Encore for Our August Performance

Our August performance last evening included five works of fiction from five authors. Amanda Bergloff (@Amanda Bergloff) kindly provided some fantastic artwork, and we featured the fifth (and “final”) installment of the “Strom and Ash” series from Damon Garn. As bittersweet as that may sound, we believe that we haven’t quite yet read the last about that Archmage and dragon. 

The other four pieces from this performance covered quite a bit of ground. Werewolves in the city. Dinosaurs on Mars. Colonists on the Sun. And a conversation in a bar between two men with deadly consequences.

The lineup of our August performance:

Opener: “Beasts” by Roppotucha Greenberg (@roppotucha)

First Act: “Strawberry Moon” by Kerry E.B. Black (@BlackKerryblick)

Second Act: “Dying for Dinosaurs” by Joshua Scully (@jojascully)

Headliner: “The Homecoming” by Damon Garn (@dmgwrites)

Encore: “The Ask” by Joseph S. Pete (@nwi_jsp)

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Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

Our next performance will be September 17th. Submissions are now open!

“The Ask” by Joseph S. Pete

“I’m telling you, this guy’s an animal, and not just because he strangled my grandma.”

“And your aunt.”

“And my aunt.”

Lt. Davis was four beers in, trying to slosh around in liquid courage to say what he needed to say. He’d asked Connelly, a former high school classmate he was Facebook friends with but hadn’t seen in years, out to this tawdry Irish dive bar on a forgotten corner of a squalid neighborhood on the pretext of catching up for old times’ sake. Connelly just happened to be a guard at the prison where the man who murdered his grandma and his elderly aunt—choked them to death in scalding hot water in the bathtub of their shared apartment—so he get away with $300 during a poorly cased burglary that went south almost right away. $300! They were killed over 300 measly dollars, not enough to even pay a month’s rent. They were barely subsisting on Social Security and the bastard raided their sock drawer for whatever he could scrounge after offing two old, defenseless women.

“Sorry to interrupt, but what’s good here?” Connelly asked.

Lt. Davis emerged from his hangdog miasma.

“What’s good?”

“Yeah, what’s good to eat? I just got off a 12-hour shift and my stomach’s rumbling, man. A pint ain’t enough.”

“The burger,” Lt. Davis said. “I know this place pretends to be Irish but just get the burger.”

Connelly ordered some food and another round and they sat in silence.

“You’re here for an ask?” Connelly said.

“We’re just having a beer. I haven’t seen you in forever. I saw you posted those wedding photos from Cancun and… ”

“Look, when you cage people, when you take away their freedom, when you rip them away from society and everything society has to offer, you get asks. That’s the way the world works.”

They sat quietly, sipping their beers.

“Listen, this guy raped a 6-year-old, a goddamned 6-year-old, when he was 16. I pulled up his rap sheet. Landed at the St. Ignatius School for Boys, was a delinquent, an academic failure with a long laundry list of antisocial behavior. Stabbed a classmate, no apparent provocation. Twenty years later, he killed his girlfriend, a kindergarten teacher 20 years his senior. He dragged her down to the basement and stabbed her 20 times, Know why?”

“Why?”

“She asked him to stop playing around with a shotgun, said it was dangerous. He confessed to all this. He confessed all of it.”

“Did he confess to killing your grandma?”

“He broke in through a window with a ladder, thought no one was home. Out of all the units in that tower. He snuffed them out. They were frail. They had nothing. No one there had anything. It was all retirees. They wouldn’t still be living in a rundown senior tower with CCTV in every stairwell in the murder capital of the United States if they had two dimes to rub together.”

“I’m so sorry. It’s a zoo out there.”

“Oh yeah, and he was convicted of infecting a girlfriend with HIV without telling her. I can go on.”

“He’s a bad dude.”

“He’s a very bad dude.”

“And you’re a cop.”

“I’m a cop. I’m a detective. I worked my way up to a desk job.”

“You’re a cop. I’m law enforcement myself, well basically.”

“I’m a cop with family.”

Both men nursed their beers.

“I take it you know why I’m here.”

“I know why you’re here. What’s his name?”

“Miller.”

“Miller, huh? What a messed-up world we live in.”

***

Two weeks later, Miller was out in the yard doing facility work.

Another convict suddenly materialized behind him and drove a shiv into his ribs three times before he could react. The blade slid out, slick with crimson.

Miller wheezed. Blood dribbled from his lips. He collapsed in a heap.

Two hours passed before a guard found his body.

Perched on a barstool at the dive, Lt. Davis glanced at his buzzing phone. It was a text.

“It’s done.”

*

Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, a photographer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee who has read his work for the Fictitious series on the iO Theater stage in Chicago, who has had a play staged at the Detroit Heritage Theatre Festival, who exhibited photography the Oddtropolis Art Show in San Fransisco and who was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary or photographic work has appeared in more than 100 journals, including The Evening Theatre, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, Proximity Magazine, Stoneboat, The High Window, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Steep Street Journal, Beautiful Losers, New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, The Offbeat, Oddball Magazine, The Perch Magazine, Bull Men’s Fiction, Rising Phoenix Review, Thoughtful Dog, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, The Rat’s Ass Review, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine, Vending Machine Press and elsewhere. He once learned the ancient secret to writing a great author bio but forgot it and attached this rubbish instead, seriously what the hell?

