ISSUE 1, AUGUST 2016


Cover Art by Joe Slucher

 Editorial: Death is Here
By Madeline L. Stout

When illness strikes a loved one, many times the first thing people do is pray for a miracle. What people fail to realize is that we have already had our miracles. Modern medicine is a miracle. It has extended our lives beyond what many thought possible and improved our overall quality of living, and it keeps improving it. Death used to come much sooner than it does now, and yet we want more. More time. More miracles. It’s just not enough. Breakthroughs are made in the medical field everyday, but unfortunately, not always in time to save those dearest to us. A cure may be found for cancer next year, but it won’t be in time to save my grandfather. Just like it wasn’t able to save my grandmother.

I too have prayed for miracles. I have cried and screamed at the complete and utter unfairness of losing two of the most important people in my life to the same cancer. Now, I have reached a reluctant acceptance. It is true what they say about the stages of grief. I do not want to lose my grandfather, but I would rather that than to see him suffer.

And that is when I noticed it. Death. Death is on everyone’s mind in some way or another. Fear of death. Fear of losing someone to death. A morbid curiosity of death. Despite the great advances in medicine and science, we are unsatisfied because the result is the same. It is always death.

When submissions first opened for this inaugural issue of Fantasia Divinity, I was shocked. Not by the number of submissions, but by the topics. Death. Life after death. I was stunned. Ninety percent of the submissions I received dealt with death or the afterlife in one way or another. Everyone has lost someone, and everyone wishes that they had more time with the one they lost. I wish I could provide that time to all of you. Alas, this is out of my power. What I can do is provide you all with great stories.

Although not all of these stories deal with death, several do.

First, in “Millions of Suns Left” by Evan Henry, you will embark on a dangerous intergalactic mission to find a mysterious object that can save Earth from invaders.

Next we have “Man from Oyon” by CB Droege, a flash piece where a mirror that is supposed to allow you talk to the dead ends up having a different ability.

In “After the Crash” by John Grey, the survivors of a fatal car crash move out into the woods to try and heal their broken minds and spirits, when things start going wrong.

“Unicorn” by Cathleen Townsend presents a unique approach to the unicorn mythos, by exploring exactly what an ailing unicorn must do to keep their immortality.

Finally, in “Flowers in the Pyramid” by Bartholomew Klick, a young girl becomes a reluctant guide to a man whose future depends on a mysterious discovery buried deep in the forest.
I hope you all enjoy these stories as much as I did.

Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She started Fantasia Divinity to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. Madeline has two short stories available on Kindle and other major devices as well as two books coming out in early 2017.

Visit her website to check out her latest projects.


Want to know more? Madeline is featured in an interview by Cathleen Townsend, where she discusses the magazine and her writing.


Millions of Suns Left
By Evan Henry

Time began receding in January and continued receding until May. The four months of the journey spent in cold sleep at light-seven did what it always does, and upon waking they knew that it must have been something very important indeed that had sent them on a trans-arm shot to Sirius. On their own they would never remember exactly what their mission was, just like they would never remember a thousand other things about their world, about themselves. That was what the recordings were for.
On the side of the window opposite Eulalah Raube there was a chaos of stars. Behind her on the viewscreen her father laughed a deep, hearty belly laugh that she had almost convinced herself she remembered. Behind her, maybe thirty years, she had just been born. Her mother swaddled her; her father stroked her cheek.
The recordings included history documentaries, material on Janus, on how to bring the Tyson in for a successful orbital insertion, lectures in biology, physics, chemistry; anything at all that could conceivably be of use during the course of the mission, not to mention what were loosely termed “personal effects”: family stories recounted by their brothers, sisters, parents, and old home videos designed to salvage as much as possible of their prior lives. It was the basics, things they already knew, or at least, had known.
There was a knock at the entrance to the ship’s bridge. She looked up at the clock to find that it was nearing three a.m., whatever that meant eight and a half light years from Earth.
“Come in,” she said.
Eulalah turned in time to see Luther glide onto the bridge, bumping his head on the upper edge of the threshold. It had been a month since they had woken up, but he had yet to master the logistics of maneuvering in zero-gee. He was clumsy, as graceful as a gorilla in a dollhouse, but she had to admit, it was endearing, in a way.
He pointed with his thumb to the newborn on the viewscreen. “So I was right,” he said. “You were always this cute.”
She tried to scowl but wound up grinning instead. She hoped she wasn’t blushing.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked. He floated in beside her at the viewport, touching the small of her back half in an affectionate greeting, half to steady himself.
“How’d you guess, Captain…” She searched for the word.
“Obvious?” he offered without a hint of condescension. “Captain Obvious?”
“Yeah,” she said, turning back to the stars. “Captain Obvious. Or Commander Obvious, I guess I should say.”
“We’ll be to Janus in a couple days,” said Luther. He pointed out the window, in the direction of a pale cyan dot, one among millions. “Do you see the greenish one, almost a crescent? Just to the left of Sirius?”
“Mm-hmm.”
“Nervous?” he asked. His voice shook almost imperceptibly.
“No,” Eulalah said with an emphatic shake of her head. “And you shouldn’t be either. I read your file, Luther, and you read mine. We have a hundred EVAs under our belt, put together. You’ve roughed it on Europa, Ceres, Titan. Places I’ve never been.”
“I have what it takes,” he said, nodding. “We both do. Or at least we did once. Guess we’ll see what cold sleep does to those particular skills.”
“First manned extrasolar voyage,” Eulalah said. “Don’t forget that, Luther—the first. And they picked us.”
“They were in a bind, though,” said Luther. “Karcani are closing in. There’s something we need on Janus. Something that might be able to hold them off.”
She nodded. She remembered that much.
“Maybe they were just desperate enough to take their chances with us.”
She said nothing.
“It’ll be rough down there, Eulalah, and I want to make sure we’re both prepared for it. I’m trying not to overthink it, but…”
“Then don’t,” she said.
No reply was forthcoming. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, this time with no mitigating factor for his affectionate intentions. She smiled again, still looking away.
After a moment Luther gestured toward the pair of tablets strapped to the wall next to the viewscreen, a pair of headphones hanging suspended mid-air next to each. “You listened to the section on the Torrid Zone, didn’t you?”
She shrugged. She hadn’t. “I remember it from Dr. Hanson’s lectures in Houston,” she said, and that was half true. “But we don’t have to worry about that, Luther. We’re headed straight down to the terminator; we’ll split apart there, and it’s no more than twenty kilometers east and twenty kilometers west. The temples were part of a complex. The Priests used to walk between them as part of the ceremonies. It won’t take us any longer than it took them.”
“The records are fragmentary,” Luther said. “It’s hard to say what really went on back then. Or what the terrain is like down there, for that matter. Or what the Priests even looked like. They might have been much taller than us. Much faster...” He trailed off.
Eulalah looked over at him for the first time in a long time. He looked away. She took his hand in hers.
“Luther,” she said. “I know it’s scary. But I also know…” She reached up and grabbed him by his stubble-rough chin, gently but firmly forcing his eyes to meet hers. “I also know you wouldn’t be making as big a deal out of it if I weren’t here. If I weren’t going down with you.”
He was still, as motionless as the inert headphones in mid-air behind him. He didn’t speak, didn’t blink, might not have even been breathing. She leaned in close, put her head on his shoulder.
“I believe in you,” she said. “And I believe in me. You should, too.”
She pulled back and looked into his eyes again, grey-blue like the surface of a frozen-over alien world. But maybe, she thought, a world with warmth beneath the surface, maybe even an ocean of life. Europa, she thought. His eyes reminded her of Europa.
“I do,” he said. He pressed his forehead to hers. “Don’t worry. I do.” They closed their eyes in unison, and when they opened them they both wanted the same thing.
She put a finger to his lips and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“When we get back,” she said, and he muttered something about holding her to that.
“Besides,” Eulalah said, a grin spreading across her face, “who says I’m gonna be the one who needs to worry about the Torrid Zone? There’s nothing in the mission parameters about which one of us goes to the day side.”
He blinked as if pulling himself out of a hallucination. He reached into his shirt pocket and produced a flat, shiny metal something. “Way ahead of you,” said Luther. “Now, let’s see, can you flip a coin in zero-gee?”
Eulalah giggled. On the screen behind them she blew out the candles on her fourth birthday cake. “Let’s find out.”

***

Eulalah hacked through a tangle of knotted yellow vines with her machete. The sky above the canopy glowed a mottled orange-pink, visible through the far-off leaves in scattered splotches. She was nearing the terminator now, the line dividing the day side of Janus from the moonless night side. This was the land of the eternal sunset—or, if you were the glass-half-full type, sunrise. At the moment, though, Eulalah was not the glass-half-full type.
The smaller circumference of Janus relative to Earth meant that the transition between day and night is faster, as the human walks. Here one could walk faster than an Earth sunset. The air outside her suit had indeed chilled considerably in the past hour. Out here the plant species had begun to lose their verdant luster, the formerly omnipresent jungle trees become sparser and sparser, though their leaves still dominated her overhead view. Down here on the forest floor, the trunks were farther apart than an aerial view might have suggested. This was the domain of dark vines, ranging from pale blue to earth-black in color, hardly (if at all) dependent on photosynthesis like their larger cousins. They covered the ground in tight-wound thickets that would have made vehicular travel practically impossible.
She checked the display screen at her wrist, watching as the blue dot representing herself imperceptibly closed the distance separating it from the red dot representing Luther. Another few hours, another few kilometers, and they would make the rendezvous, if either of them were still alive. She muttered a silent curse on herself for botching the landing, breaking the docking seal between their craft too early. They had landed farther apart than they had planned, and while she had had little trouble retrieving her half of the engine, she could only hope Luther had been as lucky.
She unzipped the bag at her side for another look at the half-rectangular slab of stone. It was made of something like marble, pure white veined with what could only be gold, maybe a third of a meter long and half as tall, about eight centimeters thick. On the leftmost side of the artifact was a jagged fracture, the polished surface giving way to rough stone. The break seemed so uneven she could hardly believe it had been intentional, that the thing’s function somehow depended on it being kept in halves.
Just to the left of the fissure was a figure in relief. She guessed it was a Priest or one of their gods, bulky and imposing. Even without any kind of reference to place the thing to scale, she instinctively knew that they had been tall. They were as far from human as a species could get while still being called humanoid. Still, she felt a strange kinship with them, as if she were only exploring the ruins of some unexplored island on Earth, and not a planet orbiting a wholly alien star. The thing’s head was shaped like a figure-eight, and its arms reached nearly to its ankles. The strange, angular characters along the border could only be the language of the Priests. She found herself wondering what it said, and if, when it has been reunited with Luther’s half, the engine might translate itself for them.
She felt as if she were holding a loaded gun that might fire bullets, or mystical light, or life itself. As little as they knew, each option seemed equally likely. Everything about the engine, about their mission, about the planet itself, was a question mark. And those question marks had only gotten bigger since she had reached the surface. In truth, she had no way of knowing if Luther was even still alive. The signal from his transponder was obviously intact, relaying its location to her via the Tyson still in orbit. The screen was next to useless for all its detail, though, and if he had made any progress in her direction since their landing she hadn’t been able to pick it out.
For all she knew, he could be lying dead amid the smoldering ruins of his lander, or deep in the belly of some uncatalogued nocturnal carnivore. The night side was a blank page in the book on Janus, or maybe half the damn book was blank. It was disconcerting enough in Eulalah’s case, going into an unexplored world covered in mile-high trees; on the night side there could be anything. The other half of the artifact—that much was certain, at least if the stories were to be believed—and, if the ship’s sensors weren’t faulty, those frigid wastes held life in impossible quantity.
She shuddered at the thought and picked up her pace, hoping against hope that the pink sky would fade to midnight blue before too long.
Damn it, Luther. Where the hell are you?

