Short Story: The Voice

One of the secrets that both literature and films would have us believe is that magic is a matter of knowing and speaking ancient languages. An extra corollary of this is that any such magical curses or writings will mysteriously be able to be translated perfectly into a modern day idiom and set of rhymes even though all language drifts and warps in tone and usage by way of slang and cultural references.

The secret is that such ancient forms of language are a key for the reader’s brain to process and operate in a correct fashion so as to manifest the expected results. By forcing the brain to process concepts in a given way, shortcuts can be taken in exercising will. Most people reading from grimoires and crumbling texts are therefore effectively using a fixed “off the shelf” means of creating an effect.

This is where the concept of the classics enters – your fireballs and magical missiles, spells of invisibility and illusionary faces, and the summoning and banishment of ghosts, ghoulies, and other things that go bump in the night.

With familiarity comes assumption and, dare I say it, laziness. Everyone ‘knows’ you use dead languages like Latin to make things happen. They rarely stop to wonder why Ancient Rome wasn’t consumed in fire or by demonic forces during the course of day to day conversation in the average marketplace.

Here’s where the second part of the puzzle clicks into place. Rome didn’t implode because there was no intent behind the words to create magic effects. Well, largely because they thought you had to read from the secret texts of the Egyptians, Sumerians or Scythians. Are you spotting a trend yet?

So that’s what brings me back to the look of surprise on the mugger’s face when he found himself instantly obeying my command to “Drop it!” His knife was already falling from suddenly splayed and arthritic fingers before the pain registered. Magic gave the push to the voice of command.

He may have even dropped it in surprise without the curse’s bite. That’s one of the fun things about applying some common-sense assertiveness training and attitude. The hours spent practicing the mental gymnastics so that I could invoke the curse just add the sting and make it easier.

It’s one of the reasons that people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m a wizard, and I will never tire of being underestimated. Magic, as I keep telling people, is the art of lying – and I’m very good at it.

Short Story: The Dance

Anna danced in the snow, her heart as light as the footsteps of her partner. Round and round the stones she went, their path weaving in loops and curves. Snow fell, but she barely felt the cold. She was buoyed on delight and a song only she and her partner could hear.

They danced on and on, faster then slower, to no discernible style. Some steps wafted like a waltz, others more sharply akin to the tango. Featherlight snowflakes dusted her skin and settled on her eyelashes, highlighting the growing ruddiness of her cheeks.

She didn’t feel the burn of the growing chill, or pay attention to the growing fuzziness of her thoughts. Her eyes were fixed on her suitor, her mind on the dance that swept away everything else in the world beyond the glorious moment she was in.

They found her huddled body the next morning at the foot of the fallen stone called the long man. Her eyes were still open, twinkling in the frost that glazed her. Her bare feet were raw, blood staining the snows where her feet had passed in intricate delicate swirls that suggested a pattern maddeningly just beyond perception. No one knew where she’d come from, or why she was there, and the locals didn’t comment on how there was only one set of footprints that led up to and around the stones.

Fiction Fragment: Seer

My mind is paralysed. Too many variables and possibilities flood through me, each pushed aside before they can fully form by the pressure of what is trying to clamour for my attention before it too is pushed aside.

Phantom chills and warmth, shocks and peace, all wrap around each other like a dark tunnel constricting my thoughts in a silent stillness behind my aching eyes. I should be panicking, but the calmness threads through like veins pulsing in the storm with my heartbeat and the whole feels strangely familiar.

Then I blink, and move, and breathe, and try to shake it off as quickly as it arrived. The future is clear and laid out before me like a roadmap – or at least the stepping stones are clear, even as the details are fading as soon as I pay attention to them. I try not to focus on the traitorous details to keep the sense of certainty for as long as possible.

I pick up my phone and key in a number I’d forgotten I knew, because the person at the end of the line has the answer I need to change things. This is what being a seer is.

Short Fiction: The Briefing

Larellon looked up when the shadow of the new arrival crossed the threshold of his bivouac. He completed the pass of the whetstone along the edge of his hunting blade before speaking however.

“Rest a while if you please, or pass along if you will. I am Larellon of the Windsigh Rovers.”

“Hi!” Came the cheery response. The Moon Elf sighed and put his tools down.

