FEATURED STORIES

Father and Child

Once in an age, the rot set in to the bones of our world.

It was our tribe’s season on the vast Plain of Rebirth, and so when the first of Grandfather’s leaves fell from the 3057th bough-line, we knew it was time.

“Time to go! Flatfoot! Come on!” Three Arm, the nightdrummer, called to me.

I had just laid down to sleep the afternoon away in our longhouse, moccasins and shirt off, tossed on the end of the bed. The light was silver with approaching storm and its dimness made my eyelids droop.

“What’s the rush?” I complained. There was no need for either of us at the Unleashing.

“Handheart expects us,” Three Arm insisted. “That’s reason enough.”

The old man’s ire would be troublesome, I supposed. It was worth skipping today’s nap so as not to be punished with extra work during tomorrow’s. I sprang impatiently out of bed to underscore my distaste, but Three Arm just rolled his eyes. Feet shod, I followed the sprightly drummer out the door as I slipped my shirt back on.

Our longhouse was one in a row near the dropoff at Plain’s edge. Its bold red and black painted stripes stood starkly against the grey cloud of the drop. Three Arm had left his drum by the door and snatched it up as we left, slung its strap over shoulder and chest.

“He wants you to play?” I asked.

“Yeah, he thinks it will aid the Growth,” said Three Arm.

Daydrummers should have been enough for that, I thought, but Three Arm was the best in our tribe. We passed the cookhouse and the barracks, the tall Hunter’s Home, and beyond Sky Father’s temple to the empty plain. The short, tough grass was wet and cool with moisture dripped from the boughs above. We had to skirt the longhouse-sized fallen leaf of Grandfather, already browning, and then we were on the path to the tree we called the Child.

Many others were already gathered there - priests and tenders, drummers and gophers like me. All those needed and any who simply wished to attend. The priests sang a song in their many-throated voices, words snatched by the breeze preceding the storm, squashed beneath the pounding drums. The Child’s leaves rustled with youthful vigor. Even I could tell that it was ready for Growth. And none too soon.

“Boys, how nice of you to attend,” called Handheart.

The old priest’s robes were a brighter orange than I’d ever seen them. He must have been excited for the ritual. My more cynical self said it was less excitement and more that after today, he would be allowed to retire to Elder’s Home.

“We wouldn’t dream of sleeping through a moment like this,” I said, and he looked at me askance.

“Join the line?” Three Arm asked, and Handheart gestured him to do so. The daydrummers nodded as my friend came alongside. I couldn’t help but sway to their hypnotic rhythms.

But I stilled when Handheart approached me. There was a conspiratorial look on his face.

“Flatfoot. I sense you wished to sleep rather than attend,” he said near my ear. “Are you unwell?”

“You didn’t have to sense it, Elder,” I said cooly. “You know this is my naptime.”

Handheart tensed and I shut my eyes in advance of the slap. It didn’t come. He let out a growling breath.

“Despite your role in today’s Growth,” he said, “you did not wish to witness it?”

“Oh, I had forg—”

He cut me off. “Don’t tell me you forgot. No one forgets such a thing, Flatfoot.”

I clamped my mouth shut.

“The women approach,” he said, and indeed I heard their ululations now. “Cease your dancing and do not speak until the end of the ritual. Understood?”

Handheart always preferred verbal affirmations, so I merely nodded. His lips went flat but he turned and rejoined the other old men. I spun to watch the girls arrive.

All Leafdew women look good in motion as they weave and bob and sing, but my gaze belonged to Spright most of all. Firefly’s daughter was as hard to pin down as myself - no one’s first pick but mine. Her long red hair fluttered on the breeze and I caught her jade gaze for an intoxicating moment. Did she smile?

I wanted to move with her, dance whatever dance came to me, but I had tested Handheart enough today. If he got fed up with me, I might be ‘witnessing’ the rest of the ritual through my eyelids.

The women’s song joined the priests’ and the drummers led a feverish crescendo. A long wail of extended harmony arose, and crashed down into sudden silence. It was only a moment before Handheart’s dual-throated litany filled the void.

“Long has it been since the Leafdew have drawn our lot on the Plain of Rebrith,” he sang. “Since we released the spirit of one of our own from the roots of a Child to Grow into the next age of our world.”

A heartily sung cheer celebrated his words.

“And the honor of Flatfoot, and Longfoot his father, in meeting again at this Plain is a thing that may never yet have happened to any tribe,” the elder sang.

Green eyes flashed in my peripheral. I caught Spright’s look and smile but averted my gaze.

“Now we sing the song of release,” chanted Handheart. “Now we usher in the birth of the 3058th bough-line!”

The tribe’s cheer rang out and Grandfather’s leaves waved happily to us from above. His mighty growth would finally terminate, and this sproutling before us would carry all tribes ever upward through the next age.

Handheart launched into the song and everyone followed along in vigorous call and response. When the Child’s branches seemed to sway along, I could no longer restrain my own movement. Spright saw me and giggled as she sang. The elders were too absorbed in the ritual to reprimand me with cold looks.

With a crescendo of drum and song, the Child tree shivered, a ripple of golden light ran from roots to twigs and its quiet tension was released.

But no white flowers bloomed, trunk and limb did not stretch and groan. Nothing that lore dictated should happen, did.

The women broke into tense, hushed whispers, the elders immediately began bickering, and the priests rushed to the tree to inspect it. My heart seized up, my hands began to shake, and sand filled my veins.

No, this couldn’t be. Father…

Just as the gravity of the moment crushed my mind, Handheart spun and stomped toward me.

“What did you do wrong!?” he hissed into my ear. His ire couldn’t be hidden, but at least he wasn’t bellowing at me in front of everyone. “Did you skip part of the ritual?”

“No, Handheart, I…” I stammered. His eyes terrified me. If I told him the truth, he would toss me off the edge of the Plain and I might plunge a thousand years or more before I died.

“You never studied!” he growled. “This is why you, son of the great Longfoot, are only a gopher, and a layabout one at that. If you had only paid attention when I trained you —”

“No, elder, I…” I couldn’t tell him. But I couldn’t not tell him. He might kill me either way. And if he didn’t, someone else might. I took a deep breath and willed my stomach not to vomit. “I made no mistakes, I’m sure of it. I followed the ritual to the letter.”

“Then how…” an idea dawn on him and somehow I knew he’d gotten it right.

He left me and rushed back to the circle of elders and priests. Spoke to them in hushed tones. Eyes flicked toward me, then to the tree. When Handheart called for someone to bring shovels, I broke out in a sweat and nearly fainted. He knew.

No time passed, but the shovels appeared. The hole was dug carefully, attempting to avoid disturbance of the Child’s roots. They dug in the right place first, then all around the full circle, wanting to be sure I’d not made a mistake. All the while my jaw was locked shut. I couldn’t have confessed if I’d wanted to.

There were no bones. Longfoot, my father, who I had been responsible for the midnight sacrifice and burial of, was not there.

No man of any tribe in all the ages of our world had failed in their task of fertilizing the Rebirth. I knew this was true now, for Grandfather would not hover so accusingly above me had any previous Growth been cut off.

The elders uttered a dissonant mourning wail and the women joined them. The drummers did not play. Spright’s tearful face regarded me as if I’d betrayed her, and Three Arm would not look at me at all.

Handheart started for me again, drawing a long, sharp bone knife from his belt. He got in my face rather than stabbing me to death right away, and screamed, “What did you do with his body? How did you mess up the ritual?”

I stammered. He still didn’t get it. Only fear of the bone blade’s point awoke my voice.

“I - I didn’t sacrifice him, elder,” I said. His anger morphed into shock and his trembling eyes grew red. “I couldn’t.”

Something hard hit my skull and I crumpled to the ground, conscious but reeling. I didn’t hear Handheart moving away but soon he was speaking with the others elders again. They argued, cursed me, came to a decision. Handheart returned.

He grabbed me by the throat and forced me to look him in the eye.

“They call for your death, Flatfoot,” he hissed. “And they are right to do so. My rage begs me to end you here, for you, alone, have doomed every tribe to a slow fate of starvation and pestilence.”

I started to weep. I couldn’t kill Father, that was all there was to it. They had chosen the wrong sacrifice, the wrong acolyte. I hadn’t believed that it mattered, and I had been terribly, terribly wrong.

“Perhaps,” said Handheart, “if we offer you to the Sky Father, he will have mercy and stave off Grandfather’s decay until a new sacrifice is chosen by the Child. That is all we can hope for.”

But it wasn’t. I could hardly will myself to speak. Yet this was the death of one over the death of many…

“I know where Father is,” I said.

Handheart seemed to ponder this. Would the Child still accept him? He dropped me to the ground and bellowed, “Prepare an expedition! We will retrieve Longfoot, and beg for mercy!”

Everyone launched into motion, without question, without complaint. Without any such fatal flaw as my own.

***

The trek wasn’t terribly far, all told. After all, the night of sacrifice had been on the Plain those seven years before, and I’d had only the five days of solitude to take Father to his place of rest.

No good Leafdew father would have permitted such a heresy of course, but my father had been simple for years by then, having fallen between bough-lines one harvest and broken his neck. His body healed, miraculously enough, but his mind was never the same. It was an easy thing to convince him to follow me to the hollow I had in mind, and there Grandfather had provided naturally everything even a simple man needed to go on living.

Three times since then the seasons had placed our tribe within range of the hollow during the week of my Heart Journey, and I’d taken advantage of the freedom and solitude to go visit him. He was much the same each time, but quickly aging and perhaps less aware of who I was. It was disturbing, but I consoled myself with knowing he was still alive at least.

The expedition party was made up of several strong young men, myself, plus Three Arm to ward away the night haints. Handheart insisted on coming too, though he did slow us down.

It took half a day to find a vine ford that would take us down to the next bough-line, and two days after that to wind around Grandfather’s trunk to the hollow. Though I’d harbored fears and guilt, I was convinced that the expedition was not cursed when we suffered only one attack by red-eyed hangtails and came out unscathed.

Relief brought a tear to my eye when the gnarled bough guarding Father’s hollow came into view, and there was smoke rising from inside the permanent camp. I ran ahead of the group and reached the hollow first. Father’s attendant gnome had always been shy and distrustful - I saw him flee from the camp and disappear between folds of bark.

“Father!” I cried, and heard a grunt of confusion from within the hole in Grandfather’s trunk. On the flat of bough outside, Father’s carefully controlled cookfire burned in its clay stove. He’d kept up filling the emberguard pool around it, and the camp was in fine shape altogether.

But he squinted at me when he emerged, and it was several moments before the light of recognition lit his eyes.

“Flatfoot?” he said, voice gravelly with disuse.

I ran to him for a hug instead of answering.

“Father, it’s good to see you,” I said.

However confused he might be, the affection was contagious and he hugged me back. When we parted he was smiling.

“What you doing here, Flatfoot?” he asked. My smile melted.

“I… I made a mistake,” I said.

Handheart scoffed over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him arrive.

“More than a mistake, I’d say,” said the elder. “Longfoot, it’s good to see you. We thought you were, uh, dead.”

Father scrunched up his eyebrows.

“Why dead?” he asked.

Handheart’s visage shifted from awkwardness to concern. He looked me in the eyes but I had to turn away.

“The ritual, Longfoot,” said the elder. “Don’t you remember?”

“Oh is it time for that already?” my father asked. “Who was chosen this year?”

Now Handheart was entirely at a loss for words. He pulled me back from Father and spoke close to my ear.

“I didn’t know he had gotten this bad,” he said.

“It’s worse since the last time I visited,” I whispered. Father watched us sharing secrets, unconcerned. “But even before I… let him go, he didn’t want anyone knowing, so I helped him hide it. Riddles, exercises, memory tinctures - all that.”

Handheart regarded me like he’d never really known me.

“This is why you didn’t —”

I cut him off, “I never could have fed Father to the roots. I didn’t believe. The Child chose wrong.”

Anger flashed over the elder’s face but he mastered it quickly. “The Child does not choose wrongly.” He turned back to Father.

“Longfoot, it’s time to come home,” he said.

Father frowned. “But I so love it here. Uilili keeps me cozy. He will miss me dearly.”

“The gnome,” I spoke sidelong to Handheart. I could sense his patience slipping. His jaw was tenser by the moment.

“Longfoot, the Child chose…” he began.

“Me,” I interjected. “I - I wanted to come say goodbye.”

“Oh, son,” Father breathed. “Well I suppose we Dewleaf must answer the call if it comes. I will miss your visits, Flatfoot.”

“Me too, Father,” I said, reassuring him with a smile. Inside my guts roiled. “But I will be in the tree of the next age, right? So I won’t be far.”

I’d never believed it. I hardly did now. And yet, I had shirked my duty to the tribe, to our world, kept my Father for myself and denied the hunger of the roots, and the Child had refused to Grow. The Tree that sustained us had heard my challenge, and defied me.

My proclamation to Father was more than just a gust of wind. I meant it. Should the Child accept me in his stead, I would pass into the Tree with honor. Had we brought Father back and had I performed the Ritual as intended, I would still be tossed from the boughs. How long would I fall before my body gave up its ghost?

Sudden inspiration lit up Father’s face.

“Wait here!” he said, “I think I have something for you.” He turned and strode easily back toward his comfy hovel.

The elder clamped a hand on my shoulder. “What you propose is not unheard of, Flatfoot, if rare. You know that the Child may not accept you, do you not?”

“I know,” I said.

“And if not you, then —”

“Then my heir,” I affirmed. It was a risk. But if the Child and I were to test each other in this, then let it be a test.

Handheart looked thoughtful. “We will have to linger on the Plain. And we will be years late initiating the Growth.”

“But that’s not unheard of either,” I said. “Saplight tribe was fourteen years late in the fourth age, when a plague took the sacrifice and all but the youngest of his descendants.”

“So you were paying attention in your lessons,” Handheart said.

“Sometimes,” I quipped.

“You will need to find a mother, quickly,” he said.

“I know.”

Father returned. In his hand was a tiny pair of red leather shoes. Most likely hangtail hide.

“Uilili says you can have these for the little one,” said Father, handing me the tiny moccasins. “Lili likes you, did you know that?”

“Yes, you’ve told me before, Father.”

“Have I? Well good,” said Father. “Handheart, will you bring the boy to see me sometime? I would love to meet my grandson.”

