(Introduction to) War for the Forest’s Heart
“How close are we?” Rhea ascended the stairs to the helm of the ship where I stood, the wood creaking under the weight of her greaves.
I clenched one hand around the railing, and shielded my eyes from the sun with the other. “Within the hour, captain.”
I glanced at her before returning my gaze to the glittering ocean ahead of us. All three of our ship’s blood red sails thundered at full capacity, displaying the entire sun-insignia on each one.
“Really, Alex?” Her palms squeaked against her plate armor—blood red, just like the sails—as she adjusted it.
I glanced at her again. “What?”
The circlet of flames that levitated just above her head barely flickered as the wind whooshed by. Even when her long, brunette hair wafted up into it, the fire remained unphased. It just hovered there, no matter what it came in contact with, and burned nothing but itself.
“One of these days I’ll get it through your thick skull that I’m your sister before your captain.” She grinned as she flicked the pointy part of my ear. “Even if the only parent we share is a human one.”
“I’d be setting a bad example for the troops if—”
“Whatever.” She jabbed my shoulder, her fist clonking against my plate armor. “Let me give you a break from standing at the helm. I’d rather—”
“I came with you to honor our father’s last request, not to relive the past.” My body tensed as I inhaled sharply. “I’ll give you the same answer now as I did the past three times you’ve asked on this voyage.”
“But I didn’t even—” She sighed. “Look. I know how you feel about accessing the ‘old you,’ but I tried everything I could. So did Chiros. There’s something she’s not telling us and I worry that, if we don’t find out what it is, something terrible may await us at Sulla’s Scar.”
I remained silent.
“Please, brother,” she pleaded. “We’re at war. No price is too great for victory. If you won’t pay it for humanity—for father—then pay it for me.”
The winds weakened and the rowers picked up their pace. Their chants echoed in unison with the oars that slammed the water.
“Captain!” The boatswain walked up to the base of the stairs to the helm, scratched his hairy chest, then saluted Rhea. “Should we prep the ballistae just in case we encounter resistance before arrival? We’ve just entered enemy territory.”
She nodded at him. “Good idea.”
“Yes ma’am.” He saluted again, then dashed away to the nearest two soldiers, who were cleaning their plate armor with pieces of cloth. They spoke to the boatswain for a moment before dropping their cloths and heaving up the large arrows to load into the ballistae.
“You know what?” She returned her attention to me, nudged me to the side, and took up her position at the helm. “Do as I ask or don’t. As I’ve said before, you’re my brother before anything else, so the choice is yours. Just know that if anything bad happens that could’ve been prevented—if any lives are lost that could’ve been spared—that blood is on your hands.”
I peered at her, but she refused to make eye contact.
Her words were harsh, but they rang true.
“I understand.” I swiped my red-plumed helmet off the bench behind us, slotted it under my arm, then made my way off the helm. “Captain.”
I headed for the bow of the ship and the soldiers saluted me as I passed by them. The sailors simply glanced, as they were preoccupied with loading the ballistae on the port side. The square braziers that lined the center of the vessel had been lit, and some soldiers had started filling the communal quivers strapped to the masts with arrows.
As I arrived at the floor-door to get below deck, I startled a soldier who had just popped it open. He nearly lost his footing on the ladder and his grip slipped on the handle. The wooden board thonked back down onto his helmeted head, but he quickly regained his composure as he pushed the door back up and exited.
“S-sir.” He saluted. “Chiros is waiting for you.”
I held back a chuckle and nodded.
He saluted again, then walked past me to his comrades who polished their sun-crested shields.
“Alexander!” Chiros’ voice boomed from below. “You know I don’t like to be kept waiting!”
“Don’t care!” I called back as I opened the hatch and climbed down the ladder. The rowers stared at me as I descended, and the stench of sweat assaulted my nose as soon as my feet hit the floor. I tried breathing through my mouth to ease the smell, but I still gagged.
They chanted in unison with each row, and every now and then the seawater would splash through the oar-holes and soak their bare bodies. Their skin was shiny from sweat, and their hips itchy due to their wet loincloths. As I walked through their ranks and down the center aisle, they continued staring at me until I walked past their line of sight.
“Pick up your pace, boy.” Chiros awaited me at the wide, back end of the ship. “I don’t enjoy wasting my time.”
The centaur towered over me, his head nearly touching the ceiling and his equestrian body blocking my path to the single cell behind him that held the prisoner. His longbow was slung over his shoulder, and his silky hair covered most of the quiver on his back, though some dark red fletching stuck out between the blonde strands.
“But I very much enjoy helping you waste it, old man.” I grinned as I placed my helmet down on the ground. “So I hear you had no luck breaking her?”
He shook his head. “She’s resilient. And stubborn.”
“Your kind usually is.” I folded my arms. “I thought you knew that.”
“Aren’t you cramped up down here?” I changed the topic. “Why aren't you topside?”
“The rowers row better when I’m the one monitoring their work.” He scowled. “And now, it is your work I’m here to monitor as well. Get to it.”
He stepped to the side, his hooves clicking on the wood, to reveal the prisoner. She sat at the back of the cage, as far away from the bars as possible, hugging her knees. Her dark green, viney hair hung over her face, and the tree bark skin on her legs blended in with the wood of the ship.
I examined her. “What’s your name, dryad?”
The leaves that covered her upper torso and forearms rustled as she stood. “What do you care?”
“I don’t.” I feigned a frown. “I just thought it would be easier to call you by a name instead of just saying ‘dryad.’ Don’t you think?”
“A feeble attempt at ‘humanizing’ me,” she snarled. “We both know what you humans think of any race but your own. We forest folk are no exception.”
“I’m not here to talk about the divisions of the world.” I stepped closer to the bars. “I’m here to end them.”
“I can see that.” She wiped her hair out of her face to reveal her light green eyes glancing at Chiros.
The centaur reached back to draw his bow but I caught his wrist before he could.
“Don’t let her get you worked up.” I stared into his eyes. “She’s playing your hot headedness to her advantage.”
“I’ll not have my own kind condemn me for a choice they cannot even begin to comprehend.” He yanked his wrist from my grasp and took a deep breath. “I’ll not—”
“Maybe this is why you got nothing out of her.” I extended an open hand to him. “Give me the keys to the cell and go back to monitoring the rowers.”
“Are you mad?” He hissed. “Do you know what she’s capable of?”
“Yes.” I glowered. “And it seems you’ve forgotten what I am capable of.”
He glowered back and reluctantly handed me the key. He then made a wide turn to align his equestrian lower-half with the center aisle between the rowers, and trotted away from us.
The dryad chuckled faintly. “You two are adorable.”
“Did you know….” I removed my armguards, shoulderpads and cuirass, and set them down on the floor next to my helmet. Now, all that covered my torso was a tunic. “That the House of the Sun was originally founded by elven refugees before the humans inherited it?”
“A history lesson?” She rolled her eyes. “Fun.”
“A group of forest elves were banished from their home for their ‘associations with humanity.’” I unlocked the lock, opened the barred door with a creak, stepped inside, and closed it behind me. “They were kicked out by the druidic council, which was, at that time, predominantly occupied by dryads.”
She shrugged. “Cool.”
“These elves made their way to the human volcano-city of Arethor, where they were accepted into society,” I continued as I inched closer to her. “And who would’ve guessed that their magic would adapt to their surroundings?”
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
“To show you that we’re not the bad guys here.” I inched closer again, but she remained motionless. “You are.”
“If you insist,” she sneered.
“Speaking of volcanoes….” I blitzed her, pressing my forearm against her neck as her back hit the wall. “Have you ever been to the top of one?”
“What?” She wheezed as she pulled down on my arm, but I held fast.
“Magma is quite flexible.” I raised my other hand and gestured at her to look at it. “It flows wherever it goes, that is, if it doesn’t burn through its constraints first.”
The skin on my hand peeled away to display a layer of molten rock. My veins flowed with lava to match it. Mirages filled the air immediately around, and the dryad started to sweat.
“What if I told you,” I continued. “That I could make the magma flow through your veins, as well as mine.”
She spat in my face. “You’re a monster.”
“Indeed, I’ve discarded my morals once before.” I brought my hand closer to her head and she squirmed. “And I’ve been called on to do so yet again, for the sake of the greater good.”
She turned her head away from the heat, and refusing to make eye contact, her gaze landed right on my short, pointy ears. “No…. It can’t be.”
“You recognize me?”
“By your ears, halfbreed.” She lurched forward and I shoved her back into the wall. “You’re the Grand Inquisitor. You’re the one who—”
“I did what I was told.”
“My brother….” The green light in her eyes dimmed for a split second, before reigniting with fury. “You destroyed his body so utterly that his soul was barely recognizable when it returned to us!”
“I am sorry.” I sighed. “But the survival of the many comes before the survival of any one soul, especially my own. I sacrificed my humanity so that others wouldn’t have to. I hoped to reclaim it after the end of the First Conflict, for there is nothing I want more in this world. But your kin decided to start yet another war. So here we are.”
“We started another war?!” She snapped. “Funny how you humans contort the narrative to your advantage.”
“Alright. How ’bout this.” I pressed my thumb onto her bicep and her skin sizzled, sending up some steam. “In about one minute the magma from my veins will seep into yours and start flowing through you alongside your blood. The burning sensation will not kill you, but it will not end either. Tell me what awaits my sister’s fleet at Sulla’s Scar, and I will spare you the agony of what I just described.”
“Shove it up your—”
I pressed my thumb down harder and she cried out.
“Alexander!” Chiros blared from the other side of the ship. “Corpses can’t tell us anything!”
Her hyperventilated breathing turned ragged as beads of sweat dripped from her forehead and nose. Her face turned red, but a smirk managed to find itself along her mouth.
“Something funny?” I tilted my head at her. “We’ll see if you’re still laughing after this.”
My thumb sunk into her arm and when I removed it, a small lava-filled hole was left behind. It bubbled for a moment, then fused into her exposed muscle.
“You’ve brought this upon yourself.” I removed my forearm from her neck and stepped back as she stumbled to her knees, panting.
“As have you.” Her smirk vanished as she wailed. She peeled over, hugging herself and rolling back and forth on the floor as she convulsed.
“Oh?” I squatted down to her eye level. “Care to elaborate?”
Her head jolted up, swinging her viney hair behind her with the movement. The molten liquid had reached her neck, crawling up her veins until it reached her eyes, painting her sclera bright red. The light green that highlighted her irides flickered as the magma eclipsed it.
“Alexander!” Chiros’ hooves clicked behind me. “What have you done?”
I turned around to face him. “What’s necessary to—”
“How human of you.”
“There’s no room for compassion in war,” I retorted. “You should know—”
The ship jerked sideways, sending some rowers flying out of their seats and into their comrades. Chiros and I stumbled, but we quickly regained our footing. The dryad, on the other hand, went flying into the steel bars of the cell and hit her head, knocking herself out.
“All hands on deck!” Rhea shouted. “IMMEDIATELY!”
Chiros and I exchanged looks, then bolted towards the floor door. Once we arrived, his equestrian legs whisked away in a cloud of smoke, and the haze disappeared to reveal two human legs. The two of us then climbed up the ladder to be met with panic. Our ship was nearing landfall, but on our starboard side towered a massive treant, thigh-deep in the water. A couple dozen arrows, their points still aflame, were embedded all over its body, and several ironclad ballistae arrows were lodged in its torso.
“Sir.” One of the soldiers acknowledged me with a glance as he dipped three arrow tips into a brazier, notched them in his bow, and fired them. “Am I happy to see you.”
“Status report.” Chiros’ lower half transformed back into a horse as he drew his own bow and arrows.
“We’re trying to set it on fire with the flaming arrows.” The soldier continued firing. “But it’s not enough since they’re literally fighting in the water.”
The treant lifted both its arms up and smashed the starboard side, sending the portside ballistae, and most of the sailors who hid there, airborne. They either flew straight into the monster, or past it, landing in the water and beginning their swim to shore.
I clutched the foremast. “This ship’s going down!”
I scanned the scene for my sister to find her at the helm of the ship with her flaming sword drawn. She sprinted forward, jumped up to the railing, and leapt right at the treant with her weapon in reverse grip. She pierced its right shoulder and it roared in pain, releasing its hold on the ship but tearing through the center mast in the process.
“Hold on!” I yelled.
Rhea’s sword was stuck in the treant’s bark, and she held onto it for dear life. At the same time, the weapon’s flames began spreading outwards.
I searched the deck, found a bow and arrow, and picked them up. I pressed the steel of the tip in between my fingers and it sizzled, turning into molten lava.
“Aim for its right eye.” I glanced at Chiros who had already notched his bow.
He nodded and we let our arrows fly. They found their targets, though mine sailed clean through its head, leaving flames smouldering within its eye socket. The treant teetered in the water as it roared.
“Come on….” I watched as Rhea pulled at her sword until she finally tugged it free, pushing off the monster and landing back on our ship.
“Exhilarating.” She waited for her blade’s flames to burn off the rest of the tree sap that stained it before sheathing it. “I’d say that went pretty well.”
“Abandon ship!” Chiros bellowed as he galloped straight off the vessel.
The remaining soldiers and sailors followed suit, and as soon as I noticed the treant falling in our direction, I snatched Rhea’s hand and yanked her off her ship with me. We made it off just as the monster cleaved the vessel in half with its dying act.
“They knew we were coming,” Rhea growled. “It was an ambush.”
On the beach of Sulla’s Scar, rows of centaurs with notched bows lined the shoreline. Behind them, in the ashen, desolate ground of the Scar itself, stood a horde of dryads, along with a dozen more treants with boulders in hand ready to be thrown.
“It was a massacre,” she lamented. “And it’s my fault…”
“It’s mine.” I followed her gaze to the rest of her fleet behind our sunken flagship. One to two treants assaulted each vessel, tearing the sails, breaking the masts, and plucking soldiers and sailors from their ships. Most were flung away, but some treants decided to crush the men and women they grabbed in their hands, soaking their bark with blood and guts.
“Come on.” I shook her shoulders as I treaded water. “We gotta swim to shore. The entire fleet is going down and there’s nowhere else to go.”
“All those souls….” She blinked a few times and snapped out of her own trance. “You’re right. Let’s go.”
The two of us swam the remaining distance to shore. Scowling centaurs—with green warpaint streaking their human skin, and brown warpaint, their equestrian skin—greeted us with drawn bows. Vines were coiled around the lower and upper limbs of their weapons, and the tips of the arrows were amber.
“Disarm yourselves,” one of them growled.
Rhea unsheathed her sword and set it on the sand.
“No weapons on me.” I patted down my soaked tunic, and found that my greaves had come loose in the water, leaving my lower half protected only by trousers.
Two centaurs approached me and patted me down as well, and I examined my surroundings as they did. In addition to the dryads, treants, and present company, scattered amongst the treetops on either side of the Scar—where healthy forest still stood—were elves. They wore dark green jerkins to blend in with the leaves, and wielded mini crossbows in each hand, loaded with arrows likely tipped with amber instead of steel like their equestrian kin.
“Traitor!” A voice rang out to my right and I instinctively glanced over to see several centaurs beating on Chiros. He had made it ashore along with some other soldiers, though they laid dead and bloody on the sand.
“He did nothing wrong,” I said calmly.
“He did everything wrong.” One of the centaurs who just finished patting me down seized my chin and turned my face to his. “And you will speak only when spoken to, filth.”
“In war, it’s customary to show respect to your adversaries.”
