Ranger Buckskin proceeded to give Shadow Leaf a tour of the camp. The four tents in the far corner of camp did, indeed, belong to the new recruits who were in the field training. Shadow Leaf noted one of the tents was shoddily erected and a bit of a mess. The poor lad would likely find all his belongings, including the tent, balled up and pitched out on the plains somewhere.

Beyond the recruit tents were the recruit latrines, one of the few community services the recruits would need to perform. It was important to maintain hygiene so they would have the duty of occasionally relocating the latrines and burning off the waste.

On the opposite end of the camp stood the community well which pumped water from an underground spring. A significant distance beyond the well was a pocket of hot springs, a curious anomaly, but well used and appreciated. A minor grove of trees with a small pond was northwest of the camp, and beyond that a river running from the distant mountains and curving to the sea.

Ultimately, the Fist was a simple camp designed to force people to walk extended distances to reach their conveniences and luxuries. Hunting, fishing, and simply relaxing in a hot spring required a significant amount of time and effort, which was very different from an Elven camp–who lived in the midst of luxury. Perhaps the elves were so grumpy because they weren’t often allowed to enjoy those luxuries?

Shadow Leaf spent the next couple of days eating venison and telling stories. He found himself telling so many stories he considered buying a lute and calling himself a bard. However, singing stories bought friendships and with friendships came favors. The use of one of these favors provided him advance notice of Ranger Lord Shaeren being in sight of camp.

He sat upon Cur, bareback as usual, and waited for her small, distant form to grow ever larger as she neared until, finally, she came within speaking distance. Her expression was stoic, much to Shadow Leaf’s dismay. He always wanted to surprise her, to get some sort of response, but again, no such luck.

“Shadow Leaf, I did not expect you so soon.” She halted before Cur, her eyes not even hinting at any type of reaction: pleasant or otherwise. “How long have you waited?”

He released a quick breath, hidden behind a lopsided smirk. “Greetings and salutations to you as well. It’s wonderful to see you, Shaeren. What has it been three years? Five?”

Shaeren’s cheeks reddened at the friendly admonishment of a failed proper greeting. Though the chiding was courteous, he still remembered her sensitivity to any type of failure. “Four years this fall.”

Shadow Leaf shifted his focus to the young, red-headed recruit who still sat atop her horse. She looked comfortable on horseback, but the taut lines around her face hinted at a deeper truth. Tension raged through her body, as if she tried to present an aura of a ranger rather than just be a ranger. His smirk widened. The lass was posing. She’s trying to be Shaeren!

“So, this must be your first pup?” he asked Shaeren.

“It is.” She only spared the merest of glances toward the lass.

Ouch. “Off the horse, girl. Let’s have a look at you,” Shadow Leaf commanded as he dismounted. He wondered if she would do the same. The girl’s look toward Shaeren did not go unnoticed.

“Do as you are told.” Shaeren’s tone snapped like a whip.

The girl dismounted, struggling to appear as if she had done the deed countless times before. If anything, she presented about as much grace as a board. Anyone could see he made her nervous.

Shadow Leaf circled the girl for a complete turn before halting in front of her to grab up her hands for inspection. “Right handed, good. We won’t have to shove holy wafers in her mouth and cut off her head. That’s always a plus. Experienced with a bow, based on her predominant archer’s callous. That’s a nice break, though you’ll likely have to un-teach her a few things.” He let go of the girl’s now-trembling hands and continued his examination of her forearm and biceps. “Hmmm, not completely useless. Muscles are firm, but still pliable.” He placed the back of his hand to her cheek and face, “warm to the touch,” and grabbed a fistful of carrot-red hair, pulling down firmly enough to jerk her head back enough to gaze skyward. “Hair in tact.” He shot the female Ranger Lord a look. “Really, Shaeren?”

A full beat passed before her response. “Everything has its time and place, Vaga.”

Shadow Leaf stared at her, considering so many possibilities. . . . His gaze softened, as did his grip on the girl’s thick, braided cord of hair. “Not everything, Lea`Nella.” Shaeren’s gaze retreated, and the silence caused a shuffle to the girl’s feet. Shadow Leaf cleared his throat. “Para of House Albers, ward of Lord Henry Albers, was murdered in an attempted Regicide. She was mistaken for Lord Alber’s birth daughter and was cut down before her time. She was buried with love and gratitude in the family plot.”

