New Story: Family Curse

I’m excited to share that my short story, “Family Curse”, is live today in the webzine at Dark Recesses Press. Dark Recesses publishes dark fiction and horror in their webzine, which is free to readers. They also publish a quarterly print magazine.

“Family Curse” is at this link. Hope you enjoy the story, and the other great stories at Dark Recesses!

“City of the Dead” on my Blog!

It’s been a while since I posted a short story, and it’s October, the perfect time for an unusual story like “City of the Dead”. This story was originally published in March, 2018 in Gathering Storm Magazine. The theme was “The Customer Is Always Right”. Enjoy!

 

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

City of the Dead

by Anne Marie Lutz

 

The obelisks were twice as tall as Arly, lined up in canted rows to either side of her. She stared down the earthen corridor between the memorials. Could you even call it “earthen”, when it wasn’t even on Earth at all?

One step, two steps, and the gray obelisks seemed to shiver in front of her as if shifting between dimensions, as if in a dream from which she was about to wake.

They’d said the stones weren’t graves. They looked sort of like gravestones. Especially when you saw the inscriptions, some so old they had nearly worn off. The visitor’s brochure said there were no bodies buried here. Yet, the place was inhabited.

 

This is the only place in the galaxy where you can walk among alien ghosts! Orient yourself on the provided map first. Always stay on the paths; it’s easy to get lost in the City of the Dead!                

 

Footsteps receded behind her as Dad wandered down one of the paths that extended from the central clearing like spokes from the center of a wheel. Arly felt very grown-up, standing here almost alone offworld. Dad said she was old enough to have a little more freedom. As long as she trusted her instincts, and was responsible.

 

No personal communication devices are permitted in the City of the Dead! You can reach the office at any time by pressing one of the blue call buttons located at each entrance and in the safe zone in the middle of each section. Don’t forget to sign out when you leave! If we don’t hear from you by dusk, you’ll be charged the full cost of the search.

 

Something moved in the corner of Arly’s vision. She spun, but whatever it was had vanished.

“Dad?” The sound of Arly’s voice was muffled. She could barely hear it herself. “Dad?”

 

Mrae ghosts can move through ordinary matter! We know they move about the memorials, and we know they communicate amongst themselves. There are no living Mrae to tell us what they are saying or what they are doing! Disturbing the ghosts in any way is forbidden.

 

Something dark and shiny appeared on the side of the obelisk closest to Arly. It emerged from the stone, looking like an oil spill pooling gradually larger. It slid over the uneven surface and vanished, materializing in an instant on the next obelisk. It left no trace behind.

 

Stay away from the ghosts! Keep a respectful distance. The Mrae ghosts are indifferent to corporeal life of any species! The City of the Dead has been open to respectful tourists of all species for 30 terrestrial years, and never have we had a single fatality!

 

The Mrae began to sink into the surface of the next obelisk. Slow and inexorable, like a creature from a nightmare.

Fear gripped Arly. The brochure had lied. It wasn’t safe here at all. The Mrae were dangerous. She stepped back fast. Her heel caught on some imperfection in the ground and she sprawled terrified between the looming stones.

The Mrae, half-submerged in the ancient stone, paused.

It knew she was there. It wasn’t “indifferent” to her. Arly knew.

“Dad!” Arly screamed.

Footsteps scrambled. “Punkin?”

“Dad!”

Dad appeared in the open space at the end of the corridor. He seemed very far away. Arly’s heartbeat hammered against her ribs.

The Mrae pulled itself back out of the obelisk. It dripped down the side of the stone and massed into an expanding pool. It moved fast, nothing like the dreamy viscous drift Arly had seen in the videos they’d been shown. It was only two feet away, then close enough to touch

The Mrae ghost wound between her feet. It had a pull, like an emotional sink. Arly’s scream fell in and she stood frozen. The world around her whited out with her terror.

“Get outta there, you freakin’ alien!” Dad grabbed Arly under her arms and lifted.

Arly pulled her knees up high. Her feet came off the ground and the Mrae ghost slipped away. She clung to Dad, gasping with fear.

Dad hoisted her over a few feet of ground, grunting with the effort. He set her down, grabbed her arm and half-dragged her the few yards toward the central clearing.

Arly looked back, but the Mrae was gone.

They ran across the edge of the safe zone. The blue call button glowed on its pedestal. Dad slammed his hand down on it, and a moment later the transport arrived to take them back to safety.

###

 

Dad was red in the face. “What kind of outfit are you people running here?”

The woman behind the counter had brought them water. That was the extent of her sympathy. Her face was long and thin, not an ounce of extra softness in it. Her name tag read: “Manager”, with no personal name at all.

Arly was still shaking.

“There was full disclosure before you entered the City of the Dead,” Manager said. “Disturbing the Mrae in any way is forbidden.”

“You said they didn’t know we were here. You said there was no danger!”

“You must maintain a respectful distance at all times,” Manager said. “There is a fine for disobeying the rules. We’ve debited your account.”

Dad’s face got even redder.

“It came to me,” Arly quavered. “I didn’t disturb it.”

“Look.” Dad took a deep breath. “You have a Mrae here that threatened my daughter. I don’t care what you say about ghosts, that thing is alive and it tried to do something to my daughter!”

Manager shrugged. “What do you expect us to do?”

“Close the place down!” roared Dad.

Contempt flashed across Manager’s face. “Because your daughter imagined something, you want us to close down the City of the Dead? You’re just like the rest of the humans I’ve met. You think because you spend money here, you’re always right. This place is for the Mrae, not for you. The fact that you were even allowed in is a privilege.”

“It’s just another lousy tourist attraction!”

“Nevertheless. The Mrae do not interact with humans.”

“Then that one is dangerous. It could do anything! You should get rid of it.”

“How do you suggest we do that?”

“I don’t know! Back home, if there’s a hazardous animal somewhere it shouldn’t be — ”

Animal?

Arly flinched. “Dad? I don’t think it’s an — ”

“Catch and release!” Dad said. “Catch it! Release it somewhere else in this travesty of a tourist attraction! Haven’t you ever heard of catch and release?”

A look of cold enjoyment entered Manager’s eyes. “Sir. If you absolutely insist.”

“Well hell, of course I do! That thing is a hazard. Tourists should come first here!”

Arly knew that was wrong, knew the Mrae belonged here more than she did. Even though the fear of her encounter still gripped her. “Dad! We can just leave!”

