ISSUE 24, July 2018



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*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.

The Wall
By Eliza Master

    Emanuel’s body was down in the muck at the bottom of the trench. A worker slung the child over his shoulder. He left her brother on the sidewalk for someone to claim or the dogs to eat. Gabriela’s heart shattered, and the pieces went everywhere. She couldn’t bear to leave the boy exposed to the feral dogs, so she wrapped the cold body with the blanket she’d knitted him two years ago, the blanket he’d slept with every night. Gabriela enclosed him in their shelter with a piece of corrugated metal.
    The next morning an army of cement trucks filled the trench and the foundation was set. By afternoon, a short wall had grown from the east side of the pueblo. Gabriela watched its march anxiously. But there was an aberration. A shipping container converted into a room dammed the wall’s progress, halting the work all evening. By morning the next day, the wall continued along its route, incorporating the shipping container in its wake.
    Gabriela was determined not to face the same fate as her brother. She put on black pants and a white shirt. She rouged her cheeks and mascaraed her eyes, thinking it was important to look older than fifteen. Carefully, she made her way along the edge of the wall to the metal room. Above the door was the English word office.
     Inside, chairs formed a waiting area. One was occupied by an old man with a stack of paper on his lap. On the far side a woman sat behind a bullet proof window. “Can I help you?” she called.
    “California?” said Gabriela hopefully.
The woman handed over a packet from behind the glass. She held up a copy of the same form and pointed at the black line. Then she lit a cigarette.     
    “After you read it, sign at the bottom of the last page,” she said, blowing a smoke ring.
    The form was written entirely in English, except for the end, where it said Firma Aqui, next to the black line.
    Gabriela signed her name.
    “Finished?” The woman exhaled a puff.
    “Lo siento,” said Gabriela, not understanding. The woman flipped to the last page absently and looked at her signature.
    “Hmm.” The woman snubbed out her smoke. Her gaze wandered through Gabriela’s thick hair, and over the white blouse, landing on her waist. She pulled out another paper from her desk drawer. The sheet was a brighter white than the others.
    Now the woman spoke loudly like she was talking to a child. “You missed this page,” she said, pushing it out under the window.
    Gabriela read the English word on the new page out loud. “Surrogacy?”
    The woman in the window leaned in closer and whispered, “Yes, surrogacy.”
    Gabriela thought she knew what that meant. She had heard a rumor about a madre gestante. The people called her by the English word, surrogate. Under the cushion of her mind an alarm sounded. The old man in the waiting area looked up as if he could hear it too, but the alarm was a chord among others. It was quieter than the one that had been ringing since her brother’s death, so she ignored it.
     “Do you want to be a surrogate?” said the lady with her lips curled upwards. “If you check the Yes box, I can get you to California tonight.”
    Gabriela had smelled the clean scent of California. It had wafted over the border on breezy days. She imagined it being delicious and rich there, like a tasty cake wrapped in cellophane. But she was still unclear about what exactly she needed to do. “Mi nombre here?” She pointed at the black line. This one didn’t have a Spanish translation. “And California?” she asked.
    “Yes, ma’am. It’s your decision.”
    Gabriela signed and pushed the paper back through the window.
    The woman rotated her chair with the single sheet in her hand. “I got one for you, John,” she called through an open door in the back. “Please take a seat, we will be right with you,” she told Gabriela, pointing at a chair.
    Gabriela sat down in the waiting room. The old man was gone.
    A tall guy in camouflage approached her. A green gaucho hat was perched on his shiny white forehead.
    In perfect Spanish, he said, “Hola Gabriela, Me llamo John. Vamos a traer su equipaje.” Gabriela’s gaze dropped to his boots. They were as big as chinchillas. “Miss, we can get your belongings now if you are ready to go to California,” repeated the white man.
    “Yes, ok,” she said, attempting a few English words.
    The office door closed with a bang as Gabriela climbed into the passenger’s seat of the ranger truck. Her shelter was nearby. She saw the pieces of her heart lying in the yard next to a stray dog chewing on a corn husk. The white man waited in the car while she threw a few things into her backpack, careful not to touch her brother’s shroud.
    Once they got going, the man gave her a bag of chips that she crunched while looking out the window. They drove along the wall for several hours until Gabriela fell asleep against the seat cushion.
    “Here’s your stop,” said John, waking her. He gestured at an industrial building with bright green grass in front. Gabriela saw a person sitting in a booth next to the large entrance. “Home sweet home,” said John. This time he reached over and opened her door.
    The glass entrance opened automatically as Gabriella approached.  
    “Well, hello! You must be Gabriela. Welcome,” said a woman with hair like corn. Her face was painted perfectly. Gabriela smelled something good cooking and inadvertently turned her head towards its origin. “You must be starved,” said the lady. “Let’s get you some breakfast.”
    There was a cafeteria filled with piles of food. Gabriela pulled a five peso note from her pocket. It was all she had.
“Oh no, it’s free. All the food you want.” The lady chuckled. “Come.” Gabriela served herself a mountain of food, but the lady took the plate and utensils from her. “Let’s eat in the conference room. Shall we?”
Gabriela followed her. A bald man in a business suit sat at the end of a long table.
    “I want to go over the contract with you, before we go any further,” said the man.
    The lady pushed the plate of food towards Gabriela. “Go ahead and dig in,” she said. Gabriela took a few bites. The hamburger was savory and rich, and there were miniature corn cobs that popped when she bit down on them.
      “I need to make sure you are here by choice and that you understand the parameters of what is being offered.” The man was talking. English words were bolting out. “We will provide room and board. In addition, there will be language lessons and a certified medical staff.”
Gabriela ate the first of two hot dogs on her plate.
    Now the man turned to the woman and rolled his eyes, continuing his recitation. “You will be awarded full citizenship in the United States of America for the nine-month commitment to be a surrogate for a client’s baby.” He pointed at the words on the page, and Gabriela’s gaze followed his finger.
    The man paused and squinted his beady eyes at her. She stopped mid chew, sensing that he was going to say something important. “Now, down here is an optional extension of the contract. If you choose to sign the second portion for an experimental surrogacy, you will be provided with a stipend of $2000 after your release. Dos mil dolares,” he proclaimed.
    “Dos mil dolares?” repeated Gabriela. Those words she heard loud and clear. She looked back and forth between the white faces. Then her interest drifted out the window behind them. There was a big oak tree with a hanging swing and a small pond with benches. Would they really give her all that money? The woman had a pen pointing at Gabriela’s chest.
    Gabriela took the pen and signed on a black line. Without ceremony, she finished all the food on her plate and let out a big yawn.
    Then the lady with yellow hair took her up to the third floor. The rhythm of her heels tapped a path down the cool hallway.
    Gabriela’s room was large, bigger than the shelter where she had lived with her brother. It had a generous bed with princess sheets and a fluffy pink comforter. There was a kitchenette and a private bathroom. One wall was all windows. “Please, get comfortable. Caren will be by soon,” said the woman as she left.
