Category Archives: Year of Stories

Meghan Maloney in The Castle of the Grand King

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Jagged mountainscapes knifed through the vast green countryside that was sprawled out below Meghan Maloney’s seaplane. Over the droning racket of the propeller, Meghan slipped off her headset and gave good old Jeb, her pilot, a fist bump, a firm handshake, and a thumbs up, all in a precise order and rhythm. This was important: the only time she’d ever had a parachute fail on her it had been because she’d put the thumbs up first by mistake. She wasn’t going to tempt fate by letting that happen twice.

Crawling into the back of the plane, Meghan hauled on a parachute and cinched the straps up tight. She pulled a thin gold necklace out of her shirt and kissed the round pendant hanging from it. Then she touched her toes, her chin, her nose, and her forehead, crossed herself, and shoved the plane’s side door open.

The smell of South America wafted up into her nostrils. She breathed deep, closed her eyes, tucked in her chin, and flung herself out into the open air. Keeping her eyes closed, she counted One, two, three…

There. Another perfectly executed jump.

Meghan opened her eyes and looked down at the onrushing landscape. She had a good thirty seconds before she had to pull the cord, so she allowed herself a few moments of luxury to enjoy the sensation of freefall. It was glorious, exhilarating, freeing. But this wasn’t just a pleasure dive: this was business. She had to make sure she was on target…

Scanning the dense treelines, Meghan spotted her destination, a crumbling ruin of stone set atop a small plateau, backed against a sheer cliff wall. El Castillo del Rey Grande. Abandoned long ago, the castle had once been a major seat of power in the region. But as all empires do, this one had come to an end. Historians blamed the collapse on war, in a general way, an overextension of the last Grand King’s emperorial ambitions. The locals told a different story. They claimed that the Grand King had sold his soul for power, specifically the power to turn the very rocks on the ground into bread, and river water into wine, and that he’d gone mad under the devil’s influence and had been conquered in his foolishness and greed.

“Ancient silliness” was how Meghan had heard that legend described once.

Maybe.

None of this place’s history and mystique had drawn much global attention until earlier this year, when an archeologist named Hyrum Thaddeus had come along and started poking and prodding through the ruins, turning over stones and telling stories of his findings, stories of old documents describing an ancient, legendary machine, hidden somewhere within the depths of the castle, one that supposedly turned rocks to bread and water to wine.

Then he’d gone silent.

In Meghan’s extensive professional treasure-hunting experience, that meant one of two things: either Thaddeus had found something and was hushing it up, in which case Meghan wanted in, or Thaddeus had gotten too close to finding something and had been silenced, captured, or killed, in which case Meghan really wanted in.

So here she was.

It was time to deploy the parachute. Meghan crossed herself, touched her forehead, nose, chin, and toes, and gave the cord a solid yank. The chute exploded open with a rib-compressing jerk, and she settled into a slow final descent. Pulling the maneuvering lines, she angled herself towards the castle courtyard.

Meghan felt the air go suddenly out of the parachute, and an instant later heard the report of a gun. She began to accelerate rapidly towards the ground. Looking up, she saw a scattering of holes torn through the fabric, which was bunching in on itself so that Meghan began to twist wildly, spinning out of control with hardly five hundred feet to fall. Swallowing her panic, Meghan scrambled over her pack with her hands, seeking the emergency handle. She found the grip and heaved on it. The lines broke away and the backup parachute shot out, arresting her freefall but swinging her wide of the castle into the surrounding forest. Meghan fought for control, but there wasn’t enough time to react. She wrapped herself into the fetal position and slammed down through the branches. The chute caught on the trees and a wrenching impact brought her to a halt, hanging above the forest floor.

Peaceful animal noises floated around Meghan as she hung there for a moment, catching her breath. She mused that this was probably the third closest she’d ever come to death. And if whoever had taken those shots was still around, there might be opportunity for a new list-topper before the day was over.

Perfect. More confirmation that this was exactly where she needed to be. If someone was willing to shoot at her to keep her away, that meant she was on the track of something big, something that could get her some real media attention, and maybe even a half-decent payout to supplement it. Nobody had ever gone down in history by playing it safe…

Meghan struggled out of the parachute pack and dropped the rest of the way to the ground. She massaged her ribs for a minute, making sure that nothing was broken. Then she heard the walkie talkie buzzing. She looked around for it before realizing that it was tucked into a pocket of the pack, which was still hanging from the tree above her, out of reach. Oh well. Let him think she was dead. It would make for a better story later.

Through a gap in the trees, Meghan could see the castle ruins a short ways off, uphill. A detail caught her attention: from some point of the castle, hidden from view, a trail of dark smoke was rising into the sky. What could that be coming from? Had Thaddeus’s expedition set up a camp inside the castle, or behind it? The only way she was going to find out was by getting closer…

Meghan set off towards the castle, taking a quick inventory of the tools she still had with her as she went. Pocketknife, flashlight, a bit of wire, some rope… Maybe she should start carrying a handgun on these trips. Granted, she’d only been shot at once before today, and that had been more of a misunderstanding than anything, but still, you never knew what kind of wildlife you might come across, or thieves…

Breaking free of the trees, Meghan saw a meandering, partially beaten path leading up to the castle gate. She set off along the path at a trot, keeping her eyes open for signs of any other human presence and staying close to plenty of cover, in case whoever-it-was with the gun decided to follow up on the initial attack.

Meghan came around a rock wall about halfway to the castle and found herself in a small encampment of three or four long, tan tents, with two off-road vehicles sitting nearby and a dead fire pit in the middle. Thaddeus’s original home base, probably. There was nobody around now. In fact, it didn’t look like anyone had been around for a few days. The wall of one of the tents was flapping open in the gentle breeze, and a barbecue had been tipped over, scattering cold charcoal across the blackened grass.

Before moving on, Meghan looked into the back of one of the 4x4s and found a locked metal box. Now, what were the odds she’d find something useful in there? It was probably worth taking a quick peek through the tents… Bingo. She fished a key ring out of the side pocket of a duffel bag and matched a key to the padlock. The box in the truck swung open, and she scored a loaded hunting rifle. Not necessarily ideal for her purposes, but it would have to do. Meghan tossed the key ring into the grass and continued on her way up to the castle.

At the entrance to the courtyard she paused for a minute and surveyed the scene. All was still and quiet. It was a pleasant moment, actually. She felt buoyed by the warm fragrance of the South American jungle. Under different circumstances, she would’ve loved to climb to the highest tower of the castle and spend an hour just soaking up the gorgeous view. That window, there: she could just imagine how far she’d be able to see across the—wait, was something moving up there?!

Meghan lifted the magnifying scope of the hunting rifle to her eye, found the window, and adjusted the focus. There was someone in the tower! Someone with black hair pulled back into a ponytail, showing several inches of natural red growing in at the roots… Marisa Tanner. What was she doing here? Was she the one who had taken those shots at Meghan?

Tanner was holding something up in front of her, peering at it intently. She turned and brought it to the window, placing it in the sunlight. It was a piece of old, thick parchment paper, covered in strange markings and symbols. A historical document, maybe? Something that explained some of the lost history of the castle and its final king? But that wouldn’t be enough to draw Marisa Tanner all the way to South America. She didn’t care about history. She didn’t even care about the fame that came along with significant archeological finds. The only thing that interested her was the supernatural. Religious artifacts, sacred relics, tomes of wizardry and witchcraft… She believed in it all, and seemed to have made it her personal mission to prove the power of the paranormal to the world at large.

Normally, Tanner wasn’t the kind of person Meghan would have had much of a problem with. Sure, the woman was a little overzealous, but Meghan wasn’t judgmental. People believed what they believed… That was their choice. Meghan knew she had plenty of her own hang-ups and idiosyncracies. She’d been dodging black cats, knocking on wood, and throwing salt over her shoulder her entire life, not necessarily because she thought there were spectral beings somewhere Out There watching her every move, but because she’d seen the consequences of ignoring those superstitions. Meghan had dealt with far too much bad luck in her life to disregard any opportunity to counteract it, especially where Marisa Tanner was concerned. Tanner was constantly turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a hurricane of bad luck—for Meghan—always seemed to follow her.

Not this time. Not even Marisa Tanner was going to stand in the way of Meghan’s ticket into the history books. Whatever significance that piece of parchment held, it didn’t matter, because Tanner was already on the wrong track: Thaddeus’s final reports, before he dropped off the face of the earth, had placed the Grand King’s mystical bread machine in the castle’s lowest cellars, not up in the towers. That meant Meghan had some time to pick up the trail while Tanner was on her way back down to ground level.

“Sucker,” Meghan whispered, watching Tanner step away from the tower window, back into the shadows. She lowered the rifle and broke into a quick jog across the courtyard. The massive, ivy-bound wooden doors were standing a few feet open, and she slipped into the gloom.

While her eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, Meghan called to mind the various photos she’d seen from Thaddeus’s reports. If she was remembering correctly, it was the second archway on the left that housed the stairs down to the low cellars that Thaddeus had been preparing to explore… She stepped around an imposing, watchful statue of an angry-looking and, come to think of it, fairly pudgy soldier, deked some holes in the floor where missing cobblestones presented a serious ankle-breaking risk, and checked through the archway. Yes, these were the stairs she had seen: wide, deep, and curving downwards around a stone spire.

Meghan clicked on her flashlight and set off down the staircase. With every footstep, she disturbed the thick layer of dust that had evidently been gathering for decades. She paused to take a closer look at the stairs just ahead of her. Dozens of footprints were marked into the dust, but judging by the thin layer of dust that had resettled within each footprint, these were probably from Thaddeus’s expedition, not from Marisa Tanner. Had Tanner not even been downstairs at all yet? Talk about searching in the wrong direction.

Continuing on, Meghan found that it was growing more and more difficult to breathe. The depth and width of the stairs was forcing her to concentrate closely on what her feet were doing, but despite her careful steps, clouds of dust were kicking up all around her. To make things worse, the air was becoming thick with heat and humidity. She hadn’t read anything about this in Thaddeus’s reports. Where was all the heat coming from?

After what seemed like five or six minutes of exhausting star-climbing, Meghan emerged into a round chamber with stone floors and earthen walls, propped up with heavy wooden scaffolding. Meghan had seen a picture of this chamber. Two doors led out of it. One of them led to a storage room where Thaddeus claimed to have found some of the mysterious documents about the strange machine, but the destination of the other doorway was unknown to Meghan. Beyond here, Thaddeus hadn’t taken any photos—or hadn’t had time to share them.

That meant more caution going forward from here. Meghan gripped the hunting rifle loosely. There could be wild animals down here, feeding and breeding… A bunch of large mammals living in close quarters could explain the warmth and dampness down here. Maybe that was what had happened to Thaddeus’s expedition. The thought made Meghan shudder. But she’d come here in search of fame, and running away now wouldn’t get her in the pages of any newspapers, that was for sure, while locating Thaddeus or finding the artifact he’d been looking for might.

Steeling herself for what she might find—or what might find her—Meghan stepped forward, through the doorway to the unknown. She found herself moving along a wide tunnel, a hallway of sorts, with a slightly arched ceiling supporting by more scaffolding. Old wooden barrels held together by metal bands were stacked here and there against the walls, their contents still sealed inside from whenever they had been filled. One barrel had been pulled out from the wall, and its top had been removed. Meghan approached it to take a look, but was driven back by a ferocious, rotten stench. Shining her flashlight at the base of the barrel, Meghan saw what looked like a thin lining of white, wriggling slime. Maggots. That meant whatever was stored in the barrel must be something edible—or it had been edible, anyways. A mental picture of the rest of the barrels being filled to the brim with feasting maggots drifted unbidden into Meghan’s mind’s eye. She shuddered.

A wave of heat rolled through the tunnel and washed over Meghan. It felt like she’d been hit with a bucketful of bath water. She noticed that she was starting to sweat. A sound accompanied the rush of hot air, a rhythmic huffing and whooshing, kind of like… a bellows? Meghan wasn’t overly familiar with where one might find a bellows being operated—they were used with old-fashioned furnaces, weren’t they?—but she was pretty confident they weren’t something wild animals could use. Did that mean there were people down here? Thaddeus and his crew? Or maybe something else that had a penchant for fire. Something—or someone—that liked to barter for souls…

Meghan shook her head, scolding herself. Seeing the supernatural around every corner was Marisa Tanner’s job. Meghan was far more reasonable. She wasn’t about to have a run-in with the devil… Was she? She crossed herself three times and kissed the pendant on her necklace, just in case. Then she took another brave step onwards.

The tunnel bent around to the left, past a few more stacks of barrels and a tower of sealed crates. Whatever the Grand King had been storing down here, he’d certainly had a lot of it.

The sound of the bellows—or whatever it was—continued to grow louder as Meghan went. With every whoosh, a blast of hot air rushed past her. She rounded the bend in the tunnel and came upon a series of bars that blocked the way, with a gate set into the middle. Each metal bar was three inches thick and stretched from floor to ceiling. The bars were anchored firmly at both ends, though a few of them seemed to have been slightly bent and had shifted an inch or two in their moorings. What powerful force had caused that slippage? Maybe just the passage of time…

The gate hung on massive hinges and had a large keyhole beneath the handle. Beyond the gate, the floor of the tunnel sloped downwards, leading to a massive double door. Flickering orange light was escaping around the edges of the door, and the light flared bright yellow each time the bellows pulsed. Whatever was causing all this heat, it looked like it was beyond those doors.

Meghan stepped up to the gate and tried the handle. It was locked tight. It would take a tank to blow through these bars, even with a couple of them being slightly loose, and all she had was some rope and a hunting rifle. Maybe she could pick the lock with the wire…

Wait. Here was a simpler solution. The bars, which looked so imposing and immovable, were set about eight or ten inches apart from one another. They might hold quite a large person out, but Meghan was on the small side of average. She turned sideways and squeezed through a gap.

