Tag Archives: original fantasy

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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The Wulf and the Tiger extract

An extract from my adult sci-fi/fantasy/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This does not follow on from the previous part, but is a later extract. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress, and there may be mistakes not yet caught.

 

 

Jay bumped into Savvi, and Alexia into him. Savvi had stopped.

‘What’s going on?’ he said.

Nobody answered, and he felt a touch on his other shoulder that, if he was a lesser man than he was now, would have made him piss himself. It’s Dol Sander. It’s Dol Sander. He’s telling you to shut up.

Jay listened. The blackness around him seemed to swallow all noise.

There it was. A slight slapping sound, like wet leather. He could not tell how close it was, only that it was to his right. Perhaps there was a passage that intersected with this one. Or maybe they were no longer in a passage at all, but they were in a vast hall. He had no way of knowing. Maybe Dol Sander was leading them past the sleeping quarters of hundreds of ghoums. The First Ones . . .

They stood frozen for what seemed like forever. Time as a measurable concept disintegrated, swallowed up by a bubble of empty night. His fingers dug into Savvi’s shoulder, and Alexia’s nails dug into his. He almost cried out loud when he felt something brush past his leg. It’s the tiger. It’s the fucking tiger. It’s furry, it’s the tiger. Why the fuck is the tiger moving? STOP MOVING YOU FURRY FUCK!

The scrabbling had disappeared into the distance, but still they were motionless. Eventually (and who knows how long it was in the end? An hour or a mere minute?) Dol Sander must have moved forward, for Savvi began to move also, and then they all were, a motley line of beings entirely out of their depth, walking on fear.

 

*

 

At first he thought he was imagining it, or that it was a trick of his vision. But no, there it was: light. It was very faint and low, but there was a green glow coming from up ahead. As they approached he began to make out the outlines of the others, the hand he waved in front of his face. The relief was palpable, but it was not to last.

The glow came from the rocks, he found. Some luminescent mineral. It was still barely enough to see by, but that was enough. He felt Savvi’s shoulders relax, and he let go. Alexia’s hand fell away from him.

Some kind of cave system, he thought at first, but as he looked around he saw the work of a fallen civilisation: sharp corners and smooth stones, crumbled doorways, pillars disappearing above them into oily heights. The glowing substance crawled and climbed over the place like weeds. Maybe it’s not a rock at all, maybe it’s some imitative fungus. Either way I’m thankful.

He was reaching out to touch one when Dol Sander stopped in front of them, a dagger silently appearing his hands. Jay looked past him and saw the ghoum.

It emerged from between two rocks with a slick, wet sound, its bald head bobbing from side to side like a moored boat. It shuffled closer, each of them holding their breath, staring directly at it or straight ahead in fixed terror. Jay was the former; he couldn’t keep his eyes off the creature. Dol Sander was right: it had no eyes, and only a small slit for a nose, but its ears were like deep gills cut into the sides of its face, and they seemed to tremble in the glowing darkness.

Its entire body was thin and fleshy, skin stretched over wasted muscles. Its hands and feet webbed, extended arms hanging loosely at its side. The way it moved seemed almost boneless.

Jay didn’t know what sound alerted it; someone must have breathed. Its head jerked up and it flopped, slopped towards them with a terrifying burst in speed. Its mouth yawned open displaying dripping gums and hundreds of needle-like teeth.

Everybody’s hands went to their weapons, but Dol Sander got there first. He flashed forward and the creature’s neck split open. Thick goo oozed out and the creature dropped – but not before it had made a hollow, reverberating groan, a disgusting oooooom noise that seemed cavernous.

Oooom, came the replies. Oooom. Ooooom.

‘Where are they coming from?!’ Alexia cried. ‘It’s everywhere!’

Ooooooom.

‘Silence, Alexia!’ Dol Sander said, his thin sword now clutched in his hand.

‘Too late now,’ Savvi said. ‘They’ve found us.’

‘It’s never too -’ started Dol Sander, but ducked as a pillar shattered by his head. If the creature’s dying call had seemed loud, the gunshot that boomed and echoed could have filled the world. It temporarily drowned out the ghoum calls, but as it faded they returned, tripled in number and in intensity.

‘Who the fuck was . . . It’s them!’ Dol Sander said, and they all turned with him to face what was behind.

‘Think they’ll band together with us against the ghoums?’ Jay said. He reached for his rifle but Dol Sander put his arm out and stopped him, dragging Jay to behind the pillar where Savvi and Alexia had darted. The tiger was already there, Alexia aggressively stroking his back, more likely for her comfort than his.

‘What do you think?’ Savvi said, hoisting her bow.

‘This is good,’ Dol Sander said. ‘No, it is. They will summon the ghoums. This was the plan. I had just hoped we would not have been with them at the time.’

‘So what, we run and hide?’

‘How quietly can you run?’

‘Never measured. You?’

They heard now a thum-thum-thum, and knew it as the hulk loping towards them, picking up speed with the single-minded force of a battering ram.

‘Everybody,’ Dol Sander said. ‘Run and hide. In my general direction. Go!’

‘Ghoums versus bad guys,’ Jay said, in between breaths as he took off. ‘We’re staying out of it.’

