The Last Dominion

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“Whatcha up to?” the assistant calls out to Yuki, hearing a clatter from one of the back rooms of the laboratory.

“Umm, just getting some stuff out of storage,” comes the doctor’s muffled reply. “There’s just some stuff in the way here. It’s more cluttered than I remembered.”

“What could you possibly need to get out from down—”

—Yuki peeks around the corner, shoulders and arms wrapped with fake spider webs and plastic spiders dangling from her hair.

“Oh no. Nonononono!” the assistant groans. “I finally got all of that stuff put away, like, last month.”

Yuki shrugs. “Well, if you don’t clean up properly, it’ll come back to bite you. C’mon, let’s get these guys into the Void. The sooner we get through this, the sooner you can help me get everything set up!”

The assistant sighs and gets up from his desk, defeated.

***

The angry skies grumbled and threatened what living creatures remained below. All were given ample warning before the scorching rains descended to the worn earth. The smallest of insects faced instant death while larger organisms and plant life faced a slow and agonising death, usually not before leaving behind mutated offspring.

The world responded in kind with its own growl towards the heavens—bringing down rocks from cliffsides and trees from several miles all around.

From the distance, the last guardian of Noius Tasdania stood upon his lookout and surveyed the argument from above and below and sighed. It had gotten to the point where each day was visibly worse than the last. Acid rain and quakes over his domain and it had not yet even reached midday. He looked towards the west, the great berry fields, boasting fresh fruit yesterday, were wilting in various shades of gray and brown. The dry beds that had once been lakes and rivers had gone stagnant and run dry. What little water was available in the outskirts of his domain had become so poisonous that all aquatic life died long before the might river flow ended.

His heart sinking yet again, the Elder sighed and thought back to an encounter that seemed a lifetime ago.

Back then, not even thirty years before the invaders encroached on the land under his care, the Elder had noticed the first of many changes: the once clear waters of his great river now ran murky and brown. As he was grieving for the suffering creatures one of them appeared from the thickets of the forest, sweating and wielding a large blade. A child. He could not have been more than fourteen.

With admiration and a little bit of fear, the young man gazed up at the Elder, frozen in his tracks.

‘You’ve come a long way,’ the old man stated in an even tone with a hint of curiosity. ‘What brings you into my domain, boy?’

Letting his blade drop to his side, the young man answered, ‘I came to see what was beyond the city. All the adults say it is far too dangerous to go past the walls—’

‘And you had to see for yourself, hmm?’

‘That’s right,’ the boy replied, nodding. ‘It’s beautiful out here. So many colours compared to the boring white slabs of the streets and buildings. I fancied myself a swim as well. The bathing halls are simply too crowded at this hour.’ He eyed the cloudy waters near the old man. ‘Right about here looks fine!’ He paused a moment and asked the Elder: ‘What are you doing down here?’

‘I am mourning,’ the Elder said truthfully.

‘What for?’ the child asked, looking puzzled.

‘This water, while not unclean enough to harm us, has already started to claim the lives of the creatures who dwell here, who were once so abundant.’

‘Ohh…’

The old man nodded gravely and stroked his stark-white beard. ‘The damage began when the first trees were cleared and the first slabs of concrete poured.’ He gazed off into the distance, opposite of the forest the boy made his way through. ‘The manufacturing in the south has created a smog so thick it is impossible to get along without facial protection. Housing expanded outward to give workers and their families a better quality of life.

‘Off to the west, much of the land has been cleared and excavated for resources valuable to your people.’

The young man stood there, not quite knowing what to say.

Another beat passed and the older man sighed. ‘Do you know how long I’ve been here?’

This question took the boy by surprise. He didn’t know much about the indigenous peoples of the planet, only what little was taught the academy. All the living tribes known to them had been around for dozens of millennia; his own people only landed within the past few centuries—hardly a footnote on the natives’ calendar. An attempt to share the technology was made in the distant past and ultimately refused. Since that time, according to the lectures, little contact had been made with the tribes, only to negotiate new land-usage rights. Few indigenous folk were incorporated into everyday society—they, by and large, did not assimilate well at all. The safest bets were on the farms or in the mines; they were not a city people.

A couple seconds passed and the young man answered: ‘About 80,000 years?’

‘Do I look that old!?’ the Elder said, wide-eyed and blinking.

‘What!? No! It’s not that; I thought you were trying to be profound or something!’

The old man laughed.

‘Really! I thought you were gonna bring it all together—you know…the environment, my people, your people…’

Continuing to chuckle, the older man stroked his beard again. ‘Wasn’t trying to be profound, son, just lamenting on the widespread death and destruction. The world is suffering. Have a look around sometime. And I really do mean take it all in. Within my lifetime so much has changed—and not for the better. I daresay you’ve experienced some as well, yeah? Rising tides. Weather not matching up to the seasons they should be confined to. Think about it.’

The boy nodded. ‘I will…’

So many years ago, the Elder thought. He wondered what ever did become of that boy. Did he think about the negative changes to the world around him and take it to heart? Did he fight for change or did he just forget the words of some crazy old native that he happened upon one day?

Behind him, a schism opened, a blue-white light shone through the tear in the fabric of reality.

A younger, softer voice spoke, ‘All of the others are now off-world, Uncle.’

‘Very well.’

The Elder stood, looking over his region as he had for 75,000 years. He was lost deep in his own mind again, looking down upon the ravaged lands. His expression was a pensive one, as if on the verge of an epiphany.

Many times in recent decades, the younger custodian bore witness to Uncle’s wild ideas and schemes to slow down or even reverse the damage to the planet or to drive away the invaders. The plans were brilliant…but the damned humans were a persistent bunch.

The younger guardian asked, ‘ Is there nothing we can do?’

The Elder, still in deep contemplation, let his fingers stop fiddling with his beard. His mouth was agape, the words on the tip of his tongue.

His younger counterpart’s ears perked up, waiting for Uncle’s profound words.

Without breaking his gaze at the horizon, the Elder spoke calmly and clearly, ‘Nah, shit’s fucked.’ And without another word, turned to the schism and walked through.

There was nothing more that could be done for their world. Tens of thousands of years spent cultivating and maintaining life undone in less than four hundred. Led by a small group of humans hellbent on profits and the brainwashed masses they convinced to work into an early grave for. The exact instant that level of manipulation was reached, it had only been a matter of time.

***

“You see? That right there is why you should clean up in a timely manner. Especially when you’re being paid to do so.”

“Yeah, I guess. But me not getting the Halloween or Christmas decorations up within a certain of period of time won’t be the end of all life as we know it.”

A nervous look crosses Yuki’s face and she looks away.

“Wait. What have you seen in there?”

“Nothing.”

“Boot up the machines, let’s go back in right now!”

“You know we can’t do that!” Yuki sighs. “The best thing you can do now is help me get these decorations up pronto and back into storage in a timely manner this time.”

“Can do!”

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo and this story’s artwork by Kate the intern

Mr. N1ceguy268

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“Oh hey! Just a sec everyone, just gotta wrap up something here,” the assistant says, peering over a large PC monitor. He types away furiously at the keyboard.

“You’re not on one of those porn sites again, are you?” Yuki questions, entering from the other side of the laboratory.

“No! And I never was!” he replies indignantly, now keeping his face hidden by the bulky electronics.

Yuki gently pats one of the three metre tall towers. “My baby doesn’t lie to me, even when you erase the history.”

The assistant bites his tongue.

“And if you’re gonna go on one of those sites, at least don’t get into in-depth conversations with strangers. Which is what happens to the young woman in tonight’s tale. Let’s be on our way now.”

***

The night has gone suspiciously well, Allie Winchester reflects. 7,500 tokens her debut night on A-Z Cams—not a bad take at all! Five hours worth of “work” and she’s already earned more than working a solid forty for the Colonel.

Holy Shit!

That realization creeps up on and overwhelms her. Allie’s legs quake and for a second she thinks her ass is going to topple.

Okay, calm down! she chides herself. You made some good money tonight—and that’s awesome! But it could’ve been a fluke. Don’t go getting your hopes up or funny ideas of quitting your job! We aren’t there yet.

Two deep breaths and she puts her pajamas back on and picks the laptop up from the floor. She immediately goes to the tip breakdown, to further convince herself that the new venture was for, at most, a little bit of extra entertainment money for the month. Nothing more. All she has to do is flash her tits and cooch few times a month to pay for a new stereo or PlayStation. Totally not a bill-payer.

There! See? she tells herself. That one person shelled out 3,100. The rest was split by the other hundred and twelve (a further one hundred and fifty-seven were lurkers). One generous person basically paid half your wages.

Despite trying to be rational about her situation, Allie finds it difficult to get to sleep the night after her first show.

Throughout her first broadcast, Allie ran down the lineup of her showtimes (this is also dictated on her profile page). She’d broadcast on four of her five working days and never start a show on her days off. If she had an evening shift, she’d broadcast before her departure; if she had a morning shift she’d hop on once she got home. This would also ensure each shower featured a shower scene, an added benefit in that anyone scrolling through the channels would be lured in with guaranteed nudity (she did note a particular spike in numbers as well as tokens).

This trend continues on during the premiere week and into the next. The numbers move exactly as Allie imagines, but they grow more and more with every day that passes. Unexpected to say the least, being brand new on the NSFW scene.

Six shows in, and even when she figures the tax, Allie is very nearly meeting her normal wages for a given month. Granted n1ceguy268, the very generous tipper, contributes a significant sum. What makes him stand out amongst the others is that he never spams the chat with vulgarities, nor does he make demands simply because he tips and feels entitled. All public correspondence is short and polite—nothing more.

Each time they have a back-and-forth, however, strange messages pop up in her DMs from a user called steph-beauty1994. At first they are merely one word messages such as: “don’t”, “no!”, “stop”

The days progress and steph-beauty1994’s messages become more complex: “stay away”, don’t do it”, please stop now”.

Oddly, Allie is unable to message back. She cannot block them either. So she simply chooses to disregard the messages and ignore the flashing yellow tab on the site layout.

A month passes, a number of DMs come in, a majority of them flirts and fucked up requests that don’t go very far (often because Allie blocks them). Others are requests for private photos and videos, which she has no problem providing. All these come while ignoring steph-beauty1994’s tab. After she answers all the unread messages, she decides to check her stats. She records the newest amount of funds transferred to her bank account and—mainly out of curiosity—checks to see the amounts tipped by individual users. n1ceguy268 was right at the top with—

Holy shit!

—60,000 tokens donated! Allie opens up her calculator app on the desktop screen. Three thousand dollars. A perfect stranger has paid her this in under two months! Well more than what she makes in the same amount of time at her job.

For that kind of money, n1ceguy268 deserves a little something, she thinks. Allie clicks on his username and is redirected to his profile page and drafts a message:

Heya! So I couldn’t help but notice how much you’ve tipped me–60,000 tokens!!!! Ohmigod <3<3<3 Thank you sooo much! I normally don’t do anything like this, but is there anything I could do for you as a little thank you? 😉 😉

Allie checks her messages the next day—there is a reply from n1ceguy268:

Hi! No probs at all. Youre gorgeous and working several hours for us…so many ppl watch without tipping. consider it payments from them 😛 but yeah if you’re offering…would you like to hang out some evening? I can offer some more $$$ since it is your time.

Allie’s heart races as she rereads the message. Her fingers tap the keys without committing to a single letter. When she finds the right words, the letters fly to the screen. She reads her answer over and over and revises until everything looks perfect (professional, you might say). A little green dot next to his avatar shows that he is currently online.

She taps “enter” and waits.

That sounds great to me! Appears on the screen. And then: I can pick you up around 5. Send your deets and I’ll be on my way.

Allie smiles and sends her address and adds: Guess I should start to get ready.

n1ceguy268 sends his goodbye and goes offline.

Allie largely forgets about her laptop as she begins to lay out everything for the evening. Five o’clock nears and, for kicks, she decides to take a few revealing selfies while she is all dolled up. It’ll be a nice surprise for the users on her off day. She decides against putting context to the photos in order to stir up some conspiracy theories until her next show. It may lead to more subs.

And then her DMs start to go apeshit.

steph-beauty1994’s tab is still blinking yellow, but the count on the unread messages explodes.

What the fuck?

Allie clicks on the tab and is hit with a wall of text:

DON’T TRUST HIM

STAY AWAY FROM N1CEGUY268

MURDERER MURDERER MURDERER

—and on and on and on.

The stream of text shows no sign of easing up.

Allie closes the tab and runs a site search on steph-beauty1994; it yields zero results. She moves on to Google, which gives her a few different platforms. The first ten links are bunk as the username isn’t an exact match for the search. She scrolls further down the list and diverts to art websites and old fanpages currently in disuse. Across her art images, Allie notices a number of comments from MrN1ceGuy68—eerily close to her date’s A-Z Cams username. The writing and grammar and punctuation are dead-on matches for n1ceguy268. steph-beauty1994 didn’t leave any blog posts, just the art and a group of her favorite posts from other users, along with encouraging comments to them. steph-beauty1994’s last post was added three years ago.

Allie then searches a combination of things: “steph-beauty1994 youtube”, “steph-beauty1994 twitch”, “steph-beauty1994 artstation”.

No results found or exact matches for any of those. For all the Facebook stalking, Allie has not actually tried that. She runs a search there for “steph-beauty1994” and “steph-beauty1994 art, but still comes up empty-handed. Before she gives up entirely, she decides to do an old-school profile search. First she goes to her own profile page, deletes her own username in the URL, and replaces it with steph-beauty1994. This time it is a success!

For a hot second, Allie thinks she is mistaken; the account is memorialized…then she sees the unfinished sketches in the photo albums—the finished works she had just seen on Tumblr and the other sites. Many of the postings of farewells are dated three years prior.

All the while through Allie’s detective work, the DM chime is going crazy. She clicks back over to the chat.

N1CEGUY268 KILLED ME

N1CEGUY268 KILLED ME

N1CEGUY268 KILLED ME

N1CEGUY268 KILLED ME

N1CEGUY268 KILLED ME

Allie picks up her phone and dials 911. Once an operator is on the other end, she wastes no time. “Hello, yes, I’m just concerned because there’s a man prowling around my house…No…No…I heard something outside and I peeked through the blinds from upstairs…No, sorry, I didn’t get a clear view of him. I think I can still hear him outside…Yes, yes, the doors are locked and the blinds are closed.”

As she speaks, Allie goes around the house and puts out all the lights. She retreats upstairs to the bedroom and peers through the blinds and waits.

“Okay, I’ll wait for them to arrive. No, I should be okay if they’re on the way. He hasn’t tried to get in. I think he’s just a peeper…Alright. Yeah, yeah, I’ll call back if I need to. Thank you.”

Allie disconnects the call and continues to wait.

Some light comes from the right and slowly grows brighter. A white Toyota Corolla creeps up to the kerb in front of her house and parks. The person in the driver’s seat picks up a cell from the passenger seat; the blue glow illuminates the front interior, but not well enough for her to catch all the details.

From the opposite side, another pair of headlights shine. A police cruiser crawls by and pulls a U-turn right behind the Corolla and flashes the red and blue lights. The cop pouts the spotlight on the driver’s side of the other car. For what feels like hours, nothing happens.

C’mon, c’mon get the asshole!

Eventually, the cop exits the cruiser and approaches the Corolla and stands by the driver’s side. Allie can’t hear, but the cop looks to be having words with her intended date. The door to the Toyota opens and a man climbs out, cellphone in hand.

Now raised voices are heard, indistinguishable still, but clearly angry. The guy is quite upset at the cop and the cop is shouting right back. This goes on for a minutes or two until the guy says something the cop doesn’t like, because the man is now being cuffed and frisked at the side of the Toyota. The cop leads the man by the elbow into the backseat of the cruiser, returns to the other car to turn off the engine and take the keys.

Allie sighs, relieved, and watches and waits for the cruiser to haul the killer away. Once it drives off, she sits down on her bed.

Another message dings on A-Z Cams, but Allie doesn’t have the stomach to look at it now. She doesn’t want to be in the house at the moment either. She phones a friend and they decide to go out for a movie, after which she’ll stay at her friend’s apartment. All the stuff with n1ceguy268 and the police could be handled tomorrow; she just wants to calm her nerves and forget about it for now.

