Category Archives: Fiction

Comicbook script: The Man Behind the Bat

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

 

ART IDEAS

 

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.

PAGE 1

 

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.

2 –

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.

3 –

Batman turns, hearing a scream coming up from below and to the side, out of shot.

AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

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.

5 –

Runs through the alleys.

CAP: And I always win.

6 –

Batman races forward down an alley, towards two common criminals threatening a terrified woman.

WOMAN: Please don’t!

 

PAGE 2

 

1 & 2 –

Batman fights the criminals.

CAP: Common thugs. A walk in the park.

3 –

A SNAP as he breaks a criminal’s arm. The man’s face is contorted in pain.

CAP: I call this a warm-up.

4 –

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.

6 –

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?

 

PAGE 3

 

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.

6 –

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.

 

PAGE 4

 

1 –

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.

2 –

ALFRED CAP: Patched you through now, sir.

BATMAN: Lucius, are you there? Lucius? Alfred, I’m not getting any –

3 –

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.

4 –

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.

5 –

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.

6 –

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.

7 –

BATMAN: I can’t quit. Gotham needs me. It seems I’ll have to go on without you, old friend.

BATMAN: Goodbye, Lucius.

*CLICK*

 

PAGE 5 – LUCIUS FOX’S APARTMENT

 

1 –

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.

2 –

CREEEAAAAK

He hears a creak at the door, turns his head. Startled.

3 –

Trains his gun on it, sweating in the shadows.

4 –

Behind him, a figure creeps in through the window. Green hair, red smile. The rest in shadows. It’s a freaky image.

5 –

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!

6 –

The Joker knocks the gun out of his hand. Lucius falls to the floor.

7 –

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.)

 

PAGE 6

 

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.

2 –

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?

3 –

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!

4 –

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.

5 –

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?’

6 –

Batman throws smoke pellets.

7 –

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!

 

PAGE 7

 

1 –

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.

2 –

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?

3 –

Catwoman appears, a long sleek black figure, hands on hips.

CATWOMAN: Miaow.

4 –

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.

6 –

Batman turns to Alfred, motionless as before.

BATMAN: Alfred?

 

PAGE 8

 

1 –

Batman, confused, puts his hand on Alfred’s shoulder. Shadows obscure Batman’s white eyes. Alfred leans lightly to one side with the pressure.

BATMAN: Alfred?

2 –

Alfred falls over. Batman is shocked, aghast in horror. You can see his real eyes, they are no longer whited out as usual.

BATMAN: ALFRED!

3 –

Batman stands over the fallen Alfred.

CAP: Taxidermy.

BATMAN: No . . . No, it can’t be . . .

4 –

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.

5 –

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.

CAP: No.

6 –

Focus on Batman’s mad, grizzled face.

CAP: He’s dead. They’re all dead.

CAP: Falling . . .

7 –

Focus on Batman’s eyes. They’re sliding up, completely insane.

CAP: What have I done?

 

PAGE 9

 

1 –

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!

2 –

Batman beats up the defenceless men as the woman runs off. They are shown in pain and bloodied by Batman.

3 –

Batman breaks one of their arms with a SNAP. The man is screaming in pain.

MAN: AAAARRHGHHH!

4 –

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.

 

PAGE 10

 

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.

CAT: Miaow.

BATMAN: Not now Catwoman.

 

PAGE 11

 

1 –

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.

2 –

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.

3 –

CAP: The Scarecrow. My fear of the truth.

4 –

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.

5 –

CAP: The Penguin, my mental deformity, my corruption. The crooked tumour of my mind.

6 –

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.

 

PAGE 12

 

1 –

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.

2 –

Bruce with a green wig on doing his lipstick in the mirror . . . Yeah, it’ll look very wrong. Think Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill!

3 –

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?

4 –

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.

5 –

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.

6 –

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.

 

PAGE 13

 

1 –

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.

2 –

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.

3 –

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.

4 –

The Joker laughter here is smaller, edging away.

BATMAN: No . . . It’s not . . . This isn’t . . .

5 –

Just a solid black panel. No laughter.

6 –

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 . . .

7 –

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.

8 –

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.

 

PAGE 14

 

1 –

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.

2 –

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 –

3 –

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.

BATMAN: I’m Batman.

 

 

I don't own the rights to this artwork and could not find the name for the original artist. Will amend or remove as appropriate.
I don’t own the rights to this artwork and could not find the name for the original artist. Will amend or remove as appropriate.

WULF sequel SLADE now available!

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!

 

SLADE cover med-small

SLADE (The Fifth Place Book 2) finished!

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.

Can’t wait for you to read it!

Oh, and here’s the cover!

SLADE cover med-small

 

WULF #9

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?’

‘No.’

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.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s nothing.’

‘Ah.’

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.’

‘Maybe.’

‘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.

‘Where to?’

Sal shrugged.

‘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.’

‘Right.’

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.

What?!

‘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.

‘Awkward?’

