Monthly Archives: January 2017

Warning Labels by Dalia Lance

For Amy Dixon, who always pushes the limits.

“There should have been some sort of warning label on her,” Christian said and began shaking his head between his hands as his elbows rested on the table. He was broken.

Alicia looked around the cafe to see how many patrons might be paying attention to his breakdown. Not many. She supposed a guy having an “episode” like this one could be considered commonplace on a college campus.

Alicia sighed and said, “I understand.” What she was actually thinking was A frickin’ warning label? Like that would have stopped you. But this was not very supportive, so instead she simply rubbed her hand on his back in the most comforting way possible.

This was the third such meltdown this semester alone. Each one was a little worse than the last. Alicia figured it was because the choices Christian had made in the women he dated were more vapid each time.

Alicia had known Christian all through middle and high school. They were not close, but when they both realized they were at the same college and they had the same major, the friendship grew quickly.

Unfortunately for Christian, he was an ugly duckling. This meant he had been a slightly chubby band nerd with terrible acne. Apparently, however, somewhere between the end of senior year and the first day of college that had all changed. Christian had not caught on to his new status.

Each of his horrible choices had been the opposite of what he truly needed and in fact wanted. So instead of a smart, fun girl who would like him for the great person he was, he continued to find high maintenance bitches who just wanted him for the stature.

Alicia was happy the latest incarnation she had dubbed “selfie slut” had gone the way of the others. She would no longer have to endure the constant stream of photos on Christian’s timeline where he was trying to look happy and she was doing an awkward duck-face.

Alicia was so in her own thoughts she hadn’t realized that Christian was saying something until he said, “You know what I mean?” her first instinct was to agree with him since she had missed what he said, but she had learned this was a dangerous practice.

“What?” she said, trying to look a little startled.

“Were you listening?” he asked.

Of course she replied with “Yes” but she hadn’t been.

“I was saying that I think that if we just dated, it would solve all my problems.” Alicia was stunned.

“What?” This time as she said it was almost a whisper.

Christian was started turning red. Shit, he was embarrassed. He had taken a risk, and he thought she was being receptive as she had kept on rubbing his back during the process.

She smiled at him and said, “Christian, I’m a lesbian.” He looked shocked and his eyes were searching for something to say.

Maybe she needed the warning label.

 

 

 

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The Spell by Erika Lance

For Bev Schroeder: You have always been an amazing friend. I hope you enjoy this.

Hearing his name out of the blue like that was like watching the ghosts of old times walk down new streets.

Ayla was not happy about having been made to return to her hometown. It had been over twenty-five years since she had left and even though she had never uttered the words out loud to anyone, herself included, she knew it was true.

Her aunt had called her to tell her that there had been a death. Most of the family she would have simply sent flowers. She was prepared to hear so many of the names except this one. Her aunt told her Patrick Barnes had died. PJ. She had left that evening.

Now sitting in the main diner in town looking out the window onto the frozen lake that was the main attraction for this small town, Ayla didn’t have a plan. She didn’t know the next step to take.

Lost in thought, she was startled when the waitress asked if she wanted more coffee. She looked down at her cup, coffee now cold and realized she was just as frozen as the lake. She needed to do something or leave. Doing nothing was just breaking down her carefully built walls.

Ayla shook her head and before the waitress could walk away, she asked, “Excuse me. Did you know PJ… I mean Patrick Barnes?” her voice was hoarse.

The look on the waitress’s face turned sad. “Yes. I knew him.” It almost seemed that she did not want to continue when she said, “His funeral is tomorrow,” and then she turned and walked away.

They were putting him, PJ, in the ground tomorrow. This was happening too soon.

Ayla got up and left a twenty on the table and headed out. When she got in the car, she knew there was only one place she could go. She drove for over an hour. The back roads were still there and even though she shouldn’t have remembered every detail of how to get there she did.

She got out of the car and the wind had picked up. She bundled up as best she could and headed out. It wasn’t far and she was standing in front of the tree. She could find the marks. The last bit of physical proof of what they had done.

The tree was still scorched, as if it couldn’t heal from the damage. It had been too great. The damage to them had been too great as well.

She brushed aside the snow to find the marks. There initials carved so many years ago within a crude star shape.  Rachel had found the spell, she was the first that… She had died five years to the day that PJ did. There were three more initials; hers, MR, and JP. None of them had spoken in years.

The spell that had bound them to their wish had also torn them apart. They had asked for something that was a child’s whim.

Now she didn’t know if there was a pattern or… she really didn’t know if she was next.
Again lost in thought and simply tracing and retracing the symbols, she heard a branch snap behind her… she turned. “Michael?” she asked as she saw his face.

 

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Nightmare Rising by Brandon Scott

For Joshua, who thinks in both languages.

“I now appreciate the darkness.” Those were his last words.

And then the darkness appreciated him. He clasped both hands to his chest, folding them like a mummy in an old cracked tomb, and fell back into the churning mass.

I reached forward to stop his fall, but my hands met only air as the entirety of his frame, slow sinking at first, then gone at once, disappeared into the mass.

It shook like a silent laugh, and I stepped back in alarm. An inch forward it bulged out, taking inside it pieces of the ground.

I looked around at the lab tables, and the random beakers, and the bric-a-brac of his room and could find nothing even remotely helpful—nothing even indicating a way to stop this. To staunch its mass of eating.

I scooped up a beaker with my hand and chucked it, but it too went into the mass with no issue.

“What the shit are you?” I yelled at the blob before booking it up the stairs. Like it had been waiting for me to break eye contact, it made more noise, and I heard the breaking of glasses and tables knocked over onto the hard ground.

As my knees shot up with each lurching step, I felt my phone vibrate. This, somehow, was the most surprising thing about the last few minutes. I quickly glanced behind me and pulled out the technology. I knew of only one person who had this number—and his calling was impossible.

The stairs groaned as the dark did what it could to ascend. My eyes felt blurry from concern, but beneath the simple message of Hey, I got the thing working. Come by and see. I saw a new message.

The darkness is comfort. I can see you.

I ran out the front door with my phone clutched in moving hands. The words, only read once, burned in my mind even as I took another stop out in the yard. When the house remained still, I looked at the phone again, my breathing loud in my ears.

How r u txting? I sent out. U died.

With no lag to it at all, the response came. The darkness is not death. Come back inside, and we will show you the eternity of void and shadow.

