[Fiction] Trouble at the docks

haunted chapel

Image credit novtilus (DeviantArt)

This story is a small fiction following the events of my group’s first session of Blades in the DarkJohn Harper’s excellent haunted industrial roleplaying game. 

Watch Sergeant Renata Laroze, ranking officer in the Duskvol City Council’s Lawful Cohort (“Bluecoats” to the rabble, so-called for their distinctive navy blue jackets), rubbed her tired eyes and tried again. This night was proving far more taxing than her Myst-addled brain could handle. She kept getting flashes of some ghost’s desperate longing accompanied by a shooting pain through her sinuses. Blasted low-grade stuff from a street hawker, nowhere near as good as Riven’s.

“So let’s go over this again,” she said, surveying the bloody, quivering scoundrel sprawled on the cobblestones before her. “What exactly were you up to tonight then, cully?” The pale man closed his eyes and groaned, pressing a scrap of torn cloth to the ghastly wound near his shoulder. Run through by his own blade, she recalled. “Well?”

“I – I didn’t see anything. Please,” he rasped, painfully. “I need a physicker. Let me go, I swear, I didn’t…” His mumbled pleas broke off into a scream as Renata leaned forward and gripped his injured shoulder firmly, curling her fingers into a malicious claw. Around her on the dock-front, the other Bluecoats didn’t so much as look up from where they were combing through debris or castigating witnesses. Only the small, rotund Inspector with their strange glinting eyepiece glanced over knowingly. Renata shivered a little, and it wasn’t from the Myst. Something about this Inspector creeped her right the kelp out.

“Look, numbskull. It’s one in the morning, we’ve scraped about six of your friends off the boardwalk and you have a hole in you bigger than Lord Strangford’s Leviathan Six, Immortal Emperor protect him. So how about we cut the crap and you tell me just what you saw, hmm?”

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[Fiction] Dark coffee gods

dark coffee god

Image property of Trudi Castle (www.trudiart.com). She’s great! Check out her art and support her!

This world teems with tiny gods.

A paper tiger bares its teeth, guarding a crack in a library wall in Delhi. Lights flicker strangely beneath the surface in Scarborough, Rhode Island, as reverent freshwater cod trace restless runes of devotion through never-frozen water. Beatific grins adorn the faces of seventeen matryoshka dolls in a Ukrainian museum, each wooden form home to the fragment of an inconsequential deity.

They say that if you close your eyes and open yourself to the universe, divinity is never far away. I once knew a man who through the use of certain arcane powders and stutter-step-stutter breathing exercises could attune his mind and commune with whatever divinity came knocking. But there’s the problem – when the knock comes on your door, you don’t know if it’s the pizza you ordered or a couple of proselytizers hawking boxed sets of bibles. Me? I prefer to rely on less uncertain methods of communion. And so the cave.

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[Fiction/short story] Rampant speculations: a Syntax Sam adventure

Syntax Sam final

Created by the incredible Katie (@binch_queen)

Syntax Sam stared down at the oily pool of evaporating context on the floor, frowning. They nudged it experimentally with the tip of their left boot, recoiling when it flowed up and around their red combats in a thin sheen. Sam panicked, shaking their leg wildly in an attempt to dislodge the clinging rainbow goop, but it quickly wafted away into irrelevance, followed soon after by the remains of the puddle on the floor.

This was normal: small quantities of context never lasted long in isolation, at least not without some solid fact to anchor to. But Sam’s attention had already drifted. They could swear they’d heard a noise just now too, something they’d never heard before in the Library… there it was again! It sounded like it was coming from just a couple shelves away.

Granted, noise itself was nothing unusual in the Liminal Library. If you were to tiptoe through the polished marble galleries and curving, beshelved corridors of the Bon Mot Monarch’s palatial repository, you would hear a constant gentle susurrus. This ever-present rustle was the heartbeat of the Library: the restless sound of books sliding to fill gaps and exchange positions in an endless cycle of literary self-evaluation.

