“The Tyrant and the Fog” by Dennis Mombauer

A thick and heavy fog was hanging over the street, a theater curtain possessed by unnatural life. If the Castaway extended his arm, the fog swallowed his hand, transmuted it into something strange, a black claw or a hovering insect.
O
The Castaway looked around, searching for some point of reference, something familiar. The fog ebbed in a hypnotic rhythm, as if this place was located in the middle of a wasteland raked by silent bomb impacts.
O
Why had he come here? The Castaway’s eyes found shapes to both sides, a wall to the left, a wall to the right, scarred asphalt in between.
O
O
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” sang the scarecrows, and their tattered rag-arms flapped in the breeze.
“The tyrant created the world.”
“The tyrant created the city.”
“The tyrant sent down the fog.”
O
O
“Hello?” The Castaway’s voice vanished into the mist like a floating probe, faded away past the edge of his hearing. He put forth one foot to check the firmness of the ground, then moved his other leg. Step by step, he followed the street, wondering if he walked through a dream or waking reality. He had never seen a place like this … it couldn’t be real.
O
There was something in the eerie smog before him, a dark bulge as high as his waist. A woman sitting on the ground, her back against the naked concrete wall. Where her lower body was supposed to be, only a black hole gaped, filled with a tangle of wires instead of blood and entrails. She looked at the Castaway with empty eyes, too far gone to recognize him, and the Castaway stared back.
O
“Hey!” The voice hissed like a sudden gas leak, and the Castaway span around. Something moved toward him, someone, and with every hammering heartbeat the creature transformed from a formless shadow more into a human being. It was another woman, and she was spitting out words: “Away from her! She is not yours!”
“I just wanted to help her.” The Castaway showed his empty palms. “What happened to her? Where are we?”
O
“Go away!” The woman came closer, and the Castaway stepped backward. Her hair was sticky with crude oil, or maybe something more reddish. “The fog, it doesn’t dissipate.”
O
The woman’s voice became softer now, pawing at the Castaway’s ear canals with retracted claws: “It has been months since I found myself here, perhaps years, and the fog has always stayed the same. Everyone is running, but no one can find a way out … no one can escape the tyrant.”
O
She planted herself between the Castaway and the breathing corpse on the ground, and fog oozed out of the walls around her. The Castaway walked away, and the women receded into the distance, became blurred until they finally dissolved into swirling nothingness. 
O
The Castaway’s feet carried him through a world which knew no transitions, not between house walls and the sky, not between up and down, inside and outside. Everything was coated with the same grey that surged the streets like waterless tides.
O
Every so often, there were patches of graffiti on the walls, yellow symbols, some kind of rash on the skin of the city. Did they depict drops, tears or pearls, maybe eyes without pupils? They engaged the Castaway’s gaze as if they had activated some secret engine inside him, all pumping pistons and revolving wheels. In his mind, he saw a man, then a woman, a big group of people dissipating and melting into the fog, nothing more than pale cremains and chalky bone-sand.
O
What did all of this mean? The Castaway was not alone in this place, but so far he seemed the only person still in their right mind.
O
O
The scarecrows gawked into the distance, and dry tears ran from their painted eyes.
“The tyrant has put his mark on the city and everything in it.”
“So say the philosophers.”
“So says the world.”
O
O
The Castaway noticed that he had stopped, that all but the most vital muscles in his body had ceased working. The fog descended on his consciousness, made it brittle like annealed firewood. With every thought, mist swirled up under his steps, engulfed him and rubbed off all corners. He felt like a diver on the seafloor, deaf and mute, every motion endlessly sluggish under the pressure of a thousand atmospheres.
O
No. The Castaway shook his head, and thick layers of dust loosened from his brain while the frozen neural pathways thawed. He couldn’t stay here, he had to search for a way out, for answers. His steps didn’t make any sound on the asphalt, and it felt like he wasn’t moving at all. Something gleamed through the fog, a sphere of orange light, and the Castaway steered toward it.
O
The orange sphere mutated into a street lamp under which a small path was visible. Green appeared out of the fog, mossy grass under old trees, some kind of park or garden. Where the light ended, three figures loomed, motionless shapes with outstretched arms and raised heads; but before the Castaway could take a closer look, someone shouted at him:
O
“Hey!” A man approached, not hasty but with determined steps. “Are you a human being?”
O
“Yes.”
O
“You sure?” The stranger carried an assault rifle with a mounted flashlight and inspected the Castaway over its barrel.
O
“What?” The question was grotesque, but the Castaway pushed away his confusion:
O
“Don’t you hear me talk? Please, tell me where I am and what I should do. How can I go back to the place I came from?”
O
O
The scarecrows turned in the wind, and their outstretched stick-hands clapped together, plick-plack, like the wheel of a watermill.
“Do what you want: Only this will get you further.”
“Do what you should: It is your duty.”
“Do what you must: You have no choice.”
O
O
“You won’t find what you search inside the fog and you won’t find it inside the city. It doesn’t exist.”
O
“But there is an outside? Some border of the fog?”
O
The man with the rifle nodded: “Of course.”
O
“Please lead me out of this fog.” What did the Castaway have to lose? His clothes and a handful of change? He was trapped in a nightmare, and if this stranger could help him wake up, it was worth a try.
O
The man with the rifle shrugged, indifferent to the Castaway’s cause: “Follow me.”
O
His flashlight seemed to whirl up but not disperse the fog, a sun ray in a dusty attic. The street crossed other streets, travelled through a maze of byroads, beneath pedestrian bridges and past underground garages, all of which were turned alien by the fog. There were no lights behind the apartment windows, no parked cars, not even garbage–no sign that this place had ever been inhabited.
O
Something rattled in the distance, a sound as cold as dropped chains or the falling hammer of an oil rig. Wasn’t there movement besides the restless haze?
O
The Castaway could vaguely perceive figures at a distant intersection, and by their strained arms and hunched backs, he could tell that they were dragging a heavy burden behind them.
O
“Who are these people?”
O
“Workers.” The man with the rifle only gave a casual glance to the creatures while they slowly disappeared behind the corner. “They have been working since the fog has descended, maybe even longer. Let’s get moving.”
O
What choice did the Castaway have? His guide led the way, and he followed him while the fog bubbled up from every crack and crevice. It seemed as if the work floors in a hundred factories had slipped into gear and were blowing exhaust fumes out of their chimneys: as if some hidden machinery deep inside the city had started its work. The fog seethed and surged, reared up and scattered in silent explosions without blasting power.
O
The crying of an infant echoed from the walls and through the fog, or maybe the call of some animal. Cats could cry like babies, some bird species could emulate them, and apes were so close to humans that their young might sound similar …
O
“Don’t listen. There are children being born inside the fog, but mostly such sounds are tricks and traps.” The man with the rifle thrust his body through the mist like an icebreaker through the Arctic Ocean. The fog huddled against the light cone of his lamp, distorted it like everything else. The brightness swayed through nothingness, then it found walls with graffiti, yellow blisters on the city’s concrete flesh.
O
O
“Oh.” The faces of the scarecrows decomposed to form colorless grimaces, newspaper pages under a downpour.
“There is no way.”
“There is one way.”
A shower of straw breezed past the three figures.
“The tyrant is on every way. He guards them all.”
O
O
“Hold it.” The men raised his hand in a military gesture, as if they had suddenly stumbled onto a deserted battlefield. “Somebody is here.”
O
The Castaway peered in all directions until he found her: It was the woman he met at the beginning of his journey, who had chased him away. She held something bloody between her teeth, of which she yanked off pieces. The man with the rifle spat and barely missed a gasoline puddle.
O
“What … what is she doing? Is that …”
O
The woman turned her head sideways, like a hyena over its prey: “What I eat strengthens me. To strengthen me, others must die. I only do what the tyrant has always done.”
O
The man with the rifle spat again, then continued his march: “I have killed before but never nourished myself on it. Only for defense, or when there was no other choice. Come on.”
O
“Shouldn’t we do something?”
O
“There is nothing to do. Follow me, if you’re still searching for a way out.”
O
The fog spilled over the walls like a flash flood, so closely above them as if a multi-billion dollar cocaine cloud descended unto the streets. The two companions walked on in silence, and around them flakes of ash drifted to the ground.
O
“What is it now? Why are we stopping again?”
O
The man with the rifle nodded to the side, to a junction: “This is it.”
O
The asphalt of the street came to an end on barren soil, and to its sides, the last houses of the city rose. Behind them, as far as the eye could see, a wasteland stretched out under an empty sky: Not darkened by storm clouds or shrouded in smog, just empty. Blank. Undefined.
O
“This is it? The world outside?” The Castaway couldn’t avert his eyes. “But you … if you know the way … why do you stay in the fog?”
O
The man with the rifle shook his head, and his lamp light flitted aimlessly over the deserted plain. “There is nothing out there except hunger, cold and loneliness. Inside the fog, at least there are other people; at least there is a system.” He turned away: “I will retreat now. It is your decision if you want to leave or follow me back inside.”
O
“Yes … I know.” The Castaway stared into the emptiness beyond. “Are you the tyrant?
You’ve led me here, but I don’t think you will let me go any further.”
O
The man with the rifle didn’t smile, didn’t show any sign of confirmation. “Why shouldn’t I let you go? I’m as much the tyrant as you, or the cannibal, or the eternally toiling workers. If you want to go, you are free to do so: But where would you turn?”
O
O
And the scarecrows nodded with their heads full of straw.
O
)
END

