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Pack-Brothers: The Ambush

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I would join - Editor

Pack-Brothers: The Ambush

by Will Frankenhoff

Dusk settled into the remote mountain pass. A chill breeze arrived, whispering among the stunted birch trees and silver-barked alders clinging to life amid the hard brown soil. An arctic fox, her coat already white in preparation for winter, paused to sniff the air. High above, a pair of red-tailed wyverns spiraled across the sky in an elaborate mating dance. The sole sign of civilization was an old road, its cracked paving stones overgrown with chokeberry bushes and knee-high spikegrass. Climbing out of a small wooded hollow to the west, it ran along the northern edge of the pass before turning southeast to head deeper into the mountains.

Blade-Lieutenant Eldan Swayne crouched behind a lichen-covered boulder thirty feet back from the road, a small hand-held crossbow resting in one gloved hand. Clad in the grey-green buckskin leathers of the Republic of Almaren’s Border Watch, including a hood that left only a slit for the eyes, Eldan’s motionless form blended into the rock; one shadow among many in the deepening twilight.

He was not alone. Eight other members of his small company lay concealed nearby. Most were armed with powerful recurve short bows; some cradled heavy crossbows. All carried regulation-issue longswords in blackened scabbards across their backs and broad-bladed daggers sheathed at their waists.

A voice whispered in Eldan’s mind, “Chief?”

The lieutenant breathed a sigh of relief. The “voice” belonged to Canus, Eldan’s pack-brother and the final member of the company. Eldan had sent him out to confirm the location of the Ssylarian slavers they’d been tracking the past two days.

“Yes, Canus?”

“I’ve found them. Three wagons. About a mile to the west, just past Laughing Falls. They’ll reach you in twenty minutes or so.”
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Faceless

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Always make a backup - Editor

Faceless

by Terry Light

A flash of tangled crimson wrapped around Julianne’s legs so tightly she couldn’t escape the dark man approaching her bed. She covered her eyes with her right forearm, screwed her eyelids shut more tightly and whispered, “No!”

In her mind, she heard a shout.

An ominous “thump” announced each step as the faceless man drew closer. She heard his high-pitched wheezing and the dull bass of his heartbeat - then heard a click and two soft reports that sounded like a cobra spitting.

Red sheets. A cocking pistol. Suppressor. Gunshots.

A nightmare.

Julianne woke suddenly, screaming, fists clenched, elbows bent, curled tightly in a ball on her side with a thin sheen of perspiration coating her skin. Her bed was hard. No. It was the floor. She opened her eyes and saw a flat surface of black and white tiles stretching endlessly to infinity. White clouds drifted in a gentle breeze across a sunless blue sky.

“Another dream.”

“A lucid dream,” said Jon, her artificial intelligence implant.

“Better than my last nightmare.”

“Interesting.”

“Why?”

“I don’t remember your last dream.”

Julianne’s implant was beneath her skull, in her head, with her all the time. The only reason it could not know about her previous nightmare was because she turned it off. But she didn’t turn Jon back on. So why was he in this dream?

“You weren’t in my last dream,” she said. “Not as an AI, not as a participant, not as an observer.”

“Why not?”
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Blood of the Father

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Eye see you - Editor

Blood of the Father

by Philip Roberts

For the first ten years of Charles Mclemore’s life he knew only wealth and luxury. On his tenth birthday his father pulled him from his bedroom one bright, sunny afternoon, and led young Charles down plywood steps, across dusty cement, and through an entrance hidden behind an aged, rotted cabinet.

Eyes glistening with frightened tears and the sting of dusty air, Charles struggled against his father’s grip, a man he’d known as a face more than a parent. He’d always seen his father’s reddened eyes from a distance, pronounced jaw and chin firmly set whenever looking upon his own son. Hired help had tended to Charles’s needs, the word father itself meaning little as Charles was forced down crumbling stone steps, their only light held in his father’s outstretched hand.

They ended in front of a wooden door barely able to contain the bright red shining behind it. The sight silenced Charles, mute when the door opened and his father gently pushed him into the small room.

At first Charles thought he stared at a nude man inside a wooden cage. The only light came from a metal stand with a red bulb on top of it, but Charles ignored the light to focus on the stranger hunched in the corner of the cage, his arms draped over his knees, the skin pale white.

The man’s head lifted, shifted towards Charles, the movement sending ripples through the skin, bloating the flesh. The man had no face, the skin around the outside of the head pulled back into dark oblivion, and as the being pulled into a crouch, Charles could see the skin itself dripping to the hay covered floor.

