Now Available: Dream Logic

Dream logic

She was made to dream and told that her visions might save them, but would they destroy her in the process? Asleep she dreams of a ruined world that is slowly dying, where she is forever trying to find someone still alive. Awake she is trapped in a bed and fed drugs that will make her dream. But now those two realms are beginning to combine. and as the distinction between dream and reality starts to crumble it may drive her mad.

A short story by Clint Westgard
Published November, 2013

Available at Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords

 

The Contaminated and the Fallen

She suspected, though she had no proof one way or the other, that this fallen realm in which her dream had her trapped was underground.. Perhaps it was the ever-present shadows and darkness, the days as the nights, whole and unchanging that led to this belief. Her existence here was immutable unmarked by any sense of the passage of time. She imagined a world of caverns, hollowed out and reconstructed into this strange habitat that seemed to her without purpose. A dream within a dream, she realized, and perhaps it was just the dream state thwarting her senses and not allowing her to comprehend all that she saw.

The last words of the voice came to her mind, dimly and half-remembered, as though that were the dream and not this. She was following one of her usual trails toward a dispenser that she was knew was still working. After that, if her dream went as it normally did, she would go above to one of the higher rings where there was a large room filled with desks with screens. Some of the screens still worked, after a fashion, and she would sit and watch them flashing their information and images, until she grew restless and started moving again.

This time, compelled by the words, she continued on along the ring, chewing on the block of foul tasting food the dispenser had given her. She often felt ill after she had eaten the food, though this dispenser seemed to agree with her more than the others. It was clearly degrading, as everything here was, and part of her knew that it was only a matter of time until all the dispensers failed entirely. Would her dreams allow that to happen, would her mind compel the machines to continue to work or would the logic of situation play out as it should? And what then?

Not wanting to dwell on that, disliking the sensation of dreaming and yet aware that she was in a dream, she pressed on, ducking through corridors. Rather than taking one of her usual paths, the ones she knew were safe and abandoned, she went to those areas that the Fallen inhabited. Not all of them were unhazardous, she knew, so she went with care, always checking each door she passed through to make sure it had not sealed behind her allowing her no escape.

One of the machines confronted her as she went, looming up out of the darkness, demanding her authorization. Its voice was disturbingly similar to the one that questioned her when she was awake, though they all sounded more or less the same. The flat monotone, parched of emotion.

The area is contaminated. Please exit immediately. You are not authorized.”

She ignored it, ducking around its bulky frame and moving down the black corridor, the machine sounding an alarm that no longer functioned. The corridor ended at a door that was jammed, which she pushed and pried apart just enough so that she could slip through. She waited a moment to ensure it did not close on her and then turned to go further down the corridor, her path illuminated by a blinking red light along the ceiling. Was this the alarm the machine had started after her breach into his realm, she wondered, or was it from some earlier calamity?

There were a few doors off the corridor, but she knew by the shape and the markings on them that there would be nothing of interest in them. They were small rooms that had perhaps been used for storage or for those who had left to sit in and pass their days. Now they would be empty, or filled with the uninteresting refuse of the decay. At last she found what she had been looking for, a larger door than the others with symbols above its frames. It was open, its automation having failed, and she stepped through into a large chamber.

It was cavernous, the ceiling stretching up past the far reaches of her sight. There were giant tubes, fragile seeming cylinders, and pipes that curved and wound around on themselves, sheltered behind protective glass. Some glowed with dim activity while others were dark. The flashing red light was brighter here, more insistent, if that were possible. She ignored all of that, ducking around the artifacts of this previous age, looking for one of the Fallen. They would be here, she knew, the smell of them was undeniable.

After some searching she managed to find one. He leaned against one of the glowing cylinders, seeming to rest his head against it as he stared off into the distance. In spite of his faraway gaze she felt his eyes upon her, no matter where she stood as she considered her approach. At last, realizing that he would already have seen her anyway, she walked up to him directly. The heat coming from the cylinder on which he rested was tremendous. Instinctively, she crouched down as she moved forward, as though that would protect her from whatever force lay within the tube should it somehow be loosed.

Nothing happened as she came face to face with the Fallen man. The cylinder did not explode, as she had feared, nor did the man rise up and seize her. He continued to stare off into the distance, a leering grin marking his face. She eyed him warily, still unconvinced that this was not some manner of trap that he had lain for her. When he made no motion at all, after she had watched him for several minutes, she moved within range of his grasp, poised to flee at the first instant of motion.

None came and then she wondered if he were waiting for her to speak, to make plain her intentions. How did one address the Fallen? She had no idea, the machines mostly did not respond to her, perhaps it would be the same here. In this realm it seemed she had forgotten the tools of speech, though words still seemed to form as thoughts in her mind. She wet her lips and reached out to touch the man, thinking that if there were no words to speak, then this gesture might be enough.

Her hand had just brushed the cloth of his uniform when one of the machines seized her.

