Continuing the story, Aphelia has a conversation with a familiar (and rather odd) barman before taking to the air on her resupply mission. Sorry if it needs a little more work – you’re really my beloved guinea pigs for these drafts.
Be sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t:
And if you want to let me know what you liked, or didn’t, then throw in a comment.
Aphelia lay on her side in her dormitory bed, unable to sleep. Across from her, Merrietta lay on her own bed, limbs draped over it’s edges as she snored. Between them was the bottle of rum, half empty and resting on the bedside cabinet they shared. She hadn’t drunk a lot, just enough to warm her against the oncoming chill of night and put her into a light doze.
Yet the knowledge that the mission bell would ring had kept her awake, the anticipation of its chimes making it near impossible for her brain to shut down. Instead she stared at the label on the rum. It was probably one of the very last bottles left in the whole world, and the thought stirred a shadow of a memory. It flitted through her mind. There had been a bar….. somewhere. It was indistinct. There was a stranger who had served her rum and beer, but didn’t want the money she had tried to pay with.
“It’s not shiny enough,” the bartender had said.
Perhaps it had just been some sort of dream. Aphelia drifted through soft, floating memories of another place…..
She was riding in a car through the afternoon sunshine, all rolling hills and woodland. The coming of Spring was in still in the air even as the Moon swung into view; low in the sky, round and pregnant. Theran was driving, but he looked younger and as strange as he looked, the landscape itself was baffling her because there were no signs of war, no craters or skeletal trees, no blasted scars marring a tortured landscape. It was a world untouched by the hordes of creatures that had swept in relentless waves over the face of the civilised world.
It almost lifted her heart, but where she should have been happy, instead she was resentful about something. Yes, she was annoyed because there were going to some old factory and a party where she was supposed to wear a mask. She wanted to go somewhere else, but Theran had insisted and passed her a likeness of a bird. The memory shifted and she caught an image of herself in a mirror: the head of an owl, big eyes in an oval face. She blinked and looked around. She was standing at a bar lit by strings of little lights hung from the walls, incense coiling in the air and a muffled thud of music from somewhere nearby…..
Someone said a name. “Ellie?”
She blinked. The barman had his head cocked on one side, giving her a strange look. Despite the empty, black eyes and the bleached bone of his skull, she was sure that she knew him. “You?”
“Me?” replied the bartender quizzically. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Who are you?”
The stranger cocked his head. “I seem to remember having this conversation before. You can call me Crow, but I think you already knew that, hmmm?”
Waves of memories suddenly crashed against each other in her mind, a tidal collision that tossed her soul on the crest of the wave. Ellie shuddered and put out a hand to steady herself on the bar. This place was so familiar, how was it that she felt that she had been lost in some other world, lost in some sort of nightmare about a war?
“I was dreaming…..”
“A dream? Indeed,” replied Crow. “Want to tell me about it?”
The initial swell of conflicted memories subsided, like a wave pulling away from the beach to reveal freshly washed stones. Each one was a little piece of a life Ellie knew, but mixed into were other memories that she could simply reach out to and pick up.
Each one was a recollection from those eddying currents of that strange dream world….
“Go on,” Crow insisted. “Tell me what you remember of the other place.”
“It’s not real. Just a dream.”
“I thought it was a war. You’re aircraft was downed, but you survived.”
“Yes…..” Ellie wasn’t sure. She shook her head as if to clear the confusion.
“But this is where I belong,” she retorted. “I know this place.”
“Humour me. Tell me of this other world that you dreamed about. All you need do is reach out to them.”
She knew she shouldn’t, and as much as Crow was insistent, it was her curiosity that won over: her name Aphelia and she had been a teenager when it had all started. The first signs had been worrying news broadcasts that talked about a possible toxic spillage, but it was quickly apparent that there was something else going on. The government had a project that was digging a super deep mine to extract the crystals that lived at great depth in the mantel of the planet, drilling deeper and deeper until something bubbled up out of the ground and attacked the machinery and their operators.
The old footage had become required viewing by the time she joined the military effort, a scene filled with the same scrabbling madness, the flailing limbs and manic faces as the creatures who had engulf the biplane. They surged forth, perhaps from a hollow world as some had it, or perhaps they were aliens or the product of a dozen different, bizarre theories. The scientists had analysed what they could, and determined that the things were biological, but like nothing they’d seen before. Given their number and swarming behaviour, they had been dubbed The Tide and they were numerous beyond imagining.
The bizarre goblin gaggle of limbs and laughter had been joined by great lumbering beasts like golems of living rock that had been like living bulldozers, and a myriad of other bizarre things that digested concrete and steel, things that killed themselves throwing their bodies into the engines of jet planes while the tales of deep sea terrors like the Kraken had come to life as great tentacled beasts dragged shipping to the ocean floor.
And flying above the ever entrenching Front had come the Tidecallers, the only creatures that might have been thought to have some sort of human equivalence to intelligence. They were humanoids, shrouded in armoured plates of dark bone or bark who flew astride great feathered, fire breathing carrion mounts. Despite their best efforts, the military had never caught one of these creatures, nor had they ever attempted to communicate with humanity.
The war raged on, and after the shock of the initial assault waned, humanity had retaliated by bombing huge swathes of the tidlings, striking against the greater beasts with their heaviest weapons and searching for ever more ingenious ways to attack the creatures. Yet there had been no end to them and eventually the system became so strained by internecine warfare that it had recycled every last piece of civilisation in order to survive, turned every citizen to a soldier.
Aphelia had been a trainee pilot when the war started, and that had earned her a place in the auxiliary pilots corps, eventually bringing her into the primary force as crews dwindled. A few short years later she had arrived at Bastion which had now held for three years, its foundations apparent proof against attack from below, and time and again had survived the enemy where it had broken through the Front. Yet the Tide never relented, and the Front was a forever shrinking cordon.
“How long will they hold?” Ellie asked Crow.
Crow shrugged. “Days? Weeks?”
She wanted it to not be true, but she had been part of the fight long enough to know that it was hopeless. The Tide couldn’t be stopped, no matter how many you killed; they just kept coming. They were monsters, devils that had escaped the bowels of Hell itself.
“I prefer the term anti-bodies,” said Crow conversationally as he wiped the bar, then placed a glass and a bottle of rum beside it. “Drink?”
She nodded, silent as she tried to process all the material passing through her mind. “B-but what about this life?”
“This life?” Crow mused as he poured. “And what is this life you talk of? The life of a British urbanite? Did you really live in some small, dirty estate on the edge of the big city? A place riven with division against ephemeral enemies that you are either unaware of or cannot comprehend? A world where you can access information at the press of a button, yet still ignorance persists? It is a world of blurred lines and uncertainty, a world that surely must be some fevered dream compared to the war, where there is no need to sift through the endless flow of information buzzing between fuzzy lines: you fight the Tide, you fight for life. How could that not be real?”
Ellie stared at him, and Crow smiled. Was he right? The memories stood in stark contrast, and she was drawn more easily to those of fighting; they were so much simpler to comprehend, the people so bold and courageous in their struggle. They gave their heart and soul to arrest the onslaught. What was real was the war, the coming mission, the comrades struggling against the Tide.
And so Aphelia grabbed the glass of rum and threw it back.
Crow cleared his throat. “I haven’t been completely honest,” he said. “You see, this isn’t a case of one thing being real, the other not. It is foolishness to simply dismiss one as a dream, the other as real. What exists are mere tangents of your soul.”
“Tangent of my soul?” Aphelia frowned. “What does that even mean?”
Crow sighed and picked up the bottle of rum. “Let us assume that can accept that there are other realities?” Aphelia nodded. “Then why would it be so hard to think that your being, the essence of your soul if you will, exists in tandem with them?”
Aphelia shook her head. “That’s doesn’t make sense. If a person has a soul, then surely they have one only.”
“I never said you didn’t,” said Crow as he poured himself a drink, “But think of it like this. If you stand in a river, are you not both above and below the water.”
“Yes….. I suppose I see what you are saying, but why? Why would you show me this other world.”
“Well,” Crow replied, appearing slightly embarrassed. “There is a little matter of payment.”
He leaned over the bar and poked a finger at her. “I want my shiny. You still owe me.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I have no money here. We are at war.”
“Oh indeed you are. Remember that before you surrender to the inevitable.”
“I’ll never surrender!” Aphelia snapped.
Crow chuckled. “Spoken like a true warrior. Perhaps you’ll win the day after all.” Then he threw back the rum and disappeared. The glass hung suspended for but a second before tumbling to the floor and shattering, making Aphelia start awake. She looked around the dormitory, but it was empty. On the floor lay a shattered glass, and the sound had stirred Merrietta too.
“Wha – ?!” the engineer mumbled, rolling onto her side. Her one open eye focused on Aphelia.
“It’s okay,” Aphelia said to her with a sad smile. “Just an accident. Go back to sleep.”
* * *
The night had drawn down as the Moon had risen, full once more and there was not a cloud in sight. The temperature had fallen off and frosted the small windows of the dormitory where Aphelia, shaken by the strange dream, had briefly dozed off only to be awoken by the mission bell. The pale light glowed through the patina of ice and she saw that Merrietta had already upped and gone.
She dressed quickly and went in search of her friend in the hangars. It didn’t take long to find the ever smiling engineer doing pre-flight checks on the instrumentation, fuel and under wing mounts.
“You are awake!” smiled the giantess. Her breath made great plumes in the air. “You come back safe my little flower, dah?”
“Little flower?” Aphelia frowned.
Merrietta shook her head, smiling in bemusement. “Your nickname. It’s what I always call you.”
“Of course,” Aphelia smiled. She wondered why this had slipped her mind; her parents had named her after the first flowers of spring which were blooming on the day of her birth. “Where’s Theran?”
Merrietta shrugged. “He was standing out on the strip earlier, waiting for us. He’s eager always to be up in the air.”
Yes, thought Aphelia, he is. He enjoyed the freedom of the air, being above it all and getting a chance to rain fire down on the enemy. He still hoped, still believed that the Tide could be turned. Aphelia sighed. The fight was keeping the creatures at bay, but how long could they keep it up?
It wasn’t a thought to dwell on, especially now that she could hear the Cleric preaching to the work crews in the adjacent hangar: “….. and there will come a day when the enemy falters, a day when their numbers will thin, and if we have been too easy on ourselves in this purgatory, then what good shall it do us? We strive for our very survival! So rally your spirits! Those that do not fall will know that they have been blessed to carry on the light of the human spirit! Fight on, for who knows what tomorrow will bring!”
As the loading crew began to affix their payload, a familiar voice called out, “Ready for the off?”
Aphelia and Merrietta turned to see Theran strolling up. He was grinning with a maniac gleam in his eye.
“What’s so funny?” Aphelia asked.
“Oh, nothing much. Just that there isn’t a cloud in the sky.”
It was true, and all she could say to herself was “Great!” as she rolled her eyes. There was nothing they could do about it, Aphelia reflected. It was in the lap of whatever benevolent powers were watching over them to give them safe passage. There were soldiers on the ground relying on them, and they had their orders.
“Good to go!” shouted one of the loading crew. Theran gave him the thumbs up.
“Looks like we’re all ready,” he said. He checked his watch. “No point hanging around. Let’s get this over with, then we can get ourselves loaded up with something a little more explosive.”
With a grin, he hugged Merrietta and climbed up into the cock pit, and with one last embrace Aphelia bid the engineer farewell and followed Theran into her seat. Theran gunned the engine and the propeller became a blur. A moment later and it was chocks away.
The plane taxied to the strip and joined the other half dozen biplanes waiting for the off. Theran and Aphelia waved to the other crews as they waited for the signal, Aphelia’s leg twitching with nerves. This was always the worse part, waiting for take off out here on the strip. Once they were in the air they would be above the world and she could busy her mind with the navigation.
She didn’t have to wait long. A flare shot up and the biplanes set off, trundling down the grass runway, bumping along as they gained speed, then with a little wobble Aphelia’s stomach lurched and they were climbing up into the sky to join the Moon.
* * *
The drawback of a clear sky was also the only benefit: they could see you, but you could see them. At least that was the theory.
It started as an itching on the back of her neck as she hunched over her map and compass, out of the wind with a small torch focused on the details. They were on course – and there wasn’t a one in her squadron who would have doubted her intuition on that whether she had a map and compass or no – and after an hour and a half’s flight they would make deployment in maybe another half hour. But something was bothering her, and she started to scan the skies for a threat.
She leaned forward and shouted her fears to Theran. He nodded and radioed the others. No one could see anything, but the unease amongst the squadron was growing palpable. You could feel it, that sense that someone was watching you……
Another ten minutes went by.
Aphelia shivered and cursed. To take her mind off it she set about checking for a course correction which she knew she didn’t need to make.
And that was when the roar of flames churned the air in a blazing streak, lighting the night sky around them.
A giant avian shadow sped past and disappeared back into the night as the squadron peeled away from each other in emergency manoeuvres. One of their number was burning, the wood and canvas biplane ablaze. Aphelia craned her head and watched in horror as it spiralled out of control, heading for the earth. The crew had jumped but everything was burning, and they were nothing more than blazing candles hurtling toward the ground, parachutes brief wicks fluttering into petals of embers blown on the breeze.
And somewhere out there the great bird wheeled and made another pass.
Aphelia’s heart pounded, every second an agony of expectation as her eyes scried the darkness for their attacker, and when the night lit up again she flinched, her scream swallowed as Theran jammed the stick over and they rolled away. Her head wheeled and she saw a flash, and as they exited the roll her eyes were drawn to the plane that was descending on them, it’s crew jumping from the burning wreck. This time they were lucky enough to make it out before the flames engulfed the plane, but as the doomed aircraft slashed past on the left the fuel tank ignited.
Their own plane gave a little jolt, and she saw Theran slump forward. The nose dipped and they went into a dive that threw her back even as she reached forward to grab his shoulder. Her hand caught his collar and with all her strength she hauled him back from the controls. He was heavy, but with one hand holding his collar, she used the other to take the spare controls and level the biplane out.
Breathing hard, they were stable and Aphelia spared a quick glance around for pursuing danger.
She couldn’t see anything, but the tension wouldn’t relent and the ache of her muscles was beginning. She didn’t have long before she’d have to let Theran go, and she prayed that he was just unconscious. If he woke up in the next couple of minutes…..
But if he didn’t then she better get prepared. They were flying low now, and she needed to get her orientation. Her thoughts turned to the target. They had been quite close to the drop, and she might still manage it. She closed her eyes and breathed. They were close, very close. She had a release on the payload, and she could still make the drop.
If the worse came to the worse she might be able to ditch nearby and take refuge with them. She flew on, flinching as something lit the night, but it had dropped behind and she was moving away from the horror, skimming the wasteland towards the troops.
A flare went up, and she allowed herself a tight smile. With all her strength she guided the plane towards the entrenched soldiers. They were dug in and barricaded on a hill small hill, and as she skimmed the top of it she could see men waving.
The pain in her arm was almost numb now, but she was going to make the drop. Releasing the payload as she buzzed past, there was a moment of relief and triumph waxing in her heart.
She had done it.
The only question now was whether Theran would wake up? For all she knew he could be dead – pleasepleaseplease don’t be dead – but there was no way to tell without climbing forward, and the failing muscles in her arm told her that in a minute she lose her grip on him.
She banked around, intending to try and land as near the troops as possible. After all, there was a relief mission attempting to break through for them. If she could reach them, she might still make it back to Bastion.
At that moment the engine spluttered and Aphelia’s eyes went to the fuel gauge and saw that it had hit empty – whatever had hit Theran must have hit a fuel line or something.
She fancied that she could hear cruel laughter a moment before the engine died and she was suddenly gliding down through the night and into a no man’s land lit by a bulbous, glowing Moon.
End of Part 3
Find out just what happens as the tide comes in for the penultimate chapter!
“Only those able to verbally confirm that they had led a virtuous life were granted entry into eternity and awarded the epithet ‘maat kheru’, ‘true of voice’14, as applied to Nesyamun himself throughout his coffin inscriptions. In these texts, Nesyamun asks that his soul receives eternal sustenance, is able to move around freely and to see and address the gods9 as he had in his working life.”
Taking the idea, and a few liberties…..
Like the Buzz of Crickets in High Summer
Dean ambled into the room, whistling as he flipped what might have been a melted lump of plastic into the air, caught it and repeated the motion.
“What is that?” asked Simone, his supervisor, as she peered over the rims of her tortoiseshell glasses.
“Little job from the unwrappers,” Dean replied, smiling. It was his little pet name for the researchers in C Block who were studying the museum’s cache of mummified Egyptians. He handed her the plastic. “The machine accidentally printed a duplicate.”
“Accidentally?” Simone scowled, examining the 3D print.
“Yeah.” Dean shrugged. “I’d just box up the first and put in the post for Dr. Read when the machine started printing another.”
“All by itself, huh?” Simone gave him the look that said he wasn’t being totally honest.
“No, really,” said Dean earnestly, holding up his hands. “Not my fault. I got Mick to give the systems a debugging.”
