Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Chapter 17, Part One: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Turning a bit darker in this chapter as we meet back up with Rag and Bone. The usual caveats apply: First draft, bad language, worse punctuation and grammar. Hope you enjoy reading!







By the time they’d left the little scribblers apartment, Mister Bone was in a state. Rag knew he’d wanted to kill the reporter from the first time they had visited him five years ago. Since then, the homicidal impulse had matured and grown in complexity like a fine wine, cellared away to be opened on some special occasion.

Today, the cork had nearly popped. Only a calming hand from herself had saved the man from becoming an assortment of parts. Rag imagined she could fairly see the visions of bloody violence rear projected like happy gore-splattered sugar plum fairies on the back of her enormous husband’s eyeballs.

She’d almost let Mister Bone indulge himself, after all, it would be good for a laugh if it was done just right, and Madame Rag felt that she could use a chuckle today. Wasn’t it said laughter was the best medicine? Rag herself had yet to experience laughter’s medicinal qualities. She’d always considered a fistful of oxycodone followed by bloody slaughter to be a far better balm for her soul, but she’d be willing to try.

With Doctor Knox’s most recent instructions to avoid random acts of violence not an hour old though, she steered Mister Bone’s arm gently away from the word hack's apartment in Senak. No sense in tempting the poor man with what he couldn’t have. Bone let himself be led, staring back in the direction they’d left, trailing in Rag’s wake like a balloon in the sociopathy pride parade. They made their through the city to the unsanctioned gate in the basement of a small warehouse owned by a shell corporation Rag had set up.

The basement had a twin in Vancouver outside of which Madame Rag found the rental car where she’d parked it. The husband and wife were soon making their way through the rain-soaked streets of East Vancouver. Mister Bone rode in the back as he always did. All but the largest cars were much too small for him to comfortably fit in the front passenger’s seat.

Madame Rag loved her Mister Bone with the pride and affection of animal owners everywhere. Bone was her companion, attack dog, and Abrams Main Battle tank all rolled into one; he was her pet with benefits.

Bone was just fine with this arrangement. Through their long marriage they had more sex, and murdered more creatures than an orgy in an abattoir. Sharing your interests and hobbies with the one you love just made a relationship that much closer.

Under Doctor Knox and other like-minded employers, Madame Rag navigated her Bone from grisly murder to grisly murder. Madame Rag loved to watch her enormous husband at work as much as he loved to do it.

Long ago Madame Rag had trained hunting dogs, and she’d discovered that the key to training a good hound was to discover what motivated it and use it as a lever. Some dogs would do anything for food, others craved affection and a kind word. Above all other things, Mister Bone craved sex. She’d happily applied the training techniques that had worked so well with canines to her husband and over the years she’d taken Bone’s genius for brutality and lovingly reinforced it, building layer upon layer of psychological conditioning until violence and the reward of sex were so mixed there couldn’t be one without the other. He would now inflict the most horrible physical violence to man, woman, animal or vegetable with no provocation whatsoever, but with the firm knowledge that he’d be rewarded with a good post-murder bonk.

 In Rag’s opinion, things couldn’t have been going any more smoothly. Together they were a well-greased steam engine of hot throbbing death, running on a limitless supply of sex and violence. Then, the unthinkable happened, and what should have been a nice easy murder, followed by a spirited conjugal interlude, went straight to hell when Bone failed to capture that reprobate, Stirling Haig. It was the first time in centuries that Bone failed in completing a contract and Madame Rag was having a hard time not taking the whole thing a bit personally. She’d made her displeasure with the situation known to Mister Bone, not that you’d ever be able to tell it from the slack look on his face.

It was a side effect of all the conditioning, Rag decided. In the last century, Mister Bone had gone through life, head clear of active thought until physical wants and desires caused his consciousness to surface like a breaching whale in a wide, empty ocean. Coincidentally, Bone’s mindset was a state very close to what Buddhists called, “No Mind,” and if Mister Bone could be said to have embraced a philosophy, it would have been, "The Zen of the Ravening Cockmonster."

Bone’s simple existence brought her to mind of the late Mahatma Gandhi, of whom Rag had been at one point contracted to kill. Like Gandhi, Mister Bone was a man of few wants and simple tastes. Sadly for his many victims, that was where the similarities ended.

Throughout his life, Gandhi promoted nonviolent opposition and went through periods of fasting and celibacy. Bone, on the other hand, considered sex, violence, and violent sex, as others might good food and friendship. They were the things that made his very long life worth living.

Gandhi was a small man, barely reaching five foot four in height and just a hair over a hundred pounds. Mr Bone was nearly three feet taller and a single one of his mammoth legs weighed more than the civil rights leader, even tossing in his glasses, cotton wrap, and a packet of sea salt.
Gandhi taught inclusiveness for all religions, races and sexes. Mister Bone embraced a homicidal dislike for humanity in general and, from his upbringing in Pre-Industrial Ireland, a fiery disdain for all of those who weren’t either white, Catholic, or his wife.

Gandhi lived a rich inner life, exploring philosophical matters with the likes of Tolstoy, pulled abstract ideas from thin air, and translated them into practical political action. Mister Bone, by contrast, had yet to have his mind violated by anything that could be called abstract.

Had Mister Bone ever met Gandhi, sitting and spinning yarn, he would have probably stolen his salt and broken his spinning wheel, then broken the man himself. Thankfully, for independence in the Indian subcontinent, at the time of the Salt March, Mister Bone was employed in other pursuits.
Madame Rag parked their car in a sparsely lit gravel lot and the two entered through a metal side-door into a darkened warehouse. Fans hummed somewhere in the building circulating refrigerated air rank with a nauseating mixture of formaldehyde, brine, alcohol, and old meat. She wrinkled her nose at the smell. It was a smell she’d become familiar with, but one she could never get used to. Mister Bone stopped and stood next to her, a massive shadow in the darkness of the warehouse.

She found the large breaker box bolted to the wall next to the entrance and snapped the little switches over until the refrigerating fans began to wind down and the giant heater on the ceiling rumbled to life. The fluorescent house lights flickered on revealing that the floor of the warehouse was stacked with old wooden pallets atop which were hundreds of blue plastic barrels. They formed rows the entire length and width of the warehouse.

Madame Rag strode over to the closest of the barrels and pried off its lid. The cloud of stink that followed nearly caused her to gag. Inside she could just make out the grey and naked form of a young teenage boy resting against the bottom of the drum. Looking back over her shoulder she called to Mister Bone who stumped wordlessly over.

“Pull him out,” she told him.

“Stinks like shit,” Bone observed, peering in, but otherwise not moving.

“Your arms are longer than mine, pull him out.”

Bone eyed her blankly for a few seconds, then took off his jacket and began rolling his sleeves.
The process didn’t take long, and soon the body was out of the drum, laying on the cement floor. A puddle of preservative leaked out of it from both ends to run into a nearby drain. The body was stiff and its back had taken on the same curve as the inside of the barrel. The skin on the body, corpse, or whatever it was at this point, was wrinkled, thick with dehydration, and lacked hair of any sort.
Rag guessed that the lack of hair was due to an unsuccessful round of chemotherapy prior to the body making the fifty-five gallon drum its home. She’d been around Doctor Knox for enough years to have seen a few of those weak and dying people with their bright hopeful eyes and kerchief-covered bare scalps before they checked into the cold drum of reeking brine.

Once the flow of foul-smelling fluid from the body had reduced to a trickle, Madame Rag approached and squatted down, doing her best to not to get the various liquids on her overcoat or skirt.

