Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Issue 48
Stories
Breeding True
by Orson Scott Card
Like a Thief in the Night
by Alethea Kontis
The Curie Priest
by Chris Phillips
The Price of Love
by Dantzel Cherry
For the Bible Tells Me So
by Edmund R. Schubert
Life With Slug
by Paul Eckheart
IGMS Audio
Life With Slug by Paul Eckheart
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Starsong
by Aliette de Bodard

Writing Fantasy

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

Like a Thief in the Light
    by Alethea Kontis

Like a Thief in the Light
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

The Stoners were up to their old tricks again.

Sun downshifted the street sweeper and pulled up on the brake. He untangled his gangly limbs from the gears and stepped down, cracking his head on the doorway again. Stupid low ceiling. Stupid giant head.

Pierre never had this problem; his head just dented the doorway. But Sun was not a gargoyle, so there would be a tiara of bruises around his bulbous, bald pate until he remembered how to get out of his own way. Nor did Sun have Pierre's water-summoning power, so he had to fill the sweeper's giant tanks in the Shadow Street Reservoir before making rounds on the days when Pierre was too weary to sweep. Those days were every day now.

The Stoners weren't gargoyles either, just a gang of grotesques who liked to perpetuate the lie because gargoyles had a far more romantic reputation. But their bodies were also made of stone, and they also froze into statues in the daylight-as the asshole currently blocking his sweeper demonstrated-but they had no magic over water or anything else. The only talent the Stoners had was "taking donations" from passers by. It wasn't technically stealing if the person gave them all their worldly goods out of the kindness of their own heart...or from the fear of having said heart ripped out through their chest cavity by stone claws.

Sun paused before stepping all the way down to the street and leaned back into the cab. He was careful not to wake Fuzz, curled up and dozing in the passenger's seat like a long tailed black rat who wore his skull on the outside. The aye-aye was nocturnal, like ninety-nine percent of the population of Shadow Street. But Fuzz insisted on tagging along, and Sun's life was easier if he didn't argue.

Sun's long white fingers silently flicked the button on the glove box and he took out the can of safety orange spray paint Pierre saved to mark road hazards for the night shift. Fuzz let out a soft whuffle of a snore. The can smelled like gasoline. There wasn't much on that ancient wreck of a sweeper that didn't smell like gasoline. Pierre had managed to keep the sweeper running, but one good rain would wash it into the shadows, sprockets and widgets and all.

Shaking the can was like parading a brass band down the street. The ball bearings careening back and forth echoed off the walls of the buildings on the empty street loud enough to wake the dead . . . somewhere else. No dead here worth his salt would bother to rise before twilight. Nothing walked this street at noon except the loners, the shadows, and the street sweepers. Sun was all three.

The harsh light of day was unforgiving to the bricks and mortar of Shadow Street. There were no streetlights and gas lamps to take the years away, no neon to gussy up the cracks and scars. Daylight made all the buildings equal: from the gothic marble and limestone library to the concrete and glass of that new vampire club. At the Witching Hour club, blood was love and sex and life. At noon, it was just another brown stain on the pavement.

Everything was tall and gray and unsightly in the brightness, just like him. It was the only place and time Sun ever felt like he belonged, the king of the world, quiet and looming in the ugly truth.

Sun stopped shaking the can, and the high-pitched gunfire sound stopped repeating off the sun-bleached moldy walls. Hatch looked a little worse for the wear himself, now that Sun was brave enough to get a close look at him. After sunset he wouldn't want to be closer than a block away from any of the Stoners, but here and now he could examine to his heart's content.

Hatch was covered in pockmarks, small divots in the rock made from time, wear, and general stupidity. One of his horns was missing the tip, giving him a lopsided look. Hatch was a wingless grotesque, with a face like a bull and the body of a lion. His feet were splayed and his arms were spread wide-he'd tried to make as large a barrier of himself as possible, and he'd succeeded. Sun would have to back the sweeper up and swing it wide to miss him, after he cleaned this section of the street by hand. Sun wished he could back up and run Hatch over with the sweeper itself, but he knew it would 1.) irreparably damage the sweeper and 2.) wake Fuzz up. Sun was far more scared of the latter.

Sun wrapped his long fingers around the ring in Hatch's nose and rapped against his bull chin. "Anybody home?" Sun giggled to himself, then quit when he realized how pathetic it sounded. He cleared his throat and started again.