***

Luther crouched down and ran his hand over a skull. The vaguely humanoid pile of bones lay sprawled on the floor of the temple, buried in dust that had settled one grain at a time, one day at a time, over perhaps a million years. The powder was black and heavy, something akin to ash. It caked to the gloves of his environment suit in dark, greasy streaks.
His breath fogged the interior of his helmet, alerting him to a chill outside that he mercifully could not feel. The suit, though not built to hold up in a vacuum, was pressurized and durable enough to keep his flesh mammal-warm beneath a night sky that took regular excursions forty degrees or more below old Celsius zero. The nitrogen-CO2 atmosphere outside remained firmly on its side of the suit, and the super compressed tank at his back would pump in a continuous supply of fresh oxygen, enough to last two days on the outside. In all likelihood his excuses for cutting the mission short would be limited to fatigue or hunger, both decidedly less pressing than the old-fashioned fear of suffocation he had encountered during longer-term EVAs on the system worlds.
And at the rate he was headed, he wondered which of the two would be the first to call the search off. He had almost thought the words call it a night, and he chided himself for the unintended pun.
Luther raised himself back to his full height and directed his flashlight beam up and around. The temple’s ceiling was easily a hundred feet above his head, a massive stone monument to a cadre of forgotten gods. Starburst patterns of char-black littered the walls, and he was sure that even all these years later, the air outside still smelled of ozone. This planet and its marginal civilization of terminator-dwellers had been among the latest to fall before the Karcani onslaught.
He closed his eyes as the thought hit him full-force. How much time would have passed on Earth since they left? He struggled to crunch the numbers. Long enough, he decided, especially with Karcani tech being the unknown it was. He opened his eyes and imagined he was on Earth, that this was St. Peter’s in Rome, or Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, or St. Paul’s in London. He pictured the familiar streets of London, of New York, overrun by the faceless invaders.
He shook his head to dislodge the notion. After all, the being at his feet, and the beings scattered here and there in carvings on the wall, were far from human. For now, for him, the Karcani were still far from Earth, and he would do everything he could to keep it that way.
He rotated the flashlight ninety degrees straight upward. The vaulted ceiling of the temple, if it was a temple, seemed impossibly high, coated in an iridescent sheen that reminded him of rainbow trout. It seemed to tremble faintly, like a pond disturbed by a tossed pebble. He thought at first it was a trick of the light, some strange manifestation of the material’s optical properties. Then came the noise.
He felt it before he heard it, a dim pulse deep in his chest that might have been a second heartbeat. Within a matter of seconds the subsonic thud had resolved itself into a definite sound, a repetitive thrum thrum thrum that resonated through the hollow chamber of the temple.
Unconsciously, Luther straightened his spine and tensed his muscles. He regretted suddenly that they had not brought a weapon, even an antiquated sidearm like his father had owned. Something was here and, if his hunch was right, it was closing in. The world pulsed again, this throb stronger than the others by half. His ears rang. Clouds of dust poured from the cracks of the millennia-old walls, and bits of pulverized fish-scale stuff fell from the distant ceiling. A large chunk entered his frame of vision just in time to make itself known before it impacted his flashlight, shattering the glass of the bulb and knocking it from his grasp.
The dead shell of his light source clattered to the temple floor. Everything went black. In a blind panic now, Luther turned on his heels. He made for where he remembered the structure’s entrance being. He ran as best he could, his movements still sluggish and awkward under a gravitational pull three-quarters that of Earth. Bits of debris bounced and ricocheted off his helmet, echoing their heavy-sounding pings through the pressurized air surrounding his head. In time with the latest pulse he could faintly see a crack opening up in the stone wall. Beyond it was the light of distant stars, glimmering like far-off jewels in a sky that would never see another sunrise.
He forced himself into overdrive, throwing his arms out in front of him, forcing open the decaying wooden door of the temple even as the wall surrounding it crumbled to bits. The rhythmic sounds had dissolved into a constant roar of collapsing rock behind him. He stumbled as he cleared the doorway, tripping face-first and blindly down the steep flagstone staircase that he only now remembered led to the entrance. Luther tumbled, impacting each step with force enough to have shattered his skull, had he not been wearing the environment suit.
And then, without warning, the tumbling stopped. He felt himself lifted skyward, his guts pressed towards his spinal column. He had not felt this sensation of upward acceleration since their departure from Cape Canaveral so many months ago. But there was something else, too. Something squeezing his ribcage on all sides.
Something had grabbed him.
He twisted and turned in an effort to get free of the thing’s grasp, but he felt instinctively that such an effort could only be suicidal. Though he had no reference point by which to estimate his altitude, he knew he was high up now, and a fall would be deadly. For a moment his awareness was nothing but stars, broken by the irregularly shaped silhouette of what he could only guess was something’s head. He felt warm breath, heard the deep, throaty rumble of carnivorous hunger.
Then there was light, if only a little. Something in the silhouette opened up, glowing a pale but distinct green in the dim starlight. As far as he was from Earth, there was no mistaking that sight. It was a mouth, full of row after row of serrated teeth, coated in bioluminescent saliva the color of fireflies. Another wave of hot, moist breath hit Luther full in the face as he neared the creature’s mouth. His frantic struggle to escape began anew.
But, just as quickly, it stopped. Another light entered the world, this one a bright sun-white in contrast to the animal’s neon-green. His inexorable progress towards its gaping maw came to an abrupt halt. He felt the fingers tighten around his torso in a convulsion of pain. For a split second he caught sight of the thing’s head, as wide as an eighteen-wheeler and just as ugly. Four vestigial eyes covered over with a half-transparent film reflexively slammed shut. Surrounding them was skin that looked like the aftermath of a landslide; hide that looked like nothing so much as a monumental pile of jagged grey-black boulders covered over in thin hair the same color.
Luther flew up and away as the thing released a primal howl that sounded almost human-like. He went corkscrewing in a nauseating parabolic arc, catching sight of the newly arrived light source not twenty yards away. He struck the stone staircase with enough force to knock the air from his lungs. It felt like an eternity passed before he managed a shaky, agonizing breath. He forced his neck upward in time to see the thing slink away, a pair of sharp-tipped tails following their parent body back into the endless night.
The flashlight beam—he was sure it was a flashlight beam—swung over the heap of pulverized stone that had once been the temple before settling, blindingly, on Luther himself. Spider-web cracks in the glass of his helmet lit up with an irritating intensity, but he could not have been more grateful.
“Luther?” His name came crackling across their short-distance radio connection. He knew that voice.
She ran to him, though the unwavering brightness drowned her out. “Luther,” again.
A gloved hand reached down and touched his shattered helmet. He smiled.
“God, are you okay?”
He tried to answer but managed only a handful of hoarse, painfully shallow coughs.
She sat the flashlight down with a muted, “Sorry,” for blinding him.
As his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness he made out, for the first time in nearly a full day, the contours of Eulalah’s beautiful face; the delicately pointed chin, the slightly upturned ski-jump nose. She had never looked so gorgeous.
“Your helmet,” she said. “You must have fallen twenty feet at least. I startled it.” She sighed. “Oh, damn it, Luther. This is my fault.” She leaned down to look directly in his eyes; hers had begun to tear up but her voice remained calm, unshakeable. “Anything broken? Are you hurt?”
As he continued to catch his breath he shook his head no, though he wasn’t entirely sure that was the case. He reached out and took hold of her hand. Her grip was firm as she helped him struggle first to his knees and elbows, then to one foot. He assessed his condition along the way. He felt like he had been punched by a planet, which wasn’t far from the truth, but the suit had taken the brunt of the impact. He had broken bones before and felt nothing reminiscent now, though given the ache in his ribs he couldn’t be sure.
He rose to his feet and looked up finally in time to see an unwelcome sight. Behind Eulalah a familiar silhouette had appeared, pitch-black adorned with a narrow green opening. He took a breath to scream a warning but was rewarded with another fit of body-wracking coughs. He pointed, but she turned too late.
The green smile opened wide and closed on Eulalah’s right arm in one lightning-quick motion. The flashlight vanished along with the hand holding it, and Luther leapt into motion before the scream had passed her lips.
She shook back and forth in the thing’s mouth, her three free limbs flailing, visible only barely in the dim green light of the monster’s half-open jaws.
Luther, suppressing both the body-wide pain he felt and his self-preservation instinct, vaulted himself straight for its head.
While Eulalah’s scream morphed into a frantic, “Luther, no!” he turned himself full around as his feet touched down on the creature’s back. On autopilot now, he reached down, trying feebly to encompass the tree-trunk-wide neck in a chokehold. The thing’s girth was too much, but he smiled to see his hand buried deep in something narrow and damp. A gill, he thought. This thing was amphibious. He dug in with his fingers and held on for dear life as the animal thrashed and shook. It arched its back and howled around the would-be meal still clenched between its teeth. A quadruped, the amphibian reared up onto its hind legs once, then twice. The third time broke Luther’s death grip, and he went airborne again.
His impact with the mound of debris shortened the fall considerably. Everything was dark, but he managed to pull himself upright in a matter of seconds. He tripped and stumbled his way back toward Eulalah and the creature, stopping only to pick up a heavy fragment of rock that lay close at hand. He ran in what must have been the direction of predator and prey, guessing—hoping—that he could make out its writhing pair of tails in the dim starlight. His foot came down near what must have been the base of its spine. He cleared the length of its body in three long bounds, kicking down particularly hard on the thing’s face as he made the final jump.
Luther felt one of the tails reach out and slash at his shoulder in a futile attempt to pull him backward. As he spun around in mid-air he saw the green phosphorescence of its mouth, the dark form of Eulalah’s arm still lodged within. With every ounce of strength he could muster he swung the stone shard upward at an angle, slicing a path across the animal’s snout just inches short of Eulalah’s arm.
“What are you—“ Eulalah cried out as a spattering of glowing green blood coated her face.
The animal recoiled in pain, managing only a short, startled grunt. Its mouth opened and released Eulalah, but Luther did not relent. Even as the thing took a tentative step backward he took two steps forward, complementing the preceding uppercut with a sharp downward bash to the predator’s skull. And another. Another. When he was done, the thing lay motionless at his feet, its head reduced to a radiant green mass of pulverized bone and brain.
His chest rose and fell at a frightening pace. He had scarcely recovered the air that the first fall had knocked out of him before commencing his assault on the nocturnal beast.
Eulalah stood up beside him, her face, calm as ever, illuminated by the green glow of the motionless animal.
Luther’s worry over his own condition evaporated. He reached out for her right hand, felt upwards until he reached the point where the razor fangs had penetrated her suit and skin.
“It’s not deep,” he said. The blood had already begun to clot.
“Thank you,” she said as he released her arm. “You saved me.”
He continued to huff and puff as he reached for the medical kit at his waist. “You first,” he said. “You saved me first.” He produced a bandage and reached up to part the tattered skin of her suit. He slipped the bandage into place over the broken skin, then reached back into the pack for the adhesive patch that would seal in the suit’s atmosphere.
“Are you alright?” Eulalah asked. “You’re breathing really hard.”
“Just... the fall,” he said. “It’s fine.”
But it wasn’t fine. The patch fell from his hands. With a stomach-hollowing realization, he noted that the cool, reassuring flow of oxygen was gone from his face. His hands went to the rightmost of the two tubes leading from the enclosed O2 tank at his back to the intake pipes at either side of his neck. Even through his heavy gloves he could feel the jagged tear. The tank would have decompressed long ago.
Eulalah’s eyes went from his face to the broken tube. A silent look of understanding passed between them.
In one fluid motion she reached up to the leftmost of her own oxygen tubes. Releasing its seal she connected it to Luther’s, tethering them together at a maximum distance of no more than a meter.
He felt a breeze as welcome as a strong gust in the heat of summer blow over his face. He took a deep breath as the cool oxygen filled his lungs again. The effect it had on him was simultaneously invigorating and narcotic, a welcome, even intoxicating relief. He sat down. Tethered to him as she was, she could only follow suit.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you, Eulalah.”
She smiled at him as he caught his breath, reached down to her own emergency kit for a suit patch.
“I feel like I should tell you,” said Luther, “that I never found my half of the engine. You?”
She nodded as soon as the patch was in place, then reached over for the pack that still hung, miraculously undisturbed, at her side. From it she produced a marble-like slab that bore a smattering of strange engravings.
“At the base of a tree. Next to an altar—at least, it looked like an altar. I was expecting it to be buried or something, but it was just... there.”
He took the thing from her and held it out at arm’s length. Somewhere in his mind it rang a bell.
“Wait a second,” he said. He handed the slab back to her, stood up, and jogged a short distance to the splattered mess that the creature’s head had become. Pulled along by the tight oxygen tubing, she was close behind. On the ground nearby lay a slab of something like marble, maybe a third of a meter long and half as tall, about eight centimeters thick. Its right-hand edge, jagged and broken, was coated in the iridescent green slime that had once flowed through the departed monster’s veins. It too bore a set of alien images etched into its surface.
“Is that...” Eulalah began. She held the thing up toward him; he held his up to hers. The haphazard break along each slab’s edge matched perfectly with the other. These were the constituents of a two-piece jigsaw puzzle.
With a heavy-sounding clank the two pieces became a single piece, drawn together by a magnetic attraction. She laughed involuntarily. Could it really be that easy?
They examined the complete object together at arm’s length. Whatever it was supposed to do, whatever power it allegedly held, it looked remarkably ordinary—as ordinary as any artifact of a long-dead alien culture can be, anyway. It resembled a piece of primitive artwork more than any engine Luther could conceive of, and if not for the gentle, almost imperceptible warmth it had begun to emit he might have been inclined to dismiss the search as a waste of time. The fissure had sealed itself perfectly, and the point where one half began and the other ended was marked only by the glowing biological residue. Maybe there was something special about it after all.
The imagery, though, was commonplace to an almost frustrating degree. Once one got past the obvious alienness of the designs, it was hard to pick out anything suggestive of power or even mystery in the carvings. A pair of figures stood in the center of the scene, the slightly taller—judging by human standards he might be inclined to say masculine—of the two located to the right of the crack running down the object’s center, with a more delicate, perhaps feminine, one on the left-hand fragment. At the exact center of the piece were their hands, joined in an expression of affection that, he was pleased to find, transcended the light-years between their and the aliens’ cultures.
It reminded him of the images humanity had flung to the stars a century or more ago. The plaques affixed to the Pioneer probes had carried the image of a human couple, the most basic expression of a species’ ongoing survival, of hope for the future, in need of no explanation. Here in front of them now was, perhaps, something similar, a reminder of a species that had once been, affixed to an object of power that might set right the catastrophe that had robbed that species of a future. He could not even guess as to the meaning of the alien characters etched along the edge. He wondered whether any human would ever decipher them.
Eulalah was the first to break the silence. “We’d better get back to your lander and up into orbit as soon as we can,” she said. “We’re burning through oxygen at twice the normal rate.”
Luther nodded as Eulalah placed the newly restored work of art into the bag at her side. He checked the compass at his wrist, surprised to find it still functional. He reached around Eulalah’s shoulder, rotating her until they were facing due west. “This way,” he said. “Just a few kilometers.”
Unconsciously, Luther reached down and took her hand in his.

