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[ Read more about author J.A.R. Topper ]

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A warlord from a bygone era comes to Earth in human form. But why is she here and what is she looking for? Her time is running out.


by J.A.R. Topper

     Something had gone wrong. The demons of Hell on all echelons of supervision were far more interested in their own self indulgences than in doing their jobs, making the inferno a disorganized place. A mortal, accustomed to the relatively smooth maneuverings of governments and businesses, with an understanding of Hell's organizational system, would have wondered why something like this hadn't happened before.        

A goblin with the task of whipping the miserable souls of Hell into docile subservience had let its mischievousness run amuck. This type of goblin, widely thought of as less of a conscious being and more of a merry puppet on chain link strings, had somehow loosed itself from the chains that bound it to the underworld and tumbled into the plane of those mortals that could eventually end up in its hot domain. The wicked expression in a fiery ball of crackling laughter and flailing glee traversed the mortal realm that night. Darting through the air, it roared with merriment while setting the bodies of inoffensive souls on fire. The goblin could see into their hearts and pick the greatest of souls' lives to end. The black of space rang with the screams of the innocent that night in a duet with the festive little roar of the goblin.       

Because good resided in them, the souls that died that night were ushered up to Heaven. The firmament had an incredible influx throughout the night and into the morning, thus the righteous were forced to stand at closed gates because Heaven was also in disarray.       

So the souls who had already gone through a night from Hell stood and waited for Heaven to pull itself together. But Heaven had preordained a plan and the souls waiting at its gate were not part of it. They were not supposed to have died yet and Heaven could not accept the unexpected. The bureaucratic mess ended with the righteous going to the same place all who are rejected from Heaven end up, the caverns of fire.        

For an unknown span of time those righteous souls toiled in the heat of anguish, whipped into lakes of fire. Such painful labor continued until someone in the managerial sector of Hell noticed a glitch. A census taker looked at his list of all the souls who currently called Hell home in his left hand: 398,742,728,663,426,843. He looked to his right hand where he held the list established before time began of all the souls who were supposed to inhabit Hell at that point 398,742,728,663,425,843. When all was sorted it was revealed that 1,000 souls had joined the Hell family due to its own little goblin's work and no one had notice. It wasn't much use to check for things like this usually. People weren't pounding on the doors of Hell eager to get in like they did upstairs. So the 398,742,728,663,425,843 souls who were supposed to be in Hell along with the supervisors, manager, goblins, and the devil all had a good laugh about the whole thing (the 398,742,728,663,425,843 souls only had a very short laugh before they were lashed back into misery) and then the thousand souls were released.       

That's how there came to be an army in existence in the mortal plane that had been cast from Heaven and spat out of Hell, with all of the righteous vengeance of the innocent and all of the misery, hatred, and pain acquired in Hell. Each took a little piece of perdition where ever traveled because the fires of the inferno burned eternally in their souls. No longer a natural part of God's creation, they were an army of Hell fire. 


In a moment a great wave of urgency washed over Sadie. She could feel the passing precious seconds draining the life out of her. They fled from her without rational reason, stealing pieces of her as they left. She cried after them but, like sand, a tightened grip only made them fly faster. Panic and dread filed into the hollow places their absence left. Her heart began beating faster and sweat glazed her chest.      

"Can you get me a beer from the car? Thanks, Johnny." The woman's voice interrupted Sadie's silent trauma. She looked at the crowd of people screaming around her and remembered her task.       

"Of course, babe," Sadie heard the young man.      

Sadie watched him as he took his attention off of the local rock band and made his way through the throng of people. She followed behind him until the crowd began letting up. At a distance, she continued to follow him across the grass towards the parking lot. She turned in a circle as she walked to get an idea of the positions of any other people who might be hanging back from the concert.      

"Ye--ah!" Sadie skipped and tripped when something caught her ankle. She looked down and remarked upon the sight of it. "Blackberry bush," she said accusingly.      

A few minutes later Johnny opened the trunk of his car where the cooler was stored. He looked up from his rummaging through the ice when he thought he heard a sound, but all he saw was a vacated parking lot. He grabbed two beers out of the cooler, but then dropped them when he heard a voice behind him      

"I'm going to kill you now. I feel that it's fair you know beforehand." Johnny spun around to find a young woman with tanned skin wearing jeans, a gray shirt, and black boots. She seemed harmless enough so Johnny laughed in good humor, but the woman merely tilted her head to the side in a manner that somehow oozed with innocent malevolence. Johnny looked at her again and this time noticed the short brown hair that seemed to disrespect gravity. He looked into her blue eyes and saw a thin layer of ice barely covering something dangerous underneath. For a moment, Johnny stood hypnotized by what he saw, but his trance broke when she reached for his wrist. As she twisted it around his back, he saw that she had something in her other hand. Unbelieving, he barely struggled as she pinned his arm behind his back and reached across the front of his body to slit his throat with a shard of ice. She allowed him to collapse onto the grass as he bled to death, spasming. When he finally laid still she pushed his body underneath his car with her boot. She dumped the ice in the cooler out over the blood soaked grass.        

"Murder by icicle," she congratulated herself and walked away twisting the lid off her flask.  


"Eons before planets had begun forging themselves from the dust of space the Universe stretched on in four endless realms including that of the Sea, the Land, the Air, and the Space with Space being the blackest of the four.       

"Conflict characterized the time period. No person crossed the boundaries of the four realms because they preoccupied themselves with constant battles for dominion among various factions. In all realms, warlords moved in and out of power while fragile alliances crumbled in treachery and outward enemies whispered secret plans.       

"However, in these blood-letting times a victor emerged in the water whose ferocity and strength united the clans of the Sea. Kin Dee, Governess of the great Dee Tribe of the Sea, won her prize both because of her mental ferocity and because of her tremendous physical stature. This Queen of War bragged a two hundred foot flipper capable of maneuvering her massive body with ease. The razors that lined the inside fold of her mouth were only the first of twenty-seven rows of teeth. All of these daggers came behind the spike, a protrusion of bone that extended from her snout and could be wielded like the deadliest of spears. The strength of her offensive weapons were only equal to that of her defensive ones. Underneath her skin an impenatrable bone plating made her invincible to assaults by normal weapons.      

"Meanwhile King Grag of the Dark But Not Dark Enough To Ever Possibly Be Mistaken For Black (the name was much more eloquently put when spoken in the language of the Air) united all of his respective realm.       

"Thus, the Kingdom of Grey Of All Shades and the United Tribes of the Sea looked towards each other with ambition. It has been said but never proven that the war between the two realms waged on for so long and had so many twists conceived by the two clever generals on each side that the factions of the Land temporarily set aside their disputes to watch on the sidelines.       

"Perhaps it happened during the first battle in the war when the Tribes of the Sea and the Grey Shades of the Air, with their respective leaders in the forefront, charged each other and the horn of Kin and the beak of Grag sounded the first clash. Or perhaps it happened in the generals tents late at night as each leader attempted to see things from the enemy's perspective. When it happened is not definite, but what happened is: Kin Dee and King Grag fell in love.       

"When the bodiless in the spirit world saw the powerful body growing inside of Kin, the greatest of the spirits flew into jealous rages. Each became a general in their own right, enlisting the weaker spirits who had no hope of gaining such a body to fight for them. The spirit world launched into a full scale war with the strongest of spirits hoping to win the strongest of bodies. From amid the heated conflict a victor arose, the most savage of them all. When the other generals threw up the white flag the victor assembled them all together, for you cannot kill a spirit, and said simply, It's mine. At this the proven lesser spirits sulked off to await unremarkable bodies as the triumphant entered the physical realm in the form of the child of Kin and Grag.        

"The child of Kin Dee inherited her horn, but in her adolescent years she shaved the bone flat and sharp on the sides so that she could slice sideways as well as stab frontwards. Her plated head rose like a crown on her brow. Her vast wingspan had strength enough to easily lift her massive body and carry her through the air or fold down into fins to maneuver through the water. In the Sea her feathers would molt and give way to rubbery drag-free skin. Outside of the water the feathers would grow again with one flap of her fins. Her sleek black coat made of fine needles would drain the blood out of anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way of the shedding hair in the spring time.       

"In Sa Dee's youth, Kin and Grag remained enemies, despite their love. Their feud ended when Sa Dee grew large and killed them both uniting the Sea and the Air. But that's a story for another night," she said as she ended her interpretive play-acting that went along with the story. She went over to the night stand and closed the leather-bound book that had long ago been set aside in order to bring the words to life.      

"Can't we hear just a little more?" asked Elena from the top bunk.      

"Just a little bit, mom?" asked Keegan from the bottom bunk. "I'm not even tired."      

"Of course you can, tomorrow. Now it's time for you two to go to sleep. Goodnight. I love you," she said softly as she kissed them both on the forehead.       

"Goodnight, mom. I love you."       

"Goodnight. I love you." 


In a dark and, by most standards, uncomfortable layer with only half a roof, Sadie sat on an dirty cushion peeling an orange and discarding the rind haphazardly on the floor. The crumbling floor of the old house resembled the tattered walls that contained multiple unintentional windows. The building that had been condemned generations before sat back from the gravel road, hidden from the well-maintained houses of the neighbors by ancient trees.      

Sadie got up and flicked on the bug-like TV and a well volumized blond head faded in. After an uplifting story about government dealings, the focus moved to her co-anchor, an attractive older gentleman. Sadie chewed a piece of her orange.      

"Related to the tragic homicide of Johnny Cagham, a well loved running back for Thompson University, police have just released this information; a trace amount of blood not belonging to the victim was found at the crime scene. Detective Birdcock tells us that it may belong to a witness, another victim, or the killer. When the police ran the DNA through the system they came up with--"      

The attractive older gentleman continued his report as Sadie swore and rolled up her left pant leg, no longer paying attention. There, close to her ankle, a thick scab covered a spot big enough to have bled droplets.       

"Blackberry bush!" she cursed accusingly as she jumped to her feet, stuffing the last five pieces of orange into her mouth and washing them down with a drink from her flask.       

Sadie looked between two rotting boards in the front of the house and stared down the empty road. She swiveled her eyes and looked the other direction to find a police car with no siren and no lights coming towards her house.      

"Well Ludger," she said to a pile of dirt on a dirt portion of the floor of the ramshackle house, "its about time we get out of this place anyways." Sadie squeezed herself through two weak boards in the back of the house and ran off across the grass field.       

A young man in a suit and a middle aged woman in a blazer and business skirt got out of the car in front of what amounted to a pile of wood that might have once been a house during the Civil War. Or maybe the Revolutionary War, thought the police officer when the front door fell in upon first knock. The victim of the murder had been seen previously with a young woman whose neighbors said was illegally squatting in this abandoned 'house'.      

The two officers took out their guns as the young man shouted into the house, "A.P.D. Come out with your hands in plain view." The young officer leaned into the house and, seeing no one there, came in followed by the woman.       

After a quick search the young officer heard, "Lieutenant, she's heading out to the woods. Get the car to the race track!" The woman vanished through a gap between two boards in the back of the house. As the Lieutenant looked out after her. He saw someone in a gray shirt vanish into the woods at the far end of the field behind the house. The Lieutenant dashed out of the house and got in the car.      

Sadie emerged through the short span of trees into the stable side of the racetrack grounds. She ran in between two barns startling a horse and provoking a long chain of swear words from the handler that were directed at both her and the horse. She ran further down through the chain of barns startling more horses and collecting more invitations to go to hell. Once a fair ways down the aisle she turned to look behind her. Far off behind a maze of rearing horses and angry people a woman with a gun ran at an alarming rate given her tight business skirt and heels.       

Sadie dodged around the corner into the barn and came face to face with an inquisition. A long brown face with a crooked white strip down the front looked at her with pricked ears that seemed to demand and explanation for this unacceptable behavior. Sadie looked at the leather halter that rested on his head and the white lead rope trailing down to the ground. She saw the gold name plate on the front of the stall that said "Bayou Blue" and noticed that none of the other stalls had name plates like the big end stall.      

She looked down the barn aisle as three workers dashed out the far end to help with renegade horses. Sadie grabbed the end of the lead rope and, with a quick smile at the horse said, "Hi, Bayou. You look fast,"  and threw open his stall door.  


Bayou Blue was his racing name. He had no other name. His owners did not think of him affectionately like they did their terrier. Rather, he received the best money could buy because he made even more. The best jockey rode him. The best trainers worked with him. The best veterinarians and farriers worked on him. He had his own chiropractor and masseuse. His stall remained clean with fresh shavings. He had people who groomed him daily. During workouts he wore the best tack and the most protective boots. In the winter he wore the highest quality blanket.       

All this because he had made a lot of money and most believed he would continue to make a lot of money. They sold Bayou Blue for a small fortune to people who believed he could make them a large fortune.       

Top Notch was his racing name. Back in the barn a handler named Gregory mockingly called him Pot, the reverse of top, because he was so slow he might as well go backwards. When, at his first race, all of the other horses bolted out of the starting gates, Top Notch merely trotted out only at the unceasing demanding of his jockey, the whip, and the spurs. Top Notch didn't just finish last that day, he never finished at all. The whole scenario repeated itself at his second race.      

Gregory walked Pot back to his stall one day after his workout. As he and the horse went by the front of the barn to turn down the barn aisle towards the horse's stall, they stopped. Gregory  looked down the aisle between barns and saw complete pandemonium caused by horses that, for some reason, had gone mad. Two loose horses ran down the aisle while multiple others stood on their back legs, trumpeting their disconcerts. Gregory put Top Notch in the empty corner stall of the closest barn so that he could go help retrieve the loose horses. The old stall of the recently sold Bayou Blue still had his name on it. In his hurry, Gregory left the halter and lead rope on the horse. Though he didn't know it, when he rushed out of the barn down the disastrous aisle way, he past by the reason for the horses' panic. A few seconds later the sprinter came to a halt around the corner of the barn.  


The moment the door opened the horse Sadie called Bayou bolted. The crashes of his metal shoes against the cement reverberated in her skull, but she still managed to grab hold of his mane as he dashed past her. For a few unsure strides Sadie galloped along side of the horse, managing to stay on her feet as her strides grew longer by the pull of the horse. For a moment she lost her footing and the skinny horse dragged her along beside of him, nearly falling over because of her weight. But his determination to run away won out  and Sadie, while clinging to his mane, managed to reverse directions and throw her leg up over his back.      

Shakily astride the frantic horse with nothing but the end of the lead rope, Sadie crouched low on his neck and hung on. She barely noticed the shouts from the race track people as the galloping horse weaved through the crowded space.       

The horse galloped away from the excitement with the swift pace needed for a creature of flight. He charged through the large manicured grass field that greeted those who pulled up the driveway of the racetrack as tears created by the wind flew backwards off Sadie's face. He purposefully trampled the carefully tended flowers that surrounded a sign reading "Turnpike Racing Grounds"  before smashing his iron shoes into the pavement that led out to the city streets.      

The clang of his hooves against the asphalt rang relatively quieter as the horse met the traffic on the road. As he sped towards a car halted at a red light, Sadie braced, anticipating that the horse would execute an amazing feat of athleticism by jumping over the vehicle. Rather, the horse skidded and veered at the last second, throwing Sadie hard against his neck and nearly toppling her off his side. Sadie's harsh movement, in turn, almost unbalanced the young horse who scrambled for a moment to get his legs back underneath him. For several additional strides Sadie clung desperately to the horse's side while people sitting in city traffic honked and stared at the live entertainment.       

"Wuh-oh," Sadie said as she hung sideways off the horse and looked at the building up ahead that an early projection estimated would hit her upper body. She heard nearby sirens as she pulled herself to her seat in time for her knee to hit the edge of the building instead of her torso, which further spooked the already terrified horse and caused him to swerve off the sidewalk and into moving traffic. Sadie heard crashes behind her as cars slammed on their breaks and turned sharply to avoid the horse and rider. The horse continued onto the opposite sidewalk and forced a frappé drinker to dive to the side as he crashed through the tables of an outdoor café, leaving spilled beverage as aftermath.       

At the end of the block an intersection came to a spinning halt for the single horse cavalry as cars collided in their wake. Sadie heard the sirens of very close police cars as the horse galloped down the center of a less-trafficked side street. They ran through an intersection before five cop cars came around the corner on their tail. Like a regimented unit in league with the horse, the cop cars followed their leader in a tight V formation.       

Sadie stole a quick glance at the pursuing cars and, when she turned forward again, saw a black and white blur a little ways off. She strained her poor vision and squinted to make out a police barricade.       

Unable to steer the wild steed, Sadie said urgently, "Turn down Monroe. It's just up ahead on your left." When the horse galloped past Monroe, Sadie amended her plan. "If you turn to your right up ahead we can make another right and I can drop you back at the race track and steal a car instead." The horse made no attempt to turn and Sadie sacrificed one hand hold to retrieve the flask from her back pocket. She used her teeth to unscrew it and spit the lid back out into the palm that held the flask. After taking a drink and returning the flask to its rightful place, Sadie decided to compromise. "Okay, we don't have to go back to the racetrack. Just turn down that alley up ahead and drop me and you can continue in your madness."      

Up ahead Sadie saw that the police had positioned the black and white cars so that not even a horse could squeeze through. She heard a voice coming from a loud speaker that said, "You're surrounded. Pull over."  

    If the horse felt any inclination to heed Sadie's or the police's suggestions, he kept his poker face intact and continued undaunted. He set his sights beyond the walls and pavement that had made up his whole life and refused to slacken his pace when the un-manicured field of freedom came into view just beyond the police barricade where the road came to a dead end.       

Sadie, conversely, filled with trepidation, centered her weight over the horse to prepare for a hard shift in an undisclosed direction. Nearing the cars, Sadie could make out the voice on the loud speaker continue to give her instructions. But they spoke to the fugitive when, as it had become clear to Sadie, it was the runaway calling the shots. The horse took his life in his own four hooves as a previously dormant spark of the undomesticated woke inside of him. He approached the barricade and conjured his nature-given might that allowed him to leap over the hood of a police car and continue out into the wild.  


Approximately 3,000 years ago: 

    "Hope is inevitable," said the short man. Besides his lack of height, his most prominent characteristic was the air of adequacy he carried with him. In the dark room, he paced around the circular table so that the twelve men sitting around it had to continually repositioned themselves to be able to see him. The only man able to comfortably look at the speaker at all times was the fourteenth man in the room who stood silently in a dark corner. For the rest of the men, any given moment would see three or four of them craning uncomfortably to look behind their chairs. None of this did much good, however, because the lantern sitting in the middle of the table, the only light in the room, hardly reached the circling man. The dim light merely succeeded in casting an eerie light on the seated men's faces creating a sinister atmosphere and also illuminating the nearly empty tray of pastries on the table.       

"There is no way to destroy it," continued the short man. "Even in the most oppressive conditions, people will find something to place their hope in. This may lead to the formation of rebel groups, armed wings--a revolution even. In any case, it will mean civil and political unrest." The short man stopped and nodded as he finished to ensure his audience that he spoke truth.       

"And what do you propose, sir," said the old man.      

The short man continued his circuit. "If we can channel this hope where we want it to be," he made a large movement with his hands intended to look like channeling, "the rule of the military will be stabilized."  He held up a finger with his next words. "I suggest we give the people a supernatural entity to believe in. This way they will not waste their time on the workings of the flesh. They will have something to believe in. We will rule in peace. War is prevented and lives are spared. Everyone wins. Already there is a legend that spreads among the farmers, the craftsmen, the uneducated, and the poor of writings made by the Earth itself." The short man twirled his hand in the air as if waving off a ridiculous assertion. "My proposal is simple: we write a book prophesying of a savior who will come to deliver his people in their suffering. We will write that this is a savior of the humble, the meek, the lowly, and the hard-working. It will give them something to hope for and our rule will be absolute."      

"Hm," the tall man hummed as he reached for the last piece of sweet cake in the middle of the table. The fat man two seats down heaved a disappointed sigh.       

"Hmm," hummed the taller man.      

The tallest man in the room decided to chime in. "Hmmm," he said.      

"Is anyone else uncomfortable with sitting in the dark?" the tall man said with a mouth full of sweet cake, cutting off the melody. "What happened to the lights? I know the Farahela room has a light switch. I believe I've used it before."      

"Power outage," the old man informed him.      


"You know," said the older man, "I've finally reached the point in my life where I can be seen for the person I am rather than the face I wear."      

The other generals around the room looked at him expectantly as he sat silently. At last the older man took his focus off of an unimportant point on the table and found that the men were waiting for him to explain. "Oh, I wasn't going anywhere with that," he said. "I was just saying."      

"Yes," said the oldest man. "You're beauty has faded and we can finally take your intelligence seriously."      

"Pity, too," said the tall man. "Now that we're no longer captivated by your stunning looks we've found out that you really haven't a thought in your head."      

The older man conjured up his most indignant expression.      

The short man let out a breath. "Gentlemen, if we could focus."      

The fat man two seats down from the tall man snapped back into reality after dwelling minutes on his disappointment. At first the short man's idea bounced off his cold indifference, but as it ricocheted back to its maker, his inquisitive mind reached out and turned it over while he dissolved his emotionless barricade with a raise of an eyebrow and a forward posture. "I like it."       

"Yes, me, too." "I commend you on your brilliant tactical skills." "Let's do it." The agreements came now like a whirlpool from around the table.       

A harrowed looking man who sat closest to the silent man standing in the corner cleared his throat amid the out-pouring. "Gentlemen,"  he began as the others quieted down. "If we could now discuss the issue of the mines--"      

"Oh, I don't want to talk about the mines," said the old man.      

"You always want to talk about the mines," said the older man.      

"The mines are boring. The BOR is boring! Haha!" said the oldest man and the rest of the senior generals in the room laughed along with him.      

"Yes, well," muttered the BOR, "you've actually used that pun before." But the generals paid no attention to him. 


