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~ R. E. Rule

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To Slay A Dragon

No sword or arrow or poison could slay the dragon. It came like a storm from the north, rushing on the wind and raining fire. The land turned to ash under its breath, and when the village had emptied, the dragon dug out a nest with razor claws and draped its scaly coils over the charred remains.

A field of crude tents now spread along the edge of the nearest city, and from that city, perched between the forest and sea, men waged war with the dragon.

The sun was spreading a dark shadow at the forest’s feet when soldiers and archers came through the trees, bloodied and blackened, hauling carts of the dead behind them. Ahna stood among the tents, a hand resting on her swelling stomach, watching them come.

Roderick, a tall man with a sword and an army and a hall of stone, led them. He stopped in the rutted lane between the tents. The villagers’ haggard faces turned to him, hopeful, but Ahna looked away to the twin tongues of smoke over the trees, curling into the sky. She had lived in that village, farmed the land now fallow and burnt under the fiery belly.

“We’ll waste no more men,” Roderick said, resting his palm on his hilt.

“Some of us had homes there!” a voice cried. “What are we supposed to do?”

Roderick towered over them. “That’s no concern of mine. Be grateful the city has allowed you to remain here this long.”

More voices rang out, but Ahna turned and walked to her tent, leaving behind the bark of angry men. When her husband came trudging back from working another’s fields, she handed him a bowl of thin soup. “I think I’ll go fishing tomorrow,” she said, and kissed his cheek.

He looked up with tired eyes before he nodded, drank his soup, and fell asleep with his hand on her stomach. Ahna covered him with a worn blanket, then sat outside the tent, her quick fingers freeing peas from their pods. She watched the two streams of smoke rising in puffs to the north until the night hid them.

At dawn, she passed through the city to the docks, a coil of rope on her shoulder. “I would like to come aboard,” she said to the captain of a small boat, dropping a precious gold coin into his tan palm.

She stood in the bow, wiping salt spray from her cheeks, as the ship jumped over the waves. When they cast anchor, the men dropped nets for little silver fish, but she ran a single line, deeper and baited with pungent, rotting meat. Then she sat and waited.

The little boat swayed when a fish finally swallowed the hook, and it took three men to haul it up into the sunlight. It twitched and gulped on the bottom of the boat until the scales dried in the sun and the lidless eyes paled.

When the fishing boat had docked, Ahna took the stinking fish by the tail and heaved it onto her back. Eyes and laughter followed her as she slowly made her way through the city to the field of tents. With a dull knife, she split open the belly, then she roasted the fish over a fire until the skin crackled and turned black. When it had cooled to the touch, she hoisted it onto her back and walked through the field of tents into the forest, toward the village.

The dragon watched her with baleful eyes as she approached. Ahna stopped and looked at the stretches of gleaming coils. “I brought you dinner,” she said, heaving the fish off her shoulder into the dust.

Then she turned and began the long walk back. Behind her, the dragon greedily devoured the fish, swallowing it whole.

A horrible screeching echoed through the forest that night when the moon rose. Ahna woke, smiled, and nestled against her husband.

She was washing her feet the next morning when a scout came running through the trees. The dragon was dead. It lay twisted in the dirt, its claws furrowing the ground. A pale forked tongue hung from its mouth, and blood dripped from its fangs.

Voices murmured of who could have slain the beast when men of might and cunning had failed. When they cut the dragon apart to haul it away, they found a thin, silver fish bone piercing its throat.

At a Local Inn

Coals whizzed out of the fireplace in orange arcs, pattering with sharp hisses around the room.

                “That’s cheating!” Vanka wailed and dove behind an overturned table.

                “That’s magic, my dear.” I fell back against the wall for a breath. “What would you do with thirty golden varnums anyway? Gamble it away?”

                Vanka let out a guttural shriek. A dagger buried itself in the wooden beam inches from my head. It was my turn to dive for cover.

                The golem was crouched at the edge of the room, draped in chains, watching us with baleful eyes.

                The inn had been a lively, cheerful place when we’d arrive as the sun set, first Vanka and the prisoner, me close behind. When she’d seen me, cursing turned to threats and threats to shoving, mostly on Vanka’s part. That was when the general populace decided to clear out. Now it seemed the bar was partially in flames, though I didn’t take time to look.

                A bit of Vanka’s cloak stuck out from behind the overturned table. The coals flared under my command, igniting the fabric. I grinned as she leapt around the room, cursing and batting at herself.

                “You dance beautifully,” I called.

                She snatched a chair and sent it arcing toward me. I ducked, and it splintered against the wall. The room suddenly went quiet.

                “Rolf,” Vanka said.

                “Yeeeees?” I stayed huddled on the floor. I wasn’t about to fall for that.

                “Where is he?”

                “Where is who?”

                “You know who,” she snarled.

                “Ooh, this is a fun game. Do you mean the King of Avary? I believe he’s in his castle.”

                “He’s gone, Rolf.”

                I popped my head over the pile of crates I’d been hiding behind. The golem had vanished. A few drops of molten metal were cooling on the floor, and a black hole had burned into the wooden planks from a red-hot lump of coal.

                “Rather clever for a golem, isn’t he?” I remarked and jumped as Vanka let out a deafening shriek.

