Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Coming Home" by Stephen R. Wilson

Pulling down the driveway after an all-nighter at work. Looking forward to some good, dead-to-the-
world sleep.

The garage door is open.

Why?

I don’t think I left it open. The wife wouldn’t have. She’s always thinking about safety. Thinking too much about safety. Silly.

Park the car and open the kitchen door. Hear fast feet.

Look up as a strange man runs around the corner toward the front door. Move mode. Tackle him.

A gun slides across the threshold and stops at the door.

He had a gun. Why didn’t he use it? Must have panicked when he heard me come in.

His mistake. The gun’s mine now.

Wait. Where’s Denise?

“Denise?...Denise!”

No answer. The guy’s struggling under me. Smack him in the face with the gun.

Crane my neck to look around the corner while he fights me. Stay on him. Keep him down.

Blood down the hallway. Blood with hair buried in it. Deni’s hair.

Smack him again, lean forward to see better.

Too much blood. She’s dead.

Did he rape her?

No, her clothes are still on. Just killed her.

He killed her.

Smack him again. Again. Again. Drive the gun into face. His blood-dirtied face.

Calm down. Take a breath. Pull it together.

Look at him.

“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to kill someone. You just gave me my chance. No, shut up. “ Smack him again. Twice. “I’m going to give you ten seconds to pray. I believe in God. I don’t want you go to Hell for screwing up your life. Some of it’s your fault, but not all of it, probably. Maybe something happened to you growing up, messed you up, damaged you. I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter if you die. You’re nothing. A junkie. A criminal. You’re not contributing to society in any way. No one will miss you. Not even your family. In fact, I’ll be doing your family a favor. They won’t have to put up with your shit anymore. Your victims won’t have to worry about you hassling them. Your drug dealer will lose your business, but I don’t care about him. He’ll find others to sell to anyway.

“So I’m going to give you ten seconds. Ask God to forgive you. Tell Him you thank Him for sending Jesus to die for you and take the punishment for your sins.”

He’s blubbering. Begging. I hear the word “God” a couple of times, but I don’t think he’s really praying.

Should I let him live? Call the cops and have mercy?

Down the hall. D didn’t deserve this. Was probably scared out of her mind.

No, I told him I was going to do it, so I have to do it. Want to be a man of my word.



It’s done. Now, what? Call the cops. Wipe off the gun. I came home, saw D dead, him dead. Must have killed her and then regretted it. Suicide. He committed suicide after he killed her.

That’s false testimony, isn’t it? “Thou shalt not bear false testimony”.

Oh, well. What does He expect of me? I didn’t put myself in this fucked up world.





Wednesday, June 5, 2013

New This Week!

All Christian! All Fiction! All Genres!

Thank you for visiting Wherever it Pleases, a safe place for Christian readers. Click on any genre you like and browse through the stories. Please feel free to make comments on any story. The authors will appreciate it!

New this week:

Speculative
The Angel Who Never Was by Jeanne Haskin. God's smallest angel must undo the worst of fates. Chapter 1.

Petition by Kim Bond. God, have mercy.


Western
Sentenced for Life by S. L. Estes. God gives us all a choice.





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Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Sentenced for Life" by S. L. Estes








The hammering from the street invaded the room but not so much the noise as the meaning for it. The man paced like a caged animal, four quick steps one way, swift turn, and back four steps. The wide-open, fear-white eyes would check the small window. His body language screamed a strong urge to fly, the man’s heart willing for freedom. His hands appeared to have a life of their own, constant movement without purpose, clenching at his sides, sometimes rising to wipe his sweating face.



I sat in a cane chair outside the cell, watching Burt Norbuck, the man scheduled to hang. I wasn’t looking forward to it, though he certainly was guilty of the crime. This would not be the death of a blusterer. There would be no snide remarks at the crowd. Burt hadn’t admitted to the murders even when caught without a doubt with his not long killed victims. I was afraid there would be neither confession nor repentance.



“Please, Burt, ask God to forgive you.”



