Phantom Queen

Three young women stood watching the sea. Footsteps too far to hear alerted them of a man approaching. Their wait was at an end. They all turned in unison and walked toward the small cottage they would call home for today. Two of the women turned toward the third and merged with her, disappearing like ghosts into the earth. The lone woman kept walking toward the cottage. Each step she took aged her until she was grey and slow. Hours passed before the young man came into view.

“Hello Madame,” he called as he approached, his leather armor defining his muscles more than hiding them. A long spear lay strapped across his back. The smile on his face dispelled any intimidation his figure would have normally held.

She stopped milking her cow and turned toward him in crafted surprise. This was the first time he had recognized her after many attempts to capture his attention. “Oh, hello young man. You must be weary to have come all this way. Please, have some bainne. There is too much for just me.”

He approached and graciously accepted the offer. He drank three full glasses of the fresh milk.

“Thank you for your kindness. This will help my strength in future battles.”

“You shall be the strongest warrior,” she said knowing the truth of her words.

“Alas, I cannot stay to enjoy a proper exchanging of words. Please accept my deepest apologies.” He bowed to her.

“No need for such formalities. Young men are naturally making use of their constant vigor, as they should before age strips it of them.”

The young warrior continued his path and the old woman watched him go until he was lost to the horizon. Then her body burst into a murder of crows scattering across the sky.

Elemental Cocktails

They weren’t strictly legal. Places that sold them always claimed to be on the level, but everyone knew what really went on, and it was only a matter of time before someone slipped up and the place would get shut down. Others would pop up as soon as one fell. Overnight, multiplying like a virus. They served anyone and everyone who wanted a taste. The problem was, one taste could be too much. Many died after one dose. Some people gained unnatural abilities most of which were temporary. Just enough to make a man feel immortal, and that was the draw.

Martin never considered trying them. The thought had occurred to him, but he kept to alcohol for any inhibiting drugs. It was predictable, slow, and his body could cope with the recovery. No risk of instant, permanent damage. Genetic Altering Tonics, or GATs, were the latest craze that had created a lot of problems for the city. To Martin, GATs were only slightly worse than cocaine or heroin. He’d never been interested in trying them but he found himself in a DNA bar nonetheless.

It was near midnight on Thursday and he’d wondered down the steps from the street, past a dark-haired man with glowing blue eyes smoking a cigarette, and through the solid wood door. It looked like an other bar. Tables spaced around the room. Booths along two walls. The lights dimmed and music playing just loud enough so no one could overhear your conversation. Martin picked a booth near the back corner and ordered a whisky; two fingers, no ice. At first he sat quietly and sipped his drink. When the waitress brought his second one, he pulled out his screen and flipped through some news and pop-culture videos. The bar filled up and the noise rose. Martin saw a young man following a waitress through the crowd. He got up and headed toward the hallway where he presumed the restrooms were located. His timing was exact and he exited crowd to fall in line behind the young man. The waitress passed the restrooms and knocked on a door at the end of the hall. She said something and the door cracked before opening all the way. Martin feinted toward the restroom door then followed the waitress and young man inside.

“Who’s this?” a voice said as Martin stumbled into the room.

Strong hands grabbed his shirt and lifted him up against the wall. Martin’s eyes followed the hands against his chest, down the forearms, and up to the eyes of the bald brute holding him in place. The brute broke eye contact to look at the waitress for an explanation. She pointed to the man that had followed her.

“I don’t know. He’s the only one who followed me.”

The brute cursed under his breath and turned back to Martin.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m just here for a drink,” Martin said. The bald man stared at him so he offered more. “Whiskey. Maybe a G if you have it.”

The brute lowered him to the floor and let him go. “We don’t. Whiskey is out front.” The bald head nodded toward the door.

“Too bad,” Martin said, brushing his jacket, “I came prepared.”

The bald man raised an eyebrow. Martin pulled a small wad of cash from inside his jacket. The man smiled, took the cash and flipped through it. He patted Martin on the shoulder. Then he turned toward the young man who came in with the waitress who also pulled out a wad of cash and handed it over, managing to look bored through the entire interaction.

The bald man turned toward the waitress. “Get back to work.”

The waitress scurried back into the bar as the bald man walked to a small table and sat down. He gestured for Martin and the younger man to sit. They did.

“So, what’ll be?”

Martin remained quiet, letting the younger man go first.

“Elemental. Windstorm.”

“Good choice. And you?”