                “You mud-humping, slug slime!” She charged at me, but I cowered, holding up my hand placatingly.

                “Now, hold on, Vanka, my dear. Staying here and beating each other into a bloody pulp isn’t going to do either of us any good.”

                Her nostrils flared, eyes blazing like an angry bull.

                “We could work together,” I coaxed. “Split the reward.”

                “Split it?” She spat on the floor. “After I caught him and you let him escape? You’re lucky I don’t skin you alive and wear you for boots!”

                “Fair. I’ll admit you’ve earned perhaps a bit more for getting us this far. How about, and it hurts me to say this, I take a mere a third of the reward, plus”—I rubbed my chin thoughtfully—“a pittance, only half of another third? All the rest will belong to you.”

                Vanka frowned, considering this, before she snorted. “As it should be.”

                I grinned like a cat. “Shall we be off then?”

                “Fine.” She yanked her dagger from the wall and shoved it into her belt. “But stay where I can see you.”

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

                The inn collapsed in a shower of red sparks, but we sped on, following the trail of molten metal and heavy stone tracks, into the night, after our prey.

Waiting

It was dark in the shadow of the attic. Rain pelted the window. I swung my legs, idly drumming my heels against the side of my trunk, waiting.

                Grandfather had told me to wait here. To wait until he came back and then he would take me to where I belonged. The rusty key ground in the lock, and his heavy steps lumbered down the stairs.

                Then yelling had come, muffled, from outside. I stood on the trunk to peer out the dusty round window, squinting against the glare of the sun. Father was there, with his faded Oldsmobile and faded suit and faded fedora. Yelling always came with him. Yelling and being told to listen to him, not to Grandfather, and Grandfather telling me the same. Grandfather pointed down the road, but Father pushed past him, rushing into the house. When Father came back out, he yelled some more, grabbing Grandfather by the shirt and shaking him, before he ran to his car, and the Oldsmobile roared away, kicking up dust and stones. Grandfather lumbered down the driveway, through the gate, and out of sight.

                Now I stood on the trunk again and looked out, wiping at the fog on the glass with my palm. Rain poured down, buffeted by the wind. All I could see was the porch light flickering dimly through the blowing branches of the tree covering the window.

                Grandfather was back and digging by the porch, the back of his shirt dark with sweat from the sun. The yelling stopped when it was just Grandfather. All noise stopped. His dear sweet Emma was gone, and there was only silence and the ticking of the clock on the mantel. I had heard her name peeking around corners at strangers coming and going, from men with mustaches and handbags handing over bottles and pills, when Grandfather mumbled it through the scotch on his breath. Father had tried to take me away from the silence, but he only had a faded Oldsmobile and a faded suit and a faded fedora.

                Grandfather stabbed his shovel into the dirt next to the hole he’d dug. He’d brought back a little tree, and it sat next to the shovel and the hole. He lumbered to the porch, through the door, and the walls of the house trembled when it shut.

                I jumped off the trunk and walked across the attic, the floor creaking under my feet. The lock on the door was heavy, dark metal, the frame solid wood. There were steps on the stairs. Quick steps. They stopped outside the door.

                “Must be rats again,” said a voice on the other side.

                “But the exterminator said there was nothing up there,” another voice answered, worried, more distant. “Just some moth-eaten old trunk.”

                The floor groaned, footsteps and voices retreating. Music switched on somewhere below with a strange snap, not the scratch of a phonograph needle.

                I went back to the trunk, to drumming my heels. In the dim light of the rain-flecked window, I waited.

Rsska

The scent of blood drew her. She had been sitting on a tussock surrounded by the buzz and chirp of evening swamp-song, watching the mottled reds and oranges of sunset, when a hint of iron floated by on the cooling breeze. Curious, she slid into the water and followed.

                A small island of land was hidden away among the reeds, and to it clung a tree, half-dead and sun-bleached. The massive roots burrowed like splayed fingers into the mud, and a dark ring stained the brittle wood where the stale water touched it. Through the screen of reeds, she saw him huddled against the trunk. A man. She thought he might already be dead, but he curled up tighter, ribs heaving. Mud and algae had soiled his clothing, and his arms cradled his chest and soft vitals. He must be bleeding there.

                There were snakes in the swamp, longer than five men were tall. When they slithered across the waters, it looked like wind playing in the reeds. But if a snake had caught him, he would be dead, wrapped in scaly coils and dragged into the water to drown, disappearing into the chasm of an unhinged, scarlet mouth.

                She cut through the dark water to the shore, silently and leaving no ripples in her wake. The water tasted of his blood.

                The greatest danger of the swamp was a mere buzz in the air. Tiny flies crawling into eyes and ears, or gnats with venomous bites, and the bloated bodies of their victims floated through the reeds until the fish and birds picked them away to nothing, and the bones sank into the muck. The man’s skin was dark, but it wasn’t veined black or red. It wasn’t the swamp that had harmed him.

                When the man looked up, he scrambled back. A useless gesture of fear. The tree was at his back, and she now blocked his path into the water. His arms shifted, and she caught a glimpse of crimson on his shirt.

                “Let me see,” she said.

                His drawn face smoothed in shock. He hadn’t expected her to speak.

