On the surface, there was little to distinguish the ship from the ones docked to her right and left. They might practically all vary in make and model, something commonly seen in the temporary docking of larger stations, but they all had sturdy metal hulls, most of them with some blemishes after close encounters with this or that free-floating desbris. None of the ships in this section were flashy, high-ticket rigs; anyone who had the money and the inclination to spend it on impressing people would pay extra for a better docking spot.
A casual visitor invited into the ship might start to realize that she was something else, led to that conclusion by glimpses of transparent tubes, filled with softly glowing liquid, organically-shaped capillaries joining and forming veins, converging into larger vessels as they approached the ship’s heart. But a casual visitor wouldn’t be invited to the bridge, this most vulnerable section of the deceptively-normal-looking ship.
Her crew knew her for what she was, and even among them, only a select few truly knew her. She wasn’t simply circuitry and metal, this ship, transcending the state of being a simple machine not as the advanced AI systems installed in top-of-the-line vessels did, but like those fitted with prostethics after violence or ill fortune had taken their flesh. Yet this, too, was a superficial resemblance, for they had been born flesh and blood. She was their opposite, a machine that had been given life, rather than flesh and soul that had been given new, mechanical strength.
A man approached the docked ship with the hidden secret, Captain’s insignia on his jacket, a quickly-schooled smirk playing with one corner of his mouth. A hatch sighed open, and he stepped inside, the smirk returning as the hatch closed behind him and his features blurred, the uniform becoming ill-fitting as his body changed. A faint line glowed in the floor, and, pulling out a small, concealed pulse stunner, the intruder followed it.
Laughter bubbled, bright as a child’s, through the ship’s strange tubing, as the stranger followed the line marking an emergency evacuation route backwards, closer to the heart of the ship. He didn’t take much notice of the sound, figuring it part of some ambience package that had been included by an upselling dealer when the vessel was new.
As another pair of doors whispered open, he readjusted his features to fit his assumed role, and found himself face-to-muzzle with a half-dozen energy weapons easily dwarfing his own compact model, wielded by as many disheveled, incompletely-dressed spacefarers, looking suspiciously like they had still been sleeping when he’d first boarded their vessel.
“Stand down!” he ordered in their superior’s voice, to absolutely no effect.
“Did you really think,” purred a petite, silky-furred feline woman from behind the wall of nude and half-nude defenders, “the Star Siren wouldn’t know her own Captain?” She came closer, her black coat clinging for a moment to her fellows with the static from their charged weapons as she passed between them. “If I were you, I’d tell me where to find him.”
He spent just a moment too long searching for an answer. A vice grip around his wrist sent his stunner, now seeming pathetically small, clattering harmless to the floor and caused his fingers to spasm painfully.
“Do you reckon,” the woman asked over her shoulder, grinding tendon against bone with her deceptively delicate hand, “station security strictly wants this scumbag in one piece?”
At that point, self-preservation won out.
The worst part of the job in the skyrise on the island had always been the commute. Nobody with less than a five-figure salary could afford a decent place to live on the island, and if you had that five-figure salary, or were willing to settle for a cleaning closet, or both, it was still a toss-up whether you’d find a flat, anyway. The skyrail was always crowded, and John was pretty sure homeless people slept, or eliminated, or slept in their own urine, in the skyrail cars, anyway. So he’d bought a nice black car – not can-afford-to-live-on-the-island nice, but nice enough there was no shame in taking good care of it. And at least he had bought it new. That had to count for something, right?
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There was a weight, like an invisible heavy black blanket, dampening the mood in the cozy booth at the back of the café. The startling blue eyes of one of the two people at the table, a seal-point shorthair cat, were fixed on the steaming mug clutched in both her hands. Her fingers flexed slightly in time with her breaths, claws extending and retracting with each such small movement, the sharp tips tapping the glazed-black china. Her companion, a chocolate-black pony with snowflake-like dapples, whose neck and face were half hidden under a shaggy cloud of silver-white mane, tentatively reached across the table and brushed the hard, hoof-like tips of his fingers against the back of her hand.
