Thursday, 21 September 2017

Chapter 23, Part 2

A bit late this week, but this chapter was still in such a mess that I needed some time to put it back together. The usual warning applies. This is a rough draft with adult language and situations. Thanks for reading!








Stirling staggered through the door of the gas station with Magnon perched on his shoulder, arms wrapped around himself, and colder than he’d ever been in his life. He stumbled to the coffee bar and chose their largest cup. He did his best to pour with cold-numbed hands and managed to get a little over half of it in his cup on the first try.

The attendant behind the counter fixed a hard look at him, the crow on his shoulder, and the mess he’d made of the coffee bar. Stirling dug into his pocket and with unfeeling fingers, pulled out a ten.
“K-keep t-the ch-change, just let me w-warm up inside f-for a few m-minutes.”

The attendant slid the ten back over the glass counter of scratch lottery tickets. “Fine, just clean up after yourself, and if the bird makes a mess, you’re out. Alright, buddy?”

Stirling nodded his agreement and the attendant went back to reading a novel he had stashed behind the counter. Stirling wrapped his hands around the cup and sipped hot coffee. It burned deliciously as it filled his mouth and trickled down his throat.

By the time he poured his second cup, the shivering was slowly subsiding and is hands and feet were beginning to tingle uncomfortably with returning blood.

“S-so, how do I put the hurt on this cockbag of an alchemist?” Stirling finally asked when he felt he was no longer in danger of succumbing to hypothermic shock.

“Huh?” the attendant asked, looking up from his novel.

Stirling looked at him over the racks of chocolate bars, pulled his cell phone from his pants pocket, and put it to his ear upside down.

“I’m on the phone,” he said to the man.

The attendant looked confused.

“Smooth,” said Magnon’s voice in his head.

“I know, right?” he said, turning to look at Magnon, and not caring that the words were more than loud enough to reach the ears of the gas jockey. “He’ll never suspect I’m actually talking to a bird.”

“So, how about it? How do I get some payback on this eldritch ass monkey? This guy needs to learn that stealing my magic isn’t cool, mine most of all.”

“You don’t,” said Magnon.

“Oh, come on. He’s a guy with a chemistry set who happened to learn magic. How tough can he be? You saw how useful those zombie things were against me.”

Stirling took a deep pull off of his coffee and nodded happily at the attendant who was still staring over at him.

“If it is Knox of the White, he’s a vicious bigot with a persecution complex over two centuries old. He’s got more money than God, but those aren’t the reasons you shouldn’t mess with him.”

“They aren’t?”

“No. He’s also a member of the Alchemist Guild, and that’s a group that one does not, under any circumstances, fuck with. Any attack on one of their own, they see as an attack on the whole guild.”

“What? Are they powerful or something?”

“They control all access to Panacea. Beyond the riches and influence, that monopoly has brought them, cross them just once and they won’t just cut you off, they cut off your friends, your family, anyone you have had the briefest of relationships with.”

“That’s no problem, I hardly know anyone who even knows what Panacea is.”

 “Do you remember Sue, that char witch who works at Strangefellows? She has two kids at home. Say she gets in a car accident or gets a really aggressive cancer. What then?”

“Why would the Guild go after her? She doesn’t even like me.”

“So what? Anyone on the Guild’s shit list becomes the equivalent of a plague ship. Anyone you come into contact with is screwed.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Maybe, but nobody, and I mean nobody, goes up against an alchemist.”

“Here’s another fact. A hundred years ago there were thousands of necromancers across the Aether,” Magnon continued. “Now there aren’t any, and the Alchemist Guild is the reason why. They hunt down and kill anyone suspected of being a necromancer.”

“Except me,” Stirling said.

“Trust me, if you decide to go after Dr. Robert Knox, you won’t be here long either.”

“So this Guild must not be very popular, then.”

“You don’t understand, the Alchemist Guild can literally grant life and death. It doesn’t matter if they’re popular, they’re the only game in town.”

“Sure, but you said it yourself, what he’s doing is illegal. Necroalchemical magic is off limits, right? Illegal and unethical, that’s what you said.”

“It’s illegal only if he gets caught, and lucky for him, with a brand new necromancer in town, he’s got a lot of reasonable doubt in his corner. You, on the other hand, are just one of the usual suspects. The only thing we’ve got going for us is that he won’t want his own people digging too deeply. He probably won’t call in Guild assassins.”

“Back up a sec. If these Alchemists are so good at hunting Necromancers, how come I’m still around? I’ve been making decoys for years, not to mention using my power to exterminate pests. I’m literally advertising online.”

“They weren’t looking for magic ducks or dead rats, they were looking for people who talk to ghosts.”

That took Stirling aback. “Why would anyone want to talk to ghosts? Ghosts are assholes.”

“Because,” said Magnon, with the slow patience of someone explaining the obvious, “Every deadhead in the last eighty years has begun their career in one of two ways. Either they try to make a buck by speaking with the dead and passing on messages to the living, or they end up in the nuthouse because they hear voices. The alchemists have learned to monitor mental patients and the talk show circuit. Now, this might come as a surprise, but not one necromancer has ever come out to the world by carving enchanted ducks. I mean seriously. Ducks? How did that even come up as an option?”

“Easy. People don’t like being around me, so starting a business where I need to actually deal with people face to face isn’t an option, and even when I thought I might be crazy, I kept keep a lid on it. From there, ducks were the logical choice.”

“No, they weren’t,” Magnon objected. “The only time carved ducks is the right answer is when the question is, ‘what’s wood but also looks like a duck?’”

“Says you.” Stirling took another long drink and refilled his cup a third time. “So if you don’t want me going after him, what am I supposed to do?”

“We find a place to lay low until ten.”

“Why ten?”

“Because there’s only one place in two hundred miles you’ll be safe, and on the weekends they don’t begin serving brunch until ten.”


