This story uses the same characters as my first attempt at a writing a fantasy novel, Mana: The Rising but instead they are in the story of a world that has had its past altered and is spiralling toward destruction to meet the mysterious ends of the Fel Knight Abraxus. Aiding the hero, Balder, is the equally mysterious Daryim, an impossibly powerful mage who is wrapped and shrouded to hide that his body is little more than a charred husk. Uncovering an ancient portal device known as an Avengerius Lock (after the Demigod of History Avengerius) Balder attempts to amend the timeline and stop a cataclysmic awakening that is the result of his own actions.
You'll be reading at this one for a while, this is the first chapter and it clocks in at just over 21000 words. I stopped writing it around the 70000 word mark when I realised just how convoluted the plot had become and this first book in a planned trilogy would be lucky to finish at 200000 words. Look out for where I invented an entire new science to explain World Trees.
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Act 1- Concerning The Shadow In The Land Of The Mountain
The flagstones were slick with blood, it was pooled all along the palace walls from the bodies that lay broken and spent, the last remnant of the Royal Guard and their failed last stand on the ramparts, consigned to history now as little more than a footnote.
A man landed heavily on his back with a gasp as the wind was knocked from his body, blood gushed forth from the slashes across his chest, arms and legs, his face was swollen and cut and it stung from dirt in the wounds. He rolled in agony onto his chest and using his one good arm dragged himself weakly towards the parapets, there was the sound of something heavy landing on the ground behind him but he did not turn to see.
The sky was black as obsidian and lit only by the occasional burst of lightning, the air stank of burning pitch and worse, acrid black smoke filled the air and burned at the lungs. It felt in every way like the Gods had forsaken the city and its people, that they had decreed that they would once and for all be wiped from the face of the world. The palace shook beneath him, the sign that another projectile had struck home, those horrid steel arrows that shot fire and drove themselves further than they should by right, some new and terrible magic that had been brought to bear against them. The assault was unrelenting even now when the enemy’s own forces were well within the city, the streets were overrun and he could hear the screams of the populace below.
He reached the parapet wall but could not summon the strength to pull himself up, he was done, drained, what little remained of his life was slipping fast from him, he could feel it fading inexplicably from his broken body. There was nothing more he could do, he lay panting against the short wall with the rough stone against his face and awaited the blissful release.
There was the sound of another heavy thud, this one much closer than the last. Turning his head he saw an armoured boot black as a midnight in hell, small spikes protruded upwards as toes of burnished steel and tiny rivers of blood flowed across its surface.
A hand grasped the back of his collar and he was pulled bodily upwards to see over the parapet wall, the city was ablaze under the black of the storm. In the far distance he could see the flaming missiles launched by the relentless siege engines rise over the walls to come crashing down on peoples’ homes and livelihoods.
“See your future’s end,” the Fel Knight said, his voice a foul rasp like the hiss of a serpent mixed with the sound of fingernails scrapping a chalkboard. “I want you to see this, I want you to bear witness to true power, the dawn of a new age, the collapse of destiny!”
Through his good eye the wounded man watched the destruction of the last High Kingdom on Hyldrassil, the grand city was burning to the ground under the onslaught of the foreign war machine. The inner concentric circles of walls were overrun with marauders and brigands, the sea blockade on the delta had been broken and now the invaders controlled the harbours. This world was coming to an end in a barrage of flame and thunder.
A blackened iron gauntlet with fingers sharpened to points grabbed the man by the throat and he was turned to face the Fel Knight. The warrior was clad in lustreless black armour inlaid with burnished gold filigree of flame and broken souls, he must have been at least eight feet tall and easily lifted the man to eye level. There was nothing in that hollow blackness beneath the helm except two glowing points of light that flared with a fire fuelled by some deep inner rage or torment, black smoke rose out of those burning points with the stink of charred flesh. They narrowed as if in a frown or sneer.
“I know whom you serve, Abraxus,” the dying man croaked, his eyes going bloodshot in the knight’s iron grip, “I promise that victory will be denied to you.”
The spiked pauldrons on the knight’s shoulders shuddered as he hissed a foul laughter, “My imminent victory will be the last thing that you ever see, your highness, and you will find yourself rushing unstoppably towards it.”
And with barely a perception of effort the black clad knight threw the dying man over the parapet to the sound of his own diseased laughter.
He did indeed see his fate rushing towards him, thirty stories from the palace spire to the courtyard below had become quite an unavoidable destiny, with his strength drained he prayed, as the cobblestones approached he closed his eyes-
-Balder screamed and sat bolt upright, his skin was slick with sweat and his bed sheets stuck to him. It was a nightmare, just a nightmare. A bloody nightmare at his age!
It was still dark outside and the crickets were singing their nocturnal chorus, which sounded odd against the eternal haunting song of the Twin Gods that forever echoed throughout the land from the two lava spires known as the Towers of the Twin Gods.
Pyrrha was a relatively young land, up until two millennia ago there had been nothing but ocean here but then some far off cataclysm shook the world of Hyldrassil to its very core and the volcano of Pyrrha became a planetary pressure valve. The eruption changed the face of the world forever, lands were devastated as the seas rose and entire kingdoms were wiped out, whole cities vanished under the waves whilst others fell to disease and ruin as their governments struggled to adapt. But with all things a certain degree of inertia set in and some normality gradually came back into the world, new kingdoms arose, new governments were founded and in that time the nation of Pyrrha arose, the merchant kingdom within the flooded crater of the volcano.
Balder groaned and rubbed his eyes, he had to get up at dawn to help with the harvest on the northern fields. It was that time of the year again and the big orders from the city for Vinalia Flour were already in and Mister Butcher, the miller, had enlisted the services of most of the young men in the village. The money wasn’t great but it meant a day in the sun with your friends who you never got to see enough of these days and Mister Butcher always rewarded his farmhands with the first round in the tavern that evening.
A long day’s work ahead of him and he was dreaming about demons and burning cities, he blamed the glass of milk that he’d had before bed, it must have been going off.
Cursing the circumstance Balder threw his legs out of bed and felt the cold wooden floor beneath his feet, slowly he stood and in that zombie-like half-awake state he shuffled into the kitchen and lifted a mug down from a high shelf. He drifted with a grunt to the frostbox and opening the door he was hit by a blast of cold air, he was definitely awake now. The back of his mind made a small mental note that the air wasn’t as cold as it should have been and that he’d have to take the thaumatite in to the town mage in a day or two in order to have it recharged.
He lifted out a jug of fresh water from the spring and shuffled back to where he had left the mug, as he powered the water he stared out the window into the world beyond. It was a crystal clear night with both moons hanging high over the rim wall, the trees and grass swayed gently in the convection currents flowing up the rim, they moved in a slow dance of sparkling silver in the moonlight. Far off he faintly heard the screech of a flight of the rather unfortunately named Predator Bat, quite possibly the most vegetarian species on the planet, it was only a predator if you happened to be a blackberry.
Balder sipped at the water and shuffled his way back towards his bedroom, passing the kitchen table he spotted a note addressed to himself, he lifted the folded paper and angled it towards the silvery moonlight coming through the window.
It had been written in the fluid, if somewhat archaic language that was commonly been used by his father as an educational tool, it read:
Balder, I have been called away to a Council meeting. I may be gone for some days. I know that I can rely on you to look after things in my absence. I have left some extra cash in the usual place since you won’t get much work from me and Fred just doesn’t pay enough for the harvest. See you in a few days, Dad.
Balder sighed, a few days? ‘Council meeting’ implied that his father was on his way down the rim wall to Prosperina, that was a week of travel in itself and then nearly two weeks back up again, a few days…
On the bright side there were a few things that Balder had been meaning to catch up on but had until now found himself in a deficit of free time, that put him in a better mood.
He might even be able to fit in an afternoon or two of Current Jumping, an extreme sport played high on the rim wall whereby the jumper leaps from an appropriate ledge with a large sail strapped to his back. The object is to stay within the convection currents that washed up the inner rim wall from the lake far below in the crater, the winner of the game is whoever can land the highest from where they started. There is a danger of going too high and getting blown over the rim. From there it is a long fall to the ocean below, though thanks to the sail isn’t much of a risk in itself but there are no pathways back up the mountain and it is a long walk round to the sea gate.
He smiled as he continued back towards his bedroom, this week was good to be pretty good, and thinking those happy thoughts it took him a moment to realise that the ground was beginning to shake.
“Earthquake!” Balder yelled to no one in particular as he braced himself against the doorframe. The ground shook violently and a deep rumble pervaded the very air he breathed as if the world was trying to cough up a particularly nasty glob of phlegm. The moonlight vanished as dark clouds washed in and he was left standing in an unnatural darkness, a red glow rose from cracks that had split across his floor and chunks of land slowly began to rise.
The broken land exploded into the air and through the roof in a column of roaring flame and suddenly everything was normal again, the floor was intact, moonlight shone through the windows and the ground was still. Balder blinked twice, what in the heavens just happened?
There was a slight cough and looking down Balder saw that where the ground had split there now stood a little naked figure, about six inches tall and with horns on his head.
“Sorry about the fright,” it said, “people usually expect a bit of flair and drama in the opening show and I do so hate to disappoint.”
Balder remained motionless, he was still braced against the doorframe and his knuckles were going white from the grip, he was starting to feel light-headed and it slowly dawned on him that he was holding his breath.
“You can speak, can’t you?” The figure cocked his head, “You aren’t like, slow, or anything, are you?”
This couldn’t possibly be happening, Balder was saying to himself, the real world didn’t just spew forth little naked men in a column of fire, he was still dreaming.
“This is a dream,” he said at last, and slouching his shoulders he relaxed from the doorframe, “my nightmare didn’t end, it just changed. Can’t imagine why I’d have little naked men in my sleep though, where are all the buxom maidens?”
“I’d like some maidens too, but you aren’t asleep. Right now you are about as awake as you have ever been,” the little man spoke slowly, as if talking to a child, “now, do you think that you could maybe pay attention for a moment? And put the kettle on, I’m thirsty.”
“This is just a dream,” Balder muttered ignoring the tiny figure, he walked off towards his bed mumbling about soured milk.
The little horned man stared in disbelief as Balder climbed into bed and pulled the sheets tight around him, he lay on his side with his back to the bedroom door and very soon afterwards he was snoring.
“Once, just once I would like this bloody job to be easy,” the little man sighted, he strode towards the kitchen, “I wonder if he’s got any gin?”
* * *
Balder awoke with a start, sunlight was streaming through his window in a clear indication that the day had well and truly began, and more importantly it gave a clear indication that he was well and truly late.
He mumbled to himself as he splashed the last of his mug of water into his face and started to get dressed, he was letting Mister Butcher down and that didn’t sit well with him, especially since he had been helping with the harvest for the past nine years. It didn’t look good to the new lads when one of the more experienced hands turned up well after the work had commenced. Bloody nightmares.
His scythe had been left next to the front door along with a sharpening stone, the original intention of this was that if everything was sitting ready in the morning he’d be able to get away early and show the new kids how to properly handle and maintain a scythe. He cursed again, and grabbing the gear he ran out the door.
As he trotted down the path he shook off the thought that he had heard someone call ‘Hey’ from his kitchen, it was probably a bird on the roof or something. This was not a good start to the day.
Over the tops of the trees the smoke from the village blacksmith rose gently to the sky, there was next to no breeze this morning. Balder had gone off the winding path that led downhill to Vinalia, the fields were on this side of the village and it would be quicker just to cut through the narrow collar of forest. He jumped the small stream that ran from the spring next to the ranch and a couple of highland hares bolted as he landed in a run, the air was cool and invigorating under the forest canopy and he felt energised.
Ahead a clearing became visible beyond the shade of the trees, before it there was a hawthorn hedge he knew and then the golden fields of wheat that they would be working on. And wasn’t there a sturdy branch hanging over the gap ahead…
Balder leapt just before the opening and grasping the branch he kicked his legs up and over the hedge and- fire raining down on a city of stone, skeletons and zombies stalking the streets and feasting on the flesh of the living, the hordes were closing in around him, he was trapped against a wall-
-Oh hells! Balder tumbled on the ground, he felt a pain in his hip as he rolled over the sharpening stone, he felt the slap on his face of harsh strands of something and could taste dirt in his mouth.
“Balder,” a young man stood over him in a cloud of dust, the sun behind him hid his face, “better late than never, eh? You must be out of shape if you couldn’t handle a simple swing like that.”
“No, I’m a ghoul. I’ve taken this form so I can meet chicks.”
Balder laughed dryly, he was still a little dazed, “You might want to reconsider your choice of body, Ches couldn’t get a woman if he had money hanging out of his pants.”
“You’re a funny guy, you know that,” Ches said as he helped his friend to his feet, “you should go on tour with your comedy, I bet you’d get crowds numbering in at least the tens, and they’d all be there to see someone sadder than themselves.”
“Oh, so you’d be going with me on this tour then?”
“Yeah, whatever,” the young man reached down and fished Balder’s scythe out of the long wheat stalks, “so what’s with being late today, I thought that you were looking forward to this? I mean, the Gods know you need all the beauty sleep you can get, but still…”
Balder took the offered scythe and laid it across his shoulder, the pair started over towards the area already cleared by the young farmhands, they had reaped over half of this field already.
“I’ve been having weird dreams lately,” he said as they strolled amongst the golden stalks, “I keep dreaming that I’m in this big city under siege and this demon knight beats the crap out of me and throws me off a tower, and I feel like I’m falling for ages.”
“Well, falling dreams are normally associated with a feeling of a lack of control in one’s life,” Ches commented, “or so I’m told. What was the city like?”
“Big,” Balder said immediately, it was the first word to pop into his head and it was a fairly accurate description, though from the way things were going it was soon to be a lot smaller if his dream had run its course. “It was old, there seemed to be lots of monuments and statues, lots of columns and palisades, that sort of thing. There were canals laid out in concentric circles with huge walls between them, and the tower or palace or whatever looked like it was in the centre. Oh yeah, and it was on fire.”
“Hmm, I think Tyria is built in concentric circles, and Han Kiroj is supposed to be a series of concentric rings descending into a pit, and the castle of Tithonus has a circular wall. What about the demon knight?”
“Black armour, tarnished chains, lots of spikes and I think that his eyes were on fire, either that or they were very, very bloodshot.”
“Black, spiky armour,” Ches tutted, “these villains are always such clichés. Well, I think that your dream means that you are afraid of black-clad knights throwing you of towers in burning cities.”
“So I just have to stay out of burning cities and I’ll be fine.”
“No, you just have to stay out of towers in burning cities and you’ll be fine,” Ches laughed as they reached the spot where he had dropped his own scythe. “I’ve been reading about this new shrink, Phroid, who’s been making a bit of a name for himself in Midas, he’s got some interesting, if somewhat unorthodox theories. For instance by his standard getting thrown off the tower into a burning city means that you are angry with your penis and that you want to sleep with your mother.”
“Well that would make me pretty messed up,” Balder replied.
Ches knew that, he’d regretted saying the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Balder’s mother had died sometime shortly after he was born and his father had moved them to Pyrrha in order to make a fresh start, Balder hadn’t even been old enough to remember what she looked like. Dealing with the subject of dead relatives is always a problematic subject even for the best of friends and he usually found the best solution to be to gloss over it and ignore any further reference.
“Not that I have anything against necrophilia, cracking open a cold one as it were,” Balder winked, letting his friend off the hook, “but doing it with my mum would be just a little sick.”
They spent the rest of the morning working their way down through the field, with the wheat stalks swaying gently in the mild breeze and the sun beaming down through a cloudless sky it really was the perfect day for working the fields. A few of the youngest lads, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old were running behind the more experienced reapers pulling together the cut stalks and tying them in bundles. In a year or two these young chaps would be the ones doing the cutting, if they saved up and bought their own scythes that is, Mister Butcher was of the opinion that paying them was charity enough without giving away farm equipment.
The late summer harvest was something of a community tradition in Vinalia, the teenagers and young men all pitched in for the day and after it all they piled into the inn for an evening’s reverie. The teenagers did it for the money, the young men did it because they were now all apprenticing as craftsmen or tradesmen and had come to appreciate the value of a day in the sun with their friends.
“How’s about we break for lunch before starting the next field?” Ches let the suggestion hang in the air for a moment whilst he wiped a rag over his brow, he saw that the other experienced lads in the next field over had finished up and were sitting down for a snack, “That sound good?”
There was a cheer from the other boys, Balder just said ‘bugger’ under his breath, rushing out the door this morning he’d left his lunch in the frostbox, he’d have to run back and get it.
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” he said as he took off up the field.
Ches sat on a bundle of stalks and pulled a sandwich out of his backpack, “I swear he’d forget his head if it wasn’t glued on.”
* * *
The kitchen was an absolute mess, cupboards lay open and bits of food lay strewn across the floor, the worktops and even the walls in some places, bottles of condiments and spirits lay empty on the floor. There was also an empty bottle of high strength liquid plant feed.
“What in the Underrealm happened here?” Balder looked in disgust as he lifted between his thumb and forefinger what looked like a half-eaten raw fillet of roebuck.
“So you’re back then,” came a voice from behind him, “nice day out is it?”
Turning slowly Balder spotted the small horned man standing by the doorway picking his teeth with what looked like a splinter from a matchstick.
“Did I pass out along the road or something?”
The tiny figure strode over, hopped what looked to be an insurmountable distance for a being his size onto the table and sat on an empty bottle of Jotunheim Dry Gin.
“I can assure you that you are fully awake,” the figure crossed his legs, “as you were last night. You may remember- earthquake, column of flame, your floor and ceiling destroyed… any of this ring a bell?”
“I thought that was soured milk.”
“Yeah, so I gathered,” he stood and bowed slightly, “I am the great and powerful Multhazzarlandruckullzae’draennodaildontrovandzadaar, Oppressor of the Ninth Pit and Destroyer of Worlds.”
Balder stared for a moment, “What are you?”
“I’m a demon, an imp to be exact, you can call me Multhazzar,” the demon said, “the full name and title is a cultural thing.”
“You mean that you have to have a name bigger than yourself,” Balder slowly sat himself down at the table, this was just too weird, “didn’t anyone ever tell you that size doesn’t matter? Incidently, did you drink all of my father’s gin?”
“Amongst other things, yes,” Multhazzar burped, the jar of mustard wasn’t sitting well with him.
“But you’re only six inches tall, that bottle’s about ten times your volume.”
“I’m an abstract,” the demon shrugged, “basically it all boils down to relativity and perception. And didn’t anyone ever tell you that size doesn’t matter?”
Balder was glad to be sitting down right now, he was pretty sure that his legs were about ready to give up with the whole bipedal idea and let his arms carry some of the burden for a change.
“Right about now you are probably wondering what I am doing here.”
In actuality Balder was wondering if he was lying face down in the forest somewhere with a pinecone in his ear.
“I’ve been sent to get you out of here.”
“You have been sent to get me out of here?” The idea seemed fairly preposterous and Balder’s tone certainly indicated that he thought so, “Why, pray tell? And by whom?”
“By whom would take too long to explain right now,” the demon said, “the ‘why’ is far more simple, if I don’t get you out of here and off this damn volcano then you shall find yourself being swiftly shuffled loose this mortal coil.”
The demon sighed, “Wotan give me strength. If I don’t get you away from Pyrrha… You. Will. Die. I can’t be any clearer than that. You will have your entrails ripped out through your throat, you will be drawn and quartered and your head will be stuck on a pike.”
“You will die would have been sufficient,” Balder had paled noticably, “why is somebody trying to kill me?”
“That takes a lot of explaining, but essentially it’s because somebody is trying to stop history from happening.” Multhazzar knew that statement was far too cryptic to be considered a good explanation but right now he really didn’t have time for anything better, “Do you have a weapon?”
