The Five Lords: Seeing the World

To celebrate hitting 50,000 words on my latest draft of The Five Lords, here’s another scene for you to experience with your eyeballs. This is separate to the scene I posted here a few months back; where before we were with Koron and his captors on the continent of Caras, this scene takes place in Kantis, the eastern continental neighbour of Caras. The scene is part of several Interregnums spaced throughout the story, where characters across the world, far away from our protagonists, show how they’re surviving the aftermath of the Great Punishment.

 

Enjoy!


 

Image taken from Most Beautiful Places: http://mostbeautifulplacesintheworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Winter-sun-at-Broadway-Tower-by-skipnclick.jpg
Image taken from Most Beautiful Places: http://mostbeautifulplacesintheworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Winter-sun-at-Broadway-Tower-by-skipnclick.jpg

 

It was a beautiful morning for all of Kantis.

            In Mimia’s mind, that was saying something. Kantis was the second-largest continent in the world, succeeded only by their western neighbours of Caras. The nation itself consisted of a multitude of ecological zones and weather systems; one city-state could be falling victim to the fiercest storm known to mankind, whilst another on the opposite end of the continent could be enjoying perfect seaside weather. For the day to be unilaterally gorgeous for all parts of Kantis was no small feat.

            Mimia knew the day was so good because she consulted her World Bowl, filled to the midway with Seeing Water. It cast her gaze high above the countries of the Kantis Empire, giving her a Lord’s-Eye view of the ground. No clouds, no rain, no encroaching storms. As far as she could tell, Kantis was in for one of the best days it had ever been gifted since the Punishment.

            She smiled, leaning back in her rocking chair, the World Bowl on the table in front of her. The room was at the top of the local Seer’s Tower, several kilometres inland from Kantis’s easternmost shore. The town of Kalab, famed in old days for its spicy food and hospitable locals, lay in ruins not six hundred metres from where the Tower stood.

            The thought of that made her smile ebb a little, but not much. A good day meant the Five – or, at least, one or two of them – were pleased.

            Loud footsteps from the Tower’s staircase told her Strenna had returned from her hunt. Sure enough, the younger woman reached the top of the stairs with an expertly-slain deer wrapped around her shoulders. She deposited it on the floor in front of Mimia’s table wordlessly, then took a long gulp from the water pitcher on the mantelpiece.

            ‘How many were there?’ Mimia asked, leaning back and closing her eyes for a moment. The breeze from outside gently kissed at her cheeks pleasantly.

            Strenna swallowed loudly, then regained her breath. ‘I counted sixteen, at least. This one was a little slow.’ She prodded the deer gently with the tip of her boot. ‘We should be fine for a few days.’

            Mimia nodded slowly, eyes still closed. ‘Can you remember the last time we had a breeze like this?’

            Strenna put down the pitcher and stepped out onto the balcony. From there, Mimia knew she had a full view of the ocean, the shore and the border jungles that lined it for kilometres. The younger woman stood there a moment before turning back to Mimia and wryly remarking, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’

            ‘Not these days, no.’

            ‘Good. Means I don’t have to try hard.’ More footsteps told Mimia that Strenna had walked over to the table, probably to peer into the World Bowl. She confirmed that by asking, ‘See anything good today?’

            ‘Only the lovely day ahead of us.’

            ‘What did you give up for it?’

            Mimia opened her eyes, regarding Strenna with sardonic expression. ‘If I could tell you, I would.’

            ‘Uh huh.’ Strenna flicked a finger through the water. ‘Seems an odd price.’

            ‘Maybe. But it’s worth paying. I’ve told you that the last fifteen times.’

            ‘If I could, you know I’d throw this thing out,’ Strenna said seriously.

            ‘You’ve told me that the last fifteen times, too.’

            ‘Yeah, well, history has a way of repeating.’ Irritated, the younger woman went down to start skinning the deer. Her knife flashed quickly into her hand before making the first cut.

            ‘Do you really have to do that here?’ Mimia asked lightly.

            Strenna grunted in the affirmative. ‘Might attract bandits if they see me downstairs. I think I saw tracks near one of the jungles.’

            That wasn’t good. Mimia hadn’t presumed they’d be found so quickly. Granted, Strenna might only have seen animal tracks that looked like those of ruffians, but it was better not to take chances. They’d have maybe one more day before they’d have to leave.

            They still hadn’t found what Mimia had come here for, and the nearest Seer’s Tower was six days by horse gallop. Time was running out.

            ‘Are you sure they were bandits?’ she asked.

            ‘Pretty sure,’ Strenna replied, cutting off parts of the deer’s flank.

            ‘How sure is pretty sure?’

            ‘Decent chance. Why?’

            ‘I need to know for certain.’

            ‘Then use the Bowl.’

            That startled Mimia. In the four months since they’d first met and started traveling together, Strenna had never suggested using the Bowl as an option for anything. Fifteen separate conversations had given Mimia fifteen impressions that Strenna disapproved of using it. But now she’d apparently changed her mind, and in the space of a few seconds, no less.

