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Spring 2010 Issue

Spring 2010


Welcome to the Spring 2010 Issue of Mirror Dance!

In this issue…

• Fiction by Nick Poniatowski, Michele Stepto, Sylvia Hiven, Meghann McVey, Stuart Sharp and R. W. Nichols

• Poetry by Changming Yuan, Shelley Bryant, Robert Shmigelsky, and Holly Day

Feel free to leave comments on the individual pieces.

Mirror Dance welcomes letters to the editor! Questions, suggestions for the website, and comments on the stories and poems may be e-mailed to markenberg at yahoo.com.

The Hattercap and the Comic Book Artist

The Hattercap and the Comic Book Artist
by Nick Poniatowski

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Tonight, Rachel dreams that she’s giving birth to an apple again. A few months ago, it was a red delicious with a dopey face that only a mother could love. But tonight—the night that her at-home pregnancy test reads positive—it’s not a red delicious. This one is black and rotten, like the apple a fairy-tale witch might give to a fairy-tale princess in order to destroy her. It falls out of Rachel’s body and hits the white tile of the bathroom floor with a dead thud, leaving a splatter of grayish sludge. Flies buzz around the fetid flesh of the apple, their maggots already embedded in the ooze. She searches the bright white bathroom for something to clean it up with, and under the sink, she finds an apple corer with saw-toothed blades. She’s not sure how she knows it, but her husband Geoff put it there. She picks it up, turns around, and sees the apple. It’s smiling up at her. And she brings the corer down on it. When Rachel wakes up, trembling, she tells her husband she’s going downstairs for a glass of water and she’s careful not to make a sound grabbing her keys from the hook by the door.

Rachel drives quickly down Ten Mile Road toward the Detroit Zoo. She’s wearing her pajamas: gray sweat pants and a Magic Castle comic book T-shirt, her favorite one that shows Lady Lancelot blowing away the Green Demon with a Gatling gun. Magic Castle is the only thing Geoff will let her have, even if it is sitting on the mantle like a flower vase.

She turns on the radio. It’s a comedian. Not even bothering to find something on a different station, she turns it off. This night calls for sobriety, seriousness, salubriousness, words that hiss in Rachel’s mind like a venomous snake. Tonight, she thinks, I have to find out the truth.

The brick in the zoo’s wall is just where Zev said it would be. It looks like any ordinary brick, except it has a charcoal sketch of a mushroom on it. From her pocket, Rachel pulls out the Périgord black truffle that Zev gave her when they first met. She holds the bulbous mushroom up to the brick, and the Périgord melts, bubbling lazily like an egg on a frying pan. The truffle disintegrates, and the brick depresses into the wall. Rachel is momentarily deaf, the stars swirl above her in violent spirals, the smell of earth magic—murky and alive—fills her nostrils, and in an instant she’s pulled through Zev’s fae passageway and trapped inside a zoo cage.

“Rachel Claven!” The voice is boisterous, echoing in the night with false hospitality. Rachel can’t quite make it out yet, but she knows that the large shadowy form on the other side of the cage is Zev.

“Warthogs,” Rachel says nervously, because she can’t think of how she should greet the faerie in his home. Zev laughs uproariously.

“Indeed,” he says. Rachel used to like his British accent. But that was before the nightmares. “You get used to the smell, but they make for awful conversation. I have a much better rapport with farm pigs. Still, it’s home.” Zev laughs again. In human form—as he is now—Zev is enormous, bald-headed, white-bearded, and his skin is the color of the pickled ginger you get with supermarket sushi. When Rachel first met him a year ago, she thought he looked a bit like Santa Claus in a blue janitor’s uniform. Since he’s a hattercap, however, Zev spends most of his time in mushroom form. Rachel hasn’t seen him like that, but she imagines him to be one of the more disgusting mushroom varieties: enoki or morel or wood ear, perhaps.

“I’m sorry, Zev. I just… I had to see you.” Zev raises his thick eyebrows as if to say, Yes… spit it out. “I’m pregnant,” she says. Zev’s eyebrows don’t lower.

“And…? Isn’t that what you wanted?” Rachel pulls at a loose thread on the seam inside her sweatpants’ pocket as she eyes the warthog piglets snuggled up against a sleeping sow’s belly ten feet away from her.

“Well, yes… but I don’t think I want to be anymore.”

Zev paces toward the sleeping warthogs, his head lowered in thought. “You did seek me out to help you have a baby, did you not?”

“Yes.”

“And I gave you what you wanted. What’s changed, love? What can I do?” Rachel winces at the “L” word, and again as Zev’s lips form seductively around the “O” in “do.”

“I’ve been having nightmares… about the baby.”

“Side-effects of the fertility magic, nothing to worry about. Don’t take any heed in them. They’ll get progressively worse, but they’re harmless.”

“I’m scared the baby isn’t mine.”

“Nightmares are often a side-effect of hattercap magic.”

“But… I’m sorry… I guess I didn’t ask you when we first met, and forgive me if I sound ignorant, but I don’t know much about your magic, and I can scarcely say I understand it…” Zev raises his eyebrows. Spit it out, woman. “How does the magic work?” Zev laughs. One of the piglets squeaks, a sound that reminds Rachel of a dog’s chew toy.

“The magic merely allows you to bear children, even with your condition.” Rachel nods slowly, soberly, salubriously, trying to put her ill mind at ease with what Zev just told her.

“You understand, love?”

She thinks she does. The baby is mine. It has to be. I’ll go to the gynecologist, and it’ll be fine. My normal, healthy, human baby will be fine.

* * *


The next day, Rachel goes to the gynecologist without her husband. If Geoff didn’t have to work, he’d probably go, but not because he wants to support Rachel. No, he’d go because he’s a doctor—albeit a neurologist—and anything medical that involves his wife gives him an opportunity to educate her with his vast knowledge.

But Geoff has to work, so Rachel goes alone to see her gynecologist, Dr. Rowe. Dr. Rowe is tall, dark, and polite; and Rachel admires her professionalism and envies her career. Rachel never went to college, but not because she wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have the opportunity. Geoff just didn’t want her to go.

“My house is too large for you to be away for that long,” Geoff had said. “I need you to keep house, honey. Handle correspondence, cleaning, decorating, organizing social affairs, be the doctor’s wife, that sort of thing. You’ll be like, uh, what’s-her-name from that Alfred Hitchcock movie. You know, the girl that takes over running that big mansion. Sound like fun, eh?” Geoff said this to her when they were first married, ten years ago. She was eighteen at the time.

“The movie was Rebecca. It was about adultery, and the mansion ends up burning down,” she told him. But Geoff just laughed like she didn’t know what she was talking about.

If Rachel did have a job, she’d be an artist. Her drawings have been purchased by just about all of Geoff’s wealthy friends, and not because they feel obligated. All of her artwork is from Magic Castle, her graphic novel series. It’s about a queen named Lady Lancelot and her round-table of knights, set in the post-apocalyptic city of Nova São Paolo. Everybody who reads it tells Rachel that it’s gorgeous and could easily be published, but whenever the subject comes up at parties, Geoff chuckles, tousles Rachel’s hair, and changes the direction of the conversation. So each leather-bound episode of Magic Castle remains prominently displayed on the mantle where everyone who visits the house can see it, elusive and otherworldly. Geoff makes sure their housekeeper, Matthew, takes care to dust each page because he wants to keep the books pristine.

“It’ll make Rachel happy,” Geoff always says.

Dr. Rowe confirms that Rachel is indeed pregnant, tells Rachel how crazy it is that her cists are completely gone, and schedules an appointment for her to come back in four weeks. Rachel is so excited that she almost forgets about Zev and the nightmares. She all but skips into the hospital’s main corridor, her thoughts filled with baby toys, baby clothes, baby furniture, baby sounds, baby smells, but not baby names.

Beneath the fluorescent lights, Zev is mopping the floor.

“There you are, love! How’d it go? Everything fine, I trust. I know, I know, you want to thank me, but your glowing face is all the thanks I need.” He stops mopping and props his hands on the end of the mop handle, assuming a relaxed stance.

“Yes… thank you. I have to get home now.” She tries to walk past Zev, but he tilts the mop handle down, blocking her path. “Can you let me through?”

“Sure thing, love. But tell me something. Why the sudden change of demeanor? Your face got all glum when you saw me. Something wrong?” Zev asks.

Rachel lets out a long sigh. There’s no use hiding things from a faerie so she says, “When I come back in four weeks and have the tests done, will the doctor find out something strange about my baby?”

“I’m not sure I catch your meaning.” Zev takes out a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and blows his nose like a trumpet.

“Is this baby really human? Did Geoff father it?”

Zev carefully folds his handkerchief into a triangle, then a smaller triangle, then a smaller one, and then tucks it into his pocket. He says, “It’s Geoff’s. Hattercaps can’t breed with human women.” Rachel squints, unsatisfied. “And hattercaps can’t lie.”

* * *


When Rachel first met Zev, he was mopping the same floor, wearing the same blue janitor’s uniform. She’d gone to Dr. Rowe to see if there was anything that could be done about her cists. Dr. Rowe took off her glasses, leaned toward Rachel with her elbows on her knees, and told Rachel, “I’m sorry, but you’ll never be able to get pregnant.” She gave her some information to take home about adoption, and Rachel left the office with tears dripping down her face like jewels. A large janitor with a white beard stopped her in the hall.

“Why the tears, love?” he asked, frowning in simpatico. His frown endeared her to him instantly, and she found his use of the word “love” to be comforting.

“Oh, it’s just a silly thing, really. I want to be a mother so bad, you know?”

“There, there.” He patted her on the back. She didn’t think it was such a silly thing at all; she wanted to be a mother very badly. She wanted to have something to love unconditionally, something that would love her unconditionally, something she could call her own, something that would make Geoff pay attention to her, something that would show Geoff that she wasn’t worthless, something that would give her life purpose.

She sniffled. The man was so close that she could smell him. His scent reminded her of earthworms after a storm or mushrooms being washed in the sink. She fell into him, sobbing into his brawny chest and getting his shirt wet.

“I’m Zev,” he said.

“Rachel.”

“I know, love. I think I can help you.”

Their ensuing conversation went on-and-off for over a week, due to the seriousness of Zev’s proposal and also due to Rachel’s general disbelief that Zev was a faerie. But Rachel eventually suspended her disbelief after she discovered that Zev could make mushrooms grow on anything just by looking at it. She agreed to let Zev work his fertility spell on her. His only tithe: Rachel would have to let Zev name the baby. She agreed, and they met in a park by Rachel’s home. There was no magic word, no bolt of lightning, no glittering dust. Just a touch on her belly. Then Zev gave her a Périgord black truffle with instructions on how to find him if she needed to and told her it might take awhile. A baby would come eventually, and it would be healthy and fine.

* * *


During her second trimester, Rachel dreams that she’s in a cemetery with Geoff. They’re standing in front of a massive gravestone, but in typical dream fashion, the words on the stone are incomprehensible. They’re words, but not words. She’s naked, brown skin glistening with sweat, but Geoff is wearing a black tuxedo with old-fashioned long tails and a top hat. Her belly, she notices, is much larger than it should be for her second trimester, or for any trimester.

Geoff faces Rachel and points to something behind her. She turns to see a black coach being pulled by horses without a driver. It stops in front of them.

