Forgive me, I am weak, and thoughts of what occurred next rob me of my strength of mind. To recollect such a thing is like . . . I do not know what it is like. It is something I cannot block out, but to relive it, to speak of it is like inviting that stygian darkness to take its hold on me and not let go.
Huh. Why do I ask your forgiveness? Truly I have become a fragile, pitiful specimen. I do not recognise myself anymore. Nor would you, if you had met me before all this. Things between us would have gone very differently, of that I am . . . No. I am wrong, things would have not gone so differently. Such is the cruel will of the gods.
What can I tell you of the battle? I can tell you that it was not a battle. Death incarnate was before us, and like fools we marched towards it with spears and bows. What surprise is it that we were no different to a sacrifice? Our very finest, walking of our own will into the slaughter pit. A tragedy only outmatched by our folly.
He had begun moving when we reached him – have you ever seen or heard a god move? It is as though the whole world is being picked up and flung. Many times we were thrown to the ground, but we kept after him, running as fast as we could after those ponderous yet enormous strides. To our shame it took a long time before he even noticed us. But he finally stopped on the edges of Lake Texcoco, and that is where our attack began in earnest.
You want details? I have details. They are only disconnected flashes in my mind, but for a second it is like I am still there amid the carnage, and I tell you, the sounds, by the gods, the sounds . . .
It must have been after the initial frenzy of blood; I remember Quetzacthulhu turning to those who had reached the water, those desperately trying to swim to boats in the distance. I do not know what eldritch powers he exacted on us. The shoreline began to steam and then bubble, and the screams of those in the waves were the most terrible yet, pinkening as they were boiled alive.
I remember Quetzacthulhu reaching down with one arboreal arm and collecting a horde of my brethren, opening his gaping maw and tossing them in.
I remember . . . I don’t know when it happened, how much later, but I remember Quetzacthulhu had sat down – all the better to play with us, perhaps – and suddenly there came a host of sickly tearing sounds, and his soft belly began rupturing in half a dozen small places. Who should come out head to toe in yellow filth but my swallowed brethren?
Quetzacthulhu roared then, I hoped in pain, and his arms crashed into us, killing who knows how many. We clutched our fists to our ears, trying to block out the unearthly noise he emitted. I saw my brothers pound their fists into their head again and again, turning their temples bloody, desperate to do anything to make it stop, even if it meant unconsciousness or the mercy of death.
The sound stopped, and I . . . I had fallen to my knees, drained beyond imagining, my head feeling as though it had been scooped out. I turned to see the warriors who were still escaping from Quetzacthulhu’s stomach; they were only a fraction of those thrown down that tongueless chasm. They slid and slithered down his loathsome belly and after a heady drop – they were in too severe shock to wail – hit the earth with a series of thumps. Their eyes were those of the utterly lost and I knew that should by some miracle they survive, they would never recover. Those men were forever gone. Glancing at the spots where they had cut themselves out, I saw a glimpse of slick, wet things, and I saw their sickening movements, and I knew that unspeakable things lived within the god’s innards. I turned immediately away lest I should follow my brothers into madness.
It pained me immeasurably to see Quetzacthulhu now seemingly untroubled by the cuts, and I saw with weary shoulders that just like our spears thrown into his monstrous hide, the wounds were minute to him. It was then that I knew we could not defeat him. Hundreds had by now died at his hand.
Another off-the-cuff idea for something that could go further… or not.
I’m a lanky, bristle-haired daeman from New Africa, and I made a career of dissecting time. It started, as did many things of this nature, with drugs.
In the early days of the Second Enlightenment (the world had perilously skimmed a Second Dark Age, like a nosediving plane pulling up from the sea at the last second, its wings dripping with dumbfuckery), as the leading powers shifted gradually into technocracies (New Africa among them), the political ballast of drug repression thinned, and science began to take as much of as an interest in psychedelic brain expanders as they had in the hippie culture of the 1960s, and then doubly and triply so.
Scientists took inspiration from the hallucinogenic and dissassociative drugs of old, and went into overdrive creating new, synthetic ones. After 83,721 (at least, those were the ones listed publicly) synthetic creations of mind-altering substances, they finally reached a zenith. It was called LDX43iv, although was quickly referred to by all and sundry as ‘Slug’. The adopted name was an in-joke; far from making one’s mind slow, it rocketed it up to unprecedented speeds. To be ‘slugged out’ might hold some truth physically, but it meant the exact opposite mentally. Creative and extremely left-field and out-of-box thinking was enhanced beyond what were initially perceived to be rational levels, at the expense of more straightforward tasks like figuring out how to eat.
I remember the first time I tried Slug. The new textures, new colours, new wavelengths. The giraffes made from felt, in the shape of that old-fashioned written style of the number four. The terrible genius of it all. My mind had raced so goddamn fast I thought I was going to be sick from the sheer mental strain. It was like drinking too much, lolling back in the chair and feeling that void pulling you down, willing you to unconsciousness; but you resist, because it’s scary, and because you know, you just know, that you’ll start vomiting uncontrollably.
It was like that, but with the mind.
The great thing about Slug – once you’d locked it down, and adapted to its speed – was how much your mind opened. For the first time I – and countless others – had viewed their own mind, that is, understood it on a quasi-physical level, an actual perceived dimension. Three dimensions, to be exact. Your thoughts existed not in 2D but across a space stretched without horizon in three absolute directions. The Z axis in particular boggled the inexperienced mind by allowing you, with eyes closed, to go backwards through your own head. The mind-expanse existed where my head was, but without barriers; you simply kept on going, as though your inner eye was also legs and you could walk it or fly it at undefinable speeds.
An increasing number of scientists involved in this field began to take Slug, at first using it to inform their own work, and better understand their experiments on others, but eventually because, for the inquiring mind, there was no way back. Slug opened up scientific possibilities previously thought only theoretical, and delivered new theoretical ideas where previously nothing existed, bar perhaps mad ravings. Scientists also took Slug to understand other scientists whose otherwise unintelligible, yet ground-breaking work had been scribbled whilst on Slug.
As the field continued to expand its sphere of influence, scientists took more and more Slug, for wilder and wilder results. It was still by-and-large in-house at this stage, not technically available to the public (although it was starting to make a dent in the black market). Health consultants were brought in by concerned overseers, and they determined – shocked by the state of some of the scientists, who had been living on high doses of Slug non-stop for months and appeared to be in advanced stages of delirium – that regular ‘complete breaks’ from the drug were now mandatory.
This did not go well. At first, in a case of classic incompetence of bureaucracy, the first scientists were forced to quit cold-turkey. When the last vestiges of the drug wore off, they slipped quietly into something resembling, though not actually, comas.
After that, the weaning-off approach was tried, steadily lowering the dosage until it was negligible. This worked better, although that wasn’t saying much. At best, the scientists became profoundly bored, listless and depressed, showing no motivation or interest towards anything, especially anything based in mundane reality. Their minds, though operating at the same speed as pre-Slug, now felt to them interminably slow and dull beyond belief.
