ISSUE 22, May 2018



Cover Art by Vonnie Winslow Crist



*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

Obsidian Falls
By Kyla K. Chapek

As I hiked up the dirt trail, my breath came and went in ragged gasps. I was able to keep a steady pace up the slope despite pushing seventy and sporting a bum ticker. The nice thing about this trail was that it made a soft, gradual climb. It never got too steep, though it rarely flattened out.
Breathe in, breathe out, I thought to myself. Just keep moving, Donald. You can do it, man. One foot in front of the other. Don’t want those PHW assholes catching up to you.
As I focused on my breathing, I forgot to focus on keeping my link chip in grey static mode. Pop up ads for everything from oxygen tanks to yoga breathing lessons danced across my vision. The images could look completely transparent or could seem more solid than the world around me, depending on how I focused my eyes. I pushed the ads away with a shake of my head and returned to grey static mode. The more you were in static mode, the harder it was for Public Health and Wellness to track you.  
I focused on pumping my legs harder as I followed the narrow trail, still visible in the dying light. I wanted to wait until the last moment to turn on my headlamp. I liked the true colors around me; things took on a unique shade in the twilight. The fake light didn’t do it justice.
Sweat dripped down my face. It stung my eyes and I licked the saltiness from my chapped lips. I didn’t slow down, however. I needed to get to the old campsite before the PHW goons caught up to me. At best, I had until morning before they figured out I had dug my credit chip out of my arm with my pocket knife and attached it to a stray dog. It was harder for them to track me via my link chip, but they would, eventually.
I scratched my bandaged forearm. While digging the chip out, it had been sheer luck I hadn’t nicked a vein or tendon. I scratched the link chip scar on the back of my scalp. It would take more than a pocket knife to get rid of that one.
This would be my last chance to visit my favorite campsite and see the old girls one last time. No one came back from the homes; all the older folks said so. I patted the 38-revolver strapped to my waist. Would I really use it on the PHW brats if they caught up with me?
***
“He’s senile, Mary. He’ll be better off in a home,” Donald Junior said to his pretty, but brainless wife.
I stood in the darkened hallway of my son’s home. It had been my home as well since my wife had died two years ago. Unfortunately, it sounded like it wasn’t going to be my home for long.
“The Public Health and Wellness people can take care of him at a home.”
***
I paused for a moment to catch my breath at a rare flat point on the trail. As I looked around at the wilderness that surrounded me, I sucked in sweet, pure air. Lodgepole pine was the only tree that grew at this elevation. Most were scraggly and stunted, having to survive under a thick snow pack a good portion of the year. It was mid-summer, however, and the only snow in sight were a few small glaciers that dotted the peaks of the Three Sisters.
Faith, Hope, and Charity, I thought, smiling at my old friends. I had climbed the peaks many times in my younger years. They had been a solid unchanging landmark in my life while everything else around me had changed so much. The Sisters had kept me steady, centered. No matter how topsy turvy my life became, I could always look up at those mountains and know that that way was east; that way was home.
I had never been a book smart kind of guy. It was a miracle I had finished high school. I was always good with my hands, though, and I loved being outdoors, even in the shittiest weather. Logging came as natural to me as breathing. I soon found a job with a small local company, starting out at the bottom as a Choker Setter, then Hook Tender, and then a Rigging Slinger. There was nothing like firing up a 48 Stihl chainsaw with a four-foot bar and dropping a 250-foot monster. The sound a tree like that made when it crashed to the ground always made me feel tingly all over.
When the credit chip and then the link chip came out, I absolutely refused the idea. I didn’t like the thought of a GPS being in my car, let alone one implanted in my arm or head. But when paper money went obsolete, I at least needed a credit chip if I wanted to keep bringing home a paycheck. When the mills closed, the logging company I had worked for, over thirty years, shut down. Machines did the little logging that was conducted anymore, much cheaper and more efficiently than people could, even on the worst terrain. They also had less of an environmental impact.
I couldn’t afford to be out of work with no retirement to speak of. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much qualified for anything besides logging. I could get work at one of the government sponsored job security factories, but a link chip was required of all employees; you needed them to register and file the paperwork. Backed up against a wall, I had no choice; the chips were as essential to life as cellphones and laptops once were. So I got the surgery and was retrofitted with my very own computer in my brain, complete with a twenty four seven open link to the internet.
I brought myself back to the here and now with a shake of my head. Sadly, I knew I wouldn’t make it to the tops of any mountains this night. Hell, I would be lucky if I made it to the campsite by the little spring at the base of the mountains that fed the obsidian falls, and, far down the line, still provided water for the vast majority of the valley.
I pulled my eyes away from the mountains and turned west to watch the sunset. As I stared, my breath caught in my throat. The wild mix of yellows, oranges, pinks, and reds never ceased to amaze me. The sunburst pattern the rays made through the puffs of clouds this evening seemed especially beautiful. I rubbed my watery eyes. Must be some dust or allergies or something.
I sipped lukewarm water from my canteen as I watched the sun slowly meet, then sink below the horizon. In the back of my mind, I wondered if the sunset was this beautiful everywhere. I regretted it as soon as the thought crossed my mind. The grey static in my head turned to clear images and I was assaulted with a hundred different video clips of sunsets from around the world. I tried to block it out, but the torrent of images overlapped the real setting around me like pop ups on an old computer screen.
It looked like I was standing on a sandy beach watching a sunset over the ocean. Then I was on a safari watching the sunset over grassy plains. A hundred sunsets over a hundred landscapes played through my mind. They weren’t clear and pristine like the one before me, however. I shook my head and smacked my temples to try and rid myself of the images. The real thing was right in front of me. I wanted to see it and nothing else.