That had been easy. Almost disappointingly so. Meghan could picture the interviewers’ questions now: “How did you manage it?” And she’d reply, “Oh, I just stepped between the bars. They were set way too wide apart. Poor design, really.” And the reporters would say, “Well that isn’t very exciting. Let’s run the story about the baby giraffes, instead.” Meghan supposed she’d just have to exaggerate this element of the adventure…

She was about to begin creeping down towards the double doors when she was called back by the hiss of the last voice she wanted to hear.

Stop!” said Marisa Tanner. “Foolish girl, stop right there!

Meghan whirled around and saw Tanner approaching the bars, clutching the piece of parchment she’d been examining in the tower. Meghan raised the rifle to her shoulder. “No way, Tanner. You’re not taking this from me. This is my discovery. You can just turn around and leave the way you came.”

“Do you expect me to believe that you’re actually going to shoot me?” said Tanner. “Come on, Maloney. Let’s not play these games.”

You shot at me!” snarled Meghan, but she reluctantly lowered the rifle. Tanner was right: Meghan wasn’t here to kill anybody.

“Yes, I did shoot at you,” admitted Tanner, “but only ‘at’ you. My aim was perfect. I knew you’d have a backup parachute. But you didn’t take a hint, did you? You should’ve packed up then and there, and left this to me. You are in way over your head today.”

“Over my head!? Let’s not forget who got the best of whom in Nicaragua.”

“You were extremely lucky in Nicaragua,” said Tanner coldly—Meghan whispered a mental Thank you to the pendant around her neck—”and I wouldn’t exactly consider that a ‘win’, not after the mess you made of the whole place. Besides, you haven’t found anyone who believes your story yet, have you? That’s because you’re a fool, Maloney. You need evidence of these things. You need proof. You need to think ahead.” Tanner pulled a thin camera out of the side pouch of her backpack. “Did you even bring one of these this time?”

“Pictures are nothing,” scoffed Meghan. “Anyone can put together a convincing fake in their basement using PhotoShop. I’m after physical evidence, something concrete that I can contribute to history.”

“Oh, yes—you hope to contribute yourself. Always motivated by self-interest…” Tanner shook her head sadly. “But you’re all eagerness and excitement, with no planning or forethought. You don’t know what you’re up against, while I know exactly what’s behind those doors up ahead.”

“I’ve heard the same legends you have, about the Grand King selling his soul to the devil, and his machine that turns rocks into bread… It all sounds a little farfetched, to me.”

“You act like such a skeptic,” said Tanner, “but how many times have you kissed your grandmother’s pendant today? Don’t try to hide all of your superstitions. You believe in a lot more than you want to admit.”

“Fine. So what if I do? I’m still going to be the first person through those doors!” Meghan turned her back on Tanner and started advancing down the tunnel again.

“Don’t! You’ll get us both killed—or worse!” Tanner took off her backpack and shoved herself between the bars. She was a bigger woman than Meghan, and had a bit more difficulty fitting, but made it through. She jogged after Meghan. “You aren’t prepared for this.”

Meghan sighed as Tanner caught up with her. “How could this king run such a massive empire and still be too stupid to put some bars a little closer together?”

“He had no need to,” said Tanner. “Or did you really do so little research before you rushed out here?”

“Research on what?”

“The people of the Grand King’s empire were giants, Maloney. You can see it in every aspect of this castle’s architecture. The tall archways, the wide halls, the broad stairs… Those bars were built for people much larger than us.”

“Giants. Sure. And where did these giants come from? How did they get so big?”

Tanner gave Meghan a pointed look. “Through their use of the Manna Battery, of course.”

“The what?”

“The very artifact we’ve both come in search of. You don’t even know its name?”

“The locals never gave it a name when I talked to them,” said Meghan. “And Thaddeus just called it ‘the machine’.”

“Thaddeus’s language skills are pitifully amateurish,” said Tanner. “He never bothered trying to learn the local dialect. ‘Manna Battery’ is my own translation. Look here.” She brandished the piece of parchment and pointed to an unintelligible line of ancient script. “I found this in the Grand King’s library. Thaddeus’s men had pulled it out from the scribes’ books of history. It says here that the Grand King made a pact with the ‘strangers from beyond’, and they provided him with the Manna Battery in exchange for his heart and soul. By eating the bread from the Manna Battery, the Grand King and his subjects grew to be giants. It’s all laid out right here. How could it be any clearer?”

Meghan shrugged. “Well, ‘strangers from beyond’ doesn’t necessarily mean demons or anything supernatural. It could just be referring to foreigners. And maybe he sold them…” She cast about for an alternate explanation. “Maybe it was his daughter, or his wife, and the scribes were just being dramatic.”

Tanner glared. “You’re being contradictory for the sake of argument. I know what it says, and I know what it means.”

“So you’re convinced that there’s a devil or a demon of some sort through those doors, doing God knows what, and you’re going to go in there and… take a picture of it?”

“No. I’m going to drive it away, even if I have to kill whatever body it’s inhabiting. My guess is it’s taken Thaddeus, or someone from his crew. And then I’m going to secure the Manna Battery, an artifact with powers that will prove the limits of our pitiful human science.”

“And what if the demon comes after you next? Do you have some special ‘magic words’ prepared to defend yourself?”

Tanner scowled. “There’s no need for that kind of flippancy. I was right in Nicaragua, wasn’t I?”

Half-right,” said Meghan. “Sort of. Look, Tanner, I’m not giving up on this, and I’m definitely not letting you take sole credit for whatever we find in there.”

“Credit?” said Tanner. “What do I take care about taking credit? I’m here to spread a message, Maloney, not promote myself. If you’re dead set on coming with me—and I haven’t selected that phrase lightly—I won’t stop you, but I’m not going to take any blame for the consequences. If you live through this, you can have all the media spotlight you want. It means nothing to me.”

Meghan stared into Tanner’s eyes, searching for any signs of deception. The offer seemed sincere. “Okay, fine. But I want to be the first one through the door.”

“It’s your funeral,” said Tanner. “I suggest you have that rifle ready.”

The two women turned and began approaching the double doors at the end of the tunnel, glancing at each other suspiciously now and then, uneasy with their new alliance. Meghan wiped sweat from her forehead. Every step seemed to carry her deeper into the heart of a furnace. The air was swirling, and the tunnel echoed with the now-unmistakable noise of a massive bellows.

They reached the door. Tanner grabbed Meghan’s shoulder and held her back for a moment before she could push the door open. She pulled a handgun out of her backpack and took a scrap of paper from her pocket, with a string of phonetic symbols scrawled across it. She read it closely and seemed to be silently mouthing the words. “Okay,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the bellows. “I’m ready. Take it slow. You don’t want to just go rushing in there…”

Meghan rolled her eyes, raised her rifle, and threw her shoulder into the door. It swung open surprisingly smoothly, and orange-yellow light spilled out, blinding her for a few seconds. She heard the bellows stop, and the light softened, allowing her eyes to adjust. A bizarre, almost other-worldly vision swam into focus.

The room Meghan had just thrown herself into was an expansive space, lined with numerous chipped stone counters and worn wooden tables, the surfaces of which were covered with stale crumbs and moist red stains. A series of massive floor-to-ceiling ovens was built into one wall, and utensils of every type imaginable hung from hooks and spilled out of drawers. The air was overpoweringly hot, and the walls dripped with condensation.

Adjacent to the ovens, there stood an enormous furnace, accessed through several grated doors. Flames were licking out through the grates, and piles of wood and coal stood beneath them, waiting to be added as further fuel. Half a dozen chimney pipes rose from the furnace into the ceiling, leading, presumably, to the surface—the source of the smoke Meghan had seen? The largest bellows Meghan could have ever imagined was attached to one end of the furnace, with a complex arrangement of levers and chains connected to its handles. Standing beside the bellows, clutching the spoked handle of a massive, geared wheel that evidently pumped the bellows, was something that, for lack of a better word, could be described as a “man”.

He was only six feet tall, but nearly as wide as his height. The billowing rolls of his chest and stomach overlapped like floppy shingles, and the flab of his eyebrows nearly covered his eyes. A grimy crown was perched jauntily atop his pear-shaped head, and a few white hairs poked out at odd angles from underneath it. His skin shone with sweat, and his eyes gleamed with hunger. It took Meghan several seconds to realize he was naked, and a few seconds more to realize that any modesty he might have wished to preserve was thoroughly protected by several layers of stomach roll.

The man dropped his hands from the bellows wheel, looked at Meghan, and licked his corpulent lips.

“Er, Tanner,” said Meghan, “we might want to revisit the translation of ‘rey grande’, I think. ‘Grande’ can mean just plain ‘big’, can’t it?”

“What a monster,” breathed Tanner. She stepped in beside Meghan and snapped a photo.

The flash seemed to confuse the Big King. He took half a step backwards and shaded his eyes with a sausage-fingered hand.

“So this is our centuries-old victim of demonic possession?” Meghan sniffed. “He’s kind of pitiful, really. I wonder where he actually came from, and how long he’s been down here.”

The Big King took a shuddering step away from the bellows, his voluminous flesh swaying with the movement. He licked his lips again, and mumbled something incoherent. Reaching under a nearby table, he pulled out a round, dark loaf of bread and pressed it into his mouth, devouring the entire thing in a few swift bites.

“Eyuch,” said Meghan.

“Be on your guard,” said Tanner. “This is him. I can feel it. This furnace, these ovens… This whole kitchen must be the Manna Battery!”

“No way,” said Meghan. “Sure, this stuff was built on a pretty impressive scale, but I can’t see anything special about them. How would this place turn rocks into bread, or water into wine? If the machine is real, I don’t think we’ve found it yet.”

“Look around,” said Tanner, “beneath the tables, over there. There are dishes full of food, dozens of loaves of bread, and jugs of… yes, red wine. Well, it’s a bit thick, but still. Now where are the ingredients? What was this all made from? All I can see are stacks of wood and piles of coal!”

The Big King picked up another dish from one of the tables, this one holding what looked like a large hambone. It vanished into his mouth, all in one piece, and Meghan heard the bone crunching between the man’s thick, flat teeth.

“Whoa,” said Meghan.

Tanner took another photo. “This is no ordinary man, Maloney. And these are no ordinary ovens. This is the devil’s work! He must have been lying here dormant, until Thaddeus’s expedition came along and disturbed him. Now he’s awake again, and hungry. Naturally, the first thing he would want to do is fire up the Manna Battery.”

“So what happened to Thaddeus, then?”

“Hard to say. Maybe they—”

PAN!” A shower of spittle and crumbs erupted as the word burst from the Big King’s lips. He reached out towards the two women with one massive, swollen hand.

“‘Pan’?” said Meghan. “‘Bread’? Why did he—”

And then the Big King charged. His steps shook the stone-tiled floor, and he flung the wooden tables in front of him out of the way with a speed Meghan would have thought impossible. The tables dashed against the walls and splintered into pieces, as dishes, bread, and meat scattered.

With only a moment to react, Meghan brought up the barrel of the hunting rifle and fired. A spot of red bloomed on the Big King’s chest, but the impact hardly slowed him, the bullet’s advance defeated by a thick coat of fleshy armour.

Tanner planted her feet, raised her arms in the sign of the cross, and managed to choke out three or four syllables of what sounded like Latin before Meghan grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her back through the door of the kitchen into the tunnel, just before the Big King slammed into the wall where they had been standing, carrying the open half of the door with him and crunching it into matchsticks under his weight.

“No!” cried Tanner. “I was nearly—”

“—Dead! You were nearly dead! We have to get out of here!” There was no time to chamber another bullet into the rifle—the King was already recovering from the impact—so Meghan dropped the gun on the ground and turned to run. More reluctantly, Tanner followed, snapping a couple of photos over her shoulder as she went. “Through the bars,” said Meghan. “I think they’re too strong for him.” The gate was close.

The rumbling impact of the Big King’s footsteps shook the whole tunnel like an earthquake. Meghan looked back and saw him coming, like a horrible freight train, an inexorable rolling boulder of flesh. He was gaining, but she was nearly there. A few more steps…

Something caught Meghan’s wrist and yanked her off balance. She stumbled and fell against the wall of the tunnel, and the Big King barrelled over the place she’d been standing and hammered into the barred gate like a cannonball. The bars shook, and dust fell from the moorings in the ceiling, but they held firm.

Tanner hauled Meghan to her feet. “Call us even.”

The King was between them and the exit now, his girth blocking their escape. Shaking his head, he gurgled deep inside his throat. “Pan…” He stumbled a few steps back before grabbing onto the bars to regain his balance.

Tanner made the sign of the cross again and retried her Latin incantation. The sound of her determined voice drew the Big King’s attention. He looked down at her, cocking his head curiously to the side so that his numerous chins wobbled.

With a forceful, triumphant final word, Tanner concluded the incantation and took a determined step forward.

Nothing happened.

Tanner looked confused. The Big King looked hungry. He leaned down towards the women.

“D-domin…” stammered Tanner, trying to start again at the beginning. “D-d-domini…”

Pan!” said the Big King. He reached out his hand, and Tanner seemed to freeze in place.

Meghan grabbed Tanner’s so-far-unused pistol out of her hand and levelled it at the monstrous fat king. Her first frantic shot just missed his ear. Her second cut a clean hole through the fat along the side of his neck, eliciting a horrible roar of anguish. Before she had time to fire a third, she was slammed to the floor by a heavy fist. The handgun bounced off the floor and went flying past the King and through the bars, out of reach.

Pan! Paaan!!” roared the King.

The world was swimming dizzily around her, but Meghan scrambled to her feet and hauled on Tanner’s backpack to break her out of her terrified trance. Together, the women ran back towards the kitchen as the Big King prodded at the wound in his neck and licked blood from his fingers, his outbursts of anger and hunger growing more intense by the second.

Inside the kitchen, the women ducked behind a table, pressing themselves up against a wall. Meghan scanned the enclosed room frenetically, looking for options. “What are we going to do!?”

“It didn’t take…” said Tanner, as if to herself. “I don’t understand why the incantation didn’t take.”

“Maybe we’re not dealing with the devil, here!”

“Then how would you explain all of this?!”

“I don’t know! Let’s just get out of this alive and worry about that later. I don’t want to get eaten.”

