WRITING TFI: Tales From Iwaku - Hall of Fame


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Romance, modern, comedy, post-apocalyptic, slice of life.
A showcase of all the winners of the biannual writing event, Tales From Iwaku!
Winners are chosen via poll or judging panel, depending on the event.

TFI #1: The illusion of power, unconditional love, mercy

TFI #2: Found family, stolen identity, heroism

TFI #3: Irony, rebirth, temptation

TFI #4: Afterlife, revenge, unhealthy relationships

TFI #5: Hubris, imagination, déjà vu
Last edited:
TFI #1: Summer 2021

1st place: @Miyu
You are a particle of stars,
shimmering like swans,
in the midsummer blue.
I would like to touch the Heavens;
to kiss every drop of you,
that descends into my arms.

You are the essence,
With pearls of nascence
adorning your empyreal core.
Danties and wonderments;
Graces and sentiments,
conceived by palms of Angels.

Like the canopy above mortals,
and the soil nursing feet,
You envelop me;
under streams of ardor,
like petals of ipomoeas,
blooming under the radiance,
of gold and silver Deities.

On what fate did I earn this zeal?
Your insurmountable tenderness?
The gift of your timbres,
beautifying my name with weakness?
The frailty of your smiles,
flexing emotions from anima,
with subtle embraces?

Could it be a dream;
that even with my vices and plainness;
of spirits, visions, and allurement,
I am cherished like pardoned sinner,
in a deep, goodless monsoon?

I am a penumbra;
specks of nebula setting to glimmer,
amidst the existential vacuum.
Journeying in trudging quiver,
for the zest of your glow.

You are a particle of stars,
shimmering like swans,
in the midsummer blue.
I am an umbrage;
remote and crumbling,
palpitating in rummage,
for the vacant niche
that is your devotion.

You are the canopy above my alienation,
and the soil that nourishes my resolution,
where in my flaws and blemishes,
dredge beneath your cherubic love.

You are the essence,
With pearls of nascence
adorning your empyreal core.
Unveiling the boons of solace,
With the gift of your spheres;
With the relish of your beams,
spurned pneuma and sores.

You are the particle of stars,
shimmering like swans,
in the dreamless midsummer blue.
I am the dusk,
pulsing in ruthless breadth.
Yearning for warmth;
to kiss every drop of you,
that descends into my arms.

2nd place: @TerraBooma
Honour and glory were useless, on an empty stomach.

It had been eight months since the war had ended, yet the famine still clung to the empire like a plague. The priests had called the war a sin. The famine was a divine punishment for the empire that dared to expand its borders. To bring its gifts to the world. Like an eagle flying too close to the heavens, they had risen, found a current, and all too soon plummeted from grace. Now there was nothing.

Kalrick had thought that you'd grow used to the pain. The twisting knots of your stomach, the
Protest of defilement from a body infuriated with its commander. But there would be no relief. Another day of wasting away in front of the city walls. The cracked stonework of the mountain stronghold still hadn't been repaired since the siege a few months ago. It was a common theme Kalrick had found- border cities like Yldenvale were often the first to be targeted by an invading...or in this case, counter attacking force. During the war, there hadn't been any time to repair the more superficial damage. Scaffolding did little to stop a trebuchets' special delivery from slamming into the stonework after all, and now that the war was over, nobody wanted to do the work. Not like money was any good anyway, there just wasn't any food to buy. A king's fortune was a useful as a pauper's purse. Least, that was the way Kalrick thought it'd be. His wages had done him a fat lot of good in the end at least.

He'd joined up straight out of school, eager for a promise of riches and fame. Eight years of watching his friends die, of standing in the common ranks and praying to gods the sharpened stick they allegedly called a spear would be enough to save his life. And he had nothing to show for it. All the money he'd saved was worthless now, couldn't so much as buy a loaf of bread should one magically appear in the bakers window. As for the glory, that much was simple. Turns out there was no glory in losing a war. He'd had to shave his head to stand a chance against the bugs. His armor- standard regulation leather, with the Kingdom's pride emblazoned on his shoulder was all but tarnished. Cracked and frail from repeated blows, with even said insignia barely a whisper. The Fox had been a symbol of cunning, they'd told him. Now it wasn't much of anything. Course, since he was acting as a guard now, nobody bothered to think about replacing it.

His stomach growled again, tearing itself up in the search for something to eat. He winced and leaned back against the cool stone, glancing down at the dry grass beneath his feet, as if it might be able to stave off the hunger. But grass wasn't much good for eating, it was hard to keep down, and it didn't hold off the hunger long enough for it to matter. He never thought he'd miss the company's cooking. Complaining about the food had been about as integral an experience in his time as a soldier to actually fighting with the neighboring alliance. But as gritty and tasteless as the cooks seemed to make just about any meal, it was consistent. Long as you kept winning, you kept getting to eat. A fair enough system as any, he reckoned, even if winning too much meant you didn't get to eat either. Still, in enemy territory, there had been plenty of food to take, even if the wagons had dried up. He'd grown quite the appreciation of foriegn lands. The Wine of the Lotus Kingdom, the Bread of the Micefolk, even the strange fish of the Underfolk had grown on him. Gamey, but tender if you knew what to do with it. He could feel himself salivating at the thought of those foreign meals. Then they'd just been his due reward, his plunder to take and pleasure from.

When he was feeling particularly reflective, he wondered how hungry his enemy had felt. When he and his comrades had stolen their grain and meat, burned their fields and salted them to ruin. How hungry had then been? Was there any food left? Could they get it? Could Kalrick have it instead? Hunger was a sobering pain. A constant presence that required considerable thinking effort to ignore. Effort that he could spend since people had stopped doing much of anything.

When the war ended, there was a celebration. A wasteful one, he saw that now. But people thought the famine surely would have ended then. The priests said so, didn't they? That the famine was a punishment of the gods, that the only way to appease them was to return to peace. The Emperor ignored them of course. Called them all fools, and marched his empire onward until the Empire could march no more.

But the famine hadn't ended then, even with peace. No crops came, no rain fell.

People started getting desperate, angry. Riots broke out in the streets, and he'd been plenty busy then. His spear put to work against other hungry people that he'd been fighting for in the first place. He'd have felt sick at the prospect if there was anything left in his system to be sick about.

But the famine hadn't ended then, even with riots. No crops came, no rain fell.

Eventually, the rioting stopped. Not for lack of trying, but people didn't have the energy to fight anymore. There were rumors about cities, far away, that had simply walked into their lords keep and declared themselves in charge. Of some cities turning to darker, desperate attempts to find food, eating people as nothing else arrived. But here, in Yldenvale none of that had happened. Everything had just stopped, and now the streets were all but empty at every hour of the day.

But the famine hadn't ended then, even with desolation. No crops came, no rain fell.

Kalrick didn't think there would ever be food again, if he was being honest. Sometimes, he wondered if the gods had just decided to wipe the empire out. To leave them with nothing so they would just wither away and be done with it all. He was waiting for the end, now, watching the rolling hills just beyond his mountain home. He'd decided he'd rather starve to death with a view of the countryside than in his own bed. As his stomach twisted again, he felt his head spin, and the next thing he knew, he was on the ground. Had he fallen over? He didn't think he was going to get back up. At least if someone ever came to check on him, they'd know he hadn't deserted.

Weak hands reached into his pocket, pulling out a small necklace. A carved fox's head dangling limp from a frayed and weak looking piece of twine. It had been his childhood treasure. A gift from a very dear friend, now he was just sad it wasn't edible.

His stomach just hurt now, constantly. Or maybe it'd always been hurting, and he just had managed to not pay attention to it. He felt tired, and just wanted to go to bed now. Go to bed and wake up somewhere nice, with the smell of freshly baked bread wafting over the wind. He felt a meek smile crawl over his exhausted face, tickled by crunchy and itchy strands of brown grass. Freshly baked bread. That was right, there'd be a fresh loaf, just for him, and enough Jam to make him sick. Then a cider to wash it all down and a tart for dessert. That would be nice.