“Great,” grumbled Simone. She returned the print to Dean and swiveled back to her computer screen. “You still haven’t told me what it is.”
“It’s the larynx of an Egyptian priest.”
“No, seriously,” Dean enthused. “They took his body for a CT scan over at the infirmary. He was so well preserved that they were able to model it.”
“To what end?”
“Well, they think they’ll be able to simulate his voice,” Dean grinned and he put it to his lips and blew a discordant note. Simone shuddered. “What a lovely singing voice he must have had,” Dean chuckled, and blew again.
“Cut it out!” Simone snapped. “It’s giving me goose bumps.”
Dean smiled with devilish delight. “What? Like this?” He blew again, hard, and the sound rose to something like the buzz of crickets in high summer…..
* * *
“Can you be more careful?” asked Dr. Read without looking up. He had his face glued to a mag-light as he skillfully unwrapped a layer of bandage with his tweezers.
“What?” replied Tania, the assistant. She held up her hands. “I didn’t touch anything.”
Dr. Read huffed….. carefully. “Well some one just jogged the table.”
He was about to issue a retort, but he thought he saw the corpse twitch. Dr. Read peered closer, then sat back and rubbed his eye. Just a twinge, no doubt. He was dog tired after long hours of careful examination. With a sigh he looked over at his assistant and asked, “Well, who was it? There’s no one else here?”
“Jeez, take it easy doc,” said Tania, knowing full well that the epithet irritated him. It was damn disrespectful, that’s what it was. “I wasn’t anywhere near you. Felt more like a lorry going past or something.”
“Or something?” Dr. Read’s mouth twisted up in distaste at his assistant’s casual dismissal.
She shrugged, gave him a smile, then looked at her watch. “You look hungry. What do you say we grab a bite of lunch.”
As if on cue his stomach emitted a confirmatory protest and he sighed with the world weary burden of a man who must succumb to the grim hand of natural processes. He put aside his tools and together they adjourned to the office and sat at their desks. He found his wife had packed him the obligatory cheese and pickle sandwich, and he wasn’t in the slightest envious of Tania’s extensive salad bowl that appeared to have pomegranate and seeds liberally sprinkled amongst its foliage.
They set to eating, and as he ate he felt his vigor return somewhat. For want of anything else to say he asked Tania how long she thought it would take the 3D print to take.
“I expect the tech bods will have something for us this afternoon,” Tania mused.
Pleased, Dr. Read brightened. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he enthused. “The actual vocal tract of a priest.”
“Guess so,” shrugged the assistant. “Not sure about it’s value, but it certainly makes a nice story.”
“Nice story?” Dr. Read was faintly incredulous at her lack of enthusiasm. “We’ve accomplished something never done before.”
“I mean, I get it,” his assistant replied, poking at her lunch. “But he had a human voice. He probably didn’t sound much different than any other person. What interests me is the difference in composition of the natron used in his desiccation.”
Dr. Read shook his head. “A sodium compound will vary depending on its origin.”
“Yes, but if we can identify the origin, we’ll have a better idea of where his body was originally mummified. It’s certainly not typical of the area where – “
She was interrupted by a sound from the next room. “Did you hear that?”
Dr. Read shook his head as Tania got up and headed next door. His hearing was a little weaker these days, wasn’t it? Not that he was going to actually admit it, what with his wife always nagging him to go and get it checked. Given her usual chatter he wasn’t missing much, but he supposed that…..
“Er… Dr. Read?” his assistant called, and he gave himself a smug smile. Heard that fine, didn’t he? He shouted his reply around a mouthful of sandwich: “What is it now?”
“You better come see this!”
With a disgruntled sigh he got up and shuffled to the door, muttering, “I really don’t know why I put up with – “
He didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, his jaw hung slack as his assistant turned her head and asked him, “Doctor? Where’s your mummy?”
* * *
Officer Perch frowned as he jotted the details into his notebook. “So, let me get this straight; you lost a mummy?”
“That’s right,” said the doctor’s assistant. “It was right here when we went to lunch, then poof! Gone!”
“And the doctor?”
“He had to go and lie down,” the young woman explained. “He was a little distressed.”
“I’m sure,” said Perch with arched eyebrows. “Not every day that the dead take a walk now, is it?”
She laughed, the sound hitting some nervous high notes. “No.”
“And is there any chance that someone could have stolen it?”
“No,” and the assistant shook her head with vehemence. “No one could get in or out without us seeing.”
“Well,” Perch replied, his frown deepening, “How the hell is it supposed to have even left the room? The window perhaps?”
The assistant didn’t look convinced, but Perch wanted to check it. The windows, however, were all shut and locked. Perch chewed his lip and considered that he was having his time wasted, that perhaps someone was playing a hoax and hadn’t realised that the police would turn up. After all, who would really want to steal a corpse? The question prompted another: “What would you say the value of this mummy is?”
“Priceless,” explained the assistant, “It’s irreplaceable.”
Perch shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. Does it have any black market val – “
He was cut off by someone hurrying towards the office. “Officer! Officer!”
With some small consternation Perch stuck his head out the door, the typical querying look of the English bobby on his face. Outside, one of the – what was he? a curator? – a curator was hurrying towards him. “Oh thank goodness! You’re…. er, partner?”
Perch held up a hand. “Colleague.”
“Ah, your colleague said you better come and take a look at something.”
Perch sighed and turned away, trying his radio. “Emerson?”
There was no response, just the crackle of static. With tired resignation Perch told the man to lead the way and together they made their way down the hall and through a door into another part of the museum. They descended some stairs and the decor became decidedly more modern and office like. As they traversed another long hall Perch spied Jenkins waiting anxiously, guarding a turning taped off with blue and white incident tape.
“What’s the problem Jenkins?”
“Better take a look chief,” replied Jenkins in a voice hinting at nerves.
Perch sighed and moved past him, then heard Jenkins speak to the curator. “If you could just wait here, sir.”
A short way down the generic grey carpet tiles appeared sullied. Sand. There was more and more of it as he moved along the hallway until he reached Emerson who awaited him. She smiled in that way that suggested she knew a joke no one else did.
“What have you got to report?”
“Well chief…..” and she had to repress a chuckle. “I can’t rightly say, but someone’s gotta be pulling our leg.”
“If they are,” Perch grunted, “Then they’re going to very sorry to learn a nasty lesson about my lack of amusement.”
Emerson nodded and lead him across more sand to an office with a door half open and a yellow drift of the same spilling forth. “Take a look chief.”
Perch poked his head in. “What the Hell?” The room wasn’t just a mess; it was filled with sand in dunes that crested across desks and ran in slopes over the furniture. The outline of a chair jutted forth like some lost ruin.
He entered and made his way – with a little difficulty – across the floor without a thought about the fact that he was entering a possible crime scene. At his passing the sand shifted from the chair to reveal something dark on the floor. Bending down, he retrieved a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, the lenses cloudy with scratches. As he pulled them loose more sand slid away and he saw something pale. He brushed at the sand, already fearing what he was about to uncover….
The bone was fresh, clotted with sand that had turned pink.
And it wasn’t just one. Perch retreated to the door as quickly as he could, dizziness threatening the edge of his mind.
“Get forensics in here and tell me what the fuck is going on!” Perch bawled in Emerson’s face. She saluted with a half grin, half grimace and got on the radio. When there was nothing but static, she shrugged nervously and hurried away.
* * *
An hour later Perch watched as a team in white overalls sifted through the sands. There were two skeletons, but also something else. One of the team approached Perch with a baggie, waving it at him. It had something pale in it that might have been skin.
“What’s this?” asked Perch.
“Looks like an insect shell,” the forensics man replied.
Perch perused it. “Looks like a giant grasshopper.”
The man in the overalls nodded. “Probably some kind of locust.”
“Well, where did they come from?” Perch demanded.
The man shrugged. “No idea. Not from anywhere around here.”
Perch felt the dizziness returning, and needlessly order the man to “carry on”. All of this was highly irregular, and if not for the bloody aspect of the bones he might have thought it was just a joke. But they were human bones and the two workers who’s office it was couldn’t be found anywhere.
The conclusion? To Hell with conclusions! They invited madness. Perch would stick to the stolid conviction that there had to be a reasonable explanation: the Mummy had been removed somehow – sleight of hand no doubt, he’d seen it on that show The Mentalist – and the bones were probably stolen from a somewhere……
It all sounded totally ridiculous, but then again so did the Zambian space project, but he’d been reading that there had been just such a thing back in the 60s. Anything was possible…….
He played it over in his mind again. There must be a thread somewhere, but which ever way he turned it, it still all sounded ridiculous……
“What is it Emerson?”
She gave him a sardonic grin. “The professor is ready to talk to you.”
“Where is he?”
Perch nodded and made his way back to C Block. In the same room as he had talked to the assistant he found a man that fitted every preconceived idea of the word “professor”. He was aged and balding with the intellectual look of an old bird.
“Doctor Read, please,” said the man with a tired smile.
Perch nodded and jumped in, “We’re in a pickle here doctor. Your assistant gave me the details, and I’m having a hard time comprehending how any of this is possible. I expect you heard what we found?”
Read appeared baffled. “Found? My mummy?”
“No,” Perch replied with a shake of his head. “We’re talking about two fresh skeletons and a room full of sand. If I were a superstitious man then I’d be inclined to believe that there was something, oh, I don’t know, supernatural afoot. But as this is the 21st century, I am not. This is certainly a ruse, and I will get to the bottom of it. And whoever thought it was funny to partake of a little grave robbing will find it less funny when they’re in the dock for….. well, for whatever it is we charge people with for that kind of thing.”
Dr. Read’s face was an expression of brittle confusion. “Grave robbing?”
“Where else would they get the skeletons from?”
Dr. Read scratched his head and looked out the window. Perch eyed him and wondered if there wasn’t a touch of dementia there. He was about to say something of the matter when another museum employee sauntered into the room, a big pair of headphones on and completely oblivious to the police officer in the room. He was young, shaggy haired and a slight fuzz on his chops. The plain overalls had a menial cast to them, and Perch watched as he emptied out letters from a satchel in the corner, then left a couple of missives and a small box. Without another word he departed, as oblivious as when he entered.
“Who was that?” Perch inquired.
“The internal mail,” Dr. Read replied, “I think his name’s Dave.”
Perch nodded, feeling suspicious now. “What’s in the box?”
Dr. Read shrugged and moved to retrieve the box. Perch watched as he unfolded the loose flaps and an almost wan smile crossed the old man’s face.
“What is it?”
“It’s a 3D model of our mummy’s larynx,” said Dr. Read, pulling out a piece of plastic that looked like a nightmare albino root vegetable.
Perch was intrigued, despite himself. “And what is the purpose of doing that?”
“Well,” Dr. Read replied, puffing up with a touch of pride, “We should be able to get an idea of how his voice sounded.”
And with the twinkled in his eye of an excited school boy the doctor blew a discordant note on it.
“What a lovely singing voice he must have had,” remarked Perch.
“Perhaps I blew too hard,” mused the doctor and tried again.
“Well, you certainly succeeded in making my skin crawl,” said Perch. “Perhaps we should focus on the task at h- “
But he didn’t get any further, for Dr. Read was already putting the thing to his lips, and a strangled noise resonated through the air, the sound rising to something like the buzz of crickets in high summer. A sudden wind sprang up from nowhere and a soft pattering of grit touched Perch’s face.
“What the f – ?”
The wind leapt suddenly and the sand swirled. Dark, chittering shapes flew through the air before him. Over the rising din he heard the sound of the doctor, a harried wail as he glimpsed the doctor pointing. Perch spun around, mind racing, and a large shape loomed out of the obscuring whirlwind.
A dark voice spoke then, and as the figure pulled Perch toward it with a clawed hand he saw where the bandages had frayed and tattered to reveal fresh, wet flesh beneath. As he opened his mouth to scream, the last thing he saw were the two gleaming eyes set in that new meat of the creature’s face, dark and ancient, and filled with malice at having been awoken from slumber.
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So here’s a quick story in response to the Story Dice Challenge #1 – and I really didn’t let myself spend too long on it. Somehow it all just came together in my mind, which is quite pleasing in and of itself.
Well flay me alive and wear my skin like a ceremonial robe! Has it been a whole week already?
It’s actually been quite a time of it lately. I’ve been writing some new stuff, editing some old stuff and generally not letting myself get too stressed with stuff.
So here’s a quick story in response to the Story Dice Challenge #1 – and I really didn’t let myself spend too long on it. Somehow it all just came together in my mind, which is quite pleasing in and of itself.
(NB – just for clarification, the interpretations of the dice were open, so for example I took “Trojan Horse” to mean getting inside a fortification by trickery etc.)
A Wolf Has To Eat
The Rector of Darrabock was surprisingly relaxed for a man with the jaws of a dire wolf poised to tear his throat out, and not just any wolf either. This black horror was the feared beast known as Smurl, a beast of alchemical manipulation and thaumamechanic engineering.
“There is no way to breach the wards of Darrabock,” said the Rector with barely a quaver in his voice.”They are infallible.”
The horror before him snorted. “I don’t have time for exposition Rector,” said Smurl. The stud-like protrusions that dotted his skull began to glow with a baleful blue light. “Witness.”
The knowledge sprang unbidden into the Rector’s mind: yes, ever were the vices of men the weakness of any defence, for Darrabock was built to withstand siege and magical assault upon it’s walls, not to withhold against the desires of the men who manned those walls. The Rector saw saw the boat pulling up to the pier, and his men assisting the comely maiden onto the landing. With her they saw only her small pet dog held upon a leash.
An illusion of a subtle making, not crude magic but the shaping of a cloak within Smurl’s mind. The guards saw nothing but the woman and her dog as they muttered appreciation of her form; full hips and red lips. The Rector was a canny fool, they remarked, to fetch up such a prize.
So Smurl passed through the wards and defences like a blade slips between armoured plate.
“And what is it that you want?” inquired the Rector, beginning to sweat.
“I have come for but one of your magical treasures. Let us call it simple payment.”
“Aye.” Smurl chuckled. “For a lesson taught, and folly revealed. You are in my debt Rector.”
“Indeed,” replied the Rector as he pulled at the collar of his robe and wiped the sweat from his brow. “So you intend to let me live?”
Smurl nodded with an evil smile. “Unless you wish to compound your error?”
The Rector shook his head quickly.
“Good. Live and let live I say. I require one thing, and one thing only: the winged boots that you have hidden in your vault.”
“How could you know – ?”
Smurl cut him off with a snarl. “I tire of your questions.”
“Of course,” said the Rector, swallowing. “Let me take you there at once.”
“Excellent. Let us make haste Rector, for my appetite is growing by the minute.”
* * *
“How long must I be your prisoner?” ask Princess Innista of the dragon Phalagyras once more as she sat upon the cold flagstones.
The dragon turned a laconic eye upon her. “As long as the war of succession continues.”
Innista licked a paw. “Surely they must be done with their bitter murder by now?”
“Who can say?” replied the dragon with a yawn and stretched out upon his hoard. “Such are the endeavours of men, to war without end.”
Such was the ritual observed every day as Innista waited; it was all that she could do, for when she had come to the cusp of womanhood she had been cursed. During her coronation she had donned the tiara of her station, and the dark hex had been released, shrinking her body and causing her to sprout black fur. Where once there had been a princess, now there was but a lithe cat as black as midnight. In the confused panic that followed she had been whisked away by one or other of the warring factions seeking the throne, and it was they who handed her to Phalagyras for safe keeping.
The great red dragon had borne her away to the ruin of his flying keep, a great stone edifice set upon enchanted clouds where none could steal his treasure. For Innista there was nothing to do but await the day she might be allowed to return, and as a cat that burden was eased by the feline proclivity of expertly napping for long periods of time.
She dreamed of her mother, and the orchards of Heronreath.
Of her other pursuits it was only the stalking of mice and birds that brought her any great relief from the boredom of being a prisoner. So too would it provide the only luck she had ever received in the dragon’s castle, for one day years ago she had been prowling the wild corridors of the sky keep when she chanced upon a mouse garbed in a leather jerkin and leggings, booted and armed.
“Who are you?” Innista had asked, more curious than anything else.
“I am the brigand Schlondyke!” cried the mouse, “And I see that you are no ordinary cat.”
“And you no ordinary mouse. How come you to the sky keep, brigand?”
“By secret means known to mouse folk. I come seeking to plunder the dragon’s hoard!”
“Ha! You shall have to cross my path first,” Innista teased.
“So be it!” cried the mouse and they had duelled until she disarmed him with a swipe of her paw. Before he could escape she had snared him and dandled the poor fellow by his tail.
“Mercy, oh mighty mouser!” cried Schlondyke.
“And what does mercy buy me?”
“Spare me and I will grant thee whatever boon ye desire.”
“You have but to name it,” replied Schlondyke, “And I shall discharge the debt in return for mine life.”
Innista considered a moment. “How can I be sure that you will hold to our deal?”
Schlondyke doffed his hat and said, not without umbrage, “I am a mouse of honour, m’lady, and you have bested me in single combat. I so swear by the life that is now yours, ask of me what you wish.”
