Saturday, 11 November 2017

Chapter 26, Part One: A Plum Pudding of the Damned.

Warning: This is the rough draft of a story with adult themes and situations. If you are offended by bad language and grammatical errors, gentle reader, read no further! For those of you who have decided to stay, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy this week's chapter.





The dark tree-lined path ahead of them opened onto a visitor’s centre, beyond that Aleph could just make out the outline of the war memorial in the dim light being cast from the forensic tent.

Most of her children were in the air now, winging their way to their daytime haunts, but it would be another fifteen minutes before the first of them could make a flyover. By then this would be all be over. Though her side still twinged from their last encounter, she wasn’t willing to wait.

Shadows separated from the darkened maples in front of them and began lining up on the path. Aleph, Dimitri, and an uncomfortable-looking Sam stopped, the smell of preservatives, which hadn’t been noticeable to anyone with a human-level sense of smell, bloomed in the air as the group continued to gather. By the time they’d finished assembling, there were over dozen arrayed before them.

They were of no particular skin colour, young, old, men, women, and children, and none of them wore any expression that couldn’t be best described by using some form of the word, “slack.”
Dimitri must have noticed the same thing because she heard him mutter, “It’s like a United Nations delegation of potheads.”

The front of Dimitri’s jacket began to suddenly bulge and Aleph was strongly reminded of the scene from the original Alien movie. Instead of an acid-filled killing machine though, Minnaloushe reared up from where he’d been tucked inside the front of Dimitri’s coat. The Kellas Cat freed the top half of his body, wrapped his long-fingered hands on either side of Dimitri’s head and screamed directly in his face.

Dimitri stumbled back and fell wetly onto his ass. Minnaloushe scrambled over his chest, snatched the car keys out of his hand, and tore off back down the darkened path the way they had come. The little bastard was laughing as he ran off.

“That ungrateful shit!” Dimitri spluttered, as he got to his feet and wiped off his wet pants.
“He’s got my keys!” Sam said disbelievingly. “Why did he take my keys?”

“I know, right? Your car’s a piece of shit,” said Dimitri.

They were distracted from the question of the missing keys as words rang out into the rainy morning. “If you try to pass again, you will be killed. You will not pass.” The words had come from the group blocking their way, but they weren’t said in chorus, instead each word came from a different member. The timing and tone were perfect from one individual to the next, but none of the faces that spoke betrayed any of the emotion that was in the words.

“It’s like The Borg Queen and Gandalf had a baby,” Sam whispered.

“Are they brainjacked, or something?” asked Dimitri. “Like the ones at Strangefellows? Because those guys never did that,” he said waving an arm in the direction of the mob. “And what do they mean, “again?”

“They were here when I came through from Senak last time. We tussled. To answer your first question though, brainjacked I could handle, I’m pretty sure these guys have had their souls removed from the driver’s seat altogether.” answered Aleph.

“Definitely time for fresh undies,” Sam opined.

“If you try to pass again, you will be killed. You will not pass,” came the message.
The time for talking was coming to a close. Before that though, she needed to cover her ass. The thing about enjoying the powers of a duly appointed officer of the law in this part of the Aether was that it came with a lot of dos and don’ts. For instance, she couldn’t just plough through this little gathering leaving a trail of blood and viscera for her children to feast on. As gratifying as that would be there would be questions. It was time to read them the Riot Act. Literally.

She drew herself up and said in a clear voice, “I say this as a duly appointed member of the RCMP and as a representative of her Majesty the Queen: Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all beings being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations, home realms of existence, or to their lawful business on the pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to imprisonment for life. God save the Queen because I’ve already got enough on my hands. Bitches,” she added at the end for verisimilitude.

Now that, that was out of the way, she gave the group a glare, “On a personal note, I’ve had a long night, and if you refuse to move your slack-jawed, smelly, expressionless, asses out of my way, I’ll take enormous pleasure in doing it for you.” She flexed her fingers and her black fingernails lengthened and curved into talons.

“Holy shit,” said Dimitri from behind her. “She’s hardcore.”

“Alright, Sam,” she said. “As we discussed.”

Sam shuffled forward to stand next to her.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked uncertainly. “I mean it’s not like they’ve hurt us, they’re just trying to stop us.”

Instead of answering, she began to cover the distance between herself and the group.
“I’m not stopping, Sam. I need to get to Senak, and I need you and Dimitri with me. Lives depend on this.”

Aleph advanced on the group, her heels beating out a steady rhythm on the wet path.
“Aleph, hold on a second!” called Sam, taking a few hesitant steps of his own.
“I have responsibilities, Sam, and so do you.”