“Respect?!” His nose flared as he snorted. “Where was your ‘respect’ when one of your generals set this very forest ablaze, creating the Scar we stand before this very day?! Where was your ‘respect’ when you tortured my brethren to the brink of severing their souls?!”
“Get off your ‘high horse,’ beast.” I heard Chiros yelp but forced myself to keep my gaze on the centaur before me. “You treat humans with the same lack of mercy as I do my prisoners. Only difference is, I do so begrudgingly, while you do so with enjoyment.”
“Silence!” He turned around and back-kicked me with his rear legs, sending me back into shallow water. I landed on a bed of seashells. Stinging pain embraced my entire back as my skin turned warm from the blood.
“Stop it!” Rhea pleaded, and the next thing I knew, a centaur lifted me up by my hair and tossed me back on the fluffy sand. I thudded face first onto it.
“Enough of this!” A feminine voice scoffed in front of me. “Men….”
I lifted myself up to my knees and came face to face with an elf. She wore dark green robes inscribed with elven runes and wielded a simple wooden walking stick with similar symbols etched all over it. Amber earrings adorned her pointy ears, which stuck out from her long, red hair, and a bipartite leaf was tattooed on her forehead. Each identical leaf was positioned over each of her eyebrows, while the stem extended down the bridge of her nose.
I suppressed a cough. “You’re a druid.”
“And you’re the Grand Inquisitor himself.” The elf gingerly lifted my chin up with the tip of her staff so I could meet her stare. One of her eyes was light green, and the other, amber. “There was a rumor the humans had put you on this mission. I do ask that you forgive Boros for his temper, though. He doesn’t know the proper way to treat prisoners of war. Even if you didn’t do as such for your own captives.”
I pointed behind me. “Are there any other survivors?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Are you the leader of this expedition?
“Alex!” Rhea hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Fulfilling my promise to father.”
The druid smacked her lips together. “How noble. I suppose this selflessness is rooted in your elven heritage. I wouldn’t expect such an act from a human.”
“A true leader should be willing to give his life so that those who serve him do not have to.” I raised my hands to her. “I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?” My sister reached for her discarded sword but stopped as some centaurs drew back their bows.
“You should be more grateful.” The druid addressed Rhea as she bound my wrists with vines, then turned to the centaurs. “Imprison the girl with the traitor. As for the Inquisitor, he has accepted his punishment. Prepare the pool.”
A pair of centaurs slung their bows over their shoulders and arrested Rhea, dragging her off to the right where Chiros was being detained.
“I swear to the gods, Alex!” My sister roared as they took her away. “If you die I’m gonna kill you! You hear me?! I’ll kill you!”
Two dryads stepped through the rows of centaurs and approached me. They grabbed my arms, and led by the druid who cleared a path for us, escorted me through the ranks of the forest folk.
Everyone glared at me as I shambled along. We finally arrived at the treants at the rear of the army, no longer on the Scar but on grassland, which was smoother on my bare feet. At the center of the twelve behemoths stood four dryads, each wearing the same green robes and accessorizing the same bipartite leaf tattoo as the elf, indicating their druidic statuses.
“How long?” I muttered.
“A year for every life you’ve tortured.” The elf spoke without turning around. “You can do the math yourself.”
“Will you torture my sister?”
“No,” she answered. “As long as I reign as chief of the druidic council, she will not be touched, no matter how badly the dryads want to rip her to shreds.”
“I take it you mean that literally.”
“Very much so.”
Four walls of erected Earth in the shape of a square stood in the middle of the four dryads. They chanted as they danced around it, moving their arms about them as if entranced. Once they finished, they thrust their hands upwards, and from the cloudless sky, four bolts of light green lightning shot down into them. It crackled about their bodies, though they seemed unphased, and their green eyes glowed brighter.
“This is truly fascinating to watch.” I let out a deep sighed. “Even if I’ve seen this ritual dozens of times before.”
“And even if it is meant for you?” The elf inquired.
“Mother Nature is eternally captivating.” I managed a chuckle. “No matter what Her intentions are for me.”
Each dryad set their hands on a wall. The lightning flowed from their arms and into the slabs of Earth, etching the same rune on all four sides: the tree of life. The symbols pulsated like a heartbeat—
Like my heartbeat.
“It is time.” The elf spread her arms and turned around to face me, then leaned in to whisper. “I know you took the fall for your sister. I’m no fool. But you’re not doing this for her. I know what you’re truly after, and it’s going to take a lot more than a thousand years of penance to restore what you’ve lost.”
“You’re right.” I clenched my fists. “But I need to start somewhere. I need to reclaim my humanity. I can’t live as a monster anymore.”
“The fact that you can come to that realization on your own proves some of that humanity still remains within you.” She stepped back from me. “Take comfort in that.”
The dryads released their hold on my biceps. I plodded forward, receiving glares from all the forest folk who watched. Upon reaching the Earthen wall closest to me, I climbed over it and positioned myself at the center of the square.
I closed my eyes—
Then opened them before lying down on my back.
“Aspious! Lindorous!” The elf spoke up again. “Proceed.”
The ground rumbled as the two treants lumbered over to me. They extended their arms over my prison, and four arrows whizzed by, cutting open their wrists. Sap spurted out for a couple seconds before gushing forth.
The liquid pooled around me, the stickiness quickly wearing off as it felt more like oil soothing my skin. The sap continued to rise, and once I became completely submerged, the tree of life symbols on all four walls sizzled. I knew holding my breath was pointless, but my brain forced me to.
My pulse throbbed against my neck.
My heartrate weakened.
Lightheadedness overcame me.
Just before my body gave out, my eyes burst open and I found myself unable to breathe, but not needing to either. As long as the tree of life runes lived, so too would I. The next thing I knew, the arms of the two treants vanished from my sight and a strong heat inundated the liquid. The sap slowly solidified, encasing me in amber.
My skin numbed.
I couldn’t move.
I couldn’t even close my eyes.
“We will release you when your sentence has been served in full.” The muffled voice of the elven druid echoed above me. “Consider this your penance, Inquisitor, for it is one that you’ve undoubtedly earned.”
Another slab of Earth sealed my prison, blocking out the shining sun and leaving me in the company of nothing but darkness.
“This is a terrible idea,” a faint voice appeared to my right.
“Oh, c’mon sis,” another voice answered. “You got a better one?
“No.” She sighed. “We really this desperate?”
“What do you think?”
The grinding of stone on stone rumbled above me to reveal the sun. I instinctively tried to shield my eyes from its brilliance, when I remembered I was frozen in amber. I then tried to bring my lids down, but they were fixed open.
Two faces popped up above me, blocking the rays of light. Their features were darkened by shadow, but one thing was clear: pointy ears.
“Are you sure this’ll work?” The mouth of the right one moved.
“I’m like…,” the left one replied. “Ninety-nine percent sure.”
“And if it goes the way of the other one percent?”
“We join him in the amber.”
The two of them climbed to the top of my encasement—revealing their dark brown and green tunics—and got down on all-fours. They muttered something in unison, and emerald light gleamed within their eyes. The same emerald magic sparkled on their palms in response. The amber underneath their hands bubbled, then started to melt as they pushed down.They grabbed either of my wrists—
Oh, to feel another’s skin again—
And gradually pulled me up. Once my fingertips breached the surface a tingling sensation surged straight up my arms, and once my head reached the top—
I inhaled a massive gulp of air as I squeezed my eyes shut—tears swelling at the corners—then opened them back up. My stiff eyelids resisted less and less which each and every blink.
The two elves finished hauling me out and I tumbled over the side, thudding onto the grass. I relished in the warmth as I stared up at the sun with a smile on my face.
“Hate to rain on your parade.” The male elf offered me his hand. “But we need to leave.”
“What’s going on?” I took his hand and anxiety swept over me as I stood up. “Wait. Rhea. Is she—?”
“Who?” He grimaced. “It’s been two centuries since your imprisonment. We know about you because Vynia—”
“The elf that had you imprisoned in the first place.” He glanced away. “My mother. She sent us your way right before a dryad slit her throat.”
“I’m….” A lump formed in my throat. “I’m sorry.”
“The dryads usurped the druidic council by force moments ago.” He nodded at his sister and she darted towards the beach. “They’ve just begun purging the forest of elves and human prisoners of war.”
“I know it’s a lot to process—that makes two of us—but we don’t have time to loiter.” He shook my shoulders. “The dryads are coming for you now. My cousin is prepping our ship to sail. We gotta move.”
“But what about Rhea?”
“Sorry, but I don’t know who that is.” He began jogging toward his sister. “Let’s go!”
I followed him onto the scar, the desolate soil rough under my feet.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked. “And what's your name?”
“I’m Tasar, and my sister is Edea, in case you were wondering.” His tone was cold, but determined. “And I’m helping you because my mother asked me to.”
“What about the rest of the House of the Sun?” My breathing became labored as we reached the beach. Two centuries in amber probably got me out of shape. “Couldn’t you appeal to them for aid?”
“About that.” He stopped running and turned around to look me in the eyes. “The humans lost the war. Both human and elven kind are being hunted down by forest folk. And you, my new friend, are at the top of their list.”
Title: (Introduction to) War for the Forest's Heart
Target Audience: YA, so pretty much Teen-Adult
Word Count: 5136 words
Author: Shane Martin
Good fit: Why am I a good fit? This is always a tough one. Aside from my awesome personality, (I'm humble, I swear), I hope that both my sample and the requested information below answers that question.
The Hook: Ever taken a nap for 200 years and woken up to a full out war? Meet Alexander, otherwise known as the Grand Inquisitor, who has just found himself stuck in a renewed conflict that was started by his ancestors.
Synopsis: The book is unwritten at this point (just lots of notes on google docs), but the introduction I've written here gives a pretty clear set up for the story: the main character, Alexander, is broken out of an amber-stasis prison two centuries after his imprisonment, and awakens to a world bereft by another massive war, kickstarted by the forest folk. Said forest folk (dryads, centaurs, treants, to name a few) seek vengeance upon humans and elves for the crimes they committed against them in the past.
Author Bio/Hobbies/Education: I grew up on books, T.V. and video games, struggling to fit all three of these things into each and every day. A pianist, mixed martial artist, and tennis player on the side, I've always got something to do when not gaming or netflixing (or writing, of course). I received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in both Philosophy and History at Lehman College, and first started pursuing my English Minor in Creative Writing there half way through undergraduate school. I'm now pursuing a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at New York University, focusing heavily on how I can enhance my writing with various elements of history, philosophy, and more.
Writing Style: I Simply put, my writing style is 100% influenced by my hobbies. So, all the T.V. I watch, books I read, and (most importantly) video games I play work together to give me a constant and consistent drive to create my own characters and worlds to put them in. That said, I try my best to stay away from heavy exposition/internal monolgue, only using these as last resorts, and prefer first person narration. I prefer my readers to be as close to the main character/narrator as possible, and to be shown things through their eyes, rather than through an omniscient "god."
Fish Tank Surprise
Two clownfish wove through the yellow tendrils of the anemone as they tried to flee from my prying eyes behind the glass. My younger brother George always went on about how they were from the family Pomacentridae and that their favorite food was zooplankton. I don’t know what any of those things are, but they sound long and complicated. I think long words are stupid. They remind me of having to take hard spelling tests in school where your first-grade teacher gives you those ugly X marks for not knowing whether potato has an E or O as a last letter.
Still, his fish are fun to play with. Sometimes if you put your finger up to the glass, they’ll come over and try to nibble on it, thinking it’s food. The dozen goby will often do this while the clownfish float cautiously in the back of the tank. I don’t know why clownfish have to be so boring. All they do is hide in their anemone at the corner of the cage while they have tons of space to swim in their giant tank. George told me it was 180 gallons.
I prodded the tank with my right pointer finger. As usual, several of the fat goby with ugly bulging eyes swam towards it in curiosity. Good thing my younger brother was in the living room doing his honors algebra homework. He would have screeched at me like a sick hyena if he even saw a fingerprint stain the glass. As I slid my finger across the tank, a trail of thick sweat followed. I’m going to be boiled alive in this room. Why my parents think it’s a good idea to save energy, by not turning on the air conditioner unless it’s above 90 outside is beyond me. Even just standing motionless, large beads of sweat were going down my neck. Dad wouldn’t come home until eight pm tonight from work, and he had our car. That meant we had no chance of even going to the local pool in Cross Plains.
I rubbed my neck as my hand soaked up the waterfall of sweat that continued to run down my back. I could have gone to the kitchen and got a glass of water, but that wouldn’t stop my skin from feeling like molten lava. I then thought about the closet next to the front door. I immediately got up and ran down the stairs. I opened the closet and dug through the incoherent piles of shoes to unearth a blue duffel bag that I quickly opened. Inside was a scuba mask with some snorkels. I picked up the gear and ran back upstairs. When I got back to George’s room, I closed the bedroom door slowly to not make any obvious noise.
The clear water of the tank bubbled temptingly to the roaring black filter inside. I got up on my tiptoes and carefully took off the lid. After gingerly placing it on the ground, I walked over to George’s closet and took out a stool that I then placed next to the tank. I’ll be honest when I say that looking down into a recently cleaned fish tank feels a lot like you're about to get into the pool, minus the stink of chlorine. It felt so good to stick my sticky hand into the cool, moving water. Within a few minutes, I had put on my goggles and snorkel. All my clothes were still on. I could just go outside and dry out later.
My body shivered a bit as I sunk my left leg into the tank, my right immediately followed. Slowly, I sunk into the water as the two clownfish darted to the back of the tank in terror. A large deluge sloshed out of the tank as I slowly sunk in further. Though the fishies would have a bit less space to swim around, the water that poured out onto the ground puddled on the tile floor that surrounded the tank. George’s fish stuffed animals that littered the carpet around the tiles would not face the consequences of my deadly flood. Not that I really cared. As long as I had time to dry up the mess with a towel I’d never get caught.
The water was a lot colder than expected, but still felt pretty good. The only drawback was that I could feel the darned gobies sliding past my legs. Putting your head underwater in a fish tank feels almost like a vacation. You can look down and see all these colorful corals below you, like the time my family went on that snorkeling trip in the Bahamas.
I lifted my head out of the water right as footsteps came up the stairs. My entire body froze. I knew very well that George had just short of thirty minutes to finish that algebra worksheet. He always timed himself and gloated on how he could finish it faster than anyone in his class. Though he’s a pretentious ass, even I find this impressive considering he’s in the fourth grade and I’m two years older than him. Should’ve known better that he worked his pencils to nubs. He was coming up to get his clownfish pencil sharpener he’d forgotten on his nightstand. I knew I was toast when George opened the door and turned his head towards the tank.
“Kile, what are you doing!” he yelled. He ran up to the tank and started screaming. I dunked my head back into the water to avoid his annoying cries. Through my goggles, I could see George grimacing back at me through the glass. If he wasn’t such a pansy, he would try to punch through it to clobber my face. Instead, he continued to stand there, screaming. My brother may be smart, but he never knows how to win a fight. All he does is stand and whine until some adult sees his pathetic chubby hands flailing around. I don’t know what he was trying to get out of this. Mom was talking to a neighbor two houses down and would never hear him. Thankfully, I had my snorkel on and could stay under the water for as long as I wanted. At least as long as it would take for George to lose his breath from yelling.
To my surprise, George’s mouth started to move, which meant he was actually speaking words. Curiosity got the best of me, and I lifted my head out of the water. “The fish tank is for fish, Kile!” yelled George.
“But it feels so nice,” I retorted.
George paused in bewilderment. For a second, I almost thought his face was paralyzed. “Get out of my fish tank!” screamed George.
“No, I’m hot,” I protested.