Martin wasn’t expecting to make a choice that quickly. He was hoping to see how the younger man fared.

“Elemental. Lightning.” He managed, hoping he sounded genuinely informed of what he was doing.

The bald man smiled. “Looking for a little extra kick? You’re wife’ll appreciate you tonight.” He nudged Martin.

Martin smiled. “Someone will at least.” This brought a laugh out of the man while the younger one sat there impatiently. Martin placed his hands in his pockets. His left one gripped a pistol, the right rested on a button.

The bald man opened a cooler and brought out two tumblers, setting one in front of both men. Then he rummaged around doing something out of Martin’s view but eventually planted two cocktail shakers on the table. He shook one and held the shaker over the young man’s glass.

“You’ll have to drink this one fast I’m afraid. Not much to savor, but gives a good kick.”

He flicked the top off the shaker and let the contents pour into the glass. He quickly pulled shaker away but some of the liquid started rising out of the glass, floating as if untouched by gravity. The young man gulped down the tumbler’s contents and then rose from his seat to sip the three orbs of liquid floating above the table. He sat back with a smile on his face. His eyes glazed over and his arms rose, then the rest of his body lifted from the seat and he hung suspended in the air. Limbs moving glacially. His hair independent as if he were underwater.

“Alright,” the bald man said, breaking Martin’s attention from the young man, “Your turn.” He shook the container and poured it into the tumbler. The liquid was opaque, but glowed blue and white as electricity flickered through the it like lightning in a cloud. Martin stared at the drink. He’d already forgotten about the man floating across from him. Something irrational and unnerving.

“Drink up, before the spark fades.”

The voice brought him out of thought. He pressed the button in his jacket before reaching for the drink with his right hand. His left remained on the pistol. He’s pressed the button too late. There wasn’t enough time. The bald man would become suspicious if he didn’t drink the lightning in front of him. He held it in his hand and watched the flickering light inside the liquid.

“Go on,” the bald man said.

Martin took a sip hoping a small amount wouldn’t be too strong. He felt the liquid crackle down his throat. He placed the tumbler on the table before his muscles began flexing involuntarily. His mind shifted into overdrive as his synapses fired rapidly. He fought to remain conscious he began to see the lightning firing inside his eyes. He lost track of time but what little he took in of his surroundings showed him that his team had arrived and were detaining the bald man and strapping the younger one down.

He barely recognized his partner’s face as Skolfield hovered in front of him. His body was shaking violently as his muscles contracted so strongly he thought they might break his bones. Skolfield was yelling something at him but he couldn’t hear anything but a crackling in his ears.

Then his vision turned a pure white, as if looking into the sun, and he lost consciousness as his body discharged the energy that had wreaked havoc upon him.

Death of an Immortal

The world had grown quiet. For nearly three decades, the world had come to know a form of peace. Many attributed this to the deeds of the ubiquitous being known as Savoir. In a way, they are right, but the truth is the world grew quite from fear. No one dared perform a criminal act because Savoir would be there to confront them. He could stop over ten crimes simultaneously no matter where they were taking place. He once stopped a robbery in China while also preventing the sabotaging of an oil rig off the southern coast of Chile. It didn’t matter what the crime was, he would be there. Any malicious act, no matter how small, was met with the hulking figure of Savoir. Governments congratulated him, honored him, and would not dare condemn his actions, even if those actions fell outside of the laws they had created. Many people loved him. They called him a hero. Some worshiped him as a god. Many feared him.

Nobody knew who he was, where he came from, or what his abilities were. His form was human though many speculated he was not born on Earth. He first became known to the world when he prevented a skirmish between Russian, American and French soldiers in the area formerly known as Ukraine. His large figure, shrouded in thick layers of his poly-chromatic cloak stood between the opposing forces. Within an instant, he at the front lines of either side, crushing tanks and other vehicles, snapping rifles like straw, but never harming any soldier. He disarmed both armies before a single bullet was fired. Within two weeks, every firearm on the planet had been destroyed and every factory of weapons were shut down. Nuclear silos were found empty by inspection teams the world over. What became known as The Ceasefire was his first act upon the world.

Nations at first listed him as the greatest threat to mankind. They formed alliances to stop him, but nothing could be done. Any weapon made was promptly destroyed or disappeared. Any attempt to capture him failed. Governments poured resources together to figure out who this person was. In their efforts they theorized his movements were based on a form a teleportation. He seemed to possess super strength or an ability to levitate objects. His physical features were never seen. His cloak revealed nothing. No eyes, hair, or even skin could be seen beneath the ever-changing movement of the fabric seemingly made of cosmic dust.

