All posts by Set Sytes

Author of all things dark and weird. "I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited." - Sylvia Plath. "When you've fallen on the highway and you're lying in the rain, and they ask you how you're doing, of course you'll say you can't complain. If you're squeezed for information, that's when you've got to play it dumb: You just say you're out there waiting for the miracle, for the miracle to come." - Leonard Cohen

Justice League movie thoughts

I meant to post this a while ago, but I got distracted. Seems a little late now, but oh well.

I’d loved Batman v Superman (Ultimate Edition especially) despite it being critically mauled and many people hating it (the movie appears to be like marmite), so despite the bad reviews for JL I still wanted to see it. Maybe some of you still wonder ‘what would somebody who liked Batman v Superman think about Justice League?’

So here are my thoughts… Mild spoilers (assuming you know about Superman).

I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. That *quite* is the operative word, because it’s been the movie I was most hyped for this year and by all rights I should be worshipping the movie. It IS entertaining, more entertaining in an obvious manner than BvS which many found glum and plodding. It does have significant flaws though, that should never have been the case and mar the movie’s potential.

First, the positives. More Battfleck. His look is perfect, he’s the living embodiment of the Arkham Asylum/City Batman, right down to the gold utility belt and armour plating. And his performance I still love. He’s still my favourite Batman.

Character interactions. It’s great to see a DCEU movie with these characters I love interacting with each other. Honestly those are the best bits of the movie, better than the action scenes.

Colour and general cinematography. It’s more colourful than BvS which is generally a positive when it comes to my preference – I love vibrant colour. When the CGI isn’t heavy (see flaws), the movie looks gorgeous. Like the scene with WW and Cyborg in the street in what I think was Gotham (always and forever the best looking comicbook city).

The credits sequences. The first is okay, a classic comicbook scene/piece of fan service that isn’t executed that well. The second is pretty good, and gives a much more positive direction for the Justice League movies after this (if they make more) – without spoilers, it’s seriously just the way they need to go now. My only criticism is you have to wait literally the entire length of the credits, which is ages. I can’t remember the last time I had to wait that long for a scene.

Flaws! The Flash while often funny and a nice character, sometimes was played a little TOO awkward. Also, Joss Whedon, we really don’t need that many interjected jokes, this isn’t Marvel. I hope the Flash continues to be funny but less in an awkward way, and he gains more confidence and charisma.

The runtime. Warner Bros forced the movie to be under 2 hours which is utter bollocks for a huge teamup movie, especially one that introduces three entirely new main characters. The movie moves too fast at times and so doesn’t give enough weight to its story. It’s not a huge deal but with movies like this they need to take their time and flesh it out. There is one bit in particular that really seems like there was a missing scene. There are also numerous scenes in the trailers that aren’t present. Seriously, fuck WB for not learning their lesson from BvS theatrical edition.

The villain. Yay another CGI villain. It’s not as awful as in Suicide Squad but he’s just not interesting. What CGI villains are? He has no presence. Probably because he’s literally not there.

The plot… isn’t that bad if you know the essentials of things like Motherboxes, Steppenwolf, Darkseid etc. If not (like most of the audience), you won’t really know what it’s all about. Darkseid’s name is mentioned literally once without context and that’s all the confusing reference you’ll get. Steppenwolf keeps addressing ‘Mother’, but Darkseid is not a mother.

While this isn’t ideal especially for people not versed in the comicbook lore, the plot to me and general shape of the entire movie, action included, felt like a full length live-action version of one of the classic Justice League animated episodes. It’s just that kinda thing. I love that show so I was pleased but that kind of thing doesn’t translate so well into ‘mindblowing movie’, and especially not one that gives you much to think about after.

Superman. He’s always been a problem in Justice League things, because he’s so powerful that you often feel like the rest of JL are superfluous. Hence the need for good writing to get around this. No such thing in this movie – when he shows up all tension drops and you wonder why the rest of JL don’t just go home. He’s the permanent top trump card and once that is out the game might as well be over.

Now, the most glaring issue. The CGI. At times, when it’s not excessive (which isn’t that often), it’s fine, or at least not distracting. But there are many times when it looks like it’s a decade old, or even older. Times are just plain bad. Those purple tendrils. Water scenes and speedforce scenes just seem blurry and foggy, like you’re watching on VHS. All Superman scenes especially near the end when he’s fighting are the worst. It’s just inexcusable to have poor CGI for such a huge movie now. Such a shame.

Connecting to this, special mention goes to Cavill’s face. I know the dumb-as-hell reason for it, but I didn’t really notice too much about his upper lip when I was concentrating on it. It was his whole face that just looked wrong. Like there was something off you couldn’t quite put your finger on. It just about ruined every Superman scene, especially when he was smiling, which he did a number of times. That itself is fine, but not when you have an uncanny valley face.

One more flaw is that the soundtrack was simply forgettable for the most part. Hans Zimmer MADE Batman v Superman. His score was brilliant. Here the Danny Elfman score just isn’t engaging. Another great Zimmer score was sorely needed to elevate the action parts of this movie.

All in all, it was an entertaining movie and if you love these characters and want to see them on a big screen doing what they see, then go and see it at the cinema. It won’t be as good off the cinema for sure. That will be when the flaws are more obvious.