Present Day:      

The horse gained ground from the police when he galloped across the undeveloped field that the cars had to drive around. He continued through the suburbs of the city as evening and Sadie's hopes of painlessly getting off the crazed horse fell. More than once she looked down at the speeding ground and thought about diving off. But when these thought crossed her mind she took out her flask instead.  Beyond the housing developments the runaway horse took cover in some woods. The trees seemed to usher him forward creating a pathway ahead. As the horse ran faster, Sadie exchanged peripheral vision for speed as the scenery blurred around her except for the point straight ahead.       

Night came and the trees thinned as rolling hills emerged. The horse galloped on through the misty morning and past by noon before slowing to a heaving trot and then, with lathered neck and flared nostrils, stopped moving altogether when a creek cut through his path. Sadie, maintaining her crouch, tumbled off onto the ground, spooking the horse. He sidestepped only a little before he ceded fear to exhaustion and came to a halt next to a rotting log. Sadie groaned while laying on the ground, unable to straighten her legs. Her eyes pivoted in her skull in search of relief from her sore body. Instead she found a pile of dirt protruding from the grass which appeared to be endowed with a pair of yellow eyes void of sockets.       

"Ugh, Ludger, I think I'm broken," Sadie said to the dirt.       

The pile of dirt made a series of guttural noises to which the horse, who stood puffing a few paces away, took to mean, Get lost, because he tried desperately to do so, but instead stepped on the lead rope that hung from his halter now that Sadie no longer held it and came to an abrupt halt.       

Sadie, alternatively, took it to mean something more along the lines of, Get over it, because she slowly stood up with a groan.      

"Are the cops on my trail?"       

The dirt made more noises and then with a bloop bloop the eyes disappeared one at a time beneath the dirt and the pile slowly sank beneath the natural surface of the grassy floor.      

"Okay, sounds good," Sadie said to the disappearing dirt and turned to the horse's interrogative face. Now that the eyes were gone he gained back his courage. He walked up to the spot where the pile of dirt used to be and sniffed the earth enthusiastically. After an in-depth investigation of the grounds, the horse lifted his head and looked at Sadie. "It's just Ludger," she shrugged.      

Sadie grabbed the dragging lead rope and walked the horse up to the sunlit creek lined by trees and said, "Look," while pointing at the water. Feeling she had fulfilled her job of leading the horse she dropped the lead rope in the mud and strode out into deeper currents where she could lay down in the cold water. The horse plunged his nose into the stream and splashed thirstily while Sadie dunked her head. After both had their fill, the horse found a place to graze while Sadie laid down in the shade under a nearby tree and fell asleep.      

At dawn of the next day she opened her eyes as she laid on her back and looked up at the dewy boughs above her. That first moment of consciousness came without recollection of anything and she lost herself to the spiteful seconds as the branches above her became bars. She looked beyond her prison and saw the days lined up one after another marching slowly toward the dome of the present. All were identically haggard, downtrodden, and spiritless, except for one yet far off in the distance, that, despite its dirt and depression, glowed. Sadie stared out toward that day as the sickness that comes from the memory of past delinquencies rose in her belly, despite the lack of any recollection.        

But another feeling in her belly accompanied with a growl, succeeded in bending the bars of her mental prison and released her into a grassy field with the new sun rising. Sadie shook herself and sat up. She looked around and saw a brown blur a little ways off and a nearby stream.       

"Ugh," she said when her stomach growled again, prompting her to get up and peel some bark off of a rotting log. Under the bark larvae squirmed with the revelation of the sun, as if their sleep had been rudely cut short by an opened curtain.       

"Mmmmmmm, this looks delicious," said Sadie flatly as she took out her flask. She grabbed a few and took a drink before stuffing them in her mouth. "Oh, they're so good," she stated blandly as she chewed with her mouth open trying not to let her food touch her tongue. She swallowed hard and took a big drink out of her flask. She grabbed some more as a pile of dirt with eyes rose up out of the ground nearby. "Ludger, buddy! Come sit with me. I hate eating alone." She moved her hand towards her mouth and said, "I can't wait to eat this next bite because the first one was so delicious." And as she chewed she commented, "I'm so glad I'm here in the middle of nowhere to feast on this wonderment rather than eating chocolate cake because this is so much better." After she had swallowed her second bite she plopped down a few feet from the log. "That was so good I could hardly stand it and now I have to take a break before I overwhelm myself with taste sensations." Her tone remained dull as she took another drink. "So are the cops on my trail?"      

She heard the dirt speak, Why did you kill that boy?      

"He was destined to become a serial killer," she replied.      

Really? she heard the dirt ask skeptically.      


Then why?      

"I thought my murder weapon was brilliant," Sadie gloated.      

That's not a reason to kill someone.      

"But it was good," she smiled, "don't you think? 'Where's the murder weapon?' They'd ask. 'It's not at the crime scene. It's not in the possession of the killer. It wasn't dumped in the reservoir and it isn't hidden away anywhere.' It melted! Genius!"      


"I guess it didn't really matter anyways, though, because of that damn blackberry bush. Blackberry bush!" she cursed and pounded her fist.      


Sadie paused and looked away. She spoke quietly as she stared off with just a little crazy in her eyes. "My actions were justified. Justified."       


Sadie jerked and looked back at the pile of dirt with a shrug. "He was just some bloke. Why's it matter?"      

It matters to someone. Someone loved him.      

"And they'll be dead pretty soon, too. What's a few more years of life anyways?"      


"You're a smartass. Listen," Sadie gave the dirt a meaningful look. "They sit around prophesying their own apocalypse instead of doing something to fix their problems. If I don't do it, they will and it will be slow and painful with offensively feigned concern. Me, I really care about you. That's why when I do it it'll be fast and clean. I got your back, buddy." Her words came without a hint of malice and she smiled gently as she looked down. After a moment she changed into a business-like tone. "So are the cops still on my trail?"       

You should probably keep moving.       

Sadie turned her head to look around the landscape. She spotted the brown smudge in a green background a ways off and began a quest to retrieve the recreant. After a rest and hours of grazing, the horse had energy to burn insomuch that when Sadie came close he decided his best option would be to trot away rather than let the strange woman get any closer. Unfortunately for one party and fortunately for the other, the lead rope still dragged on the ground and in only a few strides the horse stepped on it and stopped himself. Sadie grabbed the lead rope and pushed the horse backwards to freedom. She grabbed his mane and swung her leg up over his back. He immediately started into a gallop spooked by the movement, while his inept rider teetered halfway off. He jumped over the stream with a still unbalanced passenger, but she eventually clambered aboard ungracefully anyways and they galloped onward through trees, open fields, sloping hills, and trees again. 


"She wandered in the darkness for an amount of time incomprehensible to us. Her roaming took her through layers of emptiness filled with solidarity. All the planets and stars and moons waltzed wistfully in her lonely eyes.      

"But then in the darkness someone took her hand. When the two hands clasped the darkness fled in fear of hope. Though the bearers of the two hands staid in darkness, that one point where their hands met remained illuminated by no other generator than the darks fear of love.       

"They wandered together for a length of time all lovers would envy."      

"Mom! You're not even looking at the words," said Elena.      

The mother looked over at the top bunk from where she stood with her hands clasped by her heart. She looked down at the nameless book that had been forgotten on the nightstand. "Do you want me to continue or not?" the mother asked.      


"Okay, then I'll tell it my way." She got back into position, staring off down some mystical path. "They walked together for an amount of time all lovers would envy. All before them was good for they lit their path from within.       

"But then something terrible happened." The mother raised her voice and jumped to show how terrible it was. Elena and Keegan jumped in their beds. "Something began pulling them apart. Their arms stretched too far, and though they struggled to hold on, the darkness carried him away from her. The light that might have helped them find each other died when their touch broke.       

"When she lost him, her full heart which had once felt absence, but no pain because of its emptiness, broke. In the surge of emotion all the Universe burst out of her eyes. From her right eye came love, hope, happiness, and everything good. From her left eye came pain, grief, anger, hate, and everything bad. So, even to this day, on the far reaches of the Universe pure good and pure evil reside at opposite ends.      

"But in the middle, pieces from both sides converged. It was there, where good and evil occupied the same space, that Earth formed. Our planet, therefore, is derived from both good and evil. It cannot exist without both.       

"That's where we live, right in the midst of it all. And that's why, even if there is a monster in the closet, there is no reason to be afraid of it. It is made up of good and evil, just like you are."      

"But mom, don't you think I could be made up of a lot more good and a lot less evil and the monster is made up of a lot less good and a lot more evil," said Elena from the top bunk as she pulled the covers over her nose.       

"Then appeal to its good side and maybe it'll let you live."      

"MOM! STOP IT!" shouted Keegan, but then despite himself laughed with his mother. "But you should probably look in the closet anyways."      

"Alright," said the mother, "but one of these days I won't be here to look in the closet and you'll have to get over--Ah!" she cried when she opened the closet door. She looked at the purple puppy sitting contentedly on the closet floor wagging his tail. Keegan and Elena burst into laughter behind her as she picked up the discolored pooch. "Sylvester, what have they done to you?"       

"Keegan did it!" shouted Elena.      

"Keegan, did your father show you how to do this?" the mother asked.      

"Dad said it'll wear off by the morning," he manage to say through giggles.       

"Tell the rest of the story," said Elena when she had settled down. Keegan, too, quieted and looked at his mother.       

"After the explosion," said their mother as she set down the purple anomaly on Keegan's bed, "she looked down at what she had created and saw tiny life forming. She knew that spirits, as incomplete entities, are drawn toward life as the seek bodies of their own. She figured that if he would be drawn to her creation. That he would be somewhere in this tiny Universe on some planet inhabiting some body.       

"So she began her search wandering from one planet to the next looking for him. She searched all the far corners of every planet she visited and every time she left a planet without him, she would take away with her all its suffering, pain, and misery. One day she'll come here and free all the Earth from oppression." She closed the book with no title that sat on the bed stand.  


The horse reigned himself in when the sun had just begun to pull its covers up in preparation for the night. The sun had snuggled in enough for the hills to stretch their shadows and yawn. But more importantly, a river about a hundred feet in width brought the horse to a halt. Sadie jumped off and allowed the horse's wanderlust to take him wherever he might find the best grass or drink water of his own accord, trusting in his dragging lead rope jail.       

Sadie knelt down on the shore of the river and looked at the fish with dazzling scales of red, white, and gold. She stuck her head in the river and gulped the cold water to the terror of the fish and then rested for a moment with a hand in the stream, staring downward. The water, clear as the air, allowed her to see straight to the rocks of pale gray, pink, and orange. After a moment fish began to reconvene in the area immediately under Sadie's view.       

"Woo!" she cheered as she threw one over her head onto the shore. She jumped up, pulled a knife out of her belt, and jogged over to where the white fish flopped spiritedly on the ground. She focused on the fish for a moment to judge its movement before grabbing it by the tail, stabbing it in the head, and feasting on sushi.        

The next morning Sadie walked downstream to retrieve the brown smudge that had wondered off again. Interestingly, another dark blurb silhouetted against the Eastern sun caught her gaze. She shielded her eyes and squinted to make out the shape, but her eyesight disallowed its comprehension until the staunch condition of a proximity increase could be met. So, as she approached the horse and the mystery blurb she waited patiently until the latter formed itself into a bridge that arched over the river. The dark silhouette transformed into gold that sparkled under the sun on top and reflected the colors of the fish that swam underneath it.        

Sadie grabbed the horse on her way to the bridge whose escape plans, once again, were thwarted by his nylon chain. The duo came to the edge of the bridge and stopped to examine. Engravings of neat rows of shields that contained descriptive illustrations decorated the golden floor of the bridge. The shield furthest to the left and closest to the bank depicted a monk quietly meditating with closed eyes. The shield to the left of it contained the same drawing of a monk, apparently oblivious to the sinister-looking dragon that stared menacingly down at him. The third shield in the bottom row again showed the same drawing of a meditating monk with closed eyes, sitting quietly beside a decapitated dragon. The shield above the one furthest to the left was identical to the one below it--a meditating monk. In the middle shield the monk sat next to a pumpkin. The third showed the monk sitting next to a smashed pumpkin. The next three rows that Sadie could see from her spot on the grass repeated this sequence with an old lady, a baby, and an ear of corn. In the third shield the heads of the old lady and baby laid on the ground next to their bodies and flames consumed the ear of corn. The furthest row within Sadie's field of vision contained a slightly different sequence. In the first scene a man stood surrounded by a dragon, a pumpkin, an old lady, a baby, and an ear of corn. The second scene showed the man, still surrounded, but now sitting down and meditating. The final scene was identical to the first scenes in the other five narratives--a monk sat alone, peacefully mediating.       

Sadie walked to the side of the bridge dragging the horse behind her to get a better look at the guard rail. She crouched down and studied the twisting metal that supported the rail. Each twist had writing on it in a language Sadie couldn't understand. She put one hand on the ground to support herself as she looked at the writing that spiraled upwards to the other side of the support. She followed the writing until her head hit the second supporting beam.      

"Ow," she said, and retracted her head. She stood up and looked over the whole bridge. It seemed to be well built and well kept so Sadie took a ginger step. She put her full weight on it she turned to look back at an apprehensive horse.      

"Seems okay." She clucked to him and urged him on, walking forward a few feet. The horse stood. She clucked to him some more, pulled on the lead, and walked back to him and forwards again. The horse stood still. She walked him in a circle and approached the bridge again with a forward stride and confidence in her step. The horse followed her around the circle and stopped at the edge of the bridge. Sadie turned to the horse. "I would not hesitate to kill you."       

A, bloop, bloop, sounded as Ludger rose out of the ground right at the horse's heels startling him and causing him to shoot forward. The horse tore the lead rope out of Sadie's hands as he galloped past her and did not stop until he reached the safety of the opposite bank.       

"Alright," said Sadie, and then with a wave, "Thanks, Ludger! Hey, are the cops still following me?"       

The dirt spoke its language and Sadie said, "Okay, bye," and started to follow her horse across the bridge. But a few steps past the zenith of the arched structure, Sadie stopped mid-stride. In an instant, the glowing golden bridge had changed to become a glowing silver bridge in its entirety, as if it had been silver for eternity. On land deep blue grass and trees swayed in a light breeze under a pale green sky. Sadie pivoted and looked back the way she had come. She recognized the placement and type of trees as the same as when she had left that bank, but they had transformed their leaves into varying shades of blue in conjunction with the grass to contrast with the green sky. Sadie rubbed her eyes, but this did nothing to change or explain the change. She a step in the direction she had come when, in less than a second, things switched back. The bridge became gold and the grass restored the blue to the sky and the sky ceded green to the grass. Sadie nodded approvingly before turning and continuing towards the unknown bank. But in one step the world swapped colors again and again she stood on a silver bridge under a green sky.       

"Maybe I should have cooked that fish before I ate it," she muttered. She noticed, too, that the narrations on the shields had changed. The characters remained the same, but in each sequence the dragon, pumpkin, old lady, baby, and ear of corn triumphed. In the first sequence the monk hung out of the dragon's mouth. In the second a giant pumpkin crushed him. The old lady beat him down with a cane. The baby threw-up on him and the ear of corn made him fat.       

She turned left and walked along the peak of the bridge towards the guard rail that ran along its west side. As her weight transferred to her left foot the bridge became gold along with the coordinating green grass and blue sky. When she shifted her weight to her right foot to take another step the bridge became silver and the flora blue under a green sky. The switch occurred again and again with each step that caused her to lean to one side of the middle of the bridge and then to the other.       

She reached the rail, leaned over the thick gold guard, and looked down at the river that traveled eastward. Red, gold, and white fish swam in the water below. She leaned to her left and, though the clear water stayed pristine, it now traveled towards the setting sun and the fish swam about in scales of black, silver, and blue.       

Sadie turned around and leaned against the railing. She closed her right eye and saw a silver bridge, green sky, and blue vegetation. She opened her right eye and closed her left to see a world with a golden bridge, blue sky, and green plant life. She switched eyes again, and again, and again, and then said, "Okay," and continued on to the far bank where the horse stood eating blue grass.        

On the green sky side of the bridge a dirt road extended through a forest. Two yellow eyes sitting in a pile of dirt greeted her. "I'm totally trippin', Lud," she said. "Are the cops still on my trail?"      

I think you're safe, she heard the dirt say.        

"Great." Tired of riding, Sadie grabbed the horse's lead rope and began walking down the dirt road into the forest.       

Not too far along they came upon a giant smoking mushroom. Sadie contorted her face at the scene. The mushroom, approximately the size of a two story house, had a top swirled with different shades of brown and billowing smoke coming out of a chimney. Realizing that the mushroom had a chimney, Sadie's face contorted further into a look of great pain. She begrudgingly examined the anomaly further. The trees stood apart from it enabling the surrounding flowers to absorb sunlight. Sadie's stomach flopped when she saw the overly large door on the stem with windows on either side.       

Sadie groaned and looked down at the dirt. "Ludger," she said, "Please tell me you've seen me ingest large quantities of hallucinogenics recently."  The dirt gave her its frank response, which yielded no change in Sadie's expression. "Frickin' giant mushroom houses," muttered Sadie as she led the horse further into the woods. The horse followed Sadie calmly past a boulder on the backside of the mushroom until the boulder turned out to have limbs.

    "Afternoon, mate!" Came a voice from the ground that made Sadie jump and the horse bolt. Sadie hung onto the lead rope and took a minute to calm the horse down. "Di'nt meanta tartle yer old boy," he smiled warmly. When Sadie and the horse got their bearings straight, she realized that the boulder was actually a very large man bending down to tie his shoes. The man, not abnormally tall, was a good five feet in diameter. He stood in the midst of a vegetable garden in the back yard of the mushroom. He wore gardener's gloves, an apron, and work clothes that made him look like he had just gotten done rolling around in the dirt.      

"No worries. We're all quite un-startled. As far away from shock, surprise, and startlement as you can get, I assure you," Sadie replied with an assuring nod, returning the greeting if not the warmth. Sadie looked out beyond the mushroom and saw a heard of cows ambling around in and out of the sparse trees and eating grass. Sadie smiled when she saw a big snotty nose close by. But the smile faded when she saw that the calf stood by itself without eating, just staring at nothing. "Uh, sir?" she called to the gardener. "I think your cow might be sick."      

"T'aint sick," he said. "Ite accitentalty stolt te wrong cawh. Stolt its motter. Chu no, tay usualty bellow tat each otter, but tay dint bellow." Sadie looked at the mother-less baby who had lost something, though he was too young remember what. Because of the absence he felt, he stood perpetually searching the horizon.       

"Oh, well, have a good day," she called and walked away.      

"A gute tay to yoot, too," he called back.      

As they continued walked Sadie asked, "Ludger, where the hell am I?"  and she took her flask out of her back pocket.       

The soft amber coating of fluff that coated the dirt road jumped up from the hard under tone with each of Sadie's foot falls. Wayward patches of deep blue grass breached the line created by the road where vegetation ended. Sadie meandered along, staring at the ground and kicking up dirt. The horse wandered alongside of her on the other side of the divide between road and wild, eating grass as he went. A small pile of dirt with vision glided along the road on Sadie's other side. Her pace slowed as she went and eventually stopped altogether as she stared out at the landscape. She wouldn't have notice the two men wearing black uniforms that jogged up beside her if it weren't for the flashing helmets they wore that made the horse jump when they got close.      

As the men neared they slowed to a walk-paced jog and the closest one spoke in an unnecessarily projected voice. "Pullover," he demanded.      

Sadie looked at him. She looked at his younger associate who stood jogging in place. She looked down at the spot the pile of dirt used to occupy to find that the eyes had sunk bellow the dirt, leaving no trace. Finally, she looked down the road from where she had come and saw no one else on the path. "What?"  she asked.       

The two policemen stopped their jog and lifted the darkened visors on their helmets to reveal aviator sunglasses. "You are familiar with statute 283 are you not?"  queried the one who had spoken previously.      

Sadie looked at her reflection in the man's aviators for a moment before replying, "Yes," with confidence.       

The man cocked an eyebrow up over the rim of the sunglasses.       

"No, I am not," Sadie replied again, but then followed it up with, "Yes, I am familiar." Sadie stared at herself some more and then said, "I can't say."      

The speaking man removed his helmet in a show of vexation. The silent partner followed in suit. "According to statute 283, there will be no lallygagging on this road. I'm going to have to give you a ticket." He snapped at his partner who took a pad of paper and a pencil out of his pocket and began scribbling.       

Sadie nodded her head and pulled her eyebrows together in a show of seriousness. "Of course, sir. It's an excellent law, I've always thought."      

"Necessary, yes," he agreed.       

"But if I could just ask," began Sadie as she also began patting the coat pockets of the police man. "Why make a law against 'lallygagging'?"      

"What are you doing, ma'am?" asked the officer.      

"I appear to be frisking you," said Sadie as she moved to the silent officer writing the ticket. "So what was the reason for the law again?"      

"It's Battle Day."      

"Battle Day..." Sadie squinted and nodded and then brightened when she pulled a pack of cigarettes out of one of the silent cop's pocket and a lighter out of the other.       

"The road needs to stay clear to allow the army to come through." Sadie lit the cigarette and took a puff as the silent cop handed her a ticket. The speaking cop turned to his partner, "You smoke?"      

"Uh, no," said the no longer silent cop. "Well, yes, but no."      

Sadie's eyes moved from one cop to the other. When the older officer was about to respond to the younger one's confession, Sadie interrupted. "What is Battle Day?"  she asked.      

"You've never been," asked the used to be silent cop. "Definitely go. It's great. Afterwards there a celebration and a feast with free food--"      

"Free food?" asked Sadie as her face lightened.      

"Yeah. And the army should be coming along this road any minute so you can just follow along with the crowd when they get here. It's our annual battle against the Froyas."       