Balder stood slowly and moved as if in a daze towards the lounge, “I’ve got a sword but I usually just use it for cutting long grass.”
Balder presented a rusted and very notched blade.
“Ye Gods, that piece of crap looks so old that it might have value as a relic. Anything else?”
“I’ve got some knives in the kitchen, I guess…”
“Bring them, at least that way you’ll be able to stab any adversaries whilst they’re laughing at your sword. Quickly go throw a few essentials into a backpack, we need to get going. I’ve left you enough waybread to last as far as Prosperina and even filled a couple of water skins out of the goodness of my heart.”
Balder did as instructed. Somewhere in the back of his mind a thought was fighting for attention, he was taking the word of a self-confessed demon, but the thought of keeping his bits inside his body was a far better fighter. After all he had grown said bits all by himself and over the years he had become quite attached to them.
A few changes of underwear, adventurers and heroes seemed to forget about that when they go off on their legendary quests to liberate captured maidens, steal precious jewels from evil tyrants and that sort of thing. Gods only knew what they smelled like by the time that they were seducing said maidens or spending said jewels in the nearest brothel, how these heroes had any self-esteem was a mystery to Balder. Of course he wasn’t expecting many brothels but the need for clean linen was what he considered to be an important part of travelling, that and perhaps arriving at his destination in one vertical piece.
Destination? Now that was a fairly important point, where was he going to go? The imp hadn’t spoken of where he intended to lead Balder, was this some sort of pointlessly elaborate trap? He knew that there were stories of demons trying to trick men in order to steal their souls, but this seemed to be a bit too proactive in nature, wasn’t it traditional that the demon challenges the victim to a contest of musical prowess?
“Come on,” Multhazzar called impatiently from the kitchen, “all you really need is food, water and money. It can’t take you that long to grab whatever worthless junk you think that you will need.”
Balder sighed and rolled up a coarse blanket of a dark green colour. The demon was right, there were many things in this house that he would deem to be items of importance, and you never know when you might need that 18 piece camping knife, but most of it would be little more than dead weight. He tied the blanket to his backpack and reckoned that he now had pretty much everything that he would need. He quickly pulled on a clean tunic of an unusual purple colour and a teal green cloak, he strapped the scabbard under the cloak so that the sword was more or less hidden and finally he hefted the backpack onto his shoulders.
This isn’t exactly how this week was supposed to go… he realised that he’d best leave a note for his dad but somehow “Dad, a demon came and told me that I had to leave or I’d face certain death. Sorry about the mess, he drank your gin.” Seemed a bit stupid. He settled instead for “Dad, had to go away for a bit, will explain when I get back. Sorry.” and as he strode into the kitchen with the note he thought that he could hear the far off sound of horses.
“You almost look impressive,” the diminutive demon said dryly, “we’d best get a move on.”
The clatter of hooves became much louder, there were a lot of horses coming up the lane, the imp vanished in a small puff of smoke and reappeared by the window, he gently slid aside the curtain and glanced out.
“You might want to go out the back door,” he said, “and right now.”
Balder stuffed the waybread and water skins on the table into his satchel and bolted for the door, he cautiously pulled it open and ran to the stables across the corral, the forest came to the back of the buildings and he could easily slip away from there.
As he made his way under the shade of the trees he saw soldiers in heavy armour take up positions around the cottage, the sun was high in the sky behind him and the forest canopy was dense so he knew that he was well hidden here.
The markings on their armour seemed familiar but he couldn’t place it, an eye over a three-peaked mountain, black on red with gold filigree.
Quietly he moved on around the outskirts of the ranch, creeping amongst the tall High Oak trees and ensuring to stay out of any breaks in the canopy. He took care to avoid the treacherous dry twigs that always seemed to be lying in wait for the wary traveller who is trying to evade unwanted attentions only to step on the wrong patch of ground and have his position given away with a snap like a gunshot.
An enormous black war horse stood in the centre of a group of lesser steeds, this creature looked like it could carry it’s rider to the Underrealm and back again. It was then Balder saw the rider amongst the other soldiers and it occurred to him that the horse might possibly have done just that.
He was clad all in black with ornate gold engraving on his spiked armour, three massive spikes rose from his helm as if in competition with the tarnished spikes on his pauldrons. A red mist drifted from the deep blackness within the helm.
“I’ve had nightmares about that guy,” Balder whispered to Multhazzar.
“I’m not surprised,” the imp replied, “Abraxus is nightmare incarnate.”
The knight called Abraxus knocked daintily on the door of the cottage and after a few moments without response he kicked the door in, the wood blowing apart as if it couldn’t get away from him quickly enough.
His dimensions were too large in every way for there to be any convenient manner in which he could enter the building but Balder got the distinct impression that this knight was the kind of person who would just stare threateningly until he got what he wanted. The soldiers filed around him and began a search of the building, from the sound of the smashing within Balder assumed that they had found his father’s small alchemy lab, either that or they weren’t overly fond of his father’s collection of collectable plates.
“If I were you, and believe me I’m glad I’m not, but if I were then right about now I would be making my way down the side of the rim before they decide to search the forest,” said Multhazzar from beside Balder’s ear, he was lying across the backpack. “Just a thought.”
He agreed with the imp, cautiously he slipped back deeper into the shade and a twig snapped with a crack like a whip. There was always bloody one.
The knight Abraxus spun, or at least Balder assumed that he had spun since he was now facing in his direction, those eyes of flame fixed firmly on the spot in the shade were he now stood.
He couldn’t possibly see me Balder was saying in his mind.
“Run you idiot!” The Demon smacked him over the back of the head.
Balder ran, he ran hard. Branches slapped him in the face and whipped at him as he charged through the trees, not far behind the call of the soldiers could be heard and the whiney of horses, he’d never lose them on foot even in this dense grove. The only thing that he really had going for him was that the tree roots here all grew long and deep, there was nothing in the underbrush that could trip him up as he fled for his life.
The stream was up ahead then it was a brief sprint to the fields, and then what? He couldn’t expect the lads to get involved, most of them were just boys and those behind him were soldiers, professional thugs, the lads would be slaughtered. So what options did that leave him with? The Livery in Vinalia, he could commandeer a horse for a while, one of the express mail horses or something. Well, that wasn’t quite a plan but it was better than running until he coughed up his lungs.
He jumped the stream and as he landed there was the sound of cloth tearing as his cloak got caught on a thicket of briars, it seemed that the accursed things were growing everywhere these days. Cursing as he pulled himself loose Balder took a quick breath and started running again. He’d ended up back on the very trail that he’d ran down only this very morning, and there ahead of him was the gap with the sturdy branch, he’d better not make a mess of it this time.
His legs swung up and over the hawthorn, he kicked out and glided in slow motion through the air, the ground was get closer… he landed on his feet and continued his sprint through the harvested field. The ground felt strangely uneven underneath his feet, off to his right were some unusual dark shapes, lumps really. A horrible realisation set in, the stubble of wheat here was stained a dark red, the unevenness of the ground was due to horses milling in the area, lots of heavy horses…
Balder ran to the misshapen lumps but stopped short when he could see what they truly were, his legs failed and he wretched a couple of times before actually vomiting. The older lads, the young boys, they all lay here with their throats slit and their bodies bruised, they had been herded together and slaughtered as if they were animals.
His lifelong friend has been afforded special attention, not only was his throat slit but his guts had been spilled and his ribcage torn open.
He didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t think. Tears ran down the side of his face and as he sat there on the bloodstained ground he sobbed.
“You can’t help them,” the demon stood next to the trembling young man, “for what it’s worth I’m sorry, but we have to keep moving otherwise you’ll be lying there next to your friend.”
“I can’t just leave them like this,” Balder snivelled, he could feel nausea creeping upon him once more.
The rumble of hoof beats grew louder, “I don’t think that you’re going to have much choice in the matter. Get going!”
Balder staggered to his feet, his legs were trying to run before his body was quite ready but they soon found their rhythm and he was once again sprinting towards the village. Behind him he heard shouts, the soldiers were out of the forest and that meant trouble, they could make real speed in the open plains.
Vaulting a gate Balder found himself on the dirt path that led directly to the small village from the northern fields. The livery no longer seemed like such a good idea, with those soldiers hot on his tail he would probably never make it out of the table let alone all the way to Prosperina. He needed a new plan, and he needed it damn quickly.
Then as normally happens in those situation when the neurons are firing and the adrenaline is coursing through the viens he had a moment of inspiration, he saw the Cheshire household up ahead. Now, where did he keep it..?
The tack room, Ches always kept his gear together in a nice shaded room with cool air and no direct sunlight, and the tack room was on the other side of the house. Running around the brown stoned building Balder saw the room, its door was open as Ches’s sister brought out the saddle for her pony. He cursed his luck, the door wasn’t locked but instead a family member of his best friend stood watching him, he could he tell her that her brother was dead? How could he even face her?
The sound of mounted soldiers charging down the dirt path made that particular decision for him, he ran past the raven-haired young woman and into the tack room.
“Will’s in the field,” she called after him, “where you should be surely?”
“No time to explain,” replied Balder as he grabbed a heavy pack of brown leather, “I’m borrowing this for a while.”
He started to run again but stopped by the girl, “Lucy, get the magistrate and tell him to get some men up to Butcher’s fields. There’re foreign soldiers chasing me and they’ve committed a terrible crime.”
“What soldiers? What are you blathering about?”
Balder stared over her shoulder, “Those soldiers! Get inside now! Get the magister when they’ve gone!”
He vaulted the privy hedge that served as a boundary to the Cheshire estate and hit the ground running, he was on the cobbled path that led all the way through the town centre and out the other side to the main road down the rim. It also led to the mill, which was the ideal spot for what he had in mind so long as he lived long enough to make it there. The trouble was that the once outside the town centre the road to the mill became very open, and sods law the market was yesterday so there would now be no convenient stalls for him to hide behind or handy crowds to get lost in.
The alley between the general store and the livery would be the safest route to duck down, the path was playing out in Balder’s mind as he slipped between the buildings, the tower of the arcanorium was directly ahead, and next to it sat the tavern awaiting an evening’s merriment. Or what would have been an evening of merriment had these foreign devils not shown up.
There were a few people in the village square but they soon scattered as the soldiers charged over the grey cobbles, their horses milled as the soldiers sought their quarry, the enormous black warhorse of Abraxus however stood patiently awaiting his master’s instruction.
“Find him,” the black knight barked, his voice had a definite serpentine quality beneath the dark timbre, “tear the village apart if you have to, just bring me that boy!”
The soldiers dismounted and spread out to search, only Abraxus and the man with the look of a captain remained in the square with the horses.
“This isn’t exactly the subtle incursion that we had planned for,” the captain commented.
“I care not,” the words insinuated themselves into existence, “I’ll crush this wretched little island under my boot if I judge it necessary. The only thing that matters here and now is that Balder Von Daryhiem dies.”
Balder stepped back against the wall, hearing the fel knight actually say the words brought the reality of the situation home to him, this wasn’t a case of mistaken identity or a random act of violence, this was premeditated murder. The only thing that matters here and now is that Balder Von Daryhiem dies, there was a certain focus to that statement as well as the undeniable finality.
He crept back down the alley, heading around via the tannery now seemed like a much better idea, granted that meant going in the opposite of his intended direction but the tannery had a nice big wall that dominated one end of the square. If he wanted to make it to the far side of the town then this would be his best bet, that or he could hide himself in a box and try to creep across the square when neither the captain nor the fel knight were looking.
He preferred the tannery idea.
The wall at the tannery wasn’t there in order to keep people out, its sole purpose was to try and encourage the smell to go upwards and to this end it was at least marginally effective. Outside the walls it merely smelled as if something had died whereas inside it smelled as though something had died, decomposed, and borne the evolution of a sentient bacterial life that in itself had died because of the smell it made.
Balder wrapped a heavy scarf around his face so that it covered his mouth and nose, he was glad of his foresight although admittedly this was not how he had intended to make use of the scarf, still it was better than the alternative.
From within he could hear a couple of soldiers cursing the putrid stench, the poor fools were unknowingly only a few feet from their quarry but from within the yard they may as well have been miles away, they probably wished that they were. It was better than the devils deserved.
Balder started counting as he tiptoed along the wall, three… two… one…
The sound of someone being violently sick shattered the relative quiet. So many young folk who had never before set foot within the tannery, himself included Balder had to concede made the cardinal mistake of peering into one of the tannery vats. This was an act that involved having your face and more importantly your nose directly over a concoction of the most unrelenting foulness known to man, and it was a mistake that nobody ever made twice.
Good enough for them Balder scowled as he slipped along the wall, he had passed beyond sight of the square now and if the coast was clear he could dash across the road to the blacksmiths and clamber over the rear yards to the mill lane. Of course from there on he had the problem of the mill lane being completely devoid of any form of cover, but he would worry about that bridge when he burned it.
The cobbled road was clear of soldiers. It was clear of locals too but that was just the typical Pyrrhan response, when there’s trouble you could always rely on Pyrrhans to dash to the safety of the nearest tall building to get to the window with the best view. The largest wartime import to the nation was popcorn.
He dashed across the road and cursed as he heard a call from the tanners, one of the soldiers must have had a stronger stomach than the other or else had taken the intelligent option and had chosen to wait by the gate. Either way Balder was in trouble, but thank the Gods for small favours, the soldiers didn’t have their horses.
He slammed the door of the blacksmiths behind him and dropped the bar into place, it wouldn’t hold them for long but it would do until he could get away.
“Quick,” Multhazzar called from within his backpack, “grab something better than that sword of yours, I think I’m getting tetanus just being this close to it.”
The only implements in any state of completion were a couple of scythes, a bundle of horseshoes and several pokers (as any Folk Park will have you believe, pokers are the foundation of the blacksmith industry, a keystone in early economics), he grabbed a scythe as wood splintered behind him. Part of the door had shattered, a board was pulled back and broken away, thinking fast Balder grabbed a horseshoe and lobbed it at the hand that had reached through to grasp the locking bar. There came the sound of a nasty thump accompanied by a string of expletives from outside.
Not waiting for the next attempt Balder made a dash for the door to the yard at the rear. Accidentally tearing the still pumping bellows with the scythe blade as he rushed past, he grabbed a bucket of ash from next to the furnace and threw the contents before the tear. The room was quickly filling with grey dust as he entered the back yard, there were a couple of mossy stoned stables out here and along one wall a lean-to store room.
The other wall contained a simple three barred gate that opened to the pathway that led back to the street and to the field behind, a pathway that one of the soldiers was bound to notice eventually.
Balder clambered up onto the store, his progress hampered somewhat by Ches’s heavy pack in one hand and the scythe in the other, but through sheer will to live he made it onto the shed roof and over the wall into the yard behind the bakers.
He was just making his way onto the roof of the baker’s store when something whizzed by his head, turning Balder saw a soldier on the wall behind him load another bolt into the crossbow. The man’s hand was red and swollen so reloading was proving to be a somewhat cumbersome operation, however once it was loaded the pain in his hand served only to steel his resolve, as Balder observed just before he dove over the wall to cover.
This was the back of the library, which was an incredibly great thing he noted as he ran down the big yard, after that small wall ahead it was a simple dart across the rim road and then a dash down the mill lane. Chased by soldiers the entire way admittedly, but it was a relatively hurdle-free sprint nonetheless.
Multhazzar hurled a stream of abuse from the top of his backpack as another crossbow bolt whistled by, most of the abuse appeared to be directed at Balder and his inability to phase shift out of sight or teletranslocate himself across the opening.
“Imp, shut up!” Balder shouted between breaths, “You aren’t helping” If you want to be useful why don’t you throw fire at these bloody soldiers!”
“I can’t do that in this form,” said the demon in distinctly soft tones, “and if I transfigure I’ll only attract Abraxus, and that is a fight that is a little beyond me.”
Balder leapt the small wall in a single fluid motion that would have shamed an Olympian, running for his life giving him the added impetus that most professional athletes lacked. He landed one foot on the cobbled street and was off again in long strides, there was a shout and the clatter of horses’ hooves in the square as he hit the dusty path that led to the mill.
Heavy cloth sacks of flour lined the pathway, the best stuff always went to the local bakers in simple honest-to-goodness sacks whilst the stuff in the bags marked ‘Finest Flour of Vinalia’ was the cheap stuff marketed as ‘all natural, organic flour’. City folk were dumb enough to pay extortionate prices for a poorer quality product time and time again.
Balder didn’t particularly care about any of this right now as he ran up the stone steps to the mill, he knew that the knight and his entourage weren’t far behind him and were probably gaining rapidly.
Running around to the back of the mill Balder saw the enormous canvas sails turning in the updraft from the centre of the crater along with the two other horizontal shafts with their long, twisted blades extending out over the precipice. The mill was the oldest building in Vinalia, built over an outcropping beneath which was a sheer drop of fourteen thousand feet to the crater floor of Pyrrha, it was the ideal site for a windmill and over time the village extended back from it.
Quickly tossing the scythe to the ground he removed his backpack and hefted Ches’ heavy pack onto his shoulders, securing the harness he then pulled his own pack over his chest and ied the loose straps to the harness.
He could hear the soldiers in the mill and on the steps outside. He saw one coming around after him with sword drawn; Balder backed away and cautiously ducked under one of the turning axles that extended out into the void. He had nearly reached the far axle when he spotted another soldier coming from the opposite direction, the man spoke something that was unintelligible to Balder though he assumed that it was either a threat or a declaration of war, it had that intonation.
“I hope that you have a brilliant plan,” said Multhazzar from under the flap of the backpack, “because we are trapped, buddy boy.”
The black knight Abraxus was coming up behind the second soldier, he was even more intimidating when seen from this close, standing at nearly nine feet when you took into account the three spikes that extended a foot from his helm. The fel knight hefted a blood stained battleaxe with obvious malicious intent. A faint smell of brimstone and burnt soil seemed to hang around him, his breath was a horrid hiss that chilled to the bone.
“Actually, Imp,” Balder replied as he saw the first soldier duck under the axle, “I happen to have a truly fantastic plan.”
He hurled the scythe at the soldier and ran for it, the handle smacking the man hard in the face as he saw the younger man running towards him, his compatriot had given chase and was gaining.
Then Balder turned and dove off the walkway where the wall ended to allow the horizontal axle to extended out, the soldier heard the young man yell ‘hold on!’ as he cartwheeled in the air.
“The thought had occurred to me!” Multhazzar was screaming as the greyish-brown cliff face rushed inexplicably by whilst the forest on the crater floor far below was growing at an alarming rate. “You’re out of your mind!”
Balder held his arms out as the wind whipped at him, he did a somersault in the air and cheered wildly as the landscape rushed around him, the demon had to admit it was an exhilarating, if stupid way to die.
“Hold on tight,” Balder shouted as he grasped a handle on the left strap on his chest and yanked it hard.
Looking over the young man’s shoulder Multhazzar saw a small parachute pop out of the backpack, “What in the hell use is that thing going to be?!”
The pilot chute fed out into the sky on a long thin line until suddenly the pack burst open and the imp felt intensely uncomfortable as the blurring landscape seemed to kick back to a normal pace, moments later they were drifting peacefully through the sky. Slowly the demon turned his head upward and stared at the massive silk canopy above their heads, it was wing-shaped and seemed to have a second layer slightly above and was of a bright red colour just in case anyone would miss it.
“Congratulations on your first Current Jump,” Balder cheered, “of course normally we would stay in the updraft to try and land above were we started but today I don’t think that would be such a great plan.”
“Normally?” Multhazzar looked at the young man as if he were insane, “You mean you do this regularly?”
Balder pulled gently on a cord to his right which resulted in the canopy performing a slow turn in the air, “Oh yes, I was last year’s champion. Ches took the title from me this year.”