But the noise in question was not made by a book. It sounded, Sam thought, like the roar of a lion which had been shrunk down to minuscule proportions. Which was odd, because while nearly anything could happen in the Kingdom of Words (and often did), it rarely happened here in the Liminal Library, at the well-guarded center of the Bon Mot Monarch’s seat of power. Sam abandoned their quest for From Die Jesu to Sharkbait Ooh Ha Ha: a Guide to Practical Chanting and set off in search of the tiny lion.
As they emerged into one of the main spokes radiating off of the central hub of the library, they nearly collided with a Well-Phrased Knight going the other way. Sam recognized her as Helene, one of the handful of Knights who regularly patrolled these halls.

While not decked out in armor as she might be on outside duty, Helene was nonetheless clad in the smart fitted tunic and leggings of a palace guard, complete with toughened paper bracers on her forearms and an ink-woven blade at her belt. Her sharp martial outfit made Sam’s own pleated red skirt and pale blue crop top seem pretty shabby and casual in comparison. At least Sam’s combat boots lent them a semblance of professionalism.

Helene snapped a quick salute, which Sam returned with a nod of their head.

“Syntax Sam! I didn’t know you were prowling around in here,” Helene said. She seemed on edge, distracted.

“I was looking for a book, actually, but I thought I heard something a couple of shelves over. Like a little lion roaring,” replied Sam.

“A lion, huh?” said Helene. She kept shooting glances over Sam’s shoulder, towards the heart of the library. Sam picked up on her mood.

“What’s up, Helene? Something the matter?”

“Not exactly… only, I’ve seen an unusual number of Fictlings floating around the shelves today, and I’m wondering if something funny is going on with the fact supply.” Helene gestured to the narrow channel cut into the floor which supplied fact and context to the library’s shelves in a steady stream. “I was just heading in to check it out, make sure everything’s fine.”

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[Fiction] Leap

Weight of Mountains Sally Ann Colwell

Watercolor “The Weight of Mountains” by Sally Ann Conwell

The final thrust is the one which leaves you reeling.

It’s a long run-up to the line: eyes set, shoulders squared, back straight but not so straight you spoil the spring that coils electrically around your spine. Breathe in and you can feel it suck the tension from your limbs and hoard that fire for itself, ratcheting in not tighter but stronger until its pastel slinky surface hardens into taut sprung steel. Breathe out and you can hear the hammer of your heart squeeze blood along its causeways until it throbs with the anticipation. Your spine is the pillar of courage and movement.

I took ballet when I was younger – maybe four, or five – dressed in the plain black ballet shoes and featureless white top of a young man struggling to follow along in an activity he barely understood. Very little of my time spent then in dance remains to me; but I recall leaning sweatily over a wooden bar beside the wall and kicking my leg enthusiastically back up into the air.

Presumably, this exercise was intended to convert my wimpy little calves into the rippling muscled flesh-mounds shared by dancers, Tour de France cyclists, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in that movie where he plays an obscenely oiled Conan. Perhaps the transformation to smooth-chested barbarian might have even worked if I’d stuck around, but I was out of there long before the kicks and pliés could work their magic, and I wouldn’t touch dance again for decades.

In my time-muddied mind’s eye, those ballet classroom walls were always lined with faceless rows of parents judging silently, arbiters of extra-curricular achievement. This part I know is fiction because my own parents were far too supportive to ever so much as frown at an aborted saute or fumbled step-change to the fifth position. Any parent who could be proud of a thirteenth-place Sunset Lanes bowling trophy wouldn’t scoff at mere balletic missteps.

But there’s another part to that imagined recollection, one I hope desperately is true. In my memory, the young Sam dances like the child in the picture, heedless of the world outside but immersed in its color. I can see him spring and leap around – not graceful by any means, god no, stumbling like an idiot – but starting to come to grips with the joy to be had in running and dancing when everyone and no one is watching. In my more unreasonably optimistic imaginings, he’s already questioning the roles he’s fed and daring to dream of being hoisted aloft in silken slippers before the crowd.