            Strenna seemed to catch that she’d thrown Mimia a little. ‘I’m allowed to change my mind, y’know.’

            ‘Of course,’ Mimia said, ‘but it’s just…surprising.’

            The knife cut more off the deer, peeling skin back from the pink, raw muscle underneath. ‘You’re clearly intent on using it to find what you’re looking for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from you, it’s that you can’t be shaken from a path once you start walking it.’

            Mimia smiled lightly. Good thing she’s learned something, at least. ‘It’s for the greater good.’

            ‘Sure it is.’ Strenna didn’t sound convinced. ‘Just do your thing, if you’re gonna do it.’

            It seemed trivial, now Mimia thought about it, but she couldn’t go outside if there really were ruffians out there. The power of the Bowl was only meant for strong magical purposes, given what it took to use it. But hadn’t she only just now used it to see the weather, itself a trivial thing these days?

            It’s beautiful. But maybe that’s a key.

            To see the tracks from here would not require a large memory. The weather today, and the picturesque view of Kantis, would do.

            Mimia clasped both hands to the rim, filled her mind with the memory of seeing Kantis, and poured it into the Bowl.

            What little of the water that had been flicked out when Strenna drew her finger through it returned. The clear water was replaced by the image of sand, small dunes piled near a beaten dirt path. Small footprints led across them, from out of the image and into the nearby jungle. She leaned in, looking closer, and saw…

            Yes. Definitely bandits; humans, at any rate. Those tracks were too narrow to be any local animal.

            Mimia stood from the table, walked around Strenna’s dressing of the deer and pulled the doors of the balcony shut. ‘We’re staying in today, and tonight. We’ll leave in the morning.’

            Strenna nodded, seemingly unsurprised. ‘Shame. It’s going to be such a nice day today.’

            ‘Oh,’ Mimia frowned, moving back to the table, ‘is it?’

            The water had gone clear again.

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The Five Lords: People Skills

I’ve been writing a story for the past couple of years. It’s the beginning of what I hope will be an epic pentalogy of medieval fantasy and fantasy western (that’ll make more sense once you read the finished story). Notice I said ‘hope’ in that last sentence; there is every possibility this story, once complete, will be a confusing mess of self-indulgent confusingness. The fact that I use words like confusingness should clue you in to the lack of writing caliber present in this story.

The series is called The Five Lords, named after the five androgynous gods who watch over humanity. The first book, Storms, takes place a few months after an event called the Great Punishment; the Five have destroyed most of humanity, at the height of their hubris and selfishness. Small pockets of survivors eke out livings and attempt to find homes, while others subsist on indulging whatever pursuits they wish in this newly unconstrained and blighted world.

One of the latter is Koron of Burning Sigil. He’s a Brother of the Blood, an ancient order of mystic swordfighters with strict ritual practices and beliefs (think if the Jedi were crossed with Shaolin monks, only a little more jerkish and possessed of the super-blood of Claire from Heroes). Koron was part of a group of survivors, but he’s been cast out for various reasons and is now spending his days hunting wild animals. Because, really, why not?


Image taken from Laughing Crow Permaculture: https://laughingcrowpermaculture.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/a-linguistic-permaculture-of-the-oak/

He’d walked for days.

            This was not the worst situation he’d ever found himself in – in terms of the immediate surroundings, anyway. He wasn’t stranded without a horse in the Abranthi Desert, nor was he at the bottom of a mine shaft in Skalleck. He was walking through a forest not far from Ascoth, with a full pack and waterskin on his person, a sharp sword on his back. In terms of where he physically was in the world, this was not as bad as things had been before.

            But right now, he could not think of a worse time in his life. His Brother was dead. The camp had abandoned him. Commander Drake would probably kill him if they ever met again. As far as Koron knew, he was the last surviving Brother of the Blood. The mythologies and lessons of an ancient, powerful order older than most of the rest of the world now rested solely with him.

            Koron did not want that responsibility. Right now, he did not want any responsibility. Right now, he wanted to kill something.

            He’d found an appropriate target last night; a scather lizard, long and quadripedal. Its lengthy tongue had probed around several trees during the day, gathering food for the family Koron knew must be nesting somewhere nearby. Scather lizards usually left their nest for days at a time, returning with enough food stored in their digestive pouch for the young to survive for weeks.

            The lizard, in full daylight, was a dark, burnished yellow with the odd black or brown scale, like a badly roasted cob of corn. It had light violet eyes above a wide mouth that hid a long, sticky purple tongue. The tongue snagged food – insects and small animals, usually – and swallowed it into the digestive pouch, where it would be slowly suffocated until it could be regurgitated for the younger lizards.

            The pouch was on a particular side for the lizards – left for male, right for female – and became engorged the more the lizard swallowed. This one’s pouch was on the left, and looked fairly full. That told Koron the nest was close by. It might have seemed ruthless to be hunting this lizard and its family; scather lizards had no edible meat or use for their scales. They were considered a pest given how frequently they consumed other wildlife, and the caustic secretion on their tongues had been to known to have a deleterious effect on human skin.