When she came within arm’s reach of the group she dove in, punching and kicking. Sam lost sight of her as she was swarmed under. All around her fists and elbows swung at her. She avoided the worst of the blows, ducking and dodging away, but Sam, bless his timid little heart, needed yet more motivation. She let a few of the lighter hits make contact. She might have grunted a bit more on impact than was called for, but let it never be said that she wasn’t beyond some mild theatrics to get the job done. She had a strong hunch that she would need Sam as something more than a passive piece of baggage, and she’d learned to pay attention to her hunches. It was time for him to get involved.

“Do it, Sam!” she heard Dimitri yell.

In the space of a slow heartbeat, wavering blue flames the size of a man’s thumb began to wink into existence on the crown of each of the attacker's heads. Aleph had the sudden impression that she was in a fight with sentient candles. The illusion was broken almost immediately as fire rippled down over the hair and faces of over half of the individuals, their features limned in eerie blue flame in the darkness. It was just like a plum pudding. A plum pudding of the damned.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Chapter 25, part 2.



Chapter 25 continues! The usual warnings apply this is a rough draft so expect the occasional grammatical faux pas. Also contains adult language and situations. Thanks for reading!





Sam led the three of them out of Strangefellows and around the corner to a gravel parking lot to where a sunshine-yellow car was parked. It looked like the unwanted result of an alcohol-fuelled liaison between a Teletubby and a toy car from a Mc Happy Meal.

“What’s that?” Aleph asked.

“It’s an Aztec,” Sam replied, unlocking the doors.

“Does it run on bubble juice?”

“Heisenberg drove one,” said Sam, folding himself into the driver’s seat.

“And you think that owning the same shitty car as a fictional Meth kingpin is a selling point?”

“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts. Not every car has pyromantic script etched onto the engine block.”

“It still looks like a toy.”

Sam shrugged, “Better than a VW Beetle.”

“Not that it has any bearing on the current crisis, but sure, I’ll bite. Why not a bug?”

Sam gave her an incredulous look. “The Bug was designed by Hitler. It’s fascist transport.” He said this as though he was explaining water was wet.

She blinked and looked at Dimitri for confirmation.

“Pretty sure he’s right. At least about the design part,” he said, casually aiming himself at the front passenger-side door.

Aleph gave him a little jerk of the head, Dimitri scowled and diverted to the rear door.

“Sure, but it’s what people did with it that counts, nobody that I know of committed genocide from inside of a Volkswagen,” said Aleph.

“Would you wear Hitler’s sweater?”

“Probably not,” she admitted.

“Point and match.”

“Millions of hippies would disagree with you,” she said to Sam, getting in herself and arranging Minnaloushe on her lap.

The Kellas cat had regained consciousness back in Strangefellows. He was sore and refused to speak beyond a few words. There were a couple local vets and doctors who would work off the books on off world beings, but he would get better care in Senak.

They lurched out of the pot-hole pocked parking lot and filtered through narrow side-streets until they hit Bridgeport and merged onto the Knight Street Bridge heading toward South Van.

It wasn’t Aleph’s favourite route, but she didn’t ask Sam to divert when she realized where he was taking them. It was the most direct way to Memorial Park and she could deal with some discomfort for the sake of speed.

The Knight had been guarding the bridge since it opened to traffic in the mid-seventies and had been a fixture on the old Fraser Street Bridge years before that. It was about as close to being a real knight as she was, but since it guarded the Knight Street Bridge, and since, given the option, people would always fail in their attempts to be clever, the name had stuck. It was one of the few things around that was capable of killing beings like her, and she could happily admit that passing it made her skin crawl.

The construct, and a few others like it, had been created at the same time as the coastal gun emplacements during the Second World War when the fear of invasion from Japan had been a very real thing. The war hadn’t just been about bombs and bullets, the arcane community on both sides had been heavily involved.

Since the war, the Knight had been largely left alone, siphoning kinetic power from the Fraser River as its currents slid past a sigil-covered bronze cartouche attached to the bridge footing below. Its one duty since The War had been to require anyone over a certain metaphysical weight to check in on their way over the Fraser River. This morning that meant her.

She saw the Knight in the distance as they ascended the slope of the bridge. It stood planted on the edge of the pedestrian path towering a good dozen feet above the bridge deck. It had made a roughly human-shaped body for itself out of sand-smoothed branches, frayed mooring rope, and old fishing nets. On its driftwood shoulders it had placed the bleached skull of a seal. As they approached, it turned darkened eye sockets toward them and the challenge hit her like an unexpected medicine ball to the face.

She just knew she’d have a headache for the rest of the morning. She gathered her scrambled senses, passed on her credentials, and waited.

