Here We Be Dragons • Short Story

What tale do you tell when magic is woven from the fabric of stories and the fate of humanity is tied into your spell? 5,700 words / 21 minute read


Khef sat in station atop the tower at the South-West corner of the castle’s hex wall, watching over the battlefield from the best vantage. Watching him in turn were five Listeners in the last year of their training. Khef felt the heavy chill in the air grow tighter as the setting sun touched the mountains’ tops and he gazed for a brief moment to the West. As the Sustainer closest to the Sun-Queen, he bore the additional responsibility for her within his audience.

Come summer solstice – if there would be a summer for humans again after this night – his Listeners would become devoted and would graduate as spell-casters. They would be Weavers, or perhaps a Sustainer like himself. Far more likely Weavers since those that wove spells got all of the admiration. They could enthrall an audience not only with the story itself but also with the use of their elements, incantations, runes and the occasional sacrifice.

Many Sustainers called the accoutrements mere crutches but in secret they all envied the Weavers’ ability to use more than their words alone. But ‘once devoted, one’s excluded,’ as the spell-casters said. For never shall a Weaver sustain a spell and never shall a Sustainer weave one.

Beyond the faces of his audience – drawn taught with expectation, and no small fear – he could see the bodies of the first arising demons glowing in the fading light. For centuries the demons had been repelled by Varrod’s Castle at the Mountain-King’s Slumber, but now … best not to think of such outcomes. To Khef, the distant red dots looked like the sparks from his bedchamber’s hearth when he stirred the coals in the morning.

That was not a good thought. Tying the enemies to his home with that simile. His mind was influenced by the fear, too. He would have to reign it in lest his magic loose from his control, especially now that the demons had grown wise to human magic.

Khef looked to the Eastern sky and saw a twinkling star appear. Her name was Sylvas, first to defy the Moon-Queen. The Moon-Queen would not be in audience tonight; the demons had chosen the black moon night closest to mid-winter for their assault. The weakest night for human magic. Only daytime would have been worse. But Janos the Gatherer had been given promise by the Sun-Queen that no demon should walk the land until her lips touched her lover’s and she settled into his bed for the night.

Khef considered his options and decided he did not have many. Tonight required a rare story. Truly, there was only one story for him to tell on a night such as this. One story, but within it, many.

He looked back and down into the keep at the subjects of the Weavers’ spell. Their spell had bound and pulled with greater strength than even they had expected; Khef could feel it surging up from all points of the universe into the castle. The power of it, though, was diluted by the great area and vast number of subjects it held within its enchantment.

The soldiers were there, the whole compliment of the castle, plus every able-bodied man within two-days’ ride. Too few soldiers and too many farmers. Many had mere leather aprons for armor and pitchforks for weapons. But the spell was strong; it would be enough. It would have to be enough. Already the aprons had developed scales and some pitchforks had curved like claws.

The Weavers had told three tales together for the spell. It was an impressive feat requiring the entire day to tell and the whole of the castle as audience. The size of the effect, even weakened as it was, necessitated the multiple Weavers and the Weavers had used the size of the crowd to full effect, making the tales dense with High Speech. But little thought was given to the five Sustainers who had to hold the weaving through the night.

The first tale was of Gheck, the man born of spider and the first Weaver, learning to wield magic. It was a good story, not often told, and provided great power to the rest of the spell, especially with the larger audience. The second tale was of Duille, he who became the first dragon, and how he slew Nolash the Ogre. That was a battle story. And the third tale was new.

It was nearly unthinkable to have multiple Weavers try to tell a new story, especially a Prophesy, but such was the challenge they faced. It was a good tale – not the best, and clumsy in places – but it told of the valor of soldiers and farmers defending their homeland in the face of an army of demons. Perhaps the Weavers could have gone lighter on the gore and left more than a few alive at the end. But if they won tonight the tale would likely become the basis of a new Legend and the more accuracy in the first telling the better for future Weavers. If they won tonight.

Khef took a sip of wine and cleared his throat. Time for him to begin his story. The Sun-Queen was three-quarters to sleep now. Khef touched three fingers to his temple then raised them to her; in his mind he wished her pleasant dreams.

“This battle reminds me of another,” Khef began. “One so long ago and spoken of so rarely the tale of it has been lost but for a very few.”

The Listeners sat straighter and leaned toward him. A very rare story was a special gift.

“Today we heard the tale of Duille felling Nolash the Ogre. It was a good tale. And many times have we heard of how Duille sacrificed himself to send the Mountain-King to his slumber.” Many times indeed; that story was told at every feast.

As the words became speech, Khef felt the lines of power burrow and twist, reaching out from the heavy spell and into his body. He felt the Sustainers at the other five points of the hex connect with him. He did not know their stories and they did not know his. But he would know as long as they held.

“As you know, Duille did not always fight alone. Many times he raised armies against his enemies. Once, when Oppo tricked the Earth-Prince into traveling to the sky to consort with Sylvas, the shadows became unbound and lifted from their prison against the ground and the trees and the walls. They raged against the humans who walked with only their feet upon the ground and took up arms against them.”

As the sunset became complete, darkness and a hush settled over the castle. Khef heard the rustling of the soldiers and farmers down below. The only shadows that remained were cast from the tower fires and from the torches carried by the warriors. The shadows were shapeless and disordered and flickered into existence and then gone again; they were safe for this tale.

“Our story begins when the Mountain-King and Duille were still allies, before the cataclysm and when humans had free roam of the southern continent. It was mid-winter, like tonight, and the Mountain-King was holding a feast for his son the Earth-Prince and all who lived in the Prince’s domain.”

As the magic strengthened within him, Khef settled into the tale.


On that long-ago mid-winter’s night, each guest was invited by name and had an appointed seat at the table. Oppo, having been barred from the heavens by his half-brother Lopin, walked the earth but was not born of it and had not been accepted into it. So he arrived at the Mountain-King’s feast hall without invitation and begged for a place at the table.

‘Please, have mercy on me,’ Oppo pleaded, ‘I am without home and without family and you have taken all of the food on earth for your feast tonight. If I may not come in I shall go hungry.’

But each seat was taken and the hall had room for no other. But in his magnanimity and generosity, the Earth-Prince saw the plight of poor Oppo and rose from his place at the table and brought his bowl outside to share with the homeless deity.

‘Oh, thank you, most noble among the gods,’ Oppo said as he shared the Earth-Prince’s sup. ‘If only I had some measure to repay you for your kindness.’

‘Nonsense,’ boomed the great Earth-Price. ‘I am the bounty and I provide for all in my domain.’

‘Yes,’ replied Oppo. ‘But you do so alone. You have taken no wife. And there are many who would be your companion.’

