A Message in the Night

The date is 5.4.3042. Transmission code 3XO9P41.
The place is Colony 522, Sector 19, Andromeda Galaxy.
The situation is dire.
If you can hear me, we need your help. We will die if we do not get help. You are our only hope.
If you can hear me, please reply.

I ended the transmission and looked at Asel. He was silent, and I turned back to the switchboard expectantly.
It was silent.
The silence lasted for a few minutes, until Asel placed his hand on my shoulder.
“Let’s go.”
“G-go? But what about…” My shoulders dropped as I looked from the switchboard to Asel’s eyes.
“…nobody heard…? Nobody’s coming…are they, Asel?”
“No, Mika. No one’s coming.”

We exited the communications chamber, running down the stairs to where Kayir and Rinata were waiting. Power was on minimum civilian distribution in order to conserve and divert it to the most urgent outlets: laser blasters, oxygen shields, plasma ammo. We had no extras for jet packs or air lifts.
When we reached the bottom of the stairs, Asel was out of breath.
“Any response?” Kayir’s hope cut through me, and I shuddered. Kayir took that as answer enough and pulled out a stolen maintenance badge, flashing it towards the guards before escorting us out the door and onto the street.
“Better luck next time, Mika.” Kayir rubbed my back as we walked down the shadowed side behind the buildings. I smiled, though I knew he couldn’t see under my mask. We were two weeks into a siege, courtesy of a fleet of rogue pirates from Nova 057. No cargo ships could reach us, and our supplies were running low. The shields were weakening from constant bombardment, and the oxygen purifier was in desperate need of repair. Nine days ago, we received a transmission demanding the leader of the colony surrender himself to the pirates. Papa went, and none of us had heard from him since. Four days ago, the pirates managed to inject a Novarian virus into our air chamber. Too small for the filters to destroy, the virus had spread quickly. Those not suffering from the illness walked the streets in masks and gowns to avoid infection.
Our mother was one of the ill, which left my siblings and me in charge of a town trapped by pirates and full of plague. The people were tired, frightened, and dying. Even Asel (brave, proud, strong Asel who was never afraid of anything) was overwhelmed. This was our third night sending transmissions. No passing ship had responded, even though the range was several warp-metres. I wondered if the pirates were interfering with our signal.
When we reached the president’s manor, Rinata shone a torch into the second-story window. Dear old Blue unlocked the gates, and we clamoured in, ripping off our biohazard suits.
“I hate these things,” grumbled Kayir. “So hard to move.”
“And hard to tickle,” I giggled before rubbing my hands under Kayir’s shirt.
“AAH! AAHA! AAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!”
“Children!” Asel crossed his arms.
“Sorry, Asel.”
“Sorry, bro.”
“Don’t call me ‘bro’.”
“Sorry, jerk-face.”
“Kayir!”
“What?”

Asel did not sleep that night; I heard him pacing in the room next door. I matched my breaths with his steps; both were slow and deliberate.
Around three o’clock I heard Asel ring for the maid. He and Blue were speaking softly, so I took a water glass and pressed it against the wall. Only filtered phrases made it through, though.
“…one of the Novarian scum…”
“…can’t believe that blasted…”
“…betrayal like no…”
“…what to tell the twins…”
“…never thought she would ever…”
“…Rinata’s run off to…”
The glass slipped out of my hand before I could hear where Rinata had run off. It shattered, and I winced as Asel’s heavy footsteps sounded outside my room. He threw my door open, and I looked up, frozen in the pile of glass and paint.
“Mika…” The pain in Asel’s voice was difficult to hear. “Mika, how much did you hear?”
Blue began to sweep away the shards around my feet. I felt tears sting my eyes. “I’m sorry…”
“Mika.” Asel knelt and grasped my hand. “Mika, don’t be frightened. Just tell me what you heard.”
“Rinata’s…run off?”
“Rinata’s run off?!?!”
I saw Asel stiffen. Kayir stood in the doorway.
“What do you mean, ‘Rinata’s run off’?” Kayir crossed his arms.
Asel sighed. “What are you doing up?”
“Had a nightmare and…”
“And you were coming to me,” sighed Asel.
“I was coming to Mika,” corrected Kayir.
“…why not me?”
“Don’t change the topic, Asel!” said Kayir. “Where’s Rinata?”
Asel didn’t answer.
“Asel…?” I probed.
“Asel!” said Kayir.
Still no answer.
“Asel!” “Asel!” “Brother!” “Jerk-face!” “Kayir!”
“She has a lover,” Blue said suddenly.
“A…a what?”
“A who?”
“Where’d she find one of those?”
“Who’d want one of those?”
“It’s a traitor. A spy for the Novarians,” said Asel. “The name’s Cael. They’ve been seeing each other for quite some time. We think Rinata’s been giving him information. Hence the siege. And the plague. They knew the weaknesses in the shields. The system. That’s classified information only Papa has access to. And anyone in the house.” Asel sounded tired. Defeated.
“Why would she give a traitor information?” My voice was husky.
“It may not have been intentional, Mistress Mika,” said Blue, when Asel failed to respond. “People do strange things when they’re in love, and spies have many ways to get information.”
“How do you know it was through Rinata?”
“One of the guards saw her leaving the house. He followed her to the Novarian’s hideout, but they escaped.”
I placed my hand on Asel’s back. He was hiding his head in his hands. “Asel?”
“It’s my fault,” he muttered. “I was blind.”
“It is most certainly not, Master Asel!” Blue bristled. “The blame falls on Miss Rinata and that despicable Novarian scum.”
An uneasy silence crept upon us. I ruffled Asel’s hair.
“So what now?” said Kayir finally.
“I don’t know,” said Asel.
I dropped my hand. Asel didn’t know? “But you’re in charge!” I said. “You always know what to do!”
Asel smiled sadly. “I’m not very old, Mika. I haven’t seen as much of the world as Papa. I’ve never even left the Colony.”
“But I have,” said Blue. “With your permission, Master Asel, I’d like to suggest a plan. Mistress Mika, you do know how to operate the transmission boards?”
I nodded. “Papa showed me before he left. For messages. But we aren’t allowed in there. Not anymore. We’re not trained.”
“You’ve gotten in, though.”
Kayir grinned, and I copied, although a little uneasily.
“Then put on your suits. We have a message to send.”