No thx.

Then perhaps the outside is more preferable.

My teeth set on edge as the sound of wood ripping filled the air. Around me, I could see people poking their heads out of doors, and peering out windows. The din reached a peak, and it took a second for me to see the source, but at the top of the house, the roof shuddered, soon enough filling like an about to burst balloon.

A tendril of darkness slithered out of the open space, looking wrong on the backdrop of a sunny day, and the house expanded even further with pressure. Until, finally, the wood shattered and collapsed into the mass of black.

I stood, horrified, as a pair of long stalk eyes sprung up and swiveled around with irregular pupils.

Do you think the rest of humanity will appreciate the dark?

I was already in my car when the phone rang. I put it to my ear and peeled out, leaving my neighbors to their fates. The sound of another house breaking echoed once from behind me, and then again in the phone itself.

Before the darkness could say anything, I shouted “No!” My finger stopped above the end call button when I heard the reply, still in my friend’s voice—but warped and strained and sleepy.

“Let’s see, shall we? I think it is worthy of a few more tests.”

My hand shook. After a second, I tossed the phone behind me and kept driving. My foot pushing the pedal to the floor, hearing the sound of police and helicopters going in the opposite direction.

Despite being in the back somewhere, the voice came through the phone like it was on a concert speaker.

“Reality is not enough. Never enough. Join the dark. And be free. All of you.”

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Interesting Choices by Dee Rea

To Ellen, glad you came to our little hobbit hole!

I woke up a quadriplegic and I hadn’t even shared my deepest secret yet.

That’s what the old man told me when I sat beside his hospital bed trying to convince him that the mush the home served was good. If I was honest with myself, it wasn’t good. It tasted as bad as it smelled and that was horrid. I’d tried to show the old dodger that it was tasty and took a bite for myself. I instantly regretted it. It tasted like a combination of the same glue we all used to sample in kindergarten and boiled snot. Ok, so I’ve never eaten boiled snot, but I figured it would taste like that gelatinous ooze they called Turkey Delight. It was a salty, gooey and utterly disgusting mound of mystery meat. I eventually gave up trying to serve dog shit on a spoon covered in gravy and set his tray aside.

“What do you mean you woke up a quadriplegic? Wouldn’t you have known what happened? I definitely think I’d know how I lost the fun in life,” I chuckled.

“Bah! You think you’re so smart, don’tcha? Wise crackin’ youngun thinks he knows the world! Let me tell you a thing or two, boy…” The old man wheezed out each word like a hissing tire letting out the last of its air. “You ain’t seen nothing like I’ve seen. Oh sure, you’ve got the internets and all your fancy gadgets but you haven’t seen!’

The way he hissed the word “seen” sent shivers down my spine. My usual cocky demeanor fell to the side as I leaned over to prop myself up, chin cradled in my upturned palm, to look at the man. He didn’t seem all that intimidating. Hell, the only remarkable thing about him was negated by the lack of ability to use his legs. He would have stood at least  6’5” if he could stand. His condition had robbed his muscles of anything close to resembling muscle tone and left him with thin skin stretched over frail bones.

“Well hell ya old coot,” I said affectionately. The old man was my favorite patient and he knew it. We had a symbiotic relationship based on a mutual understanding of sarcasm and smartassery. “Enlighten my wise cracking ass why don’tcha?”

“Boy,” he started, motioning with as much force as his limited range of motion would allow. “You ever seen the horrors of war? Nah, your lily-livered hide woulda been runnin’ with a trail of yellow behind ya.”

I chuckled and shook my head. No, I hadn’t seen war. I was one of the lucky ones that couldn’t go to war even if I would have wanted to. My bad knee had cocooned me in a warm bubble-wrapped safety net known as “not medically fit for service.” I didn’t feel like the man really wanted or needed to hear that.

“The damn bombers had hit our base down on the island, you know the one? That pretty little slice of paradise with the women that dance with coconuts on their tots?”

“Yeah,” I said through my laughter. Hearing an old man refer to breasts as tots tickled my funny bone. A mental picture of women with huge tater tots covered by coconut shells just wouldn’t leave my mind. “Hawaii, you know, the 50th state? Go on….” I hoped I wouldn’t regret urging him to continue.

“When those damn bombers opened that can of whoopass, I was right there in line to join the ranks. I was 17 when I marked my X on those enlistment papers on January 2, 1942. I remember it like it was yesterday. I wanted to shoot me a Nazi or a commie, I didn’t rightly care which one it was.”

I listened to him recant his tale of boot camp, the battles that he was a part of in the following years. His voice lost its odd wheezing and became strong as he wove his tale. I still wanted to hear how he’d lost total use of everything about nipple level down and greatly reduced the use of his arms.  I hated to admit it, but I was really enjoying the way he lit up as his story unfolded. I’d read about the places and battles he was recounting with first hand knowledge. His battalion had liberated Buchenwald in Germany and that’s when his story got really interesting. He spoke of going AWOL to find the German leaders at the helm of the genocide. His tale began to grow more peculiar and strange as he told of assisting suicides of high ranking officers in the SS. My brow furrowed knowing the story taught in the history books. His story didn’t match up.

“You don’t believe me do ya boy?” His wheeze had returned. His dark eyes narrowed on me as if trying to read the innermost thoughts in my mind.

“It’s not that I don’t believe ya, but I mean I passed history in school and that’s just not what was taught.” The old man laughed. He pointed to the locked locker that each patient has to keep their personal belongings in. Long ago he’d given me the code to his combination lock, so I went and opened it.

“Bottom shelf, that locked box there. No, not the paper box ya numbskull! The metal one. What the hell good would it do to lock a paper box? I thought you had graduated from that fancy hoitey -toitey school, huh?” His cackle sounded like a broken squeeze toy.

“Alright, pops, enough with the romance. What did you want out of this box?” I asked as I made my way back to the bedside. He pointed to the old clock on his nightstand. It was one of those old fancy mantle clocks. It always looked out of place on the small nightstand because of its long base hanging over the edges. I furrowed my brow and put the metal box on the bed and picked up the clock.

“Underneath,” he said as he pulled the box closer, inch by slow and painful inch. Sure enough, old tape held a small key in place. I pulled the key and the tape disintegrated around it. Holding the now freed key out to him, I sat back down beside the bed. The old man had fumbled his way through opening the lock. He pushed the now open treasure trove my way. I reached over to pull it into my lap.

