Heist

Marco barged into the cold room with an unconscious man over his shoulder.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Helena shrieked, locking the door. ‘What have you done this time? This was meant -’

Relax,’ Marco said, laying the man down as he swept back his thick black hair. ‘He’ll be fine. I got him from behind anyway.’

‘Why did you bring him in here, fledgling?’ Ambrose said, weary. He stepped away from one of the cabinets and felt the man’s wrist. Ambrose’s breathing hitched ever so slightly. Marco caught his eye with a wan grin. ‘Take him out. Now.’

Helena yelped.

‘I meant drag him outside,’ Ambrose said.

Marco chuckled, bending to retrieve his cargo. ‘He was just by the door… force of habit.’ The man’s eyelids fluttered open as his head left the floor. He scrambled in a wild dash for the door, caught by Ambrose in a deft, fluid motion.

‘Too late,’ Helena said.

‘Who- what is this?’ the struggling man said. ‘You want the drugs? I have keys, just -’

‘Still yourself, sir,’ Ambrose said, one arm securing him in a strong, expert grip. ‘We mean no harm. Let us conclude our business and be on our way.’ They heard a faint beeping from elsewhere in the hospital as the captive orderly’s panting settled, going limp. Ambrose pushed him away from the door.

‘Where’s Claire?’ Helena said suddenly. ‘We’ve only got an hour. She should be here by now.’

‘That’s plenty of time,’ Marco said.

No names,’ Ambrose hissed.

‘What’s the matter?’ Marco said. ‘He won’t remember.’

‘Whoa, hold on…’ the man said, fists shaking a little in a fighting stance.

‘And now you’ve dismayed him again,’ Ambrose said. He read the orderly’s name tag. ‘Jack, sir. There’s no need to be afraid.’

‘Oh, isn’t there! Taken hostage by – by you freaks. Costumed freaks.’

‘These are just jeans,’ Helena said. ‘From Primark. And there’s no need to be rude.’

‘It’s Ambrose who likes the 18th Century shtick. Reminds him of the good old days,’ Marco said.

‘This jacket is barely even formal,’ Ambrose said.

‘For you, old man.’

‘Old man… this game you’re playing is fucking ridiculous,’ Jack said.

‘You keep thinking that,’ Helena said. ‘As soon as Claire’s here I’m gone. I need a drink.’

A ceiling tile slid aside and Claire dropped from above, landing quietly with a whirl of hair. ‘Pity’s sake, Marco,’ she said at the sight of Jack.

‘Because you were so sensible?’ Marco complained. ‘Where the hell have you been, dropping from the ceiling like… like it’s a damn film or something.’

‘I didn’t get seen. In and out like a ghost if you hadn’t screwed it up,’ Claire said, sweeping to one of the chilled cabinets which filled the room and opening the door. Refrigerated air wafted in her face, a hum deepening as the cabinet kept its contents cool. Claire’s nostrils flared. ‘Ah. Look at all this.’

‘That’s what you’re here for, then,’ the orderly said as Ambrose passed Claire an empty backpack. ‘Look, this has gone much too far. This game you’re playing… people need that. It’s very important. Fine, have an alternative lifestyle, LARP, but -’

Jack trailed off as Claire picked out a chilled pack of AB+, opened it with her teeth, and drank it dry.

‘You’ll get more,’ Ambrose said softly. ‘This is better for all of us than the alternative.’

Claire turned to Jack, skin alabaster, eyes dark. Thirsty. She licked a pointed canine. ‘Ambrose, please deal with him and let’s finish here. Dawn’s soon.’

Ambrose grabbed Jack’s head in both hands, their faces close. Jack struggled for a few moments then went slack. ‘You fell and hit your head,’ Ambrose said, while the others stocked backpacks with blood. ‘Nothing unusual happened here tonight.’

‘Yes, master,’ Jack murmured.

‘That really isn’t necessary,’ Ambrose muttered, lowering the dazed orderly’s head to the floor.

‘Maybe they wouldn’t say that if you stopped dressing like an aristocrat,’ Marco said, wiping blood from his mouth with one hand and flicking Ambrose’s high collar with the other. ‘When are you teaching us that, anyway?’

‘When I can trust you to be less foolish with it,’ Ambrose grumbled, unlocking the door to the blood bank.

‘You sired us, remember?’ Helena said.

‘Time was, our kind were more discerning,’ he said, leading the way out. ‘Years of service to earn our gift. Now I have fledglings barely following the basic codes of the masquerade.’