“Hold open his mouth,” she commanded. Bone obliged, and from the inside pocket of her jacket Rag pulled out an old green medicine bottle of the type that had a dropper on the inside with a rubber nipple on the cap. The washed-out fluorescent light from overhead filtered through the contents of the bottle, and came through on the other side a vital, sinister, red. She unscrewed the bottle and drew out the glass dropper. She carefully let three drops fall to the back of the boy’s throat and nodded for Mister Bone to let him go. The body sagged stiffly back down to the floor and the two moved off a distance to wait.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Chapter 16, part. 2

The usual warning apply, rough draft, bad language, worse grammar. Hope you enjoy!




Sam ignored her and started talking, “Alright. So, in the 1930s there was this necromancer, a real evil bastard too. When he wasn’t giving kittens cancer or taking up two parking spots with his Model T, he caused the Dust Bowl and all the fun that went along with it.”

“Wait, wasn’t that just drought and shitty farming methods?” asked Stirling.

“Oh, they were a big part of the problem, but the real nail in the coffin was this guy, Francais King. The story goes that he was trying to blackmail the Alchemist Guild but when they didn’t give him what he wanted, he cursed the wind. The actual wind!” Samson sounded more than a little impressed at the prospect. Sue shook her head.

“The trick was strong enough so that wherever the wind blew, things dried up and died. The rain stopped, and a hundred million acres of land were uninhabitable for years. It wasn’t just here either, it spread all across to the closer worlds in the Aether. It took the strongest alchemists and magicians years to bring him down and neutralize the curse. It started a war between the Necromancers and the Alchemists that took eight years to win and hundreds of thousands dead.”

“Ever since then, Necromancy has become a bad word in supernatural circles, especially with the alchemists. They’ve made it clear that it’s open season on any and all necromancers. If you ask me though, Necromancy by itself isn’t evil, it’s the intent behind it. It’s like that goat-fucker joke, you can do all kinds of awesome things, but fuck up once and people remember it.”

“I don’t think I know that joke,” said Stirling.

Sam grinned and began, “An old man walks into a pub in Scotland. His back is bent, and he has a cane in his withered hand. It looks like the weight of the world is on his poor old shoulders. He drags himself up onto a stool and orders a pint. Placing the glass in front of him, the bartender asks him what’s wrong, and the old man says, ‘Let me tell ya, lad. This pub, this pub we're just sittin’ in right now, I built it, with me own two hands! But do they call me the Angus the Pub-builder? Noo, they don’t!’”

It sounded like Sam had attended, then failed, online classes at the Dick Van Dyke School of British accents. Stirling thought was strange, being recovering Irish himself, Stirling thought Sam would have had a better handle on British accents.

 “‘See the wall over there,’” Sam went on in his travesty of an accent, “‘the wall that protects our town? I built it, stone by stone, for a whole year with me own two hands! But do they call me Angus the Wall-builder? Naa laddie, they don’t! And the bridge that crosses yon river, I built it, with me own two hands, plank by plank, day by day, in the pouring rain and wind! But do they call me Angus the Bridge-builder? Naa, they don’t! BUT YOU FUCK ONE GOAT!’” There Sam stopped, an expectant look on his face.

Stirling laughed, Sue huffed through her nose, and Dimitri looked at them with an expression like he’d just caught a whiff of something strange. “So you’re saying that necromancers just want to fuck goats?” He cast a wary glance at Stirling.

“No,” replied Sam, “What I’m saying is that it’s human nature to remember your screw-ups and none of the good, even when the good shouldn’t necessarily be forgotten.”

“So says you and every other wanna-be capable of throwing a trick and dressing in black,” Dimitri scoffed. “What Sam here also isn’t telling you, is that in nearly every city across the Aether, there are badly-lit clubs where the misunderstood and glum dress in black, experiment with different flavours of kink, and call themselves Necromancers. Hell, I saw some in the front room when we came in here. Nothing freaks out the straights in the Alchemy Guild like a gaggle of sexed up, wanna-be death magicians. I swear, each and every one of them looks like a reject from the porn folder on Tim Burton’s laptop.”

“How do you know Tim Burton has a porn file?” Sue asked defensively. “Tim Burton probably isn’t a pervert like you.”

Dimitri looked at her with a pitying expression, “Oh, my sweet summer child, every guy has a porn file, or at the very least, a list of website addresses. Take it from a guy who knows.”

She looked at Sam who just nodded in agreement and shrugged his shoulders.

“But why?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious, “The Internet is a fountain of porn that never runs dry.”

“How can you trust that the connection won’t drop,” said Stirling simply.

Sue stared at them.

“And speaking of porn,” said Dimitri, breaking the silence, “there’s a whole genre of romance novels about misunderstood Necromancers whisking the heroine away for nights of sizzling, kinky death-sex. “La Petite Morte,” was a bestseller in Asphodel for nearly a year.”

“Romance novels aren’t porn,” said Sue, scowling, “they’re literature.”

“They can be both,” said Stirling. “I don’t judge.”

“But they aren’t,” said Sue stiffly.

“Do you read them?” asked Stirling.

“So what if I do?”

Stirling walked over to her knitting bag on a hunch. “Do you mind?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, reached in and pulled out a paperback with an impossibly muscular male torso on the cover. Stirling made a production of thumbing the book so the pages could fan open. He placed a finger between the pages with the largest gap, cleared his throat, and began reading:
“‘God, Daryl!’ she gasped in ecstasy. ‘He drove his tongue into her molten depths and danced it over her throbbing sweet spot, she was so close now…’”

Sue leapt out of her chair and grabbed the book from his hands. He let go without a fight, grinning at her. She spun to Sam and Dimitri who were howling with laughter.

“It’s not funny,” she said, stuffing the book back into her bag, “and it’s not porn!”

“So in these books, the Necromancers don’t sparkle, do they?” asked Stirling.

“No, their eyes flash darkly,” Dimitri grumbled, “as if that even makes sense! How can something dark, flash!?”

Sam looked at Dimitri in surprise.

“What? That’s what I heard.”

“No, I’m just surprised you read anything other than coding manuals.”

“Ha ha, oh my sides, oh you are so funny,” said Dimitri, deadpan.

“None of this solves our little problem,” broke in Sue, her face still flushed. “Remember? Dead woman in the park? Madame Rag and Mister Bone after you?”

Sue graced Stirling with a raised eyebrow and continued. “If you didn’t murder the woman in Memorial Park, then as our only potential necromancer,” she gave Dimitri a sour look, “someone else is trying to pin it on you. Since only a few people even know about you, it’s a pretty safe guess who’s behind it. My question is, if they were trying to recruit you a couple hours ago, why are Rag and Bone trying to kill you now? What changed?”

“Well, I did call her a psycho, and told her to fuck herself,” said Stirling thoughtfully.

“And I ran over Bone,” Dimitri added, just as thoughtfully.

“It seems like a bit of a stretch to commit a murder just to frame you, though,” said Sam. “Those two seem like the type who like their revenge up close and personal.”

“Rag and Bone don’t really put much value on human life,” said Dimitri. “The woman in Memorial Park might just be a victim of opportunity. They get off on killing people, you know… Like sexually,” he added after a beat, just in case his point wasn’t clear.

“Those are just rumours,” said Sam.

“No, they aren’t,” said Sue with a sick look on her face.

“Really?” asked Dimitri, “how do you know?”

“Dude, I don’t want to get into it, but not just rumours, take my word for it, those two really are monsters.”

“What about their boss, the guy Rag wanted me to work for?” said Stirling.

“That would be Knox, Alchemist of the White,” said Dimitri. “It’s the worst kept criminal secret in the Aether that they work for him.”

Sue looked in the direction of the front door sourly. “We have more arrivals. I think tonight’s going to get busy.” She looked over at Sam, “You up for some overtime?”

Sam glanced over to Stirling, and Stirling was struck with the unfamiliar notion that someone actually wanted to hang around with him.