She jerked back, some of her hot mocha sloshing over the edge of her cup, and the pony hastily withdrew his hand.
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This #FridayFlash fic was written as part of a prompt call themed around saws, idioms and proverbs; inspired by prompts by Shurhaian: “Don’t count your eggs before they’re laid” and “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”
Rik was struck by the hypocrisy of the family members crowding into the stands, and it left a bad taste in his mouth. He’d overheard Aunt Tess crowing about her nephew whose animal was surely going to win the Grand Championship, and he’d tried to explain that these things were never to be taken for granted. He was happy to even be here, to have qualified for the most prestigious show in the country, and it grated on him that they had to set their sights higher.
“The harder they fall…” he muttered to himself, adjusting the almost jewelry-thin straps of the headcollar his prize stud wore. He didn’t wish himself failure, not exactly. He wanted to win – he wouldn’t have been here at all if he didn’t. But Aunt Tess, especially, wouldn’t stop her crowing until she saw disappointment.
When he’d started, all those years ago, she’d been singing a different tune. He was throwing away his life, money, and who knew what else, trying to compete with people who’d been at it decades longer than he. They’d all been singing that tune, in fact, every single family member sitting up there, waiting for him to enter the show ring with the fruits of his labors. Now that he’d beat out some of those longer-established competitors in the smaller shows required for qualification, of course they’d claim they’d believed in him all along.
They always did.
The animal beside him was a work of art. A narrow, wedge-shaped head ending in a wicked beak. Dark, piercing eyes, watching the surroundings alertly, but without any sign of alarm. Slick, silky feathers in sunburst shades of gold, red, and orange, growing longer down the creature’s nobly curved neck, so that the feathers underneath its deep chest almost brushed the floor. Black fur covering all four broad paws, and all of its hindquarters aside from its back, where the feathers extended into a train that would make any mere peacock hide in shame. Down that train the colors of the beast shifted, from yellow to green, and then at the very tips, a rich gemstone blue, and the gryphon’s wingtips had similar dramatic coloring.
Yes, Rik had succeeded in what he’d set out to do, and there’d be no shame in losing out to one of the other show animals that would enter the ring with him, no matter how many hours of oiling had gone into making sure those feathers lay just so and shone as much as they could possibly do under the bright lights.
Finally, they were called in, and he made a point of not glancing up towards the stands as he entered the ring and took his position, the gryphon he’d raised from the egg obediently taking position next to him with the lead slack. Further down the line, he could hear another one behave a little less exemplary, and clicked his tongue to remind his own beast of where its attention should be right now.
The judges studied each animal in turn with eyes practised to see through the layers of feathers and read the shape of the body beneath. One by one, the gryphons were approached, their beaks opened to inspect their teeth, their paws lifted, and their wings pulled open. No detail was too minuscule for the scrutiny of the panel that would, eventually, pick their Champion.
One black-red-and-yellow beast was sent out when it ruffled up its feathers and hissed at an approaching judge. Many gryphons had a hard time accepting the black desert dogfolk, but it was a flaw that couldn’t be accepted in a Champion, especially not when the dogfolk was one of the judges.
They were trotting the gryphons around the ring when some would-be funny-guy in the audience launched a spitball at the silver-white, blue-barred animal behind Rik and his tropical-bright stud, and from there, it all devolved into chaos.
When the dust settled and he got his breath back, Rik was lying on his back on the floor, his gryphon’s long chest feathers tickling his face with every panting breath it drew. He nudged one foreleg with his hand, and got the stud to back up, sitting up with a groan to survey the damage.
No blood stained the sunburst-and-black gryphon’s beak – so it hadn’t attacked, good – but what remained of its tail, now fanned in alarm and warning, was in a sorry state, and it seemed like another animal had managed to get a mouthful of feathers off its shoulders. With a croon, the animal lowered its head and gently nudged his chest, and he gave it a stroke before seizing a handful of feathers to let it help him back on his feet.
