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!




“Jörmun,” 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.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Chapter 20, Part One: Bar Room Blitz

Hi Everyone! The usual caveats apply, thanks for reading!







It was the sound, more than anything, that made Katherine snap her mind back from its daze. The sudden crack of stone on bone, as discordant as a broken bell over the buzz of conversation, was too real to ignore. She sprung to her feet, not really sure what she was going to do there, but knowing she couldn’t stay seated.

Christopher twisted around in his chair to see what had made her suddenly stand. “Oh my fucking God!” he yelled, as a man wearing a courier bag calmly swung an aluminum baseball bat into the neck of a well-dressed woman.

To Katherine, it was as though Christoper’s yell was the event that released the room from its shock. Cries filled the air as patrons stood up at their tables. Even then, there was confusion. Most people hadn’t seen the attacks, and now with everyone on their feet, it was even more difficult to see what was going on. The confusion spread as chairs crashed over and glasses shattered on the floor.

There were maybe a dozen individuals in all who crowded in through the doors, each as unremarkable as the next. They varied in dress and skin colour, men and women, old and young. The only thing they all had in common was a faint self-satisfied smirk that curled the edge of their lips.
They overturned tables, and swarmed toward anyone in reach, attacking with assorted weapons, fists, feet, and teeth. They didn’t yell out in anger as they fell on their victims, they struck and maimed quietly only the cries and grunts of their victims audible.

In front of Katherine, Christopher lunged to his feet and stumbled toward the fray, nearly falling on his face when his feet tangled with a chair leg. He recovered before he could fall and bellowed as he charged ahead.

When Katherine first saw Christopher, she had only taken notice of how fat he was, what she hadn’t realized was exactly how large the man was. Now that she could see him standing, she realized he had to be at least six foot five. He looked even bigger as he upended tables and chairs charging toward the fight. He grabbed a half-full wine bottle from a vacant table as he passed and smashed it onto the head of the nearest attacker—a distinguished looking man with salt and pepper hair who was kicking at someone on the floor.

A Touch of Grey went down like a two-hundred-pound sack of shit in a five-hundred dollar suit, red wine staining his head and shoulders. Christopher bellowed again, all softness gone, and snatched up a nearby bar stool to begin swinging at the attackers.

A scattered few of the patrons were beginning to tentatively join in the fight, getting in the occasional sucker punch when one of the smirking invaders had their back turned. The only one doing any real damage though was Christopher. His long reach with the bar stool was doing an admirable job of standing off the mob, but even now his face was beginning to turn red and Katherine could hear him panting heavily. He couldn’t do this on his own for much longer.

“Screw this!” Katherine heard someone yell behind her. She looked around to see the flame-haired waitress who had been serving coffee earlier turn toward the rear of the room and make a poking gesture with her carafe toward the battered Viking figurehead mounted on the back wall.

Katherine felt, more than saw, the magic of Strangefellows whiplash into the cracked wood and begin to travel down the faded Norse knotwork carved there. The server was obviously one of Strangefellows’ char witches, no one else could move its magic around like that.

Where the carving had worn down over the millennia, new wood now began to regenerate, the intricate knots becoming well-defined and sharp as the day they were carved. The figurehead twitched where it hung and fell from to the floor with a crash. Whorls and knots began to grow out from the wood like the waving arms of tarnished brass anemones, twisting and writhing into the shapes of limbs and a trunk.

A cry of pain caused her to turn back around, one of the crowd had got too close and had been dragged into the middle of the silent attackers. Arms and legs pumped frantically, and the cries abruptly cut off. The group began to move deeper into the room, but Christoper’s bar stool slowed them as they tried to advance. He was calling for help, but no one seemed to be willing to step up.
There were far more patrons than there were attackers, but she could see in all of their faces that they were scared. These were mainly sorcerers, modest talents who traded old badly remembered tricks on recipe cards. Strangefellows was their sanctuary and it had been invaded. That made them unsure and afraid. In the arcane community, they were small fish in a big ocean, and when the sharks came cruising by, they got the hell out of the way. These invaders represented a power they couldn’t hope to challenge and were confronted only at huge personal risk.