“It’s for you,” Geoff says. Rachel hobbles up the steps and ducks inside the coach. She sits on the velvet seat and immediately feels a sharp pain in her abdomen, arches her back, and gives birth to something. After fishing through the impossibly deep pool of blood and birth fluid, she pulls out a tiny figure no larger than a pear. It’s a living, breathing, miniature version of herself, complete with pregnant belly.

Rachel wakes up in cold sweat, screaming.

“More nightmares?” Geoff mumbles sleepily.

“Mmhm.” But she already can’t remember the dream, and for some reason she thinks of those Russian dolls that open up to reveal a girl inside a girl inside a girl, hollow things with no real purpose.

“You’re too stressed. Can’t be good for the baby.” He pats her tummy and falls back asleep with his hand resting there.

Rachel tosses the rest of the night and gets up at six. She makes breakfast—tea, hard-boiled eggs, and an English muffin with marmalade. She enjoys it, making breakfast by herself without Matthew. Today’s his day off. Although Rachel gets along with the housekeeper, she always wondered why Geoff found it necessary to hire one if she stays home all the time. If asked, Rachel would say that Matthew is her friend, probably her only friend. But watching Matthew work all day, “keeping house” as Geoff puts it, makes Rachel feel inadequate, worthless.

Rachel sits in the breakfast nook, eating the food and intermittently sketching out a drawing of Lady Lancelot and her captain, Lady Gutierrez, both hiding behind a rolled-over delivery van from an incoming pack of ravenous zombies. Rachel lightly sketches a winked eye on Lady Lancelot’s face, like the queen knows something about the zombies—a weakness perhaps—that she can use to her advantage. Rachel is so engrossed in her drawing that she doesn’t notice Zev standing at the stove.

“How’s the baby, love?”

Rachel’s pencil digs into the paper, casting a black line across the drawing. “You scared the hell out of me, Zev.” She catches her breath. “What are you doing here?”

“You didn’t tell me how your gynecologist appointment went. I wanted to make sure the baby’s healthy.” Zev turns on one of the stove burners, the one with the red tea kettle that Rachel left half-filled with water, making himself very much at home.

“The baby’s fine, thank you. She’s due in four months.”

“Vernal equinox?” Zev asks, putting a tea ball into a cup. “Earl Grey?”

“Yes, and yes. Really, Zev, the baby is fine, but you have to leave because my husband will be up any minute now.”

“I think I’ve come up with a name for the baby,” Zev says. Rachel almost chokes on her tea.

“What is it?” She’s expecting it to be something ridiculous out of a fairy tale, along the lines of Rumplestiltskin or Klabautermann, something the child would hate her for the rest of her life.

“Don’t worry, love. It’s not something you should be concerned about. It’s funny… you humans always worry about things you can’t control.” Zev sits across from Rachel and turns her Magic Castle drawing 180 degrees. He smiles. “This is really good, love. Your art will make you famous someday.” He blows on his tea before sipping it noisily.

“If I have no control over the name, then what difference does it make if you tell me?”

“Sound logic, I suppose. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the name is. The tithe doesn’t work that way,” he says. Rachel wonders if anything hattercaps do works the way it should. “I don’t consciously know the name. But…” He sips his tea again and sets the cup down. “Your husband will verbally name her when she’s born. It’ll be the name that’s swimming around my subconscious mind.”

“You’re kidding me, right? This is a real load, you know that, Zev?”

“Hattercaps can’t lie, love.”

“Hey, Rae, who’s our guest?”

Rachel does choke on her tea this time as Geoff shuffles into the kitchen in his burgundy bathrobe and slippers. She coughs violently. “Geoff… this is Zev. Zev… Geoff.”

They shake hands. For nearly an hour, the two men seem to hit it off nicely—as if they’re old buddies—talking about the stock market, medicine, whatever. Geoff doesn’t seem to notice or care that Zev is in a janitor’s uniform. After a polite good-bye, Zev leaves.

“Where’d you meet him? He seems like a great guy,” Geoff says.

“Lamaze class.”

“Hm.” Geoff nods, a little impressed. “Gonna be late to work today,” he says as he heads upstairs. Rachel busses the dishes to the sink, grumbling the entire time, mimicking Geoff and Zev’s voices.

Hattercaps can’t lie, love… Oh, he seems like a great guy… Just get out of my life!”

And she realizes that he never will when she sees a mushroom growing inside one of the teacups.

* * *


Rachel’s nightmares stop when the baby comes. On the day of her daughter’s birth, Rachel packs a portfolio case with art supplies so she can draw during any downtime there might be. But the delivery isn’t as easy as she hoped. For almost twelve hours, Rachel is sweaty, sore, drowsy, and doped up. At the beginning, she manages to draw a single panel that shows Lancelot walking backwards toward an abandoned gas station. In one arm, she’s aiming her machine gun at some unseen threat just outside the panel’s edge. In her other arm, she’s carrying Lady Gutierrez’s limp body over her shoulder. Gutierrez’s mouth is half-open, like she’s trying to moan something.

At the first sign of elevated blood pressure, Geoff insists that Rachel have a C-section. “I am a doctor, Rae. I know this stuff.”

When Rachel regains consciousness after the operation, she’s holding a baby girl. Although the baby is screaming her head off, Rachel thinks she’s beautiful.

“It’s our daughter, Rae. Welcome to the world, little lady.” Geoff wiggles his finger on the baby’s nose, and she stops crying. “I came up with a name,” Geoff says.

Dread enters Rachel like water in a sinking ship. “Oh?”

“Her name is Rachel. Just like her mommy. She’ll be a Junior, Rae. Isn’t that wonderful?”

A long moment drifts by like a child’s balloon that’s been let go, and Rachel doesn’t know what to think. Rachel. She wasn’t expecting this. It’s touching, in a way, but she wonders if Zev’s plan all along was to give her a changeling-baby that’s meant to replace her, like some awful fairy tale. Wouldn’t that be just like Zev? No matter, she thinks. She’s mine, and I love her.

* * *


The next few months fly by as tends to happen when a new baby is in the house. Rachel Junior says her first word—dada—at six months, and she’s a wild and curious baby. She’s fussy too, and Rachel Senior is often frustrated by how quickly Geoff can calm the child down. She also finds it odd that Zev continues to drop into her life. The hattercap becomes best friends with Geoff, spending hours and weekends in his company. Zev manages to become a common sight in the Claven household, especially after Matthew turns up in the local news—found dead in the woods with no cause yet determined—and Geoff hires Zev as their live-in housekeeper. At seven months, Rachel Junior learns to say “Zev” before she learns to say “Mommy.”

* * *


Lady Lancelot is running out of time, running out of hope, Rachel thinks as she stares at the paper in front of her, chewing on her lower lip. It’s early morning, and Rachel wants to get a lot done today. Yesterday, she pulled out her drawing supplies from the basement where they’d been sealed away in a giant rubber tub like a mummy in an Egyptian tomb. Lady Lancelot is still trapped in the gas station, and Lady Gutierrez is still dying. Rachel has drawn the two women sitting on the floor, facing each other, with their heads on each other’s shoulders. Lady Lancelot is holding a hand grenade behind Lady Gutierrez’s back. There’s just enough space above the two warriors’ heads for Rachel to write, “Our last grenade… and it’s a dud.”

Rachel hears the baby crying on the monitor and she sets the paper neatly into her desk drawer. Lady Lancelot has been holding out for reinforcements for a long time. She can wait a little longer. Rachel goes upstairs, and when she gets to the nursery, the baby has stopped crying. Rachel Junior looks up at Rachel Senior, giggles, and white mushrooms sprout from the crib’s pink railings. Rachel gasps.

“Zev!” Rachel careens down the stairs so quickly that she’s out of breath when she gets to the bottom. She goes through every room in the house like a whirlwind before spotting Zev and Geoff on the back patio. Geoff is sitting in a lawn chair, and Zev is massaging Geoff’s back.

“Zev, I think we need to talk,” Rachel says.

For a moment, no one says anything. Then Geoff breaks the silence and says, “It is a shame Zev left though, isn’t it, Rae?” He chortles. “At least your cooking’s improved. Wonderful breakfast today, honey.” Geoff’s eyes are closed and his head is tilted back as Zev works a knot in his shoulder.

“I didn’t make any breakfast today,” Rachel says. She waits. “Geoff?” No response. “Geoff? Hello?”

“Be right back, Geoff. I’ll bring out some tea,” Zev says. He brushes past Rachel and whispers to her, “Let’s talk.” He leads her into the kitchen and shuts the sliding glass door behind them, leaving Geoff outside.

Gears begin whirring in Rachel’s mind, turning smaller, more complex gears as she realizes what’s been going on this morning. “So that’s it, isn’t it, Zev? My child isn’t some sort of changeling you sent here to replace me. You’re the changeling. You’ve made me invisible to Geoff and taken my place.”

“Almost,” he says. Rachel furrows her brow. “You got that last part.” Right before her eyes, Zev’s appearance changes. As with all of his magic, there is no incantation, no flash of light, no slow, morphing transition. One second he looks like big, bearded Zev, and the next second it looks to Rachel as if she’s staring in a mirror. “But haven’t you figured it out yet, love? The baby is mine.”

Rachel stumbles backward, startled at the sound of her own voice coming out of Zev’s mouth. “What? But when I was pregnant, you told me it was Geoff’s!”

“I certainly did.”

“Then how can it be yours? And didn’t you say that hattercaps can’t mate with human women?”

“Indeed, we cannot.”

“But… but…”

“What I told you was this: The magic allows you to bear children. The baby is Geoff’s. Hattercaps can’t breed with human women. And hattercaps can’t lie,” Zev recites.

“And you just said the baby was yours.”

“Spot on, love. Mine and Geoff’s. You were just the vessel to carry it into your world. And now that I have my child, I no longer have need of you.”

“You killed Matthew, didn’t you?” Rachel asks after a pause.

“I did. If the autopsy pathologist cared to do a micro-analysis, he’d find spores in poor Matthew’s lungs.”

“You’ve been planning this from the beginning,” Rachel says slowly. Then, with fierce determination in her eyes, she says, “I’m going to stop you, Zev.”

“What are you going to do? You’re a nothing. No one knows who you are, and as far as they’re concerned, I am you anyway.” A breath that Rachel didn’t realize she’d been holding hisses out through her teeth, and she turns around and walks away. “Ha!” Zev laughs. “You always were such a weak creature, love. That’s it, just walk away.”

With Zev following her through the house like a specter, Rachel packs a suitcase with her most prized possessions. “Goodbye, Zev,” she says as she finally walks out the door.

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A week later, from her loft in Los Angeles, Rachel gives Lady Lancelot the reinforcements she needs. She eventually goes on to publish Magic Castle and becomes famous for her art. A hattercap never lies. Had she been in Detroit at that very instant, the onset of her fame, she would have witnessed Zev disappear into thin air and a china teacup crash to the floor. No magic words, no poof of smoke, no flash of light. Nothing.

There are moments in the following years—passing a janitor in a hospital corridor or eyeing the plastic-wrapped blue Styrofoam boxes of mushrooms at the supermarket—when she wonders how little Rachel is doing, that fae-touched girl she loved like a mother. She wonders how Geoff is doing, that man that made her feel like a hollow wooden doll for twelve years. But even when she says hello to those janitors or buys those mushrooms and eats them in a salad, she won’t wonder about Zev, sent back to his world by his own magic. Zev is—and forever will be—a nightmare that she banished with courage, something far more powerful than a Gatling gun or a hand grenade.

