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The Magician, episode one of the Ravenglass Chronicles.

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Kat is heir to the throne…

…but the last thing she wants to do is rule.

When the day she’s been dreading finally arrives, Kat is torn between her royal duties and a magical destiny.

Will she choose true love and risk certain war, or accept an arranged marriage with a man three-times her age?

With only a wyvern and a messenger boy as her friends, who can she really trust?
How deep do the secrets run?

Inspired by the tarot and set in a rich medieval world, The Magician is the first instalment of The Ravenglass Chronicles, a fantasy novella serial with new episodes released each month.

You’ll love this coming-of-age epic because everyone loves hidden magic, family secrets, and forbidden love.

Get your copy on Amazon, or read on Kindle Unlimited.

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Wizard of the Wasteland, book one of the Wasteland series.

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Surviving the apocalypse is hard…

…but it’s hell when you’re an addict.

Abel craves a quiet life.

But when a group of enslaved children cross his path, he is compelled to act.

But no one leaves the Family…

Joined by a travelling showman, Abel must do everything he can to save the kids.

Can he resist the temptations of his old life?

Will he ever be from drugs?

Can he find hope in a hopeless world?

You’ll love Wizard of the Wasteland because everyone loves post-apocalyptic survival, flawed heroes, and tales of good versus evil.

Get you copy on Kindle, paperback, audiobook, or read on Kindle Unlimited.

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Blind Gambit, a gamelit novel.

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He’s the game’s only hope…but the truth is, he sucks.

In the near future, the B-chip allows blind people to see in virtual worlds.

The only time Brian really feels alive is when he’s playing Gambit…even though he’s the worst player.

When a hacker seeks to destroy the game, Brian’s immune to the weapon that’s kicking everyone else out.

But immunity isn’t enough. He must level-up to take on Gambit’s biggest threat.

With the help of friends and rivals, Brian needs to learn new skills, craft awesome weapons, and discover who or what is trying to tear down the only thing he cares about before it’s too late…

In the real world, Brian is forced to confront his disability. But how can he adjust to a world without sight when Gambit offers so much more?

Written by a visually impaired author, Blind Gambit is a GameLit novel as a fun action adventure, filled with geeky references and an authentic perspective on disability.

Available on Kindle, paperback, and Kindle Unlimited.

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Prisoner of the Wasteland – a story in the Wasteland universe

The filthy bedroll slips beneath him when David sits up. He squints at the thin lines of sunlight seeping between the gaps in the boarded-up windows, the damp glistening along the concrete walls.

“You awake?” he whispers, shaking the shoulder of a dark-skinned boy curled up next to him. “Mike?”

The boy glares at David through purple-rimmed eyes, cringing as he grabs the back of his head. “What is it?”

“I was thinking,” David whispers, looking over to the locked door. “We need to get off this stuff.”

Mike laughs, shaking his head, his mouth twisting. “This is it. There ain’t no getting off this.”

“That’s just what they tell you. Bree was say—”

“What does Bree know?” Mike spits. “Tell us, Bree.”

David leans over to the girl lying next to him and shakes her shoulder. “Bree?” He looks up at Mike. “She’s not breathing.”

Mike scrambles over and looks down at Bree, her long black hair matted into knots, and shakes his head. “She’s just high.”

“I tell you, she’s not breathing.”

Mike puts a hand near her mouth and waits. He drops his arm and shakes his head, slower this time.

David gets up and stumbles over the other sleeping children, sweating as he hammers at the door, calling out for help.

A couple of the kids groan and swear. The lock clicks and a bolt shifts across. David steps back as the door swings open.

A tall man, with a grizzled beard and scarred face, eyes David from the doorway. “What the hell is going on?”

“It’s Bree. She’s dead.” David sucks in his bottom lip and nods towards her body, unremarkable among the other death-still children.

“Which one?” The man asks.

“Bree.”

The man wraps a leather strap around his hand and barges through the door, shoving David aside, his eyes darting around the room. “Which one?”

David scrambles across the prone bodies of the sleeping children and crouches next to Bree. “Here.”

The man stands over him and stares at the corpse. “What you waiting for? Get her up. Get her out of here.”

There’s a long silence, and David exchanges a glance with Mike, who shrugs.

“Come on, then,” the man snaps, clearing a path to the door with his kicks.

Struggling, David hooks his arms under the dead girl’s armpits and drags her across the room, straining against her weight as he struggles to get her through the door, her ankles catching against the frame.

“This way,” the man says, marching ahead along the corridor.

David holds back tears as he stares down at her grubby feet dragging along the concrete.

The man knocks on a steel door at the end of the corridor and waits.

Sunlight pours in as the door creaks open. “We got another one,” the man says, nodding back towards David.

A woman looks around the man and shrugs. “Sling it over there,” she says, gesturing behind her. David follows where she’s pointing and takes in a sharp breath.

“Well, come on. We’ve got a busy day,” the man snaps.

David steps outside, the stench of the floodwaters stronger in the open air. He looks around at the buildings looming above him, starting when he’s prodded in the side by the woman’s rifle-butt. “Get rid of it,” she says.

With a deep sigh, David nods and drags Bree’s body to the building’s edge. He glances back at the man, hesitating.

“What you waiting for? Get rid of it.”

David looks down at Bree’s knotted hair, the purple rims around her eyes, her sunken cheeks and bony shoulders, and shakes his head. “I…I can’t.”

The man curses and storms over to David. He grabs Bree around her neck and flings her into the water, her body bobbing on the surface for a minute, her inflated clothes sagging before sinking beneath the blackness. The man wipes his hands and turns to David, prodding a forefinger into his chest. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. Otherwise you’ll be next.” He points to the tiny white bubbles, the only visible marker of Bree’s grave. “We clear?”

David looks down at the flattening surface, and nods. “Yes, sir,” he manages, turning his attention to his feet. “Sorry.”

David sits cross-legged on his bedroll, staring down at a stale piece of bread.

“You going to eat that?” Mike asks.

“I can’t believe she’s dead,” David says, still staring.

Mike sniffs and snatches the bread from David’s limp grip, stuffing it into his mouth. “We’re all dead. I said you shouldn’t get close. If it’s not plez, then it’s the Family.”

“But Bree was a good person.”

“She was an addict and now she’s not.” Mike shrugs and brushes a crumb from his chin. “If you ask me, I’d say she’s better off.”

David sighs and shakes his head, starting when the door crashes open.

“Everyone up,” the man with the grizzled beard says. “Follow me.” He turns and marches out of the room. The other children look at each other, confused, and get to their feet, filing out of the room.

David follows the stream of kids as they meander outside. “What’s happening?” he asks, turning to Mike.

“Shut up,” Mike growls under his breath. “It’s probably about Bree.”

The children are lined-up at the edge of the building, the floodwaters still and silent behind them. David looks down to the place where Bree’s body was thrown and holds his breath for a few long seconds.

Three women stand guard with rifles as the man with the grizzled beard paces in front of the kids, stopping when a small boy, a head shorter than David, emerges flailing with a collar and chain around his neck. “Look at the face of this boy,” the man says. “We found this boy trying to steal plez. Do you know what we do to people who steal from us?” He makes a gesture to one of the women. “Pull him up.”

