The Cessna’s fuel guage was needling on empty. There was still no sign of the coast, of any solid land at all, and the radio crackled uselessly with static.

John sucked in a panicked breath. How could he have been so stupid, to get that disoriented? To let himself walk out the door without filing a proper flight plan, knowing that Jim would let him fill it in after the fact? Dammit, he may have been 71 years old, but John had been piloting for six years and was fully instrument-rated. He should have known better.

The engine sputtered. Just for a moment, but it was clear that there was not much time left. Ditching in the drink was the only option, with a stowed life raft and life vest that had come with the plane, secondhand, and a flare gun still in its wrapping paper from World War II.

John pulled back on the stick, trying to gain altitude he could use in the glide down to land in a gentle patch of sea or on any sliver of land that might present itself. In doing so, he burst through the ceiling of grey clouds that had led him to get so disoriented in the first place.

It was sunset, above the clouds, and the hidden sun was painting them in the boldest and most vivid colors John had ever seen. Orange the color of his old Camaro, purple like his daughter’s hair, flaming red like the three drops of blood Mary-Beth had coughed up with her last breath as the cancer took her. Every shade that had ever meant anything to John was there, gathered for a final farewell: a sight he never would have seen at any other moment, at any other time.

“Thank you,” he said, tears shining behind his glasses.

He nudged the stick forward. Just a few thousand feet to go.

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The Wakeful Watcher is the boundary between sleep and alertness, keeper of the border and hunter of those that would stray from one realm to the next. When it appears, it appears as a two-headed owl: one head forever watching the world of sleep, one head eternally guarding the world of wakefulness. It speaks, if it must, with both heads at once in a tremulous unison.

Those who cross the boundary each night are watched, and in the event that a dream becomes to wakeful or waking life becomes to dreamlike, the Wakeful Watcher will turn its attentions thereto. It will pursue dream attempting to become real or reality attempting to become dreams, and it will offer them only a single warning before attacking.

Thus it was that the great two-headed owl waited atop the boughs of a twisted cypress one cool morning. It was waiting for Cindy Gompers, with a warning borne on steel talons and destruction carried on the same. Her crime?

She thought that she was real.

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The tree first appeared growing through the cracks in the checkerboard that had once been the Marquis’ outdoor garden. A parched, spare little thing, and the boy took pity on it. He found a dinged-up watercan in the ruins of a garden shed and patiently gave the sprout a few drops.

Every day thereafter, he would return for the same ritual. A little water from the old can, depending on how dry it had been–the sort of thing he was already learning from Father for when he was older and could begin to help with the harvest.

In time, the tree grew tall and strong, spreading boughs over what remained of the garden terrace and tearing up what remained of the Marquis’ checkerboard with its roots. Birds came to perch amid its spreading branches, and will ‘o the wisps could be seen about its trunk at dusk and dawn.

It was an inspiring sight, but also a fearful one. The boy had begun watering the shoot when he was five years old. By the time he was seven, it was larger than all but the oldest boughs in the forest.

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It had been a tough trial. Melinda had begun to doubt herself, to doubt her client. He was charged with a horrible crime, killing and eating man he had only just met.

But through it all, she had felt that something deep inside him was innocent…

And so, against every instinct and piece of legal advice, Melinda put her client on the stand.

“Tell me in your own words what happened,” she said.

“GAAAARRRR! SNAP SNAP! CHOMP CHOMP!” said the shark. It was a diatribe that wasn’t going to win him any favor with the jury.

But it was enough. The shark dry heaved, a pair of hands opened its mouth from inside. Fitzwilliams, the recreational diver that had been swallowed, emerged safe and sound, sustained by his wetsuit and oxygen tank.

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It was that hum that first keyed most people into the fact that something was deeply wrong.

Oh, there had been signs before. Flocks of birds flying south in June, for one. Massive deaths among the ones that stayed, like the flock that beat itself to death against the front windows of the IGA. Lots of people lost their dogs, and lots more found them cowering under couches and in crawlspaces.

But that hum, that ominous pitch-defying hum that seemed like the music of the spheres one moment and a dire portent the next…that ever-uneasy tone that seemed straight out of the sound design for a horror movie.

We knew where it was coming from: cicadas. 17-year cicadas, emerging from their split shells to sing from the treetops. It shouldn’t have been anything to worry about, just an annoyance. But seeing the creatures was what made most people sit up and take notice.

It had only been five years since they’d last come up. The 17-year cicadas were 12 years early for the first time in human history, and nobody had any idea why.

We found out soon enough.

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In time, the land and the road seemed to fall away in the mist. But Ellis kept driving, the cargo strapped to his back too precious to risk. The sounds of the world fell away as well, with only the whine of his motorbike’s two-stroke engine remaining.

When he had gone further than it should have taken, driven for long enough to make two trips there and back, the bike backfired and stopped. Ellis dismounted, disoriented, and looked around.

He could see nothing but clouds above and below, towering above as they towered beneath.

Eliis had unknowingly ridden into the skies on his errand of mercy.

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For theirs was a city
Build from staples and paper
But even at its coolest
Its cleanest
Its most paved
They were there
In the gutters
In the furrows
Beneath floorboards
Behind walls
Listening
Watching
Waiting
Probing for weaknesses
And every piece of information
Every chink in the armor
Borne on scurrying legs
Borne on owls’ silent wings
To the great king
Whose domain they had displaces
Who waited on silent throne
To reclaim what was once his
And would be soon again

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