“Go ahead, look through them since ya don’t believe the old fart wheezin’ his last breaths.” The man chuckled as my jaw dropped. I knew those faces from the history books. Here he was, standing with the men that had been wanted by Nuremberg tribunals for their war crimes. I gulped as I flipped through the pictures wondering just who I had befriended. The pictures started out as happy go lucky pictures like you would take while on vacation with your friends. As I continued to flip through, they began to take a darker more sinister turn. I paused to look up at him to find him studying my reaction.

“It was after that last picture that I woke up a quadriplegic. That damn old boy got one over on me. I know, it don’t happen often. That’s was ok because what he didn’t know was that I had been balls deep in his wife the night before. All that and I haven’t even shared my deepest secret yet.” He laughed and closed his eyes.

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Guest in the Garden by Nicole DragonBeck

For Kitty, here’s your quasi-instantaneously written story 🙂

She was slowly going around the corner, guided only by a sliver of moonlight, when she felt something around her ankle.

Her heart leaped to her throat, but it was only a creeping vine. Mina shook the offending plant away and continued creeping through the gardens. In the year since her father, Lord Uric, had passed, the entire estate had gone into a rapid decline. The fountains stopped working, the water fouled, the gardens and grounds grew wild, the older parts of the castle creaked and crumbled, and luxuries afforded the Lords family like magic fireplaces, secret doors, and ice on summer days were gone.

Mina berated herself for taking so long to put the facts together to realize that her father must have taken whatever it was that kept the heart of his estate beating and hidden it. It took even more time for her to deduce it was most likely in the garden. That was the first reason she was here, creeping about in the tangled and uncared-for plants. The reason she was doing it in the dead of night was more concisely stated: her half-brother, whom she would not mention by name, and his Red Guard.

Silver light illuminated the path enough for her to continue without tripping. She kept her eyes peeled for the magical undertones that would reveal things that couldn’t be seen under the light of the sun. Unfortunately, Mina didn’t have the first clue what it was she was looking for, and even after four hours of searching, she still hadn’t seen the slightest trace of it. To make matters worse, she was now being followed.

She bend down, felt around until she found a thick branch, then stood and slipped behind a tree and paused, listening but hearing nothing. She waited, holding her breath, and was rewarded with the sight of a shadow walking with stealthy steps along the path she had taken. She went after it, the follower now the followed, the branch clutched in her hand.

She came up behind the shadow and brought the branch crashing down. A solid thunk and a low moan reached her ears as whoever it was crumpled to the ground, turning around in the process. The light of the moon fell on the face of her most trusted advisor, Malco – who had served her father before her – his eyes crossed as he fought to stay conscious to gasp out a message.

“I have come to warn you…” He blacked out as a cloth was thrown over Mina’s head.

She struggled and a swung her arms around. She felt the branch connect with something, and her attacker fell away. Mina whipped the covering from her head, clubbed the figure on the ground once more for good measure, and rushed back to Malco. He was beginning to come around, groaning as his fingers explored what must be a giant bump on his head. His eyes widened when he saw Mina.

“My lady!” he exclaimed. “They are coming for you!”

She didn’t need to ask who he meant. It could only be the Red Guard, the sell swords her half-brother had been moving into the castle at an alarming rate.

“They think you’ve found it,” Malco continued, getting slowly to his feet. He glanced at her with concern. “Are you alright?”

Mina shook her head. “I’m fine. There was someone, but I didn’t see who it was.”

She pointed at the attacker she had dispatched. They both looked back at the form still crumpled on the ground, and then walked over. Malco bent down and turned the person over so they could make out his face. Mina gasped.

“Is that an elf?”

Malco nodded, wearing a similar expression of shock. “What is he doing here?”

“I have no idea,” Mina answered. “I thought they were extinct, at least this far south.”

“He’s not wearing the uniform of the Red Guard,” Malco said.

Sounds came from behind them – sounds of people moving through the trees – drawing their attention.

“We should get out of here,” Malco said. “And find someplace to hide.”

“The pump house,” Mina replied at once.

Malco nodded and started to walk off. Mina couldn’t stop staring at the unconscious elf, silky blond hair like moonlight on the ground, foreign features delicate and striking. He had a mark on his neck, perhaps a tattoo.

“We can’t leave him here,” she said, her mouth moving before she thought it through.

Malco looked confused and pained. “He attacked you. Even if he is not working for your brother, we have no obligation to him.”

Mina couldn’t explain it, and didn’t try to. “We have to bring him.”

At her firm tone, Malco obeyed at once. With one of them on either side, they carried the slight elf with little difficulty further into the gardens. The pump house loomed up in front of them. It kept the waters in the fountains pristine and flowing, but since Mina’s father had died, the wheels and pipes had mysteriously stopped working, just like all the other contraptions on the estate.

They let themselves into the stone rooms, the faint dripping echoing in the darkness. Mina and Malco propped the elf against the wall.

“What do we do now?” Mina asked her advisor.

“We wait, and in the morning, when the sun comes out, we can go back,” Malco told her. “The Red Guard won’t do anything in the light.” He looked at her, a reproving frown on his face. “Which, I might remind you, is why you’re supposed to stay within the walls of your keep after the sun goes down.”

“I know, but I had an idea,” Mina said. “What will we do with him?” she asked, changing the subject from her midnight wanderings.

“I don’t know,” Malco replied, eyebrow raised. “You’re the one who wanted to bring him.”

Mina went over to stand by the elf, looking down at him, arms and legs at odd angles, chin on his chest. His head snapped up, and Mina stumbled backwards with a gasp. The elf looked up at her with bleary, green eyes. When he focused on her, his eyes widened and he tried to get away. He looked like a cornered wild animal. Mina held her hands out.

“It’s okay,” she said in a soothing voice, hoping he could understand her.

His head cocked, and after a moment, he spoke. “You’re Lady Mina.”

Mina nodded, somehow not surprised he knew her name. “Who are you?”

“My name is Neir.”

“What are you doing here?” Mina asked.

Neir smiled. “I am…was here on your father’s words.”

“Prisoner?” Mina asked tentatively.

“Guest.” The elf played with the hem of his shirt. Mina noticed he was thin and dirty.