 

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The Wulf and the Tiger #5

The fifth part of my adult sci-fi/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This follows directly on from the last part. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress (I’ve got much further than this part, though!).

 

 

THREE

 

 

The town came up first as a mirage. Only when Jay crawled closer did the clutter of shacks that occupied the long stretch of dry valley prove their firmness, their intent to stay.

His mind was screaming at him, but he wasn’t listening to it. He wasn’t listening to it because his throat was screaming louder. On hands and knees he shuffled through sand and along dusty rocks. The temperature was a little cooler now, but his head swam and he was starting to see dots that looked like a swarm of winged black demons coming down at him from far off in the sky.

He squinted and made out a few people in the street. There was a main thoroughfare that led along structures with signs like GUNSHOP and BAR – NO TROUBLE. The buildings were all made of a black wood that shined in the calming sun. A dog barked and raced from one side of the street to another.

Jay got to his feet slowly, groaning and shutting his eyes for a few seconds until the demons floated off. He looked behind him. The tiger was asleep. It had been noticeably impatient with him, and on this last crawling stretch it had simply laid down and shut its eyes.

Turning back his eye caught the promise of water. There was a trough where a few horses were tied, right at the edge of town. They took turns to gulp it gratefully – taller horses than he’d seen before, and slightly . . . pointier. There was a white mare with these big lazy pools for eyes, an imperious red with dark socks, and an exotic looking stallion as black as pitch, with flaming scarlet hair that burst all about him. He looked at Jay as he approached and seemed to nod. His hooves stamped the ground.

Jay was in no sense to avoid the horses, nor to play nice. He budged up beside the mare at the end, which whinnied at him, water dripping from its mouth. Then he sank to his knees and plunged his head into the trough. He barely noticed the taste of horse, only half-cared that the water was warm and had likely been sat out all day. Flies that sounded like fizzing soda hopped and skipped over his neck, and shoulders, and he let them. Under the water his gullet moved as he swallowed.

Just before he was ready to come up and drink with his hands he was pulled back and away by tough hands. He fell back, the hair that lay long about his forehead streaming little trails of trough water to the parched ground.

‘What in the name of fuck are you tryin’ to do?’ said a shadow over him.

Jay blinked. A man with a fat moustache and a bent hat was dragging him up to his feet.

‘I was thirsty,’ Jay said.

‘A lot of people get thirsty,’ said the man. ‘You know what they do? They go to the bar. They don’t try’n drown themselves in horse spit.’

‘Was desperate.’ Jay tried to brush his wet hair away from his face, and he wiped away the droplets that clung to his nose and chin.

‘Come in from the Wastes huh? Didn’t plan the journey? Look at the state of you. Tough but stupid, that’s it.’

‘I don’t know this place. At all.’

‘Yeah, well. This place is called Nohaven.’

‘It doesn’t sound too welcoming.’

‘That’s because it ain’t.’ The man stared at him with small eyes. ‘Go on, get. To the bar, to a bed, to the gunshop to blow your brains out, or right back the way you came, I don’t give one single golden fuck. Just get away from my horse and away from that trough. I ain’t havin’ to fish you out again when you’ve drowned and befouled the water for my ride.’ The man put a hand on its soft white coat.

‘I’ve already got a gun.’ Jay said. He pointed at his holster.

The small-eyed man snorted. ‘Call that a gun? I bet you could lay that piece of crap right against my forehead and pull the trigger and two seconds later we’d both be still standing wonderin’ where the bullet went.’

Jay’s hand played about his side, and the man opened his jacket slightly. ‘I dare ya,’ he said, as Jay glimpsed a bulging hunk of steel: an obese firearm strapped to his chest. Jay moved his hand from his holster to his waist and untied his shirt, walking off with feigned nonchalance as he wriggled back into it. He could feel the man’s eyes on the back of his neck.

The people were a motley scuffery of beaten jackets and shirts, plain half-cut dresses and makeshift skirts. Farmer shifts and fighting suits. Every outfit, every look seemed a hodgepodge, a DIY of appearance. They were everyone, it seemed, blacks and browns and reds, half-and-halves and the quartered, those whose pink or grey complexions were tinted or mottled a nearly seaweed green. There were the tattooed and there were the disfigured. There were even a couple of chalk-like figures – god knows how they didn’t tan under this sun.

A woman with lashes that curled out far from her face like spikes watched him, amber eyes flecked with crimson. As he drew closer he saw her carelessly tickling the two dozen knives that ringed her belt. A younger girl sat in the shadow of an overhang with an old man grinding blades. She looked about fifteen, with exceptionally pale blue eyes. Her hair hung white in four pigtails, and she stroked a gun that rested its butt on the ground and could well be nearly as tall as her standing.  The old man glanced up, spat and went back to his work. His hair was tangled all the way down his back, and his mouth had been cut into a permanent scowl.

They watched him from all about, from windows and porch chairs, passing him in ones and twos on the thoroughfare; he was the outsider.

He walked into the bar. It was only slightly cooler in the shade; in here there was a kind of dank, heavy gloom, and a permeating odour of sweat and hard spirits. Jay’s eyes adjusted slowly. He imagined he had just walked into a saloon; that there might be a tinkling rag-time piano that suddenly stopped, and the faces of a dozen plus rogues turned to him in silence.