“Good morning Cathedrin, what are you after?” Larellon disguised his irritation with the Summer Elf and reached for a bottle of spirits in the open pack beside him.

“Morning Larellon! I’m off to see Blind Betty up in the caves; I’m already late and the heavies she sent said she was threatening to cut bits of me off if I didn’t go right now, so I was wandering along and got distracted by a tentacle beast in the pond out the back of that old log shaped like a crocodile – and fun though that was for a while I did think I’d rather not lose anything I might miss later -”

“Do you ever breathe, Cathedrin?” He interrupted her characteristic babbling. Like many of her type, Cathedrin was flighty in mind, mannerism, and concentration. Some found it endearing, at least until she’d relieved them of their wallet, possessions, or will to live.

“Hmm? Oh yes.” She grinned. “Anyway I was just wondering – I’ve never met her before, and I know you’re through here on patrol quite often, which -” she stopped as Larellon raised an eyebrow. “Right, yes, anyway – what’s she like?”

Larellon considered the question a moment and chose his words carefully.

“She’s okay, for a human, not someone who likes being kept waiting, probably not someone you want to annoy.”

“Oh, okay! Thanks then! See you in a bit, though don’t think I haven’t seen that bottle of – no, okay, on the way back then, my that’s a shiny knife!”

Larellon refrained from rolling his eyes, and instead went back to preparing his blades for use. His own briefing with Blind Betty had been productive.

After some time, he heard the whisper-scuffle of Cathedrin’s hurried return.

“I thought you said she was human!”

“She is.”

“No she isn’t, she’s got at least six arms and I think she had fangs! She threw a knife at me!”

“Hmm. I thought she was human. She’s not an elf anyway. Did she give you a job?”

“Yes! And you knew about it already! I’m to come with you and steal something called a Star Tear. She threatened to cut my ear tips off!”

“Well she did ask for you a year ago. So, are you ready? I’ve got your bag ready, and some spare candy.”

“Yay! This is going to be the best!”

Short Story: No Bright Ideas Please

Somewhere on the other side of the mirror is a world made of petrified pain; and there The Regent sits on a stool before a picture of his Yellow King’s Palace. He dreams of Carcosa, and around him the distillation of all the pain felt in our world is eroded by ceaseless winds.

There are no other inhabitants of that bleak place, but the dust storms shriek in borrowed tongues. They bear aloft the ground down screams of abraded fear to sandblast new tormented shapes from the landscape; and yet The Regent seems unaware and uncaring of its surroundings.

It’s not even a nice place to visit, and you certainly wouldn’t want to live there. That’s almost certainly why some bright spark seems to keep coming up with the bright idea of hiding things there every now and then.

It never goes well. Even if a passage through to that place can be opened, the scouring winds prevent flight or rapid movement, gumming up and stripping away exposed mechanisms and flesh alike. Then there’s the sheer crushing weight of the world’s pain on the soul of anyone stepping through; and of course there’s also The Regent.

We have an ornate mirror that we keep under lock and key, covered in cloth and dust. Every time some new researcher or poorly briefed civil servant suggests using it we bring them to it and show them the piles of corroded machinery and calcified skeletons in the bleached harshness of the landscape it shows.

Then we give them a business card to keep and contemplate. It bears a simple motto only visible to people who have looked through the mirror. “Thou Shalt Not Feed the Nameless Horrors. It Only Encourages Them.”

Short Story: The Mystery

The radio was tuned to some talk show or other – a health programme or something similar talking about body image. The anchors sounded young and enthusiastic, possibly to mirror their intended audience. They certainly didn’t mirror either me, or my mood.

I stared at the mask on the table. It, in turn, stared back and was stubbornly uncooperative in revealing its secrets. It had turned up in the flat a couple of days ago, but where it had come from remained a mystery. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d found bits of costume or items without context among my possessions.

I mean, let’s face it: everyone has those moments where orphaned objects turn up: whether as left-over detritus from parties and nights out, or scooped up by mistake, or left behind by visitors. They just don’t normally make an appearance neatly presented on top of a pile of fresh laundry. If anything they’re normally under a pile of laundry you’ve dumped somewhere while wrestling to assemble a wire clothes horse.

It was a simple enough item. A plain red whole-face mask with no mouth. There was a slight contour to accommodate a nose, but nothing defined beneath it. It was light, and made of some kind of molded fabric. Kay swore she knew nothing about it.