Sue caught the look as well. “Come on, you can be a necro fanboy on your break, right now there are paying customers, and Stefan’s the only one on tonight. Put the coffee on.”

“What should we do?” asked Dimitri.

“Stay here and lock the door,” said Sue. “We’ll be back once we get people settled in but I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to mingle. Sorry to say, but that picture of you on The Sand Network has ruined your big coming out party. Maybe consider shaving your head.”

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Chapter 16, part 1

Hi, everyone! The usual warning apply here. Bad language, worse grammar, hope you enjoy!





Sue was knitting, the clack of the needles nearly hypnotic against the roaring drone of the Crucible. Stirling wondered why he’d never picked up on the hobby. Before getting into the extermination trade, he’d spent a lot of nights in empty gas stations and guarding warehouses. In most cases, working the night shift meant you had two hours of work to fit into an eight-hour shift, the rest of the time you were just a body in case something went wrong. That left a big chunk of time for other pursuits, things that for other people might include things like self-improvement or hobbies. In Stirling’s case, whatever spare time he had was usually filled with writing in his journals, or when that wasn’t practical, Random Acts of Fuckery.

Random acts of fuckery, or RAOFs, involved things like making dozens of little puppets out of tied-off latex gloves filled with coffee beans, then standing them up in orderly ranks along the coffee bar like soldiers on parade. The next customer at the gas station looking for a caffeine fix would be greeted by rows of the little dolls, their drawn-on magic marker faces abeam, a middle finger raised proudly in a jaunty salute between a pair of latex finger legs.

RAOFs were also one of the big reasons his resume was so extensive. No manager worth their clipboard could ignore an army of coffee bean-filed dick-puppets, no matter how boring the shift.
If he’d taken up knitting instead, he’d probably be an assistant night manager somewhere, either that or the all-comers world champion at knitting genitalia-shaped doilies five years running. When he’d mentioned this to Sue, she told him that knitting was fine, but for yarn-crafted genitalia, crocheting was the only way to go. Stirling wasn’t clear on the difference was between knitting and crocheting, but it seemed he wasn’t the only one to engage in RAOFs.  

Since Aleph hadn’t shown yet, Dimitri and Sam had gone off ten minutes ago to find some sleep, leaving Stirling to stay up with Sue. Magnon had stayed perched on the pallet of briquettes and tucked his beak under a wing.

Aside from being a pub, flea market, and all-around meeting place, Strangefellows also served as a supernatural flop house. This little tidbit of information was good to know, Stirling had no intention of going back to his basement apartment anytime soon. They’d already burned down his workshop and made a grab for him once, he wasn’t going to make it that easy for them.

Sue looked up from her knitting and checked her watch with a furrowed brow. “That’s weird,” she said getting up from her seat and walking to the door. “Someone new is at the door, be right back.” She was back in a few minutes and sat back down. The worry on her face hadn’t gone, and she rummaged in her bag of knitting paraphernalia for a tablet. She pulled up a page and as she read, the furrow in her brow became deeper.

“What’s up,” asked Stirling when she’d finished.

“Hard to say,” said Sue slowly, passing Stirling the tablet and giving him a strange look. “A bunch of regulars just came in and all of them were freaked out. They said they wanted to be somewhere safe. Maybe you can shine some light on it.”

“The Sand Network?” he asked, reading the header.

“It’s a tabloid, but they’re so huge that they usually get the scoop on the big stories.”

Stirling read the article and found the artist’s rendition at the bottom.

“Wow, that is scary,” said Stirling, handing back her tablet. “A Necromancer.” There was a slim chance she hadn’t seen the photo-realistic artist’s rendition of him at the bottom of the article.

“So that’s not you.”

“Who?”

Sue shot him a dirty look, scrolled to the picture, enlarged it, and showed him the screen. “This!”

“No. Maybe. I didn’t kill anybody,” said Stirling quickly.

“So that is you?” Sue asked, holding tight to one of her knitting needles.

The roar from the crucible became noticeably louder, and Stirling put up his hands. “Hold on there, let me explain!”

The clay lid of the crucible shifted, and the phoenix climbed out onto the lip. It was even more solid and much larger than it had been earlier. It eyed him balefully with its arc welder blue eyes, hunched its wings, and hissed menacingly.

“You sit right there, I’ll be back. Don’t move,” Sue said, jabbing a finger at him. Stirling sighed and nodded, holding up his hands like she had a gun pointed at him.

“You go. I stay. No following,” said Stirling, giving her a brief nod. The phoenix hissed again.
“Fawks wasn’t this grumpy,” Stirling said to the melon-sized bird. “Fawks was a well-mannered phoenix. You’re an asshole.”

It was three or four minutes before Sue returned with a groggy Sam and Dimitri in tow. Sam wore the same housecoat as he had when they’d met him, and Dimitri was buckling his belt. She handed Sam the tablet and waited for the two of them to read.

Dimitri groaned. “Well, that didn’t take long. Fuck!”

“You knew about this and you still brought him here!?” Sue asked.

“Hold on,” said Sam, turning to Stirling. “You’re a Necromancer?!” He didn’t sound upset at the prospect.

“Um, ye…” Stirling started.

“Do not answer that!” yelled Dimitri, jabbing a finger at Stirling.

“Why not!” asked Sue, clearly agitated.

“Plausible deniability,” said Dimitri, turning to face her. “Until he admits to it or does something overtly spooky, you don’t know for sure. You know how the Travelling Folk work. The Alchemists Guild always have a few on staff just for this kind of thing.”

“That’s thin,” said Sue.

“It’s not thin, it’s a technicality, and it’s one that you can use to cover your ass. So you,” he said, pointing at Stirling again, “keep your mouth shut.”

“Roger wilco,” said Stirling making a zipping motion over his lips and pretending to throw away the key.

“Roger what!?” Sue spluttered. “No! This is not cool, Dimitri. My job is to keep this place secure and safe, having a necromancer…”

“Potential necromancer,” Dimitri cut in.

“…Potential necromancer here, is not safe or secure. You both need to get out of here before I call in the Duke’s Own.”

“She’s already on her way here,” said Dimitri.

“Well, wait for her outside then.”

“But Sue,” Sam began.

“No, Sam, this is life and death. I’m not going to listen to your conspiracy theories about the poor misunderstood necromancers.”

“Potential necromancers,” Dimitri said again.

“Will you shut the fuck up!” she yelled, spinning on him.

Dimitri put his hands up, “Woah there, Heatmiser, I didn’t even want to be here, it was Aleph who told us to be here. If it was me I’d be hiding so deep they’d need to use mining equipment to find me. Take it up with her if you have a problem with us.”

“Don’t think for a second I won’t.”

“Sue, I work as a char witch here too,” said Sam into the pause. He put his hands on her shoulders, something Stirling thought was quite brave given how incandescently pissed she seemed to be. “We’ve known Dimitri for years, let’s hear him out before we throw him out, alright?”

Sue looked up into Sam’s eyes for a long beat. “Sam, I know you think necromancers are unfairly persecuted. I get that, I really do, and I even agree with some of your arguments. The thing is, even if it’s true it doesn’t matter. The Alchemists have spent the better part of a century tracking down anyone with the knack and disappearing them. What would happen if they found us hiding one? What would happen to all the people here?”

“This is Strangefellows,” he said gently. “Not the Alchemist Guild. You know that.”

Sue’s shoulders slumped and she rested her forehead against her fingers. “You’re right, but this could go wrong so badly.”

 “It’s the way it has to be if we want this to keep on being a place for the outsiders. If we bend over for the Alchemists just once, what’s to stop us from doing it again and again?”