She might be imagining it, but its challenge seemed to be sharper than usual this morning. The Knight hadn’t denied her crossing before, she didn’t recall anyone having been denied, but it as the seconds ticked past she couldn’t help but become concerned. They were approaching the centre of the bridge doing north of eighty kilometers an hour and they would be past the spot where it stood guard in mere moments. She didn’t know what would happen if she didn’t have permission to pass before they reached that point, but she didn’t want to find out.

Just as she felt her fingers circle around the handle of the e-brake, she received a mental nod of acceptance. She let out a held breath and took her hand off the brake. The empty seal skull swivelled to track them as they zipped past.

Sam gave a set of cheery beeps of the horn, unaware how close he’d been to disaster. Like anyone with a drop of arcane talent, he was able to perceive The Knight, even if it chose not to interact with him. She didn’t like to think about what might have happened if it decided that she couldn’t pass.
The Knight was immensely powerful but hadn’t shown anything in the way of brains or initiative before. It was more of a worrying landmark than it was a threat. It was the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor in the distance; Concerning, but seen so often that it melted into a background of other more demanding worries. Now, Aleph had to wonder how aware it was of the world around it. Old tricks left to their own devices sometimes got quirky and ended up developing personalities. Was the Knight aware what was happening in the arcane community? It was was a worry for later, she had enough in front of her to think about.

They passed over the north shore of the Fraser and began up the hill into South Van, passing houses, apartments, and gas stations as they went. In a little under ten minutes, they were pulling into a poorly-lit parking lot that annexed Memorial Park from the west. There were still a number of police cruisers and forensic vehicles in evidence. Off to their right, Aleph could still see the diffuse glow of the forensic tent.

Ahead of them, the shadows of bare maple trees reached up in the darkness on either side of the paved pathway. Whoever had designed this place really had a thing for tree-lined paths. While it might be great for a bit of shade in the summer, Aleph knew from her last time here that they also made ideal hiding spots for an ambush.

Just as those thoughts occurred, a faint breeze disturbed Aleph’s hair and brought to her nostrils the faint scent of alcohol and formalin.

“Hey Sam, Dimitri!” Aleph called over her shoulder, stooping over to look at the ground. “Come here and have a look at this.”

Dimitri trudged up to her with Sam close behind. He leant in to look at the bare pathway where she was pointing.

“What? It’s the ground. I’ve seen it before.”

“Look closer,” she grated.

The two men crouched in around her to examine the undistinguished bit of darkened asphalt. Being as furtive as she was able, Aleph carefully pulled Minnaloushe from where she was holding him inside her jacket and urged him into Dimitri’s arms.

“What are you…”

“Shut up. This is an ambush. Sam, give him your keys.”

“Sure,” said Sam, putting action to words. “Um, why did I give him my keys?”

“Because unless we’re up against angry robots, a Webmage and an injured Kellas Cat aren’t much good in a fight.”

“Technomancer, and I’ll kick the asses of whoever gets in my way.”

“Sure, tough guy, whatever you say. If it gets hairy I want you to take Minnaloushe back to Strangefellows and hole up there.”

“I’m not really that great in a fight either,” Sam admitted, trying to search the darkened trees, without being obvious about it. “Shouldn’t we all go back? There’s strength in numbers.”

“Maybe there is, but I have an idea that fits in nicely with your skills. Have you ever lit a plum pudding at Christmas?”

Sam looked confused.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Chapter 25, Part 1.

Well, it has been a crazier month than usual. Between needing to rewrite a bunch of chapters, a crazy amount of seasonal work, a mini-vacation,  and a death in the family, I've had my hands full.


Here's the long-awaited first part of chapter 25. As usual, this is a rough draft. There's bad language and worse grammar. You have been warned. 





“Penny for your thoughts?” asked Sue, approaching with a cup of coffee. Aleph was leaning against the unfinished cinder block wall at the back of the staff room. Arachne had gone back to her friends, Minnaloushe was unchanged, and the only sound in the room was the gentle roar of the crucible.
“People aren’t acting the way they’re supposed to. It’s irritating,” Aleph said accepting the cup and taking a sip, black, no sugar, the way she liked it. “Wait, that’s not right. People are acting the way they’re supposed to, but I don’t know why.”

“Like who?” said Sue, taking a sip from her own cup.

“Knox of the White. In one night he’s done two impossible things, and both go against everything he’s ever worked for. I’m missing something that I just know is going to come back to bite me in the ass.”

“Want to talk it out? I can be a good listener.”

“I remember.” Aleph straightened and sighed.

“Twice tonight Knox has put his position in the Guild at risk. The first time was by killing Elanor of the Red.”

Aleph heard Sue gasp. Her hearing was acute enough that she also heard a double gasp from where Dimitri and Sam sat on the couch listening in halfway across the room. Whatever. It wasn’t like everyone wasn’t going to know soon enough. Even if there wasn’t a body, news of a missing Red was going to cause a splash when it got out.