            So he stalked the scather lizard, resting a hand gently on the dagger Ordo had allegedly used to kill himself. The sword would have been overkill, and right now Koron relished a challenge.

            The lizard ponderously waddled towards a giant crack in an ancient greatoak a few feet away. It squirmed against the ill-made opening, squeezing its bulk through and slipping its tail in quietly afterwards. Koron bent his head towards the tree trunk, hearing tiny little cries and snaps alongside the repulsive regurgitation sound the parent lizard made as it gave its children its hard-hunted food. The little cries became muted as the babies started eating.

            To kill this scather lizard and its family may have been somewhat strange, possibly even cruel. He doubted Ordo would have approved. But then, like Drake had said, things weren’t up to Ordo where Koron was concerned anymore. He could hunt and kill a bunch of lizards if he wanted. Who could stop him now?

            He slowly unsheathed the dagger and prepared to stalk towards the trunk. The lizards kept eating, and it was only through his Blood-enhanced hearing that Koron heard the arrow whistle towards him.

            He threw himself backwards and onto the floor of the forest, the arrow just narrowly missing his nose and striking the ground a short distance to his left. In response, he replaced Ordo’s dagger and retrieved a throwing knife; the blade travelled end-over-end in the direction the arrow had shot from, towards a cluster of ferns. There was a dull thud, followed by something heavy hitting the underbrush.

            Koron’s hand was already firmly grasping the hilt of his sword, swinging it over from the sheath at his back. He held it two-handed and charged into the underbrush, swordtip aimed ahead of him. No colour besides the dark and muted autumnal leaves greeted his eyes, and thus no confirmation of a kill from his throwing knife. He stepped into the ferns where his knife had flown, heart pumping, eyes searching frantically.

            Come on, you whoreson. Shoot a man while he’s

            There. He saw it; a body lying face-first, its legs splayed. It had obviously been caught mid-run. The dull glint of sunlight reflecting off metal in the back of the body told him where his throwing knife had gone.

            Koron smirked, a little disappointed. That had been too easy. He’d’ve preferred a chase, maybe even a duel. Something to liven up his current state of mind.

            His sword went back into its sheath while he stepped up to examine the body. With a quick motion he retrieved the throwing knife, embedded almost as hard into the body’s back as if he’d stabbed the person close-up. The corpse wore dull brown clothes, nothing terribly interesting. Probably an idiot bandit who thought I’d be an easy mark.

            He started to shift the body over onto its back, but stopped halfway. The figure had no face, but rather a stitched calico flat that had been rounded and stuff with something firm. A dummy.

            He rose from his crouch, hand rising to his sword again. Before he could brush the metal, there was a click behind him. It sounded an awful lot like a crossbow.

            ‘I really wouldn’t,’ a woman’s voice warned him from behind.

            Koron closed his eyes slowly, gritting his teeth. Taken in by an elementary trick. Idiot. ‘Crossbows don’t fire arrows,’ he observed.

            ‘No, they don’t,’ the assailant agreed. ‘This one does, though.’

            ‘Horseshit,’ Koron told her. ‘You’ve got friends nearby.’

            ‘A foul mouth on this one!’ the woman called out. ‘We’d best keep our manners about!’

            Five figures dropped from the trees, each dressed in clothing similar to the dummy. Koron made out three women and two men; the women all held crossbows, one of the men carried a yew longbow, and the last man had both hands on the hilt of a sheathed broadsword at his waist. Everything looked unremarkable about them except for the last man’s sword, which made Koron’s eyes widen slightly.

            The pommel bore a very distinctive purple gemstone, reflecting the light as brilliantly as a flaming torch in a darkened cave. The sheen of it was known as heartlight, named not for the organ but for the feeling it instilled in people who looked at it. Those of righteous disposition were bolstered by its luminescence, whilst those of a fearful or evil nature had their inherent cowardice amplified.

            Heartlight gems were as rare as they were invaluable, and usually only found in the pommels of swords belonging to king, queens and their retinue. Koron’s enhanced sight allowed him to see the edge of a bird’s wing sigil wrapped around the hilt, twining the edge of its feathers into the metal of the pommel.

            This man was, or had been, a guardsman of the King in Ravensweep. Given the weathered sword, he judged the man to have been fairly high within the guardsmen hierarchy. Maybe even a Guard Captain himself.

            Should that garner respect, or scorn? It wasn’t as if non-Blood lessers were entirely worthy of his respect. The Blood were above and beyond simple mortality. Even with a Heartlight gem – which would not affect Koron in the slightest – this man was probably nothing special now. It wasn’t as if he had a King to guard anymore.

            The others all watched intently as the lead guardsman, hands still resting at his hilt, strode forward confidently to look Koron up and down. The man was tall, lean and weathered like his sword. A salt-and-pepper beard framed a strong chin beneath faded charcoal hair. His knuckles, in prominent view on the sword hilt, were scarred from countless fistfights. He smirked, but not in a condescending fashion, his sky blue eyes glittering. ‘What’s a sworn Brother doing this far from the Temple?’

