Flash Fiction: I Miss You

There is a click, click, click coming down the hall. The eaves that echo with every footfall, the ladder creaks as she begins to climb. Hands parting the cobwebs of this old attic. She hasn’t been up here in years.

The picture fills her hands and she cries. “I miss you, Mom. I love you so much. I miss the way you used to sing. I miss you making me soup when I was sick. I miss you just sitting there, watching me sleep. I miss you. I miss you.”

But she can’t hear me when I whisper, “I still do.”

***

First published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

Fiction: Gene Catcher

 

TINDER was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.

Sorry… you don’t look tall in ur pics, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

I’m 5’7, Paul replied.

Must be 6’4 to ride, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

Paul rolled over onto his side, careful to keep his feet off the bed so his freshly polished brogue shoes wouldn’t get dirt on his comforter. It was 10:24 PM.

What happened? I used to get new ass all the time, Paul thought. I might not be the tallest or richest guy in San Francisco, but so what? Tell a girl here you’re co-founder of a science fiction-themed indie rock record label, and their pants practically grow tentacles and climb off on their own.

Everyone has dry spells. I just need to get out of the studio more, and back in the game.

He was walking out the door of his building to go to the bars solo when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a new match: a cute brunette with wide eyes and a seashell smile named Linda, 24, less than a mile away.

You look like trouble, Linda, 24, less than a mile away said.

LOL that’s my line, Paul replied.

Haha really?

That’s my usual opener.

Figures, Linda said.

So, gorgeous, are you just on this for an ego boost, or can we grab a drink tonight?

Linda took a whole ten minutes to respond. While he was waiting, Paul looked at his own pictures. He liked the one where he was drinking beer on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand the best. In the picture, he was tan and sporting an eight-week beard. His chin looked great. Paul thought it was his best physical feature, like a young William Shatner in the first season of Star Trek. His dad had a great chin, too.

Paul was about to un-match Linda when her message bubble appeared. I’m with my friend. We’re at Costarella’s. Come meet up!

On my way, Paul replied.

Linda sent him a smiling poop emoji, and Paul knew he was in.

He hailed a Lyft and was at Costarella’s in exactly twelve minutes. It should’ve been eight, but there was deadlocked traffic a few blocks from the restaurant, a line of cars rubbernecking an ambulance where a pair of EMTs was loading a pale, gasping man onto a stretcher.

Paul caught a glimpse of the man just as they were closing the door. His eyes were parched and bloodshot. His pupils looked like tiny barbed raisins. He looked excruciatingly thin, like he was dried out. His pants were covered in vomit and something else Paul didn’t want to think about. There were dozens of tiny puncture wounds covering the man’s face and arms.

Junkies, Paul thought.

As if reading his mind, the Lyft driver, an Indian man named Patel, said, “San Francisco… beautiful city, but it has a bad homeless problem. This is the third overdose I’ve seen tonight.”

Paul shook his head in disgust. “I know. I hate it. Why can’t they do that shit somewhere where people don’t have to see them?”

The Lyft driver shrugged.

It didn’t occur to Paul until later that night, that the man he’d seen being loaded into the ambulance was dying.

Costarella’s was a trendy seafood joint turned after-hours bar in the Marina. Paul didn’t see Linda and her friend when he walked in, so he pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered himself a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. It was eighteen dollars. Paul promised himself he’d take it easy tonight. That was when he saw the chubby brunette girl sitting alone at a table in the back corner of the bar.

She had wide eyes and a seashell smile, a deep tan like she’d just gotten back from vacation. It was Linda, alright, but she was twenty pounds heavier than in her pictures. Paul felt his heart drop and thought, Great, another catfish. Oh, well. She’s kind of pretty. I guess I could be into it.

Paul approached her and said, “Linda?”

She half-stood and smoothed her skirt awkwardly with one hand while extending the other for Paul to shake. “Omigod, Paul. Hi.”

“Hey, Linda. So formal. What are you drinking?”

“Oh, omigod, I’m not. This is water,” Linda said.

“And… this is a bar.”

“I was waiting for you. Sit down!” She patted the chair. “I’ll get us a round.”

He hesitantly took a seat, deciding whether or not he was going to pull a runner on her. She’s chubby, and has really hairy arms, but I’ve settled for worse, especially off of Tinder. At least, she has a cute smile. But she’s so bloated. Did she eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before meeting up with me?

Still, it had been a three-month-long dry spell. Paul decided to stay.

A moment later, Linda returned with two glasses of whiskey. She handed one to Paul.

“So, where’s your friend?” Paul said.

“She went home.”

Linda sat down. “So, what do you think? Do I look like my pictures?”

“Sure,” Paul said.

Linda flashed him her seashell grin. “You’re a lot hotter in person. I really like your chin.”

Paul stroked his beard dramatically. “So. This fine patch of German-Irish face forest is the reason you matched me, huh?”

“I’m a sucker for beards.”

“It wasn’t my big muscles or my towering height?” Paul said, immediately regretting it. I sure hope she takes that as a joke. He pretended to flex his right bicep just to drive home that he was kidding.

Linda smirked. “Uh, no. I’ve met a lot of tall, buff guys on Tinder. I wanted to meet a guy with a nice chin. And you have one, so…”

Paul grinned. “So.”

Linda winked. “So, Paul, what do you do?”

“I’m co-founder of a science fiction and fantasy-themed indie rock label.”

“Oh, how cool! I love science fiction.”

“I’m recording an EP for a band called The Body Snatchers, actually.”

“Far out! That totally sounds like my jam.”

“And you?”

“I work in molecular biology.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Uh, mostly gene blotting, but not really the traditional kind. It’s complicated, and honestly, it would bore you.”

“You’re talking to a guy who has the RNA tree of life tattooed on his back.”

“Shut up!”

“I do. Check it out.” Paul stood, turned around, and pulled up his shirt, revealing the faded black ink. Linda oooh’d.

“How about you? You have any tattoos?” Paul asked, sitting down.

Blushing slightly, Linda turned over her wrist, where the words Gene Catcher were written in blue ink.

“Gene Catcher? That’s a little weird,” Paul said, running his fingers over the ink.

Linda rolled her eyes. “It’s an inside joke. My parents were weird. Whenever my mother tried to talk to me about sex, she’d couch it in these huge, life-or-death terms, like, Remember, sweetie, whoever you sleep with will be giving your children a whole chromosome, better make it good. For the way she talked about it, you’d think my mom was trying to breed the fucking chosen one or something–Paul Atredes, since you like science fiction. But it isn’t that big of a deal. Sex is fun.”

Paul snapped his fingers, smiling. “Dune. I got that reference.”

Linda stared into the bottom of her empty glass. “Anyway.”

An hour and six rounds later, Paul was drunk. They were sitting closer together now, her knees in between his. Linda was talking about how she ran away from home at sixteen and hadn’t seen or heard from her parents since. But Paul wasn’t listening.

She’s so cute. And she’s staring at me like she wants me. If I don’t kiss her soon, I’m gonna blow it. I can’t believe I thought she was fat earlier. That body is a ten.

Paul cupped Linda’s face in his hands. Linda stroked his chin, closed her eyes and said, “Kiss me.”

Paul kissed her. Her tongue flickered inside his mouth and he felt something sting the tip of his nose. Paul opened his eyes. Hers were still closed.

Did she just bite my nose? How could she bite my nose with her tongue in my mouth?

Paul suddenly felt hot. Queasy.

Linda looked skinnier than she had a second ago. When they’d met up, she had a beer belly and a double chin, hadn’t she? That was only an hour ago. The tan girl sitting in front of him was petite and thin, just like her profile pictures showed.

Paul felt another gas bubble rise in his belly. He rubbed his nose. It hurt. But he was drunk and horny, and she was stroking his hand.

His stomach rumbled louder. Paul sat back and clutched his abdomen with both hands.

“Hey, are you alright?” Linda said.

“Just (hic) drunk,” Paul said with a burp.

A sudden, sharp pain cut through his stomach like he was giving Cesarean birth to a xenomorph.

“Hey. Seriously. You look pale,” Linda said. Her hands were on his forehead. The black coils of hair on her arms seemed to rise, reaching for his eyes.

Food poisoning. Shit. What the hell did I eat?

Paul brushed her hands away. “I’m fine. Come here.” He kissed her even deeper than before.

In five minutes, the stomach pain had advanced to full-blown nausea. Paul stopped thinking about the dull ache that nipped the tip of his nose or the strange, wire brush texture of her hair. Paul’s only thought was getting through the next hour without diarrhea.

But she’s so hot. This girl could be a model. She’s way out of my league.

He lost his train of thought when he noticed Linda nuzzling his neck. “I’m pretty drunk, too,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes were balmy and bloodshot. “You wanna go back to my place? I know a funny YouTube video you’ll like…”

Hey! That’s my line.

A wave of nausea hit Paul, crashing down from the dryness of his mouth to the shaking depths of his bowels. No. Not here. Not yet.

“I’m down,” Paul said. “Let’s go.”

A block away, her hand slipped down the front of his pants. “I want you,” Linda said in his ear. “I don’t want to wait, Mr. Hot Shot Sci-Fi Rock Star. Why don’t you engineer somewhere for us to fuck?”

I need to lie down. I need a shower. No. I haven’t had sex in months. I need to do it.

“Wait until we get home,” Paul said.

“No. When I want something, I get it,” Linda said. She pulled him by the hand towards an old Victorian house with a huge wrap-around porch nearby. All the lights were off.

Pain separated his thoughts into staccato bullets.

“We’re in public.”

“So? Never stopped me before.”

Halfway across the front yard, his legs wilted under him. Just need… to lie down…

“Alright. But we need to be fast,” Paul said. He climbed the stairs to the porch, lay down and unbuttoned his jeans.

Linda seemed oblivious to his distress. She was too busy unbuttoning his shirt, stroking his face, kissing him. The dull ache he’d felt on the tip of his nose spread to his eyes and arms. He was too weak to do anything but lie still.

When he opened his eyes, their eyelids were attached.

Paul felt Linda get on top of him. Something ticklish and wet wrapped around his scalp. He felt a sudden, violent stinging all over his skin, like alcohol poured over a scratched-open wound. With great effort, he managed to push her off him and break free.

Linda’s eyelashes had grown long enough to entangle his entire face. They protruded from her eyes in long, black filigrees as thin and supple as the hair on her head, swaying like little antennae as they searched for him.

Paul screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. The little clasps of her eyelashes snapped and went with him. They wriggled and curled on the driveway next to him, still searching for a grip.

“The fuck…?” Paul said, stumbling to his feet. His fingertips grazed the blood seeping out through the dozens of tiny cheesecloth holes puncturing his skin.

In the darkness of the porch, Linda giggled.

He scrambled to pull up his pants.

“I’m sorry,” someone on the porch said. “You’re so nice. It’s just… when I want something, I get it.” The voice wasn’t Linda’s.

He didn’t look back until he was three blocks away. The street was empty, a rolling sine curve of quaint San Francisco houses and bars falling away to a sea of diamond lights sparkling over the Bay like stars. He knew she was chasing him. She hadn’t been able to quite get everything she wanted – she’d taken some, but there was hunger in the voice that had called down to him from the porch.

What’s happening to me? He thought. I’m going to die. Oh, God. I’m going to die. What did she do to me?

Paul searched his body for wounds. He had dozens of tiny pinpricks on his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and his forearms. There wasn’t much blood, but his clothes were ruined.

She took something from me. What? I’m bleeding a little. I’ve still got my wallet. I’ve still got my…

Somewhere up the street, he heard her giggle. As with the voice on the porch, it wasn’t entirely female. There was more bass, more gravel, like ten voices recorded on separate audio tracks and played back simultaneously.

Paul ran. He crashed through the door of the nearest business. It was a Chinese restaurant. Tables of gasping people dropped their soup dumplings to cover their mouths with their hands. He pushed his way into the kitchen, bowling over a waiter carrying a steaming plate of General’s Chicken. A fry cook cursed loudly at him in Chinese.

She’s going to come back for me. She’s going to find me. This is really happening.

He lurched for the kitchen’s back door. Two wild-eyed Chinese chefs blocked his path. One was wielding a cast iron frying pan. Paul found what he was looking for and snatched the biggest butcher knife he could see off the magnetic hanging rack.

They think I’m crazy, Paul realized.

The chef slashed at him with the frying pan, hitting Paul in the arm. Paul gasped, but didn’t drop the knife. He circled crab-wise until his back was to the door, then tripped and stumbled backward into an alleyway, where he expelled everything in his bowels from both ends all until there was nothing more to expel.

Sirens bellowed on the adjacent streets. He tried to stand and run, but his legs felt disconnected from his body, the misfiring signals in his brain trying to control a multitude of scattered pieces. Everything burned. The strength drained from his body with every stumbling step.

A girl in a blue dress walking towards him on the street saw him and lurched backward in disgust.

Paul grabbed her desperately. “Please, help me. Help me.”

The girl kicked him and ran the opposite direction, stopping halfway down the block to yell, “Go die under a bridge, ya stupid bum!”

Paul couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. His shoulder and guts were distant satellites, the pain growing number with every second.

I’m going to lose consciousness soon. And I don’t think I’m going to wake up.

