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Ashes

She picked at the frayed ends of her hair, loose sandy tendrils twining around her fingers in the breeze. The cigarette was mashed into a knot in the tree stump beside her, in the company of several others she couldn't remember smoking. She shut her eyes as she thrust her hands into the cool, damp grass under her knees. Took a slow, deliberate breath and exhaled. The sharp smell of smoke still burned her from the inside, familiar and foreign at once. This smoke was different, heavier.

She'd always enjoyed the smell of burning wood and cigarettes. But she loved the smell of extinguished flames the most.

She opened her eyes and blinked against the sting. She wanted to look at the smoldering ruins, burn the image into her mind. With one hand she wiped at her face, smudging ash across her cheek. With the other she reached for her jacket pocket and rubbed her thumb over the smooth metal of the lighter.

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Written by CuppaTea
Ashes
She picked at the frayed ends of her hair, loose sandy tendrils twining around her fingers in the breeze. The cigarette was mashed into a knot in the tree stump beside her, in the company of several others she couldn't remember smoking. She shut her eyes as she thrust her hands into the cool, damp grass under her knees. Took a slow, deliberate breath and exhaled. The sharp smell of smoke still burned her from the inside, familiar and foreign at once. This smoke was different, heavier.

She'd always enjoyed the smell of burning wood and cigarettes. But she loved the smell of extinguished flames the most.

She opened her eyes and blinked against the sting. She wanted to look at the smoldering ruins, burn the image into her mind. With one hand she wiped at her face, smudging ash across her cheek. With the other she reached for her jacket pocket and rubbed her thumb over the smooth metal of the lighter.
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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by desmondwrite in portal Trident Media Group

Introducing Roco

[This is a sample of my novel, Roco, about a squirrel who turns into a human. I wrote this piece solely for this challenge—it's not an excerpt, although it features characters, themes, etc., from the novel. More technical details after the sample.]

The squirrel paused on the treeroad—really, a few branches in the proximity of each other—and surveyed the forest floor. To us, the squirrel would have looked like any other Western Gray with his silver fur coat and creamy white belly all shadowed by a tail-banner.

But to other rodents, this squirrel was instantly recognizable from tiny unique features on his face, ears, and fur, and by his smell—a mixture of oak tree, sugar breath (his family had a secret patch of berries), vinegar, and rectum. His name was Oakbear.

“Roco!” shouted Oakbear at the still woods. "You've gone too far!"

Oakbear had come to a perimeter in the trees invisible to us but easily detected by the sensitive nose of a squirrel. Here was a disturbing lack of familiar smells, specifically the fur trace and rectum oils of the Village. Oakbear didn't know this forest except in the abstract. These trees hadn't been frequented by squirrels for a few summers because the dreys had become nesting sites for owls. In chasing season, those damned birds hunted tirelessly, mostly for mice but sometimes four-legged meat as big as a Western Gray. While the Village hadn't heard hoots this year, it didn't mean there wasn't a nest being developed somewhere. In the heat of the chase, if a squirrel wasn't careful, he might find himself embraced by claws sharper than a broken beer bottle.

Vibrations on the treeroad told Oakbear someone was coming. He looked back, his head motion almost mechanical, and peered into the leaf-cover with a discerning black eye. But it was only Sudry, a pup about the same age, who still lived in a drey with his parents.

It was apparent Sudry's parents had just birthed a new litter, because the squirrel's fur had the sour scent of nursing whelps. To give you a complete account, Sudry smelled like sour hair, wet leaves, botfly, cinnamon, and rectum. He had a few things to work on before he’d be a suitable mate. The Western Gray's scientific name is Sciurus Griseus, phonetically 'greasy scurrier,' an apt description here.

"Where is she?" asked Sudry, panting.

"Somewhere around here," grumbled Oakbear. "You know, every other female lets her mate catch her after awhile. Somehow I ended up chasing the one squirrel who doesn't want to be caught."

"Maybe she's not ready to settle down."

"But I have the drey in Meadowbrook. The one with the view of the valley. And I have access to a bear's horde of berries. And—" Oakbear struggled to think of more reasons why he was such a desirable squirrel. "And I'm strong!" To prove his might, Oakbear picked up a bark beetle and broke it in half. Sudry tried to look impressed, but he'd seen all of this before. "And—"

"And your cheeks," said Sudry.

"Right! I could fit a hawk between these chompers."

"Mind, too."

"Thank you! Almost forgot—I have the memory of a bluejay. Never misplaced a cone." 

As Oakbear reviewed how fast he could scamper, how many worms he could dig up, how warmly he could cuddle, Sudry watched a squirrel wriggle onto a branch overhead. Then a cone plonked on Oakbear's back.

"Owl!" shouted Oakbear, jumping away, his hair jutting out like a porcupine. He would have fallen right there if his leap hadn't luckily taken him to another branch—a branch which he clung to tightly, upside down.

Above, a high-pitched: "Rocococo!"

Roco also looked like every other Western Gray Squirrel, although she was a little slimmer, having been something of a runt. Although Sudry couldn't smell her from his branch, he knew she was an odd concoction of familiar and exotic scents. Even if she smelled of the usual fungus, nuts, moss, the sides of trees, carcasses, bugs, and mud—they were not the fungus, nuts, etc., of the Village.

But Roco was not named for her smells. Instead, she was named after her ululating laugh, which sounded something like“rocococo.” It was an odd thing for a squirrel to do. Although squirrels often lived carefree and simple lives, they were more prone to scold than scoff. But Roco was always laughing, and at events nobody else found funny. She chuckled when Hepper’s mate discovered her husband had eaten all the foodstores for winter—she rococo’d when Mottle mistook a pebble for an acorn—and she collapsed when Elder Smells-Like-Bark-Beetle accidentally fell on a beaver. Now, her prank was creating all sorts of undignified chatter.

"Roco, you could have killed me!" shouted Oakbear. Roco downclimbed (for treetrunks are highways to squirrels) and stood on Oakbear's branch.

"Still chasing me, Bearbutt?"

"Yes," said Owlbear, looking nervously at the forest floor. Squirrels were immune to the fear of heights, but Owlbear was unaccustomed to being vulnerable.

"Why don't you go find some pretty pup in the Village and leave me alone?"

"But—my berries," reminded Oakbear.

Roco made a choking noise, and for a moment they thought she was sick. Then she coughed up a slimy blue pebble.

"Already found your patch. Thought your family could squirrel that away forever?" Roco looked to Sudry, who was watching her shyly. "Hello, friend." 

"Hello."

"Race you to the lake."

With that, Roco leaped away, taking the treeroad deeper into the wood. Her two suitors, however, didn't need any more prompting to head back. 

* * *

Regarding the Novel

Title: "Roco"

Genre: Modern Fantasy (Native American & Norse Mythology)

Target Audience: Teenagers and above.

Age Range: 12+, although it's YAF, I think twentysomethings would enjoy this, too.

Word Count: 50,000+

Author: Desmond White

Project: Modern fantasy is a popular genre right now, and my book comes at it from an interesting angle: a squirrel turned into a human! Plus, I'm going to catch those nostalgic Animorph fans.

Hook: A squirrel who's been turned into a human must rescue her friend from an ancient order of snakes who inhabit (and control) people's bodies.

Synopsis: Roco's mother, Nutsour, filled their warm, comfortable nights in their drey with stories about ancient squirrel heroes outwitting all sorts of nasties—from hawks to foxes to eagles to bears. One day, the opportunity for adventure presents itself when a human girl on the run (and slowly recovering from a poisonous bite) hides in the Crown, the squirrel's hill-village. The girl, who can use spellrunes to perform feats of magic, is able to communicate with the squirrels, and soon contracts Roco to be her sentry in exchange for bits of a granola bar. The girl saves Roco's life when the squirrel is attacked by an owl—an act that reveals the girl's position to her pursuers. Now, Roco must rescue the human girl from these mysterious enemies (which look like human beings but smell like slithering things) on an adventure that will pit her wits, and her mother's stories, against ancient monsters and mages. Roco's story becomes even stranger when a "helpful" ancient spirit, in ironic jest, turns her into the most powerful creature on the planet—a human being. A human girl, in fact.

Regarding the Author

Bio: A high school teacher who writes when his students aren't looking.

Platform: Prose, Personal Blog

Education: UCSB College of Creative Studies (B.A. in Literature); HBU (Master of Liberal Arts)

Writing Style: Poetic, Concise, with a snap of Snark

Hobbies: Playing & Designing Board/CardGames; Reading & Discussing Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Old Books; Doting on my Wife and her two Evil Cats

Hometown: Sugar Land, Texas

Age: 27, going on 28 in August

Website: www.desmondwrite.com

Twitter: @desmondwrite

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by desmondwrite in portal Trident Media Group
Introducing Roco
[This is a sample of my novel, Roco, about a squirrel who turns into a human. I wrote this piece solely for this challenge—it's not an excerpt, although it features characters, themes, etc., from the novel. More technical details after the sample.]

The squirrel paused on the treeroad—really, a few branches in the proximity of each other—and surveyed the forest floor. To us, the squirrel would have looked like any other Western Gray with his silver fur coat and creamy white belly all shadowed by a tail-banner.

But to other rodents, this squirrel was instantly recognizable from tiny unique features on his face, ears, and fur, and by his smell—a mixture of oak tree, sugar breath (his family had a secret patch of berries), vinegar, and rectum. His name was Oakbear.

“Roco!” shouted Oakbear at the still woods. "You've gone too far!"

Oakbear had come to a perimeter in the trees invisible to us but easily detected by the sensitive nose of a squirrel. Here was a disturbing lack of familiar smells, specifically the fur trace and rectum oils of the Village. Oakbear didn't know this forest except in the abstract. These trees hadn't been frequented by squirrels for a few summers because the dreys had become nesting sites for owls. In chasing season, those damned birds hunted tirelessly, mostly for mice but sometimes four-legged meat as big as a Western Gray. While the Village hadn't heard hoots this year, it didn't mean there wasn't a nest being developed somewhere. In the heat of the chase, if a squirrel wasn't careful, he might find himself embraced by claws sharper than a broken beer bottle.

Vibrations on the treeroad told Oakbear someone was coming. He looked back, his head motion almost mechanical, and peered into the leaf-cover with a discerning black eye. But it was only Sudry, a pup about the same age, who still lived in a drey with his parents.

It was apparent Sudry's parents had just birthed a new litter, because the squirrel's fur had the sour scent of nursing whelps. To give you a complete account, Sudry smelled like sour hair, wet leaves, botfly, cinnamon, and rectum. He had a few things to work on before he’d be a suitable mate. The Western Gray's scientific name is Sciurus Griseus, phonetically 'greasy scurrier,' an apt description here.

"Where is she?" asked Sudry, panting.

"Somewhere around here," grumbled Oakbear. "You know, every other female lets her mate catch her after awhile. Somehow I ended up chasing the one squirrel who doesn't want to be caught."

"Maybe she's not ready to settle down."

"But I have the drey in Meadowbrook. The one with the view of the valley. And I have access to a bear's horde of berries. And—" Oakbear struggled to think of more reasons why he was such a desirable squirrel. "And I'm strong!" To prove his might, Oakbear picked up a bark beetle and broke it in half. Sudry tried to look impressed, but he'd seen all of this before. "And—"

"And your cheeks," said Sudry.

"Right! I could fit a hawk between these chompers."

"Mind, too."

"Thank you! Almost forgot—I have the memory of a bluejay. Never misplaced a cone." 

As Oakbear reviewed how fast he could scamper, how many worms he could dig up, how warmly he could cuddle, Sudry watched a squirrel wriggle onto a branch overhead. Then a cone plonked on Oakbear's back.

"Owl!" shouted Oakbear, jumping away, his hair jutting out like a porcupine. He would have fallen right there if his leap hadn't luckily taken him to another branch—a branch which he clung to tightly, upside down.

Above, a high-pitched: "Rocococo!"

Roco also looked like every other Western Gray Squirrel, although she was a little slimmer, having been something of a runt. Although Sudry couldn't smell her from his branch, he knew she was an odd concoction of familiar and exotic scents. Even if she smelled of the usual fungus, nuts, moss, the sides of trees, carcasses, bugs, and mud—they were not the fungus, nuts, etc., of the Village.

But Roco was not named for her smells. Instead, she was named after her ululating laugh, which sounded something like“rocococo.” It was an odd thing for a squirrel to do. Although squirrels often lived carefree and simple lives, they were more prone to scold than scoff. But Roco was always laughing, and at events nobody else found funny. She chuckled when Hepper’s mate discovered her husband had eaten all the foodstores for winter—she rococo’d when Mottle mistook a pebble for an acorn—and she collapsed when Elder Smells-Like-Bark-Beetle accidentally fell on a beaver. Now, her prank was creating all sorts of undignified chatter.

"Roco, you could have killed me!" shouted Oakbear. Roco downclimbed (for treetrunks are highways to squirrels) and stood on Oakbear's branch.

"Still chasing me, Bearbutt?"

"Yes," said Owlbear, looking nervously at the forest floor. Squirrels were immune to the fear of heights, but Owlbear was unaccustomed to being vulnerable.

"Why don't you go find some pretty pup in the Village and leave me alone?"

"But—my berries," reminded Oakbear.

Roco made a choking noise, and for a moment they thought she was sick. Then she coughed up a slimy blue pebble.

"Already found your patch. Thought your family could squirrel that away forever?" Roco looked to Sudry, who was watching her shyly. "Hello, friend." 

"Hello."

"Race you to the lake."

With that, Roco leaped away, taking the treeroad deeper into the wood. Her two suitors, however, didn't need any more prompting to head back. 

* * *

Regarding the Novel
Title: "Roco"
Genre: Modern Fantasy (Native American & Norse Mythology)
Target Audience: Teenagers and above.
Age Range: 12+, although it's YAF, I think twentysomethings would enjoy this, too.
Word Count: 50,000+
Author: Desmond White
Project: Modern fantasy is a popular genre right now, and my book comes at it from an interesting angle: a squirrel turned into a human! Plus, I'm going to catch those nostalgic Animorph fans.
Hook: A squirrel who's been turned into a human must rescue her friend from an ancient order of snakes who inhabit (and control) people's bodies.
Synopsis: Roco's mother, Nutsour, filled their warm, comfortable nights in their drey with stories about ancient squirrel heroes outwitting all sorts of nasties—from hawks to foxes to eagles to bears. One day, the opportunity for adventure presents itself when a human girl on the run (and slowly recovering from a poisonous bite) hides in the Crown, the squirrel's hill-village. The girl, who can use spellrunes to perform feats of magic, is able to communicate with the squirrels, and soon contracts Roco to be her sentry in exchange for bits of a granola bar. The girl saves Roco's life when the squirrel is attacked by an owl—an act that reveals the girl's position to her pursuers. Now, Roco must rescue the human girl from these mysterious enemies (which look like human beings but smell like slithering things) on an adventure that will pit her wits, and her mother's stories, against ancient monsters and mages. Roco's story becomes even stranger when a "helpful" ancient spirit, in ironic jest, turns her into the most powerful creature on the planet—a human being. A human girl, in fact.