*


Though it was dark, Katherine’s eyes easily picked out the man loping awkwardly down the darkened street away from Strangefellows. The partially torn charcoal bag he’d discarded was now clutched in her damp hands. Ever since she’d felt that cold magic in Strangefellows, her mind had been in a haze of numb detachment.

She recognized the feel of his power. It had animated those bodies in Strangefellows, it had filled the black whips he’d used to kill them, and it had been in the knife that burned away the Panacea from Elanor’s blood.

In Elanor’s memories, she’d met any number of gods and goddesses, but she’d never felt that her fate was controlled by any one of them. Now though… What were the chances that she’d run into this necromancer tonight when she hadn’t even heard of any active since Nineteen thirty-eight?
Thoughts whirled in her mind like leaves caught in a strong wind. She gripped the hem of her jacket and squeezed. Her fingertips broke through the thick nylon. Whatever she’d decide, she couldn’t let him out of her sight. She padded silently behind him into the wet darkness.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Chapter 23, Part 1

Thanks for reading! The usual warning applies. Adult language and situations.





Stirling pushed through the outer doors of Strangefellows and out into the rain. There were still a few people clustered around the entrance with worried expressions on their faces. When they saw the charcoal bag on his head their expressions became even more deeply concerned. He nodded at them as he passed.

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good fucking night.”

He rubbed his hands together, shoved them in his armpits and staggered into the rain. He’d gotten a bit too carried away with the mojo and he needed to find somewhere warm and dry before the possibility of hypothermia became a hard reality. Normally, he’d have a ceramic heater, a hot shower, and as much coffee as he could drink to warm him up. What he had now was a damp rain jacket, a dangerously low core body temperature, and a wet December night. Not good.

As he left the pool of yellow light at the entrance to the club, he pulled off the paper charcoal bag and tossed it away with a trembling hand. Cold rain pattered against his newly bald scalp. He did the best he could to wash away the charcoal dust from the inside of the bag before pulling on his hood.
He glanced at his phone. There were still four hours of night left and he was positive each one would only suck more than the one before.

Wet gravel and cracked pavement crunched under the soles of his boots as he loped around the blocky garage and back onto the street. A pool of orange sodium light marked an intersection a few hundred feet ahead and he pointed himself in that direction. A flicker of shadow caught his eye between himself and the streetlight. He could just make out the silhouette of Magnon perched on a darkened stop sign as it settled his feathers.

Great job at keeping a low profile. Would you like me to let you know how spectacularly fucked you are, or would you like to start?”

“It’s not that bad. I was in disguise.”

You cunning fiend! Nobody will connect the stranger who suddenly appeared at the doors of Strangefellows with the stranger who left wearing the same clothes and a charcoal bag on his head. Bravo.

“You know, you’re kind of an asshole. Most of the people who saw me come in were gone by the time I left. Besides, that mess was my mess to clean up. Those things were animated with my magic.”

The crow let out a defeated sounding mental sigh. “No, not just your magic. Couldn’t you smell it? The whole place stank of alchemy. That was a Necroalchemical binding.”

“Whose the what now?”

Necroalchemical. A fusion of alchemy and necromancy. Illegal, unethical, and really damn effective. Didn’t you see the souls?”

“Well, Duh. There were ghosts all over the place in there.”

I said souls, not ghosts,” said Magnon slowly, as though explaining to a young child.

Stirling gritted his teeth. He wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or from the irritation. “I’m a little foggy on the whole ghost, soul thing. Want to give me the Cole’s Notes version?”

Ghosts are like the spiritual shrapnel that get left behind when a soul goes to the other side. As I’m sure you’ve already noticed, they’re about as smart as a sack of rocks. A soul, on the other hand, is the whole nonphysical identity of a person. They’re the intellect and personality of the person that continues on after they die.

A horrible thought occurred to Stirling. “So, when I was using my whips back there, I was killing souls? Why didn’t you stop me!”

In your dreams. You have to be a powerful necromancer to even scratch a soul. It’s a good thing too, I’d rather be standing at ground zero at a nuclear test site than be in the same place as a sundering soul. No, all you were doing was sending them on to the other side. Trust me, you were doing them a favour.”

“They didn’t seem to think so.”

Stirling staggered level with the crow’s stop sign. He hadn’t warmed noticeably.

Well, then that just goes to show that death doesn’t stop you from being a dumbass. Didn’t you see their wounds? That was what the binding did to them. The spell created spiritual parasites to bite off little pieces of the soul’s energy. The parasite infests the physical body and uses the energy to control and animate them. It’s a really efficient little set-up.”

“What would happen if the parasite used up all of the soul?”

What’s one minus one?

“Oh.”

Stirling chafed his forearms to bring some circulation back as he mulled it over in his mind. Magnon beat his wet wings to land on the slick power lines overhead.

“Who made the parasites? Do you think it was that Knox guy?”

It’s a good question. A better question though, is who is controlling them? Since it wasn’t you, it had to be an alchemist. Knox of the White would be a good guess.”

“Since it wasn’t me!? What’s that supposed to mean?!”

I did say necroalchemical, right? If you break the word apart, it has two different words hidden inside. Those undead back in Strangefellows were created by alchemical, and necromantic magic. You can come at the problem from either side of the fence with nearly identical results. Don’t think for a second that the alchemist who created them didn’t know that, either.”

Of course an alchemist couldn’t do it by themselves,” Magnon went on. “They’d need someone dumb enough to leave necromantic magic lying around where anyone could find and use it,” the crow continued. “An enchanted wooden duck, for example.”

“I’m beginning to think I might have fucked up.”

Very introspective of you.”

“This is really interesting, and I’ll be happy to admit that I screwed the pooch as much as you want later on, but right now I need to get somewhere warm,” Stirling said through chattering teeth. “I can’t feel my fingers or toes.”

Magnon cocked his head down at Stirling. “You do look cold. There’s a gas station in a couple blocks. You can get a coffee or something. I forget how inefficient new necromancers can be with their spells.