Oppo saw a pain born of loneliness darken the god’s face.

‘I can take none from my domain,’ the Earth-Prince answered. ‘I shall not have favorites among my charges. This I am sworn to.’

‘But there are other domains than these,’ Oppo countered. ‘And there is one in the heavens who has spoken your name in fondness.’

‘But I am also sworn never to leave here lest those of the earth realm be released into the heavens.’

‘Perhaps,’ Oppo offered, ‘if I provide you the name of the celestial beauty who speaks of you, and you desire to meet with her, I could take your place just for a little while and hold down the creatures of the earth for you.’

The Earth-Prince considered and was eventually swayed by Oppo’s description of the extraordinary beauty of the mysterious celestial and at dawn the Earth-Prince agreed to depart for the heavens and leave Oppo in his place.

Oppo had named as the suitor Sylvas, the first star of the evening. He knew she would not appear for the duration of the day and so the Earth-Prince would not return until after nightfall.

Oppo settled into the Earth-Prince’s station and pulled all of the creatures of the earth to him, lest they should ascend to the heavens. But he left the shadows of men untouched and they rose up, freed from their prison against the earth, and tore from the feet they had been bonded to. The shadows gathered in the Gallagan Plain and forged weapons from the sharp shadows cast by the tall grasses. Thus armed, they marched against the city of Lun in the kingdom of Yul which the humans called home.

Duille and Gheck, seeking to understand the disappearance of the shadows, were first to see the army approaching their lands. Duille gave word to summon the able-bodied and Gheck privately told the story of the birth of the first fire-lizard from the arm-bone of Anlu, and thus once again transformed Duille into a dragon.

Duille lead his army out from Lun and into the plains of Yul to face the walking shadows. The shadows, having no bodies, were unharmed by the men’s weapons but the shadows’ touch, carrying darkness, drew blood and shattered bones. Only Duille, charged with magic, could harm them.

Duille called retreat and fled back into the city. After conference with the warrior, Gheck called forth all Weavers under him and recounted to them the story of the birth of the first lizard and with it the secret of dragon transformation.


Khef paused. The story had connected well with the spell and his audience had been transfixed and held in silence. At his pause the sounds of the battle emerged onto their tower. The demons bellowed like elephants and screeched like crows. The warriors screamed as they died.

Khef looked again to the East. Six glowing figures were climbing the stone. There were perhaps more that he could not see. Soon the South-East tower would be lost.

Khef sipped wine and gathered his words. “To understand what happened next, you must know the story Gheck told to his Weavers.” He tossed the remains of his wine into the fire and it leaped high and roared like a dragon’s breath.

As if in response, the fires at the other towers and the torches of the soldiers leapt high and illuminated the castle and reflected back from the low, dark clouds with shimmering red and yellow light. A roar from human throats rose above the demons’ howls and echoed back from the mountains.

Khef listened, nodded, then resumed his tale.


As Gheck surveyed the dozen men and women Weavers seated on the stone floor before his throne, he considered the army of shadows out upon the plain. He touched the top of his head then extended his hand forward, and thus began his tale.

‘We sit in Yul, the kingdom of humans,’ he began. ‘This kingdom seems so vast, a month’s hard ride from East to West and two months’ from South to North. It is safe travels across all of the lands, among the cities and towns and camps. The rivers are pure and the fields are fertile. The forests sing with birds and are rich with game.’

Gheck looked at each Weaver in turn until they nodded at him to continue.

‘But it was not always so,’ he continued. ‘The whole of this continent was once the domain of wicked creatures, things that would eat a man alive or worse.’

Several Weavers shuddered at the thought.

‘Duille, in his greatness, sought to carve a space of land devoid of the evils that walk and the evils that fly and the evils that swim and crawl and burrow.’

Gheck felt the story begin to coalesce and touch each of his audience. He spoke on.


To accomplish his mission, Duille gathered warriors to his side and rode to the center of the Gallagan Plain. He took his spear, made from the rib-bone of the hyena Ranaloth, and struck it into the earth. When it struck, it screamed and the sound echoed far out and back again.

“Wherever this sounds has reached,” Duille cried, “shall belong to the humans! Let any who oppose this proclamation come forth and war with us!”

And the evils of the land and the sky and the water and the earth heard him and charged upon his warriors but they were prepared and closed ranks, touching their shields as of the plates of a turtle as Duille had commanded. As their shields touched Duille chanted the name of Ankillion, the island that swam, and the first verse from the Book of Insubstantiation written in the High Speech.

Kein Ankillion, astra olek unu talep eng gne pelat unu kelo artas,’ he chanted.

When the words stopped, the warriors within the dome silently repeated the incantation. Then, as the shields touched, magic flowed and the shields fused into an impenetrable dome like the shell of a great turtle, leaving the warriors vulnerable from only the ground beneath their feet.


Gheck watched the mouths of his Listeners silently repeat the words. Such was the power of incantations.

‘Be aware of yourselves,’ he told them. ‘Know that you have just participated in an incantation. When you use the words of the High Speech, all those who hear will echo you.’


Khef suppressed a chuckle as his own Listeners mouthed the same words, unaware of their actions despite having just been told the method of incantations.

He lifted the wine bottle and refilled his cup and checked on the other Sustainers. The South-East tower was lost and the edge of the Weaver’s spell near it was in taters. Khef wished a peaceful rest to Rulib, the Sustainer of the South-East tower.

As he drank, he allowed the sounds of the battle to once again flow onto his tower. The howls and screeches and roars and moans sounded as before but now a new, high-pitched cracking rose from the battle. It was as if blade or claw or tooth struck upon impenetrable stone.

Khef sipped again, and again returned to his tale.


Gheck said to his Weavers, ‘You have in this moment participated in invoking the defense of Ankillion’s shell, and have aided our warriors against the shadows and given them brief respite from attack. But it is not enough. To defeat them we will need more powerful magic. Fortunately, the power of Ankillion’s shell will give us time to complete the tale.’

And so Gheck continued his story.


Outside the shell, the warriors could hear the rage of the vile creatures as they clawed and scratched and bit into the shields to no avail. And in their rage, the creatures turned on each other, each desperate to kill something, anything. Only the burrowing things could get under the dome and as each one broke through the skin of the earth to emerge into the warriors’ sanctuary, Duille took his rib-bone spear and killed them.

After many days and nights, the burrowing creatures stopped emerging and the sounds outside the shell grew quiet.

Duille positioned his spear behind one shield and ordered that it alone be moved. As soon as he saw the Sun-Queen’s light, he stabbed out, in case there was a lone survivor. But there was nothing there.