    On the wall was a flat screen with a video playing. Gabriela saw a pregnant woman laughing with friends. Through cheerful diagrams it illustrated the process of inserting an embryo, its growth, and eventual birth. Then it showed the same woman shopping for jewelry in an American city. After that, she drove a new car to a house with a pretty yard.   
    Gabriela went to the bathroom and turned the sink on full blast. She bent her head down and drank straight from the faucet. Then she washed her thick hair with shampoo from a miniature bottle. While it dried, she gazed out the window. There was a lawn of emerald grass and a few trees edging a creek. After that the land turned to a light forest. Beyond was the short wall. From here it looked pastoral, like the fence of a hacienda. The alarm in her head was down to a murmur.
    There was a knock and the door opened. A nurse stomped in. She was wearing scrubs decorated with happy bunnies. The folds in her cheeks deepened when she smiled. “So nice to meet you, I’m Caren. Let me show you how this works.” She used the remote to change the TV to English lessons. A lady with the same wavy hair as Gabriela appeared and asked, “Hello, how are you?” in perfect English. Caren clicked off the screen.
    “Have a seat,” she said, patting the bed. Caren took Gabriela’s blood pressure and tapped her knees with a reflex hammer. Then she handed her two pills and a glass of water.
    The next thing Gabriela remembered was waking up in the new room. Her head felt like it was filled with ice cubes. Caren was beside the bed. She pulled out a long needle from a zippered pouch and urged Gabriella to turn over. Then she pulled down the waistband of her leggings and poked.
    “Ow!” cried Gabriela.
    “All done, good job,” said Caren. She pulled up the waistband and rubbed her hand on the sore area. Caren tucked in the blanket. “Get some rest,” she said on her way out.
    The alarm in her head was loud. There was an ache between her legs. Was there someone else’s baby inside her?
    Gabriela threw her belongings and the snacks from the kitchenette into her backpack and left the room in a hurry. Once downstairs, she pushed on the front entrance, but it didn’t open. The same man sat there as before. He glanced over and then away.
    “It’s lunch time,” Caren appeared out of nowhere and pulled her away from the entry. She pointed at the cafeteria.
    “No tengo hambre!”
    “OK honey, you want to go out?” She pointed at a metal door at the back of the building.
    “Si!” shouted Gabriela.
    Gabriela rushed out, letting the door close in Caren’s face. She ran to the left, figuring to escape the way she came, but there was an electric fence. She followed as it zagged into the forest and back around to the building on the far right. She was trapped. Gabriela balled up on a patch of grass grabbing the roots of her hair. She pulled, crying silently.
    After a while, Gabriela wandered over to the benches around the pond, and unwrapped a bar. She wolfed it down.
    “Amiga,” said a voice. A very pregnant woman plopped onto the bench next to her. “Me llama Tereza.”
    “Gabby.” said Gabriela. The name sounded like it belonged to someone else.  
    “So, you’re new? Do you know what you’re having?” The girl spoke to her in Spanish. She looked at Gabby’s flat stomach, missing her tear stained cheeks. “Mine’s a boy,” Tereza blurted. Both girls looked up as three other women sat on a bench across the pond.
    “They aren’t nice,” said Tereza, tipping her head towards the others. “Since they can’t understand Spanish, we can talk about them all we want. It looks like that one is ready to burst.” Tereza laughed, and Gabby joined in.
    “I hope I have a girl,” said Gabby. “Even if it isn’t mine to keep.” More tears leaked out.
    “When we are in California, we can have all the babies we want,” said Tereza soothingly. She put her hand over Gabby’s.
    “Can I stay with you until I get a place?” Gabby asked.
    “Si, Amiga.” Tereza leaned over and gave Gabby a warm hug.
***
    During the next few weeks Gabby and Tereza became inseparable. They spoke in English for practice and made plans for the future. Gabby grew a small bulge, while Tereza’s belly swelled to capacity.
    On the way to breakfast, Gabby said, “I feel terrible.” She dashed into a bathroom stall and vomited. The toilet bowl was filled with green gel that smelled like raw meat. It took two flushes to get rid of it, but at least she wasn’t nauseous anymore.
    “Is it normal to, you know, throw up, a lot?” she asked Tereza, who laughed in response.
    “It will pass.”
    At dinner Tereza went into labor in the mess hall. Right away, strangers in scrubs and masks rushed to her side. As they escorted her away, she called, “See you in California!”     
    Gabby cried lonely tears, wishing she was the one who was leaving. That night, she dreamt that she was walking along a ridge looking for a nest. Her breasts were heavy with milk. Then she entered a dark cavern with rock walls. Her footfalls produced small flames that rose until her cheeks were burning. She awoke in a drenching sweat. She threw off the blankets and rushed to the bathroom to vomit up another toilet full of green gel.
***
    Without Tereza, Gabby spent her days wandering in the garden and eating meals in her room. She didn’t tell anyone about the green vomit. Mostly, she lay on her bed feeling the movement inside her while gazing out the window.
The wall had grown taller. So tall, that she couldn’t see beyond it, even from the third floor. Once she woke bathed in moonlight, only to watch the wall steal it away. She dreamed of escaping, and imagined flying above the wall or burning it down.  
    One night she awoke with an itch inside her womb. Then she had a contraction and something small popped out from between her legs. It was an egg the size of a lime. The shell was blue and sparkled when she warmed it with her palm. Gingerly tucking it under her pillow, she drifted back to sleep.
    In the morning, the itch had turned to a ferocious scratching. “Help me!” she screamed. Within minutes Caren arrived with two other nurses that Gabby had never seen.
    “Gabby, you are doing great, just try to relax,” said Caren. “Now, push!”  
Gabby pushed hard, moving away from the pillows so as not to hurt the secret egg. There was a whoosh as she gave birth. Right away, she leaned over the bedside and emptied her stomach. Green gel puddled on the carpet.
    “We will get this cleaned up, no problem.” Caren was smiling like she had found gold. Gabby watched her slice open the sack with a scalpel and place the eggs into an incubator box. They looked identical to the hidden one.  
    “You can go anytime. The cashier’s check is waiting at the door. Nice meeting you,” she said perfunctorily. Caren carried the incubator away, with the nurses trailing behind.
     Gabby reached under the pillow and pulled out her egg. It was warm and glowing. She rolled it slowly between her hands and it shivered. “Hola mija,” she cooed.
    She scanned the room that had been her prison and her escape. Was she really free to go? Gabby dug her black pants and white shirt out of the closet and put them on, tucking the egg between her breasts. She slung the backpack over her shoulder, then took the elevator and approached the front exit.
    “Welcome to California,” said the man from the booth. He handed her a check for $2000. She shoved it in her pocket, hoping it was real. The doors opened, and Gabby was free. She walked over the grass to the curb and looked back. Her room wasn’t visible from this angle, but still her gaze searched the edifice. The wall had grown taller and longer behind the building, blocking all view of what was beyond. Gabby’s chest seized.
    As if in response, she felt the shell crack between her breasts. “Ouch!” Sharp needles punctured her like a cat’s claw. She placed her hand over the creature to calm it. Pearly eyes looked up at her innocently from a moist orange face. Gabby felt its rough skin as the babe snuggled into her cleavage, clinging by its tail for support. The soft breaths fell in rhythm with her own.
    Then Gabby sprinted into California with her back to the wall.