It wasn’t like that. They looked at him, but only for a second. There had been no music, only a constant hubbub of chatter running at different levels: the low murmurs and clandestine mumblings right up to raucous shouts and cat-calls. Just like outside, they were not cowboys, not exactly. There was the bandit in a number of them, there was no doubt about that and other tropes he could recognise – two prostitutes in the corner, or my name’s not (JAY WULF) – but nobody’s style he could easily label; he was reminded clearly of things from Earth and its history, and nothing here seemed particularly absurd or otherworldly in that regard, but there was nevertheless the unmistakeable feeling of something other; naturally developed and stained with the dust and labour of this land’s own history, and yet wholly new.

He sidled up to the bar in the most unobtrusive way he could manage, and found himself elbow-to-elbow with a middle-aged man with a square-ish bowler hat and a loosened tie, and all the demeanour of a merchant banker with more love for the drink than the job. Jay nodded at him and grinned – even my smile feels different, it feels more . . . wolfish – and the man shook his head, not making eye contact. Jay tried to look sympathetic, but the banker only shook his head again, raising his eyes only to stare wistfully into the faded bottle in front of him.

‘Well?’ The bartender was drumming her fingers; a motion of irritability not heard against the background noise.

‘Erm, whiskey,’ Jay said. ‘Please,’ he added, then regretting it as the barrel-bodied woman gave him a funny look.

He watched her pour it in front of him, a chest like two diving bells resting on the bar-top. He knew the word that had actually come out of his mouth wasn’t “whiskey”. The glass of muddy gold before him was only the nearest translation. He hoped it was nicer than neat whiskey; he’d only asked for the stuff to fit in, and could really have done with more water.

‘Three kings,’ she said.

‘Huh?’

‘That’ll be three kings you owe.’ She affixed a tried-and-true don’t-fuck-with-me expression and puffed herself up, not that any more notice could have been given to that full-buttocked chest. She may have been shorter than most of the patrons there, but she sure as sin was wider – and deeper – and even presuming no weapons with slugs the size of sword hilts lay within easy reach of those big, clasping hands, she could no doubt barrel most trouble out the door. A scar on her cheek stood testimony to at least one altercation she’d survived.

Jay dug into his pants pocket and found the red poker-chip coins he’d stolen off the dead men. It seemed that a few had gone missing, no doubt lost in his scrabbles. Now he could see that they were of three different sizes and abrasions; each textured uniquely to the touch.

‘Which one are the kings?’ he said.

The bar woman raised an unimpressed eyebrow. ‘The big ones.’

He plucked out three of them and deposited them in her outstretched hand. She closed her fist and quickly snapped it back, looked him up and down and turned away to serve another further down. Jay sipped his drink. He grimaced. Yep, that was as bad as whiskey. A dirty, warm whiskey carrying a flavour reminiscent of slightly off berry . . . one of the berries, one of the ones nobody remembered . . .

He picked up his glass and gave the liquid a swirl. There were waves of a darker colour, that glided phantasmal and elfin. He caught the reflection, and turned to his right, where she was sitting.

‘You.’

 

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The Wulf and the Tiger #4

The fourth part of my adult sci-fi/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This follows directly on from the last part. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress.

 

 

The man with the green eyes rose his head. ‘An oversight,’ he repeated simply.

The man with the green eyes stood stiff. ‘We don’t quite understand sir. Not yet. But we’re missing someone. He’s gone completely off the grid.’

The man with the green eyes nodded. ‘It has happened before.’

The man with the green eyes looked a little surprised. ‘It has, sir?’

The man with the green eyes looked at the man with the green eyes. ‘How old are you?’

‘Six hundred, sir.’

‘You are very young.’

‘I know sir. I’m good at what I do, sir.’

‘When you get as old as me, you see a lot of mistakes in the universe. A lot of problems, especially when it comes to Reshuffles.’ He paused, then stroked his smooth head with a forefinger, as though slicking down invisible hair. ‘I don’t think there’s anything in the universe or out of it that can be surprise me. I’ve seen everything.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Find out what happened. If there’s a culprit, find them. And find whoever went missing. Nobody gets to leave the grid. And nobody is untraceable.’

‘He was from Earth-502, sir. His name is -’

The man with the green eyes looked coldly at his inferior. ‘I do not care what his name is. Find him.’

‘Yes sir.’

 

TWO

 

Any fool could tell you not to fall asleep beside a wild tiger, but Jay Wulf had gone and done just that. It wasn’t as though he’d planned to. There had been no point when he’d yawned and settled down, thinking ‘I’ll just close my eyes for a wink, I’m sure I’ll hear if the tiger gets up to maul me.’

It had merely been the case that one moment he was awake and the next, as the lilac sky deepened and the indigo clouds drifted back from the horizon, he was not. There was a sensation in his head of a whirlpool; circling it, and being sucked ever downwards.

His last thoughts were nothing concrete, merely a spiral of tigers of all colours, and the report of guns everywhere, and of alien technology, lasers and leviathan ships. And then just the desert, and the woman Sav coming from out the sand, swaying towards him, and how his insides breathed for her, how he ached.