“I’m not n-new, I’ve been d-doing this for years,” Stirling got out between shivers as he staggered forward.

It was either call you new, or call you shitty,” replied Magnon. “Which would you prefer?

“I had t-to teach m-myself,” Stirling protested. A thought struck him and Stirling glanced up at the crow. “How does a c-creature who sees r-roadkill as a n-nummy snack, know so much about n-necromancy?”

Crows are psychopomps.

“Psychopomp?” Stirling was suddenly treated to the mental impression of dark funnel clouds writhing against a wind-torn landscape beamed directly into his brain. Each of the twisters was made from tens of thousands of wheeling crows. He couldn’t see details, only the black shadows of crows as they flew, silhouetted on a backdrop of a glowing green sky. Stirling knew that each of the crows contained a soul of the newly dead, and through the eyes of memory, watched as they swooped in and released their charges into the heart of the vortex. As they were released, the souls made their spiralling way down the sides of the funnels until they reached the base and moved on from this reality into the next.

“Th-that’s your j-job?”

It’s the job of every crow. Death feeds us at her table, and we repay our debt by being couriers of souls.

Stirling thought about it. “That’s a nice p-piece of s-symmetry, there.”

Deep Magics are usually like that.”

The glowing sign of a Husky gas station slowly came into view, and Stirling staggered through the door with Magnon perched on his shoulder. He stumbled to the coffee bar and chose their largest cup. He did his best to pour with cold-numbed hands and managed to get a little over half of it in his cup on the first try.

The attendant behind the counter looked hard between him, the crow on his shoulder, and the mess he’d made of the coffee bar. Stirling dug into his pocket and pulled out a ten.

“K-keep t-the ch-change, just let me w-warm up inside f-for a few m-minutes.”

“Fine, just clean up after yourself, alright, buddy?”

Stirling nodded his agreement and the attendant went back to reading a novel he had stashed behind the counter. Stirling wrapped his hands around the cup and sipped hot coffee. It burned deliciously as it filled his mouth and trickled down his throat.

By the time he poured his second cup, the shivering was slowly subsiding and is hands and feet were beginning to tingle uncomfortably with returning blood.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Chapter 22, Part 2: An absence of Bubblegum

Thanks for reading! The usual warning applies. This is a rough draft with adult language and themes. You have been warned.





Gloomy is Sunday with shadows, I spend it all…

Dimitri sidled up next to him. It had to take some serious guts to come that close with the morbid vibe coming off of him strong and hard. Stirling turned down the volume on his phone so he could hear what Dimitri was saying.

“You have to stop this,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Wish I could, but it’s only through a grant from the Sterling Haig Foundation for the Black Arts that’s this little shitstorm is possible. I need to fix it.”

“They-will-kill-you,” said Dimitri, only spacing out the words so Stirling could tell he was really serious.

“Yeah maybe, but in the meanwhile, other people are dying for my fuck-up. Can’t have that.” He turned the volume back up on Lady Day and rolled his shoulders.

My heart and I have decided to end it all…

Dimitri gave him a pleading look. Stirling shrugged and walked a few paces away before raising his arms above his head. He dropped any remaining mental blocks on the cold pressure inside of him and let it all out. There was a collective gasp from the room as the full force of his unrestrained aura pushed against them. Black cables wove themselves from his fingertips and coiled around his arms. Dense white ice fog ran down his arms and over his body. He needed to finish this fast, he was beginning to shiver under his jacket from the cold.

Soon there’ll be candles and prayers that are sad, I know…

“I am Kingsford!” he roared to the room which grew noticeably more silent. “Lord of Barbeque! Sworn enemy of the Lacto-Vegan Illuminati!”

He even had the attention of the corpses now as they turned from their fight to regard him with their smirking, bloody faces.

He faced the attackers and shook out his jacket cuffs and hovered his hands over his hips in a gunfighter stance. Where could you find a decent tumbleweed when you really needed one one?
“Eat char-grilled death!”

He snapped the black cables from the hip at the nearest ghosts, six-shooter style. “Pew! Pew! Pew!” The remaining ghosts fell to his whipping black cables in seconds.

Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go…

The customers watching from the edges of the room couldn’t see the ghosts, but they could see broken bodies that had been fighting only seconds before, slump motionless to the floor as he snapped black cables out at them.

The blood-splattered woman in torn jeans looked both pissed and relieved at the same time as she stood panting amongst her vanquished foes. He gave her a jaunty two fingered, ‘it’s all in a day’s work’ salute to his bag.

“Ma’am,” he said, before vaulting over a broken chair to reach the mound of silent invaders who had at last subdued the mini-dragon.

Death is no dream, for in death I’m caressing you…

One of the attackers, a middle-aged man with a gut that sagged over his belt like the bow of an oil tanker, rushed to block his path. He had somehow yet to be damaged in the fight with either the dragon or the improvised Strangefellows defence squad.

Stirling raised an arm, “Taste my whip, impudent cur!” he shouted, when a startling change came over the man’s face. For the first time, Stirling saw something other than a shit-eating grin on the face of one of the attackers. The new emotion was anger, this guy looked really, really pissed. That was interesting.

With the last breath of my soul, I’ll be blessing you…

The man’s lips began to move and Stirling held up a finger while he pulled out an earbud so he could hear. As the earbud came away, much of the song’s metaphysical weight went with it. The chill settled more deeply into Stirling’s body and he clenched his muscles to stop himself from shivering.

“…should have accepted my offer and come to work for me,” the man was saying. “You would have been rewarded beyond anything you could have imagined.” He spoke in an accent that Stirling thought probably started as Scots.

“Huh?” Stirling asked, lowering his hand a fraction.

“We could have changed the worlds, but instead you chose to work against my designs, you chose to spurn me.”

