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Resume/CV

* Jewelry Designer/Shop Owner, Jillian Nicola Jewelry 2017-Present

http://www.etsy.com/shop/JillianNicolaJewelry

* Hardlines Team Lead, Target 2001-Present

* Event Photographer, United Methodist Annual Conference 2002-2015

* Active Member & Donor, NaNoWriMo.org, 2014-Present

Articles published on NaNo blog 2018

* Active participant and supporter of MN cosplay

Table volunteer, 2D Con 2017

Table volunteer, MCBA Comic Con Spring 2017

* Graduated 2004, University of MN – Twin Cities, B.A. English/Art (Photography)

Screenplay Excerpt – No Place Like Home

Inspired by my obsession with the show The Orville and a desire to try new things, namely writing a screenplay (which I’d never done). PLEASE NOTE I do not own the rights to any character except those I’ve created; the story that tumbled into my head was firmly in The Orville universe and so I kept it there. All rights to The Orville and its characters belong to Fuzzy Door Productions.

FADE IN:

INT. THE BRIDGE OF THE ORVILLE

CAPT. ED MERCER and CMDR. KELLY GRAYSON are in their chairs. LT. GORDON MALLOY is at the helm, and LT. TALLA KEYALI, LT. CMDR. BORTUS, and the AI ISAAC are at their stations.

TALLA
Captain, I’m picking up a distress signal. From behind the asteroid starboard side.

ED
(frowning)
Can you tell its origin?

TALLA
Negative sir.

ED
Take us in closer, Gordon, let’s take a look.

GORDON pilots the Orville closer to the asteroid. As they near it, a small shuttle becomes visible behind the rock.

GORDON
(frowning)
I don’t recognize that kind of shuttle. Looks … cobbled together from spare parts, almost.

KELLY
Probably from a smuggler’s ship. Any bio signs Isaac?

ISAAC
One. Humanoid.

ED
(to TALLA)
Can you hail the shuttle?

TALLA
I’m trying sir, but it looks like its communications array is down. Actually it looks like most of its power is down except for life support.

ED
All right, looks like we’ll have to reel them in. Gordon?

GORDON
On it sir.

GORDON pushes a few buttons. A tractor beam appears around the shuttle and pulls it into the ship. GORDON turns and nods at ED.

GORDON
It’s in shuttle bay.

ED
Okay, Talla and Kelly, you’re with me. Bortus you have the bridge.

BORTUS
Aye sir.

BORTUS takes the captain’s chair as ED, KELLY, and TALLA leave the bridge.

INT. SHUTTLE BAY

The shuttle is small, brown, and looks homemade. Parts are rusted, don’t quite fit together, have signs of battle damage, and even some bits are tied up with wire. The back of the shuttle is open. ED nods at KELLY and TALLA and carefully steps into the shuttle. Inside, there is only a dim light, and in the middle of the floor sits a young woman with black hair and bright yellow eyes.

ED
Hi –

She jumps to her feet in one fluid motion, nervously pushing her hair out of her eyes.

ED
Hey it’s okay. I’m Captain Mercer, this is Commander Grayson and Lieutenant Keyali. You’re aboard the USS Orville – we picked up your distress signal. Are you hurt?

YOUNG WOMAN
(narrowing her eyes)
Union ship?

ED nods.

YOUNG WOMAN
Right. Cool, okay. Just – just drop me off at the nearest Union outpost or whatever, okay?

ED
Hang on, we should get you to sickbay and have you checked out, and we can set you up with your own quarters –

ED reaches out a hand to her arm, and she flinches away, visibly frightened.

ED
I’m not going to hurt you.

YOUNG WOMAN
No! No scans just – please trust me. Look I’ve never heard of the Orville, which means you’ve probably never been to this sector of space. Not everything follows rules out here.

TALLA
What are you running from? We could help you.

ED
And if you’re this scared of it, I need to know what kind of threats are out here.

YOUNG WOMAN
(shaking her head)
No. I’m serious. It will be safer for everyone aboard if you just drop me off somewhere. Forget my face, forget you saw me, and don’t ever look back.

She curls up in one of the helm chairs, making herself as small as possible, with her back to the crew.

ED
(in a low voice)
Talla, stay here with her.

TALLA
Yes sir. I’ll see if I can get more information.

ED guides KELLY off the shuttle.

ED
(frowning)
What do you think?

KELLY
(shaking her head)
She’s definitely scared of something. Something big. Did you see how she moved though? And those eyes.

ED
(nodding)
Yeah, like a cat almost. Go back to the bridge. Have Bortus do some scans of the area, see if there’s any other ships or settlements out this way. I doubt this shuttle got that far away, in its condition.

KELLY nods and leaves the shuttle bay. ED goes back into the shuttle.

TALLA
(turning her head and smiling)
Captain, meet Zella Day.

ED smiles and sticks out his hand. ZELLA takes it apprehensively, but has a strong shake.

ED
Well. Nice to meet you Zella. Okay look, I can’t force you to stay on the ship, but I still need to know a bit more about you if I’m going to transport you. Will you come to my office with me and answer some questions?

ZELLA glances at TALLA, who nods.

ZELLA
Yeah … yeah okay.

TALLA stands as ED motions ZELLA out of the shuttle

TALLA
(in a low voice)
Sir, I still haven’t done a security check. She’s adamant about no scans.

ED
I know. Stay close, just in case. I’ll see if I can gain her trust a little more.

TALLA
Yes sir.

INT. ED’S OFFICE

ZELLA looks around as ED lets her in first, then coils herself in the chair opposite his, as if ready to flee at any moment.

ED
Can I get you something to drink?

ZELLA
Just – water is fine.

ED nods and retrieves a glass of water from the food synthesizer, and hands it to her. He settles into his chair.

ED
Okay. So, Zella, where do you come from? What planet?

ZELLA
Earth, I think, originally. At least – that’s what I’ve been told.

ED
(raising an eyebrow)
You’re a long way from Earth’s star system. How did you end up in this part of space?

ZELLA
(quietly)
I’m not sure. I don’t – a lot of my early memories are pretty fuzzy.

BORTUS (V.O.)
Sir Admiral Halsey is calling for you.

ED
Not now, Bortus.

BORTUS (V.O.)
Sir he said it’s urgent.

ED sighs and presses a button on his computer. An image of ADMIRAL HALSEY pops up.

HALSEY
Captain Mercer. I have an important matter for you.

ED
(glancing at ZELLA)
Sir this isn’t the best time.

HALSEY
I’m sorry Captain but it can’t be ignored, and you’re the only Union ship close enough. We got indication that a Union distress beacon may be coming from inside a large scavenger ship, about a day from your location.

ED
I thought we were the first Union ship to enter this sector of space.

ZELLA frowns and sits up straighter, her body tense.

HALSEY
Which is why the admiralty wants this investigated sooner rather than later. I’m sending the coordinates and what little we know to you now. We have no idea what or who you’ll find. Proceed with caution and gather as much information as you can.

ED
Understood. We’ll do our best, Admiral.

HALSEY
Halsey out.

ED sighs as the picture of HALSEY disappears.

ZELLA
I can do it.

ED
(looking up in surprise)
What?

ZELLA
I can do it. I can infiltrate the ship and find – whatever it is you’re supposed to find.

ED
Look, Zella, I appreciate the offer but –

ZELLA
(leaning forward)
I’ve grown up out here, I’ve grown up on scavenger and smuggling ships. If you go in with Union uniforms and Union guns you won’t learn a damn thing, they’ll kill you on sight. I wouldn’t be out of place on that ship.

ED
Zella, I’m sorry –

ZELLA
(jumping to her feet)
Look Mercer, I’m a trained assassin, I can do it.

ED stares at her for a moment, his jaw dropped open.

ED
I’m sorry what?

ZELLA
Ratimir, the man who bought me, he’s trained me as an assassin and spy since I was six years old. Let me do this.

ZELLA begins to pace back and forth in front of the desk.

ED
(incredulous)
The man who bought you?

ZELLA stops pacing to consider his wide-eyed stare and chuckles sadly.

ZELLA
I’m guessing they don’t sell orphans on the black market where you come from.

ED
No. They don’t.

ZELLA
Okay, well, out here there’s a huge black market and orphans are highly sought after, especially as young as I was.

ED
Why?

ZELLA
(shrugging)
Easier to train. Easier to break and bend their will to your own objective.

ED
(leaning forward)
Okay but still, you’re proposing going in alone. There’s no way in hell I’d let you do that.

ZELLA throws him an annoyed glance and produces two black clubs from her belt. With a flick of her wrists, the ends of the clubs suddenly transform into gleaming silver machetes. She flicks her wrists again to retract them and sets them back on her belt.

ZELLA
I can do it.

ED
Zella –

ZELLA
(throwing her hands up in the air)
I’m enhanced okay?

ED
(shocked)
I’m sorry, enhanced? What are you talking about?

ZELLA
Bio enhancements. It’s the main thing that gets smuggled out here and sold on the market, besides orphans. Look, I resisted the scans because I didn’t want you to know, but since I’ve already told you let’s just go down to sickbay.

ZELLA gestures towards the door.

ZELLA
Your doctor can do their scans and I can show you what I mean.

ED frowns at her, then nods and stands up

ED
(touching the comm on his wrist)
Mercer to Keyali. Meet me in sickbay.

TALLA (V.O)
Yes sir.

ED and ZELLA leave the office.

Fiction – Days of Winter Sunshine

(Edited 8/25/19)

(This is the 2nd draft of Chapter 1. This novel is finished and in the editing process.)

“Whoa would you look at that? House in the middle of the forest, just like she said.”

“I don’t see any chicken legs, though, do you? What if this isn’t the right place?”

“Ah, who cares, we can still perform our rites even if it isn’t. It’s a spooky house in the middle of nowhere Siberia even if the suka is lying.”

“Yeah I guess.”

The woman walked behind the chattering teenagers, smiling. Pseudo-witches draped in black clothes from upscale shops in Moscow, black hair from a drugstore box, and perfectly flicked black eyeliner, she had overheard the three girls talking about the chicken-footed hut and offered to help them find the house for their ‘rites’. They were wary of her at first, but looking over the strange woman’s long velvet robes that seemed to be from a bygone era, wavy brown hair that spilled down her back and seemed to move in its own wind, and sky blue eyes, they decided she must be the real deal.

They crunched through ice flaked snow that seemed yet to be touched as they trundled up to the house, the shorter of the three having to hop a little to keep up. No one would consider snow out of place in Siberia, but it was already July, and even in the tundra it should have melted by now. Something was wrong.

“Should we knock?” whispered the short girl as they approached the door of the house.

“I don’t know,” whispered her friend, flicking her bangs out of her eyes. Bangs peered into the window. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in there.”

“Let’s just go in,” the tallest one said.

“I don’t know,” the short one said, trailing off as the taller one clicked open the door and strode in. She sighed. “I guess we’re breaking into Baba Yaga’s house now,” she muttered. “This ought to end well.”

“It’ll be fine,” the woman purred, ushering her and Bangs into the house after their taller friend. “Baba Yaga will surely understand your intent.”

“Have you met her?” Bangs asked, frowning curiously at the woman.

“Oh, not personally,” the woman said, peering closely at a wooden statue of a plump old babushka. She ran a finger over a crack in the wood and grinned, turning back to the girls. “But I know not all the legends are true.”

“Right, well, here’s some candles,” the tall one said, dumping candles of various colors and heights onto a big wooden table in the middle of the room. “Pick your candle and light it, I’ve got a lighter right here.” The girls crowded around and went about picking their candles as the tall girl drew a pentagram with more eyeliner onto the table, all too busy to notice the stove burner underneath a giant pot of water click on.

The girls then sat and took each other’s hands as they started their chanting, a string of nonsensical intonations that could have been lyrics to some overwrought rock song for all the woman knew. She stood calmly near the stove; the water was nearing a boil. As it began to bubble more furiously, the short girl glanced over and frowned.

“Has that stove burner been on this entire time?” she asked.

“I don’t know – whoa!” Bangs answered, startled by the house suddenly jerking side to side, as if it were getting up off it’s knees. The short girl ran to the window and peered out.

“Guys,” she squeaked, backing up from the window as if it burned her. “Guys, guys – the house – chicken legs – “ She cut herself off as she bumped into the statue and frowned, staring at her friends, whose eyes were as wide with fear as hers were. “This statue doesn’t feel like wood,” she whispered. Slowly she turned around, and found herself staring into two glassy eyes, grey as a winter storm.

The girls screamed in unison as the house pitched violently to the side, throwing them to the other side of the room. The woman nonchalantly floated a couple feet in the air, as the statue-come-to-life stood and seemingly flipped the table. In a puff of smoke it became a mortar made of grey marble, and as the house pitched back the other way, the teenagers were flung into the mortar, their screams fading into nothingness as they withered and shrunk into dry husks.

“Hello Baba Yaga,” the woman said, her feet touching lightly back to the floor as the house settled once again. The crone grunted at her as she ground up the husks with her pestle.

“Trying to butter me up by bringing me a meal, Morgan Le Fay?” Baba Yaga asked.

“Perhaps. Did it work?” The crone grunted again in response.

“Were you sent to me, or do you come of your own accord?” she asked. She waved her hand at the contents of the mortar, and it flung itself into the pot of boiling water. A knife hopped out of its block and began chopping the potatoes on the counter.

“Both,” Morgan Le Fay said, smiling. Baba Yaga peered at her for a moment, her face hard and sharp. Slowly it softened into something of a half grin.

“Not even you have the power to deceive me,” she said, “and you speak the truth. Choose your candle and speak your piece.” She settled into her rocking chair as Morgan chuckled and swept to the mantle over the fireplace, looking over the candles until she found a green one with specks of blue and white in it. She handed it to Baba Yaga, who lit it with a snap of her fingers and placed it on the round table next to her, and then looked expectantly at Morgan.

“I was sent by Hades,” she said. “For your wisdom and information. I came here of my own accord, to ask for your help.”

“Wisdom and help for what, exactly?”

“It’s July,” Morgan said.

“I’m aware what month it is.”

“Yet neither spring nor summer have arrived.”