“He killed Elanor?!”

“Did you know her?”

“Well, I knew of her. She’s been a fixture in East Van forever, sort of a local celebrity. There aren’t that many Reds to begin with, but she was ours.”

“Only twenty-one in all the aether,” Aleph put in wistfully. “Twenty now until the Guild promotes another.”

 “She seemed alright for an alchemist.”

“She was, but Knox used a tricked knife that somehow burned her Panacea. It should have been impossible, but he did it.”

“What could do that? More Necromancy?”

“Looks like it, and that brings me to the next thing. This is a problem he’d to have been working on the problem for years.” She rubbed her forehead. “As much of a chucklefuck as he is, Dimitri’s right,” she said watching Dimitri’s back straighten where he stood pretending not to listen. “This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. Hell, this wasn’t a spur of the decade thing, Knox has to have been working on this for years. He had to have a source of necromantic magic to experiment with, and everyone knows how the Guild feels about death magic. It’s taboo for them, they chop off heads first and ask questions later. It’s been that way from the very start.”

Sam and Dimitri drifted closer, any pretense of not listening in now gone.

“In one night he’s done two things that put him directly at odds with the Guild— The Guild he’s spent the last century and a half trying to move up the ranks in. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe he’s tired of trying to suck up the Guild and branching out,” suggested Sue.

“No, I have to believe that Knox still wants to rise up in the Guild. He’s been at it for too long to cash in his chips now.”

“Maybe it’s a False Flag,” said Sam.

“What’s that now?” asked Sue.

“So I’m a big loser of an alchemist with no prospects,” Sam began enthusiastically, “and I’m also a complete dick. I know that the corrupt guild I work for has a murder-boner the lone necromancers that pop up every few decades, and I, being the slimy shit I am, want to capitalize on it.”

“Less editorializing, more explanation,” said Aleph.

“Fine, fine. An untrained necromancer isn’t much of a threat to anyone. Exposing them isn’t going to make the kind of splash Knox wants, not enough bodies on the ground, not enough public outrage. So, he prepares and waits for the day for when one finally shows up. While he waits, he builds himself an army of zombies. When our unsuspecting necromancer finally appears, he commits a series of sensational murders to blame on him, and when it’s time to take out the big, bad necromancer, he makes sure he’s the one who does it. Instant celebrity in the Alchemist Guild and the community.”

“That’s…” Aleph thought about it. “That’s actually not bad.”

If the ones who had attacked Strangefellows earlier also happened to be gin, there might be more to Sam’s zombie army theory than he knew.

“On top of it,” Sam went on, “once he dispatches the big, bad necromancer, everyone’s wondering why he’s still Knox of the White and not it’s not Knox of the Yellow or maybe even Knox of the Red? There are some serious PR points to be gained in a move like that. The Guild is big on PR.”
“It still has problems, like where did Knox learn to mix alchemy and necromancy? That’s forbidden knowledge. Knox is a spineless douche, he isn’t brave enough to carry on those kinds of experiments on his own.”

“Forbidden or not, it’s still just knowledge,” said Sam. Maybe someone told him how, maybe he found a book, maybe there’s a Youtube video. You don’t need to know how a gun works to use it,”

“It works as a theory, but I think it’s still missing something.”

“You’re the goddess, you tell us then,” said Dimitri.

“Being divine doesn’t mean I know everything, it just means I get to nudge collapsing wave functions on a macroscopic level.”

Dimitri looked at her blankly for a long beat. “So anyway, it’s been fun, but it’s time for me to go now.”

“Nope,” said Aleph over his words.

Dimitri eyed her. “I did what you wanted, I got to Stirling before Rag and Bone did. If he decided to have a great big necromancer coming out party, it’s not my fault. You and I are square.”

“This is bigger than the Guild chasing down a necromancer. Whatever Knox has planned is going to affect a lot of people. Penhold should be warned.”

“So warn him them, you don’t need my permission.”

“No, I need witnesses, that means you two,” Aleph said pointing to Sam and Dimitri.

“Why me?” asked Dimitri. “Why not bring Sue? She saw it all. Better yet, bring that necro chick. She’s even got video. I’m done.”

“Uh, Char witch here, someone has to hold down the fort,” Sue said.

“Using the testimony of someone who self-identifies as a necromancer, no matter how false the claim, isn’t going to be a reliable witness,” said Aleph. “Arachne’s out.”

“Yeah, well, thanks, but no thanks, I’m already in enough trouble with the Guild. I’m not making it worse by talking to the cops.”

Aleph sighed inwardly, she wondered what Dimitri had thought he’d been doing for the last hour if it hadn’t been talking to the cops.