The confusion didn’t, of course, prevent the judges from picking out their Grand Champion. With most of his gryphon’s beautiful plumage being blown across the shown ring in the slight draft from the doorway, Rik didn’t need to hear the name being called out to know the title had slipped between his fingers. He stood stoically with his gryphon at his side, waiting for the formal announcement in the spirit of good sportsmanship. He had, indeed, not won, and he was fine with that.
“Before we close this year’s National Gryphon Exhibit,” the announcer spoke, “the judges would like to address you all.”
The dogfolk judge who’d sent out that black gryphon for hissing at him stepped up, spent a moment adjusting the microphone, and then looked straight at Rik. “What we would like to say to you, breeders and spectators alike, is unthinkable. Yet this year, the unthinkable has become the truth. We have named one Grand Champion already, and while the prize is well deserved, we all agree that another animal is the one we will remember above all. For the first time in the history of the National Gryphon Exhibit, the panel of judges have unimously decided to award an extra honorary prize.
“Rik Selasen, please come forward.”
This #FridayFlash fic was written as part of a prompt call themed around saws, idioms and proverbs; inspired by a prompt by Zamdor: “Procrastination is the thief of time”
There was a sense of excitement all over the forest; the air seemed to vibrate with the expectations the animals had for the yearly Midsummer Ball. In every tree, den, and stream, the animals were getting ready for the big day, each in their own way. All of them had a task, each of them equally important, to make sure the day went off without a hitch.
Squirrel was in charge of the snacks, and was feverishly collecting every nut and acorn he could find to make sure there would be enough for everyone.
The birds, led by Blackbird, were in charge of the music, and practised for hours each day. Hearing their song was a reminder to all the animals of what would soon come.
Queen Ant and her children had been charged with preparing the glade where the Ball would be held, and scurried to and fro to blanket the ground with a soft, even layer of fresh pine needles. They enlisted the help of Hare, who stomped the needles flat with his strong feet, and once they were done, Sheep brought fragrant herbs from her meadow to scatter across the top of the blanket of needles.
Spider wove artful curtains to decorate the tree branches up above, and the fireflies saved their glow for a full week, to make sure it would be strong enough for the big day.
Moose wrote a speech, Bear and the bees made peace for once to provide the very best honey-mead to drink, and Otter collected clams for the carnivores to eat. Rabbit brought in carrots and lettuce for the herbivores, and all around, the animals kept busy.
That is, all animals except one.
Vixen had finished collecting wooly fibers together with Raven and Magpie, for the guests to rest their feet on between dances, and was ready to start thinking about how she was going to dress for the dance, but first, she wanted to check in on her best friend Cat. Cat had been charged with spinning fine wispy clouds to float around the Ball and give it the proper magical flair, and so far, Vixen had seen no clouds.
She found Cat dozing on a rock in the sun. “How are you doing with the cloud-spinning, Cat?”
Cat opened one yellow eye, and grinned at Vixen. “The Ball isn’t for another five days, Vixen. I’ll spin the clouds later.”
“Well, as long as you get done on time,” Vixen told her friend. “Just remember you need to finish your gown, too.”
“I have plenty of time,” Cat assured her, and lay back down with her tail across her nose.
So Vixen left her alone, and went to sew herself a nice new set of beaded black silk gloves and stockings. When she came back the next day, she once again asked Cat how the Ball preparations were going.
“Oh, don’t worry, Vixen,” Cat replied, and rolled over to let the sun warm her belly. “I have plenty of time yet.”
So Vixen left Cat alone, and went to finish the last few stitches on her new white silk scarf. The next day, Cat still thought she had plenty of time, and Vixen finished sewing her own ball gown, as delicate as new birch leaves. She was getting very worried about her friend, and went to ask Dog’s advice.
“Cat has always been lazy,” Dog said. “She doesn’t realize that time runs away from her when she’s lying in the sun. She’ll get the clouds spun last minute, like always.”
“But then Cat won’t have time to get her gown ready,” Vixen protested, heartbroken for her friend.