‘And who got your email set up?’ Helena added.

#

Jack woke, rubbing his head, just as someone else barged into the blood bank. The man offered Jack a hand, his coat moving aside to reveal a shaft of dark wood strapped to his belt. ‘What happened here?’

‘I must’ve fell and hit my head. Say, you’re not supposed to be here.’

‘My mistake, took a wrong turn. Get that bang looked at, eh?’

‘Think I’m alright now. Need directions?’

‘That’s alright,’ the stranger said, not bothering to ask any more. He glanced at the cameras as he left, but knew they wouldn’t be much help catching the things responsible for another unconventional heist.

Marginalia

Once when I was a boy I rode out in the general direction of the Twiceborn King, with some fantasy of burying my stolen sword up to the hilt in his undead flesh. I had only a vague idea of where I was going, and no idea of what I’d do once I got there. I made my way from village to hamlet, but before I got to see any battles or castles or magic, before I’d even crossed the river, my father caught up with me and wrestled me home. I’m glad he did. Farm work had made me more than strong enough to swing the sword around, but in my hands it was just a club. I had no coin. No plan. I’d have been just another rotting body in the Twiceborn army by the time the Protagonist arrived to destroy it.

Read about a character dissatisfied with his place in the story in Marginalia, reprinted in Spillwords. 🙂

Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

Walpurgis
source

Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.

The Ninth Step

He was almost used to the looks. Fear, mostly. Curiosity. The ones who tried to meet his blazing eye-sockets and smile as though he was normal, but fumbled the change and audibly exhaled when he left.

When he had been Icoran, Reaper of the Shadowlands, Envoy of Twilight, he hadn’t cared how anyone saw him. In early sobriety, Icoran the new guy sitting in the meetings shaking like a martini, he’d hidden himself in baggy clothes with hoods, even tried wearing big sunglasses. Until his eyes had burnt holes through them, which Tanda had encouraged him to see as a sign.

If you’d like to read about a lich taking part in a 12 step recovery program, my story The Ninth Step is out in Scarlet Leaf Review!

A Game of Chance

cards

The casino thrummed with activity. Bells rung, lights flashed, waitresses with trays piled with drinks weaved around gun-toting soldiers. I stood near the entrance, threads of probability orienting towards me like iron filings to a magnet, brushing against my skin.

I walked along a corridor of slot machines to the bar, passing the last security guard who’d tried to demonstrate what they do to cheats. I smirked, recalling his face when he’d tripped up, banged his head on the bar, and reared back into a waitress, whose tray of drinks got him in hot water over a Major’s stained suit. Fun, but the incident had forced me to change face again.

Today I was wearing the form of a white male in his fifties with thick silver hair, in a sharp grey suit. A letter ‘I’ branded on the cheek under the left eye would serve to buy a little respect, suggesting I’d fought for the invaders in the Coltan Rebellion and survived an ambush. Ironic.

I got my drink and leaned back on the bar, surveying the scene. Glittering marble, chilling air-con, glamorous clientele. I’ve got to give them credit: they’re good at grand scale. Their casinos may lack the spirit of the old days, but they’re enough to give me a weapon.

Returning some wealth from our plundered land, for the bullets needed to take it back.

They even have a shrine to me, but it’s not sincere. A badge of conquest, an ornament of local colour, a token of the natives. And the few natives on staff don’t follow the old ways themselves. Even before we lost, the faith began to dry up. Without the few committed souls in the resistance I wouldn’t even be able to win coin tosses.

I finished my drink, sucked the lime wedge, and headed to a roulette wheel while I waited for the real action of the night. I let a few bets follow chance – some wins, some losses. Then I started plucking the threads of probability, turning the odds in my favour.

‘Congratulations, sir,’ the croupier said after a string of wins. Her smile was genuine – it was the casino’s money, not hers – but a flicker in her brows implied a little doubt. I lost the next two to throw her off, then cashed out the winnings.

I got another drink, wondering when the general would be arriving. The longer I sat there, the more I worried the information was off. We’d been building up to this for so long, my followers slowly restoring me from an impotent wandering spirit to a shadow of my former glory, I slowly building the resources they need to strike. My sisters and brothers were barely surviving on scraps of faith, fitfully stirring in caves and forests, in ocean depths, in the crevices of human minds.