                “Your wound,” she said, nodding to it. “Let me see.”

                He cautiously drew his arms away to reveal torn fabric and a red slash of open flesh. It was the mark of a weapon, a wound by men. Their bodies came into the swamps sometimes, already dead and cut apart by their own kind. They floated, eyes wide to the sky, until the mud and water mercifully embraced them. The people of the swamp kept away.

                “You fled here,” she said, and he nodded. “From whom?”

                “Thieves.” His head sagged back against the whitened bark.

                It was curiosity that drew her out of the murky waters onto his small island. Curiosity and the assurance he couldn’t harm her. He was in her territory, weak and wounded, and he shrank away from her. Even great bears were powerless and terrified in the deep waters and maze of reeds. The strongest predators on dry land were helpless here. The swamp ate them and swallowed their bones.

                “What did they want?” she asked.

                “Anything. Everything,” he said with a hollow laugh. “I was traveling. They took my supplies, but it wasn’t enough. They were angry I didn’t have more and tried to kill me. So, I ran.”

                She watched him with unblinking eyes. “If it’s valuables you’re worried about, you’re safe here. The swamp wants only your life.”

                He pulled his knees to his chest and hugged himself again. His gaze kept flickering to her, trying to watch her, trying not to stare, and he finally asked the question she had felt him holding back. “What are you? I mean, who. Who are you?”

                “Rsska,” she said, and he winced slightly at her hiss. “That is the who. As for the what, we are the people of the swamp, just as you are the people of the land.”

                He examined her openly now, her stringy hair and webbed hands, her thick skin and bare body.

                “I didn’t know there were people in the swamps,” he said at last.

                The darkness of night had fallen. Frogs creaked and groaned in the reeds. Rsska pointed to scattered flames dotted the swamp, flickering behind the tall reeds. “Those are our fires,” she said. “Have people on land not seen them?”

                His face twisted into a crooked smile. “We have, but we call them marsh lights. And legend says they are fires set by false spirits to lure us to our deaths.”

                She laughed, a short barking laugh. “Land people are smarter than they look.”

                His mouth stayed curled into a smile. “Have you seen land people before?”

                “Yes. Sometimes.” She looked away. Never alive, but she stayed silent.

                “It might amuse you then to know that we also have names. And mine is Erkin.”

                “Your kind are killers,” she said calmly.

                His dark eyes met her yellow ones in silence.

                “Yes,” he said finally. “Some of us are. And some of us are killed.”

                Rsska examined him before she reached into the water and scooped up a dripping mass of black mud with one webbed hand. She had thought she might let him die, there on the small island. There had been a strange thrill in the way he cowered in the shadow she cast in the last red rays of the setting sun.

                “It will seal the wound,” she said as he tried to pull away from her.

                He let her fill the gash with the black muck, groaning through gritted teeth. It took three more handfuls before she was satisfied. The mud would dry, solid and hard as rock.

                “Thank you,” Erkin said softly when she had retreated to the water’s edge.

                “Will you go back?”

                “I have to. I’m not…” He looked out at the murmuring swamp, dim in the moonlight, and wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m not like you. I can’t live here.”

                Rsska nodded. His skin was soft and thin, his eyes clear. He was made for open air and long distances, not murky waters. “In the morning, I will take you to the shores where it is safe.”

                His dark eyes were almost black in the starlight. “Why are you helping me?”

                To the south, the swamp joined the forest. The trees stood in silent rows over a floor of plant-coated water. Eventually it turned to mud, the reeds to open fields, and the water to clear rivers. Rsska longed to explore the lands beyond the boundary of the swamp, but her skin dried and cracked without water. She was naked without reeds to hide her, and terror and hunger drove her back to the mud. Erkin covered his nakedness with clothing, but the swamps would rot any coverings she wore. The waters were her garments.

                “Will you tell me of your life?” she asked. “Of the places on dry land?”

                They lay under the flickering stars, he tucked between the tree roots, she submerged in the water with only her face showing. He told her of grassy plains stretching beyond the horizon, of forests towering into the clouds, of rushing rivers and great oceans with waters that tasted of salt. He told her of the vessels of hewn trees that sailed the open waters, and she thought with coldness of when they might do the same with her waters. He told her of wars and devastation and the divisions of men. His voice lulled her into bizarre, half-waking dreams until he fell silent, and she realized he was asleep. Around them, frogs chirped, and the wind whispered through the reeds.

                Rsska woke once when the moon had arced through the sky to the horizon. Silver light glinted on the rippling water. A blunt head had appeared at the edge of the reeds, quiet and still. Its tongue flickered out, tasting the water. Her fingers dug a sharp rock out of the mud and clutched it, knowing the snake would taste her willingness to fight. Her skin was harder to pierce.

                She could maneuver faster, drag it to the depths, bloodying it with her crude weapon. After a moment, the snake turned and slithered into the night. She let the rock slip from her fingers. Erkin was snoring, an arm across his wounded waist, and she fell into an uneasy sleep.

                The sun had crept into the sky when she woke to Erkin splashing, washing the dried and cracking mud from his waist. The wound had closed into a jagged red line. Rsska dove into the waters to pull up roots and showed him how to strip the tender core from the sinewy reeds with his teeth. From his expression, he found them tough and distasteful, but he didn’t complain.