It took eight years after his first appearance before governments stopped their public research into what he was. They of course continued behind closed doors but the research never progressed. No longer able to fight, governments turned to open negotiations for key resources. Some economies grew slowly despite flourishing trade. Others still collapsed, and many countries experienced famine and epidemics. Savoir either could not or would not assist in natural disasters or the choices of organizations to refuse aid to others. Humanity continued to grow disproportionately for another twenty years. Many of the world’s resources were collected by a small few. The rest of the world was left to fend for themselves…until Savoir met the small girl known as Zemora.

Zemora grew up in the once prosperous Botswana in the hallowed city of Mookane. Her family had been swept away as in a wave of diseases crossing the continent. She was left alone at the age of six surviving off of scraps left behind by those migrating south seeking safety. Home was a closet in an empty apartment closet. Despite knowing Savoir was out there to protect her from any physical harm, she locked herself away every night against both the cold and other peoples passing through.

For ten years she survived in the deserted city. Nearly thirty years after the appearance of Savoir, she found a pointed, sharp metal fragment no larger than the length of a finger. She turned hid it away for months. Then, one day, she locked herself in the closet. Light pierced the empty spaces around the door. She pulled the metal from her secret area beneath the loose floorboard and placed it across her wrist.

“What are you doing, child?”

She dropped the metal fragment and looked up to see the moving colors of Savoir’s cloak.

“I am going to see my family,” she said, picking up the metal sliver again.

“I cannot allow you to harm yourself,” the deep, phantom voice said.

“Why not? I am not causing harm to others. Not that you seem to care about human life.”

“I do not care for anything. I only live by a code that preserves life.”

“What about the disease that takes life? What about my family? Why didn’t you save them?”

“They were not in direct harm.”

“They died!”

“All living things die. I cannot change the fate of the universe. I only prevent your kind from unbalancing the life-stream.”

“Life-stream? What does that even mean? Everyone knew you weren’t human. Why are you here?”

“Many questions of which I’ve answered all but one. I am here to protect the balance of the life-stream. I follow where it flows and prevent obstructions.”

“Why don’t you tell this to everyone else? Why let us guess? We can help your cause if you teach us.”

“So many questions. Much like a…what is your word…infant,” he said, “I cannot interfere more than I have. You must learn and grow as you were meant to. I am here only to-”

“Balance the life-stream. Yeah, you’ve said that.” She still held the metal sliver. She knew he would prevent her from harming herself, but part of her believed she still had the ability to make any decision for herself. She knew, though, in the back of her mind, that this decision was already made for her. She sat in silence as Savoir hovered above her.

“Why do you stay?”

“The obstruction has not yet cleared. Once your kind has learned balance, then I shall follow the life-stream to the next obstruction.”

“How can we learn to have balance? Can’t you teach us and leave us alone?”

“Balance cannot be taught. Only learned. No,” he said, predicting her next question as he had for many others, “increasing the amount of life does not bring balance.”

“So you will let us die.”

“All living things d-”

“I know! You said that already.” Tears were welling in her eyes. She pressed the metal against her skin and it disappeared.

“I cannot allow you to inflict harm. You must continue.”

“Do you even know what it means to be here? To breath? To feel? Can you even comprehend what life-” her voice caught and she sobbed into the blankets that were her bed. Savoir hovered in silence above her until her sobs subsided and she once again found her voice. “Do you even know what it means to die?”

He had never been asked this question. In the thousands of years traversing the stars, he had believed he had heard every question life had for him. He was surprised to hear a question from death. A question he could not answer.

“Well?” she waited. “Do you know what death is, or are you immortal? Free from the chains of mortality.”

He left a physical body behind with Zemora and slipped into the life-stream to find his answer. He was within it for years searching and returned once he found it. Zemora did not notice his absence since he still hovered above her and his answer came mere seconds after her question.

“I was,” he said, “but now I must correct the imbalance caused by my own causality.”

“You’re leaving? But what will happen? No one cares about each other on this planet. They will return to killing each other once they know you are gone.”

“I will be gone, but you shall remain.” He offered his poly-chromatic cloak to her. His figure still hidden. She stood, hesitant to take it. “You have been chosen as the next Emissary. The cloak fell into her open hand and what had been Savoir, whatever he could have been, was gone.