By this point, George’s face had gotten so tensed and red that it looked like it was going to burst like those rotten tomatoes my mom always leaves in her garden.
“Kile! Get out of my fish tank!” screamed George again. I put my head back under the water. This conversation was clearly going nowhere. Mom wouldn’t get back for at least another twenty minutes. She really likes to talk to our neighbor about their garden of these disgusting vegetables called heirloom eggplants. I had plenty of time. George's lips continued to flail with no sound coming out of them as I stared back at him. The entire experience was almost spooky. It was as if I had entered a protective bubble with chaos swirling around the outside. George turned around and leapt on his bed. He started screaming again. Two pillows shaped like fish bounced in front of him. He picked one up and threw it at the tank.
I giggled as it bounced off the glass and landed on the floor. George had finally stopped his screaming. He looked down at the floor in pensive frustration. To my concern, he was grinning mischievously when he lifted his head to look at me again. George smiling that way is never a good sign. He walked back over to the tank and continued to look at me with this smile until his face almost pressed against the glass. He then pointed upwards. He was signaling me to get my head out of the water. I took my head out and looked down at him.
“What is it?” I asked.
George looked downward to the far right side of the tank and pointed.
“That filter doesn’t clean out everything you know,” he said in a foreboding tone.
I looked down to where he was pointing. I couldn’t see anything through the stirred water, so I put my snorkel back in and put my head under. The two clownfish still huddled in the back of the tank. They were surrounded by these strange white vine thingies that floated around my face. That was when I put two and two together. The fish were taking frightened dumps. I shot my head out of the water and clambered out of the tank. George was laughing hard.
“Eww, gross!” I yelled.
Water dripped all over the carpet as I struggled back down the stool and ran out of George’s room. He was still laughing when I had made it down the stairs. It was at this point that I realized my dilemma. Instead of going to the bathroom, my panic had taken my soaking body all the way down the carpeted staircase. Against my better judgement, I ran across the kitchen to the nearest door. When I got to the back door, I turned around. I had left a clear long puddle of water from his room to the other end of the house. If mom got home too soon, I’d be dead meat. All I could do was dry myself and the tile kitchen floor with a towel and pray that she wouldn’t come through the front door.
Within the next fifteen minutes, I had taken a beach towel from the closet and dried myself off as best as I could before I wiped down the floor. The thought of fish turds touching my face led me to rinse my head over the kitchen faucet.
The carpet was a lost cause. It had already soaked up the poo water and was impossible to dry completely. I could only hope my parents wouldn’t notice it was damp. George would tell on me anyway, but at least there wouldn’t be as much mess for them to complain about. I went out through the back door to stand in the sun when I heard my mom come through the front door. She came outside when she saw me basking in the middle of the lawn from the kitchen window.
“Sweety, why are you so wet?” she asked. George came downstairs and stood behind her. He gave me that same malicious smile that will forever haunt me. “Uh, I was playing with the hose.” I stammered. George was going to spill the beans, but I might as well try. I looked around for anything that could help me craft a convincing story. An empty kiddie pool George and I used to play in when we were toddlers was sitting under a giant oak behind me.
“I was just playing around with the hose and was about to fill the old pool,” I explained. “I just wanted to cool off.”
“He wanted to swim with the fishes,” whined George. Mom looked around at George in confusion.
“Swimming with the fishes? What do you mean?” she asked.
“He wanted to put them in the pool.” continued George. He clenched his face. George was using the oldest trick in the book. That trick was making fake tears. “He tried to get some out of the tank and got water all over the floor before I stopped him,” he moped.
My mom glared at me. “Kile! You know those things will die in cold water. What were you thinking!”
To be honest, I didn’t know those fish would die in cold water. Not that I’d ever try to move them. My mom didn’t have enough sense, however, to realize that I didn’t listen in to every one of George’s biology lectures at the dinner table. I knew before that I was going to be screwed, but now I was going to be obliterated. “I wasn’t doing that!” I protested.
“Yes, you were!” said George. “You got the carpet all wet when I chased you out of the room.”
Never before had I wished that the neighbors' hedges besides me would consume me and make me disappear more than I did at that moment. I had forgotten to dry up the water I had spilled around the tank. There was nothing I could do. Mom would go up to George’s room, and the proof was all there. My parents would always believe George. When he wasn’t getting pummeled by playground bullies, he always won.
Mom turned around and rushed up the stairs. I walked around the house to see George’s bedroom window. The two clownfish were looking outside. I imagined them staring down at me defiantly. They had given their revenge, and I was paying the price. Stupid George.
Fish Tank Surprise
15 and up
I can turn popular internet phenomena into engaging and unique stories
Hook: kid takes a swim in fish tank
surrealistic fiction readers
email@example.com : no current website
graduated high school
writing for one year and counting
like surrealistic writing
listen to Big B
Was born in St. Paul
In the Age of Angel Makers
Zsuzsanna Fazekas was interrupted from reading a letter delivered that morning by a frantic knock. She was irritated; the letter from her former mentor detailed a promising new method of birthing known as twilight sleep, but the knock was persistent. She stood, grumbling a bit as she straightened her skirt and wiped her hands on a rag. The knock grew louder. She marched over to the door and swung it open harder than she intended.
A short, rounded pregnant woman stumbled back from the door. “Oh!”
Zsuzsanna recognized her from town and tried to school her fierce scowl into a professional smile. “Hello, Ildiko. I apologize for my abruptness; please, come in.”
Zsuzsanna swept the tiny woman inside and guided her deftly over to the chairs arranged in the back parlor Zsuzsanna had converted into an examination room. She was eager to conclude the visit. She had examined Ildiko only a few days prior and found nothing concerning. She would reassure the woman - pregnant women’s nerves often frayed as the time of delivery drew nearer - and then return to her study of the letter.
She sat down across from the woman. “Now, how can I be of assistance,” her voice trailed off as Zsuzsanna finally looked at the woman’s face.
A mottled bruise covered Ildiko's cheekbone and her bottom lip was split and cracked with dried blood. Her eyes were hollow as she clutched at her stomach with shaking hands.
Zsuzsanna drew in a sharp breath. “What is this?” she hissed.
The woman barely reacted to her anger. “It-it was my husband.”
“What did he do?” Zsuzsanna’s fury rose, heating her blood into a boil.
“He became angry during a conversation and struck me. I don’t think he meant to hit so hard, but I was flung back and landed on-,” the woman’s voice broke and Zsuzsanna saw red. “-on my stomach.” Ildiko drew in a shuddering gasp. “I was hoping you could check to see if my baby is still alive.”
The soft ticking from the parlor’s clock and the distant whistle of the wind faded. Zsuzsanna was aware only of the sound of the woman’s sobs and the feel of her own hands, clenching and unclenching into tight fists. She laid them flat on her knees to still them. “Has he hit you before?”
Ildiko hesitated. Zsuzsanna stared at her until the woman relented. “Yes,” she whispered.
Zsuzsanna stood, trying not to let rage puncture through her veneer of control. She could feel the woman’s fear seeping through the house, hiding in the shadows cast in the corners of the room. It heightened Zsuzsanna’s anger until her body shook from trying to shield it from the terrified young woman.
“Get on the table.”
Ildiko stumbled to obey, the skin around her bruise as white as the snow thawing outside in the winter sun. Zsuzsanna examined her gently, but as thoroughly as she dared. Her breath came in short staccatos as she carefully checked for signs of life in the abused woman’s stomach. Ildiko barely moved, keeping her eyes fixed on the ceiling as she waited with bated breath for Zsuzsanna’s verdict.
“I feel a heartbeat,” Zsuzsanna breathed out a sigh of relief, her sharp rage dissipating into a duller anger.
Ildiko let out a harsh sob, a shaky hand reaching up to cover her mouth. “Oh, thank God.” She cradled her stomach with her other arm.
Zsuzsanna frowned. “God had nothing to do with this.”
Ildiko looked up at Zsuzsanna’s words. “What do you mean?”
Zsuzsanna’s fists clenched once again. “Where was God when your husband beat you?” Ildiko’s eyes grew. “He was not there to save you when that man threatened your life and the life of your child!” Zsuzsanna was breathing hard. “He abandoned you when you needed someone to save you most.”
The woman sat up on the table and quickly buttoned her dress. She looked vulnerable. “What you speak of is blasphemy,” she said, her voice barely reaching Zsuzsanna’s ears.
Zsuzsanna bent at the waist to lower her face to the woman’s height. “God will not save you.”
Ildiko wilted under her intense stare. “What are you saying?”
“You must save yourself. All women must.”
Ildiko's face wrinkled with confusion. “Save ourselves?”
“Dismissal, neglect, abuse. Women have been subjected to the worst men have to offer for centuries. Did God save any of them? Did He save you?" Zsuzsanna shook her head. "He has forsaken them in a time of incredible need. I have seen countless bruises like your own that speak of His neglect.”
Ildiko’s eyes sharpened. No more than a fraction, but Zsuzsanna caught the movement. “And how do you propose women save themselves?”
Zsuzsanna tilted her head. “There are ways to end the suffering. I have seen it done before.”
“How? How is such a thing possible?” Ildiko swayed forward towards Zsuzsanna as if reaching for her words.
Zsuzsanna paused. This one had potential but was not ready. Not quite. “There are ways, but none that come easily.” Zsuzsanna herded her towards the front door. “For now, try your best to avoid your husband’s hand and protect your child. It should be only a month or two now before she arrives.”
Ildiko still looked shaken but did not argue. “I will do my best.”
Zsuzsanna gave her a grim nod. “Do your best and more. Be careful.”
Zsuzsanna watched the woman walk away with a light waddle. She was stubborn, but protective. A combination like that could prove useful in such a woman. Zsuzsanna smiled fiercely. She would help the women of Nagyrev save themselves. No matter the cost.
End of Excerpt
"In the Age of Angel Makers"
Word Count: 80,400 words
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Range: Young Adult, Adult Fiction
Target Audience: This novel is ideal for fans of "Circe" by Madeline Miller, "The Only Woman in the Room" by Heather Terrell, and other stories that highlight female experiences in historical contexts often dominated by men.
Author Bio: My name is Emily and I am a 25 year old UCLA alum who graduated with a degree in Molecular Biology and English Literature. I will be attending medical school in the fall and have been writing short stories and novels since I was young. One of my short stories was selected as a finalist in the Writer's Digest Short Story Contest in 2020. I love reading and writing about strong female characters and have always been fascinated by the untold stories of historical women from around the world.
Evelina Toth rises with the dawning sun full of dread and spotted with bruises. Her mornings have repeated themselves in this manner since the start of her childless marriage five years prior. Until the day the able-bodied men of Nagyrev, Hungary are drafted into the war efforts and Evelina, along with her childhood friend Ildiko and hundreds of other Hungarian women, is left alone.
Her newfound freedom is sweetened by the stationing of Western European prisoners of war in Nagyrev, one of whom opens her eyes to the world beyond the small village in which she has spent her entire life. But the tentative joy that begins to rise within her is shattered when her husband returns, furious to discover his wife's budding independence. Evelina finds herself desperate to seek relief - even if it comes in the form of unforgivable evil.
Based on real events from the World War I era, "In the Age of Angel Makers" is a story of the overwhelmingly powerful influence of a desperate desire for freedom and love.
That's what I'm good at, running, I'm decent at fighting, but I'm bad at hiding. Claustrophobia will do that for ya.
Bullets were zipping by my ear.
They have fricken GUNS! I thought. My legs were moving like the roadrunner, BEEP BEEP, You know the one.
I came to a T in the road, only three directions, left, right, and backward, toward the crazy dude with guns? No thanks.
I turned left and ran.
CRAP! Dead end, what now? I forgot to mention before, another thing I'm good at. Parcour.
Not like what you play in the waiting area on Hypixel though, like those YouTube videos where people are hopping from building to building.
I jumped up and grabbed a storage container and used it to pull myself up.
A bullet flew by me. Thank God they were a little drunk, and bad shots too.
I started hopping across the canisters. I'd be safe when I left the docs. More running, bullets whizzing past. Then a bullet landed by my foot. Hot shrapnel hit my leg and I fell over.
The shrapnel was burning my skin. I got up and tried to run. I wasn't as fast as I was but I could still get away. The men were yelling, the guns were popping, and I was running, on the other side of town from the police department, so my only hope was a semi-nice stranger with a gun or a car since those crazies had blown up my car. Okay, maybe I should explain how I got into this situation...
So basically how I got here (I promised an explanation earlier...) Is I just drove in. You'd think that Gangsters (or whatever these guys are) Would protect a place like this better. Anyway, I just drove in... to cry off the fact that I just got stood up by the most beautiful girl at my school, you know what... never mind I never said that. I drove in because real men hang out at the docks... ignore I said that too
Anyway... back to me getting shot at. So I was still just running the shrapnel still was burning in my leg, and then well... I ran out of crates (basically I was using crates to run across the dockyard. You know, those crates that are on those really big ships.
Anyway back on track (guess my ADHD affects my writing side too huh) and there was no way I could jump off these crates and be fine, man gangsters don't like having any intruders.
Good thing I have real skills in stuff like this because I was in cross country. I grabbed the crates and quickly lowered my body and let go. The fall didn't even hurt. I kept running, now I was only a few yards from the exit but these guys did not like me, but come on... I am sixteen! Is this really needed! I mean...I'm no snitch! Lets just chill! But no three guys cut me off. I had nowhere to run. My heart quickened and my adrenalin rushed like Jason was behind it, him, them, her it's 2022 my adrenalin can be what it, him, they, her wants to be. Anyway, this guy walked up to me, he seemed to be an authority figure among these guys.
"We caught the kid." one guy said.
"Kill him... quietly," The boss guy said
That's not good...
One guy took out a silenced pistol and pulled the trigger.
Then time stopped. Not like 'Oh my gosh I am dead!' type frozen, like I was not frozen but everything else was, of course I had to open my eyes to figure that out. Yes, I closed my eyes and cover my face when that one guy drew that gun, anyway I opened my eyes and the bullet stopped moving! Like, not even slow motion, time had completely stopped! I stood there for like forty seconds just processing. When I was done processing this like a blubbering idiot, I ran... no more to it, nothing to go in detail about. To be fair, I had no idea how long I had until whatever this was wore off.
I actually didn't know if it would ever wear off. But it did, in a secluded alley. I know it did because a cat was leaping from a dumpster and it went flying across my view. That scared the absolute heck out of me! To be fair, I did scare the cat too! It hissed and growled at me for a second then ran away. I continued my way home but my mind was somewhere else. What is the H-E-double Hawkey sticks was that!
I finally got home at ten o'clock I desperately needed a shower, and new clothes considering my pants had been burnt up by shrapnel from bullets, no biggie, just another Tuesday. Seriously I could tell the girls at school that! My mom and dad didn't even notice I had come in. Yep... they were like that. Never really looked out for me and my little sister, unless it was money-related. Dad was more than happy to show off all his cash. So I don't need to work, I do because I am not going to live off of my parents you know?
I ran upstairs and took a shower the warm water would have felt nice if I was focused enough to feel it. I got out of the shower and checked on my little sister Beth.
Luckily she was fast asleep so I could lock my door and research what had happened to me.
Nothing showed up on my computer so I just gave up and laid down on my bed. I sighed and closed my eyes thinking about what had happened that night my mind was spinning like a top, what happened to me I rolled over, why me?
Deathly Loneliness Attacks
I throw away all of my severed bonds that lay by my feet
I learned that no matter how many tears I cry,
Nobody gives a damn apparently
Making me want to say goodbye
Cracks run through my heart
The person who always stood by me disappear
What do I do now?