“Mister Singh,” she said, putting on her professional face. “Let me spell this out for you. Rag and Bone are hunting you. You might be able to avoid them in the short-term, but the odds are on their side. They will catch up to you some dark night, and when they’ve finished with you, you will believe in your heart of hearts that your death will be the single best thing that has ever happened to you. If that’s not enough for you, I can also get you dragged in and charged.”

“For what?!”

“Unauthorized use of a computer and possession of a device to obtain computer service, or did you ask permission to infect James on all those operating systems?”

Dimitri’s mouth opened and stayed that way.

Sue touched his shoulder. “Listen to her, Dimitri, she’s right.”

“You also reek of Panacea,” Aleph went on. “You were recently given a large dose.” It wasn’t a question. She moved in close and inhaled. “Fifty years, or close to it. Congratulations, that must have cost you a pretty penny. But don’t kid yourself, you won’t be getting any more. By now, Knox knows you’re working against his people and whether what he’s doing is legal or not, that means you are working against the Alchemist Guild. Any chance you, your friends, contacts, or family had of getting more was gone the moment he came after you.”

“But that’s not my fault,” he pointed, as though suddenly recognizing her, “that’s your fault! If you hadn’t made me tail Stirling, I’d still be safe.”

“And what do you think the Guild will say to you when you tell them that?” she asked him. “Do you really think they’ll take the word of a twenty-something webmage over the alchemist who has been a guild member for the last two centuries?”

“Whether you knew it or not, you’ve chosen sides. Right now you have nothing to lose by speaking with us. As a matter of fact, the Duke of Senak is the only person in the entire Aether who might be able to keep you and everyone you know, safe.”

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Chapter 24, part 2: Shaving the Cat.

Running a bit late this week. I'm getting to the point in the story where the changes I've made further down the road are affecting the parts we're getting to now. A lot of this is now new material. Still rough drafty, but new. Again thanks for reading!






A narrow hallway led to a well-lit room where the crucible that powered Strangefellows quietly roared. A woman with bright yellow and red hair had her arms up to the shoulder in the burning charcoal, her face less than a half foot from the glowing embers. The updraft and flame from the inferno blew the hair back from her face making it look like her head was reentering from orbit as she felt her way around the inside of the clay container. A streak of ash ran from her nose up her forehead. A man with dark features sat in a lawn chair against one wall with his head held in his long-fingered hands.

“This doesn’t look good, Dimitri, the woman was saying. The temperature rose too fast, some of these sigils are seriously fucked. Holy crap! This Ehwaz is acting like a Mannaz now. I’m not even sure how we’re still getting eighty percent efficiency. We’re going to need to begin work on another one ASAP.”

Sam cleared his throat and Sue finally turned her head to see Aleph standing in the doorway. “Aleph!” carolled Sue, pulling her arm from the crucible and brushing off a few live embers back into the clay vessel. Dimitri lifted his head to look at them with tired, haunted eyes.

Sue straightened and dashed toward her with her arms wide. “Oh my god, it’s amazing to see you!”

“You  never get tired of that joke, do you?” Aleph asked, smiling and holding her own arms open.

 Sue threw her arms around Aleph’s shoulders and burst into tears. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she sobbed into Aleph’s shoulder. “It was horrible.”

Aleph held her and let her cry for a few long moments before carefully untangling herself. “I want to hear all about it, I really do, but I need to speak with Dimitri first.”

“Dimitri?” Sue sniffed, looking over at him.

Dimitri stood from the couch, his hair was standing up in all directions and his face looked ashen.

“What happened?” Aleph asked.

“Yeah, Dimitri. Tell her,” Sue challenged him. “Tell her how your new friend nearly got everyone killed.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Dimitri shot back.

“It was exactly like that,” Sue hissed, advancing on him. Behind them, the crucible began to roar noticeably louder. “People I liked are dead because of you. You brought him here and those things followed,” she said jabbing a finger at his chest. Tears began to leak down her face again, but now she didn’t look in the least bit sad. Maybe homicidal.

“Prove it,” Dimitri demanded right back at her. Aleph winced. That was the wrong tactic. Sue looked like she was ready to launch herself at him and claw his eyes out. The crucible began to howl like a tortured soul.

Dimitri’s eyes flicked to the glowing crucible and grew wide. “Or are you honestly trying to tell me that you think someone managed to get that many brainjacked zombies together on a moment’s notice?” he quickly continued. “This wasn’t something someone could just pull off in a few hours, or even a few days, this was a planned attack with lots of legwork.”

“Zombies, Dimitri, doesn’t that tell you anything? How many people you know can make zombies, because I’m thinking there’s only one kind. Necromancers.”

“Why would he make them just to kill them all again. It makes no sense.”

“How should I know?”