Zemora drew the cloak around her and slipped into the life-stream. A minute passed on Earth before she emerged two thousand years wiser. She would build this world as it was meant to be. Then she would wade back into the life-stream until she uncovered the next obstruction.

Health and Happiness

The worst possible outcome. His doctor had briefly mentioned it as the worst case scenario. Both of them shrugged it off as the faintest of chances that would never  come to pass. An expected reaction, but here it was quickly killing him from the inside. Johnathon sat across from his doctor while his wife Jen held his hand. Dr. Peterson’s words lapped against him, but he hardly noticed because he was slowly sinking into an ocean of chaotic thought.

“John, did you hear that?” It was his wife. She was squeezing his hand harder than he’d have liked. She was no longer attempting to comfort him, but trying to hold onto him to comfort herself.

“What? I’m…sorry, I lost myself there for a moment.”

“There might be cure,” she held onto him eagerly.

“Not a cure,” Dr. Patterson corrected, “A new treatment that has yielded high results in combating this type of aggressive growth. It has proven to halt the spread and even clear early areas of infection. Some patients have even gone back to their lives as normal. Not completely cured, but a remission of sorts.”

“But you will live.” She sounded relieved, as if the problem was already solved.

“There are side-effects though,” the doctor continued, “Some of them are quite severe. I can’t recommend this without full disclosure.”

Johnathon waited for him to continue.

“In one, peculiar case, a young woman in Canada had significant biological changes to her body that…well…complicated her life to a point where she sought exile. No one knows where she is, but her doctor claimed that her last visit showed progressive healing that would have removed the infection completely.”

“So it’s possible to actually cure me?”

“What kind of changes?” His wife quickly added.

Dr. Patterson looked from one to the other then settled on Johnathon. “Possibly. Like I said, it’s simply theory at this point since the woman cannot be found. As far as the changes, her skin slowly…altered…into a pale, thick hide that would be more common in a larger mammal living in extreme environments. Almost like whale skin.”

“She turned into a fish?” Jen didn’t attempt to hide her disgust. “I don’t know…”

“That would be the absolute worst case scenario I assure you. The chances are nearly non-existent. Many of the early trials were successful with almost no side-effects. The only other severe side-effect was paralysis, most commonly in the legs, but the patients survive. This treatment currently has a ninety percent success rate whereas the traditional route only has thirty percent.”

“What do you think John?” She gripped his hand harder.

“If this treatment is successful as you say, why isn’t it more common?”

“It is still in the trial period. They plan to make a few more adjustments to reduce the side-effects mentioned before making it a standard treatment. The Canadian women caused quite a stir.”

“I can imagine.”

“Take your time to think about this,” Dr. Patterson said, “but I suggest you make a decision within the next few days. We need to start some form of treatment soon at the rate your infection is spreading.”


 

“I think you should do it.”

They were barely out of the hospital. Johnathon didn’t answer but knew what she was thinking. Ninety percent is incredible. He definitely preferred that over the thirty percent, but something about the woman from Canada made him hesitant. His luck wasn’t really running with him on this, obviously, since the infection had spread into three of his five vital organs. If he didn’t do anything, he would be dead before the end of this year. He didn’t want to die. He also didn’t want to go through hell if he wasn’t going to make it either. There is the third option, he thought, but I couldn’t…

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Yeah,” he lied.

“Well?”

“I don’t know. This isn’t a simple decision.”

“Yes it is. You have to do something, and soon.”

“I don’t have to do anything.”

“Johnathon!”

“Okay. Okay, I’ll do it.” He knew it was the best option and he would have gotten there eventually. She was right though. He had to do something soon.

“I’ll call Dr. Peterson now.”

She was on the phone before he even started the car.


 

He began the next day. Six hours of intravenous treatments every day the first week. They kept him in the hospital for observations for the first month. Jen was with him for the first week and a half then visited every other day. He started looking forward to the time without her. He loved her, more than anything, but she seemed to be taking it harder than he was. She had lost weight and looked as if she wasn’t sleeping. He asked Dr. Patterson if he could do anything for her and he prescribed her a sedative to take before bed.

After the first month was over, he was allowed to leave the hospital. The first few results showed impressive progress. The infection had left his lungs and kidneys. He was feeling a little stronger despite having spent most of the past few weeks in a bed. He’d lost nearly forty pounds. The worst was over. He only had to return every two weeks for treatments and check-ups. Jen started sleeping better and stopped using the sedatives. She worried less with each result that came in.

