Tag Archives: fantasy

Another Sense, Eilish Hendry

My father once told me he knew something was wrong the moment I was born. He said I cried too loudly. They couldn’t take me anywhere: shopping malls, parks, the more people there were, the worse I became. I would scream and cry and fuss; nothing could make me relax. He said I emerged from the womb determined to spite him—that I had always hated him. But I didn’t, how could I? I was an infant. It took me years to accept that he would never love me. He’d decided against it the moment I uttered my first words because he could never understand them:

‘Too loud.’

The world was just too loud for me.

Eventually, I adjusted to larger groups of people. I didn’t really have a choice. When my kindergarten teacher said I had socialisation issues, my mother defended me. She insisted it was because I hadn’t been to preschool. If only it were that simple. It would take me a long time to learn that there were certain things I shouldn’t say out loud—things that would make people angry.

‘What do you mean you don’t like anyone, Ella? You just said you like Billy.’

‘What’s the point of silent reading if everyone’s still talking?’

‘Oh, Jeremy stole your chocolates, Miss. He’s laughing about it right now.’

My classmates called me a tattletale, my teacher labelled me a compulsive liar. But Mama refused to believe them; she pulled me from that school and found a new one. But the teacher there accused me of cheating. Soon, I was changing schools every six months. Somehow things just kept getting worse.

When I was eight, Daddy told Mama he was going to work, but he told me he was going to a hotel with Helen. I didn’t know who she was, so I asked him about her later and he got mad. He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about, but when I mentioned the name of the hotel he almost looked scared. He begged me not to tell. He told me that I wouldn’t understand, that my mother wouldn’t understand. He took me out for ice cream and that made Mama smile, so I thought it was okay.

I didn’t tell her the truth until he left us for good. Mama had no words when I finally admitted it, but by then she didn’t have any tears left either. Pretty soon after that, she told me we were going to a doctor. At first, I was happy. I thought the doctor was for her; I knew how sad she was, I knew what she smelt like, so I thought she was getting help.

‘No Sweetie, the doctor is for you.’

My father was a doctor, so I’d never been to anyone else, let alone a psychologist. I was sitting on a beanbag surrounded by stuffed animals, while Mama sat on a rickety chair, listing my problems for at least an hour.

‘She’s a very sweet girl, very smart… But I know something’s wrong. Her teachers’ say she plays games with them in class. She’ll say she can’t work out a problem but the moment they sit down with her she knows all the answers. She can’t go to school assemblies or the park. I thought it might be sensory overload, so I bought a few books. But it doesn’t seem to matter how loud a place, she just can’t handle it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Alexandra please, we’re here to be honest with the doctor. You know you don’t like—’

‘Mama I didn’t mean what you said. I meant what he said.’

‘Excuse me?’ the doctor said, face crinkled with confusion, ‘I didn’t say anything.’

‘Yes you did,’ I told him. ‘You said it’s Asperger’s. I read Mama’s book and I don’t think I have it.’

I still remember feeling like I was the only person in that room that was making sense. Mama seemed happy when I spoke up, not because she agreed with me, but because the doctor had just witnessed what she’d never been able to explain. It took three sessions for him to finally admit I was right. After that, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. We went to see at least twelve more doctors, and a priest, before Mama finally gave up. She used to say that there had to be an explanation. She’d say it over and over like it was the only thing binding her to this Earth. She needed something—something to make me make sense.

One doctor was convinced I was schizophrenic, another said I was an autistic savant. They threw around every personality disorder they could think of from borderline to histrionic. They tried ADD and ADHD but nothing could explain me away. One doctor said I just had a wild imagination. He said that this is what happens to children raised by single mothers. Mama didn’t hear the bad word he called her, but I did. I hit him for that and we had to leave. But she needed answers, far more than I did. Every misdiagnosis made her shatter like the glass that surrounded her.

She needed someone to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. That I wasn’t her fault. But it was too late, too quickly it was too late.

It was loud that day. I could hear her in the next room, screaming for someone to answer her. I went to check on her and she was lying in bed, dry-eyed and staring at the ceiling like she had been for days. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, but she told me she was fine, she just needed some rest. I didn’t blame her, neither of us had slept in three days. She didn’t because she couldn’t, I hadn’t because she hadn’t. She promised me everything was going to be fine, but I could still hear her pain. I couldn’t ignore it; it hammered into my skull and my heart screamed like a wounded anvil. So, I checked on her a second time, then a third. I didn’t check a fourth… I should have checked a fourth. But instead, I stuffed my ears with tissue paper and prayed to every god in existence for it to be silent.

And then it was.

Everything felt cold and for the first time, it was peaceful. I could still hear the whispers of the world, but they were so far away. I cried because all of a sudden, I could breathe. That night, I slept more serenely then I ever had in my life. And when I woke up, it was still quiet. And that was beautiful. There was a part of me that thought that this was what control was. That maybe it had finally stopped. There was something that could make the world go quiet, I could be what my mother needed me to be. A normal child who didn’t need doctors, who could make friends. A girl who couldn’t hear what no one had said.

I ran to tell my mother the good news. To my surprise, she had slept peacefully too. All she needed was a bottle of pills.

My father didn’t take me in after the funeral—he refused. He told his new wife that he didn’t want me getting into her head or their baby’s. He had a new daughter now, so he set me up in a crappy apartment and never looked back. He paid my rent remotely and wouldn’t take my calls. He told me that as soon as I turned eighteen he wouldn’t be legally responsible for me anymore. At fourteen, he was counting down the days until he could be rid of me for good.

I can’t tell you how loud that apartment was. There were fifty people just on my floor and they all just seemed so busy. My neighbours were nice to me at first, they’d bring me leftovers and offer to help me with my homework. By then I had learnt to only respond when I could see someone’s lips moving. But it’s impossible to catalogue what someone has and hasn’t told you. I started to wonder if it was even right for me to hold back. I knew their pain, their struggles, their grief. Why should I let someone suffer in silence when words might make the world a little bit quieter?

The landlord came to see me, he told me to move out. The other tenants complained, he said. I was disturbing them, he said. I had never been more desperate in my life. I knew my father wouldn’t take my calls even if I was homeless. It was like there was something buried in my chest, something alive and thrashing. Maybe it only came into being in that moment or maybe it had always been there, threatening to burst free. That was the first time I saw true fear; it burned in my landlord’s eyes and his mind descended into howling chaos.

Yet somehow, I made it go quiet.

I told him I wasn’t leaving and he agreed. I told him that the people complaining about me should be evicted and they were. Suddenly, I had someone who was incapable of turning me away—who couldn’t tell me no, who couldn’t hurt me. That was all I’d ever wanted. For the first time, I had a voice in this screaming world and now one wasn’t enough. One of my teachers was next. Then a classmate, then a neighbour, then anyone who tried to silence me. I couldn’t win anyone over with affection or kindness. I had tried loving the world and it did nothing but break me to pieces.

The very thought spread through me like wildfire because I knew its source. I knew the one who had begun it, who had stolen my voice—It was time to take it back.

‘You’re going to tell me the truth, Father. I’m tired of your lies. You knew what I was and you prayed for it to destroy me.’

He stared back at me with those big brown eyes, the one’s strangers used to tell me I’d inherited. Seeing him look so trapped was a joy I had never expected. He was so flustered, so panicked. For once, I had the upper hand and it was a power I never knew I craved.

‘Alexandra, you need to leave now,’ he tried to sound confident, but his voice shook with every word, ‘My family will be home any moment. They know to call the police if they see you.’

I could hear his mind racing at a million miles a minute, desperate for me to accept his lies. He couldn’t figure out how I’d found his home, let alone how I’d made it inside. His eyes were locked on the safe on the wall, wondering if he could make it in time.

‘Your new wife and daughter went to the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s so sweet you bought a little summer home for them. It was Mama’s favourite place, remember?’

‘No, they’re at Cassie’s dance class,’ he spluttered, suppressing a gulp, ‘They’ll be right back—’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ I snarled in a voice I didn’t recognise before I walked over to his safe and began turning the knob, ‘You don’t think I can hear it? Your mind’s in a tailspin because you know no one is coming for you.’

The safe clicked open and from it, I pulled out his gun, ‘Lexi,’ he breathed, as all hopes of escape melted in front of him, ‘Put it down, let’s talk.’

‘Okay.’ I smiled, even as I began loading it with gloved fingers. ‘How about you tell me about Uncle Michel? We never got to talk about him.’

He repeated the only thing he had ever said about him, ‘my brother was sick.’

‘Sick? Sick? He was just like me and you know it.’

I could smell his sweat as I flicked off the safety, ‘I thought that he might be, but I didn’t know for sure. He—’

‘Hung himself, in a mental hospital. Was that what you were hoping I would do? Is that why you cut me off? So I would kill myself like your brother? Like my mother?’

‘Lexi—’

‘Stop calling me that, you gave up that right when you left.’

‘…Alexandra, just because I’d seen it before, doesn’t mean I knew what to do. I couldn’t help you, I felt like a failure, so I left and I’m sorry but—’

‘You let my mother think it was her fault,’ I hissed and the gun cocked with a sickening snap. ‘It was your genetics, you’re the reason I am what I am. It had nothing to do with her but you told her “it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the child,” while you busied yourself with your work and your affairs and your life outside of us.’

‘I couldn’t have known she—’

‘I don’t care! You don’t get it, do you? You still haven’t figured out what I am, have you?’

He spluttered and I couldn’t help but laugh, ‘I’m not a freak, I’m not a monster. I am evolution incarnate and I’m not alone. Mama’s last gift to me was making sure I knew that. You’re a doctor, maybe you’ve heard the stories? There was this guy in Yokohama, absolute sweetheart, called his grandmother every day but she’d been dead for three years so they locked him away.’

I stepped closer and he shuddered, ‘Did you hear about that fifteen-year-old in Siena? She was living twenty years in the future, there’s no telling the good she could’ve done. But instead, she was ridiculed until she ripped her all-seeing-eyes out.’

I grabbed his chin, wrenching it upwards until he was forced to look me right in the eyes. ‘Or the six-year-old, just over in Pittsburgh. He liked to make his teddies dance, but he didn’t need his hands to do it. You remember him, Daddy?’

I was standing so close to him now, that I could see the sweat being crushed in the wrinkles of his forehead, he was silent so I spoke again, ‘He starved to death… during his fifth exorcism.’

His mind became quieter and quieter, every thought grinding to a stop as I ensured he could do nothing more than to listen to me.

‘And what about me?’ I asked, before beginning to recite the explanation he had tried to rob me of, ‘Alexandra Priam, nineteen. Hyperthymesia. Telepathy. Mind Control.’

His breath quickened, his knees quivered, and for a moment I wondered if he was going to faint. ‘Wh-what?’

‘Didn’t know that last bit, did ya? Why do you think you haven’t run away? Why you haven’t called for help?’ a laugh escaped my throat, yet I didn’t know what I found so funny. ‘It’s because I removed the idea from your head. I mean, think of the possibilities, I could cure addiction in seconds, break apart toxic relationships, rewire criminals. I could hand my father a loaded gun and tell him to pull the trigger.’

‘Please… Please don’t…’

‘It’s my people’s destiny to replace your kind. What I want you to know, is that this is just the beginning. There’s a storm coming, we won’t be silenced. We won’t let people like you control us. It’s almost a shame you won’t live to see it because let me tell you, the new era of humanity is going to be beautiful.’

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The Shadow, Suzin Lee

 

The first time Alex saw him, she was indifferent. In fact, if it wasn’t for the minor incident, she probably would have brushed past him. The murmur of the supermarket was monotonous in Alex’s ears; her mind was fixated on the broken wheel of her trolley. Rattle, rattle. Rattle, rattle. Alex sighed. She wondered if Dad had ever helped Mum with the shopping. Not that it mattered, now. She reached for a loaf of raisin bread, then hesitated at the thought of Mum’s tantrum the other day.

‘I’m sick of eating this crap!’ Mum had shouted as she threw the freshly buttered toast against the wall. ‘If your Dad was here—’

‘Well, he’s not. And this is all we’ve got in the pantry, so you can starve,’ Alex had snapped as she walked out of the room with the empty plate.

Her hand hovered over the beckoning bag of bread before she threw one, then another, and another, into the trolley. She smirked.

With the trolley piled high with groceries, Alex wheeled it down the health food aisle towards the checkout. Then, they collided. The details of his appearance bypassed her memory except for one small feature—his glasses. Thick-rimmed with additional shades, one side of the frames were wrapped with a Band-Aid, holding them together. They fell off his face and clattered onto the linoleum floor as Alex swerved her trolley, barely missing them.

‘Oh! Oh… I’m so sorry! Are you okay?’ Alex said as she picked up the glasses.

She handed them over to the man, who hesitated at her gesture. He took them, observing her with alarm. Slowly and silently, he walked away.

Alex noticed that other people were staring at her with the same expression on their faces. Any other day, this might have struck her as weird, but she realised the time—Mum had been home alone for longer than she should have been.

 

 

 

The plastic bags rustled as Alex treaded carefully into the dim house. She closed the door gently and when the lock clicked, turned quickly towards the hallway. Silence.

Quietly, she opened the blinds of the living room. A shrill ring broke the peace.

‘Shit!’ Alex muttered, as she clambered over the sofa reaching for the phone. ‘Hello?’

‘Alex, is that you?’ An English accent crackled through the bad reception. ‘It’s Auntie Sue. I just wanted to check in, how’s your Ma going?’

‘Oh! Hello, Auntie Sue. Mum’s alright, the same old.’ Alex fidgeted with the cord in her hand as her eyes nervously watched the hallway.

‘Would you like me to fly over?’ asked Auntie Sue.

‘Oh no! That would be such an inconvenience!’ Alex pulled a face. She couldn’t think of anything worse than to have Auntie Sue fussing around.

A door creaked open down the hallway. Alex perked her head up.

‘I better get going now. I think Mum is awake,’ Alex whispered hoarsely.

Alex watched nervously as the ghost-like figure appeared along the passage. Her hair was disheveled, eyes vacant, and her face was as pale as the silk nightgown she was wearing.

‘John?’ Her shrill voice quivered, echoing off the walls.

‘Mum, it’s just me,’ Alex called out.

