April 2016

“Oh. My god.”

“What now, Dick?” sighed Anna, straining not to roll her eyes.

“That. Do you see that thing?”

Anna looked up at her (admittedly unfortunately-named and unfortunately bland) date. He was standing stock still in the middle of the sidewalk, apparently oblivious to the rushing nightlife crowd around them, and staring straight ahead.
Anna tried to stare too, peering through and around the bodies flowing past her. And yes, there was something in front of them. Something that looked quite like a praying mantis. Or, no, she thought, like a tree. And were those hands?

“Quick, Dick!…wait…*snirk*” Anna snirked.


“It’s the Mantis Lord! Get him!” Anna cried, tearing off her plainclothes to reveal a latex leotard.
Anna, aka Missus Wow!, flew at the Mantis Lord and threw him into a building with her super-strength.

“Aw, what, now? But we were on a date…fine.” Dick wiggled out of his clothes to reveal…a less-attractive latex suit. The Dickless Wonder aimed his palm at the Mantis Lord and prepared his laser beams.

Her scream pierced the night. Another damn nightmare. For weeks after that lousy date, Anna had been dreaming for that guy. Not that she was actually interested in him or his unfortunate name, he just kept appearing. She could go through the whole day without thinking about him, but every dream lead her back to that night and their plain simple date.

Still, she hadn’t seen anyone else since then. It was simply that no one else had come into her life, or so she told herself. Trisha from the office was still to get her second cousin Bill in town to meet Anna, but nothing had come of it. So instead she laid in her bed in the dark of night, terrified of her walking dream.

“Would you like that dream expunged? That awful date, those terrible comic book references? I can make that happen for you. No more nightmares and no more datey thoughts…for a price.”

She looked up, startled, from her bed at the hunched shape in the corner. Half convinced it was another dream, she would only say: “What price and who’s asking?”

“The Motley Man asks, and his price is quite reasonable,” came the oily-smooth reply. “Or would you rather go back to being Missus Wow to your awful date’s Dickless Wonder for the rest of your slumbering life?”

“All right,” she said. “I don’t care what the price is. Just take away the dreams and the memories of that date.”
“Deal,” said the Motley Man.

The memories were gone. The dreams were gone. But that, perhaps, was because she was now an inanimate bookshelf frozen in a silent scream.

Inanimate though she was, Anna was still aware. Trapped inside her head and inside another dream which was, if possible, worse. Time was wrong. She sat on a throne, that crooked Motley Man at her side bearing a tray of all manner of strange things and before her knelt a man.

“Who are you?” he asked. “Why can I not understand you?”

She laughed bitterly. “I do not even understand myself.”

“Please,” he said, “tell me, oh Time, how I can better understand you, better spend you, and better find you.”
The words rose as if she had been born to say them.

“You must go to the Jungle of Luud. My servant will go with you. Do everything he tells you and you will find yourself in the Sacred Geometry. There you will find the one you seek. When you have pulled her from the Geometry, then you will understand what you seek.”

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Everything in the Jungle of Luud was alive, or shortly going to be. Everything was spines and teeth, even the plants, ESPECIALLY the plants, and travelers who knew what was good for them stuck to the roads laboriously hacked out over generations and lit large fires at night. Many travelers passed through Luud on their way between the Pearls of the Coast and the Inner Highlands, but all whispered of a sinister figure who roamed the Jungle of Luud as its most voracious gaping maw: the Motley Man.

Appearing as a hunched figure in bright, mismatched clothing scraps—the leavings of past victims, perhaps—the Motley Man would approach travelers and ask to join them. He would then recount rambling tales of magic and heroism that never seemed to quite make sense, as if they had been translated from another language by rough hands.

Mona set off from the Pearls in the middle of a storm. She sloshed up the roads and through the thoroughly unremarkable gate which marked the boundaries of Luud. She had, of course, heard the rumors about the Motley Man and it wasn’t that she didn’t believe them. She simply didn’t have time to worry about them. She was expected in the Highlands in three days and the quickest way there – barring vicious attack – was through Luud. And so it was that she came to the Jungle. The rain had passed on by that time, but the forest was still cloying, the air as near as she had ever found. It was not long before the Motley Man found her.

He looked absolutely nothing like the stories had said he would—no bat ears, no hooked nose, with a normal amount of fingers and toes on his spindly limbs. He had a gnarled staff with him that he leaned on, and for all intents and purposes could have been someone’s very short grandfather. The only legendary constant was his trademark patchwork cloak, which covered the squat trunk of his torso. His speech, however, was not quite steady.

“Somewhere going?” he asked, when he appeared before Mona.

“Yes,” Mona said. “To the Highlands, on business. Are you the Motley Man?”