The sport only really existed on Pyrrha as there were few other places with such suitable updrafts, but even at that most jumpers came from the rim villages such as Vinalia and Zephyr, though sometimes you did get folk from down in Prosperina coming up to try it.
The demon looked down and saw that not far off, at least from this height, the whitewashed city of Prosperina spread along the shore of the lake that lay central in the Pyrrhan crater. The black specks that he saw on the water were ships heading across the surface to the broken section of wall that open the lake out to the ocean. And there standing out of the lake were the two enormous hollow spires known as the Towers of the Twin Gods, the wind whistling through the openings to create the haunting song that echoed throughout Pyrrha.
“You’re all mad, you know that.”
“Mad? Not in the slightest,” Balder replied as he admired the beauty of the sweeping landscape around him, “this is as close as mankind will ever come to flying. The mill jump is the best jump in all of Pyrrha but no one ever really does it because of the risk of catching on the mill sails, and it takes a bloody fortnight to get back up again if you miss the landing. But if you do jump it does reward with the most spectacular view.”
Something hit the canopy above them and tumbled away into the void, another grey blur shot by less than six feet away.
“Rocks! The bastards are throwing rocks at us!”
“If it’s just rocks we’re getting away lucky,” Multhazzar stated, “with Abraxus up there-”
He was interrupted by the approaching sound of screaming and a body in red armour overtook the pair on their downward course.
“That was a soldier…”
“Yep, Abraxus would have a fairly literal interpretation of sending men in pursuit.”
Another screaming terrified soldier shot by.
In a small grassy plain the red canopy was stretched out as Balder carefully made the necessary folds in order to ensure that it would open again flawlessly, though Multhazzar personally hoped that he would never have to experience such lunacy again. Quite a few humans experienced a long fall after they died, he couldn’t for the unlife of him figure out why they would willingly go through it now, it isn’t as though falling is the kind of thing that requires practice. Maybe they were of the impression that you got awarded points for style.
The boy, well he called him a boy though the lad must have been in his twenties, had been strangely quiet since they had landed, he had just put his head down and began working on that sail without so much as muttering to himself. Multhazzar didn’t like it when humans were quiet, when their mouths were closed it generally meant that they were thinking and that could lead to all kinds of trouble.
Balder folded the last of the canopy into the pack and started towards a dense patch of forest that was nestled against the imposing and impossibly tall cliff face, Multhazzar started to follow him but was abruptly told to wait where he was. The kicked up a minute cloud of dust and sat on the discarded backpack that lay on the edge of the clearing, he muttered a couple of mild obscenities then pulled a miniature hip flask out of thin air and took a long draw.
Under the shadow of the cliff it was quite dark here amongst the trees in the thicket, taking a moment to ensure that he was alone Balder laid the jump pack down and collapsed in tears against a nearby tree. His whole world had been destroyed in a few mere moments, all his friends had been mercilessly slaughtered and he was now on the run from some vicious fel knight and his band of marauders.
But it was more than just the murder of his friends and the hunt for his flesh that flayed his soul and rends his heart. His father had been riding from Vinalia to Prosperina on the only mountain route down to the city, his path would certainly have crossed that of the foreigners and if they knew so intimately off Balder then they would certainly know his father, and that would have been his end. Hope would not stay with the young man, it was a far off thing that right now happened only to other people.
He wanted to be sick, he prayed for the ground to open up and consume him, he wished that his mother had been barren that fateful night or that he had been stillborn, by the light of the Gods why had he been visited with such villainy. He had been robbed of everything that he had in the world bar the meagre existence that was his life, and they wanted to take that from him too. He cried until no more tears would come and his heart felt as a dead weight upon his chest, the world moved unsympathetically forward and the shadows shifted across the land, he felt his strength had left him as he watched time slowly pass by.
His father dead, his friends murdered and his life in tatters all because of some unknown crime that he had no knowledge of. Again the tears came in wretched sobs.
“I could claim to understand what you are going through right now,” through hazy eyes Balder saw Multhazzar sitting on a nearby log, “but I can’t because I am a demon and thus lack the necessary faculties.”
Balder wiped his eyes and tried to summon his strength, “I thought that I told you to wait in the clearing.”
“You did,” the imp replied dryly, “but you are neither a warlock, summoner nor a demonologist and so have no exertion of will over me. Now, I have been given specific instructions to get you off Pyrrha and as far away from Abraxus and his goons as possible, so if you don’t get your arse in gear then I’m afraid that it will be too late to do anything for you.”
“Unsympathetic little bastard, aren’t you.”
“I wasn’t told to do sympathy,” Multhazzar replied matter-of-factly, “and besides, anger is a far more useful emotion than despair. Now dry your eyes and let’s get a move on.”
Balder tucked the heavy jump pack into a nearby bush and started towards the distant haze of smog that hung over Prosperina, the pack was too heavy to lug around and it was very doubtful that it would be of any use from here on. Plus it was half a day’s walk along the shoreline to the city and the idea of traipsing that distance with such a dead weight along with his own gear was about as appealing as finding a hungry leech spreading barbeque sauce on your nadgers.
He wiped his eyes as he walked in the general direction of Prosperina, they should hit the lake soon and from there it was easy to find your way. Somewhere overhead came the shrill cry of a Pyrrhan Aigle, huge birds of prey that the druids of faraway Heimdahl claimed kept watch over the land, Multhazzar confirmed this legend with the asseveration ‘bloody gossips’.
Hyldrassil is a young world, relatively speaking, though it is ancient compared to the kingdoms that have come and gone, it is the seed of a far older world, one thought to be the cradle of the first life in the galaxy, a world known as Yggdrasil. But how best to describe Hyldrassil, a world that is for all intents and purposes a giant tree, and one of many scattered throughout the universe carrying the promise of life to the stars. This is the science of astrodendrology, the study of the World Trees and the universe in which they inhabit, and though it is intricate we’ll try not to go to deep.
The nature of the universe itself has been the subject of debate since the first monkey looked up and said ‘Ooh, pretty’ (actually he probably said ‘Oook’ meaning that he wanted to play with his faeces, but it was a good analogy nonetheless). Theories abound about the exact shape and structure of our local reality, every configuration from a bubble to a doughnut has been put forward at one time or another as the absolute definitive truth. These shapes whilst all equally plausible within the realm of astrophysics really serve only to show how limited the human mind really is, we can imagine a limited universe so long as it is confined within something. In these forms the universe is only infinite via a technicality, in that if you start at one point and keep going in the same direction you will eventually come back to where you started, you can’t reach and edge because there is only a curve.
These theories all rely on the same principle that the universe is expanding in all directions from an impossibly ancient explosion know as the Big Bang, or as you will soon come to know it (from the Hyldrassil perspective) the Wee Drip.
The universe is in point of fact infinite, it has no shape because it is infinite, and it has no edge any more than it has a curve. It is also largely empty. It isn’t a bubble floating in an energy pool with tendrils of superstrings spreading out across all existence, it is just space, lots and lots of space.
There is however a substate of this vast nothingness, a realm of pure energy and consciousness, its all very quantum, and occasionally a wayward wave of energy will break against another which results in an outburst that releases upon the universe itself.
Imagine if you will a sheet of blotting paper spread flat on the table, and on this paper a single drop of ink falls upon it, see how the droplet spreads out across the paper. Now another drop falls elsewhere on the page, and maybe another, now scale things up a bit and try to think of the paper as three dimensional rather than two dimensional so that the ink drops burst and spread anywhere. These are universes as we understand them coming into existence, the universe isn’t a bubble onto itself but something in which a bubble of matter will spread through.
Over aeons this bubble continues to spread across the paper and begins to fade as it does so, eventually it will fade away completely except where it crosses the expanding bubble of another inkblot. Maybe in the subrealm another two waves crash together and a fresh burst of energy is released into the universe, or in this metaphor another droplet falls on the page.
Now if you were to lift the sheet of blotting paper you will also see a stain on the table where the ink has soaked through, this is because all matter is condensed energy and still holds a connection to that subrealm from whence it came.
In the universe there are some places more fertile than others are, these would be the areas where there is an expanding bubble of energy, these fertile areas would be more commonly known as galaxies, and it is here that the World Trees take root.
Look at any world and you will see that it is more or less spherical, this is because the sphere form is a very natural and highly efficient shape if you want to have an evenly distributed gravitational field. What you won’t see are the giant roots extending from the southern polar region or the boughs in which might sit a moon or twenty. This isn’t because you have poor eyesight or because they aren’t there, it is simply because they are on a different plane of existence. The roots seep into the subrealm of energy and sustain the tree whilst the boughs absorb energy from the local star in a remarkable case of photosynthesis to sustain life itself.
Because of the constant ebb and flow of sub-universal energy the trees exist in what might be defined as a Multiverse, there are two distinct forms of the world with an infinity of shades and possibilities in between. Hyldrassil represents one form of the world whilst at the other end of reality there is Goldrassil, its mirror image. They exist in this manner as a way of balancing the colossal energies that would otherwise tear them apart. Strangely unlike most other trees Hyldrassil and Goldrassil are not in perfect balance, this has resulted in a tiny amount of energy seeping onto the worlds and having all kinds of weird effects. This energy is called Mana and is the source of all magic.
Like all trees the World Ashes can produce seed when the time is right, as was the case with Hyldrassil and ancient Yggdrasil, and like all seeds to their sire the pair were linked until events in the world’s history severed this connection.
So to recap: The universe is infinite and matter explosions are like inkblots spreading across the nothingness and ruining your furniture. These blots are fertile areas in which worlds take root and a constant flow of energy surrounds the worlds, and because there is an imbalance on Hyldrassil there are manipulatable levels of sub-universal energy seeping in. And each world is linked to its parent tree unless a fight breaks out and the link is broken.
Isn’t astrodendrology fun.
They skirted along the lakeshore, the only real moment of note for the last couple of hours being when a spur of granite extending from the crater wall to the shore forced them to go for a wade. This entailed Balder edging out into the water whilst Multhazzar sat on his shoulders, he explained that he couldn’t touch the water for very vague demonic reasons, Balder assumed that he meant laziness.
On the other side of the great stone outcropping they came across a vast tract of land that had been cleared of trees and plant life to be surfaced with a coarse gravel, it looked like it came all the way from the city and ran to the crater wall.
“This must be the new Harvest Highway they’re building,” commented Balder as they started down the clearing, the gravel crunching under their feet with each step. “The government is trying to improve the infrastructure between the city and the rim villages, Vinalia is the first to get connected to the new highway network.”
“Sounds like a waste of time to me,” Multhazzar snorted, “wider mountain paths aren’t going to help you actually get up the bloody mountain any more quickly.”
Balder turned and after scanning along the tree line he pointed to an incomplete stone structure extending just slightly above the trees, it seemed to have been built against the crater wall and was surrounded by scaffolding.
“That’s the base of the elevator station they’re constructing, the sister for it has already been built at the top of the cliff, fourteen thousand feet up, about a mile from the mill road. When it is finished it will have two cars, one at the top and one at the bottom, they’ll work as a counterbalance with one going up as the other goes down.”
Multhazzar took in the details of the cliff face, even from here he could see were heavy wooden beams had been fixed to the stone to act as guide rails and they already extended a third of the way up the wall of stone. He could make out a crane structure on the cliff edge suspending a massive box that must have contained the construction crew adding the next beam, he had never before seen a project of such scale.”
Human ingenuity never ceased to amaze the diminutive demon, their capacity for inventiveness had even forced the demons to throw their hands up and cry, “You win!” No matter what evils the demons perpetrated the humans topped them on a daily basis, and most humans did it simply because they could. The Dark Lord himself conceded defeat after the first humans arrived in Niflheim, it wasn’t that they rose up against him or anything but simply that even the most excruciating punishment became mundane to humans after only a few months. He was out of ideas so he simply left them to it, as a result the Dark Lord hasn’t been seen in a while, rumour has it that he lives on a secluded island spending his days surfing and avoiding humans.
The demons now realising that they were unemployed took up whatever jobs were available on Hyldrassil, usually as spectres, poltergeist, and when necessary as door to door salesmen. They don’t really do evil anymore because, comparatively speaking they just aren’t very good at it.
“When the elevator is finished and the highway is cobbled they say that the two week journey from Prosperina to Vinalia will be reduced to about four hours,” Balder commentated with no real sign of enthusiasm in his voice, he was still emotionally drained. “It’s all the talk of the village, mostly because it will destroy the value of our produce since it will become so easy to acquire, and of course then you’ll get city folk moving in, and with them follows city crime.”
“You aren’t really so naïve to think that there isn’t any crime in your village now, are you?” Multhazzar sneered, “You aren’t that dumb?”
“Of course there is crime in Vinalia,” Balder replied without rising to the insult, “but we all know it’s either Thick Reg or Daft Ron, their crimes are always monitored and taxed.”
“You tax crime?” Multhazzar could see another one of those human creations looming.
“Of course,” said Balder, “it’s income isn’t it.”
“Yeah, but… surely they don’t declare it?”
“They would have to give it back otherwise.”
It made no sense, Multhazzar knew that it made no sense and he cursed himself for living in a world in which such logic determined ‘truth’.
“What about other crimes?”
Balder thought about that for a second, “What like?”
“Well, Murder? Rape?”
“Murder isn’t allowed, and you can only perform a rape if you get notarised permission first.”
No, don’t rise to it. He’s bound to have some stupid flawed logic behind that statement.
“ITS NOT RAPE IF IT’S CONSENSUAL!”
“Oh yeah, I’m thinking of adultery. No, rape isn’t allowed either. They hang you for that, yes it’s technically murder but everything is done perfectly legally and above board.”
“What, do you force rapists to take a jump from the mill without a pack or something?”
“Oh, you’ve seen our courts at work?”
A short while later the pair came across the construction crew packing the heavy stone slabs together that would eventually make up the road surface. There were dozens of big, burly men and in the tradition of road workers everywhere at least half of them were leaning on their shovels surveying the scene. On closer inspection it appeared that the crew was mostly comprised of Lycans, the collective name for the various races of beasts who walked like men but still resembled the creatures of their various clans. The half-light of dusk revealed their true nature and they would stay as such until dawn when the day shadows gave them human form once more.
The Lycans were quite possibly the oldest race on Hyldrassil, certainly in an age past they had commanded a vast empire spanning all of Vanaheim and Amaldaar whilst the first humans were getting to grips with that bright stuff that burned things. Mysteriously the empire disappeared almost overnight leaving only the land of Lycanholme for them to call their own, the race never fully recovered from the fall. The last of their strength had been broken when they went to war against the Vastian High Kingdom, the last of the great human empires of old crushed the Lycan armies on the Hylaan Fields of Midas, and from thence forth the once noble Lycans became reticent and reclusive. Those who did leave their ancestral home to explore the world could usually find work only as unskilled trade and labourers, doing jobs that most humans did not want.
The road itself was coming together at a remarkable pace, from the looks of things it should be completed just in time for the inaugural run of the elevator.
The Lycans barely passed notice of the sullen young man as he hopped onto the completed section of road and followed it like a river of stone flowing to the city, most averted their eyes to avoid meeting the human’s gaze. Multhazzar kept himself hidden under the flap of the backpack since he was under the impression that the less people saw of a demon hanging around the young man the better he might go unremarked.
Balder could feel despair filling up his soul once more, damming up in his psyche, threatening to burst and overwhelm him, to drown him in emptiness and sorrow, and deep beneath it all he felt a growing fire of rage. He needed to keep that flame alight, he was clearer in the anger, his thoughts were sharper and more focused, the sheer outrage give him the passion that he needed to plan his revenge.
“Imp, tell me why that knight is trying to kill me,” Balder’s teeth were clenched as he spoke, “tell me why my friends had to die, and why I know that he killed my father.”
“I didn’t know that you knew about that,” replied Multhazzar with genuine surprise, “Abraxus killed your father because he wanted to change the future, and he is determined to kill you because he is trying to change his own destiny.”
“That’s stupid,” Balder spat the words as if they left a foul taste in his mouth, “those people did not deserve to die over a foolish and archaic notion such as destiny!”
“It’s not so stupid as you might think,” Multhazzar replied dryly, “Abraxus succeeded in changing the events of history, but so far history has found a way to ensure that the story will still reach the same end. History is malleable but destiny itself is absolute. Abraxus knows this, and he is fighting it.”
“Why? What is so important about me that I can affect his destiny?”
“You’re going to kill him.”
Balder stopped in his tracks, “Now that is stupid! Until this morning I didn’t even know that he existed, what possible motive or excuse could I have for killing someone I’ve never met?”
Although he wouldn’t say it aloud the idea of killing Abraxus did now hold a certain appeal.
“You see, that’s destiny at work that is,” Multhazzar tried to sound as sage-like as his somewhat piccolo voice allowed, “in trying to kill you he has set in motion the events that will inevitably lead to his own destruction. It’s a common human error made by villains throughout history, they never know when to leave well enough alone. That’s the real trick behind prophecies, the future is an entirely random state until it happens, and then it becomes history. But if you tell a human that they are going to do something then subconsciously they will do everything in their power to ensure that it happens, even if it is something that they do not wish to happen.”
“That sounds spurious.”
“Does it really?” Multhazzar tapped Balder’s shoulder and indicated that he should walk on, “Destiny isn’t some serpent waiting to spring upon the unwary traveller, destiny is just the name given to the path before you, but only you can choose to walk that path to whatever end it might lead.”
As he strode down the empty new highway with the evening sun gradually starting to sink in the sky Balder thought about the path that was before him now. His world had been turned upside down, his family and friends murdered, he himself on the run from some fel knight and his soldiers. No matter how he tried to look at the situation he could only see this path coming to an abrupt end, quite possibly over a chasm.
On a land far, far away from the troubles of the young apprentice mage an intoxicated man sat at a bar, a feat that no publican on the planet could describe as unusual, the drunk was also in a maudlin state of mind, another feat of gross mundanity.
The pub was a busy tavern known as the Black Guard and was in the trade district of the Mage City of Ameer Hesh, the capital city of the Vanutian Dominions. The pub itself took its name from a somewhat legendary tribe of man who were renowned for having banished an ancient race of false gods and burning the bridge that would allow them to return to Hyldrassil. The destruction of the bridge not only destroyed the Gateway Isles but also caused the mana eruption that became the volcano of Pyrrha and changed the face of the world forever. Most of the tribe died that day almost two thousand years ago and those who remained now lived in peace in the village of For Humm in the small land of Kardiak between the three dynasties of Auraksis.
This was the legend of the Bridge Burners that the world knew, few knew the whole truth of their story, the dictators toppled, the invasions quashed and the wars averted. These were the things that could be hidden from the public eye, the cost of peace in a world that balance on a razor’s edge over oblivion.
“I used to be great,” the drunk moaned into his beer, “I led the armies of Strenia against the last High Kingdom. Me! A Vastian myself and I brought doom upon my people, and only because I had the misfortune of being born outside the city in one of the first villages to fall. I didn’t even know what it meant at the time, I was a general and the empire in the city were the enemy.”
His companion sat in silence, occasionally he sipped at the ale before him but mostly he listened, that was what he did, he listened to every detail no matter how trivial and then he would ensure that it was all carefully recorded in the histories.
“And oh how we crushed them,” he continued, “the ballistas soared through the sky spitting fire in their wake and breaking the walls like the fingers of the Eidolons. The Vastians were broken, the few who remained were scattered to the wind to await their destiny of nothingness. I hear that your lot even has one.”
For the first time the quiet man spoke, “In name only, it is not his bloodline.”
“Doesn’t matter, someday the Inquisition will come for him, just as they came for me. If it hadn’t been for the loyalty of my men I would be a much less complete person today.”