The elder gave a sigh of longsuffering. “I will, Longfoot.”

“Will you be staying then? How many years until the Ritual?” Father asked.

“Not many,” I said. “I’d love to stay and visit, Father, but we —”

“We have to get back. Must prepare for Mosshunt tribe’s visit and all - you know how it is.”

Father just smiled as if he remembered. Maybe he did - it was always hard to tell what would stick and what would slip through the boughs.

I hugged Father and we bade each other farewell. Before I turned to follow Handheart out of the camp I caught the gleam of eyes in the shadowed hovel, and a little hand reaching up to wave goodbye.

So the gnome really did like me.




My wooing of Spright was far quicker than it would have been otherwise. Thinking about it on our return from Father’s camp, I had suspected this might be the case. She’d always been a zealot and a true believer. The honor of assisting me and our unborn son in completing the Ritual was not something she could pass up.

Our wedding was beautiful - far more extravagant than what I deserved or had any reason to expect. Spright was an excellent wife, and the love we made spawned new stars in the night sky.

When Uililio was five and I deemed him able to understand, I told him what had to be done. A weight sat in my gut as I watched his face. But he was more Spright’s progeny than mine, and did not balk at his responsibility.

“Okay Papa,” he said. “But… will you sharpen the knife for me? I… I don’t wanna hurt you too much.”

“I will sharpen it,” I told him. And I did.

The fated night came and I felt surety like the call of sleep. Perhaps the Child had foreseen this all in its deep-rooted wisdom. I couldn’t know. Or maybe it all had been as silly and pointless as I once thought, and whether the tree would grow or not was a bit of random chance. That kind of luck was why I never gambled.

At this point it didn’t matter. I was committed to the plan, and I was okay with it.

The priests and elders sang over us and the Child in the deep of night. Women never danced at the ritual, lest a man’s passions alter his mindset. I like to think I would have persevered in my mission even with my wife’s hips under my palms, but I suppose you can never be too careful with the fate of the world.

Handheart looked into me long and hard when the songs were done. What he saw convinced him, or seemed to, and he turned to lead the procession away. I would not have been surprised, though, to learn that he had been watching me and my son from the brush.

Uililio performed his duty admirably - I hardly felt a thing. The cold stars reached out to me, filled up my vision, and after an endless sleep in oblivion, I felt the growing warm embrace of heartwood.

Tales from the Outlander Express

Horse and rider ripped up sand, half in flight for most of their burning stride. The horse grunted viciously, unwilling to stop, as if he knew how important their arrival was to the people of Willow Rock. Jake could hear the saddle bags full of letters and small packages slapping against the bay’s haunches, reminding him of his responsibility. Reminding him of his own parcel he’d been waiting ten years and counting for.

They’d been on the trail for three days and after each break they’d both been eager to make up for lost time. When Jake took this job, he thought it sounded like they were looking for him specifically. Young, skinny fellows, not over eighteen, excellent riders willing to risk death, he smiled remembering the qualifications.

Orphans preferred.

He was seventeen, tearing up a trail through the desert on his first delivery, on his own. Seventeen was too old to dwell on feelings of loss from ages ago. He had a job, he was his own man, and he wouldn’t be letting any other children wait in their house full of sickness for a doctor’s medicine that would never come.

Jackal gave a wheezing snort and Jake mercifully slowed him to a trot. He was panting, but grateful for the intense run. A horse like him wasn’t meant to sit in a stable, digging his hooves in the city, but it made him hungry for the ride. Jake could see the town on the horizon. He pulled his dusty, blue kerchief down off his face and gave Jackal a pat, telling him the news as he leaned forward. The horse snorted like he didn’t care for civilization of any kind.

Suddenly, as if lightning struck right in front of them, Jackal jolted up on two legs and then slammed his hooves back down, shuffling backward on the trail. The shift in momentum threw Jake forward and he clutched the horse both to keep from falling and to gather his thoughts. Before he could ask what it was, half expecting Jackal to answer, he caught sight of an enormous, white hill off in the distance. It wasn’t far enough away to escape Jackal’s notice, but it wasn’t close enough to make out what it was.

“Just a rock, Jackal,” said Jake, patting him firmly, squinting his eyes at it. “Just a big ol’ white rock.”

The horse hurried along the trail, not willing to linger another moment. Jake didn’t fight him, he wasn’t keen on being thrown this close to town. Rest and witnesses so near.


The saloon was quiet, but not empty. Hungover, exhausted, or homesick, almost no one shared words or glances. The barkeep felt it too, lazily cleaning the counter space without any sign of urgency. His eyes were half open when his regular patron pushed the doors open with a tilt of his head, straddled the stool, and threw his elbows onto the bar between them while he hastily broke the silence and the mood.

“Did you feel that quake this morning, Virgil?”

“I did, it weren’t too big though.”

“Any quake’s too big,” said the young man leaning against the bar.

“Roger, it is too early in the mornin’ for your complainin’,” said Virgil, pouring whiskey into a shot glass and slid it forward.

“And it’s too early in the mornin’ for a drink,” said Roger, gritting his teeth after shooting it back.

A man in a tattered, old hat with a bent brim poked his head into the quietly stirring bar, waving a hand at the bartender for his attention.

“Hey Virgil, Pony Express kid’s here,” he said, not expecting most of the bleary-eyed patrons to get up and herd passed him.

“Looks like everyone’s eager for a kind word from afar this mornin’.”

“Not me,” said the man at the door, “I got everything I need right here.”

“Well now, Red, ain’t that wholesome,” said Roger, shaking his head.

The crowd pushed into the small, cluttered post office, surprising the young Express rider. He cracked a smile, but continued sorting out his delivery with the boisterous man who worked the local post office. Everyone greeting him called him Art. Laughing with an effortless boom, Art welcomed everyone in and didn’t bother asking them to form any sort of line.

“I been doing this almost a year now,” said the grinning man. “They ain’t thieves, but they ain’t patient. Best to just let ‘em do what they’ll do.”

Jake smiled nervously, eyeing the large, restless crowd anxiously watching them carry out what he thought was a mundane task. Someone spotted their delivery and snatched it up, checking the name on it before disappearing out the door. That happened a few more unexpected times, but even when the wrong package was scooped up, the right person took it out the door.

Once the sorting was done, Art shooed him out, insisting he get rest and feed that horse before he even thought about heading off. Jake agreed, not needing to hear the offer more than once. He stepped outside and noticed that his previously droopy-eyed, nodding horse perked up and swayed excitedly in place at the sight of Jake coming outside.

“Not yet, boy, just time to eat,” Jake chuckled, lazily raising his hand.

“Must not’ve rode as hard as I hear, you got a horse that eager to get on again,” said a young lady, loitering under the adjacent general store awning. Her arms were crossed and she wore an irritated look, as if that’s the way her face naturally settled.

“Some animals, an’ people for that matter, got an itch to keep moving that moving don’t seem to scratch.”

“Aren’t you a bit young to be spoutin’ wisdoms?”

“You ain’t a rattler, are ya?” he asked, squinting and dramatically fanning himself.

She laughed despite her best efforts and glared unconvincingly at him. “You know, I think I am a mirage. Now, stop wastin’ time talkin’ at the air.”

Jake tilted his dark brown hat as she shooed him away, sliding the wide brim down with one finger. The rest of him was too tired for much more. Taking Jackal by the reigns, he led him to the livery for some quick feed and to see if they’d take him for a single night. They’d probably gouge him for the trouble, but he was getting paid twenty-five dollars a week. With that wage, he’d shrug off a little bamboozling for the convenience.

He wasn’t ten steps away when the high-pitched draw of a breath startled his horse. Echoes of it rang out between sobbing as the young lady buried her face in her father’s arms. The letter he was holding crumpled in his fist and he stared out over his daughter’s head, taking the town in as if it was the last place they’d ever see. Jake turned away quickly, continuing on to the livery with a revelation he had truly never considered in full. Some of these letters would be letters of tragedy and news of death. Some people were waiting not to get one.

The livery owner stood up straight from his duties, watching young Jake stride up with his horse in tow.

“Can I hep’ ya, son?”

“Yes sir, I need to set this hoss up for a single night.”

“Just one night?”

“Just the one.”

The owner sighed, looking him over. “You that delivery boy?”

“I work for the Express, yes sir.”

“S’pose you’ll be heading out in the morning?”

“That’s the way I’d like it to go.” Jake smiled.

“Tell you what, you deliver that package there for me and I’ll treat him to all the finest.”

“…I could do that.”

The livery owner saw his furrowed brows and rubbed the back of his neck as he gestured toward the delivery sitting on the barrels outside. “It’s just my pa’s ol’ lead pusher, but it’ll make a little peace between my kin if I give it up to my brother in Crow’s Bend.”

“Hell, that’s almost back where I came from,” said Jake, squinting into the eastern sky.

“Well, offer stands. Else it’ll be two dollars.”

Jake pulled the corner of his lip back, showing some teeth as if in pain and the livery owner chuckled. After patting his leg and staring toward the sun for a few moments longer, the young Pony Express rider agreed and told him to pack the parcel on Jackal right away so he wouldn’t have to remember in his rush the next morning.

“He’ll get the best tonight.”

“Don’t feed him too much, he’s runs faster than he rolls.”

The owner laughed, waving over his shoulder at Jack while he took the horse inside to feed and have a safe place to sleep for the night.

“Alright,” Jack muttered to himself, turning on his heels, “my turn.”

The saloon sat so peacefully in the late morning sun, the wind could be heard harassing its integrity. Jake’s light footing clomped like a horse’s trot on the wood outside and he felt like too many eyes were watching him. Giving a final polite gesture before darting inside, he was glad to escape the friendliness of the storefronts with the nagging need for rest pulling at his dragging mind. He enjoyed meeting the folks in town so far and was looking forward to at least a few more years of traveling the world, getting to know those living in it. But for the time being, food and sleep were his preferred company.

The saloon owner, Virgil, had already offered him a room at half price and Jake was more than happy to accept. He’d never slept in a saloon before. Glancing around, hoping to spot a pretty little painted lady, he let his shoulders slump on the way up the straight stairway in the back of the room. Feeling his eyelids fighting separation reminded him that it was for the best. Maybe after he woke, got some food…

“I swear to God I saw what I saw,” screamed an old man in one of the gambling rooms downstairs, just beneath his feet. His voice carried farther than his companions. “No! I ran like hell! Blood everywhere and this white skull with an eye, a giant eye just loo—”

There was another shout but Jake couldn’t make out the words. He hoped their conversation wouldn’t carry into his room.

“I ain’t drunk!”

Jake slammed the door to his room, leaned against it, and squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t hear anything. Peace, silence, and a bed with two soft blankets. A bed sitting in a real frame. First delivery and he was already living like a king. Sighing, he threw down his bag near the doorway and them himself, facing the ceiling. He imagined himself riding into town in fine, twenty-dollar suits with women smiling at him as he paraded through town, men tipping their hats, wishing they’d been lucky enough to be so malnourished at his age. Jake chuckled at his own thoughts, rubbed his pink and red eyes, and fell into a deep sleep with one leg resting up on his bent knee and his hand flat on his face.


A nightmarish scream struck like a bullet, flipping him out of his bed. Jake scrambled to the window before he had fully awakened and let his head swivel until he found the source. A woman was pressed against the wall of the general store, staring in horror at the men stumbling through the middle of the street. They looked to be reaching out for help, but at no one in particular.

Jake hurried from the room, joining the rest of the curious citizens on the sides of the town’s main road. The sun hung low in the sky and it was only as he stood shoulder to shoulder with several concerned gamblers did he realize he’d slept the day away. The two men had collapsed and the doctor was examining them, his own hands shaking. Creeping closer than most of the others, Jake peered over the doctor’s shoulder to see what the victims looked like.

Pale as men long dead, they had blood pouring out of their mouths like a flooded river. Though they had thoroughly died, the blood still pushed its way out with urgency.

“What in God’s name, doc?” asked Virgil, standing across from the both of them.

“I ain’t got a clue yet, Verge.”

As the doctor examined his eyes, turned his head, and otherwise tried to assess this horrifying affliction by sight, a screeching wail rang out around the corner. In the alleyway between the general store and the barber, the distressed cry was cut short by muffled gurgling. Once several of them hooked around the walls, they caught sight of a woman falling to the ground. A widow for mere moments before her own time had come. And not a soul in sight.

Many of the spectators started to disperse in distress, but Virgil bent down beside the woman and tried to get her to convey any sort of message before she let the light leave her. Jake watched, listened, and felt his own stomach turning, but the only message he could make out was one of indescribable terror. Her eyes died wide open, like an animal in fear.

“Let’s get her and those men out of the street,” ordered Virgil, choking back his breaking voice.

Jake jumped to help him with the woman, feeling obligated after watching her final breaths. He hadn’t seen a woman die in ten years. It made him feel weak and helpless, but at the same time he couldn’t help scanning the area over and over, ready to break out his revolver and burn the murderer down. Watch the bastard choke on his own blood next.

“I didn’t see nobody, did you?” asked Virgil.

Jake shook his head, staring at a blood-red robe hanging on the corner of the alley beside some hooks and barrels. Red, the man behind Virgil, responded with the same. Suddenly, Jake jerked and dropped the womans legs, feeling as if he might throw up, scream, and take off running until he regained his senses.

“What’re you doin’? You see somethin’?” asked Virgil.

“Goddammit, the hell, what was that, where…” mumbled Jake, feeling like losing sight of the red robed man was the last thing he’d ever do.

“You’re worrying me, son,” said Red.

“I thought I was lookin’ at…well…somethin’, not a person though, but it weren’t no person. It moved like water. It weren’t right.”

“Shut up,” muttered Virgil, looking around at all the people watching them.

The sheriff took off down the alley with one of his deputies, heading in the direction they saw Jake staring toward. Pistols out and ready, the two disappeared around the corner, heading in opposite directions. Each of them looked as though they saw something worth investigating. Several seconds went by before they heard screaming again, almost in unison.

Setting the woman down and flagging over a couple of men nearby, Virgil pulled out his own gun. Red tried to stop him, but he wasn’t having it.

“I ain’t standin’ here, holding perfectly good iron just to watch more of my friends die.”

“Dammit,” grumbled Red, drawing his own pistol.