Katherine understood, she felt the same way herself and was ashamed. She knew she could help. She wasn’t a fighter, but she was strong, and her alchemically created body could take far more damage than these silent attackers were dishing out. A voice in her head told her that getting into a bar fight wasn’t the way to keep a low profile. If she went in now she’d declare to the arcane community that she was something more than just human. She balled her hands into fists, grit her teeth, and felt completely disgusted with herself.

As she watched, the man Christopher had hit with the wine bottle regained his feet. Blood and wine sheeted down his face and neck, staining the collar of his white shirt bright red. His lips peeled back and he hissed at Christopher. It was the first sound Katherine had heard any of the door crashers make. Christopher’s reply was an oak barstool to the face, and Katherine couldn’t help but let out a cheer. The man staggered, but didn’t fall, he was tougher than he looked.

The sound of wood squealing against wood suddenly sounded loud behind her. The figurehead the char witch had been feeding power to, had transformed from battered old wood to a dragon the size of a large Brown Bear. The Norse-style knots she’d noticed had wrapped the figurehead in twisted brass cables of magic that now made up its body and legs. The cables shifted and writhed like muscles as it moved.

It wasn’t a dragon, like recent Hollywood monsters seen on movie screens around the world, it was something older, something more archaic. Its scaled head was wide like a mastiff’s with huge eyes and rounded ears. Its body had the thick muscular chest of a bear, and its arms and legs ended in sharp bird talons. Its wings were tucked in at its sides and a long wail whipped in agitation behind it.

 It spread its wings wide, knocking over tables and chairs as it did,  and made a noise that sounded like a load of wet cats being driven into the world’s largest hornet’s nest. Katherine covered her ears and saw others all around her doing the same. Say what you would about the methods of Norse witches, anyone who could trick a piece of wood and make the magic last a thousand years was badass in her books.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Chapter 19, Part Two.

The second interlude concludes! The usual caveats apply. This is a rough draft with adult language and situations. Hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!




“Just tell her when to stop,” Christopher said as the cards peeled off his hand and into the air above the table. They spun and whirled like autumn leaves dancing in an eddy of wind. As they flashed through the air, Katherine caught glimpses of vivid blues, greens, and reds. Elanor didn’t have much experience in cartomancy, but even Katherine could tell this wasn’t your standard Rider deck. Not that it was surprising, few truly magical items were mass-produced, they just didn’t have the capacity to contain that much magic.

“Goodness, she’s putting on a show tonight,” Christopher commented, watching the cards form intricate patterns in the funnel with his eyebrows raised.

The display caught Katherine by surprise and it was a few seconds before she remembered she needed to tell them to stop. “Um… stop.”

The cards halted in mid-air and rushed back down to the tabletop with a thump. The top three cards flipped out and landed in a neat row on the table before her. They were made from thick card stock and were longer than regular playing cards. On closer look, Katherine could see that each had been painted with a protective lacquer coating, the strokes from the paintbrush still visible in ripples on their backs.

“Looks like she’s gone for a simple three card spread,” Christopher explained, pointing at the cards. “Past, present, future.”

The first card flipped itself over. It showed a beautifully painted picture of a figure in a long, dark cloak sitting at a bar. Katherine couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but from its hunched posture, they didn’t look at all happy. Two glasses of red wine stood untasted on the bar before it, while three others were toppled over on the bar leaving a puddle of red pooled below them.
The puddle of wine was what drew her attention, there was a visceral connection between it and the blood Elanor had traced on the stone floor of the laboratory. Katherine felt they were the same, though she couldn’t explain how. As she watched, the figure reached out an arm in jerky little stutters, like an old animation with some of the frames missing, and flicked one of the empty glasses off the bar. It fell and smashed to pieces on the floor without a sound.

Christopher’s face fell. “Oh my, it’s the five of cups, that’s so sad,” he lamented. He looked closely at her, “Well, you already know your past, sweetie, but for the sake of form I’ll tell you what I see.”
“You’ve lost something important, from the feel of it a mother or spouse, but something of them remains behind. It’s enough to remind you of them, but it’s not enough to be happy about.” He sighed in what sounded like genuine sympathy. “That really sucks.”