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

The elf stared up at the ceiling as he counted to himself. “A long time. In your home? About thirty of your years. Hiding here? A year.”

“What…” Mina stopped, and worked it out for herself. The truth dawned on Mina with the warm glow of a particularly beautiful sunrise. Her father hadn’t hidden an object, he had hidden a person: the elf.

“Why did my father keep you here?”

The elf gave her a look which clearly said don’t be thick. Mina changed her question.

“Are you responsible for the state of this place since my father died?”

“Not the way I would put it,” the elf said, sounding affronted. “I would say I was responsible for the wonders of this place while your father was alive.”

“You kept it all going?”

“Everything,” Neir said. “At least, I used to.”

“Why did you stop?”

“I think you know that,” Neir answered, with another of his don’t-be-daft looks, though his voice sad. He took a deep breath. “Your father didn’t want anyone to know because he thought it would endanger his alliances if the other Lords knew he was harboring a creature such as myself…”

“Why would that matter?” Mina asked with a frown.

“You don’t know much about why there are no elves in your part of these lands anymore, but suffice to say, knowing your father tolerated my presence would have soured the favor of the other lords. We made a deal, Lord Uric and I. He would provide me with shelter, I would help him with magic. It worked quite well for a time, but then his son became greedy and had him killed in order to take over what Lord Uric had built.”

“So you stopped to spite him?” Malco asked, sounding none too pleased. He knew none of this either, Mina realized.

“I stopped because continuing would call attention to my being here,” the elf said. “And now I have to spend all my time hiding from the Red Guard. They are slow, but they’re catching on. I thought you were one of them,” he confessed. “I didn’t mean to attack you, Lady Mina.”

Mina accepted his apology with an absent shake of her head, the memory of the heart-pounding terror at being assaulted in the dark the furthest thing from her mind right now. She thought for a long time, another idea forming in her mind, not the same blinding light of the idea to search the garden, but the slow unfurling of a rose’s petals with the light of the sun. “If I promised to harbor you, as my father did, would you be willing to help me?”

Neir smiled and shrugged, but his green eyes gleamed. Mira looked at Malco and smiled; at last, now they had something to use against her brother.

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An Ego Trip and a Half by Brandon Scott

For Nick, who apparently knows how to get my attention with story starters.

The day Brandon saved the world.

It was like any other normal day. Well, normal for Brandon. And, thus, not normal at all. Brandon does not have normal days—no, Brandon has “Brandon days.” Which usually contain salty foods, walking, and writing. And, of course, random things happening. Often hilarious only in hindsight.

So, when the dimensional rip sprang open over his bed (which was next to his desk), Brandon did not notice. He was writing, you see. And he had some planned target or another. Something that needed doing. Brandon has a lot of stuff he always needs to do.

So, his eyes—which get tired often—did not move to see the portal open and a woman fall out of it. And then he only looked away from the screen when she tapped him on his shoulder.

“Hello?”

“Ugh, I hate when people interrupt me. What?”

The girl, wearing a gown of white, frowned. “Um, I came to give you your destiny?”

“Oh God, really?” Brandon said. “Now?”

“Yes, it is urgent.”

Brandon kneaded his temples and sighed. “Okay, I guess. This seems contrived though. Can we please have some sort of wish fulfillment story which is not the classic ‘damsel in distress’ trope? I get you’re my love interest and all—or something like that. But come on, how about something else?”

The girl sat cross-legged on Brandon’s bed. A bed which looked nice to Brandon at that moment. Being meta was making him tired.

“You mean ‘me tired’,” Brandon said.

Excuse me?

“You’re writing a story about yourself, where you, as a character, knows that you are yourself…I think. So, it’s making ‘me tired.’”

Well, yeah, but that just makes this even more confusing. How is anyone supposed to follow this when we do word-play and fourth wall shit like that?

“Eh,” Brandon said. “I don’t know. It’s not my problem.”

Yes, it is.

“How so?”

You’re me. Can we please get back on topic?

“Fair enough, sure.”

Thank you. So, Brandon looked over at the woman and gestured out his hand, willing to help—even if a little annoyed with the whole thing. He’d prefer a satirical dystopian adventure, but you get what you get. And the two of them fell into a magical world. Landing on a convenient horse mount and then galloping into the city proper.

“So, what villain am I fighting? And how much of a ruler is he already?”

“Well,” the girl said, “he’s an evil king.”

“Why is he evil?”

The girl shook her head a few times. Like she was not sure what she had just heard. She looked back to him as the horse jostled them along their path.

“Well, he taxes the orphans….”

Brandon facepalmed. “Yep, okay. I figured it was something like that. Give me a minute.”

Without a ritual or form of magical hijinks that would explain how he did it, Brandon Scott reached into the air and plucked down an accountant—who was already up to speed on the tax laws of a fantasy kingdom with elves and magic and dragons.

“Look, I think I know the problem here,” Brandon said. “Nine times out of ten, these sorts of kings just have a terrible understanding of the local economy. And a deep, unresolved issue with orphans, usually because of being one themselves. Sad really.”

“But he’s a decadent hedonist!” the girl protested.

“Not if I talk him out of his base character traits.”

“…okay,” the girl said. “I guess you are the man of prophecy.”

“Yep, however annoying that may be,” Brandon said. “Now, let’s get to the ending already.”

The End.

“Wait, wait, not that soon. Let’s at least make it make sense how I ‘saved the world’? For the person who gave the opening sentence’s sake? He was nice enough to give me an excuse to write absolute insane bullshit.”

Yeah, good point. So, having changed the tax laws to something reasonable for everyone involved, without mucking around too much in political opinions or mirroring real world events, Brandon emerged through the portal, only to find the same portal was widening—which would destroy the world.

So, Brandon closed it and saved the world. The End.

“Much better. Captures the themes in a more robust way. I think we pushed the bounds of what can be accomplished with the right application of surrealism and meta-textual—”

Yeah, not staying around for that. My rants can last awhile. Bye.

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Awaken by Alanna J. Rubin

For Desi

Making a zombie is actually way harder than it sounds.

Marcus looked at the corpse that was laying on the floor of his bedroom. Even in death, Callie was the epitome of “popular.” She was beautiful with her long blonde hair and blue chiffon dress and tonight was going to be fantastic as long as he could find the right spell. He sat with numerous worn leather bound spell books trying to find the right incantation to reanimate her. He had tried three already and despite a little finger twitching, the body had done nothing. Marcus was growing frustrated and running out of time.  He looked at his watch. “One hour left,” he uttered to no one. He couldn’t be late in meeting his friends, but the second hand kept moving as if to taunt him.