While I still want to watch it again and I got a lot of a kick out of much of it, it was disappointing and frustrating that movie execs, director/studio-pandering reshoots (I actually think it’d have been better without Joss Whedon stamping his mark all over it), a poor villain and cheap looking CGI, and an unworthy soundtrack stopped this movie from being amazing. It could have also much benefitted from one more DCEU movie before this one. A solo Aquaman movie would have been the best fit, given he had less of any kind of arc/development than Cyborg or Flash. That would have meant only two new main characters introduced instead of three.

Well, there you have it. An enjoyable disappointment. Like many things in life.

 

Justice League

How Not to Kill Yourself paperback!

One of the few times waking up to a terrific banging is worthwhile. Author copies! Excited to recieve it, after waiting for what has seemed like half a century. I hope everyone else who were part of the Kickstarter enjoys their copy!

Official release date… not till March! Back I go into hibernation.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead now on Amazon!

It’s been quite a while since I wrote India Bones and the Ship of the Dead – a year maybe? – but I’m happy to say it’s finally available as an ebook on Amazon! It seems that it’s more than likely Microcosm (publishers for How Not to Kill Yourself) will be printing it too!

If you love original fantasy, YA/NA fantasy, pirates, and adventure stories, or all of them together, you could do a lot worse than check it out here.

 

INDIA BONES AND THE SHIP OF THE DEAD is the first book in a thrilling new pirate fantasy series for teenagers and adults, featuring the adventurous exploits of the young India Bones in an exotic yet dangerous world as different from our own as it is similar.

India Bones small cover

(Cover not final version)

 

HNTKY Kickstarter success!

Sorry for the lateness of this post. I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks, and then been trying to catch up with various things.

During this time my Kickstarter for my non-fiction anti-suicide/depression book How Not to Kill Yourself came to a close. I’m pleased to report it was a resounding success, making more than double what it was trying to raise!

I owe many thanks to Microcosm for making this happen. And I can only look forward now, both to the fulfillment of the many pledges by backers, to the official release date of the book in March.

Keep on chooglin’.

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Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down review

Okay, more just some informal thoughts on the album rather than a professional review. Manson is my favourite artist and has been pretty much since I first truly got into music, the soundtrack to my later teenage years and a great and lasting creative inspiration to me, so it’d be remiss of me not to post my thoughts on his new work.

As a friend of mine has said, there are three tiers of Mansons’ works. Top tier – the triptych, second – GAOG and POAAF, and third tier everything after. Which while good, maybe even great in parts, has never matched up to the previous tiers, but that’s okay. This new work has naturally not transcended third tier, but it is still great.

After the Pale Emperor I said, with some hesitance, that it was his best work since GAOG. Now I say that it has been replaced by this album, and with a bit more confidence.

You’d be forgiven for having doubts. My first spin of the first single We Know Where You Fucking Live did not impress me. Thankfully it’s a definite grower (and the music video, while not great, does somehow make the song better), and is definitely better when listened to as part of the fuller album. That said, it is most assuredly one of the weakest songs of the album.

The first song of the album, Revelation 12, I find the weakest (read: least catchy), but it isn’t *bad*. There are no stinkers on the album (although I’m biased – however I’ll admit to never liking Heart Shaped Glasses). Once you’ve gotten past Revelation 12 you’re immediately in for some treats.

None of the songs released yet – WKWYFL, Kill4Me, snippet of Say10 – are the best the album can offer, and they shouldn’t have been offered up as representative (just like the single Heart Shaped Glasses was the worst song of EMDM and maybe on any of his LPs). I had a feeling from what I’d heard that the record was going to be closest to Born Villain meets The Pale Emperor. The truth is it’s a lot harder to pin down – there’s definite elements of these, but also of Holy Wood, EMDM/HEOL, GAOG and possibly even a little Mechanical Animals. Or maybe I’m just trying to work out where these sounds are coming from, rather than someplace new. You see, for a number of songs, this is the most goth-electronica Manson’s ever been. Really, the style is all over the place, and yet still feels cohesive.

In my opinion, after the few spins I’ve given it, there are three main highlights. The second track, Tattooed in Reverse is possibly the biggest surprise of the lot. I’m not sure I can define it. It’s weird, sparse and filthy industrial rock put to sort-of modern pop vocal hooks (and I mean actual mainstream pop of today, the sort that confuses me). And yet it’s also odder than that sounds – not something that sounds like it’d fit on the radio. It’s as peculiar as it is confusingly-catchy. I instantly loved it but I can see that some really won’t.

Another highlight is Jesus Crisis. For much of the album the verses, prechoruses and bridges are better than the choruses – this has been true of him for the majority of songs on the last few albums. And another complaint I’ve had for last couple of albums is Manson shying away from rhyming even more than normal. There’s a REASON people rhyme on songs, Mazza.

Thankfully on this song the opposite is true. The chorus is the catchiest thing Manson has done in AGES, maybe even since GAOG, and that’s probably because it rhymes. It’d be perfect in a rock club and I hope it comes to them rather than them still playing his hits from over a decade ago.