Shaeren and Para’s heads snapped toward Shadow Leaf, illiciting a simultaneous, “What?”

“You, young pup, are, by far the liveliest dead person I have ever met.”

Para’s green eyes darkened as she shifted a lost expression to Shaeren. “What is he talking about?” Even her voice sounded breathy with confusion.

Shaeren blinked, once, and met Para’s seeking gaze. “Lord Henry has faked your death. You have no home to return to.”

The girl sucked in a breath, holding it as she stared, unblinking, at her mentor. Shadow Leaf felt for the girl, trying so hard to digest the information, and the implication: homeless. Again. His gaze flicked from Para’s ashen features–even her freckles seemed pale–to Shaeren’s matter-of-fact, and a bit cold, expression. “You want me to punch her in the face too, while we’re at it?” A reminder, shaming Shaeren in his own humorous and charming way, that the delivery was too cold. She, of all people, knew better.


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Shadow Leaf – Sca’th Duille

 

After two days of merriment with old friends and some new ones, Shadow Leaf once again found himself on the trail toward Longsight’s Fist. While he initially planned to follow Shaeren’s trail, it was clear she took her sweet time getting there (or anywhere). Rather than catch up, he decided to skirt around and arrive ahead of her. He veered Cur to the right and nudged the beast to a quicker pace. Cur bobbed his head in agreement, giving a responding tug to the reigns.

Shadow Leaf reckoned he could be at the Fist in two days which, at Shaeren’s pace, would be two days ahead. He couldn’t help but smirk at the hoped expression of surprise when Shaeren saw him waiting for her. He leaned forward to whisper into Cur’s ear and gave his mane a tug. Cur lurched into an eager gallop.

 

Shadow Leaf saw the Fist in the distance long before arriving, one of the benefits of traveling through the plains. The down side being he could also be seen from a great distance.

Like most Fists, the camp was fairly simple and open. It wasn’t a fortress with armed guards by any stretch. This particular Fist sported a large stone building at the center with a few smaller ones surrounding it. Without many trees, stones were the best [and only] available resource for building permanent structures. The mountains weren’t far, nor was the quarry, but far enough to require a great deal of effort. The other buildings of the Fist were of a more temporary nature; oiled canvas on wood frames while, farther from the center, were small, simple tents.

The simplicity of the camp made Shadow Leaf long for the woodlands, where resources were plentiful and easy to move. Then there were the Elven rangers, where he originally trained from recruit to scout–the lap of luxury. Of course, that particular lap of luxury came at the cost of demanding trials. His lips twitched upward at the memories. “You’d think those who live for a thousand years would have more patience and a great sense of humor.” Cur’s grumble of response seemed more than apropos.

Only a few people recognized Shadow Leaf as he entered the Fist, even greeting him by name. Others merely observed his arrival, with the youngest openly gawking. Clearly the latter were the new recruits, the lucky few whose tents were pitched on the outskirts of camp. They stopped their tasks to watch this dirty old guy who their instructors probably informed was a legendary hero. The legendary Shadow Leaf–he was almost tired of hearing the phrase . . . almost.

The recruits, in a sense, had it pretty good considering those being trained for militia work had to spend a month or more working the kitchens and scullery. The rangers only had to worry about ranger training, which entailed learning how to take care of one’s self. Shadow Leaf remembered his first day as an official recruit when he dared mention his hunger to Elven Ranger Lord Thistle. She merely stared at him and told him to eat.

“I have no food,” he complained.

“There is food about,” she replied, her voice bland and without emotion.

“Where?”

“Figure it out, or starve.”

That was the first time he ever wondered if they called her Thistle because of her demeanor.

Shadow Leaf entered the large stone building and glanced around for Ranger Lord Longsight. Obviously absent. It was too early in the day for him to be in the curtained off sleeping quarters on the far right of the room, and the only visible person sat behind a desk, his entire body quivering with the ferocity of his penmanship. Clearly the only action for Shadow Leaf to take was to stand over the gentleman and read.

“Do you mind?” the man snapped over his shoulder.

“No, I sure don’t.” Shadow Leaf continued to hover.

“I’m trying to write an urgent message from Ranger Lord Longsight.”

“And you’re doing a fine job of it too, except when you stop to talk to me.”