At worst, the scientists lost so much motivation and spark that they had to be cared for 24/7. They had to be helped to eat, bathe, go to the toilet, and so forth. They displayed zero energy or affection for anything around them, existing in a total stupor. They could not even summon the mental will to kill themselves, as was briefly a concern. It wasn’t anything physical, you understand, rather it was a sort of extreme psychological deprivation. The awesome majesty of the universe they had come to understand, and the near-divine sensation of their own minds working, creating, inventing, sorting, imagining at a pace once unimaginable – I’m talking at least several fantastic ideas a second, every second – was now robbed from them, leaving them with a comparable wasteland of sensation in return.
At some point, some of the scientists got together and wrote to be reinstated with the drug permanently, and the new ruling to be stricken. The mental effort to create this petition-of-sorts must have been immense for them, and no doubt they had help from concerned colleagues who either never touched the stuff or only took it sparingly, so as to stay ‘in the loop’ with the cutting edges of scientific theory.
Thankfully, it worked, and the mandatory breaks were removed, it being finally accepted by medical professionals that being off the drugs was more harmful than being on them. If not actually physically harmful, the drug’s absence nonetheless made complete wastes of space of great thinkers. Whether they were on or off the drug, they were no longer fit for regular human society, so society might as well at least let them trip, was the general consensus (although probably not phrased as such).
There was a new ruling, or should I say guideline, that from now on no more academics were to take significant quantities of Slug, for fear of its pressing psychological demands. However, nobody ever bothered to define ‘significant quantities’ (one wonders if those drafting this ruling were partaking in Slug themselves), and so the ruling was at first lax, and then essentially forgotten.
After all, by this point it was hopeless to restrict access to the drug; Slug had now blossomed out of the black market and made its way into the wider public sphere, where it caused as much joy and innovation as it did chaos. Thankfully, the consistently high price of the drug stopped too much regular-use apart from by the rich (who were layabouts anyway and hardly necessary to the common production required to turn society’s gears), and after a troubling splurge, where there were many heavy-handed but ultimately meaningless talks about ‘what to do’, things settled down, and while it remained the psychedelic drug of choice, it dipped far below worldly levels of alcohol and caffeine consumption among the working class.
It also helped that a lot of people just simply couldn’t take it. Or didn’t want to. It boosted the imagination, you see, boosted it beyond the recognisable. Those with little to no imagination saw little interest in the drug; it merely confused the shit out of them. They were much happier with a beer.
Where am I going with this? you ask. How does Slug apply to me? Well, eventually, thanks to many months-long explorations of the deepest mindscape, and new spatial conceptions of reality, we finally unlocked the secrets of the fourth dimension: time. Those taking the highest doses began to break its esoteric workings apart; they passed the secrets to progressively lower-dosed levels of others, until it could go no further without sinking into total non-comprehension. Even now, so many years after those initial manic discoveries (which first took root in New Africa, I’m proud to say), few people in this world understand the mechanics. Even I, whose very job it is to dissect time, barely understands it, and I can hardly be expected to explain it to a thoroughly sober individual like yourself.
So, yes. The discoveries became actionable, and the brightest – and most fucked up – minds of our generation learnt (through concepts once laughably insane, and then theoretical bizzaros, and then veritable eurekas) how to literally make time, how to divide it, how to mathematically add and subtract it, shorten it or lengthen it, alter its intrinsic properties, shape it, cast it in a bubble, grind it into pieces and feed it to things.
Naturally time became a commodity, in the very real sense. You could buy and sell it. And people did, in droves. And it wasn’t cheap.
For single-use it usually comes in capsules; some you press a button to activate, some you break in the middle like glowsticks, some you just throw at something. A bubble forms – a bubble of time. Things can slow down or speed up within this bubble.
It was an oddity at first, something exciting and silly and novel. Little things, at first. Slow down the rate at which your pizza cools (at the expense of it taking longer to reach your mouth), or get more sleep (it was arguable if you actually were getting more, of it was just psychological), or play a trick on someone: a popular, cheap and harmless early one was to cast it on a flicked-on kettle, so the old adage of a watched pot never boils became true.
Then there was “speeding up” ordinary tasks (i.e. making them take less time), like vacuuming the house, although then again we already had robots for that kind of thing and it wasn’t worth the price to attach a time-tube to free labour.
Of course, small bubbles soon weren’t enough. I blame business folk for that. The bubbles became bigger (speed limits had to be redefined after people started attaching time-tubes to their car so they could beat – or outright ignore – the traffic), they took on different shapes, you could have them run only on one or two axis, you could make time go sideways (don’t ask), you could change clocks with them (everybody’s time-tubed and synchronised up to the national Timegrid, except for when it was hacked, which caused a full day of problems), you could manipulate the production of goods, shorten essential tasks, you could use them on robots, on people. . .
It was when people started straying perilously close to paradoxes (such as Amazon, eager for best-delivery-service-in-the-world-status, began delivering parcels before they had technically been ordered), that governments were forced to take some control. This is why the international governmental watchdog and action force TimeGuard exist. To stop people doing dumb shit just because they can.
They could have tried to stamp out Time Co. entirely, but the operative word there is tried, for they’d have failed pretty spectacularly if they had. Time made up more of our respective economies now than it ever had before it had been bottled up and merchandised. Just about every powerful hand was greased by Time Co. and its bought-out partner Slug4U, and the benefits from both of these things were just too great, both in personal fortunes and the general advancement of humanity (working class excepted, naturally).
Time Co. recently bought out TimeGuard, anyway, so that’s that.
Some of the world’s lesser powers and single-states I think were doing okay without it, or with minimal use; they’d observed its effects on us first, and so had strapped in a bunch of new, hard-and-fast laws ready to receive it. The big guns, however, especially New Africa, were in too deep to pull out.
I don’t want them to rub that shit out, anyway. Not yet, at least. Not before all is broken and irreparable. My job depends on it. I’m rare, like a precious bird the world can’t do without. I’m the one who cuts the lines of time. I’m the product man. But I’m more than that, I’m more than just a glorified dealer. I take advantage of the opportunities presented to me. I cut them open and I take my peek.
I might not know exactly how time works, but I know more about what’s inside it every day. In a way, I’m a scientist myself.
Just wrote this off the cuff. Similarities with Constantine, I guess. Although in truth it just came from my dislike of magic (and general high-fantasy) in most books, and my attempt to reclaim it. Actually to begin with it just came from a desire to write about weird and crazy monsters.
It’s set in the same world as my story The School of Necromancy. Could become something more! Who knows…
My name is Jonathan Dark. Johnny, if you wish to be casual, which you should never be. I hate John.
People will tell you I do magic. I hate that term. Magic goes hand in hand with robes and pointy hats, and then it’s only a small step to elves and gnomes and football on broomsticks. Elves don’t exist. Gnomes do, but they’re black little creeps and I can’t stand them. Not because they’re black, but because they’re unreasonably small. Call me a racist or a speciesist if you like, I don’t care. Why would anyone care about gnomes?
No, I’m not a magician and I don’t do magic. I’m not a wizard, or a conjurer of cheap tricks, I’m not a warlock or a male witch, or a sorcerer or a mystic, I’m not an illusionist or an enchanter and I have never owned a wand, nor will I, useless things that they are.
I’m a shadowmancer and I do shadowmancy. Go on, smirk. Call me pretentious, say I made it up. I did it as a masters at the School, I’ll have you know, before it was stricken from the curriculum for being too avant-garde, too unscientific. Too dangerous. These days, they deny the discipline even exists, say it’s all nonsense, that there is no Shadow-World. They wanted to take my masters off me ex post facto, but I wouldn’t give it up. I’d received high marks, and I never would for anything again.