Without meaning to, I drag down whoever is near
I’ll always be like this
Even if I hold my knees and scream
I already know
In the end, it won’t change a thing
Even if I try to lament
Saying, “Something's not quite right”
In the end I do what I always do
I walk away with no answer in sight
Everything ends up being nothing
To all the things I turned away
I always did the same thing, without learning from my mistakes,
I say, ‘’What a pain’’
Again my heart gets attacked by the thing called ‘’loneliness’’
It hurts so bad deep down inside
The powerlessness of “loneliness” begins to sink in
The punishment for curling up all those times when I cried
Even if the moon shines upon it
Even if the night swallows it
It won’t disappear, it won’t disappear
With my inexperienced hands I tried to protect it
With my clumsy hands, I tried to fix what I shouldn’t have done
Before I notice it, Loneliness began to turn on me
My heart just won’t heal the scars
I cry a tiny plea
My heart shatters after hearing a kind voice
Please don’t treat me so kindly or I will cry inside
I hide myself away in the shadows,
I hope for someone to find me, the tears don’t subside
This loneliness is deadly
Making it impossible to speak out my true feelings
I hide away my emotions
But yet it ends up revealing
I hate myself, I hate myself
These words end up repeating in my mind
I don’t want to either die nor live
Ah, a penalty game called “Life” begins to rewind
Forced into loneliness
I’m already done
Please don’t treat me so nicely
I’m not someone you should waste your kindness on
Title: Deathly Loneliness Attacks
Age Range: 10+
Word Count: 353
Author Name (Profile Name): Iroha
I think that my piece is fit, because it contains all the emotions that I felt, and pain. I know that some people can relate to the pain I suffered, so this poem is written to reach out to others. I'm very young for my age, and I think that, it's really amazing how far my experiences in life brought me to come this far. Some people say that young people have to enjoy their youth as best as they can, and that it's impossible that youngsters suffered pain like they have. Well, they're wrong. I suffered a lot, been traumatized so many times, and I can hardly trust others because of the betryal, gossip, and backstabbing things I've saw and went through. I just want the people who thinks, "It's alright to die, no one cares about me," let me tell you, that's not true. I overcame that phase because I heard there are good cotton candy in Japan, and if I can find a goal in life to live for, so can you.
I'm a introvert when I'm alone, but when I'm with the people I love, I'm somewhat between a extrovert and a introvert. Life is not always fun, and it never will be; it's up to you to create the fun in life is what I think.
CHAPTER 1: Not in Kansas Anymore
"Ow." Dylan Engstrom opened his eyes and found himself on a hard metal surface. "What … the hell?"
The last thing he remembered was sitting at his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, and preparing to join his buddies for a few hours of mayhem in Grand Theft Auto Online. At some point after that, everything had simply … faded out.
I'm dreaming. That's gotta be it.
He rolled over, stood, and fought off a wave of dizziness. He staggered, rubbed his hands over his face, took a few breaths, and waited for his vision to clear. When it did, he took a slow look around and realized he was in a chamber the size of a gymnasium, with metal walls, ceiling, and floor. No windows. Several doors at the far end. And filled with … aliens? Or something.
Sure, why the hell not? Since this is a dream, I might as well just roll with it.
One a few feet to his left looked like a bipedal, wingless dragon, easily ten feet tall, with muscular arms and powerful thighs and small but noticeable breasts under a tunic that appeared to be made from the skin of an animal. She glanced around quickly, confusion and fear in her reptilian eyes, and he guessed she had also awakened moments ago.
Huh. Doesn't make sense for reptiles to have boobs. But then, I guess an alien wouldn't have an exact correlation to life forms on Earth. He chuckled. More likely it's teenage hormones causing me to dream about tits. I can barely stop thinking about 'em when I'm awake.
Past the dragon was what appeared to be an orc, of all things. Also female, dressed in leather and furs, like a barbarian, sporting huge muscles but somehow managing to still look feminine. Her burgundy hair was tied into a long ponytail with a few locks hanging past either side of her face. Her dark green skin looked kind of leathery, and her face … well, she certainly wouldn't have won any beauty contests even without the two big, parallel scars running from her forehead down and across her right cheek.
Still, there was something about her -- the angles of her cheeks and her wide jaw and chin -- that exuded an air of great strength. But then, he gazed into her yellow eyes as she glanced around. She appeared to be in her forties, but there was far more mileage in those eyes than on her face. They were the eyes of someone who had all but given up on life.
He looked away reluctantly. She may have been as ugly as hell, but goddamn, what a body. He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and decided to check out some of the other life forms. His eyes passed over a large number of creatures he couldn't quite get his brain around -- translucent things walking on tentacles, something that resembled a millipede the size of a horse, an eight-foot-tall cross between a pig and an ogre -- and locked on to another female.
He almost laughed at that. Mind always in the gutter, even now.
This one was around six feet tall and might be described as somewhere between chubby and burly. Her eyes glowed white in contrast to her obsidian skin, but aside from that, her face was mostly human. And quite lovely, in fact. A pair of horns curved up from under her wild mane of silver hair, like a ram. She wore a dark blue cloak with a hood hanging over her back, and from what he was able to glimpse, she didn't appear to be wearing anything under it. Each hand had two big fingers and a thumb, just like the orc and the dragon-woman, and her digitigrade legs ended in large hooves.
Not bad at all. He guessed her age to be close to his, or maybe a few years older, and the extra weight was perfectly proportioned.
Huh. Usually, my dreams aren't this detailed. But there's no way this can be real. I'm probably slumped over my desk and drooling on my keyboard. He shrugged to himself again. I just hope I remember all this when I wake up.
His eyes opened a little wider as a realization hit him and he drew in a quick breath.
Shit, I hope I wasn't looking at porn when I fell asleep. If Mom or Dad barges into my room like they always do, I'm hosed.
The alien girl caught him staring at her and smiled, but it was shaky and faded fast.
Well, I can't do anything about it until I wake up. Might as well just see where this goes.
He smiled back before she turned away, and continued examining the people around him. Over to the right was a trio of bipedal creatures that looked like a cross between horses and cows wearing some sort of tribal attire.
Huh. More aliens that kinda-sorta resemble terrestrial animals. How would that even happen?
Past them was a quartet of thirty-foot-long snake people with four arms, wearing only skirts made of glowing multicolored beads roughly where the naughty bits on a human would be.
Dylan's eyes, once again, automatically locked onto the lone female in the group. Her skin was dark brown with a red and black diamond pattern running down her back. Her hands, like the orc and the chunky hooved girl and the rest, had three digits, only hers ended in claws. The top of her head swept back into a curving, three-pointed crest. Her bare chest sported two pairs of breasts. Her face was close enough to human, though covered with scales, and she was actually kind of cute.
Hah. I can't dream about a human with four tits, of course. It's got to be some weird creature. And why would an alien based on a snake have any at all? He realized he was staring and turned away. Again, though, she's an alien, so I guess there's no reason she can't be a mix of mammal and snake. What the hell, you can't go wrong with four of 'em.
He grinned and glanced around again, trying to find other humans. If any were in this chamber, they weren't close enough for him to pick out of the crowd. But his gaze did pass across something that was close enough, at least in size and shape.
The robot stood with her arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the wall behind him, about ten feet away. She had apparently been designed to look like an athletic woman, with a face of flexible metal carrying a friendly -- albeit bewildered -- expression and softly glowing red optics. Her gunmetal body was covered by a pair of cargo pants, boots, a T-shirt, and a long black coat.
Interesting. He wondered if she was anatomically correct.
Before he could check out anyone else, something nudged his shoulder. He turned and found a nine-foot humanoid wearing copper armor and a helmet with an opaque visor. It grasped his shoulder, pointed at one of the doors at the far end of the chamber, and pushed him toward it. He stumbled, regained his balance, and hurried ahead of the whatever-it-was.
In the corner of his eye, another hulking armored figure shoved the orc woman in the same direction. She snarled half-heartedly but headed for the door. She ended up walking alongside Dylan.
"I don't suppose you have any idea how we ended up here or what's going on?" He doubted she would even understand him.
"Nope. I was hoping someone around here could tell me that." Her accent was an odd mixture of Russian and Scottish.
"You speak English. You've met humans before?"
"A fair number of them, yes." She smiled at him, but it was tinged with sadness. "You remind me of one of them, a little. Someone I knew long ago."
"Ah. Decent guy, I hope."
"The best." Her smile grew ever so slightly, and so did the sorrow. "I miss him a great deal."
Dylan wondered what had happened but assumed it was a sensitive matter and didn't pry.
When they reached the door, she sighed and motioned at her clothes. "The one time I put on this old outfit instead of what I usually wear, which includes several guns, and look where I end up. Though I suppose any weapons would've been taken away before I woke up."
The nine-foot goons shoved both of them through the door and onto a large platform. He stumbled and the orc reached out to catch him before he fell. He regained his balance and found himself inches away from her face for a moment, gazing into her eyes, until she looked away and steadied herself. Her face turned a slightly darker green.
Huh. The goon's hand had felt solid enough. And the woman's breath briefly on his lips had been just as real as the three times in his life that he'd gotten this close to a girl. Dylan caught himself blushing and looked away.
He glanced around and noted the others who'd been separated from the main group -- the snake-girl, the three horse-cow people, the burly obsidian girl, the giant bipedal dragon, the robot chick, and about a dozen others. Two of them were human.
Finally! He grinned, but before he could greet them, something else caught his attention.
The goons who'd herded them onto the platform remained behind as the door closed, separating them from Dylan and the others. A bright light washed over everything and his whole body tingled.
Oh, this can't be good.
The light faded and he blinked a few times. His vision cleared and he looked around.
His mouth fell open.
He no longer stood in a room. He and the others were still on a platform, but now it was surrounded by an enormous metal structure made up of sets of stairs, ramps, platforms, and partial walls seemingly placed at random. If he had to give the architecture style a name, it would be … scaffold-chic.
"What the hell is this?" One of the other humans whimpered. "What's going on?"
"Sorcery," a woman's voice came from behind Dylan, barely above a whisper. He turned to find the obsidian-skinned girl glancing around with wide, terrified eyes and trembling.
"No." The orc shook her head. "I've seen enough to know there's no such thing. This is technology, but nothing I'm familiar with."
In the corner of his eye, the snake girl slithered past, put her upper hands on a nearby wall, pulled herself up and leaned over the edge.
"Look at this." Her voice was slightly raspy.
Uh-oh. Dylan walked slowly to the wall, jumped to grasp the top, and pulled himself up.
One of the other humans found a lower wall, leaned over, and drew in a slow breath. "Oh, hell." Her face turned pale.
Dylan glanced at her, frowned, and peered over the edge.
We're in the sky. He couldn't see the ground from here. Below the structure, there was nothing but a sea of red and orange clouds. And off to the right, he could make out two distinct suns, one larger -- closer -- than the other.
Then he realized the metal under his palms felt quite real for something in a dream. In fact, everything around him was as vivid and detailed as everyday life. His dreams were never even remotely like this, at least not the bits he could remember.
What if this is real?
"Oh, fuck me," he muttered.
"Now?" the snake girl said. "Or can it wait?"
"What?" He turned and caught a glimpse of her smirking at him before lowering herself back to the ground. He shook his head and dropped back to the floor.
"This is not a good tactical position," the orc said, flicking her eyes over the structure. "We're out in the open. We should move to an area that's less exposed to …"
Movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention. Hers, too. She snapped her head around to scowl in the same direction before he finished turning. More of the armored, helmeted, blank-visored guys appeared from behind several walls on the far side of the structure. She swept her steely gaze over them and backed up a step. "Find cover."
Dylan squinted, trying to get a clear look at the things the copper-armored goons were carrying.
"They have rifles," the orc said. "Get behind something."
A thin, yellow bolt of energy lanced out from the business end of one of the weapons and crossed the distance between the two groups in an instant.
Behind Dylan, a woman screamed. His pulse jumped and he cried out as he spun around. The human woman staggered backward, bumped into the wall, and collapsed. Her eyes stared straight ahead without seeing anything. Smoke rose from a hole that had been burned through her chest.
"Sarah!" The man rushed to her and fell to his knees. He stared disbelievingly at her, grasped her shoulders, and shook her. "Get up! Come on, baby, please get up!"
A hand grabbed Dylan's arm and he spun around to find the orc woman dragging him away.
"Get to cover!" She shoved him ahead of her just as another beam appeared for a split-second and drilled through the back of the other human's head.
A silvery thing about the size and shape of a hockey puck landed behind Dylan and bounced past him before coming to a stop.
"Grenade!" The orc pushed him again, drew in a deep breath, and yelled, "Run!"
The explosion flung bodies into the air and sent others tumbling across the ground -- more than Grishnag had time to count. She shoved the young human ahead of her and ran until both of them reached a wall. She ducked behind it, grasped his shoulder, and held him down. She turned to see if anyone else had survived the blast and found four bodies bleeding all over the metal surface and another -- one of the equine-bovine people -- teetering over the edge of the platform.
"Jesus Christ," the human moaned, hunching over and tucking his head under his arms. "This can't be happening!"
The snake-woman zipped over to the horse-man just as he rolled over the edge. She dived at him and missed his left ankle by a centimeter. She stared in shock as he plummeted out of sight.
One of the armored attackers appeared, crept up behind her, and aimed its rifle at the back of her head.
Grishnag glanced at the human and said, "Stay here." Remaining in a crouch, she moved one step forward -- and suddenly the robot blurred out from behind one of the other walls and tackled the larger humanoid from behind. Her momentum carried both of them into the wall and slammed the enemy into it with bone-crushing force. She drove her foot into its left knee, folding its leg the wrong way, and clamped her arms around its head as it fell. One quick twist snapped its neck, and she snatched the huge rifle out of the air before the body hit the ground.
The robot opened fire on the armored figures. Grishnag risked a quick peek around the corner just in time to see one of them catch a shot clean through the visor and out the back of the helmet. The others ran for whatever cover they could find.
Nice! Grishnag waited until all of them had ducked behind something, and then she glanced at the robot and said, "Cover me!" She sprinted over to the fallen humanoid while the robot continued firing.
In the corner of her eye, one of them swung its rifle around toward her as she picked up the dead one's weapon. She leaped and rolled, and the shot drilled through the space she'd already vacated. She came up in a crouch and put five shots through her opponent's chest. It slumped over and she lunged forward to grab its rifle, and then she ran back to the human.
He was where she'd left him, curled into a fetal position and rocking back and forth.
Okay, giving him the gun wouldn't be a good idea. She glanced around, found the snake girl, and tossed the gun to her. "Do you know how to use that?"
"I can figure it out." She pointed the rifle away from everyone and pulled the trigger, firing a blast into the floor. She squeaked and twitched, pulled herself together, and rose above the wall to fire at their attackers.
Grishnag took a quick look around for more survivors and found only a horse-woman, the burly woman, and the giant humanoid dragon.
"What is happening to us?" The obsidian-skinned female whimpered, huddled against the wall behind the human. "Why is this happening?"
Grishnag noticed the girl's mouth movements didn't match the words she spoke. Something is translating her speech. What the hell is going on?
"We can worry about that later if we survive the next few minutes." Grishnag popped out from behind cover long enough to shoot another of their attackers.
An enemy shot punched through the wall and searing heat on her right cheek made her lunge to her left.
"I want to wake up," the human moaned. "Why can't I wake up?"