“You think he wants to eat us?”

“Why else would he keep calling us ‘bread’?”

“But he has the Manna Battery! Why would he need to…”

Meghan was listening desperately for sounds of the Big King’s return from the tunnel. “Need to what?”

“Oh, no…”

What, Tanner? Need to what?”

“These ovens never turned rocks into bread.”

“Who cares about the ovens?”

“Look, Maloney.”

Something in the wavering of Tanner’s voice commanded Meghan’s attention. She followed Tanner’s pointing finger towards the ovens, where the door of one of the unlit ovens was propped slightly open. Inside was a shadowed shape, curled in on itself, two legs, two arms, a face…

Thaddeus…” Suddenly Meghan felt like she was about to be sick.

“Rocks to bread, water to wine?” said Tanner in a quavering whisper. “No. This empire turned to cannibalism.”

Meghan choked back a mouthful of bile. “The legends only spun the truth, a sort of euphemism… And in time the euphemism passed into legend.”

Tanner was shaking her head, half in shock and half in disbelief. The kitchen rumbled again, and the utensils clattered on the walls. The Big King was returning.

“But if that’s all the explanation there is, if there really was no supernatural intervention…” said Meghan.

Tanner finished the thought: “…Then where did this monster come from?”

As if in response, the Big King shoved himself through the doorway of the kitchen, his jaw hanging open. Blood and drool were pooling in the folds of his chin and neck, and his eyes were wild with pain and ravenous desire. “Paaaaaaann…

The women backed away, edging around a stone counter, closer to the raging furnace. “If these are the last few moments of my life,” said Meghan, “then I want to go out on the right note.” She took a deep, resigned breath. “I can’t say I like you, Tanner. I can’t say I even want to like you. But I’ll admit I respect you, as a woman. You do good work, even if it’s based on more than a little insanity most of the time.”

“Er, thanks,” said Tanner. “You, uh, have pretty eyes, I guess.”

Meghan flashed her nemesis a quizzical glare. “That’s all you have to—?”

The King hurled himself forward, crushing ferociously through every obstacle in his way. There was nowhere to go. Meghan squeezed her eyes shut—

—and felt a solid impact to the back of her knees that crumpled her to the floor. She opened her eyes and looked up into Tanner’s triumphant evil smile. Her nemesis leapt away, towards the ovens, as the King held on his course straight at Meghan. In a last ditch effort, Meghan tucked herself into a ball and rolled right at the Big King’s feet.

The movement seemed to catch him by surprise, but he had too much forward momentum to properly react. One of his legs caught on the floor and he toppled forward, out of control, passing right over Meghan and crashing headlong into the furnace. Time and humidity had done their entropic work on those thick metal walls, creating branching cracks and seams of rust, weakening its structure just enough. The furnace burst open, showering out coals and embers. The Big King’s flesh began almost instantly to melt away under the intense heat.

He rolled back and forth, wailing like a branded bull, knocking over tables and counters. The old wood quickly caught fire, and the flames spread to the supports holding up the walls and ceiling of the underground chamber. In a matter of seconds, the whole room was ablaze.

Meghan escaped the kitchen into the tunnel, her eyes watering and her lungs burning from the heat and smoke. She couldn’t see Tanner anywhere, but there was no time for that now. Already the fire was beginning to spread into the tunnel, leaping from support to support and making quick work of the ancient scaffolding. As Meghan stumbled up the tunnel towards the gate she heard a rumbling crash, and turned back to see a cloud of dust, flame, and smoke billowing out from the doorway of the kitchen. The walls of the tunnel began to shake.

She turned and ran. Showers of dirt and rock fell all around her. Beams collapsed and knocked over barrels, which rolled at her, knocking her off stride, or burst open in waves of maggots. Maggots that had been feasting on… She pushed the repulsive thought from her mind.

A crack split the ceiling around the gate and the bars fell inwards, narrowing the openings between them. There was too little room to squeeze between them, even at the bottom, but there was a gap at the top now, against the wall. Meghan used the lower parts of the bars to climb up and somersault through the gap, but her foot caught and she tumbled down onto the cobblestone floor, twisting her arm awkwardly. She thought she heard something pop, but she had no time for pain. She forced herself to stand and pressed on, around the bend of the tunnel, past more crates, more barrels, racing against the fire and the collapse, until she reached the round room and the stairway, which shook as she leapt into it. A whooshing cloud of dust and fire burst up the stairs around her, as if trying to grab hold of her and pull her back down into her grave. The force of the wind pitched her onto her stomach, banging her shins against the wide lip of a stair.

Silence fell. Meghan opened her eyes, blinking away a thick layer of dust, dirt, and ash. The stairway was coated with evidence of the collapse, and behind her a deep slide of dirt, rocks, and wood had piled through the staircase’s opening, burying its doorway.

But it was over. She had made it out alive.

And she had nothing at all to show for it. Nothing but her word and her injuries. She wondered for a moment what had happened to Tanner’s camera. For that matter, what had happened to Tanner?

A voice broke into her reverie. Someone, somewhere, was… calling her name? The sound echoed down through the staircase, mixed with coughing, and footsteps, and… Jeb. Jeb had found her. He was here. He was lifting her to feet, supporting her, talking to her. What was he saying? Where were they going?

Meghan felt water being pressed to her lips, poured down her throat. Her sight came back into focus, awareness returned, and with it came the pain. She hurt all over, and her shoulder, ah, her shoulder…

“You okay?” asked Jeb.

“I’m… Ah,” said Meghan. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”

“What happened!?”

“You probably won’t believe me… Come on; let’s get out of here!”

This Wretched Dog

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It all started with this wretched dog.

My wife put it into their heads, I believe, though she always claimed she was not the source of the obsession. Christmas was approaching. Clark was eight years old, and Lucy was five, and they lacked for nothing, unless you counted their thinness and the lack of colour in their cheeks against them. But that was as much a symptom of the London weather as anything else.

Regardless of the idea’s starting place, however, once it had taken hold in their hearts they refused to see reason. “A dog!” they cried. “A sweet, charming pup for us to play with! Oh, Daddy, please!” How they begged and implored me. How they whined! How they cried!

I should have been firmer. I should have put my foot down and refused their pitiful pleas. But eventually I succumbed, alas, to their bleating and whimpering, and on Christmas Eve I came home late from my work as a chemist with a puppy in my arms.

He was a thin, wriggling sort of thing, with white hair decorated by several black and brown patches. His tail was short and whiplike, and nearly always in motion, even from the very first moment that I saw him in that Dog Pound cage. There seemed to be springs in his legs: he bounced to and fro like a rubber ball, his ears flapping around his face.

The children’s excitement that evening warmed my heart the way that little else did in those days. Between poor wages, ill weather, an utter lack of appreciation from my peers, and a total disregard for my peace and sanity from my wife and children, I admit I had become rather a grumpy sort of fellow. For a moment, there in our front hall, as I shook the rain from my hat and coat and watched Clark and Lucy romp with their new friend, I felt again the way I had as a young man, engrossed in my work, enthralled by my discoveries, enraptured by the world of knowledge at my fingertips. There is a certain unique chemistry, I have found, to the relationships between human interactors. The proper combination of place, time, circumstance, temperament, and pheromones can trigger a broad range of emotions. But a true knowledge of that special chemistry has always escaped me. That knowledge is, perhaps, beyond the reach of modern science. If it were not, wouldn’t we all be happy, all the time?

Indeed, the happy effect of that scene I have described lasted only a few moments for me. The shouting and leaping and dancing of the children stirred the pup into a frenzy, and before I had time to react it had voided its bladder onto the carpet.

For this misdeed, Clark dubbed the mutt “Rascal”, and I feared the name would prove to be prophetic. As I sat pondering in my home laboratory that evening, I imagined coming home each day for the next several years to a hallway full of torn shoes, a bedroom covered in tattered pillows, and a living room carpet stained by countless puddles of urine. I made very little progress on my studies that night, and spent Christmas Day in a foul mood.

To the children’s credit, however, they conscientiously took their new pet’s training in hand. My fears, it turned out, were not realized, and there were no further “accidents”. For some time, Rascal was an agreeable enough addition to our family, and caused little trouble. He was seldom underfoot, rarely barked or howled, and entertained the children on those occasions when I did not have the time or energy to do so myself.

Then came that fateful day…

 

It was a Saturday, some years later. My memory puts the children’s ages at twelve and nine, though I fear I can no longer trust the details of my recollections to the same extent as I once did. I was spending my weekend in my laboratory, conducting my experiments, when my wife burst in with tears streaming down her face.

“What is the meaning of this?” I cried irritably, for her intrusion had startled me in the midst of an important titration, and the consequences of a mistake could have been dire.

“Poor Rascal!” she sobbed. “Poor, poor Rascal!” And for a minute or two I could get nothing else out of her. At last she raised her head, composed herself enough to speak, and told me, “He was struck by a passing car!”

“Wasn’t he on his leash?” I demanded.

“He was, but it was frayed, and broke,” said my wife.

I rose reluctantly from my work. “Didn’t you tell me last week that you intended to buy a new leash? Why didn’t you do so? Now this is the consequence of your negligence. But take me to the animal. I will see what can be done.”

She thanked me and led me out of the house to the street, where the children were watching over their pet. Even from a distance I could see that Rascal was dying. He had suffered a blow to the head, and on closer inspection I deemed his neck to be broken, and two of his legs, as well.

“Can you save him?” wailed young Lucy.

“Please, Papa,” said Clark, stoically disguising his tears. “Can’t you make him well?”

But even as I knelt there, assailed by their pathos, the dog’s heart ceased its beating.

“Oh, my children,” breathed my wife, gathering them into her arms. “Oh, my dears. We will give Rascal a hero’s burial, and a proper funeral ceremony. And we won’t forget him, will we, my children?”

Their tears flowed, then, like I had never seen before, and I felt that mysterious social chemistry working upon me, producing in me the rarest of emotions: sympathy. I removed my jacket and wrapped it around the dog, lifting it into my arms. “What is my work for, if not a moment such as this?” I declared.

My wife stared up at me in evident confusion. Even she did not truly understand my work, I think, and that was as much my fault as hers. I had always made it my policy to divulge as little information as possible, both to her and to my professional colleagues, fearing to have my ideas stolen or condemned. Perhaps if I had been more open with her, if she had grasped the beauty of my intentions, she would have reacted differently. But as I carried the dog back into the house, she pursued me harshly. “Where are you taking Rascal?” she nagged. “What are you going to do!? For God’s sake, let the children say their proper goodbyes!”

I ignored her—she was in hysterics—and laid the dog’s corpse on a table in my lab. I ushered her forcefully out and said, “You may return in 24 hours. Encourage the children to be optimistic! But for this time, I am not to be interrupted.” Then I locked the door so that I would not be disturbed, and immediately set to work.

 

I threw myself upon the task, and all other considerations fled from my mind. Never before had I concentrated so strictly. I checked every instrument obsessively; measured, remeasured, and measured again; and observed every minute detail of my great experiment’s progress. I knew neither thirst, hunger, nor fatigue for those 24 hours. Indeed, I hardly recognized the passage of time, so intent was my focus. But at last all was prepared, to the exacting specifications I had spent years developing.

Stepping back from that table, I observed the trappings of my science. I already knew every quantity to be precise, every electrode to be meticulously placed, every piece of piping and electrical wiring to be securely connected.

I sank into my chair with a sigh of deep satisfaction. As the frenzy of scientific passion slowly left me, I became aware of a noise from my laboratory door, a loud knocking accompanied by my wife’s wailing voice. Realization dawned on me: hadn’t I been hearing these same noises, in some subdued part of me, at regular intervals over the past several hours? Had I truly been so enthralled by my work that I had blocked out all distractions to even that extent?

I stood, with difficulty, for weariness had begun to come upon me, and looked at the clock on the wall. Nearly 24 hours had passed, just as I had said, and all was in readiness. I unlocked my laboratory door.

My wife spilled into the room like a flash flood, her eyes dark and red and overflowing with tears. She reached out for me, but I gently held her back, afraid that in her emotional state she might disturb my scientific apparatus.

“Be calm, my dear,” I instructed her. “Take a seat in my chair. Where are the children?”

At that, they timidly showed their faces through the door. They, too, looked to have been crying. Their faces were pale and drawn, and they trembled as they looked up at me.

“Come in, Clark. Come in, Lucy. Just this once, you may enter your father’s laboratory.” I beckoned them in, and they obeyed, though not without some trepidation. “There is nothing to fear,” I promised them. “Didn’t your mother tell you to have hope? We are on the verge of a very joyful moment!” My encouragement had some small effect on them, and they joined their mother at the chair, seating themselves on the floor. Their eyes were wide with wonder as they gazed around my laboratory, which they had never before been permitted to visit.

I took up a teacher’s pose beside the apparatus I had assembled. Rascal lay on his side in a shallow glass vat filled with colourless gel. Dozens of electrodes were attached to specific points on his body, where I had shaved away the hair to ensure clean contact with his skin. “Yesterday was a sad day for our family,” I said, “for I know how great your affections were for your pet. But all is not lost, for it is time that I revealed the purpose of my work. Rascal, my children, will be the first among many to receive the greatest gift that can be offered by human science.”

My wife, who had grown quiet as I spoke, whispered, “Charles… What madness is this?”

“It is not madness,” I replied patiently. “It is science. You may not appreciate it, but you are standing with me on the horizon of history.”

“Please, my husband,” said my wife, and I can remember very clearly how her voice caught upon that word. “You are frightening the children. You are frightening me. Will you not allow us to bury our pet?”

“Enough,” I said. “I can see by the dark circles around your eyes that you are tired and overcome by your emotions, and therefore irrational. Have trust in me that all will be well!”

“I am tired,” she said. “In fact I have not slept for even an hour since you sealed yourself inside this tomb. I laid awake at the door, straining to hear your movements, to know that you yet lived. Even now, as I look upon you, I half wonder whether you are not dead, and whether this very conversation is not the product of a delusion.