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Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

“The Homecoming” by Damon Garn

From the historical writings of Bostonius the Scribbler, events having taken place one thousand years ago. Or so. Probably.
And so it is that Strom Coalbeard, the dreaded Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar, is coming home. His villainous days are long past. His life has been unnaturally extended by a carefully balanced diet of coffee, alcohol and magic brownies. He’d been traveling the lands for a thousand years with his friend Ash Brightspark, the Red Dragon of Death. Ash carried the two from adventure to adventure, flying in his natural form or using his immense magical skills to transform into an old elf – a form that made it much easier to deal with normal humans and their buildings.
Yet earlier this year, their carefree traveling days came to an end. A surprise visit from a good paladin named Sir Bertholomen (Sir Bert to his friends) and Misker, his talking horse, put the two on the path back to their home – the Black Tower of Athar. Lands and borders change over the centuries, though. Maps and signposts disappear. Local legends fade. And old mages and ancient dragons forget. In this case, they’d forgotten how to get home. And no one else seemed to know where it was, either.
After consulting a mapmaker, a wandering minstrel and a pirate queen, the two had managed to get close to their lost home. Sir Bert and Misker had been dutifully pursuing Strom and Ash, though more and more it seemed the four were frenemies. We now pick up the story at the point where the four are nearly at the supposed site of the Tower. Let’s see how this goes…

                                                                         ***

Strom turned and waved goodbye to Gilda as Ash gained altitude and flew inland. The dragon flew relatively low and at a very slow speed. Below Strom and Ash, Sir Bert rode Misker along an ancient roadway. In theory, Ash flew low because he was guiding Bert and Misker. In reality, if he flew any higher his nearsighted old eyes wouldn’t have been able to see them. It had been decided that the four would travel together for a while, and the paladin would put his quest to bring Strom and Ash to justice on hold.
That quest, of course, involved collecting payment on behalf of an orcish exotic dance bar that no longer existed. Apparently, Bert’s family had been hired generations before to bring the two to justice, and the quest had been passed down from father to son. Bert, however, was quite disgusted by this, as he was intent on pursuing the extreme wealth and fame that came with being a semi-professional fantasy author. Paladins, it seems, were supposed to give away all their worldly possessions and money, and most likely die tragically in the pursuit of Good. Bert claimed that didn’t fit well in his worldview. For months, Strom and Ash had been badgering him to leave them alone about the bounty, especially since there was no one alive to pay it to anymore. Misker, never afraid to voice his opinion, agreed (let’s face it, talking horses are rarely shy). The horse was much more inclined to party with the mage and dragon rather than roam the lands on a pointless quest.
“See anything up there, Ash?” hollered Misker. Strom jumped – he still wasn’t used to the idea of a horse that talked. And talked a lot.
“Nope. Gilda assures us that the tower she saw was up this valley though.”
“What did he say?” Strom asked Ash, who ignored him.
“Does it look familiar?” Bert called.
“Was that Bert talking?” Strom said. “That boy never speaks up.”
Ash ignored him again and answered Bert. “Yes, I recognize this valley and the road. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
“I hope so. My hooves are tired.”
“What? I can’t hear any of you!” yelled Strom.
“Cast your damn hearing spell already!” grouched Ash back at him.
“Get some glasses,” responded Strom before settling back in his dragonsaddle in a huff.