His spine is straight: that crucial spring coiled tightly, arms thrust to the side for balance, dreams and fears and desperate motion stored as elastic potential. He stands tall beneath a rapidly descending future and the crushing weight of mountains.

Over two decades later, I have misplaced his secret of standing tall alone. My shoulders are hunched and rounded; often I am blind to the vivid colors that surround me, distracted by details. When I dance now, the cold and inflexible brass pole running from ceiling to floor becomes my spine. I caress it with my thighs, rub my body along its length and cling to it for the support my own worn-out and rusty bones cannot provide. I twist and gyrate to crude pop rhythms, dragging my limp body across the floor. I scowl at my stiff hips.

Still, there are moments where my spine remembers. The first ragged breath at the end of a routine sends a lick of fire shivering through its disused coils. There are days where I walk alone in public and the burning glares of others sink beneath my skin and feed the furnace smoldering deep within.

It’s been a long and lifeless hibernation, but when I slap my palm onto the pole and lean back, I am sure that I will learn to support myself once more. The effortless courage of my youth left an impression that learning to ride a bike never did, and my spine retains it. Slowly, beneath the weight of mountains, I will stand tall once more.

[Rainy day flashfic] Small and technical horror


Image remodelled by sinbawii on Deviantart

This story is based upon a dream described to me on Twitter. And Sam – one of the small tiles is indeed named Smegmantha, as discussed.

Somehow, the worst part is the clicking. Tiny white tiles clack in mindless modularity and they are everywhere. I run through corridors that only resolve themselves when I draw near, clattering into existence as tiles rush to fill structural voids. It’s as if they ran out of materials constructing this place and left self-assembling tiles to make up the lack. An architect’s plans ebb and flow in my wake.

There are others trapped in this place, just as I am. Sometimes I can see a surprising distance ahead when the architecture allows, a vast white empty space stretching on without end. On these occasions I will sit or catch my breath against a wall – hairline fractures scarring the surface in perfect tessellation – and gaze out upon the inchoate domain I inhabit. Always in the distance tiles ripple in concert as they pursue another poor unfortunate locked in a quest to escape.

And behind? I no longer look behind. Not anymore.

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[Fiction/crime] Nut smugglers

Image property of Blue Sky Studios [Ice Age franchise]

Snow crunched under Red’s tires as she flicked on her indicator, sweeping right into the wide parking lot of the Natural Nuts Packaging Co. The little Invader Zim Gir figurine anchored to the dashboard wobbled furiously in protest at the maneuver.

“Don’t worry, little guy,” Red said. “Just need to hitch up the load and then it’s smooth sailing from here on out.” The robot’s oversized head continued to nod in what she liked to think was agreement.

Red chewed her lip, squinting in the faint pre-dawn light at the loading bays ahead. Three monstrous warehouses loomed against the twilit sky, untethered semi-trailers arrayed before them like boats at a land-locked wharf. She brought her cab to a stop, engine idling. Shouldn’t there be someone here to meet her?

On cue, a figure hurried out from a squat office at the edge of the warehouses, one arm raised oddly. After a moment, Red realized they were shading their eyes against the blinding glare of her high-beams, so she cut the engine and climbed out to meet them. The person kicking through the ankle-deep snow towards her was a bespectacled man in a blue tuque. A bushy brown mustache nestled above his mouth like a slug.

“Ho, there!” he called, waving. “Where are you from? There aren’t any shipments scheduled till six, not for -” he consulted a tablet with an ungloved hand – “An hour, or so.” Red frowned.

“Didn’t you get the updated paperwork?” she asked. The man paused.

“Updated paperwork?”

“I’m here for the Bellevue shipment. Broker should’ve faxed the job through again yesterday.” The man shook his head, ice crystals flaking from his mustache.

“The Bellevue job? Pickup’s not till nine. You’re four hours early!”

“There has to be some mistake. It’s the same job, anyway. Load ready to go?”