Paul got up and stumbled aimlessly toward anything, anywhere that could save him, past families, businessmen, bachelorette parties all whispering and covering their noses when they caught his foul waft. A group of frat boys on a bar crawl threw a beer bottle at Paul’s head.

He didn’t recognize the person gazing mad-eyed back at him in the glass of the shop window where he stopped to hold himself upright. His reflection looked haggard and deranged. Jesus. I look just like that guy they were putting in the ambulance. Same hair. Same poked-up skin. Jesus, it’s hot. This fever I’ve got must be a hundred and five.

The word “death” lingered in every errant, feverish thought, despite his conscious effort not to think it. The sweltering heat of his body only drove it deeper into his mind. I’ll never get the label off the ground. I’ll never get big arms in the gym. I’ll never get-

Paul leaned against the shop window and vomited blood, bright red streaks showering down the glass. It reminded him of a science fiction movie he’d seen once, where the victims of a zombie virus vomited blood during the first stages of infection. The blood in that movie had looked as fake as the zombies’ latex flesh. Paul’s blood looked wrong, too; it was thin, and runny, like dried egg whites; only, he hadn’t been infected. Linda – or whoever she was – hadn’t given him anything, but rather taken something away. Like she’d done it to the man who Paul had seen die.

It had to be her. He looked exactly like the dying junkie, right down to the bodily fluids covering his pants. It’s what she does. She takes what she takes, and we die, like in that one movie, Species. But that was about an alien who was trying to destroy the human race by breeding us out of existence. No, this Linda – or whatever her real name is –  is more like a Body Snatcher, except she isn’t trying to infiltrate us. She does this for fun.

I still have time to stop her.

Two blocks up and around the corner, Paul saw the man sitting in the window of a Starbucks.

Paul recognized him instantly. He was tall and handsome, with big, muscular arms, a good tan, and a seashell smile. He was bloated, like he’d just eaten an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. He was using the free Wi-Fi to swipe Tinder profiles on his iPhone. And he had Paul’s chin.

Paul hid the knife as best he could against the side of his leg and slid nonchalantly into the coffee shop. He approached the man, lifted the knife, and stabbed him in the shoulder. He meant to stab him through the heart, but weak as he was, Paul had to sort of slump over into the man with the blade outstretched.

The man with Paul’s chin saw the attack coming and slid easily to the side. He looked down at the knife, then back up at Paul. His eyes narrowed and he set his iPhone gently down on the table. His grip closed around Paul’s wrist. It felt like a thousand-ton vice, burning hot and inhuman.

Slowly, the man with Paul’s chin pulled the knife out of his shoulder. As soon as the blade left skin, the flesh knitted and the wound closed. In an instant, there was nothing but a minuscule dribble of blood to show it was ever there.

Paul recognized the man’s voice when he spoke. It was like Linda’s, only deeper, broader, the kind of voice a starship captain would have, or the singer of a band.

“You surprise me,” the man who had Paul’s chin said. “You of all people should know my flesh is fast-knitting. That was the first one I ever got. I have all the variants, too. Y’know how many thousands of years that took? Lemme put it this way, Paul: there’s a reason I’m the only one around who still has it.”

Paul stared at his hand where it was locked in the man’s grip, the skin quickly turning from white to oily purple. He was too hot and sick to do anything. All around him, people were screaming. The man with his chin didn’t seem bothered. He let go of Paul’s hand. The knife clattered to the floor, and so did Paul.

“Y-y-you t-took m-m-my ch-chin,” Paul said.

The Man With Paul’s Chin casually picked up his phone, returning to the message he’d been typing to Janice, 24, two miles away, which said: You look like trouble.

Someone was sitting on Paul’s back. A different man, an onlooker. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. Locking both of Paul’s wrists behind his back in a bouncer hold, the onlooker asked the Man With Paul’s Chin, “Hey pal, you alright? Looks like this asshole cut you. There’s blood on your shirt.”

“Just fine, thanks. Lots of crazy junkies in this city,” the Man With Paul’s Chin said.

“Well, the cops will be here any minute.” The onlooker nudged Paul in the ribs with his knee. “You hear that? Have fun trying to get high in the joint, you sick bastard.”

The Man With Paul’s Chin gave the onlooker a seashell smile. “Honestly, I think what he needs is an ambulance.”

You stole my chin, Paul thought as the coffee shop ceiling faded to black.

*

A small crowd gathered outside to watch as the paramedics loaded Paul’s body onto a stretcher under flashing blue lights.

“Another one,” one of the paramedics sighed.

“You still don’t think it could be ricin?” the other said.

“Y’know, I thought about your little theory, while we were loading that D.O.A. a few hours ago, and you know what conclusion I came to?” Paramedic A said.

“What?”

“You need to cut your TV time to one hour a night.”

Paramedic B zipped the body bag closed. Beneath it, Paul’s face looked like a pale, dried-out sponge.

The paramedic wagged his finger. “Then how do you explain those other cases in China? Russia? Johannesburg? Mexico City? All the D.N.A. in their bodies, simultaneously destroyed. Gone. Poof. Like it was never there. Dead in a matter of hours.”

“That’s just bullshit you read on the Internet. Wait until the autopsies come back. It’s dope. Something we haven’t seen before. Ricin? Sure. And this is Walter Fuckin’ White.”

“Nah. I’m tellin ya, it’s a cult, and they use ricin to poison their victims. It’s the only logical explanation. Unless it’s aliens….”

Paramedic A grunted, and nodded for the other to help him lift Paul’s stiffening corpse into the ambulance.

*

Somewhere else in the city, Janice, 24, two miles away, waited outside her apartment building for her Lyft to arrive. She hoped the new guy she was meeting up with for drinks liked her shoes. Costarella’s was a nice place, so she’d worn her best Jimmy Choos, the black strappy ones with the rhinestones that showed off her calves.

She stuck her feet out and pointed her toes to admire them. Her calves were smooth and strong from twenty-one years of competitive dancing. Her mother was a dancer, too. Janice thought they were her best feature.

 

Did you like this story? Be sure to leave an honest review! And if you want more, be sure to check out other works by Adam Vine.

Fiction: The Lich: Or, the Confessions of a Witch-King

They called me the Coffin King.

I was the hero who slew the Lich and returned the Crown of Whispers to the Empire. The man of the people who rose to become emperor, only to fall again to a conspirator’s blade. The cursed one. The creature of darkness, doomed to wander these shadowed halls for years uncounted. I have feasted on the bones of warriors who came by the thousands to win glory to their names through my destruction, brave warriors – the bravest of the brave – much like yourself. The mere mention of my name sends children to bed at a reasonable hour and keeps them from playing outside after dark.

I am the monster the stories warned you about. I am the Lich.

But you already knew all this, didn’t you? If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have ventured miles beneath the earth to my Castle-Under-The-Mountain to the foot of my Throne of Skulls with your silver sword in hand, ready to plunge it through my cold, un-beating heart. You wouldn’t have slaughtered my wights and left their dust piles littering my halls. You wouldn’t have waltzed past those treasure chests I left brimming for you in plain sight with booby traps a child could disarm, a last generous offer for you to turn back. You wouldn’t be wearing that same fragile smirk I’ve seen so many times before, which you assure yourself is an adequate mask for your fear.

You wouldn’t have come to slay the Lich if you didn’t know what I am. But there are some minor discrepancies in the version of my story you’ve heard. Inaccuracies. Falsehoods. Naked slander.

Yes, it’s true, that mountainous pile of silver swords, spears, axes, and glaives belonged to your fellow monster hunters.

And yes, I have been sitting here sharpening these long, black fingernails on the skulls of my throne for a very long time.

Yes, the Crown of Whispers, which you have come here to reclaim, does adorn my lolling head.

But any man who is willing to become an executioner should first be a good listener, should he not? To be a confidant for the last words of the one he has condemned?

Be honest with yourself. You didn’t just come to kill the Lich.  You came for a confession; to hear it all, the trail of my crimes that led me here, straight from the corpse’s mouth. So a confession you shall have.

Now please, come a little closer. I don’t trust you, either, but we can’t get started with you standing all the way over there, can we? No. This old, dead voice is far too meek, and I must save at least some of my strength. It is a long and harrowing tale.

***

I began my life as a coffin maker’s son. I was never schooled, except in the art of felling cloud pines and fashioning them into six-foot-long boxes for the dead.

I spent my boyhood exploring the cloud forest where we cut our trees, pretending I was all manners of warrior or royal assassin, even going so far as to spy on the local lord, whose name is now lost to me, and his retainers when they went hawking in my woods. I quickly learned two ways of speaking, one for the people in our village, and one for myself when I was alone and pretending to be a nobleman.

My father had served as an archer in the king’s army before turning to the trade of making coffins. I practiced with his longbow as soon as I was old enough to draw it. I learned the differences between hunting for food and hunting in war, how to hold my arrows in my bow hand so I could quick-draw them without reaching for my quiver, how to shape my own bow from wood. He taught me which plants and roots could be eaten and which would kill, how to follow without being seen, how to kill with a single arrow.

But my father was a drunk and flew into an easy rage any time I made a mistake. If I misplaced a nail or dented the wood with my hammer, he would box my face and sides until he felt something break. If I overshot my target and lost my arrows in the woods, he would not let me eat or sleep under his roof until I found them.

Eventually, I left home, preferring to spend my nights sleeping on a bed of pine boughs in a cave high in the cloud forest overlooking our valley, next to the place where the river fell over jagged bluestone cliffs into a deep, crystalline pool.

It was there I met Justina, my first love.

I can still envision her, like a sliver of a dream. She had hair the color of volcanic glass, eyes that held the light like jade mirrors. Her face was a pale, heart-shaped jewel, her skin the blue-gold color of fresh milk. When she smiled, it filled my heart with the indescribable mixture of joy and sadness that only comes when we love someone more than we love ourselves.

I caught her bathing in my Crystal Pool one morning, and her mother caught me watching her. Her mother vengefully promised to turn me over to my father, but I begged and pled not to make me go back, the tears carving their own waterfalls from the encrusted dirt and grime of my cheeks. I must have looked an overwhelmingly pitiful creature, because the old bag relented and started crying, too, avowing to take me in.

I slept in the attic of the inn owned by Justina’s family. In exchange, I washed the guests’ dishes. When Justina’s mother would go to bed, I would steal a bottle of wine from the cellar and Justina would sneak out her window to meet me at the edge of town. Navigating by candlelight, we would sneak up the mountain path to the cloud forest, where we’d get drunk and swim in the Crystal Pool, then fondle each other until we both fell asleep. As long as we both awoke and were back before dawn, her mother was never the wiser.

Justina was the first girl I ever loved. But our happiness, like most, was not made to last.

I caught her screwing the nobleman’s son. I found him taking her from behind against a tree, not far from our Crystal Pool, where she’d promised she was mine, forever.

On my last night in the village, I recall imagining I was standing over her bed while she slept, dagger in hand. But in the end, I simply packed what few belongings I had in a potato sack, slung it over my shoulder and stole away upon a moonlit road, promising myself between peaks and troughs of rage and heartbreak that I would use my pain as fuel to see the world and make myself a better man.

Whatever you may think of me now, dear warrior, there was a time when I was good. Now please, come a little closer. I’m finding it hard to continue at this volume.

***

I arrived in the capital a month later, as lean and filthy as the road could make me. It was mid-summer, and the sun was ungodly hot, made worse by the fact there was no water to be found. The capital was experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. The wells and streambeds were dry. Bathing was an unspeakable luxury, and drinking water had to be purchased from merchants who charged prices so astronomical I wondered how the city’s poor were able to survive.

It was there I learned the truth of the stories I’d been hearing since I was a boy: that our once-great Empire of the Sun and Moon was dying.

The fields were barren and the trees black and brittle. The ancient palaces and grand promenades were filthy and overrun with beggars. Giant columns of unwashed, unpainted stone stained black with smoke towered over swarms of mucky children lying bored and starving in the shade.

“You’re from the provinces. They think you’re rich,” an impossibly tall, thin merchant said to me with a laugh as I passed his stall. He was selling locusts, the one food item the capital seemed to have in abundance. He wore a savagely curled black mustache that covered half his face, mirroring the shape of the dagger that hung from his belt.

“Why?” I said.

The merchant responded, “Because life is still good there. The fruits still ripen on the vine. The water is still clear enough to drink. People are healthy, and their bellies full. But it won’t be so for much longer. Soon the corruption destroying this place will spread to the provinces, too. He means it to spread across the world entire.”

Scratching my beard, I said, “Who?”

The merchant picked up one of his own locusts and let it hover by his mouth, not noticing the minute tremble of its legs. “The Lich.”

A confounded look must have seized my face, for he raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Have you not heard of him?”

“No. Who, or what, is a Lich?”

With a heaving sigh that trembled the locust’s tiny feelers, the merchant began. “He was High Wizard, the Emperor’s most valued advisor. He murdered the Emperor and stole the Crown of Whispers, which the Gods of Sun and Moon gave to this land in the Age before Time. Rumor has it he used black magic to seduce the Princess. Many believed the High Wizard meant to use her to usurp the throne.”

“So, what stopped him?” I said.

