the first victim

Dracula. A huge, gilded first edition. I pulled it from the shelf, feeling a little guilty as the rest of the books on the crowded shelf slumped together. I flipped the book open and the pages crackled. It fell naturally open to somewhere just before the middle of the novel, and there I found a piece of paper neatly tucked between two pages. My heart clenched as I pulled it free, gently closing the book and replacing it in its spot on the shelf.

I unfolded the page, the sound of the paper almost deafening against the constant patter of rain outside.

I’m sorry that I have to do this, the note said, written in a long, elegant script. The pen had been blurred in spots and I lifted it closer to my face. Some kind of moisture. Rain?

I know there are a lot of things you still don’t understand, and me putting you out was probably one of them. I just wanted you to know that I never stopped loving you. I have to go, and so you had to go. I couldn’t let you find me. Don’t think I didn’t notice you hanging around, even after we parted ways.

If you ever think of me, I want you to think of the river where we used to go. Do you remember that? When we first met? I had no idea where to meet a man. I knew we couldn’t do it anywhere public. So I told you to meet me at the river once the sun had set. It was perfect. Far enough away from my house that we could pretend we were in the wilderness, but close enough that we could come back afterwards.

I folded the note and sighed. I pushed it into a pocket inside my coat. I couldn’t decide whether or not I’d give it to Dey. I’d decide after I went to the river and saw what I thought I would find there. Ezra didn’t want Dey to find his body, but he’d left more clues in that note than I thought he’d intended to.

Walking back out into the rain, I replaced my hat atop my head and pulled my collar up. I pulled a pair of gloves out of one of the coat’s deeper pockets and pulled them on. After that, I walked out into the woods, picking a direction at random and only walking a few feet out.

Maybe it would be better, to stick with insipid cases like catching errant husbands, or tracking employees who were swiping a little money from the register. I felt a familiar twinge of dread. These cases, where I knew the outcome but my heart didn’t want to accept it—they lodged in my stomach and stayed there. I stopped walking and went completely silent, stopping even my breath for a moment in order to listen.

Sure enough, I heard rushing water. With the recent rain, even if the river Ezra had described more resembled a stream, it would be flowing fast and audible. So I listened until I thought I could confidently walk in the direction it lay in, and then I walked. He’d described it perfectly—a straight shot out from the house, close enough that I felt I could still make it back to the house without getting lost. Far enough away that the noises of the woods filled in the holes between the sounds of the rain.

It smelled like rot and rain. I walked to the bank of the river, the mud sucking at my shoes. I turned and followed the river in the direction of its flow. It took me quite some time to reach the point where the river divided. I followed the branch where the flow lessened, where the banks grew shallower, where the rocks began to jut from beneath the water. The stream slowed, and it narrowed. It became a trickle, and then the water began to take on a green tinge, algae forming where the water was still enough.

It smelled powerfully of rot, now.

I leaned against a tree at the edge of the pool where the stream ended, and I looked at Ezra Leorn’s body.

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CSI: Noir

I stood in the square of grey light from outside, fishing along the wall for the lights. I flipped the switch when my fingers found it and a light fluttered to life further down the entryway. I closed the door with exaggerated care, wondering for a moment of insanity if it would be more polite if I took off my shoes. I shook my head. Dozens of cops would have been in and out of this place, and I doubted if any of them had shown the vanished family the courtesy of removing their shoes.

The home possessed a degree of splendor that I felt equal parts awed and disgusted by. My mom and dad had done the best they could for me, you know. Put me through school, helped me get into as good a university as I was likely to. Hell, I graduated with a job, so they must not have done too terribly. But I’d never been in a house of this magnitude before. Wood paneling stood in stark relief to the delicate silk wallpaper. The dim illumination of the overhead lights gave everything a warm glow.

Under different circumstances, I could imagine the place looking opulent, or even hospitable and welcoming. Under these circumstances, it creeped me the hell out. It sang with vacuity. The steady tapping of the rain outside began to sound like footsteps from every inch of the upstairs. My journey further into the house therefore became a litany of me reminding myself that there couldn’t be footsteps, because the house was empty. That’s why I was there.