The song, however does have a bridge that, while good, just seems to come out of nowhere. It’s the song’s namesake, and yet it doesn’t fit with the rest of the song, especially not lyrically. The rest of the song has nothing to do with ‘JESUS CRI$I$’. There’s also this ‘ah-ah-ah’ bit that comes after the chorus that lets the song down and I’d rather it wasn’t there. Still, the chorus is irresistible enough to make up for it. It’s full of the kind of dumb bravado and swagger that has been missing from Manson’s work since GAOG.

A third highlight and maybe the best song on the album is Saturnalia. So – did you ever want Manson to be more goth again? Here you are. This song sounds like somebody asked Manson to make a song that’d play well on a goth night. And then some. It’s the most industrial, electronica, and processed song on the album, and all the better for it. If there’s a flaw at all to be found it’s that it doesn’t sound completely like Manson – it’s SO club-goth-band-you-can’t-remember-the-name-of. Still, it’s a great track, dense and atmospheric and interesting as it is danceable (and pleasingly long). I guess it can’t be more of a surprise and ‘this doesn’t sound like Manson’ than Mechanical Animals was at the time it came out.

In general, the album is really Tyler Bates’s success. It was clear from watching a recent interview with Zane Lowe that Manson knows how much he owes Tyler. This is the most carefully constructed, densest, layered album since Holy Wood. There is so much texture and it always seems like there’s new bits of sound to listen to each time you play it – something I’ve sorely missed. This album needs good speakers.

Manson is sporadically a weak link – sometimes he sounds almost as bad as he did on Born Villain, whereas other times he sounds great. And honestly, that’s probably when his voice is processed or doing something different, and not so great when it’s his raw unfiltered wail he’s been doing last couple albums that I’d rather he stopped. Thankfully that’s less of a problem this album than before.

The album isn’t perfect. A number of the choruses don’t live up to the strength of the verses, but then there’s a usually a good bridge to look forward to. Some of the songs – like Revelation 12, WKWYFL, and Say10, fall a little flat.

But it’s the most interestingly instrumentally since GAOG and arguably Holy Wood. The lyrics are better, and less repetitive. It’s got some great catchy moments. It’s got songs like Tattooed in Reverse and Saturnalia that make you realise Manson still can surprise you with direction. And it’s got a mixture of filthy and bordering on gorgeous guitar licks (such as on the EMDM/HEOL-but-better closer of Threats of Romance that only lacks for a better chorus).

In short, if you like Manson, get this album. It’s not a masterpiece but it pleasingly has surpassed my expectations, and it is one more step up for him since his fall.

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How Not to Kill Yourself Kickstarter launch!

Howdy.

In advance of the official Microcosm release of How Not to Kill Yourself: A Survival Guide for Imaginative Pessimists, it’s just been launched on Kickstarter, for anyone who wants to get preorders in and any of the other goodies that come with it.

Here’s the Kickstarter link. Have a looksee before time runs out (October 26th end date)!

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The School of Necromancy #3

Third part to my short story The School of Necromancy. It follows on from this part.

It can be found in full here.

——————————————–

 

The Grandmaster is the head of the School of Necromancy, and until you are taking a degree you will probably never see him up close and personal, and even then perhaps not, unless you are of exceptional merit or simply lucky. You can, however, observe him from afar addressing assemblies in the Great Hall, chairing dinners and welcoming each new year. On one wall here is a huge portrait of him: mysterious, cold and elegant, and his personage reflects that. Only absolute fools do not regard him with the utmost respect.

Meet him and you will be forgiven for thinking him a vampire. Rumours get around, too, and first years are often led to believe that he is one. Some impressionable students take to drinking blood and even sharpening their teeth in order to draw his attention. I’ve tasted one of his red drinks. Cranberry juice. I poisoned it anyway, and he drank it: no effects. I saw him looking at me with a small smile on his face . . . I’d never thought much of my chances, but I think I’d have let him down if I hadn’t at least tried. No doubt he’s survived hundreds of assassination attempts without even a scar.

Vampire? Not quite, but the truth isn’t far off. He definitely has vampiric blood, I think perhaps on his mother’s side. You see, these days it’s never a matter of ‘is he a vampire or isn’t he’, more a matter of percentage. I have spoken at length with the Master of Vampire Studies, Edwin Cowl, and he is definite that no pure bloods exist anymore in Britain. There were a couple of them, perhaps, a decade ago, visiting London from their home somewhere in Northern Europe, but they were swallowed up and snuffed out like that city does to so many strange folk.

The modern world does not suit their ancient ways. They are an endangered species. I would not be surprised to learn that there were no true vampires in Europe anymore, merely their diluted descendants. Master Cowl told me that there are a few inbreeding vampire families in the backwoods of southern USA, keeping hidden, a few in Russia, and some in the least developed parts of Africa. Apparently China has a vampire family who are actually quite important and powerful. I wonder how long they will last in the spotlight, before their ways are discovered and understood for what they are.

I am digressing, I apologise. You will, perhaps, fully understand when I say that by writing this I am procrastinating on my latest research paper. But all this should give you a flavour of the environment we surround ourselves in, that is so utterly foreign and mythical to you. We are not wizards and witches – at least, we do not think of ourselves as such, despite the occultism – but are scientists, eagerly involving ourselves with the things of the grave, and beyond the grave.