"This isn't a dream." Grishnag gunned down another one. Before she could duck back under cover, a movement caught her eye. She turned and found another grenade spinning through the air toward her. She sucked in a breath to shout a warning to everyone else, but suddenly a beam struck the disc-shaped device in midair. It vanished in a flash and an expanding cloud of shrapnel. Grishnag glanced to the left and found the robot shifting her aim from the blown grenade to another pair of attackers.
Grishnag sighed and looked up at the platforms above them. "We'll be better off if we can get to higher ground. We need to …"
Behind the dragon, another of the armored men stepped into the open and lobbed a grenade. It arched over everyone's head and came down straight toward her. The human looked up, spotted it, and his face turned white.
Grishnag rose to her feet as the grenade reached her, caught it in her right hand, and hurled it straight back to the enemy humanoid. It threw itself to the right but wasn't fast enough. Grishnag turned away from the sudden flash and winced at the sharp bang, but laughed when she saw the body flopping off the edge of the platform.
She only had a moment to celebrate, though. Another humanoid hopped over the top of the wall they'd been using as cover and dropped down in front of the dragon. It raised its rifle, but the dragon swatted it aside, braced her hand on the side of his head, and shoved it into the wall with enough force to leave a dent. The gun fell from its suddenly limp hand.
"Hold on." Grishnag hurried over and searched the pouches and compartments on the body's belt. She found three stubby cylinders she guessed were spare power cells for the guns and a rectangular box that might be a communication device or a control system. After finding nothing else on him, she nodded at the edge of the platform.
The dragon flashed a predatory grin and gave the body a casual toss, sending it plunging through the fiery clouds under the structure. She looked the gun over, glanced at Grishnag, and mimicked her pose, holding the rifle in one hand and propping it on her shoulder.
Grishnag found the rest of the survivors gathering behind her. The robot pointed ahead before popping off a few more shots.
"Clear the road. I'll cover our rear."
Grishnag took the lead and made her way to the nearest ramp. She rounded a corner -- and caught a split-second glimpse at the stock of a rifle before it rammed into the side of her head. When she regained her senses, she found the business end of the rifle inches from her face. She tried to ignore the pain lancing through her head and shifted her eyes from the rifle to the humanoid pointing it at her.
A brown blur came in from the right and plowed into the figure, knocking it off its feet and sending the rifle clattering across the floor. Grishnag pushed herself upright and found the snake-girl coiling her body around the enemy. The serpentoid rolled, twisted, and wrenched her body to the right, flinging the humanoid across the floor to the edge of the platform.
As it tumbled over the edge, it lashed out and clamped onto the end of her tail, dragging her along with it as it fell. All four arms flailed, her claws scraping across the metal, trying to find a handhold.
The human leaped after her and managed to grab her upper-left hand, but the combined weight of her and the goon dragged both of them closer to the edge.
The dragon clamped her talons around the human's right ankle, and that was enough to hold them in place.
The snake grunted and contorted her face, and from her movements, Grishnag guessed she was swinging her tail around, trying to dislodge the enemy.
"Pull her back up." Grishnag picked up her rifle and glancing around for more of their attackers. "One of us will be able to pick it off as soon as it reappears."
"Wait," the snake grunted. She took the human's other hand to hold herself steady, gave her tail another swing, then another, and Grishnag saw the enemy appear momentarily before gravity pulled it back down.
One more swing hurled it into full view -- and a rapid series of bolts from the robot's gun drilled through its head. It loosened its grip on the snake girl's tail. Grishnag and the dragon blasted it several more times before it dropped out of sight for the last time.
The human pulled her away from the edge. When she was no longer dangling above the clouds, she threw all four arms around him and just held him for a moment. He looked startled, but recovered after a few seconds and put his arms around her.
"Thank you," she finally whispered.
"Uh … sure, any time."
"Let's keep moving." Grishnag rubbed the side of her head, winced at the pain, and made sure to keep checking in every direction as she resumed the lead. Everyone followed her up the ramp to the next platform, and then on past two more. The next ramp led to a long, narrow level with waist-high walls. She lowered herself to her left hand and her knees, holding the gun in her right hand, and crawled forward, keeping her body below the top of the wall.
The others followed, crawling along close behind her.
Once she reached the end, she found herself in a larger chamber. Fortunately, this one had a solid wall between them and the attackers' last known position. Everyone stood and rushed across to the door and the huge window at the far end. They paused to look out the window before moving on to the door.
"What is that?" the girl with the glowing eyes whispered.
"Looks like a city," the human muttered.
Grishnag nodded. In front of her sat several kilometers of metal buildings, domes, and spires colored in varying shades of gray with streaks and splotches of brown all over. She cocked her head. Is that rust?
"A … city?" The horse-cow woman shook her head in disbelief.
"Like a village, but larger." Grishnag pointed at the nearest structures. "Those buildings are basically … tents? Huts? I've never met any of your people before, so I don't know what you're familiar with." She shrugged. "People live in some of those, work in others. Theoretically, at least."
"Ah. I think I understand."
"Maybe there's someone here who will help us out." The human glanced around at the others.
"I doubt it," the dragon said. "Would they have brought us within reach of someone willing to help us?"
"I … I guess not." He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "So what do we do, now?"
"Most cities have vehicles in them. There's probably something there we can use." Grishnag patted his shoulder and smiled. "So, we keep going until we find a way out." She opened the door. "Let's move."
CHAPTER 2: Waking Up Dead
"So," the male said after they'd been traveling through the city streets for a while, "we've faced death together, but we don't even know each other's names."
The muscular green woman chuckled. "I'm Grishnag."
"Pleased to meet you, Dylan."
"And I'm Nishara." She slithered closer to him, smiled, put her upper hands on his shoulders, and touched her forehead briefly to his.
"Uh, hi." He smiled but clearly wasn't sure what else to say or do.
The tall reptile woman bowed, first to him, then to the rest. "Ayastal."
"I am Zilaka," the furry one with hooves, muzzle, and horns said.
"My name's Cora," the machine-woman said, turning to keep watch for more of the helmeted people.
"Syala," the thick one with glowing eyes and hooves murmured.
"Okay." Grishnag stopped at the next street corner and glanced around. "We haven't seen anyone else here. This part of the city appears empty." She sighed. "I hope the rest isn't empty as well."
"The buildings are rusting away." Cora stopped at a wall and looked it over, but was careful not to touch anything. "Looks like it hasn't been occupied in a long time."
"Probably just used for training exercises or something like that," Grishnag said. "Or whatever it is they're doing with us."
"I don't suppose any of you have seen a place like this before?" Dylan mumbled.
Everyone shook their heads.
"I've seen metal buildings before," Ayastal said, "but none like these. When I was a child, there was a settlement of 'sky-people' not far from where my tribe lived. Buildings made of metal, but the …" She took a moment to find the right word. "The shapes were different."
"You're familiar with other worlds, then?"
"No. My people are aware of those who came from the sky, but none of us have been there. Well, until now. When I was a child, I would often sneak away from home and spend most of the day simply watching their flying machines." Ayastal smiled. "I've always wanted to ride one of those machines into the sky."
"Well, you may get your chance yet," Grishnag said as they continued on their way. "If we can find our way out of here."
"Maybe if we investigate some of the buildings," Dylan said. "If there's a computer in one of 'em that's hooked up to the inter -- uh, a global network, if this planet has one, we might be able to find a map."
"I haven't detected any wireless networks." Cora shook her head. "I'm not picking up any power sources, either."
"Damn. We should keep moving, then." Grishnag sighed and walked on.
The rest followed her, glancing around every few seconds to be sure no one was pursuing them. Nishara wasn't sure how much time passed as they made their way across the empty city, everyone remaining silent as they took random turns every now and then, until she'd lost any sense of the direction from which they had come.
Not that there was anything back that way except death if the metal people were still pursuing them.
Finally, they emerged onto an enormous platform, easily bigger than her clan's largest encampment back home. And on it sat large metal structures of varying sizes and shapes. They looked different from the buildings they'd passed by earlier, resting on sets of large things that looked like feet, or in some cases, wheels.
"Flying machines?" Ayastal cocked her head and smiled slightly.
"Looks like it." Dylan turned to Grishnag and Cora. "Any of these look familiar?"
"Some are similar to technology I'm used to." Grishnag walked slowly past one, brushing her hand over the lettering on its side. "But not exactly. I don't recognize any of the insignia or the names."
"Huh," Dylan muttered, stopping to stare at the letters painted on one flying machine's side. "These are all in English. Hell of a coincidence."
"I'm seeing these in my native language." Grishnag moved on to the next ship. "I noticed during the battle that when some of you spoke, your mouth movements didn't match what you were saying, and the same is probably happening for all of you when I speak. Something has been translating us, and I assume the same thing is happening with the writing on these ships."
"Ah. I was wondering how we could understand each other." Nishara slid past Dylan and stopped to examine the ships beyond the one he stood beside. "I don't understand how it's done, though."
"Were you all unconscious when you were brought here?" Dylan glanced around at each of them. "Did you fall asleep back home and then wake up in that huge room where we met?"
Everyone else nodded or murmured an affirmative response. Dylan suddenly looked uneasy.
"I bet they implanted something in us. Hardware that interfaces with our brains and translates what we see and hear." He shivered. "And if that's what they did, then what else did they do to us while we were asleep?"
Syala shuddered and her lower lip quivered. Nishara slithered over to her and put her left arms around her.
Cora looked unsettled for a moment, and then she pulled herself together and marched across the platform. "We'll have to worry about that after we get out of here. We need to take one of these ships, assuming any of them are still functional. A shuttle wouldn't do us much good. Too short-range. We'll need a ship that has a hyperspace vortex generator in case there are no jumpgates nearby."
"But isn't the ability to understand other languages a benefit?" Syala patted Nishara's hand and walked alongside her. "Why would they give us an advantage if they simply want to kill us?"
"For the challenge," Grishnag said, her eyes opening wider at the realization. "They're hunting us for sport."
Dylan grimaced. "Why'd you have to put that idea in my head?"
"Sorry, but it just fits. They give us a way to communicate and work together when they could've just shot us dead. So, they're either hunting us, or this is a test. Evaluating specimens to decide which planet to invade, possibly."
"That's even worse."
"Yeah." Grishnag sighed and moved on to the next ship.
"Whatever the reason they brought us here," Ayastal said, "they paid a terrible price for it. I didn't take the time to make an exact count, but I believe we reduced them by at least half."
"Assuming they haven't brought in reinforcements." Cora walked over to a sleek, black ship that looked like a saucer that had been stretched out to twice its original length.
Zilaka crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "This is a nightmare. It has to be."
"That's what I thought at first." Dylan walked around the front of another ship, shook his head at the buckled strut that had once held it up, and moved on. "It's too detailed and too linear to be a dream. And it just feels too real."
"Even if it were a dream or hallucination," Cora said, "we can't afford to assume it's not real with those assholes trying to kill us."
"Yeah, guess we don't have much choice. We have to keep playing along, just in case." Dylan turned to look at another ship -- and one of those yellow beams came out of nowhere and pierced his chest. A startled look crossed his face, then was replaced by a grimace of pain as he collapsed.
Everyone stared in shock.
"Dylan?" Nishara whispered. Her hearts pounded.
Grishnag and Cora were the first to recover. They threw themselves behind the nearest ship and tried to find where the bolt had come from without exposing themselves to more.
Ayastal pulled Syala and Zilaka behind another ship. Syala stared at Dylan's body and burst into tears.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "He was just a kid."
"What the hell?" Cora aimed her weapon in the distance, but couldn't find a target. "I should've been able to detect them. Why couldn't I detect them?"
Nishara sucked in a deep breath and screamed, "Dylan!" She slid over to him, hoping he was only wounded as she rolled him over.
His eyes stared blankly into the sky and smoke curled up from the hole in his chest.
Still, she put her upper hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. "Dylan! You can't …"
"I'm sorry, Nishara," Grishnag said. "He's gone. Get under cover."
Nishara wiped the tears from her eyes and lifted her head to glare at the place from which the shot had come. She could make out movement among the metal structures in the distance.
Ayastal turned suddenly to face something behind everyone. More of those damned beams drilled into her chest. Her legs buckled and she slumped over on top of Syala.
Nishara turned to find a dozen more metal men charging them. She drew in another breath and let it out in a shriek that caused everyone around her to stop in their tracks for a moment, even the murdering bastards who had taken poor Dylan from them. She raised her weapon, surged forward, and pulled the trigger. The nearest of their enemies stumbled backward and fell, smoke pouring from all the holes she'd blasted through his torso.
A series of flashes came from the others' weapons and sudden, searing pains lanced through her chest as if white-hot knives were being plunged into her. Before she even understood what had happened, she found herself sprawled face down on the metal ground, unable to move, barely able to breathe.
"M … monsters," she whimpered before blackness engulfed her.
"What the --" Dylan flailed, gasped, and clutched his chest. Before he realized he was on a raised platform, he lost his balance, fell off, dropped several feet, and landed face down. Groaning, he pushed himself up slowly and looked around. "What the hell?"
More platforms filled the room, almost like metal beds.
No. More like autopsy tables. A shiver rippled through him.
All the tables were occupied by the alien women who'd surrounded him just before …
Just before I died. He glanced down at the front of his shirt, but couldn't find the hole that had been burned through him. The shirt hadn't been repaired -- it was exactly as it had been before that fatal shot.
Just to be sure, he lifted his shirt and slid his hand over his chest. There was no sign of a wound.
How am I alive? He leaned on the platform and tried to take deep breaths and slow his pounding heart. He looked around again and a chill rushed through him.
They're not breathing. He held his breath for a moment, trying not to let a sudden burst of tears out. The only familiar faces in this goddamn place, and they were all dead.
But he wasn't. Why?
Suddenly, Ayastal inhaled. She twitched and lurched upright, glanced around, and her eyes locked on to him.
"What …? How …?"
"I don't know." He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Did you, uh … ?"
"Die? Yes." Ayastal shuddered. Even though her face wasn't human at all, Dylan could still read her confusion and fear in her wide eyes, twitchy movements, and rapid breathing. Maybe some things were universal. "I felt my heart stop! And yet …"
"Here we are. I know. I think …"
Nishara suddenly sucked in a deep breath and screamed. She convulsed and rolled off the platform.
Dylan let out a quick scream of his own and backed away from her, but pulled himself together and approached her slowly. "N … Nishara?"
She glanced around frantically, found him, and stared. "Dylan?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Yeah, I noticed that. So did Ayastal." He motioned at the dragon woman, and Nishara glanced over her shoulder. Ayastal nodded at her. Nishara stared, took a few breaths, looked as if she were about to say something, then she turned back to Dylan.
"As did I." Nishara stared down at herself and ran her hands slowly over her chest. "The wounds are gone."
"Mine, too." He lifted his shirt. "See?"
She slithered up to him, stared for a moment, then reached out hesitantly and touched his chest. Her skin was softer and warmer than he'd expected. She moved her hand slowly over his chest for several more seconds, looked up and met his gaze, and finally pulled him into a tight embrace.
"I don't know. Maybe whoever brought us here is able to heal wounds like these." Or maybe we're clones and the originals really are dead. He didn't mention that one to either of them, not just because he would've had to explain what clones were.
"But why?" Tears trickled from Nishara's eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Why are they doing this to us?"
"I wish I knew." He pulled the bottom edge of his shirt out to wipe away her tears. "I wish I knew how to even begin to find out."
She put her upper-left hand over his, held it to her cheek, raised her lower-left hand to his cheek, and stroked it softly. She gazed into his eyes for a moment, and then she leaned forward slowly and kissed him.