He knew his parents did this kind of thing all of the time. They were private detectives and it was common for them to bring the recently deceased back to life to ask them questions about their deaths. It definitely came in handy when trying to solve murders, but this was important too. He looked down at the girl from his cross-legged sitting position on the bed. Living, dead, or undead, as the case may be, his friends would be jealous. Marcus scanned several more pages, carefully turning each one as if they’d rip in his hand, then tapped the title, “Necromantiae.” This has got to be it, he thought to himself. Marcus read through the lines, took a deep breath and slowly let it out to center himself. If he’d learned anything from his parents, it was that concentration and calm were key to any good casting.

“From your dreamless slumber, I call you forth,” he spoke to the realms.

“To the shackles of flesh, I command thee.” His hair fluttered in an unearthly breeze and an energy began to pulse in his veins pushing him onward to finish the last line. “Excitare, Excitare…Awaken, Awaken.”

He watched as the breeze settled upon the body on his floor and waited impatiently for a sign that it worked. A minute passed by and…nothing. Marcus slammed the book shut in frustration and got up from his bed to pace. He ran his hand through his thick black hair and wondered why he had even bothered getting dressed for tonight. He turned to look back at the body and pulled loose his bow tie. “Ahh,” he yelped as the girl he had tried so desperately to resurrect now stood in front of him. Her head seemed to have a slight tilt to the left and her eyes were a little bloodshot, but that would get better with some time. She was perfect. A little groan escaped her lips followed by a raspy, “Where am I?”

Marcus looked around his small bedroom, a little embarrassed that he hadn’t cleaned up better, then replied, “That’s not important. My name is Marcus and I’m taking you to prom.” She looked at him with a blank stare as if trying, with great difficulty, to process what he had said. He watched as the comprehension of his statement caused a lopsided smile to grace her lips. Marcus would have said that her face lit up, but her muscles were a little too stiff for that. She shuffled closer to him and tried to fix his tie, but she became frustrated by her lack of dexterity. “No worries,” he said as he pulled the tie of all together. “I hate wearing bow ties anyway.” She let out a wheezing laugh as he dropped it to the floor.  “May I?” He asked holding out his arm for her. She smiled and gladly took it as she found it difficult to walk. He beamed at her with pride. “My friends are going to be so jealous when they see you. I can’t wait to see their faces. None of them thought you’d say yes if I asked you to prom, but even though I was sad when I heard you died, I knew when I found out that I had a shot.”

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Filcher’s Heist by Désirée Matlock

For Phil Jones

 The snow was crisp and firm underfoot as I strode steadily through the looming darkness, pierced only by the yellow eyes of a dozen wolves pacing me easily in the trees to the right.

I light-footed my way as quickly as I could in my winter moccasins through the treacherous terrain alongside the creek, following the water as we all made our way silently toward the stronghold of our enemy. I knew my friends would have no issues keeping stride with me. Their patience knew no bounds. We had all waited enough.

 

I saw a candle’s light flickering ahead, and signaled with an owl’s hoot that we were now extremely close, and to use caution. I slowed further, and came in toward the road, keeping to the shadows. I thanked my lucky stars that the darkened fortress was upwind of me tonight.

 

The thirteen of us continued to creep quietly, a small whimper escaped the muzzle of the youngest, who was still nursing the wounds of yesterday’s defeat. He didn’t heal as quickly as the others.

 

My eyes lit upon the window with the candle, and I crept toward it. The fortress was protected against the wolves, and they stopped approaching from a safe distance. This was now entirely up to me. There was little the pack could do if I was hurt within those walls.

 

First things first. Could I approach? Was the fortress protected from humans? I’d found, in my long career, that magical creatures tended to discount humans as capable enough to worry about. I shuffled my feet carefully in the snow, trying not to make a sound as I tested the perimeter of the spells protecting the keep.

 

Bingo. Leave it to blood suckers to not bother to keep me out. I ran as quickly as I could to the wall, scaled it, and scrabbled in the window faster than a squirrel, if I do say so myself.

 

They had said she was in this room, but there were no people here. Just a crown, a pillow, and a broom. Well, who knows. I grabbed all three items and leapt out the window, falling thirty feet or so, but also catapulting myself beyond the perimeter while still in the air. I landed with all three items, hoping none broke as I rolled off the force of the landing.

 

I rose, showed the wolves the items, and the leader huffed excitedly. He started running, but not back toward camp. Well, if I wanted to get paid, I needed to go with them, or I might not ever find the same pack again. I assumed that the job was not quite finished, so I followed. Once they got a safe distance from the fortress, they started running without fear of being overheard, and I really had to push myself to keep up. My shoes were water-tight and freshly oiled, so my feet were still not wet, but this was truly a difficult run. Night turned into early morning, and early morning turned into day. At dawn, we heard the deep booming thrum of the guard being called into action at the fortress. Let them hunt. They would never find us now. We had traveled much too far too fast.

 

I almost lost sight of the wolves as we rounded a bend along the creek, and then almost ran by. They all stood, encircling a cabin built along the creek, in a seated position. The house seemed very old, but that was impossible. It was right where seasonal flooding would wash it away.  Somehow this creek must not swell in the spring, although, by the ravine walls around us, it was obvious it had in the past.

 

Looking at the cabin made my eyes ache, oddly, and I could feel the tell tale signs of magic, the kind aimed at me.

 

I signaled the young wolf, who had finished healing, and he approached. I shook my head at him, and placed the items on the ground. I held my palm out, the obvious sign of needing payment. The young wolf huffed, and all the wolves stirred, padding from foot to foot.  They whined at me, and snuffled in the direction of the cabin.

 

“Ho there!” I yelled toward the cabin. “Friends approach.”

 

A young woman with luminous skin and blond hair peered out the window. “Friend? I see wolves and a thief.”

 

“Aye, you do, but this thief is your servant today, and these wolves are your friends, I assure you.”

 

“You assure me? Hmph. Anything happens, it’s your neck. Deal?” I nodded.

 

A bubble of shimmer popped from around the cabin, and she came stepping out the door.