“Spurn you? Buddy, nobody talks like that. I don’t even know you.” He raised his whip again.
“But I know you, carver,” the man continued.

It took a second, but then it clicked, “Oh! You’re that shit-blister that’s been going around stealing my ducks!”

“Indeed.”

“And you killed my customers!”

“Yes.”

“You burned down my workshop, you fat fuck!”

“Yes, I di…”

“And you stole my notebooks!”

“Yes….”

“And Rag and Bone! You hired those two ass-clowns to fuck with me!”

“Enough! Yes, I did all of those things. Work for me or you will join your ghosts, those are your choices.”

Stirling waggled an index finger at him. “Naa, I don’t think so.”

“And why not?”

Stirling held a hand in front of himself and lazily swung one of the black filaments around in a circle, giving the movement a bit of pelvic action to drive home the point. The corner of the fat man’s eye began to twitch.

“Because just like the rest of these assholes,” he said waving a finger around the room, “you’re wearing your ghost on the outside.” He reached up to replace the earbud.

“Is that what you think?”

Stirling paused with the earbud in his fingers half-way to his ear and made a little head-nodding motion at the ghost who was standing just to the left of them. “Well, yeah, he’s standing right there.”

The ghost grabbed it’s spectral balls and lifted its chin at him. “Bite me, asshole,” it said in a Bronx accent.

Stirling jabbed his whip hand at the ghost, white must dripping down from his hand. “Oh, you don’t want to tempt me, tubby.”

The fat man smiled a tight-lipped smile. “You aren’t the only one who has a way with ghosts anymore, boy.”

Stirling watched in surprise as a pair of phantom limbs reached out from inside the fat man’s physical body. They were spindly, skinless, and the rust colour of old blood. Exposed muscle and tendons looked like an illustration straight out of a demon’s medical text. Veins of familiar black pulsed the length of the arm. If he needed any further confirmation that his magic had been used to create these things, it was in those veins. They were his magic, he could feel it.

Without warning, both phantom arms lashed out, rough black claws sinking into the fat man’s ghost and held him fast. Fingers pushed deep into the ghost’s shoulder and wrenched back, tearing ghostly flesh before drawing a silvery chunk inside its physical body and out of sight.

The fat man’s ghost screamed like an injured animal and fell to its knees, grabbing for its ruined shoulder.

“Fuck!” the ghost howled, “It hurts!”

Stirling took a step back. “Holy shit!”

The man gave him a greasy smirk, “Now you see, I…”

“Pew!” Stirling shouted, and with a snap of his whip, the fat man’s tortured ghost popped out of existence with a sigh of red mist.

Unlike the others, this body didn’t immediately collapse when its ghost was gone, but just looked at Stirling blandly. “For your own sake, for the sake of your few friends, and for the sake of all these people,” he said gesturing to the room around them, “reconsider your decision. You don’t have much time and even fewer places you can hide. Everyone here fears you, and make no mistake, they will cheer and raise their glasses to the one who kills you.”

With that, he adjusted the fall of his pants and sat down in a nearby chair. “Until next we meet.” His eyes closed and his body slumped like a marionette with its strings cut.

“Everyone here fears you,” Stirling said to the body in a mocking imitation of the man’s voice while reinserting his earbud. “You don’t have much time,” he added with false gravity before kicking over the chair. “Fuckwit.”

Billie Holiday had wrapped up Gloomy Sunday and Johnny Cash was well into his cover of Trent Reznor’s Hurt. Hurt was good, but it didn’t hold the same metaphysical mass as Gloomy Sunday, but it was possible to drain a song of its charge if he used it too often. Stirling had the feeling he might need to be careful with the few songs he’d found that could contain the power he needed.

Though the invaders were keeping the dragon pinned, some of them now disengaged and turned their smirking faces to begin walking in his direction. By this point, none of them were without some kind of injury. The dragon might have been pinned, but when something with that much mass was writhing around, injuries were bound to occur.

It suddenly occurred to Stirling what the little grin made these walking turds look like. They all had the exact same expression Martin Shkreli wore on his face in online pictures. Martin Shkreli, the douche who jacked the price of Aids medication by fifty-six times in order to squeeze the last dime out of sick people. That made this so much easier.

Light and sound dimmed as Stirling snapped out his black cables in a series of light-stealing whip cracks. He wasn’t a ninja or anything, but he had range, space to move, and Martin Shkreli to imagine in the place of walking corpses. They didn’t stand a chance.

In under half a minute the dragon was free, and between the two of them, they made short work of the remaining invaders. While Stirling cracked his whipcords and popped ghosts into red mist, the dragon spread its wings to separate the invaders from customers. It batted at the few attackers that made it past Stirling’s whips and occupied them until Stirling could arrive to deliver the coup de grace.

As the last of the animated bodies collapsed to the floor, quiet spread through the room interrupted only by the moans of the injured and dying. Most of the patrons were clustered around the back wall staring at him in a mixture of shock and horror. The gothy-looking kids he’d noticed on entering had phones out and were pointing the camera lenses at him. Shit.

The dragon eyed him and hunched down keeping its position between Stirling and the rest of the people there, going so far as to half-spread its wings again.

“Really?” he asked it, hugging himself tightly and shivering. “I just saved your scaly ass,” he chattered, gesturing with a hand that still had heavy ice smoke flowing off of it.

He forced his mental barricades back up, one at a time. The black filaments slowly evaporated from his fingertips and his creepy vibe dialled itself back down from eleven. He shook the coldness out of his fingers and glanced at the crowd, all eyes were on him. He could see Sue, Sam, and even Dimitri gaping at him with pale, shocked faces.

He straightened the bag on his head. “Great place you’ve got here,” he began, trying to keep the shivering out of his voice. There was a full steaming mug of coffee on a nearby table that had somehow avoided being overturned. Mana from freaking heaven. He took it in numb fingers, tilted his charcoal bag away from his lips and gulped it back. The warmth felt indescribably good going down.