I pushed the images away and returned to grey static mode. For years, I had seen a counselor at the local PHW office, but I never did get much better at controlling my link chip. Every other random thought I had initiated a data search and my mind was bombarded with unwanted information. It drove me mad. I couldn’t cope with not being alone in my own head anymore. Even if the link wasn’t active, grey static mode left a constant buzzing in my brain. They claimed my chip operated fine, that there was something wonky with my brain. I had promised Emily I would try to learn to live with it. She wasn’t here to try for anymore, though.
I memorized every detail of the sunset before moving on. As long as I didn’t chicken out, or PHW didn’t find me first, it would be the last one I ever saw. Finally, I turned and continued my hike, still a couple of miles from my destination.
***
Crunch. One final swing with the baseball bat I held and the companion bot was smashed to pieces. The bot’s computerized voice was finally silenced. The cylindrical floating mass of steel wouldn’t shut up about me taking my heart meds. It screamed at me if I tried to be too active, forgot my meds, or if it caught me drinking, smoking, or even eating unhealthily. PHW would be knocking at my door to set me straight if I ignored it.
“No!” cried my grandson. Jackson ran from the backdoor and knelt next to broken chunks lying on the grass. “You killed him!”
“Dad, not again.” Standing in the doorway, Junior shook his head at me as if I were a bratty child. “They’ll just send a new one tomorrow. This is coming out of your credit line.”
“I named this one Fred!” Real tears streamed down Jackson’s face.
“For Christ’s sake, Junior, get this boy a dog or something.”
“I want Fred back!” cried Jackson.
***
With the sun fully set behind me, the temperature dropped several degrees and the sweat cooled on my skin. I paused, put on my jacket, turned on my headlamp, and then continued on. I pictured my son and grandson in my mind and unconsciously activated my link chip. A real picture of the two of them popped up in front of my vision. It was from the fishing trip I had convinced them to go on with me last year.
Their faces looked like younger versions of my own, but held none of the enthusiasm I remembered feeling. Donald Jr. looked bored out of his mind with a thin smile plastered on his face. Jackson looked grossed out by the foot-long rainbow trout he was holding in the air. I had never been prouder of the boy when he had reeled it in, but the child had been mortified by the idea of gutting the fish and cooking it up for dinner. The kid rarely ate anything besides the synthesized muck that passed as food these days.
I stopped to catch my breath and looked up at the dozens of stars that were beginning to appear and the bright full moon that was rising. I loved the pure blackness of the night sky here. In the city, everything had a red hue to it and you couldn’t see a fraction of the stars that were visible here even on the clearest nights. I felt at ease and in awe of the natural beauty.
The beam of the headlamp fell on a small wooden sign up the trail. I smiled at the familiar marker. It was just a quarter of a mile until the Obsidian Falls area. I walked with a new pep in my step.
The trail flattened out, but rock walls rose up on both sides of me. With my light, I could see the large veins of black obsidian that ran through the rock walls. The rock walls gave way to a small bowl like valley at the base of the South Sister. The ground was completely covered with shards of obsidian. I turned off my headlamp and admired how the full moon reflected off the obsidian. The ground seemed to be made of glass.
The headlamp remained off; the moon provided plenty of light. I followed the sound of running water. At the opposite end of the valley was a small stream. The main trail led to a bridge of large stepping stones that allowed for a dry crossing and then picked back up on the other side of the stream. Here I abandoned the trail and followed the stream to my left. After about thirty feet, the stream ended at a small sandy pool where the water bubbled up out of the ground. This was the true headwaters of the McKenzie River.
I had finally made it. I let out a long sigh of relief and sat down for a rest. My joints were creaky and my muscles sore.
As I removed my backpack and unzipped it, I looked up at the stars. I dug around and removed a six pack of Coors Light and a box of cigars. The six pack went into the pool of icy water to cool off. I removed a tightly rolled Cuban cigar from the box before putting it back in my bag. Holding the cigar under my nose, I gave it an appreciative sniff. Then I bit off one end and lit the other. I puffed on my first good cigar in far too long and stared at the stars. The box had cost me half of my credit savings. Any cigars were hard to come by these days, let alone genuine Cubans.
As I smoked, I picked out all the constellations I could remember. My father had taught me all of them when I was boy. I had taught them to my son as well.
***
“This is stupid, Grandpa.”
“It’s important to learn the constellations. The stars can help you when you’re lost,” I explained to Jackson. We sat on the roof.
“I can just data search the constellations, and if I’m lost, I’ll use the GPS app.” The boy’s eyes were unfocused, zoned out in the link. He probably didn’t even see the stars.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Junior’s angry voice came from inside the window.
“You used to love to do this when you were a kid, come join us, son.”
***
After I finished the cigar, I retrieved the six pack from the pool and stood. I followed the stream back down past the trail until it took a sharp bend to the left. I heard the small waterfall in the distance that this area was named for. The falls weren’t my destination, however. A less used trail picked up and led up a sharp incline. I followed it to my favorite old campsite.
At the top of the incline was a large flat open area about thirty feet across. On the opposite side of the clearing, the ground dropped off a high cliff. I walked over to the large stump at the edge of the cliff and took a seat. As I traced my fingers over mine and my wife’s initials still carved in the surface, I marveled at the fact the old girl was still here after all these years. From my seat, I had a clear view of the entire McKenzie corridor. A rolling ocean of black trees spread out before me for miles. In the distance, I could see the red sky above the cities of Springfield and Eugene. Back in the day, the edge of the city was far out of sight, even at this vantage point.
I cracked open one of my Coors and lit up another cigar. As I drank, smoked, and watched the stars, I thought about my life and all that I was leaving behind. My first beer emptied and I cracked open a second. The bitter liquid went down smooth. I let out a large belch and then chugged half the can in one long gulp. My head was starting to feel fuzzy. It was a testament to how little I had drunk in the last few years that just one and a half beers were getting me tipsy. I could knock back two six packs and barely have a buzz back in the day. I chugged down the rest of my second beer. As I sipped on my third, I pictured Donald Junior and Jackson.