Innista thought for a moment, then explained what she required.
That had been three years ago…….
* * *
Smurl alighted upon the outer wall of the sky keep, and sensing danger, the nodes in his skull began to glow with baleful fervour. He could taste the dragon in his mind, smell the brimstone of its breath even upon the fresh air without. Smurl knew he must make haste and discover the dragon’s bane, the only tool that could remedy such a scaly problem lurking within the shadowed halls of the castle.
It would not be long before the dragon senses his presence in return.
So with great bounds he crossed the wild lawns and took off down passages long forgotten, through halls where small seeds borne by the wind had taken root into riotous gardens unseen by the eyes of mortal for generations, up stairs thick with dust and through forgotten chambers filled with old books, armour and moth-eaten tapestries.
Closer and closer, the air tinged with the tang of dragon’s gold and lurking hints of a feline presence: yes, the princess was close, and thus the reward…..
Smurl was getting ravenous now.
On silent pads the dire wolf now came to the old throne room, yet despite Smurl’s soundless approach, the dragon stirred.
“Come out dire wolf,” rumbled the dragon.
Smurl stepped forth into the chamber. “I am here, oh Phalagyras.”
The dragon did not reply, but unleashed a torrent of fire. When it abated there was no sign of the dire wolf upon the cracked and blackened flagstones.
“So much for the famed Smurl,” chuckled the dragon, and made as if to sleep once more.
“Are you always so careless?” called Smurl mockingly. The dragon hissed and cast about until Smurl stepped from behind a mighty pillar. “You should have a care dragon, for I am indeed the infamous Smurl.”
“You are fast, I give you that,” replied Phalagyras, “But you’re teeth are no match for my fire. Come hither and I will even give you thy cruellest bite!” and the dragon bared its scaled neck.
Smurl padded forward, his head glowing all the fiercer. “You are unwise to tempt me,” said Smurl.
The dragon chuckled. “There is but one weapon that can kill me, and you do not possess the hands to wield it.”
“Who needs hands,” grinned the wolf, “When one possesses a mind such as mine?”
Behind Phalagyras there was the tinkle of falling coin as something was dislodged, and as the dragon turned its head it beheld Scalebreaker, the only weapon that could defeat him. The mace soared, held in the grip of Smurl’s mind and smote the dragon full on the head, crushing his skull.
“Such is the arrogance of dragons,” snorted Smurl in contempt. “To hoard the very treasures that might slay them.”
“Y-y-you have killed him,” said a voice, and Smurl turned his baleful gaze upon the black form of Innista.
He grinned with wolfish delight. “So I have princess.”
“W-who are you?”
“I am the boon that you requested.”
“I requested no such horror as you,” she replied.
The wolf shrugged. “Did you not send diminutive brigand with a missive, requesting help?”
Innista nodded, still uncertain.
“It was this brigand that sailed to Nulle Isle and found me.”
“But the Nulle Isle is just a story.”
“Nay,” Smurl shook his head. “It is very real, and a place to which I was exiled until a long ship came searching for me, captained by the fabled brigand Schlondyke.”
“Aye, he told me that he had plundered a dragon’s hoard to fund his venture – “
“That sneaky rat!” cried Innista, cutting in despite her fear.
Smurl cocked his head. “Indeed. He told me that he owed his life to a princess who had been bound by a most powerful curse. By his life’s honour he had travelled the lands in search of one who was brave enough to defeat the dragon Phalagyras. He showed me this letter, written by yourself, and signed with a cat’s paw. It stated that the reward for your restoration to the throne of Heronreath was land and title.”
“And is that why you have come to rescue me, to take land and title?”
Smurl shook his head, eyes burning into her.
“Perhaps you seek the dragon’s hoard then?” asked the princess, backing away.
Smurl chuckled. “One can neither eat gold nor titles, princess.”
Innista swallowed. “Eat?”
“Aye,” Smurl smiled as he padded forward, licking his lips. “A wolf needs to eat.” The nodes on his head began to glow, and his eyes blazed with the same light. “This will hurt.”
Innista had backed away until her furred ruffed up against the wall behind her. There was no where to run to. Smurl opened his jaws wide and Innista felt a sudden force holding her still. The tiara became heavy on her head, so much so it might break her neck such was its weight. Black threads like evil smoke curled from it and rushed in a swirling vortex into the mouth of the wolf who seemed to swell in stature.
It was gone, the malignant hex that had changed her was lifted, consumed by the black horror before her. “You ate my curse?”
“Aye,” Smurl smiled, licking his lips. “I am a hex eater, and that was a savoury delight. I am of a mind to seek the one who wove it.”
Innista looked down at herself. She was once again a young woman, and now took her leave of the sky keep astride the great dire wolf, returning to claim her rightful place at the court of Heronreath.
And none dare gainsay her, for fear of the famed dire wolf Smurl who accompanied her, his eyes ever hungry and searching for the next meal.
Well dear Readers, I hope you enjoyed. I certainly had fun writing it. Sometimes the exercise of just writing something random and free from constraint is a welcome relief.
And although I went over the 1000 words by almost double, it didn’t feel like it.
Now it might not be perfect…. but I promised not to spend too long on it, and I think the best thing about these exercises is that you can add it to a pile of ideas and recycle them later when you’re doing something more involved.
Anyhew, if you did enjoy then please let me know and give it a likedown below.
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As we kick off February and take a quick flashback to Christmas. It’s been noted that I’m notoriously difficult to please when it comes to gifts, and please don’t buy this writer any more books!
That pile is big enough as it is! And unless you’re going to pop a very nice electric guitar in my stocking, probably best to just buy me a good bottle of Port.
However, this year I did receive something of a surprise novelty: a set of Rory’s Story Cubes, specifically the “fantasia” set. These have been quite a bit of fun. The basic premise is to tell a story using the nine images rolled.
Begin with “Once upon a time” and tell a story that links together all nice face-up images. Start with the first image to grab your attention. Use three cubes for the beginning, three for the middle and three for the end of the story. There is one rule: there are no wrong answers.
A Day Out In Brighton
Taking a saturday off, I went for breakfast in Brighton with my wife and son while I left the blog on auto publish. We got there nice and early, and to distact my son from causing too much trouble while we waited, I had pre-emptively packed the dice.
So we experimented with the set and after a trial run to get the idea, we rolled for a proper turn and came up with a story.
I liked the rolls so much that I made a note of the dice, and I thought it’d be fun to sit down and write a short story based off them.
So, The Challenge
Write a short story (doesn’t have to be more than 1000 words) comprised of the following elements:
I gave myself five days to write a draft as quickly as possible, and then to write whatever revisions I felt were necessary.
Short story written for Fantasy Writers Forum August Challenge, 2019 – this was written pretty quickly and subject to a limit of 5k words, so apologies in advance for the rough edges and confusing ending.
Ankles, so called because he still bore the scars from his manacles. It was common amongst prisoners forced to march the dunes at the height of the Swelter, when the Sun burned so hot the metal scorched the flesh. What was uncommon was to survive the march.
Now he stood at the gunwale as a free man, the desert air still hot but cooling the sweat on his face.
He fancied that he could taste a hint of brine.
The Sweep was coming……
Beside him Captain Carolhano lowered her spyglass and passed it to him silently. Ankles scanned the desert for the object of her interest: a convoy of three transports. Strange.
“What do you think?” she asked. He gave her a wry smile. They both knew she had already decided.
“Well,” he said slowly as if ruminating, “We don’t have much time, Captain.”
“I know, but…..”
It was a juicy target, but was it worth drowning over? The Sweep had begun, judging by the position of the second moon; Udarik was growing larger by the hour, his pale yellow face upsetting the normal motions of the oceans beyond the Keshmon Tide Canyons. They would soon fill and overspill. They had maybe two or three days before the desert flooded.
Meanwhile a lonely convoy trundled across the Iyarpi Hot Pan. “They don’t appear to have any guards with them,” Carolhano added.
“Odd,” Ankles remarked. Of course, any guard would tell you it was no time to be out on the sand. “Think they’re just stragglers?”
The captain flashed him a smile, the kind made the pit of his stomach tingle. “Why don’t we go ask them?”
“And make it quick?”
She nodded. “Then we’ll head through Shooters Gully, around to Irongate.”
Ankles cocked an eyebrow. “Irongate?”
“But we’ll lose half our loot.”
“True, but….” The Irongate Syndicate was renown for its loose morals and the high price that came with them. Corsairs such as themselves would find harbour at a cost, but the Aurai’s Gift needed repairs. “We better hope these rubes have something worth taking. Set sail Mr. Ankles.”
“Aye aye, Captain!” and Ankles swung into action, bellowing orders and rallying the crew as they prepared to catch the winds of the blue desert skies.
Meanwhile, high above, Udarik continued on his relentless path.
* * *
They approached low and fast across the flats, and by the time the convoy spotted the Aurai’s Gift there was no escape.
Carolhano stood on the foredeck as Spool worked the gunnery pod. His first shot crippled the engine core of the lead transport, and one by one he popped the other two. No one could beat an Imperial gunner when it came to this kind of work, and Carolhano had never regretted taking the disgraced soldier on board. His crimes, as heinous as they were, stayed in the past. He was crew now, and he was worth every penny of the share.
Through her eyeglass Carolhano grinned as chaos engulfed the convoy.
“Perfect,” she muttered.
Coming up from midship Ankles passed her sword with mock reverence. “We’re ready, Captain.”
Carolhano gave him a nod, noted his smile. It was a smile to win hearts and it belonged to another disgraced outcast she’d recovered, another stray who’d become crew. It was a smile she was very fond of.
She belted her sword, checked her pistol and went to the gunwale with her band of corsairs.
“On my mark!”
* * *
Chaos whirled around the blue robed Holy Pillar of Shastan.
“What’s going on?” demanded the priest as people ran about him like headless chickens. He rubbed rheumy eyes, and cursed the damned heat again. Why had they stopped? And what were those damnably loud noises that had roused him from his slumber? Were they under attack? Out here?
“You! Stop!” he cried as he tried to collar a menial rushing past. He was roundly ignored, leaving him blustering to no one other than the wind.
“The impertinence! I’ll have your hides! Tell me – ”
But chaos had no ear for the Holy Pillar.
* * *
Ankles took a deep breath and charged down the ramp, his captain on one side and the man mountain they called Bunches on the other. The thrill of the charge swept him up, and he was at full pelt into the midst of panicking men and women dressed in blue robes…..
……who promptly surrendered, on their knees and crying for mercy. A few had taken off across the sand, heading for the mountains. The bloody fools!
“Where they going?” Bunches grunted as he shaded his eyes with a great slab of a hand. Ankles shrugged, deflated. He’d battled haggling merchants with more fight. He eyed the gaggled of menials who appeared to be from one of the temples, their robed marked with sigils from…..
“Pillars of Shastan,” said Carolhano, sheathing her sword beside him. “Blessed luck!”
“How so, captain?”
“Let’s just say that, unlike some temples, they’re happy for people to buy their forgiveness.”
“Wages of sin, captain?” Ankles grinned.
“Aye. Nothing sweeter than the coin of salvation, eh? Find me the fattest, sweatiest one of the lot.”
“Aye aye, captain.”
* * *
Carolhano braced herself. She could hear the sound of coin approaching, a sound remarkably akin to the self important blusterings of a pampered functionary. A moment later Ankles appeared, followed by Lewd and Bunches flanking a big man in a blue robe. He was a Pillar of rank, judging by the tattoos on his bald head and innumerable beads about his wrists. That and the fact he was carrying enough weight for three people. She knew the type well enough, had seen plenty of them in her past as a young woman serving in the temples…..
But that was another life.
She watched in amusement as the corpulent priest shot forward, shoving Ankles aside and bustled toward her, sandals slapping.
“He looks…. annoyed,” remarked Crapper, her mechanic.
“I shall no doubt have to apologise for the inconvenience,” Carolhano snorted. They were still chuckling when the priest arrived.
“I demand – ” but the Holy Pillar didn’t get any further as Carolhano slapped him across the face. He blinked in surprise, then turned red and erupted. She let him blow off a little steam for a moment with irreverent boredom.
“…… never in my life have I been so disrespected! It shall not stand! I will have you flayed and hung from the Gates of Yesh! I will – ”
“Ningen’s Balls! Does he ever shut up?” asked Ankles.
Laughter erupted, bringing the priest to a stammering halt. Carolhano took the opportunity to set him straight about a few things. “Listen priest, no ones gives a good goddamn! We’re just here to alleviated your burden of coin, so I’ll make you a deal. If it’s on my ship in the next five minutes I might find the mercy to take your people out of here. Or I can leave you all to the Sweep. The choice is yours.”
More bluster shot forth. She slapped him again, hard, and motioned to Ankles who kicked him in the back of the knee. Suddenly he found himself staring up at her with a sword pressed against the jowls of his neck. (Ankles would later recount to the crew how she was so fast he hadn’t even seen her draw it!).
“Perhaps I wasn’t making myself clear,” Carolhano growled. “Now blink once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that?”
“Good. You might just make it out of this with you skin still attached to your body.”
* * *
Compassion, a rarity in the desert, but then the captain wasn’t the typical corsair either. Ankles had served her for two whole years now and learned that just as she could be hard as nails when needed, she didn’t revel in senseless violence like some of their compatriots, or indeed, other authorities: he’d seen enough during his time in an Imperial garrison to know the way their minds worked.
Bad times, bad memories….
No, his captain wasn’t like that. She was someone you could respect, someone with honour. Yeah, they were going to unburden the priest of his riches, but she wasn’t going to leave a bunch of hapless menials out here to die. They were corsairs, not monsters.
Standing beside her he felt a tingle of pride as she surveyed the blue robed menials lined up before her, the priest bound and gagged to one side. She took a breath, and began to speak: “I don’t know how you got here, nor do I care why you chose to cross the Iyarpi Hot Pan so late, but the Fates have seen fit to bring us together. While I confess that I am relieving your priest of his hoard, you can at least be thankful that I am unlike my fellow corsairs who would leave you to the Sweep, assuming you still had your heads on your shoulders. We, however, are a little more grateful for the wages you’ve brought us. As such I will offer you a place in the hold until such time as we reach Irongate. If you behave we wont throw you overboard. When we reach Irongate, you’ll be free to leave. What say you to this?”
There was some muttering followed by a relieved: “Aye!”
“Very good! Bunches, Lewd, Spool – show them aboard.”
As the menials filed away Ankles followed her to the priest.
“What are you gonna do with him?” he asked.
They looked down at the man. He was much quieter with the gag in, even if it hadn’t cooled his vigour for protest.
“If he keeps on like that he’ll probably do himself in,” Carolhano noted with a wry smile. “Perhaps we should just leave him here.”
In response the priest threw himself to grovel at her boots.
“No?” Carolhano asked, then gestured to Ankles to remove the gag. “Speak.”
“I-I’m worth m-more to you alive.”
Carolhano arched an eyebrow. “Go on.”
What he told them made the captain’s jaw drop. It was the first time Ankles had ever seen her truly surprised.
“Damn.” She turned to Ankles. “Find him a seat. Looks like he’s catching a ride to Irongate with us after all.”
* * *
Nightfall came and they were making good time, a little heavy but nothing that was going to get them drowned. The next day Tornie interrupted the Priest and his litany of complaints about the food, the taste of the water, the cramped conditions etc, etc. Carolhano was glad of the distraction as she followed the dark and willowy Tornie to the stern.
“What is it?”
Tornie, silent as ever, put a hand on the captain’s shoulder and pointed. Carolhano stared. There! Just a little too far off to be clear, something kicking up sand in a small cloud, something trailing them. A chill of suspicion ran up her neck, another bad memory.
And all she could think was that damned priest!
As if in reply a shudder ran through the ship and the deck jerked. The Aurai’s Gift began to slow, gliding on nothing but momentum. Carolhano cursed and left Tornie to keep watch as she rushed off to find her mechanic, Crapper. He was in the engine room with his head inside an open panel, monkey wrenching something technical. When he withdrew he looked vexed.
“Let me guess,” said Carolhano, “Sabotage?”
The mechanic nodded. “Nothing fancy, but enough. Damaged the power transfer regulator.”
She chewed her lip. Clearly someone in the priest’s retinue wasn’t just a menial and had no intention of letting them reach Irongate. She blew out a deep breath. “Can you fix it?”
“Of course,” Crapper almost laughed, “But we’ll be stuck going slow.”
“Let’s just say that we ain’t gonna make Irongate via the usual route,” and he gave her a meaningful look.
He nodded. “We gotta cro – ” but she cut him off with a raised hand.
“Just do what you can, okay?”
He nodded. “There is one other option, captain.”
“I know what you’re going to say Crapper. Save it.”
“But we don’t owe them – ”
She spun around and the look in her eye told him everything.
“Just fix the rig. Fast.”
She turned and walked away.
Behind her Crapper returned to his task. “Aye, Captain.”
* * *
Ankles threw back the liquor’s and its warmth descended to his belly. He wasn’t much of a drinker but the look on his captain’s face told him that it’d be impolite to say no. He waited in the gloom of her cabin as she cradled the cup.
