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August 2, 2011 — 256 words

Bone Fragments in Print!

By MCM

A week ago, we launched Bone Fragments by Gabriel Gadfly, a book that "will capture you and leave you MIA until its completion". That's a great quote. And very true, too! The whole reason 1889 started publishing other writers' work is because there are books that are just SO GOOD you have to share them with the world. And Bone Fragments is definitely one of those books.

Now if you're one of those people who prefers printed material to digital copies, I've got some good news for you. Bone Fragments is now available for purchase on paperstuff! You can grab it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or pretty much anywhere good books are sold.

And related to that, the special launch promotion for the ebook of Bone Fragments will be wrapping up in one week, so if you want to take advantage of the $0.99 price point, you'd better buy it on Kindle or Smashwords before it's too late!

So that's a lot of Bone Fragment news! And if you want to get more (including a chance to win a free copy!) be sure to check out the 1889 Facebook page!

August 2, 2011 — 3,134 words

Dervish

By M Jones

The congregation was mostly white southern America, with a few misplaced blacks skirting the periphery. Clara remained at the entrance, a dull glow emanating from behind her thanks to the reflection of the moon on the thick mist that crawled across the earth. She tucked her foot neatly behind her slender calf, scratching the healing cut in her leg before swaggering into the back row. She chose a splintered crate to sit on while she listened in, and he hung back at the door, his corpse-like appearance no match for the white gloved perfection of the women and the slicked back hair of even the most burly farmer. Some of them glanced Clara's way, fanning themselves with slim hymn books, their gossiping whispering travelling across the floor of the shack.

It housed no more than thirty people, but there were close to fifty crammed within the tiny space. It was standing room only for most of those present, save for the infirm and women with small children, of which there was a high number. Destitution often bred more of itself, he had learned. The seat Clara took had been improvised from an old milk carton that had seen better days and had possibly once housed a hen. She plucked the feathers out of the splintered wood and contemplated their brown fluffiness.

"Soft and downy," she said, wistful. "I bet she tasted good."

At the pulpit, the preacher was clearly vexed that the attention of his flock had been so rudely diverted. He was of the charismatic type, prone to expensive-looking three piece suits and arms that stretched wide, a shining gold tooth proclaiming the victory of Heaven, if only people would dig deep into their pockets and give, give, give to the Lord. The same kind of preacher existed in Chicago, only they were sneakier in their workings in the windy city, their purpose more subtle as they slipped into dirty speakeasies, one hand on the Bible, the other in their pockets. "Temperance is the will of the righteous," they would proclaim, and then, with their flock's money, they would slap a bill onto the surface of the bar and push it forward. "But the Lord loves a sinner as much as He loves good wine. Give us two bottles. One has to keep the pulpit well oiled."

He wondered if they knew each other, these travelling preachers. The one he remembered had droopy eyes and a sweaty palm that left greasy imprints on his tall glasses of scotch on the rocks. This specimen was considerably more fit, his chest a wide expanse of muscle and well developed sinew, his arms strong as he held them out in a mock embrace of his congregation.

"The DEVIL," the preacher continued. "Is a mighty LIAR. He can't tell the truth when it's obvious, even when blue is blue and red is red, he will muddy up them colours, he will make them purple with his lying rage. The devil is a MIXER. He mixes people up, he grabs their truths and twists them, grinding them up, offering them back like they were SCRIPTURE. But don't make a meal of his rancid bread. His LIES crawl into the BELLY of the SOUL. They FERMENT and PUTRIFY!"

Clara eyed him from her perch on the splintered milk crate, the road map folded into a fan that did little to ease the stifling heat in the shack. "Come sit here," she insisted, but he held back, respectfully remaining outdoors where it was cooler and the threat of being mistaken for the risen dead was minimal. "When we get to Shamrock I'll have something special for you," she promised, her voice a low whisper through the slats of the shack wall. "There's a lead I've been following concerning my contact in Hollywood, and it's got connections to your target. Georgio let a few things slip when I had that little chat with him on his porch. It's a sure thing, your goal is where my goal is."

He frowned, unsure of what she was saying. He leaned against the shack, his thick, oily black blood smearing the planks in gory globs. "How can that be? Our targets are not the same, they don't communicate with one another."

"Goes to show what you know." She bit her bottom lip, her string of pearls hanging from her neck pinched between her forefinger and thumb. "Everyone wants to be seen. You should go to more of those flickers, you'd be surprised at how caught up you get. I bet you would get that need, too. The need to be seen. I bet you'd like standing up in front of people, talking and bragging about how there's no linear time where you're from. Like Heaven, only insanely boring. Nothing good, nothing bad, just one long, never-ending day of neutral."

His voice felt thick as he spilled it through the space in the wooden slat. "My target doesn't want to be an actor. You're confusing that entity's goal with your own."

"I'm not confusing nothing," she said, resolute. She tapped a pearl at her tooth, the clacking irritating the fat woman with four children sitting to the left of her. "Where you go, I go, and everything comes together. That's how it's been, right from the beginning. I got your plan in sight as much as my own, and now they are woven together, all in a neat little package. " Her eyes danced with dark mirth. "It's going to be beautiful in California. The beaches are so warm you can singe your toes in the sand if you aren't careful."

"I'll be very careful," he assured her.

He braced his stump against the outside wall. Black ooze seeped between the dry wooden slats.

She swivelled around on the crate, the pearl clasped in her fingers tap-tapping on her front tooth, all attention suddenly riveted on the preacher. He was handsome enough, if not a little on the red side, a sure sign of a man who enjoyed his liquor, and lots of it. Clara leaned towards the ugly woman with the four children, ignorant of the curious glares the woman visited on her. "He talks an awful lot about the devil," Clara said. "One would think he knows him personally."

"You don't go talking like that about Preacher Joe!" The woman heaved a crying infant onto her breast, the cotton flowered print of her dress pulled tight by the effort. She had thick jowls and a large mole on her left cheek that had sprouted four hairs. One for every child. "He's saving our souls, don't you forget that. God Himself talks through him. Preacher Joe knows when the end is coming, he's gonna line our path with gold and lead us up into Paradise before this awful world buries us in its cracked soil."

Clara glanced back at Preacher Joe, who was as red as a cherry in a whiskey and water. She let her pearls drop, her hand held up to stifle a yawn. The infuriated woman beside her muttered 'Heathen' and packed up her children, the baby lost inside of her cleavage, and shuffled them all off to the opposite corner of the shack.

Clara looked on her abandonment with bemusement. "Seems I know how to clear a pew."

"People are easily offended here," he observed.

"Regardless of what they say, people always are." She scraped her crate closer to where he was listening in, the black ooze, now a thick puddle at the centre of the wooden slats. The heel of her shoe dug into it. "When someone tells you 'I'm never angry' or 'I'm not one to judge', facts are they are exactly both of those things. They say things like that to make you feel at ease and let down your defences, so when you have a moment of weakness they can fire off a fist at you, or dismiss you as unworthy. It's all about power and screwing the next guy over. Never trust a man who says he's honest, never believe a man who says 'I never judge'. These things are on their minds when they claim to not care about them. A truly trustworthy man wouldn't have to convince you, and a non-judgemental man wouldn't feel the need to stake claim to moral integrity. It's on their minds, all these good things they can't do, that's why they have to tell you all about it."

He thought on this. "That's an insufferably confusing ethos. It suggests people don't understand themselves."

"That's because they don't."

The ugly woman cast a glare at Clara over her shoulder before turning her face with its wart and four hairs back in rapt adoration of Preacher Joe, who was now lighting the tips of his fingers on fire, an old magic trick done with alcohol that any twelve year old knew how to do. "See," Clara said, nodding back at the woman and giving her a big smile. "She's a good follower of Preacher Joe, here. She's all tolerance and light, not a judgemental bone in her body."

He rested his head against the dry, creaking wood, the outside wall so fragile in construction it could blow over with too loud a whisper. "We should leave."

"Let me just hear the rest of this guy's bullfrog. With all that Heaven and Hell talk I'm thinking he's gong to be a real croaker."

Preacher Joe stood away from his makeshift pulpit, which was made up of haphazard bricks and a large hand-carved cross bolted into the centre, a gift from some talented parishioner. Large vines intertwined over its surface and in the centre were the crude figures of a nude man and woman, their nakedness in stark, disturbing detail. They were not young, and the carver had given them tortured, diseased faces, full of pockmarks. The eyes were misshapen, their limbs elongated and alien, with spidery branched fingers reaching up not to heaven, but to the slender snake that wound its way all around the cross. They seemed to be in worship of it, the woman holding up a round object, two large bites taken out of it, a used offering to their slithering god.

"The DEVIL knows well how to LIE."

"Amen!" a burly man in the back row shouted out. There was a wave of murmured agreement.

"The minions of the DEVIL. They are his key keepers!"

"They are!" the mole faced woman proclaimed.

"They burrow into the SOUL and ROT it from within with the DEVIL's LIES."

"Hallelujah!"

Clara turned to him again, her voice an impassive whisper. "We need a new vehicle to get us into Shamrock."

He ignored her, his attention riveted by Preacher Joe and his graceful movement at the pulpit, his arms swaying upward to an invisible source of power that seemed to be filling him with its supernatural grace. Or so he claimed in his exclamations, the congregation cheering him on, begging for the end to come nigh and take them all with him into the land of honey and riches.

Where he came from was no Heaven, and yet the people here were convinced that a non linear life was an easy one, where there would no longer be any worries of right and wrong, of an act not yet committed influencing a past that never happened. They strove to become a part of the complex without having a clue how to understand it. The end of life and death to wander into the miasma of decades that pass by them in shadowy waves, all possibilities happening at once--these simple people couldn't handle such a truth. For them to realize that Heaven was just as hard and incongruous as this world would break every tired spirit in that destitute shack.

Only Preacher Joe would remain standing, his arms wide, his lips curled back over a winning smile that beckoned all to know the glory he alone had found. "The DEVIL's LIES are the worst kind of lies--because in every heart that listens his words sound like TRUTH!"