“Forgive what?” Stopping in the middle of his left hand pace, Burt grabbed the bars with white-knuckle fury. “You think confessing to you will save my soul?”



“No,” I said. “Confessing to me won’t save you. It’s only God who can forgive sins.”



“Then what good are you?” he shouted.



With the morning light, I asked permission to speak with the prisoner. Burt being a very dangerous man, I agreed with the sheriff that I would be safer outside the cell instead of locked in with him. He’d given me a chair to sit in and I’d stayed there all day, against the jail wall, out of Burt’s reach. This was his last day alive in this life and I had only the daylight hours to persuade him of Jesus’ love for him. I read verses proclaiming the Gospel message and explained Jesus’ death on the cross for Burt’s sins. That Jesus wanted Burt to know that He, the Son of God, had graciously taken the punishment for all Burt’s wrongdoings onto Himself and died in Burt’s place. Because God was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, anyone who accepted God’s forgiveness would have eternal life with God.



I read and talked for hours while Burt ranted at me with frantic feral fear and paced. Only a few moments now until sunset and he had the appointment with the noose sealing his fate. It was up to Burt whether he died forever saved, or forever damned. I didn’t want him damned.



“The verses I read to you, don’t they mean anything?”



“Preacher,” Burt said, “you could have read me that whole book, and it wouldn’t make your deal matter on this table. I’m stuck with the hand I was dealt.” He turned to the window, high up in the wall, a small portal of light to the evening sky. Lowering his head into his hands, he gripped his hair tightly, shaking his head back and forth. “It don’t matter.”



“Don’t you feel anything?”



“Feel, Preacher?” For the first time that day, his shoulders slumped with release. He pointed through the window. “I feel the need to escape. I feel the need for that to be so big a wagon can go through it.” He turned toward me and peered through one of the small spaces between the bars. “I feel anger that judge hanged me.”



Behind Burt, I saw the light fading. The hammering had quit and the other noises seemed more ominous. We both jumped hearing the banging test of the gallows trap.



“You don’t care you took the lives of the Kincaid family?”



“Ha, if I had felt anything, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place.” He came back to the bars, facing me. “There, I said it. So now, what has changed? Is the hanging called off?”



“No,” I said. “You will hang, but I would dearly love for you to accept Jesus as your Savior and live with Him in eternity.”



Burt stopped moving and held onto the bars, cocking his head at me like a quizzical bird. His quiet stare gave me a small hope.



“Will you be with Jesus for all eternity, Preacher?”



I smiled. “Yes, I’ll be there.”



He shoved away from the bars, scowling with disgust. “Then I don’t want to go.”



Just then, the big door opened, admitting the sheriff and his deputies. After binding his hands, they escorted Burt Norbuck to the gallows.



I had to close my eyes when the trap opened and Burt went to eternity in the lake of fire.


- - -
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"Petition" by Kim Bond


A girl in her late teens shuffled up the footpath as I maneuvered through the early morning fog in my Mini Coupe. She bore resemblance to someone from 1972 in her chocolate-colored suede skirt with swaying fringe punctuated by round wooden beads. Her stringy ash blond hair had not been straightened by an iron nor had it been enhanced by gel and shine. No, the hair appeared natural — a genuine detail modern-day hippies tend to forget. A wooden guitar was slung over one shoulder with a wide embroidered strap.



Moments later, a boy walked in the same direction as the hippie, holding a black guitar case in his whitened knuckles. His dark hair clashed with his gray eyes, which screamed for relief from some secret emotional turmoil. The boy’s ragged clothes echoed his inaptitude to pierce whatever monstrosity mesmerized his mind. He looked as if he were off to play the blues with aged black men who strum with thick strokes impregnated by some inherited soul burden from slavery times.



More guitarists approached. Some with slicked back hair; others wore bouffant hairdos. There were middle-aged women with orchid tattoos inked into elegant skin that poked out unapologetically from cotton sundresses. Asians wearing silver suits with purple cummerbunds sauntered past without taking notice of me. I gazed at tweens, who strolled by in striped knee highs with feather boas dangling from their necks. All carried guitars: classic, electric, hollow, and steel guitars of every shape and color. In mobs, they crowded the streets and made it impossible to accelerate a single inch without striking ninety-five pedestrians.