“It’s Siberia,” Baba Yaga sniffed. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh be still,” Morgan snapped back. “Even in the heart of Siberia you know something’s wrong. Persephone is missing.”

“Have you checked the River Styx?” the crone asked dryly. Morgan Le Fay glared at her, her blue eyes even icier than normal. Baba Yaga chuckled again, but her face grew serious. “I do not know the whereabouts of the Queen of the Underworld.”

“Well that’s the problem, Hades doesn’t either,” Morgan said. “She left for the surface four months ago to begin ushering in spring and she hasn’t been seen since.”

“Maybe she finally ran away from the boring old crank,” Baba Yaga said, rocking back and forth with her eyes closed.

“You know that isn’t true,” Morgan said, her voice turning hard. “If you have information, be quick with it, and stop wasting my time.” The crone slowly stopped rocking and opened her eyes.

“I have no information,” she said quietly. “Siberia hasn’t seen her.” The crone considered the witch for a few moments. In her green velvet robes and undone hair she looked like she had just stepped out of Avalon. “How fares Wales?”

“Ice and snow on the island, more ice and snow in the Channel, and yet more ice and snow in Wales,” Morgan said, sighing.

“And what is your gain from this?” Baba Yaga asked, as she began rocking again. Morgan raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh come now,” the crone chuckled. “Surely you weren’t just lounging in the Welsh countryside and Hades came to you before any of the Greek witches, asking for your help. What’s your angle, witch?”

“It is – lonely in the countryside, where the cold has discouraged anyone from wandering too far into the woods,” Morgan said. “And Avalon has become white and grey, with no way to tell where the marble of the graves begin and end. I went to Hades to try and understand why the snow seemed never-ending. And now I am here.”

“So you are,” Baba Yaga mused.

“What about you, child muncher?” Morgan asked. “Surely you’re not living off the fat of this barren land?”

“I’m managing just fine,” the crone said haughtily, but Morgan caught her glancing hungrily over at the pot on the stove. “And so you also come to ask for my help? Be more specific.”

“We need to find Persephone,” Morgan said.

We?” Baba Yaga said, incredulous. She gave a short laugh. “We, as in you and me?”

“I was hoping you would assist me, yes,” Morgan said, crossing her arms. “Is my trust and faith in you, the witch of the hut, the witch of the woods, misplaced?”

“I’ll send along any information I discover,” Baba Yaga said, her tone final. Morgan kept her arms crossed, but drew herself up to her full height, frowning down at the crone. “Unless you’d like to stay for a bowl of stew, your audience is finished.”

“No thank you,” Morgan said, crinkling her nose at the scent of flesh and bone emanating from the pot. She sighed. “They say you are the keeper and protector of these woods. I wonder how long they’ll last, if this winter continues?” The women stared at each other for a moment, but the crone didn’t budge. “Fine. If you change your mind, you know how to find me.” The witch from Avalon swept out of the hut, closing the door with a bang.

Baba Yaga closed her eyes and began rocking her chair again, breathing in deep. The smell of the stew made her stomach rumble, but there was another smell on top of it – decay. Not the fresh decay of the teenager’s flesh, but an old decay mixed with dust. A mineral smell too – stone and ice. The crone opened her eyes and glanced over at the candle Morgan Le Fay had lit. A lush green with flecks of blue and white every so often, the melted wax spilling out from the lit wick instead had the color of sludge, dark grey and brown.

Dermo,” she swore. With a grumble she picked herself up out of the chair and trundled over to the stove, banging the roof with her pestle as she went. The hut stood up on its legs and began trudging through the snow, following Morgan’s footsteps. Baba Yaga tasted the stew, nodded to herself, and added salt and pepper. It always needed salt and pepper. She banged at the window over the stove and it flew open.

“I happen to have a welsh rarebit, since you don’t care for my stew,” the crone yelled down to Morgan Le Fay. The witch stopped and turned around in surprise, then laughed as the hut bent down far enough for her to catch the handle of the door. She swam upwards into the air and alighted onto the floor of the hut as it righted itself and turned itself south.

“I knew you’d change your mind,” Morgan said, smirking.

“It’s going to take more than just the two of us,” Baba Yaga said grimly, as she pulled out a crock of cheese sauce and put it over the fire in the fireplace. A bread knife began sawing itself back and forth across a loaf of black bread and the slices hopped into a toaster. “We’re going to need a coven. Hand me a plate out of that cupboard.” Morgan flicked her hand absentmindedly and the plate slid out of the cabinet and onto the kitchen counter. The cut slices of bread flopped out of the toaster and onto the plate.

“What makes you say that?” she asked. “I thought you had no information.”

“Maybe not, but I do have wisdom,” Baba Yaga said. “Think about what – or who – would be able to disable Persephone, of all people.” Morgan raised her eyebrows as the crone handed her the plate of bread and a ladle. “For all of Hades’ titles of Ruler of the Underworld and God of the Dead and all that nonsense, it’s never him you have to worry about now is it?”

“True,” Morgan said slowly, ladling the molten hot cheese over her bread. “Where are we headed then?”

“India,” Baba Yaga answered. Morgan raised her eyebrows in surprise and glanced over at the crone.

“You sure?”

“You don’t like the sound of that,” Baba Yaga chuckled, “you’re really not going to like where this is going.”

Fiction – Untitled Apocalypse Style

(This is a rough draft of Chapter 1)

“I need concrete.”

The males in the shop had stood up a little straighter when she walked in and peered at her out of distrust. Now, they regarded her with wary curiosity. She wasn’t sure what kind of sight she was to behold, anymore. She kept her brown hair coiled in a knot on top of her head, better to keep it out of her dirty face, and her torn clothes felt looser than they had before, in the old world.

“Well, now,” the blond one closest to her drawled. “We might have some in the back, and we might’n not.” He edged close enough to her that she could smell the stink of his skin. Her hand flexed slightly around the handle of her battle hammer, a remnant from a time when it used to just be decorative. “What are you willing to hand over for it?” She flexed again. In the old world, she would have had to demure, politely ask him to take a step back, apologize for the fact he made her nervous.

His hand barely made it around her breast before the silver hammer clanged against the side of his head like an angry bell, blowing the other side of his head clean apart and spraying his buddies with blood and bone and bits of slimy brain.

This wasn’t the goddamned old world anymore.

“Concrete,” she barked at the dark haired one behind the counter. He dropped his cigarette and ran to the back, coming back out a minute later lugging two dusty bags of Quickrete.

“We have more if – if you need,” he said, eyeing the bloody hammer draped casually across her shoulders.

“This’ll be fine,” she said calmly. She pulled out a bill from the pouch around her waist, then with a glance to the prone form on the floor, added a pearl necklace to it. People still paid handsomely for pretty things nowadays. “Sorry about your friend.” She hooked the hammer on her belt and hefted the bags onto her shoulders, nodding curtly at the others as they gave her a wide berth.

She took a purposefully meandering path through the streets, cutting in between shops and houses seemingly at random, before slipping into the woods. She couldn’t take the chance of anyone following her. The underground shelter she had made her home fetched too high of a price. The density of the trees at this edge of the woods provided excellent visual coverage yet also allowed her to still see and hear what was happening on the main road, which only lay a few feet away from the entrance to the shelter. 

As she neared it, she heard a booming voice on the road commanding all able bodies to show their papers. “Shit,” she muttered, glancing at her bloody hammer. Though anarchy reigned in this new world, there was still something of a militia, struggling to keep order and protect the citizens from the creatures. They ran these checks three times a day – dusk and dawn, before and after the creatures came out, and noon, as a way to keep track of who still lived, and who didn’t. She considered skipping this check until she heard a familiar female voice giving the commands. Quickly she hid the concrete bags and her hammer near the crumbling foundation ruins, covering them up with a few branches. Not perfect, but it’d have to do.

“All citizens must exit their shelters and identify themselves,” the head militiaman boomed, as she slipped out of the woods. “Step forward!” he yelled to her. She complied, hands in the air.

“I’ve got this one,” the female said, tapping his shoulder. He nodded curtly and moved along the road.

“Name?” the female asked loudly, side eyeing her boss, who was watching her.

“Bellona Jackson.”

“Identification?”

“In my front left pocket, your right.” She didn’t move as Jocelyn took the little leather wallet out of her pocket and gave it a cursory check. As she slipped it back in, she could hear the soft clink of coins.

“Made an impression on your new friends at the hardware shop,” Jocelyn said in a low whisper. “They’re decent eggs, save the one you brained. Good muscle if you’ve got a job for them.”

“Do I have a job for them?” Bellona asked. The militia’s face turned grim.

“The prison, on the edge of town. Got info your friend is there – and maybe still alive.”

“Still the militia’s territory,” Bellona said, one eyebrow raised.

“On paper only,” Jocelyn snorted. “Been overran by those monsters for weeks now.” She cleared her throat as her boss began to approach her. “Grocer on 5th has bags of food for a coin each so I hope you’ve been lucky, Ms Jackson. Run along before they run out.”

“We’re done here,” the militiaman said to her. “Next street, lets go.” Jocelyn nodded sharply at him as he marched past, throwing a look at Bellona before falling in line behind him.

Bellona glanced back towards her shelter. If she didn’t make her way to the grocer now, there very likely wouldn’t be any food left. She sighed and rubbed the rings on her middle fingers that were attached to the spring blades in her leather cuffs. It would have to do.

The line at the grocer was about a dozen deep when she arrived, the space filled with tired, dusty people on break from strengthening their shelters and struggling to survive. No one could agree on what to call the creatures. They were humanoid, but bigger, uglier, and stronger than any human, and they could smell sweat and desperation like a hound dog following a clue. Everyone could agree, however, that they had descended on mankind seemingly overnight, throwing the world into an apocalyptic chaos where being above ground at night proved deadly.

“That asshole was going to get himself killed one way or another.” A male voice brought Bellona out of her thoughts. She glanced to her left to find the dark haired male from the hardware shop standing next to her. He grinned and held out his hand as she chuckled. “I’m Sam.”

“Bellona,” she said, returning the handshake. “Someone you knew well?”

“Nah, he came around looking for shelter. My brothers and I let him just because he was decent muscle, but …” his voice trailed off as he shook his head. “Yeah.” She regarded him silently. He had dark hair and olive skin, and the same easy smile Teo had, which made her heart ache slightly. His skin smelled like cool dirt with a slight hint of musk, which pricked her interest. She usually smelled the acrid stink of sweat and fear, which always proved fatal. Sam was still alive because he knew how to keep himself alive, not because he got lucky.

“So now what?” she asked.

“Our friend said you might have a job for me,” he said. He punctuated his shrug with another one of those easy smiles. She looked him up and down. Good musculature. Slim build but solid. He’d be fun for an evening, even two.

“I might,” she said slowly. “Dangerous, though. Real dangerous.”

“Edge of town?”

“Worse.”

“Next!” the grocer called out. Sam nodded her forward and she placed a coin on the counter. “There’s peanut butter and protein bars in there this week,” he said to her with a tired smile, pushing a rumpled paper bag across the counter.

“Helluva find, Karpos,” she said, raising her eyebrow. Protein was hard to come by these days, and the exhaustion on everyone’s face and in everyone’s muscles showed it.

“Didn’t tell me how they got it and I didn’t ask,” he said, waving his hand. “Do you need female products? I have a couple boxes, I can throw in a handful free of charge.” She nodded gratefully as he tossed a few paper lined tubes into her bag. Funny all the things a person took for granted in the past. He nodded to her and shoved the next paper bag into Sam’s hands, then a second after a short low conversation she couldn’t hear.

“Worse, you’re talking the … facility, aren’t you,” Sam asked her in a low voice as they walked away from the line.

“Yeah and my source says it’s overrun.” She sighed. “Look there’s no telling if anyone would get out alive, and I can’t pay you.”

“That pearl necklace is going to feed us for at least half a year if we play it right, Bellona,” Sam said, lifting his two bags in the air and letting them drop again. “And we’re taking our lives in our hands every time the sun goes down, whether it’s here or there.” She bit her lip in thought, then nodded.

“Yeah. Okay. I’ll meet you at the hardware shop before dawn – couple hours before the first check.” He smiled and started to walk away. “Wait,” she called after him. “Maybe you could help me with something now?” she asked as he turned around. He searched her face for a minute and a moment of understanding flitted on his face before he walked back and followed her back into the woods.

She had stumbled upon the shelter in the early confusing days, after her husband had stepped out of the house to see what the commotion was, and never stepped back in. She just remembered he told her to run, and ran she did. The house the foundation belonged to was long gone, but whatever family had lived there in those peaceful days had built a shelter on the side – a bomb shelter or a tornado shelter, she wasn’t sure which – either way they had been expecting a long war it seemed like. It was lined with concrete and had a little bathroom and kitchen built into it, as if they planned on needing to stay down there for some time. There was even a fireplace, its chimney reinforced with iron rebar, though she was afraid to light it for fear of someone seeing the smoke. The double barn-like doors that served as its entrance had thick iron bars on either side, and locked from the inside. During the day she had to hope that no one would stumble across it – she had a thick chain and padlock on the handles, but knew damn well that was child’s play for anyone determined to get inside. So far she had been lucky. She wondered what the owners would think of their shelter finally being used for its intended purpose, doubtful that this was anything like they had imagined.

Sam took her bag from her as she moved the branches and retrieved her hammer. Quickly she undid the padlock and opened the doors, signaling Sam to wait at the top of the stairs as she scurried down and felt for the little switches on the kerosene lamps.

“Okay. The concrete can come down here too,” she said as she emerged. He handed her the bags and hefted the concrete onto his shoulders, following her down the stairs. She took the concrete bags out of his hands and tossed them by the floor and kissed him aggressively. Thrilled when he responded in kind, she unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off his shoulders as he unzipped her pants and backed her against a wall, his hands cupping her bare bottom and lifting her up to his waist. She growled in delight as he slid inside her, running her fingers through his dark hair and biting his neck, then letting her hands feel the muscles in his shoulders and back. She dug in her nails as his moans got louder and more frantic, his cock creating a burning friction inside her that she hadn’t felt in ages, until she felt the explosion of wetness inside her and he thrust her hard against the wall. They stayed joined for just a minute, feeling the throbbing slowly die down, until he let her down. She grabbed a rag off the threadbare couch next to her and cleaned herself up as he zipped his pants and shrugged back into his shirt.

