Candy Island Vacation

A bag of sour gummy worms brightens up a dreary day inside by turning you into a cartoonishly big candy dragon. Mature.

You're sprawled on the sofa In the living room, staring up at the white noise of the ceiling. You haven't bothered to unpause the 'lo-fi beach vibes' video you had playing on the TV. Past the sliding glass door, the rain comes down like radio static. Nothing to do outside, nothing left to do inside. Your phone doesn’t have anything better to offer, so you sling it over the edge of the couch and let it fall to the carpet. Then you look down, grab the big bag of sour gummy worms you bought, and haul it over. Might as well, right? You peel it open, grab a couple, and toss one into your mouth.

Mango-pineapple. The taste hits harder than you expect. You take a moment to savor it as it saturates your tongue. It's been a while since you last had sour candy, but you don't remember it being quite so engrossing. The next worm you try is some kind of purple flavor, and while it's just as delicious in its own way, it doesn’t captivate your senses like the mango-pineapple did.

While you eat your handful of worms, the grass outside your apartment gets swallowed by rising water. Inside, the bookshelves creep taller and taller along the walls. The coffee table lists to one side; two of its feet sink a half-inch into the carpet.

You pop the last sour gummy worm into your mouth. The pineapple tartness and cloying mango sweetness are a perfect fit. Your eyes drift shut and a smile falls across your face. How long has it been since you just enjoyed some candy?

Your hand dips back into the bag and lifts out another handful. You pinch the gummy worms between your teeth and pull them from your fingers two at a time. Your thick tongue slips out to slurp the gummy worms between your glossy pinkish lips. A bead of drool rolls down your pudgy cheek. You brush it away with your shoulder.

Okay, yes, you know you're eating more than you should. You know you should stop after this handful. But this is the first time that you've felt nice in weeks. This is a splash of color among all that gray. You can't give that up because you're worried about a little too much candy.


The Island

Part wish fulfillment and part Weird Tales, a party led by a ship's captain explores the strange island they landed on, only to find one of their number turning into a sheep-maid. General.

Today, the island took the first of our crew. I would say it is the fifteenth of September, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-six, but I am no longer sure. Since we put in to land five days ago, not once has the fog which shrouds the shores lifted.

In that time, no two parties sent into the interior of the island could agree on what they had found or where. One claimed it was a ring of land around a wide lagoon, another an impassable jungle thick with vines. Irritated by this, Captain Clarke this morning formed a party of the 'most sensible and scientifically-minded' men among the crew, the least given to flights of fancy or tall tales. They were the captain himself, the ship's cook and navigator Sloan, myself as naturalist and unofficial doctor, and a sailor named Simon who was the oldest and most seasoned of the ships's men. We would determine at last the nature of this strange place.

We set out from our encampment in the shadow of our ship, climbing up the seaward slopes of the hills. The fog descended over us until the tents along the sand had vanished and we could hear nothing but our own footsteps and breathing. Sloan and the captain walked ahead together, leaving me to keep my company with the sailor.

Simon did not speak much. The lines dug into the corners of his eyes made it seem as though he was always peering at some far-off memory, and the flecks of white in his black beard could almost have been sea-salt. I knew little about him save that he was from Connaught and that the captain regarded him highly.


The Dragon and the Elf-Blade

What if the fey were just fantasy cartoons? A dragon and an adventurer get turned into "fey" versions of themselves. Mature.

With each great footstep beat the heart of the mountain. With each fiery breath its treasures glimmered like stars. Scarce light filtered through the slits cut into the vaulted stone roof while the vast cavern turned every sound into an echoing chorus. Aluin huddled behind a gilded longship half-sunk beneath the dragon's hoard. One hand lay over her mouth and the other across her chest, as if to still her breath and stop her heart.

The dragon's voice cracked the dry air. "Trespasser! My flame has killed noble warriors—you should be honored to join their kind. Now show yourself, and I will be merciful."

The floor shuddered. The goblets and diadems beneath her began to slip away and rob Aluin of her footing. Clinging to the hull of the boat, she fought to stay above the tide of riches. The thundering footsteps were terribly close now. A gasp died in her throat as a claw as big as her head came to rest on the boat just above her. Silver and gold spilled across her shoulders like sand.

The shower of coins woke the elf-blade bound to her belt. It began to quiver and clatter, as if sensing danger and eager to be used. Scowling, she clutched it tightly by its hilt. She knew not what magic was worked into its blade; she had not yet needed to unsheathe it.

"My treasure is mine by right," the dragon said. He lifted his claw and beat his wings, rising into the air. "None can lay claim to a single coin of it. I am the King Beneath the Mountain. I am black smoke and the coming night. I am death and the ruin of cities." With a mighty crash, he landed in front of Aluin wings outstretched, fire brewing between his fangs. "I am Glaud!"

Gilt timbers groaned. The longboat listed to the side and spilled over. Aluin scrambled out from underneath it to keep from being drowned beneath a sea of silver. Now she stood face-to-face with the dragon. His scales were the color of porphyry, or dried blood, stretched taut across the sinewy frame of some great beast or tyger. Fangs filled his narrow snout and goat-like horns curled back from his head. His eyes gleamed yellow-green like tarnished gold.

