“All aboard for Smokewood!” cried Vyrim Q. Flamestar, conductor for the Eastern & Wilds railroad. “Only ticketed passengers, please!” He then drew and cocked a derringer to show that he was deadly serious about any more gold-hungry bottom feeders trying to muscle their way onto his train.

People surged forward anyway, holding satchels bulging with treasure hunting materials, everything from maps to mattocks. It was worse than the human wave attacks Vyrim had seen in the war, and the empty sleeve pinned to his side was proof enough that he didn’t make that comparison lightly.

“I’ve got a ticket, it’s in here somewhere, I swear!”

“A gold coin for you in lieu of a ticket, my fine elf-friend! That’s the language your persuasion speaks, is it not?”

“You don’t understand, this gold is the last thing between my family and starvation! You’d see my little ones waste away like it was nothing?”

A sea of greedy faces, grasping hands, and eyes flushed green with gold fever. It was all that anyone in Brighthollow had seen for well over a month, and it wasn’t getting any better.

“Damn that greedy old drake,” Vyrim muttered to one of his fellows. “Why couldn’t his blasted hoard stay hidden? If this is what the mere rumor of it does, these people will be eating each other at the first flake of real gold.

“It’s disgusting,” agreed Bill, a dwarf with Valley Western. By special arrangement, he and his partner were the only ones allowed to have coach guns aboard to protect the safeboxes that routinely brought precious valuables in from Smokewood and payroll in gold coin in from Brighthollow.

“Disgusting,” echoed his fellow John, a bony beanpole of an orc. “That’s what it is. If it looks like they’re about to rush the rails like they did last Tuesday, Mr. Flamestar, you just say the word and we’ll dismiss them with a snootful of birdshot.”

“Birdshot?” Vyrim said, alarmed. “I told you to load your pieces with rock salt!”

“See, I told you he said rock salt!” Bill said, craning his neck to shout up at John.

“I never said he didn’t! I just said you muttered it so much that it sounded like birdshot and you should make sure!” John said, stooping to properly get in his fellow’s face.

“Pop the chambers and give me the shells,” Vyrim said. “We’re going to rely on the menacing appearance of your irons for the time being.”

“Aww,” whined the Valley Union guards, surrendering their brass-crimped double-aught birdshot shells. “How come you get a shooter and we have to wave our sticks around like a hedge wizard?”

“Because, like your average hedge wizard, I’m shooting blanks,” Vyrim said. He had never missed the use of his right arm more than he did at this moment, for a derringer in one palm meant no fingers to massage his temples.

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It had been Cobb’s original plan to stay awake through the night, but the long hard days of walking and fighting had utterly exhausted him, and he found himself nodding off long before the first light tickled the horizon.

After what seemed like an eternity of restless dreams, most of them involving Sheriff Tyler’s long-dead body at a formal dinner party, a sharp sound awoke Cobb from his slumber. He saw a dark figure silhouetted against the rising sun and, instinctively, he let loose with a double blast of his sixguns. The figure fell to the ground, gasping and gurgling, but when Peyton jumped up from the opposite side of the fire, Cobb realized he’d made a terrible mistake.

Peyton darted over to the fallen intruder, kneeling over him. Cobb followed a moment later, numb, but still staying out of the range encompassed by the orc’s massive fists. The visitor was clearly breathing her last, a bloody foam upon her lips. Cobb had never seen anyone who looked quite like her; the sharp ears argued for an elf, but her olive skin and impressive build seemed far more orcish. Her clothing was scandalously scanty by the standards of Smokewood, and a mix of linen breeches with far more rustic leather fittings. She was extremely striking, and watching her final moments and the pain that was writ across those features made Cobb sick to his stomach.

After a few moments, the stranger let out a final rattle and was still. Peyton, moving slowly so as not to alarm Cobb, crossed her arms over her chest and took up a loose end of her cloak to lay over her face.

“I…I didn’t…I thought…”

“I know what you thought,” Peyton said. “You saw something green and you thought it was old Peyton Grosh come to make your sleep permanent. And now you’ve gone and snatched the life out of someone who might have just wanted to help us.”

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Cobb rode into the way station on a dying horse, and when it settled into the ramshackle barn there, he had a feeling that it would never move again under its own power.

The station was little more than a crossroads, a barn and a hitching post and a house where the road from Smokewood met the road to the Old Mission in the foothills of the wilds. A tattered sign offered stables for the night, a meal, and a roof over one’s head for the right price. Cobb, his eyes hard and the mess of brambly curls that served him as hair all tussled, was after something else entirely.

“I’m looking for an orc,” he said, sauntering into the main house. “Big guy. Tattoo of a royal flush on one arm, and green as a field in springtime.”

The proprietor, slouched in a hammock and limp against the late-season heat of the wilds, cocked his slouch cap up. “We don’t sell orcs here, tattoos or not,” he said. “We sell cold food, cold beds, and cold stables.”