Cautiously, the warriors moved one shield at a time, surveying the landscape for any lingering creatures. None but the dead surrounded them. But when they moved the final shield – the top-most – a clever flying scarab named Chintin was waiting. And the scarab flew against the warriors who had believed they were safe and had lowered their guard. In an instant, Chintin had slain enough warriors that they could not restore the shell and Chintin took to the sky for safety.

Duille looked up into the heavens but could not see Chintin for the brightness of the sun. And then Chintin struck again, and again, emerging from the light to attack the likewise blinded warriors. Duille realized all was on the verge of being lost.

And so Duille cried a great war cry and asked aid of the animals and insects and plants of the land who had long been at the mercy of the evils and he implored them to come forth and help defeat this last vile being.

But so long had they been terrorized by the evil things that none came.


Gheck paused, observing his audience, to see if any would expected what was next.

‘I, too, heard his cry,’ Gheck said. ‘Because I am born of spider. And so I came. And when I saw the massacre of dreadful beings and the one last that remained in challenge of creating peace across the land, I knew what I had to do.

‘And so I told a tale. A new tale. Both a Divine tale and Prophesy combined. And this is what I said.’


When Duille and his warriors had cleansed the land of Yul and made it safe for humans to settle, and then to grow prosperous, word of the strength and power and cleverness of the humans reached to all points of the heavens. And many of the gods and celestial beings were surprised by this revelation.

But not Lopin, son of the Sun-Queen and the titan Nyeth. Lopin laughed and laughed at the scene of utter destruction, with every cursed creature slain, even Chintin the scarab.

The other gods wondered at Lopin’s laughter and asked him why he had such mirth.

“Because I expected it to be so!” Lopin roared. “For when my wife Vulomini was pregnant with the humans, as she grew round and full with them, I fed her claws of mountain-cats so they would have warrior’s might and I fed her smooth stones from the river so they would have endurance and I fed her eyes of ravens so they would have cunning and I fed her fire from the Mountain-King’s hearth so they would have ambition. And now they have used their might and endurance and cunning and ambition to claim their own land!”

And to prove it, Lopin reached down from the heavens and drew a symbol on the forearm of the human warrior Anlu and when it was complete, Anlu’s skin parted and instead of bone inside was a creature with claws and scales and wings and fire in its eyes. And it climbed from Anlu’s arm and scurried out onto the land.


Gheck withdrew a parchment and quill and drew a rune upon it. When he finished, he bade each of his Weavers copy it and he watched them work with trained precision. Then, with a few last words he finished his tale.

‘As I drew this for you now, I drew it then in the dirt at Duille’s feet. And the Divine Prophesy, focused by the rune, pulled magic into Duille’s body and transformed him into a creature part man, part lizard and part fire.

‘And then, in body as the first dragon, Duille took to the sky and slew Chintin, and thus claimed the land of Yul.’


Khef lifted a burning stick from the raging fire before him. He placed the tip against the cold stone of the tower’s floor and drew with it, like a burning brush. Five lines and one arc.

Khef looked at his audience, each in turn.

“This is the symbol Gheck showed his Weavers,” Khef said. “He drew it for them, and now I draw it for you. This is the symbol from Gheck’s tale that Lopin drew on Anlu’s arm.”

Against the black stone, the lines and arc glowed and flowed and shimmered like lava.

Khef looked once more to the East and now the sky was filled with winged creatures, diving and clawing and breathing fire. But one more tower was lost; the original spell was growing threadbare. Khef watched only briefly and resumed his tale.


Upon completion of his story, Gheck sent his Weavers forth and bade them gather the people of Lun and relay the tale of the first fire-lizard and use the rune. Then as one, the Weavers began again the tale and as they spoke the bodies of the soldiers on the plain transformed – as originally had Duille’s body long before and many times hence – hands becoming claws and skin becoming scales. Breath became fire. Wings grew and the soldiers took to the air.

But spells last only a short while; the more powerful the spell the shorter the duration. And although the dragon-men drove back the shadows – and slew many of them – the shadows understood and retreated to the cracks between the rocks and to the bottoms of the rivers and hid between the blades of grass and waited for the spell to end. And when the bodies of the warriors turned back from scales to flesh and their claws turned to blunt fingers and their wings faded, the shadows emerged from their hiding spaces and attacked with renewed fury. And Duille saw the battle would be lost.

Duille, alone still in form of dragon, flew back to Lun and gathered the Weavers and implored them to cast the spell anew and restore the dragon-forms of the warriors. But the tail end of a spell lingers long, even after the effect has disappeared, and cannot be cast again until the magic has returned to all the points of the universe from which it was drawn.

So Duille took the favored among the Weavers, a man named Wrin, and brought him to the edge of the battle.

Duille said to Wrin, ‘There is another magic, beyond Weaving. One that Sustains a spell as long as additional tales are told. This magic was shown to me by Gheck, so that I might maintain my form of dragon. Now you shall learn to Sustain a spell, too.

‘First,’ Duille commanded, ‘feel the energy of the spell you have Woven. Feel the threads of it and the connections. Feel how it touches your mind and feel how it touches the minds of your audience. Feel it extend into the world and bind around its effect. Feel it pull from all the points of the universe.’

Duille watched as Wrin concentrated and felt the energy. Then Duille told Wrin a forbidden tale.


In the early days of the nation of Yul, after the cleansing of the land and the settlement of the humans across the vast stretches, the newfound peace made Yul a haven on Earth for the celestials. Many would descend to Earth for days or longer to enjoy the pleasures of mortal existence. They would hunt and gather and engage in commerce and debate and even enjoy the pleasures unique to earthly bodies.

For years the peace lasted and mortals and divine beings lived in harmony. But as time flowed forward, the citizens of Heaven began to neglect their Heavenly duties. The sky turned black on the nights when the stars danced on the land. The Sun-Queen brought her brilliance to the Earth when she danced upon the ground but in so doing drove the creatures of the night away. The Moon-Queen consorted with the royal men of Lun and the natural cycles and high points and low points of the tides became infrequent and disordered. The titans, led by Nyeth, played games with tree trunks and boulders in mimicry of the games of men but left the ceiling of the Heavens unsupported and sometimes it would crack and fragments from beyond like burning snow would dust onto the land. Lopin and Oppo and their many brothers and sisters lived among the common folk and slowly became indistinguishable from them.

And as one cannot see the grass grow day-by-day but suddenly realizes the blades have reached to his waist, so too did Gheck and the other Weavers not at first realize that without the celestial beings residing in the Heavens, the points of the universe had frayed apart and magic was losing its power.