He cackled.

“Mind if I join ya?” the Motley Man wheezed with a worn grin.

“…I suppose I don’t mind.” Mona relented.

“Tha’s wonderful! I was jes workin’ out another story to tell. Been workin’ on this un awhile.” The Motley Man sputtered as he laughed.

“Why don’t ya tell me?” Mona asked.

“Sure, sure, couldn’ think of a better person to tell if I tried.” He ran his tongue over his white mustache. “Ever hear the one bout the fool girl that caught got walkin’ with strangers? Got a hot bullet in the head, wound up in a cold ditch.”

“No,” Mona replied. How’s the whole thing go?”

“Fool of a girl got walkin’ ‘long with a stranger one day. Got a hot bullet in the head, that’s right between the eyes dear-y, and wound up in a cold ditch.” He paused in his story to spit into a nearby bush. “Dead as an old oak and living without her clothes for some time there under. Naked as all get out that is, would have froze to death without the bullet I s’ppose.”

“How’d she end up like that?” Mona asked, picking her way along the path.

“You’ll find out shortly then dear-y.”

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“They’re always going to be stronger than you,” said Myn. “Always. That’s why you’ve got to be quicker and cleverer. If you’re not as quick as me or as clever as me, they’ll pin you in close where their stupidity can’t hurt them and they’ll murder you to death.”

“So what does that mean?”

“You attack them only when you can surprise them. Otherwise, you run and you climb. If you cross swords with them, you’ve already lost.” Myn took out one of her daggers and twirled it. “You can’t run with a sword very well, even less with armor. But one of these will kill a man just as dead.”

“But that doesn’t really seem fair.”

Myn spat. “Fair? Fair is something those big idiots invented to make you fight on their terms. I say they’re not playing fair by being bigger and stronger than me, so I’m doing what I can to make things fairer through judicious stabbing.”

“You can’t always stab.”

“Of course not,” sniffed Myn. “That’s why the Creator made stuff like this.” She drew her Gob Legion hand cannon. “It’ll blow a hole in their armor from 20 yards away.”

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“I heard that he was in ‘Nam,” said the smallest one, nervous little Joey. “He lost all his friends and it ruined him. He’s got a little nickel revolver with him, I’ve seen it. Two bullets in it, one for him, and no one knows who the other one is for.”

Kerry was a knowledgable sort, verging on know-it-all. “If he was in ‘Nam, they’d have issued him an M1911A1, not some nickel plated sissy pistol. I heard that he was some bigshot history teacher, like for a college or something.”

“What about that jacket?” said Joey. He was trying to defend his theory, but not loudly enough that the homeless guy could hear him.

“It’s part of something he was teaching. He got dressed up as a vet but he took it too far. He went nuts. Now he thinks he is one but if you look close all the little pieces are wrong.”

Joey wasn’t budging. “I heard that his brother died when he was in ‘Nam and that the stuff is all the brother’s. That’s why it doesn’t fit.”

“Well…well…” quiet Emmy stuttered. “I heard he’s an alien.”

“A what?

“Yeah, he came here to study our…our military but he didn’t get everything right.”

The others stared at him.

“It makes sense!” Emmy added.

Across the street, the homeless man had heard everything that had been said. “If they only knew,” he grunted. “If they only knew.”

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“Just ignore my friend here, the proctologist,” said Crackers the dummy. “He’s the strong silent type. About as strong and as silent as the tree he chopped down to make me!”

The audience tittered. It was about all one could expect from a midday crowd at a regional casino.

“But seriously, folks,” the dummy went on, his leering grin waggling as he spoke. “Harold here just got into town, and let me tell you, it was quite a car ride! Of course, we weren’t riding in the car, we haven’t got the budget for that. We just ran near a slow one, and it was brutal. As they say, a man who run in front of car gets tired, and a man who runs behind a car get exhausted.”

The performance continued in that vein for some time, with people drifting in and out in clouds of smoke. The audience dwindled as the Harold and Crackers routine wound down. With the final lame wisecrack, the audience began to break up. Sam, still sitting in the back, came forward.

“Excuse me,” he said. “You don’t know me, but I think you did a show at my middle school a few years ago.”

Harold turned around and waggled his hands at Sam in an elaborate display.

“What?” said Sam.

More hand-waving, more elaborate this time.

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ll have to forgive him,” said Crackers. “Harold doesn’t talk except with his hands, and there’s only one sign everyone really understands.”

Sam jumped. The dummy was ten feet away.

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The pizzas were bubbling and browning in the brick oven Shokunin had spent the previous day building. Fired by his own special mix of wood and kuso, they would soon be ready to feed the starving villagers. But as Shokunin took up his ancestral pizza peel to paddle the pies onto plates, he was stopped by the flat of a hostile ken slapped onto its handle.