Eyes pulled opened in the man’s chalk white chest, ten of them in all, but melding together, turning the man’s entire chest into a massive eye, his very arms being absorbed into the skin, empty face tilting upward. And then, in the middle of the eye another line formed, split it open into a toothless mouth. Charles barely heard a dry wheeze. It gave up on its attempt at speech before it could finish, pulling back into the corner instead, the more human form returned, except in the hollow face Charles saw the flesh pulling together, forming a replica of his own youthful features atop the pale, adult body of the entity.
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The Fleet of the Moon's Library

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Who knew? - Editor

The Fleet of the Moon's Library

by Joshua Kemp

It was 2023 before we, Humanity, set up a sustainable base on the surface of the moon. When I think of all that we learned from the libraries, it seems insane that it took so long. Once we got up there, once we started roaming around, beyond a few hop skips and jumps, that’s when we found it; The Library.

Whoever built it, if they were still watching, must have figured this seed planet a pretty miserable failure. Here we are more than six thousand years into our race's one big shot for the title, and we’re too busy killing each other to get the big picture. Three years after Moon Base Selene I was established, a walker probing for ice found the first entrance to the library. Within a month of active searching beginning we found a dozen more portals to the library, and the world shattered.

I mean, it was chaos, insanity. The Pope killed himself! I was alive, I read about it the day it happened! It may not seem like much, since you’ve probably never thought about a pope outside of history class, but believe me, that just didn’t happen, but nothing like the library had ever happened or will ever happen again. The first thing we learned, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was we are not alone. There beneath the dilating doors that swirled open at our approach were machines thousands of years beyond human technology; Rows and rows of black obelisks, their surfaces laced with tiny vein-like tubes through which a faintly luminescent green liquid flowed, Massive star craft bristling with long barreled turrets and missiles with tiny cockpits perched ludicrously atop massive engines and power plants. These and ten thousand other wonders we discovered up there soon became commonplace.
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Phoenix Ashes

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Trust in the Keeper - Editor

Phoenix Ashes

by Nadja Baer

The chains clinked against the stones overhead as Arinna stirred. Howls of agony reverberated through the cavernous hallways outside her cell. Thankfully, the pain was not the voice of one of the elementals, though Corin had proved adept at bringing the gods to breaking. At first the sounds had sent chills straight through her heart, and when they were her own, she had longed to die. Now she found them a strange comfort--proof that she was still alive.

The Earth Goddess was alive, and not alone.

A chill ran through the dark cell. Sediments of rock and dirt clung to her cheek as she pushed herself to a sitting position from the damp stone floor. She brushed them away with the back of her cold, metallic hand. Now that the pain in her forearm had gone away, she could barely tell the difference between her flesh-and-blood right hand and the robotic left unless she looked right at it. No physical sensation traveled from the steely fingers to her brain, but any attempt to break the appendage sent fiery bolts of pain shooting through her head.

The dungeon wall scratched her skin through the protective layer of soft green moss. Her head ached. Every day the rich dirt beneath her fingernails was less. The thin vines on her head bore shriveling brown leaves and no longer held her coiled hair in place. Without the power of her left hand she couldn't bring the vines back to life. Soon the rest of her would wither away as well. She tried to reach out to the power of the earth, but the magic lay beyond her reach, as severed from her as her missing arm. Corin made sure she stayed alive, but only just.
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Dead Lucky

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“Do something, Andy.” - Editor

Dead Lucky

by Len Dawson

A few days ago I would have enjoyed standing out on our sixth-floor balcony in the mild autumn weather and warm midday sunshine, but now I’m watching for those fiends to come back.

An old lady in the street below me stumbles among the bodies, as though she’s stoned, but she’s blinded, another casualty of the virus. I hear a noise and look off in the distance. I know that she heard it too because she turns her head in the direction of the car that’s careening towards her.

Ask me how can I stand here and watch what’s happening and do nothing to help and I won’t have an answer, except to say that I’m scared. I want to yell to the old woman, to warn her that the car isn’t going to stop, but I don’t because I don’t want the brutes in that car to know we’re up here. I don’t want them to come looking for us.

I hear the car’s engine race just before it slams into her, hear the thud as her body absorbs some of the car’s momentum. She’s airborne for several long surreal moments before she bounces off of a parked car like a rag doll. It sickens me, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that her troubles are probably over, and that nothing I could’ve done would have made a difference. The first time I saw them kill somebody, I wanted to make them pay for it, but now I’m just glad it’s not one of us out there, and I can’t remember when I crossed that line.
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The Cromera

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Give and take - Editor

The Cromera

by Lydia Kurnia

Shilvana was six when the masters first severed her hand.

She had been waiting for this day. After all, that was their purpose: food for the Cromera. If her body parts meant safety for the elves of Farizia, then this was nothing but an honourable sacrifice.

The Cromera protected all, weathering the storms that forever threatened the city. In return, the masters would sustain Her with the younglings. Before puberty, Shilvana’s kind had the gift to regenerate. Her hand would grow back in a matter of days.

She just did not know it would hurt so bad.