                “I came from that way,” he told her, pointing toward a patch of bent and broken reeds. His path had been forceful and clumsy. It was a wonder she had been the first to find him.

                “Then we will go that way,” Rsska said, looking in the opposite direction. “But they will smell you in the waters. We must move quickly.”

                He swam awkwardly, laboriously, his limbs tangling in the plants. Rsska slowed her pace to his. It was impossible to see through his clumsy splashing and jerking. She took mouthfuls of water, running it over her tongue to taste for snakes and other creatures that might harm him, but his scent was overpowering, his presence and noise oppressive. Their journey followed a meandering path between the small oases, submerged trees or clumps of land, where he could rest.

                It was with relief that she emerged from the reeds. Open water, the beginnings of a river, stretched between them and the bank. The forest lay beyond, green and vibrant in the sunlight. Rsska had brought him where the water ran deep to the shore and he wouldn’t have to struggle through mud. They were halfway across the open water when Erkin lunged at her.

                She barely had time for a gasping breath before he shoved her head beneath the water and pushed her down toward the black sediment. She writhed against his hard grip, panicked. He was trying to drag her farther down. She twisted away, but his hand closed around her wrist, yanking her to him. He was shaking his head, his eyes open and blind in the dark water. His clenched mouth opened, and bubbles flooded out. Through their rush, she heard the word that made her blood run cold.

                “Men.”

                The surface of the water glimmered faintly above her. Her eyes were not made for open spaces, and if men had been on the bank, she would not have been able to see them. Erkin was struggling to stay below, his head bent and arms working against the water that tried to shove him upward. His stomach spasmed, and in horror, Rsska realized he was running out of air. In his struggle to keep out of sight, he had spent too much.

                The people of dry land killed each other without hesitation; she didn’t doubt they would do worse to her. She hesitated a moment between the safety of the tangled reeds and the open water. If they surfaced, they would be seen. She could evade them, disappear into the swamp, but Erkin was slow and clumsy and wounded.

                She grabbed his shirt and pulled him toward the reeds. His body jerked with a strange guttural sound in his throat. Any moment, his urge to take a breath would overtake his will to hold it. She glanced toward the dark wall of safety before she turned back to him, gripping him by the back of the neck and pressing her mouth to his. He gasped against her, his chest swelling with air. She felt the draw from her supply, but it would be enough. His hand touched her cheek. She pulled away, leading him through the darkness back to safety.

                He burst out of the water, gasping and puffing like a bear. Rsska parted the reeds and peered toward the shore, blinking and squinting. There were vague blurs on the swathe of green. They might be trees, or they might be men.

                Erkin was grinning beside her. “Do people of the swamp kiss?”

                She hissed disgustedly. Her heart was pounding in fear, her ears ringing. “You will need to lead,” she said. “I cannot see.”

                They stayed behind the veil of the reeds, following the curve of the shore until Erkin said the banks were clear, and they again crossed the open waters. The sun had passed its peak in the sky, and Erkin dragged himself, exhausted, onto the grassy bank. Water ran red from his wound.

                “You need more mud,” Rsska said, reaching for him, but he caught her hand.

                “I know the forest. There are herbs here that will do just as well.”

                Reluctantly, she pulled back and sank into the water. He sat on the bank and looked down at her. “You could come with me. See the places I told you of.”

                She reached out and touched his arm. His skin was streaked black and green, his palms wrinkled. “The water eats away at you. The air does the same to me.”

                She watched him expectantly. The world beyond her shores was his, its ways, abilities, and mysteries his domain. He stood and shook her waters from himself, standing comfortably on the shore and looking out over the vast swamp. “I’ll come see you then. But how will I find you?”

                “You only have to get into the water. I’ll hear your crashing a league away.”

                He laughed and bent down to take her hand, hard and scaly in his soft dark one. “Until we meet again then, Rsska.”

                With a final look at her, he limped across the bank into the trees, leaving her alone in the water at the edge of her world. She watched him go with one hand, fingers aching, clutching the tender, green grass.

Kierk

                It was well after first moonset when Kierk hauled himself onto the craggy plateau and looked down at the sleeping city. Borysi III was small. The smallest place in the multiverse, Kierk thought, and the more he’d grown, the smaller it had gotten. Now, from above, it looked like a metal pock on the face of the landscape.

                A few hours earlier, he had woken in a cold sweat after dreaming that the constricting walls had closed in and sealed him up like a can of Garvian Mash. Most nights he would’ve sighed mournfully into the dark, rolled over, and gone back to sleep. But not tonight.

                Kierk got up and snuck out, past the mineral grinders and prism bays, to the base of the Borysinnian walls. He shuffled his heels back against the cold metal, looked down at his feet, took a step, and started counting. Other Borysinnians were milling around. The night shift. Kierk ignored them. He had as much distaste for the people as the place. Every year their brains seemed to shrink until he wasn’t sure anything filled their curly-horned heads.

                Borysi III was known for its prism shaping. Each of the bays Kierk passed, counting softly as he went, were mounted with several carefully sculpted prisms, mined from beneath the city. When powered by lunar light, they sent whatever was inside the bay hurtling through the cosmos to the destination indicated by their alignment.