You are not authorized. The area is contaminated.”

from Dream Logic

Now Available: The The Trials of the Minotaur

The Trials of the Minotaur

In the fifth year of the rule of Auten the One Eyed a minotaur was born to one of the imperial city of Colosi’s most important patrician families. The Trials of the Minotaur tells his story, following his life from despair and exile to triumph in the pantheon of Colosi. Betrayed at the hands of those closest to him, he achieves wealth and power beyond imagining as the oracle of a barbarian city, only to be cast out and turned into the star attraction of a traveling cabinet of curiosities.

Including all three volumes: The Blind Minotaur, The Oracle’s Mortification, and The Wondrous Beast.

By Clint Westgard
Published November, 2013
Available at AmazonKobo, and Smashwords

The Traveling Cabinet of Doctor Eid

Months passed in miserable solitude for the Minotaur, where he survived on berries and whatever he could manage to scavenge. He was avoided as a pariah wherever he went in Thedeo’s kingdom, for word had passed quickly from Alari of his downfall. No longer a god, but a mere beast, towns barred their gates to him and villagers rang bells to warn others of his approach. Children, tempted by the stories they had heard of his former deity, would follow him at a distance, throwing stones at him for fun.

Though he longed for death, and had expected it after what Velthar had done to him, the gods did not grant him release. His crimes were too great, he surmised. His wounds healed well, though he was left greatly weakened, with little of the strength he had once possessed, and his sides were still marked with scars where the whip had torn at his flesh. His visions had ceased upon leaving Alari, returning him to that darkness again, which he took as a small mercy. He often woke weeping and trembling, his mind empty, whatever dreams that had troubled him vanished into the aether.

In a sense he had died when Velthar and his followers had cast him from the temple, his false godhood passing from him, for in the long and empty days that came after not once did he think of what was to come. Such things no longer mattered to him. He lived on because he could not summon the courage to stop himself, scrounging and foraging, a pathetic figure on the fringes of the world. He hated himself for this weakness. No flame burned within him to keep on, nothing beckoned him forward, yet on he went, unable to stop himself.

Some days, when he had walked too long and exhaustion had overcome him, he would collapse, wherever he happened to be, and lie there insensible thinking about Galrice. He would imagine their escape from Alari and their child, a son he was certain, that they raised to be a proud man. All impossibilities he knew. Galrice would never have left the temple, perhaps not even at his command. She had believed, they had all believed, and when that belief had proved to be upon a foundation of sand, it could only crumble and ruin them all.

It was while lost in such despairing thoughts as these that he fell into the hands of Dr. Eid and His Traveling Cabinet. The Minotaur had passed beyond Thedeo’s kingdom and into another barbarian fiefdom where the learned doctor happened to be displaying his bestiary. Upon hearing from the locals of a strange half-bull, half-man who had once been a god, he sent two of his minions to capture the beast. It was an easy task, for by this time the Minotaur had fallen into a pitiable state. His ribs showed through his chest, his gums were bleeding and he had a tremor in one leg that made his gait unsteady.

The good Doctor’s minions found him lying and daydreaming in the middle of some country trail, muttering to himself in some strange language. They set upon him before he even realized they were present, knocking him senseless with a few sharp blows from a cudgel. They fashioned a length of rope into a halter and put it about his neck, running it through a ring they put through his nose, and with that they led him as they might any draft animal.

The Minotaur offered no struggle in the face of these new humiliations, submitting meekly to the two men as they led him back to the village where Dr. Eid had established himself. He could hear the gathered crowd murmur in consternation as he passed by. For a fleeting moment he thought they might act, turn against his captors and restore his freedom to him, but he quickly realized their anger was directed at him. In the months since his exile from the temple, Velthar had been careful to spread word to all and sundry that, not only had the god left the Minotaur, he was now an empty vessel who could be inhabited by any false devil or wizard.

Seeing him in the possession of this foreign doctor who sold various strange life elixirs and talked of the secret knowledge of science and philosophy that he possessed, they suspected the two of them of being in league. By the time the Minotaur had been thrown into a cage and thrown some hay, which he lay down on as a bed, the villagers had begun to gather, even calling the farmers and herders from the fields to stand against this invasion. The good Doctor, seemingly oblivious to the growing ire of the villagers, stepped out before them and in his best barker’s voice began to call for them to come and look upon their fallen god.

“My good friends. Come and see the god that has fallen to earth,” he said in his strange accent. “Once a god now a mere beast. But a singular beast. Part man and part bull. What terrible congress led to such a creation. Only the gods know and they have sent him from their care so that you may look upon him and the offspring of such a terrible act.”

The crowd had begun shouting at him before he had even finished his speech and several of them took up stones and aimed them at the Minotaur’s head.

“My good friends, my good friends. This is not necessary. The beast has been subdued. I have him in my grasp. He shall not escape.”

“Yes, he is under your control,” one man shouted. “We all know what that means. You’ll not be ruling over us.”

“My good friends, I have no designs upon your land or your hearts. I would never dare to usurp your gods or your rulers. I am a humble servant and I ask only for some of your time and your hard earned coin so that you may witness my wondrous menagerie. Creatures, each more marvelous than the next, from all corners of the earth, carefully gathered and tamed and brought before you.”