            The armour and sigil on Koron’s own sword probably gave it away. He suppressed the urge to bite off a retort. ‘Hunting.’

            ‘You mean that thing?’ The guardsman pointed in the direction of the greatoak trunk containing the scather lizard. ‘Not going to get much meat from him.’

            ‘I didn’t say I was hunting for food.’

            ‘True,’ the lead guardsman admitted, stroking his beard thoughtfully. ‘Does the Brother have a name, or should we make one up for him?’

            ‘My name,’ Koron shot back, quicker than he’d intended, ‘is go fuck yourself.’

            The others laughed quietly, right before the woman holding him hostage slapped him across the back of the head. It stung in the cool afternoon breeze. Koron ground his teeth and closed his eyes, opening them once the stinging subsided. She had one hell of a slap in her.

            ‘Well, Go Fuck Yourself,’ the lead guardsman said amusedly, ‘my name is Steth. My companions are Ansel, Kem, Jessa and Karryll. The one with the bow at your back is Tal.’

            For emphasis, Tal pressed the end of the crossbow bolt hard into Koron’s back. ‘Hello.’

            What a merry band of jolly robbers. ‘Wonderful. I’m sure I’ll forget those names in due course.’

            Tal slapped him again, harder this time. He felt it might leave a lump once it subsided. The others laughed again, Steth joining them this time.

            I swear, Koron promised himself, they’ll all lie bloodied at my feet when they let me go.

            ‘You’re not a very likeable young man, are you?’ Steth observed. ‘Far too quick to condemn and threaten. I’d be more accommodating to your captors, were I you.’

            Koron glared at him. ‘Good thing you’re not me, then.’

            ‘Also true. For one thing, I’m much prettier. I would like to get to know you, though.’

            ‘What for?’

            Steth shrugged, seeming far too nonchalant. ‘It’s not every day that one of the Blood strays across our path. Even rarer that we find one without a sibling present. I thought your kind hunted in pairs?’

            So they think as lowly of me as I do of them. Excellent. At least there’s that common ground. ‘Who says I came alone?’

            ‘We’ve been watching you for the past half-day.’ The other man with them – Ansel, was it? – piped up. ‘There’s no-one but us and you for kilometres around. We move fast in the trees.’

            ‘So you’re elf-born, as well as stupid?’ Koron spat.

            Ansel raised an eyebrow. ‘Stupid?’

            ‘You’ve captured a Brother of the Blood. The Five don’t look kindly on that sort of thing.’

            ‘Last I checked,’ Steth cut in, ‘the Five Lords in general weren’t really to do with your Brothers and Sisters, were they? That was more a Lord of Blood thing, specifically. Hence the name, I guess.’

            This man bore himself with near-regal air; there was no doubt in Koron’s mind that he was of high birth, almost certainly an upper-ranked guardsman from Ravensweep. He commanded immediate respect from the others, and they all interacted convivially whilst following his orders. But he was too casual, speaking in a way that one might reserve for a conversation between men at a bar. He was observing things about Koron like Morgan might, without the slightly crazed undertones. Had Steth been a full Guard Captain, he should have beaten Koron bloody at the first quip and left him broken in their wake. Ravensweep Guards had a reputation as being swift and brutal when necessary, especially if their honour was impugned.

            Not this man. He simply nodded, looking away more thoughtfully as he pondered his observation about the Five. He happened to be right – Koron’s brethren and the Lord were not same-named by coincidence – but Koron wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that.

            ‘You think we should just kill him?’ Tal asked calmly, prodding him again with the crossbow. ‘I don’t think he’ll be saying much with fists or friendship from us.’

            ‘True,’ Ansel agreed. ‘Might as well kill him and be on our way.’

            Koron laughed bitterly. ‘So much for high and noble guardsmen.’

            Steth blinked. ‘Excuse me?’

            ‘You’d kill a man you find in a forest,’ Koron replied, ‘and call yourselves noble. I wonder what your King might think, were he still alive.’

            There was a long, protracted moment of silence from all six of them. Koron grinned, having finally hit a nerve. Quite pleased with himself that he’d managed-

            ‘Who said we’re here from the King?’ Steth asked.

            Koron’s grin vanished. ‘What?’

            ‘Who said,’ Steth repeated, ‘that we’re here because of any King?’

            ‘Or Queen, for that matter,’ Tal added.

            Steth nodded. ‘Or Queen. Tell me, who said that at any point?’

            It was a rare moment where Koron was temporarily lost for words. He tried to recover quickly, lest they think this an unexpected weakness. ‘Your sword. That Heartlight gem could only be wielded by one of intense emotional affect. It’s given to Guard Captains in Ravensweep.’

            Steth examined the purple gemstone thoughtfully, as if viewing it for the first time. ‘Yes. That is true, isn’t it?’ He pulled the sword from its sheathe and examined the light reflecting off the glinting blade. ‘Usually those we come across are deferential when they see this. They think, “Oh, thank the Five! Ravensweep is here to save us!” They don’t usually swear and threaten to kill us. It makes the whole thing much easier.’

