Homs Excerpt I


Orchard Gate was quiet. Five travelers stood ahead of Omar with their papers ready for the Royal Guard. The guardsmen numbered more than twenty and Omar heard many above, walking the wall with crossbows in hand. No merchants or farmers clustered around the city gate as he remembered from old times. When the five travelers ahead passed through, he told the Royal Guard a portion of his tale—that he was a trapper on his way to the city and was waylaid by bandits. He showed them the one fur left at the bottom of his pack, and they asked only if he was headed north to Homs. When he stared bewildered like an old man, they waved him through.

There were many more guards patrolling the streets. He avoided their eyes and shuffled along as quietly as he could, hoping the common market was open, but ten blocks into the city he saw no one but for the Royal Guard—them clad in platemail or chainmail, or the blue coats of the inspectors, and all of them carrying swords and daggers, no batons. Eventually two armored guardsmen took interest in him and followed, keeping a few yards back. Omar felt a knot grow in his stomach. He considered shouting for help, then gave a short, anxious laugh.

When he walked more quickly they matched his step, and soon, he was jogging and their chainmail jingled behind him. He headed to the common market, hoping someone was awake. The sun had climbed above the city wall and the buildings casted long shadows. The idea came to him to dash into an alley and hide, but the guards ordered him to stop. Omar broke into a full run.

The market stalls were all boarded. No one was in sight. The police huffed behind him and they shouted something, then one went into a coughing fit. But the other was laughing, telling his friend not to worry—the path ahead was a dead end. The buildings pressed tightly together, two stories high, and Omar had to decide quickly—run back now, dodge as the guards tried to grasp him, or continue on and look for something to climb. One of the buildings at the end had a balcony, and he spied two figures on it watching him. He ran faster, praying one of them had a rope.


“Grandmother, who is that?” said the handsome, young man. Grandmother rapped her cane against the balcony railing.

“My brother.”

The young man smiled. “He’s visiting?”

“Yes,” said the old woman, waving Omar over. “Quickly!” she shouted.

Omar was in a full sprint. He dashed past stalls and tables, and leaped over carts. A part of him was frightened beyond hope, the other part was proud of his performance. He thought about the day Soha found him—climbing, then falling from the cedar tree. His arms hadn’t even bruised. He wanted to turn back and laugh in the faces of the police. When the short woman on the balcony pulled a sack out of her tunic he smiled, curious, then gasped. He recognized her hard eyes and the oafish smile of the one beside her. All of a sudden, the thundering of his heart drowned all other sound and sweat stung his eyes. The leg of a cart caught his foot and he crashed.

“Get up!” she yelled, forcing the drawstring of the small, blue bag. Omar scrambled to his feet, just as a guardsman kicked him, driving his steel toe into the old man’s thigh. Omar screamed. He tried to leap away, but his leg buckled beneath him. “Close your eyes!” ordered Grandmother. He did, covering them with his hands, as the two guardsmen grabbed him.

They pulled him to his feet and his bruised leg burned. Then, he heard his sister curse as something tickled his scalp. The two guards let him go and they screamed horribly, like children. “Don’t open your eyes!” his sister yelled. He kept them covered and kept his mouth shut and knelt back down until the screaming stopped.

The Bat

art by Marcus Gannuscio, short story by Jad Ziade


The priests who wore the white cowl ambushed Jamilla and dragged her to the jagged mountain in the west. There the caverns marked the high ledges and glowed orange at night, with old steps carved centuries ago leading up to each one of them, and between them were stony bridges overlooking the chasm that cracked the mountain in two. Many had fallen to their deaths here, but the priests who wore the white cowl dragged Jamilla to the jagged mountain to die a different way.

They had waited behind dry bushes and nabbed her off her horse, covering her with an old black hood before she could yell or strike them. When she hit the ground a heel smashed her head and she dreamed in darkness until she woke in a cell beneath the jagged mountain, lying on her side, her clothing gone, cold wet stone beneath her, and a chain around her ankle. Two rotting blankets lay beside her naked body. The cold stone burned her skin so red that half her body was raw to the touch. She winced as she stood.