Eventually the tiger closed its own eyes and began to purr next to him in sleep.

The mind of Jay Wulf was a mess. It stank – sweet smells and sour, all carrying a familiarity that he could not put his finger on. There was clutter everywhere; he moved through a room filled with pelts and ripped silk, with leather half cut into holsters and saddles. There was bloodstains on the floorboards and hung on the half rotting walls were guns and knives and swords. The furniture was a hodgepodge of old and new, and was piled high with trinkets and semi-valuable treasures. There was an old ship’s wheel resting against the wall, almost the size of him. A nearby fire burned low in a grate, casting flickers on the wheel that made it look like it was reliving past battles of sword and flame.

On blankets and fur strewn in the centre were several naked women. They were beautiful in that vague, dream-like way, where no one aspect can be concentrated on enough to provide any real kind of definition to the person, no sense that any part of who they were could survive awakening.

‘Hello, Jay,’ purred one of the women. Just like the tiger.

‘Hello,’ Jay replied. ‘Where am I?’

The women just smiled at him. ‘Come to bed, Jay,’ they said.

‘Who are you? No, for that matter, who am I?’

They giggled. ‘You know who you are,’ said one.

‘Jay Wulf, I suppose,’ he said.

‘The greatest fighter in the world,’ cooed one of them.

‘The greatest lover in the world,’ said another.

‘The greatest man -’

‘With the biggest -’

The final words were gurgled as the room blew away like smoke.

 

*

 

‘Get off her,’ he said.

The man glanced behind him to see a gun pointed at his head. ‘What’s this?’ he growled, after a hesitation.

‘Off.’

The man spat, half on the bed, half on the woman. ‘It’s got fuck all to do with you.’

Jay Wulf looked down at her, then back at the man. ‘Lady says no,’ he said simply.

‘Lady,’ the man snorted. ‘When a whore says no she says yes.’

The woman punched him in the side, and he grunted and drew a knife on her. ‘Do that again. Do that again.’

‘Sometimes, sure,’ Jay said. ‘But when this whore says no she means no.’ His gun remained trained on the man, unwavering.

‘And you can tell how?’

‘You can tell by not being a fucking idiot.’

The man moved his knife from the woman’s throat and turned it quickly in his hand, and Jay shot him in the forehead.

He shoved him off the woman and lifted her to her feet.

‘You got blood all over my fucking dress,’ she said.

‘Don’t I get a thank you?’ He holstered his gun.

She looked him up and down. ‘You want a thank you for stopping him raping me? You’re not serious. That’s duty, not heroism.’

‘Not in this place it ain’t. Duties like that, they don’t stay around forever with lack of reward. Aye, well. I suppose.’ He leaned against the wall and spat. ‘You staying here? Want me to take you someplace else?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘What do you want, you want to try your luck too?’

‘Maybe I do,’ he replied. ‘But not tonight, I think. Tomorrow, perhaps. But it’ll be all luck and trying, and nought else.’

He yawned as she scowled. ‘But another whore will do,’ he said. ‘Willing and paid in more than good coin, have no fear. Fact, I think I’ll go for it now, taking your leave miss. Shooting that fella off you and meeting your fine self got my blood up and my dick hard.’

She stared at him in disbelief and anger. ‘You’re aroused from preventing a rape by way of murder?’

Jay laughed huskily. ‘Sounds a lot worse the way you put it. I wouldn’t put too much by it, though. My dick is always hard. It gets hard at someone opening a door, gets hard at another closing it.’

She looked down and said in a scathing tone, ‘it don’t look hard.’

Jay laughed. ‘Aye, down for one minute, out of respect.’ He nodded at her and stood up off the wall. ‘I’ll be going now. Don’t mind him no more’ – he kicked the dead body – ‘I’m sure you can sleep around him. Get some rest. Whores need their rest.’

‘Whores need a day where they aren’t whores.’

‘That too.’ He touched his brow and left, leaving bloody footprints on the wood that got fainter and fainter with every step.

 

*

 

He woke up to the tiger once again a few inches from his face, upside down and glaring, with an insistent rumbling kind of purr that was closer to growl. Jay yelled and sprang up, and the tiger watched him disdainfully as he scrambled to get to the uncovered gun.

Jay picked it up and – under the tiger’s watch – slowly put it in his holster. Finding out that he hadn’t been ripped apart after he’d passed out had given him enough reason to believe that his life wasn’t in danger any more. Well, not from the tiger at least. No doubt the rest of this land (wherever the Hell it was) wanted to kill him.

‘Let’s get this straight,’ he said.

The tiger yawned at him. A long yawn, too long by Jay’s count.

‘Are you done? Neither of us, I think, wants to hurt each other. But I mean, well, am I crazy here? You’re a smart cat, aren’t you?’

The tiger licked his lips.

Jay sighed. ‘Be that way. I’m going on. I may be in a new body in quite possibly a new world, but I sure know what hunger and thirst feel like. I feel . . . not good, and I need saving. I need to get to the nearest town, and the sooner the better or I’m gonna die out here.’

The tiger watched Jay stand up wearily and turn away.

