Cloaked in Shadow

Dark Tales of Elves

Edited by W. H. Horner
Illustrated by Star Sutezzo


Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"

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CLOAKED IN SHADOW Cover

Elves aren’t always creatures of the light.

Some elves thrive in the darkness, stalking their unwary victims for their own twisted pleasure. Sometimes they hunt and kill for the mere thrill. Sometimes their motives are beyond all human understanding.

Inside this anthology you will find elven assassins, kidnappers, and conspirators. You will find elves who are reaching from beyond the grave and those who are throwing away the heritage of their wood-addled brethren. And you will find human beings who are struggling to survive as they find themselves caught up in the games that Sidhe play.

Product Details

Dark Fantasy / Horror Short Stories

256 Pages
22 Stories
35 Illustrations

Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"

ISBN 10: 0-9713608-2-0
ISBN 13: 978-0-9713608-2-2


Table of Contents

Introduction by Drew Hayes

“Diminishing" by Erin MacKay
“The Suitcase” by J. R. Cain
“Under Distant Hills” by John Sullivan
“Curve of Her Claw” by Margaret McGaffey Fisk
“The Elf Knight and Lady Isabelle” by Kyri Freeman
“Unreachable” by Star E. Sutezzo
“Rotten Blood” by Murray Leeder
“The Day of The Hens” by Angeline Hawkes-Craig
“The Legacy of the Quedana” by David J. Corwell
“Laume’s Lesson” by Stephen D. Rogers
“Bad Company” by K. D. Wentworth
“The Grisly Race” by Tim Curran
“The Kin of the Blood” by Christe M. Callabro
“Night Bruises” by Lisa Mantchev
“Evil Lives. Vice Eats Simplicity” by H. Turnip Smith
“A Thrice-told Tale” by Arthur Dorrance
“Penumbra” by Jeremy Yoder
“The Singleton Path” by Adam Hardy
“Juniper” by Elaine Cunningham
“The Artist” by Jon Sprunk
“Songs” by Barbara Geiger
“Celebrant” by Gerard Daniel Houarner

Reviews

“There seems to be something for everyone in this gory, sexual romp through the elven worlds. Molds have been broken, new threads have been established.”
      —Zaanan Foreman, Slambook, May 2005

Cloaked in Shadow is a delightfully twisted foray into the Land of Not and a required tome for fans of the Fey.”
      —Camille Ambrose, Dark Realms Issue 18

“An eerie funhouse packed with twists and thrills. Not afraid of the dark? Read this and you will be.”
      —S. L. Viehl, author of Blade Dancer

“Know this, mortals—beyond the boring safety of the Lands of Light and the stifling confines of your petty fears waits an infinity of dark delights! Embrace and devour the masterfully menacing stories of Dark Elves in Cloaked in Shadow and be set free!”
      —C. Dean Andersson, author of I Am Dracula and Warrior Witch

Cloaked in Shadow is a stand-out collection of dark fantasy—rich voices, powerful writing, and tales with twists that linger. The stories burrowed under my skin and followed me long after I closed the book. Spectacular.”
      —Holly Lisle, author of Midnight Rain

Cloaked in Shadow is an elf-centric collection that’s surprising in its diversity. The fantasy, humor, and horror within will appeal to a wide range of readers. Highly recommendable.”
      —Kevin L. Donihe, author of Shall we Gather at the Garden?, and editor of Bare Bone

Excerpts


Diminishing" by Erin MacKay

“Does he speak any English?”

“Yes, though I will offer to interpret as a courtesy, and he will probably accept. In this situation, the discussion could become rather coarse by Elven standards, and he will need the filter of my translation to save himself from embarrassment.”

“I don’t get it. If he understands what I’m saying, how does that—”

“It is a formality, of course. Did you notice the way the waitress served me?”

Schering thought for a moment. “No. What about it?”

“It’s not as obvious with just the drinks, but she set the glass down on the table, some distance from me. I didn’t touch it until she had removed her hand from it. That is how a subordinate gives an object to a superior. Of course, the subordinate has already touched it, and the superior will eventually have to touch it, too, but as long as the contact is not simultaneous, there is a layer of distance that allows them to pretend as though they are the only person who has ever put hands on it. It is the same with language. If you say something Olare finds offensive, even if he understood your English, he will pretend that he heard only my translation.”