“The Inquisition wouldn’t dare,” said the quiet man in an off-hand comment, “there are forces in this world that even they must respect.”
“Quite true,” the drunk sighed, “but they might not yet be aware of that fact. I’m tired. Tired of fighting, tired of being on the wrong side of a conflict ending that seems to be without end, wrought with foulness and ruin.
“Did you know? Did you know after Vastinopolis fell my forces walked across Raan as if it were already ours, they had no fight left in them once the rumours spread of barbarism shown in the great city. I would have crushed Tithonus too had it not been for the Inquisition and their desire to eliminate what little remained of the Vastian bloodline. I could never figure that out, why would they do such a thing? It wasn’t as if there were even enough true-blood Vastians left for an uprising, there were few enough remaining to form a decent picket line and yet the Church decided that they, we must all die? It makes no sense to me that they would go so far even to turn on those who served Strenia and even on her Generals in the midst of a war.”
“Maybe one of your kind is destined to carry the light of the High Kingdom,” the quiet man ventured.
“Yeah, with sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other, posies in his hair and sunlight shining out of his arse.”
“Rather cynical, don’t you think?”
The drunk snorted, “No, I am a realist. The time of the Vastian people has been and gone, anything that rises from the ashes will be nought but a pale imitation. The world of the mage and the mana stone is coming to an end, it is the time of the ballista and the steam engine now. Technology is taking over on the path once tread by magic and those who do not keep up will find themselves swallowed up and devoured by the New Order.”
The quiet man sipped once more at his beer, the crowd in the tavern paid them no heed, it was not the first time that a tired soldier had gotten depressed about the direction in which the world was headed and had chosen to drunkenly voice his opinions. Sebastian Pygmalion probably had greater reason than most to be depressed for he was a true-blood Vastian and a cousin to the former Royal Family. During the early years of Strenia’s rising his village had been swallowed up, he was just a baby at that foreboding time of change. Twenty two years ago he was in his early thirties and a General of great renown, a natural leader and knowing nothing of his heritage he crushed the failing High Kingdom, and in so doing he destroyed his past. He was now a man hunted by the very people whom his deeds had made great, and he was doomed for a bloodline that he did not even understand.
“Technology is the way forward,” the drunken General sunk further into his melancholy, “Strenia is getting better in developing their machina of war, and I hear that Moldor has twice now attempted invading the southern kingdoms. That last time they nearly succeeded in laying a railway across the Badlands for shifting their troops. It is only a matter of time before they succeed in getting a foothold down here, don’t you think?”
“No,” said the quiet man with a resolute firmness, “the Moldorans are overconfident in their technological might. The first time they came here they were wiped out because they foolishly chose to camp over a nest of creatures that devour all non-magical life, they thought that they could easily overpower such beings. Their second attempt failed because they were so sure of the dread they inspired that they failed to realise that the Black Guard were amongst the slaves building their railroad, and that the rails were moving imperceptibly apart. At the ruins of Ish Hundaar their steam engine derailed and they found themselves surrounded by a combined Auraksian army, the Moldoran technology useless because it was still packed up for transport. The Moldorans will never gain a foothold here because they fail to comprehend a magical civilisation as a threat.”
It was the turn of Sebastian to sit in silence, his worldview was that darkness was closing in all around him and he couldn’t see this light that the Black Guard Chronicler was insisting still existed. He could see only enemies gathering on every side and a greater, brooding evil somewhere in the background biding it’s time.
“Avengerius,” he said at last, “do you really believe that there is a Vastian out there who can restore the legacy of the High Kingdom?”
“I do not think that restore is the correct word,” Avengerius the Chronicler replied, “but I do believe that there is one who can stop the world from sinking further into darkness and destitution.
Chaos Theory states that in any system of disorder you can find an underlying pattern of order, which is of course subject to entropy within itself, and under which there is another intricate pattern. All that really means is that if you watch something for long enough you will get very bored and start coming up with overly elaborate sentences that could be roughly translated as ‘Oh, déjà vu’. This wordplay system has been used for years by quantum physicists to show how smart they are in comparison to other people and to attract women, you only think that you know sleazy until you meet a drunk physicist. The Arcanists of Hyldrassil have come up with the same theory because they want to meet women too (and to justify their otherwise pointless jobs that had previously involved pulling rabbits out of hats and other forms of pest control).
Bar fights tend to follow a similar pattern of entropy and inertia. You start with the breakdown of order, usually by the guy closest to the keg and from thence spreads a wave of disorder as he falls in a pool of his own vomit. The wave spreads out as patrons move or are pushed out of the way and into the path of other patrons, drinks are spilled, noses are knocked, feels are copped, and soon the wave crashes against the far wall and sometimes against the ceiling too. Order slowly returns as some reconcile their differences but soon breaks down again as they suddenly both realise that they have an unresolved issue with the closest person to them and they move in using a classic pincer formation.
It all goes to show that some of these quiet country pubs really could use some other form of entertainment to pass a Satyrday afternoon, possibly a flickering box showing grown men kicking an inflated bladder about.
The Twisted Ankle tavern sat on the outskirts of the whitewashed city of Prosperina, built just metres beyond the city limits allowed it to call itself a traditional country tavern and thus have an excuse for its ‘rustic’ appearance. Dilapidated is another word that came to mind when looking at the building. The other reason for being just beyond the city limits was that the publican could take advantages of lucrative tax breaks, such as not having to pay City Tax, Guild rates or trade duty.
This evenings bar fight was just coming to a close as Balder stepped through the doors, the next one wasn’t due to start for another couple of hours, time enough for him to grab a bite to eat and get on the road again.
He ordered what he knew would turn out to be assorted bits of pig in various stages of disfigurement served in a small pool of grease with black bits floating in it, he also ordered a pint of strong ale to try and cover the flavour. Pint in hand he made his way through the settling crowd and made himself comfortable at an unoccupied table in a darkened corner, then with that done he sat and stared blankly at his beer. Weariness washed upon Balder like a tidal wave, the events of the day once again threatening to overtake him in a flood of funereal emotions. He sighed long and hard as he tried to keep his mind on the here and now, he needed to get some sort of plan together otherwise he’ll end up standing at the harbour pointing from ship to ship going ‘eanie meanie mynie moe’.
At some point a plate of blackened meat and grease that more resembled a natural disaster than dinner was set in front of him, but Balder completely failed to register its presence, he was lost somewhere between the untouched ale and the stained dark wood of the heavy table.
A commotion at the bar finally brought him back to the real world, a hunched figure hidden within a faded brown robe was being shoved aside by a crowd of gruff men who gave off the same universal aura shared by bullies everywhere.
“Man before beast,” sneered the obvious ringleader as he gave the robed figure a push that sent him sprawling. The other men laughed at this, the robed one whimpered which only seemed to spur the bully on further, “Surely your kind should be drinking from a saucer out back? What right do you think you have round here? There’s a sign on the door says ‘no pets allowed’.”
Balder left his backpack at the table and made his way through the growing circle of spectators, Multazzar took the opportunity to hop unnoticed onto the rafters just in time to see the bully deliver a sharp kick to the chest of the prostrate figure.
“Hey,” the crowd parted around Balder, “if you think you’re such a big man why don’t you have a go at someone closer to your own size.”
Balder may have been the blond-haired, blue eyed boy but he was still over six feet tall and well built, not barbarian-invader build but athletic with enough obvious muscle definition. Plus he still had his sword strapped to his back.
“This don’t concern you, farm-boy,” the bully growled, “go back to your shandy and leave us with the beast.”
The cowering figure crawled towards Balder, shaking in fear and pain as he did so. The bully took a step forward.
“RETURN TO THE BAR NOW!” Quick as a flash Balder had turned to an attack posture, his body sideways to the bully with one hand stretched before him and the other grasping the hilt of his sword. The bully and his posse backed away but this was probably less to do with the threatening pose and more to do with the fact that Balder’s eyes had turned black yet were somehow glowing and seeping a purple mist. The command barked in the strange foreign tongue also helped to throw them off balance, they may not have understood the words but they could sense that the speech was all in upper case.
“Hey, relax,” the bully said with his hands raised in a gesture of conciliation, “we were just messing around. No harm intended.”
Balder reached down and helped the robed figure to his feet, he glanced once to the posse, “I suggest that you guys learn a little respect before you run across someone less merciful than myself.”
The robed one gripped Balder’s arm as he attempted to steady himself and he could feel the long claws within the robe as the figure breathed in a ragged rasp. He led the cloaked figure to his table and offered him a seat near the hearth. The crowd had dispersed upon seeing that there was going to be no action so the pair was once again largely ignored.
“Thank you for your assistance, young human,” the figure said, his voice was a hiss as if he were speaking through fangs.
“I cannot tolerate bullies,” Balder replied, “and I despise racists.”
He could see the outline of scaly flesh within the darkened hood, of serpentine eyes appraising him and a superior sense of smell tasting the air around him for any hint of deception or malevolent intent.
“I know of many clans of Lycans,” continued Balder, “but I must admit that I have never before heard of one matching your description.”
The Lycan pulled back his hood slightly, just enough to allow the tavern light to illuminate his face and cast strange shadows across the spiny ridges that defined it.
“I am a Drake Lycan, dragon descent,” he said softly, “my kind are few in number, we are… an embarrassment to our people.”
“An embarrassment? If you do not mind me asking, how could you be an embarrassment to your people just because of your birth?”
“How much do you know of the wars between our peoples?”
Balder thought for few moments, his father had tried to educate him as fully as possible in the history of the world but the library of Vinalia was somewhat scant in reading materials.
“I only know a little, and that mankind could not exactly be called an innocent party in the altercations.”
“Quite,” the Drake said, “during the First Age my clan was the ruling caste of our people, and when the war came we made one tragic mistake, it was an act of desperation but unforgivable nonetheless. We consorted with demons beyond the likes the world has ever known, and unwittingly we brought genocide to Hyldrassil on a scale never before imagined in even the worst moments of your kind. In shame our clan went into exile on the mirror world, along with many others of the Lycan people, only a few of us remained to ensure that the mistakes of the past would never be repeated, and the gates of Goldrassil were sealed.”
“But you went to war against the Vastians five hundred years ago.”
“And lost,” the Lycan spoke solemnly, “that was the Lupercal Clan, the wolves. They could not forgive humanity for a war that cost our race its honour. They watched humans war amongst themselves and with their false gods and when they could stomach no more they struck at the Vastian Kingdom, then the heart of your peoples. But the Vastians were naturally powerful in magic, far more so than even the greatest shamans of my kind and in the end the Lycan armies were overwhelmed in the kingdom now known among your kind as Midas.”
Balder shifted a few blackened pieces of food about on his plate without any real interest or desire, it served more to remind him of the possibility of eating rather than to encourage actual consumption. He listened to the Drake’s story and could fully understand how the animosity between their peoples came to be, they had a history that started badly and gradually got worse until the Lycans closed their borders. Now humanity outnumbered their race by a figure roughly two hundred to one and could not be trusted to not flex that collective muscle.
“I thank you for protecting me, and for hearing me speak,” the Lycan slowly stood up from the table, it was clear that he still felt some pain in his body but must move on nonetheless. The story of his clan was a tale of woe and a cause for derision within his own kind, but it was also all that the Drakes really had left and they needed to ensure that the lessons were not forgotten. “I fear that I must now take my leave of you, my journey must continue.”
Balder stood and held his hand in what he hoped was the traditional Lycan sign of a friendly parting, the Drake made a reciprocal movement and Balder knew that he had got it right.
“I am Malecghos of the Drakes, Cleric of the Wind, Malec to you, my friend.”
“Balder Von Daryhiem, apprentice mage,” Balder replied, “I wish you well wherever your path may take you.”
“And good luck to you,” Malec said in the same foreign tongue that Balder’s father used when teaching the manipulation of mana, “your kind has suffered more than mine ever had at the hands of those you once called your friends. I wish you providence on the journey that is before you, for I can see the shadows of destiny like an aura surrounding you.”
Balder nodded, between the use of his educational tongue and the general bizarreness of the statement had left him unsure as to how best to respond, what exactly did he mean by ‘his kind’?
They parted company and Balder once again found himself sitting in the smoky air and staring at the most horrid looking plate of burnt slop ever to have befallen the world, it looked far worse now that it had cooled a little. They called this a ‘traditional fry’ but whatever people it been considered traditional to must have long ago succumbed to heart failure. He tried a bite of what was either a hash brown, a mushroom, or gravel scraped up from around the bins outside, he then attempted in vain to wash the flavour away with a large mouthful of the dark ale.
“So just out of curiosity,” a voice came from beneath the table, “what would you have done if they had chosen to fight? Would you actually have drawn that sword?”
“I tried to,” Balder replied softly, “the bloody thing is stuck.”
“Ah,” Multhazzar was lounging across the flap of the backpack and visibly suppressing a chuckle, “well you can always use the scabbard to bludgeon anyone you see as a threat. How did you do that thing with your eyes?”
“What thing with my eyes?”
“You know, black… misty?”
“Oh that. Happened again, did it?”
Multhazzar picked a bit of meat from between his teeth, “That a common thing for you, is it?”
“Tends to happen when I get.. emotional,” Balder shifted his food about his plate again, “my father explained that it was because I had a natural affinity for shadow mana and it tends to manifest according to my emotional state if I forget to keep it under control.”
“Fair enough,” the demon responded disinterestedly, “any chance that we could go now? You and I both know that you aren’t going to eat that crap.”
Balder shifted the mess once again, although he might have been imagining things he could have sworn that his fork was smaller than when he had started. He found that what was on the plate before him was very quickly becoming one of the most depressing aspects of this day, more depressing still was the fact that he had been forced to pay for it before seeing the dish. Too late to refuse to pay for this garbage, it was a well thought out strategy by the landlord, Balder would have commended him on his business acumen if it hadn’t been himself who had just gotten the shaft.
“Yeah, let’s get out of here.”
The sun was just sinking beneath the peaks of the rim wall and the shadows were growing long, the brightest of the evening stars shone through the gaps between the wispy clouds and crickets could be heard singing in the hedgerows. Somewhere in the trees beyond the road an owl was hooting.
“We’ll need to find you a brothel for the night.”
“I’m sure that you mean ‘hostel’,” Balder said as he stepped onto the stone highway that gently sloped into the heart of the city and would eventually lead to the harbour.
“No, I mean brothel,” Multhazzar replied, “you could do with some sort of distraction and there are few people more vigilant than ladies of rentable repute when it comes to looking out for hostile men.”
“I’m not really in the mood for such… indulgence. I’d rather find the first boat to Midas and get the hells away from here.”
“I’m getting pretty sick of this wallowing in self-pity phase that you’re going through. People are dead, it’s not your fault. Deal with it and move on!”
They trudged down the road in silence, the paraffin lamps along the roadside flickering as a mild breeze blew up from the harbour and carrying with it the faint hum of the Song of the Twin Gods.”
“I don’t know how people live here with that racket,” Multhazzar broke the silence, “how in the name of all the Shades of Niflheim do people sleep with that constant humming?”
“I imagine that they take comfort in hearing their Gods sing.”
“Most Gods have enough decency not to talk to their flock,” the imp spoke dryly, “when they do you generally find that people misinterpret them and end up killing virgins and dancing naked in a forest.”
“Unfortunately I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of that sort of thing going on here.”
The whitewashed houses gradually gave way to shops and guild offices, all whitewashed with an added tint of smog. As a rule Prosperina never really slept, though nobody could say for certain if this was for commerce or crime, ‘entertainment’ generally falls into both categories on Pyrrha rather than warranting a separate group for consideration. A good mugging was usually more fun than the theatre and so long as you weren’t the mugee it was generally cheaper too.
As they neared the City Square and the main thoroughfare to the harbour district the number of reputable premises gave way to an increasing number of restaurants, taverns and ‘financial centres’. The ladies of negotiable repute preferred to call themselves financial advisors because based on your finances they could advise you on exactly what you were going to get.
It was reckoned that the population of Prosperina was just over the eighty thousand mark, there was no accurate figure available as census forms rarely got returned out of the deeply held Pyrrhan fear that the tax man might come round. One or two people might get counted twice (for reasons of claiming disability benefits) but this is balanced out by the number of people who dabble in a little identity theft to shift the responsibility onto someone else.
At any given time there might be a further ten thousand seamen and merchants in the harborage, dockyards, and numerous inns and houses of financially determined repute, and the closer than you came to the harbour the more of the population you found on the streets.
Balder found himself trying to stay as close to the walls as possible, he felt uncomfortable in the street lights now that he knew he was a hunted man, the shadows along the storefront might give him some chance of avoiding any trouble.
Ahead a tavern door slammed open allowing the din of a few dozen conversations accompanied by the sound of a fiddle wailing some vigorous ditty to erupt into the night, Balder stopped in a convenient shadow to see what would happen next.
In the end it wasn’t particularly exciting, a group of drunken corsairs with the tanned skin of Minaarkand stumbled into the broad street, they were singing a somewhat crude song about a fair maiden called Venus with a rather unusually shaped body. They each held a flagon of ale in their hands and were far too merry to pay much heed to the crowds around them, this was the harbour district and if anyone had a problem with happy sailors then they should politely bugger off to one of the other districts.
There were plenty of taverns in this area due to the aforementioned ten thousand approximate visitors to the city, at least half of which must have been on the streets at this very moment. There were faces from all over the world here- gruff, long-haired Vikings from Althaea; black skinned merchants from Nu; pale, heavily accented druids from Heimdahl; there were even a few Lycans. This last group stuck together in close company and was trying to stay out of sight in much the same way as Balder.
A mild commotion up ahead attracted the attention of the majority of the crowded street, people were shuffling to move to the sides of the thoroughfare and to clear the way, even the drunks were shifting to make room. Balder melted back into the shadows but then saw that his fear was unwarranted, those who approached were not the black and red armoured soldiers who had ransacked his home and life, no these men had the respect of the community.
Their armour shone in the flickering street lamps and over the near glowing chain mail they wore tabards of regal blue upon which embossed in exquisite silver was an elaborate three pointed star, the longest point facing downwards with the others like outstretched arms. The image of a man was further enhanced by the small diamond above the star like a head, a behind it was a small halo like a shield.
The crowds stood in silence as these five proud knights strode by, many bowed their heads in quiet reverence whilst others whispered blessings and uttered prayers of good fortune.
Balder did not recognise the uniform, though he could recognise a certain divine energy like an aura that surrounded the knights. He spotted an Owl Lycan in the shadows nearby, quietly he made his way over and though the Lycan backed away at first he was able to enquire as to the nature of the knights, an act that shocked the Owl somewhat. The Owl had assumed that humans naturally knew those they venerated rather than just throwing around faith so blindly and without question. Balder had to explain that until today he had spent most of his life in a quiet mountain town reading books about magic, alchemy, harvests and exotic animals (just for a bit of variety).
“Those men are knights from Midas,” the Lycan said softly, “Paladins in the Order of Aryia.”
“The ones who build all the hospitals?”
The name of the Order rang a bell with Balder, he had read about them long ago, knights who appeared in war torn lands to build safe havens for those wounded and they did not discriminate against whom they healed. It was an old Order created around 1200AX by the Vastians in honour of Aryia, Demigod of Healing.
“Indeed, young human. They are a very forward thinking society, very compassionate even towards my kind, they are much honoured amongst my people.”
“I wonder why they are on Pyrrha? There is not a hospital here so far as I know, and we are not at war with anyone.”
“I fear that war may be coming to this land,” the Lycan said with sorrow in his voice, “there are rumours that a force of Strenian soldiers have landed here, an act that could easily be a precursor to invasion. The Paladins have been trying to keep the war on Amaldaar from spreading, the nations of Vanaheim are strong enough but as I understand it the King of Midas fears that Pyrrha is ill defended, and so he has sent the Order here to bolster the defences.”
