by

Monde Sans Frontieres

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Categories: Realities of Fantasy

With a new story in the works on the one hand and academic work on the other, I’ve been needing to blow off some serious steam in recent weeks. My chosen outlet, perhaps curiously for those familiar with it, has been the cult success video game Dark Souls. To explain for those not in the know, Dark Souls is a fantasy adventure notorious for its vicious, unrelenting and singularly merciless difficulty. Perhaps I’ve been drawn to it because it gives me something else to scream over…

But today I’m not interesting in Dark Souls’ controller-defenestrating difficult. This post has been inspired by one of its other defining features: its unique (to my knowledge) approach to world building. To put it simply, it doesn’t. As a player, you are dropped quite literally into a world with next to zero context or explanation. Slowly, you begin to gain momentum as a character, fighting through hostile environments and their inhabitants, accruing power and items. Some explicit information is gradually provided by other characters, but it is the implicit information about the strange world you find yourself adventuring in that has caught my interest not just as a gamer, but as a writer.

So little of Dark Souls’ world is set in stone, and even less is outright explained. Unlike so much fantasy, the undoubted effort that has gone into developing this world is barely exposited. You get, at best, vague hints about historical facts that you are required to piece together, but more often than not these ‘facts’ are more akin to ambiguous statements or the very environments themselves, both capable of being interpreted in a vast number of ways. Fan theories abound about what meanings can be gleaned from these gloriously nebulous signs, sometimes taking the form of vast theses on this deliberately shrouded world.

The phenomenal move of letting players/readers (I personally see little distinction between the two – more on that in another post) build their own interpreted worlds is one that sits very closely with my own philosophies on fantasy and its craft, but more on that later. Today, I want to discuss the how, the mechanics of going about creating a world without the terrible certainty of exposition.

The adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ is so well worn in writing circles that it’s developed an impressive groove from the collective asses that have sat upon it across the decades. But then, it wouldn’t have received such long-lasting attention if it didn’t hold some merit, and there is a certain curiosity to how often fantasy writers overlook its advice. Consider any sample of the genre – hell, pick one up off the shelf and leaf through a few pages, it won’t take many – and you’re likely to find a fair few words devoted to some historical, social or cultural curiosity. If you’re lucky, that curiosity is somehow related to an element of the story, but more often than not it’s just that: a curiosity, something the author points to and goes ‘hey, isn’t this neat?’.

The central of my manifesto is simple: stop. Any plot-necessary elements of a setting can just as easily (if not more effectively) be conveyed in a few sentences. I’m not advocating stripping away all world-building to an atrophied equivalent of Chekov’s gun, however, absent any additional details to indicate a living, breathing, unique and interesting world. But by my reckoning, the far more enriching method of doing this is similar to Dark Souls’ approach: a more ambiguous, hint-based method of displaying the world you’ve built.

In addition to whatever details are necessary to make a scene or the overall story work sensibly and effectively, the remainder of a fantasy writer’s presentation should, I submit, be akin to an iceberg. That is, you see only the smallest fraction of the reality lurking beneath the surface of the page. A great many writers argue this is already the case: that their extensive asides and treatises on their world are a fraction of the world-building they’ve undergone, citing lexicons, annals, dossiers and minutely detailed maps as backstage materials that have not been included. I am not necessarily decrying this, although the typical consequences of this approach are pernicious, but the argument fails to understand the iceberg metaphor fully. One sees the tip of the iceberg, but that does not mean one is ignorant of the rest of it. Rather, one knows that what is apparent is only a small portion, and one must then make an educated guess about what else lurks beyond the explicit.

This is how I believe worlds should be made to appear alive and unique. Not by extensive litanies of detail and commentary telling us about the world, but by the writer showing us (and barely at that). Hinting at the underlying significance of cultural activities or the history of a place through their descriptions, the activities of those involved. Rather than explanatory asides to flesh out the world, let the world’s flesh speak for itself: let the behaviour or the place serve as a hint, an open invitation for the reader to fill in their own exposition, to make sense of it in their own way. A simple adjective, the name of something, brief phrases, verbs that achieve more than their mundane function, strange and throwaway snapshots and other details; at the furthest, most elaborate end of the spectrum, a sentence at most that raises more questions than it answers. Tips of icebergs that leave readers to wonder at what lies beneath, rather than dredging a chunk of the rock for them to stare dumbly at.

I reckon I developed this particular outlook on exposition courtesy of a singular diet of dying earth fiction in my late teens. Writers like Vance and Wolfe were miraculous because they never explained anything and chose not only to revel in the openness of their worlds, but trusted their readers to make use of their openness. To see it not as annoying, confusing ambiguity, but as an opportunity to interpret and contribute to the creative and world-building process.

This approach applies to all aspects of describing one’s world – not just the history and sociology, but the sensory details as well. Is it correct to say that the fantasy author’s job is to paint a picture of their imagined world so the reader can better visualise it? Arguably yes, but arguably no. Why waste words on imposing your imagination on someone else when you could use fewer, more precious words activating their imagination. It seems too often nowadays authors are motivated by the ‘DeviantArt effect’: the desire to depict some sweeping vista to fuel fan-made pictures which meet certain detail criteria. The adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is frequently taken as a challenge, whereas only a few choice descriptors could allow a thousand readers to create a thousand different interpretations of what they’re reading.

Surely the greatest challenge to the creator, the world-builder, is to take their creation, their built world, and condense its essence down into neutron-dense points that can spark a cascade of possibilities in the reader’s mind. Not only does this require an understanding beyond pages and pages of notes on the how and why of a thousand minutia, but it takes bravery. We are, in essence, taking those pages and pages of notes and throwing them into a stiff north-westerly, hoping that the scraps someone catches downwind make a certain sort of sense. Not our sense, but theirs.

