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. 🙂

Dust

school football

A pile of dust on Tim’s desk. To make you feel at home!

It looked like he could jump over the wall. Aww. Too heavy?

Puffing through the corridors. So many kids.

How’s the weather up there, slenderman?

After school he went in the pool. Mum floated, rubbing her joints. ‘I know it’s hard now, Tim. We’ll all adjust. Don’t you like that sky? Listen to those birds.’

Go back to Mars. He lay in bed missing the colony, watching the shuttles at night.

Flying Away

balcony view

Leather creaked as Joe shifted on the couch. Waiting for my patient to settle, I watched a bird basking in the sun out on the balcony, the drapes billowing through the open door with a soft breeze.

‘Mary wants to see me tomorrow,’ he said.

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘I…’ He sighed. ‘It’s been a long time coming. I wanted to get to this place. But now we’re here I don’t know what I’m going to say. How do I make up for seven years?’ He waved a hand lazily. ‘I know, day by day. Still…’

‘What do you think brought Mary round?’

‘Matt wants to meet me. She’s not sure about that yet.’

‘So, he wants to. What do you think about that?’

‘Honestly, that just makes me more guilty about the whole thing. I was too much of a dick to be there from the start. There’s so much I’ve missed. But that’s what happens when you run.’

‘Last time you mentioned -’ I said, licking a finger and flicking through the file, ‘that avoiding difficult things actually just isolates you and takes away choices, you said you’re doing to yourself what you’re trying to avoid.’

‘I hear you. If I want to be free I have to not escape anything that feels like it might trap me. Avoiding complications or responsibilities just means they own me in a different way. I miss opportunities.’ He should’ve been his team captain by now. He’d turned down promotion twice.

‘You’ve come a long way since our first session.’

‘It’s simple. I’m not that scared kid any more: I have to face things, take charge. Simple doesn’t mean easy, though.’

That’s how it is with them. A need builds until it bursts into an outlet – escape, strength, control, recognition or anonymity, whatever. But that still leaves something unresolved. Joe’s father had died when London fell, yet the impact he’d made on his son lingered.

Leather creaked. ‘I mean, what do I say tomorrow?’

I watched the drapes fluttering, weighing up a response. I’m not his friend – I’m his therapist. My job is to enable him to help himself figure out what to say to someone he left pregnant at the altar. ‘You’re looking to re-establish a connection. It’s a case of being honest, patient -’

‘Answerable. Responsible.’ Said hesitantly, fishing for a confirmation.

‘That frightens you.’

‘Sort of my whole thing, isn’t it?’

‘Go on.’

‘I know I’m not my father. I won’t repeat those mistakes. Though when I vanished… that was just a mistake in the other direction. I’ve already done damage. Getting back into their lives… who is that really for?’

‘Matt wants to meet you.’

‘He wants to meet the guy behind the action figures. Not the guy on your couch.’

‘Does that idea come from him or Mary – or is it just you?’

‘He must have some sort of expectation. It’s only natural. I don’t know if I can live up to that.’

‘Is your worry that he will want you around, or that he won’t?’ I asked.

He lay there for a while, rolling that around. A cloud passed across the sun. ‘Huh. Oh, man. That’s… I’ll need to chew on that one.’

‘Let’s put a pin in that for next session, then.’

‘Mary did let me have a photo.’ He fished in his pocket, saying, ‘His thing affects photos though,’ as he passed it back over his head.

Matt looked a lot like Joe. The photo had been taken in a busy park, with everyone else in the shot washed out, vague. So second-generation cape. A need to be noticed? I noted that down – possibly something to bring up as things developed on the Matt front.

‘I see the resemblance,’ I said, trying to draw things out with a less intense approach. I returned the photo.

‘Yeah. It’s… I mean, he looks okay, doesn’t he? He’s decent in school.’

‘Go on.’

‘If he’s fine, I mean – that’s good. I can’t have done too much damage. He’s well-adjusted, it seems. I’m still a dick, obviously.’

Yes. ‘What matters is how you move forwards.’

Joe’s phone bleeped, insistent. He checked it and groaned, shooting to his feet. ‘Sorry, something’s come up. I must dash. But you’ve given me a lot to think about. Same time next week?’

‘I’ll see if I can tack some more time on the end.’

‘Great,’ he said, walking out into the sunlight.