A priest came, then. He was tall and wore his cowl on his shoulders, revealing fair skin and large eyes that gave him a young, handsome look and he gasped when he saw her standing naked. “Cover yourself!” he said, diverting his eyes. “We gave you blankets.”

“Why take my clothes if you want me dressed?” she said.

He covered his eyes. “Cover yourself!”

She wrapped one of the blankets around her shoulders and a sour old stink rose.

“Do you know why you’ve been arrested?” he asked. Jamilla shook her head. “Can’t you even guess?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I was riding south to see my brother. I’m frightened.”

“You should be,” he said, pulling a wooden scroll case out from beneath his robe and undoing the stopper at the end. He shook the tube until several photographs slid out and glided into the cell. “Do you recognize them?” he said.

“Of course I recognize them.” She pushed one gently with her toe. “That’s me.”

“You admit it?”

“Yes. So what?”

The priest reached between the bars and collected the photos. “This is obscenity,” he breathed. “This is a sin in the face of God.”

Jamilla snatched the last one up and handed it to him. “The Princess of Parne posed nude for the Lord of Brinley. Everyone in the kingdom saw the pictures. In the last she leaned half her body over the railing of the balcony and her eyes were devilish. Did you see it?”

“Yes,” he said, immediately.

“What did you do with it?”

He glowered. “Nothing.”

“Did you arrest her?”

“Of course not,” he said, hiding the scroll back in his robe.

“Why not?”

“Those pictures were released without her knowledge. Someone stole into Brinley Manor and made away with them. It wasn’t her fault; the shame is not hers.”

Jamilla turned away. “You speak a half-truth.”

“What do you mean?” said the priest.

“I’ll anger you if I speak, but what does it matter? I’m a dead woman.”

“Speak,” he said, crossing his arms and giving her a vicious look.

“It’s simple,” she explained. “The real reason you excused the Princess of Parne is not because someone stole her pictures. You’re all too pleased to look at pictures she did not consent to show the public. That is power.” Jamilla put her hands on her hips. “I, on the other hand—”

“Are wrong,” said the priest.

“—gave my pictures away. You saw them by my will. That is not something that pleases you—a woman who takes destiny into her own hands—even worse is a woman of color who shows such courage!”

“You hold yourself in high regard,” said the priest, “as if you were God.”

She laughed. “Who will say it if not I?”

“Enough,” he growled.

“Not ever enough!” she spat at him.

“It will have to be,” he said. “You’re in chains.”

“Yet I defy you.”

“Do you?” He searched for the key to her cell door. His hands were shaking. “I’ll show you defiance.” Jamilla stepped away from the bars. He slammed the door open and tossed the keys aside. They splashed in a puddle, instantly forgotten. He pulled his belt free and threw it aside as well, but in his eye was a moment’s hesitation. Jamilla struck him in the chest and the arm. He grunted, then pulled the robe free from his body, revealing flesh covered in scars. “Nothing you do can harm me,” he said, and smashed his fist into her stomach. She doubled over, and quickly, he grabbed her hair and twisted her arm around, pinning her in a policeman’s hold. She struggled, and something in her elbow tore, caught fire.

Later, they led her out to the ledge where the bat was given sacrifice. Blood matted her hair and her left eye was shut. They told her to raise her arms and chant with them, but her left arm was useless. Rage filled her when she heard the beating of the monstrous wings.

The priest who had invaded her cell broke from the procession and stood beside her. “You could have never won,” he said. “You can’t win alone.” She looked away, her eyes hard.

“I’m not alone,” she muttered.

He laughed and raised his hand as if to strike her but stumbled back when the gigantic creature rounded the highest peak, covering the creamy moon and what seemed half the sky. The priests hushed. Suddenly the air smelled like old dust and Jamilla’s eyes watered. The beast swooped down along the mountain’s jagged edge and extended its talons toward her naked body. She cried when the claws dug deep into her sides and looked down at the shrinking earth and blinked once before the mountain, the hills, the forest and the moon were all gone.