This is usually the part where I do a little plug for my own big project, but given everything I’ve just written, that would defeat the purpose. I have my own vision of the world, its customs, mechanics, rituals and all that. Probably not as much as others – even with my most initial of notes, I could feel the lure of exposition and explanation pulling at me, and I still see its presence on the page – but enough that I could understand what my world meant to me. And I think that’s important: more than engineering every individual cog and presenting a blueprint, or at least scraps thereof, if I have the essence of the world – its themes, its, dare I say, soul – then the reader will do the rest. Not because I’m lazy, but because whatever I write won’t mean half as much to them as what they imagine.

It’s often said that world-building is one of the most satisfying elements of speculative fiction. So why deny the reader that pleasure? Share the love, man.

by

In the White Room

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Categories: Short Stories

“All men dream, but not equally.”

~T.E. Lawrence

He was standing in a room. It was bare, absolutely bare, with a white floor that seamlessly transitioned into four white walls that, in turn, seamlessly transitioned into a white roof. He might have thought himself lost in an void, had not there been the sense of terra firma beneath his feet and an unshakable, instinctual inkling of constriction. He was inside something. His mind had embraced the default ‘room’, because the only alternative it could alight upon was ‘cage’.

Absence gave way to substance. Surfacing from the white near-nothingness of the walls, there came picture frames of stark and sharp construction. The writing on the documents therein framed was minute, and in a looping anachronistic script only used by those who thought too much of themselves.

He thought about peering closer, then found himself transposed across the room so that he might do so. University degrees in Criminology and Psychology, qualifications from a police academy, commendations, distinctions. Across every mark of merit, the name had been smudged out, as if by an elbow while the ink was still drying.

Turning, or, at least, thinking about turning and it becoming so, he found a metal table had been placed in his absence, a man in a black suit sitting at the far side. His face had been smudged out, as if by an elbow while the ink was still drying. The besuited man gestured to the second chair. He thought about sitting, and was.

Muscles tensed, trying to contract his lungs and twist his lips into words, but nothing came out. There was nothing to take in to begin with, he realised – he had not taken a single breath since appearing within the white room. The revelation flashed across the space, an alarum of klaxon-red, then black, then red once more. Even without breath, he could feel his chest tighten, his body panic in the absence of its most basic of survival functions.

Between the pulsing emergency flares, when the white room was blackened to oblivion, a simple polystyrene cup became sat upon the table before him. He snatched at it, bringing it to his lips and tipping back. Cool, calming water eased down his throat, giving his body a task to complete – a physiological slap across the face to pull itself together. The besuited man gave him a quizzical thumbs-up, the starkness of his jacket momentarily faded to a more calming blue. When he replied with a nod, the stern black reasserted itself and the besuited man straightened in his seat.

With a gesture, the besuited man sent a ripple across the surface of the table. Like mercury, it roiled and rose, cohering from a globulent mass into, indeed, a room where two men sat at a table. Beyond the thin walls of the quicksilver’s representation of the white room, men with notepads clustered in a group so tight they seemed to be one single, hydrian form. The besuited man cocked his head, and he nodded.

The model sunk back into the table which, in turn, sunk back into the floor. All that was left was a fading grey stain between the two men. Slowly at first, the stain began to spread, washing across the blank canvas of the room. The grey mass split, forming into long strips, the colour festering into an off-brown.

He blinked, and when his eyes reopened there was a body lying on the floorboards.

The besuited man remained motionless, that smudged, sightless face nevertheless watching as he thought-lurched away from the corpse, his entire being twisting and arching in an attempt to put as much distance between him and it as possible. But there was only so far he was allowed to go before the white wall stopped him. Not this. Not her.

His skin was crawling, thick, congealed ripples of flesh washing from the tips of his fingers – up over his arms, but equally out across the wall-that-wasn’t-there. Hair grew just so it could stand on end, a bilious swirl of greens and blues spreading out to stain where he cowered.

The body appeared to be at peace, at least. Her eyes closed, arms and legs straightened, the only sign that anything was amiss coming from the protuberance down one side of her neck. Quick and painless. It seemed. From her feet, the floorboards rose, clicking and slotting together, forming higher and higher blocks until an entire staircase rose to the white room’s ceiling. The green swirled thicker around him.

Silhouettes passed around the body, kneeling and examining and noting and detailing. There were other seated figures in other rooms with other besuited men facing them. They rose, amalgamating back into the lone besuited man, his besuited man, who raised a hand and beckoned him over to the corpse.

Even with her eyes closed, he could not bring himself to look at her face. All that beauty, that love, that hate. The besuited man seemed, at least, to not be without mercy, for his interest was not in her face. It was her neck – at this distance patently mis-angled – over which the searchlight of his attention was focussed. There, rolling down both sides towards the top of her sternum in a gentle V, was an absence. A memory tan-line. An impression in what should have been there but wasn’t.

He could feel himself tightening, hardening, the writhing of his skin replaced by a numb hardness as it prepared itself for the inevitability. He knew and, eyes darting to the impassive besuited man, he knew that his interrogator knew also. An itch arose in one arm and his hand came away from scratching it thick with stone dust.

It was coming. So unashamedly big and brazen that he could see it happen a hundred times in his inner-inner mind before it actually did. The besuited man reached for an inner pocket, revealing only yet another suit beneath, and produced a necklace. A simple, fake-gold, mass-produced, heart-shaped necklace that might be bought from one of a dozen accessory chains. He should know: he had. Her necklace. His necklace.

The besuited man offered it out on a too-long arm. Clearly, he did not appear concerned about evidence being tampered with. But then, was this evidence? The matter of the necklace seemed to waver for a moment under the strain of his question, the faux-gilding sublimating into the rare burst of sunshine that had illuminated the churchyard on the day she’d first worn it. He could feel leathery hands run along his body as he affixed it around her neck, kneading the smile upon his face for traces of sincerity or deception, squeezing any drop of ulterior motive from his pores. No, this was his memory of her, the best, his alone.

With a silent cry, he lashed out at the besuited man. The back of his hand brushed his interrogator’s palm for a moment, feeling the same gentle, cold caress from his glove, and both the memory and the necklace shattered into atoms. The besuited man returned to his seat, clothes and demeanour equally unruffled, and gestured once more at the body.