Sue sighed and looked over at Dimitri. “I’ll listen,” she said tiredly, “but I want you to know you’ve put everyone here in danger and I won’t ever forgive you if someone gets hurt because of your stupidity. So talk.”

Stirling started by giving an abbreviated account of his ducks disappearing, his workshop being torched, and his meeting with Madame Rag, while glossing over any specifics about his knack. Then Dimitri took over, covering his discovery of people being grabbed by Madame Rag and Mister Bone, the dust-up at the Greys parking lot, and finally the conversation with the crows.

“And that’s when we got here,” said Dimitri. “With Rag and Bone after us I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, and before you tear me a new one, consider the damage those two psychos have already done. We weren’t the first ones those guys grabbed, we’re just the first ones that got away. At least the community knows there’s a threat now, we can get the word out.”

Sue nodded grudgingly. “Nowhere in there did I hear anything about a murder in Memorial Park.”
“That’s because we haven’t been anywhere near Memorial Park!” said Dimitri. “Don’t you find it odd that there’s a gate to Asphodel right there though?”

“Odd, yes,” she agreed, “but it doesn’t point to anything other than there was probably some kind of arcane fuckery, and we already knew that.”

“As the only potential necromancer here,” said Stirling, “I’m going to need someone to lay on some exposition on me to answer the question, why are necromancers the Nickleback cover-band of the supernatural?”

Sam beamed and rubbed his hands together.

“Oh God, here we go,” said Sue settling back down in her seat. “You should get comfortable,” she said to Stirling.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Chapter 15, Part 2

Chapter 15 continues. The usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!





“That’s sort of cool.”

“Damn straight.”

“Is James on your phone?” Stirling asked pointing.

“His program is.”

“Can I see him?”

“He’s not Max Headroom, that’s the whole point. He can see out of the camera if he needs to, listen through the mic, but having a graphic interface just sucks up system resources. He’s been able to get to where he is by being small and flying below the radar. Could you imagine the headache if some antivirus company found him? No, when he wants to communicate he’ll usually just text.

Stirling leant in close and said, “Hi James.”

“Hey! Personal space, douche.” Dimitri pulled back at the same time as his phone chimed. He unlocked it with a swipe, inspected the screen the screen, and rolled his eyes. “James says, ‘hi.’ Happy?”

Stirling grinned and settled back into the couch.

“Well, you’re off shift.” said Sue looking at the time on her cell phone.

Sam glanced at his watch and shuffled to the crucible. He held out a hand over the glowing coals, and in the time it took to take a fast breath, a glowing orange salamander slithered from the coals and onto his palm. The salamander raised its head and began to explore the edge of Sam’s palm.
“This,” he said holding out the fiery amphibian, “is the trick I use to convert the heat of the crucible to magic we can use.”

“That’s a magic spell?”

“Trick,” corrected Sam. “All the cool kids say, trick. Saying ‘spell’ makes you sound like someone’s grandfather.”

“Why does it look like that?” said Stirling, pointing back to the salamander.

“I really don’t know,” admitted Sam, “When you throw a trick enough times it can start to have its own personality.”

Sam smiled and held out his other hand, the salamander flowed across the gap like water beading on hot metal. Then, for no apparent reason, it charged down Sam’s wrist, legs and tail flailing as it went. It darted into the sleeve of his robe, and Sam yelped as the hem began to smoke. “Verpiss Dich!” he shouted, and the salamander disappeared with a pop and shower of sparks. Stirling noticed then, that Samson’s housecoat had a number or other such small black holes in it. “Little bastard knows he’s not supposed to do that,” Sam said, still beating at his smoking robe.

“That’s why he does it,” said Sue.

For the first time, Stirling began to feel real heat washing his face from the crucible, the flames began to waver unsteadily, and the faint smell of smoke became stronger. Sue approached the fire and held out her own hand. As the flames wrapped around the back of her hand, an outline the shape of a bird began to appear. As the seconds ticked by, flames separated from the briquettes and colours began to appear. In under a minute there was a red and yellow bird the size of a grapefruit with flaming blue eyes roosting in the palm of her hand. She tilted her hand and the bird stepped off to nestle into the coals. By now the crucible was once again a faint warmth and the smoky smell was gone.
“Nice Phoenix!” said Stirling.

Sue made a little curtsy and beamed at him. “Her name is Matilda,” she said.

“Does your salamander have a name?” Stirling asked Sam.

“L.F. Gobshite,” he responded shortly, still examining the holes in his robe.

“What does the L.F. stand for?”

“Little Fecking.”

“Who wants a coffee?” asked Sue, happily shuffling to where a stove-top kettle and large French Press stood together on a small bookshelf.

Stirling had a standing rule that coffee, when offered, was never to be turned down. “I would kill for a coffee.”

“Hold off until you’ve tasted it,” said Sam with a grin. “Making coffee is an art, unfortunately, Sue never got past making Playdough wangs in art class.”

“Don’t like it, make your own coffee.”

Without the aid of any power source that Stirling could see, the kettle on the bookshelf began to steam, then whistle shrilly. On closer inspection, Stirling made out some markings along the base of the kettle that looked almost exactly like the ones inside the crucible. Sue poured out the steaming water into the glass press to let the coffee brew. The smell of coffee began to diffuse into the room and Stirling nearly groaned with caffeine-lust at the smell.

“Any jelly doughnuts leftover?” Dimitri asked hopefully.

“None until tomorrow,” said Sam. Dimitri looked disappointed.

Soon all four had warm mugs in their hands.

Stirling inhaled the steam through his nose and took a sip. It was smooth and complex with flavours that combined in his mouth like a slow, smoky, burlesque for the senses. “Oh my God. This is like slow sex for my mouth!” he exclaimed, looking down at the brew.

“Intelligentsia Black Cat, I don’t mess around with my coffee,” said Sue. “It’s a crime to put in in a press, but bringing in a decent espresso machine is like tossing pearls before swine in this place.” She made a face. “No problem at all shelling out thousands for a two-hundred-inch television or boxing on pay-per-view, but spending a couple hundred bucks on a decent coffee maker is out of the question.”

Dimitri took a sip of his cup and made a face. “Is there any hazelnut flavoured creamer?”

“Sure, you just head out that door,” said Sue pointing at the door they arrived through, “and walk five blocks to the gas station. They’ll hook you right up.”

“It’s good, it’s just a bit too cofee-e,” complained Dimitri.

“You are such a pansy.”

“I thought you had an early morning,” said Dimitri, looking meaningfully at Sam’s full cup.

“I do, but I think I want to hear why you’ve been gone for over a week more than I want sleep.” He began ticking point off on his fingers, “Gone for a week with no word, and that’s just not like you. When you do finally show up, you’re with a noob, but one who should have been sponsored over a decade ago.” He fixed Dimitri with a look. “Something’s up.”

“Dude, you really don’t want to get into this. Trust me, it’s better if you don’t know.”
“Ignorance is bliss?” Sam asked skeptically.

“Ignorance is chocolate-covered orgasms,” confirmed Stirling, nodding enthusiastically.

Sam looked at both of them, then shook his head. “No, that’s not going to work. As one of the Strangefellows char witches, I’m the one who needs to know about this stuff. If there’s a new Lesser God in town raising hell, or some big bad on the streets, I need to know, Sue as well. We’re the ones who keep the shields up around here.”

“You are the watcher on the walls?” Stirling asked.

“The fire that burns against the cold, the Strangefellows Night’s Watch,” Sue intoned solemnly.

Dimitri thought about it for a few seconds. “I’m not telling you everything because some of it isn’t mine to tell,” he said, carefully not looking at Stirling, “and I think you’d both be safer if you just let it drop.”

