Fiction Fragment: The Scribe

In the distance, he could hear the rumble and boom of battle getting closer. Dust fell sporadically, disturbed by the larger explosions, but he kept writing. Nothing stopped the scratch of his pen against paper, unless he needed to brush away debris fallen from the ceiling. Even then it was with an economy’s motion that barely broke the pace of The Work.

The Work would be completed. That had been decided, and so it would happen. Seething fields of probability collapsed into ordered rows of flowing cursive script to make it so. He deftly imposed his will on the process of the composition before him, and allowed himself a smile of contentment.

The moment stretched, poised on the tip of his pen, dragged against the inertia of time, and the shadows deepened around him. Pressure began to gather against his ears and across his skin, defying his steady progress as if the world had begun to hold its breath. Even a particularly loud boom of ordnance detonating right overhead did nothing to distract him.

Then he was done, and the only sound in the chamber was the click of the barrel of his pen as he laid it on the varnished tabletop surface beside the book.

There was another overhead rumble, but he paid it no attention. The future, or at least the moment he had calved away from nature’s flow, was now fixed in place. It spun from the linchpin of his design and this totem of declaration.

His task was done. Now the story would gather its strength and devour all opposition. He looked down, closed the book, and waited for the end.

Short Story: Coal

In his dreams, Coal hears screams and the clink of chains rattling and sliding. Formless flashes of colour resolve into a series of static and disjointed scenes. His mind and body feel trapped in ice, unable to move or affect the parade of images forcing themselves on his mind’s eye. A cold lassitude lies on him, stealing his focus.

He sees the Last War, and the fighting in the streets against the risen dead. He remembers the sorcerous warriors clad in bone. The maniacs who slew the living and commanded their corpses, and the hatred in their eyes. He sees the Titans released. He sees buildings broken, bodies everywhere. He knows them.

Then he sees a face with horns curving from its temples. He hears shouts. He hears metal striking metal and the crackle of flames, and his eyes grow heavy.

Coal wakes. He is in a bed, limbs tangled in blankets and sheets. That alone gives him pause. Waking implies sleep and his kind don’t do that. Yet here he is, in a room he knows but rarely rests in.

Every part of him hurts. The enamels and brass-inlaid surfaces of his limbs are cracked, scorched, and riddled with holes. His joints whirr and crunch as he levers himself upright. His body, forged to fight where flesh would fail, has been greatly abused.

The cottonwool thickness shrouding his thoughts still lingers, deflecting his mind’s streams of awareness. The lenses in his eyes suddenly click and refocus, and with new purpose he pulls the sheet away.

The revealed wreckage of his body leaves him numb. There are rents in the steel plates, and missing panels that reveal damaged conduits, pistons, and cables woven to resemble bundles of muscles. There are scratches and gouges everywhere, and the discoloured blooms of scorching. What has happened?

Coal prods and tests the limits of the damage to his body in the morning half-light. With dispassionate care, he ascertains that he is functional and will heal. The act of assessing his own state allows his mind to start to catch up.

He remembers being restrained by dead things with the faces of friends. He remembers the bite of blades, and tubes being driven into him. He remembers the pale wight directing the corpses, and a man dressed in bones. He remembers the other two figures – warforged like himself – telling the wight what needed to be done.

Above all, he remembers the carcass of the reassembled Titan and what they did to him, and why.

His scream startles a cat-sized dragon snoozing in the rafters and it flees the room as fast as its butterfly wings can carry it.

He hears cries of alarm downstairs. Feet pound on the stairs. He is not alone.

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.