“Look–” The man slammed down his writing utensil with an almost audible crack and spun in his chair to meet Shadow Leaf’s amused smirk. “Please take a couple of steps back from the desk. This message is both urgent and private. I will attend to you momentarily.”

“Very well.” Shadow Leaf took the requested two steps back. “No need for hostility.”

“I’m not being hostile!”

“Ah, so this is your amenable side, huh? Wonderful.”

The man at the desk opened his mouth as if to say something, but clicked it shut with an almost physical shake of his head as he shifted back to his message. A couple of sentences later, the note was completed, rolled up and placed into a small case clearly designed for a carrier pigeon. He glared at Shadow Leaf, holding up a single finger in request of an additional moment of silence. He disappeared through a rear door and re-appeared moments later, obviously relaxed and accomplished.

“That was an urgent and a private message from Ranger Lord Longsight, the Fist Lord, to the Legendary Ranger Lord Shadowleaf. I do not appreciate your antics and interruptions.”

“Uh huh. Well, just so you know, Shadow Leaf is not a Ranger Lord.” Shadow Leaf still didn’t understand why everyone chose to believe otherwise.

“You sir, are quite mistaken. I don’t know where you are from, but Shadowleaf is well known to us in this region. He is indeed a Ranger Lord.”

“Is his name one word or two?”

The man scoffed. “It’s a single word, not a first and last name.”

“Well, Nefa’s ass, I hate it when people do that. Anyway, let’s not quibble the point.”

“Thank you, sir. I am ranger Scout Baris and first assistant to Ranger Lord Longsight. How might I help you?”

“Greetings, Scout Baris, I am Legendary Ranger Hunter Shadow Leaf. Two words, not one.” He held up two fingers as he spoke. “I am here at the request of Ranger Lord, er, Fist Lord Longsight.”

The blood drained from Baris’ face as he fell back into the chair. The chair grunted in chorus with the man. “Sweet Mighty– Why didn’t you say something?”

“You never asked.”

“Well, that message I just sent to you basically said Fist Lord Longsight had to depart unexpectedly to see about a Ranger’s involvement in a Regicide. He asks you to stay at the fist because he may require your assistance in the near future. He apologizes for not being able to welcome you personally.”

Shadow Leaf blinked at the man. “Hm. I’m sorry, but I was kidding you. I’m actually Ranger Lord Night Tracker seeking an audience with Ranger Lord Swiftfeet. Is she available?”

“What?!” The man bolted to his feet.

“I said I’m Ranger Lord Night Tracker see…king…”

“I heard that already!” Baris’s entire body trembled. “You said you were…and I told you…”

“Yes, about that.” Shadow Leaf adjusted his position, the shift of his soft-soled shoes silent upon the floor. “You should learn to be more careful with those urgent and private messages so they don’t get to the wrong people. It’s fine though. Think of this critical error as a life lesson. A growth opportunity. A–”

“Shadow Leaf!” A tall brute of a man dressed in deer hide shouted from the entrance.

Shadow Leaf turned. “Buckskin! Buckskin in a buck skin! What in Nefa’s vulgar name brings you to this armpit . . .” he cast a glance to Baris, “I mean lap of luxury?”

“Probably the same as you: do a little training and teach the young ones.”

“Ah, so you’re a homeless lout short on coin preying upon the well to do, are you?”

Buckskin’s laugh echoed like the gong of a great bell. “That too, friend, that too.”

“So, you are Shadowleaf then?” Baris blurted in a panic.

“Of course he is!” Buckskin shouted back as they turned to leave.

“What’s with that guy?” Shadow Leaf jerked a thumb back over his shoulder toward Baris before stepping through the doorway.

____________________________________

…continued…


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Shadow Leaf: Sca`th Duille

A messenger pigeon bearing the mark of a red hand on its breast landed on a branch above Shadow Leaf’s head. He lay there, on the ground, staring at the bird while debating whether or not to take the message attached to its leg. After all, it was a beautiful night, so why ruin it now? However, he recognized the guild’s mark and knew the mages would continue to pester him until he finally relented.

“All right you damn fool bird, bring me the message. Nefa knows I’m not going to come to you for it.”

No sooner did he utter those words when the bird descended from the branch and onto Shadow Leaf’s chest. Long, calloused fingers held the bird firmly while removing the message. Then he tossed the bird into the darkness behind him. The frantic beating of its wings disappeared into the distance as he unrolled the message.