“I know you’re pissed and scared, but use your head! Who has been chasing him? Who has been trying to recruit him? With my own two eyes, I saw Rag and Bone try to snatch him. We all know who those two work for.”

 Sue glared at him, but Aleph could see Dimitri was getting through to her. She waited to see if, between the two of them, they would put the rest of it together.

Sue just glared at him. “Maybe,” she finally admitted, “but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t here because of him, it just means that he’s got organized enemies.”

“Sure, I’d be willing to admit that might be true, but I believe Stirling when he tells me he’s clueless, I mean, just look at the guy. He shaved his head and put on a charcoal bag as a disguise. Those aren’t the actions of an evil overlord. Maybe a doofus, but not a new Francis King. I think what happened here tonight is about something bigger. I think tonight has a lot more to do with an old alchemist than it does with a new necromancer.”

A loud banging came from the door at the end of the hall and Sue broke her glare at Dimitri to answer it. She rushed back into the room with one of the gothy-looking necro girls from the common room carrying a bundle wrapped in a long woollen jacket. She looked to be around seventeen, had asphalt coloured hair, wore pale makeup and a stud in her nose. Sue directed her to the coffee table in the centre of the room and cleared off the remotes and books with a swipe of her arm.

“Sam! Get the first aid kit!”

 She carefully set the jacket on the table and opened it to reveal a limp black furred form. It had a strange mix of human and feline features and it looked like it had been run through Satan’s wood chipper. One eye was swollen shut, patches of fur were ripped out, and open cuts oozed blood from a number of deep gashes.

Dimitri came to stand next to the table.

“That’s part of the barkeep, right?”

“Minnaloushe!” Sue corrected him, giving him yet another glare.

“Minnaloushe,” he agreed.

Sam arrived in a storm of flannel, a heavy plastic first aid kit in his hand. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had this out tonight. I haven’t had time to restock it,” he warned, “but you can use whatever’s there.”

“He was hidden under the bar,” said the necro girl, whose name Aleph knew was Arachne. “We couldn’t take him to the hospital, you know since he’s part cat and stuff. Do you think he’ll be alright?”

Sue had snapped on a pair of blue latex gloves and was running her hands over Minnaloushe’s limps.
“His breathing sounds alright, he’s not bleeding out, and I don’t feel any broken bones. He might be bleeding inside though.”

“Oh!” Arachne put her fingers to her lips. “Poor thing.”

Aleph walked over and looked down at Minnaloushe. He was a Kellas Cat, and they could be complicated. She carefully opened an eyelid and examined his moon-shaped pupils. The right side of the pupil was dark against the golden iris and only a horned moon remained in the far left. It was a waning moon. That was not a good sign.

Minnaloushe’s body suddenly arched, he let out a keening whine but didn’t wake. Sue held up her hands and started back.

“I didn’t do anything!”

“I know. Where is the rest of him?” Aleph said to Arachne.

“The rest of him?”

“He’s a Kellas Cat. There are always nine of them. They can be spread out miles apart, but they’re still a single mind.”

“Oh my god, that is so cool!”

“There were only two of him on shift tonight,” said Sam.

“Where’s the second one then?”

Sam looked to Arachne, but she only shook her head. “That was the only one I found.”

“This member looks beat up but otherwise fine. I’m concerned with what’s happening to the rest of him.”

The room went quiet for a moment. “So what happens when there aren’t nine anymore?” Dimitri said.

Aleph shrugged. “No idea, but it can’t be good for him. Either way, this member is going to need stitches.” She began to rummage through the first aid kit and take stock of what was still there.
Dimitri nudged Sam. “She said, ‘member.’” Sam rolled his eyes.

“Shave and disinfect the area around the wounds,” she told Dimitri.

“Yup, got it.”

“Does anyone have a laptop?”

“Use mine,” said Sam, going to a bookcase and unplugging a large black laptop from its power cord. Aleph took the computer from his hands, sat down, twiddled with the touchpad and typed in some words. A few moments later guitar music rose from the little built-in speakers and she sat watching intently.

Arachne had been standing off to the side came over to watch. “I love your makeup,” she said.

“Thanks,” Aleph responded distractedly.

“You’re learning how to tie sutures on Youtube?” Sam asked with a note of reproof tinging his voice. He paused to watch more. “From a survivalist channel!?”

Aleph shrugged. “He isn’t going to bleed out, I have time to learn.”

“You haven’t done this before?!” he asked, his voice going up an octave. He’d clearly lost his earlier sense of awe.

“Nope. Closest I’ve come is Grey’s Anatomy. Now shut up, I’m trying to watch.”

Sam was able to keep his mouth closed for nearly a whole ten count before he said, “You aren’t talking about the medical book, are you? You’re speaking about the television show.”