Eliza Master

Eliza Master is a fiction author and a member of Wordos Workshop. Several magazines have published her stories and Wayzgoose Press will publish her three novels; The Scarlet Cord, The Twisted Rope and The Shibari Knot in 2018.

Eliza is also a potter and builds stoves in Guatemala. When she is home she enjoys long walks in the Oregon rain with her Labradoodle, Samantha.


Jerusalem
By Matthew Smit

The sun still had its red stain across the sky to the East, but the two Israeli guards were already set up at their post. The road held little commercial interest for Ismail at this hour; all he saw were other merchants, a woman or two sweeping outside their homes, and cats playing and fighting on the rocks before they would get too hot in the morning sun. The giant stacks of bread on Ismail’s cart teetered as the small, stiff wheels struggled with the uneven rocky road. Attached to the cart was a short metal chain with an old tire at the end. When Ismail went home, he would stand on the tire to use it as a brake, skidding downhill through the streets and letting himself get dragged by the cart. As it was, though, the tire dragged after him slowly, like an unmotivated dog.
Ismail had the most perfect spot of all the merchants in and around the Muslim Quarter. His father had stood here before him, and most likely his grandfather before that, but this he did not know for sure. Ismail stood proudly and dutifully right next to the entrance of Jaffa Gate each morning at sunrise, six days a week. His spot was near an archway in a kind of crevice, next to the Gate itself. Tourists would turn the corner and - boom, there he was. Ismail smiled as he saw his nook come up ahead.
He pushed his cart towards the archway and was about to stall out his goods on the foldable wooden tables when something caught his eye. Something was wrong.
There, in the middle of the smooth stones where Ismail usually stood, sat a gigantic, hairy, leather-colored tarantula.
Ismail froze so suddenly, the tower of bread shook as his cart came to a halt. His neck hairs stood on end. He felt something drop inside him, from his throat all the way to his toes. He backed up several steps and swore under his breath.
Something tickled his hand and he jerked it away, making him knock several loaves of bread off his cart and sending them rolling onto the stone road. He was frightened, he realized, by the laces around the end of his shirt sleeve.
He swore again as he picked up the bread, not losing sight of the creature. He tried to position his cart so he wouldn’t have to stand near it, but no angle seemed right, no approach made him feel at ease. He felt like a fool, dancing around the spider.
There was a tap on his shoulder and Ismail jumped again. One of the Israeli guards had approached him. Ismail must have looked so frightened they thought he was dancing around a bomb.
“What’s going on here?” the officer asked in Hebrew, both hands resting on the M-16 hanging from his shoulders.
“Nothing, officer,” Ismail replied with a scowl, stealing glances back at the spider.
“We see you here every day, kid. What’s going on?” he pressed.
This was exactly what Ismail didn’t need. He didn’t want to make trouble, but he didn’t want to be embarrassed by the Israeli. Other merchants might start looking.
“My cart is being difficult,” Ismail explained.
“Looks fine to me. We’ve never seen you have any trouble with it,” the guard said, and he met Ismail's guilty gaze. “Out with it.”
Ismail sighed and walked around his cart as far as he dared, and pointed. The guard’s eyes widened and he swore loudly.
“I can’t be here today. I’m…” Ismail frowned, and switched to Arabic. “Arachnophobic.”
The guard swallowed.
He translated the word. “I understand... So am I.” His face was pale as he looked at Ismail.
“So you realize it’s impossible for me to stand here!” Ismail said, feeling a wave of relief.
The two men stood together, considering the arachnid. It twitched its legs, undisturbed. Both of them shivered.
“Can you shoot it or something?”
The guard stared at Ismail, then at the spider, and bit his lip. “I doubt it... Hold on,” he said. He looked back at his partner and touched his fist to his helmet, then radioed something in Hebrew Ismail didn’t quite get. He always thought of the guards as more hassle than helpful, but maybe their shared hatred for the spider made the cop willing to help today.
“Okay,” the guard said, coming to Ismail’s side again. “My partner thinks I’m a huge pussy, but I don’t care.” He squinted at the spider. “Let’s get the bastard.”
Ismail felt his adrenaline going, his hands sweating. What a moment, he thought. They would really kill the thing. He had actually gotten the Israeli to help. He looked from spider to man as the guard cocked his gun and flicked the safety. Ismail took a step back. The Israeli lined up his shot and took aim. Ismail felt his heart pounding in his throat and put his fingers to his ears. A finger on the trigger.
The guard squeezed.
A single sharp blast went through the air. Merchants stopped to look around. The women clasped their hands over their mouths and shrieked. The cats scattered. Tourists on the Tower of David poked their heads up from over the railings.
The tarantula twitched as the bullet hit, dead in an instant. Ismail saw it happen, the puff of smoke and the flash of the bullet. He felt triumphant, then faint. His vision faltered. His knees gave and he fell to the stones, clutching his side. The Israeli lowered his weapon and turned around. Around the two men and the spider, voices came; at first only a murmur, then they slowly started yelling and swelled to a roaring cacophony around the scene.
In reality, Ismail had been struck by an unfortunate, unintentional ricochet. But to all the bystanders there was only the bleeding body of a simple Palestinian bread salesman lying at the feet of a stern Israeli guard, holding a smoking rifle.

Matthew Smit

Matthew Smit is a Dutch-Canadian anthropologist, writer and coffee geek. This is his first published fiction piece. He currently lives in Castricum, Netherlands with his girlfriend and the occasional adopted stray cat.