David and the other children watch in silence, not daring to move as the chain around the boy’s neck tightens and lifts him three-feet off the ground, his feet flailing uselessly.

“Watch,” the man says, pointing. “Any of you kids turn away from this, and you’ll be next.”

David turns in the direction of the kid, his eyes focused on something in the distance, the last few spasms of movement blurring at the edge of his vision.

A long tense silence hangs in the air before the chain is released, dropping the boy to the ground like a pile of dead meat.

“Get rid of it,” the man says, pointing at David.

“What?”

“Get rid of it. Put him with your friend.”

“But—”

“Disobey me again and see what happens,” the man says, narrowing his eyes.

David swallows and dips his head with a single nod. He staggers over to the dead boy and looks down at his vacant eyes. Shuddering, he unfastens the collar digging into the dead boy’s neck and tosses it aside. He drags the body to the building’s edge, gets to his knees and rolls it into the water, turning away before he sees the splash.

“We’re going to need a new cleaner,” the man says. “Someone who’s not going to steal from us. Any volunteers?”

David glances over to the other kids, all of them looking at their feet.

“No one?” the man says, shrugging. He turns to David. “You’re small. You’ll do.”

David squirms against the electrical wire wrapped around his wrists, binding his hands together as he’s led across the plank of wood extending between rooftops. He stares ahead, trying not to look down at the floodwaters as the wood wobbles beneath his bare feet.

The man with the grizzled beard directs him through a door, one hand firmly clasped on David’s shoulder.

An expansive factory floor opens out before them. A thick chemical odour penetrates the stench of the floodwaters. Steel vats stand in rows along the concrete floor. Twisted copper pipes spread out in all directions. A purple haze lingers in the air.

The man turns to David and unbinds his wrists. “You need to keep this place clean,” he says. “Whenever there’s a new cook, you need to get under those and get rid of the gunk.” He gestures beneath the vats. “Try not to get burnt, those things get very hot.”

David looks around and nods. “You want me to get under those?”

The man ignores the question. “If you steal, you’re dead. Same goes if you try to escape, if you’re late, if you don’t do what whoever is in charge says.” There’s a pause. “We clear?”

David shrugs. “Okay.”

A prod to the shoulder brings David from his sleep, the last fragments of plez pulling at the edge of his consciousness. He looks around in the gloom as the others sleep around him, and starts at the sight of a man, dressed from head-to-foot in yellow plastic, standing over him, a carbine hanging at his side.

“Come on,” the man says. “Time for work.”

David staggers to his feet, confused. “Okay,” He follows the man outside, across the bridge, and to the factory.

“Wait there,” the man says, pointing to a patch of floor near the door. He returns a minute later carrying a sweeping brush, a gasmask obscuring his face. “Clean,” he says, his voice muffled through the rubber and glass.

Sucking in his bottom lip, David takes the broom. “What’s the mask for?” he asks, his voice little more than a whisper.

“Speak up,” the man says.

“What’s with the mask?”

“Cooking fumes are bad for you.”

“Can I have one?”

The man lets out a laugh and shoulders his way past, shaking his head. He stops and looks back. “You keep your questions to yourself. Get cleaning.”

David spends the next few hours sweeping the room, wiping down vats, and tipping trays filled with ash into the floodwaters. He stands on the water’s edge, looking down, and then heads back inside, his stomach rumbling.

The factory heats up as a roaring fire burns at the far end. A purple-grey haze fills the room as steam rushes from the joins of copper pipes along the ceiling. David wobbles as his feet grow light. He taps the man on the shoulder. “Can I eat?”

“Don’t talk to me,” the man says, his voice distant. “You can eat when you’ve cleaned up this batch.”

David nods and watches as the man pulls a tray of gleaming purple crystals from beneath one of the vats, biting his bottom lip as he takes in their twinkling forms.

“Don’t even think about it,” the man says, shaking the crystals. He picks one up, turning it in the low light. “You saw what happened to the last one.”

“Looks like a good batch.”

The man pulls off his gasmask and wipes his sweat-soaked forehead with a sleeve, frowning. “Don’t be friendly.” He hangs the mask from a hook descending from the ceiling and gestures to a crate. “Bring me that.”

David runs to the corner and drags the battered wooden crate to the man. “Here okay?” he asks, looking up.

The man nods. “Hold it still.” He pours the crystals from the tray, letting them cascade into the crate, filling it halfway. “Put the lid on it.” He looks around, rubbing his chin. “Still not enough.”

David gives a confused look. “What?”

Raising a hand, the man’s eyes flicker with rage. “Take the crate back to where you got it and cover it up. We need another batch.”

Flinching, David looks over to the corner and nods. “Okay,” he whispers, dragging the crate backwards. When he reaches the corner, he rummages around the other crates until he finds the right cover. He places the sheet of wood over the crate, adjusting it until it slots into place.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Get rid of the crap.” The man gestures to the tar-like substance clinging to the underside of the vat.

David picks up a cloth and bucket, runs over and crawls underneath, scrubbing at the gunk. He calls out in pain when his hand brushes against the metal, still hot from the cook, and rolls out, clutching it.

“What is it?”

“Burned my hand,” David says, tears filling his eyes.

“Let me see,” the man says, grabbing at his wrist.

A bright-pink oval stretches from David’s little finger to his wrist, his skin frayed where the flesh peeled off against the metal. The man turns away and shrugs. “I’ve seen worse.”

“But it hurts.” Cross-legged, David leans forward, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Get up. Do your job. If you can’t do your job, you’re done. You understand?”

David swallows and nods, his left hand throbbing.

Streams of dying light punctuate the gloom as David sits hunched over on his bedroll. He looks up, forcing a smile as Mike hands him a slice of hard bread. “Thanks,” he says in a whisper.

Mike scrunches a blanket into a ball and sits down next to David. “Weird without Bree, huh?”

David looks at the area of bare floor where Bree used to sleep, and sighs. “Just life, I guess.” He tears a chunk of the bread away with his teeth, moving it around his mouth as he chews, licking his lips against the dryness.

“What happened to your hand?” Mike asks, gesturing to the long blister.

“Got burned on one of the plez vats.”

“Looks bad.”

“It’s okay.”

Mike nods. “Plez will sort you out. Hit of that, and boom! You’re out.”

Shuddering, David takes another bite of bread and stares down at his hands.

“Did you see them make it?”

David nods and swallows. “My head really hurts.”

“You get any?” Mike whispers.

“And get strung-up?” He looks down at his burns and winces.

Shaking his head, Mike makes a wide smile. “Man, if I was in there, I’d just get as much as I could…” His voice trails off at David’s glare. “What?”

“I’m done with it. I wasn’t kidding. I’m getting clean. It’s bad.”

Mike smirks and lies back onto his bedroll. “I’ll have yours when they bring it round.”

David looks up when the door opens. A woman and man enter, both with rifles over their shoulders. The other kids jump to their feet. “Don’t move,” the man says, patting his rifle. “She’ll bring your plez.” He shakes his head as the woman hands out crystals to the other children. The kids scurry back to their bedrolls with their drugs, some lighting-up without hesitation.

