Derek's flash stories 2017

This is a collection of my flash stories that got written in 2017 for the weekly AW flash challenge,
just so they're all in the one place, because I totally forget about them otherwise.
When your WIPs are getting you down, scribble some flash! It might unblock the clogged toilet.


Gut Instinct
There are times when you just have to let go of logic and trust your instincts. 01/01/17

Misunderstandings
Don't believe what the men in suits told you, it's all lies. 01/02/17

License Expired
See, this is what happens when you upset the wood elves. 01/09/17

Obligation
A cop is under suspicion when he's the only survivor of a shoot-out with gangsters. 01/16/17

Dead Center
A sniper has his target centered in the cross hairs of his scope and his finger on the trigger, but it's not that easy. 01/23/17

Mistakes Were Made
A robbery goes wrong, with some help from little friends. 01/30/17

Countdown
A covert alien team works to make Earth habitable. 02/06/17

My Secret Life
Unavailable. Story is Out There trying to find a home. 02/13/17

The Search
A dinner guest realizes her host is suspicious of her true origins. 02/20/17

Life Not Easy
A lonely man ponders his painful situation. 02/27/17

With A Whimper
There are always some survivors, but for how long? 03/06/17

The Hit
Two adventurers attempt to enter the walled city of Amadoz so they can kill the Mad King, but guards are waiting for them and they need to think fast. 03/13/17

Only The Lonely
An innocent date leads to nocturnal activities. 03/20/17

The Good Boy
Let me tell you about Timmy the T-Rex. He was a good boy. 03/27/17

Island Of The Cannibal Midgets
Survivors of a shipwreck find themselves on a mysterious island. Special April Fool's challenge from zanzjan! 04/01/17

The Watcher
We could bear being watched no longer. 04/03/17

The Realm of Men
An Elven princess and her attendant venture too close to the edge of the woods. (partial) 04/10/17

Let Sleeping Wizards Lie
An ancient relic is sought by evil men, luckily heroes are available to stop them. 04/17/17

All In A Day's Work
Snake god cultists are the worst. 04/24/17

Castle Games
Catnip must survive the deadly Games if she's to win food supplies for her ghetto. Warning, parody. 05/01/17

It Never Rains But It Pours
Some strange weather forces a bunch of strangers to take refuge together.

First Contact #4723
Sometimes you just have to take the shot.



Gut Instinct

Shooting was still going on all around the volcano complex. Those fanatic guards just didn't want to give it up, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. But it was nice and quiet in here. Just electronic machinery playing a symphony of soft blips and bloops.

I'd tagged the place as a secondary control room. The main control room had been blown the hell up, so maybe the bad guys, if any were still alive, would try to make their way here so they could still snatch some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat, as they say.

Going by the radio chatter in my ear, the bomb experts were still working on making the nuke warheads safe. So, patient person that I am, I waited. Just in case someone came running in the door with a crazy look in their eyes, ready to input the security code that would launch the missiles.

And someone did come running in. Footsteps got louder and louder, then a figure skidded to a stop in the middle of the room. No need to use my sights at this range, I just had to squeeze the trigger. Which I should have done, but I checked my finger at the last moment.

She turned her head and looked at me over her shoulder. Somehow she'd sensed my presence. Her toffee colored eyes appraised me in an instant. I appraised her, too. This could only be the daughter. Very little was known about her, only that she was always somewhere in the background, near to her father, Professor Kurt von Schäferhund, the criminal genius who'd very nearly forced the world to surrender to his insane demands or risk having its major cities vaporized.

"Love the hair," I said. She rocked the blue look. It went with the white sailor mini-dress, which had a blue trim, and her eye makeup and lip gloss. Her eyes crinkled with amusement, but only for a moment. Then they were as hard as diamonds. I had the drop on her and she knew it, but she was still thinking about somehow launching them nukes, making good her father's threat.

She slowly turned to face me, perhaps hoping to dazzle me with her amazing cleavage. It very nearly worked, but I'd read her file, slim as it was. I knew this pretty girl image was just a disguise. Karlotte von Schäferhund was 72 years old, according to birth records. That she only looked 16 was a tribute to her father's genetic engineering experiments. I had to admit, maybe the crazy dude was onto something. The world would be a better place if everyone could look as good as his daughter at that age.

She couldn't stop her eyes from glancing towards the master control panel. She was judging the distance. Calculating whether she could reach it and tap in the launch code before I could react. Was she really that fast?

"I don't want to shoot you, princess, but I will if I have to," I told her.

She tilted her head. "English? MI6?"

"Close enough."

When she shook her head, her blue hair cascaded over her shoulders like a shimmering waterfall. "I don't think you understand," she said. Her voice sent tingles down my spine. "I'm not here to destroy the world. I'm here to save it." She pointed to a display I hadn't noticed because of the angle. "The countdown has already begun. Only I know the abort code."

I took a couple of steps away from the wall so I could see the display better, all the while keeping a close eye on her. This was a trick. She was getting ready to jump....

The display showed a digital clock. But it wasn't telling the time. It was counting down. Only 02:06 remained.

"For all I know, that's a coffee maker."

She gave me a lop-sided smile. I wanted to kiss her lip gloss so hard. "I hope you like your coffee very, very hot," she said. "Ten seconds after the missiles fly free of their silos, this base will cease to exist. My father also activated the self-destruct sequence before he died."

"You don't seem too upset about his death."

"I ran out of tears a long time ago, Mr. English agent. Perhaps when my father murdered my mother, when she objected to his plans for world domination. Or perhaps it was when I realized I meant nothing to him, that the only emotion he ever felt when he looked at me was pride, not in me but for himself, because I was the by-product of a successful laboratory experiment."

She looked at the display. 01:23. If she was telling the truth then I had to let her do what she said she'd come here to do. If she was lying, which seemed an altogether more likely probability, then a great number of people would die.

There are times when you just have to let go of logic and trust your instincts. This, I sensed, was one of those times. I gestured to the master control panel.

She tapped in a code, went into a menu, selected options, and the countdown timer stopped.

When she turned to face me again, I saw amusement had returned to her eyes. "You had your weapon trained on me the entire time, didn't you?"

"Yes I did," I said. "If I'd thought you were trying to deceive me, I would have put two bullets into your spine."

"I would expect no less. So, what do we do now?"

I'd been wondering that question myself. As it happened, one of the SAS team leaders appeared in the doorway. "The hostiles are all down, sir." He looked from Karlotte von Schäferhund to me, and back again. "Everything all right here?"

"Everything's under control, thank you, Sergeant."

"Any further orders, sir? You want me to take the prisoner?"

There are times when you have to let go of logic and trust your instincts. "Leave her with me, Sergeant, I'll see she's delivered into the right hands."

He nodded and ran off, his boots thudding on the metal floor.

I commandeered one of the captured helicopters and took my prisoner along with me. I made sure she was secured to the co-pilot's seat and couldn't get up to mischief. She cast curious glances at me, but said nothing further. I ignored her and concentrated on my flying. There was a charming little place I knew along the coast, with beach-front cabins on stilts overlooking a calm blue lagoon. I decided I'd carry out her interrogation there. Her lop-sided smile suggested she might not have any objections to that.

-The End-

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Misunderstandings

After the monsters were rounded up and taken away, the men in suits made me sit down and read a thick document, then sign it in three different places.

They explained this meant I couldn't talk about what had happened, not with anyone. If I did, I would be arrested. The penalties were harsh, a huge fine, and time in jail. Maybe years!

But they can't stop me from writing about it here, which I want to do because people gotta know the truth. They're not really monsters. Yeah I know what's said about them, I've heard all the stories. They're supposed to have killed dozens of victims.

They could have killed us -- but they didn't. They could have killed the cops who came looking for them -- they didn't. They could have taken hostages. They could have done horrendous things that would have ended with people dying.

Instead they surrendered peacefully, even after two of their kind were shot dead, the two who'd carried a white flag made from a pillowcase. It was only after I took the flag up and carried it outside that things calmed down and negotiation became possible.

So don't believe what the men in suits told you, it's all lies. The monsters told me they didn't do any of these things. I don't know who's responsible for making up that terrible, terrifying list of all the crimes they're supposed to have committed. Just reading it made me feel sick. The media? The government? Or just ordinary people who were so afraid they imagined these awful lies into existence?

The monsters are being put in jail. In cells with hard cots, chained to the walls. Their natural living environment has been taken away from them. If they can't lurk underneath beds, who knows what will happen to them?

Write to your congressperson, to your member of parliament, to your government representative. Tell them the truth. They're not monsters, goddammit, they're just misunderstood.

-The End-

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License Expired

Let other people judge me all they want, I just don't care!

January is a cold, miserable month. I opened my door this morning and a ton of snow fell on my head and went down my neck. I fell on my arse twice before I reached the end of my iced-up garden path.

Can anyone blame me for wanting an extra bit of cheer during this freezing cold weather?

Yes, a big thank you to everyone who stopped me to remind me, I know the village rules state that all Christmas trees must be taken down by the 12th day and left outside for the wood elves to collect.

And yes, thank you, I know I should have done this days ago. And that I'm -- technically! -- violating the terms of the Christmas tree license agreement with the wood elves. (How can you copyright trees?!)

But it brightens up the house so much! The shiny bauble decorations reflect the candle-light and help chase the winter blues away.

So let's just forget about the damn rules, just this once. Let me enjoy my enjoyment for a while longer! I'll take my tree down once the thaw comes. I definitely will.

* * *

This was the last diary entry that our dear friend Mopo wrote. His cottage is still classified as a crime scene, and we would ask everyone to keep their big noses out of it.

Mopo is still missing but we hope he will turn up soon, preferably alive.

We are currenly negotiating with the wood elves, so please stay away from the woods and do not give them further cause for antagonism. Do not make eye contact.

-The End-

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Obligation

As the only survivor of the ambush, I was whisked to the Chief's office as soon as they patched me up in the E.R. My presence in Police H.Q. attracted attention. I was the recipient of many stares, both curious and suspicious.

I might have expected someone to be happy I'd lived through the shoot-out, which had left 17 Oedo Police Force TAC officers and 23 New Yakuza members dead. But it seemed they were disappointed I hadn't died, too.

"You see, Officer Haru, there is the inarguable fact that the New Yakuza were somehow able to orchestrate this ambush with perfect timing. It seems likely they were warned of the raid."

The speaker was Assistant Chief Commissioner Jinza. He chose to stand alongside me and lean down to speak into my ear as if I were a slow child who needed everything explained clearly.

The Chief sat behind his desk, surrounded by virtual screens connected to every part of Oedo. We called him The Frog but not only because he looked like a frog. Frogs are wise and have magical powers. I hoped he could use his powers and realize I was no traitor.