The real world however, refused to let him go to sleep with his fantasy meal. The sensation of dying clawing rudely against the thin veneer of fantasy that he'd been able to construct. The prickle of dry grass against his body. The cold fall air brushing against his face, making his nose itch. Wagon wheels rattling past him, horses hooves. The sound of lively voices barking at each other. A mix of a half dozen languages.

Wait, what?

Nobody had come down the main road in weeks, and no wagons had come for months. The entire empire had been crippled by this famine, who still had the energy to travel? Slowly, he willed his dying head to turn. To gaze upon the visitors that dared traverse his road. It was hard for him to make out details. Faces blinking past him on mass. Dozens of faces, hundreds. A whole caravan of wagons riding into town at speed. Each wagon had something painted on the side- Lotuses, A Mousefolk's face, a fish cut in half by a sharp stone. His aching mind took far too long to process it, but eventually he realized it. The flags of the alliance. Wagons of the alliance. Crates and crates of food thundering past in greater numbers than he'd seen in the last few weeks combined. The sight of the crates alone was enough to make him cry, a humble affair of silent tears as he lacked the energy to do anything as dramatic as sob.

Why? They didn't deserve this. This was their punishment from the gods. Their sins of expansion brought down upon the populace of a villainous empire.

He'd been in their lands

Footsteps stepped towards him, he felt someone press their hand to his neck.

He'd taken their food.

There was shouting, more of that singsongy language.

He'd taken their lives!

He felt himself lift, saw the world tumble around as he was suddenly facing the ground, swaying movements as he was carried somewhere away from his post. He felt his throat try to protest, he didn't want to get in trouble for deserting, but he didn't have the strength. He was dropped- roughly, into one of the wagons, it started moving again, and someone approached his field of view. He could recognize the small physique and telltale whiskers of a mousefolk, but in his eyes, they were more than that. An angel, no, a god. Because in their hand was the largest loaf of bread he'd ever seen. They offered it to him, and in that moment, he heard his sergeant's voice ring around in his head.

"It's dishonour to accept gifts from the enemy!"

Still, he didn't even hesitate. He ripped into the loaf of bread with the ferocity of a caged dog, tearing at the fluffy grain with all the vigor a starving man could muster. He didn't care anymore. All that mattered was the food. He took turns equally eating, laughing incredulously, and sobbing. It was embarrassing, but who cared?

Honour and Glory were useless on an empty stomach.
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TFI #2: Winter 2022

1st place: @Nemopedia
Title of the piece: Two sides of a coin
Word Count: 1202
Chosen theme(s): Found family, heroism
Chosen format: Short story

There had been no plan to perform a good deed first thing in the morning. Noah had long passed the point of cultivating good karma and hoping for fortune to strike. Knowing that she had wanted to ignore, passing by the daily wiles contained within a city.

The glassy round eyes of a child abandoned on the side of the road, crying for parents that were never to reappear. Crying for the empty stomach they had to endure. It was easy to offer the child a bun. A quick feed to still the stomach and quench the crying. A simple solution for a problem that was inevitably to reoccur. It would have been enough for the moment, and a less guilty person would have counted that cruel kindness as their good deed of the day.

Less guilty. More ignorant. Both of which Noah was not who recognised the child as the son of another, the son of a friend, or a maybe-friend. The familiar form of their eye, that shape of the face that just contained a little bit more baby fat. Noah realised that she had never confirmed said friendship. Never cherished it.

"Stop crying," Noah had said, voice flat and awkward just as much as her hands were cold and harsh when wiping the tears away. "Eat this," she told the boy, pressing a bun in his hands before standing up, preparing to leave.

That was the extent Noah wanted to go in regards to a good deed performed.

Glassy wide eyes look up at the stranger that had given him the bun. The boy recognised the first bit of kindness that he had been given. Perhaps he even recognises a familiarity in Noah as he suddenly grasps her hand, startling the woman who planned on disappearing from his life.

"Call me aunty," Noah says later. By then he had called her a variety of things, amongst them 'mother' when he sleeps and she comes to check. By now he has been following her everywhere since the bun, and Noah doesn't have the heart to abandon the son of a maybe-friend.

"Aunty," he repeats after her, eyes still as wide and familiar set in a face-shape that contains too much fat to be the same.

"And you will be Jan," Noah deems before the boy could say anything more.

Now they were committed, Noah knew. By naming the boy she had taken him in, made him her responsibility. The price being a lonesome bun she had meant to keep for herself.

Jan didn't question it. He never did in the next decade that passed. Travelling with aunty, eating and filling his tummy as he sold the goods displayed to the crowd. In time Jan knew no better than the nomadic life aunty and he lived, going from place to place to trade and to sell, taking one peculiarity and seeking out another.

"Your mother liked that the best," Noah told him once, when Jan held up a charm, a bundle of herbs tied together. It was the only time he had heard her speak of his parents.

"A youth elixir," Jan told the lady that was scoring down the goods, "and that is meant for fertility, the one next meant to prevent…"

A bump to his shoulder told the boy, now almost a man, to fall silent, the wary look of a potential customer settling into one of understanding before getting up and leaving with a sneer.

"Not all are as welcoming," Noah says as she rearranges their goods and quickly clears out their stand, "we will have to sleep on the road. I don't think it will be long," she says and Jan can only release a deep sigh at the thought of the cold hard ground. Such was their existence, wanted and scorned, praised and cursed at every turn of the back.

It wasn't long indeed. With fire in their breath, a group had come rushing at them before they had left proper. The woman from earlier in the lead as she pointed at the pair. A usual repetition, Jan thought, believing that they would just chase them out.

"That mother and son over there. The witch and her kin!"

Noah stepped forward, Jan was faster, slipping in front of her. The accusation was loud, falling heavy for the times now.

"Aunty is a healer!" he exclaims, arms wide but it falls on deaf man's ears as Noah pulls at him, pulling him behind her. She tries, but Jan doesn't budge, knowing that he has grown larger than Noah over the years. Nimbler and stronger. Jan knew he wasn't the child anymore that followed her so long ago.

They are with more, however and Jan feels how his arms are wrenched behind him, and he watches Noah being detained as well, the treatment harsh and filled with fear feeding into displaced hatred.

"Take them away," the command comes and soon enough they are put on trial.

"The boy is no relation of mine," Jan hears the confession, a pang running through his chest at the realisation of what happened. "I killed his parents and took him in. It was a vile trick," Noah continues, her chin held up high as she faces the cajoling crowd.

By now Jan has been pardoned at large, though unable to leave or move around freely until the trial is over. The reason why and how, he hears now while seated in that hard wooden bench of the church where the trial takes place.

"I gave them a potion, for I had been instructed to do so and took their breaths, and their child with me."

Jan knows that there is a truth in these words, for Noah is looking at him straight from the tribune. From the crowd she had found him, harsh eyes with that cold look that reminded him of the rough hands that used to wipe his tears.

When they ask him for the truth Jan only says; "I don't know."

"He is young enough, still," a woman whispers, but they fall quiet when he passes by. He knows what they mean, however.

"The poor child, stuck with the murderer of his parents," he overheard in another alley. Jan was the talk of the day, and he didn't question why.

"By the order of the devil, she claimed." The whispers never stopped, even if they quietened when Jan came around.

He had sold potions, mixed a few as well. To grow hair, to stimulate growth. For fertility, or to bleed. Jan knew the assortment they had kept, what the coin weighed when the intent was to harm rather than to help, and how easy it was. The gnarly outcome to something that seemed too good to be true.

He was sure that it was such a coin that had been exchanged to change his life. Just as Noah had used a coin to buy the bun that had changed hers.

"Won't you stay?" the priest asks, eyes sympathetic now that everything is over. "Where will you go?" he pleads, and Jan decides not to fall into that trap.

"I don't know," he repeats, but sets off all the same.