But it was too late. A tube of blue energy descended from the ceiling and dropped around Dad, cutting him off from the rest of the room. Arly shrank back, but the Manager didn’t even look in her direction.

The energy field surrounded Dad, enclosing him in a blue capsule. His face reddened even more and his mouth moved, but his shouts never made it through the field to the rest of the room.

“You want catch-and-release?” Manager said. “You shall have it.”

She blinked twice, undoubtedly activating her net connection. Arly looked away for a split second and when she looked back, Dad was gone.

Arly’s breath seemed stuck in the back of her throat. She spoke in a small voice. “Where is he?”

“I wouldn’t know,” the Manager said. “We released him. No doubt he’ll contact you if he’s in condition to do so. We’ll make sure you’re safely relocated back home, and a responsible adult is notified.”

Arly should have felt shocked, but she didn’t. She remembered the cold feel of the Mrae ghost as it twined through her legs, remembered her fear sinking into it like liquid into a sponge. Humans didn’t belong here at all.

“Here.” Manager handed Arly a printed paper slip. “Take this. You can get a free ice cream as you leave the site. And a Mrae jelly cake. Don’t forget to get your free Mrae jelly cake!”

 

The City of the Dead is a Wonder of the Galaxy! Tourists and scientists are permitted in on the understanding that nothing be done to disturb the ghosts. We do not understand them, and none of them has ever acknowledged that we are here.

Human infringements of the rules will be met with the strictest punishment.

Entry into the grounds means you understand and have agreed to these terms.

The admission fee is 10 credits at the main entrance.

Rest rooms, water and treats are available at the exits. Save some room for ice cream!

###

The Touch of Lightning

It’s been a while since I posted a short story. Here is The Touch of LIghtning, about young Kari, who is struck by mage lightning and transformed into someone with a great and terrible ability.

” Anger sparked in her mind. Kari would not be a helpless piece of a broken world. She’d be a weapon if she could. If her life were to be short, then she’d use what was left to save whomever she could.

If she had to be broken, then she would be sharp, like a shard.”

— from The Touch of Lightning, below

 

The Touch of Lightning

Anne Marie Lutz

Kari sobbed as the sorcerer’s conscriptors forced her best friend in the world toward the battered wagon.

Tulin struggled and cried out for help, but there was nothing anyone could do. The village had nothing to give the conscriptors in her place.

One of the conscriptors dragged Tulin toward the wagon by her long russet hair, while another guarded the villagers with a naked sword. Kari shifted from foot to foot, desperate, wanting to rush the wagon and pull Tulin to safety. But there would be no resistance, not from Kari or from the elders who watched from their own safe doorways. Just as there had been no resistance when Ibar had been thrown into a different wagon, or when Shaw had been tossed over a horse’s back with his hands and feet tied.

The children screamed. The baby ran after Tulin on his plump little legs, straight at the guard with the sword. Kari grabbed him, then knelt in the dirt and held the two littlest children tight against her. The same way Tulin had held Kari close when Mama had died.

As soon as the wagon rattled away, Kari let the little ones go. Half-blinded by tears, she stumbled toward the woods.

“Kari! Come back!” Papa yelled from behind her. “Come inside!”

Kari looked up and saw nothing but empty sky above the treetops. There were no mage storms anywhere near. Papa was always worried about nothing. She fled into the woods.

A little ways in there was an ancient tree whose roots rounded up from the earth to make a sort of chair. Kari curled up there and mourned, sobbing until her throat was sore.

I should have done something. Oh Tulin, poor Tulin.

When the shadows grew longer, Kari wiped her eyes and headed home. She emerged from the forest and looked up to see a single dark mage-squall that had drifted north from the storms of war raging in the mountains. She had only time to notice it before a single blinding bolt struck her in the heart.

Kari awakened to the sight of Papa’s terrified face peering at her. Something buzzed inside her head, like a swarm of bees.

“Are you all right?” Headwoman Isin’s voice was faint behind the wall of buzzing. Isin looked frightened, but that didn’t make sense, since Kari was the one struck by lightning.

Kari tried to sit up. A warm hand pushed her back onto the bedding. Words tumbled behind the screen of sound in her mind.

“Look at her neck,” Isin whispered. “Sorcery.”

Kari brushed a hand across her own face and neck. Except for the bees in her head and a tingling in her hands everything felt normal.

“You were struck by lightning,” Isin said.

Kari remembered the mage storm approaching from the south, out of an otherwise clear sky. Then she’d been hit, a blow full of light and sound that had slammed her into unconsciousness.

Something smelled like smoke.

An image of a man in worn leather armor flashed into Kari’s mind. She said, “A deserter’s coming. He has a sword. And coins to pay the tax.”

The others stared at her.

“Not making sense yet,” Papa said. “Not surprising. Thank the gods she’s alive.”

Kari sat up again, and this time no one stopped her. She didn’t know where those words had come from, but now that they were out in the open she felt they were true. As if the image had come from a sorcerer, or a god.

“No, you have to be on watch,” she insisted. “I saw him coming.”

“Hush now. How could you have seen anything?” Papa put a finger to his lips. His eyes spoke a warning.

Isin stared at Kari’s neck and one bare shoulder where the force of the strike had torn her shirt away. “Just like the mother,” Isin muttered. “Cover her, Draig, or others will see.”

The headwoman went out the door. She would go back to the village meeting, where they tried to figure a way to pay next month’s tax even though the marching armies had crushed part of the crops and taken their animals. Kari hoped the vision was true, and the deserter carried good coin. If not, more of the young people would be taken to fulfill the tax.

“What does she mean?” Kari said. “Just like the mother, she said.”

Papa’s finger traced the lines that ran like the veins of a leaf down her forearm. “Your mother had these marks. She said they marked her as sorcerer’s get. But Kari, she used that power in temper, and you know what happened.”

Kari shivered, the heat and the shock all gone. She still felt the absence of her mother’s comfort after all these years. She’d never seen the body. Papa hadn’t allowed it.

She lifted her arm and stared at the branching patterns, red against the pale skin. “Am I like Mama now?”

“Never let them hear you say so,” Papa said.

#

The deserter was a big man, scarred from battle. His beard was striped with gray. He could have been someone’s father’s father. He wore a sword in a worn scabbard that called out to Kari in a way she’d never felt before.