"Please explain to us, Officer Haru," he said, "how you are the only member of the Tactical Assault Command team who is still alive?"

Assistant Chief Commissioner Jinza tapped his wrist-com. The image on every screen changed to show a view of the sub-level access tunnels where the ambush had taken place, only seconds after our team entered the labyrinth. The smoke was just beginning to clear, revealing bodies scattered everywhere.

The only two people who were still alive were me, and the New Yakuza gangster who stood over me, pointing his submachine-gun at my head. I'd been hit by several bullets that had knocked me down, but although I'd sustained injury my impact armor had saved my life. My comrades hadn't been so lucky.

On every screen, I nodded my head.

Instead of killing me, the gangster lowered his gun, turned around and walked away.

Jinza fast-forwarded the recording and 45 seconds later the backup team arrived on site, closely followed by medics. He froze the playback at that point.

"Well, Officer Haru?" the Chief said.

"The actions of the New Yakuza gunman are inexplicable, sir," I said.

The Chief looked at Jinza and Jinza looked at the Chief. Clearly this was not the answer they wanted.

"Officer Haru will need time to recover from his injuries," the Chief said. My spirits sank. They had no conclusive evidence but it was obvious from the Chief's tone and from their manner that they believed I was on the take -- that I had been corrupted by New Yakuza and had sent a warning of the raid that resulted in so many deaths. I hadn't. I would never have betrayed my comrades or my oath.

"I shall make appropriate arrangements," Jinza said. "A long convalescence may be in order." By which they meant I would never be trusted again. That I would not be approved for return to duty, and would eventually be forced to resign from the Oedo Police Force.

"Most assuredly," the Chief said. "Unless...."

He didn't have to say the rest. Unless Officer Haru confessed to his crime and saved investigators a lot of fuss and bother. In which case I might avoid public shame for my family and be permitted to keep my job, although no doubt I would find myself manning a remote weather station on some deserted island as far from Oedo as possible.

I stood up and saluted. Assistant Chief Commissioner Jinza opened his mouth to shout at me -- I had not been dismissed! -- but the Chief waved his hand over a sensor and the doors slid open behind me. This effectively halted Jinza's protest. I held the salute a moment longer, for I had nothing but respect for The Frog. Then I turned around and walked out of his office.

Two OPF officers stood waiting by the elevator, holding the door open. Their caps indicated they were internal security. They said nothing to me and I made no effort to converse with them as we descended down through the building's many levels. When the door opened again I stepped out into the reception plaza. Hundreds of citizens were going about their everyday business and paid me no attention. But every Oedo Police Force officer present watched me as I limped towards the external doors.

An oppressive weight bore down upon me. But I had not betrayed my fellow officers and nor had I betrayed the oath I had sworn to the young New Yakuka who I had stumbled across one day during the course of another investigation, kneeling on a tatami mat in an abandoned apartment, naked but for a head scarf, and holding a wakizashi short sword in his hand.

He had looked up at me with tear-filled eyes and asked me to leave, as he had failed in his duty to his gangster boss and had to cut off his dinky.

No, I had explained to him, it was the custom of the Yakuza gangsters of old to cut off their pinky and offer this to their boss as apology for failure.

The young New Yakuza's relief was a palpable thing, he broke down in tears, very pleased that he did not have to lose his penis but also very apologetic for embarrassing me. He begged me to excuse his stupidity. I had told him not to worry, it was a simple misunderstanding, and I was glad to have been passing by. And of course I would never tell anyone, this was strictly between us, I had stupidly added.

A promise, carelessly given, but which was nonetheless binding. I could not tell anyone, not even The Frog, what had happened that day.

The New Yakuza gunman's eyes had widened when he recognized me. Duty had warred with gratitude, until finally the latter had won, but it had not been an easy choice for him. His debt to me was fulfilled; this was understood. If our paths ever crossed again, New Yakuza gangster and Oedo Police Force officer, he would pull the trigger without hesitation. I had nodded to acknowledge this fact.

I hoped he would not have to cut off his other pinky for the crime of allowing me to live.

I left Police H.Q. and knew I would never go back there again. I drew in a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and went out to face the world, knowing I had done the right thing.

-The End-

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Dead Center

Hamad's earpiece crackled, then Lev's voice said: "Target sighted. Main entrance."

So it was happening after all. Hamad had hoped the target would leave via the underground car park, in which case it would have been up to the second team in position at the rear of the building.

Two black SUVs drew up at the bottom of the building's steps, their timing perfect. Doors opened and security personnel jumped out, eight black suits, wearing sunglasses, carrying SMGs. One of them beckoned urgently to the target, who was already skipping down the steps towards the lead SUV.

Hamad peered through his light-enhancing scope and found the moving form, a blur of gold and blue. He centered the cross hairs on the target's head. His finger began to squeeze the trigger--

He did a double-take. "Confirm target," he said into his mic.

"Target has blonde hair and is wearing a blue coat!" Lev's voice was shrill with tension.

Hamad saw the girl did indeed have blonde hair and was indeed wearing a blue coat. But she was only a girl, a child. Only seconds remained before she reached the safety of the SUV, whose dark tinted windows would be bullet-proof, of course.

The light was changing as dawn fell over the city. Dark shadows shifted. Sunlight touched the street below and swept towards the SUVs. The security team became agitated.

"Take the shot!" Lev screamed. "Shoot her!"

Hamad blinked sweat from his eyes and focused on the girl. She was just at the SUV's door. But she had stopped instead of getting in. Her head turned and tilted up and it was as if she was staring directly at him -- as if she knew he was there, looking at her through his sniperscope.

She smiled the prettiest smile he had ever seen. Then she was gone, she'd dived into the SUV.

His rifle bucked against his shoulder and one of the security men went down, spraying blood over the steps.

The SUVs screeched away, everyone inside and safe except for the one unfortunate casualty left behind. The vehicles were gone from sight in seconds.

Hamad closed his eyes. Stupid, stupid. His hesitation had blown the mission. A week of careful planning and scouting of optimum firing locations. People had risked their lives to furnish his group with intelligence on the target, where she would be, who she would be meeting. Though they hadn't mentioned she was a child.

Sunlight crept along the front of the building, casting long shadows. The light touched the unmoving body which instantly burst into flames as if it had been soaked in some combustible material.

"Everyone, break position and rendezvous at Site Delta in forty-five minutes for debrief," Lev said over the radio. Now his voice was flat, completely drained of excitement.

One by one the other team members acknowledged the command by double-clicking their radio switches. No need for useless words. Hamad was last.

Just as he was about to take off his coms headset, Lev said, "That pretty little girl was probably older than your grandmother." The net went dead.

Hamad stripped his rifle down and put the parts into the sports bag. He looked for the ejected cartridge and put it into the bag also.

Next time, if there was a next time, if Lev allowed him to remain with the group, he wouldn't hesitate to shoot.

He carried the bag downstairs and opened the fire door, whose alarm he'd disabled on the way in. He stepped out into the deserted back alley, which was flooded with early morning sunshine. At least that was something. They were less likely to be waiting to ambush him in daylight.

He stuffed the sports bag into one of the big skips, pushing it down among the trash. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his windcheater and walked three blocks, to where he'd parked his car. It was a beat-up wreck, the only kind of car he ever drove. Only the vampires zoomed around in brand new, top-of-the-line SUVs.

He stopped when he was twenty feet from his car. Someone had written a message across the dirty back window: THANKS. The neat writing had been made by a thin finger. Perhaps a child's finger. Hamad looked around but couldn't see anyone, or any black SUVs.

-The End-

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Mistakes Were Made

The last thing you expect when you're working on a bee farm miles from the nearest town is for someone to walk in out of the desert and rob you.

They must have parked their vehicle further down the valley and walked a good mile, mile and half, so we didn't hear them coming. There were four of them and there were four of us, except they were carrying pistols.

We stood facing each other, beekeepers and robbers, while the bees buzzed around us in the morning sunlight, uncaring. Finally one of the robbers spoke. "Take off those hats, you look real stupid."

I did as he said. Yolan, Hairy and Lucy did the same. We tucked them under our arms.

"You still look real stupid," the speaker said. His buddies chuckled. Was it because they thought he was funny or was it because they were scared of him? "Now, there's no need for excitement. Here is what is going to happen. One of you is going to walk into the office with me. And you are going to give me the cash box."

Lucy looked at Yolan, Hairy and me in turn. "I don't know how much you think is in the box. But you might be disappointed."

Sometimes, maybe once or twice a week, someone would see the FRESH HONEY FOR SALE sign Hairy had nailed up and decide a few jars might look nice in their pantry. Maybe one of these guys had visited before and that was how they knew about the cash box. But Lucy wasn't wrong; there wasn't a lot of money to be had. I had the feeling this wasn't going to end well.

The speaker jerked his head towards the office. "You just volunteered, darlin'. Lead the way. I don't have to tell you that if you try anything smart, your friends here are going to suffer somewhat, do I?"

Lucy looked him in the eye and said, "No, you don't."

"Then we understand each other."

She turned round and walked towards the office. He followed her. His smile annoyed me, I wanted to bust him one in the mouth, but that would be idiotic. I didn't make eye contact. No sense in antagonizing anyone. I hoped Yolan and Hairy were doing the same.

One of the robbers approached a hive. Curious, I guess. "Is it true, they puke up the honey?" He looked right at me, expecting an answer. I just nodded. No need to waste air on him.

"Dirty little bastids," he said, leaning in closer, as if he hadn't ever seen bees before. His two buddies stepped up, just as curious. Or as stupid.

Yolan, Hairy and me were holding our breaths. It was something we did instinctively if we didn't have our hats on, with the netting covering our heads and faces.

Funny thing about bees, sometimes they'll just fly around you and not bother you; other times, they'll get a whiff of you and take a real dislike. They react to carbon dioxide. You exhale near a bee, they know you're there. You get too close to their hive, they see you as a threat.

The robbers yelped and started waving their hands and their guns around to fend off the bees that swarmed to attack them. One got too close to Hairy and a second later he was flying through the air, into another robber. They both went down hard. Hairy kicked their guns away.

Yolan did one of those wrist-twisting moves he doesn't show the kids he teaches at Saturday morning karate class, and robber number four was on his knees, begging for mercy.

I put my hat on, walked to the office, climbed the stairs and opened the door. Only then did I start breathing again. Lucy sat on the edge of the desk, holding the phone receiver to her ear. The robber's gun lay on the desk beside her, slide open, magazine removed.