                (This might sound like magic. It’s not. It’s highly scientific and explained in great detail in Regival’s Prismatic Potency in Relation to Cosmic Disruption and Traversion. Magic is just science that isn’t understood yet, and any Borysinnian who heard mention of the arcane would think the speaker had been snorting too much prism dust.)

                Cans of mash and metal crates packed with raw crystals were stacked up and dropped through the infinity of space to the strange locales across the multiverse that needed such things. Borysi III was a hub of comings and goings. But they hadn’t yet solved the problem of space being very cold. Whatever was sent arrived frozen solid, and if handled improperly, crumbled into dust.

                If Kierk’s dream did come true, at least he would be zapped off to an unknown destination, pried open there, and have one last, grand adventure sliding down some foreign gullet. But it was just a dream. Flesh and fluids couldn’t travel the way of the Garvian Mash.

                When Kierk reached the opposite wall, he sighed and sagged. Every planetary cycle he paced the diameter of the city to measure it, and as he suspected, every year it had shrunk.

                If his brain was as remarkable as he fancied, he would’ve realized this was because every year his legs and feet had grown. However, it could be argued that the place did get relatively smaller since he took up more of it. Either way, the number he had totaled left him discontent.

                An idea was forming in his pubescent brain, and on that night, under the light of the first moon, he found the angst to execute it.

                He left Borysi III with a filtration mask anchored to his horns and climbed the surrounding rugged cliffs. When he reached the top, the second moon had risen and the third glowed on the horizon. The prisms in the pack on his back clanked as he adjusted the straps. He intended to open a portal to the Forbidden Zone, and then… well, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. But forbidden with a capital F was a tempting thing indeed.

                Kierk crossed the plateau and crept into a small, dark cave. He drew a circle in the dust on the stone floor and set prisms at each focal point. Without the stability of a prism bay, he could only hope for a shaky and temporary portal, but it would be enough to peek through.

                The light of the third moon crept across the floor, licking at the edges of the farthest prism. Kierk rearranged, realigned, reconfigured until a web of light stretched between the prisms and they shook and danced in their places around the circle.

                The lunar light glowed, refracted a thousand times onto and into and through itself. Then it flashed and disappeared.

                Kierk peered into the circle. It was dark. The third moon had moved on, and only by squinting could he see that the circle was slightly darker than the darkness around it.

                In actuality, it couldn’t be dark because it was nothing. Not the nothingness people refer to when they mean the absence of something, but true nothingness. The absence of everything.

                The night was still and silent, and so was the puddle of nothing. Then a shift and a slight change in color. The nothingness had become something. Something big trying to crawl through. A mammoth foot appeared first, anchoring claws in the rock. Then the tips of two tufted ears. When the head squeezed through, Kierk thought there was no way the rest of it could follow, but it kept wriggling and writhing and twisting until another foot and a long furry body and two more feet and finally a long tail slid through.

                The prisms scattered, and the portal snapped shut.

                The creature that had crawled out of nothingness shook itself, raining Kierk with ice crystals. It stretched its back and yawned, razor claws arching out of its paws. Then it sat up and curled its tail around its feet. But the cave was shorter than it was, so it had to hunch under the stone ceiling and its head slid down between its massive shoulders.

                Unblinking yellow eyes stared at Kierk, who was standing welded to the floor.

                The creature’s appearance had startled him. Until that moment, a living thing passing through a prism portal had seemed an impossibility. He probably should’ve run away screaming. He didn’t. Anything might happen when dabbling with the Forbidden, and the cocktail of hormones in his brain granted him a certain crazed immunity to common sense.

                “Salutations,” he said nervously, quieter than he intended.

                The creature stared, one ear twitching as it brushed the rock ceiling. Its pupils dilated until the yellow eyes turned jet black.

                “What are you, if you don’t mind?” Kierk asked, unsure the thing could talk and wondering if he was making a fool of himself.

                “I am existence,” the creature said promptly. “The universe. The cosmos. The whole of life embodied, contained, turned in upon itself. Where it is made whole and nothing. Complete and separate. Possible and impossible. Yes and no.”

                “Oh,” Kierk said.

                “I suppose I’m here now,” the creature said. “So, if there’s something you want, hurry up and say it. Infinity passes one moment at a time.”

                “I’d like to leave this place,” Kierk said cheerfully. “I’d like to go somewhere else.”

                “Where?”

                “Somewhere… else.” Kierk faltered.

                “I suggest specificity,” the creature said. “I believe you organic organisms require certain conditions to survive.”

                Kierk considered this. His knowledge of other places was limited. They were there, somewhere, and he wasn’t. “Well, where did you come from?”

                “The void,” the creature said, casually flexing a paw.

                “Oh. Is it nice there?”

                The yellow eyes pinned him. “It’s a void. It’s nothing.”

                “Oh.”

                The creature sighed. Apparently, existence was impatient. “What if I showed you the universe and you selected a place? Can you do that?” It looked as if it wasn’t sure he could, but Kierk nodded eagerly.