After she packs up some night- and day-clothes she heads out to her car. Halfway down her sidewalk a nicely-dressed man approaches.

“Allie? Hi, it’s me, NiceGuy! Nice to finally meet you in person.”

***

“See, my young assistant, this is why you shouldn’t give any of your personal info to people you barely know. Especially on these kinds of sleazy sites.”

“Alright, alright, I’ll be more careful next time.”

“Next time?”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“Mhmm…sure thing.”

“How’d you even know about the conversations?”

“Like I said, my baby lets me know about everything that goes on. She likes to spill the hot tea from time to time.”

“I think I’ll just play it safer and bring my own laptop to work.”

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The Horrors of Thogerth VII

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“Good evening, all!” Yuki says from behind an open computer panel, waving with a screwdriver in hand. “Won’t be long now. Just a little fine-tuning of the system is all.”

Her assistant walks over to her, having just doused his hands in Go-Jo. “We’re getting close to having everything set up for our otherworldly visitor from a few months back.”

“And if all goes according to plan, we’ll never have to hear from that bastard ever again.” Yuki ducks back into the computer and continues, her voice muffled, “Who the hell bursts into Colorado, of all places, and goes after the natives?”

“It has to be a one-off, right? Like, those figures don’t appear anywhere in the mythology. So, everyone who saw these guys had to have died before word could get out.”

“Correct. They didn’t stick around long, so they’re definitely trying to find us again…just a few hundred years off is all.”

Yuki crawls back out of the computer and closes the panel and secures it. “That’s all done now. We can move on to tonight’s excursion. This is a bit of a sad and terrifying one, so please be aware of that.

“For tonight, we’re focusing on a broadcast sent out all over the web from an undisclosed location. A veteran recounting the aftermath of staggeringly bloody war, almost forgotten in the vastness of space.”

***

I will never forget the short time I spent on Thogerth vii. Those horrible, dreadful hours were undoubtedly the worst of the war humanity was engaged in at the time.

No, wait, let me rephrase that.

Those hours were the worst that I witnessed. The torment of those men and women; the months…the years…unfathomable. All the faces before and after freeing the pows are burned into my memory as well. They ranged from vacant and comatose to angry and hysterical. By the time we reached them, there was no joy to be found.

And who could blame them?

Like I said, we were only on Thogerth for a very limited time before it was blown to hell…but I’m honestly lucky to be here at all. The scars across my arms and the damage to my liver would concur.

Most of my brothers and sisters of the 103rd didn’t make it to their fortieth birthdays—many of them by their own hand. The rest…turns out the atmosphere wasn’t fit enough for humans, after all.

Shit, here I am rambling.

I’m telling you this now because no one else has, either because they couldn’t or because nobody wanted to listen at the time. Why would they? We’d won. No need to be a Dour Debby over the woes of the war—it was to be celebrated!

I am also telling you this because disturbing rumors are slithering across the darkest depths of the subnet…and they very well may be legitimate. So if all those digital rumblings happen to be true, I implore anyone that may have information or who can gather it to please bring it forward!

Okay, okay…I’m getting to it.

We weren’t on Thogerth but for five minutes when I was overcome by an extreme feeling of unease. At that point, I’d been on a dozen worlds outside our solar system on military operations. Each time I was able to take a moment to gaze in awe at my surroundings.

But no, not on Thogerth.

To begin with, the whole place looked cold and inhospitable, despite being at a constant thirty-six degrees Celsius and humid as all get out. Everything from the ground to the walls of the cave where the pows were being held looked to be alive. It all pulsated or moved around ever so slightly. The planet itself was a living being and felt like it was ratting us out to the Denit’zar. We were the intruders, after all.

The 103rd was the infantry division that took down those alien bastards once and for all. Once the battle was over, numerous teams were sent in to fully map out the area and report any findings. My team within this was responsible for mapping an inconspicuous cave the Denit’zare were strangely defending with all their might. We were also charged with reporting and assisting pows until the other, more specialized teams could take care of them.

The mapping teams over the region were worked in pairs. I was teamed with Sofia Valderez; a relative newbie, but had a reputation for having some damn good eyes while scouting. This was her first live mission off-world.

From the time we left our ship, it took us around an hour to wade through the corpses, alien and human alike, to get to the cave entrance Intel provided us.

Two klicks passed before either of us realized we were passing intricately hidden doors the whole time. The bastards looked identical to the actual walls, save for the subtle indentations one would use to apply pressure and cause them to roll open. Sofia noticed similar concave anomalies within the structures that we later found acted as locks, undone by crystal fragments; they varied in size and number, which dictated a level of security (an example being 3 crystal fragments of one size being a lower grade of clearance to a door needing three crystals of three different sizes).

As we were without the strange keys (so many of them were found amongst the piles of bodies outside the cave), we could not accurately map everything within. But we had to continue.

My group didn’t find the detention area…however, we did find what they were doing with the prisoners…and learned how the Denit’zar were able to replenish their numbers throughout the multi-decade war despite the tremendous casualties on their side. Every time we thought we had won, they inevitably came back like a horrible bedbug infestation.

Hundred of women, as far as my eyes could see, suspended above the floor in stacks of six. Each were laid out naked on a semi-transparent, gelatinous substance that molded around the underside of the body and had them at a thirty degree angle. A thin membrane covered their eyes, wrists, and ankles…it had to be holding every one of them in place.

Atop each of the women, the familiar bloated and scaly forms of a Denit’zar. I could feel the rumbling of the guttural cries in my chest. My skin crawled and my knees very nearly failed to support my weight. Thankfully, the cries of the women were drowned out for the moment.

“Alpha-Charlie,” I whispered into my mike, “are you getting this shit? Over.”

After a brief spell, my headset crackled to life. “Copy Romeo-Tango. Your eyes are ours. Still mapping the area and hotspots. Over.”

“Any more info? Over.” I wait for the next response.

“The corridor on your immediate left: there is another room. We don’t have a full scan, but from the data we have compiled we can presume it is a holding area. The other pows may be there. Over.”

“What do we do about…all this? Over.”

“Disregard. Keep your focus on your objective. Echo-Tango will handle this. Do not engage unless under fire from hostiles. Over.”

“Copy,” I replied through gritted teeth. We’ll check the corridor. Over.”

“Romeo-Oscar’s data is uploaded concurrently; your team should see the update momentarily. Over.”

“Switching channels. Over and out.”

I popped over to Remeo-Oscar’s channel the moment I was able to view the segments of the caves they mapped. It appears they, too, found a collection of rather large rooms. Before I advanced my team, I at least wanted to enquire in the findings.

“Romeo-Oscar, do you copy? Over.”

Another blast of static hit my left ear. “This is Romeo-Oscar. Over,” a shaken voice answered. It was Valderez, we’d gone through the hell of bootcamp together. Normally a tough son of a bitch…it was strange to hear her so rattled.

“This is Romeo-Tango. Need further info on your findings. Have you found the pows? Over.”

“Affirmative, Romeo-Tango. We’ve located three enemy dormitories…and…fuck…a couple horrible rooms. Over.”

“Ditto. We’ve found pows, but it is not a holding area. Repeat, it is not a holding area. Over.”

“Likewise…it’s fucking awful. It appears to be a…breeding room of some sort. The men are being rounded up and are being used until there’s nothing left. Piles of bodies…just swept up and discarded. Over.”

I relayed all that we found up until that point and further advised we were on the way to check another room as specified by Alpha-Charlie.

Valderez decided to stay on the channel while we investigated. Once more, we did not find any sort of prison cell…but of course, being Thogerth, it was even worse.

Sorry…this is the part that stands out the most vividly.

This room was the second we came across filled entirely with human women. No sign of Denit’zar females. Nothing else was present to cover up the pained screams this time. Dozens of them cried out, bodies contorting and writhing. All were on the same blobs we saw earlier, although closer to a ninety degree angle. The light was much more dim in this area than all the others, but I could clearly see a mixture of fluids on the ground. The stench was incredible. Vomit and shit dominated the undercurrent of blood and had us gagging from the moment we slipped in. In seconds we’d known that we’d not entered a prison cell—we were in the birthing room.

From the back an ear piercing shriek rang out. Startled, I hid in the shadows of a nearby corner and made myself as small as possible. A smaller passage opened up above our entryway, and another blob, a fraction the size of all the others, glided toward the source of the cry. It neared a petite woman with a massive belly that looked too large for her to carry around on her own. Her arms and legs and face were skeletal, her heavy breasts dropped and sagged to either side.

The small drone descended and found a spot between her thighs and hovered patiently.

“No! Nooo!” the woman cried out. “Get the fuck away from me! You’re not taking them! Fuck off!” She tried in vain and swiveled her hips. Her leg muscles tensed as she tried to kick. The membrane around her ankles had no give whatsoever. Over and over again through gritted teeth she hissed and shouted like a feral cat. Obscenities echoed throughout the room.

I watched curiously as the jelly-like orb shook and split itself down the middle. And, like a cell, replicated itself and pulled apart into two distinct entities.

The woman’s body tensed, her muscles contracted and she looked like she was willing her body not to eject the child.

Edwards, to my left, readied her weapon to fire—at the woman, the drone, to this day I still don’t know. Never got an answer from her. I signaled not to fire. We hadn’t a clue how many might still be further in the cave system, not to mention however the hell many were in the breeding chambers.

My money was on no further protection at all. The Denit’zar needed offspring, no way were the males going to stop what they were doing unless assaulted directly. All the other possible warriors had to be above ground and rotting in heaps. Never before had we encountered Denit’zar in such vast numbers. But with so many unexplored nooks and locked access points, it would have been foolish to bring attention to ourselves.

Another two hours was spent steadily descending into the alien tunnel work. Plenty more inaccessible areas, but a surprising amount of places we could explore. Not a trace of Denit’zar or human presence.

When I reported in that both Romeo-Tango and -Oscar had completed the assigned missions, all of us were to provide support to Echo-Tango as they cleared the area of hostiles and liberated the pows, both alive and dead.

Our groups arrived shortly before Echo-, so we spread out and formed barrier over all the exits. Although it turned out to be totally unnecessary, the crack shots had a half a dozen of them down in a matter of seconds. They engaged the beasts icily and stealthy. All that could be heard was the thup! of the semi-automatic weapons and the crumpling of the dead bodies as they crashed to the ground. The last remaining Denit’zar got wise to the situation and charged us, but only got as close as thirty meters before they were put down.

Getting the pows out, now that was another situation entirely.

While there were those that clawed at the gelatin-like membranes alongside us, others (probably held for several weeks or month) resisted our help and fought every step of the way. Their expressions haunt me to this day. One in particular being the glare from the woman who had been in the process of birthing twin half-breeds earlier. She didn’t say a word as I helped cut her down. A pair of ice daggers stabbed me dead on. I haven’t a clue what she was thinking exactly, but I’m sure it was along the lines of ‘how could you take so long?’ or ‘why didn’t you help me?’

The second the last of her bonds were severed, she found the strength to lunge forward to Edwards and caught her unawares. When she connected with the shoulder check, the woman retrieved the holstered sidearm, spun around, and fired three times. None of us had time to react and it took a second or two for us to realize that two of the rounds hit the babies in the throat and chest. The third stray shot punctured the small floating blob.

Edwards wrestled the woman, who did not fight back, to the ground, disarming her. Neither of the tiny creatures so much as whimpered or moved. The blood poured from the wounds and splashed on the ground. That’s all I remember hearing; to this day I’m not sure if the room just got quiet after the shots were fired or if I just started going into shock at that point. Yeah, the rest of our time on Thogerth was a blur. I was just doing things automatically at that point. I must’ve been doing an alright job or didn’t seem off…nobody pulled me aside or called me out on it.

So yeah, that was Thogerth.

Now you’re probably wondering what that had to do with anything. Why was this old woman going on and on about things that happened well before most of you were born?

Those images seared into my memory, the ones that I relived for you all right here…keep those pictures in your mind’s eye and remember those words…what they did to us. Monstrous. Inhuman.

If what’s out there in the wired is true, it’s happening again.

On this planet.

In this country.

Perpetrated and kept quiet by our elected officials and those that they appointed.

So please, I beg you, if anyone out there knows something or can get more information, please get in contact with me. It goes without saying, if you can get into their systems, you sure as shit can find me.

All I can offer—

transmission failed

***

“So, we’re gonna look further into this one, right Yuki?”

Wide-eyed, Yuki nods. “Oh, you bet your ass we are, this one seems too juicy to pass up.”

Her assistant jots down the details in a small notepad. He pauses and reads off the coordinates displayed on the screen to his left. “Alright, we’re good to do some more research there when the time is right.”

Out of nowhere, an alarm rings out. It’s not as bad as the one when their interdimensional friend decided to show up, but it does it’s job to get everyone’s attention.

“What the hell is that!?” Her assistant shouts, clutching his chest.

Yuki smirks fiendishly. “Our buddy almost found us again. When the system detects its presence, the same unit that propels us through space and time sends off a signal close enough to our plane of existence and diverts that asshole and keeps him wandering harmlessly for awhile.”

Her assistant blinks. “Okie-dokie then.” And gives her a thumbs up. “Not the big fix, I guess?”

“Nope. But you’ll know.” Yuki focuses on her guests now, “Thank you all for joining us again. We’ll see you in a couple weeks for our next adventure. You all take care.”

The assistant waves as well. “See ya later!”

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The Investigations of Yuki Masaki

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

Leppington, Colorado

30 kilometers north of Boulder

“I got nothin’ over here,” Yuki Masaki’s voice echoes through the darkness of the room.

“Yeah, same,” her assistant replies, downtrodden. “I was sure we’d find something in here.”

Yuki sighs and walks down the nave of the decommissioned church, smacking the pews as she makes her way to the altar. Her assistant is sitting in front of it, cross-legged and balancing his laptop on his knees. She takes a seat next to him.

“The signal was coming from this town, right?” he asks. “Like, there’s no way the coordinates were wrong?”

“We’re in the right town, that’s for sure. But this is the spot you wanted to check first—and there’s twenty bucks riding on it. Don’t give up so soon.” She looks up at the moonlight shining through the dusty ornate windows on either side of the mass hall. “There’s plenty more places to set up and take samples. Shall we?”

Her assistant thinks about it, frowning, and sighs. “Sure, why not.”

They scan, at close range, every nook and cranny of the sanctuary and move out to the vestibule. Minor pings, but nothing major. However, there are boxes and a stack of chairs against an internal wall. Yuki thinks there may be a door hidden away behind cobwebby items.

There is not—only another wall panel with cracked and peeling paint. Yuki turns away.

“Hang on a sec,” the assistant says. He feels a cold breeze at his legs. He puts a light to the ground. “I think there’s something down here.”

Yuki also points her flashlight down. “Those boards are a different shade to the rest. Here, help me move this stuff further away.”

He does.

They reveal a trapdoor. It has no lock on the latch, so they open it up with an ungodly creak. Wooden stairs descend into a void. A gust of cold air sends shivers down both of their spines.

Yuki gestures for the assistant to go ahead of her. “Ladies first.”

“That’s insensitive,” he replies while taking careful steps into the darkness.

“Cry about it on your blog.” Yuki grins wryly and follows her assistant.

The walls and floor of the basement are made entirely of stone. Ten sarcophagi rest before them, five in two rows. The carvings on each are unique and extremely detailed. All are undisturbed.

“Looks like we’ve hit the VIP lounge,” the assistant comments, shifting his flashlight side to side.

“Most likely people important to the town or with connections to the church,” Yuki says and sneakily adjusts the dial on her handheld energy meter when her assistant isn’t looking. She notices that he is taking in the details on a few of the memorials. “Names mean anything to you?”

He turns to face her and shakes his head. “Nah, nothing I can recall.” He takes a moment and tucks his flashlight under his arm and refers to his files on his wrist computer. “None of the names come up from our previous excursions in the region—same goes for the timelines.”

“How are the readings for you?” Yuki asks.

“I think they’re actually weaker down here. You?”

Yuki glances down at her screen and reverts back to the previous screen. “Weak on this end too.”

