Tag Archives: fantasy

Yearly Book Recap 2015 (Fiction)

Good evening fine word connoisseurs,

As you know, this year I undertook the challenge to read more female authors than usual. My goal was a clean 50 / 50 split, but when failure struck my goal was to work harder at including other narratives than cis white male ones in my literature landscape.

This is the recap of that (very modest) goal. As I’ve read both non-fiction and fiction works this year, I ‘ve split them into two separate posts.  For the fiction post I’ll be using the below categories:

Fiction:

  • Change-your-life good.
  • Worth purchasing. (Fantastic, but not amazing.)
  • You decide. (Might contain some good ideas, some decent writing or interesting characters. Depends on your personal taste if you’re going to get your money’s worth.)
  • Nice try / Gold star. (The author put a lot of work into this, but it didn’t quite come off as well as it could have.)
  • WTF Random Publisher? (How was this even published? For indie authors, they are automatically excluded from this category. Quality control should mean something.)

+ Note: the list numbers do not indicate quality or ranking of the individual books against each other.

Change-your-life Good

  1. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is gritty, raw and punches the reader so hard in the face they’ll have to wipe away the literary stains. Imagine if Raymond Chandler was still alive, still wrote and embraced multi-cultural narratives. That’s what Zoo City feels like.

2. The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi

Here’s a book that grabs the 21st century, and pulls it screaming onto the page. It doesn’t know what american-centric story-telling is or why white people should be the coolest characters in the narrative. It’s the first (and only) book I’ve read so far that seems to have a global vision when it comes to where Sci-Fi should go.

3. Push by Sapphire

This novel is ridiculous. In 100 pages it manages to worm its  way under your skin and just stick there. Like an ooze. It’s about Precious, a sixteen-year-old with a horrific home life. Even though it takes you into this hell hole of humanity, it also gives you hope. It shows you how Precious (with the help of a good support network) is able to overcome and escape the cycle she was born into.

Female Authors: 2   Male Authors: 1    Various: 0

Worth Purchasing

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

A multi-generational tale about a family of immigrants who moved from Bengal to Boston. Although a little too focussed on the male-side of the family, it covers a range of perspectives and has a snappy pace to it. Highly accessible and very enlightening reading.

5. Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis

(Full Disclosure: S. Elliot Brandis and I belonged to the same writing club several years ago. ) 

Once Upon a Time at the End of the World is a novella about an android and a prostitute who form an unlikely alliance and engage in bounty hunts after the apocalypse. Exceptionally well written, but at times the dialogue and the themes explored contradict each other.

6. 2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke

An oldie but a goodie. The movie was a wash for my brother and I, but the book fleshes out a lot of the characters’ motivations and creates a fascinating world full of possibilities. Highlights why Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greats.

7. The Real StoryForbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson

An exploration of, or treatise on, the darker side of humanity. Stephen R. Donaldson seems to not know where the line is for the reader’s comfort, but creates a compelling story all the same. Consume at your own risk.

8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fun, whimsical and almost impossible not to enjoy. Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie as she struggles to inspire Howl to be brave, all while hoping not to fall in love with him. The characters are more selfish than the animated movie, but loveable all the same.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Difficult to categorise, Let the Right One In is a fine example of cross-genre literature. It takes the disquiet of horror, the character-building of drama and the poignancy of a coming-of-age novel and mixes them all together. The result is a captivating slow burn of a story that builds to a pitch-perfect crescendo.

Movie Note: Oskar is more complex than the Swedish movie, but possibly not as likeable.

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman knows how to write. He knows how to create diverse characters and infuse a story with compelling supernatural elements. Unfortunately, he can also get carried away. American Gods is full of profound ideas, but feels a little too loose on the narrative structure and sometimes events happen  that don’t propel the story forward. If it had been trimmed a touch, it would’ve been one of the best reads of 2015.

11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A coming-of-age / boarding-school drama that uses a sci-fi hook to hold the reader. Although the stakes are small and this type of story of love and loss has been told before, Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a tight little tale about 3 students which compels you to read on. Not the most original work to add to your library, but worthwhile to admire simply for its execution.

12. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

In many ways, a mess of a book. Plot threads are often left dangling in a strong breeze, the story takes too long to start, and then jumps around too much until it finds its focus. There are way too many characters. However, it’s well written and there are ideas piled on top of ideas wrapped in a sandwich of even bigger ideas. However, After the uproar about Patrick Rothfuss’s depiction of women in the Ademre society, The Mirror Empire may be questionably sexist depending on which lens you view it through.

Definitely worthwhile if you’re a writer for inspiration, as a reader of fantasy it might leave too many things dependent on a sequel for a satisfying finale.

13. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is an oddity. It’s a really good novel that’s about the lengths a mother will go to to save her son from his own foolishness. A story that features zombies, regret, a steampunk setting and several heart-clenching set pieces. Unfortunately, the front cover makes it look like a wild ride about air pirates. Not what the novel is about at all. So, if you can get over the shock and initial disappointment of not having any awesome dogfights or cussing air pirates in there, you’ll be alright.

14. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

It’s short, the stories are interesting and it’s … J.K. Rowling. If you’ve got Harry Potter fans in your house they’ll love it. If you don’t, they’ll enjoy the twists J.K. Rowling puts on our old myths and creates something new. Good fun for a rainy hour or so.

Female Authors: 6    Male Authors: 8    Various: 0

You Decide

15. All Over Him By Casey Chase

Hot, dumb, erotic fiction. Not quite paranormal though, despite the blurb promising it would be. If you like your sex hard and your men obnoxiously stalker-ish then this is for you.

16. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg

Part of the post-Harry Potter fantasy novels which take pre-existing rules and try to tweak them a little bit. Starts out well with a frustrated teenager (one just legal enough to be romantically involved with an older man) who gets put into the ‘worst’ field of magic: paper. This happens despite her ‘mad’ skills.

At the commencement of the novel, the book seems to want to have a conversation about sexism and how it affects women, but then undoes all that by having the main protagonist fall in love with her teacher.

Full of whimsy, but its main plot hook loses momentum half way through and the tone shifts drastically between scenes for drama purposes. The Paper Magician seems unsure if it wants to a contemplation on love and loss or a flighty road through a magical landscape. It tries to do both, but struggles under the thematic weight and collapses by the end.

17. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

Centers on the tribulations of Yeine Darr and her unexpected rise to the city of Sky. Takes some of the ideas of American Gods and twists them splendidly only to have all that setup undone by a passive protagonist. A novel that’s supposed to be about empowering women to challenge the world order, has Yeine’s actions mean nothing all while falling in love with the masculine (and emotionally distant) dark god in the novel.

18. Acid Row by Minette Walters

A thriller with a fantastic hook: what if a town rioted because a pedophile was placed in their neighbourhood? The story starts well with a little mystery and lots of suspense, but gets caught on its social message and psychologist jargon. The author attempts to convey that the community isn’t really bad, nor is the pedophile, it’s the way he was raised and proceeds to explain that three or four times to the reader. Eventually the story and likability of the characters gets buried under useless exposition and over-explained character motivation.

19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A classic, but one that was struggle to enjoy. Everything is there: a foreboding father, the backdrop of the moors, inter-generational hatred and domestic violence, but it fell short. I can’t identify why, but unfortunately it didn’t connect with me.

20. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A frustrating read. The first half, maybe even 3/4, is excellent. Great pacing, fantastic flashbacks and a powerful emotional ride through what seems to be an autobiographical story. However, the last 1/4 destroys all of that. There’s too much lumped in which feels tossed together at the end to make Amir’s life seem less messy than it was.  There’s the confrontation between the protagonist and his childhood antagonist, the mirroring of his friend’s son’s actions against an all too similar event earlier in the novel, a finale which only happens because the Amir forgets everything he knows about kids and says something inopportune, plus the shrinking of a village from many individuals into only those that are relevant to the story. If it was an autobiography, you could write it off. Life is strange. But when it’s fiction the coincidences can only get piled so high before it feels like the author is twisting the world inside-out to get the end out of the tale they want. This is one of those potential greats that got lost on its own trail.

21. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Magic for hipsters. Perhaps more precisely, magic for ivy-league, male hipsters. They kind of book that struts around pretending to be grown up but is simply a teenager trying on an executive-looking pair of pants. It spends 510 pages trying to get the reader to sympathise with a character who (SPOILERS) cheats on his girlfriend, brings about the death of a classmate and runs away from all his responsibilities. All the while bitching about how life has done ‘im hard. If that sounds like someone you love spending time with then buy away.

Female Authors: 11   Male Authors: 10    Various: 0

Nice Try / Gold Star

22.The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry

It features a pixie king and his human love interest  Otherwise a standard paranormal romance. A more comprehensive review can be found here.

23. Elis Royd by Ron Sanders

One of the few novels that starts out with the writer taking shots at some imaginary straw-authors before penning a poorly written tome. Clearly some thought has gone into it, but the execution struggles and the ideas could still with a few more hours in peculation.

24. Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher

A book based on many ideas which has forgotten that an interesting world does not make a novel. Starts out with a solid chase scene but slides into talking heads after that. You might enjoy it if you’re deeply in love with the prose of Atlas Shrugged. More details here.

25. Winter by S.D. Rasheed

A paranormal romance that features one strangely inserted sex scene and ever-changing character motivations. At times forgets its own story and then spirals out of control with a main character who must fall in love with the dark demon to propel the plot along. Possibly the only novel I’ve read this year where I’ve wanted more description from the author so I know what’s going on.

26. Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe

A thriller / mystery / romance about a lost ghost that returns to Canada to find her killer. (Perhaps?) Introduces a world full of drugs, violence and angry sex in the tourist section of Vancouver. All the ghosts have a confusing set of powers and none of the characters are believable or scary. At times I accidentally laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Unfortunately, you can feel the author had a clear vision they wanted to show in this work but it got lost in the execution.

27. Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle

Wanted to like it, but struggled with the character motivations. Full review can be found here.

28. Wool by Hugh Howey

I don’t want to put Wool here. I don’t. Yet here it is. Two of the best writers I know recommended this work. I read Hugh Howey’s posts on The Passive Voice and head nod along with him, but Wool was not good.

Wool starts with an interesting idea: what if we had to live in a silo due to a nuclear attack? Then he adds a conspiracy dimension to it, and a lot of events that don’t make sense. He kills characters for no reason, has villains pop out of nowhere to increase suspense and has the main character fall in love with a guy she’s met twice. What? How is that even a thing in 2015? Also, it’s long with extended introversion sequences that neither advance the plot nor the characters’ motivation. Overall, it’s a book that loses out due to pacing and plotting problems rather than writing skill.

29. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If Scott Pilgrim could come alive and write a novel, this would be it. Except it would’ve been written by the Scott Pilgrim before he had met Ramona. It features a protagonist that is cis, white and a HERO! Because … reasons dammit. He leads his multi-racial crew to justice against the evil corporate empire by cyber-stalking a woman, signing contracts without a lawyer looking them over, and acting like a teenager in front of a director of a company. If you don’t mind that, and the long sections which are not at all related to 1980s pop-culture, then you might want to snatch this up.

30. Speculative Japan by Various

A series of old sci-fi short stories that were translated from Japanese authors. It features 3 opening / introduction essays and 2 afterword pieces, which should give an indicator of what type of book it is. Many of the stories feel uninspired by today’s standards and of the ones that are solid, it’s difficult to know if the original story was blandly worded or the translation turned them into uninspired pieces of prose. Often it feels like a vanity project by those involved and is a tad expensive when compared to the many great anthologies are already available.

31. HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

It breaks my heart that this is here. I love Alistair Maclean. The Dark Crusader and Puppet on a Chain are two of my favourite novels of all time. In saying that, HMS Ulysses is chock full of b-grade war movie dialogue and overly dramatic scenes. Everyone is heroic and the characters, when not advising how dangerous things are, are unable to stop praising the dying captain. Interesting only as a reference point for how Alistair Maclean grew as an author.

Female Authors: 13  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

WTF Random Publisher?

32. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An Irish take on Push that goes completely wrong. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, A Girl if a Half-formed Thing is so full style that it forgets to tell a story. It speaks from the first person in a dialect so difficult to piece together that I simply gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I understood what was being said, but it was so painful and the main character continued to be so annoying that I quit of frustration and read the ending. Surprise: it’s dark ending. If you like art house books, almost impenetrable novels and think reading should be a chore then this is for you.

Female Authors: 14  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

Picture (c) sebra. Used under Standard License with Dollar Photo Club. 

Magic Stylings

Leah winced as she put her cracked and blood-stained knuckles under the running water. The action sent shivers up and down her spine and made her shoulders involuntarily jump as they stayed there. If that had been the only remnants of her fight, she wouldn’t have been overly concerned. One more struggle in the long line that had been her life.

Her head hurt though. A dull ache, one that crept around the top of her forehead and down her circular face. It snuck into her blue eyes and pressed against them, into her thin pale red lips and petite ears. Even her nose felt it, its long point and sharp tip feeling a mild throb. It had gotten in her skin, under her pallid complexion, and was crawling around in there.

“Mucktack,” she mumbled to herself, standing up and flicking her fingers down. Leah recalled when her assailant had grabbed her hair and pulled. How she’d screamed and clutched at the air trying to get away from his grasp. If he’d been a better fighter, she’d have been the one on the ground — dead — instead of him.

Running her hands through her patch-work coloured strands of brown and black, she looked around the town. It was small, maybe ten shops large. All of the places glowed with a faint colour that highlighted their magical properties — blue for shadows, yellow for fire… Leah didn’t know the rest. She hated Gamics. She wished she could still believe their tricks were nothing more than clever performances to fool the locals, but she’d been out of Scinok territory too long to keep believing their lies as well.

Sighing, Leah started walking towards the snipper — a sign with a pair of scissors etched on it advising what services the store offered. Light peaked through the green canopy of the forest up above. It was more silver than white today and created little shimmering shapes on the earthen road with its lilting base and deep holes that no one seemed to have tried to fill.

It took her twenty-two steps to reach the door, and one flash of her timer to notice there was almost no one inside. No customers at least. All the chairs were empty, their black coverings and metal bases contrasted with the wooden floor of the store. Each cutting area had a rack full of scissors, and scooping blades that vibrated and sliced at the same time. There was a closed space at the back with a sign that said ‘Snippers Only’ and some magazines stashed on top of tables next to the waiting benches on the left.

Only one man was inside, his black hair full but with the occasional gray patch in the wrong place. It was not styled, it was sticking out in any way it wanted.

Leah pushed the door open and heard the twitter of a bird, she guessed it was the sound of the entrance charm. “Need a cut,” she said.

The snipper turned around, his face structurally handsome but the rotations had not been kind. He had two scars on his right cheek, one on his left and both his ears had a small piece missing from their ear lobes.  His eyes were mismatching — green and blue — telling her that his lineage was mixed and as he moved into the light, his olive skin became more prominent.

“Long or short?” he asked in a voice that Leah believed should’ve belonged to another type of man. It was husky, and warm. It carried itself and wrapped its tones around  your heart until you relaxed.

“Short,” she said as she stroked her hair that went past her shoulders. She’d grown it for her bonding partner, he’d loved to tangle it in his fingers and hold it up in front of her. At least until she’d been transferred, to here. To the backend of nowhere.

The snipper clicked his tongue and looked her up and down. She noticed his eyes fall over her blue and black uniform. The one that had infused metal bindings to keep her safe. One that told everybody she was a Guardian. The kind of clothes that get your evicted from Gamic businesses unless you’re on patrol or willing to bend a few guidelines.

“You going to pay for it?” he asked.

“That’s a –“

“Twenty baral,” he pointed to a metal basin. “Or get out.”

Leah squinted, she knew about the anti-regulation shakedowns by other Guardians, but she didn’t like his tone either. “You want to make this a spot check?” she said, reaching for her knife.

The man continued to rub his hands with a white cloth. “We’re a fringe village here ‘nok, no one follows your standards. Or didn’t you notice?”

Her fingers started to curl around the hilt. “So what happens now?”

“Twenty baral, in the dish, and I slice up your hair. Or I slice you up and take your body out to the forest so the versarches don’t get hungry.”

Leah let her gaze linger over the snipper’s scars, then his tools of the trade — blades and scissors of all kinds — before pulling her hand away from her knife. She walked over to the bowl and put in the twenty coins. Then, as an afterthought, she added another one. For his courage.

The man flicked his left hand toward a chair, she sat in it. “What type of experience you want?” he asked as she stared at a reflection of herself in a polished metal mirror.

“I told you,” she snapped, “short — “

“No, magic or standard. Some gamics lose their keit if I don’t cut it with the props.”

“I like the sound of scissors, tells me you’re working.”

He pulled a cream towel around her neck and stuffed it in the back of her top. “Never understand you ‘noks,” he said, as a white sheet floated down on top of her. “You talk about safety and then let a stranger get close to you with cutting tools. The other way’s much less accident prone.”

“When a Scinok snipper opens up out here, I promise not to bother you with my preferences,” she said.

He laughed and clinked a metal comb and a pair of scissors together. “A Guardian’s hair doesn’t get this long from paranoia. Lover?” He ran the comb through the section on her left.

“Any of your business?”

“Is if you want a good style.” Something slid across her throat, something sharp and cold. “See what I mean about accident prone?”

She swallowed, finally accepting how far she was back from the regulated walls of Mystilvern. How much land the Scinok advancement didn’t control, but pretended they did. “One that would come looking for me if something happened.”

“You want your cut as short as your truth?” he asked, holding her hair up. Now that they were closer she could make out the deadness in his eyes.

“To the top of my neck,” she said.

“You going to be killing a lot of drunkards then?”

“Only when they skip out on their contracts. He had a chance to come back alive.” The scissors started to slice away at her tangled mess.

“Did us all a favour,” the snipper said, although his eyes told her that he didn’t mean it.

“I’m just a cog in the wheels of progress,” Leah said as she felt her head become less heavy.

“I love that line.” He kept cutting, his eyes not looking at what he was doing but straight at her. “What’s the other one you ‘noks like using to avoid being called keits?”

“The machine rolls on?”

“Love that one too.” He stopped and clanked his instruments together, hair fell out of them and floated towards the ground. Reaching around, the man ran the comb across the faint scar line next to her right eye. “What did you do to get sent out here?”

The snipping continued. Leah cleared her throat and looked away from the mirror. She peeked out of the store’s windows and saw a few people walking down the main street. No revenge gang was forming outside the snipper’s. No one seemed interested in the corpse lying on the street either.

“Aren’t you going to take care of your own?” she asked, without thinking too much about the consequences.

“Probably would if he was one of ours. ‘nok on the run is still a nok.”

“But he’s…” Leah stopped herself before she finished her sentence. Green eyes didn’t mean they were Gamic. Neither did his dark skin. Could’ve been a distant family member was one. Could’ve been a hereditary thing from hundreds of rotations previously. She hadn’t bothered to ask how a Gamic had ended up on the wrong end of a contract, and the details had been very clear. They’d told her he was one of the others, and that’s all she’d ever needed to know for processing purposes.

As if sensing her thoughts, the snipper said, “So you could’ve bought him back alive?”

“The machine rolls on,” she repeated.

He’d moved up now, her precious two-rotation’s growth all over the floor. “What did you do?” the man pressed. “Seems like you’re going to be here a long time. No one gets their hair cut when they’ll be back in city limits in a kew or two.”

“Everyone lapses.”

“Sure, kids. Little wood blocks. Seen one of them open up their flow too much and then explode.” He clapped his hands right next to her ear. “Pop! Gone. Blood and entrails. You’re thirty-something rotations on though. We don’t get that many second rounds when we shuck up.”

She gazed at the man’s reflection, wondering if this was a power game by a small human enjoying the moment, or something else. If he was one of the dark ones, the remnants of the rebels from the war. Leah decided to chance it. “I’m good in a fight,” she said, hoping he knew what that meant.

“Not embracing the calmer days?” For the first time, he looked down and checked the length of the hair at the top of her head. The comb went up and down, as if trying to find the right place. Then, without asking, he cut. “Maybe you need a vocation.”

“Like being a snipper?”

“Never know who you might meet,” he replied, a tiny smile appearing at the corner of his mouth. “There’s always a little crazy out there, hiding away. You just got to recognise it.”

“My ‘lover’ had a little crazy, and an extra vocation. Merchant, exporter. He didn’t mind the anti-regulation trade either. Nothing big, just a few odd supplies here and there. Food, prototypes, Gamic kids.” Leah felt her pulse rise, and sweat break out on her forehead. The man’s cutting slowed. “We had a fight.” She stopped and ran her scarred fingers along her thigh. “They give you the same ranks. Survive a battle, earn a line on your chest. Think of something innovative in an office, get a pompous ceremony. Break up two kids wailing on each other, they slap a courage badge on your chest. Save your squad leader from a death trap, pin the exact same thing on you. Gets a little confusing once the battles are over.”