What the hell? Though it caught him by surprise, it was also quite nice, so he let it continue as long as Nishara wanted. When she finally pulled back from him, her face turned slightly darker, and she couldn't look him in the eye again.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"I'm not." He smiled.
Ayastal managed a chuckle, though she was still visibly unsettled. She stood and ran a hand over her chest as if still looking for her wounds, and finally glanced around at the other bodies.
"Since the rest of us are here, I think we can assume they were killed, as well, and will wake up soon."
"Yeah. Well, I hope they will." Dylan turned slowly, looking around at the others, but kept his left arm around Nishara. "I wonder which one of them died next."
"I wouldn't know." Ayastal's muzzle quirked slightly into what might've been an attempt at a smile. "I was unable to observe anything, being dead at the time, myself."
"Right. Heh." Dylan managed a shaky smile and waited silently to see if anyone else woke up.
The others woke one by one. Dylan, Nishara, and Ayastal took turns explaining what had happened -- or what they thought happened. Cora and Grishnag understood instantly, but Syala and Zilaka took a bit longer.
"We died," Syala whimpered. She remained on her platform, pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and rocked slowly. "How can we be alive if we died?"
"Whoever's doing this to us," Grishnag said, "if they're able to abduct us and bring us who knows how many light-years to this place, then repairing fatal wounds might be child's play for them."
"So, this is what our lives will be from now on?" Tears trickled down Syala's cheeks again. "Dying, waking up here, and being killed again? Over and over, perhaps forever?"
"I don't know." Dylan walked over to her, and Nishara joined him. At the same time, they each put an arm around Syala. "But that means we might have a chance to get out of here. As long as we survive, there's hope. Right?"
Syala didn't answer. After staring at nothing in particular for more than a full minute, she put her arms around him and cried into his shirt. He glanced at Nishara, who smiled and nodded. He embraced Syala and rubbed her back slowly.
"And maybe not," Grishnag finally said. "Maybe they'll leave us alone for a while."
A door at the end of the room slid open and two of those damned nine-foot humanoids entered.
"Fuck," Grishnag snapped.
"Jinxed it," Cora muttered, and Grishnag sighed.
Everyone stood and faced them except Syala. She gripped the front of Dylan's shirt, twisting the fabric in her clenched fists as if terrified he was about to move away from her. He and Nishara remained by her side.
A third humanoid followed the first two, pushing a large cart. They stopped in front of Dylan and the females, and the two in front stepped aside. The third pointed into the cart.
Grishnag peeked into the cart. "Guns. They're arming us, this time?"
"Oh, shit," Dylan moaned. "What the hell are we gonna be facing?"
"Doesn't matter." Grishnag shook her head and backed away from the cart. "I'm not fighting for someone else's entertainment."
The humanoid pointed into the cart again. Grishnag growled.
"Fuck you. I'm not playing your games."
The one on the right turned its blank faceplate toward her and raised its left hand, pointing its palm at her.
She hunched over suddenly, clutched her head, and screamed. Everyone else gasped, and Syala clamped a hand over her mouth and began crying again.
Grishnag stumbled to the right, toppled over, curled up on the floor, and continued screaming.
"Stop it!" Dylan pried himself away from Syala and rushed over to Grishnag. The goon on the left pointed its palm at him. He ignored it, reached out to touch Grishnag's shoulder, but hesitated. He glared at the humanoid on the right and shouted, "Stop it! We'll do whatever you want, just stop!"
Both figures lowered their hands back to their sides. Grishnag suddenly went limp, still holding her head and weeping, but no longer screaming. She rolled onto her back, sobbed, and tried to pull herself together.
"Fucking monsters," Nishara practically hissed before slithering over to help Grishnag sit up.
Dylan clasped Grishnag's right hand in both of his and just held it while she took deep breaths and regained control of herself. Finally, she gazed into Dylan's eyes, reached out and caressed his cheek. Then her eyes widened and she pulled her hand back as if shocked by her own actions.
Okay, what is it with me and alien women, anyway? Have I turned into Captain Kirk or something?
"You gonna be okay?" Cora leaned over to touch Grishnag's shoulder.
Grishnag shuddered before answering. "Eventually." She pushed herself back to her feet and staggered over to the cart. "Fine. I'll go along with whatever insanity you've got planned." Glaring at the helmeted humanoid in front of her, she picked up one of the huge, long-barreled rifles. Then she snarled, "How do you know I won't kill you with it?"
The armored alien stared blankly at her. She held its "gaze" for a long moment and finally sighed and turned away. Her shoulders sagged ever so slightly.
Dylan sighed and picked up one of the guns. He thought it over for a few seconds and then turned to the humanoid on the right. "This is for hurting my friend."
He aimed his gun square at the bastard's chest and pulled the trigger.
Trembling, he sagged and stared at the gun. "Fuckin' hell!"
Grishnag patted his shoulder, smiled shakily, propped the gun on her shoulder, and strode out the door.
"I can't do this," Syala mumbled.
"You saw what will happen if you don't." Nishara hugged her and rubbed her back, then took her hand and led her to the cart.
"We'll be right there with you," Dylan said. "We'll all get through this together."
Zilaka nodded, patted Syala's back, and picked up one of the guns. Holding it uncertainly, she sighed and clopped past the guards.
Dylan smiled one more time at Syala, took a step past the humanoid who'd tortured Grishnag -- then he spun around and slammed the stock of his rifle into the bastard's visor. The impact knocked the alien off its feet and sprawled it on the floor.
Holy shit, that actually worked?
The other guards stepped toward him and pointed their hands at him. He propped the rifle on his shoulder and glared at them.
"What?" he snapped. When he made no further moves against them, they stepped back but kept their palms aimed at him. He realized suddenly how close he'd just come to being subjected to the same punishment that had been inflicted on Grishnag, but tried to cover up his fear by pushing past the guards and grumbling, "Get the fuck out of my way."
As he turned the corner to follow Grishnag, he caught a glimpse of Syala staring at him with an awestruck grin -- then picking up one of the guns and marching after him.
He caught up with Grishnag at the end of the corridor, which widened out and ended with what looked like a hangar door. The sounds of boots and hooves approaching from behind told him the rest of the women had armed themselves and joined him and Grishnag.
"I just realized something," Zilaka said, obviously struggling to keep her voice steady. "There were many others sent with us onto the first battlefield, but we're the only ones who woke up in that room back there."
"The others were killed almost immediately." A troubled look crossed Cora's face. "Maybe they were rejected."
All the confidence Dylan had just built up drained away as her meaning sank in over the next few seconds.
"Wonderful." Grishnag turned back to the door. "Well, let's get this over with."
CHAPTER 3: Wheels of Fire
"Huh. That's not what I expected." Dylan turned around slowly and took in their surroundings. He and the alien females stood in the middle of a street with a set of vehicles in front of them. Wheeled vehicles, but none of them familiar to him. Each was about the size of a four-door sedan but ranged from sleek lozenge shapes to something that looked like a cross between a sports car and a SWAT tank.
The city itself was unlike anything Dylan had seen on Earth, but it reminded him of any number of futuristic cityscapes in movies, video games, and TV shows. Lots of gleaming metal, concrete, glass, bridges, overpasses, and skyscrapers. In the distance, vehicles zipped around and equally sci-fi aircraft traced paths across the sky here and there.
I wonder if we're still on the same planet as the place we were killed a while ago? The sky was tinted red instead of the familiar blue and the air felt different -- thinner, with a sharp odor of overheated wiring filling his nose with every breath. If the assholes who abducted us can teleport us to other planets, what fucking chance do we have of ever escaping?
"I know how this works," Syala clopped over to one of the cars, her mouth hanging open and her glowing eyes opening wide. "I've never seen any of these before, never even imagined such things, but I know how to drive them."
"So do I." Ayastal leaned over the nearest car, placed her hand on its roof, and peered in through the windshield. "The knowledge just appeared in my mind. But I can't fit into any of these."
"How is this happening?" Syala drew in several ragged breaths and glanced around until her terrified gaze locked onto Dylan. "How do I suddenly know things I could never have even dreamed of before?"
"I don't know." He hurried over to her and held her hands. "Maybe we'll find out sooner or later, or maybe we'll never know. Right now, all that matters is that we get through this."
She took a few more breaths, pulled herself together, and nodded.
Cora walked over to them and rested a hand on each of their shoulders. "Whoever is doing this, we can't let them break us. Don't give them the satisfaction."
Syala nodded again, smiled, closed her eyes for a moment, and sucked in another long, slow breath to help calm herself.
"I also know what we must do," Zilaka muttered, turning to stare in shock at the others. "Just like the cars -- I didn't know a moment ago, and now I do."
"Same here." Dylan nodded slowly. "There's a package we have to pick up and take somewhere."
"And there will be someone trying to stop us." Nishara turned to gaze out over the city and shivered. "Someone trying to kill us."
"Again." Grishnag sighed. "No matter why our captors are doing this -- to test us, or just for their entertainment -- I don't want to submit to it."
"You know what'll happen if we don't." Dylan tried to give her a reassuring smile, but couldn't hold it for more than a second. "The longer we survive, the more time we have to figure out what's going on and how to stop it."
"True enough." A smile tugged at the corner of Grishnag's mouth. "Well, I guess we should get on with it."
Nishara cupped Dylan's face in her upper hands and held his hands with her lower ones.
"For luck." She leaned in and kissed him.
Uh … wow. He let the kiss continue until she pulled back, gazed into his eyes, and smiled. He stroked her cheek and she gave his hands and shoulders a gentle squeeze before turning to slither over to one of the cars.
Another hand brushed his arm. He turned to the left and found Syala leaning toward him. He met her halfway, thinking she wanted to say something to him without the others overhearing.
Instead, she slid her right hand behind his neck, pulled him closer, and kissed him.
Huh? His heart began to pound, but he went along with it. When Syala finally pulled back, she smiled and glanced away.
"For luck," she mumbled.
"Thanks." His face turned hot and he glanced around and caught Grishnag grinning and chuckling in the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat and tugged on his shirt collar. "So. Uh. Anybody else want a good-luck kiss?"
After everyone flicked a few glances at each other, Cora shrugged and walked over to him.
"What the hell. I don't believe it'll tilt the odds in our favor, but I'm all for finding a moment of pleasure in this nightmare we're all in." She pressed her cool metal lips gently against his and the faint smell of mechanical lubricants and polish filled his nose. Neither the kiss nor the scent was at all unpleasant.
When they parted, the other females approached him. Before he could get his brain around what was happening, each of them kissed him. In the corner of his eye, he found several of them kissing each other.
Okay, this is getting weird. The only possibility he could think of was that maybe humans were the only species that had any sexual hangups, and it simply didn't occur to any of these females to think there was anything strange about this. Hah. Getting weird. Good one.
Finally, Grishnag was the only one who hadn't kissed him or any of the others. She shrugged and put her arms around him.
"I suppose I shouldn't buck the trend," she said softly, chuckling. Her breath brushed across his lips and his heartbeat revved up again. "It has been a while since I've done this, so maybe it's about time, anyway."
Their mouths met and he closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. It was a little odd, with those big fangs sticking up from her lower teeth, but no more so than any of the others.
When they parted, they gazed into each other's eyes for a moment, smiled, and then Grishnag walked off to choose a vehicle. She picked one of the sporty-SWAT tank-looking things, opened the door, and settled into the seat. Her eyes flicked over its control panel and she pushed a button. The engine started -- not the familiar sound of the car engines Dylan had heard all his life, but more of a throbbing hum.
The others chose their cars, except Ayastal. Grishnag glanced over at her, smiled, and pointed a thumb at the roof of her vehicle.
"This one looks sturdy enough for you to ride on top. You won't have any protection, but at least you'll be able to participate. I mean, if you want."
"Thank you. After seeing what they did to you when you refused to play their games, I'm probably better off not appearing to be uncooperative." Ayastal crouched on top of the car, braced her feet on the rear end, and found handholds on the roof.
Dylan picked another hotrod-tank, got in, and glanced around. All the controls were on the dashboard, including the brakes and accelerator. At least that meant Nishara could drive one despite having no legs. He glanced over at her in time to watch her try to enter one of the lozenge-shaped cars. She ducked in through the driver's side door, pulled back out, entered again, extracted herself again. She grumbled something, opened the back door, slid in and between the front seats, took her position awkwardly at the controls, and pulled the rest of her body in.
Syala closed the back door for her.
"Thank you." Nishara spent the next few moments trying to coil her body around the interior and find a comfortable position.
Dylan started his engine as Syala and Zilaka picked out their cars.
Grishnag's voice came from a speaker in the dashboard. "Okay. Let's do this."
"Almost there." Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard and noted the position of the waypoint. She returned her attention to the road ahead and slowed as they passed through a gate and entered an area filled with what appeared to be warehouses.
As they approached the waypoint, a dozen red blips appeared around it. Grishnag noted their positions on her mini-map and grumbled.
"Well, here we go." Dylan's voice quivered slightly.
Before Grishnag could offer any reassuring words, she eased around the corner of a large, rectangular building and found a dozen males and females of varying species spinning toward her and snapping their guns up.
"What the hell?" Dylan said. "I was expecting more of the goons we fought last time."
"So was I." Grishnag steered toward the nearest three and accelerated. "No matter. Just focus on getting through this."
"R-right." Dylan's vehicle surged forward, plowed into two of the "enemies," and sent them tumbling across the pavement.
"Nice." Grishnag flashed a feral grin. "Ayastal, you may want to …"
"Dismounting." The huge reptile woman leaped off the top of Grishnag's vehicle and slammed into a pair of humans who'd opened fire a split-second before. The impact flattened them and she made sure they stayed put with a solid punch to each of their faces. She rolled off them, crouched, and sprang over the head of a pig-ogre as he tried to target her. She hit the ground, rolled forward, and came to a halt with her legs braced under her, ready to launch at another enemy.
The pig-ogre whipped his rifle around and lined up a shot at her chest.
Dylan's tank-car shot into view. He turned sharply to the left and the car skidded. The rear end swung around and slammed into the pig-ogre like a bat knocking a baseball out of the park. He rocketed into the side of a parked cargo truck, crumpled to the ground, and came to a stop with his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
"Nice moves, kid," Grishnag said with an arched eyebrow.
"Thanks. I just now realized this reminds me of a game I played a lot back home. This was one of the moves I used on opposing players."
"This reminds you of a game?" Nishara steered her car around the back of a nearby warehouse and flinched as four enemies concentrated their fire on her.
"Yeah, a video game. It's a -- actually, never mind. I'll try to explain it later." Dylan whipped his car to the right and shoved his rifle through his open window. He pulled the trigger and perforated the human and three bovine males. They twitched and collapsed, fingers convulsing on their triggers and firing random shots until the life finished draining from them.
"Video games," Cora muttered. "I'm familiar with them. They're sort of like simulations."
"Yeah, kind of. You okay, Nishara?"
"For now." Nishara changed course again and accelerated. "I'm near the … whatever we're here to take. I'm going for it."
"I'll cover you," Dylan said.
"As will I," Syala added.
"Simulations. Hmm." Cora veered off to join the other three.
"What?" Grishnag caught up with them, glanced at the waypoint, and followed them toward a building that appeared to be an aircraft hangar.
"Just a suspicion I have. I don't want to distract everyone with it now."
"Sounds good." Dylan mowed down another opponent with his car and continued on to the hangar. "You can tell us after we finish this. Or the next time we wake up dead." He chuckled.
Hah. He has my kind of sense of humor. Grishnag grinned and parked in front of the hangar's massive open door. "Make a barricade with your vehicles while Nishara picks up the package."