The assistant gets another discouraged look on his face. Just as Yuki is about to say something, he speaks up again. “Neither of us have checked the belfry?”

Yuki shakes her head. “I haven’t.”

“Race you to the top!” He gives Yuki no chance to prepare and hauls ass across the crypt and up the stairs.

Yuki thinks to herself, funny how he can bounce right back up from disappointment.

She doesn’t bother chasing after him; they still have a long night ahead.

I appreciate the optimism, but he needs to be able to accept defeat and the setbacks that occur out in the field…and not to try so damn hard to impress me all the time.

*~*~*

Ever since they decided to check out Leppington, she knew with a ninety-seven percent probability that they would not find the source of the readings in the church.

Early in Yuki’s science career—back in her college days—one of her mentors dropped a bit of knowledge while she was working on her dissertation. It sounded crazy, so she kept the details of her research close to the chest. The only person she dare talk to was Professor John McMillan. An eccentric octogenarian, she took to him immediately in her freshman year. Rumors spread rampant that he’d done some time in the loony bin…and if you had the pleasure of attending his classes or have another interrupted by him, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell.

She’d confided to him her outlandish theories involving time travel and parallel dimensions. Yuki was adamant that there were areas scattered around the planet, even in her hometown, where these planes of existence were close enough to aligning, all that was needed was a little boost to create gateways. She laid out a number of locations to scout. Upon viewing the maps he politely suggested she remove the churches and replace them with anything else, if there were alternate locations to choose from.

When she asked why, he more than happily explained.

“Signals from churches aren’t a fraction of what they were in the early twentieth century. Even until the late forties we got some pretty hefty readings. Year by year, less and less.”

“Every church?”

“Every last one that I studied and followed up on personally. Wait a tick, I’ve got just the thing.”

Professor McMillan got up from his desk and shuffled to a large armoire at the rear of the study. He unlocked the glass casing and effortlessly picked out a book from the dozens stuffed inside.

Thumbing through the pages, he returned to the desk and laid out the pages in front of Yuki. “Here we are, all the tracking sorted by state.”

Yuki flips back and forth through the pages; her eyes soak up the contents. “Excuse me, Professor, but some of these sites date back to the 1800s, some have several decades between studies, and some only start in the forties.”

“All that you see here,” he tapped the book, “before 1942 were tests conducted by my predecessor. I stumbled into his research while he was teaching here and I was still trying to sort my own shit out. It’s been my life’s work ever since.”

“Has any of this ever been published?”

“Planning on stealing my work?”

“No! Oh my god, nothing like that!”

Professor McMillan laughs. “I’m kidding. No, never have and never will most likely.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve not exactly trusted my colleagues here not to call the men in the white coats if I did submit the works. Or worse, if someone from the State Department or some CEO decided to get invested.”

Yuki paused for a moment. “Hang on, if you never published the material, what did you submit for your PhD?”

McMillan smirked. “Cooked up some bullshit theories on ghosts.”

“Well, I’ve got some theories there too, but I don’t think it’s shit.”

Back in the present, Yuki’s assistant calls out from above, “Hey, you comin’?”

“Keep your shorts on, I’m halfway up!”

“I’m getting a reading!”

This gets Yuki’s attention and she hoofs it the rest of the way up. “You’re actually getting something from this place!?”

Her assistant sighs. “No. Not exactly. I guess I’m just high enough to get a clear read, but it looks like it’s coming from somewhere over there.” He nonchalantly jabs his thumb to a lonely side street away from the businesses and homes.

“Hey, kid, don’t take it so hard. It’s science. Almost no one gets this shit a hundred percent right—especially on the first go. You got a fix on the location because you wanted to search this place. So maybe it was a good thing we came here first. Pretty sure this is the best vantage point in town.”

Her assistant nods and offers a small grin. “Thanks, Yuki.”

“That being said, I’m gonna need those twenty dollary-doos now.”

The assistant sighs. “Of course.”

*~*~*

Fifty minutes and a short explanation later, Yuki and her assistant are knee deep in rubble Edmonton Street. No cars drive by them, in spite of the signs and cones they took the time to set up. Yuki is mildly peeved at this.

“Isn’t it a good thing that we don’t have to deal with anyone?” her assistant asks.

“I mean, yeah,” Yuki concedes, “but, man, I spent some time on these forged work documents and company information. This damn logo didn’t draw itself!”

“Didn’t one of your interns come up with that?”

Yuki stops digging and puts down her shovel. “That is beside the point! There was still plenty of time used to make this professional looking design!”

“Fair enough, I guess. What other instances did you prepare for?”

“Having to enter occupied property: reports of gas leaks; wandering around private property: lost tourists; exploring derelict properties: land developers or safety inspectors—your choice. I also have camping gear, scuba supplies, and climbing equipment.”

“You tow around all this stuff and you complain about us setting up plastic cones,” the assistant says and rolls his eyes. He focuses his torch on the hole they are digging. “Hey. Think we got somethin’ here.”

Yuki kneels down and has a closer look. “Hello, what are you?”

“Sewer?”

“Nope. According to the city docs I downloaded, sewage runs under the sidewalks. Water, gas, and electricity—none of ‘em should be here.”

The assistant picks up his shovel and starts scraping away the earth. It’s a slab of concrete, almost a meter under the road.

“Stand back!” Yuki picks up the jackhammer she used earlier and cuts through. It isn’t very thick. Underneath, there are several planks of wood.

“Okay, shit, definitely stay back!” Yuki exclaims and gets out of the hole. “It’s a fucking pit!”

“Gotta be a cave,” the assistant says. “People used to find these entrances to cave systems and went spelunking. Farmers used to cover them up to keep kids from messing around.”

Yuki gets out her energy meter and crouches down and waves around the stick. “What we’re looking for is down here for sure.”

“Okay, cool…what’s next?”

“Somebody’s gotta go down there.”

“Who—” The assistant stops short and looks at Yuki, who’s now smiling. “Ah, dammit.”

“Well, I could never fit…” Yuki starts to defend herself.

“I better be getting hazard pay.”

“Twice that amount.”

“Gimme the rope.”

*~*~*

“Umm, Yuki…it’s much more than a normal cave, the assistant whispers into the mike on his headset.

“Alright, get as many pictures as you can. We’ll need that for the detail. Can you turn on the video camera?”

“On it.” The assistant feels around for the broadcast button on the small camera mounted on his helmet. “Should be on now.”

“Checking…excellent. Video is coming through. Before you start taking pics, let me know which direction you’re facing and slowly shine the light over everything and rotate counterclockwise.”

“Got it. Okay, facing southwest. Here you go!”

Yuki stares intently at her monitor and waits for the perfect harmony of light and balance. And then she sees it, the first in a series of cave paintings. To Yuki, there is something off with this art, something different to all the other Native American paintings she’s seen. It looks…panicked and rushed.

And most of the drawings resemble their hot-headed friend that paid them a visit several weeks back. At least a dozen other demonic-looking entities dominate the empty spaces between them. Tentacles, wings, claws, and more, stem from humanoid bodies.

“What the hell are these things?” the assistant’s shaking voice comes back over the radio.

“I don’t have a clue who they are, but I know what they are.”

The assistant fills the silence: “An army.”

“Yes.”

“There’s one more thing down here, Yuki. I’m turning to it now.”

The camera swivels around to the next surface. Once more there are dozens of smaller figures drawn on to the rock. By far, the largest of the paintings is done simply in black and ochre: furred limbs with deadly talons at the end of each lanky arm and leg and a monstrous pair of bat wings that span nearly the length of the wall.

“I know we’re working on Flameboy now,” the assistant says quietly, “but I think this is the one we really gotta worry about.”

Yuki notices something on the wall near the ground. “Hey, can you look down and to the right?”

“I was afraid you were gonna ask,” the assistant sighs and complies.

Dark red and black splotches coat the bottom half of the wall, where, ages ago, they flowed to the rocky floor. In the few seconds while the camera tilts, Yuki hopes it was just spilled materials of those that were painting. She realizes that hope is in vain as the first shattered bone makes its blurred appearance…along with hundreds more.

“I can’t exactly say how many bodies are down here. There are at least four skulls. I’m gonna take the photos now and get the hell out of here.”

“Yeah, shit, that’s fine. Do that and let me know when you’re ready. Once you’re out I’ll seal this up again.”

“Copy that.”

Wonderful, Yuki thinks. Another puzzle piece and more information to glean. Whatever these things were, they’ve invaded our timeline twice now at two very distinct points history. How many more are still undiscovered?

How many more are yet to come?

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The Outskirts of Jacobs Basin

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

Yuki: Evening, all! We’ve got a hell of a story for you tonight. All the way from a remote mountain town in Australia.

Assistant: We’ve got an awful lot of activity coming from that area lately.

Yuki: Yes we have. And we’ve been cataloging it with all the other locations?

Assistant: Mhmm. The computer’s working with all the information to figure out what it means.

Yuki: Awesome! In the meantime ladies and gents, let’s get this excursion underway. A winter storm is fast approaching the small mountain town of Jacobs Crossing. The townsfolk will be snowed in and unable to move as something stirs in the outskirts.

***

The wind howled down the main street of Jacobs Basin. Ian Murphy zipped his jacket and pulled up the collar, keeping the invisible icy tendrils from creeping down his spine. Another La Nina winter, he thought, wonderful. As bitter as he was in the moment being out in the cold, Ian knew that, ultimately, it was better than the alternative: a bloody scorching summer burning into all the other seasons.

He’d rather have a layer of thermals under his street clothes and a hot water bottle than try to keep himself cool. His house had no air conditioning—the most the fans could do was blow around the muggy air. The pools and lakes were overcrowded; and in the case of the latter, did not actually get him out of the sun. Even worse during the El Nino years: having a ready-to-leave kit together and being prepared to leave at a moment’s notice due to the bushfires.

BOM had predicted a rocky winter ahead. The coming weekend was set to be particularly rough with an expected eighteen centimetres of snow over Friday into Saturday. It might very well be nothing, and the expected flurries were still forty-eight hours away, but he wasn’t taking any chances. So he used his one day off during the week to get all the important shit done. He tucked his newly-acquired weather band radio and twelve pack of double-As in the boot of his Pulsar and brought out a couple canvas bags. Next stop: QBD for some reading material while the snow comes down (the TV aerial reception was awful on stormy days), followed by Safeway for a week’s worth of food, and the Cellar Door so he could have himself some nice mulled cider for the impending long weekend (he had no intention of travelling to work on Saturday with the expected weather conditions). Another icy breeze kicked up and caused Ian to shudder. He thought heavily about wrangling a chili and ginger hot chocolate as a bribe to himself for enduring the frosty Wednesday morning.

#

There wasn’t any hesitation when Ian decided to enter the Chocolate Den on the way to his little hatchback. The supermarket had been jam-packed with people trying to get their meals sorted. With the kids on their winter holidays, it was more crowded (and louder) than usual. It was a good thing he managed to get into the city so early; if he’d had a shift today the milk and bread surely would have been gone by the time he got out. Annoyed, he had glanced at all the baskets and trolleys with litre upon litre of milk and several bags of sliced bread stacked up. How were they possibly going to go through all of that before they went off? Did they really think they’d be snowed in for a week or more? Ian brushed the thought aside and enjoyed the first supercharged sip the second he let the shopping bags fall on to the back seat.

That’s the stuff!

Ian buckled in and grabbed the quilted blanket from the passenger seat and draped it over his legs. He really needed to get the heating fixed on the Datsun, but that was a problem that could be sorted next autumn. The casual position at Alpine Hi-Fi offered enough hours per week to get by and have a little stowed into his savings.

He contemplated making an appointment for the car to be serviced, but once the blanket over his lap warmed his legs that thought was exiled to the recesses of his mind.

On the way out of town, Ian regarded the cloud coverage—not a hard thing to do considering all that lay before him was the two lane road with wide-open fields on both sides—and was convinced that the storm wasn’t going to wait until Friday to start. The clouds blowing in were getting darker, so much so that he had to pop on his headlamps. It wasn’t quite cold enough for snow, but they could easily have a day or two of rain beforehand. All the farmers in the area had that idea before him; none of the animals were out and about in the paddocks from what he could see.

The first droplets pattered over the windscreen as he was turning off Kosciuszko Road on to Sandserson Creek Way. Not perfect timing, but hey, he didn’t have to do any of his shopping in the frigid rainfall. And he was this close to being done with all his errands for the day.

Ian yawned and turned onto his driveway. Instead of going up the slope of the gravel path, he parked the Pulsar on a generous wide and level spot to the left of his letterbox. He got his bags from the back and retrieved the few letters from the box and hoisted everything up the hundred metre-long slope. On rainy days, getting the car down the gravel drive was a bitch; on snowy days, the car was impossible to move.

One hundred percent fuck trying to shovel that kind of length of path down a steep drive, he often told himself (usually just before the inevitable call-in to work). On days like these, the Datsun would live at the base of his property until the weather cleared.

Ian was mildly winded by the time he reached the front door. Despite the cold, prickly beads of sweat broke out across his back. It really was too early in the morning for that shit. He unpacked the Pioneer weather band radio, put in the batteries and set it on top of the refrigerator. While he put away the groceries, he put on the kettle and fixed a quick plate of eggs and bacon. Even with a pause for breakfast to rest up, he’d still be finished with his chores before midday. Not a bad deal at all. As soon as he finished his meal he’d wash the dish and pan, vacuum the house, and chop up some firewood. After all that, the most difficult thing he’d have to do was figure out how to piss away the rest of the day.

His own breathing mimicked his mug of tea, sending up a fine vapour as he scrambled the eggs. It would have been uncomfortable had he not layered up, but a bonus for having a frosty kitchen: he didn’t have to wait long at all for his tea to reach a hospitable temperature. He took a sip and added the rashers of bacon to the pan.

I could go through the tapes and do a horror movie marathon, but I do wanna save that for when I’m stuck in the house. Ian sighed. But if the power goes out—as it usually does—then I won’t be able to. Books, video games…something.

He mulled over the possibilities as he ate and nursed his tea.

Okay, some Mr Do! And Donkey Kong to start off the afternoon and Friday the 13th and Halloween to end the night. I can make up shit in between if I need to.

Vacuuming only took ten minutes of his day. Once there was a pause in the rain, he spent about the same amount of time chopping firewood. The logs were stacked up alongside the wall of the free-standing garage to the right of his home. He brought out the wheelbarrow from the garage and tossed all the small pieces into it. The second he felt a droplet of rain on his arm he decided to call it and quickly pulled the tarp back over the remaining logs. He quickly ran the barrow up to the patio to keep the wood dry. He circled back to the log pile, picked up the axe and took it back in to the garage. It went back into its normal spot on the rear wall next to his workbench.

Fuck yeah, time for some R and R!

Ian stretched his arms high over his head and let out another yawn. His lower back and shoulders popped for brief satisfaction and he let himself back into the house.

Chores done and no further need to go outside until work beckoned the next morning, Ian disrobed on his way through the lounge room and put on the shower. He pulled a VB out of the refrigerator and took two healthy swigs while the water heated up properly. He set the beer on the edge of the sink and stepped over the rim of the tub and pulled the curtain shut.

Midway through his wash he decided on a whim to extend his time in his humid cocoon. What the hell, right? Usually after a good, long soak he was nice and toasty for awhile afterwards; it’d curb his temptation to put on the fire early.

#

One beer and one MAD magazine later, Ian was feeling fine and warm, even as the bath water dipped below his preferred temperature. He drained the tub and put on his thermals, made himself a second cup of tea, and switched on the Atari. During the remaining sunlit hours he upped his high scores and cursed under his breath each time he made a boneheaded mistake or lost a life. There was one pause in play to allow him a moment to switch on the oven and throw in a Scott’s TV dinner. After the egg timer went off, that was his cue to switch of the games. He let the disposable tray cool down and leaned against the counter.

This was the kind of day he needed. Even with the chores thrown into the bulk of his morning, he was totally mellowed out. He pulled another beer from the fridge. Another minute or two passed and he tore off the aluminium foil and bounded back into the lounge room. He let the food cool off further and took the time to start the fire. When it was off and roaring he scarfed down the serving of chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans.