Joe stood on the balcony, hair fluttering in the wind. Sparks trailed from his fingertips as he rose into the air, heels then toes lifting from the floor. For a moment it struck me, again, what my patients were to the rest of the world. How much more human the parahumans were to me, lying on my couch without the silly branded capes and masks. Then he shot into the sky with a discharge of lightning, leaving a sharp burst of ozone on the summer breeze.

I pressed the button to call the next patient.

#

#

(If you like this, go read Worm.)

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!

Hardboiled

city at night in rain

The P.I. stepped into the morgue, shaking out an umbrella. He hung it from a hat rack, rested his fedora on the handle, and lit up again, taking a good long drag. Three weeks sniffing out the dame at beatnik joints – only for the trail to end up here.

‘Good timing, H,’ Benny said, shaking his hand then leading him to the back. ‘You just missed the fuzz.’

‘Aw, ain’t that a shame?’ he said.

Benny snorted, pausing before he opened the shelf. ‘It’s a messy one.’

‘Seen it all, Benny.’ Benny shrugged, rolling out the body. Jesus! In life, Miss Penelope O’Mletta was meant to be a real knock-out. Now? ‘I need a drink,’ H said, ash trickling on his loafers.

‘Warned ya,’ Benny said, taking a swig from a flask and passing it over the stiff. H gulped down the cheap scotch, then took a pen from his trench coat and poked the yellow goo caked on a wound.

‘Looks damn scrambled.’

‘Exactly.’

‘What, you saying this is the Spoons?’

Benny shrugged. ‘You’re the gumshoe. But that’s what the boys in blue were saying.’

‘I know those jokers. I wouldn’t put much stock in that. But I don’t know who but the Spoons smoke people like…’ he said, trailing off to gesture over the carnage.

‘Yeah. But H, how’d Old Man O’Mletta’s daughter get tangled in all this?’

‘That’s the question. Pharmaceutical kingpin’s daughter goes off grid blowing the trust fund on more… recreational pharmaceuticals. Kinda thing I’ve seen a hundred times before, they end up home and straightened out. Once the kid fell off a high wall, cracked their head.’ He rubbed his own smooth white dome. ‘This time’s something else. Musta been a real shady character hanging in one of them jazz clubs. I better ask for more, uh, resources on this one.’

Benny chuckled. ‘Well, O’Mletta’s got some to spare. Done with the body?’

‘Sure.’

Benny rolled the drawer back in. ‘Careful out there. If it is the Spoons, try not to draw attention.’

‘Don’t gotta tell me,’ H said, following Benny to the exit. After retrieving his hat and umbrella he opened the door than paused in the threshold. ‘Poker on Saturday?’

‘Course, I gotta win my money back.’

‘Hope you don’t need it too bad with tells like that, then!’ He unfurled the umbrella, pat Benny’s shoulder, and knocked the door shut with a foot. He thought he’d seen it all before, but this case was giving him real bad vibes. He decided to head back to the office for another glance through the notes.

Humpty Dumpty, P.I., walked out into the downtown rain, streetlamps glistening orange in the rain on his shell.

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.’

The Survivor

forest night

Sunlight was touching the tops of the trees over the hills when I banged on the inn’s door. Blood squelched in my boots, trickling from my arms, legs, neck, from my scalp to sting my eyes. When the door opened it pushed me back, almost knocking me over. I swayed like rushes in a gale.

‘Let me in,’ I said, hoarse. ‘Help.’ Then the floor swooped up to grab me.

I woke up in bright sunlight. The innkeeper’s long hair brushed my arm as she sat by the bed in the narrow room, haloed by the window. I sat up, aching and scabbed. My clothes were in a bucket in the corner, the water pink. I’d been put in a brown tunic. The rush of blood sang distantly in my ears, bile rising.

‘We’ve patched you up, but you lost a lot of blood,’ the innkeeper said. With difficulty I turned to put my feet on the floor, shading my eyes with an arm. Stitches twinged in the crook of my elbow. ‘Bandits?’ she said, drawing the shutter.

I nodded. Again I heard Tom calling out for me as the man threw him to the ground, saw Milly’s limp body, saw Will drawing his sword as I was grabbed from behind. Passing out as my head hit the flagstone and Will’s sword plunged into his own belly. Smelling fetid copper breath.

‘I’m Maude. What’s your name?’

‘Serana.’ The word came out hushed. The veins on the backs of my hands were bright through pallid flesh.