In crisis, Gheck called forth his Weavers and in secret they plotted with the Moutain-King to send the celestials back to the Heavens. So they crafted a great feast, and brought all of the food from across the land of Yul, and invited all of the divine beings to partake of a great sup in their honor. The wine flowed and minstrels sang and a great enjoyment passed through the entirety of the day and into the night.

And as sleepiness descended upon the gathered celebrants, Gheck took to the stage and told the tale of creation and of the founding of the Heavens and the Earth and of the rightful place of all beings in the universe. And slowly the celestials drifted back toward their home.

But Oppo, least among the Gods, resisted the spell and began his own tale, a counter-tale filled with the joys and pleasures and triumphs the pantheon had experienced upon Earth. And as Oppo spoke, the spell woven by Gheck began to unravel and, as weakened as magic had become, it was certain not to hold. And a spell once cast, cannot quickly be cast again.

Janos, apprentice to Gheck, having witnessed his master’s spell woven and now unweaving, began his own tale. In his haste, he did not find the spark within himself and did not weave a new spell. He spoke suddenly and quickly and told the gathered titans and gods and many other denizens of the Heavens a tale of near woe, of the splintering of the universe and the burning of the Earth as the fragments from beyond the Heavens fell upon it and of the land of Yul blighted and became barren.

Janos spoke this tale from his heart and not from his mind. And to his surprise, he did not Weave a new tale – and just as well for he risked creation of a Prophesy fulling his woeful story. But instead the threads from the spell of Gheck wove into his heart and into the hearts of the gathered titans and Gods and other denizens of the Heavens. And thus that spell, now nearly fully restored, sustained for hour upon hour. Slowly, the celestial beings returned to their place in the Heavens. But Oppo’s spell of unweaving had tattered the edges of Gheck’s spell and many celestials were resisting its pull and staying upon the Earth.

Then Janos focused his mind and realizing his initial error, turned the tale sharply. He now told of the divine beings, in their great mercy and compassion for the humans and creatures of the Earth, abandoning the pleasures of the mortal realm and returning to their homes and thus saving the Earth and the land of Yul.

Lopin, awaking fully under the power of Janos’s new spell, and understanding the potential for tragedy that had near been wrought, drew all he could within his arms and rose swiftly up, then barred the entrance to Heaven from Earth behind him so that only the greatest among the Gods could travel between the realms.

The stars who had not returned to the Heavens looked up and filled with rage that they could never again dance within the sky. They gathered up the burning dust from the beyond the celestial realm and ate of it until their bodies burned with the same ferocious fury that dwelled in their hearts.

Janos, witnessing the transformation of the stars and with his heart still woven with the Sun-Queen’s, implored her to protect the land of Yul from the newly formed demons. And she gave him promise that as long as she watched over the land, no demon would walk upon it.

For one year thereafter, the Sun-Queen did not take to her lover’s bed but only rested upon the evening, with one eye always above the horizon to keep the demons at bay until the humans had again secured the land of Yul.


As Duille had spoken, Wrin had felt the spell of dragon transformation reach into his heart and renew as the tale unfolded.

“Do you understand why this tale is forbidden?” Duille asked of his Listener. Wrin nodded.

Taking lesson from the forbidden tale, Wrin returned to Lun and again gathered the city’s inhabitants and told another tale but this time he spoke from his heart. He told a Prophesy, of the defeat of the shadows by the dragon-soldiers and the days and nights of celebrations that followed. Wrin spoke and spoke and spoke and out on the Gallagan Plain bodies shifted again to winged and scaled and fire-breathing creatures.

And the battle raged and sounds of it reached the city of Lun but the Sun-Queen was nearing her lover’s bed and shadows stretched long from the trees and the grass and the walking shadows drew upon them and grew strong.

Fearing the battle would turn, Wrin drew deep upon the magic flowing through him and began a new tale, weaving a story of a beautiful young man in the city of Lun, a devotee of the Sun-Queen, who quaked with fear at the walking shadows. The Sun-Queen, touched by man’s plight, paused in her descent, preventing any further strengthening of the shadows.

And with the extra daylight, the dragon-men scratched at the shadows and blew fire into them and scattered them to the five corners of the continent and chased them without rest. And when the Sun-Queen finally kissed her lover and the day ended, the Earth-Prince returned from the heavens and saw the devastation Oppo’s plan had wrought. He saw the human warriors, still in the form of dragons. And the Prince raged against Oppo and cast him further down, below the Prince’s kingdom, down into hell.

Gheck, having witnessed the Sun-Queen’s pause, understood that the forbidden tale had been told. He held down his rage until the battle concluded but then, in white fury, he decreed Duille and Wrin be cast out of Yul and no longer walk among men. But Duille pleaded with Gheck for forgiveness, for there had no been another way to defeat the walking shadows.

And Gheck relented and spared the warrior and the sorcerer. But he wove a spell and bound it with Oppo’s fall and made of it a Curse, and declared that Weaving and Sustaining magic should forever be severed, and that any who declared to one should forever be barred from the other, and further that any who used both magics together shall, at the completion of the spell, fall dead.


“This story, this is the initiation tale told to Sustainers at the summer’s solstice, isn’t it?” asked one of the Listeners, a woman named Freheen.

Khef nodded. He touched the spell with his heart and felt he was nearly alone.

The five Listeners sat in silence. Once more, the sounds of the battle broke upon the castle. From the screeching and bellowing and crying and shouting, the battle seemed well-matched. To the East, a faint glow heralded the dawn, many hours too early.

The Listeners sat still, waiting for Khef to continue. But he did not.


The fire before them began to diminish and frigid wind blew over the tower. Freheen reached a hand to Khef’s arm but at her touch he slumped and his wine-glass clattered upon the dark stone.

Freheen picked up glass, refilled it, and sipped from it. She closed her eyes briefly, and found the lines of the spell, tattered and weak and connected at only one other point. She saluted the fallen form of her former teacher then found the spark within herself, as she had been taught by the master Weavers.

“This is the tale of the Legend of Khef,” she began. “Spoken of as the greatest of the Sustainers, who held vigil at Varrod’s Castle at the Mountain-King’s Slumber and faced the rage of the abandoned stars, cursed to be in form as demons, and with hate in their eyes towards the humans. Khef, he who made farmers into dragons and called the Sun-Queen away from her lover and thus saved the country of Yul.”

Asphalt Minnows • Short Story

“It’s Johnston, actually,” he said. “There’s a ‘t’.”

The words came out a little more sharp than Johnston had intended and the receptionist jerked back. He felt like an asshole for saying it, but it was his name, damn it, and it was one of the few things he had left to cling to. But she was just doing her job and didn’t need his irritable tone and he felt sorry for her for having to deal with him.