            A sinking feeling crept into Koron’s gut. ‘What whole thing?’

            Now it was Steth’s turn to grin, and it was a wholly unsettling expression to be seen on a face that, only a moment, had been jovial and friendly. ‘We’re building something.’

            ‘Something grand,’ Ansel added.

            One of the other women – Kem, maybe – chimed in with, ‘Something that has never been done before.’

            ‘And we need people to do it,’ Tal said from behind Koron’s ear.

            ‘Lots of people,’ one of the other women, Jessa, supplied.

            ‘Quite a lot of people, actually,’ Steth clarified. His sword went back into the sheath. ‘I took this from my employer after the Great Punishment, because she told me it would make things easier. Worth its weight in gold, it is.’ He tapped the hilt appreciatively. ‘But clearly it won’t work on you. Must be that wretched Blood in your veins.’

            Koron lips curled back in a snarl. ‘If you’d like, I could show you what it can really do.’

            ‘A tempting, if violent, offer, but I don’t think so,’ Steth refused. ‘I think I’d rather just take you with us to the building site. You’ll understand soon enough. You’ll probably even thank us, in fact.’

            Tal hauled Koron up and held him fast, the crossbow still nuzzling his back. She took her other hand and deftly unclasped the belt holding his sword to his back, before grabbing it by the sheath and tossing it to Karryll. ‘Don’t touch the hilt,’ Tal warned as Karryll caught it. Then, to Ansel she said, ‘Would you mind?’

            The big man strode forward, long locks of lanky, dirty blonde hair waving in motion. He reached out a massive hand cautiously, retrieving Ordo’s ritual knife from Koron’s waist. As Ansel slipped it into his own belt, Koron’s anger levels tripled. They’d kidnapped him for an insidious construction project, and now they’d taken his Brother’s knife away.

            Yes. They will all die. Somehow, some way, I will kill them all.

            ‘Any other weapons on your person?’ Steth asked casually.

            Other than my trained, bare fists and years of knife-honed combat reflexes, you mean? Koron smirked wryly. ‘Go to hell.’

            Steth matched his expression, then walked towards him. ‘Silly man. I’ve been there already.’

            He rammed his fist into Koron’s head, leaving the Brother to take residence within the utter blackness.

New Blood

 