The snipping continued.

“So we had a disagreement — him and his business interests on one side, me and my beliefs on the other. Gave him the whole speech about what we were fighting for, what our positions mean. Then, when that didn’t work, threatened to bring the Zhu in. Love isn’t as real as baral, it appears.”

“Sometimes.” The man clicked the metal tools together again. “He didn’t make it?”

“Oh, they tried. All those healers and their instruments rushing around. My commanding officer had a stake in the enterprise, didn’t like the regulations being applied to her as well. So, the war hero has to go.”

“It happens. After all, it’s clear what kind of hero you are, it’s right there in the title.” He kept cutting. “But you could’ve saved him?”

“Sure, but I hate weak men,” Leah turned her gaze away from the mirror. “Maybe I just hate weak people, killed enough women in the ditches. Maybe I hate pretenders, I don’t know. All these individuals who talk big, strut around with their confidence on display and then come up short. I thought about it, at least. But, he wailed, like an animal without control, so I choked him out. Shucking deserved it.”

With a sudden movement, the snipper made a dramatic finish to cutting her hair. “Done.”

Leah shook her head, refusing to look at the style, at herself. “Don’t you need to clipper me? Get all the little parts?”

“I’m lazy, I used magic for that.” She could hear him chuckle.

Swallowing hard, she turned back and looked at the style. It was better than what she’d have gotten in the city, if she’d paid five times more. The part was split perfectly in the middle, the edges were completely aligned and when she moved her head it flowed with ease. “Anyone tell you how good you are?”

“Only if they get out of my chair alive.” His hands reached around her throat and pulled away the sheet.

“Do I need another heartbreaking story next time I come here? If I want to be one of those fortunate few?”

“No,” she could feel his hands undo the towel, “just don’t kill anybody.  Even if they are a ‘nok on the run.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” Leah replied, standing and brushing herself down. She turned, took one last look at the snipper with his stony face and strange eyes before spinning and heading back to the door.

“Think about that vocation,” she heard him call out after her. “War’s over after all.”

Unemployed Magicians

Zacharius Forlien Asterielle, Zack to his allies, sat at a long wooden table. It was smooth, in parts, and rough in others. On the benches that sat under it there were marks that had been made by the scrapes of shields and knives. Occasionally there was a black patch, a burn mark. He was a slender man, and squished between a burly male and a hairy woman who had a twirly moustache.

“What you down about?” the hairy woman asked  Zack as a Guardian with metal arms and legs clanked behind the two of them. The hubbub of voices and the cheers of a celebration filled the silence when there was no reply. “Come on, what you down about?” she pressed.

“Well, it’s this news.” He banged a paper that was in front of him. It was turned to the sixth page, dense symbols and text filled each column. “I mean, I’m having a crisis.”

“Not an existential one, I hope.”

“Am I not supposed to have a metaphysical conflict?” Zack snapped, turning to face the woman. His small eyes had opened wide, revealing grey eyes. “I’m a multi-dimensional being and I’m not supposed to have an existential crisis?”

“Multi-dimensional this, multi-dimensional that — no wonder why people hate Gamics.”

“Why do you even care? Just a moment, do I even know you? What’s your name?”

“Samantha,” she brushed her moustache down. “I solve mysteries. With my axe.” She dropped the aforementioned weapon on the table, making a loud thud sound that caused two diners to inch away from them. “Think of me as an adventurer of the mind.”

“Samantha,” Zack mumbled. “Am I one of your lucky…suspects?”

“This is more pro-bono. I see someone a little down, think I’ll strike up a conversation. Maybe solve their woes before I start work for my client.”

Pushing the paper further forward, and into a man’s plate of food, Zack leaned back. “I’m a Dthead.”

“Should that bother me?”

“I summon portals, control people through their blood. Or something.  I don’t know. Seemed like magic to me.”

“Sure. I don’t know how dimension-hopping works, but I assume  it involves a little bit of the sprinkle dust.”

“Exactly. Look, I carry a knife.” He put it on the table next to her axe. “I wear organic clothes made by hand.” Zack pulled at his hemp shirt and silk pants. “I mumble words and steal people’s life energy.”

“Is that the fashion around here? Mystilvern strikes me as a little odd.” Samantha pulled at her brown hair and then removed some rheum from under her eyes. “Plus, I’m not here to listen to your woes, only solve them. Can we hurry this along?”

“I thought I was a character in a fantasy novel. Things that can’t be explained happen because… well … they can’t. They just happen. In some distant, unknown world, one with a strange name. I thought the whole genre was about that. Maybe a little bit of science thrown in for good measure.”

“Doesn’t seem so bad. I can think of worse things. Did you know that whole cultures were relabelled with different names because of white men?”

“That’s not the point,” Zack snapped, banging is pale hand on the table. “If I’m not a magician, if I’m not a Gamic who can conjure things from thin air in a fantasy world, then where do I belong?”

“Paranormal?”

“Do you see a werewolf anywhere? A vampire?”

“What about…noir?”

“Oh, so the detective solves the crime by reading other people’s thoughts? Two whole pages. Not even flash fiction.”

“Perhaps…” Samantha leaned forward, her large frame casting a long shadow over the table. She massaged her fat nose. “I see your problem. You can’t just waltz into another genre and start shooting fire bolts.”

“Buddy-cop action would never be the same. People wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Chaos.”

“Am I supposed to pack up my skills and go like a whimper into the darkening sky?”

“Who’s telling you this?”

Zack turned his face away from Samantha and patted the newspaper. “A columnist. He’s saying that magic portals don’t count as fantasy.”

The detective picked up the newspaper and started to read it. “You’re a braver person than I am, getting through this.”

“I felt compelled.”

The sounds from the other parts of the room filled the emptiness of conversation between the two of them as Samantha worked her way through the article. She folded it up at the end. “Don’t know what to say, can you still conjure magic?”

“Pretty much.”

“Make…people die after swallowing their blood?”

“In the right circumstances.”

“Sounds like fantasy. I’d keep going. After all, everyone’s got an opinion.”

“But…but…but…”

She patted down her moustache.  “You seem like a nice person, but this is pro-bono. I don’t guarantee results.” Samantha stood up, grabbed her axe and banged Zack on the back. “Hope you get over that crisis.”

“Maybe I’ll cast a few more spells tomorrow, see how I go.”

“And if that doesn’t work, you can always call it radiation and head off into the desert. I mean, science explains everything, right?”

“Appreciate it,” Zack said as Samantha walked away. He picked up the paper, sighed and started reading the article again.

Silent Strings

The cigarette hung from my mouth, its end lit and glowing faded orange in the darkness of my room.  It tasted like grime-covered candy that had been wrapped in spikes. Still, I held the smoke in my mouth as long as I could—even let it touch the top a couple of times—and then blew it out. The fan’s breeze pushed the grey clouds away from me.

A curved purple device was lying next to my thigh, vibrating. ‘Zzz,’ it went. ‘Zzz, zzz, zzz.’  The sounds told me it was on cycle three. That I’d just finished my favourite activity. Yet my body cried out for more. ‘Zzz, zzz, zzz,’ the device continued.

I blew out another cloud of smoke; the fan made it dissipate as before.

“Fuck,” I said to no one because even though I was naked and my mid-size breasts rose and fell with each breath, I was the only resident in the apartment. “Fuck,” I repeated as I sat up and felt my red hair fall into place: tickling my shoulders and starting to move freely with each shake of my head.

My thigh wobbled as I hit it, its muscle making my smack sound flat and less imagination and movie, more real life. The carpet on the floor was thick enough to stop the chill of autumn’s air, but cheap enough that I’d felt every one of its stitches while I’d laid on it.

I wasn’t that poor, the room had a bed. But it was a made of metal and when you have my…condition, you stop lying on things that can carry enough energy to kill you. It also had an imagination player, a water one, bubbling away on a wooden chest of drawers. There were three unwatched dodecs, sitting next to it. Their green lights pulsated and reflected over their metal cases. None of them interested me; they never did on those kinds of nights. Instead, I pulled out a cardboard box from the under the bed and yanked the lid off. Inside sat…clothes. That was what they called them—someone, at some point had—but they were little more then cut fabric.

I tossed aside a green top that was triangles folded in on itself and a matching skirt that had a slit so high it would’ve showed my entire right leg. I tossed away and ignored garments with cuts in the chest region and fishing stockings. What I was looking for I found at the bottom: black silk knickers and faux-leather pants that hugged me. Also, a light blue top that left a space in the middle of the material that almost went to my belly button.

No one told me how tight my ass looked in the bottoms, no voice called out from the dingy, chemical-stained bathroom to encourage anything. Not a soul gasped when I touched the metal windowsill and sent a magical charge into a hidden motor. It whirred and opened a compartment with a poisoned knife. It was where I’d left it, and still sharp.

It was important because I was about to bring back someone to my four walls. To the only place in that world that I could say was truly mine. Not a man’s, not another woman’s, mine. It was freedom in its most condensed form. And the only price I had to pay was the occasional restless evening where I had to go out and pretend I wasn’t as strong, smart or capable as I actually was.

Fair payment, in a way. God’s joke, in another.

It took an hour to get to the populated zone by wind mage and tramcar. The breeze apprentice apologised, several times, for doubling our trip time. If he’d been as tired as he’d said he was, then I didn’t know he’d wasted his breath on us. He should’ve saved his energy and got us there faster.

Fifteen additional minutes of walking and I arrived at The Dance Space. That’s what the local government had called it. ‘Dance till you need an elixir,’ their sound promotions had said. Some people might’ve gone there for that, maybe two. The others went into the experience palaces to yell at their friends across loud sound boxes, or to shake their bodies in the hope someone more attractive would notice them. At least that’s what they told themselves when they eventually sat on the broken curb swallowing purple and green pills. The stars and bad magic would kill some, and chain the rest to an addiction that kept them coming back.

This night was no different. The people in the queues outside the palaces were pretty and shiny while the walls behind them were stained with sweat, vomit and liquid. People who’d already tired of their friends lay on the ground and mumbled to themselves about demons who didn’t exist in this world. Yet.

I ignored the first palace: too many women with psychedelic highlights and magically altered hair. It said there were rich men there, men who’d risen to the top because they micromanaged every aspect of their lives. If they’d had to have been tossed out of my apartment after I’d used them for sex…it would’ve led to complications.