"And who are you?" asked Sadie as she handed back the box of cigarettes, the lighter, and the ticket to the officer.       

"Why, we're the Puyos! Say, you're not from around here, are you?" asked the now chatty cop.       


"Where'r you from? Are you from Froshfort?"      


"Are you from Trovesdale?"       


"Wait a second, I know where you're from. Randerberry, right? I'd recognize that accent anywhere.       

"I don't have an accent."       

"Little Hillinger?"      




"Well are you from down south in Siphland?"      

"Why don't you just tell him where you're from?" interjected the older cop.       


"Right, I knew it! Arpond, Arpond, of course. Where's Arpond?"      


The talkative officer turned to his partner. "Where's Virginia?"      

"Ma'am," said the older officer, "Are you from across the bridge?"      

Sadie puffed on her cigarette. "You mean that big-ass gold and silver bridge a ways back that way."  The officer nodded. "Yeah."      

"Hot dog!" shouted the silent cop as he grinned and slapped his knee.      

"Ma'am, you're going to have to come with us."      

"I meant no."      


"No, I'm not from the other side of the bridge. I'm from Frankfurt."      


"I meant Trimsdale."      

"Where's Trimsdale?"      


"That's a fruit."      

"Tiny Hill."      

"I'm unfamiliar."      

"Where the crows live is where I'm from."      

"Ma'am, please come with us and, just as a side, you really shouldn't smoke those. They're bad for you," warned the older cop.      

"I know, but it's either this or I punch you in the face. And by the looks of you that would probably kill you." Sadie grinned. "Actually--" She stuck the cigarette in her mouth and put a hand on a shoulder of each cop. "Talking to you guys has been great." She grinned and slammed their heads against each other. When they crumpled to the ground Sadie relieved one officer of his aviators and both of their wallets.       

A few minutes after the foreigner had cleared out the two unconscious cops came to.       

The younger one spoke first with a smile on his face. "Just real pleasant people they have on the other side of the bridge," he said genuinely.      

"C'mon. We have to go tell the King." The older officer stood up and brushed the dust off his suit. "Where are my glasses?" he asked.


Poe picked his way through the parting crowd while the other children looked up at him with what he assumed was a new kind of fear. Keeping all at bay, he used his size to demand respect. He would have preferred to be invisible by blending into the crowd, but his early growth spurts prohibited him that luxury. So he used his natural brawn to intimidate so the others would keep their distance--and advert their eyes.       

But today something had changed. As he walked down the dirt halls of his school his classmates parted, but brazenly stared at him. They crinkled their faces in silent laughter and hid their snickers in shadows.       

His confusion only increased when he heard someone behind him say, "Nice to meet you Barbara,"  and he felt a tug on his back. He whirled around to find the owner of the voice, but children only walked past him. The confusion on his face and his quick movement did, however, seem to trigger shock waves of giggles that shot out through the crowd of children. Now everywhere held whispers of 'Barbara' followed by greetings and children's laughter that died away as soon as he looked in that direction.       

Before class started, Poe headed out past the weeping willow trees where children were filing under and crossed a field to meet his two buddies. They stood at a distance from the open air school under a tree smoking cigarette stubs they had collected from the road before going to class.       

Poe arrived under the weeping willow where his class was held about ten minutes late and sat down in the dirt cross-legged where the rest of the children had already assembled. Mrs. Whekle stood up by the tree trunk in the front of the class. She was young and plump and she yelled at him when she turned around to the uproar of the other children. "What do you think you are doing, Poe? Do you think you're funny? Well, go show Mrs. Tang how funny you are. Go on now." As Poe got up and walked to the principle's hut, the children continued laughing. The boy he had stolen juice from that morning was laughing so hard that he had rolled backwards into the dirt. "A new twist on a classic prank," Poe heard him say as he walked away right before Mrs. Whekle sternly silenced the class.       

Poe past by several other drooping trees hearing the voices of teachers from within the leaves. When he came to Mrs. Tang's hut, he sat down in the dusty wooden chair. He tried to lean against the back of the chair, but found that he couldn't. Something lumpy and uncomfortable was in between his back and the chair. He twisted his torso to look behind him. When he saw nothing he righted himself and attempted to lean back again. But still something obstructed his attempt. He reached behind him to pat his back, but his hand collided with some kind of protrusion. He pulled the thing around him to get a better look. At the same time that he saw a hand come around from his back and was unable to pull it any further, he felt a tug on his back. Examining the arm attached to the hand, he found that it was growing out of his back. He patted the rest of his back and found to his horror that a face was growing out of the back side of his head.      

Mrs. Tang, who had been looking down at the papers on her dusty desk, got up and walked out after looking up and seeing the boy with three arms. He marched over to Mrs. Whekle's class willow and pulled apart the drooping branches. "Excuse me, Mrs. Whekle. I was wondering if I might have a word with Mr. Morgan?"      

"Certainly. Go on then, Keegan." The boy who had rolled backward when Mrs. Whekle yelled at Poe stood up and sulked out from the willow tree. The class laughed behind him in applause.      

Keegan followed Mrs. Tang to his hut where Poe twirled and franticly clawed at his back. Keegan stifled a laugh and sat down in the chair Poe no longer occupied. Mrs. Tang walked over and put a hand on the shoulder of the frightened boy to calm him and pulled a stool over for him to sit on.       

When Mrs. Tang turned her back to walk over to his desk, Keegan leaned over to Poe and whispered, "Some juice, huh?"      

"Mr. Morgan," started Mrs. Tang, "Do you have any idea of how this unfortunate condition might have come upon Mr. Prosen?"      

Keegan trained his eyes down so as to not give anything away. "No idea, ma'am."      

Back in Mrs. Whekle's class tree, the girl who had been sitting next to Keegan began to cough.      

Mrs. Tang proceeded with her interrogation. "Just like you have no idea how everyone turned green after drinking the punch and red after eating the cookies at last year's Christmas party?"       

The girl continued to cough.       

Keegan snorted a laugh and covered with a sneezing sound. That had been a funny one. "That's right, ma'am, no idea." He kept his gaze down.      

The girl coughed louder.      

"Just like you have no idea how you're teacher last year morphed into me and we couldn't figure out which one was which?"      

"That's right ma'am. No idea."       

"Oh would you cut it out Elena!" yelled Mrs. Whekle. Instead of cutting it out the girl began to dry heave and Mrs. Whekle relented. "Alright! Go get yourself some water, but come straight back."      

Elena continued coughing as she exited the willow and only stopped when she was out of ear shot of the tree. She made her way over to Mrs. Tang's hut and barged in unannounced, though there would be no one to announce her anyways and the hut had only two walls.      

"What is this!" demanded Mrs. Tang.       

"Elena Morgan, ma'am." Elena stood formally and looked Mrs. Tang directly in the eye.      

"Yes I know who you are Ms. Morgan," snapped Mrs. Tang. "What do you want?"      

"I've come as a witness for the defense of my brother, Keegan Morgan."      

"W--" began Mrs. Tang, but Elena had already begun.      

"Allow me to explain ma'am." She turned to her brother. "May I please see your ticket?" Her brother pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. "This is Mr. Morgan's ticket for the mule ride to school," she said, holding up the card. "You'll see here that the ticket is punched for 4/16." She handed Mrs. Tang the card so that she could take a look. "This morning, Mr. Morgan took the mule caravan to school. Now, if you look here." Elena pulled out a map of the neighborhood and laid it on Mrs. Tang's desk. "Mr. Prosen lives on Tromunda Rd. You'll see that Tromunda is only a quarter mile from school. He does not take the mule caravan. To make sure," she turned to Poe, "do you take the mule caravan to school?"      

"No, I walk," said the confused boy.      

"Now, this is the attendance sheet for Mrs. Whekle's class for 4/16, today," said Elena, pulling out one last document. "You'll see that Mr. Prosen was marked tardy today. Presumably, Mr. Prosen was not on school grounds until after classes had started. Mr. Morgan, on the other hand, was marked in attendance. If Mr. Morgan had taken the mule caravan to school and arrived in his class tree on time and Mr. Prosen had walked to school and gotten here only after class had started, there would have been no time for Mr. Morgan to have tampered with the well-being of Mr. Prosen this morning. We must conclude that this," she gestured at Poe's third arm, "is a terrible tragedy, but not a tragedy that can be blamed on Mr. Morgan."       

Mrs. Tang rolled her eyes. "Yes, well, thank you Ms. Morgan. Now if you will return to class. And please return Mrs. Whekle's attendance sheet to her," she said as she handed back the pile of evidence that had accumulated on her desk over the past several minutes.       

The flustered three-armed boy had sat wide-eyed as the proceedings unfolded before him. Confused and frustrated he blurted out, "But I wasn't late. I got here on time and saw Keegan this morning."      

Mrs. Tang turned to Poe. "If you were here on time why were you marked tardy?"      

"Because I was smoking in the back field. Ask Juan and Paco. They'll tell you. They were there, too."      

Mrs. Tang jumped to her feet. "YOU WERE DOING WHAT IN THE BACK FIELD?! Cutting class to smoke! In my school! At this age! Elena, Keegan, you're excused, get back to class. Keegan, I'm going to deal with you. I'll have to call your father."      

The stupefied boy was horrified by his mistake, but the mention of his father reanimated him. "No, don't call my dad. Please, ma'am, I'm sorry. Don't call my father."       

"You have left me no choice."       

Keegan decided that the pause here was a good a time to interject. "The arm and face will dissolve in an hour or two. Have a good day." With that the brother and sister bolted from the hut, laughing. 


She heard the drums before she saw them. The primitive beating could make a heart change its rhythm. From around a bend in the path two flag bearers marched, hoisting the colors of blue, silver, and black. Behind the flags a platoon of thirteen young warriors wearing silver suits with black boots and blue belts marched to the beat of the drums with two in front to make a total of fifteen.       

Small battle, thought Sadie.      

Sadie stepped off the side of the road with the horse and, with a giddy grin on her face, watched the parade go by. One of the warriors dropped his staunch expression enough to smile and wave at her as he marched past. As they went by her, Sadie saw that the image of either a dragon, pumpkin, old lady, baby, or ear of corn adorned the back of their jackets. Following the soldiers came the brigade of drummers and behind them a less unified crowd of civilians lathered with spirit. All wore at least one of the three colors, blue, black, or silver. Some had painted faces and some had painted hair. Eight girls walked in a line with sports bras on and painted stomachs that said, Y-E-A-H P-U-Y-O-S-!       

"My instincts tell me we're going to win this war," said a father wearing an over-sized dragon hat to a worried child as he lifted him up onto his shoulders.       

"I remember when I was a warrior..." Sadie hear a middle age woman say.      

"When I was a warrior," said an ancient man, "we used to wear armor. But then during one battle Ralph got carried away and fell over the side of the bridge into the water. The suit filled with water and dragged him under and he drownd."        

"Oh, that's too bad."      

"So we got the suits instead!" he concluded merrily and Sadie giggled.       

She laughed as she watched a group of five children dressed in costumes go running by--one as a dragon, another a pumpkin, one with an old lady mask on, one dressed in the diapers of a baby, and one as an ear of corn.      

Rolling food and beverage stands intermingled with the crowd advertising anything from chorry-glazed danishes to hamstrung ball-o-meats. As the mob hollered and cheered and overflowed off of the road Sadie and the horse got swept away, Sadie with her eye on a cart advertising cheesy reezies.       

"I frickin' love this place," she said to Ludger as she slung the horse's lead rope over her shoulders in order to hold her beer in one hand and her cheesey reezie in the other.       

The Puyos arrived at the silver bridge and came to a halt on the grass as the flag bearers moved to opposite railings of the bridge. As the drums continued to beat and the masses cheered, black, silver, and blue fished jumped out of the water in the river to display their own excitement. The fifteen Froya warriors, on the opposite side of what would have been a gold bridge to them, stood wearing gold uniforms with white boots and red belts. A group of rabble behind them blew whistles and rang bells making a general racket. Noise rose from everywhere except the for the warriors on each side who stood silent and in three neat lines of five and one line of two.       

Crowds on either side lined the river. Those on the opposite shore dressed just as spiritedly as the Puyos in their respective colors. Many on both sides tromped out into the water to venture a better view, but no one crossed the center line.       

In conjunction, the opposing warriors marched onto their respective ends of the bridge and a hush fell over the crowds. The two squads walked nearly to the middle of the bridge before stopping about ten feet away from each other in complete silence. Even the fish had stopped their flopping and the squirrels in the trees on either side of the river delayed their squabbles out of respect for the coming battle. The delay continued as all eyes on the banks and in the river focused on the thirty warriors who stood on the bridge. All except for two that stared down at the blue grass while ripping off bites and chewing noisily in the silence. A woman standing closing to Sadie turned to her and shushed. Sadie cooperatively pulled the horse's head up to stop the noise. In protest, the horse sneezed and the noise reverberated from bank to bank.      

But in an instant the fifteen warrior Puyos threw back their heads and began pelting a song. The uniformity of their ranks quickly dissolved into a mob as their voices rang throughout the crowd.       

I always long for the opposite season.      

'Smile', they say. I say 'Give me a reason.'      

When the optimist grins to me this is treason.      

Never happy are we! Never happy are we!       

The crowd from the Puyo side erupted into applause and cheers at the conclusion of the verse. All the while the warriors in green stood silent and still. But soon the Froyas cut off the cheers by raising their own voices.        

Give me the gold all the world over.      

Give me the seas and the stars and the clover.      

I would just pass it all off to my mother      

Cuz my beer is empty and I need another.      

Never happy are we! Never happy are we!       

The Froyas concluded their verse to cheering on their bank and the Puyos started singing again.        

Sunshine brings cheer to all who are near.      

Casting away all fears and all tears.      

It illuminates loved ones, held so dear.      

But for my part, I prefer drear.       

I wish rain clouds would always cover skies clear.      

Never happy are we! Never happy are we.        

Sadie stood grinning with a fresh beer and a hum-dum on a stick as the singing and cheering went on for about fifteen minutes. When the singing concluded, a delegate from the Froya warriors walked to the clearing in the center of the bridge and gestured for silence. Lightheartedly, he thanked everyone for coming and invited the crowds to join them on the bridge for the singing of the national anthem. With that the crowds began to move onto the bridge. Green and red and warriors and civilians mixed and put their arms over each others shoulders. The crowd ushered an unwilling Sadie and the horse into the tradition. The next moment a sweet song in praise of family, friendships, and the forest that the two parties lived in rose from the masses.       

Afterwards, the same delegate spoke. "The Froyas would now like to invite the Puyos over for food, drinks, dancing, and general merriment." The crowd cheered louder than ever before and everyone headed towards the Froya bank. The two groups mixed together in laughter and the bridge turned swirls of silver and gold on both sides while the gold, blue, red, black, silver, and white fish leaped out of the river. Sadie stared at the swirling sparkles on the bridge. "Pull me away, Ludger, before I have a seizure."  But the dirt wasn't there.      

The crowds continued their march into the woods. Sadie and the horse maintained proximity with an adult beverage vendor. At one point she turned to the horse and tipped her beer while the horse lapped at the dark frothy liquid.       

As the bottle emptied she heard a voice behind her. "Your horse has good taste."       

Sadie turned to see a man with frazzled hair holding two beers. He held out the one with the cap still on it to Sadie. She grabbed it from him with a grin and enthusiastic, "Thank you!" When a rolling cart of choco mocho came up behind her, she put a hand out to stop it with a, "Just a minute,"  directed at the man pushing the cart. She found a trash bag hooked to the cart and put her empty glass bottle in it before using the edge of the cart to pound off the lid of the fresh cold beer. It popped off and flew into the air and landed in Sadie's hand. She threw it in the trash bag, too, and said thank you to the vendor who grumbled and continued his march.      

Sadie looked back at the young man who had given her a beer. He was short, right at her eye level. His shirtless torso would have shown off his pale skin if it weren't covered in red paint with a large golden 'O' that spanned from his chest down to his bellybutton.       

"I'm Aaron," he said holding out his hand.      

"Sadie," she said and shook it.      

"You're a Puyo fan?" asked Aaron. They began meandering in the direction of the crowd as the tree trunks slowly widened.       


"You're gray shirt. You're cheering for the Puyos."      

"Oh, yeah, absolutely. Go Puyos!"      

"I have to say I'm a little offended. Why did you choose that side."      

"Nah, man. I din't choose it. You know, I live over there. I am a Puyo."      

"You're definitely not from around here."      

"What makes you say that?" Sadie asked suspiciously.       

"People from around here don't knock out Erwin and Daryl."       

"Who's Erwin and Daryl?" asked Sadie thinking that she already knew.      

"Our two policeman."      

"Oh, did they, uh, seem concerned about anything?"      

"Yeah. I mean, not concerned, but it's a big deal that you're finally here."      

"What I meant to say was, they weren't upset about anything, right? They didn't lose anything?"       

"Yeah, we all lost something. That's why you're here, right?"      



"I don't know what you're talking about," said Sadie.      

"You're here because of the invitation we sent, right? I mean, we sent that invitation so long ago. It's taken the Ardnas a long time to send a representative, but it's just good that you're here now."      

"What's an Ardna?"      

"So it's true that the Ardnas have lost their memories."      

"You're speaking in riddles, sir," said Sadie as her hand tingled in anticipation of hitting someone.       

"I don't mean to be. Ardnas are everyone on this side of the bridge besides us Froyas."      

"Of course. I knew that."       

"So you're the Ardna rep, right? You got the invitation? Of course you are. You wouldn't have been able to find the Bridge of Tromunda without directions. Only those who have died can find the Bridge of Death."      

"Oh, yeah. Of course. That's exactly why I'm here. I'm sorry I'm kind of loopy. It's just been a long journey, you know. I'm kind of dehydrated and hungry."      

"Of course. It must have been a long ride on, horseback? Why didn't you take a car?"      

"Uh, I left in a hurry. The horse was the first thing I saw. I just really wanted to get here."       

"Oh. I like your dedication."       

The mob continued their marched a quarter mile into the woods until the girth of the trees widened to the size of small houses. The thick boughs of the trees flattened at the top in a manner that would easily support the weight of a gathering of people. Here and there a bough declined to the ground making a ramp up to the village overhead. The boughs intertwined with the trees in proximity making it possible for a person to walk from tree to tree for miles without needing to descend to the earth.  Each trunk was lined with lattice ladders woven from the flexible branches. The strongest boughs closest to the trunks were draped with the cloth of silken white tents that shimmered when touched by the sun's last rays.       

"Why didn't I notice this on my way here?" Sadie asked, looking up.      

"The Clutterbunks said they saw a sleeping horsewoman come galloping through the forest yesterday." Sadie crinkled her forehead as an image of herself falling asleep while riding the horse flashed in her mind. She looked over at the horse and saw a crusty spot on his neck that could have been where she drooled on him. "Come on," said Aaron, "We can put your horse with the goats. There's grass and water." Sadie nodded and followed him away from where droves of people ascended into the branches. Shortly they arrived at a clearing in the trees where thick grass grew and a herd of goats stood grazing. Aaron took the horse's lead from Sadie, released him out to the clearing, and hung the halter on the tree. Sadie began to object, but then stopped and stared at the horse instead thinking that she had never taken his halter off.       

"I have a question," started Sadie.      

"Yeah?" asked Aaron.      

"What do the markings on the bridge mean?"      

"You mean the monk, the dragon, the old lady and all that?"      


"I have no idea."      


"It meant something at some point, but the meaning was lost somewhere in the ages."      

They returned to where the party was well underway and walked up the bough to the large white tent. At least fifty people fit comfortably inside. Food in abundance adorned the tables along one wall. The bar, where Sadie headed to immediately, stood in the corner. With beer in hand she made her way to the food and piled a plate high. She looked down at her plate with a fork stuck in the middle of it and her beer in the other hand. She took a drink of her beer and then looked at her plate again. Looking around she realized there was no feasible place to set down her drink. She turned her attention back to her plate with the fork sticking out of it. "I'm so unhappy right now," she muttered to herself. She took another drink of her beer and then another until she had emptied it halfway. She finally decided to stick it between her knees and crammed a large bite into her mouth, but the beer slipped out from her knees. Sadie reacted fast enough and caught the beer, but her plate tipped as she did so and food tumbled off it. She rose up and looked around. No one seemed to have noticed so she backed away from the mess on the floor.       

"Ah!" Sadie stopped backing up and turned around. She had backed into someone.       

"Oh, sorry," she said when she saw Aaron.      

He put his hands on her arms and with a big grin, "It's alright,"  and moved away.       

"Uh," said Sadie. She retreated to the end of the tent and leaned against the giant tree trunk while Aaron made his way to a platform in what could have been construed as the front of the tent. Sadie found a squirrel hole in the tree trunk and looked inside. She saw crumbs of dirt and debris. "Ludger, are you in there?" she whispered into the hole, trying to look casual.       

Meanwhile Aaron had begun to talk in an unexpectedly loud voice. The crowd quickly quieted down and turned to face him. "First order of business, welcome to the Puyos! You are our most honored guests," cheering broke out in agreement from both the Puyos and the Froyas.       

"Pssp, Ludger. You in there?" Two eyes popped up in the darkness. "Buddy!" came Sadie's happy greeting.      

Aaron had grown very solemn standing on the platform, and in return the crowd did, too. "As your King," he began, "It's my grave responsible to retell a story that has been told many times before on the night of the annual battle."       

"Whoa," whispered Sadie to Ludger. "I only like monarchies when I'm the monarch."      

"Thousands of years ago our ancestors, great scientists, looked towards death. Using their technology, they created a place for the dead to reside, a place that could only be found by those who had died. That place was on the other side of the bridge."      

"I gotta get outta here," Sadie whispered to Ludger. "These people are freakin' me out."      