The corridor outside, leading to Bill’s office, was almost empty. The gunmetal walls resembled a marriage of a hospital and a prison, being foreboding but surgically clean and tidy. Apparently it was intentionally coloured to make both prisoners and failed agents uneasy, like being called to the principal’s office at school. The rumour mill said Bill had based the colour scheme off an old internment camp called Auschwitz, and even had his own “Little Red House” for executing incompetents and captives.
                The entire underground carried a very authoritarian feel, like the sort of bunker you’d expect the President to hide in when the nukes start flying. In truth it had once been an extensive fallout shelter, created a century ago during the Korean March, repurposed now as the headquarters of the Obsidian Guild.
                I hated it.
                Too many nights spent in bomb shelters when I was young gave me an impassioned distaste for living underground, feeling like a lab rat stuck in a lockbox. I’d been close to the shelter in Johannesburg when its central module caved in from enemy ordnance, thanking whatever God lived upstairs that I wasn’t currently crushed under tonnes of burnt metal and fractured concrete. Being underground wasn’t always a sure thing when it came to war, especially in this day and age.
                On the way to Bill’s I came across one of the Whites, a young lad named Squire, stepping out of the Cold Lab. He’d just been transferred from the Miami Arm with rave reviews from its coordinator. He looked like one of the Whites you knew wouldn’t be around for long, with that kind of enthusiasm.
                “Andrew!” he called jovially, striding over. “How’s it going?”
                It baffled me sometimes who the Guild saw fit to hire. Someone this cheerful belonged either in a children’s ward or as a punching bag for manic depressives. “Not bad, Squire. Just on my way to Bill.”
                He didn’t seem to get the hint. “Yeah? I’ll come along too, got to talk to him about this Kyoto op.”
                “You anticipating a problem?” I asked, trying to mask my irritation at his presence.
                “God no! Just need to finalise some specifics, wanna make a good first impression, you know?”
                Unless his personality had undergone a drastic shift recently, I doubted there was any way Bill could be impressed unless the sprog could give him a naked Yolanda Russo on a platter. “I do.”
                We were silent until just before we got to the office, when Squire held up a hand as he approached. “I think he’s on a call.”
                I had seen the faint yellow hologram glow coming from under his door before we’d arrived, so I already knew he was busy. I decided to indulge the White anyway. “Alright. He’ll only be a minute, he knows we’re coming.”
                Before Squire could reply I quickly slid out my gun, twisting it around my finger to rest in my palm in one fluid motion. The White was taken aback a bit, but seemed to relax a little when I simply ejected the clip to check on the ammo count. I kept it out, hoping it’d stop any more questions.
                Most Whites won’t say a word when a gun’s handy, especially the optimistic ones like Squire. Perhaps they think we’ll put a bullet in them. Fucking kids.
                The door opened after a minute and Bill swung his head around to look at us. He caught sight of my hands. “You planning on shooting this guy? Already?” He jerked his head at Squire.
                I shrugged. “Not yet. Maybe later.”
              I couldn’t see Squire’s face but I could tell he was at least a bit worried; he let out a weak chuckle, and I saw his body fidget a little in my peripheral. I holstered the gun and followed Bill inside, with the White on my heels. Maybe I would kill him later, when he inevitably screwed up Kyoto.
                Bill was a tall, lean man with a thinning crop of silver-grey hair and a long, slightly ovoid head. He’d been installed as the Arm Administrator for the past thirteen years, originally from the New York Arm with a passion for our business. He’d come up with the idea to revamp the front door and make our front company a bit more believable – apparently he got the idea from a very old television program that was popular in the Second Age.
                He took absolutely no shit from anybody.
                Bill sat behind his desk in a large and obviously comfortable magenta armchair at the opposite end from the door, next to a tall and oddly-spacious black wardrobe, and picked up a half-filled tumbler of what I could only assume was some kind of scotch. He eyed Squire cautiously, as if expecting bad news. “What is it, White?”
                All trace of joviality and enthusiasm evaporated instantly when Squire spoke. You could tell he was nervous. “All ahead for the Kyoto drop, sir. Just double-checking the specifics.”
                Bill looked annoyed. “You go in, eliminate the target, and leave no evidence. What’s there to double-check?”
                The White began shifting his weight from foot to foot like a metronome. “Well, sir, it’s just the implant –”
                “You got the surgery from the Blacksmith, didn’t you?” Bill cut him off.
                “Y-yes, sir,” Squire stammered, “but it hasn’t been…uh, field-tested yet. The Blacksmith was supposed to –”
                “Send me a report?” Bill finished for him. He picked up a blue folder lying on the desk and waved it. “Yeah, I got that. He said it was up to you to field-test the implant, and that was three days ago.”
                Squire looked dumbfounded. “Sir, y-you want me to kill an innocent civilian just to, to test an implant?”
                I could see the thunder clouds gathering inside Bill now. “Squire, you’re an agent of this Guild, aren’t you?”
                “Yes, sir.”
                “And you’re aware that all Arms of the Guild are required to carry out operations that involve necessary executions?”
                “Yes, sir, but this is –”
                “And that the necessary execution in Kyoto cannot be adequately accomplished without this implant being fully functional?”
                He swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
                “Good.” Bill suddenly threw his tumbler, still half-filled, at the terrified White.
             Instinctively my hand went to my gun, in case Squire decided to do anything stupid to defend himself, but as the glass smashed straight into Squire’s forehead and made him stagger backwards I saw Bill raise his opposite hand at me. I kept tense, in case the situation got out of hand, but if Bill reckoned he could handle it…
                The tumbler had shattered all over Squire’s face, and shards of expensive glass were lodged in the surface layer of his skin. The White was suddenly thrown off for a few seconds, small rivulets of blood making their way down his cheeks, unsure whether to cow in acceptance of his punishment or retaliate on his assailant. Bill strode towards him, still very visibly pissed off.
                “If this Arm is going to succeed, all my agents need to be ready.” He rolled up his left sleeve, and held his forearm out to Squire. “Use the implant on me. Now.”
                Squire blinked away the pain for a moment and shook his head. “I can’t do that, sir!”
              I could see where Bill was going with this now; I dropped my hand and hung loose, almost amused.
                Bill grabbed Squire’s right arm forcefully and pressed the White’s palm against the exposed forearm. “Now, dammit! Or you don’t have any future outside this office!”
                I always hated the sound toxic implants made when they injected their payload; it was the sickening noise of hypodermic needle piercing thick flesh that put you in mind of someone very loudly fondling raw meat in their hands. It wasn’t the piercing of the needle itself that made the noise, rather the technophage itself moving from internal storage canister to deployment device. It only lasted a second or two, but it still made me queasy to hear it.
                Squire’s implant must’ve put enough Neural Lockdown technophage in Bill’s bloodstream to give a rhino brain death. The Admin fell, withdrawing his forearm from the needle and collapsing to the ground. Blood began to dribble out of his ears, and his eyes stared glassily at the ceiling.
                The White freaked out.
                “Oh my God!” he screamed, as if someone else had been driving his body the whole time. He withdrew the needle and fell to his knees. He turned to me, his face contorted with anguish. You’d never have guessed he’d been chipper five minutes ago. “What have I done?”
                “What I asked you to do.”
                I swear Squire went as pale as his rank colour; he turned his head towards the voice that had come from inside the black wardrobe near Bill’s desk. The doors swung open and a clean, undamaged Bill strode out, clad in exactly the same clothes as the corpse lying bloodied and brain-dead on the floor.
                He looked at the body plainly, as if it were all perfectly normal. “I had that one for nearly five years. Probably about time for a reboot.”
                I didn’t need my intuition as an agent to tell me that Squire had absolutely no fucking idea what the hell had just happened. This was always my favourite part about meeting new Whites; seeing them find out the one big thing they don’t tell you in the job interview.
                “See that?” Bill pointed at the wardrobe. “You could call it a clone closet, I guess. It’s where my physical avatars grow, ready for deployment.”
                The White’s hands were shaking badly now. “Deployment?”
               Bill nodded, walking over to his desk and reaching for the scotch bottle. “I can’t operate efficiently in my natural state, so I grow clone bodies to walk around in. I find that being a head on a computer screen leaves new agents feeling unsettled.”
                Not that it stopped him using it unsettle the experienced ones, too.
                Recognition finally began to sink into the sprog. “You’re…an AI?”
                “Yep.” Bill filled up a fresh tumbler all the way to the brim. “Seventh generation, programmed for tactical application. Easy install into new bodies, Administrator of the San Francisco Arm for the past thirteen years. Let me tell you, travel through this Arm’s conduits is a breeze compared to the clogged shit they’ve got over in New York.”
                I’d been to the NY Arm, and whilst not experiencing the conduits myself if they were anything like the rest of the place – half-functional and covered with electronic detritus – then it must’ve been like trying to move through a choked artery. I was a little surprised the brass hadn’t shut it down; they’d never really recovered from the Bolivian rebel attack.
                “So,” Bill continued, starting to gently sip at the liquid, “can you handle this job or not, White? Because if not, tell me now so I can start finding your replacement.”
                Squire still seemed pants-shittingly terrified, but he regained a small measure of composure. He straightened up as best he could after another fleeting glance at the corpse. “Yes, sir. I can handle it.”
                “Good.” He gestured to the door with the tumbler. Squire didn’t need to be told twice.
                After he’d left I let out a quiet laugh. “I love it when they go pale like that.”