The merchant scraped one greasy, shining corner of his mustache with the locust’s tail and said, “His plot was discovered, and the Emperor arrested him. But on the morning of his execution, instead of going to his death with honor, the High Wizard murdered the Emperor, stole the Crown, and fled to the Castle-Under-The-Mountain.”

“Forgive me, but what is the Castle-Under-The-Mountain? I’m from the provinces and don’t know much about politics,” I said.

“It is an ancient, hidden fortress, a secret redoubt built to hide the royal family in times of crisis,” the Merchant said. “No one knows its exact location, though many now seek to find it. For the Lich remains there still, using the Crown of Whispers to blight this land with famine and plague. Did you do any research into our fine city before coming here?”

“News takes long to travel to the provinces,” I said.

The merchant shrugged and, at last, popped the unfortunate locust into his mouth.

To avoid an uncomfortable silence with my new friend, I pushed the subject. “So why do you call him a, what was it you said? A… lich? What makes him different than any other run-of-the-mill scoundrel, or brigand?”

The merchant said through a mouthful of insect parts, “The gods punished the High Wizard for his betrayal. They cursed him, sapping the life from his body, turned him into a living corpse, who must drain the souls of the living to survive.”

“But if that’s true, shouldn’t he already be vanquished?” I wondered aloud. “He secluded himself in a place that sounds very hard to get to, yet he can only survive by preying on others. Sounds to me like the problem should have solved itself.”

“Clever man.” The merchant grinned. He offered me a locust. I took it and chewed. “And if no one ever sought him out, you would be correct – the problem would easily sort itself out. Unfortunately, there seems to be no shortage of brave idiots with silver swords and maidens’ promises in hand eager to march off on a fool’s quest to slay the Lich and save the Empire. There is a widespread belief that whoever kills the Lich and takes the Crown from his head will become the new emperor. If you ask me, people simply can’t resist the temptation to pay mind to those who they despise, even when not doing so would cause their opponents to wither in obscurity.”

“So you’re saying the Lich has an infinite supply of food,” I said, swallowing.

The merchant offered me another locust. “I can see you’re thinking of going after him. I’ve tried to convince you otherwise, like all the others. Oh, well. Your life is yours to lose, my friend. I can’t help you win this moronic quest, but I can tell you where to start. The map showing the location of the Castle-Under-The-Mountain is hidden in the Great Library. And, who knows? Maybe the next time we meet, I’ll be calling you emperor.”

***

It wasn’t hard to figure out where the map was hidden. I suspected it would be built into some part of the library’s architecture, most certainly the floor, so I climbed the stacks until I reached the highest indoor vantage point the library offered, a hanging scaffold where an absent artist had been repairing one of the spires in the giant mosaic of the Crown of Whispers that adorned the inside of the dome.

No, the hard part was seeing through all the bodies. Sleeping, standing, leaning, begging, the library floor was teeming with refugees, orphans, and the homeless. The Great Library was the largest building in the capital, even larger than the royal palace, and it was open to the public. I had to wait until five minutes before closing, when the last tawny fingers of dusk were seeping through the highest skylight, before I could make out the image on the floor.

The map was hidden in the design of the floor tiles, as I’d expected. I instantly recognized the landmarks, as they weren’t far from the valley where I’d grown up. The river that gave life to my village was a tributary of the great river Ist, which flowed south from the Iga Mountains, the map’s starting point. I would have to cross them at the Izo Pass, the sacred high road where the Sisterhood of the Moon Singers lived in their ancient monasteries cut straight from the faces of the rock. Then, I would have to ascend the heights until I found the mountaintop crater holding the sacred lake known as the Eye of the Sea, where the entrance to the Castle-Under-The-Mountain was hidden.

I spent many more days in that library, learning everything I could about liches and how to defeat them. Since I could not read the books myself, I employed a young girl named Pia to read them to me. Pia had bright, translucent hair the color of whiskey, and barely looked old enough to be in school, yet was already studying alchemy at the university level. I paid her in locusts borrowed on good faith from my friend, the merchant San, who always gave them to me with a silver-capped smile and a wink.

With Pia’s aid, I learned that silver is toxic to the undead, but that they also hoard it. I didn’t understand this paradox until my young assistant found in an old black tome that the undead are drawn to silver by instinct, just as we are to food or drink. It cannot harm them unless it penetrates the heart or brain. Liches, though physically frail, were notoriously brutal sorcerers by their nature, so I decided the best way to kill this Lich would be with a silver arrow.

I made the perfect plan. I would sneak into the Castle-Under-The-Mountain and shoot the Lich through his cold, wicked heart, then take the Crown of Whispers and be back in the capital before the seasons changed.

I convinced Pia’s father, a metalworker named Gahri, to forge me twenty silver arrowheads. He was as strong and skilled with an axe, so I promised he would be my Royal Master-At-Arms when I came into power. I do not believe he would have given me a nickel if it wasn’t for Pia.

The next morning I set out to slay the Lich beneath a purpling sun.

***

As soon as I entered the Lich’s lair, it became grossly apparent how little I knew about magic. The old corpse had seen me coming before I had dipped my toes into the Eye of the Sea, even before I had left the lowlands for the grueling, week-long climb up the Izo Pass.

Fireballs shot at me from invisible ziggurats secreted in the walls from my first step into that old, dusty tomb. They singed the hair off my arms and neck as I flailed to escape their deadly communion. I sprinted and slid down serpentine halls of slick, time-smoothed stone, my elk-skin boots barely making a sound as I leapt nimbly over spike pits and impaling objects flung from murder holes in the ceiling and walls.

Yet despite my quickness, the Lich’s wights found me as if I wore a beacon. They’d been waiting for me, I knew as soon as I heard their eager howls echoing from the depths.

You of all people, brave warrior, should know how terrifying it is to be charged by a wight. I can see the sweat still creeping down your brow, the tremble still lingering in your fingertips.

I felt it too, then. My blood flowed like fire, and time, like sugared sludge. Their dead, contorted lips screeched octaves I didn’t know existed. I quick-drew my bow on every pale face, every set of flinty, unseeing eyes, and unleashing missile after missile into the disintegrating slag of their faces. I recovered as many spent arrows as I could, but by the time I reached his Throne of Skulls, I had only two arrows left.

I crept slowly into the hall, bearing down on every moving shadow and glimmering mote of dust, but the Lich wasn’t there. I stood where you now stand and with great confusion, lowered my bow.

Then I heard the scraping of rough cloth on smooth stone, shamble, scratch, shamble, scratch, scratch. He entered walking on the ceiling, cupping something in the pallid bowl of his hands.

The Lich uttered a word and I froze. He drifted down as paper falls through air, silently landing on his throne, and scattered the dust pile at my feet. When he spoke, his voice sounded ancient and exhausted.

“The gods did not make me a Lich,” the Lich said.

I tried to speak and found I could not.

I’m sure you’ll agree, brave warrior that it’s hard to describe the look a dead face makes when it emotes. I can only describe it as sadly unsurprised. The Lich descended his throne and took my face in his hands. His touch stung like ice, but was dry as ash. I tried to fight, but I couldn’t move.

I thought he would kill me then. Instead, he only sighed. “My heart stopped beating because it grew cold. Not the other way around. I pushed everyone who ever loved me away, for power, country, glamor, fame. When I realized how truly alone I was, I sought the purest love I could, that of a beautiful young girl with innocence in her eyes. Or did you think I stole the Princess, like everyone else? You may speak.”

“Traitor,” I spat. “Murderer. Demon.”

The Lich returned to his throne, where he tapped a long black fingernail on the bones of the armrest. He was toying with me, I realized, trying to squeeze every last bit of information he could about the outside world before he slew me.

But I had no trump card up my sleeve to play against his magic. I couldn’t move anything but my lips. My only chance to survive was to make him angry enough to stumble and release his grasp. “What would she tell me of your innocence, I wonder? What would the princess say?”

The Lich shrugged. “Those are her ashes before you. She was one of the wights you slaughtered on your way in.”

“What?”

“She begged me to give her the Hymn of Death Undying. In the end, she won. As I said, I am in the end a selfish creature.”

“Then why not let me give you your mercy? Is that not want your heart truly wants?” I said.

I couldn’t tell if the flutter of his eyelid was some unholy spasm, or if he was actually winking at me. “Let me tell you something about this treasure you have come to claim. The Crown of Whispers is an instrument of tremendous power. You know the legend of how it washed ashore after a great orgy between the Gods of Sun and Moon, and Ithas, the patriarch of our land, found it and put it on. Whether all that’s true or not, it is above all things a weapon… the most powerful in existence. But here’s the secret, little man. I can’t control it. Nor can you. All we can do is listen to the things it whispers in our ear.”

“Is that what you tell yourself to justify the murder of an innocent girl?” I said.

The Lich saw red. Figuratively, of course; but in that instant, I felt his grip on me slide. The invisible pressure on my skin relented, my muscles freed from whatever intangible force had rendered them immobile.

The arrow left my string before he even knew it was drawn. I rolled out of the way as fireball burst where I’d been standing, a final desperate reflex to take me with him as my silver-headed arrow impaled the withered heart under his tattered purple robes. With an uncoiling hiss, the Lich released his last grip on this world.

***

Word of my deeds traveled faster than I did. You’d think, brave warrior, that anyone I met on the road would simply kill me and take the Crown of Whispers for themselves, but it was not so. As soon as anyone I met learned of what I’d done, they fell at my feet and groveled. A dozen battle-hardened warriors knelt to kiss my boots before I had left the first village. By the time I departed the mountains, my army was two thousand strong.

They called me the Coffin King. They told stories around their fires about me, the coffin maker’s son who’d outsmarted and slain the Lich. Men are quick to follow strength, but they are even quicker to follow stories.

***

Here I must pause, my noble, and oh-so-gallant warrior, to make a few observations about you.

One, your dress and posture show you come from humble origins, as I did. Not a coffin maker’s son; no, the strength of your upper back tells me you were a farmer’s boy.

Two, you fight for love, hoping your deeds will win her back. What was her name? Ah, Lina. Such a pretty name.

Three, you wonder how you’re going to get this crown off my head after you finish me off, if you will have cut the places where the flesh has grown over and entwined with the spires, if you will even have the strength left to carry it.

I assure you all your questions will be answered in time. Now, please. I must insist that you come closer. Just a few more steps. My voice fails me.

***

I arrived at the gates of our Empire’s capital with ten thousand warriors at my back. But the people greeted us as heroes, and a grander parade was thrown in my honor than the city had seen in the last hundred years combined. Thousands of people lined the streets under the shade of the old arches and columns, the stones all washed and freshly painted for my arrival. Confetti snowed on our heads and our ears were filled with the cries of ecstasy and the ringing of a thousand golden bells.

The city’s wells were already filling with fresh, clear water. Late summer blossoms bloomed on branches that had been bare weeks earlier. Grain was sprouting in the fields and fruit from the old vines. The true death of the Lich had given new life to the Empire.

***

I did not put on the Crown of Whispers until my coronation, fourteen days after I re-entered the capital. My coronation was hailed as the greatest party the Empire had ever seen. I swore an oath on the steps of the Great Library before Father Sun, Mother Moon, and all the people of our great city. I appointed my friend San, the locust merchant, as my High Wizard, my most important political advisor. I appointed Pia’s father, the brutish metalsmith Gahri as my Master-at-Arms. I appointed a dozen other members of my court whose names and qualifications came at the highest recommendation from the incumbents.

A grand feast was held for the commoners on Library Plaza, and a more private affair for the members of my court in the tea gardens within the palace walls. It was there that San, the former locust merchant, approached me and said, “The crown suits you. But I think it’s a bit of a farce for anyone to call me a High Wizard. I don’t know the first thing about magic.”

“We’ll study together. I’ve already ordered every book and scroll belonging to the former High Wizard to be delivered to my chambers,” I told him.

“I suppose you would, having killed the most powerful sorcerer in the Empire,” the Merchant San said. He took a long survey of the feast-goers sauntering about the flower ponds and moss-speckled bridges of the garden. The topic clearly made him uncomfortable. “You know they will expect you to take a wife before the harvest. Now that the Crown has been recovered, the Empire is even less secure than before it was lost. The Old Families consider you a threat, and won’t think twice about cutting your throat so one of their own can take your place. You need a powerful alliance made through marriage. Even then, I would not trust anyone who didn’t know you before, back when you had nothing but the patches in your pants.”

“So you, Gahri, and Pia, then?” I said.

San gave me a silver-capped grin and offered me a locust. “Try one yet? They’re dipped in chocolate. My favorite.”

***

I saw her dancing under the starlight during the band’s second-to-last waltz of the evening. She was Justina come again. She had the same crow-colored hair and burnished jade eyes, the same elegant spill of good hips and spider-slim legs. She was taller than Justina, older, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman dancing in front of me was the very shade of my first true love.

The music died and the dance floor cleared. We looked at each other and she started laughing. I was shy, but a healthy swig of wine helped embolden me.

“Your highness did not ask me to dance,” the woman who was not Justina said.

I took her hand and kissed it. “An emperor doesn’t need to ask.”

She placed that same white-gloved hand on my arm and we began to walk. “But he needs wine to speak to his subjects?”