“What kind of message is this?” I folded the pages in my hand.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Blue. “Have you memorised the transmission?”
“Yes, but…”
Blue snatched the paper from my hand, crunched it into a ball, and put it in her mouth.
I gasped. “You just ate it!”
“Desperate times, Mistress Mika. Now, input the code.”
I turned to the switchboard and began the transmission.

The date is 6.4.3042. Transmission code H4B74DF7.
Alpha date six-four-three-oh-four-two. Beta date fifteen-three-three-oh-four-two.
Initiation sequence 5X042.
Action complete.

I ended the transmission and looked at Blue. “Do we wait?”
“No. Come now. And keep quiet.”
I followed Blue down the stairs, squinting as I stepped into broad daylight. The sun was high. How long had we been gone?
“Blue…” I began.
She squeezed my hand. “Not now.”
Kayir and Asel weren’t waiting for us. Indeed, they were nowhere to be seen, even in the streets, which were full of peddlers, children, and jet packs.
“It is right,” said Blue. “You can speak now, Mistress Mika.”
“Is it over?”
“Is what over?”
“The plague? The siege? How long were we up there?”
Blue placed a hand on my shoulder. “Mika. The transmission board…what did your father tell you about it?”
“It’s a powerful message system.”
“It’s also a very weak time machine.”
“A…a time machine?” A bubble of hope formed inside me. “We’re…in the future?”
“No, the past. Three days before the siege began.”
The bubble popped, but my rational brain began to tick. “We can stop it?”
“No. Yes.” Blue frowned. “I’m not sure, I don’t know.”
“But…Papa is still here. And Mama. And Rinata! We can…we can warn them! We can…”
“No, sweetheart.”
“…Blue?”
“We’re just shadows here. Visitors in passing. Invisible. Your father won’t be able to see or hear you.”
I frowned. “Couldn’t we write him a message, then?”
Blue passed her hand through a streetlamp. “You’ll find that difficult.”
“But we have to do something! Why else did you bring us back?”
Blue looked at me. “I was told to.”
“By whom?”
“You.”

I tried kicking a pebble, tripping as my foot only met air. Incorporeality was annoying. And boring, as I quickly learnt.
Blue was pacing the alley, muttering to herself. She had rejected all of my ideas, but hadn’t managed to develop one of her own.
“…got the message…Mistress Rinata missing…Novarians…doesn’t make sense…”
“Of course it doesn’t make sense!” I burst out. “We’re in the past, but we can’t do anything. No one can see us or hear us or…”
“That’s it!” said Blue.
“What’s it?”
“We have to visit Cael.”
“The traitor? Why?”
“It’s only a few days before the siege; I’m sure he’ll be busy. We might be able to glean some information. Invisible, soundless spies…yes, that’s perfect.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“I know where he lives, and that’s a start.”

Cael’s flat was immaculate. Not a hair out of place. Unfortunately for us. The shelves were stocked with books and maps, but we couldn’t touch any of them. We could only look.
“It’s so curious,” said Blue. “Nothing incriminating, nothing even suggestive out of place. It’s almost as if he were expecting visitors. Or guests.”
“Rinata,” I said.
“No, not her, he wouldn’t clean up just for…” Blue trailed off. I noticed she had paled considerably.
“Blue? Are you okay?”
“Mistress Mika…I don’t believe you were the only person your father taught to use the transmission board.”

