Tag Archives: original fantasy

India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #4

Sorry for the delay in India Bones and the Ship of the Dead coming out – it’s been long finished, I’m just waiting on a good cover!

In the meantime, here’s the fourth short installment, leading on from Part 3.

 

*

 

India walked the grey planks of the ship, feeling half-dead himself. Around him skull faces eyed him from empty sockets. There was saltspray coming in off the wind, but no part of the deck or rails felt damp; instead, the wood was dry and dusty and pock-marked. He ran his fingers along the side and it crumbled. He felt like a good enough gale would blow the whole lot into the sea. It almost didn’t seem like wood at all, and he blanched when the idea popped in his head that he was walking on grey bones.

‘You know what mate,’ a voice came from behind him, and he turned to see Grimmer.

‘What?’

‘I never asked you your name. And I called you rude. Where were my manners?’

‘It’s India Bones.’

Grimmer gave a short laugh, and this time India, with fixed attention, saw that the sounds seemed to be in slight discord with the movement of his jaw, and he realised they were not coming from a material presence at all. The mouthless jaw merely worked its best to accompany them.

‘Bones aye?’ Grimmer said. ‘Well you’re in the right company, that’s for sure.’

India looked back out at the sea.

‘You hungry, Mr Bones?’

‘Call me India. You eat?’

‘Sure, sure. Well, we eat for nostalgia, at any rate. But I remember what it’s like to be actually hungry. We’ve got plenty of ship biscuits. Look,’ Grimmer reached into the shadows of his coat and fished out a round black thing. ‘Take it.’

India looked at it. ‘Is it edible?’

‘You’re in no position to turn it down, let’s put it that way.’

‘Alright.’ India took it and bit off a corner. It was chewier than he figured, both salted and sugared, and not half-bad. There was a slight touch of death to it, but nothing’s perfect.

‘How many are on this ship?’ India asked.

‘Thirteen,’ Grimmer said. ‘Can’t make it up, can you? I always wonder if we’re going to get anymore, but it’s been years and no more, so maybe that’s that.’

‘Fourteen, now.’

‘For now. Can’t be having with you ruining our unlucky number,’ Grimmer said.

‘The others keep looking at me.’

‘Of course they do, what do you expect? The living stare at the dead, can’t expect the dead not to stare at the living. But look, none of us jolly rogers means you any harm. See him?’ Grimmer pointed. ‘That’s Sockets. He’s alright, he just stares a lot. And him?’ Grimmer gestured at a large skeleton with a big chest by the mainsail. ‘That’s Big Cage. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless the fly hurt him first, of course. There, she’s Hairless – and ain’t she pleased she can wear a corset now without it being hard to breathe? No more breathing for her, except out of habit.’ Grimmer turned. ‘Over there, looking rightfully sheepish, that’s Spares. Recognise him?’

‘Y-es,’ India said. ‘Yes.’ And he did. Now he saw them one by one, he realised it wasn’t that hard to tell them apart at all. It wasn’t just their clothes and adornments, or their bone structure. There was something about each of them that made them as different individuals as he and Mr Bassard.

India looked further along the ship, and saw a skeleton standing near the helm. He was taller than the others, bar Big Cage, and wore a black tricorne hat and long black coat. Belts glinting with metal were twisted and tied about his bones, and each strap holstered a pistol – three, maybe four in all. But it was the bones themselves that took India’s eyes. Alone amongst the others, his skeleton was as black as his clothes.

‘Ah,’ Grimmer said, seeing where India’s gaze lay. ‘That’s Blackbone. No, we don’t know why he looks like that. Maybe he fell deeper and darker than any of the rest of us, afore he was pulled out of the brine and onto these decks. He doesn’t speak much, and I doubt he wants you here, so best not try and make friends too hard. He’s the least jolly of all of us jolly rogers.’

‘Is he the captain?’

‘No, no. There’s no captain on this ship. But if there was, I reckon it’d be Blackbone.’

‘Can I be captain?’

‘Ha! Bit presumptuous, aren’t you? Bit quick on the draw? No, you can’t be captain. See the ship’s wheel? I told you nobody can touch it, not even Blackbone. The ship is its own master.’

‘I see,’ India said, not really seeing. Grimmer, sensing he wanted to be alone, nodded and strode slowly off.

India leaned over the side and stared at the swell of the sea. A thrill of excitement was beginning to dance around within him, marshalling troops to its cause. An excitement of having truly left Mexico Island for the first time in over thirteen years. On being on board a real ship – a grey, mouldering ship, but a ship no less – and sailing the seas with creatures of dark magic, with the dead, perhaps the only living person to have ever done so.

Well, he always did know he was special.

There was another pang of homesickness, for the alleys of Rug, the Mohawk markets, the comfort and security of Mrs Wayles and the inebriated friendship of Mr Bassard. The palms trees that swayed on the southern beach, the jungles and cliffs in the centre of the island, the Aztec Tomb . . .

But the pang was getting blown away by the sea breeze; wisp by wisp it was being replaced with salt and wood and bones.

He wondered what kind of ship it was. A brig, a frigate? It didn’t quite have the shape of anything he’d seen previously. There was less of a crew than you’d expect for a ship of this size, so a lot of space for him to cast his eyes about, filling his gaze with the huge white sails billowing in the breeze, with the forestry of the masts and the ropes and the netting. He looked at the helm, at the wheel, and imagined commanding the whole ship, turning it to his course, yelling orders to the crew, stuck to his post in sun and storm.

He drank it in, and then he returned his eyes to the sea, and drank that in too.

This wasn’t the same sea he saw from the beaches. There was no shoreline to lap against. Here, the waves moved like beasts, rolling long and fat and huge. No doubt under the surface dark leviathans with unknowable minds and purpose pushed the waves along, guiding them back and forth to each other.

An orange sun beat against his eyes and flashed off the water.

The water that was everywhere and the water that was forever.

India squinted into the sun and looked away. Had that much time passed already? How long had he been out?

He had a funny feeling inside him, a very funny feeling –

The ship plunged into another beast-wave, and the prow soared up over the crest, and India was suddenly, violently sick.

 

*

 

India was laid up in the hammock he’d woken in, belly finally settling and closing eyes witnessing the night through the porthole. The moon flashed over him as the great gloom of sleep folded in.

His thoughts, not yet fully dreaming, drifted like the ocean current back towards Eyeless and Rug, Mohawk and Maiden, back towards the jungles and the cliffs and, finally, deliberately, the Aztec Tomb.

A long time ago, the Caribbean had been ruled by the fabulously rich, and now very dead, Aztec Empire. Nobody were quite sure how it had ended; there were many theories, and maybe all of them were true, maybe none of them. All India knew was that the Aztecs weren’t around anymore. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t left things. There were still ruins, he knew. And where there were ruins there must, inevitably, be treasure.

India would go looking for Aztec Gold. People would laugh at him, tell him he was wasting his time. Everything here was dug up, ransacked, stolen and sold a long time ago. Same the world over. The only thing left was the lost treasure of Bucklemeir Horn, and the search for that had long been abandoned, and its existence become a mere legend.