“Maybe then she will learn,” Dog replied. “You can’t force Cat not to squander her time, Vixen.”
“Maybe not,” Vixen sighed, and walked home, her heart heavy.
On the morning of the big day, Vixen walked past the Ball glade, and sure enough, everything was in place except for Cat’s clouds. Now Vixen was getting really worried for her friend, but when she found her friend, Cat was sitting on a tree stump washing her paws.
“It doesn’t take all day to spin some clouds, Vixen,” Cat purred. “No need to be in such a rush.”
“But what will you wear?”
“I’m sure I’ll have time to finish my new gown after I spin the clouds,” Cat said, yawning. “After my nap.”
Vixen could only sigh and shake her head, walking away to get dressed for the Ball. Maybe Dog had been right, and there was nothing she could do to help Cat.
As dusk fell, Nightingale took up the first haunting notes of the evening’s musical entertainment, soon joined by Blackbird, Starling, and Mockingbird. Frog and his cousins provided accompaniment, and soon all the animals were in the glade, laughing and dancing and enjoying themselves. Vixen was there in her new green gown, with her white scarf and black gloves, and she was relieved to see Cat had spun her clouds, which were floating wispily around Moose’s and Deer’s horns.
But nowhere did she see Cat enjoying herself, even though Cat loved the Midsummer Ball as much as all the other animals.
Finally, she found Cat outside the glade, curled up under a root crying.
“What’s wrong, Cat? Why aren’t you at the Ball?”
“I don’t have anything to wear,” Cat cried, and looked very ashamed. “You were right, I should have spun the clouds earlier!”
“Yes,” Vixen said, “you should have. Time doesn’t wait for your naps, Cat. But if you promise to do better next year, I have a surprise for you.”
Cat promised, and Vixen pulled out the most beautiful gown Cat had ever seen, the color of honey and wild clover.
“When did you have time to sew that gown?” Cat asked, stunned.
“You had time, too,” Vixen said. “If only you’d planned it a little better.”
Maybe Cat didn’t stop procrastinating entirely after that day, but at least she never again was the last one to finish her task for the Midsummer Ball.
This #FridayFlash fic was written as part of a prompt call themed around saws, idioms, and proverbs; inspired by a prompt by Ysabetwordsmith: “Eze mbe si na ihe ya ji-achiri ihe egwu ya aga njem bu maka ya ezu ndiegwu”
“Hey, Millie, I’m going to the corner store; wanna come?” The moment he said it he knew it had been a mistake. For a moment, he’d thought more about how it’d be nice for her to get outside, than about the big production she was about to make of it. Shame on him.
“Oh, yeah, hang on, Rob, I just need to get a couple of things, okay?” Loose red-blonde wisps of hair pointing in every direction around her head, his girlfriend became a flurry of activity, and he went back into their shared flat with a sigh, to sit down while he waited.
Her legs, long and thin and pale, foalish and freckled, disappeared into a pair of cargo pants with more pockets than Scheherazade had stories. A matching vest was hung over her narrow shoulders. Had it only been the vest and pants, Rob wouldn’t have been so worried about Millie. She was entitled to wear what she wanted, after all, and that mildly anti-establishment tomboyish look was far from the worst she could have chosen.
“They’re only open another hour, Mil,” he remarked as she went to work loading up those endless pockets with objects that might come in handy. Not that he expected it to make a difference; Millie had her ritual and he should have known better than to ask her to come along on the three-minute-roundtrip walk to pick up a quart of milk.
“I’ll be right with you!” she promised, wiggling a compact first aid kit into one pocket on her vest. “Just a couple more things…”
And then she was off again, going through cabinets searching for a solution for every contingency, probably up to and including alien abduction and zombie attacks. Rob knew better than to suggest further disasters; it’d add another ten minutes, at least, to her prep time every time he made a remark about some far-fetched impossibility in jest. Been there, done that. Millie didn’t have much of a sense of humor when it came to her arsenal.
“Rob, where do we keep the cereal bars?”