Shadow Leaf shouted “Alight” at a small pile of wood and it immediately burst into flame creating a nice campfire and providing enough light to read the message. He grinned, always appreciative of his little secret, and proceeded to read the note.

“Shadow Leaf, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet has taken on a ward out of Albervalley. She has shown a remarkable talent that follows the path of your unique expertise. We request your presence at the Fist to train this recruit. Standard compensation applies, and this is a joint request. Sincerely, Ranger Lord Longsight.”

Shadow Leaf blinked at the words “joint request”.

“That’s dirty, Longsight. Effective, but dirty.” He tossed the parchment into the fire and packed up his belongings. Flitting memories and images about his early adventures with Ranger Lord Swiftfeet caused his packing to slow. Of course, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet was only a Runner when they first met: Runner Shaeren. He called himself Runner Vaga back then.

Shadow Leaf smirked as he recalled that meeting, a bow and removal of his cap. “Runner Vaga at your service.”

“I’m Runner Shaeren. Shaeren Latrobe, descendant of multi-generations of rangers.” She spoke formally, and he recalled how odd it sounded when directed at him. “And you?”

“Ah, I am Vaga Bond. A fortunate and skilled street urchin and descendant of multi-generations of street urchins.”

Shaeren stared at him momentarily before responding, and he could still almost feel the chill of disdain from that silent glare. “Are you mocking me?”

“Oh no milady, I am in fact a street urchin and very new to this ranger…thing. I am merely trying to adapt to my strange environment.”

“I see.” She replied, still with a hint of skepticism.

Little did he know he would be paired with her for the next five years. Five of the best yet worst years of his life. His stories of life as a thief fascinated her at the same time her stories of life as a child of ranger parents horrified him. She gasped in horror each time he disappeared into the darkness and picked her pockets, while her elegance, regardless of her level of grime, fascinated him. He admired her ability to pick up skills, how far and fast she could run, the color of her eyes, the length of her neck, the fullness of her–

Shadow Leaf snapped himself out of the reminiscence and cursed the campfire into extinction. He threw on his pack and called to his horse. “Come on, Cur. Let’s go to town.”

A dark gray horse strolled from the darkness and settled alongside Shadow Leaf, who stroked his nose before climbing up onto the beast’s bare back.

Shadow Leaf entered Albervalley for the first time in several years only to discover not much had changed, at least nothing worthy of note. The buildings and shops were the same even down to the shop owners, though some of the guards were new. Fortunately, a few of the guards he knew from years past were promoted rather than dead, not too uncommon.

The only other thing of note was the complete and thorough eradication of his old gang’s markings from his youth. Some seemed to have faded over time, but others were deliberately scratched out. Whatever gang battles had ensued after his departure, it was evident his former gang lost–and thoroughly. He would need to look into that…eventually. As for now, he had other missions to attend to, like getting his guard friends nice and drunk so he could get good information.

 


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“Two out in the bottom of nine here at Angel Stadium with the halo’s down by two, runners on the corners, and Mark Trumbo at the plate looking for his first hit of the night as Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen checks Borjous’ at first,” Victor Rojas voiced over the Sunday night action in Anaheim.

Frank Billings pushed his considerable frame back into an aged lazy boy recliner and cracked a beer.  Springs groaned and wood creaked its protest at the heavy load.  He was not a fat man.  Despite his two hundred and thirty five pounds, Frank was in fantastic physical condition for a man settling into the slippery side of The Hill.  A five mile run every morning, followed by a high protein breakfast, and then straight to his guest house gym for a solid hour of calisthenics and light weights.  The daily ritual centered his chi.  Or at least that’s what his part time fitness trainer, part time aerialist girlfriend told him.  She was young, fit, and Frank liked the way she looked in lycra, so why fight it?

“Trumbo checks his swing at a breaking ball low and away, ball one,” continued the play-by-play.

“Good eye,” Frank mumbled.  He thumbed across the face of his phone to check the score of his matchup.  “Papa just needs an easy single down the line.”

