The Devil You Know


The devil was sitting in Anders’ office.

Seven foot tall, with skin the colour of lava, piercing green eyes and long horns protruding from a thick shuck of black hair, he was well dressed in fine robes. Around him there was a smell of summer flowers, with a faint whisper of something more dank, and spicier underneath.

When Courtney entered, he’d paused to look at her, making her heart skip. He was perhaps the most terrifying thing she’d ever seen, and she’d been frozen in place as his gaze looked upon her, feeling like she was naked before him.

“This is my lieutenant, Courtney.” Anders said from behind his antique desk. “She’ll be helping us with this issue.”

The devil nodded in understanding, and gave her a yellow smile that made her insides turn to jelly and made her want nothing more than to run from this terrifying being that sat before her like a god. “I will appreciate your help.”

Hearing this, it was all Courtney could do to keep from falling to her knees and begging for his mercy. She felt the urge wash over her, fighting with her own efforts to be as professional as possible. The effort made her stiff, and she just stood there, her face frozen as she stared at him. “Y-yes, my lord.”

She didn’t know what was happening to her, she was an officer in the Eidolon Corps, the Imperial special operations branch, and yet now she felt like a schoolgirl standing before an angry father. It was infuriating, maddening, but she couldn’t help it.

Anders, her superior, frowned and reached into a drawer, pulling out something. “Courtney, catch.” He said, and tossed something to her.

As soon at the small green gem touched her hand, Courtney immediately felt the waves of fear and emotion begin to ebb and settle. Within a few moments, her inner calm was back, she was as cool as ever.

“You’re no fun,” said the devil in a slightly displeased tone to Anders. And, when Courtney looked at him now, she found he appeared only a tall but slender young man in his twenties with orange skin and black hair, the god she’d seen moments before having seemingly vanished. The whole thing left her a bit disoriented, but she did her best to hide her confusion.

“We are not here to be your source of amusement,” Anders said in a flat tone. Then he waved Courtney over to stand next to his desk and sat back in his chair. “Now, please get to the point regarding your visit.”

The devil shrugged, “There is not much to tell. One of my sisters is here in your Empire, and we believe she is involved in acts that will cause a rift between our peoples. As the letter I just delivered to you states, my father has sent me to find her, and bring the lost child home if possible.”

Anders tapped the opened letter sitting on the desk before him, watching his guest. “And if it isn’t possible?”

The devil said everything he needed to with the sharp yellow teeth of his smile.

“Very well, you may return to the hotel where you’re staying. We will look into the case and let you know.”

The devil shook his head, “I’m afraid I must ask to be involved. This is a personal matter, a family matter, and I can be of great use in finding him. I know her patterns and what she will need.”

“Very well,” Anders nodded. “Is there anything we should be looking for, then?”

“If she is here in the capitol, as we believe she is,” said the other. “Then she will need live food. Since she is unused to feeding on lesser animals, I would suggest you look for places where your citizens have gone missing.”

Hearing this made Courtney shudder. She’d read about it before, the taste the devils had for human flesh, but to hear one say it…

“I’ll get my people on it,” Anders said, standing. “Please return to where you are staying, and we’ll send someone to get you as soon as we have something worth looking into.”

“Of course,” the devil stood and shook Ander’s hand lightly, then gave Courtney a smile that made that tingly feeling return for the briefest of moments before he left.

“Bloody devils,” Anders said, dropping back down into his padded leather chair and shaking his head.

“Sir,” Courtney said formally. “I need to apologize…”

But Anders waved her attempt at apology away with his hand. “It’s not your fault, Courtney. Devils of the royal line have an aura around them that makes everyone fear them. If anything, it’s my fault, I should have had you warned and given a protective weave before you met Stratios.”

“Is that what this is?” She said, looking at the small gem that was still in her hand.

“Yes. I’ve had them distributed among the staff, to make sure he doesn’t attempt to influence them while he’s here. You just arrived, so you were unprepared. Obviously this is your first time meeting one.”

Courtney indicated that it was.

“Well, I don’t think I need to tell you to keep that gem close on you at all times. You cannot, and must not trust him, as every second word that comes from his mouth is certainly a lie. Stratios might not look like much, but he’s extremely dangerous.”

That thought made Courtney pause. “If he doesn’t look like much, what does a dangerous devil look like?”

“May you never know,” Anders commented, ringing a bell on his desk to summon his assistants. “Now, let’s get to work finding his sibling.”


“Here he is.”

Courtney looked up to see the carriage pull to a halt and Stratios step down from it, ignoring the brief fluttering in her heart the moment she saw him. When the prince joined them, he grinned and looked to each of them in turn.

“A fine day for a hunt. Have you found her?”

Anders shook his head, gesturing at the cluster of broken down buildings in front of them. “Not yet. A local gang has been rounding up street dwellers with offers of good pay and easy hours. None of these people has been seen again.”

“Ah yes, good.” Stratios rubbed his hands together gleefully. “It sounds like we should be speaking with these miscreants. Thank you for inviting me.”

With that, Anders led the two of them across the street and into the slums.

The narrow streets of the slums were dark, even in the late morning, the sky blocked out by the lines of hanging clothes above them. The stones they walked on were broken and uneven, and to either side tired, sallow eyes watched them from broken windows and makeshift wooden stoops. There was a deep feeling of despair and hopelessness here, one which couldn’t help but tug at Courtney’s heart.

“Never been down here before,” she said. “It’s awful.”

“Yes,” agreed the devil. “I can’t help but wonder why your government hasn’t helped these people.”

This caught Courtney off guard, and she glanced at Stratios. “You don’t have slums in your country?”

He shook his head. “None. Every citizen is fed and housed. It is only proper, since they work so hard, that we should reward them.”

Courtney started to nod in approval, but then caught herself, remembering Anders’ warning. She didn’t know much of the Devil Kingdoms in the South, but had always imagined they were horrible places to live. Millenia ago, when the devils had comes to this world, they’d tried to conquer it, and there had been a great war. The Empire she served was formed in the aftermath of the alliance of human kingdoms that had been forced to work together to defeat the devils and banish them from this plane of existence. Of course, a few had remained, and they’d set themselves up as the rulers of some of the more southern lands.

After the war, the human alliance was too tired and fractured to drive the last of these devils out, and so the devils had taken root in those southern lands and built up new kingdoms which existed in an uneasy state of peace with the Empire. Most of the time, the devil rulers fought amongst themselves, so they were usually too busy to be much of a concern, but every now and then a single King or Queen would gain dominance over the others, and then trouble would start. It was like that now, Stratios’ father ruled a coalition that had begun to push on the imperial borders and created tensions between the two powers.

Tensions that this situation could escalate.

Anders brought them to a halt at the mouth of an alley, and turning they saw the short, trash strewn lane ended in a brick wall with a single door in it. Around the door was arrayed a group of tough looking young men playing dice.

“Friendly or unfriendly, sir?” Courtney asked.

“Let’s try friendly first,” Anders said, and the three of them stepped into the alleyway.

Seeing their approach, the young men stopped their games and arrayed out across the road. Courtney noted knives and other weapons being brought to the ready, and did a quick check for magical energies to make sure there was nothing of concern. A few among these toughs did have items that glowed a soft yellow or light orange, but none of the stronger colours that could give them trouble.

“Nothing to be concerned about, sir.” She whispered to Anders.

He nodded. “Still, keep up your guard.”


The two groups met.

The apparent leader of the toughs didn’t show any intimidation at the sight of the three of them, which was impressive enough in the face of two people wearing Imperial Security uniforms, but when they had the imposing figure of Stratios with them, it bordered on insanity.

“Yeah?” Said the tattooed young man, his face a mask of lines in the form of a wolf, a popular look among the street thugs.

“We’re here to see your leader,” Anders said directly. “We just want to talk.”

The tough eyed them, then barked a command to one of the others that sent him rushing through the door at the alley’s end. Meanwhile the rest of them stood there like a wall, trying to look as imposing as they could.

A few years ago, Courtney might have been intimidated by them, but now they just looked like kids to her. The things she’d seen during her training to join the service and subsequent time in the Eidolon Corps had shown her how hollow this show of bravado really was. It also didn’t hurt that she was only a thought away from summoning up a mystical suit of armour which made her a match for battle trolls and giants.

After a candlemark, the door opened and the messenger rushed out. His whisper into the lead tough’s ear made the tattooed man nod and look at them with a slight sneer on his lips. “We’ve been told to treat you nice. Follow me.”

The crowd parted, and the three let themselves be led into the building by the tattooed man. Courtney stayed vigilant, ever aware that the narrow halls they now walked could easily turn into a site for an ambush. Her job was to protect Anders, and their guest, although she doubted Stratios needed much in the way of protecting.

The dirty corridor emptied out into a larger hall, which was some kind of recreation room from the look of it. It was a cluttered mess, and stank of sweat and human desperation. On the far side, past a few tables and ratty couches, a thin faced man wearing a white turban and colourful robes sat at a desk. One of the desert dwellers from the Sand Sea to the West, he was surprisingly clean and well dressed compared with his surroundings and associates.

The associates in question being the half dozen enforcer types who were standing strategically around the room. Unlike the kids outside, these were big men, and they had the wary eyes of old soldiers of the street. Courtney knew before she checked that they all had artifacts or other items that glowed bright orange and red for the strong magical energies flowing through them. These men were equipped to fight, and knew their business.

Their guide led the trio into the middle of the room- the worst spot to be if trouble happened.

“Greetings,” said the turbaned man, standing as a show of respect and bowing slightly. “I am Navrang Krul, the manager of this business. How may I help you?”

“Good morning, Honored Krul,” said Anders, “I am Colonel Anders, and we have come to talk with you about the hiring you have been doing recently.”

“Oh yes?” Said the man, who seemed impressed by Anders’ respectful use of the form of address that the Sand Sea dwellers used. “How may I help you, Colonel?”

“Yes, we’ve heard that you’ve been busy hiring local people for a special job, is this true?”

Krul nodded. “It is. We have a large contract to help build a dam in Korvar Province, and we need all the help we can get.” Then he smiled. “If there is some concern over taxes, I’m sure we can come to an agreement. I assure you our paperwork is all very much in order.”

“It is,” Anders agreed, looking around casually in a way Courtney had seem him do before when he was playing with his opponents. “I’ve seen it. However, I did a little checking and learned you don’t have contracts with any of the caravan companies. Why is that? You’re hiring quite a few people, how are they getting to their work sites?”

The smile faded from the other man’s face, and Courtney saw concern flash through his eyes. “Well, we don’t use the caravans. We have our own means of transportation for them.”

“Oh, is that so?” Anders said politely. “Then, where are your stables? I don’t imagine you make these workers walk to Korvar Province?”

“Not at all,” said Krul. “We rent horses from a reputable dealer in the Merchant’s Quarter. I can give you his name if you wish to pay him a visit?”

“Someone unregistered?” Anders asked, his voice showing false surprise that such an esteemed businessman would associate with such types.

“No. No.” Krul waved a hand. “I can assure you they are registered, just that they do a little extra side business when they can. Not every caravan needs so many horses, and we use their extras when they are not needed, for a modest fee.”

“Ah. Sounds like a good business arrangement.” Anders said. “We’ll be sure to pay them a visit.”

Krul nodded. “I am sorry if my clerk’s small omission caused you all to come down here. I am sure you are most busy.” He said, finally sitting back down. “If there is anything else?”

“No… I think…” Anders began, and then paused and said. “Oh wait, there was one more thing that troubled me.”

Krul cocked his head. “And what is that, esteemed sir?”

“Korvar Province is in its rainy season right now, you can’t build a dam there during this time, the ground is too soft and wet. So why do you send so many people there each week? It seems like they’d just be sitting around, eating up your profits.”

Krul’s tanned face turned the colour of milk tea- with extra milk. “Well, ah… That is…” He stammered. “We do not…”

“Do not what? Actually send people there? We know.” Anders said flatly. “What we want to know is where you are really sending them. And, why none of them return.”

Seeing Krul’s expression harden, Courtney tensed and made ready to summon her armour. This was the moment- Krul would either crack or he would go on the offencive and they’d have a fight on their hands.

Then Krul did neither.

He stood again, sighed, and made ready to speak, but what came out his mouth a second later was a mournful tortured scream of agony and his eyes rolled back into his head. Then a green glowing hand thrust out of his open mouth, followed by another as each hand grabbed the sides of his mouth and pulled it apart inhumanly far. Then, from the tortured orifice a green glowing head suddenly appeared, it’s wet face a ghastly twisted grin with no eyes or nose. Only huge, sharp teeth that clashed together like a shark’s jaws.

As Courtney watched in horror, the rest of the creature’s body emerged from Krul as well, like a spider shedding its skin to emerge new and whole to let Krul’s body drop at its feet. Scuttling up onto the desk, it hunched there on all four limbs, hissing at them. The sight of it sending the former bodyguards screaming from the room and leaving the three of them alone with it.

“What… Is it?” Courtney gasped.

It was Stratios’ rough voice answered from behind her. “A Keeper Demon. It was this human’s minder.”

Anders grunted in agreement. “He was getting ready to tell us what we wanted to know. His employer put this in him to make sure no secrets got out, and that anyone who did force him would also die.”

“Is it dangerous?” Courtney asked, watching it carefully.

“Very.” Anders replied, not taking his own eyes off the thing and slowly reaching into his coat where he kept his collection of charms and talismans. “Stratios, I don’t suppose you can lend a hand here?”

“No.” Said the devil in a tone which indicated that it was a matter of preference rather than ability.

Anders sighed. “Fine. When it starts to move, armour up and try to avoid its claws. They’re ethereal, and will pass through everything but flesh- don’t count on your armour. Protect Stratios as best you can.”

“What about you?”

She saw a slight grin appear on his face. “Let it try.”

“But my job…” She started to say, and then there was a flash of movement and the keeper was gone.

Instinctively, she armoured up, which was just as well, as it was only her enhanced speed and senses that let her know the thing had appeared out of the air to her left and let her dodge the skeletal claw that would have taken her head off.

Jumping back, she threw a kick at the thing only to have it vanish before her leg was even close. The suddenly lack of a target throwing her slightly off-balance and making her tumble backwards into Stratios.

She felt the robed figure give her a gentle push, and at first she thought he was steadying her, but then a paralysing cold shot through her body as something struck her from behind.

The last thing she could do before she blacked out was scream.


Courtney awoke with a startled gasp, clutching her chest. It felt like there was a cold void there, like her guts were pure ice.

Then she looked around- she was on the gravel of a rooftop?

She was no longer in her armour, just her uniform. The hot mid-day sun beating down on her from above.