“Adaline, get in here,” hissed a man in a dark duster, hanging his head out the boarding house door. Jake followed his line of sight to the young lady, the irate mirage from before. She had her gaze fixed on them, her hands clutched against her chest and her feet planted firmly in the street. Jake stood a little straighter and felt for his own revolver, though he soon remembered leaving it on the floor of his room.

“I’m comin’, too.”

“Boy, you get on outta here,” said Virgil, eyeing his empty holster.

“I can run faster than the both of ya. At least I’ll be able to tell folks what gotcha.”

Jake’s nervous offer amused them, but no one could find ground solid enough to laugh from.

He followed them cautiously, glancing behind often enough to watch them slowly slip out of everyone’s sight. They stepped around and over the briefly-widowed woman’s blood pooled up in the dirt as best they could, but there was so much that had spilled out in such a short time they found that they were not only followed two sets of bloody footprints, but making their own. Each of them held their breath as they rounded the last corners at the back of the buildings. Jake could hear Red’s old, rusty pistol rattling in his hand.

Convulsing in the dirt on both sides of the trio lay the near-corpses of the sheriff and the deputy. Both flat on their backs, floating in and surrounded by about a body’s worth of blood. Virgil swore and Red’s aim darted back and forth as he frantically searched for something to aim at. Both times the pistol passed over the crimson, hanging robe behind the building, Jake thought about shouting. Both times he couldn’t believe they didn’t see it, too. Finally, his brain connected with the rest of him and he shouted in the face of rapidly approaching death.

“There! Goddammit, there!”

Red started shooting before he saw anything and Virgil started firing into the red cloth after he found it. It stood out so starkly from the rest of the dirt, wood, and dust that each time, Jake couldn’t believe they didn’t see it. Looking for a man blinded them to what had been standing before them, its arm outstretched.

The first person it touched was Red. The bloody hand oozed into his chest as though it was melting at the touch, but they could tell it was going inside of him. They could tell Red was trying to scream or breathe, but death had touched him and that’s all there was to him now. Virgil shouted, hitting the creature with his revolver, but it was like slapping the water. Out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw the other. It was like a woman, shorter, slender, but reaching for them all the same. When the creature grabbed Virgil, it looked as though he was about to go out like Red. Instant and with horror in his eyes. Then, in a final fit of defiance, he pulled up and kicked Jake out of his trance, landing him on his backside in the freshly pooling puddle of Red’s blood.

That was all Jake had needed. He flung himself up like a coiled spring, crashing back out of the alley and yelling a string of frightened warnings well enough to scatter those that were left hovering and wondering in the main street. Hearing the scraping of his own boots against the dirt and the pounding of the blood still in his veins, he was deafened to the shrieks of those who weren’t nearly as fast on their feet. Clawing at the boarding house door, Adaline threw it open and jerked him inside, her father slamming the door closed behind him. She pulled her hand back, losing the pink in her cheeks at the sight of the blood running down her fingers.

“Ain’t mine.” Was all Jake could say.

He felt as though the next time he opened his mouth he might bite off his tongue with how badly his teeth were chattering.

The boarding house waiting room had several simple chairs and some end tables, all from the furniture store three buildings down. They’d been hastily pushed against the wall, leaving dusty evidence of how long they’d been sitting in one place on the floor. Stretching out from the lobby was a long hall filled with doors just across from the stairs leading up to the rooms above them, but they were already filled with people hiding from what they believed to be outlaws picking the innocent and guilty off from out of plain sight, without discrimination.

“I told you, I told you I saw ‘em,” said a familiar voice.

The old man from the gambling room. Jake figured that had to be where he heard his voice from. Jake pushed his way toward him and grabbed his arm a little too rough, but the old man dropped his indignant response when their eyes met.

“Holy hell—”

“What did you see?” Jake growled, barely feeling like he had control over his body.

“These red people, not injuns, red, like blood. They was killin’ a man out in—”

Someone feverishly shushed them and they all held their breath, using only their eyes to check around the room. The same kind of thump that sent them into silence resounded again. And again.

“It’s coming from in there,” whispered a woman, her own arms wrapped around the man’s beside her.

Heavy pounding thundered throughout the boarding house until they were left in the storm’s wake. Something creaked at the end of the dark hall and he heard Adaline trying to hold back her own wilting scream with a hushed wheeze that only their complete silence could have revealed.

Head, fingers, and knees trembling, Jake marched himself forward like a newborn foal and threw open the first door. Bleeding out through the cracks in the wallpapered wood, one of the red murderers faded away like a stain spilling through. Leaving a bloody blotch on the wall, it was only after Jake witnessed it completely disappear that he let his eyes settle around the crowded room. The floor was flooding from the bodies that had fallen every which way. As the blood pushed up against his boots, Jake took a step back and threw the message to the others with just one look.

“I’ve gotta get out of this place,” exclaimed a justifiably hysterical woman. “Samuel, please, come on.”

“It’s pitch black out there, we can’t see him.”

“Them,” corrected Jake. “And they ain’t people.”

“What the hell kinda animal—”

“It’s no animal,” whispered the old man in a harsh voice. “Last year, these things came. Didn’t get nearly this hungry for us, but I remember someone sayin’ somethin’ about a bloody man and some people dyin’ in a bad way.”

“Why now?”

“It was exactly a year ago,” said the old man. “Maybe there’s somethin’ to that…”

“Oh great, rainin’ now,” complained a man, peering out the window.

It didn’t take them long to realize there was no rain, but liquid dripping from the ceilings all around them. Down the hall, the pattering of the blood drops rang out, calling to the red lady standing in a newly soaked-through doorway. The old man shouted a warning to them all and they scattered like mice caught sleeping in their hole.

As they all pushed out the door, the red lady rushed them, grabbing first the old man. Jake got a good look that time, but wished he hadn’t. Her face was mauled and gored, drenched with ever-flowing blood that poured down the entire length of her body. There were no eyes, but hollow places that would occasionally reveal themselves between the short, molasses-like waterfalls. When she jerked her unnatural gaze toward him, he bolted. Adaline grabbed his arm as they fled the house, her father swiftly leaving right behind them.

“Get to the damn horses!” he shouted.

Jake didn’t need to alter his course. His mind had already taken him on a path to the livery, but had not prepared him to be yanked backward by Adaline’s father in the middle of the darkening street. Screaming streamed out from the building like fireworks, but it was Adaline’s own that finally brought him to his less cowardly senses. Her father had her arm in a painful death-grip, not knowing he was doing it, with a red lady’s arm halfway melted into his chest. Jake tried to pull his hand away, but only when Adaline called to him did he let go.

“Don’t stop!” Jake shouted to her, causing her to give in to fear and leave her father behind.

The red lady reached for her, but he pulled Adaline to him with all his might and ran like a man possessed. They burst into the livery and frightened all the wary horses into fits of loud whinnies and kicking stomps.

“Jackal, where the hell are ya…?”

Frantically searching, Jake finally saw the stable where his horse paced, eager to break free during the chaos. He ran up to the simple latch lock and struggled to simply unhook it.

“What are you doing?” Adaline hissed.

“I’m openin’ the door, goddammit, open!”

Finally flinging it open, Jake pulled Jackal out with an insulting yank. He apologized to him, feeling the willful steed’s indignant resistance.

“There it is,” shrieked Adaline, pointing toward a wall.

The stable owner fell out of the hay when the red creature put its hand inside, reaching out to doom a horse within reach as well.

“Get up, get up,” chanted Jake, pushing Adaline to the saddle before he’d pull himself up.

“Go away!” she screamed at it, sounding more like a bobcat than a person.

Jake heeled at Jackal, feeling the hay give way under his hooves. The red lady reached for them, but missed by a long-shot. Adaline was holding Jake so tightly, he was settling with shallow breaths as they galloped wildly into the night. The moon was only a sliver in the still desert sky and Jake desperately scanned for any sign of the unnatural beings in the treacherous dark. From the corner of his eye, the slaughter seemed complete. If they were the last two alive, he would not be surprised. Hopefully Adaline was keeping her head down.

“Oh my God,” he heard her gasp.

“Stop lookin’,” said Jake.

At the edge of town, racing through the entry archway, the red man waited. Jake saw him, but there was no other way to go around the already tightly packed gap to the desolated town. Reaching out for them, Jake warned Jackal and tried to steer him around, but the demon-spawn reached its deathly hand into the horse’s body, though only for a moment. Jackal squealed and kicked out at the bloody man, only dispersing him like a hand through running water.

They staggered too fast into the desert, slowing after only a minute or two. Jake leaned forward and vigorously scratched Jackal’s neck while he spoke encouragingly to him. It wasn’t until the second time he leaned forward that he noticed the blood and the trail they were leaving. Jake’s heart ached, but he needed to keep them moving. Glancing around the nothingness, he saw the white rock bulging out of the sand. It looked even bigger than before, almost glowing too, so Jake figured they were close enough to it.

“Look, there,” he said, pointing to it.

“What is it?” whispered Adaline.

“I don’t know, shelter maybe. He ain’t gonna make it. That thing touched him.”

“All it has to do is touch you?”

“Looks that way,” said Jake.

They trotted over to the giant rock and just before they reached it, Jackal fell to his knees, then on his side. They were able to roll off without getting trapped underneath, but Jake hurried to his side. The horse was panting and Jake rested his forehead on Jackal’s neck, petting him gently until he stopped moving. Then, he marched over to the saddlebag and pulled out the parcel the livery owner had attached. He ripped the brown paper away and pried the box open, revealing a beautiful Colt revolver with a bag of bullets and powder packed in with it. Jake loaded everything on his belt.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Adaline, staring at Jackal.

“Let’s look around,” said Jake, eyes red and mind swimming.

They circled the rock cautiously, looked for crevices and making sure they were the only ones doing so. As they came around the back, they found three giant holes.

“There’s a light inside,” said Adaline.

“Careful,” said Jake, putting his hand in front of her as he crept toward the opening.

Inside, two crimson candles sat in a pool of their own wax, tiny flames flickering in the whipping breeze. Standing before them, Jake understood exactly what he was looking at.

“Let’s put these out,” he said.

They went to work kicking at them, pinching the flames, covering them, and even spitting on them. Nothing seemed to have any effect on the candles or the fire. On the floor behind the candles lay a circular stone slab with a symbol painted in blood. Adjacent that lay another, with a slightly different symbol painted in blood as well. Jake approached it, staring at it long and hard before turning back to Adaline.

“What’re you thinkin’ it is?”

“Maybe where they came from...”

She watched him, figured he was trying to guess at what might happen to him if he stood where they’d stood. She was about to dissuade him when the screeching echoed through the eerie, enormous skull-like rock.

“They’re comin’,” said Adaline.

“I’m gonna try.”

“Wait…”

“Only other thing to do is die.”

Adaline sucked in a deep breath, nodded to him, and glared out into the darkness behind her, hanging her head out of the white rock for a better look at the pitch blackness swallowing them. Jake stepped around the candles and stood on the platform to the left. Nothing happened.

“Try the other,” suggested Adaline.

Jake looked over her shoulder and saw something moving in the darkness, though he couldn’t see clearly over the light of the candle and the white-rock interior. When he placed both feet on the platform, the red man, only steps away from Adaline, screeched and stumbled into the room with them. Adaline chirped out a scream, hurrying over to Jake. He grabbed her shoulders and held her against him as the demon’s own bloody visage dried up, revealing the rotten flesh underneath. It belched out a black orb onto the sandy dirt in front of them, desperately scrambling against its own death to pluck it up off the ground. It crumbled into a fine dust as it held the orb in its hand, dropping it once again as it disappeared. Jake smiled triumphantly at Adaline and though she was still reeling from the close call, she returned the victorious feeling with a disbelieving chuckle.

“I can’t move,” said Jake suddenly.

His boots were stuck fast to the symbol, but he couldn’t just take off his boots, the feeling was moving up his legs.

“There she is,” he gasped, suddenly able to see the red lady flying toward them at unnatural speed. “I can see her, there.”

It was an unnatural vision, but he could see only the red lady through the blackness outside. She was flying with a fury, straight toward them. Adaline sucked in a deep breath, ran around the candles, and stood on the other symbol. The red lady reached Adaline as her feet planted on the symbol. Jake called to her, watching the red lady’s hand start to slip into her chest. Suddenly, the creature curled up into herself, her shriveling hands tucked against her own chest, the blood flowing over her face drying up just as the others had, and crumpling to the ground in a heap of flesh then dust.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, no I ain’t,” she said in disbelief, feeling around the blood-stain on her chest.

“Are you stuck, too?”

“I am. What do we do?”

“Pray, I guess.”

The room shifted, lurched, and then rumbled steadily. Everything was vibrating, though only part of them could feel it.

“We are sinkin’,” shouted Adaline, as if this rock had the audacity to do so.

Jake swore and pulled at his legs and tried to bend down, but found that the petrified feeling rose above his waist by that point. Sand sifted itself over his boots and the room began to rapidly shrink. Adaline screamed a few times, but he couldn’t help joining her with shouts and yelling for help. He had no idea what anyone could do for them, but it was worth a try. He wasn’t just going to turn into a rock at the bottom of this sandy death trap. His head stopped moving though he was trying to look around and shortly after that he was buried in the sand along with Adaline, who had gone distressingly silent before that.

Suddenly, the sands receded much faster than they came up and the feeling of turning to stone melted away just behind it. Adaline gasped and they both fell to their hands and knees once they were able. The sun blinded them through the holes in the white rock and once the sand was well and fully gone, the whole room rolled over onto its side. The two were shuffled around before crawling out of what turned out to be a gigantic eye socket in an enormous skull. The flames in the candles had been snuffed and the long, red sticks rolled plainly over the thick mulch. Jake stomped on them until they flattened and cracked under his boots.

“Where are we?” asked Adaline, dusting bark scraps off her pale blue dress.

When Jake stood up straight, he realized he’d never been in a place like they were then. The ground was covered in old, chipped-off bark, the trees were thick and suffocating, but there was a hole in front of them letting in a blinding light. Once their eyes adjusted, they stepped through and saw a vast forest sprawling out just below them as they stood on a stout cliff’s edge.

Ahusaka and the Ogre Maiden

The battle yak’s cloven hooves trod upon chalky, yellow stone.  As Moka led the beast by the reigns, her husband paced a few yards to the fore, and Savorin, the Elf she’d come quickly to despise, wedged himself between his mount’s shoulders.  He was nestled within the yak’s tawny fur, laying casually on his back as he flipped through a volume of verses.  It was held in his left hand, and occasionally, Savorin bit from an apple he cradled in his right.