All this artsy waving hands in the air, showing off, I won’t hold for it. I don’t know, maybe it holds card in exuberant America, but not in Britain, not in my York. You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself, or if you are, at least have the decency and respect for your environment to have a grounded sense of style. This isn’t the Middle Ages, for god’s sake. Keep it low-key, keep it smart and cool, scratch it out in the air by your pockets where it’s unobtrusive and easy to miss, carve the air quick and technical into thin, jagged lines of the relevant colours or just paint it black, then flick it out like a cigarette. It’s an intricate hand sign, not a side show. At most it should look like you’re writing on air, or playing with an invisible deck; best of all just twitching your fingers thoughtfully to yourself, some strange tick, maybe just mad enough to be ignored by strangers, but not mad enough to cause a scene. Only those with Twilight Sight see the colours, see the design temporarily etched into thin air. But then they already have enough to worry about.
Like me, you should learn to draw all your mances with a single hand; that way the other is free to hold a gun.
You wonder what I can do with my mances. I can create things, and I can change things. Why am I not rich? you ask. Can I not just create money out of thin air?
I can do just that, but it’s not that easy. Money is one of those things that, even in real-terms, disappears as quickly as it arrives. It’s easily lost, easily squandered, easily forgotten or transmogrified into something completely different. That’s real money, in all its elusiveness. Now, make that shadow-money, a transient material at the best of times, and your problems are only compounded. The more you make the harder it is to hold onto. I’d say I can make about minimum wage. After that, it slips through my fingers – literally as well as metaphorically. Although I usually only need the money to continue existing up until the point I’ve left the shop.
And yet sometimes you desire more than theft-by-mance of penny-sweets and top-shelf magazines, you want something a little more permanent and sizeable, something that’ll last.
That’s when I have to earn my keep.
I’m not a particularly good man, and I’m okay with that, because I stop much worse things. I’m the one who fights the monster under your bed, and the thing in your cupboard, the creature at your window, the thin, silent figure in the corner. Be glad you don’t see them, but don’t mistake not seeing for assuming they are not there. They are most definitely there. They exist in an adjoining dimension, the Twilight, the Shadow-World, which overlaps ours, lying on top of it like a murky filter.
Come far enough in studying shadowmancy (not that anyone’s teaching it anymore) and you will see them. Close to people, sometimes only millimetres apart, watching them, sniffing them, licking the air. Most are mostly harmless. Some are not. It’s those that are not where I come in.
It’s those that are not which make up all those unexplained cases that baffle the constabulary and the public at large. Indeed, many of the explained cases are in fact mistaken, and should have been attributed to more, dare I voice it, supernatural means. No, no, the word sticks in my throat. More monstrous means, I will say in its stead. More Twilight means.
Racks, dragores, slip-men, lupo-vamps, rag zombi, corpus mortem, fleshers, skin ghouls, dogspawn, red babies, straggle lamps, cocoon beards, phallocs, heavers, cracklers, howlers, ectofucks and wet dennises (don’t ask) – these Twilighters are some of the ones to watch. And, sometimes, they get a lot bigger.
I wish I could explain shadowmancy to you in scientific terms. But I can’t. I mean, I could explain around it, explain some of the mechanisms in place, and so forth, but I suppose I can’t be bothered. It’s so far different from what you know, and even from what they teach in the School, that we have simply no ground on which to lay our common foundations. It’s just. . . well, it’s just fucking magic, okay? I’ll allow it this time, much as I already feel like I need to be painting stars on a hat and babbling ‘abracadabra’. Look, you either accept what it is or you don’t, I don’t care.
Actually no, sorry, I’m not giving you the choice. You accept what it is, end of. It’s shadowmancy and it exists, and my entire life is its living proof.
‘Where is that?’ India asked, spyglass trained on the land mass that passed slowly before them. He saw bright forests and white beaches, and in the centre, with trees marched up its slopes, a single mountain peak that in the light seemed capped with silver.
‘West Indigo,’ Hairless said. ‘Just you wait honey, you’re soon to see something even better.’
A while later, separated by only a turquoise channel whose lush beauty betrayed its shallowness (India wondered if you could wade through it without even needing a boat), East Indigo floated into view.
‘What the shank is that?’ India gasped.
‘Nice, ain’t it?’ rumbled Big Cage.
‘That’s the East Indigo Palace,’ Hairless said. ‘Abode of Hong Kong Silver.’
‘I’ve heard of him.’
‘You’d be hard pressed not to, sugar. Biggest merchant trader in the Caribbean. And I mean biggest.’
‘That’s sure a nice way of putting it,’ Dessica chimed in, joining them at the rail and leaning over, the sun turning her skull gold. ‘Silver might be as rich as an Aztec, but he’s also the most disreputable man in the Caribbean. The man’s got to where he is by being a double-crossing crook. Would sell his own grandmother if it added another inch to his piles of gold. You’d call him a pirate if he ever set sail.’
‘I never said he was an honest merchant trader,’ Hairless said. ‘If there’s any such thing.’
‘Nice, ain’t it?’ Big Cage said again.
‘It sure is,’ India said. A path of golden sand, somehow hardened and set like stone, wound from the beach and carved up a hill, flanked on both sides by the tallest palm trees he’d ever seen. Away from the path, vibrant greenery gave way to tangled jungle, which clustered in, eager to get closer to the palace, and steal its photosynthetic radiance. Huge white domes burst like soap bubbles from the island’s centre at the top of the hill, only matched in shining dominance by two gold-and-white minarets that stabbed into the blue sky.
‘He must be swimming in coin,’ India murmured. He looked at where the path broadened and met the palace, huge gates that glowed in the sunlight – and perhaps they too were made of gold.
‘Oh, he is,’ Hairless said. ‘Don’t get jealous now.’
‘Too late,’ India said. He imagined what it would be like to live in such a place, a place fit for an emperor. When East Indigo was finally lost to his vision, he retired quietly to his cabin and closed his eyes, basking in the idea that he did indeed live and rule there, waking up every morning on a shifting bed of Aztec coins.
India was roused from his bed one morning by Spares mumbling at him and shaking his arm. India felt a flash of fear; it was only the second time he’d been woken up to the face of a skeleton staring down at him, and this one was a lot closer, far too close. Whilst they no longer troubled him when he was up and about (with the possible exception of Blackbone), it was different when you were surprised out of the dull confusion and uncertainties of sleep into confronting a grinning visage of the dead.
Spares must have noticed the shock that passed briefly across his face, for he took a step back. ‘Begging your pardon, mate,’ he said. ‘Didn’t mean to shock you or nothing.’
‘Spares,’ India said, letting his heart rate slow back down. ‘What’s going on?’
‘We’re here, that’s what,’ Spares said. ‘Grimmer told me to fetch you.’
‘Here, where’s here?’ India sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
‘We’re anchored at Lonely Carib. Dropping the boats now.’
Spares left and India got up and dressed, pausing before putting on the coat Hairless had found him. It felt heavier than usual. He looked out the porthole and saw a sliver of beach, grey in the dawn light.