His outstretched arms shook violently, the clean, three piece tailored suit he wore wrinkled into thick lines as his back twitched and tore at him at odd angles, pulling him into an otherworldly trance that only he could fight off with success. His eyes bulged and rolled white, his head jerked back and then side to side, the movement so fast it was difficult to see his features. He frothed at the mouth, his tongue purple as he tried to spit out the demon that had so viciously begun its attack.

His head shook ever faster, until his face was nothing more than a smudged blur, a blank slate upon which no human features existed.

Clara let the pearls at her mouth drop. Her eyes were wide when she looked back over her shoulder, willing him to come into the worshipper's shack. At the pulpit, while Preacher Joe continued his unnatural, motion blurred dervish, the piano player began banging out a Southern hymn, one which the congregation latched onto with gusto. Feet clad in worn shoes and hands calloused from overwork kept time in a steady rhythm. Other members of the congregation began twitching and fainting, arms outstretched upwards to an unknown Heaven, terror transformed into exultation. One of the children of the ugly woman ran up to the pulpit, his tiny head shaking side to side in a mock impersonation of the frightening vision Preacher Joe presented.

Clara glared at him, her eyes seeking him out through the slats in the shack's wall. She was paid no mind by any of the congregation around her, their stomping feet a roaring crescendo that threatened to tear the structure of their makeshift church apart. "He's like you," she said, angry. "Just my luck to find another alien babbler."

"It's not possible," he assured her, but he knew he was lying. There was no mistaking that misshapen warping of space and time, the amalgamated effects of an indulgence in motor oil. It sped up engines and thoughts and time, morphing them into this blurred chaos that sent a rush of awe through those who witnessed it. Clara laughed as Preacher Joe spun around, a mini-storm brewing around his ankles as space and time were tied into circular knots and forced to dance with him.

"I'll give him this--he's more entertaining than you. All you do is leak black ooze and mope."

"I don't care about your silly observation."

"Yes, you do. Look at that, moping already."

He looked on, impassive at the spiralling display of tornado limbs and flesh, a storm that was comfortable in its chaotic dance. He'd been like this once, he thought. As he watched he felt a sudden longing for those days where the past didn't have to be relegated to fleeting glimpses in his mind. He'd been this whirling devil that held onto all possibilities, the ends tied so tightly on each that he had known no such thing as worry, no questions burrowing deep inside of himself. Nothing mattered but the ebb and flow of one's existence.

Perhaps these people were right, and that was a sort of Heaven. But even alien angels like himself could take such assurance for granted.

He had to wonder who this Preacher Joe was, who spun and pulled upon the heartstrings of all who lived in this tiny ransacked community, their belief so keen on his message they had forgotten the world existed outside of this shack. All eyes were riveted upon the preacher's dance, the men holding their chins with dirty hands, concerned faces knowing they were looking upon the supernatural workings of some incomprehensible God. Only Preacher Joe wore a fully tailored suit, the rest of his congregation eking out a life in overalls, what suits were present a threadbare affair of patched elbows and arms that were far too short for long limbs.

As suddenly as his spinning trick had begun, Preacher Joe abruptly stopped, his arms held out to balance himself, not a tremor to be found anywhere in his stance. He stood to his full height, his head held high as his eyes rolled skyward, to the holes in the tin roof of the shack. "When the day comes we will be AWARE!" He shook his shoulders, his head slumping to his chest. "The DEVIL will not have his snare on us."

"No, Sir!"

"Amen!"

"He won't catch us!"

"We will RISE into the FUTURE. We will lay down into the PAST. We will embrace the PRESENT." He closed his eyes, his lips breathing a beatific sigh at the very thought of it. "We will go HOME."

It was Clara who broke the rapturous spell. "There's no such thing as home. There's just a place once in a while you can tap your feet to and have a drink." She ignored the scandalous glares sent her way and motioned to her companion that they were leaving. "Come on," she said to his curious, secretive onlooking. "There's nothing for us here."

"But that man, that preacher. He's another being, he's one like me." He hesitated in following her, his bleeding stump sloshing his liquid stomach into it, making him feel ill. "I don't understand why he's here. He's not my target, and there are strict rules against going onto foreign planets, especially linear dimensions such as this one. I was not informed there were others of my kind working here."

She shrugged as she let the crudely constructed door to the alien's church slam behind her. "Don't ask me, I don't even get what you're so worried about. I say we light a match and let the lot of them burn up. It's not like they aren't looking forward to Heaven and they figure they're shoe ins." She cocked her head to one side as she looked on his shocked expression. "Don't go getting all high and mighty again, we both know better. These people don't appreciate the life they have, and they're content to spend it in utter misery while they figure something better's got to be around the corner. There isn't. It's just a discarded gift, this life, that's all their suffering is for."

He cast a glance back through the slats of the shack. Hungry, miserable faces looked upon Preacher Joe with expectant wanting, a starvation of soul and body apparent in every hollowed out stare.

He shook his head at Clara's observation. "It's not that simple."

"Of course it is," Clara snapped. Her pearls clacked against each other as she gingerly stepped through the bush, veering to the left and away from their motor crash. "They're wasting their time listening to his rot. He says nothing but lies."

August 1, 2011 — 2,395 words

Come with me

By Letitia Coyne

It was dawn when Dragan woke her. Freya stretched her aching back before she tried to sit up. Lying near a failing fire with little to keep her from the stony ground, she wished for her tub of steaming water and the small luxuries of the citadel. When she did rise, scratching at her scalp and yawning, he put a mug of steaming tea and some bread from the soldiers' rations before her. It took a moment to realize Paske was gone.

"Where is he?" Her pulse kicked up, but she was willing to hear Dragan speak before she jumped to any conclusions. In the state Paske was in, he was unlikely to have run away.

"Dead."

Two of the horses were saddled, and a selection of gear collected from the various packs lay across the fire from where she sat. "Bastard," she grinned. "I wanted to keep him around a bit longer."

"Eat," he said, "and let's move."

Freya pushed herself to her feet and climbed a small outcrop of rock, looking along the crest they had gained and down into a small hollow running due south. Beyond the dip, the pass between peaks was clearly visible and the route looked straightforward enough. "Easier in daylight," she said half to herself. "We can cross the range there and then start moving east."

She accepted his silence as agreement. Riders might be closing in by now, and the easy way had to be the best way. They needed to cover some ground. Returning to her tea and bread, she lifted the document cylinder and noted its weight. "Where are they?" She held up the empty case and frowned.

"Burnt."

"Why?" She dropped the cylinder and followed him as he carried packs to the horses and tied them in place. "What have we got to show the men, now?"

"Nothing. We don't need anything." He was keeping his back to her and it set her nerves on edge. He always hid his eyes when he had secrets to keep. Without looking up, he pushed back past her to the fire and began to stamp it out.

"No? Paske is dead and you burned the only other evidence I had of what he'd told me. It wasn't much but it would have shown them at least that the administrative officers are lying about the war to the people in the cities. No one is going to want to believe this; I hope you can explain it all when we get there."

"We're not going to the front." He was still keeping his face down, intent on small duties, speaking as if the decision was his to make and of no importance to her.

Damn it all, damn it, damn it; all her irritation whined in her throat and she stamped across the ground behind him. "We are! I told you. I am, whether you come with me or not." Running just to match his stride, she circled, tried to block the way toward the gear he was loading. Of course he'd caved too easily the night before, and she cursed the sun and moon and every instinct in her body that should have warned her this would come.

"I'm not. There's no point. The front's east, home's west."

"You can't go home, Dragan. You can't just go and not tell the men we've fought beside for fifteen long years that this is all for naught. Don't you want to stop this? Isn't it you who says there's nothing for men to fight and die over but someone else's gold?"

"I've said it before. Didn't stop anyone then." He ducked past her, reaching for a blanket roll and gathering it under his arm. As she stepped forward, he moved again to lift a half full food pack.

"But now we know it's true. Now we've heard it from the serpent's mouth. We can stop the fighting. Centuries of war, and we can put an end to it today!" She rushed to follow again as he moved to the horses.

"We have to move," he said, buckling the straps of the food pack to his saddle, handing the reins of her mount to her, and striding off toward the line of spare horses. "Those riders will be close behind by now."

"So that's it? That's the end of it all? I'm riding east to do my duty to my comrades, and you're going west to go home?" She was still trying to run, hobbling over tussocks and lichen-loose stones. When he stopped and turned she slipped in his tracks.

"What duty? You don't even know it's true, but if it is -- if -- then you don't have a duty to this empire or its war. You and I don't owe a single thing to anyone, except ourselves. We owe ourselves some peace. We've paid for it in blood."

"And the others? They don't deserve the same freedom?" She was going back. The fates had spun their wheel and after all she'd cursed and wailed she was at last going back. "I'm going back. This is my life; this is how it is supposed to be. They know me. The men who fight out there know me, and I won't be remembered as a coward who ran away from the fight. I will be the one who gave them all the freedom they earned with blood." He would not take away her glory. Not again.

"If it's true!" he bellowed. "If there is a single word he said that counts as more than bigoted spite." Coiling the horses' lead rope as he freed it, Dragan raised his arms; "Yah! Yah!" The startled horses jumped back, spun on their haunches and gathered to rush along the southward crest and over the valley toward the distant pass.

"If it's true." He spoke more quietly, but when he stepped in closer there was fire and fury in his eyes. "If. And if you go to those men, the ones you are so determined to be loved by; if you tell them everything you think you know, what then? Oh, you'll be their hero as always. You'll be the one that took away their purpose, and took away their pride, and gave them all the fiercest anger ever lit in any man." He straightened, pulling his mount in closer as he finished. "You'll be the one that turned them back from fighting on the mountainsides to fighting all across the empire, turning back to get their revenge on anyone who made them nothing." He stepped up onto his horse, looking down on her like she was a wretched urchin cowering in his shadow. "You'll be the one who turned them from a war with Verdan, to a slaughterhouse in the cities of their own kind."

* * * * *

He had one more jibe, and only one, and if she gave him cause to use it, it might be the one that broke his heart. Already he could see the cost of every word he'd said. The shadows in her cheeks and eyes had darkened, and a death mask glared up at him, shocked and silent. Every word had cut her, stripped away the fantasy she valued more than simple life or death, and left her with a stark reality he hoped she could not deflect.