"But the technology was too great. War broke out and many people died. One side proved itself stronger than the other and came close to committing the greatest of atrocities one people can inflict on another--genocide." The air grew even more solemn. "They surely would have if it weren't for one man who risked his life for the enemy--"      

Sadie looked intently at the speaker and narrowed her eyes.      

"Whose name has been lost to the generations. Seeing the devastation, they had allowed, our ancestors vowed to keep the Bridge of Tromunda, to protect those on both sides from each other."      

Sadie's gaze softened.      

"So we, the Puyos and the Froyas, the descendants of the Razouey, a once great people, continue their legacy. We adhere to our traditions to honor those who died and to remember the pointlessness and devastation caused by war. We hope that one day, the people on both sides of the bridge will once again unite in in peace in the land of the living, but until then we will keep the bridge as our ancestors vowed. Now, LET THE FESTIVITIES BEGIN!--" the little man yelled in his surprisingly loud voice as the solemn air grew lighthearted and the crowd cheered. People began to shuffle about as the music started playing.      

"Here's my chance," whispered Sadie.      

"In a minute," Aaron concluded his sentence. The music abruptly stopped, the cheers ceased, and the people went still again. "Today, the invitation that we thought had gone unnoticed, one our ancestors sent out so long ago, has been accepted."       

"Ruh-row," said Sadie.      

"You see, thousand of years ago the stars sent us a gift. A man came from another world. He made a great gift for the future of our world--a history. Though ancient, he lived for generations and recorded what he saw in order to give it to the posterity of the world. After the war he intended that two copies be made, one for green skies, and one to be read under blue, but both were lost. So generations ago our ancestors sent an invitation to both sides of the world, the living and the dead, to come collect their history. We cannot find it for them. We must keep the bridge. The invitation to the green skies has yet gone unanswered, but tonight we have with us a representative of the Ardnas. She must find the star man and restore the history to her people. When the Ardnas see and understand what has happened the chasm that divided one world into two will be healed. And we will all be able to live together in peace. That Ardna is standing right over there, Sadie!" Aaron pointed at Sadie and a hundred eyes looked over at her. She nodded and waved with the hand that held a beer and a fork.  


"Who the hell do you think you are?" Keegan and Elena turned to see three large boys walk out from a shadowy overhang.       

The sun rested on the horizon making the shadows very dramatic. Keegan carried the sack of rolls their mother had asked them to pick up to go with supper.       

Elena looked at Poe. "We don't think, we know who we are. Who do you think you are?"      

The three boys moved closer, emphasizing the point that each stood a head taller than Keegan. "Can't you speak?" Poe asked Keegan. "You let your sister do all the talking for you?"      

Keegan turned to her sister. "Come on," he said, pushing her down the road. "We gotta get home."       

"Hey! Where do you think you're going?" shouted Poe.      

Keegan turned back towards the boys. "Look, I'm sorry. You're fine, anyways. It's not like I did you any permanent harm." Elena gave Keegan a look.      

"You got me in trouble with my dad!" shouted Poe.      

Elena said, "Keegan shouldn't even be sorry. It would have never of happened if you didn't keep stealing his juice."      

"Fair enough. But where would I get juice if I didn't steal it? Think about that."      

"That is your problem," said Elena, kind of confused.      

"And anyways, why did you have to use evidence to ensnare me, devil-woman?"      

"You're a jerk!" shouted Elena.      

"You're a know-it-all."       

Elena paused for a minute and then said vindictively, "You're right. And the fact that you would truthfully point out a lady's flaws proves my point further. I used my words to defend my brother. Maybe this is something you should try sometime, using your brain instead of your bulk."      

"Come on, Lain," said Keegan to his sister, trying to pull her away. The sun sank low behind the hills, causing the shadows to blend into each other.      

"Maybe you're right, but not today. I'm gunna have to beat up your brother anyways."      

"Fine," said Keegan irritably as he stopped trying to drag his sister away and instead took a few paces toward Poe with a fierce look on his face. "Let's go," he said and clenched his hands into fists.       

When Elena saw her brother putting on a front, her demeanor changed. "Keegan! Poe!" she shouted sternly. "Why are you arguing? Actually, wait, don't answer that." She paused and thought for a moment and then asked in a diplomatic tone. "Why does it feel good to win an argument?"      

Keegan and Poe stood still for a moment, thinking about the question. "Because it means your right," said Poe.      

"No it doesn't," said Keegan as he continued to think. "Because it means you've bested your opponent. You're better than your rival," he said.      

"And who is this 'rival' that it's so important for you to be better than him? Wouldn't it be saying more to never engage in a fight with this 'rival'? That it is so clearly evident that this opponent is a mere trifle in the greater context of your life."      

The statures of Keegan and Poe shrunk as the fight in them diffused, both thinking that Elena had been talking to each individually.      

"Lain!" shouted Keegan unexpectedly as he looked upward worriedly. The first tentative stars had emerged from the darkening green. "We gotta get home. It's not safe after dark." He turned to Poe and his friends. "You should go home, too. You're bigger than us, but there's a lot of things bigger than you."      

"You're right," said Elena.       

"Yeah, man," said Juan. "I gotta go, too. I don't want my mom to worry."      

"Yeah," agreed Paco.       

Just then the children heard a noise from somewhere down the dirt road. They all turned to look and found that the street that had been busy earlier had gone dead.       

"Yoohoo!" came a voice out of the dimming light. It came from the direction Keegan and Elena were heading. The children saw two silhouettes that had turned a corner very close to them. They could see the outline of rifles slung around their shoulders.      

A wave of rigidity ran through Poe at the sight. He stood frozen as the other four children took off at a run. Juan and Paco ran straight down the main road without looking back, but when Keegan stopped, pivoted, and turned back the way he had come, Elena stopped, too. Poe stood frozen in the middle of the street and Keegan had gone back to reanimate him. When Keegan reached Poe, he hit him on the head as the soldiers grew closer. Elena and Keegan pushed him down an all back road out of the path of the two men. When the were finally able to prod Poe into running, they sprinted down the road, came to a dead end, and hid together behind an abandoned sales cart had been left in the corner of the alley.      

"Come here little chickadees," called the soldier. "Look here." The next moment the children in the dark corner's safety heard gun shots. Three sets of eyes peaked out from around the cart. The evening moon was big for its youth. Its silver feet hopped playfully along the dark metal of the two men's gun as they fired them into the air.      

As one of the soldiers walked over to the cart, the children retreated back into the corner, piling themselves on top of each other to get as far away from the foot steps as possible. But the man stopped before he got to the other side of the cart. Instead, he took some rolls from the sack that Keegan had dropped on the ground in front of the cart. The soldier walked away from the cart and the children moved back to look around the corner. The second soldier had moved a trash can into the center of the alleyway in plain view of the children. The first soldier placed the rolls in a line along the top of the trash can and moved fifty paces from it. He removed his assault rifle from his shoulder and set it down by the side alley, near the children. He took out a shot gun and took aim at the rolls. In three clean shots the rolls jumped off the trash can.       

"Whoa," said Elena and Poe in unison.      

"Aw," sighed the soldier as his associate walked towards him.       

"Good shooting, Sergeant Ruiback," he said.       

"Thank you, Foss." He turned to the children, who had come out of their hiding spot to get the gun that laid on the ground. Elena picked it up and held it awkwardly.      

The soldier wiped his brow, and pretended to be startled. "Oh! Hello there!"  Seeing the wide eyes of the children latched onto the shotgun he held at his side offered it to them, seemingly unaware that Elena was holding his rifle. "Would you like to take a look?"      

The soldier's feet did not move, but the children edged forward until they stood up close to the gun. The silver gun reflected the moonlight, showing off its intricate engravings. After several minutes the soldier straightened and holstered the gun. "Well, good night, then," he said to the children and spun to leave with his wingman in pursuit. The children watched as he walked away and Elena looked down at the rifle she still held.       

But after only a few paces he turned and looked back over his shoulder at their sorrowful faces. "Well," he began brightly, "perhaps you could..." but immediately his manner darkened. "No, no I don't suppose you would want to do that." And he turned and continued on his way.      

"Wait!" It was Poe, who spoke and who was immediately jabbed in the gut by a rifle.      

The soldier stopped in his tracks and slowly turned about. "Yes?"      

"Um, w-what were you g-going to say?" Poe stuttered as he held his side.       

At this the soldier became excited. In one swift movement he was crouching in the midst of the children. "I don't suppose you would want your own gun, would you?"  he asked with an eager childish air.       

The children's eyes got wide and, in his innocence, Poe nodded vigorously.      

"Well, there is a way that you could each have one of your very own. But it's very secret and you would have to promise not to tell anyone. Do you promise?"      

The children were already nodding.       

The soldier reached into his pocket. "In order to have a gun, you have to be a gunman. Now," he paused and held out his hand so that the children could see what he had. "I have these three little pills. They are magic pills and all it takes is one to make you a great and mighty gunman. When you are a great gunman, your gun will come to you." The soldier pulled a canteen out from under his jacket and offered it to the children. "What do you say?"      

The children paused and looked at each other. Elena and Keegan's mother had told them never to trust the men in uniforms so Keegan took a pill and examined it. Not to be outdone, Poe quickly took a pill and swallowed it while Keegan squinted at his. "This is no magic pill," Keegan said.       

"Well of course it is," said Ruiback. "What else would it be?"      

"The mineral RDM4547 in a very refined state."       

Ruiback's face went cold. He stood up and easily took the rifle from Elena. He aimed the gun at Keegan and said, "Take the pill." Keegan merely stared back at him. Ruiback moved the gun to Elena and said, "Take the pill or your friend dies." Keegan looked at Elena who shook her head at him, but he took the pill anyways. Ruiback moved the gun back towards Keegan and gave Elena a pill saying, "Now you."      

Within a moment, the world changed. The dark became darker as each child walked somewhere in isolation. Then a voice whispered in their ears, or maybe it was the wind whispering. It pointed out a lone sinister figure walking down the roads of dusk. "Murderer," said the wind. "This monster who walks your village at night. It is your duty to protect your village." The children felt a ferocious intensity of hate towards the creature that walked down the darkening street. What innocent would be killed at its hands tonight?       

And then a gun appeared in each of their hands. The children didn't know who it was who pulled the trigger, but when they came down from their drug-induced high a woman lay shot in the street, her water jug smashed. The neighbors, coaxed outdoors by the shot, saw three delinquents with guns raised. A woman, calm until she saw the body, threw herself screaming on top of the corpse of her sister.      

The end result for the three murderers was that they were banished from the village by broom-wielding adults.      

When the crying children marched out of town that night, into the uncertainty of the darkness, they came upon a friendly face. The soldier and his partner were waiting for them just out of sight. They grabbed them by their shirt collars and dragged them to the military camp.      

More than a dozen campfires lit the little army camp of less than one hundred. When the five travelers made it to the camp, the soldiers navigated through a maze of tents until they came to the big one in the center. Here, the soldier handed the taciturn gentleman a pack of cigarettes with a, "Get out of here, Tony."      

"Yes, sir."      

The three sobbing children were ushered into the tent by their new captor. Inside three gentlemen leaned over a document. They looked up when the low-ranking soldier came in. He stood at attention and drew the children in front of him, as if for protection.      

A sniveling little man on the right spoke, "Lieutenant Ruiback, what have you brought us?"      

"I have three new recruits, sir."      

"No, you have two and a half."       


"Girls are weak. They break down in battle. You'll get paid for two and a half."      

"But sir--"      

The man threw a pouch of coins at the soldier. It hit him and fell to the ground. "Take the money and go, Sergeant."      

"Yes sir." As Sergeant Ruiback turned to leave with his money the man spoke up.      



"Take the recruits to the holding tent."      

"Yes sir."      

Outside the tent, Sergeant Ruiback lit a cigarette before dragging the children to the holding tent. In a few minutes he would be able to buy an extra helping of rice and two packs of cigarettes with his earnings. A real treat!      

As the four made their way through the tents, the soldier looked down at the three suffering children when no one was looking. He knew he shouldn't feel bad for them since he had been recruited in a similar manner. He had been coerced into killing his neighbor while on a high. It was standard in all of these villages to banish people for any kind of crime, whether it's theft or murder. The thing with murder, though, is that you know they'll never be welcomed back. That way the military knows they've got you. The army becomes the only home you've got because you can't go anywhere else. And it's not a bad life at that. It's not a good one either though. At least being in the military offers protection from the military. Sergeant Ruiback reasoned that it was better being in it than killed by it and that he had done something good for the children in the long run. It is a tough world. He had learned that lesson at an early age and now he was sharing his knowledge. Either toughen up or get out of this world. That's how it had to be.      

Still though, they were just children. Sergeant Ruiback sighed as he realized he had no comfort to give the children even if he wanted to, which he didn't. He pushed them along to the holding tent where they joined the ranks of a dozen other dirty children robbed of their childhood. 


Dancing red caribou. A chain of dancing red caribou. One stood on diagonal legs and lifted the other two. Another stood on the back two legs with the front ones lifted above its head next to its horns in a manner not known to caribou. The dancing red caribou gradually grew as the chain went on. The ones at the end didn't dance. These ones were bowed, some prostrate, some kneeling with front legs outstretched. The second to last one on the chain was the largest, sitting elevated on a thrown. The last pixie caribou floated by his majesties head, forever about to place a crown on the royal brow.       

"Hey, pass it." Sadie broke her trance and looked up from the engravings on the long pipe. She opened her mouth and a long fluffy stream of smoke came out. She passed the engraved pipe into the empty air in front of her and said goodbye to the still dancing caribou as an anonymous hand reached out to take it. Immediately the ado in the room began herding Sadie towards the front. Being a good six inches shorter than everyone else, all Sadie saw was red. The flurries of red cloaks that parted and hypnotized her. She felt like she controled the perpetual red curtain in front of her by her mere presence. She vaguely acknowledged the push from behind as the jostle of the crowd and instead focused on her newly acquired power of Red repellent.      

"Just try and stop me," she unintelligibly muttered. "You have no power, here," she warned the Red in a volume that couldn't be heard. "I'd like to see you, like to see you try. You don't want to see me--at my worst," she threatened the Red. The curtain parted and parted again as people moved to the side to let her through. "You don't even want to see me at my close to worst," she reiterated her threat.       

And then with a bang of a gong the red stopped parting. "I showed it. Won't come back."      

But then, in the silence, the Red sought its revenge. Quietly at first, it intruded on the corner of her vision. It did not relent until it had taken up her whole plane of sight and--noise. A stream of noise. There was something else going on. Sadie made the effort to lift her gaze slightly. A head had attached itself to the Red. Or else the Red had attached itself to the head. That must have been it. The Red consumed people, except their heads. Something peculiar about the mouth. It was moving, as if to form language. And the noise turned from chaos into form.      

"--and we give you the mark of the wanderer, Sadie from the blue skies. With this mark those who know will understand that you journey to find something that was lost. With this mark you will receive aid if you require it--"      

A floating head in Red in the background drew Sadie's attention away from the discourse. He  pulled what appeared to be a cattle brand out of a fire. The part of the metal brand that was taken out of the fire was circular like a clamp. As Sadie watched the hot iron move towards her she became semi-aware of a hush in the room while a push on one side and a pull on the other turned her around and then--      

"You!" Sadie exclaimed. But what seemed like a thunderous roar to Sadie was actually a whispered accusation that went unnoticed in the room. Her upset was caused by the multitude of Red in front of her. What she thought she had defeated had apparently risen from the grave to haunt her. Sadie awareness of reality slipped away. She existed in a world made up of Red. The remainder of sight, sound, touch and all bodily awareness drained away. A terror gripped her. Burning flesh. She thought she knew but she couldn't be certain that beyond the Red the world existed and in that world time persisted in its march even while the Red held her captive. It moved quickly now, without her permission to speed up. The smell of burning flesh. Time isn't allowed to change it's pace, thought Sadie, but she knew that the bog made her move slower. She tried to sprint through a muddy lagoon and reach out for the seconds that fled from her. Why do they run? she wondered. I'm nice. But all she could do was smell the burning flesh.      

Burning flesh?      

Sadie looked up from the Red to see the faces of the bodies it had eaten. Given the hush in the room she thought the faces would be still. But every face she looked at contained an open mouth as if the crowd were cheering. Sadie needed a moment of speculation before she understand that the hush had ended two moments ago and the open mouths were producing the cheers they appeared to be. In that same moment, Sadie realized that something propped up her outstretched arm. She turned her head to shed light on an undisclosed act. A Red held her wrist so that her arm paralleled the ground. But what interested her even more was that the circular ending of the metal brand that had just been taken out of the fire was wrapped around her upper arm, just below her shoulder muscle. Sadie gave a start. But by the time her brain understood that she wanted to jump and had sent the signal out to her body to do so, the brand had been removed from her skin, ointment had been applied to burn wound, and the speaker had started up again.      

"For you, Sadie, it is a shark. Sharks are the earth's oldest animal, predating even the dinosaur. Despite this length, they have evolved very little over the centuries, suggesting that nature had already deemed them the perfect predator." Here, Sadie finally got around to jumping. The crowd reacted similarly acknowledging the spookiness of a 'perfect predator.' "The majority of the Earth is made up of water, meaning that the planet belongs more to sharks than it does to humans."       

"I'm gunna start paying attention now so I can catch any more shady business these strange people try to pull before it happens," muttered Sadie inaudibly as she thought back to the remarks of the speaker had just made that she had not been paying attention to at the time, but was able to play back in her head after they had been said. "That doesn't sound like me at all," mumbled Sadie. "I'm a pretty mild person."      

"Sadie the shark of the blue skies, the Ardna who will find the book." The crowd cheered.      

"Absolutely," muttered Sadie.       

With that the ceremony ended, but the crowd remained. People began taking off their robes to Sadie's relief and eventual understanding and stuck around to talk. Sadie stood transfixed in her spot examining the burn on her arm that had been coated with clear ointment. On the visible front of her arm the shark looked out towards the world with gaping jaw. The body wrapped around the underside of her arm with the tail back around towards the head.       

"I'm going to give it to you straight--no sugar coating." Sadie spun around to see Aaron.      

"I love sugar coating. I love candy," said Sadie.      

"You should go to the mines." Aaron bobbed his head.       

"Yeah, absolutely," said Sadie. "Why?"      

"Something about mines. I don't know. I just think it might help you find the book."      

"Right," she nodded, "What are these two lumps on the shark's back under my arm?"      

"It's a big butt," laughed Aaron, "It's a shark with a big butt." He clapped his hands together and hooted.       

Sadie heard a murmur somewhere in the crowd. "Yeah, I can't find my wallet either," it seemed to say.      

Sadie's eyes widened. "I gotta go," she said and made for the exit. She climbed down a latticed trunk and swerved her way towards where she believed she had left the horse.      

"Hey, wait! Where are you going?" Aaron had followed her out of the tree.       

"I dunno." Sadie kept swerving.       

"I was hoping you could stay for a while."      

"Alas, my heart belongs to someone else."       

"Oh, who?"      

"Uh," Sadie paused and held up a crooked finger. "He's not here."      

"Where is he?"      

"Not here."       

"Well if you have to go, this is the thought I leave you with." Aaron grew very solemn. "This world is built on a foundation of lies. It is a place where the truth is rarely known and spoken even less, where only the rarest of diamonds are who they say they are. Farewell."      

"Where's my horse?" asked Sadie.      

"Over there."       

Sadie looked in the direction he pointed and saw a big brown horse eating grass. "A horse!" Sadie grinned and laughed like a child. "Oh, wait," she said and headed towards the horse. Sadie grabbed the horse's lead and his mane, swung her leg up over his back, and slipped off and fell on the ground. She groaned and rolled to the side as Aaron put a hand out to help her up. "You okay?" he asked.       

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said dismissively as she ignored his hand. She stared intently at something shining in the starlight by a tree trunk. She patted the empty pockets of her jeans before crawling over and scraping the dirt away from it. In a moment she realized that it was much larger than she thought and buried deeply in the dirt. She began digging.       "What are you doing?" asked Aaron.      

"I lost my flask," she said absently as she kept digging.       

"And you think it's buried in the dirt under the tree?"      


"Well--" said Aaron as he looked around as if for sense. "Okay, I guess I'll help you."       

An hour later they had dug nearly all the way under the tree to pull out a large piece of metal.       

"Whoa," said Sadie as she dragged it out of its hole and knelt down on the ground next to it. "This must be a shield left from that great battle you talked about. It must have been buried here for thousands of years."      

Aaron stood over by the precarious-looking tree with a hole underneath the trunk. "We should probably pack the dirt back into the hole," he said.      

"The tree has deep roots that extend for miles. It's fine," Sadie assured him. "You should come look at this. It needs to go in your national museum or something."       

"How do you know anything about their roots?" But Aaron came over and knelt by Sadie.       

Sadie stood up as Aaron looked at the shield. She looked over at the hole they had dug under the trunk of the giant tree. She looked up at the branches and saw dark white tents. Apparently the owners were still out partying. She looked down at the hole again and raised her eyebrows when the tree creaked and swayed. Behind her, Aaron was making puzzled noises as he turned the metal over.      

"This isn't a shield," said Aaron. "It's a piece of scrap metal from a car or something."       

But Sadie wasn't paying attention. Instead, she watched as the tree swayed and groaned. The giant ancient life fell over onto the tree next to it which fell and caused another to fall. The domino effect eventually got to the tree with lights a little ways off where the partiers were. The trees in the line fell as distant screams rose up. When the crashing finally died down Sadie, without looking behind her, tiptoed over to the horse and grabbed his lead rope. When she swung onto his back the kneeling Aaron came into her line of sight. He stared off along the line of fallen trees. "Those are Lindhelk trees," he whispered. "They've been providing my people with homes for generations."      

"And they apparently have very shallow roots," said Sadie and Aaron's horrified face moved its gaze to her.      

Sadie turned away and galloped off into the night. 