“This what you need the concrete for?” he asked, pointing at the top of the wall near the kitchen ceiling, where time had begun to crumble the concrete. She nodded as she put her pants back on.

“Yeah. It’s beginning to crumble in a few spots like that,” she said. “Otherwise this place has held up better than the house it used to be attached to.” He nodded thoughtfully.

“This must’ve been a Cold War shelter,” he said. He snorted, bitterly. “Think I’d rather deal with that than trolls and orcs.”

“Trolls and orcs?”

“Got something better to call them?”

“No,” she said, laughing. “Think that’s the most apt descriptor I’ve heard yet. There’s a bucket in the bathroom, water still works for now.” He nodded and set about mixing up the concrete.

“So who’s the mark?” he asked.

“A friend,” she said.

“A ‘friend’?” She frowned at him, fully expecting to have to tell him off, but his eye had a twinkle that stayed her tongue.

“Jealous already?” she said, unable to fully resist the impulse to tease. He grinned. “No, we were … not really like that. I don’t know. It was a complicated relationship in the old world but what was complicated then doesn’t matter now. Now he’s the last tether I have to my old life, so he matters.”

“Yeah, I understand,” he said softly. He looked around. “What were you, before?” She chuckled, as she took a scraper full of wet concrete and began painting on the cracks in the walls.

“A dabbler,” she said.

“A dabbler?”

“Yeah, I dabbled in things. Writing, crafts, that sort of thing. Worked at a clothing store to pay the bills.” She sighed. “Things were always so stressful, my husband did freelance work, so money was tight, which made me dabble even harder trying to find the thing that would stick. Seems quaint now,” she added with a chuckle.

“And now you’re fighting monsters with a silver battle hammer and finding confidants to give you information?” he asked, incredulous.

“I guess.”

“You would have made a great agent,” he said, laughing.

“Agent? Like FBI or CIA? Is that what you were?” He nodded. “We’re a long way from DC-That-Was,” she said. He smiled again, but it was edged in sadness.

“Family lives – lived – out here,” he said. “I wanted to help and protect them.” He smoothed the wet concrete over the now-filled hole near the kitchen ceiling, and shrugged. “Now my brothers are all I’ve got, and the office fell besides. So I understand – wanting to protect your old life.” She nodded, not sure what to say, then glanced out the slightly ajar door.

“You should probably get that food to them,” she said softly. “Thanks for getting me started.”

“Anytime,” he said chuckling, then frowned. “How do you know I won’t rat out your position, anyway?”

“You know how most men ‘round here stink like a scared wet rat?” she asked. He nodded. “You don’t smell like that.” He raised an eyebrow, and a slow impressed smile spread over his face.

“Neither do you,” he said. “I’ll see you before dawn.” She nodded, seemingly rooted to the spot as she watched his muscular dark back recede into the woods.

Fiction – Untitled Calvino Style

(This is a rough draft)

The bronze statue wasn’t a statue. Or maybe it was and had clockwork parts. Either way, the way its four arms suddenly flowed as if engaging in a particularly demonstrative dance unnerved Daniel as he inched forward. The head lowered, and as its black as night eyes bored into his brain, he could see a galaxy of stars shining in them. Suddenly the weight pan on his right crashed to the ground, causing him to fall and scramble backwards, the whole dais trembling in response.

“NO!” he screamed. “No! I’ve come too far for this!”

“You deny my judgement?” Its voice sounded like bronze, too, rich and melodic. Daniel struggled to his feet, sweat dripping down his forehead into his wide, bloodshot eyes.

“Yes! No! I – I deny your process.” He wrung his hands until his knuckles turned white. “You haven’t heard my side.” Slowly the arms flowed around the torso until each unburdened hand hovered over the weight pans.

“Very well,” Libra said. “Entertain me with your tale. If it delights me, the weight will shift. If, at the end, they are perfectly even – you win another day.”

“It begins in western Kansas,” he began earnestly, glancing at the higher of the two weight pans. “It’s not as mundane as it sounds,” he said in a rush, when it didn’t budge an inch. “Miles of wheat as far as the eye can see – but it’s a trick your eyes make your brain believe. If you take the time to look underneath, you find something quite different.”

The higher weight pan lowered slightly. “Go on,” Libra said.

“I had peeked under the wheat many times but I didn’t believe, so all I saw was dirt,” Daniel said. “Maybe it was the storm blowing in, or that first whisper of cold air on a fall day. Maybe I just wanted to see. All I know is, the first day of my life began when I met the King of the Crickets …”

And no, his name wasn’t Jiminy. That morning I had been set to my chores earlier than usual, what with a corker of a storm coming in. Nothing I was afraid of – I was a Kansas boy after all – but it’s hard enough to mess about with hay and crops in a downpour, much less worry about lightening and all that. So I had more of my day to myself than I used, and decided to take a peek under the shoots of wheat. It was tall as me, bursting with wheat berries the size of marbles, and the ground crunched under my boots; the rain would be a welcome sight.

Well that day, I saw more than dirt. I saw – I don’t know if I can rightly describe what I saw. I’ll try. Picture – picture those snow globes that have a little village in them, with carolers, except the carolers are all manners of tiny creatures and the snow is wheat shafts. There were little mud structures, like houses and shops, and roads of dirt in between the wheat detritus, and this quiet hustle and bustle as the creatures went about their business. As I continued to stare, mouth agape, I became aware that everything was getting bigger, and louder, and next thing I know I’m in Crick-of-the-Valley and no bigger than anyone else.

What looked like mud mounds to my big ape eyes became elaborate stone buildings with friezes and columns, and quaint shops with displays of wheat berries and fall wreaths, and simple houses whose inhabitants began turning on the warming lamps to ward off the storm’s chill. I stood in the middle of the combed dirt road like a simpleton, as mice and beetles and even garter snakes bustled past me.

“Best get inside!” a voice squeaked at me as I continued to gape. “Rain’s a coming!” Broken out of my spell, I looked around to see a mouse giving me a concerned look over his gold spectacles.

“But – where?” I asked. “I – I’m new here.”

“Oh I know,” the mouse said, laughing. “Only about once a season a human finds us. Come, come, I’ll take you to King Hesiodos. He’ll know where to put you.” He juggled the carefully wrapped packages in his arms to take me by the arm and lead me through the streets.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Well, Crick-of-the-Valley of course. I’m Whitaker, by the way.”

“Daniel,” I said. “How is it I’ve never seen this place before? I grew up here. This is my family’s wheat field.”

“Ah, another Hoffman eh?” Whitaker said, giving me a side glance. “Well well. It’s been a while, yes it has. We have always been here in this field, even before your family settled in. You just can’t see us … unless you really want to,” he said, as he hurried me along the road. Ahead of us, I could see the palace looming ahead – a grand structure of intricately carved mud bricks and wheat leaves painted gold.

“Won’t all of these structures melt when the storm gets here?” I asked. Whitaker chuckled.

“No, no, His Majesty makes sure of that,” he said as we stopped. Two brown recluse spiders guarded the entrance to the palace, their legs interlocking across the door.

“A human?” The left one hissed.

“A Hoffman,” Whitaker countered. The guards both clicked their pincers together sharply.

“It’s been an age,” the right one said. “An age.”

“Indeed but the storm’s nearly here,” Whitaker said, his voice polite but firm.

“Of course! Of course,” the spiders said in unison, and as their legs slipped away from the entrance the wooden door swung open slowly.

“Enter and follow the singing,” the left one said.

“When the singing stops you’ve found your place,” the right one said. Without another word, their furry legs grabbed me and pushed me through the entrance into a darkened hall.

“Hey!” I yelped, as the door clicked behind me. “Whitaker? Spiders?” I sighed as only silence answered me. Follow the singing, they had said. I stood in the darkness, listening for voices. All I heard was the chirping of a cricket, seemingly far in the distance. As I slowly began moving to the left, it got softer. “Right,” I said to myself, and changed course to the right.

It felt like an hour. Maybe it was just five minutes, as I stopped, listened, went, doubled back, went again. Finally it seemed like the cricket – if that’s what I was looking for – had to be in the room before me, and I laughed with relief as the singing suddenly stopped as I stepped forward.

“Hello?” My voice echoed in the room.

“Another Hoffman enters Crick-of-the-Valley,” came the reply, followed by a cheee-irrrrp. “Let us hope for your sake there is a different ending than last time.” There was a sound of fire being struck, and two torches filled the room with a warm light, revealing a cricket black as night, with a silver crown on his head and a cloak made of rich purple-painted wheat shafts around his neck.

“Than last time?” I said, my voice sounding small.

“Why are you here?”

“Well I – I peeked under the wheat and suddenly got small, and a mouse named Whitaker brought me here because there’s -”

“A storm coming,” the king finished. “Yes. Of course.” He made a motion, and two smaller crickets opened a door on the far side. “You will find your room here, cheee-irrrp. There is a library on the other side, and the hallway outside of it leads to the kitchens. Make yourself comfortable until the storm passes.” The crickets stared at me patiently, waiting for me to follow them into the room, but I found I couldn’t move my feet.

“Wait – “ I said as they finally marched over to me and took my hands in their feet, which contained five thin fingers covered in hairs that were softer than I would have imagined. “Wait, wait. What happened last time?”

“It is only once a season, if that, we receive a human visitor, chee-irp. To find us, you must want to find us. You must believe in the magic that allows us to exist as we do,” the king said. He rose from his throne and came around to face me. “It is a gift to be a guest in Crick-of-the-Valley. Something not every Hoffman has understood.” He nodded to the crickets and they pulled me along into the waiting room.

Torches sprang to life as they closed the door behind me. “Wait!” I cried again, to no avail. 

Fiction – The Fire and the Morningstar

(This is a rough draft of Chapter 1)

The pentagram, carefully drawn out in pig’s blood, wavered and blinked in and out as Bridget’s vision swam. She sighed and steadied herself with the edge of the table, knocking over a salt shaker. Swearing under her breath, she hastily sat it back upright and swept the spilled salt away, then sank onto the bench and rubbed her eyes.

Warlock training was nothing like she had thought it would be. The elementary training, the secondary schools, even the first years of university had been a breeze – a blur of schoolyard curses, playing with the chickens until they were sacrificed to their chosen devil, sneaking behind the bleachers with lesser demons, and sometimes even some learning here and there. This final course of study, though, this one was a doozy. There was no time to sneak anywhere with anyone, or have too many glasses of port. Fight training every morning, Advanced Curses before lunch, then Advanced Summoning, Pacts and You seminars, and Sacrificial Offerings in History all before a late dinner and hours of working on final projects late into the night. After months of getting little to no sleep, Bridget was exhausted.

“Sleep when I’m dead,” she muttered, slapping her cheeks. Her project for Advanced Summoning was due in the morning and she wasn’t getting any younger. She slapped her knees and forced herself back to her feet, then checked the video camera’s alignment with the pentagram on the lunch room’s floor for the hundredth time. For at least the eightieth time, she pressed the record button, took a deep breath and looked straight into the camera, her tired violet eyes staring back at her beneath a mountain of black hair knotted on top of her head in the camera’s little viewing monitor.

“Bridget Davidson, Advanced Summoning, final project,” she said as clearly as she could. “I will be attempting to summon Luvart, former prince of Angels.” She nodded curtly and then solemnly used the salt shaker to create a ring of salt outside herself and the pentagram. She picked up one of the black candles that flickered on the outside ring of the pentagram, and dropped black wax on each point of the star, before using her fingers to put out the flame. As the smoke from the wick and her charred fingers rose to the ceiling, she blew into the cavity the melted wax created in the top of the candle, blowing black wax across the pentagram.

“Hear me, Prince of Angels, thou tempter of good, thou fallen demon. Hear me, agent of the Morning Star, rise and meet me face to face. Come forth to me, whose name is known to man as Lucifer.” She paused as the floor began to rumble sharply beneath her. “Luvart. Wait. What did I say?” she gasped, as the floor began shaking more aggressively than before. She fell hard on her knees as the floor cracked suddenly across the pentagram, the edges of the crack curling and turning black. She threw her hands across her face to shield it from the intense heat that emanated from the crack, and tried to get back to her feet, although the floor was still shuddering violently and kept throwing her back down.

“Shit, what is happening?” she cried, as she crawled backwards away from the crack in the floor. She glanced over at the camera, which had fallen to the floor; the red light was still on. It was still recording. Despite her terror, she felt some relief that she’d have something to turn in the next morning, if she made it out of the lunch room alive. She turned back to the crack, and froze. A mess of bat wings were rising out from the depths, six great pulsing black wings whose ribs were edged in red, with mottled black claws on the tips at the top. Claws on the bottom tips too, she noted, as the wings breached the crack and spread out to their full glory. Six wings belonged to the seraphim, and there were only four choices when it came to fallen seraphim. Her stomach sank as she realized what, in her exhaustion, she had said.

“Fool,” he said. His voice, rich and euphonic, seemed like it would tear her head apart from the middle of her brain out to her ears. He laughed, his still handsome face contorting in his bemusement. “I have spent more millennia than I can count, child,” he purred, as his cloven feet hit the still trembling floor, “attempting scheme after scheme to walk the realm of man.” He laughed again, flexing his arms and stretching his long fingers out in front of him in wonderment. His very skin seemed to made of fire, as if it were dancing beneath translucent skin. “Who could have guessed all it took was an inept warlock?” He began to stalk past her, the floor shaking with every step of his hooves.

“Stop!” Her voice squeaked. It actually squeaked. In the movies the plucky heroine shouted with the fury of nine different hells, but no, she had to squeak instead. “Stop, I’ve summoned you, demon! There is to be an – an agreement!” He stopped and stared at her in amazement, the skin crinkling around his black eyes. He laughed again, long and loud, which made her clap her hands over her ears in an effort to keep her head on her shoulders.

“That just might work on the lesser of my race, wench. Did you expect a pact or a salt circle to keep out the Morning Star himself?” He grinned and crouched slightly, then with a leap and a thrash of his wings, crashed through the wall of the building and was gone in the night.