Maude gestured to the plate of bread and cheese and cup of water on the bedside table. ‘You must be hungry. Try to eat something, you need to get your strength back.’

I was famished, but it was a struggle to chew and swallow past my flipping stomach and the lump in my throat. Tom, Milly, Will. I tasted bile and ashes, too tired to weep. I could see Maude looking at me, holding herself back from asking more questions. I wanted to ask her to go away but didn’t know how to go about it decently. Eventually I finished the plate. Maude asked what she could do now, and I rolled back onto the covers. She paused, then left.

For a while I watched the sunlight track along the wall, listening to the whisper of my pulse in my ears. I guessed from the banged head. After I heard Maude leave I got up, found and put on an oversized pair of shoes, and went down into the inn. Although I was wobbly, I barely hurt and the wounds looked less bad than I’d thought. I almost said so to Will, before it hit me fresh again. And that’s when the floodgates opened.

I got it back under control just in time for Maude to return, with an old man carrying a pack.

‘You must be Serana,’ he said, taking out herbs and a mortar and pestle. ‘I’m Garret. Nice to see you awake. Mind me having another look?’

‘I don’t have much to pay,’ I said, to him and Maude. ‘I imagine the goods were stripped out too, when…’

‘Forget that!’ Maude said. ‘We still believe in hospitality over here.’

‘The roads these days – well,’ Garret said. He peered at the stitch on my neck. ‘Early days, but this is encouraging. Good. Let’s just avoid infection. Deep, but narrow. Curious how exactly -’ He backed off. ‘Do excuse me, I mustn’t probe.’

I sighed, letting him apply a poultice. ‘It’s okay. After the war we joined a merchant caravan. We had trouble with our wagon, fell behind in the woods. Some thief took advantage of it. Killed my family, left me for dead. Don’t know exactly how these happened, I got knocked out.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Maude said. ‘I lost people myself, in that damn fool war. Well, you can stay here at least until the next caravan comes through. Sure they’ll take you, if you want.’

‘But you’ve got no other guests, how can you -’

‘Forget that. Just give me a good deal when you come back the other way.’

Garret finished. ‘There. Well, I’ll be seeing you. Shame we didn’t meet in better circumstances.’

‘Thank you,’ I said through a yawn. It was early, but I went back to bed. I dreamed of Tom, Milly, Will, and acrid metallic breath.

#

Over the coming days I got back my energy and strength, though the rush of blood in my ears continued and Garret wasn’t sure why. I found myself staying awake through the night, replaying the brief scene of the attack, dozing too much in the day. Since Maude’s work centred around the evening that was convenient, as, despite her staunch words on hospitality, I insisted on doing some work for the room and food. It kept me distracted.

Some townsfolk went to the wagon and found no trace of Tom, Milly, or Will. Barely anything had been taken, not even the silverware from Mortlake. I sold what I could, but Maude refused the money. I had to bully her into taking a few copper pieces.

When it was time, I sat outside the inn during sunset while Garret removed my stitches. As the threads came out I could faintly hear my pulse, ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum.

‘Always nervous doing that. Well, you’ve got some luck. You heal fast.’ Some of the locals in the inn cheered, banging on tables.

‘I could use some luck. Thank you.’

He rose, opening the door. Someone was leading a bawdy tavern song. Garret held the door for a moment, but I didn’t go in. Instead I walked to the edge of town, held my breath, then stepped into the forest. I went a few minutes out and sat by the banks of a bubbling brook, massaging the wound sites. Slowly tension eased from my shoulders, and after a while I realised I wasn’t hearing the noise in my ears. I felt good, and guilty for that.

#

I woke up and stepped outside to see the sun, deep orange in air dusty from the quarry, beginning to dip its toes behind the horizon. I’d got used to the pulsating whisper in my ears. The peace of walking in the forest at night was growing on me, calm as waking up before Will to watch the sun rise had used to be.

The thought of Will, Tom and Milly flickered on my heartstrings for a moment, but no longer shadowed the whole day. Sometimes that worried me.

I went into the inn for dinner, before the regulars would start to arrive. Maude poured the stew for us and she delved in, her arms rippling with muscle from shifting the barrels. Normally I was even more enthusiastic – she was a good cook, and all the ale didn’t hurt. But I found myself strangely full after a few bites.

‘Anything wrong?’ Maude asked, dipping a crust.

‘No, I’m fine.’