‘Leaving me to it?’ Jay said, then shrugged his shoulders and continued on.

Jay was about to pass between two shelves of rock when he felt teeth on his leg. He yelled out and kicked away, and the tiger backed off, snarling.

‘Listen, fuck off!’ Jay said, removing the gun from his holster and waving it ineffectually once more. He replaced it back in its holster and made to move on.

The tiger darted in and bit at his leg again, but this time it just caught the light cloth of his pants. They didn’t rip, but the tiger was dragging him, and Jay staggered, trying to keep his balance.

‘What is it!’ More like a dog than a cat, he thought. The kind of dog move that means something . . . ‘What’s that boy?’ he said, leaning down. ‘Timmy fallen down the well? Ouch!’ He lifted his leg and rubbed it where the tiger had bit him, harder than before. ‘Alright alright! What do you want?’

The tiger padded away a few steps, then looked meaningfully back at him.

‘You want me to go that way? That’s the way I came from!’

The tiger said nothing, but waited impatiently.

‘Let me think for a second.’ The tiger flopped to the ground. ‘Well,’ Jay pondered out loud, ‘if I follow you, you might just lead me back to my starting position, you might lure me into an ambush and eat me . . . although I suppose you could have killed me at any point . . . But you could just be taking me back to your lair, which wouldn’t exactly do me much good, unless . . . unless you know where water is? I’m not going to feast on any raw critter you have waiting for me, I’ll have you know. Then there’s the other hand, I suppose if I ignore you you’ll just keep biting and dragging me, won’t you?’

The tiger nodded.

Do you understand what I’m saying! I know you do! Hello!’ Jay waved his hand in the tiger’s face.

The tiger looked at him balefully, then stood up and walked off.

‘Alright, I’m coming. All I’m saying, is if you lead me into a trap, or worse, to nowhere at all, and I die because of you, I’m going to be pretty mad. I’m just saying.’

Jay picked his way back among the rocks, his throat aching. I need drink soon. The tiger has to keep hydrated too. I just wish that Sav woman hadn’t fucked off . . . no doubt a tendency to quickly fuck off has served her well in the past.

She saved me, though. So that must mean at least one person is on my side. Somewhat.

Unless she just wants to kill me herself at a later date.

He remembered the dream. Walking slowly amongst the room of junk and treasure, guns and blades and blood, the room of animal furs and naked, flattering ladies.

Then he remembered what came after, and he knew it hadn’t been a dream, not really.

It had been a memory.


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The Wulf and the Tiger #3

The third part of my adult sci-fi/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This follows directly on from the last part. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress.

 

*

 

He’d discarded what he could only call his shirt – he supposed once upon a time it was a distant relation to the colour white – and wrapped it around his waist, after sawing away his bonds on a rock. They were in bad condition and it didn’t take long. The sweat dripped down his skin, as the white yolk of the purple-frayed sun rose higher in the sky. He’d forgotten to ask for directions from Sav to the town, but he wondered if she’d even have helped. Whenever he thought of her, he got this slightly sick feeling, low down in him. A kind of bristling, impatient warmth that was nothing to do with the sun. He wondered how much of this feeling was him alone, and how much belonged to this body.

Jay Wulf was going the wrong way.

He inspected for the hundredth time what he could make out of his chest and arms. He couldn’t stop – it’s not every day that the body you’ve grown up with, grown wearyingly used to seeing every day in the mirror or whenever you look down, is suddenly entirely different and novel.

Past his hands – which were solid red gloves of skin, trailing past his wrists in flames – most of his skin seemed mottled, a kind of paler Middle-Eastern thing going on for the base, then covered with the same doomy scarlet in twisted abstractions and patterns – if patterns there were.

Burn victim? He wondered. Pigmentation, port-wine birth marks? Somehow he thought not, not with the variety and wildness that these blood stains draped and dappled his skin. He resolved to find a mirror as soon as possible.

He’d hung around the dead men for a while, a task not a grisly as he’d have expected. He took money from their pockets – a handful of round red coins like poker chips. It wasn’t until later that he even thought twice about this.

The men had been a single colour, all hairy and beardy. They looked very barbarous, but he figured they could have passed for half normal Earth-people if you’d stripped them (which he hadn’t). That was until he found the second set of ears half hidden by their hair.

Now, panting under the midday sun as he leaped the land with newfound agility and vigour, he realised that was another thing he should have asked her. He should have asked her if he was human.

He heard a scrabble of pebbles from behind him, and span around. There was nobody there.

‘Show yourself!’ he said, his voice showing the kind of no-bullshit aggressiveness his previous voice had never had.

There was silence.

‘I warn you, I’ve got a gun!’ He meant this as a lie, but then realised he’d taken a gun off one of the men. The same gun that meant to take his life. It was another thing he’d done without really thinking about it, on an autopilot he had no truck relying on, not this soon after an entry into a new world of fucked up.

He pulled the gun out of his holster – another thing that had been there all along. Little fragments of Jay Wulf were revealing themselves to his attention, as though in a queue, all waiting to come into play at their intended time. The pigmentation, the strange pendant hung from his neck, the hair shaved at the sides and long at the top. The array of muscles that shone tan and red and purple in the light. The gathered weight in his loins. The holster on his belt.