In time India would agree that Mexico Island was barren as far as riches were concerned. But the world was much bigger; there was West and East Indigo, there was San Dillinger and Tortugal, there was India, the City of Gold on the island of Indiana, that had to have something, of course it did, and these ladies and gents who had spent their whole lives locked in their own houses had never seen any of it. They just assumed. You couldn’t just assume.

There was only one tomb he’d found on Mexico Island, a few miles east of Rug and into the jungles at the top of the cliffs there. He’d scrambled and climbed for an hour, scratched by branches, twisted by vines and cut on rocks, and when he’d got there he’d found a path that had led all the long way back to Rug itself. The tomb had been empty, of course, and not just that, it was also dusted and smoothed and there were fences up and even a sign. There were a few Ratboys and a couple of older Mohawkians lounging around the entrance and inside, drinking and guffawing. They’d given him the eye and he’d given them it back. He’d slouched over to the side of the tomb walls and put his back against it. Eventually he’d gone home.

He’d visited again, many times. He’d soon learned when nobody else would be there and would always come at these times, pacing the tomb and searching for imaginary treasure and cutting down imaginary pirates. He always took the cliff climb up to the tomb. He tried to pretend the path wasn’t there, except on the way back, when he was tired and dirty and often bruised and bleeding, and the moon was out and lit the cliff as the quick route to death. The path lay half gleaming in stops and starts, as though draped silver had itself been clad in shifting, filtered shadows.

India’s breathing slowed, and the shadows of that jungle path danced about him, taking on black, grinning shapes, and then they were sails, whipping at him from all sides with the wind that seemed to suck itself from the very earth, and the trees were gone, the path was gone, there was only water and salt, salt as far as the eye could see . . .

 

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SLADE extract #1

I’ve been working on the sequel to WULF, called SLADE. It’s been hard to find a suitable extract for this site that won’t spoil anything, especially for those who haven’t read any of WULF (but might do one day), but I think this will be fine…

 

He leaned closer, his back permanently hunched as his fingers skittered across the holographic keyboard, for all the world looking as though he was dancing puppets or playing the piano beyond mastery.

One of his hands reached down and plucked a piece of nojo from the desk, deftly peeling it between two fingers and sticking it to the side of his bald head at the same time as another hand did the same with another piece. His round amber eyes flickered for a moment, as he felt the rush. The drug kept his mind working as fast as his fingers.

Nobody could type as fast as a spider. Not with six long spindle-fingers for each thin and hairy arm. Six arms in full, sprouting from a fat, sunken body as black as pitch. Thirty-six fingers to dance across the huge array of holo-keys of every known alphanumeric character and symbol, thrice replicated. Thirty-six fingers to play with people’s lives.

There was a knock at the door and he paused, his hands arching in mid-air. ‘Come in,’ he said, his high voice like the screech of a child.

A woman walked in, her own hands stiff behind her back. ‘Spider, two of our men have been killed. The culprits are a man and a woman unknown to us. Their dress is strange and barbaric, and the man is covered in extensive tattooing.’

He did not turn from his screens. There was a camera in the room and he looked at the woman on the respective monitor. His vibrant orange eyes blinked slowly inwards from the sides like closing elevator doors.

‘Interesting,’ he said. He paused, letting the silence reign through the room, drinking in the woman’s tension.

‘Get eyes on them,’ he said. ‘And patch me in.’

‘Yes, Spider. Will that be all?’

‘Yes.’

The woman nodded her head sharply and left. Her relief was palpable in her step.

The Spider turned his attention to the rest of the screens that covered every inch of the wall. Zoomed out it might look like a compound eye, like that of a giant fly. In front of him were reams of scrolling data, data that would never pause, never stop.

He leaned in.

 

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Science fantasy western WULF now available!

Apologies for the delay, I’ve been waiting on the cover (which you can see below – well worth the wait!), but now I’m happy to say the science fantasy western WULF, the first book in The Fifth Place series, is now available as an ebook on Amazon.

You can find it here.

It’s also FREE for today  (19/12/2016) and tomorrow!

 

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All stories free for 3 days! Adult horror, fantasy, dystopian

In advance of WULF imminently becoming an ebook to buy (just waiting on the cover), for 3 days (starting on 13/12/2016) all of my previously published work is free! Click the pictures of the covers below to be taken to the Amazon page to check them out and read samples.

This includes:

Born to be Weird

 

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A short collection of weird, twisted stories, featuring the gothic science story The School of Necromancy (like Harry Potter meets Frankenstein and Lovecraft!) and the very bloody horror The Gauntlet of Gore, which is like nothing else.

Included are the short stories (also available separately):

The School of Necromancy – Deep below the city of York, below the sewers, below the catacombs, lies the School. It is here, if you are privileged to be selected, that you can study the art of raising the dead.

Keep it Clean – Have you ever been swallowed by a public toilet? No? This man has. A truly grotesque and odious tale.

There’s Only One King – Elvis Shadow walks the world, caught between this life and the next. A world containing other half-creatures, other myths and legends.

The Half-School – A dream-like account of a return to an old school.

The Gauntlet of Gore – “When playing the Gauntlet, there are two options. Either you win, or the whole team dies.
Either you die, or you see every other opposing team member blown to bits. There are no corpses, only giblets.”

January 5th – “It was January the 5th, and everywhere things were dead or dying.”

Faces in the Dark

 

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A short collection of strange, paranoid horror stories. Featuring the novella The Violet Dark – a hallucinogenic road horror. Read this toxic lovesong to darkness itself, and see what is meant by ‘a beautiful nightmare’.

Also included are the short stories (also available separately):

Her Parents’ Masks: She has never seen her parents’ real faces. They have worn terrifying buffalo masks from the moment she was born . . .

The Watcher – The air is black, and I do not sleep. The hours tick by. I do not sleep because someone is watching me.

Anamia – Assorted entries from the Anamia Diary, found among possesions. Care is advised before reading, especially for those who have or have had an eating disorder.

The Gremlins – Humanity’s days on this earth are numbered. How do you fight an enemy too small to see?

Dead Streets – A sad and haunted tale.

Moral Zero

 

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This is rock n roll writing. Its energy reminds me of early Amis, its articulation reminiscent of a Tarantino screenplay… Brilliantly sleazy, scum and filth visibly oozes from between the words on the page. Each paragraph leaves you breathless, each moving with such runaway-train speed you almost expect one to crash into the next. And it’s very funny.” – Paul Davenport, author of Not Like The Other Boys

I read this sitting next to my wife and after the first three paragraphs I said, ‘This guy can write’… In a word, this is uncompromising, brutal and pulls no punches.” – Joe Carter, author of The Corruption of Michael Blake

The voyeur. The pervert. The sadist. Three tormented souls in the grotesquely twisted city of Rule treat morality like a plaything in this dystopian thriller.
The voyeur: Knowledge is lust.
The pervert: The fantasy is everything.
The sadist: The answer to all things lies in death.