How had she gotten here? Where was Anders? Where was Stratios?

She started to rise and then regretted it. Her limbs felt like putty, her whole body was shaking and coated with sweat. She stayed where she was.

What had happened? She remembered falling back into Stratios, and then he’d… attacked her? She wasn’t sure.

Then there was a loud bang as a trapdoor set into the roof near her suddenly sprang open and slammed onto the roof. She tried to move, but she was too scrambled and couldn’t focus. She could only sit there and watch as…

Anders came up the ladder into view. His tied-back brown hair and hazel eyes peeking above the lip- eyes that watched her in concern as he rose into view. As usual, he looked none the worse for wear, and in fact might have been coming from a formal dinner for all he appeared.

“You okay?” He asked.

“I… I’m not sure.” She said. “W-what happened? The Keeper?”

“Gone,” Anders said. “I dispelled it after it attacked you.”

“It attacked me? But Stratios?”

Anders shook his head. “It appeared between you two and used its claws on you.” The senior agent tapped his chest- “Right through you.”

“How… am I alive?”

Anders pointed up. “Your armour absorbed most of the attack, and we did what we could. Stratios was unsurprisingly knowledgeable about this kind of attack, and had me rush you up into the sun. He said the heat would help your recovery. I had to leave you while I found the vagrants they’d been rounding up.”

That got Courtney’s attention. “They’re here? Alive?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Anders frowned. “There are a few dozen here, not the whole number who have vanished. They are in a spell-induced trance in the basement.”

Courtney started to get up again, “I’ll summon help.”

But Anders put a hand on her shoulder to keep her from moving. “No, we’re going to leave them. Just wait until you’ve recovered, and then we’ll pull out.”


“Are you sure this will work?” Courtney said, sipping hot ginger tea to try to rid herself of the lingering chill she felt.

Anders shrugged. “It should.” Then he reached over and grabbed a bun from the bread basket between them. They were in a small cafe off one of Volksgrad’s main thoroughfares- a place which Anders frequented because he knew the owner. “Be patient.”

“I will try,” Courtney said, glancing at the small scrying mirror which sat between them on the table in its soft leather case. “Can I say I’m not comfortable with this?”

“Using those vagrants as bait?”


“It’s necessary,” he said as he buttered the bun. “We need to find out where they’re being sent, and the best way to do that is to let the gang make delivery.”

“What makes you think they’ll deliver them? They’d all run away, and we left those men helpless in the basement.”

Anders shook his head, “They don’t know that we know about the men. They think we were there for Krul, and left after we got him. When no city militia show up to surround the place they’ll move back in fast enough. Those men are worth money, and greed triumphs good sense every time.”

“What if they’re hurt? Before we can arrive?”

“Who? The vagrants?” He considered a moment, and then bit into his bun. “It’s a possibility.” He said, chewing. “If so, they’ll prevent others from suffering the same fate.”

“But, they’re people.”

“People who were going to die preventing a lot of others from doing so.”

Courtney crossed her arms and looked away, pulling the blanket over her shoulders closer. “There should be another way.”

“There are,” Anders admitted. “But none are as efficient. If it makes you feel any better, the devils only eat live food. If they’re being brought in to satisfy some appetites, then they’ll be kept alive until the last possible minute. We should have time to reach them before that happens. Perhaps saving a few more.”

“Thank you for that reassurance,” she said, sarcasm in her voice.

There was a long pause, and then he said. “Courtney, look at me.”

When she didn’t, he repeated it again, and finally she did, finding his hazel eyes fixed on her.

“This is our job,” he said in a voice that made it clear she was to listen quietly. “We make trades and we make compromises to serve the greater good. We belong to a system, and that system needs to be maintained. If the cost is to sacrifice some so that more may live, we do it. That’s the nature of government, the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many. The Empire is what keeps people from killing each other, it’s brought a peace that our people haven’t known in centuries. We’re the guardians of that peace, and while what we do might not be pretty, it is necessary. If its not something you’re comfortable with, then you’re always welcome to transfer out.”

She wanted to turn away, but knew he would only interpret that as weakness, so she met his gaze and nodded. “I understand.”

“I felt the same way as you when I first started this job,” he continued. “It took a long time to get used to the idea that I was playing with people’s lives every time I made a decision. At first, I hated it, but I told myself it was what I signed up for, and over time I got used to it. You will too.”

She nodded slowly. “I just wonder.”

“About what?”

“What makes us any different from devils if we treat human lives so casually?”

The scrying mirror on the table let out a chirping noise, and they both looked at it.

Then Anders looked up at her.

“Let’s go find out,” he said.


The guard crumpled to the ground, felled by the force of Courtney’s blow.

Double checking to see that the other guards were also still unconscious, and that there weren’t any other surprises waiting, Courtney went into the guardhouse and pulled the lever to open the front gates. As she walked out, she saw Anders and Stratios come through.

“Are they?” Anders asked glancing at the guards.

“They’ll just be out for an hour or so,” Courtney said.

Anders nodded, “Good, in case this is a mistake, the last thing we need is some noble complaining about how we manhandled their staff.”

“This is a waste of time,” Stratios said. “You should have allowed me to enter by myself. I could’ve taking care of all of this easily.”

Anders shook his head, “I already told you, we are coming with you. We’re already going in before our backup arrives, that’s bad enough. This may also be a trap, and we can’t allow anything to happen to you.”

The devil made no reply, but merely began moving along the path toward the large distant manor house. Courtney looked at Anders, who shrugged, and then the two of them began to follow the devil.

Anders’ tracking spirits had led them to this place, the very private estate of a very rich noble family. Not that this was much of a surprise, as whoever was behind this operation would require money and resources. Also, a devil princess would only choose to work with someone they perceived as having equal status, or equal ambition, which was a common characteristic among the noble families of the Empire.

“Why do you think they did it?” Courtney asked. “They must’ve known that they be caught.”

Anders shook his head. “Likely the Princess promise them something. Wealth, power, immortality, or some other thing that she knew they’d find irresistible.”

“But they…” Courtney started, and then stop speaking when she saw Anders raise his hand.

Her commander then looked at her, and pointed to a nearby ancient tree. “Armour up. Scale that tree, and use your mage sight to scan the area.”

“How far out?”

“As far as it takes.”

Not needing any further prompting, Courtney did as he told her to. In a flash, she’d scaled the ancient tree, using her suit’s enhanced strength and agility to get her to the top in moments. Once there, she began to peer around, using her suit’s magical senses. In this way, she saw the world as flows of magical energy, with the essence of every living thing in the world itself flowing around her.

With this method, it didn’t take her long to see why Anders had sent her up.

She leaped from the top of the tree and landed on the road with a soft thump. Then, she returned to Anders. “Someone is performing a large-scale ritual to the west of us,” she said. “It’s drawing in all the mana from the area.”

Anders nodded. “I could feel the flows going in that direction. And, it appears our guest did to.” And he gestured ahead of them at Stratios, who had stopped and was now turned to face in the direction that Courtney had seen the ritual.

Cutting across a path through the forest, the three of them soon came to a large open field normally used for sports and equestrian events. The moment they cleared the tree line, Courtney came to an abrupt halt.

She stared out at the scene before her, unable to quite comprehend what she was seeing.

The open field was carpeted in bodies. Thousands of them. They were laid out in neat rows that seemed to stretch on in all directions as far as she could see. It was like a huge crowd had suddenly all collectively laid down to take a nap.

The exception was the centre of the field, where a huge magical circle glowed white and amber in a brilliant rotating display of light that danced around in a series of images of various magical runic symbols. And, at the centre of that casting circle, a single tall horned and armoured figure was waving her hands and chanting loudly, manipulating unseen magical forces.

“What is he doing?” Courtney asked, finally finding her voice. “Is she, eating them?”

But, by the time she’d finish the words, Anders and Stratios were already both rushing across the field toward the casting circle, and she was forced to start running after them.

“We have to stop her!” Anders yelled.

“Why? What is she trying to cast?”

“This isn’t a casting circle! This is a summoning circle! These people are being used as part of a powerful summoning ritual. We need to stop her from finishing it!”

Then, as Anders finished saying the words, there was a mighty cry in an alien language from the centre of the field, and the circle within it. The summoning circle pulsed, sending a pulse of orange energy out across the field.

“Armour up and get behind me!” Anders shouted as they came to a halt and he pulled out a paper talisman from inside his coat. As he brought it up, the paper stiffened and glowing magical symbols flared to life all across the long yellow strip, then he held it up in front of him as though he were trying to show it to an invisible person before him.

When the energy wave hit them, it bent around Anders and Courtney. They, and the bodies next to them, were in a small safe zone that he had created.

Courtney looked ahead, at Stratios, who was outside and or safety zone. He too had stopped, and was holding one of his hands in front of himself to bend the flow of energy away from him.

Then, as quickly as it had started, the energy wave passed. It left all the field was once again in darkness, except for the now dimmed light show of the summoning circle at its centre.

“What just happened?”

Anders lowered the talisman, and then said grimly, “She finished the spell.”

Courtney was about to ask what kind of spell, when she heard the first of the screams as all at once, the legion of bodies around them cried out in tortured agony. Whatever the spell was, they were about to find out.


All around them, the legion of bodies screamed and writhed in tortured agony. It was the most terrifying and soul wrenching noise Courtney had ever heard in her entire life and it left her reeling in confusion. It wasn’t until she felt Anders grabbed her arm, and looked at him that she found her focus.

“We have to go!” He said, pointing toward the summoning circle in the middle. “The possession process has just started, it will take time to finish.”

“What’s it doing to them?” She said as they started to move again.

“They are being possessed by war demons.” He answered, “It’s even worse than I thought. She’s using them as vessels to raise an army. When they are fully possessed, she will have over a thousand demon-possessed warriors under her control.”

Courtney, who had already faced berserker demons in combat several times in her short career, shuddered. Fuelled by the power of magic, such creatures had inhuman strength and stamina, and were filled with a rage to kill and destroy that few could imagine. It was almost impossible to take them out without killing them, and because they felt no pain that took quite a bit of effort. Even subduing a small group of these things was difficult, and there were untold numbers of them around her on the field being born.

With this in mind, she used her armour’s speed to pull ahead of Anders and Stratios, making a direct line for the summoning circle.

She intended to go right through it and hit the summoner as hard as she could. With her strength and power, she was capable of going through buildings and even some castle walls with relative ease if she had enough momentum. And now, with this open field. She had lots of room to build up the speed it required. As a result, when she hit the summoning circle she was going easily fast enough to tear through a thick stone wall.

Which is what made it even more shocking, when instead of going through the summoning circle she merely bounced off the edge of it as though she’d hit a giant piece of rubber. Spinning out of control, she was sent tumbling back into the field to land among the screaming bodies.

By the time she regained her senses, Stratios and Anders had caught up and were standing next to the summoning circle.

“Stop it now sister!” Stratios called out, “our father has forbidden this.”

But inside, a demonic figure who looked very much like Stratios himself only laughed.

“Our father is weak,” Laeeq cried out. “He would accept peace with the humans. But there can be no peace between us, for we were born to rule.”

“I agree sister,” Stratios said, surprising his to human companions. “But now is not the time, and this is not the way. Come with me, and we will return. Your vigour will be rewarded, and you will not be punished.”

But at this, the rogue princess only laughed. “Do you take me to be a fool? You will return with my head to present to our father, and he will reward you as crown prince for it. I would rather return with an army to show him my true power.”

While this exchange continued, Courtney joined Anders. She was still a bit stunned from the impact, but had regained most of her senses.

As she approached, he leaned in and whispered, “I want you to try again. Can you do it?”

Courtney, whose insides were still rattling from the last attempt, stared at him blankly. “But, that shield is too strong.”

“No,” Anders whispered. “There will be a chance. Get in position on the far side of the field, and wait for my signal.”

“What signal?”

“You’ll know it when you see it. Go.”

Without further question, Courtney turned and took off. Moving at high speed away from the magic circle as though she were fleeing, and then when she got to the edge of the field turning and beginning to circle around so that she was on the opposite side from where Anders and Stratios faced off with the rogue demoness.

Once there, she put her hands on her knees and gasped in mouthfuls of the cool night air. In the middle of the field, she could still see the three of them arguing on the other side. Then, she saw Stratios raise his hands and powerful energies fly from them to attack the summoning circle’s shield. At the same time, she saw a blue flash as Anders launched another type of attack spell, but neither of their efforts could penetrate the powerful summoning circle’s defences.

Despite this, she knew that what she was looking at was her signal. So, sucking in a deep breath, she began her dash back across the field towards the summoning circle.

As she did this, she saw that the bodies were beginning to rise up. Their human features were now changing into something twisted and demonic, and their bodies were becoming bigger and hunched over- their hands becoming claws with long sharp talons for fingers. A few of them noticed her, and suddenly there was a wall of these creatures before her, talons reaching for her.

But Courtney had a job to do, and so with her shoulder ahead of her, she relied on her Armour’s strengths and defences to ward off the attacks of the creatures as she plunged into them. The creatures were sent flying and scattering before her as she moved through the field at an ever-increasing rate.

Finally, the seemingly endless army of creatures before her parted, and she was looking once more at the lights of the summoning circle. It’s amber energies were flaring on the side across from her as it weathered the onslaught of her superior and the power of a demon prince.

Making a silent prayer, she raised a fist and charge into the summoning shield, hitting it with everything she had.

Much as Anders had obviously expected, the shield, which was occupied by the attack on the other side, was weaker now on this side. And, as an end result, Courtney found herself passing through the barrier with only some small resistance. Then, she was inside, having lost only a little bit of her momentum, and before her was the rogue princess, who was still facing the other direction.

She must’ve heard the sound Courtney’s attack made, or perhaps she sensed her, and the demoness began to turn, but it was already far too late. Courtney slammed into her, and the power of armoured body and momentum carried them both into the defencive wall of the summoning circle before them. Crushed between her, and the barrier, the demon princess let out a pitiful cry and there was a loud cracking sound as several of her bones were rendered down into powder.

Of course, Courtney also felt some of the impact, despite her Armour’s attempts to protect her. So, both she and the princess fell back into the circle, stunned. It took the young agent several moments before she regained her wits, and could hear the distant sounding voices of Anders and Stratios calling to her. Then she was awake, struggling to her feet, looking around.

The rogue princess’ body lay nearby, broken and unmoving, but the barrier was still up and very much active. It was like she was now trapped inside a giant glowing glass jar, one with no exit and which she had no idea how to get out of. Meanwhile, outside she could see that Anders and Stratios were fighting desperately against a tide of demon possessed war spirits that were surging up against the circle.

Courtney shook her head, trying to clear it, and trying to think of something she could do to help them.