An outsider would think many of us mad, if not all, but you must understand once you have spent time within these walls, so deep below the surface, you too will become infected by the mania that surrounds you, the frenetic drive that propels us to complete our work, pushing us to do more and more, ever greater scientific feats against nature.

We tell time, if needed, by our many clocks, and by the colour of the lights, that shift from white to yellow, to green, then the blue of dawn, then back to white. Not a cycle goes by where you will not hear somewhere an exultant shouting, a frenzied screaming, desperate rages, pleading, or a cry of ‘It’s ALIVE! – Oh, wait . . . fuck.’

Just remember, whatever you hear and whatever you see, that we’re all insomniacs, we’re all exhausted, and, disregarding some of our creations, we all are at least mostly human.

 

There are three main players to my tale, and each of them are third year students. Third years are usually the ones you have the most trouble with. First years are too awed by everything, too meek, and certainly too ignorant of anything remotely necromantic or necro-scientific. Second years are, by and large, eager for knowledge, grasping at anything that give them a foot up, and getting the most out of the classes that are more interesting than those available to first years. It’s third year, when most of the students are seventeen, that they get cocky, and think they know enough to tackle their ambitious and naïve ideas.

There is Henry Graves. A quiet, pleasant lad, with a mess of dusky hair that falls about his face. He studies with moderate effort, gets average grades, and is tolerable enough that he hasn’t had a single attempt made on his health by another student. He would not, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, be particularly notable if not for his acquaintance with Arthur Pale, and his subsequent involvement in the events to come.

Arthur is, or should I say was, slightly obnoxious. He was small and reedy-voiced, with a pinched face and short mousy hair, and he was also a know-it-all, who, as is often the case, didn’t actually know as much as he thought he did. Events have certainly demonstrated he lacked wisdom. He was ambitious to a fault, one of those in the School who forewent both sleep and their assignments in order to pursue their own private research. The lack of rest never seemed to exhaust him, although he was a jittery, quick-talking sort, and he put most other students slightly on edge being around him for any length of time. He’d put his hand up in class over and over, or plain interrupt the master, to the point that even a couple of the masters had tried to poison or entrap him, to teach him a lesson if nothing else.

Nevertheless, he had emerged from every attempt by student or master unscathed and unbothered, and he would not deign to even remark on them, annoying people further. He sat by himself in classes until a particular day, mid-year, that he was found lab-partnered with another, and without comment the two stayed at each other’s side every single day.

This man, for it is a grown man, was called Shade. A strong name, if I do say so, although nobody knew his first name, not even the masters, and I expect not even himself. Neither did anyone, except possibly the Grandmaster, know his age, for while he was clearly an older student, he had that kind of face that almost defies age, and he could well be anywhere from twenty to forty.

Shade was an enigma, principally so because he almost never spoke, except possibly in private. He would certainly not speak up in front of a group, and if asked a question in class, as I once did (taking the class when the master was indisposed), he would stare right at you and say nothing until you moved to somebody else. Not that mutes were rare in the School, but there was something singular about Shade. He was very tall, and always wore a dark brown buttoned-up jacket with a wide-knot tie, a bowler hat that hid a bald head, and wire silver spectacles that were tinted a deep, cloudy purple. On the occasions he removed his glasses, such as to put on required goggles, his eyes were large and a piercing light blue.

There was something slightly wolfish about his face, giving rise to ridiculous rumours about him being a werewolf (students in this place can get carried away with it all). But, oddly enough, he was actually rather handsome. I say oddly, because Shade became a permanent laboratory assistant and dogsbody to Arthur Pale, never seeming to want anything more, and while it may be rather stereotypical of me to say, most dyed-in-the-wool lab assistants are ugly, often deformed in some way. Whether they are or not, they are always the less gifted of students, and Mr Shade’s bright blue eyes always did betray to me a calm, yet sharp intelligence that was never spoken.

You may wonder that I have not told you anything about our selection process, how students ever come here when our organisation and practices are so secretive, and when we are not being secretive we are being misunderstood. This is one thing I will not divulge; merely I will tell you that our students are chosen, and those that reject our offer do not end up speaking of it to others.

And now you have some idea to the background, and the principal players at hand, I will not delay you further, and I will begin this story, as has come to my knowledge piece by piece. I hope my penchant for storytelling does not get in the way of the facts.

 

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Quetzacthulhu (Part Two)

I came to clarity an indeterminable amount of time later. The priests had convened several times during my convalescence, deeply troubled by my rantings. If only they had been troubled more. They had not seen what I had seen.

Nobody had made it back with me, and the priests feared we were set upon by Tlaxcalans bearing dark witchery of the gods. They listened to my trembling words of the mountain that had come from under the earth – the living mountain that was only a head – and as I attempted to explain and failed miserably, they tossed aside my words as a continuation of my delirium.

Yes, the threat was taken seriously, but not seriously enough. Still, what could I have done? What could any of us have done? It happened that way. It was always going to happen that way.

There was only one thing spoken in my trance that they had listened to. I had chanted a name – a name that would go on to become legend, a name that sent a chill into the hearts of the bravest and wisest. Quetzacthulhu. I did not know then how the priests could have identified that word among all the others, and assumed it the name of the monster. Now I realise they knew the word all along, for by our torchlight I see it scratched all around me on these walls. These grim and ancient catacombs and primordial caves that lie underneath our ruined Great Temple. These are the recorded myths of this land that they tried to forget.