Light footsteps pattered on the floorboards.

‘Oh, Alex…’ Mum’s voice was soaked in disappointment as she observed the empty living room.

‘Mum, remember Dad is—’

‘I know.’ Mum stared at the bouquet of flowers on the kitchen bench. A card with the word ‘condolences’ peeked through the leaves.

Alex watched Mum walk back into her room with her head hung low. You could see her bones protruding through her nightgown. Alex wanted nothing more than to get Mum out of her room, to open the windows and curtains and change the bed sheets. A pungent smell had started to arise from in there; a rotting stench that seemed to infiltrate Mum’s grieving body. Alex wrinkled her nose. It was getting worse.

 

 

 

A week later, Alex’s feet were crunching through the autumn leaves as she made her way to the bus stop. Three weeks felt like a very long time away from work. She missed the buzz of computers inside the busy office. A cold gush of wind sent a shiver up her spine; it felt like a breath of fresh air. Alex had never been a patient person, she knew it was only a matter of time before she would snap. She had begun to throw away the condolence cards and sometimes left the phone unplugged. But no matter how hard she tried, the memory of her Dad’s death seemed to taunt her. Even the crowd of black coats at the bus stop triggered memories of his funeral. Alex released a dramatic sigh, receiving side-glances from the people near her.

When the bus appeared around the corner, the drowsy crowd started to stir. Feet shuffled as everyone hungrily inched forward in hope of getting a seat on the bus. Alex had seated herself comfortably and was drinking coffee from her thermos when she saw the man jump onto the bus; the same man from the grocery store. Alex held her thermos in mid-air as she eyed him. He hasn’t paid for his bus fare, maybe he is poor. He took out a notepad and started scribbling. Every time she looked up, she felt him glance away. Alex felt the hairs on her arms stand on end—it was as if he knew she was watching him.

When her stop approached, she carefully made her way down the aisle, seeing him fold the piece of paper as she drew nearer. The closer she got, the more she noticed a pungent smell, and scrunched her face in disgust—it was the rotting smell that had started to infiltrate Mum’s room, and it was coming from him. She covered her nose and looked around madly, but no one else seemed to be bothered by it. Just in time, the doors opened and Alex flew out. She stared with a gaping mouth at the bus as it continued on.

 

 

 

By their third encounter, Alex felt an uneasy dread. She had organised to meet Toby for a date night, which they hadn’t done in a while, since the passing of her Dad. Waiting in line at the movies, Alex felt restless being in such a busy space. All the noise of people chattering seemed to echo in her head, and the smell of the buttery popcorn made her stomach churn.

‘You alright?’ Toby asked as he put his arm around her shoulders.

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ Alex replied, her foot tapping impatiently.

The two of them waited in line behind a big family; a toddler wailed in a stroller and another two ran wild. Alex crinkled her nose.

‘I think that baby’s nappy needs changing,’ she whispered to Toby. ‘It’s making me feel really nauseous.’

Toby raised his eyebrows and shrugged sympathetically. Then one of the children bumped into a person waiting in the queue, making them turn around. It was him. Alex froze as the man turned in her direction. Their eyes met for a few seconds—an icy shiver ran up her spine. His face was expressionless, not a flinch nor a flicker.

‘Toby…’ whispered Alex.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Do you see that man? The one in front of the family?’ Alex’s voice trembled.

‘Where?’ Toby inclined his head.

‘There, don’t you see him?’ Alex tugged Toby’s shirt in desperation.

‘There are many men in this line, Alex. Which one are you talking about?’

The man walked away as Alex watched in horror.

‘I keep seeing the same man,’ she said.

Toby looked at her quizzically before stroking her hair. ‘Does he look like your dad?’

Alex shook her head, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

‘You sure? I think it might be.’ Toby gave her shoulder a squeeze. ‘It’s okay, Alex. You haven’t even had a proper chance to mourn, with the way your Mum has been.’

Alex shook her head again. ‘I told you, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

Toby nodded and gave her a light kiss on the forehead, as if politely dismissing her behavior and worries as a figment of her imagination, a mourning strategy, or a cry for attention. Alex bit her lip.

Yeah, maybe I’ve gone fucking mad as well,’ she said.

‘Come on, Alex. You know that’s not what I mean.’ Toby tilted his head to the side.

‘No, I think that’s exactly what you mean,’ Alex muttered through gritted teeth as she pushed Toby away from her and started running.

Weaving through the crowd of people, Alex was determined to confront this mysterious man. I’m not crazy, she repeated in her head. Her eyes darted from left to right across the bustling food court. I’m not crazy. Sure enough, there he was standing in the far corner, staring at her as if he knew she would find him. Alex made her way through the people, drawn to his stare.

‘Alex, stop!’ Toby had grabbed her arm and turned her swiftly around, ‘Where are you going?’

‘He’s there! I need to talk to him,’ said Alex, pointing at the man.

‘Okay, where? Where is this man?’ asked Toby.

‘Just there, in the corner!’

Toby paused, staring intently, ‘Alex, I don’t see anyone standing in that corner.’

She jabbed her finger in the air, ‘Look! He’s right there!’

Toby looked again, then shook his head silently. He pulled her towards him in a tight embrace. She looked past his shoulder and watched the man walk away, slowly disappearing into the crowd.

 

 

 

That night, as Alex lay awake in her bed, she could hear her Mum’s muffled sobs in the room next door. It wouldn’t be a surprise if I was going mad too, she thought. Toby had suggested they book an in-home psychiatrist for her mum. He was worried about her condition, but Alex knew that his underlying agenda was really Alex. She hugged her pillow tightly as she listened to Mum’s whimpers softening, until there was finally silence. A soft breeze rustled the autumn leaves outside whilst a storm brewed in Alex’s mind. She imagined herself barging into Mum’s room, shaking her frail body and shouting, ‘No more, Mum! No more! I can’t handle this anymore!’ Alex’s body shuddered. She didn’t feel like herself anymore.

 

 

 

The next day, Alex received a text from Toby saying that he had booked an initial consultation for a therapy session at 6pm.

‘Just for your Mum. You can listen in if you want, up to you,’ he added.

When Alex arrived at home at exactly 5:45pm, the lights were on in the living room. Strange, Alex thought as she fumbled with her keys. She was greeted with warm air as the heater had been turned on, and she could hear her Mum’s high-pitched chuckle. The house had come alive again. Alex frowned, disturbed by the sudden change.

‘Mum?’ Alex called as she made her way to the living room.

‘Oh, Alex! We have a visitor!’ Mum called.

That smell hit her before Alex could see him. She covered her nose and froze in shock at the sight of the man. He rose onto his feet, pushing his glasses up.

‘He said he was an old friend of your Dad’s. High school friends, did you say?’ Mum looked over at him in admiration, then at Alex quizzically, ‘Why are you doing that?’

‘I… I… ’ Alex mumbled behind the hand blocking her nose.

She edged her way toward Mum. What the fuck is going on, she thought.

‘Mum… you can actually see him?’ Alex asked cautiously.

Mum frowned, ‘What do you—’

The man cleared his throat. ‘May I have a word with your lovely daughter?’

‘Oh, yes of course!’ Mum sprang to her feet. ‘I’ll just make some more tea.’

‘Sit down, Alex.’ The man gestured. His voice was low.

Alex shuddered as she sat in the furthest seat away from him, her trembling hands gathered in her lap.

‘You know me, I presume,’ he said.

‘I’ve… seen you around,’ Alex replied, avoiding eye contact.

‘Which you shouldn’t have.’ The man peered over his glasses. ‘I knew something was wrong when I first saw you at the supermarket. Normally, people like you can’t see me.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex’s eyes were wide.

‘It means I have prolonged my stay. My job here proved to be more, well, complicated.’ The man paused for a moment. ‘You see, the fact that I am starting to be seen means that I need to leave this planet as soon as possible. But the problem is, my job is not done. I had a list of people to select from, and I selected you.’

‘Am I going to die?’ Alex whispered, her voice trembling.

‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘because that is the fate of all humans.’

He took out a clipboard and started scribbling notes indifferently, as if he was sending off a parcel.

‘And it seems you have already become very sensitive to death,’ he said, nodding.

‘The smell…’ Alex mumbled.

‘Like a rotting corpse, or simply, the fragrance of death.’ The man shrugged. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’

‘But… I can’t die,’ Alex said. ‘What about my Mum? What about—’

‘No one gets to choose their death, Alex. Death is a natural occurrence whether it be sudden or expected,’ the man said as he peered at his clipboard, ‘and yours will be… sudden… the result of a natural cause.’ The man put down his clipboard, ‘I’m ready when you are.’

Alex felt an adrenal surge of mania rush through her blood, as if all the anger and frustration that she had contained was finally bursting. She stood up abruptly, looking around for something to aide her escape.

‘Stay away!’ she roared, her arms in front of her in defense.

‘Please, don’t resist. It never works.’ The man stood up.

Alex threw a vase of flowers at him and the glass shattered on the floor. The man shook his head. ‘You can’t cheat death, Alex.’ He halted at the sight of blood tricking down his injured arm and growled. ‘And it seems that I am really running out of time.’

Alex watched as the man threw his glasses onto the floor—the same glasses that had clattered onto the floor of the supermarket, the same glasses with the Band-Aid wrapped around the side. All of a sudden, he looked different; his eyes looked darker and his face hollower. A Grim Reaper, hungry for life.

He lurched and grabbed hold of Alex’s arm, covering her mouth with his other hand.

‘You won’t even know it’s happening,’ he whispered.

Alex’s eyes widened as she watched a golf club rise up behind the man. It hit him square on the head. He swayed on his legs, as if confused by the pain, his mouth opening and closing in silence. Alex watched in horror as her Mum swung with all her strength. Swoosh, thud. Swoosh, thud.

‘Over. My. Dead. Body,’ she growled through gritted teeth, between each forceful stroke.

It was the sight of a madwoman. She didn’t stop until the man had buckled over into a limp heap. Unconscious. Dead. Mum was panting, with sweat running down the sides of her face.

Alex was screaming.

‘Shush!’ Mum hit Alex lightly on the shoulder.

‘Mum, are you insane! Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ Alex blundered over her words.

Mum tucked her hair behind her ears as she tried to find her composure. Her chest was still heaving.

‘Whether it be a man or a ghost or some weird shit like that, I’m not losing any more people. Now get the shovel.’

 

 

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Hollow Love, Brianna Sawyer

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, sticky droplets dribbled off stalactites, freezing to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones.

 

 

 

12 hours earlier

Love knocked on the wooden door and twisted the handle. Stepping inside, the smell of stale bread and mouldy cheese made her scrunch her face. Her mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling. The moth-bitten blanket engulfed her petite frame. Spider webs clung to the closed curtain and tittering squeaks could be heard in the walls. Love swallowed, and lifted a tray of goat milk and crusty bread.

‘Mum, you have to eat something,’ Love said, glancing at her mother’s chest bones, which protruded against her veiny skin.

Hollow rolled away, tufts of brown-silvering hair spotting her head. Love straightened her spine and placed the tray on the side table. Breathing through her mouth, she pulled the ratty blanket up and tucked it under her mother’s chin. Turning away, Love walked to the door, but stopped to glance over her shoulder.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she paused, looking at the flaking citrine wallpaper, once a vibrant yellow. She cleared a lump in her throat.

‘I love you, mum.’ Love held her breath, waiting.

Her mother’s body language gave no indication of hearing her, though Love knew her hearing was fine. Love squeezed her eyes shut then reopened them, nodding sadly as she let the door click softly behind her.

 

 

 

The breeze from the ocean slipped around the three huddled figures along the edge of the sandy cliff-face. They shivered in their black bearskin coats. The sun peeked over the horizon, bathing their bodies in an orange warmth which did nothing to rid the chill in their hearts. After all, today was another funeral.

‘Why would Cliff venture up onto the cliffs? His deathname was plain enough, why would he go anywhere near them? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Love questioned, shaking her head. Arrow’s pale blue gaze flitted over to her.

‘Why am I an archer’s apprentice, when my deathname is Arrow?’ Arrow quirked an eyebrow, combing her fingers through her wind-woven red tresses. ‘Old-man Cliff didn’t want his deathname to control his life no more. Suppose he wandered up to the cliffs to see what he’d been missing during his cliff exile.’

‘Exile? Deathnames aren’t punishment, Row. They’re precaution,’ Love said automatically, staring down at the funeral procession happening below them on the sand-bed.

Arrow scoffed. ‘What a load of mud. You’ve seen the self-barricaded townhouses. That’s not precaution, Lo, that’s paranoia.’

Love mumbled noncommittally, her attention snagging on the gaping black mouth of the Calling Caves, where every newborn received their deathname from the oracle within. The villagers called him The Caller. As Love stared, the black hole seemed to widen, revealing a cloaked figure by the entrance. She shivered, the wind tearing through her coat and making her eyes stream.

‘This makes nine funerals in five days, don’t it?’ Arrow clicked her tongue against her teeth. Love wiped at her watery eyes, fixing her attention back on the grey body atop the funeral pyre.

‘It’s unheard of,’ Love agreed.

‘What’s unheard of?’ Trip piped up, sweeping a tangled strand of black hair out of his preoccupied eyes. He was heavily involved with the making of a sandcastle. Conversations never excited Trip; they never shaped into anything with gritty substance.

‘Your complete and utter lack of attention,’ Arrow shot back, pointedly looking at his sand abomination. Trip shrugged and Arrow huffed out a breath of smoky air. Love sat between Arrow and Trip, and she felt her heart ache in response to their bickering.

Love knew there were different versions of love you could have for someone. She made a hobby out of identifying them in the people she encountered. The bakers’ cherub-faced daughter twirling on her toes so her baby brother stopped crying. Arrow’s mentor shooting her proud smiles when an arrow hit its mark. Trip stealing glances of Arrow when she was busy detangling her red mane. Seeing these gestures, Love had also become an expert in spotting a lack of love. After all, she dealt with the absence of it every day of her life. The wide berth the other villagers gave her. An ever-expanding detachment between herself and her friends. Including her own mother. But Love understood why.

No one wanted her to die.

It didn’t stop Love, however, from craving that which would kill her.