 

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Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).

Dennis Mombauer, *1984, currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer of fiction, textual experiments, reviews, & essays on climate change & education. Translates both fiction & non-fiction. Writes fiction, textual experiments & essays on Climate Change & Education as well as English poetry acculturated with German. Translates both fiction & non-fiction. Editor & co-publisher of “Die Novelle – Magazine for Experimentalism“. Publications in various small- to medium-sized magazines & anthologies. German novel publication “Das Maskenhandwerk” (The Mask Trade) with AAVAA press in 2017.
Homepage: www.dennismombauer.com | Facebook: www.facebook.com/DMombauer

Dennis can be found on Twitter @DMombauer.

“One Slick Dragon” by Damon Garn

THE ABSURD ADVENTURES OF STROM AND ASH – A SHORT STORY SERIES CHRONICLING THE ANTICS OF A WACKY MAGE AND A DAFT DRAGON
O
***
O
From the historical writings of Bostonius the Legible, events having taken place one thousand years ago. Or so. Probably.
O
Strom Coalbeard, the Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar, was legendary among mages for his cruelty and malice. His partner, Ash Brightspark, was known as the Red Dragon of Death – his fiery breath so hot even the strongest armor melted in an eyeblink. On the party circuit these days they are known as Strom the Bomb and Ash with Cash. After several centuries of mixing healing potions, tequila and special brownies, they didn’t have it all together, but together they had it all.
O
Strom and Ash have begun another adventure. Having been gone from the Black Tower of Athar so long that they’ve forgotten where it is actually located, they begin to follow a series of clues that hopefully will bring them back to their Mislaid Tower.
O
They are being pursued by Sir Bertholomen (aka Sir Bert) and his trusty talking steed, Misker. The paladin is bent on fulfilling his life’s quest to bring Strom and Ash to justice for a bar tab they skipped out on a couple of centuries earlier. Once free of his quest, Bert can pursue his dream of being a wealthy fiction author.
O
In their first encounter with Sir Bert and Misker, Strom and Ash learned of a map maker in the Icecrystal Mountains who may have a map fragment showing Athar. They were flying toward the mountains, enjoying the warm weather…
O
***
O
Ash the dragon stretched as he flew. The sun warmed his wings. The air was fresh. A sound like frogs in mortal agony tortured his ears.
O
“Please quit singing, Strom,” pleaded the dragon to the wizard on his back.
O
“Sorry,” whined Strom. “I’m bored.”
O
“Can’t you read your spell book or something?”
O
“If I read it one more time I’ll have it memorized.”
O
“You’re driving me insane.”
O
“Humph. That happened long ago,” Strom muttered. Louder, he said “Say, is that snow on those mountains?” He pointed with his staff.
O
“Hey! Watch where you’re swinging that thing!” yelled Ash.
O
“That’s what she said,” answered Strom glibly. “Can’t you see the mountains over there?”
O
The nearsighted dragon could barely see the end of his nose, and would not have noticed much of anything within miles of them. He snorted noncommittally.
O
“Oh yeah. I forgot. You’re going blind in your old age,” the mage snickered, though he had seen quite a few birthday parties himself. “C’mon, let’s go over there. I think that’s the Icecrystal Mountains Sir Bert and Misker told us about.”
O
“How are we going to find one tiny human in that huge mountain chain?” asked Ash. “You got a spell for that or something?”
O
“Nope. We’ll just see what happens when we arrive. How many villages could there be in those mountains anyway? Besides, I don’t remember the last time we frolicked in the snow.”
O
“I hate snow!” the dragon argued. “I am a respectable, fire breathing dragon. A dragon does not frolic in the snow. I have the Brightspark name to uphold.”
O
“More like Buttspark, if you ask me. Jiminy, you big baby. It’s just snow. You’ll love it. Trust me.”
O
Ash groaned but obediently turned and flew toward the snowy mountain slopes.
O
***
O
Gliding high above the mountains, Strom and Ash finally saw signs of a town nestled among the peaks. There were several hundred houses and shops spread across a broad valley, as well as a good sized blue lake. Snow blanketed the town and surrounding mountains. Long avalanche chutes cut down the mountain slopes.
O
“Let’s try this place, Strom,” Ash said. “It’s certainly big enough.”
O
They landed some distance from the village. Ash used a spell to transform himself into a male elf. They’d learned long ago that a dragon landing on Main Street was an unwelcome sight for most settlements. He took the form of a wizened old elf, with long reddish hair and deep black eyes. For fun, he retained long fangs in his otherwise handsome face.
O
The two trudged up the road and into the town.
O
They stopped at a small coffee shop with a polearm over the door called Pike’s Perk to ask directions and get a warm drink.
O
“I’ll have a large coffee, no cream, no sugar,” Strom said to the barista.
O
“And for you sir?” she said politely to the “elf” next to Strom.
O
“I’ll have a tall half caff, half decaff latte, extra shot, with two pumps of sugar free raspberry flavor, low fat whipped cream, three shakes of chocolate shavings, soy milk, no foam, cherry on top, to go, with one of those little paper things so I don’t burn my fingers,” answered the dragon promptly.
O
“What the hell -?” Strom spluttered while the barista furiously scribbled notes.
O
“I like what I like,” Ash said primly.
O
“What happened to a regular old basic coffee?”
O
Ash and the barista both glared at Strom.
O
“Your friend is pretty unsophisticated,” whispered the barista to Ash.
O
“You have no idea, miss,” Ash rolled of his eyes. “He’s even more embarrassing in a sushi tavern. He once ordered fish sticks off the kids menu because he couldn’t pronounce anything else.”
O
“If you two are quite finished?” Strom said before heading over to a table.
O
Ash’s drink was brought over almost immediately. The barista had to look up the procedure for Strom’s coffee and it took her three tries to get it right.
O
“Do you know if there is a good map maker in town?” Ash asked her.
O
“You mean a cartologist?”
O
“Um, sure.”
O
“Yes, we have a very famous cartologist here. Her name is Daraga. Her shop is further on into town. She creates a bunch of different maps from her travels. With winter coming on, I doubt she’ll be on the road again until spring.”
O
***
O
The walls of Daraga’s map store were covered with maps of varying sizes and scales. Dusty globes lined shelves. Great cases of rolled maps consumed much of the worn wooden floor. Several large tables filled out the rest of the space. Behind a low counter stood three more immense tables with long sheets unrolled across them, anchored by a number of miscellaneous knick knacks. A dark haired woman with a long braid bent over one of the tables, meticulously drawing on one of the sheets.
O
“Be right with you!” she called, continuing her work.
O
Strom browsed the map displays, looking for references to his homeland of Athar. Ash took down one of the globes, admiring its detail.
O
Finally the woman stepped around the counter.
O
“I’m Daraga. How can I help you?”
O
“Strom Coalbeard,” said the mage with a bow.
O
“Ash,” said the dragon to her.
O
“Just Ash?”
O
“Yep.”
O
“Uh, ok.”
O
“We’re looking for a small country,” Strom said.
O
“Aren’t we all,” Daraga responded with a smirk. “I don’t sell those.”
O
“No no, I mean we lost the country.”
O
“You lost it? Did it fall out of your pocket or get lifted by a thief in the city?”
O
“Um. No. We forgot where it is.”
O
“You forgot? Where your country is?”
O
“We aren’t usually this irresponsible,” Ash assured her. “We haven’t been there in almost a thousand years.”
O
“A thousand years? You two are remarkably well preserved.”
O
“Thank you!” said Strom. “I don’t feel a day over seven hundred.”
O
“Er – right. It’s a good thing I like older men,” she leered at the mage.
O
“The country is called Athar,” said Strom nervously after a moment of her scrutiny. “Have you heard of it?”
O
“No, I can’t say that I have. I don’t recognize the name, but countries change hands regularly and they are often renamed. Do you have an idea of what region it was in?”
O
“No, those really aren’t the kind of details we keep track of,” sighed Ash.