Dylan backed his car up until his rear bumper nudged her front. The others followed suit, keeping their driver-side doors facing into the hangar. Everyone except Nishara jumped out and aimed their guns at the remaining enemies, using their vehicles as cover. Nishara extracted herself from her car and surged forward, slithering deeper into the building so fast she became a blur.
Dylan and Syala charged after her, flicking their wide eyes all around the interior, searching for more enemies.
Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard. Only three enemies remained … until ten more red blips appeared at the edge of the map and approached her team's position with alarming speed. Grishnag snarled. "More enemies incoming."
"That's what I was afraid of," Dylan grumbled. "It works the same way in that game I mentioned. No matter how many bad guys we take out, more keep teleporting in."
"It's hopeless," Syala whimpered.
"No, it's not." Grishnag drilled a beam through the forehead of each of the three approaching them. "It'll end when we complete our task."
"Yeah." Dylan tried to smile at Syala. "Maybe then we'll get to sit out the next round of fighting. Y'know, as a reward."
Grishnag glanced at her mini-map again. The new red blips were almost on top of her and the others. She frowned, realizing a hissing sound had been growing louder over the last few moments.
That's inside the hangar. But … She gasped and raised her gun to aim at the ceiling.
"They're above us!"
Thumps of multiple feet hitting the roof echoed through the cavernous room.
Cora spun and snapped her gun up toward the ceiling. "I see their heat signatures." She opened fire, burning dozens of holes through the metal. Several voices cried out, and then a guttural roar overwhelmed them. More thumps echoed from the ceiling, the sound of bodies rolling down the angled roof.
"I've got the pilots," Ayastal snarled before opening fire.
The hissing sound revved, sputtered, and turned into a rattling whine. A stubby aircraft with two huge, ducted fans spun into view, a dozen holes melted through the canopy and a mixture of red and yellow blood splattered all over the cockpit. The aircraft continued its spin, tipped to the left, and crashed into the ground. It continued sliding and shedding parts, finally rolled over and ground to a stop upside-down.
"Good work, Ayastal," Grishnag said.
A deafening, sharp bang of a grenade slammed into the side of the building, almost drowning out a truncated scream. Grishnag staggered, shook her head, and a cold sensation rose up in her chest. "Ayastal?"
Nishara, Dylan, and Syala stopped in their tracks. Nishara fumbled and nearly dropped the brick-shaped, crystalline object in her hands.
"Ayastal!" Grishnag rushed to the rear of her car, peeked around the doorway, and found her sprawled on the ground with her chest blasted open.
Past her, two more large vehicles rumbled toward the hangar.
Grishnag winced and turned away. She met the others' gazes and shook her head.
Syala sobbed and covered her mouth with her hand.
"She'll be okay," Dylan whispered, reaching out to rub her back.
"How do we know?"
"She'll probably wake up in the same room we found ourselves in after the first time we were killed."
"He's right." Grishnag took a deep breath and waved a hand around the inside of the hangar. "Take a quick look around. Maybe we can find something useful. Bigger guns, or armor."
"On it." Cora rushed over to the wall to inspect the shelves and crates.
Nishara handed the golden crystal brick to Dylan. "Take this. You seem to know what you're doing."
Grishnag glanced over her shoulder at the mini-map on her dashboard. A new waypoint had appeared at the northern edge.
"We have a new destination."
"Good." Dylan carried the faintly glowing crystal back to his car. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Oh, look what we have here." Cora had just opened one of the metal crates in a corner behind a shuttle and grinned at what she'd found. "Grenades, sticky bombs, and rocket launchers."
"I don't know what those are," Zilaka muttered, "but if they keep us alive, I'll be happy with them."
"They should definitely give us a chance." Cora passed the grenades and sticky bombs to the others, grabbed two rocket launchers, and handed one to Grishnag. "You seem to know how to use stuff like this more than the others. I think we'll have a better chance of holding the goons off while the others escape."
Dylan whipped his head around to stare at her and Grishnag.
"Don't worry." Cora strode toward the space between the door frame and Grishnag's car. "I'm planning on both of us catching up with you. Now, get moving."
Dylan sighed, nodded, and started his engine. Syala, Zilaka, and Nishara returned to their vehicles.
Cora peeked around the corner, found the two vehicles still fifty meters away but approaching rapidly, and nodded at Grishnag. Cora lined up a shot on the nearer van and fired. A fist-size rocket streaked toward her target. The second van veered off and accelerated, while three people bailed out of the first. Cora's rocket struck the front of the van, ripped it apart in a split-second, and the shrapnel shredded the three who'd tried to escape.
Grishnag stepped around Cora and took her own shot while Cora reloaded. The van swerved, but couldn't avoid the rocket. Shrapnel and body parts scattered in every direction. Grishnag smirked, turned toward her car, and stopped suddenly.
"Cora told you to take off."
Cora turned and found the others waiting with their engines running. "Yeah. What she said."
"We're not leaving you here." Syala aimed a stern stare at her, couldn't hold it, and faced forward again. "We finish this together."
Cora almost rolled her optics, canceled the action, and ran to her vehicle. "Fine. Let's all get the hell out of here before anyone else starts shooting at us."
"Dylan," Grishnag said as she climbed into her car, "we'll surround you and escort you to the next waypoint. Stay in the center."
"I'll do my best." He gripped the controls and waited.
"I'll take the lead. Cora, bring up the rear." Grishnag moved her car into position.
Four red, car-shaped icons appeared on Cora's mini-map, approaching rapidly from the rear. She leaned out the window, glanced around, and zoomed in on a distant motion.
"Guys, we've got more --"
"I see them on my map," Syala said, almost whimpering. "Let's go!"
Cora grabbed her rocket launcher, climbed through her window, and perched her ass on the lower edge. She lined up a shot and squeezed the trigger. The rocket streaked away and she zoomed in to watch the impact.
One of the four vans exploded and the shockwave knocked two others off course.
What the hell was that? Cora pulled the last few seconds from her optics' buffer and replayed it in slow motion. Parts of the van flickered and broke into tiny cube shapes for a split second as it exploded, as did the air around the shockwave. She scowled and lined up another shot. Voxels. Damn, I was right.
"Dylan, what?" Her proximity sensors picked up a sudden movement to her left before he could respond. She snapped her head around in time to catch a glimpse of a rocket before it drilled into the side of her car.
The roar of the explosion overwhelmed her auditory sensors and the flash overloaded her optics for a few seconds. When her sight returned, the entire world was spinning around her -- until the pavement slammed into her back. She glanced around, found parts of her legs and other debris scattered all around her, and her internal sensors detected various lubricants and other fluids spraying out of what was left of her torso.
"Cora!" Dylan shrieked again.
"Keep going! I'll do what I can from here." She found her rifle several meters away and dragged herself toward it while running a diagnostic. Primary systems failing, main power cell breached and heading for a critical overload. Whatever I do, I have to do it soon.
"Go!" She clamped onto the rifle and tried to line up a shot on the approaching vans, but her targeting system was offline. "I'll see you all on the next go-around."
"Shit," Dylan moaned before accelerating away.
The others hesitated another few seconds but finally followed him.
The remaining three vans reached Cora.
Fuck it. She rolled onto her back, jammed her rifle's barrel against her exposed power cell, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the detonation tore her body apart too quickly for her sensors to detect any damage.
The blast was enormous -- far bigger than anything Nishara had ever experienced. It deafened her and shook her vehicle. Both hearts pounded as she glanced over her shoulder and found parts of Cora's body and two of the vans raining down. The remaining van swerved around the debris and continued its pursuit.
"No," Dylan groaned.
"Take it easy," Grishnag said, clearly straining to remain calm, herself. "She'll be okay. She's probably in that same room we woke up in before, with Ayastal."
"I hope so." Dylan took a deep breath. "Alright. Let's get this over with." He accelerated.
Six more blips appeared on Nishara's mini-map, directly ahead. "No …"
"Where are they coming from?" Syala's voice quivered.
"Stay focused," Grishnag said.
A beam from one of the van's occupants drilled Nishara's rear window, the passenger-side headrest, and the windshield. She flinched and her hearts beat even faster.
Must try something. Must do something before we're all killed again. She took several deep breaths. "I … I have an idea."
She twisted her tail into position, gripped her weapon, and slid through her window. She kept her lower-left hand on the controls, kept the accelerator pressed down with the tip of her tail, and held on to the roof with her upper-left hand. With her two right hands, she raised the gun awkwardly and tried to aim it at the approaching van.
A male that appeared to be Zilaka's species leaned out one of the van's windows with his own rifle.
Nishara clamped her mouth shut to prevent a horrified whimper from escaping and fired her weapon. Half of her shots struck the ground or pierced empty air, but the rest punched into the front of the van.
The male fired and a familiar searing pain lanced through Nishara's upper-right shoulder. The gun almost slipped from her hands, but she managed to keep her grip on it and continue shooting.
Finally, one of her beams drilled through the van's windshield and vaporized part of the driver's head. He flopped over and the van swerved off to the right and crashed into a stack of red metal barrels. Nishara shifted her aim to the barrels without understanding how she knew what was about to happen, and continued firing. Whatever was in the barrels ignited violently, and engulfed the van in flames.
Nishara sighed, faced forward, and grimaced at the pain spreading out from her wounded shoulder.
Grishnag veered off to a curving ramp leading to an overpass that wove among dozens of gleaming metal skyscrapers. The rest followed her. Wincing and trying not to cry out, Nishara steered her vehicle in the same direction.
Three more enemy vans appeared directly ahead, swerving through the oncoming traffic.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "Too many innocent people are in the way."
"There's nothing we can do about that," Dylan said with a sigh. "We'll just have to do the best we can to avoid hitting any of them."
A human leaned out of the lead van and began firing. Nishara groaned, shifted her grip on her weapon, and returned fire.
A beam pierced her upper-left arm and another hit her chest, just below her lower heart. She screamed and dropped her gun.
"Nishara!" Syala shrieked. "Oh, no!"
Another shot burned through Nishara's abdomen, and yet another drilled her upper heart. She flailed, screamed again, and her car began to turn sideways and skid.
"No!" Dylan bellowed.
Nishara caught a glimpse of a hail of enemy shots slamming through his windshield and multiple bursts of red blood filling the inside of his car, and suddenly she turned cold inside.
"No …" She coughed as everything around her began to fade away. "Dyl … Dylan …"
Her car struck the divider between lanes and rolled. The last thing Nishara saw was the road rushing up toward her, and the last things she felt were her body twisting and the car crushing her beneath it.
Title: Game Over
Genre: Science Fiction
Age range: adult
Word count: 80,000 words
Author: Fred T. Kerns
Why the book is a good fit: I tend to write the kinds of stories I wish I could find on bookshelves. As TMG has an eye toward innovation, my work would bring them something new and fresh to pass along to the world. TMG also works with a range of genres and my novels and stories are primarily science fiction but also include elements of action, humor, and an often hopeful vision of the future despite the villainous characters standing in the heroes' way.
The Hook: On this planet, "fun and games" is a matter of life and death.
Synopsis: Dylan Engstrom wakes up in a strange place and is thrown into a series of combat scenarios with a handful of aliens. Together, they must figure out what's going on and how to escape before they're all killed. And killed again. And again. And again ...
Target audience: Readers who enjoy action, adventure, humor, spaceships, aliens, and fun characters in a story that leans toward the harder end of the SF scale.
Bio: Sci-fi writer, semi-competent gamer (on a good day), and a huge geek. Born in a small town in Oregon, lived on the Oregon coast until 2013, then moved to Tucson, Arizona, and has lived there ever since.
Platform: My blog has links to most of the stuff I'm up to: https://fredtkerns.blogspot.com/
Education: High school diploma, followed by life in general
Experience: Started writing and submitting short stories at 17 and have never stopped writing since then. I've finished five novels and have another in-progress, and have written a number of shorter works and ongoing serialized stories.
Personality/writing style: Usually pretty mellow. Able to roll with the punches thanks to life being a very long stretch of bad luck. Able to face each setback by immediately going to work on possible solutions almost like a reflex. Writing style tends to be to-the-point with characters who are often a little off-kilter. I've been told that I'm particularly good at writing action scenes. I also like to research specific scientific concepts to attempt to get them right (for instance, hull breaches in my writing won't result in an endless rush of venting air) without bogging the story down with details regarding physics and whatnot.
Likes/hobbies: Writing, video games, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Have been a lifelong fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and others. More recent like/influences include the Mass Effect series, Babylon 5, Star Trek Online, Red vs. Blue, gen:LOCK, among others.
Hometown: Tucson, AZ
Third Square | Chapter One
East London’s mist-tilled skies reluctantly made way for two men as they walked south-bound atop the crosswalk. The momentary break in the weather did little for the scattered bits of conversation attempting to be exchanged through hasty breathes and quick trials to push-a-hat-back or pull-a-scarf-up as the mid-winter weather transitions eddied about the gentlemen. Opposites, as previously said, could not have better been seen, for their faces were as cracks in a mirror, one looking calmly settled into his state of mind and the other looking anything but.
The first gentleman, for that he appeared to be, was tall, stately, eloquent in emotion and manner, and otherwise everything expected of a young and pompous London money monger. His name was well known, his reputation creditable, and his enterprises safely settled far beyond the reach of erratic, fickle street-rats. Doctor Martin Braxton, of South Courtney Street, was as reputable as he was professional, and nothing less than the current desperate circumstances, and the prominence of his honor, would have brought him to the slums of East Side to consult our latter focus.
Thus said focus was Mr. Daniel Lawrence, or Dr. Lawrence, whenever he wished to appear professional, as he did on such an occasion as this. At other times he would appear as Lawrence Search-Them-All, if he wished to appear little more than the hobo he was and agree with his friend’s teasing spirits, or Lord Daniel la Caltan whenever he wished to claim to be related to Charlemagne or Alfred the Great or some other extinct figure he knew nothing about. All such remarkable titles he drew from the books he devoured, the newspapers he collected, or his own fantasies which he strung together whenever his endless scour of missing persons was exhausted.
Daniel Laurence, fat, torpid, toad-like man that he was, possessed few enjoyments in this world besides his unethical research of unfortunate souls that had lost their stability in life and had concluded, at last, to result to the unfortunate fate of disappearing from the face of the earth. Death did not grip these souls, nor life either, but some abductive force drove them away to some solitary cave or workhouse where they were not recovered from for years. Most of these disappearances were self-consciously committed, though the occasional sleepwalker or drunkard will wander to a copse or river and never be heard from again.
These singular cases allured the slatternly Mr. Laurence, and the unmaintained rurals of London would have been in much worse condition should it not have been for his assistance on several remarkable occasions. These instances built him some sort of reputation, neither stable nor well-respected, but whenever the funds were tight or the public unappealing, misfortunate individuals brought their stories to this man who dwelt thirty paces west of the Gaither and Foxlord intersection. No great competitor was he to Doyle’s or Poe’s heroes, but was some inferior detective of his own, though he did it in such a leisurely, singular way that no profession was made out of his excursions, only fuel for his enjoyment and a flame for his time.
One can not guess why such a man as Dr. Braxton would wish to consult such a man with such a practice, but this he did on the date of February 15th, 1953, over twenty years since the incident, in which these gentlemen are now engaged, occurred. It took two decades and the death of a prodigious individual to begin the chain of events which you will now have the honor of reviewing, the mixture of facts and fiction separated in their right proportions, and perhaps a life lost revived to some old glory.
I hide behind words, sometimes.