Regarding the Author
Bio: A high school teacher who writes when his students aren't looking.
Platform: Prose, Personal Blog
Education: UCSB College of Creative Studies (B.A. in Literature); HBU (Master of Liberal Arts)
Writing Style: Poetic, Concise, with a snap of Snark
Hobbies: Playing & Designing Board/CardGames; Reading & Discussing Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Old Books; Doting on my Wife and her two Evil Cats
Hometown: Sugar Land, Texas
Age: 27, going on 28 in August
Website: www.desmondwrite.com
Twitter: @desmondwrite
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Write the longest grammatically sound alliteration you can possibly muster. The longest such alliteration's author wins $150 if, and only if, this challenge receives at least 300 entries. Editing is allowed.
Written by SonofEternity in portal Words

Frustration - The Other F Word

I'm feeling freaking frustrated, 

foes, friends, and family finding faults, 

flipping fervor for fear, 

fickle freedom, 

while flattering financial feats fondle fiction, 

foolish friction fraternize fair fantasies far from fantastic, 

fire flamed filled fences, 

forced father fatalities, 

fetal fraternity facilities feeding feminist fish foods, 

fingers forgetting fundamental functions, 

fuel fees, frantic freeway flux, and fleeing focus fade frontal foresight, 

false flight falling fifty-five feet fornenst a feeble fringe fathoming future fulfillment, 

fist of fury fighting ferocious phenomena fending folding figures funneling flaky facts, 

futile fashion, fruitless freelance, 

frivolous frequencies flooding favorable fellowship, 

fiending freakish foreign forsaken flavors framed in familiar fabric, 

flying phobia, failing phobia, 

forward footsteps filming the finale following frustration.

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Write the longest grammatically sound alliteration you can possibly muster. The longest such alliteration's author wins $150 if, and only if, this challenge receives at least 300 entries. Editing is allowed.
Written by SonofEternity in portal Words
Frustration - The Other F Word
I'm feeling freaking frustrated, 
foes, friends, and family finding faults, 
flipping fervor for fear, 
fickle freedom, 
while flattering financial feats fondle fiction, 
foolish friction fraternize fair fantasies far from fantastic, 
fire flamed filled fences, 
forced father fatalities, 
fetal fraternity facilities feeding feminist fish foods, 
fingers forgetting fundamental functions, 
fuel fees, frantic freeway flux, and fleeing focus fade frontal foresight, 
false flight falling fifty-five feet fornenst a feeble fringe fathoming future fulfillment, 
fist of fury fighting ferocious phenomena fending folding figures funneling flaky facts, 
futile fashion, fruitless freelance, 
frivolous frequencies flooding favorable fellowship, 
fiending freakish foreign forsaken flavors framed in familiar fabric, 
flying phobia, failing phobia, 
forward footsteps filming the finale following frustration.
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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by Ian_Moone in portal Trident Media Group

Confessions of the Fallen (Excerpts 1 and 2)

         It was the kind of day that invited dreaming and dissuaded acceptance of reality. Sometime in the early morning hours the Sun pealed back the skin of night and mistakenly let fall the parallel universes that mortal eyes all too often ignore. The living world was subtly thrust through multiple lenses. Persons on the street appeared as if in fun house mirrors, their likenesses captured in panes of fluid glass. A dog barked in the distance and the omnipotent fog half-echoed the throaty cry, prophesying the hours to come.

        The headlamps of cars pierced the haze, solemn soldiers waited, lined breast to back, at attention beneath a blood-red general. The surrounding mist dampened the noise of the engines to a mere buzz that, rather than disturb the silence, seemed to make it more absolute. He walked alone, a ghost drifting through throngs of breathing, beating humanity; languid, scattered thoughts his only real friend and counsel. Murky water ran in streams as thick as oil and gathered in deceptively deep pools on the city sidewalk. The midnight rain had failed yet again to cleanse the metropolis of the human stains that curled tightly into doorways and clung to the sides of buildings against the cold and damp. Furtive eyes followed him from under mounds of dank clothing as he passed slowly beneath the still lit streetlamps. Yesterday’s newspaper had formed a thick paste that now buttered the soles of his feet in a tattered porous pair of brown leather boots. He was one of them, one of the stains.

         Of course, not everyone could see the aberrations the Sun had erringly dropped into our world that morning. A privileged few were able to view and appreciate those lenses in all their divine or heathen revelation. The street oracles with their drug-addled tongues grasped with white knuckles the edges of cardboard pulpits and spoke their visions into the groggy morn. They were the prophets, self-appointed apostles of He who would herald in the end of days. Not a single soul paused to touch the robes of these concrete preachers, no healing was sought in the frayed hems of filthy t-shirts and sun-faded jeans. Men in shirtsleeves struggled by them, suit coats and ties flung over shoulders held by two pale fingers, with five other sallow digits clutching tightly handles of black briefcases banging against knees. At times, the briefcases rose up and like battering rams cleared forcefully a path, defending the white steam-ironed breasts of their owners.

        All this the lenses seized and projected on tender irises of youthful eyes that watched from concrete steps. Small bodies held fast against a tired mother’s breast for warmth. In this way the world was taught and learned. The man in the tattered leather boots never smiled at the children he passed nestled in their mother’s arms, in fact, he never smiled, such displays were false promises, and he, he was no prophet and he made no promises.

        The man walked briskly on, his stride spanning nearly three feet in length. He was a monstrosity by any standard, standing at six foot four inches with a shock of long dark hair covering half of his face. An ugly scar lay well hidden beneath it, starting at the edge of his left eye and careening down toward the base of his ear, ending just short of his square jaw. His leather boots sloshed against the pavement. Having reached their maximum absorption, the water now circulated freely throughout, adding no excess weight or chill. Despite his broad build and masculine jaw, he was not a strong man. His thin arms and legs moved as if controlled by strings. His marionette-like gait was not suggestive of injury or drunkenness, but rather reminiscent of a gradual, exhausting retreat. He held death in his limbs and eyes, not malice, but defeat.

         The owner of the coffee shop at the end of the block was just beginning to unlock the doors to the shirt sleeved men who always bought a coffee on their way to the office. Like horses at the gate they poured into the small shop as soon as the lock released, half crazed with lack of sleep and today’s worries already creasing their brows. The genial heat of the warm interior brought new life into their pale faces, smiles were traded as friends and coworkers recognized each other across the tiled expanse and excited conversation soon overtook the general aura of exasperation that had formerly held them mute and captive as bovine.

        The man in the brown leather boots only watched them for a few seconds through the large shop window. Another pane of glass, another lens, in it he now views himself, or rather his reflection. A long beak of a nose perches precariously between sunken cheeks. Dark bird-like eyes dart back and forth beneath thick brows taking in the given truths of his appearance. He might have been handsome once, might have caught a lady’s eye across the room, but not now. He pulled his hood down lower on his head, covering a mass of oily black hair. Turning away from the glass he clasped one hand with the other, stroking gently the scars on his palm with the opposite thumb. A dozen or so perfect circles marked his right hand, they were reminders of a past he had tried so hard to escape. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette and came up only with a few butts he had collected the previous afternoon. Undeterred, he placed one between his teeth, the end, just barely over his chapped lips. His other hand produced a lighter and a solitary flame sputtered forth.

          He breathed in deeply, pulling the smoke to the bottom of his lungs. He felt the heat on his lips, knew he had only about one more deep breath before he added another scar to his collection. Pulling the nub from his lips, he stabbed the lit end into his hand, the skin bubbled in a perfect circle beneath it, closely resembling in shape the brandings his father gave him years ago. Instead of wincing, his mouth contorted into a snarl as he tossed the burning nub to the ground and crushed it with the heel of his boot.

          The fog was beginning to lift, but the chill and dampness remained. At this point, it felt to those on the street as though it had settled in the body, rooting into the soft marrow of bones and there taking refuge. The sun cannot touch everything, the night lives on in interior spaces. The rhythmic soft tap of rubber hitting concrete resumed as the brown leather boots marched on. The injured hand throbbed as he shoved it deep into the pocket of his sweatshirt. He could not define why he had pressed the glowing embers into its palm, and he could not say even now that he regretted it.

         The city was an organism of man’s creation, a second Adam, designed unwittingly in his own image. It had a heart, a pulse, that though borne of stone and concrete, yet gave life, forced sacred blood along streets, sewers, and alleyways. Humanity circulated, drained, and cleansed itself in the bowels of this steel jungle. The man in the brown leather boots was part of the refuse, awaiting some great purge of blood, to free his poisoned self. The daily trek he embarked on was to the old ship yard, where, with torn hands, he pried metallic bits from the carcasses of vessels that had made their last voyage. Though this kind of work was traditionally safer under the guise of night, the darkness forbids his venture. On the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, the man in the brown leather boots yet feared the blackness of night. He had known all his life what monsters lurked within the light of day, and was yet wary of those numerous and unseen that danced in the temporal shadows of night.

______________________________________________________________

      There was a kind of immediacy in the afternoon heat. It produced a sour smell, reminiscent of sweat and fear. The man in the Italian loafers glanced at his watch and scratched a perfectly manicured fingernail beneath his right nostril. He grimaced as he caught another whiff of the rank odor. In this part of the city it was inescapable. The foul air clung to his suit jacket and tie, always following him into the comfort of his two-story walk-up on the north side. On those nights, his wife would not touch him. Even the family dog would keep his distance, until a long, hot shower later he appeared, dog biscuit in hand, an attempt at friendship.

       The man in the Italian loafers was waiting on someone, someone who was late. He rubbed his nose again, trying to fight the nauseating stench and adjusted his spectacles. He held his briefcase in his left hand and, despite its paper contents, he was beginning to feel its weight. He searched the faces passing about him; hollow faces, the eyes sunken deep into sockets from malnourishment or exhaustion, probably both. They seemed already dead with their ashen faces and vacant expressions. The man in the Italian loafers cast his eyes instead to the buildings around him and only saw more death. He hated this part of the city.

       Looking around for a place to sit, he could not find a single flat surface that was not otherwise occupied by the hollow men, their whores or progeny. The governor had promised to clean up the streets months ago. It seemed to the man in the Italian loafers as if all the refuse of earth had here been swept and left to fester and rot; this the great compost pile of civilization.

      The man in the Italian loafers was here a weak man and he knew this fact in the pit of his unquiet stomach. Standing at barely 5' 4", bald head shining like a billiard ball beneath the evening sun, there was nothing physically remarkable about this man. A few miles back, in another block of the city, another street, he was someone. He was a man that could make things happen, pull a lever on the world and set it to spinning. He was not accustomed to being afraid and the sweat that beaded in the creases of his forehead and saturated his white dress shirt beneath the arms was at the least unpleasant, at the least, telling.

       The hollow men, they could see him for what he was; omnipotent beings they were and already knew his essence was not unlike their own at its core. The only true difference between them was the fear. Only the man checking his watch, sweating into the fabric of his suit coat and glancing at the dilapidated buildings was still capable of fear.

       Unable to wait any longer, the man lightly blotted his brow with a white handkerchief and gave his watch one final long look for the evening, watching the second-hand slide around the face in one smooth mechanical motion. He knew he would have to try again tomorrow, though he loathed the thought of returning to this cesspool. Alas, his fear was stronger than his hate and thus he would return. The man plodded on, carefully avoiding puddles of liquid he prayed were rainwater.

       Many pairs of eyes followed him as he left. Eyes watching the briefcase bob with his soft uneven tread, watching the loafers bounce off the pavement, silent except for an occasional splash, followed by a quiet litany of curses.