"Everything okay?" I asked unnecessarily. The robber's boots were sticking out from behind the desk. Maybe I should have warned him that Lucy's a weekend warrior. I've seen her dump guys twice her size on their asses.

"Sure." She punched the emergency number. "Police, please." She covered the receiver mouthpiece. "We still on for dinner tonight?"

"Only if you promise not to beat me up, too."

Lucy beckoned for me to come closer. I leaned forward and she kissed me through the net.

"No guarantees."

-The End-

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Countdown

A report from Scientific Unit 27 Leader in human city #3 dated 4893.6472.2585

Hail, Primary.

These human bodies we were assigned by the Invasion Fleet are proving to be flawed in many ways. They are such good copies that they are susceptible to human germs! Over half of us have been wiped out by the deadly virus the humans call a cold.

Nonetheless our mission continues on schedule. The cannon has been assembled and initial tests carried out. Small amounts of ozone-digesting bacteria have been seeded in the upper atmosphere. Results are positive.

A full load will be launched on 6473.0155 -- tomorrow night.

With the total failure of the ozone layer, which is estimated to take no longer than 344 zentons, planetary temperatures will rise sharply. Those humans who have not prepared underground shelters will not be able to survive long. Within one orbital cycle this world will become an idyllic paradise for our species and colonization may begin. We shall then turn our attention to wiping out the remaining humans before they realize this is our doing.

Primary, I beg your indulgence. Some of my underlings have questioned how we will be returned to our own bodies so we may avoid being baked to death. I would appreciate your timely response on this subject.

Scientific Unit 27 Leader ending transmission.

-The End-

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My Secret Life

Story is Out There trying to find a home.

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The Search

By strength of will alone Marina stopped herself from barfing, as the pungent smell of the fish soup assailed her nostrils.

She gazed down at the plate the butler had placed before her. Pieces of fish floated in cream. To other people, it must smell delicious. To Marina it smelled like death and corruption.

"Eat up, eat up," Sir Edwin said, and though he appeared to direct his words to all his guests sitting at the dinner table, Marina could not help but think he was speaking to her and her alone.

She did not think she was being paranoid. In fact she knew she was not.

Sir Edwin, a close neighbor, had invited her to his house before, curious about his new neighbor, but Marina had always politely refused. However having learned that the guest of honor this evening was to be Lord Dareth Faumaq, the celebrated naturalist, she had immediately written an acceptance note.

Sir Edwin said, "Is the Cullen Skink not to your taste, Miss Pesci?"

She did not correct his mispronounciation of the surname she'd taken upon moving to this area and occupying the old house on the edge of the marshes. She was aware of the probing nature of his question. And aware also of the naturalist's penetrating gaze, his interest in hearing her answer.

But of course, she saw it now. Lord Faumaq was not here only because of the interesting fauna unique to these sprawling marshlands. Sir Edwin must have appraised him in advance of his suspicions. Those suspicions had arisen some weeks ago, on a mist-filled morning when he had gone for an early walk, and had glimpsed a shape in a pond that his startled mind had been unable to explain. Marina had not swum in the pond since, she had found a more remote place to bathe, far from human eyes. Clearly he had not been able to forget the incident. Marina had hoped that perhaps tonight she might convince him that he had been mistaken, that the swirling mist had played a trick upon his senses, that his imagination had painted a fanciful sight that did not exist. Now, however....

The young gentleman next to her said, in the act of filling his glass from the jug, "May I offer you some water, Miss Pesci?"

Oh how devious, she thought, watching as the jug came to hover over her empty glass before she could say no. He tilted it so water began to pour from the spout, carefully, very carefully. But then -- oh! -- an unfortunate tap on the glass's rim, and it toppled toward her. The spilled water ran off the table and down onto Marina's lap, drenching her legs.

"Oh my goodness, how clumsy of me, I am so terribly sorry," the young gentleman said. He offered her his napkin. She ignored it and used her own napkin to dab up the water that had soaked her skirts. As she did so, her gaze wandered around the table. She saw it then. Not just Sir Edwin. Not only Lord Faumaq. All of them. They were all expecting the water to have affected her, somehow. But it did not.

The young gentleman wouldn't stop apologizing. She sensed his genuine embarrassment at being part of a ruse that had clearly backfired and made its originator, their host, look quite foolish. Marina raised her hand, silencing him, but she also smiled to soften the gesture.

She pushed her chair back and stood up. "This is most unfortunate, I am quite drenched. I shall have to go home and change my clothes."

Sir Edwin cleared his throat. His cheeks were red. "Most unfortunate indeed. I shall have my carriage brought around at once."

"There is no need, the walk is a short one, and the air will do me good. I do apologize for interrupting dinner. Please do continue without me."

She left the room to a chorus of farewells. A servant opened the front door for her and she went down the steps carefully, trying to keep control over her legs, willing them to remain legs.

The winding gravel driveway took her away from the house and in no time she was screened by trees, which gave her a sense of relief. She did not like being scrutinized by prying eyes. It was in her makeup.

The sun had sunk below the distant horizon and now night fell across the land. No one could possibly see her now. She changed direction and headed down to the river that flowed through the estate. The chuckling water called to her. She could feel her legs trembling. The river ran past her house, further downstream. It was the quickest way home.

Stepping close to a tree, she undid her fastenings and slipped off her still-sodden skirts, and also the waterproof leggings she'd worn beneath, having been forewarned by some sixth sense for danger that such a precaution might be necessary. The leggings had prevented the water from reaching her skin. If it had... she doubted whether she could have maintained her human form.

She was about to remove the rest of her clothing when a Lucifer sparked, its light reflecting upon the river.

"A fine night for a walk, Miss Pesci."

She recognized the voice; it was Lord Dareth Faumaq. He must have left the house soon after her -- must have taken another path to arrive at the river moments ahead of her. He used the burning Lucifer to light the shag tobacco in his pipe.

"Or are you walking?" He gazed at the river and his meaning was clear.

Marina said, "Do you make it your business to follow women into the night, sir, and cause them alarm?" She was surprised she could still speak; fear of being uncovered constricted her throat.

"The oilskin leggings were a nice touch," Lord Faumaq said. "Sir Edwin thought his trick with the water jug would cause you to change before his very eyes. And perhaps it might have worked, who knows?" He blew smoke up into the tree branches. "Alas, I shall never discover the truth, for it is your truth, not mine. I apologize if I startled you. I bid you good night once more, Miss Pesci."

He turned to go and through the confused whirlwind of her thoughts, she remembered why she had wanted to meet him. "Lord Faumaq. Wait, please."

He looked back at her over his shoulder, perhaps curious.

"If you know what I am," she said, knowing that he did, "then perhaps you have encountered others? Of my kind. Elsewhere in the land."

The silence between them stretched interminally. She began to doubt if he'd even heard her question.

He stared at his pipe for a few moments. And then he slowly shook his head. "I had thought your species gone, Miss Pesci," he said. "It pleases me greatly that you are not. And yet...." His eyes came up to meet hers, and he sighed. "I am so very sorry."

He walked away, head bowed. His pipe smoke hung in his wake. Then the man and the smoke were gone, swallowed by the trees.

Marina stared at the spot where he'd stood, pondering what he'd said.

She could stand this form no longer. She removed the last of her clothing and walked into the river. The change came quickly, she only just had time to gather the clothes into a bundle and put them under a rock, where they would never be found.

She went under and let the current take her.

She searched the water, questing ahead to the limit of her senses, for any trace of her folk. And as always, found none. Their scent had long since vanished from the rivers, the lakes, the sea.

She would never stop looking. But she remembered the sympathy she'd seen in Lord Faumaq's eyes before the naturalist turned away from her for the last time, and thought troubled thoughts.

-The End-

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Life Not Easy

Enni's mother beats me with stick and shouts, no no no!

Enni says stop mama stop but Enni's mother is angry.

What did I tell you? Enni's mother shouts at Enni. Stay away from these things! They are animals!

Me wants to say no, me not animal, but stick hurts.

Me runs outside, runs away from barn, from Enni's angry mother. Sorry Enni!

People working in field see me. Man! they shout. Man!

People run after me. People wave dirt sticks, want to hurt me.

Me runs for long time.

Me reaches river. Me not like water. But people nearly catch me.

Me jumps in river. Me swims to other side.

Me climbs out. Me throws up. Me swallowed water.

People shout at me. Do not come back, man. We will kill you, man. Like Enni's mother.

Me crawls away. Tired, sore. Curl up under bush. Sleep.

Dreaming. Enni smiles at me, holds me, kisses me. Enni tells me she needs baby. Enni's mother hits me with stick. People want to kill me with dirt sticks.

Me digs holes in ground. Me roll bodies into holes. Hard work. So many bodies.

Man flu, they call it.

Most men die but some, some like me, we not die.

We in moon, say doctors. Then doctors die.

People say go away, ugly mutant man. Do not want you. Do not need you. We live without you now.

Me wakes up. Bad dreams. Except for Enni.

Me stares across river. Me thinks of Enni.

Me hungry. People farm, people grow food. But only for people. Not for man animals. Me eats berries, throws up, bad berries. Me eats bugs instead. Me drink water from river. Feel better.

Me remembers, sometimes. When man and people live together, farm together. Good times. Me cry.

Night comes. Moon rises. Me howl at moon. Me in moon. Sometimes me wish me not in moon.

Life not easy when me is man.

-The End-

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With A Whimper

So few of us now, it seems wrong to kill someone else, another life forever lost. But needs must. I bring the hammer down. An ugly cracking noise.

I stand up and look around. Empty streets. No witnesses to the murder. A breath of wind stirs old newspapers. A sheet flutters past me, the huge headline declaring: END OF THE WORLD?

Perhaps it is, for some. But I'm still around. So are others like me.

I'd watched the news reports up until the broadcasting stopped and the TV screens only showed snow. Before the power grid shut down and everything went black.

Every medical scientist in the world was frantically working on finding a cure for the sickness. I guess they all failed. Or if anyone succeeded, it was too late to broadcast the information.

They called it The Long Sleep. One moment, healthy, feeling fine, no sign of illness. The next, falling down and slipping into unconsciousness.

We, the survivors who remain to haunt the quiet cities that are now cemeteries, know why we're still alive. It became obvious to us the day after everyone else died.

I search the man I've just killed and find what I'm looking for, what I'd hoped I'd find. Insulin bottles -- enough for a week! -- plus a blood glucose test kit with dozens of packets of disposable lancet needles and test strips. A treasure trove. All the pharmacies and medical practices have already been looted. This stuff is gold.

My gold, now. I slip them into my coat pockets and return to the shadows. Maybe someone else will come by soon. Someone just like me, searching, hoping to find their next fix. They'll see the body and want to check it out.