NEXT TIME: Invocation



art by Marcus Gannuscio, short story by Jad Ziade


He floated onto our ship like an angel; the green glow of his belly shined against the starry night. His name was Mr. Addare. The captain called for security but Mr. Addare stopped him, explained to us he knew who we were, why we drifted between the stars. He told us of a red planet where lava erupted into rivers and the land was made of glass. In the sunny ravines there was a tree in the likeness of a palm that seeped sap from its limbs down to cover the cracked glass at its roots. He tapped his belly and told us that was how the Green was made. Then, he told us how to get there.

I edged close as he spoke, but when I reached for him he struck me and a spark flew from his glowing finger. Crackling blue light encircled my chest and I fell, writhing in agony, teeth chattering even after he released me from the wicked spell.

He knew what I wanted, and he said the red planet was very close, so I hid the blood that had collected behind my lips and waited, sitting, for my knees shook too much for me to stand. Soon the sensors blinked red and the navigation system announced the proximity of the red planet. The captain gave the order to land.

We lurched as we entered the atmosphere and I swear I smelled the Green right there on the bridge. Of course, I told no one. I watched quietly as the yellow clouds passed us and we dipped beneath bronze ridges toward Mr. Addare’s destination—a smooth, black surface that reflected the ship’s underbelly. The ground cracked when the pilot set us down. Lava bubbled out over the landing gear. Mr. Addare assured us it was safe.

The crew rushed out; I clambered slowly behind them, worried the monster’s attack had left me wounded worse than we knew. But I gasped when the alkaline scent filled my nostrils. I had never smelled so much of it at once, and it was real. I rushed down, pushing aside the captain and a man from Security. A tree like the one Mr. Addare described was no more than five steps away, its tallest limbs only twice my height.

I ran my hand along the trunk, collecting sap into my glove, and turned toward Mr. Addare. “How?” I demanded. He smiled and tapped his belly.

“The process is simple.”

“How?” I said.

He stepped close, but almost slipped on the glass and I yelped, afraid his belly would shatter and spill the Green. I prayed it would and presented the sap on my palm.

He reached forward. “Thank you,” he said, and the stained tube at the end of his hand sucked up all the sap and shot it into the bowels of his stomach. I watched, entranced, as the Green in his belly bubbled and fizzed, breaking the sap into small pieces until it dissolved and turned into more Green.

“So quick?” I said.

He nodded. “Abundance.”

“Why are you helping us?” I said to him. He smiled again, but turned away, silent. I reached out. “Tell me your secrets.”

To my surprise, he agreed—almost immediately. He walked away from the others and beckoned me to follow so I did, listening to the glass crack beneath my boots. We stood face-to-face behind a massive, jutting rock and he reached for my brow with that terrible, glowing hand. I edged back into sight of the landing party. “No,” he said. “No pain. Come back and see.”

I shook my head.

“Do you want to know?” he asked.

Slowly, I returned. His finger pressed against my brow and grew hot. Later I would learn he had marked me. But when his finger pressed against my skin all I could see was another world, another people. He showed me his masters and why they needed us to take the Green into our bodies and what they wanted with us after it was done. It wasn’t what I expected, but it wasn’t unimaginable either.

When the vision was finished I pushed his hand away and my courage returned. After all, I’ve explored most of known space.

He waited for me to speak on what I saw, but I stared back, stoic. That must have impressed him. His mouth jolted with a surge of current very much like an approving nod, and he motioned for me to follow him back toward the others. “Wait,” I said. “You want me to take command, don’t you? That’s why you led me away from the others.”

“Yes,” he said.

I held up my hands. “I want things of my own.”

He nodded. “A house, or a tower. Large, safe, defensible.”

It was as if he read my mind. “Of course, that,” I said.

“Raise a few of the others into a squadron,” he continued.

“Yes,” I said. But then, it seemed ungracious the way he spoke, his tone dismissive and bored.

I demanded he apologize and he bowed. “I haven’t even met your masters,” I said.

“You won’t,” he answered. “And I won’t return unless trouble takes you.”