"You're leaving me?" Her words were so small they barely crossed the cold space between them, but they struck him like ice picks. All the hours between midnight and dawn had not been enough to breed confidence. No conviction, no determination that there was no other way to play the hand he held, could suffice against the image of her, hurt and alone.

"We're both leaving. I'm going west." He was glad of the saddle and the strength of the horse under him. If he had to stand close enough to say the words he'd settled on, she'd have seen the fear that twisted in his stomach and trembled behind his knees. It was hot, rolling like eels in a bag; like a slimy black knot of betrayal. She'd have called his bluff. She still might. "Which way are you going to go?"

"Come with me," she begged.

She had no other way to argue, he could see it. Her arms reached, her shoulders slumped and her chest hollowed over the need. It was pleading from the core of who she was and what she believed. But what she believed would kill her. She was small and grey in the shadows of morning, frail and childlike. There was nothing of her to throw against the machinations of power, nothing but broken flesh and bone.

"Dragan, please. Come with me. This is how my life is supposed to be. I don't want peaceful freedom; I can't survive that." She jogged back, as fast on her feet as ever, but the lift into her saddle pulled on torn muscle and bone. She couldn't hide it, even though she made no sound. The pain flashed across her features like a flare. She nudged her horse closer. "We can do it this way, you and I. We survive, don't we? Everything. No matter what. We always make it through. We always have."

"I'm going home." It wasn't enough to say it. He wanted to beg too, as he'd done before, but the choice he had made for her then had been wrong. Even if it was the only one he could make, it had hurt her more than he had planned. He had hoped she would find some middle ground and some pride, but he couldn't have known the days in the citadel would take so much of her strength.

He pushed his horse forward, moving along the southward ridge, trying to focus on the terrain ahead as if finding the best way down was all that mattered. Four steps along and she hadn't followed. Five. Six. Seven. How many could he stand? How far could he go before he broke and turned back to plead?

"Dragan."

Reflex jerked the rein but he made his heel press the flank. He had to keep moving. Eight. Nine. Ten.

"Dragan, stop." She kicked her mount to follow and relief leaked from his lips like a prayer. He kept moving, and she kept following. "I tried. I gave it my best and it didn't work out, and here I am. Look at me. This is where I belong. And you belong with me, out here, in the mountains."

"No I don't." This was cause to stop. With this argument he could look her in the eye and speak from the heart. "I've had all I can stomach of this life. I've had enough of blood and enough of cold and enough of wondering if each day will be the last. I belong with you, but that's the end of it. Not out here. Not over the mountains. I have my life planned, I have had for years, and now I can see it, I can feel it. I can take hold of it, if you will just let go of this absurd fascination with fighting and come with me. Haven't you had enough?"

"No, I guess not." She even tried a small smile, but it didn't convince either of them and she let it go. "I miss it. I want to feel like me; like I'm alive."

He knew that was true. He'd seen the light of mania shine in her eyes; he knew the heat that rose in her flesh, the thrill and the laughter that burst from her lips when the risk was all or nothing.

There were other thrills. She would find new joy. Babies.

An image of Lenka pleading, begging for the chance to be a mother, came to mind and he nodded to himself. All Freya needed was the chance, too. If she could just find the peace within herself, she would know the longing every woman felt. She would be content. He knew it.

What she needed was safety. A place she could relax and let go of all the fears that she had lived with. A haven. A nest. And he had made that place for her, if only he could get her there. If only the rest of the world could be made to stay away.

Injured, with or without him, she would return to the field to die. There was no doubting it. But looking at her pain, at her longing, he could not bring himself to tell her that single damning truth. She was not what she wanted to be. Time and pain had cut away the edge she'd relied upon. That he'd relied upon, as well. But he could not say it. He could not twist that one last knife to cut her free from her dreams.

Her voice became a whisper, a desperate plea. "We can at least tell the men the truth. We can leave after that. We can leave them to fight, or to rebel, or to get drunk in celebration, but don't we owe them that? Can't you give me just that one concession? Please?"

No, he couldn't. If they rode down the mountain together, they would die there. Her injury would damn them both to death and there was no need for it. Everything he'd ever wanted was waiting for them just beyond the forest, in the foothills and pastures around the Iultea River. He couldn't tell her the truth, and he'd never lied to her. But now, there was too much at stake to quibble over details.

"It isn't true." The words burst from his lips. There was no chance now to consider truth and lies and the ethics of right and wrong. It was as simple as choosing to live. It was his only choice. "Nothing Paske said to you is true. He told me. Last night." The sudden darkness that flooded her eyes almost gave him pause. His words had hit their mark. He'd found the one lie that might keep her from martyrdom. There was only one more nail to drive home, and she would be held. "He's already branded you a coward. If you return to Orlik, or if you go to the front, you'll be flayed as a deserter."

July 30, 2011 — 1,276 words

It’s Web Serial Writers Month…

By Guest Author

... And we have a special guest post by Kira from Epiguide.com, who is also in charge of WeSeWriMo. Never heard of it? Kira is about to fill you in on all the details.

Take it away, love.

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Thanks very much to Terra, MCM and everyone at 1889 Labs for letting me chat away about a project very near and dear to my heart:  Web Series Writing Month, aka WeSeWriMo. (link: http://www.wesewrimo.org)

Just the facts:

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's heaven for?”
- Robert Browning

From August 1 – 31, writers of web-based serialized fiction (anything from text-based narratives or scripts to webcomics to video webseries to hyperfiction and beyond) will spend the month churning out material with a set goal of ... well, whatever measurement that suits you. It’s your creative project: you choose the goal!  Sign up before August 1 over at http://bit.ly/wese2011 to get started.

How it all began:

The idea is, of course, inspired by NaNoWriMo (link: http://www.nanowrimo.org), the famous annual challenge to write 50,000 words throughout the month of November.

WeSeWriMo first came to life in 2007 over at the EpiGuide (link: http://www.epiguide.com), a community devoted to web-original fiction and entertainment serials.  The proposal to offer web-based authors their own writing marathon came from EpiGuide member Michael, the creator of Footprints (link: http://www.footprintsmedia.com) – a websoap published continuously since 1997.

When Michael brought up the concept over at the EpiGuide, we all agreed that the unique nature of online writing demanded its own version of a monthly challenge.  As the admin and dogsbody-in-chief of the community, I agreed to help bring this project to life and host it via the Eppy.

At the time, many wondered why webfiction writers couldn’t just participate in NaNoWriMo. Why the need for something different? How is WeSeWriMo different?

Well, we differ significantly from NaNoWriMo, and the way we do this—and why—is due to the EpiGuide’s philosophy itself.

To us, the whole raison d’etre behind web-based creative efforts is individuality, freedom, and innovation.  We embrace the vast variety of online writing genres and publishing formats. Sure, many serial writers are producing straightforward novels of a pre-determined length and serializing them by posting a chapter/scene a week.  But others have open-ended serials, and use formats such as branching hyperfiction, webcomics/graphic novels, audio, video, or screenplays.

While NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-word challenge may work for someone who’s hoping to complete a novella (or make a start on a larger novel), it doesn’t do much for webcomic or virtual series scriptwriters.  Further, our personal benchmarks vary widely: some online writers may find churning out high word-counts easy, yet actually posting the finished product to be the real challenge.  Sometimes it’s the scheduling that’s the sticking point; how often should one post an installment? Once a week? Daily?  For those whose works are not confined to a linear narrative, would a word-count challenge include ‘extras’ such as character profiles or journal entries?

So rather than a single goal for all writers, WeSeWriMo offers individuality:  the writers themselves decide what they wish to accomplish during the month—and usually the choices are as different as the works themselves.  50,000 words?  Possibly.  Or ten installments. Or fifty scenes. Or a hundred comic panels.  Or… you get the point.

Wondering what goal to pick?  The idea is to make it ambitious enough to be a challenge, but realistic enough so that you're not dooming yourself to failure before you even start.  You can even try for more than one achievement. For example, in 2010, the goal I chose for my own webserial, About Schuyler Falls (link: http://www.skyfalls.com), was 30,000 words and two episodes completed and posted.  By looking at the list of 2010’s winners (link: http://www.wesewrimo.org/2010.php), you can get a feel for the variety of goals.

To sign up, register your free EpiGuide account (link: http://www.epiguide.com/forums/register.php) and then join us over at the official sign-up thread (link: http://bit.ly/wese2011) to declare your goal. Goals can be changed at any time up till the start of WeSeWriMo, but after that, you're stuck with it! The goals and links to your website are published over on http://www.wesewrimo.org; those who successfully complete their goals will have their sites linked throughout the year. Not to mention the thrill of victory and a sweet little banner award and certificate.

Once you sign up, you'll receive an EpiGuide blog (usually a feature offered only to members with 25+ posts) and some basic gadgets where you can chart your progress in public. Folks can discuss their challenges/obstacles, tips, and successes in the official WeSeWriMo forum at the Eppy. And one can post/tweet about it anywhere else one fancies, of course.

You’ll find posts with ideas and links to inspire any flagging, weary writers to keep their eyes on the prize, where everyone chimes in with suggestions and encouragement. Sometimes we offer fun/silly ways to challenge ourselves (such as including the name of our serial hidden within dialogue, or writing acronyms throughout several paragraphs, that sort of thing). Last year was our biggest group of participants yet, with seventy-five writers taking on the challenge.

To sum up:

Where NaNoWriMo is all about writing a novel (really, a novella), and ScriptFrenzy a script for TV, film or theater, WeSeWriMo celebrates the diversity of formats and methods for creating a regularly produced entertainment serial for a web-only audience. The EpiGuide is all about this fast-growing genre, and we want to encourage, challenge and inspire the community of web-based creators.

Remember, all writers of online serialized fiction are welcome, no matter what the genre or format. So if your webserial is a gritty realistic podcast about vampire astronauts solving medical mysteries in the Wild West, welcome aboard! The more the merrier.

Even if this project isn’t something you personally wish to join, I hope writers will spread the word about WeSeWriMo so our participation can keep growing. If you have a blog, or are a member of any writing communities/groups, we'd love it if you'd consider posting about WeSeWriMo where appropriate (please don't spam!). If you're on Twitter, chat it up often and use the hashtag #WeSeWriMo (along with other useful tags such as #weblit, #webfiction, #webseries, #amwriting and #writegoal).

