The Last Hexereiter

The man in brown rode into the tiny village to the sound of cheers. But there was no one in sight. Where did the voices come from? And why weren’t the villagers tending their farms and livestock?

He found the answers in the middle of the settlement. A crowd of men, women and children in rough clothing filled the village square. He estimated maybe sixty souls in all. It seemed like everyone had taken the day off from their never-ending labors. Something in front of them had captured their attention; but for a few curious children and a couple of youths his approach had gone largely unnoticed. The rider craned his head, seeing a thicket of wooden staves raised before the people,

Not staves. Muskets.

A voice, clear and ringing, cut through the air.

“This I promise you: today the Haferdämonen meet their end!”

Wild applause and full-throated yells filled the world. Slowly, stiffly, the rider dismounted his chestnut mare. There was a time he could do that without his muscles threatening to lock up. Those days had gone with the last shades of black in his short gray hair. Standing on the animal’s left, he gently led it through the crowd, keeping his rifle and his messer far away from the horse’s questing muzzle.

“And who is this?”

The peasants turned to look at him. At his weathered buff coat made of the hides of monsters, the pair of huge pistols swinging from the horse’s saddle, the second pair of pistols peeking above his boot-tops, the rough sword and the time-worn rifle, and, as he drew closer, the amulet he wore around his neck.

“A Hexereiter!” a man whispered.

“It can’t be! Here, in this day and age?”

“Quick, hide the children! And your silver!”

This he heard, and more. The crowd parted before him, the women shielding their children, the menfolk shielding their women.

Through the gap he saw the soldiers. An entire company of foot infantry, resplendent in their immaculate green-white-yellow uniforms. They stared him down, their faces impassive. Their Kapitan, front and center, glared at the rider, and sniffed.

“Identify yourself,” the officer demanded.

“Johann Roger Werner,” the rider said. “And yourself?”

I am Kapitan Paul Heinrich Frank Welf Friedrich Eisenberg, Second Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fifth Fusilier Regiment, in the service of Herzog Klein of Marenland.” He paused to breathe. “Are you a Hexereiter?”

Werner held out his amulet. It was a beast’s head impaled on a sword, beaten and rough and dull.

“Yes.”

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What Can Your Demon Do For You?

The candles flickered in the dull red light that filled the room. A cloaked figure danced in circles around the white, chalked pentagram on the floor. He muttered under his breath to the beat of a drum that was being played from a dusty gramophone.

Oriens splendor lucis aeternae,” he said.

The dust on the floor began to rise. The figure paused and raised his hands, his voice getting louder, “Et Lucifer justitae: veni. Et illumine sedentes in tenebris. Et umbra­ –.”

“HAROLD. ARE YOU CHANTING AGAIN?” The voice echoed up from below the floorboards.

Harold dropped his hood and sighed. He walked over to the door, careful not to upset the chalk pentagram on the floor. He opened the door as he heard a pair of footsteps climbing the stairs.

“Muuuuuum. I was almost finished.”

His mother stood at the top of the stairs. She had her hands on her hips and her lips were pressed tightly together.

“What have I told you about summoning demons inside the house? Go do your chanting in the hanger,” she said.

Harold tried hard not to roll his eyes. His mother was brandishing a wooden spoon from the kitchen covered in a dark red substance.

“But Dad’s working on the ridge,” Harold said.

His mother’s eyes narrowed sharply. She turned around to go back down the stairs as the smell of something burning became pungent.

“I don’t care. Just get out of the house.”

Harold huffed and went back into his room. He shut the door with precisely enough force to make the shudder reverberate around the entire house. A pile of books by the door fell over. Among them was titles like, A Practical Guide to Summoning, Pentagrams for Dummies and What can your demon do for you?

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The Return of Cosmo Draper

“Yes, I was there. As a matter of fact, you could say that I instigated the whole thing,” old Mr. Porter admitted. “Now?” he inquired of his guest, his voice raspy from age. “You want to hear about it. . . now?” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Well, I . . I guess I have time.”