Blue dragged me back to the transmission tower. By the time we climbed the stairs, I was certain my arm was bruised.
Blue touched a finger to her lips.
“Why? They can’t hear us anyway.”
“This is the time machine, remember? Everyone sees everyone in here. The room is suspended in the time stream. It’s open space.”
With those words, Blue pushed the door open, and I heard voices. Rinata and a man. Cael. The traitor.
“Dicate?”
“Of course. The date is…15…3…”
“Hello, Rinata. Cael.” Blue’s voice was hard and cold. Unlike anything I had heard before, even from Asel.
I winced.
“Blue!” Rinata’s voice had the same tone. “We were hoping you would join us. Cael was just sending the final transmission to our friends in space. Perhaps we’ll see the fireworks tonight.”
“Traitor,” spat Blue. “Both of you. Haven’t you thought of your family?”
“Ah, you are familiar with our plan, then? I thought you might be. Papa mentioned some…interesting capacities of this particular switchboard.”
“Ones you will never use.”
“And ones you have, apparently.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing, Rinata. Your family. They love you.”
“Oh, please!” My sister’s voice cut through me. “They couldn’t care less. Asel is always out with that Reia girl, and the twins are so self-absorbed.”
“But your parents…”
“Have a colony to run. They know their place. As you should, Blue.”
I peeked my head around the corner. Rinata and Cael were facing the switchboard. Blue’s back was towards me.
If I could get to the switchboard, I could bring us back to the future. Or the present, rather. Without Cael’s completed transmission, the pirate ships wouldn’t have the information they needed to launch the siege. Thoughts of paradoxes and time warps crossed my mind, but the entire experience seemed rather convoluted, so I decided to try.
“…don’t know the strength of this thing,” Blue was saying. “It’s all of time combined. We could see visions from the future. Or the past. Why, any minute…you don’t know who might walk through that door! Your father, maybe. Or a maintenance man. Or a guard.”
That wasn’t what Blue had told me. Was she lying?
“They won’t be able to see us,” Rinata said uncertainly. “We’re in the past. They’d be in the future. Anyone who comes through that door won’t know that we’re here.”
I frowned. Rinata could see Blue. And we were from the futre. Why couldn’t she…
Oh.
I realised what Blue was doing. If Rinata thought she was seeing a vision from the future, then I would be free to enter the room and complete a transmission.
Since Rinata didn’t know how to use the time machine, she wouldn’t realise what I was doing until it was too late. For her.
Ignoring the continuing conversation, I walked through the door. Towards the switchboard. I completely ignored Rinata and Blue, though I was careful not to bump into anything.
“…see, Rinata. She can’t even see us.” I heard Blue say. Smiling to myself, I began the transmission.

The date is 15.3.3042. Transmission codeVX201BB9.
Alpha date is…

Epilogue
“Papa, do you know much about time travel?”
My father looked over his paper, amusement tinging his smile. “It’s a myth, Mika. Too many paradoxes to work.”
“Do you really believe that, Papa?”
My father set the paper down. “Does this have to do with those bruises on your arm?”
I frowned. The bruises where Blue had gripped me too hard. I had worn long sleeves since that day, but the marks were slow to heal.
“N-not really.”
“Mika.” My father looked me in the eyes. “As president of the colony, I have a list of all of the transmissions which were sent on the switchboard since the day the colony was formed. Even the ones not addressed to me.”
I frowned. “There are messages not meant for you?”
“Only one. Once. Sent a few weeks ago. It was intended for Blue.”
“Oh.” That message.
“Do you know much about it, Mika?”
I looked at my feet.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, Mika. Now or ever. But I’m grateful for what you did. For whatever you did. I’m proud of you. You know that, right?”
“Yes, Papa.”
“Would you like me to show you how to use the switchboard? The whole switchboard?”

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A Silent Coffin

I had never been able to smell very well, though whether it was a congenital condition or the result of childhood abuse, I never could tell. I didn’t mind very much; I managed to get through the world quite nicely with the other four senses. Aunt Iris, for one, never noticed my lack of scent detection. Electra might have, but she was far too kind to say anything. It was Sage who looked after me like a mother wolf, Sage who pounced who pounced on everything I said and did, Sage who cornered me on the front porch that sticky summer evening.
The sun had already set, and the stars twinkled like glittery paper cut-outs from a grade school art project. It was idyllic and peaceful. The way Aunt Iris preferred to live. Especially after Uncle Perry was killed in action.
I was sitting quietly on the front steps, minding my own business, when Sage joined me.
“Cookie?” she asked.
“No, thanks.”
“Baked fresh.”
“Not hungry.”
Sage waved something under my nose. “Last chance!”
“Sage…” I glanced down, only to see a foul-looking brown lump resting in Sage’s hand.
“That’s…not a cookie!” I squeaked, jumping back. Sage frowned and threw the lump into the grass.
“That wasn’t…?” I wheezed, trying to control my racing heart.
“Just mud, kid. Just mud.” Sage wiped her hands on her jeans, and I squirmed. “No sense of smell, though, hmmm? Want to tell me about it?”
I felt a strange anger bubble within me. But I pushed it back. Sage was just trying to help. And I was grateful.
But there are some things which are private and should remain so. I told Sage that, in so many words.
She didn’t like it.
“If there’s something that’s bothering you, I wish you would tell me,” she said. “Even something from the past.”
“Nothing’s bothering me,” I snapped. “Nothing that you would understand.”
There was a pause.
“I’ve also lost a father, you know,” said Sage.
“You weren’t there when it happened.” I crossed my arms, blinking the tears from my eyes. Thanks to Sage, my quiet evening had been ruined.
“But we’re a family. We — I — care about you. You’re like my sister. Mom thinks…”
“But I’m not your sister. And your mother and I are not related.” With that, I stormed off towards the lake, not sparing Sage another glance. It was selfish and brutish, I realise now, but I was young and impulsive. Rash. Torn. Broken.