He ran a hand through his hair, rough and shaggy from all the sea spray. Mrs Wayles would have held him down and forced a brush through it, he thought with a small smile. Not that it would have helped; he’d only have been straight back out tumbling in the muddy alleys of Rug, or pushing through the jungle, raked by bad-tempered undergrowth on the way to the Aztec Tomb.
‘Is that a boy under there?’ Mrs Wayles used to say. ‘Or is it a bush? Has part of the jungle just uprooted and walked in? For the life of me I just can’t tell.’
India felt a strange, uncomfortable pang as they rowed towards the beach. He hadn’t said anything since he’d got in the boat. Grimmer too was especially quiet. Ahead of them the beach looked cold and sad.
Two of the skeletons got out into the water and pulled it up onto the shore. India got out and walked up the beach a short way. The hard sand crunched under his boots. It was the first time his feet had touched anything other than Mexico Island. It was a surreal and unsettling experience. He looked back at the ship, but saw only a thick, dark mist. He squinted and tried to envisage the ship there, knowing it was there, and bit by bit he saw the sails, the grey hull . . . but as soon as he relaxed the mist crawled in once more.
The skeletons were sitting about on the beach. A couple had wandered into the jungle. Some were speaking in couples or small groups, others like Grimmer were looking back out at the sea, or drawing idle patterns in the sand. Perhaps it was all in his head, but there seemed a melancholy air over everything. He sensed this was a different kind of escape for these ‘jolly rogers’, a different kind of relief than the drinking and dancing that had formed their last landing.
‘This is it,’ Dessica said as she approached him, her head low. ‘We’re all sorry to see you go.’
‘I don’t want to go,’ India said. A few of the other skeletons were standing up and coming over. Big Cage. Hairless. Spares.
Dessica shook her head, smiling. ‘Don’t be silly. The dead are no company for the living.’
‘You’ve got your whole life to live, honey,’ Hairless said.
‘Sorry you gotta go, mate,’ Spares said. ‘We’ve all enjoyed, uh, having you on board. It’s been lively.’
‘I have to?’
‘You know you do,’ Hairless said, gently.
‘Never meant to capture you in the first place,’ Spares said, kicking the sand with his feet. ‘Gotta watch the drinking.’
Big Cage came forward, and reached out with his arms. India awkwardly opened his own arms and Big Cage hugged him, almost crushing him.
‘Leave off him you big oaf,’ Spares said. ‘You’ll crush the lad.’ He shook his head as though annoyed, and wandered off.
‘Miss you,’ Big Cage said, and turned and followed Spares.
‘You too,’ India said, too quiet for Big Cage to hear.
‘Go and say your farewells to Grimmer,’ Dessica said. She touched her skull, and Hairless blew him a kiss, and the two of them walked away.
India saw a few of the other skeletons on the beach give him nods and waves, and he waved back. He pinched his eyes and approached Grimmer, who was still sat on the sand.
‘Come with me,’ India said.
‘No,’ Grimmer said, not looking at him. ‘I can’t.’
‘Don’t be naïve. Look, go on.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘I don’t want to be by myself.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ Grimmer said. When India still hadn’t moved, he picked up a pebble, tightened his bone fingers around it and then turned and threw it at him. India dodged it; he didn’t know if it was supposed to hit him or not.
‘Go away!’ Grimmer said. ‘Leave me be. Go and join the land of the damned living.’
India looked at him with hurt, angry eyes, and then turned and walked away. When he’d reached the edge of the beach he glanced back. Grimmer was sat in the same spot, not moving, staring down at the sand.
India stuffed his hands into his coat pockets and disappeared into the jungle.
I wrote a short script for a 14 page comic, just for fun really, because the copyrights involved would mean I couldn’t really do anything with it. It’s just a very dark alternate take on Batman. The general concept I’m sure has been thought of before but I’ve never seen it properly executed and written down as a script.
All copyrights to the characters and world belong to DC, of course. This isn’t for money but just a fan thing (although I’d LOVE to see it done with artwork). Needless to say it’s absolutely not canon nor pretending to be anything it isn’t.
For those who haven’t read comicbook scripts before, the numbers on each page are for each separate panel of art, CAP means caption (usually a thought/narration box), and dialogue would appear as speech bubbles. The rest is a guide addressing the (sadly no longer on board) artist as to what might appear in the panels.
Hope you enjoy (and don’t take it so serious).
BATMAN: THE MAN BEHIND THE BAT script
By Set Sytes
Black and white. Except for the laughs of the Joker, the green wig and red lipstick. Maybe the blue and red of the police sirens. These colours should be bold and vivid, standing out strongly against the black and white. It’s up to you if you use the blood that occurs later in greyscale or red. In general, colour in the panels should be rare.
Everything drenched in shadows. Bold, simple, striking. Maybe rough heavy line drawings (like the art from From Hell) or thick, blotty use of blacks, like Mike Mignola’s art. Or both. Backgrounds could be simple or nearly non-existent – block blacks and shading, with essential props and architecture. Up to you how much detail you put in, but the panels should remain bold, stark and striking, never cluttered, and always a focus on the characters over backgrounds.
Panel layout is an outline, if you want to change how many panels appear on each page (Average of 6, no more than 8 for the odd page, maybe also pages with fewer but bigger panels), up to you of course. Add more pages if you need to fit in all the panels. There’s no page limit.
1 – GOTHAM CITY
Batman narrates as he looks out from a rooftop over Gotham city. His figure is a grim, impressive, imposing and even scary one – feel free to be a little bit surreal and abstract with his look, almost mythic, a figure of menace. All black, huge sprawling cape, etc. Little detail – maybe all you see is cowl and cape? White eyes as usual. I’ll send some sample ideas if you want.
CAP: The city is diseased. I’ve known it ever since my parents were murdered in front of me.
CAP: Shadows cut and slash at every source of light, every source of hope. Tumours bubble up out of the depths and threaten to swallow the city whole.
CAP: When the wind carries just right, you can smell the cancer eating the city. You can smell Gotham’s rotting flesh.
CAP: I’m Gotham’s own chemotherapy. I destroy just to keep it alive. A necessary sickness.
Batman turns, hearing a scream coming up from below and to the side, out of shot.
4 & 5 –
Jumps or soars down into the alley.
CAP: To every criminal that preys on the innocent, I am more than just a knight of justice. I am the wings of havoc.
Runs through the alleys.
CAP: And I always win.
Batman races forward down an alley, towards two common criminals threatening a terrified woman.
WOMAN: Please don’t!
1 & 2 –
Batman fights the criminals.
CAP: Common thugs. A walk in the park.
A SNAP as he breaks a criminal’s arm. The man’s face is contorted in pain.
CAP: I call this a warm-up.
The criminals are on the floor unconscious. Don’t show blood. Batman looks around, the woman is gone.
BATMAN: Guess she must have run off.
5 – BATCAVE
Batman standing in the Batcave. Alfred standing in the corner, stiff, in the shadows. Obscured by shadow. Something scary about him. No movement or facial expressions shown at any point, maybe his whole face is in shadow. He should look identical in every appearance in the comic – because he is an effigy.
ALFRED CAP (a speech balloon, but an independent one, not attributed to Alfred): Any word on the Joker, sir?
BATMAN: Not yet, Alfred. My lead turned out to be a dead end.
ALFRED CAP: Escaping from Arkham Asylum yet again. It beggars belief.
BATMAN: Arkham wasn’t built to hold minds such as his.