He looked at them expectantly. When both Sam and Sue said nothing, he reluctantly continued. “Madame Rag and Mister Bone are in town. They’re the ones who have been snatching people. James found out I’d made their list so I dropped off the grid for a while.”

There was a silence in the room, broken only by the soft sound of briquettes crumbling into ash. Sam sat heavily in the lawn chair, and Sue was still as a statue, her expression fixed, holding her mug to her tummy.

“Jesus, Dimitri! That’s terrible!” said Sue finally.

“So why are you back now?” asked Sam. “I’d dig a hole and crawl in if Madame Rag and Mister Bone were after me.”

“Aleph found me. She got word that Stirling here was next on Rag and Bone’s wish list. She had me keeping an eye on him. When they made a grab for him I stepped in. She’s going to meet us here.”

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Chapter 15, Part 1

Wherein Sterling continues to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of the Arcane and reenacts a modern version of the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch. The usual warning apply.







“Wow, that’s really interesting and surprisingly depressing at the same time,” said Stirling.

Dimitri shrugged. “That’s life, you’re born, you run up enough credit debt to irritate your children, and you die.”

“Whatever, Moneybags,” said Sam. “You’re loaded.”

Dimitri didn’t argue, but wandered over to the glowing crucible and squinted at it. “What’s your efficiency at now?” he asked after a moment.

“We’re capturing around ninety-two percent,” said Sam with a proud smile. “Your runework on the inside gave us another three percent, I lose another five with the thermal-thaumaturgeical step up, but I’d barely be able to fry an egg on the loss,” said Sam, looking at the crucible with pride.

Sam rolled up a sleeve, reached out a hand, and, without being visibly singed, plucked the glowing lid off the pot to examine the symbols that formed a radiant orange webwork on the underside. Blue flame swirled off the charcoal as the air forced its way up through the crucible.

Stirling raised his eyebrows, “You’re the guy who gets volunteered to work the barbecue at picnics, aren’t you?”

“And to take the baking from the oven,” added Sam, smiling. He brushed a few of the glowing briquettes out of the way to look more closely at the side of the crucible where more symbols were etched into the ceramic. “This all looks fine,” he said finally. “They should last for at least another month before we need to begin work on the next one.”

“Standard rates apply,” said Dimitri. “You’re not pretty enough to get me to work for free.”
“No problem.”

“Oh hey! Since you’ve got the lid off, do that thing with your violin!” urged Dimitri.

Sam began to look flustered. “I haven’t tuned it, the E string is sounding flat. I think I need to restring it before I play again.”

“Come on, one quick song, you can give the strings one last send off.”

Sam looked between the two of them looking for a sign of weakening.

“Come on, do it. One song, he’s new, give him a show.”

Sam’s face was a mixture of uncomfortable irritation as he looked at Dimitri. “Fine, give me a second.”

From under a nearby table covered with kettles and coffee paraphernalia, he took a scuffed black violin case and shot Dimitri a look. “You know I hate playing for an audience.”

He carefully lifted out a violin and bow. He gave the bow a quick swipe of rosin and let it arc across the strings. The fire from the crucible twitched as the bow touched the strings. Sam grinned sheepishly at Stirling and turned a tuning peg, plucking the string a few times as he did. The neck and sides of the violin were inscribed with sigils similar to the ones on the inside of the crucible.

“Dude, wait until you see this. It’s crazy.” Dimitri sat back on the couch and spread out. Stirling sat on the arm.

Sam took a phone from his pocket and started a metronome app. It began ticking away at a lively Allegro. He began tapping a foot in time, then he put the bow to the strings and was off.

It was a quick song, a modern take on a classical theme, but that wasn’t what interested Stirling. As Sam began to play, a heat haze immediately began forming around the instrument. The sigils carved into the violin began to kindle and glow like hot coals. At the same time, the wire strings began to glow like the heating coil in a toaster, the colour spreading up and down the strings from where the bow slid over them. Despite this, Sam’s fingers appeared to be undamaged.

Under the sound of the violin, Stirling began to hear a deep bass accompaniment. He turned to look at the crucible as air rushed in time to the music and blue flames pulsed from the top of the clay vessel. As Sam played, the crucible changed single notes on the violin into chords and roared in time with the beat.

Flames began to emerge from the symbols on the violin, enveloping Sam’s head and hands in dancing blue and flickering yellow light. His thin hair began to float around his head in the heat of the updraft. Through the flames, Stirling could see Sam’s eyes were closed as his fingers dragged across the strings, sparks spitting out behind them as they went.

Slowly the flames began to sway with the music, spreading out in looping ribbons and spirals as Sam played. Images insinuated themselves into the flames only to fade away a moment later as the music moved on.

Stirling had seen doing magic for years, but this kind of magic was something he’d never even considered. It wasn’t just magic to achieve a result, it was magic as art. If his magic was painted a wall with a roller brush, the display in front of him was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’d always thought of magic as just the stream running the turbine, it was energy, nothing but a source of power. This opened new possibilities he’d never even considered.

The song only lasted a few minutes and soon it wound down, the flames disappeared and the markings on the violin began to dull.

“Holy shit! You need a demo tape or a Youtube channel or something! That was amazing!”

“Thanks.”

A short, stocky woman in her forties yawned hugely as she marched into the room. She wore faded jeans, an old Invader Zim t-shirt, rectangular glasses, and had shoulder-length hair the colour of lava. “I heard you playing, so I decided to get on shift early,” she said past the end of the yawn.

“Dimitri!” she exclaimed, seeing him sitting on the couch for the first time. She rushed at him and put her arms around his head giving him a fierce hug. “I’ve missed you, where have you been?!” She stood back and gave his head a light smack, “Why didn’t you text me back, you shit!?”

“Ow! Crazy bitch!” he said, rubbing his head. “I needed to take some time off for a personal project.”

“I’ll crazy bitch you! Not sure if you’ve noticed, since it’s only been news since the summer, but people have been disappearing. Answer your texts, asshole. We were worried.”

“So, who’s the new guy?” she asked eyeing Stirling. “Mysterious, pale, and good-looking? I like him already.”

“Here we go,” said Dimitri in a low voice.

“Are you independently rich?” said Sue. “Because if you are, I should let you know I’m ready to quit this dead-end job any time so you can take me away from all of this.”

“Rich? Have you ever heard the expression, ‘dirt poor?’

“Yes.”

“Well in my house, I only get to bring out the dirt on the really special occasions.”

“Oh, the luxury!” she gushed. “When I was a little girl we only got dirt for Christmas.”

“You had Christmas?!” Stirling asked in disbelief. “Every December I was beaten with an old rubber hose and fed on a diet of expired mayonnaise packets. My parents said they wanted to fatten me up since we couldn’t afford a real turkey. To this day, I crap my pants when I hear the word, ‘Hellmans’"

Dimitri choked and began coughing. Sam pounded him on the back with a grin.

“You may have met your match, Sue,” said Dimitri.

Sue looked at Dimitri shrewdly. “Would the reason for your recent absence be named James?” she asked, with a knowing twinkle in her eye.

“No, it’s not James. Stop fishing, I’ll let you see him when he’s ready, not before.”

“James?” Stirling asked.

“Know what AI is?” Sam asked Stirling, who nodded. “Just take away the “Artificial” part. James is an Intelligence.”

“Or he will be if Dimitri ever lets anyone see him,” added Sue.

Dimitri scowled at her and settled back into his seat to begin swiping at the screen of his phone.

“So this James is an Intelligence?” Stirling prompted, flopping onto the couch next to him and looking at the screen of his phone. “I thought we already had AIs. We have Siri, Cortana, right?”