Oh, lordy, she was worse than usual, today. “It takes like a minute to walk to the corner store, Millie. Nobody’s going to starve in the time it takes us to go there. Leave it.”
“But what if we get locked out?” Nevermind she had pocketed two sets of spare keys already, plus a cell phone that would be entirely sufficient to call a locksmith if they couldn’t get a hold of the building manager who lived down on the ground floor.
“We can pick up cereal bars at the shop, Mil.”
“They might be closed.” The way she was going on, it was starting to look like the least outlandish of her concerns.
“They won’t be closed.”
“But what if-” Oh, damn it, the poor girl looked close to tears. He really shouldn’t argue with her; it wasn’t as though she could help it.
“Sssh, it’s alright, Mil. I’ll get you a cereal bar.”
Rob closed his eyes and counted to ten. It was definitely better not to ask. “Alright, two. That’s it?”
“Yep!” She beamed at him, looking… so very normal. “Just gonna grab the umbrella and the water bottle!”
He hid his smile and shook his head. That girl… if MacGyver had travelled with Millie, he’d never have needed to fix an aircraft with a wad of chewing gum. Maybe that’s what he ought to do, sit her down in front of the TV a couple of nights and hope she picked up the notion of solving problems with a minimum of tools. It could work.
Once the cereal bars were safely stashed away in Millie’s pocket, they walked out the door, and she bounced on the balls of her feet as he locked the door three times. Three steps away from the door, and then he turned, raising his key towards the lock again. “Just gonna check the stove.”
Millie rolled her eyes. “You weren’t even cooking, Rob.” A quick glance at her watch. “The store closes in five minutes.”
And whose fault was that? “I’ll be quick.”
Millie watched her boyfriend’s back disappear through the doorway to their apartment, then turned and started down the steps. It was better not to argue with Rob’s ritual.
This #FridayFlash fic was written as part of a prompt call themed around saws, idioms and proverbs; inspired by a prompt by Beetiger: “Too much stuff”
A horde of hungry eyes stared at Casey when the locksmith’s work was done and she opened the door. Green eyes, yellow eyes, a few blue eyes.
For a few moments all was quiet, then a pink, fanged maw opened beneath one pair of eyes, and released a terrible sound, the angry angry cry of a lap-sized cousin of a starved lion. It was followed by another one, then two more, and soon every single one of the carpet of cats waiting in the tiny hallway inside old Mrs. Gentlefellow’s front door. With a growl, she swept a couple of cats aside with the side of her foot, and managed to take a full step into the apartment before her brain registered the stench hanging in the air.
With a hard swallow, she reached up and adjusted her breathing mask. Bad enough the place was full of cats; she was going to be itching for a week at this rate. Not much to be done about it, though – she was here to find out if the smell that had bothered the old lady’s neighbor was a result of foul play or just a failure to keep up with those furry devils’ litter boxes.
Wistful thinking, of course.
There was no way, no matter how filthy, a litter box could smell like someone went to the butcher and forgot to put their purchase in the fridge. The best-case scenario was that the old bat had done just that and then went for a cruise in the Bahamas. Someone swore behind her; probably some poor technician trying to keep the cats from running out through the open door. God. Casey could not understand why anyone would want pets, and especially not pets like cats, with no practical utility.
But then, maybe that antipathy also had something to do with that pesky allergy thing she’d been dealing with all her life.
The kitchen, once she managed to wade there through the sea of hungry felines, showed no evidence of a shopping trip interrupted by a bout of scattered mental faculties. The counters weren’t clear, but at a glance none of the clutter piled onto them could explain the smell permeating the apartment. Knick-knacks, jars of all shapes and sizes, half of them the sort cookies or candies would come in at the supermarket. Crazy old ladies, saving everything for a rainy day.
Casey shook her head, tugging at the edge of her gloves. Might as well check the trash, too; nobody ever got a promotion by doing a hack job of an investigation.