Deserters had been sneaking away from the battle to the south when their commanders weren’t watching. Kari didn’t blame them. The southern sky had been dark for days, warclouds roiling into a huge tower, lightning flashing between the ramparts.

The townspeople gave the deserter smoked meat and ale. They gave him as much ale as he wanted, which was a lot. When he dropped the tankard, Mikom and Lake dragged him to the guesthouse and flopped him onto the bed. They shoved his sword and his boots under the sagging pallet, stole four coins from his pouch and shut him into the near-dark.

Kari crept into the room when all was still, following an irresistible pull. She kneeled and swiped her arm back and forth under the bed. It bumped into a slippery leather thing. She clutched it and pulled it after her toward the door.

The bed creaked and a hand grabbed her ankle, stopping her.

“I ain’t too drunk to make an end to you, thief.”

Kari reached blindly for the hilt. Just as she touched it, the man kicked the sword away toward the wall. He hauled her to her feet and pulled her toward the door.

Kari dragged her feet and struggled, but in spite of his drunken state and his age the man was strong like an ox. He pulled her outside and stared down at her in the faint light of the last moon and the village watch-lights.

“By the gods, you’re one of ‘em.”

She knew what he was looking at. Her hood had dropped down to reveal the touch of the sorcerer’s lightning on her neck.

“Leave her alone.” Isin’s voice came from the corner.

“Thief tried to steal my sword from me. Good thing she didn’t touch the metal.” But the man didn’t seem angry. He looked at her wide-eyed, as if she were someone special, then turned his head and belched. “That’s some pretty crummy ale you people have here.”

“It was good enough for you two hours ago.” Isin’s voice was cold. “Let go of her.”

Several of the villagers had gathered, drawn by the disturbance. There weren’t many left, just a few old men and old women who struggled to plant and harvest now that most of the young people had been taken.

The deserter snorted. “Where’s all the rest of you? I remember coming through here years ago, was a decent-sized place.”

Isin stepped forward under the man’s chin. “How dare you? You know where everyone has gone.”

All the boldness seemed to go out of the man, and he was just a paunchy red-eyed deserter, running from the same war that had taken their best away from them. “Guess I do, then.”

Kari drifted backward while everyone’s attention was occupied. The sword should still be sitting against the wall where the deserter had kicked it. She melted back into the doorway and bent to grab the scabbard. Her hand found the hilt.

She slid the sword out of the scabbard. The pathways that had been etched into her skin by the lightning burned. The air crackled like fat in a pan.

She reached a fingertip towards the nicked metal of the blade.

“Stop!” The deserter shouted. “Don’t touch it!”

Kari jumped. She dropped the blade onto the reeds on the floor of the guesthouse. The deserter rushed to yank the sword out of her reach.

“By the gods!” he swore. “Don’t you know what you are?”

Kari looked up at him, then at the others crowding the guesthouse door.  Everyone stared at her arms, seeing the writing the lightning had left on her, as it had on Mama.

“Another one! We’re cursed!” someone screeched.

“Just like your mother.” The priest grabbed the fabric of her sleeve and pulled her into the torchlight. He was careful not to touch the marked skin. “Sorcerer’s get. We’ll be rid of you too.”

Papa was beside her, his eyes shocked in his drawn face. “We’ll go. I swear, we’ll do no harm. We’ll just go.”

“Not you. What do you think we’ll do here without a healer? With all these old folks, and everyone else run away from the war?” One of the men took hold of Papa’s arm. Someone else grabbed rope, and they tied Papa’s hands and feet, right there in front of Kari.

“Go,” Papa told her. “Now. Fast!”

“I won’t!”

The deserter grabbed her arm, fearless of the touch of her marked skin. “Come on,” he hissed. He drew the battered sword and held it ready in the faces of the villagers. “Now this sword might be notched, but it’ll still do against the likes o’you. You’ll let us go with no quibblin’. Move!”

The villagers moved. The deserter pulled Kari away from Papa. She sobbed goodbye and went.

The deserter was too bulky, or still too drunk, to run. He moved in a hurried walk, pulling Kari by the arm until she yanked away and ran ahead of him. She risked a look behind, but no one was following.

“They’ve got arrows,” she said.

“Surprised if they have the nerve,” he panted.

#

Once they were safe, the deserter brought her a skin of water from a nearby brook and began to stack branches for a shelter.

“I got a use for you,” he said. “There’s coin in it for you, and I’ll take care you don’t get caught.”

“I don’t even know your name.” Kari sat on the damp earth. The chill crept through her thin clothing. She couldn’t stop thinking about Papa.

“My mates call me — ” he flushed. “Never mind. My real name’s Jak.” He sat next to her and gulped from the waterskin. He had taken off his leather armor, and his shirt underneath was stained with sweat.

“Jak.”

“Don’t worry about your papa. They won’t harm a healer. He’s safe there, has as much food as anyone and no one goin’ to try to slit his throat. You’re the one he told to run.”

Tears filled her eyes. She sniffed and wiped them away with her sleeve. In two days she’d lost Tulin and Papa, and no way to get either of them back.

“Look. You’re not dead, and you have somethin’ special.” He reached for her arm, and after a moment she gave it to him. He pulled the sleeve back, exposing the red vines the lightning had left behind.

“Why did you yell for me not to touch your sword?”

“You can’t touch metal, don’t you know?” He traced the lightning’s marks almost reverently. “Well, you can, but–”

“But what?”

“You’re sorcerer’s get. Only sorcerers can use the lightning. That’s one of ‘em up there right now, using it to fight the war. Takes the lightning in, and lets it out. All that fire goes into wherever he wants it. It’s a powerful weapon, burns down the men like kindling.”

“I can do that?”

Jak shook his head. “My guess is, no. They study for years. But I’m still not stupid enough to let you touch my sword. I’m sure somethin’ll happen.”

Kari had been very young when her Mama had died. She still remembered the acrid smell of smoke, and the tears and the funerals. There was a blackened scar where there had once been a house, and missing people at the next harvest dinner. No one had ever told her what Mama had done.

She looked at Jak’s sword propped up against a nearby trunk. It called to her. She wanted to touch it, feel the cold metal heat under her hands. She put both hands under the fabric of her shirt.

“Good idea,” Jak said. He got up to finish building the shelter.