He had tried to hold them back. He knew how they’d look. The besuited man would see them, and that would be the end of it. Of him. But regardless the memories came, unbidden, at least as far as he was aware, but relentless. The tears still burning his cheeks had cracked the dam, and the weight of a seven year relationship long-contained would not be denied. Spasms crushed his spine into a foetal crouch like an orange in the grip of an unruly child, his eyelids distending at the flood of holidays, nights-in, nights-out, time together, anniversaries, parties and blissful hours of nothing together. Every droplet was a mirror, a crystal, reflecting around the curvature of time – if, indeed, time even existed here – to show smiles over drinks and laughter on sofas. But to see one memory, even through bleary, teary eyes, brought a dozen more, and to see the happy times instinctively brought the unhappy ones to the surface.

He tried to screw his eyes as tightly shut as possible. He squeezed so hard he was sure that his eyelids became seamless, a watertight plaster to seal up the onrush. He could feel them, a final hellish year where the drinks had been many and the smiles few, and the sofa had grown not long enough for the both of them. They threatened to crush his eyes, or burst their lids, but he could not bare to have the besuited man witness them.

They were private, personal, and so very damning.

When he finally managed to reopen his eyes, the besuited man was as impassive as only the faceless can be. But he was watching, that much was obvious, and his blind gaze didn’t miss a single detail. Especially the after-image still lingering in the corner of his eye. A man, tall and insufferably handsome, and a woman, happier than she’d been in months, walking along the street, passing him without a single iota of awareness, turning the corner to leave him alone at his table with his coffee.

The necklace was in the besuited man’s hand once more. He let it dangle from a cold leather finger for a moment before he let it slip. When it hit the floor, it was not the pristine blankness of the white room it bounced upon, but the distinctly dirty, off-white of his sock drawer’s contents. A second gloved hand, attached to a second besuited man, brought it up to be inspected by a second smudged face. The cuff of his suit was tugged back, but there was no ruffling in the flat fabric, as if he was meant to see the watch upon the investigator’s wrist. The time spelled out in lines of bloody red made little sense in the white room, but he knew that this was after the corpse. After the finding. After they had noticed the necklace’s absence.

The table was gone, and the besuited man wasn’t sitting any more. Neither was he. They were face-to-face, or rather face-to-smudge, but the longer he stared the less it seemed to be something as clumsy as a smudge. It whorled and spun, a black hole at the centre of the white room. He could feel it tugging at the lines along his cheeks, threatening to prolapse the bags around his eyes, tear his entire face off to better study the interplay of muscles beneath as he inevitably denied the silent accusation that hung again from his leather fingertip. There would be nothing left untouched by the besuited man’s devouring mind; it was going to consume and understand until the truth was the only thing left lying on the ground like bones after the vultures.

He rallied, or tried to manage some semblance of the next best thing in the face of the unrelenting demand before him. If the besuited man wanted his face gone to better vivisect what hid beneath, he could have it. But it wasn’t muscle waiting for that singularity-intellect, just another face. The face of a man half glimpsed by eyes too busy staring at someone else from the window of a coffee shop. And an alien hand jamming the necklace between the rolled-up socks.

The besuited man did not accept that. He grabbed the arms of the chair, dragged himself closer. The vortex pulled harder, insistent that there was more beneath. And of course there was: bone and blood and the meat of the matter, but the face remained stretched over it all. Half-formed and half-remembered, lumpy like a clay pot halfway through fabrication. But the lumps grew red, welting and suppurating with uniform, heart-shaped wounds. If the memories had burned his own face, surely, surely, the besuited man had to believe that the last vestige of them would burn this new man’s too. Like sleeping in the mattress indentation of another person.

The besuited man remained unmoving and unmoved. His Charybdian facial feature heaved, a fragment of some previously-consumed, still-digesting fact surfacing for a moment amidst the bottomless tides. Another man’s face, that man’s face, fully formed and perfectly reflecting his own. Reflecting it right down to the same defence.

It was not enough. The besuited man still hungered, yawning wider, shaking him down to his core with an echoing bellow for more. So that’s what he gave his interrogator. He returned to that sunlit churchyard and stripped himself down to his muscles, pulling aside the gory slabs to show the besuited man just how hard his heart had beat for her. How every fibre from his fingers to his toes had quivered as he put his hands around her neck. The razor-sharp memory of his mouth moving, forming those three little letters everyone wants to hear.

He forced those memories down the besuited man’s throat. The bastard could choke on them. And with them, trailing like indigestion and heartburn, came all the thwarted hopes and dreams he’d had for them. White dresses and two-point-five kids and a house with a garage. All the things they might have been, had they not fallen apart, had she not-

And there he stopped, snatched himself back, gripped his seat and sealed everything in once again. He wanted to remember only the good times. He wanted the besuited man to remember him remembering only the good times.

Whether satiated, or simply aware he would consume no more that evening, the besuited man’s vortex grew shallow, slowed its swirling, until it was once more a consistently flat smudge across his face. He adjusted his suit and there was a chair waiting for him as he sat back down. There was a feeling of finality to his posture, chin held pensively in the crook of his hand, side turned towards his subject as if he had already been dispensed with – codified and classified within whatever twisted library of stolen thoughts lurked behind the facade of that smudge.

The white room grew whiter, blurring and then dissolving the chair and his own then-body. The only thing that remained was the besuited man, his own body twisting beneath the all-encroaching light until, like his face, it was only a monolithic smear in an otherwise empty void. It would remain there, he knew. Thinking, waiting and watching.

by

My Own Worst Enemy

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Categories: Short Stories

Okay, just like we practised. Start by raising your arms. Slower, slower, they’re already on edge. Good. Now, explain to them that there is no treasure here, I’d rather not part with the books, and whatever rumours they’ve heard about us are gross misunderstandings. Yes, I know you don’t have lungs, that’s just… part of the deal. Try it anyway.