“Holy shit,” Bridget sputtered, the realization of what exactly just happened crashing down on her. “Holy shit holy shit holy shit,” she continued to babble, as she scrambled to her feet and frantically patted her face and chest and legs. Okay. She still had everything, she was still solid, this hadn’t killed her. Yet. She ran a few steps towards the door, then ran back into the room to grab the camera. “Come on, come on,” she muttered frantically, trying to jimmy it off the tripod. “Screw it. Liquescimus,” she said as she wrapped her fist around the connection, causing the metal to melt in her hands, then let the mangled tripod drop to the floor as she sprinted out of the lunch room.

“Bridget Davidson, WHAT just happened?” She shrieked as she ran into Elder Calogerus, nearly dropping her camera. The strips of black gauze, permanently burnt into his flesh, crumpled as he furrowed his brow and sniffed through the lunch room door, all his other senses telling him everything his blind eyes couldn’t see.

“I – I don’t know, I was working on my project and – “

“That sulfur only comes from one place, Bridget,” the elder said grimly. “No, hush, come with me, quickly.” He grabbed her elbow and hurried her through the halls towards his office. Torches on either side of his door sprang to life as he pushed her into the office and sat her in the chair across from his desk. He closed the door firmly and then swept into his own chair.

“Elder Calo, I swear, I’m not sure how this happened,” Bridget started, clutching the camera so hard she thought she might break it.

“Neither do I,” he said gently. “Start at the beginning please.”

“Well I – I haven’t been getting much sleep,” she said. Tears sprang to her eyes. “I’ve been working so hard on these final projects. And this one tonight, I’ve been working on it since dinner, trying over and over with no luck.”

“You were supposed to summon Luvart is that correct?”

“Yes,” she said, dropping her gaze.

“And where did it go wrong?” he asked.

“I – I accidentally said Lucifer.” She whispered the name, then quickly looked towards the door.

“You’ve already summoned him, child, you can’t summon him again,” the elder said. He chuckled, but when she looked back at him his face held no mirth. “What color candles did you use?”

“Well,” she said, sitting up a little in an effort to look like an eager A+ student who most definitely did not just summon Lucifer to earth. “I did quite a bit of research, but the truth is very little is known about Luvart, so in absence of a particular attribute, I chose the default black.”

“Mm hmm. And the incense?”

“I used five, one for each element and the moon. Frankincense, myrrh, sweet gum, galbanum, and clary sage,” she finished, ticking them off on her fingers. The elder fell into thought, his fingers peaked in front of his face. The silence seemed to make the very air in the room hum with tension.

“It makes no sense,” he said finally, throwing his hands up in the air. “Generic candle, generic incense, generic call forth – I assume you used the scripted one Elder Pompey gave you?” She nodded. It always felt strange to nod to a blind man, but he was no ordinary blind man. “Bridget, you’re a good warlock, but no one is that good. I don’t think even I, using those props, could summon the Lord of Hell himself just by saying ‘Lucifer’ instead of ‘Luvart’. There must be something we’re missing.”

“Well I – I have the camera,” she said meekly, holding it up.

“The what?”

“The – the camera. For the final project we had to film the summoning. It fell down when the earth went all shaky but it still recorded it I think – “ The elder leapt out of his chair and snatched the camera before she could finish her thought.

“Stay here,” he commanded as he hurried out of the room towards another office down the hall, leaving her to sit in the office alone with her increasingly weighted sense of impending doom. She turned a little in the chair so she could keep watch out the door, which Elder Calogerus had left open. She sighed heavily, and propped her chin on the back of the chair. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the flame in one of the torches suddenly get brighter and grow into the shape of a man.

“When our pact agreed you would provide me with the souls of the wretched, this isn’t quite what I meant.” Beleth’s voice still made her shiver down to her toes, even after all this time. She didn’t think she’d ever again hear a sound so melodic, so hypnotic, as that of this King of Hell she had made her pact with.

“I figured you’d be positively giddy, Beleth,” she said wearily as he sat in the chair next to her. He still faintly smelled of sulfur, though to any passerby he was just a dastardly handsome man in an impossibly good suit with dark chiseled features and hair and eyes as black as night. “Doesn’t this mean you can all come to the surface to play?”

“Perhaps,” he said silkily. “Perhaps not. That is up to the Morning Star and he is … not so predictable. You had six, by the way.”

“What?”

“The frankincense of fire, the myrrh of water, the sweet gum of earth, the galbanum of air, the clary sage of moon,” he said. “But there was a sixth, left there from a student before – nutmeg.”

“Of Jupiter,” she said, finishing his sentence. “Holy shit, I need to tell the elder – “

“Why do you always say that? Of everything you humans do, that is the least holy act you regularly commit,” he said crinkling his nose. “And do you really think he can help you? That will require him to admit to all your councils and busybodies in charge that he let a student summon forth the Lord of Hell.”

“What, like you would help me? This is your kind’s greatest goal,” she spat back.

“No, our goal is to get back to heaven,” he said. His silky voice suddenly went hard and grainy, and fire flashed in his eyes for a moment. “No need,” he added as she raised her left hand, the silver ring embedded into her middle finger shining, ready to send him back to the depths. “You’re tired, and this is an understandably stressful situation. I will forgive your … momentary, I’m sure, lack of respect.”

“What would you have me do?” she asked, as she slowly lowered her hand.

“I have a proposition for you,” he said. She could faintly hear the sound of choral music as he turned to face her fully. She struggled to steady her mind and her focus, lest he tempt her farther than she wanted to go.”I can bring the Morning Star back to – well not his rightful place, but where he has ruled for millennia.”

“Just like that, he’ll go with you?” she said, raising one eyebrow. He flashed her an impossibly beautiful smile, liquifying her insides and forcing her to take a deep breath. “In exchange for what?”

“Our pact is not eternal,” he said. “You are mine and I am yours – “

“Until the day in which I die and there hence the chains doth break,” she said, finishing the oath. He nodded.

“If I do this for you, if I drag my Lord back to the depths of hell, then our pact becomes eternal,” he said. “When you die, your soul descends, and you are mine until the end of all existence, humoring my every whim.” She half laughed, as her eyes passed over his chiseled face, broad chest, strong hands. 

“That’s it?” she asked incredulously. He grinned and carefully tucked an errant lock of hair back behind her ear, making sure to lightly drag his fingers down her neck before taking his hand away.

“No,” he said, still grinning. She froze, halfway through melting into his touch.

“I knew it.”

“No, I also get your sister,” he said. He waved his hand in the air before them as if wiping a window, and as he did, a vision of her twin sister appeared, her blonde hair in curls and her bright violet eyes smiling as big as her mouth. Purple eyes were so rare, it was the only way anyone believed Bridget and Nora were twins. Bridget stared at the vision, her entire body tense, trembling slightly.

“She’s already in heaven,” Bridget said through gritted teeth, her eyes wide.

“Oh that she is,” Beleth purred, as the vision suddenly changed to a paper doll cut out of an angel hanging from a paper cloud. “But I have my ways of … making her fall.” As he hissed the word ‘fall’ he stabbed the cloud with a clawed finger. Bridget watched in horror as the doll plummeted to the floor and went up in flames.

“No,” she whispered.

“Then catch him yourself.” He smiled as she desperately searched his face. “Think about it,” he said gently, patting her knee. “You won’t get another offer this easy.” She opened her mouth to answer, but a sudden outburst of shouting in the hallway stopped her. She jumped out of the chair and peeked out into the hallway, to find Elder Calogerus arguing loudly with a man in long white flowing robes.

“Holy shit, the archbishop of the priest academy,” she whispered.

“You really should stop saying that,” Beleth said, sticking out his tongue in disgust.

“Shush!” she whispered loudly, glaring at an empty chair; he had already disappeared in a puff of smoke. As she turned back to the commotion, she noticed the elder training his face in her direction – he had turned the archbishop so that the man’s back was to his office door. As her eyes met with where his eyes should have been, he jerked his head to the right. Not needing to be told twice, she immediately scurried out of the office and down the hall, not seeing the glowing figure in her way until it had already grabbed her arm and pulled her into an empty office.

Fiction – The Kohl Priestess

(This is a rough draft of Chapter 5)

Taken aback, Kahina and Itri stared at each other, mouths open. After taking a minute to collect herself, Kahina pursed her lips and knocked again, louder this time. On the other side, she could hear the muffled grumblings of the man, though it took her knocking a second time for the panel to open again.

“I said, no vis—“

“I was sent here by Neferet, sister of Tem, first wife of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II,” Kahina said firmly, taking hold of the panel so that the man couldn’t close it again.

“I know who Neferet is,” the man scoffed. “Sent here or no, there is no time for visitors today!” He tugged on the panel and then glared at her through the opening. “Let go of that, girl!” Kahina glared back and fished the legal scroll out of her sack.

“According to these documents, I am the daughter of Ahmes, a priest of Anubis and a royal embalmer,” she said, holding it up to his eyes. The name made the man pause, and he stopped tugging on the panel. “Neferet sent me here to research your scrolls, so that I may learn what I need. It is of the utmost importance, sir, Waset is in danger!”

“I have no way of knowing if those documents are real,” the man sniffed. “Ahmes’ daughter or no, Waset in danger or no, the pharaoh has charged me with designing his tomb and I simply have no time for you.”

“Would it help if she’s with the pharaoh’s son?” Itri said, moving behind Kahina into the man’s sightline, one hand on his bow. The man rolled his eyes, though they dipped down slightly as he bowed.

“Your grace. Your bow doesn’t scare me, your quest doesn’t move me, your time is not as precious as mine. Move along!” he huffed.

“Please, sir!” Kahina cried out, as the panel made to close again. The man sighed, and after some scrabbling around, opened the door.

“Here,” he said, shoving a piece of parchment towards Kahina. “Detail your school of magic and which scrolls you’re looking for and perhaps I can make an appointment. Another day,” he added, glaring at them both.

“All of them,” she answered, eyes narrowed and arms crossed. The man dropped his arm and rolled his eyes.

“Oh please,” he said, looking towards the heavens and smacking his forehead, “not another one. School of magic. On the parchment.”

“All of them,” she repeated through clenched teeth. He crossed his arms at her, glaring, and as he did she caught sight of the scrolls tucked into the man’s belt. With a quick movement, she snatched one out and began to read it quickly.

“Hey!” he exclaimed, starting to lunge at her, but backed away as Itri notched an arrow onto his bow and pulled back on the string, the point aimed at the man’s left eye. Kahina dropped the offensive magic scroll to the ground and snapped her fingers, sending a bolt of lightning from her fingers to the sconce on the wall just inside the door. The man’s eyes widened in shock, and barely moved as she snatched another scroll away from his belt, this one a growth spell for crops. Looking around her, she caught sight of a wayward wheat plant, growing where it shouldn’t amongst the bits of grass around the tomb. Holding out her hand to it, she watched as it grew tall and fat, until it fell over into her hand. The man looked back and forth between Kahina and Itri, eyes wide, mouth open.

“I would like to see your scrolls please, sir,” Kahina said, dropping the giant wheat berries to the ground.

“This isn’t possible,” he whispered. “It simply cannot be.” Then coming to his senses, he looked out of the door, to the left and right, then ushered them both inside. “Your grace,” he said again to Itri, and bowed deeper.

“Get up,” Itri said to him, shaking his head as he replaced the bow on his shoulder.

“You don’t understand,” he said to Kahina. “Many want to believe that oracles – REAL oracles – exist. We get at least a handful a month, all claiming to be all seeing and all knowing. But there hasn’t been a true oracle in …” he trailed off.

“A thousand years?” Kahina asked, raising an eyebrow.

“At least,” he answered, nodding. He bowed to her. “My name is Rahotep.”

“I am Kahina,” she said, bowing back.

“Yes I know who you are. Please, please, follow me to the library. Full access of course, as Neferet promised.” He lead them down a hall towards a chamber in the back of the pyramid.

“You knew my father,” Kahina said to him, as they walked. He laughed.

“Knew him?” he exclaimed as they entered the library. “Why, Ahmes was one of my best students,” he said, smiling. “Who knew his daughter would turn out to be an oracle? Take your time, I have many scrolls.”

“This is a school?” Kahina asked, looking around in confusion.

“Of sorts. The only sort allowed, really,” Rahotep said. “Magic is in Egypt’s blood, our gods are magical, but it’s considered heresy to teach the gifts of the gods, do you understand? So we stay disguised, in the shadows, and we do the best that we can.” He looked around, then patted his round belly. “Ah, allow me to take your leave for a moment – I will return shortly with beer and refreshments.” He bowed again and hurried out of the room.

“You know, Neferet did say you should be discriminating in which scrolls you chose to read,” Itri said to her, as she watched the man go. She giggled and turned around.

“I know,” she said. “You can’t say it wasn’t worth the look on his face though!” She looked around the room with widened eyes. Hundreds of scrolls sat on hundreds of shelves, which lined the walls nearly all the way to the top of the considerably high ceiling.

“Where do you even start?” Itri whispered, matching her gaze.

“That potion Neferet had me drink, allows me to see magic,” Kahina mused. “Everything that’s magical seems to have like a glow to it, and each type is different.” She walked over to the wall on her right, the brazier in the corner bursting to life as she leaned towards an open scroll on a shelf.

“Did you get that from his scrolls too?” Itri asked, motioning to the fire.

“No, that one I got from your aunt,” she said, unrolling the scroll next to the open one without moving. Itri clucked his tongue.

“She didn’t touch you,” he said, sounding unsure. She looked back at him and grinned.

“Well she certainly didn’t try to,” she said brightly. He gave a short laugh and shook his head. She turned her attention back to the scrolls.

“Let’s see,” she said, “this one here is a healing spell. It’s got a bit of a blue glow, so that means …” she trailed off as  she swept her eyes back over the shelves. “Yes. These are all healing spells then. So then these …” Itri watched her in amusement as she continued to mutter to herself, climbing the ladders that littered the walls to reach higher shelves. He sat at the table by him, setting his bow and quiver on the ground and propping his feet up on the table.

“You didn’t tell me you found your birth documents,” he called up to her, as she began to float scrolls down to the table where he sat.