"Looking rough, man. Know what you need? A makeover. Here, let me help you." Sun shook the can a few more times for good measure, then painted Hatch a nice, full head of safety orange hair.

"Remember, ladies. Do not neglect those eyebrows." Sun took it upon himself to attend to them on Hatch's behalf. "I do declare. You look at least two hundred years younger." Sun kissed Hatch on the cheek and stepped back to survey his handiwork.

That's when he noticed the shadow.

Everyone knows: the brighter the sunlight, the darker the shadow. What everyone doesn't know is what hides in those shadows, invisibly waiting to reach out and feed on your soul. Sun knew because he was one of them. He could see them with his poison green eyes.

Normally shadow thieves were blind, led by temperature and feeding by soulsmell. But Sun was not normal. His mother had not been a shadow. He wasn't sure what she'd been, exactly, but she'd given him green eyes and a horrible skin condition to remember her by. His father had given him a lanky build, a big bulbous head, and the ability to pop in and out of shadow without having to suck souls.

And while his father and mother may have created him, Pierre was the one who had given him a home and a life and a purpose. Pierre was the only parent Sun gave a crap about.

But Pierre was sick and old and getting sicker and older. In the not-too-distant future, Sun would lose him. He didn't want to think about it. And yet, lately, it was all he could think about. Stupid thoughts. Stupid head.

A snarl and a growl at his feet snapped Sun out of his melancholy. Fuzz gnashed his scary front teeth and swiped his bony black fingers at the shadow beside them. It took a moment for Sun's brain to register that the shadow thief had slipped into Sun's own shadow and was feeding upon Sun's soul.

With some effort-thanks in no small part to Fuzz's distraction-Sun jumped back away from Hatch's dark shadow and the blind, hungry thief was trapped inside it.

Sun couldn't suck souls, but Fuzz could. He was the reason the aye-aye as a species had such a nasty reputation in the first place. Fuzz might have been ten times smaller than Sun, but he was a hell of a lot more intimidating.

"Yeah, yeah. So you're a big shot," said Sun. "Rub it in."

Fuzz responded by displaying one of his disproportionately distended middle fingers. With a yawn, he deftly crawled back into the sweeper.

Sun laughed, grabbed his broom, and went back to work.

"When I pass on, Sun, ze sweeper, she is for you, no?" It had been a long time since Pierre had left his tiny little colony on the coast of South America, but he'd never lost the accent.

"No," said Sun. He washed his hands in the basin and opened the shutters to let the twilight in. Fresh air would do Pierre a world of good.

"How can you no love ze daylight sweeper? She is a good sweeper."

"She is a fine sweeper," Sun agreed. "I just meant no, you will not 'pass on' anytime soon. Stop talking like that."

"We cannot stop ze sun from rising or ze moon from setting," said Pierre. "We do not live forever, mon soleil, not even these old stones. Not talking about it cannot make it so."

"Tell that to the rest of Shadow Street," Sun muttered under his breath.

Either Pierre did not hear him, or he just ignored the snarky comment. It was hard to tell sometimes. "I would like to work in ze garden today," Pierre mused.

Of course he would. Sun wondered sometimes why he ever bothered showering, since he seemed destined to be covered at all times in dirt of some kind. Not that the dirt was the issue. The garden was to be Pierre's final resting place, and Sun didn't enjoy the idea of landscaping a graveyard.

But as Sun didn't want to appear ungrateful, he said none of this. He simply went to Pierre's side, removed the tray of untouched soup, and helped his giant stony carcass out of bed like the dutiful foster child he was.

It just didn't make any sense. If ninety-five percent of the population on Shadow Street was immortal, why did Pierre have to die? What made gargoyles so different from all the other monstrous peoples of the world?

As soon as the question was swimming around in that giant head of his, Sun knew exactly who would have the answer.

"Oh, crap," he said aloud.

"Am I too heavy?" asked Pierre. He was leaning more of his weight onto Sun than usual, but Sun had grown stronger because of it.

"No heavier than my head, fat man," said Sun. It was a long-standing joke between them. "The 'crap' was just my regret for something else."

Pierre's knowing chortle degraded into a raspy cough. Sun hoped none of that water had managed to find a way into his lungs.

"We make mistakes," Pierre said when he finally caught his breath. "What sets us apart are those who learn from them."