His words did little good, for the crowd had already decided against him, and he was forced to have his men hitch up the caravan and flee before the villagers turned violent. When they were safely underway he had the driver of his wagon pull alongside the one carrying the Minotaur’s cage so that he could study the creature more closely. He clucked his tongue in disapproval at the shriveled and ragged state of the beast, but soon he found himself nodding and smiling.

“Not some simulacrum here. The unvarnished truth lies before us,” he said to the driver, who spat in reply.

“You had better be worth the trouble you’ve caused me,” the doctor called to the beast. “I’ll have to leave these miserable lands now or they’ll have my head. And think of the coin I am losing because of it. If they believed you a god, they would have believed anything.”

The Minotaur had been dozing but he awoke at the Doctor’s words and raised his head, trying to discern the man’s tongue. “What words are these? Where are you from?” this said in the barbarian tongue he knew the doctor spoke.

“It speaks,” the Doctor said. “A truly wondrous beast. We hail from the magnificent and eternal empire Huiam, all praise its greatness. You have not seen its like in these miserable barbarian realms.”

“I see little as it is,” the Minotaur said. “And I am no barbarian. I am a patrician of Rheadd.”

“His tales grows even more fantastic. Well beast, I think we shall find use for you.” the Doctor laughed and slapped the driver’s shoulder so that he pulled the caravan ahead of the Minotaur’s cage, leaving him to shiver and wonder what the man meant.

from The Wondrous Beast

Now Available: Quarantine Protocol

Quarantine Protocol

A contagion is spreading like wildfire across the planet. Cities and nations lie in ruins, except for those that have enacted the Quarantine Protocol. Jon Lewmach and Marta Gilovic happily live under the Protocol, but when the specter of imminent death presses a little too closely they find that it will tear them apart. 

A short story by  Clint Westgard
Available at Amazon and Smashwords

The Contaminated Man

It was twenty-five blocks to her destination, fifteen north and ten west, right through the heart of what had once been downtown. It was an eery and empty place now, the power cut long ago, to conserve what remained. The power grid and other major infrastructure still functioned to a degree, though for how long was anyone’s guess with fewer and fewer people left to maintain it. They only had electricity in the evenings and only in the few neighborhoods of the city where the Quarantine Protocol remained in effect. Contaminated zones, like downtown, had been abandoned by the Protocol, though not by everyone.

The high rise looked like any other on the block. There was a restaurant and a pharmacy on the main floor, some offices and a skywalk connecting to the building across the street on the second. Above that were more offices and above that apartments. All of downtown had been emptied by the Quarantine Protocol, but those who could not live under that law had returned, here and elsewhere. The spray painted red X’s signified that it was still inhabited. Here was where one could find all those things deemed inessential by the Protocol.

She passed by the elevator and headed for the stairwell and began to climb the fifteen flights, the flashlight she had her only guide. It was stuffy and hot and sweat was soon running down her face. As she went a door opened and then clanged shut above her as someone began to descend. They halted upon hearing her footsteps. Marta continued on to the top of the next flight and then called out the floor number to the person above, exiting the stairwell and moving well back of the doorway to wait. After a few minutes there was a loud knock at the door. She waited at least a minute more before renewing her ascent.

When she reached the fifteenth floor she knocked loudly and then waited before entering. She moved quickly down the hallway until she reached Apartment 1543. Hanging on the doorway was a clipboard from which dangled a pen. Taking up the pen she wrote down what she needed and what she had to offer and then knocked on the door. She turned and walked back the way she had come until she reached Apartment 1522, which she entered after knocking to ensure it was empty.

The apartment had all the furniture from its last occupants. There were even magazines and letters from months ago sitting on one of the tables. She had long ago stopped looking at such markers of the disappeared. Instead she went to one of the windows, peering through the closed drapes to look at the streets below. She could see a man passing near the entrance of the building walking erratically and her mouth went dry. Though she urged him on he sat down on the sidewalk right near the entrance. As she pondered how to avoid the polluted man when she left there was a loud knock two doors down from the apartment she was in.

When she had counted off thirty seconds, Marta left the 1522 and went down two doors. Unlike the other, Apartment 1526 was completely empty with light streaming in from the drapeless window. In the center of what would have been the living room there were several small boxes. Seeing them she could not contain herself and she ran forward, dropping to her knees to inspect them. She opened each one to inspect the pills, ensuring they were all still within their plastic casing. That done she popped one of them free and, with a shaking hand, swallowed it. The boxes she put in her bag exchanging them for a small container of strawberries that she had picked that morning from the terrace garden of their building.

The contaminated man was still sitting at the entrance when she had descended to the fourth floor. There was another entrance on the opposite side of the building but even that, she feared, might be too close to the contamination. Instead she decided to take the skywalk, though it was a journey into the unknown. That building had been unmarked, meaning it was abandoned. In her experience the polluted were drawn to people, the internal logic of the disease insisting that it be spread, so an empty building would likely be safer than chancing the other entrance.

