Prophecy

When blood sun sets,
And full moon rises,
Look east to the weeping maiden.

When nightingale sings,
And nighthawk cries,
Look west as the lost sun rises.

Two figures disturbed the evening stillness of the valley. They moved through the brittle grass and bare trees, grabbing for handholds to climb the slope, and a sweet voice drifted on the wind.

          “Stop the infernal humming,” the boy said, yanking his shirt away from a thorn bush.

          Ahead of him, the girl reached the top of the slope. Beyond lay rolling hills, muted gray in the dimming light.

          “Look,” she said, pointing. “The weeping maiden.”

          A thin tree stood alone, a veil of curling leaves brushing the grass. In the dying light, it seemed a weeping woman, head bent, and the wind stirring her hair. The first sliver of a white moon lifted above the horizon, and behind them, the red disk of the sun cast a glow over the forest.

          A bird burst out of the underbrush, calling, before circling and flying toward the distant mountains.

          “Now what?” the boy asked, panting.

          “Now we wait.”

          They sat with their backs to the valley, watching the colors dance on the clouds.

          “How will we see the star if the sun is in the way?” the boy asked, and the girl grinned.

          “Gran says it’s not at a star. Gran says it’s an evil spirit.”

          The moon glistened, spinning silver mists over the grass, and the girl turned to watch it, the light glowing on her upturned face.

          “What kind of evil spirit?” the boy asked.

          “The bad kind, I suppose.” She leaned her head back against his neck. “Why? Are you frightened?”

          He snorted. “It’s only an ancient song. All that’s going to happen is we’ll get wet from this dew.”

          The golden edge of the sun touched the horizon like a brand, scattering red sparks over the forest.

            “Nita,” the boy whispered, but the girl sat, eyes wide and unblinking, staring at the cold moon. Her lips moved with silent song.

          The boy struggled to his knees. The red light ran over his skin and clothing, dripping into the grass. He tried uselessly to wipe it away. The sun flared, spears of light piercing him; he screamed a long, wavering cry.

          The girl leapt to her feet, her face pale with silver light. “Astor?”

          But she didn’t turn. Her arms hung at her sides though she struggled. “Let me go, Astor. You’re hurting me! Let me go!”

            Behind her, empty grass whispered. The sun sank below the horizon, leaving a red glow like embers on the dark clouds. The girl stood frozen, bound by the moon’s silver chains. She hid her face and wept.

          Somewhere in the growing twilight, a nightingale sang.


Cover Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay. Find more art on Instagram.

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.

Gille, The Bard of Falutia

Between the treacherous forest where only foul spirits dared to tread and the wide waters of the Alamanthanine Sea, there stood the small kingdom of Falutia. And in Falutia, there lived a bard of such renown that his name was spoken in hushed whispers from the sandy shores to the peaks of the snowy mountains. The mere mention of his arts upon the lute strings sent a shiver through even the most brutal mercenary, for he was, without a doubt, the worst singer ever heard in those fair lands.

                His name was Gille.

                His singing brought to mind the scratch of dead branches against gravestones, and his lute playing stirred even the most war-hardened soldier to tears of despair. Wherever he went, always in cheerful song, the road cleared before him. Thief, trader, brave wanderer, or stalwart servant of the king, it made no difference. All fled at the first echo of his strains through the trees, and the birds migrated south no matter the season.

                In the spring of that year, the king’s daughter and only child was to have her twenty-third birthday, and as tradition dictated, it would be the year she chose a suitor to take up residence with her in the stately castle of Falutia. Lords, ladies, dukes, duchesses, knights and squires, minstrels and dancers, and most importantly, eligible princes came from all reaches of the land. Tents and pavilions sprang up. Sweet strains of music and the mouth-watering scent of delicious treats filled the air. Jesters jested, knights jousted, and wild celebration ensued, all to culminate in the day when the princess would choose her prince.

Continue reading “Gille, The Bard of Falutia”

Grufta

Sunlight filtered through the dusty display window, glinting off seamless polished metal. A silver oblong nestled in sun-faded velvet. The brilliance of the original crimson could still be seen on the back of the curtains framing the glass and in the grooves of the wrinkled fabric. There were indents where other shapes had sat, but all that remained was the elongated metal egg.