“Revised to cater to his delicate sensibilities, of course,” Schering said, catching on.

“Of course.”

“How did you learn all this?”

“I am a linguist, Detective. When the Elves decided to surface and become a part of global society, they needed people to learn their language and act as intermediaries. I qualified.”

“I bet that took a while.”

“Not as long as you might think,” she said, taking one last sip of her soda. “We should go now.”

 

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"The Suitcase" by J. R. Cain

“What the . . .” Words evaporated in Caleb’s mouth. He took the beanie in hand, threw it aside. Went to show Peggy, but stopped when he saw a figure rising behind her shoulder, a Driza-Bone cowboy with a snub-nosed .38 in hand. Aiming. A second bloody-faced elf lifted Toby from his cot. Silent they were, this pair, and who would have believed that clumps of seconds before they’d both been victims on the floor? Blind-eye moaned. Peggy stepped across and kicked him in the chin, broke his jaw.

The .38’s hammer clicked. Caleb’s flesh became sandstone hearing that sound. Peggy spun—too late—froze when she saw Toby’s wailing face disappear past the doorway in the arms of a battered elf. The gun fired. Caleb dropped Ratty, shoved Peggy, pushing upward into her hip, took a bullet in the forearm; it blasted on through into the wall. Caleb yipped and rolled away in torment. Gun smoke tainted the air.

The elf swore and took aim at Peggy’s face.

 

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"Under Distant Hills" by John Sullivan

“Surely it’s not that bad,” said Copper. “Have you looked into other opportunities?”

“Five or six years ago, maybe. But I’m thirty-one. I know there’s no way I can work past forty. I need to nest-egg enough by then to retire. I can’t do that if I have to fight my way back up a pay scale.” If there was another job at all.

The elf idly fingered his lapel. “No, I suppose you can’t,” he said thoughtfully.

Caroline knew to the penny how much a slot in a walled luxury retirement enclave would cost, and she checked her own account balances hourly. Failing to close the gap between those two numbers meant growing old on the streets, or else in some sponsored living center, taped up with electrodes, watching slightly different versions of the same commercial all day while lasers scanned her eyeballs to see which worked best.

“I don’t know how many people they’ll keep from my division, but I have to make that cut,” she said. “I was talking to . . .” She stopped herself. Don’t tell him everything you know. “I was told you could help me.”

Copper studied her, half smile still hanging on his face. “I can help you,” he said at last. “I could provide a changeling, a flawless double to share your work load.”

She’d tried to prepare herself, but it still surprised her to hear him say it. If it were true, though, another her could handle the mundane work while she took on some new high-profile project. It could make all the difference.

“How would that work exactly?” she asked. All the stories warned her to deal cautiously with elves. Caroline searched for the loophole. “How could I trust it?”

“We aren’t offering a mere physical copy but a true duplicate,” he said. “It would react to any situation precisely as you would. On a standard personality inventory, the two of you would check exactly the same boxes. That’s a good way to convince yourself, actually.”

 

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"Curve of Her Claw" by Margaret McGaffey Fisk

“He had best be as you say.”

The councilor shoved with her elbows and the creature rolled forward to bump against Tiriel’s feet. Blood dripped down between her toes and a weak, animal moan came from the lump. She forced herself not to look down or brush her feet against the dirt. A fly transferred from the creature to her own flesh, tickling her as it sucked up the sticky fluid.

“This is your last chance; your last chance to be marked in memory. You have until the next dark of the moon. If you don’t provide the feast in the clearing of twisted pine, you’ll remain unmarked forever, forced to scrounge among the tribe’s leavings. You’ll have no status even among the smooth, and in this, you’ll be lucky.”

Tiriel hid her grimace in a deep bow as she backed away, careful to remain in the corridor between standing elves that seemed to have shrunken since she walked up it. If she touched a scarred one, even one newly made, they’d beat her to a bloody pulp without retribution as long as no one marked her smooth skin.

One moon cycle. She had only one moon cycle to bring him to the council.

She slipped away to make plans, ignoring the revelry once the council finished laying its judgments on the others, lucky or unlucky. Tiriel couldn’t tell which they considered her.

One moon cycle.

 

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"The Elf Knight and Lady Isabelle" by Kyri Freeman

I climb the crumbling stones of the hill tower where I hide. I was a prince once, and this land was mine. A horn hangs by my side, age-cracked and scored with runes.