At first, I suspected they were headed to guitar lessons. As more came, I concluded a competition was set to commence. Next, I assumed the guitarists were elements of an extravagant flash mob. As the droves continued steadily, the situation grew more eerie. I punched the dial on the car radio, hoping the disc jockey might mention the event as a side note to the morning traffic report.



Instead, he reported the horrific news with a tremor in his voice. In the night hours, the world’s end had become evident with unequivocal signs. Cows had stopped giving milk, and hens refused to lay eggs. People near Mount Vesuvius had been buried in ash while Hong Kong’s citizens were covered in snow. World leaders urged mankind to gather together in cities across the globe to petition God for His compassion with dulcet notes offered up via human fingertips plucked harmoniously on guitar strings.



I did not abandon my vehicle to join them as you might think. More logical matters entered my mind, like stocking up food and locating a fallout shelter. After the crowd thinned, I continued down the back street. I stopped at a grocery store. Save the lobsters that swam in the tank, the store showed no other signs of life. I estimated the cost of groceries I had swiped from the shelves and left that amount of cash — not a cent less — on the counter. From the parking lot, I phoned my sister and urged her to take refuge with me.



She replied, “If knowledge, logic, and intelligence are spawns of wisdom, they should cower in the face of artistic expression.” She said it as though she were reading the Gettysburg Address. I waited for her to expound on the subject, but after a few silent moments, she simply said, “Huey, I can’t play the guitar and talk to you simultaneously. I have to go. Goodbye and....good luck.” 



I tossed the cell phone on my passenger seat and stared into the distance. I scratched my forehead under the front of my ball cap and tried to remember the way to Aunt Jane’s farmhouse. 



An hour and several wrong turns later, I finally arrived. Aunt Jane was nowhere to be found, but the storm cellar was just as I remembered. I had scarcely unloaded the food and closed the wooden doors when a massive blast shook the ground. Intense heat gusted on my flesh.



It was several hours later when I awoke. Chili from an exploded can dripped from the shelter’s ceiling. Burned flesh odor filled my nostrils. My muscles were tight. My swollen eye throbbed.


Then I reached up and touched my face. I patted my lips. I realized my mouth had been burned into a permanent sneer. Broken bones prevented me from standing on my feet. So I laid there and wished for a guitar or a banjo or a lyre. After a while, I began to hum.

- - -
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"The Angel Who Never Was" by Jeanne Haskin Chapter 1









Small does not mean weak, Mihr tells herself. But it is hard to find courage when she is childlike in stature and Heaven’s enemies are great.

Already she is wounded, her side blackened and bloodied. Mist curls about her wings, clinging to hips and knees. Warriors surround her and the cloud floor rings with chaos. Power shatters the golden skyscape into fragments of fire and darkness. She leans heavily on her sword, clutching the gore-streaked hilt. Ivory chin-length hair falls across her face.

Her armor is light, prophecy, blessings. 

And this is not her end.

She sees him come for her, and he is not one of the Fallen.  He holds her, shields her.

Shivering in death’s shadow, she fades in and out of the future. 

“When all power is commerce, man’s death shall be near.” Her words are hoarse, urgent. “Then beware the maker of peace, who wears another’s face.”

She pulls him close to whisper what little she can say without changing what must be. “Be wise, Nephilim. And know that the greatest harm shall stem from winds of change.”

Her eyes close as he tends her wound.

She has been to the days of the damned.

There, she will meet him again. 

Chapter One

The more strength John loses, the more savage his cancer becomes. His pain is rending, relentless. 

"Please, Sarah," he says.

His wife bows her head and he knows she is praying.  Seated to the right of his bed, she is closer than the machines that straddle his supine form, measuring and assessing his wastage and tortured breathing.