“The coffee’s really top-notch,” he said in a more normal voice. There was an even longer silence. “Well, it’s been a long night, make sure you all tip your serving staff and find a safe ride home. Tis’ the season, right?” More silence.

He tossed a few bills on the nearest intact table and said, “Sorry about the mess,” and walked out the door.






Sunday, 10 September 2017

Chapter 22, Part 1: An Absence of Bubblegum.

The action continues in chapter 22. The usual warnings apply, this is a rough draft with adult themes and language. Thanks for reading!





It was soon after nearly drowning that Stirling first began to see ghosts. To begin with, they were just flickers seen out of the corner of his eye, there then gone, easily explained away and forgotten. As the weeks went by though, the blurry shapes became more and more solid. As each day passed, it was like the focus ring on a camera was slowly twisting toward clarity. Soon, he began to recognize human features in the shapes. This focusing continued until one day, a little more than three months after first noticing them, he woke to find that the ghosts no longer flickered or faded. They were with him to stay.

As he grew used to life with ghosts, it struck him how many there were. The dead were everywhere; Idling their time away on roof tops, hanging out in libraries, and dangling their insubstantial feet over the edges of highway overpasses.

The ghosts utterly failed to live up to their Hollywood reputation as spooky engines of terror. Maybe there were evil ones out there, but if there were he didn’t see them. In fact, the scariest part about the floating dead was the sheer boredom of their existence. Their entire afterlife seemed to consist of wafting around with all the energy of a depressed fart.

That wasn’t to say that they couldn’t surprise him. Living with the dead required him to develop nerves of tempered steel. While he was almost sure he wasn’t crazy, he knew reacting to the ghosts would be a great way to get himself locked up and medicated. So, on the occasion a ghost floated listlessly through the blackboard of his English class or camped out next to a public urinal, he learned to hide his reactions and go on as though nothing was wrong.

Feeling a mixture of loneliness, curiosity, and pity, Stirling eventually decided to try and talk to one of them. It was soon enough after his swimming accident that he hadn’t yet become used to a solitary life, and dead company seemed better than no company at all.

He’d noticed the shade of a boy his own age loitering around a local park on a number of separate occasions. With a bit of mental rehearsal, he went to strike up a conversation.

To his delight, when he spoke to the ghost, it spoke back. True, its voice was an eerie-sounding three-part echo that made the hairs on his body stand up at near escape velocity, but it was still conversation.

As they chatted, Stirling discovered that the boy’s name was Adam. He also discovered that the ghost wasn’t all there in more than just the material sense. Either Adam hadn’t been the brightest bulb in life, or something about the process of becoming a ghost had been the equivalent of a metaphysical mule-kick to the head.

Attracted by the novelty of being able to reach across the veil and speak with a living person, a crowd of the dead slowly gathered in as the afternoon went by. Sadly, each of the ghosts he met that day had an intellect rivalled only by that of a potted fern. It wasn’t a comforting discovery. He didn’t like to think about the possibility that one day he’d shuffle off his mortal coil only to wander around in a mental state normally reserved for the cast of a reality TV show.

His conversation with Adam in the park that afternoon was like a rock dropping into a still pool, rippling out to stir up the entire ghostly community. The ghosts wanted news from their loved ones and kept asking if he knew Scott, Katie, Mark, and a slew of other unfamiliar names, as though he was on speaking terms with the entire population of Greater Vancouver.

They had banal messages to pass on, “Tell Yvonne to remember to check that her roti are gluten free. She’s a celiac, you know.” And, “Remind Carl that there’s a holiday coming up and the garbage pickup will be a day late. If he misses it, it will be two weeks before he can get pick up again.” The ghosts were so enthusiastic to talk to him, that Stirling felt that his opinion of their stupidity was a betrayal of what otherwise seemed to be very nice people.

The disaster came when Stirling was getting ready to leave. He extended his hand to shake with Adam, the first time he’d actually made any kind of physical contact with a ghost. It was a gesture full of the overblown teen sentimentality that anyone who had ever been made to sit through an ABC Afterschool Special would recognize on smell. Stirling didn’t know what to expect, he had the vague notion that his hand might pass through Adam’s own, or maybe their newfound friendship could mystically bridge the final barrier and he would feel cold, ghostly flesh on his own.

What he didn’t expect was Adam’s entire non-corporeal body to violently explode on contact with his hand into a cloud of glowing, red, mist. Sadly, it was precisely what happened. On seeing one of their own exploded, the other ghosts shrieked and scattered in panic.

After that, word got around and the ghosts kept their distance. The few he did see only hung around long enough to shout abuse at him before leaving quickly with an obscene gesture or two flashed in his direction. Whatever else they lost from their old life, a ghost always remembered how to swear, swear well, and swear often.

It was with these memories in mind that Stirling reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his wireless earbuds. He queued up a Billy Holiday cover of Gloomy Sunday on his phone. As the clarinets began to play their intro in a minor key, he felt the cold weight of the song settle into him. He began advancing steadily on the small group of battered invaders.

Sunday is gloomy, My hours are slumberless…

Despite their horrific injuries, the corpses, because at this point they could be nothing else, were still stepping up smartly to get their asses handed to them by the petite woman in torn jeans. She hadn’t slowed down a fraction, and a fine red mist of blood now covered her nearly from head to toe. There was a look of sickened determination on her face, but she kept up the astonishing flurry of open handed slaps and haymakers. The woman must have an insane cardio regime to be able to keep up the tempo.

Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless…

Cold flowed down his right arm like meltwater down a drain spout. He focused on the mental state he needed to allow him to braid the coldness into a whisper-thin whip. A black whipcord barely thicker than butcher’s twine uncoiled from his fingers. White mist of sublimated ice fog flowed faintly down the thin line. With a little jerk of his wrist, he flicked the cable out to lash at the nearest ghost.
As the filament snapped through the air sound became muted, the air chilled, and the light in the room washed out. The braided cord licked the ghost’s shoulder and a bass thrum that travelled up Stirling’s arm and down throught the soles of his boots into the floor. The mangled ghost simply dissolved away with a sigh into red smoke. Its physical body stood still for only a moment before collapsing to the floor.