The Ride
By Mehi Loveski

  Where he lived, tram tickets normally had six-digit numbers and, as the popular superstition had it, if the sum of the first three digits equaled that of the other three – bingo, you were in for a bit of luck. Not that he’d had much luck ever come his way on account of “lucky” numbers. It was just a way of keeping busy on a ride – doing sums to figure out your chances of hitting the jackpot.  
Though on that dreary October day, riding in a tram amidst a motley bunch of suburban residents on their obscure errands, he actually longed for something to brighten up his black mood.Why was it that he felt so miserable in October? Sure, it was autumn, invariably cold and bleak in those parts, but he knew his wasn’t just a seasonal malady. Now well into his fifties, he was increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of advancing age – with all the helplessness, humiliation and physical torment it brought. Statistically, every day now could be his last. There was no way of knowing where he would be riding tomorrow.
    Glancing perfunctorily at the ticket a seedy-looking conductor handed him, he gasped. 666-669. Damn! If only he’d been less clumsy with the change, he might have come into possession of a unique number! He looked around, trying to remember the passengers who’d got in with him. A babushka with a bag of sunflower seeds left over from her meager trade? No, pensioners ride for free. A couple of yobbos in front lustily guzzling beer after a day of labor at a car wash? Getting warmer. And then he saw her; the lady who had been the first to offer a handful of coins to the conductor. She was standing apart from the other passengers, her bulky dress, kerchief, her hair and eyes – all black.
    It was her eyes that arrested attention – deep black holes devoid of any expression. And yet the blackness wasn’t complete: there was a faint flicker, a shimmer of tiny bubbles struggling to the surface. He felt hypnotized, drawn into that darkness, sucked inside those bubbles of dim light, and – momentarily – almost blinded by a flash.
Recovering his sense of sight, he saw himself standing before a solitary half-burnt hut with mountains in the distance, stark against the winter sky. Two bodies – a bearded man in dusty fatigues and a teenage boy, his dead hand still clutching a gun, were lying side by side in the mud nearby. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him, but the stench of rotting flesh and burnt wood was real enough to make him nauseous.The place was quiet save for the wind and some dull sobbing sounds coming from somewhere nearby. He turned and saw a figure in a black bulky dress standing behind him, her eyes, wild and murderous, slashing him like laser swords…
    The tram shook and clanged at the junction. Warily, he opened his eyes. The burning sensation didn’t go away. The strange woman was standing still, seemingly indifferent to anything around her.
Bomber!
He knew where he was heading now. He knew the destination the black lady was taking him to. Him and the other passengers who chanced to be in the tram.  All he had to do now was wait a few more moments and then – Bang! – he’d be through with his whole wretched life. A perfect stunt! Painless, instantaneous. And he couldn’t change anything. Or… wouldn’t?
    The bomber’s black bottomless eyes betrayed nothing. It was impossible to tell if she felt any tension, in fact, if she cared at all. She must have given up caring on that winter day in the mountains, kneeling by the bodies of her loved ones. But he did. What if something in that slick plan went wrong? What if she was too much “out of touch” to remember to press the button on her belt packed with deadly explosives? He looked at the people around him. No one seemed to be aware of what fate had in store for them. Dull colorless faces, thinking little grey thoughts about how to get through another tedious day of their lives. Their last day…
    He felt impatience building up in him. How much longer could he stand it before he freaked out? Push that bloody button, bitch! He almost cried it out loud. It was then that he remembered something he’d watched on the news. There were no buttons anymore! Nothing was left to chance – someone was supposed to make a call to set off the charge. Someone well out of harm’s way. But what if that someone also…
He looked out of the window at the listless figures hurrying past. Could be anybody. Why, it could be him! The realization hit him like a truck. He slumped in his seat, feeling drained, like he was unable to bear a sudden weight. What if it really was to be him? Because he knew and he knew how!
    His cell phone exploded – like Hiroshima. Wife!
“Yeah?”
Sobbing. A faint voice:
“Oh, my God…”
More sobbing.   
“Spill it!” he said.
“I… didn’t see it… ran out right before me… think I killed…”
    The tram shuddered to a sudden halt, the connection broken. The driver was tongue-lashing an unfortunate motorist who’d been too slow to clear the way.  “I’m not a fatalist, but if I was, what could I do about it?” He let out a bitter laugh, the conductor eyeing him with suspicion. Dumb joke. She’d never learned to drive. But she hated trams. Wouldn’t be seen dead in “that stinking zoo.” And now…   What was it – a cat, a chicken, a caterpillar? Careful next time – step not on pets.
    He looked at the bomber. Come on, how much longer? Or… Could it all be his imagination? He’d been overwrought, for sure. She could well be one of those sullen country girls from a breakaway republic on her way to a rented rat hole after a day of washing dishes in some squalid grease joint. In fact, the tram was full of folks who might be her fellow villagers. He looked around and saw that they were all staring at him, baring their sharp, small teeth, their beady eyes watching him alertly. He shuddered, gripped by sudden irrational paranoia. The tram was rolling at breakneck speed now, the drab city flashing past the windows in the gathering dusk. The bomber stood motionless, half-hidden now as more and more people gathered around her, those standing the nearest guaranteed to have it the quickest. A bearded man next to him was coughing harshly. His dusty clothes smelled of stale tobacco smoke and damp soil.
    Suddenly he wanted to smoke. His last wish… He reached for his pocket but remembered he’d thrown out the empty pack at the tram stop. Had tried to kick the habit so many times, and now, ironically, was going to finally give it up – along with his life – without the benefit of having his last wish granted…
“Want a smoke, mister?” A hoarse voice made him start. He turned and saw the bearded man holding out a cramped pack in his grimy hand.  
“Eh… yes,” he said, momentarily off balance. The man’s sallow unshaven face seemed disturbingly familiar. He was sure he’d seen those dull lifeless eyes before. “Think I’ll have one, thanks.” Who cares? They were all going to end up in smoke, anyway. “Got a light?”
While the man was searching for the lighter, he took out the cell and dialed. Wish all numbers were that easy to remember. Checked to be sure. The last of the six digits looked strangely… odd.  A last-ditch, desperate attempt to cheat fate? Too late. Get it right. The numbers finally arranged in perfect uniformity, he lit a cigarette and took a long contented drag. Then he saw them: two cops, guns drawn, were pushing their way through the crowd with grim determination. They were scanning the faces around as if looking for somebody. He nearly stopped breathing when the men approached the bomber, but they passed without giving her a second glance.
“You can’t smoke in public transport!” cried an old woman and tried to grab the cigarette. He shoved her hand away without letting the cops out of his sight.
“Police!” the woman waved. “Arrest him!”
They were a few feet from him now, closing in fast.
“Hands up!” cried a gruff voice.
He dropped the cigarette and slowly, thumb hard on the call button, put his hands up – as the first shot rang out…
    A tiny bubble broke loose in the black bottomless pit and was coming forward, growing fast. He felt the chill of the morning air grip him again, but as the sun broke out from behind the mountains, flooding the terrain in a dazzling orange glow, he felt himself rise toward it in ecstasy, welcoming it, savoring its burning heat. There was no pain as his body caught fire and started  blazing – only a delicious sensation of losing substance and turning into fine golden mist, that slowly drifted upwards into the black sky…
    A mile away, a car with the motor running stood on a dark deserted road. In the stark light of the headlights, a woman was kneeling down by a motionless shape in front of the car. The dog was lying on its side, legs outstretched. A dark pool had gathered around its shaggy head.
“Oh, my God…” moaned the woman stroking the dead animal’s body sticky with blood. “Poor, poor thing… What am I going to do?  Can’t leave you like that... ” After a moment’s hesitation, she took out her cellphone and pressed redial. She listened to the dial tone, wiping tears with the free hand, leaving bloody smears on her face. Some gunshots followed by a muffled explosion sounded in the distance. The phone went dead. “Damn!” She threw back her head in despair. A glowing yellow-brown cloud was floating low over the eerily silent city, catching on the rooftops, leaving ragged shreds of dim light behind. It was slowly fading away, growing thinner and almost transparent, until there was nothing up there but the dark starless sky.


Mehi Loveski

Mehi Loveski (Oleg G. Mikhailovsky) is a bi-lingual author from Russia. His essays and short stories have appeared in several online and print venues both in the USA and Russia, including Essaysandfictions, Dove Tales, FictionMagazines and The New Youth Magazine (Moscow). He lives in Yekaterinburg with his wife, son and a dog.