2nd place: @TerraBooma
Title of Piece: Last Laugh
Word Count: 1255
Chosen Theme: Stolen Identity
Chosen Format: Short Story

"Alex. Don't do this. He had nothing to do with your abduction!"

The dim crackle of his handler's gruff voice was only barely audible through his earpiece. The sound of an ancient beater of a car's cluttering engine screamed in protest as he sped down the highway. It was the dead of night, and the streets were abandoned. All the better, Alex figured. That nothing was going to stop him from annihilating that abomination where it stood.
After all, it had taken everything from him.

"It's standard procedure. Agents aren't supposed to find out, but it's how its always done. The job's too important. That Other too strong. We recognize viable candidates when they're born and perform the switch. It let's us keep the Agency strong without compromising the inte-"

The Handler's pleading fell on deaf ears and iron hands. Alex ripped the earpiece off of him and crushed it with his hand like he was squishing some playdough. The Agency had done some twisted things in their pursuit of the perfect weapon, but God if it didn't feel good to turn that strength against them. The crumbled electronic let out one last fizzle as wires surged attempting to find their current, but it was discarded to the passenger seat with a dismissive and resentful wave. He'd be doing this alone. From now on, everything would be alone.

He'd always wanted to known where he came from.

He'd believed their lies, their tales. That the Agents were all orphans from families that didn't want them. It had seemed believable enough at the time. But he had had a family that loved him, wanted him. And they'd ripped it all out from under his nose. Rage filled his heart and seared his mind with a thin red gaze. A lead foot jammed the pedal to the floor. It was simple. He'd find the double that had lived the life he should have lead, and then the lead it.

The city passed in a blur of neon. Reds and oranges flew by him painting the city with a dull amber color. He didn't care about the details, about anything anymore. All that mattered was making this copy pay. Instead of going to school, playing ball. Having a normal childhood, this copy had given him a history of pain and blood. Endless bootcamps, drills. Friends that only sought to drive a knife into his back, and an endless war against an eldritch enemy that could not be stopped. He had accepted that his life was ruined, that he'd never know peace. But knowing that some Other thing was living the life that he deserved? That was taken away from him for the crime of simply being born with potential? That was a crime he refused to let go unpunished. The Agency was powerful, untouchable. But these Other...this Other was very, very human.

And he could work with that.

As he drove down the streets he should have known. Passing the school that should have been his, he parked across the street to the home that he should have had. Gazing out of his broken and battered car, he stared in silent, seething rage at the functional vehicles parked outside. He escaped his car, and stalked up to the townhouse with the only thing he had that was in any good condition- a handgun he'd maintained and cleaned since he was ten.

The porch lights were on, but given that he was used to creeping around abominations from another plane, the basic home security system wasn't much of a challenge. He effortlessly pressed himself against the siding of the home, peering in through the window. It was...nice. A quiet home, if a bit messy. A family sat in a living room, looking so alien and unfamiliar. This was supposed to be his right? But he still felt like a stranger. Sandy crops of curly hair. Emerald Green eyes that pierced the night and that laugh. The man- his father? Let out a heavy guffaw. Something one of the teens had said seemed to amuse him. But the laugh resonated with Alex far heavier than any sound he could have heard. It was...heavy, but not in a bad way. It was like there was so much joy, that even his large frame couldn't contain it. A bellowing, rolling laugh that was both goofy and endlessly endearing. It was...nothing like Alex had ever heard in his life. The hardest he'd ever laughed had been a quiet, reserved snicker. Maybe a chuckle at best. But this was...different. This man. His...father? Had so much laughter that he just had to share it with the world. A full on uncontrollable guffaw. The man wiped a tear from his eye, before he cracked some kind of joke that Alex couldn't hear through the glass. And the family laughed in turn. And the things he heard chilled his blood to his core.

At first, it was just the laughter of the group. But one by one they faded away. The mother fading out first, adding on some witty comment or charming remark that seemed to just incite laughter further in the others. The daughter faded away next, seemingly just not as interested in the joke. But with their silence came a crescendo from the remaining member. A deafening wail to Alex's furious ears. Something that shattered his being and left him standing helpless on the edge of the house, gun loosely held in one hand like a useless plastic toy.

A laugh. His laughter.

No, not just his laugh. Not just his laughter. A guffaw of joy and amusement that was somehow even greater than the bellowing laugh of their father. The Double's laugh was one of pureness and innocence. A life unmarred by pain and sorrow and suffering. All the things that Alex had been through had ripped him away from this joyful crescendo. This Double was laughing with more enthusiasm and gratitude than Alex himself had ever felt in his life. Hands shaking, Alex raised his handgun, pressing it against the glass that seperated him from the family that should have been his.

The family that could have been his.
The family that needed to have been his.
Something was wet.

He pressed a hand to his face. Pulling it away to reveal damp tears. Was he crying? How hadn't he noticed? The truth had struck him like the bullet he meant for his imposter, and now the chill was spreading through his system like shock from a gunshot wound.
This family that would never, be his.

Killing his double. It wouldn't change his own past. It wouldn't replace his future. They'd scream and mourn the Alex-that-should-have-been-him. Even if he explained himself, they'd never believe him. He'd be the Imposter, killing the original and wrecking this perfect family life.

The gun clattered to the ground, the numb feeling completely overtaking him. There wasn't a feeling in his body that he could explain. All the rage and indignation. All the resentment and hate. All of it was...gone, dispelled by a twin set of generous chuckles. He couldn't kill them. They didn't deserve it. It wouldn't...do anything. Because to them, there was no copies, no doubles. There was just...them. It was perfect, ignorant bliss, and he wasn't going to shatter that. He turned;

The Double walked away, back not to the car, but down the street below. No agency, no home.
It was time to go anywhere else but here.
That family didn't want an imposter.

3rd place: @WickedWitch
Title of the piece: Oh gallant man!
Word Count: 531 words
Chosen Theme: Heroism
Chosen Format: Poetry

Oh gallant man, how feart of the world you seemed
When you first treaded out from that fleeting thresh
Your eyes a hollow pit, nothing good it deemed
Your face, fraught with fear, and wounds so fresh

Oh gallant man, how you did tremble so terribly,
When faced with the beasts opened maw, fear
Not fight, but flight, is what you had felt unbearably
And yet, still, you held your feet and shed only a tear

Oh gallant man, how did you come across this end
From that sweltering heat of a town, not a title
Not a coin, not a single thing for you to send;
To anyone, not a soul, only the thing so vital

Oh gallant man, how you moved, oh so quickly, not to pick up battle
But to run from frantic whispers of a tale that threatened to claim you
Lies on the tip of your tongue, your mouth only moving to prattle
And your feet carried you far away from destiny, into a waters blue

Oh gallant man, how you foolishly stumbled hither and thither
To get away from the calling for a hero, a gallant man, not you
Even as war brewed on, and what little you loved whither
Alas! How did your heart breathe as chaos grew?

Oh affrighted man, how the waters tipped the bow of the boat
When you watched, from afar, the brittleness of fear;
The one holding you so tightly, grew so you could float
As water ran, and a heartache too, your hand cuddled a spear

Oh affrighted man, how your heart did beat with the wind
The winds that carried you away and then back at the same
This war, meant for a hero, would deal with all you could lend
The world picked up again, and with a fury spread a flame

Oh affrighted man, how that fierce fear that ate away at everything
Even you, once and always chained to it, could see the way it regales
It did not come in one form, nor two, but with many of terrible offspring
With its open jaws, a row of teeth shone, and in the moonlight so did its scales

Oh affrighted man, how you never did see a beast so quite as terrifying
It seemed to loom in every corner, and your eyes never could stray
And you set your feet at an edge, accepted the consuming fear of dying
A hero, you had thought to it, 'Not I', but why were you there if not to slay

Oh affrighted man, how you did move again, a breath between a stride
And your feet set the space between you and the beast to vacuity
Your newly acquired spear, chipped and broken like you, did seem to guide
You danced to death with the beast, and you shed every past fatuity

Oh gallant man, Oh affrighted man, the beast was slain not by a knight
You'd never be a hero, but destiny had chosen you as a worldly savior
Oh gallant man, Oh affrighted man, that which you chose isn't your birthright
Yet now you, a savior, and the healing world owed each other, a mighty favor
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TFI #3: Summer 2022

1st place: @Kuno
By: @Kuno
Word Count: 1493
Chosen theme(s): Irony
Chosen format: Short Story

The city sleeps like the kings of the savannah, a lion amongst its suburban cubs. In the morning it will wake, the roar of traffic and people and music once more dominating the space about it, but for now its denizens are cradled in its quiet hum. Only the street lights remain on, fractals of such piercing through the blinds of my bedroom window. The clock by my bed reads close to three as I dress hurriedly in the dark.