The stars were bright, but the moon was pathetic in its attempt to lend light to the world. The shadows beneath the trees blended with the shadows of the night sky. I knew the path by heart, but I wasn’t prepared for another travelling companion. Certainly not so small. Or terrible.
When I heard the rustles behind me, I thought Sage had followed me. But I could discern no silhouette in the shadows, and there was no response to my calls.
No response save a quiet rustle, a shuffle, and a world of pain.

Aunt Iris later said it was a demon snake, sent from the depths of Hell to wreak Havoc among the living. Electra said it was karma, and Sage…well, Sage never said much of anything at all, other than she was glad it wasn’t a bigger snake and that they’d found me in time.
They told me later that Sage had followed me, and found me while the blood around my ankles was still warm. Dr Grant wasn’t on call and came quickly. Without the snake, it was impossible to identify the venom or procure a proper antidote, but the doctor did say that any symptoms which manifested when I awoke would be gone within a few days.
Those few days were enough to change my life.

When I opened my eyes, the first thing I noticed was that is was very dark. And quiet. There was a peculiar coolness on my forehead, and a sour taste in my mouth. I swallowed, blinked twice, and frowned. There were no dancing stars, no beams of light. It was a complete darkness.
I tried blinking again. Still nothing.
At this time, I didn’t know about the snakebite. I only knew I had been in pain, and the pain was reduced but not gone. Theories danced in my head, but each of them were as unlikely as the next. I settled for the unstable hypothesis that I had fainted and was now suffering from a serious concussion.
The coolness on my forehead was lifted and replaced by a burning sensation. I opened my mouth to call for Aunt Iris, but found my tongue a leaden weight. Even a simple moan or groan failed to escape my lips. I was blind, paralysed, deaf, and mute. I didn’t know where I was, who I was with, or what had happened. It was terribly frightening.
The cooling sensation ran down my cheek. I realised it was wiping away my tears.

Whether time moved slowly or quickly, I couldn’t tell. I followed the coolness around my face, blinking periodically to try to clear my vision. Eventually I gave up and closed my eyes in an attempt to fall asleep.
But sleep was not merciful enough to come.
I could hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, feel nothing other than the temperatures dancing on my face and the pain radiating from my leg. It was as if I were locked in a coffin, buried beneath the earth. There was no communication with the outside world. I was here; they were there. I didn’t know where Aunt Iris or my cousins were. If they were alright. Or even alive. I began to miss their voices. Their faces.
I began to miss my life.

I must have fallen asleep eventually because, between blinks, I became aware of a pressure on my hand. I squeezed, and the pressure squeezed back.
It was a person. Someone was there, holding my hand. Excited, I pushed myself up, only to find pain radiating through my body, the silent coffin still intact. Even my tongue refused to cooperate.
A gentle touch pushed me back down, and the pain subsides, but the pressure on my hand still remained. I took my other hand and felt the stranger, felt the nails, hand, arm, felt the sleeve of a flannel shirt. My fingers wandered up the shirt and onto the face. I traced the features. It was Aunt Iris. She was smiling. But her face was wet.
How strange.

Both Electra and Sage came to visit me. Both of them were crying. I didn’t understand why. Was I dying? Was I in a coma? Didn’t they know I knew them, recognised them?
I had no way to tell time, but I did know a substantial amount of it passed before a probing touch (Aunt Iris) encouraged me to sit up and drink a bit of soup. It was warm and salty, but my stomach objected. Strongly. I fell out of the bed and onto my knees, covering myself and anything in the vicinity with a sticky layer of vomit, saliva, and tears.

Sometimes I wondered whether I would ever recover. I had no doubt by now that my condition was a punishment for my fight with Sage. For my ingratitude. God had seen it fit to dole out punishment, and I was the lucky recipient. I deserved it, definitely. But the length of the punishment was my chief uncertainty. Perhaps this uncertainty was the worst part of the punishment. Would I be trapped in a coffin of silent touch for the rest of my existence? The girls would play with my hair, and Aunt Iris would rub my hands, but I had no way to tell them anything beyond a simple squeeze to let them know I hadn’t slipped away.
Not yet, anyway.

It was a beautiful day when I first heard Electra’s voice break through my walls.
“Hiya, Ivy! Beautiful morning, ain’t it? Aunt Iris just finished another batch of cookies for the church social. I can’t believe she won’t let me and Sage taste even one…”
I squeezed her hand.
“I know, lovey, I know. But we’ll have you fixed up…”
I squeezed again. Twice.
“Ivy…can you hear me?”
One squeeze.
“Ivy…you can hear…mom…? Mom? MOM! MOM? COME QUICK! MOMMOMMOMMOMMOM!”
There were footsteps on the stairs. I was upstairs.
“Electra? What’s wrong?”
“Mom, she can hear me! Watch! Watch! Ivy, can you squeeze my hand?”
I complied.
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, Mom, did you SEE THAT? OH MY GOSH! MOM! Where’s…where’s Sage? SAGE? SAGE!”