***
Eliza’s eyes opened in a hospital room in Sydney. She blinked at the bright fluorescent lights overhead. How long had they been out, she wondered? She stretched her arms, then her legs, surprised to find the familiar aches of old age in place of her fleeting reunion with the supple joints of a young person.
She stood up, carefully, and removed the electrode-studded band from her head. It could have been a crown, she thought, and she wondered how many sick little girls on their way out had dreamt themselves into the life of a princess with this very device.
An electrocardiogram gave a reassuring beep a little less than once a second, and the comforting spikes on the bedside monitor were stronger than she had expected.
Leonard lay on the bed, motionless apart from the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest. The electric crown’s twin remained on his head. He was just as he had been before they had gone under together, into the world of cold sleep and alien artifacts and glowing nocturnal beasts. Half a year compressed into no more than an hour or two. She sighed. The technician had gone, and the two of them were the only ones in the room. It wouldn’t be long now.
She walked over to his bedside and reached down to take his swollen hand in hers. The accumulated fluid had polished the wrinkles of nearly ninety years into a smooth, bloated, jaundice-yellow parody of youth. The monumental unfairness of it all hit her then; the fact that they could create the illusion of a full, adventurous life for terminal patients, without offering any hope of truly realizing it. Their experience in the world below—for she could not think of it as above—had been a parody, too, and a crueler one. She might hold his hand now, but he would never hold hers again. The morphine drip would have doubled in strength during their psychic excursion; wherever his mind was now, he was comfortable, but he would never again lay eyes on his wife.
She sighed again. She had been expecting tears, but none were forthcoming. Maybe it had been too much, the struggle for life on an imagined frontier planet, the idea of coming together but not for themselves. For everyone. A goodbye that they had not known was a goodbye. A dissolving of oneself into the other, the usual first step of love, followed quickly by the loss of concern for themselves entirely, the devotion to a higher goal.
And now, for Leonard, the loss of everything. The last, total dissolution. Well, she thought, at least he had been eased into it.
It occurred to her then that maybe it wasn’t Leonard that was dying at all. Maybe, Eliza thought to herself, Luther would be the one to die. After all, their memories had been wiped clean for the duration of the experience—she had almost called it a dream, but it was too real for that word to do it justice. And what were they, anyway, but a conglomeration of memories and experiences and life?
Maybe, then, the man dying before her eyes was not Leonard after all. Maybe Leonard had passed forever to the world beneath—or the world above. Maybe Leonard had just reached the lander that had brought him to the planet Janus, his newly confirmed sweetheart Eulalah in tow.
She closed her eyes and saw that world again, as clearly as she had seen it moments ago. They strode through a narrow valley that had once been a riverbed, the diminutive, rolling hills stretching off toward the starlit horizon. Guided only by the still-glowing tooth of a creature unknown to science, they made their way toward the lander. Luther—or was it Leonard?—ascended the ladder one rung at a time. She—Eulalah or Eliza, it made no difference—followed him.
The door closed behind them. He took the seat nearest the control panel, she the one behind. He double-checked the straps of her safety harness before securing his own. Words were exchanged, indistinct but full of a satisfied anticipation. When the preliminaries had been completed, he threw the throttle forward, and she felt the suffocating but exhilarating Florida-pull of upward acceleration.
The monitor flatlined.

Evan Henry

Evan Henry is a freelance editor and writer. As the Editor in Chief of Black Ship Books he strives to nurture modern multimedia platforms for storytelling in all its forms, and through the publisher’s website seeks to place contemporary pop culture in conversation with the social sciences and the humanities. His writing credits include Broken Frontier, The Cavalier Daily, and three publications from Third Flatiron Anthologies. His short story “With Gilded Wings” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize.

Man From Oyon
By CB Droege

The academician stared at the mirror in non-comprehension. There was no one in the building with him today... What had he just seen?
Okay, back-up. Be a scientist, recreate the events:
He had been looking for his heavy-duty scales, and had shifted the polished replica of the Aegis over across from the fake "Mirror of Souls" that the filthy merchant in Athens had sworn would let him talk to the dead. Then, when he glanced the reflection of the large mirror in the surface of the polished silver, he had seen someone clearly walk past the door to the room.
He picked up the Aegis from the floor where he had accidentally knocked it when he was startled, and placed it back on the small stand. He positioned himself to see the door by way of both reflections.
There.
A person in the doorway. He looked towards it, having to peer around the bulk of the silver shield. No one was there. He looked back at the reflection. The man was back.
Deep Breath.
"Hello?" the academician called out shakily, waving one hand.
The other man, dark of hair and skin, and dressed in the robes of a scholar or philosopher looked as confused as the academician felt. The man entered the door, and knelt on the floor before whatever it was he was looking into on his side.
His side of what?
For a long few minutes, both of them only stared.
When they tried to communicate again, it became clear that sound couldn't reach through whatever this was. The academician tried writing messages to the strange man, but it was obvious he could not read Italian, and the messages he held up on his own side were gibberish. He tried French, Russian, and Latin, while the man in the mirror tried several of his own languages, but it seemed they had no tongue in common. Finally, the man spent several minutes composing a message from what the academician could clearly see was a book of translations, when he held up the carefully crafted note, the academician recognized the angular shapes and lines, though he could not read it.
It was Sumerian, a language that almost no one even knew about, but which he had recently come into possession of a very rare book of translations for. He got down his own book, and began translating the short note: "Probably unlikely that you can read this," it said. The academician laughed, and began composing his own labor-intensive note.
Communication was extremely slow, but both men were patient. First, they established their disciplines with one another. The man on the other side was an alchemist, studying the properties of polished glass coated with various substances. Second, they shared the names of their homes. This was tougher, as the phonetics of Sumerian was unclear to both of them. The other man was from somewhere called Oyon, very far from the academician’s home in Rome, he was sure. The alchemist confirmed he had never heard of Rome, which proved he was on another world entirely, and so they began to trade names of major cities. The alchemist had never heard of London, Washington, Kyoto, Alexandria, Paris... and at each trade he gave a city name which sounded utterly made-up; Zabtran Rapp, Patagyta, Stagmere - they were all as fanciful as these.
The slow dialogue took the two men to many topics. They found they had much to learn from one another, but were unable to stick to one topic for long. They wrote back and forth of science, politics, geography (the alchemist drew a map of the Mediterranean which was almost perfect except for the locations of the cities), and even the weather.
Finally, as the long night was breaking into morning, curiosity took the academician in a new direction and he wrote, "What gods do you follow?"
The alchemist seemed confused, and took a long time trying to decipher the message, finally he wrote back, "What is a god?" and at that moment, the academician knew this other world would never be the same after this meeting.
Also: The mirror may not have let him speak with the dead, but he should track down the merchant in Athens, and apologize for the nasty letters.


CB Droege

CB Droege is a fantasy author and poet living in Munich. Recently his fiction was collected in RapUnsEl and Other Stories, and a selection of his poetry appeared in the Drawn to Marvel anthology. His first novel, Zeta Disconnect was released in 2013. He recently edited Dangerous to Go Alone! An Anthology of Gamer Poetry.
Learn more at cbdroege.com .