“Halt!” said the ken‘s bearer, an unkempt bandit wearing the mon of Clan Sutoronbori. “These pies belong to us, in place of the tribute these miserable peasants have failed to provide!”

Shokunin bowed. “You have shown me the error of my ways,” he said. “I shall take up my pizza peel and use it to deliver your rightful reward.”

Leering, the bandit allowed Shokunin to take up his peel. A moment later, he gasped in pain from a blow that had come too swiftly to see; he then slid apart at the waist, his innards like toppings upon the grass.

“I am Pizza Chef Shokunin!” cried the pie chef, hefting his sharpened paddle. “My peel was forged by Anchobi the swordsmith from the same pig iron furnace that birthed the Fudo Masamune with a handle carved from the same trunk that furnished the mount for The Forceful Cutter. Who will stand before me and receive the just reward for their insults and lack of honor toward pizzas?”

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Here at the Sanctuary for Unusual Birds, we do our best to offer a safe and secure environment for avians that for whatever reason are not able to function in their natural enviornment.

Take Phil the Polychromatic Chicken. Like all of his kind, his feathers change to whatever hue someone mentions, from pink to purple to burnt sienna. However, he has been shunned by his kind ever since some terrible person mentioned plaid to him and caused poor Phil to have a nervous breakdown, half-plaid and half sea-green.

Then there’s Kiki the Gyrostrich. Like all Gyrostriches she is a natural dancer and can often be found in the wild busting a move. However, she dances tap, with shoes scavanged from the wreck of a Carnival cruise ship. The other Gyrostriches dance ballet, and therefore shun her.

And who could forget Claude, the vegan hawk? The Sanctuary found him half-dead in the dumpster of an organic health food store, living on discarded tofu and enriched kale.

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The red dragon that had passed itself off as Ros Dos-Denarg, priestess of Jovan, glowered at the party from amid the ancient draconic ruins.

“Stand back!” cried Iffy the mage. “I’ve got a spell I’ve been saving for a situation like this!” Flipping through her spellbook in a whirl, she cried out an incantation and cast a pinch of ashes from a cursed fire onto the ground in front of her.

A pentagram spread upon the ground, serving as a gateway to the nether realms of the Abyss, from whence a terrifying demon with stunted wings and full red eyes pulled itself. It was gross, bloated, and reeking, far from the terrible demon one would expect from such a portal.

“Ugh, what IS that thing?” cried Tinuviel the halfling rogue.

“It smells awful!” added Adenan the halfling battlemistress.

“It’s a dretch,” said Iffy. “It can cast a spell of stinking cloud that should give us an edge against the dragon.”

“So wait,” said Chanel the elf cleric. “Did you just summon a fart demon to help us against the red dragon?”

“She did!” Tinuviel shouted. “She summoned a fart demon!”

“I did not! It’s nothing of the sort!” Iffy snapped back.

At that moment, the dretch loosed its attack. A pea-green soup of fog issued forth from the demon with a sphincter-rattling raspberry, flooding a good part of the chamber and sending Adenan gagging for clear air.

“Yeah. It’s a fart demon,” she said after the retching stopped. “It’s a fart demon.

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As long as Janis could remeber, Teddie Bear had been her wise protector and guardian. Whenever she had a problem she had but to whisper it to him, and sage advice or swift action would follow.

“Teddie, Aron Schmidt is bullying me in school.”

“Fear not, young one. This will only take a moment.”

Janis had never found out what Teddie had done in that time, but Aron Schmidt had never bothered her again, and he seemed positively contrite afterwards.

“Teddie, I’m worried about my math test on Friday.”

“Fear not, young one. This will only take a moment.”

The study guide that had appeared, fully annotated, the next morning on Janis’s desk had helped immensely.

“Teddie, I’m scared. Those zombies outside just ate the neighbors.”

“Fear not, young one,” said Teddie, hefting a chainsaw and standing up. “This will only take a moment.”

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Evelyn had waited as long and as quietly as any librarian could. “Roland. Something’s wrong.”

Roland jumped, all four-foot-three of him (in heels). “T-the fortress of our great Aklatan Library is a bulwark from the Nevez,” he said. “But we do tend to rattle around a bit in here. Is that it? Or is it…”

Evelyn laid a hand on Roland’s shoulder seeking to stem the tide of nervous twitterings that were his stock and trade. “Calm yourself, my friend,” she said. “I’ve told you a hundred times, just because the Aklatan Archives are under the Stricture of Silence…”

“…it doesn’t mean I have to make twice as much noise outside them, I know.” said Roland. “But enough of that. What’s mildewing at you, Evelyn? The Nevez? They sacked another caravan bringing us books, I heard. Three carts of tomes to the torch in the name of holy ignorance, and three librarians besides.”