“I just found it last night,” she called back, lighting a sconce next to her to get a better look at the highest shelf. “I hadn’t entered that library for years. I figured she must have kept it though – she was very meticulous with her transactions,” she said sourly, as she carefully made her way back down, three more scrolls following her as she made her way back to the table. “Get your feet off the table!” she admonished him, as she sat down. He chuckled, though complied.

“So your father was a priest and embalmer,” he said, one eyebrow raised. “That’s quite a pedigree. What about your mother?”

“She was listed as a concubine,” she answered. “There was no other information on her, besides that she died young in childbirth.” Itri frowned at her.

“One of the pharaoh’s?” She shrugged. “It’s not common for priests to have that kind of access to the property of the pharaoh. Unless he wasn’t supposed to.” Kahina bit her lip and looked up at him, her face troubled.

“It did say his death was suspicious,” she confessed, then shook her head vehemently. “It doesn’t matter though. The past is past. These scrolls – can you unbind them for me?”

“Right,” he said, leaning over to begin untying the threads around the scrolls. “Protection, guardian spells. Navigating the underworld.” He chuckled. “Well that doesn’t inspire confidence. No healing spells then?”

“Neferet said I would know which ones were right,” she said, frowning. “Last night I went through my mistress’ library, and there too the healing spells didn’t speak to me.” She shrugged and shook her head, still frowning.

“So that’s not your calling,” Itri said, leaning back. “Leave the healing to Neferet, then.”

“I suppose so.”

“What is it about the protection spells?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose I – I don’t see a way out of this, really. I think it will come to pass no matter what I do, and if I’m wrong, at least I’ll be able to protect people as well as I can.”

“Neferet would not have sent you to me, if there was not a dire need,” Rahotep said, reappearing in the room. He carefully sat down a tray of salted perch and bowls of figs laced with honey, and a large pitcher of beer.

“Being the first oracle in a thousand years isn’t enough?” Itri asked incredulously. Rahotep shook his head.

“Don’t get me wrong, girl, the fact you exist is a delight and amazement, and there a thousand questions I would ask of you and a hundred more artifacts I would press into your hands,” he said. “Yet if that were all, she would take care of the training herself, she is quite adept.” He offered a plate of fish and figs to Kahina, who bowed graciously in acceptance. “No, she wants you to be powerful, if she sent you to me. Which means one of two things.” He offered a plate to Itri and sat down, popping a fig into his mouth.

“Which are?” Itri asked.

“Either,” Rahotep said around the fig, “the pharaoh is planning some sort of conquest only Ra knows where, and he needs a weapon, or you had a vision. And not the shiny happy sort of vision either.”

Kahina sighed and set down her plate, licking the salt off her fingers. “The amulet Itri bears produced a catastrophic vision of the end of Waset,” she said, recounting the images of the city burning to the ground and blood in the Nile. Rahotep frowned at his feet, his hands crossed over his belly as she spoke.

“So it comes to pass then,” he said, without looking up.

“What does?” Kahina asked. Rahotep took in a breath and met her eyes.

“You’re not the first to have this vision,” he said.

“And yet Waset still stands,” Itri said, sitting up straighter. Rahotep nodded at him. “So then the fates can be changed!”

“Maybe,” Rahotep answered, causing the pharaoh’s son to slump back in his chair.

“I’ve been hearing that answer a lot lately,” he muttered.

“Twice before has this vision been foretold,” Rahotep said, leaning towards Kahina. “Once by the last known living oracle, 1100 years ago. Once more by the great oracle shrine in Per-Wadjet, far to the north. Both warned that if the vision was foretold a third time, it would come to pass. Swiftly.”

Fiction – The Dehmiside’s War

(This is a revised draft of Chapter 1)

I have always been running.

As a child, I ran, across prairies and through pockets of trees. My mother ran with me as a baby, strapped to her chest, hidden among folds of cloth. She ran with me in her womb, ran from the mountains and the people who wanted to kill her, kill me, kill my father. We ran even as he was taken from us, the magic in his Sidhe blue eyes extinguished. He implored us to run, even though he knew he was doomed. Keep running, run far away, don’t stop, don’t let them have our son. So we ran south along the river, until we came to a sleepy little farm town called Teynbourgh, a town so far removed from the wars that ravaged the north that the children thought the Sidhe warriors were tiny imaginary creatures called faeries.

My mother changed our last name to Starling, something a little more folksier than the long and strange-sounding Sidhe’mineiribois. I grew up around children who laughed at the tree-shaped birthmark below the nape of my neck and were jealous that I was faster and stronger than them, but never guessed why that made me different from them. I let them laugh, occasionally standing up for myself if I had to, because being teased for something so normal as a funny looking birthmark was safer than the truth. I apprenticed as a blacksmith, my father’s love, and dreamed – hoped – that I could grow old and die a poor blacksmith in a tiny dusty farming village, rather than be hunted for my blood and my very existence. Nikayna rolling into town with her rangers shattered that hope.

Nikayna Arend. In some places, her name was whispered as Empror Baiesh – death bringer – but in most places she was known as Amber-eyes. I had never in my twenty years seen a human being with eyes that color – a golden yellow around a black center that spread out and deepened to a brilliant red-orange at the edge – until the day she walked into my shop. The sky sat heavy with dark clouds that day, though the storm that brought them was well gone by that afternoon. I hummed quietly to myself as I sharpened the lumberjack’s axe, the fires of the forges throwing large dark shadows around the shop. Suddenly I heard a small tinkling sound, like several tiny bells moved by the wind. I glanced up, towards the doorway, where a dark figure stood just inside my shop, leaning against the wall with one foot up. She would have been totally in shadow were it not for those bright amber eyes boring a hole into my head. I knew immediately who it was. Even Teynbourgh had heard stories of the fabled ranger named Nikayna with the magic eyes.

“Hello,” I said slowly. “And what may I do for you today?”

“There is much you may do,” she answered, in a voice that seemed ancient yet robust. “Whether or not you will do it is of course up to you.” I raised an eyebrow, my body tense.

“I’m not disposed to doing things for or with those I haven’t met.”

She chuckled. “I suppose that would be the first order of business, wouldn’t it?” She walked into the light, her boots making a slight tap-tap on the hard dirt floor. She had long black wavy hair, and smooth porcelain skin that belied her age, with only a few lines around her eyes that told the truth. Her black tunic came down just far enough to offer a glimpse of an intricate hawk tattoo, its wings outstretched beneath her collarbone. “My name is Nikayna. I am a ranger of the north, and I have been told you may be able to help me with a small problem we have.”

“Kalman Starling,” I answered, “and what is a ranger of the north doing this far south?”

“We were even more south of here when it came to our attention that we needed to travel to the Danican mountain range,” she said, smiling. “There is a city there, Reyncourt. Our sources have brought us troubling stories of their king going mad. Unfortunately he knows us, and has decreed that we have a very good chance of losing our heads if we enter the city.” Reyncourt. My mother’s birthplace. The place I have been running from since I was in the womb. I frowned.

“Why me?” I asked. Nikayna raised an eyebrow.

“A man who gets to the point, I like it. One of my rangers went to the one place in any small town you go if you want to know anything about anyone.”

“The tavern?” I asked. I smiled, though inside I was panicking a little at what was said about me.

“The tavern,” she said nodding. “It seems you’re known as being strong, no-nonsense – I’m glad to see they weren’t kidding about that – and one of the very few around here who can handle a sword. My ranger seemed rather insistent that we choose you, if you would choose us.”

“And where would I fit into all this?”

“You’re unknown to this city and its king.” If she only knew. “You would be able to gather information for us.”

I stared down at the axe, slowly working the soapstone along its edge. All logic told me to tell her to get out, to find someone else, somewhere else. My whole life I had been running from those mountains and the people there, why in Eidolon’s name would I want to run headlong into the fire? But a small voice urged me that somehow this was important. I looked back up at her, her eyes unblinking.

“My mother is alone,” I said. “with no one here for her if I go. I would need to talk to her first.”

“Fair,” she answered. “But I will need to know by tomorrow, no later.” She turned to go, and as she did, my mother entered the shop. The two women regarded each other as they passed by one another, and for a second a mixture of both confusion and recognition registered on their faces, though they didn’t say a word. My mother stared after her a minute as she walked down the road, then turned back to me, her eyes wide.

“What does Nikayna Arend want with you?” she whispered urgently. Her greying red braid fell over her shoulder.

“To go to the mountains,” I answered, eyes down.

“Why?” I told her what the ranger had told me. “Kalman, you can’t. You just can’t.”

“I know. Logically, I know that. But something is telling me that it’s important I do go.” She fell silent at that, looking down at her hands. “Ma?” I asked quietly. She looked up, her face troubled. “Do you know Nikayna? Beyond the stories?”

“I know of her,” she said. “She’s not from the mountains, but she was one of the war heroes. Her father led the army from the far north. Kalman, she was firmly on the human side of the war. She believed in it. That she is a ranger now, charged with keeping the peace between the two sides, was not her choice.”

“So I don’t tell her who I am.” She scoffed at that, shaking her head. “Ma, I’m tired. I’m tired of running.”

“So instead you feed yourself to the hunter?”

“That’s not my intention. At least I hope not, but how far can we run? And for how long? We ran all the way here for one of the war’s heroes, as you call her, to roll into town just looking for someone to go north. That can’t be happenstance. Maybe it’s better to face them and go down fighting if needs be.” She shook her head again, vehemently, then sighed. She was quiet for a few minutes, then came over to me and put her hands on my shoulders, her eyes searching my face.

“You say you have a feeling. That going to the mountains is important.” I nodded. “Do you feel your demise in this vision?” I frowned, trying to understand what she meant.

“Like do I have a premonition?” I asked. She nodded. I thought about it for a minute, then shook my head. “No, I … no. I don’t.” She sighed again and dropped her hands. 

“Damn your father’s hide, and his vidhyan blood,” she said.

“A vidhyan?”

“A prophet, in dusty farm town terms,” she answered, and smiled, though her face suddenly grew serious. “She said it was one of her rangers, that got your name. Did she say who?” I shook my head. She glanced out the door, searching the street. “Go home, Kalman. I’ll be there soon.” With that she left, hurrying down the road towards the tavern.

I closed up my shop, dousing the fires and putting tools back in their place. I walked slowly down the road, head down, lost in thought. I was a Dehmiside, the unholy product of an unholy union, the son of a human mother and Sidhe father whose respective sides hated each other so much they waged a war for thousands of years. The blood of my kind – produced by force, under controlled conditions – fed the Sidhe warriors, giving them strength and focus and immortality. It also fed the human warriors, giving them magic they didn’t know how to control. I was an asset and a liability all at the same time, and my enemies would not hesitate to bleed me dry and then burn whatever was left. So why was I putting myself in the fire?

The tavern appeared on my left, the last thing in town before the road turned towards the farms with their acres of tea leaves, cotton and rice. I glanced over furtively, trying to see what I could see without being obvious. As I passed by I noticed my mother, standing outside and behind the trees a little, talking determinedly with a muscular, barrel-chested man. His long red hair was tied back into several braids, highlighting a long scar that went from eye to chin on his right side. One of the rangers, I assumed. It almost seemed like they seemed to know each other, or of each other. I picked up my pace, hurrying to get home before my mother did. As soon as I was relatively out of sight from the hustle of the town I crouched like a cat and sprung, running so fast I almost flew through the air, covering the last mile in just a few seconds. I was halfway through washing dishes before my mother walked in the door.

“Ran home I see,” she said dryly. I chuckled as I dried my hands. “Nikayna will be coming by this evening for your answer.”

“She said she needed to know by tomorrow.”

“Yes but she’s coming by tonight. Circumstances won’t allow them to wait until tomorrow.” I turned and leaned against the sink, my arms folded over my chest, my brow furrowed.

“Did the man you were speaking to tell you that?” I asked. She raised an eyebrow, but nodded. “Who is he?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” she answered. “But come with me, before she gets here. There is something I need to show you.” She led me into her bedroom and sat me on her bed. The dying evening light came through her window, bathing her in an odd sort of heavenly light as she knelt by the trunk at the end of her bed. “Your father left you something,” she said, pausing as she opened the lid. “I never showed you this. I guess I foolishly hoped you would never need it.” She gingerly lifted out an object wrapped in linens and handed it to me, it’s wrappings falling away as it landed in my hands.

I had never in all my young years as a blacksmith seen a sword so beautiful. Its steel blade bore inscriptions in the old Sidhe tongue and its smooth leather-wrapped hilt sported two brilliant red gems in the shape of an eight point star. Beneath one of them was an etching of a starling in flight. I gingerly balanced the blade on my finger, marveling at how perfect it was. It was light but felt sturdy.

“This … is a gorgeous sword,” I whispered.

“It’s mountain-forged. The best any money could buy. Your father crafted it before we had to flee, intending to pass it on to you,” she said. She cautiously reached out a finger to one of the rubies as if she couldn’t help herself. As her finger barely came in contact, I felt a surge of energy in the sword, and she winced and drew her hand back quickly.

“Are you okay?” I asked, startled. 

She nodded and laughed, although she wrung her hand slightly. “Sidhe steel. It can only be borne by those with Sidhe blood.” She smiled wider. “It will know if anyone else tries to wield it, and it will defend itself.”

“I thought those were stories.”

“That is what I loved about this town, Kalman,” she said, still smiling. “All of it was just a story. A fun bit of adventure to relish before tucking children in to their safe and warm beds.” There was a knock on the door before I could say anymore. My mother looked towards it apprehensively, then looked to me with a sad look.

“You’re going, Kal.” It wasn’t a question. I nodded. She stood up, smoothing her dress, then made for the door. I followed, placing the sword carefully on the bed. She opened the door slowly. Nikayna stood on the front porch, arms crossed casually. Behind her were the man I had seen talking to my mother and an olive-skinned man with long dark hair, holding the reins of three black stallions.

“Good evening,” Nikayna said. “You must be Kalman’s mother?”

For a split second I thought I saw my mother meet eyes with the stocky ginger ranger, who shook his head slightly. She smiled warmly at Nikayna and nodded.

“Yes, I am. My name is Amaris.” The name she gave in case those she was speaking to had heard of Audra Malone.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, then turned her attention to me. “I’m afraid I can’t give you any more time to decide. New information dictates we leave before dawn.”