​​ After the Crash
By John Grey

The cottage may not have been what the remains of the Turner family were looking for but it was most assuredly what they needed. Remote and far from the city, it would keep at bay the familiar, and especially sympathetic friends and relations who couldn’t get it through their compassionate heads that the Turners wanted to be left alone.
    "The place needs work," said the estate agent, Jack Light in the flattest, slowest of Maine drawls as he handed over the keys.
    "It’s just what we’ve been looking for," replied Rhonda.
    Though she was the youngest of the family, she was always prepared to take charge.
    "Everyone to his own taste. It gets pretty quiet around here at night. I just hope the woods don’t spook you."
    "They couldn’t if they tried."
    As Jack gave Rhonda one last guided tour of what would be her home for the foreseeable future, his fifty-year-old eyes couldn’t stop themselves from admiring the young woman.
Through the window, Rhonda could see her father and sister busily unpacking the car and carrying various personal and household items into their new home. Meg was so attractive with her long blonde hair, shapely figure and enticing blue eyes. Rhonda was a brunette, not quite as alluring as her sister, but certainly no also-ran in the looks department. She also walked with a decided limp. Hers was the visible wound.
"Not a lot here to do for a young girl like you," said Jack.
    "Oh, I’ll be fine."
    "Of course, if you like the outdoors, then that’s another matter entirely. I just wouldn’t go too deep into it. Not by yourself at any rate."    
"Where does the road go?" asked Rhonda.
    "Oh, it don’t go nowhere. It just kinda heads north for another half mile or so and then sorta disappears. This is the last house on 147. Beyond here, it’s just trees, bears and coyotes."
    Rhonda had no wish for a long conversation with the estate agent. As far as she was concerned, the sooner the three of them could be alone the better. It was a time for grouping together, drawing strength from each other; keeping the outside world away. Surely even Meg could see that.
She had gone along with the move, although Rhonda could detect a certain reluctance on her part. She was done with college. It was her time to get out and make a world for herself. But the accident had changed that. Even someone as bright and outgoing as Meg could see that a period of adjustment was necessary. There was no way they could go back to the world they knew. They could no longer face the city, the old neighborhood. All of the good memories had been squandered by one rainy night, a dark highway, a foot too eager to press down on the accelerator, a sudden skid, and a violent crash into the median.
    That her father seemed virtually unhurt was a miracle, but he didn’t see it that way. Not when the woman beside him, Rachel, his wife of twenty five years, was lost to him in an instant. And one daughter was disfigured while the other staggered around in a daze of spinning red lights and bright, eye-blinding headlamps.
    "It’s lovely," declared Rhonda as she limped her way through the front door with the last load, a selection of books and stuffed animals from her childhood.
    Meg said much the same though without conviction.
    "It’s only temporary," Richard Turner asserted. "We need to put it all behind us. Living here will help. I’m sure it will."

***

    "Why don’t you come with us, father."
    Richard shook his head at Meg’s entreaties. He was content to spend his days in the small parlor of the cottage, smoking his pipe, maybe reading a book but, more likely, just sitting and remembering. They had been in the new house a week and he had hardly stepped outside.
    His daughters, especially Meg, were much more restless and had no intention in these late days of August of being cooped up. Neither Richard nor Rhonda had ever imagined Meg having any affinity with the likes of the thick Maine woods that spread for miles beyond the house but she surprised herself by how much she enjoyed roaming through that wilderness. True, since the accident she’d become as much of a recluse as her father and sister, but Rhonda was sure that this would eventually pass; that someday she would be the same fun-loving Meg as before.
    Her excursions into the woods were the first step on that road back. And she did have her sister for company, though when it came to hiking through the forest, Rhonda’s bad leg held them back.
    "I’m sorry, Meg," Rhonda kept repeating as she struggled to keep up with Meg’s deliberately slow pace.
    Their walks were necessarily interrupted by many pauses in which the two young women would sit on a log and discuss everything but the accident. Meg was delighted by the tiny fawn staring at her nervously from behind some thicket, and she adored the sight of soaring eagles. Even the mischievous red squirrels made her laugh as they clambered up and down the tree trunks.
Rhonda had always been a more serious person than her older sister. Though she did not bring up the subject of her mother’s death, it was constantly on her mind. It didn’t help that her very slowly healing leg was like an ongoing report from the accident scene. The bloody images of that horrifying time would not let go. She wondered if she would ever resume her college career or if she would just waste away far from civilization as seemed to be the wont of her father.
    This day, they had started out late and though it was still quite light out, the woods were already slipping into their version of premature night. Shadows were lengthening and the sun had a hard time breaking through the canopy.
    "Time to get back," said Rhonda.
    She was always first to suggest returning. If Meg had her way, she’d stay out all night. But, despite her flightiness, she was protective of her sister. Rhonda was ailing. So she started off in the direction they had come. Unfortunately, Meg’s sense of direction had yet to catch up with her enthusiasm for her new wooded surroundings. A period of going around in circles punctured by Rhonda’s weary, "Are you sure you know the way?" was followed by a trek through a thick green stand of pines that didn’t look familiar at all. And the increasing lateness of the afternoon was no help.
    "Look!" shouted Meg. "Light up ahead."
     Indeed, through the encroaching shadows, they could see a swathe of light indicating at least a field; an opportunity to retrieve their bearings. But, more encouragingly, it was a road. .
    "It’s the road home," declared Meg. "It must be."
    A lagging Rhonda was quick to agree with her.
    "It’s surely 147," Meg added. "There’s no other road hereabouts. Come on."
    Meg had no doubt as to which way their cottage lay. The road seemed to suddenly narrow right where they were standing. One direction, though much rutted and flecked with patches of crumbling tar, was the obvious route. The other, thanks to a variety of weeds and brush, vanished to nothingness within a hundred yards or so. Rhonda was relieved that the journey home would be downhill.
    The sun was setting quickly and that road home soon became no brighter than the woods they had just departed, but the slope and the rough stones underfoot were as good as a compass.
    After going a hundred yards or so, Meg suddenly stopped, and looked back at the direction in which they had just come.
    "Look," she said to her sister. "There’s a house back there."
.     Rhonda continued to limp forward. She was already afraid that her father would be worried for the two of them. Her only concern was getting back home as quickly as possible. But Meg insisted there was something there. By the time Rhonda finally responded to her older sister’s insistence, stopped, turned and looked, she could not see anything.
    "There’s nothing there," said Rhonda, in a scolding voice.
    "But I swear…never mind…it’s getting dark. Let’s go."

    ***

    The next day saw Rhonda very sore and tired and her father still remonstrating the two for staying out so late.
Meg, on the other hand, couldn’t stop thinking about the house she’d seen at the far end of the road. When Rhonda and she were alone in the backyard, tending to a garden they were attempting to start, the subject was the first thing out of her mouth.
    "I really did see a house."
    "If you say so, but I didn’t see anything."
    "It was only there for a moment or two."
    "Like Brigadoon?"
    "If you’d have looked when I told you to, you would have seen it too. I’m going to investigate."
    "Well, not today," Rhonda insisted. "I’m just not up to it."
    "There’s no reason I can’t go check it out by myself."
    "What will father say?"
    "Nothing, if you don’t tell him. I’ll go when he’s taking his afternoon nap."
    "You’ll get lost."
    "How can I get lost when it’s just a matter of walking down the road? I need to do something, Rhonda. I can’t just stay cooped up in this cabin all day. Aren’t you starting to feel a little bored by all this?"
    "I’m perfectly fine. Really Meg, with this leg, I’m not going dancing any time soon."
    Much as she loved her younger sister, Meg was not one for taking advice. She was determined to investigate the house at the end of the road. She even thought it odd that the real estate agent had not mentioned the place. In fact, he had made it clear that the cottage they occupied was the very end of civilization on country road 147.
    "It could have just been a trick of the light," was Rhonda’s last words on the subject.
    
***

    On her return, Meg recounted to Rhonda the results of her adventure.
That afternoon, with Richard finally curled up on the parlor couch and dozing off, she was ready to make her move. With Rhonda’s leg still throbbing painfully, Meg would go it alone.
As Meg set off, she only intended the walk to be a reconnaissance. She’d go as far as the house, give it the once over and then return. On the night of her first encounter, it had seemed but a twenty minute distance by foot between the house and the cottage, but she realized she must have been mistaken for, after about a solid hike of some forty five minutes up the road, it was still as wide as when she began her journey. It was a half hour or more before she came to the point where that road narrowed abruptly and disappeared into the woods.
    She had not been mistaken. There was a house. From what she could see, it was a quaint old-fashioned Victorian, unusual for that part of the country. Not only did this dwelling confirm for her that it was no trick of the light but there was also someone moving about in the front yard. As she drew closer, she could see that it was a young man. He appeared to be digging in a garden bed with a shovel.
He looked up as she approached.
"Hello there!" he shouted.
Meg returned the "hello." She was taken by the fact that he was sturdily built and quite handsome, with fair hair almost as light as her own and blue eyes, so penetrating, she was certain they must have melted more than a few female hearts in their time. He was dressed in blue overalls and a few drops of sweat sparkled on his upper arms.
"I’m your neighbor," Meg began to explain. "We’re at the cottage." She pointed back in the direction she’d come from.
"Glad to know you, miss," he replied.
She took a moment’s break from the spell cast by this new acquaintance to take in the house. The veranda soon caught her eye, especially as it was occupied by an older man and woman, both in rockers. They waved and she waved back. But neither made an attempt to leave their perch and come down to investigator this new neighbor.
"My parents," explained the young man. "I’m Jacob. Jacob Proulx."
"I’m Meg Turner."
An odd look came over his face at the sound of the name.
"Ah yes. You’re the girl who was in the accident."
Meg would normally have taken offence at being referred to as a girl but she was much too curious as to how he knew about the tragedy.
"You’ve been talking to…what’s his name…the real estate agent. Light I think his name is."
"News gets around in a small town like this," Jacob replied.
"Yes, I suppose it does. I’ve always lived in the city. People keep to themselves there. I’ll have to get used to everyone knowing my business."
Jacob laughed. "It’s not as bad as that."
"Mister Light said our house was the last one on this road, and now I find that’s not so."
"Oh we’re easy to miss."
"But you still know about the accident."
She wondered if he had somehow overheard her talking with Rhonda on their walk through the woods the previous day, but thinking back, she was sure the topic of the accident never came up.
"I’m sorry about your mother," Jacob added.
Hearing this made Meg even more uneasy, but Jacob’s face was so attractive and his voice so warm and genuinely sympathetic that he soon smoothed away any disquiet.
"It’s very peaceful up here," she said.
"Yes, that it is. Peaceful indeed. I can’t imagine any other way of life."
The wind began to pick up. Meg felt a sudden chill.
"Would you like to come inside?" asked Jacob. "We have fresh cider."
The idea sounded tempting to Meg but it was already past the hour she had hoped to be home.
"It’s late. I should go."
"Never mind. Come earlier next time."
"Yes," she declared, "I will."
"Come tomorrow then. I’ll be here. I’m always poking about in the garden."
"Okay."
They agreed on an earlier hour for the following day. It would be no problem. As she bade her goodbyes and headed back down the road to the cottage, she was still uncertain as to whether it would be a good idea to tell her father about the encounter and her plan to get to know the Proulx family better. They seemed like good people. The mother and father may have been reticent around strangers but Jacob had no qualms about making newcomers feel welcome.
Recounting the story to her sister, Meg’s excitement was palpable.
Not even Rhonda’s "But you don’t know these people" could contain it. Her father was in the kitchen and didn’t notice her return. In fact, he hadn’t been aware she’d ever been gone.
Despite Rhonda’s protestations, Meg was adamant that she was going to return to the Proulx family house the next day. She’d leave earlier so she’d have more time to get there and back while it was still light out. Once again, Rhonda made plans to accompany her sister but, as before, she was thwarted by the sheer willfulness of her leg.
When, on the following day, the time came to depart, Meg’s last words to Rhonda were "I’m a big girl."