Three weeks later, I was back on the front porch, contemplating fate and the wonders of nature.
“Cookie?”
Sage’s voice brought a smile to my lips. “Is it really?”
“You’ll have to taste it to tell.”
I heard the teasing in her voice, but reached out to grab the warm dough. It was delicious.
“Stars are bright tonight, Ivy.” The stairs creaked as Sage sat next to me.
“Aren’t they always?” The sadness in my voice did not escape my cousin’s ears.
“It’ll be okay, you know.” Sage placed her arms around me, and, for a moment, I believed her words.

Dr Grant was wrong. I never recovered my sight. Hence Aunt Iris’ opinions on the demon snake. I didn’t mind too much, of course. It was my punishment, and I would endure it. And who knew? Maybe it really was a curse sent from Hell.
But I prefer to think it was sent from heaven. After all, my…disability brought me closer to the only family I had left. The family I didn’t notice until it was almost too late. My days in the silent coffin made me realise just how bad it would be to be completely alone.

To Love a Prince

Her name was Kaia, and she was a Queen; specifically, queen of the silver-haired nymphs who dwelt in the valley beneath the lake. Their kingdom had once been a prosperous place, full of peace and laughter, but, recent threats from the neighbouring ruler had curbed the festivities, forcing the occupants to live in fear.
Kaia was a young queen; she had not yet borne the crown for a full year. But she possessed her family’s sense of duty and commitment, and it was not difficult for her to realise the gravity of the situation facing her people. Countless hours spent in conference with the nobles and royal council left her with only one choice.
She would enter the neighbouring kingdom alone and eliminate the threat.
There were many strong, young men in the kingdom more skilled for this task than the queen, but Kaia would not permit her people to risk their lives when her own would suffice. She was deaf even to the supplications of her little brother Aiku, who begged her to reconsider as she rested the silver crown on his head.
“Only for a little while,” she said gently. “Until I return.”
Aiku was not sure even Kaia believed her words.

The silver nymphs boast the gift of song; consequently, it was easy for Kaia to disguise herself as a bard and join a group of travelling players. Their first stop was in the valley beneath the lake. Her disguise proved convincing; even Aiku did not recognise his own sister as she danced and sang in foreign tongues before her own throne. The distant moroseness in his eyes, though, was enough to haunt Kaia for many nights after.

The successful trial in her own kingdom encouraged Kaia to continue with the players to the neighbouring kingdom, home of the infamous demon king, Icaxor. Kaia sang and danced for the demon king, who watched her with increasing interest. Despite her best efforts, she stood out from the other players as one who is born into a higher class. Or, at least, a different society. One who has not spent a lifetime on the road.
For her part, Kaia found information about the king’s plans. For his people as well as hers. The discoveries were shocking. A few coins to the maids in the scullery exposed lies and scandals Kaia had never imagined existed among the nymphs. Pieces formed puzzles whose answers Kaia only found in her worst nightmares.
Perhaps Icaxor’s view of the valley was not as erroneous as the queen had believed.

One day, Icaxor called Kaia to his throne room for a private meeting.
“I know who you are,” he said. “Demons are less easily fooled than your people might think.”
Kaia’s heart plummeted, but, not knowing the depth of Icaxor’s knowledge, she feigned innocence. “My lord, forgive me if I do not understand your words.”
“Of course you do not.” Icaxor smirked. “But I know there is only one person who has need of information from the scullery maids in the lower kitchens. She is the queen of a neighbouring valley. Do you know of whom I speak?”
Kaia remained silent, and Icaxor continued. “Her name is Kaia, and she is as blind as the statue of justice seen in courts of law, although her scales are tipped in perpetual optimism. I hope your information has begun to reach her?”
Icaxor realised the player in front of him was a nymph. He did not realise she was the queen. Kaia decided to use this to her advantage.
“I have received no message from the valley since I have arrived here, my lord.”
“Your queen has forgotten you,” Icaxor said softly. “But there is hope for you still. While the valley dwells in turmoil and squallor, my land can offer you peace.”
Kaia stiffened. “You ask me to abandon my people to join the enemy?”
“I am not your enemy, Asiara,” Icaxor said, using Kaia’s bard name. “The nymphs who smile at the sun and sin in the dark are your enemies. You cannot join them. You are already a traitor to your kind.”
“Your words are lies,” Kaia said hotly. “You say I will not betray my people. I will not betray my queen!”
“Your queen has already betrayed you.” Icaxor leant back in his chair. “She has abandoned you to the demon world without hope or escape. But you are young and beautiful. You can start a new life here. With us. With me.”
Icaxor’s eyes pierced Kaia.
“You can be my queen.”
“I am already a queen,” Kaia said quietly.
The shock passed quickly from Icaxor’s face. “Then unite our kingdoms. We can purge your land of the traitors, and start anew.”
Kaia regarded the man in front of her. “My people marry for love, not convenience.”
“Then learn to love me.” Icaxor’s face shone, unusually so for demons. “Join my side.”