Mr White. Kidd Red. Johnny Black. Three deviants in a violent, sickly dystopia where completely opposing laws and moral codes are just a short walk away. Guided by a corrupt sense of moral subjectivism, they form an uneasy friendship. Each tormented by his own grotesque existence. But the greatest danger is making sure they don’t lose track of what is real…

Enter the city of Rule and the world of the moral zeroes.

 

You can also find the individual short stories, also free for 3 days,  if you browse my Amazon author page.

WULF coming soon!

The sunken purple of the early evening was blistering itself red. A sky wounding itself. And the man had still not shown.”

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Watch this space!

WULF Part #6

The sixth part of my adult sci-fi/western novel WULF (previously called The Wulf and the Tiger). This follows directly on from the last part.  The full novel will soon be available as an ebook on Amazon (and about time too!).

Warning: Quite a bit of bad language here. Blame Savvi. That’s just how she is.

 

‘You took your time,’ Sav said, long fingers with close-cut nails the colour of chocolate curled around a wide mug. She looked amused.

‘You left me! In the middle of nowhere!’

‘Oh, nonsense,’ she said. ‘You got back alright, didn’t you?’

‘I nearly died! Why couldn’t you just have led me back?’

‘Because you know the way. Or should have done.’

‘Well I didn’t. I don’t.’

‘I see,’ she said, in a bored tone. ‘But you still made it.’

‘Only because of the tiger -’

‘A tiger?’

‘A tiger led me back.’

‘Of course it did. I don’t see one with you, though.’

‘It’s sleeping just outside of town. Or at least it was when I left it.’

‘Mhmm. Ah well.’ She took a gulp from her drink.

Jay took a deep breath. ‘I don’t think you realise the situation I’m in.’

‘Oh, boo-hoo. If I knew you were going to be such a little bitch about it I wouldn’t have saved your life this time. What gives?’

‘Look,’ he said, stopped, and then tried to start again. ‘Look.’

‘What am I looking at? If this is another one of your lengthy come-ons . . .’

‘I have no memory of who I am or where I am.’ He had quickly decided this was a better course of explanation than ‘I appear to be in a different body in a potentially alien land.’

‘That’s unfortunate,’ she replied, dryly. ‘You don’t remember me, then?’

‘I remember -’ he paused. ‘I remember scraps, just like half-formed ideas, or dreams. Many things seem faintly familiar. You, for instance. I feel I have this connection to you. That doesn’t quite explain it, and maybe it’s just that you saved my life, even though you didn’t exactly stick it through, but -’

‘That’s sweet honey, but you’re not the first man to tell me you have a connection to me, or whatever. I suppose you’ve also forgotten all the times you’ve tried to get into my pants?’

A blush failed to materialise. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, in what he thought might pass for an abashed tone.

She stared. ‘Who the fuck are you and what have you done with Jay?’

He shrugged. ‘Am I right in thinking I can trust you?’

Sav laughed, the kind of unsubtle laugh that’s done right in someone’s face. That face being his own. ‘Trust me?’ she cried gleefully. ‘Listen my poor bitch, you can’t trust me an inch. And that’s an inch more than you can offer!’

‘But you must like me, surely?’

‘Not really.’

‘But then why save my life?’

She shrugged. ‘I suppose you amuse me.’ She banged her mug down. ‘Bar keep!’ she yelled. ‘Another!’

The bartender bustled over to her and refilled, smiling lopsidedly at Sav. She glared at Jay, then took the call from a woman chanting for what Jay’s mind translated as “black beer”.

‘You didn’t pay anything.’

‘Course not,’ Sav said, face half-hidden inside her mug. ‘She knows who I am.’

‘And who are you?’

‘Don’t make me repeat myself.’

Jay sighed. The woman was hard work, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. It struck him as funny – odd funny, not ha-ha funny – that he could consider himself a beggar when it came to a lady – a woman, he corrected himself, not a lady – of such looks. Erotic appeal dripped from her, right down to the semi-contemptuous expression she fixed him with.

‘People here are strange,’ he said, looking back to his glass and taking another sip.

‘Speak for yourself, cock-smith.’

‘Can’t you be nice? It’s already a really fucking hard and confusing day, and I’m completely by myself here.’

‘Poor baby.’

‘What I meant was that, well, when I came into town everybody looked at me. I mean everybody. Do they not like outsiders in this town?’

‘Honey, they looked at you because they know you. You’ve been in this town for months. That, and you look like shit.’

‘They can’t know me . . . A man with a big moustache pulled me out of the water trough and didn’t know me, he looked fixing to kill me.’

‘That’ll be Remembrance Ed. Edder Van Took. He’s only got the short term memory. And he hates just about everyone, least of all anybody darker or redder than him. Sometimes he remembers people, but only if he really, really hates them.’

‘Oh.’ Jay took another drink. ‘But if they know me, why all the stares? Just for looking a bit rough and thirsty?’

‘No. Because you were hauled outta here your hands behind your back kicking and screaming early this morning.’

‘By who! Oh. Ah.’ He tapped his fingers on his glass. ‘So they’re all dead then?’

‘Well, the three brothers are, yes.’

‘They were brothers? Oh.’

‘So it’s just the dad left.’

‘Shit.’

‘I’d say he’s old and won’t be a bother, but he got their mother pregnant at twelve. That’s him twelve, I should say. She was a lot older and dead now. And he’s still going, leading his boys.’

‘Can I talk to him about it?’

‘He’s a murderous cunt and his three sons have just died. He won’t have heard about it yet, but he will. You had a hand in one, he’s gonna believe you had a hand in all three. What do you think?’

‘I’ve really got enough to be worrying about. What did I do for them to want to kill me? I mean originally?’

‘You fucked their sister.’

‘Is that all? I mean, their sister? Christ, I bet she was a bit of a sight. I hope she didn’t have a beard too.’

‘I doubt it would have stopped you.’

‘You make me sound like an animal. Wait – she did want to be fucked, didn’t she?’

‘You tell me.’

Jay felt his shoulders slump. ‘I really don’t know anything.’

Sav clapped him on the back cheerfully. ‘There you go, you do know something! You have remembered that you know nothing. This makes you as complete as you ever were.’ She drained her cup and got up. ‘For crying out loud, finish your whiskey already, you wet fucking blanket.’

‘I have a feeling -’ he started.

‘Better stop it then,’ she interrupted, picking up the glass and tipping it to his face. Before he knew it the last mouthfuls of whiskey-substitute was speeding towards his mouth. He gulped twice and Sav let go of the glass; it bounced off his knee and hit the floor, smashing.

His throat roared with fire and instant bile that he struggled to push away. The broken glass hadn’t concerned the other patrons, but the bartender was already over, shouldering past Jay with a broom in her hands.

‘I got it Savvi,’ she said with a beaming smile that crinkled the corners of two rather beautiful big eyes.