Despite Stratios’ power, there was no way they could survive this attack. And, while she had stopped the rogue demoness, she was trapped inside the circle, and knew nothing about weaving spells or controlling magical circles.

Looking around desperately, she stared at all the magical symbols carved into the ground around her. Should she try to destroy them? But, if she did, what would that do? Would that just get her killed as well, and destroy any chance they had of taking control or stopping this mob?

But, if she didn’t, Anders would die, and she would have failed in her duty…

That wasn’t going to happen.

Deciding she had little choice. She picked a symbol at random and slammed her mailed fist right into it as hard as she could.

The moment her fist impacted, there was a bright light that blinded her, and a loud popping sound.

Then, the tinkling sound that the magical barrier made became a angry buzz as the weave began to lose its stability and break down.

As this happened, Stratios suddenly lurched through the barrier to join her inside the circle, followed by Anders.

“Out of the way!” Screamed to the demon prince, and he rushed into the middle of the circle, his hands waving in a complex series.

Courtney moved quickly to Anders, who was none the worse for wear in his torn coat and uniform with his face and one arm covered in blood. “Sir, are you?”

“I’m… Okay.” Anders said and looked from her to where Stratios was frantically creating a new weave. “He’s trying to stabilize the circle, and get it back under control.”

“But sir,” Courtney whispered, “Won’t that put it under his control?”

“Yes,” he said, giving a concerned glance in the direction of the devil prince. “We’ll just have to wait and see what he does.”

All around them, the demon warriors were pounding on the shield, their fists reverberating off the barrier in a rhythmic beat. And then, suddenly, the noise was gone, and there was only the tinkling sound of the barrier itself.

Looking out, Courtney could see the demon-possessed warriors were standing stock-still, waiting for orders.

“Dispel the spirits within them,” Anders said, coughing up dark fluid.

Stratios, who now stood royally over the fallen body of his sister, turned and gave the two humans an amused smile. “I now have an army to do as I will, why would I release such power?”

Courtney felt her insides go cold again, they’d only barely stopped one devil, and now another had taken its place. She tensed, getting ready to attack when Anders gave the order. She wasn’t sure if she could beat him, but she had no choice but to try.

“I have your brand.” Anders said, locking eyes with Stratios.

Courtney saw the devil’s eyes go wide. “You lie.”

Anders met his gaze levelly. “Your father sent it in the letter you brought. I have it, and I will use it, unless you shut this whole thing down. Now.”

Stratios and Anders faced each other for a time, and then finally the devil looked away and began a series of gestures to weave orders into the circle.

“I was just musing, of course.” Said Stratios as he worked. “You humans are far too serious.”

“Of course,” said Anders, flatly.

A few moments later, Courtney saw the demon-possessed people around them begin to collapse and could see their features slowly start to revert to normal. Then the circle also began to shut down, and as the last of the glowing symbols faded from view, they were standing alone in a darkened field.

“Thank you,” Anders said, and then pointed at the fallen body of Laeeq. “Now take her, and get out of my city.”


Their backup arrived shortly afterwards, every member of the Eidolon Corps in the area, and a whole unit of city militia. Anders set them to work sorting the details out, and then let Courtney drag him off toward a healer’s tent.

As she took him there, she asked, “What did you mean when you said you had his brand?”

This brought a weak smile to Anders’ tired face. “Devil kings all brand their children with a magical tattoo that lets them control their magic. They do it to prevent rebellion.”

Courtney nodded, with children like this, she could see why. “And you have his brand?”

“Well, I said I did.” He smiled. “It was something his father might do, especially if he thought Stratios might get out of control.”

“They don’t trust each other at all, do they? The Devils.” Courtney mused.

“No. That’s what separates them from us. Even when I sent you in, I knew there was a chance you’d end up trapped inside the barrier.”

“But you trusted me to find a way to get you in.” Courtney looked at him, feeling touched.

He shrugged. “I trusted you not to let me die easy.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome,” he said as they reached the waiting healers. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to rest. A lot.”

After he’d gone inside, Courtney turned and looked across the field at the chaotic scene. They’d saved a lot of lives, and risked their own, it was a good day’s work.

Suddenly she was proud to have this job again, and glad she could be part of something so important. And glad most of all that she had the trust of the people she worked with.

After all, without trust, what was there?


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

The Goblin Princess



Ranger Hastur paused, taken a little aback by the young learner’s reply. “Thorin, I didn’t even say what the mission was.”

Thorin glanced at his two teammates, Feena and Azure giving him curious looks, then looked back at their teacher. “It’s about the Goblins, right sir?”

Hastur sighed, rubbing the red bandanna he wore to cover his balding scalp. This was the problem with being the teacher to the son of the village leader, just from his dinner table chatter alone the boy knew far more than anyone else about the goings-on of the ranger village.

“That’s right, kid.” Hastur continued. “That Goblin trader caravan that just went through left a member of their clan with us for training, but that member forgot something and needs to catch up with the caravan to retrieve it. We need someone to escort them there and back again before the caravan gets too far out. So, I was to going to ask which one of you wanted to do it.”

“Sir, I already said I’d do it.” The young teenaged boy stated. “Besides, Feena has special training with the Carving Master, and Azure hates Goblins, so we can’t send her. I’m the only choice.”

Hastur raised a salt-and-pepper eyebrow, looking at Feena, who gave a shrug of agreement, and Azure, who looked unhappy but nodded as well. Elves and Goblins had a long and furious history between them, and there was little doubt that sending her into the Goblin camp might not be the best choice.

In truth, he’d been a little reluctant to send the leader’s son on the mission, and hoping Feena could take it on, but accepting that he’d already been outmanoeuvred by his student, Hastur finally nodded. “Alright then, Thorin. See the Master of Horses for two mounts, and then take them to the Blue House to pick up the Goblin. Prepare to be out for the night, since we’ve only got half a day and it’ll be a good day’s ride to get there.”

“Yes, teacher!” The redheaded teen said enthusiastically, and then with he was sprinting away from the table.

Watching him go, Hastur was a little bewildered. He’d rarely seen anyone want to spend more time than they had to with a Goblin, much less be happy about it. Then he paused… did the boy know? He shook the thought away. Even if he did, this was just Thorin being Thorin- eager to learn and explore everything he could.

Still, he wished the boy luck as he turned to the day’s training for his remaining two charges.


Thorin tapped twice on the Blue House’s front door, then peered around to see if Master Rugle or his wife were somewhere about the farmstead. The Blue House was the guest house for people staying with the Rangers of the Black Woods, so called for the blue tinted stones that had been used to build it. Legend had it that when Master Rugle was asked why the house was blue, the retired ranger said that the house was a fetching green. This being the first time anyone had noticed that the elder warrior was in fact colorblind.

Still, the name stuck, and the Rugles were known far and wide for their hospitality, and Mrs. Rugle’s raspberry puddings and other treats. Treats which Thorin hoped he might get a few of to accompany the day’s ride.

Not seeing either the seniors or their tenant farmers about, Thorin knocked again. This time there was noise from inside and the face of the elderly former ranger appeared at the door, smiling down at him.

“Well, if it isn’t young Redleaf? How’s your father, boy?”

“Good, sir.” Thorin said politely. “My mother has him clearing out the back gardens today.”

This made the older man smile more broadly. “I bet he wishes there were an official emergency to tear him away from that mess! So, how may I help you?”

“Master Hastur sent me to escort the… err… guest back to their caravan to fetch something.” Thorin said, realizing halfway through that he actually didn’t know what to refer to the Goblin as without being rude. He wasn’t sure if Goblin was a polite term or not, especially given how most people seemed to use the word.

This made the elder’s smile fade quickly. “Ah, yes. We’ve been expecting you. Come with me, then.” He pushed open the door and then lead Thorin into the house, through a front hall lined with paintings of oddly coloured cows and scenery, and left into the front sitting room.

There, on an old wooden rocking chair, sat the Goblin.

Or, at least, Thorin took it to be a Goblin. It was the right height, being barely above four foot, and had two large emerald green ears that protruded from either side of it’s head, each festooned with earrings, but that was almost all Thorin could actually see of it. The rest of the small person before him was covered head to toe in black cloth and lace, covering everything from the figure’s covered and veiled head to its shoes. It even wore gloves, leaving the only skin visible the two broad cowlike ears and a very thin strip where the veil stopped just below the eyes and under the headcovering.

From that narrow strip, two large yellow eyes tinted with flecks of orange watched Thorin warily.

Thorin didn’t know what he was expecting but it certainly wasn’t this. He’d seen and encountered Goblins before on missions and during visits from occasional caravans, but none of them had looked remotely like this. Well, the ears and skin tint were the same, but the mode of dress was so different, especially since it seemed like most goblins barely wore any clothes at all beyond animal pelts.

Then a thought occurred to him. All the Goblins he’d seen were warriors, and they’d also been male. Did that mean that perhaps this was…?

“Here she is,” the elder ranger gestured at the Goblin. Then he spoke directly to the guest. “This lad is here to take you to your caravan so you can get your medicine or whatever it is you need.”

“It is ritual herbss,” said the Goblin girl, there being a slight hiss to her speech that extended the “s” sound at the end of “herbs”. “I need them for my prayerss.”

“Of course,” Rugle looked at Thorin and shrugged a “what can you do?” motion. “In any case, this boy’ll be taking you to get them. Just go with him.”

At this, the girl rose smoothly from her chair, lifting the hem of her dress with her gloved fingers, and walked across the room toward them. Thorin, seeing his chance to make a good impression, stuck out his hand and said “Hello, I’m…”

Only to be ignored, as she walked right past him and out down the hallway, leaving him momentarily standing there, surprised.

“Best get after her, son.” Said the elder Rugle. “She won’t be stopping for you, I can promise you that. Goblin women aren’t exactly the friendly types.”

“R-right!” Thorin said, and with a brief nod of respect to Rugle he took off after the girl, finding her standing just outside the door, looking around.

“Where iss the carriage?”

“The horses are over there,” Thorin said, gesturing to where he’d tied the animals up.

“Horsess?” Her tone rose, suggesting fear. “I cannot ride a horse!”

“Sure you can,” Thorin said, leading her over toward them. “I even brought you Little Charlie, and the Horse Master says he’s the gentlest we’ve got. He’s barely bigger than a pony, so even you can… Ahh… Ride him.” Were Goblins sensitive about their height, Thorin wondered?

“But, I need a carriage!” She protested, looking worriedly at the grazing animal.

Thorin shook his head. “I’m sorry, if we take a carriage there’s no way we can catch up with them in time. We have to ride horses. But… If you want to tell me what you need, or send a letter with me, I can ride to meet them and you don’t have to come?”

“No!” She exclaimed, then seemed to find her courage. “I will… ride it.” She walked over and stood next to the horse, which despite being on the small side was still huge compared to the Goblin girl. Then, as the animal and Thorin watched, she walked around to the other side of it and back again.

It took Thorin a moment to realize what was happening. “Can I… Help you up?” He said, suppressing a smile.

She froze, and then nodded. “You can.”

He approached, making sure the stirrup was in the right place and grabbing the pommel with his left hand while offering her his right. “Put your left foot in there and use it to help lift yourself up.” He said, then eyed her long skirt and asked “Can you put both legs over the side?”

“No.” She said flatly as she got up onto the seat.

“Okay, I’ll adjust the stirrups so you can ride side-saddle then.” It would be a little slower, but faster than a carriage, he decided.

After a few adjustments and instructions, they were finally ready to go, and Thorin mounted Thunderfoot, the horse he’d been lent for the mission. He wasn’t senior enough to rate his own personal horse yet.

“By the way,” he said, riding up alongside her. “Can I ask your name?”

“No.” Said the girl. “Can we go?”

“Yeah,” said Thorin, starting to think maybe he’d taken this job a little too quickly. “Let’s go.”


It didn’t take long before Thorin and his charge were leaving the ranger village. When they finally did, he was glad to be in the forest and away from the stares and curious eyes that the small girl attracted. He felt like her odd appearance rubbed off on him, and he wasn’t happy with the attention at all.

Once they hit the well worn forest roads, they picked up the pace a little. The sun was now high in the West, which meant they had only a couple hours of riding time before it sank, and he didn’t fancy being out in the woods at night if he could help it. It wasn’t that he was scared of the forest, or that he hadn’t spent countless hours camping, he was a ranger learner after all, but he still didn’t enjoy sleeping on the hard ground.

Since the girl was inexperienced and riding side-saddle, they were limited in how fast they could go, and he kept them to a modest trot rather than a gallop in an effort to keep her safe. As a result, they rode mostly side by side, and after a time Thorin decided to try and strike up a conversation.

“We didn’t get a chance to introduce ourselves,” he said. “I’m Thorin.”

“Greetingss.” Said the girl.

“What’s your name?” Thorin continued, seeing she wasn’t going to say anything else.

“You do not need to know. We will not be together long.”

“Uuh. Yeah.” Thorin wasn’t sure how to answer that and rode silently for a while before trying again. “So, what are these herbs for, the ones we’re going to get? You said they’re for a ritual?”

The girl nodded her head and gave a small grunt, still not looking at him.

“What kind of ritual is it? Like prayers to the ancestors?”

She closed her eyes, and he saw her shake her head slightly. At first, he thought she was thinking about how stupid his question was, but then she opened her eyes again.

“They are for prayerss to the God Ganasshi,” she said, still not looking at him, but her tone a little less cold. “We musst burn them every night so that he will give uss good dreamss. I need them, or I won’t be able to ssleep.”

“Oh,” that made sense to Thorin, but then he asked, “Can’t you get them here?”

He saw the girl stiffen a bit, but she shook her head. “No. your valley doess not have the herbss I need.”

“And they didn’t leave enough for you?”


Thorin shrugged. “Okay then. Well, we should be able to get to your caravan by nightfall.”

“Thank you.”

Surprised by her show of politeness, Thorin smiled and reached for his canteen. As he drank, it occurred to him how hot she must be clothed in black like that under the late afternoon summer sun.

“You know, you should drink your water.” He told her. “You’re gonna get heat sick if you let yourself get too hot. There’s water there in your saddle bag. I got it from the spring earlier, so it should still be cool.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she reached down a gloved hand and took her own canteen from the saddle bag, then turned to face away from him so she could raise her veil and drink. He felt a little disappointed. He’d been hoping to see what she’d looked like under that veil. Once she was done, she replaced the canteen in the bag.

“It iss good,” she said, glancing at him.

“You’re welcome, but isn’t it hard to wear all black like that all the time in the summer? Must be pretty hot.”

“Ssometimess.” She admitted.

“So why do you do wear it, then?”