He looked at Katherine with a careful expression. “This is going to sound strange, but even for the best cartomancer, most people’s pasts are pretty muddled. It’s like like listening to all the tracks on a playlist at the same time. With the best readings, I can pick out bits and pieces of different songs. I can tell if it’s classical or speed metal, but there isn’t a lot of detail. With you though, it’s like there’s a single melody repeating over and over. I don’t think I’ve ever read someone so clear and sad.” He looked at her questioningly.

Katherine swallowed and felt her throat click dryly. She shrugged, unable to speak and gave a brave smile.

Christopher gave her a sad smile back and reached out to pet her hand. “Life can be shitty sometimes, can’t it?” he commiserated.

“Well, let’s get back to it. She won’t be happy until we’re finished,” he said gesturing at the as-yet unrevealed cards.

The deck on the table shivered and another card flipped out to land below the Five of Cups, it was the Seven of Swords. It showed another darkly cloaked figure, this time though she could see that it was a young man. He was man-pretty in the way of preppy douchebags that star as the villains in movies about frat boys. In the card it was twilight, and a cluster of medieval-style tents was pitched in the distance behind him. He had a bundle of swords hidden in his cloak and a confident sneer on his face. As she watched, he secreted the last two swords away into his cloak. Christopher peered down at the card, then back up to Katherine.

“So, it looks like she has something to add about your past. This card,” he said tapping on it, “is all about betrayal. Somebody done you wrong, girl, even if you don’t know it yet.” Katherine didn’t know how that could be since she hadn’t been around long enough to be betrayed by anyone. At least not as far as she knew. “What’s more, the little asshole thinks he’s gotten away with it,” he said smiling. “But look at the card closer.”

She didn’t see anything at first. The man with the swords was still smiling in an unpleasant way, the swords all but hidden in his cloak. It was then that she saw it. Just visible in the background there was a group of soldiers, one of them had his sword out and was waving it in the air. He was looking in the thief’s direction.

“The secret will come out, and we can hope he gets what’s coming to him.”

It seemed that was all the deck had to say about her past because the next card on the table flipped itself over and the pale whiteness of a full moon actually glowed out of the card. The flickering images of a large Mastiff and a wolf were pacing below and pausing to bay up at it, their mouths forming silent howls, their eyes reflecting the same silver as the moon itself. A paved roadway led away into the distance, passing between two large trees, their branches swaying in a phantom wind.
“Oh look!” Christopher said looking at the card as though he’d expected a Pop Tart instead. “It’s The Moon.” He looked down at the cards, then back up to her. “I’m not judging, but maybe you’re feeling just a touch off balance?” he said delicately. “What this card tells me is that you need to give yourself some me-time. Run yourself a hot bath, get your nails done, get comfortable in your own skin.”
She laughed at his choice of words, and the sound came out bitter as battery acid. “That sounds like some good advice. What’s the last card?” This had been a bad idea.

The final card flipped and a grinning woman in bright red tights was hung suspended by a noose around a single foot from a swaying tree branch. Her other foot was resting negligently behind her knee making an upside-down number four with her legs. Both hands were clasped behind her head, one of which held a small silver dagger. Above her, on the leaf-covered branch, two ravens looked down at her. Though she was bound, she didn’t seem at all upset, actually, Katherine saw she had a wicked grin on her face, as though she had just thought of a dirty joke.

“That’s two trump cards in a row,” Christopher began, then he stopped talking as he noticed that the deck was quivering again. Another card flipped out and landed face down to settle edge to edge with the Hanged Woman. As though the cards had suddenly become magnetic, The Moon, The Hanged Woman, and the new card, all snapped together with an audible click. The Five of Cups and Seven of Swords stayed where they were.

The new card flipped over to reveal it was Death. As if there was ever any question, Katherine thought dully. Death stood in a field of rippling golden wheat under a horned moon, the severed heads of kings and commoners peeking up from between the ripened stalks. The figure of Death was little more than a discoloured skull with patches of scalp still attached, hovering above a body made of thick black mist. The smoky form swirled and snapped like a flag in the wind. A heavy and worn scythe dragged behind it leaving a furrow in the earth as it passed. Green sprouts sprang up where the earth was disturbed.

“My mistake, that’s three trump cards,” Christopher said in a quiet voice.