I’d been to enough crime scenes that I knew the rules. Don’t touch anything without a barrier between it and your fingers. Don’t disturb anything you don’t have to. Don’t move anything without moving it back. Take pictures. I pulled my 35mm Leica III from the pocket of my coat and got set up.

But the rain had really started to sound like footsteps. The house groaned and I could’ve sworn I heard a door close upstairs. I stood motionless in the living room amongst the Kreaston’s lavish brocade furniture and listened until the rain began to turn into voices. I stopped listening so hard at that point, and just took a moment to stand in the room and feel what my body had been trying to get me to feel all along.

I did not want to be there. I felt satisfied to finally identify what that insistent niggling in my gut was saying. There was a sense of being watched, but more than that, a sense of being hunted. Like I didn’t want to be there, but something else also didn’t want me there. At that moment, I noticed that across the living room, an empty golden frame had once held a mirror. My eyes had passed across it and I hadn’t even made the connection. Now, I noted the pile of glittering glass on the rug.

A bloody handprint smeared the wallpaper beside the gilded frame. I frowned, leaning in behind my camera and snapping a photo. Stepping toward the shattered mirror, I clasped my hands behind my back and leaned down toward the reflective shards. Blood splashed across them. Someone had smashed this with their hands. The thought gave me a pang of sympathetic pain in my knuckles. I clasped my hands a little tighter.

I abandoned the camera after that. I couldn’t focus on doing my job. I drifted through the house like a ghost, standing in the middle of each room and trying to imagine a family living there. It filled me with a peculiar sense of nostalgia—like I’d been there before. Like I’d always longed to return here, to this place of emptiness and sorrow.

Sorrow? Yes, there was sorrow, there, as well. It felt like it had soaked so deeply into the rugs and the furniture that it almost couldn’t be detected. But it remained beneath everything else the house made me feel, a deep and potent sorrow that had settled into my stomach almost without my noticing.

father/son

More of Cam/this world: the river, camaraderie, Listen, my son

Your eyes meet mine. I can see your mother’s fire glittering there and I know you won’t hesitate before you pull the trigger. You see, your mom has fire but she also has compassion—deep and rich, something you hardly find in people these days, but she had it in abundance. It’s part of what made me love her. You have your mom’s fire but none of her compassion. And that’s why you’ll kill me.

And this is why I won’t stop you.

“Listen, my son,” I say, the words rough in my throat. I’m not even trying to circumvent the inevitable: That’s not an option. Because you have to kill me, in order to satiate the greedy desires of the man behind this all. I can almost see him, standing behind and above you in the shadows of the buildings, holding your puppet strings as your finger tightens on the trigger. You have to kill me, but days or years from now when you wake up from the stupor he’s put you in and you realize the things you’ve done, I want you to have this comfort.

The fact of it is that I will always love you. I loved you from the moment your mom looked at me with that glimmer in her eye that said she knew something I didn’t. Your mom loves you too, of course—but I think there’s something special in the way that a father loves his son. I raised you the best I could, given the city we live in. I thought I taught you right from wrong, even if you never quite understood. Even if you always questioned why. There was never any way I could make you understand why you shouldn’t hit your sister or solve every problem with fighting.

I guess I should have seen it, then. But I didn’t. Because I loved you.

The truth of this world is that fathers always sacrifice themselves so that their sons can live the lives we want for them. My sacrifice, as I stare down the barrel of your gun and into your eyes, just happens to be a little more literal. I want you to know that I expected this. It’s what I signed up for. It’s part of the job. And if you remember anything about me besides the hatred you feel for me in this moment, I want it to be that I always, always, did my duty.

It’s why, ten years after your sister disappeared, I still looked for her. And the moment I thought I had evidence that would bring her home, I pursued it. I know that he filled your head with lies—told you I was an old man with antiquated ideals, who didn’t understand the way that the world works. The way that this city works. But I do. I always have. I tried to bring you and your sister up with a sense of security, that me and your mom would always protect you.

This is me protecting you. I didn’t come to this meeting expecting you to kill me, but the moment I saw your eyes I knew it would happen. Maybe it’s the reason I didn’t bring a gun. I didn’t want to have the option to defend myself. Because fathers always sacrifice themselves so that their sons can live, so that their sons can learn.