Mike bolts to his feet when the woman approaches, and she hands him a single crystal. “What’s up with you?” she asks, looking down at David, still on his bedroll.

“My head hurts.”

The woman tosses a purple crystal, no bigger than a thumbnail, onto the blanket to David’s left. His mouth twitches as he grabs the crystal, watching as the woman moves away.

Mike lets out a snort and grins at David. “You let me have your plez?”

David doesn’t respond, his hand squeezing around the crystal.

“Thought not.” Stuffing the plez into a finger-length steel tube, Mike lights a candle and leans down to it with the pipe in his mouth. He turns to David and smiles. “See you on the other side.” Turning back to the candle, he pushes the crystal into the flame, holds it for a few seconds, and then inhales. A shudder spreads across his back and up along his neck. The pipe flops from his mouth and he slumps to his side.

The chemical tang hangs in the air. David cringes. He looks around at the others, many of them now in a stupor, and sighs. The burn on the side of his hand itches and throbs.

Leaning back, he stares at the ceiling, listening, breathing. He loosens his grip and lets the plez roll from his hand. Closing his eyes, he takes in a breath, holding it in until his he hears his heartbeat. He exhales and snaps to an upright position, his hand shooting towards the crystal and his pipe as his mouth turns desert dry.

A flood of tears catches him off guard when he looks over to the bare space where Bree used to sleep. He holds his breath, chewing on his fist. Cold sweat gathers along his back, seeping from his forehead. Dry heaves contract in his stomach, tearing at his throat and chest. Squeezing his eyes shut, he drives the plez into his pipe, leans towards the candle, inhales, and fades.

Shadows stretch beneath the vats as David scrubs the dull metal surface, taking care not to burn himself again. He slides from underneath and looks up at the man standing over him.

The man’s breath clicks and wheezes through the gasmask, his yellow plastic suit crackling with movement. He gives David an unsure look then glances over to the door. “I’m going for a pee,” he says, his voice muffled. “Stay here. Don’t move.” He pulls of his mask and hangs it from a hook.

David gives a nod and rubs the sweat from his brow as the man leaves. He looks towards the crate of plez and bites his lower lip for several seconds. The gush of foul air from the open door clears the lingering chemical fumes. He goes over to the door and leans outside, the light fading from the day.

Scanning the rooftops, he sees no signs of other people, no movement. The man stands on the edge of the rooftop with his back to David, urinating into the floodwaters below.

David looks towards the sunset, to the blotches of purple and orange smearing the sky. His eyes rest on the shoreline. He follows it south, tracing its shape with his finger, his gaze lingering on the end of the highway that winds its way west, fading into the hills.

“What you doing out here?”

David takes in a sharp breath and swivels on his heels. “I need to pee.”

The man eyes him for a second, and then nods. “Be quick. Nearly done anyway.”

Hesitating, David steps past the man and heads over to the building’s edge. He looks over the side and into the water as it sloshes against the bricks below. The rooftops around him stand empty. Firelight pours from a window in an opposite building. He flexes his burnt hand and looks over his shoulder, shivering at the chill wind, listening as it blows around the buildings in a low ghostly hum. He looks back down towards the water, staring for several seconds before sighing and heading back inside.

The man stands leaning against the doorway, waiting. “You took your time. We’ve got to get this shipment out first thing. Let’s get cleaned-up and get these crates out.”

“I think I can escape,” David says in a hushed voice, rolling on his side.

Mike stares back at him for several seconds, his face contorting into a smirk, and then a laugh. “We got it good here.”

David leans on his right elbow and sighs. An empty bowl of sour-tasting soup rests on the floor between them. “Good? You think this is good?” He waves a hand and Mike shrugs. “We’re going to die here.”

A sharp breath shoots from Mike nostrils. “We get beds, we get plez, we get food. I mean, yeah, the work’s bad, but we’re alive.”

“For how long?”

“You think things are better in the wastes?” Mike lies on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “No dogs, no raiders, no scavenging.” He counts the points on his fingers. “If you think being out there is better, you go ahead.”

“I want to be free.”

Mike sits up and looks back at him with purple-rimmed eyes, his face etched with deep creases, sweat glistening along his forehead. “So you can swim?”

“I don’t know.”

“So what’s your plan?”

David shrugs.

Another laugh splutters from Mike as he lies back on his bed. “Keep dreaming. Plez will be here soon. That’s when I’m free.”

The next morning, a man with a rifle strides into the room and sweeps his gaze across the children’s faces. “We’ve got a shipment to prepare, so you all need to stay in here.”

“What about work?” a boy asks.

The man turns and glowers at the boy. “Are you thick? I just said you all need to stay in here. That means no work.”

Mike rests his hands behind his head and leans back, grinning. “Happy days.”

Leaving the room, the man closes the door, bolting it behind him.

David frowns. “I need to pee,” he says, getting to his feet. He steps over the other children, his feet finding tiny islands of concrete among the sea of bedrolls and limbs. When he reaches the door, he knocks it and waits.

“What?” a voice asks after a few seconds.

“I need to go.”

“There’s a bucket.”

David glances at the bucket in the corner overflowing with urine and faeces, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s full. Please, I really need to pee.”

David staggers back as the door opens. A man leans in, looks at the bucket, and eyes David up and down. “You know where you’re going?”

David nods.

“Be quick.”

David slips past the man and makes his way to the roof. He looks over the water as the sunrise flares across the sky. He steps to the building’s edge and goes to pee, watching as a pair of dealers walk around a canoe, checking its hull for damage.

He goes to the other side of the roof and relieves himself. When he’s finished, he glances over to the shore, the shape of a campervan just visible at the end of the highway.

Looking around, he takes in a deep breath then jumps into the water. A shock of cold runs through his body as the water hits.

His head drops below the surface and he takes a mouthful of the foul water. He bobs up, gasping, kicking his legs frantically. The water covers his head again, stinging his eyes and filling his ears. He claws and scrambles, reaching towards the wall, trying to pull himself up, trying to breathe.

“Help,” he calls out, his words obscured by the water filling his mouth. Reaching out, he grabs a metal bracket jutting out from the wall and calls out again. The water pulls at him, tugging him down. “Help!”

With weak muscles, he tries to pull himself up, his arms bending halfway before giving out. His head falls below the water again, and he kicks his feet against the wall, trying to gain purchase. He reaches for the bracket again, gripping it with trembling fingers, his biceps throbbing with the cold. “Help. Anyone.”

“You,” the man calls down from the roof. “What you doing down there?”

“I…I fell in.”

The man lets out a mirthless laugh. “You tried to escape, didn’t you? You can’t even swim, can you?”

“I tripped.” David looks around, gasping. “Honest. I fell in.” He looks over his shoulder at the water. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Right.” Nodding, the man steps away from the edge, returning a few moments later with a length of blue rope. “If you’re lying…”

“I’m not…I didn’t…I wouldn’t…” David manages between coughs.

With narrowed eyes, the man lets down the rope until its end dips below the surface. “Grab on.”

David takes the rope, flinching as it takes his weight.