I sound it and I listen as the deep inaudible cry goes out over the swarming hives of men. One will hear. One ever does. I hate them, the mortals in their city. I breathe in hate, I hiss it out, I wish my knife could take their million lives.

Three for the silver footstep.

I listen, and I hear her when she stirs. Sits up from sewing, a needle clutched in clumsy human fingers. Looks toward the window.

“Isabelle, what is it?” a voice asks.

“Nothing, Mama.”

 

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"Unreachable" by Star E. Sutezzo

The two guards eyed Daycein nervously as he sat, slouched over his sword, in a red velvet chair awaiting Lord Cael. The hilt of the sword arched down from beneath his hands, sharp angles and black metal. Unconsciously, he lowered his hand to stroke the black sash at the top of the sheath. One of the guards flinched, tightening his hands around the shaft of his pike. Ignoring them, Daycein concentrated on the furiously whispered words coming from behind the closed doors.

“I forbid it, Emery! You are not to go anywhere near him. He is dangerous. A killer. A kyne for God’s sake! They can’t be trusted.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, father. If he were that dangerous, you wouldn’t have him in court. Besides, I haven’t said two words to him,” Emery said.

“But you will. I can see it in your eyes. You are curious. You shouldn’t be curious about a kyne, it’s unseemly. No daughter of mine will be seen in the company of a kyne!”

“I will do as I please! I am seventeen years old, father. I’m not a baby for you to lead around anymore.”

The sound of a slap echoed from behind the door. Daycein lowered his head to hide his smile from the guards. Lord Cael, it seemed, was going to do half the work for him. He looked up as the doors swung open, and Emery burst out from between the two guards, tears in her eyes. She stopped, horrified, when she saw him sitting in the hall. She pulled herself together quickly, and offered him a curtsy as he pushed to his feet.

“Lord Daycein,” she murmured. Daycein stepped forward. He reached out and brushed his fingers across the red welt forming on her cheek.

“You are injured, milady. Should I send for your healer?”

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"Rotten Blood" by Murray Leeder

“Ah, Velperin!” spat Laathine. “The Greatest of All Elves, they call him—more like the Greatest Offender of All. It was all I could do to stop myself from smashing the reliquary and letting his blood drip away!”

Millennia ago, the elves were hunted mercilessly by the Outside Peoples. Velperin mustered the ruins of the race and led them into the unspoiled Aroonain, the Last Wood. He sacrificed his soul, spreading it throughout the forest so that it could gain permanence and bless all those who lived within it. The Blood of Velperin protected the Wood against outsiders, though it was ill-equipped to deal with a rebel elf.

“There’s one thing I don’t understand, though,” I said. “You say you wanted to destroy the Blood of Velperin. From what I’ve heard, you had ample time. But instead you left it in place and fled the Last Wood. Why?”

A smile twisted through his face. “Why do you think?”

“Perhaps you felt something, looking down at that most sacred of relics. The folly of your actions. Perhaps you envisioned the consequences, just what the loss of Velperin’s Blood would mean. The destruction of Aroonain. The death of elfkind. Maybe there is something elfin in you that even all that fetid stink could not destroy.”

“‘Maybe,’ you say,” said Laathine. “‘Perhaps.’ But do you really believe that?”

I turned back to face him. “I wonder if I should kill you,” I said. “What does it benefit anyone to take you back to Aroonain bound? What justice could suffice for your crime, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying for our people to hear that you died attempting escape?”

He held up his wrists, showing me the rope that held them together. “Do it, if you feel the need.”

“Only once I know why. I asked, and you haven’t told me yet.”

 

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"The Day of The Hens" by Angeline Hawkes-Craig

He was to meet with the high chieftain of the Troll Alliance. High Chieftain Argog of Harnog. The troll was offering payment in gold, in advance. Two requirements Selwyn always insisted upon.

The Northern Provinces were not known for their pleasant climate or inviting inhabitants. The roads were little more than rutted, dirt trails, riddled with bandits and unchecked wild beasts. No one in his right mind, but a troll, would venture this deep into the land.