Her decision made she did not linger. It was never good to remain away from where the Protocol was in force. The uncontaminated in these areas lived on the knife’s edge and preferred it that way, if the reports of beatings and theft and worse that were broadcast were true. She did not doubt it, not after surviving these last months where any illusions about what people, contaminated or not, were capable of had been shattered utterly.

Marta moved quickly across the skywalk, feeling exposed for some reason in the glass walkway. The high rise she entered was much the same as the other one, filled with abandoned shops and stands, all draped in shadows, daylight rising up from the entryway below to guide her. A series of frozen escalators led down to the main floor. She stood atop one, peering around the lobby to ensure she was alone before starting down. The escalators emptied out toward three revolving glass doors that glimmered where the sunlight caught them. What she could see of the street beyond appeared empty but she walked from one end of the lobby to the other to confirm that there was no one near before stepping into the nearest revolving door.

The door went forward about a quarter of a revolution – not enough to allow her to exit, but enough to close off her means of retreat – before it lurched to a halt and would not budge. She pushed at it, calmly at first, assuming it was merely jammed, but when it became apparent that it was stuck she threw all her weight against it, trying to shake it loose. The door rattled loudly but would not move and she kicked at it in frustration. Next she turned around and tried to push the it backwards, but, as she suspected, the tracking wouldn’t run that way.

She tried to gather herself, to calm the pulse that was thundering in her temples, but instead panic set in and she moved about in a frenzy from side to side, trying to dislodge the door. It had no effect, the door shuddering and vibrating under her blows, but no more. At last she slid down to ground, her back against the glass, tears in her eyes and sweat streaming down her face. Her whole body began to tremble as she thought of what would happen if someone were to find her trapped here, or if no one did, if she were just left to starve and be set upon by the contaminated.

After some time Marta managed to calm herself and she began to think through how she could engineer an escape. Nothing came to mind and she had to fight down her panic again. The thin wedge of space she was trapped within seemed to be growing hotter by the moment, the sunlight beating through the panes of glass. Though she knew it was impossible she could not help imagining the stuffy air slowly draining from the place with each breath she took until she suffocated.

A flash of movement on the escalators above caught her eye and for a moment her heart leapt in excitement, only to be replaced by trepidation. No one would help her here. The Quarantine Patrol would not come for her even if she managed to contact them on the radio. She swallowed, telling herself that it had been nothing more than a change in the light, but the distinct sensation of being watched that crept across her neck told her otherwise. She leaned forward trying to parse the shadows above her, hope and fear wrestling in her mind. She thought she could make out something there, a vague form, but she couldn’t be certain. No further movement came, though she waited expectantly.

Fucking goddamn idiot,” she said at last to herself.

The words seem to break a spell that had been cast. The shadows moved atop the escalator and she briefly made out the form of someone backing away quickly. She nearly called out, begging whoever it was to stay and help her. Before she could though there was a crash against the glass behind her and she whirled around to see a man, his face contorted into an awful grimace slamming himself against the immovable revolving door. She screamed and jumped to her feet, throwing herself against the door as hard as she could to no effect. The contaminated man yelled something unintelligible in response to her screams and redoubled his tortured efforts.

from Quarantine Protocol

An Attempted Escape

At last the sight of the Stranger watching me from the shadows, his eyes telling me that my dreams of the horrors he would visit upon my person would in time become all too real, was too much. I had to escape San Sebastián and Cuzco and fly as far away as possible, so I set about to craft a plan. Normally I would have used the night to shelter my escape, but the aid it offered me was negated entirely by the presence of the Stranger and his terrible powers. That he had managed to survive our earlier confrontation told me that he was not a man in any sense that you or I would use, but rather a devil incarnate with all the magic that a demon might have upon this earth. I could not hope to defeat him, and certainly I could not evade him along with all the others who maintained the siege. Instead I determined to flee during the day, though it offered me little protection. But the Stranger was not present among the watchers, as near as I could tell, during the daylight hours so, by necessity, it offered my best chance. But how to slip by the guard without attracting notice when I did not have darkness and obscurity as my ally?

I turned instead to my allies of blood and flesh within Cuzco, those friends who I knew I could trust and would not turn from me, no matter the threats and blandishments Don Lope and the Alcalde might offer. Here Diego was invaluable, for I sent him to my friend Don Mariano and a few others to ask for their aid and to explain what I had in mind. They in turn brought word to others they trusted and, when all was prepared, sent word through Diego to that effect. Here I acted quickly, for I suspected that Don Lope had his men following Diego and I needed to set things in motion before they realized what was afoot.

I chose the following Sunday, for the church would be at it’s busiest that day and the crowd would offer me greater cover. Don Mariano had sent me a new suit through Diego, which I wore in the hopes of providing a moment’s distraction from the watch, who had no doubt grown used to the usual frock which I had been forced to wear for the two months I had been under their gaze. As the church filled with parishioners and mass began I hid myself amongst them, my hat pulled low. I spied a few of Don Lope’s men among the worshipers and saw, to my delight, that they were scanning those gathered for a sign of me, knowing that I normally took mass at this time.