The Overlord's Trials
By Dan  Rice

Isla crouched low in the saddle, hugging her beloved racing dragon, Sable, as tightly as a lover. The racing dragon was long and lean, mostly neck, tail and membranous wings. Its torso was larger than a courser’s but smaller than a destrier’s. In one hand Isla clutched the leather reins that attached to the saddle at the base of the dragon’s sinuous neck. She rested her other hand lightly against the rough scales that radiated heat. The flesh to scale contact allowed rider and wyrm telepathic communication. Isla experienced the world through her dragon's senses as well as her own. She smelled the salt in the air and heard snatches of conversation from the crowd watching the race from the windswept headland.
Faster! By Draco, we’re losing, Isla said to Sable.
    The race had just begun, but already dragons had surged ahead of them. Isla counted the dragons; the job made difficult by the silk racing robes streaming behind the racers in a riot of color. Her outfit was bright yellow in contrast with Sable's black scales and wings. She counted six dragons ahead of them; half the contestants. She and her beloved were mired in dragon dung already.
The sunlight broke through the overcast sky, sparkling off the dragons' vibrant scales and gleaming off the vast blue-green ocean approximately three miles in the distance. The sudden brilliance forced Isla to squint but did not bother Sable. Protruding from the water like a giant's thumb, stood a gargantuan sea stack streaked white with bird excrement.
Gold and emerald flashed passed them.    
No! Now we’re in eighth! Isla said in frustration.
Although she hated to admit it, the grueling week of qualifying heats had worn her beloved out. Isla could feel the dragon's bone deep weariness through their connection. Sable’s wingbeats were neither as quick nor as powerful as just yesterday. Her beloved needed help to stay competitive, and Isla was determined to provide it even if that meant risking her life.
Isla must win the Overlord's Trials, a week of races celebrating the birthday of the Overlord with its prize being an audience with the ruler. It was her best, and perhaps only, chance to take revenge on the monster who had raped her ten years ago when she had been just a young girl. She'd call out the bastard in front of the Overlord and pray Yadira Dalgaard listened to her as one woman to another and take her accusation seriously.
Her memory of that horrific encounter hadn't dimmed. The stink of the rapist's sweat, the disgusting moans that sounded like a grunting pig, and grasping, pinching hands. His bulk pressed against her like a boulder forcing all the air from her lungs. Her pain. Her blood. Her terror.
After he had brutally stolen her innocence, he had issued threats. If she told, he would know, and he'd punish her. Besides, who would believe her? She couldn't even speak of it to Mother, or he'd ruin her family. The intervening years had only brought her guilt and rage as hot as dragon fire and a half-healed wound marring her soul.
Only now, her opportunity for revenge was slipping through her grasp like smoke. Her pent up emotions overflowed like a cauldron of boiling water. They must win. They must or all their hard work, all the races they had won, would be for naught. That was something she couldn't accept. Her memories of the monster abusing her made her feel like a young girl again, small and frightened and, most of all, vulnerable. She despised feeling defenseless with the intensity to match a firedrake in the rut fending off rival suitors.
    The tumultuous emotions disrupted her connection to Sable. It was like a butcher carved her brain like a slab of meat. She winced, her head throbbing. Gone was the seemingly all-encompassing awareness of her dragon, leaving her world small and lonely. All she knew was the movement of the flesh and sinew beneath her, the cold sea wind burning her face and numbing her hands, and what little else her pitiful human senses told her. She needed to concentrate, gods damn her.
Taking a deep, calming breath, she quashed her frustration and refocused on her dragon. As she had been trained to do, she performed a thought exercise, stretching her awareness through her jawbone down her neck, along her scapula, down her arm to her hand, into her fingers and through her fingertips. When her awareness reached her dragon’s scales, Isla perceived a familiar tingling at the very edge of her consciousness. The telepathic connection in all its wondrous glory was reestablished. Her headache disappeared as all her senses and the wyrm’s intimately merged.
Give me your fatigue, Isla said.
Concern flowed through their connection along with an image of Isla slumped over, only held in place by the carabiner attached to her belt that connected to the saddle's steel flange. Flaming out it was called, a possible dangerous side effect when a human attempted to take even a fraction of a dragon's exhaustion or, worse, pain. Usually, the rider only lost consciousness, but sudden death wasn't unheard of.
I know the risk. We can't lose. I must speak to the Overlord.
Seven dragons pulled away, and they risked being overtaken by even more racers.  Isla ground her teeth and held the reins in a death grip.
We're so close. We must go all out to win. Just give me your fatigue until you reach your second wind. I can take it, I'm strong enough.
The wave of fatigue that crashed into Isla seemed as mighty as the waves smashing into the distant sea stack. Blackness pervaded her peripheral vision and she shook her head to clear it, but that didn't help. She needed to focus on the race, on what was in front of them, but, try as she might, she couldn't ignore the joint breaking pain throughout her body.
Just when she thought she might not be able to stave off unconsciousness, Sable put on a burst of speed that jolted her in the saddle. The movement made her wince in pain, but elation filled her. It was working, by Draco. Sable found her second wind and it was glorious. As her beloved picked up speed, the bone breaking fatigue faded. Near the edge of the headland, they blew past the golden dragon.
Sable surged ahead, following the race route, diving like a hunting falcon toward the beach.
Just when it seemed they would smash into the ground, Sable pulled out of the dive. The maneuver threw Isla around in the saddle like a straw doll. Gathered on the beach along the racecourse stood hundreds of cheering spectators, wealthy merchants and other well-to-dos with enough coin to pay the silver penny fee. Through Sable’s ears, Isla discerned the cheers of individuals and even a baby crying. Concentrate, she reminded herself, pushing aside the distractions and refocusing on the race.
Pick them off, Isla said. Just like qualifying.
Sable redoubled her efforts, overtaking their opponents one by one. Three dragons were left in their wake before they reached the water. Two miles ahead of them stood the immense sea-stack, beneath the partly cloudy sky. A tall conifer at the rock's peak served as a turnaround, marking the halfway point of the race.
They went neck and neck with a svelte purple dragon just as they reached the pleasure barges of the nobles bobbing in the water along the course.  Feeling a rush of excitement, Isla laughed daring to believe that they could win the race.
Faster! Faster! Isla urged as her beloved edged a snout ahead of the purple beast. We beat them in qualifying.
Within a dozen rapid wingbeats, Sable pulled ahead.    
Yes! Isla said. The red beast is flagging.    
Sable shot forward like an arrow fired from a longbow. They rushed by the red wyrm and its cursing rider, leaving only two dragons ahead of them. The leader, Isla realized in disgust, was Oliver riding the polychromatic Bejeweled. The insolent rider and his equally pompous wyrm had edged them in the final qualifying heat the day before. The bastard had even been bold enough to proposition her after the race. If she'd been drunk, she might have taken him up on the offer since he was handsome enough, arrogant prick or not. To lose the race to that dung eater would be like pouring a barrel of salt onto an open wound.
Fearing Sable was too slow to overtake the leaders, Isla considered offering her beloved her vital life energy. It was a dangerous maneuver, a dragon taking too much energy meant its rider's death. The tactic was usually reserved for the final sprint to the finish line when even a thimbleful of additional vigor could mean the difference between victory or defeat. Before she could make the offer, Sable called upon reserves Isla never realized the dragon possessed. With every wingbeat, they were overtaking the leaders.     
As they approached the imposing sea stack, they flew in so low, spray from the waves splashed them. Isla tasted seawater on her lips. Sable pulled up and they shot skyward along the craggy rock face. The roosting seabirds angrily squawked as they flew passed. Isla kept focused on the dragon in second, a beast with brilliant orange scales and green wings. Its rider’s purple racing silks streamed behind it like the tail feathers of an exotic bird. Isla thought if she dared, she could pluck a runnel of silk from the air, and then they swept passed the orange beast.
It's a two dragon race now. Let's whip those dung eaters.
Sable overtopped the sea stack, its summit dotted by a handful of tall conifers. Ahead stood a giant tree, taller than all the others with a banner, a golden dragon head superimposed upon a green field, hanging from its top branches. The turnaround. Bejeweled whipped around the tree and raced toward them. As the dragon passed, Oliver flashed Isla a grin.