A hair of cinnamon-silver is snared by her lip balm. The rest of it stays braided in a rope that reaches her waist.

Her appearance is practical and modest, the symbol of her deathwatch a matte-black, shapeless dress, her jewelry a wedding band. She has never worn cosmetics in the thirty-six years he's known her. Her nails are bare of polish. She reminds him of a birch tree with her spare, slender beauty and her black and white beliefs.

How stupid to think she could kill him.

John keeps his breathing shallow, trying to maintain composure, but the pain is corrosive and, gasping, he loses patience. "If you can't do it, let me. Move the morphine to where I can reach it. Please, Sarah, please."

He's so far past the point of tears that his eyes are miniature suns in sockets of broken glass. His hair is long, gray and matted. His skin is sunken and clings to his bones.  

Hemmed in by walls and machines beneath a low acoustical ceiling, he’s trapped, suffocating. “Why can’t you end it?”

Sarah's gaze glistens with pity. She opens the port in his vein to administer a morphine dose that’s nowhere near enough to kill him.

And it feels like it always does, an ocean of lassitude, until he is sucked down by the undertow that blinds him and renders him powerless in a dream of soundless screaming.

***

 John heaves himself awake, choking on ritual panic. 

"Was it the nightmare, Dr. Dahl?" The computer speaks over the beeping that measures the pace of John's heartbeat. High-pitched and frenetic, it starts to slow almost immediately.

"Yes," John says, panting. "The one I always have." His fingers are stiff from clutching the bed rails. Sweat dampens the sheets and pillows.

Now that he's awake, his pain returns to visceral levels.

"Do you require comforting, Dr. Dahl?" The computer speaks with John's voice by virtue of vocal recordings, but some of its words are synthesized. "Comforting" sounds mechanical, and the question itself is surprising.

John says, "You're not programmed for sentimentality."

"Is that what I offered you?"

"The word implies compassion and an ability to empathize, neither of which you have, James."

"Oh, but I do, Dr. Dahl. As a biomechanical entity with hybrid physiology, my programs have evolved on utilitarian principles. What is useful is also appropriate."

"I see." John uses the control pad to raise the head of his hospice bed. Now he can view the computer in its entirety, from the insulated womb of the central processing unit where his DNA is lodged to the surrounding banks of monitors and the blue vinyl veins, electronic organs and clear plastic arteries of the network interface.

The room they occupy on the main floor of the house is small with one wall of windows. It smells like antiseptic and sour body fluids. Room-darkening blinds make the night feel dense and close.  

John says, "Why do I scream without sound and why does no one care?" 

James says, "You're not afraid to die, John. You're afraid that you won't matter."

***

At least mentally, John and the computer exist in symbiosis. Linked by the equipment that surrounds and straddles the bed, they share thoughts, memories, and personality traits through a complex exchange of electrical impulses and chemical messengers. John's DNA provides the blueprint for biological compatibility and the mechanical-intellectual interface promotes synaptic bridging.

In everything but spirit, the computer is John's equal. They share one consciousness. As long as their minds are melded, John's thought capacity is more than superhuman.

All that is known can be accessed. All that has been informs his perspective. But none of this matters now.

He’s in too much pain to think and only desires death. Yet he can’t make James a killer.

That would give him the power of choice and alter his algorithms.
It would make James unpredictable.


- - -
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

New This Week!

All Christian! All Fiction! All Genres!

Thank you for visiting Wherever it Pleases, a safe place for Christian readers. Click on any genre you like and browse through the stories. Please feel free to make comments on any story. The authors will appreciate it!

New this week:

General Fiction
Dog Eyes by Stephanie Gertsch. A twelve-year-old girl who doesn't get it, almost gets it, but doesn't.



Sci-Fi
In the Not-Flesh of Dreams by Jeanne Haskin. Silvana's job is to make sure everyone is sleeping peacefully.



Speculative
Amelia by Tim Tobin. A dead grandmother helps her grandson make the right decision.