His words echoed in the cavernous common area, sending a few librarian-initiates scampering away to their cells with wide fearful eyes. “Roland,” Evelyn said. “Stop. Listen.”

“I’m stopping. I’m listening.”

“I am afraid…that the Nevez may have made inroads into the Aklatan. Through nefarious means, sorcerous means that we librarians with all our weapons and training have nothing to counter with.”

Roland began to pace like a caged animal, his stumpy legs acting out his nervousness. “One of the initiates saw you pounding on the wall in a dead-end in the Old Annex,” he said. “I also heard over in the meadery that you’ve been heard crying and whispering things in a strange language.”

“Stranger than Nevezean?” said Evelyn with a glimmer of a smile.

“I said crying and whispering, not grunting and hooting.”

“It’s true, though,” Evelyn said, growing serious and drawing Roland near. “I keep seeing…well…it’s as if the veil of this world is torn from my eyes and another is set down in its place. Horrifying visions that I can’t quite describe. Almost like…insanity. Things that, if the High Cataloguer knew…”

“Insanity? What kind of insanity?” cried Roland in a voice that echoed off the rafters.

“Shh!” hissed Evelyn, with her best librarian-face and raised finger, honed in areas the Stricture of Silence covered. “Visions of people…of places…” she continued. “I try to draw my sword, but there is no sword, I try to kick and my muscles have lost their memory, I try to scream but the only words that come are gutteral nonsense.”

Roland was a loudmouth and a nervous wreck, but it was clear Evelyn’s words wracked him with worry. “How often?” he said, much quieter this time.

“Irregular but…increasing.” Evelyn instinctively gripped the handle of her saber, fingering the groove where a Nevez axe had left its mark during last year’s incursion. “I worry that it’s some sort of…spellcraft…that the Nevez are trying to use. Destroy the Aklatan from within, not from without.”

Roland violently shook his head. “No, no, no, no, no. The Nevez stand for ignorance. Stasis. Brutishness where applicable. They’re not sorcerors, and their dead gods have no power to grant them anything.”

“Then what is it?” Evelyn cried, much louder than she intended. “Aklatan librarians are trained to meet threats with arms and tomes. I’ve nothing.”

It was Roland’s turn to shush her. “Let me talk…er, sign…to the Head Archivist about this,” he said. “You know she won’t talk. Vow of silence and all. We can see if anything like this has ever happened before.”

“But…” Evelyn’s doubts were cast upon Roland’s back; as was he way, he was off pumping his short legs in pursuit of his latest, likely impractical, idea.

Alone in the common area, Evelyn began to find her way back to her cell, hand still light on the hilt of her blade. The Aklatan library suddenly seemed every still, very quiet, even though it was not time for meals or combat training, the twin pursuits that took librarians, archivists, and initiates out of circulation.

A sharp T-junction at the end of the common area, designed to prevent noise from bleeding over, should have put Evelyn on the path to her modest quarters. Instead, the ninety-degree jog that she navigated opened upon a scene from a nightmare.

A bright light blazed, Evelyn’s pupils stinging as they contracted in response. It was rushing toward her with the sound of a spring storm, growing in intensity and clarity even as the individual bricks of the Aklatan seemed to be torn loose and devoured by a hungry and glowing maw.

Evelyn tried to run, but her legs ached as the hours of endless combar training deserted her. She tried to draw steel, but the muscle memory wasn’t there either. All she could do was stumble forward, blindly, into the vortex that seemed to be ending her world.

And beyond it?

Shelves, dull beige with rust spots. A ceiling of rickety metal and fiberglass panels, fluorescents dying a slow blinking death within them surrounded by the bodies of their many insect victims. And, of course, books…but not the richly bound tomes and ornate scrolls of Aklatan. Pulp and hardback instead, bowed by moisture and time.

“Evelyn!” A sharp voice from around the corner.

“Yes, Ms. Foster?” said Evelyn, the gutteral words gritting against her lips like beach sand.

The Alcona Public Library deputy director stuck her head around the corner. “Finish shelving that cart instead of talking to yourself.”

“But…I was talking to Roland…” Evelyn murmured.

“A junior library volunteer is here as labor, not as a chatty Cathy,” Foster snapped. “See to your work and only give that hyperactive little monster what he he needs so he can see to his.”

“Yes, Ms. Foster.” Nodding smugly, Foster withdrew, leaving Evelyn by herself in the basement with the stains, the rust, the mold, the pulp fantasy novels slowly going to seed. Aklatan, wherever it was, was as far away as it had ever been.

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