His fantasy baseball league was a mix of ex-precinct buddies and a few stragglers from his days in the army.  Specialist E-4 Rawlins was desperately clinging to a one point lead heading into Sunday, but a bad outing for Jeff Locke and the Pirates blew up his accumulated ERA and surrendered the equalizer, leaving the whole week at the mercy of Mark Trumbo with a tied RBI stat.  Frank smiled at the thought of Jim Rawlins screaming drunkenly at his television, begging the Dodger’s hurler to walk the bases loaded in favor of a less destructive plate opponent.  Unfortunately for Jim and for the halo’s southern neighbors, the camera panned to Albert Pujols calmly taking a few warm up swings in the on deck circle with a taunting sneer aimed at Don Mattingly in the Dodger dugout.

Jansen snapped a quick pick off attempt to first and Borjous dove to safety, beating the throw to a concert of boos from the crowd.  “Oh, they didn’t like that one, Vic,” chirped the color analyst.  “Kenley really needs to concentrate on the plate here with two away and forget all about the speedster on first.  The last thing he needs to do is sail one over Adrian Gonzales’ head while a struggling Mark Trumbo, who’s oh for three on the night, sits at the plate with his bat on his shoulder.”

“Yeah, what he said,” Frank drained the beer in his hand and produced a loud, satisfying belch.  “Serve it up, meat!”

“A win tonight would be big for the Angels, who are urgently pursuing Oakland atop the division,” the announcers continued their back and forth as A.J Ellis made a visit to the mound, eliciting another chorus of disapproval from the fans.

“Always gotta drag this shit out,” Frank glowered at the TV and sighed.  The assembly on the hill glanced at one another over their gloves, talking strategy, or the weather, or maybe the rack on the blonde behind home plate.  Frank always wondered how the hell they could hear each other with their mouths covered.  Maybe all pitchers and catchers were Muslim women in past lives.

Frank’s phone vibrated on the TV tray, causing the fork on his dinner plate to clatter noisily.  He snatched up the phone with a smirk, expecting a curse laden text from Rawlins detailing the innumerable ways at which Frank was about to “steal” the matchup.  The corners of his mouth slowly fell and his eyes narrowed at the caller ID reading PRIVATE.  He stared at the vibrating phone for a second then answered.

“Frank Billings,” he said in his professional tone, enunciating each consonant clearly in effort to mask his six pack buzz.

A dull, mechanically altered voice responded.  “We need to talk,” it said simply.

Frank pulled the phone away and scowled at the mysterious caller ID display.  “Who the fuck is this?”

“We have a mutual friend in Kentucky.”

Frank’s brow rose skeptically.  Born in Lexington, KY 1970, raised military by a Vietnam veteran medic mother, honorably discharged due to wounds received in country, father MIA/KIA in country 1971, enlisted at age 18 and retired from active duty following two tours in Iraq during Desert Shield as well as Desert Storm, worked as consultant to the Lexington PD Narcotics Division, currently enjoying a lucrative security consultancy gig in a nationwide private securities firm that relocated him to Phoenix 5 years ago.  The list of friends attached to Frank Billings name in Kentucky was anything but brief.

“I’m afraid you’ll need to be more specific,” he said.  “Didn’t catch your name.”

“You wouldn’t know it.  I’m nobody,” the low robotic voice replied.  “But here’s one you might recall:  Samson.”

Frank eased up from the recliner and stood.  His eyes fixed on the TV, but saw a thousand yards through it into a dusty past full of blood, screaming, and the heavy thud of Blackhawk rotors beneath an oppressive midday sun.  “What about Samson,” Frank said in more of a level statement than question.  A coppery taste crept up the back of his throat.

“Someone at Fort Campbell is making quite a hobby out of unearthing intel about Operation Samson.  More specifically, the 5th’s involvement in it.”

Frank felt irritation grow in the form of a tensed brow.  “So what?”  This was starting to sound like shock journalism at its finest.  “It’s old news to the tune of two decades.  Anyone dredging up declassified war stories in free to them under the public information act.  There’s no dirt there, no matter how hard you people try to dig,” he recalled the media fiasco following the less than clockwork execution of the low profile Iraq op and the steadfast stonewalling the brass shielded itself with afterward.  “And the 5th wasn’t even in country during Samson,” he added.  Which was almost true.

“Officially.”

“Officially, unofficially, or any other fucking-ficially.  Who the fuck is this?”

A muddy choking that might have been a chuckle rang in his ear.  “Wednesday, twenty-one hundred, Westgate Plaza, water fountain by will-call.”