ALFRED CAP: Even with the increased security, sir?
BATMAN: He must have had help. Someone on the inside.
ALFRED CAP: Again, sir?
1 & 2 –
Bruce is asleep in his bedroom. Face cast in shadow. Tossing and turning, pained expression. He is having bad dreams.
3 – 5 –
Dreams of Joe Chill killing his parents. Dark alley, a figure coming, a gunshot. You know the scene. Use your imagination for these panels, as long as it’s dark, stylised and creepy! Green Joker laughter starts off small in panel 4, coming from off-panel, and gets bigger and more ‘aggressive’ in panel 5.
Bruce sits on his knees at the feet of his dead parents. Head down. Camera to the back of him. Joker’s green HAHAHAHAHA coming in from the edges and fully into the panel, larger than before, unavoidable.
Next day, in the Batcave. Batman sitting at his Batcomputer. Alfred standing in the corner, stiff, in the shadows as before.
BATMAN: Get Lucius Fox on the line. I’m going to need some upgrades, if I’m going to track down the Joker.
ALFRED CAP: Right away, Master Bruce. And perhaps you could also say something about the Joker breaking into his house again last night? Some words of comfort, perhaps. The poor man is in fear for his life.
BATMAN: Of course I will, Alfred.
ALFRED CAP: Patched you through now, sir.
BATMAN: Lucius, are you there? Lucius? Alfred, I’m not getting any –
All these panels still of Batman at the computer. Don’t show Lucius. If you show Batman’s face, it’s standard Batman expression, stern, authoritative, impatient but in control.
LUCIUS (independent jagged transmission balloon): I know it’s you Bruce. What’s happening in the streets. At first I denied it, I denied it for so long, as the evidence mounted . . .
LUCIUS: But then . . . I put a tracker on you. I followed you. I saw what it is that you do . . . That’s when I knew . . .
BATMAN: Lucius, calm down.
LUCIUS: I’m not doing it anymore Bruce! I’m not going to be your – your enabler any more. God, I’m part of this . . . I’m an accomplice. I’ve been drinking so much lately, drinking myself half to death, drinking to forget . . . I’ve been so scared. Scared of you.
LUCIUS: And then – and then I was scared of going to the cops, telling them what I know. I knew they’d put me away, separate me from my family. It took me so long to gather the strength for this call. My hands were shaking. They still are.
BATMAN: Lucius, control yourself. You know the Joker knows where you live now. He’ll come for you, you know that, come for your family. And I’m the only one who can protect you from him.
LUCIUS: I’ve sent my family away! They’ll be . . . They’ll be safe.
BATMAN: Where have you sent them? If you don’t tell me, I can’t protect them.
LUCIUS: I’m not telling you! Please Bruce, please. You’re not well. You need to turn yourself in. I’m begging you.
BATMAN: I can’t quit. Gotham needs me. It seems I’ll have to go on without you, old friend.
BATMAN: Goodbye, Lucius.
PAGE 5 – LUCIUS FOX’S APARTMENT
Lucius Fox in his apartment alone at night, sitting, staring at nothing, maybe a TV turned off. Bottle of beer in his hand, beer bottles all around him. Gun on the seat next to him.
He hears a creak at the door, turns his head. Startled.
Trains his gun on it, sweating in the shadows.
Behind him, a figure creeps in through the window. Green hair, red smile. The rest in shadows. It’s a freaky image.
Lucius starts to spin around as the Joker speaks (still mostly in shadow apart from the colours, the smile – a scary figure).
JOKER: Luuuciieeee, I’ve got a boooonnne to pick with you!
The Joker knocks the gun out of his hand. Lucius falls to the floor.
Joker stands over him. Lucius is terrified, holding hand up as though it will protect him.
JOKER: Which bone would you like me to pick, Lucie? Hehehehehhehe (this laughter starts in the balloon and then comes out of it, going green and bigger into the rest of the panel.)
1 – GOTHAM CITY
Batman stares into the darkness. Out of which come the red and blue lights of police cars. It’s all in shadow (sorry if that word gets repeated a lot here!). All you see is lights, darkness, perhaps vague shapes. Slashing rain. A sense of confusion.
CAP: I blink. I don’t know how I got here.
CAP: My short-term memory is a network of shadows. Deep within me, the tumour with the clown grin pulsates, and grows. Something is very wrong.
The scene comes into more clarity, although still somewhat shrouded. You can see police cars and police officers pointing guns through the rain at Batman. Including Commissioner Gordon.
CAP: I feel like I’ve been drugged. What is going on?
Close-up on Jim Gordon. His hair, coat and gun dripping wet in the rain. His glasses are opaque white – you never see his eyes. He looks angry, determined, but also a man carrying a huge burden.
GORDON: Drop it, Bruce! We know it’s you!
GORDON: All this time, it was you. I had my suspicions before, but who would question the head of Wayne Enterprises? The company that always gave so very generously to the GCPD.
GORDON: You were our bread and butter, Bruce. We had it all, with you lining the department’s pockets. But it’s over now. We’re not taking your money anymore.
BATMAN (balloon coming from out of panel, or the bottom of the panel – focus still on Gordon): Jim, you’re making a mistake.
CAP: I have to get out of here.
GORDON: The only mistake I made was in not doing this sooner. We got a phone call from Lucius Fox. He told us everything.
GORDON: This whole time. Dammit Bruce, how could you do this? How could you do this to them, to me?’
Batman throws smoke pellets.
The police officers are coughing in the smoke. See Gordon through the smoke, arm over his mouth.
GORDON: <koff> Nobody is to stop, nobody is to take a break, <koff> nobody is to do anything until Bruce Wayne is behind bars!
Batman sat back to a chimney, on a rooftop. Joker’s green HEHEHEHE comes in very small, from off-panel. It appears in every panel hence, sneaking in. It’s there, but it’s unobtrusive. Always HEHEHEHE instead of HAHAHAHA, for now.
CAP: Everything’s unravelling. A tumbling of bricks.
CAP: They act like I’m a monster. I’m just a man.
CAP: I’m losing myself in the shadows. Darkness tugs at me, like pulling teeth from their roots. It’s trying to take it all away from me. The cancer is trying to win.
CAP: Someone’s behind this. but who? Or what?
Catwoman appears, a long sleek black figure, hands on hips.
BATMAN (not looking at her): Not now Catwoman. This isn’t a good time. I have to get back to the Batcave.
5 – BATCAVE
Batman with Alfred, as earlier. Batman standing, looking away.
BATMAN: First Lucius, now Jim. Everyone’s turning against me.
BATMAN: Something bad has happened, but I can’t . . . I can’t think straight. I feel like I’m being swallowed up from the inside.
Batman turns to Alfred, motionless as before.
Batman, confused, puts his hand on Alfred’s shoulder. Shadows obscure Batman’s white eyes. Alfred leans lightly to one side with the pressure.
Alfred falls over. Batman is shocked, aghast in horror. You can see his real eyes, they are no longer whited out as usual.
Batman stands over the fallen Alfred.
BATMAN: No . . . No, it can’t be . . .