                                                                        ***

Strom woke after a brief nap to notice a cart on the road ahead of Bert and Misker. The cart was coming toward them, but the paladin and horse wouldn’t see it around the corner until it was much closer. Apparently, the man driving the cart hadn’t noticed the dragon overhead.
“Hey, drop down to the guys – there is someone on the road,” he instructed Ash.
Ash squinted. “I don’t see anything.”
“You wouldn’t see a giant eagle if it was trying to pick your nose.”
Ash snorted but began to descend toward the road. Misker stopped and Bert dismounted, awaiting the dragon’s arrival. After Strom dismounted, Ash muttered a few words, and with a golden flash of light, transformed himself into his more convenient elven form. He looked like a skinny old elf with long hair and fangs. His eyes were a disturbing shade of red.
“Lunch break?” asked Misker hopefully, eying the grass along the side of the road.
“Go ahead. But actually, there’s a cart approaching along the road. I thought we’d talk to the man and get the lay of the land. I’m sure the peasants will be thrilled that their master has returned.”
“Umm,” said Bert. “I’m guessing you’re a barely remembered legend around here and that someone else now runs these lands.”
“What? Preposterous!”
“In general, peasants are pretty happy about it when their masters leave them unattended,” agreed Misker. “Kind of like horses, actually. It’s nice to be left alone and not carrying someone else on your back.”
“Well, I’ll have you know my peasants were well treated. I turned less than half of them into ghouls during the Goblin-Troll Wars, only taxed them half their produce and made a sincere effort to dance with every one of their daughters at the festivals.”
“Pfft,” snorted Ash. “You tried to do a lot more than dance with every one of their daughters at the festivals, you dirty old man.”
Luckily the cart came in to view right at that time and the peasant pulled the reins up in surprise at encountering anyone on the road.
“Ho, serf! I am Strom Coalbeard, Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar and master of these lands!”
The peasant blinked slowly, looking the old mage up and down.
“I don’t think so,” he finally replied.
“Didn’t you hear my name? I’m Strom Coalbeard.”
Misker nodded in the background, confirming the mage’s claim.
The peasant was silent, a dubious look on his face.
“All right, well we’ll dispense with the formalities for now. No need to bow or offer immediate tribute,” said the mage graciously. “Tell me about my lands.”
“Well, first of all, they ain’t your lands. We’re a democracy here.”
“A what?”
“Democracy.”
“You watch your mouth around me, boy!” snapped Strom. “I don’t want to hear any more foul words like that out of your mouth.”
“What’s a democracy?” asked Sir Bert.
“Don’t you dare corrupt his mind, peasant!” warned Strom.
The hitherto untalkative peasant quickly warmed to his subject. “Each adult in our city-state has the right to serve in our government, helping to write and enforce the laws we all agree on. Each citizen has the right to vote on all major decisions. Each person’s voice is heard equally, regardless of their position in society or their wealth.”
Strom had turned pale, horrified by such a description of chaos and lack of social organization.
“I think I just threw up a little in my mouth,” gasped Ash.
“That sounds amazing!” gushed Bert. “A working democracy. I have never heard of such a thing.”
“You’ll have to meet our President, then. He’s in charge and loves to discuss political theory.”
“Let’s see if he’s still in charge when I hang his bloody body from the top of the Tower,” growled Strom. “Uppity peasants, Ash! I’m so glad we’ve come home. They need us here.”

                                                                           ***

When the four finally arrived at the town of Athar, located a mile or so away from Strom’s Tower, the mage discovered things were even worse than he’d imagined. There was no parade, no sacrificing of slaves, no bonfire parties to welcome him home. He nearly told Ash to take dragon form and burn some buildings just to liven things up a bit.
“Why is everyone staring at us?” asked Misker.
“Well, first of all, I’m guessing it has something to do with you being a talking horse,” said Bert.
“We don’t much like strangers here. We keep to ourselves and we like it that way,” said the peasant, whose name was Egalitan. He’d traveled back to the city with them to help them find an inn and get settled.
“How come they aren’t bowing?” grumped Strom.
“We don’t bow to nobody, wizard,” Egalitan declared. “Why should we? We’re all equals here.”
“Well some of us are a little more equal than others!” Strom said piggishly.
“No.” Egalitan paused. “I think you better meet with the President right away. Let him tell you how things are.”
***
After the meeting with the President of Athar, Strom was in an even fouler mood. He’d been informed, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t in charge. In fact, he’d been subjected to several comparisons from museum statues and paintings to even establish his identity as the former lord of these lands. After that, the President had simply said that “times change” and told Strom and Ash that they were welcome to stay in the city as long as they didn’t cause any trouble.
“The bastard also had the nerve to tell me I could run in the upcoming Presidential election if I wanted to be in charge! And that being in charge really meant responding to the whims and fancies of the “voice of the people.” The only words I want to hear from the people are “Yes, my Lord.””
“There’s an election soon?” Bert perked up. “Who can enter?”
“Anyone. Do you believe that crap? Any adult. Male or female. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. What a crock of sh—”
“So I could run?” interrupted the paladin. Everyone turned to him in surprise.
“Why the hell would you do that?” growled Ash. “Didn’t you hear Strom? You’d have to actually listen to people. Pay attention to them. Give a damn about their problems.”
“It’s public service, Ash,” said Bert reasonably. “The ability to improve the lives of so many people. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
Strom slowly began beating his head on the table.