* * *


Nick Poniatowski is originally from Detroit, Michigan and currently lives in Jacksonville, Florida. He's traveled to London, Dublin, Barcelona, Madrid, Cozumel, and would like to time-travel to the post-apocalyptic city of Nova Sao Paolo. His fiction has appeared in At-Large Magazine.

What advice to you have for other fantasy writers?

Let your characters tell the story. After all, they're the ones living in the world you've created.

Dancing with Crane

Dancing with Crane
by Changming Yuan

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I show her how to move her steps
But she’s much too timid
Worse still, she cannot coordinate with my movements
And
Although she dances with me, to an unheard melody
It’s her own music she’s dancing to

She likes the way I hold her
And
Even lets me kiss her shoulder from time to time
so richly white and velvety
But she always keeps me at bill’s length
Each time I come closer
She backs off with a glaring scream

What have I done so wrong?
What is in her mind?
Jumping off the stage
She shows her best, which is a scarlet crest
Like plum petals blown onto the wall of west
I beg her to return
And
So she did, but only to depart from me again

Outside the spotlight
She begins to beat her wide wings against my blue wishes
Her eyes sparkling, as if saying to me
I have my neck and legs
Both too thin and too long to be your partner here

In this cage-like hall
And
Worse still, she’s much too timid

* * *


Changming Yuan grew up in rural China, authored several books before moving to Canada, and currently teaches writing in Vancouver. Yuan's poems (are to) appear in Barrow Street, Best Canadian Poetry (2009), the Cortland Review, Exquisite Corpse, the London Magazine and nearly 200 other literary publications worldwide; his first collection Chansons of a Chinaman has recently been released by Leaf Garden Press.

Urn

Urn
by Michele Stepto

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When Henry Morning let himself into his neighbor’s apartment one Sunday, thinking she was away from home, he found instead that she was very much there, lying dead on the floor just inside the front door. She had given him a key for emergencies, whatever that might mean. She had given him a key, he supposed, because she thought him harmless. And he was harmless, of course he was, but he liked to know about other people’s lives, and that Sunday he had intended just to slip into her place while she was gone and have a look around. And now here he was with a situation on his hands.

He would have to call the police, but what was the hurry? Mrs Reeve would not object to his taking a moment to go through her little treasures, for which she could now not possibly have any use. In the living room, he found a quite decent ormolu clock, its hands stuck at 3:21. In the bedroom, he found a small casket of jewelry, none of it worth anything except for a single string of large pearls. In another room he found a handsome, inlaid box which appeared to contain some old papers, and next to it a small, brass urn whose top was soldered in place. When he shook the urn, he could hear something rattle within.

These items he took back to his own apartment, stepping around Mrs Reeve in the front hall. He placed them in a closet and then called the police to notify them of a death in the building. They arrived in the afternoon, removed the body, sealed up the neighboring apartment, and for a few minutes pestered him with questions about his neighbor’s last days. He answered truthfully that he had not seen Mrs Reeve in more than a week and that, supposing she must be away, he had let himself into her apartment to make sure everything was in order.

Henry Morning had no trouble disposing of the clock, the string of pearls, and the inlaid box, which he emptied of its papers after determining that they were of no value. The urn, however, was another matter. He could see that it was worthless, being made of base metal, but there was that tantalizing rattle when he shook it. And it was so firmly shut up. Surely, a container so carefully sealed must contain something precious, he reasoned. And it appeared to be old, in which case, base metal or not, it should be worth something. What to do? If he pried it open, with a can opener, say, wouldn’t he risk destroying the urn itself?

Luckily, he decided to sleep on it, and the next day, examining the urn more carefully, he saw that the ring of solder he had thought was a seal was in fact an old repair to a cap that fitted snugly over the top of the urn. Grasping this cap, he began to twist it. It was quite large, perhaps five inches in diameter, and he had trouble getting a firm grip on it. He pulled and twisted as best he could, nicking the inside of his thumb on an errant bristle of solder. Inside, whatever was there rattled soundly. He clamped the fattest part of the urn under his arm and tried again to pry off the cap, but it didn’t seem to want to budge. He wrapped the urn in a towel, to hold it steady, but when he pulled this time the urn went flying across the room, clattering like a set of trick teeth.

Henry Morning picked up the urn again and shook and shook it. He could feel whatever it was inside knocking against the immovable cap. The sound it made was a deep, reverberant ping, ping, ping. Patience, he told himself. Things meant to be opened will open eventually. The cap is simply old and stuck in place. Who knows when it was last taken off?

On the kitchen windowsill stood a small can of lubricant with a long, narrow spout meant for use in small places. This Henry Morning applied to the urn, circling what he judged to be the bottom edge of the cap several times, until an oily substance began to slide down the side of the urn. He turned the urn upside down and waited for the oil to reverse its flow and begin to penetrate the space, what he assumed was the space, between the cap and urn. He waited half an hour and tried again. The cap seemed as firmly in place as ever. Henry Morning wanted to cry.

So it went on for days, an epic struggle. He tried submerging the entire cap in a dish of oil. He tried heat, thinking to expand the metal, and he tried cold, to produce the opposite effect. He tried banging the urn against the wall and throwing it across the room. He spoke to it gently, saying things like “Come now, that’s right, just a little more,” all the while imagining that each syllable he whispered had a loosening effect that communicated itself through his busy fingers. “There you go. That’s it.” And the recalcitrant urn spoke back in its hollow voice, saying “Not yet.”

In the end, the urn must have given up, because one moment the cap was as tight as ever, and the next it had slid off into Henry Morning’s hand, as if that was what it meant to do all along, and there he stood, looking down into a circle of darkness. Inside, the rattle subsided. Carefully, he upended the urn on his dining room table, waiting for the sound of the something inside, whatever it was, dislodging itself. But there was no sound, and when he lifted the urn he saw nothing but a circle of fine red dust, as silky as talc, where the mouth of the urn had touched the table. Of course, he now put his hand inside the urn and felt around, but it seemed quite empty, and yet when he shook it again the rattling continued.

It was baffling. Rightside up, the urn rattled, but whenever he turned it over to shake out its contents, nothing emerged but another puff of red dust, and this he did so many times, hoping to catch the mischievous genie (as he thought of it now) by surprise, that his room began to fill up with red dust floating on the afternoon sunlight, lending the place a rosy air, as if it had been doused in blood and then hosed off.

I wish I could say that Henry Morning solved this puzzle. He did not. The urn went on behaving as perversely as ever, and at one point he became certain that, for this reason alone, it must be worth a fortune. But the antique dealer to whom he showed it only laughed in disgust—after he had stopped coughing—saying that he did not handle cheap, magician’s paraphernalia. And so Henry took it home, resigned to the idea that the urn was his, and his alone, of no conceivable value to anyone else in the world, and one day he took a hammer to it, and pounded and pounded the urn until the metal gave way and lay there in jagged pieces, and these he shredded with a pair of wire cutters until nothing at all remained of the urn but a pile of bright shavings.

* * *


Michele Stepto says: I have taught in the English and African-American Studies departments at Yale and at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and have published a translation from the Spanish of the Catalina Erauso memoir under the title, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, along with works of history and fiction for younger readers. An earlier short story, "Pagoda," appeared in the magazine Italian-Americana.

What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?

I think that fantasy is allied to the wish, and that fantasy stories express deep wishes: that the one we love might love us, that we might punish those who have hurt us, that we might free ourselves from our oppressors or escape intolerable circumstances, that we might bring back from the dead the ones we love. Sometimes in dreams such wishes come true, and for this reason fantasy and the dream are closely related. But they rarely come true in waking life, in real life, though we go on wishing anyway. Fantasy exists to answer such wishing.

The Day's Work

The Day’s Work
by Shelly Bryant

The Day's Work


bare feet pad forward
stopping before the shrub
      in gentle mist covered
she breathes the fragrant air
a quick evaluation
leads her to wait another day
      for the blueblack berries

under their dew-coat, leaves
silvery, cool to her touch
      and unyielding
deceive with their soft appearance

she withdraws her hand
brushes the moist fingertips
across her eyes
and stretches to her full length
      with a lazy sigh

upon the ritual’s completion
      before her gaze
            the bracken shuffles
             small voices rustle
            tiny wings buzz
            and tree-filtered light
            rests on airy forms
      going about the day’s work

* * *


Shelly Bryant spends half of each year in Singapore teaching English literature, and the other half in Shanghai studying Chinese language. She loves to read, write, cycle, and travel. Her poems have appeared in numerous small press publications, and there are plans in the works for her first collection of poetry to be released late in 2009. You can visit her website.

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?

I would like to have some fantastic explanation, like saying that aliens visit me once a quarter to give me ideas. But then, on top of being untrue, that would do an injustice to any intelligent life that exists out there. The fact is, I get my ideas the old fashioned way — lots of reading, some research, and listening to what is going on around me. Long walks or long cycling trips help flesh out the ideas.

And Athena Leaped

And Athena Leaped
by Sylvia Hiven

Photobucket


Years later, Sebastien Joivin often wondered what would have happened if he had destroyed that cocoon the first time he had seen it grow in his shelter.

He was not unaccustomed to sharing his makeshift dwelling with disgusting creatures. Cockroaches, rats and mice constantly nestled with him in the corner of the alley. Sebastien did not really mind. After all, he was no more than a gutter rat himself. A chestnut-sized cocoon did not faze him. If spiders wanted to burst offspring into his home, he was not going to stop it. He deserved the misery. Perhaps he even welcomed it. It kept his mind focused on the painful present and stopped his thoughts from straying into his perfect past.

Rhadine.

With a grunt, Sebastien shook his head in an attempt to shudder that name out of his mind. His hangover made itself known as he did so. The pain was bearable, but not the fact that his pleasant numbness was waning. He clutched the flask in his coat pocket. He did not have to shake it to know that it was empty; he rarely went to sleep without drinking its contents first.

Forgetting about the cocoon, and trying to forget about Rhadine, Sebastien crawled out from his shelter and into the alley. His stiff legs creaked in protest as he hurried toward Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. He could feel the memories stalking him, readying to pounce. He had to catch the next performance before he sobered up, or he would fall victim to his past again.

Sebastien had frequented the theater even before Rhadine had died. Perhaps it had had a part in him falling from grace, or perhaps it was a symptom of it; but either way, he still felt drawn to it. The usher recognized him. For some reason, he always waved Sebastien inside the door without asking for the admission ticket. Sebastien assumed it was out of pity—out of remembrance of the great man he had once been—but the usher's face did not betray his motivation.

Once inside the theater, Sebastien found his way to the back row. There, he knew he would find the already inebriated audience members who would be most agreeable to sharing the contents of their flasks. Sebastien still had most of his teeth, a worn but expensive velvet coat, and apparently also a demeanor approachable enough to make him blend into their crowd. He feigned being like them; a jolly bohemian artist who was still struggling rather than one who had struggled, succeeded and fallen. Pretending was easy enough and it always led to them sharing their liquor with him.

The first act began. The bottles wandered from mouth to mouth. The fuzziness arrived slowly.

Sebastien watched the pretend-urchins on stage rape the pretend-whores in pretend-ways, but he did not even feel pretend-disdain for the performance. He didn't care, really. He was there to take advantage of the audience, not the show. When the performance concluded in the customary bloody deaths and horrors, Sebastien stumbled back toward his alley in the cold Paris night. He was numb—and grateful for it.