Announcing the Technophage™!

Feeling a bit down coz the old neurons aren’t firing like they used to?
 
Sick of forgetting birthdays, anniversaries and funeral times?
 
Want something to make the old noodle work just that little bit better?
 
 
All your problems are now solved thanks to:
 
TECHNOPHAGE™
FORGETFULNESS IS A THING OF THE PAST!
 
Developed by scientists from the best BioMed labs in San Francisco, Beijing and Melbourne, the Technophage is a fully programmable viral solution to all your mental health problems! The virus is injected directly into your bloodstream, making its way straight to your crooked cranium. It’s adaptable to any neural pathway or psychological pattern, and can seamlessly fill any gaps your brain might have!
 
WANT TO LEARN ANY LANGUAGE OR INSTRUMENT INSTANTLY? TECHNOPHAGE.
 
INTERESTED IN DIGESTING ALL OF FOUCAULT’S SOCIAL THEORIES IN ONE SITTING? TECHNOPHAGE.
 
WANT AN EIDETIC MEMORY RECALL FOR MENTAL PLAY-BY-PLAY OF ALL THE MOST GLORIOUS SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS YOU’VE EVER HAD? TECHNOPHAGE.
 
Laboratory-tested, FDA-approved, clinically trialed for over a decade.
 
YOUR CEREBELLUM WILL THANK YOU!
 
Now available at all medical facilities worldwide!
 
WARNING: Technophage developers not responsible if virus causes any of the following; insanity, paranoia, psychosis, bi-polar disorder, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, or any other form of mental instability. Virus has been clinically trialed but patients who use it do so at their own risk. Not all mental chemistries have been accounted for.

A Ballad of Bones

It’s only a shadow, right?



The bearer could never become the borne without first passing


Through those gates that only lie within


The eye of the needle.






But when is it proper?


For should I turn against the thrice-wounded center


And lounge with Lucifer


In damnation’s living room.






For how is there hope?


The apex is only as high as the reach of the lowest man


But within it is the chance


For one’s redemption.






Stay tuned for next week’s episode.


 
Submitted as part of my mid-semester Writing Poetry assignment. What’d you guys think?

Espress-To-Go: A Fluke Street Excerpt

It had been the busiest day Miranda could remember.

There was nothing particularly memorable about it; no parades, no Olympic torch relays, no NASCAR derbies going on in the next town over. Yet somehow they’d made a bucketload of cash from several busloads of patrons, and her boss could only have been happier if Miranda had told her she was a lesbian.

Which she wasn’t, of course. That could only hurt her chances with Dirk if he ever found out.

She stood at the main register, counting out what seemed like a thousand twenty dollar bills. The two secondaries were being unloaded and banked by her co-workers, who were as elated and worn out by today’s business as she was.

“Was it the Napuccino that did it?” Jervis asked. “A recent study pointed out that most businessmen these days are sleep-deprived, and we got predominantly males, so maybe they were in need of a sleep aid?”

Berry shook her head. “Nah, it’s totally the Long John Black. Rum coffee’s always a hit when the weather gets a little cooler.”