Batman is looking pretty unhinged right now. His eyes look increasingly bloodshot and frenzied from now on. His chin looks more and more weathered, dirty and unshaven. His Batman outfit shifting from sleek, armoured well-crafted perfection (or the surreal, mythic wrapped-in-blackness style), to a slowly more real, tattered, home-made look . Make it all –outfit and face – a subtle change over a number of panels. You are gradually heading towards: simple, rough, torn, all-black, head to toe outfit, with a stitched on black-on-white bat symbol on the chest, and a grey utility belt. A crappy hand-made looking cowl, looks stitched together. This is Batman as he really looks – a deranged man. He cannot look after himself. He still looks dangerous, but in a different, unstable way. He’s a person you do not want to bump into.
The green Joker HEHEHEHE’s are getting larger in these panels, intruding slightly on the scenes.
CAP: Is it real? Is it really –
CAP: You know the answer to that.
BATMAN: Oh god.
Batman, on his hands and knees. Looks like he’s trying but failing to keep control. Desperately gritted teeth, but wide open eyes. Maybe flecks of spit coming from his teeth.
Focus on Batman’s mad, grizzled face.
CAP: He’s dead. They’re all dead.
CAP: Falling . . .
Focus on Batman’s eyes. They’re sliding up, completely insane.
CAP: What have I done?
Recreation of scenes where Batman fought the “criminals” at the beginning. Except he looks like he does in the prior panels (i.e. home-made, dishevelled, mad). He is charging at two innocent homeless men and one woman. They are terrified. Remember the Joker laughter in all these panels. Keep as much else the same as you can, from the original panels.
WOMAN: Please don’t!
Batman beats up the defenceless men as the woman runs off. They are shown in pain and bloodied by Batman.
Batman breaks one of their arms with a SNAP. The man is screaming in pain.
Batman stands over their two dead bodies. Make a distinction from the previous interpretation of this scene, that now they appear dead and battered/bloodied, and not just unconscious as before.
BATMAN: Guess she must have run off.
5 & 6 –
Two shots of the Joker’s face coming out of pitch darkness. Just a face. Green hair, lipstick, grin. Make it as scary as possible. Maybe no eyes – skin stretched over them? Whichever looks freakier. Bear in mind this is also Bruce’s face – but given the art style of the comic, it might not be obvious. As long as it’s not obvious that it’s not.
A full page of various panels of Batman beating up/killing people, or launching himself at them from out of the darkness – maybe some are lowlifes, maybe some are homeless, or street kids – none of them deserve his punishment. Use your imagination with these panels. Just show Batman as he really is (in the context of this story): wild, unhinged and scary. Don’t show any knives or guns. His opponents are unarmed, and he’s doing it all with his fists. Possibly homemade batarangs that stick in people like knives – up to you.
Green laughter dominates these panels more than any previous ones. They’re all over the scenes, covering the page. Both HEHEHEHEHE and HAHAHAHAHA this time.
In the middle of all these panels (or place it/stylise it how best you feel fits) is a laughing shot, like before of the Joker, except this time it has a cowl on, and white eyes. It’s Batman meets the Joker. Think Batman with red lipstick and a crazy grin. Green hair coming out from under the cowl, maybe. I can show you a sample like that if you want.
The final panel on this page is a recreation of the panel earlier where Catwoman appears. Except this time it’s just a black cat.
BATMAN: Not now Catwoman.
We’re away from flashbacks and back to the Batcave with insane Batman. He’s a state. During these panels he’s having a breakdown. Fingers clawing at hair and at face, wild, unbelieving, despairing eyes etc. Or, alternatively, maybe you want it more understated and sad – an utterly, utterly defeated Batman. Disconsolate, unable to take on the enormity of it all. Maybe you don’t even see his face, just a hunched body, head down. Your call.
If you show any of the Batcave – and you don’t need to – don’t make it anything really. It’s just a cave. Maybe it has a laptop in it where the Batcomputer is. Maybe you don’t want to show anything. Keep the focus on Batman. If you want to show him small and with a crushed spirit, maybe zoom out to his small broken black figure in a big dark empty cave. Make us as distant from him as he is from himself. Give us the feeling he’s all alone. This all might work better than the close-up crazy-breakdown Batman, given he’s finally accepting the truth.
CAP: All of them. All of them. My rogues, my villains . . . they were all me. Elements of my psyche I manifested into enemies to defeat – but they never could be defeated, could they? Not permanently. They rose up, again and again.
CAP: They always escaped. They always had their fun.
In these panels, as well as the previous shot, add drawings of the villains as referenced in the captions. Maybe they’re standing by him, maybe you’re just drawing their face in the corner of the panel, in the shadows. They are imagined by Batman. Here’s a chance to draw some of the other rogues in a disturbing way! Be a bit surreal with them if you like.
CAP: Two-Face . . . My multiple personality disorder. My psyche split in two. Good man and psychopath.
CAP: The Scarecrow. My fear of the truth.
CAP: Clayface, my malleability, my ability to deceive, to present myself as something other than what I am. My mask of human skin hides the monster within.
CAP: The Penguin, my mental deformity, my corruption. The crooked tumour of my mind.
Draw the Joker here however you think best, as long as it fits with previous times. Make him the craziest and scariest. It’s demented Bruce Wayne in a wig, white-face and lipstick, and it should look horrible.
CAP: And, of course, the Joker. The real me, the psychopathic serial killer I try to bury inside. Never deep enough. He always gets out.
The alley murder scene, except this time it’s young Bruce Wayne killing his parents and laughing. Of course, the green HAHAHAHA (sorry to keep mentioning it, it’s non-stop – unless you feel it interferes with the art in panels. As long as it’s on each page quite a bit). It’s moved on from HEHEHEHE like it was before.
CAP: The Joker killed my parents.
CAP: I killed my parents.
Bruce with a green wig on doing his lipstick in the mirror . . . Yeah, it’ll look very wrong. Think Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill!
Back to defeated alone Batman.
CAP: My no-kill rule. What a joke, what a farce. When, in reality, the reverse was true. So many dead. By my hand.
CAP: How many bones did I think I could break? How many piles of garbage were there to break someone’s fall?
CAP: There is no Arkham Asylum. Only the morgue. The graveyard.
CAP: There might not even be a Gotham. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s real and what’s not.
Panels of hollow-eyed Batman staring blankly into the darkness.
CAP: All this, this self-delusion, to cover up my own guilt. I looked for an unnamed killer, I sought vengeance on shadows, on nothing, on nobodies . . . Joe Chill . . . a nobody.
CAP: It wasn’t enough, in the end. My own guilt threatened to surface. I had to have a single person take the fall, a person I could touch, could smell. I gave him a name, a name inspired by the pulp noir novels I read as a child.
CAP: Where is Joe Chill now? I know where he is. A man whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If you hadn’t drawn it this way before, right now Batman is definitely on his knees, head sunk. These panels are quite repetitive, but should enforce the captions. If you want to repeat ones you’ve already drawn, do so. Don’t let any of the Joker laughter detract from the detachment and loneliness of Batman. It should be all about him in these panels, him in the empty cave. Maybe the laughter is just floating around the edges of the panels. Maybe you don’t want them there at all.
CAP: I got away with so much. I remember . . . I remember Gotham as a lovely city. It’s just me. I’m the only danger here. The only darkness.
CAP: The rich elite, they get away with everything. They always have, throughout history. Get away with murder. Nobody questioned me, not really. I was untouchable. It was only when it was staring them in the face that they had to act.
CAP: I bet some of them would have just kept on taking the money, for an easier life.