Aleph sighed loudly, rolled her eyes, and paused the video. “He’s a Kellas Cat from Fey, it’s not like we can take him to the vet or the hospital. We deal with it ourselves or not at all.” She flipped her fingers at Sam in a dismissing gesture, “Now fuck off, I’m trying to watch.”

It took another half hour to shave, disinfect, then stitch Minnaloushe’s many wounds. This included the time it took Aleph to refine her suturing technique on a dried-out pomegranate they found lurking in the back of the staff fridge. Minnaloushe had to be held down during the procedure, but Aleph didn’t think it was from the pain of being stitched.

By the time they finished, the areas of newly-shaved skin around the wounds made the cat look to Aleph as though, after plumbing the secrets of the universe, Stephen Hawking had decided to take up pet grooming.

“Will he live?” Sue asked in a subdued voice.

“He isn’t dying,” replied Aleph, “I’m not going to commit to more than that.”

Sam eyed Minnaloushe critically where he lay at the epicentre of clumps of fur and bloody gauze. “We should have shaved him all, at least then he’d be even.”

“Do you have any idea how pissed he’d be?” Aleph asked.

“Pissed yes, but I ask you, is there anything funnier than a pissed, newly shaved cat. That’s comedy gold.” Sam smiled expectantly at her.

“If you want comedy gold, draw a dick on his forehead with a marker,” Dimitri chimed in. “That one never gets old. Wait, would it be a cat dick or a regular dick?”

“What is wrong with you two?” asked Sue over the snickers of the two men. “He’s been attacked and injured in defence of this place, where’s your empathy?”

Sam looked a bit shamefaced, but Dimitri kept right on going. “Hey Sam, you know what we just did, right?” he raised his eyebrows suggestively at the shaved cat and grinned. It took a second for his meaning to sink in.

“No. Dimitri, just no.” Sam buried his face in his hands.

“We shaved a…”

“Don’t say it, man.”

“Oh, come on, it’s funny.”

Sue rolled her eyes at him and Arachne began to laugh.

“See, she thinks it’s funny,” said Dimitri pointing.

“No, I’m just laughing at what a creepy douche you are,” she said while still managing to smile brightly.

“Sometimes Dimitri, you can be such a dickhole,” Sue added.

Before things devolved further, Aleph brought up the thing nobody had been speaking about. “So, where is he now?” she asked looking at Dimitri.

“How should I know? I’m not his babysitter.”

“You should know because I asked you to keep an eye on him. You should know because you’re the Webmage who can track people, remember?”

Dimitri shrunk in on himself. “Yeah, but I’ve been a bit busy, and besides, I didn’t mind keeping an eye out when he was flying under the radar. With that display tonight, he might as well strapped on a skull jock strap and marched in the necro pride parade. I’d be surprised if the Alchemist guild hasn’t already erased his ass. He’s made himself radioactive.”

“Oh, you mean Kingsford?” Arachne asked, seeming to finally catch on.

“Kingsford?” Aleph asked.

“Uh huh!” Arachne pulled out a smartphone and cued up a video file that showed a grainy, but very recognizable figure wearing a charcoal bag on his head. He was snapping black necrotic whips at people walking around with obviously fatal injuries. Over the dull roar of the crucible in the background, she could hear a tinny, “Pew! pew! Come out of the phone’s speaker.

“Oh no.”

“Come on now, it’s not that bad! I’ve already got over five thousand hits!”

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Chapter 24, Part 1: Shaving the Cat.

Hi, Everyone! The usual warning applies here, this is still a rough draft with adult language and situations. Thanks for reading!




The arcane community in Vancouver wasn’t large because magical talent was common. It was large because many of its members did their very best to avoid injury and death at all costs. The community spent more time concerned with things like dental hygiene, home insurance, and dietary fibre than they did on things like calling down lightning and battling the forces of darkness.

They stuck to hobbies that were specifically chosen to keep them away from physical or mental distress. Macrame, bonsai, and for the more adventurous, cheese making, were some of the most popular activities among the ancient and long-established. These were the stalwarts of the arcane community, many of whom had long since navigated their first centuries of existence with the steady deliberation of a heavily-medicated librarian.

This isn’t to say that nothing interesting ever happened in Vancouver, it often did, but it was a safe kind of interesting that you could comment on in the morning and forget by the afternoon. The community had the feel of a very old and well-tended garden.

Not everyone could be as sensible, of course. Every garden, no matter how well looked after, attracted its pests, the young, the transient, and the apt to die. Even so, things usually wrapped up by nine o’clock on weeknights so everyone could get home and settle in with a cup of milky tea.
On a night like this one with a chill wind blowing, and rain coming down in sheets, most of the community were in their warm beds, or failing that, sipping at a hot toddy and exclaiming at the horrendous weather.