                “What is it?” A young face was pressed against the glass, fog gathering around her partially open mouth.

                There was no one to answer. She stood in a dingy street surrounded by faded, peeling paint and warped wood. Her clothing was just as shabby: patched knits with gaping holes clumsily knotted shut and boots too big for her feet. A few figures passed by, but none spared her a glance.

                She left the glass and pulled open the shop door. A bell above her gave a half-hearted jingle. Inside, the shelves were bare and dusty. The place seemed empty, and after a glance around, she moved to the window. She had to stand on tiptoe to see into the slanted, velvet-lined case. An inquisitive hand strayed over the edge, fingers straining toward the silver.

                “Don’t touch the merchandise.”

                She yanked her hand back and whirled. An elderly man wearing a stained leather apron stood in the shadow of the nearest row of shelves.

                “What is it?” she asked, tucking her curious hands behind her back.

                “Grufta.”

                “What?”

                “It’s a grufta,” he said, nodding toward the window.

                “Oh.” She rocked in her worn boots. A voice rang out in the street outside, then faded. “What’s a grufta?”

                The man rubbed his chin with a grimy hand. “Never heard of a grufta?”

                She shook her head. He looked her over with an appraising eye before he bent down to her level, knees creaking, dirty hands planted on his thighs. “There used to be powers in this world, or so they say. Powers that could kill a man—ten men—in an instant, or flatten a city, or carry you through the sky like a bird, or tell your future. Powers you could hold in the palm of your hand.”

                Her mouth hung open as she listened, one finger lifting to scratch her nose.

                The man in the apron straightened up. “That’s what a grufta is. A bit of that power left over.”

                She turned and lifted up on tiptoe, levering herself with her arms to peer over the edge at it. The silver on its bed of velvet glowed slightly golden in the light of the setting sun.

                “How’s it work?” she asked.

                “It doesn’t. It just sits there.”

                Her fingers twitched, reaching for it again.

                “No money, no grufta,” he growled behind her.

                She shrank against the display case, nudging the floor with the toe of her boot. The man in the apron watched her trudge toward the door before he turned and disappeared into the murk of the shop.

                She pulled the door open. The bell jingled above her then the door begrudgingly closed again, but she hadn’t moved. Instead, she crept behind the dusty velvet curtains, biting her lip and wrinkling her nose to hold back a sneeze.

                She peeped out from behind the red drapes. The shop was empty. The silver grufta lay just within her reach. A single, dirty finger reached out, brushing against the seamless metal.

                A brilliant light flashed, faded, and erupted again. Searing white rays flooded the shop. The man in the apron stumbled out of the back, hands raised to shield his eyes. A figure hovered a moment in the window, white and flickering against the brightness. The door flew open; the light flashed outside, darted down the street and disappeared in a rainbow streak behind a dilapidated building.

                The door drifted shut with a soft jingle.

                In its bed of velvet, a dark crack had opened in the seamless metal side.  

The Mirrors of Kathos

The mirrors of Kathos do not show us as we are. They may show who we were or who we will be, glimpses of the future or visions of the past, or maybe nothing at all. Today I was a young boy, peering curiously through the glass. I had come hoping to see into my future, to say what lay beyond the immutable veil of time, but the tall mirror, stretching from the bare stone floor up to the vaulted ceiling, showed only what I had been years ago.

                The noise of the bustling streets, crowded and vibrant, hot under the glaring sun, was muffled by the many steps and heavy wooden doors that led into the Hall of Mirrors. It was cool within. An occasional shout from a street vendor floated through, rendered soft and wordless by the placid stone.

                “Do you remember what you saw?” a voice asked, and I turned to see Aybar, keeper of the mirrors, watching me.

                “I don’t know what you mean.”

                “On that day, when you came to look,” he said.

                I turned back to the mirror and now saw that Aybar stood in the room behind the young boy. A lean figure in dark robes, only his pointed chin and thin-lipped mouth showed beneath his hood. Gaunt hands emerged white from the black folds, clasped in front of him.