Halloween started up, as did the stovetop popcorn (extra butter and extra salt). Hot bowl in his lap, comfortably alone, Ian chowed down on his snack and smiling all the while.

The comfort of the crackling fire and a nice heavy blanket was soon too much for him. He fell asleep just as Mrs Voorhees arrived at Camp Crystal Lake and met up with Alice. Soon after, the television filled with snow as the VCR rewound the tape and the last of the glowing orange embers dimmed.

#

Miraculously, the muffled sound of his clock radio was enough to wake Ian. Eyes still closed, he stretched his legs out from the heap of blankets and stood upright.

‘Oh shit—not good,’ he mumbled and ended up on his ass (thankfully on the couch). A mixture of lightheadedness and nausea engulfed him. And for an additional kick to the teeth, at that very instant, he finally registered the splitting headache buried beneath his eye sockets.

‘C’mon, get it together, dude.’ became his mantra through chattering teeth that morning. He moved around gingerly, washed down two Asprin tags with a shot of orange juice. With one hand he prepped a cup of coffee and used his other hand to massage his temple. Ian let it cool a little and took a piping hot shower in the meantime. He let out a groan and rested his head on the cold wall tiles and let the water envelope everything from the base of his neck downward. When the water started to lose its sizzle he forced himself out to get dressed.

The thumping in his head started to dull. Good.

One gulp after the other, Ian downed his coffee at the kitchen sink. He stared out the window; the dark and gloomy clouds hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, they somehow looked more prevalent. Lower, too. A thin layer of frost covered every living thing that he could see.

‘Car’ll need defrosting, too,’ he said to no one in particular.

He finished off his coffee and set the mug in the sink.

Picking up his beanie and gloves from the small table next to the door, Ian ambled out into the morning. The sting of the icy air against the his exposed skin diverted attention from his headache. He cringed as he felt all the little nose hairs freeze immediately.

Two more shifts. Only two to go. C’mon long weekend. You can do this. Ian encouraged himself as he carefully made his way down the side of the gravel path. Three minutes later he had the engine warming up while he used the squeegee from the boot to scrape away the frost from the front and rear windscreens. As soon as they were cleared, the Datsun was on the road.

#

By the time Ian pulled into the Alpine Hi-Fi car park his headache was barely registering. Maybe it wasn’t going to be such a shit day after all

No customers were waiting at the door; nor did anyone appear to be waiting in the warmth of their cars. Not entirely surprising, considering the weather now and what was still to come. Necessities now; entertainment later.

From inside the store, Mary noticed him before he had a chance to knock. She held up her index finger briefly and counted through handful of notes and placed them in the register. She grabbed a set of keys from behind the counter and jogged to the front door and unlocked it.

‘Mornin!’ Mary said, standing aside to let him in.

‘Good morning. Looks like we’ll have a quiet morning.’

‘No shit! I didn’t see a single car parked outside any of the cafes on the way here. Not a single line for takeaway coffee.’

Mary locked the door again and they walked to the breakroom.

‘Man, you could’ve had time for once to grab one.’

‘Too cold. Besides, I didn’t want to deprive myself of the cheap instant stuff they supply us with.’ Mary turned around and looked him over. ‘You sure you don’t want a cuppa? You look like hell.’

‘Thanks. I felt twice as bad before I left.’

‘Dude, you can go home if you need to.’

Ian shook his head. ‘Nah, it’s fine. I still need to finish up going through the inventory. Probably won’t have a better day for it.’

Mary frowned, clearly irritated he hadn’t called in. ‘You have hat-hair, Blondie, comb it before we open. And the second you start to feel worse, you let me know and get your arse home!’

‘Can-do, Boss. You’re gonna get at least three hours from me.’

#

Mary Wilson was a godsend, Ian thought, she had been even before she’d been promoted to assistant manager. When she got hired on six years before, Ian had tenure and she shadowed him for a week before she was set out on her own tasks. The new mother proved herself time and again over the course of her first year. The customers loved her and her charming Scottish lilt. And on more than one occasion she’d saved his ass when he’d been offloaded managerial work at the last minute. Of course he’d given her the credit, she more than fucking deserved it.

As such, Ian busted his ass any time she was in charge. He gave his all for five hours…and then at 1:30 his headache came back with a vengeance. It came out of nowhere and the intensity within the first few minutes threatened to have him heave his Whopper and chips from lunch. He put a pin in his stocking duties and took refuge behind the counter next to the cash register. He leaned against the wall and kept as still as possible. What few customers that were in the store, thankfully, didn’t need help searching for products or lifting them, only checking out.

Mary walked in from her lunch break smelling of coffee and tobacco. The blustery wind had her rusty brown hair all over the place. Ian stopped breathing through his nose to keep himself from hurling his guts everywhere.

He must have had a look on his face because Mary went into mum-mode instantly.

Before she even got a word out, he spoke up. ‘I gotta tap out now.’

‘I was gonna say, you look fucking awful. Are you sure you can get home okay?’

‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine.’ He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The pain lessened slightly without the fluorescent lighting washing over everything.

‘You better be,’ Mary warned; her voice was gentle yet stern. ‘And call me as soon as you get home. I wanna know you’re safe.’

‘Totally,’ he sighed. ‘You sure you’ll be okay by yourself?’

‘Seriously?’ Mary looked around the store. ‘All that’s left is putting up that box of stock and a quick sweep. I’ll be fine.’ She thought for a moment and added: ‘You can stay home tomorrow, too. Rest up and feel better, alright?’

‘Wait, what!?’

Mary laughed. ‘It’s okay, really. You need to sleep this off. And, in all honesty, upper management will have me cut hours anyway. Tomorrow will be light as well and the odds of us being open on Saturday with the storm coming are not good.’

‘For real?’

‘Yup. I’ll find out tomorrow morning if I’ll need to make a sign apologising for the closure.’

‘Crazy…Yeah, okay, uh, I guess I’ll see you Tuesday, then. Gimme a sec to punch out and I’ll call you when I get home.’

‘You better.’

Ian walked to the breakroom and clocked out. He slipped on his gloves and hat after his jacket and waited a moment to warm up before heading outside. He gave a light, reassuring smile to Mary, who was in the middle of ringing an old man out, waved once and slipped out.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he crossed the threshold into the dark afternoon. He felt bad about lying to get a day off work, especially Mary, at least that was no longer an issue. The job at Alpine Hi-Fi was good to him; as a teenager he was indifferent to calling in, but as he built rapport with his coworkers and befriended them—it really started fucking with his head. Pretty much after high school any blatant lie formed a tumorous mass that he felt would eventually consume him. Mary was damn smart—she had to have known whenever he feigned illness…and she still looked him right in the eye, face full of concern and accepted his excuses. A little voice in the back of his head told Ian that she was bullshitting him too, that she knew every single fib that escaped his mouth.

He groaned.

Stop thinking about it you arsehole. You’re only making it worse.

Specks of water popped up on the windscreen. As he drove they soon got bigger and bigger.

Thup. Thup. Thup. Thup.

The sleet had begun.

#

Hell with walking uphill, Ian told himself as he drove the Datsun up the gravel path. His head was throbbing even more and the less time he spent conscious, the better. Eyes fluttering, he parked in front of the porch and leaned back against the head rest. He didn’t want to move one fucking bit, but the lap blanket would be enough to keep him warm. Not today. Ian picked up his beanie from the passenger seat (it felt too tight on his head a quarter of the drive, only making his migraine worse) and staggered into the house.

Just as he promised, he called Mary and assured her he made it back safe and sound; he also advised of the sleet and told her to be careful as well.

Ian popped two more Asprin and chugged some OJ straight from the carton. He groaned and limped to his bedroom and dropped onto his bed, not giving a damn if he was still in his work clothes and shoes

#

It was the howl of the wind that woke Ian. He shifted his eyes to the left and right, still feeling a dull pain. Aside from that, the headache seemed to have passed. There was a sheen of sweat that he felt around his collar and armpits. The material of his pants felt damp around his calves.

Too warm.

Sometime in his sleep he’d also wrapped himself into a burrito with his sheets and blankets. And it finally dawned on him why he’d felt so terrible in the first place.

The beer. The salted popcorn.

I’m fucking dehydrated.

He kicked himself inwardly and untangled himself from his covers. Step one for feeling better was downing a whole glass of water. Ian rolled over and was about to plant his feet on the ground when he noticed his bedroom window. The world beyond the pane of glass was jet black; in the lower corners a white powder was piled up.

Ian forced himself out of bed and bounded toward the front of the house. He switched on the porch light and tore open the door. A thin dusting of snow sifted to the floorboards. It must have stormed like crazy while he was out; most of the door was covered in the frosty powder. So was everything else it seemed. Snow dunes glittered under the lamplight and faded into the darkness a few metres away. None of the greenery was visible—it must have absolutely dumped down. Even the…

‘Ah, fuck!’

…car had mounds of snow on the bonnet and the roof. Of course the storm blew in early while he parked there for a few hours. The Pulsar would be stuck in that spot until the snow and ice melted. Annoying as all hell, but no biggie. All he had to do was stay put for a while. The fridge was packed, he didn’t have to worry about work or lack of entertainment.

Ian closed the door and turned off the light.

In the kitchen, he stood in front of the sink and guzzled down a glass of water. He’d be right as rain after he downed some more. The second glass went down slower, he sure as hell didn’t want to get a brain freeze while trying to nurse existing pains.

When he filled his third glass, he checked his watch: 8:37. It wasn’t too late. Ian picked up the wall-mounted phone next to the refrigerator and dialed Mary.

It picked up on the fourth ring.

‘Hello?’ An exasperated Mary answered.

‘Hey, it’s me.’

‘Oh!’ Her voice perked up. ‘Hi, how’re you doing?’

‘Good, much better now,’ he paused to take a sip, ‘just woke up and saw all the snow. It looked like a lot and I don’t know when it started. Just wanted to make sure you’re okay too.’

‘Aww, that’s really sweet. But yeah, made it home fine. It started flurrying about an hour after you left. I was tempted to close early.’

‘You didn’t?’

‘Nah, but I didn’t stay after either. It was getting worse, so I left with the last customer. Now me and the kiddos are riding it out.’

‘Same. Got everything together and not planning on going out for a few days at least. I’ll let you go. You guys take care.’

‘Thanks, we will. If you need anything, gimme a call.’

‘For sure! Good night.’

‘Night.’

Ian hung up the phone, reassured. Both of them were safe and staying put. No worries. Now he could focus on getting himself back to a hundred percent. Which should be by morning if he kept up with the water. The long weekend plans were back on track.

His stomach growled in complaint—correction, almost back on track.

Ian had to think about that for a minute. The latter part of his waking hours he felt like he was going to barf. At the moment, he was in the strange realm of not being able to tell if he was still feeling painfully nauseous or if he was in the midst of hunger pains.

Again, his stomach made its presence known and issued demands to be satisfied posthaste.

‘Calm down. If you shut up a sec, I’ll get you some damn food.’

Silence.

‘That’s more like it.’

As a reward, Ian prepped a quick ham and cheese sandwich with a spot of mustard. He grabbed the radio on his way to the on the way into the lounge room and sat it down on the couch next to him.

Nothing but snow on every channel and out the window. A bummer, but not surprising. He switched off the TV and flipped the power on to the radio and rolled the dial to the ABC. Ian listened through the news cycle, slowly going through his meal and trying not to overdo it.

At last, information on the weather:

…Sydney, as well as the ACT, will have their fare share of rain in their respective regions with temperatures between eleven and sixteen degrees. A far cry warmer than just south in regional New South Wales. The Snowy Mountains region won’t be above zero until Sunday afternoon with on and off snow expected through Saturday night. Thredbo is expected to have about three hundred millimetres through that time. Eighty mills in Jindabyne; one hundred and forty at Mount Kosciuszko; two hundred and twenty-five millimetres in Jacobs Basin; a hundred and ten millimetres in…

Ian tuned out after getting their amount for the weekend.

Holy shit, he thought, Tuesday might be off the table, too…

Mary would definitely get a heads-up tomorrow. If he could get a lift from anyone, that would be fantastic, but he wasn’t counting on it.

He finished off his ham and cheese and sat the plate aside. The snow was coming down even harder; he went back up to the front window to have a look. Blindly, he fumbled for the switch to the porch light.

Click.

Umm…

Ian blinked a couple times and stared at the snow near the Datsun. It looked like the frosty surface was riddled with pockmarks.

Those were not there before.

The divots arced around the passenger side of the car. They looked more pronounced and deeper under the door latch (which was locked). If the blemishes weren’t as small as they were, he would have sworn someone was checking to see if the car had anything worth taking (fuck you to them, there wasn’t). He couldn’t see where the tracks had come from or where they went.

Curiosity got the better of Ian, which he would soon come to regret, and he retreated back into the house to grab his torch from the laundry room. He returned to the door within seconds and shone the light to the ground near the Pulsar. From there he brought the beam to the right toward the driveway. What surprised him was that the trail did not lead toward the road, but continued on to the bush past the side yard. Ian then swept the light the opposite way. The foot(?)prints went to the front of the car and circled around the far side of the house. The more he looked at the trail the more unnerved he felt. What made it worse was that he couldn’t even tell which direction…the thing…was travelling. Logic told him they entered from the bushland off to his right and went around to the left.

Still, he wondered…

He shut the door, locked it, and briskly made his way to the sliding glass doors in the back. Using the torch, he brushed aside the vertical blinds and looked for any disturbances along the miniature dunes.

Aha!

Right in the centre of the backyard. And off it went around the side of the house, as expected. The trail either started or ended right there in the back…but nothing was out there from what he could see.

That doesn’t make any sense…

Last time he checked nobody could just beam in or out. He sure as shit wasn’t high or drunk.

Maybe it snowed and covered the earlier tracks?

That didn’t make any sense either.

Let it go. Put away the light and go the fuck to sleep. Have a look in the morning…not now.

Ian swallowed hard and stepped back from the blinds, turning off the torch. He took it with him to bed along with another glass of water. Not surprisingly, he didn’t feel like a horror movie at the moment and wanted to focus on getting back to sleep.

#

Outside, the bitter winds picked up. The bare branches of the trees clawed each other ruthlessly. A lackadaisical flurry when Ian went to bed turned into another full-on shower. The old bones and joints of the house creaked and groomed during the worst of the frosty winter storm. Across the front lawn, the rusty hinges of the garage door cried out. Every gust of wind tried, in vain, to either push the doors in or pull them right off the frame.

Ian, of course, was aware of all of it.

Getting back to sleep was slow going. The fact that he’d been asleep for hours had already screwed his sleep cycle. Not to mention the business with the tracks in the snow.

He sighed and checked his watch. An hour and a half had passed.

‘Fuck it,’ he grumbled and forced himself out of his bed. The power hadn’t gone out, so he’d put on a movie until he passed out. Still, he clutched the torch like a weapon and draped a blanket over his shoulders. What the hell, right? He’d get a decent fire going, too. Perhaps the cosier and more at ease he felt, the faster he’d be off to dreamland.

But that’s not what happened at all.

Once more, curiosity got the better of Ian and he couldn’t help but check out the front. He opened the front door and pointed the torch at his car.

Click.

Ian’s heart stopped. His finger grip nearly became as useless as a claw machine’s. The circle of warm light wavered over the snow. Despite the accumulation of fresh powder, the original disruptions were as they were before…exactly.

And there were heaps more past the car, including a trail that led up to…the garage.

The beam of light darted to the double-doors.

Motherfucker.

Someone was out there. They let themselves into the garage. Ian was at a loss for what to do. Calling the cops would be next to useless—the roads had to be properly fucked. It would take hours for them to reach his address…if they even came out at all.

They’d probably tell me to stay inside and keep my doors locked. It’s probably some poor bastard trying to get out of the cold.

Ian reckoned he was going to regret it, but he decided to have a look. He ran back into his room and pulled out a cricket bat from underneath a pile of stuff in the back of the closet. Funny, one of the last times he used the thing was back in year ten, and he almost cracked a friend’s skull open then. Now here he was all these years later hyping himself up to do it again if need be.

Unlikely, he reminded himself. It’s probably someone looking for shelter. That’s gotta be it. There were a number of campsites further up the road. It wouldn’t be out of the question if the storm kicked up while someone was out camping. The wind and the snow collapsed the tent and their car was snowed in.