I officially started describing myself as a writer when I took a graduate class in poetry writing. Then another writing class, this time in fiction. I wrote a poem entitled
Ode to a Dunkin Donuts Cashier No one
understands my words when to my boyfriend I say
“I think it’s over”
to my friends I say
Like the dunkin donuts cashier Who
When I say “light and sweet” Hands me coffee
With cream and sugar
Words are insufficient.
I use words insufficiently.
I have used words insufficiently, in the past. I suspect I will again. But not now. Now, I will tell you.
I remember. I can’t forget.
Stay with me, please. I’ll tell you why all that is true. And, I know you’ll understand, because sometimes you hurt too.
Stay with me, because there’s joy, too. And gratitude.
I hide behind words, sometimes.
So, when I was seven years old watching To Kill a Mockingbird with my dad, and Atticus Finch defended a man accused of rape, and I asked what “rape” was, and Dad said it’s when a girl says no and a boy forces her to have sex anyway, and I decided right then and there- I would never be raped. I would never say no. And I didn’t. Ever.
On my first date, I was safe. Imagine that. Not excited. Or nervous. Not thrilled. Safe. My sister and I were double dating. I don’t remember what we did or where we went. I just remember, in the back seat, I never said no. I turned my head away. My muscles froze. And my sister, in the front seat, didn’t have a reason to turn around.
I can, could, can twist words like a contortionist. I know the real definition of rape. But, my first definition and subsequent plan afforded me control. I told myself.
I hide behind my words, sometimes.
Later, when accepted Early Decision status at Boston College, I was excited. And, naive. And, once there, homesick. And lonely. So, I went to a frat party with my roommates. This is what I remember:
Being offered a drink from a red Solo cup. Seeing my roommates talking with others. A lot of people (40? more?).
Worn, mustard carpeting. The smell of beer and sweat.
Being taken by the elbows, a guy on each side, to a room. Thrown face down on the bed.
Face smothered by party-goers discarded coats. My underwear pulled down, my skirt pushed up. Someone entering my asshole.
Someone else calling others in.
Someone reassuring another, If you want in (the frat?), you gotta get in (me?).
Going away, but not leaving.
Waking up down a set of grey stairs, surrounded by Solo cups. And other party trash.
And, never (like a badge of honor) saying no. This is what I don’t remember:
How many frat pledges entered me.
How I got back to my dorm.
Why I didn’t go inside the campus security office, but cried outside its glass door. Why an officer didn’t come out?
I told my parents Boston College was not for me. That’s all. And when I transferred
to a small university in my home state and students there asked where I came from, I said
And, just like that, it never happened. Or, I became someone to whom it never happened. What I was, I was no longer. So, not really worth talking about any longer. But, it leaked out in my poetry decades ago. And I see it’s just further evidence: I hide behind my words, sometimes. But, it’s not all I am. I hide so much more.
I hide behind my words, sometimes. In college, I often heard my hunger pangs in my gut and drew the natural conclusion I was hungry. Then, as a sort of sick social experiment to demonstrate my own ability to control my body- Jesus, could I just control someone’s body?!- I trained my brain so that anytime I heard my stomach make a sound I excused myself to the bathroom and retched. I spent the entire summer after sophomore year of college this way. I’d meet friends, binge eat, and purge it all before
leaving the restaurant.
I was staying with my fiance, his brother, his mother and his drunken, verbally abusive correctional officer father. I worked as a cocktail waitress at a State Beach patio. Every once in a while, I’d dip into the cocktail condiments- lemon and lime
wedges, maraschino cherries. Before the shift ended, tourists’ grateful bills stuffed in my cargo shorts pockets, I’d purge. Clean slate.
I hide behind words, sometimes. When I said, “not guilty” to the judge what I meant was- yes, clearly I’m guilty. Was probably born guilty, Original Sin and all that. I was on camera in various locations of the mall, seen stuffing the inside pockets of my denim
jacket and my two shopping bags full of items I neither cared about or needed. I spent an overnight in holding. My parents were driving from Maine to Iowa to visit my dying grandmother in her nursing facility for patients with Alzheimer’s. It didn't seem the right time to bother them. So, I waited for the bail bondsman and wished I’d used the bathroom before stealing. More to the point, before getting caught.
I hide behind words, sometimes. Like, when I got married.
Not to the fiance mentioned previously. Twenty two pound weight loss, plenty of college guys to affirm the new size 1 me, and a trip to Aruba with my college roommate redirected that plan.
No. To this new guy- not the blonde my former fiance was, not the baseball player my former fiance was, not the basic neanderthal jock he was. This new guy- dark skinned, ponytail, artist. This new guy. Passion and pressure. Romance and rage. A stone I felt sure was a diamond waiting to burst forth.
When I said I do, I meant:
I do believe we’re a partnership.
I do believe we’re both responsible for income. We’re both responsible for expenses. I do believe, when we’re parents, we are both parents. We both need to act like role models. We both need to demonstrate responsibility, maturity and compassion.
When I said I do, I didn’t mean:
I do believe dishes are for throwing, walls are for punching, or voices are for yelling.
I do believe mornings are for his hangovers and my making excuses for his behavior. And I most certainly didn’t mean:
Daughter of mine, here is your example of a loving relationship. An example of how a husband treats a wife, or a father treats a daughter.
When I said I do, I meant: I don’t.
I hide behind my words, sometimes. More to the point. I misuse words. I lie. So, when my marriage ended, I left my job and I began to write. I began to excavate. To
recall. To sober up. To turn to my demons- to the me that life and trauma had created- and to hurt. A pain indescribable- this honest self-exploration thing. So, in one last cowardly comfortable move, I lied. I told all those around me I had breast cancer. In truth (as I interpret it)- I did have a scary mammogram result and was asked to return twice for ultrasound follow up. But, I didn’t have cancer. What I had were kind friends and a warped sense of worth. I just couldn’t allow myself kindness or compassion unless it had been earned, and was life-threatening.
Slowly, I’m hiding behind words less. And meaning my words more. And this is
where the real story begins. My love affair with words that don’t cover, conceal, contain. Words that instead meditate, muse and mend. So, to where I began. I grieve. I feel.
Pain. Joy and gratitude.
Wound Up and Winded
I worship the Winds. They are whimsical and flighty like I’ve come to be. The roads, seas, and skies are friends to my gods and me. And every morning I pray on a walk in the woods to the East, to the South, to the West, and to the North. I stop and humbly give my breath for theirs. A windbent branch beckons me. I approach the waving scene. Then at once and with a passion, I’m upsprung by Spring, kissed by Summer, and whisked by Autumn and chilly Winter. Then they plop me down, all wound up and winded.
Title: Wound Up and Winded
Genre: Fantasy / Romanticism
Age Range: All ages
Word Count: 100
Author: River Byrnes
Why my project is a good fit: It’s incredibly short and fun. A great addition to any children’s anthology. Maybe a poetry/short fiction collection. It is so tiny and compact that it would be honored to fill up the extra unused space of a book that is one page shy of an even number.
Hook: “I worship the winds.”
Synopsis: A Wind acolyte goes out on a walk to pray to his or her gods who take him or her on a short flight with them until he or she is plopped down, back to the ground.
Target audience: All ages; those who enjoy cute flash fiction/bit-sized stories
Bio: I’m a 20-year-old university student studying at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I come from a small lower-middle-class family in a small town in Louisiana called Ball. As a kid and even still, my family and I struggle financially–who doesn’t these days?–but through scholarships and Pell grants, I’m somehow blessed to go to school almost debt-free. I’m a Creative Writing Major so this is my hobby and craft. I also know this is a highly competitive business. All I hope to do by entering into this contest is to develop the skill of stepping out into the big beyond and giving it a shot, no matter how terrifying it is.
“Drake,” she spoke his name as if to ask him a question.
“Yes Grace?” He replied taking a glance into her eyes in the hopes that she was still there. Hoping that she wasn’t saying his name as if she was trying to remember. When he saw that she was looking through her diaries still, he breathed out a sigh of relief.
“Have you ever… have you read any of these yet?” Grace hesitantly asked him, giving a nod to her journals as she did so.
“No… I haven’t Grace. Not yet any way. You told me not to until your lapses became more consistent, and I needed to use them to guide you back.”
She was looking up at him now, watching him answer her as stoically as he possibly could when discussing this particular subject. Completely unaware of the tumultuous thoughts that invaded his mind.
What he wanted to tell her was that he never desired this for her. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t know if he could be strong enough to guide her back to him. He couldn’t tell her that he was terrified every time her mind ran away from her, and he was left with the shadow of a woman he once swore to protect and cherish.
As Drake’s thoughts spiraled through his grief, Grace gently brought her hand to his face and brushed her fingers like feathers across his cheek. Her unexpected touch brought him back to the present, as his eyes snapped to her own arresting gaze.
In this moment she calmed the raging sea of his own mind, like she had done so many times before. And in this moment Drake was reminded that this would sustain him to do this all over again. He was willing to find her every day if he had to, and bring her back to him so that they could share these precious fleeting moments. They were supposed to share eternity together, and he knew that a couple seconds more with her would be far more bearable than never being with her again.
As he stared into her eyes, he vowed that he would do whatever it took to remind her of who she was, even if she was unable to remember him. He would never let her forget herself, until she herself decided no more. He’d do it for her, because she did it for him.
“Drake,” Grace softly spoke, darting her eyes back and forth as if searching for the words to follow with. “Do you remember when,” she paused, licked her semi-parched lips and continued, “when you set up the tree swing for me a gazillion summers ago?”
Drake grinned from the memory that she chose to discuss. He was half relieved that she was obviously trying to lighten the mood, and half amused because he did in fact remember that summer vividly. “Yes, Grace, I do remember doing that. And I do believe that summer was maybe about 100 years ago… give or take a few years. Possibly decades. But don’t quote me on that.”
She giggled and smiled back at him. “Ah yes, that sounds about right. If I remember correctly, you thought it was such a silly request at the time. But who was it that used that swing more than I did!?” Grace teased as she stuck her tongue out at him.
“Hey now, I did apologize and say it was a good idea. We needed a bit of silly during that time. Our life hasn’t always been… normal.” He replied to her playfulness by gently brushing her hair away from her face as he leaned in to press his forehead against hers. He loved staring into her eyes like this, even more so when they were so filled with joy and wonder. Joyous moments were few and far between them these days. “Those years were some of the fondest memories I’ve ever experienced. I just wish…” he trailed off. Now was not the time to talk about regrets.
She stared up into his eyes reassuringly as she reached for his hands and held him there. “Those were fond memories for me too.” She continued to smile, but her face no longer matched the feeling she was trying to convey. “I loved that swing. I loved that even though you thought it was a silly idea, you still did it.” Her voice started to waiver now, “For me. You did it for me, and in the end it brought us both joy. You did it because you knew I was afraid that I was beginning to forget what it was like to be a child. To be innocent and new.”
Grace’s eyes began to well up as the smile fell from her face. “Do you remember what I told you when I first asked for the swing?” Drake nodded in reply.
He remembered vividly how she had pleaded for him to plant a giant oak tree on top of an open hill, which was only a short distance from their mansion. He remembered how she had described seeing other young couples enjoying the summer swinging on a tree together, and how she missed feeling young and alive. To which Drake retorted that she was an immortal vampire so technically she was neither of those things, resulting in a playful slap on his arm from her followed by a soul piercing glare.
What finally got him to cave was when she dropped all pretense and humor. It was then that she told him how she was afraid she was disappearing. She was afraid that the person she used to be, was beginning to fade. He remembered the moment that broke him and caused him to immediately go out and get a tree to plant for her swing. It was the moment she told him that she was scared of her humanity slipping away, and it was the moment that he promised her he would never let that happen. He wouldn’t let her disappear.
“And what did I say to you Drake?” As he opened his mouth to respond, he noticed her eyes begin to glaze over, and her grip on his hands tightened as she frantically grasped to regain control of her mind. This was a battle they couldn’t possibly hope to win, but it was a battle they would face together. “D… Drake?” It was no longer a knowing question bent on an answer. The name had tasted unfamiliar on her lips.
She shook her head as if to clear away an invisible fog, but no matter how hard she seemed to try, the fog remained. All he could do was watch her lapse into a state of delirium as her memories slipped away.
Grace began rapidly shooting glances around her room in confusion at what she could see. “Whe…where am I?” Her eyes landed on his, questioning him as to how she came here. He tried to form the words to say that could ease her mind, but nothing came out. The only thing he could feel in this moment was rage that once again their time was cut short. He wanted to scream, and cry, and hold her close as he apologized to her over and over about how he was powerless to stop this. But this would not be the response she needed now, not here as she stared questioningly into his eyes, the eyes that she could no longer remember.
“Who are you?” She began to raise her voice, growing more agitated by the second. Grace’s hands began to slip away from his when she realized that she was holding him. “Do…do I know you?”
“Yes, you do Grace. I’m your…” he paused for a moment, trying to think of a persona for himself that she could take comfort in. Someone who wouldn’t frighten her with the idea of intimacy, but was still close enough to care for her. “I’m your brother. My name is Drake. Do you remember me Grace?” The words hurt as soon as they left his mouth, knowing that from now on he’d be reduced to a familial status during her lapses, and that as this disease progressed, he may never be able to call her his love again.
“N… no not really,” she slowly scooted herself away from him on her bed. When she looked down and saw what they were sitting on, she shot her eyes up to him puzzled.
“We’re in your room Grace, it’s night time now. I was just saying good night to you.” He quickly replied, hoping that his answers would give her some sense of stability. They did not.
“I don’t know who you are,” her voice was growing louder by the second as her expression hardened into panic. “Did you do something to me!?”
“No! No Grace, I’m telling the truth. You’re safe here, this is your safe space,” he cried out desperate to not have to use drastic measures again. He hated every time he was forced to sedate her.
She was having none of it. “What did you do to me!?” Grace was yelling now as she started to swing her arms at him. It took everything in him not to take the abuse. He would see it as some sort of redemption for what he did to her. For how he had made her a vampire in the first place. But he knew that he had to stop this before she eventually hurt herself.
Drake reached for the stock of ready to use sedatives he kept locked away in the top drawer of her desk. He had to act quickly in her confusion before the rage consumed her.
When she saw what he was going for, she lunged with brute force at his neck, but she was never fast enough. Drake was much older and therefore stronger than she. In a few deft movements he had grabbed a sedative, pinned her to his body, and injected her with it, holding her close to prevent further harm.
As she succumbed to the effects of the drug, she lazily glanced up at Drake, tears streaming down her face. When he looked back into her eyes, he could see her again. He could see his Grace, and with a moment of clarity she choked out, “I’m so scared Drake. I don’t want to… I don’t want to forget.” She began sobbing uncontrollably, and all he could do was hold her close to him as she drifted into a deep sleep. Her eyelids slowly fluttered shut as her body slumped into his. When he could tell that she was truly asleep, the composure that he had so carefully strained to maintain finally broke, and he wept.
Title: Grace Historia
Age Range: Teen-Adult
Word Count: currently working on the book. This is an exerpt that appears later in the story.
The story I'm writing is a unique take on immortality, the benefits and the curses that could befall someone of that nature.
Synopsis: Sarah Mavis is given the opportunity of a lifetime for her young and budding career as a New York Journalist. The events that follow show her how easily gifts can be turned into curses, which is something Drake Aldrich knows all too well.
I majored in psychology, but I've always loved to write. Unfortunately my life doesn't always permit me the time to do so, but I try to make do when I can. I have an odd style of writing, which I'm working on improving. Clearly my writing needs editing, and more tlc. I'm mostly doing this to see if my work has what it takes. Thank you for your time!