“We have an assassin on board,” Carolhano said. She put the cup down and poured another. “One of the priest’s people.”
“Assassin?” Ankles replied with a frown. “What kind of assassin?”
“The kind whose job it is to make sure that certain big mouthed priests don’t let any secrets slip.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded, threw back her next drink. “Fairly sure. There’s something else; I think we have a tail.”
“Any idea who?”
“An idea, but right now we have a more pressing concern. With the rig damaged we’re not going to make Irongate by the usual route.”
Ankles watched her as he processed the information. “So, what are we going to do?” Even as he asked realisation was dawning.
“We’re going to have to make a run through the Mind-Thistle.”
What was the reasonable response to that? Freak out? Demand that there had to be another way? The very fact she was saying it meant there wasn’t. The Mind-Thistle Desert. It had many other names: Rapesands, The Wrack, the Sea of Nightmares, the Warp-Dunes etc. It was a part of the desert sunk in legend, a place said to be ancient and it did not welcome visitors. It was a place of visions and delusions, and whatever they were, they were sometimes real enough to kill.
“Is there nothing else we can do?”
“Can you guess what Crapper’s idea was?”
“I think I can guess,” Ankles smiled. “Lighten the load?”
She nodded, the grave look on her face reaffirming everything he knew about her. She’d once told him that to retain your humanity in a place like this, you had to hold yourself up to the highest of standards. It was a matter of honour.
“You sure about this?” Ankles asked for want of anything to say.
“No.” She poured again. “But what choice do we have?”
“And the tail?”
“Let’s see if we make it out first.”
He gave her a foolish grin and threw back his drink.
* * *
“Have you lost your mind?”
Carolhano regarded the priest with cool eyes. “Not yet.”
“There’s no argument. Consider yourself lucky I even bothered to inform you of my decision.”
“It’s madness! We shall not survive!”
“It’s the only way,” Carolhano replied levelly.
“There must be something you can do? If we are slow then jettison the unnecessary weight!”
“If you mean the coin, we need it to fix the ship.”
“I mean the servants!”
She smiled with all the warmth of a rockviper. “I thought you might see it that way.”
“It’s the logical thing to do! They’re – ”
Expendable? Say it…..
“ – expendable!”
She was across the table with the speed of a rockviper, slamming his head against the wooden surface and holding it. The knife that slammed down before his eyes bit his cheek.
“Out here,” she hissed in his ear, “We all take the risks as one. No one gets left behind, although I might be tempted to make one exception.”
“But…. you need….. me,” croaked the priest.
“More’s the pity.” She let him go and moved to the door as she sheathed her knife, sparing him one last glance. Tell him about the assassin? She decided against it. He’d only redouble his complaints.
Outside the door she spoke quietly to Bunches. “Take care. Someone wants him dead. Don’t trust anyone.”
The big man’s brow beetled, but he nodded his understanding.
“Aye, captain,” he growled.
* * *
The Aurai’s Gift crawled into the Mind-Thistle desert just after dawn. From the foredeck it looked no different, but Carolhano knew. She’d done this once before, and the first effects had started. First the heat began to subtly rise until it was almost suffocating and you thought it might burn you alive. She’d seen a man lose his mind, convinced that he was burning to a crisp. As a precaution she’d had Mend, the ships part-time medic, hand out sedatives just in case.
As they went deeper the next illusion began to form. The day came on fast, as if time was speeding up. While the chronometer ticked over without alteration the blaze of the sun arced with sudden speed across the sky and there was a desperate rush to pull googles on.
The sand-glider lurched forward as if sucked forward into the brilliance.
“Whath happenin’?” shouted Tongue, his voice strangely thin and high in the overload of the sun’s light.
“It’s just an illusion,” shouted Carolhano in reply, her words equally distorted. “Keep us full ahead!”
They ploughed on into the heat and light, feeling as if they were going to boil, their minds eclipsed into white emptiness until suddenly it was gone. Darkness swallowed all the light and heat, sucked the air out of your lungs as ice raced around your veins. In the blink of an eye they plunged into frigid darkness where no stars speckled the sky.
“Cahptaan!” Tongue was shouting, his voice now heavy with bass as if underwater. “Cn’t thee hhit!”
Into the endless, disorientating dark the Aurai’s Gift crept on, floating in a silence where there was no up, no down…..
….. and then reality gasped! and the world returned. Rocky escarpments ringed the horizon and mesas rose like islands in the still, rolling ocean of wind sculpted sand dunes…..
* * *
…. And nothing happened.
In some ways that was worse.
Ankles wiped sweat from his brow and probed for some oddity, some inconsistency that would signal the onset of mad visions or a bending in reality. His senses found nothing. They rode on over the sand, and he was pleased when Carolhano joined him. She said nothing, her dark hair blowing in the wind. He fancied that she was staring the desert down, taunting it to do it’s worse.
“Do you see it?” she asked.
He followed her gaze. There was something…. no, someone standing on the dunes ahead.
“Who…..?” but the words trailed away as they came close enough to see that it was a statue. It was made of sand. As they sailed past he caught its expression of staring horror, the mouth opened in mute anguish.
And there were more. He could see them forming up, growing out of the sand. Worse, there were faces he recognised. Here an old friend, dead, and there a man he had shot during the Scar Gap raid. The man had been unarmed, but Ankles had pulled the trigger a split second too soon. He hadn’t meant to kill him. He looked away to see Carolhano staring, eyes fixed with faint horror.
“What are they?” Ankles asked in a near whisper.
“Bad memories,” and her eyes snapped to his. “Just bad memories.”
They ploughed on beneath a clear blue sky as Inari continued to climb towards his zenith.
Somewhere, someone was sobbing.
* * *
Carolhano slipped and a strong hand caught her. She looked up into the face of the man she had been sent to kill. The Imperial regiments might keep the peace, but it was the priesthoods that controlled the populace. So when a temple tried to make a bid for power it threatened to upset the apple cart. Here was one such man, and she had come to slip a knife into his heart.
His crime? He actually gave a damn! Imagine, a leader who thought that maybe there was a better way for everyone to live. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but then who was?
She’d still killed him. He was a dead man anyway, from the moment he made his stand, and it was her love for him that made it quick. The alternative was a slow, drawn out and dehumanising torture that would have robbed him of the very dignity he sought for others.
In the year that followed she had deserted the temple, gone rogue and found safe passage on a sand-glider much like the Aurai’s Gift.
“It’s been a long time, Carolhano,” said the ghost.
She turned away.
“Will you say nothing?”
“There is nothing to say.”
* * *
Ankles understood now. “Mind-thistle”. It was lodged like a barb, some invisible tendril piercing his skull and leaching his thoughts. It was a cold splinter in his head…..
….. he was in a market, not long after the captain had freed him. His ankles were bandaged, clean clothes on his back and a small roll of coin in his pouch. It had been his first share and while the Aurai’s Gift was in dock getting serviced, he was freed to roam the town at leisure.
A flurry of activity drew his attention and for a moment his instinct was to resist the flow of people, but this was not hostility, and he was not being taken away. He went with it and found himself in a square covered with brightly coloured awnings. At it’s centre people crowded a machine, whooping with delight. Intrigued, he pushed his way toward the spectacle.
It was a machine that turned precious water into ice. He paid his coin and received a cup of crushed ice, flavoured with fruit syrups. It was a delight. Sweet and cold, unlike anything he had experienced, just as the pain that came with it was unlike anything else. A burning cold clamped his head, thrust a finger into his brain, then passed away…..
…..it was a sensation that plagued him now as they sailed on through The Wrack.
It was torture.
* * *
Carolhano blinked. They were lost, she was sure. She looked around to see if she could find Tongue, but he was not at the tiller. The Aurai’s Gift roved on, unmanned. She had no idea how far they had travelled, no idea if they were even heading towards Irongate. Somewhere she thought she could hear someone calling her name…..
Turning, she looked out and saw nothing but endless sand. Where were they? The statues were gone, but there! What was that? A plant? Was the air thickening? Confusion crept around the edges of her mind. The desert was changing hue. Everything swayed and in a moment of panic she thought she couldn’t breath. They were underwater, and she should be drowning and by the gods! Fish! Fish were swimming past and all manner of bright and colourful things bobbing and darting and weaving….. little silver bullets that moved like flocks of birds, sleek and dark shapes that kinked and flexed with mouths seeking prey as frilled orbs with tendrils pulsed through the currents.
And she was not drowning……
She stared in wonder at a world both alien and beautiful, a world that had long since vanished. This was all just another memory, the memory of the desert itself……
With a gasp, she was back on deck, and the sound of voices calling her name.
“Where are we?” she croaked as a hand pulled her up. She looked into the smiling eyes of Ankles before her eyes roved to where Tongue held the tiller. The helmsman’s body was rigid and his eyes closed even as his lips moved. He might have been praying.
“Did you see……?” Ankles asked, his voice trailing as he sought to find the words.
Carolhano nodded. “It was an ocean. Or the ghost of an ocean.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.” She straightened and brushed herself down. She could feel it. It was fading, the whole damned freak show of a mad god’s desert was fading. They were out. She began to shout orders. “Check the instruments! Where are we? How long until the Sweep? And find out if anyone’s missing!”
* * *
Amid the disorientation they found Lewd bled out down below, but judging by the colour of the wound it was poison that had done him first. Bunches picked him up, almost delicately, and took him to the deck. Of Tornie there was no sign and Spool was actually asleep in the gunnery pod.
“Hey,” Ankles poked him, “Wake up.”
“Seriously? You sleep through that?”
Ankles was about to explain, but instead just shook his head. “Look sharp. We got a back stabber on board.”
Spool sniffed, fished out a cigarette. “Damn.”
Ankles left him smoking and carried on. Crapper was still trying to fix the rig, and Mend was checking on one of the priests entourage who’d become catatonic. Three others were missing, presumed lost in the Wrack. He told Carolhano as much as she stared off the stern where a gout of sand was following them.
“What the hell is that?”
“I thought the Mind-Thistle might’ve put it off,” she said absently.
She threw him a look, took a deep breath. “It’s a Farlight.”
“I thought those were just stories,” said Ankles. Farlights were said to burrow through sand and rock, their name derived from an eerie star light exuded from their mouths.
Carolhano turned to him. “They’re real alright. I’ve seen one before….. I…..”
“It doesn’t matter,” she waved it off. “Listen. The assassin has a lure hidden in the ship. When it gets close enough, it’ll attack.”
“You got a plan?”
She smiled at him. “Of course.”
“Then what are we waiting for?”
* * *
On deck Carolhano waited as her remaining crew corralled the priest’s blue clad menials with whatever weapons they had to hand.
“I really must protest!” the priest was shouting as he mopped his brow. “This really isn’t necessary, and furthermore…..”
She let him prattle on for a moment, then held up a hand. “One of your people is an assassin.”
As Carolhano explained, she enjoyed watching the bluster leave him like a leaking air bladder. “Someone wants your secret kept that way.”
“But – ”
She ignored him and spoke to the throng: “One of you is a killer. Luckily, you’re also an incompetent saboteur.”
Glances were exchanged as Carolhano scrutinised them.
“Of course, it didn’t take much to learn which one of you it is.”
She held up a small, emerald pendant that sparkled in the light. It bore an assassin’s sigil.
“Looks like you lost this.”
And there! She saw the surprised reaction, and so did Ankles, just like she’d told him. He had the woman up, arm behind her back while Bunches and Spool trained weapons on her. As Carolhano descended, the woman watched her with burning eyes.
“Where’s the lure, my dear?”
“I’ll never tell,” the woman snarled.
“You don’t have to,” Carolhano smiled. “It’s obvious.” She called Ankles over. “Check the priest’s donation box. The lure is in the box.”
The look on the assassin’s face was confirmation that her instincts had been right.
“How – ?”
“Just a hunch. I guess the delicious irony was just too much for you, so you hid it in the one thing we weren’t about to toss overboard. That’s twice today you’ve given yourself away.”
With a kick the woman broke free and sprang, blade out. The captain’s own dagger met it and their blades pressed together. As her men backed off Carolhano was face to face with the assassin.
“We should all be dead,” hissed the assassin.
“Speak for yourself,” Carolhano growled as the blades started to scrape.
“Especially you…. traitor!”
Carolhano shook her head. “I made a choice when I had to kill a man I loved. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Their arms strained, locked together. The first to give would be at the disadvantage.
“I don’t know how we made it through the Mind-Thistle, but you won’t reach Irongate.”
“You certainly wont,” Carolhano grated. She forced their blades into the air and gave the woman a hefty boot in the chest that sent her over the gunwale.
She and Ankles were already running to the stern where they caught a glimpse of the blue robe bright against the sand. The raging sand cloud behind went straight for it. A moment passed before a faint scream was eclipsed by something erupting from below, an ethereal light that winked out as jaws clamped shut.
The Farlight began to thrash the sand as it dwindled into the distance.
“How…?” said Ankles.
Carolhano flashed him a smile. “I snagged the lure on her robe when she attacked.”
“Will it follow?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s drawn to the lure.”
He nodded, and a grin of joyous relief split his face.
Together they began to laugh.
* * *
An hour later Ankles stood beside Carolhano on the foredeck, enjoying the wind on his face.
“Where did you get that pendant?” he asked presently.
The captain gave him an enigmatic smile. “Just another bad memory I had locked away in my cabin.”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t press further. They were alive, and that’s what counted. The rig was running again and they would just beat the Sweep. Irongate was only an hour away, and once safe, they would get the Aurai’s Gift repaired.
And then, he thought, we’ll find out if the priest was telling the truth.
Judging by recent events, he’d put money on it.
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During my years at college I was introduced by a friend to Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett, and now looking back I can see how Pratchett was a big influence on my style, particularly the way in which his dialogue was structured to provide comic effect, as well as the way in which his storytelling was separated into small, interweaving sections (for example, check out Irrevenant Pt.1). During college this first manifest itself as some rather tawdry, comedic attacks on people who I didn’t like as everything within the narratives got destroyed, even the protagonist by part 3.
But spin on a couple of years and I was beginning to build up a style and a focus. This was the interim of years between college and university – although I actually had no interest in further education at the time – and through another friend I began to attend a writer’s circle in Woking.
With the structure of regularly having a deadline I began to write some shorts that would form the basis of my later writings.
One of the very first was the Cosmic Highway…..
Vanishing Point (1971) And The ‘Other’
I must have watched Vanishing Point dozens of times, and let’s say that back then more than a few of these were under certain herbal influence. During these somewhat psychedelic sessions movies became something almost shamanistic – I use what is a loaded term loosely here to denote movement from one reality to another – and there is a certain narrative structure to this movement that relates to Joseph Campbell et al.
While I certainly can ramble on at length about shamanism, and mythic structure in movies, that’s a post for another day. What is important here is that while watching a movie one becomes immersed in the experience – one transitions into the reality of the movie – and at the same time there is a movement within the movie where the hero goes from real to unreal (the ‘other’) and back to real.
In Vanishing Point the hero is blocked from his goal on the road and heads out into the desert where he meets a mad old man who is collecting snakes. Out of this sequence the hero then gets back on the road, armed with his mystical truth and ready to face the forces of oppression.
Whilst this was certainly one of the things that drove me (aha, pun) to the study of anthropology, it was more immediately tangible in stories such as The Cosmic Highway, not just because it had a Dodge Charger in it, but because it contained the fundamental element of movement between worlds, from the real to the ‘other’. Within this frame-work there is also the mysterious figure (the “shaman” or trickster) who is able to convey one back and forth between realities. In this respect the driver is just a reflection of later characters such as Crow (see Crumbs For Crow).
What I present here is the original short about a muscle car driving, inter-dimensional taxi driver. While I have edited it to smooth out the reading, I have otherwise refrained from altering it so as to give an example of the little stepping stones that make up a writer’s journey.
Eventually the character and the idea would be reworked and incorporated into a wider thematic of a privatised afterlife: the car is actually Chiron’s ferry in a different form, and the driver’s powers were gift to him by the ferryman after he was laid off by the new corporate management of the Underworld™.
The Cosmic Highway (story)
It’s early, or maybe late, depending on who you are in the cosmos.
For me it’s well into Limbo, that liminal time between realities, and my foot’s all the way down to the floor because right this moment I got troubles weighing heavy like a ten tonne weight across my shoulders. Call it a scoop I’m giving you now, so stick around and I’ll fill you in on the sequence of events, introductions first.
Most folk just call me Driver, plain and simple. But names aside, you can call me anything you like. All you gotta know is that I’m no ordinary joe, and this ain’t no ordinary taxi that I pilot. Sure, outside it looks normal enough, an Earthworld Dodge Charger from nineteen hundred and seventy, one of America’s gifts to the environmental lobby, from the era when they made ’em cool and fast for the sake of it. She’s mean and sleek with curves to die for, four wheels of supercharged lean-burn muscle dressed in the purest velvet midnight that blazes on through the stop signs of the imagination. Under the hood there’s more than horsepower too, but it isn’t the personal modifications alone that makes the difference.