O
“I see.” She thought for a moment, eying Strom again. “I’ll tell you what. I have some very old maps in storage. It will take me some time to find them. In addition, I’m pretty busy right now. How long did you plan to be in town?”
O
“We’re only here to meet with you before continuing our journey home.”
O
“Aw you know how to make a girl feel good. You came all this way to see little ole me.” She beamed at Strom. “I’d say you need to find a room for a few weeks. I’m backed up and those old maps will take a while to track down.”
O
“What are you working on that takes so much time?” asked Ash curiously. “Maybe we can help.”
O
“Not unless you can fly,” she replied.
O
“As a matter of fact…”
O
***
O
It took a while to work out a bargain. Once they convinced Daraga that Ash was really a dragon and could fly her high above the peaks to help her make more accurate maps, she immediately tried to hire them to work for her for a few months. Eventually the three of them agreed that Strom would have dinner with her once a week, Ash would fly her over the mountains on clear days so she could continue sketching possible trade routes, and Daraga would search her archives for any reference to Athar. Her crush on Strom was a source of amusement for Ash.
O
***
O
“Just one more peak, Ash,” said Daraga.
O
“You said that two peaks ago,” grumbled the dragon as he drifted toward the mountain top the map maker pointed to.
O
He landed on the steeply pointed summit. The mountain over looked Daraga’s village and offered an impressive view to the west. They could see many of the roads that bisected the area. Daraga was busy making sketches and taking measurements, attempting to give her maps as much accuracy as possible. She clearly worked very hard for her reputation.
O
Ash dozed, stretched out in the snow. Strom was digging through his bottomless bags, looking for something to do. Daraga often took an hour or more to make her drawings.
O
Strom was the first to notice that something was wrong. Daraga had been uncharacteristically quiet for several minutes. When the mage looked over at her, she was slumped over her sketchbook.
O
“Daraga? Daraga?” Strom shook her shoulder.
O
She didn’t respond. When he pulled her back toward him, she flopped limply into his arms.
O
“Ash!” called Strom. “Daraga is unconscious. I think the altitude got to her.”
O
“Bring her over and we’ll fly her down to the village.”
O
Ash grunted as Strom lifted Daraga on his back. “Give her a shot of that ole bottle you carry,” suggested the dragon.
O
Strom looked around guiltily. “Shhh. No one is supposed to know about that, you fool. You’ll make me look like a lush.” Nonetheless, he pulled a small flask from a hidden pocket. He placed it against the map maker’s lips and tilted it back.
O
“Open her mouth first,” Ash suggested as he felt the liquid dribble down his back.
O
“Oh, right.” Strom tried again, this time getting the woman to swallow some of the fiery liquor. With a surreptitious glance around, Strom took a long pull at the bottle himself.
O
“Hey! I saw that, old man,” cried the dragon.
O
“Shut up and fly, you relic,” returned the mage after a long belch. “Before we all freeze to death up here.”
O
During this exchange Daraga woke up and realized she was being cuddled by the old man chugging the contents of a flask.
O
“Well hello, my hero,” she murmured. Ash stifled a laugh.
O
“I think she wants to be warmed up, Strom.”
O
“Give it a rest and get us out of here,” said Strom. “My beard is freezing to my lips.”
O
The dragon flexed and gave a mighty stroke with his wings and went absolutely no where. “Uh-oh,” he muttered. “We have a problem.”
O
“Tell me about it while we fly to warmer territory,” ordered Strom. “These robes are drafty.”
O
“That’s the problem — I’m stuck, frozen right to the ground.”
O
“Oh great, what were you thinking? I — hey, we’re moving!”
O
“I know, the snow is breaking away under us! We’re sliding! Avalanche!”
O
Strom grinned with a slightly insane smile as Ash began to slide. The dragon’s scaly belly, worn smooth with age, made for an excellent sled. His legs couldn’t slow his progress and within moments they were plummeting down the side of the mountain; the largest living sled in the world.
O
Ash was moving at close to his flying speed, vaporizing drifts and sending snow hundreds of feet in the air. Strom screamed in delight and hunched over Ash’s neck like a jockey on a prize horse. Daraga clung desperately to the mage and began to turn a sickly shade of green. The old man’s beard kept wending its way into her open mouth like a living thing, and his shapeless hat battered her mercilessly in the face. Startled birds squawked as they were nearly run over by the out of control dragon, and a great white stag bounded rapidly out of their way, then stood shaking his majestic head in apparent disgust.
O
“YEEHAW!” screamed Strom.
O
“Uh-oh,” cried the dragon. “We’re coming to treeline, Strom. What are we going to do?”
O
“Use your tail as a rudder! Steer!” Daraga cried. Both dragon and wizard turned to look at her incredulously. “Well, got any better ideas?” she asked sarcastically. “Try it.”
O
Ash tried Daraga’s idea, with remarkably good results.
O
“Hey, I’m getting good results,” Ash remarked, steering himself through the trees with his gigantic tail. The trees were a blur. Ahead, an old avalanche chute opened up. Ash steered into it.
O
The dragon shot through the chute like a greased goblin through a gutter. Suddenly, the three realized they were being watched. Hundreds of villagers lined the edges of the chute as they careened by. More scrambled quickly out of their way. The people had apparently been enjoying a bit of sledding themselves. They were entirely out-classed by the three newcomers, who sped by in a blaze of twigs, snow and wild cries.
O
“Watch the dog!” cried Strom. One brown pup could not escape the chute quickly enough. Its tiny paws dug desperately into the snow as the great dragon bore down upon it. Just before Ash plowed over it, Strom cast a spell. With a howl of terror the dog was flipped over the dragon’s head and right into Daraga arms, where it cowered and whined as they went sliding down the hill.
O
“Hey! No pets allowed,” Ash yelled.
O
“You’re the one that nearly ran it over,” scolded Strom. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
O
“Big trouble ahead!” the dragon cried. “The lake.”
O
“I see it! We’ll freeze,” the wizard answered.
O
“You’ve got to stop!” the human yelled.
O
“Yip! Yip!” the dog agreed.
O
“Well, I believe this is where I get off, my lady,” said Strom to Daraga. With a wicked grin, he bailed off the side of the dragon, landing in a fluffy snowbank. Daraga turned and saw the old man emerge from the snow and wave his hat sadly as the woman, the dog and the dragon met their fate in the lake with an explosion of steam, snow and water.
O
***
O
The dragon skidded across the surface of the lake, kicking up water in a huge plume behind him.  Eventually his momentum died out and he sank like a rock, dragging Daraga and the dog under with him.
O
Moments later, three heads broke the surface of the water, staring at each other in wonder.
O
“I don’t believe it!” said Ash.
O
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Daraga sighed.
O
“Woof!” barked the dog, who was already paddling around the small lake.
O
Strom, standing at the shore of the steaming lake along with hundreds of stunned villagers, blinked in surprise at this exchange. He’d expected a lot of whining and complaining, particularly from Ash. It actually appeared the three were enjoying themselves. Looking around, he saw a small sign posted in the snow. Clearing it off, he read “Klantith Hot Springs.”
O
As they climbed out of the natural hot springs, Ash and Daraga were surrounded by the towns people, who had watched the last half of their journey in disbelief. It seems the villagers used a short portion of the mountain for sledding, but it was too much effort to hike very far up the snowy slope. They were clapping and cheering for the adventurers.
O
A group of teenagers was already trying to get Ash’s attention so they could beg for a ride to the top. The fact that he was a huge red dragon didn’t seem to bother anyone – their sense of fun overwhelmed their sense of fear.
O
“I’ve got a plan, Ash,” Strom said.
O
“Yeah? Let’s hear it.”
O
“We could open a sledding company! Here’s what we do…” He whispered in the dragon’s ear.
O
 