I was inclined to believe her. Utterly incapable of telling a lie, she was not averse to running loops with half-truths and misdirection around me, but a flat denial left little wriggle-room.

There were no maker’s marks. No embossed “Made In China” or designer label as clue. There wasn’t even elastic to fasten it. There was no way I was putting it on. Quite aside from not knowing what the inside had been in contact with, I’ve seen too many films and TV shows with possessed masks.

But Dorian, I hear you say, they’re just stories – stop being a wuss. The answer is still no. There’s no benefit to wearing it, and I don’t like messing in the narrativium. If it’s a story waiting to happen, full of magic and intrigue, betrayal and doom, it can wait until after supper at the very least.

I carefully lifted it in both hands and watched the light shimmer across the satiny surface. No, I thought. We’re not playing that game, you can cut that right out. From this new angle the cut of the eyeholes seemed sad, like a puppy in the rain. Shameless.

The mask went on the arm of the sofa, well out of the way. Supper first, I resolved. This mystery can wait a bit longer. Kay brought plates and cutlery through from the kitchen, and I fired up Netflix.

What? You thought I was going to explain it all away? Some of us have self control, I’ll have you know. Stop laughing at the back. Half the horror stories in the world start with someone fiddling with a seemingly innocuous mysterious object of unknown origin. I’m having a night off.

Short Story: Harping On

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire: a well-loved and abused phrase that often stands for “Oops”, and is usually trotted out by those looking forward to indulging in some schadenfreude on behalf of friends, family, or someone they’ve just seen in the media.

I don’t think I’ve ever known someone use it in real-time while things are actually going horribly and yet oh-so-predictably wrong. Like me, they tend to go with short, sharp, expletives to relieve the stress of the moment.

I certainly didn’t use it when the harpy came barrelling down off the roof while I dragged the stupified Mr Feeny away from the pub garden table and it’s foul contents. I was too busy making us both zigzag towards safety to dodge filthy razor-sharp claws. I think I remember thinking: “Dungeons and Dragons totally lied about these things.”

Short Story: Things That Go Drip In The Night

“That shower is dripping again.” It was three o’clock in the morning, and nobody was in the mood for it. I certainly wasn’t.

“I did it last time.” Kay’s grumpy half-assed voice was surprisingly clear for someone who had been snoring mere seconds ago.

“You’re nearer. Go on, won’t take a second.” I pretended to be barely conscious, slurring my words slightly.

“No. Your turn. I told you to fix it when you got in and you wanted to curl up on the sofa instead.” Kay’s back was curved aggressively at me as she hugged the armful of duvet to her chest and exposed me to the night air.

“Ahhh! Bitch!” I yelled – though only half-heartedly – as goosebumps broke out up and down my skin. I tried without success to haul the covers back, but my wily woman had already rotated like a spindle to cocoon herself. She glared sleepily out at me, face framed by tousled hair that was well on its way to being the poster-child for bed head.

“Go on Dorian. You can have the covers back when you’ve sorted it.” She affected a stern tone, and then promptly ruined the effect with a giggle and by sticking her tongue out at me. I sighed dramatically and pulled my t-shirt back down to at least try and preserve some body heat. At least the carpet was warm enough when I swung my legs round and sat up.

The ensuite bathroom was only a half dozen steps or so away as I walked round the end of the bed. In general principle I tried tugging the end of the duvet as I passed, but Kay drew her feet up and there was no give in the material. I pulled a sad face at her on my way past; she farted in retaliation.

“Charming!” I called, and flicked the light on in the bathroom suite. All the better to glare at the shower head which was stubbornly dripping every twenty three seconds. I knew that because I’d been lying in the dark counting the intervals for what felt like the last half hour or so. I’d been having a particularly nice dream about an ex just before waking, so that hadn’t put me in the best of moods to start with. I certainly wasn’t going to throw that into the debate about why I didn’t want to get up either.

In the warm light of the spotlights it took me a moment to spot the tiny water elemental curled in the tray of the shower. Each drop that fell replenished the mass lost to the drain in a slow pulse in the battle of surface tension against gravity. I sighed and turned the shower head on and off, making sure to tighten the valve properly this time. The small puddle of water at my feet seemed to grin through its ripples in response.

