October 2019

“Cor, you don’ say? Oy! Boys, ‘ave a butcher’s at this ripe slice, eh? I’s real scared at yer mean words, mate. I’s quakin’ in my boots. Now ‘ow about you back ‘em up with some actions, mm? Otherwise, me an’ my mates is gonna ‘ave to proceed under th’ theory that you’s fulla shite.”

“Oh, of course,” said Sam. “What’s that you called me? A real ripe slice?”

“On account of ’ow good you’ll taste if you give us any trouble, mate.” The leader of the toughs smiled, revealing bleeding gums and black teeth. “Don’t fret it though, love. We’s ‘ad us a right good meal already today, so we’s just takin’ everyfing o’ value…if you behave.”

Sam raised an arm, flexed his fingers. He could see the threads again, down to the molecular bonds. Just like before. It was a bit more difficult to whisper to the bonds when they were quick and not dead, but it was manageable.

The toughs’ leader had his hand out, pointing at Sam. A moment later, the arm simply sloughed off, leaving just a stump of cauterized flesh behind.

“There’s your ripe slice right there,” Sam said. “Bon appetit.”

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The umpire had seen a lot of dirty dealing in the 1919 pennant game, from spitballs to stolen bases. But the last thing he expected to come across the plate was a live hand grenade.

Until then, there was nothing in the rules saying it was illegal, after all.

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A thousand shaggy acorns
Driven into soggy ground
A few catch the fancy
Others are crushed beneath
Ground into the mud
Never to grow, drowned
Which are you then
The one taken as a fancy
The one ground down forever
Or the lucky one that sprouts

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Orson has devoted his life to photography, but his career has been haunted by a single photograph he accidentally took in 1992. People think they saw Bigfoot in the image, and his “serious” work has been overshadowed ever since, with Orson forced to rely on freelance Bigfoot enthusiasts and talking-head interviews to survive. The latest one seems to be the worst of all, remote KSQH in Minnesota. Arriving before a storm for a local news story, Orson finds himself trapped in the studio by the storm. Strange shapes are moving outside though, and the newscasters and crew seem to be getting hairier by the moment, despite their insistence that everything is all right. As it turns out, KSQH is an elaborate ruse meant to lure Orson there. His photograph, it turns out, is the last authentic Bigfoot evidence ever gathered, and the sasquatches are intent on silencing him forever—by making him one of them.

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After working a double closing shift on Christmas Eve, Janet cuts through the center of the Shady Corners Mall after it closes. As one of the last to leave, she is forced to walk through the darkened center of the mall, which is all but abandoned as this will most likely be the shops’ final season. Terrified of drowning after being left on a reef by a dive boat, she chose the inland mall in an attempt to rebuild her shattered life. But that is before the abandoned mall fountain begins silently filling with dark water, and before the gurgling screams of the short order cook echo in the darkness. Forced to confront the terrifying fact that the mall is silently flooding with pitch-black water, repelled only by light, Janet must overcome her fears and debilitating memories of her ordeal in order to survive. She gradually comes to realize, though, that she never left the reef—the dark water, the mall, and everything else are her addled mind, still left on the reef, and doomed even if she is able to escape.

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The dream of the kaskas was truly fading away, now, and the world about Zikad was becoming more and more real. It was less like waking up than it was being inundated by cold running water–painful yet exhilarating.

With a resounding crk!, Zikad pulled himself free of his larval exoskeleton. Its thick, protective chitin had served him well for 37 years of growth underground, dreaming in tandem with his legion of brothers, sisters, and ancestors. But for the world above, for the Veld, he needed a different form. A softer body that could take whatever armor he set to it, eyes that could dart and focus, and wings that would bear him to the topmost boughs to sing his love to whomever would listen.

As he pulled himself free, tottering on his new legs and feeling his adult wings pumping as they expanded, Zikad looked about for the others. The junior brood should have been thronging around him, thousands strong, all newly awoken and newly molted.

But there was no one.

Zikad, confused, began to sing. Perhaps he had been laid too far from the others, an outlier. It had happened before, as his ancestors in the collective dreaming of kaskas had mentioned. But there came no answer to his song, nor did the Vale seem to give any indication that it had heard.

After 37 years of growth and dreaming, Zikad was awake, an adult, and–it seemed–utterly alone.

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The laulu, from the old word for “singers,” are perhaps the most misunderstood creatures of the Vale. This is because they are absent from the life of the wood and its societies for long periods of time–37 and 41 years to be precise.

Growing slowly deep underground and drawing their nutrients blindly and instinctively from the impressive roots of the largest trees, the laulu would seem to be a very simple people, especially given that very few of them live longer than 10 years after they finally emerge. But this is not so, for in their long adolescence underground, the laulu partake in a magnificent dreaming world that unites all of their kind past present and future.