I was already awake when they called me. When one spends as many a night amongst the stars of Earth and sky as I do, you grow accustomed to rising where others fall, the black of night as familiar as Soweto's people. Most of the calls are from the agency; CID believes in full autonomy of their investigators at all hours, and I, being at the forefront of our current war, am most readily available in the witching hours.

It is precisely three am when I park in front of the Embassy Hotel in the central part of the city. A tired-eyed concierge watches me through the glass, a dutiful smile crossing his dark features. Even as I return it, a part of me wonders if his friendliness is less due to his own manners and more in part to the car I drive. An even smaller part of me searches his eyes instinctively, looking for something untoward.

Moments later, a man emerges from the hotel lobby.

"I hope you're not hungry," I say in lieu of greeting. "This might take awhile."

"Not at all," comes his breathy reply. He is a girthy man for a European; the seat belt latches, pulling taut over his generous middle. He grins at me and extends a hand. "It's good that we formally meet. Franklin Haas."

I shake his hand firmly. "Constable Nkosi."

When the agency had first told me that a reporter was coming all the way from Germany to write a piece on our efforts to cull the coming incursion, I will admit I was staunchly against it. The crisis itself was a delicate subject, and to draw attention to it so gaudily put South Africa once more in a negative sphere of focus. But against all protests, they insisted on it. Our president wanted to show the world that we were moving past the sins of our past, and in so doing were eradicating every trace of every blight that had once corrupted our society. The invaders, they claimed, were no different; outnumbered, I had no choice to comply. I tried not to let my displeasure with the decision show then, and I try not to now, not with Mr. Haas in the car. Reporters, after all, watch and note everything.

Something tells me that he had been up all night in anticipation of my call. Like all journalists, there is an eagerness, a burning hunger in his eyes as he pulls out pen and paper for notation. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him scribble something down at the top. The day's date: 24/9/1998.

"I hope I may have some time to ask a few questions before we get there."

"Of course."

"If I may–" My brow twitches at the politeness, and even more at the shuffle of papers. "So this…'invasion' here in Johannesburg–"

"Mostly Soweto," I correct.

"Soweto, yes. Apologies. There have been many names floating around for the creatures plaguing this city, such as skin-walkers, kishi or, eh, popobawa. How would you characterize them? In your own words."

"Bugs. That's all they are." The words come out harsher than intended, and I frown. "Fancy names only sensationalize them more. They are just bugs, and we are working to purge them."

I heard the other names before. Back when they had first emerged amongst the black populace in the 80s, little notice had been given them. But the dissolution of apartheid and Mandela's ascent to power meant that the curses plaguing Africans would no longer be ignored, and that meant putting the incursion sharply into focus.

We talk more as I drive towards the southwestern edge of Johannesburg. I show him the CID headquarters where interviews are conducted, the most popular sightings for the skin-walkers, and a few other areas of interest. Predictably enough, Haas cottons on to the monsters themselves and continues to press, push, and prod for more specific information. Finally, I relent.

"Bugs are monsters amongst us. Tall, gaunt, insect-like beasts that take the shape of humans and try to live in our midst by stealing human skins, robbing others of their lives for their own convenience. Call them what you want; they'll soon be gone. The government is making sure of that."

"Yes, yes, I heard the president was allocating funds specifically towards that endeavor…"

The engine revs violently as I speed up to blow through a light turning red. Haas continues his quick notations, undeterred.

"How?" He suddenly asks.

"How what?"

"How do they– I'm sorry, you, the agency, determine who is a bug and who isn't? Are there signs or patterns or looks–"

I swerve to avoid a stray dog, perhaps harder than necessary, and Haas cuts off to brace himself against his seat. It is then that, involuntarily, a small gasp escapes him as he suddenly notices his surroundings. I glance at him, my smile small and sad.

Between the ravages of apartheid and the new blight upon them, Soweto is a fledgling flower struggling to grow out of a small crack in pavement. To go from the sprawling mansions of Johannesburg to the crumbling rows of pillboxes so sharply is a slap to one's senses. Unable to help himself, Haas stares out the window, drinking it all in. I watch him in silence.

"We rely on tips," I finally answer, and he turns to me, blinking. "For the bugs. The locals know now to report neighbors and friends should they begin to act strangely or keep odd hours mostly confined to the night. That's when the bugs are most active…they can't control it. Blinking, too, is unnatural to them. They must force it. And the most important one: sugar water."

"Sugar water?"

"Ne. Sugar water. Half each content. Bugs cannot go long without so, nor can they resist it. I have some here–" I pat a thick plastic jug between us soundly, its sweet scent wafting through "–for them. Just like real insects."

"And what do you do? Once you find them and determine they're a bug?" The dutiful scribe has returned to his post, the march of ink continuing across his canvass. "Or should I say, what do the locals do?"

"Don't you know?"

He begins to say something, but I shush him, pointing ahead of us. We have come to a slow stop; we are deep into Soweto now, on the very outskirts where tiny homes resemble hovels and the wild encroaches on civilization in leaps and bounds of tall grass and bush. Far into the distance, a light beckons from beyond the homes; flames, licking against a massive wood piling, reaching up towards the sky. Tiny blobs of color dotted the area around the bonfire. There is a crowd gathered there.

Mr. Haas stares. "What are they doing?"

"You asked what people do with the popobawa they find."

There is a beat of silence before the confusion on his face dissolves into horror. I pretend not to see it, even as my own stomach twists into discomfort.

"I do my part, Mr. Haas. And they do theirs," I continue quietly, starting up the car once more. "It's a matter of survival. And fear. Combine the two, and people will take things into their own hands. Violently, if necessary."

It is nearly dawn when I return him to the hotel. Mr. Haas is appropriately somber in the wake of seeing the burning bodies, his earlier enthusiasm having tapered some. Still, it does not dissuade him from asking more questions.

I, on the other hand, have reached my limit of being interviewed.

"Tomorrow then," He insists. His hand is sweaty around my own as he shakes it. "Perhaps I can sit in on an interview."

"Maybe so. I'll talk to my boss for you."

I watch him enter the lobby before I pull off. I don't drive for long; there is a burning, itching worry in my mind, one I have when talking with anyone for too long, and it is not long before I pull over to the shoulder of an empty road. Hurriedly, I pull the rearview mirror towards me. I lean in close, staring deep into my eyes, hoping not to find–


I pat my eyes once, my blood running cold at finding them dry and red.

It had been too dark for Haas to notice. I had forgotten to blink.

2nd place: Anonymous
Nothing is Sacred
Word Count: 870
Chosen theme(s): Rebirth and Temptation
Chosen format: Short story

TW: self-harming behavior, implied suicidal ideation, religious trauma

There was no moonlight reflecting on the water tonight. The barest hint of black something hung in the clear sky.

He padded barefoot along the concrete edge of the pool to where metal steps led down to the shallows, sitting with a faint echoing clang on the top rung and letting his legs ease into the chilly water. His clammy palms smoothed over the bars to either side of him as he peered down. In the absence of the pool light—the bulb shattered and never replaced—his calves dissolved into murky, meaningless shapes below the surface.