At the conclusion of mass the crowd began to let out into the street where the watch was kept and I put plan into action. Don Mariano had engaged two harlots to create a disturbance to draw the attention of the crowd. One of them, a lovely morenasa named Teresa, had spent the morning on the streets around the church selling candies, while the other, a mestiza named Geronima, arranged to pass by Teresa as she was selling her wares to those let out from the service. Teresa feigned to notice Geronima in turn and immediately confronted her, calling her a whore and all manner of things. Geronima responded in kind and they fell upon each other, scratching at each others faces and pulling their hair, creating a tremendous racket.

This had the desired effect, for the crowd exiting the church was drawn towards spectacle. The result was that the street was filled with a milling group of people, trying to make room for the two combatants, mingling with those keeping watch against me. The guards could not resist turning to watch what was happening as well, for most of them were now two months into the siege and they had long since grown bored with their uneventful duty. In the midst of the crowd, having attended mass, was one Pablo Vallojil, an Indian from Guamanga, and a servant of Don Mariano’s. He was the ostensible cause of the battle between the two women and when he had announced his presence to the assembled they both turned and set upon him as one.

Pablo drew his sword, saying that he would see an end to them both for so dishonoring him before the home of Our Lord. There was great deal of nonsense said back and forth between he and the ladies, with members of the crowd joining in and choosing their side of the dispute. Pablo declared he would suffer these harlots’ insults no more and took after them, brandishing his sword. They both fled, towards the Alcalde’s watch, and these honorable men responded by raising their swords against Pablo. A flurry of threats were uttered back and forth as Pablo demanded to be given the satisfaction of punishing these recalcitrant women, while the Alcalde’s men dismissed him as an Indian who had passed beyond all reason and sense.

It was then that Don Mariano and two of his friends happened upon the scene and came to Pablo’s aid, demanding the arrest of Teresa and Geronima. The Alcalde’s men refused, saying that by rights Pablo and Don Mariano should be arrested. Further insults were traded and soon everyone’s swords were drawn and a melee resulted that sent the still gathered crowd into a seething turmoil, as those nearest to the fight tried to get clear of the blades, while those at the back tried to get nearer to better see what was taking place.

I was in the midst of all this, having exited the church with the crowd at the end of mass. As the incidents had developed I had stayed towards the back of the gathering, nearer the church, but when the fight between the guards and Don Mariano broke out I seized my chance and began to slip through the crowd, hoping of course to make a break while the Alcalde’s men were otherwise preoccupied. I kept my head low and had my cloak drawn up high over my shoulders, so that between it and my hat little of face was shown. Moving at an angle away from the fight, but staying within the assemblage I went, neither slowly nor quickly, being careful not meet anyone’s gaze, until the crowd began to dissipate and I could see the open streets before me. Though every fiber of my being demanded that I flee then and there, I kept my wits and walked steadily on, a man about his business..

Just as I thought myself free a hand seized my shoulder and spun me about, nearly yanking my arm free from my torso and I found myself face to face with Don Lope himself. I gave a shout and he snarled at me: You are the devil himself.

From the City of the Vanished

Now Available: Drifting

Drifting

The rodeo is over and now Dane and Colton are on the run, fleeing down back country roads in the dead of the night with the law in hot pursuit.  All over a woman lost and a dream that has begun to sour. Neither the past nor the law can be escaped though, as they will both soon discover.

A short story by  Clint Westgard
Available at AmazonKobo and Smashwords

Down the Backroads

The empty cans of beer had joined the other detritus on the floor of the truck, gathered over the past weeks of endless travel, a rodeo nearly every day. There were empty bags of chips and chocolate bar wrappers, bottles of Orange Crush half filled with Copenhagen spit, unopened packets of mustard and ketchup, along with napkins and coffee stir sticks and the other accoutrements of a life on the road. Emma had always complained about the smell of the truck, but Dane and Colton no longer noticed. They spent so long in there, days and nights crossing the Canadian prairie and down into Montana and Wyoming and further south on the rodeo circuit, that the state of the vehicle had simply become normal to them both, as natural as the vast open expanses they drove through.

They drove in an uneasy silence, Colton glancing over from time to time at Dane, who did not take his eyes from the road. He stuck to the back roads and secondary highways, though it would add time to their journey, but there was little chance of their meeting a cop on patrol. They encountered no one as they went and after a time Dane put the truck in the middle of the road so that the headlights illuminated both ditches. The only other lights came from the farms and ranches they passed by, flickering beacons in the darkness.

They stopped once to take a leak on the side of highway, each of them instantly surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes and bugs. Colton looked at Dane sideways as they stood there. At last, judging that enough time had passed to cool his friend’s temper Colton spoke.

“What the hell is going on man?”

Dane zipped up his pants and walked towards the truck, not looking at Colton. “It’s nothing. It’s Emma is all.”

“Bullshit nothing. Christ, why are we running around in the middle of the night then?”