The backgrounds of the three cards slowly became indistinct, mingling together, before becoming one. The fields of golden wheat wrapped around the knoll where the Hanged Woman’s tree around the base of which the dog and wolf were now beginning to snuffle. Where once the cards had shown images of both day and night, now there was twilight with the moon rising huge and merely waxing gibbous instead of full on the horizon.

 The figure of Death turned and began to drift from its own card toward the tree where the Hanging Woman swayed. It moved with that same Zoetrope flicker that put Katherine in mind of some of the oldest sepia-toned silent movies.

Katherine looked at Christopher’s shocked face, he was pale and sweat was beaded on his shaved scalp, then back down to the cards. Death had almost reached the tree where the hanged woman still waited, her impish smile unchanged, though Katherine could see her eyes tracking Death’s progress. In a move, violent and sudden, Death reared back with his scythe to strike. Katherine flinched, and Christopher’s hands came up and steepled at his mouth.

Instead of slicing into the woman as Katherine expected, the scythe flashed out and parted the hanging rope from the tree. The Hanging Woman, now in name only, flipped nimbly as an acrobat to the ground and took a bow.

The dog and wolf from the Moon card seemed delighted at this turn of events and bounced happily off her chest and licked her face. The Hanged Woman stretched her arms to the sky, ruffled the ears of the excited canines, and put a companionable hand around Death’s shoulder. It was the hand which still held the dagger.

The Hanged Woman turned, made deliberate eye contact with Katherine, grinned even wider, and slowly winked. Then she turned and plunged the dagger into Death’s back. Death didn’t appear to mind, and all of them, Death, the dog, the wolf, and The Hanged Woman, began to make their way down the road toward the two huge trees in the distance. The knife still gleamed in death’s back, and the length of rope from the noose around the Hanged Woman’s ankle trailed in the dust behind her. The two ravens who had been waiting in the tree cawed soundlessly and launched themselves into the air to circle above the group.

Unseen by the any of them, the cloaked figure from the five of cups had sidled out of its card and hid behind the Hanged Woman’s tree to watch them go.

With an audible snap like the sound of breaking ice, the borders of the cards became visible again and each of the figures was back in its own card.

“Well,” said Christopher in a shaky voice after a silence of perhaps thirty seconds, “that was unexpected.”

They didn’t get time to discuss the cards further. Over Christopher’s shoulder, movement caught Katherine’s eye. Two of the groups that she’d noticed loitering outside were entering through the front door. The people looked…wrong. It was a moment that contained a kind of numbness as her brain registered that something was amiss, but had yet to fully process the danger. Two speeding cars bearing down on each other can’t possibly be about to pancake into each other. That jet can’t be about to fly into that building. But then the cars hit, the plane explodes, and the screaming starts.

It was like that for Katherine, as the first of the group, a matronly woman with thinning red hair and grey roots, unhurriedly reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out a fist-sized rock, and without a flicker of expression, savagely brained the man at the nearest table.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Chapter 19, Part One.

The Interlude lightens up a bit with Chapter 19, part one! The usual warnings apply: This is a rough draft with adult situations. Thanks for reading!







Getting an invite to Strangefellows from a member of the club hadn’t been as difficult as Katherine feared. Just knowing the place existed was a mark in her favour. She wasn’t looking for sympathy, but she didn’t turn it down when a group of twenty-somethings took pity on her wet and torn state and had invited her in. By then, her coordination had improved enough that she was able to blame her stumbling steps on simply being cold and wet, rather than the public drunkenness it had looked like a few hours earlier.

Even though it was well past three in the morning, there were several small groups of people loitering outside the beige box of a building and more coming and going through the door. She wouldn’t have expected the place to be this busy, even during the dinner rush.

As she shouldered her way inside, she collided with a wall made from the buzz of conversation and the smell of food and furniture polish. Four parts of a Kellas cat prowled the bar while a woman with flame-coloured hair was pirouetting through the tables with a sigil-etched coffee carafe.
Nearly all the seats were occupied, but after some searching, she discovered an empty huge wingback leather armchair next to a fat man with a shaved scalp. The man was drinking coffee and idly shuffling a deck of tarot cards on the small table in front of him. She sat down with a sigh and the squeak of leather.