So few of us now. So quiet.

-The End-

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The Hit

Far more guards than usual crowded the southern gate of the walled city of Amadoz, which gave Ferdy warning that Something Was Not Right.

Beside him, Mandros said, "We're in deep shit. Best we turn back now."

Mandros (the Slayer) wore a priest's robe, with the hood covering his dreadlocks. That he had been able to find a robe big enough to conceal his muscular bulk was nothing short of miraculous. Ferdy wondered what happened to its original owner, but didn't want to ask. He considered Mandros's suggestion before he shook his head and said, "Look up on the wall. Archers. If we turn back, they'll see us."

Mandros did so, and grunted. The archers were watching the column of visitors. Ferdy didn't doubt they had orders to unleash their shafts at anyone who looked remotely suspicious, and never mind the consequences.

So, it stood to reason that someone had sent warning to the Mad King that assassins had been paid to kill him -- although Ferdy considered himself more of a freebooting adventurer than an actual assassin. It just so happened that from time to time he was called upon to take a life rather than steal treasure from a tomb or rescue some wayward princess. But the fact remained that the guards were on high alert. Everyone passing through the southern gate was being thoroughly searched. A man --- a real priest -- protested at this rudeness and was immediately grabbed and bundled away, never mind his rank.

The guards waved, telling everyone to keep moving. Ferdy and Mandros shuffled forward with the rest, trapped.

"So what do we do?" Mandros asked, as if he expected Ferdy to have all the answers.

Ferdy was thinking as hard as he could. Mandros carried his favorite fighting weapons, an axe and broadsword, under his robe. Ferdy carried his slim rapier and his parrying dagger. He'd also loaded up with throwing knives. If they were caught with any of these weapons, the guards would throw them into a dungeon pit -- if they didn't kill them outright.

"What about your...?" Mandros left the sentence unfinished. Perhaps because sorcery frightened him. It frightened Ferdy too, but despite his fears and also his wishes, he was stuck with the plain leather satchel that hung from his belt.

Lurvriel had called it a magical satchel of infinite dimensions, as if that was a thing people knew about. The half-pixie thief had regarded it with a mixture of awe and fascination. Ferdy had found it lying inside a reptile god temple they were looting. He'd looked inside, of course, but it was empty so he'd thrown it away and thought no more of it.

Only later did he realize it hadn't wanted to be thrown away. It had attached itself to his belt and despite his most determined efforts he couldn't get it off again. Nor could he remove the belt, the buckle simply would not open.

All part of the spell, Lurvriel had explained. But she couldn't explain why someone had invested such powerful sorcery in the satchel.

Ferdy regarded the magical satchel of infinite dimensions and wondered if it might be of use to him after all. Making sure that no one could see what he was doing, he slipped his parrying dagger from inside his jerkin, opened the satchel flap and put the dagger inside.

It vanished without any fuss. Ferdy considered the satchel's size, and the length of his dagger. The dagger's point should be poking out through the leather, only it wasn't. He very carefully put the cross-belt containing his seven throwing knives into the satchel -- their edges were smeared with bee venom -- and it vanished also. He prodded the satchel, trying to feel them, but couldn't. It was as if the satchel was still empty.

All right, so far so good. He put his rapier in, scabbard and all, and the satchel swallowed it without complaint.

Mandros had been watching while pretending not to watch. Only a handful of people stood between them and the guards now. Ferdy held the satchel open and Mandros, using his robe to conceal the motion, put in his axe, and then his broadsword.

The satchel took them both like a hungry beast. Ferdy and Mandros pondered this. Neither had believed it possible but they had just witnessed it with their own eyes. Ferdy closed the flap. He didn't even feel any additional weight. The magical satchel of infinite dimensions contained powerful sorcery indeed.

It was their turn to pass through the gate and the guards surrounded them, perhaps suspicious of Mandros's size. Mandros just smiled at them. They endured the rough searching without complaint.

"What's in the satchel?" one of the guards asked.

"It's empty now," Ferdy said. "I ate bread and cheese on the way here."

The guard prodded the leather bag. "Open it."

Ferdy did so, and held his breath as the guard leaned forward to peer within the satchel.

Something reached out and grabbed hold of his head. The guard screamed as he was pulled in. His head was swallowed, then his shoulders, then his arms, then his torso, all disappearing into the widening aperture until only his thrashing legs were visible.

All the while, Ferdy tried to get as far away as he could but this was impossible, the satchel was attached to his belt and his belt was attached to him. Mandros had to hold him to stop him from falling over.

The guard's legs disappeared too, and the satchel flap closed itself.

The guards had watched in stunned horror as their comrade was devoured by the satchel. Now they stared at Ferdy and he could guess their thoughts. They were going to grab him and make him explain, and if he couldn't, his fate would be sealed.

Swords drawn, they closed in around Ferdy. Ferdy had enough presence of mind to sign to Mandros with his fingers, warning him to stay back and not interfere.

The flap opened by itself and the satchel vomited the guard back out. Ferdy screamed along with everyone else, because the guard did not return whole. Chunks of him flew everywhere, spattering his comrades with blood. The guards' screams turned to terrified wails and they fled into the city, abandoning their posts and their swords.

Ferdy and Mandros looked at each other, seeing an opportunity not to be missed. They stepped over the remains of the guard who'd briefly visited the magical satchel of infinite dimensions, snatched up a couple of swords to replace the weapons they'd lost, and entered Amadoz. They had a Mad King to kill. And then, with luck, there would be time for some pie before they fled the city, two anonymous visitors who knew nothing of assassins.

-The End-

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Only The Lonely

"Somewhere public" turns out to be an Italian restaurant in SoHo. He's already there when I arrive, just after sunset.

He's almost jittery with excitement. He's a little scared, too. His eyes widen when I sit down at his table. His eyes drink me in. His confusion grows. Of all the things he expected, it wasn't this.

He flushes. It's my perfume. It has that affect on people. If not for the table, he'd be crossing his legs to hide his reaction.

He clears his throat. "Thank you, thank you for coming." The way he says it makes me think that in the past, people he'd arranged to meet haven't shown up. "I'm... not sure how I should address you?"

His first question and he's fishing for information, trying to pin down my gender. I'm told I have too many masculine traits to be a woman and too many feminine traits to be a man. How to explain, these are variables. Now that I've met him and think I know his preferences, I play down the one and accentuate the other. Not too much. Just a little shift in the right direction.

"Darcy is fine," I tell him. A nicely unisex name. One of many I've used over several ordinary lifetimes.

A waiter approaches and smiles uncertainly. I take the offered menu and read it while he pours water into my glass, so thoughtful. The jug spout clink-clink-clinks against the glass, betraying his nerves.

"I'd like the fruit cocktail starter, please, and fish for the main course." I give him the menu back and don't let on that I'm enjoying his reaction. I've been enjoying everyone's reaction ever since I crossed over. Before, I was the mousy one no one noticed, hanging around at the back of the crowd that didn't even remember I was there. Now things are... different. So very different. The waiter holds the menu low, hoping to hide his excitement from me.

I almost feel sorry for the poor boy. I pretend to ignore him. I lean my elbows on the table edge and interlace my fingers so I can rest my chin on them. I stare at my date. He's so bewitched he can hardly think. I raise an eyebrow and ask, "And what are you having?"

He looks at his menu and orders a prawn cocktail starter and steak for his main. He also says, "Tell the cook to hold off on the garlic, will you? For everything."

An unnecessary precaution. It's an old wives' tale. But I appreciate his thinking about me. The waiter leaves us to it.

"So," I say, as a prelude to trivial conversation, but he talks over me, blurting the words out.

"I wasn't sure if you can still eat food. I should have asked in advance. I'm sorry."

I wave an airy hand, letting him know it doesn't matter.

"Yes I can eat. Food still tastes the same. It just gets processed differently."

My altered digestive system can't extract certain minerals and vitamins from food now. That's why I also need blood. No need to go into details, though. We'll perhaps talk about that later, if I decide he's right for me. If he isn't, he'll never see me again. Except in his dreams.

I take a sip of water. "The one good thing about being a vampire," I say, "is that I don't seem to put on weight any more."

As if this is some kind of cue, dishes crash to the floor and a man I've never met before surges to his feet, a gun in his hand. He points it at me. His face contorts into a mask filled with hatred and loathing and fear.

"Goddamn vampire--!"

That is as far as I allow him to get. My mind blankets his so he can't even pull the trigger. I don't like the terror in his eyes so I calm him, making him relax before the veins in his temples pop. All this, in an instant. It's another of the perks we don't talk about because it would just scare people, and that wouldn't benefit anyone.

I stand up and take his gun from him. I eject the magazine and I clear the chamber and I drop everything, gun and bullets, into the restaurant's fish tank.

"Go home," I tell my would-be murderer. "Have some beer and pizza and watch a movie. You'll feel much better in the morning."

He turns without a word and walks to the door, opens it, exits the restaurant.

My date gapes as I sit back down. "My God, are you all right?"

I hit him with a smile, showing a little fang just to tantalize him. "Oh sure, I'm fine. Don't worry about him. Some people just don't like vampires. But that's okay, some vampires just don't like people. I'm an exception, in case you wonder." That gets a chuckle. "Now, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?"

Someone clears the mess away and dinner goes without a hitch, we tell each other a bit about ourselves that isn't in our online dating profiles, and we have a couple of laughs. We share a sticky toffee pudding with cream and ice cream. We split the bill without checking whose meal cost more and we each drop ten bucks for the tip, which pleases me because I hate misers.

We go back to his place and it's neat and tidy, which I like, and I decide yes, we're going to do it. So that's what happens. I use him for bendy toy sex, first as a woman and later as a man. By the time I'm finished with him, he's literally weeping with gratitude. And exhausted, the poor dear. He submits to me willingly and I suck his neck. I taste the prawn cocktail and the steak in his blood. All good nutrients. Too good, I just can't stop. I only realize I've gone too far when my prodding fails to elicit a response.

Dawn is already a glow on distant the horizon when I gather up my clothes and get dressed. I look at the body on the bed with some regret. I might have agreed to another date, if he'd lived through the night.

-The End-

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The Good Boy

Let me tell you about Timmy the T-Rex, Timmy the ferocious monster. Let me tell you that dinosaur was the most intelligent creature I ever met in my life.

If you haven't heard about Doc Rawlinson and his time travel experiment by now, you must've been living on Mars or something. Rawlinson and his team made a hole and they got sucked into it, while Timmy the T-Rex came through the other way. I'm told there was a blinding flash of light and a boom like thunder, and it was done. Twelve people gone and Timmy standing there looking bewildered, as if he was looking for his mom or something.