Sun only nodded; he was afraid that if he spoke it might crack his already damaged calm. He would miss Pierre's croissant-flavored fortune-cookie wisdom. But Pierre was not gone yet. It was just stupid of Sun to miss him while he was still here. He blinked a few times and bit his tongue so that the pain would distract him from his sorrow.

Pierre's energy did not last long-it was only an hour past full dark before they gave up on the garden and came inside for simpler pleasures. Sun made sure Pierre was all set up in his workshop, wings deep in crystals and gauges and gears, before he called it an early night.

Pierre, deep into his tinkering, merely waved him away.

It didn't take Sun long to find the Stoners. He slipped into the shadows and slunk the outskirts of the labyrinthine sewer system. Traveling as a shadow was faster than going on foot, but Sun couldn't shadowshift unless he fully stepped into darkness. He exited the sewers by the library and saw the gang a block away, "accepting donations" outside the library.

Hatch's Day-Glo orange head shone like a beacon beneath the streetlights.

Sun slipped from shadow to shadow between the chain link fence and the broken sidewalk, making sure they didn't see him until he was good and ready. He had one shot; he had to make it count.

"Damn, Ginger, you are looking hot." Sun drew the word out and attached a sizzle and a hoot for good measure.

The punch aimed at Sun's face swung through him. His body, with one foot still in shadow, turned to mist.

"Grab him!" Hatch yelled through gritted teeth.

Spoiler, with his bear body and demon face, startled Sun out of the shadows. Hinge, a hairless cat with batwings, slashed at him with his claws. Fender, a pitbull with wings, clamped his jaws around Sun's shoulder and held him down in the circle of light cast by the streetlight. There were no shadows to escape to and-even if he could break free of Fender's grip-nowhere to run.

They beat him half to death.

Sun's brain reminded him that if he didn't fight it, if he tried to relax and didn't tense his muscles, it would hurt less. Sun's muscles, seeing Hatch's fists and feet flying at him like stone barbells, told his brain to go screw itself and braced for impact.

He squirmed and shifted and attempted to dodge when he could, but Fender's jaws held tight. Sun also tried to get a word in between thrashings, before he lost too many teeth to be understood.

"I--" Bash to the head. Stupid head.

"-- need --" Ribs cracking. One, maybe two.

"-- your --" Hot lines dug with razor blade claws down his back. Fire.

"-- help --" Pretty sure that last crack was his left arm bone.

"-- please."

That was the word that stopped them. Sun didn't know why. He was sure some of their devoted fans had yelled the same thing while having their stuffing extracted. Perhaps it was his tone.

Spoiler's split tongue darted out. "Did he jusssst ssssay . . .?"

"Mm-I fink sho," Fender said before spitting out Sun's shoulder in a shower of drool. Sun's limp body tumbled to the ground. His ruined shirt caught on one of Fender's jutting fangs and ripped to shreds. He didn't have the strength to care.

"Wow," barked Fender.

"What the hell is that?" said Hinge.

"He'ssss a freak," said Spoiler.

Leave it to Hatch to be the only Stoner without ADD. "What kind of freak moron asks for help from the ones kicking his ass?"

Honestly, Sun had pretty much counted on dying right there in the street, or at least losing consciousness before they could have a meaningful conversation. If one could have a meaningful conversation with a gang of ugly, blockheaded statues named after car parts. There was so much to explain. However, the Stoners had brains the size of walnuts, and Sun only had enough energy to get to the point.

"Pierre's . . . dying."

"That don't make no damn sense." Sun didn't try to open his eyes; even if he could, he'd be staring at blood-soaked pavement. But he could hear Hatch laughing at him. "Pierre's only from . . ." he snapped his fingers at his cohorts for the answer.

"Devil'sssss Island," offered Spoiler.

"See? There are real French gargoyles way older than him. He should live forever."

"Nobody lives forever." Fender's voice was deep and gravelly.

"Shut up, Fender," said Hatch. "Maybe it's all that water. All water eats away stone eventually. No getting around that."

That might have been the most intelligent thing Hatch had said in his whole life. Sun tried not to look shocked.

"But there are other beings on this street who live forever." Hinge would know, he had nine or so lives himself.

"How-" Sun coughed and spat the blood out of his mouth to make room for his tongue. He tried to lift himself up and failed completely. Broken arm. Broken ribs. "How do you make stone live forever?" he asked into the sidewalk when he caught his breath again.