                “Is this a specific day?” I asked, watching myself with renewed fascination. “I have no memory of it. What did I see?”

                Aybar sighed. “You were such a lonely child, Kalem. Always looking, always yearning.”

               He took a gauzy white cloth from his robes and knelt by the mirror. When I stepped aside, the young boy vanished. There was only Aybar, and in the mirror, he also knelt. Two dark figures, palms moving in perfect unison across the glass with the cloth between.

                “Look,” I said in wonder. “It shows you as you are.”

                Aybar’s hand paused, and his reflection’s did the same. “Does it? I’ve never looked into the mirror.”

                “Never?” I was astounded. This hall was as good as his home; he was here each day tending to the mirrors. His presence filled every memory I had of the place, since I first came here as a child, running up the steps to stare with awe at the mysteries contained within. “Why have you never looked?”

                He straightened up and moved to the next mirror in the row lining the hall. When he began his washing again, his reflection followed. “Make the choice because you see it in the mirror or make the choice and it will appear. It makes no difference. I’ve never looked, so there is nothing to see.”

                As if in reflex, he reached up and tugged the dark hood further over his eyes. He may have meant to dissuade me, but he had told me the secret of the Hall. I wasn’t just seeing visions of my future but my own face looking back at me. If I came here, as I knew I would, in ten, twenty, fifty years, then I could find myself and see what lay before me. There were more mirrors beyond this hall, twisting hallways and echoing chambers.

                “Maybe another,” I said, turning away.

                Aybar’s hand reached out to grab me, tendons straining against his papery skin. “Leave it, Kalem. You will only leave more of yourself behind.”

                I shrugged him off and crossed the hall to where it narrowed to a thin hallway. Aybar was watching me, for once the dark hood lifted, and his eyes, still in shadow, were sorrowful. Other halls branched out, stairs climbing up or spiraling down, doorways opening into great rooms, every surface lined with mirrors. Some had sharp, naked edges; others were fitted in elaborate gilt or wooden frames. I went to the heart of the place, further than I had ever gone before, straight onward until I came to a heavy wooden door. It creaked open to reveal a dingier chamber. Dust slithered across the floor, disturbed by my entry; the light was thin and still. I slid inside.

                Mirrors crowded the walls and crept onto the ceiling. I walked through a crystal. The edges of the world distorted, repeated, stretched and diminished, disorienting in its constant repetitions. The motes in the air stirred by my feet were multiplied infinitely, like dull stars. My steps echoed against the glass. I was there in each mirror that I looked to. Endless variations of myself flitted before my eyes, but none showed what I searched for.

                Something flickered at the edge of my sight. When I turned, it vanished. When I began to walk, it was there again. A shimmer in my peripheries, darting away and dancing between the mirrors as I tried to catch a glimpse of it.

                “Aybar?” My voice shuddered through the chamber.

                There was no answer. I walked on, thinking myself disoriented. What light there was danced and leapt wildly, and I ignored the sensation of something there, behind me, shifting from mirror to mirror. I walked, and it walked with me.

                At the far end of the chamber, there was a wall of mirror; the end of the place. A single mirror stood in a solid frame, not mounted on the wall but sitting in a stand, infinite wooden legs spreading out from where it touched the mirrored floor.

                I turned to look back at the hall, vast in its endless reflections. Infinite, yet empty. Full of only itself, reflection upon reflection of nothingness. But when I turned back, the mirror in front of me on its stand was not empty. It had shattered, black veins running away from a pitted wound. It was bleeding drops of scarlet. A dark figure was crumpled on the floor, motionless.

                I reached a hand to touch the shards. They were warm, and though I hadn’t been cut, I drew my fingertips away bloody. Through the broken glass, I saw now that my own face stared up at me from within, pale and lifeless, eyes wide. The figure twitched, a violent spasm, and gathered itself. A hand, fingertips bloodied, surged through the mirror.

                My hand.

June 23rd, 2006

The following was transcribed from an audio file discovered by the Tucumcari Highway Patrol on June 23rd, 2006.