“Lost in your reading?” she called, breaking the quiet for no other reason than it perturbed her.  Around her, the land rose up on either side of their path; moss-covered stone formed towering hills that sloped gently toward the path they walked, steep enough to disinvite further exploration or ascension.  It led in one direction, ever eastward, and Ahusaka seemed nonplussed by the fact that the horizon was unchanging, and their travels seemed to plunge them deeper into everything they had already seen.

From his position on the yak, Savorin answered, “It’s one way to pass the time, sister.”

“The fact that your ‘brother’ forced me into marriage does not make us siblings.”

“As he’d tell it, you agreed.  And blushed so prettily when you considered his proposal.”

“He never did forbid me from killing you.”

Savorin turned his sapphire eyes to Moka, then quirked the corner of his mouth upward into an amused smirk.

“I’d not raise a blade to you, even in sport,” the Elf said.  “If your defeat at his hands has so deeply wounded your pride, you may take my life as recompense for the sense of injury my brother has inflicted.”

Ahusaka called over his shoulder, “I would thank you not to antagonize my wife, or I’ll kill you myself.”

Savorin laughed, and Moka couldn’t help but chortle.  She glanced to her husband and asked, “Why does this path seem perpetually familiar?”

Ahusaka glanced back and smiled.  It was an odd gesture, given that he did so with a muzzle rather than a mouth, and it sometimes made it seem as if he were snarling.  Beastkin, she’d called him.  A fox on two legs, half her size but twice as agile for it.  His mismatched eyes glimmered with curiosity as he replied, “We seek magicked ruins, hidden from those that would plunder them by sorcery and guile.  Despite walking all day, I’d imagine we’ve scarcely covered a mile.  Savorin would have a better sense of that than I.”

Moka felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.  It was said that Elves were more than comfortable with sorcery, and gave form to it with ease.  When Ahusaka had bested her in their duel, Moka’s closest friend had nearly intervened in a bid to save her life.  Savorin had prevented it, and threatened an Ogress with no consideration for the disparity in their size and strength.  Surely he commanded magic of some form, if he’d meet a warrior-maiden in battle with no trace of hesitation…

But walking beside a practitioner of the art was one thing.  Entering ruins that had been magicked by a sorcerer to mislead those who sought them was another.  Ahusaka had tempted her with the prospect of danger, but Moka did not expect that danger to be of the supernatural sort.  Though she was physically superior to both men, physical strength meant little in the face of confusing magics that could warp one’s perception of time passed or distance traveled.

And yet, the beastkin strode along with a spring in his step.  He occasionally twirled his spear, his banner trailing from its crossbar with each idle flourish.

“Will we make camp soon?” Moka asked.

“Aye,” the fox responded.  “Look above.”

“Oh?” Moka asked.  When she did, she took note of the sky overhead.  At first, nothing seemed out of place.  The more she studied it, however, the more she noticed the faint striations that stitched the clouds together.  They rippled unnaturally, and while it appeared to be early morning, she saw slivers of the setting sun eking through those cracks somewhere to the west.  It was strange, and confusing.  She asked, “What is this?”

Savorin crunched at his apple as he admired the poetry on the page before him and said, “We have been taken in by an enchanted glamor, and a very powerful one.  I’d imagine it covers an area spanning tens of miles.”

“Is it dangerous?” the Ogress asked.

“No,” the Elf answered.  “It’s meant to misdirect, not to harm.  When we narrow in on the ruins it seeks to guide us away from, however, the danger will be very real.”

Moka nodded, and Ahusaka said, “Here, by the roadside.  I’m ready to eat, and I’m sure you’re ready to rest.  Since my dear brother has done plenty of that already, he can help me pitch the tent.”

Savorin snorted, then his book and half-eaten apple vanished with a flick of his wrists.  He rolled to one side and dismounted the giant beast of burden, then began tugging at straps and picking at buckles to retrieve the equipment he’d need for his task.  Moka led the battle yak off the beaten path, though at this point she wondered if that path even existed, and looked to Ahusaka.

“These ruins you intend to plunder, what do you seek from them?”

“These ruins that we intend to plunder,” Ahusaka corrected.  “You’ve thrown your lot in with us, now.”

Moka exhaled softly, then said, “And I expect it to bring me misfortune.  Whose grave do you intend to rob?”

“Do you think me the kind of whoreson that’d defile a grave?”

“Yes.”

As Savorin began driving spikes into the soil, Ahusaka said, “I suppose you’re half right.  We’ll be treading on burial grounds, but not for the purpose of stealing from corpses.”  He helped Savorin erect their tent, a pyramidal thing that scarcely had room for her.  Moka imagined the constrained space forcing the three of them together, and the strange idea of laying beside a husband when she’d never entertained the idea of marriage.

Once they had it erected, Savorin built a small fire a short distance off, thankfully without the use of whatever sorceries he commanded.  In its light, his deep blue eyes were illuminated, and he watched the flames pensively as Ahusaka joined them.

Though most northerners tended to find Ogress fare too heavily-spiced for their palette, neither her husband or her “brother in law” appeared put off by it.  That disappointed her mildly.  The three of them ate pancha this evening, a mix of dried fruits, nuts, and salted meat that had been pulverized into a powder.  When compacted, the stuff could keep for a year or two in good conditions.  Moka watched as Ahusaka ate, and the odd way his jaws worked at the dried meat.

“How will we navigate this… enchanted maze, then?” she asked.

Savorin reached into a pouch at his side, and withdrew the most beautiful work of art she’d ever seen.  It was a compass, fashioned from a metal of rose gold hue.  Where a typical compass would have a plain face and a black needle, this one’s face was formed of light.  The glow was soft, the colors variable and warm.  Its needle was a sliver of obsidian the length of his finger, cut and polished until it resembled a tree branch, wreathed in ivy, with that ivy’s leaves acting as each of the needle’s points.

“It’s more of a mirage,” Savorin said.  “Have you ever seen the Red Deserts of D’hennex, sister?”

Moka attempted to find annoyance in being called ‘sister’ again, but the Elf spoke without sarcasm, making the emotion difficult to reach for.  She answered, “No.”

Savorin continued to study the compass as he spoke, then eventually shifted his eyes from it, to the fire, and then finally to Moka.

“The heat’s hellish,” Savorin said, “Out on the dunes, it makes the air shimmer, and once you’re exhausted and thirsty enough, the mind begins playing tricks.  Men have died while wandering in circles because they believed an oasis was just over the next dune.”  He gestured toward her with the compass, and Moka found it a startlingly casual thing to do with something that looked so very beautiful, and so very delicate.  “This glamor simulates the phenomenon, but more directly.  Most who come down this path travel a mile or two out of their way without realizing it, and completely miss the ossuary.”

“Ossuary?” she asked.

“Most northerners don’t leave their dead for the buzzards,” Ahusaka said.  Surprise stole the Elf’s features, then he shot a glance at his partner in grave-robbing.  Ahusaka continued, “They occasionally store the bones of the deceased in… I suppose you could call it a ‘grave above the ground.’  Sometimes boxes, sometimes coffins.”

“Ogres leave their dead for the buzzards?” Savorin asked.  Though he was obviously shocked, there was a tinge of disgust to wrinkle his fair features and chase the smugness from his countenance.

Ahusaka reached for his wineskin, flicked the stopper off with his thumb, then began washing his dinner down.  He said, “We’re nomads.  Hardly see a point in burying the dead when they may have died in an area we have no intention to revisit.”

Rather than take offense from Savorin’s discomfort, Moka was amused that she’d finally managed to offend the Elf in some small way.  She grinned, one of her pronounced incisors glinting in the firelight.

“We bury our dead in the sky,” she said.  “First we carve the bodies, so they’re a bit more inviting.  Those big buzzards have a wingspan that exceeds my height, and beaks that can crack stone.  By the time they’re done, even the bones are gone.”

Savorin reached for Ahusaka’s wineskin, took a healthy pull, then redirected the conversation, looking half as if he might vomit.

“As I was saying,” Savorin continued, “We are entranced by a conjured mirage.  Ahusaka and I studied it from a distance for weeks, gathered information from nearby camps and towns, and managed to track this lovely compass down as well.”  He closed it, then slipped it back into his pouch.  “A glamor of this puissance requires a constant influx of mana, that mana must travel to it through a ley line, and this compass can follow those ley lines.”

“You’re speaking another language right now,” Moka said dryly, finishing her meal.

“It’s a magic compass that can give us our bearings while we’re trapped in a magicked illusion,” Ahusaka simplified.  “We’re nearing our destination, and when we’re done, the illusion will be dispelled.  I intend to destroy the object projecting it.”

“Why?”

“Primarily, because we’re being paid to,” Ahusaka shrugged.  “A noble’s boy met his end here.  Hadn’t even lived to see twenty summers.”  Moka felt that fear of the supernatural return again.  It must have shown in her eyes in some small way, because when her husband looked to her, his mismatched gaze became a touch sympathetic.  “Nothing as sinister as evil sorceries sucking his soul from him.  He led a hunting party down this path, and none of them were ever seen again.  Likely ran through their provisions, panicked, and kept traveling deeper into the illusion.”

Moka looked to Savorin and said, “You told me this illusion wasn’t dangerous.”

“It isn’t dangerous to us,” he clarified.  “To an inexperienced boy of seventeen?  I shudder to think of what the lads went through.  Hunger and fear are a nasty combination.”

“Not exactly a pleasant thought to end a conversation on,” Ahusaka said, offering the wineskin to Moka.

She chuffed and said, “I’ve my own spirits.  You couldn’t get an Ogre babe drunk off that fruity wine of yours if he sucked it from the breast.”

Savorin, his disgust with the funerary rites of the Ogre people momentarily forgotten, laughed aloud.

The longer they sat by the fire, eating, drinking, and sharing one another’s company, the more Moka felt the weight of this illusion pressing in on her.  Now that she was aware of it, and paranoia had sharpened her eye, she began seeing those cracks in reality all around her.  Never for more than a moment or two, and it was always something so small as to nearly be imperceptible; just a faint flickering that gave the briefest glimpse of the world on the other side of the illusion, and the illusion that had been cast was only different from the real world in small ways.  Small enough ways that a human boy had wandered around in this madness-inducing sorcery until he’d starved.

Perhaps it was good that Ahusaka had chosen to destroy it, even if he’d only done so as part of a contract.

“It doesn’t quite look like it,” Moka said, watching the sky warily, “But my weariness tells me night has likely fallen.”

“Likely,” Savorin agreed.  “I’ll secure our belongings before we retire.  Will that great beast of yours stay put while we sleep?  I’d hate to think of it wandering off with all of our supplies.  We’d likely not track it down again until after completing this contract.”

“You could always sleep with him, if you like,” Moka teased.  When the Elf gave her a flat look, she added, “The yak is well-trained.  You needn’t worry.”

“All the same,” Savorin said, and that glint of devilish playfulness returned to his azure eyes, “I think I will sleep atop the beast.  I wouldn’t want to act as an impediment to a… fruitful wedding night.”

This time Moka scoffed, and color flooded her face.  As her mouth worked for some manner of retort, Savorin stood, sauntered off, and began cheerfully whistling to himself as he stowed their equipment and fetched a shovel to put the fire out.

“Ignore him,” Ahusaka said.  “He teases you because you always react.”

The Ogress stood, stretched, then headed wordlessly for the tent.  It felt cramped inside, but she was grateful for it at present.  Though the strange, false sun shined dully overhead, the chill of night had fallen upon their camp, and the tent contained what heat remained very well.  She removed her armor, now clad in a simple blouse and loose-fitting trousers, then lay across the furs lining the floor of the tent.  With half an ear, she listened to the Elf and the demihuman discussing their plan for the following day, and occasionally one or the other would call raucous laughter out into the otherwise tranquil night.  There was merriment between them, and the closeness of their friendship made her think of Teno, the friend she’d left behind when she’d forfeited her life to Ahusaka by failing to best him in a duel.

That he’d chosen to marry her rather than kill her was still a queer curiosity, and though it had humbled her pride, she had eventually come to the conclusion that this was better than having her throat cut because that pride drove her to underestimate an opponent.

He entered the tent, steps unsteady for how much he’d drank, then flopped to his belly on the furs.  Where Savorin wore as much finery as was practical along with his armor, even on an excursion into an ancient ‘ossuary,’ her husband was much less fussy about his dress; a long robe of soft blue, with golden clouds patterned along the sleeves and a slit near his hind end for his brushy tail to pop through.

Moka eyed him, then asked, “You seriously intend to attempt laying with me, don’t you?”

Ahusaka had closed his eyes, a look of contented bliss on his face as he savored the warmth of the furs.  When they opened again, they were alight with amusement.

“You won’t be the first Ogress I’ve lain with.  If you’re feeling impatient, however, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer.”

“Not feeling amorous tonight, I see,” she said with a smirk.  “Are your humours misaligned?”

“More that I’ll need a clear head to lead this expedition tomorrow, and I’d rather not be distracted by pleasant memories of a prior romantic entanglement.”

The Ogress tilted her head slightly, expressing mild shock.  This tiny creature was fond of flattering her, and at first she’d taken it as an insult, much in the same way she interpreted Savorin’s japes to bring him amusement at her expense.  In the demihuman’s case, and perhaps occasionally in Savorin’s, that praise may perhaps have been honest.

The warrior-maiden (though, she imagined the ‘maiden’ portion of that title wouldn’t be applicable to her for much longer) thought back on her exile.  Her kin had seen her as small and weak, unfit to bear a child, and unfit to remain in the steppes to struggle for survival alongside them.  They had sent correspondence to the clans camped all throughout Arthen, and must have described her in unflattering terms, as only one expressed interest in having her.  When the Ogres cast her out, she had no expectation they would care if she survived her journey for how little they provided her in the way of equipment and provisions.

But she had survived, perhaps out of spite, and found her place with Clan Piran.  At times, thinking on having given up what she’d earned because she and this demihuman had gotten into a drunken shouting match that ended in a duel to the death infuriated her.  At others, it wasn’t as if her existence in exile was any more fulfilling than it was prior to that exile.  Here, surrounded by sorcery and two men who were near enough to being strangers, she at least had a purpose.