‘Thanks, Sal,’ Sav replied. ‘Sorry about Jay Wulf.’

‘It’s fine, fine,’ Sal said, not looking at Jay. ‘Up to his old tricks, I assume?’

‘If you mean being a dick, then yes, why stop now?’ Sav put a hand firmly on Jay’s back and pushed him out the bar before he could respond.

‘I’ve seen you drink better men and women under the table,’ Sav muttered as they returned to outside. The lilac sky had deepened and reddened to a rich magenta. The sun was hidden behind the peaked two-floored building signposted REST HOUSE, giving the edges of the dwelling a vibrant purple glow. It was on the other side of the street, and she steered him in its direction.

‘Tell me something, Sav.’ When she didn’t reply, he turned to her. ‘Savvi?’

‘Uhuh.’

‘When you see me, what you see?’

‘Is this a test?’

‘No. Yes.’

‘I see a cunt.’

‘No, I mean . . . What am I? What . . . race . . . species . . .’

She looked at him askance. ‘You’re a Rathian . . . a human.’

‘A human,’ he repeated. ‘How interesting.’

‘Why is that interesting?’

Jay hesitated, and Sav pushed open the door to the rest house. It swung in with a long, coffin creak. ‘Where I’m from,’ he said under his breath. ‘They call me and people like me human, too.’

‘Have you always been this mad?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘More so recently. You better get used to it.’

Jay waited as the two of them stood by the door. A small spectacled man behind a desk was filling in some forms, and hadn’t investigated his new customers.

‘Well?’ Sav said. ‘What are you waiting for?’

‘Oh. I thought, I thought -’

‘Are you an invalid? Do it yourself.’

Jay approached the desk, and pulled out the rest of the money from his pockets. ‘Erm, one night, please.’

‘He’ll stay for as long as,’ Sav said. ‘And pay once a week.’

The man peered out at them like a mole. ‘Do I have your word on that, ma’am?’

‘No. If he doesn’t, kick him out. Just don’t come to me asking for money. You won’t get it.’

‘Charming,’ Jay said.

‘First week up front,’ the clerk said stiffly. ‘Ten queens. Plus five queens deposit.’

‘Steep,’ Sav said. ‘What’s this town coming to, that’s what I want to know.’

‘Feel free to take your business elsewhere, ma’am. You know how I feel about this one.’

‘What about me?’ Jay said. ‘Do we know each other?’

‘The gall to ask that,’ the clerk said, his eyes cold. ‘No, you do not know me, Mr Wulf, but I do believe you know my wife.’

‘Oh.’

‘He’s been saying that quite a lot today,’ chipped in Sav.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jay said. ‘I don’t remember anything. Where is your wife?’

‘Kept away from you.’

Jay took Sav aside. ‘I’m not a very nice person, am I?’

‘I told you you were a cunt.’

‘Do you not think it better to go someone where else? A place perhaps where I haven’t fucked the owner’s wife? Or sister, daughter, mother, horse, or any other relation of.’

Sav put her finger on her lower lip and pulled it down thoughtfully, showing the bottom array of little white stones. ‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure that gives us many options’.

‘Come on. Can’t I stay with you?’

‘Are you joking?’

Fifteen queens,’ repeated the clerk. ‘Please.

‘Stop faffing, my horny little beast boy.’ Sav pinched his side and he yelped, dropping a coin. ‘All he wants is the money. Pay up and trouble over.’

Jay picked up the coin and laid them all out on the desk. ‘This is what I have.’

‘You have five kings and ten queens,’ the clerk counted. ‘And four jackals,’ he sniffed.

‘Good. That sounds like enough.’

‘Well it isn’t.’

‘Really?’ Jay pawed at the coins. ‘How many queens to a king?’

‘There are five kings to one queen.’

‘Oh. Um. So I have . . . eleven queens. And four jackals. Which makes . . .’

‘Eleven queens and four jackals.’

‘Unfortunate,’ Sav said. ‘Give him your gun.’

‘My gun? Won’t I be needing that?’

‘You’ll just have to take your chances, until you find another.’

‘Whereabouts am I to find another gun, without any money?’

‘Perhaps you can wrestle one off the next person who tries to kill you.’

‘Sounds great,’ Jay said. He pulled out the gun and laid it on the table with the coins. ‘The gun for the deposit. The queens for the week.’

The clerk wrinkled his nose. ‘Not the finest specimen in the world.’

‘Will it do for the deposit?’

‘Of course it fucking will,’ Sav said. ‘It’s still a gun. People usually want their guns back.’

‘I know the feeling,’ Jay said.

The clerk stooped and placed the gun under the counter, inside a box that he locked with a click. Then he swept the coins off the counter and into his hands, before carefully depositing them one by one (counting all the time) into the till.

‘Your room is upstairs, last on the right.’

‘Do I get a key?’

‘No. There are no keys.’

‘How am I supposed to get in?’

‘You could try pushing,’ the man said flatly, in that kind of polite sarcasm aggravated service staff were so adept at the universe over. ‘That usually works. If that fails you could always try giving it a good hard ram. It seems to be your go-to move, don’t you think? It certainly served you well with my wife.’

‘I’ll be off now,’ Jay said. ‘Sorry again.’

‘Stop apologising for things,’ Sav said. ‘It’s getting boring.’

He turned and noticed she wasn’t following him up the staircase.

‘I’m going back to the bar,’ she said, noticing his expression. She was sat up on the desk; the clerk was trying to busy himself with his forms, and not lose himself in the contours of her lower back and sides that beckoned smooth and honeyed in the gaps in her clothing. ‘And no, I am not sharing a room with you. Not now, not ever.’

‘I didn’t mean -’

‘I’m sure you didn’t.’

‘Where will I find you tomorrow?’

‘Bar.’

‘Alright,’ Jay said. ‘And Sav . . . Thank you.’

‘Pft,’ she said, and she blew him a kiss, smirked, and was gone.

Jay trod with heavy feet up to his room. He still felt awful. He pushed open the door, worried for a second that he would intrude upon some barbaric couple mid-coitus who would nail him to the wall and make him watch.

Don’t be an idiot, he thought. They’d probably just shoot you.

The room was empty, though. He was going to consider that the room really couldn’t be much plainer, but that’s before he noticed the sink. A bed and a sink. That’s enough luxury for today. He rushed to it, turning the single tap on. There was a protesting groan, a rumble, and then to his relief came a trickle of not entirely lukewarm water. He cupped his hands and drank every time they filled up, until he had satiated himself and then some.

He lay on the bed. The door had closed itself. There was a flat white pillow on the bed, and a brown woollen blanket, but no sheets or duvet. He wasn’t about to complain. He got up only to close the curtains, barely registering the now bloody-red sky. What he did see was down on the street; the dog that he had seen from a distance yapping and rushing about was back.

Only it wasn’t a dog. For a start, it had six legs.

Jay shut it out of his sight, and fell back on the bed. The room was starting to lose focus, and he felt a great shuddering yawn run through him, a yawn that never left his mouth.