“It was back in the holiday season of ’79. President Carter had recently given his ‘malaise speech’ – saying how the whole country was in kind of a funk. That was certainly true where I was working: A little daily newspaper called The Northbridge Beacon in Massachusetts. It was a nice little paper. We didn’t report much hard news. It was mainly Little League scores and Rotary Club meetings – stuff like that. Northbridge was where I grew up. It was great back then, but lately. . . well, like the president said: Malaise.

“It all started late one evening between Turkey Day and Christmas. A light snow had started falling. My fellow reporter, Andy Carr, had taken a jaunt down to old man Bellini’s general store to fetch us some sandwiches while I held down the fort.”

Carr entered the Beacon’s offices, quickly closing the door behind him. He stomped the snow from his shoes. “Boy, it’s getting cold out there,” he said. “I’m tellin’ you!”

“The snow looks kind of pretty,” Porter responded from his desk, looking out the window.

“For now, sure. After the traffic gets at it tomorrow morning, it’ll turn into a kind of brown, ugly mush that’ll hang around until April.”

“Well, let’s enjoy it while we. . .” Porter rose from his desk and instantly noticed that something was wrong. “Where are the sandwiches?” he asked.

“Back at Belinni’s,” Carr answered unhappily.

“You never got them?”

“Belinni wouldn’t sell them to me.”

What?”

“He said he was closing up shop.”

Porter looked at the wall clock behind his co-worker. “But it’s only 8:15,” he said. “He’s open until 9:00 every night.”

“That’s what I told him as he locked the main door. He said there were no customers, and he was closing early to go home and watch a Bonanza rerun.”

“He turned down business?”

“Yep. He said it wasn’t worth his while to open up his deli counter for just a couple of sandwiches. I told him I’d buy more – two Cokes and a big bag of chips – but he still said no. I was thinking of heading over to the House of Pizza, but the roads are getting pretty icy.”

“So what’s for dinner?” Porter asked.

“I guess we’ll have to make due with whatever’s in the vending machines.”

“Stale chips and warm soda? Yum! I swear there’s a Milky Way in there that’s older than I am!”

“I’m not happy about it either, Tim,” Carr said. “Any news while I was gone?”

“No. I was just sitting here, watching the snow fall, and thinking about how great of a town this used to be back when we were growing up. Remember?”

“Oh yeah! And I can sum up those good times in two words.”

“Cosmo Draper,” they said simultaneously.

“Now there was a man’s man,” Carr continued.

“My dad used to say there were two ways you knew everything was right with the world: FDR was president, and Cosmo was the mayor.”

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Unknown Woman #42

Dotty stood and stared down at the simple marker, a metal plaque, time-drawn patina across its letters, set into a simple stone block, and like every other instance, every single one of them, she remembered. She read the date once more: June 22, 1918. Somehow, she was always drawn back to this place.

Around the markers stood four elephant statues, their trunks lowered in mourning. She remembered. She thought that there had been elephants….

Of course, there were elephants. There was a tiger too, though the lions were gone for some time now. It took quite a bit at the beginning for the transport cages to be appropriately modified, because the elephants didn’t like the train much. You could hear them banging around sometimes even above the noise of the tracks. Some of the performers lived together, like Bezo the Clown and The World’s Shortest Woman (Clarissa was her real name), or Julius/Julia, Half-Man, Half-Woman and Titus the Strong Man who’d only recently decided to shack up together. Madam Orenska, the Psychic, sometime wondered if it would be more appropriately called carriaged up, but in the end, that didn’t quite flow. Just like Dotty Smith didn’t quite work as a psychic name. She guessed, in the end, that was why people had stage names. Madam Orenska worked one of the side tents, not like the stars of the show. They worked the Big Top. Not so for Dotty Smith. The Flying Forellis had their own carriage, but they were a family, and they worked the Big Top.

Between the carriages that transported the animals and those, further back, that served as living quarters ran the gear flatbeds, the yellow and red striped big top, the poles and ropes and spikes, the tools to put it all together. It gave them all a few meters’ separation from the noise and stink of the animals. Just as well; she didn’t much like the smell of horses. Dotty didn’t much like the lovely Agneta who pranced around on their backs in her blue sequined costume, teeth bared in her performance smile, arms held aloft either. But you couldn’t like everyone, could you? Though everyone else seemed to like her. Dotty just didn’t get it. After the gear and the animals came the living quarters and the sleeping cars and finally, the last couple of carriages, shared by the roustabouts, all packed in like sardines. At least she wasn’t back there.