And she had someone else who saw value in her, when before, only Teno had.

“For a mercenary for hire, you’ve quite the silver tongue.”

“Blame Savorin,” he yawned, closing his eyes again.  “A true poet, that one, and it rubs off on you.  A bit of a rogue, as well.  He’s talked us out of more fights than I could ever recall.”

“And how many has he talked you into?”

“Probably an equal number,” Ahusaka sighed.

“Why does he call you his brother?”

Her words brought an enthusiastic laugh out of him.

“He and I met much in the same way you and I did,” Ahusaka said.  “I happened upon his Caravan, and found myself impressed with a maid there.  She was meant to be his wife, and in a moment of impulsive pridefulness, I offered to duel him for her hand.”

“He accepted such a foolish proposition on his wedding day?”

“I wasn’t the only one that chose to be prideful,” Ahusaka said.  He rolled to his side, stretched, and opened his eyes.  One of his furred ears flicked toward the battle yak as it bellowed and bellyached over its boredom, then the ground shook gently as it laid down for the night.  Moka heard Savorin speaking to the beast, then to her surprise, heard him singing a soft lullaby to it.

“How does that story end?” Moka asked.

“It was the best fight of my life,” Ahusaka said.  “At some point, I’d forgotten all about my potential wife, and wanted nothing more than to keep fighting him until my heart gave out.  We incapacitated one another at the same time, meaning that neither of us won the duel.”

“And then?”

“And then the fair maid laughed at us, as a technicality of Elvish protocol freed her from the responsibility of accepting either of our hands if neither of us could conclude the duel.  We fought to such exhaustion that we could barely lift our heads, let alone our weapons.”  Ahusaka shrugged.  “She broke away from her Caravan after that, and Elves treat such an action as an offense to be punished with an exile similar to your own.  I don’t think she particularly cared.”

Moka laughed from somewhere in her belly, then brushed a few tears from the corners of her eyes.  The way the laughter bubbled up unbidden had her convinced that her spirits were finally affecting her.

“We were impressed with one another,” Ahusaka said, “And like the Elf maid, Miriam was her name, Savorin too left his Caravan to travel at my side.  One day we intend to conclude that duel properly.”

“And here I was hoping that I was the best you ever had,” the Ogress said, eliciting a smirk from her husband.

“Perhaps if you’d taken me seriously, you would have been.  Do you take me seriously now?”

She blushed and fixed her eyes on the furs between them.

“At any rate,” Ahusaka said, “If I begin reminiscing about the adventures Savorin and I have gone on, I’ll be reminiscing all night, and we’re better off well-rested for what comes next.”

“Very well,” Moka said.  Before she rolled over to face the wall of the tent, she chewed on her lip thoughtfully, then frowned and asked, “Why did you seek my hand?”

“I’m not a particularly complicated man,” Ahusaka said.  “You’re beautiful, you impressed me, and so I decided you would be mine, or I’d die trying to make that my reality.”

She considered that for a moment that stretched into a minute, and before she could give voice to any of the other questions that tugged at the back of her mind, the fox began to snore, his chest rising and falling evenly.  Moka watched him in the dull light of the false sun that barely managed to shine through portions of the tent’s walls.

Rather than roll over and turn her back, she reached out across the distance, then drew him close.  Her cheek laid against the furs, she closed her eyes, drifted off, and dreamed of where her travels would take her next.

Lore of the Intercontinents

The temple was empty, but not abandoned.

A single figure with thin features calmly entered the main chamber, his red robe lightly flowing as he walked inside. He was careful to step over the shattered wooden remnants of what used to be its front doors. Those pieces were holy relics now. Only a few more paces down a narrow hallway and he had reached his destination, the Spike of Foundation.

Yelis bowed his head and knelt before the tall obelisk. He raised his right arm skyward and gave a prayer to his deity. One of the five original gods, the god who was represented by this Spike. El-Kazir, the god of foundation.

At the completion of Yelis’ verbal offering, the ground lightly shook and the obelisk glowed. Mist, blue as the sky, hummed and spun around it.

‘I prayed this day would come, and yet, I can’t be thankful for it,’ Yelis thought.

His prayers to unite this power with the god who built it had brought about the end of his world, and possibly others. His small planet – which was one of many – housed the Spike built by El-Kazir. Those of his order were called upon to pray to it and present a specific offering until El-Kazir would return and claim the power held within. After thousands of years performing this ritual, and somehow during one of his rotations, the god had answered. It didn’t answer by appearing however, instead it pulled his entire planet towards itself. At least that’s what Yelis hoped.

The force of its movement caused earthquakes and storms to rage across his world. Buildings crumbled, crops burnt, and chaos befell his homeland. After only two years of hurtling through space, everyone else was gone. Granted, only the priests of his religion and a few industries ran by people to feed and support the order occupied the tiny sphere. His holy station as the caller of foundation had kept him alive while others starved.

Yelis shook his head. ‘Had it been one of the larger planets like Marin or Nolise, we could have lost millions.’

His solar system was made of several tiny planets and moons circling three large ones. While the stature of his own world was small, its importance was immeasurable. It held the only Holy Spike amongst their worlds. He had no idea where the other four were located. Maybe one rested in the other system he had seen. It was different from the orb like planets Yelis was accustomed to. Rather, they were small islands connected together by tiny land bridges, like beads on a necklace. Of course, he wasn’t simply a passive observer of those strange lands. Yelis’ planet had crashed through one of the land bridges. Thankfully, the Spike’s blue energy had shielded his home world from any damage during the collision.

“I wonder where the others reside, maybe I’ll get to see them when my travels are through?” he said to himself while approaching one of the cave temple’s craggy walls. Hoping the question would distract him from the shame of knowing he played a part in the destruction of another world.

Reaching up, he snatched a few branches of a brittle root growing through the rock. He continued crunching them down in his hands while pacing back to the front of the Spike, where all the teachings were carved. He poured the crumpled roots into a gold chalice, which sat on the ground before it, then approached a large bowl carved out of marble. Looking straight up, he observed a hole in the ceiling of the cave temple where sunlight had once shone through. It was one of two holes, the second was a large opening over the Spike. He cupped his hands and took some of the water, then carefully brought it back and poured that in the chalice as well. It had taken him years to perfect this technique. A sharp pain jabbed his stomach as he remembered Yorin, the priest who first taught him this ritual.

“I won’t forget you, old friend,” he said while swallowing down the bittersweet memory.

After mixing the roots and water with a thin metal stick, the two elements created a blue liquid. Yelis dipped his fingers in the small chalice and painted a few of the lines and symbols marked in the Spike. After he was done, he took a swig from the cup. During his previous performances, nothing happened when he drank the indigo tea. This time however, his entire skin tingled and his mind grew more focused. The light of the temple felt brighter, and he could hear the rush of wind racing over the holes in the ceiling above.

What was he preparing for? He had performed this task countless times with his fellow priests, who had followed in the footsteps of those before. And yet, none of them understood why they did it. Yes, they knew it would lead to the return of El-Kazir, but none of them knew of any specific meaning to the individual steps. The praying, the stirring, the painting, the consuming. What had it all meant? Before, they simply had faith in the process. Now, his body was humming and he had no inclination what he should do with this newfound enlightenment.

A sudden force shook the temple, sending Yelis tumbling forward and slamming into a small stone pillar. A jolt of pain rushed from the top of his spine to the ends of his toes. He groaned and rolled onto his stomach. Collecting himself, he slowly climbed to his feet and leaned against the structure. Loud cracks rang out above as the temple ceiling itself was ripped in two. The pieces tossed away as if being discarded like chicken bones.

Then he heard it.

“Who has called me?” a booming voice bellowed above.

The arrival of a god.

Yelis knelt on one knee and bowed his head out of sheer instinct. His heart thumped so heavily he thought it might rip through his chest. No amount of rituals, scriptures, or lessons could have prepared him for this fateful moment. All he could do was stare forward and look at the jagged tiles beneath him. Hoping that focusing on something simple would ease his mind. It didn’t.

“Answer, creature!” the god demanded.

Yelis swallowed, eyes bulging. “I…I come seeking El-Kazir,” he finally managed to stammer.

“You have found him. Now, who are you to call me back to power?”

Yelis lifted his head slightly, barely peeking towards the ripped opening where the ceiling once resided. He could see a large ebony figure outlined by a thin line of white light. El-Kazir was so massive that only what appeared to be his upper torso was visible to Yelis. As he loomed overhead, Yelis wondered if the god’s outline only mirrored a human form to ease his fears. A familiar appearance could make this dominating presence less frightening to such an insignificant observer.

Yelis finally broke his silence.

“I am Yelis, Master Emissary for the Keepers of Foundation.”

“Foundation…” the god answered.

Yelis couldn’t tell if the response was quizzical or affirming.

“Yes, Holy One. We worship you, the God of Foundation, bringer of the First Worlds,” Yelis replied.

The god spoke, “Those names. You were our original creation. If you have held faith and ritual for this long, you’re clearly worthy to wield this power.”

El-Kazir plucked Yelis from the ground and slammed him – spine first – against the Holy Spike. His hand was so immense that its fingers completely surrounded the priests’ waist. Suddenly, Yelis felt jolts of sharp pain surge throughout his body, as if someone were ramming nails through his skin. He wanted to move, to scream, to break free from having his back pinned to the stone pillar. Yet, he knew this was his destiny. He prepared his entire existence for the moment when he would finally meet his god. That time had come. It was best to abandon his own decisions. The surges continued snaking between his body and the pillar. He thought he should feel pain, but it was far worse. The sensations coursing through his veins eclipsed what he once thought was pain and entered another threshold entirely. Fear gripped his bones as he sank into the pillar. Reaching out with one hand he furiously swiped for anything to stop him from being absorbed.

His eyes shot open in a flash and he was now looking down at the tip of the Holy Spike. He was floating in the air above, flying somehow. Yelis looked above him and saw a smattering of stars in the distance.

‘They don’t feel so far, though,’ he thought while reaching out to them.

Then he was upon them. One of the bright orbs of light only a mile from his face. He began to feel its bright heat, until he tore the sensation from his mind and placed it elsewhere. Like setting a cup of water aside on a shelf. He made the mistake of looking down. The vast, lonely ocean of infinite black space was the only thing beneath him. Yelis panicked, swinging his arms and kicking his legs like a drowning pup.

“Enough.” El-Kazir’s booming voice echoed throughout Yelis’ skull.

Yelis fell to his knees on a floor made of white marble tile. He took a moment to gather himself. Feeling the comfort of having solid ground beneath him. He stared out and saw rows of long wooden benches surrounding the large circle of tile he was kneeling on. Scanning the walls, he saw decorative stone carvings of important priest of the past. He appeared to be in the preaching chamber of his church. El-Kazir appeared at his side, but was now the same size as Yelis.

“I believe this place will calm you,” the god said.

Yelis stood up slowly. “It does help, your holiness.”

The god nodded. “We are one now. We must make the most of our time before the other three return.”

Yelis turned towards El-Kazir with a quizzical look. “Aren’t you one of five?”

El-Kazir stared back at Yelis; his black body was veined with thin silver lines. He looked as if he was chiseled from a mixture of smooth black granite with dashes of white molten lava. The mixture comprising his body was constantly swirling within the white line that outlined his figure.

“There were five, before one of us died,” El-Kazir replied calmly.

Yelis inhaled deeply and gave a silent prayer for whichever god had fallen. He opened his eyes and saw the church was gone; he stood before the shining star again. Yelis breathed through his fear and tried to snatch it. He wanted to discard it like he’d done with his other senses before.

“You should know that when we merge and occupy this realm, we can be struck down.”

Yelis felt a chill knowing that El-Kazir understood his intentions so easily. He’d forgotten the god lived in his mind now. He went to fly away from the star, but El-Kazir interrupted him again.

“This heat won’t harm you, Yelis. However, know that discarding your human senses does not mean they aren’t real. We are powerful, but not completely immortal.”

Yelis nodded knowingly, despite feeling completely lost. It was difficult to comprehend his new station. Every gesture or decision seemed to inspire his god to deliver another nugget of wisdom. But unlike previous advice he’d received from mortals, the information only sparked more questions. He took a moment to decide his next move, rubbing his chin. Yelis noticed his hand still looked the same. His body had not changed to El-Kazir’s form. He still wore his original dark brown skin, littered with beige freckles. He took another moment to steady himself while running his hand through his curly black hair, then spoke to his god. “When we traveled here, there was another solar system. It was unlike our own, not planets, but islands. My world collided with them on our way here. I feel duty bound to fix them before I begin your work.”

“There is no time for rebuilding the Fourth and Fifth Worlds. We must focus on our new creation. It must be completed before the other three come,” El-Kazir instructed.

Yelis listened to his god and tried to swallow back his guilt.

“Do not worry, disciple. They will survive. Reach out to them, you will see…”

Yelis closed his eyes and visualized the cluster of islands. The longer he focused on them, the closer he was drawn there. Soon he was staring above one, which was covered in a vast jungle. Several people had large pieces of timber they were lugging back to a tall stone pyramid.

“You see, Yelis, they have moved on. Your worship has not destroyed them. All worlds end, but rarely are those finales brought about by our kind.”

Yelis closed his eyes once more and visualized the star. He opened them and found himself back there.

“It’s time to build our foundation for the Ninth Worlds, disciple.”

Yelis nodded and stretched out his hand. Small balls of light fizzed and popped before him. He was creating life.

“How much time do we have?” he asked.

“Until another priest’s prayers are answered. Thankfully, I believe there aren’t many left who worship the other three.”

Again, he was left with more questions.

“Shouldn’t we be excited for the return of your brothers and sisters?”

El-Kazir’s figure appeared beside him while shaking his head. “I lost one brother after the creation of the Eighth. I believe coming into this one so uneven will be the death of us all. This foundation must be our strongest ever, if this realm wishes to survive our eventual demise.”

The power of El-Kazir’s words struck Yelis’ consciousness like a fist to his belly. Internalizing the immense pressure of his task, he felt the newfound godly force nauseously swell inside his stomach.

‘Every time I begin to allow my human emotions to seep through, it clouds my control over this power,’ Yelis realized. He steadied his hand and continued building another moon. Gathering his resolve and pushing past his fears. ‘I must understand how to wield this skill under any condition, if I’m to achieve what El-Kazir expects from me.’