The man groans above, heaving the rope, bringing David up to the roof. Breathless, David rolls onto the roof, soaked and shivering. The water’s stench fills his clothes.

“Get up,” the man says.

David turns and vomits, the sick bursting from his mouth like black lava. Sweat and tears streak through the filth.

“Get up,” the man repeats, his voice colder, lower.

“I…I can’t.“ An explosion of vomit erupts from David’s mouth, and he flops onto his side. The man yanks him by the arm, dragging him to his feet.

“You’re lucky I don’t string you up.”

David swallows, trying to focus, trying to catch his breath, his heart pounding, blood rushing in his ears. “I didn’t mean to fall.”

“Get inside.”

Hesitating, David looks down at his clothes, sopping wet and coated in filth. “I’m too dirty.”

“You addicts are all dirty,” the man says, spitting on the ground. “Get inside.” He prods David with the rifle-butt.

“Okay.” David dips his head in assent then shambles forward, making his way back.

“This isn’t over. I’ll deal with you properly later.”

When the man closes the door behind him, David squints at the gloom as the other children stare up at him, wide-eyed. He stumbles over a few bodies on his way back to his bed-roll.

“Damn, what happened?” Mike asks.

David tears off his clothes and huddles into his blanket, still trembling. “I tried to escape,” he whispers.

Mike lets out a loud laugh. “You’re good,” he says, shaking his head. “You nearly had me there.” He slaps his thigh. “No, really. Why you wet?”

“Seriously.”

Mike sits up, raising his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

“I thought I’d be able to swim, but I can’t.”

“So, what? You just jumped in the water?”

David nods. “I figured it couldn’t be hard.”

“How far did you get?”

“I didn’t. I just went under. The guy outside sent down a rope.”

“They know you tried to escape?”

“No.” David shrugs. “I said I fell in.”

“When you were having a pee?”

David smiles. “I think he believed me.”

Mike shakes his head. “If they knew you were trying to escape…”

“I know.”

“Get up,” a man’s voice growls in David’s ear.

“What?” David looks around, confused as the other children lie sleeping.

“Get up.” The man drags David to his feet, yanking him free of his blanket. “Come on. We’ve got to load the shipment.”

David rolls his shoulders, bones clicking in his neck. He follows the man outside, rubbing his eyes through the fog of sleep and plez. It’s still dark when he gets outside.

The man leads the way with a flaming torch, stopping when he reaches a stack of crates. “I need you to lower these onto those boats,” he says, pointing.

“It’s too dark. I can’t see.”

The man looks the kid up and down, his torch held out at arm’s-length to the side. “You saying you’re not going to follow orders?”

David sucks in his bottom lip and takes a step back, shaking his head. “It’s dark. What if I mess-up?”

“If you mess this up, you get strung-up. Is that clear?”

Swallowing, David nods and goes over to the crates, a coil of rope resting on the ground next to them. Among the crates, he places his hand on a blue plastic barrel. “Do I need to send this? It’s empty.”

“Does that look like a crate?”

There’s a long pause and the kid nods. “Just the crates?”

The man gives no response, only watches.

With fumbling, trembling hands, David takes the rope and secures it around the first crate. He looks back at the man, still standing over him, the torchlight providing the only source of light. “Where do I take it?”

“Lower them onto the boats. It’s not that difficult.”

David rubs sweat from his brow as the first hints of sunlight reveal themselves. “Sorry. I’ve just woke up. It’s the plez.”

The man stares at David for a long moment, a curl creasing the left side of his upper lip. “Addicts,” he spits, shaking his head. “Just get on with it.”

Taking the first crate in his arms, he ambles slowly to the roof’s edge and looks into the black waters. His eyes linger on the rippling of the waves, the tiny shimmers of reflected gloaming, before shifting them to the boat. A woman looks up at him, staring impatiently. “Well?”

David looks around. “Here.” He lowers the crate, the rope rubbing against his blister when the woman tugs at it with a sudden jerk.

She unfastens the rope from the crate and looks up at him. “Well? Don’t just stand there. Get the rest.”

David runs back to the crates, secures them with rope, and lowers them one-by-one to the woman, now distributing the shipments between four different boats. “Is that the last one?” she asks, after a while.

“That’s it,” David says.

“Good. Go see your boss.”

David looks around but sees no signs of the man. He wanders back to the blue plastic barrel, leaning his hand on it as he waits. After a minute, he yawns and looks down at his drumming fingers. A few of the Family’s dealers drop into boats, pushing out on the water towards the shore. He watches them for a minute or so, then turns back to the barrel, considering its shape, its hollowness.

The rising sun sends red light flooding across the rooftops. A breath catches in his throat as he takes the barrel, rolls it over the edge of the rooftop, and follows it into the water.

The cold shock hits him. He scrambles wildly, gasping as his head bobs beneath the water, its acrid foulness filling his lungs and burning his eyes. The barrel bobs on the surface, just out of reach. He leans forward and plunges beneath the water, kicking his legs and flapping his arms.

Turning, he grabs onto a rusted bracket and pulls his body against the wall. With a thrust of his legs, he shoots forward, grabbing around the sides of the barrel. A shout comes from above, echoing around him.

The barrel sinks low into the water when it takes his weight. David waits, and the barrel holds. The voices comes again, louder, more urgent. He ignores them and kicks his legs, moving forward, cutting a course through the freezing water.

He grabs the opposite wall with one hand, his other clasped to one of the barrel’s handles. A bullet whizzes by, the gunshot’s snap deafening. But he keeps going.

By the time he reaches open water, his legs move with slow, jellylike kicks, his muscles seizing against the effort and cold.

Teeth chattering, he smiles as the sun grows warm, its light soothing against the back of his neck. He heads northwest, away from the direction of the Family’s campervan, now no more than a speck in the distance.

A few gunshots ring out from the direction of the dealers’ boats, but he keeps pushing, keeps swimming.

He cries out when something sharp catches his left foot. Kicking weakly, he feels the land beneath the water.

A minute or so later, he reaches the shore, drags the barrel from the water, and flops to his side, exhausted.

It’s dark when David stirs. He looks around at the jet black sky, squinting as hunger and plez pull at his thoughts. His clothes hang damp and tattered from his body as he hugs his arms around his knees.

The need for plez pushes away the hunger. Sweat seeps from every pore, coating him in a layer of cold. He coughs and cries, looking back out over the water towards the Family.

Getting up, he wanders along the water’s edge, shingles clattering beneath his bare feet. He picks at long-dead bushes, sniffing their branches. His mouth grows dry and the need for water is almost as strong as the need for plez.

He wanders aimlessly until long after sunrise, coming to rest among the stones, curling into himself, sweating and crying as he rocks himself to sleep.

Grasses with stringy yellowed stems rest flat against the ground. David picks at them, sucking at their moisture, chewing them before spitting them onto the dirt.

Following the shore north for a few days, he staggers in a daze, stopping at the edge of the water to feel its wetness against his lips as the hunger tears through him.

He turns south, retracing his steps along the shore, heading towards the highway.

The smoke from the factory rises in black curls against the morning sun. David wipes the sweat from his brow, shivering, cold, hungry.

Crouching next to the floodwaters, he cups his hands and dips them below the surface.