“But there is only one way to Pyrrha’s interior,” Balder replied, “and invasion fleet would be forced to pass through a heavily defended bottleneck in order to land.”
“That is true, but a strong enough fleet could do it, especially with the weapons the Strenians now employ, horrid, evil things that have been improved upon every day since they first shattered the walls of Vastinopolis.”
Of course Balder knew all about the Strenians being here, he just hadn’t known at the time that they were soldiers of Strenia, but what he still couldn’t figure out was why even a warlike nation such as theirs would want him dead. He had never even been to the accursed place.
He thanked the Owl Lycan for his help and shuffled off into the crowd, there was obviously something far more serious going on in the world than he had first considered. Not that the fact made him feel any better about his own situation, an entire country had declared war on him.
It didn’t take long for the crowds to resume their drunken reverie after the Paladins had passed, as with most things respect only ever really extended as far as earshot.
When the surrounding noise was sufficient to drown his voice after more than a few feet Multhazzar spoke from the backpack, “It’s amazing how the people you talk to seem to be frightfully well informed. But perhaps that is because I am forced to use you as my basis for comparison. And you are an idiot.”
“I told you that I had a natural affinity for shadow magic,” Balder spoke and ignored the insult, “it’s mostly mental stuff, I can sort of read who might be off the most use to me, it’s like an instinct.”
“I’m just pointing out that it is a tad convenient, is all.”
“Well I tell you what, Imp,” Balder said jovially as he skipped around a fellow who was discussing his finances with a raven-haired beauty, “the next time we need to find something out I’ll just ask the first person who looks like they’ll reply ‘dunno’. Maybe they’ll turn around and shock us with some useful knowledge, wouldn’t that be a fun experiment?”
“You could try asking one where we might find a good place to stay tonight.”
“I’d rather not,” Balder replied as he shrunk suddenly back into the shadows of an alleyway between a burlesque and a restaurant, “that man across the street with the short black hair, the guy in the dirty cloak. That’s the Strenian captain who was with Abraxus in Vinalia.”
“It couldn’t be,” Multhazzar peered over Balder’s shoulder, “it’s a week’s ride from Vinalia to Prosperina, you said so yourself.”
“Well they must have gotten down somehow,” he started down the alley, first at a quiet pace but very soon he was running, “they must have portals or something.”
Multhazzar doubted that idea, wormholes were incredibly difficult to create even by the best mages, it took skill and energy far greater than even the most powerful summons. Heck even the majority of demons were incapable of creating a wormhole large enough to transport anything but their own essence. Of course there were certain mana stones, spatial thaumatite they called it or something like that, stones that could be bound with the essence of a location so that even a non-mage could teleport back to the spot. But even with such stones they would require a high level terramancer to draw forth the spatial essence.
The thoughts going through the demon’s head were far beyond Balder’s education, and probably a good thing too because it allowed the apprentice to approach the problem from a more practical level, and he had hit upon the answer.
“The elevator,” he said between breathes as he ducked from one alley to the next, “the construction crews had cranes at the top to lower the crew in boxes to the work area. They must have had the crew lower them all the way down.”
“Huh,” Multhazzar sounded like he might finally have been impressed, “so IQ means more to you than just letters after all.”
Balder stopped and leaned back against the alley wall which in turn resulted in a muffled curse from the demon still secreted in the backpack. The cold, damp stone against the back of his head sent chills down his spine, though it could just as easily have been the adrenaline having that effect on him. This was the grimy underworld beneath the whitewashed façade of the merchant city, hidden there buried amongst the discarded trash and detritus lay the shivering and largely ignored vagrant population of Prosperina. Drink, gambling and taxation had cost many a man his home and livelihood in this city, and usually the three went hand in hand.
It was a terrible state to be in and Balder genuinely pitied these poor souls huddled around their small fires or wrapped in waste paper, you never saw people in this condition in Vinalia, the folk in the mountains looked out for one another. This sense of community was one of the things he feared that the village would lose when the elevator was completed, and that chilled him more than the cold stone ever could.
He could do nothing for these people here now, he knew that there was nothing that he could do and still felt no better for knowing it. The feeling was the same kind of impotent guilt that healthy people feel when they meet a crippled person, which is why most people avoid the handicapped, that guilt is a horrible and somewhat unjust feeling.
He remembered that he had packed a week’s supply of waybread for coming down the rim wall, and most of it hadn’t been need thanks to his necessary shortcut. Approaching the nearest group, three desolate souls huddled around the most pathetic fire they looked up at Balder with withered, hollow eyes that tried to blank out the reality of their world, he gave them all of his waybread and most of his water. It wasn’t much but at least it felt right, it felt like he had at least tried to do something that might make their world better if even only a little while.
“How fantastically altruistic,” Multhazzar hissed from within the backpack, “if you’re quite done with your little humanitarian mission saving those who can save themselves could you perhaps get back to the task of saving you whilst we still can?”
Saying nothing Balder slipped silently through the darkness and the stench of decay, his feet sliding in random puddles of grime or tripping over unseen bags of waste. This city was badly in need of redevelopment or at the very least sanitation, over the last decade things had slipped further and further into disrepair as the Pyrrhan government grew more corrupt and apathetic.
Beneath the smell of waste he could just about make out another scent, the rich tang of salt air and seaweed, the harbour was only a corner or two away and then all that he had to do was pick a boat.
And there it was, he rounded the last corner and saw beyond the dark walls the glare of the lanterns along the crowded harbour promenade and the packed quay. Beyond that the vast darkness of the Crater Lake, and on the opposite shore the chasm known as the Pillars of Ares which opened out to the expanse of the Gaean Ocean.
Standing at the edge of the alleyway shrouded in the last of the darkness Balder surveyed the hustle and bustle along the promenade. There were blocks of warehouses lining the shore and because no Pyrrhan would ever pass up the chance to make a quick buck there were also numerous inns, taverns and brothels, plus for some reason the public library. This area was the real hive of activity in Prosperina, the one place that even in the darkest hours of the morning commerce never ceased, there were always ships coming and going, always cargo to be unloaded and deals to be made.
In the light Balder saw a crane swing overhead and lower one final crate onto a barge that already say dangerously low in the water. At first he wondered how that thing would ever survive an ocean journey when a light breeze would whip up waves large enough to capsize it and make the ocean floor that bit more valuable. An empty barge silently came alongside as the first slowly backed out, as it moved away from the harbour Balder saw a multitude of small vortices travelling along the hull, the water was being shifted by a piece of thaumatite charged with water mana.
Further out in the lake a shadow sat imposingly on the water and as he allowed his eyes to follow it he realised that this was a vessel sitting beyond the harborage, a monster of a thing so large that it could come no closer. That was were the barges were coming to and from, this leviathan that boggled the sense and defied all logic. How could a monster that size plough through the waters?
Thaumatite, whilst allowing laymen to control magic to an extent held only a limited charge and to shift a super freighter of such magnitude half of their cargo space at least would need to be taken up with stones just to reach Midas. It seemed an incredibly inefficient way to move cargo.
The second barge was moored and Balder saw a crew of dark skinned men working on deck, well that explained something at least, the Noob city of Solczar was the largest merchant city in the world, the Nu Combine had been built upon their trading empire. When it came to shifting merchandise the Noobs were inventive in ways that would put certain historical Leonardos to shame, and they had done it without having to blackmail any failing ancient empires.
“I think that I’ve just spotted our way out of here,” Balder whispered to the backpack, “if we can get onto one of those barges we could hitch a ride on that super freighter out there.”
“Yeah, a six foot tall, blond white guy,” Multhazzar said with mock enthusiasm, “I’m sure that you will be totally inconspicuous amongst the people of Nu. Great idea, you just have to work on your tan.”
“I don’t intend to stowaway,” he replied as he scanned the nearby crowds, “I intend to ask for help, I’ll buy passage if need be.”
“And do you really think that going to Nu will keep you safe?”
“No, but if you have any better ideas I am open to suggestion,” there was a hint of anger in his voice, “seriously. You were the one who was sent to get me out of here, if you have a better plan I’m happy to give it a shot.”
There was silence from his backpack and then Balder knew that he had struck a chord.
When the demon finally spoke his tone was one of resignation, “I’m sorry. You’re right, I went to your house and told you what I was ordered to and since then you have done all of the work. I know that I have been underperforming, believe me I am well aware of the fact and it is frustrating as hell, and the simple truth is that I do not know why I have been sent here. I’m only an imp after all, my job is to destroy things, I can’t even do any of that transmogrification or mind-mess stuff that djinn can and our species are separated only by two Words. I don’t know how to save you.”
“Maybe you aren’t meant to,” Balder mused as he slipped forward into the light, “maybe you are here because you know more about the world than I do, after all, I’ve lived in a quiet mountain town all of my life.”
Before Multhazzar could respond a shadow leapt from the edge of the darkness grabbed Balder, bodily lifting him back into the shadows and pressing him back against the wall.
A pair of glowing spheres that could have been eyes stared back at him, they seeped a deep purple mist that drifted skywards, the face was shrouded in a grey cloak and further inspection showed all flesh to be hidden. The figure was the same height as Balder but far more powerful than a man should rightfully be, when he spoke his voice was a damaged rasp and the words almost seemed to insinuate themselves into existence rather than be spoken.
“Are you bloody stupid or something?” There was a definite malevolence in that voice, “You can see in shadow so why don’t you try doing that before exposing yourself, you damned fool!”
Balder struggled in the figure’s iron grip and felt an anger building inside him as he flailed in vain to break free.
“Cease your infirm scuffling,” the figure commanded, “I am not going to harm you, and the last thing that either of us needs right now is for you to draw any unwanted attention. Calm down and relax your mind, let the shadow flow into you and I think that you’ll see things a little more clearly.”
The struggling ceased but the figure still held tight, Balder calmed himself with deep, steady breaths and allowed his mind to open out to whatever it was that he had always felt trying to get in.
Colour drained from the world and the people within it became as little more than two-dimensional cut outs, the lake glowed white as if filled with some luminescent creatures and the sky became a swirling monochrome vortex.
And suddenly here in this toneless landscape there hovered in glowing orange a creature like a squid, a ring of eyes surrounded its body and its tentacles reached out in all directions. It was feeling everyone who came within its mammoth reach whilst the body rotated slowly in the air, Balder watched as the tentacles wrapped around people, gripping their 2-D chests, caressing their faces and frighteningly nobody seemed to notice.
“A pitseer hydra,” the shrouded figure said, “they only exist as energy, unless they choose to manifest their touch cannot be felt. They absorb holy mana as sustenance and as a result show up exceptionally brightly on the shadow spectrum. There’s a couple of dozen of them up and down the dock, and I know that you can guess who they are looking for.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Balder couldn’t take his eyes off the monstrous being, the vile tendrils reaching out and grasping all who came by, it was more than an abomination, it was a violation.”
“There are far stranger things than that in the world,” the shrouded figure released the young man, “and Multhazzar, I know you’re in there. You were supposed to be keeping an eye out for things like that.”
A small head with over-exaggerated horns poked out from under the flap of the backpack, “Daryim, I’m sorry. I, I didn’t know what to do, I’m not cut out for this kind of-”
“Stop babbling,” the one who had been identified as Daryim said, “I told you to get him on the move and help out whenever you can, I’m not expecting you to perform any miracles. I know fine well that it is Balder who will have to do most of the work, it’s his life we’re talking about.”
“Can you stop talking about me like I’m not here, please?” Balder brought the focus of attention back to him once more, “I’d like somebody to talk to me and explain exactly what in the Underrealm is going on.”
“I would have thought that much was blatantly obvious,” Daryim rasped, “the Strenians are trying to kill you.”
“But why me?”
“Don’t take it too personally, they’re determined to wipe out all of the Vastians, not just you.”
Balder stared at the glowing squid thing, “But I’m not a Vastian.”
“Did it never seem odd to you that all other Pyrrhans seem to have dark hair, green eyes and few seem to be taller than five foot eight? Oh, and that you have a natural affinity for magic?”
The monotone world of two dimensions continued to flow by, another pitseer hydra became visible briefly further down the dock, it was lower towards the ground and moving amongst the cut-out figures, ducking in and out of narrow spaces along the wharf. The nearby hydra was no longer groping around the crowd but had pulled its tentacles into the air and moved as if swimming down the promenade, and it was moving directly towards those in the alley.
“Um, I think that squid thing has spotted us.”
The air moved in the darkness of the alley, a cool breeze grew to a fierce wind and in the realm of shadow Balder saw a vortex of blue light form seven or eight feet off the ground. Lightning crackled within the glowing whirlpool and mists of local ether were dragged over the event horizon and drawn away.
People were at the head of the alley, in two dimensions they were ludicrous looking as they pointed and stared, above and behind them the hydra picked up pace and was joined by another glowing beast.
Daryim grabbed Balder’s clothes just below the neckline and spun the young man towards the vortex, with inhuman strength he held him up towards the maelstrom. Balder screamed and fought as some unseen current caught his legs and pulled him up into the vortex, the only thing anchoring him here was the unshakeable grip of the shrouded man.
“I am sorry,” the voice rasped from behind the grey bindings, “but this is the way your story must continue.”
And with that Daryim released his grip.
Balder felt himself dragged inexplicably across the threshold, light washed over him and he had the vague sensation of being stretched to infinity, sight and sound became meaningless and became one.
In one moment he felt himself become everything that didn’t exist in the world.
A short hard sci-fi story that I wrote earlier this year about the clash of memory digitisation and the law. It was originally intended to be a one act play with Frost becoming a lot more sinister before realising what a bastard he had become, I might fix this at a later date.
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The paramedics had rushed to the hospital and the surgeons had taken her straight into theatre. She had stabilised as best as could be expected under the circumstances and now it was in the hands of fate and her own will to live that would determine the next twenty four hours.
Detective Michael Frost had sat outside of her door since getting the call that she was in surgery, his head was in his hands, he was tired, and he was scared. His partner, a rookie who had just made detective was in the canteen seeking out two coffees and any kind of product that could be called food.
He looked back through the window behind him at the girl, she was blonde and was once beautiful but after the beating she had sustained today she would undoubtedly require reconstructive surgery.
“Detective Frost,” a tall African American woman approached him, she was wearing a trim business suit under a white lab coat, “Doctor Christine Tambor, Libra Neurosciences.”
He stood and accepted her extended hand before turning to the young, red haired man who accompanied her, he was a man Frost knew to be an adjunct from the District Attorney’s office.
“Nathan,” he shook the lawyer’s hand, “sorry to see you under these circumstances.”
“Indeed, Detective,” he looked in to the girl, “how are her vitals?”
“Not great,” Frost sighed, “it has been touch and go since she came out of surgery.”
“Who is she?”
Tambor set the case that she had been carrying on the chair Frost had not ventured far from since he had got here.
“I don’t know,” he looked in at the girl with an almost fatherly concern, “we haven’t been allowed in to run a genetic ID yet.”
That was why Christine Tambor was here. The girl had inadvertently become a material witness in one of the biggest investigations in Boston history, but she may not live through the night.
Libra Neurosciences had developed a technology for backing up memories and there had developed a whole new industry of mental preservation and display technologies. Commercial memory-frames bad become commonplace in households the way static picture frames once had been.
But being unconscious she could not consent to the imprint so Nathan Hagan had to come down from the DA’s office to view the memory and sign off that only the memory relevant to the crime had been extracted.
“How soon until we can get in there?”
Doctor Tambor had opened the case and had began assembling the sleek imprint kit; unlike the commercial units that were plastic and looked like headphones this unit was brushed aluminium and had two additional probes that sat on the forehead and fed back to a tablet pad. The high end kits used to ensure accurate collection and preservation of evidence for prosecution.
“I’m waiting on a doctor coming down to give us the go-ahead,” Frost paced back and forth in front of the door, worried his witness might not make it that long.
His partner, Carl Fairgrieve returned with two plastic coffee cups and a bag of potato chips, he handed over the chips and a coffee with an apologetic look on his face. Bad coffee and worse food came with the job, Frost was long enough in the tooth to ignore it.
“Any change in the girl?”
“No,” Frost looked back in on her for maybe the hundredth time this hour, “there was a small spike in her heart rate but it settled again.”
“Listen, boss,” Fairgrieve pulled an evidence bag from his pocket; lipstick, address book, some jewellery, some money but no ID, “I was going through her address book trying to find some reference we could use, mom, dad, anything like that.”
“No,” the young detective frowned, “it’s all guys.”
“Yeah, boss,” Fairgrieve said, “it looks like a client list.”
“Wow, hold up,” Hagan said from across the hallway, “are you saying she is a prostitute?”
“I think so,” Fairgieve tossed the evidence bag across to the adjunct.
“I’m sorry, Detectives,” Hagan held up his hands, “you can’t extract that memory.”
Frost had practically dropped his coffee in a mixture of shock and anger, “What the hell do you mean we can’t extract it?”
“It’s a Fifth Amendment issue,” Hagan took a step toward Doctor Tambor, “Prostitution is illegal in this state, if she was working at the time of her assault and we extract her memory while she is unconscious it would be a violation of her Constitutional Rights.”
“She could die,” Frost practically spat the words.
“It’s not a nice thing to say but we can attempt an extraction in that case,” Hagan looked to Tambor, “can a post-mortem imprint be done?”
“As long as there is some brain activity we should be able to get something,” the neuroscientist replied, “I can’t guarantee how accurate it will be though.”
“I can’t build a case on that,” Frost said, “I need to get an accurate snapshot.”
“And I’m telling you that it will not be admissible in court,” Hagan said, “no judge in the country will take on a case that from the beginning has been a Constitutional Violation.”
“What about her right to live,” Frost was trying to control his anger, “what about her right to justice?”
“What about her right to avoid giving self-incriminating evidence,” the adjunct said, “bottom line, Detective, when it isn’t a matter of national security the constitutional rights of another cannot be suspended.”
Frost stomped the corridor in frustration whilst Tambor stood helplessly between them, she shared a look with Fairgrieve who for his own part bore the expression of one who wished he had remained silent.
“What about the McKenzie Act,” Tambor held up her hands in a conciliatory gesture, “can you get DA Haugh to activate it?”
With the advent of memory digitization a congresswoman from Los Angeles recognised the potential for evidence gathering in cases of violent crimes in which the victim may be a terminal case or otherwise be rendered incapable of giving evidence. She successfully lobbied Congress and thus was born the McKenzie Victims Neural Evidentiary Act that enshrined in law the emergency collection of a person’s memories in case of homicide or attempted homicide.
“Do you still suspect that she is a sex worker,” Hagan said, his palms open, “because if you do the McKenzie Act cannot apply whilst she’s stable.”
Frost was getting angry with the adjunct, the cocky young lawyer was interfering with the first break in the biggest case currently going on in the city. Of course he cared about the girl but the man who had beat her was one of the largest importers of narcotics into Boston, there were more important issues at play here.
“What about you perform the imprint just in case,” Fairgrieve spoke up, “if she doesn’t pull through at least we’ll have the memory, use McKenzie as our defence, and if she pulls through we can hold the memory and ask her to prosecute?”
“Detectives, I understand your frustration,” Hagan sat down next to Tambor’s case, “and I am not trying to get in your way, all I’m doing is telling you how it is viewed by the law. And if I don’t do this now then you’ll get to watch your case get pulled apart in Court by the defence attorney.”
Frost was thinking about what his partner had suggested and it had merit. But he would still have no case if they did, that was the whole purpose of the DA having a representative at evidentiary imprints, the adjunct had to ensure that the evidence was admissible.