The equipment got confiscated by the Army, or maybe it was the FBI or the NSA, it doesn't matter who, it just got broken down and taken away and all that was left was Timmy. They didn't want him.

He was about six feet then, just a kid. They pulled me in because of my experience in the zoos. I had trained tigers and I had trained elephants and I had trained seals. There wasn't anything I couldn't train an animal to do if I put my mind to it, that's what I told them, and it was true.

I had to sign all kinds of paperwork, promising to keep my trap shut, but in the end it didn't matter because someone got wind of Timmy and the next thing you knew, a thousand cameras were taking pictures, helicopters were flying overhead, people were climbing the fences to see the actual living dinosaur.

Off we went to a special facility with a nice compound for Timmy to play in and a big, deep cave for privacy.

For a while it was just me and Timmy, and then Julia arrived. She was something else. She was smart. She had so many letters after her name it was like she had her own alphabet. I think she learned to love Timmy just like I did. I know it sounds corny, how can you love a reptile that keeps getting bigger and wants to eat you, but we followed safety protocols and always kept the bars between us and Timmy. He never tried to get through the bars and he never tried to hurt us.

He liked playing with his toys, especially the furry ones I'd stuff meat inside. Boy did he rip them to pieces to get at that meat. I always talked to him. I told him I was sorry he didn't have any of his own kind around, although maybe that was a good thing. I wondered if he knew what I meant. Sometimes he would look at me and give a big sigh. I'd get such a sympathetic feeling from that look.

In the quiet afternoons Julia did things with her whiteboard and the colored shapes, like pre-school educators use, while Timmy crouched on his haunches and watched her every move. I think he listened to her also because she always talked to him, saying nice complimentary things when she would name a shape or a color and he'd point to it. Where is the red square, Timmy? His little arm would squeeze through the bars to touch it. Where is the letter T, Timmy? And again. He always got it right.

We had a fun time while it lasted. At least I think we did. Despite his size, despite his species, Timmy turned out to be a gentle soul. He was a good boy.

But then there was that morning when Julia made a bad throw and a breakfast toy bounced into a corner, and she thought she'd get it before Timmy woke up. I was coming back from the can when I looked up at the monitors and saw the bars open and Julia tip-toeing into the corner. My heart stopped. There was a roaring in my head. And then it happened, so fast.

I wondered afterwards if Timmy hadn't recognized her, because her back was to him and she was bending down so he couldn't see her flame-red hair. She was just an object, an object that was moving, a bigger than usual stuffed toy, and Timmy shot out of his cave and snapped her up before I could do anything about it.

I saw the puzzlement in his eyes. Because what he'd just eaten tasted different and was a different texture. I saw how he looked at the open bars. I saw how he looked at Julia's whiteboard, which she'd been setting up for his classroom session, as she called it. And then he looked around for Julia but couldn't find her.

Idiots in the control room were running around and shouting then, in a panic, but Timmy didn't move towards the open bars. He just stood there, the saddest-looking creature I'd ever seen in my life.

No, he didn't try to escape. Before they even got the bars closed again, Timmy had turned away and walked slowly back into his cave, losing himself in the shadows there.

The bad news went all the way up the tree, to levels I didn't usually get to see. Timmy had killed a human being and this didn't sit well with the people in charge. A conference was called and the facility chief was invited to attend. They sure as hell weren't interested in anything I had to say. I'd told them there wasn't an animal I couldn't train. And now Julia was dead.

A decision was reached. They left it up to us to decide whether we wanted to stay and witness what happened. A special Army unit was going to take care of it. I didn't know if they were going to inject him with something or shoot an anti-tank rocket at him. I just knew I had to be with Timmy when they executed him.

There wasn't anyone I could talk to about it. There wasn't someone I could appeal to. I sat in the education room alongside Julia's whiteboard, waiting for the fateful moment to arrive. Some of the letters were missing, I guessed they must have fallen off, I didn't give it a second thought, not then.

The Army guys arrived. They brought a big green metal box with them. They were carried heavy ordnance and looked as though they knew how to use it. If Timmy came at them, they were going to take him down.

An officer came to stand beside me. He looked down at me and I glanced at his sidearm and I knew that he had his orders, concerning Timmy and concerning me, too.

So they opened the bars and they went inside, and they spread out, a covering pattern. They shone flashlights into Timmy's cave. Nothing seemed to happen. I couldn't hear what they were saying to each other. It sounded as if they were confused. The officer listened to the voices in his earpiece and then he stepped forward, into the compound. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder at me. I couldn't read his expression, but I got up and I followed him and he didn't stop me.

We passed the soldiers, who were now pointing their weapons at the ground, as if they were no longer needed. We entered Timmy's cave.

Ropes were part of Timmy's toy collection, he'd grip the loops with his little claws and tear at them with his teeth. I don't know how he'd managed it, but he'd untangled them and he'd looped them up and around the framework that criss-crossed the ceiling of his cave, supporting the lights which we never used.

Did you ever see that old photograph of the elephant they murdered? Don't look for it on the internet, it'll just make you sick. An elephant in some circus killed one of its keepers. So they sentenced it to death. They used a crane and rope to hang it. Don't look because it will make you lose all faith in humanity.

The officer called in medics. I guess he wanted to make sure Timmy was dead. I could have told him. Timmy was so still that it was obvious life had fled his body. The framework was bent and distorted with his weight but it had lasted long enough to do the job.

Something caught my eye. I went over to the spot where he usually slept. The missing letters were there. It was like getting punched in the gut. I wanted to cry. Maybe I would, but not here, not in front of the Army guys. I'd cry for Julia and I'd cry for Timmy too, right after I saluted them with a full bottle of Scotland's finest. I kicked the letters so no one else would see Timmy's message. It was meant for me, not them.

Who would have believed it anyway?

So long, pal. It's okay, I know you were sorry.

-The End-

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Island Of The Cannibal Midgets

One moment Amos and Perry were bickering like a pair of kids, the next, punches were being thrown. Then they were rolling around on the beach, trying to kill each other.

I thought about leaving them to it, but I'm supposed to be an officer. I pushed through the small ring of spectators and pulled Perry off by his hair just as he was about to brain Amos with a rock.

Perry didn't like that, he rounded on me and tried to take a swing, but officers are taught to fight like gentlemen; I stuck my fingers in his eyes and kicked him in the nuts. Suddenly he didn't think punching me was such a good idea. He sat down hard and contemplated his mistakes.

I'd grabbed what I thought was a rock out of his hand. This turned out to be a bottle, grubby with sand. I rubbed some of it away, wondering how long it had lain on the beach and where it had come from.

There was something inside! Just for a moment I thought it might be a ship -- a magical ship that would grow to full size when I opened the bottle -- a ship that would replace *our* ship which had sunk the night before. Yep, the hot sun was getting to me, all right.

I tried to pull the cork out but it disintegrated between my thumb and forefinger. Nothing for it but to smash the bottle. Which I did. Perry and Amos and the other survivors looked on as I fished a rolled piece of paper out of the fragments.

The handwriting was faded but I managed to make out most of the words. "What's it say?" Perry demanded, that unmistakable tone in his voice, as if I was keeping some big secret from him. He continued to massage his nuts.

Everyone was listening so I told them it was a love letter from some lovelorn sap hoping a pretty girl would find his bottle and write back to him. And if she wasn't interested, maybe she could ask her mother. They all bust up laughing, even Perry, and I laughed along with them. I slipped the paper into my pocket so I could read it again later. The content had given me chills.

The island we'd landed on lay at the southern end of a chain of small islands some thousand or so miles northeast of Indonesia. Of little economic value, they had been ignored by neighboring territories for almost a century.

The note in the bottle had been a plea for help. The author, who named himself as Samuel Christiansen, had detailed how his ship, the S.S. Sargasso, had struck a reef and the survivors ended up on an island. Was it this island? Or another island in the chain? Or somewhere much further away?

Christiansen said the island was killing them, one by one. What did that even mean?

The last line also had me puzzled. The damn note had ended with, THEY ARE COMING. What did that even mean? Had another ship found the survivors and rescued them?

If I'd read the note out to my crewmates, all kinds of crazy speculation would have arisen. Bad enough that Perry and Amos were already arguing over stupid things.

I split our small group up into twos, making sure Perry and Amos were kept apart, and sent them off in different directions to explore the island. Nine survivors, including myself. Maybe someone else had made it, in the other lifeboats, although I hadn't seen any before our ship went down. Like the S.S. Saragossa, we'd struck a reef. It hadn't been on the charts, I was sure of it. But this uncanny instance of history repeating itself nagged me. Was this the same island Samual Christiansen had landed on? Had he thrown his bottle into the sea here, but instead of drifting off, as he'd hoped, it had washed ashore? And also, did the fact he'd written his message and "posted" it mean he hadn't been rescued after all?

While my crewmates were gone I took inventory. The lifeboat's emergency supply box contained two gallons of drinking water and thirty-two packets of food rations. In just two days we'd be hungry and thirsty. Which was why I'd told everyone to look out for a fresh water supply, a stream, a waterfall. And also for fruits, nuts, anything they thought might be edible. If they saw any animals, they were to leave them alone for now, but think about how they could be caught or trapped. Birds, also. As well as being a potential food source, their nests might yield a supply of fresh eggs.

The lifeboat also had a flare-pistol with six flare cartridges in a metal box. I'd already decided to post a look-out on the high clifftop overlooking the beach. If they saw a ship, they could signal. It would have to be someone trustworthy who wouldn't panic and waste all the flares.

Cartwright and Bengo were the first to return. Something in their manner alerted me before they were even close enough to talk. Cartwright told me they'd found something strange further inland. Bengo wouldn't take his eyes off the line of trees, as if he expected someone was following them.

I pressed Cartwright for more information but he shook his head and told me I should see for myself. Bengo stayed with the lifeboat while I went with Cartwright. I told Bengo about the flare-pistol and gave him clear instructions that if he should see a ship, he was to fire one flare only. This would bring me back to the beach and I would decide upon subsequent action to be taken.

The trees grew so close together that we had to squeeze between them, and sometimes that just wasn't possible so we had to go back and find another way through. Cartwright paused a few times, as if trying to recall which direction they'd gone in previously, but then he suddenly seemed to know his way.

We emerged from the trees into a clearing. Steep rock walls rose on either side, the tops so high they were smothered in mist. At the far end of this clearing, which I realized was really the floor of a wide ravine, rose a wall of jungle-like greenery.

The stillness, the utter lack of sound, was immediately unsettling. No birds chirped, no insects clicked.