This is my sacrifice.

The road you’re walking down isn’t going to be easy. I think you see that. I also think you don’t really understand that you have alternatives. That’s fine. Just promise me that eventually you’ll wake up. Promise me that someday, you’ll become the man I saw in you when you were a little boy, protecting your sister on the playground. Promise me that one day you’ll turn that violence in your heart against the evil in the world, instead of against yourself. Because violence controlled by evil can only result in this sort of thing—a son with the barrel of his gun pressed against his father’s throat. But I still believe that violence controlled by good can produce good.

Promise me that when you wake up, you’ll remember what I said to you in these moments, and you’ll remember that you aren’t a monster. You can wake up and remember that I forgave you before you even pulled the trigger.

That I forgave you. I forgive you. I forgive you.

I love you.

Do good.

You pull the trigger.

her daughters

“She so loves her children, more the ones who play with fire” – She (The Devil’s Blood)

I have seen how the world treats my daughters.

I am in the trees and the shadows of the mountains; I am in the nesting birds and the roaming bears. Those mortals who profane all of the hallowed places believe that I have been banished, but I sit quietly and I bide my time. The world will know how we have been wronged.

Once, before the memory of any of the mortals who roam the low places of the world, they chased my mother into the mountains. She secreted herself away, and she hid herself from detection. Out of her, I became—I have no recollection of how she died, or if she died. Perhaps I was always her—a disease feasting in her bones, growing until I emerged. I spread like a moss across these mountains, melting the snow that my bereft mother had brought.

And I gathered my daughters around me, here. All of my children are beloved to me—but if I must sacrifice a son here and there, if the world treats them badly, that is of no concern to me. For I am Silesia’s timeless witch, and the trivial trials of men do not disturb me.

For I have seen how the world treats my daughters. I have felt the bite of the lash in their backs each time you have struck them. Where they have felt pain, I have felt anger, and a mother’s anger is a terrible thing to trifle with. I push my fingers outward and I feel them in the soil of this place, pushing beneath the foundations of your temples and places of commerce. With a thought, I could bring your world crumbling. I would return it to myself, the soil devouring it slowly, my moss spreading across the ruins of your civilization.

I expected to wait longer than I did.

The knight crosses my valley and I watch her from the birds in the trees, from the grasshoppers leaping through the verdant grass at her feet. I touch her face with the wind as my fingers, and I see the quiver of uncertainty in her face. I ask her name and the earth answers: Roland. It is a strong name. It is a name I would give one of my daughters. I hardly know them, anymore—because every girl beleaguered in the marketplace and every woman locked behind closed doors is welcome to be my daughter.

Is she mine? Does she wish to be mine? I touch her face and I surround her with everything I am, my entire essence. The wind inhales and I drag her scent into the back of my throat. I feel the coarse fabric of her tunic between my fingers. I weave her braided hair loose and send its tendrils twining out behind her head. She swears and takes her hair in her rough, calloused hands, braiding it again with a few quick motions.

She is my daughter. I can hear it in the quick, coarse profanity she mutters. I can see it in the shadow behind her pale golden eyes. I uplift her, the grass shifting beneath her feet, the creatures of the soil writhing and rejoicing as she strides forward again. She heads towards the cottage I once called my own, poised on the crumbling cliff’s edge. Does she know it lies empty? Does she know what prison the demigods of Silesia have cursed me to?

I breathe against her and a rush of moths burst from the tree at her back. She shivers as their silver wings touch her skin, but she does not startle and she does not turn back. I breathe through the wind and I look at her from the bones behind the cottage’s wide front window. This is where I exist—here in the bleached bones, etched by the teeth of time. I stare at her from weathered and empty eye sockets.

I am the bones of an elk and a wolf at once, all elongated fangs and wide, spreading antlers. I know she sees me, if only for a moment, just long enough that her stride falters and her breath catches. Just short enough that she convinces herself it was an illusion. She travels down the narrow path to the edge of the cliff and she presses a palm against the door. I feel it, like a palm against my own skin; I exhale and the door swings inward.