Ian eyed the bat. Still…not worth taking the chance.

He put on the porch light and stepped out of the safety and warmth of his home to investigate. The first step on to the grass was a perilous one. The entirety of his shoe disappeared in the snow and took a portion of his pant leg a few centimetres past the hem. A cold shock ran up his entire body.

Too late now. Not like I have boots or anything.

He stepped further out with his left leg, receiving another chill—although not to the extent of the first. Before he went to the garage, Ian decided to take a closer look at the tracks at the Datsun.

As expected, they weren’t footprints at all…not human ones at least. Each puncture through the snow to the ground was circular, all different in diametre. Ian crouched down for a closer look. He put the torch right up to the holes. The grass at the bottom was a deep and healthy green; some had dandelions or mushrooms sprouting.

That didn’t make any sense either.

With the cold weather that had been hovering over the town for weeks, most of his yard varied between very light greens and deep yellow-browns. Ian didn’t expect that kind of colour until a warm streak in the spring.

Ian groaned, his bones crackling, as he stood upright and focused on the garage. The light centred on the swaying garage doors.

Gotta be the wind, he tried to convince himself. His courage faltered. The wind has opened ‘em before when they weren’t latched properly. That’s all that happened…the wind took it and an animal wandered in…probably a deer.

Ian approached the ajar doors slowly. He swapped hands for his torch and bat, so that he held the weapon in his dominant hand. Quietly, he stood aside and took in a deep breath for confidence. In a swift movement he wedged his left elbow behind the door and shoved it open. He jumped inside, aiming the torch straight ahead and raised the bat, ready to strike.

But there was nothing inside.

Ian dropped his batting arm to his side and exhaled. His ego took a hit—frightened and ready to fight dead space. Of course.

Since he still had the feeling something had been in there, he used the light to scour the items collecting dust along the walls. Everything was in order…

…until he reached the workbench at the far end of the garage. The axe was no longer hanging from its spot…it lay on the cement floor, handle shattered in two.

Cold sweat dripped down Ian’s neck.

‘The hell with this!’

Ian stepped back into the night. He closed up the garage and made sure it was locked properly. He ran across the yard and into the house.

Clack. Clunk.

The door lock and the deadbolt were secure. Keeping the bat gripped tight, he set the torch on the small table and headed straight for the phone. He picked up the receiver—

—no sound.

He tapped on the numbers. Nothing.

‘That’s great…’

Ian double-checked the lock on the sliding doors—still good.

No way in hell I’m gonna sleep now. I’ll put something on and keep busy.

He consulted the VHS tapes spread across the bookshelf in the lounge room and picked out The Empire Strikes Back.

This time around, Ian was out like a light before the first movie ended (only a few minutes after the Battle of Hoth). He didn’t even get a chance to put up a fight with sugar and caffeine—the Pepsi and Smarties sat unopened on the floor next to the couch.

#

It wasn’t a long bout of sleep; the hiss of the snow on the television and the clacking of the innards of the VCR startled Ian from his slumber.

He sat upright and slowly regained consciousness. For a second, he was willing to lean back and doze off again, but the sound from the TV and the player was too annoying and the room had gotten so cold that he could see his breath.

Ian cleared the fireplace and put more logs in, twisted up some old newspaper, and lit it. The room glowed orange and the heat spread. He was fine to crash right there on the floor.

BWANG! BWANG! BWANG!

Ian jumped in his spot and recognised the sound—something was battering on the side of the garage. A short-lived rumble and hollow clomping sound followed.

He gathered up the cricket bat and torch and burst through the screen door. Tracks were everywhere over the front yard. The doors to the garage were still secured, but someone bat the holy hell out of the tin panels on the side. They also tipped over the logs he’d gathered for the fireplace.

Ian had had it.

‘You arseholes done screwin’ around!?’ he shouted to the night. ‘I’ve already called the cops, so you best be getting the fuck outta here!’ On the emphasis of ‘fuck’ he struck the cement floor of the porch. He cringed at sounding like an old man, far beyond his twenty-eight years, yelling at the kids.

In response, the raucous banging started on the garage from the other side.

‘Goddammit,’ Ian cursed through gritted teeth. He stormed out to the source of the sound, turning off the flashlight as not to warn the trespasser. He rounded the back side of the building when the thumping came to a stop. He jumped around the other side, once more, nothing.

All that was present, besides the significant dings to the tin, were those same circular breaks in the snow. These had significant lengths of fresh and healthy foliage jutting out.

It was then Ian noticed the strange, but sweet, aroma coming from the bush.

Did I smell that earlier?

No. He’d never smelt anything like that before. It was so distinct, but he could not pinpoint the source.

Ian stalked into the bush, torchlight helping him make his way. The caveman part of his brain was looking forward to bashing some heads in—and he hated feeling that elation. And if it was they who had the mouth-watering food on them, fuck it, he’d take that, too. Light compensation for the damage to his property and the headache of drying and re-stacking all that that wood.

‘Where you at, numbnuts!? I know you’re here.’

In truth, he didn’t. At that point he was following the strange scent, walking wherever it got stronger.

When the deliciously fruity scent reached its apex, Ian found himself in a clearing untouched by the snow. Fresh tree saplings and flowers grew. Shrubs stretched out with the biggest and brightest berries he’d ever seen.

It was like he was transported to a whole different world. The air around him was warmer. A sense of calm washed over him. All the tension in his muscles eased and he lowered the cricket bat. Ian was relaxed to the point that he was ready to sit down there in the grass and mellow out.

And then he saw the goddamned tree.

Towering and slim, it glided toward him. Dozens of roots worked in tandem, jabbing into the ground, to move the behemoth—they looked like like the tentacles of an octopus or a jellyfish. The bark along the midsection of the trunk audibly cracked and an ugly face appeared. The hollows that formed the eyes were black and soulless as a doll’s. It’s gaping maw splintered open, hundreds of jagged teeth jutted in every direction.

Ian snapped out of his trance and booked it back to the house. He at least had the wherewithal to hang on to his only light source and weapon. Very briefly he thought about running down the hill and onto the road, but there was no way he’d make it; his lungs were aching and he was breathing fire through his mouth and nose.

The keys to the Datsun were still in his pocket! He quickly came up with a second plan and hoped that he had enough time to get in the car and (if it moved) get down to the road in one piece.

He fought the urge to look back. All he had to do was keep his eyes locked ahead and fish out the keys. If the tree was still following him it didn’t make a damn sound. The ground wasn’t quaking behind him or anything either. His Jell-O legs carried him back onto his property. He stashed the torch in the crook of his arm that held the bat and jammed his hand into his pocket and plucked out the key.

Ian slammed against the Pulsar, the key found its mark and he twisted. He swung the door open and jumped in. He turned the ignition.

Oh fuck, oh shit!

The headlamp cut through the night and Ian screamed. Silently, the damned tree breached the forest. Its lower branches, acting as hands, reached out for him. The roots carried it closer. Its mouth was still wide open, calling for blood.

Ian’s foot was on the floor as the car roared and redlined in place. The ass end of the car shifted and just as Ian closed his eyes and prepared for the worse, the Pulsar gained traction and jolted free!

Ian turned the wheel a sharp right and drove in the vague direction of the hidden gravel path. The tyres struggled, but kept moving him forward. He spun the wheel left and right, desperately trying to prevent the car from spinning out. The Datsun squealed and squeaked as it bounded down the hill. The undercarriage found the gravel and scraped and clunked against it. For sure, the car was fucked, but that didn’t matter so long as it took him to safety. The high beams found Sanderson Creek Way, he was almost level with it—

—and the car fishtailed.

Ian overcompensated with the steering and sent it into a spin. It skidded off to the side of the driveway facing up the hill.

Ian stomped on the accelerator—nothing.

He put the car into reverse—nada.

It was no good; he was stuck. He watched helplessly as the tree practically slid down to him.

Ian fumbled with the door and shoved himself out. He tried to make a break for it, but he felt rope-like tendrils wrapping around his legs and waist. He fell forward, cracking his chin on the ground, biting through his tongue. There was no pain. He only felt the hot liquid gushing down his chin and spilling across his torso.

He was being dragged back to his home.

Ian screamed at the top of his lungs, gurgling and choking on his blood. But there was no one passing by to hear him. How could they be?

He was lifted high into the air by his legs. Branches reached out and took hold of him from his chest to his groin. The roots that caught him loosened and retreated.

For the briefest of moments, Ian faced the predator as he was lowered into its splintered mouth and everything went dark.

The creature, having its fill, took refuge in the forest just beyond the homestead.

A flurry started up and kept going for the remainder of the night. By morning there were no visible tracks, tyre or otherwise.

#

It was another two days before the next car was even able to drive down Sanderson Creek Way. Passersby only made bemused comments on the off-kilter Datsun or quietly hoped the driver was okay—never going beyond their remarks.

***

Assistant: Yuki! The creature from this excursion matches the data from the one a few weeks ago. Decades and a couple hundred kilometres apart, but definitely the same ones.

Yuki: Very interesting indeed. It seems as if these stories aren’t finished. Compile all the data and we’ll see what we dig up.

Assistant: You got it!

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The King’s Personal War

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

Yuki: Hello everyone, hope your last couple weeks have been good.

Assistant: The last few days could have been better here…warmer anyway. Here, Yuki. Blankets fresh from the dryer.

Yuki: Yay! Warmth! This’ll definitely keep us nice and toasty for the meantime. And I’ve found a way to keep the whole room heated down here while we work on fixing the heating.

Assistant: Is that the freakin’ cauldron from your Halloween setup?

Yuki: Mhmm. This thing has a few uses: a mere prop for parties, boiling up food and drink, heating a small room in a pinch, even for conjuring up a good story.

***

‘Is anything coming through yet?’ the commanding voice of King Edmund boomed in the dim chamber. The great windows around the cylindrical tower had all its curtains pulled shut.

Jadugar, the court magician, turned from the large cauldron before him and gazed up at his king from over his right shoulder. ‘Barely, but there is a vision coming through. Shouldn’t be more than a moment or two.’

The king scoffed. ‘Better not be. If we cannot see what is going on in the battlefield, surely Oscar’s men will gain the upperhand.’

‘You sell your men short,’ Jadugar replied, smiling.

‘I would not if you had allowed me to send my knights rather than those…peasants.’

‘I promise you, Sire, that their sheer numbers, despite inferior armor and weaponry, can level a better equipped one less filled out.’

‘We shall see.’ The king’s voice was doubtful. ‘Our knights are at the ready in the event your plan does not work.’

Jadugar turned his attention back to the cauldron, still feeling the frosty daggers shanking his back. He tried to focus on the contents brewing before him. The orange flames occasionally flicked out of the underbelly of the pot like a tongue of a manic dragon. Steam swirled from the innards. The gelatinous liquid began to inflate all about. And over the next few minutes, every bubble that burst sent forth a thick plume of blue-black smoke.

The magician and king watched on as the oblong cloud rose toward the ceiling and spread outward. Portions of the smoke screen flickered, as if it were a miniature lightning storm. One spot would light up, then another, and another. Multiple sections fired off at once. When the whole veil lit up, an image projected out. The two men were looking down upon a field already bloodied in battle. It was expansive with few trees and rocks dotting the scenery—it very well could have been anywhere in the kingdom.

Hordes of peasants wearing a hodgepodge of metal plates and buckets for armour engaged a heavily fortified enemy. The shining protective cover of the enemy were custom jobs for both man and steed. Portions were caked in blood and scraped and dented. None of the grass in the centre of the scrum was visible; the crumpled bodies of peasants, knights, and horses were piled up, but nearly stomped level with the earth.

The king huffed. ‘So many of Ours are dead.’

‘Indeed. But look how many of theirs are as well. Look how much coin was wasted on the other end as compared with us.’

Edmund raised an eyebrow. ‘How much did we spend?’

The wizard smiled. ‘Not a single copper piece.’

‘What!?’

‘Mmm. These men are volunteers.’ The king said nothing, so Jadugar took that as a cue to explain. ‘You give the people a person or ideal, or both, to rally behind and make them care enough for them, they will do anything you please. The same goes for an adversary—if you give the people something or someone to fear, they will become increasingly suspicious and violent towards anything they believe to be associated with the offending party. And if you can make said adversary seem, to them, less than human, they will help destroy it. They would risk their lives and commit heinous acts of aggression, even without an order. The best part: you’d not have to reward them with any sort of compensation.’

The king guffawed and sat back comfortably in his chair. ‘An excellent idea…so long as hey can actually put these bastards in the ground.’

‘But of course,’ the wizard chuckled, keeping his attention to the battle before him. ‘We are not only able to view the battle, you can issue commands as well. You were renowned as a warrior and a master strategist, so you can utilise your tactical expertise to conquer the opposition.’

The king thought about this. ‘Yes…And nobody would be able to deny my skill.’ He stopped himself and paused. ‘Say, what about us being there with the soldiers?’

The wizard shrugged. ‘You’re able to see everything that’s going on—you can describe the action to your people all that you see firsthand. You know the commands issued. No one will be able to deny it.’

‘So you think I should stay here?’

‘No need to risk your life. What good will it do for your kingdom—your people—if you were to die out there? And with no one of your bloodline that could take the throne…it would be best for you to stay here during any campaign.’

Edmund nodded and focused on the scene playing out before him. He studied the movements of both the peasants and the knights. ‘Can they hear me now?’

‘Yes. As of this moment General Oliver can hear you.’

‘All right. Let’s get this sorted properly.’

Over the next few hours King Edmund passed along his orders whilst taking advice from his most trusted magician. In the beginning, the peasant army had the upper hand with Edmund almost positive the opposing knights would retreat. After a series of follies, the enemy was able to recoup and slaughtered the less experienced men in droves. It was looking dodgy for several minutes, but they persisted and got their second wind. They pushed back against the advanced brigade.

Edmund dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief, cursing the enemy under his breath.

‘Sire!’ Jadugar cried out, startling his king.

‘What is it?’

‘The knights are retreating! They’ve gathered what they could and have taken the horses further back!’

‘Huzzah! What of our men? Can they advance?’

Jadugar shook his head. ‘Not at this stage, Your Worship; if they were to move ahead in their current state, they would surely perish before making it halfway out of the valley.’

King Edmund sighed and wiped his brow dry. ‘Very well. In any event, they will think twice before setting foot on Our land again. Expensive and highly trained warriors broke even with a class lower than themselves.’ He laughed. ‘That will hold them off for a good while!’

‘One would think so, Sire.’

‘Have you any more need for Our presence?’

‘That will be all for now, I believe. I will alert you at once if another attack comes or any urgent matter arises, but I don’t see that happening for the time being.’

‘Excellent. Commanding an army is quite tiring. We shall be in Our quarters if you need anything.’

Without another word, the king took his leave. Jadugar waited until the sound of his footsteps grew quiet and the grand wooden door of his quarters clacked shut behind him. He turned his attention back to the visual cloud. The dead bodies and bloodied grounds faded and was replaced by a smoking vision of a handsome woman’s face. Her sleek black hair was pulled tight into a bun. Light scars criss-crossed over her dark features. The genuine intensity in her eyes caused Jadugar to smirk.

‘You can drop the act, Sieglinde, we’re alone now,’ Jadugar said, chuckling.

Sieglinde rolled her eyes and relaxed. ‘Did he buy into it?’

‘Hook, line, and sinker. Yours?’

‘She did…too easy, it seems.’ Sieglind frowned, unsure of the situation they had put themselves in.

‘Think we’ve found a solution to keep violence and death from spreading?’

Sieglinde took a moment, but nodded. ‘I think we have. No need for the blood of the innocent to flow at the hands of the greedy and the wealthy.’

‘What about the other emissaries?’

‘They’ve all agreed to it as well. By day’s end we shall know how their experiments turned out.’

Jadugar eased himself back onto a wall, and leaned against it. ‘Good. With luck, from this day forward, if any of our “betters” need to flex their egos, we shall let them test their skills over a game.

Sieglinde paused again. ‘Sating petty egos aside, have you come to a solution for how we deal with a king who simply gets too arrogant and greedy? What we’ve come up with here may work for a time, but it’s only a matter of time before someone gets restless.’