“You mention the darkness of my eyes, but have you not observed your own? Look into a mirror, Charles. See the paleness of your skin; the blood vessels of your eyes, which are near to bursting; the wildness of your disheveled hair. You seem a monstrosity, Mr. Portency! I can hardly bear to look upon your face.

“Won’t you cease this madness?” she begged me. “Can’t you see what you are putting us through? Have you no sympathy?”

I addressed her sternly, then, perhaps more sternly than I ought to have: “Madam, every minute of these last 24 hours has been an exercise in sympathy, though now, at the culmination of it all, I find that that emotion has long since left me. Sympathy was a manifestation of my weakness, for I am only a man. But I did not achieve this coming moment by lamenting my inadequacies: I achieved it through the exercise of my strengths. My wife, you may feel, in the weakness of your own emotions, that you are looking on the face of a monstrosity, but in fact you are looking on the face of true genius!”

Then, suffering no further disruptions or delays, I reached to the wall and threw the switch.

Instantly my machine began its work. Chemicals of my own discovery and invention poured and mixed, flowing down into the vat and submerging the dog in a viscous green solution. The electrodes began to pulse, stimulating the organs, each in turn, and then the brain, massaging them, caressing them, increasing in vigour as the voltage slowly rose.

I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of the climax, my audience forgotten in the rapture of the moment. Circuits whined and glowed and the chemical solution bubbled and churned. The symphony of sound and light reached its crescendo, and with a sudden flash the circuits fully discharged themselves into the dog’s body.

The brightness of the light surprised me, and I threw my arms up to cover my eyes. As the glow faded, I blinked away the spots in my vision and eagerly leaned forward to see the results of my experiment. Much of the chemical solution had been instantly evaporated by the climactic moment, so that Rascal now lay on his side in only an inch or two of liquid.

For a few moments, all was still. I stared intently. The quietness pressed down on me like a heavy weight. I cast my eyes across my apparatus. Every beaker had been emptied, every circuit was in its right place, every electrode remained attached. All was as it should have been. And yet, all was still. Every muscle in my body grew tense. I hardly breathed.

A hand grasped my elbow and I uncoiled like a spring, crying, “Don’t touch anything!” My wife tumbled to the floor, her cheek red where I had struck her. My children’s eyes were wide with horror as my shadow loomed over them. Regret flooded through me. I sank to my knees and covered my face with my hands, moaning, “My wife! My wife! Forgive me! What have I done?”

But just then, little Clark’s voice broke through my sorrow: “Look at Rascal!”

I whirled in ecstasy and saw a vision that seemed brighter even than my dreams. There, in the shallow glass vat, stood Rascal, his thin chest slowly rising and falling as he breathed and his tail limply swaying side to side. He looked at me, and past me to the children, and I saw that the procedure had done something to his eyes: the whites had gone deep gray, like ashes, and the pupils glowed like black coals.

“Rascal!” cried Lucy. She stood and rushed forward to pet him, but I caught her and held her back.

“Wait!” I said, not wanting her to come into contact with the chemicals that remained in the vat.

Startled by my shout, Rascal did something then that he hadn’t done indoors for years: he had an accident. I watched the thick, dark, sludgy urine trickle into the vat, the symptom of decomposition and chemical congealment. To this day I wish I knew what element of that emulsion was to blame for the reaction that followed: the chemical solution began to bubble, and then rapidly to boil and steam, and before my incredulous eyes the chemicals burst into flame.

The children screamed and fled the laboratory. My wife stood and grasped at me, trying to pull me towards the door as the fire rapidly spread to my equipment, but I was not prepared to abandon my work so readily. I pushed her towards the exit and reached under the table for my fire extinguisher, then vented the flame-suppressing foam into the vat.

It was too little, too late. The fire was already beyond my control. I turned to run, but was arrested by Rascal’s piteous howl as he pulled against the electrodes, attempting to free himself. In that moment, his howl sounded to me like an invitation to redemption.

I wrapped my jacket around my hands, reached into the conflagration, and pulled the dog out, yanking him free of the electrodes. In my delay, however, the fire had spread to the door frame. Smoke was filling the room, and it was becoming difficult to breathe. Every moment I hesitated, my window of opportunity for escape was growing smaller, so I steeled myself, clutched the dog close to my chest, and leapt through the flaming doorway into the hall.

I fell headlong, and awkwardly, onto the floor. My head and lungs burned. The world swam around me, and my watering eyes saw only the grey of smoke and the orange of fire.

My eyelids closed, and I fell into gloom.

Then I felt a cool roughness on my cheek. My eyes opened, I blinked away my tears, and I saw the dog standing over me like an apparition, frantically licking my face. Amidst the conflagration, it looked like some wretched imp, a pitiful Cerberus, its patchy hair slicked down with chemicals, wisps of flame dancing on its ears and tail.

But it was alive, and mere minutes ago it had been dead. That thought, that triumph, filled me with new resolve, and I raised myself onto my hands and knees and began to crawl.

I didn’t know what direction I was going, or even what part of the house I was in, but the dog led me, dancing ahead and yapping at me or circling behind me and nipping at my heels. Walls collapsed around me, ceilings crumbled, but somehow I found myself at the foot of an outside door. I reached for the handle and it seared my skin, but with a rush of adrenaline I turned it and yanked the door open. The inrush of oxygen sparked a rushing blaze that swept over me as I flung myself out onto the scorched grass of the back yard.

Every part of my body hurt like death, and I might have laid there and been completely consumed if I had not been encouraged onwards once more by that unfathomable dog. I crawled as far as I was able, and then darkness took me.

 

I smelled burnt flesh and ash. I heard the crackle and roar of flame. I felt waves of heat assailing me.

I opened my eyes to the darkness of night, tinted with flickering red and orange.

I rolled onto my side. The dog was sitting nearby, watching me with its infernal black eyes. I held my hand in front of my face: it was charred red and black and covered in blisters. I knew I should feel incredible pain, but all I was aware of was a dull, deep throbbing, like a full-body heartbeat. One thought pressed its way to the forefront of my mind: where was my family?

Standing, I shuffled back towards the house. The fire had settled somewhat, and was now completing its consumption of the lower storey, sending a great tower of smoke and ash into the sky. I passed around the side of the house, giving it a wide berth to avoid the heat. As I neared the front of the house, where it faced the street, I became aware of the clamouring sirens of emergency vehicles.

I rounded the corner of the house and stopped under the shadow of a tree. The street and yard were fill with a pandemonium of fire trucks, ambulances, and onlookers, but one thing caught my attention, one face seized my eyes and refused to let go.

My wife lay on a stretcher, limp, helpless, hopeless. A sheet covered her up to the chin, and the skin of her pale face was tinged grey with soot and ash. Her eyes fluttered open, and my heart leapt into my throat: alive! I took one step forward, and somehow, across the chaos, she saw me. Her gaze pierced the shadow under the tree and met me. There was an endless instant of emotion. My spirit shattered.

They were dead. I knew it by the glistening abomination in her eyes. She hated me. She abhorred me. She blamed me. And I deserved every ounce of her scorn.

Then they lifted her into the ambulance.

 

I am a horror. I am a fiend. I am a wanderer.

 

 

Will this wretched dog never die?

Council-Approved

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Kashi lowered his monocular and wiped sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his thin black jumpsuit.

“Nervous?” asked Toru, bright eyes winking from behind crow’s-feet wrinkles. The wind tousled a shock of graying hair that was peeking out from under his rolled-up balaclava. He took the monocular and peered down into the valley below.

Kashi shrugged his shoulders and slowly rolled his neck from side to side, stretching out the stiff muscles. It had been a long vigil, lying here in the grass for hours as they tracked the movements of the soldiers in the camp below. If this was how he felt, he imagined Toru must be feeling it far more. The man had at least 30 years on Kashi. And he was still smiling? “Of course I’m not nervous,” insisted Kashi. “What’s there to be nervous about? Besides the dozens of armed soldiers standing between us and our target, of course.”

“Well said,” replied Toru, grinning. “No, nothing to be nervous about at all.”

“What time is it?”

Toru checked the underside of his wrist, and a pin-sized sensor embedded there, detecting his eyes, activated a two-inch holodisplay. The softly glowing numbers read 11:58 PM. “Two minutes to go,” he said.

“You know,” said Kashi, triple-checking the buckles on his vest and gloves, “we should try to plan our next job for a time other than midnight.”

Toru raised his eyebrows in bemusement. “Oh? Why’s that?”

“I guess… I don’t know, it just seems a little predictable, that’s all.”

“Predictable? It’s not like we’re going to go waltzing up to the front door.”

“That’s not what I—”

“Look, kid,” said Toru, peering through the monocular one last time, “it’s got to be midnight. It’s always midnight.”

“I know, and—”

“How do you think the Council would react if they found out we tried to pull a job at 4 AM? You know how much value they place on tradition…”

“Yes, but—”

“Do you really think they’d consider your application if we violated one of the most central rules of ninjahood?”

Kashi sighed. “No, I know they wouldn’t. And I know this job is meant to end up on my record as part of the application process. But these kinds of traditions are so outdated. I don’t know why they were ever started in the first place. If the target knows we’re going to hit either at midnight or not at all, then they’re bound to be extra alert and ready for us. But if we went in at, say, 1:30, they’d have their guard down, right?”

Tucking the monocular into a pouch at his waist, Toru nodded to Kashi. “I understand what you’re saying, believe me. And maybe that’s just the kind of new thinking the Ninja Council needs. Fresh blood, fresh brains… But you’re not going to change things from the outside. For now, we have to follow the rules, and follow them perfectly. Once you prove to the Council that you’re able to fall in line, they’ll welcome you into the fold, and you can start revolutionizing millenia-old practices from there. Okay?”

Kashi sighed. “Uh huh.”

The holoscreen on Toru’s wrist pulsed a pale white signal, then went out. Toru rolled his balaclava down and settled his mask over his eyes, and Kashi did the same. The world lit up in shades of green as the nightvision kicked in. Kashi twisted a knob on the side of the mask and shifted the colour spectrum to a less-harsh blue. There was a world full of amazing technology at his fingertips, and he was still being forced to use old relics like these monochromatic goggles. Ridiculous.

“Stay close,” whispered Toru. He raised himself to his knees, waited for a spotlight to pass by as it scanned the hill in its predictable arc, then stole forward, Kashi on his heels. They advanced twenty-five paces and dropped to their stomachs in the grass just before the spotlight swept back over them. The sophisticated grasslike patterning of their camosuits disguised them well, and they resumed their advance as soon as the light had passed.

They reached the base of the wall, and Kashi drew a black sphere, about six inches in diameter, out of a pouch at his hip. Toru pressed a control on one side of the sphere, pulled a length of thin cable out of a dispenser on its other side, and held the sphere out in front of him. After a moment it began to hum very softly, then rose into the air, spooling out cable behind it. It hovered up a little higher than the top of the wall and stopped.

Toru gave the cable an experimental tug, and it held firm. He hooked the end of it onto his belt and gave Kashi a thumbs-up. Kashi took out the remote control and pressed a button. The cable began to retract, carrying Toru up into the air. When the elder ninja reached the top of the wall he maneuvered himself onto it, unclipped the cable from his belt, and let it hang free. Kashi used the remote control to unspool the cable again, clipped himself in, and repeated the procedure. Safely atop the wall, he reached for the hovering sphere.

“What are you doing?” hissed Toru.

“Moving it across the wall to let us down inside,” said Kashi.

“You have to leave it there as our escape route!”

“What?”

Toru shook his head. “We have to leave ourselves an active escape route. It’s—”

“A council-approved best practice, yes, I know,” interrupted Kashi. “But if any of the soldiers come along here and see it they’ll know we’re here!”

“There isn’t a patrol due for 15 minutes,” said Toru. “Leave it.”

Fine.” Kashi left the sphere hovering where it was and nervously looked around, expecting a guard to show up at any second. Luckily, the guards were holding to their pattern. All was still and quiet.

Toru took another of the spheres from his own pouch and set it hovering in the air on the inside of the wall. He and Kashi took turns clipping in and making the descent.

Crouching at the bottom of the wall, Kashi looked up at the telltale silhouettes of the devices and shook his head. But Toru was right: he had to fall in line if he wanted to have any chance of becoming an official Ninja one day, and he’d been working towards that goal for too many years to throw it away now.

They pressed themselves up against the back wall of an old brick building—the mess hall, if the intel they had gathered was accurate—and peered around the corner into a gravel path that crossed the length of the camp. Toru checked the clock on his wrist and began counting under his breath. “Six, five, four…” He let the final three seconds pass silently, and on “zero” four soldiers carrying long-barreled machine guns appeared, striding in time with one another and turning their heads rhythmically left and right. The ninjas ducked out of sight while the soldiers passed.

When the coast was clear, the ninjas stole out from behind the mess hall and hurried across the path, their soft-soled shoes whispering silently over grass and the gravel alike. They ducked into the shadow of a large garage and edged around it, alert for any signs of detection.

“You know,” whispered Kashi, as they waited in the shadows for another patrol to pass, “for how important you say this device we’re stealing is, don’t you think it seems a little… underprotected?”

Toru flashed him a quizzical look.

“I mean, they don’t even have cameras or anything…”

“Do you want to get caught?” whispered Toru back.

“No, of course not.”

“Then what are you complaining about?”

Kashi opened his mouth to respond—complaining? No, he was observing and thinking critically—but thought better of it.

The ninjas made another quick dash through an open space and threw themselves into the grass between two bunkhouses just before the next patrol arrived.

“That’s it, just ahead,” whispered Toru, pointing out a small, squat building at the end of the row of bunkhouses, little more than a shack. “That’s where they’re keeping the device.”

“Really?” said Kashi. “I would’ve thought they’d store it in one of the garages or warehouses, somewhere with a little more security.”

“Well they didn’t,” snapped Toru. “Come on.” He led the way, advancing cautiously past the bunkhouses, until they reached the building.

“What’s our way in?” whispered Kashi. “Window? Roof?”

“Why are you constantly looking to overcomplicate things?” Toru gestured to the door.