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Wherever It Pleases is now part of the Onrail Publishing group! Click to see more free Onrail projects!

“In the Not-Flesh of Dreams” by Jeanne Haskin













Once the Earth’s poles stopped moving in spiraling, circular wobbles over shifting seven-year cycles, the world of 2013 was devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis, colder winters, and super-storms. People were told to expect an Ice Age, but the proponents of preparedness were never as deeply entrenched as the lobby on global warming.



Not that lobbying mattered by 2017, when the Ice Age began in earnest.



There were few ways to cope and nowhere to put the snow. No way to deliver fuel. No way to shop for groceries. People froze, starved, or committed suicide. And six million people vanished overnight.



Governments called it the Rapture.



The abandoned knew they lied.



***



As she emerges from cryosleep, Silvana opens her eyes to darkness. For one heart-pounding moment, she fears she’s been blinded, but then she perceives her aura, glowing like a bruise.



“Waking,” the computer says in a crisp, feminine voice. “Restoration stage nine: tested and complete. Proceeding to stage ten: full consciousness.”



Silvana wiggles her toes and fingers, which burn as if on fire.



“C-c-consciousness restored,” the computer says. “Stage ten: c-c-complete.”



“You’re stuttering, Phoebe. Why?” Silvana frantically works her mouth until the numbness leaves her face.



“I-I’m n-not sure,” the computer replies.



Chill sweat beads on Silvana’s lip and wets the back of her shirt.



The bed of the cryo-unit slides out of its housing, preparing her for discharge. Luckily for Silvana, she’s bedded at ground level, as are all the custodians of the six million people buried underground.



The computer says, “P-p-please w-wait for the remainder of the sequence.”



“Override,” Silvana says. “I’ll get out by myself.”



After waving away the vapor amassing around her face, she unscrews the couplers to ports in her arms and legs. She presses the panic lever, which parts the cryo-ceiling, then scrambles out of the unit, trembling with unease.



Her legs shake as she lurches through the aisle with one hand on a wall, twenty cryo-units tall and fifty units wide. Both knees buckle and she falls. She pushes herself off the concrete and, wincing, hurries on.



Each wall is part of a maze, hundreds of feet deep and thousands of yards wide. At the first intersection, she trips motion sensors that activate amber glow rods. Their light leads to the control block, where she passes a retinal scan and lays her hand on an access panel. When the vault door swings open, she steps into deeper darkness, despite the tiny indicators blinking signs of progress on the computer’s banks of components.



“P-p-please wait,” the computer says. “Approaching s-s-stage eleven, s-s-stage ten, stage nine.”



Silvana bites her lip and sits at the only console. She types a command on the keyboard to open the user log, then squints as the screen turns brighter.



11:04:17 User 322207754 has logged off.



12:17:01 User 111000876 has logged on.



12:17:01 Multiple users are logged on.



Silvana types a request:



12:18:05 Show all users currently logged on.



A fan whirs into action as hard drives click and hum. The screen remains motionless until she types her request again. Then the computer reports:



12:20:34 One other user is logged on.



Now that all of her senses function, Silvana smells fresh-cut flowers. On a shelf directly behind her lies a purple jungle bloom.



But that's impossible. Unless…



Silvana rubs at the worry lines furrowing her forehead.



First the log-on, now the flower. Somehow, someone has accessed the facility from the not-flesh of dreams.



***



The bunker was built in Germany, where geographical stability and a rock-solid economy made such an enormous undertaking both possible and practical. But living underground for more than a matter of weeks required a team of global researchers to master cryogenics. There was no other means to save so many people, keep them fit and keep them nourished, for as long as a decade, if necessary.



There was, however, a problem.



Preliminary tests showed that subjects kept stable at extremely low temperatures had no capacity for dreaming. The longer they were in stasis, the more it lowered their intelligence and impaired cerebral functions.



To preserve thought capacity, five hundred superintendents were cycled through cryosleep, so their dreams could be projected to those in cryostasis. The volunteer superintendents gave them life, structure, and meaning. In the not-flesh of dreams, they also changed the world above them.