No, what’s special is on the inside, or in other words me. I’m the one who’ll get either you or your package to the destination of choice. Anywhere you want in space or time, you name it; I’ll drive it there, and boy I’m telling you some have named stranger than the boggling mind can conceive. I don’t cruise the usual highways see? And I make handbrake turns around reality. You dig? Maybe not eh? Sometimes I ask questions, but I don’t remember no truths. If I decide to take the gig you pay my price and unlike the rest, I’m not into cash, cheques or credits cards. That kinda credit doesn’t cut any mustard in these parts.
And I know you’re still dyin’ to get a good look at my face right? Well, see I’m kinda edgy about that, and in all fairness these features could be one amongst hundreds that you see in your day. Easily vague, shadowy perhaps, wrapped in the blackest shades and instantly forgettable.
So, introductions aside, you must be getting hungry for the scoop right? You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Well, it all started a few hours back and I’m settling down in this cozy back-street place I know, the sort of one in any million ,low light joints where the barkeep flaps a beer sodden bar-towel with vague ineffectiveness at some fly that only he really sees and hears. In the corner some a shady blues three piece are taking the denizens down into twilight with a seedy rhythm.
I’m blowin’ a smoke ring, contemplating this and that, when all of a sudden there’s this guy stooping over me, and I’m tellin’ you he’s got the mysterious robed stranger thing down to perfection, the whole deal with the weird eyes, deep hood and menacing voice. He’s laying out the gig, whisperin’ the details in these hushed tones, what and where and when. No problem, but I’m tellin’ him to beat it. I’m really not in the mood for a weird one tonight. Naturally he’s got it covered, knows just the thing to make the fish bite the bait. An original, very rare and served with a garnish of assurances. My instincts are spelling danger in big red letters, but I turn a blind eye.
I deal and hit the road as soon as soon as I’ve taken another swift drink, my fare on the seat beside me riding shotgun. He fits nicely in his box and I feel sort of honoured, although secretly I’m glad to say that he’s seen better days. There ain’t a soul around these ways who hasn’t heard about this dude and the heavy baggage he’d been swinging. A real unsavoury, into the sort of thing that you don’t ask too many questions over. See, you never know who’s listening at the door, so most folk here nod in silent agreement that they’d all rather be keeping their eyeballs. Still, judging by the sneak peek I took of him I’d say that those days are well and truly over. I’m doubting that he’ll be taking part in any more clandestine ceremonies, other than perhaps as a candle holder.
So, everything’s cool for about the first hour, the deserted highway scenario mixing with the heavy fog shroud while the radios playing some smooth road tunes as we eat up the miles. We’re making with the good time between Limbo and the There and Then and I’m making the mistake of thinking that this gig isn’t gonna be such a weird one and how I’m gonna get a nice Mogadorian breakfast when all of a sudden it’s the fright of the night and the guy next to me is awake and really rowdy, asking in shades of a blue tongue where in the Hell he is and what in the Hell’s going on.
“I thought you were dead!” I intone with exasperation. It’s an understatement to say that I’m less than impressed by this revelation.
“Dead? Ha!” his voice is heavy with the contemptuous tones as he starts down the whole beyond Death routine like all these cultist nut jobs do. “I am He that Death cannot bind, He who is beyond the Veil of Mortality, the eternal servant of Lashu Froom!”
I cut in before he gets further into the powertrip about how everyone’s gonna be bowing before him.
“Yeah yeah yeah, that’s why you’re here and some other guys wearin’ your fancy robes and getting it on in the inner sanctums with the sacrificial virgins right?”
That strikes a nerve I can tell you and the tense silence that follows can only be described as ominous. I take to considering how risky it might be to mock this particularly afflicted individual, but then I say to myself no one gets shirty with me, not when I’m behind the wheel. His next sentence has the leaden effects of doom down to a tee that breaks the atmosphere like a walnut under a hammer.
“Your impertinence is noted foolish one. Know that soon I shall reclaim my rightful place as the Right Hand of Lashu Froom and upon my return you shall be the second voice raised in the exultations of agony, singing my eternal praises from the torture chambers of Eleria!”
“Uh-huh. Same old same old then? You probably don’t even let me die right?” Man, I really could have done without this tonight.
“You’re getting the idea I see. Prolonged suffering, endless torment and merciless torture awaits!”
I yawn, putting as much indifference into it as I can. This riles him even more and he’d be spitting if he had any saliva.
“Maybe you didn’t notice,” I say cooly, “but you’re not exactly in the best position to be dealing out threats. Your box fits you real good doesn’t it?” Now that’s got him seething.
“They shall flail the skin from your body! They shall draw the marrow from your bones! They shall…….”
It goes on like this for some time. When he’s quite finished his frenzied little routine I respond with the usual calmness. “Don’t you think this hideous torture bit is getting a little dated now? I mean, have you ever been to Earth? Man, it’s quite literally been done to death. You should keep up with the times.” An eruption of static punctuates the moment and I’m twirling the dial. Ther’s a burst of Reggie Dixon and I shudder before continuing, “There are worse things in Heaven and Earth Horatio……”
“And you shall know them! You shall be hunted down to the ends of time itself if need be!”
I don’t reply and that’s when I glance in the rear view mirror. A sight most unwanted grabs my attention. Curses.
“Something awry?” he inquires after a painful pause and I feel the smugness radiating from the box beside me as I imagine the expression on his desiccated face.
“Nope,” the word comes out wrong and he’s just loving the fact that my cool is well and truly blown! Thoughts of the eternal torments spring up fresh in my mind with a new, urgent vigour I find most unpalatable. Oh man, what a night. I’m wishing that I’d taken note of what my instincts had to say. Like I said, I could have done without a weird one. In response I make my foot more intimate with the accelerator.
“Ha ha, do you know who follows us foolish one?” he says, laying on the mocking tones like sickly thick syrup.
“I could probably take a wild guess. Something along the lines of the dread servants of the almighty Lashu Froom?”
“Yes! he cried, the box actually jolting with the ferocity of his exclamation.. “They are my eternal hordes! The decreed sent none other than Lashu Froom himself to retrieve me and return me to my rightful position!”
“Eternal servants huh?” I muse aloud, scratching the rough stubble at the end of my chin as I ponder whether it’s not too late make some sort of apology…..
Last Word: Over To You Super Soul
Well, that’s all for today folks. Feel free to leave me a comment or ask me a question.
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[This was another quick writing project that was done for the monthly challenge on http://www.fantasy-writers.org. I kept the working title as I liked it, but if anyone has a more appropriate one let me know. But first, sit back and have yourself a little slice of my dark, festive offering……]
Through the shifting halls of dream Sarah chased the echo of a small, tinkling bell. On and on amidst slumber’s oil-on-water realities until she cornered it in a hall of stone where logs crackled in a fireplace. She bared her teeth and growled, suddenly wary that what she pursued was behind her……
Her eyes snapped open and the dream shattered, fragments evaporating to leave only a trace of unease clinging to her like cobweb. She gritted her teeth and hugged her pillow, willing herself back to slumber even as she knew it was to be denied. The echo of that ringing bell played in the back of her mind. It would not be ignored, taunting her like a mocking gremlin.
Well, there was a way to deal with such gremlins, wasn’t there doctor? Her hand quested out toward the bedside table where a small plastic bottle stood lit blue-green by the digital clock. It was three minutes after midnight.
Sarah knocked back a couple of pills, swallowed them dry with a sense of vengeful satisfaction. The gremlin would rue the day as she settled to watching the minutes tick by. At some point her eyelids grew heavy, calm wrapping itself around her mind like a warm blanket. She drifted towards unconsciousness…..
Something creaked. A floorboard? Her ears pricked up, straining to detect the tiniest of hint of sound as a primordial instinct overrode her weariness. This intrusion she tried to force back down, telling her treacherous brain that it was just the house settling. To no avail
Sarah rolled onto her side, wide awake and angry. The numbers on the clock were fuzzy. She watched as they flick round, minute by minute, increment by increment. When it became unbearable she cursed and slipped from her bed, crossed the room and cracked her door open to listen. The house was still, but….. was that a voice? Someone in the living room? Maybe father…..
With no way to lure back the elusive spectre of sleep, Sarah slipped into the hallway and tiptoed along the plush carpet to where her sister’s door stood ajar. Sarah smiled. Mary must have snuck downstairs to check the presents. Her little sister was always worrying that they might disappear overnight, or that Santa might come early.
Sarah took a step down, then paused as she whispered to herself, “But who is she talking to?”
* * *
“What are you doing?”
Crow paused and looked over his shoulder. A girl in striped pyjamas stood behind him, a plate of mince pies held in her hands. These she promptly dropped as her hands went to the ‘O’ of her mouth. “W-what happened to your face?”
“My face? Nothing,” Crow replied, puzzled, then continued to sort through the brightly wrapped presents which lay overspilling from beneath the skirt of a grand Christmas tree. As he sifted, he stuffed his selections into a tattered sack. “It is the face I was born with.”
“But…. but you’re dead,” the girl whispered.
Crow laughed. “Dead?”
“L-look! Your hands!” She pointed.
Crow held up a long-fingered hand for inspection. “They appear perfectly normal to me.”
“Normal? But they’re all…. bony!”
“Ah, so you say,” said Crow with a dismissive wave, “But from where I stand, I am alive and you are dead.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” the little girl replied, then added, “And it’s not very nice.”
“Nice has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of perspective.”
“Per… perspive? What’s that?”
“It means that things are not what they appear to be.”
He stood and looked around. The room was a plush paradise of Christmas cheer, everything tinsel edged and bathed in the soft glow of red and green and gold lights. An infinite loop of festive songs played softly from some unseen device. Crow cocked his head at the little girl, then crossed the room to her. She shrank back, but it was only mince pies that he sought.
“Why are you wearing that old suit?” asked the child as Crow took to perching on an arm of a large leather sofa. He crumbled a pie into pieces and pecked at them. “And how did you get in here?”
Crow tapped the side of his beak. “Trade secrets my little one.”
Then he froze, his attention fixed just beyond the girl’s shoulder. She turned to see her sister standing with a kitchen knife levelled at the intruder.
“Hello Sarah – ”
“Stay behind me Mary!” ordered Sarah as she pulled her sister behind her.
“But – ”
“W-who are you?” Sarah demanded. Her eyes widened.“And wh- what the hell is wrong with your face?”
“It’s alright Sarah,” said the little girl. “He says he’s not really dead.”
“Dead? I-is that a mask?” Sarah asked, reviled. The knife shook in her hand. Fear rode up her spine, yet did not surface. She knew her father and other family were close. Just up the stairs. There was no way this….. man could get away. She had been about to shout for help but the twinkling stars in those empty eye sockets fascinated her, drawing her towards their light……
“No, it’s the face he was born with,” Mary explained, “And he’s taking our presents!”
“You’re a – a thief!” Sarah shot at him. She felt giddy. It was surreal, and that mask was just so revolting. Perhaps it was the medication? Adrenaline? Sarah whispered to herself, “This must be one of those waking dreams.”
“Ha!” Crow snorted. “Waking dream. Why not take that sentiment back to bed with you? It was all just a dream.”
“Because,” stated Mary, “I’m waiting for Santa.”
“Who?” Crow frowned. The girls stared at him, but his question seemed quite genuine.
“Really?” Sarah asked, knife still pointed at Crow. “You’re not joking, are you?”
Crow shook his head. “Should I know?”
“He comes down the chimney,” Sarah said, “And leaves presents for the children.”
“Oh, him,” Crow said and rolled his…. eye sockets. “He’s just a story, a fable.”
“No he’s not!” Mary stamped a foot. “I saw him.”
“No you didn’t,” sneered Crow. “When?”
“At the shops.”
“That wasn’t him.”
“I know that.”
“You do?” Crow cocked his head. “Then you know he’s just a story?”
“Don’t be silly. The one at the shops works for Santa. He can’t be everywhere at once until Christmas Eve.”
“Well that explains that then,” Crow drawled. “And thanks for the mince pies.”
“Those were for Santa!” Mary stormed.
“They’d only have gone stale!”
“I can’t believe this,” Sarah muttered as they argued. It was madness.
“It’s not your Christmas Eve yet,” Crow was saying with sad condescension. “It’s the holy Solstice, and the only one abroad tonight is me!”
He rose from his perching and hefted the sack over a shoulder.
“You’re not very nice,” Mary shouted at him.
“And you’re not taking those presents,” Sarah added as she stepped forward with the knife pointed at his chest. “There are several people up stairs. All I have to do is shout!”
“Pah! You think you can stop me?” Crow gave a nerve-wracking cackle.
“P-put the sack down and I might let you leave before I call the police.”
“I think not,” Crow snorted. “These gifts are for a special child. Besides, it’s not like you don’t have enough, is it now?”
“But they’re ours!” Sarah snarled.
“Listen children, what’s yours is mine tonight,” Crow said, taking a step towards Sarah so that the knife pressed against his chest, “But the child these are destined for shall praise the benevolence of your giving.”
He knocked the knife from Sarah’s hand with a quick slap, then swept an arm to encompass the room, the house. “Look at this place. This is an edifice to the modern day paradise achieved by your – ” and he coughed into his hand “ – civilisation.”
“Paradise?” Sarah frowned with a shake of her head. “What are you talking about?”
“Poor children,” said Crow. “You have no idea, do you? Of course not, you have been incubated in this little den without a want or a care. Fed three times a day, entertained and pampered.”
“You’re not very nice!” Mary said, her lip trembling.
Crow considered. “Not in your world I’m not.”
“And what the hell does that mean?” Sarah snapped, reaching the limit of fear and frustration. “Our world?”
“Like I said, you have no idea.” Crow grinned at them, cocked his head on one side. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to the real world.”
“This is the real world,” Mary protested. “You’re a liar!”
“Never call me that!” Crow hissed and the twinkles in his eyes sockets flashed a cold blue. They both took a step back. “This is a world of falsehoods and deceptions! A world of mundanity and logic, a world of superstition and ignorance!”
The trembling lip broke, tears welled up and the little girl sobbed. “Why are you so mean?”
“Look what you’ve done,” Sarah sneered, pulling Mary close. “What kind of a man are you?”
“Man? I am far from being a man, and you may call me Crow.”
“You’re insane!” Sarah flung at him.
“Like I said, it’s a matter of perspective,” said Crow with a shrug, then he cocked his head in thought. “But perhaps I can show you, if you like? After all, I suppose I do owe you something for the presents.”
“We’re not going anywhere with you,” Sarah retorted.
“Well, I doubt you could handle it. The little one maybe, but you are getting a little old.” He cackled. “Would you like to come and see Mary? Just quickly though.”
“See what?” asked Mary.
“Why, the real world of course.” He extended a hand to her and the light in his eye sockets grew brighter with a twinkling lustre. As if in a dream Sarah saw Mary’s hand reach for Crow’s outstretched palm. She reached to grasp Mary’s shoulder just as the skeletal fingers wrapped around the tiny hand.
A little bell tinkled, and everything turned inside out.
* * *
Sudden cold. It was a slap in the face and Sarah went to her knees. Her stomach lurched and she retched into the snow.
“What…. what the – ”
“Here we are,” said Crow, pulling her to her feet.
“Sarah!” gasped Mary. “Look!”
Sarah stared at the hand holding hers. It was flesh and blood, and Crow’s face was no longer a bird’s skull. He was richly feathered in black plumage that contained faint traces of green and purple iridescence. His eyes were now full orbs, shining with intellect.
“Welcome,” smiled Crow, and as arm swept out to encompass a crepuscular winter’s woodland, “To the real world.”
Sarah gazed out across undulating waves of snow from which skeletal trees reach for the grey wash of the sky. The sun was a pale disc of silver low on the horizon. Occasional snow flakes drifted down.
“Now, bear with me,” Crow said, patting his tattered shirt until he found a key, gnarled with verdigris. He turned and popped it in the lock of a huge wooden door bound in blackened iron. As he did so, Sarah and Mary stepped back from the threshold to take in a large stone-rimmed arch set into a hillside, its rising flanks thick with trees.
Crow pushed open the door on protesting hinges and a wave of warmth and cheer flooded forth, immediately enticing: a feast was in progress, the air thick with the sounds of revelry and song, with laughter and the smell of roasting meat over wood fires. Fluttering notes swirled on the festive atmosphere and the throng within bobbed to its sweet melodies. Sarah and Mary were lured, pulled forward, but Crow suddenly barred their way. “Wait! I assume you know the rules?”
“What rules?” Sarah snapped with impatience.
“The rules,” Crow said. “Everyone knows the rules, yes?”
They shook their heads.
“Of course you don’t,” Crow sighed in exasperation. “Listen very carefully. These are the rules: Number one, do not drink anything. You’ll be tempted. Don’t! Second rule: Don’t join in any singing, especially if you feel you know the words. Got it?”
They both nodded, half hearing for eagerness to get within.
“Okay, last, and most important of all: Don’t eat anyone.”
“Anyone?” Sarah asked with a frown.
“Did I say that?” Crow looked suddenly shifty. “I meant don’t eat anything, even if you feel a ravenous hungry. Do you understand?”
They nodded again.