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by Ian_Moone in portal Trident Media Group
Confessions of the Fallen (Excerpts 1 and 2)
         It was the kind of day that invited dreaming and dissuaded acceptance of reality. Sometime in the early morning hours the Sun pealed back the skin of night and mistakenly let fall the parallel universes that mortal eyes all too often ignore. The living world was subtly thrust through multiple lenses. Persons on the street appeared as if in fun house mirrors, their likenesses captured in panes of fluid glass. A dog barked in the distance and the omnipotent fog half-echoed the throaty cry, prophesying the hours to come.
        The headlamps of cars pierced the haze, solemn soldiers waited, lined breast to back, at attention beneath a blood-red general. The surrounding mist dampened the noise of the engines to a mere buzz that, rather than disturb the silence, seemed to make it more absolute. He walked alone, a ghost drifting through throngs of breathing, beating humanity; languid, scattered thoughts his only real friend and counsel. Murky water ran in streams as thick as oil and gathered in deceptively deep pools on the city sidewalk. The midnight rain had failed yet again to cleanse the metropolis of the human stains that curled tightly into doorways and clung to the sides of buildings against the cold and damp. Furtive eyes followed him from under mounds of dank clothing as he passed slowly beneath the still lit streetlamps. Yesterday’s newspaper had formed a thick paste that now buttered the soles of his feet in a tattered porous pair of brown leather boots. He was one of them, one of the stains.
         Of course, not everyone could see the aberrations the Sun had erringly dropped into our world that morning. A privileged few were able to view and appreciate those lenses in all their divine or heathen revelation. The street oracles with their drug-addled tongues grasped with white knuckles the edges of cardboard pulpits and spoke their visions into the groggy morn. They were the prophets, self-appointed apostles of He who would herald in the end of days. Not a single soul paused to touch the robes of these concrete preachers, no healing was sought in the frayed hems of filthy t-shirts and sun-faded jeans. Men in shirtsleeves struggled by them, suit coats and ties flung over shoulders held by two pale fingers, with five other sallow digits clutching tightly handles of black briefcases banging against knees. At times, the briefcases rose up and like battering rams cleared forcefully a path, defending the white steam-ironed breasts of their owners.
        All this the lenses seized and projected on tender irises of youthful eyes that watched from concrete steps. Small bodies held fast against a tired mother’s breast for warmth. In this way the world was taught and learned. The man in the tattered leather boots never smiled at the children he passed nestled in their mother’s arms, in fact, he never smiled, such displays were false promises, and he, he was no prophet and he made no promises.
        The man walked briskly on, his stride spanning nearly three feet in length. He was a monstrosity by any standard, standing at six foot four inches with a shock of long dark hair covering half of his face. An ugly scar lay well hidden beneath it, starting at the edge of his left eye and careening down toward the base of his ear, ending just short of his square jaw. His leather boots sloshed against the pavement. Having reached their maximum absorption, the water now circulated freely throughout, adding no excess weight or chill. Despite his broad build and masculine jaw, he was not a strong man. His thin arms and legs moved as if controlled by strings. His marionette-like gait was not suggestive of injury or drunkenness, but rather reminiscent of a gradual, exhausting retreat. He held death in his limbs and eyes, not malice, but defeat.
         The owner of the coffee shop at the end of the block was just beginning to unlock the doors to the shirt sleeved men who always bought a coffee on their way to the office. Like horses at the gate they poured into the small shop as soon as the lock released, half crazed with lack of sleep and today’s worries already creasing their brows. The genial heat of the warm interior brought new life into their pale faces, smiles were traded as friends and coworkers recognized each other across the tiled expanse and excited conversation soon overtook the general aura of exasperation that had formerly held them mute and captive as bovine.
        The man in the brown leather boots only watched them for a few seconds through the large shop window. Another pane of glass, another lens, in it he now views himself, or rather his reflection. A long beak of a nose perches precariously between sunken cheeks. Dark bird-like eyes dart back and forth beneath thick brows taking in the given truths of his appearance. He might have been handsome once, might have caught a lady’s eye across the room, but not now. He pulled his hood down lower on his head, covering a mass of oily black hair. Turning away from the glass he clasped one hand with the other, stroking gently the scars on his palm with the opposite thumb. A dozen or so perfect circles marked his right hand, they were reminders of a past he had tried so hard to escape. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette and came up only with a few butts he had collected the previous afternoon. Undeterred, he placed one between his teeth, the end, just barely over his chapped lips. His other hand produced a lighter and a solitary flame sputtered forth.
          He breathed in deeply, pulling the smoke to the bottom of his lungs. He felt the heat on his lips, knew he had only about one more deep breath before he added another scar to his collection. Pulling the nub from his lips, he stabbed the lit end into his hand, the skin bubbled in a perfect circle beneath it, closely resembling in shape the brandings his father gave him years ago. Instead of wincing, his mouth contorted into a snarl as he tossed the burning nub to the ground and crushed it with the heel of his boot.
          The fog was beginning to lift, but the chill and dampness remained. At this point, it felt to those on the street as though it had settled in the body, rooting into the soft marrow of bones and there taking refuge. The sun cannot touch everything, the night lives on in interior spaces. The rhythmic soft tap of rubber hitting concrete resumed as the brown leather boots marched on. The injured hand throbbed as he shoved it deep into the pocket of his sweatshirt. He could not define why he had pressed the glowing embers into its palm, and he could not say even now that he regretted it.
         The city was an organism of man’s creation, a second Adam, designed unwittingly in his own image. It had a heart, a pulse, that though borne of stone and concrete, yet gave life, forced sacred blood along streets, sewers, and alleyways. Humanity circulated, drained, and cleansed itself in the bowels of this steel jungle. The man in the brown leather boots was part of the refuse, awaiting some great purge of blood, to free his poisoned self. The daily trek he embarked on was to the old ship yard, where, with torn hands, he pried metallic bits from the carcasses of vessels that had made their last voyage. Though this kind of work was traditionally safer under the guise of night, the darkness forbids his venture. On the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, the man in the brown leather boots yet feared the blackness of night. He had known all his life what monsters lurked within the light of day, and was yet wary of those numerous and unseen that danced in the temporal shadows of night.

______________________________________________________________

      There was a kind of immediacy in the afternoon heat. It produced a sour smell, reminiscent of sweat and fear. The man in the Italian loafers glanced at his watch and scratched a perfectly manicured fingernail beneath his right nostril. He grimaced as he caught another whiff of the rank odor. In this part of the city it was inescapable. The foul air clung to his suit jacket and tie, always following him into the comfort of his two-story walk-up on the north side. On those nights, his wife would not touch him. Even the family dog would keep his distance, until a long, hot shower later he appeared, dog biscuit in hand, an attempt at friendship.
       The man in the Italian loafers was waiting on someone, someone who was late. He rubbed his nose again, trying to fight the nauseating stench and adjusted his spectacles. He held his briefcase in his left hand and, despite its paper contents, he was beginning to feel its weight. He searched the faces passing about him; hollow faces, the eyes sunken deep into sockets from malnourishment or exhaustion, probably both. They seemed already dead with their ashen faces and vacant expressions. The man in the Italian loafers cast his eyes instead to the buildings around him and only saw more death. He hated this part of the city.
       Looking around for a place to sit, he could not find a single flat surface that was not otherwise occupied by the hollow men, their whores or progeny. The governor had promised to clean up the streets months ago. It seemed to the man in the Italian loafers as if all the refuse of earth had here been swept and left to fester and rot; this the great compost pile of civilization.
      The man in the Italian loafers was here a weak man and he knew this fact in the pit of his unquiet stomach. Standing at barely 5' 4", bald head shining like a billiard ball beneath the evening sun, there was nothing physically remarkable about this man. A few miles back, in another block of the city, another street, he was someone. He was a man that could make things happen, pull a lever on the world and set it to spinning. He was not accustomed to being afraid and the sweat that beaded in the creases of his forehead and saturated his white dress shirt beneath the arms was at the least unpleasant, at the least, telling.
       The hollow men, they could see him for what he was; omnipotent beings they were and already knew his essence was not unlike their own at its core. The only true difference between them was the fear. Only the man checking his watch, sweating into the fabric of his suit coat and glancing at the dilapidated buildings was still capable of fear.
       Unable to wait any longer, the man lightly blotted his brow with a white handkerchief and gave his watch one final long look for the evening, watching the second-hand slide around the face in one smooth mechanical motion. He knew he would have to try again tomorrow, though he loathed the thought of returning to this cesspool. Alas, his fear was stronger than his hate and thus he would return. The man plodded on, carefully avoiding puddles of liquid he prayed were rainwater.
       Many pairs of eyes followed him as he left. Eyes watching the briefcase bob with his soft uneven tread, watching the loafers bounce off the pavement, silent except for an occasional splash, followed by a quiet litany of curses.
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Written by JeffStewart in portal Fiction

He couldn't die young

The key busted off in the lock. Twelve goddamned hours in the foundry, a written warning from the lead jackass, a flat tire on the bridge, and now a busted key. He stared at the stub sticking out of the keyhole. He could hear the television. The whole neighborhood could hear it. He banged on the door. He walked around the side of the house and saw Buddy playing a video game. He smeared a hole in the window with his sleeve. Buddy had gotten fat. The crack of his ass peeked out and the handles on his sides hung over his jeans. He watched him for a few seconds then banged on the window. Buddy tried the door but it was jammed. He looked at his father through the window. He threw his hands up at Buddy and pointed to the bedroom. Buddy sat back down in front of the television. He ran around the side of the house and broke the door in. He rubbed his shoulder and looked at Buddy on the floor. They had been close in the beginning. The boy wasn’t blood, but he’d raised him since he was three. He walked into the living room, what there really was of it, and turned off the television. Buddy sighed. He grabbed the controller from Buddy’s hand.

“Listen here, you little fuck. I bust my ass to keep you and your mother comfortable. And I ask for nothing back, not jack or shit. But I’m telling you now, you show me a little more goddamned respect. You got that, you little motherfucker?”

Tears welled in Buddy’s eyes. He looked at Buddy’s fat belly and felt horrible. He turned the television on and handed him the controller.

“Jesus. I’m sorry, Buddy. I had a hard day. You’ll find out.”

He sat next to Buddy on the floor. He grabbed the other controller. He nudged Buddy, “Alright, show me how to kick your ass, Buddy. I wanna be the yellow car.”

He began the course but ditched his car around every corner. Each time he wrecked he said, “Fucking controller,” and Buddy laughed. He tossed the controller on the floor and rubbed Buddy’s head, “Alright, Buddy. You took me down. We still pals?”

Buddy nodded at the television. He looked at the clock over the antenna, “Your mother been sleeping all day, Buddy?”

“Yes.”

“She been drinking all day?”

“Yes.”

He spun Buddy around to face him. He rubbed his eyes. Today had been worse than most of them. He stared across to Buddy, “You know I’m working hard to give you a better life than this, don’t you, Buddy?”

Buddy nodded.

“Shit, you already have more than I had at your age, Buddy. If I could find a better way to make some better money, I could spend more time with you. I really do love you.”

Buddy scratched his nose. He smiled at Buddy, “Well, don’t just sit there with your teeth in your mouth. Give your old man a hug.”

Buddy hugged him. Buddy was nine. He let go and rubbed Buddy’s head again, “Alright, that’s enough. You fag.”

Buddy laughed and watched him get up, walk into the bedroom and close the door.

***

He turned the light on. It smelled like an abandoned whorehouse. She groaned. He dimmed the light, “Son of a bitch. You been asleep all damned day.”

She rolled over. Her eyes were red. Her hair looked unwashed for weeks. He looked around, “It stinks in here.”

She sat up, “This town stinks.” She took a drink from her bottle and coughed. She’d put on some weight herself. He still loved her but not as strongly as he once did.

She lit half a smoke, “I fucking hate this place. I can’t get a job and I can’t stand television. I can’t get motivated, baby. We need to move, I want to move.”

He sat on the corner of the bed, “Where?”

“Back to Vegas.”

“Vegas.”

“This job is killing you. This town is killing you. And it’s making Buddy and me fat and boring. We moved here for your brother, but he’s dead now. I can’t do this anymore.”

He stared at the wall, “Vegas.”

She set the bottle on the night stand and put out her smoke. The smoke climbed the paneling and waited in the corner.

“How long has it been since you fucked me?”

He made a face and shrugged at the smoke, “I don’t know, a couple of weeks or so.”

“Four months and nine days.”

He thought about it. He looked at her. He was failing the only two people he had. He stroked her arm, “I’m sorry, baby. Jesus. This job is eating me alive. We’ll go to Vegas, we’ll move back.”

She got up and killed the light. Payday was in two days. She took off her nightgown and crawled into bed. He stood up and opened the door, “Buddy, you’re not going to school tomorrow. Turn that shit off and start packing your room. We’re moving back.”

Buddy turned off the television and ran to his room. He watched Buddy’s door close, and he closed theirs. He undressed in the dark and crawled into bed with his wife. He kissed her and ran his hand down her side. Outside two young blacks began to hot wire his car.

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Written by JeffStewart in portal Fiction
He couldn't die young
The key busted off in the lock. Twelve goddamned hours in the foundry, a written warning from the lead jackass, a flat tire on the bridge, and now a busted key. He stared at the stub sticking out of the keyhole. He could hear the television. The whole neighborhood could hear it. He banged on the door. He walked around the side of the house and saw Buddy playing a video game. He smeared a hole in the window with his sleeve. Buddy had gotten fat. The crack of his ass peeked out and the handles on his sides hung over his jeans. He watched him for a few seconds then banged on the window. Buddy tried the door but it was jammed. He looked at his father through the window. He threw his hands up at Buddy and pointed to the bedroom. Buddy sat back down in front of the television. He ran around the side of the house and broke the door in. He rubbed his shoulder and looked at Buddy on the floor. They had been close in the beginning. The boy wasn’t blood, but he’d raised him since he was three. He walked into the living room, what there really was of it, and turned off the television. Buddy sighed. He grabbed the controller from Buddy’s hand.
“Listen here, you little fuck. I bust my ass to keep you and your mother comfortable. And I ask for nothing back, not jack or shit. But I’m telling you now, you show me a little more goddamned respect. You got that, you little motherfucker?”
Tears welled in Buddy’s eyes. He looked at Buddy’s fat belly and felt horrible. He turned the television on and handed him the controller.
“Jesus. I’m sorry, Buddy. I had a hard day. You’ll find out.”
He sat next to Buddy on the floor. He grabbed the other controller. He nudged Buddy, “Alright, show me how to kick your ass, Buddy. I wanna be the yellow car.”
He began the course but ditched his car around every corner. Each time he wrecked he said, “Fucking controller,” and Buddy laughed. He tossed the controller on the floor and rubbed Buddy’s head, “Alright, Buddy. You took me down. We still pals?”
Buddy nodded at the television. He looked at the clock over the antenna, “Your mother been sleeping all day, Buddy?”
“Yes.”
“She been drinking all day?”
“Yes.”
He spun Buddy around to face him. He rubbed his eyes. Today had been worse than most of them. He stared across to Buddy, “You know I’m working hard to give you a better life than this, don’t you, Buddy?”
Buddy nodded.
“Shit, you already have more than I had at your age, Buddy. If I could find a better way to make some better money, I could spend more time with you. I really do love you.”
Buddy scratched his nose. He smiled at Buddy, “Well, don’t just sit there with your teeth in your mouth. Give your old man a hug.”
Buddy hugged him. Buddy was nine. He let go and rubbed Buddy’s head again, “Alright, that’s enough. You fag.”
Buddy laughed and watched him get up, walk into the bedroom and close the door.

***

He turned the light on. It smelled like an abandoned whorehouse. She groaned. He dimmed the light, “Son of a bitch. You been asleep all damned day.”
She rolled over. Her eyes were red. Her hair looked unwashed for weeks. He looked around, “It stinks in here.”
She sat up, “This town stinks.” She took a drink from her bottle and coughed. She’d put on some weight herself. He still loved her but not as strongly as he once did.
She lit half a smoke, “I fucking hate this place. I can’t get a job and I can’t stand television. I can’t get motivated, baby. We need to move, I want to move.”
He sat on the corner of the bed, “Where?”
“Back to Vegas.”
“Vegas.”
“This job is killing you. This town is killing you. And it’s making Buddy and me fat and boring. We moved here for your brother, but he’s dead now. I can’t do this anymore.”
He stared at the wall, “Vegas.”
She set the bottle on the night stand and put out her smoke. The smoke climbed the paneling and waited in the corner.
“How long has it been since you fucked me?”
He made a face and shrugged at the smoke, “I don’t know, a couple of weeks or so.”
“Four months and nine days.”
He thought about it. He looked at her. He was failing the only two people he had. He stroked her arm, “I’m sorry, baby. Jesus. This job is eating me alive. We’ll go to Vegas, we’ll move back.”
She got up and killed the light. Payday was in two days. She took off her nightgown and crawled into bed. He stood up and opened the door, “Buddy, you’re not going to school tomorrow. Turn that shit off and start packing your room. We’re moving back.”
Buddy turned off the television and ran to his room. He watched Buddy’s door close, and he closed theirs. He undressed in the dark and crawled into bed with his wife. He kissed her and ran his hand down her side. Outside two young blacks began to hot wire his car.
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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ErrBane in portal Simon & Schuster

The Black Orchid

Ch 1: A Seed is Planted

Blackened reeds bow to a gentle breeze. An emerald sky, rife with dark clouds, looms above. The stench of dried blood clings to the air—the hill is going to get another sacrifice, and it is glad.