Unknown Speaker, female (US):

It’s a long drive back, so I thought I’d get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind. Honestly, it was a huge waste of time. What is it with whackos and trailer parks?

[sighs]

Alright, I’ll try to keep this official for the archives. The date is, uh, June 16th, 2003. We received a call three days ago on the hotline about some unusual activity in New Mexico. The caller wouldn’t go into specifics, one of those “won’t talk on the phone, you never know who might be listening” types. So, I drove down from Chicago.

Turns out the town was a dustbowl: trailer park, convenience store with a fifty-year-old gas pump, and one stop sign which was apparently optional.

I met the caller at the address they left with the hotline… umm…

Papers rustle in the background

US:

It’s in my files somewhere. The caller was male, 5’6” maybe, about… Oh, I’m not good at descriptions. He was old and bald and completely out of his gourd. I mean, I’ve heard some crazy theories, everything from little green men to government conspiracies, but this was a new one even for me. I drove 1,200 miles to be told that Earth is being invaded by, wait for it, space wizards. That’s right, folks. You heard it here first. Wizards from space come down to recharge their cosmic mana.

[laughing]

I don’t know who this guy thought I was. He kept rattling off acronyms, some I’ve never even heard of: CIA, NSA, FBI, PTA, WTF. I tried to explain an organization funded by UFO fanatics and museums didn’t have that kind of pull, but he kept saying we had to alert NASA. He had this whole theory worked out that they’re here to siphon energy from our nuclear power. Blah, blah, blah, something about temporal inconsistencies, time jumps, metaphysical phenomena, blah, blah, blah.

[sighs]

There’s not enough tinfoil in the world. The data he pulled looked real though, so that’s worth checking out. Anomalies over Japan, Russia, and the lower United States. Don’t ask me where he got that information. Seriously… don’t ask me. Anyway, that’s worth looking into. Probably nothing more than…

The ambient sound of the vehicle softens, suggesting it slowed.

US:

Uh… I seem to have driven into the middle of some kind of historical re-enactment.

Cattle mooing can be faintly heard in the background.

US:

Wow. These people are really committed. That’s a lot of cows. They even have—

There’s a dull thud.

US:

Hey! What the hell?!

A window rolls down.

US:

You! Yeah, you! On the horse! I saw you throw that! You’re going to pay to get that dent fixed! Oh, what’re you going to do? That gun’s like two hundred years old.

Yelling can be heard faintly. There’s a loud bang that seems to be a gunshot.

US:

He shot at me! Oh my god, these people are insane! They’ve all got guns. They’re… I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Just get these cows out of my way! I’ll just go if you—

There’s more gunfire, the sound of a vehicle revving, and angry voices. It eventually fades into the background.

US:

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! [omitted expletives]. I’m reporting these people to the police.

He could’ve killed me! Stupid cowboys! There has to be a town nearby. I’m going to… [static] …when I… [static] …to…. [static] ….wait…. [static]

Is this thi— working? [static]

…what… [static] … can’t be… [static]

…help!… [static] …no!

The audio goes dead for several minutes.

US:

I, um… managed to get this working again. My car’s dead and I… I have no phone signal. I can’t…

[crying]

I think we’re under attack. There was a huge cloud to the… I think it was the west. Everything went dead. I couldn’t get the radio to work and… I tried to call the police. Anybody. But there’s no signal. The cloud was so huge… It…

[crying]

I’ve been walking. There’s nothing out here, and it’s dark now. There’s no way it’s nighttime, but I can’t see the sun. It’s just… it’s just dark. I don’t know what to do, and…

A low whining becomes audible and gradually grows louder.

US:

[whispering] There’s lights in the sky. Everywhere. Oh my god… They must be bringing more bombs. Who is doing this? I have to try to tell someone, but my signal is gone. I—

[static]

Those… those aren’t planes. It’s just light. So bright. It’s… I can’t see anything. Wait, something’s moving. I can’t quite…

A low voice speaks, gibberish.

US:

Is someone there?!

Gibberish. There seem to be multiple voices speaking.

US:

Who’s there?! I can see you moving!