He thumped the wall in frustration and took several deep breaths to calm himself, to try and focus his thoughts into something useful. He could come to only one conclusion, this case was too big to let the evidence fade away.
“Doctor Tambor,” he said, staring through the window at the unconscious girl, “get set up to take an imprint.”
“Detective, you can’t,” Hagan was on his feet and crossed the room to Frost, “you cannot violate her Fifth Amendment rights.”
“I have no choice,” Frost rounded on the lawyer, “that girl’s memory is the only solid evidence we have to convict one of the biggest felons in Massachusetts and it is too important to lose on a legal technicality.”
“It’s not a legal technicality,” Hagan slapped the evidence bag with the little black book into Frost’s chest, “it is the fundamental principles of this country. To take those away from her makes you no better than the man you are trying to convict.”
“When the only choice you have is the wrong one then it isn’t a choice,” Frost snatched the bag from Hagan, “my back is against the wall and this is what I need to do. I think you’ll agree, Doctor Tambor.”
“Leave me out of this,” the Doctor set the headset back on her case and stepped out of the line of fire, “I’m just a neuroscientist, the legalities of this imprint are nothing to do with me.”
“Actually,” Hagan turned to her, “if you imprint without her consent and she comes around you will be equally indictable for violating her Fifth Amendment rights.”
“That settles it,” she sat down, crossing her arms and legs, “I’m not touching this until either she is determined to be terminal or we get consent.”
“God damn it,” Frost threw the evidence bag across the room.
“Boss,” Fairgrieve placed a hand on Frost’s arm, he wished that they had never found that damned book, “they’re right. The girl is already a victim to the people we’re trying to put away, she shouldn’t be a victim to the people who are meant to protect her.”
Frost looked at his partner and then through the window at the girl, wishing that she would hurry up toward the pearly gates so that they could enact McKenzie.
“Oh my God,” he said with the realisation of the thought that had just passed through his mind, “what kind of bastard have I become.”
“It’s not so bad, boss,” Fairgrieve knew his partner to have the determination of a dog with a bone once something got under his skin, “you just want to catch this guy.”
“I just wished that she would die,” Frost said as tears formed in his eyes and he had to sit as the strength was leaving his legs, “I’ve become so obsessed that I wished that girl was dying so that we could collect our evidence.”
Fairgrieve took a step back with no words to say, Hagan shook his head and stared at the floor, and Tambor simply turned away.
From within the room alarms started bleeping insistently, the lines on the monitors turning red and signals would be firing out to the nurse stations about the emergency.
“Oh God no,” Frost said as he stood and stared in at the girl.
“Crash cart,” Doctor Tambor shouted to one of the nurses running to the room.
Nobody said to Frost that it looked like he was going to get his wish, and right now he was praying with all his heart that the girl would pull through.
No case was worth the life of another. They’d get the evidence another way, there was bound to be a trail somewhere and all they had to do was dig like old fashioned police officers. He’d gladly do that. Any amount of work was better than the cost of an innocent life.
Doctor Tambor returned to her case and began to set up the imprint kit, the neural monitors glowing to life as the blue text of the boot-up sequence scrolled by.
She began to sync the headset when Frost put a hand on her shoulder, when she looked up he shook his head.
“No,” his sad eyes penetrating her soul, “let them work without distractions, she might come through.”
Tambor simply nodded and set down the headset. She stood up and joined Hagan, Fairgrieve, and Frost in earnestly watching the medical team, hoping against hope that the girl would pull through.
It was out of their hands now.
Hours later, long hours that had felt like days for Detective Michael Frost the corridor was now quiet. Most of the lights were now out and he say alone in the chair, his head in his hands.
His hair was ruffled and he had a growth of grey stubble on his face, but most tellingly of all were his eyes. They were black with fatigue and tears.
He had cried for hours. Cried for the girl whose name he did not even know, cried with the shame of what he had nearly done.
And he had cried because he was deeply ashamed of the kind of person he had become. However briefly it had been for it still had been him, he had thought those terrible things.
Years of life as a defender of justice, seeking out those who had done wrong to others, and in one night he had thrown it all away by wishing one innocent girl dead just so he could harvest her memories.
He hated himself right now.
The door beside him opened and a young doctor stepped out, himself looking ragged from a long night and Frost turned his tired eyes to him with hope.
“She’s stable,” the doctor said and Frost’s heart leapt, “she’s conscious for the moment and has asked to speak to you, Detective.”
My first novella, actually written over October and November 2008 didn't see the light of day until 2016. At the time of writing I was doing a course being taught by talented Donaghmore author Emma Heatherington and I had set myself the goal of writing a short novella over the duration of the course. Our task for the first week was to write a short story based on a set of shared parameters, mine became the first chapter of that novella, so I'm throwing it up here as I've been lazy about updating the blog lately.
Although listed on Amazon as the first book in the same series as Murder Incorporated and Murder Syndicated it is more appropriate to say that those novels are a spin-off from this novella rather than sequels. The full novella reached the top 5% in the Screencraft.org Short Story for Screen Competition in 2015 and the evaluation suggested an adaptation for television.
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01- The Art of Theft
"You stupid, stupid man!"
This is me, a transvestite and a criminal walking down the street in this Godforsaken town in the middle American Bible-belt, I'm cursing into my cell phone and drawing perhaps a little more attention than I should.
On the other end of the line is my partner and as you can probably tell I am not particularly happy with him. We had one simple job to do: snatch a case from an empty office building and pass it on, it was that easy. Then my genius partner calls into the bookies on his way to the Fence and manages to get himself robbed.
I can feel the cold darkness of the night closing in around me, the sickly yellow pall of the streetlights and the washed out blue of the full moon do nothing to hold back the trepidation of what lay ahead. Anxiety, fear, call it what you will for I knew full well how deep a hole we were now in.
* * *
Six long months ago we had shot west from New York, an immoral and malefic place that I now look back upon with fondness, but at that time the greater imperative had been to keep my life.
Gene, my partner, got word of a certain city councilman who had just received a rather generous contribution toward his mayoral campaign, a nice off-the-books donation from a waste company looking to keep the health inspectors away from it's Hudson annex. Understandably we thought it only fair that the citizens of New York, namely ourselves, should benefit from the redistribution of this wealth and so a little bit of careful planning saw Councilman Raphael a little lighter in the pocket.
It's truly amazing what you learn after it is too late for you to correct your mistakes. For example I came back to find that Gene had discovered that Thundercat Wastes (Hudson) Inc. is in fact a mob shell company. And more interestingly still he discovered that Councilman Raphael is second cousin to Nicky 'Irish Nick' Ravel, Underboss in the Manhattan Scargetti family.
I should have stuck to art theft.
That was then, this is the nearer now.
The mayor here is a crooked browbeater who likes to spend his evenings beating his favourite hooker before heading home to his family, the clergy have the usual collection of pederasts and the cops think that they are the Cosa Nostra.
It is as if this town is a sewer draining away all that was once good about the American Dream so all that are left are the deadbeats and drifters like brown scum staining the rim of the basin. The desolate, broken, and depressed of a hundred struggling farms seem to have found themselves washed up on this berg, hoping to drown their sorrows in cheap booze, or in the truly tragic cases the local river.
There could not be a more perfect place for us to lie low until things cooled off back east.
Believing that was my mistake, for you see Gene has two great weaknesses, one is girls, the other is gambling.
For years I have been telling him that there is no quicker way to lose money than fast women and slow horses, but he tends to interpret this as advice to go for larger women and horses with short names so they're lighter.
It all came to a head a week ago when Gene broke down in tears and confessed that he had not only blown his cut of the Raphael job but had run up debts of several hundred thousand dollars.
This was tragic, it was a disaster, and it was ultimately his own mess to which I fully intended to let him sort out on his own. That is until he appeared the next day looking like road kill with fashion. Someone had worked him over good, a professional beating that he would remember but still left him full use of his limbs.
That was when I got the whole story, the money he owed belonged to The Circus.
Don't let the cutesy name fool you, The Circus is the biggest collection of freaks, weirdoes, and sociopaths in this accursed town, and when they were beating seven shades of crap out of Gene he gave them the only thing he could. He gave them the cat burglar he was in town with.
I could have killed him right there. His debt was now my debt, and if I wanted out then I was going to have to do a little job for them.
I packed my bags, slipped out of my dress and into the most nondescript grey suit that I owned, I told Gene that I was getting hell out of this town before I wound up in a shallow grave behind some school playground.
I threw my bags in the trunk of my old Mustang, told Gene to get in his car and head for Calexico and then I drove off.
This was our long time emergency exit plan should we ever piss off the wrong people. Get to the small town of Calexico in southern California, cross the border into the Mexican side, Mexicali, and rendezvous in a small bar suitably named Los Banditos. I kept a security deposit box in a small bank in the town with a couple of forged Mexican passports and ten thousand Euro, by the time anyone found that I had crossed the border I would already be on my way to a quiet Greek island.
Two hundred yards down the road I noticed that I was nearly out of gas, though I felt quite certain I should have had at least half a tank.
I pulled into the nearest Chevron and filled her up, all the time thinking carefully about the possible consequences of my flight.
The Circus would be pissed, but they're small fry in the grand scheme of things. My real concern was that my occupation was now a known fact and it was only a matter of time before a few guys with suits and slicked back hair turned up from New York.
I was about to leave when I felt a bit of a thirst come upon me. The time was as good as any to pick up a few drinks for the road so I headed back toward the whitewashed block of the building.
The attendant was on the phone as I entered and stared intently in my direction, had I been rumbled?
"Hey buddy," he called, "there's a guy on the line wants to talk to the man in the grey suit."
Well, that clinched it, I was being followed.
I took the offered handset and placed it to my ear but did not say a word.
"We only put a hole in your gas tank this evening, next time we'll cut your brakes," a voice rasped, clearly the owner smoked far too much, "then we'll cut your throat.
"You owe us a lot of money, Mr Trillion," he continued, "I suggest you go to the alley behind The Sports Bar and pick up your friend. He has the details you'll need."
The line went dead with a click.
* * *
So here I am strolling down the street tonight, cursing into my cell phone and genuinely stuck for a way out of our current predicament.
It was two days before Gene could walk again and after all the trouble we had went through he then managed to botch the job at the last minute.
My stilettos clicked angrily on the pavement in a mirror of my current mood, a small group of people eyed me warily as I passed by.
Being a transvestite is actually the perfect disguise for this line of work if you have the nerve to carry it off, you draw so much attention to yourself that people never notice what you really are.
"Meet me at the park in twenty minutes, we'll figure something out."
"Okay," Gene replied on the other end of the line, "Trillion, I'm sorry, man."
"Don't worry about it," I said, my anger giving away to something clearer.
A sudden screech of brakes caused me to turn abruptly, "Oh shit!"
A rusted red Dodge had swung broadside to block off the street behind me. The man behind the wheel wore a sickly paint of dirty white with exaggerated features painted in black and orange and had a shock of orange hair. He pointed two fingers at me and dropped his thumb in a movement mimicking the hammer of a pistol.
The Clown, the biggest psychopath in The Circus and the only weapon I had on me was a derringer tucked into my garter belt, not the ideal weapon to bring to a gunfight.
I hung up the phone.
A while back I wrote a violent Western novella called 'When the Man Comes Around', which is probably my most downloaded story on Kindle, although given the genre it faces a lot less competition than the likes of Murder Inc.
I had toyed with the idea of doing a sequel for a long time, but then Murder Inc started growing from a novella to a full blown novel and my six shooter sequel sort of fell by the wayside. So, I figured why not post up the prologue and intro. Feel free to praise it and tell me to finish the story.
- - - - - - - -
There was still gold in those hills, not much but there certainly was some. Not that miners ever really saw much benefit from it, the only people to see profit were the merchants, innkeepers, tradesmen, craftsmen and basically anyone else doing business during the waning years of the Gold Rush other than mining gold.
The town of Shasta was doing exceptionally well out of the boom, mule trains and stagecoaches rolled in to this hub of trade before heading further north along the Siskiyou Trail toward Oregon or back south toward Sacramento.
With all the comings and goings and the legends of rivers of gold there was inevitably going to be another type of person also attracted to the town, the grittier sort, men of spit and blood.
Two large gangs had established themselves in the surrounding countryside, engaged in a bitter rivalry with one another that more often than not came to bullets and death. Shasta was spared much of the violence as out of necessity it became something of a neutral territory, a place were either side could trade or otherwise entertain themselves without having to watch their backs.
Not that this did anything for the local population. The Oregon Regulars, a legion of deserters formerly a regiment in the Union’s Continental Army took the view that the locals were a nuisance, whilst the California Defenders simply took what they wanted.
You could not have referred to one side or the other as good, the Oregon Regulars had deserted the army for the sole purpose of making it rich off the sweat of the miners’ backs. The California Defenders on the other hand were simply carrying on the tradition of making life as difficult as possible for the Union that had annexed the territory over twenty years ago.
Where the two met, north against south, was as violent and cataclysmic as that fault through San Andreas, and embattled Shasta was the buffer zone.
For the past two months the Regulars had held the Hotel Royale as their base in the town whilst across that very same street the Defenders had claimed the saloon, marking out the borders of one another’s territory.
Carriages rolled down the street as a fine breeze lifted a layer of dust from the gutters of the busy thoroughfare, a man stood in the centre as stage coaches and wagons berthed around him casting glares in his direction but remaining silent.
Wind caught his long, navy blue coat revealing a pair of pistols at his side that gleamed as if lit by the fire of angels, the navy blue garments underneath could easily be mistaken for the uniform of a Union officer. His white hair was blown about a face that gave no clue to his age save that he was no coddled child.
Looking first to his left and then to his right he seemed at last to come to a decision.
Walking down the street ignoring the vehicles rumbling to his left and right, the brim of his hat casting a shadow over his eyes shielding him from the sun as it set fire to Heaven as it drifted toward the distant horizon. He turned north to the Hotel Royale, its red and white paint sand blasted and sun baked, stepping onto the porch he reached out a gloved hand and gently rapped the door.
This was as good a place to start as any.
He waited patiently as a barrage of cursing came from the other side before a few moments later the door was flung open by a young man in a Union uniform, clearly drunk.
“Yeah? What do you want?”
Without a word and fast as daylight the white haired man reached out and strangled the drunk silently on the doorstep.
Drawing his guns the man stepped inside and closed the door.
That same day.
The wharf of San Francisco was a forest of masts swaying with the gentle rise and fall of the sea, schooners and merchantmen that had been abandoned as their crews sought their fortune inland.
The city itself was booming, what had once been a small coastal settlement serving as a stopover for ships heading to better places was now the hub of California’s growth.
In the hustle and bustle of the area now known as Fisherman’s Wharf a young man sat on a jetty sketching the Italian immigrants toiling on their fishing boats. He ignored the crowds about him and the stares of the curious young women as he carefully etched the crooked lines of a gnarled old fisherman unloading nearby.
There was something about the old man, an adventure or strife, some hardship hidden beneath the lines on his face that gave him energy and determination. He was an excellent subject that the young man loved to try and capture, if even only the slightest glimpse he wanted to find a way to express the vibrancy under the sea-worn skin. If only he could speak Italian, the conversations they could have.
The artist, Patrick, was no more a native of San Francisco than his subject, his family were not part of the Gold Rush mania that had spread across the eastern US. Ten years ago they had been ranchers in New Mexico, but those days were long gone and would burn forever, the memory of a father and brother.
Things had been hard at first, adjusting to a new life and finding employment, but they persisted with the determination of people who refused to be defeated or browbeaten by their past.
His mother found work in an assessor’s office and Patrick when he turned fourteen found work on the docks, and in his spare time he liked to draw. And draw he did, every free moment for the past five years. He found serenity in art, being able to detach oneself from the world and observe dispassionately the ebb and flow of human emotion, to try and capture some of that energy in a single moment.
A young woman sat next to him but he paid her little heed, people always gravitated to him when he drew, he supposed that in some subconscious way they wanted to become subjects themselves.
She smiled at Patrick when he gave her a glance, he briefly returned it before lowering his eyes back to his etching. In truth he was a handsome young man, curly brown hair and green eyes that burned with intensity when he was bent over his sketch book, but he was also shy and distant in the way only a murdered family can make you.
“You’re very good,” she said, looking over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” he smiled but didn’t look up, “it’s just a hobby really, and I doubt my work will ever see the light of a gallery.”
She continued to watch him for a few minutes, sitting in silence as he smudged shadows across the fisherman’s face, his fingers making delicate strokes across the yellowed page.
“What’s your name?”
He paused in his drawing to look directly at her, curly blonde hair and blue green eyes like the ocean, she was dressed as a lady of some culture, not the sort that would normally associate with a dock hand or artist.
“Patrick,” he replied, “Patrick McElhone.”
“Patrick,” she smiled as she said his name, “that’s a nice name. My name is Patricia, Patricia Telford.”
He knew the Telford name, the family were big cotton traders from Louisiana originally but had come west when the Civil War became bad for business. They owned property all over the city and land as far out as Sonoma, including it was said a vineyard in Napa.
“Can I see your sketchbook please, Patrick?”
He handed it over without a word, struck dumb being spoken to by a woman whose family wealth was positively terrifying.
She flicked through images of the docks, the fisherman, the bay, even a sketch of Alcatraz Island before pausing at a drawing of a captivatingly beautiful woman, she looked to be in her early forties with flowing dark hair and slightly sad eyes.
“She’s beautiful,” Patricia whispered, “she looks so haunted. This is amazing work, who is she?”
“My mother,” he replied, “I drew that about a year ago, when she got engaged.”
“Why does she look so sad?”
“She has looked like that for a long time, it’s only since meeting my step-father that she has started to soften.”
“I take it this isn’t something that you want to talk about, not with a stranger certainly.”
She scanned through the remaining images, pausing to study the lines on each before moving on to the next, until at last she came to a blank page.
“May I borrow your pencil?”
Turning to the back side of the page she wrote a few brief words before closing the book and handing it back to Patrick.
“I have reserved a page in your book,” she stood and gave him a slight nod, “I would like to commission a picture when you have the time. You can find me at the address provided.”
He nodded, unsure and dumbfounded.
“Good day, Mr McElhone,” she offered her hand.
“Uh, good day,” Patrick found his feet, and taking her hand he gave it a gentle kiss, “Miss Telford.”
The exchange on the docks, between the McElhone boy and the Telford girl was watched by a figure standing in the shadows. He watched not only Patrick but everyone around, scanning from person to person, eyeing everyone, looking for something.
He had journeyed far to be here now, and it had been a journey in haste but now above all times was when he must be at his most cautious. There was far too much at stake to be reckless and impulsive now.
The Telford girl curtsied and left Patrick standing on the dock looking like a lost idiot, smiling to himself and gripping the sketch book, blissfully unaware of the imminent danger.
The man stepped out of the shadows and pushed through the crowds on the wharf keeping his hand on the knife hidden underneath his jacket.
Young McElhone was staring out to the bay, his back to the advancing figure, his mind full of wonder and new curious feelings.
The man stood directly behind him, hand still on the knife handle.
“She likes you.”
Patrick spun in shock and found himself staring at a tall Native American man with deep eyes like the heart of the earth and a tight lipped smile that only slightly curled at the edges.
An old short story I wrote way back before I started writing about Fallen Angel Detectives, transvestite cat burglars, and wee girls who could change the world around her with a thought.
- - - - - - - -
A long empty blackness lay ahead, the lonely highway rumbled beneath her tyres and she sighed to the melancholy thoughts that played over and over in her mind. Raindrops fell in heavy tears upon her windshield causing the intermittent flashes of street lighting to blur as they cast their sickly yellow glow that seemed to make everything appear just a little less real.