“I’m Christopher,” he said, looking up and extending a long-fingered hand. His body language and voice were extremely animated. Some gay men liked to blend in, others were loud and proud. Christopher was clearly of the latter variety.

Katherine took his hand and shook. "Katherine," she said. She needed to think about where to put her tongue as she spoke, it ended up making her sound stoned.

“I haven’t seen it this busy since the night Cobain was shot,” he observed wistfully, looking over the room. “There’s nothing like the rumour of a Necromancer to bring the community together.”
“Is that what this is?” she asked slowly.

Though her tongue might slow, her brain was working just fine. It was no coincidence that news of a rogue necromancer broke the night Elanor was killed with necromantic magic.

Her new companion looked at her more closely, taking in her wet and torn jeans. He nodded in understanding. “I’ve had nights like those,” he said sympathetically. He raised a finger in the air and motioned to the woman with the flame coloured who was serving customers a few tables over. He pointed at Katherine, then his coffee mug. The server nodded and spun away.

Katherine tried to protest, but Christopher wouldn’t hear of it. “Even if you don’t like coffee, sweetie, it’s a cold night and you’ll have something to warm your hands up with.”

Said like that, Katherine began to wonder if she did like coffee. Elanor had been indifferent to it, preferring tea, but she’d never tried it before.

It took a while, but when the coffee arrived, it did so in a glass pint mug carried by a red haired man in a flannel housecoat. He placed her drink on the table with an apologetic shrug. “The dishwasher’s not here yet, and Sue is having a hard time keeping up with refills, he apologized. “This should keep you going for a while,” he said, setting down the mug in front of her with a thunk. He rubbed at the small of his back and surveyed the room.

“I’m Sam by the way,” he said, looking back down and extending a hand to her. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in Strangefellows before.”

Her mind went suddenly blank. What should she say? She hadn’t even thought of giving herself a back story. Looking back on it, it should have an obvious first step. Where could she say she even came from? Where do I come from? I come from?… Ohh I come from… Then, it just came pouring out, “Katherine,” she blurted, shaking his hand, “I come from Alabama.” She neglected to mention that she had a banjo on her knee, but it was a close thing.

“Really? I can hardly hear your accent. Welcome to Vancouver. Will you be here for long?”
Katherine took a huge gulp from the steaming pint mug to give her time to think. The coffee was scalding hot and Sam’s eyes widened in concerned surprise. The drink was hot enough to badly blister a normal mouth but it did nothing to hers, it didn’t even tingle.

She tried to smile with her eyes over bulging cheeks. “Mmmm,” she said, smiling brightly. She was struck then by how much she probably sounded like some sea mammal. This couldn’t get any worse. She was a whale from Alabama.

“Wow!” Sam said, impressed, “isn’t that hot?”

She swallowed and nodded. “I really like hot drinks.”

“It shows.” He looked around the room and squared his shoulders. “I’ll be back around to check on you guys in a bit, it’s busy, so shout if you need something. Good seeing you Christoper. Nice to meet you Katherine, hope you enjoy your stay in Vancouver.” With that, he left to attend a table of women who were done up for a night out on the town.

“Alabama?” Christopher asked with a raised eyebrow, idly thumbing his deck.

Katherine nodded.

“If you say so, girl. How’s the coffee?”

Good question. She’d been so focused on the server she hadn’t taken the time to pay attention to the flavour. She took another sip and thought about it.

“It tastes sort of burnt,” she answered, adding some cream and sugar.

“Sam probably made it. He might be a talented char witch, but he can’t make coffee worth a damn.”
The cards in his hand continued to rearrange themselves without his help, they fanned themselves out like the tail of a peacock.

“Do you mind?” Christopher asked. “She wants to read you.”

“What? Your cards?”

“She gets sulky if she doesn’t get her way,” he nodded toward the deck in his hand. “This little lady can be quite the diva.”

“Do I need to cross your palms with silver, or something?” She knew the answer, but someone unfamiliar with the arcane community might not. Acting like someone just sponsored seemed like a good idea to her.

“Oh no, nothing like that, she’s taken a shine to you is all,” he presented the deck for her to see. It quivered on his hands and suddenly reminded her of a dog waiting to be told it’s alright to meet someone new.