He wanted to shove the feeling away like he had the others, but something told him he needed every ounce of motivation he could find. He was responsible for the creation of a new cosmos. One that would be tasked with saving existence itself.

Father and Child

Once in an age, the rot set in to the bones of our world.

It was our tribe’s season on the vast Plain of Rebirth, and so when the first of Grandfather’s leaves fell from the 3057th bough-line, we knew it was time.

“Time to go! Flatfoot! Come on!” Three Arm, the nightdrummer, called to me.

I had just laid down to sleep the afternoon away in our longhouse, moccasins and shirt off, tossed on the end of the bed. The light was silver with approaching storm and its dimness made my eyelids droop.

“What’s the rush?” I complained. There was no need for either of us at the Unleashing.

“Handheart expects us,” Three Arm insisted. “That’s reason enough.”

The old man’s ire would be troublesome, I supposed. It was worth skipping today’s nap so as not to be punished with extra work during tomorrow’s. I sprang impatiently out of bed to underscore my distaste, but Three Arm just rolled his eyes. Feet shod, I followed the sprightly drummer out the door as I slipped my shirt back on.

Our longhouse was one in a row near the dropoff at Plain’s edge. Its bold red and black painted stripes stood starkly against the grey cloud of the drop. Three Arm had left his drum by the door and snatched it up as we left, slung its strap over shoulder and chest.

“He wants you to play?” I asked.

“Yeah, he thinks it will aid the Growth,” said Three Arm.

Daydrummers should have been enough for that, I thought, but Three Arm was the best in our tribe. We passed the cookhouse and the barracks, the tall Hunter’s Home, and beyond Sky Father’s temple to the empty plain. The short, tough grass was wet and cool with moisture dripped from the boughs above. We had to skirt the longhouse-sized fallen leaf of Grandfather, already browning, and then we were on the path to the tree we called the Child.

Many others were already gathered there - priests and tenders, drummers and gophers like me. All those needed and any who simply wished to attend. The priests sang a song in their many-throated voices, words snatched by the breeze preceding the storm, squashed beneath the pounding drums. The Child’s leaves rustled with youthful vigor. Even I could tell that it was ready for Growth. And none too soon.

“Boys, how nice of you to attend,” called Handheart.

The old priest’s robes were a brighter orange than I’d ever seen them. He must have been excited for the ritual. My more cynical self said it was less excitement and more that after today, he would be allowed to retire to Elder’s Home.

“We wouldn’t dream of sleeping through a moment like this,” I said, and he looked at me askance.

“Join the line?” Three Arm asked, and Handheart gestured him to do so. The daydrummers nodded as my friend came alongside. I couldn’t help but sway to their hypnotic rhythms.

But I stilled when Handheart approached me. There was a conspiratorial look on his face.

“Flatfoot. I sense you wished to sleep rather than attend,” he said near my ear. “Are you unwell?”

“You didn’t have to sense it, Elder,” I said cooly. “You know this is my naptime.”

Handheart tensed and I shut my eyes in advance of the slap. It didn’t come. He let out a growling breath.

“Despite your role in today’s Growth,” he said, “you did not wish to witness it?”

“Oh, I had forg—”

He cut me off. “Don’t tell me you forgot. No one forgets such a thing, Flatfoot.”

I clamped my mouth shut.

“The women approach,” he said, and indeed I heard their ululations now. “Cease your dancing and do not speak until the end of the ritual. Understood?”

Handheart always preferred verbal affirmations, so I merely nodded. His lips went flat but he turned and rejoined the other old men. I spun to watch the girls arrive.

All Leafdew women look good in motion as they weave and bob and sing, but my gaze belonged to Spright most of all. Firefly’s daughter was as hard to pin down as myself - no one’s first pick but mine. Her long red hair fluttered on the breeze and I caught her jade gaze for an intoxicating moment. Did she smile?

I wanted to move with her, dance whatever dance came to me, but I had tested Handheart enough today. If he got fed up with me, I might be ‘witnessing’ the rest of the ritual through my eyelids.

The women’s song joined the priests’ and the drummers led a feverish crescendo. A long wail of extended harmony arose, and crashed down into sudden silence. It was only a moment before Handheart’s dual-throated litany filled the void.

“Long has it been since the Leafdew have drawn our lot on the Plain of Rebrith,” he sang. “Since we released the spirit of one of our own from the roots of a Child to Grow into the next age of our world.”

A heartily sung cheer celebrated his words.

“And the honor of Flatfoot, and Longfoot his father, in meeting again at this Plain is a thing that may never yet have happened to any tribe,” the elder sang.

Green eyes flashed in my peripheral. I caught Spright’s look and smile but averted my gaze.

“Now we sing the song of release,” chanted Handheart. “Now we usher in the birth of the 3058th bough-line!”

The tribe’s cheer rang out and Grandfather’s leaves waved happily to us from above. His mighty growth would finally terminate, and this sproutling before us would carry all tribes ever upward through the next age.

Handheart launched into the song and everyone followed along in vigorous call and response. When the Child’s branches seemed to sway along, I could no longer restrain my own movement. Spright saw me and giggled as she sang. The elders were too absorbed in the ritual to reprimand me with cold looks.

With a crescendo of drum and song, the Child tree shivered, a ripple of golden light ran from roots to twigs and its quiet tension was released.

But no white flowers bloomed, trunk and limb did not stretch and groan. Nothing that lore dictated should happen, did.

The women broke into tense, hushed whispers, the elders immediately began bickering, and the priests rushed to the tree to inspect it. My heart seized up, my hands began to shake, and sand filled my veins.

No, this couldn’t be. Father…

Just as the gravity of the moment crushed my mind, Handheart spun and stomped toward me.

“What did you do wrong!?” he hissed into my ear. His ire couldn’t be hidden, but at least he wasn’t bellowing at me in front of everyone. “Did you skip part of the ritual?”

“No, Handheart, I…” I stammered. His eyes terrified me. If I told him the truth, he would toss me off the edge of the Plain and I might plunge a thousand years or more before I died.

“You never studied!” he growled. “This is why you, son of the great Longfoot, are only a gopher, and a layabout one at that. If you had only paid attention when I trained you —”

“No, elder, I…” I couldn’t tell him. But I couldn’t not tell him. He might kill me either way. And if he didn’t, someone else might. I took a deep breath and willed my stomach not to vomit. “I made no mistakes, I’m sure of it. I followed the ritual to the letter.”

“Then how…” an idea dawn on him and somehow I knew he’d gotten it right.

He left me and rushed back to the circle of elders and priests. Spoke to them in hushed tones. Eyes flicked toward me, then to the tree. When Handheart called for someone to bring shovels, I broke out in a sweat and nearly fainted. He knew.

No time passed, but the shovels appeared. The hole was dug carefully, attempting to avoid disturbance of the Child’s roots. They dug in the right place first, then all around the full circle, wanting to be sure I’d not made a mistake. All the while my jaw was locked shut. I couldn’t have confessed if I’d wanted to.

There were no bones. Longfoot, my father, who I had been responsible for the midnight sacrifice and burial of, was not there.

No man of any tribe in all the ages of our world had failed in their task of fertilizing the Rebirth. I knew this was true now, for Grandfather would not hover so accusingly above me had any previous Growth been cut off.

The elders uttered a dissonant mourning wail and the women joined them. The drummers did not play. Spright’s tearful face regarded me as if I’d betrayed her, and Three Arm would not look at me at all.

Handheart started for me again, drawing a long, sharp bone knife from his belt. He got in my face rather than stabbing me to death right away, and screamed, “What did you do with his body? How did you mess up the ritual?”

I stammered. He still didn’t get it. Only fear of the bone blade’s point awoke my voice.

“I - I didn’t sacrifice him, elder,” I said. His anger morphed into shock and his trembling eyes grew red. “I couldn’t.”

Something hard hit my skull and I crumpled to the ground, conscious but reeling. I didn’t hear Handheart moving away but soon he was speaking with the others elders again. They argued, cursed me, came to a decision. Handheart returned.

He grabbed me by the throat and forced me to look him in the eye.

“They call for your death, Flatfoot,” he hissed. “And they are right to do so. My rage begs me to end you here, for you, alone, have doomed every tribe to a slow fate of starvation and pestilence.”

I started to weep. I couldn’t kill Father, that was all there was to it. They had chosen the wrong sacrifice, the wrong acolyte. I hadn’t believed that it mattered, and I had been terribly, terribly wrong.

“Perhaps,” said Handheart, “if we offer you to the Sky Father, he will have mercy and stave off Grandfather’s decay until a new sacrifice is chosen by the Child. That is all we can hope for.”

But it wasn’t. I could hardly will myself to speak. Yet this was the death of one over the death of many…

“I know where Father is,” I said.

Handheart seemed to ponder this. Would the Child still accept him? He dropped me to the ground and bellowed, “Prepare an expedition! We will retrieve Longfoot, and beg for mercy!”

Everyone launched into motion, without question, without complaint. Without any such fatal flaw as my own.

***

The trek wasn’t terribly far, all told. After all, the night of sacrifice had been on the Plain those seven years before, and I’d had only the five days of solitude to take Father to his place of rest.

No good Leafdew father would have permitted such a heresy of course, but my father had been simple for years by then, having fallen between bough-lines one harvest and broken his neck. His body healed, miraculously enough, but his mind was never the same. It was an easy thing to convince him to follow me to the hollow I had in mind, and there Grandfather had provided naturally everything even a simple man needed to go on living.

Three times since then the seasons had placed our tribe within range of the hollow during the week of my Heart Journey, and I’d taken advantage of the freedom and solitude to go visit him. He was much the same each time, but quickly aging and perhaps less aware of who I was. It was disturbing, but I consoled myself with knowing he was still alive at least.

The expedition party was made up of several strong young men, myself, plus Three Arm to ward away the night haints. Handheart insisted on coming too, though he did slow us down.

It took half a day to find a vine ford that would take us down to the next bough-line, and two days after that to wind around Grandfather’s trunk to the hollow. Though I’d harbored fears and guilt, I was convinced that the expedition was not cursed when we suffered only one attack by red-eyed hangtails and came out unscathed.

Relief brought a tear to my eye when the gnarled bough guarding Father’s hollow came into view, and there was smoke rising from inside the permanent camp. I ran ahead of the group and reached the hollow first. Father’s attendant gnome had always been shy and distrustful - I saw him flee from the camp and disappear between folds of bark.

“Father!” I cried, and heard a grunt of confusion from within the hole in Grandfather’s trunk. On the flat of bough outside, Father’s carefully controlled cookfire burned in its clay stove. He’d kept up filling the emberguard pool around it, and the camp was in fine shape altogether.

But he squinted at me when he emerged, and it was several moments before the light of recognition lit his eyes.

“Flatfoot?” he said, voice gravelly with disuse.

I ran to him for a hug instead of answering.

“Father, it’s good to see you,” I said.

However confused he might be, the affection was contagious and he hugged me back. When we parted he was smiling.

“What you doing here, Flatfoot?” he asked. My smile melted.

“I… I made a mistake,” I said.

Handheart scoffed over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him arrive.

“More than a mistake, I’d say,” said the elder. “Longfoot, it’s good to see you. We thought you were, uh, dead.”

Father scrunched up his eyebrows.

“Why dead?” he asked.

Handheart’s visage shifted from awkwardness to concern. He looked me in the eyes but I had to turn away.

“The ritual, Longfoot,” said the elder. “Don’t you remember?”

“Oh is it time for that already?” my father asked. “Who was chosen this year?”

Now Handheart was entirely at a loss for words. He pulled me back from Father and spoke close to my ear.

“I didn’t know he had gotten this bad,” he said.

“It’s worse since the last time I visited,” I whispered. Father watched us sharing secrets, unconcerned. “But even before I… let him go, he didn’t want anyone knowing, so I helped him hide it. Riddles, exercises, memory tinctures - all that.”

Handheart regarded me like he’d never really known me.

“This is why you didn’t —”

I cut him off, “I never could have fed Father to the roots. I didn’t believe. The Child chose wrong.”

Anger flashed over the elder’s face but he mastered it quickly. “The Child does not choose wrongly.” He turned back to Father.

“Longfoot, it’s time to come home,” he said.

Father frowned. “But I so love it here. Uilili keeps me cozy. He will miss me dearly.”

“The gnome,” I spoke sidelong to Handheart. I could sense his patience slipping. His jaw was tenser by the moment.

“Longfoot, the Child chose…” he began.

“Me,” I interjected. “I - I wanted to come say goodbye.”

“Oh, son,” Father breathed. “Well I suppose we Dewleaf must answer the call if it comes. I will miss your visits, Flatfoot.”

“Me too, Father,” I said, reassuring him with a smile. Inside my guts roiled. “But I will be in the tree of the next age, right? So I won’t be far.”

I’d never believed it. I hardly did now. And yet, I had shirked my duty to the tribe, to our world, kept my Father for myself and denied the hunger of the roots, and the Child had refused to Grow. The Tree that sustained us had heard my challenge, and defied me.

My proclamation to Father was more than just a gust of wind. I meant it. Should the Child accept me in his stead, I would pass into the Tree with honor. Had we brought Father back and had I performed the Ritual as intended, I would still be tossed from the boughs. How long would I fall before my body gave up its ghost?

Sudden inspiration lit up Father’s face.

“Wait here!” he said, “I think I have something for you.” He turned and strode easily back toward his comfy hovel.

The elder clamped a hand on my shoulder. “What you propose is not unheard of, Flatfoot, if rare. You know that the Child may not accept you, do you not?”

“I know,” I said.

“And if not you, then —”

“Then my heir,” I affirmed. It was a risk. But if the Child and I were to test each other in this, then let it be a test.

Handheart looked thoughtful. “We will have to linger on the Plain. And we will be years late initiating the Growth.”

“But that’s not unheard of either,” I said. “Saplight tribe was fourteen years late in the fourth age, when a plague took the sacrifice and all but the youngest of his descendants.”

“So you were paying attention in your lessons,” Handheart said.

“Sometimes,” I quipped.

“You will need to find a mother, quickly,” he said.

“I know.”

Father returned. In his hand was a tiny pair of red leather shoes. Most likely hangtail hide.