I dwelled on his words and he beckoned me back to the landing site where the others had already filled a large tub with sap. I was overwhelmed with mirth watching them struggle to scrape every last smear off the tree they surrounded. But they worked well together, shared in the labor. I made note, however, of those who were less energetic than the others, those more keen on whispers than work.



Death and the Maiden

art by Marianne Stokes, short story by Jad Ziade

Death and the Maiden - Marianne Stokes

“I don’t want to die,” the maiden said. Death had come, pale-faced, draped in dark robes, black wings spreading from her back.

“Quiet,” she said, and the maiden hushed. She raised her lantern and light poured into the maiden’s eyes. The girl turned away, and Death nodded. “Your time has come. I will take you,” she said, reaching forward. But the maiden turned back and shielded herself with the thick, red blanket.

“I don’t want to go!” she insisted. “You’re not here!”

“I am,” said Death and pulled the blanket down. “I came as you knew I would, yet you didn’t run. You came to bed as you’ve done every night. Why cry now?”

The maiden shook her head. “I thought I could be brave, but with you comes a cold colder than the earth and in your eyes there’s nothing. I know what awaits.” Death shook her head.

“The wise men say death is the great journey after life.”

“The wise men lie!” said the maiden, pulling the red blanket back up. “They speak all the lies.”

“Come and escape the toil of this life. If death is loneliness, life is alienation.” Death caressed the maiden’s hand. “I know what the red blanket hides—what disguise has been rubbed away.” The maiden flinched. “Yes,” said Death. “Skin so fair, cheeks so red, but beneath is something more akin to mud, or filth. You won’t hide from me but you hide from them. One day they’ll catch you and the rest they give you won’t be as merciful as mine. Come,” she bade.

“No,” said the maiden.

“Why not?”

“There’s too much left,” the maiden said. “The world, its beauty, the songs and colors of life.”

Death laughed. “The songs and colors of life are not for you. Even as you toil you only taste them from so far away you might think you were imagining them. And you’re not so young as when you first called me. Do you remember that day? Your back was straight and your breasts were full. Soon, no more. What man will have you then?”

“Still,” said the maiden. “There’s time.”


“Life is better than no life. Struggle is better than no struggle.”

Death pulled back. “What courage! Come with me, now, as you said you would when the sun rose for if you’ve forgotten the sun will rise again tomorrow, and the day after that. Come! Now!”

The maiden shook her head. “Not yet. I can’t.” She shielded her eyes and swung blindly at the phantom. “Begone!” she commanded, and in a swirl of smoke Death disappeared, but seemed to linger. The maiden thought of calling the specter back but didn’t. “Grandmother will know,” she said, and ran to tell the old woman the story. Her grandmother listened quietly and cupped the maiden’s cheeks in her hands.

“The wise men do lie,” she said, “and in this life there is only struggle. But in struggle there is beauty.” The maiden sighed. When she rose from the old woman’s side she was more tired than she had been before. She returned to bed dreading the morning sun.



Kaiju Rampage

art by Marcus Gannuscio, short story by Jad Ziade

Kaiju Rampage - Marcus Gannuscio

The boys sat alone. “I’m hungry,” said Jimmy.

Samir plucked the upright bass between his legs. “Go eat.”

“Eat what?” Jimmy strummed a chord on the guitar. “Nice sunny day, hundreds of people outside smiling and having a good time, and these assholes book us to play an empty hall. What for?” He played the next three notes as if they accentuated the point he just made. Samir answered with a heavy G. “Which one?” said Jimmy. Samir played the rest of the riff and the two of them practiced a song they had prepared for the festival. Both stared blankly as they played; the sounds reverberated around the empty auditorium. Jimmy stopped. “Why’d they bring so many chairs? Do they know no one knows who we are?”

“I don’t know,” said Samir. His melody degenerated into a soft, repetitive plucking.

“Stop that,” said Jimmy. The older boy stopped. Jimmy cupped his chin in his hands. “I’m hungry.”