I stopped her. “What is your name?”

The woman who was not Justina smirked. “I’ll tell you, but only if you dance with me.”

“I could throw you in the dungeon for that.”

“Maybe I want you to.”

Reluctantly, I took her hands and led her to the dance floor. I was always a horrible dancer – girls in my village would laugh in my face when I asked them to dance at the Juvenalia – but the woman who was not Justina did not punish me for my missteps. She only smiled and introduced herself. “I am the Lady Ita, of the Water Lily House. I see you have taken a pine tree as your sigil. Does that mean you are sturdy and strong? Or only that you are prickly, and have a strong scent?”

“Neither. It means I came from the earth and will soon return to it. All that matters is what I leave behind.”

“Not many kings are also great poets,” the Lady Ita said.

I leaned in close. “I learned to speak this way when I was a child, so that I could fit in more easily around people like you.”

The Lady Ita chuckled.

“So, where is your lord husband, Lady Ita? Forgive me. I was only a coffin maker’s son before. I don’t know much about politics.”

The Lady Ita frowned. “Don’t worry. He’s three years dead and gone. Pox in his lungs, a terrible thing. But if I may be so bold, you don’t strike me as a coffin maker’s son.”

“And if I may be so bold, you don’t strike me as a lady in mourning.”

“Maybe my mourning is finished.”

A month later, we were wed.

***

The Empire entered a period of extended peace.

I left most of the actual ruling to my councilors, preferring to spend my time studying magic. I locked myself in my chambers through all hours of the day and night, breaking only to sign royal edicts, eat, sleep, and make love to my new queen. I consumed every book, scroll, and scribbled scrap that I could.

San’s advice that day in the garden was never far from my mind. I immediately saw plots developing among the Old Families. The cook was an agent of the Redwood House; the girl who changed my linens, a spy for the Roses; my Queen’s favorite handmaid, a skilled assassin of the Orchids in disguise.

Now that I had my Crown, I was determined to keep it.

One of the Crown’s attributes was that it could read aloud what I saw written on the page, so although I couldn’t read, much less make sense of ancient grimoires on the subject of magic, with the Crown I was able to decipher literal piles of manuscripts; which, for a boy who grew up making coffins, felt just as magical as shooting balls of lightning from my fists.

I learned that magic is often nothing more than a finely-crafted illusion. The ziggurats that had scorched me when I entered the Castle-Under-The-Mountain, for example, were nothing more than arrows tipped with high-combustion fuel rigged to fire when someone stepped on a carefully-hidden pressure plate. So, too, did the Crown teach me to use illusion to my advantage.

After two years, I had learned everything the old High Wizard had known and more. The Lich’s spells, which had so dazzled and terrified me when I first invaded his dank fortress, seemed nothing more to me now than the cheap tricks of a parlor flop.

The Crown of Whispers was true power.

***

Three years into my rule, an alliance of bandit tribes in the Iga Mountains declared independence from the Empire. My advisors had predicted as much, since that region had never truly accepted imperial rule.

They butchered my emissaries and sent their heads back on silver-tipped arrows.

You must make an example of them, or others will follow, the Crown whispered in my ear.

I led a raiding party to the Izo Pass, where we slaughtered the bandits in their camp while they slept. I put three silver-tipped arrows through their leader’s heart, then cast a flurry of flame and ice down upon their heads so cruel they threw down their weapons and surrendered at my feet.

But the Crown was not appeased. They defied you, it told me. Rebellion is in their blood. You must wipe it from the earth, every man, woman, and child.

I gave the order. We left none alive.

***

My cruelty to the Mountain People did not go unnoticed back home in the capital. A series of anonymous pamphlets began circulating bearing the words KILLER OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN! And NO HEIR!

I consulted my councilors, who agreed the Old Families had put out the libelous filth. San, my High Wizard, assured me: “People are quick to trash talk their leaders, and even quicker to believe the slander they hear. This is just politics as usual.”

My Master-At-Arms, Gahri was less optimistic. “Soon they will rise against you. They saw you as a hero for saving them from the Lich, but stories die. It’s unfortunate your legend faded so quickly, but that’s the way of it. There’s talk in the streets the queen cannot conceive. You need to give the people someone new to put their hope in. You must give them an heir.”

Yet try as we did, the queen’s belly would not grow.

***

By my fifth year, the Empire was the most prosperous it had ever been.

To bolster my public image I threw wild, lavish festivals, bacchanalias complete with dancers, fire conjurers, elephant riders, and gladiatorial games that lasted weeks at a time. I built monuments to myself on every city square, replacing statues of the gods with ones of myself slaying the Lich. I ordered a fleet of one thousand ships built, promising pioneering families free passage to the New Provinces. I sought to spread my dominion beyond the setting sun.

Yet I spent my nights cold and alone, getting drunk on the best wines ever fermented and enjoying the most beautiful whores the world had ever seen. They did nothing to sate the growing emptiness inside me.

And then there were the campaigns. I suppressed more bandit rebellions in the Iga Mountains; rebellions I fomented, of course, by staging false flag ambushes on my own troops. Thousands died.  The army began its push to expand the imperial borders to the north and south, on the pretense of protecting the settlers there from the bloodthirsty natives. The body count climbed to the tens, then to the hundreds of thousands.

And now I know something else about you, my brave warrior. You cringe at the thought of actual violence. Trust me, that reflex will vanish in time. Now please, come a little closer.

***

I fell in love with my own story anew each morning when I rose, the day already late and the gulls weeping on my balcony. The Crown whispered its affirmations to me in the mirror. You are a good king, it told me. You have saved the Empire. You are a good king, but not a great one. Your queen is holding you back.

I had the queen’s quarters moved to the farthest tower of the palace, sending the message by courier. I never spoke to the Lady Ita again.

***

In the tenth year of my reign, I divorced the Lady Ita and banished her to the Sisterhood of the Moon Singers to marry Pia, my young former assistant. Gahri showed up at one of my garden parties with a stunningly pretty young woman on his arm who I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t until my Master-At-Arms grew visibly nervous that I realized the girl was Pia. Nearly a decade had passed since I’d last seen her.

Pia had grown into a woman of breathtaking beauty. She was slender and almond-eyed, with a radiant smile and hair so blonde it gleamed like silver in the sunlight. Sweating profusely, Gahri informed me she had gone away to study alchemy at the New University in the Southern Province. He introduced her as “The Lady Pia.” I thought the old goat would drown in his own shirt.

I tried to take her hand and kiss it, but Pia only swatted it away and gave me that same confident, goofy grin she’d always had. “I hope you still love books, your highness.  I brought you a whole cartful. My favorites. Almost all of them are about magic. I heard you’re something of an aficionado.”

***

We wed in the Great Library at sunset on the Feast of the Sacred Crown, standing where we’d first met a decade earlier among the stacks beneath a dozen shades of sanguine light falling through stained-glass like a story fractured in the retelling. I promised Pia I would be hers forever, and she promised she would be mine.

And the Crown whispered: But we’ve heard that before, haven’t we?

***

Our happiness faded as quickly as it came.

The Empire entered a rapid decline. A decade of war and rampant expansionism had not only drained the gold from the vaults faster than the royal accountants could measure, but had sent many of the Empire’s best minds abroad, where they wouldn’t be persecuted.

I, in my infinite wisdom, had begun executing any academics or members of the Old Families who spoke out against me, burning them alive on the steps of the Great Library as traitors.

My councilors, too, grew distant. The tenuous friendships I’d formed with San and Gahri withered. I stopping heeding their counsel, and eventually they stopped giving it, choosing to spend our meetings staring blankly into their wine instead.

Vicious rumors surfaced that despite still not having a legitimate heir, I’d sired hundreds of deformed bastards upon countless whores across various regions of the Empire. The former, at least, was true. Pia and I tried to produce a child, but like the queen before her, Pia’s belly never grew.

Whatever sliver of control I’d had over my temper with the Lady Ita vanished completely when Pia and I quarreled. A disagreeing word would send me spiraling into a foul rage. I drank the palace dry. And Pia, for all her innocent patience, grew ever more hurt by my pitiless anger. She would lock herself in our bedchamber for hours, crying and begging me to be myself again.

But that was the problem. I was myself. I was a liar, and a whoremonger, and a loner, and a fraud. The only real power I ever had, had come from the Crown.

I can hear its whispers even now: We are as they made us, are we not?

Nothing I did could change my and Pia’s fate. The affection she had so selflessly showered upon me in the beginning evaporated with each successive tear. I emptied the royal coffers to take her on exotic trips to the farthest outskirts of the Empire. We spent our nights crying uncontrollably in each other’s arms on the sea of satin pillows that adorned the interior of our wheelhouse, until finally, she would place a tender hand on my cheek, and say, “I have loved you since I was a girl, and you were a pauper in rags. Nothing in the world could ever change that

To which the Crown would whisper in my ear: And you’re a fool if you believe her.

There was no spell or magic aid that could save us. Magic is mostly an illusion, and love is real. Pia’s love, which was as close to unconditional as the human heart is capable, could have saved me, if I had only let it; if I had not been enslaved to the Crown.

***

I started losing my mind. I began to suspect the Crown was evil, not a jewel-encrusted diadem at all, but an intelligent parasite that was manipulating all of us: me, Pia, our court, and through us, the Empire.

The Crown told me I was wrong. But I started having vivid, waking dreams. I ceased being able to tell what was real and what was an illusion.

I dreamt I was a very old man, older than time itself, sitting upon a throne made of skulls, where I slept and waited, sharpening my long, murderous fingernails to a razor’s edge.

I dreamt that my life wasn’t mine at all, but someone else’s, a story being whispered in my ear by the Crown, which had been sitting so long and heavy upon my head it had fused with my flesh and become part of me. Warriors would come to slay me, not knowing I was only the shell through which the Crown acted, that I could not control my own body, that I could only wait, and watch, and scream inside the silent prison of my mind with a thousand other nameless voices.

Inevitably, I would lure those brave warriors in until they came just close enough, then my fingernails would plunge through their breastplates, chain mail, flesh, bone, and all, driving straight into their still-beating hearts, and those who came to slay me would die. Then I – or rather, the Crown – would absorb their memories, and I would become someone else. I would assume the voice of the last warrior who had died.

When I awoke in my chambers, I was myself again. But this dream came to me so often that part of me started to believe it was reality, that I truly was a dead man sitting on that old chair, and my life in the royal palace in Ito was the dream, and always had been; that I’d never been a coffin maker’s son.

***

One night, she tried to take the Crown from me.

I stirred from my dream of being the Lich to find Pia’s fingers crawling along the pale edges of my scalp. I slapped her hands away, screaming, “What are you doing?”

“You n-n-never t-take it off,” Pia said, through stutter-stop sobs. “Look what it’s done to you. To us. Please. I want you to take it off, this once.”

My voice, magnified by the Crown, thundered so loud it shook the palace to its foundation. “Why should I take it off? I saved the Empire. It chose me! Why should you have it?”

Pia raised her hands to her face as though I would strike her. “I d-don’t want it, my love. It’s just that…” My queen hesitated. “I t-tried to take it off twice before, while you were s-sleeping, and couldn’t. I thought there might be a latch, but… how do you take it off? Your forehead has grown so white. It stinks. I tried to wash it, but… why do you never pray? You neglect the gods. You never let me read to you anymore. I’m worried sick about you.”

I do not know if it was I, or the Crown, who said, “If I take it off, we lose everything. Would you sacrifice our People to save this stinking, little marriage, you selfish whore?”

Pia fell to her knees, weeping and grasping my hand like it was her last shred of life. “My love, do you not see? It’s called the Crown of Whispers because it lies.”

She was a benevolent queen, an adoring wife, and of far greater intelligence than I ever was. Pia saw the writing on the wall before it was written.

***

I was at court when they came for me. Twenty men of my own household guard surrounded me at spear point, led by Gahri, my Master-At-Arms. Pia wasn’t there.

“You, the King, stand convicted of high treason, as well as blasphemy, fraud, adultery, and unholy sodomy. Father Sun, Mother Moon, their respective churches, and the patriarchs of all the Old Families support these charges. The queen, Lady Pia of the Papyrus House has testified in a secret tribunal that you are mad, and that you have willingly set the Empire of the Sun and Moon on a course toward poverty and destruction. Should you sign this confession and admit your crimes, you will be stripped of all wealth and titles, but allowed to spend your life in exile, in the New Provinces. Should you resist, or deny these charges, you will be executed by burning at dawn tomorrow, as your own laws have decreed to be the punishment for treason.”

Gahri offered me the parchment to sign. I took it in my hands, ready to tear it in two and then kill them all when I felt someone’s hot breath on my neck. A familiar voice whispered over my shoulder.

“Don’t be a fool,” my friend San, the merchant said. “Don’t throw your life away. Sign it.”

He felt me move and tried to imprison me with magic, but I was always the better sorcerer. I threw Ball Lightning at his Cage of Ice and impaled San’s heart with his own dagger as he fried in a pool of his own conjured water, then rained fire and ice down upon my would-be captors’ heads, magical traps I’d set ages before in case of such a betrayal.