Seventeen years ago:      

"Are you a God-fearing woman, my child?" asked the old priest who wore glasses even though his vision was beyond aid.      

"There's a saying here that says you can't find an atheist on the battle field and I was a warrior for the whole of my favorite life. But things were different where I came from. You see, we never thought much on the question of death. Not because it's not a frightening thing from your people's perspective, but I guess we could feel the immortal inside of us. It was kind of like something that was just known, but not really spoken of. I suppose going to war and such would be a lot harder without that knowledge, and I respect these warriors here for that more than they know. But we knew that the death of the mortal body was just that. We knew we'd go on living after it was gone, we just didn't know where, how, or in what form. In fact, when in the name of the law people would be executed, we would call it banishment because, of course, they wouldn't be dead, they'd just be gone. It's kind of funny. But whether its immortality or death that brings damnation or salvation is another story altogether. What I mean is, a mortal fears death maybe only as much as an immortal fears life.      

"But anyways, death was avoided all the same, have no doubt. Everyone had a life in that realm, and loved ones, and those things kept a person to the current plane of existence. And of course we did have fear of the unknown to a certain degree. But to answer your question, yes, Father, I do believe in God, but I have questionable honesty," concluded the eight-year old girl who sat in the confession box.      

"But dishonesty is a thing that can be forgiven upon repentance and the sincere commitment to live a life of truth," said the Priest, not understanding.      

"Well, anyways," continued child, brushing off the admonition, "while I was away at war with my troops, a new school of thought popped up among the weaker species, mostly the humanoids. No offense, Father."      

"No, of course not." The Priest held up a hand with one shake of his head by habit.      

"We had finally made that final victory over our enemies, the last decisive victory that was so sweet to taste. You can spend your whole career waiting for a success like that--you know what I mean? So we had subdued the final region outside our control and came home just full of patriotic pride, but our smiles faded when we saw the inquisition waiting for us."      

"An inquisition?"      

"Yes, Father. An inquisition aimed at me and all of my troops. Father, I cannot vouch for every individual who fought with me, but I can say with all confidence that the vast majority were good. Hardened? Sure, but good nonetheless. There was no justice served by the condemnation of my warriors by the soft skins who staid home. I understood when I came back and was arrested by two measly armed guards (who I could have easily swept aside like flies if I had the mind to) that my reign had come to an end. Yeah, I was upset, but I got over it. While my mother was still alive she taught me that we rule as servants. If people have been fighting since the beginning of time and that is all they know how to do than a warlord is an appropriate leader. If they decide they want this 'rule of the people' thing and an end to war, then fine. But a switch in government shouldn't mean the banishment of all my fine warriors!" She paused to sigh and regain complacency before proceeding. "Maybe I am still a little upset. I just need a little more time and then I'll be over it completely. There were some people that babbled something about warriors not able to be absorbed into the new way of life or something, like they were too set in the old ways and would disturb this new and glorious peace or whatever." As she spoke she waved her hand carelessly to brush of what was in her mind a pathetic excuse. As she said "new and glorious peace" she held out her hands and highlighted her voice to feign grandiosity while rolling her eyes.      

"So me and all my warriors are individually taken before this tribunal of theirs." Although trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice, she spat the word tribunal. "It was quite the fine establishment they had busily been building while I was away. I was led into this large room. And when I say large I mean big. I mean, I was a big person back then. You have to be if you're going to be a warlord, you know. You get to the top by being the strongest, but I felt very small in that room. It was the first time I ever remember feeling small which is weird because I had spent my whole life outside up to that point which, technically speaking, is much bigger than any enclosed facility. Anyways, that building was also very luxurious. And when I say luxurious, that's what I mean, too. There was red carpets and cushioned seats for all the reps and engraved wood and, I don't even know. It housed something like a thousand representatives from different regions and they all had their own booths along the wall going really high up. They were two by two, two representatives from each region. These were regions, by the way, that they had divided the realms into while I was gone. This was a tribunal built up by that new school of thought I was telling you about. Remember? Father, remember?"       

The old Priest had been drifting to sleep and took a while to reply, but when the child banged on the wall of the confession booth the old man jumped. "Yes, I remember, my child. What happened next?" and he settled his head back down to rest on his old sun-dried  hand.      

"Well, I know this might sound odd, but there was something I observed about the members of the tribunal. You remember that mostly it was the physically weak who were back home thinking these knew thoughts, mostly the humanoids because they weren't much use in a battle. But we have all types of people where I'm originally from. We have famoids and graganhoids and roids and obsivoids and exconoids and rectoids and ribonoids and croads and a few frogs and way more than all that but you get the idea. And even more than that within all these types of people there were a lot of differences. Take the humanoids-they were all different shapes, sizes and colors, although they all had in common that they were small and weak. I know I just said they were all different sizes, but I meant that within a certain spectrum--a small spectrum. Anyways, what I noticed about the tribunal was how similar they all were. It was very nearly all humanoids. Now I didn't know the exact lines they carved up the land with these regions were, but of course I was familiar with my home and I can tell you that there were places that were nearly all obsivoids that would have a humanoid representative, or places with nearly all klamoids that would have a humanoid representative. Now, during that inquisition what I found to my surprise was that I'm extremely 'uneducated', as they called it. Apparently I'm a simpleton who only knows how to slash at good honest folk. Well, this may or may not be true," she held up a finger as she said this, "and I can tell you that I understood next to nothing of what was said at that inquisition, so it probably is true. But I always thought that a representative was supposed to represent if you know what I mean."      

"Mmmm," was all the Priest said.      

"But even that wasn't all. Most of the humanoids had pale skin and were old lots had long beards. Haha! And they only wore these red robes, most regal looking, very grand I'll admit. And I'll admit that I've always been prone to the simpler things in life. But that's beside the point, just an observation.       

"Well, what happened was that I was on the bottom floor of this huge room while a lot of people said a lot of words and even more people looked down on me from their perches and sometimes asked me questions and it all resulted in my banishment to the darkness.      

"I said earlier that we know that when our mortal bodies die we keep on living we just don't know where, but the humanoids had come up with a certain way to punish grievous criminals while I was gone, and that was to banish them to the darkness. It's a right, a ritual you would say, that ensures the spirit of the one being banished it not allowed a new body. The result is that you're just your spirit floating around in nothingness.      

"So they went ahead and banished me--"      

"I thought you said they were weak?" The Priest had dozed off, had a pleasant nap dreaming of other worlds, and was awake again, quite enjoying the tale.      

"Physically, yes, they were weak."      

"So couldn't you have gotten away?"      

"Oh I could have done more than get away. I could have killed all of them with one pound of my fist, but I didn't."      

"That's very, um, un-warriorlike of you."      

"A warrior isn't all rage and blood lust after all, and especially not a warrior-lead. A leader can't just succumb to passion. It might result in her people having to pay for a misdeed. Like I said, I ruled in the spirit of those I served. I could see what my people wanted and what they wanted was this new thing, not me. Even though they did love me once." The girl sighed and stared off into the corner for a moment lost in her thoughts. The moment ended and she pulled a flask out of her back pocket and took a swig.  


Present Day:      

The sun sat well over the horizon in its green abode when Sadie pulled the horse up at the outskirts of a town. She had slept well the night before after she had put a fair distance between herself and the strange civilization she had come across. She threw the horse's lead rope over his back so that it wouldn't get in his way and leaned up against a tree. A pile of dirt with eyes rose up out of the ground next to her.      

She stared off at the horizon for a moment and then said, "Ludger, if you say something dumb, but there's no one sober around to hear it, is it still dumb?"      

The dirt grumbled.      

"I believe that last night I said, 'Alas, my heart belongs to someone else.' Well, I'm going into town. Will you keep an eye on him?"       

Sadie fit in well with the derelict townies at the dark, dirty bar she found. The crowded room housed ruffians of various sizes and looked like a brawl would break out at any moment. A large man slammed his drink down as he stood up to yelled at his company. Two buddies singing an old army tune with arms draped over each other's shoulders spilled their drinks on a serious looking fellow. Further towards the corner a man popped another man in the nose for winking at his girlfriend.       

A couple at the bar ordered shots. The cheap liquor spilled out the edge when the young bartender with a tattoo of something indecipherable crawling out from under his shirt up his neck poured the two drinks. When he set down the bottle on the counter behind the bar, a puddle of liquor accumulated at its base as the tequila slid down the glass walls.      

Sadie pushed her way through the highly trafficked room past a group of people who looked out of place and were attempting to exit the establishment. She tripped and fell into a man wearing white pants and a floral shirt. She apologized but he looked at her with disdain anyways and hastened his retreat out of the building. Sadie resigned herself to an empty stool at the far end of the bar in the corner and ordered a beer from the bartender. While waiting for her order, she looked in her newly acquired wallet and found with satisfaction that the tourist from Siphland carried an unusually large amount of cash.      

"Even when all of the cards are stacked in your favor, you can't out-swim a shark." The voice rose up out of the murmurs in the crowd while Sadie sat waiting for her beer. She turned her head and scanned the crowd. Next to her sat a rugged man hidden beneath grisly facial hair and cloaked with unwashed animal furs who hunched over his drink without acknowledging the existence of anything else. Behind her a wooden table creaked from the slams of fists as four men in dingy white shirts engaged in a lively conversation over what could not have been their first pitcher.       

Sadie jerked her head back around when she heard a clang too close to her. Her beer sat on the wooden bar in front of her where the young bartender had set it. Mist rose off the top of the glass bottle. Sadie paid and thanked the bartender. She took a big gulp and sat for a moment hunched, swirling the slim glass bottle in her hands.       

"Couldn't they just build another one?" Sadie heard the voice from somewhere behind her--not the same one as earlier.       

Sadie watched the dark fluid swirl inside the dark glass bottle. The voices from the conversations jumbled together behind her.       

"It's so easy to forget--"       

"It predates grade school. I was more obsessed then with gestation--"      

"You hate dogs? Surely there's something more worthy of your hatred."      


"Humans have the weirdest looking butts of all species besides maybe baboons."      

"Easy as a bug biting a sleeping person."      

The voices behind her blurred into one another as Sadie took the last long drink and ordered another from a moving bartender.      

"Let's drink until we can tell the planet is rotating!" came from behind her and cheers succeeded the statement.      

But a closer conversation brought words to Sadie's ears through the cheers of the drunkards.      

"--the  Redishma Bridge--" The cheering died and gave way to more conversation.      

"I agree. It's like a muffin that you think is blueberry but it's really just moldy."      

A fresh bottle of beer landed in front of her.      

"If their populations got too big there wouldn't be enough food--"      

"Oh, your right your right. I just get to thinking..."      

"Their panel of economic experts says that if the bridge will collapse."      

Sadie tossed the bottle back and forth between her hands in a rhythm.        

"The demons know exactly how much torture is appropriate for each individual." Sadie stopped tossing the now half empty bottle in order to stare more intently at it.      

"Sounds more like a prophesy than a sound economic forecast."      

"At first blush--"      

"The alleged holiness of human life came about along with monotheism."      

The only true Siphland draught, the label read.      

"Sometimes I feel like the world is full of prophesies we don't care to acknowledge."      

"To believe in one is to believe in the other--"       

A small trade mark occupied the bottom of the label. Sadie brought the bottle up to eye level to give it a closer look.       

"I believe in neither--"       

The simple outlines of a tall man and woman standing side by side in business clothes with their hands in their pockets stood in the center of two tiny circles at the corner of the label. Despite the simplicity of the drawing, Sadie got the distinct feeling that these two figures were looking down on her. Sadie's eyes followed the lines of the outer circle as the time drained away from her. She felt her throat constrict as panic slid its icy fingers around her neck, squeezing the time out of her. It was running out on her, as if she had treated it badly. Time packed its bags and stood looking angry just inside the front door. Anxiety overcame her as she broke into an icy sweat.       

"Strange crowd." Sadie slammed the glass bottle down on the bar and shook her head to clear it of the jumble of speech that had infiltrated her thoughts.       

"Beer," muttered the scraggily man beside her, "you love it for what it does to you, you hate it for what it does to you." The anonymous comments that had been tossed around behind her gave way to quiet remark of the grisly fur-clad man beside her. Sadie moved her eyes to the side of their sockets to see that the man hadn't moved from his hunched position, though she was sure it was he who had commented. She took another long drink.       

Sadie noted the man quizzically out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning with his forearms on the bar while holding his beer mug and staring transcendently into the amber liquid. An unkempt beard plastered a tan face that might have been handsome. He didn't seem to be talking to anyone. Sadie's look of skepticism changed to tolerant disagreement as she lifted her hand into the air with her index finger extended and prepared to talk. "I dunno waddyou mean. I just love beer...pure and simple."      

The man lifted a bushy eyebrow in her direction as Sadie gave him a matter-of-fact look. "Then you don't know the whole story."      

Sadie's look of skepticism and distrustful curiosity returned with a vengeance. "Whaddyou mean?"       

"Beer isn't just beer anymore. Not like the way it used to be at least. They put a mineral in it--a mineral they call RDM4547. They say they have a vision..." said the man.       

"Humph," Sadie humphed. "Beware of people who have visions,"she said agreeably.       

"Quite a forlorn vision of future, I'd say. Where everyone stays separate."      

Sadie didn't know what to say, so she drank beer.       

"Such nonsensical talk about ideas and progress and the future and change when what they really mean by progress is upholding the status-quo."      

Sadie still didn't know what to say, so she kept drinking beer.      

"Just because things tried in the past didn't work out doesn't mean things couldn't work now."       

Sadie's beer was nearly vertical with this swig.      

"What if it's this future that's the problem. Too much power and money in too little hands and they always just want more."      

With a grunt Sadie put her drink down annoyed that an attempt at a swig had ended in a disappointing mouth full of air. The bartender was distant so Sadie did some quick work and thought of something to say, something she thought was spectacular. "I have a vision," she began and paused and then continued, "It's a vision of the destruction," she stressed 'destruction' giving due credit to the strength of the word, "of the great cities of the world by brief storms and of the slow corrosion and decay of those buildings left standing. It's of the ripping up of the roads that chain the Earth and of the quiet takeover of those still intact by permeating ivy and patient and persevering plant life. There will be a time when the asphalt, stone, brick, wood and all the building materials of man morph to resemble the dirt they are at the same time the bodies of man lay in similar decomposition." Sadie paused for a moment. "Or maybe just of the entire planet exploding."      

When the man really looked at her for the first time it was with the same quizzical look  Sadie had originally given him. "But you said beware of people who have visions," he said as he lit a cigarette.      

"B-ya," Sadie faltered for just a moment realizing the old man caught her in a knot of her own rhetoric, but then decided to just go with it. "Beware of me."        

The man gave her a sideways look. Sadie was smaller than the man and altogether nonthreatening. "I don't know about that," he said, apparently reluctant to concede his discourse to the bizarre guest seated next to him, "but I do know that because of Diddle my people lost their chance, but I don't intend to lose my beard."      

"Okay I really have no idea what you're saying. Why would they want your beard. Even if they wanted beards in general I feel like they'd turn yours down because it would be too damn dirty."      

Sadie swiveled on her bar stool so that she was looking out the window. She threw her hand up in order to say, "Goodbye!" and stalk off with her drink, but the man's cigarette happened to be along the route of Sadie's hand. The two met in mid air and the compromised comprehension of Sadie absorbed what happened next at a lag.       

A spark traveled through the air and landed in the puddle of tequila on the counter behind the bar. The tequila lit and the flame quickly traveled to the half full bottle of tequila which exploded right in front of the liquor cabinet. Chaos ensued as the liquor cabinet went up in flames. Townies ran for the exit as shouting added to the noise of crashing wood. The bartender and others tried to douse the already too large flame with water. People from the back came into help, but before long the whole bar had erupted into flames.       

"Whoops," said Sadie as she remained seated watching the spectacular drama unfold.       

"Hey, you better get out of here," said the man who got up to leave. It wasn't long before the employees of the bar changed their pursuit. The fire had gotten too big and the employees were about to make for the exit, but not before the bartender motioned towards Sadie while talking to a very big muscular man. Seeing this Sadie moved into the mob of people trying to get out the door. Most of the people had vacated already and it wasn't difficult for her to squirrel her way through the remainder and get out the door. Outside in the cool air she couldn't help but turn and watch the flames rise up from the bar along with the rest of the former costumers of the facility. Everyone had evacuated when Sadie saw a small group of muscular men in white shirts moving into the crowd as if searching for something.      

"Thugs," said Sadie and she turned to move out into the darkness. But she bumped into something large and hard that didn't think it enough of an grievance to merely disorient her, but also thought it appropriate to drag her somewhere. Taking stalk of her surroundings, Sadie came to understand that she was being drug by her shirt collar by the man she had bumped into around to the backside of the burning bar where there were less people.      

Three large men, the bartender, and a man with a silver chain around his neck were gathered around back in the darkness with the man Sadie had talked to at the bar. Two of the large men were holding him in a manner that suggested a beating would shortly ensue. The man pulled Sadie to her feet and placed her in front of the normally sized man and held her arm to keep her from running.      

"I hope you are able to pay for the damages you've done to my bar," said the man with the silver chain to Sadie, "because your friend says he has no money."      

Sadie looked over at her 'friend.' He looked scared. "Listen, sir, I've been coming to this bar for a long time. I've been a good paying costumer. You know me," his voice sounded like a whimper. "It wasn't me, it was her. Who is she anyways? A stranger in this town." Sadie grinned.       

"Ludo," said the man with the silver chain and the large man without his hands full made a fist, stared at it for a moment, then punched the man in the gut. He moaned and lost his footing, leaving his weight to be supported by his captors. Sadie thought he might have overreacted a little.       

"What have you to say for yourself?" Sid asked looking at Sadie.      

"You probably shouldn't allow smoking indoors."      

As he moved towards Sadie she noticed the metal rings around his fingers. When he hit her in the face she realized the man had not overreacted at all. He had, in fact, taken his hit like a champ. Sadie leaned back into her captor and kicked Ludo in the gut with her right foot, pushing him back a step. She walked her left foot up and smashed it into Ludo's right shoulder. Pushing herself up using that shoulder, she swung her right leg up and kicked her captor in the head. He fell backwards and released his grip. Sadie went tumbling. She recovered first and got up to run away into the woods. But she only got a few strides before she stopped, cringed, and turned around. Her captor and Ludo were  coming towards her. One of the men holding the man had left that post to pursue her as well. Sadie picked up a large stone by her foot and threw it at the last man holding the man.       

"Run!" she shouted to him, but he didn't seem to hear her. She hesitated and then moved toward him, but the two men were on her. The first one towards her threw a punch at her head. In order to avoid it she tossed her head backwards. Unfortunately, her body followed and she fell backwards onto the ground. "Drink!" she cursed at the booze she had consumed. She noticed a figure scamper by her while she was on the ground and quickly realized, amused, that her 'friend' had pulled himself together enough to run away.       

The man who had tried to hit her moved to pursue him. Sadie swung her legs over her head so that she rolled backwards and landed with her face in the dirt as she grabbed the man's right leg. The large man fell to the ground. The second man came over to smash his foot in her face. Sadie rolled while grabbing his other ankle. She pulled it out from under him and he fell to the ground, as well. Sadie jumped up and saw the other two men coming her way. She ran off into the woods.      

"Where's my horse?" Sadie said a while later, breathlessly as she scanned the ground.  "Ludger." Pause. "Ludger!" Pause. "LUUUDGEEEEEEER!"      

Two eyes popped up. "Where's my horse?" she nonchalantly asked with concern.      

He went that way, Sadie heard the dirt say as it looked to its right.       

"Where that way?"      

He wandered off and found a heard of wild horses and followed them.      

"Wha--I told you to watch him."      

I did.       

Sadie didn't speak for a moment as she thought about the different ways a pile of dirt might make a horse stay in one place. "Oh, well thanks. Well, there's only one thing to do. Lucky I have stealthy night movement skills." Sadie started out at a slow jog she could maintain for hours in the direction Ludger had pointed out.       

Two hours later in complete darkness Sadie tripped over a rise in the footing. "Ow," she said before she got up and went back to her jog.      

The amount of hours that Sadie could maintain her pace for passed and the sun began to threaten the horizon with its rays. Sadie's legs were tired, dried sweat layered her skin, her stomach howled, and there was still no sign of the skinny brown horse other than the occasional manure pile. "Hey, Ludger,"  Sadie said to the pile of dirt that was gliding along beside her, "would you mind going ahead and finding the horse and then coming back and telling me how far away he is?"       

Yeah, okay.      

"Thank you." A few minutes after the eyes had disappeared into the earth Sadie settled down into a walk that eventually turned into a stand which ended when she laid down on the ground.      

"Where's my horse!?" Sadie woke with a start a few hours later after the horizon and sun had ended their duel to find that neither was stronger and so each went their separate ways.       

Sadie grasped at the air in front of her with her legs outstretch until her eyes came to a rest on the other pair of eyes.       

He's that way, said Ludger. And the way you're going you may never catch up to him. 


Twenty-four years ago:      

The toddler Renwaldo sat in high chair holding a spoon with a kangaroo on the end of it. He stuck it in his cereal and pulled a scoop out.       

"This picture makes me look fat," said the TV sister who was obviously not fat. Renwaldo briefly looked up at the small TV that sat on the kitchen counter and then threw the cereal on his spoon back into his bowl.       

The younger TV sister looked at the picture and replied, "It's a picture of your head," as laughing ignited from behind the camera.      

Renwaldo took a handful of cereal and put it in his mouth. A woman stopped by him with a napkin halfway through her hustle across the kitchen. She dried Renwaldo's hand and face and said, "Use your spoon, honey," as she made the kangaroo bounce.      

"I love you, darling," said the TV mom as she gave the TV dad a peck on the lips.      

"I love you, too, darling," said the TV dad before he headed out the door for work.      