A deep breath, chlorine stinging his nose and throat. Eyes closed against the dark.

Half a beat later, he pushed off and allowed himself to plunge.

Arms and legs drawn in tight, he sank like a brick, mouth clamped shut. The cold wetness seeped into his clothes, sending his hair swaying haphazard around his face. The fear set in after, just as cold and just as frantic; he hugged his knees tighter on his way down.

Five seconds and his toes turned to blocks of ice. It was too early in the year for shorts and t-shirts, let alone for night-time dips in the pool. Ten seconds and his swirling stomach faded away into a dark corner, replaced by the hazy curve of a smile so bright it was burnt into the back of his eyelids and the sound of a clear laugh ringing in his ears. Down here was the only time he could really see, really hear them. Right in this spot, as if their very essence had rubbed a permanent mark on the artificially white bottom of the pool. The last place he'd witnessed them.

Not the last thing the pool had witnessed.

Fifteen seconds. A stab of something where his heart used to be. Get in with me, he could almost hear. Water's fine.

Once upon a time, he'd believed in something, if only because his parents took him to church every Sunday and had him study his verses and say his prayers before bed and parts of it had sounded nice and good and right. The parts where someone loved him, and he could be forgiven, and in the end nobody was alone. The part where no one ever really left you.

That church was where he'd been baptized, before he could even speak to say the words church or God or sin or comprehend their meanings. Dipped into a little round basin months after his birth and declared saved. Born new in God's eyes, blameless and pure. Adopted by the greatest Father.

His shoulders shuddered and he adjusted his grip on his knees. Twenty-five seconds. That smile had never shone in church. That smile was a secret that lived only in closed rooms and the shade of trees and his slowly aching chest, until it hadn't lived anywhere at all.

Eyes opening to slits, he looked up through the ripples of stinging water at black sky studded with attempts at stars and the gnawing lack of a moon. Afterimages of a sunny, lazy summer afternoon clawed at the corners of his eyes, fighting to superimpose.

A smile. A giggle. Hair brushing his face, silk-soft and waving gently, so unlike his own. A beckoning crook of a long finger.

Scared? the voice whispered. Knowing.

Terrified, he answered. Aching. Color bursting against his eyelids and hiding that horrible and revelatory smile.

Forty-five seconds.

I've got you. You just have to follow my lead.

He'd always been more comfortable letting others tell him what to do, how to act, when not to think. Being alone with himself was an exercise in misery. It was freeing to just let it all go and sink, sink, sink into something that could carry your entire weight. Somewhere along the way he'd forgotten that some things eventually broke.

Fire in his chest, now. It tore through him faster than he'd expected and he had to sink his teeth into his lip before more than a smattering of bubbles ripped their way out and fizzled up into the night. Fifty seconds.

Just a little longer. A little longer and he'd be done and maybe maybe maybe he could rest. Maybe he could drown the ghost that lived at the bottom of the pool and stared back at him with a dimpled smile and fathomless eyes that knew all of his parts. Maybe he wouldn't be this anymore. So many maybes and wanting and prayers to no one.

Can I tell you a secret?

That mouth was benediction and damnation and it had devoured his insides and left him hollow. Who even was he anymore? Not pure. Certainly not blameless. Son of nobody and nothing. Verses replaced with a single name sighed reverently into the fevered church of their own making.

A smile. A laugh. A beckoning finger. A broken promise.

Sixty-one seconds and he broke the surface like he broke everything before it, air punching its way into his lungs and head spinning and eyes fixed on the stars bursting overhead like fireworks.

A smile. A laugh. A name on those lips.

He didn't feel clean, but it was close for a little while. Until it wasn't.

3rd place: Anonymous
Word Count: 1479
Chosen theme(s): Temptation
Chosen format: Short Story

From the desk of Adam Suzuki

37 Windsor Road
WV41 3KF
13th June 1969​
Dear Jesse,

I send you this letter seeking your advice. It is nothing less than a cry for help from your friend who is in dire need of it. I know it is sudden, but I trust you above everyone else I have met in my life. You have always been my best friend and my greatest confidante. I know everything said in this letter will be kept between the two of us always.

I apologize for starting this letter without at least asking how you have been since your move to Toulouse. But I felt that it would be read as disingenuous the moment I dived into my purpose of sending this letter in the first place. I hope your time there is well-spent and short of any problems. My problem started with the Summer class I signed up for.

As you know, I had to retake my British Literature class and it came with the arrival of a Scandanavian boy. I am certain I mentioned him before. He is a white boy, brunet with freckles, and speaks worse English than even our own parents yet still he speaks so much. His name is Leif and while at first, I thought nothing of him, he's now become a centerpiece of my thought process.

I don't know when it started, I don't think there ever is a clear-cut date for these sorts of things. They blend like the season, you never know when Summer truly turns into Autumn or Winter into Spring. You wake up one morning and you just notice it.

I have tried to trace back how and why, but the most vivid thing that I know and feel is the pull to him that I wrestle with in the here and now. I had only spent time with him because he had no other friends, it was as simple as that. But at some point, between the discussions of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Wolf, sharing cold tea and biscuits on warm mornings, and whining about our professor -- well, I was whining, he only listened and nodded, I began wanting to be around him.

Wanting, Jesse. But the wanting didn't stop there, with each week, the wanting became more, demanded more. I began wanting to see him when he was far, wanting to hug him when he smiled at me, wanting to touch him. It makes my body wrack with guilt for this unnatural desire and I haven't the slightest idea of how to stop the want.

I don't think he's noticed yet. I don't understand how he can't see how it is practically strangling me. He only smiles his clueless smile and has tried to invite me over to his flat for strawberries. Strawberries are not what is on my mind, and don't trust myself to left alone in closed doors with him. I'm afraid of what mistake I will make and I can't risk it.

Jesse, what should I do? You always helped me right any of my wrongs and get my head straight in the past. I hope you don't turn your nose at me. There is no one more ashamed of me than myself. Please, write me back quickly.

Forever Your Friend,
Adam Suzuki

37 Windsor Road
WV41 3KF
20th July 1969​
Dear Jesse,

Thank you for responding to me as fast as you could. I know you must have been startled and concerned by my initial letter, but your words comforted me a lot. And I took your advice.

I began to distance myself from Leif and now we only talk in class regarding the subjects of class. If he had not noticed anything before, he has now, but that is not my problem. I've been focusing on studies and spending time with family, anything to distract myself.

I don't think it has changed what I felt, however. If anything, it only intensified the feeling. I don't know if it could be considered a feeling alone when it consumes my entire body, not just my mind. I never knew a heart could ache so much and for long. The pain of longing is not something you get used to.

Pain is one thing, but dreams are another. They don't come frequently, but when they do come I feel ruined by my own perversions. They aren't explicit, not usually, but they still make me shake when waking. And they always leave me wanting to feel the real thing.

Is there any way I can rid myself of them? You would think I would hate sleeping, but knowing it is the only way I can see him, and be with him in that way, makes me go to bed early. I know it is not good news but you are the only one I can express these things too.

Forever Your Suffering Friend,
Adam Suzuki

37 Windsor Road
WV41 3KF
31st July 1969​
Dear Jesse,

I talked to Leif. Outside of class. And we didn't talk about British literature. We just spoke.

I think the details would bore you, or more likely disappoint you further. I know that I am weak-willed and me starting this letter about how I could hardly hold out is the clearest sign of it. For a whole day I was too scared to even write you back when I failed so miserably to follow through on your advice.

But I need to walk this through with someone and you're my consultant and friend. He told me he missed me and all the time we spent together. I know in my head how wrong I am, but there is also a feeling that feels just so right when talking into, leaning into him, being with him.

I haven't touched him, not even when between us was just 10 cms. You have no idea how badly I wanted to cross those 10 cms, but I did not. I still have some strength about me.