‘I should get back, my mum…’ Love trailed off. Arrow’s frown softened considerably. Trip had even stopped moulding sand into a misshapen castle, which was then quickly conquered by the whistling wind.

‘My mum, she—she’s refusing to eat anything now. I try feeding her dense foods and warm liquids, but it’s not working. Her body is shutting down. She—she’s just giving up.’ On me, was the add-on both her friends knew lingered there, unspoken. Arrow squeezed her shoulder a moment, then let go.

‘Her deathname is Hollow,’ Arrow said quietly, and bit her tongue when she saw Love wince, ‘do you think an outer-region disease is emptying her out?’

Love breathed in the crisp cool wind, looking out to where the ocean caressed the sky. Love was half convinced she was the disease.

‘I’ve tried the medication we had in storage, but with no food in her stomach, the meds just make her sicker. I don’t know what else to do.’

‘Talk to her,’ Trip murmured, accompanied by a solemn head nod. Arrow’s mouth twitched.

‘This advice coming from the man-of-few-words himself. Surprise after surprise, it is with you,’ Arrow replied. Love laughed as Trip mimed an arrow plunging through his heart. Arrows twitching mouth stretched into a smile.

Then the pyre sparked a blaze and their smiles melted away. They all looked on as licking flames engulfed the lifeless body. Moisture gathered in the corner of Trip’s usually untroubled brown eyes. Arrow shuffled behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Love shut her eyelids but couldn’t shut out the images of her mother, bedridden and helpless, morphing into a pale corpse surrounded by hissing flames as her skin peeled off her bones. She kept shaking her head but the image kept searing her brain, like a branding iron. A shake to the shoulder made her eyes fly open. Love gulped down cold air to settle her laboured breathing.

‘Trip’s right, talk to your mum, Lo,’ Arrow whispered, her head resting against Trip’s shoulder blade.

‘If she can stand to look at me,’ Love snorted, tearing her attention away from the fire. The Caller was hovering by the entrance of the Calling Caves. She blinked—despite the roaring wind, his cloak remained completely still.

 

 

 

Hurrying through the main courtyard, Love could smell fresh garlic and sizzling meats in the brisk air. Drawn to the stand by the sweet fragrance, Love exchanged her pouch of four chicken eggs for a slab of caramelized lamb and rosemary sprigs. To her left, she saw the closed sign on the door of Cliff’s Carrot Cakes. Now there was no one left to tend to the fireplace inside, allowing the front window to gather a thin skin of ice. Turning away, her eyes travelled to the boarded-up houses and businesses lining the cobbled courtyard. Wooden slats were secured over windows and doorways, dozens of nails sticking out haphazardly.

Every so often, Love caught flickers of light between the wooden beams when a person moved behind them. Collision, a mother of twin sons, Arti and Choke, had locked her family behind the walls of their home. A widower named Rod had closed his metalwork shop and disappeared when he lost his wife, Bee, to an unidentified infection. Taking a deep breath, Love could taste the salty ocean air and the tang of fear lingering along the skin of everyone she passed. Scratching at her arm, she looked up. Love stood before an unlit townhouse. Trudging forward, she pulled the key which hung around her neck and opened the front door. Letting it swing shut behind her, she was greeted by a wave of rotting flesh.

 

 

 

Rinsing her hands at the sink, Love reached for the ragged towel. Atop the tray, she tossed the caramelized lamb with rosemary sprigs and set a chipped limestone jug of water next to the platter. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, she paused before entering her mother’s bedroom. Her hands were trembling, making the contents of the jug slop over the side. She needed to talk to her mother; Arrow and Trip were right. Without knocking, she turned the door handle and entered. Love kept her eyes on the tray, but could hear her mother’s shallow breaths.

‘It’s lamb, your favourite,’ she said, setting the tray on her mother’s lap. Love picked up the jug of water and lifted it to her mother’s lips. Tilting her head back, Love managed to get the water into her mouth without it pouring down her chin, unlike the times before. Setting the water down, she looked at her mother’s sunken cheeks and the purple discolouring under her cloudy, brown eyes.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ she said, moving the tray onto the side table. Her mother continued to stare upwards, her gaze unfocused. But her mouth tightened slightly, Love noticed.

‘Say something. Talk to me.’

The silence was a crushing weight.

Love sprung from her perch on the lumpy mattress and paced the room. Glancing at the corner, she watched a black beetle scuttle under the bed. Love couldn’t even muster disgust at the sight, more revolted by the sickly creature lying on top.

‘I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to help,’ Love began, twisting her hands together. ‘I’ve fed you, bathed you, cared for you. All for nothing? Is that it? You’re happy to waste away? I know death haunts us here, in this paranoid village. It lies on the end of every breath. But I’m haunted by your death every time I shut my eyes. The house is falling apart. I’m falling apart. Because you’re giving up. You’re giving up…’ Love bit her lip, hard. A metallic taste flooded her mouth.

‘You’re my mother,’ her voice cracked, ‘why don’t you love me?’

From the gloom, a scratchy voice spoke.

‘You know why.’

Love looked away.

‘Do you think I’m selfish because I want to be loved?’

‘I think you’re foolish,’ her mother coughed, sputtering. Her unfocused gaze, however, remained fixated on the ceiling.

‘Because being loved is how I’m going to die?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Hollow.

‘You think I have a death wish?’

‘Yes.’

‘I get it from my mother, apparently,’ Love snapped.

Hollow’s face seemed to cave inwards. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open and rested on Love’s face. Love thought they resembled the eyes of funeral goers: pained and resigned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Love bowed her head. Her mother opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again.

‘Not loving you kills me,’ Hollow said, barely above a whisper. ‘It eats me up inside.’

The quaver in her mother’s tone made something quaver inside Love. She dropped to her knees beside her mother, feeling the confession settle like a weight on her chest. Her mother’s face broke apart, knowing Love had come to the realisation Hollow had known for some time. Tears began spilling down Love’s cheeks and Hollow reached out a trembling hand to wipe them away. It made Love cry harder. She gathered her mother’s hand in both of her own and pressed her lips to it. Love could feel the thin bones pushing against her mother’s cold, rubbery skin. She thought back to Cliff’s Carrot Cakes, cold, abandoned. Love couldn’t help but feel as if her mother had lost her fire too.

Suddenly, the hand she held went limp.

Releasing a shaky breath, she placed the arm across her mother’s stomach, then stood. Her knees wobbled. Looking down, Love saw her mother’s gaunt face and half-open eyes, staring blankly. She backed up until she collided with the wall, flakes of teal raining down on her. Unable to support her weight, she collapsed on the carpet matted with stains.

Love, herself, felt like a stain for existing. For on the bed, her mother lay utterly still. Her chest did not rise, as her heart, devoid of love, could no longer beat.

 

 

 

In a daze, Love raced down the sandstone stairs. The ocean tides at the bottom were flooding the stretch of sand between the staircase and the Calling Caves. Plunging forward, Love waded through the freezing water which climbed to her waist. Hoisting herself free from the seawater, Love stood facing the black mouth of the Calling Caves. Inside, the cave walls were coated with moisture. A ping ping ping of falling water echoed throughout the chamber.

Where are you?’ she screamed, breathless.

‘Where I’ve always been,’ came the reply.

‘Bring her back. You can save her. You have a direct connection to the Fates.’

The Caller didn’t respond.

‘Please, just bring her back.’ A black-robed figure seemed to detach itself from the darkness. Love lurched back a step. The Caller tilted its mouth. The smile looked slightly unhinged. Love shook, her lips turning purple.

‘What’s dead, stays dead,’ said The Caller.

Love squeezed her eyes shut. Behind her eyelids, she saw her mother’s body, still and lifeless. Hollow.

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, stalactites dribbled sticky droplets which froze to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones. Her breath turned to puffs of cloud in front of her.

‘You wish to die,’ The Caller stated. Love shook with silent tears, nodding. A hissing rose from The Caller. Love froze, realising the oracle was laughing. Something cold snaked down her spine. She heaved herself onto her shaking feet.

‘Are you my people’s oracle?’

The figure grinned, shifting into the dark recesses of the Calling Cave.

‘What are you?’ she breathed.

‘Impatient,’ it teased, a clicking reverberating against the cave walls. ‘Want to know a secret, Little Love?’ The voice twisted around the caves, coming from every direction. Love flipped around, certain the creature was behind her.

‘You were never going to die from love.’

Love flinched.

‘It was all for nothing?’ She saw her mother’s motionless body behind her eyelids, pale and cold. ‘You’re lying,’ she spat.

The creature bared its pointed teeth. ‘Insulting a God? Little Love, I could squash you into the Earth where you belong and watch you wriggle like all the other worms. Nothing but insectile, pink flesh rolling in your own filth.’ It hissed, spittle flying from its mouth. ‘But you do secrete tasty treats.’ The creature breathed in deeply, nostrils flaring as its eyelids fluttered closed.

‘Why are you here?’ she panted, her voice trembling. The creature opened its bulbous black eyes and smiled sharply.

‘To call and collect.’

Why?’

Why?’ the guttural voice mimicked, ‘Mmmm. I like to toy with my food, Little Love, before I feast. And your mother was my favourite. Playing with a second generation to manipulate the first. The sweet patience it took. The sweetest reward. There’s nothing more delicious than a sacrifice.’ The creature whetted its pale, flaky lips.

She faced the creature as it loomed closer. Her eyes welled with pain and resignation.

And the Death God welled with satisfaction. It bared needle-like teeth, saliva slipping down its jaw.

Love closed her eyes and let her guilt swallow her whole.

 

 

 

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Misguided, Ben Lawrence

The fire crackled, green logs spitting sap into the small inferno. A man and a woman huddled close to the fire. Their silhouettes danced around them. They sat on the cracked flagstones of a ruined tower. The rest was tumbled out around the hillock, long overgrown with moss and lichen.

The woman wore a circlet of gold on her greying hair. Her face was dominated by a hawk-like nose that kept watch over lips set in a sharp line. She wore studded leather pants, with thick riding boots and a coat of plates that had once been fine, but was now scarred and dull. On her shoulders she wore ornate pauldrons set in the likeness of a lion’s head, the eyes set with precious gemstones.

A snore came from the prone figure on the other side of the fire. She looked at the pile of blankets and creased her brow in a frown.

‘Bard’

‘…’

‘Bard!’

The man jolted awake at the Queen’s bark, grumbling under his breath. He was dressed in a much simpler fashion. Woollen pants, supple hunting boots, a dirty linen shirt and a simple leather vest. His blonde curls sat in a tousled heap on his head, giving him a youthful appearance.

The Queen’s frown deepened,

‘You are addressing Queen Ysabel of White Shore.’

‘Raise the dead with that shoutin,’ you will.’

She bristled at his lack of respect.

‘You would do well never to speak to me like that again.’

‘Aye, and you might do just as well to keep ye voice down… M’lady. No tellin’ who or what lurks in these parts at night.’

He could feel her baleful gaze drilling into him from across the fire, but she didn’t deign to retort. Probably never been told to shut her trap, he thought.

Instead, she rummaged in her pack and drew out a whetstone. Her sword lay next to her on the flagstones and now she inspected it. With a sniff of annoyance she set the stone to the blade and began honing its edge with long, purposeful strokes. The Bard watched from across the fire, the flames highlighting her movements. They were graceful, exact, and deadly, just as they had been in the battle against the Griffon that day. She did not wear the armour or sword simply for show it seemed.

He inspected his own sword. It was a utilitarian tool, solid iron with a wooden handle and a bronze cross piece. There were several nicks along its edge and some rust spots at the base of the blade. He shrugged and placed the weapon on top of his pack alongside his harp. He didn’t feel like sharpening it just now.

The night was deathly silent. No owls hooted, no critters scurried along secret paths, and the rasping sound of stone on steel set his neck and arm hairs standing on end.

‘Why sharpen it?’

‘Because it needs doing,’ she said in between strokes.

He pushed the sound to the back of his mind.

‘Why? The Griffon’s dead, the battle fought and won.’

‘This battle,’ she said, looking up at him. ‘And who are you to question the Queen of White Shore? You were hired to write a song about my victory over the Griffon. Nothing else, understand?’

He was not surprised by the shortness of her reply. He was used to being looked down on by those of higher station. Yes, they would pay him handsomely enough for a song of their brave deeds, but at any mention of a truth that was not their own, he would be discarded. Just another peasant who didn’t know how to respect his betters. What truly shocked him was her coldness.

‘That beast slaughtered a hundred of ye knights today. Their blood is nawt cold and here ye are preparing for the next battle? Why so cold, mistress?’

‘Are all Bards fools? Or just you? I would think that singing songs of great heroes all day would teach you a thing or two. There is always another battle, another war. To not recognise this is to die a fool.’

He shook his head in disbelief, his mind recalling the images of the battle against the Griffon. He saw again how the Queen had ordered her knights to charge the beast, and how the knights were cut down by the Griffon’s foul claws. All the while, she watched, searching for an opening. He saw how she had urged the last of her knights forward to their death, and how she had charged behind them, trampling those who were wounded in order to strike the killing blow.

‘Aye, I sing songs of heroes, mistress. But none so cold as you.’

She regarded him with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow, and if she hadn’t been raised a Queen, she might have chewed her lip.

‘You truly are a fool. All heroes are heartless at some point. That is the part the tales leave out.’ She reached inside her pack and withdrew the trophy she had taken from the Griffons’ corpse. It looked like a feather, but it was about half a metre long and rich gold in colour. The fibres were malleable, but he had witnessed swords shatter against them. As his eyes ran along its sleek surface, he noticed how the colours changed, from gold to bronze to brass, and at the very tip, bright silver.

‘How much do you think this is worth, Bard?’

He thought for a moment, but couldn’t think of a number high enough.

‘I don’t know, mistress.’

‘Exactly,’ she said as she twirled it in her hands, the firelight making it look like liquid gold. ‘It is priceless. It is power, and glory, and riches. And this is just one. When I harvest the rest from the Griffon’s corpse tomorrow, I will become more powerful than all the Kings on this continent. And I will start an Empire the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, my knights died. But they died an honourable death serving their Queen.’ She said this all without taking her eyes off the feather. She seemed to be somewhere else, as if in a daydream.

The Bard didn’t understand.