“It iss our cusstom. It would ssoil me to have lesser maless look upon me.”

Lesser males? Thought Thorin, a little confused. “So nobody can see your skin?”

“No,” she said. “Those close to me may look upon me, and other femaless, of course.”

“But nobody else?”

“It would sshame me if they did.”

“Do all girls of your… kind… Have to wear this?”

She shook her head. “No. Only those from good familiess. Lesser born may show their sskins to anyone.”

“Don’t you ever want to show your face to others?”

At this, Thorin thought he saw the skin around her eyes turn a darker shade. At first, he thought she was angry, but then she said in a soft voice, “Ssometimess.”

“So why not do it?”

“None would want to ssee me. If I sshowed them my face, they would run away.”

“I don’t mean your people. I mean, humans too.”

“I am not worth looking upon.”

“Not if they’re your friends.”

“I do not have… friendss.”

This shocked Thorin. “Goblins don’t have friends?” He said, finally blurting out the word he’d been trying to avoid.

If it bothered her, she didn’t seem to notice, and hung her head a little. “No. They have friendss. I do not. I am too worthless and ugly.”

“Friends don’t care how you look,” Thorin answered, repeating his teacher’s wisdom. “If they do, they’re not friends.”

“That is why,” she said with a sad note in her voice. “I do not have friendss.”

Thorin didn’t know how to reply to that. In his heart, he felt a pain of sadness from the tone of the girl’s voice, and wanted to comfort her, but didn’t know how he could. It surprised him, actually, how human this creature seemed.


By the time the light began to dim, Thorin gave up all hope of reaching an outpost or town before dark. The caravan had more than two day’s head start on them, and despite seeing its tracks, it was clear from the signs he picked up that the caravan was still far ahead of them. In the end, with the sun starting to dip beneath the Western Hills, Thorin made the decision to camp for the night.

His charge wasn’t happy about it, but after a short argument, they found a clearing on the side of a hill and Thorin took care of the horses while the girl began to prepare the camp. At first, he was surprised she knew how to gather the wood and arrange the fire-pit, but then he remembered she’d been raised in a trading caravan, and naturally would have picked up basic camping skills living forever on the move. With her help, it didn’t take long before they had a fire going and all chores done and were sitting around the fire.

Thorin had brought rations enough for both of them, so he didn’t need to hunt, and they both settled into a quiet dinner of dried goat jerky and roasted yams he’d snuck from his family garden before leaving. No point in letting a good excuse to roast yams go to waste, after all! She ate it all hungrily, although facing away from him the whole time, a black shadow next to the firelight chomping and smacking its way through the meal.

When they were done, Thorin decided that he wanted to try practising his flute, hoping it might improve the mood, and went to his saddle bag to get it. But, just as he was unbuckling the bag, a sound cut through the air that made a cold stream run down his back.

A wolf howl.

No. Two wolves.

No. Three.


In just a moment, he lost track of how many howls he was hearing, but they were many, loud, and close.

He gulped, looking toward the hill and the direction the howls had come from. Wolf packs occasionally ranged into the Black Wood, and as a rule they usually avoided humans, but they were small packs. One this large wouldn’t be afraid of anything.

His heart raced. Should they gather their things and go? It wasn’t safe to ride at night, a horse could trip or they could get lost on these poor side-roads. But was it any safer to spend the night next to a wolfish horde?

Then, just as Thorin was about to tell the girl to grab her roll and get ready to ride, a strange thing happened.

A harsh voice, clear and angry, barked out a command in the cool night, and the howling came to an abrupt halt.

Everything was quiet again, and only the crickets and frogs chirped around them.

Thorin strode across the camp to where the girl stood, looking in the direction of the wolves.

“Was that Goblin?” He asked, referring to the command he’d heard.

She nodded. “Low tongue.”

He considered this. “So, is it your caravan?” He asked, hoping she wouldn’t say what he knew she was going to.

“No. We have no war-riders with us.”

Hearing this, Thorin rushed over and kicked pre-prepared dirt on their campfire, dousing it. What were goblin war-riders doing here in the Black Woods? Was this an invasion? Whatever was happening, it was seriously bad, and he needed to warn someone right away. But first… He grabbed his bow and started to march toward the source of the sounds.

“Stay here,” he told the girl. “I’m going to see how many there are.” He was pretty sure he knew, but he needed to be certain if he was to give a report.

But the Goblin girl shook her head. “I will come.”

He wanted to argue, but decided he didn’t have time so he turned and marched into the forest, hearing her behind him. He was trained in stealth walking, but she wasn’t, and every snapping twig or crackling leaf sounded like a clap of thunder in his ears, but he steeled himself and prayed nobody would be close enough to notice.

When they crested the hill, he grabbed her and pulled her behind a tree. The other side of the hill had a steep drop-off, and the bottom of the culvert on the other side was ablaze with firelight. From his vantage point, Thorin could see easily a dozen camp fires, and around it the thin, twisted figures of Goblin warriors danced and drank- their green skin and pointed faces painted demonically in the firelight as they laughed and cried out. Nearby, he saw their mounts- huge Dire Wolves, easily twice the size of a normal wolf and trained since birth for war by their Goblin masters. The wolves slept, curled into giant balls of fur, ignoring their master’s revelries.

Looking at them, Thorin wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried. It wasn’t enough for an invasion force, but definitely a large raiding party. The question was, why were they there?

“Do you know them?” He whispered to the girl.

She nodded. “They’re the Blackthorn Clan, that mark on their tentss iss their clan ssigil.”

“Why are they here?”

Watching her, he saw fear and worry written in her large eyes.

“For uss,” she said.


“For us?” Thorin fought to keep his fear under control.

“My clan caravan,” she said. “They must know of my father’ss negotiations with your chief, and want to ssteal the giftss that were exchanged. Your mapss are most valuable, and they sseek to attack their rivalss.”

Thorin nodded, feeling relieved that he wasn’t looking at an attack on a village. But then he felt guilty, because these raiders were going to kill or hurt others, even if they were Goblins. They had to do something to stop them.

He took a short time to try and count the number of raiders as accurately as he could, and then motioned to the girl that they should retreat. As they made their way silently back down the hill, he tried to formulate a plan. This section of the forest was well travelled and faced the kingdom, not the Northern Frontier, so there weren’t many guard stations here. He’d need to check the map, but he suspected the nearest was some distance away, and even if they reached it, the ride would take time. Time the caravan, which was likely camped only a few dozen miles away, didn’t have.

They could warn the caravan, but that wouldn’t solve the problem either, as the slow caravan would always be outpaced by the war-riders. So what could they do?

As they reached the camp, he came up with the answer.

“We need to find a warning post.” He said, heading for his horse and opening his saddlebag.

“What iss a warning post?” She answered, following along.

He unrolled his map, and then took a moment to light a candle so they could read it.

“See these dots?” He said, pointing to little crosses on the vellum. “These are warning posts. They’re caches for Rangers to use to summon help. Each of them has wood you can use to send up smoke signals.”

Her brow furrowed. “But, we are ssurrounded by wood?”

He shook his head. “This wood is specially made to burn in different colours, so you can use it to send a message the lookouts will recognize. Every smoke colour means something different.”

“Oh,” she said, sounding impressed. “That iss very ssmart.”

“So, we’re around here,” he stuck his finger on the map. “And the nearest station is here.” He ran his finger around a small lake until it reached the mark on the map. “So we need to go… That way.” He gestured to their left.

The girl nodded, and the two of them quickly packed up their camp and mounted their horses.

“We’ll have to go slow. Keep close behind me. Your horse will know the way.”


Under the light of the moon, the two made their way through the forest, following barely used trails in what Thorin took to be the right direction. He was following the North Star, but it wasn’t always visible through the trees, so they had to rely on his own sense of direction and the makers of the trail to get them to where they were going.

As they walked, he also kept pausing to listen, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his charge.

“They are not following uss,” she told him after a time.

“How do you know?”

He heard what sounded like a snort. “War-riderss are not that quiet, especially not the Blackthorn Clan. You ssaw- they are lighting firess and letting their animalss howl, even though they want to attack by ssurprise. If they followed uss, we could hear them coming from far away.”

“Good point,” Thorin agreed. In fact, he hoped that the Rangers had noticed them and that all this effort wouldn’t be needed, but he couldn’t be sure. Even if the rangers did noticed the raiders, they might not know their intended target until it was far too late. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“You are welcome.”

“I guess we really do have something to learn from you.” He mused.

This seemed to surprise the girl. “What do you mean?”

“Well, we don’t know a lot about Goblin culture, and you can teach us.”

This produced a long silence, and then the girl said. “Do you really believe sso?”

“Sure! Why not?”

“I wass left at your village because I am a cosst to my father. He hoped to burden another with me.”

“What?” Thorin was dumbfounded. “Really? I thought you were there to help us?”

This produced what seemed like a laugh, but Thorin could feel a sadness to it. “Then that is a ssad joke that has been played on you. I am an unmarriageable female, and a useless one which brought nothing by sshame to my family. I am good at nothing, and good for nothing according to my parents. That is why they abandoned me.”

“Oh.” Was all Thorin could manage. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The culture of the Rangers was a harsh one at times, but they valued every member of their village, and the idea of a completely useless person was foreign to him. Everyone was useful, just in different ways. But, when he searched his thoughts for something to say to refute her claims, he had difficulty because she was a stranger and he knew so little about her. In the end, he could only go with what his teacher had told him.

“You’re only as useless as you make yourself, that’s what my teacher says.” He said at last. “If you make yourself useful, then you’re useful. That’s all there is to it.”

“You are wrong. Even now, I am preventing you from riding with sspeed to warn your people and help my caravan. If you did not have to care for me, then my family would be ssafe.”

“That’s stupid! If I didn’t have to take you to get those herbs, we never would have come. You’re the one who’s saving your family, not hurting them!”

Shocked by the sharp rebuke, the Goblin girl fell silent again, and for a moment Thorin thought he’d said too much, but in his heart he was too annoyed to care. Then he heard a tearing sound from behind him. A sound of cloth ripping that made him turn and look back at his charge in the moonlight.

She was a black smudge on Old Charlie, but now he could see that she was no longer facing to the side, but forward, both her legs straddling the animal beneath her.

Thorin immediately brought them to a halt and slipped off his horse.

“I am sorry,” she said in a worried voice as he approached. “I did not mean to trouble you, but I want to help my family.”

“I know,” said Thorin as he reached to grab her horse’s saddle. “I stopped to change the stirrups so you can ride this way. If we’re going to go faster, you need to ride safely, right?”


Despite the increase in speed, it took them most of the night to find their way through the forest and around the small lake to where the warning post was. The roads and paths here were rocky and treacherous, and the trails they were on had several false ends that made them double back a few times. But, just as the sky in the East was starting to lighten and go from darkest blue to a lighter shade, they managed to find the warning post.

Naturally, no one without a map was supposed to be able to find it. This was a secret messaging system that only the rangers knew of and it was meant to stay a secret. So, even once they’d arrived at the location marked on the map they still had to spend some time searching for it in the dim morning light. They found their goal buried beneath some bushes, not so much a post or even a shed but a large chest and with special markings on top buried under some bushes.

“I hope everything in here is okay,” Thorin said. “They’re supposed to check these from time to time to make sure, but old Hallahan is the one of who was put in charge of this last year.”

The girl looked at him questioningly, “Iss that a problem?”

“I hope not,” Thorin said, sounding a little worried. “He got the job because he’s a bit of a… Well, my dad says he’s a bit too fond of the ale. So, they didn’t want to trust him with guard duty anymore.”

“I ssee…”

“But I’m sure,” Thorin said as he used the key that was secretly hidden nearby to open the lock on the box. “That they must’ve made him come out and do it sometime.”

However, when the lid swung open and their noses were filled with a damp musky scent, Thorin’s heart fell. Inside, cut pieces of wood had been organized neatly into five compartments, and next to each compartment was a swatch of paint showing what colour each piece of treated wood in that compartment would burn. But, it was very clear from the damp and insect ridden condition of these pieces of wood, that they had not been checked for a very very long time.

“Oh no!” Thorin said as he lifted out one of the pieces feeling the soft wood almost turn to powder under his fingers.

“Will they still burn?” She asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said, continuing to examine them. However, the answer soon became very clear – they weren’t going to get much more than a small smoldering fire from any of this wood, much less a full burning smoke producing flame.

All their efforts had been in vain, there was no way they were going to be able to warn the Rangers or the caravan in time to prevent the raid.

They had failed.


For time, Thorin just sat there going through the wood again and again, hoping that there might be something useful. But, in the end he kept coming up with the same conclusion- there was no way they were going to be able to warn the caravan in time.

Seeing this, the girl finally asked, “Could we find another warning post?”

Thorin shook his head. “It would take us too long to get there.”

“Sso, what can we do?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” He said, feeling helpless. He ran over the possibilities in his head again and again, but he always kept coming up with the same answer – there was too much distance and too little time to do anything else. All they could do was maybe ride ahead to the caravan and try warning them, hoping that they would arrive before the war-riders did and maybe allow a few members of the caravan to escape.

It was a small thing, but maybe it might be something.

He stood up, getting ready to go. But, as he started to head for the horse, he realized that the girl wasn’t following him. So, he turned back and saw her still at the chest smelling some of the pieces of wood.

“Come on! We’ve got to go!”

She held up a gloved hand, “Wait a moment. You ssaid this would wass coated with chemicalss so that he would send up ssmoke of different colourss. Was this one mostly billerberry? And this based on roughbark?”

“I… I think so,” Thorin said, suddenly a little unsure. The truth was, he hadn’t actually studied the making of these yet, and so only had a rough idea from the lectures of his master during a camping trip several years before. But, the names of the girl said sounded familiar. “Why?”

“Sso, if we mix those ssubstances into a fire it will burn coloured ssmoke? The smokess that we need to use to ssend a message to your people?”

“Yes,” he answered. “That’s how it works. We cover this wood in those powders so that they can be used quickly in case of an emergency.”

She stood up, brushing the dust off her now torn and dirty skirt. “Then we can sstill do it. We will only need to find those substancess and add them to firess we make.”

“Yeah but…” Thorin said. “We don’t know everything they used to make those colours. I mean, they didn’t just use one thing. And, we need to find them.”

“I know what they used,” she stated. “I can ssmell them. My family tradess in many powderss, and I know most of their ssources as well. If the godss are with us, we sshould be able to find them close by.”

“Really?” Thorin said, shocked.

She nodded. “Yes, but we will need to do it quickly. I do not know how long it will take to find the different partss of this recipe. Also, you need to tell me which oness we’re going to need. Do we need all of these different mixturess?”