Cartwright climbed what I realized were stone steps, half-hidden beneath a carpet of moss. I followed him up onto a balcony-like area that was notable for the fact it had a stone table supported by thick legs, and surrounded by chairs carved of the same veined stone.

Upon the table lay a small pile of fruits and berries. There was no sign of whoever had put them there. They were there for the taking. But what if whoever lived on the island was watching us? What if they would regard my eating the food they had gathered as theft?

Were they primitive or were they civilized? Did they have the means to contact the outside world? We would have to find them as a matter of priority.

Cartwright continued past the table to another stairway that led down to the ravine floor. As if the stone table and its contents were not interesting enough to linger over. And so I followed him again, not knowing where he was going. The uneven floor demanded that I pay attention to my footing lest I break an ankle. Cartwright was heading for the wall of green at the ravine's far end. A vertical line of silver seemed to split the greenery in half. As he moved closer, it occurred to me that the silver line was a waterfall. Here was a source of water, which fact filled me with relief. At least we would not die of thirst.

But the waterfall concerned Cartwright not at all, his attention was on something else. He stepped off to the right, following the base of the green wall which I saw now was composed of the same moss found elsewhere, and was not jungle foliage at all.

He stopped and looked over his shoulder, silently inviting me to inspect whatever he had found, which was not at first obvious to me. The moss had grown around an outcrop that seemed to be composed of a light-colored stone, as tall as myself. I might have dismissed it as a large rock but something in its unusual shape continued to catch my eye.

Only when I stepped back and viewed it from a different angle was I able to perceive what was so unusual about the object. My gaze turned upward to examine the green wall that towered above me. From here I could make out the outline of a vast statue beneath the moss covering. Only one toe, carved from veined marble, was still visible, thrusting out from underneath the emerald blanket. The statue proportions seemed wrong somehow. This was no handsome Greek god, aloof and uncaring of the affairs of mortal men; this was a squat, grotesque shape with a snarling face, more monkey than man, perhaps.

A distant bang caught my attention and I turned in time to see a dazzling spark rise into the sky. Bengo had fired a flare!

"We should get back to the lifeboat," I said.

A shadow fell across Cartwright. I stepped back instinctively, half-expecting some bird to come flapping down to attack him for coming too near its hidden nest.

Instead, the falling shadow struck the ground between us with a loud thump. Cartwright stared at it, as did I. At first I couldn't make out who it was, but then I recognized Perry's lank hair. I looked at Cartwright and he looked at me. His expression mirrored my own horror. There were goddamned spears sticking out of Perry's body. He'd either fallen off the top of the ravine wall, or he'd been thrown off.

Spears showered down, missing us only by the grace of God. We ran for our lives, zig-zagging in the hope this would throw off the unseen throwers' aim.

There was absolutely nothing we could do for Perry, he was dead, and so we left his body behind.

The spears continued to pepper the ground around us as we ran up the steps, sprinted across the balcony area and past the stone table, and leapt down the steps on the other side.

I paused just before the treeline and glanced back over my shoulder. Tiny figures were visible, climbing down the green wall, following diagonal paths I hadn't noticed, possibly carved stairways hidden beneath the moss but known to them. Their bizarre appearance startled me but then I realized they were wearing long masks painted with huge eyes and mouths full of jagged fangs. As well as spears they carried long shields that could have been made of animal hide, and which also had faces painted on them.

"Come on!" Cartwright urged, already pushing among the trees. I followed him again, praying he would find the right way. As luck had it, he did, not once did we have to back up and find an alternative route through these densely packed tree trunks. We stumbled out onto the strip of land above the beach.

Bengo saw us and pointed at a dot on the horizon, which could only be a ship. Had lookouts seen the flare? I could only hope they had.

Cartwright pointed also. I followed the direction of his gaze and saw Amos and Figgis running along the beach, being chased by a group of perhaps thirty small figures, wearing masks and throwing spears.

From the other direction, Miguel and Barris came running. They too were being chased by a band of small, masked figures armed with spears. It was fortunate that the pursuers had shorter legs.

I ran to the lifeboat. Better to take our chances at sea than to stay on this hellish island any longer. Bengo was already pulling at the boat by the time we arrived. Amos and Figgis joined us, panting, and together we slid the lifeboat back towards the surf.

Barris was down, a spear had caught him in the back. Miguel tugged at him but it was no use. Even from this distance I could tell he was dead. I waved to Miguel, urging him to run. The lifeboat was in the water now. The crewmen swarmed aboard and shipped the oars. Miguel waded out after us and I pulled him up and over the side.

Spears splashed all around us. Two struck the boat but bounced off rather than splitting the wood. I saw they were primitive weapons, the shafts gnarled and bent, the heads roughly hewn shards of marbled stone, yet they were deadly.

The men rowed for all they were worth and the lifeboat moved further from the beach. The small, masked figures danced up and down, shaking their spears and their shields at us.

Miguel told me how he'd seen the others attacked and killed by the horde of tiny men, who had hid themselves in long grass until their prey got close. Joachim, who'd accompanied Perry, had been bound to a length of wood and carried away. Miguel was sure he was dead, and would not suffer at the hands of the islanders. But he was not sure what had happened to Perry. When I told him we'd seen Perry's body, Miguel was relieved. It meant we were not leaving shipmates behind to endure a terrible fate.

I stood up in the lifeboat and could still see the ship on the horizon. The chances of anyone seeing us from this distance were slim, but any chance was better than none. I reloaded the flare pistol, pointed it skyward and fired.

-The End-

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Adult content warning, explicit sex and bloody violence.

The Watcher

We go about our daily business, finding worms and insects, and mating whenever we can, in between fighting for space on branches and aerials.

He doesn't join in, or even speak when we talk to him, he just sits there, looking at us with those creepy staring eyes.

We are aware of other eyes watching us. A big animal is nearby. We pretend not to see when the big animal emerges from its hiding place and touches he who will not speak.

We approach he who will not speak. We ask him what his game is. Why does he consort with the big animal? Why does he not try to fuck the hens? When does he eat because we never see him eat. If we miss a meal we become weak. Miss two meals and we are close to death. But he does not eat. Why? He never answers us.

Angered by his silence, we attack him. He does not peck back or fly away. We rend him with our beaks and our claws. Pieces of him flutter to the ground. He loses his grip on the branch and falls off. It is a long way down.

We inspect his still body. I peck at his exposed brains but they are hard and not tasty. His eyes stick out of his head on twigs. They are also hard. Does nothing of him taste good?

The big animal rises from its hiding place. It makes great angry noises. Many of us fly away, frightened. But we fly at the big animal. We are more angry now, because the big animal somehow made our silent brother watch us. We peck out the big animal's eyes. We claw skin from his face. He makes more terrible scary noises. He covers his head with his thin wings but we are relentless. He falls over onto his side. We do not stop pecking until he falls silent. He will never watch us again.

The others fly away, telling the woods of this tale. I sit on the big animal's head for a while longer and peck at him some more. He tastes good.

A hen attracts my attention. She is impressed by my bloody plumage. I fly to her and fuck her until she coos.

Life is good when you're a pigeon.

Got any breadcrumbs? They are always appreciated.

-The End-

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The Realm of Men

The further along the path they went, the more agitated Gilsendorael became.

"We are nearing the very limits of the kingdom, highness," she said. "We should turn back immediately."

Nilflengturiel laughed and shook her head, causing her long silver hair to shimmer. "You worry so much, Dora. No men have been seen in these woods in an age. They fear my father's power, and rightly so."

This was truth, Gilsendorael knew, and yet the sight of the glimmering blue stones set into the trees ahead still chilled her. They warned that to pass beyond this point meant the end of the Elf King's protection. Beyond lay the realm of men.

Gilsendorael was old enough to recall the wars that had ravaged the world. Elf had killed man and man had killed elf for generations, offering no quarter and asking for none. Until, that is, the great enemy came, and a hasty truce was agreed between elf and man and the dwarves under the mountain. The banners of the tree and the sword and the hammer had fluttered beside each other on the field of battle. The evil that would have overwhelmed them individually was defeated and the Dark King separated from his power forever. And his head from his body also.

Afterwards, the peace. But that was long ago and men still had short lives. Those who had signed the peace treaties were long gone. Would their descendants honor this? This question often arose in council meetings. The Elf King believed they would. Others of Gilsendorael's generation thought otherwise, remembering how earlier men had hated the elven folk for their long lives and their knowledge of elemental forces. Younger elves did not understand hatred; it had to be explained to them. Gilsendorael knew what hatred was. She had witnessed it when men had destroyed her city and all within. She was one of only three survivors, children whose parents had sacrificed their own lives to hurl them through a portal to safety. She still remembered the fires and the screaming in her dreams....

So here they were, at the edge of the woods. Turiel, princess of Gilsemore, young and whimsical, had expressed curiosity and a wish to gaze upon the realm of men with her own eyes. Gilsendorael could not imagine why. But they had taken a portal into the woods and then ridden the rest of the road for a while upon the silver horses Meister Koloramedian had made for them. Gilsendorael had indulged her young ward, not seeing the harm in it at the time. But actually being so close, and so far from Gilsemore's shining towers, invited her to recall those troubled dreams again.

Turiel stared through the trees ahead, studying the rolling green hills and the deep purple mountains beyond, wreathed in cloud. Gilsendorael imagined that just over the hills, there would be rivers and lakes and towns and castles full of people. Many, many people. Men might have short lives but they bred prodigiously. This much she remembered.

When Turial turned to look back at her, the young princess was frowning. "Does your nose detect a funny smell, Dora?"

Gilsendorael opened her mouth to answer but before she could tell Turial that yes, she did smell something rather odd, and unpleasant, looped ropes hissed through the air. Some fell upon the road, having missed their target -- but others dropped over Turial who struggled, confused.

She said, "Dora?" -- as if she expected Gilsendorael to explain what was happening -- before the ropes tightened and she was pulled off her horse.

-End Except-

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Let Sleeping Wizards Lie

"That's quite enough of that," Lord Dareth Faumaq said in his loudest lecture theater voice.

He continued down the carved stone stairway, aware that he had their full attention -- at least until they ascertained who he was and why he was interrupting what appeared to be a full-fledged fist-fight.

The combatants, visible in pools of yellow light cast by electric lamps, were different only in their choice of garments. The one group, which had superior numbers, although half of those lay unconscious, wore black uniforms with silver badges at the collar. Faumaq recognized them as Nazi stormtroopers, a particularly repugnant breed. That they dressed openly in such a manner here in the United States of America spoke of their confidence; they did not expect to be challenged, or stopped. The other group, which was really only a pair, were dressed somewhat more casually in leather bomber jackets and baggy pants with lots of pockets. One wore a brown fedora that was as battered-looking as its owner. Faumaq knew his name: Brennan. A brawler and a thief, some said. He insisted on calling himself an archeologist despite his lack of academic accreditation.