The smoky, dismal room in the downtrodden tavern was filled with trolls. Some, having had too much to drink, had already yielded to sleep and were snoring loudly, sprawled across crude wood tables, or backwards over the rough-hewn benches. Dirty straw littered the floor, harboring a stench that rivaled only the reek emanating from the trolls themselves. A female troll was gathering empty mugs from around the room and rummaging through the pockets of the unconscious for whatever might strike her fancy.

He watched her as she moved—lighter on her feet than most trolls—obviously practiced in her pickpocket skills. How anyone could be attracted to a troll woman was beyond him; of course, the male of the species wasn’t enticing either. But their women were repugnant and it seemed that troll males preferred their females ugly. Maybe the uglier she was the less likely she was to cuckold her mate? Selwyn didn’t know the answer, but he did know that sitting here watching this troll thief was amusing.

 

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"The Legacy of the Quedana" by David J. Corwell

Chohana resheathed his sword. Settling his girth back into the desk chair, he said, “A dead elf is even more worthless than a living one. I have a new assignment for you.”

Xlabathas remained silent.

“Not interested? A pity.” The miller shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Your crew will begin clearing the trees at the peak, then continue down the first ridge on the eastern side.”

So it begins. “You promised not to touch that land. The forest is sacred to us.” A sliver of fear penetrated his rage. If Eneas was found, his true lineage would also be discovered.

Chohana shrugged. “The king changed his mind. Besides, you elves think everything is holy.” He chuckled. “That’s never stopped you before, bruiyo. Why should the other side of the mountain be any different?”

Xalbathas held himself very still. He desired more than ever to gut this impetuous wretch, but he needed to get away, to think on this new obstacle. “When?” he asked.

“Ah, now that’s better.” The miller nodded his approval. “In six risings of the sun. Rest up your crew. There’s a lot of work to be done. The brush up there is so thick that the men can’t pass through it. A shame—the view of Olathe must be exquisite.”

Six days. Not nearly enough time. Xalbathas headed for the door, his arms and legs moving as if they had been drenched in frigid water. The sudden cold permeated to the very marrow of his oihan, his soul.

“One last thing, elf.”

Xalbathas stopped, too numbed to turn around. “What?”

“If you ever threaten me again, I’ll have your body burned on the main plaza for all your kind to see.”

 

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"Bad Company" by K. D. Wentworth

“Don’t touch me!” I snapped and rubbed my chilled face. My heart ached, as though a sliver of green ice had lodged there, and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.

“Then do as you are bid.” Her short black hair played around her face, as though it had a life of its own. “Or it will go very ill before you see the dawn again.”

“I told you to settle this among yourselves.” I groped for the cool reassurance of the pistol holstered on my belt, stroked the butt, the length of the barrel, found it strangely warm.

“Let him be,” a sultry voice said. “I like them foolish.” A slim, golden-haired female, almost a head shorter than Brelia, was standing in the place of what, only a second ago, I could have sworn was the stunted gray trunk of an ornamental crabapple tree.

“It doesn’t matter what you like.” Brelia arched her back, stretched like a great cat about to hone its claws. “Besides, I have given my word that none shall take him this night.”

“Except you, I suppose.” The golden-haired one smiled, and it was as though a host of new stars had burned their way through the black lining of the sky and given life to an unknown constellation. Her eyes, dark and secret, were either a deep shade of green, or ebony. I could not tell for sure, and wanted even less to know.

 

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"The Grisly Race" by Tim Curran

The hunt.

There is a single moment of dynamic clarity that comes upon the hunter, Pollack was fond of saying, when his prey is locked in his sights. When his finger caresses the trigger with god-like dispatch and his blood becomes a cold and thrumming electricity that fills him and overflows him, connects him to things ancient and primal and savage. Yes, it makes the heart pound and the soul reach fission. The hunter becomes the earth and sky and forest, becomes one with nature.

“That’s when you know,” he said to me, “that man is essentially a hunter and killer. That when you strip away culture and religion and all the bullshit trappings we’ve hung ourselves with, man has always only been good at one thing. The thing he was born to do.”

I asked him what happened then. What came after this spiritual regression, this reaffirmation of man’s place in the natural scheme of things.

“Then? Damn, Doug, why then you pull that trigger and bag the sonofabitch. Put him down and claim your kill. Then things get real messy and physical when you dress him out . . . but until then? It’s spiritual, man, completely spiritual and for just a few moments, you’re alive, really alive.”