This is why it was such a surprise for Aleph when she came through the door of Strangefellows to find the place buzzing with activity and the coppery smell of blood heavy in the air. She had a strong suspicion that whatever had happened here involved Stirling Haig.

The place had been utterly wrecked. A mound of destroyed furniture was piled against one wall, and the floor looked like it had been used as a canvas by a blood-frenzied Jackson Pollock. There were perhaps fifty people still in the room, some sitting, some standing, but all with expressions that ranged from shock to outright weeping.

The club’s dragon was prowling around the back of the room and lashing its tail in agitation. Aleph had known Strangefellows had one, but she’d never expected them to need it.

A man with bright red hair, wearing an unlikely combination of flannel robe and partly laced work boots, was mopping the floors with a bucket of water that looked at least half blood. Aleph recognized him as one of the establishment’s Char Witches. Heads turned and conversation quieted As she came into the room.

She walked up to the man with the mop. “Sam, right?” she asked.

He straightened when he heard his name and flinched back when he saw her face. Maybe she should have worn her makeup after all.

“Uh, yes, what can I do for you…?” he seemed unsure how to address her. She got this a lot.

“Aleph is fine,” she said, though he didn’t look totally convinced.

“What can I do for you, um, Aleph?”

She made a point of looking around at the wrecked furniture, blood-spattered floors and bucket of bloody water before reaching into her jacket and pulling out her badge.

He looked at it blankly then back up at her. A look of realization dawned on his face. “Oh right! Sorry, I’m still a bit shell-shocked.”

“Did you see what happened here?”

He swallowed. “Everyone did.” He stalled, as though wanting to speak but not knowing where to begin.

She gave him a second to compose himself while she took out a pen and notepad before fixing him with her eyes.

He saw her black eyes fixed on him, swallowed and began.“They were all customers we’ve had in here before, a few of them were even regulars. They just came in and started beating on people. I’m not talking about just throwing a punch or two. No, they were actually trying to kill.”

She’d been pumping people for information like this for decades and in very little time she had the story out of him, at least the parts he’d tell her without more prodding.

“I’m assuming Stirling Haig was the one with the charcoal bag on his head?”

“What? No! Who?” His reaction might have been comical if the situation wasn’t so serious.

Aleph gave Sam a very direct look. “He had an empty bag of charcoal on his head. You are a char witch. Where would he get such a thing?”

Sam opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

Aleph sighed and paced through the room. Near the centre, she came to a sudden stop and held out her free hand in front of her. She waved it gently through the space at chest level and made a pinching movement as though plucking a thread from mid-air. She turned back to where Sam watched and blew over her fingertips. Her breath turned to heavy mist for the space of half a heartbeat.

“Stirling Haig,” she said again. “I’m guessing he got the empty bag of charcoal from the back room where you keep the crucible?”

Sam’s eyes had turned a bit wild and he looked around to see who was close enough to hear. Maybe he had a point. The middle of a club probably wasn’t the place to speak about rogue necromancers. She decided to change the topic for the moment.

“Have you seen Dimitri Singh tonight? He and one other were to meet me here tonight.”

“Oh, right! Yeah, Dimitri’s here.

When he didn’t move, she gave him an “after you” kind of gesture and he led her to a battered "employees only" door. The door opened out, but someone, or many someones from the look of it, had tried to pound it down from the outside. Amatures.

Sam nodded mutely and held the door open for her.

A narrow hallway led to a well-lit room where the crucible that powered Strangefellows quietly roared. A woman with bright yellow and red hair had her arms up to the shoulder in the burning charcoal, her face less than a half foot from the glowing embers. The updraft from the fire blew the hair back from her face which was facing away from them as she felt her way around the inside of the clay container. A streak of ash ran from her nose up her forehead. A man with dark features sat in a lawn chair against one wall with his head held in his long-fingered hands.

“This doesn’t look good, Dimitri, the woman was saying. The temperature rose too fast, some of these sigils are seriously fucked. I’m not even sure how we’re still getting eighty percent efficiency. We’re going to need to begin work on another one ASAP.”

Sam cleared his throat and Sue finally turned her head to see Aleph standing in the doorway. “Aleph!” carolled Sue, pulling her arm from the crucible and brushing off a few live embers back into the clay vessel. Dimitri lifted his head to look at them with tired, haunted eyes.

Sue straightened and dashed toward her with her arms wide. “Oh my god, it’s amazing to see you!”

“You  never get tired of that joke, do you?” Aleph asked, smiling and holding her own arms open.

 Sue threw her arms around Aleph’s shoulders and burst into tears. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she sobbed into Aleph’s shoulder. “It was horrible.”

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.