The cavern in which the altercation was taking place lay beneath the Oak Vale Cemetery in upstate New York, in the shadow of the old church, long since shunned by its parishioners. Something to do with shouting heard throughout the night, and holy objects thrown around during the day. Quite fanciful stuff really, until you took into account that no less than three priests and a deacon had been incarcerated in the local asylum for the insane after having attempted to exorcise whatever evil was thought to reside hereabouts. None had ever been released, according to the records Faumaq had found. Their psyches were too damaged and never recovered.

Almost a century later, here was another kind of devilment, related no doubt to that which had come before. The church attracted this kind of thing. It was a cistern filled with foul water. Men of a violent nature trickled towards it and circled its stank.

Faumaq paused on the bottom stem to take out his pipe and fill it with shag. While he engaged in this activity he said, "And who is in charge?"

A man with an arrogant face and cold blue eyes took a half-step forward. He clicked his boot heels together, a mere politeness rather than acknowledgment that Faumaq might have any kind of authority here.

"Hauptmann Heinrich Stein, Gestapo. And you are?"

"Hey, don't pay any attention to the Kraut," Brennan said. He stood back-to-back with his companion. Both still had their fists raised, ready to resume the fight at a moment's notice. Some of the uniformed men they had knocked down were beginning to rise again. Faumaq saw Brennan's awareness that the odds were stacking up against him, but the Irish brawler went on, "He's in charge of nothing. He's a long way from home. I'm planning to send him back there. In a pine box." Stein glared at him and Brennan offered the man a wide grin in return.

Faumaq suppressed a sigh. This open display of antagonism certainly didn't help matters any. He lit his pipe and puffed smoke towards the cavern's high ceiling. He could see the church's lower foundations, poking down through the rock. Not exactly stable in the first place. And time had weakened the structure.

"I see you're both interested in recovering the remains of Johannes van Dijk." Faumaq stared at the crypt that had already been sledgehammered open, exposing the coffin-sized vault inside.

"And how did you come by this knowledge?" Stein said, the rising note in his voice at the end of his sentence inviting Faumaq to introduce himself.

"My name is Faumaq. I carry letters of marque from the Vatican Council and from the Institute des Advancements Scientifique of Geneva." The papers had not been easily obtained. "I have some famliarity with the so-called Dutch wizard's history. He fled Europe in the early 1800s and resumed his unsavory pursuits here, before he was finally tracked down and murdered by priests of the Black Order with a remit from His Holiness himself. It's said van Dijk was buried in secret along with a certain staff, carved with entwined snakes and surmounted by an unusual prism of his own devising, a glass through which non-material aspects may be viewed."

There, he'd spelled it out plainly. He could have said less, could have shielded his cards and kept Stein and Brennan in doubt as to how much information he truly possessed. But since he intended to appeal to their better natures, he had decided that some degree of honesty was warranted. They had to trust him.

"All very interesting," Stein said. "But what is your purpose here?" He motioned to some of his men, indicating they should resume working on extracting the coffin from its vault. They did so, knocking the rest of the stone facade away.

Faumaq held up a warning finger. "I should not do that, if I were you."

"Wasting your breath, mate," Brennan said. He stepped forward and swung his fist, decking a stormtrooper who'd come too close. Another stormtrooper reached for Brennan's companion, who ducked under the outstretched hands and punched the Nazi so hard that he doubled over, retching. The companion's cap was knocked off and its wearer was revealed as a woman, dark-haired and with a pleasant face. Or it might have been pleasant, had she not been snarling at the black uniforms surrounding her.

A dozen more stormtroopers closed on the pair. Faumaq could do nothing to help them -- not that this was his reason for being here -- so he concentrated on Stein, whose attention was now fixed on the vault. Eager hands reached inside to grab hold of the wooden box. Faumaq half-expected it to fall apart due to the passing of time but the box stayed together even when it got dropped onto the cavern floor. Stein shouted for his men to be careful, but he was the first to snatch a crowbar and thrust it into the join between the coffin box and its lid.

Two stormtroopers marched towards Faumaq, who threw his pipe at their feet. The explosive mixture in the bowl flash-ignited, blinding them for a second. Faumaq slipped between them and went down on one knee near to the vault even as Stein levered the lid open. A stormtrooper pulled it free, revealing the coffin's ghastly contents: the shriveled, mummified remains of Johannes van Dijk, wizard, thrice-damned and excommunicated by Holy Church, magic caster, lover of demons. His bony hands clutched the snake-carved staff which the Vatican's meticulous records had specifically mentioned in its list of outlawed sorcerous items.

Stein gripped the staff and tried to pull it from the dead wizard's hands but van Dijk, even in death, would not let go. The Nazi officer cursed and commanded the stormtrooper holding the lid to put it down and free the staff. The man shouted, "Ja, herr Hauptmann!" and threw the lid away. He grabbed the staff with both hands, braced himself -- and screamed. His hands came away covered in blood. He wasn't wearing leather gloves; Stein was. Stein opened his mouth to say something but before he could speak the stormtrooper was already collapsing, his eyes rolling upward. The snake-heads had done their work.

Faumaq could have tried to warn them that touching the staff meant death, but there just wasn't time. From his kneeling position he was able to draw the 7-sided emblem of van Dijk's coven on the cavern floor using the white chalk he'd brought for this purpose. The shape was burned into his mind. Parallel with each side he drew van Rijk's own hellish runes, emulating his forbidden works, which he also saw every time he blinked. Had he shared this fact with the Vatican's librarians, they might not have let him leave.

As soon as he completed the incantation he felt the ground shake beneath him. Dust fell from the ceiling in clouds. Stein, in the act of using the crowbar to free van Dijk's staff from the wizard's clawed hands, looked up. Then he looked at Faumaq and saw what he was doing with the chalk.

"You shall not deny the Fuhrer of his treasure," the Nazi officer said. His hand went to the holster at his waist and came up holding a pistol. Faumaq would have said a final prayer but he really didn't think it would work for him. His activities had practically guaranteed his being refused entry into Heaven when the time came. And that time appeared to be now. He tried to be sanguine about it.

Brennan sucker-punched Stein so hard he went flying over the coffin and landed atop the dead stormtrooper. He might have pursued him and unleashed more Irish fury, but what was happening in the cavern had his attention. Several of the electric lamps fell over and smashed. Brennan's companion ran to him and he put his arm around her waist to steady her. The Nazi stormstoopers were stumbling around in confusion. Chunks of stone tumbled from the ceiling and fell on them.

Brennan held up the staff. Faumaq was pleased to see he was wearing gloves. He studied the prism embedded in the top end with interest. Then he reversed the staff and drove it down hard, shattering the glass.

Faumaq got up and dusted his trouser knees. His head was pounding from the pain of drawing the runes. "May I suggest we get out of here?" he said to Brennan. He jerked his thumb toward the stairway.

The brawler didn't have to be told twice. He and his companion beat Faumaq to the stairs and started climbing. They raced ahead and Faumaq did his best to catch up with them. When he reached the top step he paused to look down. Stein had recovered and was leading his remaining stormtroopers up the stairway. The others were left lying where they had fallen. The cavern was collapsing around them. The old church's foundations had been shaken loose by Faumaq's actions. Even as he watched, a sizeable chunk of rock fall upon the stairway, sending screaming men flying. The rock rolled down the steps, unstoppable. Stein disappeared under its bulk and when it passed over him there was nothing left recognizable except a black uniform with silver badges at the collar.

Brennan grabbed Faumaq by the arm and pulled him through the doorway and into the curved hallway that took them to the ladder that led up into the church's side annex. They stumbled outside into the night and without Brennan's support, Faumaq might have collapsed, in which case he would have died, for the church, with a terrible groan, slowly sank into the ground, sending clouds of thick dust into the air.

They only stopped when they reached the street outside the cemetery, half of whose gravestones had been swallowed by the event. Faumaq squatted down with his back against the iron railings. Brennan and his companion enjoyed a passionate embrace. Faumaq smiled and looked away. The cool air was helping his headache.

Brennan finally joined him. "I don't know who you are, mister, but you pack a hell of a punch. What exactly happened, down there?"

Faumaq couldn't explain, even if he wanted to. Brennan's expression became thoughtful. "Okay, I guess you have to keep your secrets. But thanks for cutting in when you did. We might have had a tough shindig if you hadn't." He offered his hand. Faumaq accepted it and they shook. "You know, I wouldn't hang around here if I was you, the cops are going to want to know what happened to the Goddamned church." Brennan and his companion turned and walked away, leaving him to it.

"Mr. Brennan?" The Irishman stopped and looked back. "Why did you smash the prism?"

Brennan thought about that for a few seconds. Then he said, "I looked through it. At that officer guy. Funny thing, I didn't see his face. I saw a grinning skull. A grinning skull with curved horns, like a goat. Isn't that just crazy? Something told me it was wrong, that I had to bust it, so that's what I did. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, you know?" He shrugged eloquently, smiled, and went on his way. He slipped his arm around his companion's waist again. Judging from her laughter, she liked it.

Faumaq looked back at the huge hole in the ground. Even if Brennan hadn't smashed the prism, the cavern's total collapse would have buried it, along with Johannes van Dijk's remains. Things had definitely not gone according to plan, but by the grace of God the affair had been concluded.

He tried to remember where he'd left his car. He wandered the streets for over an hour before he found it. His headache was gone by then. He wondered when the next one would come along. Not for a while, with any luck, not for a while.

-The End-

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All In A Day's Work

Brennan hated cultists, especially snake god cultists, they were the worst.

But they'd made a mistake -- they hadn't sifted through the rubble to check he was dead. Luckily for them they were already gone by the time Brennan dragged his way out of the little air pocket that had been created when the statue toppled and shattered.

He lay there for a while, catching his breath and hoping the pain would recede. It didn't. He allowed himself a groan. At least nothing seemed to be broken. Except for his nose. Why did they always have to punch his nose?

He found a water canteen in the ruined camp and drank half the contents just to clear the dust from his mouth and throat. He stopped himself from pouring water over his dust-caked face. He might need every drop.

He inspected the broken base of the statue. Sure enough, there was the cavity where the ruby had nestled for thousands of years. If he'd dug it out first, it would have made him a pretty penny, for sure. But they had it now, which meant they would proceed to the next stage, taking it to the Valley of the Snake Kings to catch the rays of the rising sun in three... no, make that two days, dammit.

