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.

Fiction Fragment: Try Again

“Come back when you’ve got your real face on. You’ve done it once, and you’ll feel better for it.” Robert hesitated at the door, nodded compliance, and closed it behind him. Quiller sat back and let out a sigh he’d barely noticed had been building.

Half an hour later, there was another knock at the door and the sound of someone clearing their throat. This time it was Rebecca, and she looked nervous until Quiller ushered her in and offered to put the kettle on.

She settled in the chair by the window and waited while he fussed with the cups and their contents. The proffered beverage, when it came, was hot and sugary and just the right temperature to warm all the way down. Quiller stayed quiet while she sipped at it, and then opened a notepad.

“Better?”

“Better.”

“Let’s start again then shall we? You said there was something odd going on?”

Fiction Fragment: Break In

He’d been dozing lightly when the alarm went off, his phone screen dazzling in the gloom. He grabbed it and hit the icon that shut the noise off, which also darkened the screen again. Quiet returned to the storage room he’d hidden in.

He was surrounded by racks of clothing; each item shrouded in thin plastic dust covers. Between those and the carefully sealed and labelled boxes, the entire wardrobe inventory of the drama department had been his hiding place. With no performances scheduled for months, he’d been reasonably sure no one would have disturbed him.

He checked the time, more out of habit than anything else, and listened for any signs of life. Nothing could be heard, and there was only a very dim light showing under the door. He decided to risk it, and slowly turned the knob of the lock to prise the door open.

The corridor beyond was lit only by moonlight, with no lights from the windows on the opposite side of the lightwell. The hard-wearing carpet tiles made barely a sound as he moved towards the door at the end of the corridor. Beyond that was the bottom of the staircase to the main floor, but more importantly there was also the offices of the IT team.

Since being cut off from his allowance, he’d taken to stealing opportunistically whatever he could so he could keep flashing the cash around. He’d seen the delivery earlier that afternoon of a load of laptops, and figured it was a sign from the universe. Sneaking in to the storeroom for a few hours until everyone had gone was a small price to pay. He could break in, steal a few, then hide back out until the morning so he didn’t trigger any alarms.

Walking round the next corner, just as a couple of balaclava-clad men were already kicking in the IT engineers’ prep room hadn’t been in the plan…

Fiction Fragment: The Approach

The house was in good condition, with well-maintained greenery and a healthy hawthorne bush trained around the length of the front garden wall. The spikes and shoulders height span were neatly trimmed so as not to snag passers-by. He knew from personal experience how painful it would be to push through.

There was a lot of folklore surrounding hawthorne. Depending on who you asked it was sacred to elves, or fairies, or proof against witches or anything else that went bump in the night. When pressed however, even the most ardent occultist would admit it was usually just planted as a very good deterrent against burglars. If the occasional goblin or young child got snagged in it, well that was just a bonus.

Not being either of the latter, Quiller instead opened the gate, and after securing it behind him walked up the garden path to the front door. If he was as paranoid as Dyers had claimed he could have spent more time looking for problems or traps, but he felt that the odds of there being mantraps or tripwires lying in wait for delivery companies were fairly long.

When he reached the porch without incident, or even being blinded by a security light, he felt justified in that belief.

Fiction Fragment: A Seer’s Lament

I miss the old days sometimes. I’m not talking about the current mess that is modern life, because let’s face it there’s always something new and frightening. I’m harking back to before I stepped through the veil and saw the world as it is.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat: looking out over the estate from my balcony and watching air sprites chasing each other round the rooftops and drainpipes will never get boring. I just sometimes wish I could hear something fall and clatter somewhere in the flat late at night and believe there isn’t a lonely ghost begging for some attention.

I know, woe is me, talk about spirit-world problems (do you see what I did there?) I hear it all the time from my peers and close ones: just get on with life and accept that you just have a view of a world that is infinitely weirder than most would ever credit. I get all that, I just sometimes long for it all to be a bit simpler. If nothing else I wouldn’t be up and down so much in the night.

For a while, I reckoned myself something of a magician with all this insight. I mistook being able to see things and take to them for being able to push the universe along the paths I wanted. I thought I knew it all, and on reflection that got people hurt when the universe pushed back.

The problem with being a seer is that it doesn’t preclude the requirement to take a good long hard look at yourself every now and then. It’s kind of implied in the job title.

Fiction Fragment: Quiet Please

Few places are as simultaneously comforting and intimidating at once as a good library – or indeed an evil one, come to think of it. The shelves of books are an immovable presence radiating both the call of old friends, and the uncertain promise of new people met at a rather sedate party. Either way you’re not entirely certain as to what will happen next.

The bustle of libraries, full of children, has been firmly quenched in these covid lockdown days, and more’s the pity. Instead we have a return to the deep silence that has always underpinned these places. Despite the faint traffic noise that sometimes murmurs and hisses in the background there is now a quiet and stillness that some find unnerving.

Those who remark on it sometimes say that the silence is expectant, and it makes them want to fill that awful void in an otherwise frenetic soundscape. I think that tells us as much about how uncomfortable they are with their thoughts in the quiet as any statement by the librarians; even if that statement is a simple “Shhhhhh!”