The second one was down an alley, looked tempting and almost lured me in: until I saw an old boyfriend, Andrew Marshelli. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been captured by a competing gang of pirates. He was supposed to have been dead; yet, there he was shoving a drawing of me in everyone’s face. “She promised me nightly foot massages,” he said.

It’s possible I had said that, I said lots of things when I was out and in need, but feet massaging seemed overly generous. Hell, I’d of even seduced him once more if he hadn’t locked me in a cage on three separate occasions.

The third palace had bright neon light bricks that lit up to a rhythm only they could hear. Several heads turned when I stood at the front and inspected the frosted glass doors—most of the heads were men, three were women. In another world, with another me, the females might’ve had something. Their hungry eyes and subtle body movements couldn’t change my predisposition though, I only had one gender that made the urge go. A disappointment for both of us.

As I approached the two bouncers who appeared to be popping out of their tight cotton tops, I put on a fake stagger and twirled my hair. When I pretended to trip, one of them caught me. A giggle escaped my throat.

“Hey there,” I said to him, reaching towards his square face. “Good things happening inside?”

“In The Den of Chance, all things happen.”

“Ooh.” He helped me stand so I bit at the smallest fingernail on my left hand. “Think I could go in? For a little?”

As my body rubbed against the bouncer’s pants, something hardened. He was either new or terrible at his job. Possibly both.

“There’s a queue,” he said.

“Are you it?” I wiggled my hips and ran a finger down his shirt, it felt like a Clarice 9. Expensive, but not unreasonable. “Want to go in together?” I paused, twirled my hair again and then said, “Want to go somewhere together?”

The other bouncer coughed, ruining the moment and breaking our connection.

“No,” my target said as he stepped back. Then he pointed me to the door and sneakily grabbed my ass as I walked past. If sneakily meant obviously, and raging hormones implied satisfying sex.

Inside the doors was a poorly lit staircase followed by a large room full of crammed people trying to synch their body movements to a pulsating beat. Bright greens, yellows and blues swept across the crowd and revealed party-goers who thought their skin was more alluring than custom made clothes. Flesh, sweaty flesh, slid across other patron’s 67% uncovered bodies and neon-coloured liquids in transparent containers disappeared in single gulps.

I stopped twirling my hair and tripping over non-existent wires; instead, I straightened my posture and used my hips to propel myself along the floor. The heels I’d chosen clicked against the wooden boards as I sauntered to the bar. Even though there were women with less on, who had larger breasts and more clearly defined figures—I felt eyes on me. Some of them were desperate, others predatory and the occasional one jealous.

Once I’d found a stool, I tried faking boredom as my opening gambit. The ‘girl who wants to be shown a good time’ pedestal that so many men wanted to climb. Sexually insecure, uncertain about her figure and wearing club clothes for the first time. All she needs is a man to guide her past her doubts, make her believe in herself.

I didn’t even get through a quarter of my drink before I’d had a taker.

“Hey,” he said as his first move. Which was his, mine was to note the pointy shoes that showed aggression and insecurity, the wear on his shirt’s buttonholes that indicated him either being poor or believing in the power of habit, and the blue the base of his fingernails. He made Linther for a living, low-grade trips you could afford on a budget. Or make if you’d been removed from a magic academy during the first year.

I crushed him before he would deter a better catch. “You wouldn’t want to be picked up again, would you?” I said as I pretended to reach inside my blouse for ID.

He swallowed, his eyes jumping about the room trying to calculate where the raid was coming from. It took him five seconds longer than most dealers to realise I was ‘off duty’, and not interested in runners. He spun on his left heel and walked away, the music drowning out the noise of his shoes clicking against the ground. If he was lucky, he’d be murdered within a year. Six months if he wasn’t.

The second wasn’t much better: a fiancée wishing to have one last fling because his in-house lover couldn’t satisfy him, but he appreciated her money too much to let bad sex get in the way. The third had a good opening line, “I can see your soul, and it’s crying out for sexual empowerment.” But his name was Abner and he believed his goodness had to be balanced with occasional moments of darkness. Split knuckles told me he hit woman, faint scars on his arms whispered he’d killed at least one. The nominations of the notes he used and the wallet they came in screamed parents who’d forgotten there were laws even their children had to follow. On the third drink, he tried to put something in mine. I let him feel my breasts, and then returned his rape pill. I was already moving seats when he fell onto the floor and cracked his skull.

Mr. Four wore a stained white shirt and thought his half-smile attractive. “I want to say something, but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way,” he started, his perfume mixing well with his natural odour to create a pleasant smell. “I’ve been watching you.”

I shrugged and took in his tight stomach line, square shoulders and the scar just under his right eye. It was barely noticeable: childhood accident or friendship gone wrong. He worked with his hands, and could defend himself if in a tight spot, but didn’t like fights.

“You’re a cop,” he said, sitting next to me. “Looking for a good time.”

“I don’t know, do you like cops?” I rotated around and leaned forward, letting gravity pull my top down so he could see the treasure to be had. His eyes flicked down twice, then stayed on my face.

“I don’t hate them.”

“Know what’s the worst part about upholding the law?” He ordered me a drink instead of answering the rhetorical question, the same one I’d requested from the previous target. “This is my workplace. Tomorrow I’ll be down here busting heads for the greater good.”

“But you’re here with friends this time. Doesn’t that make it better?”

I tilted my head to indicate I didn’t understand what he was saying. “Your aura’s saying you’re not here alone,” he continued.

He was a reader. One of those humans who’d deluded themselves about rays, cosmic energy and colour. I smiled, weakly, and adjusted my narrative to the desperate cop. “Friends. They mean well. But sometimes they think…they think I need something I don’t. So they take me here, forgetting what I do.”

As he paid for our drinks, I could see his wallet wasn’t full, but it wasn’t empty either. The notes were all average denomination and when we were served, he tipped the bartender. “Cheers,” I said as I clinked my bottle with his.

“What is this?” he asked after a sip, the first one not to lie about how awful the alcohol was.

“It’s an acquired taste. The kind you order when everything’s…shit.”

“That’s a bit grandiose.”

Maybe. I’m not big on understatement.” We drunk the rest of our drinks in silence; the man, to his credit, not asking for specifics. Only the mumble of the crowd and the earsplitting trance music crashed into our world.

He took the initiative after ordering a second round. “I can go, if you want.”

“I guess you could, it’s not like I’m ever getting lucky again. Not with my job.”

His eyes drifted down my body once more, making sure he hadn’t imagined my breasts being as good as they were. “I find that difficult to believe.”

“Why? We don’t get to wear fun clothes and be ignorant. Look at this,” I pull at my top. “I had to buy it yesterday just to fit in. Guys get scared, run away. They think I’m tough and empowered, but I’m not. Not in some areas.” I touched his hand resting on the counter and softened my gaze.

“Why’d you come out then?” he queried.

“Some things you can’t skip. They’re special, even if they’re stupid.”

“Your friend getting married?” he said, coming to the conclusion I hoped he would.

“Yeah. Some jackass with a smile and pretty blue eyes. Promises her lots of things, cheats on her twice as often.”

“I like to think not all men are assholes. That we grow out of it.”

I leaned against the counter, my skin touched cold wood and a sticky substance, both of which I ignored. Slowly, I ran a thumb down the open part of the top, playing with the material hiding one of my breasts. “Plenty say that. Then, just when you expect them to deliver, they leave you alone and on a bed with recently purchased lingerie.”

“I don’t…” He stopped, trying to hide the number of women he’d had relations with.

“What’s your name?” I asked to maintain the momentum.

“My friends call me Ken.”

“I’m Maria. You were saying you don’t leave women hanging?”

He picked up the drink, uncertain how to play it. I knew then he was my mark because all the signs indicated he’d gone by morning. The outcome: a poorly written note about how he’d had to dash off to work on a Sunday.

“I try not to,” Ken said.

“I’m not searching for a pretty virgin boy who blushes when I take my pants off,” I reassured him. “I’m a cop, I want someone who knows the biology. Someone who knows how a woman’s body works and screams.”

“That’s not everything right?” He leaned in, his right arm only centimetres from mine. His face was close and he tried to smoulder even though the music was making him speak too loud for it to work. “You want it on demand. You want to come home and know it’s there.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And you’re looking for certainty?”

“I’m looking for someone to prove they’re worth a damn. No waiting six dates and then bailing because they want to make love to some idealised fetish. Today, now. Teach me, show me the world’s better than I think it is.”

He took my hand and kissed me. It was solid, with a questioning tongue that took its cues from my reactions. I told him it would take an hour to get to my apartment; he was already standing before I could finish the sentence.

Ken wasn’t selling me an untruth. His hands were confident; they glided over my body and tested each area. The slightest murmur and they’d be back, plying their trade to see the level of ecstasy they brought. A couple of times they faltered: massaging when they should have prodded or pushing when they could have caressed.

“Put your hands here,” he said as I heard his last remaining clothes come off. I did, against the wall. The heat of his crotch raised mine, his dick finding the right place and sliding in. Like everything, it was measured. He penetrated only with his nip and and waited for a response, then continued. Each movement was accompanied with a micro-second evaluation.

He told me how perfect the arch in my back was before groaning. His hands showed me how much they loved my curving nipples and mid-size breasts. When I came, he paused…waiting for the right moment before continuing. Then he pushed on, building until even his precise movements eroded into grabbing.

If his body looked nice in a shirt, it looked better naked and on my bed. His chest was hard, his abs defined even while he sucked in air, and his leg muscles twitched rhythmically to his motions.

After several seconds, his gaze shifted and hovered over me—glancing up and down my frame with its tattoos and scars that had been difficult to make out in the dimly lit experience palace.

“You see a lot of action?” he asked, a perfectly manicured eyebrow raised.

“More than I want.”

“I didn’t think they took officers with affiliations,” a hand ran gently up and down a tattooed spiralling circle. It was on the inside of my thigh, near my vagina.

I should’ve tossed him; I’d had my fill. Very few people outside of pirate clans know what that mark means, even less make it home to tell someone else. He wasn’t who he’d said he was, but, I argued, neither was I. And even though I didn’t need anything extra that night, and could’ve gone weeks without another man, he’d been good. I wanted him in my mouth; I wanted my legs around his waist as we crashed around the room. So I replied, “They do.”

“Even pirates?”

I rolled over and let my fingers tickle his hairless balls. He tried to say something, but then I licked all the way up his leg, stomach and chest. Just before our lips melted into each other, he gurgled sounds resembling English. When I slid down and made his shaft rise through the flicking of my tongue, he stopped trying to communicate entirely.