“It’s okay. I’m coming with you,” I answered. She nodded.

“Good. Get your stuff together then, bring a good weapon, and get what sleep you can. We’ll be back an hour before dawn.” She regarded my mother for a minute, her bright eyes searching her face. “We have reached out to sources in this town and next, to make sure you’re looked after, Amaris. If you need anything these sources know how to find us.” She turned around and walked back to the horses, and all three remounted and bowed slightly to us as they rode away. My mother watched them ride away with a hard look on her face I couldn’t quite read. As she turned to me, though, it softened as she smiled.

“Go to bed, Kal. You’re going to need all the rest you can get.” She put her arm around me and hugged me as she led me inside, closing the door behind us. As I walked to my room, I heard her lock the door for the first time since we had lived here.

Fiction – Queen of the Breathless

(This is a rough draft of Chapter 1)

“Our race is dying.”

I kept my face trained on the crackling fire in front of me, tapping my forefinger harshly on the metal arms of my perch. I could still see him with my peripheral vision, standing just off to my left, his face both stoic and imploring. His red eyes glinted in the firelight, the only visible hint males were Sidhe. If a person chose to engage in combat with him, they would learn soon enough his strength and speed.

My legs ached from sitting on the throne of the Princess In Waiting of the Addae. I sat up a little to adjust, the wings that emanated from my back like waves of light and energy changing from golden orange vulture wings to blood red bat wings out of irritation. He told me nothing new. Our people had been slowly dying off for years. It was only a concern now that all the other Sidhe races, those who chose to go to war with the humans, had found the key to immortality. Azat, my loyal council who waited patiently now for my word, had pushed for me to assist the war. To what end? Humans and Sidhe have been slaughtering each other for so long now no one can remember how it started, and their use and abuse of the half-blood creatures they called dehmisides left a bitter taste in my mouth, immortality notwithstanding. 

“Kamala?”

“I heard you. Tell me something new. A solution that doesn’t involve dragging my people into a pointless war that will kill them anyway,” I said, turning my face to stare him down. He looked down at the floor of the tent, his waist-length black hair covering his face, and shifted his feet uncomfortably. He didn’t have one. I turned my attention back to the fire, fidgeting with the rings on my hand. I dismissed him with the full smugness of my nobility but he had a point. Our race was dying, and if not war – and it’s side gift of immortality – then I needed to find a new solution.

I stood, my legs and buttocks grateful for the reprieve. “Leave me, for now. I need to stretch my legs. Perhaps the sand will offer up an answer,” I sighed. Azat’s brow furrowed and his eyes darkened, but he bowed his head and disappeared out the flap. I walked closer to the fire, until my feet found sand and stood still, listening. He was loyal, true, but that never meant he was without deceit or motives. Just as I thought, he was standing very, very quietly near the tent. No mortal could have heard him – even half my people would walk by him several times before they noticed him – but with my toes buried in the sand I could detect the granules around his feet shifting, ever so slightly. Waiting for me to leave so he could see where I went.

Not this time, Azat.

As my council he knew much about me, but this I had kept secret, at the insistence of my older sister. This was ours; not even our Father knew. I closed my eyes, the negative image of the fire still imprinted on my vision. I focused on that image, shutting all other sound and images out, as my flesh and bone transformed into a waterfall of the very sand I stood on. 

Not even Addae eyes could detect the river of sand moving out of the tent and towards the waste lands; I moved with the rolling waves of sand as a late night wind moved across the desert. I could still sense everything – the rocks, the bones, the cacti and the vultures that ruled them, searching for the movement of mice and snakes under the sand. One time, after Nyazik taught me this gift, I would mimic the creatures’ movements to confuse the vultures. I thought it was great fun, but when I came to her sickbed later that night and told her, she admonished me in between coughing fits for being cruel to such a beautiful bird. I had started to protest but the last coughing fit painted the walls of the tent in blood and I was hurried out before I could go any further.

I moved faster through the dunes, angry at myself for letting my mind dawdle on the past. Not that it was having any luck with the future. I slowed as I reached the middle of a tall circle of dunes, a place we called Anatu. It was an oasis, once, long since buried in sand. But the water still seemed to permeate this area, no matter how much dust and sand blew in, making the sand moist and dense, like quicksand almost. Moist sand kept its secrets longer than the sand carried on the wind. I stopped in the middle, letting the granules that once made up my body mix and sink into it, letting what it knew permeate my flesh.

The Addae have survived for millennia. As have all the Sidhe. Your story isn’t over yet. It will be if we go to war. There are other ways.

Other ways.

The sand fell silent, having given up all it wanted to. I rose up and reformed myself, stretching out my limbs and my wings. Other ways. Like what? Exactly? Azat and the rest of the noble council had been wracking their brains for months now, to no avail. What did the sand know that we didn’t? My wings wrapped around me slightly as I chewed my lip in thought. Desert nights could get chilly, and the light of the wings warmed me slightly. I began to float slowly over the Anatu, leaving the dune circle behind, when a crack of lightning far to the west jarred my thoughts.

Storms were rare here, and the night sky was clear. I had not imagined it had I? If I had why then did it seem a distant tree or cactus was on fire? Suddenly a second jagged line of brilliant crackling white snapped out of the air and hit the ground with a BOOM, making even the sand in Anatu tremble. I sucked in my breath and disintegrated back into the sand, flying now towards the speck of fire in the distance.

Ambikans, maybe? The proud mountain Sidhe race commanded weather like no other. If they were bringing their battles into Addae territory, that’s not something my Father and the rest of the noble council could ignore. War would come to us no matter what.

The flaming figure was closer now – a baobab tree, throwing orange and red flames into the air. I raced towards it, curving around a cactus, searching the sky for a clue to where the lightning had come from. The woman standing by the cactus turned as I went by and followed my path with her bright orange eyes that seemed too wide for her skull, a mad grin on her face.

I stopped dead, two feet from the tree. The sand scalded me, screamed at me to get away. Orange eyes. Not an Ambikan – they had silver eyes. Not human. The way she moved towards me, like her joints were screwed on backwards, wasn’t natural. I sunk deeper and dispersed myself wider but still she stalked me as if I were standing plain before her, her demented smile never fading. I willed all the granules of my flesh to strafe left past the tree as fast as possible in an effort to fake her out or confuse her, but though she had to stop and turn awkwardly her eyes never left my position.

The way she moved, I could outpace her, surely. Keeping my mind focused on a large dune north of Anatu I shot through the sand, funneling underneath it like a sand snake going after prey, faster than even the wind. I flew until the dune nearly covered the sky with it’s height and then turned my focus behind me. Nothing. She hadn’t followed me. Relief flooded my mind and I started to slow down when another crack of lightning slammed into the top of the dune, and suddenly I was sliding through the sand in between the orange-eyed woman’s feet. She cackled as I reformed against my will, still sliding through the sand uncontrollably. I screamed as the sand burned and cut me until I finally came to stop, then laid in the pile of sand the force of my movement had created, panting and half crying.

“Other ways,” she croaked, her wide orange eyes boring into my head. Her voice sounded like old stone walls in the process of crumbling into dust. “Other ways,” she repeated. I made a series of small screams while she bent down at an angle I have never seen a living creature achieve and put her face into mine. Up close it became obvious that her seemingly permanent wide eyed stare was in fact, permanent – the flesh around her eye sockets had decayed, leaving just the eyeball and the bone behind it. Her lips barely moved when she spoke. Her black hair was matted and caked with dirt, making it stick up in all directions. “Other ways!” she screamed into my face, sending a wave of putrid breath over my face.

I punched her in her nose as I screamed and scrambled backwards, my wings lifting me up momentarily in the air until I crashed back down into the sand on my backside. She stumbled backwards, hand over her nose, but didn’t lose her balance. As she dropped her hand by her side, I could see the end of her nose had simply fallen to dust, leaving empty nostrils. She again stalked towards me with her weird halting, limping gait.

“I don’t know what you mean!” I yelled, panicked. She stopped.

“Other ways.”

“You’ve said that already,” I hissed, my noble attitude coming out at the worst time, or the best time, I couldn’t tell which.

“The sand told you other ways. Other ways to survive. Other ways!” I stared at her, dumbfounded.

“Okay…”

“You learned the sand dance. So learn jhinsi. Raise the dead ‘rincess.” With that she sank into the sand as if a lever and pulley were dragging her down, leaving me utterly alone in the desert. In the far distance the tree on fire suddenly blinked off, pitching that corner of the land back into deep inky darkness. The sand around me cooled. Gingerly I stood up, wiping sand away from the many cuts and scrapes on my arms and legs, and edged to the dimple in the sand where the strange dead woman had stood. With my big toe I dug in the sand a bit, but found nothing but more sand. I breathed a sigh of relief. Before I even got the entire breath out a bright orange eyeball rolled upwards and darted all around before staring at me. I screamed and flew, with my wings this time, as fast as I could back to my tent, her cackling laughter following me the whole way.

Short Story – And They Turn To Dust

Is Teynbourgh always this dusty? Yes.

Child, it always has been, since before my time and even my mama’s time. It was dust when she grew up, dust when she met my daddy, dust when she had me, dust my whole life and now yours.

The grove? Ah. But there’s a story for you. My gran told it to me when I was little, so I guess it’s fitting I pass it onto you now. Settle into your gran’s lap, and I’ll tell you how Teynbourgh became a dusty little town.

It wasn’t always so. We ain’t even a hundred miles from the delta, and the river runs to the east. Once upon a time, my gran said, the town was as green as the grove is now. The faeries in the grove minded their own and the folk in the fields minded theirs, and everything just plodded along.

What? Yes, faeries, child, winged folk. Well of course they’re real, real as the nose on your face, why do you think we don’t let you play there?

Anyway. No one is sure how it began, or how long ago, or who was the first – all that’s known is at some point the faerie women decided their littl’uns needed learning just like the field kids, so they began sending them to the school. They would carefully bind down their wings and clothe them in heavy woolen things that hid any bumps and lumps. The only thing they couldn’t disguise was their eyes – they glowed like gemstones backlit by the sun. But you know kids. They talk for a day or two, and then they become so wrapped up in their own little lives they forget all about the funny ones.

One such girl was a little plain thing named Lucina, but the kids knew her as Lucy. Always wore a handmade sort of dirty white wool jumper, real quiet and mousy, kept to herself. She answered questions when called on, but didn’t go out of her way to make friends, kept to her books instead.

How do I know she was plain? Well my gran went to school with her, saw her with her own two eyes. Only thing about her was her blue eyes, she said, ice blue like the sky at high noon. Gran said otherwise you couldn’t pick her out of a lineup, mouse brown hair, plain clothes, nothing to see.

Now, like I said, kids might fixate on a thing or two, but their minds are always a-racing and soon enough they focus on something else, but you get those bossy nosy types. The type that decide you’re beneath them in some way, and they think it right to remind you every chance they get. Like that one girl you had trouble with last year. Well, our Lucy had such a bother, and her name was Daisy. Real country bumpkin name, and she had the plump face, red hair, and second hand dress and ribbons to prove it, but since that dress came from the city she thought herself queen of the schoolyard. Gran never liked her. Never crossed her either though – she could make your life unbearable if you did. Now, Lucy never did a thing to cross her, mind you. Only thing she did was show up plain and quiet, and try to make herself as invisible as possible, but the boys took turns cooing over those bright blue eyes. That was all it took.

Daisy was used to having all the attention from the boys, for her frilly dresses that had to be mended by her mama and the frayed pink ribbons in her hair. Sad state of affairs, but for farm kids, that was fancier than anything they’d ever seen, ‘til Lucy came along. She couldn’t make her dirt brown eyes sky blue, so instead Daisy turned her wrath on the girl, shunning her at playtime, making fun of her in class, and making up stories about her. The boys eventually ended up on Daisy’s side, but Gran said it was only ‘cause she had a couple second hand toys to go with her second hand clothes, and she only let the kids she happened to like that day play with them. 

No, Gran said she never saw the girl cry, that’s the thing. Most kids, they get that kind of abuse, they react in some way, right? They cry or they fight back or they blab to the teacher. This girl, she’d just stare at Daisy curious-like, like she was trying to figure out what sort of social interaction was this, and how should she play it? Then everyone would laugh and Lucy would shrug and go back to her book.

Now Gran thought this mighty curious, and she had an inkling, so one day she made to follow this girl home. Her pops taught her how to hunt rabbits and squirrels, so she knew how to move quiet without being seen. Sure as the rain on a spring day, the girl entered the green grove up north. Gran swore up and down she saw her take off her sweater, and saw the great big monarch wings that grew out of her back, though Pops told her all the time she was a batty old fool for it. The grove was as dense then as it is now, can’t see a damn thing, but Gran knew what she saw. She didn’t tell a soul back then, not until well after me and my brothers were underfoot. Mind, she had no love for the Daisy girl at all, but you could tell she regretted it some. That maybe if she had said a peep, things would’ve turned out different for the families involved.

After that Gran tried to be nice to Lucy on the sly, without attracting Daisy’s attention. Picking up her knocked down books after the bullies’ backs were turned, saying hi, things like that. Nothing real big and grand, but enough to keep her out of the crosshairs. She’d heard enough about the big war up north to be cautious, but in a kid’s small world the effects of the schoolyard queen’s wrath far outweighed big world matters.

The war? Right, the war.

It started – well. No one is real sure how or when it started. Once upon a time, faeries coexisted with humans and all was well and good and fine until all of the sudden it wasn’t. Armies formed up, magic got consumed, bodies laid to waste, it all spiraled pretty far out of control. Each side hated the other but if you asked them why they couldn’t ever tell ya. “Well, pops and gran hated them, and their pops and gran before them, so that’s just the way it is”, nonsense like that. Didn’t really make it this far south, you can thank them gods for that. I mean we heard about it, reports in the paper, but it was all far away. Crops get planted, they have to be harvested, goats gotta be milked, and no one nowhere here had time to worry about what them fancy mountain folk were up to.

The Starlings? That’s another story for another time, child, we’re talking about Lucy and Daisy here.