Dust has laid claim to everything within the cottage—the witch’s home, obsolete and barren. The bones used for augury lay mixed with the bones of would-be looters on the floors and counters. I could not allow any to defile this sacred place. What is one mortal death against the death of a god?

I know she feels me. I reach out and half the bones atop the counters clatter to the floor. Her sharp intake of breath empowers me—I hear within it her supplication. Strength floods me; I breathe out and the door slams shut. My daughter steps into the middle of the cottage and I rattle the wind chimes made of teeth and wood and stone.

“Huna?”

The voice of my daughter enlivens me. I dig my fingers into the soil and this time I feel something. The coolness of the earth and the steady pulsating warmth just beyond that. I dig myself upward, out of my sleepless tomb.

“I was told that the witch still lives,” she says, turning in a slow circle. She finds her courage and steps toward the counters. Trails her fingers through the chimes. She lifts the skull of a shrew and holds it in the palm of her hand. “If you know where to look.”

You do know where to look, I tell her. You are canny and strong, for you are one of mine. She startles and the skull drops from her hand and shatters against the earthen floor. I can see the regret furrowing her brow, and I smooth a hand across her hair.

There will be more bones, I tell her. Dead things are the only resource this world promises.

“I need to speak with you,” she says, and I feel the depth in her words. I feel the struggle in her voice. I understand it. I have lived on this world long enough to understand the pain in my daughters’ voices. It is enough: It is just enough. I push the soil away from my face and I emerge, the mold shriveling away from my skin. A flush of moths scatters from me as I appear to her, branches as my bones and sap as my blood.

I am not beautiful, but I am savage and I am filled with a vicious anger. I smooth her cheek with the back of a gnarled hand and, with her mouth hanging open, she wraps her hands around mine. We stand there a long while, the witch and her daughter. She does not know what to say.

“I am here,” I tell her. I already know what she needs, and I already know I will give it to her.

Because she is my daughter. And I have seen how the world treats her.

the Saoshyant

from my NaNoWriMo novel this year. More from this world (before the actual story had been developed): barren land

“When we conducted the ritual in the desert, it allowed the Saoshyant to speak to me directly,” he said. His voice quavered and he swallowed hard, surprising himself at how much the interaction still affected him. Vaguely he could remember his nightmares from the night before, and all of them involved a massive, vine-laced machine opening thousands of eyes to stare balefully down upon him.

“I can’t explain it. It’s filled with rage and hatred. It’s sad,” he said, placing his hand over the machine’s. “Just like you. But Bellwether, you’re sad and angry and confused right now. I think you probably should be. But you also feel affection and trust. You won’t be angry forever.”

A note of yellow entered into the white light.

“And the Saoshyant will be angry forever?” it asked.

“I think so,” Asim said. “I think it will have to be destroyed before it stops being angry.”

The yellow vanished and the light flushed red, but it faded quickly back into pale blue.

“I become so sad when I think about it,” it said. “I awakened to the fact that one human was killed so that I could exist. I cannot imagine awakening to the fact that one thousand humans had died to create me. I would have killed you. I would have killed everyone.”

Asim frowned. He nodded slowly.

“The fact that we need to destroy it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand why it’s here.”

“Is it alright that I feel sad that it must be destroyed?”

“Of course,” he said. “The first thing you’ll learn is that it’s alright to feel almost everything. It’s how you react to it that matters.”

“I will not react to feeling angry and confused by destroying a continent,” Bellwether said. Its deep, resonant voice almost had a note of humor. Almost. It gave the impression of flexing a muscle it hadn’t been aware it possessed.

Asim breathed out carefully, allowing himself to truly relax. He felt like every muscle in his body had been taut since the first question Bellwether had asked him last night. Actually, it felt like every muscle had been taut since they’d had the first messenger from the north. And he wouldn’t be able to truly let down his guard until they’d wrought the Saoshyant’s destruction.

It felt oddly demoralizing, to be fighting against a machine that hated them as much as the Saoshyant did. An egregious wrong had been committed against the machine, but Asim had nothing to do with it. He hadn’t been involved. He hadn’t even been a vague glimmer in the eyes of the universe. And yet this task had fallen upon him, because the rest of the continent hadn’t been able to unite against the threat. Or perhaps it was merely Mait’s position that had given them this opportunity to bide their time and plan.