I pushed away all the sad thoughts and remembered the happy times for my fourth and fifth beer. Country-swing dancing with Emily at the community center every Thursday night until the day she died. Our last dance together across her hospital room floor. Sitting on the roof with Junior looking at the stars, and watching little Jackson reel in his first fish.
I stood and turned back towards the Sisters when there were just a couple sips left of my last beer. The moonlight glistened off their snow speckled peaks. “Here’s to you, ladies.” I raised the can and then poured the last of the beer out on the ground.
I took one last puff off my cigar and then drew the 38-revolver from its holster on my belt. The barrel was cold as I pressed it against my scalp right over my link chip scar. I said a quick prayer and then pulled the trigger.
***
The co-pilot seat of the hovercraft vibrated slightly beneath Agent Mathew Brady. His eyes ached from staring at the holographic monitor in front of him intently. Mathew and his new partner and mentor Agent Jacob Diggs, who sat in the captain’s chair, had been looking for their subject all day and night. It was nearly dawn now.
“Any sign of him, Rookie?” asked Jacob. Agent Diggs sat reclined back with his fingers laced together behind his head. He used his link chip to man the controls.
“We’ve locked onto the signal, sir. Its weak, the chip must be damaged, but it’s still operational. Five minutes out on this course.” Mathew loosened the top button of his blue Public Health and Wellness uniform; it was hot in the hovercraft.
“You can drop the ‘sir’ bit, Mathew. This isn’t the academy and I’m not your superior. Lighten up.”
“Yes, si…Diggs.” It was a hard habit to break. The academy had been far more paramilitary than Mathew had expected when he had signed on. He had only been a full-fledged agent for a couple of weeks.
“Just want to warn you, Rookie, I’ve read this guy’s file. There’s a good chance he’ll be DOA. Just prepare yourself.”
A grunt was Mathew’s only reply. He wasn’t going to give up on their subject already. It was their sworn duty as stewards of the people of this nation to ensure they live happy, healthy, and long lives.
“We’re coming up on the signal. We can set it down in the valley near the base of the southern peak,” Mathew informed his partner.
Jacob sat up and activated the holographic manual controls. Landings via link connection were tricky if not on a hover pad. “This is a wilderness area, we’ll need clearance to land.”
“Already obtained.”
“Excellent.”
They landed with a slight jostle. Mathew opened the bay door. He stood, re-buttoned his shirt, and made sure it was tucked in straight. He activated his link chip and scanned the procedure on how to talk down a subject that was in a state of emotional distress.
In the semi-darkness, they followed a small stream and then a rarely used trail up a short, but steep incline. Mathew was panting a bit when he joined Jacob at the top.
“What I tell you, DOA,” Jacob said nonchalantly.
Mathew’s eyes bulged as they took in the scene. He felt dizzy and nauseous. Turning away, he vomited in the bushes. Jacob laughed.
“Don’t worry, Rookie, the first one is always the worst.” Jacob patted Mathew on the back and then shook out the body bag. “Look on the bright side, breathing loonies are a hell of a lot harder to deal with. Also, at least it isn’t a kid. Those will really mess with your head.”
After Mathew emptied the contents of his stomach, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stood straight and took a deep breath before turning around and looking at what was left of their subject.
Jacob already had his protective gloves on and a body bag in place next to what was left of Donald Sears. “Well, get over here and help me. You got to get used to this sooner or later. This is a bigger part of our job than they tell you about at the academy. Just link into something happy if it wigs you out too much.”
“What do you want me to do?” Mathew asked, trying to pull himself together.
“Grab his legs.”
Mathew took a deep breath, put on his protective gloves, and grabbed the ankles. As they did the messy work, Mathew streamed his favorite comedy show to keep his mind occupied. He even smirked at a few of the jokes. It made what they were doing distant and surreal.
They carried the bag back to the hovercraft and set it on the ground. Before loading it in the cargo hold, Jacob pulled out a flask. He took a swig and then handed it to Mathew. Mathew gladly accepted and upended the flask.
The liquid burned on its way down and his whole body trembled. Another wave of nausea washed over him as it hit his stomach. He managed not to puke this time and handed the flask back. Jacob took another long pull before offering it to Mathew again. He silently declined. It was a very rare occasion that Mathew consumed alcohol. He already felt a little dizzy and didn’t want to puke again. Jacob shrugged and took another swig.
“Why do you think he did it?” Despite currently streaming several different programs, Mathew couldn’t keep his eyes from looking past the videos that overlaid his vision and focusing in on the bag at their feet.
“According to his file, he had failed to assimilate. A lot of people from his generation have trouble controlling their link. Makes them crazy. Current statistics show eight percent rejection rate in his age group,” Jacob said with a shrug.
“You mean this is a common occurrence?” Mathew asked, shocked.
“It’s far lower in younger generations. In children that get fitted with a link chip before the age of four, the rejection rate drops to nearly nothing.”
“Why don’t they remove the chips?”
Jacob shrugged. “They can’t in the younger ones. The brain develops around the chip and removal would cause too much damage. And in the older ones… it’s just easier to let them take care of themselves rather than risk the public losing faith in the link chips. Some old fart offing himself is no big deal. Someone actually choosing to have the link removed, that would make headlines.”
“Doesn’t seem right,” Mathew mumbled.
“Remember, it’s all for ‘The Greater Good’,” Jacob said sardonically. Jacob held his closed fist to his chest and then pressed it to his forehead.
Mathew stood straight and returned the PHW salute. “The Greater Good,” he echoed.
Jacob smirked. “Come on, let’s get this thing loaded.”
Mathew bent down to pick up his end of the bag, but paused when he glanced up towards the mountains. “Damn, what a view,” he said, standing straight.
Jacob turned to look. Three huge snow speckled peaks jutted up towards the sky. The sun was just starting to rise above them making the snow sparkle. The clouds were a wild swirl of pinks and reds.
“Very pretty,” said Jacob, uninterested. “Help me get this loaded. I want to get back before the game.”
Before Mathew turned away, he used his link to capture the image. That way, he could always remember it. He would post it on his social wall later with the caption, “Doing my job in a beautiful place today.” Mathew went back to streaming his favorite show as he helped Jacob load the bag and then took his seat in the co-pilot chair.