Cobb reached into his haversack, an old ex-army rag, and produced a coin, which he slapped on the countertop in front of the man. “For all of the above,” he said. Removing another one–his last–he laid it alongside. “Just in case this helps spark some emerald-colored memories.”

This, at least, was a language that the way stationmaster spoke. He was on his feet alarmingly fast, pressing the coins between callouses and passing them up for a nibble in his few remaining blackened teeth. “Coin’s good,” he said. “You can stay the night, get whatever tuck you need from the pantry. As for your friend-”

“He ain’t my friend,” Cobb said sharply. “I mean to see him hanged by the neck until dead.”

“As for your enemy, ask the stablemucker. Everyone what comes through here looks the same to me.”

“Coin purses on legs?” Cobb said. “Sponges to squeeze?”

“Fools,” the man said flatly. “There’s nothing out there but starvation and edor-breedin’ elves and orcs that’d kill you as soon as look at you.”

“Thanks for the encouragement,” Cobb said. “I’ll take it under advisement, as I told your sherriff.”

The stationmaster grumbled and pulled down his cap. “When there’s buzzards picking at your bones and a wild miscegenated edor wearing your britches, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

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The next day, when Llewelyn stumbled his way up the back stairs and unlocked his room, he found an engraved invitation slipped under his door. “You are invited,” he read, “to the inaugural meeting of the Undead Society of Smokewood. All members must attend. Reception to follow.”

He balled up the invite and threw it away. “Oh please, you old stick-in-the-mud.”

Trotting down the stairs, with half a mind to steal another swig of the good stuff off of Elijah, Llewelyn was surprised to see that Silas had set out a feast. Candied spinal cord, chilled brains, and every last bottle of various bodily fluids that Silas had held in his private reserve hidden in the crypt. What’s more, Smathers the zombie was present, as was every other undead that Silas could rustle up: the ghoul sisters from Smokewood hills, the vampire rancher from the
Double O ranch, a feral zombie tied up with a rag in its mouth, and the stone-dead corpse of Zachariah’s granddad Eli, rented for the occasion for a fifty-cent discount on a Pining Away model casket.

“Please, join us, Llewelyn,” said Silas hoisting a goblet. “I’ve taken your advice and made the Undead Society far more egalitarian. All whose hearts no longer beat are now welcome, provided they are able to behave themselves.”

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Dinner was served promptly every other day in the kitchen, and consisted of delicately prepared castoffs from the funeral parlor’s customers, prepared in a deliciously noxious fashion by Silas himself. Llewelyn took to his plate of reeking brains with gusto, clawing into it with both hands while resting his elbows on the table as Silas looked on uncomfortably.

“So, Mr. Ebonwright…tell me of your business,” Silas said. “What do the Ebonwright owe their fortune to? Banking, as is the case with so many of your lithe-eared brethren?”

“Oh, we have…land,” Llewelyn said, brain matter dribbling down his chin. “Lots of it. Not sure where, really.”

“Why be bothered by such trivialities in one’s income?” Silas said. “We Moores have long been in the body-trade, even back east.”

“Even when that old zombie was still alive,” laughed Elijah.

“Eons ago by the look of it, then, even to my long-lived folks,” Llewellyn laughed.

Silas, stung, was silent for a moment before continuing. “We have long recognized that there will always be a need for people to attend the newly bred, the newly wed, and the newly dead. And as we haven’t the feminine proclivities to be midwives or the dextrous needles to sew wedding finery, we chose the latter.”

“I don’t know, Silas, I feel like you’d be a pretty good midwife,” said Llewellyn as he slurped noisily at a goblet full of lymph. “You’ve got the sissy aspect down, certainly.”

“Sissy?” Silas said. “I would call it more…refined. I am a gentleman about town, and the leading figure in our first Undead Society.”

“Is that where the lace on your sleeves comes from? Being a refined gentleman? Or is there a bylaw in the Undead Society that only the biggest fop may lead?” Llewelyn roared with laughter at this, spraying the party with fluids and chunks of cerebrum.

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Don’t go near the overpass on Old I-21. Don’t do it. There’s nothing out there but the gatherer.

You might think that, just because the gatherer only gathers junk, it might be fine. You might even want a gander at its junk lair.

Don’t. It guards those busted TVs and burnt-out stereos with its life. People have died to see that mishmash of junk.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” said the maitre’d. “It has come to our attention that the most recent shipment of wine may have inadvertently been tainted with rogue mana enzymes. We strongly urge anyone who feels sleepy or has a strong taste of lemon in their mouths to seek magical attention immediately.”

“It tasted fine to me,” said a chimpanzee in a loose pile of clothes.

“Stop being such an alarmist!” said the occupants of Table 3 who had merged into a single being. “We’re just fine!”

“Maybe we should get checked,” said the bride at the bachelorette party, now metamorphosed into a newt and lounging in her wine glass. “Just to be safe. You never can be sure when the supernatural will invade the everyday.”

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