The machine’s words—humans are incapable of innocence—resounded with him. At first, he’d struggled against them, his first instinct to reject and disprove them. But hadn’t they taken the first steps toward the construction of a similar machine? He’d fallen in love with the prototype. One soul, if the experiment had gone as Damiclese planned, could have led to many. The fact that a human mind had even conceived the plan to rip life away from a human to power a machine cast a pall across Asim’s optimism.

Perhaps they were incapable of innocence. Perhaps human minds would always dream up this kind of destruction.

starving man

“Did I tell you what Maurice the blacksmith said to me?”

“No.” Roland said, leaning her back against Oliver’s cart, boredly scanning the crowd. All day it’d just been her, stood here, listening to Oliver. No break in the tedium by way of customer or brawl. Rare, for New Tarmac.

“Well, I mean, I can’t remember exactly what he said. But man was he trying to lord over me because he’s a blacksmith and sells, like, actual wares. What’s he trying to insinuate?”

“That you’re a trash dealer?”

Roland glanced over and met his eyes, before looking pointedly at the assorted garbage he’d lain out on the cart for display. She of anyone could vouch for it being garbage, because she herself had pulled much of it from foliage at the side of the road. But in Silesia, anything could be a treasure to the right person.

Or at least that’s what Oliver always said.

He had the typical assortment: old swords rusted into their scabbards, leather armor half rotted away, a shield with what looked to be a sizeable bite taken out of it. But he also had things brought through from other worlds and left discarded. A small statue of a scaly monster with tiny arms carved from what Roland had heard called “plastic.” Something large and rectangular and glass with a crack splitting its reflective surface. And countless other things that could serve nobody any use, here.

Oliver shrugged.

“You’re mouthier than other guards I’ve had.”

“Well,” she said. She smiled vaguely. “You’re not paying me to stay quiet.”

“I’m not paying you at all.

She arched an eyebrow and looked away. Back to the milling crowd. Beyond that, the woods where they’d likely be staying tonight after accruing zero profit from Oliver’s trash cart.

“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Nature calls.”

Oliver grunted something noncommittal as she walked into the press of people. They parted before her, none of them giving her much thought or attention.

She stepped into the woods and then walked further, frowning over her shoulder at the continued burble of voices from behind her. The trees grew thicker. And then they began to die.

She didn’t notice it at first, but the bark peeled too easily from the tree she touched absentmindedly on her passage. Frowning, she pulled away a hand covered in rot and maggots. Then she noticed. The trees pressing in on her, as well as the trees ahead and behind, had all fallen to rot.

Roland knew what happened next. She’d heard the stories. All Names, God of the Death of Nature, stood in their private luminance against the squalid black of the woods. The great white stag, a tangible glow exuding beyond the tips of their fur, stood in a clearing just ahead and looked back upon her with their dead crimson eyes.

She’d been trained in martial arts first by her father, and then in broadsword. She’d be an effective combatant with several varieties of weaponry, given a few minutes to get her bearings. She’d defended Oliver before just using the half-eaten shield he’d had on sale, today.

But now, she trembled. Drawing a steep breath, she stepped toward the dead god. It was said in New Tarmac that All Names precipitated death in those they met. It was also said that they never met anyone by accident.

The god turned and walked away from her. She knew only that she must follow, and so she did, walking gravely in the stag’s wake. They passed through the trees like preacher and acolyte, her boots making narrow footprints in the splatters of blood All Names dripped onto the forest floor.

Another point of white appeared through the caliginous woods, and Roland recognized this one as well. The God of All the Worlds, Nosturi, crouched on his knees between two trees. If Roland thought it possible for a god, she would have thought he were hiding. He turned to them as she and All Names broached the trees, and in his ice-pale blue eyes lay such bald despair that Roland stepped backward.

“She is not enough,” he whispered. He met her eyes. He looked on the very broken edge of tears.

Footsteps crunched through the undergrowth and heralded the arrival of a stranger. This one Roland did not recognize. She stumbled backward and ducked behind a tree, her dutiful guardian’s mind picking out all the weaknesses of her position. For one, the luminance shedding from All Names lit her up like the light from a full moon. She also had no weapon or shield.