Christopher looked at her questioningly, and Katherine, unable think of a polite reason not to, nodded her ascent.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Stupid Things.

The chapters will continue, but for this blog, I decided to take a quick break and go for a trip down memory lane to remember one of the most spectacularly stupid things I've ever done...

And now, for something completely different:








The Romantic Poet, William Wordsworth, had the idea that each of us has spots of time, memories so important that they stay with us and inform who we are. I’ve always liked that idea, it seems, well, romantic. What follows is one of my moments. It’s important to me as a person because it is me at my most stupid.

My hair!, My once-beautiful, hair!
When I was young, carefree, and still had a full head of hair, I decided that I’d spend the summer tree planting. We could really stop the story there, but it’s the second stupid thing that happened while I was tree planting that really had an impact.

When people think of planting trees they might think of a well-tended garden or maybe even planting an orchard. Tree planting in British Columbia, where I grew up, is a much different beast. A lot of the industry in BC used to, and still does, revolve around forestry. In practise, that means something called, clearcutting. At the time of my story, clearcutting involved staking out a block of land roughly 45 football fields in size, cutting down every tree inside that block, then bringing in heavy machinery to pull out the stumps and anything else that might still be alive. What you’re left with is a churned-up, muddy, bug-infested, and often swampy, hellscape. I’ve heard that other, more gentle forms of harvesting have become common since my days on the cut-block, but that was what it was like back in the carefree days of the mid-90s.


To these sites of devastation, crews of tree planters, most of them university students, would arrive every summer to replace the trees that had been harvested. It was hot, physically demanding work. Beyond just the labour of being bent-over planting trees all day, you were also weighed down by a body harness with insulated pouches filled with tree seedlings.

This is what I assume happens when a tree murders
a billionaire's parents in a darkened alley.
The idea was to load in as many seedlings as you could and still do your job without damaging them. We didn’t do this because we were manly men with something to prove, some of the best planters were women, we did it because we were paid by the tree. The cut blocks were filled with seedlings from back to front and getting to the back tree line would sometimes take twenty minutes of hiking over rough ground. Hiking back to your cache with empty bags was wasting time you could be spending planting trees. I would begin each morning with between fifty to seventy pounds of trees in my pouches. If you want to lose weight in a hurry, I can’t recommend tree planting highly enough.
In harness on the cut block. Summer, 1998.

Anyway, to the point of this story. It was the middle of the planting season and I’d finished with my first round of trees. I was resting by my cache and thinking about loading up my pouches again. Now, this was the interior of British Columbia up near a place called Williston Lake. In the middle of summer, the flies there aren’t so much an irritant as they are a misplaced Plague of Egypt. I actually grew my first beard back then to try and keep the black flies away. It didn’t work, it just hid the blood. At the end of the day, there would still be red running down my neck and staining my tee shirt from where the black flies managed to burrow in and claim their pound of flesh.

Black flies are bad, but horseflies will take literal chunks out of your flesh. I’m not joking when I say they will happily bite through several layers of clothing to get at your meaty centre. To make matters worse, once they have your scent they don’t give up. They were my constant nemesis that summer, I even had a memorable kendo-style standoff with one, but that’s another story. The afternoon in question, I had two or three horse flies on my trail and they followed me back to my cache.

This is what a total asshole looks like. It even
has douchy sunglasses.
While I was resting, I noticed that the little pack of flies I’d collected had been attracted to the empty, waxed boxes that our seedlings were delivered in. They gathered on the boxes like they were trading recipes for my tasty, tasty, flesh. I did the obvious thing that anyone would do when they were in no hurry to get back to work. I began to throw rocks at them.

It started small, just marble sized rocks to send them buzzing away. It took only seconds for them to return to their spots. Did I mention they’re tenacious? Honestly, I don’t know what it was about those boxes, but they were like horsefly crack. I didn’t manage to hit any of them with the small stuff, so I graduated to larger and larger rocks. Five minutes later, I was tossing rounded fist-sized chunks of granite at the empty boxes, and that was when the horse flies struck back.