                                                                      ***

“I can’t believe that silly paladin got himself elected President!” said Ash. He was sprawled in the sun at the top of the Black Tower of Athar. Strom sat nearby, munching on a bowl of trail mix.
“Who votes for a guy wearing white who randomly wanders into the city three months before an election? And did you see him shaking all those hands and kissing all those babies? Brrrrr.” Strom shivered in disgust.
The day after Bert announced his intention to run for President, Strom and Ash had flown to the Black Tower. What followed was a three-hour argument about who had the keys to the front doors. The scene nearly dissolved into a magical duel when Ash said that Strom was less responsible than a three-year-old and Strom responded that Ash only had one place he could hang such a small keychain.
The Tower had apparently rested undisturbed for the thousand or so years they’d been gone. The President said various mobs had tried to break in, but the Tower’s defenses thwarted them.
The arguing ceased when the ghost of the Captain of the Guard came to investigate the noise. The Captain recognized both of them and let them in. They’d been interested to learn that over the centuries all the guards and castle servants had slowly died off, but the magic of the Tower kept them employed as ghosts. This worked out great for Strom and Ash, but the ghosts really didn’t seem very impressed by the arrangement.
Now the two sat basking in the sun on the Tower’s rooftop, enjoying a well-deserved rest after their centuries-long vacation. A ghostly butler popped into view between the two of them. Both jumped.
“Don’t do that!” shrieked Strom. “I just about peed myself.”
Ash had instinctively drawn in a deep breath in order to breath fire to protect himself. Now he was all puffed up with a belly full of dragon fire. He looked frantically around for a place to exhale the inferno. Smoke literally rose from his ears. He also felt an uncomfortable rumbling in his lower belly. If gas came out that end, it would be a disaster. Finally, he blew a vast fireball down on the unfortunate specter of the butler. The immense pillar of flame engulfed the ghost, hiding him from sight for several seconds. When the flames and the smoke cleared, the ghost simply stood there, looking annoyed.
“I guess he’s still an outdoor pet, isn’t he, sir?” the butler said to Strom.
The ghostly staff had become a great deal more mouthy once they’d discovered that neither Strom nor Ash could touch or affect them in any way. They’d also become more unruly once they heard about the city’s democracy.
“You have a reason for interrupting us?” asked Strom.
“There is a messenger at the front door, sir.”
“Send him up then. I don’t feel like going downstairs.”
“He, uh, can’t come upstairs. He’s a horse. And he asked for both of you.” The butler seemed a little put out that the horse was talking, as if such a thing was inconvenient. Apparently, the feat was lost on the butler.
With a poof, both Strom and Ash disappeared from the roof.
“No, no, my Lords, it was no trouble at all to bring you this message. I’m so very pleased to have been a wonderful servant, and thank you for taking the time to notice me.” With a curse, the ghost dissolved and returned to his quarters deeper in the tower.
The teleportation spells Strom and Ash had cast put them down just outside the Tower doors, where Misker was busy eating the butler’s roses.
“Hey fellas!” said the horse cheerily. “This is quite the tower.”
“That’s right, you haven’t been out here yet to visit us.”
“Nope, been busy with the election.” The horse craned his neck, peering upward at the tall Tower. “Wow, that tower is huge. Whatcha compensating for, Strom?”
Ash snorted.
“The butler said you had a message?” noted the mage, ignoring Misker’s jibe.
“Bert won the election!”
“So we heard,” said Ash without any enthusiasm. “I guess that means he’ll be staying around these parts?”
“Actually, we both will. President Bert has appointed me as his Chief of Staff,” the horse said proudly.
“There goes the neighborhood,” muttered Strom.
“I’m also here to discuss your back taxes.”
“Eh?”
“Back taxes. The city of Athar was formed about 200 years ago. Based on back taxes, penalties, and administrative fees, you fellas owe quite a bit.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Nope.”
“This sounds strangely familiar. Like when we all first met, Misker,” said Ash thoughtfully. “You two were trying to soak us for money then, too. From an old bar tab. And now you’re suddenly coming along and claiming we owe the city a bunch of money.”
“The city that just so happens to be run by Bert,” Strom stroked his beard thoughtfully. “How convenient.”
Misker started shuffling around nervously.
“I wonder,” continued Ash. “If we went to the Guild of Wondrous Paladins, would we find Bert’s name on its roster?”
“I bet we wouldn’t,” said Strom.
“And I wonder if we checked that “receipt” from the Lewd Orcette Lounge, would it actually be as old as it appears?”
“I bet it isn’t,” said Strom.
“Or if we checked in with a few kingdoms, would we find warrants for the arrest of a pair of con artists matching your descriptions?”
“I bet we would,” chimed in Strom.
“Now guys, you know you don’t want to go to that much work,” cajoled the horse. “You just got home to your fine Tower. You deserve to relax. Let Bert and I manage the city for you. There’s no need for that kind of investigation.”
“Well, there’s an easy solution to the tax problem,” Ash suggested, a long tendril of smoke emerging from his mouth.
“Indeed there is,” agreed Strom, casually tossing a fireball from hand to hand.
“Whoa whoa, gentlemen! We’re all friends here!”
“Are we? How good of friends are we, Misker?” Ash asked casually.
“Umm, we can reduce your back taxes by, err, one third.”
“Ash, do you feel the need to clear your throat? You sound like you have some flame built up in there.”
“Why yes. Yes, I do, Strom.” Ash glared at Misker.
“Wait wait! In the interest of our friendship, we can reduce the back tax by half.”
“Half?” laughed Strom. Now a small lightning storm swirled around his pointy hat.
“Um, well what do you have in mind?” asked Misker.
“We want in on the deal,” said Ash immediately. “The four of us split the take four ways, equal shares. We can also skim from the collected taxes, the retirement funds, the orphanages.”
“We should be able to replace all the museum artifacts with replicas and sell off the originals. We can get a lot more fields into production, too. That means more taxes,” Strom suggested.
“Every few months Strom and I can threaten an attack, giving President Bert the ability to raise taxes to fund a larger army.”
Misker looked impressed. “Those are great ideas. We think we can keep Bert in office for about fifteen years before the city catches on. That’s when we’ll have to move on.”
“Or we can all hang out here in the Tower for a few generations,” offered Strom. “There’s no way those peasants can get in here.”
“And don’t worry about aging,” Ash assured the horse. “Strom’s got these wonderful potions that will extend your life for centuries or more.”
“I’ll have to run all this by Bert to make sure he agrees,” Misker pointed out.
“Of course. But I’m sure he’ll recognize a great partnership opportunity when he sees one.”