Moctezuma sent out hundreds of our elite cuauhtlocelotl and cuauhchicqueh warriors, our eagle-jaguars and Shorn Ones, blessed by the priests and given the finest swords and spears, adorned with the finest feathers. Many of our people gathered to look at them as they organised, and were full of pride and triumph. They saw Aztec warriors equal to none, a dread force fit to hunt down our enemies and leave none standing. They saw hope in its entirety, and an end to doubt and fear.

I saw only the walking dead.

Against all my pleading they forced me to come with them. They still thought me mad, but I was the only one who had survived the encounter. If I did not have enough grasp of my senses to know what we would be facing, I at least knew where it had occurred. This was their reasoning. I was threatened with immediate sacrifice if I should not comply. I know now I should have thrown myself at those knives with gladness and joy.

 

On their first sighting – which was long before we drew close – the warriors did not understand what they were seeing. To them, it was as though a gargantuan pillar of earth had thrust itself into the sky. Many believed it was an incredible event of the natural world, perhaps the rising of a new world tree, forming some indecipherable omen. Many others believed it was divine intervention, and we were witnessing the work of a god – that, at least, could be said to be true.

It was only upon drawing closer, upon staring up at the indescribable bulk far above our heads, its various titanic parts half-glimpsed through the trees, that they came to accept what I was trying to tell them.

The pillar was not of the earth. It was the leg of Quetzacthulhu.

He had continued his ascent after I had escaped. After the head had freed itself from the ground – perhaps from the underworld itself – the body had followed. Arms, legs. If the head alone had frightened and disturbed me to my very core, and shaken all belief I had in reason and life and the good will of the gods, then the full colossal scale of the thing was enough to make one die right there on the spot. This is no hyperbole – I saw a cuauhtlocelotl warrior beside me draw out his knife as though in a trance and cut his throat there and then. Few of us even gave him a glance; my thought of him would later be one of jealousy. He may have angered the gods by his cowardly action, and perhaps he would pay for it in the Mictlan underworld, but in all honesty, how could it possibly have gotten any worse than it did? I wonder many times why I did not follow him in such a course. Well, there is still time. Even though the worst is over . . . now we must live with ourselves, live in this new world wrought for us.

It speaks volumes of the bravery and steadfast of our best warriors that bar all but a wretched few – those once proud and fierce and revered – we collected ourselves as much as we could and continued on towards that primeval dread. We were still many in number, after all, and even gods can bleed. I admit to even a thin vein of hope myself – soon dashed beyond measure.

 

Quetzacthulhu can be found in full as part of the fantasy/horror short story collection ‘Born to be Weird‘.

Quetzacthulhu

WULF #8

Following on from Part 7. You can find it in full on Amazon.

 

FIVE

 

 

He woke up to the sound of melodious squawking and bright rays of white-lilac light. He’d left the window open, and a bird had pushed the curtains aside, letting in a stream of morning glare.

It hopped on the sill and continued to squawk, chirrup and yap to some kind of half-tune. The bird was about a hand high, purple-feathered with a hook beak and a tall, jagged white crest. It shifted feet constantly, cocking its head at him.

A trill, Jay’s mind remembered. Native to Appalia . . . Is that where I am?

He got up, stretched, and shooed the trill away. It yapped again, and then took off, the curtains left flapping behind. He opened them wider, letting in the expanse of the day. There were not many people walking the thoroughfare, and those that did blinked and squinted in the sun. He had slept early and he had woken early, and Nohaven was not a morning town.

A new day, a new world.

A big grin came to his face, and then turned into a grimace as he caught the smell of what could only be himself. He had slept in his clothes and he stank of sweat. He resolved to find a way to wash himself as soon as possible. For now, he removed his shirt and ran the tap, splashing water on his face, neck and pits.

A glint in the corner stole his attention. It was a mirror laid on the floor. He saw the hooks above the basin and realised it had been taken down for some reason. Perhaps the last occupant did not like their own reflection. He picked it up and put it back in place, then he stood and stared.

Whether he felt a chill or a shuddering warmth he could not say, perhaps both. A shiver certainly passed along his spine, but he would not say he felt unpleasant. Looking at a completely different reflection to what you have been used to your entire life is an experience some would call disturbing, others mesmerising, and they’d both be right.

He’d seen bits of him before, of course. He’d seen his arms, looked down at his torso, and been aware of his face in that vague, shadowy way people perceive themselves without a reflection, the blur of the nose and the cheeks and mouth with a presence so permanent to our vision that we forget they are there. He’d almost seen his face reflected in Sav’s eyes.

Here, though, was the full article, and minus the cracks in the mirror it was as clear and defined as it could ever be. He felt like he was looking through a window into another world, seeing another person mimicking his movements.

Then both of you are in another world, for this side of the mirror sure ain’t Kansas.

His face stared back at him, mockingly. A smirk lined his face, carrying up to the dark, glittering eyes. Stop laughing at yourself, he told himself sternly, but he couldn’t help it. His mouth opened in a rogue’s grin, and he shook his head. The man in the reflection did the same.

The same red markings, the tribal wine stains that careened over his body were present on his face. They lined his cheeks and brow like war paint, and yet the effect was more, well, wild, wild and mystical, than savage.