One of them, probably pissed with the constant barrage of stones, buzzed up to me and landed directly on my lips. A horsefly is a big insect, and the lips are a very sensitive area. I can remember the feeling of its legs gripping onto my face like wires. Most people would be startled and brush the fly away. Most people didn’t have two-pound rocks in their hand, though. On reflex, I brought my hand up to swat away the horsefly. The hand with the nice big rock in it. You can guess what happened.

There wasn’t too much blood, and thankfully I kept my teeth, but it remains as one of the most stupidly memorable things I’ve ever done.



Credit for the clear cut image goes out to Andrew Mitchell http://www.greenbccommunities.com/2012/05/clear-cutting-what-does-eye-see.html

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Chapter 18, Part Two: Home to Roost.

The second interlude continues with the usual warning: This is a rough draft with bad grammar and adult content. Thanks for reading!







 Ray Bradbury sat on a seat in The Stormcrow Tavern off Commercial Drive in Vancouver, his legs crossed at the ankles and a book in his hands. He didn't respond to Ray, Raymond, or even Ramón. He was Ray Bradbury and would answer to nothing else.

While it was the name he responded to, he was pretty sure that Ray Bradbury wasn’t his real name. Nearly almost maybe certain? He was almost sure he could remember a month when he’d been Neil Gaiman. He’d learned to play the ukulele and become interested in beekeeping. Those were far more Neil Gaimanesque pursuits than Ray Bradburian ones.

Now that he thought about it though, he might have been Ray Bradbury just pretending to be Neil Gaiman. Issues of identity were fluid with him. Like God said to Moses, and Popeye proclaimed before him, he was who he was. Names were to be changed when they became uninteresting or smelly.

Ray Bradbury had the wiry, slightly underfed look of the professional travelling college student. His clothes were not quite worn, so much as they were well-loved, and his long blond hair fell past his shoulders in a tail that appeared to be a few days late for its regular washing.

A table of four patrons to his left vied for world domination on a colourful cardboard map while he read his way through a paperback with a spine more twisted and crooked than Richard the Third’s. Ray Bradbury was hard on books. This one was written by Frank Herbert and was one of Ray Bradbury’s favourites from the last century. He might even be Frank Herbert at some point in the future to see how it fit.

As he read, a part of his mind continued a running commentary on the words as they entered his brain as though in conversation with the text. The voice was something he’d first noticed when he was a fixture in Victorian London’s Limehouse District. By the time he’d made it to the opium dens of Vancouver’s Shanghai Alley in the late eighteen-hundreds, the voice had become even more clear, and now, mildly obnoxious.

Chasing the dragon was something he only dabbled in briefly when the danger and forbidden romance of the Orient had been in vogue during the later-half of the nineteenth century. Victorians were at their the best while clutching their metaphorical pearls in the spasms of moral outrage. At the time, frequenting an opium den was the thing to do for anyone looking to jab a finger in the eye of polite society.

By that point in his already long life, Ray Bradbury knew himself well enough to understand that an opium addiction would lead to nowhere but a cold hole in the ground. He’d left the opium dens when he felt he’d made his point, but instead of fading back into the smoke from whence it came, the voice remained. He’d ended up simply calling this new presence, “The Guest,” and left it at that.

“Fear might be a mind-killer,” The Guest was now saying, “but it’s not the mind-killer. If you have a really vindictive, bloody-minded death wish for your consciousness, there’s nothing like alcohol”
Ray Bradbury couldn’t deny The Guest had a point.

Though he didn’t look like it, and though he couldn't remember his given name, Ray Bradbury knew beyond any doubt he was the last great explorers. The last spiritual descendant in the line of Leif Erikson, Marco Polo, Ursula Le Guin, and Neil Armstrong. He was Ray Bradbury, Chrononaut, first of his name.

When people went travelling, they were content to fly off to some place sunny where they could buy expensive coconut shell knick knacks that would count down their days on dusty bookshelves before they were finally tossed in the trash. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, had a craving to go somewhere Lonely Planet hadn’t written a travel guide.

He’d lived through the age of great explorers, telling himself the whole while that he’d soon join in and sail away to see what was hidden beyond the sea. He'd have a glacier field named after him. Even a single island bearing his name would have been enough to burn away the desire to explore. It seemed as though that every time he had his trunks packed with over-large fur parkas though, some new calamity erupted that demanded his attention at home.