                                                                        ***

“I can’t believe you guys,” sighed Daraga the cartologist, pushing back her chair from the feast. “Those poor people! You’ve been skimming money off them for years now.”
Daraga, as well as Selena the half-orc minstrel and Gilda the pirate, were on a girl’s trip. They’d decided to swing by and see how Strom and Ash were doing. They were quite surprised at the situation they found.
“I thought there was something fishy about that paladin,” chimed in Gilda. “He seemed just a little too goody-goody to me. And the story about his family following you two for centuries always felt a little thin.”
“Yeah, I’m surprised you fell for that,” agreed Selena. “It’s a fun story, but a little too strange.”
Strom shrugged, wiping some of dinner off his beard. “The original scenario is certainly plausible.”
“It is,” said Ash. “We skipped out on quite a few tabs, I’m sure.”
“I think the party is about to come to an end, though,” Selena warned. “The people are getting restless under Bert’s Presidency. I hear a lot in the taverns when I play. The phrase “term limit” seems to be bandied about quite a bit. So is “tar and feather,” actually.”
Ash snorted. “It would serve him right.”
“Still,” Strom said thoughtfully. “We’ve all made a lot of money in this caper. I’d hate for those two to get hurt too much.”
Somewhere down the hall from the dining room a gong sounded.
“Oh, may I please rush to get that for you, great human?” grumbled the ghostly butler. “I’d be so pleased to have more of your friends to serve. I do so enjoy listening to the problems of the living.” The ghost disappeared through the wall toward the front doors.
“That’s probably Bert and Misker now,” Ash said. “Just in time for drinks.”
“Imagine that,” muttered Strom.
The butler popped into view right next to Strom, scaring the mage so bad he dumped his wine down the front of him. Daraga giggled.
“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t do that!” screeched the wizard.
“At least once more,” stated the ghost. “And may I present President Bert and his pet Misker. I’ll point out the pet is inside the dining room. Had I realized we’d be hosting an animal show this evening, I’d have lined the floor for easier cleaning.”
“I am perfectly housebroken, thank you very much. Don’t you have a grave to go play in or something?” said Misker angrily. “And I’m not his pet! I’m his Chief of Staff!”
The butler smirked as he disappeared.
“Hello ladies!” said Bert. “Welcome to my little corner of the world.”
“Our little corner of the world,” corrected Strom. “Don’t get too big for your britches.”
“Speaking of which,” Gilda pointed at Bert’s presidential robes. “Someone isn’t missing many meals.”
“Nope!” agreed Bert. “Life’s been good lately.”
“That’s what we hear,” laughed Gilda.
“Might be trouble coming your way, Mr. President,” said Selena. “I was just telling Ash and Strom that there’s unrest in the streets. Discussions of term limits and special elections.”
Bert paled. Misker’s eyes got round.
“Seriously?”
“Yep. And that’s not all. Apparently, there is going to be a special investigation.”
“Hey Bert,” interrupted Strom. “I’ve always wondered something about politics.”
“What?” grouched the paladin-turned-President.
“What does “impeach” mean, exactly?”
Ash and ladies laughed.
“What are you boys planning to do about this?” asked Daraga. “It sounds serious.”
“We knew it wouldn’t last,” Misker replied. “We’ve been investing our – uh – contributions and it sounds like it’s about time to move on.”
“What about you two?” Bert asked Strom and Ash.
“Well, those silly peasants couldn’t get in this Tower if they tried,” chuckled Strom.
“But it might be boring to be besieged, so I suppose we’d hit the road again,” Ash finished. Strom nodded in agreement.
“Well fellas, you know where to find us,” Gilda said. “You guys turned out to be pretty useful.”
“That’s for sure,” winked Daraga at Strom.
“Ew,” said Ash.
“What’s with you and older men?” Selena laughed.

                                                                          ***

When the ladies were gone and it was just the four of them, they talked deep into the night about their past adventures. Bert and Misker headed home to pack. Strom and Ash began looking at maps to see where they hadn’t been before.
“Still stuck in this Tower,” sighed the butler. “Son of a…”

                                                                          ***

And so their adventures come to an end, for now. Perhaps I, Bostonius the Wordsmith, will uncover more legends of this mighty pair and their adventures. It has been my privilege to provide you with these scrolls. Please don’t forget to leave a review as you exit the Archives.

                                                                           *

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

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Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

“Dying for Dinosaurs” by Joshua Scully

Paleontologist Alma Ojeda was a veteran of countless excavations in her native country. She had established herself quickly in her field when she helped to unearth the largest Argentinosaurus ever found while working on her doctorate at the University of Córdoba.