As the flashes washed across her face in steady rhythm she wished only that the sense of unreality were a reflection of the truth, she wished it with all her heart. She was drained, both physically and emotionally she was without energy, her tired eyes had a red puffiness and she could feel the tears running down her cheeks.
Her thoughts were of those slow, tentative steps that she had taken, shuffling across the darkened hallway. She remembered how she had gently cracked open the door of the room to make sure that he was asleep.
She had picked up the chairs toppled on the kitchen floor and swept up the broken glass that lay shattered like her heart, half the night had been forever lost to a torrent of heat and rage, one night more in a long and bitter cycle of despair.
She needed to get away from here, she needed to escape, the screaming echoed in her ears, she needed more than anything to be free at last of this anguish.
Slipping quietly into the dark of night she packed up the kids into the car and pulled out of the driveway heading for destination nowhere, heading for anywhere that was away from this prison of fear.
Making an excuse for another bruise, lying to others and lying to herself, another excuse for her to make up, another cover to invent as she found herself once more on the same lonely highway in a wet, black night.
The road rumbled loudly beneath her tyres and she kept on driving, another junction, stop sign, another set of lights. She left her path to the hands of fate, so long as she just kept on driving through the rain destiny would wind out its hidden course to whatever end lay in the uncertainty ahead.
The children in the back seat slept in quiet dreams of candy and new toys, oblivious to the living nightmare around them as the car was embraced in the welcoming night. Children have such beautiful minds, so innocent and open, ready to absorb the splendour of the world, they coped because cynicism had not yet extinguished the light of optimism at the end of the tunnel that was their lives.
She let them sleep as she wondered if this was all there was for her in life. Night after night she prayed to God but so far He had given no answer, no comfort or respite, and His silence hurt as much as the bruise on her cheek.
Eventually she would have to steer a course towards home, she was aware of that in the very pit of her stomach and in the bottom of her heart.
The children couldn’t be separated from their father, not forever. They wouldn’t understand her turmoil, they couldn’t understand the torture that she faced, taking them from him would lead only to have them suffer as she did now. If there was one thing that she was sure of in all her heart it was that she did not want her babies to feel her pain.
For now all she needed was a cheap motel somewhere, it didn’t matter where the place was so long as she could feel free if even for only a short while. She wanted a place where she could cry, a place where she could imagine that the world was better than it really is, a place in which love was true and life was just.
In time she would have to go home but for now she just wanted to be with her babies, to hold them in her arms and to remember how important her family really is.
Cable and air conditioning, that’s what the motel sold itself upon with its flickering neon sign, a cheap room paid for with cash and any name would do, the last chance saloon along the highway of broken hearts and shattered dreams. It was like a thousand other dank stopovers up and down the country, the last refuge of those lost to love or fugitives from their desires and fears.
And here she was back in this horrendous situation once more, the cycle of her life repeating in its torturous reciprocation that slowly wore away at her spirit and weakened her already fragile soul.
The flickering glow of the gaudy roadside advertisement brought tears to her eyes as her heart broke once more, another argument and another cheap motel, her strength crushed and her life feeling like a void.
Out of nowhere came a clarity in her heart, that her life was not meaningless. Her children gave her meaning, she had to be there for them and she had to protect them. She had to get away from it all, she needed the change before her heart broke for the final time.
She turned at the junction looking once only in a fleeting glance at that flickering neon sign, an apparition of her past, something that would continue to haunt her years if she didn’t make a change.
And so she kept on driving, the rumble of the road, the flash of the streetlights and the lonely highway in the dark of the night like a curtain waiting to be drawn back to reveal tomorrow. Destiny could do the navigating, the future lay on that dark and rainy road before her, all she had to do was keep her foot on the peddle, her hands on the wheel and her heart on the future, a future that could be so much brighter.
She hoped that one day the children would understand.
Well, someone actually matched with my nonsensical Tinder profile, possibly out of morbid curiosity or possibly because she was still drunk from the night before (it was the day after St Paddy’s and our epic Grand Slam victory in the Six Nations).
Having met my goal the profile bio has now been taken down as nobody really wants to learn about the VAT rate of breads and pastries, and the Fraggle Rock theme has been replaced with a Bruce Springsteen song I really like that also happens to have a suggestive title. For all it really matters anyway, I imagine that it will be a fortnight at most before I take my profile offline again.
In the meantime I promised a poem if someone matched with me, and I’m not going to disappoint. Unfortunately due to a combination of other projects and procrastination (laziness) I’ve missed World Poetry Day (21 March), but we’ll say I’m doing this in honour of the event anyway, which means I’m either being avant-garde or a hipster.
There was an age when the world was dark
And time it was but a faraway dream,
It came after one lingering spark
Of light and sound in a flowing stream,
In aeons forgotten in the haze of morning
When the reverie fades,
And the head starts pounding.
A universe exists beyond the heavy shades
And stellar power dries the dew of night,
A hopeful promise eternally remade
In the dawning of a new day’s light,
The morning check of the social world
To see what has been said,
And what apologies might be owed
The rumour of a new connection
The teasing heart of a rightward swipe,
Surely no one could want the affection
From someone clearly a total gype,
And yet here it was really true
There was she,
And very pretty I can tell you.
So a chat there was, the sharing of a joke
And mutual agreement that someone was a dose,
An accountant she thought from my HMRC boke
I had to tell her she wasn’t even close,
It transpired she hails from a farm near town,
And soon conversation dried,
For it’s a lonely life with the charm of a clown.
Don’t anybody dare say “Aw, that’s sad,” it was one more swipe than I expected to get with that profile, which makes it more successful than the time I went on to Plenty of Fish with Hannibal Lecter as my profile picture and the headline “It puts the lotion on its skin or hosey time”.
Happy World Poetry Day everybody.
The opening to Murder Syndicated, the second part of the five part series that I'm working on. Despite the dark opening it's almost universally agreed that this novel is more accessible than it's precursor so I might do a Stephen King at some point and go back and give Murder Inc a reworking.
Anyhoo, I've stopped this excerpt before any spoilers, which is a shame because the paragraph after the excerpt has a spoiler and the paragraph after it has a masturbation joke.
- - - - - - - -
The sky was black and rolling with thunder, columns of smoke rose into the air across the charred landscape and all about there was the stench of death.
Feathers flecked red with blood were whipped into the air by a cold wind and swirled about everywhere as a grim reminder of the slaughter that had come to pass.
I knelt on cold and blackened dirt. Bloodied, bruised. Defeated.
My few companions had lain down arms, we could not hope for victory but maybe, just maybe save those who had fallen, that it wasn’t too late for our wounded.
A tall man in tarnished armour stood over me, his once golden hair matted and dark with blood, his eyes were sad.
He saw no pride in the defeat of his brother.
I was taken by strong hands, my condemnation already decided, my fate writ. I no longer had the energy to stand, my will was gone.
I was led across a desolate waste, scorched by an eternal and ageless heat under the watchful gaze of mountains black as the end of time, sentinels to the death of mercy.
The scar on the face of this vast desolation fractured and opened before us running as far as the eye could see on either side, a split in reality itself between those of us on foot and that faraway mountain range.
Stones cut my feet as I was trailed across that barren waste, dragged inexorably to my damnation.
A craterlike maw raised ahead, the original split where the chasm first tore upon this land and from which a jet stream of smoke and embers spewed forth bathed in a vicious orange glow.
The path to the maw was lined with the ranks of those who had cast us down, those who had once been our brethren their backs turned now on us. They called us traitors.
The others who had lain down their arms were behind me, they would share my fate; we would all be punished.
Catching on a rock I stumbled to my knees, falling from my captors hands I sprawled on the dirt cutting my hands and face, minor wounds compared to those already taking their toll.
The one who led the way in blood soaked armour and long hair perfectly straight and black as jet turned and regarded me only with contempt, with absolute hatred.
He moved to step toward me but was blocked by my brother; under that sky of death and burning embers he turned and reached down for me. Straining, he pulled me up as I struggled to find the strength.
One of my companions, a trusted friend of a lifetime rushed forward and took my other arm; I would be carried to my doom by my brother and my blood-sworn comrade.
A path hewn into the broken stone led to that voracious glow, from here we could see the jet stream, lightning crackling along the acrid funnel of the howling twister.
The ranks of our once brethren ended on a ledge overlooking that damnable pit, the stench of death in the air replaced with the pungent malodour of brimstone carried from the deep.
“It has come to this,” the dark haired one stared over the precipice, his face hued in a spectral orange, “I hope you count the cost.”
He looked to me for some response, some justification, maybe for me to plead mercy or offer one last act of defiance. I would give him no such pleasure.
“Very well,” he turned his back to me, “cast him in.”
My brother like any true brother hesitated, his loyalty sorely tested by the bonds of blood. In this dark and savage place I pitied him more so than myself or those who were to share my fate, I pitied him for what he would have to live with.
“Michael,” I said, my voice broken, in his hesitation they would question his loyalty and he would be condemned to burn alongside me in the Lake of Fire, “do it.”
We took a few slow steps together, the heat washing up was unbearable and cut at my lungs, we stood on the edge of oblivion as brothers in arms for one final time.
“Goodbye,” he said, “brother.”
In that moment time slowed, the end, a funnel of malevolent energy before me, an army behind. I closed my eyes as I felt his muscles tense, I took one last deep breath of free air.
It was as though time had slowed to a crawl.
A solitary white feather flecked with blood drifted before my vision, one final reminder of what I stood for framed against a column of ash and flame.
As I reached for that token I felt myself rise bodily into the air and tumble out over that precipice, thrown to oblivion.
I screamed as I fell through an infinite blackness toward a flaming ball of light, an eternal and damned sun hidden from all creation in the infinity of the pit. The vortex of the jet stream struck me and I was caught up in a swirl of liquid fire.
My flesh burned.
I flailed in agony as I tumbled through all the hatred of the universe.
Nothing existed but this pain.
I saw my flesh stripped away by the fire, I felt my eyes boil and pop but had no loss of sight.
I would experience everything.
I awoke with a start and was momentarily confused by the silhouettes all around me, the strange shadows and slivers of yellow light at odd angles. Eventually it occurred to me that I was lying in my bed and the light was the New York City night peering through the gaps in my curtains like a pervert.
Sitting up I wiped sweat from my brow, feeling like a bit of an idiot for getting spooked by a nightmare, barely noticing the sweat was rising off me in a light steam. A bit of the abyss had come back with the memory.
There was a bottle of sparkling water on my bedside cabinet, cool beads of condensation on the bottle hinting that it had not warmed up much, which in turn told me that I had not been asleep for long.
Gulping down several mouthfuls just a little bit too quickly I burped and then excused myself to the empty room. You never know who might be looking on, and if people knew how real the possibility was then the porn industry would slip into financial ruin overnight.
Lying back into my cocoon of pillows I stared up at the shadows on my ceiling, today had been the last day of my suspension, in the morning it was back to the NYPD, back to the job.
Well, I completely forgot to do a post on Wednesday, my plan to create content on a set schedule has taken a bit of a hairline fracture already. Probably will need to work on something a bit more useful than sarcastic blog posts or lazy reposts of stuff that I already have done.
So on that subject here's the second chapter of Merrily Merrily, it's the last freebie from it that I'm giving because I'd like to make some money from it, and I don't really want to set up a Patreon to offer pictures of myself in various stages of undress in return for continued support.
Anyway, when we last met Sophie she had just arrived in the Kingdom of Trancelvania with Walker the clockwork man and discovered that she was now an adult who liked to dress up.
- - - - - - - -
A Walk in the Woods
“Hey, wait a minute,” Sophie tried to keep up with Walker as he merrily strode into the dark woods that surrounded their little cave like icky hair in the plughole, “hey, stop whistling and talk to me for a minute.”
Walker was practically skipping through the mossy ground and fallen branches whilst Sophie was struggling to keep her feet. She thought about how high heels were a bad idea for a forest trek and then with a yelp of surprise she suddenly stumbled forward.
Pulling up the hem of her dress she saw that her high heels had transformed into ugly brown hiking boots.
“Well, that’s better,” she said, confused as to how she was making these changes, “I guess?”
“Come along, Miss Weaver,” Walker cheered as he poked his head from around a tree, “we still have a ways to go.”
“Wait,” Sophie ran to catch up with him, “what’s all this stuff about saving the Kingdom?”
“Do you remember when I wished you a good morning?”
Walker paused and looked back at Sophie and she became very aware of the fact that she was now standing in a spooky forest at night with a total stranger. She was pretty sure that her mummy had told her not to do that.
“Yeah,” she took a step back, “when does the sun rise?”
“It is a little after nine in the morning,” Walker looked past the gaps in the trees to the stars above, “the sun has not risen in two days.”
“What, like it slept in? How does the sun not rise?”
“Nobody knows, the light just went away,” the clockwork man looked down at his oversize feet, “it has been getting colder without the sun. I was sent to find a Weaver in the hope that you can make it shine again.”
“But how? I’m just a little girl,” Sophie lifted her arms in such a way as to show off her dress, “who apparently thinks that she is a princess, I’m not an adventurer.”
To her surprise the gown had become a green tunic and dashing white pantaloons, and matching brown satchel to go with her hideous brown hiking boots; something a bit more fitting for someone going on an adventure. A hooded cloak appeared on her shoulders to round off the look of dashing adventurer chic.
“Well alright then, I guess I’m an adventurer now,” she really wished that she knew how she was doing this.
“I do not know how were are to save the Kingdom per se, but I believe you can,” Walker took a step forward and placed a friendly hand on her arm, “but we will need the help of someone wise and of someone strong.”
“I suppose you were told all this by a kindly wizard who smokes too much and hangs around with dwarves?”
“The Oracowl of this forest came to me. I don’t know if he smokes.”
“Oracle you mean?”
“No, Oracowl,” Walker smiled and started back on his path through the trees, “he is an owl, a really big one.”
“Oh... kay,” Sophie raised an eyebrow and followed the weird tin man a few steps behind, she wondered if maybe there were a few cogs missing from the adding machine in his head.
“Are birds of prey known for their sage wisdom?”
“Eagles live as far away from people as possible,” Walker nimbly jumped a fallen log, “chickens are a tasty dinner. Which one would you say is smarter?”
“I wouldn’t want to fight an eagle for his drumstick,” Sophie said as she brushed a stray branch out of her path.
She noticed that the leaves on the trees all seemed to be fluffy clouds as if they were made from cotton candy, and felt just as sticky. Absently she tore a bit of the fluff from the nearest tree revealing some green underneath and brought a shout of ‘Oi!’
Pausing by the branch Sophie saw something hairy sitting in the greenery next to a web-like hammock, she swatted the air before her as it threw a cloud of hair.
“I don’t go breaking into your house,” the spider said as it wove a patch over the hole, “I swear, some people think they can go around doing as they please, tearing up webs, no consideration for the hardworking arachnid.”
“Oops,” Sophie said, trying not to burst into a terrified run, “sorry.”
The spider continued to grumble about the ‘Two Folk’ having no respect for an honest day’s labour and something about shift work. Sophie didn’t know what that was but it didn’t sound like fun.
Rushing after Walker she grabbed his spindly little arm and stopped him in his tracks.
“Walker, are all of these trees,” she cast her eyes around the thousands of fluffy branches that surrounded them, “are they filled with spiders?”
“Yeah, this is Spiderholme,” he brushed a few of the thrown hairs from Sophie’s face, “they are spinster spiders, they work in the silk factory on the edge of Cuddleton.”
“Are they,” she looked nervously around, having that weird ticklish feeling as if spiders were crawling over her back and in her hair, “you know, dangerous?”
“Nah,” he started walking again, “they can get a bit surly sometimes, but you would get in a bad mood too if you had to spend all day weaving cloth with your bum. Usually they are quite friendly.”
Scratching at an imaginary spider Sophie decided to stick next to Walker and hopefully they would get to somewhere a little less creepy a lot more quickly.
Far away from Sophie and Walker hidden in a mountain valley that would be black even in broad daylight there stood what might charitably be called a Dark Tower. Really though the place looked like a passing Cosmic Horror with a bad dose of the flu had sneezed on the planet and the resultant mess had hardened into this sprawling fortress.
The town within its walls might once have been a lovely place but now it was home only to banshees and ghouls, and one passing internet troll who really liked the ambiance.
The buildings were empty, with tiles missing from the roofs and paint flaking from their walls, the stone walls were stained every colour on the dirt spectrum from snot to pee. Rubbish, broken parts and abandoned carts littered the streets, market stalls sat with their produce still on display but the food long since gone rotten.
It was as if one day everyone had simply vanished.
The black tower loomed over the town like a grim and overly enthusiastic prison guard watching for the first inmate he could beat up and throw in the dungeon. The tower stood silently watching for any movement, it was keeping an eye on everything.
In places it was built in straight lines but in others it looked as though the stone had bubbled and melted to form some kind of living shell, its black foundations had twisted to wrap themselves around the outer walls of the fortress, spreading like a monstrous blob into the valley.
The trees and grass around the fortress had turned yellow and brown like something a heavy smoker would cough up. Animals no longer came near the valley and the once blue river that passed through the city and under the fortress now ran thick with mud.
Once upon a time this had been a beautiful place, that people from all over the land travelled to, but since the dark came and the magic was gone it had turned to brooding and a place of despair. The nightmare had spread out like a sickness to infect everything around it.
Nobody came to the valley anymore, even its name had been taken by the veil of dread. People now only knew it as the Castle of Pandemonium, home to a Queen blinded by anger and paranoia.
Sophie and Walker had been tripping and stumbling through the forest for an uncountable time. With no daylight it was hard to tell if it was even still morning.
Aside from a few bruises from falling as she got used to her new size Sophie found that she was not getting tired in the slightest. She discovered that since big folk didn’t have to waste energy on the whole growing thing they got much better miles per gallon.
A few song birds had tried to sing uncertainly, they knew it was supposed to be bright and singing was their gig but on the other hand people tended to shout rude things if they sang at night.
The birds weren’t the only animals that were having a difficult time of it. A quick and sprightly fox had been seen darting between the trees like a hairy ninja only to be chased home by his vixen for being out gallivanting at this time of the day.
Walker was still humming merrily to himself as if he had not a care in the world, which was quite possible if his brain was just a bunch of cog wheels.
He still had not explained how he expected Sophie to be able to bring back the sun and she started to suspect that his entire plan was:
Step 1) Find a Weaver
Step 2) Go... somewhere
Step 3) _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Step 4) Sunlight
It did not instil her with confidence.
He also had not explained to Sophie what a Weaver was beyond ‘it means being a Weaver’, which in the grand scheme of things was not an awful lot of help.
She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that Walker was just making this up as he went along and hoping for the best.
“Ah, here we are,” he said as Sophie walked into the back of him, she hadn’t noticed that he had abruptly stopped.
There was a wide gap in the forest and as she looked instinctively both ways Sophie realised that this was a cobbled street. To her right was the edge of the forest and the first of a few odd shaped houses with low walls and high thatched roofs.
Lanterns burned along the road leading into the village and farmers ran carts up and down the street to the market.
“Welcome to Cuddleton.”
Well, this will either be seen as a treat or another case of me just being lazy. I like to think that it's just funny after a video of two holographic campers being violently beaten to death by a space-hockey player to follow up with the first chapter of my fairy tale novella. If you like it feel free to buy it on Amazon and validate my existence.
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Gently Down the Stream
Little Sophie Weaver lay in her bed with a yucky tummy and a runny nose as she had done for two not very fun days now. Being sick and getting off school always sounded like a good idea when you are eight years old, when they talked about it at school everyone seemed to forget the actual part about being sick. The dizziness was awful and there was a small fortress of snotty tissues building up around her bed.
There was little to entertain during the day when you had to stay wrapped up, there were no cartoons on television just some people fighting on a stage, and some guy with mad hair looking at antiques. Sophie hated antiques, why did people pay so much for old junk when you could just go out and get new stuff that looked good?