***

    The sun was a long way from setting but Rhonda already began to feel anxious for Meg. She cursed her leg. She felt so useless. To make matters worse, gray clouds moved in and it began to rain.
Meg had not taken an umbrella. Of course, her new friend, this man, Jacob would surely offer to drive her home when the time came. The road, from her memory of that walk home in the dark, was rutted and rocky but still navigable.
    She tried to laugh at herself for being foolish for worrying so. Meg was right. She was a big girl. But the emphasis was on "girl." She didn’t always do what was in her best interests. Rhonda’s attempts at downplaying her own fears only succeeded in heightening them.
    She heard her father get up from his afternoon nap and fumble about in the small kitchen making coffee. As much as she didn’t want to worry him, the burden of carrying the anxiety alone was weighing on her.
    "Pop, I’m concerned about Meg."
    "Meg? Why?"
    His voice was drowsy. He rubbed his eyes as he spoke.
    "She went out…it must be four hours ago. She should be back by now."
"Went out where?"
"To see these people she met. It’s a crazy story. They live in the next house up the hill, at the edge of the forest."
"But there is no house up there. You told me Mister Light was adamant."
"Well despite what Mister Light says, Meg claims she met some people called Proulx. There’s a young man roughly our age. Jacob, she said his name was. He lives there with his parents."
"Meg does have a habit of making new friends."
"Dad, I’m concerned. Besides, it’s raining out and she didn’t take an umbrella. I’d go look for her but I can barely walk."
"You want me to go search?"
"Maybe just go up the road a little way."
She knew enough not to ask him to take the car.
So Richard donned his heavy walking boots, a floppy fishing hat and a light rain jacket, and began a slow trudge up 147 to find his daughter.
Rhonda hobbled to the door to monitor his departure. She watched until the curve of the road took him out of sight. He had not shown any signs of worry but nor had he scoffed at her concern. In fact, he had seemed as obedient to her request as a good child is to a parent. Even with that last glimpse of him, she remained on the step staring out at the rain-soaked wilderness. Though not a religious woman, she said a prayer for both of them.
    
***

Rhonda was in a panic. It was past eight o’clock, going onto nine and there was still no sign of her father and sister. She dialed the number for Mister Light but kept getting a strange kind of hollow sounding busy signal. Then she dialed the operator and requested a number for the police. Within the hour, Sheriff George Jameson was at her doorstep.
He was middle-aged with prematurely white hair and a distinct paunch. She explained the situation to him and he shook his head.
"I’m not up this road all that much but I can assure you that yours is the last house. There’s no such place as you described and I sure as hell have never heard of any folks named Proulx."
"But I tell you that’s where my sister went. And so did my dad."
"They probably got lost in the woods."
"But they would have stuck to the road. How could they get lost?"
"These Maine woods can be tricky if you’re not used to them. Now it’s not a pleasant thing to be out there on a night like this but I wouldn’t worry too much about them. I’ll drive up the road a-ways. I expect I’ll come across them and bring them back safe and sound in no time. If not…"
"If not…" Rhonda didn’t like the sound of those words.
"Then I’ll get up a search party. It’s not the first time that local folks have had to round up a few strays. I wouldn’t worry too much, miss. There’s no monsters in these woods."
But nothing the sheriff said was reassuring to Rhonda. The fact that he insisted there was no one living on 147 beyond her family certainly wasn’t helping. Had Meg made the whole thing up? But for what purpose? She had never thought that imagination was one of Meg’s strong points.
She paced back and forth until she saw the car lights through the window to indicate the sheriff had returned. Rhonda almost burst into tears when it became immediately obvious that he was by himself.
She rushed out to greet him despite the now teeming rain.
"What happened? Where are they? Did you see them?"
The questions tumbled out of her. All Sheriff Jameson could do was grab her by the arm and lead her back inside.
"They must have got lost in the woods, that’s all. Don’t worry. Just take it easy, young lady."
His attempt at calming her was not working.
"Do you have a picture of your father and sister?"
Rhonda nervously rifled her pocket book and produced two photographs.
"That’s my father, Richard Turner," she pointed out. "And my sister, Margaret. We call her Meg."
The sheriff took the snapshots and rushed out to his car to call for backup. Within the half-hour, two deputies showed up in another police car followed by the first of the volunteers from Ashford.
Rhonda did not sleep that night as men and dogs scoured the woods on all sides of the cottage. She longed to be out there with them, shining a flashlight into every dark corner of that bedeviled forest. But her leg felt worse than ever. At times, it was as painful as it had been when the rescue workers dragged her out of the car. Oh yes, the car. How she hated those damn things. She couldn’t help remembering how nerve-wracking that trip from the city to their new home had been. All throughout that journey, she expected that, any moment, there’d be a sudden downpour, the road would slicken, and they’d swerve off the highway, tumble down the side of a cliff or smash into a stand of trees.
Sheriff Jameson checked in with her a couple of times, mostly in an attempt to convince her to get some sleep, but his advice couldn’t get beyond the paleness of her face or the fullness of her tears. As the early hours passed, his "we’re doing all we can" began to sound increasingly hollow.
Rhonda did doze off eventually but it was more of a collapse than anything intentional. She wound up on the couch, totally exhausted, and dreaming a series of incidents that could have been taken directly from an instructional film on the folly of drinking and driving. Her subconscious was assailed by crunched-up cars and mangled bodies of every description. And there was so much blood. And so many screams. Lights blared. Sirens whirred. Sometimes the faces of the victims were familiar – her father, her sister, and especially her mother. But there were also strangers in that gruesome mix; a young man, an older couple.
"Who are you?" she asked of the mangled body of this man.
In her dream state, it seemed natural to be asking such a question of a corpse. His eyes slowly opened, lips parted as if he was about to speak. A long period of strained silence followed before he finally uttered the one word "Who?" before his face shut down again; became as one with the rest of the dead.
She awoke in the early evening. Outside her house and beyond, there was still much activity but, as the night progressed, the numbers seemed to thin out. Fewer and fewer SUV’s drove by in both directions. The yapping of dogs ceased. By the following day, she heard nothing and saw no one. It was as if the police and the townspeople had given up all hope of finding her father and sister. She flopped down in a chair in the tiny kitchen and wept.
Later that day, she saw the familiar sheriff’s car drive up. This time he had a passenger. His companion was a middle-aged woman.
She opened the door to her two visitors and invited them in.
"This is Doctor Granger," said the sheriff.
"Please call me, Eve," said the woman.
"I don’t think I need a doctor," Rhonda responded. "Really. My leg’s not so good but…I just want my father and my sister back."
"That’s why I’m here," said Eve,
"You know where they are?"
"Yes. And so do you." Eve turned to the sheriff. "Why don’t you make us some coffee."
Jameson did as instructed.     
    "I’m fine," said Rhonda once the sheriff had departed. "I assure you. I just need you to find my father and my sister."
    “That’s what I want to talk to talk you about. Rhonda, when did you last see them?"
    "Yesterday. That’s what I keep telling everyone. My sister met some new people. She went to see them and then she didn’t come back. So my father set off to look for her. And then he didn’t return either. What’s happened to them?"
    Rhonda tried her best not to sound hysterical. She was normally a calm person and she didn’t like this side of herself, nor did she wish to display it in all its tearful glory to a total stranger. But she couldn’t stop the pitch of her voice from rising. Nor could she prevent her eyes from welling up.
     "I’m sorry," she stammered. "I’m not usually like this."
    "It’s okay to let it all out you know."
    The soft, warm tone of Eve’s voice made her even more aware of how she had lost control of her own. Her only way out was to bury her face in her hands. Eve added a comforting palm across the shoulder into the mix.
    "You think me a fool," Rhonda blubbered.
    "No. Not at all. But I am a little worried about you. You see, the sheriff’s been doing a little checking. With Mister Light at first. You know Mister Light."
"Yes, he’s the real estate agent. We rented this place off him."
"No Rhonda." A sudden firmness crept into Eve’s voice. "You rented this place. Just you. Mister Light says he did not see another woman or a man."
"That’s ridiculous. Why would he say such a thing?"
"Jack Light has no reason to lie. He’s lived in these parts for years and is well-liked and respected. And then the sheriff did some further digging around."
Rhonda could only stare at Eve in a state of utter bewilderment as the other laid out the sheriff’s findings.
"He checked with the police in the city regarding the accident. Your accident."
Rhonda’s face paled.
"A single car accident. Am I right?" Eve asked.
Rhonda nodded.
"A man and his wife and their two daughters. The wife was killed instantly."
Rhonda shuddered.
"The husband and one of the daughters were rushed to the hospital. The other daughter was wedged in the back of the car. She was conscious but delirious. By the time rescue managed to extract her, another ambulance had arrived. And then she too was taken off to the hospital. Physically, apart from her leg, she was fine. No internal damage. She was lucky. Her father and sister were not so fortunate. He died within an hour of entering the emergency room. The sister held on for three days but never did regain consciousness. Does this sound familiar?"
"No."
"That’s your family, Rhonda. Your sister, Meg. Your father, Richard. You were the only survivor."
"No!" Rhonda cried out. "That’s not true! None of it is true! My father drove us up here. My sister came too. This was to be our place of healing."
"It is a place of healing, Rhonda, but the one who needs to heal is you. Not just your leg. Do you understand?"
"You must talk to that man, Jacob Proulx. He’ll tell you where my sister is. He invited her to visit. Ask him. Or his parents. Surely, they’d know."
"Yes. And as for these people Proulx. Yes, there was such a family."
"Was?" cut in a confused Rhonda.
"And they did live in a house on 147. The house was exactly where you said it was. Except it burned down some twenty five years ago and whatever remained of it is now just woods. It had been abandoned for five years though before the fire. In fact, no one had lived in it since all three Proulx’s were killed in a car crash. From what the sheriff tells me, it happened somewhere along this stretch of 147."
"You’re telling me I’m crazy."
"No Rhonda, what I’m saying is, I’m here to help you. I don’t know how you got wind of the Proulx family…"
"It was Meg. I…"
"Rhonda, Meg is dead. She didn’t go missing in the woods. Same with your father. The sheriff has been very understanding. He has left it all in my hands."
As if on cue, Sheriff Jameson reentered the room, bearing coffees for both women.
"Rhonda and I have been having a little talk," said Eve.
Rhonda did not speak. She was still trying to assimilate all of the information that Eve had been feeding to her. At the same time, she struggled to convince herself that she wasn’t insane. Was the doctor correct? Had she been imagining all that happened since she moved into this cottage? It was more than that. If Eve Granger was to be believed, every moment of Rhonda’s life since the accident had been nothing but fantasy. She had closed up the old house, rented the cottage in the backwoods of Maine, driven up there in the Turner family’s rickety other car. And all of this with her bad leg. Her mind refused to wrap around this information. It kept urging her to scream but, instead, she toppled forward, the doctor caught her, and she wept violently into the curve of Doctor Granger’s shoulder.
It was another two hours before the sheriff and the doctor left. The conversation, after Rhonda’s initial shock, reverted to small talk. Neither the family Proulx nor her father and sister were brought up again. The main topic of conversation was the weather, the rain that was, once again, picking up in intensity.
On their departure, the doctor gave Rhonda her business card, urged her to make an appointment. The sheriff didn’t say much. In matters like this, he felt out of his league. When she closed the door behind her two visitors, Rhonda wasn’t sure whether she felt anxious or relieved. She did know that she had never felt so alone. Whether her father and sister had wandered off into the forest, never to be seen again, or they perished from that car crash, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Either way, they were not coming back to her. From that point on, the Turner family could only be a solo act.
With the windows shut tight, she did not hear the loud noise three or four hundred yards down the road. She wasn’t aware that, on that dangerous stretch of 147, not far from the cottage, a moose had darted out in front of the sheriff’s car and he had no way of braking in time. The impact of a huge animal and an automobile could have happened ten thousand miles away for all she knew. It was the voices, not the accident itself, that finally dragged her limping body up from the couch and to the front window.
It was quite dark out now, a combination of the clouds and the setting sun behind them. The heavy rain had stopped. There was now no more than a slight drizzle. She could make out two shapes walking slowly up the road toward the cottage. It was Sheriff Jameson and Doctor Granger. She was about to go to the door to see if there was some kind of problem when she noticed another shape moving toward them. This person was coming from the direction of the cottage. There was no question of going to the door now. Her feet were frozen to the spot and her eyes continued to gather in information that her brain struggled to make sense of.
Rhonda’s whole body began to tingle. She could not understand why the sheriff and the doctor were in what appeared to be a friendly conversation with someone she knew so very well, her sister Meg. She wanted to go out and see what was going on and yet her legs would not obey instructions.
More strangeness was to follow. For there, to her right, standing apart from the others, she could make out, through the haze, two other figures. One was a man. No question, it was her father. Beside him stood a woman. Rhonda suddenly burst into a loud, shrill scream. It was her mother. Her entire family were outside the cottage and yet, she understood that her body had been correct in staying put. She could not go out to them.
Meg pointed to her parents as if making introductions. The two nodded toward the doctor and the sheriff as if to acknowledge their presence. After a brief conversation, Sheriff Jameson and Doctor Granger bid their goodbyes, turned, and began to walk back down the road.
Of course, they would do that, Rhonda figured. It was getting dark. They wanted to get home. But they’d be back tomorrow. They’d come earlier this time. And they would never return to their previous lives.
She began to wonder what would happen to her. Would she fade away from lack of sustenance and companionship? If she died, who would even know? And what of the cottage? Would it too meet the fate of the Proulx house? Be torched by either vandals or lightning? She could imagine its foundations, its ashes, even its memories, being quickly claimed by the surrounding woods.
Then it could do its real work. And she would be part of it. It rained a lot in these parts. The roads could be very treacherous. There’d be many accidents, many who didn’t survive. And the dead would always need some place to go.