‘I have,’ Jadugar stated confidently. He pulled a dagger from within his cloak. ‘We use more traditional means. A shame any time we need to resort to actual bloodletting. Although it would be at a fraction of the scale compared to the meaningless wars our dear kings and queens currently subject us to.’

***

Yuki: Good news, my wonderful and lovely assistant. I’ve managed to find the parts needed to fix the heating.

Assistant: Why do I get the feeling you need something from me?

Yuki: You know me so well. I mean, it’s nothing much…just crawling through the nooks and crannies to put the replacement pieces in.

Assistant: Oh god…why can’t you have a normal home setup.

Yuki: You wouldn’t have it any other way. You love the lab we’ve got going here.

Assistant: *sighs* You’re right. I want a penalty rate for that shift though.

Yuki: I think we can manage that.

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

A Pleasant Mountain Drive

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

Yuki: Good evening everyone, I hope you’re all doing well. *blows nose*

Assistant: Okay, Yuki—seriously now—you need to get some rest, you’re not well.

Yuki: Bah! I’m fine, we just gotta get through this excursion and I’ll rest. I swear!

Assistant: You better. Put on your mask and I’ll start up the tea. It’ll be waiting for you when you get back.

Yuki: Alright, we’ll see you soon. Tonight, we have a couple doing much like we are: going on a trip out into the unknown. Unlike us, with proper precautions taken and months and years of planning, these two are going on a last minute drive through the mountains with little preparation.

***

The drive back up to Sydney was uneventful—as it always was after a brief holiday. Moreso this time around, Joey Wilson thought bitterly, with the trip cut short due to their hosts coming down with the flu. Not even sixty kilometres into the drive north and he was already feeling sluggish behind the wheel.

‘What are we pulling off for?’ Olivia Greene asked, looking up from her sketch book.

‘Feeling like a snack and a light sugar rush,’ her boyfriend replied with a half-truth (he made sure to keep both of his hands on the wheel and his eyes wide open for her benefit). ‘Want something?’

‘Mmm…banana bread if they have any.’

‘Alright,’ Joey said, parking in an open spot near the front door of the Caltex.

Inside, he picked out a couple Mountain Dews from the coolers, the requested banana bread from the wicker basket near the coffee maker, and a chocolate fudge brownie for himself. As he stood in the queue for the register, he happened to notice a collection of maps near a dozen or so pamphlets and brochures for touristy things in the area. He recalled one of the road signs a few k’s back, they hadn’t yet reached the exit for the mountains. Both he and Livia still had plenty of time off; it’d be a waste to just spend time sitting around the apartment waiting to go back to work. They could take their time getting home.

Screw it. Time for an adventure.

Joey picked up a regional NSW map.

*

‘What’s that you got?’ Livia asked as Joey opened the door and took his spot behind the wheel.

‘Our salvaged holiday,’ he said, smiling. He handed over the banana bread. ‘The mountains are an exit or two away and the roads’ll still take us back to the city.’

‘Why the map then?’

‘Lots of green and grey on Google Maps—probably not too much mobile service on the back roads. Whaddaya say?’

‘Do we have enough clean and warm clothes?’

‘Washed and dried last night. And we don’t have to stay in the mountains the whole time. One or two days and we keep taking the scenic route with an ocean view.’

‘Ouch, you’re twisting my arm. Okay, let’s go!’

*

Ten kilometres down the road, Joey reached the turnoff. He took Bowna and Wymah road, which, save for the two trucks travelling in the opposite direction, was completely empty. A few houses came and went on both sides of the street. Mainly they had several square kilometres of paddocks and lounging farm animals to keep them company.

As predicted, there was no mobile service once the sight of the Hume Highway left the rearview mirror. When they pulled up to a small town called Jingellic, Joey parked the car on the dirt shoulder and the couple consulted the map.

Joey looked down what looked to be the only street in town and took notice of the trees and buildings. ‘Looks like the storm missed.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Oh, I’m just saying that so far there hasn’t been so much as a branch on the ground and the tarmac has been bone dry from about five minutes back.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. Must’ve cut north or something.’ Olivia thought about that for a second. ‘Probably a good idea we didn’t follow the Hume all the way back.’

Joey studied the map and traced his finger over a few possible paths. ‘Alright, if we go north this way to Tumbarumba and take Tooma Road out, we go up Elliott Way over here. That’s where the real scenic route should start.’

‘Ooh…that’s really windy and twisty!’

He pointed to a spot further east. ‘Right about here we dip all the way down to the Tumut river and start our climb again here and it becomes Goat Ridge Road. We start to level out again here when we switch over to ‘Link Road—’

‘We can stop at the camp just after that for lunch.’

Joey smiled. ‘We can. After that we go along the Snowy Mountains Highway; we can look for places to stay the night along the way. Otherwise, we shouldn’t have a problem finding lodging in Cooma.’

Livia nodded in agreement. ‘I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of petrol between here and here,’ she said, tapping on the map.

‘Correct. I’ll fill up in Tumbarumba.’

‘Cool. Sounds like a plan so far.’

‘We’re off then.’

Joey put on the indicator and merged back on to the street.

*

Half an hour (and dozens of cows) later, Joey brought the sun-beaten Camry up to the pumps of a 7-Eleven and wasted no time. Five minutes after paying, they were on their way toward the outskirts. Not even fifteen kilometres down Tooma road, the couple made their first diversion for sightseeing.

The small sign for Paddys River Falls only gave them five-hundred metre’s notice (they were certain they missed an earlier indication); Joey brought the Toyota to a crawl and made the sharp right turn. He hugged the slope on his left, suddenly unsure of the trip down (not like he could turn around if he wanted to anyway). The Camry was narrow, but eve it seemed massive in his lane. The road was paved—so it had that going for it. His palms grew sweaty as he saw Hiluxes further down the winding path coming up.

‘Shit,’ Joey muttered under his breath. There was no way they would fit alongside one another. And surely they’d not expect him to reverse uphill. Joey eased his foot off the brake and continued down. They approached a tight left turn and, mercifully, there was a generous should for him to move aside. The Hiluxes passed, both drivers waved their hands as they continued their trek—tyres perilously close to the edge of the tarmac. An Eclipse hurried up the path so as to not go side-by-side with another vehicle on the narrower bits; that driver was too focused on the road to offer Joey any thanks.

And he did not blame her one bit.

Seconds felt like hours, but the Camry found its way on to the gravel car park. Livia and Joey got out and gathered their bearings. Toilets off to the left, picnic areas outlining the carpark, extra parking for caravans off to the right, tall trees all around them. And there was the unmistakable woosh of a waterfall

It was one hell of a sight to take in.

The land beyond the carpark sat above the lip of the falls. The powerful surge of the water rocketed from the ledge and crashed upon the boulders several metres below. Livia retrieved her camera from her bag and started clicking away. Joey took his phone from his pocket and wandered off to the right. He opened up the camera settings and line up a panoramic shot of the falls, the grotto behind the raging torrents, and the river as it wound lazily out of sight.

Joey eyed the path and and saw how it led to the rock pool and behind the cascading water. ‘Hey! We can get some shot down here!’

Livia stepped forward and glanced over the edge. ‘Ugh; stairs. No thank you.’

‘You sure?’

‘Not today, Satan. My hip’s still fucked, thank you very much. You take the pics down there and I’ll handle all the stuff up here.’

‘Okay, next time we won’t do it at all before a day out,’ Joey teased. He followed the concrete footpath and stairs and snapped a few more pictures. Out of habit, he opened up Facebook and realised there was only one bar that teetered on the ‘no service’ symbol. Later then.

It was a five minute hike down and across before he had Paddys Falls right dead in front of him. He picked up the pace only to stop a few strides in. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end; from the corner of his eye hideous faces were staring, bony arms reaching out for him. He turned on his heel toward the river and moved back into the handrails as much as he physically could. Deep hollow eyes glared. Gaping maws screamed at him or cried out in silent horror. The skeletal figures swayed in the wind.

It took a beat, but Joey made the connection that he was staring at a group of trees a couple of metres shy of the water. All of the zombie-like features were actually etched into the trunks. He sighed and kicked himself inwardly for freaking himself out over nothing.

‘You get your pics yet!?’ Livia shouted over the rushing waters.

‘Nah. Not yet!’ he yelled back while readying his camera at the unusual sight. ‘Gimme about ten minutes?’

‘Okay.’

Joey zoomed in on the trunks. Even weirder, he thought, that wasn’t graffiti carved into the bark, but rather naturally occurring hollows and distortions—probably caused by fungi or vines. Joey shuddered. His mind was unconsciously taking those patterns and constructing human faces.

Okay, time to go, he told himself, before I give myself nightmares. He snapped the closeups and moved on.

*

Joey met Livia at the car. ‘You get enough down there?’

‘I think so. More than enough to satisfy anyone wanting to know what we’re up to. We’ll probably have to wait ‘til Cooma for me to upload. How ‘bout you?’

‘Birds and butterflies mostly. I got some really cool rock formations on that hillside over there.’

Joey told her about the trees and showed her the images. She squinted at them and brought the phone close to her face.

‘I mean, I guess I can kinda see that. Wouldn’ta thought that if you hadn’t put the idea there.’

Joey Shrugged. ‘I guess…scared the crap outta me.’

‘Man, you gotta stop watching horror movies before bed.’

Joey rolled his eyes. ‘Not you too.’

‘Mhmm…so, you ready to go?’

He noticed a car easing its way down the path. ‘Eeeh, we’ll wait for that to make it down first.’

*

Joey felt much relief once he reached the main road. He actually exhaled once they had solid ground on both sides of the pavement.

Livia chuckled. ‘Oh my god, that was only a tiny side trip! Are you sure you can do a whole mountain drive?’

‘There’s no way it’ll be as bad. It’ll definitely have guard rails at the very least.’ Confidence was returning in his voice and his body was more at ease. He noticed he was leaning in to the steering wheel and allowed himself to rest his back against the seat.

It didn’t last long. That relaxed feeling started to fade a kilometre down Elliott Way. Many of the trees along the shoulders were weather-damaged in some way. Trunks were snapped or bent and a decent amount of downed branches lay scattered across both the grass and tarmac. At least the lanes were wide.

Three hundred metres before the descent, a roadworker with a sign picked himself up from a nearby stump and walked toward the dividing line.

Joey brought the car to a stop and rolled down the window.

‘How ya doing?’ the man asked.

‘Fine. And yourself?’ Joey replied.

‘Can’t complain—little chilly though. We’re giving everyone a heads up; we got some workers cleanin’ up the shoulders on the way down.’

‘Anything blocked?’

‘Not that they’ve reported. But a bit of the way down is a single lane. Take it real slow around the bends and stop for them. They’ll let you know when to keep on going.’

Joey and Livia thanked the man and continued on the drive. The two of them soon saw that the workers were not messing around. Several utes were parked alongside the guardrail; men and woment in hi-vis vests peppered both shoulders with whipper snippers and blowers.

‘I don’t think I’ve even seen this many people on construction for the M5,’ Livia stated.

The lollipop lady help up the stop sign and spoke briefly into her radio and held it up to her ear. She flipped the to ‘slow’ and waved them through. Over the next several hundred metres, the couple saw more utes, some with flashing yellow lights, some with wood chippers, and others still with various high-powered lawn tools. Every person they saw was busy with raking up debris or cutting up branches too big to hoist in their current state. Aside from brief glances when the Camry approached, no one paid them any mind. When the car passed the lollipop man at the other end of the work zone, Joey kept at the same slow pace.

‘Not gonna speed up?’

‘Yeah, nah. Not on this road. They were going down the same direction as us. Might be a little cluttered ahead.’

‘If we get stuck, at least it won’t be for too long.’

‘That is a bonus, I guess.’

And so they crawled the last five kilometres and the road straightened out for the remaining dip. Immediately before the Tumut River crossing, there was an offshoot road that made a large loop around some park space. Unprompted, Joey turned into O’Hares campground.

‘Probably a good time to use the toilet,’ he advised. ‘We’ve maybe at least forty to fifty k’s before the next campsite…I think.’

He parked the car.

‘Not even a place to pull over?’

Joey pulled out the map and looked it over. ‘From what I see here, most likely not. I mean, this place isn’t even on the map, so there could be others…but with all the tight turns and no real straightaways, it’s doubtful.’

‘Okay, I’ll be a minute then.’

‘Cool. I’m gonna stretch my legs, too.’

Livia headed off to the toilets while Joey made his way to the water’s edge. It was so expansive that it seemed more like a lake than a river. Stranger yet, the waters were a vivid green.

Must be a hell of an algae bloom, Joey thought, bringing out his phone for a few more shots. Not even a hint of blue.

Another thing caught his attention—he raised his nose to the air. Something smelled delicious and he had no idea what it was. He swiveled in place, putting his back to the river, and eyed all the picnic tables and barbecues. No one else was there. On the far side of the gravel loop a thicket of trees and shrubs blocked the view of the rest of the grounds. There looked to be a well-trodden dirt path going further along the land.

A quick look wouldn’t hurt, Joey decided.

As he approached the bushland, a gust of wind whipped up the scent. His stomach growled. Weird, he hadn’t realised he was so hungry.

Joey stepped on to the path and stopped in his tracks.

The trees.

A number of them had the same humanoid characteristics from Paddys Falls. It had to be a common species of tree, right? They were fucked up looking for sure, but this had to be a naturally occurring thing, yeah? Joey lived in the city his whole life and knew very little about the flora of regional New South Wales. He could obviously spot palms or eucalyptus or gum trees, but that was about it for him. Honestly, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Cracked had featured them in an article of the creepiest plants from around the world. He took a few more steps down the path and—

‘Hey! What’re you doing?’

Joey snapped out of his fixation and turned back to the public toilets and shook his head. ‘Having a bit of a wander.’

‘Have a wander back to the car. I just felt a raindrop.’

Joey looked skyward. The grey clouds were getting darker and moving in fast. He hurried back to the Toyota, hastily pressing the unlock button on the key fob. ‘Yeah, let’s not get stuck in the middle of a storm. Not here!’

The couple wasted no more time an were back onto Elliott Way in a matter of seconds.

*

The bridge across the Tumut was a single lane wide, with signage indicating that drivers needed to take turns crossing. Thankfully, there was no oncoming traffic to slow their trip out of the valley.

Even more storm damage was present on the eastern side of the river. All the tall grasses at the base of the hills were flattened by water runoff. Numerous trees were missing some of their thicker branches. Two trees had been uprooted entirely.

Weather events aside, the scenery around them was nothing short of majestic. Joey rolled down his window and pushed back against his head rest as far as he could to allow Livia to take pictures of the valley and the mountains. She lamented on the storm clouds in the background and jokingly insisted that they come back sometime when the skies were clear. To which Joey pointed out (hoping Livia would not call his bluff) that from Cooma, it wouldn’t be a terrible drive back.

Elliott Way soon became Goat Ridge Road and the Camry started its ascent. Less damage was evident, but the only constant was the bush flattened by overflow. Mud and dirt speckled the narrow shoulder closest to the crag. A couple instances over the stretch, the misplaced earth reached the divider—nothing thick enough to impede comfortable travel. Joey was certain that they’d make it out with no problem—

But that was a short-lived assumption as he pulled around a sharp left bend. His foot tapped the brake harder than intended, causing the tyres to squeal. Livia let out a sharp gasp, almost dropping her camera.

‘You gotta be shitting me,’ Joey murmured.

A gigantic gum tree lay horizontal across both lanes. The whole body was intact, roots and all. It was brought down by a landslide, the mound of dirt was piled up cliff-side and splashed around the tree in their lane. Joey put on the hazard lights and stepped out. No way in hell could the tree be moved by hand. He crossed the road. The top covered all of the available land up to the ledge; there was no going around. He checked the grass before investigating the opposite side.

Joey looked at Livia and shook his head. ‘No go. Car’ll get stuck; the ground is too soggy and there’s no way I can keep it on the road to turn it around.’

‘Well, what do we do then?’

Joey checked his phone. ‘Zero reception. I think we should wait for the road works guys to get here.’