That creature wasn’t like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Those little black demon spots appeared again. They always danced away from him, seeming to be mocking him.

The sky was purple today.

He felt heavy, like he could sink right through the mattress. The bed propped him up only in the sense a still ocean propped up a floating body.

I’m on another planet.

I’m on another planet, and I’m not even me.

Jay felt the room spin, and his eyes closed, but whether it was by his own volition or not he wasn’t sure.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #3

I’ve finished writing my fourth novel! The YA (sort-of, hopefully adults will like it too!) pirate fantasy India Bones and the Ship of the Dead.

I’m editing it ready to send to agents. Also, I’ll have my previous (adult) novel WULF up in its entirety online very soon (about time!), just waiting on a cover.

Here’s the third little part of India Bones, following on directly from the last part I put up here, and beginning at the start of the second chapter.

 

TWO

 

 

He awoke to find himself lying in a hammock in a small wooden cabin with a skeleton staring at him.

Staring may have been the only expression it had to offer, but it did it well. It was wearing a long black coat and a wide-brimmed hat, and it leaned nonchalantly in the doorway in a manner more suited to the living.

‘Ahoy,’ it said.

India shivered and shrank away, as best he could do being in a hammock. His head swayed painfully and the cabin seemed to sway with it.

‘Rude,’ said the skeleton.

India made eye contact and tried to summon some resolve back. ‘Where . . . am I?’ he swallowed mid-sentence to stifle a stammer.

‘Who should be the first question.’

‘Who am I?’

‘Oh, no. Who am I?’

‘Right.’ India sat up in the hammock, his aching head in his hands. His fear was quickly melting away, to be replaced with confusion. ‘Who are you?’

The skeleton inclined its head. ‘My name is Grimmer.’

‘Uh. And where am I Grimmer?’

The skeleton grinned, a skill it was excellent at. ‘Why, you’re on the Ship of the Dead.’

India fell back and closed his eyes. He felt a little nauseous, and dots chased each other under his eyelids.

‘I quite understand,’ Grimmer said.

‘How did I get here?’ India managed at last.

Grimmer sighed. ‘That was Spares. He carried you aboard.’

‘Why?’

‘He thought you were one of us.’

India opened his eyes and dared another look at the skeleton, half-expecting it to have vanished and to see the familiar sight of his room at Mrs Wayles’s. ‘Just because I have face paint on?’ he said. ‘I look nothing like you! You’re – well, you’re dead!’

‘He was very, very drunk. Not that any of us were sober, but he was something else. I’ve already had quite the bone to pick with him. It’ll take him some time to find it.’

‘Mmm.’

‘You see the thing is mate, we can’t just take you back. You’re stuck with us for now. Damn fool Spares.’

India squeezed his eyes shut and opened them once more. Still there. ‘How’s that?’

‘There’s no turning back. The ship has its own course, it sails us you understand.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Truth be told, nor do I much. But that’s how it is. Oh, the crew helps out, but I think that’s more cause we need something to do, a way to be useful. We climb the rigging and hoist the sails and swab the decks. But nobody can turn the wheel. It turns on its own.’

India tried to think this through, and gave up. ‘So . . .’

‘So where we going next? Kingston is our next call. We won’t be putting up to the docks though, but this lonely beach to the west that seems almost nobody knows about but us. See, with small, superstitious towns like Eyeless it’s alright to land near everyone, as they keep their respectful, fearful distance, and besides, we like to put on a bit of a show now and again. The mist and the blackness draws in, the big horn sounds . . . you know, all very fun. Nice and theatrical. But try that somewhere like the thick of Kingston and – I’m not saying they ain’t superstitious too, they all are, but there’ll just be too many people, and with lots of people crowding things there’s always some idiot who gets drunk and comes and spoils things. Not that you’re an idiot. At least you didn’t have a gun. And that face paint. Inspired. Never known anyone alive wanting to look dead before.’

Grimmer tapped his ribcage and tilted his head. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I haven’t had anybody living to talk to for some time. All these words tumbling out.’ He grinned, or rather, something happened to his face that India couldn’t quite explain.

‘How do you speak, Grimmer?’ India asked, realising one of the many paramount things that were bothering him.

‘How’d you mean?’

‘How’d you speak with no tongue?’

‘A tongue’s the least of your worries mate. I haven’t got a voice box neither. Or lips. Or a gullet to drink, lungs to breathe, heart to beat, eyes to see you with.’ Grimmer leaned in. ‘Just cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.’ He looked away at the sea. ‘Do you know of phantom limbs?’

India shook his head.

‘When a limb gets amputated, sometimes people get the sensation that it’s still there. They can feel it, and they can feel it working too. Well us skeletons have phantom bodies. They’re stuck to our bones same as yours are. You can’t see them nor touch them, but we got ghost skin and ghost organs all there in order, all working like a shadow of the living. Or at least pretending to.’

India swallowed. The thought was disquieting. ‘What do you really look like then?’

‘I look like this!’ Grimmer opened his arms. ‘Hell, I don’t know what I look like anymore. I’ve known naught but these bones for too long.’

‘How did this happen? I mean, what got you all like this? On this ship, without bodies – well, without bodies to see.’

Grimmer smiled. ‘I wondered when we’d get around to the main thrust of questioning. We’re all sailors see. Pirates, merchants, even a few from various navies. Gave our life to the sea. But when we died we made a bad deal. We sold our bodies.’

‘You mean you sold your souls.’

‘No, we sold our bodies. We kept our souls. All that’s left of our bodies is the bones, and the ghost essence. The soul has had enough time to get used to the form it inhabits that it stays there after the body, the physical tangible body has gone.’

‘Who did you sell it to?’

‘To Davy Jones, of course. Who else? In return we kept our time in this world. Not realising the cost. Not realising we’d stay here, like this, forever. Or until our bones break into tiny pieces and our spirit becomes formless and can do nothing but haunt. After the deal was done some of us dead folk wandered, and still are wandering. They are rare sights, for there aren’t too many of us that made the deal, whose bodies have lasted the wear and tear of this world. You might bump into one on land if you’re terribly lucky. Not counting Tortugal, that is – we got a little spot of our own there. Otherwise it’s a solitary existence. Not many folk want to be friends with the dead. And there ain’t much that satisfies when your body is just a ghost. The best we got is alcohol. That still has a bit of a kick left, when it’s still dripping through our bones. Alcohol and dancing.’

Grimmer sighed. ‘And that’s where the rest of us ended up. The Ship of the Dead. Picking up all the wayward selfish scurves who made the wrong choice at the end of their thieving lives. I don’t know how long it’s been sailing these seas. Nobody does. Since the beginning, perhaps. There’s no captain. The only one sailing it is all the souls of the broken-boned.  Or something else entirely. Who knows how many spirits haunt this ship. Taking it from place to place.’

India was listening open-mouthed. It seemed like something out of some dark fairy tale. ‘Why do you visit Mexico Island to dance once every ten years?’ he asked.