If the ancient inscription was to be believed, then the ruby would shine a beam of red light directly onto a spot that marked the tomb of their god. No, not tomb. That was the wrong word. The place where their god was sleeping. Waiting to be awoken so it could wreak havoc and destruction upon the unsuspecting world.

If there was something asleep in there -- big if -- and this wasn't just some made-up bunk to scare little kids 4000 years ago -- would it be a giant snake, or would it be a giant man with the head of a snake? Brennan didn't know for sure, his Lower Nile Egyptian was a little rusty. But he did know he'd try to stop it.

Thank God one of the trucks was still working. The engine turned over on the third attempt. The gas tank was half-full. All right, he had a shot at this. He was going to make it count. If for no other reason than to upset a whole bunch of snake cultists who'd dropped a freaking statue on his head.

-The End-

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Castle Games

Catnip held her breath as her two main rivals entered the great hall. They looked around the room, checking underneath the dining table, behind the chairs. Looking in the shadows. Looking for her.

"The bitch has to be somewhere," Tomas said, his voice an angry growl. He was the bigger of the two. Peert was a head smaller, less muscular. Their teaming up had come as a surprise to Catnip. Together they'd killed at least three of the other competitors. She wondered when Peert would realize that Tomas must be planning to kill him, too, once the rest were dead. Once she was dead.

They were directly underneath her now. Catnip lay flat on her back on the rafter and rested her head on the wood. Her hair obeyed gravity. She extended her selfie-stick, making sure to make no noise whatsoever, and positioned her phone so she occupied the right third of the screen while Tomas and Peert were visible behind her/below her. Her hair looked great, like a golden waterfall. She twisted her lips into a sardonic smile and was just about to take the selfie when a cat walked into view.

She couldn't believe it. The cat was up in the rafters, too! Maybe he was hiding from all the strangers who'd invaded his home. He sat just a couple of feet away from her head and looked at her, as if to say, What the hell are you doing here? Catnip put a finger to her lips, admonishing him to stay silent. He gave no promise that he would.

She adjusted the camera angle to include the cat. Tomas and Peert were still below. She smiled again and took the selfie. There, that one ought to be worth a few extra food points. She hoped so, anyway. Tomas and Peert had been taking selfies too, with their victims, propping them up so they appeared to be sitting with them having a good time, as if they were at a party or something. Every time they took a selfie there was a roar of laughter from the loudspeakers positioned throughout the Castle, telling them that the audience, damn them, approved of their macabre humor.

The audience cheered again now, and Catnip realized it was because of the selfie she'd just taken, which had been sent instantly to every giant screen in the city.

Without changing position she watched, via her phone camera, as Tomas and Peert looked around frantically, wondering what had triggered the cheering. Tomas dashed to one of the exits and vanished, perhaps hoping to run into whoever was responsible elsewhere in the Castle. Peert made to follow him, but stopped after just a couple of steps. He looked around the great hall again, as if suspecting he might have missed something obvious. That was why Tomas wanted Peert on his side -- for now, anyway. Tomas was a killer but Peert was a natural hunter, with a hunter's instincts.

Catnip snatched her phone out of the selfie-stick, slipped it into her shirt pocket, and rolled over onto her side so she fell off the rafter. The cat gave a startled yowl. Perhaps it was trying to warn her. She liked to think so. Peert looked up and his mouth opened in the split-second before both of Capnip's feet landed on his face.

The fall winded her but she forced herself to keep moving. Her selfie-stick lay on the floor. She picked it up and would have used it to beat Peert senseless, but he grabbed her wrist. His face was a twisted mask of anger and pain. Catnip knew her strength was no match for his. She whipped out her earphones and the wires looped around his throat. She pulled tight, cutting off his air. His eyes widened in surprise. He let go of her wrist and clawed at the wires with both hands. Catnip smashed her selfie-stick into the side of his head. And again. Peert's eyes glazed. A third strike and they rolled up. She dropped the selfie-stick and pulled on the earphone wires with everything she had, pulled until the horrible choking noises stopped, pulled until his tongue was sticking out and he was dead.

Cheering echoed throughout the Castle. The audience, those bloodthirsty sharks, applauding her righteous kill. She could have been one of them, she reflected, if she hadn't been chosen by the fickle finger of the GOV Games Lottery. She could be cheering someone else from her ghetto as they fought for their life in the Castle. She would have liked that. Games nights were always fun.

She studied Peert's blotchy face. Funny, she'd thought Peert was handsome when she'd first seen him, when the contestants had gathered in the courtyard to hear the GOV Gamesmaster make his bo-o-o-o-oring speech about how they, the honored few, had been chosen to participate in the Games, the winner earning extra GOVernment food supplies for their ghetto. Only the mortal instruments of your accursed social media may be employed as weapons against other competitors. Good luck, younglings! Make your families proud!

She'd thought maybe they might meet during a Truce Hour and get to know each other better. If that had happened, maybe she and Peert would have teamed up to kill the other contestants. And afterwards, who knew? Maybe they would have refused to kill each other. Maybe they would have argued for the GOV food supplies to be distributed evenly between both their ghettos! Wouldn't that have been something?

She unwound her earphone plugs and put them back in her pocket. She inserted her phone into her selfie-stick, lay down beside Peert and took a selfie of her kissing his dead mouth, her tongue licking his. Gross, but it might get a laugh, and laughs earned extra food points. The savage cheering told her that her gamble had paid off.

She waved to the cat up in the rafters. Next, that bastard Tomas.

-The End-

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It Never Rains But It Pours

"Okay, are we talking about zombies here, or what?"

That was the big guy from the gym, with the perfect suntan and gelled-up hair. I think his name was Ray. His quivering voice made him sound as if he was about to pee himself.

He squealed when someone splatted against the glass doors. I mean literally splatted. And then began sliding down, leaving a bloody smear. His eyes stared right at me, beaming their owner's horror right into my brain. But before the poor schmuck got halfway down he was snatched away by a dozen pairs of hands. They ate him, the bastards ate him right in front of us.

Ray bowed his gelled head and sobbed. I fought the urge to do the same thing. Tonight had turned into a nightmare. Just minutes ago, I'd been thinking about locking up and heading home, ordering pizza and watching the game. Now I was trapped in my store along with Ray and four other kind-of strangers, while the street outside had turned into a bloodbath. Bodies lay everywhere, shiny in the pouring rain. From time to time, some of them got back up again and joined the shambling figures covered in blood. That was the scariest part.

"Yeah, Ray," I said. "I think maybe we're talking zombies here." I didn't bother adding, As crazy as that sounds.

"We could, you know, turn on a TV and see what's on the news," the woman from the deli said. Her badge said "Winda". I had to read it again to be sure. As if her mother had wanted to call her Linda but had a mild speech impediment.

"Hey that's a good idea," the bearded guy from the music store agreed, nodding vigorously. Ted? Maybe. "Someone's gotta know what's going on, right?"

"The reason they're not trying to get in here," I said, keeping my voice calm, because if I started shouting I knew I wouldn't stop, "is because I turned out the lights. They see the glow from a TV screen? Or our shadows? Who knows what might happen."

He stopped nodding, and then he started nodding again, getting my reasoning. My reasoning being, I didn't want to die.

"Well, what are we supposed to do?" This was the manager of the clothes store. She didn't wear a badge, I thought her name might be Celia but I didn't know and I didn't ask. Like the others she'd come running in through the doors a second before I closed and locked them. My doors, instead of their own doors. Now I had five people in my store, five people I didn't want to share air with, never mind conversation.

"What's with the sky?" the other member of our impromptu little gathering asked. She worked in the clothes store also. She crouched well apart from Celia, her back against the counter, her arms folded. Somehow I didn't think they socialized outside of work hours.

"The sky?" Winda said, because someone had to say it.

I'd been wondering about that myself. The color was all wrong. I wanted to say purple, but it wasn't just that color. The sky was like dull grey lead, streaked with glowing violet veins. I'd never seen anything like it before. That was where the rain was coming from. The terrible rain that had made people go crazy and start attacking each other. The electric rain that somehow raised the dead after they fell and lay in the blood-soaked puddles.

No one had an answer so we just stared, wondering when the rain would stop and if things would go back to being normal again.

"Do you have any water?" Ray said. "I'm really thirsty." He looked through the back, curious.

"Stay thirsty a little while longer," I said, but he craned his neck and tilted his big head so he could see what was back there.

"Hey, you got a fridge. You got any snacks?" I wasn't sure how I felt about sharing my food with anyone else. It was my food. He should have brought his own.

"Ray, keep your damn head down--"

Someone banged up against the glass doors, shaking them. Then someone else did the same. I peeked up over the counter. The dead people the rain had brought back were gathering outside. They looked hungry, too.

-The End-

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First Contact #4723

Jimenez couldn't believe his own eyes. The cave wall glowed red and then white and then it suddenly became a smoking tunnel.

Out of the smoke rumbled a thing, he didn't know what it was, some kind of rock monster made up of red-hot boulders? He only knew it had killed a dozen men already, including three members of his own combat team, and if it wasn't stopped, it would kill again. He raised his laser rifle and began to squeeze the trigger.

"Stop, don't shoot!"

The hell? Jimenez watched in surprise as Doc Potter, the mining base's medic, came running in from another tunnel, waving his arms frantically. Potter stopped between Jimenez and the thing, deliberately blocking his aim.

"Get away from it, Doc!" Jimenez shouted. "It's a monster! I gotta shoot it!"

Potter shook his head. "You can't shoot it! It's an intelligent being!"

"It's killed miners, Doc! And marines, too! Let me do what I gotta do!"

Potter moved aside just a little -- but only so he could point at the cave floor. Jimenez stared at the smoking area. The thing, whatever it was, had pulled back, revealing what appeared to be writing burned into the rock.

"You see? You see?" Potter's voice was high-pitched, manic. "It's trying to communicate with us! It's a silicon-based life-form that could have existed for millions of years. We've invaded its ecosystem in our haste to plunder rare minerals from this planet. Who knows how many of its kind we've killed with our plasma drills and hyper explosives?"

"Wow, okay. What does it say, Doc?" Jimenez asked.

Potter leaned down to read the writing and Jimenez blasted the thing dead center. It exploded into a thousand little pieces of rock that clinked and clunked all over the cave.

When the dust settled a little, Doc Potter stood there wearing a stunned expression. Jimenez walked up to him and used a kerchief to wipe the worst of it from his face.

"You okay, Doc?"

Potter blinked. "You killed it. You killed an intelligent being."

"When it's us or something else, Doc, us is going to win every time. What did your pal write on the floor?"

They leaned forward together to read the words carved there.

 

EARTHMEN SUCK.

 

Jimenez thought that was pretty perceptive for a rock monster.

-The End-

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