Dimitri grimaced but didn’t look up from the screen of his phone. “What we have are programs that follow a narrow range of instructions. They’re not intelligent. Sure they can answer questions, and they’re better at it than they use to be, but they don’t understand or show any initiative. A dog is way more intelligent. The AIs you’re talking about are just an electronic Rube Goldberg machine. They’re all bullshit.” Dimitri began typing on his screen.

Stirling jogged his elbow causing his thumb to swipe across the keyboard. “Wow, that’s fascinating. Tell me more.”

Dimitri sighed, locked the phone’s screen, and began an explanation delivered so blandly that Stirling was sure that he must have already spoken the exact same speech dozens of times.

“People have been trying to make AIs for years and years. In the sixties they thought the breakthrough would happen in the nineties, in the nineties they thought it would be in the teens. They were all fuckwits. A traditional AI needs hardware with way more horsepower than anything that’s out there. Right now the very best computers barely have enough processing power to simulate the intelligence of algae. Even the tricked ones rely on mundane hardware manufacturers and there’s an upper limit to what you can do with that stuff."

"None of this even takes into account that the software to run an AI would not only be mind-bogglingly difficult to write but would also be impossibly huge. Imagine taking everything you’ve ever learned and trying to write it all down in a way a computer can access it. Then there’s the power requirements, space, cooling, et cetera, etcetera. So, instead of writing a big, bad-ass program, I wrote one that hooked up an existing intelligence to a network of distributed computers.”

“So what kind of intelligence did you use?” Stirling had visions of brains floating in bell jars with wires poking out of them and labelled, “Abby Normal.”

“A ghost I found floating around inside the servers of an online RPG.”

“So you found the ghost in the machine?”

“One of them, there are more geeks than the San Diego Comic-Con in most MMORPG server rooms.” He looked up at Stirling, “Some hard-core gamer eats a bad chimichanga and raids his last, where do you think he’s going to haunt? He’s going to go off and frolic with the elves, orcs, and fairies, or some other such shit in the server of an online RPG. League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Eve, some place like that.”

“I got in touch with James on a Rift server and wrote a program for him that split him up and spread him out over a few hundred thousand machines. Hackers have been using the idea for years to spam email or run DdoS attacks. Just put a little program on an assload of computers and skim off a few million CPU cycles per second from each of them. It doesn’t slow the computer all that noticeably, and it gives James enough computing power to do some impressive stuff.”

“Wow.”

“What makes it even cooler is that the more machines that have James’ software the smarter he gets.” Dimitri continued, finally warming up to the subject. “Ghosts are just copies, really crappy copies of the original person that made them. They lose a lot of what they were when they die. Most of them aren’t smart enough to put together a bread sandwich. Before I plugged him in James, was barely able to write, ‘noob, pwned’ or, ‘butthurt.’” He cocked an eyebrow at Stirling. “That might be something you already know though.”

“And now?”

“And now HAL 9000 is his little bitch.”

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Chapter 14, Part 2

Chapter 14 continues. The usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!








“So, where have you been for the last week?” asked Sam, addressing Dimitri. “People were beginning to worry.”

Stirling turned and began to walk toward the bar. “Back in a sec,” he called over his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Dimitri asked.

Stirling pointed at the bar. “Free drink.” He didn’t stop to hear what else Dimitri might have tried to say. A drink sounded like just the thing after the night he’d had, and a free one was even better.

On the bar, there was a cat sitting with it’s back to the room. It was large for a house cat, with a glossy coal-black coat. There didn't seem to be anyone tending the bar.

“What’s new, pussycat?” Stirling asked, arriving at the bar.

“You are,” replied the cat in a deep, cultured voice, turning to face him. It wasn’t what Stirling had been expecting. Its face mixed human and cat features into something much more unsettling than either one could have managed on its own. It had yellow cat’s eyes but instead of an elongated black pupil, the centres were pale crescent moons rimmed in black.

Stirling flinched back, and the cat’s eyes focused avidly on his shoulder where Magnon perched. “Have you brought me a present?” it asked.

“What?” He put a hand up to shield Magnon. “No kitty! That’s a bad kitty!”

“Minnaloushe.”

“What?”

“My name is Minnaloushe, not kitty.”

“Oh.”

“And you are?”

“Um. Stirling..”

The cat-creature gazed at him for a moment and then seemed to lose interest. He tunred away and began to bathe a paw with a tongue too thick and red to be completely feline. Stirling tried not to stare but failed.

Minnaloushe looking up from doing his laundry. “What are you drinking tonight?”

“Strawberry Daiquiri,” Stirling replied. "I just need to find the barkeep."

The cat jumped down behind the bar and stood on its hind legs. It reached out a paw for a bottle and Stirling saw what he had at first taken as regular old cat’s paws, were most definitely not. The creature’s bent knuckles unfolded like spider legs to reveal slender black fingers curled in on themselves. Each of his fingers had long, sharp claws at their tips.

From the side of the bar, another cat, this one a creamy Calico, joined the first and the two worked seamlessly together to make his drink. One put a bar coaster down as the other set the drink on the bar.

“Welcome to Strangefellows,” said the second cat, in a smooth feminine voice.

“Cheers,” said Stirling, tipping a toonie into a cup on the bar and holding up his drink. He retreated back toward Dimitri and Sam, the two sets of cat’s eyes following him unerringly as he went.

“Fucking creepy,” he muttered taking a sip from his straw.

“Kellas Cats can be like that,” said Magnon’s voice in his head.

“They make a fine daiquiri though.”

“What’s with the robe?” Dimitri was asking as Stirling arrived back to where Dimitri and Sam stood.

“Oh,” said Sam, looking a bit sheepish. “I didn’t think anyone else new would be by tonight, and I’ve got the early shift tomorrow. I was getting ready for bed. Darren’s not returning his calls, and Leslie’s at her sister’s wedding. I’m sleeping here tonight instead of going home.” He checked his watch. “I’m the char witch for the next ten minutes until Sue takes over.” He yawned and absently scratched his backside.

“Char what?” Stirling asked, looking to Dimitri for clarification.

Dimitri rolled his eyes. “Stirling here just got sponsored, he’s the reason you had to come to the door.”

Sam looked at Stirling’s face more closely. “Aren’t you a bit old?” he asked.

“Nah, I’m actually eleven, my pituitary gland is an overachiever,” said Stirling, taking another sip from his drink.

Sam raised an eyebrow and nodded faintly.

“What are you drinking?!” asked Dimitri, taking notice of the glass in Stirling’s hand for the first time. The drink was garnished with a slice of lime and a strawberry impaled by a red plastic skewer. “Dude! That has to be the girliest drink I’ve ever seen!”

“I don’t need to conform to your cocktail stereotypes,” said Stirling. “If I want to taste alcohol I’ll go gargle some mouthwash. All I can taste right now are sweet, sweet strawberries.”

“Not even the crow will help you score if you go around drinking those,” said Dimitri.
Stirling shrugged, “Wouldn’t be the first night I need to give myself a hand, won't be the last. What’s a char witch?” he asked, getting back on topic.

“Remember how I said the straights had a hard time finding this place?”

“Yeah, I just though that you meant it wasn’t on Google Maps or something.”

“No, there’s a trick that keeps this place invisible to anyone who isn’t suppose to be here,” said Dimitri.

“Well,” Sam broke in, “not really invisible, so much as not there anymore.

“Shut up, Sam,” said Dimitri, glaring. “I’m his sponsor, it’s my job to explain this.”

“This isn’t a small building,” Dimitri continued gesturing around, “it needs a lot of energy to keep the idiot shields up. There are different ways to get that energy, but one of the easiest is by using a char witch,” he said gesturing at Sam.

“It’s probably just easier to show him,” said Sam.

“I thought you had an early morning?”