“I thought you said we weren’t just going to waltz up to the front door.”

“Enough talking!” hissed Toru. “Time is ticking.”

Kashi rolled his eyes. Everything had worked out according to Toru’s plan so far, though… Maybe the elder ninja was right. Maybe he was just overthinking things. Kashi took a second to listen for nearby patrols, did a quick visual check, grabbed the door handle, twisted it quietly open, and ducked inside.

As soon as he was through the doorway a bank of lights burst on, blinding him through the nightvision goggles. He tore the goggles off and sank to his knees, grabbing at his eyes, expecting at any moment to be seized by guards, or hit over the head, or shot.

Instead, he heard, “Bravo! Good show, chap! Well done.”

Kashi stopped, raised his head, and blinked heavily. Three faces swam into view, friendly faces with broad smiles and crinkly eyes. They were dressed in black jumpsuits with black bowties, and wisps of white hair peeked out from under their flat black hats. The man in the middle wore thin spectacles and had a tidy moustache. Kashi hissed, “What the… Who are you?”

“Why, we’re the Ninja Council, of course!” said one. “And you have passed your final practical examination!”

“I… What?”

“With a very respectable score, I might add!” chimed in another of the smiling elders.

Kashi got to his feet. Toru was standing behind him with a subdued smile.

“You selected your pupil well,” said the bespectacled council member to Toru. “He performed well within the acceptable limits for Stealth and did wonderfully with his Camouflage. We noted a few minor delays—he was 30 seconds behind the average completion time, I’m afraid—but overall, he performed quite acceptably. Yes, very acceptably indeed.”

“Commendations all around!” said another of the old men.

“Commendations!” another agreed.

Toru gave Kashi a congratulatory slap on the shoulder.

“Wait, wait, just hold on a second…” Kashi looked around the room, at each of the grinning faces. “None of this was real? This was all just some test you set up?”

“Sorry I had to mislead you,” said Toru, “but after all, deception is one of a ninja’s most important tools!” He winked.

Kashi took a moment to process this. “Huh,” he said. “So… I’m a ninja now? Council-approved?”

“Yes, yes, wholeheartedly approved!” said the bespectacled one. “Here is your badge, young one. Wear it proudly.”

Kashi took the shiny metal four-pointed star with the pin backing and held it in his hand. “What am I supposed to do with this? If I actually wear it, or even display it anywhere, everyone will know I’m a ninja.”

“Of course,” said spectacles. “Aren’t you proud to be part of such a prestigious order?”

“That’s not… But shouldn’t I… Isn’t secrecy…?” Kashi sighed. “You know what? I don’t think I really want to be a council-approved ninja anymore.”

“What?” said the council members.

What?” said Toru. “Why not?”

“Because this whole thing is a joke. Dodging spotlights, getting over a wall, hiding in the grass… Those aren’t the skills a ninja needs these days. A five-year-old could break into this place. Where are the infrared security cameras? Where are the alarm systems? The motion detectors, the trip-lasers? The door to this building wasn’t even locked. And the core concept of this test is completely flawed! You don’t even know if I could’ve escaped!”

“Well you left your escape route intact, didn’t you?” said one of the council members, sounding very miffed. “As long as the wall-scalers were in place, there’s no need for point deductions.”

“Who cares about ‘point deductions’? If these guards had any idea what they were doing, they would have seen the wall-scalers by now and would be swarming all over this camp looking for me. I don’t hear any signs of active searching out there…”

The council members exchanged resigned, disappointed looks. “Well,” said one, “if you feel you aren’t ninja material, then I suppose it’s your choice.”

“Oh, I didn’t say I didn’t want to be a ninja,” said Kashi. “I said I no longer cared about being council-approved. Based on what I’ve seen here tonight, I think I’d probably be holding myself back.”

What!?” spluttered the bespectacled one. “How dare you! Of all the insolent, arrogant, ungrateful—”

Kashi interrupted him by darting forward and grabbing the spectacles right off his nose. “Thanks for the souvenir!” he said, and ducked around Toru and out the door before the others could react.

“After him!” bellowed the Ninja Council. “Cut off his escape route! To the rear wall, guards! The rear wall!”

Kashi rolled into the shadows and slipped his nightvision goggles back on. He took a moment to reorient himself as the world hazed back into shades of blue. The place where they’d scaled the rear wall was… that way. That meant he wanted to go this direction, instead.

 

Kashi edged along the base of the wall near the front gate, put the single guard that had remained at his station when the alarm was sounded into a quick sleeper hold, and escaped silently into the night.

 

Three weeks later, at precisely 2 AM, Kashi lowered himself from a rooftop, swung through an open window, and landed silently on the thick carpet of the council member’s bedroom. The old man was sleeping soundly. Kashi quietly withdrew a long, thin case from the pouch at his hip, opened it, took out the council member’s spectacles, and placed them on the old man’s nose.

Leaning down with his lips beside the council member’s ear, he whispered, “Go on; tell them all this story.” Then he climbed back out the window, took to the roofs, and was gone.

No Work, No Money, No Food

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When Ma set out for the post office, Alina flipped the sign on the door over to say “CLOSED” and stayed behind, stocking shelves. She was old enough now to mind the shop during Ma’s errands, big enough to carry the seed bags out from the back, smart enough to write receipts and tally up the costs of customers’ orders, but Ma made her close up anyways. Ma was just acting scared, Alina figured, with Pa being out on a posse and all. Made no sense, to Alina, being scared just because Pa was gone. There hadn’t been a shot fired in town for over three months, not since the new sheriff had arrived. The streets were clean now, that’s what cousin Jacob said, and he was a real deputy, with a badge to prove it.

Besides, there was Pa’s rifle in the store room, if it came to it. He’d left it behind, and always kept it loaded. That was no big secret. The way Alina saw it, there wasn’t much to fear when you had a loaded gun.

Of course, Ma had probably never fired a rifle. She could knit like a fine fury, but holding a gun? Alina just couldn’t picture Ma doing that. Not that Alina had ever used a gun, either, but she figured she had the hands for it. Pa had said so, once, when Ma couldn’t hear. He’d said she had strong fingers, and he’d given her a little jackknife to skin squirrels with, if she could ever catch one. How Ma would scream if she ever learned about that!

As Alina trudged in and out of the store room, carrying canned beans and bags of corn seed out to the shelves, she felt the little knife bouncing in the pocket of her apron. After the shop got closed tonight, she was gonna go out and find a way to catch one of them squirrels. She’d have a skin to show Pa when he got home, a whole collection of skins. Maybe a groundhog or even a fox, too. He was gonna be so proud.

Alina hefted a seed bag off the store room shelf, sat it on the floor, and was wiping sweat off her forehead with one of her dirty-blonde braids when she heard the bell above the front door jingle quietly. Probably another one of these ranch-hand cowboys who’d never taken the time to learn his letters…

“Pardon me,” said Alina, stepping out of the store room, “but the sign says we’re Closed, so—” She stopped and frowned. The shop appeared to be empty. Maybe someone had started coming in before reading the sign, and then closed the door and went out again.

A silhouette stomped past outside, moving across the boardwalk that fronted all the shops along Main Street. Alina recognized cousin Jacob’s peaked hat and heavy steps.

Turning back to the storeroom, Alina’s eyes caught a hint of motion, and she noticed a pair of leather boots standing behind the shelf in the corner.

Alina walked past the cash register and popped around the shelf. A tall cowboy with a grimy face and fidgety eyes was standing there. “Excuse me, mister, but the shop’s closed while my Ma’s out. She’ll be back before much longer, but there ain’t supposed to be customers in here while we’re closed, so why not take a look in at the saloon on the corner and come back when…” She trailed off.

The cowboy was watching her talk with a strange expression on his face. He seemed to become aware of the strange lull that had fallen and crouched down beside Alina, so that he was looking up into her eyes. “Don’t worry ’bout me, little woman. I’m just havin’ a look around.” He grinned and winked. He was missing three teeth, and his breath smelled like dust and cacti.

“All the same,” said Alina, “it’s store rules that you ain’t supposed to be in here.”

“The rules is pretty important to you, eh?”

“Of course the rules are important,” said Alina, impatiently. “That’s why they’re rules!”

The cowboy cocked his head to the side and grinned again. Then he reached up and gave one of Alina’s braids a gentle tug. “I got a girl like you. Face full of freckles, smile like the sun reflectin’ off a lake. Calls me ‘Pap’; treats me like I could never do no wrong. How old are you, little woman?”

“Near to nine,” replied Alina.

The man nodded approvingly. “She’s turnin’ seven soon… Wish I could be there for it.”

“Why can’t you?”

The cowboy shook his head gently, wistfully. “That’s no story for a girl who h’aint reached nine years old yet.”

“I’m big for my age, and smart, too,” protested Alina, drawing herself up to her full height.

“Does your Pa tell you so?”

Alina nodded.

“And where is your Pa, little woman?”

“He’s on a posse,” declared Alina proudly. “Sheriff asked him to help hunt down an outlaw who was thievin’ from the ranches.” A terrible thought crossed Alina’s mind. “Say… You aren’t planning to try any thievin’ yourself, are you, mister?”

The cowboy rocked on his heels and grinned. “And what if I was? What if I was to take one of these here cans of beans”—he pulled one off the shelf—”and tuck it into my vest and just walk out without payin’? What would you do about that?”

“I’d run after you and scream!” said Alina, defiantly. “And the sheriff would arrest you and throw you in jail.

“But I thought the sheriff was out on a posse, huntin’ down an evil outlaw.”

“Then Deputy Jacob would do it. I saw him walking past only a minute ago.”

“Did you, now?” The man scratched his cheek. “Yeah, I reckon he would.” The man tossed the can of beans in the air and caught it again. “Do they feed you when you’re in jail?”

The question caught Alina off guard. “I… Well, I reckon so. Everybody’s gotta eat.”

“Then maybe I oughta get myself arrested!” said the man.

“That would make you an outlaw,” Alina pointed out.

“Better to be an outlaw than die of starvation,” the man mused. “See, truth is, I h’ain’t had a bite o’ real food to eat in near on a week, so these here beans are lookin’ mighty good.”

“All you gotta do is buy ’em,” said Alina. “Them cans are only ten cents a dozen.”

“What if I h’ain’t got ten cents?”

“I’ll put you down for credit,” said Alina, “and you can come back when you do have ten cents. Ma does that all the time.”

“That’s kind of you, little woman,” grinned the cowboy. “Most folk wouldn’t give credit to a man like me.”

“Why not?” asked Alina.

“Wouldn’t trust me to come up with the money,” said the man.

“It ain’t hard to earn ten cents,” said Alina. “Ma gives me ten cents a week for helping with the laundry and weeding the garden.”

The man placed the can of beans back on the shelf. “There’s the trick of it, though, little woman. Most folk wouldn’t give me work to do, neither.”

Alina wrinkled her forehead. “But if you can’t work, then how’re you supposed to earn money to buy food?”

“Don’t seem fair, does it?”

“Why won’t people give you work?”

The man leaned towards her and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper: “‘Cause I broke a rule, once.”

Alina’s eyes opened wide. “Are you an outlaw already?”

The man held his hands out innocently. “Do I look like an outlaw, little woman?”

Alina pondered this for a moment. “Not to me, you don’t,” she admitted.

“I don’t feel like one, neither, and don’t much want to be one, but they tell me I am one, anyways,” said the cowboy.

“Can’t you ever change folks’ minds?”

“Only one way to do that,” said the outlaw, “and that’s for a judge to declare me a regular citizen again. But that ain’t likely to happen.”

“Why not?”

“You ever met Judge Gordon?”

Alina nodded. Judge Gordon was a fat man with beady eyes and a bald head who always treated her like she was still a toddler.

“Well Judge Gordon hates my guts. He’s hated me ever since he saw me kiss a girl he fancied… And then I married her, too. He ain’t never gonna forgive me for that.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna head out east, find a different judge to turn myself in to so I can get a fair trial, where Judge Gordon can’t interfere. Only problem is…”

“What?” asked Alina.

“I h’ain’t got enough food to get me there, and no horse to help me carry it, even if I did. If I had a gun I could hunt along the way, but if nobody’s gonna sell me a can o’ beans, then for darn sure nobody’s gonna sell me a rifle.”

Deputy Jacob’s silhouette passed across the front windows again. Alina saw that the outlaw had noticed, too.

“Is he out there looking for you?” asked Alina.

“Your Pa’s right,” nodded the cowboy, “you are a smart little woman.”

“What’ll happen if he catches you in here?”

“He’ll lock me up, like you said, probably say I was thievin’ from your shop and tryin’ to kidnap you.”

“But you aren’t doing either of those things! I saw you put those beans back myself.”

“That’s justice for you,” shrugged the outlaw. “That’s the rules, when you’ve got a man like Judge Gordon in charge. I reckon he’ll prob’ly want to tie the noose himself.” He let loose a haggard sigh.

Alina made up her mind. “Wait right here, mister.” She went back into the store room, climbed onto a barrel, reached up to the top shelf, and wrapped her fingers around the butt of Pa’s rifle. She clutched it carefully to her chest. It felt much bigger and clumsier than she had imagined.

The outlaw was standing beside the cash register when she returned, glancing over his shoulder through the front windows. “Hey, now,” he said. Whatcha gote there?”

“This’ll help you get out east,” said Alina, handing him the rifle. “And when you’re a free man, you can bring it back. Like you’re buying it on credit.”

“Bless your heart, little woman,” said the cowboy. “This world needs a million more generous, forgiving souls like yours, I reckon.”

Alina blushed. “Oh, and in case you need to skin any of them animals you catch while you’re hunting…” She dug the little jackknife out of her apron pocket and pressed it into his hand. “Here. My Pa gave me that, but I haven’t caught any squirrels yet, anyways, and I can always save up and buy another one.”

“Thank you, darlin’,” said the man, gently, tucking the knife into his pocket.

“Quick, now,” said Alina, “you can come out the back way before cousin Jacob comes around again and sees you.” She turned to lead the way through the store room but stopped in midstep upon hearing the bell above the shop door jingle again. She spun and saw Jacob standing in the doorway, arms folded across his broad chest, a grim smile on his round, clean-shaven face. His tall hat was cocked back on his head, and his long blond hair spilled out from under it.