The Dark Hill sits on the outskirts of the city of Arcana, its once vibrant veldt now a dreary shell of its former self: weeds choke the life from every tree and shrub, withering them away to nothing more than feeble stumps; blood spilled upon its once fertile soil has seeped into the ground, staining the grass black and the earth red; the melodious ditty of a hundred woodland creatures has been snuffed away and replaced by the faint shrieking of restless souls.

Along the crest of this dark, dreary hill is a very decrepit house, Mildred Manor, a thing made in the old Victorian style with broken shutters and crumbling steeples. From that home, that magnet of the macabre, comes most of the Dark Hill’s fetid food, the crimson elixir that smirches its once pristine grounds. Over the years, the house, cursed as it is, has become a nexus for grisly actions, each more gruesome and sinister than the last.

Every night, as the sun surrenders the skies to the moon, warbled screams, like some terrible lullaby, escape from the awful house. Many believe the sound to be a desperate call from the lonely manor, a dreadful bugle call only those with ill intent in their hearts can decipher.

On this terrible night, lonely and cold, as the sun’s final rays retreat into the horizon, one such soul heeds that call.

Cloaked in tatters as black as the grass upon which he walks, he carries a large bundle wrapped in dirty, yellowed sheets. This bundle, tightly wound, contours around a very human shape.

Up and up and up the hill he goes, coming to a stop in front of the mold filled door of the manor. He looks up at the broken steeples and the shattered windows. He takes a professional interest on the mark above the front door, the mark of Everything You Touch, the sign of the curse that plagues Mildred’s Manor—a decrepit, hovering hand with jagged lines radiating from it, and covering the whole exterior of the house.

With undue brutality, he kicks the front door, shattering it. Splinters fly in all directions. Upon entering, he staggers momentarily, as the cursed floor slants awkwardly to the left. Regaining his footing, he moves towards a vast, empty room on his right.

Awkward angles fill the room as the doorframe, fireplace, and windows are all slightly crooked. On the ceiling hangs a gangly, crooked mess of speckled bronze, a chandelier. Plumes of dust erupt every time the man takes a step.

Disgusted by the thing he carries, the man drops the bundle at his feet. From his pocket he removes a crystal vial, the liquid contents of which are suspended one over the other, orange and black, like water over oil. He shakes the vial until the contents fuse together. A bubbling sludge forms within the vial, and this the man pours over the top end of the bundle. Bubbles quiver and explode, others percolate through the dirty cloth. The man waits for some moments, making sure that the whole mixture soaks into the grimy sheets. When this is done, he exits the room.Ancient planks groan as he steps out of the room and throws away the vial in his hand. With a loud crash, it shatters upon a wall.

Once outside, the man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gem in the shape of a tiny lion. With the gem in hand, he starts to swing his wrist, like a cowboy about to rope cattle. With each revolution, the gem fills with a dim, silver glow. The man raises his arm over his head and, with a snap of his hand, causes a flurry of silver flames to erupt from the crystal. The flames do not burn the mildewed wood of Mildred’s Manor—instead, the silver sparks seep into every wall, every window of the house.

The man flinches as silver flames make the crystal vibrate in his hands, breaking with an audible snap. He begins to massage his hurt hand, but he quickly forgets his pain. He takes a few steps back to survey his work.

Like a shattering clock revealing all its gears, the house creaks and cracks, its bricks, wood, and glass all suspended in the air. Each of its pieces begin to shuffle around in a blur of motion. The house seems to breathe as all the debris expands inward and outward. Suddenly, as though nothing has happened, each segment falls back into place. Every piece lays peacefully at rest for some moments. But as the man begins to walk away, the house once more splits into its component parts, caught in a never ending loop.

Inside the shifting walls of the house, the bundle begins to move. The dirty sheets peel back to reveal a naked man. Save for the fact that his eyes are missing, there is nothing to indicate that the man is dead. Indeed, the squirming in his throat, making his head move as though he were having a nightmare, gives a distinct impression of a man asleep. Only when his mouth peels back, revealing his chattering teeth, does anything appear to be amiss. With incredible force, the teeth, like tiny, white bullets, begin to shoot out one by one, as gray roots erupt from the man’s throat.

Like some great, molting insect, the man’s skin adapts a grey hue and starts to dry up and slip from his body. His veins, no longer red, look like pulsing rivers of lava, orange and hot. The veins convulse violently, their contents gush out and leak into the mildewed floor.

CRACK.

The man’s jaw breaks as a large plant slithers out of his mouth. Five stygian petals, like the limbs of a man, bob up and down. The black flower dances upon the chest of the dead man and the Dark Hill, after months of starvation, is finally satiated.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by ErrBane in portal Simon & Schuster
The Black Orchid
Ch 1: A Seed is Planted

Blackened reeds bow to a gentle breeze. An emerald sky, rife with dark clouds, looms above. The stench of dried blood clings to the air—the hill is going to get another sacrifice, and it is glad.

The Dark Hill sits on the outskirts of the city of Arcana, its once vibrant veldt now a dreary shell of its former self: weeds choke the life from every tree and shrub, withering them away to nothing more than feeble stumps; blood spilled upon its once fertile soil has seeped into the ground, staining the grass black and the earth red; the melodious ditty of a hundred woodland creatures has been snuffed away and replaced by the faint shrieking of restless souls.

Along the crest of this dark, dreary hill is a very decrepit house, Mildred Manor, a thing made in the old Victorian style with broken shutters and crumbling steeples. From that home, that magnet of the macabre, comes most of the Dark Hill’s fetid food, the crimson elixir that smirches its once pristine grounds. Over the years, the house, cursed as it is, has become a nexus for grisly actions, each more gruesome and sinister than the last.
Every night, as the sun surrenders the skies to the moon, warbled screams, like some terrible lullaby, escape from the awful house. Many believe the sound to be a desperate call from the lonely manor, a dreadful bugle call only those with ill intent in their hearts can decipher.

On this terrible night, lonely and cold, as the sun’s final rays retreat into the horizon, one such soul heeds that call.

Cloaked in tatters as black as the grass upon which he walks, he carries a large bundle wrapped in dirty, yellowed sheets. This bundle, tightly wound, contours around a very human shape.

Up and up and up the hill he goes, coming to a stop in front of the mold filled door of the manor. He looks up at the broken steeples and the shattered windows. He takes a professional interest on the mark above the front door, the mark of Everything You Touch, the sign of the curse that plagues Mildred’s Manor—a decrepit, hovering hand with jagged lines radiating from it, and covering the whole exterior of the house.
With undue brutality, he kicks the front door, shattering it. Splinters fly in all directions. Upon entering, he staggers momentarily, as the cursed floor slants awkwardly to the left. Regaining his footing, he moves towards a vast, empty room on his right.
Awkward angles fill the room as the doorframe, fireplace, and windows are all slightly crooked. On the ceiling hangs a gangly, crooked mess of speckled bronze, a chandelier. Plumes of dust erupt every time the man takes a step.

Disgusted by the thing he carries, the man drops the bundle at his feet. From his pocket he removes a crystal vial, the liquid contents of which are suspended one over the other, orange and black, like water over oil. He shakes the vial until the contents fuse together. A bubbling sludge forms within the vial, and this the man pours over the top end of the bundle. Bubbles quiver and explode, others percolate through the dirty cloth. The man waits for some moments, making sure that the whole mixture soaks into the grimy sheets. When this is done, he exits the room.Ancient planks groan as he steps out of the room and throws away the vial in his hand. With a loud crash, it shatters upon a wall.

Once outside, the man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gem in the shape of a tiny lion. With the gem in hand, he starts to swing his wrist, like a cowboy about to rope cattle. With each revolution, the gem fills with a dim, silver glow. The man raises his arm over his head and, with a snap of his hand, causes a flurry of silver flames to erupt from the crystal. The flames do not burn the mildewed wood of Mildred’s Manor—instead, the silver sparks seep into every wall, every window of the house.

The man flinches as silver flames make the crystal vibrate in his hands, breaking with an audible snap. He begins to massage his hurt hand, but he quickly forgets his pain. He takes a few steps back to survey his work.

Like a shattering clock revealing all its gears, the house creaks and cracks, its bricks, wood, and glass all suspended in the air. Each of its pieces begin to shuffle around in a blur of motion. The house seems to breathe as all the debris expands inward and outward. Suddenly, as though nothing has happened, each segment falls back into place. Every piece lays peacefully at rest for some moments. But as the man begins to walk away, the house once more splits into its component parts, caught in a never ending loop.

Inside the shifting walls of the house, the bundle begins to move. The dirty sheets peel back to reveal a naked man. Save for the fact that his eyes are missing, there is nothing to indicate that the man is dead. Indeed, the squirming in his throat, making his head move as though he were having a nightmare, gives a distinct impression of a man asleep. Only when his mouth peels back, revealing his chattering teeth, does anything appear to be amiss. With incredible force, the teeth, like tiny, white bullets, begin to shoot out one by one, as gray roots erupt from the man’s throat.

Like some great, molting insect, the man’s skin adapts a grey hue and starts to dry up and slip from his body. His veins, no longer red, look like pulsing rivers of lava, orange and hot. The veins convulse violently, their contents gush out and leak into the mildewed floor.

CRACK.

The man’s jaw breaks as a large plant slithers out of his mouth. Five stygian petals, like the limbs of a man, bob up and down. The black flower dances upon the chest of the dead man and the Dark Hill, after months of starvation, is finally satiated.
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Written by EBJohnson in portal Simon & Schuster

The Pieces In-Between: A Novel of Anne Boleyn (Prologue)

Anne clasped the tiny silver cross tightly in her hand. She could feel the soft silver drinking in the heat of her sweating palm. She felt as if she was burning up from the inside out, though the morning was still cool and brisk in the shadow of the Tower Yard. She looked out at the sea of faces that stared back at her. For some reason, she could not seem to make out any of the features of the men and women whose affixed on her now.

For half a heartbeat, she thought she saw the smiling face of George looking back at her from one of the back rows, but it was just another blank face that she could not name. 

Her heart caught in her throat.

“Good Christian people,” Anne began, her voice wavering faintly, “I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.” The lump in her throat thickened. Her head began to spin. Anne felt the bile rise up within her.

“I come here only to die, and thus yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord.” Henry's face swam in her mind's eye.

Anne imagined the look on his face when he had held princess Elizabeth for the first time, and the time, after the first miscarriage, when he had held her in his arms. Anne saw them, young and hopeful and happy, walking along the Thames and she pictured them in all the little secret places only they had known. Anne’s knees began to shake, but she managed to hold herself upright. They would get the benefit of her death today, but they would not have her dignity from her.

In the crowd, she spotted the grizzled face of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Today, he wore a mask of seeming indifference. The face of his wife beside him was a mirror of his. Standing next to one another, wrapped in their furs and velvets, they looked like a pair of beautifully draped gargoyles, frozen in stone and unhappiness. Anne broke her search and looked up to the crenelated tops of the tower. A small yellow bird lit suddenly from the top of the western wall and flew into the clouded blue sky. Anne took a deep breath.

“I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of this earth…”

It took every ounce of Anne’s strength not to retch over the words. If only they knew the true depth of Henry’s shallow, craven truth. She suspected many of them did know, and even now would not face it. Or worse yet, they were happily complacent in it. It was easier to stand quietly out of the way when the shadow of the axe was upon your enemy.

Anne searched the sky for the little yellow bird.

“If in my life I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone for the same.” She looked out into the audience and locked eyes with the Duke of Suffolk. Why had she never seen that darkness before? It was there, she saw plainly now. Dancing, just beneath the surface.

“I blame not my judges, nor any other manner of person, nor anything save the cruel law of this land by which I die…” she was coming to end of the speech, she knew, but her heart gave a flutter, and she suddenly realised she was not ready to die. Anne was not ready to give up her soul into the keeping of the silence. She wavered, and for a moment, it seemed that she would faint. She heard the intake of breath behind her, as her ladies stepped forward anxiously wary that she should fall.

Suddenly, Anne saw the rose garden before her in her mind, and she could see him there, standing in the warm, golden light of the sun. Her fear evaporated from her. The fire roared in her belly, that great monster unfurling itself one last time in a show of the injustice that broke over her.

“And so I submit to death with good will,” she said loudly, defiantly, “humbly asking pardon of all the world.” This would be her last stand, the last thing people would say of her. As soon as the deed was finished and her blood was sprayed warm across the dusty scaffold, one of theses great lords, perhaps her uncle, would run to Henry and tell him all — down to the last gory detail.

Anne knew that, even now, Henry was off hunting in the field with Mistress Seymour and her brothers. One of the women here in the Tower with her had told her that Jane had already picked out her wedding dress. She had taken everything from Anne, and Henry along with her. They had taken her family, her power, her love. They had taken what little happiness she had. Anne would not let them have this final victory. Drawing herself up tall, her chin raised to the lords of the crowd, she finished her speech.

“If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me. To God I commend my soul.”

The little crucifix seemed to throb in her hand as she stepped back from the edge of the scaffold and positioned herself in the center, amid the fresh pile of sawdust. She knelt slowly, moving as if her entire body were no more than one ornate piece of porcelain. Lady Kingston stepped forward with her other ladies and, slowly, they removed Anne’s fine hood and her jewelry. For just a moment, Anne’s proud main of thick black hair cascaded down her back, and she heard an audible sigh escape the audience at the sight of it. Her ladies worked quickly to fit her head with the plain white linen cap, hastily stuffing the thick waves of her hair beneath it. Anne would have no glory in these final moments. That would be Henry's greatest wish.

Their work done, they stepped back from Anne, and resumed their places behind the stout clergyman who was attending her death. A creak from behind startled her, and Anne turned her head suddenly around, expecting to see the flash of the sword upon her. It was just the headsman, who was walking forward to kneel beside her.

“Do you forgive me?” he whispered to her, the English words rolling awkwardly off his ungainly French tongue. Anne was relieved to detect no hint of drink on his breath. Perhaps this would be painless.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Anne stated back grandly. She quickly handed him the little purse her ladies had put into her hand after removing her fine fur half-cloak. She saw no sword in his hand, as he nodded to her resolutely and slowly rose.