Although not a hunter myself, it was these poetic ramblings that stirred something in me. Until then it was just Pollack telling me that hunting was the oldest religion there was and me pointing out that it was cruel and unnecessary. So I gave him a chance to prove me wrong.

I went along with him and it was the worse mistake of my life.

 

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"The Kin of the Blood" by Christe M. Callabro

Once inside the city gates, the sounds of celebration were evident. People thick with drink and merriment crowded the streets. I shouldered my way through the throng, ignoring any good-natured attempts to pull me into the party. Elves of all stations caroused in the main street. Blacksmiths still covered in soot drank mead with scholars. Herbalists with their green-tinged fingers mingled with guards enjoying the night off. I narrowly avoided dancing with a drunken baker, flour rising off him in clouds as he whirled with his cup. He wore his hair long like all elven men, pulled back into a tail for his work. A thick dusting of flour turned his dark hair algae green. I stifled a small laugh as he pleaded with me to come back. Part of me would love nothing more than to forget my solemn business for one moment, and enjoy the celebration. Death however, though beautiful, is a serious thing. I could ill afford the luxury of having fun.

I pulled my hood down over my forehead and took off down the street, ducking through the back alleys. Here the crowd thinned; people always steered clear of the dark places. I knew the route I took well enough; I just visited the castle of Vetiver last month, to grant the Sweetest Sleep to an aging retainer. When someone knows their time is short, sometimes they would rather go peacefully, and pay their respects to the Lord of the Nether, than to brave whatever death they fear. We grant them an easy, painless death, and send their spirit winging swiftly to the Nether realms. That time I used a servants’ entrance, so no one saw a member of the royal household trafficking with a Kin of the Blood. They use our services, even pay us for a quiet death or assassination, while at the same time they pretend we do not exist.

Let them pretend. It didn’t stop the deaths.

 

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"Night Bruises" by Lisa Mantchev

Brynn wiped the steam off the mirror and suppressed a cry. The Woman lurked just behind her in the shower stall; her blue eyes stared into Brynn’s in the reflection. The blue cloak dripped with silver rivulets of water that disappeared before they made contact with the wet tiles. Blonde hair plastered the Woman’s head, her face no more than a skull smiling through the fleshless skin. The razor-sharp tips of her ears poked through the sodden curls.

Brynn looked over her right shoulder with the dread of a small child opening a closet door after dark, but she saw nothing except wet tile, soap scum and a sodden shower curtain.

“. . . I can only imagine what your underarms must look like,” David said.

“Sorry.” Her brain shoved the word out of her mouth automatically. “I managed to do my armpits before things turned chilly. Creative deforestation.”

“But really, that thing on your leg is ugly.” David made a sound deep in his throat and spat minty froth into the sink. “Maybe you need iron or something. We could call Dr. Faulkner.”

Brynn straightened the hand towels on the rail, avoiding his gaze. “It’ll fade. I’m fine. Nothing to worry about.”

 

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"Evil Lives. Vice Eats Simplicity" by H. Turnip Smith

“Who the hell is this?” Watkins took an instant dislike to the caller.

“You could say I’m the arch architect of evil, the nattering nabob of nastiness, the dauntless demon of destruction.”

“Hold it man. I’ve got no time for assholes on ego trips. What’s on your mind?”

The caller suddenly brayed like a donkey in what Watkins realized was supposed to be a laugh. “I thought you might like to know what the note on the dead Santa Claus meant.”

“How the hell do you know about that?”

“I have ways, detective.”

“OK, Wise Ass, what did the note mean?”

“A simple acronym, detective.”

“A what?”

“Each letter stands for a word, my friend.”

“OK, so clue me in.”

“Try this, Fat Man. Elves. Evil lives. Vice Eats Simplicity.”

“I don’t get it.”

The caller howled with laughter. “I didn’t figure you would. But tell me this, Fatness. Did that Santa Claus think he could keep his elves non-unionized forever?

 

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"A Thrice-told Tale" by Arthur Dorrance

Only lackwits think we pass our long, long lives hiding shoes, or curdling milk, or leading sheep into brambles. You would not spend your time so. Then why should we?

No, we pass our time as we wish. We might dance. We might feast, our tables groaning under the weight of rich victuals, exotic sweetmeats, and rare wines. When the mood strikes us, we might rut, twining our bodies into knots. And, when tired, we might slumber for decades.