To his dismay, Sebastien ran into Madame Louvalle when he rounded the corner onto Rue de Douai. She owned a restaurant near his alley and she ruled the homeless bums around the block with an iron fist. Sebastien hated her. The sight of her fat countenance filled him with acid frustration.

"Monsieur Joivin!" she shouted at him as she was locking up her restaurant, her bulky bosom swelling over her corset. "Don't think I can't see you in the shadows. How many times do I have to tell you that you cannot sleep in the alley?"

Like a schoolboy readying himself for a scolding from his teacher, he stepped into the amber light of the street lantern. "Forgive me, Madame," he mumbled.

Madame Louvalle never turned down an opportunity to kick on those less fortunate than herself. "Your kind of pest is worse than a rat," she spat, waving a fat finger at him. "I have a hard enough time kicking drunk patrons out of my restaurant at night. I don't want to have to worry about drunks in the alley, too."

"Forgive me," Sebastien said again, hoping that the repetition would somehow make his words more sincere. "I will not return, I promise."

He bowed effortlessly, the elegant movement a painful reminder of the grand man he used to be, and then he continued to walk down the street and rounded the nearest corner. There, he waited for a few minutes until Madame Louvalle's plump frame wagged down the street and disappeared. When she was gone, he returned to the alley. He always did every time she tried to kick him out. It was a game they often played and it usually amused him, but tonight it only frustrated him. She had stolen the lingering effects of his drinking. Lucidity was already returning to him when he crawled into his gutter home.

Before falling asleep, Sebastien noted with fascination that the cocoon was now the size of a plum.

The next morning, the sunshine assaulted the alley. The heat stirred the smell of rotten foods and excrement into a nauseating cacophony so vile that even Sebastien's deadened senses could not avoid being disgusted by it. The bright, smelly morning jerked his eyes open. The first thing he saw was the cocoon. Once again, it had grown. It was now the size of his fist.

It bulged at him, pregnant and fat.

Perhaps it was his headache, or perhaps it was Madame Louvalle's piggish face from the night before… Or perhaps it was just exasperation. But for some reason, the cocoon angered him. With a frustrated groan, Sebastien curled his hand into a fist and punched it.

He expected it to be dry and hard, but to his surprise it was moist and pliable and yielded to his fist. There was a wet, ripping sound, and the bottom of the cocoon split wide open, discarding a black lump of something onto the ground.

Sebastien looked at the lump with fascination. It seemed to shiver where it lay. It was covered with greenish, stringy hair and it whined like an injured cat. Eventually it unfolded four limbs. Two slender arms and two willowy legs, delicate like twigs, appeared from underneath the lump of hair. The creature stretched its limbs and then rolled into a crouching position before him. Folding its arms around its legs, it rocked back and forth like a frightened child. It still whimpered in anguish.

Sebastien grunted. The sound scratched at his brain like claws. "What areyou?" he hissed out between clenched jaws.

The creature did not stop its rocking nor its wailing, but an answer appeared to Sebastien nonetheless. A thought, clear and concise, flashed in his mind. It was not his own.

I am Erato.

The thought was accompanied by a bewildering image. He was given pictures of frolicking creatures, winged and colorful, with streams of red hair and twinkling eyes.

Another thought invaded his mind. It was wet with tears.

I am Erato. I am incomplete.

Then the creature cried again.

It did not send him any more thoughts and images. All it did was weep. The tarry tears streaked down its dirty skin in clumps.

Eventually, Sebastien could not stand it any longer.

"Why are you crying?" he asked.

The same vision as before appeared before his eyes; little beings fluttering among trees and flowering buds. He knew them from his own poems.

"You are a fairy?"

I am, but I am not.

The creature unfolded its tiny arms, and stood up. It was female, that much he knew, but if it indeed was a fairy, it was one unlike anything Sebastien had ever imagined. She stood a few inches tall. While her small body was that of a young girl, her face seemed ancient with grief. Black tears still flowed from her angular eyes in streaks, painting her nakedness with tarry brush strokes. She was filthy and ugly and disgusting. A gutter fairy for a gutter poet.

My birth was not due. I am incomplete.

"Incomplete?"

No wings. Not ready.

Sebastien swallowed hard. "I… I did it." His whisper was a statement, not a question. "I broke you."

Yes.

It was just one word and it was not even projected into his head with anger. Nevertheless, remorse struck him like a lightning bolt.

Sebastien cursed his soberness. Had he been drunk, he would have been able to blame this on the liquor. A hallucination. A trick. He could claim that his mind had finally crossed that line into madness—this being was proof of it.

But he was sober, and this creature—this fairy… She was real.

You must help me, poet.

Her thought burned him. "I am not a poet," he whispered with a broken voice.

You are. I see the words you wrote, and the fame that was yours. Your mind is one of creativity and ideas. You can find a way to mend me. You must.

"I can't."

The creature looked at him with anger. Then her little face softened and she tilted her head. Images appeared before his eyes again, but this time, it was not her thoughts but rather his own memories that he saw.

Rhadine flashed before his eyes. His muse. From the moment he met her, poetry had exploded out his head like Athena leaping out of the skull of Zeus. He wanted to write for her forever.

Rhadine. His bride. Her unruly hair, refusing to be imprisoned by the hairpins, falling into her face as she read his poems with devoted fervor. The reward he valued the most was the smile upon his wife's face when she read his words and loved them more than she loved him.

Rhadine. Swelling with child. She chided and teased his sudden writer's block, but there was real worry upon her face. He drank then, for it made her face fuzzy and her concern blurred away. But then, the drinking would not stop.

Another flash, darker now. Their creditors, who had always congratulated him on his splendor, lined up outside his door, their faces cold and their outstretched hands demanding. The poems would not come. Absinthe would not help. Athena leaped no more.

The first innocent splatters of blood in Rhadine's handkerchief. It was the briefest flash but the most painful one.

The creature named Erato did not punish him with more memories after that. She understood well enough. Black tears welled in her eyes again.

Your muse is dead.

"Yes."

You still must help me, poet. You must find a way. You must help me to fly.

Sebastien let out a harrowing laugh. "Help you fly?" he said. "My sloth killed my wife. I cannot even feed or clothe myself. Now, you expect me to find wings for a broken fairy?"

You must. You must help me, and in turn, you will help yourself.

Sebastien gritted his teeth. "Stupid fay," he said. "Can you not see that I am beyond help?'

He had to get away from her. Without waiting for the next tirade of invading thoughts, Sebastien crawled out of his shelter into the hot Paris morning.

He walked towards anywhere and nowhere.

Erato's visions of Rhadine hurt more than he was willing to admit. For years they had built a life together and he had spent just as many years forgetting all the details of it. The gutter had been his friend and accomplice in the search for oblivion. Where the gutter had left off, the absinthe and witch's brews had taken over. But now, this fairy named Erato brought it all back in one swift invasion of his consciousness, and he could not get the images out of his mind.

He did not return until dawn, and even then, the flashes still played over and over in his head.

He would have rather been met by the irate scolding of Madame Louvalle than the tar-thick eyes of Erato. She was still in his shelter, pitiful in her unfulfilled glory. She huddled there with her chin resting patiently upon her knees. She had known that he would return.

He could see trust in her eyes. It bothered him.

"Erato," Sebastien said. "I am sorry that I birthed you before your time, truly. Perhaps there is a way for you to find your way home. But the poet is dead. I could not find you a solution, even if I tried. You must find somebody else."

The fairy looked at him. Disappointment and anger mixed in her eyes.

The muses help the poet. The poets help the muse. It is how it has always been.

He sighed. "What do you expect of me?"

Once again, one of those clear images invaded his mind. This one was not of his lost past, but rather, of her forfeited future. It showed the frivolous dance of her sisters, mothers and daughters; the joy of the world, the muses of all, whispering perfection into the ears of every artist, singer and composer in Paris.

But Erato was not there. She would never join that dance. She would never muse anyone to write, or sing, or compose, least of all him, unless he mended her and helped her to fly.

Find me wings, she imaged pleadingly. Find me flight, and I shall find you truth.

For days, they were at a standstill. Erato stayed in his shelter, which by now had become their shelter, curled up in a corner. As far as his five senses were concerned, she made no nuisance. His sixth, however, constantly felt her thoughts impressing upon his; images of Rhadine, images of her own world where she belonged, images of wings, ever-fluttering, ever-flying. Not even the deepest of intoxication could save him from the constant bombardment of Erato's mind. He knew that in a way, she was all the prayers he had prayed in his pathetic loneliness. She was the lifeline he had asked for. He knew she could lead him to the truth he had once lost… Yet he was afraid.

So, he ignored her for days. He even left the shelter when her thoughts were too angry for him to handle. He could not take that guilt.

He slept upon park benches and on cold, bare ground, but Erato could reach him with her thoughts even when he was blocks and blocks away from the alley. There was no hiding from her wrath.

On the fifth day after her arrival, her fury was overwhelming him. Her mind pushed itself into him with such anger that he stumbled across Paris in white, hot pain from her scathing consciousness. He did not realize that he was in the park until he smelled the familiar scent of tall grass and sun-kissed roses. It smelled exactly the same way as when he had proposed to Rhadine there years ago. Le Parc D'Ailes. Their park.

The little park lined the Seine. The winds still combed the silky grass in slow, caressing strokes. He remembered Rhadine's hair spread out over the grass as he kissed her. The memories were still there, lingering, like a covered, forgotten portrait of a perfect life. Butterflies danced in scattered harmony around the river's edge, partnered by the breeze.

They looked like lonely wings, purposeless. Seeing them, everything became so obvious.

The next morning, Sebastien brought Erato to Le Parc D'Ailes. She clung to his neck with her thin arms. She was so light that he could not feel her weight where she was seated on his shoulder.

"I found your wings," Sebastien said to Erato, pointing at the cluster of butterflies.

Those creatures can fly me home?

There was hope in her question, but also doubt.

"Why not? They are lithe, like you. Image to them what you image to me. You can woo them."

Sebastien sat down upon the grass and let Erato down as well. With trepidation, the gutter fairy approached the butterflies that fluttered above the grass. Sebastien felt a sting of guilt as none of the butterflies would even consider her. The fairy sang, she pleaded and she begged, yet her grimy hair and unsightliness frightened them. Each time she reached for them, they flared their wings with contempt.

She returned to him, defeated.

They will not have me, she lamented. Why would they? I am as filthy and broken a fairy as you are a poet.

"You are soiled."

With trembling hands, Sebastien reached inside his pocket. The flask was heavy with liquor. Enough, he knew, to keep him comfortably numb for days, yet not enough to make him write a masterpiece. Not ever.

Erato seemed to know what he was thinking. She tilted her angular head. Her tears streamed faster now, but with hope.

Pour it over me, poet, and it shall clean you and me both.

Sebastien opened the flask. The odor of the alcohol, which before had soothed him, now smelled sharp and sobering. He hesitated for a moment.

"Erato," he said suddenly. "Are you real? Or am I just a mad poet?"

Erato's thought seemed to smile at him.

Does it matter?

"No, I guess not."

So Sebastien emptied the flask's content over Erato.

What had once been amber cognacs, brown whiskeys, clear vodkas and green absinthe flowed over her hair and face. The liquid cleaned Erato's body as efficiently as it had tainted Sebastien's soul, and the tarry blackness flowed off her limbs. Underneath, her nakedness dazzled and she beamed at him with gratitude.