"What else lives forever?" asked Fender.

"Vampiresssss," said Spoiler.

"Gargoyles have no blood," said Hatch.

"Zombies," Hinge added with a yowl. "Or werewolves. Though you probably wouldn't want Pierre to survive like that."

"Gargoyles don't catch plagues," said Hatch.

"Ghosts!" barked Fender.

"That would defeat the purpose, muttface," said Hatch.

"Ssssshadow thievesssss," Spoiler said finally. Sun would have laughed if it didn't feel like knives. He managed to lean on his right arm enough to flip himself over. The intention was to use the streetlight post for back support, but all he managed to do was touch it with the top of his gargantuan head.

"Why do you look like somebody dropped you through stained glass when you was a baby?" asked Hatch.

"Or ralphed up a crayon box," said Hinge.

Sun's deformity usually hid beneath his long-sleeved shirts. Birthmarks covered the length of his pale body-except for his head, hands and feet-patches of discoloration every color of the rainbow, like a botched Tiffany lamp.

"My mother . . . is . . . was . . ." Wow. Sun had seriously taken for granted his previous ability to breathe. ". . . not . . . shadow."

"That don't make no damn sense neither!" Hatch looked freaking hilarious with those Bozo orange eyebrows. If Sun had been able to laugh, he would've had to add himself to the list of things on this street that definitely didn't live forever.

"You're either a shadow or you ain't," said Hinge.

"Ssssso what are you, Poissssson Eyesssss?"

He was about five minutes away from becoming another stain on the sidewalk. "I'm a freak," Sun said. "Just kill me already and be done with it."

Hatch nudged Sun's body with a stone toe. "Don't feel like it anymore."

"Yeah," Fender woofed. "It's no fun when they can't fight back."

Sun felt their shadows pass over him as they walked away. One. Two. Three...

"Hey, Freak," the third shadow said.

Sun cracked one eye open and saw Spoiler looming above him. Pieces of Sun began to dissolve into the devil's blessed shadow.

"Asssssk your dad."

"Ask him what?" How he gave birth to a freak? Why he abandoned him? What he had to do with his life that was more important than having a son?

"Asssssk him how to live forever," said Spoiler. "Pierre'ssss a good guy."

One of the Stoners hollered for Spoiler and all too soon his shadow was gone, leaving Sun in a pool of light and blood and pain.

Sun peeked through his lids up into the bulb of the streetlight that beamed down upon him, merciless as the noonday sun. Soon, Pierre would see a beam like this, and his soul would use it to walk from this dark world to a place of beauty and peace. There would only be a statue left where Pierre had been. A statue, a few dents in the door of the street sweeper, and a hole in Sun's heart.

Sun tried to sob but his broken ribs would not let him gasp for breath. A few hot tears leaked out the corners of his eyes anyway, making trails in the dirt and blood on his giant head. It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to live.

Maybe if he stared at the light long enough, Sun could make it to that place on the other side of the light first. Wouldn't Pierre be surprised when he arrived.

And then the light went out.

Sun hear the pop of the bulb in enough time to close his eyes before the tiny shards of glass and filament fell on his chest. Fuzz was the next thing to fall on his chest. Sun braced himself.

The aye-aye fell right through him and landed on the sidewalk.

Sun yelped in relief and gratitude as he slowly became one with the shadows and the pain melted away. Oh, he'd still have to heal, but now he could do it in the privacy of his own bed instead of bleeding to death on the sidewalk.

Sun took a few gloriously deep breaths. Fuzz chittered at him.

"Yes, yes," said Sun. "Thank you already."

"You're welcome."

A match sprang to life before him and lit a cigarette. It took a moment for Sun's eyes to adjust. Before him stood a shadow thief. He was taller than Sun, skinnier, and paler. His head was just as big. But his eyes . . . Instead of milky white, they were completely black-blacker than shadow-the empty black of nothingness and despair. But this guy wasn't blind. He could see just fine.

This was one of the elder shadow thieves, the original inhabitants of this street. The thief took a long drag from the cigarette and exhaled. The foul gray smoke mixed with his own insubstantial shape. "Hello, Lightwalker."

"Do I know you?" Sun knew he didn't, but he asked the question anyway. Deep down, he had a really good idea.

"No." Another drag. The cigarette's glow mirrored in those black eyes. "If you're lucky, it'll stay that way."