“Good.” Crow slung the sack over his shoulder. “And never let it be said that I didn’t warn you. Come on.”
Hand in hand the sisters followed Crow into the chaos. They bumped and shoved their way through the room, bedecked in gold and green and red, just like home, but if you had asked Sarah what made it different, she would have said that it was all so…… alive. There was no other way to describe the vivid richness, the overpowering lustre of everything. The gold on the candelabra, the jugs and plates and furnishings, it all shone like the sun while the evergreen of the great tree in the heart of the room blazed with indescribable vivaciousness. Everywhere flowed deep reds, from the drapes and upholstery to the garb and adornments of the strange assembly. It was the very colour of blood and danger, vigour and passion.
Sarah, breathless and giddy, lead Mary through the horde as Crow barged and elbowed forward, throwing greetings and replying to jests. She saw men with gnarled faces like tree bark who danced arm in arm with spry young women, their slender forms adorned in translucent green frocks and who sported delicate wings like lace. A man in a torn shirt turned a wolf’s head as she passed, his tongue lolling between sharp teeth. He winked with a lewd grin and Sarah felt a flush of heat upon her cheeks.
On and on they pressed until Mary’s hand slipped free and Sarah turned to see her sister giggling at the antics of a frolicking fool. He tumbled, shaking his bells, then conjured a red ribbon from behind the little girl’s ear. With a merry laugh the fool capered away through the gathering and Sarah pulled her sister after Crow, only to find him arrested by an old woman. Her face was hatchet sharp, her skin taut around a crescented nose while the deep set eyes blazed with the fire of knowing.
“Dear Crow, I see you have guests, hmmm?”
“Crone,” Crow gave her a curt bow. “Rest assured, they are here only for a brief visit.”
The crone scrutinised Sarah and Mary. “And just why are they visiting, hmmm?”
“Aha! It was merely a Solstice whim Crone.”
“As good a reason as any I suppose,” she cackled and waved them on. “The King awaits you.”
Crow nodded and moved off, but as Sarah followed the crone caught her arm to whisper quickly. “Be careful my dear, hmmm?”
Sarah mumbled a reply that was lost in the clamour as she stumbled after Crow, her senses reeling from the festive maelstrom around her. The heat, the noise, the commotion was overwhelming. When a small boy with little horns darted from behind a pair of furred legs and grabbed Mary’s hand, there was nothing she could do.
“Come dance with me!” he cried and Mary’s hand slipped away.
“Mary!” Sarah shouted, but her sister had already disappeared into the throng. She tried to pull Crow up but they had emerged from the press before a huge throne of carved wood and bone. Upon it sat the most corpulent man Sarah had ever seen, his skin a rich and vivid green, his eyes shining with mirth and delight. He scratched beneath his loin cloth and tore another chunk of meat from a long bone.
“Crow! My dear friend!” he boomed, laughing as he tossed the bone away.
“Sire,” Crow bowed. “I have returned as promised.”
“I see you have brought gifts! Pray tell me,” and the king leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin to whisper, “What have you brought my queen this year?”
“Surprises and oddities from the unreal world, my lord.”
The king boomed his laughter. “You never fail dear Crow.”
“One tries my lord,” Crow replied with a smile. The king turned his gaze upon Sarah and his face split in a lecherous grin.
“And what do we have here?” The green king licked his greasy fingers.
“My guest, sire,” said Crow. He drew Sarah forward. “A human woman.”
“My my my,” said the king. “She’s certainly a dainty little….. morsel.”
“Alas sire, she is not for the eating.”
“Ah, shame! And with her looking so young and tender!”
“Just so sire,” said Crow, inclining his head in agreement. “I thought she might benefit from some perspective, and thus did I deliver her to your magnificent court.”
“Ah, and rightly so dear Crow!” Then to Sarah he asked, “And how do you like my merry little gathering?”
Sarah sought words, found Crow’s elbow jar them out of her, “Er…. very much my lord. It’s…. er, very festive.”
“But of course!” boomed the king. “It is the Solstice, after all! The longest, darkest of nights!”
Sarah nodded and smiled vaguely. The Solstice….. she’d never really thought about it. Christmas was a time for family and food and presents, and she knew it got dark at winter. The longest, darkest night…. it seemed so obvious now.
“I didn’t know…..” she mumbled.
“Didn’t know?” and the king boomed his laughter again. “How strange you humans are!”
“As you see sire,” Crow explained, “She is pitifully ill equipped to understand the importance of such a time.”
“Alas, a sad fate for people who are so short lived,” the King nodded sadly, then brightened. “Still, I am sure that she will enjoy her time here! ‘Tis the Solstice after all!”
And he set about quaffing and gorging with fresh vigour. Crow steered Sarah away and let out a long, slow breath. “Well, that went well.”
Sarah rounded on him, nettled. “What do you mean, pitifully ill equipped?”
“Just a figure of speech,” Crow replied and rolled his eyes. “And after all, you really don’t know what the meaning of Solstice is, do you?”
“And why should I?” she snapped. “No one’s ever told me that it was the longest, darkest night.”
“Such is the fate of the civilised,” Crow replied as he skilfully lifted a steaming cup of wine from a tray borne on the raised hands of a very small waiter. As Sarah watched him drink, her anger subsided in the warm fluff of the gathering’s atmosphere. There was something that she had forgotten…..
“Mary! Where is she?” She grabbed Crow by his lapels, spilling his wine. “Where’s my sister?”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s quite safe,” Crow said gently, prying Sarah’s hands from his jacket and finishing his drink. “Come, you must meet the All-Mother.”
Without answer they were once more whirling through the heaving mass of strange folk, those with horns and more than one set of eyes. Sarah passed a woman with six arms bedecked in charms and bracelets who combed the beard of a strange, stick thin man smoking a pipe while he described arcane gibberish with flourishes of his long fingered hands. Everywhere were such fascinating distractions that as Sarah sought the memory of something important, her thoughts became elusive starlings wheeling into the sky as she tried to grasp them. As she made another attempt they stepped clear of the crowd.
“All-Mother?” Crow asked, and Sarah’s focus landed on a large woman who reclined in indolent beauty, tumbles of golden hair rolling around her radiant face which shone with matronly warmth. She wore a soft, white nightgown that rested upon a landscape of curves, full and fruitful, her belly swollen with child.
“Crow, my dear,” she said in a voice like morning sunshine, “You have returned.”
“I have indeed my lady,” he beamed, dumping the sack on the floor, “And I have brought you’re progeny gifts of most outlandish oddity.”
“Oh Crow, why must you show off all the time?”
He bowed with a laugh, then pulled Sarah forward. “I have also brought a guest.”
“Ah, such a delight,” said the All-Mother who cast her benevolent gaze over Sarah. In those ancient eyes was such a depth of aeons that Sarah gasped.
“Oh, but isn’t she is a pretty one!” The All-Mother gave Crow a wry look as she added, “If perhaps a little unripe for your tastes. Still, I was wondering when you would take a wife.”
Sarah’s protest was cut short as Crow interjected. “Alas, she is merely my guest tonight.”
“Pity,” said the All-Mother, then addressed Sarah. “And how are you known worldly daughter?”
“Sarah,” and as Crow’s elbow sought her again she added a small curtsey, “My lady.”
“Welcome Sarah. Please, take you fill of our meagre fare. I would see you fed and refreshed.” She looked Sarah up and down. “Yes! You must eat heartily, for you are far too thin for the bearing of children.”
Crow laughed as Sarah’s mouth flapped in shock. “C-children?”
The All-Mother’s expression was all benevolence as she explained. “You have a rare gift, the gift of youth and a body that will give you great pleasure. Treasure it, but guard it well!” – and she beckoned Sarah closer with a finger as her voice went low – “for there are many abroad this night that would covet such a delectable prize.”
Then she lit up with laughter as soft as a silky thigh, as warm as fresh bread. Sarah felt her face flush with heat.
“Oh my,” said the All-Mother, taking Sarah’s hand.“You are a tender little one, aren’t you? Beware the appetites of one such as Crow. He can be a charmer when he wants to be.”
Sarah shot Crow a glance. “Er… yes. I’ll be careful.”
“Well then my worldly daughter, I fancy that you will enjoy the revels tonight. Eat, drink, be merry!”
And the All-Mother threw back a cup of wine and rubbed her belly with a smile of pure satisfaction. Crow drew Sarah away.
“Come, as much as she her hospitality is in earnest, it is nearly time to leave.”
“But……” Sarah tried to focus. “We can’t go yet.”
“It’s not a matter of debate,” Crow replied.
“I can’t remember.”
Crow shook his head and tried to lead her away. Sarah yanked her hand free and slipped into the mass of strange folk. She had to remember before it was too late…….
* * *
Sarah fled as the crowd pressed close, snatches of conversation in strange voices crowding her ears while the warmth was a haze that seeped into her very marrow. She was thirsty and giddy and she had to remember…..
A body, tall and wide, stepped back and she bumped into the posterior of a particularly rotund….. person? It turned around and said something from between curved tusks, it’s small eyes bright with curiosity.
“I’m sorry,” said Sarah.
“Ah, you… speech other?” the creature said haltingly. It frowned. “You are speak?”
“Ah. Speaks English,” said the creature with a smile as an elfin lady laid a hand on its arm and inclined her ornate helm to Sarah. “Sorry my dear. It’s been a while since he was in your world.”
“N-no problem,” Sarah replied with a nervous smile.
The fey gave her a small nod. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’ve…. I can’t remember.”
“You look troubled. I find that a glass of spiced wine always helps me feel better,” and she plucked a steaming cup from one of the small waiters, then passed it to Sarah. She stared at the liquid within. There was something she had been told…..
But she was so thirsty. She took a long draught of the glorious liquid, felt the sweet liquor glide down to her stomach and her first reaction was to gasp in delight. Her second reaction was to hear her stomach rumble and she looked around for food. The succulence of roasting meat reached her and without another word she cut through to where attendants were slicing meat from something like a suckling pig. A platter appeared in her hands, and she was ripping at meat so delicious she thought she would never be satisfied…….
And all the time, in the back of her mind, a desperate need to remember something played over and over. Yet the revels had now swept away her fears, had swept away time itself and she lost herself to dancing, her voice lifted in a song that she had never heard but to which she knew every word. Her heart thundered, intoxicated with awe and madness and freedom as the crowd drew inwards to the great festive evergreen. It was the heart of the room, a magnet, a sink hole around which swirled the revellers. As they moved in rapturous dance they looped something long and bloody like a string of sausages over the branches. Sarah laughed at the blood on her hands, on her face. In her mouth she felt sharp teeth prick her tongue…..
Sudden silence, but broken almost instantly as a shuddering moan split the air. It was neither pleasure nor pain, but exultation! A great cheer of joy filled the room to the rafters, and Sarah howled with all her heart until someone grabbed her wrist.
Crow spun her around, his eyes bright with anger.
“I told you not to eat anything!” he hissed. “Come, we must leave now!”
“Oh Crow, leave me to the revel! Let me dance, let me sing!”
But Crow would not release her. “No! We must go. The All-Mother is about to birth the New Year!”
With a savage tug he pulled her away from the throng, back to the door as she struggled, but his grip was like iron. She wailed and thrashed as they reached the threshold of the hall, even as a great roar shook the very foundations. A sensation of pure awe and terror rode Sarah’s spine all the way to the tip of her tail.
“What is that?” she asked, but Crow wasn’t listening as he fought to push the great door open. A split second later Sarah was hurled into the cold, and her head swam so hard with the shock of the cold that she near fainted.
Overhead a great winged shadow blotted out the sky.
Then a bell rang, and the world turned outside-in.
* * *
Sarah didn’t retch, instead finding sudden sobriety like a hundred cups of coffee. The fog in her mind started evaporating and beside her Crow was muttering something about “damned time dilations.”
“W-what…?” she tried to ask, then stumbled into something large and red. It went over with a shout of surprise, arms and legs flailing.
“Must be Christmas Eve,” Crow remarked with a wry grin as he helped the fat man to his feet. To Sarah he shrugged and said, “Looks like I owe you an apology.”
But Sarah wasn’t listening, wasn’t looking at Santa with awe and surprise as anyone might have at such a moment. No, that expression was reserved for herself as she looked down at her own body.
“My…. my stomach!”
Crow shook his head. “Well, I did tell you not to eat anyone.”
Sarah, wide eyed, ran a hand over her swollen belly where it was rounded with child.
“Ho ho ho!” boomed the jolly fat man. “Congratulations!”
He rummaged in his sack and brought forth a lovingly wrapped gift box. “Looks like you have a bun in the oven my dear! Good job I’ve always got a spare present for those surprise moments!”
She took the gift from him in mute shock and he patted her hand with paternal care. Then with great gusto and laughter he swirled into a red vapour which disappeared into the fireplace. As he went up the chimney he gave a final, merry, “Ho ho ho!”
Sarah stood stunned. She had eaten….. a platter of meat. She recalled it’s taste, it’s succulence! Her memories were bubbling up into clarity. She had danced and feasted, and she could recall the sharpness of teeth…….
The words of the song sprang into her mind:
Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Tonight for the Midnight Sun!
Here are the earthly sisters, oh! Come to us for some fun!
Da-la-la – dilly-dee!
Here come our earthly sisters, oh! Solstice night for a little girl!
Here she is a sweet sister, oh! On the spit and all a-twirl!
Da-la-la – dilly-dee!
Here she comes our sister oh! Pieces on a plate for you and me!
Here she is our earthly sister, oh! Wrapped around our tree!
Da-la-la – dilly-dee!
It hadn’t been a suckling pig, had it?
“Well, it appears that Santa forgot his pies,” Crow said, picking up the plate. “Waste not want not, eh?”
“Mary…..?” Sarah’s lips quivered. The meat, the ribbon on the meat, the decorating of the tree. Her head turned to the family tree. The tinsel looked like it was…. glistening. Sarah sank to her knees, eyes wide, mouth slack with shock but no matter the revulsion and nausea she could not vomit.
Crow swept the crumbs into his hand and threw them into the dark maw of his beak, then came to Sarah. He pulled a small bell from his pocket, then patted her belly and gave a cackle.
“Blessings of the Solstice to one and all!” he cried with hearty cheer, and gave his bell a little ring. He vanished, leaving Sarah amid the soft glow of red and green and gold light as festive tunes played softly in the background.
Dear Reader, here is a little tale that was accomplished in short order, perhaps 10 days with only one round of edits and revisions. In this respect you have become it’s beta readers, and I apologise in advance for any mistakes made.
It was essentially done for a bit of fun and comic relief from the every day affair of working on manuscripts, blogs and biographical memoires. It is likey to appeal to fans of Terry Pratchett and is not meant to be taken seriously.
If you enjoyed it, then please like and share, or leave a comment and tell me what you think.
[EDIT: a big thank you to my friend Collette for pointing out many of the typos]
The Reawakening & Subsequent Adventure Thereof Regarding the Most Stubborn of Bastards, Thaadrek of Clan Ushentharl, mightiest of all the Clan Chief’s in the Great Northern Wastes & His Most Irreverent Warband of Misanthropes, Outcasts & Assorted Individuals Both Human and Otherwise . . .
David J Cambridge
The Most Imperious and Hallowed Omnifex, His Holiness Yladiel Astingius Patrelleaux reclined upon his ivory throne and cast his gaze upon the Legate, his eyebrows arched as if perpetually surprised to find a deed most foul besmirching the sole of his shoe. His expression remained for the entire minute it took the man to come flapping up the candlelit isle, his holy robed billowing, sandals smacking against the bare stone.
Breathless and trembling, the Legate bowed under that aloof disdain of one so infinitely superior, and for all that the man upon the throne was not physically intimidating – being that he was twig thin and bald unto a soft gleam – the Omnifex emanated an aura of cold command that chilled the heart and turned bones to jelly.
“And?” The single word was sufficient to send the Legate to his knees.
With a quavering voice the man replied. “All preparations have been completed for the scouring of wrong-doings, the castigation of the unworthy, and the purification of all that is tainted due to the imminent rise of the full moon upon this unhallowed Midwinter.”
“Very good. And?”
“Unto the very limits of the Blessed Realm have our messengers delivered the Holy Writs informing all blessed Ears, Eyes and Hands of the punishment due to those who engage in frivolity and laxity at a time of such inauspicious and imperilling cosmic alignments.”
“Continued, my lord?”
The Omnifex craned forward with a stare that was like a spear pinning the man to the floor. “You are my Legate, are you not?”
“Then why are you here provisioning my ears with your babble?”
The Legate jumped up. “I am departing immediately my lord.”
“Excellent. You have my leave,” said the Omnifex with a casual wave of his hand.
“Yes lord. Sorry lord. Blessed be the Triune!”
“Blessed be the Triune,” replied the Omnifex, leaning back once more.
The Legate scuttled off as fast as his bandy legs could carry him while the Omnifex pursed his lips and steepled his fingers in contemplation. Midwinter, such a dangerous time when planets and stars aligned in conjunction with the full moon. Such were the mysteries and tests of the Triune’s cosmos, and woe betide any who failed in their vigilance at such a time.