Her chase was easy this time. Now all the butterflies tried to charm her, but she searched long and well. Finally, she came upon her chosen stallion. Blue and brilliant, he searched the nectar of a poppy, but Erato easily distracted him. She leaned in to the butterfly and told him all her secrets, her sights and dreams, making promises of honey and sweetness in her world beyond.

The butterfly agreed, tantalized by her charms.

Erato wrapped her arms around the butterfly's neck. As if she was weightless, the butterfly carried her upwards. Higher and higher it soared, until the pair of them were merely a blue flutter far away. Erato's laughter pearled in the sky and she sent a sincere promise into Sebastien's mind.

Farewell, poet. I am leaving you. But I am not.

Then she cast images upon images upon him; of fairies and fays, of fawns and phantasms. Her grateful gifts rained down upon him in cascades of creativity, enough to fill pages upon pages with endless poems. Athena leaped in his mind, over and over.

Erato was complete.

And somehow, so was he.

* * *


Sylvia Hiven says: Born and raised in Sweden, I threw caution to the wind and moved to the United States when I was twenty-one years old. I currently reside with my husband in Atlanta, Georgia, where I work in the hotel management.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

What inspires me is the wonderful feeling of seeing words come together on the page in a cohesive tale, and have readers connect emotionally to my stories.

I am Golem

I am Golem
by Robert Shmigelsky

I am Golem


Almost as tall as these mountains,
wider than the trunk of a tree,
as unwieldy as cooled ore,
yet as gentle as a faun.
But as full as a shallow stream.

Rocks and pebbles rolled into body and bone.
Clumps of earth, between, jumble as I trundle.
Vines and leaves tangled into shirt and sleeve.
From emeralds green, from them I see
the walls of a chasm split asunder
after Gaia yawned and nudged two peaks over.

From hollows sculpted, at the side of my face,
so I can heed, from them I hear
an encompassing, restless wind
born from the distant bellow of a wind-swept peak
reflecting off frozen time and barrier
encompassing behind me tranquil, winter and kingdom,
enthroning this lord of storms.

This wind would tickle had I skin.
But I don’t. So, it won’t.
It only summons that not possessed:
the feels, tastes and smells granted to all men;
the feels, tastes and smells neglected to those like me.
And so up and down, here I pace, hither and thither
waiting this great wind to weather and dig
until rock and pebble become soil and dust.

* * *


Robert Shmigelsky is an aspiring fantasy writer taking English courses at Okanagan College to try to improve his writing. He says: Besides reading and writing, some of my hobbies include computers, football and history. I have a dry sense of humour, which I blame my stepfather for. Also, I have a habit of making history jokes no one but me understands. I am currently working as a certified care aide in beautiful British Columbia to support my writing.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

After just finishing writing a research essay on R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) about humanity's technological hubris, I would have to say the reason fantasy is so attractive to me personally is that it gives any writer the ability to visit worlds unlike their own, offering unique settings to get across those important messages to the reader. Of course, there's always the fun factor.

Oblivion

Oblivion
by Meghann McVey

Oblivion


“Good evening, boys. Rascalpia.” Elerdim, my father-in-law, helped himself to one of my husband’s whiskey shots. “The old dispute rages, I presume?”

“The inconstant sea will always be more difficult to map, Father,” K’harl said. I pounded the table with my fist to assert my agreement. While I sailed our boat, my husband recorded shallows and deeps, twists and turns, the emptying points of rivers and marshes. Jondahn’s land maps, which I inspected at my husband’s insistence, were skilled. Nonetheless, they could not compare to K’harl’s.

“I maintain, Father, that land is the trickier of the two.” Jondahn slid his oily smile from Elerdim to his brother. “I wonder if your so-called talents would serve you, should we trade places,”

“Of course they would!” I snapped.

Despite K’harl’s formidable size, his heart was as vulnerable as an unanchored ship in a storm; he doubted his own abilities, and his father’s love. That was part of the reason he chose me for his wife. I was as large as a man, with skin frequently as red as my hair from the cold salty air’s constant abuse. I had known neither mother nor sisters; with my father, I learned to sail, repair nets, and clean fish. My love made K’harl feel protected, but even I could not save him from himself.

“What an intriguing prospect.” Elerdim’s eyes were the gray-green of fitful waves. My father had told me that before my father-in-law settled down as a fisherman, he had gambled away several fortunes. “I should like to see the results of such a contest, too.”

“But why?” I said. “It seems pointless.”

“What could a woman understand of such things?”

I scowled. Unlike my father, Elerdim had never considered me an equal at sea, or any other aspect of manly life.

“Sons, I should like you to trade places as Jondahn has said. Then I shall know who shall inherit my fortunes upon my death, as well as my blessing.”

“Such stakes! Father, are you certain?” K’harl said. “I would gladly share your wealth and blessing with Jondahn. We are so near in age. It seems pointless to withhold a birthright for the sake of mere moments.”

I was reminded of Elerdim’s gambling legacy. Something my father always said about grog echoed in my mind: An ancient demon’s arm reaches through decades.

“I think it is a grand idea,” Jondahn said. “In addition to money and Father’s blessing, I shall at last find the answer to my question: which of us is the more apt cartographer?”

“You shall each set a place for the other to map,” Elerdim declared.

“Jondahn shall map the southern shoals,” K’harl said. “Since I will be absent from my work, he shall continue it.”

“You, brother, shall explore and chart the forest to the north.”

K’harl raised an eyebrow. “Is that to say no one has mapped it before?”

“Indeed.”

“But why?”

“It is a mysterious place, enchanted some say.”

“Now just a minute!” I banged my fist on the table, and our glasses jumped. “That’s not fair.”

“There is a way through,” Jondahn reassured us with his sea serpent charm. “That man by the fire tells of it to all who would listen. One who could map the forest would doubtless amass fortune and fame.”

K’harl and Elerdim stared raptly at Jondahn, but their minds were elsewhere. Elerdim, like most aging men, went weak in the knees at prospects like a long-lived name. And K’harl could not resist this chance to please his father. What they both overlooked, however, was that Jondahn served only himself. To venture into this forest would bring only grief. Before I could tell K’harl, however, he had already risen.

“Wait, love!”

He did not heed me. Disgusted with the whole situation, I stalked after him.

Near the fire, an old man sat wrapped in a bearskin. He had hacked a hole through the neck for his face to poke through, and the bear’s head rested atop his. A stench emanated from him and his garment, so powerful I almost thought I saw flies still buzzing around the bear’s ears.

“I’ve heard you possess knowledge of the forest to the north. Won’t you tell us about it?”

The man answered, not with words, but a grunting growl. Then the bear’s head dipped slowly downward. The man’s rumbling voice belied his feebleness, so powerful I could feel it between my ribs, competing with the rhythm of my heart.

“A Marinari wizard named Gregor created the forest–Oblivion is its name—entirely by magic atop the plains north of Kinsmeith. He chose that place because it was devoid of settlements, useful vegetation, or industry. The function of this foul maze of trees, as Gregor related it to me long ago, was to serve as a dumping ground for failed magical experiments.”

“Wait a minute! How would you know any of this?” I demanded.

The old man gripped his necklace of bear’s teeth so tight I expected blood to pour from his hand onto the floor. “I was once an esteemed lore master in the capital. However, I broke away in favor of a shaman’s aesthetic life.”

“Please, continue your story, sir.” K’harl’s pencil scribbled furiously atop the sketching paper he carried wherever he went, as though he were an acolyte taking notes.

I gaped at him. “You can’t be taking this old coot seriously!”

“I will have my father’s fortune!” he answered.

The old codger continued his tale.

“Because the mages and scientists conducting these experiments were nearly three hundred miles from the forest, Gregor established a portal which would serve as the center of Oblivion. In placing the portal, Gregor anticipated that some experimenters would desire to retrieve what they had thrown away, or attempt to recover the cast-offs of another researcher. To help them navigate Oblivion’s maze, Gregor made six areas, known as Constant Islands, immune to his illusion, which dominates the entire forest.

“This illusion, the most cunning enchantment Gregor ever wrought, affected Oblivion’s trees. Although they seem real enough, at random intervals, they change to mist and drift away to a new location, altering the forest’s configuration. Thus, Oblivion is a living maze with moving walls, from which nothing rejected by Aurinos’s experimenters shall escape.

“As to the Constant Islands, they consist of a clearing where the sun penetrates; the area containing Gregor’s portal; a cluster of solid trees growing close together in a circular formation; a black pool of water surrounded by mosses and lichens; a place haunted by a white stag; and a spot devoid of trees, but for a single stump where the guardian beast of Oblivion keeps its lair. One has only to pass through two Constant Islands to find the portal to the capital again and three to return to one’s point of entry. However, once one has exited, it is unlikely that a second journey through the forest will bring you to the same Constant Islands. And woe to those who come to the stump. The beast hungers ever; of Gregor’s spells, this one was too potent.”

I grabbed K’harl’s arm. “You can’t expect to map such a forest! Do not accede to your brother’s challenge!” I said as we returned to the table.

“If I do not, Father may give Jondahn my inheritance simply because I seem cowardly.”

“But the stakes are unfair!” Even as I warned K’harl, I knew profit preoccupied him. After all, the lore master had not said the forest was impossible to navigate, only exceedingly difficult. Finding the Constant Islands was the only way to the forest’s true path.

Had I been any other woman, I would have made a scene. As it was, I vowed to follow him into whatever peril we would face and protect him.

“I accept Jondahn’s challenge!” K’harl said when we returned to the table we had left.

“Are you certain?” Elerdim said. “It sounds very difficult compared to Jondahn’s task.”

K’harl stood straightened and fixed an unwavering gaze on Elerdim. “You need not doubt me, Father. I shall find a route through that plague of a forest.”

“It is decided then,” Elerdim said. “Jondahn has pointed out to me that if we base the task on your progress, K’harl, we might wait a long time. To prevent damage to your livelihoods, we have decided to restrict the reversal to one month’s time. Is this term agreeable to you?”

“Yes.” K’harl’s neck muscles bunched together. I wondered with a little shiver if he would start out tonight.

“So you’re saying that if K’harl maps the forest successfully within a month, he will win the inheritance,” I said.

“Yes,” Elerdim said.

“In that case, let’s go, dear. We’ll want to get an early start.” Actually I just wanted to get away from Elerdim and Jondahn. K’harl looked obstinate, but I planted my hands on my hips and whispered, “I will carry you out if you don’t come now.”

That got him to his feet. My husband is a formidable man in size and stature; otherwise I would not have been attracted to him. But I could hold my liquor better. When he drank, we became equals in terms of strength.

I scowled all the way home.

Long before I was ready to get up, K’harl woke me with the clatter of pots in the kitchen. I trudged in and found the table covered with bread, cheese, apples, and dried fish.

“What the hell?” My stomach tossed like driftwood in storm waters. I squinted against the lantern light.

“It’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next three days,” K’harl informed me.

“Wait just a minute.” I glared around the kitchen through smarting eyes. “Where’s the coffee?”

K’harl smiled sheepishly. I groaned and sat down at the table. He was just like a little boy before the May Day boat races.

“Tell me you aren’t excited about going to that forest.”

“I don’t like lies, Rascalpia. You know that.” He bent and kissed my cheek, out of caution for the alcohol remnants and morning breath.