They call this the kaskas, a word that defies translation but which might best be rendered as “ur-dreaming” or “all-dreaming.” Laulu describe the dreamspace as being quiet, reverent, and dignified, with the young coming of age under the tutelage of their long-deceased forebears with no distinction between the living and the dead. When a young laulu dies underground, as some do, its spirit remains in the kaskas, undisturbed. The rest gradually awaken, burrow to the surface, and assume their adult forms by shedding their childhood skin.

Laulu crusades, they are called, as the laulu emerge with their ancestors’ righteousness and a strong desire to perform noble deeds en masse. The other creatures of the Vale have long been able to count on their assistance in times of great need, for the laulu emerge ready for battle, requiring only a few days to make armor and weapons. The 37-year laulu, the junior brood, tends to be found at shallower depths and is therefore smaller. The 41-year laulu, the senior brood, burrow deeper and grow larger in both size and numbers. In times of the greatest distress, one brood has been able to awaken the other early, leading the laulu to crusade forth as a unified horde.

No foe can withstand them, from the wily apoc to the numerous but divided cucuj. Even the warriors of the symph, with their massive numbers and regimented ways, are unable to stand in the way of a laulu crusade. In fact, the laulu are often credited with preventing symph domination of the Vale altogether.

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“Master Kumo is one of the last practitioners of the Memai-Senpu School of martial arts,” said Neppu. “He travels from village to village, teaching those who are willing to learn in exchange for food and drink, but he has found few followers other than me.”

“You’ll have to forgive me, child, but my Japanese is still inelegant,” said Alves. “Can you explain what this Mama-Senhor style of combat is?”

“Oh, of course!” Neppu jumped up and began spinning around with his arms flapping, similar to what children on the Lisbon docks used to do when playacting as seagulls. “You spin around rapidly, until you are dizzy, and then you last out in every direction against your foes! Your movements are random,but through inner discipline you can strike at enemy weak points while your dizzy movements protect you from harm!”

“And this…Master Kumo…is the only fighter in the village at the moment?” Alves said through clenched teeth.

“Yes sir. All the others have been withdrawn by order of the daimyo in order to fight against the Izawa Clan. Unless you wish to make the journey to Nagasaki on foot and unarmed, he is your best hope.”

Alves swore an elaborate oath to the Holy Mother of God and all the saints under his breath.

“I don’t understand your southern barbarian words!” Neppu said, still reeling a bit from his spinning. “Did you say that you would be delighted to meet Master Kumo to enlist his aid in your dangerous travels?”

“Yes, son,” Alves said with a forced smile. “That’s exactly what I said. Take me to him.”

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“So that’s it, then.” Aden threw the parchment to the ground. “It’s a treasure for genealogists. Some kid whose grandchildren are dead was really the daughter of Sir Hubert. Big deal.”

“He realized too late that his children were his only real treasure, huh?” said Farouk. After that failed to get a giggle, he shrugged. “I don’t know what you want from us, man. We took this job on spec. Nobody’s getting paid in genealogy dollars.”

“We can sell the story. Donate the paper to a museum for a tax writeoff. Maybe there’s some stuff in the room that’s worth something. It’s not a total loss.” Maya sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than anyone.

“You can sort it out,” Aden said. “I’m done.” He tore out of the room like a caged animal, and the others could hear clattering as he vainly kicked at things on his way out.

Farouk looked after him, and then picked up the paper where it had fallen. “I never knew my dad,” he said. “The idea of him feeling a little guilty and hiding away the truth of my origins like some kind of treasure…sorta appeals.”

Maya tapped her chin. “You know, I bet we could find out who ‘my darling Madelaine’ is. Records aren’t that bad. Maybe her grandkids will buy us a beer.”

“Best idea I’ve heard all day. Got a powerful thirst from working for free all week, after all.”

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“Pulling into port now, she is.”

The old-timer looked up at the bridge of the vessel, where the captain was visible. A curt nod from the skipper acknowledged his wave.

“Impossible,” said Sheila. “They’re about to tie up. What happens when they do?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, lass,” Harry said. “Watch.”

The crew was scrambling to get the mooring lines thrown, the bumpers out, but the ship and their own bodies were rebelling against it. As they rushed about their docking, the freighter gradually began to fade away into the fog. Each sweep of the lighthouse was like a wave washing away more of a sandbar; two more sweeps, and only eddies were left in the fog.

“The way I figure it,” said Harry, “they want to tie up as much as they ever did. They think that if they ever make it ashore, that’ll be the end of it. They can go, wherever’s next. But even though they tied up at this dock a hundred times, they never made it that night, which means they’ll never make it this one.”

“But they keep trying.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “I don’t think they’ll ever make it. But I come out here anyway, cheer them on. They seem to notice, as much as anything can, in that state. Maybe they appreciate it. I know I sure would, after forty years of madness doing the same thing and hoping for a different result.”

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