After all, anything might happened on such an unholy night.
There is a time and a place to do things, a time and place when the barriers between this life and the next grow thin. Thus, under a full moon on a Midwinter’s night when the stars were in the right place and the planets aligned just so, three men met in a graveyard with everything they needed for an unholy ritual: one spade (freshly stolen), one finger (freshly cut from a hanged man), thirteen black candles, a hefty bag of chalk dust, and one rather scrawny chicken.
The wind moaned long and low…….
“That’s the village cockerel,” Brother Burlev spat, breath pluming in the cold night air.
“Is it?” Brother Asteg held it up by its neck and examined it.
“You berk,” Brother Yeshin cuffed him round the head. “Don’t you think they’ll notice when the morning comes up?”
“I said get a chicken,” said Burlev, grabbing Asteg by the front of his robe and pressing their faces together. Asteg suddenly felt just a little bit sweaty.
“Cockerel’s a chicken, right?” Asteg whimpered. Everyone paused to think about it.
“He’s got a point,” Yeshin shrugged.
“Yeah,” Burlev growled, “But just not THAT chicken!”
“Ha, bit of a cock up eh?” Yeshin sniggered. The two men turned their heads to him. The vein in Burlev’s temple was starting to throb, and his eyes had that red wide, angry look about them. Yeshin’s smile fell, vanishing.
“Well, too late now,” Burlev said as he let Asteg drop to the floor. The cockerel, sensing a sudden lessening in attention made an attempt at escape. Unsuccessfully. It did however managed to lose half its remaining feathers. “Come on,” Burlev waved them onward, “We don’t have all night.”
So they slunk through the shadows with appropriate sinister shiftiness, towards where decaying crypts perched on a ragged cliff edge to overlook the tempestuous ocean far below as it whipped itself to white foam. When they reached the bottom of the hill Burlev, party leader, chosen of the mistress’ coven, and by day respectable pillar of the community of St. Esticaria paused. He cast an eye behind them to make sure no one had witnessed their passage and was satisfied that no one was out taking a midnight stroll in the graveyard on an auspicious Midwinter’s midnight.
“Come on,” he growled. “We don’t have all night.”
“Which one?” wheezed Yeshin as he humped the bag of chalk.
“The one at the top. It’s the oldest.”
“How did I know you were going to say that.”
“Why don’t we swap then?”
“Cuz,” said Burlev, smartly cuffing his colleague, “You picked the short straw.”
Yeshin stopped dragging the bag along and blew on his hands. “How about you just take a turn and I’ll carry the spade and candles.”
“How about I smack you over the head and leave you to the sodding crows?”
“How about you do that?” Yeshin dared to retort. “Then you’d have to drag the bag up there and carry the other stuff too.”
Burlev considered this new dimension to the problem. “Okay, see where ya coming from. Asteg, give him a hand.”
“What about the chicken?”
“Just keep hold of the cock with one hand and grab the sack with the other.”
“Yeah, that’s just what ya wife said yesterday,” Yeshin grinned, then jumped back as the spade came whistling towards him. He bumped into Asteg who let out a curse as he dropped the chicken. The poultry promptly fled up the hill. A moment later it decided that it would take its chances with the ragged ocean’s fury rather than the three men advancing with the intent of doing evil unto its body, so it leapt.
The wind moaned long and low……
Together they stood on the lip of the cliff and Burlev was of a mind to toss both his companions over the edge and go home for tea. But the Mistress wouldn’t be very happy about that now, would she?
“What are we gonna do?” asked Asteg with a sniff as he wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve. Burlev gritted his teeth, considered what it might be like putting a knife somewhere inconvenient in Asteg’s person, but decided that the dark powers would probably be offended if he attempted to substitute a lesser offering like Asteg instead of the chicken.
“What’s the big deal anyway?” muttered Asteg. “What we need the chicken for?”
Burlev and Yeshin stared at him until Yeshin said, “What do you think it was for? When you call something from….. you know….” – his voice dropped to a whisper – “the otherside, well you need to give ’em something to sate their hunger.”
“What their hunger?”
“Sate! As in, to appease it,” Yeshin explained.
“So why didn’t we bring peas?” Asteg said, scratching his head.
“Shut it!” barked Burlev. “We need to find another offering. Any ideas?”
* * *
If you were to be unfortunate enough to be clinging onto the edge of a precipice with a fiery oblivion below you would almost certainly think twice about letting go. But it wasn’t just the doom that awaited him that kept him holding on for the past five hundred years. Oh no, it was sheer stubbornness because no one got the best of Thaadrek of Clan Ushentharl, mightiest of all the Clan Chief’s in the Great Northern Wastes.
Sure, they’d managed to kill him in the middle of the night, but he wasn’t counting that as a victory for their side. He’d had a lot of time to think about it and this is how he saw it play out in his mind.
A wagon rolls through the barbarian’s territory loaded with barrels. It’s guarded by a company of Hands, the soldiers of the Triune. They looked nervous, and Thaadrek smiles to himself. Like beasts these men feel the primal instincts stir at the presence of unseen danger. The bloody work takes but a moment after the horde arise from hiding and descend upon the prize. The barrels they take back to the village and proceed to enjoy the fine vintage that is contained within. Oh cruel trickery though, for the enemy has no stomach for the heroic deeds of mortal combat. Instead they have suffused the wine with a soporific and while the village lays insensate with sleep, the Triune’s assassin’s creep into the village and do the dirty deed of ending the Clan’s resistance. Thaadrek, with the constitution of a bull still kills three of them before they bring him low.
No, he wasn’t counting that. There was fighting dirty and then there was being a bunch of chicken shits.
Worse, when he awoke not to his own promised and glorious afterlife but rather the Burning Hell promised by the Triune he had been filled with an enduring cold fury. So he had grasped the ledge in perpetuity, a fiery oblivion below and a churning maelstrom of cloud above. With the passing of time he had given him the situation not an inconsiderable amount of thought. There was one conclusion that he had arrive at regarding this unfortunate turn of affairs.
In defeat he had allowed the Triune to extend the dominion of its (so called) Blessed Realm not only over his people’s lands, but over his people’s spirit world as well. This meant that all his people, his kin and clansmen, had gone into the Triune’s Burning Hell. His enduring cold fury became an icy resolve. Thaadrek would not follow, and if there was one characteristic that the relevant people who were asked might say about the once famed barbarian warrior Thaadrek of Ushentharl, it was that he was, without a doubt, most certainly, the most stubborn of bastards. So he clung to the precipice and prayed to the Old Gods that he might right this wrong. By barbarian logic he could see clearly just what it was that he would do to free his people. All he needed was one chance.
When it came, he would take it, and then there would be…… consequences.
* * *
Skiela Drum lay in the darkness on her bed, stomach grumbling from lack of dinner. Beyond the large sheet that served as a thin partition between bedrooms she could hear her father explain just what had occurred today in the market and contemplated the question of why adults were incapable of believing anything that they were told by children.
“….. and when I turn around she’s only talking to the Grand Ear of the Triune as he’s sauntering down the street!”
“What? Why?” her mother asked, voice trembling.
“Bold as you like starts talking to him, telling him that she’s heard this talking crow! A talking crow! And how it’s been saying that the Grand Ear is really deaf as a brick privvy, and a pompous old windbag to boot!”
“By the Burning Hell!” said Skiela’s mother, and she could well see the colour draining out of her mother’s face as the Catechism of Preservation began to roll off her tongue.
“So,” her father continued, never to let another’s discomfort keep him from embellishment, “Like I says, she goes and tells him to his face!” – the words of the Catechism increased in speed and fervour – “And thank the Blessed Protector that the bastard really is deaf, because he’s looking like he was about to send her to the pickling vats there and then!” – her mother actually paused in breathless terror – “But I grabs her and spin out a yarn about how she had overheard old Mr and Mrs Shebbins talking all that blasphemy. He turns red and the sends me over to give the scrivener the details. Ha! Expect they’ll be getting a little visit tonight, mark my words. That’ll teach ’em for stealing my spade.”
Her mother doubled up her prayer, and Skiela could hear the creak of the bed frame as she rocked back and forth. She was probably as astonished and disgusted as Skiela by the satisfaction in father’s voice.
“Triune’s sake woman, knock it off,” said her father.
“You’re truly a reprehensible man,” her mother hissed. “We’ll both be for the pickling vats if anyone finds out.”
“Just keep your mouth shut then.”
“What about Skiela?”
“I’ll have a word with her in the morning. If she keeps up this nonsense she’ll get a good thrashing. That ought to set her mind right.”
Her mother began to weep, but her father just ignored it, rolled over and went to sleep. Skiela listened as he mother’s sobs faded, and she waited in the darkness, mulling over the problem. It was simple. Adults just didn’t have the brains to understand that she had quite clearly witnessed the bird speaking. Why was it her problem if she told the truth to the Ear? They were the ones who were supposed to sort these strange occurrences out, weren’t they?
There was only one thing for it. She would have to go out tonight and find the evidence. That’d show all these damn adults that she wasn’t to be trifled with, all four feet of her with her messy blonde hair and big, blue eyes.
Once she heard the snores next door she was up and slipping into her coat and boots, then out the door and into the dark streets of the village. She’d have to be careful not to get caught by the night watch, otherwise it’d be a flogging, but they were slow and stupid…… like most adults she added.
Anyhow, she’d done this before and she wasn’t afraid of anything.
Out into the dark then, off to find that talking bird.
* * *
“Right, what does it say on the instructions?”
Brother Yeshin, the only one capable of reading (and rightly proud of the fact) guided the other two in the layout of the arcane ritual. The pentagram of chalk dust came first, then the candles accompanied by the requisite ritual mutterings, then finally the finger. Typically rather a rare commodity in the peaceful town of St. Esticaria, the brothers had the good fortune that the Holy Triune’s Holy Writs were in effect. The Grand Ear was here, listening for whispers of dissent, while the Grand Eye scrutinising the masses for signs of deviancy, and finally the Hands were generally acting like thugs with privileges, going around being obnoxious until some poor sod lost his patience and snapped, earning him an instant free ride on the twon gallows. After all, such inauspicious conjunctions demanded extra vigilance against the ever wayward commonality and their grumbling attitudes towards their superiors, thus provisioning those in occult circles nicely.
“How in the Burning Hell does a finger open a door to…… the other side?” Asteg was asking as Yeshin produced the offending digit.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” growled Burlev.
“Yeah,” Yeshin rolled his eyes. “It’s magic, ain’t it.”
“Oh, I see,” Asteg nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Right, let’s get this ritual started. Then we can get our new servant of the Burning Hell back to the mistress.”
All three quivered in excitement. This could get them more than just a nod of recognition, oh no, this might get them privileges.
“Yeah,” sniffed Asteg, “I’m sick of cleaning out the privy every time you lot take a dump.”
“Quiet. Brother Yeshin, is all prepared!”
“I require only the offering Brother Burlev!”
“I got it here somewhere,” muttered Asteg, patting his pockets. The other two glared at him. “What?”
“Just pass that to Brother Burlev,” Yeshin said. “Right, where were we?”
“I said,” Burlev said through gritted teeth. “Is all prepared?”
“It is indeed Brother Burlev.”
“Then let the summoning begin!”
And with great pomp and ceremony did they recite verse most diabolical.
* * *
Thaadrek felt a tingle. He focused on the sensation. It was the first truly novel thing that had happened in years. What did it mean? Was something happening? Were his muttered prayers to the Old Gods about to give him a chance at redemption, at revenge?
Above him the maelstrom of cloud churned and tingled of lightning flashed within.
“Come, show me the Bloody Path once more, and I shall reap a road all the way to the heart of the Triune’s Blessed Realm!”
As if in answer, the thunder peeled.
* * *
The night watch sauntered past Skiela’s hiding place, two of the towns less reputable middle aged men deep in discussion over the finer points of which tavern provided an adequate ration of beer to water set against the relative cost in coin, and following inebriation why it was that women found the former’s charms irresistible a moment before he broke wind loudly.
“Damn bean stew,” he muttered.
“You need to watch that,” said his companion. “I heard that them vapours can be caused by evil spirits.”
“What? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sure it does. They get in the beans, see?”
“How do they get in the beans?”
“Well, you know, they…. inhabit them.”
“Why would an evil spirit inhabit a bean?”
“Well, when you put it like that, I’m not sure,” and the man scratched his head. Then an idea came to him. “Probably afflicts them like a pox when they’re hovering in the air…..”
Their voices drifted off into the clear, cold night and Skiela Drum kept to the shadows, searching and searching for that elusive bird. It wasn’t long before she caught its silhouette against the moon. She approached slowly, like a cat stalking a mouse, to where it perched on a wall with its head cocked, watching her slow approach with a hint of amusement.
“Not you again,” it sighed.
“You got me in trouble,” she hissed.
“Did I tell you to go talking to that pompous windbag? No, you went and blurted it out, right to his face! Oh my life girl! Are you trying to get yourself pickled? It’s a damn good job that the bastard really is as deaf as a doorknob. And damned lucky your father was there.”
“My father – ”
“Is also a pompous windbag,” the crow interjected. “I heard he was busy today dropping someone else in the proverbial dung-heap for what you said.”
“It was you who said it first!”
“Oh no I didn’t!”
“Oh yes you did!”
The crow was about to reply when it cocked its head towards the mouth of the alleyway Skiela had entered. A split second later she heard the tramp of boots on cobbles. The watch were coming back and she was in a dead end with no where to hide. If they looked this way then she’d be done for. Trembling, she saw the two men step into the moonlight, the closer man’s head turning as suddenly someone said.
“What did you just call me?” the man turned to his companion.
“What? I didn’t say nothing.”
“Yes you did, heard you plain as day.”
“You must be imagining it. I haven’t said a word.”
“So what, I’m delusional am I?”
“Probably them beans again. I warned you, didn’t I?”
“Oh, so I’m talking out my arse, am I?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time……”
And so it went. While they argued Skiela had climbed the wall and slipped into the higher shadows, following a dark shape as it fled over the roof tops.
* * *
Something was ascending from the Burning Hell, rising from the depths of oblivion towards Thaadrek. Hanging upon the precipice he could feel the shuddering of the infernal mantle, the cacophonous roar of those in torment like the wail of a a thousand demon mothers giving birth to a thousand misbegotten spawn……
Whatever it was that had escaped the clutches of the pit was headed towards him, a black spot against the bright flames, but surely he was not its intended target. He looked up and saw that the churning storm clouds of the underworld were being drawn up into a whirling funnel, but by what means he had no notion. Below him the black spot was resolving, coming up quickly now and it was not a moment longer until Thaadrek made out the fine features of a young woman, eyes closed and long hair billowing. Her face had a serene expression like she was savouring a rare and delightful aroma……
She was close now, and as she rushed toward him he tensed, then launched himself into the void and caught hold of her as she passed. For a moment he was afraid they’d both go plummeting into oblivion but the invisible force was like a rope hoisting them ever up towards that swirling vortex in the sky.
Into the portal they went, and there was a dislocation of thought and feeling, quickly followed by an awareness that he was suffocating, as if forced into garments far too small for him…….
* * *
“Did it work?” asked Brother Yeshin.
“How should I know? Candles went out.”
A match flared, bringing with it sparse illumination. Asteg let out a shriek of horror and they all turned to look at where the finger lay on the floor, stretching and distorting, pulsating and growing rapidly. It was crawling like a caterpillar, then Asteg’s shriek turned to a startled cry of pain as he burnt his fingers.
“Light the sodding candles!” Burlev shouted, spade drawn back in preparation of any necessary swatting to be done. From the direction of the finger came some rather nauseating and disturbing sounds as Asteg struck match after match to no avail. Then something shuffled near Burlev and he let fly with a cry that was half manly roar and half girlish squeal of fright.
“Bloody Hells!” Yeshin shouted as he pitched over in the dark.
“Hurry up Asteg!”
“Yeah, before this bastard kills me by accident!”
There was the sulphurous fizzle of a match and Asteg hastily lit a candle with a shaking hand, then another off that and raised them together to get a good look at the where the crawling finger had been.
“Quick! Find it!” Burlev shouted. They began a frantic search of the crypt.
“Over there!” Yeshin cried, pointing. It looked like the stump of an arm disappearing behind one of the musty sarcophagi. Spade at the ready the three advanced, candles held high, but when they looked behind the sarcophagus there was nothing.
“Where is it?” hissed Burlev as he swept a candle back and forth. In the jumping shadows something was moving, but it was hard to pinpoint where.
“It sounds like it’s getting bigger,” Asteg whimpered.
“Man up!” Burlev snarled, trying as much to convince himself as the others, “So it grew an arm. It’ll need more than that to take on all three of us.”
Burlev’s search came full circle and what he found would have unmanned the sturdiest of souls, for it was now towering before him, a pale revenant shaped like a giant of man, muscles on his muscles with smouldering, dark eyes. It was also totally naked. With a cry that was more surprised panic than savagery, Burlev swung the spade. The revenant caught it and wrenched it from him as simply as if taking a toy from a toddler. Yet it did not attack, and Burlev’s wit, which was a notch above his cowering brothers, kicked in a moment later. “Quick! Bring the offering!”