“Right,” I said, “no more of this, it’s making us both cranky. You can stay the night if you’re quiet, but it’s straight down the drain in the morning. – sooner if you wake either of us before dawn.” I reached to the shelf by the shower hose and selected a large pink sponge. I placed it right in the middle of the puddle and made sure it overlapped where the drips had been falling. Then I stomped back out into the bedroom. Kay had already restored the duvet evenly over the bed and was busy snoring again.

“I’ll call a plumber in the morning.” I said. I curled up to spoon behind her and kissed the tip of one pointed ear.

“Thank you darling.” She said, and squeezed my hand. Sleep came quickly.

Short Story: In At The Deep End

On the seventh day after gaining physical access to humanity’s shared subconscious, the contractors announced that they had killed God. Of course, three days after that he rose again and forgave them, and from there on out it started getting strange. Well, stranger than it already was.

The whole thing had been designed as a preemptive strike to mold the general populace into something more malleable for the big businesses sponsoring the project. The discovery of applied branches of multidimensional mathematics and physics in the banking sector had taken a while to be smuggled past non-disclosure clauses and appropriated by rival research teams in a number of agencies. It hadn’t then taken long before productivity consultants had begun to get very excited about concepts such as description theory and psychodynamic modelling.

The thought of being able to edit their own workers, let alone potential customers, had been a siren call to the usual suspects. Given the projected financial gains, the research teams working in these fields were showered with budgets and carte blanche unseen since the Space Race and the Cold War. The Information War soon outstripped the simplicity of fake news and net traffic manipulation into far more esoteric realms.

As usual, nobody wondered what was watching from those realms. The shadows of these computations played like firelight on the walls of these sideways cavern’s and fields and curious intellects answering to alternative laws began to huddle round the brightest spots to push back.

In retrospect we can ask why nobody queried the higher incidence of unexplained phenomena like temperature changes or visual distortions in the research labs. Perhaps they did, but they were quietly edited out of the recorded reports dutifully spooled out to corporate masters. Nastier minds than mine have suggested that such editing may have come from The Other Side, just as the research teams were affecting things Over There.

Either way, nobody’s talking. Certainly not these days, anyway. The breakthrough event had a body count as the contrasting laws of competing realities twisted and pretzelled around each other’s event horizon and scythed a zone clear each side to a distance of precisely ten kilometers radius. We know this because the gateway on our side was in the heart of Wall Street. In that moment, we all knew we’d need something more effective than Ghost Busters to push back.

Given the generally pugilistic nature of both politics and corporations in search of recovered revenues, it wasn’t too surprising that a military response was made, despite the pleas for a more scientific investigation. A rapid corporate tendering process resulted in an outsourced security bidding war breaking out, and then the troops went in.

Human minds, even bolstered by drones and telemetry are not equipped to interpret other-dimensional spaces. Our brains are designed to approximate inputs they have no frame of reference for, so the intelligences on the other side were reported in terms that the troops brought with them – as the gods and devils that they believed in below their ostensibly rational fronts.

Over there apparently can be the nearest thing to heaven or to hell, even within a few steps of each other, so when someone tagged Over There as being our subconscious, it seemed to stick. The standing instructions from the corporate owners of the security teams became a mission to take down anything that might inspire the masses – which is why the biggest entity they could find was codenamed God, and taken down with extreme prejudice.

Of course, the entities over there were as affected by us as we were being by them. That’s why God rose again, a near infinite number of virgins began camping outside the Staging Area, Kali began reaping lone travellers, and new arrivals are now interrogated by Ganesh.

Suffice to say, all involved are desperate to find a way to disengage from this holy mess, church attendances are up again, and mathematicians are now on hit lists around the world. Strange times are back; now can I interest you in some prayer beads blessed by Buddha and Pikachu?

Short Story: See What’s There

The first time I met Dorian, I was hiding in the branches of a holly tree, tucked in a space at its centre behind the sharp leaves. I was hiding from the elves who had taken to playing in the wide fields beyond the edge of our garden. If that sounds a wonderful thing, then you’ve never seen elves play.

They are curious about how things are put together, but they define any living creature that isn’t an elf as a thing. While they are creatures that provoke wonder, you don’t want them to play with you. They had, just on this afternoon alone, taken apart a wheelbarrow, the remains of an old bedstead, a family of squirrels, and my pet rabbit when he escaped his cage run and squirmed over the stones of the low boundary wall.

