April 2015

Charon, the skeletal boatman of the River Styx, will often meet with friends for cards, drinks, and chess at his modest boathouse with a lovely view of Hades and the confluence of the Lethe and the Styx.

The Reaper, the even more skeletal figure who brought Charon his souls to ferry, was a usual guest. Hades himself would show up from time to time, usually when he was on the outs with his wife. More typical guests included Malak al-Maut, the Angel of Death; Yanluo, the ruler of Diyu; Chitragupta, the Tallyer of Deeds; and Morena, the Winter Nightmare.

As one might expect from the guest list, these gatherings were restrained affairs. Reaping souls and the like was dour, tiring work, and low-key games of chance and skill helped diffuse some of the innate tension. Charon always paid for everything, as he was the only one to command a fee for his services; this also meant that his boathouse was the only domicile with full high-speed internet.

People have long-suspected that wireless signals are in fact living beings in their own right, imbued with malicious and mischievous souls. Charon knew this to be true, and he would haul in powerful signal-spirits by the boatload for his gatherings, plying them with promises of an escape from Limbo, where they resided after power outages or upgrades. Alternately he’d threaten them with a descent to Wireless Gehenna, a land of constant zero bars, sunspots, and Saudi Arabian signal jammers.

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His name was William Cutter Threscher, but to those who sought out his seminars and self-improvement camps, he was simply The Being. “People talk about autism. I’d like to talk to you about oughtism. That’s ought-ism: you ought to do this, you ought to be like that, you ought to think this, you ought to feel that.”

“We need to free ourselves from oughtism. But we can’t lay the blame at the feet of vaccines in this case. There is a much subtler and more insidious root cause: society and family, culture and contemporaries.” The Being paced back and forth onstage like a caged animal as he spoke.

“Friends, we are bombarded at every turn by messages telling us we ought to be a certain way, from day one. From before day one, in the womb! That’s oughtism, that’s the disease of our time.”

Spreading his arms, The Being continued. “Luckily, oughtism is curable. I come before you today, after all, as a cured man myself. The cure is simple! The cure is available to all! But the cure is not easy.”

“The cure for oughtism, ladies and gentlemen, is our new philosophy of The Beings. A Being doesn’t concern itself with what it ought to do; it simply does. A Being does not obey; it simply exists. A Being does not concern itself with right or wrong; it simply does what it wants, what it must.”

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These are they of the gobs that have earned for themselves a name and a place amongst their people. In the name of gobs, the deeds of gobs.

Gozudt Slitpipes
Grandmaster of the Hardscrabble Guild, which he built from a gob street gang into a crime syndicate unrivaled in all of Newcastle-Upon-Sands. The “slitpipes” appellation comes from his preferred method of assassination and his willingness, even as an elderly and powerful gob, to dirty his hands with his work. The name he chose for himself comes from the gob word “goz” meaning “under, beneath” and the suffix “udt” meaning “chieftain.” “Underchieftain” would be a reasonable approximation in Manspeech.

Kem the Beneficent
Born into extreme privation as a member of a gob band outside the walls of Fortress Donahue, Kem founded the Goblin Mutual Aid Society and shepherded it as leader. Though its name may make it sound like a benefit society or gentleman’s club, the GMAS was actually a tontine. Gobs would found or become members of a local chapter, and whenever one died, his properties would be split among the others. Extremely popular, especially among unmarried gobs and those with property but little status, the GMAS was a way to turn the frequent deaths of gobs to its members’ advantage. “Kem” does not equare to any known gob word; rather, it was simply chosen by its bearer for its sound.

Snegob Fingerling
Gob fishpickers are an indespensible part of every fishery operation, going over heaps of offal and refuse for usable parts of accidentally discarded usable fish. However, this work was once performed by human children or not at all; Snegob Fingerling is credited with the idea and assembling the first gang of gobs to perform it at the legendary stinking fish-oil docks of Cantonia. By only asking that the gobs be paid in gratuity or useable things they found, Snegob was able to undercut his competition and all but monopolize the industry. Due to his propensity for finding small live fish he was called “Fingerling;” “Snegob” is a conjunction of the verb “to snatch” and, of course, “goblin.” Thus, Snatchergoblin.

Ztegolb the Twice-Risen
Ztegolb was once the leader of a band of gob mercenaries which he formed out of the remains of his original home village. Thanks to luck and thorough drilling they were able to find steady work and turned back an assault by human deserters on a farming settlement. This gave Ztegolb his first name and reknown, which increased as his band grew in numbers, training, and equipment. However, his gobs were badly defeated and massacred at the Battle of the Bloody Hillock thanks to an ambush. Ztegolb and a handful of his gobs survived, stripped of their names in disgrace. In response, Ztegolb carefully stalked the bandit bands who had defeated him, learning their movement patterns and weaknesses over a period of years before swooping in to annihilate them in a brilliant tactical plan. He chose a new name rather than resuming the old: “zte” being the prefix for “great” and “golb” meaning either “patience” or “cunning” (and of the same cognate as “gob). Thus, Great-Patience or Great-Cunning.