Thorin shook his head, “No. No, we don’t. Just the ones for red and blue. But, we will need enough for two blue fires. The number of fires is also part of the code.”

“I understand,” she nodded. “Then let uss move quickly. Do you know where we can find a billerberry…?”


It took them the better part of an hour, but Thorin was amazed at the speed at which she was able to gather the components they needed from the trees, the plants, and the soil around them. She seemed to have an innate sense for finding the things they needed, and when they finished and were dividing it all into several small piles, he told her so.

“I would often help the femaless of my caravan go out and gather the thingss we needed while the maless traded with others. I learned a lot from them.”

“Well, I’m learning a lot from you.” Doran said. “I mean, I knew how to find a lot of these things, but some of the things you thought of are ones that I never would’ve considered.”

“It iss nice of you to say that,” she said, her humility returning. “It iss only because my nose is more ssensitive than yours.”

“Boy is it ever! I wish I had you around when they sent me out to gather cooking herbs.” He marvelled.

“I believe we have everything together,” she said, looking at the three piles. “These will produce a red ssmoke when added to a fire, at least from what you told me about the recipe your Rangers use. These two will produce your blue ssmoke. Do you have the firess ready?”

Thorin nodded. “I got them ready while you were gathering those berries.”

With that, Thorin quickly got the fires burning, and when the flames were hard enough, the girl added each of the piles of components to one of the fires. Soon, there was a pillar of red smoke, and two pillars of blue smoke rising up high into the air.

“Okay, now let’s see if we can find your caravan.” Thorin said, giving a silent prayer to the gods of the forest that his message would reach the people it needed to reach in time.


It was early afternoon when the war riders found the caravan.

The Goblin war chief of the Blackthorne clan let out a mighty cry into the air, raised his axe, and lead the charge down a grassy slope toward the slow-moving line of horses and carts. His heart was filled with fire, and he salivated at the thought of the meal that he would be consuming when this battle was done. He could practically taste the cooking meat now, and he urged his riders on with a furious hunger.

Before them, the goblins of the Sulk trading family panicked and fled. The members of the caravan abandoning their carts and horses and racing toward a nearby wooded thicket in hopes of escaping the Raiders. They knew that to be caught meant to be killed or perhaps worse.

However, just as the first of the war riders was almost to the caravan, mighty horns began to blow, surprising the goblin attackers. Then, the curtains were drawn back on many of the carriages to reveal human bowman clad in the brown and green of Rangers. And, from other nearby thickets of trees, mounted horsemen appeared and began to encircle the goblin raiders.

The war chief of the Blackthorne clan had just enough time to cry in alarm before a mighty shaft struck him, knocking him off his mount and leaving him laying on the ground among the first of many of his kinsman to fall that day.


“You have done us a great service young ranger,” the leader of the Sulk trading family said that night at the feast he held in honour of the Rangers and a successful battle against the Blackthorne clan. “We owe you a great debt.” He said, raising his carved wooden mug of goblin ale toward the boy.

“I’m sorry sir, but it was your daughter that did everything. I was just there to help.” Thorin answered earnestly.

The girl’s father cackled at that and the other goblins are on the table and joined him. “I know you are just ssaying that, boy. She’ss just a female, you don’t need to give her so much honour.”

Hearing this, and knowing how untrue it was, made Thorin’s blood start to rise. And, he was going to say something when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see his teacher, Ranger Hastur, give him a shake of the head. As usual, his master knew him better than he did.

“Sstill,” the master of the trade caravan mused. “She hass been of ssome ssmall sservice. Daughter!”

“Yes father,” the girl said stepping out from the line of covered goblin women who stood nearby.

“You have been of ssome use, finally. Name a reward, a ssmall reward, and it sshall be yours.”

Thorin watched the girl, pleased to see that she was finally getting her due. Mentally, he urged her on, telling her to say to her father what was on her heart – that she wanted to stay with the clan and her brothers and sisters. After all, that was the real reason why she’d pretended to need the herbs, he’d guessed that a long time ago. This was all so she could return to her family, and escape being left behind.

But, to Thorin’s surprise the girl merely said, “I am a member of this family, it wass my duty to sserve, and all I assk as a reward iss that you remember me fondly.”

The girl’s father eyed her suspiciously, then shook his head. “And here I thought you had finally sshown ssome brainss. If you ask for no reward, then you sshall get no reward. Be off with you then!”

Later, after the feast was done, Thorin sought the girl out in the shadows of one of the carts, calling her aside.

“I thought you wanted to stay?” He whispered.

At this, she shook her head. “I did, more than anything.”

“Then why?”

“Because, I learned today that I can be useful. And, I can be more useful to my family if I sstay and learn from your clan.”

“Are you sure? Won’t you miss them?”

She nodded. “I will. But, I think it will be easier if I have friends.” Then she looked at him, her yellow and orange eyes staring at him in the firelight, filled with both hope and worry at the same time.

Taking her meaning, Thorin nodded and smiled broadly at her. “You have one. And, when we get back and everyone hears about what happened, I think you’ll have a whole lot more.”

Then, to Thorin’s surprise, the girl reached up and pulled aside her veil.

“But you…” He stammered, staring down at the face of a surprisingly cute girl. Unlike normal goblins, with their large noses and sharp faces, hers was rounded and and her nose small and pointed. With her big eyes, she looked very childlike and innocent, at least, until she smiled up at him, revealing a set of sharp pointed teeth that would make a shark jealous. She was a goblin, after all.

“Ishrat,” she said. “My name iss Ishrat.”

“Uhh. It’s nice to meet you, Ishrat. But, isn’t it shameful for others to see your face?”

“Not if we’re of the ssame clan. Can I be a member of your family?”

“Sure!” Thorin brightened.

She smiled brighter, which made Thorin feel a little flushed at how cute she looked.

“You know, Thorin. You are sso nice. It’ss really too bad.”

Thorin blinked, confused. “Too bad about what?”

“That you’re sso big and ugly.”


Something to think about:

Everyone has reasons for what they do. They may be strong, clear reasons or they may be poorly thought out feelings, but people don’t say or do things without a purpose for doing them. If someone is acting in ways you don’t understand, rather than just ignore them or call them names, ask yourself why they might be doing what they do. Trying to understand others and their points of view will only make you a better person, and you might just end up making a friend.

If you want to know more about me you can check out my blog at where I post about my stories, writing, art, podcasting, culture, history, and whatever I think is interesting. You can also subscribe to my blog, which will let you hear about the latest posts.

You can also find my author page on Facebook here.

Thanks for reading!


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Blood in the Stacks (Part 4, end)

“Shit. Shit. Shit!” The gunman swore, pacing frantically.

Inside, Hands echoed the man’s sentiments. They’d been so close to solving the whole situation, and now they were back where they started.

Then the other man turned and looked at Hands and the girls. “Where’s that book? C’mon! Search faster! No more stalling!” He was waving the gun in their direction, and one of the girls started to cry.

“Hey,” Hands said in a firm and calm voice. “That isn’t helping. We’re searching as fast as we can. We want out of here as much as you do.”

“Then find me the goddamn book!” Swore the gunman and kicked a nearby chair to send it clattering across the stone floor.

“We will, man. We will.” Hands said, and turned his attention to the whimpering girl next to him. “It’ll be okay,” he whispered. “Just keep looking.”

The girl nodded, and sucked in a breath. Then she reached out and took another book, opening it.

Seeing she was on the right track, Hands looked at the other girl, the chubby blond, planning to give her a pep talk too. But, he paused when he saw she was staring down at the book in her hand with wide eyes and a pale expression.

Leaning in, Hands could see it was a dogged 2003 paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot that had writing scrawled across the margins of the pages.

“Looks like you found it,” Hands said in a very quiet voice. “Can I take a look?”

The girl looked at him, and then her pale expression became sharp and she pulled the book closer to her chest. “So you can share it with your new best friend?” She shot.

“I just want to get out of here like you.” Hands told her. “Besides, if you give it to him, and it’s the wrong book, what do you think will happen?” He gestured towards the gunman with his chin, and she looked over to where the masked man was nervously passing the gun from hand to hand as he stared down at the floor and whispered to himself.

She shoved the book at him like it was on fire.

Quickly, Hands took it and flipped it open to page 153.

The page and the one facing it were covered in finely printed penciled words that were barely bigger than the typed script next to them. At first blush, they looked like someone’s comments about the text, where a character named Straker was buying food at a local store. That was strange enough to comment on, but the writing was specifically commenting on the meat the character was buying from the store. It was to the effect of, “Should have bought 104 steaks, 44 chicken legs, 73 pounds of bacon, 246 wings, 150 bags of home fries, and 204 cans of beer. Now that would be a party!”

Hands stared at the writing- those numbers were too random, it was definitely a code meant to be unnoticed by those making a casual glance at the book. Was this an account number? Or maybe a password?

Then he thought of something, and began flipping through the book.

A smile crossed his face. He’d been right.

Then he heard the sound of the gunman marching toward him. “Hey! What’re you doing?”

The gunman stopped on the other side of the pile just as Hands looked up at him, holding the book in the air. “This one’s got writing on it, you should take a look.”

Jamming his foot into the pile, the gunman lunged forward and snatched the book from Hands, rushing away to pull it open and stare at the pages. “About time!” He crowed, and then rushed over to the front desk.

“Hey! You people!” He yelled into the microphone. “Drop what you’re doing and come to the front lobby! All of you! Now!”

Then he let the mic drop, grabbed the two duffel bags from the floor and put them on the counter-top and moved a few things between them. As he worked, the rest of the tired bookstore patrons came wandering back up from the stacks. When Rick came out, he gave Hands a thumbs up gesture of support.

Finally, the gunman turned around. “I need a volunteer…” He started and then stopped and pointed at Rick. “You’ll do. C’mere!”

“Hey man! I don’t want any trouble.” Rick tried to back off, but the masked man was insistent, and so Rick moved to the front of the group. The man then marched him over to stand in front of the double front entrance doors and spun him around to face the group.

“Now hold this with both hands,” said the gunman, passing Rick one of the duffel bags.

When Rick took the bag from him, the gunman grabbed the strap of the bag and looped it over Rick’s neck so it rested around his head and shoulders.

“This man,” he announced, stepping away from Rick. “Is carrying a bomb with a motion sensor. If he moves, you all die.”

Rick turned deathly pale. “Hey! That ain’t right!”

“Deal with it, loser.” Said the masked man, and then he swung the other duffel bag over his shoulder. “I’m going upstairs. Any of you follow me, I shoot you. Got that?” He said, waving the gun menacingly around before ducking into the stairwell behind the front counter. They heard the sound of boots on metal, and he was gone.

At first, everyone stood there in stunned silence, and then as one they all turned and ran, rushing into the stacks to try and put as much distance between themselves and Rick as they possibly could. It was a smart idea. The place was big, and all that paper and metal could absorb a lot of damage- they’d probably be safe so they hid and waited.

Everyone, that is, except Daimon Hands.

Hands instead walked towards the sweating Rick Moule.

“H-hey man, if you could tell the cops not to come breaking in, I’d really appreciate it.”

“It’ll be fine, Rick.” Hands said calmly. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Y-you’re not the one about to go boom. You better just stay away.”

“I think you’re going to be just fine, Rick. I saw him set the bomb, and I think I can defuse it. But you’re going to have to help me.”

“Y-you did?” Rick gulped. “You saw him set it?”

“Yeah. He set it before he shoved it in the bag.”

Rick turned even paler, and seemed to be sweating even more. “Oh geez.”

“But I can disarm it. You just need to listen to me.”

Outside, they could hear Police shouting. It sounded like the cops were getting ready to try to break in.

“O-okay. Whatever you want man, just get it off me.”

“First, I want you to tell me about the book.”

“The book?”

“How did it end up here in the bookstore?”

Rick stared at him, wide-eyed. “How should I know?!?”

“Because Rick, that masked guy knew your name. He said it when we were talking.”

“I know lots of people.”

Hands nodded, “Yeah, I bet you do. But that’s the thing, Rick. If you were working with that guy, a whole lot of things make sense. For example, I thought it was odd how freely you were willing to risk your life by trying to open that back door, even if it was a trap. But the thing is- you knew it was safe from the beginning, didn’t you? You rushed to the back because you were afraid that someone else might think of another way out, and you wanted everyone to know they couldn’t escape. You were a plant to keep us moving in the right direction.

“Same reason you paired up with me, the one guy who looked like he could cause trouble, and when you figured out who I was, you let your partner know he needed to keep me here and keep an eye on me. Hell, you probably saw he’d gotten too close, and stopped me from disarming him on purpose. I’d wondered about that at the time, but it could have been a coincidence.

“And then, to top it all off, when I was stuck here, the gunman who was so careful to pair everyone up let you go running around loose. He could have added you to another group, but he left you free, so you could keep an eye on people. Same reason he picked you to be the one who got the bomb- you’re the one person he knows would stay here in front of the exit and buy time. You wouldn’t throw it down, or try to escape, because you’re here to stall for him while he gets away with the book.”

Then Hands leaned in, close enough that the man could feel his presence. “But you didn’t know he was going to put a real bomb in the bag, did you? Gonna be a lot easier to split that money one way instead of two.”

“D-damn it.” Rick looked like he was trying not to cry as he looked down at the package in his shaking hands. “Bastard told me this was gonna be a f-fake.”

“So, who set this all up, Rick? You or him?”

“He did. He set it up.” Rick said. “This was his idea. His old man sent him that book from prison, but the old guy didn’t tell him was what in it, so Rick tossed it into the book bin. Later on, he found out, but by then it was somewhere in this store. After the store closes, they’re gonna sell or pulp all these books, so we had to find it today, but it’s so big and the stupid bastard thought Stephen King was the name of the book!”

Hands nodded. It was crazy, but he could see how it could all work.

“So, what did his old man do? Bank robber?”

“Jewel thief or something. Look, I’ve told you what I know. Can you get this thing off me?”

Hands gave a smile. “Sure. Sure. No problem.” Then he reached out and yanked the bag from the man’s hands, tossing it casually on the floor nearby. When he did this, Rick gasped and fell over, almost fainting.

“You said…” He managed.

“I lied.” Answered Hands, who reached out to unlock the front doors and let the police in.


The next day, the police arrested the masked man exactly where Hands told them to find him.

It was the simplest way, since there could be real hostages trapped in the building, and the masked man would definitely have ditched the book and just hidden the pages rather than keep it on himself.

When he’d told the Chicago PD inspector where to find the masked man, he’d looked at Hands like he was crazy. So Hands had gone to the pile and produced a copy of Salem’s Lot to show him, pointing out the first words on pages 104, 44, 74, 246, 140 and 204- “Cumberland”, “Post Office”, “Account”, “Drop”, “Box” and “Sixteen.”