So Gran never breathed a word about what she saw, but the war being in the papers meant stories got into the kid’s heads, and turned into something wild. Always seems to happen in the young minds. You get old like me you either don’t have time or you forget how. So assumptions and rumors go around all over about the faerie folk, who they are, what they look like, what they do, and one day Daisy tells a whopper. While digging in the dirt at playtime with her two best boys, she claims that faeries turn us regular folk into pudding and slurps them up.

No of course they don’t, that’s why I called it a whopper.

Now, the boys didn’t believe her either, which made her right mad, and she went stomping off towards the trees. In between the sand pit and the trees were a line of rose bushes that marked the border, and accordin’ to Gran this is where Lucy liked to be during playtime, reading her books like usual. Daisy didn’t pay her any no mind, but she had gotten pretty loud and indignant with them boys, and Lucy had overheard.

Gran could see the difference in the girl’s face straight away. A narrowed side eye had replaced the wide-eyed curiosity she usually wore. She had heard what Daisy said, and she didn’t like it. Well why should she? She was just there to learn numbers and how it was a tiny seed became a giant stalk of wheat, not hear lies about her people. Gran saw the determination, the calculation, but still she said nothing, for fear of being laughed at – or worse, Daisy’s new target.

Lucy walked home quicker that afternoon it seemed, and all that evening Gran held her breath, waiting for the war to come south, but it never did. Next morning Lucy quietly walked in with her head down and Daisy pranced in head held high, boys following her like pups, and all was normal. Gran let out the breath she’d been holding all damn night, and they spent the morning learning division and what you can do to deter bunnies from your crops. Lunch came and went without incident, and then the kids were let loose in the yard for playtime.

Now everything had been normal, so Gran had forgotten all about the impending doom and barely thought to keep an eye on things. She was having a right old time swinging on the old wheelbarrow tire swing, jumping off halfway up in the air like a damned fool. Good thing kids bounce. Well she lands and looks up to discover Daisy and Lucy playing happily in the dirt like they was old friends from way back, the boys off in another corner of the yard sulking. Dread filled Gran’s stomach, but she still didn’t say a thing about it to no one.

Why not? Well. Maybe you’re too little yet to truly understand this – then again you’re right in the thick of it all so maybe you do. When you’re a kid the world is big and new and there’s so much coming in from all sides you can’t help but focus on yourself. There was a big math test that afternoon, and when she got home, my great-gran expected her to tend to the goats all by herself, seeing as the mare was about to give birth and all. Never mind the fact she didn’t think she’d be real successful convincing any adult folks that something bad may or may not happen. Things always seemed to work out in a kid’s world, and so she hoped it’d all play out okay.

Still, she kept her eye on these sudden new best friends, who kept whispering conspiratorially the rest of the day. Math test done, then a bit of art to wash away all the hard stuff, and soon the kids were turned out of the school and shooed home. Gran ran all the way home, nerves giving her more energy than usual, but when she got there the mare was right in the middle of birthing and she forgot all about the doom.

Would you now? Ha! Well it’s a right messy state of affairs, but next time ol’ John’s mare pushes out a new one, I’ll take you along to see.

Anyway the girls at school may as well not have existed the rest of the evening, until Gran was out milking the goats and checking how dry the wheat was yet and caught sight of Daisy and Lucy walking towards the grove. Gran stopped dead in her tracks, a cold fear washing down her throat and through every vein. Daisy was done up even fancier than usual, with an extra set of ribbons in her hair, and even Lucy seemed to have a new gleam about her. She watched the girls disappear into the grove, and until the day she died she swore up and down she saw lights moving within the grove, like candles floating in the air.

Now, Gran weren’t a monster. She considered all evening the possibility of telling her folks. In her heart she knew something dreadful was gonna happen, but when the adults violently dismiss the presence of the winged folk in their little town and say you imagined it all, what are you supposed to do? So she kept quiet. Next morning when she woke up, she noticed the wind blowing down from the grove. It gets windy, here, sure, but this was a right gale wind, like the type before twisters. Not only that, but there was a thick dust on the wind that almost choked a person. Didn’t seem right, at all. She crept downstairs and ate her breakfast in silence so that my great-gran could tell something was bothering the girl.

“What’s in yer head this mornin’ child?” she asked.

“Ma what happens if you eat a winged folk’s glamour?” Gran blurted out before she could stop herself. 

Great-Gran chuckled, relieved it was just tall tale silliness and not something more grand. “Well now the stories that went round about when I was yer age, they said ya turn to dust and blow right away on the wind.” Gran said she never told her ma why she all of the sudden went white as snow and bolted out of the house without finishing her oats, and her ma never asked, figuring it weren’t none of her business anyhow being a grown-up and all.

Gran ran all the way to school, the wind blowing dust at her back the whole way. Teacher let her in as she pounded on the door, but on account of her being pretty early, she was the only one there. “Right crazy wind this morning isn’t it?” the missus said brightly. “Just popped up out of nowhere and only dust for it to blow around. Maybe it’ll rain later and we can search for worms for our science period!” Gran just stared at her, out of breath, unable to voice what she knew, her sense of tragedy hemmed in by the teacher’s cheeriness. Made her think maybe she was really the right crazy one, seeing things that weren’t there.

She settled into her seat and tried to pretend everything was normal, but she kept looking back at the door nervously. Kids started filing in, but there was no sign of Daisy, or Lucy. Soon all the kids but them two were there, and though the teacher frowned at the two empty chairs, she shrugged and continued on starting class, until there was a knock at the school door.

Teacher shut the door most of the way due to the wind, but Gran could still hear muffled adult voices, and recognized them as Daisy’s parents. Her heart sank down into her feet as she heard the urgency and fear in the mama’s voice. The teacher spoke in soothing tones, then came back into the schoolroom, walking slow with a frown on her face.

“Children, I have troubling news,” she said, drawing herself up straight and clasping her hands, almost like she was holding herself together. “Daisy has been missing since last evening. Have any of you seen her since school let out?” Gran glanced at Lucy’s empty seat, visions of the two girls walking towards the grove in her head, then at the teacher’s desk where the morning paper sat neatly folded. There had been a right bloodbath in the western prairie the night before, between the forest and the mountains. These skirmishes went back and forth all the time, but this one hadn’t been in the human’s favor. Miserably, Gran scrunched down in her seat and said nothing.

“Saw her go home after school,” one of Daisy’s boys offered up. “But our goats got the pink eye so I was takin’ care of ‘em all night, didn’t see or hear nothing else.” Other kids offered up the same, such as it is with farm kids and farm chores.

“Lucy ain’t here neither,” one of the other boys said, side-eyeing the other empty chair.

“‘Isn’t here either’,” the teacher corrected, “and yes that is something I’ll look into also.” She pursed her lips. “Children, if you see or hear anything, please come to me straight away. Let’s get back to our lessons.”

Well, no, she didn’t say nothing then, but let me get on with my story, child.

Like I said, Gran kept her mouth shut. The world outside was too big, and a winged folk in her presence with the stories in the paper being what they were, she was too scared to speak up. Gran was pretty sure she was the only one who had an idea about Lucy, and she weren’t about to stir that particular pot.

Lucy never did come back. Town threw themselves into searching for the two of ‘em – some thought maybe some traveler grabbed ‘em both – and every time a group wandered close to the grove, they lost one of ‘em and the town got dustier and dustier. Soon people were told to give the grove a wide berth – no one could prove a thing, but the disappearances and the dust made everyone nervous. Gran was right miserable every time the dust came up, but fearing for her own life and her family, she still kept her mouth shut.

Life went on in little Teynbourgh, for a time. They never did find Daisy, and no one but Gran knew a thing, and soon the story dried up like the leaves in fall and blew away. Took Gran growing up and having her own littles to realize how much hurt the girl’s parents must feel. They went to their graves never understanding what happened.

Soon the winter chill dropped off and the sun came out longer and hotter, and the end of the school year whipped up in a dust bowl. Teacher let the kids loose to their families and their farms for the growing months, and even though it was still a buzz of excitement and chants of ‘no more lessons’, there was an undercurrent of sadness. Even bullies had a right to be, and disappearing kids was a fearful thing besides.

Actually, child, she did see Lucy that summer.

It was from afar, though. She’d been hunting, and the weeds of the plains and the crops were so high up she didn’t notice how close to the cursed grove she’d gotten. She popped up out of the wheat and the sudden wall of green startled her back down to her butt. She looked up and saw Lucy perched on a top branch, her wings fanning her face. Her ice blue eyes stared down on Gran, but her face was still plain, not a hint of malice. Gran gulped and threw herself back into the wheat towards home.

Years passed. The war up north stopped, after a fashion. Gran grew up, passed her classes, met Pops. Had my mama and her sister and brother. They got their own little farm, raised up their babies with the animals and the crops. Like I said before once Gran had her own littl’uns underfoot she thought more and more about Daisy being lost like that, and ached for her parents. They were gone by this time, and I think she right regretted not confessing to them ‘fore they went in the ground.

Every now and then she’d go huntin’ by herself, just to be with her own thoughts a bit. This time – I think my mama was about five, almost time for her to go that little school room her own self – Gran purposefully found herself by the grove. She stared at it from between the wheat, a frown on her face. She said she’ll never quite know what came over her then, what it was made her stand up full and walk to the entrance. She stood there, glancing up into the trees, her arms crossed, tappin’ her foot like she did when the babies were testing her patience good. There was the slightest rustle – Gran’s hearing was sharp till she died, thanks to her huntin’ skills – and out came Lucina.

Her face was smooth as a babe’s still, but the lines were sharper, the breasts and hips were fuller, and she was a might bit taller. Faerie wings are like dog paws – they come out full size and they gotta just grow into ‘em, so they didn’t seem as huge as Gran remembered. Those blue eyes were still the same, though.

“Hello Julie,” Lucy said softly. 

Yes that was my Gran’s name, too. Mama named me after her.

“I know what happened,” Gran said, her voice tight. “I’ve always known and I’ve never said a word.” Lucy smiled, a strange careful smile like she was hiding something in her mouth.

“Seems doubtful you came here just for me to thank you,” she said. Her voice had changed with the years. Deep, and gravelly, like. Like her throat was full of pebbles.

“I got my own babes now,” Gran said. “That Daisy was a right pain in the arse but her parents didn’t deserve to go in that cold ground never knowin’ what happened with their little girl.” Lucy stared at her like she used to back in the school days, but she weren’t wide-eyed anymore. She peered more like, calculating her next move.

“You never were her target, Julie,” Lucy said, crossing her own arms. “Not like me.” Gran didn’t quite know what to say to that. The faerie was right, but it didn’t make it better.

“You could’ve said something. You should’ve said something,” Gran finally spat out. “The teacher, or -“

“I told my mother,” Lucy hissed. “I did what she asked of me.”

“And made this town dusty as an old cellar corner!” Gran exclaimed. “Brought the war south!”

“Don’t be foolish,” Lucy snapped. “This town knew nothing of that war.” But Gran noticed a flash of something in the faerie’s eyes, a bare moment of guilt, before they went hard again. She sized Gran up, then turned around to stalk back into the grove.

“I could still say something,” Gran called after her. “Won’t help her parents none, but you’d still pay.” Lucy stopped and turned her head back towards the woman. This time she grinned fully, revealing sharp canine-like teeth.

“But you won’t, will you?” Lucy said. Gran gulped, and tears sprang to her eyes, thinking of her babes as Lucy took another couple steps forward.

“Don’t you hurt my family!” Gran said, her voice a little higher and panicked than she woulda liked. Lucy stopped again for a moment, then flapped them wings of hers and landed in front of Gran in one jump.

No, no, baby girl, don’t get scared on me now. What did Lucy say? Ah. Well. I’m an old woman, child, the words ain’t comin’ to me. Long story short they agreed it was done and over and no one else need be hurt or lost. But they learnt something. It’s always better for everyone to just get along, without the bullying and the threats and needless loss and so on. You take that lesson with you, hear? We’re all just bumbling along with whatever it is we’ve got, tryin’ to make the best go of things ‘fore we end up in a dirt hole. Doesn’t pay anyone no glory to be mean to other folk just because you don’t like the looks of them, you understand? Good girl, now I’ve taken up enough of yer afternoon with my story, you go on out and play outside. Mind the wheat, don’t trample it to bits. Good girl.

I know you heard it all, you blue-eyed rat. I done what you asked. It’s over now, hear? That Starling boy made sure of it in the north, I’m making sure of it here. Gran’s pact ends with me, see, Teynbourgh won’t get any more dust from me or mine. Gran might’ve not had the heart to kill you like she promised but I swear on her grave and my mama’s, I do. I do. You leave my family alone now, understand? It’s done.

It’s done.

Short Story – The Lost and the Found

The day Emily died started out fairly normal, given its bizarre ending. She woke up to an alarm, after having hit snooze her usual three times. Breakfast had been a hard boiled egg and some fruit. She rode the train to work, sat in her freezing office buried in the oversized sweater she kept there for that very reason, and wrote pedestrian ad copy for The Halo Group, an agency on 7th. She rode the train home, listening to pop music to keep herself entertained. Then she walked the four blocks to her building, saying hello to the doorman on the way in, and had barely gotten to the elevator when a manhole cover came crashing through the glass doors and hit her square in the back of the neck, decapitating her.

Much later she found out the cover had been loose, and a careless taxi driver making an illegal u-turn had dislodged it and sent it careening into her building, breaking her doorman’s arm in the process. Right now she didn’t much care about any of that as she sat near her body, eyes flitting back and forth between her prone body, blood pouring out of the jagged edges of her neck, and her head sitting two feet away, her brown eyes wide with shock. She stared down at her arms and legs, holding them out in front of her, then fervently felt her face and neck. Everything seemed normal – she even still wore the business casual pencil skirt and blue printed blouse she had put on that morning – but when she went to look at herself in the mirrored doors of the elevator, she found she had no reflection.

“Jesus Mary and Joseph,” the first responder said behind her. She turned around. “What the hell even? Poor girl.”

“Goddamn manhole cover came out of nowhere,” her doorman said, as he was helped into a chair near the front desk.

“You know her pretty well?” The doorman shrugged.

“I know who she is, yeah, she’s lived here three years about. Her name’s Emily, she’s got a cat – I see her bringing home litter sometimes – and she works near Madison Square Garden cause that’s the train station she comes from. She keeps to herself.” He winced as the paramedics set his arm. “That’s all I really know.”