‘Dancing and drinking’s all we have. As for ten years, well we’ve got a lot of places to visit, a lot of distant seas to sail. The ship only seems to get back round to Mexico Island after ten years. Maybe cause it’s out of the way, maybe some other reason we don’ t know. I think a few of the others take ten or so years to visit again, it’s just they’re all at different times. Other places we come to more often. We just fall into the ship’s strange routine. The dead are nothing if not consistent.’

India nodded. ‘I’ve got one more question.’

‘Shoot.’

‘Why are you wearing clothes?’

Grimmer laughed, a strange, clattery sound. ‘Why are you? It’s not cold. There’s little more reason to keep your body covered than ours. But there’s a lot of character in a body’s clothes. When you don’t have meat you can see on you, no real face, only a fading memory of what you used to look like, if that, then having your own clothes can do its bit to make you you. In your own eyes as in the eyes of others.’

‘Well, shank me,’ India said, shaking his head. ‘This is all a bit much.’

Grimmer laughed again. ‘Aye, I know. Look, we’ll drop you off at the Lonely Carib Beach, that’s what we call that place we put in at Kingston. We won’t be dancing there or making much of any kind of spectacle, just sitting and wandering and skimming stones, hidden by jungle. So you can take your leave and head to the city. After that though, afraid you’re on your own.’

‘That’s alright. Thanks. I’ll find some coin and then a ship to take me home.’ India paused. ‘Well. I don’t know. I guess I’ll see how I feel.’

‘First time away from the parents?’

‘My mother is dead,’ India said. ‘I never met my father.’

‘Oh,’ Grimmer said. ‘Sorry to hear that mate. You’re in good company for now. Pretty sure all our parents are long gone.’

‘I want to find my father,’ India said, looking down.

‘I’d put money on it,’ Grimmer said, clapping him on the back. India shivered at the touch, then looked apologetically up.

Grimmer pretended like he hadn’t noticed. ‘I’ll leave you for a bit,’ he said. ‘Let you get your head in order. And I want to talk to some of the others, too.’ He got up and walked out the cabin, leaving India alone.

India sat up in the hammock and put his head in the hands. Not out of upset, but to try and stop the swaying, and get to grips with the situation. He wasn’t quite ready to stand up, fearing he might instantly fall on his face.

He’d tried to leave Mexico Island several times in his life, each time without success. He’d stowed away on ships and either been caught and flogged, or he’d bottled it and took off, flushed with the thrill and fear of getting that far. Last year he’d stayed until they’d weighed anchor and were out in the bay, before being discovered by the bosun. They’d shouted at him and rowed him back to the docks. He’d been thankful for it, as he’d felt a little sick from the whole deal, completely out of his depth as it were. No matter how often he might think of himself as an adventurer or a pirate, truth was he was still just a kid, and he’d lived his own life in a tiny patch of a much wider world.

That was the last time he’d got anywhere, for Mrs Wayles had stepped in, letting it be known to all sailors of Eyeless and Maiden both, that nobody was to give passage to India Bones or else. Even the roughest of sailors had no desire to get on the wrong end of one of Mrs Wayles’s Or Elses, and so India found himself shipblocked as soon as he approached any one of the gangways. Even when he’d gathered enough coin for legal passage, he was turned away.

‘You’re just a babe,’ Mrs Wayles had said. ‘You think you can take on the whole world but you just can’t. Suppose the ship took you and deposited you someplace. Someplace civil even, like Kingston. Then what? How you gonna be feeding yourself? Where will you sleep? The world won’t just turn over on account of your dreams, India. It’ll master you afore you master it. Is that what your father would have wanted? Maybe one day, when you’re all grown up, and when you’re no longer under my care, you can follow in his footsteps. But right now, you just stay here and stay away from those damn docks.’

And so he’d slunk off, undecided whether to scowl or feel sorry for himself, so he’d done a bit of both.

One day.

He’d never much had the patience for reading – he didn’t want to read about things, he wanted to see and experience them for himself – but year after year he’d trace his finger over maps, looking at all the places he wanted to visit, places he knew so little about but fired his imagination with their strange, foreign names and promises of mystery and adventure.

The Caribbean formed the centre of the map, and was rich with opportunities. East of Mexico Island were popular places such as Kingston and J’maika, Colorado and the fabled Indiana, with its capital ‘City of Gold’ that he was named after. Not to mention pirate haven Tortugal, home to the giant mountain of Nassar (that India would one day climb). Kingston was the Caribbean hub, ruled from afar by York, and so frequently on the wrong side of pirates. The joke was that it was called such because everybody there acted like kings, they were that pompous and arrogant.

York was on the Continent, which lay to the north of the Caribbean, and as large (and self-important) as the country and its neighbour Bordeaux were compared to the Caribbean islands, they were dwarfed still by the other lands of the Continent: China, the Harem Empire, and the vast Khan Wastes to their east.

Then there were all the other places in the world any self-respecting adventurer would long to explore. Countries little written about, and some almost entirely unknown in India’s part of the world. The cluster of a thousand tiny islands and networked waterways that was Asia. The sprawling countries of Afrika and Barbary, and the great temples and sphynxes of Gyptia. The deep jungles of Amazonia, and the rolling grasslands and mountain ranges of Zealand to the far south. Maybe even the Northern and Southern Icelands, if he could wrap up well enough for them (he had the feeling that he wouldn’t know what cold really was until he went there).

One day.

And now, here he was, on the Ship of the Dead, with a skeleton crew, and on open water.

No turning back, that’s what Grimmer had told him. No turning back.

India tried to quell the ache within him, but he felt his thirteen years of age keenly, and he had to take a hard grip of the hammock support to steady himself.

He only took his fingers away when he became aware of them hurting, and looking at his fingertips he saw they’d been pressed white.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #2

Still going strong with India Bones. I’d say I’m about half way through, maybe more. Here’s the next little part.

 

INDIA BONES AND THE SHIP OF THE DEAD

By Set Sytes

 

*

 

India had been watching for a full hour, and the dead were still dancing. He’d borrowed a spyglass from the white-whiskered gentleman and had it clamped tight against his eyeball, occasionally switching eyes when one grew tired. He saw the skeletons pour drink after drink down themselves, saw it slosh through the ribcages and hit the sand.

Some of them ambled and shuffled, some of them jigged and cavorted, some of them linked each other by the arms and swung around, changing partners to the tune. One of them was flat on his back (India assumed it was a he, but who could really tell?), with another skeleton pouring a bottle over his skull. The pourer seemed to be laughing; at least, his jaw was open. Their grins were just lipless teeth, but somehow even without skin or muscles the expressions seemed to subtly, inexplicably change. As India glassed them, he saw them individually portray exuberant joy, mirth, relaxed appreciation, concentration (on drinking or dancing), tiredness, and total inebriation. One of them was sat facing away from the others, staring out at the waves and drawing patterns in the sand with his fingers. It might have just been bones on display, but India could see clearly they had their own personalities and emotions. These were not unthinking bogey-monsters raised from the grave to terrify and do a master’s bidding. These were people.