However, Argentina was literally no less than a world away from Mars, and this was her first dig on the surface of the Red Planet. Ojeda found this distant location offered both benefits and challenges.

Due to the weaker gravity, tools and equipment were easily moved on the Martian surface. The ancient rock and sand lifted away from the desertscape without much difficulty. 

On the other hand, her pressure suit made nearly every movement awkward and uneven. There was also an ever-present need to change oxygen canisters. Temperamental dust storms kicked up with alarming frequency, often obscuring progress. 

The good and bad attributes of this particular project aside, Ojeda was certain her colleagues back on Earth – some sixty million kilometers away – could hear her shout with ecstasy when history changed before her eyes just west of Ascraeus Mons. 

“Look at this!” 

Peter Harland, the mission commander and Alma Ojeda’s excavation partner, turned away from an aluminum sifting apparatus and covered the distance to Alma in several careful strides.

“Vertebrae,” Ojeda whispered. “Nearly identical to the images taken by the rovers.”

As she spoke, whirling dust from a butterscotch sky partially covered the discovery.

“And this is why we’re here,” Harland muttered. “The rovers just aren’t quick enough.”

Moving his satchel of tools closer to Ojeda, Harland tossed aside a mattock and selected a small trowel from the sack.

“I almost can’t believe how near this is to the surface,” Harland commented. 

“Look!” Ojeda exclaimed again. She worked a small brush over a final vertebra to reveal the base of a skull. Harland eagerly joined her. The pair carefully worked crimson rock away from the find.

Harland paused momentarily to press a small button on the side of his helmet. This temporarily boosted his transmitter. 

“Quinlan, I’m sure you’re reading us?”

Michael Quinlan, the communications officer and pilot, replied almost immediately from the observation compartment onboard their lander.

“I’ve heard everything,” Quinlan answered in a clear voice. “I’m suiting up now to come out and have a look for myself. I should be there in twenty minutes.”

“Perfect,” Harland replied. 

As the paleontologists eagerly revealed more of the skull, both took a moment to speculate.

“Therapod?” Peter noted as he traded the trowel for a chisel from his satchel. “What do you think?”

“Allosaur?” Ojeda responded with a question of her own.

“I told you about that site I worked at in Oklahoma as part of my training,” Harland replied. “We found a nearly complete Saurophaganax. The similarities are striking.”

“The panspermia school back home is going to get quite a boost,” Ojeda added. “Convergent evolution to an extreme.”

“Right,” Harland affirmed, “and I don’t remember Genesis saying anything about God sending life to Mars, either. Regardless, convergent evolution for certain. Some folks back home are going to be awfully angry.”

Both paleontologists–turned–xenopaleontologists scowled at this thought. The most ardent detractors of their mission to confirm the potential existence of fossilized remains on the Martian surface were the Abramaic Purists. These religious fanatics had created a powerful political organization and were very hostile to the notion of extraterrestrial life.  

As Ojeda and Harland continued their work, a complete fossilized creature began to take shape. Their discovery would have looked perfectly at home if unearthed in Alberta or Montana, but somehow seeing the bones against the red rock and muddled yellow sky made the pair somehow uneasy.

“Aside from the obvious, this completely changes everything we know about the Hesperian and Amazonian periods,” Ojeda remarked concerning geological periods on Mars. “Processes could have brought this to the surface, but I have a feeling this is early Amazonian.”

“Imagine the fallout,” Harland replied. “Most texts about this planet back home might as well be used for kindling.” 

Ojeda nodded and carefully used a small brush to remove fine extraterrestrial soil from the teeth of a carnivorous dinosaur that had once roamed the coast of an ancient Martian sea. 

“Amazing,” Ojeda observed quietly. “I can’t imagine what this planet is hiding.”

“I can’t either,” Harland agreed.

“I can.”

The voice of Michael Quinlan suddenly sounded inside the helmets of the two enchanted academics. Quinlan stood just a few feet away. His outstretched arm wasn’t offering a fresh oxygen canister or spare trowel. The pilot instead firmly held the single emergency firearm from the lander.

Surprised by the sudden and threatening appearance of the pilot, Ojeda dropped the brush and fell backward in a small cloud of dust.

“What the hell?” Harland asked flatly as he pushed himself off the ground. He formed two gloved fists as he fully stood. “Drop that!”

“Both of you need to come back to the lander with me now,” Quinlan ordered. “I’ll put you in stasis. We’re returning to Earth.”

“What are you talking about?” Ojeda asked. “That’s insane! Do you realize what we’ve found?”

“I realize exactly what you found, and the agency knows some back home aren’t ready for this,” Quinlan calmly offered. 

“I doubt the agency has a problem,” Harland countered. 

Quinlan shrugged and offered a slight smile. He pointed the firearm squarely at the mission commander.

Harland took a small step forward toward the pilot. Quinlan stepped back.