When posting, link to http://bit.ly/webserial or just http://wesewrimo.org. Or if you want to link directly to the sign-up thread, use http://bit.ly/wese2011.

Thanks!  And best of luck to everyone participating.

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Headline image by rahego

July 28, 2011 — 3,029 words

Crash

By M Jones

A dusty road is unforgiving. It steals your comfort, the heat beating down from above, a relentless sunshine that scorches all sense of time and reason, reducing the mind to one solitary thought. Thirst. To quench thirst, to stop being thirsty, to drown oneself rather than feel this unbearable dehydration ever again. Inside of his host, he could feel the rubbery texture of his suffering body, the freckles now darkened to black blotches on the surface of his host's skin.

"You are one heck of a mess," Clara said, taking her eyes off the road to glance back at him over her shoulder. "It's been a real quiet stretch of road along here, I don't know where we're going to find you a proper house to live in." She fanned herself with the map, the gentle breeze it provided a teasing comfort. "I sure could use a tall glass of lemonade right now. That's the only thing that beats this kind of heat. That tart sweetness, it lingers on the tongue, gets all that saliva jumping. That's why it quenches your thirst, see. It's a whole chemical process, one that works better than water."

He groaned and closed his eyes, his head heavy on the old pillow. "Water. It would do me good."

"Never mind water, you need a whole new hotel complete with swimming pool and basement bar." She shook her head, her hands tight on the steering wheel. "You look like you've been dragged through hellfire. Maybe a good dose of the holy water would cure you of what ails you." She bit her bottom lip, her fingers tapping along the rim of the steering wheel in haphazard, jazz jittering. "I know what it is you need me to do, but you should have gone and told me back in Foss, where there was plenty of human sacks that you could fill. I had that mayor all lined up, but oh no, he wasn't good enough for the likes of you. You're real stupid, you know that? That was a winning ticket of flesh you threw away."

He kept his eyes closed, the heaviness in his head a swirling mass of black motor oil that refused to metabolize. There was comfort in the numbness it provided, but there was also the danger of his host collapsing, the skin rendering and leaving him free to seep out of the large wounds to lay in a jellied, immovable mess on the floor of the Chevrolet. He ran his hand over his dry mouth, flakes of skin peeling off onto his palm. "I need water."

"What we need is a good party." Clara tapped her fingers along the steering wheel, the rhythm now steady, formulaic. "My feet have been itching for a fox-trot since Kansas. This little dust bowl has to have something. It's been slim pickings the further west we go, and I'm starting to wonder if the whole of California's going to be nothing but some big, depressing shoreline instead of the blast of life I know it has to be." She grinned, red lips peeled back over her even, large ivory teeth. "But that's just me being pessimistic. Really, how crazy is that? Hollywood not being a place built on a girl's dreams, did you ever…?"

His groaning annoyed her and she let out an impatient sigh. "The point is, we can't go moaning over what we don't know. You should have let me kill that mayor and you should have got yourself a brand new leather sack, a real tailored fit. But oh no, Mr. I'm Taking The High Road -- you had to go and demand we hit the road before the Sherriff hunted us down. What Sherriff? If you meant Borden, we were way out of his jurisdiction and out of his concern. We could have slaughtered the whole town in front of him and without him able to cross the state line he couldn't do a thing to stop us."

"Stop you, you mean," he corrected her. "I have no interest in killing off a whole town."

She shrugged, the issue unimportant. "You wouldn't be able to do that any easier than he could have." She turned her head to face him, her arm reaching down to shove his shoulder. "You've been sleeping like the dead lately. There's something real wrong with you. I don't get it, that body should have lasted you longer."

"It didn't."

"I get that, you lunkhead, but I can't figure as to why. The last one did you good for well over a week, and that one had plenty of wear and tear before you got to it, believe me." She glanced back at the road, her hand carelessly steering, the wheels of the Chevrolet kicking up thick clouds of dust that partially obscured their view. "It's that damned motor oil, that's what it is. You're soaked in it. Light a match and your flame would never go out."

He opened his eyes at this. He lifted his head painfully up from the mouldy pillow, a palm under his chin holding it up. "You wouldn't."

She narrowed her black rimmed eyes at him, her arm draped over the back of her driver's seat as she leaned over, making sure he heard her. "Like a hurricane lamp. That's what you'd be. And I'd dance naked around your corpse and carve x's and o's into ashes when the flames were done with you."

"You're an evil creature."

"You don't know what evil means."

"I'm getting a good education."

"Lunkhead. I'm no different than anyone else. There's no hellfire waiting for me."

"I don't know what hellfire is."

She threw her head back and let out a loud laugh. "It's the big bang, all over again!"

Bright lights. Sun glinting off steel.

Arms.

A face.

A mouth... No, two mouths. Opened wide. Terror.

That's exactly how it happened.

The universe rolled over three times before it finally settled in for its nap. Destruction lay in pieces of mangled steel all around them, heavy bales of smoke issuing forth from both mangled motor cars. She was already on her feet, staggering towards the other automobile, a farmer's truck to be precise. There was a deep gash on the back of her leg that bled out in a thin stream into the belly of her heel. The inside of the farmer's truck was engulfed in flames. Hellfire, he thought. It was burning the last remnants of the poor farmer's jaw to cinders. A gold tooth sizzled and popped as it melted.

She wiped at her chin with the back of her hand, drawing away blood from a tiny cut. The farmer remained in the driver's seat, his mouth in a silent, charred scream as the flames licked over his body with hungry fury. She turned back to where he was waiting at the side of the road, the Chevrolet crumpled into pieces beside and in front of him. She placed her hands on her hips, surveying the scene.

"Well, that beats all."

He glanced up at her from the side of the road where he was sitting, her body strangely unaffected by the horrible scene. "You have hardly a scratch on you."

"I do," she said, and pointed at the tiny cut on her chin.

He gestured to the ragged chunk of flesh that was all that was left of his right arm. "Of course. How unobservant of me. You missed that gash on your leg."

"This is all your fault." She checked her heel and tutted over the injury. With great effort, she helped him to standing, an action that caused a considerable amount of discomfort, especially when he nearly slipped out of the torn apart limb. "All I really wanted was a party, and you had to go and tempt fate."

"How so?"

"You can't talk of the devil without him coming around." She snatched her purse up from where it had fallen near the rolling steering wheel, now beheaded from its usual spot at the motor car's dashboard. She rummaged inside of it, pulling out her cigarette tin and a match. Her hands were rock steady as she lit herself some smouldering comfort. "We'll have to walk for a while. It's getting to be dusk, and we have to find some place to hole up until morning. You're not leaking too much, not now anyway. We'll tie that up and pretend you're just another soldier home with a war wound."

She shook out a handkerchief from her handbag and dabbed at the ragged stump of his arm before tying it on tightly. "If it's an old war wound, it shouldn't be bleeding," he reminded her.

Her concern was minimal. "We'll be walking in the dark soon, no one will notice. Damn, but it's a hot night, a girl could use a cold drink, a tall lemonade, or even a special iced tea, the kind without a lick of iced tea in it. Don't be looking so glum, we have to get away from this scene, there's no need for having coppers around over a silly little car wreck." She marched ahead of him, heedless of his injury and discomfort. She stomped her foot, furious at his lethargy. "Come on, we have to get away from here, quick and quicker!"

He limped towards her as fast as he could, the sloshing of himself inside his sorely injured host putting him off balance. "I don't know why you are berating me, I wasn't the one who crashed the stupid motor car. And just how are we going to get to California now? I have a real fear my legs will fall off well before then, probably somewhere along Texola."

"Shamrock," she reminded him. "That's where the Reynold's Hotel is. You're going to make it there, because I want to be there. The manager owes me a favour and he's going to deliver." She stopped short, waiting for him and his dragging feet to catch up. "Oh come on, I've seen corpses move faster than you!"

She paused, her head cocked to one side. A puzzled expression overtook her otherwise stone cold face, her sharp features softening as they recognized the tune dancing along the sparks that still lit the air around them. "That there's a party," she whispered to herself, her dark eyes lit up with inward glee. She ran back to him and grabbed his one good arm and dragged him forward. "You hear that? It's singing. There's a party going on all right, and we're inviting ourselves!"

"I can't go in there like this."

"Don't be stupid. You came home from the war with a few things lost, is all."

She pulled him onto a wooded path, the darkness sliding over them in an opaque thickness that was not unlike his favourite drink. She pulled him onward, heedless of the way the twigs and debris of the path dug into his exposed areas of flesh, cutting lines of seeping black. "Langley played this on his trumpet. Oh, does that ever take me back! Listen, you can hear Langley's heart breaking in those higher notes, a fool and his heart, both exploded. He's really good, whoever is on that stage. Listen to the way that horn weeps and wails!"

It was true. He paused to rest against the thick trunk of an old oak, its branches teeming above him in black fingers, ready to clutch at him and pluck what limbs he had left apart. Langley's trumpet, or rather the ghost of it, echoed across the forest floor, a creeping sadness that sank everything it touched into a moonlit blue hue. "I've missed that sound," he admitted, surprised at himself. "It's the only thing of this world I can say I truly understand."

"I don't want to be hearing your gums flap-flapping right now, not when my toes are tap-tapping." She skipped ahead of him, feet deftly avoiding tangled roots and wayward rocks. "I'm betting that little hellhole is well watered. Full of spirits and darkies, I'd say. That's the way it is down here, down south. People segregate, only to come back together in strange ways. The booze hound sorority."

The further they walked in, the more the area became swampy and murky, the muck giving off a vile stench not unlike the innards of his unfortunate host. "I'm not so certain we should be going here." There was something in Langley's ghost, the lament of the trumpet, that was off its usual rhythm. There was a discord in the notes. A wayward anarchy that hadn't resided there before.

"They would have come running if they heard that crash." She pulled her lipstick out of her handbag, but it was too dark for her to properly apply it. She shoved her tools back into the handbag with a loud curse. "I'd say it's kind of strange, having a party in the middle of the week, in the middle of a swamp, but these southern types do things differently, I guess." She was careful to keep the hem of her stolen dress well out of the muck, her white knees shining like beacons in the forest darkness.