First take back a small area, show I was still here, turn the people back to the ways of their grandparents. Rebuild the shrines of my fellows, raise us all back to majesty, and drive out the invaders with bullets and miracles.

As I mused, crunching ice cubes, I felt an unexpected prayer from inside the casino. Quatzeltin, Lord of Fortune, grant me your favour. I followed the stream of faith back to a craps table with a native man holding the dice, preparing to throw.

‘C’mon, pal,’ a woman said. The other players seemed amused by the old-fashioned true believer, but patience was wearing thin. I wondered how he’d managed to work his way out of the mines.

I whispered to him, ‘The wheel turns by your hand.’

He startled, twisting to me and focusing on the brand on my cheek. As he did so he dropped the dice, the impatient woman sighing, and won.

‘Who are you?’ he said, as the next round started.

Commotion at the entrance as the general arrived. I left the faithful man to win the rest of the game and kept an eye on the target from a distance, sipping another drink as he took a place at a blackjack table.

When he ordered drinks, I made the waitress trip on the way from the bar and was there in time to grab them, dripping a pipette in his glass as I helped her up.

‘Good catch! Thanks,’ she said. I watched her reach the table, holding my breath as he took the drug. A little while and he’d be putty.

As the game progressed he began to dip and sway. The players glanced at each other, but by this point he’d had a few more, so they took it as nothing unusual.

I strode towards him. This was it. His bodyguard blocked my path and I called out, ‘Pete, it’s been too long!’

The general turned round. His pupils swam. ‘Who’re you?’

I laughed, ‘It’s me, Roger, old boy. All those times in the… don’t say you’ve forgotten?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ he said, waving me through, brow furrowed as he searched for memories that weren’t there. ‘Roger, how’ve you been?’

I strung him along in his persuadable state through a few rounds, then I took hold of a thread of chance and had him almost tip back. ‘Whoa there. Perhaps you need some fresh air.’

‘Yes, uh, good idea,’ he said, abandoning the game and coming to his feet, leaning against me.

We headed outside, his bodyguard trailing behind. As we stepped onto the street tropical heat slapped us in the face, even with the late hour. The moon shone yellow over the hills through the city’s smoke, drunks stumbling by, lizards crawling up streetlamps. By the time we got towards the truck the general was barely conscious.

‘Sir, are you okay?’ the bodyguard asked.

The general passed out. In a flash, he was in the truck and a blade was in the bodyguard. We drove up into the hills, down the other side, and along bumpy dirt tracks into the jungle. At night the forest buzzed with insects like people were using chainsaws.

The general came to at dawn, tied to a chair in a clearing. I sat opposite him swigging mescal, with a revolver and one bullet resting on a small table, and a brand heating red in a brazier. A ring of my soldiers surrounded us. Behind me, my shrine was wreathed in the sweet smoke of burning herbs, sunrays highlighting the particles in the air, shining on the general’s bleary face. Parrots sang.

He pulled against the ropes then drew himself taut, looking me in the eye with a tight grip on the chair’s arms.

‘You drugged me,’ he said. ‘Who are you?’

‘Quatzeltin,’ I said.

He laughed. ‘Good god, a madman.’

Lazily, not moving from my throne, I picked up the brand and seared the letter ‘I’ onto his cheek. The smell of sizzling meat mixed with the herbs. He stayed impressively quiet.

‘I knew some of you savages still follow your jungle gods,’ he said. ‘Even a few of our men had nonsense stories, no doubt fever dreams… But you’re ins-’ he hissed.

I dispelled my human form for a moment, appearing to him as wheels within wheels spinning in liquid gold, as dice rolling snake eyes and biting, as himself walking a tightrope between worlds of fortune and horrors with my finger poised to tip him to either side. He paled, screaming hoarse, while the soldiers kneeled before my glory. I shrunk into the shape of a young native woman wearing a crown of bones, worn by the display.

‘This is not your land, and not your people to rule,’ I said. He shook. I forced him to drink some mescal to steady him.

‘I’m still drugged,’ he muttered. ‘This isn’t. No.’

‘You tell yourself that. But the mines and whips and rations and prisons and checkpoints and government won’t stand much longer.’

‘You could have just poisoned me,’ he said.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Then someone else replaces you. That’s not the way we build our army, restore the old ways, and raise the rightful powers of this land to their thrones.’ I touched his forehead and licked the sweat from my finger. ‘I need them to think you’re alive if I’m going to take your place,’ I said, letting my skin warp to his image. ‘As far as they know, you’ll heroically escape a native camp.’