The door opened and slammed shut. Footsteps reverberated through the house. A tired looking man in a white polo shirt tucked into jeans with a pager and set of keys hanging from his belt walked into the kitchen.      

"Oh, good," said the woman when she saw the man. She gestured to Renwaldo's cereal. "Will you clean this up. I'm late."      

"Yeah, I'll take care of it," said the man as he grabbed a bowl out of the cupboard and a spoon out of the drawer.       

The man sat down at the table and poured a bowl of the same stuff Renwaldo was eating as the woman spoke. "I left the bills by the door. Don't forget to mail them. Oh, and we need groceries. I left a list by the bills. Okay, we've got to go." She picked up Renwaldo and left out the door the man had come in through. Outside she hooked up Renwaldo in his child seat and drove off.       

When they got to the day care center the woman came around to unbuckle Renwaldo. "Momma,"  he said, "I love you."       

Not expecting the expression of love, the young working mother's immediate reaction was laughter. Renwaldo looked at her. She said, "I love you, too," but Renwaldo was a sensitive child.  


Present Day:      

Two days later nearing dusk Sadie saw a horse. "Horse!" she exclaimed with a grin at first and then silenced herself when she saw that it wasn't her horse. She looked out in front of her and saw another horse and another. A whole heard of horses. Sadie hid behind a tree. She turned her head and looked out at the heard. "Found him," she said after a minute.      

What are you doing?      

"Scoping out my opponent."       


"Look how many there are. If they see me they might hypnotize me like they've done my horse."       

Horses don't work like that.       

"How else do you explain him running away from me like that?"      

Look, said Ludger, looking towards the heard.       

Sadie looked. "They look peaceful, yes. But that's how they get you."      

Just go over and get your horse so we can go.      

"Okay, but you got my back, right?"      


"You're quite a smart-ass for a pile of dirt," said Sadie as she stalked off towards the horse. The long grass crunched as she trudged through it and at once thirty or forty big brown eyes were staring at her in apprehension. Sadie froze and stared back. The horse Sadie thought of as Bayou looked at her in the same manner as the rest of the heard, with head held high in case flight becomes necessary. For a moment both parties looked at each other. Then Sadie stepped forward. The heard bolted, Bayou included. Sadie took off at a sprint after them. "Wait!" she called as the horses easily outran her.       

Sadie sprinted for as long as she could in the direction of the heard went even after they vanished from sight. When she couldn't run any longer she slowed to a walk, panting heavily. About a thirty minute march brought her to the heard again. Apparently they thought they had escaped the predator.      

Sadie squatted in some tall grass and peered out. Bayou stood next to a small plump bay swishing her tale and eating grass. He looked happy.      

"Did you see how he looked at me?" Sadie spoke into the air. "It was like he didn't even know me."      

Maybe he's gone wild.      

"It's been two days. You don't go wild in two days after you've spent your whole life in confinement. I think he's in love." Sadie plopped backwards into the grass and giggled. "Aw, well. I'm gunna miss him though, that's for sure." For a moment Sadie sat in the grass alternately staring at Bayou, the rest of the heard, and the ground. A minute later she jumped up and pointed to the spot next to her. The heard bolted at the noise. Like one they ran, as if the whole world belonged to them. Sadie stared after them watching Bayou's little butt get littler while her arm extended towards the ground where she had been sitting.       

Finally the horses became invisible, yet Sadie stayed. She stared out into the distance for a few more moments before saying quietly, "Snake,"  and withdrawing her hand. She smiled, turned around, and walked away with her flask drawn.      

Sadie's pace slowed and slowed again until she was more looking around, staring in random places, than walking. Eventually she came to a complete halt and let her body droop over like a blade of wilting grass. Her hands reached the ground and walked out. With a groan, she let her body plop face down in the grass. The seemingly soft grass poked the bare skin on her face. With one eye open she stared at the giant blades in front of her. Grass.      

Reluctantly she rolled over to stare up of the sky. When the sideways sun hit the corner of her eye she groaned and threw the adjacent arm across her face.         

The ship set out for a better world with an air balloon in toe. The eager and anxious families looked forward to a new life. But the wind and the sea opposed the plan and the ship wrecked in a storm. The remnants and survivors washed up on the shore of an island. The captain took charge and divided the survivors up. Half were to stay and make shelter and fire and the other half were to head out into the jungle in search of food and water.      

So I wandered into the woods to search. I looked at big leaves that would hold dew in the morning hours and put them in my pack to take back to camp in case running water wasn't found. I continued onward, deeper into the jungle. I climbed a tree but all I could see when I reached the top was a canopy of leaves. I continued in a straight line so as not to get lost. After a while longer, (I was determined to scope the island through) I came upon a drier section. The trees stopped and the moist soil turned into crusty sand that crumpled at my step. The sand shallowed as rock protruded and gave way to a craiggy precipice. The sheer expanse tumbled down to a lake. I looked all around the lake to see if there was water coming or going from it knowing that sitting water could easily be polluted and poisonous to drink, but running water would be a find. My eyes searched the edges of the lake and found, to my amazement, people swimming in the water. As I looked I became astonished to see a mass horde of people covering the lake with brightly designated lifeguards at every angle.       

I hurried down a path in the cliff perfectly set in size for a person and came upon and alcove, a group of people, and an old friend as if from a dream. The muscular bronzed man with platinum hair addressed me by name with a smile and a hug. My hazy mind threw a tantrum over giving me clear memories, but I felt as if this had happened before in a dream during some tumultuous night, or perhaps in a distant life many lives ago. I knew that I had washed up shipwrecked on this island with these people and had never escaped.      

"Are you going to tell me about it or are you going to let me figure it out myself," I asked him. I felt a tug at my strings, an uneasiness. There was something else here, but I couldn't recall what. I knew he knew what it was and I knew he knew I knew something but couldn't remember just what. These people had been in the same situation we were in now. They had found out, just like we would.      

"You know I can't help you out there," replied the man with the platinum hair. It was then that the lifeguards in unison blew their whistles and all in the lake began moving to the shore. The lifeguards blew with more eagerness and urgency with every passing second. The whistles blew and blew and the noise surrounded me. I ran back up the path in a fever of terror. As I turned a switchback blind with tears and looking downward at my footing I ran head first into a statue and tumbled backwards. I paused to examine, though still panic-stricken with my breathing all the more rapid. I looked up and knew that this statue was no statue at all. Though in daylight it stood still, night inevitably would follow. The stone rose up out of the earth and formed a detailed and chiseled cloak. The stone cloak was hooded and wrapped securely around the organic being inside. The face protruded out through the cloak and my eyes grew wide as I remembered. The body was not human and was still as the stone that surrounded it in the daylight. It was fierce and terrifying and bloody, as if its skin had been peeled off. I tore my gaze, knowing the being could not move until the sun had completely set. I looked down at the once crowded lake, the ghosts of ship wrecks past had vanished. I ran back across the island, scared for these people and scared for myself. These cloaked creatures inconspicuously lined the island. They were guardians of life, protectors of the ill use of it. At night they would come alive and at random pick someone to kill. The next morning the body is gone, but those who wake up appreciate the new day. In this manner, not a day on the island of horror passes without the full appreciation of the wreck of souls still alive.  

.  Sadie woke up with a start and stared wide eyed into the darkness. The skin slowly released back down around her eyes as she began muttering. "Min-er-al. Mine-er-al." Sadie grinned and jumped to her feet. "Get up. Get up," she said while looking at the ground and lifting her hands up repeatedly. Momentarily crumbles of dirt rose up from the grass with two eyes attached to it.       

"Where do minerals come from, Ludger?"      

The ground.      

"How do you get them out of the ground?"      

You mine them.      

"You mine them in mines?"       

That's the general practice.       

"Now that I have some direction. Let's go." Sadie started walking swiftly with the pile of dirt gliding along beside her.      

Where're we going?      

"Back to the bar."      

That's doesn't sound smart. Why?      

"I'm empty," she said, swishing her flask and taking a big gulp out of what was obviously a full flask.      

So where are we really going?       

"That guy. He was talking about a mineral. Maybe he can take us to some mines."      

Seems kind of lucky that the first person you meet after you find out you're looking for mines is someone who knows where mines are.      

"I know! That's how I know we're on the right track. Things like this always happen to me. It's because my Dee ancestors are looking out for me. See we'd already be there if I wasn't dumb and hadn't overlooked the obvious."      

Your Dee ancestors?      

"Yeah! The Dee were a real gruff people. We liked to gather underground where it was really cold and damp and there was mud dripping and we'd all have these giant mugs of beer. Not like the flimsy-ass stuff they have here. And we'd all just shout this song at the top of our lungs and our beers would be sloshing all over the place. Haha! It was funny." Silence for a moment. Sadie seemed to be lost within herself and when she began speaking it wasn't really for Ludger. "I kind of miss it. That one was probably my favorite. It was so different than all the rest. But obviously that's because all the rest were around here. I don't know. I don't know. There must be something wrong with me. I don't know. Well of course that one would have been my favorite because it was when I met--Onward and upward anyways! The past is a lost treasure chest that can never be found again, but there are many treasure within my reach. Faster Ludger! Quickly now!" Sadie took off at a jog. 


A comfortable-looking man wearing a black army uniform sat at a desk at the head of the Farahela room of the palace in Tromunda City, the capital of the nation of Caribond. His secretary stood taciturn in a corner behind him. The palace complex in the heart of the city consisted of thirteen buildings arranged in a V formation all surrounded by a high stone wall. The buildings were made of sea green stone with white roofs and trimming. The towers that rose up from the palace buildings dwarfed all other structures in the city. Well kept gardens spotted with fountains and statues made up the grounds of the complex within the palace walls. A tower at the front of the building that stood as the crux of the V contained the Farahela room where fourteen men now gathered. If there had been a window in the room, it would have looked out over the fountain behind the main entrance of the stone walls to the palace grounds and, beyond that, over the city of Tromunda.       

A tall man made taller by polished healed shoes that gave way to visible knee high socks stood in the corner of the perfumed room taking a moment to choose between orange spice, juniper, coffee bean, apple or cinnamon-flavored tobacco. He wore a billowing white shirt that protruded from underneath a rich purple jacket coinciding with purple breeches. The blond curls of his wig tumbled along the frame of his powdered face. "How's the wife?" he asked of the fat man lounging on the Victorian-style couch behind him.       

The fat man sat with one leg crossed over the other and his arm outstretched over the back of the empty couch beside him. He was dressed in a similar manner as the tall man who spoke to him except that his suit was red and his curls black. "Fat again," said the fat man between puffs of his cherry tobacco.       

The taller man, having decided on juniper, was now rolling his cigar. "Another one on the way already?"       

"Tell me about it. The four rugrats we already have just eat and crap. That's all they ever do. I don't know why we need another eater and crapper. Hell, I can do that. No, what we need in the family is a good baker, not another baby."       

On the other side of the red and gold Persian rug sat an even fatter man on a deep maroon couch with gold trimming supported by wooden lion feet. He pulled the curls of his brown wig back as he leaned over the mahogany coffee table to take a bit of snuff.        

Behind him and a little to the side a short man stood with his hip jutting out as he leaned with one elbow planted on a dresser and smoked a rosemary flavored cigar. He was content to stand for a moment staring at the portrait of himself on the wall opposite him. As he sucked in smoke between his glossy lips, he got lost in the beauty of his own oil-painted eyes. He admired the protruding cheek bones, the strong jaw line, and the narrow shoulders of the petite frame. But when he got to his hair he frowned and looked at the portrait on the wall to the right. Yes, that portrait, the one of the old man who currently lounged on a cushioned chair with his feet on a bear-footed stool on the other side of the room, had a nicer sheen to the wig than the portrait of the short man. He looked at the white hair wig of the real life old man then back at his portrait. The portrait of the old man made his hair look shinier than it was in real life, which was completely unfair to the short man as his portrait made his hair look duller than it was in real life. Resentment built up in the short man until he formulated a cunning plan. He would bring it up with Rodrigo, the painter, and have a clandestine new portrait made of himself. At the time of the new painting, he thought as a menacing smile spread slowly across his face, he would pour oil in his hair to make certain that the artist's creation would be more accurate this time.       

The nearly circular room was actually a thirteen-sided polygon. On each wall of twelve walls hung the portraits of each of the twelve senior generals who currently occupied the room. Twelve walls and twelve portraits were the same size. Behind the looming mahogany desk at the head of the room with a golden nameplate that said simply 'The BOR' was, by a slight margin, the largest wall with the largest portrait on it. Behind the desk stood a cushioned chair with the ornamentation worth of a throne. To one standing at the door directly opposite  the desk the view of the beautifully decorated throne would be obscured by the man who looked like the man in the portrait behind him. In the portrait he was sitting squarely in the throne behind the mahogany desk. Today, he sat on top of the desk with his legs crossed as he leaned back over the desk, supported by one arm and smoking a cigar with the other. It was the comfortable-looking man who wore a black uniform who lounged carelessly across the desk. When he exhaled, he lifted his chin upwards and watched as the smoke climbed. The silent man behind him was the only one without his portrait on the wall.      

The smoke that filled the room was so dense and the variety of fruity and floral flavors so pungent, especially when mixed with the perfumed pillows and potpourri, that the maid who brought in a tray of pastries had to stifle a fit of coughs until she was safely outside the door again. For a number of men in the group, though they did not know it about each other and would never share it with anyone else in the group, the pastries were the most exciting part of the meeting. Two of these men, the fat man and the fatter man, sat opposite and identical to one another, sitting comfortably on facing couches. Neither had moved when the tray was brought in and neither had looked away from it since. Their ability to know what was going on around them rapidly diminished. They had stopped paying attention to their respective conversations when the maid, their favorite person in the whole building, stepped into they room. Now they sat, waiting for someone else to be the first to take a pastry. They had their pride, after all, and must seem nonchalant about the whole pastry situation.       

But minutes passed and no one took a pastry. Each were about to break down to their own shame, but then salvation came. Both heard a voice among all the babble of conversation in the room, "Look at those lovely pastries. I think I'll go get myself one." It was the old man who had uttered the enchanted words and who now made his way to the coffee table in the middle of the room. Relief struck each fat man simultaneously. But then the horrific happened. Not a second after the glorious original words had been spoken, another phrase was spoken by the same man. It was directed at the same man the first two sentences were meant for, the man he had been having a conversation with. "Care to join me?"      

"Oh, I don't mind if I do," came the reply from the older man. Almost as a murmur of consent, all of the senior generals who currently occupied the room headed to the coffee table in the center of the room to get a pastry. The remaining two generals, who had faithfully waited for the appropriate moment to indulge, now found that they had been edged out. Ten men (the man sitting at the desk at the head of the room and his silent secretary remained where they were) now crowded around the table and no room was left for either chubby hand to reach through to grab even the smallest crumb. Finally, the crowd dispersed, and to the utter horror of the fat men, the silver tray, once filled with rich delicious treats, was now just a silver tray. The downcast men hid their disappointment and neither knew that the man across the room knew exactly how the other felt.       

The tall man, lounging on a comfortable arm chair, addressed the room through a mouth of sweet butter bread. "Gentlemen, now that we all have our food," the fat men frowned, "shall we begin? Excellent. I'm so glad you are all here today. There's much to be discussed."      

The men discussed various issues when, far into the meeting, a miracle happened. The door opened and in came that blessed maid in her black and white French uniform. The hopes of the two fat generals soared beyond the clouds. This time there would be no mistakes. They would go strait for the pastries before anyone else could touch them and to hell with subtleties. The fat man on the left side of the room decided to take two on his first serving or perhaps three. The fatter man on the right side searched the tray in the maid's hand, deciding that he wanted a chocolate coffee cream pastry, or maybe a cheese Danish. He had settled on a pumpkin scone, a cinnamon swirl bun, an apple Danish, and a slice of cherry chocolate loaf just as the fat man across from him decided things would be no good unless he took four or five pastries on his first serving.      

But the maid had barely made two steps in the door when the devil lounging on the desk at the head of the room spoke his first words of the day as he scolded, "Matilda, please don't disturb us when a meeting is in order." His words were polite, but a hidden edge in his voice cut at the poor woman's heart. She squeaked an apology and doubled back to the door with pastries in tow. The two fat men, buried in red hot flushes of anger at the man on the desk, could not hear the words that were spoken in the meeting thereafter nor the coughing fit that grew quieter as the maid traveled down the hallway away from the room.       

When the two fat men heard footsteps approaching the door just a moment later, they expected the maid, that glorious maid, to have decided to stand up for herself and, despite that jerk's orders, come to plant the full tray and remove the empty one. It was almost too much to hope for, but when the door handle turned they were on the edge of their seats.       

A moment later they sunk their cushy selves back down into their cushy seats as disappointment flared up again. In walked a ranking junior general, no tray in tow.       

"General Nobmire," said the short man. "You have news, I expect?"      

"Yes sir." Nobmire stood squarely at attention near the door with a striking difference between his discipline and the senior generals' lax positions. "The blue army won the battle at Randerberry, but we're planning on having the brown army win decisively at Trovesdale."       

"Excellent. Make it so," said the even shorter man.      

"Do you have any other news?" asked the shortest man in the room.      

"Yes, sir. Sergeant Flanagan positioned with the Froyas has sent word that an Ardna has crossed the bridge." Murmurs rose from the senior generals.      

"Well this puts an exciting orange twist on the meeting," said the old man who had his feet up on a bear-footed stool.       

"A lemon twist I'd say," said the older man.       

"Seem more meringue to me," chimed in the oldest man.      

"Yes, a lemon meringue twist," replied the older man.      

"Why can't it be an orange meringue?" asked the offended old man.      


"Because--" both the older and oldest man began at the same time and paused. The older man yielded the floor. "Because I like lemon meringue better."      

"Well I like orange meringue better," rebuffed the old man.      

The short man lazed thoughtlessly staring into his portrait's eyes.      

"There isn't even such a thing as orange meringue," piped in the shorter man.      

"Yeah, I've never heard of orange meringue?" asked the shortest man.      

"It sounds delicious," said the tall man thoughtfully.       

"I suppose there's apple meringue and kiwi meringue and carrot meringue as well?" laughed the shorter man. The shortest man laughed with him.      

"Carrots are a vegetable," said the old man. "No one would make carrot meringue because meringue is made out of fruits. Apple meringue and kiwi meringue are certainly possible, even if they're rare."      

The short man, suddenly awoken from the magical land of his portrait's eyes heard only the tail end of the argument. "Oh yes, they are quite rare, thank you," he said, holding out the sleeves of his jacket so that everyone could see the cuff links with brilliant red stones embedded in them.       

The noise, "oooooo," rose up from the room as the generals admired the stones. "Mezmerés, I believe the rock is called," said the tall man.       

"They look like tiny cherries on your sleeve," said the fat man, looking deeply into the rocks.      

"Cherry meringue," said the fatter man, nodding. "Now there's a good pie."      

The BOR sighed deeply and looked around the room. "Honestly, men, you're as useless as a democracy."       

"You wouldn't be saying that if you had a democracy to work with," warned the oldest man. "You all are too young, but I remember those days. Just try to get anything done with a senate to work with. Thank goodness we've moved on to a more enlightened form of government."      

"Relatively speaking," ventured the short man, "we're all about the same age. You just look older. And I don't remember you ever being in a democracy."      

The oldest man spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "Well I can imagine just the same and what I imagine is that having a discussion with thirteen people is much easier than debating with thirteen hundred. Plus we're all straightforward and honest. None of us have our hidden agendas."      

"In any case," said the BOR, "allow us to get back to the topic. General Nobmire, why has the Ardna come?"      

The junior general had been standing at the door throughout the discussion, never betraying any emotion or even movement. "I'm afraid I can't say, sir."      

"Thank you General Nobmire. You are dismissed," said the BOR.      

The brief paused that ensued after the General Nobmire left the room was broken by the old man. "So the King let an Ardna cross the bridge. After all these years--that dirty little rascal. I had my money on him."      

"We'll have to send someone down there to ask him where the Ardna is," said the older man.      

"Someone persuasive," said the oldest man.       

"A lawyer?" suggested the short man.       

"Yes, lawyers are very persuasive people in general," said the shorter man.      

"I have a set of lawyers who always persuade people who wish to do me harm not to," agreed the shortest man, nodding.      

The fat man rolled his eyes. "No, not a lawyer you fool."      

"Something more along the lines of ten thousand troops," offered the fatter man.       

"That should do the trick," said the fattest man with a snap.       

"And ten thousand troops for the Ardna, too. Ardnas are a threat to internal security. We can't take risks," said the short man, getting excited.      

"Yes, ten thousand troops to kill the Ardna. We would not have to kill the scoundrel if everyone would stay on their side of the bridge." said the shorter man nodding and grinning feverishly, very much resembling a very excited chihauhua. "That should do it."      

"Ten thousand troops to the King and ten thousand troops to the Ardna," said the shortest man, summing up.      

"And how will we send ten thousand troops to the Ardna if we don't know where the Ardna is?" asked the BOR, patiently. The room sat in solemn consideration for a moment, as if they had just been given a calculus problem to do without any calculus teaching. During the interlude the stomachs of the fat, fatter, and fattest men growled simultaneously as they released the mind numbing question to the air above their heads and instead focused on the crumbs left on the platter in the center of the room. The short men became bored and all three of them got lost in the magic of their respective portraits. The eyes of the old men slowly closed as their heads rolled backwards in their seats.       

But all nine snapped back into consciousness soon. "Perhaps we should refrain from sending the army anywhere," said the tall man.       

"After all, that's not what they're there for," said the taller man.       

"Perhaps it would be better to not make such a big deal out of only one Ardna," said the tallest man. "Simply inform the army that there's a dangerous criminal who needs to be brought in. Send out a photo of the Ardna and such. Make sure everyone's on the lookout. No need to hassle the Froyas and Puyos."       