"I don't know why it's so important for you to go to a party. There's no gangsters there. Only lonely farmers and xenophobic locals."

"Goes to show what you know," she said, her hips swinging, her handbag in a pendulum arc behind her as she walked. "I know lots of folks down this way. Where there's a good amount of drink, there's a good amount of music, dancing and all round good fellas. I'm going to nab me one and get him to buy me a drink. Some good old boy who wants to make sure America doesn't die of thirst."

"The road is cut off. There's debris everywhere." He hobbled up close to her, anger welling within him at her blatant disregard for the precarious nature of their situation. "We are going to be hung from the nearest tree all because you heard a familiar song. That man in the truck, he had to have been a local. Smashing into him and leaving like that, without saying anything... These people won't easily forgive this."

"And how would you know that?" she snapped back. "I thought you've never been in the south."

"I haven't. But I met your terrible friend, Robert Coen. He was a Texan, as I recall. He didn't live long, thank goodness, you took care of that, but he was around long enough to get his meaty hand around my throat. He crushed the larynx. He told me, flat out, 'This is what Southern boys do when you piss them off'. I've done my best not to do so again."

She had nothing to say, mesmerized as she was by the horn and its happy lamentation. He followed her with that self same feeling of impending doom, one which would result in a new host and a slew of other wasted human bodies, each with neatly carved x's and o's on their eyes. One open. One closed.

He shifted in his host and caught himself before he slid out of the poorly bandaged arm socket, his essence sloshing back into his host with phlegm solidity. He wouldn't be able to take many more steps, and she was heedless of his injuries and his decrepit state, which was by now rendering him fully helpless. She would gladly watch him wither away, he thought. She would poke his jelly consistency with a stick and move on without another thought about him.

How easy it would be, to remain so cold and unthinking of others. Perhaps the stress of reaching his target would not tug at his soul the way it did on a minute by minute basis, every linear measure of time full to bursting with worry. He could be wrong about California, and this whole journey was a mistake. It was a thought that curled black around his inner heart and guts, squeezing them into painful shapes.

Now, here they were, on her usual mission. Her handbag swung in time to her happy steps, her pearls glinting against the thin streams of moonlight that made it to the forest floor. He held back, not wanting to be too close to her, to show any kind of association. There was a good chance she would find someone in that party not worthy of life, and he was in no mood to watch her work.

Music swelled with life as they made their way closer to the small, ramshackle structure at the end of the overgrown path. He could hear clapping and shouting, a joyful gathering that was in stark contrast to the shadow of poverty that was deeply embedded upon the shack. As they approached, he could discern the shape of a formerly workable life's debris propped up as though still retaining value. A broken wheel from an ancient horse cart lay abandoned on its side. Broken bottles and pieces of worn furniture lay gathered in a pile near the woodshed, an axe buried deep into the side of the shed's wall. These meagre possessions, now discarded, were nothing more than fuel for when lean times came, and from the meagre offerings it was clear that times were barren indeed. He had been in alleys before, in areas ripe with speakeasy basements and coppers on the payroll. But this was a different setting, even if it did possess the same kind of music that had drifted into his parish hideaway in Chicago. Here, the music had a separate meaning, one that was clearly polarized from the big city's decadence and wealth.

He oozed into his host's throat. "I don't think we should go here," he tried to warn her.

They were on the front steps of the shed. She ignored him and tore open the front door. It dangled on one hinge, flapping like a fan in the humid, unforgiving stillness.

The congregation turned as one, fixing their eyes on her.

"The DEVIL," the white-suited man at the pulpit proclaimed, "has MANY GUISES!"

July 27, 2011 — 2,419 words

Truth

By Letitia Coyne

From where he sat, Paske could pick the darker darkness of her sleeping form. The man who'd joined them had wandered into the night. How far? He couldn't be sure. Pulling the cape in closer around his shoulders, he held a hand up before his eyes. The shake said more about his weakness than the cold itself. Cold ate into the heart of him. Cold rode his teeth until they no longer chattered, they just clamped together burning into aching misery. But the shake that ran in irregular bursts up his spine, or settled in his hip joints so his legs seemed somehow detached, that came from weakness more profound than anything he had ever imagined possible.

If he had just one moment. Just one. And the strength to stand and cross the distance to where she lay, he would have clubbed her there with any rock or stick or with bare fists. He watched his fingers tremble. He didn't have the strength of a newborn foal. Even if he could pretend his limbs were his own to control they would not carry him past the fire.

The anger that came with the realization burned as deep as the cold. His lip twisted into a sneer and he would have cried for the shame of it, but a step from behind shocked him from his vicious reverie.

"You can tell me what's not written there." Dragan dropped a fleece saddle cloth to the stones and sat down on it, close enough to speak in hushed tones. "Or what's been washed away."

"Why would I tell you anything?" The damage done to his throat when he was gagged had worsened with the appalling dryness of his ride. His voice crackled like twigs on gravel, the taste of blood rose on each breath, and the effort of speaking sent his foggy brain into a spin.

Dragan held up the flask of water. The temptation to lunge for it was more than Paske could bear, and the ability to reach beyond him. All he managed was a groan and a mistimed snatch.

"Yes, you can have it. I want to know how much of what you told her is true."

His captor didn't risk the water; he held it steady while Paske drank, his own feeble hands no more than guides on its way to his mouth. There was nothing to say that would save him, and no way to know what might damn him on the spot. He shook his head, "What do you want? I'll tell you whatever you'd like to hear."

"Just the truth. I'll judge whether I like it or not."

Paske knew how little of the text on the scrolls was readable, and making sense of it out of order and context would be near-on to impossible, but Dragan must have read enough to have raised real doubts. Paske nodded. The faint heat of the fire was pressing his heavy eyelids. They wanted to close. His mind was a fog of pain and dissociation. He wished for the strength to fight. He wished for the strength to slash and punish. He wished for the strength to turn his wit and charm into a weapon. But all he had was a thick tongue, a parched throat and the will to stay alive.

"It's all true," he said at last. With that said, the weight of consequence seemed to burst like a bubble. He had no more say in his life or death and a laugh stuttered from his chest. He motioned again for the flask, his eyes barely open, slurring like a drunk. "It's all true." He swallowed, then tipped his head back and gargled away the dryness. "And more. Are you going to kill me now?"

"Tell me the more."

"More. How long have you been on the front? Why wouldn't you know anything I can tell you? Are you all as stupid as you look?"

"Maybe."

"I don't want to go over that mountain. Is anything I say going to stop that from happening?"

Dragan was silent. He held the flask again, generous with the water, anxious to make the sharing of this information smooth.

Paske could see no love in the expression of the big soldier, but there was a complex confusion that might have suggested reluctance. Or was it the moving firelight? Paske dropped his forehead onto his wrist and rubbed, smearing away a recent scab. "There's more. For the last twenty years numbers on the front have been falling. You'd have seen that. Weapons are better; each year there are fewer men with experience on the line; young men die faster." He shrugged, indifferent to the facts. "We could scale back the campaigns; battle strategy could have been better." He raised his face and smiled, "But we've gotten so good at ridding ourselves of you all, it seemed a shame to stop."

Hatred moved on Dragan's face now, but his hands stayed steady, holding the flask in easy reach.

"The middle classes love a story of war glory. They love to hear how our brave men suffer for the love of them and their empire. The nobles love to hear they're safe, secure behind a wall of flesh and blood." Again he laughed. "And every decent man wants to know that the slums and the ghettoes are being drained of life. Every decent man alive wishes fire and destruction on the nests of them huddled in their filth around our cities. Leeching and fornicating and breeding"

His vehemence drew a hoarse cough, and Dragan pulled the flask away, letting the paroxysm pass before he offered the drink again.

"You're not like them, are you?" There was something clean about the big man. He didn't cower like the ranks of veterans usually did. He didn't limp or twist when he moved. There was almost a nobility in his flesh, albeit earned more than borne by nature, and the idea came that maybe this man, like Paske himself, was the victim of cruel fates. "Where were you born?"

There was no answer. Maybe shame; such things were not easy to discuss. Paske's eyes were heavy, dry, and thick with scum that blurred his sight. The water, for all it soothed his raw throat, did little to ease the thick inarticulateness of his tongue. "I've fallen too," he said softly, speaking to the echoing depths as much as to Dragan.

"There's more," Dragan prompted.

"Yes." He nodded, and the movement sent his head spinning wildly. He caught his brow in a weak hand and sighed. "The husbandmen," he mumbled. "The cities are getting hungry. The population of good citizens is growing and we are running out of room to live comfortably. The craftsmen build more cities but we can't find the food we need. The farms, you see. Pressures are building. Unrest." He shook his head and tried to look clearly at Dragan. He needed to assess the impact his words were having. In the firelight it seemed that this man understood. He seemed to grasp the implications, the stresses.

"Too many of the poor men from the farms have been drawn in to the military."

Dragan nodded, and the acknowledgment drove him on;

"You understand? You know what must come, now?"

There was silence still, his captor staring coldly at the fire, chewing hard on his own thoughts. "Second sons of noble families are being sent out into the wilderness." Again he laughed; the irony of high-born men being shaken down the line just to keep the top in place struck him as poetic justice. Those who had judged him and sent him down would themselves end up lower on the caste than he was. For the last time he drank deeply.

"We need the surplus, you see. If we haven't enough to feed ourselves, what can we trade with Verdan? We have no mines."

* * * * *

The words were slurred and mumbled, and probably would not have made much sense if Dragan hadn't felt the echo of each syllable deep inside. What little he'd read in the scrolls he had no desire to trust, a smattering of words he knew in a rash of those he didn't and that in parts and pieces. He had read some of it aloud to Freya and she'd seen no more proof in it than he had.

But Paske was full to brimming with the love of his own wisdom. What wasn't written was far more important than the fantasies of a few deranged liars telling tales to suit themselves about battles they had never seen. What mattered was his hatred of generations of men whose crime was to be born among lesser mortals. There were no lies in his loathing. It was a simple truth and one he felt needed no explanation or excuse. He and his like were ridding the empire of its lowest life and he was proud of the work of his hands.