Rather, his body arched back and his hands started to grab at the same place on the wall where mine had.

I woke the next morning to running water and the sun streaming through the frosted windows of my apartment. Ken’s clothes were neatly folded on top of my desk. Several scrunched up pictures lay assembled in piles next to them. I guessed they’d been the farewell notes he’d tried to write before leaving.

His failed attempts didn’t concern me, the fact he was still in the apartment did. As if on cue, the shower stopped, and he stepped out—wrapped in my white towel with three orange stains.

“You’re a pirate,” he said.

“So are you,” I replied, dropping the game. I needed nothing else from him; if we were to be enemies I intended it to be on honest ground.

“Not getting married then.”

“What’s it to you?”

“My name’s Aiken Irawa. I’m—”

“I know who you are,” I replied, getting up. “Raider of the South. Terror of the Southern Skies. You’re an ‘A’.”

He tilted his head to the right and squinted his eyes trying to understand what I meant by the last part. “I’m looking for a journey partner,” he continued.

“A wife.”

“A plundering partner. Someone who gets what I do and isn’t a liability to the team.”

“Someone who can handle themselves,” I replied as I inched towards the windowsill.

“That’s not exactly what I mean, but don’t you want to try? Surely you know my reputation?”

“Humane?” I dropped the sheet—sent a volt through the metal—and grabbed the knife. The sound of his feet pushing off the floor reached my ears, but he was too late: the blade was already pointed at him.

“I found the other weapons,” he told me. “Bet that’s poisoned too.”

“I’m not going to kill you. I try not to murder the people I’ve just fucked. But I want you to get the fuck out and stay away from me.”

He kept adjusting his body, trying to find a position that would obtain an advantage. The tip of the knife followed him. “You want me to walk away from one of our most dangerous enemies?” he said. “That’s what you are if you don’t join me.”

“I’m not part of the Vertigos anymore. I’m out.”

He laughed, and continued searching for a leverage point. “No one leaves. That’s their motto. We’ve found their members strung up on a buoy with shark bites out of them.”

“Maybe they don’t have a choice. My name’s Joelle. If I want to walk the fuck out, I can.”

It took a while for him to process who I was, his pupils dilating and then expanding as he absorbed the information. After all the pieces seemed to click together in his head, Aiken stopped trying to find my weakness and stood still, his shoulders slumped.

“Will you join my crew?” he asked, quietly. “It’d be an honour to have a strategist like you on it.”

“No I fucking won’t. Get out. Stay out. Never see me again if you know what’s good for you.”

He did, taking his taut body and erect penis with him. He did for a whole day.

Like every man whose name starts with an ‘A’ and has dated me, Aiken reappeared like something out of a nightmare. This time it was in the shopping centre, just me spending money on clothes and poorly scripted imaginations.

“Joelle,” he said, his pitch higher than our pervious encounter. “I dreamed about you last night.”

I turned around and took him in—he was wearing the same clothes as he’d had when he’d left. His hair was disheveled, his eyes sunken and jittery. The only difference was that he came with weapons: swords and bows.

“The gods want us to be together,” he continued. “The spirits. They told me so.”

“You can’t really believe that shit,” I said as I tried to refocus on some silks.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s how we win raids.”

“And they’re telling you we’re going to get together?”

“That’s what they said.”

“What if I say ‘No’?” He’d worked his way over and stood next to me. I felt the heat of his body and the warmth of his breath.

“Then I have to take you. They told me to take you. You’re our salvation.”

I punched him in the jaw and ran. My fist hurt, the skin red and cracked from a lack of practice. It didn’t deter him though, his footsteps could be heard behind mine—crunching against the stone floor of the markets.

People were pushed out of the way, a man with a scimitar yelled at me and threatened my children in nine languages—I ignored him and kept going. Over baskets, through frames and down alleys—nothing shook Aiken. He kept coming, like a devil from a story told to children who needed to be aware they weren’t the toughest kids in the city.

As I had no tools for murder, I ran towards the stream. Maybe you know it as Death’s Beam? Some people say it’s where our magic comes from, I don’t know. Perhaps I don’t care. It’s not something you want to cross if you can help it. Don’t have a high enough magical ability? The stream takes you in a second. Aren’t quick enough to dodge the bursts of energy flowing through it? You’ll lose a limb, torso or leg. No one goes through it if they can avoid it.

I stopped once I’d reached it, looking at the glowing lights whizzing past and feeling their energy flow coarse me. People were yelling, saying I needed to come back and get away from where I was. I would’ve, if I hadn’t heard Aiken unsheathing his sword and the sound of his boots getting closer and closer, I would’ve. Except I had heard them, and so I jumped.

One light flashed passed, then another and another and another. They shot past me, my easily damaged frame missing them by millimeters. Roll, jump, dodge and so on went the actions until I was surrounded by people on the other side.

My heart was beating furiously, my forehead dripping with sweat and my breath laboured. Then people gasped, and I turned to watch as Aiken stepped into the steam.

He made three feet before the silhouette of his left arm disappeared. His legs followed, as did his head and finally, the remaining parts of his torso. In five breaths the Terror of the Southern Skies had disappeared forever.

A man with a white beard looked at me and jingled his coin-collection cup. “What did he do to you?” he asked when I put a couple in.

“He fucked me,” I told him.

“Guess he deserved it then,” the man replied as he checked the coins.

“Guess he did,” I said as I merged into the crowd. “Guess they all do.”

Fire Burns and Tails Whip

Mugi Comment:

This month I’m focusing on my writing group’s recently released anthology, 18. In addition to the interviews I’m doing with some of the collection’s authors, I’m also sharing my thoughts about the individual works and writers in the manuscript.

The Black Queen: Melanie Bird

I’m a sucker for forbidden love stories. Yes, I’m a guy. 100% male in all the right (or wrong) ways, but I can’t help it. Two lovers trapped in rigid societal roles while exchanging sly glances and dreaming of freedom. How can you not get drawn in especially if there’s an evil mother involved?

Now, imagine that type of story with dragons. Yeah? Yeah? I know. Where can we sign up, right?

Melanie knows her fantasy and she knows how to pull your heartstrings and make you whoop at all the right places. Basically, she knows how to write the pants off these types of tales and has a finishing line that’ll have you asking, “So when’s the novel going to be released, huh? Huh? Huhuhuhuhuhuh?”

Don’t wait, start your addiction to The Visiting Wind today by grabbing your short-story dose from Amazon. The anthology, 18, is free on the days when the planets align, and the rest of the month is priced at 99 cents. (Almost akin to a fire sale.)

So, find the dollar and let’s go have a cry together about these star-crossed lovers.

The Cogs Spin, They Always Spin

Mugi Comment:

This month I’m focusing on my writing group’s recently released anthology, 18. In addition to the interviews I’m doing with some of the collection’s authors, I’m also sharing my thoughts about the individual works and writers in the manuscript.

Nightfall: Kirstie Olley

I think people in the know say Kirstie Olley does Fairytale Punk. She takes those ideas you hold precious, spikes them and forces you to rethink about everything you’ve ever believed. It’s supposed to hurt, but when you’re deep in her fantasylands where the skies are pretty and the imagination is soaring, it’s difficult to feel the cuts to your psyche.

I guess that’s why she was a finalist for the Aurealis Awards and went to some swanky dinner with all the people I’ve always wanted to meet. What can I say? She rocks the English in a rad way?

Nightfall is no different. It’s about Marrielle who’s torn between the love of her family and her love of science and logic. Should she ignore what she knows and watch the end come? Or should she leave everything behind to save them?

It’s these types of questions that make people sit up and listen. And it’s Kirstie’s way with words that holds you to the bitter (or sweet) ending.

So, what are you waiting for? A hyperlink? Nightfall can be found on Amazon. It’s kind of free (during the right time periods), but you can definitely, absolutely, download it for the bargain price of 99 cents. And, let’s be truthful between ourselves, how insignificant a sum is that when you’re finding out how the world ends?

No Swords Required (Story 2)

“Yeah, pretty dead.” Tath kicked the body lying on the patchy grass. A knife and arrow protruded out of his head. “It’s not like I’m good at missing.”

Agra balanced a couple of shurikens on the tips of index fingers. He slowly started to move his arms around in a circular motion. As he increased the speed of the activity, his glasses slid down to the tip of his nose.

“You hear me?” Tath called out. “He’s dead, and he’s mine. The arrow goes in deeper.” To prove her point, she yanked it out of the corpse’s head and indicated at the blood on the shaft. “Definitely one for my column.”

Two shurikens whistled past her ears and thudded into a tree.

“That’s ridiculous,” Agra said as he walked towards her. He kept his gaze steady and—despite the setting sun—managed not to squint because of his cap. It was black with a blue whip embroidered on the front of it. “Mine definitely hit first.”

Tath flexed her muscular, dark-skinned arms and let out a low whistle. “Is that what all you boys say? ‘At least I got there first?’”

She didn’t say anything until Agra’s tall, wiry frame was next to hers. Then she added—while looking into his blue eyes, “Not a kill shot.”

“Thirty-five metres, that’s how far he was,” he said. “I didn’t chance it. That’s a poisoned knife.” He gestured towards the body. “Go on, pick it up or the kill goes in my column.”

She sighed. “Thirty-five? Really? More like twenty, and a bit. Look the shadows. The angle of the sun. I’ll give you it was around a tree, but mine went through them.” Tath pointed to the straight line of holes her arrow had made in the trees behind them. “Right into the cranium. I don’t need to pick up your cheap-ass knife. If he was dead, my arrow would’ve missed.”

A woman with mousy blonde hair stepped into the clearing. Her slight arms pulled two corpses behind her while the setting sun made her green eyes sparkle.

“Hey Mea,” Agra called out. “You saw it. I hit first. He staggered from the poison and, ‘bam’, went down.”

Tath rubbed her neck. “Staggered? Drunken kung-fu style into my arrow?” She shook her head. “I admit it was a good throw, but he’s for my fucking column. Put it down Mea, Tath, one. Ag, zero.”

She mouthed, “Yeah, mother fucker,” to Agra.

He replied by giving her the finger.

“How about one for both?” Mea asked. Her voice was deep, but soft.

“No,” Tath said. “He shoots blanks. Come on, we know this. Height don’t mean nothing.“ She tried to shove Agra out of the way but he stepped neatly away and she stumbled. “Fuck.”