*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Blood in the Stacks (Part 3)

“I wouldn’t do that.”

The gunman turned and looked at Hands, who was sitting with his arms and legs crossed at against the wall.

“Why not?”

“If you shoot them, who will find your book?”

The man paused, turning to face Hands again. “I can always get someone else.”

“You don’t have time. The longer you’re here sorting, the sooner the police are going to come. Someone will stick a message out a window or pull an alarm, and then where will you be?”

“But if I don’t, what message will that send?” Said the masked man, tapping his gun against his hip in thought.

“That they’ll get out of here alive if they play along? People like things to be predictable. It’s the unpredictable that frightens them.”

The gunman paced a few times, and then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. You got a point. Okay ladies,” he picked up the timer and gave it a twist. “You got an extension.” Then he grabbed the microphone from behind the desk. “Time is ticking people!” He yelled into the loudspeaker system. “These girls is fine, but I can’t promise they’ll stay that way. Get them books up here, now!”

Then he let the mic stand drop back behind the counter and turned to look at Hands. “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome,” said Hands. Then after a time Hands said, “Y’no. There’s a lot of books there.”


“Well, seeing as time is important to you. I was figuring maybe I could come help?”

This made the gunman pause, and Hands could feel the eyes on him as he considered the offer. Hands needed information, and sitting here wasn’t getting it fast enough, he needed to be involved.

“You promise not to try anything?”

“Scouts honor.” Hands raised his fingers in a mock promise.

“You ever a scout?”

“Nope.” Hands admitted.

This made the gunman laugh. “Shit. Me neither. Get over there and help.”

Hands took his time standing up, taking a moment to stretch his legs. He purposely kept his movements slow. He was a big guy, and people always assumed big guys were slow- he wanted to preserve that image in case it came in handy. He also didn’t want to alarm the gunman, who seemed plenty jumpy enough.

Hands chose a spot on the other side of the pile from the masked man, facing him, and between the two girls. One of them, a chubby blond, gave him a smile and a whispered thanks when he sat down. He told her not to worry about it, and then looked up at the gunman.

“So, can you tell me what it is I’m supposed to be looking for? It’ll make this a whole lot easier.”

“Yeah. You’re lookin’ for writing. On page 153, or close to it. You find writing on that page of one of those books, you let me know.”

“Simple as that?”

“Simple as that.”

“What kind of writing?” Hands said, reaching into the pile and plucking out a copy of Cujo. “Pen? Pencil? Crayon?”

“Any kind, shithead. Just shut up and look.” The man snapped.

“Hey. Hey.” Said Hands, putting up his palm. “Just asking.” Then he flipped open the book and skimmed to one-fifty-three. Nothing there. So he checked the pages around it, and finding nothing set the book aside.

He did the same for the next book, and the next.

It was when he was on his tenth book that he began to really appreciate the task he was undertaking. The pile in front of him had nearly a hundred books in it, and as he worked the other patrons kept bringing boxes of more to add to the pile! Thin books. Thick books. Books that looked like they could stop a bullet. They kept being put in front of Hands and the girls. And they had so many different titles.

He began to wonder if the guy who’d written all these books was human. He knew King had the reputation of being his own little publishing machine, and had even read a few of these books himself, but when you had his whole library dumped in front of you like this, it really made you appreciate just how much the man wrote. From Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot to Mr. Mercedes and everything in between, and there were enough copies of The Stand on this pile to build a house!

After a time, he asked their captor. “So your wife donate the book without you knowing or something?”

“Or something.” Said the man, alternating between watching them and watching the security monitors. They didn’t just show the inside of the store, and all the patrons moving around the place, they showed the outside too. Everything looked perfectly normal in the outside world. People kept coming up and leaving after they rattled the doors a few times, but except for that all was quiet.

“My ex threw my stuff out once,” continued Hands as he worked. “I used to make models. Little ones, out of wood. I’d make cars, houses, and little ships. Whatever I thought would be a challenge. It was my way to cool off. I’d just sit there and carve.”

The other man gave a snicker. “She catch you out getting some strange?”

Hands shook his head. “She decided that I liked the models more than her. So one day I came back and they were gone. All of them. Years of work.”

“Yeah.” The man nodded. “Bitches be crazy. You show her your hand?”

“Nah,” Hands shrugged. “I use these, she’s going to the hospital, right? So I just told her to get out and don’t come back. But you know, when I think about it, I guess she was right- I really did love those models more than her.”

The masked man nodded, and was silent for a time. Hands, who’d been trying to get a conversation going, wondered if he’d have to try another way, but then the masked man suddenly spoke up again.

“I had a car.”

“Excuse me?” Hands said.

“I used to have a car,” continued the man. “An old Cadillac I’d fixed up. Bought it from my buddy, and spent everything I had working on that thing. Custom engine. Custom hubs. Custom seat covers. You name it, I gave it everything.”

“Then she came?” Hands offered.

“First time we met, she asked for a ride in it. I gave it to her both ways.” He paused, as if remembering something happy, and then the gun began tapping at his hip again and the masked man began to pace. “Next thing I know, though. It’s the car or her. She’s got dreams she says. She wants a ring. I told her that the car was my life. So when I’m sleeping she steals my keys.”

“The junk yard?”

“The river.”

“Bitches be crazy.” Said Hands in commiseration.

“Yeah.” Said the other man, and then sucked in a breath. “Well, I showed her. I stuck all her nudes from my phone online.”

Hands shuddered, but kept a neutral face.

“You sure showed her.”

“Yeah,” nodded the gunman. Then he paused and said, “Showed her off to the world, right? That’s pretty funny. I like that.”

Hands, who hadn’t intended it as a joke, just played along. “Thanks.”

“So how’d you end up here?” The guy asked, taking a seat on the counter facing Hands. “You into reading?”

“I like history,” Hands told him. “Mostly Asian stuff. There’s a few rare books I’m looking for, and I came here to see if they had any cheap copies.”

“You sure picked a bad time to come.”

Hands nodded, risking a glance at the formerly friendly girl next to him, who was now scowling as she listened to them pal it up. He ignored her and smiled. “Tell me about it. Couldn’t you have hijacked the place an hour later?”

“Sorry about that, man,” the gunman laughed. “But tell you what- you find me that book, and I’m not gonna make your day any worse.” Hands could tell from the man’s tone that wasn’t a threat, but an honest promise between men.

“I’d appreciate it.”

“No problem. So, those books are like kung fu books? Rick said you were into MMA?”

“No. Mostly philsophy books and poety. You ever hear of Li Bai?”

“Nope. Just his brother, ‘Goodbye.'” Then the man laughed at his own joke.

Hands suppressed a grimace and nodded his head, “That’s a good one. He was a Chinese poet and I try to read his stuff when I feel stressed. He gives me a sense of place in the bigger scheme, and makes me think about my life, y’no?”

“You mean fish in a pond stuff?”

Hands nodded. “See, you’re getting it.”

“I read that on the back of a Chinese menu one time.”

I bet you did, Hands thought, but kept it to himself. They kept the conversation going for a few more minutes, the pile beside Hands growing, and then Daimon said. “So, tell me, what’re you going to do if this book isn’t here?”

“It’s gotta be here.”

“Maybe they sold it. You don’t even know which book by King you’re looking for.”

The gunman jumped off the counter and began to pace again. “We’ll find it. It’s gotta be here.” Then he whipped around. “What’s taking so long? How are there so many goddamn books by that guy in this place?”

“He’s a popular writer,” said Hands. “But, you know, there’s still a chance to get out of here. If you run now, nobody’s gonna catch you. Nobody’s been hurt and the police won’t try too hard.”

The man stopped pacing and Hands could see he was thinking about it. He kept looking between the stacks and the front door and mumbling to himself.

Come on, said Hands. Take the chance and run.

“Get out now,” Hands encouraged. “While you can still get away. The book’s not here, man.”

The masked man took a step toward the front door, pivoted, and looked at the pile.

Hands could feel the tension the man’s body gave off.

He was getting ready to run.

Then, from the outside, the piercing sound of sirens penetrated the thick walls. The gunman and Hands both turned to look at the monitors, which showed police cars pulling up in front of the bookstore, grey lights flashing on the monochrome monitors.


Time had just run out.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Blood in the Stacks (Part 2)

Theatre of Books was housed in an actual old theater in a run-down neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and as a result there were three things that were true. The first was that the building was big, really really big, which is why it was able to house so many stacks of books in the former theater space. The second was that it was solidly built. The masons who had put this building together had great pride in their work, and they spared no expense in making the brick and stone walls of this former theater to last. And the third was that every single window in the building had nice, thick iron bars. The kind that were great at keeping thieves out.

Of course, all of these things that made the bookstore such a safe vault of slightly used knowledge also made the bookstore an excellent prison. There were, as Hands and the others quickly discovered, only four ways out, including the front door, the two very blocked fire doors, and the rooftop exit. And the rooftop exit required you to access the roof, the stairs to which were reached via the front lobby- where the gunman waited with his ticking time and hostages.

“I don’t think we’re getting out of here,” the skinny guy lamented as he and Hands walked back from checking the second fire door.

“Sure we are,” Hands said. “We just have to find those books, right?”

That brought a smile to the other’s face. “You know what the kicker is, man? I just came in here to use the bathroom. I don’t even like to read!”

Both of them chuckled over that irony a moment, then the smaller man stuck out his hand. “Rick Moule.”

“Daimon Hands”

As they shook, a light suddenly appeared in Rick’s eyes. “Well shit! I thought you looked familiar! You’re “Demon Hands” right? The Mixed Martial Arts fighter! I saw you fight Lester Rodriguez last year.”

Hands shrugged. “It pays the bills.”

“So, you gonna use your kung fu on this guy? You got something planned to take him out?”

Hands shook his head. “I’m just trying to get out of here in one piece. Kung fu don’t stop a bullet.”

“But you could just take him, right?”

“Not unless I have to,” Hands answered, then stopped and plucked a book from the shelf with “KING” on the side in big block letters. “Grab that empty box over there, will you? We’d better get the books from this row.”

Rick did as he was told, and Hands slung the box under his huge arm like a basket, putting books into it from the right side while Rick put them in from the left.

“I thought,” said Rick. “That bookstores were supposed to be organized or something. Why the hell are these things everywhere?”

“It’s a used bookstore.” Said Hands.

When more information didn’t seem to be forthcoming, Rick asked. “So what? They just dump them here?”

Seeing his companion wasn’t going to be quiet, Hands finally said. “Not enough staff. They don’t have time to sort everything, so they just stick them up on the shelves.”

“No wonder this place is going out of business.”

Hands shrugged. “Some people think of it as a scavenger hunt.”

“That include you? Don’t tell me you’re a reader, man?”

“Let’s just say I didn’t come in here to use the washroom.” Hands said in a tone that indicated that the topic was finished.

“Hey! Hey! Nothing wrong with that.” Rick continued. “Readers are fine. You can learn stuff. Like apparently you can learn a lot from Stephen King, eh?”

Hands said nothing.

He was too busy thinking about this situation, trying to figure a way out.

Rick wasn’t wrong. He could disarm and subdue the hostage taker with ease if he got close enough, Rick was a guy who taught the real military and law enforcement how to do exactly that. But this guy was pretty cagey, and didn’t seem like the type to let Hands get that close again. The last time the gunman had surprised Hands when he’d been coming out of the washroom. There’d been an announcement that a special free give-away was happening over the intercom, and so the emerging Daimon wasn’t at all surprised to find a group of people in the front lobby. As it turned out, that had probably been the gunman rounding everyone up, but it had had the extra benefit of putting Hands off-guard.

He wouldn’t let that happen again.

He just didn’t want to risk a confrontation, or a potential random shot killing someone, unless he had to do it. So, the key now was twofold- one) figure out what the gunman’s real motivation was (if whack-job wasn’t the order of the day) and two) figure out how to talk him into stopping this whole situation before someone got hurt. All before someone managed to alert the police, turning this into a true hostage situation and making things a whole lot worse.

‘I think that’s it.” Rick wiped the dust from his hands on his jeans. “This row’s done. That box full?”

Hands glanced down. “Pretty much.”

“So lets go dump it and make him happy.”

“Right.” Hands agreed, and the two of them began to make their way through the stacks towards the front of the store. Once they’d reached the lobby, they found that other groups had already been there, and there was now a small pile of Stephen King paperbacks in the middle of the aged marble floor. Next to the stack, the two teen-aged female hostages were busily working to sort through the books.

“Dump it there,” the gunman ordered with a nod towards the pile, looking bored.

Hands walked over, paying careful attention to what the girls were doing as he dumped his collection.

As he watched, they each picked up a book, flipped to a particular page, skimmed the pages around it, and then added it to another smaller pile which was growing beside each of them.

This made him stop and stare, until he heard a bark from behind him.

“Hey! What’re you doing?!?”

Hands raised an apologetic palm to the masked gunman. “Sorry man, just surprised at how many books they have.” The gunman had come over, and was now just within arm’s reach, the gun pointed at Hands’ chest.

“This ain’t none of your business,” he told the big man. “Get back to work.”

Hands’ muscles tensed.

It was his chance.

Throw the empty cardboard box in his hand left as a distraction. At the same time, move to the right, grabbing the gunman’s wrist in a lock and twisting the gun out and up out as his other hand struck the man in the throat. It would be over in seconds.

Then Rick stepped between them.

“Hey man!” The skinny youth told the gunman. “You don’t want to do this. This here is Demon Hands, the MMA fighter. You don’t want to mess with him.”

The gunman’s eyes looked shocked, looking between Rick and Hands, and then he smiled. “So you’re Demon Hands, eh? I’ve heard of you.” He took a step backwards. “You probably wanted me to get close enough to try something, right?”

Hands cursed the kid’s clumsy attempt to help him.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Daimon said, raising his hands.

“You bet you don’t.” The gunman used his weapon to wave Hands over toward a nearby wall. As he did, he tilt his head to look at Rick. “What’re you looking at? Get back to collecting books!”

With a worried glance at Hands, Rick turned and disappeared back into the stacks.

Then the gunman looked back at Hands again.

“So, what do I do with you?”

Hands said nothing. The guy was taunting him, and he wasn’t going to fall for it. He’d met people like this guy before, and knew his best weapon was to stay calm and cool, so that’s exactly what he intended to do.

The gunman’s interest slowly faded under Hands’ unflinching gaze. Eventually, he motioned for Hands to sit down. “Just…Stay there.” He ordered. “You move, I shoot you.”

“I won’t.” Hands told him.