I picked up the revolver and placed the bullet in one of the six chambers, spinning the cylinder and slotting it back in.

‘I have to give your people credit for a few things. First time round, yes, we weren’t prepared for the guns and bombs and gas. And you’ve introduced me to a few new games. I wanted to try this one as soon as I heard about it.’

I held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Click. To my own. Click. His. Click. Mine. Click. His. Click. I held the gun to my head, grinning. This chamber had the bullet. But I am not one to bet against. A pluck of a thread, and the odds follow. Fortune’s wheel turns, and a revolver jams.

‘That’s impossible,’ he said.

‘No, just very unlikely,’ I said, resting the barrel between his eyes. Bang.

I rose to my feet, placing the gun on the table. At long last, the next stage of the plan could begin.

The soldiers bowed before me. ‘Quatzeltin, Lord of Fortune, grant us your favour.’

I smiled, taking in the smell of herbs and sweat, blood and gunpowder. ‘The wheel turns by your hands.’

Gardening

A short piece in ‘The Drabble’.

grass-4102398_1280

By Alex Page

After the spores spread, and defied the nukes, and left me roaming the empty city haunted by my wife’s final fungal gurgles, I tried to join her and discovered my immunity’s true scope.

I found others chosen. We watched the rain battle concrete, tarmac give way to grass, the night sky deepen to countless stars. Eventually we heard Pan’s voice, his whispers in the leaves, and understood he’d always been speaking, ignored.

He claimed back his world, keeping us to drape skyscrapers with ivy, sow fields with flowers, gather plastic for eventual compost. Gardening, immortal, until the damage is restored.

         
Alex Page writes because making fantastical things up is fun.

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Shepherd Boy

farm

Billy huddled closer to the fire, prodding it with a stick and jolting when sap burst.

He glanced back from the fields to the house. A warm bed indoors would be nice right now. The grass was getting slick with dew and the wind was biting, whipping clouds across the moon. He straightened up, searching for signs of movement. A sheep twitching in sleep. Branches swishing. His eyes were leaden.

Something whooshed in the distance. There was a sound like someone shaking out a sheet. In the span of a heartbeat something swooped down by the ground and away. A sheep screamed, the flock stirred.

Billy stood, brandishing the stick. Now he was awake. What’d happened? It’d been too fast to see. Probably nothing. Too early to call out. He’d just been trusted to take a turn watching. Embarrassing to wake up the village over nothing on his first night. He started walking over, using the stick to get down the muddy hill, pushing down the thought of what he’d do if a wolf or something was running around.

The sheep were bolting away from the area. He couldn’t see anything the matter, heaving a sign of relief.

Then it happened again.

Something vast dove down in front of him, grabbing a sheep in scythe-like claws as it went, and soared away with flaps that shook the grass and hurt Billy’s ears. The animal’s cry vanished with the rest of it. Billy fell back in the mud, the stick cracking as he tried to catch his fall. He screamed, running towards the house, clambering around panicked sheep and up the hill, covering his hands in mud.

He paused, wheezing, just before his knuckles hit the door. What was he meant to say? He knew how it’d sound. Silly boy catching a fright. Got spooked in the dark. Fell asleep and lost some sheep, knew he’s too young for the responsibility, too old to make up stories like that. Those nice clean clothes. He stood frozen in place, sweating and dirty, pulse racing. The fire crackled.

He couldn’t tell them a dragon stole the sheep. He couldn’t stay out here with a dragon. Finally he pounded the door, calling out, ‘Wolves! Wolves took two sheep!’ Feet pounded on the stairs inside and his dad appeared, hastily putting on boots and a coat.

Billy grabbed onto him, burying his face in his belly, wailing. Big rough hands rubbed his shoulders then nudged him away, finding the mud on his face.

‘What’s all this? You didn’t run after them, did you?’

He tried to calm down. ‘It – they were so fast. I-’

‘It’s okay, Billy. It’s alright. You did fine.’ They settled down by the fire, a few other villagers coming to the commotion, checking on their flocks. ‘They’re getting bolder these days, coming down from the mountains.’ His dad shook his head, cast in silhouette, and spoke with a chuckle. ‘Almost like something’s pushing them out of there.’

No Set Reading List

LOTR

I was finishing a re-read of The Lord of the Rings recently, just as a bit of DiscourseTM started up about whether or not it’s totally obligatory to read LOTR and anyone who hasn’t is a bad person who must be banned from fantasy.