Anne clasped her hands in front of her chest, the tiny silver crucifix concealed inside. She closed her eyes and lowered her face. Please God, have mercy on my soul. Sweet Jesus, please have mercy on my soul. Her lips moved along with the silent mutterings of her hasty prayer. The words of the priest rolled on behind her, her brain straining and tripping suddenly over the familiar latin. Through the fog that filled her brain, she strained for the swish of the sword.

The Tower yard was quiet save for the flapping of the royal standards that flew proudly from the battlements above. Please Christ, have mercy on my soul. Anne could feel the whitening of her knuckles as the blood flowed away from her slender fingers in the desperation of their clasp. Something was wrong, it was taking too long. She opened her eyes, and looked back at the swordsman.

“I told them to keep her facing forward,” she heard the swordsman mutter to himself in French. There was still no sword in his hand. Behind her, one of her ladies started crying. 

It is a little late now for sentiment, she thought wildly. 

Anne snapped her head forward, her eyes scanning the crowd once again. Somewhere, deep inside her, a hopeless, romantic fool was looking for the face of the King in the Crowd. Even now, when she sat knelt in position for her death, she expected Henry to burst forward and rescue her. As he always had.

There was a creak behind her as the swordsman took a step forward, and Anne’s head turned to face him again. Run, another voice said suddenly inside her head. Stand up and run. What if you can make it? What if you can fight them and fly free?

Suddenly, just beyond the audience, a glint of yellow caught her eye.

There, on the top of the imposing White Tower, perched the tiny yellow bird. He was only a small yellow dash against the bright blue of the sky now. His glinting golden shape sat frozen, as if he too were watching, in horror, the unprecedented scene that unfolded within the walls of the Tower. The little bird sat still, like a spark of light in the midst of a nightmare. Anne watched him from atop her scaffold, sitting almost tranquilly along the crenellations. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Dear Lord, please have mercy on my soul, her lips moved silently. A sense of calm washed over her...

                                                                                                    

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by EBJohnson in portal Simon & Schuster
The Pieces In-Between: A Novel of Anne Boleyn (Prologue)
Anne clasped the tiny silver cross tightly in her hand. She could feel the soft silver drinking in the heat of her sweating palm. She felt as if she was burning up from the inside out, though the morning was still cool and brisk in the shadow of the Tower Yard. She looked out at the sea of faces that stared back at her. For some reason, she could not seem to make out any of the features of the men and women whose affixed on her now.
For half a heartbeat, she thought she saw the smiling face of George looking back at her from one of the back rows, but it was just another blank face that she could not name. 

Her heart caught in her throat.

“Good Christian people,” Anne began, her voice wavering faintly, “I am come hither to die, according to law, for by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it.” The lump in her throat thickened. Her head began to spin. Anne felt the bile rise up within her.

“I come here only to die, and thus yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord.” Henry's face swam in her mind's eye.

Anne imagined the look on his face when he had held princess Elizabeth for the first time, and the time, after the first miscarriage, when he had held her in his arms. Anne saw them, young and hopeful and happy, walking along the Thames and she pictured them in all the little secret places only they had known. Anne’s knees began to shake, but she managed to hold herself upright. They would get the benefit of her death today, but they would not have her dignity from her.

In the crowd, she spotted the grizzled face of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Today, he wore a mask of seeming indifference. The face of his wife beside him was a mirror of his. Standing next to one another, wrapped in their furs and velvets, they looked like a pair of beautifully draped gargoyles, frozen in stone and unhappiness. Anne broke her search and looked up to the crenelated tops of the tower. A small yellow bird lit suddenly from the top of the western wall and flew into the clouded blue sky. Anne took a deep breath.

“I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of this earth…”

It took every ounce of Anne’s strength not to retch over the words. If only they knew the true depth of Henry’s shallow, craven truth. She suspected many of them did know, and even now would not face it. Or worse yet, they were happily complacent in it. It was easier to stand quietly out of the way when the shadow of the axe was upon your enemy.

Anne searched the sky for the little yellow bird.

“If in my life I did ever offend the King’s Grace, surely with my death I do now atone for the same.” She looked out into the audience and locked eyes with the Duke of Suffolk. Why had she never seen that darkness before? It was there, she saw plainly now. Dancing, just beneath the surface.

“I blame not my judges, nor any other manner of person, nor anything save the cruel law of this land by which I die…” she was coming to end of the speech, she knew, but her heart gave a flutter, and she suddenly realised she was not ready to die. Anne was not ready to give up her soul into the keeping of the silence. She wavered, and for a moment, it seemed that she would faint. She heard the intake of breath behind her, as her ladies stepped forward anxiously wary that she should fall.

Suddenly, Anne saw the rose garden before her in her mind, and she could see him there, standing in the warm, golden light of the sun. Her fear evaporated from her. The fire roared in her belly, that great monster unfurling itself one last time in a show of the injustice that broke over her.

“And so I submit to death with good will,” she said loudly, defiantly, “humbly asking pardon of all the world.” This would be her last stand, the last thing people would say of her. As soon as the deed was finished and her blood was sprayed warm across the dusty scaffold, one of theses great lords, perhaps her uncle, would run to Henry and tell him all — down to the last gory detail.

Anne knew that, even now, Henry was off hunting in the field with Mistress Seymour and her brothers. One of the women here in the Tower with her had told her that Jane had already picked out her wedding dress. She had taken everything from Anne, and Henry along with her. They had taken her family, her power, her love. They had taken what little happiness she had. Anne would not let them have this final victory. Drawing herself up tall, her chin raised to the lords of the crowd, she finished her speech.

“If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. Oh Lord, have mercy on me. To God I commend my soul.”

The little crucifix seemed to throb in her hand as she stepped back from the edge of the scaffold and positioned herself in the center, amid the fresh pile of sawdust. She knelt slowly, moving as if her entire body were no more than one ornate piece of porcelain. Lady Kingston stepped forward with her other ladies and, slowly, they removed Anne’s fine hood and her jewelry. For just a moment, Anne’s proud main of thick black hair cascaded down her back, and she heard an audible sigh escape the audience at the sight of it. Her ladies worked quickly to fit her head with the plain white linen cap, hastily stuffing the thick waves of her hair beneath it. Anne would have no glory in these final moments. That would be Henry's greatest wish.

Their work done, they stepped back from Anne, and resumed their places behind the stout clergyman who was attending her death. A creak from behind startled her, and Anne turned her head suddenly around, expecting to see the flash of the sword upon her. It was just the headsman, who was walking forward to kneel beside her.

“Do you forgive me?” he whispered to her, the English words rolling awkwardly off his ungainly French tongue. Anne was relieved to detect no hint of drink on his breath. Perhaps this would be painless.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Anne stated back grandly. She quickly handed him the little purse her ladies had put into her hand after removing her fine fur half-cloak. She saw no sword in his hand, as he nodded to her resolutely and slowly rose.

Anne clasped her hands in front of her chest, the tiny silver crucifix concealed inside. She closed her eyes and lowered her face. Please God, have mercy on my soul. Sweet Jesus, please have mercy on my soul. Her lips moved along with the silent mutterings of her hasty prayer. The words of the priest rolled on behind her, her brain straining and tripping suddenly over the familiar latin. Through the fog that filled her brain, she strained for the swish of the sword.

The Tower yard was quiet save for the flapping of the royal standards that flew proudly from the battlements above. Please Christ, have mercy on my soul. Anne could feel the whitening of her knuckles as the blood flowed away from her slender fingers in the desperation of their clasp. Something was wrong, it was taking too long. She opened her eyes, and looked back at the swordsman.

“I told them to keep her facing forward,” she heard the swordsman mutter to himself in French. There was still no sword in his hand. Behind her, one of her ladies started crying. 

It is a little late now for sentiment, she thought wildly. 

Anne snapped her head forward, her eyes scanning the crowd once again. Somewhere, deep inside her, a hopeless, romantic fool was looking for the face of the King in the Crowd. Even now, when she sat knelt in position for her death, she expected Henry to burst forward and rescue her. As he always had.

There was a creak behind her as the swordsman took a step forward, and Anne’s head turned to face him again. Run, another voice said suddenly inside her head. Stand up and run. What if you can make it? What if you can fight them and fly free?

Suddenly, just beyond the audience, a glint of yellow caught her eye.

There, on the top of the imposing White Tower, perched the tiny yellow bird. He was only a small yellow dash against the bright blue of the sky now. His glinting golden shape sat frozen, as if he too were watching, in horror, the unprecedented scene that unfolded within the walls of the Tower. The little bird sat still, like a spark of light in the midst of a nightmare. Anne watched him from atop her scaffold, sitting almost tranquilly along the crenellations. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Dear Lord, please have mercy on my soul, her lips moved silently. A sense of calm washed over her...

                                                                                                    

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by wordybee in portal Simon & Schuster

Floral Eden

I could tell by the way he’d accepted my offer for tea that he didn’t really want it. He’d said, Yes, fine, to me and followed me into the kitchen – not his first act of boorishness, but perhaps the clearest sign that he had been raised without regard to the proper handling of things. Decency states that the guest remains seated while the hostess prepares tea. Here I thought everyone knew that bumbling into a kitchen after a woman of quality as she attempted to perform entertaining duties was known to be rude. Evidently, I was wrong.

Do you take sugar in your tea? I asked, as was polite, and tried my best not to look put off by his presence in my kitchen. He held up a hand with five dingy fingers splayed outward – five lumps of sugar, really? I decided to brew the cheap stuff. If he wasn’t going to drink tea pure, I wasn’t going to provide good tea. I set the sugar bowl on my tea tray with, I thought, a remarkable degree of good-mannered acceptance.

He did not suit my house. His calloused, soiled hands did not look right as they pulled my fine china teacups from the cabinet. I could see the dirt beneath is fingernails, ten brown crescents that made my skin crawl, their filthiness contrasting with the vivid beauty of the tea set’s painted flowers and gold accents. He fiddled with them, fiddled with the sugar, fiddled with everything in the kitchen until I couldn’t stand it anymore, imagining the grungy fingerprints he was leaving behind on every surface. I told him twice to wash his hands, as tactfully as possible, but he ignored me.

No use now, he said, with his filthy hands clutched around the handles of my best tea tray. No use, indeed.

Please have a seat in the salon, I told him. Manners were, after all, the most obvious sign of civility.

That is where we are sitting now as I stir my tea and he stirs his. I added one chunk of high-quality, raw sugar to my tea – a reasonable amount, I believe – because the cheap tea is no good without, no matter how perfectly I brew it.

With his ill-fitting jacket and poor posture, he looks no better in the salon than he did in the kitchen. He’s slouched against my floral sofa, probably smudging grime into the fabric, and I must remember to inform the maid to pay special attention to the sofa when she cleans in the morning. There is a scar that slits across his left eyebrow and his face is ruddy with too much sun, or too much drink, or too much time in disreputable establishments. His hands, I notice now, have the tell-tale signs of a recent fight on the knuckles – a day or so ago, perhaps. There is an absolute brute, a barely-tamed animal, drinking tea in my salon, and the look of him against the beauty of my home is striking. I want to make him disappear.

“Would you like anything to eat?” I ask him, swallowing a mouthful of tea and congratulating myself on adhering to the laws of polite society, unlike the slouching monstrosity across from me.

He doesn’t bother with politeness. He just laughs through his nose and keeps stirring his tea. He’s been stirring since he sat down and the clink, clink, clink of the spoon against the china has my nerves on end. I can feel a warm, simmering feeling of irritation rising in my chest and heating my face. I breathe deeply, sipping my tea in an effort to keep my emotions at bay.

“Is there anything else you would like, then?” Why are you here, is what I’m asking, and what do I need to give you to get you to leave?

There’s a smirk on his face and he sets his teacup and saucer down on the low coffee table before him. I see that he has sloshed tea into the saucer, and can barely draw breath past my irritation.

“I understand you knew him,” he says.

The question catches me off guard and I practically cough, “I’m sorry?”

I’m not faking ignorance. I truly don’t understand what he means.

“It was easier than I thought to kill a man,” he says, as casually as one would remark on the possibility of rain or a recent trip to the grocery store for half-priced tomatoes. But those words on his chapped lips, in his coarse voice, are the only things he’s said which have suited him, in all the time he’s been here.

I do not say anything in response. I take another, nervous sip of my tea. He stares into the middle distance before him, stares back in time to when he—

“—wrapped a scarf around his throat and just pulled. It was done in moments, but I kept pulling – to make sure, you see. He deserved it, of course – terrible man. But you knew that, didn’t you? Yes, yes, that’s all old news to you. And how did you manage to get to know him?”

His voice is pointed, more here than it had been before, when he’d been answering nothing questions about tea. His eyes are still focused on the past as he gazes beyond me, and through my own stark realization – the flushing heat that crawls up my limbs in itching, burning trails – I recognize something like resolution in his faraway gaze. It’s the look of a man who understands his actions and would never feel the need to apologize for them.

I cannot speak. I am not sure what I would say if I could.

“Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure it out,” he is saying. His voice echoes inside my skull, wraps itself around my head, fills my salon and my house and the whole of my world. It dances through the air and flirts with the wafting lace of my fine, white curtains, and I can see beams of gloriously gold afternoon light striking my honey-colored hardwood floors in the most luscious way. Everything is so much brighter, isn’t it?

My tongue is swelling.

“A moron like that?” He is still talking. I wish I could shut my eyes, because the brightness of the room around me has become too much to bear and I can feel them watering. And because his eyes have begun to focus on the present again. They lock on me – piercing blue, and so terrible. “I knew he had to be working for someone. Someone to give him orders, to tell him who to kill… How to kill them… How best to taunt the surviving family…”

I’ve dropped my teacup. I hope that it won’t stain.

“So, yes – easier than I thought, killing a man.”

I do not see where my cup has fallen. My vision has tunneled so that he is all I can see, a vignette of wrath and vengeance feigning calmness framed by the striped pattern of my antique rose wallpaper. He truly does not belong.

He smiles, and it’s a cruel smile. “I do think killing a woman has been even easier, though.”

He rises from the sofa as I fall back in my chair. My hands vainly clutch at my throat, as if I could draw the poison from myself with a light massage.

“She was mine,” says a voice, the voice of a brutish and ill-mannered man I can no longer see. The entire world is black splotched with bright white, and then there is his voice – his calm fury adds color. I can feel, in the most nebulous sense, a hand on my shoulder, a feigned mimicry of a comforting gesture. “You had no right to take her from me.”

There is a part of me that respects him for this. Poisoning me in my own house, with my own tea! Truly, no other human being would have the nerve.