Batman has raised his head. Whether we see his eyes or not, he’s looking up. Something has occurred to him. He’s speaking out loud now.
BATMAN: Did I imagine Robin too? The things I made him do . . . Some of the time, he must have been in my head. The rest . . .
BATMAN: He’s still here, somewhere. Maybe he’s still crying. Maybe he’s finally gone quiet.
The Joker laughter here is smaller, edging away.
BATMAN: No . . . It’s not . . . This isn’t . . .
Just a solid black panel. No laughter.
Shows only Batman’s torn gloved hand, reaching up desperately into the darkness, as though there’s something out there that can save him. In this panel the HAHAHAHA is fading away, diminishing out the panel.
BATMAN: No . . .
Same shot of the hand, except it now looks more like the Batman suit as he imagined it – like a Batsuit gauntlet. Look it up if you want an idea. Doesn’t need detail though – as long as it looks different to before, better-made and not torn. Or darker, more surreal? In this and later panels there is no more Joker laughter.
CAP: No, it can’t end like this. It doesn’t make any sense.
CAP: It’s not true.
Shot of Batman’s narrowed eyes. The eyes are white, like before. The old mask is back. Maybe it’s just two white eyes in blackness.
CAP: Mind manipulation coupled with a new strain of fear toxin. Mad Hatter and the Scarecrow must be working together. Seeking to destroy my identity . . . make me believe in the impossible.
Batman’s arm again, now in a clenched fist. It looks stronger and more muscular than before.
CAP: Fight it, Bruce. You can beat them. You’re stronger than this.
Another arm shot, looking even stronger and more imposing than before, even crueller – more dangerous. Or maybe you can show it in a more surreal way – darkness flowing out of it, the hand more of something inhuman than a man.
CAP: You’re more than Bruce Wayne.
CAP: You are –
A big panel, taking up the rest of the page. Batman is standing up. He looks like the original panels of how Batman looked, but more so. Unreal-looking, no face – just the white eyes of the cowl, his cape billowing out, jagged, the ends like tendrils reaching to ensnare. Maybe he’s floating off the ground – the whole effect is of Batman not as a human but as a dark myth, as demon, as terror of the night.
It’s my pleasure to announce that the next Fifth Place book, the sequel to the weird science fantasy western WULF, is finished and available HERE!
It’s called SLADE – it’s more irreverent, darker, crazier, more complex and twice as epic! This is where things really get going in the series. And if you want answers to all the questions raised in WULF, here is where you’ll find them!
I’ve been working on the crazy sci-fi adventure SLADE, the sequel to WULF, for god knows how long, but I’m so pleased to say that as of today I finally finished it! Well, sort-of. It still needs a careful read through and editing away issues and mistakes – and fervent praying that there’s no gaping plotholes… but still!
It’s currently 123,353 words long, making it longer than its predecessor WULF by 50,000 words, and longer than the longest novel I’ve written by 40,000 words. It just kept getting longer!
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written for numerous reasons. I really hope fans of WULF will enjoy this epic. It answers just about all the main questions raised by WULF while still setting up the pieces for a future installment.
Following on from Part 8. You can find it in full on Amazon.
There was a rumble behind him, and he stepped out of the way of a carriage drawn by two huge yellow horses with long muzzles. The cart was roughly spherical, of a silver dulled long in the desert. In the centre was an opening covered by rich purple curtains. Only a hand was visible, clutching the fabric, as though the owner was undecided about pulling the curtain back. Jay heard raised voices coming from within, as it rolled past with spoked wheels the size of uppity mole-eyed clerks. A woman’s voice and a man’s; it was the woman’s hand, and it withdrew.
Jay saw he was back on the thoroughfare. He could just make out the rest house and the bar – Buha’s Tap & Griller – up ahead. That was another interesting thing: just like spoken words that immediately translated themselves into his thoughts, the words written on these signs were not any language he could recognise, nor alphabet, and yet . . . there they were, in plain English in his brain.
Griller. That meant meat, and meat meant food. He might only have four jackals to his name (his mind seemed unwilling or unable to call up an exchange rate, but then he supposed one would have little purpose here), but maybe Sav would lend him some money, at least for one half-decent meal. He figured that even though she might have been a . . . mercenary kind of girl, if you tried often enough the mercurial sometimes granted you boons, and surely a wilderness woman like her would know what it was like to go hungry.
Hungry? I’m starving. He suddenly felt lightheaded, feeling himself sway. He put out a hand on the side of a building to catch himself. When had he last eaten? A lifetime ago? When had Old Jay (as he had started to name the last owner of this body, and the imprints and voices left behind) last eaten?
He entered Buha’s. Sal was there, and she scowled at him when she saw him approach. ‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Hello again. You work here too, huh? Is Sav about?’
He sighed and sat down on a bar stool. ‘What can I get to eat, for four jackals?’
Sal turned her back on him. When she turned again, she had a wooden bowl that she placed in front of him. He looked in it. It was empty.
Sal dropped a spoon in the bowl. ‘Better than nothing, in fact. Nothing is what you deserve. For four jackals. Instead, you get a good bowl full of clean hearty air.’ She dropped a spoon in the bowl. ‘Eat up your air. Don’t let it go to waste.’
Jay looked forlornly down at the bowl. He stirred the spoon, while Sal shook her head slowly at him. He got to his feet. ‘I need to find Sav. It’s an emergency.’
‘You need her to buy you some food.’
‘Well, she’s not here.’
‘Any idea where she might be?’
‘No. She left town.’
‘What? What do you mean she left town?’
‘She left town,’ Sal repeated.
‘But . . . she said she’d be here today.’
‘And you believed her?’ Sal arched her brow. ‘She’s not much interested in keeping pets, not if they need looking after. And not if they’re always trying to hump her leg.’
‘Great,’ Jay said. ‘Just great.’ Sal looked at him without pity, folding her arms. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I mean . . . I’m sorry. For how I was with you, that time. Times? I don’t remem- I mean, I’m just sorry.’
Sal sniffed and took the bowl from him. ‘Savvi was right, you have changed.’
‘For the better, I hope?’
‘That remains to be seen. Could hardly have got much worse.’
Jay smiled. ‘Fair enough. I’m gonna go and see what I can get in this town for four jackals.’
He left the bar and headed further along the thoroughfare. The fruit of the stalls he had passed earlier did not encourage him; too much of that and he’d get the runs. He needed something substantial – bread or meat, ideally. There was a whole host of smells on the breeze, familiar and foreign, but after a hundred yards his nose picked up on the right one, and he followed it.
A stall selling what looked like bread. The loaves were cut into ovals and cylinders, and even spheres, and it looked rather soft and spongey, but the smell was good. The vendor – male or female? Or both? Neither? – had four breasts like shelves on the chest, and a black-and-white beard that was forked in all directions. The eyes were big and lidless and without irises.
‘Good morning, Rathian!’ the vendor said, in a high, squirrely voice, clasping two four-fingered hands together. ‘What good crust can I offer such a warrior like yourself on this fine hour?’
‘Um,’ Jay said, taking his hand out his pocket. ‘What can I get for four jackals?’
‘A host of loaf, Rathian!’ the vendor cried, arms sweeping the assortment of breads.
‘Oh, good. What do you recommend?’