‘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.

‘Pleased to meet you Jay.’

‘Likewise, Alexia.’

 

 

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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)

 

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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Quetzacthulhu (Part One)

QUETZACTHULHU

By Set Sytes

 

 

There are stories, but stories are always forgotten.

It would have been better if we had only laughed at them. I am sure we once did, for ridicule is what lies in-between remembering and forgetting. We bury the horror, pushing it under centuries of soil. And, eventually, it was nothing to us.

The priests must have known. Before me, they were the only ones who had been down here in these violent depths, where the slaughter seeps through from above and paints the walls forever red. The walls littered with engravings that told us of what was to come.

They must have known, but they never told. What was it to them? A children’s tale? Or some mythic secret, the secret to end all secrets, that only they must be privy to? Either way, they hold responsibility for what happened to us, to our empire. Those countless deaths are because of their folly and pride.

No matter. They are all dead now.

I crouch here, with only you as company. You who I took captive, you who I whip and beat in the darkness.

I will tell you the tale now. I will tell it all as best I can, and hope at least some of it gets through to you. It matters more than anything that it does.

Listen, greedy wretch! Or I will show you true brutality. You may have the beetle when I am done. Listen with every part of you, carve it into your very soul, for generations hence depend on it.

I will begin.

 

*

 

I wish I could tell you that it began with dark omens and portends.

The priests, they were gathering frequently, taking themselves off into the depths of the temples with their muttering – but this was not anything unusual. Our sacrifices seemed to be particularly numerous, the blood on the altar given no time to dry, but this too was not a rare thing. We had recently defeated a band of Tlaxcalans, and the torn flesh of our captives was providing a merry feast for the gods.

Even if there had been an omen, I know that we could not have interpreted it. How could one interpret the coming of such a thing? And even if we had interpreted it, still it could not have helped us prepare ourselves. But it would have been something.

I wish I could tell you that it all started with a great pyramid of flame, or a burning temple, or strokes of lightning from the gods. Boiling lakes, shooting stars, ghostly wails, strange visions and monstrous deformities – these are all dire things that could have warned of the apocalyptic end to our people.

But I can only tell you that it started with nothing. Nothing but the shake and shiver of the earth.

 

I was out with a hunting party the day it came. We were talking, laughing, clutching spears in our hands – and then everything became preternaturally quiet around us. We stopped speaking, and looked around us, expecting ambush. The ground then began to tremble.

I had not experienced such a thing before, but I had heard stories. We staggered back but it seemed like there was nowhere to run to. The trembling became a rumble, and at once all around us the silence burst as great flocks of birds rose screeching into the sky.

Cracks appeared around our feet, thickening and lengthening faster than we could move. The earth was opening up. A warrior slipped, and before we could get to him he was swallowed by soil. One moment there, wailing, the next moment gone – spasming fingertips were the last we saw of him.

We continued to run as breaches of earth raced in our wake. Eventually we seemed to reach a point when the cracks were thinner, the ground sustaining us without collapse, and we paused and looked back, just at the moment it rose.

I thought it a mountain at first, a mossy mountain thrusting upwards with a sickening roar from the bowels of the earth. That was the last moment I considered it to have some strange but natural origin.

For as I stared, the fungal hide of the thing began to seem fleshy and pustulous, and it swelled outwards as it continued its ascent. A dreadful bile rose within me.

The vomit died in my throat, not out of relief but pure shock, as the foul skin opened up, and a blazing yellow sun near blinded me. I reflexively shaded my face with my hands, and as my pupils shrank I saw through my fingers that in the centre of this giant sun was a hole, a black hole. It was then that I realised with palpitating horror what it was.

It was an eye.

And that was when the second opened up, beyond cyclopean in its enormity, and as it rose upwards far above me, tentacles like huge snakes writhed and ululated from underneath, each as big as a house.

A giant maw opened, a dripping cavern of night to engulf the world. I would say if I could go the rest of my life without seeing such a sight again I could be happy, but it is not true, for that image and many others are burned within my brain forever.

I do not know how I found my feet. I remember little about that first confrontation. I only remember vague images of my brothers falling to their knees, gibbering in hysterical lunacy and tearing at their eyes. And yet, somehow, I must have made it back to Tenochtitlan.

They tell me I was gabbling in a monstrous language not known to man, not even to the priests. I do not remember this, but I believe them, for I have since heard others speaking in this nameless tongue. It is hideous to listen to, and to watch the speaker’s mouth try to contort around such abhorrence; it spreads madness and despair like it was a contagion.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh . . . That is all I can remember, and much as I try I cannot pronounce it right – perhaps that is a small mercy. I see you shudder at it – good. Now imagine hearing such words and more in their true fell tongue, chanted maniacally at you by family and friends, their eyes rolling back in their heads, their twisting mouths drooling spit to the floor. Then you might have a fraction of the nightmares I will suffer till the day I am released from this world.

 

Quetzacthulhu