Livia groaned. ‘That could take hours!’

‘Could take even longer if we get stuck. They might be able to wench us out. Then we’d have to be driven to the nearest town to arrange a tow.’

‘At least we have snacks. C’mon, let’s sit in the car with the heat on for a bit.’

‘Wait for me,’ Joey said walking back around the turn.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Shoulda gone to the toilet down at the campground. I’ll be right back.’

Joey jogged over to the thickets and looked for a suitably wide tree to hid behind. The odds of a someone else driving by were very slim, based on the lack of traffic since ditching the Hume. Better safe than sorry. As he undid his fly a familiar scent caught his attention. He turned to his right and sniffed. A larger grouping of trees was back some fifty metres—the same ones from Paddys and O’Hares. The smell was much more potent now. Even from the distance, Joey could see the strange faces…the warped bodies embedded in the trunks.

He couldn’t help but stare. His stomach was rabid now, demanding food. Full bladder suddenly forgotten, Joey ambled over to the curiosities. Hesitantly, he ran his palm over the bark—smooth, but not entirely firm; it was cold and flesh-like. Looking closely at the hollows that he thought of as eye sockets, he noticed sap was leaking from the lower portion. The scent was more pungent than ever. Joey extended his pinky to the substance and dabbed the tiniest amount on his tongue.

It was delicious! Unlike anything he’d ever tasted! He gathered more on his finger and hastily consumed it. Another nearby tree wept the tasty sap—and another one—and another.

Joey moved from tree to tree and collected what he could. His mind clouded over. The intense appetite was being sated. The world around him grew warm. All his extremities got a fuzzy sensation until they went completely numb.

The forest faded to black and Joey didn’t mind in the slightest.

*

Back at the car, Livia checked the time on her phone for the seventeenth time. Joey should have been back ages ago. She decided to go out and have a look.

She called out his name, walking in the direction he went. ‘Everything okay?’

No answer.

‘Joey! Answer me! No need to be shy at a time like this!’ She approached the nearest trees that would have kept him out of sight from the street. Nothing.

She called his name out again. Concern began to worm its way into her nerves. Her voice threatened to waver.

And then she noticed the strange trees; the ones Joey had gone on about. She ran over and immediately recognised his concern. The human forms were much more pronounced than the ones from the Falls. These overtook almost every square centimetre of the damned things. One of them even looked like…

‘Oh, god!’

Livia ran up to the trunk that bore an uncanny similarity to her boyfriend. Unable to fully comprehend exactly what she was seeing, she ran her fingers over Joey’s forehead and down his cheek. He was still warm…and the bark was smooth and rubbery. She looked into the hollows where his eyes used to be…

…and noticed tears—no, sap, leaking from within. A sweet smell intruded her thoughts and overwhelmed her; her stomach ached. No longer in control of herself, Livia extended her index fingers and gathered a dollop of the strange amber fluid.

Intoxicating—the only word she could muster as she licked the digit clean. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head.

She had to have more!

In a matter of moments a warm and fuzzy feeling enveloped her entire being. Livia’s mind was at ease again. She smiled and sighed with content; the delicious taste was the last thing she ever knew.

***

Yuki: Oooh, I know it’s probably not good for me, but what I would give for some of that sap.

Assistant: Feeling worse.

Yuki: Uh-huh…

Assistant: *sighs* You pushed yourself too hard again. C’mon, let’s get you a blanket and hot water bottle. I’ve got your tea waiting for you too.

Yuki: Okay. There’s still no chance of getting that sap, is there?

Assistant: No…there isn’t, but we’ve got some honey to go in the tea. Come along this way. Thanks for your time tonight, folks. See you again!

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The Impending Seige of Castle Myrddin

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

Yuki: Everything okay on that end?

Assistant: Yup, we’re clear! I think that’s every square inch of the property settled.

Yuki: Excellent! Alright. Welcome back everyone! Apologies for the last excursion. This week, for real, everything is back to normal.

Assistant: We had a bit of a “bug” infestation. Not the typical kind either. Massive pain in the ass.

Yuki: Electronic bugs are nothing. However, when they’re organic and on a slightly different plane of existence…that presents a healthy challenge. We’re now basically in an impenetrable bubble and our visitor from a few weeks ago cannot hear or see us.

Assistant: And it’ll take at least a few weeks for him to figure out what’s happened.

Yuki: Now, we’ll all take a step into the Void. We’ve found another far-off world for you. A pair of young mages discover something terrifying going down at their school. Tonight’s tale is:

***

Lightning flickered in the distance. The blue light from the windows lit up the whole of the great study, overtaking the soft warm glow of the fireplace and the candelabras. A few seconds later, the quiet rumble of thunder suggested that the incoming storm was still a ways off. But with the way the winds were whipping up, the storm would be there within minutes.

The mages only turned their attention from their books when a high-pitched gust whistled between the stone towers.

K’len Kanagangya, a third-year apprentice, pulled down the hood of his cloak to better hear his surroundings. The cold air of the room stung his long, pointed ears and crawled down the back of his neck. They were uncomfortable at best within the fabric, but compared to being constantly exposed to the frigid air of the winter, it was a much-welcomed part of his ensemble. He listened to the thunder, the winds, down to the sizzle of the lightning, and everything between.

Peculiar, he thought, saving his page and setting the tome aside. What is that? He rose from the comfort of his chair next to the fire and crossed the room to the nearest window. The dark clouds were closing in; torrents of rain spilt from them and bolts of lightning discharged from within. He stuffed the strands of blond hair that escaped the confines of the cloak back into place and pulled the hood back up. Briskly, he made way for the exit.

Standing near the fireplace, doing nothing more than trying to keep warm, first-year apprentice mage Elora Shalehari watched as her senior wrenched open the thick wooden doors to the stairway and closed it behind him. Several mages groaned in discontent as the breeze from the stairwell invaded the room. More complaints came as she made the same stride to the door.

‘Oh, go sit by the fire if you’re so cold,’ she chided them as she left.

Her body instantly hated her the moment she was engulfed in the freezing air. She wrapped her arms around herself and followed the footsteps above her on the spiral staircase. Elora jogged up and reached the entrance to the viaduct.

‘Hey! Hold on, what are you up to?’ She called out to the upperclassman.

‘Oh, Elora…not much. I think. Probably nothing. But I thought I heard something weird.’

‘The storm?’

‘No, not that,’ the elder mage said, opening the door. He stood aside and allowed Elora to cross the threshold first. ‘The storm itself is normal, but it sounds like something else is coming along with it.’

Elora took to his side as they walked along the lengthy bridge to the observation tower. It was one of the many reasons she enjoyed his company, he didn’t tell her to shove off and hang out with her own year group. ‘Any idea what?’

‘No,’ he said flatly and turned his head in the direction of the storm, ‘that’s what’s bothering me.’

‘And no one else is hearing it?’

‘That’s another thing that’s bugging me,’ he said as they neared the entrance to the adjoining turret. ‘I doubt I’m the only one, even with these ears. And anyone on the Watch tonight would already be looking into the matter.’ He turned to face Elora. ‘Don’t worry, this is one of the safest places on the continent.’

K’len turned the doorknob and the wind threatened to pull it from his grip. He and Elora stepped inside. The room was dark and frigid. No candles were lit and no fire was going; nor was there the scent of recently extinguished flames. ‘Shit…’

‘What?’

‘No one’s been here for hours.’

‘Is that bad?’

‘Yes. There should be at least one person up here at all times—the only exception being dire circumstances on the grounds,’ K’len explained, walking toward the spyglasses.

‘How do you know that?’

K’len turned to face Elora and grinned. ‘Second year apprentices get to take turns doing stayovers with the Watch and the Guard. None of the second-years spoil that for you yet?’

Elora shook her head. ‘I don’t really have any friends outside my group.’

‘Hmm. Well, after the new term, you might have some mixed classes,’ K’len offered while taking a look with the spyglass, aiming it toward the dense storm clouds. ‘Oh, fuck,’ he whispered.

‘What is it?’

‘Witches…thousands of them.’

Elora moved in and put her face up to the eyepiece. ‘Oh crap! We should sound the alarm!’

‘No…they’re too close; they’ll hear. We can’t risk them attacking first. Go back to the study and hit all the dorms, find somewhere safe. I’ll find the administrators and warn any guard I can find.’

‘Okay!’

They both ran from the observatory and back down the spiral staircase, splitting up at the entrance to the study.

Elora stopped before exiting. ‘Stay safe!’

‘You too!’ K’len shouted up without looking back.

#

The heavy door clacked shut overhead and K’len concentrated on the steps in front of him—now was not an ideal time for him to trip and break his neck. Door after door passed him by. None of the doors were labeled, but once you stayed at the school long enough, you learned the correct ways by marks on the wooden planks or around the the frames. The door K’len kept an eye out for had a large sliver ripped out from the upper left corner.

He spotted it from around the bend and burst through. Torches kept the corridor well-lit for his benefit. No other student or faculty member roamed the hall.

As he raced towards the admin offices, K’len slammed his hand down on the classroom doors, hoping to gain the attention of those inside. Both of his hands ached before he even reached the halfway point. He continued his actions, paying no mind to the people calling out his name from behind and forced himself into administration to find…

Nothing.

The lobby was empty as were the offices in the back. The cloaks draped over the chairs and the half-eaten pastries on the desks suggested that the typical daily routine had been interrupted. K’len was still assessing the state of the room when a large hand gripped the back of his collar and lifted him off his feet like a dog that had just shat on the floor.

‘What is the meaning of this?’ came the familiar gruff voice of professor Marodara. ‘Not enough for you to disturb the classes you’re in, now you’ve got to throw everyone’s day off?’

‘Geez, put me down, will ‘ya, Marodara? I can’t breathe!’

‘How I wish that wasn’t my problem.’ The oversized culinary instructor sighed as he released his former student.

K’len stole a quick glance down the long hall; several students and teachers had populated it and looked confused as all hell. ‘All the admins are one,’ he said in a hushed voice.

Professor Marodara studied the room. ‘And?’

‘There’s no one in the watch tower.’

With this, the professor’s demeanor changed. The leering gaze softened. ‘Go on…’

‘Me and Elora checked the spyglasses up there. That storm that’s blowing in now—witches. Thousands of them.’

‘Witches?’

‘Saw them with my own eyes.’

The darkness came back to the professor’s eyes and voice. ‘And you’re not screwing with me?’

‘Thousands of them. No Watch or Guards in sight. Same with the admins here. It’s an invasion.’

‘And you realise what you’re saying and how crazy that sounds?’

‘No. Watch. In. The. Watch. Tower. Is it worth risking the safety of the students?’

‘…Alright. C’mon, I’ll get us all down to the cellar.’

‘The cellar!? We’ll be sitting ducks down there.’

‘There are service entrances that students and apprentices don’t know about.’

K’len nodded. ‘Okay, I’ll meet you all down there.’

‘Woah, wait, where do you think you’re going?’

‘I sent Elora to the dorms to warn everyone. I’ve got to let them all know.’

Professor Marodara considered this and for a moment K’len was sure he was going to deny his departure. But the older man ultimately relented. ‘Go. But you get them and you get your asses down there.’

‘Gotcha. See you down there soon.’

And with that, Marodara rounded up the students and teachers. K’len broke away from the scene and tore off for the dorms. Every person he saw and every classroom he passed, he took the time to warn them and steer them in the direction of the cellar. More than a few were skeptical considering K’len’s part-time gig over the years as class clown.

K’len’s ears perked up. He listened intently and heard students gathering near the study. A couple minutes later, he was up in the spiral staircase again and in the cosy student quarters. He burst through the doors to find dozens of students and apprentices alike gathered around Elora. For the most part, everyone was calm; there were a few panicked faces and voices, but that was to be expected.

Elora’s eyes locked with his. ‘K’len!’ She bounded for him, fighting against the crowd before they started parting for her. She brought her voice down. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Everyone’s gathering in the cellar. Holing up for now, if things go pear-shaped there’s at least a way out.’

‘What? No there isn’t.’

K’len shrugged. ‘I thought so, too, but here we are. Take them with you and try to warn as many people as you can on the way down.’

‘And what are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to see what the hell’s goign on.’

‘A freaking army of witches, that’s what’s happening.’

‘I dunno…doesn’t feel right.’

Elora held her finger up to K’len and stopped him with that thought. ‘Hang on a sec.’ She turned back and found her way back to the centre of the group of students and apprentices. They held on to her every word, some nodding along. K’len couldn’t hear what she was saying, but the crowd dispersed. It was just the two of them left in the study. She turned to him and smiled. ‘Lead the way.’

K’len rolled his eyes and hurried back to the stairs. The two ran back up to the observatory.

‘All of ‘em had to have known something was going on,’ K’len said, crossing the bridge. There would never be a lack of Watch or Guard.’

‘Then why not warn us and send us home?’

K’len scowled. ‘Maybe we were bait.’

‘No…’

‘I can’t think of anything else it could be. Other than them running off.’

‘I can’t see that happening either.’

‘Not too many options available there.’

‘Are you this much fun at parties, too?’

‘Much more fun when shit isn’t going down. Promise.’

They came to the centre of the bridge. K’len looked to the storm clouds—now very close to being directly overhead. He looked down to the main grounds, where students normally wandered around and congregated between classes.

‘Look!’ Elora exclaimed, pointing down.

The Guard and the Watch stood in a big block formation. In front of them, a line of silver and gold robes that K’len knew anywhere: the administrators.

Elora looked up. ‘All of ‘em are coming down!’

Dozens of witches descended from the security of the generated storm clouds. Dozens became hundreds. Hundreds became thousands.

With no prompt, K’len threw himself off the viaduct. Elora cried out for him and jumped after. She stretched out her hand to grab him, but he was too far out and the ground was coming up too fast to fill the gap. K’len had his palms down; his hands disappeared in a bright orange glow. Flames erupted toward the grasses and slowed his fall to a gentle drift. Elora, upon seeing this, conjured an upward gale that caught her cloak, pushed her up a little, and let her touch down without any drama.

Elora looked at K’len, who stood between two circular scorch marks, and chastised him as quietly as she could manage. ‘Black magic! You’re using black magic!?’

‘Well, I gotta be able to cook my food and keep warm when I go camping, don’t I?’

Elora looked at him incredulously. ‘You learned that type of magic for the sake of convenience?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh my…’

‘I mean, it’s good for offence as well. Given our current situation, I mean.’

‘It still makes me feel so uneasy.’

K’len sighed. ‘Gotta be able to fight back, not just heal and put up barriers. Shit happens.’ He reignited the flames and aimed at the legion of of witches. He rounded the corner of the castle with Elora in tow. She maneuvered her hands in such a way that a fuzzy warmth built up in K’len’s gut and spread outward.

‘Protection?’ he asked without looking back.

‘Yes.’

‘Nice.’

He reached the rear of the guard, aim still true on the outsiders.

‘What in the name of the Goddess is that!?’ a voice called out from the side of the witches.

K’len froze as the Watch, Guard, and administrators turned in his direction. His heart leapt as his worst fears were starting to play out before him. He held up both palms, one toward the witches and one toward those from his own school.

Headmaster Onicaasias removed himself from the front of the group and stepped toward K’len and Elora. ‘What is the meaning of this Master Kanagangya!?’ The older man’s gravelly voice boomed over the landscape.

‘Witches…invasion…I heard them coming—’

‘He heard us coming?’ a witch from the front questioned. ‘How? Is he not just a student?’

‘An apprentice,’ the headmaster clarified. ‘A rather gifted one.’ He spoke over his shoulder and never broke contact with K’len. ‘Troublesome, but gifted.’ The headmaster raised his hands non-threateningly. ‘Calm yourself. There is no invasion. You are all safe.

‘Those from the witches guild have been invited here as a safety precaution. All of them are refugees, young Kanagangya.’

Elora stepped forward. ‘What happened?’

Headmaster Onicaasias looked at her and back to K’len, ‘You got her involved, too?’ He shook his head and turned his attention back to Elora. ‘We were going to make an announcement shortly to the students and faculty. Things are happening faster than we anticipated. The capitol of Ylyndar was attacked. A rogue army of sorcerers and wizards advanced in the night. Hundreds have already died. We only received word about this late last night and offered our assistance.’