The BOR nodded, "Yes, very good." And with this the whole room murmured their consent. "Now, gentlemen," continued the BOR and he got down from his desk and began pacing back and forth in front of it. "Let's get down to important matters." He gave the men in the room a meaningful look. "We must fit in with these contemporary times." Again he looked around the room while nodding as if to say 'Yes. I know it's unbelievable, but it's true.' The men looked back at him blankly. "So I have taken the liberty of making a move that will modernize this group and show the world that we are members of our age." The BOR walked over to the door, opened it, poked his head out, and said, "General Nobmire, if you will."       

The BOR held open the door as Nobmire wheeled in a rack of clothes. On the rack were twelve very professional-looking black military outfits. He brought the rack to the center of the room and stood beside it. "Very good, Nobmire. That'll do," said the BOR.       

General Nobmire nodded and walked out of the room. The Head General looked around the room with a pleased look on his face waiting for the praise to begin.       

After a moment of silence it was the short man who spoke, "You don't really expect us to wear these?"        

That break of the silence opened up the door and the whole room began talking at once. "Absolutely preposterous." "Don't get me wrong, I like the idea, but..."  "That color would make my butt look big." "We've been wearing these clothes for nearly 3,000 years."      

"They're black. Very slimming," argued the BOR as he smoothed out his shirt across his torso to demonstrate.       

As the complaints continued the BOR's face twitched. His hand moved to his holster, but his secretary who had stood quietly behind the mahogany desk during the whole meeting moved silently to put a calming hand on his arm. "If I may, sir, perhaps now is not the time for this."      

The BOR took a breath and removed his hand from his gun. "Yes, of course. You're right." 


"Ouch!" Sadie protested and clamped her hands over her head. The sun sat on the western hills when the acorn bounced off of Sadie's head and into the dirt. "Ugh, that really hurt." she muttered in sedated exasperation. She shook it off and tended to the soon-to-be fire roasted rabbit she had caught and skinned. After three days of living off of bugs, roots, and leaves, the rabbit could not cook quickly enough. She was eager to find the old man she had lost, but she had to eat.       

"Froesher!" Sadie swore. Froesher was a pejorative term commonly used in an ancient language that had been derived from the word frou she in an even more ancient language which, roughly translated meant something along the lines of, "I would feed you to my sharks," or "You're worthless," or "Your only worth is that you would make a good meal for my sharks." Sadie sat holding her head in her arms. The second acorn that had fallen on her head now rested in the dirt.       

"The insolence!" Sadie's rage came verbally as she rose from her squat on the ground to turn and address the trunk of the culprit tree. "Do you know who I am?" Sadie stood so that she faced the trunk. Her elevated voice was one that expected compliance. Where I come from your kind trembles before me. They give up their lives to merely show their submission by throwing themselves prostrate before me."      

"OW!" she cried when another acorn hit her head. She was just wondering why she saw no other acorns falling around the tree when she heard children's giggle from up above.       

Without looking she collected herself and addressed the tree, "I would just like to publicly thank you for the lesson you taught me. I realize now that a symbiotic relationship of equality is far better for both parties than a relationship characterized by a superior and an inferior group. Your goodness to me when I did not deserve it of going through the effort to teach me this lesson means a lot to me. Your confidence in my ability to learn never wavered nor did your instruction. I praise you as a teacher and revere you as an equal."      

More giggling ensued from up above. Sadie looked up to see a girl and a boy sitting in the branches, each with acorns in their hands. "Hello!" said Sadie with a smile. The boy giggled and the girl tossed her acorns in the other directions to get rid of the evidence. They landed loudly on the ground a few yards away from Sadie to the girls apparent amusement because she started laughing again. Sadie ignored them. "What are you doing up there?"  she said with a bigger smile this time.      

"We're running away," said the girl.      

"Where are you running to?"       

"Home," said the girl.      

"You're running home? Where are you running from?"      

"Those people who wear blue."       

"The blue army?"      

"Yeah, I guess, I mean, they wear blue and they're an army. They were not very nice."      

Sadie's smile slid and she shifted uneasily. "Get down here, soldiers."  One at a time the children jumped down from the tree branch and Sadie caught them. She lined them up in front of here. "So you're deserters, huh?" she said sternly, but then softened. "Where I come from children never served as warriors. To be a warrior you had to prove yourself and children are too small. Most adults didn't even make the cut. But it's not my place to question someone else's style of warfare. If you've been invited to serve, than it's an honor in the highest degree. Why would you turn it down?"      

"I miss dad and mom." It was the first time the boy had spoke.      

"Yeah, me, too," said the girl, "and when mom used to tell us stories before going to bed."       

"And honeysickle cake," said the boy.      

"And eating tomatoes from the garden and when dad always flips the canoe over."      

"And finding turtles--"       

"And school--"      

"And playing gouterball--"       

"And playing on the 'possum swings--"      

"Okay, I get it," Sadie said. "Sometimes serving your people means sacrifice."      

"But we're just children. That's what mom said."      

Sadie gave them a meaningful look. "Have you ever heard of the tale of the smallest soldier?"       

The children shook their heads.       

"Once upon a time long long ago when everything was divided into four planes-water, land, air, and space-nobody got along. Not at all. Can you believe that? Everyone was divided up into groups to which they were loyal and all of the groups bickered with each other. They fought about silly stuff like boundaries or someone stealing a rutabaga that was growing on someone else's land even if there were enough rutabagas for everyone to get sick of rutabagas. Even within groups people weren't particularly nice to each other. They were always squabbling over power and someone always had a plot to overthrow whoever was in power and so no one was ever in power very long and people were always getting upset with each other. Forgiveness was rare to nonexistent.       

"Anyways, what happened was there was a particular group called the Rive Tribe and they were all large and fierce and muscley except for one guy named Brownswick who was actually pretty small. And he was always getting made fun of because of his size.      

"Then one day when the tribe was out in the far reaches of land looking for someone to fight with they found the Chicotians who were all very small. And because of Brownswick's size he was able to go among the Chicotians and spy and all the Chicotians just thought he was one of them."      

"I've never heard that story before," said the boy.      

"I wouldn't expect that you had," said Sadie. "It happened long before you were born."      

"What happened to Brownswick?" asked the girl.      

"He was caught and executed and died a pretty horrible death. But that's not the point. The point is there's no such thing as a weakness that can't be turned into a strength. The story could have just as easily gone that Brownswick learned how to fight real good and was able to dodge blows and be real quick and agile because he was small. You get it?"       

"Yeah, I get what your point is," said the girl, "I just disagree."      

"They make us wear helmets and carry heavy stuff," said the boy.      

"And I got a bullet in my arm," said the girl pointing to a bandage around her upper arm that had yellow liquid oozing through it.      

"Well that doesn't look healthy," mumbled Sadie.      

"And one time I had to hide for two days in a cave because I was supposed to deliver a message but there were people out there that I couldn't get past."      

"And we killed some people--"       

Sadie held up a hand, "You've made your case. Do what you will."      

"One time," said Elena, "some kids ran away and were caught. They were executed in front of everyone else."      

"That seems like a pretty normal punishment for deserters," said Sadie easily. "I suppose you have a plan to avoid the same outcome."      

"You come with us until we get home."      

"Bold child," muttered Sadie. "What makes you think I would help you?"      

"My mom makes the best mopple cake on this side of the Camela Mountains. I'm Elena," said the girl and held out her hand. Sadie took it.      

"I'm Keegan," said the boy.      

"Pleasure to meet you. My name's Sadie." She looked at them for a moment. "Do you know how to get to your home from here?"      

"Yes," said Elena.      

"How far away is it?"      

"Two days."      

"I guess that's not too long," Sadie mumbled as she jumped to take the burning rabbit off the fire. "I suppose your hungry," sighed Sadie as she handed off the rabbit. As the kids started eating Sadie stalked off into the woods saying, "I'm going to go find something to help with that bullet wound, Elena...and find some dinner. Bugs probably." Her voice died down as she disappeared grumbling something about children, bullet wounds, killing people, and the state of the world. 


The child Renwaldo sat on the stairs of his porch reading a book. A group of seven boys on bikes came riding down the street going slow enough to talk to each other.      

"No, I want to go play ball!" one of them shouted at the others.      

"If we go play ball we need at lease hitter, a catcher, a pitcher, three basemen and at least two field men. That's eight guys." Renwaldo put down the book and stood up on the porch as the boys rode closer to his house.      

"Nah, we don't need a catcher," shouted another one of the boys.      

"Last one to the park is toad's vomit," shouted another one as he shot out in front of the group. The other boys picked up speed and raced after him. Renwaldo watched them go and then sat back down on the porch. A steady stream of reproaches waltzed through his brain that, with time, soon spiraled downward into a torrent of uncreative insults. The dull affront would have been followed by pity for the feebleminded brute that couldn't put together more artful gibes if it had been initiated by anyone besides himself. But because these ideas came from his own mind, he thankfully didn't think to add pity to the host of demeaning feelings infiltrating his shaky guard. As a part of himself sought to disassociate itself with the insulted part, "I'm dumb," would be followed by, "You're so dumb." The two entities would then feed off each other's agreement. "Yes, I am so dumb." "Well of course you're so dumb." "It's true, I am very dumb," and so on.       

The child Renwaldo sighed, exhausted by his inner agreement. He thought about it for a moment and realized that a spiral into this type of counterproductive mindset had happened before and merely putting it out of his head would only allow it to come back another day. He recalled his first day of school when his mother told him that if he felt overwhelmed, he should take a deep breath in and let it out slowly, envisioning all his worries riding out on his breath.       

Two garden gnomes sitting in his neighbor's lawn across the street and to the right caught his eye. The one further to Renwaldo's right seemed to look up at him while the other unbalanced gnome tipped forward and stared down at the grass. He decided to give all of the insults he had for himself to the two gnomes and he watched while they gobbled up every crumb so that they couldn't hurt him anymore.       

Good plan, he agreed with himself. But not too long after that initial reaction the thought that the plan had backfired mingled among the guests in his head. The the gossip spread and at once everyone demanded of Renwaldo if the rumor was true. Well, had it backfired? Renwaldo asked himself.       

Renwaldo looked over at the gnomes standing where he had left them. Yes, Renwaldo admitted, the plan had back fired. Instead of silently digesting the cruel rhetoric he had once had with himself, one of the gnomes was repeating it all back at him.       

Renwaldo studied the two gnomes. The one currently publicizing the useless dry insults he had only moments previously charged him with keeping out of his mind wore the normal garden gnome apparel. He had green pants, a jacket, a pointy hat, brown pointy elf shoes and short white hair complete with a short white beard. The sharp, all-knowing sparkle of his hazel eyes partnered with his acrid laughter to make Renwaldo wince.       

The second gnome standing directly to the left of the first wore the same garb. His beard stretched to the ground, though, and folded on top of itself. Curiously, he kept his head bowed so that Renwaldo could not see his face. He seemed to shake for some reason as Renwaldo silently implored him for defense against his kin. The gnome's response to the plea came immediately. His bowed head slowly lifted up to reveal a broad, malicious smile. Evidently his shaking had been caused by giggling at his companions remarks. His two blue eyes, more penetrating than the hazel ones, sliced into their creator's soul. They could see the most tender places in Renwaldo's young heart and didn't bother striking anywhere else.       

Renwaldo realized he had created the complete enemy--one to punish him in everyday triflings and the other to abuse him at his lowest points. After the gnome with the searing blue eyes had given him this horror-infused message his eyes dropped down and his head followed to Renwaldo's immense relief. The gnome went back to his silent giggles as the drone of shallow taunts continued from his partner.       

The child Renwaldo blinked and the gnomes turned back into inanimate lawn decorations. He turned from his view of the street to look at the book he had dropped by his side. He studied the cover of it for a moment, pondering what he had read in it. A slow epiphany built in his mind until if finally collected itself into one uniform thought--that every story contained a problem. He wondered if there had ever been a story happy throughout. He wondered if this type of story would entertain anyone. Finally, he wondered if someone at some point had tried to make such a story, but it flopped at the box office and the writer could never find work again.       

So the young optimist engaged in a quest to find one happily ever after with a story written about it. He went straight to the source of happy stories by turning a cartoon on the TV. Surely, he thought, animation would provide relief from the trials of the fictional world. But unfortunately for the tiny tragic protagonist on his first bitter quest, the spin-off of a popular fairy tale that appeared on the screen not only contained a problem, but, for reasons only apparent to the twisted adult brain, ended with the wicked witch triumphant.       

Renwaldo turned off the television with a heartache for the defeated hero and marvel at the cartoon's creators. He decided that story creators, even if they had to make hardships in the middle of a story, had no business ever making a sad ending. He admitted that a story might be created to teach ill-mannered children a lesson or to make a point about the realities of a sad world. However, Renwaldo argued, in both of these scenarios a story with a sad ending would more likely be used to make the story creator attain personal vengeance against the unruly child or the perpetrators of the real-world problem than achieve the alleged noble purpose. Renwaldo concluded that reality had so much sadness in it already that it poured over into the world of fiction and so, to keep the balance, fiction should be used to create happiness in the world of reality. 


The next morning Sadie leaned against a tree with her flask waiting for the kids to wake up. She waited patiently for more than three minutes before shouting, "Wakeup!"  The kids groggily rose from their slumber.      

"Good morning!" said Elena brightly after a minute. She looked at Sadie and her flask and said, "It's morning," in a very accusing tone.      

"I'm going to give you an invaluable piece of advice that no one else would give you, so pay attention. Never let the time of day prevent you from drinking. Let's go," she said as she jumped up. After walking all day the trio stopped to set up camp for the night. They caught dinner, roasted it on a fire, and sat listening to the nightly serenade of the insects while they ate. Sadie gave the mute children a sidelong look after she had finished.       

"You don't like your snake?" she asked.      

"It's okay," said Elena.       

"What's the matter then? You're not hungry?"      

"I dunno," she said.      

"Are you sad?"      

"Yeah, kinda."      

"I miss mom and dad," chimed in Keegan.      

"We're going to see them right now."      

"But I want to see them right now."      

Sadie looked at their downcast and dirty faces in the dimming light. She looked at the bandage on Elena's arm and pondered resilience. "There used to be these people called the Timpians a long time ago," she began, "who believed that sadness and loneliness didn't come from situations, but from devils and demons that possessed people. They believed that sadness could be banished from people through an exorcism."      

"Are you going to banish the devil from me? I don't want a devil in me." asked Keegan.      

"Well, the exorcism involved an intricate series of blood-letting rituals that the sad usually didn't survive through, which explains why they were always such a happy people, but sure, we can dumb it down."      

Sadie walked over to where the children were sitting and put a hand on each of their foreheads. Keegan and Elena stared up at her. "Close your eyes," she told them. Sadie closed her eyes and in an artificially deepened voice said, "In the name of the gods of the seventeen kangaroos, with all the collective strength of the Allied Kingdom of Daisies and All Other Flowers Occasionally Mistaken for Weeds, and by the power vested in me by flying pink dolphins," Sadie opened one eye when she heard giggling and then closed it again, "I command the devils that inhabit these children to be gone hence forth and forever, lest I smite the said devils with a hefty curse being that my snake is having issues digesting and I might stink up the camp sight soon." At this Keegan and Elena burst into a fit of giggles.      

Sadie retract her hands and looked down at the laughing kids. "Are your devils gone, or do you think I need to make good on my threat?"  she asked innocently.      

"They're gone!" squealed Elena through a fit of giggles.      

"They're gone, they're gone!" cried Keegan.      

"We're kind of old for fart jokes," said Elena as she sobered.      

"No one's too old for fart jokes," replied Sadie.       

After a pause, Keegan asked, "Do you want to see something cool?"       

"Sure," said Sadie. Keegan disappeared into the woods. "What's he doing?" Sadie asked.      

"Who knows," shrugged Elena. "He's really smart, you know. Our dad's a scientist who works in the city. Sometimes he's gone for a long time, but when he's home he shows us all sorts of tricks that can be done with this mineral that he works with. Keegan really likes it, but I don't really care that much although it is fun to see the tricks."      

"Do you know what the mineral is called?"      

"It's called--it's called R--it's called RD and then some other letters and then some numbers," said Elena.      

"I think I've heard of that mineral. I thought it was dangerous."      

"Dad said it's only dangerous when it's refined in a laboratory."      

Keegan reappeared back through the trees with something in his hand. He sat down by a rock and dumped what was in his hand onto the rock. Then he took a small pouch out of his pocket and opened it up to reveal what looked like dirt. Keegan took a speck of the dirt and mixed it with the powder on the rock. He carefully tied up the pouch and replaced it in his pocket and then mixed the dry concoction on the rock together with his finger.       

"Oh! I think I know this trick," said Elena. "I think I know what's going to happen."      

"Are you ready?" Keegan asked Sadie.      

"Ready," nodded Sadie as she leaned forward.      

He took a pinch of it between his fingertips and threw it on the fire. The fire flashed blue for a second before turning back.      

"Wow!" exclaimed Sadie. "How did you do that? Is that fairy dust?"      

"Nope," said Keegan. "It's crude RDM4547--"      

"That's what it's called!" Elena interrupted. "RDM4547."      

Keegan nodded and continued, "crude RDM4547 mixed with crushed Yujwood leaves."      

"Woah. You know a lot about RDM4547?" asked Sadie.      

"Yeah, kind of. Just what my dad shows me."      

"What else can it do?"      

"It can do all kinds of things and then even more things if you refine it. But if you refine it it gets really addictive so you shouldn't do that although a lot of people do." 


Seventeen years ago:      

"So there I was, having lost my body, all alone in the darkness. I couldn't say how long I was there other than it was a long time. I just wandered around, never seeing anything besides dark. At times though, at times I thought I could feel the presence of others around me, but when I reached out there would be no one there. I mean, of course I wouldn't be able to touch anything if there was since I was just a spirit. But sometimes it was as if there were a lot of us there all crammed into a dark room and being moved around by an invincible hand so as to never let any one of us know we were not alone. Ah, maybe that was just part of the torture." The eight-year old girl sitting in a confession booth paused to take a drink from the metal flask she held.      

"Then something happened. It was one of those times when I felt like someone else was there beside me. I reached out, tried to stretch out as far as I could, searching with all the strength in me for someone (you see when you're all alone like that, desperation grows on you like mold). I reached out with all my essence, I guess what would have been my hand if I had one and I hit something. Part of me became solid and hit some else's hand. And I could see it. I could see it there, my hand clasped in the hand of another. I could see it because there, no other part of my frame or the other's, only where our hands met, the darkness parted. I don't know how it happened, but as long as we kept our hands locked, part of me was solid and that part of me was illuminated.       

"Father, what joy I felt! It was as if I hadn't eaten in a hundred years and was now feasting or that I had been cold for so long and was finally warm. But it was even more than that. It was that I had been sad, lonely, desperate, for a length of time that would make the age of Earth seem like an afternoon nap, and, Father," Sadie dug her fingers into the grating where the Priest sat on the other side, "I was in love. I loved him, I can't even say how much. But boy I loved him.      

"So I was happy there in the darkness after all. As long as I was with him my happiness was never ending. I don't know how long we staid like that. It could have been a second, it could have been eternity (except that I'm here now so that it probably couldn't have been eternity), and I was happy and in love.      

Sadie's face began clouding over, as if a thunder storm were brewing. "But then I started feeling something pull on me. Something was pulling me away from him. Let me tell you this, Father, I've had some good training, I can hold a grip. So when that something, whatever it was, started pulling on me, I hung on. But it was like that something had no limits and only wanted to use as much force as necessary. So when a certain amount of force was applied and that didn't succeed in tearing the hold, more force was applied, and more and more and more. I held on as long as I could, but as my grip started to fade, the darkness started to consume the light until at last the light went out and he was gone.      

"Naturally, I searched around frantically."      

"Naturally," nodded the Priest.      

"Naturally," agreed Sadie. "But I couldn't find him. When I had searched and searched and couldn't find him, something started building up inside of me. It was rage, Father."       


"Rage," Sadie nodded her head. "And not just rage, but blood-lust like I had never felt it before and, as you know, I was a warlord in my previous life. I had a hankering for revenge if anyone's ever had one. I wanted to know who it was who had taken him away from me and I wanted to kill it. But it wasn't just rage, blood-lust, and a sense of revenge that was building in side of me."      


"No," Sadie slowly shook her head. "It was also despair. I had waited so long to find him and now he was gone and there was no way that I would ever find him again. And loneliness like something fierce. Complete and utter loneliness. But there was more."      


"More," Sadie nodded. "I felt so much love. Love for a man. And I knew he was feeling the same thing as me in terms of the emptiness and loneliness and all that because he was out in the darkness, too, and for that I loved him even more. Because I loved him so much I was happy. Filled to the brink with joy.       

"Now, as you can tell I was feeling some conflicting emotions. I don't know if you've ever tried it, but it's very difficult for a person to feel opposing emotions at the same time. And they all kept building and building like they couldn't just stay at the level they were at they had to grow. It was like one person was not enough to contain everything that was inside of me. So... I exploded."      

"You exploded?"      

"Yeah, I exploded. And the strangest thing happened. You know all those emotions in me? Well, I think I saw them. When I came to I looked straight in front of me and there, hanging in the darkness were little lights. They were like little jewels and I think, I'm not one hundred percent, but I think those little lights were my emotions all mixed together because I couldn't really feel any of them anymore. That conclusion makes sense, right?"       

"Why not?" said the Priest.       

"So, I've been looking for him ever since."      

When Sadie appeared like she wasn't going to say anymore the Priest spoke up. "You've been looking for who ever since?"      

"That guy I was telling you about who I fell in love with."      

"I thought that you didn't feel that love anymore."      