They burned and froze and shattered and died, all but Gahri, who dodged my attacks nimbly and rushed me with his long axe. The silver-tipped polearm slashed toward me and I remembered the Lich’s black fingernails from my dreams, punching like spike traps to skewer the brave warriors who came to slay me. I slid to Gahri’s left and bashed his skull in with mine, using the Crown of Whispers to turn his head into crimson pulp.

Then, I ran.

***

And now, brave warrior, you know the story of my fall, of how the unlikely ruler of the greatest Empire known to history lost everything, betrayed by the people he trusted most. You know the rest of my story.

I fled into the mountains and became the Lich. I fled the royal palace to the river, then to the Iga Mountains, then across the Izo Pass and into the heights, to the Eye of the Sea, and the only place I knew I could be alone, the Castle-Under-The-Mountain. I set traps. I sent out spies, bugs and worms and crows, beasts I could easily control with the Crown’s magnetic thrum. I began to change. The Crown changed me. I called out to my bastard children in their dreams. They came to me and became my wights.

I find myself rather exhausted by all this glorious retelling, and do not have the strength to speak much longer. Please, just one more step. Ah, yes. That’s close enough.

See? I am old and weak as rotten paper. See my lolling head. I can barely hold the Crown aloft. My magic is naught but barest illusion, no match for your gods-given courage. You will take the Crown of Whispers for yourself, and return to your Empire, a hero. They will call you “The Farmer King,” the boy who killed the Lich, who rose from nothing to save an empire. You will succeed where I failed.

But before you do, a warning.

To be the hero, you must slay the Lich. But to slay the Lich is to slay yourself, for in every man a Lich lies waiting. All that must happen for the Lich to be born is the man must lose everything, and behold! The warrior becomes what he set out to so gallantly kill, as I once did, as you soon will.

So, what are you waiting for, my brave and valiant warrior? Take pity on my bitter, tortured soul. Put me out of my misery. Come nice and close, and strike me down.

Have at me.

***

They called me the Farmer King.

I was the hero who slew the Lich and returned the Crown of Whispers to the Empire. The man of the people who rose to become emperor, only to fall again to a conspirator’s blade. The cursed one. The creature of darkness, doomed to wander these shadowed halls for years uncounted. But you already know all this, don’t you?

Please, do come a bit closer.

*

(First published in the Ancient Enemies anthology from Bloodlines Press.)

Fiction: Russian Roulette

If you intend to be more than a one or two-time player, Russian roulette is a game with only one winning strategy: you must learn to secretly palm the round. This was the best advice I could give her. She did ask for it… in those exact words.

Her name is Gina, but she goes by G. She’s eighteen and has green eyes and a good tan. We’re driving in my car, top down, seats back, Beach Boys blaring. It’s just before dusk and LA is coming alive as the lights flicker on through its steel veins. The freeway is conspicuously thin of traffic.

G says she’s going to “Chicaco”. She has a hundred thousand dollars cash and her daddy’s gun. She says she got it off of her dead boyfriend, who died in a shootout after a drug deal gone wrong. The piece is a Colt 1911, all chrome.

“So, why Russian roulette?” She says, considering my advice aloud as she thoughtfully plays with one curly lock of blue-brown hair. “Why not Hold ‘Em? Only a idiot tries to kill hisself.”

“Because,” I say, “it’s a game you can play with city people. All sorts. And if you’re good, that is, if you know the necessary deceits, you’ll never be without a place to stay or a meal to eat in this whole wide world.”

“You do that?” She asks me. “F’real? Just play other people so you can stay at they place and shit? Sounds like one helluva gamble.”

“Maybe you’ve just never done it.”

“And maybe you not a woman.”

“No. You’re right, actually. But it’s usually the friends who put you up, not the people you beat at the game. The ones you’ve just impressed by scaring their buddies out of a few bucks are usually more willing to help. People aren’t so inclined to show you much hospitality after you’ve just won all their money. I learned that in Iraq. Among other things.”

“You was in Iraq? F’real?”

“Real as the Reaper.”

“Is that how you lost yo’ leg?”

I know she’s been trying to avoid looking at it since she got in the car. I nod. “I lost my leg to an IED outside Baghdad. I was the only one in the truck who survived.” Then after a long pause I add, “There were six of us.”

“And you and yo’ buddies used to put pieces to yo’ heads at lunch time, or what?”

It is a bittersweet recollection to remember the games we used to play.

“We always knew we were playing with blanks,” I say, “until one night, in the shit, when we played for real. If I hadn’t hid the bullet in my sleeve I’d be less some gray matter. And I never forgot it, not over one foot of this great country, from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Monica.”

G says, “Is that how far you got to drive?”

And I say, “That’s how far I already drove. Now I’m goin’a turn around and do it again.”

“So tell me more about this game,” she says. “Shit, maybe someday I’ll find myself in a situation where I got to play it, too. Might come in real handy to know the tricks.”

“Well if it’s tricks you want, I got ‘em,” I tell her. “First thing’s first, never play it with your friends. You won’t win as much but the risk is the same. People always risk more around those they think they’ll never see again.”

“What happens if you get caught cheatin’?” she asks.

“On the rare chance you do get caught, you simply make a show of good faith and put the round in the cylinder where it belongs – in everyone’s sight – then put the gun to your temple and pull the trigger for real. Worst case scenario is nothing goes through your mind at all, because the lead’s already been there and you’re dead.”

She raises an eyebrow in what I think is approval, but remains silent.

I chuckle. “Sister, you get your leg blown off in the desert, then wake up and spend a month getting dosed with combinations of every painkiller under the sun because the morphine and oxy ain’t enough… you’ll consider hanging yourself from the edge of the hospital bed with your own IV. And c’mon, don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. A girl like you from a neighborhood like the one I picked you up in?”

“Whatchu tryinna say about my neighborhood?”

“Nothing, sweetheart. Just that it looks a little rough.”

She nods in agreement.

We spend a little while talking about nothing important. The conversation is nice. Usually I’m alone on these long drives. Now that I’ve hit LA, I was planning on heading up to Washington – lots of open country up there – but Chicago works just as well.

She asks where I’m from, how old I am, why I’ve spent the last three years on the road. I tell her Texas, twenty five, and I’m traveling across the United States because I made a promise to a musician buddy of mine who died that I would play a song on his guitar at a famous street corner of every major city in these United States. My mission brought me here to Los Angeles, where I met G in the parking lot behind a Von’s in Torrance trying to hitch a ride, a golden sun child with a gun… a real California girl.

“I could have been a serial killer, y’know,” I remind her at one point. “What would you do if I was? Did you have a plan?”

“That’s why I have the gun,” she says, defensive. “I don’t need no plan, bruh. Girl carry a heata when she don’t wanna make a plan.”

I laugh. “But do you think you could use it? Do you think you could actually shoot someone?”

“Psh. I will actually put a bullet in yo’ ass faster than a pig spots a donut shop if you so much as try to lay a hand on me, bruh.”

I shrug. “What if I pinned you down?”

“Man, you axe some stupid ass questions.”

“What if I was strong? Let’s say I had both my legs and I overpowered you.”

“Shit, you may have lost yo’ leg but it doesn’t seem to have set you back none. I ain’t tryin’ to bump and grind wit you, dude, I’m just sayin’. You look like you work out.”

“Thank you. But what if I took the gun and drove you somewhere secluded, so I could pull you off the side of the road and kill you? To eat you, or somethin’?”

“Well, you betta not be plannin’ on it,” G says, eyes still fixed on the sunset. “You really creepin’ me out. I thought we was talkin’ about a game. Tell me how to win.”

“Alright, fair enough,” I say. “I want you to do something for me. It’s better if you get it over with now. Take the gun out,” I instruct her.

She looks at me oddly. I repeat myself. “Take the gun out and put it against my temple. Do it.”

She reaches under the glove box for the gun case and when she comes back up a beautiful Colt 1911 is filling her fist, barrel high polished and grips clean as a cheater’s lie. I see in her eyes the hint of an old look I once knew well, that fear that comes before one does it, puts their finger inside the trigger housing. I suddenly wonder if she’s ever handled a piece before. She looks nervous.

She goes to check the chamber, proving my previous assessment about her experience with the steel to be wrong, but I tell her: “Don’t open it.” She complies. We both know her daddy was the kind of man who kept it loaded. The question is: was the road paved recently? “Put it against my head,” I say. I feel the ring of frigid steel touch me there, light. “More.” It presses and bites into the skin. I sigh. “Gina.”

Her eyes dart wildly to and from the road, but her mouth is a rigid line. “What do you want me to do?” I can barely hear her over the whip of the wind and Barbara Ann bellowing through the speakers, but you learn to read lips and gestures like a sixth sense when your hearing gets blown out of your head by an IED and you spend the next three weeks terrified that it may never come back.

“You see, if you shoot me, we crash and you die too. Nothing goes through your mind but the lead. But if we survive what I’m about to do next… well, then you pass.”

A long beat. “Pass what, you crazy bastard?” G says.

I glare at her from the corner of my right eye. “I’m going to take my hands off the wheel now. You’re going to count to six, and if you take the gun away from my head or your finger off that trigger before I reach six, then I’m going to crash us and we’re going to die.”

“This is bullshit,” G says. “This is some bullshit.”

Then, after an eternity of waiting I hear that old, familiar click. I pull my hands away from the wheel. Then I lift my one good foot off the gas and curl my leg up so it rests on the dash. She gasps and shuts her eyes. The traffic around us is moving steadily but she sees a curve coming and reaches for the wheel. I tell her no.

“You should be counting,” I say.

“One!”

I feel the wind in my hair.

“Two!”

Barbara Ann.

“Three!”

Bar Barbara Ann.

“Four!”

The curve is close.

“Five!”

We’re on the shoulder.

“Damn – six!”

I grab the wheel and correct our path, barely making it back into the lane. The blaring of horns creates a cacophony everywhere. An old man in a Dodge pickup flips me the bird. I smile at him and shrug.

When I look, G is sweating, washing her hair with dry hands. The gun is tucked under the seat again, far from sight. “What the hell was the point of all dat?” she says. She sounds furious, terrified. But a part of her voice sounds triumphant, too.

“We almost died,” I say with a grin.

“No shit!” G yells at me. “You are one crazy ass fool. I never seen such a crazy ass fool in all the days of my life. You coulda got us kilt.”

I say, “Remember what I said about palming the round?”

G recoils. “Man, you are rollin’ on me right now. This ain’t even a revolver!”

“But you believed I was ready to die. Whether or not I really was willing to let us crash or to have my brain eat a bullet if we hit a bump, you believed I was.”

“Yeah, ‘cuz you were,” G says. “Crazy ass bastard. How ‘bout you let me drive from now on?”

“You asked how to win at Russian roulette,” I tell her. “Now you know.”

 
(First published in the Bumps in the Road anthology from Black Bedsheet Books)

Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

This letter is for the girl in the blue dress. You know who you are and that I’ve wanted to contact you. My name is Rider. My handle on the BrickLog is RK466. You can contact me at #1107381980085.

However, since I know this letter will have far more readers than just you, the following is for all those who are not the girl in the blue dress. Blue, you can skip to the end.

Everyone else, I want to tell you a story. It’s about love, and longing, and the childish games Watchers play—at least one in particular—in the service of those first two things. I’m hoping my story will convince you to help me with something, because I desperately need your aid.

The first time I saw her was in Pompeii. She was walking towards me, up the sloping street, wearing a blue dress. She carried a basket of olives on her hip, which was swaying, her eyes locked on the mountain behind us. When she noticed me noticing her, she recognized me instantly as a Watcher, like herself, and asked me: “Are you enjoying the show?”

I said “Yes”.

“Me too,” she said with a smile. “This one’s my favorite.”

That city in its prime is more beautiful than you can imagine without seeing it firsthand. It’s an old Schwarbrick (sorry, Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show, if that wasn’t clear), so the ticket only costs a few dozen seconds. The streets are vigorous, still brimming with life, hundreds of people all passing along their kinetic energy in a crashing, haphazard fashion. And when the mountain finally blows, and the jet black streams darken the sky in an instant and that sound—oh God, that terrible sound—penetrates you so deep it could bury you, you know why we do this, why those few dozen seconds of our lives are nothing for the joy of witnessing a Schwarbrick like this.

You think: This is why we watch.

The advertisements all push the war shows these days, but I prefer natural disasters. The heroics are better, more organic. If you’ve never seen one of the Natural Crisis ‘bricks, you don’t know what you’re missing. I consider myself an addict. It used to be because of my morbid fascination with all the blood, the fires and the suffering. But these days it’s because of her.

I won’t give up searching until I find her.

During every great catastrophe in human history there has always been someone standing by, laughing. And when I first laid eyes on her, loitering up the stony road in Pompeii with her basket of olives towards the place at the top of the rise where she would have the best view of Vesuvius, the vantage clearest of vineyards and tombs, I knew she was the type to laugh, not out of sadism, but because to her this really was just a show.

Then the caldera cracked and my eyes were drawn away from her to the eruption rising to cover the sky with obsidian dust, and by the time I thought to look for her again, she was gone.