“My apologizes, Mr. Cole,” the receptionist said, unconcealed ice in her voice. She handed him his room key. “Room 212. Back out the lobby and around to the left.”

Johnston accepted the key without comment and headed back to his cab. Once out the door he released his held breath in a deep sigh. Once upon a time he would have pushed down any feelings he had just to try to get a smile from a pretty little woman like her. Once upon a time he would have slept in the bunk in his cab, too, but the wear of the road had left him tender inside and out. Motel beds were now a necessity; smiles from pretty women were merely memories.

He grabbed his personals bag from behind the seat and slammed the door a little too loudly. He had skipped kicking the tires before walking to the motel’s check-in counter despite knowing he should. He knew he’d regret not doing it and he hadn’t done it and now he regretted it.

He heaved the bag over his shoulder. The old cloth was as worn as he was. The zipper had split long ago and the patches he had applied were peeling, exposing their glue which stretched like rows of skinny bared teeth.

He stared at the tire adjacent to the cab’s door. It was huge and black and steady. He kicked it gently, feeling the rebound from the hard rubber push his foot backward. Then he walked around to the passenger’s side and did it again, a little harder this time. He felt the rebound in his joints up to his hip. A few steps down the length of the cab and then he stopped at the rear double set.

Kick, rebound, pain. Kick, rebound pain.

The pain hurt just enough to draw his attention to his body and made his mind release the jumble of angry and depressed thoughts that he had accumulated over the drive.  He’d been stewing at a careless minivan driver for the last hour and he felt the tension of the anger vibrate out of his body from the kicks. He felt a little better.

Johnston’s stomach growled at him but he wasn’t ready to face all of the people between him and a real meal. Kicking the tires was good but only went so far. He had some nut mix and jerky in the bag and that would suffice until he calmed down. It was the stretch of I-74 inside Peoria that had really left him jittering. A wreck on the bypass had redirected all traffic through the city. It was one of those stretches where the minnows were dense and crazy – flitting this way and that without warning – and he always drove white-knuckled with that going on. Good thing he did, too, with that minivan driver.

The first time Johnston had ridden in a full-size cab, during his training decades ago, they’d been stopped at a red light and he’d looked at all the cars and trucks seeming underneath him. He was at a height above the road he’d never been at before and the perspective was weird. The drivers and passengers seemed so small and when the light turned green his rig lurched slowly up to speed but the little cars all raced ahead. Johnston was aware his sense of speed was off – the cars seemed like they were moving much too fast, accelerating faster than physics should allow. He was reminded of the view from a boat in shallow water. He felt like a bass surrounded by minnows. He’d thought of the little vehicles on the road as asphalt minnows since.

The minnows weren’t much to think about on the lonely stretches but in dense schools they made him nervous.

A lot of the long-haul drivers got to the point where they weren’t even aware of the traffic. Or so they claimed. They’d claim it but in the same breath bitch about the delays and added time that all the extra traffic was causing. Johnston had heard that same tune for twenty years. It was always getting worse on the road. Rising gas prices and falling driver IQs. Bosses that were always ratcheting up the pressure to go faster and roads were always getting worse. It’d probably been that way since the second day of having paving roads.

Johnston had never gotten numb to the minnows. He knew why. It was due to the perspective that made them the minnows. From the cab seat a person could see into the civilian vehicles in a totally unique way. He sometimes felt like a god, peering down from on high. That made him feel simultaneously powerful and unworthy. Sometimes he felt like a voyeur and that made him feel sick.

The radio helped. Listening to other people’s problems when they called in made his own seem insignificant. He had to remember their problems; that was important. Sometimes he tried audio tapes but they were never as good.

In his motel room he dropped his bag heavily on the floor and sank onto the bed. It was hot day and the Western states always seemed to hold onto to the summer heat as if afraid winter would come and never go away again.  He started sweating immediately but didn’t turn on the A/C. He needed the quiet. No machines, no motors, no compressors, no vibrations. No one talking. He listened to his breathing.

After a time his hands unclenched and he sat up.  He poked around in his bag for the jerky and gnawed it for a while. Then he began unpacking the bag.

Johnston knew he was a man of rituals and he was okay with himself for that. He’d never speak of it to another soul but he accepted himself for himself.

Each item came out of the bag and onto the bed in turn. Food stuffs, water bottle, the two days’ worth of clean clothes he had left for this trip, toiletries bag, gun safe. He survey his possessions. The toiletries bag went to the bathroom sink and the clothes went to the closet. The food and water went back into the bag. The gun case went under his pillow.

Then a bathroom break, shower, teeth brushing and change of clothes. He’d wear the same outfit tomorrow that he wore to dinner tonight. Double-check room key and wallet in pocket then out the door to dinner.

It was just past eight and in the hour of sharp decline in patrons for the diner. That’s how he liked it. Quieter at this time.

“Just one, hun?” the waitress asked. It wasn’t really a question and he didn’t give it an answer. She was old enough to have seen a thousand men just like him, just passing through, just needing a hot meal at the end of a long day. She was old enough to be calloused from the things men all alone in a foreign town would say. Johnston had met and forgotten as many like her as she had like him.

She hadn’t given him her name but she wore a name tag. Meg. He’d have to remember her name for later.

Johnston ordered without really looking at the menu and ate without really tasting his food. It was the same meal he’d had at every diner just like it.

The waitress’s name was Meg. Another waitress was Holly. Paul worked short-order. In a booth nearby was Garrison; he was a regular.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist – but he hadn’t gotten her name.

Johnston returned to his room, undressed and sat in the quiet. Hot showers are good but sometimes, when you’re on the road, all you can get is a cold one. You have to brace yourself for a cold shower but it’s better than no shower at all.  Cold is just pain and pain passes.

He removed the gun case from under the pillow and placed it on his lap. Sometimes he thought about buying a lock for it but most times it didn’t seem to matter.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Johnston flipped open the latch and lifted the lid. Inside was a cowboy’s gun, a six-shooter revolver with a mother-of-pearl handle. The barrel was scuffed and dinged. Some previous owner had scratched the word “King” into the handle in blocky letters.

Johnson traced the word, as was his ritual, before lifting the gun from the case. He flipped open the chamber and laid the gun on the bed on his left. He pulled a cardboard box of shells from the case, tugged it open and counted each shell.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

There was still a week there, then, after tonight.

He tilted the box and slid out a single shell. Then he closed the box and returned it to the case.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist. Johnston tried to imagine their problems. Perhaps Meg was like the woman on the radio this afternoon, worried about a sick child and with no health insurance. It was easy to imagine her that way.