At least I don’t have a red nose.

He spent long minutes inspecting himself, dividing between marvelling at his skin design – the patterns made him want to call them extensive tattooing, but they were all-natural (just look at those hands), and miraculous for it – and his new face: a tough, dark-eyed and somewhat Middle-Eastern looking face, an on-the-dark-and-dirty-side-of-handsome face. He pleased himself thinking it possessed a kind of heroic villainy.

He resolved to let his hair, a stallion black mane on top, grow at the shaved sides, before he would untie the knot that held it back. Facial hair, too. A face like this needed some thick stubble. That’s razors off the shopping list, and good thing too, for a man with no money.

He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out four tiny coins. Scratch that, I have four jackals. Something tells me they’re not worth a loaf of bread.

The coins were replaced, but the hand was found moving inward. One last thing to check.

Jay glanced at the door. There was no lock, but it was at least firmly shut. It wasn’t entirely reassuring, but he couldn’t see why someone would barge in on someone else’s rented room. Unless it’s Savvi? But then again – the voice continued, in a sleazy kind of way – maybe her catchin you pants down is exactly the kind of

‘Shut up,’ Jay said out loud. But he pulled down his pants anyway. He was, after all, still a man in a man’s body. And there are some things a man’s gotta know.

He stood there, no shirt and his pants around his ankles, a stupid smile plastered to his face (but it’s not so stupid, is it? It’s better than the last guy’s smile, remember that? . . . No) as he looked at and touched himself with investigative measure, inflicted with the kind of small amazement that beds well with amusement.

Fronting this amusement, however, there came first relief. Jay was relieved to see that his package didn’t look vastly different to what he was used to. The thing that struck him most, quite aside from the size (his grin increased, although his only comparison beyond the hints of Jay’s memories were those of Earth men), and the single (much larger) nut, was the bendiness; it was quite pliable even when hard, he noticed, and almost stayed in the positions you left it, like plasticine. It had that rubbery quality, both look and touch. The head was tapered slightly. Apart from that, though, it was both recognisable and appreciable as a cock and balls. Thank god for evolutionary similarities, and not giving me tentacles. The only immediate sense of alien was that the whole area was a dark, streaky red.

He enjoyed himself for a while manipulating himself into vague turns, revelling like a child with a toy snake or one of those bendable figurines. He had only meant to check himself out, but found himself quickly carried away.

There was a pressure, an insistence in his lower body that he hadn’t really noticed until its sudden absence. He felt clearer, and he did some stretches as he washed out the sink, wondering at how he could take the time to masturbate, given his utterly incredible situation, and all the things around to discover. But there’d been that urge. His body seemed to belong to that of a wild man turned teenager.

I’m glad red genitals don’t give rise to scarlet semen, or I’d be continuously paranoid I’d ruptured myself.

The stretching felt good. He’d always hated exercise before. But now his muscles were strong, and he felt powerful.

He put his clothes back on, gave one final, eager glance in the mirror – a glance that turned into a searching look – and left the room.

The clerk audibly sighed as Jay walked down the stairs. He was tight-lipped as Jay smiled at him in an attempt to be friendly.

‘Yes?’ the clerk said, raising his bushy eyebrows.

‘Good morning. I was hoping for a shower. Well, to wash myself.’

The clerk sniffed. ‘I am sure you need it. Well. The washroom is out that door.’

‘Oh, good. Is there hot water?’

‘Do we look like a Sturm chamberhouse?’

‘Um, no. I guess not. Thanks.’ Jay pushed through the door. Behind a curtain there was a series of bronze pipes that twisted in wheels before joining up to a spout that hung overhead. Jay found a valve and turned it. A crank increased the pressure until a steady light rainfall of water pattered down into a drain below. It wasn’t cold, more a lukewarm temperature that, if not exactly enjoyable, didn’t make his teeth chatter.

After his shower, he replaced his baggy brown pants (there had been no undergarments) and his boots (sockless, but something about the make of the boots made his feet feel just fine without them; even on his journey to Nohaven his feet had not sweated. In the shower he’d noticed a rubbery hardness to his feet. They were as red as his hands, making his only socks skin-deep). He gave his shirt a cautious smell, but it seemed okay; it had been only him carrying the scent. Perhaps in this world they actually made shirts that resisted odours, or just sweat. Not that the shirt smelled like a rose garden; it spoke to his nostrils of horse, and sand, and a slight spice that he couldn’t place, but felt oddly comforting in the same way home does.

The clerk was gone when he returned, and Jay left the rest house and emerged into the light. He was surprised at how quickly he was becoming accustomed to the colour, although the purple-ringed sun still sent a shiver through his body whenever he looked up. Everybody looked slightly different outside than inside – but then he supposed that was true on Earth, too. There was a transformative quality about it – something that lent a faintly mystical, secretive, almost furtive air to everything – although he had as yet little comparison, for he had not seen this outside world in Earth’s pale light.

He made to go over to the bar, but found himself wandering. After all, he reasoned, she might not even be up yet. He walked along the thoroughfare, and then aimlessly through the town, along dusty streets, turning corners, turning heel and walking back on himself. He drifted in a daze, entranced with no small measure of wonder. People stared at him strangely, for he looked at things like a man born anew.