“Uilili says you can have these for the little one,” said Father, handing me the tiny moccasins. “Lili likes you, did you know that?”

“Yes, you’ve told me before, Father.”

“Have I? Well good,” said Father. “Handheart, will you bring the boy to see me sometime? I would love to meet my grandson.”

The elder gave a sigh of longsuffering. “I will, Longfoot.”

“Will you be staying then? How many years until the Ritual?” Father asked.

“Not many,” I said. “I’d love to stay and visit, Father, but we —”

“We have to get back. Must prepare for Mosshunt tribe’s visit and all - you know how it is.”

Father just smiled as if he remembered. Maybe he did - it was always hard to tell what would stick and what would slip through the boughs.

I hugged Father and we bade each other farewell. Before I turned to follow Handheart out of the camp I caught the gleam of eyes in the shadowed hovel, and a little hand reaching up to wave goodbye.

So the gnome really did like me.




My wooing of Spright was far quicker than it would have been otherwise. Thinking about it on our return from Father’s camp, I had suspected this might be the case. She’d always been a zealot and a true believer. The honor of assisting me and our unborn son in completing the Ritual was not something she could pass up.

Our wedding was beautiful - far more extravagant than what I deserved or had any reason to expect. Spright was an excellent wife, and the love we made spawned new stars in the night sky.

When Uililio was five and I deemed him able to understand, I told him what had to be done. A weight sat in my gut as I watched his face. But he was more Spright’s progeny than mine, and did not balk at his responsibility.

“Okay Papa,” he said. “But… will you sharpen the knife for me? I… I don’t wanna hurt you too much.”

“I will sharpen it,” I told him. And I did.

The fated night came and I felt surety like the call of sleep. Perhaps the Child had foreseen this all in its deep-rooted wisdom. I couldn’t know. Or maybe it all had been as silly and pointless as I once thought, and whether the tree would grow or not was a bit of random chance. That kind of luck was why I never gambled.

At this point it didn’t matter. I was committed to the plan, and I was okay with it.

The priests and elders sang over us and the Child in the deep of night. Women never danced at the ritual, lest a man’s passions alter his mindset. I like to think I would have persevered in my mission even with my wife’s hips under my palms, but I suppose you can never be too careful with the fate of the world.

Handheart looked into me long and hard when the songs were done. What he saw convinced him, or seemed to, and he turned to lead the procession away. I would not have been surprised, though, to learn that he had been watching me and my son from the brush.

Uililio performed his duty admirably - I hardly felt a thing. The cold stars reached out to me, filled up my vision, and after an endless sleep in oblivion, I felt the growing warm embrace of heartwood.

Tales from the Outlander Express

Horse and rider ripped up sand, half in flight for most of their burning stride. The horse grunted viciously, unwilling to stop, as if he knew how important their arrival was to the people of Willow Rock. Jake could hear the saddle bags full of letters and small packages slapping against the bay’s haunches, reminding him of his responsibility. Reminding him of his own parcel he’d been waiting ten years and counting for.

They’d been on the trail for three days and after each break they’d both been eager to make up for lost time. When Jake took this job, he thought it sounded like they were looking for him specifically. Young, skinny fellows, not over eighteen, excellent riders willing to risk death, he smiled remembering the qualifications.

Orphans preferred.

He was seventeen, tearing up a trail through the desert on his first delivery, on his own. Seventeen was too old to dwell on feelings of loss from ages ago. He had a job, he was his own man, and he wouldn’t be letting any other children wait in their house full of sickness for a doctor’s medicine that would never come.

Jackal gave a wheezing snort and Jake mercifully slowed him to a trot. He was panting, but grateful for the intense run. A horse like him wasn’t meant to sit in a stable, digging his hooves in the city, but it made him hungry for the ride. Jake could see the town on the horizon. He pulled his dusty, blue kerchief down off his face and gave Jackal a pat, telling him the news as he leaned forward. The horse snorted like he didn’t care for civilization of any kind.

Suddenly, as if lightning struck right in front of them, Jackal jolted up on two legs and then slammed his hooves back down, shuffling backward on the trail. The shift in momentum threw Jake forward and he clutched the horse both to keep from falling and to gather his thoughts. Before he could ask what it was, half expecting Jackal to answer, he caught sight of an enormous, white hill off in the distance. It wasn’t far enough away to escape Jackal’s notice, but it wasn’t close enough to make out what it was.

“Just a rock, Jackal,” said Jake, patting him firmly, squinting his eyes at it. “Just a big ol’ white rock.”

The horse hurried along the trail, not willing to linger another moment. Jake didn’t fight him, he wasn’t keen on being thrown this close to town. Rest and witnesses so near.


The saloon was quiet, but not empty. Hungover, exhausted, or homesick, almost no one shared words or glances. The barkeep felt it too, lazily cleaning the counter space without any sign of urgency. His eyes were half open when his regular patron pushed the doors open with a tilt of his head, straddled the stool, and threw his elbows onto the bar between them while he hastily broke the silence and the mood.

“Did you feel that quake this morning, Virgil?”

“I did, it weren’t too big though.”

“Any quake’s too big,” said the young man leaning against the bar.

“Roger, it is too early in the mornin’ for your complainin’,” said Virgil, pouring whiskey into a shot glass and slid it forward.

“And it’s too early in the mornin’ for a drink,” said Roger, gritting his teeth after shooting it back.

A man in a tattered, old hat with a bent brim poked his head into the quietly stirring bar, waving a hand at the bartender for his attention.

“Hey Virgil, Pony Express kid’s here,” he said, not expecting most of the bleary-eyed patrons to get up and herd passed him.

“Looks like everyone’s eager for a kind word from afar this mornin’.”

“Not me,” said the man at the door, “I got everything I need right here.”

“Well now, Red, ain’t that wholesome,” said Roger, shaking his head.

The crowd pushed into the small, cluttered post office, surprising the young Express rider. He cracked a smile, but continued sorting out his delivery with the boisterous man who worked the local post office. Everyone greeting him called him Art. Laughing with an effortless boom, Art welcomed everyone in and didn’t bother asking them to form any sort of line.

“I been doing this almost a year now,” said the grinning man. “They ain’t thieves, but they ain’t patient. Best to just let ‘em do what they’ll do.”

Jake smiled nervously, eyeing the large, restless crowd anxiously watching them carry out what he thought was a mundane task. Someone spotted their delivery and snatched it up, checking the name on it before disappearing out the door. That happened a few more unexpected times, but even when the wrong package was scooped up, the right person took it out the door.

Once the sorting was done, Art shooed him out, insisting he get rest and feed that horse before he even thought about heading off. Jake agreed, not needing to hear the offer more than once. He stepped outside and noticed that his previously droopy-eyed, nodding horse perked up and swayed excitedly in place at the sight of Jake coming outside.

“Not yet, boy, just time to eat,” Jake chuckled, lazily raising his hand.

“Must not’ve rode as hard as I hear, you got a horse that eager to get on again,” said a young lady, loitering under the adjacent general store awning. Her arms were crossed and she wore an irritated look, as if that’s the way her face naturally settled.

“Some animals, an’ people for that matter, got an itch to keep moving that moving don’t seem to scratch.”

“Aren’t you a bit young to be spoutin’ wisdoms?”

“You ain’t a rattler, are ya?” he asked, squinting and dramatically fanning himself.

She laughed despite her best efforts and glared unconvincingly at him. “You know, I think I am a mirage. Now, stop wastin’ time talkin’ at the air.”

Jake tilted his dark brown hat as she shooed him away, sliding the wide brim down with one finger. The rest of him was too tired for much more. Taking Jackal by the reigns, he led him to the livery for some quick feed and to see if they’d take him for a single night. They’d probably gouge him for the trouble, but he was getting paid twenty-five dollars a week. With that wage, he’d shrug off a little bamboozling for the convenience.

He wasn’t ten steps away when the high-pitched draw of a breath startled his horse. Echoes of it rang out between sobbing as the young lady buried her face in her father’s arms. The letter he was holding crumpled in his fist and he stared out over his daughter’s head, taking the town in as if it was the last place they’d ever see. Jake turned away quickly, continuing on to the livery with a revelation he had truly never considered in full. Some of these letters would be letters of tragedy and news of death. Some people were waiting not to get one.

The livery owner stood up straight from his duties, watching young Jake stride up with his horse in tow.

“Can I hep’ ya, son?”

“Yes sir, I need to set this hoss up for a single night.”

“Just one night?”

“Just the one.”

The owner sighed, looking him over. “You that delivery boy?”

“I work for the Express, yes sir.”

“S’pose you’ll be heading out in the morning?”

“That’s the way I’d like it to go.” Jake smiled.

“Tell you what, you deliver that package there for me and I’ll treat him to all the finest.”

“…I could do that.”

The livery owner saw his furrowed brows and rubbed the back of his neck as he gestured toward the delivery sitting on the barrels outside. “It’s just my pa’s ol’ lead pusher, but it’ll make a little peace between my kin if I give it up to my brother in Crow’s Bend.”

“Hell, that’s almost back where I came from,” said Jake, squinting into the eastern sky.

“Well, offer stands. Else it’ll be two dollars.”

Jake pulled the corner of his lip back, showing some teeth as if in pain and the livery owner chuckled. After patting his leg and staring toward the sun for a few moments longer, the young Pony Express rider agreed and told him to pack the parcel on Jackal right away so he wouldn’t have to remember in his rush the next morning.

“He’ll get the best tonight.”

“Don’t feed him too much, he’s runs faster than he rolls.”

The owner laughed, waving over his shoulder at Jack while he took the horse inside to feed and have a safe place to sleep for the night.

“Alright,” Jack muttered to himself, turning on his heels, “my turn.”

The saloon sat so peacefully in the late morning sun, the wind could be heard harassing its integrity. Jake’s light footing clomped like a horse’s trot on the wood outside and he felt like too many eyes were watching him. Giving a final polite gesture before darting inside, he was glad to escape the friendliness of the storefronts with the nagging need for rest pulling at his dragging mind. He enjoyed meeting the folks in town so far and was looking forward to at least a few more years of traveling the world, getting to know those living in it. But for the time being, food and sleep were his preferred company.

The saloon owner, Virgil, had already offered him a room at half price and Jake was more than happy to accept. He’d never slept in a saloon before. Glancing around, hoping to spot a pretty little painted lady, he let his shoulders slump on the way up the straight stairway in the back of the room. Feeling his eyelids fighting separation reminded him that it was for the best. Maybe after he woke, got some food…

“I swear to God I saw what I saw,” screamed an old man in one of the gambling rooms downstairs, just beneath his feet. His voice carried farther than his companions. “No! I ran like hell! Blood everywhere and this white skull with an eye, a giant eye just loo—”

There was another shout but Jake couldn’t make out the words. He hoped their conversation wouldn’t carry into his room.

“I ain’t drunk!”

Jake slammed the door to his room, leaned against it, and squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t hear anything. Peace, silence, and a bed with two soft blankets. A bed sitting in a real frame. First delivery and he was already living like a king. Sighing, he threw down his bag near the doorway and them himself, facing the ceiling. He imagined himself riding into town in fine, twenty-dollar suits with women smiling at him as he paraded through town, men tipping their hats, wishing they’d been lucky enough to be so malnourished at his age. Jake chuckled at his own thoughts, rubbed his pink and red eyes, and fell into a deep sleep with one leg resting up on his bent knee and his hand flat on his face.


A nightmarish scream struck like a bullet, flipping him out of his bed. Jake scrambled to the window before he had fully awakened and let his head swivel until he found the source. A woman was pressed against the wall of the general store, staring in horror at the men stumbling through the middle of the street. They looked to be reaching out for help, but at no one in particular.

Jake hurried from the room, joining the rest of the curious citizens on the sides of the town’s main road. The sun hung low in the sky and it was only as he stood shoulder to shoulder with several concerned gamblers did he realize he’d slept the day away. The two men had collapsed and the doctor was examining them, his own hands shaking. Creeping closer than most of the others, Jake peered over the doctor’s shoulder to see what the victims looked like.

Pale as men long dead, they had blood pouring out of their mouths like a flooded river. Though they had thoroughly died, the blood still pushed its way out with urgency.

“What in God’s name, doc?” asked Virgil, standing across from the both of them.

“I ain’t got a clue yet, Verge.”

As the doctor examined his eyes, turned his head, and otherwise tried to assess this horrifying affliction by sight, a screeching wail rang out around the corner. In the alleyway between the general store and the barber, the distressed cry was cut short by muffled gurgling. Once several of them hooked around the walls, they caught sight of a woman falling to the ground. A widow for mere moments before her own time had come. And not a soul in sight.

Many of the spectators started to disperse in distress, but Virgil bent down beside the woman and tried to get her to convey any sort of message before she let the light leave her. Jake watched, listened, and felt his own stomach turning, but the only message he could make out was one of indescribable terror. Her eyes died wide open, like an animal in fear.

“Let’s get her and those men out of the street,” ordered Virgil, choking back his breaking voice.

Jake jumped to help him with the woman, feeling obligated after watching her final breaths. He hadn’t seen a woman die in ten years. It made him feel weak and helpless, but at the same time he couldn’t help scanning the area over and over, ready to break out his revolver and burn the murderer down. Watch the bastard choke on his own blood next.

“I didn’t see nobody, did you?” asked Virgil.

Jake shook his head, staring at a blood-red robe hanging on the corner of the alley beside some hooks and barrels. Red, the man behind Virgil, responded with the same. Suddenly, Jake jerked and dropped the womans legs, feeling as if he might throw up, scream, and take off running until he regained his senses.

“What’re you doin’? You see somethin’?” asked Virgil.

“Goddammit, the hell, what was that, where…” mumbled Jake, feeling like losing sight of the red robed man was the last thing he’d ever do.

“You’re worrying me, son,” said Red.

“I thought I was lookin’ at…well…somethin’, not a person though, but it weren’t no person. It moved like water. It weren’t right.”

“Shut up,” muttered Virgil, looking around at all the people watching them.

The sheriff took off down the alley with one of his deputies, heading in the direction they saw Jake staring toward. Pistols out and ready, the two disappeared around the corner, heading in opposite directions. Each of them looked as though they saw something worth investigating. Several seconds went by before they heard screaming again, almost in unison.

Setting the woman down and flagging over a couple of men nearby, Virgil pulled out his own gun. Red tried to stop him, but he wasn’t having it.