No, those aren’t the right words. That’s the incantation for Rutherman’s runic disintegra-

Fantastic. Now they’re drawing their swords. I wonder why? Okay, we can still salvage this, just back away, put something between you and those warriors, and try again. “I understand why you’re here, but if you would indulge me but a moment, I’m sure we can solve this matter like reasoned men.” Go on. Remember? I’ve only been repeating it to you these past three years.

I’m starting to think you’re deliberately ignoring me. What are we supposed to do with another jawbone. Add it to the corpse pile, I suppose. That’ll certainly brighten up the ambience down here. I’ll just leave this to your clearly superior judgement then, shall I? You do have a wonderful capacity for combining advanced destructive magicks with simple butchery.

Oh, that it should come to this. We used to be Chief Librarian at the Royal Archives, do you remember? Short hours, fine food, a comfortable bed – nerve endings to fully appreciate all those things… I’m sure we would have been tolerated. One or two colleagues would have considered us worthy novelties, and the others would probably have kept us around just on the off-chance we’d share the secret. Might even have helped find a way to retard this nasty decomposition business. But no, of course not, you had to go and savage the Crown Prince. I mean, anyone else and they might have covered for us – remember Chief Librarian Godrick and all the things he got up to? Of course not, why would you? – but even I had to wince when you jammed a hand in the lad’s mouth and started pulling.

You seem to have a thing for jawbones, don’t you? Or is it just the easiest place to get a good grip. I should write a thesis on it. By which I mean you should write the thesis, and I should put in all the brain work. That is, if you ever deign to pay attention.

I’m actually starting to wonder whether there’s as strong a connection between the two of us as I previously thought. In the beginning we seemed of the same mind: fleeing the capital and its torch-wielding mobs, hiding out in this relatively-watertight hypogeum, even bringing along choice pieces from the Archive. But maybe that was simple survival instinct operating separately on the pair of us, and some vestigial remnant of our personality impelled you to bring the books. I mean, there’s certainly some sort of connection – I can ‘see’ what you ‘see’, even if, such as now, I’d rather not bear witness to you tearing open a man’s chest cavity. Do you even remember the delicacy those hands – our hands – use to treat the Archive’s tomes?

Can you even hear me?

Immortality, he said. Invulnerability, he said. Just place your soul inside this gilded vial and you’ll never age, never die, never be killed. In hindsight, I should probably have asked him why he kept bringing up the fact that we’d never be killed no matter how hard men tried. But when you’re dealing with a dark god of forbidden knowledge, it’s the little details that slip even the greatest of minds.

Phylactery? Should have read a lexicon or two before agreeing. Sounds like an overblown word for ‘prison’. For me, at least. You look like you’re having a rare Gods-damned time, limbs and giblets flying everywhere, arcana bouncing off your sternum. And just when did you learn how to tear an arm off at the shoulder anyway?

Practice makes perfect I suppose.

How about we meet halfway? Keep one of them alive. We can ask him what’s going on in the surface world: how many people know about us, whether our replacement at the Archive is insistent on retrieving his books, practical issues like that. Maybe, and hear me out on this, we could even keep him alive. Send him back to the capital with a polite – but firm – request to be left alone. After all, it’s not like we’re cooking up necromantic plagues or demanding virgin sacrifices like some less-than-illustrious revenants have tried to do in the past. If we can just clear things up with the King over that whole savaging debacle, maybe work out a loan system with the archive… get the Guilds to issue an edict explaining that there’s really nothing of value down here, then they’ll leave us alone, right?

Right?

Hello?

Hello?

Are you even listening to me?

by

Cold Caller

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Categories: Short Stories

The man was distraught. He was holding the phone too close to his mouth, making it crackle with every sob. His words were mumbled, or pitched at a keening level that hurt even over the crackling. Sometimes, somehow, both.

It was making it hard to get an address off him.

“Thuh-thuh,” sob, crackle. “There’s b-been a,” sob, crackle. “Thuh,” sob, crackle. Rise, repeat.

Thea sandwiched the phone against her ear with a shoulder so she could check her watch. Three seventeen. AM. Jesus Christ in heaven, still the better part of three hours to go. As she looked up from her watch, she stole a glance out across the office and the four dozen other call-staff, holding phones with one hand and tearing across keyboards with the other. How many times had they asked for hands-free headsets? Seven? Eight? Enough that if they heard the phrase ‘budget cuts’ or ‘streamlining our expenditures’ again there’d be a multiple homicide right there in Strathclyde Police Headquarters.

“Sir, please, take a deep breath. Where-”

“There’s been a murder.” The word clearly had weight for him. Probably the first time he’d ever had to say it properly. This was the second time Thea had heard it during that shift.

“Mm-hm, and where are you? Are you still at the scene of the crime.” With her free hand, Thea was already typing out an alert to dispatch.

“Lancefield Quay, aye. Just on the waterfront.”

“Mm-hm, and are you alone?”

“N-no. My wife is with me.” From somewhere on the other end of the connection, someone else began to cry.

“Mm-hm, that’s good. The police will be with you shortly.”

“Thank y-.” Thea had already tapped on the blinking light that told her there was another call waiting.

“Strathclyde police, what seems to be your emergency?” A well rehearsed, well worn opener. Straight to the question, no need for preamble. If there really was an emergency, the caller didn’t have time for any. If there wasn’t, Thea didn’t have the interest for any.

“Hello? Yes, I need to report a stolen car. I was just walking home from the bar and I heard this big commotion across the street, then-”

“License number?” Thea opened a new tab on the computer and scrolled through the little drop-down menu for an automotive theft alert.

“Um, I can’t rightly remember. It might have been YG-”

“Make, model and colour?”

“Blue. A blue, uh, Ford? Or a Skoda? It was dark, and I’m not good with cars at the best of times.” Thea’s free hand began to drum out a rhythm on the side of the keyboard. Something she’d heard on the way into work on Radio Clyde. Kesha, or Rhianna, or someone-or-otha. The theft alert remained empty, its little boxes devoid of any usable information.