The next time I saw her was in Rome. It was 217 AD. Most show-goers watch in marathons: a week in Ancient Rome, a week in China, a day or two on a certain stretch of the North Atlantic of a silent, iceberg-laden night, because buying ‘bricks in bulk is cheaper, costing only a few minutes for each show rather than the hours or days they would cost to purchase tickets for individually.

She was watching the Rome shows this week, same as me. It was the evening of the Coliseum fires.

We were both exploring the hallways outside the arena as workers prepared for a gladiatorial match that was to take place the following day. A low blanket of charcoal clouds belched murmurs of thunder through the dimming sky.

I don’t recall how many people died that night, if there was even a record. But I recall their faces well, so placid and unaware.

I found myself walking suddenly behind a woman whose stride and swaying hips seemed familiar. But I couldn’t place exactly where from.

Then I saw the blue dress; the same she was wearing in Pompeii.

She strolled casually, not making much effort to fit in, because she knew she didn’t have to. She was still carrying her basket of olives. I assumed it was her immersion prop, to make her presence in times that were not her own more convincing. Mine is a pair of rope sandals, uncomfortable as a plague, but they fit well (enough) in most historical ‘bricks.

The girl looked back at me and smiled. She had vibrant freckles, amber hair that fell in slow-moving curls, olive skin so smooth it appeared oiled under the torchlight. I knew it was her as soon as our eyes met.

She kept pace with me and eventually said, in a language distinctly not Ancient Latin: “Hey, you. Fancy seeing you here. You like this type of ‘brick, huh?”

I told her I did.

“Natural Crisis week is my all-time fave,” she said. “When you’re done here, though, you should skip the Titanic and check out the S.S. Sultana instead. It’s a much better ‘brick, and a lot less crowded.

I saw her wink as we entered the glow under a lantern. I stopped, taking her arm gently. “You know, these are always more fun with another person. Would you like to watch this one together?” I asked her.

A sudden snap of thunder spooked a pack of hyenas in one of the cages nearby. A crowd of people gathered to watch the handler desperately trying to sing them calm again. Non volo! He cried. Non volo! Non volo, non volo

“No,” she said over my shoulder. “Sorry, but I like to watch alone.”

When I looked again, she was gone.

We all saw the finger of lightning and heard the deafening cries. It was no surprise for me, as I knew it was coming. But when the bright flash licked down against the top of the Colosseum, and the flames budded from the wood supports and spread and scattered, it was suddenly as if the whole world had ended.

I felt a hand brush my back, soft and reassuring. A flash of blue passed my peripheral vision. But when I tried to find her, I could not.

I went to the S.S. Sultana next. I was young, could afford to shave a few more days off my life to buy another Schwarbrick ticket, and it was one I had never seen.

I stood on the main deck and brushed her shoulder with mine. She looked stunning. She wore a fur coat over her blue dress, for the night was frigid and the surface of the Mississippi caked with drifts of ice.

It’s a short show, the Sultana; only a few minutes to view. We didn’t have much time.

She smiled at me and took my arm, said, “Boom,” and pointed toward the boiler. We were knocked apart as the true sound of the explosion split the frosty night, and somewhere among the din, I heard her laughing.

“That always gets me!” She chuckled as we found each other again amid the chaotic screaming of the crowd. She propped herself steady on the rail as the deck tilted and people began jumping overboard, screaming.

“This is great!” I said, shouting over the noise. “I’ve never seen this one before!”

“I know!” she said, and grinned.

The fireball ascended above us like a beacon, and in that crimson light I saw something about her I hadn’t noticed before: she had a scar tattoo of a star under her eye that bunched up as if it was twinkling when she smiled.

“Let’s go to the Egyptian Plague,” I said.

“What?”

“The Egyptian Plague!” I repeated. “Come on! It’s great!”

She left my arm, turned and made fast for her extraction line on the second deck. “I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Then my own extraction point out of the Schwarbrick opened, and I exited back into the present, disappointed, but still flying off the feel of her touch. Many centuries in the past, the Sultana’s second deck began to sink beneath the lapping freeze of the rough-and-tumble Mississippi.

I didn’t see her in Egypt, nor in Babylon. I snuck up on someone I thought was her in California at Donner Lake, hiding in the snow drifts behind a thermal shield, but I was mistaken. That watcher was an older woman, brunette and irritated I’d crashed on her show. She made a joke that this was a bad time to be sneaking up on people, and that if I’d done it to the wrong party I would probably get eaten. We started talking and ended up getting along, shared a bowl of soup and watched the cannibals devour each other.

When I finally saw my girl again, it was in the Anasazi Famine of 1299. She was walking among the corpses, holding a fox skin over her nose. The sweet smell of rot lingered like an echo over that doomed city. She was wearing her blue dress. I could see it from all the way across the dust-bitten valley, like a single drop of color on a gray, apocalyptic canvas.

Neither of us spoke. She only took my hand, and we walked in silence among them, an entire civilization dead to starvation. The few Anasazi who were still alive picked through the ruins and the streets in a last desperate attempt to find food. The dead offered no complaint.

History has come to know them as The Old Ones. That is what Anasazi means, a name they surely did not call themselves. Their language is lost and cannot be learned even by the most dedicated Schwarbrick aficionados—one of the few such languages the fandom has yet to crack (I know, because aside from being a Watcher, I’m also a Cracker; meaning, I dedicate the vast majority of my free time when I’m not ‘bricking to solving the lost languages of the past we hear in the ‘bricks; it makes the experience richer).

But in their places, dead or alive they looked no older than us—smaller perhaps, rougher, harder—but no older.

I didn’t see it as a good time to ask for a second date. There would be another time, I told myself. There always is.

I now must apologize, dear reader, if I have misled you thus far. Even thinking about her makes it difficult to write. I’m writing all of this to you because I need your help. What I ask is simple: if you see her, you must show her this letter. I need to see her again.

You must give her this letter. She’ll know who I am by reading it and, I hope, will seek me out, since my efforts to find her have been haphazard at best, and most of the time, altogether fruitless.

I’m not some creep in the bushes, you see. I know my feelings are mutual, even if she does play hard-to-get. I’ve known ever since she kissed me above the flooded valleys of the Yangtze in 1931 AD, the last time I saw her.

Three million people died that year in the floods. She came to the show drunk. She sat close to me on the hillside, her arm entangled in mine and her soft head resting pleasantly on my shoulder. We both speculated on the horror of losing one’s home to the rising black waters, or one’s family, then suddenly, she kissed me.

Her lips tasted of wine and the gray, forgotten future. When she pulled back she had rain in her eyes and a smile caught between her dimples.

“I know we’re not supposed to interfere when we watch,” she said. “But haven’t you ever wanted to?”

“What’s your name?” I said.

“That would be interfering.”

She slid a finger along the top knuckle of my right hand, softly wiping away the raindrops gathered there.

“We’re not interfering at all! And who cares? You some sort of BrickLogger?”

“Loggers aren’t the only ones who care about all the innocent people who get killed when we interfere.”

“How do you know anyone does? All that’s been proven is it creates a failed timeline.”

She squeezed my hand and stood up on her heels, kissing me deeper than before. “I gotta go.”

Someone screamed on the river below, a man clinging desperately to a raft made from doors wound together with chicken wire, the pregnant black waters fighting to pull him under.

When I looked up again, she was falling back through her extraction point into her own time.

“Wait! How can I contact you?” But she wasn’t there.

And again, after our picnic at Fort Point in 1906, as we watched San Francisco collapse to the malicious arithmetic of the quakes; and the bombing of Hiroshima; and the time we stood with hands clasped tight as the women buried their children at Wounded Knee.

She’s playing games with me.

You must find her, dear reader. Whoever, whenever you are, there is a significant chance she is nearby. I know, because she told me this week is her favorite. I’ve left copies of this letter in every ‘brick currently being shown.

She isn’t hard to recognize. She wears a blue cotton dress, a simple garment that could fit easily anytime, anywhere. Sometimes she carries a basket of olives as an immersion prop. Her hair will be done up in whatever style is trendy in your time. She will be close to wherever you find this letter. She always knows where to get the best views.

In return for your help, I will help you. I know I am only a stranger to you—some words written on a piece of paper. But have you not also loved and longed for one who toyed so indecisively with your heart? Would you not do anything to secure their love, so you might be happy?

If she isn’t there, the advice I’m about to give you will still be useful. By law and the terms of the Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show user agreement, I must be purposefully vague in what I am about to say. But it is monumentally important that you listen, and listen well. Your life depends on it.

For My Blue: Call me already. I’m running out of time and can’t keep chasing you around through the ‘bricks like this. I know you’re in just as much time-debt as I am. You’re being childish by pretending to be interested; either you’re interested, or you’re not. If so, just call. I hope your answer is yes.

For everyone else: Very soon, you should put down whatever you’re doing and start to run.

*First published in Nonlocal Science Fiction, December 2015

(Want to read this story on your Kindle? Download it here)

Corruption (Prologue)

ONE BY ONE the old bricks fell. “Almost got it,” Katherine said, pushing hard into the broken wall until her arm slid through. The hiss and splash of bricks falling into water whispered through the ancient tunnels. “You owe me a bottle of good vodka,” she told the one-eyed man watching from the shadows.

Vojciek attempted to scowl, but the cracked dolomite of his face betrayed a quiet satisfaction. “Ho-hoo! One bottle? Make it three. You’ve done well today, Kat.”

Katherine’s nickname among her fellow Vermin was Meerkat – often shortened to Little Kat, or just Kat. Meerkats were burrowing rodents supposed to have lived on the Surface before the Last Day of Sun. Bookmother had read her a story about them once. Since she was a little girl falling over on Vojciek’s mats, Katherine had tried to emulate how she imagined such small, springy creatures must have fought, all sniping limbs and devious balance.

She raised her heel and kicked the broken wall, once, twice, then three times, the old stones spilling from their dusty crypts until the hole was wide enough for her and the old man to fit through.

“Let me guess. I’m taking point?” Katherine said.

Vojciek poked his torch through the hole, his white, bottlebrush eyebrows folding down into a hard squint. The light shied beyond the broken bulwark of the wall, where a few scattered glimmers revealed a canal snaking away into the darkness. A rank cloud enveloped them as the old, unseen bowels of the Night City breathed once more.

Katherine had always imagined such a discovery would be exciting, but all she could think about was the smell.

“That is a good guess,” her teacher said.

The old man stopped her as she was sliding her foot through the jagged bricks. He offered her the torch. “We’re just little Vermin sneaking through his halls, trying to steal a bite of cheese. And we know his cure for little Vermin. But though Vermin we may be, we are also the fire. No matter what awaits us in there…” Vojciek said.

“We know what awaits us in there,” Katherine said, taking the torch.

Vojciek drew a deep breath, pulled his shawl up over his nose, and nodded for her to move. Katherine mounted the broken wall and vaulted into the darkness.

Her legs splashed into cold, oily water. The shadows retreated and advanced from the flickering nimbus of her torchlight like unsure combatants. Black islands of questionable composition floated by her in the gloom.

“Look what we’ve found! Another tunnel!” Vojciek said. “What a strange and mystical thing to find hidden a kilometer beneath the Surface! Ho-hoo! Is something wrong, Kat? Worried we might wake up some ancient, eldritch thing set down here to guard our Beloved Ruler’s secrets? Feel any tentacles brush against your leg yet?”

“No. Can’t say that I did.”

“You never know down here. Better stay on your toes…”

“Ugh.”

Katherine paused, holding the torch close to the tunnel’s low, curving wall. Unlike the other passages, this one wasn’t made of brick, but carved straight from the slick, pale rock. “Have you noticed the walls?” she said.

“Aye. Either we’re standing in a very shoddily-delved mineshaft, or whoever built this passage did so in a hurry,” Vojciek said.

The tunnel branched every twenty or thirty steps, a spider-web network of yawning, black mouths all waiting to devour the scarce light of Katherine’s torch. They were all dead ends, Katherine knew. She had studied the manuscripts in Bookmother’s library enough to know that once they passed the false wall, it was a straight shot to the cavern. The other passages were blinds meant to mislead potential grave robbers.

The tunnel ended abruptly around the next bend, and the two of them stepped into a cavern so large Katherine’s torchlight barely touched the ceiling.

They were standing on a slender crescent of beach winding around the shores of a vast subterranean lake. There was an island rising in the distance, upon which stood the largest building Katherine had ever seen.

It was a great cathedral, all wrought from red brick and white marble. Its shadow-shrouded spires were so tall they interlocked with the gargantuan dripstones of the cave ceiling like twisted puzzle pieces. Katherine had to crane her neck to take in its full, nauseating height.

Her pulse quickened as the realization sank in. The Lost Cathedral of Saint Aram. It actually exists.

“Ho-hoo! Three bottles of vodka, indeed. Your mother would be proud, Kat. I wish she was here,” Vojciek said.

“It’s hard to believe I’m finally looking at it,” Katherine said. “Feels a bit surreal.”

“On that note…” The old man pulled a leather flask out of a secret pocket stitched into the lining of his coat, took a deep swig, and offered it to Katherine. “Distilled it myself, you know.”

She took a drink and gave it back.

Vojciek put the flask away, unslung his Wyvernwood spear from where it rested on his shoulder. “Since this is your show, I trust you know how we’re getting across that.” He pointed his spear across the lake.