They had about five hours before the next stop. Some small town in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter. Everyone loves a circus. Dotty had been with Bayley Brothers and Ryan for about four years now, but they’d only started using the train about two years ago. To be honest, she preferred the old style with the caravans and the wagons. Places you could truly call your own. They could go anywhere they wanted, finding interested crowds, people who’d never seen them before. Now they were more limited, stuck with the places that the tracks led. Sure, it was quicker getting to wherever they were going, but not by much. They had a big circuit now, bigger towns and cities. It meant that they had to regularly change up the acts, keep them fresh. Still, despite those differences, she wouldn’t change the life for anything. It was where she belonged.

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The Slow War

The fierce blue star lied. It appeared to be in the center of a field of crowded blue and violet points of light all focused and pulled towards the front of the ship. It was the incredible speed that they traveled at that hid the truth of a warm yellow dwarf star. The glare of the star from this distance hid its collection of planets and asteroids.

Astrogator Vyron Rhoson preferred to see the ″real″ image of uncorrected light. Gazing at the floating images of the stars crowded ahead of him the universe assumed its familiar cast given by relativistic velocity that he had known since childhood. A universe of stars in all directions, without the blue-shift in the direction of travel did not really seem real to him, any more than the world outside the ship’s walls as more than an intellectual abstraction.

Rhoson activate the full scope of the sensor’s abilities once more. The fierce point of blue light became a warm yellow globe speckled with sunspots. The three large gas giants were easy to discern, and the various icy and watery planets and moons were visible as faint crescents and discs. The haze of the cometary belt glowed about the system as each item was located and updated by the computer.

These had been known for years; he was looking for minutiae in the haze of individual photons. He scanned carefully for the high-energy emissions of ship’s drives, power sources or communications. Nothing. Still, he double checked. While he would never live to see the star-system, the survival of his descendants was at stake. Would the ship decelerate and form a new colony, or would they enter into a radiation-filled battleground? Satisfied that the system ahead was still unclaimed, he made the call.

″Still no sign of the enemy in the system ahead, Captain.″ he reported. ″No high-energy signatures, no signs of industry. It looks like a good place to stop.″

″Thank you, Astrogator.″ the Captain replied. ″I want an updated navigational deceleration map and relativistic probe launch tracks for the meeting in two hours.″

″Yes sir.″ I looked like they were going to be stopping at last. They would not have to continue to drift along until they ran into the enemy in the Sagittarius arm. The system ahead would have everything needed for a colony: comets, asteroids and barren worlds. He was a little worried about that second planet and it’s oxygen atmosphere, though. Still, that temptation aside, the system would be a perfect location to fortify and prepare the next generation of generation ships. All of this would take generations of course. Only those that planned ahead went to the stars.

Vyron updated the projected paths for the relativistic probes. Each would speed silently by, dormant for most of their flight, sending bursts of coded data to the ship about the system ahead. The ship meanwhile, would then engage the powerful braking drives and fields, blasting super-heated particles towards the system at near light speed. Not only would Vyron loose his cherished view of blue stars ahead, but the stream of particles would be a loud alarm across the galaxy announcing their presence.

The light of their engines would race ahead of them though the centuries, and be received by the enemy. Slowly, inevitably, ships would be launched, or more likely, ships already in motion would change their course towards the new target. Even though all would take centuries, speed was essential.

Behind them lay a thousand light-years of conflict, where the expanding waves of human and alien colonization had met. He hoped that they had arrived here first, and may have left behind the conflict, for a while. Perhaps they may even be able to flank the alien’s expanding space, as had been intended when the ship was launched so long ago.

All around him were the faint, red-shifted broadcasts of the conflict they left behind. Haggard faces in slow-motion described the constant struggle. He listened to the last broadcast of a doomed world, watching as it died centuries ago. This would not happen to their new home, he swore.

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