                The creature lay so that Kierk stood between its massive front paws and opened its mouth. There were no teeth or tongues or throat, just a warm breeze from a dark, empty cave. Something flickered deep within. A light. A flare. The expansion of nothingness into everything. Nova imploding and exploding. Stars flaming and dying. The crash of cosmic waves against strange, ethereal shores. Planets of every shape and size wheeling through the endless dance. Some clamoring with life; others wastelands of dust and raging storms. Life surging to its peak and falling into decay.

                A tear ran down Kierk’s cheek. His eyes stung, but he couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away from the horror and beauty. The creature’s mouth stretched into a cavernous yawn, then shut.

                “See anything you like?”

                But Kierk was already scribbling scrambling down the rocky mountainside. He only stopped when he’d pounded back inside the metal walls and leaned his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

                He had seen only glimpses of other worlds through the holes the prisms made. In his mind, the whole of the multiverse couldn’t be that much bigger than Borysi III. Maybe a little, but not by much. He bent over and panted and thought about throwing up. It was a rude shock to go from being a relatively large person in a relatively small space to a tiny, insignificant speck.

                He straightened up and patted the stiff metal wall next to him. At third moonrise, Kierk would’ve said those unforgiving boundaries kept him in. As the third moon set and he crawled back into bed, he knew they were keeping the rest of the world out.

                Borysi III eventually solved the cold problem. But when given the chance to leave his metal cocoon, Kierk stubbornly shook his head and said he was fine where he was. The bigger his world became, the smaller it made him. So, he kept his world small. He never saw the magenta shores of Rysian IV shining with the spume of green waves or the endless torfa fields of Yyrian II. He never knew the thrill and terror of stepping from one world to another and glimpsing infinity in between. He lived hemmed in by walls, walls he wouldn’t look past for fear of seeing two black eyes of nothingness staring back at him.

                He did become the finest prism shaper in Borysi III, so that’s something… I guess.

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 46: Hunger

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

A temple dedicated to plenty, a prayer, and an unexpected answer.

Find more platforms here

Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

The music for today’s episode was written by John Jansen.
Hear more music: https://tinyurl.com/6dbw7knj
Buy handmade instruments: https://www.etsy.com/shop/JLJInstruments?ref=simple-shop-header-name&listing_id=941518036

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

Foreign Correspondence

Her oxfords had been laced, her lips rouged, and after a final peep in the mirror, she flung open the door.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the man in the hallway, hand poised to knock and a bewildered look on his face.

“For what?”

“I…” He smoothed his hair and tugged his tie straight. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but it seems our mail was misdelivered. Poor record keeping. I’ve yet to stay at a hotel without appalling records.”

There was a pause, each watching the other expectantly, until the man in the hallway cleared his throat and continued.

“I was awaiting some letters, but I received this instead.” He tugged a rumpled envelope from his suit pocket. “Is it yours?”

She looked down at the address written in a thin, angular hand. “No, that’s not me.”

“Oh. Well, it was worth a try.” He fidgeted with the letter, glancing down the hall. “I suppose I should… check the next room then.”

“You’re not a Mr. Sinclair, by chance, are you?” she asked.

“I am! How did you know?”

“These were delivered earlier.” She turned back into the room and retrieved a bundle of letters from beside a vase of blushing roses. “It’s quite a stack,” she said, handing them to him.

He shrugged bashfully.

“Adam,” she said.

“What?”

“Or Archibald.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not it. I thought Alfred at first, but now I’ve met you, that’s not right either.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”

She pointed to the letters, each neatly addressed to ‘Mr. A. Sinclair.’ “Albert?”

“Arthur.”

A smile bloomed on her lips. “Of course! Arthur Sinclair.”

“Like the president,” he laughed, but her forehead crinkled in puzzlement.

“Continental Congress…?” he added miserably.

“I never was very good at history,” she said. “Well, that’s one mystery solved, and it isn’t even noon.”

But Mr. Arthur Sinclair did not move from the doorway.

“There is still this one,” he said, and he looked down at the lone envelope then up at her, a glimmer in his eye of a half-fledged idea struggling to take flight. “Perhaps… we could try to find its owner. It has to belong to someone.”

“I’m sure the front desk can take care of it,” she said, stepping into the hall and pulling the door shut behind her. “I’m off to the museum. And your letters must be important if you came looking for them.”

“What, these?” He crammed the unfortunate stack into his pocket. “Business, notes from acquaintances, that sort of thing. They’ll keep. Besides, we might find a letter for you.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” she said with a little laugh, but her gaze flickered back to the envelope in his hand. “Still, I guess it doesn’t hurt to check. The museum can wait.” She put a small bronze key into the lock on the door. “And everything will be slightly older when I get there.”

The lock clicked. She put the key into her bag and took the letter from Arthur, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Mrs. R. S. Lafayette. She sounds important. Do you think she’s French?”

“It’s possible.”

“I’ve never been to France,” she said wistfully then looked up and down the hall. “Where should we begin?”

“Farther down?” Arthur suggested, and she started forward, her small heels silent on the thick, floral carpet.

“Should I know that name? Lafayette?”

“He was a general,” Arthur said, hurrying after her. “In the Revolutionary War.”

“Then perhaps they’re related. That must be very interesting, being related to someone famous.”

Arthur was walking beside her now. “And what name will we be inquiring after?” he asked, intently studying the wallpaper. “Mrs…?”