There you are,” growled Jacob. “Knew you had to be along here someplace. Musta been some neat trick you pulled, doublin’ back and shakin’ a whole posse off your trail.”

The outlaw kept his back turned so the rifle was hidden from the Jacob’s sight. “Not such a tough job, when the posse’s bein’ weighed down by a fool like Gordon.”

Jacob shook his head slowly. “You shouldn’t’ve come back here, Holden. Just another poor decision to add to your long list of mistakes.” He noticed Alina standing in the door of the store room, then. “Come on over here, Alina. Your Ma would have a fit if she saw you standin’ so close to a filthy outlaw.”

Alina looked up and saw the desperation in the outlaw’s eyes. He gave her a slight, reassuring nod, and she cautiously stepped forward to join Jacob.

Just as she started to move, the outlaw whirled, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and shot Jacob straight through the stomach. Jacob toppled over against a shelf, sending it and its contents crashing to the floor.

The outlaw winked at Alina, tipped his hat, and sprinted out the front door, shouting “Yeehaw!” as he went. Alina stood paralyzed in shock as she watched the outlaw spring onto cousin Jacob’s horse and go galloping off down Main Street.

Alina was vaguely aware of yelling and screaming breaking out in the street, and footsteps thundering across the boardwalk. Ma rushed in, dress flapping behind her. The sight of Ma broke Alina out of her paralysis and she slumped back against the counter, bumping the cash register. It dinged, and the money drawer slid open.

It was empty of all but ten cents.

Captain Blackbird and the Kraken

It was a beauty of a day at sea. The warm wind was rocking the ship gently side to side, the seagulls were crying their atonal arias, and Captain Blackbird was relaxing on the poop deck in a hot seawater bath. As is natural for a happy bathing pirate, he was singing.

I’m floatin’ in a tin can across the salty sea

As piratin’ a pirate as a pirater can be

My cutlass, it is stained with blood, my rum’s flavoured with glee

When other pirates hear my name they turn their tails and flee!

He splashed happily in the sudsy bathwater and called out orders to his fresh, inexperienced, but enthusiastic new crew. “Anchor the yardarm! Flop the mizzenmast! Haul clear the barnacle braces! Ah, ha ha ha!”

The First Mate, Davey Watchcomb, was sitting in a chair nearby, keeping a dutiful eye on the small fire that was heating the water in Captain Blackbird’s tub from atop a pile of stones. “Sir,” he said, “pardon my ignorance—as you know, I’m a farmer and not a sailor—but what, exactly, is a ‘barnacle brace’ and where are they meant to haul it clear from? Also, which one is the mizzenmast?”

Captain Blackbird held his ribs and howled with laughter. “Ha ha, hee hee! Aye, but that’s the fun of it, Davey boy! Watch ’em scramble! Watch ’em fuss! Who’s the one in the yellow cap?”

“That’s Soggy Samuel, sir.”

“Oi!” called Captain Blackbird. “Oi, Soggy! Get the jib slot fastened to the quarter-sail right away, lad, or I’ll cut my bath time short and have you pirouettin’ off the plank!”

Soggy Samuel snapped a hasty salute: “Aye aye, cap’n!” He whirled around twice in confusion, grabbed a length of rope at random, and began tying it to a hook set into the deck.

Captain Blackbird laughed so hard that he started sloshing water over the sides of his bathtub. “D’you see him?” he gasped. “Tyin’ the rope… AH HA HA! That rope isn’t even connected to anything, Davey boy! These lads don’t have a clue in the world. Bless my heart, they wanted to be pirates…” He wiped a tear from his cheek, and his eyelid twitched involuntarily. He rubbed his eye, but it twitched again.

He tried to ignore it. “Aye, well, Davey Boy, I’ll soon set ’em right. Gather ’em in, lad, and drop the anchor.”

“Aye, sir,” said Davey. “Er, and if you’d just remind me…”

“Arrr…” Captain Blackbird rolled his eyes. “The lever in the bow, lad. Nay, Davey, the bow’s the front o’ the ship.” His eyelid twitched again. Probably a reaction to so much time in the bath. He’d been in for nearly three hours now, judging by the sun, and glorious it had been. He inspected his wrinkled, pruny fingers. His eyelid twitched again. Maybe he was developing some form of nervous tic. A week at sea with these landlubbers had been amusing, aye, but also trying. They had to have every little thing explained to them….

His eyelid twitched again.

Then he heard the voice. It was a thin, bubbling, multi-toned voice, and it sounded like it was coming from inside the bathtub with him.

“Oooohh,” it said. “Ooohh, aaahh, ooohh.”

Captain Blackbird looked down, then up, then all around. There was no one else on the poop deck. Where was the voice coming from?

“Wooooe,” said the voice. “Woe is me in this sleepless sea…” The water in the bathtub rippled as it spoke.

“Who said that?” demanded Captain Blackbird. “Who’s there?”

The voice bubbled softly for a few seconds. Then it said, “You hear me, sir?”

“Aye,” said Captain Blackbird. “I can hear ye, wheedling stranger. Who be ye?”

“It is wonderful to have another intelligent soul to converse with,” said the voice. “I am a mere kraken, a lonely, sleepless kraken with nobody to love.”

Captain Blackbird sat up straighter in his bathtub. “K-k-kraken?”

The voice sighed. “Indeed, sir.”

“Oh, aye, I see now,” said Captain Blackbird. “You’re one o’ me crew, playin’ a joke. Aye, and a riotous tickler it be. Ha ha ha…” He laughed nervously. “Davey? Soggy Samuel? Fineas Bunker? Which of you…?”

Just then, Davey crested the stairs to the poop deck. “Your pardon, cap’n,” he said, “but I’ve got the crew all assembled below, awaitin’ your orders.”

“Aye, thank ye, Davey,” said Captain Blackbird. His eyelid twitched as he raised himself out of the bath and pulled his breeches over his soggy, waterlogged legs. He scooped a bucketful of bathwater onto the fire, dousing it. Then, taking up a bottle of rum, he swigged a mouthful, stepped to the edge of the poop deck, and glared down over his motley crew. “Now,” he said, “which one of ye be makin’ that voice? An excellent joke it be!”

The voice bubbled up again: “Why should I play a joke, sir?”

“Arrr!” said Captain Blackbird. “Who said it? Who?”

“Er, cap’n,” said Davey, “no one spoke, sir.”

“O’ course they did!” said Captain Blackbird.

“I said it,” said the voice. “I, the lonely, restless kraken. Can you still hear me, sir?”

“Aye, I hear you!” The captain waved his bottle of rum at the crew. “Certainly I hear you! And a bottle o’ rum to the man I’m hearin’, if he’ll only tell me who he is!”

The crew cast anxious glances at one another. Who was the captain talking to?

“Thank you, sir,” said the voice. “I would much appreciate a bottle of rum. It might help me to sleep. But I am no man. I am a kraken.”

“Aye, indeed,” scoffed Captain Blackbird. “A kraken, you say. A kraken that speaks in the voice of a man, and that swims but half a mile from the shore…”

Davey stepped closer to the captain. “Cap’n, did you say… k-kraken?” His knees were beginning to shake.

Captain Blackbird pushed his first mate away angrily. His eyelid was twitching incessantly now. He dug his fist into his eye socket, trying to stop the tic. “Aye, I did, but I didn’t say it first. You heard his voice: he claimed it himself! And I’m gettin’ right fed up with the buffoon. There’s such a thing as carryin’ a joke on too long…”

“Cap’n,” said Davey, “I didn’t hear anything. You’re the only one speaking, sir.”

Captain Blackbird glared at the first mate. “Now, Davey—”

“I swim so close to shore,” said the voice, “because I cannot sleep, though I try and try. But I am not speaking with the voice of a man, sir. I am speaking in the voice that only a creature of the sea can hear, only one whose flesh is steeped in saltwater, whose veins run with it… Are you not a fish of the sea, sir?”

The captain raked his stare across the crew below, each in turn. They looked up at him, confused. Blackbird held his hands in front of his face, his thoroughly wrinkled, saltwater-soaked hands. “No, er, friend kraken,” he said. “I be no fish of the sea.”

“Are you, then, a man?” said the voice.

“Aye.”

“Wonderful!” said the voice. “And this hull above me, then, must be your ship?”

“Aye.”

“A kind whale told me that men sing the very best lullabies, sir, and I am so desperately in need of sleep… Will you not sing me a lullaby?”

Captain Blackbird furrowed his brow and tilted his head to the side. His eyelid twitched. “A lullaby? I am a pirate, and I sing only pirate songs. I know no lullabies.”

“Oh, but you must!” said the kraken. “You must, or I shall reach up and hug you tight until you remember one!”

First Mate Davey stepped in front of Captain Blackbird and addressed the crew. “Back to work, I think, lads,” he said. “Our captain, it seems, has spent too much time soaking in the sun for today, and is becoming delirious.”

“He said something about a kraken!” said Soggy Samuel, tremulously. “Are we to be dragged to the ocean depths by a sea monster?”

“No, no,” Davey assured them. “The captain is merely suffering sun stroke.”

Captain Blackbird sat down on the edge of his bathtub. Was that was happening to him? Was he suffering sunstroke?

The voice bubbled up once more. “Sing me a lullaby!” it demanded again.

“Hush,” said Captain Blackbird. “I will not sing a lullaby. A pirate does not coax babes to sleep; he kidnaps them and laughs as they cry, then either ransoms them for a king’s fortune or raises them to be a nasty, evil pirate all their days. No, I will not sing a lullaby to the voice inside my head.”

“So be it, sir!” said the voice. “If I cannot have a lullaby to help me sleep, perhaps some exercise will do the trick.”

Davey took Captain Blackbird’s coat and was wrapping it around the captain’s shoulders when suddenly a massive tentacle, at least three feet in diameter, shot up out of the sea in a cloud of mist and towered over the ship. Another tentacle burst from the water, and then another, and another. The crew shouted in alarm and began rushing to and fro across the deck, wailing in fear.

“Captain!” cried Davey Watchcomb. “A kraken! A kraken! What can we do?”

Captain Blackbird leapt to his feet, mouth hanging open wide. In all his years of pirating… Was he truly seeing this beast of the sea, or had he gone completely mad?

“Captain!” said Davey again. “Your orders, sir?”

“Arr…” said Captain Blackbird. “Axes up, lads! Axes and torches, me hearties!”

The crew broke open the tool chests in the cabins and began taking up axes, cutlasses, and torches. Before they could fully prepare, however, the attack was on. The tentacles came whistling down like whips, crashing across the ship and shattering the masts. More tentacles emerged from the depths, eight in total, and soon all eight were wrapped across the ship’s deck, squeezing the ship in an ever-tightening hug of crushing destruction.

“At it, then!” called Captain Blackbird, and the crew began to hack at the kraken’s rubbery flesh with their axes and cutlasses and singe it with their torches, to little effect.

The kraken’s voice bubbled up in Captain Blackbird’s ears. “Ooooh!” it cried. “You sting me, you burn me, foolish man! I will drag you to the depths, sir, and introduce you to my friends the sharks!”

“All at once, me hearties!” said Captain Blackbird. “Focus your energies, lads!” The crew followed his orders and all turned to direct their efforts towards a single tentacle. The kraken’s skin began to bruise, and slowly to break, under the focussed assault. It bled green, and writhed, and drew its crushing grasp tighter.

“Vicious man!” hissed the kraken to Captain Blackbird. “Spiteful man! I asked only for a lullaby, and you have brought it to this! Sink, now, sink and die!”

Captain Blackbird could see that all was lost. The ship would be crushed to bits at any moment, and despite his crew’s best efforts it would take far too long to cut through even one of the kraken’s tentacles. This was no time for pirate dignity… If only he knew a lullaby! Gripping his beard in his hands as his eyelid twitched and twitched, he wracked his memory, searching his long-forgotten childhood for any helpful tune, any soothing rhyme…

It came to him suddenly, with a flash of colour, a hint of texture, a whiff of scent, and a scrap of melody. He hummed the notes through gasping, terrified lips, and as he continued, more came to him, more melody, more memories, and, at last, those soothing words.

Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels

Treasures stol’n from kings and fools

The kraken’s tentacles loosened just a touch, and the churning of the water around the ship slowed. Captain Blackbird’s crew halted with axes in mid-swing and looked up at the fearsome bearded pirate as he faltered, then began again from the beginning, and sang.

Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels

Treasures stol’n from kings and fools

Rum and grog pour like a flood

Over plunder stained with blood

Twinkle, twinkle, gold and jewels

Pirates live by their own rules!

Everything was silent for several seconds. Captain Blackbird’s eyelid twitched, twitch, twitch, as he stared down at the kraken’s tentacles and his crew standing over them. A single tear dripped from the corner of Captain Blackbird’s eye.

Then the tentacles loosened their grasp and slid away back into the ocean, leaving the water roiling behind them with bubbles and froth.

The kraken’s voice whispered inside Captain Blackbird’s head: “Thank you, sir,” it yawned. “Thank… you…”

Captain Blackbird slumped down to the deck and took a long draught of rum. He reached for his hat, hanging on a peg at the foot of the bathtub, and settled it onto his head. His eyelid twitched once more, gently, and then fell still. Gathering himself, the captain tried to regain control of the situation. He was going to have to do some damage control for his reputation after this. “Now, then, lads,” he began—

—But the crew was piling into the lifeboats and lowering them down into the sea in a panic, fighting for the oars. The lifeboats splashed in the water and the crew began to row, frantically and with all their might. Their lifeboats turned haphazardly left and right, only gradually making progress towards land in crazy zigzags.

“Where are ye leavin’ to?” called Captain Blackbird. “Come back, lads, come back!”

Davey Watchcomb stood up in his lifeboat and yelled back, “No thank you, sir! We don’t sail with madmen who talk to krakens, sir, or with so-called ‘pirates’ who sing lullabies, either!” The lifeboat heaved as one of the crew gave a mighty pull on the oars, and Davey tumbled out into the sea.