“Just give them both a kill.” A man appeared from thin air. No one would’ve called him tall, but he was a centimeter taller than Tath, and five more than Mea. It was his full beard and torn jeans that gave him presence. Made him appear more in command of himself than his wavy brown hair suggested. “They won’t help set up camp otherwise.”

Tath had already stormed across the clearing. She poked the newcomer in the chest. “Look, Steh, you give one to him,” she jerked her thumb at Agra, “I ain’t helping. I’m going to sit on my ass and play with my fingers. Twiddle, twiddle, up a tree.”

Steh shrugged. He took a deep breath and conjured five metal cards. They started spinning in the air until a black portal opened and two bags dropped out. Both were large, green and made from canvas. He stroked his beard, grabbed the portal and shook it. A third one appeared, this time it was burlap and tied tight with a glowing cord.

The sound of the bag hinting the ground complimented Agra’s grunts as he pulled his shurikens out of the trees they were lodged in.

“Don’t help, don’t eat,” Steh said. “It’s not like we’re running a charity,”

“I got the target,” Tath said.

Steh blew on his hands and the cards disappeared. “I’m sure none of us could have managed that without you Tath. You’re our hero.”

“Yeah, well…fuck.” She kicked the ground. Her black leather boot gained another scuffmark. “I’ll cook. No one here can tell the difference between—”

“—Rosemary and apples,” Mea finished.

Tath glared.

“We’re all sorted then.” Steh tried to smile at both of them, but his beard made it look like a living organism was invading his mouth. Both women shuddered.

“Ag can get the meat,” he added quickly. “It’s what he does.”

#

The light brick was the size of a large hardcover book, but weighed fifteen kilograms. It made enough heat to sizzle meat, keep them warm, and boil water. It also provided the group with sufficient light to work in the grass clearing as if the sun hadn’t gone down.

If Steh hadn’t had tinkered with it though, they’d all have been dead by now. Blown up by one of the many faulty products Ai Corp produced. The director of the company would’ve quit, again, and then been rehired for her outstanding service. A large press conference would’ve been held and they would’ve talked about those ‘small town people’ as if they had a mental disorder.

Except he had tinkered, like he did with everything they picked up along the way. Including their most recent acquisition: the dead man’s pocket watch.

“Can’t believe they still have these,” Steh mumbled to himself. “Thought they were extinct.”

“…there I was with this ass, man,” Tath said to the other two. “Just staring at me. It was a really good ass. Hard, like you punch it and it doesn’t go red.”

Agra glanced over at her, and wiped the meat stains from the corner of his mouth. “That good?”

“You don’t get to have one of those every day. Just lying there. And he turns over, and…it’s like…that tiny screwdriver Steh carries. Fully up.”

Mea was sitting on a log they’d moved over. A tattered book was in her hands, mostly read. “Was it worth it?” she asked.

“I tried everything,” Tath continued. “We did it up, down, hanging from the ceiling. I did my rope trick—”

“—The one where you both hang from ropes and make love in the air?” Agra interjected.

“Yeah, that one. Every time. Every time I’ve fucked a guy with that…mind blown.” She raised her eyebrows.

“Nothing?”

“He comes away all smiles and I’m left with popsicles.” Tath paused and picked up her plate. After stuffing a fried potato in her mouth, she continued. “How can you have such an amazing ass and not…be good? Right? Right?

Mea caught Tath’s gaze and turned a page. “Quick sex isn’t for me. Men are too easily breakable.”

Agra stood up, walked over to the light brick and pushed the rest of his plate’s contents towards it. All the scraps blackened and turned to ash. “At least you weren’t trapped in that wheel for ten days. She kept preaching on and on about how the aliens were only coming for the unprobed.”

“How many times do we have to save you from your dates?” Tath asked as she slid up behind him. Reaching around his body, she emptied her plate onto the brick. “Sometimes everything you need’s right here.”

He turned, his deep blue eyes staring into her browns. Their skin colours interweaved: black, white, black, white, black.

“But you snore like a fat man with a breathing problem,” he said. “I’d turn into an insomniac who killed people for fun.”

“Don’t you do that now?” Mea commented, her eyes fixed on the page in front of her.

“Yeah, but for real.” His gaze drifted down Tath’s body. Past her large breasts, over her tight abs and down towards her thick baggy pants she always wore. “You know my condition,” he concluded.

“Fuck,” Tath fluffed her hair and walked away. “I’m not looking for a boyfriend, y’know? I just want sex. And I’m out in these woods with you forever.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky this time,” he commented as he sat down. “Never know what’s in Ristie’s crazy bag.”

“Hey Steh,” Tath called out. “Distract us. Ag’s talking about the bag.”

As if on cue, he held up his latest invention. “It was a pocket watch, now it’s a pocket watch and a kinetic exploder.”

“Oh?” Mea asked, her eyes finally drifting up from the novel. “You figured that out?”

Steh’s face went red. “It’s not all there. It’s…it absorbs energy until the hands spin off. I’m still working on the explosion part.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out. She always sends us to far away towns, we’ll have plenty of travel hours to kill.”

“So it is bag time?” Steh asked as he put the pocket watch on the ground. “Well…shit.”

“Mea,” Tath said in a sing-song voice. “Meeeaaaa. Guess whose turn it is?”

“I know.” She snapped her book shut, stood up and walked over to the burlap sack. When she touched the cord, it turned green then red and finally yellow. It floated to the ground without aid.

The bag spoke, like it always did, in a deep and pompous voice. “Good, good. You took even longer to complete this task than your normal glacial pace. Impressive. Still, as I often say to my little sacks, a dead man is a good man.” It laughed at its own joke. “Well, Meagh, what will you seek today? Fortune, fame? Bronze statues with helmets?”

“Death,” she whispered. “I only seek death.”

“As one must! Now thrust you hand in, don’t tickle me too much, and I guarantee you will find some such!”

Her olive-skinned hand slid down into the bag and rummaged around. She picked up and discarded four different scrolls before settling on one that seemed almost friendly to her. Almost.

“Ho ho,” the bag said as she withdrew it. “That’s a good one. Keep you plenty busy.”

The bag’s cord flew up and tied itself around the sack’s neck.

Plenty busy,” Tath remarked. “Where? Hokkaido? New Zealand? Goddamn Australia?”

“You should have a ‘neo’ in front of those,” Agra advised. “Remember?”

“Sendai,” Mea said before anyone else could comment. “It’s one of mine. We’re going to Neo-Sendai.”

#

Sendai used to be a good town. It was the right kind for growing families: large enough to have everyone’s favourite stores and all the brand shops, yet small enough to have a community. It had a baseball team once, a bullet train that could take you north or south through Japan and friendly people who spoke reasonable English. Then came the Chinese-American war, then came the earthquake Piroarago.

Now it was crumbling high-rises, broken tracks and miles and miles of one-to-two floor apartments. Concrete rubble lay on the ground and even though there was still a government, shops had been assigned locations to stop militant raids. The idea had come from a simple theory: thieves are lazy. If they had to travel a reasonable distance from one location to another, they simply wouldn’t. Local economy saved.

Correct or not, it had worked—most of the time.

“Would you like a kimono?” an over-weight store clerk asked Tath. His glasses and blue eyes made him appear quick-witted, aware; his crinkled face took all that away. Rather, the only interesting thing about was his white-skin. A sign the times were changing.

No,” she snapped. “Wandering adventurer here. What would I do with a kimono in the woods? Use it to jack off rake man over there?” She jerked a thumb at Agra.

“It is very smooth.” The store clerk pressed some of the material into her hands. “The finest silk from the Chinese mainland. Maybe this will finally let you satisfy him?”

What did you say to me?” She grabbed the clerk by his collar and shoved him against the wall. Several bowls and chopsticks crashed to the floor. “You saying I ain’t good with men? I’m Tath. I’m a legend down south. Men queue up to get me.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Come on,” Agra said. “He’s got a lot of good stuff. And the kimono would look good on you.”

The comment seemed to catch her off guard and made her blush, just a little. She relaxed her grip.

“If we weren’t heroes,” Agra continued, “maybe you’d have time for it.”

“Fucking patriarchy,” she said as she yanked the store clerk’s shirt back into position. “You read up on that for me. You get self-aware, alright?”

“Yes,” the clerk commented as he bustled back to the counter. “Patriarchy. Definitely.”

When they got to the meeting point, at the edge of the city, Steh was already there. Like always. He tossed both of them an apple.

“Guess who I met?” he asked.

“Hunnam, the writer with abs?” Tath asked.

“I remember him more for his treatise on the income inequality of abnormal species. But close, someone interested in the forbidden arts.”

“Someone interested in reading?” Agra said before taking off his glasses and cleaning them on his black t-shirt. “No one’s that—” He paused. “Linda.

“Yes, Linda,” Steh confirmed. “She looked good. Still has different coloured eyes though.”

“Linda is here, and you’re worried about her eyes?” Tath asked, her voice rising an octave. “We’re on a mission looking for a book. That’s all she does.

“Absolutely,” Steh took a bite of his apple. “Pretty convenient, isn’t it? She could be anywhere in the world, and she’s here. In the same city. Asking about the same book.” He swallowed. “And there’s a band of roving thugs the city would pay a million yen for each.”

“There’s always a roving band of thugs,” she replied. “There’s always a reward. You keep going on about them, like we fucking care.”

Steh sighed. “Well, I care. We kill enough people. I think we should get rich doing it. My hobby’s expensive.”

“So Mea’s. Hey,” Tath paused and looked around. “Where is she?”

#

Mea was only interested in one thing: books. Or more specifically, a series of books: Arry Motter and The Legendary Tales of His Wang. She’d already purchased, cajoled, murdered and lied to get five out of the seven, and—according to the mission orders—they were about to find another in a cave outside of Sendai. Which made it especially important for her to finish re-reading the last one she had of the series.

That was why she was sitting on one of the benches surrounding the only working fountain in the city. It was not because of the heat, although her top was sleeveless and low-cut, or that she wanted to be with people. It was the only place with benches, and she believed—firmly—that books should be read while sitting on something. Not on the ground.

Unfortunately, for her, it was also a place with people. Lots of people. And where there were lots of people, there was always that man. The guy who thought he should just say hello and sit next to her for a conversation. This time his name was Dey. He had black hair, a chiselled jaw and smelled of flowers. His shirt was also unbuttoned and showed a hairless and rock-hard chest.

“…favourite from that series is Nor. He reminds me of everyone I know. Tries hard, but never gets anywhere.”