“Dung eater!” she screamed, not caring if he heard her or not, it was just nice to vent her emotions.
Sable banked hard around the tree just in time for Isla to watch Bejeweled near the edge of the rock. Her breath caught in her throat. Victory seemed like an impossibility. But, as Bejeweled reached the escarpment, he unexpectedly pulled up in a violent maneuver that threw Oliver in his saddle. Streaking up from below came the orange dragon.
Racer’s luck! Draco blesses us. Go!
Sable responded by increasing her wingbeats, it was a pace her beloved couldn't keep up for long, but the near collision gave them a glimmer of hope, like a desert oasis shimmering on a distant horizon.
The orange dragon, extending the green frill around its head, made an undignified landing on the top of the sea stack and uttered a blood curdling shriek. Its rider screamed curses and shook a fist in the direction of Oliver and Bejeweled. Isla feared the orange beast might goad Bejeweled into combat, but the polychromatic dragon spun in the air and dove out of sight. Sable reached the edge of the rock and folded her wings against her sides and plunged toward the sea below.
The rest of the racers flew upward to meet them, forcing Sable to zig and zag to avoid a catastrophic mid air collision. Ahead of them were Bejeweled and the frothy sea. Swooping in on Bejeweled’s flank, Sable’s tail skipped off the water. The impact sent a jolt through the dragon's body that rattled Isla’s bones. Undeterred, Sable powered forward, pulling alongside Bejeweled.  
Oliver turned in the saddle and shot Isla a dirty look. In response, she smiled. Time for you to lose, dung eater, she thought.
Bejeweled pulled ahead and cut them off, swinging his tail through the air like a whip. The sparkling tail scourged Sable across the face. Her beloved's pain was so great, Isla felt the lash through their telepathic connection. Blackness pervaded her vision as she battled to remain conscious, reminding herself the pain was not her own. It was shadow pain, an afterimage of the agony Sable felt. She needed to help her dragon if they were to have any chance of winning. She drew slow, deep breaths until the pain dropped to a manageable level.
Isla realized with horror that she no longer saw through Sable’s eyes. Over their connection crashed panic and pain. Her chest tightened. Something was terribly wrong with her dragon. That bastard had cut them off on purpose and probably ordered his dragon to lash its tail. Somehow, to her amazement, Sable kept pace with the polychromatic beast and even started pulling ahead.
Can you see? Do you know how badly you’re hurt?
An image of a blurry landscape and a terrible throbbing projected into her mind. This time Isla was ready for the intensity of the torment and walled it off into a small corner of her conscience where she objectively observed it without being overwhelmed. The pain was so powerful it nearly breached her mental barriers, like a storm surge sweeping over a coastal village.
You should land, Isla said. She didn't want to say those words for it meant giving up her opportunity for revenge and justice, but her dragon was in no condition to continue. Sable ignored her. You’re flying blind. Let me tend to your wound before you make it worse.
Sable’s entire body quivered, and she shrieked an ear-piercing battle challenge.
It's all right if we lose.
Anger flared over their connection along with an image of a riderless Sable, chest puffed up with pride, surrounded by people celebrating her victory. Isla realized Sable was desperate to win the race for her own glory. Like it or not, Isla was along for the ride.
At least use my eyes, Isla said. For once my vision is better than yours.
Isla went blind. Clutching the reins so tightly her fingernails gouged her palm, she drew a shuddering breath. Losing her sight wasn’t unexpected. A dragon could share its senses with its rider, but from a human, a dragon could only take.
We can do this, Isla said, encouragingly.
Sable did not respond. The dragon had walled Isla off, no longer sharing her senses with her rider. It was likely a misguided effort to keep Isla from worrying about the wyrm’s injury. Isla was still aware of Sable's presence over their connection, but the dragon was distant, like the first blush of morning light on a far-off horizon.
Only her pathetic human senses informed Isla of their progress. She smelled the cold sea air and the heat radiating from Sable warmed her. From below, she heard the dull roar of the sea and from up ahead, the distant cheers of the spectators. Beneath her, Sable’s supple, powerful muscles extended and contracted.
Eventually, the roar of the sea faded as the cheers of the crowd intensified. They were over the beach, Isla decided with excitement swelling in her breast. That meant just over one mile left to go. Surely, Sable could manage that. Or could she? Not knowing ate at Isla like a worm burrowing through a mealy apple. Was Sable hurting herself by pushing through the pain? Were they still in first or had Bejeweled overtaken them?
It was a terrible struggle to remain positive while fear, worry, and anger swirled within her. Just when the race seemed interminable, Isla noticed something missing from the air. She sniffed, no longer smelling the salty tang of the sea. They must be well over the headland. They might be closing in on the finish line.
Take my strength, Isla said. Take it now, for the final sprint. You know Bejeweled will draw upon Oliver’s energy. I don't know if we're winning, but if we are, you must take my strength!
Sable listened and took it. Isla gasped as her energy drained from her. She was so cold that even the heat radiating from the dragon's body did not warm her. Her heart thundered in her chest as she comprehended the terrible danger she was in. Sable drew upon too much of her vital energy. She ripped her hand away from the scales, breaking their connection. Swaying in the saddle, she felt her belt strain against her movement. She grabbed the steel flange her carabiner connected to and hung on. Beneath her Sable shuttered and uttered a shrill shriek. She almost reached for her beloved, but she stopped short. Almost dying made her hesitant.
Isla’s vision came back to her, blurry at first. In the span of several breaths, it cleared. Up ahead Isla saw the capital with its sprawling slums and magnificent white spires. Outside the city wall, a pavilion stood on a green field next to the finish.
Looking over her shoulder, Isla saw the kaleidoscopic dragon bearing down on them. The final sprint was on. Either she offered her life force to Sable again, or Bejeweled would overtake them. She released the flange and reached for the black scales then paused. Sable was injured, desperately so, and might drain her life force by mistake. She didn't want to die, but she didn't want to lose even more, not just for herself but her beloved. Sable had given so much to buy her a chance at revenge. She owed her dragon this victory, even if it meant her life, and, in the end, she'd rather burn in hell then let that thrice-damned dung eater Oliver win.  
Isla pressed her hand against the black scales and was blinded. Take whatever you need, just win the race.
Icy tendrils started somewhere deep in her abdomen and spread outward. She broke into a cold sweat. The reins slipped from her grasp; she could no longer feel her extremities.
From somewhere distant she heard cheering. At least, she thought she did. She wasn't sure of anything anymore. Her mind was too woozy to focus on anything beyond the peculiarity of the chill spreading from her chest up her neck. Then everything changed. The chill stopped spreading and she felt the heat radiating from Sable's scales. The cheers no longer sounded distant. By the gods, they must be right over the crowd judging by the jubilant roar. They were gliding, maybe even swooping in for the victory.
A jolt shook her spine as Sable touched down. Rapidly flapping her wings, the dragon came to a halt. Her beloved uttered a long hiss, like steam escaping a kettle, only many times louder, and collapsed.
Sable. Sable! Isla said.
The dragon did not respond. She sensed Sable through their connection, but her perception was even weaker than before like her beloved was asleep. The howls of the crowd filled her ears as she fumbled with the carabiner. Her hands were slow and awkward. Her vision came back to her, gradually coming into focus. She squinted, the brightness hurting her eyes. People spoke nearby, but she couldn't understand what they said over the din. With the addition of sight, she unclipped the carabiner from the saddle. At a safe distance, stood the roaring crowd, representing all the denizens of the capital from grimy paupers to finely dressed nobles brought together to celebrate the Overlord's birthday. Striding through the crowd were big men dressed in stained leather smocks, dragon masters, thank the gods.
“Please!" she called to them. “Help my dragon, she's injured.”
She swung her leg over the saddle, the effort greater than it should've been. She stared at her beloved's chest rising and falling in ragged breaths. Draco, just let her be exhausted from the race.
Isla slid from saddle to the ground. Her legs wobbled underneath her, and she would have collapsed except a brawny man caught her in his arms. Seemingly without effort, he swept her off her feet and cradled her like a babe.
“My dragon,” Isla said. “She's hurt. She needs me.”     