 

In perfect bare feet, she stood on the rounded polished stones of the creek beside her home, arms akimbo, fantastically beautiful eyes flashing at me, “What gives?”

 

Then her eyes spotted the items in my arms, and she crooned to herself. Both hands came rushing out. She knocked the broom off to the side and started peering through the jewels on the crown. “Ho ho, real. Real!” she crowed. She picked up the pillow and squinted at it.

 

“What’s this?” she looked at me suspiciously.

 

“I think it’s the job,” I answered simply, shrugging, “Or the other items.”

 

She squinted again at the broom. She was beautiful even when making faces. She grimaced, and my heart pounded. Foolish human heart, had I. I shut the thoughts down, before her obvious witchcraft made me her slave.

 

She looked right at me as I thought that, almost as though she heard me. Looking into my eyes, she waved her hand at the pillow and it turned into a young wolf pup, squirming in her hands. “Oh! Ew!” She threw it toward the pack, and its mother leapt out, grabbing it up gently in her jaws.  She grabbed up the crown, and turned on her heel, heading back into her cabin. The bubble flashed back into place around the cabin, and my head cleared the rest of the way. Ugh, magic was such a pain. Almost got me falling in love with her. Not this particular Jack-o-the night.

 

All the wolves transformed into their human selves, long black hair dancing in the breeze, nostrils flaring, yellow eyes still cautious.

 

“Thank you. You’ve done us a kindness. Your payment will be lying upon the bed we found you in when you return.”

 

I sighed. Damn. Another payment in trust. What the heck. You couldn’t trust the magical folk.

 

“And if it’s not there?” I asked, lightly. You did not want to piss off the wolf pack.

 

“It will be.”

 

“But if it’s not?” I repeated. The pack leader looked at me, and answered with a straight face.

 

“If your money was not placed on your bed, you may come kill me. Hurry home, though. I believe that whore of yours may be losing patience with wanting to know what’s in the bag you left on your bed…” He huffed in what was probably a chuckle.

 

“Thanks!” I turned in a circle and pinched a touch of the magical salts that “that whore” had retrieved for me on our last outing, and was suddenly back home, in my comfortably musty-smelling room above the pub. I flopped onto my bed, and heard the jingle of a fat sack of coin as my head hit the pillow. A real down pillow, no less.

 

I checked the sack. The wolves had been true to their word. “Janine! Get in here! You’re not going to believe it, but I found us another witch!”

 

“Oh! You’re home.” Janine rounded the newel post at the entry and swung herself into my arms.

 

“Did you hear me?” I said, catching her up and holding her to me, laughing.

 

“Yes, she purred, as she nuzzled into my neck, bright eyes peering up from my collar. “Ooh, goodie, you brought me a new heist!”

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Inspiration by Nicole DragonBeck

For Zhenya, one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life 🙂

I was sitting there looking at the best person I’ve ever met in my life.

Well, not exactly the best person, but it was the best person I could hope for right now. As I had the guards on my tail, and I had no way to get rid of the ruby necklace.

Harry looked down at the last line, mussed his already wild brown hair, and sighed. Setting his pen down, he took the piece of parchment and balled it up, tossing it over his shoulder in disgust.

This story is going nowhere, he thought miserably. How am I going to get my hero out of this one? He glanced around at the lumps of discarded paper littering his study. Preferably without spending a fortune I don’t have on reams of parchment.

He read back over the previous pages, pages he was tentatively considering not crumpling up and putting in the fire. Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland, had gotten himself into a bit of a conundrum with a horde of goblins and some stolen goods in the third or fourth chapter of Harry’s latest attempt at a novel, and now Harry had no idea how to get Nathanial to the ship that was supposedly waiting for him at the port city of Albahedron, just over that mountain ridge with no name.

“If only there was some way…” Harry muttered to the empty room, rubbing his eyes. “Some way I could just make it all work out…”

“What if I told you there was?” a voice chirped right next to him.

Harry gave a startled yell and fell off his chair. Looking up from where he was now lying on the floor, he saw a small creature perched on the edge of his desk, feet dangling over the side. It was a muddy red color and had small, sharp horns, on which rested a glowing gold halo. Fluffy white wings protruded from its shoulders and it twirled something that looked like a trident in its hands. It smiled down at Harry, revealing sharp teeth.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” the thing told him.

Harry pushed himself off the floor and brushed the indignity from his clothes. “Yeah, that’s alright,” he said, trying to look anywhere else but at the creature. “What are you doing in my study?”

The creature gave a delighted beam. “Why, I heard your call for inspiration, and…” the creature spread its arms wide, “here I am!”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked, hoping he looked polite and not horrified.

The creature frowned and it became a lot less friendly. “What, you didn’t think inspiration just came from the gentle thought of a benevolent god, or the silver ringing of magic bells, did you? Or maybe a cup of particularly fine coffee, is that it?” it said with a faint sneer. “Well, it’s not that easy, I can tell you.”

“You’ve, um, had lots of experience with it then?” Harry replied, pulling his chair upright and sitting down.

He noticed the creature was sitting on one of the pages of his story.

“Lots?” the creature barked. “It’s all I do all day, cater to whingeing, whining, pathetic…” it stopped suddenly, collected itself, and forced a smile back onto its face. “But that’s really beside the point.”

“And what is the point?” Harry wasn’t sure of the wisdom of asking this question, but he couldn’t see anything else that he could do.

“The point is, you called for help, and I came,” the creature smiled. “Now let’s see, what are you writing here?”

It looked down, and pulled the disorganized sheaf of papers from under its bottom. It read for a bit, then turned the papers the right way up with an apologetic smile. “Styles differ, you know, and I thought perhaps it was a new way of expressing yourself, with no apparent grammatical structure. I’ve seen worse.”

“Oh, well, that’s good, I suppose,” Harry said, watching the little imp read the words he had attempted to wrench from his heart and soul, the intangible ideas he had tried to give corporeal form to with ink and paper. And blood and sweat and tears, lots of tears, Harry thought, his mind started to wander just a bit, as was not unusual. A sharp cough brought him back into the real world.

“It’s got potential,” the creature announced.

“Really? You think so?” Harry said, greatly cheered.

“No, that just what I have to tell you all, or I would be out of a job,” the creature sighed. “But it’s not horrible. I didn’t want to scratch my eyeballs out and set my head on fire when I was reading it.”