‘An honourable dead man is still a dead man, mistress. And you’re already a Queen. You’ve a whole kingdom, hundreds of kilometres of land and wealth. Why be an Emperor?’

She tore her gaze away from the feather, although it seemed to pain her to do so.

‘And? Hundreds will become thousands, tens of thousands. I will have it all. And no man will ever dare to question my rule again.’

He was lost for words. Granted he had always wanted a bit more. A few more coins to jingle in his pocket would have been nice. A new harp would be good if he could afford it, and he did want to settle down someday with a plump wife that would give him many sons. But she was a Queen. The idea that she could possibly want for more just did not make any sense to the Bard.

An idea struck him.

‘Do you know the history of this tower?’

‘Of course I do!’ she snapped. ‘It is the seat of the Old Empire.’

‘Right you are, mistress. But do ye know how it came to be nawt but a ruin?’

Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. A grin split his face, revealing crooked teeth.

‘Worry not, mistress, let me tell ye the tale of the great Empire of Abernia, which stretched all the lands to the north and most to the south, all of it ruled from right here in this very castle.’

‘Get on with it, Bard, I assume this tale has a point?’

‘Aye, it does. Now, the Empire was at peace, had been for years. But the King was a vain man. He loved nothing more than to sit on his throne and count his coins. Then, one day, during a feast he held as celebration for the conquest of another nation, a real threat came to his kingdom. Or at least, the news of one. A farmer crashed through the door to the great hall, weak and weary from travel. “Dragon! Great, terrible, fire breathing dragon! A vile creature, evil to the core! Please O’ wise and noble King, send your knights to slay this beast and deliver us from fear,” said he. Naturally, everyone at the feast was shocked by such news, but they were even more shocked by the King’s reaction. “Good man! Thank you for bringing word of this threat to our safety. Sit! Feast! On the morrow, I will lead my knights and slay the creature.”

“O’ Wise King, O’ brave King! God’s praise you! The creature is truly evil. It killed ten farmers with one fell sweep of its claws, and then set the buildings alight with its wicked breath.”

“Fear not, brave fellow, my knights and I will slay the beast, of that you can be assured!”

‘So, that settled, they feasted into the night and when morning came, the King and his knights and the farmer set out to find the dragon.

‘They travelled far to the south where the King’s grip on the land was not as tight. The farms he passed were far dirtier, and far poorer than the pretty ploughed fields outside his castle. “Look at what this beast has done! My poor subjects suffer greatly at the hands of its evil.” His knights agreed, but the farmer was confused. The creature had only attacked his village. These farms had not been affected and to him looked as they always had. But he didn’t say so, far be it for him to question his King.’

‘If only all men were as noble and loyal as this farmer’ remarked the Queen, voice thick with derision.

‘Aye, mistress, if only,’ the Bard replied, knowing full well the comment was aimed at him, and recalling that the Queen’s sword was now very sharp. But he continued anyway, hoping his tale would reach her. ‘When the King and his knights came upon the man’s village, ravaged and savaged as it was, they found the dragon sleeping on a pile of bones. The King ordered the charge and the battle was on. For a day and a night it raged, but finally, the beast was slain. Many brave men died in the battle, including the poor farmer.

‘As proof of his victory, the King brought back a large scale from the beast’s breast, crimson and gold in colour. Now, as I said, he was a vain man and wanted to assert his wealth and power even though he was an Emperor. He flaunted his prize and gloated with glee… And was promptly assassinated by jealous rivals.

‘Without a King, the Empire crumbled, and all because the man who had it all, wanted more.’

‘A fine tale, Bard, you obviously have some skill,’ the Queen said begrudgingly. ‘But it is a tale, nothing more than myth and legend based on an old fool.’

As he had been talking, a red sun had begun to rise. It was still an hour or so until dawn, but the first tendrils of crimson light were filtering in from the east, creeping over their camp.

The Bard’s shoulders sagged. He had failed to have an effect on the Queen. She remained stoically silent as she watched the world awaken to the new day.

Eventually, she spoke.

‘Tell me, Bard, what song have you written of me? How shall my victory over the Griffon be remembered?’

‘I haven’t written anything yet, mistress’ he lied.

‘I have seen you practice at night as we travelled from White Shore, and you have just proved you have some skill in the art. Come, sing it to me. Now.’

With a sigh he relented. He picked up his harp, plucked a few strings and adjusted them. Then, satisfied, he began to play a slow melody.

‘There once was a Queen, greedy and bold,

She went chasing legends of old.

 

For o’er yonder hill from White Shore,

There was a creature who she was sure

If not slain, would be her shame,

So she set out, to gain her fame.

 

Over high mountain and deep river,

She voyaged with barely a shiver.

 

She took a hundred knights to meet their maker,

All in the hopes that she could be greater…’

‘Enough!’ she screamed. ‘Your arrogance knows no bounds. You have insulted me beyond forgiveness this night. As Queen of White Shore, I sentence you to death.’ She rose from her sitting position, sword in hand and advanced. ‘The Lords of White Shore have always been their own headsman. Bow your head so that I may make it a clean death, though you don’t deserve one.’

The Bard scrabbled for his blade, regretting his laziness earlier in the night. She was old but experienced, and he lacked training but was young and fit. He took the guard position he had been taught as a child, feet braced apart, sword raised in front. She swung her sword in lazy arcs as she advanced, the blade whistling as it cut the air.

She feigned left then lashed out with a right-hand cut. He blocked to his left then slashed wildly, forcing her to jump backwards. She immediately stepped forward again, bringing her blade down in a swift overhead motion. He barely managed to get his blade up in time, and the force of the blow made his hand go numb. She was much stronger than he had anticipated.

He lunged forward, but his blade was easily swept aside. Overbalanced, he had no choice but to continue the motion. He knew he couldn’t bring his sword around in time, but neither could she, so he threw his fist into her chin as he careened forward.

She fell hard but instinct saved her. As soon as she hit the ground she was rolling, and his sword struck the stones where moments before her head had been. He advanced on her again and she lashed out with her heavy boots, catching him on the knee. He howled in pain and was forced to moved back, giving her enough time to regain her feet.

They had the measure of each other now and the duel settled into a steady rhythm, the clash and clang of their sword’s echoing through the pre-dawn light, giving a grim feel to the red light of morning.

Her sword sliced into the Bard’s arm, her superior skill giving her the upper hand. He grunted in pain and frustration, blood flowing freely down his arm. She advanced again and he backed away, unable to keep his sword raised. He tripped on the fire as he retreated and the Queen’s boot caught him in the chest as he struggled to maintain his balance. He sailed backwards over the fire, losing his sword as he fell, severely winded. Fighting for breath and in immense pain, he dragged himself across the ground toward the Queen’s pack. She advanced, ready to drive her sword into his exposed back.

He reached the pack and frantically rummaged. The Queen brought her sword down just as he rolled, so instead of skewering him, her sword only cut him superficially, grating as it glanced off his ribs. But he had what he had been searching for in her pack, and he drove the feather into The Queen’s neck. Blood erupted from the fatal wound and poured down the feather onto the Bard’s hand.

Her eyes widened in shock as she fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering. A pool of blood quickly formed as she clawed at her ruined neck, fighting for a breath that would not come.

The Queen of White Shore died with the Griffon’s feather still protruding from her neck, shining crimson and gold in the light of dawn.

 

 

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The Valley, Anna Blackie

Marcus hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. He marvelled at how insignificant it seemed from this height. Turning his focus to what lay above him, Marcus hauled himself through the crack in the sky, the tantalising scent of fresh air luring him out of his comfort zone. Finally, he lurched over the rim of the Valley, scurrying onto a thin ledge and standing shakily, desperately pushing his aching muscles, both terrified and excited by what lay before him.

*

  The air was warm and thick, despite the relentless movement in the Valley. They had long ago realised that fresh air was not easy to come by, all breeze barred by the vast mountains that surrounded the small town. Marcus clung to the tree beside him, his fingernails digging into the soft bark. The ground trembled incessantly, the vibrations growing stronger and stronger with each passing second. Marcus analysed the movement of the earth, careful to note the way the ground folded and creased as the disturbance played out. The earth continued to shudder violently, those who were unprepared sent soaring through the air. He watched as Mr Roy, the baker, flew past him, the stout man bracing himself for the inevitable impact against the Valley wall. As suddenly as they had begun the tremors ended. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to the small crack of light shining through the top of the Valley. He watched closely, waiting for change, some movement, just a flicker of light, anything…   With a deep sigh Marcus released the tree, his fingers unfurling to reveal two large handfuls of dirty bark. He gently released the debris, opening and closing his hands in an attempt to restore the blood-flow.
‘Marcus!’ Mr Roy called from behind him. Marcus turned to watch the small man make his way back up the hill, his white apron askew, and face bright red from the effort.
‘All right there, Mr Roy?’ He called back to the baker.
‘Yes, yes, this isn’t my first disturbance you know.’ Mr Roy chided as he reached him, the bakers ruddy face glistening with a layer of sweat. ‘But you know how these things are, let your guard down for five minutes and you’re soarin’ out your kitchen window!’ Marcus laughed, life in the Valley certainly did have an element of the unexpected.
‘How’s that research of yours coming?’ Mr Roy asked as the two men walked together through the Valley.
‘Oh, you know,’ he mumbled in reply, ‘No breakthroughs yet.’
‘Well you just keep on keeping on, Marcus’ Mr Roy said, his jovial tone before suddenly turning serious, ‘If anyone can crack the code of this place, it’s you.’ With that, Mr Roy gave Marcus a firm clap on the back and made his way back into his bakery.

*

  The origin of The Valley had been speculated over for as long as there had been people inhabiting the tiny enclave. The Church of the Palm spoke of a hand that reached down into the Valley and released life onto the land. The non-believers spouted stories of people falling from the sky, of fish growing legs and emerging from the Valley’s deep, stagnant lake. Children were told tales of men sprouting from the ground, like seeds growing from the soil. Marcus seemed to be the only citizen of the Valley unable to stand the ambiguity; even as a boy he remembered questioning the fables their home was built upon, the myths and folklore not enough to satisfy his thirst for the truth. Although, it wasn’t until the arrival of disc that Marcus fully began to question the Valley, becoming desperate to know what lay outside the only reality he had ever known.

Marcus followed the outer wall of the Valley home from school, his small fingers running against the smooth barrier that surrounded him. He moved with a bounce in his step, a somewhat unexpected side-effect of the spongey Valley floor. As he grew closer to home he caught the sound of voices, the walls surrounding the town making it almost impossible to have a private conversation outdoors without your dirty laundry echoing throughout the town.
‘Do we tell him?’ he heard his father ask apprehensively.
‘Of course we tell him.’ his mother replied, ‘don’t we?’ she added with uncertainty. Marcus stopped and listened to the conversation, sure that his parents were talking about him.
‘This is just the sort of thing he’d obsess over…’
‘Well, we can’t very well hide It.’ his mother declared. Curiosity burned through him, and Marcus began to sprint towards his home, the sprung-floor of the Valley bouncing his tiny body higher and farther than he could have managed alone. He rounded the corner and spotted his house.

The small cottage hugged rocky boundary of the Valley, its walls and roof anchored to the side of the cliff. Marcus followed the sound of voices to the small garden outside. His mother and father stood in the centre of the grassed area, his younger sister Jenny hugging their father’s legs, her small body not even reaching his knee. Marcus was too excited to focus on his family, his attention immediately drawn to the object. It lay in the corner of the back-yard, squishing half of the vegetable garden. The disc was huge, at least three times the size of their house. Marcus approached it slowly, as if afraid the inanimate silver object would rear up and bite him. His family stayed quiet as they watched him inch closer, sensing the fervent excitement that lay beneath his hesitation. He walked slowly around the object, amazed by the vast size, taking its metallic sheen and the massive, stern face chiselled into its surface.
‘What do you think it is?’ he asked his parents who had silent moved to stand behind him. Marcus’s mind was reeling with possibilities of the disc’s origin, each more unlikely than the last.
‘They used to tell us stories about silver discs in school. Myths of these objects falling from the sky and crushing whole houses.’ His father told him quietly, ‘I always thought they were just fairy-tales, scary stories…’
‘Where did it come from?’ Marcus asked as he crouched down to touch the object, caressing its cold, hard surface. ‘How did it get here?’
‘It arrived while you were at school,’ Jenny announced from behind Marcus, making him jump slightly as he had been so involved in the object that he’d forgotten she was there.
‘I was lying in the garden looking up at the sky,’ she gestured to the sliver of light shining through the roof of the Valley, ‘then suddenly it got really bright, and that thing,’ she gestured to the mysterious silver disc, now glistening in the dim light, ‘started to fall towards me. I jumped up and moved, it would have squished me flat if I hadn’t!’ Jenny finished her story, beaming from ear to ear. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the moment Marcus had been waiting for. Of course it was Jenny who saw it all go down.
‘It came from the sky?’ Marcus repeated, running the words through his head, trying to make sense of the senseless.
‘That’s what I said.’ Jenny replied, clearly miffed at Marcus’s lack of appreciation of her near-death experience. Marcus plunked himself down next to disc, not willing to give his younger sister the satisfaction of appreciating her story. Despite his overwhelming jealousy, Marcus knew he had to find out the origins of the disc.

*

The disappearance of the disc was as surprising as its arrival. Each morning Marcus had ventured out into the garden to perform his daily tests. First he measured it, struggling to reach his tape measure over the diameter of an object so much larger than himself. He often dreamed about the disc growing through the night. He would run into the garden the next morning, disappointed to discover nothing had changed. After he’d taken his measurements he would sketch the object, careful to include every detail. When the disc had first arrived Marcus left gifts of food next to it morning and evening, at least until his father had found out and stopped him, unwilling to waste the food on an inanimate object that had crushed half of their vegetable garden. Unable to provoke a reaction from the disc any other way, Marcus had begun to speak to it. He would tell it his dreams as he performed his tests, then inform it of his day at school in the afternoons. Despite the disc’s obvious inanimate nature, Marcus had become quite fond of the object and the plethora of secrets he imagined it held.