John Grey

John Grey is an Australian born writer, US resident. Has been published in Weird Tales, Tales of the Talisman, Flapperhouse, Strangely Funny 2 ½, and the sci fi anthology, “A Robot, A Cyborg And A Martian Walk Into A Space Bar” amongst many others. Is a past Rhysling winner for genre poetry.



​​ Unicorn
By Cathleen Townsend

As I advance toward him, the man’s face registers incredulity, and then, impossible hope. “U-unicorn,” he mumbles. “The stories are true.”
Well, some of them. I offer him my horn, and he grabs it with the strength of desperate desire. There is only one kind of healing I can give him, but I offer it, spreading some of his failing life force back through my horn as a feeling of well-being. His hand finally slackens, and he murmurs, “Thank you,” before slumping back. A final smile graces his lips.
“Come to me,” begs his companion, who has seen only the smile. This one is in the grip of intoxicants, so I intensify that feeling, and he moans. At the end he tries to pull away, but his hand refuses to let go, and he, too, slumps against the concrete wall, next to his companion who is already cooling.
I trot away into the morning mist, a gray shadow blending into the thickets by the river. The thrumming in my blood is far more intoxicating than any drug these poor mortals have ever consumed.
I spend my days by the river, marking where homeless shelters sprout in the underbrush. The humans always cluster together, even though they steal from each other. I watch from the bushes as one hapless man with a six-pack of beer barely makes it back to his tarp tenement with three left. His neighbors’ promises to repay him are as hollow as their cheeks and voices.
I target the weakest, the drunkest, those so lost in their own misery that they can no longer be bothered to go to the river and wash. I would get no praise from the remaining humans for it, even though their ragged village is better off without them. Their life force is the only remaining sweetness they possess.
And that is consumed far too soon. I will have to move to find another encampment. Everyone who is left is wary now. My coat is not proof against weapons, and the humans could hurt me if they tried. I am much smaller than a horse, more the size of a retriever. I must always be cautious.
Sooner or later, many unicorns succumb. To watch yourself die, or to hold off death at the price of a few? What passes for a conscience among us is to take only from those whom nobody will miss. I scrupulously observe this point. I have no idea what I will become if I have no standards left at all.
I move upriver to the northeast. The river winds between park and natural preserve here, the oaks providing dappled shade along the banks. I locate a homeless encampment, but it only has a single tarp tent. As I turn to leave, my eye falls on a young man.
He is perhaps seventeen, Latino, and clean for someone in his circumstances.
“A…a unicorn. Damn. Mi abuela would be proud.”
I sniff. He is free from any intoxicants. Remarkable. I turn to leave.
“No, wait. I’ll share my sandwich.” He tears it in half and holds out part to me. Peanut butter and grape jelly. It has been a long time since I’ve eaten anything sweet. I take a bite, and he eases himself down on the bank next to me.
“Thank you—this makes up for a lot. Could you sit with me for a while? Please?”
I dip my horn in assent and he sighs. He feeds me the rest of the sandwich and lies back on the grass.
“I just need someone to talk to. I don’t know what to do. Even a job at McDonald’s requires an internet connection, and someone just stole everything I own. A shelter gave me a change of clothes and that tarp. That’s all I’ve got.”
It is more than most who meet with me are left with, but I enjoy listening to his voice, which has not happened for a long time.
“I’ve got to figure out a way to keep everything safe, or it’ll just get stolen again. I’ll try the parking lot of the Home Depot tomorrow and see if I can find anyone who needs a handyman. Or maybe they’ll have some lumber that’s damaged and they’re throwing it away.”
A feather-light touch on my forehead startles me.  
“My name is Raul,” he says, stroking my forelock. “I won’t hurt you, I swear. I’m only trying to stay alive.”
So am I, and a rush of sudden shame makes me lower my head. His hand caresses my horn, and I tell myself firmly—no taking. Raul is not my legitimate prey.
“It’s beautiful—you’re beautiful. There’s been too much ugliness in my life.”
We sit for a long, wordless time on the riverbank, watching the herons and egrets fish for frogs.
He yawns. “I’m tired all of a sudden.”
No! I have been taking from him. I’ve done it so much, it happens without trying. I flood him with stolen life-force, along with a feeling of well-being so he will allow me to replace what I have stolen.
He moves his hand. “Wow. That was incredible. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that good. Thank you.”
He staggers off to his bright blue tent, and I slink away. I cannot afford to do that again. It’s just…the sense of him was so pure, so full of life. No wonder they tell us not to take them. No one would ever stop. The longing for more grabs me, even through my shame.
I find another hopeless case to drain instead, although I almost don’t finish. It would be cruel to doom him to a slow death, though, so I ease his passage in the end.
I spend the rest of the night staring across the river, listening to the chirping crickets and the grinding croak of frogs. The white moonlight rippling across the river’s surface holds no wisdom for me.
The next day I approach cautiously, dreading what I might find, but Raul is hammering boards over pallets with a fierce smile, which brightens when he sees me.
“Look at this. A guy offered several of us work today—his in-laws are coming to visit, and his wife told him to clean out the yard. He was so happy to get rid of all this that he gave me a ride back in his truck.” He gestures with obvious pride. “What do you think? I’m starting with a floor. No point in buying a computer if it gets ruined in the rain.”
I dip my head in assent. Humans so seldom think ahead. They believe they’re rational beings, but they usually act in terms of immediate gratification. By that evening, Raul has reassembled his tent over his new floor.
We sit together outside and he gives me my own sandwich. I try to touch him with my horn to replace the life force I have stolen, but he shakes his head. “It seems wrong, like too much of a good thing. I…don’t want to use you. I would rather be a friend. I need that in my life.”
I turn my horn away, but inwardly, I sigh. Still, Raul seems recovered, and he is young. If he won’t allow the touch of my horn, he is safe from me. And it has been a long time since anyone has spoken to me like a friend would.
Raul throws himself into building himself a house. Progress happens in bits and pieces, depending on how often he finds work. It will be one small room, nestled into the oaks and bushes to avoid detection. And he is slowly acquiring the tools he needs.
He pulls out a square today. “I’ve missed having one of these. It’s a good thing I took shop in school—I don’t know what I’d have done otherwise.” He sighs. “It even made it worth dealing with the guy who hired me today. He told his wife he picked up a couple Mexicans, like we were something on a shelf in a store.”
I keep him company as he hammers two-by-fours together to frame a wall. I am no expert, but it looks sturdy to me.
“If I can get a real job, the next thing I’ll do is sign up for classes at the community college. This is temporary. I’m not a bum.” He pounds a nail so hard it goes in with one blow.
Since I have been spending time with Raul, I am eating more. Not just the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, although I never tire of them. The field of clover nearby smells tantalizing, and I remember how I used to enjoy the drop of sweet nectar in the flowers.
One night I even stop myself from taking a human. Inwardly, he is nothing like Raul…but he is young. Maybe he could still make something of his life. I turn my head and slip away before I change my mind.
The house slowly takes shape. It is roofed with a hodgepodge of leftover shingles, and the sides are sheeted with whatever boards Raul has been able to scrounge. “This will make it all match,” Raul says, pulling the lids off two five gallon buckets. “The orange and green were marked way down—paint someone never picked up. If I mix them together, they’ll make brown.”
That night we burn the scrap wood in celebration of the house being finished. Raul speaks of the laptop computer he will buy as soon as he has enough money. I nod at intervals, although memory capacity is not something I normally consider. Most of my memories are something I avoid. It is the price of my form of immortality.
“Well, what have we here? Roasting weenies in front of the campfire, boy scout? And with a pet unicorn, no less.”
It is the man I spared several weeks ago. Raul’s face goes flat and he stands. He is not as tall as the intruder.
“I don’t have any hot dogs,” Raul says, “and I’m out of food for the night. Please go.”
“Looks like you built yourself a fine place to stay. It’d be more neighborly to offer to share.” The man’s smile is feral.
“It’s not big enough for more than one.” Raul picks up his hammer, and the man takes a step back.
“No need to be like that. I’ll just be moving on.”
The intruder takes the path to the river, and Raul’s shoulders slump. I return to his side and he gives me a rueful grin. “I’m glad I can lock guys like him out. I’ve met him before. He’s strong when he’s sober, but he’s foul until he can find a drink. And he thinks everything you own should be his.”
Raul turns in early. I believe he is eager to lock his door against the night. I go looking for the man who harassed Raul. If I can find him, Raul will never have to worry about him again. I will drain him as he sleeps.
I search in a wide circuit but can find no traces. I glance at the moon, but she will impart no wisdom to me, certainly not for murder. Then a hint of smoke reaches my nostrils.
Locks will not keep fire out. If someone’s cook fire has spread to the oaks, Raul could be in danger. I race back to his house.
The intruder is already there. He has piled the embers of our fire next to the back of the house and added brush to the flames, which are licking along its side. I hear Raul inside, screaming, but the man laughs and holds the door shut. He is demanding money to open it.
I lower my head and charge. My horn stabs him in the calf, and I take all the life force I can before he pulls free.
“You bastard.”
I am worse than that, but he is no paragon, either. He lunges at me and I dance to the side. He is determined, and I have to evade his attacks when I need to check on Raul. Why has he not come out of his house to put out the fire?
The man trips over an outthrust piece of granite, and I rush forward. I bury my horn in his neck this time and siphon his life before the blood has even stopped flowing.
Raul has gotten his door open, but he is collapsed inside. He is coughing, choking in the smoke. I run to him, try to get him to put his arms around me so I can drag him free. But he is too weak. The flames beat us with savage heat. My mane sizzles, and I can no longer stand the flames. But rather than leave Raul to the fire, I drain him.
Then I run. I have killed my only friend.

***

I have been old for many years, but I am finally showing my age. I accept this. I would rather die than live with regret searing my soul for all eternity.
I have told other unicorns of my life, enduring their expressions of disgust, for I know how strong the temptation will be when they begin to falter. I allow young humans to catch a glimpse of me, but I never permit them to touch. I cannot afford another friend.
The moonlight has told me it is time to surrender my life. I am ready.
As I lay down for the final time, I ask to see Raul again.