Mea attempted to be polite. “You’ve read it?”

“Of course. First girleo I showed ‘the magic to made me.” He adjusted his position on the bench by edging closer to Mea. “I know they say reading’s forbidden, but they didn’t talk about writing.” He let out a puff of air. “Y’know, I’m quite famous in these parts. I’ve penned a few tomes. Mostly works of art. Pretty much defined a genre.”

Mea cleared her throat, gently closed her book and placed it on her lap. She scratched her forehead and sighed.

Dey didn’t seem to notice and continued, “Arry Motter isn’t that good. It probably shouldn’t have even been printed. Lapses in character. Set in London. What’s all that? Why localize? It’s not like it’s important. True fans know what I’m saying. It’s the fangirls that keep it popular. Not the real readers.”

She turned. “Are you criticizing my favourite series?”

“Constructively.” He held up his hands as if defending against invisible punches. “Hoooliiiie, you’re sensitive. Fake nerd girl alert! Gawd, didn’t take you for the type.” He paused and then pointed at her. “You know what you need? A little bit of love. Love from a mind that is truly…enlightened.”

“So you just thought you’d come over and let me know I was enjoying a terrible novel?”

“To enlighten you. All the mothers of Cthulhu combined. You wouldn’t read that shit if you knew what good stories were.”

Her eyes flashed yellow. “I am getting angry, Dey. I would appreciate it if you walked away and annoyed some other woman.”

He slid his arm around her. “Ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got some fiction you need to read.”

Mea punched him right in the jaw. It shattered. He flew sixty metres and crashed into a wall. His skull cracked open and he died twenty seconds later. She didn’t wait that long to start running. She just ran and hoped nobody had noticed. Everyone had.

#

When the three of them saw Mea sprinting towards them they guessed what had happened and did likewise. They ran until they were out of breath then jogged towards the cave’s location until the only sounds they could hear were from the forest. They didn’t stop even when they knew they were safe, they just slowed to a walk and kept trudging on in silence. It was well past midday by the time they reached their destination. And, if they were lucky, the next book in the series.

Unfortunately, they could make out a pillar of smoke coming from the direction of the cave. A tall, wide pillar of Old Testament proportions.

“Just a group of bandits,” Tath remarked. “Nothing we haven’t handled before.”

Steh didn’t appear so convinced. “That’s a huge amount of smoke for seven bandits. Plus, they have the caves.”

“OK, worry-balls, send your little things out.” She waved dismissively in the air and then mumbled, “Takes us longer. Stupid books.”

He pulled out two of his metal cards: They were green and had tiny lenses in them. Whatever the lenses looked at showed up on the card’s surface.

“Turn invisible,” Steh commanded. They did. “Scout the caves ahead,” he told them. They flew off.

“I guess it’s good to get a layout,” Tath huffed. “Still think we can take them. Stupid Sendai. Can’t go back there now.”

“He insulted Arry,” Mea offered as an excuse. “And men—”

“—Break too easily,” Agra finished. “We know. We just wish you wouldn’t break so many.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t if there weren’t so many bad ones,” she mumbled.

The scouts came back thirty minutes later, and the video they’d recorded contained nothing the group wanted to see. Not a single frame.

“Twenty-five?” Agra asked. “Count them again.”

“We have,” Tath snapped. “There’s twenty-five.” She punched the tree nearest her. “Fuck!” Her knuckles bled. Yanking the bow off her back, she slashed the air frantically. “FUCK!”

“If Linda touches the book before we do, we’re done for,” Mea added. “And she’s coming. She’ll just get more resources than us and flush them out.”

“We knew it had to happen one day,” Steh said as he pulled at his beard. “Let’s just make a plan so we can go out in style.”

#

Tath sat away from the light brick polishing her bow. She liked its curves, the way the runes had been inserted and how Steh’s magic made it glow or not glow on her command. Books had taught her how to make the weapon. How to make the fire arrows in her quiver, the rope ones using portal magic and how to accurately do a triple shot. She’d learned everything from them. Everything except how to break the curse.

She felt Agra slide down beside her. His eyes were staring into the darkness and had gone deep like an ocean. The same way they always did when he was worried.

“We’re not going to make it tomorrow,” he started.

“I know,” she replied.

“They’ve got juggers. I never thought…I know magic’s powerful, but to inject it into someone like that? I thought they were a myth.”

“I’ve killed one before. Had to cut his dick off.” She tried to smile at him, but they ended up chuckling instead. “Really,” Tath persisted. “That’s the best way. Cut it off. Then finish him.”

“It’s a good plan we made,” Agra said before going quiet and staring into the distance once more. Animals rustled in the darkness.

“You get this, don’t you?” he asked her.

Tath tilted her head questioningly.

“Combat,” he explained. “We would never have made it this far without you. And, I know I give you shit, but you’re my friend.”

“We can be sex friends.”

“I don’t know how that works. I get so…serious.”

They paused, and listened to the sounds of Steh tinkering and Mea turning pages.

“Do you regret that day?” she asked. “The one we snuck in there?”

“Into Ristie’s castle?” He laughed and ruffled her hair. “Never. She’s got to get bored with us soon. We can’t be that interesting.”

“Or we’ll die tomorrow and some other sap will get cursed.”

“Yeah.” He stood up. “That’s more likely.”

Tath started polishing her bow again, but then Agra’s footsteps stopped.

“That was your kill,” he said. “There wasn’t any poison. I guess I’m the lowest in the group rankings now.”

She smiled and whispered, “Bastard,” as he soon as he was out of earshot.

#

Mea looked around the clearing. The bandits had done a good job of securing the place: they’d cut all the trees down within a fifty-metre radius of the cave entrance, had a large fire burning so people couldn’t sneak up during the night and kept archers posted behind metal barricades just inside of the entrance. It was hard dirt too, difficult for tunnel machines to get through and the men kept their distance from each other. Most seemed alert, well-trained.

They were ready for everything.

Except me, she thought to herself as her concentration flowed down towards her legs. Then she jumped, flew sixty metres into the air and hit the ground to the right of the fire. The dirt cracked and the three soldiers she’d landed in the middle of inhaled sharply. Mea could smell the leather of their scabbards and hear them fumbling with their swords.

Too slow, she thought. You’re all too slow. 

#

Steh teleported directly above the two guards to the left of the fire. They had their weapons ready to battle a monster, but not a magician. He threw a card at each of them. They screamed as the metal rectangles sunk into their throats and the devices exploded. A shower of blood rained down on him along with some brain and possibly nervous system.

He dashed behind the fire as he heard the enemy archer located behind him hit the ground, he assumed dead.

If you’ve missed Tath, I’ll kill you, he thought.

A non-friendly arrow flew over his head. He waited and hoped. There were no more sounds to the rear of him, but there were some screams to the right. He heard bones shatter as a soldier smacked into the mountain’s side.

“How are we?” Tath asked as she slid next to him. Another arrow whistled through the flames above.

“Waiting,” Steh replied.

“For Mea?”

“Aren’t we always?”

#

Mea picked up the last swordsman by his hair, and then slammed his face into the dirt. It transformed into a pool of blood beneath her hand.

Taking a deep breath, she checked the area. Agra was in position to the left of the cave’s entrance; Tath and Steh were hiding behind the fire. She was clearly late, again.

Breathing in, she focused her energy into her legs and jumped once more.

#

Agra waited until Mea landed in the centre of the cave’s entrance and he heard her roar. Then he sneaked a quick look around the corner—an enemy archer was standing up behind a metal barricade and ready to fire. He flicked a knife down from one of his holders, peeked again and threw. The guard screamed in a good way: the I’m-going-die-soon way.

He took three quick breaths and whistled. It didn’t take long before he heard it. No one couldn’t have: Tath’s boommaker. It travelled at the speed of sound and the noise it made punched into your eardrums like fireworks.

He thanked Steh for their ear protector’s that cut out certain frequencies, and he thanked—whatever deity there was in the sky—that they’d given Steh his inventive mind. A second later, he popped his head around the corner and threw a knife at an archer who was rocking back and forwards holding her ears.

And then he saw the jugger. He was big. Probably three metres wide and three tall. He was also running straight towards the entrance. Agra let out an owl call.

#

Steh summoned four of his cards, teleported in front of the cave’s entrance and shot them straight at the monster. They didn’t work. They hit an invisible wall and deflected in a million directions.

Fucking shield tech, he thought as the thing came crashing towards him.

He dodged, dodged a second time and rolled to safety. Mea rushed passed him, Tath too.

“Cut its penis off,” Steh heard Agra yell before his companion slid into the cave.

A giant fist flew above him. Then he felt something connect, and six ribs break. The six he hadn’t been able to afford a metal bonding for.

He said nothing as he went down. He couldn’t. Instead, Steh tried to think of a summoning spell, anything, but his mind was scrambled.

Instead, he did what he could and rolled. He kept on rolling as fast as he could even though the monster was laughing. Then he hit a wall and felt something crush his leg. Blackness swam before his eyes and his body convulsed in pain.

His right hand had found something in his pockets, but he didn’t know what it was. It was metal, and round. He hoped it was grenade because he could just make out the jugger standing over him preparing for its final blow. He threw the device upwards and towards the monster’s crotch.

The looming shadow stopped moving completely. Steh didn’t need any more encouragement and started crawling away. The sound of something being cut, a gigantic roar of pain and then an explosion followed. Steh felt the earth shake as the jugger thudded to earth. He hoped it was dead.

He hoped, but didn’t care because the stars were beautiful and they were coming for him.

#

Tath heard Mea wrecking havoc on the barracks, she also heard Agra’s scream as he fought bandits in the mess hall but she couldn’t help. No matter how much her heart burned, because the enemy commander was just ahead.

She kicked open the rotten wooden doors to the kitchen and stared at the marble walls. The room couldn’t have been built recently, it was too posh—too impractical. It had to have been an executive bunker from when the war broke out.

The sink fittings sparkled chrome and the bench was old wood: dark brown and had been placed squarely in the middle. Fridges hummed away on a magical power source designed by one of the more competent Ai Corp departments.

Two arrows flew towards her, she dropped to the ground and scrambled over to the preparation bench.

“There’s two more juggers,” a deep voice called out. She risked a peek. His skin was half-olive, half-yellow. He had a shaved head and bushy eyebrows. And his hands were glowing green.

Fucking magic, Tath thought.

“My name’s Rish,” the man said. “I’m a relatively flexible guy. Run a decent operation.”