As he walked his usurped memory offered up morsels, shadows of remembrance. There was the Bone Bin, a windowless establishment – if establishment would ever fit such a jumble of timber. It had been made with boards and bits of boards, stakes and sticks – all made from some kind of – the white gumba tree – and affixed all over with thousands of bent nails. The wood lay crooked off each other, broken planks attached more by spirit than strength to mere shards. It was a ribcage of a house, and seemed to come in layers: for there were many gaps between the bones, but inside he could make out a second shell, one that seemed just as pale and hapless. Inside, he knew, they smoked every kind of smoke there was, and the air within seemed to float with ghosts.

On his left now came the red doors of the brothel, The Drain (his nose wrinkled at the sign). Opposite was a throng of small black children arguing over a furry ball that rolled about on its own volition – a bracker-ball, livin games to some. The leader was taller than the rest, with a gap where his nose should have been. His sunburst eyes flared as he caught sight of Jay, and waved to him. Jay waved back. That’s Jonner, a ragman. He’s alright. He don’t wanna kill you.

There were Appalian mountain men, with their curly hair and square-cropped beards, and silver-haired wardancers with their long locks and naked, studded bellies. He was passed by a couple of cowpokes he knew only by name – Jag and Burl – and reputation as bad news to all sizeable women. There were stalls selling produce of all colours, some that smelled sweet, some like the soil, and some that stank like rotting fish (fasher beans). There was a pink, hairless creature like a bony mole rat the size of a greyhound – erm, somethin, a sab, saber, no, cather-, catmol, no, I’ll get back to you – that skulked past him with arched shoulders, led on a leash by a high-hatted woman with dangling earlobes. He was reminded of that dog from yesterday, that six-legged dog, except it was called a – a dog – oh, okay.

More than not, he simply felt déjà vu, and Jay’s catacombs of memory obstinately turned its back on his questions. If he remembered, it came naturally, in slices, pages so torn they might as well be shreds. He could not force it. Even when he knew a name, or a purpose to something, it was not a real understanding, not a memory he could connect to as though it was his own. It was as though reading about something in a book a long time ago – except the book was in him, and the long time ago only ended yesterday.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #5

Following on from Part 4.

 

THREE

 

 

Over the next few days India got to know the crew fairly well. At first many of them had avoided him, and he’d seen the wariness in others’ eyes when he talked to them. A few were grouchy, and one skeleton by the name of Liver told him to shank off as soon as he approached. But a few were nice, like Big Cage who was as friendly as he was big, or Hairless, who helped him through finding his sea-legs and found him a nautical coat in the hold that was only a little oversized. Spares was always amusing company, especially when he was drunk. Sockets was a bit odd, but India got used to him. And Dessica, another female jolly roger (how they usually seemed to refer to themselves), had spoken to him at length on the movements of whales, the names of all the sails and masts, and even shown him how to tie different kinds of knot. And as the days passed, and India made himself known, rarely staying put for more than the length of a conversation, and helping out when he could, those who avoided him showed their faces, and those who were grouchy softened. It was only Liver who remained unpleasant more often than not, and India had barely exchanged more than a handful of words with Blackbone. Blackbone usually stayed in his cabin, anyway (the only one bar India with his own private cabin), and when they passed each other India would walk fast, for his near-silent presence sent a chill down India’s spine.

It was Grimmer though, who was the surest tether between India and his sanity. From the first day he’d been good to India, helped him help himself and help others whenever he was around, showed him all the parts of the ship, the hold and the forecastle, the gallery and the gun deck where cannons were cobwebbed from disuse. He even took India up to the crow’s nest – thankfully India had always been a good tree climber, but climbing the rigging up so high, and looking down at the long fall to the decks below – well, at least Grimmer had been there for encouragement, and India sure wasn’t going to let himself appear weak in front of a bunch of skeletons. The final few feet had been the worst, but at last he’d toppled into the crow’s nest, breathing hard with the adrenaline, and then spent a good three or four hours reddening with the sun and feeling on top of the world, almost drunk with the sight around him, perched on a swaying wooden spire that rose up like a needle out of the great, eternal ocean. A lonely minaret in a blue desert where he was king.

Eventually though, the seasickness had come on even stronger, not to mention a light-headedness close to fainting, and he’d forced himself to descend. He’d spent a while recovering, and decided to go up there again only rarely.

On the early evening of the fourth day India saw a far-off shape; he borrowed a spyglass off Sockets and saw a red-boarded ship travelling in the other direction. He squinted but in the darkening light couldn’t make out the crew.

‘Are they pirates?’ he asked, feeling excited.

Sockets snatched the spyglass back and looked through. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Merchant ship, probably from East Indigo.’

‘Can they see us?’

Grimmer came up behind him and gripped the rail. ‘Honestly, we don’t rightly know,’ he said. ‘There was another ship yesterday, too. Truth is a number of us don’t care to look anymore, or at least we don’t shout about it if we do see something. We’ve never been boarded, we’ve never even been hailed. We don’t know if it’s just mist they see, or the illusion of a ship of no consequence or interest to anyone, or if they see nothing at all but empty sea. Or maybe they see us just as we are, but then something in them just wipes it from their minds, tells them just to pass on by. A thought that never gets to go anywhere, like it’s been chased off. All we know is the Ship of the Dead ain’t disturbed, and never has been. We’re a ghost on the ocean, mate.’