Time passed, and Kaia began to notice the subtleties in Icaxor’s manner. The way he treated his guards, the peasants, the nobles. The way he parted his hair two inches to the right, and the way he filled the vase in her room with blue roses every morning. Kaia received filtered news from her chambermaids; the valley was sinking deeper and deeper into sin. Slowly, she began to understand: the nymphs were monsters; Icaxor was not.
Several week later, Kaia was walking through the market when she heard the town crier making an announcement.
“His Royal Majesty, King Icaxor the Fourteenth, is building a shelter for all demons seeking refuge from the ravage of the nymphs in the…”
When she returned to the castle, Kaia asked one of the maids to place a bouquet of roses in Icaxor’s chambers. Red ones, please, not blue.

It was six months after Kaia had left the valley, and Aiku had not heard from his sister, either by letter, messenger, or word of mouth. Rumours, however, had crept into the valley: rumours of a new queen at Icaxor’s side and the ruthless discipline she exacted on any nymph found in her kingdom. Aiku began to fear for Kaia’s safety. After deliberations with the council, he set out from the valley with twenty of his best men to search the valley for signs of the queen.
As the party neared Icaxor’s kingdom, they met a group of players. It was the same group who had performed in the valley soon after Kaia’s departure, and Aiku was eager for information on the demons’ state of affairs. The news, however was disturbing. The players reported that the new queen, Asiara, was a nymph by birth who resembled Kaia in likeness and manner, although Aiku discerned that their opinions on the valley were markedly different. Theories of witchcraft, torture, and bribery flitted through his mind, and he became even more determined to find his sister, subjecting his men to eighteen hours of riding each day, leaving them weary, irritable, and careless.

A few days later, Aiku was watering his horse in a quiet brook while his men scouted the perimetre before making a camp for the night. Aiku fancied he saw a face in the water, but only a nymph would be able to hold its breath for so long, and this sector had been purged of all nymphs long ago. Shrugging it aside as a figment of his imagination, Aiku turned to groom him horse when he felt himself slipping. He was being pulled into the river. Aiku tried to pull back, to call for help, but he slipped and tumbled head first into the water.

When Aiku opened his eyes, he was not in water, familiar or otherwise. He was tied to a tree (a very dry tree on very dry soil). In front of him stood the demon king, Icaxor, and, a small distance behind, stood Kaia.
“Kaia!” Aiku struggled against his bonds in an attempt to reach his sister, who failed to respond to his calls. “You dog,” he spat at Icaxor, “what have you done to her?”
Icaxor chuckled. “The queen has never been better. Now that she sees you people for what you are.”
“I am a nymph,” Aiku said proudly. “I am the crown prince of the valley, heir apparent to the throne!” As soon as the words left his mouth, Aiku reconsidered the wisdom of providing this information to his archenemy, but Icaxor did not seem surprised.
“Yes, my dearest Kaia has already identified you as her darling little brother…”
“Do not refer to my sister in such a manner!” Aiku hissed. “She is a queen. She is far beyond anything you could ever…”
“She is my wife.” The shock on Aiku’s face brought a smile to Icaxor’s. “Yes, my little prince. Queen Kaia is Queen Asiara. They are one and the same.”
“No…” whispered Aiku. “No. It is no marriage. There is no love.”
“I love him.” Kaia spoke for the first time. “He is only a demon in form. His heart is the purest vessel I have ever beheld.”
“You are confused,” said Aiku. “Bewitched.”
“No, brother. I love Icaxor. This is clearer than anything has ever been.”
“The demon king is our sworn enemy! He will destroy the valley!”
“The valley is filled with sin and squallor,” said Kaia. “It deserves to be destroyed.”
Tears stung Aiku’s eyes. This was not his sister speaking. This was a monster.
“You would…destroy our home?” His voice cracked.
Kaia nodded. “We will rebuild. A new valley. For all the faithful. Demons and nymphs alike.”
“Not we,” whispered Aiku. “You.”
Kaia tilted her head. “Well, of course. If there is any question of the rightful ruler of the valley, the people will rebel. We can only have one ruler. And that would be me. Although I am a nymph, I understand the error of our ways. I will correct them.”
Aiku noticed the silver blade in Kaia’s hand.
“You would…kill your own brother?”
“You are a nymph. You are not my brother,” said Kaia. “Not anymore.”
“You exchanged me…for a demon?”
Kaia shrugged. “He loves me.”
“I love you, too! Kaia!” Tears flowed down Aiku’s face as his sister approached him.
“But I don’t love you, Aiku. Not anymore.”
“Don’t do this, Kaia! You’re confused! You’re mad! Our people are good! I’m good!”
“No nymphs are good. They all must pay for their crimes.”
With those words, Kaia thrust the blade in Aiku’s chest. He doubled over, screaming to the dead forest around him.

As the life bled from him, Aiku beheld as his sister once more, who whispered to him, “I really do love him, brother. We are happy together. I hope you understand.”