Marcus had fallen behind on his testing schedule on the morning of the disc’s disappearance. He’d been unwilling to enter the conscious realm, his dreams filled with silver objects raining from the sky, the faces etched on the discs filling his ears with stories of the world beyond the Valley. When he finally awoke and made his way outside he was greeted with a sight much more spectacular than that of his dream. An enormous hand emerged through the crack in the sky. The hand was more massive than anything Marcus had ever imagined, thousands of times bigger than the disc. The light emanating from the crack in the sky caught on the hands gargantuan surface, illuminating its full scope while darkening the valley below. Each finger was alarmingly thick, the giant fingernails grubby with dirt. Marcus stole a look at his own hand and marvelled at the similarities, unable to form a coherent thought about what was unfolding before him. A thick wrist covered in dense black hair came into Marcus’s view, lowering the hand closer and closer to the disc. The fingers flexed towards the object, reaching to capture it in its grasp. Marcus scurried to the side of his garden, sketching the scene transpiring before him, a voice in his head screaming to him, telling him this is what he had been waiting for. The hand plucked up the disc, lifting it as if it was no more than a piece of paper. Marcus watched in awe as the hand rose higher. The wrist disappeared through the crack pulling the hand and disc along with it.

Speculation as to the origin of the disc and hand ran rampant throughout the Valley. The Church of the Palm experienced an influx in their patronage, the towns’ people believing that God had finally begun to take an interest in their home, the hope being that this Almighty force may be receptive to the prayers of the people. Those of religious orientation began to pray day and night, waiting for a hand big enough to destroy them to reach down and grant their wishes. Others were less optimistic, believing the hand and the disc were signs of the apocalypse, and thus began to prepare themselves accordingly. However, as the weeks past with no sign of the hand, disc or anything else out of the ordinary (despite the regular tremors, which the people of the town had long since accepted as a fact of everyday life) the people began to forget, and soon questions of the unknown were put aside and people moved on with the mundane flow of life. All, that is, except for Marcus. The appearance of the coin had sparked something within him, a deep, searing curiosity that consumed his every waking moment. For the next five years the coin, the hand and the origin of the Valley were all he thought about.

*

Marcus had worked tirelessly to prepare himself for what lay beyond his home. He had developed strong, muscular shoulders from spelunking and climbing throughout the Valley. He had also grown to match his father’s height. At 16, Marcus was already a head taller than all the citizens of the Valley and showed no signs of a decline in his growth. As he continued to grow, he found his climbing exploits became gradually easier. His length allowed his to reach further and pull himself higher along the enclosed walls of the Valley. One day he found himself further up than he had ever been before. The view was magnificent, Marcus could see the entirety of the Valley stretched out before him, his friends and family ambling along beneath him. From this vantage he could see the overhang of the crack in the sky, like a rock shelf, certainly one that Marcus could hoist himself onto. He had no idea what would be on the other side, but he was sure that it was the key to the mystery of his home.

‘Climb out?’ She repeated incredulously, ‘How do you even know there is an out? For all we know you could get to the top and fall into nothing.’ His parents sat across the table from him; his mother ringing her hands as she spoke, while his father remained stoic and silent, apparently deep in thought.
‘There has to be something more out there, Mum’ he pleaded with her, ‘the hand, the disc, they had to have come from somewhere.’
‘But Marcus-’ she started, struggling explanation to placate her sons curiosities.
‘No Mum, we both know it’s true. There has to be more than this…’
‘He needs to go,’ his father announced.
‘What! How can you support this Jeremy?’
‘If we don’t let him go now he’s just going to find a way to do it eventually anyway, right Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered, avoiding his parents gaze.
‘But if he goes now and we help him prepare, then, maybe, he’ll have a better chance.’ Marcus’s mother listened incredulously, unable to accept the idea of releasing her only son into the unknown.
‘I need to know what’s out there Mum,’ Marcus told her, gripping both her hands in his, ‘If I don’t figure this out it will eat me alive.’ Tears cascaded down her face as she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

  *

He hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. Marcus reached out to haul himself through the hole in the sky, his aching muscles screaming in protest as he heaved his long body through the crevice and out into the open air. The sky Marcus saw as he emerged from the crack was more spectacular than he could have dreamed, the light so bright he was forced to cover his eyes. The weak rays of light that had shone down into the Valley were nothing in comparison to the huge, burning ball of bright heat that hovering miraculously on the skyline, causing Marcus’s eyes to water as he peaked at it from behind his hand. Marcus’s vision began to adjust as he took in the breathtaking view before him. He had done it. Finally, gloriously, he had done it.

Eventually he tore his eyes away from the marvel before him and looked back down towards the Valley. He could now see that his home was a deep crevice, carved into the side of what appeared to be a colossal mountain. As Marcus craned his neck backwards to take in the scope of the mountain, a deafening sound ruptured through the silence, followed by a vicious rumbling underfoot. Marcus grabbed hold of the closest ridge and clung for dear life. The disturbance outside the Valley far more violent than he could have anticipated. Around him he saw a flurry of movements. The hand appeared, Marcus watched as a long arm protruded out from behind it. A desperate excitement inside him screaming that the truth was almost known. Marcus could see now that the arm was attached to the mountain. His brain exploded with millions of attempted explanations, struggling to comprehend what he was transpiring around him. Before he had time to digest this breakthrough, he felt the shuddering increase. A sound louder than anything Marcus had ever heard broke through the air around him- a barking cough amplified to the highest extend. The violent tremor of the mountain was unrelenting. Marcus’s grip faltered and he slipped down the ledge, grappling wildly in an attempt to grab hold of the cracked opening of the Valley. Before his hands could make purchase, Marcus was flung from the mountain. Sheer terror flooded through him as he felt himself freefalling away from everything he had ever know and the answers to the mystery which he had devoted his life. As he fell backwards he looked up towards the mountain, his perspective and the shock of his imminent death allowing him to take in the enormity of what stood above him, and process what he saw him with no scepticism or fear.

A huge man, the scale of which beyond anything that Marcus could have possibly imagined stood before him, draped in the mountain that Marcus now realised to be a huge overcoat. Marcus continued to fall, the air pushing past him at a phenomenal speed, but he no longer cared. It was a man, no mountain or Valley, but the biggest man Marcus had or would ever see. A sudden wave of tranquillity washed over him as his minuscule body hurdled to the ground.

 

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Surviving Loneliness, Timothy Hirons

The surface, tensed and drawn, split apart as the steel point drove its way into the gap, droplets from the puncture streaming into the mud. Sewing in the rain was a terrible idea. Ben, a grubby faced New-Worlder, his small hands coated in the dust of the dying world, pulled out the needle and replaced it farther down. The fact that he’d managed to find a spot with enough shelter for him to light a fire granted him an opportunity he couldn’t afford to pass up. After a few more strokes he flattened out the patch he was sewing in. It was a small, poorly cut piece of flannelette cloth from a shirt he’d scavenged a day earlier. He reclined against the large hanging rock at his back. It felt good to sit down for a while. The soles of his boots were crumbling and his socks were closer to anklets now. He began stitching up the third side of the patch, and as he did so he turned his head toward a rusty, dented camping stool beside him.

‘You know what?’ he said to the vacant chair, ‘I don’t even know how the Old-Worlders did this.’ The stool said nothing. ‘How could I? I’ve never met one,’ said Ben, pulling out the needle to examine his work. In his lap lay a cargo jacket covered in mix-matched pockets of varying materials and sizes. The newest addition had a special position just below his collar. He pulled the jacket on and placed his needle and thread into their new home.

‘There,’ he said to the stool. ‘A pocket for my pocket making kit.’ The stool remained appropriately still. Ben raised an eyebrow, ‘It’s not pointless, it’s brilliant! You’re pointless!’

‘Hello?’ Ben jumped as he heard the rasping female voice calling out from down the hill. He threw his rain-drenched blanket over the fire and flattened himself against the rock, pulling a small shard of jagged metal from his boot. ‘Is someone there?’ struggled the voice. He peeked cautiously down the slope. Just below on the Old-World highway beneath him a frail woman stumbled up the hill.

‘She sounds really sick,’ he whispered to the chair, leaning out a little farther. Before he could decide whether it was safe to approach the woman, three figures tore through the shadows beside her, knocking her to the ground. Ben watched as she kicked wildly at the figures as they dragged her down the rocky slope toward the highway. Ben turned to his stool.

‘I can’t!’ he hissed, ‘I don’t even have a gun!’ Suddenly the black sky lit up with bolts of light as the roaring of gunshots shook the stones around his feet, painting the rain in gold. Ben gritted his teeth for the sound of screaming, but heard only the woman’s voice.

‘Thank you, mister! Thank you!’ Ben peered back down the hill. He saw two people still standing; one the woman, struggling to pick herself up, and the other a man, twenty metres from her, clad in makeshift armour carrying a collection of weaponry beyond anything Ben had ever seen. The woman began to approach the man, her arms extended in gratitude as he reloaded his revolver. Ben darted from his rock and slid down the hill to her side, wrenching her away from the man.

‘Hey!’ she shouted.

‘What are you doing?’ barked Ben, ‘He’s a Wolf!’ The man ignored them and began searching the bodies. He stalked through the carnage gathering ammunition and supplies. The woman looked confused.

‘You aren’t from here are you?’ asked Ben. She shook her head. ‘You from a settlement?’

‘Diggertown,’ spluttered the woman, ‘but there’s no food there, so I left.’ Ben watched the Wolf as he picked up a can of beans from beside one of the bodies. However, upon realising he couldn’t fit it in his pocket he dropped it. The woman edged forward.

‘Excuse me… mister… would you… could I travel with you?’ she asked. The Wolf turned to face her. His scarred face was creased and wrinkled the way Ben’s fingers got when he stood in the rain and his hair was grey like it was dying.

‘Pockets?’ he asked. The woman turned out her pants. He turned away. Ben picked up the can of beans.

‘I have pockets,’ he said, placing it into his coat. ‘Most still empty,’ he added. The stranger looked him up and down, the creases stretching as he sneered.

‘Keep up,’ he growled, passing him another can. The woman watched as they began walking away.

‘What about me?’ she asked. The Wolf looked back over his shoulder.

‘Pray.’

 

The pair spoke little as they followed the highway east over the next two days, despite Ben’s best efforts, but as they came to a winding trench the Wolf finally broke his silence.

‘Stop thinking about her,’ he said.

‘You think she’ll be ok?’ said Ben.

‘No,’ said the man. Ben paused, his eyes down cast. ‘Seriously, stop.’

‘You are a Wolf, right?’ asked Ben. The man hung his head.

‘I roam, I hunt outlaws, I kill for money. So sure, why not?’ Ben furrowed his brow.

‘What’s an outlaw?’ The Wolf groaned.

‘Someone who does bad things.’

‘Doesn’t that make you an outlaw?’

‘I thought so.’ The two followed the road until it reached the remains of a town. The structures were broken down and decaying, but made from bricks, not assorted scrap. Definitely Old-World, but hardly abandoned. Barricades surrounded the gates and unmanned machine guns were posted atop a bell tower.

‘You see that crack in the wall over there?’ said the Wolf. Ben followed his finger to a point just short of the barricades.

‘Sure.’

‘Wait there until I come back.’

‘Sure thing… uh, Wolf,’ said Ben. The Wolf nodded and vaulted the barricade. Ben sprinted over to the point his companion had identified and proceeded to set up his camping chair.

‘He’s not going to kill me!’ he said to the chair. ‘You’re just jealous that I can talk to him now instead of you,’ he said. The chair was unconcerned. ‘Bah, you’ll see. If I can learn to be like him I’ll never go hungry again. I’ll be able to walk on the Old-World roads instead of around them. I won’t just be some pockets guy buying protection, I’ll be a Wolf!’ He sifted through the dirt with his finger, ‘Besides, it’d be nice to have someone to talk to for a while,’ he sighed. ‘What? No I wasn’t ignoring you,’ he said quickly, ‘I was just thinking.’

The next few minutes were marked only by gunshots, shouting and one loud bang. After a short time the Wolf returned through the barricades.

‘So I guess you finished killing the whole damn world,’ said Ben, collapsing his stool. The wolf raised an eyebrow.

‘You aren’t bringing that. Come on, I got a job for you, Pockets Guy,’ replied the Wolf, turning to leave. Ben placed the stool back down.

‘Pockets Guy?’ he asked, rounding the corner to see smoke gushing from the entrance to a building at the end of the road.

‘That’s what they call you, right? You kids who get protection from mercs by selling yourselves as pack mules,’ said the Wolf. Ben quickened his pace to keep up.

‘Sure, but why not call me ‘Ben’?’ The Wolf looked back over his shoulder.

‘You keep calling me Wolf, as if my job was my name.’ Ben nodded slowly, brow raised as though contemplating some great revelation. ‘Not that it’s wrong,’ the Wolf mused, ‘What man is more than his work?’ he said, stepping over a smouldering body, its face split and torn, erupted in the centre like a bad fruit hollowed by worms. The Wolf saw Ben grimacing. ‘Forty-fours can do amazing work,’ he said, stroking the hilt of his revolver. Ben suddenly remembered why he avoided Wolves. As they reached the entrance to the smoking building, Ben raised his head and asked.

‘Wait. Does that mean you actually have a name?’ The Wolf stopped at the door and turned, brow creased.

‘What? You think Wolves are some kind of supernatural beings?’ he chided. Ben shrugged. The Wolf shook his head in disbelief. ‘Fucking New-Worlders,’ he muttered as he entered the building.

Ben followed the Wolf through what he figured was some kind of Old-World fortress. It had two levels, each with its own walkways, and on either side were enormous chambers with tall barricades lined from end to end. An ingenious defensive strategy thought Ben, though he couldn’t understand why the barricades had items stacked on them. They came to the end of a long, broad hallway and found another such room, only this one had large letters bolted to the wall above the entrance: WOOLWORTHS.

‘Who’s Woolworth?’ asked Ben. The Wolf hung his head with a groan.

‘Just help me, and canned food only! These shelves haven’t been restocked in twenty-five years,’ he said starting to grab food off the shelves and handing it to him. Ben stared in shock at the sheer volume of supplies. Ben took a bag out of one of his larger pockets. The Wolf looked at him as if he had just pulled out a live animal.

‘What? I’m prepared,’ said Ben. The Wolf grinned and started shovelling food into the bag. ‘And if I may ask, are you planning on travelling somewhere… like, really far away?’ asked Ben, gawking at the ever growing horde. Suddenly, the Wolf stopped. He threw the last can into the bag and pulled Ben up by his collar.