Little white flowers will never awaken you…

People looked around uneasily, there wasn’t much he could do about it other than try and look as confused as everyone else. It wasn’t easy with a charcoal bag on his head, but he did his very best to telegraph ‘confused’ with his body language. His grade twelve drama teacher would have been proud—if it had been anyone else but him.

Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you…

Stirling felt a hand grab his upper arm. He turned his head as best he could to see Dimitri staring at him with wide eyes. From the expression on his face, he’d just asked him a question. With a bag on his head and Lady Day singing in his ears Stirling was pretty much deaf to the outside world. Not that he really needed to hear. The look on Dimitri’s face might as well have been shouting, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!”

Stirling shook his besacked head at him in reply. “It’s my mess, I’ll see it gets cleaned up.”

Angels have no thought of ever returning you…

He turned to face the woman who now stood to face one fewer opponent. “Good hit!” Stirling shouted loudly through his bag while giving her a double thumbs-up. She had time to shoot him an incredulous look before being rushed by another one of the silent attackers. He wasn’t sure if the look was due to his unconventional headgear, or because she knew exactly how full of shit he was. In the end, it didn’t matter because oddly enough, his ruse worked. People all around him picked up the call and the lone combatant was soon receiving cheers of encouragement from the crowd.
 He freed his arm from Dimitri’s grip and moved around the edge of the room to position himself for another strike.

Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?…

She hit another of the bodies with an echoing crack, and timing it with her strike as best he could, Stirling flicked his wrist in as subtle a motion he could manage. Again, sound and light dimmed, the thread snapped into the ghost centre mass, and like the one before it, it evaporated out of existence with the same red mist and the same deep bass note.

Gloomy Sunday…

“Did you see that!?” he asked a man next to him. “She’s kicking ass!”

The man smiled uncertainly and backed away a few steps, his face visibly paling as he went. Stirling saw others beginning to edge away from him. That was alright, this was taking too long anyway. He’d felt three more people die since he’d emerged from the employees only area not half a minute ago. It was time to bring his A-game.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Chapter 21, Part 2: Disguises and Other Failures.

Chapter 21 continues with the usual warnings. This is a rough draft and includes adult language. Thanks for reading!






On the other side of the door, a single woman was facing off against a small group of horribly injured people. Each of her opponents sported devastating injuries that, if not immediately fatal, should have easily put them down for the count. What’s more, they all had an attendant identical ghost hovering at their sides. It was obvious to Stirling that some manner of arcane fuckery was afoot.

If the physical bodies were in bad shape, the ghosts were even worse off. Every one of them was in the process of being consumed by a creeping silver fire that was slowly moving over their flesh them like the final line of ember crawling up blackened paper. Red ethereal haze rose from their forms to be drawn into their physical bodies.

As Stirling watched, the group rushed her and it was only her incredible speed as she darted away that saved her from being surrounded. Stirling didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone move so fast. The mystery of the slapping sound Stirling had heard from inside the hallway was answered when one of her adversaries got too close and received a devastating open palm slap to the face. His head snapped violently back and Stirling was nearly certain he heard bones crackle.

Stirling took a moment to survey the rest of the room. Most of the customers had pulled back to the far wall and were watching the fight in expressions that ranged from fearful to uneasy.

Stirling was disappointed to note that despite being a club for people who used magic, not a single one of them had yet to so much as tossed out a fireball. On the other hand, at least one of them must have had a pair of balls because a path of wrecked furniture led to where a honest-to-god dragon the size of a compact car was being piled on by a group of silent combatants and their ghosts. A number of them had managed to grab hold of the dragon’s wings, and more were piling on top of it as he looked on. It was like watching ants taking on a large insect and winning through sheer weight of numbers

At the sound of flesh smacking into flesh, Stirling turned back to the fight in front of him. The lone woman was laying into the small group with an incredibly fast flurry of strikes. Even though it was obvious she was invested in the concept of putting boots to asses, Stirling recognized something disheartening in her technique almost at once; she had no idea whatsoever how to fight. The only reason she was still on her feet was that she could hit hard and moved faster than a cheetah on re-entry.

Most people went through life never having to think about the best way to really hurt another person, which Stirling considered a mostly positive thing. The down side of this was that if a fight did break out, it was rare to find anyone who could do more than flail around. Even just making a proper fist that didn’t break fingers when you hit something took a lot of practise—and making a fist was only the first step in delivering a proper punch. Between her lack of skill and her opponent’s poor condition, the brawl in front of him was like watching the first meeting of a toddler fight club.

Stirling had no love for ghosts, but what was being done to them was cruel, even worse, he was sure that his own magic was causing the damage. When he looked to check, he could see the same red haze around the mob that was attacking the miniature dragon.

 There was a constant shiver moving up and down his spine and he needed to clench his muscles to keep his hands from shaking. More than a few people wouldn’t be making it out of Strangefellows this evening, and it was partly his fault.

He knew that there could be negative consequences when he began marketing his hunting decoys, he just hadn’t ever imagined his magic could be stolen like it had. Another frission of expiring life made his shoulders ache. He made up his mind.

He turned from the door and sprinted back toward the back room with Dimitri trotting after him.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Something stupid,” he replied, pulling on his jacket, then tearing one of the discarded briquette bags in half. He poked two eye holes in the rough paper and jammed it over his freshly shaven head. Charcoal dust went in his eyes and up his nose. He choked and coughed. He probably should have shaken out the bag before he put it on.