“I wouldn’t drink that water if I were you, kid,” a voice says.

David stiffens and looks around. A man stands over him. A long leather jacket hangs past his knees, his face obscured by a kerchief, goggles, and a tattered red baseball cap. “It’s okay, kid.”

The man removes the goggles and kerchief, offers David a smile, and reaches out, offering him a water bottle. “I’m Abel.”

THE END

 

TheWasteLandSeries-Boxset (1)

Host – a dark short story

  The tunnels around me are dark, dark. I yearn for the hum of the strip lights, the drip, drip of the pipes. It’s cold down here. I lie, weighed down by my sac, as a dozen babies claw and writhe inside me.
It never used to be this way, but when the plague came, we all changed. Those that survived were never the same. A new norm emerged.
I whisper to the children. They’re not my children. They grow inside me, but they grow from the seeds of men and women. I am not like them. I am a host.
The men bring me food and water. The women bring me stories and blankets. They fear me, but they need me. Like soil, they need me to grow their seeds. Through their worship, their reverence, I can still taste their fear, bitter on my tongue. They look upon me as something else, something neither here nor there: a host.
I’ve heard whispers in the dark of “necessary evils” and “unfortunate realities”. Without me — without us — they cannot breed.
When they bring their offerings of sperm and ovum, I eat until I can eat no more. A desire to swallow the men and women, to tear them apart limb from limb — like a mantis extinguishing her mate — is only expunged by their restraints, their binds.
I know there are hosts like me who roam the tunnels and the wastes, feeding on their mates once the impregnation is complete. They aren’t like me — they are free.
There’s a tear in my sac. Amniotic fluid seeps around me, soaking my flesh. Men and women arrive. The first child is born a host. The child is cast to the flames.