“Peter, you don’t have to die out here,” Quinlan warned, “but I have permission to shoot both of you if necessary.” 

“I don’t understand,” Ojeda stammered from behind Harland. She was still on the ground, crawling around the discovery as if she meant to shield the find from Quinlan.

“You both need to come with me,” Quinlan repeated. “In the event of a discovery of this magnitude, I was to return both of you to stasis immediately. The agency needs time to assess this situation.”

“Like hell!” Harland barked. “I didn’t risk my life to be a footnote on some conspiracy theory!”

“Stand back!” Quinlan shouted before retreating another step.

Launching each arm into motion, Harland released two handfuls of sand toward Quinlan as he charged forward. The rusty cloud bought the commander the necessary second that he needed to reach out for the firearm. 

Quinlan turned to shield himself, and the two men struggled as much as the gravity and their pressure suits would allow. The firearm discharged into the ground. The sound from the blast traveled with leisure through the thin Martian atmosphere. 

After another discharge, Quinlan managed to twist out of Harland’s grasp, sending his commander slowly to the ground. As he raised the firearm to shoot Harland, a strange reflection caught his eye.

This glare was created by the steel head of the mattock that Harland had tossed aside earlier. The discarded tool was now a weapon in the hands of Alma Ojeda, who would later be known for having discovered the largest dinosaurs specimens on Earth and Mars.

The pointed end of the mattock struck the center of Quinlan’s vision. The pilot dropped the firearm and screamed, pressing his hands over the spidering crack that the mattock had created on his visor.

Within seconds the pilot dropped to his knees as glass exploded, allowing the pressurized interior of his suit to escape into the Martian atmosphere.

As the sweat on Quinlan’s forehead and the saliva on his tongue boiled, Ojeda helped Harland to his feet. Ojeda secured and aimed the emergency firearm, firing the one shot needed to end Quinlan’s misery.

Ojeda looked down at the collapsed pilot next to the fossilized Martian dinosaur.

“Concurrent life,” she said to herself.

“We need to photograph everything,” Harland observed. “If Quinlan was right about the agency, surely we’ve got to be able to contact someone else back home. The world has to know what we’ve found.”

Ojeda nodded and turned away from the dead pilot. She looked down the gentle slope of Ascraeus Mons toward the lander. 

She wondered if Michael Quinlan was the first human to die on Mars. Of course, none of the previous missions had suffered a fatality on the Martian surface, but she suspected there were yet significant discoveries to be made on the Red Planet. 

*

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

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Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

“Strawberry Moon” by Kerry E.B. Black

Aaron huddled under a blanket behind the couch his babysitter Tiffany napped upon. A fire crackled in the fireplace despite the summer season. On television, the news began its broadcast.

Best not change the channel or I’ll wake her. Besides, Chiller Theater starts after the broadcast. Hope it’s something with Vincent Price or Boris Karloff. I love those guys.

The perky broadcaster’s eyes glistened as she read the headline. “Another brutal attack on Pittsburgh’s North Side has police baffled. They suspect an animal and have involved Humane Society officers and staff from the Pittsburgh Zoo.”

Aaron nestled deeper into his blankets. He lived on the North Side. Sure hope Mom and Dad will be careful when they leave the Rooney’s anniversary celebration.

A full moon glowed through cloud cover and illuminated the street outside Aaron’s Avery Street home. A “strawberry moon” the meteorologist explained while pulling at his Steeler-striped tie. He forecasted summer storms for the rest of the weekend. A distant growl of thunder confirmed his report.

Tiffany’s phone jingled a message. She roused and typed a hasty reply before she stretched her lithe dancer’s body toward the ceiling. Even on tiptoes, she wasn’t much taller than Aaron. His face warmed as he imagined embracing her.

Unaware of Aaron’s presence, Tiffany strolled to the entry while ruffling her long hair. It cascaded to the middle of her tiny waist. She peeked through the side window, applied lip gloss, and opened the door. “About time you got here. I thought you were standing me up.”

A hulking figure scooped her from her feet. She squealed and shushed him. “Put me down and come inside. The kid’s asleep.”

Aaron bristled. Kid?

“When are his parents coming home?” the neanderthal said.

She guided him to the couch. “Not for a couple of hours, but you have to be gone before they get here.”

“Sure thing. Now bring those sweet lips over here.”

Aaron fought a gag as the boyfriend’s leather jacket slid to the carpet at their feet. It stunk of wet dog, and something dark stained the lapel. Guess Lover boy’s a messy eater.

The newscaster on screen flashed a dazzling smile. “This just in. Another body was discovered outside of the Andy Warhol Museum on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Investigators say the mangled remains of an unidentified male show signs of animal attack, like the three victims found last night.”

Tiffany sat up, stiff. “That’s pretty close to here!”

The boyfriend nuzzled her neck. “Don’t worry about it, Tiff. I’m here with you. Don’t you feel safe with me?”

She pushed away. “Stop it. I’m going to lock the door.”

His smile revealed long, white teeth. “Whatever.” He stretched his hands over his head. His wrist bore a tattoo, a black star held in a circle.