“Street?”

“That I heard the commotion on?”

“Uh-huh.”

“One of the ones just off Kilmarnock Road. Waldon Street? Walton?”

“And was the vehicle in question yours?”

“No, I saw these two hooded youths breaking one of the parked cars’ windows and getting in-”

“Mm-hm. Thank you for the report sir, we’ll be sure to investigate.”

Thea dropped the phone back in its cradle and closed down the alert tab without hitting send. Three twenty. That was a good enough round number to take her break for the shift. Union kicked and stamped and waved their placards for her to keep it, so she might as well actually use it.

The phone began bleeping and flashing as she was rummaging around in her coat pocket for the packet of cigarettes and lighter she knew was in there somewhere. Her fingers closed around stiff, dog-eared paper and she could feel the crinkling of that metallic-y foil-y stuff inside. One of the others would take the call. For the next ten minutes, she was on her break.

#

The air was cold on her face, and the smoke warm in her lungs. She had her chin jammed into the V of her coat, her breath streaming up around her cheeks in feathery boas of steam. One and a half hands were slotted firmly in her pockets, only an index and middle finger still hanging out to keep a hold of that precious cigarette.

She braved the wintery nip to uncurl from her protective cocoon momentarily and take a quick drag. Not for the first time since winter had started in earnest, oh, back about the end of July it was beginning to feel like, she muttered a complaint about the smoking ban. Most people, most smokers, seemed to have gotten used to the new status quo, but not Thea. She remembered when the staff room was for the smokers, not the faggots in their cycling shorts taking about spending the Christmas break doing the West Highland Way.

Fucking politicians. Fucking law. Fucking everyone with their fucked-up priorities. That was the problem with society nowadays. No one gave a damn.

Thea dropped her cigarette onto the pavement and stubbed it out with her heel. If she’d gotten her times right, she still had five minutes to get a coffee from the vendies. If she’d gotten her times wrong, she’d still take five minutes to get one.

by

Time Runeth On

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Categories: Amorphous Blob of Blogging

Yeah, I got there eventually. My pun fabricators just needed a while to warm up…

So, first up, the excellent anthology Marching Time (to which I am a pleased-as-punch contributor) is now available in paperback form for all your shelf-filling, spider-whacking and, maybe even, eye-reading purposes. People still read physical books with their eyes, right? It’s not all translated to Braille while I was playing with my Kindle?

Anyway, you can get this fabulous book in all its analogue glory from Amazon here. You can also go over and read the thoughts of some of the contributing authors (including myself) on the publisher Bolthole’s blog page here. Trust me to be the only one without a respectable picture to offer, but I guess they needed to put the product somewhere! I shall have to remedy that…

by

Grip

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Categories: Short Stories

I woke up on the floor of a strange bedroom, clutching a single bullet in my right hand. I couldn’t see any sign of a gun. The gun. My gun? It was… No. I needed it. The bullet wasn’t enough: it was dull and weak. I needed the gun. Strong, powerful. My fingers tensed and twitched, hungry to curl tight around the-

-grip gives Terrence a measure of comfort. The memory gel handle is slick with the sweat from his palms, and the entire weapon is shaking like a maraca in his hand, but that doesn’t matter. He cracks the cylinder open. Maria’s words seep through his memories to sooth his panicked mind.

“If my man’s gonna be a cop, I want him to have the best goddamn protection out there.”

Yes, Maria has faith in the gun. She has faith in him. He’ll be fine, he tells himself, but there’s still a shudder in his wrist as he flicks the cylinder shut again. Howard lets out a snort from the seat across. His eyes stay fixed on the road, but they simmer with disapproval.

“You keep checking your gun with a grip like that, rookie, and you’ll be spilling bullets over your lap. It’s just a domestic disturbance. Calm the hell down.”

Terrence doesn’t reply. He doesn’t mention that Howard has ten years’ experience on him. He doesn’t mention that this is the twenty-third reported disturbance that evening. He sits there, blood-red blushes spreading across embarrassed cheeks. The tension in his stomach twists, bile and acid churning away in some deep, visceral cavern of his body. His gut tells him something is wrong. His gut-

-burned. A fire had been set inside my stomach. Slick, wet, oily fire. Searing hot and festering slick at the same time. I needed the gun.

Getting to my feet was slow. Muscles had been replaced with limp, unwieldy sandbags. Joints refused to bend properly. Skin clung tight and too desperately. I didn’t pant with effort, or grunt from the exertion. I couldn’t. All that slipped from my throat was a low, gurgling groan as I struggled to stand. The effort wracked my tired lungs, but my throat… There wasn’t ache or even numbness. There was nothingness.

I put a hand up to my throat. It wasn’t there. Something registered somewhere in me that it wasn’t supposed to be like that. The bullet clattered against the ground as my fingers turned to probing the gaping second-maw that had replaced my neck. My skin stayed tight and my body dull and heavy, nothing more than a blunt curiosity directing my digits as they scraped over drying gobbets of flesh and rough, exposed bone. It was the same blunt curiosity that made my husked eyes follow the bullet’s rolling path across the floor. It only fell still when it nudged against the body of a man lying in the doorway, his dark police uniform-

-is drenched with blood. Her teeth have not yet left his neck and his chest is soaked. He screams, and it isn’t from the pain. Adrenaline shuts that in an iron box. But the fear is free to run wild. Arms push with desperate strength as her teeth close down, forcing her away with a mouthful of him, and Terrence collapses to the floor.

The woman, once frail and elderly, now looms over him. Her skin is mausoleum white, her eyes rabid and her mouth gnashing in hunger. She steps forward, but two bullet holes blossom in her chest like flowers of gunpowder and viscera. Howard swears as she keeps coming, but for him now.