I know he leaves, but I do not hear him.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by wordybee in portal Simon & Schuster
Floral Eden
I could tell by the way he’d accepted my offer for tea that he didn’t really want it. He’d said, Yes, fine, to me and followed me into the kitchen – not his first act of boorishness, but perhaps the clearest sign that he had been raised without regard to the proper handling of things. Decency states that the guest remains seated while the hostess prepares tea. Here I thought everyone knew that bumbling into a kitchen after a woman of quality as she attempted to perform entertaining duties was known to be rude. Evidently, I was wrong.

Do you take sugar in your tea? I asked, as was polite, and tried my best not to look put off by his presence in my kitchen. He held up a hand with five dingy fingers splayed outward – five lumps of sugar, really? I decided to brew the cheap stuff. If he wasn’t going to drink tea pure, I wasn’t going to provide good tea. I set the sugar bowl on my tea tray with, I thought, a remarkable degree of good-mannered acceptance.

He did not suit my house. His calloused, soiled hands did not look right as they pulled my fine china teacups from the cabinet. I could see the dirt beneath is fingernails, ten brown crescents that made my skin crawl, their filthiness contrasting with the vivid beauty of the tea set’s painted flowers and gold accents. He fiddled with them, fiddled with the sugar, fiddled with everything in the kitchen until I couldn’t stand it anymore, imagining the grungy fingerprints he was leaving behind on every surface. I told him twice to wash his hands, as tactfully as possible, but he ignored me.

No use now, he said, with his filthy hands clutched around the handles of my best tea tray. No use, indeed.

Please have a seat in the salon, I told him. Manners were, after all, the most obvious sign of civility.

That is where we are sitting now as I stir my tea and he stirs his. I added one chunk of high-quality, raw sugar to my tea – a reasonable amount, I believe – because the cheap tea is no good without, no matter how perfectly I brew it.

With his ill-fitting jacket and poor posture, he looks no better in the salon than he did in the kitchen. He’s slouched against my floral sofa, probably smudging grime into the fabric, and I must remember to inform the maid to pay special attention to the sofa when she cleans in the morning. There is a scar that slits across his left eyebrow and his face is ruddy with too much sun, or too much drink, or too much time in disreputable establishments. His hands, I notice now, have the tell-tale signs of a recent fight on the knuckles – a day or so ago, perhaps. There is an absolute brute, a barely-tamed animal, drinking tea in my salon, and the look of him against the beauty of my home is striking. I want to make him disappear.

“Would you like anything to eat?” I ask him, swallowing a mouthful of tea and congratulating myself on adhering to the laws of polite society, unlike the slouching monstrosity across from me.

He doesn’t bother with politeness. He just laughs through his nose and keeps stirring his tea. He’s been stirring since he sat down and the clink, clink, clink of the spoon against the china has my nerves on end. I can feel a warm, simmering feeling of irritation rising in my chest and heating my face. I breathe deeply, sipping my tea in an effort to keep my emotions at bay.

“Is there anything else you would like, then?” Why are you here, is what I’m asking, and what do I need to give you to get you to leave?

There’s a smirk on his face and he sets his teacup and saucer down on the low coffee table before him. I see that he has sloshed tea into the saucer, and can barely draw breath past my irritation.

“I understand you knew him,” he says.

The question catches me off guard and I practically cough, “I’m sorry?”

I’m not faking ignorance. I truly don’t understand what he means.

“It was easier than I thought to kill a man,” he says, as casually as one would remark on the possibility of rain or a recent trip to the grocery store for half-priced tomatoes. But those words on his chapped lips, in his coarse voice, are the only things he’s said which have suited him, in all the time he’s been here.

I do not say anything in response. I take another, nervous sip of my tea. He stares into the middle distance before him, stares back in time to when he—

“—wrapped a scarf around his throat and just pulled. It was done in moments, but I kept pulling – to make sure, you see. He deserved it, of course – terrible man. But you knew that, didn’t you? Yes, yes, that’s all old news to you. And how did you manage to get to know him?”

His voice is pointed, more here than it had been before, when he’d been answering nothing questions about tea. His eyes are still focused on the past as he gazes beyond me, and through my own stark realization – the flushing heat that crawls up my limbs in itching, burning trails – I recognize something like resolution in his faraway gaze. It’s the look of a man who understands his actions and would never feel the need to apologize for them.

I cannot speak. I am not sure what I would say if I could.

“Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure it out,” he is saying. His voice echoes inside my skull, wraps itself around my head, fills my salon and my house and the whole of my world. It dances through the air and flirts with the wafting lace of my fine, white curtains, and I can see beams of gloriously gold afternoon light striking my honey-colored hardwood floors in the most luscious way. Everything is so much brighter, isn’t it?

My tongue is swelling.

“A moron like that?” He is still talking. I wish I could shut my eyes, because the brightness of the room around me has become too much to bear and I can feel them watering. And because his eyes have begun to focus on the present again. They lock on me – piercing blue, and so terrible. “I knew he had to be working for someone. Someone to give him orders, to tell him who to kill… How to kill them… How best to taunt the surviving family…”

I’ve dropped my teacup. I hope that it won’t stain.

“So, yes – easier than I thought, killing a man.”

I do not see where my cup has fallen. My vision has tunneled so that he is all I can see, a vignette of wrath and vengeance feigning calmness framed by the striped pattern of my antique rose wallpaper. He truly does not belong.

He smiles, and it’s a cruel smile. “I do think killing a woman has been even easier, though.”

He rises from the sofa as I fall back in my chair. My hands vainly clutch at my throat, as if I could draw the poison from myself with a light massage.

“She was mine,” says a voice, the voice of a brutish and ill-mannered man I can no longer see. The entire world is black splotched with bright white, and then there is his voice – his calm fury adds color. I can feel, in the most nebulous sense, a hand on my shoulder, a feigned mimicry of a comforting gesture. “You had no right to take her from me.”

There is a part of me that respects him for this. Poisoning me in my own house, with my own tea! Truly, no other human being would have the nerve.

I know he leaves, but I do not hear him.
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Written by desmondwrite in portal Simon & Schuster

The Opening Pages of "Iron Abbie"

A bird landed on the sill and cheeped. It was a pretty thing, mostly brown with a few blue and yellow feathers like scales on a fish. Abigail sat very still and peered over, not wanting to startle it, and noticed that the poor bird had a padlock stuck on its head—the metal hook, like a curled finger, wrapped around its neck. The padlock was small and silver and it gave the bird a noble look, but it was obvious the bird was suffering. Perhaps it had come to her for help?

"Don't move," said Abigail, and she ran about the house, finally returning with a coterie of keys. The bird stood patiently while she applied the metals, but none fit. Not the one to mother's jewelry-box, not the one that looked like a skeletal finger, not the golden one for the shelf beneath the peering glass, not the one to father's desk. Finally, Abigail went down into the foyer and with some hesitation pulled the key to the front door from her father's spare coat. It was shaped like an F and it fit into the padlock. Liberated, the bird flew out the window, soaring over bowler hats and stone heads to the park across the road. From a branch it looked back, then was gone.

Any euphoria Abigail might have felt quickly dwindled as she realized she was alone again. She scooped up the keys and returned them to their places. Her excitement returned when she thought about telling mother, but then what if father found out? She could imagine him now: plopped on the dining chair, black rings under his eyes, his traveling cloak unfurled over the furniture and his necktie hanging like a beaten snake. And that voice, hissing: “What if the bird had flown off with the key, tossing our spare to strangers?” Then he’d look to mother: “She gets this from you, you know.”

Abigail kicked the closet door hiding Dolly, and went back to her sill—

—to find the bird had returned. Then it was gone, zipping to a lamp post, before it came back and cheeped. Abigial was well acquainted with fairy tales and this seemed a particularly obvious invitation. But should she follow? The parents would be home in a few hours and Dolly might tell. Besides, Abigail would have preferred deserts and duels, dust devils and dragons, although one cannot be picky about childhood adventures.

Down below, a golem – painted yellow to indicate a schoolteacher – led a retinue of children along the fence. Each child was licking a lump of candy-fire crackling in their hands, getting sugary ash around their mouths. They must have visited the carnival. Abigail sighed. She was forbidden to go into the yard. By extension, she was forbidden the street and the park across it. Unless she did something, this was going to be another day spent in her bedroom.

“Well,” said Abigail, clenching a fist around the padlock. “It was the key to the front door.”

* * *

It’s not that Abigail Rollins did not like watching golems. They were an interesting lot to spy on from the security of a high window. Regular people walked hunched over with cloaks and coats thrown over them. Hiding identities, purposes. They looked like passing shadows. But amidst their turbulent wake were golems, animated boulders carved into the likeness of men, expressionless but alive. They came in all shapes and sizes, some painted, some intricately carved. While man confined himself to dark materials, his creations abounded.

She had her own golem, a doll with real hair. It was also her sitter. While her parents worked, Dolly kept house. But she wasn’t good with children. Whenever Abigail wanted to play cowboys and warlocks, Dolly would hide in the closet. Dolly didn’t like Abigail that much.

Neither did father. He didn’t care for a daughter who wanted to be a cowboy. For now, she needed tutorship and manners and fashionable clothes like those worn by ladies in the Arcade. Father’s intentions were never hidden. Politics crept even into bedtime stories, where brave princesses raised their families' statuses by marrying corpulent princes. Abigail would catch his eye when she was old enough to be used in the Court. She would be involved.

But for now, Abigail enjoyed some independence in the house. Too old for nurseries, too young for university or betrothal, she would sit and ponder passerby, or if she was really bored, the trees in the park across the road. Or she’d read the pennybacks mother would give her. They were westerns with titles like Lightfroth Mountain Trail and A Fistful of Soulgems. Stories about princesses turned into swans bored her—she preferred daring escapes from lynch mobs and prairie children kidnapped by shapeshifting natives. Father considered these novels so beneath him to the point of not considering them, but maybe he should have, for they were influencing her ambitions. Already she'd decided she'd someday be Iron Abbie, exploring the Unmade Plains with a six-shooter named Rusty and a horse named Steve.

Until then, she watched, sitting up whenever she saw someone in leathers or grime-brown wools, or wearing a zandy hat with a pinched front, to wonder if they were visitors from the West. Once she saw a golem in a white duster, carrying four pistols with pearl grips. He rode a horse ponderously, looking back and forth at the houses. Mostly the streets were a swish of dark coats, silk dresses, parasols, and golems with plates as colorful as stained glass. The West only peered into the city. Like her, it did not belong.

But today, she would explore.

Abigail made her fists into guns. “Show yourself!” she called from the stairs. “I know you’re down there, Dangerous Doll McGrew.”

“Abigail, I’m busy,” a voice replied, followed by quick steps and the shutting of a door.

Abigail listened to the silence, then went down into the foyer.

* * *

From her window, there was order to the street currents, but down here the wrapped gentry and carriages whisked and rattled and tromped, delivering a panache of smells – garbage, factory smoke, fungus, mint, and salt. A moment’s hesitation, a lost footing, and she’d be shipped to the docks or clattered against cobblestones.

The bird flew across the road. Abigail wondered – no, reckoned, that was a better word for a cowboy – if it was leading her to the park.

“Out of my way!” she shouted, barreling into the crowd. She slipped ahead of pewter cherubs carrying chalices lined with red stones, and in front of chatting and laughing women, their eyes sliding over her quickly. A driver shouted at her when he had to pull his stone spider to an abrupt halt, the cart almost shattering against spinnerets, and distracted, Abigail smacked into a golem.

“Sorry, Jack!” she said, getting up. The golem glanced up and down the street, then picked her up gently and put her down by the park.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said, but it was gone.

The park fence was comprised of iron-blue bars choked by twisting yellow vines. Trees tall as smokestacks and just as dirty loomed overhead. Not seeing a gate, Abigail slipped through the fence and tread down a footpath. She'd been here many times with mother and wasn't afraid of being lost, but she did not want to lose sight of the bird, even if she had some doubts about whether it was truly summoning her. Perhaps all of this adventure was the fault of her imagination – that faculty her father called a ruinous power.

The trees ended and she entered a field of dead grass. The bird hopped onto a bough nearby and looked about, as if unsure of where to go. Ahead, on a small hill, was a sleeping giant – a plainstone golem sitting against a blue boulder.

"Is this where you meant to bring me?" asked Abigail. The bird looked at her. She was sure that if birds could shrug, this one's wings would pop off. "Well, I'm investigating anyway."

Iron Abbie approached the golem, finger pistols drawn. The golem had its head down as if it were sleeping, a bright yellow star painted on its chest. Nearby, a sack’s stomach had exploded, spilling a collection of empty liquor bottles.

A light flickered in the golem’s eye for a moment, before going out.

“Hands to the sky!” Abbie shouted when she was near enough. The golem sat up, sputtering.

“Huh? What?”

“What were you doing?” said Abbie, sticking Rusty right into its painted chest.

“Taking a nap,” said the golem. Its two eyes, lit like candles, pointed directly toward her. The golem slowly put its hands up in mock surrender.

“But golems can’t sleep.”

“Well, I didn’t know that.”

Abbie put Rusty down. “Seriously, what’s your deal, Jack?”

“The name’s not Jack.”

“But every golem’s name is Jack. There's cityjacks, housejacks, warjacks... Or are you a doll?"

“The name’s Loon,” it said.

“That’s a stupid name,” Abigail thought aloud.

“I agree,” said the golem. “It’s loony.”

“Oh, you’re like a person!" said Abigail. She was liking the personality of this one far more than her timid housekeeper or the faceless guards that protected father. It was clever, and funny, like how she imagined an older brother would be. "Can I keep you?”

The golem rubbed the back of its neck, suddenly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t make a very good pet,” he said delicately.

“Why not?” asked Abigail.

“I’m not house trained.”

Abigail laughed again. "You are well-named, Jack." Then she had had an idea. “Play oracles and outlaws with me! Or summoners and scoundrels.”

“Gunslingers and goblins?” suggested the golem.

“I dub thee Deputy Starchest,” said Abbie. “I’m a Marshall, see? Been hunting a dragon rider who’s been breathing trains from here to Lincoln, New Mexico.”

“Deputy Starchest,” said Loon. “The slowest gun in the west.” He sluggishly held up his hand, fingers pointing like a gun, and after a long, dramatic pause, said, “Pew.”

“Whoa, partner,” said Abbie. “Easy with that pistol."

"Good thing my bullets take an hour to leave their barrel.”

And that’s how they played while the sun rolled gently down the sky. Just as it was blurring into pinks and oranges, a woman stood on top of the boulder – a woman with fizzy brown hair like a bottle opened too quickly, and brown skin, and black eyes, and black rings under those eyes. She had – Abigail noticed excitedly – a blue bandanna and a trim frock coat.

The golem stopped, his hands dropping to his sides. “What is it?”