The other problem was that the fields at the end of my garden weren’t always there, so telling my parents or indeed any other grown-ups about the elves was difficult as they weren’t there when I dragged anyone along who would listen.

The elves knew I was there. When my parents turned their backs on the wall to tell me off again about wasting their time I would see their faces in the trees and bushes. They would smile, revealing sharp teeth in wide mouths, and beckon to me. My parents thought I was trying to hide tears of childish remorse rather than tears of terror.

The doctors told me it wasn’t real, and I really wanted to believe them. I tried to agree with them and deny what was right in front of me, but I know they could tell I was lying to them. They wanted to give me pills, but my parents refused to let them, and I wasn’t sure if in that moment I loved or hated them more for it.

So there I was, hiding in the holly bush one afternoon because the elves were right next to the wall and I didn’t want them to take me away to play. I could smell the copper taste of fear, adrenaline, and blood in the air and felt frozen in place.

And Dorian walked into the garden, accompanied by my parents. I didn’t know who he was of course, he was just a tall thin grown-up in a suit, with short hair and a slightly floppy fringe. My parents were talking to him in the serious way they did with the doctors which told me everything I thought I needed to know; and he was nodding in that slow way the doctors did.

He looked straight at me, through the camoflage of the holly tree, and then did something the doctors never did. He winked at me. Then he did something no other adult had. He looked at the elves, and he frowned.

And you know what? The elves looked at him, and took a step back from the wall. They’d never done that before.

My parents retreated back towards the house. They were still in the garden, but far enough away to give us space. That’s why, when Dorian waved to me, I crawled back out onto the lawn and went over to him.

“You see them?” I said, and I couldn’t keep the suspicion from my voice.

“Oh yes,” he said, in a soft voice that made me think of my mum’s voice when tucking me in bed at night, ” and they’re not going to frighten you any more. Promise.” He held his hand out to me and after a glance at my parents, I took it.

The world shivered a little around us as we turned to look at the fields and the elves in it. The sun and clouds looked different on their side of the wall, more like a Summer’s day than the early Spring that kept threatening rain.

“They want to play because you can see them. It’s not something that many people remember how to do when they’re not babies any more. You’re right not to trust them though.”

“They’re horrible. I don’t want to see them any more.” I said. The elves were watching us, hands resting on the hilts of their wicked knives. Dorian crouched down to talk to me, face to face.

I can make them go away, or I can make sure you don’t see them again. Which would you prefer?”

“Are you going to give me medicine? Is there something wrong with me like the other doctors said?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, no. You’re better at paying attention and seeing what’s really going on if that’s any better?” For some reason I just felt that I could trust him. I nodded, slowly.

“They’re scary.”

“Yes they are. Hiding in the holly bush was a good idea. There used to be hawthorn bushes along that fence weren’t there? I’ll tell your parents to plant new ones. Now, how about we tell them to go away?”

“They won’t listen.” I’d tried shouting at them before. It never worked. Dorian smiled at me.

“They’ll listen to me. Trust me.” The strange thing is, I did. I gripped his hand as tight as ten year old me could. He looked across at them. “Hey! Longshanks, Knifenose, and Prettyboy! You know who I am, so go away. The wall’s going back up and you don’t want to get caught in it.”

There was a moment where I thought they were going to come and get us, and I really needed to go to the loo all of a sudden. I crossed my legs. The shiver in the air around us got stronger, making me feel like we were a plucked guitar string.

“Don’t make me call the missus.” I heard him say, and then, just like that, the shiver stopped, the field was gone, and so were the elves and the blood. Rain had started to fall at some point, so we all went back indoors and I was properly introduced to Dorian, who had been hired as my counsellor.

My parents did replant the hawthorn bushes after that, and the elves and the field never came back. Nonetheless, Dorian and I did talk about the elves, or at least about my memories of them and how they had faded like old dreams over the following weeks.

He’s teaching me how to focus on what’s really there and to tell the difference between that and what most other people see, but I’m not noticing the difference much these days. Dorian always seems a little sad around the eyes when I say that, but mum and dad are happier that I’m not seeing things any more, so that’s what’s important.

Isn’t it?