Frank shook his head and snorted.  “Whatever, deep throat.  Find some other retiree to annoy and shoot whichever clerk you paid off for this number.  Then shoot yourself.  Asshole.”  Frank lowered his phone and was about to hit END when the mechanical voice put in a parting shot.

“Andi will be so disappointed.”

Ice blossomed in his stomach usually reserved for pre-mission prep and extra inning save situations.  Andi’s beautiful 23 year old face beamed with an easy smile and her toned physique managed to look enticing even in desert camo.  The last time he saw her was at stark odds with her natural beauty; face down in the sand, leaking blood from multiple GSW’s, presumed dead, and slowly shrinking from sight as the Blackhawk elevated further and further into the sky despite Frank’s crazed protestations and threats.  The medic dosed him again, the landscape slid sideways, and that was the last he ever saw of PFC Andi Holmstrom.

Frank remained standing with the phone to his ear and twenty years of carefully stacking fresh memories atop the old came down like a demo’d skyscraper.  “You’re going to tell me who you are and how you know that name.  Right fucking now.”

Again, the sound that may have been a self-satisfied chuckle grated on Frank’s nerves.  “See you Wednesday, Frank.”  The line clicked and went dead.

Faces, names, and voices forever burned into his being bubbled to the surface along with a cold hatred that never quite lost its edge.  A lid may have just been kicked off of a very deep, very nasty jar of secrets.  Frank felt a tremble in his hands and balled them into fists.  He had some careful phone calls to make.

The phone buzzed again in his hand and he brought it level with his face.  A text from Rawlins, J read; “Eat shit, hillbilly.”

As the blood pounding in Frank’s ears began to subside, a raucous cheering of thousands from the TV replaced it as Mark Trumbo rounded second at an easy victory jog.  Kenley Jansen animatedly reprimanded himself and left the mound.

“Game on, mother fuckers,” Frank stalked determinedly to his office and dove face first into twenty years of dead ends, anger, and therapy bills.


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They called to me.  The men who were not men stood in the shallows of the waves and bid me join their ranks.

“Come and see.  Such wonders.  Come and see.”

I heard it inside my mind in the dark hours before dawn when I clutched raw fingers to the patio moorings; feet entrenched in wet sand, refuting my body’s uncontrollable yearning to go to them.  To go to the sea.  To be consumed by their primordial god and forever fly with them through the endless waters.  They called to me and my body obeyed yet my mind was still my own.  Each night I struggled against their song and each sunrise I was released unto myself.  I awoke in a bed soaked through with sweat and smelling of sea salt.  I’d shower out the sand in my hair and wonder where the dream began and where I would end.

Days are no longer what they once were.  At first, I sat in the den and watched the waves come in, the brilliance of the sun gleaming off the tops of them as they crashed into the shore.  I flinched with each thunderous collapse, the sound keeping me grounded in what I could still reason to be reality.  I willed them away from the waking hours lest I find myself truly lost in the light and complete my transfiguration.

“Come and see,” I heard myself say once.  I bent at the rail of my charter fishing boat, hands affixed to the cold steel tubing and staring lifelessly down into the fathomless depths.  My customers grew worried and eventually drifted away like life rafts from a burning ship; its’ captain steadfastly at the helm, one last fight fortifying his resolve.

Money, social needs, personal welfare; all of them fled my waking list of concerns as I spent an increasing number of hours adrift in the water searching for them.  I would confront them in the daylight when my self was still my own and I would bid them leave this place to collect others.  My grand plans did not include them and I would not be a vessel of theirs.  Yet months slipped by as I wasted the daylight in fruitless exploration.  The waters kept their secrets from prying eyes until the moon came and then I would dream.  Come the small hours, despite numerous alchemical protestations, sleep would find me and drag me irrevocably under.

Sometimes they showed me their wonders.  Those were the mornings when I woke up screaming and grasping at tangible reality to harbor safety.  I can not, no, I will not speak of what they show me.  There are some horrors no living creature should witness.  The endlessness of it, the unrelenting agony of it is too much to bear and I dare not let it escape and come calling to others; standing on those shores, beckoning for their offering.