“Jondahn is a self-serving bastard.” The few arguments I had with my husband usually opened in this manner. “He’s set you up so you will lose.”

As he always did, K’harl argued back, “Which is why it will be all the more stunning when I prevail. Father will have to acknowledge my skill then. In any case, my dear,” K’harl gave me a smile as devious as Jondahn was charming, “you had best get going if you want to come along.”

“I’m not going on a stupid hike! I’m a sailor!”

K’harl held up his hands, still smiling, and started out the door. I waited a few minutes, my heart pounding.

In ten minutes, I caught up to him.

“You’re crazy,” I spluttered. A loose cobblestone caught my toe, and the pewter mug I had filled with coffee sloshed onto my hand.

“Cal, are you alright?” K’harl stopped abruptly to inspect my hand. “That’s a nasty burn.” He whipped out his handkerchief, wrapped it around my hand, and said in all seriousness, “Do you think you can keep going?”

“I’m fine,” I insisted. Now that I was fully awake, there seemed no reason for my snappish tone. I would have to make it up to him somehow.

Beyond the north gate of Kinsmeith, winter held the land fast. The ground was hard, frozen in parts, I suspected.

During our comfortable silence, I found myself thinking of the benefits of beating Jondahn at his father’s bet. He’d never bring up the argument about the difficulty of mapping land or sea again. And I couldn’t say I would feel sorry to snatch his inheritance from him. Looking back on K’harl’s and my sea adventures, I recalled that past challenges had always brought us closer. What could possibly inhabit this forest that K’harl and I together couldn’t handle?

“How far to Oblivion?” I asked K’harl after the fifth hill. My husband shrugged. I sighed heavily, but before I could voice a complaint, we sighted the trees.

At first sight, I knew I would never see the like elsewhere. In the dusting of silver light, the forest was a mass of tangled shadows. The trees, twisted towers of darkness, spiraled skyward.

“Magnificent,” K’harl whispered. He reached out to touch the ancient bark, but the tree’s form wavered under his hand like a disturbed reflection in the water.

“Let’s not do this.” It was no plea that I uttered, but facing this forest, I felt fear like never before, even during the sea’s most violent storms.

“I must find the forest’s secret,” K’harl said. “Father and Jondahn will see.”

I trailed after him, wishing I had brought an axe. All that the lore master had told us tangled and unraveled in my head. Constant Islands, I reminded myself. That was what we were here to find. But how could one focus on Constant Islands when the trees themselves were inconstant?

Our first hour in the forest, I saw at least ten trees vanish and twice that number appear to block our path. Each time, K’harl patiently turned aside from the path. For me, I could determine no logic to his course. Wouldn’t a straight path through the forest better serve those few travelers mad enough to brave this way? It would certainly conserve our energies better.

At midday, we reached a massive ring of trees. It must have consisted of over a thousand trunks growing together in strange organic unity. Gaping in amazement, K’harl and I walked around them. Then he stopped and consulted his notes.

“Just as I thought. We have found the first Constant Island.”

After lunch, K’harl set to sketching, by lantern light because of the thick canopy above us. Having been married to him for over five years, I knew well the other kinds of magic his hands could weave, despite how large and clumsy they seemed. Watching the scene appear beneath his pencil was a miracle in itself. However, this drawing was different from the ones K’harl usually did.

“This isn’t a map,” I whispered into his ear. “It’s a sketch.”

K’harl smiled. “A traveler’s guide would be rather silly without pictures.”

“I don’t know.” I bit his earlobe and tugged. “You can be rather silly.”

Suddenly the pine scent, while it would never replace the salt perfume of the sea, was pleasant in its own right. K’harl sketched for a few more minutes while I teased him. At last he set it down and gave chase. We frolicked like sea nymphs until I could no longer stand it and let K’harl catch me.

After our coupling, I slept and dreamed I was back on our boat, the Wind Singer. “Beware! Beware!” the sea hiss-whispered.

I woke with a stiff neck. The gray winter light kept me from determining whether it was still this afternoon or the next morning. K’harl raised himself from my embrace, but he did not smile at me as he usually did. The dull light of the forest afternoon reflected strangely in his eyes. I dressed hurriedly, eager to finish with this forest and return to the sea.

Despite their name, the Constant Islands did not appear at a constant rate. K’harl and I ate as we walked, but saw no end to the maze of spectral trees, even well after the next mealtime.

“K’harl, I’m starving,” I complained at last. “And my feet are killing me. I have to stop and eat.”

“Not now, Cal.”

“What do you mean ‘not now?’” I increased my pace at great annoyance to my aching feet. To my surprise, K’harl had his sketchbook balanced in one arm, indicating the twists and turns of our path much as he charted our route at sea.

“What use are such notes here? The trees have such a strong will that they control whether they are or not!”

“It’s proof that I didn’t just sketch based on the lore master’s stories. If I can show a way from Constant Island to Constant Island and sketches of the seven, Jondahn will-“

“Why do you feel obligated to create more difficulties for yourself?” I interrupted. “There’s no way to map something completely random!” K’harl had no answer, so I sat down and tore off a hunk of bread. At last K’harl sat, too.

“I’m sorry, Cal. But when I think of that bastard flaunting my inheritance at us-“

“For that matter, why map all seven islands when three will do? Just fulfill your task,” I said.

After eating, we rose. Now that K’harl was not sketching, we made better time and came upon a constant island with a tree stump at its center. K’harl sketched it, while I explored. As I ran my finger along the gashes in the wood, my gaze fell on tracks that surrounded the stump. I had mistaken them at first for sinkholes or burrows of some sort. Closer examination revealed seven toes on each foot with distinct claws marks.

In a flash, I remembered what the lore master had said. In one of the Constant Islands lurked a beast that “hungered ever.”

“K’harl,” I whispered. “Are you nearly done sketching?”

“Barely half-finished, Cal.”

My stomach churned as though it would expel the food I had clamored to eat only a short while ago. Across from me, the bushes rustled. I backed up so fast that I crashed into K’harl. Pencil and sketchbook flew from his hands. “Do you remember what the lore master said about the beast?” I told him.

K’harl glared at me as he retrieved his sketching implements. “That it lived on a Constant Island with a tree trunk in the middle of it.” Then he seemed to comprehend his own words. “I’m certain I can remember the rest of the scene from memory. Let’s go, Cal.”

“Wait.” I caught his arm just as the bushes began rustling again. K’harl’s skin pebbled beneath my fingers. “What’s to say the beast won’t follow us?”

“Nothing,” K’harl said. “If it’s like any other beast. But Oblivion is like no other forest, so I imagine its guardian is unusual too.”

I recognized this talk as K’harl’s attempt to make a subtle plan of escape. Neither of us had weapons; it had never been our habit to carry them at sea because Kinsmeith waters were too rough for pirates and the cargo too poor. At every step, I wondered if our lack of foresight had been a fatal mistake. Suppose we returned to the forest corridors and encountered some of the discarded magic experiments transported here from the capital? Abruptly I clamped down on my thoughts, knowing if I gave them free rein, they would paralyze me.

“Come on, Cal,” K’harl said. “One more island. Then we can exit.”

“We had better,” I said. “Three islands grant passage through this forest! That should be more than enough for your father and Jondahn!”

Fog wrapped likes snares around our ankles as we exited the clearing. The leaves had fallen so silent it was as though they were carved of wood. However, I sensed unseen eyes watching us.
Every so often, K’harl turned to watch for motion from the bushes. I started doing it, too, wondering wryly what good it would avail to see the beast before it pounced.

Without warning, light filled my eyes to bursting, nearly sending K’harl and me stumbling in amazement. When I see that light in my memory, I realize it was only brown light, scarcely brighter than the sun’s faint winter efforts. Nonetheless, it was as the shine of a generation of riches upon my eyes.

The beast must have perceived how the light dazzled us, for it was here that it struck. It soared from the bushes, strangely graceful in flight. Then its shadow-seeming form landed with a thud that knocked my husband and me – both sturdy sea-farers – off our feet. I landed seated with my hands behind me. K’harl had kept his feet, but had been parted from his sketchbook. “Over here, beast!” he called in the voice that had shouted down storms.

The creature turned from me. A tar-black tongue crept from its mouth to touch its nose; how often I had seen our ship’s cat do the same. In fascination, I stared at the beast, its features clear to me now that my eyes had adjusted to the light. Its immensity could crush even my swarthy husband and me like toothpicks. Cutlass-sized barbs lined its spine and were especially concentrated at the end of its tail. It crouched; the deadly tail zipped past me. I dodged, only to watch in horror as it ripped out the middle of a tree.

“Go, Cal!”

“K’harl!” I yelled, motioning him toward me. The beast’s hide drew my eye, and I gasped in revulsion. Faces, all of them frozen in mortal terror, stared out of it. I could only imagine whose they were: magic experiments? Hapless travelers?

“I’m coming!” But K’harl’s eyes were on the sketchbook. Now the beast struck with a paw that moved so fast I could barely see it. K’harl rolled away with reflexes primed at sea. He might have broken and run then. Sometimes in the night I dream that he recovered his feet, rushed to me, grabbed my hand, and fled that evil place by my side.

Instead, the beast leaped toward him with a roar that caused me to clap my hands over my ears. Though I screamed in pain at the sound, I could not hear my own voice. During the keening wail that was the beast’s battle cry, I squeezed my eyes shut. I opened them just in time to see the beast’s tail arcing toward me, just as a cat would swish its tail before pouncing. The impact knocked me into breathless flight. When I landed, light surrounded me, so dazzling I thought the creature had killed me. At last the fuzzy outline of the trees came clear, and I realized I had been knocked clear of the forest. The clearing where K’harl and I fought the beast truly was the third constant island. But, K’harl! I sought around me with frantic false hope.

At last I could deny it no longer. K’harl remained behind, defenseless, with no chance of escape. I had no choice. Though I loathed the forest, I had to go in and get him out!

On trembling legs, I started for the trees. However, before I did, the lore master’s voice echoed in my mind. Even if I reentered the forest, there was no guarantee that I would be at the same place I had left. More likely I would materialize in those damnable tree passages. I could enter and exit in only three Constant Islands without ever seeing K’harl. Indecision tore at me until I collapsed.

“Come out, K’harl,” I whispered. “Please come out!” Tears raged in my eyes. Somehow I dragged myself back to the home we had shared, though I did not stay long. I stalked to Elerdim’s house, at the edge of town facing the sea. His wan visage matched the gloomy, fitful sea. I imagined I looked little better and wondered if the paternal love he had always hidden from his sons had alerted him to K’harl’s certain death.

“Rascalpia,” he said at last. “I have news for K’harl. The inheritance is his.”

“Do you mock me?” I reached for his throat to crush the mirth from it.

“Why, no! Do not be hasty!” he choked. Some wisdom compelled me to listen. “My dear, clever son Jondahn is dead. The contest is ended.”

“Dead?” I echoed numbly.

“For all his boasting, Jondahn was never a skilled sailor. He ran aground at the shoals. Since that is an area few sail without K’harl’s maps, no one dared venture out to rescue him.”

Even now, I still count it among my greatest feats of strength that I finally raised my eyes to Elerdim. “I have news that will grieve you further. Jondahn’s cleverness has killed K’harl. The forest beast swallowed him up.”

“Woeful day!” Elerdim moaned. “I should not have goaded my boys against each other!”