“Do you feel that way often?” Harry asked, trying to be sympathetic.

“Of course. Every time I set my head on fire after reading some particularly bad piece of…” the thing nodded and waved its hand inarticulately at the instruments of Harry’s work.

“Oh,” Harry nodded, and carefully extracted the complimentary aspects out of the creatures words, namely that its head was not on fire at the moment. “So, um, what are you here for exactly?”

The creature huffed impatiently. “I think that should be rather obvious, really. Intervention! Incentive! Inspiration!” It didn’t seem impressed with Harry’s blank look. “I’m here to help you finish your story!”

“Oh!” Harry’s expression morphed into something like hope. “Really?”

“No, I’m a figment of your imagination,” the imp said with a scowl. “Yes, really.”

“Excellent!” Harry said, and then thought of the million caveats that would most definitely come with something appearing on his desk with this offer. “What’s the catch?”

“You mean what is the price for the service?” the imp sniffed. “Well, we have several different options we are able to provide our clients…”

It whipped out a black ledger and shoved some brochures at Harry. Harry looked down at them, and saw pictures of people showing off stacks of books, people rolling in gold, people writing with beatific faces in exotic locations with cocktails and gorgeous sunsets. He looked at the prices and paled.

“Do you have anything, um, cheaper?” he asked.

“Why?” the creature demanded.

“Well, these are a bit out of my budget,” Harry explained.

The imp peered at him with unveiled contempt, then snatched back the promotion. “Well, we have our starter package, but I can tell you, everyone who has tried it would recommend going for the higher-end options.”

“I think I’ll start with the starter,” Harry said. “What’s the price on that?”

“One hundred gold pieces,” the imp answered promptly.

“One hundred!” Harry gasped.

“Or,” it continued as if Harry had not spoken, “your soul for two years.”

Harry blinked. “That’s a bit…”

“A bit what?”

“Steep,” Harry said softly. “I sort of…need my…soul.”

“It’s just a lease,” the creature said. “We give it back when the contract is up. Besides, how do you know you need your soul? How do you know life isn’t better without it?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s fairly common knowledge,” Harry said, but the creature just stared at him, unimpressed.

Harry vacillated, acutely aware of the imp squinting at him with beady eyes. Harry looked down at the papers filled with his frantic handwriting now scattered even more haphazardly across his desk, and recalled the happy writer in the picture, showing off the dozen books with his name on them. He looked around his dingy, messy office, and thought of the serene writer on the beach with the brightly colored cocktail in hand. Then he thought of the writer lying on the mountain of gold.

“You know, I rather think my soul is worth more than fifty gold pieces a year,” he found himself saying.

“That’s what they all think,” the imp rolled its eyes. “Inflation and all that. Fine. I can cut you a deal. One year.”

“A month,” Harry said. “My soul is in mint condition.”

“Six months, final offer,” the creature countered.

“Okay,” Harry nodded.

“Sign here please.”

“Can I read it first?”

The creature stared at him in shock, then handed over the contract. Harry read it through carefully, his finger following the line of tiny legalese. It looked straightforward enough, one measure of inspiration to finish the novel, in exchange for one soul for the time of sixth months, at which point it would be returned, in a condition not unlike it had been deposited, etc., etc.

“Satisfied?” the creature gazed at him over crossed arms.

“What’s your refund policy?” Harry inquired.

The creature gave him an impatient look, which made Harry wilt. He took the pen it handed him and signed his name in shining red ink on the bottom of the contract. The creature snatched it back, rolled it up, and stuck it in the black ledger. Then it stood up, making ready to leave.

“Wait! What about the…” Harry indicated the papers splayed out on his desk.

“Right.” The creature looked at its trident with shining eyes, then leaped at Harry and stabbed him with it.

“Ow!” Harry shrieked, the sight of blood on his arm worse than the slight sting of pain. “What was tha…”

His vision was going blurry, and his body felt heavy.

“Sweet dreams,” he heard someone say from a long way off.

Then all was black.

When Harry opened his eyes again, he did not know where he was. It looked like he was in the mountains, but the nearest mountains from where he lived was two weeks’ travel north. In fact, Harry had never seen a mountain in his whole life. They were nothing like he imagined, much harder and stonier.

He groaned as he sat up and realized he was not alone. He also realized his hands were tied. Someone was watching him, hunched close to the ground, a sword lying across his knees. The person looked familiar, the piecing blue eyes and the dark hair, fine features, and the scar that ran down his cheek.

Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland!

The person started. “How do you know my name?”

Harry didn’t realize he had spoken aloud. He opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it.

“Where am I?” he asked instead, struggling against his bonds.

“More importantly, how did you get here?” the Duke asked.

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted, giving up on the rope. “One moment I was in my study, the next, I woke up here.”

The Duke studied him for a long moment, then nodded. With a brisk motion, Nathanial stood and advanced on Harry, sword out. Harry closed his eyes, heart beating frantically, but the blade only cut through the bindings on his wrists. Harry sighed and opened his eyes. A horn blew, somewhere in the trees, and the Duke looked up that way, his face tense.

“Those would be the goblins,” Harry moaned to himself. Why oh why did I think stacking the odds so badly against him was a good idea?

“Those would be the goblins,” the Duke agreed. “And this is where we part ways.” He hefted a sack, which Harry knew contained some very old and powerful objects – objects which, Harry realized, the Duke had no idea what they were capable of – and began to make his way down the mountain. He rounded a boulder and disappeared from view, leaving Harry by himself on the mountainside.

This can’t be happening, Harry tried to convince himself. I must be dreaming.

Sweet dreams, the echo of an impish voice told him. Harry pinched his arm, hard enough to bruise, and gave a wounded yelp, though he had no one else to blame but himself for the pain. He definitely wasn’t dreaming. This was happening.

“How is this supposed to be inspirational?” he yelled at the sky. “I’m not going to be able to finish my novel if I die out here!”

The horn sounded, louder and closer this time. All of the sudden, Harry was rather less worried about Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland, and more interested in how he was going to get himself out of this mess.

 

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A Tiger Knows by Brandon Scott

For Hailey Marie, my favorite actress.

“She didn’t often like tigers but this one she found quite amusing.”

It had a glint in its eye, a spark of intelligence. A tigress. A female. A mother–in a cage. How fitting.

It paced, but did not paw with madness, nor hunger. It knew it had all the time it needed.