The serene, midnight water ran far past the tiny halo of her torchlight, as motionless as black stained glass. They could swim, but the lake was deep, and icy cold. It’s too warm this far down to freeze. Too bad. Some thick ice would have helped.

“I have a plan,” she said.

The old man gestured for her to demonstrate. Katherine raised her hand and released the ghost from where it rested in the casket embedded within her palm. The world gave a little scream, and a crushing pressure enveloped her. A black, shivering line bloomed from her fist. She aimed it at one of the giant stalagmites growing from the cave floor.

Katherine flicked her wrist, slicing the monstrous stone pillar from its base. The upper segment began to slide, down, down, down, until it toppled. She made another quick slash, and another, slicing angled portions from the base. The pillar rolled into the frigid water with barely more than a splash. A maze of ripples cascaded across the lake, lapping the shore with a gentle elegy of waves.

The pillar had fallen to form a natural bridge between the beach and the island that they could easily wade across. Only after did Katherine wonder if the sound could have been heard up on the Surface.

The old man frowned at her.

“We’re deep enough,” Katherine said.

“That was thoughtless,” Vojciek said.

Katherine bedded the ghost in her palm and started across the beach. “We can handle a few shells, master. Besides, we’ll be gone before they ever know we were here.”

Vojciek shook his head. “It’s not shells we need to worry about. They won’t send a purging party. Not down here.”

Katherine’s eyes drifted to the empty socket where her master’s eye had been, hidden under a ragged leather eye patch. The ghost shot a knife of pain up her arm at the thought. “If we’re on borrowed time, then we’d best hurry.”

The old man stroked his mustache. “We’re all on borrowed time, Kat. One of the great secrets of life is that it can end at any instant. Realizing that will both free and condemn you. But no matter what chains the Oppressor may put on us, he cannot take away our fate.”

“I thought you said fate was a choice.”

“Precisely my point. Now, before we go on, I can see the ghost is giving you some discomfort. It is reacting to your fear. The People of the Sun were masterful architects, most of all when it came to weaponry. It’s one of the reasons they’re not here anymore. I thought you were better prepared for this. Remember your drills. You must empty your mind to avoid being stung. You must become the fire. Kat…?”

She stepped out onto the pillar, walking on the balls of her feet so she wouldn’t slip and fall in. It was no different than walking on the balance beam in the mat room back at the Last Station, something she’d done a thousand times since she was a child.

Far beneath the surface of the lake, the shelf of the shore dropped away to limitless depths of black. Katherine’s reflection on that mirrored surface was one she hardly recognized. Her once-smooth, pale skin was now yellow from malnutrition. Her close-cropped hair was spotting white. Her cheeks looked sunken, and there were deep circles under her eyes from camping in the Undersprawl for more than a week.

Yet even living the hard, likely short life of a Vermin, she was far more fortunate than most girls her age in the Burrow, already married and bearing children before their eighteenth birthdays.

So many lives I’ll never live. But I chose this, didn’t I? I knew what I was giving up, just like mom did.

Vojciek whistled as he set foot on the rocky shore of the island. They both took a moment to soak in the magnificent sight of the Lost Cathedral up close.

Its brick-and-marble façade rose in layers, reminding Katherine of an enormous gingerbread palace. Each of its twin bell towers was topped with a giant gumdrop of verdant bronze. The main door was carved from a single slab of pure amber, the frame adorned with hundreds of life-sized marble statues depicting choirs of angels singing and marching to war. Most other churches in the Night City had long since fallen to ruin, their statues and marble dressings stolen by time. But this cathedral was perfectly intact.

The people of the Twilight Age built this. It’s like a window into another world.

“Ho-hoo! Almost makes an old atheist want to believe again,” the old man said.

Katherine felt it, too, though she did not share her master’s skepticism. “How old do you think it is?”

“If the legends are true, older than anything still standing on the Surface.” A hint of sadness tinged the old man’s voice. “But I’m still not entirely convinced they are.”

“What would convince you?” Katherine said, gazing up at the cathedral’s bulbous, twinkling spires. “Do you not think this is Saint Aram’s?” She wanted to say, are you mad? But kept the thought to herself.

Vojciek picked something from his mustache and flung it off into the darkness. “It would be nice, wouldn’t it? If we found the church where our Oppressor lived before his rise to power, when he was merely an acolyte; if we found his diary, that terrible trove of secrets so powerful it could undermine his rule, even make the Amber City fall…

“We have found a real, physical structure, which someone really hid – or built – a kilometer underground. Does that mean it was moved here by magic, or that the Crippled King was the one who did the moving, like the stories say? Or that this discovery will win us the war, and herald a glorious new age of daylight?”

The old man didn’t wait for her to answer. “Now, I don’t know much about any of that, but here’s what I’ve observed in my six decades on this iceberg. Myths are always about what we want to believe, and never about what is. Suppose we discover some proof the Crippled King is not who he claims. Will our position have improved? Will it stop the Amber City from hunting us down like little rats? No. We’ll still be Vermin to them. We will always be Vermin to them. Hate doesn’t need a reason.”

“I see,” Katherine said.

The old man spat. “Oh, don’t give me that face. You’ve found something incredible, Kat. I give you all the credit. I certainly don’t want any. Fame would go right to my head. Can you imagine? I’d become as insufferable as a full bladder multiplied by a hangnail. Ho-hoo!”

She forced a smile.

Vojciek took another swig from his flask, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and casually extended a long, bony finger toward the door of the cathedral. “But don’t take my word for it. Open it. That way, when you prove me wrong and win this war, you can look back on this moment and say, I told that old fool. I always knew I’d surpass him. What’s that old saying again? To the master goes the blade?”

Katherine took a deep breath and placed her hand on the door. There was no handle. She merely had to press her fingertips to the cool, smooth amber and a crack opened in its center. The door swung inward.

The old man’s cackle echoed through the cathedral’s dark, voluminous innards. “Ho-hoo!”

Katherine stepped inside and gasped.

She was washed in blinding light, then the resounding boom of organ music. A hundred airborne lamps flickered to life all floating between dozens of ornate pillars, which held aloft a great domed ceiling swathed with paintings of the saints and their sacred stories from the Sol Firma. The walls were a robber’s trove of countless golden statues and icons gazing out at her from every nook and sepulcher.

Most of the vast interior of the church was occupied by a colossal black ship resting on a crystal bier, like some behemoth display in a museum built for giants. It reminded Katherine of the stories she’d heard as a child of the Twilight Age, when brave men and women still sailed the unfrozen seas all the way to the edges of the world. From a distance, the shining, ebony hull appeared mirror-smooth, but up close it was covered with thousands of tiny pockmarks.

The music thundered its final note, dwindled, and started over from the beginning. The song was a military march played in a major key. She’d heard it before, but couldn’t remember when.

“The Battle Hymn of the New Republic,” Vojciek shouted over the din. “One of my favorite tunes. The title refers to the new New Republic, not the old New Republic, or the old Old Republic, or the Great Old Republic, or the Grand Old Republic, or the Federation, or the Paradigm, or the republic that called itself a republic but was actually a fascist empire. No, no, the one to which this song refers is the one our Beloved Ruler usurped on the Last Day of Sun, before the fall of the True Night…”

“Master.”

“Sorry. I’m rambling again. Piss on it. The point was – and I did have a point – I haven’t heard this tune in decades. I still remember some of the lyrics.”

The old man conducted an invisible choir with one hand as he sang:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…

“He is knocking down the silos where the grains of wrath are stored…

“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot, I can’t recall the words…

“…His day is marching on.”

The old man’s voice trembled and quieted, leaving only the heart-pounding percussion of the organ, then he said, “Your mother used to hum it to you. That’s why you remember it. It was the only way to get you to fall asleep so she and I could train. But I doubt you’ve heard it since. This piece of music was banned a hundred years before you were born.”

“We should turn it off,” Katherine said.

Vojciek struck the ground twice with the butt of his spear. The music ceased. The old master gave Katherine a gap-ridden smirk. “Most buildings from the Twilight Age were fully automated. Some call it magic. I call it sound engineering.”

“What’s that?” Katherine said, venturing closer to the altar.

“Well, well. Now that is a pretty thing,” Vojciek said.

He followed her up the marble dais to where a huge statue of a faceless man in white robes levitated with one palm outraised, the universal symbol of the Wanderer.

The statue was four times as tall as a man, all grown from a single vein of solarite crystal. The artist had left the face blank, but had covered the Wanderer’s arms and legs with intricate spirals where they poked from beneath his tunic.

“The Wanderer, memory be upon him,” Katherine whispered. She knelt and touched the tip of her thumb to her forehead, ears, and mouth. Vojciek remained silently on his feet, glowering until she stood.

“Yes, yes. Son of the Spiral, Sower of Seeds, the Gardener of Worlds, the source of as many unutterable curses as revelatory visions. Legend tells that the People of the Sun used to make these statues from solid gold. Solarite would’ve been a more decadent option. Gods always mirror the societies who create them.”

Katherine had no desire to debate the flaws and virtues of organized religion with the old man here.

She climbed the dais and ran her fingers along the fat, smooth nodules of the statue’s toes. They were surprisingly warm. “It’s magnificent.”

Vojciek uncapped his flask and drank. “Suppose so. Suppose not. Boo. I suppose nothing matters less than an old man’s sorrow.”

Katherine turned. “What?”

Her master’s voice fell to a crack. “I may not get another chance to say this, Kat. S-something… I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time.”

“Yes, Master? What is it?”

“That I’m proud of you. The Vermin fight because we must, not because we wish to be honored. But don’t think I don’t see you, Katherine. The highest reward for a teacher is to watch a student reach their potential. And I know you will succeed where I failed. Because you are the fire.”

The old man’s lips quivered. “When the Oppressor’s Dog stole your mother, I tried to get her back. She was my best student. How could I not? I climbed up the Echelon. Even got as far as the Palace of Dolls. It was the best I ever fought. He… was there. I fought him, Kat.”

Her master motioned to his missing eye. “You never asked me how I got this. Thank you for that. Now, you shall never need to. He… defeated me. But he let me live, to shame me. To send a message to any other little Vermin who might get a big idea. To remind me of that day and what he, and the regime, were capable of. And to remind me of your mother.”

An old ache stabbed in Katherine’s heart. She thought she might burst into tears, so she turned her face away and gazed up at the statue of her Prophet.

A muffled crash drew her eyes back to the altar in time to see the old man ram it again, shoulder down with all his bodyweight. His claw-toed boots scrambled for purchase on the slick tiles of the floor.

“Now help me… (huff)… move this… stupid… (puff)… eldritch… thing…”

“Why?” she said.

“Because if there’s treasure… (huff)… hidden in this… (puff)… church, (wheeze)… it will be buried here.”

But even with both of them pushing, the altar wouldn’t move. When Katherine’s muscles were nearly spent, she muttered “Piss on it,” and used the ghost to slash a tiny wedge from the altar’s base. The heavy marble box groaned and gave easily with the next concerted push, revealing a deep hole falling away to blackness beneath the chapel floor.

“Ho-hoo!”

Voyciek lowered the torch, then threw it down. He followed it in, landing six feet below on the lid of the slender crystal box lying half-buried at the bottom. No, not a box. A coffin.

A grave, Katherine realized. Someone was buried under the altar.

The death mask painted on the coffin’s lid in ripples of brilliant, dancing light depicted a man with a long, plain face. There were dreadlocks in his hair and beard, and his robes were simple, but there was a penetrating humility to his face that caught Katherine off guard.

The People of the Sun buried their kings and queens in grand crypts full of riches and splendor, and their priests in the walls of their churches. Why would they bury this man somewhere no one could honor him, without so much as a grave marker, or even a name?

Vojciek knocked the loose dirt off the sarcophagus with the butt of his spear. “They grew these caskets from solarite crystal, you know. Grave robbing was considered a penultimate sin back then. You can tell from the death mask that this man had rich friends. Thankfully…” The old man slammed the blade of his spear down through the lid of the coffin. “…Wyvernwood was invented to beat solarite, so open sesame.”

Katherine’s excitement turned to ash as the quincunx of cracks oozed down the crystalline surface, and Vojciek gave one last, powerful jerk to pry the lid free. The top half slid away, revealing the raggedy grin and dust-eaten cloth of the corpse inside.

No buried treasure. No great secret that will win the war. There’s nothing here but bones.

“Who was he?” Katherine said, trying to hide her discontent.

The old man shrugged. “No idea.”

For the first time since setting foot in the cathedral, Katherine felt tired. Her eyelids grew heavy and hunger raked her insides. “Is that it? Is this what we came here for? These… bones?”

Vojciek hopped out of the grave, using his spear to vault himself up, then stood next to her, brushing himself off. “Bones are bones are bones, Kat. They can mean nothing, or everything in the world.”

“Master,” Katherine started to say, but was cut off by the echo of a door slamming somewhere else in the church.

The ghost stung the inside of her palm. Katherine gasped and clenched her teeth shut to keep from crying out.

“Hide,” Vojciek said.

They both scrambled down behind the ruined altar.