Three times twelve were they in number.  They have no leader save their reverence to that which sleeps below.  They want to awaken it, to end the daylight and usher in an eternity of slumber for mortal men.  In the calm and misknown peace of the tranquil sea lies their strength.  I’ve seen that strength and it is as terrible as it is unnatural.  No, that word is inaccurate.  There is something overwhelmingly natural about it.  Ancient and born of the fabrics of our world, it lays claim to that which is previous to us.  We are the invaders here.  The parasites.  The barnacles that cling to the undercarriage of reality.  We are the stewards to its vast treasure of nourishment.  Our essence, our very existence is not our own.  It is these things that they advocate for the sleeping one.

My resistance wanes.  I commit these thoughts now, these that will be my last, from the sea itself.  I’ve taken leave of the safety of terra firma this night and plunged on into the vast darkness of the endless waters.  Their voices call to me.  They’re stronger here.  The forms that called to me from the shore swirl around me in the starless night and beckon.  Reason flees as they grow near, surrounding me, pressing in, and taking me.

“Come and see,” they say.  It is no longer an offer.  It is direction.  It is decree.  It simply is.  I leave my earthly possessions and plummet into their embrace.  We travel.  I am changed and I can feel their mind piercing my own.  Soon I will be one with them and this one will be no more.  My desires will fade and be reborn.  I will raise up my offering to the one that sleeps below and take my place among them.  We will grow until we can usher forth its catastrophe upon the dreamers and take back what was never theirs.

The deep has taken me.  I am no more.  I am.  Them.

“Come and see.”


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Genre: Science Fiction

“Thomas,” Maggie whispered to her sleeping son, nudging his shoulder to rouse him from slumber.

“Mmmmmom, go away,” he murmured sleepily and rolled over, burying his face into the oversized foam pillow.

Maggie smiled.  “Thooomaaaas,” she crooned musically and leaned over the edge of the bed.  “Do you remember what day it is?”

The boy remained face down in the pillow, but the rhythmic breathing of near-sleep caught as something sparked in his mind, enticing him from the early waking haze.  He made a small, uncertain sound then rolled over to blink soft brown eyes in the low glow of an opaque lamp affixed to the wall.  “Wha..?”

“I asked if you remembered what day it is today, silly,” Maggie tapped her son’s button nose and giggled as he half-heartedly flailed a hand in front of his face.  “If you don’t remember, then maybe we won’t go.  Would you rather stay home this weekend, sweetie?”

Brow fixed in consternation, Thomas rubbed at his eyes and drug himself further from sleep.  Suddenly an avalanche of realization dawned and his eyes snapped open in alarm.  “Camping!” He shouted and flung himself out of his rocketship bed, scrambling for his jeans, t-shirt, and underwear all carefully arranged in a crumpled heap on the floor.  “What time is it?  Did you let me sleep for too long?  We’ll have to skip breakfast, you know?”  Thomas reasoned with his mother while pulling on his socks with one arm through the ratty Houston Oilers t-shirt his father had unearthed at some long-forgotten yard sale.

“Don’t worry, hun, we have plenty of time.  It’s still early and your father just went to pick up the trailer,” she ran a hand through her sons short dirty-blond hair as he jerked his head away while simultaneously fitting a shoe and trying to find the head-hole in his shirt the way only an eight-year-old can.  “Breakfast in five,” she said, standing up and heading for the door.

“’kay,” Thomas called, finally locating the right opening in the shirt for his head on only the third try.  He stood up fully and flicked a switch on the wall, bringing to life an overhead lamp and flooding his bedroom with bright light.  “Whoa!” he exclaimed as his eyes fought against the blinding luminance.  Pupils slowly acclimating, Thomas surveyed himself in a body-length mirror framed with old photographs of lush forest scenery he had pulled from a collection of magazines his dad procured for him last Christmas.

Thomas stretched and yawned the last bit of sleep from his awakening body.  He grinned at himself in the mirror and posed like the man on his shirt.  “Number one, baby.” He slapped the light switch and ran out the bedroom door.

A plentiful, if somewhat bland to his eager palate, healthy breakfast was consumed with fervor as Thomas leafed through the newspaper, a diagram of the solar system printed across the front.  “Do you think we’ll be able to see the meteor shower as well as last year?”  He called to his mother who was packing perishables into a plastic container on the kitchen counter.