“I’ve a couple more minutes, and it’s our duty to educate eleven-year-olds,” he said with a grin directed at Stirling. “There’s a lollipop in it for you if you pass the exam at the end,” he said over his shoulder as he led them through the room.

“Aren’t witches supposed to be girls, Sam?” Stirling asked. “Girls dressed like Stevie Nicks and wearing high-heeled boots? That’s how I imagine you dressing now, Sam. Just like Stevie Nicks.”

“Says the guy drinking a Strawberry Daiquiri.”

“It’s like a fruity explosion in my mouth,” Stirling said. In front of him, Dimitri’s shoulders tightened slightly.

“Besides, witches just being girls is a modern idea, there are lots of male witches in the historical record,” Sam continued, “and char witches are part of a tradition that goes way back.”

Sam unlocked a heavy fire door marked “employees only,” and led them down a dim hallway and into a room with bare cement floors. There was a leather couch like the ones in the main room being supported by a stack of old phone books under a missing leg. Against the wall in front of it was a chipped coffee table and flat screen television with an older gaming console. A furnace and its attendant ductwork tentacles took up one wall next to a secondhand fridge.

In the centre of the room next to a folding aluminium lawn chair, was a large clay vessel glowing a fierce orange. It was shaped like a squat amphora and sat on a blackened cast iron tripod. Below it, a large blower fan pumped air into the base of the contraption. Yellow and blue flames flared up from under the rim of its ceramic lid from time to time.

Piled against the far wall there were bags and bags of charcoal barbeque briquettes stacked on a wooden forklift pallet held secure by a clear plastic film. Magnon bounced off his arm and flapped to the top of the stack.

The fire in the amphora produced only the slightest hint of smoke which was sucked up by an exhaust hood above. While it was warm, the room didn’t feel hot enough for the obvious heat the clay vessel was pumping out, and Stirling said as much.

“Ah ha!” Said Sam. “You’re absolutely right. And if I wasn’t such a kickass char witch, this place would be hotter than Kate Beckinsale’s ass in Underworld.”

“That’s pretty fucking hot,” said Stirling.

“It is. Now, most tricks are small enough to be powered by the regular background magic, or by the one throwing the trick,” Sam went on, “but the enchantment on this building is a pig, and it takes an ass-load of magical energy to power up. I convert the heat being produced by the crucible, here, to something the enchantment on this place can use.”

Stirling looked at the glowing vessel. “That’s a lot of thermal energy. What are you doing with it all?”

Sam smiled, “I just convert it into thaums, that’s the unit of measurement we use for magical energy.

Stirling choked on his drink, then recited, "A thaum is the amount of energy it takes to pull a rabbit from a hat, yeah, I know. Seriously? You guys ripped off Pratchett?"

Sam's face fell for a second. "No, Sir Terry was always one of us."

"Why does that not surprise me?"

"It’s actually the enchantment on the building that does all the work," Sam went on. "I feed the enchantment magic from the heat, and the enchantment jacks up the energy state of the whole building. That gives the old place just a slightly higher energy state than the norm for our part of the Aether. Technically, once you pass through the front door we’re not even in our universe anymore.”

He glanced at Dimitri, “So, yes, we are invisible, but in the way a car that has driven out of its driveway is invisible.”

“Still invisible,” Dimitri insisted.

“Sure.”

“The Aether?” asked Stirling.

“Oh, fuck me,” groaned Dimitri, putting his face in his hands. “Can’t you stop asking questions for one little minute?”

“You’re the sponsor,” said Sam, grinning maliciously.

Dimitri took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the Cliff Notes version of the Aether. Imagine different worlds all stacked one on top of the other, but occupying the same physical space.”

“That makes no sense at all. If they’re stacked on top of each other, then they’re not in the same place,” said Stirling. “What you’re describing right now is pancakes.”
 Dimitri glared at him. “Forget the stacking part then. Try and think of them as different radio frequencies. They’re all around us, all the time, but there are different stations.”
“Ok, this analogy seems to be working better, please continue.” Dimitri glared at him and Sam snickered.

“Some of the stations on the dial are far apart,” he went on, “but there are a few that are close together, so close, that every once in a while if you aren’t tuned in quite right, you’ll hear music from that other station. It used to be called bleed-over before digital tuning made it a non-issue. Instead of just music though, the places themselves bleed into each other. Our world, Erde and Fey world are really close on the metaphysical dial, that’s why we have so many fairy tales. If you’re in the right place at the right time, the two can touch and you can cross over.”

“Erde?”

“It’s like Viking-speak for Earth or something.”

“Old Norse,” Sam corrected.

“That’s what I said,” said Dimitri glaring at Sam.

“See, there are a lot of similarities between the worlds of the Aether,” Dimitri went on. “They’re all connected.”

“How does that work?”

“I don’t know,” Dimitri answered. “It’s got something to do with spooky entangled Hermetic quantum magic or something. I know it works, just don’t ask me how.”

Sam took in a breath and looked like he was about to explain.

“Shut up, Sam,” said Dimitri preemptively. “The main worlds and the easiest ones to get to are the ones that are the most likely,” Dimitri continued to explain.

“How so?”

“Okay, let me think how I can make this easy for you to understand.” Dimitri took a moment to think.

“Alright, imagine a world just like ours. But in this world, all golf players are secretly vampires.”

“There are vampires!?”

“Yes there are vampires, but you’re missing the point. What are the chances of nobody noticing that all the caddies are bug-eaters and golf is only played at night?”

Stirling thought about it. “Not good,” he replied.

“Right. But it’s still technically possible. There are vampires, and people do play golf. A world like that does exist somewhere since it’s within the realms of possibility, but it would be really hard to get to that world since it’s really not even remotely likely.”
“So what are some of the worlds that are easy to get to?”

“There’s Asphodel,” Sam said.

“Probably the best example,” agreed Dimitri, nodding.

“Why?”

“Asphodel is as close as we can get to the other side without being actually dead,” said Sam. “Everybody in the Aether has one thing in common, we’ll all eventually die, so it makes sense we can get there. Asphodel is where the souls cross over.”

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Chapter 14, Part 1

Officially out of the interlude and back to the main action. Thanks for reading!







They ditched the stolen Jeep in the parking lot of the Richmond Walmart Supercentre. That had been ten minutes ago. Since then, they’d walked through the steady rain down a series of increasingly potholed and poorly lit streets.

Dimitri had been a bit vague when Stirling had asked about where they were going. From what he could gather, Strangefellows seemed to be a kind of meeting place that catered to people from the spooky side of the tracks. Right now he seemed to just be focused on getting there.

When Stirling had offered to let Magnon ride on his shoulder the bird had refused. “You just want to look cool so women will actually talk to you,” he’d said before flapping ahead to land on the power lines. Stirling didn’t really see how that was a problem.

Richmond was one of those cities that had a recycled name, and for some indefinable reason, reused city names irritated Stirling. He knew from history class that the first Europeans to inhabit Vancouver and its surrounding areas were, by and large, British. This in a time when the British were doing pretty well for themselves on a global scale.

 Most of the people who trickled in from Britain ended up naming bits and pieces of their new home after places back in Old Blighty, and especially the districts of London. This was done with the hope that the glitter of empire might somehow rub off. Place names like Richmond, Surrey, Langley, and Kensington, were spurted liberally across the Lower Mainland in an orgy of fevered fist-pumping patriotic nostalgia. By doing so, the new immigrants declared two things to the world: that they were proudly British, and that they had absolutely no imagination whatsoever.

New Westminster was the extent of cutting-edge innovative place-naming technology at the time. The transplanted Brits cunningly disguising “Westminster” behind a “New” prefix, and made it the capital of the province. It was only later that the capital moved to Victoria, which, if possible, was even more British-sounding than Britain.