On the fifth day Grimmer came to him carrying a cutlass, with the golden hilt of another held in the thick sashes that tied around his pelvis. He flipped the sword in his hand deftly and offered it to India hilt first. ‘Here you go mate,’ he said. A few of the others on the deck gathered round, interested.

A one-armed skeleton named Cold Shoulder put his one remaining hand up. ‘Here, he’s a bit young ain’t he?’

Grimmer didn’t turn. ‘He’s got to be able to defend himself, doesn’t he?’

India looked at the blade, at its edge and its wicked point. It caught the light and flashed meanly. ‘I’ll manage without. For now,’ he said.

‘You sure?’ Grimmer said.

‘For now.’

Grimmer shrugged and tossed the sword back on the deck with a clatter. India turned away, but not before stealing one, two more glances at it lying there on the grey wood at his feet.

India remembered when he had last used a blade. He’d grown up fighting with sticks with other kids in the streets and slums of Rug and Mohawk. The orphan gang that called themselves Ratboys infested the alleyways of the poor side of Mohawk, and India had once been well acquainted with them, often fighting with and against them in confrontations ranging from friendly scuffles and stick fencing to scrapping tooth and nail. It was about the time that an increase in girls in the gang led to arguments about a change of name that Skiv became leader. He was a bad-tempered kid, bigger than India and prone to using his fists to get his own way.

Always eager for something greater than pickpocketing, something more dangerous and more impressive, it was India who had come up with the idea of raiding Jack Rush’s house.

Jack Rush was a mean, surly merchant, and he had beaten India severely when he’d caught his pockets being picked just outside his home. India hadn’t been able to walk properly for days, and the bruises had taken much longer to disappear. In the years past he sometimes looked at his reflection in the coastal Mexican seawaters and figured that his face had lost its childishness, had been beaten tougher and rougher and stripped of some measure of innocence.

In retaliation India had come up with the plan, and roped the Ratboys in on it. He’d always been an outsider to them, some days seemingly on their side, some days not. He’d never wanted to answer to somebody else, and certainly not a dumb brutish boy like Skiv.

They entered the house as the moon hung full and watching, breaking the windows and dropping like cats over the sills. The children in the streets knew everything there was worth knowing. They knew that Rush was on an overseas business trip, selling sugar to East Indigo, and would not be back for some time.

They took everything, greedily filling their pockets and pouches with jewellery and silverware and bottles of rum. India had found a necklace. Black stringed, with a pendant of tarnished silver melded to what looked like bone, gold in the very centre and frayed around the edges, like the rays of a moribund sun. He pocketed it. He pocketed something else, too.

He didn’t know who’d started the fire. Somebody knocked over something, playing around with torches and bottles of rum; it could have been anyone. The Ratboys yelled to each other as what seemed a bright, exciting flicker quickly spread and smoke rushed through the air like a punishing phantasm, as though a residing spirit of Jack Rush was left behind as guard.

They’d escaped, all of them thank shank, tumbling from the windows and bursting out the door. As soon as they were clear and most of them had scattered down various alleys, India had turned to receive a blow from Skiv. It connected with an already existing bruise from Rush, and hurt twice as much.

They pounced on each other, fists flying, knees punching into stomachs and feet lashing out. They fought dirty, like wild dogs, breaking apart every few minutes to snarl and spit and curse. Watched hungrily by the others.

‘Give it to me,’ said Skiv.

‘Give you what.’ India wiped the sweat from his face and pulled the straggled hair from his eyes.

‘The necklace. I saw you take it. You owe it to me for what happened back there.’

‘That wasn’t my fault.’

‘It was your idea to raid the place. Give it to me.’

‘You ain’t getting it.’

They met again, and India found his back hurled against the stony ground and pinned. He twisted and kicked and Skiv grabbed his throat and squeezed.

India punched Skiv’s head and his midriff, again and again, but he couldn’t get the angles or the momentum and the blows couldn’t dissuade the hands choking him, robbing him of his energy.

Black and purple motes dotted before his vision and with a sudden, almost instinctive remembrance he pulled out the shining dagger he had taken at the house. It slipped into Skiv’s side as though it was moving through butter. It met no bones.

Skiv fell aside with a yelp, and the dagger sucked itself out, still in India’s hand. India scrambled up, and without looking backwards, at Skiv or the audience of Ratboys, he ran.

India never knew what became of Skiv. He didn’t visit Mohawk again for a year, and when he did he stuck to other districts, and carefully avoided the Ratboys. If Skiv was still alive, then he would want his revenge. And if he wasn’t . . . if he wasn’t, then those loyal to him, or those who counted him among their friends might want their own revenge.

He never knew whether Skiv had lived or died, and he didn’t want to know. He’d thrown the blade away, and he’d never thrown away something valuable before. He remembered crouching outside the Aztec Tomb and shivering in the rain, his hair plastering itself to his face.

He’d never wanted to touch a blade again. He remembered the sound Skiv had made and his eyes. His eyes.

On the deck of the Ship of the Dead, India kicked the cutlass away from him without looking. And fingered the sun pendant that hung from his neck.

 

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