Kyla K. Chapek

Kyla Chapek is a twenty nine year old woman living in Eugene, Oregon and identifies with the LGBTQ community. Kyla grew up in the McKenzie River community and graduated from McKenzie High School and Oregon State University. To pay the bills, Kyla bartends along with other odd jobs and aspires to be a stuntwoman someday along with having a full writing career. When she is not reading or writing, Kyla enjoys training in martial arts, traveling and getting lost in the woods. Kyla's previously published work can be found in the Roar Seven anthology through Bad Dog Books.



Melody
By Matthew McAyeal

One time, when I was a kid, I was playing in the river when I noticed a tiny bottle resting next to a rock in the stream. On second glance, it looked like the bottle had a note inside. Naturally thinking of pirates and treasure, I picked up the bottle and pulled out the note. The paper felt old-fashioned, but it didn't look aged. I unrolled the note:

HELP ME!
My name is Melody and I'm locked in my room at 134 Pine Road.
They locked me up because they think I'm mad.
I'M NOT MAD. I'm different, but I'm NOT MAD. I've never hurt ANYONE.
PLEASE SET ME FREE!

Something about the big block letters, written in what looked like a shaking hand, made my heart race. For a moment, I considered taking the letter to the authorities, but somehow, it felt like it was too urgent for that. I decided I should go and check out the address to assess the situation.
    134 Pine Road turned out to be a crumbling Victorian farmhouse surrounded by an overgrown field. It didn't look like anyone had lived there in ages. Just as I was starting to think that the letter was probably many years old, I noticed there was a dim, flickering light coming from one of the upstairs rooms. Could it be Melody?
    I ran up to the porch and pushed open the front door. The inside of the house was dark, the only source of light being the sunlight which managed to make it through the dust-covered windows. There was no light switch or any sign of electrical lighting, but there were some melted candle stubs.
I took a few steps inside. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I looked around. Everything about the place screamed “abandoned”. Just as I was starting to think the upstairs light had been my imagination, I heard furious pounding coming from above. Was it a person or an effect of the wind? The pounding became punctuated by tiny cries of, “Help me! Help me!” Or was it my imagination again, creating faint words out of the wind’s howl?
I ran towards the rickety staircase. It looked a bit unstable, but I was a kid then, and heedlessly decided it was probably safe enough. I now shudder to think of what would have happened if that staircase had collapsed as I ran up it, but back then, I felt enormously brave when I reached the upper floor. The pounding grew more insistent, coming from a door just down the hall. I ran for the door and pulled it open.
Nothing. There was no one at the door.
My eyes were drawn to the table in the middle of the room that held a candle with a dying flame. I realized it to be the source of the flickering light I had seen outside. I peered around the dim room, nearly jumping out of my skin when I noticed a girl sitting on a threadbare bed against the far wall.
She looked to be about the same age I was at the time. In a place that was so gray and decaying, she was a splash of life and color. From what dim sunlight made it through the windows, I could see her hair was a bright red. She looked thin and sickly, like she had been malnourished for a long time. She stared at me with wide green eyes as though she had spent years waiting for me specifically to find her.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, closing the door behind me as I stepped into the room.
“No!” she said immediately. “I want to go outside!”
“Are you sure that's a good idea?” I asked. Obviously, she wasn't being taken care of and would have to be removed from this horrible place, but it looked like she might be too ill to simply walk outside.
“Yes!” she insisted as she stood up. “They've locked me in this room for over a year now! Please, let me go outside! That's all I want!”
“Wouldn't it be better if I contacted the authorities?” I suggested. “I think maybe you need to be taken to a hospital.”
“No!” she yelled, seemingly panic-stricken. “I want to go outside!”
I studied her for a moment. She was barefoot, her red hair hanging in unkempt tangles. The ragged nightdress she wore covered a small body streaked with dirt, but her face held the determined expression of someone who would never change their mind about anything.
“Are you Melody?” I asked.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Please, let me go outside. I want to be outside.”
“All right, I'll let you go outside,” I agreed. “Why don't you put on some clothes? Do you have a coat or shoes?”
“I'm wearing all the clothes I own,” said Melody.
“You mean just that nightgown?”
“Yes,” she said. “They say I don't need clothes if I'm not going to be outside.”
“Why don't they want you outside?”
“I told you in the letter — they think I'm mad.”
“Why do they think that?” I asked.
“I'm not like the other boys and girls,” she said. “I'm different. They think that's madness. I'm not mad. I know I'm not mad.”
“Is 'they' your family?” Melody nodded sadly without taking her wide eyes off me. “And does your family really live in this ancient place? It's practically falling apart!”
“I want to be free!” she insisted, ignoring my question. “You can understand freedom, can't you? Please, set me free!”
“Okay, I'm setting you free,” I said and I pulled open the door.
Melody ran forward and threw her arms around me. She kissed me on the cheek, her lips ice cold against my skin. She rushed through the open door and bounded eagerly down the stairs. I chased after her, barely keeping up. I watched as she ran through the front door, laughing with childish glee as she made it outside. But when I stepped out onto the old rickety porch, she was gone. The field surrounding the house was now just as deserted as when I had arrived. I called her name, but there was no sign of Melody, as if she had vanished into thin air.
As I stood there, looking around in confusion, an old man appeared, walking towards me.
“Who are you?” I asked him as he approached.
“I'm the caretaker,” he said casually. “You're looking for Melody, aren't you? She just disappeared, right?”
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“It's always the same story,” the caretaker explained. “Someone finds a note in a bottle and it directs them to come here. They meet Melody in her room and feel sorry for her. They let her out. Later, someone else finds the same note in the same bottle. When the next person comes here, Melody is back in her room, once again waiting to be rescued.”
“Why does she end back in there?” I asked, trying to make sense of what the old man was telling me.
“Because that's the room where the poor girl died back in 1890,” he said, and a shiver ran down my spine. “She was only eleven years old. Every now and then, her ghost entices people to let her out, but it seems that her spirit can never quite escape the room which imprisoned her in life.”

Matthew McAyeal

Matthew McAyeal is a writer from Portland, Oregon. His short stories have been published in the literary magazines "Bards and Sages Quarterly", "cc&d", "The Fear of Monkeys", "The Metaworker", "Danse Macabre", and "Scarlet Leaf Magazine". In 2008, two screenplays he wrote were semi-finalists in the Screenplay Festival.