Dane got in the truck without another word and Colton followed. “Get the stuff. I need a hit.”

“You sure man?” Colton said and Dane glared at him. Colton reached for the glove compartment, clicking it open and rummaging through the papers within. “This doesn’t seem like the best idea if we’re driving.”

“I’m tired man, I need to focus.”

“Well I could drive for a while.”

“Just get the shit,” Dane said.

“Alright, alright. Calm down now,” Colton said, retrieving a baggie and pipe. While he put some of the crystal in the pipe, Dane rolled down the windows, looking out morosely at the night.

They took a couple of hits each and then sat in silence as the high washed over them.

“Emma was with another guy,” Dane said at last.

“Holy shit,” Colton said, coughing. “You saw her?”

“Yeah,” Dane said slowly, taking another hit. “Yeah. Couldn’t find her. Went to look for her and she was in the trailer with this dude.”

“Man,” Colton said, returning the pipe and the baggie to their spots in the glove compartment. “Can’t believe she’d do that. What’d you say to them?”

“Nothing. I just walked in and heard them in the back and bailed. Didn’t trust myself, you know.”

Colton reflected on this for a moment. “So you didn’t see her?”

Dane looked at him. “Pretty obvious what was going on man.”

“I was just thinking, maybe it was Marcie, right? Could have been her too. They came together right?”

Dane worked at his lower lip with his teeth. “Nah, nah it was her. Where else was she, right?”

Colton nodded, “Yeah I guess.”

Neither of them said anymore and Dane put the truck back on the road. They were flying soon, the darkness beyond the headlights seeming almost to blur as they passed by. Colton glanced over at the speedometer and then at Dane but said nothing, though he shifted uneasily in his seat. Dane slowed down when he had to turn on Highway 21 for a few miles, though it was as empty as all the other roads they had been on. He kept the truck in the middle of the road, drifting every now and again to one side or the other so that his tires ran across the warning strip at the center line, which shook the whole truck with a droning vibration.

He kept the truck there even as a pair of lights from a semi-truck blinked beyond a pair of hills in the distance. The lights disappeared, reappearing a moment later as the semi went down one hill and started over the next. They disappeared again as their own truck started up a steep hill, the engine working hard, and then appeared in a blinding flash atop the hill as the semi came down upon them. Dane flinched at the lights but made no move to pull the truck into the right lane.

“Hey man,” Colton said, in a quiet voice that barely sounded over rumble of the straining engine. Dane gave no sign that he had heard, or that he noticed when the trucker sounded his horn and flashed his lights as the two vehicles moved perilously near, one upon the other. Only at the last moment, the semi nearly upon them, the horn sounding louder and louder did he pull the truck over and out of the way. The semi hurtled by, its passage shaking the truck so violently that Dane momentarily lost control of the vehicle.

“Fuck me man,” Colton said after a few moments.

“What?”

“I think maybe I should drive.”

“No,” Dane said, as he turned off of 21 and onto the 570. The tires squealed as he made the corner and started to speed up again.

“I don’t get it man,” Colton said with a shake of his head. “You’re losing your shit over a girl for fuck’s sake. So she cheated on you. You either dump her or you live with it. Either way you move on, you don’t go fucking batshit.”

“Like you know shit about women, man.”

“I know she’s way the fuck out your league.”

Dane slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Way the fuck out of my league. That’s the fucking problem right there. This is a goddamn game too her, this whole thing. You and me, we don’t get day money, we don’t fucking eat. She and Carl, they just call Daddy.”

Colton didn’t say anything, reaching into his back pocket and snapping his can of Copenhagen before taking a dip.

“One of these days she’ll get tired of this and then she’ll go back home. Everything will work out just fine for her no matter what. It always does. Me, I gotta go crawling back to the padre.”

Dane could feel his lower lip quivering with emotion and stopped talking, knowing if he wasn’t careful he would start crying from rage and hurt.

Colton laughed under his breath, though he glanced at his friend. “Fucking sucks, no doubt.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Dane said. “If he knew what we were doing tonight he’d probably re-baptize me.”

“You sure they can get the holy water close enough to you without it boiling or something.”

“I just turn it to piss.”

They drove for a time in silence, both of them watching the road. Dane had not spoken to his father in months, not since the last time he had been home. His father had refused to give him any more money, saying that if Dane wanted to continue with the rodeo circuit and the life he was leading on it he could do it on his own with no help from him. It was all Keith’s fault really, he thought. They had grown up together and Keith’s family had gone to his father’s church. When they had first started going to amateur rodeos and the n later on the circuit their parents had insisted that they travel together. They had for a while, but Keith still prayed before each ride. He didn’t chew and he didn’t drink, didn’t chase girls, and Dane did all those things. Soon enough they had fallen out and Keith had informed Dane’s father just what his son was up to on the road.

Several arguments had followed, each time Dane returned home, his father insisting that he give up his ways and Dane refusing. For a time his mother had managed to convince his father to continue to give him some money to help him out when the day money didn’t cover everything, but eventually some final line had been crossed and his father had refused to extend a further hand. He had not even told either of them about Emma, not that it mattered now.