When the shelter was finished, she crawled in and ate the smoked meat Jak gave her. After a while she pushed the thought of rescuing Papa to the back of her mind. With Kari gone, he would be an honored healer in the village and in no need of saving. Poor Tulin was beyond Kari’s help. It was time for Kari to go her own way.

Besides, if she was anything like her Mama, Kari didn’t have long to live. She should try to put what remained of her life to good use.

“You said you had a use for me,” she said.

#

After a restless night in the damp air, Kari filled the waterskin from the brook. Jak was grumpy until he’d stretched the aches out of his joints and eaten more smoked meat.

“Follow me,” he said. “I’ll show you the mark.”

They went cross-country between old trees with little undergrowth to slow them. After noon they dropped down a slope onto a rutted wagon-road. The road curved ahead of them as it entered low hills that Kari knew would eventually grow into the southern mountains.

Their mark was headed toward the battlestorms of the south.

It was almost days-end when they saw the wagon. They scuttled up the rise at the edge of the road and crouched in low brush.

Jak grunted in satisfaction. “That’s them. They’re carrying silver, tribute from the abbey-town. I want it to grease my way outta here.”

The wagon pulled over at the side of the road was battered and old. Some of its wooden slats had fallen off. A pale face peered through one of the gaps. Someone shouted and two boys ran out of the woods and jumped into the wagon. The man who had been guarding their stop climbed back into the wagon and let his weight down onto the driver’s perch with a groan.

Something clutched at Kari’s heart. “They’re taking people to serve in the war.”

“Serve, you say.” Jak spat into the undergrowth. “I s’pose so, for as long as they’ll last. Just fodder for the front lines, is all they are.”

One driver and three guards escorted the wagon. The metal they wore pulled at her; there was a lot of it, in their weapons, the horse’s bit and oddments on the harness. The woman warrior reeked of it; when she turned to scan the road behind them, Kari saw the glint of chain mail under her coat.

The lightning in her veins heated.

She craned her neck to see, but there was no sign of Tulin. This must be a different wagon, different conscriptors, sent to reave what they could from unwilling folk, leaving villages broken and helpless behind them.

Anger sparked in her mind. Kari would not be a helpless piece of a broken world. She’d be a weapon if she could. If her life were to be short, then she’d use what was left to save whomever she could.

If she had to be broken, then she would be sharp, like a shard.

“I’ll help you get your silver,” she told Jak.

“I’ll give you a share. You can take it, run north as far as you can until you reach the city.”

Kari didn’t care about the silver. Jak could have it all. She wanted to hurt the conscriptors, punish them for taking Tulin. She wanted to save whoever was in that wagon.

She remembered the day Mama had died. The way no one would talk to her about what had happened, the pall of smoke over the village, the burn scars on the ground. She stretched her fingers, feeling the sizzle and burn of the lightning in her own veins.

I’m sure somethin’ll happen, Jak had said.

Maybe she could fight after all.

The wagon creaked forward. Kari watched how the woman and one of the men rode up front, and the remaining warrior brought up the rear. That one had metal stirrups and a sword. A saddlebag stuffed under the driver’s perch must hold Jak’s silver.

The conscriptors began to round the bend, heading away from the spot where Kari and Jak hid. The back of the wagon swung around until Kari could see in.

“Here’s the plan,” hissed Jak.

Two boys huddled against the forward end of the wagon. There was an older man, maybe a craftsman of some sort. A woman. Kari caught a glimpse of tangled russet hair, big dark eyes staring in her direction in consternation.

Tulin.

She’d thought Tulin would be gone already, taken to the battleground on the mountain. But the conscriptors must be circling through other villages, because here they were. With Tulin.

All common sense fled. Lightning licked up her arms and neck, rewriting the patterns it had left. Kari flung herself out of the concealing greenery and down the slope. Jak’s frantic call faded into the rush of sound in her mind. She ran as fast as she could at the back of the wagon, blind to all but the flashes in her vision and Tulin’s wan face.

“Hai! Stop!” The warrior guarding the rear rode at her and grabbed her by her coat.

The warrior was strong. He held her by the arm and used a booted foot to hold her far enough away that she couldn’t bite or kick him. He laughed. “What we got here?”

The woman warrior came around to the rear. “Throw her in. We can use another one.”

“No!” Tulin cried. “Leave her alone!”

The woman warrior barked a laugh. “Friends, I see. Throw her in!”

“Yes, Commander.” The warrior hefted Kari up and into the wagon. Kari rolled into the group of sweaty bodies inside. Her head banged into the wooden slats and pain arced up her neck, more earthy than the crackle of the lightning in her veins.

The tailgate swung up. A wooden bar scraped into place on the outside.

“What’s happened, Kari?” Tulin bent over her. “Why are you here?”

“I’m going to get you out of here,” Kari gasped.

“You shouldn’t have come.” A tear ran down Tulin’s cheek. Her cloak was torn, and dark bruises lined her forearms. “They’ll only hurt you, too.”

The wagon groaned into motion. Kari sat up and peered at its other occupants. They were a sorry-looking group, grim-faced and filthy from travel.

“Tulin, next stop, when the time is right, you need to run. All of you need to run. Don’t wait for me. There’s a man waiting up on that hill, I think he’ll help you.”

“You’re havin’ delusions,” mocked one of the boys. “No little girl’s going to get us out o’this.”

Kari peered over the edge of the wagon, looking at the tree-lined slope above the road. Knowing what she was looking for, it wasn’t long until she caught sight of a cloaked shape, a gray-striped beard blending into the dappled shade. Jak would get his silver too, she would make sure of it.

Something trickled down the back of her neck. She put a hand to it and drew it away smeared with blood.

“It’s not that bad,” Tulin soothed. “Head wounds bleed a lot. But what’ve you done to yourself?” Her friend’s eyes were on the red veins, the words of the lightning on Kari’s arms.

“Just go, as soon as you can.” Kari couldn’t spare more words. It was getting hard to concentrate. She could identify every jot of metal there, from the bits on the harness to the signet one of the warriors wore on a chain around his neck. The swords all smelled like blood.

The lightning burned in her veins. She welcomed it.

She would wait until they dropped the tailgate and make the diversion she needed. Then Tulin could run and be safe, and the others, too, even the nasty-tempered boy hunched in the corner.

She thought of Mama. There’d been fear in Isin’s eyes after Mama’s death. The village had smelled like ash for days, even weeks. Kari swallowed, pushing back her fear.