Captain Blackbird sighed as his former first mate floundered in the water and tried to climb back into the lifeboat. He finished off his bottle of rum, hopped down to the deck, and nonchalantly loaded a cannon. They’d all been useless landlubbers, anyways…

We Dragons

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Calvin inhaled deeply through his nose and held the air inside his lungs for a few seconds before slowly releasing it, trying to force his heartbeat to slow to a normal rhythm. Be calm, he instructed himself. Cool. Collected. Sure, you’re about to step onto the surface of a planet that has never before been visited by humanity, but hey, you’re an expert. You’ve got a wall full of diplomas that say so hanging in your office. Of course, that office is sixty light years away right now…

Be calm.

“Everything okay, Calvin?”

“Everything’s fine, sir. Just, uh, giving my equipment a final check.” Calvin tightened the straps of his backpack, adjusted the attached oxygen tank, and lifted the mouthpiece to cover his lips and nose. He sucked in a quick breath. “Good to go, sir.”

Mel Yung smiled, and a network of wrinkles spread out from behind his pale brown eyes, drawing a roadmap of experiences across his leathery face. Yung only really looked his age when he was smiling. Calvin wished he wouldn’t do it quite so often.

“We aren’t in the office today, kid,” said Yung. “Out here in the field, you can call me Mel.”

“Okay. Mel.”

“Is this your first field deployment, Calvin?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Mel. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid, watching you do it on TV.”

Mel smiled again, and Calvin cringed inwardly. “Hey, relax,” said the older man. “It’s just a job.”

“I don’t think that’s how the millions of settlers on the three habitable planets you’ve identified feel about it.”

“Three? Oh, you’re including that oversized moon in the Delna system, aren’t you? I don’t really deserve top billing for that one. Herman Nerole did most of the work. I was just the one who made it back alive.”

“Still,” said Calvin, not willing to let his idol off the hook so easily, “you’re living history!”

“The funny thing about history,” said Mel, hoisting his own oxygen tank backpack, “is that it’s all old news.” He flashed another wry smile and palmed a large, flat button beside the airlock. The hatch swung open, revealing a mountainous, rust-colored landscape that fell away from the narrow plateau they had landed on by leaps and bounds, descending to a series of rocky plains that extended for miles until they curved away into a fading horizon. Above it all was a dimly monotonous grey sky.

“Now, before we head out there,” Yung continued, “a couple of reminders. Don’t waste your oxygen until it starts getting tougher to catch your breath. The oxygen from the geyser up here should provide us with plenty of breathable air until we’re about halfway down the mountain. After that, we go to our tanks. The atmosphere on Glyna isn’t poisonous, so you can drop your mask whenever you need to talk, but try not to inhale too much of the local air all at once.”

Calvin nodded. He’d read the briefings and gone over all of the data from the probes. In fact, he was the one who had sent out the probe that found the oxygen geysers on planet Glyna in the first place, and it was that discovery that had earned him a place on this exploration alongside his childhood hero.

“This is your baby,” said Mel. “Why don’t you go first?”

Show him you deserve this, Calvin encouraged himself. Be calm. Cool. Collected. He wiped his sweaty palms on the rubbery fabric of his thermasuit, set his teeth, stepped out onto the powdered, burgundy dust of planet Glyna, and sucked in a lungful of alien air.

Yung followed him out and closed the hatch of their shuttle behind him. Written on the hatch in bold, friendly letters was the shuttle’s name, Peace III, a reminder that wherever they went, the Explorer Corps “came in peace”.

“Well,” said Mel, “let’s go scout an alien landscape!”

#

Calvin let Yung lead the way as they began their descent of what they’d come to call New Faithful. The mountainous oxygen geyser was the key feature that had brought them to Glyna: it was the clue that had revealed the immense stores of oxygen beneath the planet’s surface that were gradually escaping all over the planet, slowly transforming the atmosphere into a human-breathable environment. New Faithful was the largest, and probably the oldest, of these geysers, and probes had identified the accelerated growth of certain species of local organisms and plant life around its basin, suggesting that parts of Glyna’s ecosystem were already prepared to respond favorably to the planet’s evolution. At the current rate of release, Calvin and his research team had estimated, it would be a thousand years before enough oxygen would be released to make Glyna broadly habitable by humans, assuming the other elements of the ecosystem evolved appropriately.

Humanity didn’t have the luxury of quite so much patience, however, so Calvin had been trying to gather support for a proposal to artificially widen some of the largest oxygen geysers, drastically speeding Glyna’s transformation. Part of what he was here to discover was whether there were any sentient locals who would be negatively affected by Glyna’s oxygenation. Humanity might be desperate for living space, but thanks to the work of Mel Yung and others like him, it wasn’t xenocidally desperate. Not anymore.

Glyna’s gravity was about half that of Earth’s, and Calvin found himself enjoying the freedom of movement as he leapt and bounced down the mountainside. For the first hour, he and Mel kept up a light banter, pointing out interesting formations in the rocks or stopping to cut samples of the various oxygen-friendly brown grasses they came across. The further they went, however, the thinner the air seemed, the sparser the vegetation grew, and the less breath they had to spare for conversation.

Eventually they paused, panting, under an outcropping, and Mel signaled to put the oxygen masks on. Fresh, cool, breathable air flooded into Calvin’s lungs, and he gave a thumbs-up. After swallowing a bit of water, they continued on, sucking on their mouthpieces and surveying the red landscape around them in silent wonder.

#

Soon the explorers arrived at the foot of the mountain. Calvin stopped to take a scraping of a delicate brownish mold growing on the underside of a boulder. At this distance from the geyser, oxygen levels were low enough that only the most basic oxygen-friendly molds and fungi could grow.

Within a few miles of the base of New Faithful, plant life almost entirely ceased to exist, replaced by dry rocks and dust. The explorers spent half an hour traversing the dead terrain before Calvin spotted more vegetation, in the form of scraggly bits of bluish grass and moss growing in cracks and crevices. “Non-oxygen-dependent species,” Calvin explained. “The dead zone we’ve just passed through suggests that too much atmospheric oxygen may be poisonous to these plants. That’s one strike against my proposal.”

“Only if we find sentient species that are the same way,” Mel pointed out, “and we haven’t seen any sign of that.”

“Not yet,” Calvin added.

#

As they continued on, Calvin watched as the moss and grass gave way to scrub brush and small trees, all tinged with the same shades of blue amid the browns and reds of the soil. He had stopped to pull a branch from a twisted, shoulder-high tree with a wrist-width trunk and thin, veiny blue leaves when Mel said, “Look!”

Standing several yards away were a dozen knee-height, hairless, two-legged creatures with wide, terrified eyes, bulbous noses, tiny mouths, and six-fingered, two-thumbed hands. They were wearing clothing made out of some type of fabric that was similarly colored to their pale, reddish-brown skin. Some had brown, crusty paint smeared on their broad faces. One of the aliens, a relatively tall one with a swirling pattern painted on its chin, was holding a thin wooden staff with a pointed tip. The same swirling pattern was painted onto the garment that covered its chest.

Most of the aliens were holding rocks that they had picked up from the ground. Several had their arms cocked, apparently ready to throw at the first sign of danger.

“Try to appear non-threatening,” Mel whispered.

The two men knelt, making themselves small.

The creatures came a little closer, and a few began to speak back and forth. Their speech was a high chittering noise, a cross between the sounds made by a squirrel and a chimpanzee.

The loudest conversation seemed to be between the alien with the spear and a short, squat one with a diamond shape on its forehead and a loud, gruff voice. The squat alien was gesturing excitedly with its hands, speaking very quickly and beating its thin torso with a rock.

Finally the tall alien–Calvin thought of it as the chief–stomped its foot on the ground and the rest of the creatures, including the loud, squat one, all fell silent.

The chief turned to the explorers, raised its arms towards them, and launched into a speech that lasted for several minutes. Yung seemed bemused by the situation, but Calvin couldn’t help sneaking glances at the rocks held in the rest of the tribe’s hands. He had no interest in finding out how strong their arms were…

At length, the chief concluded its speech and stood expectantly, awaiting a response.

“These little guys seem pretty primitive,” Mel said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to learn anything from them through direct communication.”

“So what do we do?”

“How about a little experiment? You think the oxygen levels of the planet have been steadily increasing over hundreds of thousands of years, right?”

Calvin nodded.

“So what if these guys, and whatever animals they make those clothes out of, have evolved to function on whatever trace amounts of oxygen their lungs can filter out of the air?”

“Why wouldn’t they live closer to the geyser, then?”

“Superstition, maybe. Mountains are highly symbolic to the tribal mindset. Or there might be another, smaller geyser nearby.”

“They might also breathe something else entirely,” Calvin said, “like nitrogen, maybe, or CO2. Oxygen could even be harmful to them.”

The aliens were beginning to whisper to each other as they watched the humans talk. Calvin saw a few of them mime the way the humans removed their oxygen masks whenever they spoke.

“I’ve been to a lot of planets,” said Yung. “I haven’t yet come across anything that breathes nitrogen.”

“Maybe not, but…”

“Listen, kid. One thing I’ve learned is that in the field, you’ve got to rely on your instincts. I’ve got a hunch.” Yung took a deep breath from his mouthpiece, then gently, carefully held it out in front of him, offering it to the chief.

The chief took a few cautious steps towards them, and the squat alien chittered at it ferociously. Turning to the squat one, the chief barked a few short, angry words, then strode determinedly up to Mel, lifted its face to the mouthpiece, and applied its tiny mouth to the valve. Mel thumbed the manual discharge.

The chief’s eyes widened, and its swollen nose wrinkled.

“I think he likes it!” said Mel.

Then the chief choked, retched, and collapsed.

The aliens burst into a cacophony of chittering and the squat one leapt towards the humans, its gruff voice raised above all the others.

“Is it dead?” asked Calvin.

Yung shrugged. “So much for that hunch.”

“Sir, did we just murder an alien? That’s against all kinds of regulations!”

“Relax,” said Yung.

The aliens were getting louder, and coming closer.

Calvin was livid. “We could lose our jobs for this!”

Yung was staring intently at the approaching aliens. “Hey, it’s just a job.”

Suddenly Yung pulled his mask from his face, thumb on the manual discharge, and sprayed a long burst of oxygen towards the nearest creatures. They recoiled in panic, and a few dropped to their hands and knees, retching.

A stone whizzed past Yung’s ear. The explorers leapt to their feet, and Yung shouted, “Run!”

The humans bounded away across the plain, setting their sights on the distant peak of New Faithful. The aliens raced after them. Despite their short legs, the aliens were better adapted to Glyna’s gravity, and they easily outpaced the explorers. As they ran, they hurled rocks, bruising the humans’ legs and backs and pinging shots off the oxygen tanks. Some of the braver aliens grabbed at their feet or hammered at their knees.

Between breaths, Yung sprayed oxygen in the faces of any aliens that got close enough. The aliens retched and gagged, and a few that swallowed direct bursts collapsed and didn’t get up again. Calvin kept his mask on his face, but fought back with his feet and hands, kicking the aliens away and dodging their missiles, doing his best not to hurt them too badly.

After several minutes of running, the aliens fell back and chittered angrily after them. Looking over his shoulder, Calvin saw a few of them kneeling beside one of their fallen friends who had taken a blast of oxygen from Yung’s tank.

The humans slowed their escape, but continued to jog towards their ship at the fastest speed they could maintain.

“Can’t stop,” said Yung between gasps at his mouthpiece. “They’ll follow,” gasp, “they always follow.”

“How do you know that?”

“Experience.”

Calvin tried to put himself in the aliens’ place. “Sir,” he said, “they must think we’re dragons.”

Yung looked at him quizzically, and kept on running.

But Calvin couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. To these aliens, the oxygen geysers probably symbolize supernatural dangers. To us, hell is a place of fire, like a volcano. What if their version of hell is a lake of poison instead of brimstone? We came to them from the poison mountain, breathing poison. That would make us dragons, or worse… Demons.

“The geysers are accelerating, Mel.” Gasp. “These aliens are going to get wiped out, and soon.” Gasp. “We can save them!”

“Forget them,” retorted Yung. “How about saving us?”

Calvin ran on, newly motivated. We can’t seal the oxygen geysers permanently, but maybe we can buy them time to build their civilization and technology to the point where they can save themselves.

Of course, before they could do that, they had to make it back to the Peace III and off the planet.

#

The explorers’ pace had slowed almost to a walk by the time they finally reached the feet of New Faithful. Even in the lower gravity, they couldn’t run forever.

Calvin collapsed in fatigue. Yung’s chest was heaving, and the redness in his face highlighted his wrinkles. In this state, he did indeed look dragon-like. “Can’t afford to stop,” he rasped, but he, too, allowed himself to sit and rest on a moss-covered rock.

A minute passed while they sat, gulping oxygen through their mouthpieces and staring at the ground, heads between their legs.

There was an eruption of chittering.

Calvin whipped around to look behind him. Less than half a mile away, the ground was teeming with what looked like hundreds of the beige aliens, approaching fast. Where did they come from? Calvin thought. Why didn’t we see them coming?

“Camouflaged!” growled Yung. “Run! Run!”

Calvin scrambled back to his feet and took off up the mountainside. The veteran explorer was right: even now, Calvin could only see the aliens because of their movement. Their skin and their clothing blended in to the colors of the landscape. They must have been following at a distance, waiting for their quarry to slow so they could catch them by surprise.

The humans dove uphill, putting every ounce of remaining energy into their legs. Behind them, their pursuers were gaining, gaining. The explorers’ only hope, Calvin realized, was to climb high enough that the atmosphere became too poisonous for the aliens. Even now, it must be having an effect on them… Was it enough?

A stone thunked into the ground ahead of Yung, followed closely by another. One caught Calvin on the hand, and he cried out in pain from behind his oxygen mask.

“Gotta fight it out!” roared Yung.