And what does that tell me? It tells me  I’m the kind of man who is used to carrying a gun.

He’d never shot a gun before. Hell, he’d never even handled one. But now he clutched it with undeniable familiarity, the grip comfortable in a palm that was the driest part of his body. It looked old and worn and ugly, like something belonging to a previous age of the Earth, but it was nothing he could name, short of ‘pistol’. It looked very loud and very lethal.

A tiger slunk out from a boulder. It was black with red stripes; not the red of his skin but a bold, bright scarlet that seemed like jags of red lightning over the fur of the night. The claws – even the teeth were red. It moved calmly, carefully, sweeping its tail in the dust. But its dark gaze didn’t leave his face, and its teeth were bared.

He waved the gun. ‘Get back!’

The tiger stopped, but continued to glare at him. It was crouching now, tense.

‘Don’t even -’

The tiger sprang.

He was bowled over by the full weight of the thing – are all tigers this big?! – was his thought as he fit the ground with a thud. He was surprised to find a lack of savage teeth sinking into his neck. There was hot breath on his face. He opened his eyes tentatively, to see the tiger’s glaring eyes two inches from his. Its claws were gripping him tight, but not puncturing – not yet.

His arms were pinned beneath the weight of the tiger. The gun had fallen from his hand. He couldn’t even struggle – not with those teeth so sharp and so close to his jugular.

For a few seconds there was nothing but the breath of the tiger and the thump of two hearts. He could feel the tiger’s heartbeat through his own chest, and wondered if the tiger had the same sensation.

It roared, a sound that seemed to fill the world. It lasted a long time, and that was one more time that day the newly thinking Jay Wulf would cringe and expect a gory death.

Even now a whimper wouldn’t come. Even at my own demise I’m a hard-ass, apparently. Not a man for whom whimpers come easy.

The tiger’s eyes retreated, the weight lifted. He rolled away and backed up in a crouch. He looked to the gun but the tiger growled, and then went over and sat on it. It never took its eyes from his.

Cats never had the most tell-tale of expressions, but he had never seen such a curious look to one. That it was angry, that was certain, but there was more than that, hidden behind the impassive features . . . Annoyance? Frustration? And . . . confusion? Wonder? The tiger was staring at him with wide imperious eyes as though Jay was a marvel, a profoundly irritating source of amazement, something it’d never really seen before.

Maybe it hasn’t?

Every so often it growled low in its throat, or flexed its claws, or shook its head, as though trying to dispel an illusion. But if it meant me harm, it’d have done it already.

He stood up. The big cat did too.

‘I’d like my gun back,’ he said.

The tiger shook its head slowly.

He blinked. ‘You can understand me?’

The tiger just looked at him.

‘Okay . . .’ He felt like he was slipping, talking to a tiger. Relax, you’re doing pretty good for someone completely out of their depth.

He took a few steps back. The tiger took a few steps forward.

‘Are you going to follow me?’

The tiger did not reply.

‘Well. What should I call you? Tigger? Stripes?’

Growl.

‘Blackie?’

The growl rose, and so did haunches.

‘Alright alright. I guess you’ll just be a tiger then.’ The tiger laid back down on the gun and put its head on its paws. It finally took its eyes off Jay and sank them to the ground.

 

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The Wulf and the Tiger #2

The second part of my adult sci-fi/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This follows directly on from the last part. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress.

 

He tensed, closed his eyes, there was a small thuk and the pressure of the gun fell away.

He opened an eye, then both. The two men in front of him were looking around wildly, pistols in their hands. The man who had been about to pull the trigger on him was laid on his arms in the sand. A fine breeze was picking up and throwing the grains to stick to the blood.

This time he saw the arrow; it whistled in and went through the eye of the beardiest. And before he knew what was happening he had charged forward into the man remaining, headbutting him to the ground. He straightened and stamped on the man’s fingers, kicking the gun away, then kicking down hard on his neck. He put all his weight on one foot, crushing the man’s windpipe, then hopped his tied wrists over one leg, so his hands were now hooked around his crotch. He quickly switched feet before the man could draw a breath, and did the same movement with the other leg.

With bonded double fists he made to punch the man out, but by the looseness of the neck and the open eyes it seemed the man was dead.

He sat down, unsure of what had just happened. He wasn’t a fighter, but he’d just gone for a man with a gun. He could have waited; why get in the way of his mysterious saviour and his arrows?

He’d gone for a man and he’d killed him in a matter of movements – movements he’d never made before. What was worse, he didn’t feel like he thought he would, those times when he’d lay in bed and wonder what it would be like to kill another human. He tried to summon the shock, the numbness or hysteria, the overpowering guilt and regret, the anger . . . none of it came. It was though there was a new part of him, a part that dominated and reacted to the murder with a mere shrug of the shoulders.

He looked at his hands. A new part of me? I’m all new parts. His hands were red, not just the rawness around the ropes but everywhere, a deep, dark red with even darker nails. It wasn’t a dyed red, or a sunburned red. It was a skin colour red, a red like blood.

‘He dead?’