“Help!” she yelled. “I have to stop!”

The others in the wagon drew away from Kari. It was no wonder. She felt half-crazy, and no doubt she looked it too.

The horses plodded on for another half-mile before her cries got the party to stop. The rear guard banged on the tailgate. “Shut up in there!”

“I need out,” Kari said.

“Ya ain’t getting out.”

“What’s going on?” The Commander stared from horseback at the miserable group inside the wagon. The third warrior joined them too, black-bearded and fierce-looking.

“Gonna be sick,” Kari said. “I need out.”

The woman’s shrewd eyes narrowed. “What’s that on your neck?”

“Blood,” Kari said. “Let me out!”

“It’s not blood.” The commander’s head came up sharply. “Gods! That’s the lightning’s mark. You, Hal, get the tail open now!”

The black-bearded warrior jumped. “What?”

“Now! Let the little monster go!” The Commander shoved the warrior aside. She reached from horseback down to the wooden latch.

“Run,” Kari whispered to Tulin.

Tulin nodded. She looked sad. But she pulled her legs under her, ready to spring up and go.

Kari flung herself at the Commander, half-fell over the dropping tailgate and grabbed onto the woman’s chainmail with both hands. Something surged inside her.

The lightning ran from Kari’s chest, down her arms and into the hands that clutched the metal.

Someone shouted from the edge of the forest, a man’s voice — Jak, yelling. Feet pounded as the wagon emptied fast, conscriptees swarming over the tailgate in a mess of arms and legs.

The Commander screamed. Her horse echoed her scream and dropped to the road, the Commander pinned beneath the saddle in helpless pain. Kari held on as she was pulled on top of the Commander, feeling lightning explode through the metal – the mail, the sword, the harness – and arc to the second warrior’s body.

The air around her crackled and burned. Kari’s body seized, a living carrier to sorcerer’s lightning.

More energy rolled through her, arced from sword to sword. The captives were gone, safe. Tulin was safe. The wagon’s driver had followed them into the woods. Jak would take care of him.

She tasted metal on her tongue. Her hands reached for more. Two had fallen but there was another warrior, the black-bearded one, deluded into trying to come to the rescue. As his sword came down she reached for the naked blade, welcoming it. Even exulting in it.

Maybe this was how Mama had felt when she died. It was all worth it, every bit of it, to save Tulin.

When they had torn her world apart, they hadn’t counted on Kari.

The world exploded into fire.

END

Bradzar and the Dragon

Bradzar and the Dragon 

by Anne Marie Lutz

Bradzar Authentine made his way up the boulder-strewn path to the dragon’s lair.

He was no longer a young man, as he’d been the last time he’d come this way. Then, he’d trembled with fear as he inched past sections of rock that glowed red with the heat of the dragon’s flame. Now he also trembled, but this time it was all in his legs, unused to the strain of the climb. And the rocks were cold enough on this winter’s day that Bradzar could have plopped a couple of small ones in his water bottle to keep it chilled.

There was no sign of Paissen the Feared. In fact, there had been no sign of the dragon for a long time now.

Bradzar had been nominated by the townspeople to go up and see what was going on. Nominated in lieu of harsher punishment, rather — the townspeople hadn’t taken kindly to Bradzar’s latest money-making scheme. These people had no respect for a man with a bit of entrepreneurial spirit. Besides, anyone who gave out their information so easily online deserved to be fleeced.

Bradzar reached the entrance to the cave that led into the black interior of the mountain. A few bones were strewn around the outside of the hole, surely very old, Bradzar hoped.

He turned and looked over the edge of the cliff. Far below, people stood at the foot of the trail and waited for Bradzar’s report. An angry buzzing sound grew louder as a drone ascended up the cliffside and hovered over him. That was the news crew’s drone, recording Bradzar’s every move.

Bradzar sighed. He stretched the ache out of his legs, set his shoulders and crept into the fissure in the mountainside that led to the lair of Paissen the Pitiless. He inched along the tunnel, then peered around the corner into the cavern.

Last time he had come this way, a foolish youth on a dare, the very walls of the mountain had pulsed red with heat. Now, an oil lamp hung on a golden chain from the ceiling, casting a circle of wan light that didn’t reach to the far edges of the cavern. It shone dully off heaps of gold and gems.

The dragon was curled on his hoard, the arch of his back curving up toward the roof, his wings tucked tight against his green-scaled flanks. He opened one huge yellow eye. “Back again, are you?”

Bradzar’s heart skipped a beat. Paissen remembered him? It had been forty years or more. What was he to say to the monster now: We noticed you don’t come around to see us much anymore?

Paissen the Terrible stirred and resettled himself on his hoard. As he moved, there was a crackling, rustling sound Bradzar didn’t recognize.

“Um, we haven’t seen you for a long time.”

“No.”

“You aren’t flying over the town breathing flame down at us anymore.”

“That’s right. Doctor’s orders.”

“Doctors orders?”

“So to speak.” Paissen lifted his huge head, opened both baleful eyes and stared. The stink of his breath enveloped Bradzar. Old smoke, sulfur, and … nacho cheese?

“I’m sorry,” Bradzar said. “We missed you singeing the roof shingles off the town hall. And there hasn’t been a stink of brimstone in the air since forever.”

“You should be overjoyed,” Paissen the Death from Above said. He lay his huge head back down on his front legs, like a dog.

“Well, we’re not. Tourism revenue is down one hundred percent. Tourists want to see the dragon breathing fire, scaring the crap out of them. Without you there’s not much to bring them to our little village. All the hotels and restaurants are empty. People are unemployed. The mayor is at her wits’ end.”

Paissen’s tail swung back and forth. “I’m very old, you know. More than a thousand years. A disease of my kind has afflicted me. I have high blood pressure now.”

“High — ”

Paissen breathed out a puff of angry smoke. “No need to ridicule me for it. You try manufacturing flame in your body for years, flying around all the time in a rage of destruction, and see how it affects you.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Bradzar said. “So you can’t breathe fire anymore, or you won’t?”

“One of my ancestors terrorized his community, breathing a raging inferno down on them yearly. He ignored the signs of the plague of our kind. He kept going, slaying and destroying, until one day he exploded, raining fire and ash down on Stolit until the town was destroyed and so was he.”

“I thought a meteor destroyed Stolit.”