And Dragan had known it. For years, with the healing peace of the pastures easing the horrors of the battlefield from his mind, he had reasoned through the way the world worked. He himself had chosen the best and strongest bull calves and castrated the rest knowing he would keep the best herd while only the strongest and finest bred. He himself had selected the weakest, the oldest, and the lame when he chose the next beast for the table. He understood the rationale.

And with the faces of men he'd known suddenly so clearly there before him in the firelight, he was sickened to his stomach.

He knew, too, the truth about the need for men on the land. The call for fleece, for stock, and crops was growing all the time and the pressure to provide the demands of the tariff meant many good farms were losing their breeding stock and seed crops to the taxman. The land needed men to work it and the cities were going to send them.

Because they needed to trade.

Paske had droned into silence and Dragan ground his teeth over the obscene cost of it all. Everything was as it had always been, longer than anyone could remember. The strong governed; the weak went to war.

Not just the weakest, now, but a generation of husbandmen had been sacrificed to maintain this precarious balance. His breath was coming harder as he thought, his stomach churning over realizations that made him want to puke.

He shook the flask they both held, shocking the officer back from the fugue into which he'd slipped. "What do they want?"

Paske stirred, but it was getting harder for him to hold his head up. Freya had stopped his wound bleeding, but he needed a physician. In a field hospital with all the herbs and instruments on hand his injuries might not have been fatal. Here and now they were. He shook; constant spasms of shivering ran through him, and despite the cold in the air his skin was hot to touch. He would be lucky to see the sunrise.

"Who?" he managed, but it was a hoarse whisper.

"The Verdan. Why do we have to defend against them? What are we protecting?"

Dragan did not expect the shock of laughter. Paske looked as if he might have thrown his head back for the simple joy of what he had to say, but weakness and fever had crippled his responses. His mirth was a choked and bubbling thing, an ugly sound. "Nothing!" He reached for the flask, struggling to direct it to his lips and coughing when he breathed liquid in with his chuckles. "Nothing. We trade our excess crops for their steel. They have no need to take anything."

Steel. The steel of weapons? They traded weapons to use in the war.

Dragan stood.

Looking down on the man at his feet, he briefly debated the means of a quick death. He had no heart in himself for outright cruelty, but no kindness pleaded on Paske's behalf. He opted instead to pull the officer to his feet. The way they had climbed was steep, barely more than a cliff-face formed of rubble. Dotted with rocky outcrops and rain-scoured washouts, it was a wide expanse of death. Cold. Exposed. And contemptuous of weakness. He'd lived on mountainsides like this for fifteen years.

Holding Paske by the shoulder of his borrowed tunic, Dragan moved him to the edge of the small flat on which they stood, grabbed the seat of his breeches, lifted him easily, and pitched him down the mountain.

Squatting by the fire, he stared at the flames and past them to where Freya slept.

He checked the progress of the stars. He should be waking her for her watch, but he had no need for sleep. Let her rest.

From the document cylinder he drew the scrolls and one by one he fed them into the flames.

Freya could sleep. At sun-up they would move, but he had yet to decide in which direction. He had thrown away their hostage and he was burning what little evidence they had. Morning would be soon enough to tell her that.

He rubbed at his chin. It was not just a question of proof, even if Freya had imagined she would need Paske or his scrolls. Together they were well enough known to give any message to the troops credibility. If they were to go. No, it wasn't proof, and if Paske had died in his bedroll and the scrolls lay safe in their cylinder it would make no difference to anyone. But it felt better. Somehow destroying the evidence made the horror less stark. Their lives had been no more than surviving an atrocity; their skills, far from being a valued commodity were just annoying techniques that had kept them alive.

On the front lines tonight and tomorrow men would fight and die. And for nothing.

But he was finished with it. He had served his term and survived. He had earned his small piece of safety and by all the festering demons he wanted to take what he had earned and enjoy it. If he went ahead with Freya and they spread the word along the line, that every man there was the victim of a cruel system that played their lives for chips, the war might end. It would.

And thousands of angry men would be looking for blood and revenge.

July 26, 2011 — 3,144 words

Hunger

By M Jones

She fretted over her handbag, her switchblade wrapped delicately in a clean handkerchief she had taken from George's house. "What a mess," she complained. "I don't want this ruining my make up. A girl has to have an ample supply these days, she can't leave her house with a naked face, that just won't do." In response to her own panic, she reapplied her lipstick, her pocket mirror balanced precariously against the steering wheel as she tried to manoeuvre her paint and the car at the same time. She veered dangerously to the left, only to make a shocking turn to the right that left him sprawled in the back seat.

"I don't know why you always have to sit back there," she complained. She smeared her lips and tossed her lipstick and compact mirror onto the seat beside her. "I had a shower, after all, I smell rather pretty now."

"I don't care what you smell like."

"Ah, so now you're being a real pain. A lunkhead, that's you." She glanced back at him, her icy gaze now replaced with a sneering playfulness. "I think we need to get some lunch."

A cold feeling washed over him at this. He could boil himself to death beneath that relentless summer sun and it would never make him warm, not when she was in his presence. "You can't go back there."

"Why not? It's a diner, and we got a long way ahead of us on that road." She grinned, her fingers tapping to a silent tune that only she knew. "I'll get a big piece of pie, I will. And you can have another cup of coffee, seeing as how you didn't have any trouble drinking that swill down."

"It'll look strange, us going back to eat again. It's only been a couple of hours."

"Business is business. They're so desperate for hungry people with money it wouldn't matter if we left on the half hour and kept marching back in to drink soda floats all day long, Stella would oblige without question. If we wanted a meal for free, well, then we'd be noticed. Stella ain't the kind to give something for free, I've already figured that out."

He rested his head on the stale crocheted pillow, his hand smoothing against the pain brewing inside of his skull. The motor oil he'd had sat ill in this host, its black sludge creeping through the partially full veins in throbbing pulses. "Doesn't it bother you?"

"What?"

"That you are getting food from a woman whose husband you just killed. I should think there is some kind of social wrongness to such an act."

"Why should my hunger factor into it? Dead is dead and I need a sandwich."

She rummaged in her beaded purse for change, the nickels and dimes ratting against her stained switchblade. "Besides, it wasn't like he was a good husband. When he travelled to Chicago, I know he had a bunch of girls draped on his arm wherever he went, and they weren't his cousins, and he's had no children to speak of, so they weren't his snappily dressed daughters. While hard working Stella here kept slaving away holding onto her one little dream, that rat bastard was fox-trotting his way into every copper's pocket and every Chicago whore's bed. Lord knows how many diseases he's brought home to her. I hope she really is as sour and bitter as they say, that might stave off the syphilis."

"I'm glad you find this amusing." He crossed his arms and stubbornly remained in the back seat after she parked the car in the exact spot they had occupied earlier, the rattling engine groaning loudly into a full stop. "This is madness."

"I don't know what you think I'm going to do." She batted her eyelashes innocently and he fought the urge to gag.

"You know damn well."

Her lips pursed in coquettish mischief. "Do tell."

"You're going to do something terrible. Some unspeakable act of evil, and I will feel sick, and whoever finds it will feign surprise." He rolled his eyes at her continued curtsying. "You can't be trusted."

"I do love this dress," she said, ignoring his observation. She parked the car in the lot, slamming the driver's door behind her as she skipped off to the entrance of the diner. "I'll snag you a sandwich too," she shouted to him.

"Don't bother," he shouted back, but she was already in the diner, her entrance a loud chorus of jangling bells that hung across the swinging door. He tried to get a good view inside, but the windows were above car level, and all he could discern with any clarity were the rounded tops of a few heads, faces obscured by cloche hats. The polished chrome of Stella's decor gleamed in welcome to the appreciative customer who would visit.

He got out of the motor car and stretched his host's body, his back creaking from the effort. He'd been sure this host would have lasted longer, but it was already starting to show signs of wear and tear, the custom fit comfortable, but the chemistry within the body was clearly incompatible with his own. The freckles dotting the epidermis had turned a darker grey, the reddish complexion that had been the youth's sign of good health was now a sallow, pasty mauve. Perhaps the other host had been more accustomed to daily abuses and thus hadn't reacted quite as strongly as this one to his imbibing of motor oil.

A fly buzzed near his ear, and landed on the top of his head. It crawled into the dull reddish forest of his hair, searching for an open space to lay her eggs. He scratched at his scalp, tearing a small hole with his nail. The fly buzzed around his fingers in excited agony as he pulled an entire chunk of scalp away, the red hair trapping the fly within it in a thin, strong cage.

Perhaps he was judging her too harshly. Georgio, or George as he was known here, was hardly a kind soul. As a rum-runner he had plenty of bodies strewn behind his success, and it was unlikely that his wife Stella was ignorant of this. It shouldn't bother him that the two female customers he saw in the diner were now leaving, their cloche hats hiding all but their delicate lips which spoke in nasal Maine accents, teeth chewing on words as if they were tobacco. But these weren't loose women, not molls. They talked of family and children and the annoying habits of their husbands. They were on safari here in the south, visiting relatives they had no connection to.

"Hey, you there," one of them shouted to him. A blast of sunlight hid her face as tried to discern the features beneath the low brim of her hat. "You don't look well. Are you all right?"

Her friend pinched her on the shoulder. "Shirley," she harshly whispered. "Let's just go."

"But he doesn't look right...."

"That's what I mean, let's just go."

They piled into a covered automobile, the worried friend Shirley looking over her shoulder at him, her bottom lip bit in concern.

He wasn't sure what to make of these flashes of insight that occasionally drifted his way. He'd seen it in Clara's father as well, that same look of sickened concern. It was as though these humans had some hidden knowledge over how to avert an inevitable disaster, but they were helpless to implement it. Such a cruel omission, he thought. They had rendered compassion useless. Not that this should have surprised him, for after all, it was so easy for them to kill in so many ways, not just the physical. A stab through the heart came in many guises. Sometimes, it was the slow torment of bitter words that cut into the soul and ruined what was otherwise another person's happy existence. At other times, it was a complete lack of acknowledgement, a pervasive, ongoing neglect that withered the soul away.

If Clara used a more direct approach to killing someone, who was he to object to that honest exchange?