Terrence knows he needs to help, but it’s not just his hand shaking now as he cracks the cylinder open. His body bucks and flinches, the bullets in his other hand jangling with an out-of-place merriment as they spill from his grip, until only one remains. It isn’t shock. Shock wouldn’t fill his mind with a screaming white noise and batter his chest with sledgehammer sobs. He’s terrified. His mind recoils as darkness crawls around the edges of his vision, the sound of Howard’s cries for help growing further and further away, until the wet noise of gnawing is just-

-a distant murmur. No, not distant. Close. The next room.

My feet had to be dragged over the decaying mound of flesh and my hands fumbled against the door. I tried to call out for help as the blood-varnished wood swung open to reveal a haphazardly dressed figure, but all that escaped was another moan. The man turned, staggered back a step, then drew a gun. The gun. My gun. Strong and powerful, with a memory gel grip.

The slick fire in my gut found something flammable, and erupted through every dead nerve in my body. My gun. He had my gun. What I needed, and what he had. Not for long. My body was dull and heavy, but I barrelled forwards, stiff fingers clutching at the hem of his jacket as a bullet buried itself in my shoulder. Beneath the roar of hunger, I couldn’t feel the distant curiosity that had replaced pain.

Couldn’t punch. Couldn’t kick. I only had my mouth, and I used it. His flesh was rugged, like the skin on a potato, but the belly-fire twisted my neck and tugged my jaw for me. Rip, tear. Where once there had been dry tightness there was moisture and warmth. I breathed a wet sigh. Muscles flexed and the fire burned hotter as he reached my gut. It was strong, powerful. It made me strong, powerful.

The man slumped to the ground, twitching as he touched the wound in his neck. A gun lay across his chest. I batted it aside as I gripped him by the leg and chest and began to eat.

by

Under the Jester’s Moon

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Categories: Short Stories

You want to know why I tried to murder Sebastian Cleeve? Run the charlatan through with a dagger? I would be lying if I said your directness surprised me: we tricksters are known for being, well… You know for what we are known. That’s the first trick. You think your defences are up because you think I am lying to you. You think tying my hands behind me will somehow protect you because you think it makes me powerless. An awful lot of thinking going on, no? More than enough to distract you, lull you, as the real trick passes under your nose.

But you must ask, as is your calling, and I must deceive, as is mine.

Yesternight was the final evening of the Jester’s Moon. This you know. The Jester’s Moon is a week long festival of masquerades, legerdemain and other acts of trickery in honour of the Gibbous Lady. This too you know. I am Adrianna While, high priestess of the Lady of Lies, who offers her my deceptions so others may live truthfully. Also this you know.

That is how tricks are born: from what you know.

At sunset on the final evening of the Jester’s Moon, my brethren and I again went amongst the citizenry of the Capitol to perform our rituals to the Lady, entertain the populace and gather sufficient coin to keep us for another year.

And yet, I did not go out into that night happily, for all week I had been deeply vexed. By Sebastian Cleeve. He strutted like some imperial peacock amongst the masked crowd, robes aflutter and hair slicked, delighting them with his own sleights of hand. Or rather, what they thought were sleights of hand. What you, keen watchers of the city, have been so ironically blind to, is that Sebastian Cleeve is a magician. A fraud.

You scoff. Aside from the heinous crime of practicing true magics unlicensed by the Library, what possible offence could a trickster take in someone tricking others into thinking he is a trickster?

I fear you are failing to see the whole picture, sir. In so many ways.

It was not his youth, or his arrogance, or his thieving of appreciative money that was my temple’s due that incensed me. It was the blasphemy. We – my brethren and I – believe deception to be an alchemy. For every lie, a cost must be paid. From a simple twist of the wrist to hide a coin from the crowd, to a sacrifice made to counterfeit some claim’s appearance of veracity, the Lady demands some offering to veil the truth.

Thus every time Sebastian Cleeve disappeared a coin, conjured fire from his fingertips, summoned crows from the eaves of the Capitol, my innards burned. I knew these were not exactingly practiced rituals where an offering was made to fool the watchers. This was magic, born of loopholes in cosmic law, earned through nothing more than reading and memorisation. Sebastian Cleeve was a scribe in a hierophant’s robes.

All this I discovered last Jester’s Moon. Sebastian Cleve had been developing a reputation and I took it upon myself to observe his performance, to judge whether he was worthy of joining us. Alas, from the very moment his mockery began, I knew foul play was afoot. There were no offerings; his tricks were absolute, too perfect to be anything but the product of magic. In my fury I confronted him afterwards in a hushed iron whisper. He smiled, the expression challenging me to prove it, safe in the knowledge I could not. He even dared to ask if I felt threatened by his prowess.

And so this year, I resolved to outdo him. For months beforehand, I fasted, meditated, practiced new and ambitious tricks that confounded my wiliest acolytes. Then, when the Jester’s Moon appeared, I strode out into the Capitol to hunt this heretic down like a regal hound bringing a mangy fox to heel.

Every night, wherever he blasphemed, I was there to challenge him. Trick for trick, we clashed over roiling seas of awed onlookers. And every evening, he was the one to walk away with an urn overflowing with gold. Their ignorance was his greatest illusion.

Despite my failures, it was my duty as high priestess to officiate the closing ceremony in Pantheon Square. All the great and good of the Capitol were there: the guilds, the mercantile houses, the Library and even the Emperor sequestered at the farthest corner.

Sebastian Cleeve had the audacity to perform on the podium right next to us. Worse, he sought to upstage me even then. I would vanish acolytes, he members of the public. I would conjure masonry, he livestock. I made fire dance, he made rocks sing. I am a religious woman, and all week I had longed to punish this profaner to my Goddess. It became clear that these tricks were insufficient.

The dagger has been concealed in my sleeve all week. A flick of the wrist and it is in my hand. I leapt for him, lashing out at his throat.

But Sebastian Cleeve had not learned magic solely for the purposes of trickery. He had some modest capacity to defend himself. A sweeping gesture and an arcane flash were all he needed to deflect me. I was thrown to the cobblestones and into your swift, just hands to be charged with attempted murder.