Coffee Love

Zara sat on the park bench, rubbing her neck. The interview had not gone well; the celebrity of the week had stormed off before Zara had gotten even one decent quote. She had known it wasn’t a good idea to ask about his wife’s recent affair with the stage manager, but her boss required a juicy article to top the Entertainment page. An article which was due in three hours.

He sat across from her, on the steps of the large stone fountains. People who recognised him waved, but they were few in number, and Teddy didn’t have time for adoring fans. He had a deadline to meet. The boss was featuring an article in the morning paper supporting the newest Liberal candidate. But Teddy was a diehard Conservative, and having his cartoons promote the Liberal perspective was a severe form of punishment.

Zara didn’t like fabricating her facts, but some crises called for it. Besides, celebrity gossip was so convoluted that no one would notice anyway. As long as their picture was on the front page and the fans were happy, the boss was happy and Zara was paid. But even lies had to be credible, and Zara crumbled another piece of paper and threw it to the ground.

There was a beautiful girl on the bench across from Teddy. She might have been another artist; she had a pad from which she was pulling papers and throwing them around. But her pen was moving too quickly. Sloppily. She must have been sketching. Did she work for his paper? Teddy had never noticed her before. Maybe she was a freelancer…or a consultant…or a…

Zara felt uneasy, as if someone were watching. She looked up to see a man sitting on the stone fountain steps. He waved when he caught her eye, but she ducked her head. She didn’t have time for men. She had a deadline to meet.

Teddy would have normally accepted the subtle rejection, but his curiosity was piqued. Another artist? A female artist? Was she a cartoonist, like him? Maybe she would have an idea for a pro-Liberal political cartoon.

Teddy strode towards the park bench, clearing his throat when he was a few feet away. The girl looked up. Her eyes were red, though from fatigue or tears, Teddy couldn’t tell. He took a seat on the bench next to her, suddenly unsure of his words. Not surprisingly. Words never came easily to him.
He cleared his throat. “I, er, see you…have a pad…” He winced at the words. So juvenile.
The girl smiled. “Yes, well, I’m supposed to be writing a story.”
So she wasn’t an artist. But Teddy was intrigued. “About what?”
“Walter Oates. And his wife.”
“Ah.” Teddy had run out of questions. He wasn’t quite sure what to say next.
Luckily, the girl helped him. “You…are a writer?”
“No. Cartoonist. For the Herald.”
“Oh.” The girl’s eyes widened. “I work for the Post.”
The city’s two rival papers. Teddy’s grin widened. He felt like a rebel, fraternising with the enemy.
“When’s your deadline?”
“Two-and-a-half hours.”
Teddy nodded. “You have a lot of info?”
“None, actually. Oates walked off before I could get a decent quote.” The girl sighed. “I was going to make some things up.”
“Please, allow me!” Teddy said eagerly. “I have a younger sister who is quite obsessed with British male singers. I know a thing or two about the celebrity world.”
The girl looked skeptical. “I couldn’t ask that. You seem busy yourself, Mr…”
“Teddy Grant. And it’s just a cartoon for the Liberal candidate.” Teddy scowled. “Can’t stand that bloke…”
The girl laughed. “I could give it a try. My father’s quite fond of the Liberal party.” Her grin lit her face. “And I’m Zara. Zara Durand.”
Teddy bowed slightly. “Well, Miss Durand…shall we continue this conversation at the coffee shop?”
Zara’s beautiful smile was answer enough.

Buckeye Chuck and the Secret Valentine

Cupid was in love. It wasn’t supposed to happen, not like this. Cupid was love. He gave love to other people. He couldn’t fall in love.
Or could he?
Right now, Cupid was sitting on a bench in one of his favourite parks in the city. Watching the people. Watching her. She moved so quickly she was difficult to follow, but if Cupid concentrated hard enough, he could manage to distinguish her form, flitting about the crowd.
She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was everything he could ever…
“Hey, bro.”
Cupid jumped, banging his wings against the back of the bench.
“Easy there, pal. Them feathery whites don’t look made fer battle, ya know.”
Cupid rubbed his back as he glared at the intruder. “Chuck.”
The groundhog chuckled. “That’s m’name, boy. What’cha doing here all by your lonesome? Shouldn’t you be off, makin’ couples an’ spreadin’ the luuuuuuv?”
Cupid scowled and turned back to the crowd. But the girl was gone. Not surprisingly. She wouldn’t wait for him.
“You stalkin’ some girl, bro?” Chuck rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Makin’ sure she’s the right one before ya set them up?”
“I know she’s the one,” Cupid half-whispered, now searching the skies for her face.
“Well, unless she’s a bird, I don’t think she’ll be all the way…oh, wait a minute.” The groundhog scratched his head. “You thinkin’ of the Tooth Fairy, bud?”
Cupid nodded numbly. “She’s beautiful.”
“She’s also incredibly busy and won’t take kindly to the likes of you meddling in her affairs.”
Cupid felt his heart plummet. “You think so?”
Chuck guffawed. “Oh, yes, my bro. Oh yes. Jus’ outta curiosity, though, who’d you have in mind fer her?”
Cupid’s forlorn face was answer enough.
“You?” Chuck doubled over in laughter. “Ya dishtowel-wearing, bow-and-arrow-slingin’ guppy? D’ya stick one of them fluffy golden arrows in your feather-coated forehead? Heck, I’ve heard that elf Pasha from the North Pole’s been after her fer years. And, compared to him, ya don’t stand a chance, bro…”
Cupid felt tears sting his eyes. Chuck’s words were true, he knew. Every single on of them. None of it was news.
Why, then, did it sting him so badly?
“Cupid…?”
It was her. Her voice. Cupid turned around to see the Tooth Fairy, smiling nervously.
“I hope you’re not too busy, Cupid?”
“For you? Never,” Cupid breathed. He sensed Chuck chuckling silently beside him, but Cupid pushed it to the back of his mind. “What can I do for you?”
The Tooth Fairy wrung her hands. “I hope it’s not too much. I know you’re busy this time of year, but…”
Nothing is too much for you, he thought. Nothing at all.
“It’s just that I really wanted to get Pasha something nice, but I don’t have any ideas! He loves toys, but all of the ones I have are teeth related…”