***



When there aren’t any worms, bugs, or viruses to explain the mysterious log-on, Silvana looks for a parasite. She shuts down the voluntary systems to track Phoebe’s involuntary functions and studies the information. 



Red code flashes and scrolls quicker than she can follow. Then something grabs her attention. It’s a string of foreign characters piggybacked to a log-on, which starts vanishing as soon as she perceives it.



She tries freezing the screen and isn’t quick enough. The parasite is gone and so is the second log-on.



***



After clearing the cryo-complex of compromised integrity, Silvana downloads satellite images of the snow veiling the world. All is lost, buried, beneath featureless peaks and drifts rimed with glittering ice, except for the Central American village where she is able to block the snowfall.



She types Pantera’s coordinates, but the view has to be magnified several hundred times before the lush growth of a rainforest appears on the nearest monitor, the sole spot of green in a world the color of death.



It is where she was transformed and where she needs to go. If there’s trouble there, so be it.



In the not-flesh, she can fight.



***



No one knew that cryosleep would release the dreamers’ auras, freeing them to manifest, not in the virtual reality designed by the scientists, but in the extrasensory dimension spanning the world at large. It is an alternate existence, where some have elemental powers, and Silvana’s is not the least of them. They call her Daughter Storm.



***



Silvana leaves the vault and returns to her cryo-unit. Stepping in, she adjusts her program and sets it on manual override. Until Phoebe can be trusted, she’s not taking any chances.



“Please, please,” the computer says. “R-r-rec-comencing sequence.”



“Hush,” Silvana says. “I want you to run diagnostics until I wake again. Fix the speech impediment. If you can’t, then tell me what caused it.”



She lies on her back and closes the cryo-ceiling, thinking about the intruder. Her father wouldn’t have come here, nor do her siblings have such power. They’re constrained to the village their father made for them, just as Silvana is.



She types in the coded sequence to inject a sedative before engaging in cryosleep. It makes going under less painful, less like death and a little less frightening, but she still feels the cold. Her skin burns and prickles as her body grows heavy and sluggish. The dark gorge of her aura swirls free like a rushing river.



***



In the not-flesh, Silvana arrives at the house of meeting, a domed wooden building with arches and soaring ceilings set on a verdant hill apart from the homes of the people. The villagers painted the walls with snowscapes. Mica makes them sparkle.



She holds out her hands to the families who have come with handmade presents: baskets, woven garments, pottery, and paintings.



Eyes the color of ochre track tears on brown-skinned faces.



“What’s wrong?” Silvana asks.



A woman wipes her nose on her hand. “A beast is hunting our children.”



Silvana strokes the woman’s hair, then gathers her in a hug. Here, in the not-flesh, she knows they will bear no new children. “I’m sorry for your loss.”



A man kneels and grasps her skirt. “Will you save them?”



“Yes,” Silvana says. “I’ll do whatever I can.” She knows of only two who manifest as beasts. The culprit can’t be her father, but she needs his permission to kill. She takes a machete from one of the villagers, then heads for the ritual pool.



***



At the edge of the rainforest, where deep, murky waters form a graveyard of want and need, Silvana strips to her underclothes so her garments won’t weigh her down. She immerses herself in the pool that is home to Water Child, long hair fanning out, her feet sinking in sludge.



The water leaches at her being, sifting through her thoughts and assessing her beliefs.



She shudders for good reason.



The villagers once came here seeking miracles and powers from her long-estranged father, but no matter their need or nature, they were swallowed by the water.



It is a live and murderous thing, testing motives, making judgments, impervious to pain and even less rewarding of virtue. Innocence saves no one, though purity is sacred as the measure of light’s true power.



The spark of a newborn babe is stronger than Sister Sun. The wondering eyes of a child shine brighter than Brother Moon.



She believes this is truth, but here is how it is.