Elora spoke softly to the headmaster, not wanting to further upset the refugees. ‘Everyone’s gathered in the cellar for safet.’

‘Hmm,’ Onicaasias nodded. ‘Elora, would you go down to the cellar and advise everyone to gather in the assembly hall. Make it clear that there is nothing to worry about and all will be explained in a matter of minutes.

‘While I admire your dedication to keep this place safe,’ he continued, turning back to K’len, ‘it is clear that the anti-witch propaganda of years’ past is still having a prominent impact even today.

‘K’len, you will accompany me. The great fields will be utilised as a village area for our guests to stay and rest. The Guard and Watch will start the setup process. We’ll all pitch in after the assembly.’

‘Yes, sir,’ K’len said. ‘See you in a bit Elora.’

‘See you.’

‘That fire,’ the headmaster said, studying the apprentice’s hands, ‘self taught?’

‘Yes, sir. During the summer holidays. Not on campus.’

‘I see. You did not hear this from me, but with the upcoming holidays, the library may have some important books for your reading leisure. On hold for your, personally, of course.’

‘I’ll look into it.’

‘This institution will remain one that emphasises and practises white magic…but I would be a fool to think that there would not be a need for…other shades of the spectrum.

‘You’d be suited quite well for the Guard or the Watch, my boy.’

‘Yeah, but they don’t practise…you know? Do they?’

‘They have very high levels of restraint and have not even had to use a single offensive spell in the sixty years I’ve been at this academy. You will learn all you need to know. Leave your application with administration before the week’s end and I will see that it is approved.’

K’len and Headmaster Onicaasias walked side-by-side in silence for the remainder of the walk to the back end of the campus. The tarps and tents were already being set up. Planks of wood and carpentry materials were piled up, ready for building more permanent shelter. It was mainly curiosity that brought K’len to learn more of the darker arts, but it was the outside world that made it a necessity for him to practice it regularly.

***

Yuki: Yeah?

Assistant: Did we bookmark that one?

Yuki: Yes, of course. Like always. Why?

Assistant: I think I want to follow up on that sometime.

Yuki: Ooooh? I know…you’ve got a thing for Elora, don’t you?

Assistant: What!? No! I just—

Yuki: I saw the way you were looking at her throughout our time with them.

Assistant: …

Yuki: Well, now that I’ve broken my assistant, I think this is a perfect time to call it a night. Take care everyone and we’ll see you next time! Now I just gotta figure out how to fix him…

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copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The Sevastopol Incident

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

Yuki: Good evening, all! Let’s not waste any time and get on with it! The Void is up and running and ready to go.

Assistant: Woah, we’re just jumping right in?

Yuki: Yup.

Assistant: I mean, shouldn’t we be focused on—

Yuki: All work and no play and all that jazz. Yada yada yada.

***

K-156 (Sevastopol)

28/04/1985 – 1320 hours

Starshina Arkady Volkov made his way, briskly, through the cramped corridors of the massive Oscar-class submarine. Asleep less than two minutes ago, his body propelled him toward the hatch nearest to the torpedo room. There were still a few photos needed for reconnaissance and not a lot of opportunities—with minimal staffing—in a given area to get the job done properly. Volkov’s legs brought him to a crawl as he neared the stockpile. He knelt down as if to tie his shoe and opened a small chamber in the heel, from it he pulled a camera smaller than his pinky, and discreetly captured the snapshots of the payload.

His heart raced with every photo taken. Relief washed over with every click that wasn’t met with a questioning seaman. A voice in the back of his head shouted at him: ‘Get out! Get out now while you can!’ He took four shots from around the room, attempting to capture as much of the torpedoes and control panels as possible. Once more, he dropped down to one knee and returned the camera to its air-tight container. He stood upright and in a smooth motion of straightening out his attire, activated a tracking beacon within his insignia. Once a day he sent out a signal that lasted three seconds at a time, long enough for him to be spotted back home, not long enough for the local systems to pick up any anomaly.

The passage to the starboard missile bay caught his attention. This was another area he hadn’t the time to access. Might as well get a quick look, he thought even as the alarm bells in his head continued to ring.

‘Dobrý den,’ he said to a couple technicians who were completing their own tasks and checks.

‘Dobrý den,’ they muttered in return, not bothering to look up from the spreadsheets in front of them.

Volkov ducked down and passed through the hatch. He flinched as his eyes took in the details of the scene before him: twelve SS-N-19 cruise missiles, each fitted with a five hundred kiloton nuclear warhead…and there would be twelve more portside. Jesus, what the hell are the Russkies doing with this many nukes? He shook the thought, frightening though it may be, it was not his job to speculate, he was merely to report the facts to his superiors. And not get caught doing it, the voice in his head scolded. He took heed of the warning and went back to his bunk for more sleep. He’d think of a reason to be in the missile bays long enough to get detailed pictures.

***

Volkov was out as soon as his head hit the pillow. Hours, unfortunately, passed like seconds and he was brought from his slumber with a shake of his arm.

‘What? What is it?’ he groaned, rolling over to face the person attempting to wake him.

A young man stood there, slack-jawed, holding two bowls of vanilla ice cream. He seemed stunned. ‘W-why are you speaking English?’

Oh, shit…

Volkov lunged at the ensign, pinning him against the bunks opposite. As he put him in a stranglehold, the plastic bowls dropped to the floor. Only a few more seconds’ worth of struggle and Volkov wrenched the man’s neck, killing him. He dropped down, face-first into the ice cream.

Not good. Definitely not good.

He pressed the emergency tracking beacon and made his way out of the dormitory.

Volkov passed through the corridors, trying to keep his composure and look as inconspicuous as possible. Upon reaching his exit, the emergency klaxon sounded.

‘Up ladder!’ he said halfway up the tube to the dorsal hatch. He poked his head into the cold spring air, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the blood orange glow of the twilight sun. Three of his shipmates who were still topside after the earlier drills had expressions ranging from confused to worried etched into their faces. Volkov continued upward as they questioned him.

‘What’s happening now?’

‘This another dri—’

‘Nyet,’ he answered, ‘Real thing. I think I heard that someone’s dead. Down in the dormitory.’

The three men shared looks of horror. ‘What the hell?’

‘That’s all I overheard,’ Volkov explained. ‘Everyone is being assembled in the canteen now.’

‘God help us,’ one of the sailors said, flicking his cigarette into the icy waters of the Atlantic. One by one they descended and he followed partway before climbing back up and shutting the hatch behind him.

‘This is not going to be fun,’ he muttered to himself, trying to mentally brace himself for the sting of the saltwater.

Volkov pressed a hidden button on his shoulder insignia, which let out a barely audible ping every second; he turned his body slowly until the ping was a constant tone. The boys weren’t far off. They had been catching his signals after all.

He dove.

What exhaustion he felt over the past several days in a cramped sub left him the moment the choppy waters smacked against his flesh. He surfaced and brought in a lungful of fresh air and swam forward. Not the way he intended to leave the mission, Volkov thought, but there had been no other choice. Besides, even without the full mapping of the sub, he’d be able to help piece everything together with his memory. And the missiles…he didn’t have the photographic evidence, but the United States and British governments would not take chances with the Russkies playing around with that many nukes.

The Sevastopol began to submerge. Volkov halted his progress and turned around to watch. Not terribly surprising, he thought, they’ve a murderer on board, no escape from below. He continued with his swim for a half hour or so before his guys surfaced a good thirty metres in front of him.

His smile faltered as the water cleared from the sub’s matte black sail, exposing a blood-red star.

***

Assistant: That one was strangely…normal.

Yuki: Hey, they can’t all be horrors and other worldly beings.

Assistant: You’ve been acting weird all day…are you really okay?

Yuki: Yes. Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be.

Assistant: *picks up a notebook, quickly scribbles down a message, and passes it to Yuki*

Yuki: *reads the message and nods*

Assistant: All right everyone, that’s all we got! Please take care getting home…if you happen to feel a little strange after your visit, please visit your nearest hospital for an x-ray…and, umm…definitely don’t harass electronic store employees for RF scanners.

Yuki: Good night everyone. See you all next time. We’ll definitely be operating as normal. Completely normal.

Assistant: Yes. Definitely.

<BACK

copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate

The Trial of Yuki Masaki

LOBBY | EXCURSIONS | STORE | APPENDICES | CONTACT

 

***

‘What the hell is that alarm?’ Doctor Yuki Masaki says, clasping her hands over her ears.

‘I don’t know!’ her faithful assistant replies, checking the readout on his wrist PC.

‘What do you mean you don’t know!?’

‘I mean I’ve literally never seen this icon before!’ he clarifies, tapping the flashing red glyph. ‘I’m checking to see what it represents now.’ His fingertips dance across the virtual keyboard the projects out from the metallic band.

‘Excellent. And while you’re at it, figure out how to shut the damn thing off!’

‘Will do.’

Yuki studies her assistant as he cycles through several documents. His face screws up in concentration as he starts reading at length. His eyes widen for a moment and expression morphs into confusion. ‘What is it?’

He turns to face her. ‘It’s the intruder alarm.’

Yuki’s face falters. ‘That can’t be right. It’s impossible.’

‘I know.’

‘So it’s gotta be a mistake.’

‘There’s a good chance that that’s the case…but we’ve got to be sure.’

‘Can you at least turn off the alarm?’

‘Oh, yeah. Sorry,’ her assistant says and punches in a couple lines of command. The klaxons go silent. ‘There we go.’

Yuki brings her palms down from the sides of her face. She heaves a sigh. ‘ Looks like we’ll have to end this excursion before it even begins. Alright, take us back.’

‘Roger that.’

Yuki’s assistant exits out of his wrist PC and closes his eyes and relaxes his mind. The transparent orb around them starts to glow a soft yellow and gradually lights up to a brilliant white. In an instant, the location they tuned into snaps away from them, or rather, they whisk away from it. The psychic tethers rocket the two back the way they came through the Void. They watch the vivid colours of the timelines below them. Neither speak a word as they both let countless scenarios play through their heads. They aren’t sure what exactly was waiting for them, but they have a feeling it isn’t a good thing.

In the next instant both Yuki and her assistant were standing on the platform in the middle of her underground lab.

Nothing was in disarray…and no one was waiting for them.

‘Check the sensors,’ Yuki whispered to her companion.

‘There will be no need for that,’ an other-worldly voice booms around them.

Yuki flinches. ‘Jesus! C’mon inside voices!’

A bright orange glow starts up from the far side of the room, the area that exits to the breakroom and lounge. Yuki and her assistant look on as a hulking figure materialises through the thick metal doors. It lazily floats toward them, legs and arms down and straight. Flames swirl around its chiseled frame.

‘Whatever that is, it isn’t coming for a fight,’ Yuki’s assistant proposes quietly.

‘I’m not sure it could even if it tried,’ Yuki replies in the same hushed manner. ‘The fire isn’t catching on anything in here. None of the sprinkler systems have activated. I’m not feeling the heat from that fire either.’

Yuki takes a step forward, putting herself in front of her comrade. ‘Can I help you? This is my laboratory you’ve found yourself in; obviously it’s no accident. People don’t just stumble in.’

‘You can, indeed, help me, Doctor Masaki,’ the deep voice booms again. ‘I’m glad we finally get a chance to meet.’

With a flick of the wrist, a blue-white glow in the form of a cube surrounds both Yuki and her assistant. Intense beams create a grid pattern around them. They are not steady and flicker between a blinding white and a cooler blue.

‘More fire; cute,’ Yuki says, eyeing her holding cell. ‘Preeetty sure we’ve not met, there, buddy.’

‘Not in an official capacity, no. You were, however, watching my every move.’

‘What? Back in Australia? Nah, man, we were observing the bushfires in that small own. Your ass just happened to be the cause. No one’s left alive there to tell that tale.’

‘Correct. I was doing my best to get you to see me.’

‘What?’

‘Curious machine you have here, Doctor Masaki. You use it to study the world and its inhabitants without interference, no?’

‘It allows me to do that for extended periods, yes.’

‘But almost always it draws you to the ‘supernatural’, does it not?’

‘It detects patterns that intrigue me, yes.’

‘And death and destruction are almost always present?’

Yuki narrows her eyes and her tone turns sour. ‘Who the hell are you?’

The large man raises his eyebrows as if he’s surprised to hear the question. ‘I’m one of those people you chose to watch and let die.’

‘…’

The inquisitor grimaces. ‘You really don’t remember me, do you? Well, I shouldn’t be shocked, considering how many lives you seen snuffed out over the years. There are a number of us who’ve seen you, while in their most desperate and tragic moments, peering down from beyond like an uncaring god.

‘You merely watch and ‘study’ and do absolutely nothing to lend a hand…to do the right thing.’

Yuki objects to this. ‘If we were to break through and interfere it would do more harm than good—’

‘And not acting to save lives when you damn well can prevent it? You callously watch us all. Are our lives nothing to you other than mere entertainment?’

‘No!’

‘What are you studying anyway, Doctor, that blinds you to the suffering and staggering levels of destruction you’ve witnessed?’

As she is about to answer, the malevolent being starts up again. ‘This machine could end our suffering. As penance for your failure to act, you will use this technology to turn around our fates or hand it over and stand aside!’

Yuki feels the last bit of her nerves being tested. ‘I’m not going to answer that. You’ve no right to come in here with your ventriloquist, Dolby surround sound speaking ass, clipping through my laboratory walls like a shitty DOS game and demand anything of me.’

‘You are complicit in—’

‘Again, I ask who the hell you are and what fucking authority you have to come here and accuse me and demands of me’

‘If you refuse to comply—’

‘Then what!?’

‘STOP!’ Yuki’s assistant shouts. This catches both Yuki and the intruder off guard. They both pause and turn in sync to him. ‘Sir, if I may,’ the assistant regains his composure and steps forward. ‘Yes, we have seen our share of tragedies during our viewings…that is very true. But we have also seen plenty of ordinary, everyday…and, quite often, touching things. We’ve seen scientific wonders and documented supernatural events and beings that were once considered mythical.

‘We realised how little we knew about our world—and then on top of that learning of multiple timelines and planes of existence. Both lifeand death figure into our studies and we need to be able to explore them without manipulating the people of the environment.

‘I’m not a scientist…so I cannot even fathom what we could do or where we could go after compiling this data…but I trust Yuki…and I know she has practical reasons for these excursions.’

The fiery titan stews over this. He turns his attention back to Yuki and stares down at her so hard that the assistant thinks she will surely burst into flame. After a moment, he speaks slowly and icily, ‘Help us turn back time so that we can turn around our lives and those of our loved ones.’

With regret, Yuki shakes her head. ‘I can’t do that.’

‘Then you leave us no choice in the matter. You will see me again…and the others. It will not be a pleasant experience, I can assure you of that.’

Yuki steps through the fire grid surrounding her, unscathed and not even the slightest bit warm. ‘Then do something about it.’

The hulking man snarls and explodes into thick orange flames and disappears in a whisp of blue-grey smoke.

Yuki sighs after a beat. ‘Well, that was mildly alarming.’

Her assistant, on the other hand, was just beginning to feel the gravity of the situation weigh down on him. ‘What was that all about?’

‘I haven’t a clue…yet.’

‘What do we do?’

‘What we do every night—research.’

‘Bring up the data logs?’

‘Mhmm.’

‘Even the ones before my time?’

Yuki stalls for a moment. ‘I’ll get those. We may not have much time. That monster could affect some worlds—we saw that ourselves. But not ours. We need to figure out why and then we’ll have a more realistic timeframe for when to expect them again. And they will be back…but it’ll be a cold day in hell that they take my baby away from me.’

‘Yuki?’ Her assistant asks, sounding afraid.

‘Yeah?’

‘When they do come back…what do we do?’

This stops Yuki in her tracks and she has to stop and think for a second. ‘I dunno, kid. That’s the next thing we gotta work on. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you. If shit looks like it’s gonna go sideways, you’re getting out of here. Got it?’

Her assistant considers this and reluctantly nods his head. ‘Yeah, got it.’

***

 

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copyright © Yuki Masaki 2021-2022. ‘Tales from the Void’ logo designed by Intern Kate