He lift the gun, slid the shell in and pushed the chamber until it clicked,

Meg. Holly.

Johnston stared at the curtains drawn tight over the windows. The room was so hot and stuffy but so quiet. He could hear the traffic on the interstate but muffled with distance. He let the room get quieter. Now he could hear the low buzz of the electric alarm clock. In the hallway, ice clattered from the dispensing machine into a plastic bucket.

Paul. Garrison.

Sometimes showers are as cold as ice. Sometimes you have to take them anyway.

The receptionist.

Johnston turned over the revolver so the word faced down, then turn it back again. It was lighter than it should be. And colder than it should be.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Johnston lifted the gun and touched the barrel under his chin. He flinched from the cold.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

He squeezed his eyes tight and then squeezed his finger.

* * *

The sun pierced through his eyelids like glittery needles. He rolled sideways and then upright, feeling his muscles creak and hearing his joints pop. He turned away from the bare windows to give his eyes time to adjust. After a few seconds he could see the revolver and its word, both glistening in the light. He put the gun back in its case and clicked the lid closed.

The water in the shower was warm and soothing and he stayed in it until his fingers pruned.

Sometimes the showers are cold. And sometimes you have to take them anyway.

Meg. Holly. Paul. Garrison. The receptionist.

Sometimes you have to take the pain so no one else has to die.

The Eyes of Monsters • Short Story

My own dad wasn’t around very much. He was a long-haul trucker and spent most days and nights on the road. And when he was home he wasn’t really home. I don’t think he ever even once tucked me in at night. As a kid I didn’t think much of it, until I had a kid of my own.

Suzie was four when it started. “Almost four and a half, Daddy!” she would have said. On the first night it appeared, I had just pulled the covers up to her neck and patted her gently, as I always tried to do. I remember the sheets were bright purple with pink unicorns and they clashed with her yellow pajamas. Her PJs looked like a princess’s dress with a drawn-on white ruffled collar and darkened lines along the legs to look like folds of cloth. My wife Emily always shook her head at things Suzie wanted. “She certainly didn’t get the girly-girl genes from me,” she would say.

I had reached for the nightlight but Suzie caught my hand.

“Leave it on, Daddy,” she said. She looked me straight in the eyes. Her deep brown eyes were just a little wider than they should have been.

“Hush, honey,” I said to her. “You’re getting to be a big girl now and you don’t need the nightlight anymore.” I felt bad when I said it. I wasn’t really sure why I felt that way. I said it because I had read in one of those parenting magazines that that’s what good dads were supposed to say at this age. Maybe that’s why it felt bad; I wasn’t doing it on my own.

“But, Daddy,” Suzie whined. Then she whispered, “There’s monsters under the bed.” She kept looking at me with her eyes too wide.

I sighed. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. “Ok, honey,” I said. “I’ll check under the bed.” I almost added, ‘again.’

I flipped the switch on the nightlight making the blue glow go out. A sliver of white light still came in from the hall. I knelt down on the carpet and looked under the bed. The monster was looking back at me.

The thing was dark green with brown blotches. It had a large egg-shaped body with a dozen tentacles, maybe more. They writhed slowly around it, caressing the floor and the underside of the bed. It had a head-like bulge at the top of its body with sharp, crooked teeth and two lid-less eyes on stalks. The eyes fixed to mine.

I stood very slowly, flicking the blue nightlight back on as I did. “Why don’t you sleep with mommy and daddy tonight, hun?” I asked. I picked Suzie up and she gave a little squeal of delight. I remember thinking I’d do anything for that sound.

We marched into the master bedroom and I tossed Suzie into the air above the bed. She thumped onto it then scurried under the covers. She grinned and pretended to fall asleep.

Emily peered over her book at me and arched her eyebrows. I shrugged. “She gave me those eyes,” I said. I tried to grin my foolish grin and hoped the words came out okay. I couldn’t hear them over the pounding of my heart.

Emily continued her stare. “If she’s got you this tightly wrapped around her finger now,” Emily instructed me, “she’s going to be a holy terror when she’s a teenager.” Then she laughed and put down her book.

The next day I felt foolish and tried to put it out of my mind.

I couldn’t even really remember what I thought I’d seen. I had pretty well forgotten it until that night when Suzie was brushing her teeth and I went to prep her bed. I flipped on the nightlight out of habit then paused. The thing came back to my mind, clear in focus and terrible in all of the ways a nightmare can be. I saw its eyes in my mind, almost human but hideous, waving gently in space. I concentrated to control my breathing. It was dumb. I knew there were no such things as monsters. I was an architect now. Well, a junior architect anyway. I believed in rational things.

But I wanted to look. I needed to look. I needed to know she was going to be safe. I stood stock still to hold off the impulse. I heard Suzie finish up, spit, wash off her toothbrush and put it away. She padded down the hall and into the bedroom. She was back in her yellow princess pajamas.

I lifted her up, spun her around then laid her gently on her bed. I pulled up the covers and reached for the nightlight.

“Daddy, no, please,” Suzie implored at once.

“Suzie, we talked about this. You’re a big girl now.” I felt as bad saying it this time as I had the night before.

“But, Daddy,” she pleaded, then whispered, “the monsters!”

Now I realized I didn’t want to check. I didn’t want to see it again. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I saw it – saw those eyes – again.

Suzie squeezed my arm tight. Her fingers were so small and delicate. I looked at my own hand with its thick fingers and my right pinky crooked out a little bit too far. I had broken it punching another kid in high school. I’d broken his jaw.

I sucked in air. I tried to be steady. I gently placed my hand over hers. “If I check and there’s no monsters, will you let me turn out the light?” I asked.

Suzie nodded.

I knelt, slowly, trying not to look until my face brushed the carpet. Underneath the bed was empty, as it should be.

I reached for the nightlight, flicking it off. I realized I hadn’t exhaled.

The light from the hallway beamed into the room and under the bed. Nothing was still there.

I stood slowly. I felt stupid. I felt like an imposter, playing at being a dad. Like someone would come along any second and tell me that playtime was over and Suzie’s real dad would be taking over now.

I touched her hand again. “There’s no monsters, okay? Time to go to sleep.” She gripped my hand so tightly. It hurt in my chest to pull away.

I had entirely forgotten the monster in a blur of days and nights, a constant changing of clothes and furniture as Suzie’s interests swung from unicorns to horses (“That’s more real, Daddy. More grown-up.”) to fairies to birds.

There were spells when she’d ask me to check for monsters every night for a week then not again for months. I’d even gotten out of the habit of turning on the nightlight.

A few weeks past her sixth birthday Suzie had gotten herself ready for bed and tucked herself in. She was doing that occasionally now. It made me smile with a good kind of hurt.