The vendor picked up a big ball of bread, spotted orange. ‘A sunbursted loaf for a sunbursted man! A handsome Rathian, with such beautiful patterns! Four jackals, just for you!’
‘Thank you,’ Jay said, raising his eyes and handing over the coins. The vendor placed the bread in his hands as though it were the sword of Excalibur.
‘Treat it well, eat it well!’ called the vendor as Jay, thanking him once more, hurried off, munching into it as he left. It was soft, but it was very good, and with a bit of a . . . kick, too. It was bread-and-not-bread, just like so much else he had encountered: both known and not known.
He stopped at the side of the street, leaning against a wall, his mouth full, his jaw working avidly away. On the other side of the thoroughfare a grey-whiskered man in a tall black hat and red cravat was inspecting some trinkets from a stall. They flashed in the light of the sun as the man turned them over in his hands. Beside him was an attractive younger woman, in her early twenties perhaps. Her back was against the stall, and she looked around as she talked off-and-on with the man. By the age differences, and the familiarity and manner that existed between the two, Jay guessed that the older man was her father.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Truth be told, she wasn’t another Sav. With Sav he always felt like he shouldn’t be looking at her, that her appearance drew the male (and any other) gaze, much against its will, and it turned men like him – not me, Old Jay – no, you too fella, don’t kid yourself, you too – into, well, walking in dumb reverie: you had to make sure you kept your lips closed so as not to drool. Sav commanded attention from everybody, and rode all over anybody who gave it. Hmm, ridden by Savvi, now there’s a happy thought . . .
This girl was another matter. She wasn’t classically beautiful, not in that statuesque, instantly stunning way. But to Jay she was pretty, that kind of pretty where it wasn’t clear how others saw her, and who knew if she might only affect a handful, or him and him alone. Her hair was the colour of sand and sunset; a beach blonde kissed by ruddy swathes that seemed to move as she did. Her skin the colour of pinkened milk. She had a loose green dress on, wrapped around a body that was short and just shy of festively plump. Jay mentally slapped himself for the phrase.
Her eyes roamed the street, seeming to float all over before quickly darting to him. He looked away, but couldn’t help but look back up a few seconds later. She still had eyes on him. He was relieved to see she was smiling, in that quizzical do-I-know-you?-not-that-I-much-mind-you-looking way. He grinned back, really trying to avoid looking sleazy. She turned and gave her father a big hug, and then –
Oh god, she’s walking over. Finish your mouthful finish your mouthful.
Good for you, now fuck her and be done with it.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I saw you staring.’
Jay swallowed. ‘I’m sorry. I . . . couldn’t . . . didn’t mean to . . . I mean, hello.’
She laughed, and Jay couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard such a lovely sound. She had blue-green eyes like a tropical lagoon and they creased at the corners when she smiled. Old Jay was busy making being-sick noises.
‘Relax,’ she said. ‘For someone who looks the way you do, you’re awfully . . .’ She hesitated.
‘You said it, not me!’ She looks so happy when she talks. Why didn’t I ever look that happy? She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and when a couple of seconds of silence had passed, they both laughed.
‘Good, is it?’ she said, nodding to the loaf of bread Jay was holding with a series of big bite marks in it.
‘Aha, yeah. I was starving. I only had four jackals on me.’
‘Well, that won’t do.’ She gave him that curious look again. ‘Tell you what, if you throw that thing away, I’ll buy you a proper meal and a drink.’
‘Oh, no, I couldn’t accept that. Besides, I can’t just throw away good food!’
‘Of course you can. Plus, I insist. My father is boring me to tears, and most of the people in this town . . .’ She trailed off with an ominous tone. ‘But you. Well, I’m not sure about you. How you look and how you act are at odds.’
‘I’m not sure about me either. But you don’t need to spend money on me.’
‘Oh, stop talking.’ She smiled again, and he felt another sense of weight, another burst of warmth in him – higher up this time. ‘You can either gnaw on your loaf in the street like a beggar, or we can both go for a meal and a drink. Besides, you’re not putting me out one bit. Check this out.’ She reached into her dress and pulled out a wad of red-and-white notes from her cleavage.
‘That’s a lot of money,’ Jay said.
‘It’s a nice amount.’ She fanned her face with it.
‘Ain’t you afraid of getting robbed?’
‘My father wouldn’t like that. He’s quite the shot with his pistol, and he has some tough friends. Besides,’ she patted the top line of her dress. ‘It was hidden.’
‘First place I’d look,’ Jay said, immediately regretting it. I’d never have said something like that. It’s this body. It’s Old Jay making himself known.
No. Old Jay doesn’t live here anymore. It’s just you shaping yourself. Filling out in a new environment. A room, a house, catacombs . . . Swords and guns on the walls, bloodstains on the floorboards, and naked women on furs.
He hadn’t apologised, as he should have; he’d punctuated the line with a grin, and it must have worked, for the girl was laughing. With him or at him, it didn’t really matter.
‘I’m sure it would be,’ she said, still smiling, her eyes so perfectly creased. Part of him wanted to tickle her, just to keep it going, to push her smiles and laughter further and further.
‘Alright,’ he said at last. ‘Thank you. It would be my pleasure. I’ll owe you.’
‘The pleasure will be all mine,’ she replied. ‘And yes, yes you will.’
They started walking. ‘Do you need to tell your father you’re heading off with a stranger?’
‘I’m a big girl,’ she said simply.
‘Let’s go here,’ Jay said, as they approached Buha’s Bar & Griller.
‘You read my mind.’
‘I haven’t asked you your name.’
‘That’s right, you haven’t. It’s -’
‘Alexia!’ The man in the tall hat had run after them, panting slightly. ‘Alexia, my dear, I have been robbed!’
The girl clapped her hands to her face. ‘Father, no! Are you sure?’
‘It is as I have said. I am short changed, considerably so.’
‘Can you remember when you last had it?’
‘In the carriage, my dear. I swear, if that scoundrel Jerrens took it -’
‘Jerrens is a good man, father. You know he wouldn’t. Perhaps you should ask around everywhere you were from leaving the carriage up to now. Start with the rest house. Maybe you dropped it and somebody has handed it in.’
‘Perhaps. I will do that now, I think. If I have lost it for good then . . . no harm done.’ He sighed. ‘It is just vexing. I seem to have been losing money as of late. I fear I am growing old.’ The man seemed to only just notice Jay, and he raised his brow. ‘And who is your friend?’
‘Do not judge on looks, father. He is a close friend of Cam, and I have met him before, back in Stoneswell.’
‘Then I say how do you do to him,’ the man bowed stiffly. ‘And now I must busy myself accounting for fallen money. Likely the wind has it now, if not ruffians. I will see you back at the rest house.’ He tipped his hat to Jay and departed, his long legs carrying him briskly along the thoroughfare.
‘That’s unfortunate,’ Jay said.
‘It is, isn’t it,’ Alexia said, fanning herself with the money once more, which had magically slipped away during the conversation.
Jay’s eyes widened. ‘You stole it.’
Alexia yawned. ‘Oh, come on. He’s got far too much money for one man.’
‘But he’s your father.’
‘And you’re not. Don’t be boring. Let’s go eat until we’re sick.’ She pushed open the door to Buha’s. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Jay. Jay Wulf.’ The name came naturally to his lips, without hesitation.
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.
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.