“Yeah, I don’t know how much longer I got man, quite honest,” Colton said.

“Yeah,” Dane said his voice dull.

“Got to grow up sometime, I guess. Dad wants me back home helping out and I don’t know. Can’t really fool myself anymore that I’m going to amount to something doing this.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway.”

Dane glanced down at the gauges and said, “We gotta get gas.”

“There’s that truck stop on the number one. It’ll definitely be open still.”

“Right,” Dane said and at the next intersection he turned left heading west.

from Drifting

Every Cursed Night

Clouds blanketed the sky, rippling bruises in the twilight. The city Darrhyn below, sprawling along the bend of a wide river, was draped in the resultant shadows, pierced only intermittently by the remnants of the day’s sun. Hurried figures passed from street to street in certain of its quarters to light the lamps, while others were left to what the night would bring. Along the city’s great wall the beacons in the towers were struck, signaling the changing of the Watch. The new quadras marched up tower stairs, the soldiers heading out to pace the ramparts, looking into the final glare of the sun as it cast the scrub of the desert in oranges and reds.

Within one of the watchtowers five men squinted in the lamplight at a just-overturned cup, none of them speaking. Above them the sentinel on duty was singing an academy song about a woman so light in her manners that she would invite any man to sup with her.

Call,” the dealer said as he removed his hand from the cup, its contents still a mystery.

The youth to his left exhaled slowly as he eyed the cup. “Even. Five kenir,” he said, the flames of the beacon above them snapping as more oil was added.

Odd. I’ll see you, Husem,” the man beside him said, and the youth grimaced. “You’re too young to be a gamester, I think.”

He had a face gone thick with age and a long scar that ran from his chin up to his ear, just above the line of his jaw on one side. When he grinned, as he was doing now, it had the effect of creating what seemed a double smile on that half of his face.

He lacks ability,” the dealer said.

Short on talent as well,” the man said, to the laughter of everyone but the youth. The others at the table followed through with their bets, all odd.

Masiph id Ezern bit his lip. “I hope this is all above board,” he said, staring at the dealer whose hand had strayed back to the cup.

I hope so too,” the man, Achelluth, said. “Someone short on talent and without ability certainly can’t handle the underboard of life.”

Masiph bit his lip again, not replying, and the dealer pulled the cup away, revealing two dice—a four and a three. There were whoops from around the table, but he did not look up, his eyes fixed on the dull bones whose pips had betrayed him again.

That’s it. I’m out,” he said, pushing the last of his coins across the table. “I’m getting some air.”

Neither the coin nor the stamp for it, Husem,” Achelluth called out, the white of his scar almost gleaming. “You haven’t run through your allowance already, have you?”

Hardly. I have better things to spend it on than at this table.”

Well, at least you are wise enough to know you will be spending it here,” Achelluth said to more laughter. Masiph just nodded and walked out the door.

He wandered from the tower, stopping just outside the glow of the beacon to lean against the ramparts. It had been a cool day, given the rains could not be far away, and now that the sun was nearly set the night brought a chill. One of the two men on patrol on this stretch of the wall passed by, and they greeted each other. Masiph reached into the folds of his robe for the pouch that held his aslyn and put a quid in his cheek.

Quiet night,” he said, as the soldier passed back in the other direction.

Every cursed night is quiet, Husem.”

Masiph smiled, starting to work at the quid, as he stared idly at the veil of the night descending upon the desert. Here, so near the Eresnan River, it was a green desert—the short grass and sage brush that was its hallmark, plentiful and vibrant in color and scent. Once the rains began there would be even more as other plants began to flower. It was something he was curious to see, for though he had lived in Darrhyn his entire life he, like so many others from the city, had not set foot outside the western wall. When he had travelled it had been east into the Ferryen Plains, or down the Eresnan where the desert, so near, was safely kept from sight by the trees that lined its banks. To most Darrhynna, the desert was worthy of no more than a wary glance to the west and a scuff of a boot heel at the earth when talk turned to the Shadow Men.

Masiph had joined the Watch at the beginning of the dry season, five months ago, over his father’s objections. For once Ibrazol had relented, though it had not felt like a victory as Masiph had expected. It felt like his father had in some way outmaneuvered him again, achieving his desired end in allowing his son this. Perhaps he had. Masiph never could tell what his father’s thoughts were and was still not clear on his own feelings now that he had achieved his desire. The work itself was tedious—a few weeks on, a few days off, and always a quiet night.

This in spite of what one could hear walking the streets. To listen to the talk there was to believe that the Imperial city’s very existence was precarious, given its location in that nebulous region near the Empire’s border where the desert began. And the desert was the creatures’ domain. Never mind that the Shadow Men, even as they were conquering the desert, shattering the Empire a hundred years ago, had never dared an attack on Darrhyn and its fabled great walls. None had in the five centuries it had served as capital of Renuih.