During the third month, he was able to return to work and could exercise. He put twenty-five pounds back on and no longer looked ill. He felt luck was finally running with him. The fourth and fifth months went by without any issues.


 

Johnathon was confident he was cured when he went in for his last round of treatments. Dr. Patterson stopped by to take the final blood samples.

“How are you feeling?”

“I feel great.”

“Have you experienced any side-effects? Anything out of the ordinary?”

“Nothing. I’ve had some headaches the past few weeks, but I’ve been catching up on work.”

“I see. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” Dr. Patterson filled the last vial and removed the needle, swabbed the area, and bandaged it. “You’re all set to go. Just a few final check-ups before all is said and done. Then we only need to see you every six months to make sure nothing changes. If you notice anything unusual, don’t be afraid to call me. You have my number.”

“Thanks Dr. Patterson. I appreciate everything you’ve done. I feel good.” He pulled his sleeve down over the bandage. “Did they ever find the Canadian woman?”

“No. A few reports about two months back stated a humanoid ‘alien’ was seen in Greenland by a few locals. It could have been her, but it also could have been someone claiming to have seen Bigfoot.”


 

Johnathon walked inside after his Thursday run. Jen was cooking. He walked up behind her and kissed her on the neck. She laughed and shrugged him off of her. “You stink. Go shower.”

He kissed her again before heading to the bathroom. He stripped off his clothes and stepped in the shower. He ran his hands through his hair and held his head beneath the water. When he opened his eyes and reached for the soap he saw skin dangling from a finger on his right hand. He looked at it closer. Beneath the flap of skin was a white, rubbery layer. He reached to fold the flap back into place, but it detached and fell. He ran a finger over the missing skin and placed a nail under the edge. His skin peeled back slightly, ripped, and the remaining skin, including the nail, on his finger fell off and onto the shower floor. His right forefinger was now a bone-white…thing.

When he reached to turn the water off, the water pressure shredded the skin on his left hand like paper revealing the new layer of skin. He panicked. Every move he made caused more skin to abandon him until his forearms were pure white and the shower floor was layered with pieces of his skin.


 

Jen was crying as they sat in Dr. Peterson’s office. Johnathon wore long sleeves and gloves. His pants hid the skin peeling off his right leg. He wore a hoodie even though no skin had yet to peel from his face.

“What are my options?”

“There aren’t any currently able to help with this side-effect. I’m sorry,” Dr. Peterson said, “but I’d like to run some tests to see if there might be something we can find.”

“Anything,” he said. He reached over to grab Jen’s hand but she flinched away. He let his hand fall back to his side as she tried to stop her tears with the soaked tissue in her hand.

Dr. Patterson put down the x-rays he was reviewing. “The good news is the infection is completely gone. Your organs have improved significantly. I predict you’ll soon be healthier than someone half your age. You’re on track for a long, healthy life.”

“That is good news,” he said absently. Johnathon tried to smile, but he couldn’t take his eyes away from Jen. She hadn’t looked at him in two days.

 

The Dream Usually Ends When You Die

Night is often crime’s best ally, and crowds its nemesis, but that depends on the crime. Matt had been walking across Grand Avenue when he felt the metal slide between his ribs. The culprit lost quickly in the crowd. He found the nearest medical station damaged. Out of service. He decided the quicker he got home the safer he would be.

Against his own logic, he decided to risk the alleyways. His apartment was four blocks away and he could shave off crucial seconds. He ran holding his side. His sweater already heavy with his blood. He caught site of his attacker after the third block. It was too quick to make out. Adrenaline pumped through him, tightening his chest, and overriding the pain. He ran hard. The thing behind him was faster. It overcame him as he broke out onto 63rd Street near the shopping district. He fell to the ground amidst the crowds. The thing flipped him onto his back. Time held still long enough for him to see the nightmare. Four thick, long arms held him down. An ever-moving tangle of corded hair hid the creature’s face. Every inch of it was made of shadow. Its edges blurry, but he felt its teeth bite into him.

Not one of the hundreds of people walking by looked at him. Everyone walked around him. Their paths grew wider as his blood filled the street.

The beast looked up suddenly, frightened. It bit down one last time, severing the bottom half of his body, then took off with its prize. Matt called for help, but no one stopped. He began to crawl, leaving a thick trail of blood. He crawled all the way to his apartment on the fifth floor. The whole time he kept wondering why he wouldn’t die.