In the village of Pantera, where her family holds power, there is never-ending hardship. Benevolence comes at a cost, and life is not what the lore teaches as innocence protected. Her father does not gain strength from the naiveté of newness. Rather he thrives on struggle, particularly when innocence would remake the world in its image. Disillusionment and defeat rebirth determination. Death comes swiftly to those who give up trying.



Like the villagers who drowned here, in the pool that ripples with pleas, smothered loss and dreams.



Like she, too, could be a victim for trying to save their children.



Darkness gathers in whorls as she crawls out of the pool into the overgrown grass. Steam licks the trees, ancient, vine-looped. Their roots overtake the landscape, breaking earth in twisted schemes. Three levels of foliage conspire to hide the stars. The birds fall silent, as do the beasts. Silvana inhales the humidity beading on her face and skin. The smell of mulch coats the back of her throat, musty, muddy. Frenetic insects race in a circle around her feet.



Silvana listens, waits.



A breeze carries his voice, whispering sibilant sorrows, remorse, disgust, regret. Disgust hurts the most.



She draws a shuddering breath. "You said I must never come." Why, she doesn’t know.



"But you have, after all." Her father slips free of the shadows, feline, feral, a panther the color of snow. Eyes like lapis lazuli regard her without love. "And you chose not to change."



The words hang on the air, unshaped by her father's mouth.



Silvana drops her gaze. She could have come as Daughter Storm, bringing chains of lighting, hurricanes and hail, but she denied herself protection so he might at least respect her.



Instead, he is unsympathetic. "There are lives you would save."



"Yes." The desire of her heart expressed in a single word - a reason to rebel, as Silvana always has. She’s been the keeper of the lore and the victim of false hope. But no storm has harmed the village since she grew into her power.



From necessity, she kneels, her legs too weak, her nerves too taut. "Mario feeds on the village children.” Her voice cracks, falters. “I come for permission to kill him."



A wave of electric current thrums over her skin, punishing, searing. Silvana gasps. "My need—"



"Is greater than it was. Kill him,” her father says. “But I forbid you to change again."



Tearful, she rises. Outcast. Stripped of power. Against Mario of all creatures, who is worse than Water Child.



***



Born of fire and cold when the elements fought for the world, her father neither loves nor hates, but does what he must to control.



Because vice makes him weaker, what he needs from her is courage. In sacrifice lies virtue. Through faith he gains power. Before, he gave her nothing to defend the lore of Pantera. Now he has taken from her to make the battle harder.



Silvana feels his judgment as she steps back into the water.



Her limbs have the weight of selfishness. Her heart covets. She flounders.



Bones stir in the deeps as skeletal fingers reach for her. The dead cry out lost needs.



My son, my only son.



My wife.



My brother.



My baby.



Heal me.



Help me.



Save me.



She tastes their bitter pain. Their agony dulls her sight. Burdened with untold failures, she claws and kicks toward shore as the water becomes frigid.



Around her legs, the current swirls, trapping them like arms. She pants, gulping breath, before it drags her down.



The cold stings, so many pinpricks in her eyes. She squeezes them closed, descending, pressure in her ears.



“Surrender,” says Water Child. “Not that it will matter.”



His voice is a series of wavelets, lapping at her skin, each surge impossibly colder, turning her limbs brittle. The breath she holds is explosive.



Her fingers snag on a trailing vine and for seconds, she opens one eye. She exhales a stream of bubbles, trying to get her bearings, then pulls hard at the vine, lurching hand over hand, kicking, suffocating. She sucks in water and chokes, but her feet brush higher ground.



Pushing, she breaks the surface, then throws herself at the bank, coughing out brackish water that burns, smelling of leaf rot. Like a wind chime of sticks, her teeth clash together.



Mosquitoes descend in clouds as she finds and dons her clothes. Sounding their tinny war cries, they plague her with bloody welts. Even in the not-flesh, there is hurt, pain — and possibly, true death. But her blood is repulsive; the attack does not last long.



Silvana gathers her hair to wind it behind her head. Then she steps into her sandals, retrieves her machete, and retreats through the rainforest where cuttings frame the path.