Despite their abysmal lack of creativity, Stirling felt a certain relief that the transplanted Brits had the restraint to let the name, “Maidenhead,” stay right where it was. Stirling considered it evidence that even if people couldn’t use their imagination, at least they might be able to learn from their mistakes.

On the other hand, he’d heard that a town in Newfoundland had decided to go by the appellation of “Dildo.” If the pattern stayed the same, perhaps by the time humanity explored the stars, there would be a New Dildo. The corollary, of course, meant that there would also then be an “Old Dildo,” or maybe even an “Old Dildo Town” if you were feeling particularly lyrical. Stirling had a vague notion that New Dildo would look like the palace on the old VHS cover of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” but pink.

The shadows reached out ahead of them from the widely spaced streetlights as they made their way down pavement that cracked and frayed into gravel at the edges. The buildings lining the street were an odd mixture of industrial and residential. It was as though there had been an all-out pissing match between two city planners when the area was being zoned. The result was that blocky transmission repair garages and machine shops were cheek and jowl with small two-story homes with soggy bedraggled flower beds.

“So Strangefellows,” began Dimitri, “it’s like a hostel for out of town guests, a pub, and a flea market all rolled into one. It’s where a lot of sorcerers and other arcane types hang out.”

“Won’t Rag and Bone look for us at a place like that?”

“Nothing’s going to stop them from finding us if they really want to, but they’ll think twice about trying to get in. Those two have a reputation, and they aren’t welcome in Strangefellows. The straights can’t find it though, so people like us can let down our hair a bit. Rag and Bone might be tough, but a room full of sorcerers can really ruin your day.”

He gave Stirling a sidelong look, “Well, except for you. Keep that freaky-ass mojo of yours to yourself. Teens like to dress in black and pretend to be necromancers, but people will lose their shit if they find out there’s a real one around.”

They walked quickly for a few more minutes before Dimitri finally turned down a fenced gravel alley. The lane was bordered by a chain link fence and a lot containing the corpses of a dozen stripped-down taxis that were slowly being cannibalised for parts.

A single story building painted the soul-consuming beige of early 90s computer equipment came into view. They made their way past two rolling garage doors shut tight against the cold before stopping in front of an unremarkable white metal door under a dingy white canvas awning.

The building looked like a garage fallen on hard times. Wisps of weather stripping waved in the damp breeze like the arms of an anemone from around the door jamb. Dimitri stepped up and gave the door a good thumping with the heel of his fist. They waited for half a minute before Dimitri banged again, this time harder. When struck, the door emitted the low muffled solid sound of an entrance that took security seriously.

“Are you sure this is it?” asked Stirling.

Dimitri gave him a flat look and waited.

Magnon let out a caw and swooped down from the edge of a nearby building and landed on Stirling’s hastily outstretched hand.

The noise of a poorly-installed deadbolt scraping on metal preceded the face of a thin man in his thirties with fine ginger hair in a threadbare plaid housecoat. He squinted at them through pouchy blood-shot eyes. They widened when they fell on Dimitri. “Dimitri? Holy shit! Where have you been!?” He put his arms around Dimitri and gave him an enthusiastic hug. When he pulled back, a sudden gust of wind ruffled his robe and he performed the startled jig of one who has just had their genitals introduced to a chill December wind. “Shit!” he yelped. “Come inside!”

Stirling followed Dimitri through the door, and as he did, his brain was walloped with an invisible fifty-pound medicine ball. Magnon launched himself from his wrist and perched on the back of a nearby umbrella stand as Stirling wobbled on his feet. He staggered sideways throwing up an arm to keep himself from smacking into the wall. Whatever had hit him hadn’t been physical, he could tell since his nose wasn’t broken, but his brain felt like it was bouncing around like an ice cube in a blender.

“Oh yeah,” said Dimitri, grinning down at him. “I forgot about that. To get into Strangefellows you need an invite.” Stirling could only glare at him before sliding down the wall onto his ass. Dimitri cleared his throat, drew himself up, took a deep breath, and at last said, “Welcome to Strangefellows.”

At the words, Stirling’s brain cleared and the room came into focus along with a grinning Dimitri.

There was a round of applause as Stirling climbed unsteadily to his feet. Not knowing what else to do, he spread his arms and gave an unsteady bow to the room. This brought a fresh round of cheers before people went back to their conversations.

“Dick,” he said to Dimitri under his breath. “I thought I was supposed to be keeping a low profile.”

“You are,” said Dimitri, straightening his jacket, “but it would look strange if you didn’t get the usual treatment. These people are regulars. They know who belongs and who doesn’t. Sneaking you in here wouldn’t have done you any favours. Now you belong and you get a free drink from the bar. You should thank me.”

“Well, I’m not going to.”

He recovered Magnon from the back of a nearby chair and nudged the bird onto his shoulder. A mental sigh from the crow huffed in his mind.

“It won’t matter if I’m here. Women can smell desperation.”

“Shut up, Beavis.”

The interior of Strangefellows looked like a private member’s club that had run on hard times and was sponsored by the Discount Furniture Warehouse. Modern-looking leather chairs and coffee tables made from particle board fought for room on the floor with solid wood antique furniture from the last two or three centuries. Stirling was also sure that the interior dimensions of the room weren’t anywhere close to the exterior shape of the building. The building was much smaller on the outside.

The room was decorated with display cases and shadow boxes displaying odd assortments of items on nearly every available space. Some of these looked completely normal. A rack of old briar and clay pipes were set out next to a ceramic tobacco jar. A badly repaired rosewood lute was hung from its ancient strap on the wall above the bar.

Mounted on the wall above the pass bar was what looked like the dragon figurehead from the prow of a Viking longboat. Its cracked and weathered features were rounded from the passage of sea and time.

Other items were clearly more magical in nature. A cut glass decanter with the liquid inside glowing a cold blue rested on a high shelf a dozen paces away. Diffuse shadows moved through the liquid, and Stirling briefly saw the clear outline of a four-fingered hand as it pressed against the inside of the container.

On a wall-mounted sconce to his left, a red spiral candle produced a green flame that spit yellow sparks as it rose from the wick. The light cast by the flame was oddly crisp, and the edges of the shadows on the floor looked sharp enough to cut. Even more strange, Stirling couldn’t match up any of the shadows in the strange light with objects he saw in the room. The set of footprints that made their slow way across the pool of hard light was definitely not cast by any feet present.

As though to purposely contrast with all the mystical bric-a-brac, a giant flat screen television was hung at the far end of the room. Teams of fit young men in tight-fitting pants piled on top of each other in a way that wasn’t even in the least bit homoerotic.
It wasn’t busy, there were perhaps two dozen people situated in threes and fours scattered at tables across the large room that could have easily seated over a hundred. Some sat in conversation, while around the perimeter others manned tables covered in a range of items for sale from old books to cell phones.

Next to their table, a hugely fat man with a shaved head overflowed his seat. He sat staring into the glow of his cell phone while tarot cards flipped themselves over from a deck on the table in front of him. The cards twisted and spun as they arranged themselves, forming neat lines and patterns on the tabletop. There was a small sign on his table, but Stirling was too far away to read what it said.

Stirling shrugged out of his wet jacket with a feeling of relief and held out an arm for Magnon to land on.

“Sam, this is Stirling,” said Dimitri to the be-robed man. “Stirling, this is Samson, a sorcerer with a flannel fetish.” They shook hands.

“My parents named me Samson hoping it would be an encouragement,” Sam explained in a fading Irish accent. He held his thin arms out to his sides with a grin to better display his bony frame. “It just made me contrary.”

“Great to meet you,” said Stirling. “Every good story needs a Sam.”

Sam pointed a finger at him and winked. “I like your crow, very cool. Should make you popular with the ladies.”

“I know, right?!”