“No, it was a dragon. One who ignored the inevitabilities of age and kept going until he went out in a blaze of annihilation.”

“Well, we don’t want that.” Bradzar thought a moment. He’d read up a little on hypertension lately, his doctor having warned him he was courting an early death if he didn’t change his habits. “Have you tried meditation? Maybe changing your diet?”

Paissen glared.

“I understand that green vegetables and lots of unprocessed grains can help.”

Paissen the Disastrous snorted in annoyance. “Dragons eat meat.”

Bradzar sighed. He looked around for a place to sit as he considered the problem. There was a distinct possibility he would have to go back down the mountain and tell the mayor and the council that the village’s glory days were over.

Paissen stirred, and Bradzar heard that crinkling sound again.

He strolled around to the side of the cavern so he could see what was making the noise. His eyes opened wide.

A huge drift of packaging lay heaped behind Paissen, rivaling the dragon’s hoard in size. The bags were brightly colored, red and yellow and silver in the low light, blaring out names like CRISPY CHIPS! or CHEEZ-FILLED NUGGETS or YUM! CRUNCHY COOKIES. All the bags appeared to be empty.

“You stinkin’ idiot!” Bradzar exclaimed. “Dragons eat meat, do they?”

Paissen the Horrible’s massive head lifted, and a warning flame scorched the air. “How dare you?”

“Look at all this junk food!” Bradzar strode into the pile of trash. Crinkling bags crushed beneath his feet, wafted around his legs. The aroma of stale toasted corn and fake sugar drifted to his nose. “Ugh! Why?”

“I may take only so many cows per year,” Paissen the Slayer said. “It’s not enough for a dragon of my size and strength.”

“The news has been reporting multiple accidents on the cliff road, mostly trucks supplying our convenience stores. I bet that’s all you, trying to feed your habit. Why?”

Paissen rose to his haunches, looming in all his terrible magnificence in the gloom of his lair. His scales scraped against the rock. Bradzar remembered exactly whom he was berating: the Merciless, the Ancient, the Destroyer from Above, who had terrorized the village since time immemorial. Only in recent years, as time and technology marched on, had they grown to value Paissen, who brought wide-eyed tourists to town to spend their currency. But they had not succeeded in taming him.

“Do you think a measly cow a month is enough to maintain my strength? It’s barely enough to sate my appetite. And tainted, always, with the stink of antibiotics and hormones. And if I stray from our agreement and take more than I am allotted? Or even a — ” Paissen licked his lips – “A plump middle-aged man like yourself, or a virgin as in the days when I was young?”

“The mayor wouldn’t stand for it.” Bradzar considered. “Well, neither would I. And we’d be after you with tanks and missiles before you could say Paissen the Dead.”

“Indeed.” Paissen curled back down and away from Bradzar. A depressed dragon if Bradzar had ever seen one, which he supposed he had not, but the signs were all there.

“We miss you,” Bradzar said. “The town is as empty as a church ten minutes after service is over.”

“I have been thinking about leaving this area,” Paissen said. “It will be hard, as I have many fond memories of breathing my fire upon your village.”

“No, no.” Bradzar thought. “You know all this junk food is what’s giving you high blood pressure?”

“It is a disease of my kind.”

“Maybe, but you’re making it worse. Look at all the salt in this stuff. If you laid off the chips and pretzels you could be back in action in a few weeks.”

“Do you think so?”

“Yes, I do! And more exercise is what you need, not just lying around mooning over your hoard all the time.”

“I would not like to go out like Zinaroth the Feared.”

Bradzar was almost afraid to ask.

Paissen slanted a look at him. “Zinaroth melted into a molten chasm and sunk into the earth, destroying his lair and everything within a ten mile radius.”

“Oh.” Bradzar was at a loss. “My condolences.”

“I must eat,” Paissen rumbled. “If not these foods that are making me ill, then good food. Meat. Or I must leave this place.”

“Look, I’m sure we can come to an agreement. You should have told us. Communication is key! We can raise some food for you. In fact the mayor would be happy to, if we can stoke our tourism again.”

“None of this antibiotic-tainted meat. No starveling cows that sate me for but a day. And the pigs! Someone left me a crate of pork tenderloins, an abomination! I need meat, on the hoof, fat and squealing.”

“Oh, lord.” Bradzar paced. “It will be a fight with the Council. Two of the representatives are vegan.”

Paissen’s head snaked around. One huge yellow eye regarded Bradzar. A low rumble began to build in the dragon’s throat. “You look very plump, and I am sure you would squeal.”

“Aaah, aaah, no! I know they’ll do it, to keep your mighty presence with us, O Paissen the Ancient!” Bradzar stumbled backward, tripped over a heap of gold bars, and fell on his rear end. “But you must let me go to tell them about our conversation!”

Paissen regarded him. “You have not aged well.”

“You’re one to talk, lying here moping and eating junk food.” Bradzar pushed back to his feet. “Do we have a deal?”

“Come back to me with terms, and then we will make a deal,” Paissen the Ravenous said. “I need real meat, on the hoof, as in the days of old. Once a month is insufficient. An occasional virgin — ”

“No!”

“Your Mayor looks pleasantly fat. A sign of good faith, perhaps?”

“No people! That’s off the table. Totally!” Bradzar wiped sweat from his forehead. Dragons were known to be shrewd and wily. He didn’t want to accidentally promise Paissen one of the villagers.

“We will talk, then.”

“No more salty snacks! Burn all that packaging, will you? And fly around to see us now and then, get the blood moving, it will be good for you!”

“I hear tell of a nice marbled beef from the far East.” Now Paissen was looking dreamy.

Kobe beef? “We can’t afford it. Now listen, you must improve your health. We want you around for a long time. So, we’ll get you more natural meat and you lay off the junk food. Exercise! Lots of it. And would it really kill you to eat a vegetable?”

Paissen the Perilous harrumphed. “I suppose I could eat a potato.”

“Good, that’s good. Potassium!” Bradzar envisioned the vegan members of Council sneaking kale and chia seeds into Paissen’s diet. “How about some meditation? I can send up a friend of mine to guide –”

Flame seared the air too close for comfort, making Bradzar cough. “Okay, okay! No meditation! Even though it will reduce your blood press –”

Another blast of fire, this one closer. Bradzar turned and scrambled for the exit, his skin tingling from the heat. His throat burned from breathing in the dry, heated air. Behind him as he ran for the exit, Paissen chuckled, a deep, resonant, frightening sound.