Then the gunman turned his focus back on the two girls at the pile. “Hey you two! Hurry it up! You got…” He started, and he was cut off.

The shrill sound of the egg timer alarm rang out and echoed in the marble stone lobby.

He gave it a light tap to turn it off, then looked back to the girls.

“Well, I did promise.” He said, raising the gun. “Nothing personal.”


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Blood in the Stacks (Part 1)


(Modern, Action, PG (Language))

The gun that was shoved in Daimon Hands’ face was a 9mm Glock, the kind you buy at a gun show to have, but nobody ever uses. That told Hands that this wasn’t a professional job, but then what kind of professional robs a bookstore?

“You!” Shouted the masked man with the gun. “Get over there!” He waved Hands towards the knot of people gathered in the bookstore’s front check-out area.

Hands raised his palms in a submission pose. “No problem,” he said, backing away toward the other patrons.

“There anybody else in the store?!?” Yelled the gunman, a stocky broad shouldered guy wearing a flimsy red rubber skull mask that covered his whole head but left his white throat showing. Based on voice, Daimon guessed he was in his twenties or early thirties, and he moved in the clumsy way of someone who hadn’t seen exercise in a long time.

The skinny man he’d pointed to shook his head. “N-no, man! T-this is everyone! I swear!”

Satisfied, the gunman nodded to himself and looked around. “‘Kay.” He said, clearly thinking about what to do next.

This surprised Hands a bit. If this was a robbery, the thing to do next was to empty the till, maybe have one of the three employees open the safe for him. That was why he was here, wasn’t it? Theatre of Books, Chicago’s largest used book store, was having its closing day sale, and the cash register made a tempting target. This guy was after the money. It was all so simple.

So why was the loser in front of them thinking?

What was there to think about?

“All of ya,” said the gunman. “Pick a partner.”

Pick a partner? Thought Hands. What was this guy’s game?

The skinny guy, the one who the gunman had threatened earlier, was beside Hands, and he looked up at him. “I’m sticking with you, if that’s okay?”

Hands gave a noncommittal shrug that could be interpreted the way the guy wanted.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Most people had two reactions to Daimon Hands when they first saw him- they either stuck real close or got as far away from him as they could. Hands was six foot four, weighed two hundred and forty pounds, and had muscles that made his dark skin look like it was going to pop at any second. He wasn’t ugly by any means, but had an intimidating air about him that made most people stop and ask themselves if they really wanted to bother this person. Of course, in a crisis, this also made Hands the first person most people gravitated towards.

Once everyone had paired up, the gunman gestured towards a pair of girls who were trying to look as small as they could towards the back- “You two! Get everyone’s phones and put them right here.” He tapped the counter-top. “I’m gonna check, and if anyone doesn’t hand over their phone, I swear to god I’m gonna shoot them right now.”

Nervously, the girls began to gather the phones. When they got to Daimon, he shrugged. “Don’t got one.” He said. Then, when the girl gave him a pleading look, he repeated. “Really. I don’t carry a phone.”

So the girl nodded and moved on, then joined the other one in dumping her armload of phones to clatter on the plastic counter-top.

“‘Kay! You two, sit right there!” The gunman said to the scared teens, gesturing to a spot in front of the check-out counter. The girls did as they were told.

Then he looked at the rest of the people, taking a moment to count the pairs off. “…Seven…Eight…Okay. So listen up. Here’s what you’re gonna do. I want you all to go through this bookstore and find me every copy of a book by Stephen King. You’re gonna gather them up and put them in a pile right here.” He pointed at the open space in front of the check out counter. “Got it?”

This guy’s a nut, thought Hands. God. I’m locked up in here with a certified psycho with a gun.

From the murmuring of the people around him, Hands could tell the rest of the people there were thinking the same thing, and for a moment, he saw indecision flash through the gunman’s posture. Then it was replaced by anger.

“Hey! I’m not fooling around here!” He yelled, then Hands’ breath caught as the gunman leveled his weapon at one of the two young girls next to him. “You do it, or I start shooting. And, if any of try anything, I’m going to shoot them too, so you’d better do what I say! No calling out. No trying to run away. One person leaves, I shoot the other. And remember,” he gestured at the bank of fuzzy old black and white monitors behind the counter. “I can see your shit. You got me?”

“Umm…” Said an older grandmotherly woman to Hands’ left. “What Stephen King book are you looking for? Maybe we can find it easier if…”

“Shut up!” The gun was now aimed at her. “I said I want you to bring me every Stephen King book you can find. I want all of them. And…” He pulled a broken plastic red egg-timer out of his pocket. “In one hour this thing’s gonna go off. And, if I don’t have a big pile of books here, I’m gonna shoot one of these girls.” He gave the timer a twist and slammed it down on top of the counter with a loud clang. “Now move!”

The crowd looked at each other, and then began to shuffle off, dispersing to the shelves.

“C’mon,” said the skinny guy with Hands. “We’d better go.” But, as soon as they were in the stacks and out of the gunman’s view, he began to rush forward and waved Hands to follow. “Hurry up! We gotta get to the fire door at the back.”

Hands nodded. That was the first thing he’d thought of as well.

9/11 had changed Americans. There was a time when people obediently did as they were told in hostage situations, confident that if they just played along they’d get out okay. The hostage takers wanted to live. They wanted to live. People figured that their safest bet was waiting it out and hoping that it was all going to turn out okay. Not anymore. Now people assumed that every hostage taker was going to get themselves and the hostages killed, and their natural reaction was to get as far away from ground zero as possible.

So it was no surprise that Hands and his companion found most of the other patrons were moving in the same direction- everyone following the emergency exit signs. Sure those girls were hostages, but there was no way they were staying if they could help it. That was something to be left for the police hostage rescue team.

But something bothered Hands- If it was such an obvious thing to do, why hadn’t the masked guy told them to stay away from it? Was he just relying on their concern for those girls to keep them here? Why hadn’t he warned them off from trying to use the exit to escape?


Hands and his companion reached the back door before any of the others, and his companion went straight for the door, reaching for the push-bar to open it…

Hands grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to a stop.

“What?” Said the other man, giving Hands a shocked expression. “Hey man, what’re you doing?”

“Hold it,” said Hands, gently pushing the man to the side. Then he leaned down and examined the fire door’s push mechanism. The door was red and ancient, probably dating back to when the building had housed a theatre, and Hands let his eyes run across the metal push bar and the mechanism it was attached to.

When he’d finished, most of the other patrons were behind him and asking what the hold-up was.

“C’mon man, out of the way! We gotta get out of here!” Said the skinny guy.

“Just making sure,” said Hands. “He might have rigged something up.”

That made the rest of them pause. “Does it look okay?” Asked another man.

“Can’t see anything wrong.” Hands answered.

“Well then,” said the skinny guy. “Push it and let’s go!”

Hands stepped to the side, moving so if there was any funny business the doorframe would probably shield him from it. “You first,” he told the skinny guy.

Without hesitation, the skinny guy stepped forward again and shoved the handle.

It depressed, there was a click as the latch was withdrawn.

Nothing happened.

Not a fire alarm, which big letters above the door said would sound if the door was opened.

Not an explosion or other trap.

Not a door opening.

The door stayed firmly where it was.

So the skinny guy tried again, pushing harder.

Same result.

“It’s stuck,” said someone from the group, and others stepped forward to give it a shove.

But the door stayed where it was.

“Oh man, he’s blocked the exits!” Said the skinny guy. “Now what do we do?”

“I guess,” said Hands. “We’d better check the windows.”


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Sunday Drivers (End)

I think about dinner, but my stomach is too full of butterflies to eat anything big, so I just summon a Cloud Car and head down to Toyota’s Michigan center. It’s just outside of the core in Auburn Hills, and I spend the drive thinking about what I’m going to do, and what I’m going to see.

As the Cloud Car drives off to find another passenger, I’m standing in front of a huge warehouse of a building. It looks like it used to be a factory at one time, but now it’s a like giant garage with thirty little garage doors along the sides of it. Each of those is a maintenance bay, automated of course, and will do what needs to be done to get the cars back on the road.

I walk over to the small office in the middle, where the few actual humans on the site do administration and security. A bell rings as the doors swish open, and a dark skinned woman looks up at me from the receptionist’s desk.

“Yes? Can I help you?” She says in a tone that tells me I probably just interrupted a very important discussion on social media.

“Yeah,” I give her my best professional smile. “I’m here from True Blue Insurance,” cue (expired) ID card, “I’ve got a maintenance check to oversee. One of our clients is bitching because they screwed up the last install and damaged the side of the car.” It’s a real situation I’ve dealt with lots of times, so this is all pretty routine.

“Uh-huh,” she says, not caring. “You got an ID number on that vehicle?”

I rhyme off the car’s VIN number, she checks it. “You can find it in Bay 23, honey.” Then she passes a guest lanyard over the counter, and I’m not even out of the office before she’s back chatting with someone, someplace.

I don’t care though, it suits me fine.

The lanyard will keep security from bothering me, all I need to do is get down to Bay 23. The sun’s setting a dull orange on the horizon, and as I’m watching it I see the car I’m looking for drive onto the tarmac. It’s a grey Toyota Fasta sedan with tinted windows, and it hums past me into the bay with its hybrid electric motor barely making a sound as it pulls up for its required maintenance check.

The garage doors slide up, and I follow it in.

The maintenance bay is a hoist surrounded by an octopus’ worth of robotic arms designed to do an hour’s worth of human work in a couple minutes. As it lifts the car up into position to be worked on, I walk around the edge in the places marked for human observers and call up the control screen for the bay. I tell it I want to manually check the car over, and the robot arms stop their work and retreat back, leaving a space for me to walk around the car.

My heart’s beating a mile a minute as I approach the vehicle.

I know there’s nobody inside, but since you can’t see in, it’s hard to escape the feeling there could be. All I can see is my own reflection on the driver’s side as I reach for the door handle.

It’s automatically unlocked for maintenance, so it pops open the moment I touch it, opening with a click and a hiss. The moment it does, an intense stale smell washes over me, it’s so bad I begin to retch and empty my last coffee onto the bay floor.

What the hell is in there?

The smell leaks out and purveys the whole bay, and I’m forced to cover my mouth as I lean forward and peer inside. I didn’t know how much of this I’d be able to take, but I needed to know what’s in there.

The four inside seats are in “family mode”, turned to face the middle, and I have to lean in see inside. The moment I do, I jerk back, banging my head as I pull away, not believing what I’ve just seen.

It makes so much sense, but…

“Well, this sucks.”

I spin- Eddy is there in the bay door with two big guys.

“Eddy… I…” I stammer, we’re beyond excuses- way beyond. Then I look at the car. “Did… you?”

He snorts. “Us? Naw, John. We didn’t kill that guy.”

“So, why?”

He thinks about it a moment, “We call ’em “Sunday Drivers”. You ever go for a Sunday drive when you were a kid, John? The whole family just out and goes for a trip?”

I nod. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“Well people like him, they go for a drive and they just never come home. Life just goes on without ’em, and everyone’s happy.” When he sees me staring at him, he continues. “Legally, as long as they’re in the car, they’re just on vacation, so our clients can keep doing whatever they want.”

“But…” I say, “Who would pay for this?”

“Lots of people. Some people need time to get their affairs in order, and others want time to clear out. Then, when the time comes, the body turns up, or not, doesn’t matter as long as someone keeps paying the bills.”

I step back, not sure how to deal with what I’m hearing.

Eddy walks over, covers his mouth and looks inside. “I heard a lot of the cars on the road are like this. People out for a Sunday Drive. Cars filled with dead people, or people who might as well be.” Then he laughs. “Then again, the way most people used to drive, I guess things haven’t changed that much.”

“But, cars need fuel, they need…” I say, and then catch myself.

“Do they?” He looks around the bay. “We’ve created an automated system here, John. People don’t matter. They aren’t needed anymore. We’re just the meat that the system carries around, and they take care of themselves. Machines don’t care if we’re alive or dead, and thanks to profit margins and efficiency they’ve worked us right out of the system. Hell, every car could have a corpse in it for all they care- they just do their job, and there’s nobody to check on anything anymore. Except maybe during maintenance, which is why we’re here, aren’t we?”

I’m looking for way out of this, but the big guys are between me and the bay doors. I glance around, looking for something I can use as a weapon.

Eddy sees the look on my face.

“This is why you weren’t supposed to know, John.” He sighs. “We tried to keep you out of this after what happened to the last guy we put in charge, but here we are.”

“What are you going to do to me?” I ask, too focused to be scared.

He shrugs. “Nothing.”


“Well, you’re fired. We can’t trust you anymore, that’s for sure.”

“But… I’m…”

“Free to go, yeah.” He gestures toward the bay door, and the guy there moves aside. “Sorry it didn’t work out.”

Surprised, I stare at him a moment, and then decide to get out while I still can. “Y-yeah. Sorry it didn’t work out.” I echo, and then walk as fast as I can for the door.

A million thoughts run through my head, things I have to do as soon as I’m out of there. I need to grab my stuff and go as fast as I can. I’ll get out of state, maybe head South to see a few Net friends. Disappear. Then, just as I’m passing the guy on the way out I feel a sharp pain in my side as the barrel of the gun is pressed into my kidney and he pulls the trigger.

There’s pain, and I hear another shot, and then blackness.

When I wake up, I’m lying face-up at an odd angle, with something under me. The smell tells me where I am and I can feel the vibrations as the car drives along. Thump Thump. Thump Thump. I’m not sure if that’s the sound of the road, or my heart.

It’s hard to breath, and my clothes are wet and sticky.

I try to pull myself to the controls at the front, but find they’ve been shut down. There’s no steering wheel, pedals, nothing. I’m in a coffin going 120 mph down the highway, and there’s no way for me to get out. My phone is gone. I have no way to communicate with the outside world. The door handles are computer locked.

I check the other guy, or what’s left of him.

He’s got a digital pen in his inside jacket pocket- the type that records sound for later transcription, so I start using it, hoping it’s got enough power left to record this. Hoping somebody’s going to find it.

Hoping I last long enough to tell you what happened.

Because you see, there is a way to stop the car- I just need to yank the wires under the dash. I know about them because I used to investigate accidents all the time. The problem is that if I do it on the highway the system will crash, and there will be an accident- a big one.

But I’m dying already, and it’s my only chance, so I have to try.

Wish me luck.

‘Cause I’m not going to be another Sunday Driver.


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Sunday Drivers (Part 3)

I tell myself it’s just the bad Russian-English kicking in, and not to worry about it. But, the next morning I find myself staring at the lists of account numbers- what are these really? It’s like an itch in my brain that I can’t seem to scratch.