She was fortunate. The Cromera only wanted her hand. Her best friend Erikh had almost died from bleeding when he lost both his arms at previous feeding. The masters would always try to negotiate, knowing there was limited supply of younglings for the Cromera to feed on. She must not be too greedy—Goddess or not. But Shilvana knew at the end of the day: what the Cromera wanted, She got.

Shilvana had never seen the Cromera. The masters would never let the younglings near Her. In the dining hall, the younglings would gossip about what She might look like. They made it a competition: whoever came up with the worst would get the top bunk at the quarter. Shilvana had won once, when she told them the Cromera had several heads—each made of thousands of mouths and stomachs—that was why the Goddess was always hungry. The top bunk was not as worthy a prize as she had imagined, but Shilvana was proud to have made the other younglings flinch.
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Wednesday's Seagulls

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I'd dry-swallowed the last instant coffee days ago, but the thought “Oversleep and he'll eat your brain” gutkicks you awake. No matter how tired you are. Two or three nights with only a couple of hours sleep puts sand in your brain and smothers your joy in life. Six nights like that, and your brain glues shut and your energy dwindles into bovine endurance just this side of death.

I spasmed awake at the first flicker of dawn. When I saw that enough tide remained to leave a ribbon of saltwater between Wednesday and myself, I released my breath and massaged crud from my eyes. Nothing had changed. A hundred-foot rock in the middle of the South Pacific. The shattered plane I slept in. And the dead man, Wednesday.

Wednesday stood so still the island danced in comparison. Sunlight glinted off the golden hoop dangling from the desiccated stub of his left ear. His right leg ended in twin spears of worm-eaten brown bone. Salty air coursed through the crack in his skull and out his broken teeth, whistling loudly enough to penetrate the crash of the ocean's fierce churn around us, and the corrugated tear across his gut displayed mummified bowels and stumps of rib. I couldn't imagine how long he'd been on this rock – years? Centuries? How long did it take to turn a human being into jerky, and how long could human jerky last? Six bullets had lodged harmlessly somewhere inside him, and the flare gun hadn't singed his petrified invulnerability.
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The Lost Girl

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Such a little doll - Editor

The Lost Girl

by A J Madden

They’ve never found the body, but they found the doll.

They saw its porcelain head poking out from the dirt in the woods. Its left eye was gone and a worm had burrowed in the empty socket. They thought it might be the corpse at first, but soon realised it was only a doll. They pulled it up and sent it away to be examined.

She was used as evidence in the inquest, I believe. My mother could vividly remember a lawyer holding it in the courtroom, dangling her around for everyone to see. The poor thing looked so confused, very lost and far away from home. I swear once that I saw a desperate flicker of emotion in its remaining right eye, but of course that’s ridiculous. I was just a child, attaching meaning to things that weren’t there.

I don’t really know how the doll came to be with me. Bad luck, I suppose. After the trial, it was given back to the girl’s mother, who abhorred it and screamed that she wanted it out of her sight. The mother’s sister – my mother - said not to do that, and that she would give the doll a home until the mother saw fit to look at it.

Forty years later and almost everyone involved in that story is dead. The doll - still eyeless, dirt smudged into the petticoat - lies dormant on the mantelpiece. It has been there ever since we cleared out my mother’s house.

It doesn’t normally scare me. During the day it is simply a rusty old doll with a glassy eye and a waning face. When viewed in the night, things change considerably. Darkness has a way of warping reality, taking everyday things and twisting them out of perspective. I’d become a child again, a feeling of uncertain fear turning my stomach as I stared across at it.
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Clawbinder

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Which is the savior - Editor

Clawbinder

by Marlena Frank

Her large leather boots crunched down onto the gritty earth. Saira could taste blood in her mouth from where the beast had slammed her into one of the rocky cliffs earlier. She held her breath, and lifted her eyes skyward, pushing her blonde hair aside and shielding her eyes from the glaring sun above. For a moment she saw nothing, but then the dark shape appeared over the rocky outcrop. The giant bird’s wingspan easily blocked out the sun as it flew through the clear blue sky.

She let out her breath slowly, fighting off the cold terror in her chest and gritting her teeth in determination. She had thought she’d lost the fearsome creature known as Rajani, but as she watched its giant form tip in the sky she knew it was coming back around. For her. Saira moved quickly down the rocks, tiny pebbles skittering away from her feet. She could do this; it was what she’d been trained to do: fend off the Giant Ones such as Rajani. But in training they’d only been a fraction of her size and not nearly as clever. A single blast from the Power Crest would frighten the little ones off easily, but not the mighty Rajani. Saira doubted that even three blasts would prevent her from being torn asunder by the bird’s giant claws.

Her left hand was shaking, clutching the large ruby of her amulet as she scaled down the cliffs. It was absorbing the energy well, but it had to be stronger if she had any hope of scaring Rajani away and she was running out of time.  In front of her the giant shadow swept across the canyons and Saira heard herself whimpering with every breath. Rajani was moving closer, her wings slicing through the air above.
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