He looked away for only a second, and when he looked back, every corner of the world had been mapped, travelled, catalogued and named after somebody else. Now the only place left where you could plant your flag and be reasonably sure you were the first to visit, was the future.

Travelling to the future was a tricky proposition though,  the only way he saw to get there was by sailing on a ship of alchemical magic. Ray Bradbury’s family hadn’t been alchemists, or in any way magically gifted, but they did have the one thing that made them powerful and absolutely essential to the supernatural arts. They had money, lots and lots of money.

Even when you weren’t a fraud or a crackpot, which was rare enough for an alchemist in those days, alchemy wasn’t a cheap discipline. It required costly materials and equipment. Before the Guild stepped up and began training its own, your average alchemist couldn’t afford the pot to piss in. The only reason European alchemy succeeded in creating anything more interesting than a variety of offensive smells, was that in the fifteenth century it became fashionable for the nobility to act as patrons for budding alchemists.

As it occurred, Ray Bradbury’s family had been noble, and very fashion-conscious. They had funded a veritable kennel of alchemists at the family seat. So, when Panacea was finally discovered, they were among the first in line to reap the rewards. Ray Bradbury had his first dose of Panacea at the age of nineteen. For a while, it seemed as though the world and all of its most warm and pleasant bits were there for his amusement alone.

Decades passed though, and a niggling dissatisfaction began to grow in Ray Bradbury’s breast. The problem was that the future simply wasn’t coming fast enough, and after many slow centuries, he’d become bored. That was when he first heard of the fabulous Doctor Knox.

The people who usually employed Dr. Knox’s services were trying to avoid death. Ray Bradbury saw Dr. Knox’s new services as a way to avoid boredom. Instead of ploughing headfirst through the interminable decades, he’d be revived every fifty years. Thanks to compound interest, he’d be able to tour the latest age in style. Depending on how he liked it when he was revived, he would stay anywhere from a few months to a few years before going back into his own custom-built casket and soaking for another half century. He would never live a boring day in his life again.

This time around, he’d been up and about for over two years, and there was still so much to see. Culture had becoming so fast-moving that you couldn’t possibly hope to come to grips with it in a few months, or even a few years. The Internet had only really come into its own in the last twenty years, and it had already transformed and added to the global culture in ways he could never have imagined. How different would the world look in fifty more years, or a hundred?

These thoughts were filtering through his head when he unexpectedly put his book down on the table. He hadn’t meant to do that. A hot sensation began at the crown of his head, then quickly spread down through his whole body. Once it reached his feet the odd feeling paused, then flared burning hot. It was like his skin, bones, and vitals were all being flung away in different directions. He screamed, but no sound came from his lips.

“I was reading that,” The Guest complained.

The Guest, who had been enjoying the book, felt an odd jolt. It was what he imagined it would feel like if someone had shoved past him on the street. Being immaterial, it wasn’t a sensation he ever expected to feel.

“What are you doing?!” he asked of Ray Bradbury. The Guest focused his senses inward and found someone new. He realized with a shock that Ray Bradbury had been evicted! This new presence smelled like old blood and smoke from a burning tire. Beyond that, it was both bad and stupid. He could feel the unsophisticated desire to do harm coming off of it in red, stinking waves. The Guest was sure the new guy hadn’t noticed him, he was certain he would have been kicked out just like poor Ray Bradbury.

The Guest made himself as small as he could, and because there was no alcohol began muttering, “I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration..."



*     *     *



In Vancouver and Senak, hundreds of people looked up from what they were doing and silently left their jobs, their beds, their families, and simply walked away. If they did speak, it was only with a word or two spoken in an unfamiliar voice; bad actors reading from a new script.

Some were stopped by concerned friends, only to become quietly violent, silently striking out at those who tried to get in their way without rage or passion. A few were physically restrained. Once they were down, they lay quietly like a toad on its back, simply staring ahead and waiting. As soon as they were able though, they would try and leave again, and again.

The sleepwalkers drove, walked, hailed taxis, and slowly began to condense into groups no smaller than four, or bigger than ten. They gathered, staring through each other with thoughtless gazes, and waited.