He rested his chin on the roof of the Chevrolet, keeping a keen eye on the diner. There was no discernible movement from his vantage point, the diner having suddenly taken on an abandoned, neglected aura since the exit of the two women from Maine. He narrowed his eyes and tried to look past the polished chrome interior, the clocks that told perfect time hanging in triangular perfection on the wall behind the counter. There was no movement within, no suggestion that humanity coursed through here on a daily basis. Time had arrested at this exact moment, a frozen capsule of ennui and hope.

She had been wearing Stella's dress, he remembered. A pink flowered affair that complemented her appearance. Blood purified by white. A bleached hue of the living.

She'd been in there a good twenty minutes now. She was taking too long.

Dust rose and fell around the Chevrolet, the green tinted surface stained in dull, sepia tones. The front windshield had a crack in the corner near the passenger side, an injury from a speeding pebble. He traced the crack with his fingertip, wondering how much further it would spider out as they made their way to California. At some point it would become a hazard, shattering out if they hit a large enough bump in the road. But he didn't know much about these things, so maybe it would stay the same and would hold together. He couldn't be sure.

The diner was eerily quiet, and it was with concentrated effort that he refused to inspect if his suspicions were correct. In the back seat, under the mouldy crocheted pillow, a square can of motor oil lay in waiting. The host he now resided in released the oil too quickly and cleanly from its system, and though he was well sated earlier his mind was now painfully clear. With it, the fluidity of his ethics pinched him inwardly, little hematoma that blistered blue and black along his soul. The truth was, with this body he inhabited, he had stolen, there was no real difference between himself and Clara. He was going to need a new host by the time they reached Texola and he doubted very much it would be acquired by strictly natural means.

He had no room to judge.

She was right, it wasn't his business what she believed, she had her own mission to accomplish. He was allowing his feelings to get in the way of his reason. which was always a danger in these situations. Where he came from, murder was wrong, but there was no oral law concerning what to do in the event of one's imminent demise. The will to live was the same everywhere, one had an existence and one wanted to continue on with it. A freckle faced simpleton knocked dead with a wrench was simply a survival tool that skirted the periphery of natural law. He had a specific mission to accomplish and some collateral damage along the way was inevitable. His survival was important for the mission, and yes, it was a bloody business, but there was no other choice offered. His superiors would understand.

He hoped they would. They had to.

She was swinging her purse against her swaying hip as the diner entrance slammed shut behind her, the jingling bell nearly toppling from its fixed place at the top of the door. She was eating one half of a sandwich loosely wrapped in a napkin, her mouth dotted with crumbs as she spoke to him. "We should drive straight through, right into Texas. I say we don't stop until we hit Armarillo. Or, we could make a quick pit stop in Shamrock and stay at the Reynold's Hotel." She took another bite of her sandwich, contemplating this. She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her thumb, brushing off crumbs indelicately. "I know that place well, actually. The owner owes me a few favours, I could get us a good deal." She gave him a warm, friendly smile, of the kind that sent chills through his liquid self. "Sound like a good idea to you? The place really is top drawer, you know. All marble and fancy tiles, not too cheap, but not too expensive, neither. You and me, we can hole up in a room and no one would ask any questions. That's how it is there, see."

She placed her half eaten sandwich on the hood of the Chevrolet and rummaged in her purse. She took out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, the end of it partially squished flat. "Here," she said, handing it to him. "Since you like the food there so much you can have one for the road."

He weighed the sandwich in his hand, studying the folds of the wax paper that covered it. Ham and rye, by the look of it through the murky white paper. Clara paced and finished her own sandwich, her eyes constantly darting to the busy road beside them, her manner fidgety, as though she were ready to take off in a run at first opportunity.

He unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. It was dry, not a hint of mustard. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

She still had on Stella's wide brimmed hat, which was doing little to prevent the continued onslaught of the afternoon sun on her already tanned arms. "No problems at all."

"You look nervous."

"I'm wondering about that mayor."

"What are you thinking?"

"That he's a loose end that needs tying." She wiped imaginary crumbs from her skirt. "I think we should swing by his swanky house, have a little peep into his windows and see if he's alone."

A dried tumbleweed drifted past the abandoned diner, all hope of life within it effectively vanquished. He took another bite of his sandwich, its dry texture alien on his slimy tongue. Granules of bread stuck in his throat, and he longed for a quick drab of motor oil to help it ease down. "We can't do it."

A sudden breeze tried to lift her hat away, to steal it along its current. She snatched the brim, holding it firmly in place, her face obscured in much the way the cloche ladies of Maine had been hidden from view. "I do what I want, and I want to tie up a loose end."

"We've overstayed our welcome here. We're leaving." He opened the passenger door, tossing the uneaten portion of his sandwich onto the ground. "That's not fit even for me to eat. I've only just started eating your food and I know that one was made wrong." He sat sideways in the passenger seat, the door ajar, his feet braced on the dusty earth at his feet. The sun shone behind her, casting her in a cameo shadow. "Were you trying to poison me?"

"What? Don't be ridiculous."

But he had to wonder. There was a strange, dry sensation on the edges of his tongue, a gritty texture that had nothing to do with dry bread. "There's a funny taste to it, similar to magnesium. Is that a sulphur chaser? Could it be belladonna, or the dreaded strychnine?"

"I'm not poisoning you."

He eyed her with profound suspicion. "Was I a test run for that mayor? You think it's so easy to get rid of me, and yet here I remain, thwarting your one act of murder that comes with concentrated effort." He swung his legs back into the Chevrolet and let out a long sigh as he settled comfortably into the back seat. "Leave the mayor alone. He's a politician. You said so yourself, he lives on insincerity. No one will believe a word he says."

She kicked at the dirt, thinking on what he'd said. "But he's been here, he's seen us. He'll run off to the papers and tell them what he knows, and I can't have that."

"He saw nothing," he reminded her. "He was too busy needling Stella over the diner and George's involvement. His real dealings are with George, and chances are he won't mind having his partner snuffed out. He can be the one to clutter up his house full of expensive garbage."

She raised a brow, its perfectly pencilled arch pushing into her bangs. "So you think he'll be happy to be the new head honcho connection in Chicago?" She bit her bottom lip, hips swaying softly in the breeze, her fingers tapping a strand of pearls on the hood of the car. "Maybe you're right," she said, giving him an uncommitted shrug. "He was kind of a throwaway nobody. We can always accuse him of being drunk, we can use the empty rum bottles we find in his garbage as proof of his lush behaviour."

"There won't be any need to discredit because he won't say a word," he reminded her sagely. "He's a rum-runner, just like George was, and last I checked such practises were highly illegal all over the country, not just by state. So, I'm guessing, even if he is the one who finds George's body, he'll be the one to turn tail and run, with all the town's savings in his pocket." He rested his head on the mouldy pillow as Clara finally got into the driver's seat, her stolen white gloves gripped hard on the wheel. "Chances are, he's long gone with George's money already. Soon enough we'll be hearing of him in Chicago, an unfortunate corpse with his feet sunk in concrete. Tell me, can't anyone in this world of yours simply enjoy their riches? Why is it so important to acquire these things, especially when so many others in the community need his help? It's not like they were useful. There's so much waste."

"So, they're all bolsheviks where you come from, then." She pulled a slender cigarette out of her case and lit it before turning the key in the ignition, the motor rattling away into half-hearted life. "We'll have to find another car soon," she said. She gave him a sidelong glance filled to bursting with disgust. "You need a new host. This last one just plain looks weird on you, not to mention you smell bad, and you look like you should be fertilizing grass, not hanging with the likes of me."

She sped off, away from the diner, the force of the wind from the motor car forcing a tumbleweed off the road and into a ditch. He tried to close his eyes and get a small amount of rest. He hated closing his eyes these days. All he could see was red.

July 26, 2011 — 194 words

Bone Fragments is now available for Kindle!

By Terra Whiteman

That's right.

It's now July 26th, and Gabriel Gadfly's BONE FRAGMENTS is now available for purchase on Amazon Kindle for only $0.99. Click HERE to get your copy!

Print will be available in about a week, so if you're wanting to buy that, stay tuned. Also stay tuned for a giveaway contest, hosted by yours truly!

Set in Iraq, China, and many other places, Bone Fragments reflects the kaleidoscope of life at war, evoking the colors, sounds and sorrows of those in battle, and those left behind.
Sharply poignant and touched with sadness, Gabriel Gadfly's poetry encompasses 150 years of conflict and serves as a moving testament to human resilience in the face of tragedy. From the American Civil War to the recent upheavals in the Middle East, this anthology seizes the atmosphere of battle in the smallest of moments -- a soldier pining for a love left behind, the first kill of a new recruit, the loud chattering of teeth in the cold....

July 25, 2011 — 357 words

What Went Wrong

By MCM

Greetings, humans!

I bet you're wondering what's gone wrong. I need to explain, because it has screwed up many a-person. And not just the various segments of my personality.

I just finished a massive cross-country move (and "finished" is a broad concept, because we're not done yet). Before that, I spent the month of June in a state of anaphylactic shock for reasons that have not yet been pinned down. Suffice to say, not much gone done.

The only things that got finished were things that were already mostly done. Terra and Gabriel's books, both long in development, snuck out in one piece (well, technically Gabriel's comes out tomorrow). But other titles are badly off-kilter. Kit's new book is on the top of my list, and then Terra's second book, and then... then...

Okay, let's put it on the table. I haven't got RollBots: Endgame done yet. It's close, but writing was hard when on Benadryl, and I want it to kick ass. Similarly, the revised Polarity is late, and probably won't be done until closer to Dustrunners 3 is written in November. And I still have to edit The Archivists. And the site is in utter disarray (which Terra is doing a fantastic job of covering up).

So here's my priority list for the next few weeks:

  1. Launch Bone Fragments
  2. Launch Slash and Burn
  3. Write RollBots: Endgame
  4. Launch Antithesis: Book 2 Alpha
  5. Edit The Archivists

And fix the site.

If I seem t be falling behind anywhere, please feel free to beat me in the head with a stick. This time last year, I was ramping up to write Arkady and Kain (which also needs editing), but this year I'm trying to survive one day at a time. Quite a change. But with a little energon and a lot of luck, I'll get things back on track.

And/or Anna will kill me.