Though my sorrow afforded me empathy for my father-in-law, I had no comfort for him. As much as I wished it, this was not to be our last meeting.

Oblivion 2


Although I never found K’harl’s body, I placed a marker to him on the outskirts of the forest. One day when I came there to pray for his soul and remember our time together, I found his sketchbook half-hidden under a bush. How I cursed the forest. I almost gave in to its trick, plunging into its depths to see if I could find his body.

K’harl’s sketches of the three Constant Islands were all intact, and so I brought the book to Elerdim. “So you see, K’harl did what he could to ease travelers’ journeys through the forest.”

At this, Elerdim burst into tears. “Ah, K’harl. How I wish I had not ignored your quiet deliberation, your dedication to all you pursued.” He wiped his face on his ragged shirt, then turned to me. “Forgive me, Rascalpia. This praise comes too late for my dear son. K’harl was the better cartographer.”

I found a measure of forgiveness for that poor wretch then.

Elerdim sighed. “I can never atone for my short-sightedness. But that is inconsequential. My time draws near, and that shall be the first thing I will tell K’harl. In our eternity together, I shall learn what manner of man he was, unhindered by my vices.”

I put my arms around the old man then. Even so, much time passed before I could shake off my own bitterness. Although Elerdim could expect to reunite with K’harl soon, I faced a long, lonely life of memories and what-ifs. Sometimes, sailing our ship, converted to a fishing vessel, I hoped an accident would bring me unexpectedly back into my love’s presence.

One night was to change all that. In a dream, I heard a tapping at the window. When I opened the shutters, I saw K’harl, awash in ghostly silver moonlight. In life, my husband rarely smiled. His mind was always occupied with perfection on his canvas or concentrating on the scene before him. Though he looked on me with love, his smiles were always small and inhibited. I always thought of them as the first shy rays of sun to sneak through the winter clouds.

But in this dream, his smile was an unabashed beam. Looking into his eyes, I knew the cause at once. At the cost of his life, K’harl now knew the full measure of his abilities and his father’s love.

* * *


Meghann McVey holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Creative Writing concentration from Louisiana State University and is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at Cal State Fullerton. She is keenly interested in other languages, particularly Japanese, and also enjoys Disneyland and the beach. Ray Bradbury is her favorite author. Her website www.myspace.com/lachlan_of_marinus contains information about Lachlan of Marinus, her first novel which has been accepted for publication by Westbank Publishing.

Where do you get the ideas for your work?

Meghann’s ideas are a Frankenstein’s monster built from her daily experiences and fused together with the profound thought dimensions her favorite authors, artists, and videogame designers have opened to her. Yet it is music in countless forms that bestows the essential spark of vitality on all her creations.

Unencumbered

Unencumbered
by Holly Day

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oh, the whirr of wheels and wire and endless
scraping of skin on silvery track, my sleep, the scrape of skin on
splintered wood and wondering what they’ll say when they find me,
the rush, the roar, racing toward the light
the fading, floating echo of speed
oh, the imagined eyes of an imaginary crowd as the train
pull into the station, the concrete landing,
the eyes of the crowd opening wide
as the train pulls in and the hands reach out
trying to catch me, stop me,
much, much too late
oh, I love a train

* * *


Holly Day lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Her most recent nonfiction book publications include Music Theory for Dummies and Walking Twin Cities, while her poetry has most recently appeared in Skidrow Penthouse, Iota, and Iodine Poetry Journal.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

I’ve been writing my whole life (as most writers have) and for publication since I was 15 (nearly 24 years ago), so I don’t really think about what keeps me writing. It’s more a compulsive routine for me now than anything—forgetting to sit and spend some time on my writing would be as strange to me as forgetting to make my children lunch. What inspires me to write? It’s everything in the world around me. It’s my cat, my family, my garden, newspaper headlines, TV sitcoms, the dead squirrel I had to fish out of the rain gutter yesterday, etc., etc.. It would be impossible to write about everything that inspires me.

Your Evil Horde Needs You

Your Evil Horde Needs You
Stuart Sharp

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Marie stared across her desk at the figure Ms Harrison had brought with her. He seemed very nervous, though that was usual for anyone who spent more than half an hour or so in her boss’s company. He was also shrouded from neck to ankle in a voluminous black robe, which wasn’t quite so usual. Other than that, his appearance seemed normal enough. Perhaps a little lacking in the chin department, but still ok. When you considered that she was nearly thirty, only blonde because the bottle said so, and never quite got as much exercise as she promised herself she would, Marie decided that she was hardly in a position to comment.

The only real oddity was his name.

‘Dark Lord Vicious?’ Marie repeated, unable to help herself even though it wasn’t very professional. ‘Is that what your mother calls you?’

‘Well, no. She used to call me “That Little Idiot”. My old school chums generally call me “Sticky”. A few early misspellings, unfortunately. Is that any use?’

‘Um… possibly not,’ Marie began, but stopped, because Ms Harrison was staring at her.

It has to be said that most people would have stopped when Ms Harrison stared at them. Indeed, it seemed to Marie that, at some point approximately forty years ago, someone had decided that the head of Harrison Recruitment and HR should be built from the eyeballs outwards. From the severity of the bun she tied her brown hair into, to the unforgiving cut of the suits she invariably wore, everything about her seemed to be designed to put people at their unease. The worst part was that she didn’t even seem to notice she was doing it, because she invariably spoke like everybody was getting along wonderfully, possibly in the belief that eventually they might.

‘Well, what can we do for you, Mr… um, Vicious?’ Marie tried.

‘We’ve been implementing a full HR programme for the dear Dark Lord,’ Ms Harrison explained, before Vicious could open his mouth. ‘Now though, it seems that we need to action a recruitment drive for him as well.’

‘Really?’ Marie asked. ‘Why’s that?’

‘Well, it’s a bit embarrassing, really,’ Dark Lord Vicious said. ‘My Evil Horde has… resigned.’

‘Your… evil horde?’

‘It’s Evil Horde, actually. The capitals make it sound gloomier, you see.’

Marie blinked as she tried to fit the words into the world as she knew them. The closest that she could get was a vague suspicion that it might be the latest term for the people you employed, “staff” and “personnel” having gone out of fashion. She looked hopefully at Ms Harrison, who smiled a not altogether comforting smile.

‘Perhaps it would be easiest if we just showed her,’ Ms Harrison said to the Dark Lord. ‘Now, Marie, I know you’re a young woman looking to go far in Recruitment, so hopefully this won’t come as a shock.’

Marie was about to utter the words “what won’t come as a shock”, but that is, unfortunately, the defining characteristic of shocks. They don’t give you much time to ask questions. Dark Lord Vicious stood up, muttered a couple of words under his breath, and the world… shifted.

Marie looked up at the ceiling of the great hall that seemed to have replaced Harrison Recruitment’s offices. She looked round at the guttering torches and ancient tapestries. She looked for a long, long moment at the great throne of skulls at one end. Then she did the only sensible thing under the circumstances, and passed out.

* * *


Dark Lord Vicious waited while Ms Harrison returned from dragging her colleague into one of the anterooms to have a rest. Almost nothing seemed to be going well at the moment. First, he’d inherited this stupid Dark Lordship, when he’d fully expected it to go to his older brother Nasty. He hadn’t wanted it, but unfortunately, the dragon that ate Nasty had apparently had other ideas. Then, when Vicious had tried to do things properly by getting in an expert, his Horde had packed their bags. Now, the woman hired to get him a new Horde didn’t seem to be taking the transfer between worlds very well.

‘How is she?’ Vicious asked when Ms Harrison returned, then regretted it instantly. That wasn’t the sort of question a Dark Lord should ask, was it? Or at least, not how he should ask it. ‘That is, I abjure thee, o’ hag, to inform me-’

‘Now, Dark Lord, we’ve spoken about using language like that in the workplace, haven’t we?’ Ms Harrison didn’t raise her voice. She just sounded disappointed, which was somehow worse. ‘Marie will be fine. She’s woken up and I’ve explained all about there being alternate worlds. She’s practically stopped screaming, too, so she should be able to get on with finding you some new employees shortly. Of course, first, I think we should have a little chat about what you consider to be desirable and essential qualities, about your pay grade structure, and about your equal opportunities monitoring policy.’

Dark Lord Vicious didn’t say anything, mostly because he was still trying to work out what the things Ms Harrison had mentioned actually meant. Even so, there was a part of him that suspected things might have got just a touch out of hand. Not that he’d say as much, of course. He’d tried that when Ms Harrison had been putting together what she’d called a “structured annual assessment programme”, and she’d stared at him before explaining several of the finer details of EU employment law at length. The stare had been so unnerving that Vicious hadn’t dared to point out that technically, they weren’t in the EU, but the Plain of Infinite Desolation.

Even so, he felt he had to say something this time.

‘Are you sure your colleague is up to the job on her own?’ he asked. ‘Only, there’s only one of her, and generally, most people use whole gangs when they’re press ganging people. Hence the name, I suppose.’

‘We won’t be needing any of that.’ Ms Harrison said. ‘I have every confidence in Marie’s abilities. She is very experienced when it comes to head-hunting.’

‘Oh, is she?’ Vicious brightened a little. ‘I knew some of those once. Lovely chaps. Of course, you had to watch them around knives. Even so-’

‘Look, your Dark Lordship, do you want to trust me, or do you want to do all this yourself?’ Ms Harrison stared at him again.

That was the crux of it, of course. If he didn’t trust them to get on with it, Vicious would soon find himself having to run his Evil Empire on his own. Even if that Empire currently amounted to a castle, a village, and not quite enough desolate wasteland to fit in a football pitch, it still seemed like awfully hard work.

‘I didn’t mean to imply anything other than trust, of course,’ Vicious said hurriedly. ‘It’s just that I’m… eager. Yes, that’s right. Eager to get my new Horde together. Can’t be a Dark Lord without a proper Horde, you know. What if one of the other chaps were to look over unexpectedly? I’ve already had snooty comments from Mad Lord Vile about the state of my goblins, as though his are anything to write home about. And what if heroes were to show up unexpectedly? I’d look like a terrible host, having no Horde for them to fight. Oh, it’s all too much.’

Vicious threw himself back onto his throne of skulls and sighed. To his surprise, Ms Harrison patted his black robed arm in a way that would probably have struck him as maternal, had his own mother not been so fond of employing a battle-axe at this sort of point.

‘I’m sure it will be perfectly all right,’ Ms Harrison reassured him. ‘Marie will have you a new Evil Horde together in no time.’

* * *


It was all going wrong. Marie tried to force herself to smile as she sat behind the little desk in the taproom of the Smashed Glass, but she couldn’t manage it. And it wasn’t just because the inn was a flea-infested pit whose customers gave her funny looks when they weren’t studiously ignoring her.

It had rather more to do with the fact that, in the week she’d been trying, Marie hadn’t been able to attract a single suitable applicant for her client’s horde. She’d put up the posters of Dark Lord Vicious pointing and saying “Your Evil Horde Needs You”, only to discover that the sight of a particularly weedy Dark Lord wasn’t the incentive she’d hoped. She’d come to places like this, and put up with leather clad barbarians mistaking her for a wench, only to find that the only interest she got was from the wenches, who wanted to talk to her about giving secretarial temping a go. They seemed to think that it couldn’t be any worse than wenching. Secretly Marie doubted it, but she took their details anyway.