Ash got a big grin.
O
And so they spent the winter in the village. Ash transported sledders and their sleds to the top of the avalanche chute, and twice a day took a group in a specially designed dragonsaddle for the entire summit to bottom run, right into the hot springs.
O
Daraga did her research for them that winter. She didn’t have any maps showing the tower itself, but she did have a very old map fragment with the word “Athar” and a skull and crossbones warning. The fragment showed the land of Athar near a coast, but there was no indication which sea it might be close to.
O
They copied the map, tipping Daraga handsomely. When spring came they planned to depart and try to find more clues about their lost home. Daraga had suggested a minstrel named Selena she knew that traveled a great deal and collected stories about the old world. She said the bard could usually be found further to the east in the warmer climates this time of year. They’d agreed to look the woman up to find out what she knew.
O
Daraga continued her weekly dates in pursuit of Strom, but the old wizard seemed completely oblivious of her crush. Eventually she gave up, returning her focus to her cartography work.
O
It had been a fabulous and profitable winter, until one morning Ash spotted a shiny figure riding up the main road toward the mountain village.
O
“That silly paladin,” Ash said, shaking his head. “I thought the horse might have talked some sense into him.”
O
The paladin was Sir Bert, of course, their enemy. His family had been pursuing Ash and Strom for hundreds of years regarding a forgotten bar tab. Now the interest and additional fees had stacked up to the point where even the duo’s vast fortune couldn’t cover it. In addition, Sir Bert felt he was obligated to complete the quest on behalf of his family so that he could follow his own dreams. The quickest way for him to accomplish that was to kill Ash and Strom.
O
“Trouble,” Ash said when he encountered Strom in the village. “Bert and Misker are almost here.”
O
“Here?”
O
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
O
“Well it was about time for us to leave anyway. I don’t feel like dealing with those two every time we turn around.”
O
Ash nodded in agreement.
O
The snow was thinning anyway and the villagers had had their fill of long sledding runs for the winter, so it was probably a good time for them to depart.
O
Strom took Daraga aside and offered her half the money they’d made that winter if she’d throw the paladin off their track.
O
“Tell him we died in an avalanche or something,” Strom suggested.
O
“A fire breathing dragon die in an avalanche?” argued Ash. “I don’t think that’s even possible.”
O
“Whatever, just do what you can to keep him off our backs for a while.”
O
“Sure thing, guys,” Daraga said. “I’ll see what I can do. Pretty hard to lie to a paladin though.”
O
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Strom encouraged her.
O
With that they took off, skimming low to the ground to avoid the notice of the approaching paladin, and continued to the east in search of the minstrel that might guide them closer to their home.
O
The adventures of Strom and Ash continue as they search for their forgotten tower and try to avoid their paladin nemesis. They needed to find the wandering minstrel Daraga had suggested before Sir Bert caught up to them again. Perhaps the minstrel would know the next step in their journey. The good news was that minstrels also always knew which bars were having Ladies Night…
O

OneSlickDragon-GARN-CoverBergloff

Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).

Damon Garn lives in Colorado Springs, CO with his wife and two children. He enjoys hiking, writing and annoying his neighbors with mediocre guitar playing. He writes in the fantasy/sci-fi realm experimenting in flash fiction, short stories and a novel. Follow on Twitter: dmgwrites or at dmgwrites.wordpress.com