Mild exaggeration. But you can guess which side of the debate I come down on.

From the reader’s perspective, it’s very simple. People are allowed to read or not read anything they like, gatekeeping is dumb, and there’s no reason to care if people are ‘true fans’ or not.

From the writer’s perspective, the idea that certain books are obligatory if you want to write certain genres seems like a growth on the face of a more sensible idea, which is that you should have read a reasonable range of the genre. You need to know what the well-trodden ground is, to both draw inspiration and avoid clichés. But extending that to ‘fantasy writers must read LOTR’ is a mistake.

One of the chief reasons people will give is ‘this book is particularly influential, it shaped the genre for decades to come.’ Well, if that’s the case, isn’t it fine to draw lessons from all those other books influenced by it? Of course someone writing medieval epic fantasy could use knowing about what’s already been done with elves and orcs and stuff – but they can get that from the works influenced by LOTR, as they can from the thing itself. Just because Tolkien introduced something doesn’t mean he’s the guy everyone has to go back to for it. Extreme comparison, but doctors today aren’t learning about arteries from Galen.

There are loads of books in every genre. Recommending specific works for certain things is fine (here’s me doing it), but the idea that someone has to follow your reading list to have authority in the subject just… sounds lame when I say it like that, right? What objective grounds is there to make that specific work essential reading – if influence, we can read the things it influenced; if something else, is this really objective or an opinion, or cultural bias?

Also, subgenres. Why does a fantasy writer have to read LOTR if they’re actually doing a steampunk heist story?

Even if they are writing a medieval fantasy with po-tay-toes and pointy-eared archers, let’s face it: no book is perfect. For all its influence and worldbuilding and epicness, LOTR is not the platonic ideal fantasy novel. The pacing is nuts. It has more named horses than women. Tom Bombadil. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, and fantasy writers are no different. The same applies to all genres and their ‘must-reads’.

In university I had literal reading lists with classics and works I’d never heard of. There is value in reading things considered significant and things you wouldn’t think to try. Sure, there might be value in taking a recommendation, in trying LOTR or whatever else. But this doesn’t mean you have to read specific works some person yells about to be a real fan or a good writer.

Convincing Fictional Species

Map of Gethen

In a post on characterization Connie Jasperson said: ‘If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story.’

Along that line I was very impressed by Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, which features a unique alien species with great characterization.

Writing convincing fictional beings can be hard to pull off. That book is a great example I’d recommend reading – but for now, I have a few thoughts on what Le Guin did well.

Not humans in costume

A species with unique biology or abilities ought to have that play into their psychology and society a little – otherwise they’re just humans in costume. Think about the possible consequences of their traits.

Le Guin’s Gethenians are neither-gendered except for brief periods of ‘kemmer’, completely changing their perspective on gender and introducing Taoist ideas on (non)duality. Some of them see the human protagonist as a pervert in permanent kemmer, like the lesser animals.

Suppose a species has venomous claws: are their children warned not to poison humans, because it’s literally deadly to them (NO TIMMY, EVEN IF THEY’RE SUPER ANNOYING!)? Does the venom have any other uses, legitimate or otherwise?

If a species has a different approach to parenting, how is their society structured following on from that? If they lay countless eggs, a few hatch, and the fledglings are raised in common by society rather than within families, that should produce some major differences to daily life and how they view things.

Avoids homogeneity

When making a species unlike humanity it’s easy to make all Vulcans copies of Spock, all elves Legolas, and so on. Unless the species has a hive-mind, they shouldn’t all have identical beliefs, personalities, and responses to situations. Just because they have features in common which distinguish them from humans doesn’t mean that those are their only features.

Le Guin gives the Gethenians their own personalities, and the two nations shown in the book have distinct cultures. Fictional beings won’t be convincing if they’re only different from humans. They also have to be individuals different from each other – with all the usual points about strong characterization – to really hold attention.

Relates to the environment

Gethen is a winter world without flying animals, so it makes some sense that the inhabitants have their codes of hospitality (since, what if you’re the one out in a blizzard?) and struggle with the concept of flying vehicles. Given the difficulty of travel, they’re more patient with long journeys than the human ambassador.

Consider some physical and cultural traits that could relate logically to where they live. What industries, housing, clothing, combat styles, etc, make sense for them and there? Consider the resources, the climate, the landscape, and how the species will handle that area – and if they go somewhere else, how they may react to the different environment.