Sometimes, it is true, we amuse ourselves with mortals, luring them into our realm, which borders all lands. And what happens then? Oh, they might die, or they might be rescued, or they might wake up years later, old and cold and alone, though but a night had passed for them. Three fates suffice for dealing with such toys.

One autumn night we opened our border to admit a drunken mortal into our limitless woods. He staggered along the path, not realizing how far he had strayed. Then he stopped in his tracks. Perhaps he saw the underbrush sway, though touched by no wind. Perhaps he noted the Moon turning her full face towards him, to watch our games, when by all rights the sky should be moonless. Or perhaps he heard our whispering, as we unfolded in the chill air over his head. Whatever the reason, he began to run, though he knew not where to go.

We whistled, and coal-black hounds crashed through the brush after him. He ran as fast as he could, gasping for breath until he scrambled up a gnarled oak in a shower of bark. The hounds milled around the base of the tree, leaping at him. Had we wished, they could have walked up the trunk and devoured him. But we did not want them to. We only wanted his attention, and we had that now in full measure.

We walked among the hounds, gentling them with our hands. “Forgive our hounds,” we told him. “They only want to make your acquaintance. As do we.”

“Hounds?” He had his doubts about their true nature, as well he should. “Whatever they are, call them off!”

 

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"Penumbra" by Jeremy Yoder

As they descended, Valori wondered how these beings had been so silent in their attack. To her knowledge, only her own people could have struck with such stealth; and only then against other races, since elves were so adept at detection.

Valori stood beside her parents, with each of them being held by two warriors. Slowly, the light grew brighter, until hundreds of candles burned, illuminating the room and allowing Valori to see their attackers.

They were lithe and muscular. Slightly smaller than her own people, but stronger. They had purplish skin and white eyes without pupils. Their long, straight, blackish-blue hair cascaded wild and beautiful about their faces and necks. Most of them wore white jewelry of bone or ivory. Their clothing consisted of dark leather and furs.

The man that had beaten her father stood before them. He smiled, revealing two fang-like teeth. Not long and sharp like an animal’s, just slightly more pointed and pronounced than her own. From the bottom of his ear dangled a silver chain, upon the end of which hung a thin, white crescent.

Something about their narrow faces looked familiar. The man drew back the hair from one side of his face and tucked it behind his pointed ear.

“You’re . . .” she began, but the words stopped in her throat. As the man studied her, something about his face made her feel as if she were staring at a dark reflection of herself. “You’re an elf!”

“No!” her mother scolded, drawing Valori out of her almost trance-like state. She gripped Valori’s arm, her eyes hard and glaring. “They are not elves.”

The man before them spoke. “So you never told her.”

 

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"The Singleton Path" by Adam Hardy

I made my way down the footpath. The scent of budding currants made way for the stink of bile. Alarm, the breeze said. Silence came in its wake. The very land I strode upon was ready for me, one way or the other.

“The seed is It, not me.”

Halfway down the hill, a dyad exited the shadows of their home-grove. This small, backwater gate did not even warrant a singleton for leadership. Even so, dyads could be dangerous, and this one looked suspicious of me.

As I approached the last of the switchbacks, I raised a hand in salute and belted out the appropriate greeting.

“I am pleased to meet myself!”

“The Great Tree revels!” the dyad said, two mouths working in perfect unison. Their slender fingers remained intertwined, held forward in ritual greeting, never straying toward the long swords they had slung on their hips. Still, I knew that there were arrows aplenty pointed my way from the darkness of the grove. There was no room for misstep here.

“Where is your pod, sixer?” They got right to the point. I followed suit.

“Slain.”

“I am the root that binds us.”

Oh Tree, let them believe it.

“Slain? Where, when?”

“Two sun-cycles past, in the Stainless Forest.” This much was true.

“By who?”

 

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"Juniper" by Elaine Cunningham

Bettina would know. The witch had been old since Anna was a child, and had in her day been one of the most powerful witches in Tuscany. Her knowledge of the Old Ones was without equal.

Anna packed a basket with a wedge of cheese and a loaf from yesterday’s baking, then hurried down the familiar, dusty road leading to Bettina’s cottage. Many times she had walked this path since the day, some forty years past, when she began learning the Old Ways as Bettina’s apprentice.