“Montanha do Aranha” by Joshua Scully

A smoldering volcano dominated the horizon. Beyond a golden beach and a jumble of trees, the crown of the immense geological rupture was all that Ivo could see. The towering cone was flanked by a patchwork of ancient sepia and sienna flows, bringing to mind similar summits in the Azores.
 O
Ivo initially paid little mind to the smoking mountain. The tattered remnants of his clothing and the scorching sun seized his senses before he could genuinely assess his surroundings. He was grateful to be alive, drenched and nearly naked or not.
 O
Both Mira and Nelas were gone from view. Painfully aware that Mira was at the bottom of the South Sea, Ivo prayed that Nelas had not joined her sister. The other ship was his only hope of rescue.
 O
Ferdinand Magellan and his Spanish fleet had just beaten the storm, but his Portuguese pursuers were not so fortunate. Several crewmembers from Mira had washed up on the beach of this small isle with Ivo, and the sea had stripped and battered each man.
 O
Once regaining his strength, Ivo inspected the bodies on the beach. Most were lifeless, but there were two exceptions. Adriano and Martim, childhood friends from Porto, were breathing but unconscious.
 O
Ivo dragged his countrymen from the blazing heat and into the shade of the closest palms. Contemplating how he might attract a rescue, he imagined constructing a massive fire on the beach. The flames and smoke would hopefully be visible from the sea. There was no doubt that the volcano lurking behind his shady refuge was impossible to miss.
 O
Bold crustaceans and seabirds readily plied the beach as Ivo watched from between the unresponsive Adriano and Martim. These creatures poked and pried the dead seaman, evaluating the potential for a meal. Without the strength to chase the scavengers, he could only watch as nature slowly seized the bloated remains of his dead companions.
 O
However, the island proved wildly temperamental. The ocean had presented a drowned banquet for the various beach foragers, only for the earth to rumble and scatter the opportunists. Ivo had drifted to sleep against the trunk of an impressive palm, but this tremor immediately roused him.
 O
A second quake followed. 
 O
Finding the strength to gain his feet, he stood and observed a dark, ominous cloud emitting from the volcano.
O
Reinvigorated, Ivo decided that he would gather wood and fresh water, both of which were necessary to survive even a few days on the island. He checked to make sure that Adriano and Martim were safely positioned away from any encroaching waves or menacing island fauna before stepping beyond the first row of palms.
 O
The incessant roar of the South Sea was quickly replaced with the hums, buzzes, and squawks of an island forest. A variety of insects bolted between trees. Various birds darted after their hexapod prey.
 O
“Birds – of – paradise!” Ivo exclaimed. He had before only ever observed drawings or heard descriptions of the beautiful plumage possessed by these birds.
 O
Within a few steps, Ivo was amazed by the number of mangoes, breadfruits, and coconuts ripe for the picking. He certainly had no concerns regarding the availability of wood or food. This island, although minuscule in size, was teeming with life. 
 O
“Shipwrecked in paradise,” Ivo said to himself. He sighed in relief.
 O
An easy climb up any number of nearby trees could provide a healthy meal for ten men.
Reminding Ivo that he was stranded in no dreamscape, the ground beneath his feet trembled and shook. Although he managed to keep his feet, the entire island went silent.
 O
A distinct trepidation had seized nature.
 O
If an eruption was imminent, Ivo and his fellow survivors needed a rescue much sooner than later. He pushed forward through vines and branches. The terrain offered a steady uphill climb, but the journey was easy enough.
 O
There seemed to be few land creatures. Occasional bones scattered between trees surely belonged to birds or reptiles. Ivo stumbled upon larger bones only rarely. He suspected these were the remains of some mammal, perhaps even a monkey. However, he did not cross paths with a single creature, bird or otherwise, much larger than his hand.
 O
Ivo wondered through the forest for at least an hour before he heard the subtle trickling that no subterranean growl could ever quiet. A stream bubbled through the earth at the crest of a low hill.
 O
Ivo cupped his hands and scooped water from the stream. Even a distant rumble from the volcano failed to take his mind off the delicious liquid.
O
“Water,” he whispered to himself. “Salvation.”
 O
Ivo drank from the stream for some time and debated how he might move Adriano and Martim to this particular spot. He glanced around for the simplest approach through the trees. 
 O
In one direction, which Ivo reckoned to be north, his eyes caught distant blue, brown, and white flashes between trunks and branches.
 O
The blue was nothing more than the sea, to which Ivo was much closer than he expected. He quickly surmised that the spring must be near a bay or cove that allowed the sea to penetrate the isle. The brown and white patches were what really dazzled his mind.
O
These colors were produced by the hull and sails of a ship.
 O
Nelas!” Ivo shouted. “Nelas!”
 O
The ship had obviously sought shelter from the gale in this natural harbor and had unfurled all sails to slip back out to sea. Any nearby volcano was certainly a cause for concern, even for a caravel at anchor. Thoughts of fresh water, coconuts, and of fellow survivors were dashed from Ivo’s mind. He absolutely had to get to the beach before the ship slipped out of the cove.
 O
Stumbling to his feet, he rushed forward. His elation made him less aware of his surroundings and, after just a few strides, he struck a dangling branch. Attempting to spin away from the collision at the last second, he lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.
 O
Relieved that he had not struck his head, Ivo slowly stood. Stepping to restart his running pace, he was jerked backward. He grimaced and looked down, intending to untangle the offending vine or snap some stubborn branch.
 O
However, there was no vine or branch, but only a soft mass stuck to his chest. The object appeared to be the combination of gooey unripe breadfruit and sticky cannonball.
 O
Ivo gripped the gunmetal sphere and offered a firm pull. The surface of the ball seemed to be bonded to his flesh. He felt his skin suddenly release a thousand beads of sweat. The Nelas was not going to wait for him. 
 O
He pulled again to no avail. His hand became just as stuck to this strange glob as the skin covering his right pectoral.
 O
A sinewy thread was attached to the orb, perhaps double the diameter of his thumb. This thread was of a similar color and, Ivo suspected, composition. He looked up to see that the thread disappeared in a tangle of branches far above his head.
 O
Ivo wondered if the dangling thread was only tree sap or, more menacingly, an adhesive rope designed by unseen natives. He looked out beyond the edge of the forest to see Nelas slowly sailing out of the cove. Panicking, he scoured the ground for any stone or splinter of wood that he might use to cut himself free.
 O
Already a relatively tall man, Ivo appeared to become somehow taller while searching. A corresponding pain as the tissue of his chest strained to support his weight assured him that this was no trick of the eye. The sticky glob was lifting him toward the mesh of branches over his head. Throwing his free hand upward and grabbing the thread, he allowed this hand to become stuck to the snare in exchange for an opportunity to pull himself up higher. This lessened the strain on his chest and the resulting motion prompted a plan of action.
 O
When Ivo was again lifted upward a few feet, he held firmly to the thread and globule with both hands while extending his legs. Whipping his lower body backward before extending again, he produced a considerable swing. He continued this motion, producing a wider and wider arc with each forward thrust. When the arc brought him closest to the sea, he called out.
 O
Nelas! Hey!”
 O
His mind imagined bloodthirsty cannibals pulling him onto some treetop butcher block. Gladly accepting escape in any form, he continued to kick and swing. 
 O
The extent of his arc brought him closer to the trunks of several robust trees. Ivo hoped he might be able to wrap his legs around one of these trunks, entangling the gooey ball and thread in a few sturdy branches so to provide time for an escape.
O
However, as he kicked and twisted his body to increase the range of his arc, Ivo realized that he was ascending at a far more rapid pace.
 O
Nelas!” 
 O
The volcano grumbled in the distance and, for a moment, his ascent ceased. At the greatest forward extent of Ivo’s swing, the soles of his feet slipped over the scaly bark of the trees he so desperately sought.
 O
When the mountain again fell silent, Ivo was jerked upward. Although far enough off the ground that a fall could easily result in his death, he continued to swing and looked upward to face his attacker. With most of the sticky thread now pulled into the branches above him, his arc became shorter and reaching the safety of the trees was no longer realistic.
 O
Thin brown arms occasionally dipped below the branches above Ivo’s head, and the sailor’s mind returned to stories of island cannibals hungrily devouring unfortunate men. The islands of the South Sea were unknown and distant places to most seaman. There was no imaging what awaited him within the mesh of those branches.
 O
Ivo shouted, leaned, and kicked. He looked up again and caught a glimpse of an eye.
 O
Two eyes. Then four.
 O
Six eyes. Then eight.
 O
The slender arms multiplied in a similar way. At this distance, Ivo could see that the arms were covered in fine hairs. 
 O
He wasn’t the potential prey of a clan of tree-dwelling islanders.
 O
Ivo had walked into the snare of a gigantic spider. An arachnid easily the size of a man was reeling him into a treetop nest, not unlike a hungry fisherman with a plump trout on his line.
 O
“Adriano! Martim!” Ivo cried. His distant shipmates offered no reply.
 O
A furry head burst through the branches above Ivo. Eight soulless eyes longingly stared back at him. Mandibles chirped, clicked, and dripped venom. The slimy substance dropped onto Ivo’s face and shoulders.
 O
Ivo desperately tried to twist away, but his arms and legs were exhausted and there was genuinely nowhere to flee. He dangled precariously with no hope of freeing himself. When the first spindly arm touched the hand that he had earlier purposefully stuck to the thread, Ivo screamed. He shrieked so loudly that even another rumble from the volcano did not silence him. 
 O
The spider lurched forward, careful not to lose purchase on the branches, and extended two pearly appendages from hairy pedipalps. The creature sank both fangs into Ivo’s extended arm, puncturing forearm flesh between the wrist and elbow. The ensuing pain was intense but faded quickly. He bled very little despite the fact that each fang looked comparable to his great toe.
 O
Bluish goo dripped from the wound. The spider retreated back into the branches, although the awful creature remained incredibly close and in plain view.
 O
Ivo shouted and growled at the creature. He showed his teeth and wiggled his fatigued body. He did everything and anything possible to appear threatening.
 O
The spider didn’t move but only observed from a short distance. From this vantage, Ivo was able to see that the sticky glob and thread were anchored to the branches below the spider. 
 O
He wondered if he could break those branches.
 O
When the volcano trembled again, Ivo watched the spider cower and slip backward for a moment. The unfortunate sailor resolved to summon his remaining strength and kick upward the next time that the volcano disturbed the island. With any luck, he could contort his body and lift his legs up toward the spider. Once having seized the branches between his thighs and feet, he could snap the limbs supporting the spider and thread anchor.
 O
If successful, he would fall headfirst to the ground with the creature. Ivo immediately deemed that preferable to whatever fate the spider intended for him in the treetops.
The entire island shuttered. This particular tremor sounded incredibly deep. There was no longer a doubt in Ivo’s mind that the volcano would soon erupt and, quite possibly, send the entire island beneath the waves.
 O
When the spider again recoiled, Ivo immediately seized the opportunity. Supporting his weight with his stuck hands, Ivo flexed his abdomen and whipped his legs toward the arachnid. However, his entire design was interrupted by a sudden faintness that whirled into his mind.
 O
This hesitation allowed his attention to settle on the discoloration advancing down his extended arm. Near the puncture arms, the flesh of his forearm was swollen and purple. This repugnant deformation included his hand and reached down to his elbow. An unrelenting horror tickled his heart when he realized the gruesome transformation was slowly spreading toward his shoulder.
 O
Ivo screamed again, but little more than a strained yelp emerged from his mouth. His fatigued body seemed impossible to move.
 O
Regaining a measure of confidence, the spider scurried forward toward its dangling prey. Eight eyes watched as the injected venom softened the nearest tissue. Not even another volcanic groan stopped the creature from pulling apart furry pedipalps to reveal bony chelicerae. The arachnid maneuvered these glistening projections toward the plump, purple flesh nearest to it and put its grinding jaws to work.
 O
Ivo watched for a brief second as the swollen appendages that were once the fingers on his left hand disappeared between quickly chopping hooks deep within the mouth of the spider. His bones had softened to the point that only the faintest splintering was audible. Largely congealed blood occasionally dripped down his arm. The scene was enough to induce vomiting, as Ivo’s insides forced out a seething mass of purplish slime.
 O
Moving his focus in the direction of the volcano, Ivo prayed some eruption might consign this dreadful island and the resident spider to the South Sea. His heart fluttered fitfully and his vision seemed to fade.
 O
Attempting to ignore the grinding sound above him, Ivo thought about Adriano and Martim. His mind soon wandered elsewhere. Briefly, his thoughts returned to the house in Porto where he grew up. He was on his father’s knee again, listening to a story about João Corte-Real and some far off land to the west.
 O
The island shook fiercely. Ivo returned to reality, hoping that his deliverance was at hand. The spider was, by that time, well beyond his hand and grinding away at what had been the forearm of a Portuguese sailor sent to chase Ferdinand Magellan around the world. 
 O
Ivo made a final appeal to the Virgin Mary. His last wish was that the innards of the Earth intervened before the creature reached his head.
 O
For a moment, all was quiet except for the fiendish feasting of the horrible predator. The bristly hairs of the great arachnid brushed against the cheek of the poor sailor. Ivo could not help but notice the entirety of his left arm had disappeared into the mouth of his tormentor.
 O
Ivo drifted into unconsciousness just as the fury of Mother Nature erupted through the island. 
 O
MontanhaDoAranha-SCULLY-CoverABergloff

Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).

*

Joshua Scully (@jojascully) is an American History teacher from Pennsylvania. His writes fiction and loves a good anachronism. 

 

“You Are What You Eat” by Russell Armstrong

PsychiatricEval 

for one Benjamin Sneed,

whom Secret Service agents desperately need

to know why he sent Congress E-L-E warnings

and the President tweets to skip breakfast this morning. 

Patient Identifying Data 

is routine at best:

twenty-five, male, and straight — lives alone with a pet.

Mental Status 

compliant, coherent; mood — anxious

Sneed swears this is time we don’t have that I’m wasting. 

 

History of Present Illness

none; currently takes no meds,

but Flonase and a rare Vicodin before bed.

Paranoid schizophrenia plagued his father’s grandmother

and his mom’s dad — anxiety, bipolar disorder.

 

Assessment

of eval is “BS remarkable,”

and the tale patient tells, well, fantastically farcical:

The Xyll were pacifists, philanthropic by nature —

scientists, inventors, and problem-erasers,

not warriors, butchers of children and sickly.

So when the Carno invaded, it ended quite quickly.

The Xyll abandoned their homeworld in haste.

A handful of spacecraft narrowly escaped.

In the attack, the Carno, twelve billion did kill,

and all that remained were but three-thousand Xyll.

Fleeing in five enhanced hyperdrive ships,

zillions of light years till finally they slipped

past our Sun’s corona for foolproof protection.

The star’s radiation concealed all detection. 

Escaping the Carno, though, came at great cost.

The Xylls’ weapons? Near depletion.

The Xylls’ hyperdrives? Lost.

With only sublight speed, such flight speed meant death.

“We’ll stay put,” they reasoned. “Think on it instead.”

But the Xyll were slow thinkers — unfathomably so.

Yet they always wound up where they set out to go.

This time, 93 million miles to a planet

whose rich atmosphere and strong field type of magnet

if tweaked underground, and then fine-tuned in air,

from space, scans would read the Xyll weren’t even there. 

At twelve feet in height, with blue hair, blood-red skin,

“No way!” the Xyll surmised. “NO WAY we’ll fit in!”

So they spied and they learned with eavesdropping spyscopes

how best to rid Earth’s fossil-fuel burning hosts.

But it took thirty years, till 1863 when

the States were bogged down in a slight disagreement.

The Xyll sowed the seeds for mankind’s vivisection

and Yanks to fall short in their War of Aggression.

The Xyll engineered a malignant enhancer,

a serum that killed normal cells like a cancer,

turning imbibers to crazed superslayers,

and all who abstained into slain early-gravers. 

Once the rebs razed the planet, their powers would falter,

triggering neurotoxins that melt men to water.

Since the Xyll were attacked, too, by hostile invaders,

the serum reached Dixie some eight minutes later

in lightspeed torpedoes, disarmed, with instructions —  

a gift for “The Cause” (to wreak worldwide destruction). 

But the rebs took the serum while camped out that night, 

ignoring Xyll warnings Yanks must be in sight.

With none to destroy, Johnnies turned on each other.

They fought hand-to-hand; gray murdered gray brother 

with picks, with shovels, with bayonets and stones. 

In the morning, ten thousand but sinew and bones.

The Xyll took a decade times twelve to recast 

a weapon to make us a thing of the past.

In that time, three-thousand Xyll shrunk to twelve-hundred. 

Five ships were now two, but at long last they’d done it. 

D-evolver, they called it — a de-evolving agent. 

The East almost won the Cold War once they gained it.

Evolution-regression of humans into 

wrist-dragging apes of a primitive hue.

Detonated sufficiently high, the blast radius

would rescind the reign of Earth’s kings: Homo sapiens. 

To the Soviets, D-evolver flew at light speed.

Please — America whiffed in 1863! 

The Xylls’ plan to pierce NASA and de-evolve the West 

would then spread North, South, East and de-evolve the rest.

But scarcely a minute past launch celebrations, 

the space shuttle blew up, Challenger was cremated.

Two faulty O-rings were the official cause, 

damaged by Soviet spies before launch

when they stowed the D-evolver in Challenger, too,

and awaited malfunction at mile sixty-two.

The thirty-six Fahrenheit temp, though, that morn,

more frigid than all shuttle liftoffs before,

caused both seals to fail at nine miles’ altitude, 

and despair to plumb depths of despondent Xyll gloom.

For thirty-two years more the Xyll pondered on,

their numbers fast dwindling, two ships down to one.