‘Alright, Pockets Guy, we’re out of time. Take this bag and everything you have and follow this path to the end of the shopping centre. When you’re out follow the road by the clock tower back to the wall. Wait where I had you wait before. Don’t stop for anything or anyone. Lose my food and I skin you. Clear?’ Ben stared at him for a moment, stunned.

‘Uhhhh, what’s a shopping centre?’ he asked. A crash came from back down the way they’d come followed by frenzied voices. The Wolf growled as he pulled his assault rifle from his back. He grabbed Ben and spun him to face down the corridor.

‘Run till you hit daylight then haul ass for the crack in the wall! Move!’ he shouted. Ben began to run, but turned around for a moment when he realised the Wolf wasn’t following.

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘You’ve got the pockets, kid, now EXFIL!’ The Wolf opened fire down the hall.

Ben ran as fast as he could manage with all the weight he was carrying. It wasn’t long before he came to the building exit. Sunlight beckoned him out and he saw the clock-tower directly ahead of him, only the machine guns were no longer vacant. The gunners sighted down immediately and opened fire. Ben launched himself down the road, swerving side to side with the weight of the bag over his shoulder. All around him the dirt sprung up like tiny volcanoes erupting around his feet. Then they stopped. Ben looked back as one of the gunners dropped from the tower with a stream of red following after. The air around him was still full of the sound of gunfire, which persisted even after he had found his spot by the wall. He dropped to the dirt with his back to the wall and looked over to his camping stool, still sitting where he’d left it.

‘Shut up,’ he barked at the chair.

Ben waited anxiously for an end to the perpetual ringing of gunfire and explosions, trying to comfort his camping stool. Presently, the Wolf returned dropping over the wall with a thud.

‘Alright, let’s go,’ he said urgently. Ben looked up at him and the trickles of blood snaking down his tattered shirt and pants. He was covered in it. His jacket and rifle were gone and his sleeves had been torn into tourniquets the way Ben had learnt in the wastes. Amid the blood Ben could make out a tattoo of a winged knife on his shoulder with the words ‘Who Dares Wins’ written across it.

‘We need to get you help,’ said Ben. The Wolf laughed.

‘Relax kid, I never die till the job’s done,’ he replied. Ben looked him up and down feeling far from comforted. He could tell from his experience treating his own injuries that he would only last a day or two.

‘Come on,’ said the Wolf, ‘Job’s not done yet.’

 

Around half a day’s walk later the two found themselves approaching a small settlement. A large signpost sat out the front reading Diggertown. Ben turned to the now pale Wolf.

‘Why are we here?’ he asked. The Wolf stopped walking.

‘So you can take those supplies to Christie at the inn. Tell her that Tom took care of her problem,’ he said. Ben nodded.

‘Shouldn’t you see the doctor?’ he asked as the Wolf began to stumble away down the street.

‘My next job was to gather medical supplies for the town,’ replied the Wolf.

‘You’re really happy to die here?’ asked Ben. The Wolf turned with something resembling a smile.

‘Don’t worry about me, kid. I’m just a piece of something that should have killed itself long ago.’ Ben watched his new friend limp away before making his way to the inn where he found a dark haired girl with the most welcoming smile he’d ever seen. He could see dozens of scars on her arms and cheeks and she had more muscle than he did, despite her slender appearance. He lifted the food onto the counter and her eyes widened.

‘Tom says he took care of a problem for you,’ said Ben. The girl’s eyes flashed at the name.

‘You’ve seen Tom? Where is he?’ she demanded. Ben took a step back in shock.

‘Uh, he’s… well he’s bleeding out down the street. He said you-’

‘Ran out of medicine. Yes we bloody did, but perhaps now we can afford to fix that,’ she said wheeling round to grab a rifle off the wall behind her along with a pouch of grenades, a knife, two bandoliers, two pistols and a pair of aviators. She moved the food behind the counter and placed a bag of coins on the counter before marching out into the street. Ben took his pay and followed her up to the entrance to the town where the other pockets guys hung out looking for work. There she stood in the middle of the street and shouted.

‘Who wants to help me raid a slaver occupied hospital out near Rippley’s Revenge?’ The street fell silent. Ben could see the Wolf reclining against a wall further down the road. He dropped his camping stool in the dust and stepped forward.

‘I’ve got pockets,’ he said displaying his jacket. Christie smiled.

‘Let’s roll, Pockets Guy.’

The End

 

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Paris The Incorrigible, Elise Robertson

Paris crouched cautiously in his dust bath, tossing clawfuls of the dusky earth onto his brilliant scaled back. An orange sliver of radiant sunshine dazzled the usual smut blackness of the Dragon’s Cave.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

The clamour bludgeoned Paris’ head like a meat-axe.

King Marchello, bless his beard, had commissioned an enormous beaten gold archway on the dragon’s neighbouring Midas Mountain Range.

At bath time, Paris liked to rollick about, the grainy dust removing troublesome Sprites who delighted in pinching and nipping him. And Paris had certain ideas about modesty. Not that you could see anything, of course. But it was the principle of the thing. Paris hadn’t heard any catcalls from the chainmail clad dwarf-women but it was only a matter of time.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

‘Think they can hide behind their beards,’ Paris lowered his voice darkly, ‘But I know what they’re about.’ In serious danger of a hag-ridden visage, Paris applied the Fountain-Of-Youth Face-Mask; the lilac-scented paper-strips making him resemble a tallow-faced mummy.

‘Let them laugh,’ Paris thought, clicking his teardrop talons together. ‘When they have a turkey décolleté, sandpaper skin, and bruised eye-shadows from withering in the sun and candlelight, then they’ll sit up and take notice.’

He liked to look his best before going on a raid, the better to beguile his enemies.

With bewitching bumblebee yellow eyes that could lull to sleep a gossip-mongering Cyclops, his tongue dripping with venomous words and a capacious pouch, furnished with downy feathers, perfect for poaching. Paris had earned his reputation as the Incorrigible Dragon.

*

Paris soared like an iridescent satin ribbon past Uno, a town of terraced houses with arched blue doors and iron balconies.

A prominent round peephole permitted the townsfolk to press their single golden-yellow eyes to the glass and observe their neighbours. In amongst the incessantly pruned box-hedges obtruded a stricken scarecrow Cyclops, red velvet mouth stifling a scream and an egg-yolk yellow eye glinting with shock. In his youth, Paris would mistake these decoys for flesh-and-blood, belatedly receiving an unfortunate mouthful of sawdust stuffing. The dragon licked his artful lips and fantasized about what he would eat for pudding, his favourite dish, Someone-and-Kidney Pie.

*

Paris glided over Highwayman’s Lane, phalanxed by a bank of twisted she-oak. Often on this beat, Paris would glint an heiress in her dove-white brougham carriage, embellished with gilded vines.

Twirling his glossy whiskers, the dragon would bind the maiden to the mining tracks by her lustrous tassels. If her father were of a sensible mind, a plump dowry would feed Paris’ emaciated purse.

Presently, the gravel road was mostly deserted, apart from a lone traveller.

Definitely an ogre. You could tell from the bulging, pug-like eyes, black curly chest hair and calloused bare feet. Dressed minimally in technicolour suspenders and pale rompers, he was not a figure you could easily miss.

The dragon prowled round and round the ogre, affording a panoramic view of the creature’s delectably solid flesh and vivid green veins.

He had the Mark on his forehead, of one unspeakably alone. No strings to anything or anyone. Except for a mildewed rucksack sagging with a swagman’s hoard.

‘Turn out your pockets, Veslingr!’

Sometimes the venomous words were fatal outright. Other times the barbs seeped into the bloodstream of the compelled, paralyzing the prey slow – slow – slowly.

‘Shall I shapeshift into a bridge so you can walk all over me?’ Goessohn, the ogre asked, pumping his biceps, as curved and hard as scitimars that could pitch a cyclops into the hedgerows.

Paris’ laugh rattled like rusted sleigh bells.

Most plebians worshipped the bones the dragon walked on. But Goessohn just gave a bulldog grimace, digging his chisel nails even tighter into the rucksack’s straps. No matter. Paris could wait. The dragon burnished his scales, stroking them slowly with his rough tongue.

‘I’ve heard ogres…taste like spare ribs…left to spoil…in the midday sun,’ Goessohn’s lips were tight and tingling.

Paris smirked.

‘I think I’ll take my chances.’

The dragon’s eyes devoured the stranger’s barrow-like chest, kerosene oil for his scorching stomach.

Paris unhooked the rucksack with his tail, the pain forcing Goessohn to let go at once.

Even mothballs would not have been enough to dash the feral smell of dead mourning dove, the ogre’s last meal.

Paris’ talons caressed a silver pocket watch. As the hour struck, a shadowy black panther stalked a be-silked Fairy around the clock face, the predator’s jaws tearing playfully at the Fairy’s coat tails.

Paris placed the spoils into his pouch as if the treasure was a parcel he had just received by post.

‘Blood-money…will pay with your blood – ’ Goessohn avowed, his stocky legs now drowsy and soft as dough.

Paris’ butter-yellow eyes feasted pilgrim-like upon a three-headed jade dog whose baleful, saucer-like eyes wept ethereal tears of diamonds and pearls.

Goessohn was now deer still.

The ogre’s heavy jowls sagged. He couldn’t even shiver, although his skin perspired greatly.

The dragon hissed like a rattlesnake’s tail.

Paris’ hind legs coiled like a wind-up, ready to pounce.

*

Jack Horner Hall was the country estate belonging to Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth.

A gentleman of leisure who preferred animals to people, especially when the creatures were dead and stuffed. Dorian was not the first man to marry jelly-brained alluring heiress. Argus-eyed chaperones always steering the conversation from more difficult topics.

Every morning, Sir Dorian trit-trotted his ex-racehorse Duke and his pack of foxhounds into Dearborn Forest.
A congregation of insects, reeer-reeer, raah-raah, mmh-mmh, chorused in the humid, clinging air and the mossy, glossy-barked trees.

The routine was as well oiled as a printing press.

Paris knew the estate would be empty, apart from the silent servants and gentle women-folk. Who knew what seraphim treasures lay within Jack-Horner Hall?

Paris slunk towards the front milky marble stairwell, blowing smoke rings in the footman’s face. The frog’s deep-set eyes had a downcast expression as though the dragon was beneath his notice until otherwise introduced. His face was blanched white with lead paint; two spots of rouge coloring his pimply cheeks. A great white wig wobbled like a jelly on his head, bedecked with tiny pink ribbons.

‘I am Paris the Incorrigible!’ the stalwart dragon announced, flexing his glorious heliotrope wings. ‘Thief of Reticules and Swallower of Princesses! Snatcher of Statues and Fire-Consumer of Cities!’

The frog snatched a fly from mid-air and chewed it.

‘Have you a card?’ he drawled.

‘I have a reputation infamously deserved! I need no letter of introduction here!’

Paris tore the white wig from the frog’s head and worried it, like a dog.

‘I’m bald!’ the frog cried in horror, clutching at his bare, moist crown, now divested of his mark of rank.

‘Downstairs servants are forced to take the last name of their served family,’ Paris jibbed, ‘You have always been, as you say, bald.’

‘How dare you!’ the frog croaked, his powdered visage streaking with mortified tears, ‘I could have acknowledged your reputation if you had not wounded mine!’

The frog abandoned his post and frog-marched to the distant Dearborn Forest, repeating, ‘I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t.’ He may still be there now, trying to find something to put on his head. A bird’s nest perhaps? Or a honey jar? Who knows.

Paris gave a low chuckle. All the golden pennies were falling into place.

*

Paris hadn’t meant to enter the salon.

He would rather have been Mr. Plum in the study wrenching something valuable open. The salon was eye-popping. Strawberry pink wallpaper embellished with clusters of laurel leaves lined the grand walls. A white brocade love seat with clawed mahogany lion’s feet demanded an intimate tete-a-tete. A splendid mosaic floor of a rose in full bloom suggested the gaiety of spring. An igloo of books in regimental order dominated the rest of the salon as much as a bloated toad. And the glacé cherry presiding over all this pomp and lavishness was Lady Rosalie Plum-in-the-Mouth, her plump lips pursed in surprise. She wore a rose pink, low-cut gown, the bustle a cascade of bows like rainbow farfalle pasta.

‘Please. Please. Please! Don’t eat my daughter!’ Lady Rosalie begged, hiding her face in her embroidery. ‘I know she is a tiresome headache! Just last week she spat chewing tobacco on Countess Avon’s sapphire slippers…’

Paris tossed his fierce horned head and displayed his imposing underbelly veined with spidery red-gold flame, sparkling like a birdcage glass-marble.

‘You know, if you give me your horde willingly, I might just spare your lives,’ Paris coaxed in an oily voice, as slippery and delicious as bread and dripping.

‘Wait till I’ve finished this chapter,’ a muffled voice exclaimed from behind a barricade of books, ‘I’ve just got to the part when the man declares his passionate devotion for the heroine after a lot of self-denial and misunderstandings between them.’

‘Marriage is not a fairytale,’ Rosalie scoffed, chewing lumpy toffee, her peach-like cheeks a melt-in-the-mouth distraction to the dragon. ‘But you plague me child with your plain looks and your willful, direct-talking tongue. You’ll end up an old maid, or worse a governess!’

Miss Rachel scrummaged out from piles of books, her dull face seemingly polished with olive oil and her figure devoid of curves. She was dressed in a comic sister to her mother’s gown, gold lace with a bustle, a concertina of royal purple satin.

‘Miss Ostentatious didn’t have to put up with ‘The Ice-berg’, a slow-motion kisser,’ Rachel continued, ‘Or ‘Father Time’, as appealing as Father’s stuffed vulture and a lot more free with his hands.’

Miss Rachel was a hothouse flower watered with skating parties, costumed balls, bonnet re-affixing and village walks, unused to tempests.

‘Perhaps not dear,’ Lady Rosalie sniffed, ‘but they always gained ten thousand a year, which is always a comfort.’

Paris’ steaming nostrils flared, raining sickly-smelling pumice stones on the two bewildered women.