Opening the cupboard under the old lady’s sink in search for the trash can, she found a newly-changed trash bag, and several cans of cat food, causing the chorus of her whiskered, fanged onlookers to redouble in volume. Maybe that was why the old lady was gone; Casey couldn’t see how anyone could stand that noise – thirty seconds and it was already giving her a headache. With a sigh, she pulled out one of the cans, hooked a gloved finger into the pull-ring on the lid, and opened it. Chunks of something with a cursory resemblance to meat in a gel-like, just as unappetizing sauce.
A plastic plate sat on the floor over in a corner, and she upended the empty can over it, drawing a hissing, yowling mass of famished animals to converge on the freshly-served meal. She was probably going to catch flak over it, changing the scene, but she couldn’t work with those beasts following her around singing an aria of desperate, primal hunger.
No sign of the old lady in the tiny bathroom.
Last chance. Casey proceeded to Mrs. Gentlefellow’s bedroom.
The coroner determined cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head, noting that most of the damage to the exposed parts of the woman’s body had been done postmortem. Those cursed, devilish cats, those pets the old woman had hoarded, hadn’t loved their mistress very much in death, it seemed.
A week later, one investigator was landed in the hospital with a concussion after opening another closet door in the old woman’s home, and the chain of events was official. There had been no burglars, no foul play, no material motive to be discerned.
Just a lonely old woman who’d collected too much stuff over the year, and whose hoarding had finally gotten the better of her.
This #FridayFlash fic was written as part of a prompt call themed around saws, idioms and proverbs; inspired by a prompt by Anke Wehner: “Out of the blue”
The black appaloosa mare had only walked in McAllister’s pastures for a forthnight when one morning he came to check on his horses and found a foal by her side. That alone was surprise enough – the mare had maybe looked a little on the well-fed side, but nothing that would have made him conclude that she’d been with foal, and the neighbor who’d sold her had mentioned nothing of this foal or its lineage. Maybe he hadn’t known.
Add to that the color of the delicate, doe-eyed filly’s coat, and McAllister was of half a mind to suspect the missus had added a little something more than just cream to his morning coffee. He’d heard of, and seen, blue roans before, of course, but that was just something you called them. This… Here, before him, was an honest-to-God blue roan filly, the color of a summer sky with just a hint of wispy almost-clouds of irregular patches where her wooly foal coat had slightly denser concentrations of white hairs.
After checking to make sure mother and daughter were healthy, he left his unexpected new addition in the pasture, and as soon as the unmistakably blue coat of the foal was out of sight, he began rationalizing. It must have been a trick of the light. Or maybe a neighbor or one of the farmhands was playing a joke on him? Anything but to admit the impossible, that he had a living, breathing blue horse walking out there in his pastures.
He named her Skye.
As Skye grew, McAllister personally took charge of her training, rather than assign a stablehand to take care of her like he did for most of the foals born on the ranch. He taught her to walk calmly on a lead. He taught her to lift her feet on command. He taught her to take a bit and saddle, when to walk and when to stop. And Skye, though smaller than most stockhorses he’d had, absorbed all this knowledge like a sponge.
There was something eerie about the blue horse, he found as she grew into a strong, brave young mare. His livelihood had started taking off around the time he first started handling her, but that he could write off as pure coincidence. What was more difficult to ignore was how effortlessly she moved across the most treacherous ground, never so much as throwing a shoe, much less doing herself any real injury, but McAllister congratulated himself on his exceptionally sure-footed horse and tried not to think too hard about it.
When he took his little mare to the shows, they didn’t always win, but they did have more luck than any one man – or horse – had a right to, and often that did at least earn them a runner-up ribbon. The cow hadn’t been born that could outsmart Skye, and when they moved the cattle to new pastures she’d willingly pursue would-be escapees across the most difficult terrain, never so much as slipping on the rocky slopes or muddy crossings.
Through her life, Skye gave him six good foals, three of which he kept, and three of which he could sell at a price he’d never have dreamed of getting for a horse with only partially-known lines. McAllister didn’t ride as often, anymore, when his beloved blue mare was with foal, as though he couldn’t bear the thought of mounting another horse, his own favorite having no match even among her own offspring, and none of them ever looked like anything but ordinary horses.