Jervis seemed unconvinced. “Are you insinuating that our customers only want our coffee coz it’s cold and they need booze to keep warm? Coz that’d mean most of our clientele are closet alcoholics, and I’m pretty sure the health department would frown on us promoting alcoholism so flippantly. Besides, vodka’s the one that warms you up, not rum.”

“Have you ever had rum?” Berry asked, sounding affronted. “One time, over in Silk Valley, I got stuck with my boyfriend Terrence coz of a landslide near Providence-On-Black. All we had was a bottle of Australian Bundaberg that he’d brought back from Melbourne.” She winked knowingly. “We kept ourselves warm after that.”

“Because you screwed him in a prop tent?” Jervis asked scathingly. “The rum made you drunk enough to fuck, it didn’t make you warm by itself. Vodka is the one to do that. Why do you think the Russians have adopted it as their national mascot?”

Berry’s voice took on a very pissed-off quality, one that Miranda recognised as the ‘you’ve just accurately pointed out that I’m an idiot, but I’m still going to argue with you anyway’ tone. “If Russia had a mascot, it’d be that stuffed Lenin corpse they’ve got in Red Square. Wasn’t he, like, their version of Santa or something?”

Before Jervis could shoot back with a venomous retort Miranda stepped in. “Have you ever noticed that all our coffee names are just puns on coffee that most people probably find horribly cheesy?”

The two bickering co-workers stopped dead in their tracks to look at Miranda as if she was crazy. Berry looked murderous. “You mean the names that won us national coffee awards, like the Peppermint Peach Potbrew and the Coco Loco Mochachino? Those cheesy names?”

“But they’re so obvious!” Miranda protested. “I mean, Espress-To-Go is kinda cute, but why are we ploughing on with names like the Jumbalino Frappucino or the Cunning Lemon Linguist? I mean, are we meant to be a serious coffee shop or a comedy store?”

“A little of both, I’d think,” Berry argued. “If you need proof that people love stupid puns, just check this out.” She held up her hand, clutching a wad of greenback as proof.

Jervis took on a mocking tone. “You know what it is?” he said, his tone scandalous. “Miranda’s worked here too long. The puns are bleeding into her Harvard English-Speaking Skills, or whatever it is she studied –”

“Critical Discourse and Language Specialist,” she interrupted, cutting Jervis off from further mangling the name of her degree.

“Whatever it was,” Jervis continued, “it’s become infected by years of constant worldwide punomenons that have pervaded her precious, pretty little head. So now she can’t take one more customer asking her for a Ginseng Rinsing. She won’t be able to brew one more Caramacchiato with the knowledge that she’s directly supporting the horrid, despicable puns she’s come to loathe, hate, despise and detest with every fibre of her being.”

He raised a dramatic hand into the air, his voice going quite Shakespearian. “Damn the money! Damn the regular work! Damn the neverending supply of free coffee whenever you ask for it! Miranda Dillinger, the puns have invaded your life for too long! Will you finally free yourself from this torture, and abandon the independent coffee shop you helped build from the ground up? Will you cast off the shackles of the business you aided in toppling the local branches of Sundeers and Estefan Corduroys?” His hand dropped down, pointing an accusatory finger at her. “Will you yield your job and leave us forever?!”

Inside, Miranda was laughing her ass off.

Outside, she merely nodded grimly, her expression downcast and forlorn. “Yes, Jervis Baker, you’re right. I am so dissatisfied with my life of puns, I’m just heading off to Spectre Point to commit sepuku and cast my lifeless body into the shadowy abyssal maw below. I cannot live with the knowledge I’ve fostered such puntastic behaviour.”

Jervis nodded, his expression equally defeatist. “I know, sweetie. It’s a hard admission, but we all come to it at sometime.”

He held Miranda’s gaze for a moment, as they both looked at each other in grim assurance of Miranda’s sealed fate. The air became like dampened electricity, with the two coffee workers watching like mournful vultures circling the abyss below. Miranda heard a slow, funeral-like dirge playing slowly in her head, minor key in full force and piano meshing beautifully with deep horns.

Jervis was speaking the truth.

“But you can’t die! You’re my friend, and I’d be sad!”

Miranda and Jervis turned their heads slowly to regard Berry, her expression horrified and her hands lowering from her mouth towards her chin in shock. The young girl’s pale grey eyes were wider than Miranda had ever seen them.

There was a pause, then the laughter that Miranda had felt when Jervis accosted her exploded outwards in a wave of hilarious reaction. Jervis joined in, laughing jovially and squinting his eyes shut as they burst out into jolly sounds. Miranda haphazardly put down the bills she’d been counting and walked over to Jervis, giving him a hug and still laughing herself sick.

It took Berry a few seconds to work out that she’d been duped, at which point she fixed Miranda with an icy, decidedly un-joking glare. “That wasn’t funny.”

“Are you kidding?” Jervis shouted through laughs. “That was the best thing I’ve heard all day!”

A shrill cry rang out from the back of the shop, where Mildred was running up EFTPOS receipts. “What’s going on out there?”

Miranda and Jervis turned and answered in unison. “Nothing, boss!”