Yeshin shuffled forth and the cheese was passed to Burlev who promptly proffered it to the thing before him.
“Isn’t it supposed to say something like what is thy bidding?” hissed Yeshin. Burlev shrugged, prodded the cheese at the creature and said, “Maybe it’s not hungry.”
The revenant stared from the sweat beaded face of Burlev to the cheese in his hand, then back. When it spoke it had the voice of a gathering thunder-head about to break. “That is a piece of cheese.”
“And by its power do I bind thee!”
The revenant frowned, then roared with laughter. The three men quailed as the sound echoed in the hollows of the crypt, and watched dumbfounded as the creature handed Burlev the spade and turned to leave, laughing all the while.
“Wait!” blurted Burlev. “I forbid thee to depart!”
His words failed to produce any reaction and the creature, still chuckling to itself, strode out of the crypt, up the stairs and into the moonlight beyond. The three brothers looked at each other.
“What do we do now?” asked Yeshin.
“We better go after it,” Burlev replied reluctantly.
“Did you see the size of its – ” Asteg began, but Burlev cut him off. “I don’t want to even think about it!”
“And it’s damn cold too,” Yeshin remarked.
“Well, at least it didn’t kill us and eat us,” sniffed Asteg as they shuffled up the stairs. “Or it could, you know, have had its way with us and all…..”
“What?” Yeshin frowned and shook his head as if to clear it of any unwanted images. “Why would it want to do anything like that to us?”
“I heard about it from the mistress,” Asteg replied with a touch of pride at his depth of knowledge. “I heard them from beyond the grave has ape-tights, you know?”
“It’s ‘appetites’ you idiot! And I told you that piece of cheese was a bad idea,” Yeshin cuffed Asteg around the head as they emerged into the moonlight. “Obviously not fresh enough.”
“Ouch!” Asteg rubbed the back of his head. “That cheese was almost fresh. I only had it in my pocket since yesterday.”
“Clearly it’s not the freshness,” said Burlev, scratching his chin, “It’s the vintage.”
* * *
The three men departed, and in their wake the darkness gave rise to a vaporous apparition that slipped from the shadows behind a sarcophagus, its form that of a naked woman, her hair a long cascade and her eyes the blank white of blindness. In the silence of the crypt she drifted across the floor, through the stone works to where the cheese lay, her dainty nose twitching as it unerringly drew her to the discarded cheese. With relish, she drew a deep breath, inhaling its aroma. The cheese visibly diminished in size. Delicious. She drew another long inhalation and devoured the cheese with relish, her form attaining some greater sense of solidity.
It was the first sustenance she had had in a good half dozen decades, but the passage of time was akin to the fuzziness of an alcoholic’s morning after. The thought at the forefront of her mind was that it had been the aroma of cheese that had drawn her back, yes….. because, because she had been…… what? A cheese maker? No, that didn’t seem right. She cocked her head and cupped it in the palm of her hand as she searched her thoughts. It was as if she’d awoken from a dream, only to find herself still in one. Who was she? Where was she? And why did she have no clothes on?
She remembered…. ah yes…. being blind. Her nose and ears were her guide. That was why she had definitely not been a cheese-maker. But she knew about cheese. About the way it smelled. And that had something to do with those three men that had just left. She had a clear sense of them in her mind, their distinct minds and the flow of their thoughts…….
The idea seemed to trigger others, the memory of blindness recalled to her the feeling of wearing a strip of cloth across her eyes. With it came the renewed sensation, so real, as if…..
She put her hand up and felt the cloth. So by extension, if she thought about clothes…… and the feeling of a garment draped her.
Who am I? That was the question that went with what am I?
If only she could remember. There had been flames and screaming, hadn’t there? Yes…..
But any time to think on it further was curtailed by a distant sound caught on the edge of hearing, the blood curdling bay of hounds on the loose, and even as an apparition her body trembled. So up the staircase she fled, following her ear and nose to the rich smell of freshly dug graves, the cold chill of a woodland, the voices of three men discussing what to do about the spirit they had summoned.
The howl went up again, closer this time.
She fled on towards those voices, seeking the veil-thin safety of company.
* * *
“Watch out!” hissed the crow.
Skiela threw herself into the shadows as a squad of Hands marched past, between them Mr and Mrs Shebbin. She could hear the eldsters complaining about the roughness of their man handling.
“….. and if it’s about that spade, I told you, I never touched it.”
“Shut up!” barked the sargeant. “This is about blasphemy.”
“But spade theft isn’t blasphemy!” protested the old man.
“No, but calling the Grand Ear a pompous windbag is! So get moving. It’s the pickling vats for you two!”
“Hold up!” Mrs Shebbin protested, trying to dig her feet in without success. “It’s none of my business if my husband’s been saying such things! Serves him right, that’s what I says, but don’t be taking the innocent to punishment!”
“Wife! How can you betray me so?”
“Because you’re the one what stirred up trouble with that Mr. Drum in the first place, calling him a smelly footed turnip molester.”
“I see,” said the sergeant. “So, you have form for this sort of behaviour.”
“No no no,” replied Mr Shebbin. “I said he was an dung eating arse canker.”
“You’re not doing yourself any favours here,” said the sergeant.
“In my defence sergeant,” explained Mr Shebbib, “It was only cuz he says I stole his spade. I’m innocent!”
“You’ll have your chance to plead your innocence later.”
“But we all knows what that means!” shouted Mr. Shebbin. “Ain’t no one innocent before the Triune.”
“So are you admitting to the theft of the spade?” asked the sergeant.
“Well, the spade’s immaterial anyway,” the sergeant waved it aside. “I’m taking you in for blasphemy.”
And he marched them off pronto as the crow hopped down onto the barrel beside her. “Ha, that you father’s handiwork, is it?”
Skiela was frowning. “It’s not right.”
The crow seemed to shrug. “Such is life.”
Skiela was about to pursue the squad, and the crow thought about letting her confront them while it slipped away, but….. “Hey! Don’t be a knucklehead. You’ll be lucky if you just get a flogging for breaking curfew.”
“I’m not afraid of them!” she announced, standing up straighter.
“Yeah, you won’t say that when they put the red hot irons on the soles of your feet and ask you what you know. You’ll be singing like a lark about that spade, I can tell you.”
“Oh yeah, how would you know?”
“Because,” it said as if rolling its eyes, “I’ve been up on the windows of the Triune’s temple. I’ve seen what they do in there with all that castigating and flagellating and purifying.” And it ruffled its feathers as if shivering. “Trust me, you don’t want to know the details.”
They looked at each other for a moment, the girl pouting and defiant, the crow wry as it said, “Anyhow, you’re welcome. Now, why are you still chasing me?”
“I want you to come and see my father.”
“No chance,” and the crow hopped aside as she lunged for it. “What’s the windbag want with me anyhow?”
“They don’t believe me.”
“Probably for the best,” said the crow. Skiela lunged again and the chase resumed as they headed towards the edge of town. Two minutes later the crow was perched on the high wooden palisade staring down at her.
“Leave me alone,” it said. The girl was certainly tenacious, the crow would give her that, but it was getting annoying now.
“No!” she stated, stamping a foot.
“If you don’t stop I’ll…. I’ll – ” Then it stopped and cocked its head as if listening.
“You’ll what?” Skiela demanded.
“Shhh! Did you hear that?”
“Something……” and the crow hopped into the air, calling back to her as it headed toward the woodland, “I’ve got to see this!”
“Hey wait!” But the bird was gone.
Skiela pouted, but was not going to be dissuaded from pursuit. Of course she knew where there was a hole out through the palisade that the gates-men didn’t know about. A few moments later she was chasing after the crow into moonlit woodland, breath pluming in the chill of the night. But it wasn’t the cold that gave her the shivers, it was the unearthly howling that rode the air.
And even Skiela Drum, afraid of nothing, paused for just a moment before plunging on into the moon tinged tree line.
* * *
As Thaadrek entered the woodland the three men in black robe dogged his heals with entreaties to halt, but it was not their words that drew him to a halt. He cocked his ear at a sound all too familiar and altogether not of worldly origin.
“Ah…. finally,” wheezed Burlev as they caught up to him. He spared them the briefest of glances, then shrugged and continued to walk. A chorus of protests followed in his wake, and as their repeated entreaties for him to halt failed to elicit any response what-so-ever, they instead opted to arm themselves with whatever improvised weapons they had to hand: one spade, recently stolen, a gnarled tree branch and the half empty bag of chalk dust. One minute later the dust was settling and they lay on the forest floor in a variety of poses with a variety of black and blue hues swelling in lumps across their personages.
Thaadrek, framed by heroic moonlight, thrust the point of the spade into the ground and looked down at them with a mixture of pity and contempt.
“Attempt to stop me again and I shall not be so gentle.”
Burlev, sprawled sideways and half up a tree trunk did manage to raise a hand as he wheezed, “Understood……”
The next howl split the night open and all three men were quickly crawling, limping and shuffling past Thaadrek who stood and stared with a sense of deja vu. The woman who had provided his escape from the infernal precipice was once again approaching him at high speed.
And hot on her trail three hounds of grotesque aspect and improbably large build, with shaggy ruffles on skinless bodies the colour of dried blood and orange fire burning in their eye sockets.
Thaadrek rolled his shoulders and strode forward, thrusting the woman behind him and blockading the path with his considerable frame. The three hounds slowed, paused to assess the threat and growled with malice.
“Come! We shall begin the bloody path this night,” and then Thaadrek roared mightily as he leapt naked into the fray. The spade rose and fell, and blood and meat began to fly. Jaws snapped shut upon the haft and Thaadrek released it so that he might wrestle the beast to the floor before pulling its legs off and giving the final hell beast a savage drubbing. It alone fled whimpering back the way it had come as the two dead slowly dissolved like red candles in a fire.
The mightiest Clan Chief of the Great Northern Wastes reclaimed his spade, recently stolen, and planted it point down between the brace of his legs and roared at the fleeing creature.
“None shall catch me napping again!” and he spat upon the ground.
A wry voice interjected, “Yeah, but they might catch you with your trousers down.”
The revenant did not so much turn as swivel, fixing his eyes upon a small girl that had burst from the undergrowth. She was staring in open mouth awe at the scene. A flutter of wings announced a large, and somewhat smug, crow in the branches above her.
“Who,” Thaadrek point a finger at the crow, “Are you?”
When it simply cocked its head and did not answer he snarled like a angered wolf and the crow ascended a branch or two as it answered, “How about a little you show me yours and I’ll show you mine?”
“You may address me as Thaadrek. Your name crow or I shall enjoy you as a quick repast!”
“Murph,” said the crow.
“And you girl?”
“She’s Skiela Drum.”
Thaadrek nodded. It was as it should be.
“I might add,” said Murph, “That you might want to pop a loin clothe on or something. You know, minor’s present and all that.”
Thaadrek ignored him and turned to the three robed men who were approaching, much chastened. Behind them came the apparition of the young woman. Everyone stood in awkward silence.
“Well, what happens now?” asked Asteg.
“I am for the Bloody Path,” stated Thaadrek.
“Sounds lovely,” said Yeshin as Burlev stepped forward.
“We was supposed to take you to our mistress.”
“If she requires an audience, then she must come to me.” That appeared to be the end of the matter as far as Thaadrek was concerned. He pointed to the apparition. “You, woman, who are you?”
“I… I cannot remember my name.”
“You were summoned by these fools?”
“Hey, who you calling a fool?” Asteg protested, then met Thaadrek’s gaze. “Forget I asked. Obvious really…..”
“I think so…..” said the nameless woman. “I was somewhere bright and dark at the same time…. And hot! Filled with pain….”
“You escaped the Burning Hell,” Thaadrek said and explained what he had seen. Everyone gaped in awe. “And so I grudgingly acknowledge that even these fools have played a part in our regaining of freedom.”
“You’re welcome,” muttered Burlev.
“And where do you go now?” asked the woman.
“Where ever I must to find recompense against the Triune.”
And with that Thaadrek made to leave.
“Wait,” called the apparition. “What of us who also bear grievance?”
“What claim do you make?” Thaadrek asked as he stopped and stared down at her.
“I was burnt at the stake,” said the apparition, shivering. “I was a diviner, a tyromancer.”
“A what?” Asteg interjected. “A tyro-what?”
“A seer of the cheese,” Thaadrek nodded, “An unraveller of paths. Will you join me upon the Bloody Path?”
She nodded. “It is only right that the dead return for vengeance. Beside, I have nowhere else to go…..”
“I am pleased to have a companion on the path,” Thaadrek said, nodding ever so slightly.
“Yeah, and they took Mr and Mrs Shebbin away when they hadn’t done nothing!” added Skiela Drum. “It ain’t right.”
The crow rolled his eyes. “Hell’s Teeth girl, isn’t it time you went home to bed?”
“I’m not going unless you come with me,” and she crossed her arms.
“You bear a grudge against the Triune?” rumbled Thaadrek.
“No,” said Murph.
“Yes!” said Skiela.
“Then do you desire to walk the Bloody Path with me?”
“No, she’ll sod off home and get some bloody sleep.”
“I was not,” growled Thaadrek, pointing a finger, “Talking to you.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Murph, dipping his head. “Fair enough. My mistake.”
“I shall join you on the Bloody Path,” said Skiela.
“You can’t be serious?” It was Burlev’s turn to interject. “He’s talking about murder and mayhem. You’re just a little girl.”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she stated, three feet tall and staring down a grown man.
“I am pleased to welcome you to my war band,” saidd Thaadrek. “We shall meet the enemy standing tall and heap great ruin upon them!”
“Warband?” Burlev said, holding up a hand. “You can’t go to war with just three people? What do you think you’re gonna achieve?
The revenant fixed him with those smouldering, dark eyes as the moon shone through the tips of branches above to cast crazed shadows over his face.
“They have a god,” said Thaadrek with a grim smile. “I shall kill it.”
A week later the Legate scurried with all due haste into the presence of the Most Imperious and Hallowed Omnifex, His Holiness Yladiel Astingius Patrelleaux who leaned forward in his chair and fixed the quivering man with a penetrating stare.
“And?” The Legate fell to his knees.
“Sire, the scouring of wrong-doings, the castigation of the unworthy, and the purification of all that is tainted was duly delivered unto the masses as per your instructions.”
“I err…. that is…..”
“Speak Legate, or I shall have your tongue removed and pickled so that it may reside beside your bed as a reminder of your procrastination.”
“Y-yes s-sire.” The Legate was nearly horizontal on the cold flagstones now. “I regret to inform his holiness that I received a missive from St. Esticaria.”
The Legate produced the rolled paper and cleared his throat. “To whit, that upon the most auspicious and unholy night of the full moon one week past the Grand Ear of Esticaria did receive rumour that abroad that night were a host of unclean and malicious spirits.”
“He was pursuant of all rumours and with the assistance of both the Grand Eye and our holy Hands, they did extract from the local peasantry a list of all possible demons, phantasms and familiars whom did cause much commotion within and without the precincts of the town, thereby disrespecting all Triunic Authority and compliant with none of the Holy Writs.”
Head bowed the Legate approached and passed the Omnifex the parchment. He perused it for a moment then sat back with pursed lips and steepled his fingers together. “These are most disturbing of tidings that you deliver Legate.”
“Yes sire. My apologies.”
“What measures have been taken?”
“What has been done to apprehend and punish these miscreants and their demonic summonings?”
“I….. er, your servants remain on high alert sire. Companies of Hands are scouring the countryside as we speak in an attempt to root the unclean from their hiding places.”
“Yet this missive Legate,” purred the Omnifex, tapping the parchment with a bony finger, “Claims that the barbaric apparition bested a squad of our men during what is described as a ‘raid’?”
“Er…. yes sire, that is, well – ”
The Omnifex cut him off. “Beside the questionable notion that one man constitutes a ‘raid’, might it be that if a squad of the very Hands that are supposed to apprehend it can be so easily bested, that it need not concern itself with concealment.”
“Sire, surely the efficacy of our Hands in number will suff – ”
“And if they do not?” the Omnifex asked, the volume of his voice increasing by but a fraction. The Legate trembled, now just a puddle upon the floor. The Omnifex sighed. “It would appear that I have no option but to summon the Winnower and her cohorts.”
“But sire – ”
“Summon her. Now!”
“Yes sire,” the Legate replied, peeling himself from the flagstones. “I shall see to it immediately.”
“Very good,” purred the Omnifex as he closed his eyes for contemplation, thus allowing the Legate to escape without further scrutiny. Once beyond the doors of the Omnifex’s chambers the legate let out a long breath and hastily muttered a prayer.
“Bad meeting Legate?” asked the Hand guarding the door.
“Ah, yes. I am…. er, I am to summon the Winnower.”
“The Winnower?” the guard said, turning white as he made a warding sign and muttered a quick prayer. He watched the Legate shuffled off and thanked the Triune that he was just a guard, because if there was one person that everyone feared more than the Omnifex, it was the Winnower.
Her and her merry little band of merciless, deadly and holy eliminators.