‘You must be very tired.’ Paris commented in a measured, deep voice, fixing his ultra-dilated pupils on Lady Rosalie’s perturbed face and curling his cherry-red tail around her waist, pinning her in place.

‘Let your worries fall like water droplets into a stream.’

Miss Rachel charged into Paris’ body but the dragon just shook his prickly scales like a dog.

‘Let your troubles float into the air like a kite…And give me the keys to the master’s study.’

Lady Rosalie was known to do anything nonsensical in her sleep. Rosalie’s Sleep Talk was defensive and omniscient; ‘I am awake! You were just talking about flying pigs…’ Lady Rosalie’s Sleep Wanderings found her reclining on the grand piano, her mattress apparently being too soft. Her pink kimono folded as neat as tissue paper beside her. And so it came of no surprise when Lady Rosalie muttered groggily, ‘Stop tickling me…’ and unfurled the tarnished silver key from around her titan neck, placing it into Paris’ pearly talons.

*

Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth’s study stared.

Glass glazed eyes stared from all the four walls. A white weasel crumpled forward, its tiny teeth snarled. A tawny owl’s head twisted at an unnatural angle, its claws reaching towards the dragon. A bear lurched on its hind legs, like a boxer in the ring. The study smelt of stale cigars and violin rosin. The frescoed walls depicted hairy satyrs chasing semi-naked nymphs. The Minotaur leather lounge was low and dimpled, inviting one to sink into it. The soul of the study was a walnut roll top writing desk, littered with newspaper clippings, telegrams and a whalebone ashtray. Paris padded around, pouring over the stained glass windows, inhaling the scent of a gold-rimmed vase of hyacinths, sampling the decanter of mint liqueur and stroking the heavy brushstrokes of the still life oil paintings. The dragon’s pouch was soon bulging almost uncomfortably to overflowing.

It was then Paris saw it.

It was rare, choice, must-have.

It could hold black crepe de chine from Crème de la Crème Emporium, where poor seamstresses hand stitched mourning veils and garments for the Fairy Court. The garments were hand-woven and stitched by Cyclops, in between dripping their red-rimmed eye with eye-drops. It could hold a knotted, rose-gold ring from Raiment Forge, where the broad dwarf smiths forged and charmed spells into treasure, this ring charmed to change color with the wearer’s mood. It could hold a gilded, ivory comb from Del-noblesse, where Fairy merchants painted with precious sheets of gold leaf and twittered about their own glittering reflections. The round, metallic lid had the stamp of a faded Forget-me-not flower. Paris’ claws punctured the rubber seal. The platinum box disgorged bile-black spectres of village-children, their hair long, silky and ringleted into cherub curls. The boys each wore a blue velvet doublet embroidered with brown boats and silk stockings. The girls wore red muslin dresses laced with grape-like diadems. The children gaily formed a circle and joined dimpled hands, the girl’s wrists chaperoned by their dress sleeve’s lacy cuffs. Then they danced. It was far from rosy. They scratched like flea-ridden mad-dogs. They sweated like horses galloping around a ring. Their bodies swelled with black, fist-like welts. They coughed droplets of blood into their perfumed handkerchiefs. Then, beyond exhaustion, they fell down dead.

‘Don’t be such a namby-pamby baby,’ the children’s rasping voices teased as they vanished.

Paris’ eyes streamed lava like hose pipes and he checked his stippled armpits for the odious, bulging buboes. Paris longed for a dust bath; the dust would warm his goose-pimpled hide. Paris longed to stopper cotton wool into his blue-furred ears to block the child wraiths’ harsh, echoing voices. The dragon’s lungs pumped a firework of flame into the onyx fireplace, an armory of fire.

*

Bang!

Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth stormed into the study, trailing mud as he went.

Dorian’s features were starch white and his fists were curled into a knuckled smile.

‘You vile worm!’ Dorian bellowed, his alpha fox-hound nudging its head against his houndstooth-clad thighs.

‘The seal from the box is dwarf made. It was the one thing keeping the Pestilence contained.’

‘But surely I will be unaffected,’ Paris rumbled, his eyes lingering on his weighty pouch and smoldering scales, as a glorious talisman.

‘Against Death? Hardly,’ Sir Dorian gave a cynical snort, ‘The Pestilence doesn’t discriminate against young or old, rich or poor, high or low-born.’

The dragon’s cheeks drained bloodless. Paris’ distinguished whiskers drooped.

He no longer felt incorrigible but as weak as watered brandy.

‘By claw or by tooth, I will tar the wound I have caused!’ The dragon’s clawed hand expunged all of his hat-pin sharp fangs. ‘There is ancient magic which humans no longer care to know.’

Sir Dorian gaped, as Paris sowed the seeds of dragon teeth into the plum-pudding-scented soil of his potted palm. Thin, sleek stalks erupted towards the ceiling. Thick, thorny stems blossomed with roses, shaking out goddesses like bees from a hive.

The Furies each wore a sweeping white veil of tears, serpents entwined in their thick hair, hobnail boots with beating wings and each flourished a fiery torch.

They spoke in unison in the tone of a cracked mirror. ‘From blood you summoned us and for the shedding of blood we remain. The font of the Pestilence must be destroyed as must the perpetrator of their release…’

Paris shuddered. Cold as a vault full of gold. His empty, inflamed gums had once held a crown of teeth.

 

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Where Light Doesn’t Exist, Alex Chambers

Robert and Jaden were running out of ideas. It had been too long since Georgia had disappeared down the cave and black clouds were quickening overhead.

The cave was unlike any they’d seen or read about as it wasn’t made of stone but foliage. Trees sprouted up from the ground then curled and combined with leaves, bushes, and branches to make a completely solid structure, daunting the barely teenage boys standing just outside its mouth. It was lightless inside and no matter how much the two of them called, there was no echo or reply from Georgia. But the strangest of all was that the inside of the structure was significantly larger than the outside. When Robert and Jaden had dared to venture inside earlier, it became clear that they’d walked for much longer than physically possible before turning back.

Robert thought back to earlier this morning, when Georgia had pounded on his door and demanded he come see what she’d found. Jaden was dragged along when the pair chanced upon him on the way into the forest. When they had arrived, Georgia pointed down into the abyss. ‘Come on!’

‘What is it?’ Robert asked, approaching slowly. Jaden said nothing and kept his distance as Georgia grinned and began trotting into the mouth of the cave.

‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘But it goes a long way—I’m gonna see how far.’

She hadn’t said anything more. Before Robert or Jaden could even utter a protest, she’d dashed off. When she didn’t return for a few minutes, the boys tried to follow her, but found that the seemingly straight line surrounded by impossibly close-knit trees wasn’t so simple. As they walked, the path twisted and turned even though they never once changed the direction they travelled. The further they went, the more the light was swallowed by the shadows of the cavern.

Robert, now pacing back and forth at the mouth of the cave nearly an hour later, was starting to mumble to himself. ‘It’s getting late—we need to do something. I can’t believe we couldn’t stop her,’ he groaned. He’d been running his hand through his tan hair so many times now it was no longer neat.

‘Calm down,’ Jaden growled from against a tree nearby. ‘It’s Georgia’s own damn fault. Always running off and doing stupid stuff like this. I wish you hadn’t babbled to her about how ‘interesting’ this ‘strange new phenomenon’ looked either.’

‘Okay, I got a little excited,’ he admitted. ‘But this is like something out of one of my sci-fi books! There could be a whole universe in there—’

‘Please don’t start again.’ Jaden rolled his eyes and began rubbing his forehead. ‘I’m tired. This is the fourth supernatural thing we’ve had to deal with this week.’

The isolated, English countryside town of Edgeville was far from the first place anyone would’ve guessed would be a hotspot for paranormal activity, but for the past couple of months, the town’s children had found themselves embroiled in a series of strange happenings. A decrepit mansion appeared on the outskirts of town one evening and disappeared the next. Pale, ephemeral figures stalked the town’s graveyards. Objects floated and flew across rooms. And the children had had more than enough encounters with fanged, clawed and/or winged creatures that stalked them relentlessly, but always just out of the corner of their sight.

No one over the age of eighteen knew about any of this and most of the older children tried to deny it or explain it rationally. No matter what, any time an adult was called to investigate one of the strange and dangerous incidents it would vanish. Whole haunted houses would disappear. The floating spectres would evaporate just in time for the adult to miss them.

The children of Edgeville no longer slept soundly, but that didn’t stop some of them from trying to do something about it or being intrigued.

‘Do you think it goes underground?’ Robert said. ‘That would explain why it goes for so long and why it’s so dark inside.’

When he didn’t get a response, he turned to see Jaden yawning.

‘You’re still talking science-y mumbo-jumbo,’ he said.

‘Aren’t you interested?’ Robert retorted and then he added, ‘or worried?’

‘No. You don’t sound like you’re worried either.’

Robert thought for a moment, then said, ‘Are we just getting used to this, maybe?’

‘Sick of it, more like,’ Jaden huffed. ‘I mean, how many times has Georgia leapt into some dangerous situation and come out just fine with that stupid grin all over her face? And you’re treating it like a big mystery novel that you’re trying to figure out.’

‘This is a big mystery,’ Robert said. ‘And I do want to figure it out. And if we keep investigating, maybe we’ll all figure something out.’

A distant rumble of thunder came from far above. Jaden wrinkled his nose and frowned. ‘Go get Veronica. We’re not getting anything done right now.’

Most of the town’s children tried to ignore or flat-out deny that there was anything wrong, but after the incidents had started, a small band of kids had decided they’d actively explore the terrifying events that plagued their town. Veronica, as the oldest over Jaden by a few months, had been unofficially designated their leader, which meant that when Georgia got herself into trouble, it was usually Veronica who ended up organising the rescue mission.

‘Does your phone have reception out here?’ Robert asked.

‘No.’

‘Neither does mine. Stay here then, just in case Georgia comes back out. I’ll head into town…’

‘Fine by me,’ Jaden answered, sitting down at the base of the tree.

There was another, louder bang of thunder. Robert gave a thumbs-up and hurried off out of the forest.

He first swung by his own house, creeping in through the garage door and rifling through his father’s things for anything of use. As he’d hoped, he found a rope along with a heavy-duty torch. He wasted no time making a run for Veronica’s house a few streets over. He mulled over the thought of gathering up more friends for the rescue, but a flash of lightning accompanied by a dangerously close rumble caused him to decide that he was close to running out of time.

He approached the front door, first tossing the rope and torch into the bushes, and then knocked. Robert figured it’d be best to avoid any suspicious questions. The door was opened by Veronica’s father, Curtis, who greeted Robert warmly.

‘What can I do for you, Robert?’ he asked. ‘It’s looking to be a heck of a storm. Not really the right time to be off playing in the streets, eh?’

‘No sir,’ Robert answered. ‘I was actually wondering if Veronica was around. I had a, uh, spur of the moment idea. It was looking to be a good night for a movie so I wanted to see if Veronica and some other friends wanted to come over. Is she in?’

‘What a great way to spend a Saturday night! She’s home—I’ll go and get her. Just remember not to put on anything too scary. You know how she hates all those violent horror movies.’

Curtis called his daughter and departed the room. Robert managed to hold the smile on his face until Curtis left before grimacing. Veronica came treading down the stairs and frowned when she saw Robert’s expression.

‘Let me guess,’ she said. ‘Georgia?’

Robert nodded. ‘She’s in trouble.’

‘What did she annoy this time?’

‘It’s a little more complex than that bat thing she upset last week. It might be better to see for yourself. It’s in the forest.’

‘I’ll go get my coat and some good shoes,’ she sighed. She hopped back up the stairs and returned a moment later wearing a pair of pink gumboots and a baby-blue raincoat. Veronica was a year older than Robert, but nearly a foot shorter. She wasn’t as smart as Robert and she definitely wasn’t as brave or strong as Georgia, but she had a shine in her blue eyes and a posture that was tall and confident. Robert could tell by looking—even if Veronica couldn’t see it herself—that she was definitely most suited to be in charge.

‘I’ll try to explain what’s happening on the way,’ he said as they departed. He stopped a moment to retrieve his rope and torch from the garden before they jogged towards the forest. A drizzle of rain had begun to shower the pair as they fought through the trees and bushes towards their destination.

‘It’s over there,’ Robert pointed past some trees and over a hill. ‘I left Jaden there, in case Georgia came back.’

In between breaths and crashes of thunder, Robert tried to describe what the cave was to Veronica.

‘So it’s like a cave, but it’s bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside,’ she panted. ‘But it’s made of trees?’

‘Exactly!’ Robert said. ‘Think of what could be inside there. I mean, there could be anything really—’

‘Is that it?’ Veronica interrupted.

The rain had intensified, but there was no mistaking the gnarled shape of the cave a few metres away. As they hastened towards it, a flash of lightning illuminated the area. In the half-light, the cave looked more twisted and unnatural; the branches of the trees sharper and darker, but something else had caught their attention in that brief moment of sudden light.

‘Robert,’ she breathed. ‘Was that…?’

‘Yeah, I saw it too.’

Something had jolted like a startled spider into the cave, too fast for either of them to make out what it could be.

‘A deer?’ Veronica suggested.

‘Too big and too quick,’ Robert shuddered. ‘And…I think it was black. And scaly.’

‘I really hope you’re wrong. Could it have been—?’

She stopped and they flicked their heads towards each other. Robert switched on the torch and they hurried down the hill towards the cave. He swept the light over the area, scanning for any sign of Jaden. They both began to call his name, hoping he’d just fallen asleep under the tree, but it soon became clear he wasn’t answering.

‘He probably just went home, right?’ Veronica said. Her voice was quivering.

‘I told him to wait here, though,’ Robert said. ‘And I know he’s lazy, but he wouldn’t go home without Georgia.’

They both turned and looked down the looming maw of the cave. Even now, armed with the torch, Robert couldn’t see anything other than the walls of trees on either side of the path deep into the darkness. It seemed to stretch on forever.

‘Give me the torch,’ Veronica said, holding her hand out. ‘And one end of the rope.’

‘But—’

‘One of us has to stay out here,’ she explained. ‘And you’re right—Jaden wouldn’t have gone home without Georgia. If they did go home, we’d have seen them on the way here. So they’re in there.’

‘I want—’

‘I know,’ she continued. ‘I know you want to see what’s in there. That’s why I’m going in; you might get lost or distracted.’