India was thrilled that it was quiet little Eyeless, his own home town, and not the bustling port of Maiden, that received the Ship. He knew folks from Maiden who were rightly jealous. It was the Eyeless claim to fame, about the only thing they could lord it over the rest of Mexico Island with. India figured it wasn’t favouritism, the skeletons probably just didn’t want the fuss and bother of putting in on busy docks. A plain beach was all they needed. Still, seeing such an incredible and outlandish event appear in clear sight of the houses and taverns he’d grown up around, was as exciting as it was disorientating.

India put his hand on the coat of the white-whiskered cove, still stood beside him.

‘You done with the spyglass?’ The man said, glancing down at him.

‘No. I mean, yes, sir,’ India murmured, still in a bit of a daze. Something had just occurred to him. ‘How long will they be here for?’

‘Oh, quite some time if past years are anything to go by. Why?’

‘Nobody ever joins in?’

The man looked down at him again, narrowing his brow. ‘Joins in? Of course not. It’s the dead.’

India nodded. ‘Here’s your glass back sir.’

‘Where are you going? You can’t miss this. You know it won’t be for another decade?’

‘I’ll be back soon.’

 

*

 

India stood in front of Mrs Wayles’s mirror. He was finishing painting his face. White with big black eyes, and black lines for teeth painted over his lips. A little black for the nose and cheekbones. He carefully added some of the greasepaint to his neck, and turned his attention to his hands. White fingers jointed with black.

He took a step back and grinned. ‘India Bones means something now,’ he said to himself. He left the building and headed back towards the Merchant Hall.

The music was loud once more, when he started to pass the groups and loners watching the dance of the dead from along the embankment, still some distance from the Hall. Most of them were too enraptured in the sight to pay him any mind, but a couple of drinking youths turned at his approach. For a second he saw them fearful, and then confused. Quickly, though, their faces turned to scorn, and a touch of pity, which for India there was nothing worse.

‘What in the hell do you look like,’ one of them said.

‘Nothing like you, thank god,’ India replied. He continued walking, not speeding up and not slowing down.

‘Are you wearing makeup?’ the other said.

‘Does it matter?’ India said.

‘Girls wear makeup,’ the first said, as India passed them.

‘Girls do a lot of things,’ India called over his shoulder. ‘And so do I.’

He left them behind, and approached the Merchant Hall. However, instead of turning to enter it from the inwards-facing front doors, he turned left along its side, walking down the embankment and onto the beach. He was by the Hall’s supports and below the level of the windows, so he knew they couldn’t see him from within. But that wouldn’t last long.

He approached the dead slowly.

The sand seemed to crunch under his boots. He walked with a heady bravado courtesy of the contents of Mr Bassard’s bottle, but as he neared his spirit began to falter. When his mind was begging him to turn around and run, his legs were still obeying his first command, his deeper desire to join the dance. The ice blue fire flashed in his eyes, he stumbled forward, and before he knew it he found himself with the skeletons, and they hadn’t noticed him.

He stood frozen, staring, unable to go forward or back. Then he was gripped by bone, and swung, and gripped, and swung, and suddenly he was dancing with the dead.

He was flung from skeleton to skeleton, feeling the bones, swung hard against ribcages, grinning skulls one after another in front of him. He found a bottle in his hand and he swigged it and let it set a fire in his throat.

He was sweating, and laughing, his mind adrift as he moved to the music. The dead all around him, clutching at him, and they were laughing too, laughing and singing, dry voices that punctuated the raucous melodies and rhythmic booming of the drum.

It was when the stars themselves were spinning and he thought he might pass out, that the job was done for him. A flailing arm came out of the blinding fire and hit his head like a club, and the fire diminished, and went black.

 

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Born to be Weird short story collection

My second short story collection, Born to be Weird: A Short Collection of Demented Fantasy & Horror is now available on Amazon! And it’s free to download for the next 5 days!

A short collection of weird, twisted stories, featuring the gothic science story The School of Necromancy (like Harry Potter meets Frankenstein and Lovecraft!) and the very bloody horror The Gauntlet of Gore, which is like nothing else.

Included are the short stories (also available separately):

The School of Necromancy – Deep below the city of York, below the sewers, below the catacombs, lies the School. It is here, if you are privileged to be selected, that you can study the art of raising the dead.

Keep it Clean – Have you ever been swallowed by a public toilet? No? This man has. A truly grotesque and odious tale.

There’s Only One King – Elvis Shadow walks the world, caught between this life and the next. A world containing other half-creatures, other myths and legends.

The Half-School – A dream-like account of a return to an old school.

The Gauntlet of Gore – “When playing the Gauntlet, there are two options. Either you win, or the whole team dies.
Either you die, or you see every other opposing team member blown to bits. There are no corpses, only giblets.”

January 5th – “It was January the 5th, and everywhere things were dead or dying.”

 

Keep it Clean was originally in my previous collection Faces in the Dark: A Short Collection of Paranoid Horror, but it has been swapped with the most recent short story, Her Parents’ Masks, because it fit that theme better.

Faces in the Dark on Amazon.

Born to be Weird on Amazon.

Check out this great cover of Born to be Weird done by JCD2 Design.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #1

Evening all. I am still waiting with infinite impatience to hear back from more agents I have sent samples of WULF to.  I was kind of committed to those characters, so did quite a lot of writing ideas and bits and bobs down for the sequel, SLADE. And sequels after that sequel. But if WULF won’t be accepted, then I should probably put SLADE on the backburner (at least until the point I give up, and put WULF online). Also, sorry for all the capitalised titles. That’s just how I envisage them. Carved in stone. Or maybe just a strange man shouting them at you.

So here is an idea I started ages ago, then gave up on because I wanted to write darker stuff. It’s more for a YA audience, but who knows how it’ll end up, as I often accidentally find my characters swearing, just because that’s how they talk.

It’s called India Bones and the Ship of the Dead and for the life of me can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before. It’s the first in a proposed series (stampede before you walk), starting with the protaganist aged 12, like Harry Potter. But with pirates. Not regular pirates though. This is a fantasy world, full of things you think you know but don’t, not like this, and things you don’t know about at all.

Anyway, here’s the first bit. First draft, as usual. Still working out in my head the main character and how he talks. Hope you enjoy.

 

INDIA BONES AND THE SHIP OF THE DEAD

By Set Sytes

 

 

ONE

 

 

‘I can’t sir.’

‘Can’t what, lad?’

‘Can’t drink any more.’

‘Nonsense m’boy! Why, why there’s half the bottle left!’

‘I’m fogged sir. More than that. I’m near half steamed.’

‘And, and boy?’

India coughed wetly and leaned forward. Mr Bassard gave him the bottle and India unsteadily poured another splash of grog into his cup.

‘Aye’, India said, raising the cup and sipping the burn.

‘Good lad.’ Mr Bassard took a deep draught and harrumphed. His big, bushy face was beetroot red and he stomped his boots on the wooden floor. He shook his head fiercely and made an indistinguishable animal noise.