Then, when McAllister came to check on his mare, due to have her seventh foal, she surprised him once again, just as she had when she’d first looked back at him, there in the pasture, next to her mother whom nobody had known was anything but a little too fond of good grass. Next to her in the straw of her loose-box lay a colt just as extraordinary as his mother, and just as unique.
His coat was the deep, dark blue of a cold winter night, and like his grandmother, he looked as though someone had spread a blanket across his hindquarters. The white of the colt’s blanket wasn’t, however, unbroken, but seemed comprised of thousands upon thousands of tiny, gleaming pinpricks, and from his withers grew a pair of similarly star-dusted, downy wings.
“What have you given me, Skye?” the weathered man asked into the rumbling not-silence of chewing horses that filled the stable, now like all those years ago having trouble believing his eyes.
The blue mare met his gaze, and somehow almost seemed to smile.
Then, McAllister knew, without knowing how, the answer to his question.
Purgatory, someone had once written next to a dot on the map hundreds of years ago. Maybe it had been a joke, maybe some settler had been hellishly tired of the hard work and taken it out on the settlement that was growing up in the spot represented by that dot, maybe there had been some other reason, by now lost to the ages. Whatever the reason for the name, it had stuck; now new arrivals were all greeted by a roadside sign unironically wishing them “Welcome to Purgatory.” Like the rest of the state, the rest of the country, violent crime was at an all-time high in Purgatory. Murders and assaults, medical examiners noting down exsanguination as cause of death on an ever-surging portion of their autopsy reports. Journalists and politicians were quick to blame the depravity on their pet issues: unemployment, immigration, drugs.
Petri moved into the small town on a Friday. He didn’t bring much with him, arriving with a heavy backpack on his shoulders and a black and tan dog named Ivan, a hound somewhat like a scaled-up, long-legged dachshund in appearance, by his side. He was a thin, quiet man, a trained nurse with pale skin, watery grey eyes and dark hair tied back in a severe, thin ponytail. He found work at the local blood bank a day after his arrival, and within weeks the local police was noticing a marked decrease in the same types of crime that had been increasing nationwide.
There was the odd death still, an unexplained bloodless body, but farming and hunting accidents were making a come-back in the local death statistics and the long strings of violence seemed to have been cut. The biological waste plant that handled the expired products from the blood bank reported an increased number of irregularities, but as that was out of the local police’s jurisdiction, nobody much cared. Even if they had, the disappearance of a few blood bags slated for destruction now and again was a minuscule concern.
The people of Purgatory soon noticed Petri, not because he stood out – he didn’t, far too quiet and mild-mannered to draw attention – but because every day, his dog Ivan would come to the entrance of the building where he worked and wait there to walk him home. The dog never hurt anyone, seeming to only have eyes for his master, and thus the locals soon talked of him with admiration for his excellent training. So thorough was the dog’s training, apparently, that when Petri was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident and found in an alley by a garbage man in the wee hours of the morning, Ivan kept showing up in his usual spot like clockwork.
After five days, Petri’s body, having gone unclaimed, was cremated. People worried when Ivan’s spot on the sidewalk remained empty, five o’clock coming and passing. Someone searched, even going to the small cottage Petri had rented, furnished, for himself and his beast, but found no trace, not even a single black or tan hair. It was as though the dog had gone up in smoke with his master.
Crime never went back to what it had been before Petri first stepped foot in Purgatory; there were assaults, beatings, to nearly the old level, but the strange bleeding deaths were rare.
When they happened, they were always followed by mystery maulings.
No trace was ever found of the animal behind those maulings. No trace but a single pawprint in blood leading away from the scene.
The print of a medium-sized hound dog.