The view of the main door was blocked by the looming black mass of the ship, but there was a gap under it where Katherine could almost see who had come inside. There were no footsteps, only a soft, golden light slowly making its way across the floor toward where they were hiding.

Shells, maybe, or the Amber Guard… she tried to convince herself. But there were no sirens. No floodlights. No screaming spears of blue flame to root them out. There was only one creature in the service of the Crippled King who hunted his Vermin alone.

A dizzying chill spread through her as she heard the clink, clink, clink of a heavy chain echo from the other side of the ship.

A flood of terrified memories came rushing back to her all at once, some from the earliest moments of her childhood; memories of her mother, of losing sleep over stories of the man with the lamp and the iron chain, a monster who couldn’t be hit or killed, whose only joy in life was to take little Vermin like her to the Amber City so they could be turned into dolls.

The old man rapped her on the shoulder, mouthing the words, “Go, Kat. You need to run. Use the ship. Not the door.”

He pointed to the vast, black vessel on display in the center of the cathedral, so tall its masts nearly scraped the inside of the dome. “Climb up and find the stairs to the bell tower. Then rappel down the outside. Stay hidden. He cannot know you’re here. You must tell them what you found. And whatever happens, do not gaze into his lamp.”

Katherine broke cover and sprinted, only stopping once she reached the nearest of the huge, crystal columns that held the ship aloft to try and catch a glimpse of their pursuer.

Wait, where’s Voyciek? Then it hit her. The old fool meant to stay and fight.

That hideous, golden glow was almost to her side of the ship now. She could see the tip of his chain, a horrid, bladed beak that snapped with each clinking bounce upon the floor. His boots were divided at the toe to hide the sound of his footfalls. His robe was a swirling nimbus of the color deeper than black.

She couldn’t see his mask, but she didn’t need to. For to gaze into the Ratkeeper’s mask meant a fate worse than death. His mask was what hypnotized you. Then his lamp would trap you with its terrible light, and your soul – your life as a free individual capable of thinking and making choices – was gone forever.

The Ratkeeper. I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years. But I can’t stop shaking. I need to run, live to fight another day-

I’m not the fire at all. I’m nothing but a scared, little coward. Pathetic. What would mom think?

She’d tell me to escape. To make the old man’s choice matter. To tell them what I found.

Katherine climbed up through a jagged wound in the ship’s hull into the shadows of the lower deck. She stumbled through piles of char and the remnants of cargo whose contents had long since turned to ash to the tiny light of a porthole, where she pressed her eye against the murky glass and readied the ghost to fire.

Despite its fogginess, the window gave a good view of the altar. She had barely settled when Voyciek’s slender shape stood from behind it and planted his Wyvernwood spear in the ground.

“Remember me?” his voice drifted distantly through the glass. “I thought we might run into each other again here. I’ve found your beloved sovereign’s great secret, dog.”

Another shape entered Katherine’s vision. The Ratkeeper advanced, seemingly unmoved by her master’s speech.

The old man retreated up the dais, keeping just enough distance to stay out of reach of his enemy’s slowly twirling chain, until his back nearly touched the statue’s huge, crystal toes.

“I know the terrible things he was trying to hide, the truth that will bring down your unholy regime.”

He’s grandstanding. Letting his enemy get close before springing the trap. Classic Voyciek. But will it work? And where is the trap…?

“Come now. Try to take it from me, then. Before I scamper off and tell the whole world. Then you’ll be in a pickle, won’t you? Because you fear Him far more than we shall ever fear you.”

Close enough. The old man ducked and the red tip of his spear slashed back in a wide arc as the Ratkeeper’s chain smashed into the wall where he’d been standing. The old man’s cut took the statue off at the knees. Voyciek tucked and rolled as the huge crystal statue crashed down on top of his enemy, filling the cathedral with billowing motes of dust and ruin that swallowed master, monster, and all.

But that was only the start of it.

Before the old man was back on his feet, the Ratkeeper reappeared next to him and struck. Voyciek was ready for it, and spear met chain with a harsh cry that raised discordant echoes through the dusty shadows.

Pain lanced inside Katherine’s palm. The ghost begged her for release.

Impossible. How could he-

I saw it crush him-

There’s no way he could-

She couldn’t fire until she had a clear shot. But a clear shot never came.

The old man cackled as the two combatants entered their death-dance and began circling crab-wise, spiraling ever closer as they checked and dodged each other’s blows. “Ho-hoo! You made an error letting me live. You of all people should know the way to hunt Vermin is to stamp them out with one, quick stroke. Let us linger, and we grow stronger, faster, until one day you are overrun.”

The old man was fast, the blade and butt of his spear forming a blur of sanguine red. But his enemy moved like nothing Katherine had ever seen.

At first she thought it was only a trick of the glass, but the longer she watched, the more convinced she became that it was no illusion.

When the Ratkeeper dodged, he didn’t simply evade the old man’s attacks. He vanished and reappeared somewhere else, moving like something shuttering and demonic, something wholly unnatural.

Try as he could, the old man couldn’t hit his target. Suddenly the sag of an arm. The old man was getting tired. The flashing guard of his spear dropped an inch.

The Ratkeeper’s chain grabbed the old man’s spear and yanked it away. His lamp brightened and Voyciek froze. Even through the ruddy filter of the porthole, Katherine could see golden light blooming in her master’s eye. The old man’s hands went limp, and he said a name.

Everything was sick, and slow, and wrong. The old man wasn’t supposed to lose. Katherine whimpered.

The Ratkeeper stopped his advance and looked up toward the porthole. Katherine ducked, praying he hadn’t seen her.

I need to run. Mourn him later. Live now. Tell them. I am the fire.

Katherine was already at the first landing of the stairs when she heard the scream. She paused, wiped the tears from her eyes and put her other hand out to steady herself. The walls of the ship were cold, full of crevices and forgotten, ancient knowledge. He should have been there with her. No. No time to think. She had to be fast. She had to be quiet.

She took the stairs three at a time, the remains of the ship settling, creaking, and resettling with every step. She was almost at the airlock that led out to the main deck when she heard a voice calling to her from deep within the bowels of the ship.

“Come out now, Kat. I slew the Oppressor’s Dog. We’re safe, dear Brave One. We can go home. Call to me so I know where you are.”

The old man’s voice had none of its usual candor. It was flat, lifeless, ragged, like tearing cloth.

That’s not him. That’s not Voyciek.

The old man’s calls echoed through the ship. “Don’t you want to feast on roasted meat and drink vodka next to the fire? Come out now, so we can go home…”

No. Voyciek is gone. That thing is using his voice. Trying to lure me out.

She tried opening the airlock, but her hands were trembling so violently she could barely grip the wheel, and the rusty, stubborn metal was not wont to move after ages of being sealed.

The blood pounded in her chest and skull with each booming summon. He was getting closer. “I owe you a bottle, don’t I? Distilled it myself, you know…”

I must run. I must tell them what I found.

A creak, nearby. Someone was coming up the stairs. A voice like needles in the darkness. “Found you, Little Kat.”

Katherine spun and fired the ghost into the black maw of the stairwell. The walls split like pieces of a cloven fruit. In the scattered matrix of light that fell through the perforations, she saw him step onto the landing beneath her.

The Ratkeeper was using her master’s body as a lampshade. The old man had been draped over the lantern to hide its light. He didn’t move, only watched limp and lifeless from his perch with buried candles for his eyes.

Katherine screamed and cut a long, vertical line down through the ship’s hull, reached back with her other hand, and pulled the airlock open.

She exited onto the main deck as the two halves of the ship were beginning to split and fall away, scrambled up the nearest mast to the crow’s nest, which cracked and fell as the ship at last gave to the damage of her cut and collapsed.

She rode the falling mast over to the inside of the dome, leapt and grabbed onto the lowest protruding ledge. Her feet kicked through empty air as they struggled to find purchase. They did, and she pulled herself up onto the dusty rim.

She sat there, torn, bloody, and heaving. The dome’s interior had no doorway that she could see, only the bright falsity of the circling, painted heavens.

I’ll need to cut a hole. But what if he follows me, and being trapped inside that wreckage didn’t kill him?

Weren’t the ceilings of these old churches all made of plaster? Hadn’t one of Bookmother’s tomes said that?

She let the ghost guide her hand in a 360-degree cut, taking the dome down in a deluge of priceless art that rained slow, pale ruin over the vastness of the church. That way, even if the Ratkeeper was still alive, he wouldn’t have the advantage of his vanishing trick. She’d be able to track his movements, to see him coming before he saw her. Katherine braced herself against the ledge and waited for the storm to pass.

When the air was clear, she stood and brushed herself off, then hurried to the corkscrew stair winding up the inside of the tower. She half expected the Ratkeeper to be waiting for her at the top, but the cathedral was silent above as it was again below.

Five hundred steps later, she entered the belfry.

The belfry was a tiny room, empty save for two giant ropes and an ancient mattress. In the old churches, this was where the Acolytes slept, as it was their duty to ring the bells.

Her first task was to get the window open. She didn’t try to find the latch, instead cutting a square portion large enough for her to crawl out of from the huge panels of stained glass. A burst of cold air rushed in, nearly knocking her to the floor.

Why is it so cold? And where is this wind coming from? I’m a kilometer underground.

Puzzled, Katherine poked her head out and looked down. Her heart sank to see a thick sheen of ice covering the outer façade of the church. In the short time she and her master had been inside, the entire exterior had been encased in frost.

It would be impossible for her to climb down.

Katherine shivered and sat down on the bed. He sealed us in a cage of ice. A maddened giggle escaped her lips. A cage of ice for little mice.

He survived. Oh, he survived, all right. He foresaw our every move. He’s taking his time. Playing with me. It’ll be any moment, now.

She decided she would commit suicide rather than be turned into a doll.

She wanted the moment of her death to be peaceful, so she could ascend the Spiral without the baggage of hate. But she couldn’t get comfortable. Not only that, there was something hard poking her through the cloth. Something hidden.

Katherine gasped and tore open the threadbare sheet, her pulse racing with newfound possibility. Could this be…?

Yes. Her fingers found four distinct edges buried deep inside the rotten slag of the mattress. A book. She pulled it out and gently set it in her lap.

The book was a mountain of thick vellum all bound carefully in stained glass. It was made by hand. The cover illustration showed twin crescent moons setting over a triangular plane. The vermillion pages cracked and whispered as she leafed through them. She was careful not to damage the delicate calfskin as she read-

Or rather, tried to read. The book was written entirely in Old Ithic.

Len could read this, she thought. I couldn’t translate a text this size even if I had time.

Microscopic handwriting ran to the edge of every page, hundreds of thousands of words written in the forgotten language of the People of the Sun. There were countless diagrams and schematics depicting the stars and the mechanics of motion.

Someone went to great lengths to keep this a secret, even before the Last Day of Sun, when the church was buried, and…

This is it. Wanderer’s wisdom. This is his diary. This is the Crippled King’s dia-

There was a clink, clink, clink outside the belfry door.

Katherine closed the book and rose. The ghost burned agonizing spirals up her arm, tasting her fear and her hunger for vengeance. She held her palm to her forehead and prepared to fire. Then she realized how stupid that was. This was her chance. She could avenge the old man, avenge her mother, and all the other Vermin this butcher had killed.

You can hit him. You can track him. Remember your training. You are the fire.

Clink. Clink.

Clink.

The belfry door opened.

Her cut bisected the door and some of the wall beyond at a perfect diagonal. Massive chunks of wood and stone slid away and the cold wind howled in. But the Ratkeeper wasn’t there.

Before she knew what was happening, the wall was already on top of her.

Crushing pressure. Blackness. A collapsing tunnel of red. Katherine tried to scream, but couldn’t. The thing biting her legs was too heavy to move. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. There was only the pressure, and the sick, sick red.

She opened her eyes to an enormous pile of bricks swallowing her legs, hips, and stomach. The Ratkeeper had jumped into the room somehow, pulled one of the walls down on top of her. It didn’t hurt, but the pressure – oh, Wanderer, the pressure – it felt like half her body was trapped in a vise.

She couldn’t move.

Her enemy stepped over her casually, raising his lamp so it shined in her face. Katherine tried to look away, but he was everywhere, even when she closed her eyes.

That mask. There it was. That hideous mask. A pale circle of glazed and fired clay bearing the image of an endless spiral. There were no eyeholes, because he had no eyes.

It couldn’t end like this. Not for her. She was the fire. She couldn’t be beaten so easily, by some mask, or some lamp, or…

The cloaked figure standing over her faded into the shadows of the background as Katherine’s ears filled with sound and with it, a pleasant warmth that brought tingles to her skin. The cold and darkness evaporated with every word they spoke, thousands of voices, then hundreds, then one.

Oh, my sweet baby girl. I love you so much. Open your eyes, honey. It’s all right.

She hadn’t heard that voice in years. But she knew it, didn’t she? It was still there like a splinter buried deep in her heart.

My strong baby girl. You’re the bravest of the brave. Braver than I ever was, her mother said.

Suddenly all she wanted was to listen, and greedily suck up every last drop of that warmth. It was as sweet as fabled sunlight.

C’mon, Kitty-Kat. Time to come home. Say yes, baby, and come home.

Katherine opened her eyes.

 

***

Corruption is out now from Lilydog Books.