"Well, hm," said Sadie. "Oh, I forgot to tell you. I looked up close to those little lights and found out they were stars, as you call them. Some of them had planets walking around them, too. I had never seen a star or a planet at that point, they're unique to you guys I guess. Or maybe they're not, I don't really know. But anyways, I looked really close and I could see little life wandering around on some of the planets. It was like I exploded and created a universe made out of rage, blood-lust, revenge, despair, loneliness, love, happiness, and joy.       

"What was of most interest to me being a spirit, of course, was that there were tiny little bodies wandering around on some of the planets, some of them without spirits in them (those ones weren't wandering, though). So I figured there was a body without a spirit and there was a spirit without a body wandering around somewhere, and since spirits are naturally drawn to bodies, he would probably be somewhere on one of those planets having snagged himself a body. I figured that I could look on every planet and he would be there somewhere." 


Present Day:      

A few days later Sadie arrived at a house in the woods with two children. The gate to the white picket fence with chipping paint hung open and halfway off its hinges. A once a full garden of flowers out front had recently wilted. In fact, the whole seen seemed to be tinted with death. The forest that had been rich and flourishing only a little ways back seemed now to bend to merciless and ever present gravity. Crunchy dead leaves coated the ground and a single cloud in the sky prohibited sunlight from reaching the scene. The roof of the house sighed against its own weight as it inverted, seeming to wish for demolition.       

Keegan and Elena didn't seem to notice as they ran through the gate to the front door. Sadie waited by the picket fence and watched the door shut behind them. She waited just a moment longer after they had disappeared inside the house and then turned to leave. But when she heard the door slam shut she turned back to the house again to see two sobbing children clawing at the door and screaming for their mother. Sadie walked through the gate, through the dead flower garden, and up the few steps to the front porch. She looked down at the devastated children, though they didn't acknowledge her in their grief.       

She looked at the fading red door and saw a wooden sign that used to be held securely with two ties, but at some point one of the ties had given up to allow the sign to hand askew. The engraving read: 

In order to sing the sun to sleep,

In order to bury your treasures deep,

For lightning to rip your worries asunder,

To be able to laugh with the chuckling thunder,

To eat, to drink,

To sleep, to think,

In order to have far places to roam,

You must first have a place to call your home.       

Sadie knocked on the door. After a few moments she knocked again...and again. When there wasn't any answer after a few minutes she looked down at the tiring children. She squatted down to get their attention.      

"This is your house, right?"she asked.      

"Y-yes," said Elena between sobs.      

"Who is inside?"      

"M-my m-m-mom."      

"Why doesn't she let you in."      

"It wasn't our fault, honest. It wasn't our fault. We didn't do it."      

"Didn't do what?"      

"We didn't-didn't--we didn't hurt anybody. Please, please please please please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."      

"Alright, alright, I believe you," Sadie tried to comfort the distraught child. "Will you and your brother try to be quiet while I talk to your mother?"      

She nodded.      

Sadie rose up and knocked on the door again. She pounded on the door and shouted, "Excuse me. Is anybody home. Hello!" Sadie kicked the door in. "Hello!" she shouted into the house until she noticed the weeping woman sitting on the floor just to the side of the door. "Ah, there you are," said Sadie as Elena and Keegan ran to her with shouts of "Mommy!" and clung to her limbs.       

"Get away from me," growled the woman as she tried to push her children away from her. Elena allowed herself to be pushed a little ways away, but Keegan resisted.      

"Mom, but mom," he insisted.       

In a moment of anger the woman pushed the boy away from her hard and he fell over and hit his head. "Oh!" she cried and crawled over to the hurt child. "I'm so sorry baby. I'm so sorry," she repeated as she pulled the child into her arms. She looked over at Elena who stood crying and outstretched an arm to her. Elena went over and curled up under her mother's arm and they all sat crying.      

Sadie, unspeakably uncomfortable, backed away slowly. Once she had gotten down the stairs she turned and dashed back through the gate.       

"Wait," a voice called out. Sadie turned to see the woman standing in the door with the two children by her side with happy grins. The tears hadn't dried, but they weren't producing anymore either.       

A little later Sadie sipped coffee at the kitchen table of the house, or at least, nonchalantly refrained from sipping coffee while covering up her ingratitude by being very understanding.      

"I'm sure they were high and manipulated," she said when the mother of Keegan and Elena told her how the children had killed a neighborhood woman. "These kind of rebel wars use children soldiers because they're expendable. To keep their communities from taking them back, they get them to kill someone in front of many. It's how they operate. Just one of the tools in their arsenal."      

"I thought I had given birth to the devil's children," said the mother.      

"He can't actually procreate." Sadie furrowed her brow, wondering where that comment had come from, but then brushed it off and continued. "Listen, do you have a safe place to take them?"      

"Yeah, I can take them to my sister's."      

Sadie shook her head. "That won't work."       

"Why not?"      

"They're deserters. The blues will probably send people to get them. You need a really safe place away from here."      

"Well, there is an old woman who..."      

Sadie stared out the window. A distance off birds stirred from their resting place and flew up into the sky. "You need to go there now."      

"Why? What do you mean?"       

"Keegan! Elena!" Sadie poked her head out the door and called to them. Looking out the door she saw the family's private dock with a canoe. Most of the river was blocked from the land by a tight line of trees. "Is this place upstream or down?" she asked the mother.      

"Down. What's going on?" demanded the mother.      

Sadie spoke with authority and grabbed the mother's arm, practically dragging her. Keegan and Elena were there now. "Come with your mom and me,"  she said to them. She led the trio to their dock by the side of the house and put them in the canoe.      

"What's going on?" the mother repeated.      

Sadie pointed out towards the trees. Still a ways off she could see an unnatural blue coming through the forest. "They'll punish them harshly for deserting to teach the other kids not to run away. You need to get out of here and find a safe place for them."      

"What about you?" asked the mother as Sadie pushed the canoe with the mother and children in it out to the river.      

"I get to get rid of you three," Sadie muttered.      


"I'll be fine. I'll keep them busy while you paddle away."      

"Bye Sadie," said Keegan enthusiastically.      

"Bye Sadie," said Elena.       

"Sail like pirates. Paddle," she advised them and moved swiftly back to the front of the house. In the kitchen she grabbed the knife rack and slid each one between her belt and her pants. She walked back out into the front room. Standing for a moment and thinking, she looked up at the blades above the mantel piece and smiled.       

A moment later the enemy met Sadie with knives wrapped around her hips and a lowered sword in each hand standing in front of the house.      

"Can I help you?" she asked genially.       

"Identify yourself." Eight men in blue uniforms stood beyond the white picket fence. They all wore guns slung around their shoulders. The wind picked up and the broken gate shifted and creaked.        

"I am the guardian of this house and the protector of its little inhabitants." Pause. "Is that all?"      

"We require the children."       

"What concern are they to you?"      


Sadie nodded. "Ah, I hate deserters, too."      

"They need to be reprimanded. Deserters must be dealt harshly with to avoid future incidents."      

"Exactly. I'm glad we agree. Well, it was good talking to you. Keep in touch. I'll see you later."  Sadie turned to go back in the house until, "Send them out."      

"Who?" she asked      

"The children."      

"The children?"      


"What children?"      

"Keegan and Elena Tryor."       

"They don't live here."       

"We information that says they're inside."      

"And information has never been known to be wrong?"      

"Send them out or we will kill you and go in and take them."      

"You can kill me, but they still will not be there when you go in."      

"We'll settle." The man held up two fingers and motioned towards Sadie.      

"Smart ass," muttered Sadie as she dropped the swords and backed up under the eaves of the house. She jumped up to grasp the edge of the gutter with her fingertips and swung her legs up to the roof of the house. She stayed low and rolled past the peak of the roof to take cover on the other side as bullets plastered the roof.       

Eight, there were eight of them. Sadie looked down at her belt. Eight, there were eight kitchen knives wrapped around her hips. Sadie smiled. Sometimes life was good.       

A moment later two men had kitchen knives sticking out of their foreheads, one tree trunk felt steel, and five knives lay harmlessly on the forest floor. "Whoops,"  Sadie said for the sixth time. She looked down at the swords she had dropped on the ground in front of the house wishing she had them now.       

The six men that remained crouched low for protection against future aerial assaults. Sadie watched three men move around the picket fence towards the back of the house where she was exposed. She crawled over to the chimney and squished herself inside it. When the men who had moved to the back of the house saw that the roof was clear, they motioned to the others. Two men, one in the front and one in the back, hustled towards the house. After they made it to the front and back door respectively, the four remaining men followed.       

Now Sadie hunched in the chimney with the six men inside the house. She looked at the failing roof and pulled herself out of her hiding spot. Standing on the edge of the chimney, she looked down, moved her mouth to the side, thought for a moment, and jumped as hard as she could onto the roof. With a roar the house caved in and Sadie came tumbling down into a heap of dust and broken wood. She lay there for a moment that stretched into a minute that turned into a half hour.       

Gradually, she opened her eyes to see a world of chaos coated with a fine powder. Thinking some evil entity had trapped her in an isolated wonderland, fear rose in her chest. As her breathing quickened and the mechanics of her brain began to work again, understanding dawned on her. For the first time she saw what happens to the seconds that flee from her. It had never been a malicious act intended to drain her of her life. Rather, the seconds left her to go off and die. She saw their dead bodies, the fine powder that lined her prison, coating everything, even herself. She saw them leaving her even now to hover in the air and then drift down to their resting places. Panic seized her as she realized their sacrifice. She knew that one day a second would come without the characteristic selflessness. That second would cling to her as it died and so cause her to die with it. And she had yet to find what she had been looking for for so long!      

A crash jarred her from isolation. She looked up to see a man in a dusty blue uniform stumble out of the wreckage of the demolished house and hasten into the woods. Slowly and painfully she stood up with a groan. She brushed the dust off of her arms though it didn't make much difference. She took her flask out her back pocket and took a long drink as she stood staring at two swords laying in the dirt in front of the house. "I never even got to use them," she sighed. She gazed absently at the house around her and found that the only thing left standing was the front door frame with the broken door attached, the brick fire place, and the attached chimney which looked odd without a house around it. She moved through the debris past the standing door frame to the front garden and, after taking another drink from her flask, picked up the swords and restored them to the top of the fireplace before making a haphazard attempt at fixing the lock on the door that she had kicked in.      

She sighed as she went to the general kitchen area and rummaged through the broken cabinets looking for food. She found a can of beans that she smashed open by placing a piece of wood over it and stomping on it. As she sat cross legged in the middle of the devastation she had caused, she rarely looked up. But when she stuffed a big bite in her mouth and allowed her eyes drifted around the ground in front of her, something caught her eye. She reached over and pulled a book out from under the rubble and looked at the blank covers. As she flipped through it, a noise out in the woods startled her. Wondering if the runaway man had sent reinforcements, she stuck the book in the back of her pants and left the site.  


A little less than 3,000 years ago:      

A waterfall of white lights that automatically swept to the sides when guests approached veiled the entrance to the short man's decadent palace. A marble hallway on the far side of the waterfall carpeted with a thick coating of soft white fluff and lined on each side with beautiful white fire led to the great ballroom. On this night women in glittery gowns and men in tailored tuxedos danced the night away with a drink in one hand and a smoke in the other. In the three hours since the first guest had arrived no glass had been allowed to go dry and everyone seemed to be feeling good.       

It happened to be when the short man tapped a raised crystal glass that Mrs. short man chose to glide down the regal staircase near the entrance to the ballroom. At the other end of the room where the band played on a raised platform the short man took the microphone and made an announcement.      

"It is now time for my traditional serenade."      

The short man raised his hand and the band began playing a soft nighttime love song.      

The short man began singing:       

"The twinkle in your eyes makes the stars look dull..." Mrs. the short man stood on the staircase with her hand placed lightly on her heart and sighed as she looked lovingly at her husband.      

Halfway into the song the short man reached out into the crowd and took the hand of a very beautiful and very young women who was very much not his wife. The crowd around her parted as the short man sang his old romantic song to her. Shortly, he led her onto the stage and turned her in a slow dance to the melody. He did not notice the whispers running threw the crowd nor the infuriated woman on the staircase.      

The music ended and the short man threw his hands in the air before launching them downward around his waist for a dramatic bow. But the applause he expected never came. He lifted his head up from the bow without straightening and looked out into the crowd. He noticed that, while many people in the crowd had their eyes down, others were swiveling there heads, looking from him to the other side of the ballroom. He followed their gaze and saw there, on the staircase, clutching the railing, was his wife. His eyes darted around looking for the escape that didn't exist.      

"Oops," he said, blushing. 


Present Day:      

Tree. Blue grass. Rock. Hill. Ludger. Sadie looked at the things around her to see if anything could help her with her present dilemma. Cluster of trees. Sun. Cloud. Green Sky. Huge angry bear. Pause. No, that's the problem. Sadie had again embarked on her journey to find the old man from the bar when she had encountered another delay. She put her hands up in the air to suggest her surrender which only made the bear growl louder. When no clever ideas presented themselves to her, she decided to verbalize her problem to see if any solution would present itself that way. She said sideways to Ludger, "There is a bear in front of me standing up on its hind legs, roaring with all of its intensity. Or maybe just part of its intensity. Either way it seems pretty intense." Ludger sunk down into the dirt beside her until only the yellow eyes were showing. "I don't know what you're so afraid of. What is a bear going to do to you?" asked Sadie. Ludger made a guttural noise that Sadie couldn't make out.       

Sadie took a step backwards and the bear came down onto all fours with a shake of its head. She took another step backwards and it came barreling towards her so she turned and ran. Despite her sprint, the pounding of the bears footsteps got louder with every second. She turned her head sideways to see that the bear had cut the distance between them in half. In a moment the bear was at her back. She looked over her left shoulder as she ran so that she could jump to the side at the moment when the bear would have overtaken her. Sadly, because she had been looking over her left shoulder she did not see the head-sized boulder on her right side that she dove head first into as the bear pummeled past her. She let out a cry when her head hit the rock and crumpled to the ground, holding her injured cranium.      

Meanwhile, the bear overcame its inertia and quickly pivoted towards her. Still dazed by her head injury, she did not move as the bear came upon her. Curled in a ball on the ground, the bear swiped her side with its claws causing her to cry out again. She rolled over onto her back with her knees pulled up to her chest as the bear reached for her jugular with its gaping jaw. She extended her legs and caught its upper jaw with one foot and lower jaw with the other and crossed her arms over her face. "Ugh,"  Sadie groaned and winced when she smelled its breath.       

The bear retracted its jaw and attempted instead to pin Sadie to the ground with its paw. She reacted by planting her feet on the soft part of the bear's massive paw. The bear retaliated with its other paw ripping open Sadie's other side.       

In pain, Sadie growled at a pitch deeper than Ludger thought any of her species could make. She reached above her with both arms and grabbed the rock that her head had hit and brought it to her chest. In a fluid movement Sadie removed her feet from the bear's paw and rolled over as the paw came crashing to the ground where she used to lay. Now lying on her stomach in between the bear's paws underneath its head, Sadie continued the movement of her legs by swinging them up around the bear's neck and grasping its underbelly with one arm and holding the rock under the other. She let go of the bear's neck and hung on tightly to the thick fur. The bear reared and thrashed its paws towards its chest. Sadie clawed her way up the side of the bear onto its back. The irate bear bucked, dashed and reared trying to get rid of her. As the bear galloped in an attempt to dismount the unwanted rider, Sadie moved to sit on the neck of the bear. With her legs wrapped around either side of the beast's neck, Sadie held the rock over her head and let it come crashing down onto its head. The bear continued for a few strides before its face fell into the dirt and it skidded to a halt as Sadie tumbled off onto the ground.      

Sadie laid on the ground and groaned. She pulled her hand away from her side and saw a thick coating of blood. "That's gunna leave a mark."      

Sadie held her sides and laid on the ground for sometime. Presently, she heard from the dirt beside her, You should get up.      

"I'm bleeding," she protested.       

And you're going to bleed out if you don't do something.       

"I'm tired."      

That's because you lost a lot of blood. If you fall asleep now you'll never wake up.      

"So what."      

You came here looking for something. Something that you still might be able to find if you get up.       

Sadie groaned again and slowly sat up to rest kneeling with her weight on her heels. She looked down at herself and saw shredded red rags where her shirt used to be.       

"Hey Ludger," she said, heaving. "Do you know how to check a bear for its pulse?"       

Ludger made guttural noises that Sadie interpreted to mean that the bear was still alive and, if she left now, she would be some distance away before it wakes up.      

"It's just a scratch," she told herself and put one foot on the ground underneath her. 


    "Sirs, I've just received word from Captain Ruiback, stationed with the blue army, that the Ardna has aided deserters." General Nobmire was addressing the twelve senior generals and the BOR in the Farahela room.      

"What in heaven's name is that Ardna up to?" asked the fat man.      

"Is the Ardna is custody?" asked the short man.      

"No, sir," said Nobmire. "She eluded capture."      

"Put an execution order on her head among the armies," said the tall man.      

"Yes, sir." 


"Ugh, there's something wrong with my ears," said Sadie, breathing heavily. "Ludger, Ludger," she said as she waved her hand through the air and squinted her eyes. She reached out to the ground and planted a palm next to the pile of dirt and lowered herself down to the ground next to it. Her shredded blood stained shirt stuck to her injuries. She left a trail of red in the blue grass that proved she hadn't gotten very far from where she started. "I think--I think I'm hearing the sound of the horsemen of death coming to take me away." Difficult breaths interjected her speech. "Listen, Ludger, listen as I tell you my last rites." But instead of making her last statement Sadie stared off into the distance. "Wait, I think I'm hearing that." Something big moved in the distance. Sadie and a pile of dirt sat beside each other looking at it. After a minute Sadie asked, "What would you say that is?"      

Don't know, she heard the dirt say.      

A little while later it became clear that it had come closer. "It looks like a giant Ludger,"  said Sadie. "Do you have giant cousins?"      

No. I think it's a dragon.      

"A dragon?" Sadie looked at Ludger skeptically. "You know what it looks like to me? A giant pile of dirt."      

Hey! What are you saying?       

"I'm saying that's one of your kind over there, just bigger. A lot bigger."      

It's maroon and gold.      

"Looks brown to me."      

Are you color blind?      

"If I was color blind how could I see brown?"      

There are a lot of different types of color blind.      

"Well no, I'm not any of the types of color blind." Having arrived at no decisive conclusion, they unanimously decided on silence for a few more minutes.      

"I think it's maroon and gold."      

It looks kind of like a dragon, right?      

"I think it looks like a maroon and gold cloud."      

Why would a cloud be maroon and gold?      

"It wouldn't be. That's why I specified 'maroon and gold.'"      

A while later Sadie said, "I think it's a dragon."      

It's not real though.      

"What are you talking about? Of course it's real. We both see it. We can't both be hallucinating the same thing."      

No, I mean it's not a real dragon.      

"What would a fake dragon be doing wandering around?"      

As the thing got closer it became quite obvious that it was not a real a dragon. Its movements where flowing, graceful, and unnatural. It's colors were more vibrant and its size larger than it had seemed from far off. The frozen girl and pile of dirt did not move as the huge fake dragon came right up to them. As it swallowed her whole, all Sadie did was tip her head sideways in puzzlement like a confused puppy.      

A man with salt 'n pepper hair in a tuxedo met her at the top of red carpet stair case. The regal entranceway before her descended into a casino where people sat around table with cards.      

Sadie stood back in the shadows dripping red on red in her blood soaked shirt. The salt 'n pepper man gave her a look of disdain.      

"Yeee-ah, buchooshoo see the otha guy," she slurred in a tough guy voice. The man's disdain only increased.      

"I'mmmm jus jok'n rown," she said and fell, catching herself on a table that held a decorative vase. The vase wobbled along with Sadie and the salt 'n pepper man reached out to save the vase while Sadie fell on the floor. The man restored the vase to the table as the elevator door beside it opened.       

"Get up," said the salt 'n pepper man.      

"uuugghhhhh," said Sadie as she writhed on the floor.      

The salt 'n pepper man leaned over her and put out a hand as if to lift her up by the waist. Looking at the angry cuts on her sides he thought better of it and moved to help her up by the shoulders. He curled his lip at the bloody shirt that hung off of her and retracted his hand altogether. "Don't make me touch you," he said. "You have to get up before any guests come through here. Listen, there's medical attention waiting for you. You just have to get on the elevator." The salt 'n pepper man used sweeping arm gestures that moved from Sadie to the elevator intending to motivate.      

Sadie lifted her upper body onto her hands and placed an unsure foot beneath her.      

"That's it!" whispered the salt 'n pepper man enthusiastically.       

Sadie began to extend the standing leg and place the other one underneath her, but before she rose to her full height she groaned and placed her palms back down on the ground and came onto her knees.      

"That's okay, minor set back," said the salt 'n pepper man. "Try again."      

Sadie stretched one arm out and planted it beyond the other doing the same with the opposite leg.       

"Great idea! Just crawl. That's all it'll take," came the salt 'n pepper man's encouragement.       

Sadie dragged the other leg along floor and brought the other hand up which reached out and touched the metal that marked the entrance to the elevator.       

"You're almost there! It's all you! Get 'um tiger."      

Sadie used the space in the floor that guided the elevator door to grasp the metal and steady herself. She came forward so that her head hung over the metal when the door began closing. The salt 'n pepper man jumped forward to stop it, but not before it hit Sadie on the head.      

"Ope! Sorry about that," he whispered as he held the door. Sadie groaned and looked up at him, but he only appeared as a blur. "Go!" he cheered for her, always in a whisper.      

Sadie focused back on the task, dragging her limbs forward and finally passing the threshold. The salt 'n pepper man got on the elevator with her as she collapsed on the floor, heaving. The barely visible trail of blood on the red carpet immediately became conspicuous on the tile of the elevator floor.       

"Sal 'n peppa man," she mumble. "Seem lika stan-up guy," and she passed out.  



Copyright © by J.A.R. Topper . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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