“I ain’t standin’ here, holding perfectly good iron just to watch more of my friends die.”

“Dammit,” grumbled Red, drawing his own pistol.

“Adaline, get in here,” hissed a man in a dark duster, hanging his head out the boarding house door. Jake followed his line of sight to the young lady, the irate mirage from before. She had her gaze fixed on them, her hands clutched against her chest and her feet planted firmly in the street. Jake stood a little straighter and felt for his own revolver, though he soon remembered leaving it on the floor of his room.

“I’m comin’, too.”

“Boy, you get on outta here,” said Virgil, eyeing his empty holster.

“I can run faster than the both of ya. At least I’ll be able to tell folks what gotcha.”

Jake’s nervous offer amused them, but no one could find ground solid enough to laugh from.

He followed them cautiously, glancing behind often enough to watch them slowly slip out of everyone’s sight. They stepped around and over the briefly-widowed woman’s blood pooled up in the dirt as best they could, but there was so much that had spilled out in such a short time they found that they were not only followed two sets of bloody footprints, but making their own. Each of them held their breath as they rounded the last corners at the back of the buildings. Jake could hear Red’s old, rusty pistol rattling in his hand.

Convulsing in the dirt on both sides of the trio lay the near-corpses of the sheriff and the deputy. Both flat on their backs, floating in and surrounded by about a body’s worth of blood. Virgil swore and Red’s aim darted back and forth as he frantically searched for something to aim at. Both times the pistol passed over the crimson, hanging robe behind the building, Jake thought about shouting. Both times he couldn’t believe they didn’t see it, too. Finally, his brain connected with the rest of him and he shouted in the face of rapidly approaching death.

“There! Goddammit, there!”

Red started shooting before he saw anything and Virgil started firing into the red cloth after he found it. It stood out so starkly from the rest of the dirt, wood, and dust that each time, Jake couldn’t believe they didn’t see it. Looking for a man blinded them to what had been standing before them, its arm outstretched.

The first person it touched was Red. The bloody hand oozed into his chest as though it was melting at the touch, but they could tell it was going inside of him. They could tell Red was trying to scream or breathe, but death had touched him and that’s all there was to him now. Virgil shouted, hitting the creature with his revolver, but it was like slapping the water. Out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw the other. It was like a woman, shorter, slender, but reaching for them all the same. When the creature grabbed Virgil, it looked as though he was about to go out like Red. Instant and with horror in his eyes. Then, in a final fit of defiance, he pulled up and kicked Jake out of his trance, landing him on his backside in the freshly pooling puddle of Red’s blood.

That was all Jake had needed. He flung himself up like a coiled spring, crashing back out of the alley and yelling a string of frightened warnings well enough to scatter those that were left hovering and wondering in the main street. Hearing the scraping of his own boots against the dirt and the pounding of the blood still in his veins, he was deafened to the shrieks of those who weren’t nearly as fast on their feet. Clawing at the boarding house door, Adaline threw it open and jerked him inside, her father slamming the door closed behind him. She pulled her hand back, losing the pink in her cheeks at the sight of the blood running down her fingers.

“Ain’t mine.” Was all Jake could say.

He felt as though the next time he opened his mouth he might bite off his tongue with how badly his teeth were chattering.

The boarding house waiting room had several simple chairs and some end tables, all from the furniture store three buildings down. They’d been hastily pushed against the wall, leaving dusty evidence of how long they’d been sitting in one place on the floor. Stretching out from the lobby was a long hall filled with doors just across from the stairs leading up to the rooms above them, but they were already filled with people hiding from what they believed to be outlaws picking the innocent and guilty off from out of plain sight, without discrimination.

“I told you, I told you I saw ‘em,” said a familiar voice.

The old man from the gambling room. Jake figured that had to be where he heard his voice from. Jake pushed his way toward him and grabbed his arm a little too rough, but the old man dropped his indignant response when their eyes met.

“Holy hell—”

“What did you see?” Jake growled, barely feeling like he had control over his body.

“These red people, not injuns, red, like blood. They was killin’ a man out in—”

Someone feverishly shushed them and they all held their breath, using only their eyes to check around the room. The same kind of thump that sent them into silence resounded again. And again.

“It’s coming from in there,” whispered a woman, her own arms wrapped around the man’s beside her.

Heavy pounding thundered throughout the boarding house until they were left in the storm’s wake. Something creaked at the end of the dark hall and he heard Adaline trying to hold back her own wilting scream with a hushed wheeze that only their complete silence could have revealed.

Head, fingers, and knees trembling, Jake marched himself forward like a newborn foal and threw open the first door. Bleeding out through the cracks in the wallpapered wood, one of the red murderers faded away like a stain spilling through. Leaving a bloody blotch on the wall, it was only after Jake witnessed it completely disappear that he let his eyes settle around the crowded room. The floor was flooding from the bodies that had fallen every which way. As the blood pushed up against his boots, Jake took a step back and threw the message to the others with just one look.

“I’ve gotta get out of this place,” exclaimed a justifiably hysterical woman. “Samuel, please, come on.”

“It’s pitch black out there, we can’t see him.”

“Them,” corrected Jake. “And they ain’t people.”

“What the hell kinda animal—”

“It’s no animal,” whispered the old man in a harsh voice. “Last year, these things came. Didn’t get nearly this hungry for us, but I remember someone sayin’ somethin’ about a bloody man and some people dyin’ in a bad way.”

“Why now?”

“It was exactly a year ago,” said the old man. “Maybe there’s somethin’ to that…”

“Oh great, rainin’ now,” complained a man, peering out the window.

It didn’t take them long to realize there was no rain, but liquid dripping from the ceilings all around them. Down the hall, the pattering of the blood drops rang out, calling to the red lady standing in a newly soaked-through doorway. The old man shouted a warning to them all and they scattered like mice caught sleeping in their hole.

As they all pushed out the door, the red lady rushed them, grabbing first the old man. Jake got a good look that time, but wished he hadn’t. Her face was mauled and gored, drenched with ever-flowing blood that poured down the entire length of her body. There were no eyes, but hollow places that would occasionally reveal themselves between the short, molasses-like waterfalls. When she jerked her unnatural gaze toward him, he bolted. Adaline grabbed his arm as they fled the house, her father swiftly leaving right behind them.

“Get to the damn horses!” he shouted.

Jake didn’t need to alter his course. His mind had already taken him on a path to the livery, but had not prepared him to be yanked backward by Adaline’s father in the middle of the darkening street. Screaming streamed out from the building like fireworks, but it was Adaline’s own that finally brought him to his less cowardly senses. Her father had her arm in a painful death-grip, not knowing he was doing it, with a red lady’s arm halfway melted into his chest. Jake tried to pull his hand away, but only when Adaline called to him did he let go.

“Don’t stop!” Jake shouted to her, causing her to give in to fear and leave her father behind.

The red lady reached for her, but he pulled Adaline to him with all his might and ran like a man possessed. They burst into the livery and frightened all the wary horses into fits of loud whinnies and kicking stomps.

“Jackal, where the hell are ya…?”

Frantically searching, Jake finally saw the stable where his horse paced, eager to break free during the chaos. He ran up to the simple latch lock and struggled to simply unhook it.

“What are you doing?” Adaline hissed.

“I’m openin’ the door, goddammit, open!”

Finally flinging it open, Jake pulled Jackal out with an insulting yank. He apologized to him, feeling the willful steed’s indignant resistance.

“There it is,” shrieked Adaline, pointing toward a wall.

The stable owner fell out of the hay when the red creature put its hand inside, reaching out to doom a horse within reach as well.

“Get up, get up,” chanted Jake, pushing Adaline to the saddle before he’d pull himself up.

“Go away!” she screamed at it, sounding more like a bobcat than a person.

Jake heeled at Jackal, feeling the hay give way under his hooves. The red lady reached for them, but missed by a long-shot. Adaline was holding Jake so tightly, he was settling with shallow breaths as they galloped wildly into the night. The moon was only a sliver in the still desert sky and Jake desperately scanned for any sign of the unnatural beings in the treacherous dark. From the corner of his eye, the slaughter seemed complete. If they were the last two alive, he would not be surprised. Hopefully Adaline was keeping her head down.

“Oh my God,” he heard her gasp.

“Stop lookin’,” said Jake.

At the edge of town, racing through the entry archway, the red man waited. Jake saw him, but there was no other way to go around the already tightly packed gap to the desolated town. Reaching out for them, Jake warned Jackal and tried to steer him around, but the demon-spawn reached its deathly hand into the horse’s body, though only for a moment. Jackal squealed and kicked out at the bloody man, only dispersing him like a hand through running water.

They staggered too fast into the desert, slowing after only a minute or two. Jake leaned forward and vigorously scratched Jackal’s neck while he spoke encouragingly to him. It wasn’t until the second time he leaned forward that he noticed the blood and the trail they were leaving. Jake’s heart ached, but he needed to keep them moving. Glancing around the nothingness, he saw the white rock bulging out of the sand. It looked even bigger than before, almost glowing too, so Jake figured they were close enough to it.

“Look, there,” he said, pointing to it.

“What is it?” whispered Adaline.

“I don’t know, shelter maybe. He ain’t gonna make it. That thing touched him.”

“All it has to do is touch you?”

“Looks that way,” said Jake.

They trotted over to the giant rock and just before they reached it, Jackal fell to his knees, then on his side. They were able to roll off without getting trapped underneath, but Jake hurried to his side. The horse was panting and Jake rested his forehead on Jackal’s neck, petting him gently until he stopped moving. Then, he marched over to the saddlebag and pulled out the parcel the livery owner had attached. He ripped the brown paper away and pried the box open, revealing a beautiful Colt revolver with a bag of bullets and powder packed in with it. Jake loaded everything on his belt.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Adaline, staring at Jackal.

“Let’s look around,” said Jake, eyes red and mind swimming.

They circled the rock cautiously, looked for crevices and making sure they were the only ones doing so. As they came around the back, they found three giant holes.

“There’s a light inside,” said Adaline.

“Careful,” said Jake, putting his hand in front of her as he crept toward the opening.

Inside, two crimson candles sat in a pool of their own wax, tiny flames flickering in the whipping breeze. Standing before them, Jake understood exactly what he was looking at.

“Let’s put these out,” he said.

They went to work kicking at them, pinching the flames, covering them, and even spitting on them. Nothing seemed to have any effect on the candles or the fire. On the floor behind the candles lay a circular stone slab with a symbol painted in blood. Adjacent that lay another, with a slightly different symbol painted in blood as well. Jake approached it, staring at it long and hard before turning back to Adaline.

“What’re you thinkin’ it is?”

“Maybe where they came from...”

She watched him, figured he was trying to guess at what might happen to him if he stood where they’d stood. She was about to dissuade him when the screeching echoed through the eerie, enormous skull-like rock.

“They’re comin’,” said Adaline.

“I’m gonna try.”

“Wait…”

“Only other thing to do is die.”

Adaline sucked in a deep breath, nodded to him, and glared out into the darkness behind her, hanging her head out of the white rock for a better look at the pitch blackness swallowing them. Jake stepped around the candles and stood on the platform to the left. Nothing happened.

“Try the other,” suggested Adaline.

Jake looked over her shoulder and saw something moving in the darkness, though he couldn’t see clearly over the light of the candle and the white-rock interior. When he placed both feet on the platform, the red man, only steps away from Adaline, screeched and stumbled into the room with them. Adaline chirped out a scream, hurrying over to Jake. He grabbed her shoulders and held her against him as the demon’s own bloody visage dried up, revealing the rotten flesh underneath. It belched out a black orb onto the sandy dirt in front of them, desperately scrambling against its own death to pluck it up off the ground. It crumbled into a fine dust as it held the orb in its hand, dropping it once again as it disappeared. Jake smiled triumphantly at Adaline and though she was still reeling from the close call, she returned the victorious feeling with a disbelieving chuckle.

“I can’t move,” said Jake suddenly.

His boots were stuck fast to the symbol, but he couldn’t just take off his boots, the feeling was moving up his legs.

“There she is,” he gasped, suddenly able to see the red lady flying toward them at unnatural speed. “I can see her, there.”

It was an unnatural vision, but he could see only the red lady through the blackness outside. She was flying with a fury, straight toward them. Adaline sucked in a deep breath, ran around the candles, and stood on the other symbol. The red lady reached Adaline as her feet planted on the symbol. Jake called to her, watching the red lady’s hand start to slip into her chest. Suddenly, the creature curled up into herself, her shriveling hands tucked against her own chest, the blood flowing over her face drying up just as the others had, and crumpling to the ground in a heap of flesh then dust.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, no I ain’t,” she said in disbelief, feeling around the blood-stain on her chest.

“Are you stuck, too?”

“I am. What do we do?”

“Pray, I guess.”

The room shifted, lurched, and then rumbled steadily. Everything was vibrating, though only part of them could feel it.

“We are sinkin’,” shouted Adaline, as if this rock had the audacity to do so.

Jake swore and pulled at his legs and tried to bend down, but found that the petrified feeling rose above his waist by that point. Sand sifted itself over his boots and the room began to rapidly shrink. Adaline screamed a few times, but he couldn’t help joining her with shouts and yelling for help. He had no idea what anyone could do for them, but it was worth a try. He wasn’t just going to turn into a rock at the bottom of this sandy death trap. His head stopped moving though he was trying to look around and shortly after that he was buried in the sand along with Adaline, who had gone distressingly silent before that.

Suddenly, the sands receded much faster than they came up and the feeling of turning to stone melted away just behind it. Adaline gasped and they both fell to their hands and knees once they were able. The sun blinded them through the holes in the white rock and once the sand was well and fully gone, the whole room rolled over onto its side. The two were shuffled around before crawling out of what turned out to be a gigantic eye socket in an enormous skull. The flames in the candles had been snuffed and the long, red sticks rolled plainly over the thick mulch. Jake stomped on them until they flattened and cracked under his boots.

“Where are we?” asked Adaline, dusting bark scraps off her pale blue dress.

When Jake stood up straight, he realized he’d never been in a place like they were then. The ground was covered in old, chipped-off bark, the trees were thick and suffocating, but there was a hole in front of them letting in a blinding light. Once their eyes adjusted, they stepped through and saw a vast forest sprawling out just below them as they stood on a stout cliff’s edge.

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