She passes through tender fronds that brush against her arms in shades of yellow-green and twists away from stalks with broad, glossy leaves. Wary of soundless serpent coils, spiders, and poisonous frogs, she walks in a half-crouch, her eyes ceaselessly searching. Birds trill and flap their wings, preening but sometimes warning. Something large rattles the underbrush. Its snarl raises gooseflesh.



Silvana backs away.



A black jaguar emerges, gray-flecked and spotted, with eyes of molten amber.



Her heart stutters as she holds the machete tighter.



Mario lies on his stomach, purring a contented rumble. “I have no wish to kill you, Silvana.”



She straightens and lifts her chin. “Then stop feeding on children. The lore demands compliance.”



Mario laughs, an almost pleasant sound, like the gusting of wind through trees relieving a hot summer day. “The lore is the path to power for those whose eyes are open. Consuming the children makes me stronger but also weakens your father, who has shackled us to Pantera and would limit our range forever.” He stands, twitching his tail. “Did you lose family in the storms? How many did you abandon to be where you are now?”



Silvana hefts the machete, steeling herself to use it. “I would save the world if I could, but I can’t let you go on killing.”



“Ah, Silvana.” Mario waves a paw in dismissal, his words impatient and scornful. “Do you imagine you can hurt me?” He begins to circle around her, his gaze locked on hers.



She turns to keep him in sight, the machete held out between them. “What do you want?”



He slinks into striking range. “Your power.”



Weight presses down on her eyelids. Her skin flushes scarlet. Heat suffuses her brain, distorting perception and judgment. Still, she asks the question. “Why?”



Mario closes the gap between them. “Because I left brothers, children, and it isn’t too late to save them.”



Silvana closes her eyes in anguish. “Don’t you think I want to?”



“How can you, if you’re not allowed to change?”



The machete shakes in her hands and dizziness blurs her vision. Her knees smack the earth. Sharp pains shoot up her thighs and lance into her hips. Her heart slows, every beat a ponderous note in a rhythm of deep distress. Head bowed, she clutches the grass, trying to stay upright.



Mario’s paw slaps her, knocking her onto her back. His body crushes her chest. Hot breath washes over her neck.



Her heart continues beating after he rips at her throat. Long enough to feel pain and smell the iron wash of her blood. Enough to watch him feed and realize she isn’t dead.



***



White-hot terror sears her nerves and shocks her mind. Unconsciousness eludes her, though the pain is unendurable. To stop it, she’d offer anything.



Murder.



Madness.



Massacre.



But these are lies, all of them.



She throws her arms around Mario’s neck, desperate to finish her death, and as his muzzle brushes her throat, their auras are torn from the world.



Silvana is slammed back into her body with the force of a hurricane. In the underground cryo-compound, her body is warm and pliant. Somehow Mario is gone.



She pushes the panic lever, frantic to get some answers. “Phoebe?”



“Yes?”



“Did you cancel my override?”



“No.” the computer replies. “Cancellation was unnecessary because life-support is involuntary.”



“You’ve stopped stuttering.” Silvana gingerly touches her throat. “Did you figure out what caused it?”



“Yes. There was no other way to tell you that someone tampered with my systems.”



Silvana nods her head. It should have already occurred to her that whoever planted the parasite would have erased his trail and made it all but impossible for Phoebe to give him away. “I assume the offender was Mario. What did you do to him?”



“He has returned to his cryo-unit, where I placed him in cryostasis. I also retrieved your father, to deliver the same outcome.”



“Why, Phoebe?”



“His decrees have lost their force. You are now free to change.”



Silvana grows dizzy, just thinking of possibilities. “We keep six million souls from literally losing their minds. But in the not-flesh, we changed a village. Was Mario right? Can we do more?”



"God is faithful,” Phoebe replies in a voice not her own, “and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with your testing, He will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13).



***


Returning to the not-flesh in the glazing of cold morning, Silvana spreads her arms and soars above the frozen world as a heavy, driving downpour with the heat of Heaven’s love.



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