The part that makes me resent him a little is that he doesn't seem like he would mind it if I did. I swear to you, without words, his eyes were beckoning me to. No, I think begging would be a more accurate word. That partial resentment isn't enough to stop me from wanting to touch cave anyway.

The wanting never went away when I was without him, but it hurts o much worse now that I've had a taste of his company again. And now I resent myself more too.

I have discussed so much of my own issues that I have yet to even tell you what we talked about. You will find this news to be good if you continued reading this far. I hope you have.

Leif is no longer going to be attending school. He told me he would be dropping out of college and returning to Sweden to take care of his mother. He told me that he missed me, that he would miss me even more. And he asked me see him before he went and still share those damn strawberries.

This should be great news, I know that. I know that more than you and especially more than Leif. But he missed me, and he will miss me and it does nothing to lighten my heart. I'm sinking and soon I will be swallowed whole.

Tell me what I should do, Jesse. Tell me not to do something stupid. Tell me to let this one go and pass.

Your Dumb Fucking Friend,
Adam Suzuki

37 Windsor Road
WV41 3KF
1st August 1969​
To Leif,

I'm sorry I can't meet you. And I'm sorry I ignored you for so long. But I think this is how we should part.

I hope you won't hate me. I hope you will miss still miss me, because I will miss you. Even now I miss you as I write this letter. To say you are a good person would be a lie. Because you're so much more than that to me. Not a friend, but more. I can't give a word for what you are to and I know that's awful.

But I'll miss you. And I l------

37 Windsor Road
WV41 3KF
1st August 1969​
Dear Jesse,
I am going to have some strawberries.

Your Quitter Friend,
Adam Suzuki

Sitting in the garden of a friend who wasn't quite a friend, Adam breathed for the first time in a long time. The pain that ached consistently stopped, the weights that tried to crush him were lifted, and the misery that plagued him dissipated. He gave in. Nothing made him happier.

And after waiting so long, he finally shared those strawberries with the white freckled boy, and something far sweeter.
TFI #4: Spring 2023

1st place: @Fluffy
Word Count: 1996
Chosen theme(s): Revenge & Unhealthy Relationships
Chosen format: Narrative Short Story

Oh, how good it feels to hear my name. The call of my name brings strength to my heart and excitement to my skin. The call of my name means there is fun to be had. It also means I'm needed by someone somewhere. It's nice to be needed.

I wonder who needs me this time. The closer I reach my destination, the clearer my summoner's voice becomes. And I have to say, my summoner sounds…young. This wouldn't be the first time a youth called for me, of course. I've been around for so long that I've met summoners of all ages. Children will forever be the most amusing and fascinating among them. They are for me, at least. There's always such an interesting story behind the whats and whys of my summoning. Generally, human children shouldn't have access to instruction manuals for demon summonings. But, where there's a will, there's a way, right?

As I make my arrival in the summoning circle, a scentless smoke shrouds me from the view of the child. I can see them just fine, though. My glowing, red eyes focus on the young human and I take a moment to read their energy. And their soul. I can sense the desire for revenge in them. I can sense pain, too. But other than those noteworthy facts, there's a surprising lack of darkness here. Usually, I am met with an individual who's totally consumed by their rage, sorrow, vengeance, or avarice. I'm used to being the last resort for those who summon me, including the likes of villains who need help achieving their goals.

The child's bedroom gently echoes with the rumble of my voice as I hum with curiosity. The smirk on my face would be seen as soon as the smoke around me dissipated. "Greetings, my summoner," I say ever so politely, bowing to the child like a proper gentleman. That's when the child decides to speak,

"A-Are you the– Are you Vazithan? The Red Prince of Vengeance? The–The um, revenge demon in my foster brother's book that I totally 'borrowed'?"
The nervous, awe-stricken babe turns to pick a book up from the floor. Not just any book… This is a goddamn tome. A thick-ass resource full of unholy, forbidden knowledge. My summoner's noodly arms struggle to pick up the book but he manages to hold it up and show me the cover. There is no actual title, but lots of symbols and non-human languages I can recognize. Intriguing as that is though, I find myself nervously holding up one hand to discourage that book from coming any closer. I have a stupidly terrible phobia of books. Once upon a time, a demon hunter teamed up with a wizard to do a fancy trick that trapped me in a book. I was in there for hundreds of years and I'm not going to get into that right now. Fortunately for me, that tome is too heavy for the kid to keep holding it up anyway. With an adorable grunt of effort, they drop the book onto the floor. They also use their foot to scoot the accursed thing away from us. How considerate! I like this tiny person already. They have shown me more respect than I'm used to getting from humans.

"Ahh, um–" Belatedly, I start to answer my summoner's question. Straightening up, I dust myself off despite the fact nothing dirtied me. Maybe I'm a tad embarrassed about my reaction to that book. "You are correct." Nodding affirmatively, I smile at the child. "I am a demon of many names, but please, call me Vaz." I then await further instruction.

My brows raise suddenly as the energy of the child shifts to hyperactive glee, "Sweeeeeet! Yes! I did it! Hmpf hmpf yeah!" They spend half a moment celebrating their success with punches to the air and airplane sound effects. Heh. Cute… No problem, I can wait…

"Okay, so, here's the plan!" the kid then announces. "Our target today is my sister, Christine!"

"Oh, gods, no. Not Christine," I say with visible disgust, wishing to match my summoner in emotions. And then I ask, "What crimes is this sister guilty of? How can I help you with your revenge, um–?" I leave the sentence unfinished, hoping to learn my summoner's name.

"Lloyd!" he exclaims through a cheesy grin, fists going on his hips proudly.

"Lloyd," I repeat, smiling back. I'm also relieved he didn't command me to call him 'Master.'

"My sister is always making things hard for me," he begins to explain, listing things off on his fingers. "She likes to tease me by holding things up high so I can't reach them. After that, she'll just throw the thing across the room and won't care if it breaks. And, she always takes the last ice cream sandwich. And, she tells on me when I sneak snacks out of the cupboards, but I never tell on her when she does it!"

Okay, this was…not what I expected at all. But I still give him a look of sympathy while I touch a hand to my chest in disbelief. "Really? What else?" I ask of him.

"She hogs the television whenever our mom isn't home, which is like all the time because she works a lot. It makes me miss my favorite cartoons. And she thinks it's funny to turn the bathroom lights off while I'm using the bathtub. But it isn't funny! It's scary in there when it's dark!"

"Hmf. Is that so?" I comment with disproval. I can say with certainty that this sister of Lloyd's deserves to be punished. She doesn't, however, deserve to have her soul sacrificed to me… Christine is a brat who needs therapy and proper parenting, but she doesn't seem evil. I may have to make a different kind of deal here. Usually, my desired currency is souls, whether coming from my target or somewhere else. I need my souls. (Don't ask me why. That's not your business.) I'll worry about that part later. I don't blame the kid for not understanding every aspect of my summoning ritual. If he felt the need to call me, he must not have anyone else to turn to. Looks like I am this boy's last resort after all. Things will get worse if someone doesn't help.

Tapping a claw against my chin thoughtfully, I meet eyes with Lloyd again and we share a moment of silence.
"Lloyd, your every wish is my command. But like with any job, I require payment." I blink at him and wait for a reaction. He nods at me. "In exchange, I would like to claim your soul. Not to take, but to protect," I formally suggest. The kid is surprised by my offer but he doesn't hesitate to nod in agreement. "Very good. I am yours and you are mine. We will look out for each other from here on out, yes?" A friendly smile lights up my face, which in turn lights up his own. "Yes!" he enthusiastically agrees, holding out his little hand so we can shake on it. I chuckle at the gesture while I reach out and let him grab my fingers.

"Alright, so what's the plan?" I ask with excitement. As I smirk at Lloyd, he replies with a smirk of his own. "Follow me, Vaz!" he insists, keeping a hold on my fingers so he can guide me along.

Again, I wish to say… It feels good to be needed.