“Unicorn in the Forest” Image © qingqing3 on Flickr : https://www.flickr.com/photos/53835347@N03/4979143486




Cathleen Townsend

Cathleen Townsend loves a good tale, especially if it involves history or fantasy. She resides in gold country in California’s beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, which is fortunate because it encourages her to leave her keyboard and take her dogs for walks. She loves to chat with readers on her blog: cathleentownsend.com .

Cathleen has been published by Raven International Publishing, Thinkerbeat, Everyday Fiction, and (coming soon) Story Emporium and Fantasia Divinity. A free digital copy of her first short story collection, Dragon Hoard and Other Tales of Faerie, is available to all comers on her website/blog.

Flowers in the Pyramid
By Bartholomew Klick

When the British marched in with their long-range guns, everyone became little. Muslims and Mughals and Jainists and travelers and warriors and merchants all seemed to shrivel up and harden the shell by which they identified. The castes were still there, but beneath the British Raj, all untouchable. This saddened me most, I think, the shell-hardening. The enemy of your enemy is not your friend; you just have more enemies, and see fit to on occasion use the ones that offend you least.  This was my spoke on the wheel of suffering. I have no opinion.
We were southeast of Simla, some many days’ march out, when the richest of the poor farmers’ elephants went mad and, in the marketplace, killed a merchant and his servant. If it had just been the servant, the elephant would have been forgiven and his owner fined. The merchant was too close to being human, though.
I was borrowing food in my usual, quiet way when the ordeal happened, and I used the distraction to borrow more than normal. This I took to my hiding place, a cannon-damaged bit of Mughal Fort, leftover from an Islamist war, before returning to see if anyone needed errands run.
The sun crept to midday before a British man with a gun came to the marketplace. He had a crowd behind him, but he worked at pretending not to notice. No one walks with so many behind them and avoids looking back so hard. But if he had looked back, this would have acknowledged that they were like people to him. He couldn’t. I know the walk too well.
This mess was going down the middle of the market, though, toward me and if I had run, the merchant I’d just borrowed from would have seen me and raised a bedlam. I kept pretending not to notice the British man and hoped for the best.
“You! Boy!”
I did not stop, because I am not a boy. The arm that took me was ungentle. The British man turned me to face him. He wore the unwieldy, waxed moustache of his kind. He smelled of dogs and fruit, and the sun-seared cherry red of his face hurt to look on, and painted a stark contrast to his rifle.
This life of mine was about to end, I was certain.
“Apologies, miss,” he said, when he’d realized his mistake. He did not introduce himself. “Take me to Bilgrami’s farm.”
I wanted desperately to not understand him, or for him to realize how unsuitable of a guide I was. I wanted to look at him blankly until he cast me aside.
Instead, I responded instantly: “There are several, sir.”
He rolled his whole head in the unnatural way the British express their frustration. “The one with the mad elephant!”
“I mean, he owns several, now, sir. He works for the provincial governor.”
He cuffed me, and I made a show of staggering for the crowd he was pretending not to notice. Pity is its own form of currency, and I planned to buy respite with it, later, since no one spoke up on my behalf.
“You know damned well what I’m asking; don’t play stupid.”
“You mean to kill the elephant, sir?”
He nodded. I was close enough to him now to see the unease lurking just under his face. He was swimming in his own fear. He wasn’t ignoring the crowd because they were Indian. He was pretending that they were not completely controlling him. They expected him to kill the elephant, and if it had ever been his idea, he had regretted it at once.
Here was a soft man used to leisure, who had everything already stolen for him and no need to reach for it, suddenly forced on a death march to play a part he did not understand.
I led him to where I thought the elephant might live, because I, like him, suddenly had a new and strange role: I was the guide, and was expected to know these things, even by the crowd.
My blood rushed. I’d never been in the front before. This fed something that I craved. I killed it, because I have no opinion, nor should I. I led them quietly where I thought they wanted to go and tried to think about my breath.
As it happened, I had a fuzzy awareness of the places where easy food could be plucked. The farm I led him to had elephants, and one was a tyrant male, storming keenly from one tree to another when we arrived. I do not know if it was the same creature from the marketplace.
The British man planted himself flat on the hill and took aim, and the sun crept past overhead. He was sweating, but the day was cool.
I wanted to tell him, “It might be the wrong animal.” I wanted to tell him that if he didn’t fire, he might leave a crack in the hardening shell that had forced him with me to march here.
He fired, though, before my voice and my courage met. The elephant fell, and sent a shudder through the earth. It screamed. The British man watched for a long moment before someone called for him to finish the job. He stumbled upright, and seemed to fall through the steps of shoving another bullet down the gun’s throat. Every time the elephant cried, the British man jumped, and instinctively kept the gun pointed at the sky.
He readied himself back in the mud, aimed again at the dying creature, and fired. It bellowed, its voice powering through the farm and seeming to push the wind out into the trees. It thrashed in the mud, slamming its body and rolling, somehow growing more powerful as death crept over it.
The elephant took the entire day to die.
The British man’s eyes soaked in every pained writhe, every slosh of reddening mud as the beast thrashed. The elephant’s breath grew shallower. The British man’s flesh grew whiter. The crowd cheered and jeered, and one went to fetch the butcher. Bilgrami arrived and shouted for a while, but the British man ignored them all, as was his luxury.
Even after the animal died, and was dragged away in pieces, the British man stared. Frozen.
I sat next to him. There was no need to suffer alone.
When the sun hid for the day, we parted without a word.

***

Three weeks went by and I found myself hanging in a cage and waiting to die. My borrowing had caught up to me.
The British man, his moustache freshly trimmed, passed me one day as the monsoon threatened overhead. He saw me and squinted and kept walking.
I said nothing to him. I have no opinion.
The shadows of the day had moved a few feet across the ground when he found me again. I was meditating, with my arms and legs dangling through the cage. I was imagining an offering of fruit and gems before a great stupa.
The British man passed again. Stopped this time, pointed at me, and asked a passerby, “What did this one do?”
“It is a thief, sir.”
“Well, it’s mine. I want it freed.”
“I’m not his,” I said.
“Then I will buy you.” He didn’t look up.
I shook my head and closed my eyes as the uproar began.
He paid the wrong people to open my cage and as the other option was death, I made to follow him. Someone, I suspect a merchant, kicked me, and this started a rain of beatings. I said nothing. The food had been borrowed and I was paying it back.
The British man walked with a confidence that seemed to know I would be behind him when he turned, as if the crowd could not swallow, or if I could not find some shadow and melt away there.
This compound was absurd, with its walls and guards and men exchanging paperwork and salutes. He sat on a step near where a horse was tied. I sat too, across from him, in the dirt, careful of what I was sure was a broken rib.
“How much did I cost you?” I asked. I was curious what I owed the world.
“I…” he started and let the word die into his own breathing. I had a sudden horror that he wanted me for my flesh. “I wanted to show my gratitude.”
“The elephant,” I said. “Then as your gratitude has been shown, I’ll take my leave and head for Simla.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “I bought you, after all.”
“I thought your people had denounced such practices.”
“Well, I’m hardly sending you to a cotton plantation, Miss… what was your name, again?”
“You never asked.”
“So I didn’t.” He removed a cigar from the inside pocket of his dust-covered coat, bit off the end, and then spit. He took a small, rounded box from an outside pocket, opened a lid on it, and then twisted on a dial. A sulfurous odor went past as he twisted, and then all at once, a flame erupted from the box. He dropped it in surprise.
“Loaded it wrong,” he said, then picked it up. Part of the box glowed, now, and he ignited his cigar against it.
I laughed.
“What?” he asked.
“That thing in your pocket,” I said. “My father could have met the dowry with it. I’d be married.”
“A cap igniter?” he seemed confused, as if it weren’t wealth. “Ridiculous.”
I agreed with him, but perhaps he meant something different and dismissive with the word.
“I’m going on expedition tomorrow, to meet up with my man Jennings” he said, puffing his cigar. “You’re to go with me.”
“Will you shoot another elephant?” I was goading him, but it was a mistake. My debts were too steep to afford sarcasm. I humble myself in the three refuges. Perhaps the goading will come back as another broken rib.
“God, no,” he said. He snuffed. His whole moustache moved. His eyes were blue. How strange. “A messenger arrived this morning. A colleague of mine, Randall Jennings, made an archeological find that’ll make our fortunes. At least he thinks so. What do you think of that?”
“I have no opinion.”
“But you’d be in my employ. If I do well, you do well. So come now, what do you think?”
“I have no opinion, sir.”
He blew air out from his moustache. “I’m an explorer. You’re my guide. You don’t need an opinion. We’re to assess Jennings’ find tomorrow and bring supplies to him. We’ll trade off, if it’s a good find, and I’ll send him back into civilization for a working crew. Perhaps you can dig. Some honest work will straighten out your back, eh?”
“I have no opinion.”
He lifted a hand, but never brought it toward me. Instead he bit the back of his wrist, hard. Then drew a long breath in through his nose. I was certain he’d have drawn blood from himself, but he hadn’t, and the back of his wrist was callused over.
“I apologize for the suggestion,” he said, his voice steady, as if he’d hidden his anger in his wrist-bones. “I keep forgetting you’re a woman.”
“What exactly will my role be with you tomorrow?” I was afraid of the answer and ashamed of that fear.
“I’m fond of your company,” he said, and nothing else.
I thought of escaping, but had nowhere to run.
He showed me a quarter for the servants, forgetting my sex again, and then went to bed. I wandered outside to watch the setting sun and imagined what Buddha had felt when the devil pestered him after months of starvation. Then I slept beneath a tree, and dreamt of being hanged there, and of my body swinging over a pot made of invincible clay, and full of elephant meat.

***

The horse screamed and rose up on its back legs, trying to hurl me away.
“Haven’t you ever ridden before?” the British man asked.
“No!” I said. Somewhere deep within, I knew that monster was a kindred spirit, but it could be kindred from a safe distance. “Can’t I walk?”
He calmed the horse. Touched it gently on the nose, and patted it. Would that we all calmed one another so. Then he turned his attention to me.
“Now, squeeze with your legs like I showed you.”
I did. The animal bolted, and I landed on my pride.
One of the guards sniggered under a hand, and turned away.
“God’s blood, boy, you’ll just slow me down even if I get you riding.”
He decided out loud that I would ride behind him on his horse. I decided that, when we were far enough from people, I would walk, and perhaps disappear into a quiet patch of forest and try my luck in the wilds.
We went out of the town on a dirt road, going southwest, and started down a forest trail. The horse objected to this, and I took my chance to get back on the ground. Looking ahead, I saw why the horse objected. The dark of that place was absolute, and the path looked rough.
“She’s not normally like this,” the British man said. “Behave, Elise!”
I was glad to see his mastery of things not extend perfectly to horses, but kept it to myself. He goaded the poor beast forward and I walked alongside. The forest made the way so slow-going that any advantage the horse had provided on the way out of town, it surely cost again here. Had I been on my own, I could have cleared twice the distance. It was tempting, but leaving the horse seemed cruel. The British man had, at least, a gun.
The sun went high and the foliage thickened when we found a tree with a knife buried deep into its flesh. A syrup bled from it.
“Here we go,” The British man said, and tried to veer the horse left. The animal wanted nothing to do with that direction, though, and tried to turn right instead. Finally, it screamed and went to its hind legs. Its hatred of the forest made me nervous, and I wondered if it hadn’t sensed a snake, or a big cat. Trying my luck in the wilds seemed suddenly to have very poor odds, and I realized that even if I turned back now, it would be more than half a day of walking before I made my way back to clear land. That’s if I was left unmolested by Thuggee, or whatever other bandits roamed.
The dark of the forest made itself suddenly apparent. The sun was very far away, it seemed, and only a few stray slivers of its light made their way through to the earth. The path on the left was darker, still, and my mind played at filling it with spider webs and serpents.
I’d been thrown from one cage into another.
“We should go back,” I said.
“Look at that, you’ve got an opinion,” he snapped back. “We’re going the right way. This is the tree he mentioned in his message,” The British man said. “He’ll have a base camp set up, and by his reckoning, we’re closer to it than the town. You kept me company through one darkness; can’t I count on you for this one?”
“You’re like a king,” I said, suddenly. “Why would you ever go in there, when you can go anywhere you like and have everything you’ve ever wanted?”
He laughed. The horse cried again, and tried to turn. He got down.
“If I don’t find success here by the year’s end, I’m either joining the Foreign Legion or going to debtor’s prison.”
“I like your prisons,” I said. “They feed you once a day.”
“Step up from a cage in the town square, I dare say,” he said. He took a pack from the horse and slung it over his back. It sloshed. He took another and handed it to me.
“Can I trust you not to scamper off?”
“Will you not turn back?”
“I can’t,” he said. “And if the horse won’t follow, and can’t find its way home, my debts go up that much more.”
“What’s there that you’ll die for it?”
“My fortune,” he said, turned, and started walking away. He did not look back at me.
I stood, calculating my odds. My spirit screamed to flee, and that this British devil was going to kill himself, and me with him if I followed. The horse would be no help, though, and if I returned alone, I’d be accused of leaving him to die, or maybe even of killing him myself. I consoled my sudden, swelling opinions with the knowledge that, by following him, I would not be alone, and in that minor blessing, would pay off some of the infinite sin that follows every soul into each life.
His reasons for bringing me still worried me, too. The sort of company British men took from Indian women, I wanted no part of. But if nothing else, he was a better choice than the horse, who was already snorting and threatening to leave me alone in the wood.
Eyes up for serpents, I went after the British man and into the dark.