“It’s Miss.” She was fumbling with a button on her lace glove. “Miss. H. Langstrom, and the H is for Helen.”

“Like Helen of Troy,” Arthur said blissfully.

“I hope not.” And Helen knocked on the door of 208.

It was answered by an immense figure framed by bright sunlight and the tinny scratch of a string quartet on the Victrola. “Yes?” she bellowed.

“Mrs. Lafayette?” Arthur asked.

“Yes!”

“I received some mail of yours by accident, and I— I mean, we, this young lady and I, were hoping to return it to you.”

“Isn’t that sweet of you?” the woman said loudly and took the letter from Helen, disregarding the spectacles on the silver chain around her neck and holding it arm’s length to squint at it. “Why, yes, this is mine! How did you find me? Some mix-up at the front desk, no doubt. These things happen, and I almost didn’t answer the door what with my sister on long-distance. She’s in California, if you can believe it.”

She stopped for a breath, and Arthur cut in. “Did you receive any letters? Addressed to someone else perhaps?”

“Well, I did now you mention it,” she said in her tone of eternal surprise. “Thought it odd. Meant to ask the bellhop when he came up with lunch, but I was on the phone with my Charles, and when I turned around, the boy had vanished. Left without his tip. Now… where did I put it?”

She disappeared into the room, talking all the while. Arthur smiled wanly at Helen.

“Here!” came a piercing cry, and Mrs. Lafayette returned waving a thin envelope. “This was kind of you. Such a sweet, young pair. I must tell my sister about you.” The phone trilled behind her. “That’ll be her now, wondering where I’ve gone to. I better answer before she thinks I was murdered or some such nonsense. You’ve never met such a frightful gossip. That woman could talk the ears off a potato.”

The envelope was thrust into Helen’s hands, and the door shut.

“It’s for a Mr. Green,” Helen said, brushing at a jam smudge on the corner. “And she wasn’t even French.”

“201.” Arthur grimaced. “I believe I met him already.”

Helen sniffed the envelope. “Perfume. And an entirely impractical handwriting. I can only assume this Mr. Green is in the middle of a torrid affair.”

“If he’s who I think he is, I doubt that,” Arthur said, moving closer to Helen to let a bellhop carrying a silver domed tray on his shoulder pass. “The perfume must be Mrs. Lafayette’s.”

“But it isn’t her handwriting,” Helen said and looked up at him with a glint in her eye. “There’s only one way to find out.”

201 was occupied by a squat, balding man who glowered at them from a cloud of cigar smoke. “No, thank you,” he grumbled.

“I beg your pardon?” Arthur said.

“Shoes, encyclopedias, whatever it is you’re hawking, I don’t want it.”

“Oh, we’re not—”

“They’ve got women now too,” Mr. Green said, scowling at Helen.

The door was swinging shut.

“Now, hold on!” Arthur protested. “We have a letter for you.”

“I don’t want it.”

“It’s from a woman,” Helen yelled through the closing door, and it paused a crack from the jamb.

Mr. Green’s pruny face glared out before he snatched the letter and peered at the handwriting. “You stealing my mail?”

“No!” Arthur said. “We—”

“Bad enough they let you go door-to-door in here,” Mr. Green grumbled. “Find someone else to pester.”

“But—”

The door slammed, and Arthur stared at it. “He didn’t even remember me.”

“But it was his letter,” Helen said with a little sigh. “I suppose that’s it then.”

Arthur looked down at her, pulled himself to his full height, and pounded a fist on the door.

“See here,” he said when it opened. “We did not steal your letter. And we are not salesmen. This incredibly charming young lady is Miss. Helen Langstrom. She’s staying two doors down from you. We’re looking for a letter that was sent to your room by accident, and—”

The door shut again, right in Arthur’s face.

“It was sweet of you to try,” Helen said gently.

An envelope popped out under the door.

“It’s been opened,” Helen said, gingerly picking up the tattered envelope. “And it’s addressed to a Miss. Penelope Barker.”

“A young lady is staying in the room next to mine,” Arthur said. “She wasn’t in earlier, but she might be now. We could try there.”

Helen hesitated. “Being a postman isn’t as exciting as I expected. Delivering the mail isn’t as interesting as receiving it.”

“You have to walk that way to the lobby anyway,” Arthur said.

After a moment, she agreed.

“Which room is yours?” Helen inquired as they walked down the hall, then, not waiting for an answer: “It must be nice traveling with acquaintances. Your wife.”

“I’m not married.”

“Oh.” She stopped and looked up at him. “Well, I’m sure you’re very busy with your studies. I imagine a historian doesn’t have time for things like silly day trips. Or maybe a teacher.”

“Nothing as important as that,” Arthur said, the tips of his ears turning pink. “I read a lot of books. Too many books.” He glanced darkly toward 201. “Books are easier than people. It’s that one,” he said, pointing down the hall.

A slender, bright woman in a vibrant satin robe opened the door. “Well, hello!” she said, smiling a glossy smile and looking mostly at Arthur. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a letter that belongs to you, Miss. Barker,” Helen said, holding it out to her.

The woman, who didn’t deny being Miss. Barker, took it and fingered the torn edge. “Did you read it?”