Calvin spun around just in time as the first wave of attackers reached them. Leading the pack was the squat alien with the diamond on its forehead. It was brandishing the chief’s painted wooden spear in its many-fingered hand. With a blood-curdling screech, it leapt towards Calvin and thrust the spear out in front of it.

Desperately, Calvin pulled the mask from his face and fired off a long burst of oxygen from his tank. The stream of oxygen caught the creature in its open, snarling mouth, and it dropped, gagging and wheezing, to the ground. A dozen more took its place, flinging rocks and jabbing with spears.

Five or six of the aliens gripped Calvin by the knees and held their breath as Calvin doused them with oxygen. Closing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks, they struggled to topple him. Two others dove at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Some of the aliens turned from their assault on Yung and piled on top of Calvin, beating and pounding and piercing.

Calvin fought for his life, lashing out with all his limbs, adrenaline surging, blood flowing from the many places he had been stabbed. “Let me go,” he howled, “or you’ll all be dead in 500 years!” Only as he heard the words pass through his lips did he realize that they sounded like a threat.

Suddenly Yung emerged from a press of bodies, spraying a broad swath of oxygen over Calvin and driving the attackers back for a few seconds. Yung grabbed Calvin under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Together, they ran again.

“Almost,” gasp, “there,” said Yung. His mask was dangling from his face now. The air was oxygenated enough to breathe.

Calvin limped and stumbled. The pain in his legs was too much. He could feel blood oozing out into his suit from dozens of different wounds. He collapsed.

Mel stood over Calvin, taking stock of the younger man’s injuries. “I can’t carry you, kid,” he said. He looked up, and started to back away.

“Mel, please!” Calvin choked. He saw the aliens a few hundred meters down the hill, panting and gasping in the poisonous air as they tried to come up with some way to reach the humans and finish them off.

“You’re a hero, son,” said Mel. “Fifty years from now they’re gonna name this rock’s first human city after you, I promise.” Then he turned and jogged towards the ship.

“Mel, no!” Calvin cried. He tried to stand, fought with every scrap of strength he had left, but the damage was too great. He could only lie on his face and wait to bleed out, as the man he had once called his idol abandoned him and condemned an entire fledgling civilization to death.

END

Leon the Hero

The evil Thar! Plush figures by Tally Heilke.

Leon and his mother were on their way to Emma the ice dragon’s house, walking along the path through the forest, and Leon was as excited as can be. He hadn’t seen his friend in almost a month, and he had lots of stories to tell her about what had been going on in the fire-breathing dragons’ village. Last week there had been a big meeting of all the dragons in the village square, and yesterday all of the biggest dragons had put on helmets and marched down the street like they were in a parade! Leon loved parades.

“Don’t get too far ahead!” called Mom from behind Leon. “Stay on the path, and make sure you can see me.”

“Okay, Mom,” said Leon. Mom was acting strange and extra careful lately, and Leon didn’t know why. This forest wasn’t dangerous!

While Leon waited for Mom to catch up, he decided to practice his fire breath on a bush. He stood up straight, took a deep breath, and WHOOSH, breathed out a mouthful of green fire. The bush burned right up.

“Hey!” shouted a little voice. “What’s the big idea?” There was a little hole underneath the bush, and an angry hopp was sticking out its head.

“Oh!” said Leon. “Are you all right?”

“You burned down my front door!” said the hopp. “I needed that bush to hide my house from all the biter beasts! Now I have to go dig a new burrow somewhere else.”

“What’s going on, Leon?” asked Mom.

“He burned up my bush!” yelled the hopp.

“Leon, you can’t just go around burning things whenever you want to,” said Mom. “Your fire breath should only be used to do good.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Leon.

“Saying ‘sorry’ doesn’t fix my house,” mumbled the hopp.

Leon looked around and saw an old stump that had fallen over. “I have an idea,” he said. “What if we put that stump over top of your hole instead of the bush? Then it will be hidden again, and you can go in and out between the tree roots!”

“Well now, well now!” said the hopp. “That just might work! But it looks like a pretty heavy stump.”

“It’s okay,” said Leon. “We’re dragons, after all, and dragons are strong.”

So Leon and his mom grabbed the stump and dragged it over top of the hopp’s hole. The hopp was able to squeeze comfortably in and out between the old roots, but the gaps were much too small for any biter beast to get through.

“This is great!” said the hopp. “Thank you for your help, little Leon.”

“You’re welcome,” said Leon. “I’m really sorry that I burned your bush down.”

“That’s all right,” said the hopp. “All’s well that ends well! By the way, my name is Harvey Hopp, so if you ever need help from a hopp, just tell them that Harvey said you’re okay!”

“Thank you,” said Leon.

“We have to be on our way now,” said Mom. “Say goodbye, Leon.”

“Goodbye, Harvey!”

“Goodbye, Leon.”

Mom and Leon continued on down the path towards the ice dragon village.

Soon they entered a clearing near the village, and Leon could see the roofs of some of the ice dragon houses through the trees.

“Wait here, Leon,” said Mom. “I’m going to go ahead and make sure it’s safe.”

“What do you mean?” asked Leon. “Why wouldn’t it be safe?”

“Because there’s been an evil beast around lately,” said Mom, “an enormous monster named Thar, and he’s been kidnapping dragons from all of the different villages. That’s why so many of the fire-breathing dragons marched off to war yesterday.”

“To war?” said Leon. “Oh dear! I thought it was just a parade… Has he kidnapped anyone from our village?”

“Not yet,” said Mom, “but he’ll probably try. That’s why we have to be very careful. Wait here until I come back, okay?”

“Okay,” said Leon.

Mom flew up into the sky, and Leon watched as she flew a couple of circles over the trees, checking for danger in the forest or the village. She was just about to fly back down to Leon when a giant black shape swooped around behind her.

“Mom!” yelled Leon. “Look out!”

But it was too late. The monster threw a net around Mom and grabbed the net in its mouth. The ropes wrapped around Mom’s mouth and nose, so she couldn’t breathe any fire, and off the monster flew, dragging Mom behind it.

“Help! Help!” cried Leon. He ran towards the village to find some ice dragons, but there was no one in the streets, and every house he ran to was empty!

“Oh no!” said Leon. “Thar must have kidnapped all of the ice dragons. And now he has Mom, too!”

Leon had to make a decision: should he run back to the fire-breathing dragon village and get help, or should he go after Thar on his own? “Hmm,” he said to himself. “All of our fighting dragons are already out searching for Thar, so there aren’t many people left at home to help. And besides, maybe they don’t know where Thar’s hideout is, so if I follow him I can find it and tell someone where all of the kidnapped dragons are.”

So Leon decided to chase after Thar. He stretched his wings and took off into the sky, flapping as hard as he could. He wished he had spent more time practicing his flying!

When he got above the trees, Leon looked in the direction that he had seen Thar go. Thar was already so far away that he was just a little speck in the sky.

Leon flew after the monster as fast as he could go. He flew over the forest, and over the fire-breathing dragon village, and over some hills, and over the lightning-breathing dragon village, and finally, when he thought he couldn’t fly any farther, he saw Thar land at the base of a mountain.

Leon was very, very tired when he made it to the mountain, and Thar had already disappeared. Leon landed behind a bush and sat down to rest. He was breathing so hard he thought Thar was going to hear him and catch him for sure!

After a little while, Leon poked his head through the bush and looked around to see where Thar might have gone. There was a dusty path, and Leon could see some gigantic footprints leading towards a cave. “That must be where he’s hiding all the dragons he’s kidnapped!” said Leon. “What am I going to do? Should I wait and make sure that this actually is Thar’s hideout, or should I fly back to the lightning-breathing dragon village to see if anyone is there to help?”

Before Leon could make up his mind, he saw a terrifying black-and-purple beast stomp out of the cave. It was Thar!

“Be quiet in there!” Thar shouted back into the cave. “Stop yelling for your friends and family to save you! You’ll get to see them all soon enough, when I’ve kidnapped all of them, too!” With that, Thar laughed an evil laugh and flew off into the sky.

Leon waited until he was sure Thar was gone, then scrambled out from behind the bush and ran into the cave. The cave was huge, and it was filled with all kinds of cages, with dozens of dragons locked inside them. The locks on the cages were gigantic!

“Is that you, Leon?” said a little voice. It was Emma! She was standing at the bars of one of the big cages, which held lots of blue and white ice dragons.

“Emma, are you okay?” said Leon.

“Yes,” said Emma, “but some of us are hurt, and Thar has tied lots of dragons’ mouths shut so they can’t breathe ice or fire or lightning at him! We can’t get the ropes off, either. He tied the knots too tight, and our fingers are too big to undo them!”

“Have you seen my mom?” asked Leon.

“Thar just brought her in. I think she’s in that cage over there.”

Leon looked into the cage Emma had pointed at, and saw Mom lying on the ground with her mouth tied closed. “Mom!” said Leon. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you out. I’m going to go to the lightning-breathing dragon village and get help.”

“There’s no one there anymore,” said one little yellow dragon. “We are all here in these cages!”

“Oh no,” said Leon. “Maybe I can let you out myself. Is there a key anywhere that would open the cages?”

“Thar keeps the only key with him wherever he goes,” said Emma.

“Hmm,” said Leon. “Wait, I have an idea!”

Leon ran outside and started looking around in the bushes until he found a hopp hole. “Hello?” he called into the hole. “Are there any hopps in there? I need your help!”

A little brown hopp popped up out of the hole. “Hello!” it said. “I’m Horace Hopp. Who are you?”

“I’m Leon the dragon,” said Leon. “I need your help!”

“Oh ho, a dragon needs help from a hopp, eh?” said Horace Hopp. “What can a little hopp do for a dragon? You aren’t going to eat me, are you?”

“No,” promised Leon, “I like hopps! As friends, I mean.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” said the hopp. “Why should I believe you?”

“Because I’m friends with Harvey Hopp,” said Leon.

“Oh, you know Harvey? Well then, that’s a different story!” said the hopp. “If Harvey says you’re okay, then you’re okay! What can I do for you?”

“There are dozens of dragons locked in cages inside that cave,” said Leon. “An evil beast named Thar has kidnapped them, and I need to get them out!”

Horace Hopp looked towards the cave. “We’ve seen him dragging dragons in there for a few days,” he said, “but he’s much too big for us to do anything, so we just hide and hope he doesn’t come after us next.”

“Yes, he is big, and scary, too,” said Leon, “but what I really need is someone little to help me.”

“If little’s what you need, then I’m your hopp,” said Horace. “And my family will help, too!” He stomped quickly on the ground with his foot, and in a few seconds ten more hopps had poked out of their holes and gathered around Leon.

“Follow me!” said Leon. He led the hopps into the cave.

“Leon’s back!” said Emma.

“Why did you bring all those hopps with you?” said the little yellow dragon. “How can they possibly help us?”

“You’ll see,” said Leon. “Okay, hopps, If I lift you up and put you inside these gigantic locks, do you think you could open them?”

“Sure!” said Horace. “Piece of cake!”

So Leon started picking up hopps and placing them inside the locks, which were so big that the hopps could crawl right up into them and push all the levers with their feet, as if they were furry little keys.

Soon all of the locks had been opened, and the dragons were free!

“What are we going to do now?” asked Emma, when she was out of her cage. “All of the big dragons still have their mouths tied shut!”

“The hopps can untie those knots, if we help them,” said Leon. “Hopps have strong little feet, so they can reach into the knots with their toes and make them loose, and then we can use our dragon strength to pull the ropes the rest of the way off.”

A few minutes later, the hopps and the little dragons had all worked together to do exactly that, and all of the dragons could open their mouths again.

Mom said, “I’m proud of you, Leon. That was very brave. Now we have to escape, before Thar comes back!”

“Wait,” said Leon. “There’s one more thing to do. All of the dragons should go into the bushes and hide. Horace, gather all of the hopps here. I have another plan.”

The dragons all did what Leon said and did their best to hide in the trees and bushes outside. After Leon had told the hopps his plan, he hid just outside the cave and waited.

A few minutes later Thar returned, carrying two big red dragons tied up in nets. He landed and started to drag the fire-breathers into the cave. “Ha ha ha!” Thar laughed. “My collection keeps getting bigger! Soon I will have captured all of the dragons!”

When Thar got inside the cave he found all of the cages empty, with their doors open, and a bunch of little hopps sitting inside one of the cages. “What’s going on?” roared Thar. “Where are all my prisoners?”

“They escaped!” said Horace Hopp. “We let them out! Ha ha!”

Thar was so mad that he let go of his nets and charged after the hopps, right into the cage. The hopps all scampered out of the way. “Now!” shouted Horace.

Leon leapt into the cave, slammed the door of the cage shut, and clicked the lock onto the door. The hopps scurried out of the cage, right between the bars, and Thar was trapped!

“No!” yelled Thar. “I can’t be your prisoner! You dragons are supposed to be my prisoners!” But he couldn’t escape. He had made his cages too strong.

“We did it!” said Leon, and all the hopps and all the dragons cheered.

“That was a great plan, Leon!” said Emma.

“Thanks,” said Leon, smiling a big dragony smile.

“We should have a party,” said the little yellow dragon, “a party to celebrate Leon!”

“Maybe we can have a party tomorrow,” said Leon. “I think we should all go home first… It’s been a long and tiring day.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” said Mom.

“Well, next time you come to the lightning-breathing dragon village,” said the little yellow dragon, “I’m sure my mom and dad will give you a party. Just come looking for Charlie: that’s me!”

“Thanks, Charlie!” said Leon.

Horace Hopp bounced up to Leon. “I have an idea, Leon,” he said. “Since we hopps already live here by the cave, we can be the guards to make sure Thar doesn’t escape. And if he does escape, then we’ll tell the dragons right away, so you can put him back in jail where he belongs!”

“Good idea, Horace,” said Leon. “Thank you for all your help. You’re a great friend.”

“You’re welcome,” said Horace.

So all the dragons flew home, and all of the warriors who had gone searching for Thar came home, too, and there were big parties all night in honour of Leon.

But Leon was so tired that as soon as he got home, he just went to sleep.


Plush figures by Tally Heilke, available through her Etsy store.