I checked in on her as I always did and was surprised to see the nightlight on. Her eyes looked at me, too wide. It was a look I hadn’t seen in a long time. It caught me off guard.

“What is it, hun?” I asked, sitting on the edge of her bed. She whispered, “There’s a monster, Daddy. I can hear it.”

I smiled a little lop-sided smile. “Let Daddy check for you.” Then I flopped onto the floor.

The monster was there, under the bed, writhing and scraping its tentacles against the wood under the mattress. I could hear it now, too.

I remembered it in a rush. Adrenaline spiked and I fought the urge to run. It was bigger, now, stretched out under the entire twin bed. Its mouth hung limply open with its nightmare teeth grinding slowly against each other. At the end of the stalks projecting from its head-stump were those eyes. They were like human eyes, white all around with blue irises and black pupils, but they seemed lost, disconnected without a face around them.

This time I recognized its eyes.

Nothing made sense to do. I couldn’t move but I couldn’t run away. I couldn’t leave it there. I couldn’t go after it.

The eyes held me almost as a prisoner. I watched it watching me. It writhed and one tentacle stretched out toward me. I still didn’t move. The tentacle touched my right arm and bit into my flesh. The thing’s body pulled backward, away from me and toward the wall. My skin ripped and I felt blood rush down my arm. Then it was gone.

I stood slowly, holding my left hand to stop the bleeding. “It’s gone, honey,” I said softly. Suzie nodded at me.

I cleaned my arm in the bathroom sink and examined the wound. It was a nasty gash a few inches across. I wrapped gauze around it. The blood soaked through so I added another layer.

When I came to bed Emily saw the dressing and arched her eyebrows at me.

I shrugged to answer her unspoken question. “Was checking for monsters. Caught my arm on a rough board under her bed.” I clicked off the bed-side light.

I knew Emily was shaking her head at me in the dark and laughing to herself.

The next morning as I was shaving I saw the monster’s eyes in the mirror staring back at me. They were the eyes of a creature who had done many bad things.

Those eyes had watched as fists had hit faces and broken a jaw. A year later they had watched too many beers disappear, keys stolen, a car driven into a light pole, a friend’s leg shatter. They had witnessed a merry-go-round of girlfriends, each one crying and slamming the door as they left. Those eyes had seen the hopeful promises with the first wife and then the breaking of them, the descent into screaming and fighting. They had watched as fists struck out again.

I had tried to kill those eyes. Drinking worked, for a little bit. Therapy didn’t. I thought the running had done it. I thought I was holding them down, wearing them out. I realized I hadn’t run in a while.

That afternoon I bought a bat. It was a Louisville Slugger. A beautiful thing with a gentle swell from the handle to the tip. I traced the wood grain lines up and down the length of it. Black rubber wound tightly around the grip making just the right amount of rough against my palms. It reminded me of play and teamwork and the pleasures of losing but not really caring.

When I brought it home Emily gave me her eyebrows again. “It’s for Suzie,” I explained.

She maintained her look. “Do you really think our daughter would have any interest in baseball?

I fiddle with the bat. “Hmm,” I muttered. “I guess I was feeling a little nostalgic. I had one of these when I was her age.”

Emily’s look changed to you-are-such-an-idiot-but-I-love-you-anyway. I put the bat in Suzie’s closet.

That night while Suzie was brushing her teeth I entered her room and closed the door behind me. The nightlight was off. I opened the closet and withdrew the bat.

I walked to her bed and stood over it, feeling my breath. I knelt, so slowly, and looked beneath.

Of course there was no monster. Monsters aren’t real.

The Slugger remained in Suzie’s closet for the rest of the school year.

Then Emily and I had a fight. I don’t remember what started it. I don’t even remember what it was about. It probably wasn’t about anything, to be honest. But I hit the wall. Hard. I left a crater in the drywall. My pinkie screamed in pain.

I locked myself in the bathroom and held my hand until the pain subsided. I looked in the mirror and saw the monster’s eyes staring back at me. It was stupid, but I knew those eyes would be under Suzie’s bed again.

I looked for them. They were there.

I patched the hole in the wall and tried to patch our relationship. I’m not sure how well I did at either.

The next morning I rose early and ran through the semi-darkness in our subdivision. Ran might be too strong a word; I lumbered and stumbled and came back to house exhausted and half broken.

“There’s my athlete,” Emily scoffed when I walked in.

There was no monster under the bed that night.

I ran every day for a month. I was surprised how quickly it became easy again, almost pleasurable. Then I got a call from the school.

I tried to explain it to Emily that night. Suzie had attacked another girl. The teacher said they were fighting over a doll. But the other girl went to the hospital with a broken arm.

“Deal with it,” Emily told me and went to bed.

I tucked in Suzie without mentioning the fight. She didn’t look at me and turned to face the wall, pretending to fall asleep.

I crouched down and looked under the bed. The sliver of light from the hallway was enough to see it.

The monster was smaller now, but the same shape. Green and brown and egg-like with tentacles and eye stalks. But its eyes were smaller. And brown.

The monster seemed to me to be patient. Its tentacles writhed slowly. It had pulled against the wall and since it was smaller, it was out of reach of the bat. I knew what would happen if I left it alone.

I quietly left the room, closed the door and checked the clock. An hour should be fine. I changed, ran, and returned an hour later.

Suzie was asleep. The monster was still there.

I slid under the bed as quickly as I could. It stuck me hard, on my hands and face and legs. The tentacles bruised and tore at my flesh. I could see its eyes and its teeth in the light from the hall.

I shoved my fist into its mouth and it bit. I held my breath so I didn’t scream. I pushed my fist in further, feeling my skin shred and blood flow. Inside of the thing was warm and dry. This monster was not strong; it was not the blue-eyed one. It did not take long to die.

It withered around my arm, shrinking and then drying to dust. I slid back out from under the bed. The dust coated the blood on my arm.

I drove myself to the emergency room to get cleaned up and stitched up. Emily wouldn’t ask about it; I wouldn’t tell her. But it was dead now and that was all that mattered.

Drifters • Short Story

The steam rising from the kitchen sink told him the water was on too hot. His old human skin would have scalded but his new skin couldn’t feel the heat.

He turned down the temperature then rubbed his hands together under the stream. Dark circles had appeared a few weeks ago on the skin of his hands and then had slowly formed into recognizable scales. At his age the drifting was slower. His fingernails had narrowed noticeably and thickened. Definitely reptilian. He could probably have figured out what species if he researched. Assuming the DNA was from only one species.

He finished washing his hands and dried them on a hand towel. A nail ripped the soft cloth. He held the torn towel for a moment then hung it back.