Wishes
By Hugh J. O'Donnell

        The djinn stretched, her body forming and bursting into clouds of golden mist before his eyes. She hung in the air above him, flesh one moment and sandstorm the next, as though each breath was a lens that focused her into solidity and dissolved her again. Her voice was high and shrieking. Insubstantial as the desert wind. It was melodious and deafening.
    “You have freed me from my prison, son of the clay.” She gestured a gauzy arm to the broken ring on the floor of the cave. The ruby had shattered, the gold twisted and smoking. “I shall grant you a wish.”
    He licked his lips. A greedy fire filled his eyes. Humans. “I wish to be rich and famous!”
    She reared back, pulling the air towards her in a rush that sounded almost like a sigh. She disintegrated into a huge, insubstantial cloud of glittering dust that seemed to hang impossibly in the air. As the man watched, the particles began to spin. Slowly at first, but faster and faster until the stale cavern air was a roaring whirlwind. He felt a hot spike of fear as he watched the tornado shake the stones and felt the gusts pull at him. He grabbed a stalagmite and prayed in wordless terror.
    And suddenly, it was over. The giant golden form was solid again, her expression blank as she hovered in the air above him.
    “Your wish has been granted,” she intoned, her voice a striking bell, slow and steady. He looked around wildly. His clothes had become even more stained in the tumult, and his pale skin was covered in dust.
    “I don’t feel any different,” he said. The djinn made a concerted effort not to roll her eyes. She bent down, her huge face close to his. She would have to spell it out for him, although thanks to her long imprisonment, she did not have all the words.
    “Return home, son of the clay. When you do so, you will find a letter. Not a real letter on paper, but on your calculation machine. Your electric mail, yes?” He nodded, eager for his riches and adoration. Humanity always wanted to take short cuts. “It will be an offer of employment. I suggest that you take it.”
    “And that job will lead to fame and fortune?” he asked. She kept her face mask still.
    “It is at an institution of learning. A community college, yes? In a few years, you will meet a student who will be impressed by tales of your travels. They will then travel to another city, a Holy Wood? And at that place, they will contact you, with the desire to make a sort of play about your adventures.”
“And that will be a big success and make me rich?”
    “It will do well, but your time in that place will introduce you to many new people, and they will assist you in becoming something called a ‘producer,’ although my vision of the future does not reveal what such a person does. That is your path to your desires. Though it may be winding, walk proudly, knowing the end is always in your sight.”
“That’s not a wish, it’s a prediction! Where is my mountain of gold?” The human demanded, his previous fear of her forgotten.
The spirit shrugged. “You did not wish for a mountain of gold. You wished to be rich and famous. I have made the arrangements. You must simply bring yourself to them.” She melted back into a cloud of dust, and before he could say another word, propelled herself out into the desert night on a torrent of wind.
    Much had changed since she was imprisoned, but humanity, who lived such mayfly short lives, were still so anxious and impatient. Not to mention, rude. But how could he understand the labor she had done for him? He could not see his own fate laid out before him like the tangle of spreading vines.
He would never know of the engine failure that would have destroyed the flying machine on his way home, which now would never occur. Or the woman whose love would quickly fade into a bitter and terrible marriage, leaving him hollowed out and empty. They would never meet at all now, thanks to an opportunely timed phone call at her place of business. He would never see the bus that would have struck him, which she arranged to delay by a few all-important seconds.
In a thousand other small but vital ways, she had smoothed the path of his destiny, yet, he only expected a puff of smoke and instant gratification. He would never understand what she had done for him to repay his kindness in freeing her, even if it was self-interested. But perhaps, one day, he would look back and see the path he had walked and be glad of it. A fortune granted overnight slips through one’s fingers just as easily, but one attained through hard work and sacrifice, even one granted by a wish, might be better appreciated.
Even in her insubstantial form, a slight smile curled a few sparkles.
They would see.

Hugh J. O'Donnell

Hugh J. O'Donnell writes fiction, produces podcasts, and likes things. His fiction has appeared in Iridium Zine, Andromeda Spaceways, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and others. Hugh lives in Western New York with husband, cat, and obsolete video games consoles. You can find more of his work online at hughjodonnell.com.





The Firebird and the Hunstman
By Abby Polakow

​​There was once a king who had much to be thankful for. His queen, whom he loved dearly, had provided him with three strong and healthy sons. His kingdom was at peace. For his own pleasure, he kept one of the most magnificent gardens in all the world, filled with exotic blooming plants, and trees with fruit that might not be found elsewhere. The garden had existed all his life and been cultivated over many generations. Though he himself had added a few species to it in his lifetime, many of the older plants and trees were mysterious to him.
One tree, which he particularly admired, grew golden apples. The king loved to sit beneath the branches of this tree, for he fancied he could hear a faint and enchanting music emanating from it, and it soothed him greatly whenever he felt troubled. It occurred to him one day, that each time he visited the tree, it had fewer apples than when he had seen it last.
The king summoned his chief gardener to discuss the problem. The chief gardener was an elderly man, much older than the king, and he listened as the king described the recent dearth of apples. He shook his head.  
“You’ll pardon my saying so, your majesty, but in all my long years, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to count my blessings. The kingdom is at peace. You have three sons who are strong and healthy, and you have the most beautiful garden in the world. It may be some bird has taken a liking to the golden apples, but there’s no cause for alarm. The tree will fruit again next spring.”
This answer did not please the king. He declared, “I will see it attended to! If you won’t help, I’ll call on someone else!” And he summoned his chief huntsman. The huntsman appeared before the king and bowed.
“Huntsman,” he commanded, “something, or someone, has been taking the golden apples from my favorite tree. Spend this night in my garden watching over it. If the thief is human, seize him and bring him before me. But if the thief is a beast, slay it!”
The huntsman vowed to obey and went to spend the night in the garden. He spent all the afternoon sleeping, so that he would be sure to stay awake all night. When the sun sank in the west, he arose, armed himself with his favorite crossbow, and went to watch over the golden apple tree. Darkness fell, and as he sat near the tree, concealed among the other plants, he began to hear the faint music that the king took his comfort from, and he wondered at it.
Midnight struck, and he saw a radiant golden light approaching from the sky. At first, the brightness was too much for his eyes, which had grown accustomed to the dark. But as it drew near, he saw that it was a magnificent firebird, with plumage of scarlet and gold. The firebird descended to the tree, and picked a golden apple with its beak. The huntsman was loathe to harm such a beautiful creature, but he knew his duty was to the king, and so he took aim with his crossbow, and fired a shot at the bird. But as he did so, he stepped on a twig, which snapped loudly, and the bird took off in fear. His bolt thudded into a branch of the tree, and in another moment, the firebird was gone.
The next morning, the huntsman went reluctantly to give his report to the king.
“Well, huntsman? What did you see? Is it man or beast that steals my golden apples?” the king demanded.
“It is a beast, your majesty, but like none I have ever seen before: a firebird, whose very presence lit up your garden like a sunbeam.”
“And have you killed it?” The king asked, although he suspected the answer, seeing that the huntsman had come to him empty handed.
The huntsman confessed, “I fired a bolt from my crossbow, your majesty, but the bird was too quick and I missed.”
In truth, the huntsman was deeply relieved that he had not killed the enchanted creature, for the sight of it had lifted his heart and he could not bear to see it slain. However, he could see the king was disappointed, so he added, “But your majesty, it is no great loss; a man may kill a bird by shooting it with arrows, but he may catch a bird with clever use of a net. This is what I shall do this very night, with your majesty’s permission. For if you were to have the firebird as a captive, its presence would make your garden all the more splendid, and the envy of every other monarch!”
The king saw the wisdom of this, and he gave his permission for the plan to proceed. The huntsman prepared a net which he carefully rigged in the golden apple tree. Then he went to his bed and slept all afternoon. At sunset, he rose and went to the garden, concealing himself again amongst the plants near the golden apple tree. Darkness fell, and once more, the huntsman was serenaded by the faint music of the tree.
Midnight struck, and the same luminous golden glow descended, heralding the arrival of the firebird. The huntsman watched eagerly, waiting for just the right moment to spring the trap and close the net around the bird. She plucked a golden apple with her beak, and with a flourish, the huntsman released the catch, the net closing around the bird. The weights he had attached bore the captured bird to the ground below the tree. But as he sprang out to retrieve her, a terrible sound pierced the night: the bird gave a cry that scored him to his very soul, and to his terror, she burst into flames. She burned more brightly than a torch for only a few moments, and then all that remained were the scorched and ruined net and a small pile of gray ashes.
The next morning, the huntsman felt utterly wretched as he went to report to the king.
“Well, huntsman? Where is my firebird? Did you catch her?” the king demanded.
“Your majesty, I did!” the huntsman replied. “My net closed around her and she was caught! But in an instant, she screeched- a terrible sound I shall never forget! And in a burst of flame, she fell into ashes, destroying my net.” He held up the scorched net.
The king was annoyed, but he pondered a moment before replying. Finally, he said, “If the bird has burned, then perhaps she will trouble me no more. Keep watch again tonight and tell me if anything comes to steal from the tree. If it does, shoot it with your crossbow.”
The huntsman went away and slept for the afternoon. At sunset, he rose again and went to the garden, once more armed with his crossbow, his heart filled with conflict. Darkness gathered around him, and he began to hear the music of the golden apple tree once more. He trembled at the thought of what he must try to do, and he hoped the firebird would not return, though he also despaired at the thought that he had destroyed her. As he waited, he listened to the music, which was becoming familiar to him now, and he began to sing words to it:

Firebird, lady of light, forgive my deed
Of the previous night!
Against your radiance, I have sinned
Come again, come again,
Do not let the darkness in.


Midnight struck, and to his amazement, the enchanted glow of the firebird began to descend over the tree. She flew down and sat upon a branch, looking directly at the huntsman with eyes like two opals. He was so surprised by this that he did not even raise his crossbow. Then, before his very eyes, she transformed into a beautiful maiden, with hair like the sunset and a gown glowing with all the colors of flames. She spoke to him, her voice both soft and commanding.
“Huntsman, you are wise to ask my forgiveness. To try to slay me is a cruel sin, and to capture me is impossible. I will forgive your ignorance this time, but mark me: he who hears my death cry becomes my vassal or loses his life, for no man can survive hearing it a second time.”
The huntsman had lost all thoughts of his king’s orders at this moment and fell to his knees before her, declaring, “Yes my lady! I am yours to command!”
“I will protect you, for I protect the lives of all who serve me,” she promised, “if you will swear to follow my commands. But, if you do not fulfill them exactly as I say, you will lose your life. Take this golden feather and place it in your king’s bedchamber before dawn. Then answer all of his questions truthfully.”
The huntsman took the golden feather she gave him and thanked her graciously, then watched as she turned into a bird again and flew away into the night sky. He made his way back into the palace, feeling at ease for the first time in days. He went to the king’s chamber and bowed to the guards outside of it.
“I have an urgent message for the king, regarding the firebird he has bid me to kill.” He explained, holding up the golden feather. Even on its own, the feather gave a soft golden glow that filled the guards with wonder, and they allowed the huntsman to enter the king’s chamber. The king lay sleeping soundly, and all within was still. The huntsman laid the feather upon the king’s writing desk, then left without waking his lord.
In the morning, the king summoned the huntsman to him once more. When he appeared before him, the king asked, “How did it go last night? Did the firebird return? Have you killed her?”
The huntsman dreaded to answer, but he loved the firebird and was determined to honor her even if it cost him his life. He answered “Yes, your majesty, the firebird returned, but I did not kill her.”
“That is well!” the king exclaimed, greatly relieved. “Last night I had a dream which gave me new wisdom on this matter. I think it would be most unwise to kill the firebird. In my dream, I saw that she is in truth a maiden, most radiant and magnificent of form! She spoke to me and asked me to let her eat of my golden apples, for they nourish her as no other fruit can do. I have decided to allow it.”
In appreciation for his keen judgment regarding the firebird, the king made the huntsman one of his advisors.
Years passed, and the king grew older. The kingdom prospered and remained at peace. The time came when the king must choose which of his sons should succeed him, and so he summoned them before him.
“My sons,” he proclaimed, “I’m not getting any younger, and I must establish which of you is to inherit the kingdom. Therefore, I have a challenge for you; whomever meets this challenge in a manner that pleases me best shall be my heir. You may not know of it, but there is a marvelous creature that has blessed my garden with its presence for many years now: a firebird. It eats the golden apples from my tree, for no other fruit can so perfectly nourish this noble creature. You must each earn the good will of the firebird. As proof of this, you must bring me one of her golden feathers. That is your challenge.”
The eldest son, whose name was Vassili, declared that he would be the first to try the challenge. He went to the garden that very night and waited under the golden apple tree. Unbeknownst to him, his father had arranged to have his advisor (formerly the huntsman) concealed nearby to watch how it went.
Midnight struck, and with the tolling of the clock, the wondrous golden glow of the firebird spread over the area surrounding the golden apple tree. The firebird descended and perched upon a branch.
“Oh, magnificent firebird!” cried Prince Vassili. “Descend to me, I have brought a gift for you!” And he held out a chain of gold with diamonds and rubies worked into it. The firebird came down to look at the necklace and without a moment’s hesitation, Vassili reached out and grabbed her tail feathers, trying to pluck one out. The firebird shrieked in alarm and flew away, but Vassili had succeeded at plucking out one of her golden feathers. Pleased with himself, he went strutting back to his quarters in the palace.
In the morning, he appeared before his father and showed him the golden feather, flourishing it with pride before his two brothers.
“Behold! The firebird has given me her blessing!” he crowed.
His father, who had already heard from his advisor what had really happened, merely nodded and remarked, “So it seems, Vassili. Now we shall see how your brothers fare in the attempt.”
That night, the second son whose name was Dimitri, went to the golden apple tree to try his luck at winning the good will of the firebird. And once again, though Dimitri did not know it, his father’s trusted advisor was hidden nearby.
Midnight struck, and the golden glow of the firebird accompanied the chiming of the clock as it spread over the golden apple tree. The firebird descended and perched among the branches. Dimitri had brought with him a large stone, which he hurled into the tree, knocking the firebird from her perch. She fell to the ground, and Dimitri plucked one of her tail feathers, choosing a longer one than Vassili had obtained. Pleased with himself, and certain that his father would agree he had accomplished the task better than his brother, Dimitri strutted back to his quarters in the palace.
As soon as he was gone, the king’s advisor rushed out of his hiding place to attend to the poor firebird, who had been knocked unconscious by the prince’s cruel blow. He poured a few drops of the king’s finest wine into her beak, and in a few moments, she awakened and flew back up into the tree.
“My Lady, I humbly beseech you to accept my apologies on behalf of his majesty! Prince Dimitri will be punished for his assault upon you, you may be sure of it.”