Tabitha was not as certain. She was not as calm. She wanted to scream and pry at the bars. Oh, how I wish I could. If only I could find the smallest weakness, I would be out of here and that thing would be….

But Tabitha was not strong—especially now. She stood and pressed her body against the cage walls, but could barely reach out her arms past the elbows. Her stomach pressed hard into the metal, and a kick reminded her–as if she needed reminding–that another life was also in this cage with her.

The tiger gave a soft noise, a purr from something not at all capable of a purr. A rumble, perhaps.

And Tabitha looked at it and tried to find amusement again. Curiosity instead of uncertainty. But it was hard to hold. Her eyes scanned the other cages and found no other motions. Some creatures had frozen in fear–aware of the predators, others slept from exhaustion, and still more laid in the stillest position afforded to any being: dead. Corpses. The humans all filled up the final category, and she tried for amusement yet again.

She gathered up the remains of a blanket, the structure reduced to almost nothing at all, and tossed an end out for the tigress to take. It pawed at it, playing like a house cat.

The line went taut and snapped, and Tabitha frowned. She gathered back the rest and cast it out again. The tiger repeated its action. Pulled, so it vibrated slightly, and then sliced with its teeth.

Tabitha drew it back once more, held both ends out, and pulled in opposite directions with what strength she had. And the line remained strong.

“A scissor…but not a rock,” she concluded to herself, her voice eaten by the room. Sucked away into the void of silence.

The tiger made the not-purr sound, and Tabitha gave it her full attention. The massive cat tilted its head toward the door at the end of the hallway of cages, and Tabitha followed with her gaze.

The door had a window in it, with a cloth covering to reduce any sight to only a silhouette. But this silhouette was unmistakable. Nothing else Tabitha knew looked anything like that. She wondered why it was coming here. What business does it have? Is it here to feed us again, so soon? When has it ever been kind enough for that?

Tabitha shook her head, but prepared all the same for the entrance, backing up into the corner of the cage and curling into a ball. Look feeble, she told herself. It does not like to hurt the feeble.

The door swung open with a shot of light, extinguished again like a candle’s flame. The thing lumbered into the room, a series of metal pieces jangling with each motion.

It was large, towering. Like a cyclops from the old legends on Earth, it had only one eye, set so low that its forehead made up half its face. Below the singular orb with a blue iris was a pair of curved boar’s teeth, forcing themselves out of the mouth with little regard for the race’s clarity of speech.

Up close, as it was now to her cage, Tabitha could smell the odd, strong garlic tinge that always hung on it. The ragged and stitched together covering of space suit material did not seem to have any noticeable liquids on it to produce such a scent, but did all the same.

“Woman, do you birth soon?” the thing asked, its voice a booming grumble of strained syllables.

Tabitha swallowed the saliva she found filling her throat. “No, not yet. The human birth cycle can take a while–”

“Can it be sped?” it interrupted.

“No… not if you want it alive.”

It bowed down on a knee and reached out one of its hands toward Tabitha, only not touching her by a few inches. Tabitha felt a fit of revulsion from the idea of such gnarled skin grazing her. She pushed her body as far back as she could into the bars.

“I think you are the one concerned about being alive. Can it be sped up?”

“No. Do you not understand human anatomy?”

“Your writings as a species lack…everything,” the creature said. “How you speak this…mud, is enough to confuse.”

“Then remain confused,” Tabitha spat back, cradling her stomach with one hand.

“I shall, for now. But once we know how to make more sport fast…you will breed with all males we find. And then we will have many bodies to study.”

“Breed? Not likely,” Tabitha said in a soft whisper. Her faint cockiness fell to pieces when her cage shook–with her along with it. She fell to her side and gasped at the sudden pain of impact.

“What was that you spoke?” the creature said. She could hear the tinges of humor in its voice: the same she’d heard intermingled with the screams of the man in the cage two over from her a week ago.

“Nothing,” she said in-between gulps and restrained sobs. “Nothing at all.”

“Good to listen,” it said and rose back up to walk. Not bothering to look at her, the creature trudged over to the other cage and snapped the padlock off the tigress’s container. Rather than pounce, it just looked.

The creature chuckled and reached for one of the metal leashes hanging off its body. It tugged free one and beckoned with a clawed hand to the cat.

Tabitha rose to stand, her muscles coiling, the pain pushed aside. Her mind wondered what to do with the situation. She could not stay here much longer. Not if she was going to have this child. She would not birth him or her in this place. She was sure of that. I will never let you have my baby.

Tabitha stood and looked at the rag. The strong fabric. She wondered: would it work? Was it strong enough? I can only try this once.

Tabitha walked to the closer edge of the cage and watched the proceedings. The cat refused to move, and the creature seemed to find this preferable.

“Oh, no? Not I? Well, how about with this?”

It turned toward the back wall and took three steps. A wall of tools and sharp things hung on pegs, but Tabitha was not watching that. The cat and her. The hunter and her. They made eye contact, and she tossed the cloth over to her companion.

The tigress caught it and looped it. Not biting the string. Tabitha could swear it winked at her.

And when the great cat finished, the fabric sat, practically tied—if not for lack of human hands—around the pole of the cage. Tabitha knew not if it would hold, but she knew it would make a thing stumble.

“Ready?” the creature said and turned around brandishing a stick with the end glowing electrical blue. It pressed a trigger at the bottom and the sparks flew off the tip. “Ready to go?”

The demon-like mouth turned to a frown when it saw the cat already close, beckoning out her neck for the collar.

“Oh,” it grumbled, and let the stick fall to its hip’s side, the sparks fading away. “Now you decide? Fine. Come with me. Captain wants to try something new tonight for mealtime. Human for commoners.”

Guiding the feline with one hand, it gave a glare to Tabitha–which broke to panic when it pitched forward. Both cages screamed as the metal bent and titled, but the fall was a perfect arc, its arms going out on either side and only finding the already collapsing metal.

The creature hit the floor with a thunderous slap and did not have time to rise before the tigress took her chance. And once a predator clamps on the nape of a neck, it is not deterred.

A reach forward and Tabitha found her fingers touching the dropped electrical weapon. Again, she felt amused. Hopeful too.

“Tell me puss,” she said, letting the blue power dance, the light reflecting in spilled blood, “do you think this can melt my lock?”

She was sure this time that the tigress winked at her.

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