“What about family? Boyfriend? Husband?” the responder asked.

“Nah, I’ve never seen any gentlemen callers. She never stopped to chat. I don’t know if she was just that private or just that shy.” 

“So you don’t know about any family or next of kin we can call?”

“No.” 

“I have a sister!” Emily jumped at the sound of her voice. It seemed to echo around the building, but no one else noticed it.

“What about you guys?” the first responder asked, gesturing towards the front desk ladies. The younger one was clutching a small trash can, having already been sick; she looked up with bleary eyes and shook her head.

“I have a sister, she’s on my emergency contact list!” Emily said to her. She tried to lean on the counter and stumbled when she went right through it, and passed through the older lady as if she were smoke. The lady trembled, nearly fainting, and clutched at the desk to stay upright.

“Get her a chair!” the responder said.

“She has an emergency contact,” she gasped as she collapsed into the chair. “I can pull up the file, just … give me a minute I don’t know what came over me …”

“Sorry,” Emily whispered. Even her whisper, to her ears, shot around the building as if shouted into a canyon.

“It’s been an upsetting evening,” the responder said in an assuring voice.

“I’m a New Yorker,” the lady snapped. “If I fainted at every act of violence I’d be six feet under with Ms Jenkins or I’d be in the looney bin.” She stood and straightened her blouse, and marched up to her computer, as the younger lady let out a little sob into her trash can. The first responder raised an eyebrow, looking back and forth between the two ladies. The older lady gave the girl a withering look before turning back to her computer. “She’s from Kansas,” she muttered.

“Right.”

“Here it is. Emily Jenkins, her emergency contact is a sister named Holly, in Portland. Here’s her number,” she said, pushing a business card towards the responder.

“Thanks,” he said, and walked back over to the crime scene.

“Seriously Janet, pull yourself together,” the older lady huffed.

“It’s okay,” Emily whispered into Janet’s ear, taking care not to pass through her. “If I weren’t dead I’d be sick too.” She stood and carefully maneuvered around the ladies, walking through the desk towards her body. She passed through the lamp on the counter, and as she did, the lightbulb flickered wildly several times before settling back into it’s warm yellow light.

“What was that?” Janet cried.

“Fuse, or something, who knows. It’s a lightbulb, it can’t hurt you,” the older lady said, though there wasn’t much conviction in her voice.

The medical examiner and detective teams were already there, taking pictures of the scene, each circumstance dotted with little yellow numbered markers. Emily flitted in between, listening to the detectives interview the doorman and other people in the lobby. No one really knew her. Most didn’t even know her name. She kept to herself. She’d smile at passerby but she never really said hi, never stopped to chat, never really got to know anyone. No gentlemen callers, the doorman repeated. She stood in the middle of all the commotion, letting people pass through her – each one shivering as they did – and listened to a whole building talk about how little they knew her.

In a daze she walked towards the stairs, passing through the doors, and found herself floating up the seven floors towards her apartment. She paused outside the door; mail and packages were neatly stacked on the mat. The detectives hadn’t been here yet. She passed through her door and stood in the middle of her apartment. She felt like crying, even though she had no tears to cry.

No gentlemen callers. She had moved to New York from Portland three years ago after a bad breakup. The kind where you thought you would get married, and everything was moving to that moment, until all of the sudden it wasn’t. She hadn’t felt like dating. She moved to New York to become a writer, and settled for a copywriter job to pay the bills while she looked for a position at a magazine or a newspaper. She wanted to make friends, but the pace and attitude of New York overwhelmed her, much to her chagrin. It sounded like such a sad cliché, how everyone talked about how NYC could swallow you up whole, yet here she sat on her kitchen floor, a ghost with no name, and no story.

“I have a story,” she said to her cat sadly. Lily had padded up to her and was now sitting in front of her, one ear cocked. “You can see me can’t you? They always said animals could sense the otherworldly.” Lily meowed at her, causing her to half laugh, half choke back a sob. “Otherworldly. I can’t believe this. What am I supposed to do? I have a story, dammit, I have ten thousand stories!”

She heard the maintenance people breaking into her door, which caused Lily to bolt. Standing up, she watched with horror as the detectives swarmed into her apartment, looking in her cupboards, reading the book spines on her bookshelves, and opening closets in her bedroom.

“Stop!” she shouted, the sound booming back and forth between the walls of her small apartment. When they of course couldn’t hear her, she remembered what happened when she passed through the lamp at the front desk, and began flitting from lamp to lamp to lighting fixture, causing each to flicker maniacally. The ceiling fan whirred on and off as she passed through it, and to her delight she found she could cause cupboard doors to bang open and closed if she hit them just right.

“What the hell is going on!” one of the detectives shouted, dropping the picture frame of her and her sister. The glass shattered on the floor, adding to the cacophony Emily was creating.

“Maybe she’s trying to tell you something!” The shout of the older front desk lady made Emily slow down and stop, perching on the back of her couch. Slowly the lights flickered back to normal, the ceiling fan became still once more, and the cupboard doors shut themselves with a soft click. “The same thing I was trying to tell you. She has a next of kin, a sister, who has been informed and is on her way out here. According to her rights and the law, to make no mention of the policy of this building, this apartment now belongs to Ms Holly Jenkins. I will see to it that it remains untouched for her from here on out.” She crossed her arms and stared down the detective, who could tell he was defeated.

“Right, okay, just give her our number will ya?” he said, handing her a business card.

“I’ll be sure to do that,” she answered icily.

“Thanks sweetheart,” he said, smiling as he led his team out.

“That’s Mrs. Swanson to you,” she barked after him. “Jerk,” she muttered to herself as he left down the hall. She paused and took a look around the apartment, her eyes passing over Emily without seeing her. Lily slowly made her way out into the living room from her hiding place, eyes wide and tail between her legs. “Poor creature,” Mrs. Swanson said, holding out a hand to the ginger tabby. Lily sniffed it, then meowed mournfully before jumping up on the couch and settling on the arm nearby Emily, resting her head near where her feet floated. “Hope Ms Holly is a cat person and won’t throw you out to the streets.” She paused and considered the cat and her placement, realizing there might be a reason the cat had settled herself there. Slowly her eyes coalesced on the empty space at the back of the couch where Emily’s unseen ghostly form rested. “Quite a show from such a quiet girl, young lady. Don’t worry. We’ll leave you and your sister in peace.” She turned to leave, then paused and turned back. “And I’ll make sure Holly knows to keep that asshole of a detective out of here.” She straightened her blouse again and marched out, closing the door and locking it behind her.

Slowly Emily floated down to the floor by the bookcase, and sadly regarded the shattered picture frame as Lily raised her head to watch her. In it, her and her blue-eyed sister beamed back at her, their brown hair done up in intricate braids, tiaras situated just so. Halloween, six years ago. Right before she met the boy who’s relationship would change her life.

She continued to float slowly around her apartment as the night wore on, Lily following her and settling near her when she would stop to consider this trinket or that picture frame, as if trying to commit her whole life to memory so that she wouldn’t feel forgotten. The next afternoon, she heard the door softly click open and feet shuffling in. She floated through the walls of her bedroom to find Janet leading Holly into the apartment, her eyes red from crying.

“I just still can’t believe it,” Holly said quietly.

“I know,” Janet said, smiling sadly. “None of us can. Um, but like we were saying, this apartment is yours now.”

Holly half laughed and half sobbed. “What am I going to do with an apartment in New York? I’m not going to move here. Not if there’s … flying manhole covers or whatever.” She fished a tissue out of her purse and blew her nose.

“Well,” Janet said, shrugging, “it’s paid for, the apartment. She paid it all off at once, in cash, which was strange but -“

“I know,” Holly interjected softly. “She had saved up the money while she was trying to get out of an abusive relationship.” Her ex-fiancé, a deeply talented but deeply troubled man, had taken to drinking too much, his behavior changing swiftly from agitated genius to explosively violent. It took her the better part of two years to scrape up enough resources to escape him. “This was supposed to be her new leaf, her chance to start over.”

“Oh,” Janet said, her face falling and her eyes filling with tears. “I … I didn’t know that. None of us knew her very well, really.”

“Yeah. Been hearing that a lot last couple days.”

“Well since it’s yours and it’s paid off, you could rent it out, and you wouldn’t have to be here. We could take care of the details for you,” Janet said.

“Thanks. I’ll consider it.”

“Okay,” Janet said, trying to put a brave smile on her face. “Okay well I’ll leave you to it. The detective’s card is on the kitchen counter but um, Mrs. Swanson says you should just leave it alone.” She paused. “Probably a good idea, he wasn’t very nice.” She smiled again and left the apartment, wiping her eyes.

“Emily?” Holly said softly. She looked around the apartment, her eyes zeroing in on the broken picture frame. Carefully she picked it up out of the glass, staring at it for a few minutes. “Ah, Em. Baby sister. This isn’t how this new leaf was supposed to turn, babe.”

“I know,” Emily responded, perching herself on her couch again as Lily took up her usual spot on the arm.

“And everyone saying they didn’t know anything about you – I can’t believe it.” She laughed, wiping her eyes. “No, I can believe it, you always hated people being in your business. But you were so full of life, baby girl, your smile could light up a room and here …” She trailed off and shook her head.

“Trust me, I know that too,” Emily said sadly. “I wish I could change it!”

“Hey Lily,” Holly said, smiling. She reached out her hand to pet the cat’s head, her hand passing through Emily’s foot in the process. She shivered and retracted her hand, looking around the couch quizzically. Lily meowed at her, then looked up at Emily.

“I’m here, Holly, I’m here!” Emily cried, though she knew she couldn’t hear her.

“Weird,” Holly whispered. She chuckled, then reached out to pet Lily again. “Maybe that’s what the old lady was talking about downstairs huh Lily? Is she still hanging around?” Lily meowed again. “Yeah I hope so too.” She took a deep breath and looked around the apartment, hands on hips. “Okay. Well. Let’s see what there is to see I guess. Mom wants your pearl set back, Em. Hope you don’t mind.”

“She can have it,” Emily said, stretching out her arm. “Not like it’s going to stay on my wrist now.”

“Dad wants your books. Imagine that,” Holly said, chuckling.

“He was the one that got them for me.”

Holly wandered into the bedroom, sinking down onto the bed as she looked around. Emily had painted the room a dark blue, keeping the trim white, and found several great deals on dark wooden furniture at various flea markets. “Pretty bedroom,” she whispered, and softly began crying again.

Emily floated near her, wanting so badly to reach out and hug her sister, to tell her it was okay, that she was okay. Suddenly recalling her and her sister’s scout days, she started passing through the sconce on her wall in a pattern. Two shorts, two longs. Three longs, long short long. I’m ok. I’m ok. I’m ok.

Holly leapt up and backed up against a wall, gasping. She started to run out of the room, but then noticed the pattern. “Come on, remember,” Emily whispered. It took a minute, but suddenly her sister burst out laughing, tears still running down her face.

“Do you know how long it’s been since we learned Morse code? Jesus Em how do you remember that. You’re okay? You’re here? You can see me?” Quickly Emily did a new pattern; long short long long, one short, three shorts. Yes. “I’m going to miss you baby girl. This isn’t how it should have ended.” Two shorts, one short. One long, three longs, three longs. Me too.

Emily floated over to her desk, letting the lights go back to normal, and started to pass through the back of the middle drawer, trying to hit it just right. Finally it worked, and the drawer flew open. Holly jumped again, then slowly walked over to it, seeing a stack of papers. The three years Emily had been in New York, when she came home at night, she would sit down with her takeout and a glass of wine and write her novel. It was going to be the novel that put her name on the map, she was sure of it. In it, the protagonist was a girl much like herself, who had escaped a violent past to start over in a new city, a bigger city where no one knew her name or her past so they couldn’t give her those crippling sympathetic looks she got in her small town outside of Portland. Those looks that said, I know what he did to you. Poor girl. In the big city, she could start anew, rise up out of the flames like the proverbial phoenix, and find herself. Find a fulfilling job. Maybe even find love again. She lived in an apartment building a lot like the one Emily had found, except her story didn’t end with a rogue manhole cover crashing through the windows. Her story ended the way it should have, with a job writing for Vogue and two cats and a boyfriend who cooked her spaghetti and garlic bread.

“You want me to publish this?” Holly asked. Quick pattern of light flickers; yes. “Okay. I can do that.” She smiled. “I can do that for you baby girl.”

The next few days were a blur of packing up her things and moving men. As Holly wrapped up her breakables and loaded books into boxes, she talked to Emily’s ghost, telling her about how many people showed up to her funeral back in Portland, how distraught her parents were but how much faith Holly’s ghost story gave them. How she had to convince her boyfriend, a self-avowed dog person, to take in Lily, but that he easily relented because he knew how much it meant. How her ex had recently messed up with another girl, and how her parents had lobbied for him to go to jail, paying for the girl’s lawyer even, and how it had worked.

Soon the apartment was empty, though Holly left the furniture and the paint job, and shown to potential renters; Janet and Mrs. Swanson vetted them carefully and finally decided on a young couple who had moved to the Upper West Side from Brooklyn.

“And here,” Mrs. Swanson said, as she gave them the keys on top of a book. “This is a gift, from the owner. She hopes you’ll enjoy it as much as she, and certainly we all have.”

“Thanks,” said the woman, a pretty coffee shop owner named June.

Later that night, her husband Nick flipped through the book, a glass of scotch in his hand. “Hey there’s a note on the inside,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” June asked. “What’s it say?”

“‘This book was written by my sister, who bought this apartment as a fresh start, and was killed in a tragic accident. May its story bring you as much happiness as it has my family, and may you help us to remember her by reading it over and over.’ Huh. Author’s name is Emily Jenkins,” he said.

“Oh, I heard about her!” June exclaimed. “Freak accident, taxi hit a loose manhole cover and it crashed through the lobby downstairs and killed her.”

“Eh I’ll read it,” Nick said, then laughed. “She was killed in this building’s lobby huh? I wonder if that means this apartment is haunted,” he mused as he walked to the bedroom, completely unaware of the brown-eyed girl in a blue blouse and black pencil skirt perched on the back of the sofa, watching him.