The mark of the beast!

Worse, his index and middle finger were the same length.

Like in almost every werewolf legend known to man!

Aaron’s eyes grew wide, and he held his breath as Tiffany returned to renew kissing.

Silver. I need silver.

He spotted candlesticks and the chest of his great grandmother’s sterling in the dining room.

How to get there without being spotted? Of course, if they don’t come up for air, it won’t be a problem.

He hunched, ready to sprint from his hiding place, when Tiffany groaned. Aaron froze. Is that a ‘she’s having fun moan,’ or is he killing her in my living room?

A quick glance turned his stomach. Why’s she allowing him to paw her like that?

On the mantle rested his mother’s silver trophy cup from her college rowing days. I know it’s real silver, since I have to polish it before every family get-together. It’s heavy as heck, and it’s closer than the dining room.

He burst from his hiding place and sprinted to retrieve it. His feet tangled and kicked the boyfriend’s coat. He careened and it skittered toward the hearth. “Argh!” He caught himself on the tile before sliding into the flames, but the coat smoked.

Tiffany sprung to her feet. “Oh my gosh, Aaron! What are you doing awake? Are you okay?”

He pulled the coat from the blaze.

The boyfriend barked, “Give that to me!”

If Aaron had any doubt about his theory, the man’s appearance put it to rest. Thick, dark hair sprouted over his body. Teeth dripped saliva and pinkish froth. His hands curled into claws, and his eyes glowed in the low light.

Aaron clutched the jacket and backed closer to the fire. “Back off.”

Tiffany staggered, pale. “What’s wrong with you? You’ll scare him.” She touched her neck where he’d been kissing and screamed. Blood coated her fingers. “Did you bite me?”

The man hunched toward Aaron. “I’m serious. Give me my coat. Now.”

Tiffany dashed to the front door and struggled one-handed with the lock. She clamped her other hand over her wound. Blood pulsed through her fingers.

She’s leaving. Thanks, Tiff!

The werewolf glanced over his shoulder at her. Aaron seized and threw the trophy at his attacker’s head. It rang when it struck.

The wolf-man snarled and leaped.  

Aaron dropped the coat into the hungry flames. For a second, he feared he’d smothered the fire, but with a whoosh, it burst, consuming the garment.

The werewolf dropped to his knees and clutched his stomach. His screeched, “No!” came out as more of a howl than human language.

Aaron guarded the conflagration with a sweep of the iron fire tools, careful to avoid the werewolf’s grasp and bite. As the coat reduced to ash, the lycanthrope gasped, groaned, fell silent. Thick blood pooled around the split in his head and dripped from the scratches and pokes from Aaron’s defense.

Aaron shook with reaction.

Tiffany’s hysterics echoed through the open door.  

A seeming eternity passed before Tiffany ushered police into Aaron’s home. A paramedic wrapped him in a thick blanket while police took statements.

Guess that coat was some sort of link to his life.

A blur of red and blue infiltrated Aaron’s musing. “I don’t care if I sound crazy. That man was a werewolf and tried to kill us.”

The lead officer rested a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “Well, no matter what, you were incredibly brave and resourceful.” He closed his notebook with a snap.

The coroner transporting the dead body nearly bumped into Aaron’s frantic parents. They rushed to him, knelt to embrace him. “Thank God you’re okay!”

Aaron melted into their embrace, comforted by their obvious concern. Safe.

“We’ll contact you if we have any questions.” The officer handed Aaron and Tiffany his business cards.

They nodded, but when Tiffany scratched her bandaged neck, Aaron jolted. The faintest trace of a tattoo emerged on her wrist.

*

Kerry E.B. Black writes eclectic stories from a cottage in a swamp situated along the foggy Allegheny River in Pennsylvania, USA. Other fine publications such as “Postcard Poems and Prose,” “Moonchild,” and “The Ginger Collect” have published her works, and several of her stories have crept into anthologies. Kerry’s first novel, “Season of Secrets,” has an expected late autumn release through Rhetoric Askew, and a collection of her short stories “Herd of Nightmares” is expected out by year’s end through Tree Shadow Press. Please follow on social media https://twitter.com/BlackKerryblick, https://kerrylizblack.wordpress.com/, and http://www.facebook.com/authorKerryE.B.Black.

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Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

“Beasts” by Roppotucha Greenberg

            We colonised the sun. Our presence here dwarfs all else. We have sacrificed homes, nights, and bodies as they were in the inter-planetary period. Earth is invisible.

             Immured in the core, the sun-beasts hurl out flames: tails, snouts, wings. If I open the gates, I will see them: I will cause immeasurable hurt.

             In class, we study differentials and the convective zone.  Boredom rips us apart: white heat surrounds us; the elders are busy preaching. The beasts are in my head, splintering, bursting, consuming all thoughts.

            After the flare, the elders sleep suspended among the rays. I remove the keys.

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Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)

Roppotucha Greenberg writes microfiction on Twitter (@Roppotucha). Longer pieces are available on Amazon. She is a recent Ad Hoc Fiction winner.