He picked up his precious box of notebooks from where he’d left it in the corner of the room and gravely handed it to Dimitri. He hated leaving them behind, but he’d need his hands for what was coming next. “Keep these secret, keep them safe,” he said. “I’ll be back for them.” It came out muffled from behind the multi-layered paper sack and he could already feel the air around his face becoming hot and moist. He didn’t have time to rip a mouth hole.

He sprinted back down the hallway and out into the room. With all that was going on, the appearance of a guy wearing a charcoal bag on his head didn’t cause much of a stir. That was about to change, there was a good reason ghosts hated him.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Chapter 21: Disguises and Other Failures

Back from a crazy work week and helping my wife's out of town parents move. The usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!





With the eventful day Stirling had, the night had been a bit on the dull side, at least until the screaming started.

Once Sam and Sue had left to look after the growing mob of scared customers, Stirling had read a novel from his phone while Dimitri snored peacefully in an aluminum lawn chair. As he read, Stirling unconsciously ran a hand over his newly smooth scalp. He wasn’t particularly vain, but he still couldn’t help but think that a shaved head was the wrong look to be sporting when you wanted to appear innocent.

It was a well-known fact that hair hates a villain. The number of positive role models who shaved their heads was slim, while a gleaming scalp might as well be the approved dress code for villains. Lex Luthor, Walter White, Gollum, Ming the Merciless, Voldemort… the list almost made itself.

He’d argued with Dimitri that a shaved head made him look more like someone who was involved in dark magic and not less. Dimitri had countered by saying it didn’t matter because a lot of people shaved their heads, and even if he did look evil, the only one he needed to look less like was himself. In the end, he’d grit his teeth, lathered up his scalp, and thought of Patrick Stewart.

The only other attempt at an improvised disguise hadn’t turned out nearly as well. In a spasm of misplaced confidence, he’d once again proved that if necessity was the mother of invention, then boredom was the emotionally unavailable father of fuck-ups.

In one of the poorly travelled corners of the Internet, he’d stumbled across a product called a Lip Plumper. It was a simple device, a suction cup that one placed over their lips to create, “a more full, plump, and kissable-looking you.” It wouldn’t change his face dramatically, but he reminded himself that large changes were made up of small changes. Anything that would alter his appearance could only be a plus.

Since Amazon didn’t deliver to pocket dimensions, he decided to innovate. Stirling reasoned that by placing a plastic yogurt container over his mouth and sucking out the air, he’d be able to achieve the exact same results as the Lip Plumper and at a fraction the price.

In retrospect, he should have realized that this was one of those random acts of fuckery that was destined to crumble to dust under the harsh light of reality. Instead of fuller, more kissable lips, it now looked like he’d tried to repeatedly felate a hot curling iron. The swelling had mostly gone, but he suspected it would take longer for the perfect circle of light bruising around his lips to disappear.

 When the commotion began, Stirling had been feeling it long before he heard it, but Like a frog in a slowly warming pot of water, he hadn’t noticed it until the feeling was already on top of him and it was too late.

 When he finally became aware that something was off, he had the sudden and overwhelming certainty there were ducks in the taproom, and not just any ducks, his ducks. Now that they were so close, he realized that it was no wonder he hadn’t sensed the decoys when he’d looked for them before. The shape of the magic he’d pushed into the wood fibres had been drastically altered. It wasn’t until he was nearly on top of his creations that he was able to recognize the feel of his own work. He’d been looking for caterpillars, what had found him here were butterflies. Then came the sound of screams, breaking glass, and splintering wood.

Stirling heard the lawn chair shift and turned to see Dimitri rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Wassgoingon?”

“Not sure,” Stirling reported, “but, hey, remember those hunting decoys of mine that went missing?”

“Decoys?” Stirling watched as it took Dimitri’s sleepy brain a second to slip back onto the rails, “oh, right. Wooden ducks for rich white people.”

“Well, they’re in the main room, and it sounds like they’re raising some shit,” he said focusing his attention in the direction of the main room. “They’ve been changed. I don’t know how.”

“Changed?” Dimitri asked through a yawn.

A berserker roar and the sound of smashing wood rose above the cacophony for just a second and Stirling nodded toward the sound. “Changed.”

“Fuuuck.” Dimitri sat up straighter and looked more awake. “Hey what happened to your mouth?”
Stirling was saved from answering as just then, the roar of superheated air from the crucible began to noticeably increase in volume. Sparks began to shoot out from under the lid, and the crucible began to do a passable impression of a jet engine spooling up on the runway for takeoff.

The steady orange glow of the heated ceramic began to rapidly brighten to white, and Stirling took a cautious step back. There came the muffled sound of repeated thumps that Stirling could feel coming up through the soles of his boots.

Dimitri sprung from his chair like he’d been goosed. “What the hell is that?”

“Dude? You’re asking me? New guy here.”

“Don’t dude me. Dude.”

They were interrupted by another even stronger shudder as something heavy pounded on the floor. A second later there was a faint cheer.

“Let’s go check it out,” said Stirling enthusiastically. He’d been cooped up for the last four hours and had caffeine to burn.

“I think I should check it out and you should stay here.”

“So I shaved my head for nothing?”

“No, Brittany,  you shaved your head so that there’s less of chance that someone will recognize you, doesn’t mean nobody will. Let’s be honest, shaving your head is about as good a disguise as putting on a pair of glasses. This isn’t a Superman flick, and trust me, Clark Kent, you ain’t.”

Stirling threw up his hands. “Glasses!” Why hadn’t he thought of glasses? His lips might be normal size right now if he’d only thought of glasses!

There was suddenly the new sound of heavy pounding from outside the room. Stirling peeked his head around the corner to look down the hallway. At the end of the hall, he could see the heavy door that lead to the main room rattling on its hinges. Another set of fists joined the first, then another.

“Think maybe we should still check it out?” asked Dimitri.

A thought occurred to Stirling and he squinted back down the dim hall. “Doesn’t that door open out from the hall?”

“Yeah.”