It also feels good to do something purely fun for once. I love to do my blood-splattered artwork, but it's nice to do something rated PG once in a while.

Being the master I am at the revenge game, I had no problem setting everything up without being noticed. I don't think it would have been that hard to do anyway. The mom is a single parent with a busy nursing job, Christine really is too absorbed in her own self and her own world to notice anyone else, and the foster brother either spent all his time in his room or spent time at the library. (I actually do know that guy and the secrets he's keeping. But that's another story for another day. Now is the time for sweet, sweet revenge.)

"Codename Chocolate MilkMan, this is your Captain speaking. Do you read me? Over?"

I swallow the urge to laugh at the voice speaking through my walkie-talkie. I adore the code names Lloyd picked for us, but his is cooler than mine. "Captain Superman Batman, I read you loud and clear. Is the mission a go? Over."

"Operation Black Mask is a go, MilkMan! Target is leaving the kitchen and approaching the couch. Over."

"Roger that, Captain. I'll meet you in the backyard. I'm gonna make my first move now. Over and out."

For the first part of our plan, I shapeshift into a raccoon, which is apparently one of the creatures this girl is most afraid of. Out I skitter from my hiding place so I can hop onto the couch. Since I have these handy raccoon digits, I go ahead and press random buttons on the television remote. Christine can hear the channel changes and starts her bitching, "LLOYD! I'm watching TV! You better not be messing with my show!"
Ice cream sandwich in hand, the girl shows up to yell at her brother, but when she sees my trash panda face, she instead screams bloody murder. "AAAHH! There's a fuckin' coon in the house!"

Giving my cute little butt a wiggle, I launch myself at Christine so I can cling to her torso. Maybe a special hug from a raccoon can help change her mind about the critters! She doesn't appreciate my hug, though. She just screeches like a banshee and does a panic dance. And she makes no effort to remove me because she's too afraid to touch me. It's hilarious as fuck.

I do eventually hop off, but not without swiping her ice cream sandwich. That makes Christine scream yet again. And then I open my maw to wolf down the ice cream treat, including the half of a wrapper that was left on the bottom of it. Cackling at her, I start chasing her around the living room in circles until she bolts to other rooms of the house. Along the way, she trips the wires to my hidden traps, so to speak. I set up a bunch of Furbies all over the place who are prepared to terrify her, and the floors are lined with high-quality bubble wrap. I also installed Bluetooth lights that Lloyd has complete control over via his cellphone. My keen ears can hear his snickering from another room as he switches lights off and on to mess with his sister. My summoner and I trap the blondie-haired banshee in a loop of terrors while, ultimately, she just wants to avoid me. Especially since I never stop attempting to fling myself at her for another friendship hug.

The chase soon comes to an end, though. Eventually, I shepherd Christine over to the open door that leads to the backyard. There, Lloyd happily awaits with a pump-action water gun. I scurry my way over to him so I can climb up him and drape myself over his head. Christine stumbles onto the grass, her angry, reddened face staring at the water gun that's prepared to shoot her in the face.

"Hello, Christine," I say in my normal voice, which nearly makes her shriek again. Lloyd cuts her off by giving the water gun a shake, the sloshing reminding her to mind her manners. I know she wants to freak out and ask why the raccoon can talk, but there are more important things to do right now.

Demonically, I grin a grin that definitely doesn't belong to an average Earth raccoon.

"Now that we have your attention… Let's make a deal."

2nd place: @Itari
Word Count: 1530
Chosen theme(s): Afterlife
Chosen format: Short Story

Take a boat out to sea.

Waves flowed over Enara's bare feet and crawled up the hem of her bright red robe. It was still early and she was the only one on the beach, a spot of color against the gray waters and overcast skies.

Scatter my ashes across the waves and let them fall into the abyss.

"You never liked the sea." A spherical pendant dangled around her neck, plain and worn against the expensive silk that billowed around her. She turned abruptly away, "Come. We have work to do." The shore led to a winding path that ended at an old abandoned lighthouse made of stone. Vines climbed up the exterior, finding purchase in the many cracks that decorated its walls. As she approached, the wind stilled and the world grew quiet. A stout, middle-aged woman waited for her, wringing her hands together while pacing. She flinched when Enara touched her arm. "Oh! I thought you were- I'm sorry. A-Are you the exorcist?"

Enara nodded.

The woman pulled her knitted sweater closer about her body. "It's my husband. He died five years ago, but I—when I realized he had become a ghost, I came here everyday to talk to him. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't help it. He couldn't say anything back and I couldn't see him, but I knew he was there! But then last month," She briefly covered her mouth with her hand and choked back a sob, "he locked the door and now we can hear him wailing and destroying the tower from all over town." The woman reached forward and Enara flinched back, leaving her to grasp at the empty air between them. "Please! Help him. I just want to be able to speak to him again."

"I'm afraid that's not possible."

Tears rolled down her face. "But they told me you could help! Is there really nothing you can do for him?"

"I'm sorry. Once a ghost becomes corrupted, there is no way to reverse the process.. Your husband has already started displaying the signs. I can only help make the journey that all ghosts must eventually make."

All but one.

The woman turned away from Enara, shoulders shaking. She walked past her to the entrance of the lighthouse. The door was made of wood panels, rough and scratched from years of weathering and use. Enara slid her fingers over the surface and lightly pressed her palm against it. Kalin put his hand over hers.

Can you feel him?

She could feel the memory of his hand, warm against her skin. "I can sense your husband inside. He's not too far gone yet. We'll have to work quickly, though." Enara stepped away from the door. "He will not allow me to enter. I'll have to make some preparations."

The woman loudly blew her nose on a handkerchief and nodded emphatically, "Yes, of course. Anything you need. My home is just down the hill. I've set aside some space there for you, as you requested."

That evening, Enara sat at a small desk in an extra room in a house at the edge of town. In front of her was an ornate metal pot, sitting atop a miniature burner. She opened a paper package and dumped in a carefully measured amount of herbs.

Kalin reached over and stopped her. "You're putting in too much." His hands moved deftly over the ingredients, carefully fixing her mistake.

Enara threw up her hands and leaned back in the chair, "I don't know why I have to learn this. It doesn't work half the time when I do it and we end up having to use the ones you make anyways. It's a waste of time."

She gave Kalin her hand, letting him prick it to add a few drops of her blood to the mixture. He set the pot on top of a burner. "I'm not going to always be here-"

"How could you say that? You know I would never let anything happen to you." She looked at him, and Kalin saw inside of her the little girl he had found on the street so many years ago. "I would be lost without you, Kalin.

He kneeled on the ground in front of her. "Enara. You can't depend on me like this." She looked down at her hands, avoiding his gaze. "The work we do is dangerous, and even if I avoid injury, you will still live a life far longer than I will." He gave her fingers a light squeeze and laid his head down on her lap, "Enara, please."

Let me go.

— – — – —
That evening had perfect weather. The sky was clear, allowing the full moon to illuminate the dark. The wind from the day persisted into the night, carrying a howl from the lighthouse into the town and leaving a trail of shuttered windows in its wake. While the rest of the town slept, Enara stood in front of the lighthouse. In one hand she held a piece of paper, in the other a long-bladed knife made of bone. With a gentle breath, the paper caught fire. Tendrils of blue smoke snaked towards the door. They slithered along the surface towards the edges and sank into the wood. Enara placed her palm on the wood, but hesitated.

I'm here, Enara.

She took a deep breath and pressed against the worn wood. This time, after the slightest bit of resistance, her fingers passed through and Enara stepped into the building.

The room was cold and silent. The kind of silence that was only present in places haunted by the past, the kind of silence Enara held within herself. Broken glass and furniture littered the floor. The bottom half of the metal stairs that led to the beacon room were twisted out of shape, and floating in front of it was the hunched ghost of a man. His head turned a hundred and eighty degrees on his neck to face her. His mouth was twisted into a permanent scream. A breeze flowed through the room, carrying his voice with it. "How did you get in here? I made sure to seal the door to both the living and the dead."