“My justice needs no authority from a king to be carried out,” the firebird declared. “But if any further trespass happens against me here, I must forsake this tree, and with it, your master’s kingdom.” Then she flew off into the night.
In the morning, Prince Dimitri appeared before his father and his brothers, and he did not hesitate to point out that the golden feather he had procured was even longer than the one Vassili had brought. Of course, the king’s advisor had already told him of what Dimitri had really done, and of the firebird’s warning. The king merely said to Dimitri, “Yes, I can see your feather is longer. But don’t forget, your younger brother has yet to try the challenge. We must see how it goes with him.”
The youngest of the princes was called Ivan. Before he set out for the garden that night, the king spoke with his advisor. “You must watch Ivan carefully. If he tries to hurt the firebird, or take her feathers by force, you must stop him. If he harms her, it will be your doom.”
The advisor promised he would protect the firebird from Prince Ivan, should the need arise, and went and concealed himself in the garden. He hoped it would not be necessary to intervene, for he dearly loved the firebird and could not bear to see her harmed. He remembered what she had told him, so long ago: that no man could survive hearing her death cry twice. So he took some beeswax and put it in both of his ears, just as a precaution. He had armed himself with a crossbow and his sword, and he settled down to wait.
Prince Ivan came and sat down under the golden apple tree. Watching from his place of concealment, the advisor looked at Ivan carefully to see whether he seemed to have any weapons about him, but he saw no sign of any. Still, as his years as a huntsman had taught him, a man might easily conceal a deadly weapon on his person, so he loaded his crossbow, just in case.
Midnight struck, and the firebird’s golden light spread over the golden apple tree. Beneath the tree, Prince Ivan looked up and watched her descend into its branches. Then he took off his hat and knelt to her.
“Most wondrous firebird,” he said, “I am Prince Ivan, and I humbly ask you to give me your blessing so that my father may make me heir to his kingdom. I am yours to command.”
But before the firebird could speak a word, an arrow pierced her breast, and with the scream that tears men’s souls, she burst into flames and was gone.
Ivan was horrified and looked all about to see where the arrow had come from. He stood up, and as he did so, a second arrow pierced his own breast, and he fell dead to the ground. Dimitri stepped out of the shadows, with his own bow in hand.
“Foolish Ivan,” he spat upon the ground where his younger brother lay slain. “It is wrong for a king to leave the kingdom to his youngest!” And he retrieved his arrow and carried away the body of Ivan.
The king’s advisor now wept, for although he had saved himself from the firebird’s cry, he greatly mourned the loss of her from their kingdom. He wept also at the murderous deed he had witnessed, and he took the beeswax out of his ears and ran to tell the king what had happened.
The king was horrified and enraged at the news, and he went straight away to Dimitri’s chambers to confront him. He flung open the doors and bellowed, “Dimitri, you coward, you murderer! You’ll pay for what you have done!”
Dimitri pretended to be just waking up and acted as though he didn’t know what had happened.
The king demanded, “Take me to where you have hidden Ivan’s body, at once!”
“Ivan? What are you talking about, father?” Dimitri asked, yawning.
“If you won’t confess and speak the truth, that’s one thing, but you have murdered your own brother and driven off my beloved firebird, and for that I shall never forgive you!” The king raged.
Goaded into honesty, Dimitri shouted, “Driven off the firebird? Ha! I’ve killed your firebird, whom you love more than your own sons!”
Dimitri was thrown into the dungeon, but nothing could console the king over the death of Ivan and the loss of the firebird. For indeed, though the king and his advisor waited hopefully beneath the golden apple tree for many long nights, the firebird did not return.
To make matters worse, in the days that followed, a terrible plague began to spread through the kingdom, such as no one had ever witnessed before. The people were dying in great numbers, and no one seemed able to cure them.
After all the greatest doctors in the land had tried their best and failed, the king desperately summoned his most trusted advisor.
“You are my only remaining hope. Travel wherever you must, to the ends of the earth! Find the firebird and convince her to come back to us!”
The huntsman set out and travelled throughout the world. Wherever he went, he asked if anyone had ever seen a firebird, or if they knew how to find one. Yet it seemed no one had ever seen one before, for wherever he went he could learn no more of the creature than what he already knew. For many months, he continued to travel and search, not daring to return to the kingdom empty-handed.
At last, however, came a day when he had to admit to himself that he had visited every country in the world, and nowhere had he seen or heard any sign of the firebird. With a heavy heart, he made his way back to the kingdom from which he had come, fearing what he would find.
He entered the kingdom, finding it poor and sickly. Fields stood abandoned and full of weeds, and there were far fewer people than before. The king’s advisor made his way slowly through the countryside, dreading to reach the palace, yet borne on by his grave duty. When his reluctant footsteps finally took him to the palace, he entered into it with dread. All was quiet inside and the place had an atmosphere of sorrow. When he reached the king’s chambers, he found that his lord had aged a great deal since he had last seen him. The king’s eldest son, Vassili, kept company with him and looked to be full of ill temper and brooding.
The king however was cheered to see his advisor return. “At last! My trusted friend! What news do you bring us?”
The advisor bowed low. “Your majesty, I have failed in my quest. Through every country in this world I have traveled and no sign of the firebird could I find in any of them. Has she still not returned?”
“You see?” Vassili burst out. “This fool whom you have trusted for so long is no better or wiser than your own sons! Throw him in the dungeon!”
The king ignored his son and shook his head. “No, my friend, the firebird has not returned.”