She sensed something from the stranger—a grim, uninterested sort of malice. He swept the surroundings and smiled a little, but it was the smile of a snake who’s just dislocated his jaw to devour his prey still squirming.

“You brought an audience.”

The stranger stepped forward and put a hand against Nosturi’s forehead. The god did not resist. He closed his eyes, and ceased to be.

Roland, aware she was not really hiding, looked around the tree and met the man’s eyes. Beside her, All Names continued to stand, unperturbed. The stranger said nothing, just took a step backward, turned, and walked back through the woods.

The stag stepped forward, walked to the spot where Nosturi had vanished, then continued walking until they had darkened to a glimmer between the trees far ahead. Roland watched them go, before sliding down to her knees, the bark of the rotting tree rough against her palm.

She knelt there for a long time. Long enough that in time she heard Oliver begin to call her faintly from the direction of the market. She couldn’t summon the strength to stand for several minutes after that, and even as she walked in the direction of her friend’s voice, she couldn’t fathom what she would tell him.

Something had happened. She couldn’t explain it. Cold panic writhed in her gut—she had to travel to the Hall of the Gods. She had to see if the rest of them were still there.

0103

She’d given him a name. Perhaps it could be argued she’d also given him his freedom, but Aegis saw no use for the thing, so he didn’t consider it a boon of knowing her.

He didn’t know how to use the name, either. It carried a strange flavor in the back of his throat. So he just didn’t introduce himself. There was little enough need of names in Vegasia, so it’d been a simple thing to leave the city without anyone learning his. It felt as stuck to him as the red sand that stuck to the streaking sweat on his face.

Standing at the crest of a canyon, the wind pulling at his jacket, Aegis blinked dust from his eyes and considered.

“0103?”

The thin, young voice from behind him was the one his imagination had assigned his brother. He knew that if he turned he would see the apparition, real as if he could hurl a handful of dust and strike it.

“My name is Aegis now.”

“Why?”

“Because—“ He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Because that’s what she told me.”

“She doesn’t own you. She didn’t even tell you her name.”

Finally he turned, eyes tired from the constant sun falling on the boy. The back of his mind whispered that the boy had died. The reality before him contravened this. He lifted his shoulders in an abject shrug.

“Nobody does, now. Nobody owns either of us.”

“So where are you going?”

He wanted to shrug again. He didn’t want to make the decision. Didn’t want to speak it aloud.

For a long moment, he didn’t. They watched each other. He knew that if he wandered the desert much longer, his sanity would tilt forever. He’d never recover from the delusion of his brother, following him. Free.

He had to get out of the desert.

By the time he’d loosed the canteen from its belt and raised it to his lips, the apparition had disappeared.

Aegis wished he could claim to be traveling across the desert to avenge his brother’s death. But the truth wasn’t that simple.

barren land

novel concept came about from this song

It felt wrong, touching the gilded throne. Asim draped his fingers over the delicate metalwork, narrowing his eyes at the glitter of halite studding the seat’s stone. Things so achingly familiar to behold, that fit so perfectly into the framework of his life, that it made his father’s absence more glaring by half again.

When the pharaoh’s absence had stretched from one week to two, the rumors had begun. The whispers delivered to him by spies secreted amongst the servants and laborers that the masses expected him to ascend to the throne. Fortunately, he thought, none of these whispers had suggested he had a hand in his father’s missing. They thought well of him. They thought him his father’s son—a guardian, a steadfast servant of righteousness.

They were right to think so. He’d had nothing to do with any of this.

It made everything almost worse. He struggled with the sense of helplessness. At least if it’d been some grand conspiracy, he’d feel more empowered. Perhaps he would feel less scandalized to even behold his father’s throne.

In the antechamber, a dog barked, its metallic voice hollow in its copper throat. Asim stiffened, drawing himself straight, trying to force his presence to be commanding and effortless in one moment. He felt that he had failed by the time the door opened, dumping his servant and two guards into the throne chamber.

“This is unheard of!” the servant sputtered, even now trying to push the guards back out the door. The three dogs that customarily traveled with each pair of guardsmen moved to separate servant from guards. They moved with such eerie silence, their eyes bright with alchemy, with whatever living force powered them.