“Then eat.” Samir stood up and turned away. His back was sore and his arms hurt when he straightened them. The clock showed three hours had passed. He walked to the window where a soft din came from the crowd below and stretched his shoulders backward and forward. A man caught his eye. He wore a large, orange shirt and struggled with an ice cream cone. Oblivious of the crowd he pushed through he knocked over a small woman wearing a bright, striped blouse. She lay before him and cursed wildly, but Samir couldn’t hear what she said. The man didn’t respond. He simply pushed into the crowd back the way he had come. The woman pulled something out of her pocket as if to throw it, but the ice cream man was gone, and soon after she stood up and disappeared into the crowd. Samir turned back to Jimmy.

“Buy me a hot dog, please,” Jimmy said.

The older boy scowled. “Buy yourself one.”

“But you’re the one with a full-time job.”


Jimmy stamped his foot. “I live with my mom, bro.”

“So you’re saving money.”

“On ten hours a week.”

“Ten hours and no rent. Go buy yourself a hot dog.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stick the hot dog so far up your ass—”

“Fuck off!” said Samir.

Jimmy threw Samir the finger and headed toward the door, kicking one of the chairs on the way. When he was gone, Samir turned back to the window. A man was jogging on the opposite side of the street, away from the crowd. He wore sunglasses and had headphones in his ears, and his hair was thick and black and long enough that it bounced on his shoulders. His shirt was sleeveless and cut at the midriff and his shoulders curved well into his arms.The small of his back had two tiny dimples of soft flesh. Suddenly it came to Samir that the jogger could not hear him. The thought made his cock grow half-hard. He pressed his hand against it.

Jimmy burst back through the double doors of the auditorium. “No hot dogs,” he said. Instead, he carried three small bags of chips—ranch, nacho cheese, and salt and vinegar. “Which one do you want?” he smiled triumphantly. Samir shrugged. Jimmy threw him the ranch-flavored chips and he threw them back immediately.

“You know I hate ranch.”

“Fine,” said Jimmy, still smiling. He gave him one of the other flavors and they sat down to eat, Jimmy noisy, Samir thoughtful, distant. “Ten hours at the bookshop and I buy you chips. Isn’t that nice?”

Samir gave him a venomous look. “I didn’t ask for charity.”

“You’re eating them now, aren’t you?” Jimmy laughed, waved his hand. “I’m just fucking with you, bro. I saw the sign out there—a buck a dog. No wonder they’re out.”

Samir nodded, then dropped the bag of chips into his bass case and wiped his fingers on his jeans. “Let’s wait one more hour, then go. Sounds good to you?”

“Fine by me,” said Jimmy. He tried a few chips from the remaining bag before tucking both away into his backpack, then chewing on his grime-coated fingers.

Samir walked again to the window. A tall shadow darkened the windowsill, then was gone. The glass hummed with the tiniest rattle. Samir looked up and the sky was clear and sunny. He shrugged, about to laugh. The glass rattled again. This time the whole windowsill shook with it. “That’s weird,” he said.

“What’s weird?” asked Jimmy. Samir turned to answer as the window shattered behind him. He shrieked. A louder shriek came from outside, splitting his ears and making his eyes roll back. He fell to his knees and gave another futile scream in retaliation. The air around the window shimmered with heat, then burst briefly into a fierce white glow. Samir’s back seared. He screamed terribly as his flesh blistered and cracked. Jimmy was at once beside him, pulling Samir’s shirt free from his body. He stamped the shirt until the fire was gone, then helped Samir to his feet. The hair on the back of Samir’s head was gone and the skin was bloody black. The boy shook with pain. The air became heavy and the windowsill caught on fire. Flames raced up to the enlarged piece of corporate photography that hung above it.

“What the fuck is happening?” yelled the young boy, but Samir couldn’t answer. He leaned on his friend and the two of them stumbled away. The floor shook at the same tempo as their footsteps. Horrible screams came from outside, interrupted by a single moment of silence. Samir thought he smelled charred meat. When they reached the doors of the auditorium he pushed them open while Jimmy helped him through.

“Smell that?” said the older boy. Jimmy shook his head. “Meat,” he said. “It’s meat.”

Jimmy guffawed, confused, almost crying. “I’m not hungry anymore, all right?”