He looked up, and stared. His archer was a she, a woman – that much was obvious right from the get go. He didn’t think he’d seen anyone like her, except possibly as some kind of fantasy art back on . . . back in . . . back where he came from. She was an Amazonian: that was his first thought. He was taller in this new body, he could tell, but she was taller still. Not freakish in height, but enough to balance the sumptuousness of her caramel body with the aura of dominance. A long black bow hung around her, a stretch of black string kept tucked away in the shadows of her cleavage.

She raised one dark eyebrow at him, then, as he continued to look on dumbly, she stepped over to the man he had felled.

‘Yes,’ she said simply, returning to him. ‘Cat got your tongue, Jay?’

That’s my name. Or rather, that’s the name of this body. Jay . . . Jay Wulf. The name came to him, tumbling up from somewhere inside.

‘Who are you?’

‘Fuck off,’ she said. She sat down. ‘I know you have a dog’s eyes Jay, but this is taking the piss even for you. You look like you’ve never seen a Savvi before.’

Taking the piss. His brain was immediately translating into the most recognisable of forms, slang and all. Learning American.

‘What’s a Savvi?’ he said.

‘I’m Savvi, dick.’ Her eyes narrowed as there was no sign of recognition. ‘Sav. What’s the matter with you? You get hit on the head again?’

‘I take it we’re supposed to know one another.’

‘No shit. Oh for crying out loud. I’m not hanging around for all this.’

‘Please!’

She stood up. ‘I’m going.’

He offered his hands up pitifully. ‘Can you at least cut me free?’

She hesitated, then shook her head. ‘I’m not getting that close to you.’

‘You’ve got knives all over you, just pass me one . . . gently.’

The woman who called herself Savvi, or Sav, laughed. ‘You really must have hit your head if you think I’m going to give you a blade.’

He wanted to weep, but it seemed Jay’s body had little time for such things, and he resorted to falling to his knees and putting his head in his hands.

‘Aw, poor baby,’ she said.

‘I’ve only been here a few minutes,’ he said into his hands. He tried to make it sound self-pitying to earn some sympathy, but it didn’t work with his new voice; he just sounded frustrated. ‘And already I’ve barely escaped dying, killed a man who was probably going to kill me, and now left for dead by a . . . a woman who . . . by my own saviour, who, who won’t listen to me,’ he finished lamely.

She rolled her eyes. ‘What rubbish. I’m not leaving you for dead, there’s all manner of sharp rocks you can cut your bonds on. Then you’re free to go back to town, or wherever you want. The key word you used is “saviour”. I really should stop saving your life, it’s getting to be quite a bad habit.’ The words dripped silkily from the kind of lips that could swallow a man up but would never stoop to kiss his ass.

He watched her walk away from him. He didn’t know if she was swaying or he was. He could smell blood on the breeze.

She picked up speed, and soon she was running over slope and scree, arrows lightly quivering. He marvelled at the way she moved, like she was half elf half . . . panther. Her ebony form seemed to fade in and out of the rocks, the black and brown of the straps and scraps of her clothing the perfect camouflage. Her black hair lay as still as a dark pool, and crossed the land like a shadow of a great bird.

I wonder how many men have spent too long looking at her, he wondered, and not at her arrows and knives.

He rose suddenly. ‘Wait,’ he cried out. ‘WAIT!’ My new favourite word.

‘I’m still not gonna fuck you!’ Her voice sailed back at distance, before she was lost to him.

He stood still, bewildered. Who am I?!

Jay Wulf. That’s who I am. That’s who I am in this world. I’ll find out more about me, what kind of person I am, but I’m starting to get an idea.

I’ll find out everything. Where I am, who I am, who she is, and what the fuck happened to me.

And how to get home, and back to my old body, said a smaller voice in him.

‘Steady on,’ he said, feeling the strength in him like a second sun. Overhead the pure lilac sky was carrying away a single coupling of indigo clouds. ‘Let’s not be hasty.’

 

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The Wulf and the Tiger

This ain’t Tolkien!

The Wulf and the Tiger is my in-progress novel, still fairly early stages, that contains some pretty big ideas to it. Think a both gritty and comedic blend of sci-fi, fantasy and western, all with a real world backing to it. It’s adult, it’s humorous, it’s bloody, it’s complex (a little bit of brain melting might occur), it’s full of surprises, and it’s got some seriously badass characters. I certainly hope anyone looking for ‘strong female characters’ won’t be disappointed.

I also intend for it to be the first in a crazy series (but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

I’ve mentioned it before, but not posted anything written until now. Here is the very first part. I hope you like it. Please bear in mind that it is a first draft, a work-in-progress, and may undergo corrections and revisions in the future.

 

All across the world philosopher scientists united, having finally discovered the Ultimate Secret: the meaning of life, the meaning of existence, and the meaning behind the universe, all of which amounted to pretty much the same thing.

In reaction to this monumental breakthrough the Earth was racked by waves of suicides. Countless others were numb and silent. Many stayed in denial.

The deniers would convert the fastest.

It was around this time that the universe (which was only a mirage, a trick, anyway – not that they knew) was Reshuffled, as it sometimes was.