"Why?" asked Sun. He wasn't sure which of his million questions he was looking to answer, but this one-word question covered most of them.

"I'm no good, kid. I'm a monster. I suck souls and leave the carcasses for the street sweepers. I'm the Bad Guy's Bad Guy. It's what I do. It's who I am." Ash fell onto the sidewalk. Smoke curled up toward heaven. "Shadows don't have children."

"Then what am I?"

"You're a mistake, kid. A lapse in judgment. Darkness that once found a soul so bright he couldn't bear to take her." He tossed the cigarette into the gutter.

I'll be sweeping that up later, thought Sun.

"But I took her anyway," said the thief. "In the end, I ate her soul. Because that's what I do. It's who I am. Do you understand me?"

Sun shrugged. "Yeah."

"See, I don't think you do. I think you're still contemplating the possibility of getting the Captain here"-he indicated Fuzz-"or one of the other bats to suck Pierre's soul so that you can babysit a shell for the rest of your life."

It had crossed Sun's mind, even before Spoiler had mentioned it.

"I'm telling you right now, it's a bad idea. It's what Bad Guys do. You have never been a Bad Guy."

Sun shrugged again. How would he know?

"Don't take after me. You let Pierre's soul find peace like it's supposed to. Just because you're not okay with the idea of him dying doesn't give you the right to change the way of the world." The wind picked up, blowing a cold eddy of street trash through the both of them. Dirt and straw wrappers stuck in the blood Sun had left on the sidewalk. "Trust me. I know." The thief's voice fell, fading. "If you love him, let him go."

Sun could not think of more perfect parting words from a father he had never known. "Be seeing you, then."

"No, you won't." That cold metallic wind picked up again; it smelled like fresh graves and sorrow. "Keep an eye on him, Captain."

Fuzz gave a few clicks and a snort, but the thief was already gone.

With nothing left for him here, Sun slunk through the shadows behind Fuzz all the way back to the ratty apartment. He slipped right in through the front door-he wasn't sure what to tell Pierre about this particular outing, but he didn't want to hide it from him either. Pierre deserved to know what was on Sun's mind. He deserved to be part of the conversation.

Unfortunately, it was a conversation they would never have. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. It was too late.

Sun left Pierre's empty bedroom and walked around back to the courtyard. He tried not to think about how hard it must have been for Pierre to make it all the way out here unaided. But there he was in the center of the garden, wings unfurled, arms outstretched, head thrown back in a passionate cry, basking in the glory of the full moon. From his mouth trickled a small fountain that fed the flowers at his feet, and in each of his hands he held a crystal prism.

And as the moonlight hit those prisms-Sun imagined it would be even more magnificent at dawn and sunset-the already colorful garden was blanketed in a scattering of rainbows. Light and shadow and color. Pierre had spent his last days on this earth tinkering in his workshop, making a tribute to the only son he'd ever known. A gift for which Sun would never be able to thank him.

Despite Fuzz's scolding chirps, Sun stepped out of the shadow and into the moonlight. His broken bones began to ache again and his cuts started to bleed, but he needed to feel something, even if it was pain. He had so very little that mattered to him, and in his very short life he'd gone and lost it all. What did he have to look forward to? A future of long days sweeping a street clean of death so the shadows could muck it all up again? It may have been Pierre's legacy, but it didn't seem like much of a life.

A movement in Pierre's great shadow interrupted his thoughts. It wasn't a thief-didn't look like one or stink like one or slink like one. It moved more like smoke curls from a cigarette, like a clumsy butterfly flitting from one spot of rainbow to the next. Sun didn't smell a soul on it. A ghost maybe? But not substantial enough. Ah . . . a wraith. Wraiths were sometimes left after a shadow thief feasted, if the soul was strong enough.

Sun decided not to frighten the wraith; it wasn't causing any trouble. Besides, Sun was enjoying his level of pain too much to move and make it worse. And then the moonlight caught the silhouette of the wraith's arm as it stretched out to touch a flower. A rainbow reflected off the shape of a wing. It was a fairy.

All the pieces fell into place. The light, the dark. The prisms. The garden. The secrets. The warnings. The rainbows. Fairies loved green and growing things. They loved colors and light. They had souls that shone like beacons. This fairy had no business being anywhere near Shadow Street, but for better or worse she had come, and met her end here.

This wasn't just any wraith.

And, just like that, Sun once again had something to live for.

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