Stregheria was passed down, mother to daughter. But Bettina, who had no family in the village, had taught Anna, as Anna—whose only son had died years ago, fighting for some nobleman’s right to grow richer—had always thought to teach another woman’s child.

The loss of that dream was an ache in her heart. There were no more children in the village. Though Anna did not like to dwell on such things, she was no longer young. Even if a girl child was born with the gift this year or next, when she reached maidenhood, would Anna still be able to teach her?

She pushed away these grim thoughts and rapped on the wide-planked door of Bettina’s house. A familiar voice, reedy with age and thin as a shadow, bid her enter.

The old witch was seated in a deep, comfortable chair placed near the hearth, and she was busily feeding sticks into the fire beneath her old kettle. Her rheumy eyes, all but lost in the maze of wrinkles her face had become, sharpened as they focused on the visitor.

“You look troubled, child. Sit, and tell all.”

Anna dropped gratefully into a second chair, the twin to Bettina’s. “I’ve got elves,” she said flatly.

 

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"The Artist" by Jon Sprunk

“Ambassador,” the mayor said as he steered Giladheal to a chair. “I summoned you to help us deal with a troubling problem. We are in need of your expertise.”

“What expertise is that?” Giladheal asked, waving away the offer of a hand-rolled cigar.

The mayor moved behind his desk, a behemoth of gleaming mahogany emblazoned with the city’s crest. Giladheal noticed that the wood was an inferior grade, full of uneven whorls. The ruler of Calanth leaned back in his tall chair across the polished expanse. “Our city is suffering from a dreadful scourge. A plague of sorts, you might say.”

“A plague of dastardly murders!” Chancellor Korl said.

 

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"Songs" by Barbara Geiger

At dawn, the sky outside the forest was heavy with clouds. He stayed inside the forest for another dozen heartbeats. The ground was dead under him.

Whistling came from the grassland. The whistler had been an elf, once, though the smell of the forest was barely on it. Where it walked, a well-worn dirt path formed a yard from its foot, and then vanished again a foot or so behind it. Scars crossed its face, twisting its lip up to a permanent half-smile and showing the two teeth that remained. Its ears had been docked to look like a human, but without the curl of the human’s lobe, they looked raw and unfinished. It wore human clothes and stank of them.

They took your songs, it sent. It stood on the flat ground, yet it swayed back and forth.

He pulled back in disgust.

“I will help you,” it continued, using its mouth, tongue and breath just like any human would. “I can make you one with them.” Its hand, fingers blackened around the cracked nails, reached for him.

He coiled back, hissing like a cornered forest cat. Touch me and I will kill you, he sent, fury in each word.

The old elf shrugged. “You will need me eventually, child.”

He hissed again, and the old elf continued on its way, taking its path with it.

He stepped outside the forest for the second time in his life. The deer run he had been standing on vanished as he watched. There was no return.

The ground began to speak. A low rumble that he hadn’t felt in days told him of the human village. His senses, after being cut off from him, unfurled as though the wind caught them. There was unprotected prey nearby. The root system of the grass told him its size, its unhurried pace, and the wind against his cheek brought with it the familiar scent of the girl.

He smiled, lips pulled back so that he tasted the air. No other humans were near, or at least not close enough to hear its screams.

 

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"Celebrant” by Gerard Daniel Houarner

The woman leaned over him, placing a hand on his stomach to balance herself. He hardly felt her weight, but her touch warmed him. With the fingers of her free hand, she scratched a line along the inside of his thigh, over his hip, along his ribs, around his right nipple, to his throat. There her fingers spread to cradle his skull and lift his head. She straddled his abdomen and pulled him up with ease until he was level with her breasts.

“You belong to me, mortal,” she whispered in a voice that sounded like a chorus of many singing. The words blended into one another, but he understood her.

He understood, as well, the kiss she gave him as she lowered his head to the mattress and stretched her body over his. He arched his back as her tongue stroked and pressed against his lips, teeth, tongue. She tasted like pulped orchids, and roots dug fresh from the earth, and the sea. Dizzy from the heat and smells of her body, he moaned. He tried to embrace her, but his arms would not move. She nipped his ear, and a warm trickle crawled along his neck.

He started in terror. “Blood elf,” he whispered, turning his face away from her. He kicked his legs but could not throw her off of him. He opened his mouth to scream, but she drew the sound into her mouth and left him breathless.

 

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