Bradzar ran out of the lair into the gray winter’s light. He slipped down the mountain path, catching himself often with shaking hands, ignoring the cuts and scrapes he was accumulating.

Far below, the observers from the village waved and chattered excitedly. The camera drone buzzed over Bradzar’s head as he descended the mountain path at speed. This would do nothing for his dignity, that was for sure. But at least he’d completed the quest! And that meant there would be no prosecution for his last money-making scheme.

After a few details were negotiated, Bradzar would be famous as the man who’d rescued the village’s wrecked tourist economy. Maybe he would be the next mayor! Hell, maybe he could finagle a position as dragon-liaison, and they’d set him up in style for the rest of his life.

Bradzar reached the knot of observers. He grinned at the mayor’s anxious inquiry. Just as he began to reassure her, a roar blasted through the crisp mountain air. A massive shape blotted out the sun as Paissen the Scourge of Men spread his wings and swept down from the heights toward the village.

The Mayor and the assembled observers cheered. The military defense system in the village would be on alert, but Bradzar knew there would be no need for them to take action. Paissen would do no harm today.

The dark shape drifted here and there on the winds, a familiar sight in the village for a thousand years. The news crew filmed it all, a reporter grinning as she reported the news that Paissen the Ancient was back, and all was as it should be.

 

(Featured “flame” image: Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash)

Also: Thanks to Libby Lutz for mentioning the idea of a dragon with high blood pressure!)

Bards and Sages Reader’s Choice Awards

Bards and Sages Quarterly has opened voting for their annual Reader’s Choice awards, choosing a reader favorite from each issue. Bards and Sages publishes high-quality short speculative fiction stories.

My story, “The Stories on their Faces”, is one of 20 stories eligible for the April 2018 issue. If you’ve read the stories, please consider casting a vote! One ballot per person, which means you’ll have to be signed in to a Google account to vote. (Bards and Sages is not collecting any info except for assuring that there is only one vote per login.)

You can also vote for stories in the other 2018 issues. Here’s a link to the Amazon page for the Kindle edition.

 

“The Stories on their Faces”

 

 

My short story, “The Stories on their Faces”, has been published in the April 2018 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly.

In this story Malla, an older woman who is leader of her people, tries to save them by breaking one of their oldest customs — a tradition that is an integral part of who her people are. The story is about her leadership, and the consequences she must face as she tries to protect them from a frightening future.

Here is a link to Bards and Sages Quarterly on Amazon. 

Mrs Claus, MBA

I was going to wait a couple of weeks to publish this — but I can’t wait! 🙂

Here’s a new short story for Christmas, all about how Mrs Claus manages her side of the family business. (about 2000 words)

Mrs Claus, MBA

by Anne Marie Lutz

Ada Claus dropped her briefcase on the floor and went to warm her hands at the crackling fire. No matter the season, there was always a fire in the hearth here at home. She kicked off her pumps and walked barefoot through the soft carpet towards the bedroom.

It had been a long day. She’d gotten special permission to hop a flight into the military airport at Alert, the closest airport to home. Santa had sent Rudolph and the sleigh to bring her the rest of the way. Now Ada was exhausted from travel. It had been worth it though, to attend the seminar on Innovation in the 21st Century at her alma mater. And to share a few drinks and laughs with her old friends from MBA school.

As she was about to enter the bedroom, she froze. There was something new on the desk in the corner of the den. Santa’s snow globe collection had been replaced by a desktop computer, candy-cane screensaver running as if someone had just left it. The whole setup sparkled with the telltale glitter of conventional electronics running on the magical North Pole power source.

She wiggled the mouse, and the screen saver vanished to show what looked, at first glance, like a spreadsheet. But the screen scrolled up, data updating from some source Ada didn’t recognize. It had columns of names, and dates. Country of residence. A tally of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice.

The screen recorded each deed in a glowing font. Jacob stole his sister’s doll and put it in the dog house. Galina drew on Alexei with permanent marker. But, Gabriela helped her papa bring in firewood. Hasina finished her homework before dinner.

For advanced analysis by Santa later, there were notes about extenuating circumstances. Altan stole food from the school kitchen. But he had no food for dinner at home. Ella hit her sister. She was angry because mama said she couldn’t go to her friend’s birthday party. Ki trespassed in his father’s pottery studio, and broke a valuable piece intended for a client. But, his dream was to learn to craft the beautiful pots, and it had been an accident.

Troubled, Ada turned away. The machine kept scrolling, ticking, calculating, surveilling.

She unpacked and went to bed without eating any dinner. The computer hummed in the den.

Santa eventually tiptoed in, trying not to wake her, but he was a big man and there was no sleeping through him getting into a comfortable position in the antique sleigh bed. She hugged him, glad to see him even though her mind was troubled. He hugged her back and gave her a kiss, and she fell asleep curled into him beneath the pile of bright quilts.

#

Ada never got tired of making cookies. So the next morning, breakfast was eggs, fruit, and gingerbread cookies.

As soon as Santa put down his coffee, she set aside her tablet showing the morning business headlines and said: “Now Santa, what have you done?”

“Noticed, did you? It’s a pretty cool setup. I hired a tech wizard to program it for us!”

Ada sighed.

Santa recognized that sigh, clearly. “But I thought you’d like this! You’re always trying to improve our processes around here. You were the one who wanted me to use that fancy software to analyze our Christmas route!”

“That was so you’d get done in time, dear. Remember how those kids almost caught you in Seattle? And the early-morning television news crew in Baja California?”

“The thing is,” Santa said, “It worked. We get done earlier now. Rudolph and the other reindeer haven’t been so exhausted. And we haven’t ended up on the 6 am morning traffic report since then, either! You were right. You’re a genius!”

Ada smiled. “Thank you, dear.”

He stepped around the little table and leaned down to give her a hug. “So I thought I’d surprise you by automating our list-keeping process.”

Ada frowned. “Tell me about it.”

He sat back down. “Well, the tech wizard – his name’s Bill – told me about some cool applications for internet-connected technology. And I thought, you know how I sit by the fire every night and make my List? The one that tells me if the boys and girls have been naughty or nice all year? It takes a long time, and I don’t dare miss anyone. Why can’t the internet do it?”

