friend, truly, but we’re desperate here. We need those cores.”

    The last piece of my plan falls into place, and I raise myself up slightly from the ridge line so the group can see me. The rifle remains locked and ready as I speak.
    “Don’t care about the cores. You want off world, that’s your business. Only thing I want...” the barrel of the Kalashnikov twists to point at the spokesman, “...is him. Rest of you are free to go.” My target is sneering up at me now, rage blooming up at me through my weapon’s scope.
    “Cāo nǐ!” he screeches, “You mercenary bitch! How the fuck are you even still alive?” Ignoring his outburst, I continue calling down to the woman.
    “It’s a fair deal. Fairer than the ones your friends offered me and mine. He stays, you all leave now. What’s your answer?” The refugees and remaining thieves are all looking between each other, muttering quietly, and I don’t need to be an expert in reading people to know exactly what a desperate group of people looking to escape this world are thinking. Trading the spokesman for their freedom? The answer is obvious, and when the pale woman looks back from them to me I know before she speaks that she’s of the same mind.
    “Alright. Fine.”
    “You fucking traitors!” the spokesman howls, “Fú zhā! Nuòfū! You’d all be dead or in chains if it wasn’t for me! I’m the one who got us out of Toecutter’s camp, I’m the one who found the ship, I’m the one who--”
    “--who robbed your friend up there and got a bunch of us killed,” the pale woman interjects, glowering at him, “we’re not paying the price for your decisions any longer.”

    The refugees are already starting to drift towards the shuttle, nervously at first but then more confidently when I don’t start firing. The spokesman, Jen-sin, is looking between them and my position on the ridge with increasing desperation, and I can hear him quietly pleading with the pale woman as she starts to move away as well. When she shakes her head and takes another step his hand darts out to grab at her, but I loose another round down onto the snow inches from his feet. Staggering backwards with a yelp he returns his attention to me, his eyes locking on my outline hatefully as the pale woman moves off.

    We watch the shuttle launch together, the spokesman and I; hearing it’s systems swell and rattle into life, seeing the outline of its ancient frame through the snow as it pushes off from the ground with it’s VTOL thrusters before the main engines kick into gear. It’s engine roars like some ancient beast roused from sleep, booming through the wind as it begins to push itself into the sky. Doesn’t take long for the shuttle to be lost amidst the swirling winds, and by the time Jin-sen turns back around to face me I’ve made it down the ridge. Standing maybe ten metres from him, I keep the rifle against my shoulder. The rage is gone from his face now, a look of resigned finality take its place.

    “You’re a Pathfinder, aren’t you.” It isn’t a question, but I nod anyway. He smiles bitterly. “I’ve been trying to figure out just how the hell you survived. That was the only answer I had.”
    “Full marks, then,” I mutter, not letting the barrel of my weapon drift even an inch. He shrugs, making eye contact with me.
    “Guess my luck had to run out some time, yeah?”
    “Guess it did.”

    I squeeze the trigger and his throat bursts, showering the grey snow in crimson as he drops. Closing the distance between us, I keep the rifle pointed down at his crumpled form all the way and put another two in his chest just to be sure. Steam is rising from the holes in his throat and chest as I lower my weapon finally, and I stare down at the man who was, just seconds ago, alive. By now I know better than to expect some rush of emotions now that Levi’s killer is bleeding out on the ground in front of me. Revenge isn’t a rush of emotions. Just a cold, quiet sense of satisfaction.

    Overhead the snowstorm is starting to clear, the swirling clouds of ice and radiation no longer being buoyed up on winds to obfuscate the world around me. I take a moment to watch as the night sky begins to appear in gaps through the snow, as the City’s three space elevators come glowing into view. Tall spires reaching up into the heavens, small pinpricks of light rising up them or else breaking away to forge their own paths into the atmosphere. Onward to the orbital stations, maybe even Luna or the Martian colonies. Like embers from the smouldering blaze that was the Earth, drifting upwards to something better.

    With a sigh I turn away from the sight, focusing my gaze back on the ground. The body of Jen-sin lies before me as I crouch down next to it, patting the man’s coat down and retrieving a sharp, vicious-looking blade from inside it.

    Sidrovich was promised a head, after all.

    And a Pathfinder always gets the job done.

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