“Pharaoh, it’s at the Jitaki border,” one of the guards said, disentangling himself from the confusion. “Two refugees made it through.”

Jitak, just to the north of Mait. Where his father had gone two weeks ago in pursuit of some information the scholars in Jitak’s capital had uncovered. The elder pharaoh’s unheard-of mission of cooperation had resulted in him now being lost in a country that did not exist.

“I don’t have to ask if my father was one of the refugees.” His voice felt hard as stone in his throat.

The guard’s mouth drew into a grimace. He bowed his head.

Asim’s gut clenched but he fought not to display a reaction.

“Is it visible?”

The guard looked up and nodded sharply.

“Barely. It’s not crossed the border yet. But it’s there.”

Asim’s fingers left his father’s throne. He moved through the guards and their dogs and the servant like a stone through clear water. They followed him as he went out through the antechamber and onto the balcony. He leaned over the edge and there, a cloud of sand against the darkling dusk of the horizon.

He couldn’t see it yet. Just the result of its inexorable march. Any other day the miles-high wall of dust may have been another sandstorm—an ordinary calamity. But this—the thing they called the cataclysm—had demolished every country north of Mait, including now Jitak. In his imagination, his eyes peeled back the billowing, still-distant sand and he saw the great black thing. He saw the great fangs it projected downward into the earth as it came on, as recounted in the reports pouring in from countries Mait hadn’t heard from in generations.

What a thing to unite them.

It occurred to him, belatedly, that the guard had called him pharaoh.

the river

more with Cam/Eden/this wip: camaraderieListen, my son

At the bank of the wide river, someone had tied a canoe. Cam hadn’t ever seen one before, but he’d heard the word, knew the concept. He hadn’t seen a canoe or a river, in fact—just the little fetid streams that trickled through what had once been natural areas, that fine sheen of oil and garbage resting on top. So the noise of the water startled him and he paused, allowing Eden to overtake him.

She passed him and then returned, stared at him for a second, snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.

“Hello? There’s no way I can row this thing on my own.”

Cam blinked and shook his head.

“I’m used to the freighters they ship supplies in on,” he said.

“Wait, the canoe is what you’re reacting to?”

“Well,” he said. “Never seen moving water this big, either.”

“There’s a world of things for you to see,” she said.

She grabbed his forearm and pulled and Cam went without protest, his eyes still fixed on the canoe, until the moment Eden pushed him down into it.

“Now, here’s my thought. If we both row, obviously you’re much stronger than me, so we’ll go in circles.”

She looked at him askance as she settled into the canoe facing him.

“I’ll row.”

He hefted the oar and touched it into the water. He didn’t have any idea how to operate the thing. Leaning onto the handle, he pushed and the canoe jolted forward, its prow kicking up a spray of river water that shimmered across Eden.

“What the hell?” she said. She sounded more incredulous than angry, which was becoming a pattern for her.

“Ain’t got many skills besides operatin’ a firearm,” he said.

“That’s becoming clear to me.”

He tested the oar again, holding back, pushing slower—the canoe jumped again, but less jarring this time, and the next time hardly at all. They moved out across the river, sending ripples out into their wake.

“At least you learn fast.”

“Yeah, I been told that.”

The river widened as they went and Cam idly watched the landscape—the woods on both sides, the frothing whiteness of the water as it spilled over rocks that jutted up from the river’s bottom. He was aware of Eden observing him but didn’t think much of it. Eden liked to observe things. With him, these periods of reflection usually ended with derision, but Cam also thought little of that.

Worse things had happened to him than some mild ribbing from the strange woman he’d been traveling with.

“You’re boring to travel with,” Eden said.

Cam looked up at her. “Oh yeah?”

“You don’t talk. You just follow me around like some big dog.”

“If I’d been talkin’ instead of followin’, you’d be dead.” Cam picked up the oar as the river’s current resigned itself to carrying them along. “So there’s that.”

The canoe abruptly careened sideways. With a catastrophic crunch, it ran aground, spilling Eden out onto the stony bank. Cam felt himself heaved forward as well, but kept his feet. Dumbfounded, he turned toward the canoe.