The Magician – Chapter I

Kat squinted at the sunlight pouring into her bedchamber, dust motes caught mid-dance. She smiled at her handmaiden Helene through her tiredness, wishing she could close her eyes and roll back into her dreams.
“Your Imperial Highness.” Helene lowered her gaze. “Your breakfast—” her eyes widened as she stared down at the bed sheets, crisp white linen patched with dried blood between Kat’s legs.
Kat recalled how excited her younger sister had been when she bled for the first time. But it would be different for her. Breath caught in her chest. Her mother would do everything in her power to change Kat, to mould her into someone just like her, but at least it would bring an end to Elisabeth’s gloating.
A smile emerged through the deep creases on Helene’s face, brightness reaching her dull grey eyes. “This is wonderful.” She pulled the sheet from Kat, the handmaiden’s fingers like crabs’ legs.
Kat dragged the sheet back towards her, kicking her legs until she sat with her head against the oak backboard, carvings of scrolls and ivies pressing against the back of her head. She rolled the bed sheet into a ball, folding her arms as she pressed it into her lap. “No.”
“We will have to tell your mother.” Helene raised her chin and scoffed. “You’re a woman now.”
“Please. You cannot tell anyone.” She sat up, clearing her throat. “That is an order.”
“Princess Kathryn.” Helene gave a chuckle, shaking her head. “You do say the funniest things sometimes.” Still smiling, she pried the sheet from Kat’s grip and held them up to the sunlight. She glanced down at Kat’s stained nightdress. “Would you like me to help clean you?”
“That is not necessary. You are dismissed, Helene.” She winced as cramps spread below her stomach.
“As you wish, Your Highness.” Helene dipped her head and hesitated by the door. “One moment, please, Princess.” She slipped from the bedchamber, leaving the door ajar.
Kat’s yawn turned into a sigh. She shifted from the bed, walking around aimlessly, floorboards cold beneath her steps. The arrival of her woman’s blood meant rituals and ceremonies—the cleansing, the sacrifice, the humiliation. She stared down at her trembling hands as her heartbeat pounded and breath grew tight. Sweat pooled around the back of her neck. She closed her eyes, counting to herself, concentrating on the breaths, trying to push away the darkness before it engulfed her, sending back down that spiral of panic.
Helene returned a minute or so later, backing through the door with a wash basin in one hand and a bundle of cloths in the other. She placed the bucket at the end of Kat’s bed and smiled. “You will need to be clean, Your Highness. I can help you if you like. Or if you would rather I left you alone?”
Kat blinked and inhaled, steeling herself. “Thank you, Helene. I can manage from here.”
The handmaiden looked down at a ball of cloth in her hand and passed it to Kat.
“What is this for?” Kat asked, taking the woollen pad.
“Pop it inside your smallclothes. It will soak the blood. I will bring you a fresh pad before you sleep.”
Kat swallowed and dropped her gaze.
“Don’t worry about a thing, Princess. It happens to us all. It just means you’re no longer a child.”
The door clicked behind her as Helene left with the bed sheets. Kat passed over a rug, made from the pelt of a white bear, and leaned out of her window. Clouds tumbled above the Braun Sea, the ever-shifting dots of reflected sunlight sparkling across the waves. Tall-masted ships bobbed in the distance. Barges and sloops vied for space around the harbour.
Kicking free of her nightclothes, she cleaned herself with the cloth. The water warmed her flesh as another pang of cramps pulled at her insides. She took in a deep breath and dried herself, sliding the woollen pad into her underclothes.
She pulled on the clothes Helene had laid out for her—a green silk tunic with a golden wyvern sigil curled along its chest and a pair of cream hose—and raked an ivory comb, carved in the shape of a narwhal, through her knotted red curls, scraping them away from her forehead.
She turned back to her room, searching around for something, anything, to give her comfort. The ornament of a hunting dog, shaped from black glass, so dark it seemed to suck in the light, stood perched on her writing desk. An icy chill ran along her fingers as she took the ornament in her hands, staring into its eyes, wondering what she was going to do. She needed to see Hansel.
Trembling, she set the ornament back on her writing desk, moving aside an ink pot and using it to weigh down loose parchment, many of the sheets scrawled with frantic writing outlining the details of her increasingly vivid dreams.
Kat mounted the windowsill, barefoot, and looked down. The courtyard’s pale cobbles lay four storeys below. Guards and servants passed beneath her in a flurry of movement and purpose, unaware of the young princess looming above them.
She stepped out, dropping down onto a stone ledge, a few fingers wider than her foot, and pressed her body against the sheer wall. Moving swiftly on her toes, she reached a white painted drainpipe and slid down two floors, feet meeting another carved ledge. She pushed herself away from the wall, landing on the roof of the servants’ lodgings, its slate tiles slick with the haze from the Braun Sea.
She hoped Hansel would not be away on a delivery—it was rare for a message to be sent out so early in the day. Leaning over the roof’s edge, she counted four windows from the right, reached down, and tapped lightly on the glass.
Taking care not to slip, Kat shuffled up along the roof tiles. Smoke rose from a crowned chimney to her left. Ostreich flags, dotted along the battlements of the palace’s outer wall, caught the wind, flapping in unpredictable shudders, the white wyvern on a black field dulled by mist. She watched as more guards emerged from the mess hall’s towering doorway, sauntering in twos and threes to their posts, sharing laughter and conversation. She took in the aromas of freshly baked bread and wood smoke, the hint of hops from the temple brewery catching the wind.
A scrambling sound came from just below the roof’s edge. Kat smiled weakly when Hansel pulled himself up onto the slates. His skin was dark from days on the roads, and he wore his black hair in a tight braid. A navy blue tunic and short trousers marked his role as a messenger. “What’s the matter?”
“Is it that obvious?”
He sat down next to her, pale knees poking from beneath the bottom of his short trousers. “Have you been fighting with your sister again?”
“Elisabeth?” She waved a hand. “No. Not this time.” Shoulders hunched, she looked down at her bare feet and swallowed. “I am a woman now.”
“What do you mean?” He looked her up and down, gaze lingering over her chest. “Nah, you still look like a girl to me.”
She gave his shoulder a playful jab. “Not like that. I do not know.” She lowered her voice to a whisper as her cheeks prickled with warmth. “I…I have bled.”
“Bled? Has someone—” He stopped and nodded to himself, a slight grin curling one side of his lips, and placed a hand on Kat’s. “I understand.” He tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger. “I won’t say nothing to no one.”
“Does that mean you will, or you will not?”
He tilted his head, eyebrow cocked. “Huh?”
Kat rolled her eyes. “It matters not.” She sighed and picked at a clump of moss, freeing it from between a pair of slates, letting it tumble into the drainage gutter. “Helene says she will tell mother.”
“We all have to grow up.” He picked something from his teeth. “Don’t worry about it. Happens to everyone.”
“I am worried. I have to go through the ceremony.” Her fists clenched into a tight ball, knuckles turning pale. “It will only be a matter of time before there is talk of marrying me off to some noble’s son or some foreign prince who does not even speak the Ostreich tongue.” She watched a pair of seagulls rise in broad circles. They danced around each other, diving and swooping, their broad wings slicing through the air. She envied them, envied their freedom, their ability to live how they wanted without the spectre of royal duties and marriage to a stranger looming over them.
“I thought you were supposed to be a princess.”
She turned to see his toothy grin. “Mother will chide me. She’ll tell me again about responsibilities to the Empire and fulfilling my destiny…” Her voice trailed off as she searched for the seagulls.
“Can’t you just order people not to make you do things?”
Kat laughed bitterly. “You think I have power?”
Hansel pushed out his bottom lip and gestured across the courtyard towards the stables. “I don’t know. You live in a big palace. Your mum’s the ruler of the Ostreich Empire.” He counted the points off his fingers. “There’s guards, servants, a navy, an army…”
“Not yet,” she spat. “I cannot even get my handmaiden to do what I want.” She tore up a handful of moss from between the tiles and hurled it from the roof. “It is not fair.”
Hansel laughed.
“You would not understand.” She leaned forward, resting her head in her hands, elbows digging into the sides of her knees.
“Try me.”
“You’ve got it simple.” She turned to him. “You can leave whenever you want and it is not going to cause any crises.”
“No, I can’t. I have responsibilities. People rely on me.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I just wish there was a way I could stop Helene from showing mother those sheets.”
“That’s not a good idea.” He nodded towards the chapel. “I think Witz is looking for you.”
She followed his gaze as the wyvern, no bigger than a large seagull, swooped across the courtyard, his wings broad, black, and bat-like. He landed on the chimneypot to her left and hopped down to the roof, making his way towards Kat on spindly legs. He came to a stop, lowered his head, and lay his leathery wings out at his sides, their surface shimmering between black and emerald green. “Princess Kathryn.” He spoke with a musical lilt. “Your mother is waiting for you.” He regarded her with tiny black eyes.
She gave Hansel a shrug. “I must go.”
“Good luck.” Hansel offered her a grin. “Knock for me later if you’re around.”
“I will.” She gave him a quick smile and climbed from the roof.
Kat scaled down the drainpipe to the courtyard as Witz glided down, landing on the cobbles next to her. He lowered his gaze again and flattened his wings against the ground. “Please, forgive my intrusion. I was sent to find you.”
“You do not need to bow to me, Witz. Just walk with me.” She found his formality in front of the other palace staff strange, and wondered whether they knew how close they really were.
“As you wish, Princess.” Witz straightened his body, folding in his wings, barbed tail stiffening. He looked up at her expectantly.
“Lead the way.”
The wyvern waddled ahead, and led Kat through a side-door usually reserved for guards. The door stood in solid oak inlaid with simple strips of wrought iron.
She hesitated for a moment. “Are you sure?”
He hopped up to the door’s handle, grabbed it with his beak-like mouth, turned it, and pushed the door open. “Come. This way is much quicker.” He took to the air and flew on ahead.
Kat followed him along the seldom-used corridor, footsteps echoing. Sunlight poked through the gloom, highlighting bronze busts of long-dead emperors. Her gaze lingered on a dusty tapestry showing a knight on a horse piercing the belly of a green-scaled dragon, its shield sporting the sigil of a basilisk on a yellow field. The earthen floor tiles faded to a chipped cream along a central path. Judging by the blackened beams and smoke-stained pillars, she presumed it to be a much older part of the palace than where she resided.
Bringing his wings out wide, Witz landed on the gilded handle of an oak door set into a stone archway. Brass images of leviathan and kraken caught the faint light, their surfaces dulled by dust and wear. The wyvern wrestled with the handle for a few moments before giving the door a light knock. He hopped to the floor, disappearing into the shadows.
The door inched open as a male servant eyed her. “Your Imperial Highness.” He bowed. “Forgive me. I was not expecting you here.”
Kat gave him a smile. “I was not expecting to be here either.” She looked back over her shoulder towards Witz.
“Her Imperial Majesty and Princess Elisabeth are waiting for you in the dining room.”
“Thank you.” She glanced around at the familiar surroundings—the glossy white walls, the golden twists of leaves along the coving, the plush jade carpet beneath her feet. “I can make my own way from here.”
Paintings and busts of ancient relatives, nobles, and war heroes blurred past her until she came to a halt outside the dining room. A male servant dipped his head and opened the door without a word. “Thank you.” She raised her chin and took in a breath before stepping through.
Kat’s mother and sister sat at the end of a long polished table, both in jade silks. Rows of tables filled the room. Alchemical orbs hung from ceiling beams, throwing their soft white glow into every corner. She walked to her seat, feeling their eyes upon her. “Mother. Elisabeth.”
“Where were you?” her mother asked. Her eyes widened at the sight of Kat’s bare feet. “Where are your shoes?”
A servant pulled a chair out for Kat and she took a seat, nodding to him with thanks.
“Look at me when I speak to you, child.” Her mother’s flesh had greyed with age, and deep lines creased her brow. She held a teacup with long bony fingers, her eyes narrowing. “Where were you?”
Kat met those dark eyes, her voice catching in her throat. “I—”
“She was probably playing with that servant again or sniffing around the stables,” Elisabeth interrupted, her voice edged with sarcasm. “One would forget she is supposed to be a princess.”
Kat scowled at her sister and turned back to her mother. “I just needed some air. I felt unwell.”
“Your handmaiden came to see me. Helene, is it? I can never remember their damnable names.” She held the cup next to her thin lips, steam rising across her face. “She tells me you have received your blood.”
“That means you’re a woman, like me.” Elisabeth tossed her red hair back, thicker and longer than Kat’s. They shared the same button nose, high cheekbones, and bright green eyes.
“I am still older than you.” Kat’s fists tightened involuntarily.
“Well?” Her mother pursed her lips.
“I…I think she may be mistaken.” Kat shuffled in her seat as a servant poured tea from a white teapot, its faded blue designs of falcons and dragons reminding her of the huntsmaster’s tattoos. “I was out climbing and hurt myself. It must have been from that.”
“She’s obviously lying, mother.”
The Empress silenced Elisabeth with a glare. “Did you visit the physician?”
Kat shook her head and looked down at her chipped fingernails. “It was only a small cut. I think it has healed.”
“Show me.”
“Show you?” Kat’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Your cut.” She placed her teacup down on its saucer. “I must say, Kathryn, it is no surprise that you would hurt yourself the way you go scrambling along those roofs barefoot like some disgusting animal. You’re not hurt at all, are you?” She held Kat with her stare, waiting, a slight curl forming at the edge of her mouth.
Kat went to speak and stopped herself before she told another lie. “Sorry, Mother.” She dipped her gaze, pressing her hands together.
“So, there is no wound?”
A servant placed sweetbreads and cured ham on the plate before Kat. She tore up a piece of the meat with her fingers and ate, closing her eyes as she chewed. “I am sorry.”
“This is a big day.” Her mother raised her chin. “I will have the servants make arrangements.”
Kat met her gaze. “For what?”
“For your ceremony, of course.”