There is something familiar about these numbers, I noticed it the first time I started using them, but could never figure out what it was. I mean, it’s not like a string of numbers means anything, but there was something about them I couldn’t quite place.

I’d always pushed it away, but now…

The software doesn’t allow copy/paste, so I copied down a random number from the list into my phone’s search App and let it run. I get a couple thousand results- all kinds of numbers from social security to random pieces of code. This could be anything. So I decide on a different tack- I copy down a couple numbers and search for them as blocks with quotes around them so that they’ll be used as-is.

Still too many.

Then I have a bit of inspiration.

I only search for the first four digits of each of the numbers. Most identification numbers are broken into blocks with each group representing a different piece of information. These blocks tend to be in threes and fours, so that’s where I’ll look.

I get it on the first try, and I stare at the window.

Now I know why these numbers seemed somewhat familiar.

They’re partial VIN numbers- Vehicle Identification Numbers, just missing the first two number blocks.

My head swirls. These aren’t apartments, they’re vehicles.

Then it all clicks.

These are cars or trucks, and I’m topping off their fuel and maintenance accounts. That’s why the system lost contact with that unit, it got into an accident or something.

It’s somebody’s fleet of trucks or taxis or something.

But why did Eddy lie to me? If it was just a vehicle fleet- why the secrecy?

I call up the portal to the True Blue Insurance system and stick in the number and password of someone I know is still working there. We used to log in for each other all the time to cover for people who were late or snuck out- I know how to access the accounts of half the office. Management knew, but never cared much.

Works for me.

In a flash, I was into the system and accessing the state’s vehicle record database. Pretty soon, I’m looking at the vehicle records for each of these cars. And they are cars, not trucks- every one of them is different make or model, the only thing they all have in common is that they’re all driverless. That last part explains why they need to have their accounts tracked and topped up- there’s nobody behind the wheel.

But the truth is, now I’m even more confused.

I’d started to think this was a Cloud Car taxi service of some kind, but when I look at the ages and types of vehicles it doesn’t add up. There are crap cars and there are luxury cars worth more than my apartment building next to each other on the list- no taxi service has this kind of variety.


So I pick one, a Chevy Sonar, and call up it’s GPS location tracker- Interstate 90, three miles outside of Missoula, Montana. It’s two years old, licensed to a David Miller of 432 Main Street of Wichita, Kansas. Which is definitely not Montana, or Michigan, so why am I taking care of Mr. Miller’s car?

Then I see the odometer reading and I need to do a triple take.

657,492 miles.

What the hell? How does a 2 year old car have that much mileage on it? Is that even possible? Could that be a mistake?

I pick another- this one’s in Washington State, 1 year old, 347,573 miles on it.

Another- Florida, 3 years, 1,456,231 miles.

New York, 1 year, 298,742 miles.

California, 763,221 miles.

Louisiana, 89,000 miles.




These cars are all over the place- on highways and freeways scattered across the country, they’re all less than 4 years old, and they all have ridiculous amounts on their odometers. I’ve never seen numbers like this outside of taxis or transport trucks, and even those were lower than some of these cars. It was like they were being run on the highway 24-7.

But why? What were these cars transporting?

My mind immediately leaps to drugs.

It’s gotta be drugs.

I’m managing a fleet of drug delivery cars.

Oh crap.

I stare at the screen. Now what do I do? This is actually a pretty good job, and those are hard to come by these days. But drugs? If I’m an accessory, how many years? Is what I’m doing illegal? Of course it is, somehow. But I didn’t know… Maybe I could plead the fifth? Maybe if they get found out, it’ll be okay? Nobody knows I’m the one paying the bills, right?

Oh wait, my IP address will be logged somewhere.


I shut down my system and go take a walk.

A couple hours later with a full stomach and having thought it over, I decide I don’t know enough. Yeah, it could be drugs, but it could also be some other black or grey market merchandise like untaxed cigarettes or booze. Maybe they’re running a courier service. I just don’t know enough.

A smart man would call Eddy and quit, maybe tell him that I have a better job, thank him and get the hell out of town.

I’m still trying to salvage things, like the idiot I am.

So I decided to watch the GPS beacon of one of the cars and see where it went.

I figure maybe it’ll give me some clue what they’re up to.

One’s coming into Michigan, so I call it “Todd” and start watching it.

Three hours later, Todd is in Indiana. Never stopped, never left the highway.

Okay, so it’s traveling between states, not uncommon. I pick another one I call “Betsey” and follow it into my state.

Same deal. Betsey comes in on I75, loops up the peninsula and then comes back down on her merry way to Illinois. She stops once for some automated gas, I see the money charged to my accounts, but that’s it, and then she’s on her way. No other stops.

I pick another car. And another.

None of the cars coming into the state stop, and if they do, it’s only for gas, and those are all different gas stations in different places. Those could be drop-off points. Somebody could be swapping the goods when they stop for gas, but…

I go back to Todd.

He’s in Ohio now. I start following his progress.

He continues to lazily buzz along the interstates, stopping only for gas as he makes his way around the country. Betsey is the same, she never seems to go anywhere, just drives. They’re not even taking any kind of direct routes to anywhere, they’re just driving, and it’s almost random where they go.

The more I think about it, the more puzzled I become. What are these cars doing? It’s like someone just told them to drive, and to keep on driving, and not to stop.

Who would do that? And why?

Watching Todd and Betsey becomes my new hobby, and I keep a window open with their progress in the background as I work. Watching them and looking for patterns as the days pass by. After a few weeks, the frustration builds up, I’m obsessed with them and trying to figure out what they’re doing, but I can’t seem to find any patterns.

Finally, I decided to take action.

Using the True Blue Insurance system, I designate a car coming into the state as “in need of a recall”. It’s a selective alert going out to just that car, and it will force the car to come into a dealership for maintenance. Since I chose a Toyota car, and there’s only one maintenance bay in the area, I know exactly where the car is going to go.


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Sunday Drivers (Part 2)

So here we go.

“Yeah,” I answered. “You know of anyplace that’s hiring?”

“Maybe. You still in Greektown? Can we meet?”

“Sure am. Sure can. Where?”

“Mama Sitta’s in thirty?”

“K. CYA there!”

I cleaned up a bit, pulled on a fresh shirt, and headed down to Mama Sitta’s. It was just two blocks away, and I found Eddy talking with the bouncer at the front door. He turned when he saw me coming, and gave me a big smile.

“John!” He says, and shoves his hand at me.

The skinny awkward kid who smoked too much pot in high school was now clean cut, with a designer shirt and shoes that probably cost as much as my month’s rent. He’s still Eddy, though, with that big nose and those small eyes.

We greet, he says goodbye to a bouncer he clearly knows personally, and then we go inside.

It’s Wednesday night, the restaurant has only a couple of people, and the bar side is empty. He takes a stool there like he owns the place, and summons the bartender with a wave. “Two Grosse Points,” he says, then looks at me. “You’re okay with Artisan beer, right?

“Sure,” I say. I don’t really give a crap, but this was a job interview situation so…

We chit-chat for a bit. Catch up on old times. The last time I saw him was during my second year at Michigan State. Then I get around to asking, “So you work here?”

He shakes his head. “Nah. My boss owns this place, so we come here a lot. He’s gotta steal his money back somehow, right?”

I bob my head in agreement, and then decide to go for it. “So, what kind of business are you in these days?”

He pauses to crack open a pink dyed pistachio, and then pops it into his mouth and smiles. “Property management.”

“Really?” This does sound promising, people still need a place to live.

“Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”


“My company’s got a contract to take care of a bunch of rental units, and we need a manager.”

“I dunno, man.” I said, “I’m not the most handy guy on the block.”

He laughs, “Nah. Not that kind of property manager. It’s for taking care of old people’s apartments. You don’t even have to meet ’em, you just pay the bills and see that they’re taken care of. It’s all done online.”

“Whoa,” I nod. “Yeah…Uh…That does sound interesting. How many units are we talking here?”

He shrugged. “A couple hundred.”

He saw the look in my eyes and laughs. “Like I said, you never meet ’em, just keep an eye on them.”

“Sounds like something somebody in Indonesia could do. Why are you hiring local?”

“Data Crossing Act,” he says, referring to an effort by the government to restrict online jobs being outsourced to overseas. “Plus, we want people we know and trust on this. When I saw you were looking for work, I thought it was great timing.”

“Last guy quit?”

He bobs his head. “Yeah, he caught a ride out of state. Didn’t want to be here anymore.”

I couldn’t blame him, Detroit was supposed to be having it’s zillionth renaissance, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

“So, you in?” He says, giving me a serious look.

“Yeah,” I said like an idiot, “Definitely.”

We had a few more beers and memories, and I wander home.

The next morning, my Keurig is buzzing out a cup of coffee when there’s a chime from my system and a Direct Message from Eddy pops up with an attachment. I follow the instructions, download the software, and let it run. Once it comes up, I take the day to read through the docs. After dealing with the software True Blue Insurance used, this was a piece of cake, which is a good thing, because the docs read like they were translated from Russian- badly.

Like Eddy said, the job is simple- I monitor the master accounts for a legion of seniors rental units. If the unit accounts are low on funds, I go to a series of designated accounts, take money and top the unit accounts up so the bills are paid and everyone is happy. Each unit has a number, and it’s all anonymous. I can’t even see where these units are, I assume they’re in Detroit, but they could be anywhere.

Finally, if there are any issues, I’m supposed to let Eddy know.

It’s stupid data grunt work, but they pay a bit above minimum and it doesn’t look like it will take more than a few hours a day. I can use the rest of the time to hunt for more work, or whatever.


It takes me a few days to get up to speed, but once I have it down I’m sweeping through the list in no time. It flags any issues, so it’s not hard to find the accounts that need checking, and each day gets a bit faster. Pretty soon, I’m playing online Poker more than I’m working. I tell myself I’ll start looking for another job soon, but never seem to get around to it.

This goes on for a couple months, and then one day something happens- I get hauled out of bed one night by an emergency message from the system. Bleary eyed, I stare at the message window.

“Unit 556847932 has lost contact, please advise.”

I don’t know what to do. I call Eddy.

He’s high as a kite, but comes down hard when I tell him the message. When he’s done swearing, he says “Send me the number. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it. Just…Everything else is okay, right?”


“Then don’t worry about it. You’re doing a good job, Johnny. The boss is happy.”

I smile. “Oh yeah? Cool.”

“Sure is. I gotta go. Let me know if you get any more messages, ‘kay?”

“No problem.”

Then he’s gone, and the place is dark again.

I go to bed, but as I’m trying to sleep a thought strikes me.

How the hell do you lose contact with an apartment unit?


*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!

Sunday Drivers (Part 1)


This week on KFAT fiction, we have a visit to the Twilight Zone. In a not too distant future, an auto insurance investigator loses his job to the driverless car revolution, but when he’s offered a new job it might just turn out to be his last. Can he keep himself from becoming just another Sunday Driver?

Sunday Drivers

by Robyn Paterson

(Science Fiction, Near Future, Mature.)

Lots of kids have nightmares about being buried alive.

You wake up and you’re in a tight, dark enclosed space. The air inside is stale and hot and you can barely move. You scream. You make as much noise as possible, hoping that someone is going to hear you.

But nobody does, because nobody can.

I’m going to tell you the story of how I got buried alive at 120 mph.

It starts with 14 words.


Come see me in my office when you have the time.

Bill Class.”

Bill was my boss at Trueblue Auto Insurance, and his office was at the end of a nearly empty cubicle farm. I barely had time to read it when Hadley from security showed up next to my desk. He gave me an apologetic look, but I just nodded and grabbed my coat. I wasn’t going to make a fuss, there was no point. He was just doing his job, like I’d done mine.

Bill was as apologetic as he could be, but he too was just doing his job.

“It’s just the way things are, John,” he said. “Nobody’s buying cars anymore. Hell, why should they? They can just use those damn apps on their phones and some Cloud Car will show up and take them to wherever they want to go just like that.”

I got it. I knew.

Nobody buying cars meant nobody needing auto insurance.

It had been coming for years.

First a few driverless cars on the road, then once the Cloud Car services like Uber caught on and people realized they didn’t need to pay for insurance, or gas, or maintenance, the bottom fell out of the whole industry. Why pay for that crap when you could let someone else handle it?

Like an idiot, I thought there’d still be a need for insurance investigators- after all, people still had accidents, right?

But then the new legislation came in- no more human drivers. Things reached the point where there were so many driverless cars on the road that the only ones having accidents were humans. So they solved that too.

Now, there I was.

“Of course, there’ll be a severance package,” Bill continued. “You’re a good man, John. I hate to see you go, but you’ll bounce back, okay?”

I swallowed the bile in my throat and smiled. I shook his hand. Hadley escorted me from the building.

I wanted to torch the place, maybe it was good they stuck Hadley with me.

Instead I put out a location event alert on my G_Phone and invited everyone I knew to join me in getting drunk. Lots showed up. It wasn’t like they had jobs to worry about either.

America has 4.12 million miles of roads, it’s a country built around cars.

When you got 90% of the cars off the road, you got rid 90% of everything that went with them. Insurance. Car Loans. Auto Parts. Auto Plants. Parking Garages. Road Maintenance. Traffic Ticket fees. Gas and Oil Production. The DMV. City Parking Meters.

Driverless vehicles caused a huge pileup in a system built around people owning cars.

I was just another piece of hot, sticky roadkill.

Viva progress!

Still, the bills came, because everyone was trying to get what money they could. And pretty soon I was having to decide between paying for my glorious one-room apartment on Detroit’s lower east side, water, power, Internet, or phone bill. I could have one or two, but I couldn’t have them all.

I have to admit, I was thinking about saying screw it and just ignoring them all, but the idea of being homeless didn’t fill me with wonder.

The problem was, the last thing anyone was looking to hire was an insurance investigator- we were a dime a dozen, and someone had dumped a hell of a lot of dimes on the pavement. I could try other jobs, but those took training, and training cost money, and what was it that I didn’t have? Severance only went so far, and hell, I couldn’t even work at McDonald’s, those had gone totally automated ten years  before.

Every time I saw that cute anime-type face on the ordering screen asking me if I wanted fries with that, I wanted to punch her- hard.

So, one night I drunk posted to my G_book page:

“Bill Deathmatch! Rent vs. Power! Who will win? You decide! Vote below!”

The usual bunch of joke replies, and a few posts showing serious worry followed, but then I got a Direct Message from one of my old high school buddies.

The truth was, I’d even forgotten I’d added him to my friend’s list.

But there his name was on my message bar: Eddy Saint.

“Hey man. You needing some cash?”

I wish to god that I’d ignored that message.


But I didn’t.

*      *      *       *      *      *      *      *      * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!