“Yes, but…” He noticed Red shivering, huffing on her hands in an effort to prevent them going numb. Why’d she leave her dang coat in the cab? “Look, it’s freezing out here, lady. Come to the office where it’s warm and we’ll sort this whole thing out.”

“Thanks,” Red managed, hugging herself. She couldn’t retrieve her coat now without looking like an idiot, so she trudged along behind the shipping supervisor, cursing internally.

The office was cozy. A cup of coffee sat cooling on a table beside a half-eaten sandwich, little wisps of steam curling up into the air. The man sat down, beckoning Red to do the same.

“So what’s the story, then? The Bellevue shipment’s on the books for nine today, and now you’re here claiming it before dawn. Suppose you tell me just what’s going on?” Red drummed her fingers on the table impatiently.

“It was originally nine, but a couple days ago the broker called me saying the receiver needed the schedule bumped forward, so the new pickup was at five. I thought they would’ve informed you by now.” The man clicked his tongue, checked his tablet again, then wandered over to a stack of papers and leafed through them.

“Here we are,” he said, sitting down and sliding a document over to Red. “This is all I’ve got. FND Express from the Sacramento plant to Nutopia in Bellevue, Washington.” She picked up the manifest and scanned it.

“Yeah, this is the one. So are we good?” The man sighed, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but it’s all too irregular. I can’t let the load go like this without confirmation from above, and my manager’s still chasing Z’s. About an hour either way’s as far as I can push it.”

“Seriously? You’d rather I hang around for three hours than shift the load a little early? Come on. Neither of us wants that. I’m here now. What say we get this done? Less headache for you later.” The man grimaced, glancing at the document and back to her. He reached a decision.

“Fine. Sign here, please.”

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[Fiction/roleplaying] Cults and culpability

The following is a tale from my Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in the Sunless Shores. It is the first-hand account of a group of poor cultists who suffered an ignoble fate at the hands of my monstrous players.

“You alright to clean up here, Merkel?”

Erkel’s brother looked up from scrubbing bloodstains off the summoning circle. Nearby, the Null Censer fumed silently, just in case.

“Should be. Stronger than usual, wasn’t it?”

“A little. Guess our time’s coming up fast.” Erkel ran his hand through his tousled brown hair, slick with sweat from the hastily aborted summoning. He’d changed into his casual robes, but would need a hot bath later to really wash the slime off.

“Anyway, I’m off for a bit. You need anything?”

“Couple years, maybe,” Merkel said wryly, holding up his left arm. The black watch on his wrist was, as always, totally featureless. They both laughed, but it was laced with uneasiness. “What happened to this city, brother? It wasn’t so long ago we were freewheeling, summoning spirits, indoctrinating starry-eyed commoners without a care in the world. Now look at us!”

Erkel sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. He’d been having trouble sleeping lately – the curse of dabbling in divination magic. What had that instructor said… multiclass in thirty days or your money back? What a joke. Well, it was too late now. That one level of wizard would never go away.

“We got old, Mer.”

“Hell, that’s not it, and you know it!” Merkel tossed his washcloth back in the bucket, which sloshed dirty red suds onto the floor. The filthy water dripped sluggishly into the narrow trench cut around the circle.

“Okay, okay!” Erkel said, holding out his palms placatingly. “It’s not worth fighting over. We’ve got the Gathering in less than a week, and then -”

“And then what? No way will it go back to how it was. Not after Justin’s scheme.”

“Look at it this way, Mer,” said Erkel. “After this, we’ll all be exalted, or dead.”

Merkel grunted, staring at the floor as if ashamed. He’d been acting strangely too, but then, everyone in the church was on edge. These were harrowing times to be a Dweller’s Disciple.

Erkel exited via the secret door into the vestibule, whistling tunelessly. Out in the main hall, he saw Raff and Vee preparing the afternoon service and chatting with Gracie, the head of their chapter here in the city of Fortune. Vee was a delight, but Raff scared Erkel more than a little – he was a shade too close to madness for Erkel’s taste. Sure, the Disciples may aspire to Dweller-touched insanity, but there was something to be said for polite conversation and civility, too.

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