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Lord Sidebottom and the Awesome Airship Mystery

The clock above my workbench struck seven. I rolled up my designs for what can only be described as the most awesome airship ever conceived—not in that vulgar sense uttered by those young people they have nowadays to refer to anything even vaguely of interest. No, this airship was awesome in the truest sense.

I stowed the blueprint in my wall-safe and locked the front door behind me as I stepped into the cold. It was time to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth.

I shovelled coal into my Segway. The machine rumbled to life, steam jets hissing from its exhaust vents. My feet stood firm between its wheels as the vehicle rolled forward.

The sands extended towards the sea’s distant glimmer as the Segway hopped onto the promenade. Seagulls eyed me from their gas lamp perches.

The beautiful Lady Elizabeth would be waiting for me. I had taken it upon myself to court her and prove I was a man of means and keen perception.

Approaching the pier, I spied a commotion around our usual place of meeting. I recognised Detective Jones, as tall and impeccable as ever with his black uniform and airman’s moustache. “Detective,” I called, drawing to a stop.

“Lord Sidebottom.” Lamplight caught the flicker of anguish in his expression.

I followed his gaze and my mouth gaped. An emerald green dress lay draped across twisted limbs. The beautiful Lady Elizabeth stared at nothing with dead eyes. I stepped from my Segway and knelt over her body.

“Do you know this woman?” the detective asked.

“It is the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. We are…we were courting.” I turned to him. “Who could have done this? Who could have snuffed out the life of such a wonderful woman?”

He removed his hat and dipped his head. “I am dreadfully sorry.”

“That is not an answer,” I spat. “Are there no clues?”

The detective licked his lips and gave a slight nod. He handed me a brass plaque, no bigger than my palm and no thicker than the brim of a cheap top hat.

I rose to my feet, tilting it towards a nearby gas lamp. The etched image of Mad Frank winking back at me caught the light. “It is Mad Frank’s calling card—my arch nemesis. Curse that—“

The emerald dress burst open as a dozen or so clockwork crabs launched themselves towards me, nipping and tearing at my flesh and hair and clothing.

I frantically pried them from me, hurling their metal shells to the ground, stamping them down beneath my boots.

The detective lunged forward, swinging at one of the damnable things with his truncheon, screaming out when the creature snapped at his face, lopping off a chunk of his moustache.

We looked around, dazed and breathless as gears and brass shards lay spread across the flagstones.

“Are they gone?” he asked, straightening his hat.

I stared down at my ragged shirt, and wiped my bloodied face with a handkerchief. “What the devil were they?”

“I believe they were Mad Frank’s attack crabs.”

A shuddering breath left me and I knelt next to Lady Elizabeth. Holes in the dress revealed a construction of wood and rubber beneath—nothing more than a container for those mechanical mockeries. I ran my hand towards her face and prodded rubbery flesh. “This is not a murder, detective. This is something else.”

“Then no murder has been committed. It is a closed case.”

“I was supposed to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. If she’s not here, then where is she?”

He met my question with a blank expression.

I tipped my hat and mounted the Segway. Deflated, I returned to my workshop.

I came to a stop outside and rummaged for my keys, my fingers brushing Mad Frank’s calling card. Why had he sent clockwork crabs? Where was the beautiful Lady Elizabeth?

None of it made a lick of sense.

My workshop door flew open and three robot monkeys charged from inside. Steam poured from their ears. Alchemical light glowed behind their eyes.

I jumped to one side as they swung from trees and lampposts.

The first of them leaped towards me. I gripped the creature around the throat, slamming it against my garden wall, its skull shattering on impact.

I sidestepped the second and stood back as it tumbled into a thorn bush. I ran towards it, my boots crashing down on its chest, oil and coal spilling across the cobbles.

I turned swiftly as another mounted my back, its claws tearing at my already ragged shirt. Grabbing its ears, I flipped it over my shoulder and shoved it against the wall. It thrashed for a moment then dropped face-first to the ground.

I examined its head—it was coated in the same rubbery material as Lady Elizabeth’s false visage.

I drew my fists up and shouldered my way into the workshop. Lengths of rubber hose and copper wire lay across the counter. Brass gears and cogs stood in haphazard piles. My gaze shifted towards the wall-safe. Its door hung at an awkward angle. Scorch marks ran along its hinges. I marched over and thrust my head inside. “My designs!”

A glimmer of something caught my eye—an etched sheet of brass, Mad Frank’s calling card.

I snatched it as a low droning hum filled my workshop. I bolted outside, skidding to a halt as Mad Frank’s airship loomed above.

I threw a handful of coal into my Segway and fired up its engine. The airship turned slowly towards me as I raced ahead. A salvo of missiles burst from the airship’s cannon.

Charging headlong towards the first missile, I pushed my Segway beyond its limits, its frame rattling as the wind rushed by my ears. With a swift kick, the Segway rose from the ground and slid along the missile’s edge.

Teeth gritted, I hopped to the next missile, and the next and the next, climbing towards the airship as more of the rockets rained down. I glanced over my shoulder to see my workshop in flames far below. Bouncing from the final missile, the Segway cracked beneath me, its wheels falling to Earth. With a burst of strength, I leaped towards the airship, crashing through a window and clattering onto its deck.

Gasping, I forced myself to stand.

A fiendish masked man stood before me, his black cape rippling against the wind. He twiddled his moustache. “Lord Sidebottom. We meet again.”

“Mad Frank! Gah! What have you done with the beautiful Lady Elizabeth? And what have you done with my designs for the awesome airship?”