Maude shrugged. ‘If you say so.’ I got down a little more. ‘It’s good having you here. I know this… your life has been thrown off-kilter. You probably don’t want to stay here forever. There should’ve been a caravan here already, but, the roads these days. Anyway. When one comes they’ll take you, but the offer’s open to stay.’ She stirred her bowl, sheepish. I looked at the backs of my hands. Were they still paler than before?

‘That’s… thank you.’ Inwardly I bristled at this woman taking me as some sort of surrogate daughter. I’d had my own life. I didn’t need to be a pet. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do. I like it here, you’ve been so kind, after everything. But this place is too close to -’

She nodded. ‘I understand. I still don’t like when soldiers are in here. Brings things back.’ She finished eating, washed out her bowl, and kept the rest of mine for leftovers. I swept and checked the barrels.

People began to arrive, dusty and thirsty. As things got hectic the usual phantom sound picked up. Strange to think it hadn’t always been there. Old Meryl regaled some children with tales of fell creatures in the woods snatching young rascals, making them shriek in delighted fear. Someone started up a song, and I found myself quietly joining in – one Milly had been fond of, although I was, to put it kindly to myself, no bard.

Partway through the fourth verse I realised that the inn was silent. Everyone was staring at me. I blushed, stammering to a halt.

‘Don’t stop,’ one of the kids said. They looked entranced.

‘Why’ve you been hiding your bard, Maude?’ the smith said.

‘I didn’t know she could sing,’ Maude said.

‘I didn’t – I can’t -’ I said. I knew I sang like a cat having its tail pulled. Why were they looking at me like that?

I didn’t understand it, but I began to make Maude and myself a lot of money.

#

Maude and Garret became worried about how little I was eating, and my ongoing crazy sleep pattern. But I felt pretty good, strong, not losing weight. If I had to be active in the day I’d feel restless and itchy, especially outside. After sunset the colours seemed sharper, the air cleaner.

Before long I stopped eating entirely. I told Maude not to worry about it, and she, bizarrely, stopped mentioning it. Her food was the same as before, but something didn’t seem right about it.

A few nights later, I was in the forest when I caught a mouthwatering scent. I followed it, my stomach growling, and came upon a rabbit caught in a trap. Before I knew what I was doing I snapped its neck and tore into it, gorging myself. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

As I walked back towards the town I heard the rush of blood in my ears resolve into beats. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

#

The sound of my pulse became infuriating. In a full inn it sounded like a cacophony, and I took more and more excuses to be out at night, wandering the woods, where it was quieter, or finally silent.

The caravans still hadn’t come. There were whispers about hordes of lawless fiends on the roads, though Old Meryl told a darker tale. My roaming, my hunting, took me further afield each time, until I decided to go back to the scene where it had happened.

A completely ordinary stretch of road, bearing no mark of the attack. I expected to feel something. Tom. Milly. Will. No, nothing. That life was over. I sat watching the moon shine over the town, musing on the change that’d come over me.

And then a horse galloped through my chest. I felt my heart writhing within me, as I fell back on the stone with my limbs thrashing. The night was so bright. Each second became a sharp blade piercing body and soul, taking a little drop of Serana each time, leaving something new in its empty wake. I felt my heart calm. And stop.

Slowly I rose to my feet. I felt for my pulse. Nothing. I knew now what had attacked me. What I had become. I’d thought I’d been the only survivor. But I hadn’t survived, not really. And now I’d been born anew.

I walked towards the town, revelling in the sensual clarity, the vigour of limb which would be mine forever. As I got close I could hear the heartbeats, the rush of blood which I’d mistaken for my own. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, sweetness and life ripe for the taking. The smell was intoxicating.

I knocked at the inn. ‘It’s me. Let me in.’

‘Heavens, come in, it’s cold out,’ Maude said, opening the door. ‘Where did you go? I worry, you know. It’s not safe out there.’

‘Maude. I need a little something.’

‘Oh. I don’t suppose you’re eating again?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m thirsty.’

‘You don’t need to ask.’ She turned to get a drink.

‘Stop,’ I said, my hypnotic influence stronger than when I’d sang badly but been thought a bard, than when I’d told Maude not to worry about my diet. She paused. ‘Stay still.’ She froze in place. She stank of fear. Her heart pounded.

I reached out to her neck, tracing the vein, feeling it pulsate as she stood there, unable to move away. Badumbadumbadumbadum.