Adults could be quite silly sometimes.
But not daddy, he called her his Little Buttercup because of her blonde hair; he made her feel strong and protected. She didn’t see daddy so often these past few days, he had been away from home a lot recently though he had been with her more since she got ill. As long as daddy was there she knew that everything would be alright. He needed to be strong because mummy cried a lot. She spent a lot of time with Sophie, helping her and looking after her, but sometimes it felt like it was too much.
She was happy now to be tucked up in her bed with her funny green nightlight glowing in the corner next to her gently bubbling fish tank.
As she cuddled her Floppsy Bunny her eyes were starting to get heavy and she could feel herself starting to drift off to sleep. She kissed Floppsy on the head and hoped that her tummy would feel better tomorrow; she was getting lonely away from all of her friends.
A thump came from somewhere at the end of her bed like a toy had been knocked over or a pillow had fallen.
Sophie didn’t think much of it until she heard a slightly squeaky voice say ‘Whoopsie’.
“Is somebody there?”
That was a silly question to ask she thought, of course somebody was there, he had said ‘Whoopsie’.
“Oh my,” a tin face popped up at the end of the bed, “the last step is always a bit higher than you think.”
A small tin man with an oversize pointed nose and a rakish tricorne hat climbed up onto her bed and sat down, crossing spindly legs that ended in oversize shoes and leaned gloved hands on his ball shaped knees.
“You would not think that would be tiring,” he wiped his brow, “but let me tell you...”
“I think I have a fever,” Sophie said, unsure if this was real or a dream, “who, or what are you?”
“Oh right, you do not know me,” he backflipped into the air like his legs were on springs before doing a cute little curtsy, “I am Walker, knight and guardian to the Weaver. That would be you.”
“Weaver is my surname, my name’s Sophie.”
“Yes, Ms Weaver,” he did another little bow and Sophie saw a large brass key sticking out of his back, like an old windup tin soldier or something.
Crawling out of her bed sheets she touched one finger to his pointy big nose and gave a gentle push that made him fall to his backside with a cry of ‘Hey, quit it.’
“You’re made of metal?” She looked at her finger, his skin had felt cold and hard.
“Do not be so judgemental,” he crossed his arms and his robot lips did their best impression of a trout-pout, “it is what is on the inside that counts.”
“Oh, sorry,” she hadn’t meant to offend him, “like a soul?”
“No,” he sprung from one foot to another like a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier, “clockwork. I am a Clankydoodle.”
“That’s not a word.”
“A robot guardian,” he flexed his arms like a body builder, the thin bit of tin actually seemed to bulge, “not as impressive as my big brother though, I just cannot get the Austrian accent right.”
“But why are you here,” Sophie sat on her feet, “why would I need a guardian?”
Walker climbed up the bed to sit opposite her with his legs crossed, he smiled and pushed his hat brim back with one finger like a cowboy about to slur some greeting.
“I am to protect your Lucining,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s a word either,” she crossed her arms, “what’s a lucining supposed to be?”
“You will find out in about three seconds,” he stood, Sophie watched as he came to stand beside her with his hands out and palms open.
Her eyes got heavy and she tipped forward, Walker caught her and gently laid the little eight year old Sophie back in her bed and tucked her in. He placed a hand on her forehead and felt how warm it was.
“See you soon.”
Sophie awoke in near darkness staring at what looked to be the inside of a drain pipe that had not been cleaned in a very long time. The ground beneath her was soft and spongy, like moss, and as she sat up she realised that it was moss.
Looking around she saw that she lay in a small cave and the scraggly bits hanging from the ceiling were actually small roots poking through from the plants above. The dim light of cave was by a small purple thing glowing in the corner, like some weird kind of firefly or glow bug.
“Good morning,” Walker jigged happily through the cave entrance, Sophie looked past him to the starry night time sky and wondered if there was a screw loose in his clockwork.
“Why am I in a cave,” she was pretty certain scary stories started like this, “where did you take me?”
“The Kingdom of Trancelvania,” he said cheerily, “we are not far from the village of Cuddleton.”
“And how did I-oh!”
Sophie stood up and banged her head on the ceiling, which caused her to fall backwards onto her bum, she looked up at the roof and it was far too high for her to have hit it.
Getting onto all fours to stand she noticed that her arms had gotten a lot longer and more slender than the slightly chubby and awkward little things she remembered. As she rose the ceiling got close very quickly and she found that she had to crouch.
“I’ve got bigger,” she said as she patted her arms, chest, and legs, then checked her bum to make sure that she wasn’t massive but it was hidden under layers of lace in a green ball gown, “what’s going on? Why am I in a gown?”
“You are the Weaver,” Walker shrugged with a slight whirring of gears, “you must see yourself as a princess.”
“Princess?” She gave the dress a little test swish, “I didn’t know I was so precious.”
Sophie realised that it was not just her body that had changed but her voice too, she sounded like her mummy. As she stepped carefully out of the cave so as to not bang her head again she felt a smile spread across her face as she was able to stretch out her arms and raise her head high.
In the end Sophie couldn’t help but laugh, this was wonderful, it was amazing to be able to stretch so far. She had always thought it would be scary to be so far above the ground and that big people must have being walking around with this constant dread of tipping over. Now that she was here though it all felt so natural and being small by comparison felt clumsy, and well, a little bit silly.
She fell backward into a bed of moss and kicked her feet into the air, giggling at how long her legs and arms were.
“Did that bump on the head drive you mad?”
“No,” Sophie sat up with a broad smile across her now elegant face, “I’ve never been this big before, it’s amazing. How did you do it?”
“I did not,” Walker offered her a hand, as he pulled her up he seemed to grow in stature as well, “you did, you are the one weaving the world around you.”
“I’m doing it,” Sophie looked puzzled as she was able to look Walker in the eye as she had done when she was the height of an eight year old, “how?”
“I do not know,” he shrugged his shoulders and then spotted her toy rabbit on the ground outside the cave, as he passed it to her he said, “you are the Weaver, I am just your guardian.”
Walker then drew a long and curved sword, the type that Sophie recognised from all the old pirate shows, a cutlass she was pretty sure they were called. He checked that the blade was sharp by slicing through a weird purple plant that looked like a carrot and deflated with a farting sound, and smelled just as bad.
Then as he sheathed the blade he rolled his shoulders in a way that caused his clockwork insides to click and then jumped back and forth from one foot to the other. She noticed that the key on his back had gone soft and was hanging like a rather fetching bronze cape.
“Well, I’m wound up and ready to go,” Walker stretched his shoulders back and struck out his chest, “we should make a start, we have to find the bravest and strongest heroes of the land.”
Sophie never noticed that the firefly that had lit the cave was actually a small sprite who was watching on with interest. When the girl left to follow the clockwork man the sprite let her light dim and she became the pixie that she was, she watched the Weaver walk off and she smiled to the twinkling stars.
“Walker,” Sophie caught up with the tin man and stopped him in his tracks, she looked nervously at Floppsy Bunny in her hands as she knew that she wasn’t going to like the answer to this question, “why am I here?”
“To save the Kingdom of course,” he said with an oblivious smile, and Sophie felt like she needed to go to the bathroom.
Never shared this one publicly. Wrote this for the 2017 Costa Short Story Awards, wanted to do something different to the violence, swearing and cosmic horror that appears to varying degrees in my other stuff. It's a bit talky and doesn't really go anywhere but it was fun to explore something with a bit more heart.
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‘Marie, time to get your arse out of the office.’
That’s how my editor put the story to me, fed up with watching me stare out the broad second floor window into the great horizon beyond the Bay. Time to focus on a story because I wasn’t being paid to mope around like a lonely city girl assembling fluff articles from the internet, so I was given a human interest piece for the Sunday edition that I was promised would put a smile back on my face if no one else.
In the afternoon I met the old man by an abandoned piece of railway line outside of Galway. True to legend he was living in an ancient boxcar that looked as though it had not moved from this spot since Ireland was ruled by the English.
No one could say how long he had lived here and he did not record the time, a waste counting away the past and putting a limit on the future he had said. Green fields and grey mountains, what did the hours mean to them? Little more than it meant to the stars in the sky.
Papa Joe was known as the Last King of the Boxcars, an American originally, Tennessee or Louisiana perhaps but through sheer desire or force of will had become a citizen of the world. A man with no means who had took himself around the globe on a shoestring, and who had come to our rugged West Coast to see out his days.
The newspaper had heard of the arrival of this urban legend and had sent me to get the story, time for the Dublin girl to see what the Irish countryside really looked like. So I put on my wellies, parked my car at a farm and hiked my way across three fields of grass in the Galway hills to reach the abandoned line.
Rusted tracks that led to nowhere across an old stone bridge were the final home to the creaking railcar of bygone days, its paint long since faded and peeled leaving exposed wooden panels that had seen too many winters. The side door was pulled open slightly revealing a deep darkness inside, not an imposing black but an inviting dark like it would be home to a crackling fire.
And sitting with his feet over the edge was the venerable Papa Joe, long grey beard and equally long grey hair, neither of which were unkempt; he wore simple clothes that looked as if he had made them himself and a robe that doubled as a blanket on the cold nights. His piercing blue eyes followed me as I climbed the grass verge to the bridge, a small smile on his weathered but strangely compassionate face that was all at once warming and disarming.
“It has been many a year since I have had the company of a young lady,” he said, his voice confident but kind, and just a little bit tired, “what can this old man do for you, my dear?”
“There are stories that you have seen the world,” I said as I reached the old sentinel on the bridge, “I would like to hear the story from you, my paper would like to print your tale. We’ll pay you of course.”
“I have no interest in money, child,” he said, and with a bit of force pushed his door open wider, the rusted runners groaning, “however if you would care to sit and hear the ramblings of an old wanderer I will happily talk to you, something people don’t do often enough, don’t you think?”
Accepting his offer I gave a small jump to sit up next to him in the old carriage, uncertain of what to expect as I landed on the ancient wood. Truth be told I probably expected there to be a smell, there can’t have been many showers on the long road from the American South to Galway. To my surprise the only scent was that of old, weather-beaten wood, the aroma of a long history coming near its end.
“There are all sorts of social media these days,” I said as I sought out my notepad in the confines of the overlarge bag I had carried with me as a memento mori from Dublin, “people have more opportunity to talk and engage than ever before.”
“It’s not really talking though, is it? Peoples’ faces constantly in their phones, carefully editing what they say and mounting any soapbox because it’s so easy to be angry now, I’ve seen a lot of that on my travels. They are marketing a brand of Self,” he summed up his opinions of our Information Age culture, then his square shoulders slouched and he leaned toward me, “but you didn’t come here to listen to an old fool rant about how things were better when people had to make an effort to build relationships.”
“I’m here to listen to you talk about whatever you want to talk about,” I crossed my legs and gave what I hope was an honest smile, “legend says you’ve seen most of this world, anything you say is of interest to the paper.”
“You have very pretty eyes,” he said and I blushed, “but sad. Would you care to talk to me about it?”
“Just a bit tired,” I looked down at the blank page before me, “how about the story of what set you on the road?”
“Love,” he said with a smile, “the most powerful force in the universe. You see, I love people, but I just don’t understand them.”
Papa Joe told me of how he was outside a black church in Memphis one Sunday morning in June, a glorious day and the singing inside made his heart soar. The day could not be more perfect he said, everything was right about this day.
The Klan had a rally planned for the day; they were marching up the street in their hoods and robes, paint in hand to daub the church with their slogans and pickets of hatred ready to plant in the grounds. The perfect day was so close to being awful.
Hell’s Angels have a reputation ranging anywhere from fearsome to terrifying, so when the local chapter set up a blockade in the street with their motorcycles the Klan was stopped in their tracks, they knew better than to touch the bikes. A huge man hidden under tattoos and beard approached the church as the congregation began to file out, he removed his leather hat and held it to his heart as he spoke to the pastor, who embraced the man as his brother.
“Understand that this was during the Civil Rights Marches and I was a much younger man,” Papa Joe said, “but that one act of love told me that there was so much more than the apathy and wickedness that I had come to associate with the world. That inspired me; I wanted to see more small acts of kindness making better a world fast becoming indifferent.”
Furiously scribbling every word he said, trying to capture the tone and emotion of what he was saying so that his tale would ring true on paper, to weave the nuance that would capture the heart.
“On this quest I have seen much love, and much bitterness, anger, and sorrow, like the loss I see in you.”
“It’s nothing,” I said, my pen hovered over the page as if the words had suddenly drained from my mind, “um, where did you visit after Memphis?”
My sins were not something that I wanted to talk about, was not ready to talk about not with a complete stranger. I understand the hypocrisy in that, but this hurt was my own cross to bear.
“I brushed floor and cleaned dishes across the US until I found myself unpacking ships at the docks in San Francisco,” he smiled and closed his sharp eyes, turning his face to the sun as if remembering better days, “tough work with tough men, but they were kind. The fishermen let me work with them to earn a wage; they let me sleep on the boats so I could save my money. I had decided to cross the Great Ocean, to give myself as huge a culture shock as possible.”
Fiji was where Papa Joe next found himself, a tear forming in his eye as he told me of the poverty in the villages there, simple huts without even running water. But the tear was not one of sorrow, no matter where he went he saw generosity and compassion, they had nothing but in their hearts they had everything.
The people there were so full of joy, so open and welcoming; he said he never ate so well with nothing asked in return, so he put his skill as a fisherman to work to ensure that he could provide his fair share. Language was not a barrier when a gesture such as the offering of a fish in friendship could speak a thousand words.
Sometime later when his feet got restless he crossed to Australia and was met immediately with a return to Western arrogance; less compassion, more distrust, fewer smiles.
Papa Joe panned for gold in Victoria, took his time, was patient, lived in an old shed in a dusty field, and over a few years he amassed enough to continue his journey. He watched the cost of living rise in Australia and laughed at the irony of it all: life was a gift but to keep living came at a cost.
“So, was it a boyfriend that has darkened your eyes?”
“No, it’s something more than that,” his own eyes took on an almost fatherly concern, “something far deeper.”
“Papa Joe, please,” I swallowed back a wave of emotion and thought about cutting short the interview, “this isn’t something that I want to talk about.”
He touched my arm with a hand calloused and strong, but the touch was gentle, meant to soothe my discomfort. I could see it in his penetrating eyes and feel it in my heart that he did not want to see me upset; I don’t know why I felt that way.
When the Wall that split the world in two came down he had decided to go north and see a nation where everyone in theory was equal, and said it horrified him to see that when a State sets the value of life that value is not high. There were so many good people he said, proud of their land because it was their land, it belonged to the people. Most simply chose not to see that the people in turn belonged to the State, and sometimes the State could be brutal, but in that time of upheaval it became more ambivalent, neglectful even. So the people did what they always did, they went about their work and did their best to look after their own.
It was on an old steam train crossing from Asia to Europe that a young soldier gave up his overcoat for an old man shivering on the carriage. An old man with no money, and the soldier probably not paid in months was unlikely to be able to replace the coat, and such a warm coat it looked to be on that cold and rickety train. The old man immediately got up and draped it over a young woman already wrapped in a shawl and heavily pregnant, he said something with a smile and placed a kindly hand on her face.
“I asked the soldier what he had said to her,” Papa Joe had tears welling in his eyes now, “the young man said ‘In my twilight I have God for warmth, in you there is the future’, I never forgot that.”
The tears, the river of emotion swelled up in me, I could no longer hold it back, the valley ran low and my defences were gone. Papa Joe put his arms around me and made soothing sounds; he squeezed me tight and told me to let the river flow.
“I was pregnant,” I sobbed, the words no longer would be held back, “but not to my boyfriend. I broke his heart, I broke our love. I lost him, I loved him so much. I still love him.”
“It’s ok,” he said, gently patting my back, “it’s ok.”
“No it’s not,” I pulled back, I knew my makeup was running down my face with my tears, I hugged my tummy, “not long after we separated I lost the baby. I lost everything, my child, the man I loved.”
Papa Joe hugged me.
He didn’t do anything else; he just held me as the tears ran down my cheeks and stained my blouse. He let me pour my heart out. He let me expel the dark cloud that had been in my head and heart and had driven me from Dublin. I had run away from the city lights to Galway to try and find peace or a new start but it had followed me here.
“I ruined everything, and my child was taken from me for it.”
“God would never punish your child because of a mistake,” Papa Joe stroked my hair, “you know your mistake and the hurt in your heart, but in time that hurt will fade if you let it. God does not want you to live filled with pain and anger; such a life would make you miss all that is good and beautiful in this world. Your child was blessed with a spark of life, but some sparks simply fade quicker than others and are all the more beautiful for it. These things are not for us to know why.”
“The Divine Plan,” a childhood of sitting in the back of Church terrified of these all-powerful men in white who held the destiny of my soul in their hands came flooding back, “God’s ineffable will?”
“There can’t be a plan and also free will, people see things and record things and do things and the interpretation of these can vary from person to person,” he was still holding me, but softer now, “I once saw a Rabbi intercede in an armed robbery right outside a mosque in Vienna, the Samaritan ended up taking a bullet for his trouble. The young Muslim man who was the intended victim held his hand whilst I fetched the ambulance; he stayed with the Rabbi all the way to the hospital.
“Some might interpret that as ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, others might see two enemies finding common cause,” Papa Joe sat back, he was looking tired now and I came to realise that we had been talking for hours and the evening had long since drawn in, “others will see simple charity between one human being and another.”
“And what do you believe you saw,” I wiped my tears and held my pen ready again, “how did you interpret it?”
“I saw compassion,” he said, his voice breaking slightly, “and all hurts no matter how old or deep can be forgiven. Sometimes it takes pain, and sometimes it just takes the courage to ask.”
I couldn’t help feel deep inside that somehow he had been speaking to me this entire time, that there was some destiny or providence at play that had brought us together in this old wooden car on broken tracks laid over an abandoned bridge.
“For someone who set out to understand the human condition it sounds to me like you have found the answers you were seeking.”
“If only, my dear, I can bring comfort with my words,” the first stars were appearing in the sky, “but there is so much I don’t understand. So many terrible acts committed in this world and all for the wrong reasons. Land, dogma, money, to feel stronger than others, to have control over others. And yet all to come to the very same ending after so much life and time invested.”
“We are flawed, but I think if we were able to work it all out then a lifetime would be too long.”
Papa Joe looked at me then with eyes suddenly understanding something that was beyond me, and then he smiled, just a soft smile.
“I hope that I have been able to help you.”
“Oh yes,” I had filled pages of the notebook, the day had hardly seemed to have passed, and my heart felt lighter now than it had in a long, long time, “the story will be fantastic, you have led an amazing life.”
Saying nothing he gave me another smile and leaned back against the doorframe, staring across the darkened countryside, not a cloud in the sky and the Heavens opening in all their majestic splendour above us.
“Your next step after Galway,” I said, “your next journey would be a nice way to finish the story.”
“My journey is finished,” Papa Joe smiled, “so tonight, at last, I am going home.”
“Tonight? Can I take you somewhere?”
“You already have, my dear,” he placed his hand on mine, the rough skin warm, “you’ve taken me over a lifetime.”
A shooting star streaked across the sky momentarily above us, burning out in the cosmos under a twinkling sheet of stars all watching us. And I came to realise with horror that he was becoming physically drained and my heart told me what he had meant about going home.
“Papa Joe,” I tapped at his hands trying to keep his eyes open, didn’t know what else to do, my own heart was racing, “stay with me, I’ll phone for help, just stay with me.”
“I always will be,” he smiled, and then the Last King of the Boxcars closed his eyes, “finish your story with what the old man said on the train, in my twilight I have God for warmth, in you there is the future.”
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