The order of things is moved around. Different minds to different bodies. Some of it is repair work, but most of it is experimental. Memories are changed to fit the new build. You will always remember things just as they have always been, even if the way things have been has only been true for the last day. A body that once housed a kind, sensitive soul now holds a rough, arrogant mind – and everybody remembers them as this new sort, and an entirely new shape has had its effect on the lives of everybody that come into contact with them.

Needless to say, a Reshuffling takes an enormous amount of work. A lot of it is simple presets, now, but there are always new configurations to make, new hiccups to consider. The debug program points out any gaps or mistakes, any potential bogeys let through before the changes become live. And afterwards, mistakes can always be quickly rectified, or at least smoothed over somewhat.

A great deal of change can be made simply by putting different minds into different people in different positions.

It is no wonder the world is so confusing, and people struggle so. Their minds and lives have gone through so many changes, and many people’s minds are not in their original bodies. Some people may never be directly touched by the reshuffle, and some people’s memories will be rewritten over and over as their brains or the brains of their friends and family find themselves with new occupants.

Thankfully, Earth had never achieved interstellar contact or cross-dimensional exploration, and so the latest Reshuffle was localised to Earth. That said, it was the greatest single-planet Reshuffle ever yet done. Some would say it was in response to Earth’s self-claimed Ultimate Discovery, while others might point out that the plans had been  in motion for a long time, and Earth had been due a Reshuffle for some time.

Afterwards, the Ultimate Discovery would be seen to be bogus, a piece of nonsense so derided that people thought it was a wonder it had ever been taken seriously, and noted both the ‘discovery’ and the resulting reactions as an unpleasant black spot on modern history. The philosopher scientists were blamed wholeheartedly, and they in turn blamed each other, and all tried not to broadcast their own personal shame.

It was almost perfect. And it would have been, if not for one oversight.

That oversight was one man.

He was Reshuffled, but his memories were left intact, and his mind was sent to the wrong place. It was not sent to one of his friends, or his friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s dog’s groomer, or someone in Africa or someone in New Zealand.

It was sent to another world.

 

ONE

 

He woke up standing with a gun to his head.

Desert plain, sand-coloured rocks, a stunted shrub of a tree. The touch of hot metal against his temple.

There were two men in front of him, also with guns, smiling toothy, dirty smiles.

He blinked, and opened his mouth. ‘What the fuck -’ he started, before immediately changing to ‘Oh my -’ and then ‘what’, and finishing with ‘This isn’t my voice!’ as his knees buckled.

The smudge of a man in his corner vision who held the gun pressed to his head grabbed him roughly by the neck, keeping him upright. ‘Don’t even think bout pullin some trick,’ came the growl in his ear.

The men looked like mercenaries from an old age. They were dirty and ragged, yellowed cloth and brown belts and heads covered in bristles. They leered and snarled at him.

‘Wha – what’s going on?’ he managed to breathe, and he trembled again as he heard another person’s voice form the words.

The pistol barrel nudged harder into him. ‘Cut the shit Jay.’

‘Please. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.’

‘You’re gonna die, that’s what. And not before time.’

He didn’t delude himself into thinking it was a dream. The gun against his head felt all too real. It seemed to be heating up under the glare of the sun. His hands were tied behind his back, and the rough knots bit into his skin.

It was that when he saw the lilac sky, a bright, alien colour that ringed the sun’s circle in purple flame.

He looked down, blinking as velvet motes danced over the sand and the rocks. He saw high boots and pants the colour of bark. His hair felt different, his face felt different. His whole body felt different. He was . . . stronger.

‘Wait,’ he said, licking his lips, trying to understand the voice. The accent seemed vaguely familiar – something exotic, a voice of spiced incense and long burning days and silks stained with blood – and yet nothing he could put a country’s name to, or even a region. His new voice was deeper, tougher, and instinctively he flexed his jaw and flexed the muscles in his arms. It felt good.

He squinted back up at the day’s light, that soft white-purple haze that quilted the land. The terrain lay about him like a bruise. There was no horizon; everything led to one slope or another. The astonishment of it all, the incredulity taming itself through a rising awe, was almost enough to make him forget the gun.

‘Time to die, tabaca.

It was then that he realised nobody was speaking English. Not even him. He hadn’t realised because while he was hearing another language, something he’d never heard before, he was understanding it in English. Words – his own words too, circling back on him – had been hitting his ears in whatever-the-fuck-it-was and appearing in his brain perfectly sensible.

Was this what been fluent was like? He figured not.

The gun clicked, ready for the end.

He wanted to say, ‘There’s been a huge misunderstanding.’ He wanted to say, ‘I’ve just woken up like this and I have no fucking idea where I am who I am and more precisely who I am to you and you’re about to kill me, possibly forever unless this really is the biggest most expensive whopper of a trick ever played on someone.’ He wanted to say a lot of things, a lot of things that wouldn’t have done him one bit of good, and yet in the end all that came out of his new mouth was ‘Wait,’ again.

One minute in a new body in a new world and I’m gonna die. Just my luck.

‘Goodbye,’ growled the reprobate in front of him.

‘This is ridiculous.’ He looked surprised for a second at himself, the words as unfamiliar as the voice. Well, at least I’m not crying at the end…

 

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