She heard the sound of a bow’s string being pulled back.

“You’re ruining that operation,” he continued. “Which is bad. But good, if you’d like to join me.”

“Where’s the book?” she yelled.

A boomerang arrow flew over the bench and curled back towards her. She dodged, but only just. It was glowing with the same green as Rish’s hands.

“There’s no book,” he replied, the confidence in his voice growing. “There’s only a locked door at the end of the next hall.”

Locked door, end of the hall. Right. Tath looked at her hands, they weren’t steady. Another glowing arrow circled around behind her and lunged for her heart. She threw herself to the side, but it clipped her arm all the same.

“Fuck,” she mumbled and slid three arrows into her bow. “I just need a second. One second.”

The problem was, Tath was pretty certain Rish’s archer was better positioned. But she was out of options, one more magic arrow and it was over.

“Dying is just like going home,” she told herself. “That’s what Aura said. Dying is just like going home.” She chuckled. “I wonder if there’s kimono’s there.”

Taking one last breath, she pushed out from the table and leapt…but it was too late, the archer’s arrow was already in the air. And then she saw the flying corpse.

#

Mea was angry. More angry than she’d ever been and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t make her rage dissipate. She was even hauling a man’s corpse with her for no reason except that he had nicked part of her leg during combat. It hurt and that made her mad—that and the fact she couldn’t find Tath. She needed Tath. More than anything right now she needed her friend and the rooms were confusing.

Everyone in the mess hall was dead, except for a pale Agra who had a penis in his right hand, a massive gash in his chest and was laughing. Mea didn’t care if he bled out.

There was a locked door she couldn’t get past no matter how many times she slammed the corpse she was carrying against it. The armoury was clear, so was the barracks. She started to hyperventilate. Where was Tath?

Then Mea saw her through the open kitchen door. Tath had her bow drawn back, but she was trembling, and Mea could tell just how scared she was. There was a man in the room too, a man with bushy eyebrows and his eyes said he wanted Tath dead.

Mea threw the corpse and something green and glowing thwaked into it.

Tath released the bowstring. Three people screamed. Four bodies thudded to the floor. Tath was still standing though. Her slow smile still alive on her face; her brown eyes still sparkling because of the furnace in the kitchen.

Mea ran to her.

#

“Fuck,” Tath said as she felt her breath being crushed out of her. “Put me down. Dammit, Mea! Put me down.” When she was on the ground, Tath took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Neither of them were really hurt.

“How’s the boys?” Tath asked.

“Almost dead.”

“Men. Just. Fuck.” Tath grabbed Mea’s shoulder and laughed. “We’ll be fucking legends after this. Bigger than Kvothe.”

“No one’s bigger than Kvothe,” Mea said, her tone becoming serious.

“Fuck, he’s fictional. We’re real as shit.” Tath leaned on her friend for support. “Haul my ass to that door. I’ve got the mother fucking key right here.”

#

To both Tath and Mea’s surprise, their scroll not only unlocked the door but also the chest. They’d never known Ristie to be so kind.

“What the fuck?” Tath said. “Is that a book? I’m not delusional, right? That’s the book right there.”

Mea grabbed the novel out of the chest and unwrapped it. Her face went from excited, to depressed and then to angry in seconds. After a deep breath, she slowly wrapped the tome back up.

It wasn’t book six. It was book five. She’d copied the wrong instructions.

#

Agra dropped the penis he was holding to the floor and commented, with a slur, “I guess magic does make you smaller.”

“We have your friend,” a voice boomed into the caves. It was a woman’s—strong and commanding. He knew who it was. There was only one person in the world insane enough to hunt for books for fun—Linda.

“Tath,” he called out. “Mea. I don’t think I can fight another army.”

He could feel the blood congealing on his chest in thick, ropy clots and he wondered how long he had. Wondered if he’d die alone.

“You stupid fucker,” Tath said, suddenly at the mess hall’s doorway. “We’ve got a fucking mutant on our team. You could’ve called for help.”

“Wasn’t in the plan,” Agra replied as he felt their hands under his arms, hauling him to his feet. He opened his eyes, they both looked more beautiful then Jennifer ever had.

“Come out with the book,” Linda’s disembodied voice commanded.

“Well? Solutions?” he asked.

“She gives us Steh, she can have it,” Mea grumbled. “Stupid scrolls.”

He chuckled, and attempted walking with his own feet. “How many did you get Tath?”

“Four.”

“Bagged myself five and a jugger. Guess you can have the bottom of the ladder all to your lonesome.”

#

Linda, as they expected, had brought an army. Sixty soldiers—all in glittering armour and all looking like they belonged in a different world. At the front was the book huntress herself with her blue and violet eyes, long black hair and pointy nose. When the moonlight glanced off her pale skin, it made Linda appear graceful, at peace with the woods surrounding her.

“The book,” she said. “Give me the book for your friend.”

Tath chuckled. “He’s not our friend. He’s a fucking legend.”

“Well, the book for your…fucking legend,” she corrected.

“Promise Linda?” Mea asked. “On the book collectors code of honour?”

“Yes, fine,” she replied. “I, on the book collectors code of honour, promise to give you your…legend…back. And let you leave in peace.”

“Here,” Tath tossed it. “Come on Steh, let’s go.”

Steh didn’t move, so Mea picked him and slung him over her shoulder. He made a small grunting sound and mumbled, “Pocket watches. They’re the next thing.”

About sixty metres from the opening, they heard Linda scream. Tath and Mea looked at one another and grinned.

It’s Time for Your Stubble to Man Up

Mugi Comment: 

This month I’m focusing on my writing group’s recently released anthology, 18. In addition to the interviews I’m doing with some of the collection’s authors, I’m also sharing my thoughts about the individual works and writers in the manuscript.

How to Grow a Beard: Meghann Laverick

Meghann knows things. She knows grammar, she knows how amazing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is, and she knows how to make people laugh. And laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

So when she put together this little tale about a magician’s apprentice failing at growing a beard, I thought I was ready. I thought I knew how funny Meghann was. I mean, I saw her monthly and we bantered until our sides hurt.

I did not expect spittle to fly out of my mouth because I was laughing so much. I did not expect to grab my wife the moment she got home from work and force her to listen to the story. These things were unknowable. You know what else occurred? Meghann stopped, at that moment, from being ‘Writing Group Bantering Partner’ to simply being ‘The Legend’.

Out of all the stories in 18, this is the one I’m not sure if you’re ready for. I don’t know if you have enough stomach muscles to get you through the narrative. But, if you’re up to date with your crunches, it’s available. You can snatch it up on Amazon. Hell, we’ve even made it free when we can (although Amazon does love that price cap of 99 cents).

So, are you certain? Are you truly prepared to join with me in calling Meghann ‘The Legend’?

Wild Winds

Ficharn flicks his eyes at me. One silver, the other green. Both trouble. Always.

“Whatcha doin?” he asks upside down from the burnt out oak Father should’ve removed before he died. “You knittin’ again? For dem fellas?”

“I’m smithing,” I reply tiredly as another spark stings my skin. “Knitting’s for girls.”

“Well you be one of them. Got all the parts. Big ovals hanging out and everything. That’s what Ricky says.”

I turn on him, magical hammer in hand, and glare. He’s not afraid, he just smiles.

Brothers, I think as I turn back to the blade. “Ricky says he likes them bigger,” I admit. “I asked. Told me it was all him. That I’m wonderful,” I bang the hammer on the piece of steel I’m working on and ignore additional burns I get because of it, “but I’m not… I’m not his type. That he’s working things through.”

There’s a soft pitter-patter on the grass behind me. The lightness of my brother’s feet. The lightness of a born Furlurn. “Boys be like that,’ he says. “Lying, manipulative things. You be better off without him.”

“I know.” I do a double tap to put a groove in the steel. I can only do them when I’m angry and now’s a good time. Especially with the East Wind up. It’ll help me make a good water blade.

Ficharn’s chin rests on my shoulders as he looks down at the sword. “I be killing him for you, if ya want. Be silent as the rain.”

“No,” I whisper. I double tap it again. “It’s storm time Fich, we need friends in this weather. And killing him, it would cause us problems.”

His left eye starts to glow silver. Shivers go up my spine. “Oh, it ain’t us be having the problems in storm time Shell. It be them. It be them now.”

I bang the blade twice as the wind whips around us once more, stronger this time. “No,” I want to argue back. “No,” I want to tell him and that we need shelter and allies, but he’s right. It is storm time and we’re not the ones who should be afraid. They should be. All of them.

Ocean Doubts

Nalesh’s fingers were long and skinny. They could’ve been the fingers of a musician, of a baker, of a model. They could’ve been all of those things. But they weren’t, they were fingers which picked at scabs and old scars when things got tough.

Like when she went hungry, when her boat creaked, when water lapped against her ankles or when a man with jittery body movements jostled next to her during the storms. And if they hadn’t been picked, then they wouldn’t have been Nalesh’s fingers. They would’ve been someone else’s.

Someone walking around a tall building with books, someone who wore dresses which swirled and had never cried through the night because the village well had run dry. Maybe they wouldn’t have watched their mother beg and cry as diseases took all her family, or heard the grunt and groans as a body was sold for Narlesh’s fare. Under no circumstances did they need to worry about animals nipping at their ankles in a dirty cargo hold as they slept.

“We’ll be there soon,” a voice called out to the mass of contorted bodies she was squished in. “A new life awaits you.”

She would’ve believed the voice, if it hadn’t said the same thing every night since they’d been boarded by well-dressed humans with white shirts and pants without patches. “Officers,” they’d called themselves and they’d flashed bright lights into her eyes, hauled her to the top deck and talked in a language she didn’t understand.

Then they’d told the Captain something and the land she could see from the ship started to disappear until it was no more. Only sea remained, and then trickles of light as she was shoved back into the hold with all the others.

“Jutral,” Nalesh remembered her mother whispering to her before a woman with scars had pulled them apart. “Jutral is freedom.”

Nalesh wasn’t certain about that. But she knew life was unfair, and there was a man named Yton who turned all the boats away. Every single one. And he hated little girls whose skin was darker than the night sky and had dreams bigger than his.

So in that hold, under all the limbs of everyone else — Nalesh took out the tiny sketch of Yton she’d given away several meals for; and vowed, “On Zinneel’s tomb, I promise you forever peace.”

“Forever peace.”

With a sigh, Nalesh put the sketch back in her underpants and waited. Her chance for freedom was coming and she knew nothing would stop her from taking it.