“Idiot,” Eden spat, staggering to her feet and brushing the sand from her clothes. “You have to steer, too!”

“I never been in a canoe,” Cam said. He shrugged. “I told you that.”

Fall

prompt: “Black Lake Nidstang” by Agalloch

My sense of magic faded and then collapsed altogether. I stopped in my tracks as the path melted beneath my feet. I found myself standing on an inch thick layer of detritus—grey leaves withered and curled, bones secreted away at the bases of the trees. A fox lay stretched across the ground a few feet in front of me, its body flung outward as though it’d been in the middle of fleeing when it died. I did not feel afraid. I felt the forest and its eyes upon me, eyes old as the ages opening and blinking and awakening and fixing upon me. I felt honored to have come into their presence.

I lifted my eyes from the fox and found All Names standing on the bank of a wide black lake. I do not mean black in that night had fallen across a primordial forest. The water projected black. The water did not glint or shimmer when it moved. The air hung limp and dead around us, and yet the water moved—it shifted with the gentle wet slap that water makes as it laps against rocks on the shore.

The stag stood across the lake from me and directed their blank gaze away from me and behind me, toward the Hall of the Gods. The first thing I noticed: Ragadar did not stand attendant at their leg. I blinked as though to clear my eyes, thinking for a wild moment that perhaps this were some peculiar dream. Seeing All Names without the child shook my vision of reality. I wanted to speak but no words seemed adequate. The unadulterated presence of the stag proved almost too much for me to handle—my vision blurred, telescoped around the edges. This couldn’t be real.

The stag’s wide red eyes closed and they breathed outward, a low, humid breath that I felt across the lake. And then they opened their eyes and fixed them upon me. Names spun into my mind, hectic and confused, a babbling, maddening, endless stream of names that filled me and sent me spinning to the brink of insanity.

Quiet.

And my brain fell silent. I felt the tangle of names at the back of my brain and knew that if I reached for them, they would return. I focused my attention on the stag. One name pulled loose from the rest and tumbled into my consciousness.

Jack.

It wasn’t enough. I wanted—

Santiago.

I met the stag’s eyes and I wept, then. Silent tears spilled down my cheeks. I stepped forward on legs that hardly seemed able or willing to support me. I walked to the edge of the lake and All Names’ reflection broke out across the black water, resplendent and white, dispelling the ancient curse I sensed lurking in the waters.

This is my curse, they said, each word striking like a gigantic bell inside my brain. This is where I sleep.

I blinked and across from me, instead of All Names, stood a massive bough staked through the bank of the lake. And atop it, the head of a giant stag had been pinned—its mouth hung slack, blood spilling from its severed head and trailing from its lips down its neck. The pink eyes stared toward the Hall of the Gods. I blinked again and All Names stood across from me. I shivered, the tremor shooting straight through me.

Nature is life, and I am the death of nature. Do you see? Even I must die.

Their great red eyes moved past me again.

Nature is sound and I am silence. And when I die, everything must die around me. When I cease to die, the world falls to chaos. Do you understand? You must be prepared.

I opened my mouth and then shut it. Repeated this a few more times. “No,” I said.

I unleash my curse upon you, the voice said, pouring into my brain with unprecedented force. I grunted and wanted to clap my hands over my ears. I am nature and I am the death of nature. I am sound and I am silence. And when I die, such a calamity I shall wreak across the heavens, that it shall unmake the world.

My breath came short in my chest. I clutched at my heart.

A curse upon you. A curse upon you who let me die. A curse upon you.

The voice came louder and louder until it roared through me. It threatened to pull me apart by the molecules. All Names stared at me and their stare was great and horrible. In their eyes all the mysteries of nature spun, and I felt myself spinning among them—

I broke. I fell to my knees and in the waters of the black lake I saw the reflection not of the brilliant stag, not of the pinpoint of white in the dark forest, but of the bough with the stag staked through. I saw the dead eyes staring, staring. The wood stained with blood and gristle. I saw the curse gathering in the waters. I felt it stretching fingers out toward me. I staggered backward and got myself turned away. Without making it fully back to my feet, I scrambled back through the woods in the direction I’d come.