***

In a clearing, soon, we found a ruin, its shadows long with the setting sun.
“Jennings!” the British man called. “Jennings! Anyone?”
The ruin, though, rang empty, feeding him back the words.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Part of making my fortune will be in finding out, won’t it?” the British man said. Never mind that I had found this place with him. Or found it third, I corrected myself. His friend, some Jennings, would have been first. Except—the place had buildings. Foreign, strange buildings of a style I’d never seen, with walls that slanted up, and many stone pillars. No. No one had a claim to finding this place; its builders were long gone. I was to be a scavenger here, keeping company with a vulture.
He made his way into the ruin, between two crumbled structures, and there we found the tents, long empty and draped on the inside with spider webs. There was a fireplace, long cold, and saddle bags minus a horse half-full with supplies.
I would suddenly have given the world for an absurd guard to demand paperwork.
“We should go,” I said.
But the British man was deaf to me, and rummaged through the dead camp site.
“Jennings!” His voice pierced, as if he’d reached into his dead elephant and summoned a part of its cry. If anyone had not been aware of us before, they surely were now.
I grabbed him. I turned him to me, barely seeing his face in what little light was left of the day.
“Please,” I said. “We must leave.”
“Damn you!” he whirled. “I can’t leave, do you understand? I need this.”
“What if this is a Thuggee place, and we’ve caught them away? Please, we should go.”
“You can run if you want,” he said. “I’ll write a letter for you, explaining.”
In that instant, I saw the same man who had stared down the barrel of a rifle at an elephant he’d never wanted to kill. The man who made himself watch every second of its death, when anyone else in their right mind would have left.
“No,” I said. “I’m with you, like before. But you should do your business quickly.”
He nodded. Turned his back to me.
I have no opinion.

***

At the ruin’s center, we found a step pyramid, and it was overgrown with moss. I stared up at it, unsure if my heart pounded from fear or wonder.
“Is it like the ones in Egypt?” I asked, trying to imagine it topped with gold, and wondering where that thought had come from.
“No,” he said. “Wrong type of construction and far too small.”
I went first up the steps. The structure seemed to sing, the stones themselves hum. The darkness out here was cold and wet, but in there—a perfect dark that hinted a promise of warmth. I was halfway up the stairs before the sensation let its grip loose. Or perhaps I slipped free. The British man was barely to the stairs, and there were a great many of them between us.
The wind began to shriek. Rain fell like gods tipping over buckets.  
“Careful,” he called up. Then followed me. The stairs were so steep that it threatened to topple us. I went on all fours, because they were too narrow and too slick. I didn’t want to turn back, but the part of my mind that speaks during meditation knew I should have wanted this. It knew that my desires were alien. My mind was looking for a way to turn around, but the rest of me kept climbing, knees pressing fresh bruises into themselves with every doglike, entranced step up the stone stairs.
The British man shouted above the weather. “There are buildings like these in the Americas,” he said. “But this has no place here--This is the find of the century!”
At the top of the stairs was an altar, stained brown, perhaps from ancient blood. An entrance, dark and open, towered before us. I pushed myself to my feet and followed the water down. The British man came after me, sloshing, our feet echoing in the darkness.
I found myself looking at an entrance into the pyramid—a doorway, drenched in blackness, that led into the building’s belly. Even when lightning tore across the sky and its thunder boomed, I did not look up. The door came closer, though such a thing seemed impossible.
It entered over me.
Silence. Eternity.

***

I am marching to a gallows tree with British men surrounding me and men from other castes watching and congratulating each other. The sky seems wrong; it is daylight, but there are stars. A certainty fills my being; this is the only life. I will be dead forever. There is no wheel of suffering, then; I am free.
I step up to the gallows and smile.
No? The voice is foreign. Powerful. Angry. We’ll try another.

***

I am lounging in the depth of a pillow of finest satin, and sipping wine from a chalice. I do not know this time or this place, but the luxuries of the palace splayed before me are glittering. Somehow, I am unhappy.
The wine is strange. The part of my mind that meditates knows that this flavor should please me, but I am disgusted. I pour the wine onto a marble floor.
“What is this piss? Who chose it?”
I cannot control my anger. I am a whirl of opinions, and chaos. I want to scream.
A man is brought to me. Shoved roughly to the floor. His head is lowered; he is a patchwork of old scars. My deeper mind feels that he has forgotten how to cry, and on purpose.
The words are in my throat, gagging me. “Take him below; use his skin for book covers.” This is what I am meant to say; my deep mind knows it, but not why it would ever come from my mouth.
“No!” I scream, instead.
The palace, and everyone in it, including myself, shatters and falls back into eternity.

***

I gasped and regretted it immediately; this place smelled of rancid flesh. I pulled away, pushing my back into the dank stone wall. An alien, blue light filled the room, coming gently from blossoms that stringed across the walls of the inside of the pyramid. Yes, inside the pyramid. I had to assure myself that this was real.
The lights were draped across my neck, too, and they moved. Slid off of my body and away from my head. They were embedded in flesh, and I realized this with a horror that paralyzed me. I was covered in these bulbs of glowing skin, and they were jutting from thick arms that could bend whichever way they pleased.
The voice ripped at me as it spoke.
You are useless to me. Go.
My eyes rang. My ears were blurred. Only my nose reported fact—that this place was rancid through and through, rancid arms in rancid waters, endless. The world made no sense and the arms would not stop writhing. There was a stairwell in the wall to my left and every ounce of me that lived wanted to be there.
“No,” the British man cried. I looked for the source of his voice, but the world was still shattered at my feet, and the arms were sliding across me. “Let the poor creature die. Why won’t it die? Please. I’m so sorry.”
Go. The world shook. Now!
I was in the stink-water on all fours with no recollection of falling. My lips had touched it. Vomit curdled within me.
The stairs were so close, but the British man was down here, somewhere, and there was a debt to be paid. This life of mine, I was sure, was about to end.
The first step was still toward the stairs, because they were a temptation and because the thing at the heart of all those tendrils needed to think that I was compliant. It needed to think I had no plan, because it was smarter than me and—
An alien thought. Small, almost imperceptible, but my deep mind knew it didn’t belong.
A breeze came down the stairs; it washed over my face and carved a hole in the hot stink of the place. The shadow of the British man’s gun stood against the stairs. It beckoned, and as I stepped toward it the tendrils fell away from my feet, letting me go as I pleased.
I stopped. Closed my eyes, but calmly, though the realization had been harsh.
“I am my own person, not your toy,” I said. As the words came out, reality shook at the edge of my perception. “Not your food. Let me go.”

***

When my eyes opened, I was in the corner of the pyramid’s room again. The squeeze of the tendrils around my chest relaxed. I expected the mental blast of its voice, but there was none, and I soon saw why—the arm that held me was limp. Motionless. Its blue lights dimmed to nothing, and the appendage fell from my head, connected to me by a thousand lines of fleshy, orange thread. I put my hand on this and tugged, gently, so that they slid from under the skin of my face. There was a tightness around my eyes as they came free. I screamed, and then all the threads were out. I let it fall with a horrid plop. Blood ran freely down my cheeks, like tears.
I fought my way across the tendrils, which filled up the water on the floor and draped across the room like banners. Not all of the lights were dead, and those on the British man glowed bright.
The tendril affixed to his skull shuddered as I grabbed it. Orange threads with flowing light inside them were taut, stretched from the flowers on the arm to his head, where they’d punctured the skin. They writhed within him, visibly.
“No,” he muttered, as if dreaming. “No, please.”
“He is mine,” I said. “He is a thief and I own him now. He is not yours.”
I started pulling.
The room faded to darkness. He screamed.
When the tendril came free, I threw it, hard, and pulled the British man to his feet. He wobbled, but his balance slowly came to him. He looked lost.
“What’s going on?” He asked. “I heard your voice and then--”
“We have to go,” I said. “Now.” I kept his hand in mine and led him toward where the staircase up had been when the creature’s blue lights still lived.
They popped to life, and the tendrils swirled around the room.
“Run,” I breathed.
The tendrils lashed all at once, but we bounded, our hands gripped white. A tightness around my ankle, a pull, but we had momentum--the British man kept running, and kept his grip tight on me. A tendril slammed into his back, but the staircase and its fresh air were so close. I shouldered into him, forcing him upward, so that we both scrambled up the stone steps, with hell thundering behind us.
Then we were outside, the wind fresh on our faces. I worried, briefly, that this was another of the pyramid-thing’s tricks, but then the British man coughed, and laughed, and leaned into his own coughing and laughing and panting. It was too human of a slurry. Blood poured from wounds on his head, but the rain cleared them. I realized that I was bleeding too.
Lightning lit the whole of the ruin, and I saw that it was filled with people, shadows moving back and forth and trading, and loving and hating, and worshipping in death the thing at the core of the pyramid.
“No,” I said, and tugged him from where he was trying to catch his breath. “We’re not safe.”
Only in the forest, among the safety of snakes and spiders and true darkness did I dare let my heart slow down.
We held hands instinctively to not lose the way. When the ruin was lost again, where it belonged, we leaned against a tree.
“Since we’re shaking hands,” he said, watered blood running down his nose. “I’m Francis. Francis Tennyson.”
I laughed. The rain washed my own blood into my mouth. Had I seen my future in the pyramid? And the past that had condemned me to it? Or was it a nightmare, playing with my mind? The part of me that meditates quieted the thought, and reminded me: I have no opinion.
“Ahsan,” I said. “My name is Ahsan.”



Bartholomew Klick

Bartholomew Klick has a Master's Degree in communication, and is the co-cartoonist for Ramen Empire ( http://www.ramen-empire.com ), a comic strip about film-making and friendship. He is working on a science fiction novel, as all attempts to use his degree to make money have failed miserably.

Editor's Note

Be on the lookout for more exciting stories! We already have several great stories picked out for September along with two anthologies that we are working on putting together. Watch our website for updates on release dates as well as new submission calls.

I would like to thank everyone who helped put this magazine together. I hope you all enjoyed it!