But Sebastian Cleeve, oh, as you dragged me off, I watched him on his podium. His smirk of victory, of superiority, slowly faltering as a terrible realisation dawned. I followed his eyes across the crowd, to the red-robed High Librarians striding towards him.

I am here to pay the alchemical price for the greatest trick I have ever performed. It does not matter if you still intend to charge me for attempted murder. As I said, I have been working another deception. A simple piece of escape artistry. Tell me, did your comrades ever recover my dagger?

by

An Other Thing

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Categories: Short Stories

I arrived at work late, again. This time I had an excuse, but Luigi wouldn’t listen. Apparently, bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Old Brooklyn Bridge courtesy of a kraken taking a shine to it as a mate didn’t cut it. I was one of the many people who would have preferred it if the Revolation hadn’t happened. Luigi was one of the few who just pretended it hadn’t.

“Why drive a moped unless you’re trying to dodge traffic?” He gave that broad, Once Yorker shrug that was half ‘I don’t give a damn’ and half a challenge to make him. I didn’t rise to it and try to explain that it wasn’t the traffic I’d had difficulty dodging. I just punched in, threw on my apron, and served up table twelve their calzones.

They watched me set down their grease-shiny dough pockets of week-old ingredients with hard stares. It wasn’t the meal that was rousing their suspicion, but me. I knew because I was giving them the very same look; the look that’s trying to spot any of the tell-tale signs, like pronounced canines, funny eyes or pointed ears. Luigi had a very strict policy spelled out in block, bold capitals on a sign over the counter, the one concession he made to reality.

NO OTHERS.

Perhaps, I wondered (and not for the first time) as I slinked behind the counter to nab a pebbly meatball, that was why Luigi’s was more popular than it had a right to be. Luigi, whose real name was Hank, had changed it because Hank’s didn’t sound nearly as inviting as Luigi’s. But even if he’d called it Free Chocolate, Massages and Happy Endings, it would still have been the least inviting pizzeria in Little Italy. Because Hank ‘Luigi’ Morrison was the least inviting human being in Little Italy, if not all of Once York.

But for all that he was a surly, overweight asshole with only a tenuous claim to Italian heritage, he had the ‘NO OTHERS’ sign. And it was amazing what some human beings were prepared to tolerate if it meant they could enjoy a calzone free of vamps, weres, elves or whatever else had decided Once York was the place to be.

There was a clattering from the steam-hazed portal to the kitchen as Luigi emerged, sweaty from eyebrows to navel, his jowls wobbling like jello set into the shape of a frown. He levelled a rolling pin at me with all stern threat of an other-hunter. “You sneaking food, Barb?”

I had forced down the fossilised meatball and snatched my hand away from where it had been reaching for another the moment his bulk had begun to emerge from the smoke. “No, boss,” I snapped back with reflex precision.

“Good. We’ve got a delivery order.”

I checked my watch. Even though I’d started late, it was still early in the afternoon. Skeleton shift. No one wants pizza before six in the evening. No one. But it meant there was equally no one else on with me. No one else to take the delivery.

“Where?” I didn’t even bother trying to keep the exasperation out of my tone. Luigi was the sort who probably considered this delivery as much of an unwanted inconvenience as I did.

“Corner of Seventy-First and Eldritch.”

I’d been reaching for my helmet. “Upper East Side?” One of the guys at table twelve nearly choked on his calzone as I slammed the helmet down against the counter. “Are you freaking crazy, Hank? That’s an other neighbourhood. You don’t serve others.”

“Checked with DoHuR on the computer,” Luigi jerked his head back towards the kitchen, overlooking my true-naming him. Proof, at least, that he wasn’t a fairy: calling him ‘Hank’ hadn’t made him explode. “Apartment’s owned by a bona fide, registered human.”

“Yeah, and others are still crawling around it for blocks. Come on, I work here to keep away from that mess.”

Luigi’s face almost softened. For all that he was an insufferable, disagreeable asshole, he had the good grace to know he was. Know and not care one damn bit, but he was only human. “Look, the guy’s ordering pretty much from halfway across town and we can both guess why. That means he might become a repeat customer, and God knows I could do with one. You do this, I’ll forget the three hours of overtime you owe me.”

Before I could respond, Luigi turned and engulfed himself once more in the kitchen’s marinara-scented miasma. An attempt to argue with him, or at least haggle on the terms, was still forming on my lips when he re-emerged, pizza box in hand. The green-inked stencil of him on the box glowered up at me, the flamboyant ‘enjoy your food’ feeling more like a threat coming from Luigi’s facsimile. I swallowed my counter-offer; Luigi was negotiating, that was too rare a thing on its own to risk ruining.

Warm, molten cheese wafted up as I cracked the lid an inch. “Plain cheese? I thought the Upper East was big spenders.” I lifted one of the delivery bags from beneath the counter and wedged the box inside with a shrug. “Got the details of Mr. Cheap.”

Luigi handed me a note daubed with runny ink and it took me a long moment of squinting to decipher it. One Timothy Vickers, of Eldritch Avenue. The name rang a bell, dredging up a half-thought scrap of a half-recalled memory. But then, I’d been exposed to more names than a phonebook compiler. My parents had been people people. Well, human-people people. Marches, demonstrations and acts of petty arson had a way of bringing folks together.

“Thirty minutes or it’s free, Barb,” Luigi chimed, tapping his watch.

Hefting the delivery bag over one shoulder, I shot him one of my foulest looks. “If I get bitten by something, you’re the first schmuck I’m coming for.”

by

The Instant Messenger

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Categories: Short Stories

[Welcome User Count_Vladof_the_Impailer]

[17:34] 2Zuul4Skuul: Lol, f****** n00b

[17:34] Wiseman: learn to rp, dipshit.

[17:35] Evolved_Missionary: You sound new to this chatroom. It’s kinda an unofficial rule that RP’s kept in private rooms. The main chat’s more for, well, uh, chat.