“The Masters are assessing her,” the man said, his voice a deep boom that carried over the clamor. “You need air and a little something to energize you. That was some riding out there, and to win with an injured wyrm. By Draco, you’re Stella Starfire reborn."
“We won?”    
“You did. By half a length.”
“Thank the gods,” she said breathlessly and started struggling against him. “I must see Sable.”
The man ignored her struggles, carrying her away from her beloved. He knelt, setting her
down on the soft grass and leaning her back against something. She felt coarse canvas against the back of her neck and smelled the distinctive stench of dragon meal, a mixture of raw meat and grain fed to wyrms when game wasn't available.
Isla stared at the man's broad face; his eyes were kind. “My dragon. Please.”
“In a moment, lass," he said, holding her down with a meaty hand pressed against her shoulder.
She didn't like being pinned by any man. On top of that, he kept her from Sable. “Let go of me! Damn you to hell!”
Snorting, he stood and said. “Go on then. Go see your dragon.”
Isla struggled to stand on shaky legs and only made it two steps before falling onto her butt.
He knelt next to her. “You nearly flamed out, lass. You understand me?”
She nodded.
“Boy, bring me that bottle of Dragonfire Whiskey from the supplies,” he called.
A grimy skinned young boy dressed only in a loincloth ran to them, holding a dark glass
bottle. He handed it to the man.    
“Is that the lady who won, Master?” The boy asked in an awestruck voice.
“That she is, lad,” said the man as he unstoppered the bottle. He offered the bottle to Isla. “Just a sip now, lass.”
“My name is Isla,” she said, gratefully taking the bottle and bringing it to her lips.
“I am Dragon Master Orel.”
She took a sip. As soon as the liquid touched her tongue, it was like her mouth caught on fire. Fighting the urge to spit, she swallowed the whiskey, burning her throat all the way down to her stomach. Isla felt warmth spreading throughout her body. The haze that gripped her mind seemed to clear a little bit, and she felt her strength returning. She lifted the bottle to take another drink, but Orel gently put a hand on her arm and shook his head.
“Easy now. Fermented dragon’s milk is potent stuff,” he said and reached his free hand for the bottle. “Maybe you should give that to me.”
“But -”
“I thought you wanted to see that dragon of yours,” Orel said gruffly, taking hold of the bottle. “You're feeling good right now, that's true. Drink anymore, and you’re liable to pass out.”
Isla released the bottle. Orel took it, stoppered it, and handed it to the boy who scampered off through the milling crowd. Offering her his hand, Orel helped her up. She was still unsteady on her legs.
“You'll be wanting to take off your silks. You’ll trip on them,” Orel said. “Let me help.”
Isla was about to refuse the offer. She was desperate to get back to Sable, but she relented knowing that he spoke good sense. Racing silks were made for riding dragons, not ambling through a crowd. Together they undid her heavy riding belt, dropping it to the ground, and stripped off the streaming yellow robe, allowing it to pool at her feet. Underneath, Isla wore supple boots, tight leather pants, and a sweat-stained jerkin.
“You still look dazed,” Orel said. “Why don't you lean against me and I'll take you to see that beast of yours.”
They wove their way through the onlookers. A few people recognized Isla as the victor and offered her their congratulations. She replied with terse platitudes, anxious to reach Sable. She saw other dragons, including Bejeweled, through the throng gathered near the finish line about one hundred feet from her beloved. Anger flared in her at the sight of the multi-hued dragon. If she crossed paths with that dung eater Oliver, she might just stab him.
Isla felt stronger as they walked and was soon moving without Orel's assistance. She teared up when she saw the wound marring Sable's face. Her beloved's right eye was a mangle of mutilated flesh. There was a bloody gash across her forehead, and her left eye was swollen shut. Steam rose from the wounds and viscous black blood slowly flowed down her scales. A thick leather mat was placed on the ground next to her head to catch the blood. The ichor dripping onto the mat made a hissing sound on impact, and smoke swirled up from the charred leather. Dragon masters inspected the wound and spoke among themselves. Isla tried to bolt for the dragon, but Orel held her back.
“Sable needs me,” she insisted, trying to jerk her arm free.
“The wyrm is sedated. The beast doesn't need you just now. She needs the masters to tidy up the wounds and to try to save her sight,” Orel said.
“Isla!”    
She recognized the voice and stared into the crowd. The dragon turd Oliver wove his way toward her. Blonde haired and blue-eyed, he was far too handsome for his own good. The louse had a smarmy smile plastered on his face.
“I just want to congratulate you on your victory,” he said snidely, glancing meaningfully at Sable. “I hope it’s worth it.”
Breaking free of Orel's grip, she shouted, “You stinking dragon turd!”
She threw a haymaker, putting all her weight behind the punch. Oliver pulled back, but too late, and she walloped him on his nose. Yelping in pain, Oliver retreated. Wincing, Isla shook her sore hand.
“That's right! Run you coward!” she screamed after him.
People from the crowd jeered at Oliver as he ran. She had half a mind to give him another wallop, but Orel held her back.
“You did enough, lass,” he said, his meaty hand grasping her upper arm. “The race officials will punish him.”
“For what?” Isla said, struggling but only halfheartedly. Sable hadn’t pushed through the pain and won the race for Isla to take revenge on the wayward dragon racer. She needed to confront her rapist and condemn him before the Overlord. “The worse he'll get is a fine for dangerous conduct. If that. Racer’s luck, the officials will say more likely than not. Accidents happen. What happened to Sable wasn’t an accident.”
Orel released her and shrugged. “Racing is a dangerous business.”
At Orel’s behest, Isla stayed back as the dragon masters saw to Sable's wounds. A master wearing dragon hide gloves that covered his hands and arms up to the elbows cleaned the lacerated flesh around Sable’s right eye and the gash across her forehead. Spectators and other racers stopped by to congratulate Isla on her victory. She barely heard a word they said. Finally, the senior Dragon Master in charge of Sable's care spoke to Isla.
“Your beast's right eye is destroyed,” he said in a gravelly voice.
Isla let out a soft whimpering cry. “There's nothing you can do?”
“There is no eye to save,” he said. “The left eye is another matter. We might save it, but won't know until the swelling goes down.”
“Thank Draco,” she said. “Sable won't be blind."
The Dragon Master frowned. “It’s too early to say, but there is hope. A few stitches and rest will take care of the gash across the forehead.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” Isla said.
Orel took her aside as the masters continued their work. She grimaced as two burly masters strained to force a foot long needle through Sable's tough hide to stitch up the gash across her forehead. The wound was halfway closed when an officious man in rich green robes approached Isla.
“Isla Hughes?” the man said, his voice a harsh staccato. She replied in the affirmative. “Congratulations on your victory. I am Hugo Field, third assistant secretary to the Overlord's seneschal. The Overlord requires your presence in the pavilion. Follow me.”
Hugo spun on his heel and strode away through the crowd toward the massive green pavilion.
“My dragon...” Isla said, but the man was too far away to hear her.
“Go, lass,” Orel urged. “We’ll do everything we can for your beast. We’ll move her to the dracodrome off Overlord’s March. Hurry! You can't be late to an audience with the Overlord.”
Isla thanked him, and with one last glance at her beloved, she darted through the crowd after Hugo. She was out of breath when she caught up to him. He glanced at her.
“There you are,” Hugo said. “I thought perhaps you had declined the Overlord's invitation.”
“No... my dragon,” Isla said, breathlessly.
“Don't worry about your beast,” Hugo said. “Only the best dragon masters work the Trials.”
“Of course,” she said. She wanted to punch the man in the nose just like she had Oliver but reminded herself that she had a different agenda. “Will the entire court be at the audience?”
“Yes,” Hugo said. “They'll all want to have a look at you and hear what you have to say to the Overlord.”
“Including the council?”
Hugo looked at her, frowning. “Of course. All the important people will be there. Enough with your questions.”
He prattled on about proper protocol in the presence of the Overlord and listed off appropriate requests that she could make. Requests not on the list, he insisted, would not be honored and could land her in a pot of boiling oil. Isla only half listened, she steeled herself for confronting the man who had raped her.
More people were gathered inside the Overlord's pavilion than Isla expected, it was standing room only. In a booming voice, a barrel-chested man introduced her as the victor. The crowd fell silent, and she walked down an aisle toward a raised dais where Overlord Yadira Dalgaard lounged upon a golden bench. Isla felt the most powerful nobles in the land watching her as she passed. She ignored them, on the lookout for the man she wanted dead.