India sipped again and watched as Mr Bassard’s head leaned slowly back, and his eyes drifted closed. Within moments the rumbling of a hog echoed through the shack.

India put down his cup and stood up, and it took a moment to convince himself that he wasn’t on a ship at sea. The floor bucked at him and he moved towards the door as if bobbing on waves.

He outstretched his arm and pushed forward, misjudging the step and sprawling through the entrance onto shadowed sand and a violet, glittering night.

He turned on to his back and crossed his boots before him, the buckles catching the light of the stars and the fireflies carousing in the wind.

‘Aye,’ he said again, and grinned in a very relaxed, muzzy way. Above his head he watched a great cloud sail, lit up by a full moon. He fancied that it looked like a great galleon, and within its misty embrace brawled a crew of pirates and corsairs.

‘A ship in the sky,’ Mrs Wayles would have said. ‘Well of all the things.’

India heard cavorting up ahead, coming along whatever passed for streets in the port town. He ignored them, taking them for its usual night revellers. With great effort he put his hands behind his head, and reminded himself once again that he was missing a hat.

He listened to the gentle lap of waves on shore and closed his eyes to the stars. He imagined himself on that pirate ship, no longer water in the air but wood in the water. Something powerful and brooding, full of joy and adventure and the freedom of rogues.

‘Boy!’ He heard a shout as if it was right by his ears, and he jerked himself up.

‘Aye?’ he said, eyeing the band of coves standing in the sand before him.

One stepped forward, a thin man with a beard to his waist. ‘You drunk lad?’

India waved his hand in the air.

‘How old are you?’

India hiccupped. ‘Thirteen.’

‘Thirteen, by God! It’s that Mr Bassard again, ain’t he damn near set on corrupting all who get by him.’

‘It’s not corrupting,’ said India. ‘It’s warm and fuzzy’.

The man muttered to his fellows and then stepped forward and tried to pull India up. India shook him off, and said he could stand on his own, which he did so, a little clumsily.

‘What’s your name lad?’

India sighed and wondered if the day would come when he could be called Captain, and not boy or lad. ‘The name’s India Bones. If it pleases you,’ he added, with more than an ounce of sarcasm.

‘Bones?’ The man’s eye furrowed. One of the others, a fool in striped pantaloons, whispered something in his ear. ‘Oh, aye,’ the man said. ‘It’s you. Mrs Wayles’s boy.’

‘I suppose.’

‘The orphan,’ said the fool.

India narrowed his eyes. ‘No. My father ain’t dead.’

‘Where is he?’

India didn’t say anything.

The thin man with the long beard put his hands on his hips impatiently. ‘Well, come on with us. You don’t want to miss this.’

‘What is it?’

‘Where have you been lad? It’s the dance of the dead.’

‘Oh.’ India’s fog seemed to clear somewhat and his eyes brightened. ‘All right, I’m coming. Where is it?’

‘It’ll be yonder, by the docks as always.’ The man shifted his pointed finger. ‘You see the blackness of the horizon?’

‘I sure do. It’s night.’

‘The boy’s got lip. Look, that ain’t no natural darkness. See how it seems to pull the waves in. Like some black hole of a line stretching out – but not all the way. See how it stops after a while, on both its sides?’

India nodded. Now he looked, he saw that there was a stripe of utter blackness that sucked in the sky and waters around it. But it was not the horizon, for it occupied only part of it, and beyond its reach was a dark, dark blue.

‘That’s the coming of them,’ the man said. ‘Once every ten years. You won’t remember them last, you’d of been just a babe. The Ship of the Dead. All the way from God-knows-where to Eyeless, Mexico Island, right to our golden doorstep.’ He had a wistful look in his eye, and added, ‘They come to dance.’

 

*

 

India stood looking out the windows of the Merchant Hall. It was a large, swarthy building, the hub of the port, where all the commonfolk and nobles alike came to trade, dally and gossip. He was clustered on all sides by others, all craning their necks at the windows that looked out on the docks. There was a hubbub of excitable chatter, punctuated with words like ‘bones’ and ‘skeletons’.

‘Don’t be scared lad,’ said a tall, white-whiskered gentleman at his shoulder, leaning down to speak in his ear.

India flinched as the man’s breath blew into him. ‘I ain’t scared sir,’ he said.

‘No?’ said the man. ‘I would be. Only a fool is fearless.’

India paused to take this in. He looked out at the sea shining black and smoky. It looked like the clouds had sunk down from the heavens and were writhing on a rolling expanse of tar. The truth was that he was afraid. He didn’t know what to expect, and everyone seemed tense and nervous and all the rushed talk around him made it hard to stay focused. It was always easy to get carried away in crowds. He wondered what each person’s individual reactions to the event would be if they weren’t letting their emotions be used as a mere component of a noisy, irrational mass.

Still, this event was irrational. He had led a fairly ordinary life, for an unholy rascal, as some had dubbed him. Wandering, idle mischiefs, odd jobs and courier work (he called them ‘missions’) for petty gold to squander or lose, some light thievery perhaps (but only when he was hungry, or when it was plain irresistible). The port towns of Eyeless and Maiden, the shanty sprawl of Rug, even the capital of Mohawk, he figured he’d seen enough to say he’d seen it all. The island had never seemed big enough for him. At aged thirteen he already felt he knew it inside and out, and it bored him. But then there was this – this once a decade wonder of the supernatural. Yes, he was afraid, but more than that he was tense with anticipation. He couldn’t wait to see them.

The smoking black line rolled forward, taking over the sea and the sky in its approach. Fog stole onto the shore, and soon most of the beach was invisible. And out of the fog there came a long, slow, horn, and as it cut short there came the unmistakeable creaking of ship masts.

The mist rolled back, as though someone were sweeping it away with a broom. The blackness dissipated, and the beach lay clear and dark gold before them. Anchored in the bay was a grey and white ship, and pulling up to the shoreline were three boats full of the dead.

India barely heard the intake of gasps around him. The older folk, who had seen it once or more before, kept a reverent silence. India himself was struck dumb. His usually indolent eyes were as wide as he’d ever had them, and he dared not blink for fear that the whole scene would evaporate as a dream does upon waking.

The Ship of the Dead! Real magic!

The Merchant Hall was a house of statues as every man, woman and child in there watched the dead leave their boats and crowd together on the beach. They were no corpses, no rotting figures, but bare skeletons all, clothed in pirate and sailor dress. They dumped crates from the boats and pulled out bottles, handing them round. One of them started a fire – India couldn’t see how, but it rose up quickly, with an ice blue flame.

Instruments were brought forth, a fiddle, a guitar and a drum, and the music began. Ethereal lines from the violin, mournful and haunting at first, and then imperial with the pound of the drum: a death march. Then the guitar strummed, and the fiddler and the drummer and the rest were all grins, and the music shifted to one of enchanting, excitable delight.

They began to dance.

 

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