Placing adverts with every newspaper, town crier and stone monument craftsman Marie could find had yielded exactly three CVs. Of those, two candidates didn’t seem to have any relevant experience, while the third, who listed his hobbies as “razing cities, slaughtering the inhabitants and flower arranging” worried her. Besides, even if Marie hired all three, that wasn’t enough for an evil barbershop quartet, let alone an Evil Horde.

Marie was so caught up in her gloom that she hardly noticed when one of the wenches sat down opposite her. The young woman coughed politely, and Marie forced herself to focus.

‘Oh, hello, Sandra. Sorry about that. Look, if it’s about the temping, I’m not sure if your shorthand is really going to be good enough. Though I suppose we could fix you up with some sort of distance learning course.’

Sandra nodded.

‘That would be nice, but that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. It’s just… I think you might be wasting your time, and that seems a shame.’

‘Wasting my time? Oh, I’d like to think that with a positive attitude and a few tried and tested recruitment strategies…’ Marie tailed off. It had been a long week. ‘Ok. Why do you think I’m wasting my time?’

‘Well, the rumour is that Lord Vicious has totally ruined the place, at least according to my cousin Rargag. He used to be a guard there. He reckons that the whole place has gone to pot, and that now no self respecting evil henchman will work for Vicious.’

Marie winced. That did, indeed, sound like she was wasting her time. Still, Marie was nothing if not resourceful, especially once the thought of being stared at by Ms Harrison raised its head.

‘Sandra, do you think there’s any chance I could speak to your cousin? Possibly to a few other former members of the Horde too?’

Sandra raised an eyebrow.

‘Um… are you sure? I mean, it should be ok, if I vouch for you, but there’s always a faint chance that you could be eaten, or dragged off to a goblin slave mine, or sacrificed to some weird spider-god. Some of my cousin’s friends can get a bit… intense.’

Marie thought about the possibility of being sacrificed to a passing evil deity. Then she thought about what Ms Harrison would be writing in her next annual appraisal if Marie didn’t sort this out.

‘I think I’ll risk it.’

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At the sound of the doors to the Great Hall scraping open, Dark Lord Vicious looked up hopefully from his throne of skulls. A couple of bits of paperwork fell from the pile as he did so, and Ms Harrison looked at him reproachfully.

‘Now, Dark Lord, how are we supposed to put together a proper employee handbook if you keep dropping things?’

Vicious didn’t answer, because he was too busy being surprised at the sight of Ms Harrison’s colleague making her way across the floor, supported by another woman. When she’d disappeared a couple of days before, Vicious had expected that something horrible had happened to her, on the basis that around here it usually did. Yet here Marie was. She looked like she’d been in the wars though, or if not that, then at least a drinking game with a couple of trolls. She had a bandage on her brow, enough dirt covering her to suggest that she’d rolled down a hillside at least once, and she seemed to be limping.

‘I think I’ve found the answer to your recruitment problem,’ Marie said once she was close enough. ‘Or at least, the reason why no one will work for you.’

‘You have? That’s wonderful!’

‘Don’t be so sure. I spoke to a few of your old Horde, you see. And then, because I wanted to be sure, I talked to a few more. I forget exactly how many.’

‘The goblin tribes, the dark elf witches, and the ogre ladies’ embroidery circle,’ the woman beside Marie supplied. Vicious let out a sound of surprise.

‘But that must have been incredibly dangerous! The goblins fire arrows at all intruders…’

Marie pointed casually to the bandage around her head.

‘…and the dark-elves live in caves accessible only by treacherous slopes…’

Marie glanced down at her dirt-covered appearance.

‘…and the ogres…’

‘Leave scatter cushions lying around where people can trip over them,’ Marie supplied, carefully keeping the weight off her foot, ‘and they all say more or less the same thing. They think that you don’t care about them.’

Dark Lord Vicious stood up from his throne of skulls in anger, sending paperwork clattering to the floor. He winced, knowing what Ms Harrison’s expression would be at that.

‘Now see here, that just isn’t true!’

‘Isn’t it?’ Marie insisted.

‘Well… I did get in a proper expert, didn’t I?’

‘So that you wouldn’t have to deal with things yourself?’ Marie suggested. Vicious bristled again. Mostly because it was the only thing he could think of to do.

‘It isn’t like that at all! Well… not entirely. That is, not what you might call completely. That is-’

‘Marie!’ Ms Harrison snapped from beside him. ‘What do you think you’re doing, talking to a client like this? The Dark Lord did exactly the right thing, hiring us. Why, he didn’t have any of the proper procedures in place before I got here!’

‘The Horde says that’s the problem,’ Marie countered. ‘They don’t like the new procedures. They really don’t like being thought of as human resources. Particularly not when they aren’t human. The ogres say it makes them sound like sissies.’

Ms Harrison rose from her spot beside the throne of skulls and treated Marie to her full stare. Funnily enough, after a few days of dodging arrows, landslides and carelessly discarded pins Marie didn’t find it all that intimidating.

‘Now see here, Marie! You know as well as I do how important these procedures are. Why, without something like a proper dispute resolution process, how is anyone supposed to resolve their issues with management? Tell me that.’

‘The Horde said that under the previous Dark Lord they had a dispute resolution process,’ Marie answered. ‘Apparently, they’d go to him to complain, and he’d listen, and then afterward…’

‘…Father would open a big trapdoor down into the Pit of Really Unpleasant Things, and if they got out again he’d let them go back to their jobs with no complaints,’ Vicious finished wistfully. ‘I’d forgotten about that.’

‘You’ve forgotten a lot of things,’ Marie insisted. ‘Do you know what they said when I told them about annual bonuses? They said that they never used to need them, because…’

‘…they always used to get shares of the loot from the ravaged cities.’ Vicious nodded. ‘I remember. And Father always used to take the one who’d been hanging around at the back, and put him in the big catapult on the roof and see how far away he landed.’ He smiled. ‘He always used to say it was good for morale. And there would be annual days out for all the troops. Well, I say days out. More mini-invasions, really, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.’

‘But this is all nonsense!’ Ms Harrison insisted. ‘That’s not proper employee relations!’

Marie stepped close to the Dark Lord and put an arm around him. Not least because it gave her an excuse to keep her weight off her injured ankle.

‘Do you think that’s what the Horde would say, Vicious? It seems to me that they enjoy the Evil Overlord approach to things a lot more than the other sort. And you know, I think you do too, only you won’t admit it.’

‘Well… it’s just that… I was never prepared for this, you know. What if I do something wrong?’

Marie gestured in a way that took in the emptiness of the great hall.

‘Worse than this?’

Dark Lord Vicious went still, thinking. He stalked back to his throne and sat down. Marie followed him.

‘So what you’re saying is that I don’t need all… this?’ Vicious picked up a sheet from the fallen papers.

‘Not unless you have the urge to take up origami,’ Marie said. ‘If you think about it, you already have almost-’

‘That’s a lie!’ Ms Harrison all but screamed. ‘This place is absolute chaos!’

‘But it’s supposed to be-’ Vicious began.

‘Shut up! You’re an idiot, so just shut up! You hadn’t got the faintest idea! Well, I’m not letting you ruin things now. We have a contract!’

Ms Harrison glared at them, and Vicious winced. Marie, though, simply smiled.

‘Ms Harrison, that sounds like you disagree with the Dark Lord’s position.’

‘Of course I disagree! And you! How could I have been stupid enough to ever hire you?’

‘So what we have here is a… dispute?’

It took a moment for Vicious to get that, and another to find the right skull on the throne. As a result, Ms Harrison had time to leap back before the trapdoor opened.

‘You think you’ll get rid of me like… oh.’

She looked down as the tentacle shot up from the trapdoor, wrapping neatly around her ankle. Her last words, as the thing dragged her into the Pit, sounded to Marie a lot like “This is a clear breach of contraaaargh!” The trapdoor closed after her with a snap.

Dark Lord Vicious sat back with something approaching satisfaction.

‘You know, that was more fun than I’ve had in ages. Now, all I need is my Horde back. Um… you can get me my Horde back, can’t you?’

Marie nodded, and gestured to the other woman.

‘Dark Lord Vicious, I’d like you to meet Sandra. She’s just decided to go into the recruitment industry, and thankfully her previous experience is perfect for this.’

‘Really? What’s her previous experience in?’

Sandra bobbed a curtsey.

‘That would be serving lots of beer, Milord.’

* * *


Gnarl the goblin woke up with the sort of pounding head that suggested someone had been using it for a drum. He sat up, and saw that he wasn’t alone. Around him goblins, ogres, even dark elves were waking up and groaning in a way that made it clear they all wished that they were dead. Or that someone was, anyway.

They seemed to be in some sort of big room, which was odd, because the last thing Gnarl could remember was being in his cave, drinking the beer that travelling brewery samples woman had brought. Not that Gnarl had known that breweries offered free samples like that. Afterwards, there was just a big blank spot. And now he was here.

Dimly, Gnarl was aware of a black-robed figure standing at the front of them and talking. Gnarl struggled to focus. Actually, there seemed to be two figures. The black robed one, and a blonde human woman in a suit, who seemed to be holding a crossbow and whispering in his ear when he stalled.

‘Now listen up, you… scum, thank you Marie. I am… your Dark Lord, and you will obey or…what was it again? Oh, right. Or I will blast you into oblivion and use your ashes in my window boxes!’
Gnarl’s aching brain cells weren’t working at their best. Consequently, it was another goblin who stood up and said the obvious.

‘’ere, you’re that Dark Lord Vicious twerp. We ain’t working for- aargh!’

Gnarl watched the woman reload her crossbow.

‘Any other questions or comments?’

Gnarl put up his hand cautiously.

‘Um… your Dark Lordship sir? You aren’t going to make us have a structured pay scale and company pension scheme, and all that, are you? Only, if you are, I think I’d rather be shot.’

Gnarl tried not to wilt under the stare of the Dark Lord.

‘Pay scale? You’ll be lucky if you get kitchen scraps, goblin! And when your use to me is done, I will feed your soul to the… hang on, I wrote this down somewhere… to the Thing With A Thousand Eyes in exchange for… well it looks like “squiggle squiggle balloon”, but I suspect it may be “some hideous boon”. Is that good enough?’

Gnarl thought about it. He could see the others doing the same. It wasn’t quite his father. But on the other hand, person specifications hadn’t been mentioned once. Gnarl grinned.

‘Absolutely, Your Dark Lordship sir!’

* * *


In the darkness of the Pit of Really Unpleasant things, Ms Harrison stared. Several dozen eyes, stared back. Mostly, they seemed fascinated that anything could stare as well as they could. A Globular Thing chittered in the shadows.

‘No, no, no!’ she snapped back. ‘“Let’s all rush her at once” is not the way to go about things. Look, which of you is in charge here?’

The general silence that followed told Ms Harrison everything she needed to know. She sighed.

‘Then it seems I’ll have to start at the beginning. Right, lesson one: role definitions and organizational structures…’

* * *


Stuart Sharp is a writer and medieval historian currently living in East Yorkshire. His fantasy writing has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Semaphore, and Aphelion. His urban fantasy novel Searching is published by Double Dragon Publishing.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

They say that literary fiction holds a mirror up to life. Fantasy still does the same thing. It just happens to be one of those distorting mirrors you get at fairgrounds. The fantastic elements create enough distance to let you write freely, or they provide amplifications of things, but they're not an end in themselves. To put it another way- it's not about the goblins.