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“I know my account is overdrawn,” Mitchell said. “I want to know why! I haven’t written any checks this month!”

“I’m sorry you’re angry,” said the teller. “Your account is overdrawn because you spent more money than it contains.”

“I know that shipping is based on weight,” Mitchell said. “But why am I being charged more? I weighed the package at home when I printed out the label, and it was fine!”

“I’m sorry you’re angry,” the postal worker said. “You’re being charged more because your package is too heavy.”

“I know I’m in Limbo,” Mitchell said. “But why? Do I look like an unbaptized baby?”

“I’m sorry you’re angry,” the angel said. “You’re in Limbo because you died unbaptized in infancy, too young to have committed personal sins, but not having been freed from original sin.”

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“You’ve got to believe me!” shrieked Forrester. “That clicking sound behind the door is a Demon Bomb! Don’t you see?”

The officers who had responded to the call shook their heads in a mixture of disgust and pity. Forrester Might once have been a respected member of the community, but his recent actions had made it clear to them–and clear to the judge who had issued the order–that he had suffered a psychotic break. They wrestled him to the ground as gently as they could in order to get him to psychiatric help.

“The Demon Bomb will unleash the wailing hordes of the damned upon the world!” Vorrester continued, struggling to get to the nondescript loading door in the side of a downtown building. “Those who aren’t blasted to Hell by it will be posessed and spread misery amongst the living!”

“It’s just a faulty door motor,” one of the officers said. “It needs an electrician, not an exorcist.” With great difficulty, they carried Forrester away from the loudly ticking door, and his cries were drowned out by the wail of sirens and normal street traffic.

Behind the door, Hazdrupal the Scourger exhaled in relief. “Continue with the countdown,” he barked. “We drop in 24 hours.”

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The Fountain of Turtles.

The Incas of Vilcabamba had believed that the Fountain of Turtles would give those who bathed in its waters the strength of carapace and plastron that was needed to protect their warriors from the guns of the Spanish conquistadors. But with the destruction of Vilcabamba in 1572 and the death of the last Sapa Inca, Thupaq Amaru, the last living being who knew the location of the fountain perished.

Val Dempsey aimed to prove otherwise.

Reading stories of Inca warriors mysteriously invulnerable to musketry and cannonades in the Bibliotheca National de Peru, the former surveyor had begun to believe that there might be a grain of truth to the legend after all. Months of achival research gave way to nearly a year of interviewing toothless old men along the Peru-Brazil border. Val was not only convinced that the Fountain of Turtles was real, but that he knew its location.

The only thing that kept him from uncovering it, from landing the greatest archaeological find of the young century? Just a silly little thing like a rebel insurrection.

With the rise of a group of radical narcotics-funded insurgents in the wild areas near the border, roads were cut off and airports were shuttered. The Fountain of Turtles, if Val’s hunch was right, lay in the track of desperate wilderness now contested between the Peruvian government and well-funded, well-armed, well-pissed-off rebels.

There was only one thing to do.

“We’re over the drop zone,” said the pilot, a civillian skydiving instructor lured from the Himalayas by the promise of action and most especially an action-filled paycheck. “Such as it is.”

Circling the tract of jungle that Val was certain contained the Fountain of Turtles, they had found a clearing and dropped a series of colored smoke markers for the jump before climbing to altitude. Unfortunately, colored smoke signals do not discriminate, and the rebels were rapidly converging on the position. Ground fire began to rise lazily up toward the rented Cessna as Val checked his straps and his reserve chute.

“You know, once you jump, I’m going to have to bug out,” the pilot added. “No rescue’s coming, either. Best case scenario, you wind up holding today’s newspaper in a hostage snapshot for the rebels.”

“No,” said Val. “Best-case scenario, I find the Fountain of Turtles and walk out of there without so much as a scratch.”

“You’re crazy, man,” the pilot replied. “But your check cleared, so you’re good to jump.”

The drop wasn’t so bad, really. The rebels were terrible shots more focused on the plane, and the clearing was just wide enough to make it a viable landing spot, albeit one filled with thick purple smoke. No, the real problem was waiting for Val further up the mountain slopes, after he spent hours evading rebel patrols and losing his pursuers.

The Fountain of Turtles was, in fact, filled with turtles. There was no water. There was only the turtles, even crawling through the mouth of a great stone terrapin to “drip” back into the “pool.”

And the turtles in the fountain? They were anything and everyone that had fallen in.