“Why pound on it when they should be trying to pull it open? It's a metal fire door.”

Dimitri looked at the door with a bemused look and shrugged.

"I deduce whatever's on the other side of that door must be a huge dumbass," Stirling predicted.

Stirling moved to the end of the hall. As he approached, he could feel the familiar texture of his own magic on the other side becoming stronger. Whatever had been done to his magic was on the other side and in a mood to get in. The door was a heavy fire door with a metal frame and wasn’t going anywhere fast.

“Who is it?” he called.

“Stop that!” Dimitri hissed at him.

There was no reply but the continued hammering of fists. Now that he was closer, the sense of the magic was heavy and polluted like old infected blood. He’d been around pulp mills and chemical factories a few times, and the pervasive stink was the closest thing he could think of to compare to his impression of whatever was on the other side of the door.

He felt a familiar shudder run up his spine and took a quick step back from the door. Someone had just died.

“Oh, this sucks.”

“Huh?”

“Somebody out there just died .”

Another sound became audible over the heavy blows. Stirling wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded like someone smacking the shit out of a raw ten-pound steak against a linoleum floor. The pounding on the door grew a pair of fists less and stopped completely after another half minute.
Stirling gave Dimitri a questioning look, but Dimitri looked as confused as he was. He approached the door and put his hand on the knob.

“Wait! Hissed Dimitri, “Anything could be out there, Madame Rag, Mister Bone, the Alchemists, you don’t know!”

“I don’t think so,” said Stirling, twisting the knob and pushing the door open.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Chapter 20, Part 2. Ballroom Blitz

Chapter twenty concludes. More dragon on zombie action!




“J├Ârmun,” the char witch called to the dragon, “see these assholes out. Don’t be gentle.” The miniature dragon did its hornet-cat-roar again and made a sort of skuttle-flapping motion to get across the floor. Tables and chairs that happened to be in its way were turned into expensive garbage as it careered across the room. The wind of its passing nearly knocked Katherine over.

The piece of naval architecture, now-turned dragon, slammed into the group of silent interlopers with happy abandon. It battered them with its paws, worried them with its wooden jaws, and buffeted them with its wings. It looked like it was having a grand time as it frolicked and romped through the group. It even rolled over on its back and wiggled its butt back and fourth reminding Katherine of a dog who had found something smelly to thrash around in. In this case, the objects of its affection were a trio of unlucky invaders who hadn’t been fast enough to get out of its way. They made squishy crunching noises as a long, forked tongue lolled happily from the dragon’s mouth.

There was a scattered cheer for the dragon, and Katherine noticed some people actually darting back to their tables to retrieve half-finished drinks.

Relief turned to gasps of horror a few moments later as the dragon regained its feet. A woman who had been pinned underneath the wooden beast struggled to her feet and without hesitation, leapt onto the dragon’s back. Splintered ribs poked out of her pink angora sweater and blood drooled from her mouth. She should have been dead. It took a second for the truth to sink it. Nobody could be just walking around with her bones on the outside. She was dead.

The horribly injured woman was joined by her companions who had been just as badly savaged by the dragon. A cycle courier’s head was noticeably flat on one side and bulging out on the other. Bike helmets would need some serious upgrades if they were ever to be issued as standard kit when battling rampaging Norse dragons, even the small ones, Katherine thought in numb disbelief.

A horrified stillness began to spread through the crowd as more of the maimed and crushed attackers piled onto the dragon, punching and kicking. Other than weighing it down, they didn’t seem to be doing any real damage to the magical beast. The dragon thrashed and bucked, throwing bodies off of its back, but Katherine now saw a strained expression on the char witch’s face as more bodies climbed on. Sweat was beginning to bead on her forehead. She had to be channelling an incredible amount of house energy to the dragon. There would be an upward limit to how much the char witch could syphon off from the crucible, and to judge from her expression, she was rapidly reaching that point. If they piled on enough bodies, there simply wouldn’t be enough energy for the dragon to keep fighting.

Even with a dragon on the home team, it was becoming obvious the fight was a long way from won. Some of the more hardy of the patrons were banding together to make a real fight of it. They armed themselves with table legs, bar stools, and whatever else they could get their hands on. The dragon’s rampage through he room had provided enough broken furniture parts for everyone.

 Christopher, meanwhile, had made his way over to a group of five or six armed patrons with his own bar stool still in hand. He was red faced and out of breath, but none the worse for wear. Seeing the fate of those who had tried to take on the invaders by themselves, the group approached carefully. They met with more success, clubbing a few already injured attackers the to floor, but the bulk of the invaders were focused on subduing the struggling dragon.

Unnoticed by the defenders, a group of five split off from the main group and began to shamble away from the front doors. Someone in the crowd began to scream in wordless panic over and over again.

None of the approaching group appeared to have less than mortal wounds, and people scattered from their path in revulsion and horror. They made their broken, bleeding way unopposed toward the rear of the room where a door marked, “employees only,” stood closed.

Katherine realized they were going to try and make a run on the crucible. Take out the dragon’s energy source and all you had was an enchanted log with an interesting historical past. She wanted to go to them, stop them, she could dent steel with her bare hands for God’s sake! but her legs felt like they had grown roots into the floor and all she could do was gape in horror.

It was as the group got closer that Katherine began to feel it; a cold aura coming from the most damaged of them. It felt like an open freezer door. Sweat prickled her skin, and she had a sudden sense-memory of dread as the coldness swept across her face and over her scalp. The image of a knife embedded in the flesh of a familiar forearm swam into her mind.

The group reached the door, and finding it locked, began to beat on it in the time-honoured tradition of every extra in a zombie movie ever made. Katherine’s breath came in quick gasps and her vision tunnelled in a red haze. She could feel a rage growing inside her directed at the source of that coldness. It was a surprise when she found her legs moving again and already halfway to the door, her jaw clenched, her muscles tightening in anticipation of a fight.