His wife would berate him when she found it. These days she didn’t have the fire in her anger that used to send him running. It would be a gentle berating this time. A sign of affection of their history. And towels weren’t important like they used to be.
Through the kitchen window he watched her tend the garden. She was sprouting antennae. Delicate, light green stalks with little bulbs forming at the tips emerging from her temples. She said she could feel the wind through them, that it tickled.

She pulled weeds from around the tulips and piled them into a wheelbarrow at her side. She had often told him stories of gardening as a little girl. Some of the them many times but he still smiled when she told them. She’d gardened all through her life. She said she needed the contact with the earth. Years ago she could fill that wheelbarrow in half an hour. Now, it took most of the morning. The joints moved a little slower, the limbs were a little thicker.

He padded into the living room and absentmindedly picked up the remote. He turned it idly in his rough hands, then set it back down. He couldn’t feel much from his fingers but if he watched his hands he could make the most delicate motions. Working the little buttons was actually easier now.

No point in turning on the TV, though; there was only one story anymore. All of the news was about the drift. New information about the origin, or the most strange features someone had developed, or propaganda about our forces versus the Drifters.

The news had been exciting at first. Before the drift, before the war. Back then it was the opening of the universe. Every day a new world. Some days a dozen. And then the discovery of intelligent life. Not just one species – but millions. Then billions. Then too many to count.

Some seemed close to human. Some were so removed as to be difficult to accept as intelligent. Most were in the middle. Humanoid birds, sponges with a dozen eyes and two mouths, walking stones. They all made things, that’s how we could tell they were intelligent. Cities, sometimes, or art, or what was probably writing. A few had made spaceships.

And then we made spaceships, too. Most of the aliens were too far away for any form of interaction. We could look but we couldn’t talk, much less visit. There were a few, though, close enough to meet.
She was in the garage cleaning her tools when he entered. Her back was to him and so he leaned against the doorframe, stroked it lightly with his rough hand. Her stalks tilted in his direction at the sound.
“I always knew you had eyes in the back of your head,” he nudged. She ignored him but he knew she would be smiling.

He turned to his workbench and re-inspected his latest work-in-progress. He didn’t need to work, or to do anything really, but idle hands and all that. He felt pride at this piece. The little wooden ballerina looked away from him, down and to her left, admiring her own dress. So many little folds and creases. He could see in such detail now and could carve more delicately. His eyes must be drifting, too.

There had a been a story on the news about a ballerina. A controversy, as always. Something about her having drifted to having no bones and there was much debate if she should be allowed to perform since she could bend in ways the other women could not. People had been so angry about it, shouting at each other. He had turned off the TV then.

Humans are a violent species. We tried to communicate with the aliens but could find no commonality. Plant-people were the first we physically encountered. They didn’t have writing, at least nothing that we could interpret as writing. They didn’t have any form of speech, either. We tried. Some of us think they tried, too.

But then we took something of theirs, or they took something of ours, nobody is sure. And then war, just like that. The other aliens must have been their friends because we never even had a chance to talk to them. The three closest species joined in and it was humans versus the universe.

It reminded him of how he had felt as a young man. So much to do back then. So many exciting things to do. So many things to fight, to conquer. School, work. Sports. Girls. Now excitement like that held no allure. Now he carved.

He wanted the ballerina to be delighted with her dress like he was. Her expression was close but not quite there. He picked at the corners of her eyes with the tip of a claw.

The aliens had no expressions we could read. The scientists had been close to a breakthrough, they claimed, in understanding their ‘bark’ movements and translating them into language. Too late, though, to stop the war.

At first the war had been clunky. Spaceships retrofitted with rockets and lasers. Pierce the hull of the enemy and they all died. The reverse was also true. We learned quickly to fit our soldiers with space-proof suits which they always wore. The enemy did it differently. They drifted.

One day they died in vacuum and they next they didn’t. They developed tentacles, some of them, and some grew dense and impervious to bullets. We were no longer facing one enemy race, or even four. We were facing thousands. And all working together against us.

We went crazy. Creatures that changed, that held no one form couldn’t be reasoned with, couldn’t possibly understand us. How could they have beliefs, have religion, have love if they drifted? Without continuity of body how could they have continuity of mind?

We are who we are because of who we are. Who could they be if they could be one thing one day and something else the next?

So we redoubled the war. We took them as hard as we could. Until they brought the war to us.
No one noticed when the asteroid hit. It had been so small. A little town in nowhere, Mexico. Then the drifting began on Earth.

At first it wasn’t a story. The little town was too remote and there was a war on. It wasn’t until the drift disease had spread that the doctors traced it back, discovered the origin, found the asteroid.
The young drifted first. Scrambled DNA causing new features, changing bodies with no rhyme or reason. A quarantine, briefly, but it was no good. Everyone started drifting. A movement to isolate those unaffected or minimally affected. Legislation to define ‘human.’ More rights, or less rights, or preserving rights or taking them away from those who drifted too far. None of it went anywhere. Everyone was drifting.

He wandered outside into the garden. Only the humans had been affected by the drift. He was happy for that. He knew what he liked to eat and would have been disappointed if the tomatoes and peppers didn’t taste like tomatoes and peppers. Once he relished new food, travel, new cultures, new cuisines. Now the energy wasn’t there for that sort of thing. He liked just tomatoes and peppers.

His son travelled up there, in one of the war ships. He was still in the aggressive phase that a young man may have. His body mattered so much. How fast he could run, how much he could lift, how hard he could fight. The Drifters made him angry. The Drift attack, even more.

He had grown extra arms. Had them surgically removed. Twice. Then he had had the area burnt, covering it with scar tissue.

He fought so hard. Videos would come to them periodically, about how hard he was fighting, how much killing he was doing.

They watched for him and watched over his wife. The baby was due soon.

Not a single child had been born undrifted since the infection began.

When his son had been born they had counted his fingers and toes, over and over. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. Few parents could do that any more.

None of the newborns died. Most were healthy, like most had been healthy before. They were just a little different on the surface.

He hoped his son would return soon. Let go of the war and the rage. It wasn’t so bad here. We needed to reminded ourselves of things that were important and let go of the things that weren’t.

He plucked a tomato, juicy and red and ripe. The undersides of his fingers were still soft and he could carry it without bruising the delicate skin. As a very young boy he had hated tomatoes. They tasted like dirt to him and he got their juice all over his hands. It was different now. But the tomatoes hadn’t changed.

How long would it take all of us to learn this lesson, to remember what we used to know? He understood – that’s what the infection was for, to help us remember what we’d forgotten. So that we could join our kin among the stars.

We too are drifters, and have been all along.