[17:35] The_Magpie_Childe: No man shall stand before his might, and women shall fall barren at his feet and bless him for letting no newborn witness the horror he shall wreak upon this world.

[17:36] 2ndClassPsycho: Yeah, totally Maggers. Ia Cthulhu fgtaghan and all that crap…

[17:37] Evolved_Missionary whispers you: Dude, where have you been?

[17:37] Evolved_Missionary whispers you: We need some serious Moderation here.

[17:37] Blackdust: Spare us the incantation BS. Some of us are trying to have a normal conversation.

[17:37] You whisper Evolved_Missionary: What the hell is going on?

[17:37] Blackdust: Why don’t you just crawl back into your basement and play D&D?

[17:37] Wiseman: @Blackdust why you hatin on the D, man?

[17:38] Blackdust: You can f*** off too, nerd.

[17:38] Wiseman: Well fuck you to.

[17:38] Count_Vladof_the_Impailer: People, keep it civil. Else I’m going to have to break out the banhammer.

[17:38] Evolved_Missionary whispers you: This Magpie guy logged on about a half hour ago, started posting these paras about some lord or prince of carrion or something fantasy like that. First we thought it was a new mod hazing us – bold nametag, you know? – but now I’m not so sure. Troll?

[17:38] 2Zuul4Skuul: uh oh guys, watch out vladdy’s got his srs bsns face on

[17:38] You whisper Evolved_Missionary: I’ll have a word with him.

[17:38] You whisper The_Magpie_Childe: Hey, man, welcome to the chatroom and all, but as a Mod I really got to tell you that we don’t like folks riling people up here. Just cool off, chat with the others, and if you want to get all Lovecrafty or whatever then do it in a private room. M’kay?

[17:39] Evolved_Missionary: Come on, guys, let’s not feed the trolls. So, Psy, played the new Dead Space yet? Hear it gets major trippy at the end.

[17:40] 2ndClassPsycho: Nah, man. I’m on that EA embargo, remember?

[17:40] The_Magpie_Childe: The sun will run cold with fear. Mankind will burn the old and the sick to keep warm and stave off the horrors that lurk in the darkness. Oceans will vomit their bloated swarms from the depths, and the land will be as one great rotting carcass.

[17:40] Blackdust: You goddamn biofags, still pissed off at the ending? Whiney entitled gamers.

[17:40] Wiseman: seriously, Blackdust, what is your major malfunction?

[17:40] Evolved_Missionary whispers you: Doesn’t sound like he listened.

[17:41] Wiseman: you can shut up too, Magpie.

[17:41] 2Zuul4Skuul: I’m 12 years old and what is this

[17:42] CHANNEL ANNOUNCEMENT: Count_Vladof_the_Impailer banned The_Magpie_Childe. Reason: not adhering to rules.

[17:42] 2ndClassPsycho: *applauds Vladdy*

[17:42] 2Zuul4Skuul: f*** yeah c-c-c-combo breaker!!!1!

[17:43] Evolved_Missionary: @2ndClassPsycho But dude, I hear there’s like a zombie planet.

[17:44] 2ndClassPsycho: Nah, man, screw EA. Gearbox too, now they’ve ruined Aliens.

[17:44] 2Zuul4Skuul: lol, inb4 James Cameron already did that.

[17:44] The_Magpie_Childe: Day will become a distant memory. The word ‘joy’ will shrivel in man’s primitive gestalt and die as a hundred hundred centuries of despair is visited upon their meagre rock, mewling alone in the void like an orphaned pup.

[17:44] Wiseman: hax. f****** hax, man.

[17:45] Blackdust: You have got to be joking.

[17:45] 2Zuul4Skuul: wat

[17:46] Evolved_Missionary whispers you: Is that even possible?!

[17:46} Blackdust: Seriously, Magpie, go f*** yourself. Go f*** yourself in a hole and die.

[17:46] You whisper Evolved Missionary: Not that I know of.

[17:47] Blackdust: Fuck this noise.

Blackdust has logged off.

[17;47] Wiseman: vladdy, I thought you banned this weirdo.

[17:47] Count_Vladof_the_Impailer: That makes two of us….

(17:48] 2Zuul4Skuul: can mods even ban mods

[17:48] Count_Vladof_the_Impailer: He,s not a mod.

[17:48] The_Magpie_Childe: He will come. He will bleed into your world and spread through your leaden minds like a pox. Madness will be a rare mercy as you tear your own skulls apart to claw his presence from your thoughts. He will see you, he will know you. He will laugh and it will be the death knell for life as you know it.

[17:49] 2Zuul4Skuul: way 2 weird for me. cya

2Zuul4Skuul has run off. But he cannot hide from Him.

[I7:49] 2ndClassPsycho: Please tell me I’m not the only one seeing that.

[17:50] Deadman: nope.

[17:50] Evo1ved_Missionary: I wish.

[17:50] Wiseman: vladdy, want to do something about this?

[17:51] Dominic_Harper_Age_Thirty_One_Who_Still_Lives_With_His_Family_And_ Will_Die_A_Meaningless_Death_When_He_Arrives: I don’t know what to do.

[17:51] 2ndClassPsycho: I dunno… Moderate?!

[17:51] Wiseman: Yeah, I’m with Zuul. This is getting too freaky.

You will not flee. You will listen to my messenger.

[17:51] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[17:51] 2dayslefttolive: Vladdy, get a f****** admin in here then.

[17:52] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[17:52] Wiseman: Yeah, definitely an admin. Logout button seems to have crashed.

[17:52] Evolved_Missionary: Crazy virus. Gotta be a crazy virus. Vladdy, just get someone to restart the chat.

[17:51] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[17:50] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[17:49] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[17:48] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[17:38] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[16:38] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[15:38] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[05:38] The_Magpie_Childe: He is coming.

[he:is] Coming: The_Magpie_Childe

[This system contains a fatal error and has been shut down. Please send this error report to the system operator]

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