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Ralph was a simple guy. All he wanted was a life without stress, which is why he left a lucrative teaching position in the pressure cooker that was Stanford University to become a baker in his home town. Not even a master baker; no, Ralph punched his card as a simple apprentice breadmaker. He found the simplicity and order deeply satisfying.

But it wasn’t to last. One day, while hauling stale bread to the dumpsters in the staff parking lot behind his bakery, Ralph witnessed a violent murder. A long, low, black car drove up to an older pedestrian, dropped its windows, and blasted the latter with automatic gunfire.

Instinctively, Ralph ran in the other direction. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the man, and the assailant hadn’t been visible, but it was clear as Ralph’s car turned over that he had been spotted. Flooring the gas and scrambling to remember where the police station was, Ralph’s car fishtailed out of the baker’s back lot with the dark car in hot pursuit. It was faster, the driver was less panicked, and in short order Ralph found himself sideswiped into a sign, a mailbox, and a parked car. Worse, he’d tried to cut across a back alley; no one was watching.

The airbags deployed. Dazed, Ralph bumbled with his seatbelt and crawled from the wreckage of his car. Something hot was oozing from his thinning hairline; he figured it was blood. The other car was still running but the doors were open and it was empty. He limped toward it, hoping to escape through the alley on the other side.

There was a click behind him, the unmistakable sound of the hammer being drawn back on a firearm. Ralph’s shoulders sagged.

“You’re going to shoot me, aren’t you?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?” a very reasonable voice–a boy’s voice–replied. It was soft but strangely familiar. “Witnesses, especially witnesses that get into wrecks like that, are never a good thing.”

“I suppose, but…” Ralph’s thoughts flashed to the comfortable stress-free existence of the last few months. “Nevermind. Get it over with.”

“Dying men get last requests sometimes. What were you going to say?”

“Well, it’s just that…I’ve been living and working as a baker. It’s a life I’ve grown to love…I’d hate to lose it.”

“Oh, that’s awfully boring,” said the voice. “Pleading for your miserable life. You aren’t always that uninteresting, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“…thanks?” Ralph struggled to place the voice. Clearly it was someone he knew, or who knew him, but it just wasn’t clicking. “I could think of a more interesting last request if I knew who you were,” he said.

“You already know. You’ve always known. But you won’t be sure until your last breath is rattling in your throat.”

“Just get it over with.” Ralph’s throat was dry, but really, was this any different than the heart attack that would have felled him back at Stanford? So much for his dreams of working in a bakery. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the end.

Instead, he heard the whistle of a gun butt in the air, the crack of metal against bone, and knew nothing but darkness for some time.

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Violet went for a hike only to get caught in a downpour. And as if her day wasn’t bad enough already, she lost her phone after it slipped from her grip and skittered down a seaside cliff.

This was more than just an inconvenience: that phone contained the face of her target and his updated coordinates from satellite surveillance. She could remember the first, but without the latter her GPS was useless. She shifted the suppressed Beretta 93R in her hand, trying to keep it dry. and yet still ready for action.

It had been ages since she had handled a firearm. She cast her memory back twenty…thirty…yes, thirty-seven years since she had last felt the burning-cold touch of a trigger beneath her finger. But she was–had been–the best, and everybody knew it, even at seventy-three; her last operation, in 1978, was still required reading at the Academy after all.

The Sailor was a shifty bastard, she owed the Agency a favor, and so it was that Violet and her creaky joints were standing out in the rain. “Nothing quite like hunting down a notorious crime boss without any functioning technology,” Violet sighed to herself. “It’s like fishing without a hook. Underwater.”

They called him the Sailor because he had a habit of drowning people he didn’t like, and because his fleet of drug boats was the seventh-largest in the world by gross tonnage. He enjoyed the unofficial protection of the Republic of Valverde, and his base in the Todos los Santos cove was well-fortified. That was why Violet was approaching it on foot, from the north, as wet as the Sailor’s most reviled victims.

Watching the bright lights of the harbor between the trees as she approached, Violet knew from her briefing that the Sailor would be meeting with one of his largest buyers in one of the harbor warehouses. But without the proper coordinates to feed into her GPS, she would have to do the necessary reconnaissance herself.

Moving stealthily past one of the outbuildings after cutting her way through the perimeter fence, Violet heard a loud crack. She registered the sound before she registered the intense pain in her shoulder–not arthritis this time, but a gunshot. The Sailor had posted snipers on the rooftops, most likely with night-vision equipment.

More shots rang out as Violet scrambled into cover in an alleyway.

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Hades, the Lord of the Dead, was exceptionally put out. This was in both a literal and figurative sense; he had been booted out of his home by his wife Persephone and was currently hunched under a metal bus shelter in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas.