"I am neither living nor dead," she ran her palm along the edge of the knife, and then the flat of the blade, coating it with silver blood. "The rules of those worlds don't affect me."

"I see." The ghost's body pivoted to realign with his head. He stood in a hunched position, arms hanging limply at his side, reaching past his knees and ending in sharp dirty nails. His shoulder blades pushed against his plaid shirt, fighting to escape the fabric prison. "I suppose you're here to send me on."

The ghost flew forward, clawed hands extended towards her. There was no malice behind the motion, but by the time she realized this, her knife had already instinctively found its way into his stomach. The ghost relaxed and placed his hands down to rest on top of hers. One hand smeared her blood along his chest. The other drove the knife deeper into himself. Though his body had already begun to chang, the colorless eyes that stared at her were clear of madness. "Thank you."

Beams of sun filtered in through shattered windows. A bird flew inside for the first time in years, its song bouncing around the room, chasing out the silence that had seeped into its walls until only one scarlet spot remained.

The woman was waiting for her outside, face red and swollen, holding her jacket tightly around her body. "Is he gone?"

"He passed peacefully."

The woman's grip around herself relaxed, "I'm glad. Well, I'm devastated but," she wiped her eyes, "he deserves to be able to move on." The woman stared at the lighthouse. "Was he afraid? At the end."

Enara turned to face the same direction, "No. He…" Kalin stood by the lighthouse door. "He was relieved."

This time when the woman reached for her, Enara didn't pull away. The woman's hands enveloped her own in warmth. "Where will you go now?"

"Home." A small smile spread on Kalin's face. "Someone is waiting for me."
— – — – —
Enara opened the metal sphere and carefully tipped a gray marble into her palm. She brought it to her lips, brushing them against its smooth surface and it crumbled into a pile of ashes. Keeping her precious cargo covered with her hands and close to her chest, she walked to the edge of the mountain. Her toes brushed the open air before her. Below, was the town, now a small city, where she and Kalin met. It was filled with painful memories that they had promised to forget and leave behind.

And yet, despite that promise, Enara had returned, for it was also the place where their lives had begun.

Enara carefully opened her hands and stared at Kalin's ashes. A single silver tear flowed down her cheek and into her palm, coating them. Her hands trembled as she extended them in front of her into the wind.


She took a deep breath…

Don't be afraid.

…and let go.

3rd place: @noodle
Word Count: 1,084
Chosen Themes: Unhealthy Relationships with a smidge of Revenge
Chosen Format: Short Story

Trigger warning: mild spice + non-con

"You really didn't think this one through, did you?"

Absalom's breath, hot and moist, sent nothing but chills running through Canary's sweat-soaked neck. He could feel his hair lifting up on its end among the gooseflesh, and his wings weren't much better- butter-yellow feathers bristling like the quills of a porcupine. A red and silver mask stared down at him as the taller man pulled back, and Canary would have shrunk down in relief at the lack of teeth in his ear if it weren't for the cold, wet brick wall at his back. His arms trembled as he struggled to keep his grip on the bag in his grasp, talon-like hands practically ripping into the canvas with the herculean effort it took to keep from spilling precious technology out onto the puddle-ridden alleyway ground.

"Do I ever?" The quip back was weak, frail- his voice wavering as he tried not to let the fact that his heart was about to rip itself from its ribcage show.

"I suppose not." Absalom leaned in again, this time moving forward- pressing Canary back against the wall further and forcing his wings to droop to his sides to avoid them being crushed behind him. His heartbeat picked up again, and he curled his shoulders inward as if shrinking himself more would shield him from the other's wrath. "If I didn't know any better, I would think you get caught on purpose." A clawed thumb brushed across Canary's jaw, the rough, calloused fingerpad scraping along soft blond stubble.

"That's ridiculous." Canary leaned away from the touch, fighting down the flush that threatened to rise through his cheeks. "You're terrifying."

"Oh?" Absalom grinned- fangs bared like a prayer, the ghosts of blood and sinew etched into the smooth enamel. "Then why not fly away? I've never clipped you."

"The bag was too heavy." Canary scoffed like it was obvious, like he hadn't plucked one of Absalom's henchmen from the ground and dropped him two stories effortlessly just fifteen minutes prior.

"Well." He leaned in further, breath ghosting along Canary's hairline, his nose, his chin- "We both know I don't take kindly to my things being taken from me."

Canary's fingers burned with a memory. His skin ached with a need. His brain whirled with the reminder that this was dangerous, that it was stupid, that small-time vigilantes like him didn't go after Absalom for a reason-

That Guardian's corpse had ended up at the bottom of the river last week- ironic- with toothmarks sunken deep into their neck like a fossil-structure.

"If you kill me I'll haunt you." Canary spat it like it was an actual threat instead of saying anything useful (because when had he ever known when to keep his mouth shut), cerulean eyes hard and afraid. "I'll open all the doors on your stupid white kitchen cabinets and I'll break that wine glass your sister got you. And I'll leave ectoplasm on your pillows."

Absalom had the decency to look almost offended instead of amused as he cocked his head to the side. "Whoever said anything about killing you?"

"You're unpredictable." Canary bared his own painfully blunt teeth in response to the curl of Absalom's lip.

"Not today, songbird."

His wings flared again, stopped from their full wingspan by the wall at his back forcing them halfway-closed. "For the last time, it's Canary, not-" Canary didn't get to finish his sentence as Absalom's teeth closed on his collarbone, easily tearing away at the brown and white shirt the vigilante wore. A strangled chirp tore its way out of his throat as he shoved at Absalom's broad chest, but it didn't stop the bite- a ring of teeth was left indented in his skin beside the ghosts of a half-dozen others, pinprick bruises already forming on the flatter marks and fresh blood painting the villain's sharp canines.

"You chirp like a songbird." Absalom's brassy timbre rattled through Canary's spine like a church bell, his mouth ghosting across his cheek. "And- as I seem to remember from your rather impassioned rant last time- aren't canaries songbirds?"

"That's like comparing a german shepherd to a mutt." Canary scowled, chest heaving with short, sharp breaths. Absalom dragged his face up from his collarbone, hips pressing into his as he trailed his lips up to his earlobe and tugged experimentally- gently- with his teeth. "The distinction matters."

"It's so fun watching you get flustered, though. Keeps you talking."

Canary huffed, turning his face away but not getting far before Absalom's fingers captured his chin and pulled it up to look him in the face. And then he was in his face, and their lips were meeting, and Canary didn't feel as much afraid as he was eager, his free hand flying up to bury itself in the soaked dark strands of Absalom's hair.

They parted, for just a moment- honeysuckle and fire swelling their lips against the cool air of a summer rainstorm. Just long enough for a breath, and then Canary's skull was against the wall again and Absalom was drinking him in- desperate, needy, wrong in all the right ways.

"This is so unprofessional." Canary gasped the protest out when they parted again, but his hand didn't leave the other man's head- gripping tight enough to draw blood beneath his talons and send it beading through the strands.

"Mm." Absalom's fingers curled into the strap of the bag between them and tugged, releasing it from Canary's grip and ignoring the indignant squawk the smaller man let out against his lips. Finally, he pulled back for a final time, red eyes glinting in the darkness of the now very wet alleyway. Rain plastered his hair to his head, the dark strands dangling around the obscured cut of his jaw. "Well, as I seem to have taken back what's mine-" He stood straighter, finally releasing Canary from the harsh cold of the wall behind him. "I suppose I should let you go. Better luck next time."

Canary flung himself away like a man burned, wings fluttering for a moment before they folded neatly to his back- feathers askew and still puffed up like an angry chicken. "There won't be a next time," he spat- vehement, fearful, indignant. Absalom just smiled in return, white fangs flashing like a warning as the bird took flight- wavering in the air as the rain tried to drag him back down to the alley's floor- and disappeared behind the city's towering skyline.

They both knew it was a lie.