“I’m not sure how the internet can do that.”

“It’s easy! Bill won’t tell me the details – says it’s proprietary – but he’s hooked up this system to our North Pole magic power source. It keeps a running total of what’s going on. And then adds it up and analyzes it, so by Christmas I’ll know exactly who’s been good and who’s been naughty! It’s such a time-saver.”

“What do you think you’ll do with all that free time?”

“Eat more of your gingerbread cookies, dear. Or help out with the toy trains.” He wiggled his fingers as if longing to get to work on some hands-on toymaking. “I’ve got some great ideas for those trains. Or even a self-driving toy car, maybe!”

#

Ada read the business news, as she did every day. After she made some changes in their investments, Ada sat down to design another Christmas tree. They pretty much had a tree up all year round; this was Christmastown after all. Her favorite was the arty one decorated with living birds of paradise, but that one only lasted a short time of course before the decorations flew away. Right now she was working on an eight-foot tree that would be sculpted entirely from peppermint candy.

The new computer hummed and glowed in the corner of the den. It was supposed to be unobtrusive, but Ada couldn’t help but think it was watching her. Just as somehow, it was watching all the boys and girls in the world and transmitting back information about whether they’d been good or bad that day.

“Santa, who is watching all those children to get that information?” Ada asked that night as they sat in front of the fire. Ada was analyzing production input spreadsheets for toymaking, and Santa, who would usually be working on his list, was eating potato chips out of the bag and scrolling through the television guide discontentedly.

“What? I don’t know.”

“How do you decide if the children are naughty or nice? You don’t watch everything they do.”

“Of course not. I’d have to watch all day, every day. Even North Pole magic wouldn’t allow me to do that. I’d be worn down to a sliver of myself in no time.” He patted his belly.

“Then, how do you know?”

“I just … do. It’s part of being Santa, don’t you know.” He stroked his long white beard and frowned. “But it’s possible I miss things.”

She fixed him with a determined stare. “I don’t like it.”

“Bill says it’s catching everything. They can’t filch a peanut from a bowl without the new machine recording it.” He looked troubled.

Ada was silent for a moment, letting him think. Santa was a little slow sometimes, but good at heart. It was one reason she’d married him, all that long time ago.

“But I thought you were in favor of progress,” he burst out. “You’re a businesswoman. You wanted to optimize our route, and it worked! And you wanted the elves to cross-train on making different kinds of toys, and — ”

“They were getting so bored, poor dears. They seem much happier now, and the toys seem more magical, somehow, don’t they?”

“And you pointed out the reindeer could double-check the deliveries while they were waiting. On a tablet!”

“Well, we don’t want any more mistakes like the one three years ago, when we gave little Sally a dolly instead of a doll.”

“I was tired,” Santa mumbled, flushing with embarrassment.

“And you had every right to be,” Ada said. “We fixed the problem, and now she has both! It’s just that I see problems with accomplishing our mission statement, and I want to make us more efficient. But this machine — ”

“It’s not right, is it?”

She shook her head.

“But it’s better than I am!”

“Is it? Love, what do you do with the List you make?”

“You know that.”

“Yes, but tell me.” She bit into a gingerbread cookie from the plate on the side table. It was sweet and soft, one of her better efforts.

“It’s the way I keep track of who’s naughty and who’s nice.”

“Ummm-hmmm.”

“It’s a lot of work, you know.”

“I know. You work on it most evenings.”

“It’s not like I’m Odin,” he said. “He had Huginn and Muninn. No effort there. They just flew out – and they flew back. Told him everything. No need for pen and paper at all!”

“Would you like a chocolate chip cookie? I think there are some in the kitchen. Maybe a beer?”

Santa smiled. “Beer does go well with your chocolate chip cookies, Ada.”

She came back from the kitchen with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and two frosty mugs, foam rising over the rim.

“Let me ask again, Santa. What do you do with all that information?”

“Bill says it’s mission-critical! It tells me who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.”

She smiled at the answer that was not really an answer. “You don’t use it.”

“I do!” He hushed her.

“Fiddlesticks! Who’s going to know? It’s not like you’re Sinterklaas, after all.”

“That bastard!” Santa glowered. “With his candy for good children and broom to spank the bad ones. Like there are any bad children anyway!”

“I think you have it!” Ada beamed at her husband.

“What?”

“Well, what do you do with the List? The one you spend most evenings working on.”

“I keep track of who’s nice and who’s naughty, of course! It’s in the job description.”

“And what do you do with that information?”

“I use it … on Christmas Eve?”

“Ach, no you don’t. You’ve never given a child a lump of coal or a spanking in your life.”

He flushed again. “Well, don’t let anyone else find out.”

“Why not? Why don’t you give the bad children a lump of coal?”

Santa got to his feet and waved his arms. “Because there are no bad children! Not one who’s bad at heart. Not one who deserves a lump of coal. Or a spanking. Or to be — ” He glowered – “Taken away to Spain by Zwarte Piet. What a thing!”

“Yes,” Ada said. “Spain is all very well. I’ve enjoyed our deliveries there, a beautiful country. But not if you’d been stolen from your home and taken there, I should think.”

She sipped her beer. “So if there are no bad children, why watch them and monitor them at all?” She held out a screen print, showing that Alice had given her cookie to her baby brother but Jenn in Norway had stolen a few kroner from her mother’s purse.

“You’re saying I don’t need the computer,” Santa said.

“That’s right.”

“But I don’t want to go back to sitting here making the List every night. There’s a whole world out there! I could help with the toy trains. I could write a novel – the stories I could tell, Ada! We could take a vacation somewhere warm. We never go anywhere warmer than North Dakota, except on the big night.”

“So don’t bother,” Ada said.

“At all?”

“At all.”

Santa sat there for a few moments, sipping his beer. The foam sparkled on the ends of his mustache. “That MBA has given you some odd ideas,” he finally said.

“What? The list process takes up lots of time, and you don’t use it. Because as you said, there are no bad children. So, let’s go to Hawaii instead. I’ve always wanted to.”

“Okay then. I’ll tell Bill in the morning.”

“And please, delete all those awful surveillance files.”

“Very well. Now come here, Ada. Put down those spreadsheets and come sit with me a while?” He patted the space beside him in the big easy chair, with the fire crackling cozily at his feet.

She smiled at him. And she did.

The End

Merry Christmas!