Robert huffed, but complied. ‘If you see anything dangerous…’

‘I’m not leaving without them either,’ she said. Without another word, she faced the cave, torch in one hand and rope in the other, and began to tread cautiously into the abyss. A ways in, she started to run, calling Jaden and Georgia’s names.

Robert watched her get smaller and smaller, the rope in his hand unwinding rapidly as the light from Veronica’s torch steadily vanished from view. He was alone in the closing darkness. The sky howled and rain began to pelt him furiously. He stepped into the mouth of the cave, hoping its branches would at least keep him dry as he waited. The rope in his hand continued to unravel.

*

The walls of the cave had begun to change. Veronica could see the branches and foliage of the trees melting together to form some new substance that was a dull brown. It looked like it’d be sticky to touch, but she didn’t dare test this thought. A smell like decomposing fruit had begun to gradually rise in potency and it took all of Veronica’s willpower to avoid turning back. What was worse was that the light from her torch was steadily becoming useless. The blackness of the cave seemed so immense that her light couldn’t pierce it. The ray seemed increasingly insignificant as she ventured deeper. Her heart was thundering like the storm she had left so far behind

‘Jaden!’ she called. ‘Georgia!’

She stopped running for a moment to catch her breath and listen for a response. She thought she heard footsteps somewhere ahead, but otherwise the cave was silent.

‘Please, please, please be Jaden and Georgia.’ she muttered.

Veronica increased her pace and began calling again. The ground beneath her boots was growing warmer and softer. She dreaded the thought of aiming her torch downwards to see what was happening to it; instead she focused the light on the void before her. As she jogged along, the light occasionally illuminated the walls and Veronica noted that they were stretching further apart. Something was dripping from them without a sound. There was no way she was still in the forest.

When she called her friends again, she gasped at a sound not too far ahead. She thought it’d been a groan. She sprinted into the darkness, clutching her torch and rope and almost tripped over the slouched figure of Jaden.

‘Jaden!’ she cried. The torchlight flew over his features, telling Veronica all she needed to know: he was hurt. Blood was dripping from his nose and mouth. She shrieked, dropped the torch, and began to shake Jaden by the shoulders. Soon enough, she heard a voice from the darkness.

‘What time is it…?’

Veronica stopped and picked her torch back up to direct it to the space beside Jaden. It was Georgia, lying face-down on the ground. When she sat up, Veronica became aware that she was also injured: she had a crimson gash across her forehead.

‘Georgia?’

She blinked and shook her head, realisation setting in. ‘Oh, ‘sup, Veronica? How’d you get down here?’

‘Never mind that,’ Veronica said. ‘Help me get Jaden up—we’ve gotta go.’ She moved to shake his shoulder again, but Georgia motioned for her to step back. Without any further prompting, she began slapping Jaden repeatedly until a series of moans came from his throat.

‘Quit it, quit it!’ he snapped, jumping to his feet. ‘I’m up!’

‘Then we’re leaving,’ Veronica said, standing. ‘You can tell me what happened when we get out of here.’

‘Okay, but question,’ Georgia said, dragging herself to her feet. ‘How’d you get past that thing?’

‘Thing?’

‘Yeah, the thing with lots of legs and eyes.’

Veronica didn’t move. Jaden turned to her and could just make out her horrified expression in the torchlight. ‘You didn’t see it, did you?’

She slowly shook her head.

‘Well ya might soon,’ Georgia said, looking past her friends. Veronica held her breath and could faintly make out a scuttling sound in the direction Georgia was facing.

‘Stay close and don’t look back,’ Veronica instructed. No more words were said as the three tore back through the cave along the path of the rope.

*

It was well and truly storming now, with rain slamming down like the world was ending. The cave offered little safety from it to Robert who was now drenched. However, not once had his gaze left the direction of the darkness where he now watched his three friends charging towards him. Jaden and Georgia’s faces were covered in blood. Veronica looked like she was about to cry. They arrived and stopped in front of Robert, whose expression was a mixture of concern and joy.

For a while no one said anything, and the cacophony in the skies above was all they could hear. Then Robert jerked his thumb back behind him, towards town. ‘I’ve uh,’ he said. ‘Got some Disney movies at my place. And a heater. You guys want to come over? Tell me all about it?’

Georgia made some sort of discontent sound and Jaden shoved her.

‘Sounds great, Robert,’ Veronica sighed. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

 

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Liminality, Amy Garpendal

This road feels familiar.

The girl walks with her backpack slung low. She’s forgotten how long she’s been walking. Orange streaks across the sky as the sun sinks towards the horizon, the low angle stabbing into the girl’s eyes. She brushes her hand across her brow, wondering where her sunshades have gone. Her hand stops, and she stares at it. There are several bands tattooed between the joints of her dark fingers. Her smallest finger has, four, the next finger six, she stares at her middle finger counting and re-counting. Seven. Seven. Every time she recounts she wants to stop at six, but the seventh ring contradicts her. Seven. She shakes out her fingers and digs them through the tight curls of her hair. There must have been a tattoo parlour in the last town, she thinks, itll come back to me soon.

A nearby sign proclaims the presence of a rest-stop: Ama’s Resting Place—500m. The prairie slowly turns into scrub which then thickens into sparse forest. The turn-off lane shifts to gravel and curves around to meet a parking bay. A small cottage is set behind wooden picnic tables that fan out from the parking bay. The stones of the cottage might have once been a rich brown but the sun has softened the colour to an ashy grey. The windows are small and dirty. Its wooden door is propped open, the surrounding buttonbush creeping up and inside.

The girl walks in and is surprised. It is much more spacious than she had expected. There are several cases, some full of books, others half-filled with knickknacks and spare car parts. Racks of clothes and blankets, sagging armchairs, spinning displays of hats and mugs. There is an old refrigerator beside a large wooden bench that appears to be the paying counter. Perched behind the counter is a small Native American lady. She looks up from her book when the girl walks in. Her name-tag says ‘Ama’.

‘You lookin’ for anything in particular, girl?’

The girl doesn’t reply. She stares at the rotating mug rack in front of her, an empty space blooming in her mind. Green plastic mugs flash names at her; Alice, Amelia, Brooke, Catherine, Chloe…

‘We ain’t got yours?’

She shakes her head absently, staring, seeking, seeking. I should know this, she worries, why dont I remember this? Taylor, Tiffany, Tina, Tracey…

‘No…I don’t think so.’ She tugs on the straps of her backpack, thinking hard, shifting letters around in her head. Tiah, Teha, Teia, Theia.

Theia.

‘I’m Theia,’ she announces, swinging the display back to the beginning of the alphabet. ‘Do you have a map? I think I lost mine.’

The cottage-keeper, Ama, dog-ears her page and slips off her stool. She pulls a woven basket of maps from the far end of the counter. As Ama rifles, Theia drops her backpack to her feet undoing the straps and extracting her wallet. She flips it open and catches sight of her ID card. The smaller version of herself, blue-tipped mass of curls, full eyebrows, dark gold eyes, peers up at her. Theia hesitates then pushes the card further into her wallet and goes to fish out a twenty dollar bill. She hears a soft exclamation of victory and looks up to see Ama holding a dirty and slightly creased map. Across the counter, Ama hands her the map but doesn’t let go, instead she looks up into Theia’s golden eyes. Ama’s curiously colourless eyes bore into Theia. Her lower belly quivers and she feels as if the surrounds of her mind are warming and melting away.

A small pocket of memory opens. She’s been here before. She has stood in this place seventeen times before. Has walked this road seventeen times. Taken this task seventeen times. Failed seventeen times. Every time remembering a little less. She began with such determination, she thinks. When had she begun forgetting why she journeyed? The tattoo artist had stopped asking what she wanted done. She loses the map every time. Ama always looks at her the same. The hopelessness had crept in sometime around the ninth time and never left. She feels ill after every time she remembers. Familiar rage and frustration rises in Theia, the echo of the past seventeen times over.

Ama releases the map and her eyes. Theia blinks. Forgets.

She looks at the map in her hands. Her stomach roils.

‘Where’s the bathroom?’

‘Next to the postcards and the golf clubs.’

Theia barely makes it to the old-fashioned toilet but as soon as she braces herself above the bowl, the sickness abates. She tosses the map aside and waits, sure that the nausea will return. When it doesn’t she pulls herself up to the sink, tapping the faucet to wet her fingers. She digs her fingers into her eyes and rubs. Stars burst behind her eyelids and she sighs. Itll all make sense, she tries to reassure herself, Ill know where Im going soon. Her clothes are dusty and dirty, her grey shirt turned nearly as brown as her skin. The cuffs of her jeans are wearing away. Her boots are becoming lost under the thick grime. As she turns to leave she spies the map on the floor. Vertigo pulls her down to the cool tiles. Her head throbs and her stomach lurches. She feels like a dormant volcano trying desperately to reawaken. She presses her palms into her eyes, blocking everything out. She sits quietly. Breathing.

There’s a knock at the bathroom door.

‘You alive in there, girl?’ Ama’s voice crackles through the wood and urges Theia to her feet.

‘My name is Theia.’ She picks up the map and shoves it in the back pocket of her jeans. Ama is standing outside the door when she comes out. She hands Theia an unopened bottle of water and goes back to the counter.

Theia wanders about the racks and tables, taking tiny sips of water. A green notebook catches her attention on one of the bookshelves. She wonders what happened to her old one. She picks it up and goes over to where she left her backpack. Her snack supply is dwindling and she doesn’t have any mittens. The evenings are going to get colder. As she browses she finds a bunch of muesli bars and fingerless mittens; pale blue, yellow, some green. Why arent there any with fingers? There are several empty spaces next to the yellow ones. She takes the pale blue mittens and goes over to the paying counter.

‘Could I have two more bottles of water as well, please?’ Ama fetches them from the fridge while Theia retrieves her wallet. She spies a small cosmetic section and impulsively picks out a tube of purple lipstick. Ama rings it all up for her and Theia passes over a bill. Theia pulls out the creased map and spreads it over the counter.

‘Where about are we on here? Also could you point me towards…’ she trails off and looks away frowning. Ama peers at her intently, wondering whether the girl will remember this time. Rules dictate that no one must interfere. Even cottage-keepers.

‘Never mind.’ Theia’s voice is small, her eyes remain downcast.

Ama sighs and spins the map around. This time like so many others. She tracks down her cottage, a tiny dot along one of the lesser travelled highways. She plants an ‘X’next to it in red pencil. While Ama puts the pencil away and picks her book up, Theia picks idly at a small tear over west Nebraska, feeling hopeless. She looks up to thank Ama but the cottage-keeper avoids her eyes and turns the page of her book.

Theia gathers up her purchases and takes them and her backpack out to one of the picnic tables. She refolds all of her clothes and jams them into the bottom of the pack. She pulls on her sweater. It has a hole in the shoulder. The fingerless mittens she ends up putting on instead of having to later dig around and mess up her system. Apples that are slightly withered but still good go on top of the muesli bars and the beef jerky, next to her flashlight and bandanas. Her wallet slips into the front section so it’s easier to extract next time. She rolls up her blanket and straps it to the top of the pack. The two unopened water bottles go into the side nets. Finally she stares at the sheathed hunting knife that she still feels wary and confused about. She doesn’t remember where she got it or what it’s for. She hasn’t unsheathed it. She ends up sliding it into the rolled-up blanket, not knowing where else to put it. She’s left the green notebook and a pen out. Flipping it the notebook open, she writes her name in the front cover and the name of the rest-stop underneath. She closes it again and sticks it and the pen into her empty pocket. She stretches and looks back over to the cottage. Maybe Ill come back one day. After Ive finished. Finished

Theia hoists the backpack onto her shoulders. The gravel crackles under her boots as she walks away from Ama’s Resting Place.

*

Ama watches out the open door as Theia walks away from the cottage for the eighteenth time. She wonders how many more times she will see her come through, yet again asking for a map and gloves. Ama turns the page of her book. Her Resting Place. Her resting place for travellers. They would pull out their maps, she would strike an ‘X’, on they’d go. Then she’d see others again, twice, three times, five times. Never more.

She wonders if much will change if Theia makes it to the next town. Eighteen times. Her journey is not like the journeys of others before her. Ama thinks of the locked drawer at the base of the counter. Interfering is forbidden, she reminds herself. She turns the page of her book. Flips to the next chapter. The other travellers eventually made it. Why not Theia? Never so many repetitions. Eighteen. Perhaps this time, a small part of her mind whispers. She tugs on a small key hidden among the many necklaces around her neck.

Ama eyes the small locked drawer at the base of the counter.

She closes her book.

*

Theia looks back at Ama’s Resting Place as the gravel turns back into bitumen. The cottage stands in the desolation of the prairie, the sparse forest surrounding it softening the harshness. She has the most peculiar feeling that she’s been there before today, the buttonbush that’s creeping inside, the picnic tables, Ama. It feels the strangest kind of familiar. She looks at her mittens, the pale blue contrasting against her hands. I thought I had some red ones with fingers, she stares for a moment longer, or were they orange. Theia shakes her head and continues walking, following the road north. It feels like the right way to be walking. She knows there is somewhere she is meant to be going but there must be something broken in her br—

Her temples throb.

Broken Bow.

She gasps and rips the notebook and pen out, writing on the first page she lands. She drops to the ground, scrabbles for her map and searches, searches. Ama’s red X. Her finger follows the road north.

Broken Bow.

The prairie wind whips up and pulls at the map under her hands. She holds onto a corner desperately but the wind catches a tear and tugs. Half of the map tumbles away. Theia stumbles to her feet and runs. The wind whips the paper higher and higher. From behind her a truck horn blares. It swerves, headlights blinding her and she lurches to the side, falling into a buttonbush. The wind drops and the truck fades away into the distance.

Theia picks herself up. The prairie is quiet. She walks forward and hears the crinkle of paper under her boot. It’s half of a map. The southern half of Nebraska. Theia looks around the prairie, wondering if the other half is close by. She shrugs and folds the half up and shoves in into her bag. She pats her jeans down and frowns, she thought she had a pen tucked away somewhere. Perhaps not.

Theia dusts herself off, hikes her backpack higher, and begins to walk into the darkening dusk.

 

This road feels familiar.

 

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

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