Fiction Fragment – Construction Blues

Grinding noises filled the air before he even arrived at the library. A large scale building project seemed to be doing its best to envelop and absorb the older brick building like some predatory amoeba. The concrete bones of the towering new buildings were in the process of being dressed in brickwork similar to that of the library in anticipation of their windows and doors being installed. Scaffolding was liberally draped around everything in sight, and even buttressed against the older building across flattened roof spaces visible from the road.

The library building definitely seemed to be enduring the outrage with a suppressed eye-roll expression. Sounds of metal grinding through brick and concrete dominated everything and echoed off the surrounding buildings. Below that you could hear the thrum of generators and the hiss of compressed air escaping, while loud steady beeping noises told of reversing vehicles somewhere nearby.

The hope that this would ease as he walked through the doors was quickly dashed. Even inside the walls of what should have been a haven of peace the loud rattle of metal overlaid everything else. He was surprised not to see any cracks in the walls or visible vibrations in the shelving. Perhaps, he mused, the books were acting as a shock absorber, protecting their housing the only way they could. A glance out the nearby window gave the context to that noise at least: caterpillar tracks on diggers as they ground and inched their way around the site. A sign could be seen fixed to a nearby wall. It read “What is reading if not a silent conversation? – Walter Savage Landor” Librarian humour.

He paused and and took in the pinched expressions and weary smiles of the staff in the face of the encroaching construction noise. It wasn’t stopping them from engaging with their customers with what looked like genuine enthusiasm.

Fiction Fragment: Street Scene

They eased their way out of the tavern’s door in ones and twos so as not to wake anyone sleeping in the common area. Bustling noises from the kitchen area suggested a breakfast would be forthcoming soon, but the prospect of fresh air untainted by sleeping body odours was a strong lure, at least until windows could be opened and more wholesome aromas allowed to circulate. There were benches and tables outside on the pavement, so at least they wouldn’t have to sit on the floor or lounge against walls like louche street thugs.

The bells were ringing in the morning in the distance – from Guildhalls and churches, libraries and public buildings the carillions blended and merged to form snatches of recognisable tunes obscured by distance and the mundane domestic sounds of the start of a new day. Carts were already beginning to make their way to market, or to deliver to any one of the many shops in this metropolis. A half-elf was brushing the road clear outside the bakery next door, his blue apron stained with flour from his early start. A dwarf in the livery of a courier service was directing envelopes from his wheeled case to doorways with a flick of a wand – messages and small parcels flying to letterboxes with quiet efficiency.

A gentle breeze scented with the smell of frying bacon wafted past and lifted the additional warmth of fresh bread from the bakery, and in that moment the travellers knew it was going to be a good day.

Fiction Fragment: A Taste for Wonder

“The world is a place of wonder that doesn’t care if it is observed or not. Rivers flow and trees fall in woods whether or not anyone is there to witness. Sunrises don’t mind if anyone is awake; and clouds just get on with being part of the water cycle. It’s only when soppy humans get involved that the value judgements start: ‘Oh wow, that rainbow is beautiful’ carries as much weight as how icky it is to see that decomposing animal, or be uncomfortable about the rain trickling down my neck, or ‘how dare that virus kill all my herds and hit my profit margins?’

All of these things may be felt simultaneously by the same farmer in one field in the most breathtaking hillside view – and none of them are mutually exclusive or any more or less valid a manifestation of the complexity and wonder of this world. Wonders don’t have to be, and frequently are not, intrinsically beneficial or pleasant.


Do I sound jaded? A little distant perhaps? I don’t think I am, but I do get tired of hearing the same old exclamations and crying.” The dragon paused to take a sip of his martini and glanced around the bar. Nobody was paying any attention to us. That said, it was a Friday evening in Canary Wharf so not only was the bar packed but it was full of conversations about money and expensive toys. As far as anyone else was concerned we were just a couple more folks in the bar lucky enough to have grabbed seats and a table; and that probably meant we’d been there all afternoon.


I’d better explain. There was a distinct lack of scales, teeth, and fire breathing on view. Craddoc found they got in the way of running a Fortune 500 company, so only let his wings out at the weekend when he flew home to the valleys, or if he’d decided to work from home while moulting. He’d never revealed where home was exactly and I suspect it wasn’t exactly a converted farmhouse. We both left it as something not to be discussed and were both the happier for it.


“Anyway, my dear Dorian, what I’m trying to say to you is that it is a pleasure to see you again, for you are as wonderful to me as the sunlight on the Thames and the shadows beneath Tower Bridge.” His amber eyes seemed to twinkle with reflections of the sun off the skyscrapers outside but I’d long ago learnt to not look him directly in the eye. Just because he wasn’t trying to eat anyone right now, didn’t mean I had to tempt fate more than I usually do.


“Well, thank you Craddoc for putting me in my cosmic place. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s morn or the dew on a rose or would an avalanche seen from afar be a better analogy?” You do have to have a certain lack of regard for your own skin to tease a dragon, but I’d learnt that he did enjoy barbs that showed an appreciation of his wordplay.

Audio Reading Version:

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.