Running footsteps and heavy breathing. The low voices grow louder, overlapping.

US:

[yelling] What are you?! What are you doing?! No, I—

A loud rumbling grows until the audio cuts out. Several hours of blank audio follow.

Neither the speaker or her car have been recovered. No missing person has been reported in Chicago or the surrounding area. No UFO investigatory organizations are missing personnel.

The phone was at 25% battery when it was discovered. It was connected to an unlisted number, and no record of purchase exists.

No record of historical re-enactments taking place within the area have been found, and no nuclear activity has been reported. There was a single report of lights in the sky observed by a Tucumcari mailman on November 13th, 2004.

An investigation is ongoing.

Hunger

A vast feast lay upon the table. Baskets and fine pottery laden with tender cuts of meat, succulent fruits, and rich pastries, all untouched, all long since cold. Around the table, a stone hall, pillars cold and bare reaching to a distant arched ceiling. A room as cold as the feast.

           From a distant door, a figure entered, bare feet silent under long robes. She set a pitcher of wine on the table and stood a moment, listening. The clamor of the city had faded behind her as she climbed the hill to the temple. The wind slid against the stone walls.

           “Hunger.”

           The word she spoke died in the silence.

           “We call you, Hunger.” She stretched out her hands to the table. “We summon you that you may be appeased.” Her arms lifted to the ceiling, beseeching the stone. “Come and be satisfied.”

           She bent her head and prayed, certain that what she called would never come.

           The evening bells chimed in the distant city. Her arms fell to her sides. The table sat unchanged, the rich food tempting her empty stomach. In the morning, it would be tossed away and the feast re-laid.

           She turned back to the distant door, padding across the cold floor, but a faint whisper stopped her. A figure sat in shadow at the far corner of the table, a bent torso hunched between long, bony knees.

           “You cannot be here,” she said, stepping forward. “Leave. Now.”

           The hanging head turned. A yellow eye stared up at her. “Did you not call me?” a thin voice rasped.

           With quick steps, she returned to the table. “Only those of the temple may enter. Leave.”

           The figure rose, bent and twisted, impossibly tall, impossibly thin. It flexed gaunt hands, watching them curiously. “Why have you called me here?”

           “I… I did not call you,” she whispered.

           The yellow eyes turned back to her. “You spoke my name, and I answered,” it said with pointed teeth.

           Hunger stood before her, immense and wasted. In fear, she sank to her knees. “Eat,” she said timidly, extending her hands to the table. “This is what we have set for you.”

           A skeletal hand touched one of the bowls. Meat fell like dust from the bone. The apples shriveled to their cores. Hunger plucked one up before tossing it disdainfully away. The bony head lifted, listening. “I hear the cries of my followers in the streets, in the forgotten houses.”

           “But you cannot!” she cried. “We gave from our tables to appease you.”

           It stared at her with sunken eyes, and her stomach twisted, empty. Bones rattled against the stone floor as it walked past her. The shadow it cast was immense, blotting out the table.

           Like a wraith, the figure passed from the temple and down the hill to the quiet city. In the silent temple, the food had rotted, and the smell of vinegar wafted from the pitchers of wine.

Sparks

                Two fish swimming circles, an endless dance around the tank. One red, one yellow, darting sparks in a watery sky. A single plastic stalk waved lazily. Bubbles shuddered to the surface, breaking with a soft gasp, and the infinite spiral continued.

                Put a finger to the glass, and they swam faster. Never touching the walls that contained them, always surrendering to its shape. If placed in the openness of the sea, would they know? Or would they only swim and swim, unseeing, looking for invisible borders?

                A delicate layer between them and the vacuum, destruction. Inside, a haven, but so fragile. And they swam as if it were their only purpose. Swam with nowhere to go. Swam to swim, leaving no ripples behind.

                Until they stopped. Until they turned inward, vanished. Became nothing.

                The plastic plant waved alone. Bubbles trembled through empty water. Green fuzz dimmed the glass. In the blackness of night, a pair of stars, red and yellow, streaked across the sky.


Photo Credit: Image by 성혁 이 from Pixabay