“The firebird brought us nothing but trouble,” Vassili told him. “If it wasn’t for her, both my brothers would still be with us! If it wasn’t for her, I would be king!”
“Be quiet, you miscreant!” The king commanded. “At least now I shall have someone to talk with who does not fill my ears with complaints!”
The advisor was relieved that the king had no punishment for him but could not escape the cloud of shame he felt at having failed in his quest. He returned to his work for the king but was continually saddened by the melancholy of his lord, which seemed unceasing.
One day, not long after his return, a guard stepped into the king’s chambers and announced that a young peasant girl had demanded to see the king.
“Oh, not again!” the king groaned. “I thought I told you to chase her off last time!”
“What is this?” the advisor asked.
“It is nothing. While you were away, some peasant girl began to pester me. She asked me to give her the feather of the firebird because it is said that firebird feathers can cure any illness,” the king explained. “But those feathers are all I have left of my beloved firebird, and I shall never part with them.”
The advisor merely nodded, but his thoughts began to turn.
The next afternoon, as they strolled together in the garden, the advisor said, “Your majesty, perhaps we should at least see if the peasant girl is right; if these firebird feathers can truly cure any illness, perhaps the kingdom can be saved from this terrible blight it has suffered.”
“Even if it is true,” the king replied, “I only have three feathers. How many people can they save? Your quest failed. The firebird has gone from this world.”
“I beg your majesty! Give me leave to try.” The advisor urged.
“Oh, very well, if it pleases you. I don’t see what else we can do.”
The king took him to his most secret chamber, where he had been concealing the three golden feathers in a locked jewel box. They brought the feathers to the king’s physician to see what he could do with them, but alas, after many days, it seemed he could find no use for them, after all.
Now, the king seemed truly in despair. The advisor saw it and decided to take matters into his own hands. Without telling the king, he disguised himself as a beggar and concealed the three golden feathers under his garments. Then he went and sat among the other beggars on the street outside the palace to watch for the peasant girl. For nearly an entire week, he sat there in the street, begging for crumbs with the others. Many peasant girls passed by, but none stopped or tried to speak to the guards.
Finally, one morning, a young maiden approached, and the advisor could tell at once that she was the peasant girl the king had complained of. Her bearing was proud, despite her poor garments, and her eyes sparkled with purpose as she strode toward the palace. She walked up to the chief guardsman and commanded, “Tell the king that I have come to ask him one last time for the firebird feather. If he will not let me use it, there is no hope for his kingdom.”
“Away with you!” the guardsman shouted. “His majesty has ordered me to chase you off if you should come back again!”
The maiden only shook her head with regret. “If only he knew who I am and what I can do, his majesty would thank you on his knees for showing me in to speak with him.” She stated.
The guardsman brandished his weapon. “Be off! It goes against my honor to strike a maiden, but I will do it if my king commands!”
With a pitying look, the maiden turned and began to walk away. The king’s advisor leapt up and rushed after her. He seized her arm with one hand and held out the three feathers to her with the other saying, “There is still hope! I have the three firebird feathers here! Take them with my blessing and do what you must!”
The maiden looked into his eyes and smiled. “At last, my faithful servant, you have returned to guide your king!”
She threw off her ragged clothing and revealed herself as none other than the firebird, in all her golden magnificence. The people in the street gasped and cried out for joy at the sight of her. She flew up into the air and soared over the palace, clutching the three golden feathers in her beak.
The king’s advisor threw off his beggar robes and ran into the palace. He raced to the tree with the golden apples as fast as he could where the firebird was now perched. But he was dumbfounded when he saw that beneath the tree stood Prince Ivan, as though he had never been slain by his brother’s arrow.
The firebird changed into her maiden form and came down to stand beside the prince. “Do not look so surprised, my loyal servant,” she said to the king’s advisor. “Did I not promise you that I always protect those who are loyal to me?”
The king had come out into the garden, having seen his advisor running with such urgency through the palace, and he wept tears of joy to see his youngest son returned to him alive. He embraced Prince Ivan and called at once for a celebration of his return as well as the return of the firebird.
Ivan was crowned king soon thereafter, and he became a wise and compassionate king. He offered his brothers Vassili and Dimitri a chance to redeem themselves, but their pride would not allow it. They chose instead to leave the kingdom and were never seen there again.
King Ivan tended the golden apple tree himself every day to ensure that the firebird would never again forsake the kingdom. He inherited his father’s most trusted advisor and was glad of his guidance for many long years.

Abby Polakow

Ms. Polakow is a long-time enthusiast of fairy tales and a lover of books in general. She lives in Los Angeles, where she works as a teacher and part-time costume designer, as well as co-creator of a line of paper dolls and coloring books for children and adults. She has written and published several fairy tales and short stories, and is currently working on more.


About the Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson is a nighttime fiction writer with a penchant for horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. When she's not editing for Fantasia Divinity Magazine, she divides her creative time between writing short stories and working on the creations of two very different novels; a mystery/horror called Wolves Hollow, and a medieval fantasy she hopes to make into a series, called The First Blood. She has a Bachelor’s degree and lives in Northern Kentucky with her husband and two little boys, who keep her feet on the ground even while her head is in the clouds. To learn more, visit https://ambermsimpson.wordpress.com.