Six-hundred Xyll left, tinkering and still building.

A month till the Sun breached their ship’s solar shielding. 

Flee the star, risk the Carno? A crisis point reached. 

Or commit all resources to storm the Earth’s beach?

So the Xyll built a comet a city bus-long

with mirroring technology — their most vile of all.

The last two torpedoes light-towed it to Earth,

where the atmosphere shredded and spread it like dirt.

Comet dust saturated and poisoned the air,

drifting down to the surface, the world unaware.

This time, no rogue actors, no weather mishaps.

This time, the Xyll cruelly left nothing to chance.

Sneed learned of the plot from unwitting transmissions

when Solar flares compromised Xyll data systems.

Enhancer, D-evolver, now something far worse

will mold humankind into one last main course. 

Diagnosis

must wait.

Lunch is served; Sneed will join me.

I’ve had him restrained and will have him fed forcibly.

He’s not drunk or dined since the comet arrived. 

That was three days ago and — Hello? — we’re alive.

He blames the strange vanishings, the upsurge in food

on the Xyll — space aliens! Good God, what a fool!

“No, my paranoid BS. We’ll dine then you’ll see.”

Tough love’s the best medicine with patients like Sneed.

“Open wide, try this apple juice, duck breast, and spinach.”

I’ll complete my Prognosis and Plan when we finish.

Prognosis
O
O
O
O
Treatment Plan
O
O
O
O
*          *          *

 

Seventy-six days later, the surviving Xyll heroes

colonized Earth, population now zero.

Seven-billion-plus edibles who laughed, breathed, and walked 

lay, lifeless, in cubicles, classrooms, crosswalks.

For there is no escape, 

liquid, savory, or sweet,

when no matter the meal,

you become what you eat.

O

IMG_0779

Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

***

Russell J. Armstrong (russelljarmstrong.com) lives with his wife and daughter in Chicago. He is a high-school administrator who currently spends his days as a stay-at-home dad. When he isn’t changing diapers or reading books about letters and numbers, he is working on his first novel. He can be found on Twitter @RussWritesWell.

“Railroaders’ Disease” by S.S. Sanderson

Paul Clément had worked for the Montreal & Appalachia for two decades, but he never remembered experiencing anything so peculiar. Although his employer was a fading and largely rural railroad, this sort of oversight was not in any way permissible.
O
As the conductor of this particular train, Clément was ultimately responsible for the motionless assembly of three dozen railcars stretched out before him in a familiar mountain valley. 
O
His train was waiting at a switch for a passenger express to pass before proceeding into New Belfast, an inconsequential French and Indian War stomping ground on the frayed edge of the Rust Belt. The sun had largely disappeared behind mountains to the west by the time Clément grabbed the idle shoulder of John Sutton, his brakeman.
O
“What’s the matter?”
O
“Come with me and bring the tools.”
O
“But the switch? The express is about to pass.”
O
“Hurry,” Clément said, twisting his subordinate away from the switch. Sutton snagged his tool satchel from the ground and quickened his step behind the conductor.
O
As the two men passed the lead locomotive, Clément waved to Andrew Ashworth, the engineer, and Emily Fryer, a trainee. The bright-eyed Fryer occupied any spare moment that the engineer created for himself. Both master and apprentice were leisurely chatting in the locomotive cabin, and Clément hurried passed without pausing. 
O
Sutton struggled to keep up with his supervisor. Concerned that he had overlooked an issue with one of the brakes, he peppered Clément with questions. 
O
“What’s wrong? What’s the problem?”
O
The conductor ignored these questions and hurriedly flipped through a folder that enclosed the manifest of this particular train. Beyond the locomotives, the dying light of day illuminated the maroon livery of several Montreal & Appalachia boxcars. Both men trampled through encroaching weeds and loose gravel as their steps followed the ballast and rails toward the rear of the train.
O
“Are you counting?” Clément asked.
O
“No?”
O
“Count.”
O
Sutton spun around and made a quick tally of the boxcars passed to this point. 
O
“This is the sixth car,” Sutton said. 
O
The brakeman hastened his pace to catch up with Clément. 
O
The conductor didn’t respond, so Sutton kept counting.
O
The radio attached to Clément’s belt crackled with Ashworth’s voice. 
O
“We’re clear. Switch status?”
O
The conductor depressed a button on the radio and responded.
O
“One minute.”
O
“This is the tenth car,” Sutton observed.
O
“Thirty-six,” Clément finally replied. “We left Cumberland with thirty-six.” Clément paused for a moment before checking a line at the end of the manifest. “Thirty-six empties for the lime quarry and processing plant.”
O
“That sounds right,” Sutton replied. “This is the fourteenth car.” 
O
The familiar maroon boxcars had disappeared. At this point of the train, the Montreal & Appalachia boxcars were replaced with a haphazard collection of rolling stock from distant or defunct railroads. Quite a few were laced with graffiti. These cars were bought second-hand or leased, and most showed considerable age.
O
“How did we pick up a thirty-seventh?” Clément asked.
O
“What?”
O
“We’ve got a thirty-seventh car by my count. Nothing in the manifest about it and we’ve only stopped once since Cumberland before this switch.”
O
That stop had occurred about twenty minutes earlier in Meyersdale, a mountain hamlet on the Mason-Dixon Line. The delay at the small freight station in Meyersdale had amounted to little more than a pause, hardly enough to obligate Clément to inspect the train.
O
The voice of Andrew Ashworth chirped on the radio again. Clément ignored this communication for the moment. The conductor and brakeman had walked far enough to allow a slight bend in the track to bring the alleged thirty-seventh car into view.
O
Sutton immediately noticed that the final boxcar was radically different from the others. Although nondescript, the dull gray car featured a strange rivet pattern and an especially heavy door. Closer inspection revealed an unusual lock mechanism.
O
“I’ll be damned,” Sutton muttered. 
O
The brakeman searched for any identifying marking. The sides of the car were totally blank. There wasn’t as much as a single letter or number.
O
“There’s nothing anywhere on the car,” Clément confirmed. “I checked.”
O
“Better call this in as soon as we get to New Belfast,” Sutton suggested. “I would call Pittsburgh or Montreal and right away, too.”
O
Clément sighed and pulled the cap from his head. Calling regional administration in Pittsburgh would be embarrassing if this were simply an oversight. Calling Delson, the Montreal suburb that served as headquarters of the railroad, may well result in career suicide if this amounted to any serious crew error. 
O
However, the conductor wasn’t sure what else he could do at this point.
O
“We can’t go into New Belfast until we know the story on this car,” Clément finally said. “Let’s open her up and confirm she’s an empty. Maybe she’s meant to be scrapped?”
O
“Maybe,” Sutton replied, “but I’ve never seen this kind of lock on a boxcar before.”
O
“See what you can do,” Clément said as he motioned toward the unusual lock. He desperately wanted to stall for time while his mind worked out the protocol for this kind of dilemma.
O
Sutton rummaged through his satchel as Clément’s radio crackled with the engineer’s voice.
O
“Status?” Ashworth asked eagerly.
O
Clément sighed and pulled the radio from his belt.
O
“We got a problem.”
O
“What?”
O
“The manifest is wrong. We got an extra car.”
O
“We’ve got thirty-six,” Ashworth stated dutifully. 
O
“Thirty-seven,” the conductor replied.
O
The next words were muffled, as Ashworth had obviously turned from the transmitter of his radio to inform Fryer of the discrepancy. Clément imagined the blue eyes of the blonde understudy blinking in curiosity.
O
“I’ll be back,” Ashworth finally said into the transmitter. “I’m on my way.”
O
While Clément glanced to his left, awaiting the form of the engineer to appear, Sutton continued his assault on the lock. He angled a large pair of pliers down into the mechanism.
O
“I’m going to break the damn thing,” the brakeman bemoaned, “but I may have it.”
O
Clément stepped forward and offered a hand. The combined strength of both men managed to damage the lock mechanism enough that the heavy sliding door on the boxcar budged a few feet.
O
“What the hell?” Sutton asked in an offhand manner.
O
The brakemen had the best view inside the car for the moment. Clément scrambled for a better position. 
O
“What the hell are these?” Sutton asked the conductor, as if the older man may have some untold insight on the mysterious boxcar. 
O
Careful rows of metallic canisters lined the inside of the car. Each was carefully positioned in a foam surface that covered the floor. The image reminded Clément of massive aluminum eggs inside of a twenty-five-ton carton. 
O
Just as Clément spied the silhouette of the engineer appear alongside the train, Sutton reached out a hand and touched the nearest canister. An indistinct burst sounded from nearby and the brakeman collapsed forward. His sudden movement knocked one canister free. The gleaming cylinder struck the ground at Clément’s feet and burst into a bubbling mass of black ooze and foam. 
O
The feet of the conductor stumbled over loose gravel and the veteran railroader fell backward in time to have the contents of the canister splash onto his body. 
O
Sutton collapsed backward soon after, listlessly tumbling to the ground near Clément. As the conductor tried to gain his feet, he called out for Ashworth. He noticed that the brakeman’s back was covered in blood. Sutton had been shot when he reached inside the boxcar.
O
A burning pain rifled through Clément’s legs and lower abdomen, the same areas of his body that had been soaked by the bubbling contents of the dislodged canister. The conductor collapsed back to the ground in agony and reached out for Ashworth. 
O
However, the engineer was nowhere to be found. Standing just a few feet from where the conductor squirmed in a pool of foaming slime, Emily Fryer held out a small pistol. 
O
“Look but don’t touch,” she mused. 
O
Paul Clément was unable to form words. The burning sensation spread up his back and over his chest. He began to choke before coughing up a mixture of blood and seething matter.
O
Fryer carefully stepped around the puddle of liquid and pulled the damaged door of the boxcar closed. Clément wanted to reach out for the woman, but his arms seemed useless. He managed to contort his neck and bite at the ankles of the trainee. His jaws snapped shut repeatedly and snagged a bootlace as Fryer carefully stepped around his body. 
O
“Easy now,” she said with a smile. “You’re turning quick.”
O
Clément retched again as he wiggled around on the ground. He twisted his body unnaturally and again snapped at Fryer. The necessary motions were becoming more involuntary. 
O
“I’ve never seen a complete transformation,” Fryer observed, “but, unfortunately, I’ve got to get moving.”
O
She contemplated shooting the conductor but decided to leave him moaning and churning as his skin split and peeled. He would serve as sort of a failsafe in case she didn’t reach a populated area with the remaining canisters.
O
Fryer turned, stepped over the collapsed form of John Sutton, and sprinted back toward the locomotive.
O
Fryer knew she’d never get the train into New Belfast without the others, but she thought that maybe she could manage to reverse the train back into Meyersdale. Her associates at the freight station would simply need to improvise with this minor setback.
O
Settling on that plan, Fryer climbed into the locomotive cab. There were almost three thousand people in Meyersdale, more than enough for the outbreak to gain the necessary footing. Her employers would have no serious qualms with a rural epicenter.
O
The toxic payload couldn’t be wasted, of that much Emily Fryer was certain. The mutation could still easily spread along the railroad network, covering the entire nation in a matter of weeks. 
O
Pushing the body of Andrew Ashworth aside, Fryer checked her watch. Time remained on her side. That Clément character had complicated the situation only mildly at worst.
O
“Railroaders’ disease,” she said to herself as she stood at the controls inside the locomotive cab. That was the name she imagined news outlets would initially give the virus. 
O
Sounded mundane enough, that was for sure. No need to alarm the public too soon. 
O
Too late was more what she had in mind.
O
O
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Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).