“What do you think?” said the woman. “I need booze. Something aged in a barrel. My head feels like it’s been punched through by artillery.”

“You ever think a little less alcohol might help with that?”

She gave him a look. “You know why I need it.” She nodded at Abigail and leaped off the rock, disappearing from view.

“Who was that?” asked Abigail excitedly. “Was that a warlock?”

“You should go home,” said the golem. He stared in the direction where his companion had gone, then turned back to Abigail. “You should not come back.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?” asked Abigail.

“Y-yes,” the golem admitted.

“Then I’ll be back.”

“At least do one thing for me.” The golem’s tone was serious, and Abigail quieted down. “Cael and I are not exactly on good terms with the people in this city. Keep us a secret, and you and I can play... for now. But tell anybody, even your parents, and we won’t be around anymore.” The golem’s glowing eyes peered into hers, and she nodded, affecting as mature a face as she could muster.

“I swear by the lonesome gods,” she said. “Your secret is safe.” Abigail didn't feel that was enough, that it sounded too much like the characters they'd been playing, so she added: "I promise."

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Written by desmondwrite in portal Simon & Schuster
The Opening Pages of "Iron Abbie"
A bird landed on the sill and cheeped. It was a pretty thing, mostly brown with a few blue and yellow feathers like scales on a fish. Abigail sat very still and peered over, not wanting to startle it, and noticed that the poor bird had a padlock stuck on its head—the metal hook, like a curled finger, wrapped around its neck. The padlock was small and silver and it gave the bird a noble look, but it was obvious the bird was suffering. Perhaps it had come to her for help?

"Don't move," said Abigail, and she ran about the house, finally returning with a coterie of keys. The bird stood patiently while she applied the metals, but none fit. Not the one to mother's jewelry-box, not the one that looked like a skeletal finger, not the golden one for the shelf beneath the peering glass, not the one to father's desk. Finally, Abigail went down into the foyer and with some hesitation pulled the key to the front door from her father's spare coat. It was shaped like an F and it fit into the padlock. Liberated, the bird flew out the window, soaring over bowler hats and stone heads to the park across the road. From a branch it looked back, then was gone.

Any euphoria Abigail might have felt quickly dwindled as she realized she was alone again. She scooped up the keys and returned them to their places. Her excitement returned when she thought about telling mother, but then what if father found out? She could imagine him now: plopped on the dining chair, black rings under his eyes, his traveling cloak unfurled over the furniture and his necktie hanging like a beaten snake. And that voice, hissing: “What if the bird had flown off with the key, tossing our spare to strangers?” Then he’d look to mother: “She gets this from you, you know.”

Abigail kicked the closet door hiding Dolly, and went back to her sill—

—to find the bird had returned. Then it was gone, zipping to a lamp post, before it came back and cheeped. Abigial was well acquainted with fairy tales and this seemed a particularly obvious invitation. But should she follow? The parents would be home in a few hours and Dolly might tell. Besides, Abigail would have preferred deserts and duels, dust devils and dragons, although one cannot be picky about childhood adventures.

Down below, a golem – painted yellow to indicate a schoolteacher – led a retinue of children along the fence. Each child was licking a lump of candy-fire crackling in their hands, getting sugary ash around their mouths. They must have visited the carnival. Abigail sighed. She was forbidden to go into the yard. By extension, she was forbidden the street and the park across it. Unless she did something, this was going to be another day spent in her bedroom.

“Well,” said Abigail, clenching a fist around the padlock. “It was the key to the front door.”

* * *

It’s not that Abigail Rollins did not like watching golems. They were an interesting lot to spy on from the security of a high window. Regular people walked hunched over with cloaks and coats thrown over them. Hiding identities, purposes. They looked like passing shadows. But amidst their turbulent wake were golems, animated boulders carved into the likeness of men, expressionless but alive. They came in all shapes and sizes, some painted, some intricately carved. While man confined himself to dark materials, his creations abounded.

She had her own golem, a doll with real hair. It was also her sitter. While her parents worked, Dolly kept house. But she wasn’t good with children. Whenever Abigail wanted to play cowboys and warlocks, Dolly would hide in the closet. Dolly didn’t like Abigail that much.

Neither did father. He didn’t care for a daughter who wanted to be a cowboy. For now, she needed tutorship and manners and fashionable clothes like those worn by ladies in the Arcade. Father’s intentions were never hidden. Politics crept even into bedtime stories, where brave princesses raised their families' statuses by marrying corpulent princes. Abigail would catch his eye when she was old enough to be used in the Court. She would be involved.

But for now, Abigail enjoyed some independence in the house. Too old for nurseries, too young for university or betrothal, she would sit and ponder passerby, or if she was really bored, the trees in the park across the road. Or she’d read the pennybacks mother would give her. They were westerns with titles like Lightfroth Mountain Trail and A Fistful of Soulgems. Stories about princesses turned into swans bored her—she preferred daring escapes from lynch mobs and prairie children kidnapped by shapeshifting natives. Father considered these novels so beneath him to the point of not considering them, but maybe he should have, for they were influencing her ambitions. Already she'd decided she'd someday be Iron Abbie, exploring the Unmade Plains with a six-shooter named Rusty and a horse named Steve.

Until then, she watched, sitting up whenever she saw someone in leathers or grime-brown wools, or wearing a zandy hat with a pinched front, to wonder if they were visitors from the West. Once she saw a golem in a white duster, carrying four pistols with pearl grips. He rode a horse ponderously, looking back and forth at the houses. Mostly the streets were a swish of dark coats, silk dresses, parasols, and golems with plates as colorful as stained glass. The West only peered into the city. Like her, it did not belong.

But today, she would explore.

Abigail made her fists into guns. “Show yourself!” she called from the stairs. “I know you’re down there, Dangerous Doll McGrew.”

“Abigail, I’m busy,” a voice replied, followed by quick steps and the shutting of a door.

Abigail listened to the silence, then went down into the foyer.

* * *

From her window, there was order to the street currents, but down here the wrapped gentry and carriages whisked and rattled and tromped, delivering a panache of smells – garbage, factory smoke, fungus, mint, and salt. A moment’s hesitation, a lost footing, and she’d be shipped to the docks or clattered against cobblestones.

The bird flew across the road. Abigail wondered – no, reckoned, that was a better word for a cowboy – if it was leading her to the park.

“Out of my way!” she shouted, barreling into the crowd. She slipped ahead of pewter cherubs carrying chalices lined with red stones, and in front of chatting and laughing women, their eyes sliding over her quickly. A driver shouted at her when he had to pull his stone spider to an abrupt halt, the cart almost shattering against spinnerets, and distracted, Abigail smacked into a golem.

“Sorry, Jack!” she said, getting up. The golem glanced up and down the street, then picked her up gently and put her down by the park.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said, but it was gone.

The park fence was comprised of iron-blue bars choked by twisting yellow vines. Trees tall as smokestacks and just as dirty loomed overhead. Not seeing a gate, Abigail slipped through the fence and tread down a footpath. She'd been here many times with mother and wasn't afraid of being lost, but she did not want to lose sight of the bird, even if she had some doubts about whether it was truly summoning her. Perhaps all of this adventure was the fault of her imagination – that faculty her father called a ruinous power.

The trees ended and she entered a field of dead grass. The bird hopped onto a bough nearby and looked about, as if unsure of where to go. Ahead, on a small hill, was a sleeping giant – a plainstone golem sitting against a blue boulder.

"Is this where you meant to bring me?" asked Abigail. The bird looked at her. She was sure that if birds could shrug, this one's wings would pop off. "Well, I'm investigating anyway."

Iron Abbie approached the golem, finger pistols drawn. The golem had its head down as if it were sleeping, a bright yellow star painted on its chest. Nearby, a sack’s stomach had exploded, spilling a collection of empty liquor bottles.

A light flickered in the golem’s eye for a moment, before going out.

“Hands to the sky!” Abbie shouted when she was near enough. The golem sat up, sputtering.

“Huh? What?”

“What were you doing?” said Abbie, sticking Rusty right into its painted chest.

“Taking a nap,” said the golem. Its two eyes, lit like candles, pointed directly toward her. The golem slowly put its hands up in mock surrender.

“But golems can’t sleep.”

“Well, I didn’t know that.”

Abbie put Rusty down. “Seriously, what’s your deal, Jack?”

“The name’s not Jack.”

“But every golem’s name is Jack. There's cityjacks, housejacks, warjacks... Or are you a doll?"

“The name’s Loon,” it said.

“That’s a stupid name,” Abigail thought aloud.

“I agree,” said the golem. “It’s loony.”

“Oh, you’re like a person!" said Abigail. She was liking the personality of this one far more than her timid housekeeper or the faceless guards that protected father. It was clever, and funny, like how she imagined an older brother would be. "Can I keep you?”

The golem rubbed the back of its neck, suddenly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t make a very good pet,” he said delicately.

“Why not?” asked Abigail.

“I’m not house trained.”

Abigail laughed again. "You are well-named, Jack." Then she had had an idea. “Play oracles and outlaws with me! Or summoners and scoundrels.”

“Gunslingers and goblins?” suggested the golem.

“I dub thee Deputy Starchest,” said Abbie. “I’m a Marshall, see? Been hunting a dragon rider who’s been breathing trains from here to Lincoln, New Mexico.”

“Deputy Starchest,” said Loon. “The slowest gun in the west.” He sluggishly held up his hand, fingers pointing like a gun, and after a long, dramatic pause, said, “Pew.”

“Whoa, partner,” said Abbie. “Easy with that pistol."

"Good thing my bullets take an hour to leave their barrel.”

And that’s how they played while the sun rolled gently down the sky. Just as it was blurring into pinks and oranges, a woman stood on top of the boulder – a woman with fizzy brown hair like a bottle opened too quickly, and brown skin, and black eyes, and black rings under those eyes. She had – Abigail noticed excitedly – a blue bandanna and a trim frock coat.

The golem stopped, his hands dropping to his sides. “What is it?”

“What do you think?” said the woman. “I need booze. Something aged in a barrel. My head feels like it’s been punched through by artillery.”

“You ever think a little less alcohol might help with that?”

She gave him a look. “You know why I need it.” She nodded at Abigail and leaped off the rock, disappearing from view.

“Who was that?” asked Abigail excitedly. “Was that a warlock?”

“You should go home,” said the golem. He stared in the direction where his companion had gone, then turned back to Abigail. “You should not come back.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?” asked Abigail.

“Y-yes,” the golem admitted.

“Then I’ll be back.”

“At least do one thing for me.” The golem’s tone was serious, and Abigail quieted down. “Cael and I are not exactly on good terms with the people in this city. Keep us a secret, and you and I can play... for now. But tell anybody, even your parents, and we won’t be around anymore.” The golem’s glowing eyes peered into hers, and she nodded, affecting as mature a face as she could muster.

“I swear by the lonesome gods,” she said. “Your secret is safe.” Abigail didn't feel that was enough, that it sounded too much like the characters they'd been playing, so she added: "I promise."


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Written by nikiforovasp in portal Simon & Schuster

hiraeth (n.) homesickness.

  The wide expanse of the open sea was everything but calming; raging waters and shouting sailors and a precarious drop below her feet had quite opposite the classic effect.

  She sat with her legs dangled over the cliff, peering down at the docks below. Ropes were tossed and sails were blown open and boats were pushed out slowly to make their way into profitable sea.

  This was normal. This was an early morning’s view.

  But perhaps, with a plan in place, something would go a little differently.

  On cue, from one of the smaller boats, a sailor shouted something unmistakably louder, his face scrunched up in anger, though she was too far away to hear what he said next. He waved a piece of rope above his head.

  Another sailor, who Ilya knew to be his shipmate, cried out in response. Several men rushed to the man holding the rope, barreling their way towards him.

  And then the boat began to sink.

  The sailors shrieked, pointing and fumbling, until one evidently reached the smart conclusion that he should jump right off. The rest followed, launching themselves into what must have been frigid water, but the whole lot of them reached the docks soaking wet and otherwise fine.

  The boat was nowhere in sight.

  They peered over the dock, and grappled in the water, seemingly puzzled beyond explanation.

  Ilya stood, proud with a job well done, and dusted off her leggings where little pieces of grass and dirt had stuck. She plucked her pouch from where it lay at her feet and fastened it around her waist, turning her back on the confused sailors, putting one bare foot in front of the other to head back down the winding path.

  That part, however, did not go as planned.

  The flash of a knife gave Ilya just enough warning to stiffen before a blade was at her throat, close enough only to feel the sting of it on her neck, and another pressed into the fabric just below her ribs. Her attacker stood against her back, the black fabric of an overlarge hood shielding their face.

  Ilya held her breath.

  “I know what you do, and if you try to open your mouth, I’ll make sure you never speak again.”

  Fear constricted any words that might have come out anyway. She focused her efforts on remaining still, because the first thing she’d ever learned was that silence was the easiest way to look for a way out.

  There were blades at her throat and at her stomach, and the arms holding her in did not feel like they were about to budge.

  “I suggest that you do as I ask, because then I won’t have to track you down again.” Her attacker rasped a cough out. “Tomorrow, at noon. Be at the market square.”

Ilya took short, labored breaths, her neck stretched and stiff at the same time with effort not to make contact with the blade being held at it. “What do you want?” She managed.

  “Noon. Market square. I’ll have a payment ready, if you require it up front.”

  Ilya did not see much of a choice in her situation. She would have nodded, but then that might have resulted in a decapitation, so she chose to make a strangled noise of agreement instead. “Okay.”

  As suddenly as they appeared, the knives were gone, and she was released from the iron grip. Her hand flew to her throat, and she spun around to catch a glimpse of the attacker, but all that remained was a faint indent on her skin where the knife had nudged her, and not even footsteps on the dirt around her.

  She gripped the pouch at her waist. The weight of the coins in it had remained the same, so it hadn’t simply been thievery. The frightening stranger wanted an audience tomorrow.

  It seemed like she would have to entertain them.

--

  The market square was as busy as any other day, but there were odd flashes of red uniforms at every corner of every block that seemed unfamiliar to Ilya.

  She didn’t know exactly why she had chosen, that morning, to do perhaps the stupidest thing she’d ever done, and show up exactly where the stranger with the knives had asked her to be, but there she was, and the sun was inching closer and closer to its apex. The market square was a big place, anyhow; there was a good chance that her assailant would never even find her. It would be their fault for suggesting such a difficult place to arrange a rendezvous.

  A little boy with a snaggletooth and a ragged voice shoved a rolled-up newspaper into the crook of her arm. “News from the castle city, miss, about the war.” He said, and held out a hand expectantly, and blinked.