She said, "I am Aluin." Where the courage to speak came from she could not guess. The elf-blade bucked and jostled at her side like an over-eager hound. "I come in search of a stone which belonged to my family generations ago, a sign—"

"You are a thief," Glaud snarled.

Aluin wrested the sword from its sheath. Its hilt was red and its blade blue, both blazing so bright it seemed as if they shone with their own light. From the hilt toward the tip, it thickened so much that she could not say how it had fit in its sheath. A shiver ran down her back and the sword wobbled along its length.

"I will not leave this mountain without that stone," she said.

Glaud's lips peeled in a beastly grin. "Then you will never leave."


Twisted Wish-ters

Kotep poofs two of their friends into a couple of useless stoner genies. Mature.

Above a sea of lotus columns, an impossible number of stars swirled in the purple of the night sky. Below the columns, Rush and Tama followed close at Kotep’s heels. They both guessed that getting lost in the jackal-god’s home was an invitation to get hit by some ironic curse or another.

"This is the hypostyle hall," Kotep said with a sweep of their hand, looking back over their shoulder. "It's where I do festivals, parties, strip clubsthat kind of thing."

Tama was only sort-of listening, but she nodded along. "Sick."

"So how do you fit all this into one pyramid?" asked Rush.

Kotep did their best not to sigh out loud. "This is a temple, not a pyramid. Pyramids are for dead people."

"Wait," Tama said, "You're not dead? I thought you were a mummy or something."

"I'm a god."

Rush asked, "Aren't mummies kinda gods though?"

Kotep didn't bother answering that. Instead, they led their two guests onward, past braziers filled with golden flame spilling light across the open hall, and into a smaller, cozier room, lit by oil lamps that filled the air with fragrance. Several couches surrounded a table spread with grapes and candied dates, roast vegetables and morsels of meat stuck through with ankh-shaped skewers, and sitting in the middle of it all, a tall silver hookah.


The Mansion

Four horror-style stories from a haunted-style mansion: "The Portrait," "The Trophy," "The Conservatory," and "The Stables." General.

1 – The Portrait

At the front of the hall hung a portrait painted in oils: a woman in a gown and corset, with dark lips and darker hair. Its eyes didn't follow the viewer so much as pierce through them. Though its mouth curled down into the slightest scowl, the light and shadow across its cheeks made it seem, if you caught it in the corner of your eyes, as though it was smiling.

Paintings lined the hall, but it was the portrait that Jason's flashlight lingered on. He stuffed a fist into the pocket of his puffy jacket and hunched his shoulders to fend off a shiver. Did it count as creepy? It was working on him, but he'd have to convince the rest of his friends if he wanted to win their contest. Setting his flashlight down on a nearby table, he dragged his phone out of his jeans pocket.

While he framed the portrait in his phone's camera, his fingers grew cold. He clenched his hand into a fist, then blew on his knuckles, then patted his cheeks, but they remained cold and oddly pale. Hurry up and get the shot, he told himself.

With a ruby-nailed finger, he tapped the screen, then lowered it to peer at the finished picture. The zipper on the front of his jacket twitched before sliding downward, slowly baring the front of his shirt.

No good. The picture had come out blurry. Jason took a few steps forward. His sleeves thinned out while he rubbed his hands together to warm them up—slender fingers, slim wrists, goose- bumps along his soft skin. He swept a lock of darkening hair behind his ear, out of the way of a red teardrop earring.

The portrait's hands, folded in its lap, now looked large and plain in comparison, and its ears were conspicuously unadorned.

Lifting his phone again, he held it as still as possible. His pursed lips were overtaken by red lipstick. The collar of his shirt stretched lower across his chest and his copper-red hair tickled his slender shoulders. He tipped his head back, held his breath, and snapped another picture. This time, the shot was clearer, but the photo itself seemed wrong. Instead of eerie scornful beauty, there was a confused, almost shocked look in the portrait's eyes.


Going Up

For two office workers, an elevator ride becomes a growing, swelling, sloshing experience as they're turned into a big goofy toon wolf and gator. Mature.

On one side of the elevator stood Andrew. On his way back from a late lunch, he hadn't expected to run into anyone he knew. Okay, 'knew' was a bit of a stretch, since he didn't even know her name, but he knew she worked in Legal up on the fifty-second floor, that he was intimidated by how good she looked in a pantsuit, and that he wouldn't be able to say a word to her without stumbling over his own tongue.

On the other side of the elevator was Breana. She'd just gotten out of a meeting with one of their clients. She couldn't help feeling a little jealous of Andrew, who didn't have to haul out a stuffy suit jacket or wear heels every time he had to meet someone new. She didn't know his name either, but she recognized him from the couple of times she'd been down to Finance on the forty-third floor. They'd never had the chance to talk before.

"So," she said, breaking the silence as they waited for the doors to close. "You like Dopey Ditties?"

Andrew was caught completely off guard. "Um, what?"

"You have a, uh, B.B. Wolf mug on your desk." Great idea, she thought, kicking off a conversation with old cartoons. Not weird at all. "I always liked Al A. Gator."

"Oh. He's pretty cool," Andrew said, for lack of anything better to say.

The doors swung shut on the lobby and, mercifully giving Breana an excuse to go quiet again, the elevator chimed, "Going up."

The two of them were about to get know each other real well.