There had been a raid a week ago in Fardun, little more than a day’s journey southeast—the first of the season, and earlier than usual, given the rains had not started. Strangely, the fact that it was an unimportant farming village seemed to lead to even more anguish among the populace. There was no sense to it, but why did there have to be? It was the creatures, after all. They were without reason and purpose, moving like common beasts with the seasons, content with the barest of existences on the rock and scrub of the desert.

In the streets talk turned to conspiracy and invasion. This was the only tangible result of a Shadow Men raid. That afternoon Masiph had heard that the shadows were gathering near Ghehel and were working to rebuild the Nasuila Bridge to use as a gateway to strike at the heart of the Empire, cutting the Ferryen Plains off from the capital and the southern provinces. At any given moment in the rainy season Darrhyn was a day or hours away from a massive army of the creatures materializing at its gates. In a week, maybe less, it would all be forgotten—until word of the next attack arrived.

We live in an age diminished, Masiph thought, the shadows of greater days. Before the fall of the desert, even during that desperate struggle to maintain their hold in that realm, the denizens of this city would never have cowered at the mention of a mere raid by the creatures. The thought would have been laughable. Now those who had to memorize their invocations, and even some of their betters, spoke of the Shadow Men as the natural inhabitants of the desert. Generations of Renians had known no other life but that of the desert—and that included his own family—yet that seemed to be almost forgotten now, or at least dismissed.

What’s the thought this evening?” Nustef id Illied said to him as he stepped out of the tower. The Nohritai was older than his fellow nobleman, with narrow features and a heavier green tone to his skin than was usual for those from Darrhyn.

We can only bear a life of fear so long,” Masiph said.

Heavy things indeed, especially for someone with no marrow in his bones,” Nustef laughed.

Where else do you find the pox but in the bones?”

The voice of experience, perhaps? Are you preparing lines for your chronicle?”

I don’t think so. The historians just put whatever words they want into the mouths of whoever anyway. Husem Azyereh was illiterate, I’ve been told.”

Really?”

Yes. He was not a favored cousin.”

More laughter. “Fair enough, I suppose. I always forget that he had a life before he became the Ad Eselte’s Vazeir.”

Someday though,” Masiph said, “we’ll have to do something about the shadows or we’ll be nothing more than carrion for them to feast on. Better to act now than to be put to the squeak later.”

You shouldn’t listen to what you hear in the drinkeries. It only bothers the blood.”

The drink or the talk?” he said.

I wouldn’t know these things. I lead a pious life, as my ancestors and the sage Delth proscribe.”

Masiph spat over the wall in response and Nustef smiled. “Talk to Our Most Benevolent One. Don’t you have his ear by now?”

Oh yes, I join him daily for his constitutionals and we discuss all the important matters of the Empire in between verses.”

Does he really go walking about every morning?”

Masiph shrugged. I would be the last to know.

Nustef took his own quid out, putting it in his cheek, and the two of them chewed in silence. There was a small copse near the wall that was filled with dahrrynna birds, the capital’s namesake, and their animated calls as they roused themselves for an evening of feasting on insects drowned the air. This was the scene that faced them every night as the sun slipped below the horizon, and that familiarity and the calm that now settled over the day’s end was seductive.

Masiph felt strongly about what he said regarding the creatures. It was an easy thing to be passionate about, given no one was so derelict of their senses as to invade the desert. A byproduct of the restlessness of youth, his father would say in that dismissive tone which burned his ears. That his father, and no doubt that useless philosopher Ad Eselte, frowned upon his views only served to confirm them even more firmly in his mind. Something would have to be done, if only because no one else seemed to think that was the case.

The last Renian force to invade the desert in an attempt to reclaim their birthright had been led by a cousin of his father’s, Waleen, ten years before his own birth. Two hundred sons, the flower of the Darrhynna youth, had joined him, dazzled by his speeches calling for a crusade to purify the desert of the black scourge, to resurrect those ancestors lost there and restore the empire whole. The result was predictable: a laughable disaster guided by a mad fool. Most failed to return and those who did were ruined, never to be whole again. Masiph had seen a few of them on visits to other Nohritai homes, balding men who walked about like children, unsure of each step.

Such a catastrophe had the effect of ensuring that no Ad Eselte or Nohritai would propose a war against the Shadow Men for generations. Still, Masiph admired Waleen his madness. His cousin, he thought, probably had felt much as he did the echo in each step of his life. If a cauldron of blood in the desert was necessary to drag this plain into a new age, then let it come.

He’s a poet,” he said, breaking their silence. “He has the pouting lips for squeaking after all. Certainly no stomach for war.”

Probably he’s too concerned about self-important Nohritai who think they know better than him how to run the empire.” Nustef said.

A clanging bell down the wall stifled Masiph’s reply. Just as it started to ring it dropped silent, leaving a dimming tremor of sound in the air before it began again in earnest. Both of them stood confused, unsure of what to do. The ringing stopped and did not resume, the darrhynna continuing their chatter, oblivious of this brief disruption, the alluring stillness holding

from Realm of Shadows: The Quiet of the Night