As she neared the dais, she spotted him off to the right at the base of the raised platform with the rest of the council. She stopped and scowled at him. His gaze made her feel like cockroaches scurried over her skin. Feeling nauseated, she struggled not to gag. The years had deepened the lines etching his face, but there was no mistaking Pontifex Gaius, the perverted bastard who forced himself upon her when she was a girl and him just a priest.
“Come forward and bow,” someone said in a hushed voice that seemed very loud in the near silence of the pavilion.
Isla tore her gaze from the pontifex, who showed no sign of recognizing her. A guard in a white surcoat at the base of the dais motioned for her to move forward. Blushing, she took several steps toward the raised platform and dropped to a knee. She bowed her head and waited to be acknowledged by the Overlord.
“Rise, Isla Hughes, and be recognized for your great victory,” Overlord Yadira said in a high, clear voice.
Shuddering, Isla rose, struggling to keep her gaze from flicking to the pontifex. The Overlord wore a flowing green dress fringed in gold. She sat bolt upright on her golden bench as she gave what sounded like a prepared speech congratulating Isla on her victory. Isla prayed that the Overlord, the most powerful individual in the kingdom, would take her accusation against the pontifex seriously and order the monster executed for his crime.
Yadira ended the speech with the words, “Isla Hughes, what request do you make of me?”
Isla stared straight ahead. At that moment, she relived her past.    
“Isla?” the Overlord prompted.
Reverie broken, Isla started speaking, the words coming out in a torrent. “As a girl, I suffered through the rites to judge if a child is an acceptable match in the eyes of the gods for the Overlord Apparent. After I was proven unsuitable, the priest in charge of the ceremony raped me.”
Gasps and muttered comments came from around the pavilion. Not all the utterances were complementary. Isla gathered her thoughts and spoke with renewed conviction.
“The priest who raped me was Pontifex Gaius.”
Fleshy face beet red, Gaius stormed out from his place next to the dais to stand in between Isla and the Overlord.
“He sent his delegation away and raped me! I beseech you, execute this monster for his crime!”
The pontifex shouted as she spoke, “I deny this false accusation! It is slander! I have never harmed a child!”
“Silence,” Yadira said, her voice cutting through the air like a sword. Both accuser and accused fell silent along with the gathered nobility. “You are all dismissed. I will speak to the victor alone.”
“I want this liar to answer for her false accusation,” the pontifex said.
“We will speak about this later,” Yadira said firmly. “You are dismissed.”    
Gaius bowed and withdrew.
“No, you can't,” Isla said. “He...”    
She fell silent, realizing her words were drowned out by the exiting nobles. As the pontifex strode past her, little more than an arm’s length away, he gave her a triumphant look that she recognized all too well. The same smug expression had been on his face while he threatened her and her family.
After several minutes, only Isla, the Overlord, and a bodyguard remained in the pavilion.
“Come, child,” Yadira said, patting the cushion next to her.
Isla was uncertain of herself and the situation but knew that she must obey. As she mounted the dais, she realized she held her breath and reminded herself to breathe. She hovered next to the Overlord unsure of the proper etiquette.
“Sit down,” Yadira said. “I'll put a crick in my neck staring up at you.”
Smiling sheepishly, Isla sat down. The bench was hard and uncomfortable, the cushion not nearly as plush as it appeared from afar. She fidgeted as she tried to find a comfortable sitting position.
“Don't bother,” Yadira said. “It's made to look imposing, not for comfort. Your bravery impresses me. Calling out the pontifex in front of the entire court was very bold. I enjoyed watching him squirm.”
Isla blurted. “You let him go. He's going to abuse more children, I know it.”
Yadira looked at her sharply, her almond eyes narrowing. “Careful, girl. I admire your bravery, and I think I like you, but that does not mean I will tolerate impertinence.”
Bowing her head, Isla said. “Forgive me.”
Yadira made an annoyed clucking sound. “You don't need to bow while we’re in private. If I want that, I have numerous bureaucrats I can summon who are all much better at it than you.”
Isla looked up, her gaze meeting the Overlord’s.
“Why do you think he's abused more children?”
“I travel as a racer,” Isla said. “Region to region, town to town. Participating in races
sponsored by different lords and guilds. I tracked down other women who were given the rites. Although none will admit it, he raped many of them. I could see it in their eyes.”
“Their eyes?”
“Their eyes are haunted and fearful. I can recognize other women who have suffered as I have. I don't know how else to explain it.”
“I believe you,” Yadira said. “Rumors about the pontifex’s tastes have been whispered about in court for years. Nothing substantiated, mind you.”
“You must do something,” Isla entreated.
Yadira let out a twittering laugh, the mirth never reaching her eyes. “Even I can't order the pontifex executed without consequences. I need evidence, hard facts before I can do such a thing. Otherwise, the nobles you saw gathered here today will see me as nothing more than a mercurial tyrant. A despot they might be better off without.”
“But you're the Overlord,” Isla said, knowing her pursuit of justice was falling short. “You burn your enemies. While traveling, I saw the aftermath of the battle at Blood Pool. Land for miles blackened, nothing alive. The heralds said you burned the entire rebel army. I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.”
Yadira snorted, a very undignified sound. Her eyes were mirthful. “Your innocence is wondrous. Yes, I burned rebels at Blood Pool. You are asking me to order the pontifex executed. It's not the same.”
“It is to me,” Isla said softly.
“Do your best to remain innocent and idealistic, Isla, it's refreshing. In the coming months, listen to the heralds calling the news in the town square,” Yadira said. “One day soon, you might hear something you like.”
Isla was about to ask the Overlord what she meant by that, but Yadira ended the conversation with a wave of her hand. Isla might've blurted out a question despite being dismissed, but the bodyguard glowered at her and escorted her from the pavilion.
She stayed in the capital while Sable recovered, visiting her dragon at the dracodrome, a vast open-air stable for dragons, each day. From Orel, she learned that the race officials fined Oliver for dangerous conduct. She took satisfaction in that, but a fine seemed a paltry punishment for the act that destroyed Sable’s right eye, leaving a knot of scarred flesh in its place. Thank the gods that the dragon’s left eye recovered enough for her to fly again.
Within three months, they were back on the racing circuit, traveling from town to town in the hopes of winning enough gold to feed themselves. As the winners of the Overlord's Trials, their fame preceded them and in the wealthier communities they feasted and stayed free of charge. Everywhere they went, she listened to the heralds call the news, never hearing anything particularly interesting.
One day, while stopping for grub in a backwater hamlet barely worthy of a herald's visit, she saw a broad shouldered man dressed in a fine green cloak stride into the village square.
“Pontifex Gaius is dead,” he called. “Died in his sleep. Weak heart.”
Isla sprinted the entire way from the square to a towering oak at the edge of the village where she had left Sable. She thought about the Overlord telling her to listen to the heralds. Had Yadira ordered the monstrous priest killed? Isla chose to believe that was true. It made her quest for vengeance complete. As she neared the tree, the dragon stood and uttered a deep growl that managed to sound like a question. Isla pressed her hand against Sable's scales.
The pontifex is dead, she said.
Unadulterated joy flowed over their connection. Isla leaped into the saddle. Sable took to the air, and they soared over the hamlet, enjoying the freedom of flight. Isla, to her surprise, felt ambivalent about the death of the pontifex. She expected to be happy, giddy even, at the news of his death, and to have the scar marring her soul healed in an instant. She didn't feel any joy, vengeance left her pensive, confused even. By the gods, Sable was more pleased about the lecherous priest's demise than her. Their victory at the Overlord’s Trials and her revenge came at a high a price. She only needed to consider Sable’s missing eye to be reminded of that. But, she felt satisfaction that justice was served, and the monster would never harm another child. Maybe now, she could heal and move on.


Dan Rice

Dan Rice writes speculative fiction while not slaving away at the 9 to 5 or entertaining wee lads.

He enjoys the writing process. All his fiction to date firmly falls into sci-fi and fantasy. The Overlord’s Trials is his eighth published short story.Earlier this year, his fantasy short story Wakizashi appeared in Aurora Wolf (https://aurorawolf.com/2018/04/wakizashi/).

You can find a list of his published works and recommendations on tips he has used to improve his writing at https://www.danscifi.com/. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanRiceWrites


About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of  Fantasia Divinity, which she started to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. She is the author of The Moon Princess the children’s fantasy series, Once Upon a Unicorn.