*
S.S. Sanderson (@SSSanderson2) is an author from that special place in America where Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia all meet. Otherwise, he lives a life that looks better on paper.

 

“Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell“ by LiAnnah Jameson

~Dante’s Inferno states that the Fifth Circle of Hell is reserved for those who are wrathful and harbor anger. The Seventh Circle of Hell houses those with violent tendencies and have committed murder. But what happens when that wrath becomes something violent?~

O

Whenever I think of how you awful you treated me

How you lied, deceived, and wronged me in life

I can feel my dark passenger

Start to take the wheel of my mind

O

Suddenly all of the pain rushes back

But my dark passenger is quick to intercept the hurt

And turn it into wrath and rage

Everything starts to bleed into red

And I am fueled by a familiar fire

That I can no longer control

O

Thoughts begin flooding my mind

Ones that most would never suspect

From such a sweet and innocent-looking girl

Such as myself

But looks can be deceiving

And it’s often the ones you least expect

Who take you by surprise

Shake your world up like a snow globe

O

I begin to let the imagination of my dark passenger

Wander into the deepest, darkest corners of my mind

A world where I find myself standing over your lifeless body

Blood pooling on the floor; beginning to congeal

As I relish in the glory of my kill

O

I look down at my blood-stained hands

Still gripping the handle of the knife

Knuckles stark white from my tight grasp

A few droplets of your blood still falling from the tip

O

In that moment

I finally feel complete

My soul is calm

O

Once my dark passenger has reached its apex

It slowly begins to dissipate and let go of the wheel

And the facade that I put on for the world returns

O

I open the glove compartment in my SUV

And fumble around inside

Until my hand finally settles

On the sharp, steel blade of my double-sided knife

O

You had better hope

We never cross paths again

O

(Homage to the series “Dexter” from Showtime)

O

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Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).

*

LiAnnah Jameson is an avid writer and reader. She recently published her first book of poetry and prose entitled If I Die Now, Who Will Feed My Cats? which is available for purchase on Amazon. You can find more of her work on Instagram @liannahjameson.

An Introduction to Our May 2018 Performance

The Evening Theatre offers a dark turn for this performance. While some lightheartedness certainly remains, there are dire and apocalyptic implications at the core of these tales. Mankind is threatened. The world is undone. Even our concept of reality is distorted beyond recognition. 

We again bring our readers a mixture of familiar and new authors. Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff) has returned to provide her wonderful artwork for this performance. Her work is always impressive and suits the overall tone for tonight very well. 

This performance includes a double feature and marks the first foray for The Evening Theatre into the realm of prequels and sequels. 

LiAnnah Jameson (@annah_li) opens the performance tonight just after 10:00pm. Her piece involves a chilling internal conflict that may secretly exist in any of us. S.S. Sanderson (@SSSanderson2) offers a diabolical prequel to his piece that appeared with us last month (“The Keycard is Always in the Morgue“). Russell Armstrong (@RussWritesWell) will pull you in with a wonderfully fascinating jester (we bet you can’t read this one just once).

A double feature was possible this evening thanks to two returning authors. Joshua Scully (@jojascully) and Damon Garn (@dmgwrites) appeared with us for the first time last month. The former brings a spine-tingling tale of tropical horror, while the latter provides a wildly entertaining sequel to “The Misplaced Tower” (which appeared in our April 2018 performance). Dennis Mombauer (@DMombauer) concludes the show tonight with an unnerving visit to the very fringe of reality. 

The performance lineup for May 2018:

Opening Act – “Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell” by by LiAnnah Jameson

First Act – “Railroaders’ Disease” by S.S. Sanderson

The Jester – “You Are What You Eat” by Russell Armstrong

First Feature – “Montanha do Aranha” by Joshua Scully

Second Feature – “One Slick Dragon” by Damon Garn

The Encore – “The Tyrant and the Fog” by Dennis Mombauer

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Artwork created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).