“Oh, I expect so.  Your father said it should be a good one,” Maggie stuffed a box of half eaten cereal into a slim divider in the box, playing a game of Tetris with the available space.

“The biggest in two decades is what the paper says!” Thomas’ exuberance threatened to spray the kitchen table with bits of unchewed food.  Maggie took notice and cocked an eyebrow at her son.

“Chew, then speak, sweetie.  You know how much I’d hate to have to finally throw that dirty, disgusting shirt away.”  She tossed a roll of paper towels at the table.

“No way, mom,” Thomas declared defensively and unspooled a length of paper towel.  “This is my favorite shirt, I’ll wear it until I die!”

Maggie shook her head and laughed.  “You have so many other nice clothes, what’s so special about that ratty old thing?  Wouldn’t you rather have a shirt from one of the newer sports teams you like?”

Thomas stared blankly, at a complete loss over his mother’s ignorance.  “But,” he stammered.  “His name is Moon.”

***

Gray rocks and dust passed along the truck’s exterior as Thomas pressed his face up to the back seat window.  “Are the Miller’s gonna be there, dad?” He inquired, shouting to be heard over the loud guitar driven music his dad listened to every year like an anthem of their voyage out to the campground.

“Should already be.  You looking forward to playing with your friends?”  Thomas’ father, Thomas senior, called back while thumping his palm against the big heavy wheel in time with the song.  “Maybe find a couple new rocks for the collection?”

Thomas junior considered his weekend plans.  “Yeah, I think so.  Jimmy thinks it’s boring and wants to go back to the ridge, but me and Lucy will probably take our stuff down to the crater again.  We found a good bunch there last year.”

“Oh, Thomas,” Maggie said in a wary tone.  “I don’t like you going down there, it’s so dangerous and Lucy is a bad influence on you.  She’s what, thirteen now?  She should be hanging around kids her own age.”

Thomas scowled at the back of his mother’s head.  “She’s my friend.”

His dad chuckled.  “Hey, older women, right?”  He grinned at his wife and earned himself a dirty look in return.  His grin widened and caught his son’s scowl in the mirror.  “Just promise your mother you’ll be careful not to break any bones and radio in every once in a while,” he glanced over to the skeptical, but less hostile features of his wife’s glare.  “He’ll be fine.  He’s my son, isn’t he?”  A sigh, a head shake, and an eye roll replied.

***

“Thomas!”  Senior cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to the rapidly approaching dots on the horizon.  “You’re gonna miss it!”

“Kid’s a born tradesman, Tom,” said the man standing next to Thomas’ father. He sipped from a steel rimmed thermos.  “Gonna get him into the business?”

“Shit, Steve, we’ll probably be askin’ him for jobs by the time he’s 18 and running the auto-processing facility.  He’s way more into the insides of the machines than the grunt work you and I were born into,” Thomas replied.  “Besides, with the tech schools acceptance starting at 15 now, I gotta give him a chance to get out of here as soon as possible.  Maybe to one of the other colonies further out.  Anything but getting locked down to this grind for the rest of his days.”

“Amen to that, buddy,” Steve clinked his thermos against Thomas’ as the children reached the camp among a cloud of gray dust and breathless.

“We’re here!” Thomas junior shouted in between heaving gasps, doubled over with hands on knees and coughing on the settling dust.

His father reached down and swatted away some of the dust coating his son’s clothes.  “I think you brought half the crater back with you.  How’s the haul?”

Thomas beamed at his father, hefting a heavy leather sack.  “Fifteen so far!  I think some of these are at least in the four billion range!”

“Nice!” Thomas high fived his son.  “We’ll run some tests later on and see what you’ve got there.  Now go wash up before your mother sees you and has a heart attack.  It’s about to start.”  Thomas smiled at his son as he scrambled off to the condensation recycling array and set about cleaning his gear.

Less than an hour later, he leaned back against the trailer wall on a blanket with his son in his lap and his wife at his side, eyes inclined to the cosmos as thousands of meteors plummeted across the inky blackness of space.  As they penetrated earth’s atmosphere, nearly 239 million miles away, the titanic cosmic masses burst into great streaks of flame before exploding on the pock marked surface of the Earth.  He wondered what they had looked like to his great grandfather in the days when they looked at where his family now sat and dreamed of a different life in a different place with a different future.  He smiled and kissed his son’s head, watching the spectacular display unfold.


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