“Of course not,” Arthur said indignantly.

“Pity,” she said, flashing white teeth at him and cocking a shoulder. “You might have enjoyed it.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “Did you receive any mail that wasn’t addressed to you?”

“’fraid not.”

“Thank you for your time then,” Helen said and turned back to the hall.

“Feel free to come back and check another time,” the woman called after them before she laughed and shut the door.

Helen was picking at a leaf in a flower arrangement sitting on a nearby pedestal.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. “I thought we’d find something.”

“I didn’t expect we would,” Helen said quietly. “I don’t get many letters.”

“Surely the people you’re traveling to see would write you, or… your family at home.”

She turned and looked up at him. “People always think that. That I’m going to see someone or waiting for someone or… Well, maybe I am. But if I am, I don’t know it.”

“You’re traveling alone too,” Arthur said.

“Yes.”

“Do you often travel alone?”

She sighed. “It’s that or stay home alone. And there are so many more interesting places to be alone. They all have someone, don’t they?” she said, looking down the hall. “Even if it’s only some writing on a piece of paper.”

“Miss. Barker is also a young lady traveling alone,” Arthur said valiantly. “It’s very modern of you.”

“I highly doubt she spends much time alone,” Helen muttered. She looked toward the broad marble staircase leading to a lobby teeming with travelers and tall plants in massive pots. “You seem to know a lot about history. I suppose you’d find a museum a bore.”

“I bet I wouldn’t!” Arthur said.

“But what about your letters?”

Arthur was gazing down at her upturned face with a dreamy expression. “What letters?”

Helen smiled. “I should warn you, I spend more time watching the people than the exhibits.”

Before they left, Arthur stopped at the front desk and pressed a folded bill into the manager’s hand. “Please give my compliments to whoever delivered the mail.”

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 43: Gille, The Bard of Falutia

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

Gille is the most renowned bard in all of Falutia and his singing the most… unique. His music has the power to stir the heart of even the most ferocious beast.

Find more platforms here

Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule

Purpose

                The meaning of life woke one day and remembered her name.

                She stretched and yawned and realized they had probably been looking for her. Like a heralding angel, she prepared to announce her name.

                She began in the hub of civilization: a place called Value-Mart with red sale tags and whole roast chickens and broccoli for 79 cents. The world congregated here, filtering in and out of the glass doors.

                An elderly woman was examining the shelves, a basket at her side. The meaning of life approached her and extended a hand. “Greetings. My name is—”

                “Do you have this in a smaller size?” the elderly woman asked, poking a 25 lb. bag of rolled oats.

                “I…” The meaning of life looked between her and the oats. “I couldn’t say. That is not my purpose.”

                “Oh, I’m sorry,” the elderly woman said, finally looking at her. “I thought you worked here.”

                “I don’t, but I would like to help you.”

                “That’s alright, dear. Thanks all the same.” She picked up her basket. “I’m not in a hurry.”

                No one else showed any more interest than the old woman had. They hurried by, laughing, arguing, pushing carts, quieting babies, in a hurry, taking their time, moving from an unknown origin to an unknown destination.

                She fled the whirling chaos of the Value-Mart to the world outside.

                Two teenagers were walking down the sidewalk, laughing and bumping shoulders. She planted herself in their path. “You must learn my name if you wish to find satisfaction.” 

                They stopped to stare at her, eyes wide but mouths shut.

                “Do you not crave a purpose?” she asked, throwing her hands up.

                They exchanged an uneasy glance before one nudged the other, and they cut across the grass to the parking lot of the Value-Mart.

                She found shelter on a bench by the street. The world grew dark and rainy. Streetlights and headlights glimmered around her. A bus lumbered to the curb and stopped with a grumble and a hiss. The door rattled open.

                They had forgotten her; they had forgotten to search for her. When they looked in her face, they saw a stranger.

                “Do you need help?”

                A man stood framed against the yellow light of the bus’s interior.

                “I should be helping you,” she said.

                He looked up the street, then down. It was empty. “Come on,” he said, moving aside to make room on the stairs. “Get out of the rain.”

                She sat in the row of seats behind the driver, watching the world flicker by through the rain-streaked window. “Do you feel fulfilled?” she asked.

                He laughed in response. The bus squealed and complained as it slowed for a red light.

                “I no longer have a purpose, it seems,” she said.

                “Do you need one?”

                She considered this. Without a purpose, she was useless, or perhaps things were only useless if they had a purpose they weren’t fulfilling. But she couldn’t be useless if she didn’t have a purpose to not fulfill, could she? Her head was starting to hurt.

                “I paint on the weekends,” the driver said. “Nothing great, but I enjoy it. Maybe you need something like that.” He glanced up into the large mirror mounted on the ceiling. “What’s your name?”

                She was silent for a moment. “What do you think it is?”

                He peered at her reflection. “Well, you look like a Sarah to me.”

                Sarah. She smiled to herself. That was close enough.

Tiny Tales Podcast Ep. 42: Grufta

Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Written and narrated by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).


This Week’s Episode:

A relic from a bygone world stirs the curiosity of a young observer.

Find more platforms here

Support us on Patreon: www.patreon.com/rerule

More soon!

~ R. E. Rule