In the meantime, check out the Endgame cover:

July 25, 2011 — 2,456 words

Tell him

By Letitia Coyne

Freya leapt over the man at her feet, trusting the arms she had always trusted to catch her. A tremor ran up through her chest, a rapid tattoo of sobs or laughter that caught at the back of her throat. Whether they were tears or giggles, she couldn't be sure.

"You came back!" Just what that meant she couldn't begin to consider, but he was here, right where the fates had dumped her; somehow, he had come to the middle of nowhere and found her on this wide mountain side. How much more proof could anyone need that this was where they were meant to be? She threw her head back and laughed; the perfect joy she had imagined could be hers after all.

"I heard you had some trouble." Dragan set her down and crouched to the side of his fallen foe. Jan lay twisted between rocks on the cold ground, paralyzed by the agony of a mortal wound. His eyes were fever bright, his breath a hard pant over lips pink with blood. Dragan asked, "You want an end?"

Jan grappled weakly with the hilt of Freya's sword where it stuck out from his side. It would be rank cruelty to move it, despite his feeble efforts to do so, and Dragan rested a hand lightly on the silver cap of the pommel. "Why were you following her?"

The man's breath hiccoughed, fighting internal demons in an effort to force air into words. "Paske," he managed.

Freya dusted Dragan's hand away from her sword, reefed it free, and forced it down between the heaving ribs to still his heart. Jan's painful struggle ceased and she stepped onto his chest as she pulled the blade free.

"I want to know why they were sent after you." Dragan stood, raising his hands in exasperation.

"So ask him." She pointed into the shadows of the rock face where her companion still huddled.

"Who's he?"

"That is Paske."

Already, Freya was moving to conceal what she could of the bloodshed. If the other riders returned, they would see the signs of ascent and follow. Maybe if she fled upward now, with the sun only good for another hour or so, they would make it to the cover of another gully or knoll or at least put good distance between them and their pursuers. Best then if those pursuers rode on past this spot and its dead, believing their comrades continued ahead of them.

"We need to move," she called. "Get him up and steal him some clothes. I want to get as close to the crest as possible, and soon. There are four more where these came from and they will be back."

Dragan was kneeling with Paske, his back to her as she gathered loose weapons into a pile and readied herself to drag the lowest body up to the shelter of a coppice. When he stood, she could see a clash coming in the set of his shoulders and the deep furrow of his brow. He slouched there above her, his face grey and casting its own shadows. "This one's not going anywhere if you want him to survive for very long. And why go up when down is quicker?"

"We can't go down," she laughed. "I told you, there were other riders with these boys. They rode on along the road, but they won't go far. They'll be back sooner or later." She strode up the incline stepping from rock to rock until she was on the level ground where he stood. He turned so the sun lit his features. "He has to make it to the front. Well, if he doesn't I don't really care, but he has news for the men there. He has theories about our war." She kicked Paske lightly, and he pulled the capes tighter around himself, sitting huddled like a miserable child. "Tell him," she said.

"Tell him yourself."

She grinned again. "Tetchy isn't he? I'll tell you while we ride. Dragan, come on. You're here now, just as you should be. I'm not stuck in the middle of a dark rock like some long dead snail; I'm out here, not five leagues from the front lines, with nowhere else to go. And we have to go now."

He shook his head slowly, taking moments they should not waste to consider things he knew nothing about, and the frustration that rose up her back pushed her close to bursting point.

"No," he said quietly. "I'm not here to go to war. I'm here because I heard you had a squad riding hard after you. I don't know why, and I'm not sure I care. But if he's the officer who ordered the pursuit, I've got problems with taking him to another squad of armed men. He might be administration, Freya, but he's an officer. We're taking him to tell his men what, exactly?"

"Why are you so stubborn? Let's get moving and talk on the way." This was too much like last time they'd talked and the time before that, and the slope that she stood on was too likely to slide. His views on the fighting were too close to the stories Paske told. Why did he suddenly want so much with words; they'd never been his strong point before.

"Tell me," he demanded without raising his voice. "If it's a fight here or a fight over there, I'll take here and now, unless you can give me a good reason to go further."

It was not his choice to make, and he could not take this freedom from her. Not again. Not when her life was so close she could taste it on the breeze. Not when he'd come from nowhere to her side, just as he should have. "No! Trust me, you said. Trust me, stay here. It’ll be fine. You'll be okay." She wanted to tear at the frustration that was hardening around her limbs and stopping her from moving forward, and she gripped shreds of air in her fists, holding them up like a challenge. "It's not okay. I'm not fine.

"I can't go back; he's made sure of that anyway. I can't run away. I won't. I am going up that mountain and I'm taking that rancid goat turd with me." She was yelling and she had not heard her voice rising. It had climbed higher as cold fears rose inside; fears and furies she had held in careful check for two months or more. "If you're not coming, then don't, but you won't make me turn away from my life and my journey again. You won't make me!"

She spun away, glancing over the bodies around her for anything suitable for her prisoner to wear when her foot slipped in the scree, skidding her to one knee in a graceless stagger. Her supporting hand fell on a small rock and she turned and threw it hard at where he stood.

Dragan ducked the stone easily, grinning. "Okay, I won't," he answered, and turned to pull Paske to his feet.

* * * * *

Freya rode ahead, dragging the spare horses behind her as if they represented everything in this world that wanted to hold her back. She wanted to run; Dragan could see it in the tension of her shoulders and her grim insistence on taking the lead. He rode behind in silence, watching their injured companion.

He was content for the moment to give her the space she needed. The time at the citadel had been hard on her. She was pale and the strength he'd known in her grip had gone. Her spirit would never suit the dark rooms of bureaucracy, but he had hoped she would stay. Vain hope.

She could not return to the front. Not if she had any thought of surviving. It was suicide as surely as throwing herself down from these heights. So, he could follow and let her have some room to breathe, and when she was ready, she would tell him what he needed to know.

The mountain rose under them as the sun set at their backs, and for as long as he could see, there had been no sign of riders on the road far below. As shadows closed in around them, there was at least a sense of reprieve. "Freya! Your man here needs to stop or he's going to fall. The horses could use a spell, too." He would have added, ‘So do I', but that would have been giving ground in the argument yet to come, so he kept the sentiment to himself.

"Let him fall," she called back and showed no sign of turning off. The ground was steep and rising; it was not a good place to pause anyway, so he chose to bide in silence. When she did pull up, it was because the darkness had become a threat in itself. The fine slip of a moon offered no guidance, and the horses spooked at rough ground, nervous for their own safe footing. It was past time, and she had pushed his patience and his resolution to their limit.

Their companion had endured in silence and it didn't bode well for him. Dragan doubted he had chosen stoicism, which left weakness, and there was no doubting what damage blood loss, fatigue, dehydration, and hunger had already done. Again, Freya alone had the answers to his tribulations.

"Will you take the first watch?" She stood before him like an angry child, hands on her hips, with a look of defiance or the anticipation of a coming storm. "I didn't sleep last night."

He nodded and handed the pack rations from the soldiers' saddlebags to her. "And you can tell me now how you plan on surviving when you get over these peaks. If you do. We've got time."

"I told you," she said, kneeling at the small fire to set a pannikin of water to warm. "I can't go back to the citadel. This worthless excuse for a man has planned something for me; I'll have to ask him what. He told me before I left that he would make sure I didn't come back, and then sent me out with a roll of papers…."

She leapt up quickly and ran to her saddle and pack, dragging a satchel free and rushing it back to where he sat. "Here! It's all about this. What's on these? What do they say?"

Dragan began to unbuckle the pack. "Keep talking," he said.

"There isn't much more to tell. His ambush didn't go as he’d planned, and he is as you see him." She smiled as she tore strips of salted beef from the store and began to chew.

"You didn't kill him." For some reason, it seemed, she had decided he was going over the mountains with her. The leather cylinder was free and he twisted the top from it, pulling the ragged sheets out from where they had bunched and jammed.

"He said some things. They can't be true, or I hope they're not, but they make an awful kind of sense. The same things you said, before you left me there."

Dragan grunted and nodded. He wasn't sure what she meant, but waiting long enough usually answered questions like that. For many years he'd recognized silence as a valuable tool in conversation. The scrolls were crumpled, the damaged areas separating where they had bent and twisted. They had all been soaked with dark liquid and dried, so the integrity of the parchment itself was compromised. If they had ever been arranged in order, that had been completely disrupted and the staining had erased most of the text, anyway.

"He said the war is not important. He said it serves no purpose but to rid the empire of filth. Us." She tapped her chest in emphasis and moved closer, as if peering over his shoulder would make the words on the parchments he held make more sense to her. "He said it was working. Too well. He said our numbers were down because they'd done a good job of killing us off."

Across the fire, lying on his side, possibly asleep, Paske began to look like someone Dragan had no cause to save. His words, as Freya spoke them, turned a cold hard knife of anger deep in his stomach. Too often his life had seemed a pointless struggle against men who had no more cause to hate him, than he had them. And yet, for all the sense it made, there was a heart, a core of reason, that would not let such thoughts be true.

To believe it was to make the lives and deaths of generations nothing. To accept it made all the things he had ever believed about his home and the empire and the place of everyone in it a lie.

It made the empire a lie.

"What's on the scrolls?" She reached for two loose sheets and spread them flat in the poor light of their fire. "I brought them with me because I knew there would be men there who could read. I want him to tell them all what he told me, Dragan. I want him to stand in front of the men they send to die and tell them what they've done."

In the firelight, there was an air of fanaticism in her face. She'd looked at an impossible situation and found a way to hold onto the life she loved. She could return to the troops, not lame or flawed, but as the bearer of the greatest shock the empire had ever known.

In a single flashing moment, he looked along the narrow shaft of possibility at the future and what it would hold. All the hopes he had nurtured, all the work, all his plans, gone in a rush of blood that would spread away from the border and run over the mountains, the forest, and farms. All the way to his one safe haven.

Selecting a scroll that had large sections of text still clear, he began the slow and laborious process of reading. He had to be sure, at least, that what this monster said was true. If Freya carried this information to the men who were armed and trained in death, sooner or later revolution would sweep through the empire, and no one would be safe from war.

Editing, with thanks to Essie Holton.
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