Coming back to their hometown to visit, Sharra had always claimed these markets, these rows of stalls in this strange town in a strange country, were magical. He’d always thought it was only the sort of hyperbolic claim you made when there was enough of the exotic in the air to make your head spin with wonder, but here, in the midst of it, he was suddenly not so certain anymore. The air smelled of cinnamon and cloves and a dozen other spices he couldn’t name. The merchants offered their wares in voices raised to carry over their neighbors’, a parrot-like cacaphony emphasized by the colorful, embroidered silks they wore.
That all could fall into exotic, addle-your-mind-with-wonder mundanity. But beneath it, carried on the tune of unseen drums and bells and güiros, was that undefinable quality that had made Sharra return again and again, like a whiff of another reality, just barely out of his nose’s reach. He wandered down the dusty, beaten dirt, weaving around the natives going about their business as though he didn’t exist, marveling at the offerings in the crowded-together stalls to either side and fancying he had to look to the locals a little bit like a savage seeing a string of glass beads for the first time.
But no sign of Sharra.
All he could do was follow the not-scent of the magic, hoping that it might lead him to the same thing that had lured her in. It was starting to make the hair on the back of his neck tingle, and sweat was breaking out in his hairline – several times he had to stop and wipe it out of his eyes – as though the haunting tunes that teased him along were working his body into a fever pitch. Tongue dry, he stopped at a stall nearly at random – the woman-he-thought behind it was wrapped in so much silk he could only see a pair of soulful, heavily-lashed sapphire eyes, and the embroidery seemed to depict a forest whose snow-white denizens disappeared out of view if he tried to look straight at them. A strange technique, that; he’d never seen a pattern like that anywhere before.
She handed him a cup that he took for well-polished tin at first, her hands hidden by the long sleeves of her curiously-patterned garment. In it sloshed a liquid slightly thicker than water, whose color seemed to change much like the white creatures on the woman’s clothes moved – whenever his eyes or his mind seemed to settle on one color, it started seeming more like another. Red, orange, yellow. He took a sip, tasting like life and sunlight and warmth, spreading a tingling sense of spring-sun energy through his limbs, all the way to his fingertips. Green, blue, it tasted like nature, like the fields and forests and glittering rivers of the countryside he’d arrived through. Indigo, violet, the flavor of the sky, of night, of the moon and stars.
“Drink up,” the woman urged, and her voice was another harmony to the magic-music, so much stronger now, its scent almost within reach. He couldn’t resist that command, tilting the cup back and tipping a dizzying swirl of colors down his parched throat, feeling them dance through his every fiber.
The natives walked around him without seeming to see him. The woman wearing a forest of secrets smiled, beckoning him closer, and he followed as though in a dream.
She brushed the fabric covering her face aside for just a moment, and her kiss sent star-bright pain lancing into his forehead. The market around him blurred and spun, turning into the same rainbow swirl as he’d swallowed out of her cup, until he could stand it no longer and squeezed his eyes shut, sinking to the ground in front of her stall and finding nobody rushing to his aid. Was this what had happened to Sharra? Had she been poisoned by some strange veiled native woman?
He lay there, and didn’t die. When the bustle of the market died down around him, and he could feel the cool moonlight caress his cheek, he opened his eyes. Gone was the market, leaving not even the traces behind that would have been there in night-time. In its place were trees like the ones he’d seen embroidered, curling and alien like the tapestries of a darker age, but strangely comforting.
He heard water, a singing brook, beyond the nearest stand of trees, and walked towards the sound because it provided him with a direction. The brook was crystal clear and cool, and fed into a pond that reflected the night sky through the latticework of artfully interwoven leaves and branches that leaned over the water. Looking down into its mirror face, the gaze that met his was unfamiliar yet filled him with a sense of triumph.
He’d found the magic, Sharra’s magic. He was the magic.
Covered in fur as white as starlight, with a golden-crystal spiral horn on his forehead and dainty, split ivory hooves, he’d not only found but become this land’s marvelous secret. His long tail had the noble grace of the lion whose characteristics it built upon, and his mane, a fine rainbow silk, was the stuff from which dreams were woven.
He had a long drink of the brook’s water, then started walking. As long as she waited for him, he knew he could find Sharra.