A few days later, Cupid was back on the park bench, feeling much worse than he had in a while.
“He-ey, Cupie boy.”
Cupid sighed, letting his head fall into his hands. “Chuck, don’t you have anything else to do?”
The groundhog chuckled maliciously. “My line of work, bud, consists of rising early one day of the year. Other than that, it’s the party life.” Chuck studied Cupid’s face. “You ain’t still strung up over lil’ miss Tooth Fairy, are ya?”
Cupid felt tears threaten his eyes. “She’ll never see me…it’s hopeless.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that, kid. Ya never know what might happen. I know fer a fact ol’ Pasha’s never gonna look at her the same way again.”
Cupid raised an eyebrow. Chuck chuckled.
“Hey, bud, don’t put it past me. It’s not my fault the two lovebirds don’t have the same tastes in gifts. Pasha should’ve known better than to ask the groundhog for gift ideas.”
Cupid laughed, and Chuck winked. “They don’t call me Buckeye Chuck for nothin’, kid.”

Macabre Cadavers

It was quiet in the lab. Too quiet. I looked up from my laptop, only to find the room completely deserted.
How late was it? I hadn’t noticed everyone leaving. Had I fallen asleep?

Closing my computer, I walked across the lab, wincing as my footsteps echoed around the room. Everything was tidy. The block specimens stood in neat rows. All of the tables and chairs were organised and wiped clean. Cadaver trays and body bags stood in a semicircle in front of me.

Everything was neat and proper. Unusual for the end of a busy day.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Something was wrong.
I turned around to find a pair of eyes staring at me. Black eyes. No pupils, whites, irises…not even a tiny, pulsing artery. Black eyes, like glossy buttons, reflecting the panic in my face.
The eyes were connected to a skull. To a body.
One of the cadavers was sitting up on the tray.
It hadn’t been there before…had it?

This was spooky. Why would anyone leave a cadaver sitting in such an awkward position? Gritting my teeth, I stuffed my laptop into my bag. If Maya was playing another prank on me, I would not be amused.

Shrugging my bag onto my shoulders, I found three skeletons guarding the glass doors, swinging from their stands.
They most certainly had not been there before.
“Maya…” I swallowed. “Maya, this isn’t funny.”
No reply.
“Maya…? MAYA!”
There was a zipping, ripping sound. I whipped my head around to see a few more of the cadavers sitting up. On their own. Body bags were falling on the floor, and I saw splashes of formaldehyde and preserving fluid pooling on the floor.

This couldn’t be a prank.

One of the cadavers swung her legs off the table, and stepped off, her arms catching on the white sheets around her torso.
Finally gripping my sense of reason, I ran to the door, only to see five skeletons now blocking the exit. Their teeth chattered, and their bones rattled menacingly.
I was trapped.

Turning back around, I grabbed the closest atlas and aimed it towards the group of cadavers inching towards me. It hit one in the chest, and the body fell backwards, little flakes of dried blood and fat sprinkling across the floor.
One down, six to go, I thought.
As I reached for a block specimen, the cadaver on the floor shuddered, then jumped back to its feet.
Okay…maybe not.
I felt my hands shake and looked down. The block specimen in my hands was beating.
It was a heart. A beating heart. The heart was beating.
I shrieked and dropped the block. It fell on my foot, and I heard crunching.
If no one heard those screams, there would be no hope for me tonight.
“Don’t worry…” The head cadaver, the woman, purred softly. “Just relax. It will be over soon.”
I knew that voice. “MAYA?!?!”
The cadaver chuckled. “We need fresh blood. It’s going to be a feast tonight, eh, lads?”
The other cadavers murmured in agreement. “Blood…fresh blood…fresh…”
“R-RRRRING! R-RRRRING!”

My eyes popped open. Maya was sitting next to me, holding my phone. “It’s your mum,” she said. “Had a nice nap?”
I numbly accepted the phone, only to find there was no one on the line. I shrugged and placed the phone in my pocket.
“Ready to call it a night?” Maya stretched her hands over her head.
“Aye…” I gathered my books, following Maya out the glass doors. Before we left, I turned around once more, just in time to see one of the body bags twitch.