The two struggled down the stairway as the building continued to shake around them. “The coffee shop’s across the street,” said Jimmy. “I can call an ambulance there.”

“No,” said Samir. “Your phone.”

“Right!” Jimmy pushed Samir against the wall and the boy cried in pain. “Sorry!” said Jimmy as he fished in his pockets, but when he pulled the phone out it was smoking and hissing. The glass screen cracked in his hand. He yelped and dropped the phone. “Fuck it!” he yelled. “Let’s just go!”

“My bass,” said the older boy, dazed.

Jimmy shook him. “Fuck the instruments, bro!”

They hustled down the remaining stairs and heard the din of a crowd below. The bright, wide foyer was almost empty, but the front double doors were jammed full of people as they pushed against each other to squeeze out and escape the building. Those at the front screamed, jostled, tried to push back against the people behind them. There were other screams, too—those from outside where people ran to and fro. Those screams were worse, almost inhuman. Samir pointed at the crowded doorway, delirious. “There’s our audience.” His brow furled. “Why didn’t they come see us play?”

“I don’t know!” said Jimmy. He dragged Samir to a chair and set him down on his side. Samir groaned. Jimmy gave him a sympathetic pat then darted away in search of something that might help. He found it inside an abandoned maintenance bag near the front desk—a three foot long hammer with a thick wooden shaft and a heavy steel head. Jimmy lifted it, screamed and charged the full-length window by the crowded doorway. Some in the crowd noticed him and stared. One of them waved her hands frantically as if to dissuade him. Another woman, trapped in the press of bodies, giggled.

The window came up at the boy quickly and he smashed the hammer right into the center of it. A jolt of pain ran down his arms. The glass didn’t shatter, but cracked. He lifted the hammer again. The giggling woman laughed hysterically, and having freed her hands, pushed them against the sides of her head, as if she wanted to crush her skull like a grapefruit. When she couldn’t do it she screamed and an eerie wail answered her from somewhere beyond. The coffee shop across the street exploded. Jimmy ducked, heard sirens in the distance. “Finally,” he said, straightening himself, and smashed the window again. This time the glass shattered and he turned away to shield his eyes.

His stomach grumbled as the smell of charred flesh wafted into the building. He almost vomited. Samir cried behind him. Jimmy ran back and hoisted his friend over his shoulder, and as the two of them limped toward the broken window, Jimmy’s eyes were already scouting a path away from the screams, the heat and the cooked meat.

The two emerged from the broken window, then headed up toward Marsh Street. Jimmy decided whatever horror was behind them would be less inclined to follow uphill. Several people had the same idea and were dashing past the two boys. A police car swerved from around the corner and smashed into a parked blue van. Its lights flashed. The officer in the driver’s seat was dead. His partner kicked the passenger door open, fell out and ran into the alley.

Jimmy heaved Samir higher up on his shoulder. He looked back and saw thick black smoke along the cityscape. Buildings had collapsed or were leaning against each other. Massive shadows moved between them, roaring and screaming. He didn’t understand what it all meant or how it happened. The auditorium crumbled, then, and a cloud of dust overtook them and made his eyes burn. Samir was out cold. Jimmy dragged him by the arms, suddenly tireless as wind blew the dust ahead, giving the top of the hill a hazy look, but it didn’t seem so far away.

Then a gigantic scaled foot smashed down next to them, shaking the world and throwing them off-balance. It lifted up and they fell into the crater-like footprint it left behind. Jimmy screamed. He let Samir go and pulled his knees up to his chin. The thunderous foot smashed down again somewhere ahead, and he wanted to look up, but held his head between his knees, screaming wildly.

It was then that Samir came to and grabbed his friend’s wrist. But Jimmy shook him away. “It’s over!” he yelled. “It’s over!” He looked up, as he knew he had to, and saw the thing that destroyed the auditorium. It was more terrible than he imagined, its face fury and its girth monstrous. He sobbed and shook his head, no longer wanting to see, and spoke gibberish as he sank down beside his friend and buried his eyes beneath Samir’s arm.

NEXT TIME: Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden - Marianne Stokes