  Ilya hesitated for a moment, but then remembered the job she’d finished the day before, and the resulting extra coins resting in the pouch at her waist. Might as well spend it on something useful. She pressed two thin coins into the boy’s palm, and he flashed a crooked smile before disappearing into the streets.

  Ilya turned back to the apple cart, running a finger over the green fruit. She had a few apples on the counter back home; she didn’t need any more, but she really didn’t know where else to stand and wait.

  She didn’t have to wait long.

  A gloved hand wrapped around her elbow, and Ilya found herself suddenly staring into a pair of striking grey eyes. The hand tugged, and the person behind the eyes began to back away, and so Ilya followed, blind surprise overwhelming the alarms in her brain that screeched for her to stop and consider her reckless actions.

  She did not stop, nor did she consider her reckless actions.

  In fact, she followed the stranger to a small pawn shop a block away, then into the street beside it, narrow and empty, and only then did Ilya come to her senses. Promptly she took a few startled steps away, but the stranger seemed satisfied with their position and didn’t pursue her, opting only to lower the faded black hood, and watch Ilya expectantly.

Ilya blurted the first thing that came to her lips: “Who are you?”

  “A client.” The rasp of the stranger’s voice grated at Ilya’s ears in a sound that felt familiar, though she couldn’t place it. The woman, or so Ilya assumed from the feminine curves and angles to their eyes and lips, spoke with an accent that rounded her syllables in a way Ilya hadn’t heard in years. “And as promised, I have a commission for you. Thirty percent payment up front, and seventy after, does that sound fair?”

  Ilya blinked at the stranger.

  Painfully, a second of the charged silence between them passed, until the recognition flashed in Ilya’s eyes, until her jaw went slack in the same motion.

  “You! With the knives!”

  An amused smile tugged at the corner of the woman’s lips. “Yes.” She shifted slightly, and one of her gloved hands pushed the fabric of her coat away from her hip, revealing a sleek knife sheath. “That’s me.”

  A stream of questions ran through Ilya’s head, unvoiced, mostly because if she had tried to say them out loud, the words would have tripped over each other and come out a jumbled mess.

  Out loud, she managed to say, “What do you want?”

  The woman clicked her tongue, and let her coat fall back into place. “Straight to business, then. Perfect. I’m going to tell you right now that what I need from you will require you to leave town for a few weeks.”

  “A few weeks? That’s an awfully long time. This isn’t my main source of income, you know, I do have other work to keep up with.”

  “Finances are no issue. I can compensate handsomely. How much would you charge?”

  “You’re so sure you can meet it?” Ilya felt some defense of hers rise, a little voice chanting no one should be able to promise that kind of thing, but she tried so hard to force it away. Money was money, wasn’t it? And Ilya would need whatever she could get her hands on.

  “I think I can assure that. Would you prefer I expand on the few weeks I’ll need from you?”

  “Go right ahead, please.”

  “Get me across the border.”

  Ilya froze. She really hoped, really hoped, that she had heard wrong. “Excuse me?”

  “The border. To Minatt. I know you know how, because you open that mouth of yours and things happen, don’t they?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Oh, yes, you definitely do.” The woman paused, and lifted her chin a tad higher; calculating, appraising. “Siren.”

  Ilya’s fists clenched, an involuntary reflex, and she felt the newspaper crumpling in her hand. “Don’t you say that again.”

  “I’m right, and you know I’m right.” A serpentine smile flicked onto her lips. “Do you accept? My request?”

  “That depends,” Ilya bit back the suspicion in her words, “on if that’s a threat.”

  “Oh, no, never. I’m only just a client, asking for your services. I would not coerce you into it.” Something about the knives sheathed on her belt, the dark hooded cloak she had draped around her shoulders, and that destructive smile lent itself to the conclusion that she was, in fact, spouting lies. That this was, in fact, wholly a threat.

  Ilya’s breath was cut off at her throat. Her heart began to strain against her ribcage with fear, her mind running through options and panicking when she realized there were so little available. She did not have an exit plan.

  “Do I get twenty-four hours to consider?”

  “You can have twenty-four minutes. Don’t bother trying to escape.”

  Ilya stepped back. The woman did not react. Ilya pushed her luck. “What do I call you?” Because she couldn’t ask for a name; she definitely wouldn’t get the truth.

  A charged pause. Then, as if it were something simple to give, she said, “Aleine.”

  Something rang true, practiced, in the two reluctant syllables.

  Ilya turned, choosing to let the admission hang in the air rather than give it a stuttered response. Twenty-four minutes, she apparently had, but she wasn’t sure how much of a choice it was.

  She needed a way out.

  She did not have a way out.

  Ilya had spent plenty of late nights staring up at her bedroom’s low ceiling in the dark, contemplating all the ways her side job could get her killed. A vengeful client, a job gone awry, something, anything. But by some luck, or maybe just the small scale of her operation, none of her worst-case scenarios had ever come to fruition. She had never had to fight her way out of it.

  This situation was shaping up to be the one she had never seen coming. Quite possibly, Ilya thought, as she turned to sneak another glance at the woman in the alley to make sure she was still there, the one that would end in Ilya’s demise.

  If not death at the sparkling knives on her belt, if not death at trying to sneak this woman across a war-torn border, then definitely death at everything that would catch up with her afterwards, no doubt to include soldiers and their rifles, political delegates and their hit lists.

  Ilya used less than six of her twenty-four minutes. She turned, braced herself on the wall, and smoothed out the now-crumpled newspaper against the bricks. The bolded words on the page began to melt into each other. Damn the war.

  “Tell me exactly what you need.”

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Written by nikiforovasp in portal Simon & Schuster
hiraeth (n.) homesickness.
  The wide expanse of the open sea was everything but calming; raging waters and shouting sailors and a precarious drop below her feet had quite opposite the classic effect.
  She sat with her legs dangled over the cliff, peering down at the docks below. Ropes were tossed and sails were blown open and boats were pushed out slowly to make their way into profitable sea.
  This was normal. This was an early morning’s view.
  But perhaps, with a plan in place, something would go a little differently.
  On cue, from one of the smaller boats, a sailor shouted something unmistakably louder, his face scrunched up in anger, though she was too far away to hear what he said next. He waved a piece of rope above his head.
  Another sailor, who Ilya knew to be his shipmate, cried out in response. Several men rushed to the man holding the rope, barreling their way towards him.
  And then the boat began to sink.
  The sailors shrieked, pointing and fumbling, until one evidently reached the smart conclusion that he should jump right off. The rest followed, launching themselves into what must have been frigid water, but the whole lot of them reached the docks soaking wet and otherwise fine.
  The boat was nowhere in sight.
  They peered over the dock, and grappled in the water, seemingly puzzled beyond explanation.
  Ilya stood, proud with a job well done, and dusted off her leggings where little pieces of grass and dirt had stuck. She plucked her pouch from where it lay at her feet and fastened it around her waist, turning her back on the confused sailors, putting one bare foot in front of the other to head back down the winding path.
  That part, however, did not go as planned.
  The flash of a knife gave Ilya just enough warning to stiffen before a blade was at her throat, close enough only to feel the sting of it on her neck, and another pressed into the fabric just below her ribs. Her attacker stood against her back, the black fabric of an overlarge hood shielding their face.
  Ilya held her breath.
  “I know what you do, and if you try to open your mouth, I’ll make sure you never speak again.”
  Fear constricted any words that might have come out anyway. She focused her efforts on remaining still, because the first thing she’d ever learned was that silence was the easiest way to look for a way out.
  There were blades at her throat and at her stomach, and the arms holding her in did not feel like they were about to budge.
  “I suggest that you do as I ask, because then I won’t have to track you down again.” Her attacker rasped a cough out. “Tomorrow, at noon. Be at the market square.”
Ilya took short, labored breaths, her neck stretched and stiff at the same time with effort not to make contact with the blade being held at it. “What do you want?” She managed.
  “Noon. Market square. I’ll have a payment ready, if you require it up front.”
  Ilya did not see much of a choice in her situation. She would have nodded, but then that might have resulted in a decapitation, so she chose to make a strangled noise of agreement instead. “Okay.”
  As suddenly as they appeared, the knives were gone, and she was released from the iron grip. Her hand flew to her throat, and she spun around to catch a glimpse of the attacker, but all that remained was a faint indent on her skin where the knife had nudged her, and not even footsteps on the dirt around her.
  She gripped the pouch at her waist. The weight of the coins in it had remained the same, so it hadn’t simply been thievery. The frightening stranger wanted an audience tomorrow.
  It seemed like she would have to entertain them.
--
  The market square was as busy as any other day, but there were odd flashes of red uniforms at every corner of every block that seemed unfamiliar to Ilya.
  She didn’t know exactly why she had chosen, that morning, to do perhaps the stupidest thing she’d ever done, and show up exactly where the stranger with the knives had asked her to be, but there she was, and the sun was inching closer and closer to its apex. The market square was a big place, anyhow; there was a good chance that her assailant would never even find her. It would be their fault for suggesting such a difficult place to arrange a rendezvous.
  A little boy with a snaggletooth and a ragged voice shoved a rolled-up newspaper into the crook of her arm. “News from the castle city, miss, about the war.” He said, and held out a hand expectantly, and blinked.
  Ilya hesitated for a moment, but then remembered the job she’d finished the day before, and the resulting extra coins resting in the pouch at her waist. Might as well spend it on something useful. She pressed two thin coins into the boy’s palm, and he flashed a crooked smile before disappearing into the streets.
  Ilya turned back to the apple cart, running a finger over the green fruit. She had a few apples on the counter back home; she didn’t need any more, but she really didn’t know where else to stand and wait.
  She didn’t have to wait long.
  A gloved hand wrapped around her elbow, and Ilya found herself suddenly staring into a pair of striking grey eyes. The hand tugged, and the person behind the eyes began to back away, and so Ilya followed, blind surprise overwhelming the alarms in her brain that screeched for her to stop and consider her reckless actions.
  She did not stop, nor did she consider her reckless actions.
  In fact, she followed the stranger to a small pawn shop a block away, then into the street beside it, narrow and empty, and only then did Ilya come to her senses. Promptly she took a few startled steps away, but the stranger seemed satisfied with their position and didn’t pursue her, opting only to lower the faded black hood, and watch Ilya expectantly.
Ilya blurted the first thing that came to her lips: “Who are you?”
  “A client.” The rasp of the stranger’s voice grated at Ilya’s ears in a sound that felt familiar, though she couldn’t place it. The woman, or so Ilya assumed from the feminine curves and angles to their eyes and lips, spoke with an accent that rounded her syllables in a way Ilya hadn’t heard in years. “And as promised, I have a commission for you. Thirty percent payment up front, and seventy after, does that sound fair?”
  Ilya blinked at the stranger.
  Painfully, a second of the charged silence between them passed, until the recognition flashed in Ilya’s eyes, until her jaw went slack in the same motion.
  “You! With the knives!”
  An amused smile tugged at the corner of the woman’s lips. “Yes.” She shifted slightly, and one of her gloved hands pushed the fabric of her coat away from her hip, revealing a sleek knife sheath. “That’s me.”
  A stream of questions ran through Ilya’s head, unvoiced, mostly because if she had tried to say them out loud, the words would have tripped over each other and come out a jumbled mess.
  Out loud, she managed to say, “What do you want?”
  The woman clicked her tongue, and let her coat fall back into place. “Straight to business, then. Perfect. I’m going to tell you right now that what I need from you will require you to leave town for a few weeks.”
  “A few weeks? That’s an awfully long time. This isn’t my main source of income, you know, I do have other work to keep up with.”
  “Finances are no issue. I can compensate handsomely. How much would you charge?”
  “You’re so sure you can meet it?” Ilya felt some defense of hers rise, a little voice chanting no one should be able to promise that kind of thing, but she tried so hard to force it away. Money was money, wasn’t it? And Ilya would need whatever she could get her hands on.
  “I think I can assure that. Would you prefer I expand on the few weeks I’ll need from you?”
  “Go right ahead, please.”
  “Get me across the border.”
  Ilya froze. She really hoped, really hoped, that she had heard wrong. “Excuse me?”
  “The border. To Minatt. I know you know how, because you open that mouth of yours and things happen, don’t they?”
  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  “Oh, yes, you definitely do.” The woman paused, and lifted her chin a tad higher; calculating, appraising. “Siren.”
  Ilya’s fists clenched, an involuntary reflex, and she felt the newspaper crumpling in her hand. “Don’t you say that again.”
  “I’m right, and you know I’m right.” A serpentine smile flicked onto her lips. “Do you accept? My request?”
  “That depends,” Ilya bit back the suspicion in her words, “on if that’s a threat.”
  “Oh, no, never. I’m only just a client, asking for your services. I would not coerce you into it.” Something about the knives sheathed on her belt, the dark hooded cloak she had draped around her shoulders, and that destructive smile lent itself to the conclusion that she was, in fact, spouting lies. That this was, in fact, wholly a threat.
  Ilya’s breath was cut off at her throat. Her heart began to strain against her ribcage with fear, her mind running through options and panicking when she realized there were so little available. She did not have an exit plan.
  “Do I get twenty-four hours to consider?”
  “You can have twenty-four minutes. Don’t bother trying to escape.”
  Ilya stepped back. The woman did not react. Ilya pushed her luck. “What do I call you?” Because she couldn’t ask for a name; she definitely wouldn’t get the truth.
  A charged pause. Then, as if it were something simple to give, she said, “Aleine.”
  Something rang true, practiced, in the two reluctant syllables.
  Ilya turned, choosing to let the admission hang in the air rather than give it a stuttered response. Twenty-four minutes, she apparently had, but she wasn’t sure how much of a choice it was.
  She needed a way out.
  She did not have a way out.
  Ilya had spent plenty of late nights staring up at her bedroom’s low ceiling in the dark, contemplating all the ways her side job could get her killed. A vengeful client, a job gone awry, something, anything. But by some luck, or maybe just the small scale of her operation, none of her worst-case scenarios had ever come to fruition. She had never had to fight her way out of it.
  This situation was shaping up to be the one she had never seen coming. Quite possibly, Ilya thought, as she turned to sneak another glance at the woman in the alley to make sure she was still there, the one that would end in Ilya’s demise.
  If not death at the sparkling knives on her belt, if not death at trying to sneak this woman across a war-torn border, then definitely death at everything that would catch up with her afterwards, no doubt to include soldiers and their rifles, political delegates and their hit lists.
  Ilya used less than six of her twenty-four minutes. She turned, braced herself on the wall, and smoothed out the now-crumpled newspaper against the bricks. The bolded words on the page began to melt into each other. Damn the war.
  “Tell me exactly what you need.”
12
2
0
Juice
74 reads
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