He’d been forced to sleep on the couch before, but this was a whole new level of humiliation. “One time,” he told himself. “You get a little too handsy with a naiad one time and out you go.” Hades sighed and looked around morosely. Time was, he’d had to beg Persephone to stick around, had to kidnap her for a little attention. How times had changed now that she was sitting alone on the bone throne and he was flat on his face.

The Lord of the Dead wasn’t exactly sure why Persephone’s portal had spit him out in Kansas. The Underworld was, of course, connected to everything, but…

“Why not Las Vegas?” Hades asked the portal 30 feet above him. “Vegas I could work with!” The aperture blinked shut in response; he wasn’t getting out of this anytime soon.

“Hey, dude, Topeka Nerdicon was last month!” shouted a local embarrassment from his Tahoe, idling at a light. Hades, in response, cast back his hood and let loose the full power of his baleful gaze. Skeletonized, the driver careened of the road as the Lord of the Dead enjoyed a dry chuckle.

“I just need to crash with someone until Persephone comes around,” Hades muttered. He wandered for a bit, skeletonizing all who crossed him as a bit of a pick-me-up. “But who do I know in Kansas?”

Eventually, it hit him: General Juan “Mad Dog” Contigo, former dictator of the Republic of Valverde, was living in Topeka under an assumed name. He owed Hades a favor, too. A few hours later, the god of the underworld stepped out of a grimy cab on the outskirts of town, rewarding the cabbie for his service by releasing him from his mortal coil. Contigo’s pad was a gaudy stuccoed villa surrounded by a tall wrought iron fence draped in festive Christmas tinsel even though it was April.

“You call this living incognito, Juan?” Hades groused. “This is why Comrade Conmigo overthrew you.”

As Hades swung open the door–which, to his surprise, he found unlocked–he was surprised to see a gigantic metal crucifix in the entryway. General Contigo had never been the religious type, not after the Nun Massacre of 1987. But even more surprising was the figure beneath the hanging crucifix: Posidon, god of the sea.

“Brother?” Hades gasped. “What are you doing here? what have you done with Juan Contigo?”

“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out, Hades?” Poseidon snapped. “All water flows to the sea, and that naiad was my granddaughter!”

“We’re all related to everybody else,” Hades said. “Look at Zeus! He’s regularly cheating on the people he cheats on Hera with-”

“Silence!” Poseidon thundered. “I cast your sleazy friend into the depths for a spell in my mines, and I will see my granddaughter avenged. You will serve every minute of the punishment we have devised for you.”

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Gaero walked past the gates with her heady words echoing in his mind: “Never again.” He had finally managed what he had been working toward for twelve years and finally, finally he was free. He had finally pissed off Mother Theresa so badly that she had told him to get out and never come back.

“I am the greatest sinner ever to live!” he said very softly, gleeful grin at odds with how low he kept his voice. He knew his mutterings had often discomfited the wondrous Mother, even if she had never expressed that distaste until now, but he was no angel–why sing if he could murmur mysteriously instead?

With that, his ejection from the Vatican by order of Pope John Paul II, the fatwa against him pronounced by Ekrima Said Sabri the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and the scar where the Dalai Lama had bitch-slapped him, Gaero’s quest was complete. But where was his promised reward? where was the chorus of demons to shower him with gold and gift cards?

“Never again,” Gaero repeated. He began to wonder, as he wandered the streets of Calcutta, whether Mephistopheles had lied to him. Even demons couldn’t break contracts, right? So where had he gone wrong? He doubted that he’d been forgiven by any of the four figures he’d been told to piss off, and he was sure he hadn’t missed one. So he began aimlessly searching for the prize he had been promised, ignoring the Indians staring at the strange Italian in their midst.

“I thought my reward was supposed to be instant,” he said to himself. Instead, there was just urban nothingness, and Gaero began to tear up in fury. He would never trust anyone or anything again; he was done making any kind of deals with anyone. He’d steal the money for a plane ticket and fly to Jamaica, where he could sit on a beach, ripping off tourists for margarita money, with no other problems in sight.

Gaero’s plan worked quite well; after all, one doesn’t get to Rome, Jerusalem, Calcutta, and Lhasa inside of six weeks without some skills in that area. He had been in Jamaica a week, in a hotel room reserved in the name of a man whose wallet he’d pinched in the Kingston airport, when there was a knock on his door.

“Room service, sir!” said the voice beyond the door.

“About bloody time,” Gaeno said, opening the door. He’d put that feast on the stolen credit card ages ago.

The busboy was not a busboy. The busboy was, in point of fact, a horrifying humanoid blob of jelly with tentacles. Bits of gold and plastic gift cards, the leavings of previous victims, were suspended in the colloid structure of the…thing.

“Here’s your promised reward,” it burbled. “Gold and gift cards. Enjoy!” Gaeno was seized before he could lift a finger, and devoured whole.

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