He let out a cold laugh. “I do not have time for your games, Lord Sidebottom. You may have destroyed my clockwork crustaceans and mechanical macaques, but you will be no match for my robot-crab-monkeys.”

He clapped his hands, summoning a trio of robot-crab-monkeys. The vile brutes ducked and weaved around me, steel claws snapping, fangs glistening.

I swung at them with kicks and punches, but they moved with swift, unpredictable flourishes.

Overwhelmed, I yielded.

Mad Frank clapped again. “Lock him in the cell.”

The robot-crab-monkeys dragged me along an unlit corridor and threw me into a metal-walled room, locking the door behind me with a thundering clunk. I slumped to the floor, hopeless as darkness pressed around me.

I rifled through my trouser pockets, searching for tools or lock picks. The evening had meant to be a walk along the promenade and a hotpot supper followed by some gin and dress-up, if all went well.

My fingers brushed against the edges of two brass sheets, the etching of Mad Frank bringing a curl to my lips. My sneer turned into a smile as I rammed the calling cards between the door and its frame, shifting them until the lock finally gave way.

Flinging the door open, I grabbed the heads of the two robot-crab-monkeys standing sentry, smashing them against one another with all the force I could muster. Steam gushed from the tops of their craniums, arms flailing wildly.

As the guards fell into a heap around me, a third robot-crab-monkey bounded towards me and pounced. I swivelled, striking the monstrosity with a sharp jab of my elbow. Searing pain tore through my arm as it drove deep into its chest. Hot oil squirted from its frame as it collapsed next to its fallen brethren in a plume of billowing smoke.

Holding my scalded right arm close to me, I crept towards the bridge and kicked open the door.

Mad Frank looked up at me with a start. “Where are my robot-crab-monkeys?”

I shrugged and offered him a broad grin. He charged at me, throttling me with fists.

I nudged him backwards with a shoulder, knocking him into the airship’s control wheel. The craft lurched sharply to the right. We lost our footing and tumbled to the deck. Sliding across the polished oak, I swung at him to no avail. “Gah!”

“You fool!” His wild laughter stopped abruptly when the airship crashed into the sea, a shockwave hurling our bodies to the deck with an almighty thud.

Cold sea water lapped around us, pouring in through the cracks in the ship. I dragged Mad Frank through the nearest window and swam to the shore.

The detective ran over to us as the airship ignited in a tower of flames. I offered him a weak smile and gestured to Mad Frank as we lay coughing and spluttering, sand and seaweed coating our bodies.

Mad Frank pulled something from inside his cape—my designs for the awesome airship. The sodden paper turned to pulp in his hands. “It is ruined! The sea has destroyed your blueprints.”

I rushed to the detective and pointed a finger at Mad Frank. “That man burgled my workshop and attacked me with an assortment of clockwork and steam-powered attack robots. He also blew up my home with missiles, took me prisoner, and, worst of all, he tried to steal the designs for my awesome airship.”

Mad Frank let out a cackling laugh as the detective heaved him to his feet. “You are ruined, Lord Sidebottom. Your awesome airship is no more.”

“What you stole was but a mere copy. I always make duplicates.”

Mad Frank’s eyes widened. “No! All my work was for nought!”

The detective cuffed Mad Frank and led him up the steps towards the promenade. “I’m arresting you in the name of the law.”

“Wait!” I called, chasing after them.

The detective turned to me. “We will interrogate this criminal and then I vow we will find Lady Elizabeth.”

I shook my head and reached up to Mad Frank’s face. I tore off his mask, then pulled away the layer of rubbery flesh. “Oh, Lady Elizabeth. How could you?”

The End.

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To Grip the Bright White Chains

The ocean reflected a sky the colour of hung meat. Elsie coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the stench of washed-up fish.

She turned as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. He was beyond saving.

The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the plez?”

Elsie nodded. “Three caps. I assume you’ve got what I asked for?”

The boy looked up at her as he unfastened the rucksack. “This stuff wasn’t easy to get hold of.”

Raising her chin, she pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal. If you want the caps—”

“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his hair, and laid the items out on the mottled concrete.

A smile crept over Elsie’s face. “Real. Unopened.” She knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”

The boy groped inside his rucksack for several seconds and then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect. It’s the best I could find.”

He handed Elsie the paintbrush with trembling fingers. It was sticky to the touch and coated with long-dried drips of paint.

She placed the brush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of polythene and a coil of blue rope.

The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before her. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned, and ran. She shook her head and sighed as the boy disappeared beyond the sea wall.

Pushing her trolley, Elsie looked across the water, slick with oil and algae. The trolley’s wheels squeaked and snagged on stones and discarded plastic as it clattered along the promenade. Turning left, she pushed the trolley along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded terraced houses.

She thought about the boy and about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most and then be back on the streets, stealing and whoring; each day bringing him closer to an early death.

The demand was there—the demand was always there. She told herself it was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.

Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway, and shouldered her way backwards through a gate, closing it behind her. She gripped the trolley as she regained her breath. Feeling the twinge in her back, she lifted the tins from her trolley.

She surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected a bed of chrysanthemums, red and pink blooms swaying gently with the breeze, their fragrance tickling her memories, reminding her of carefree, more playful times.

She walked over to her bench, and ran a finger along its framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with twists of ivy. Varnished slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants crawling up the wall. The berries were weeks from ripening.

The tins were the finishing touch.

Rummaging through her trolley, Elsie found a flat-head screwdriver and used it to lever open the first lid. She lingered on the old, familiar smell, a fresh smell she had not experienced for many, many years. She wiped the brush with a cloth and dipped it into the white gloss paint, brilliant and gloopy. Satisfied, she watched the paint fall in slow, deliberate drips from the brush and back into the tin.

Dragging the tin over to the first pole, she set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the crossbeam and painted them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.

She rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. Her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung-meat sky, and approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than eight.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Elsie said.

The children stared up at her and scowled. “Piss off,” the girl said.

“You’ll like it. I promise.”

The children exchanged furtive glances and rose to their feet. The boy regarded Elsie for a long moment before nodding to the girl.

“Okay, but if you try anything funny.” The boy patted a blade on his belt.

Elsie led the way and the children followed. She opened her gate and welcomed the children into her garden—their garden.

“Whenever you feel sad, whenever you feel desperate, I want you to come here. If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”

“This is for us?” the boy asked.

“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”

The children smiled. “What’s that do?” The girl gestured past Elsie.

“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and to grip the bright white chains.

“Hold on.” Elsie walked behind the girl. She pushed her and the girl swung up and back, up and back. Elsie felt the girl stiffen for a moment. Then the girl laughed. Then the boy joined in.

Elsie wiped a tear.

It had been a long, long time since she had heard the laughter of children.

The end.

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Basilisk on a Yellow Field — a story in the Ravenglass Universe

I stood on the edge of a large stone room lit by alchemical orbs casting soft white light across the faces of two dozen children as they danced to the drummers and pipers performing a traditional Ostreich folk song.

The adults looked on in their green finery. The men wore matching coats, tailored from silk. The women wore long hooded dresses in a darker green than the men. They were cut low along the bust and pulled tight at the waist, with wide skirts extending to the floor.

My dress was in the style of the other women, though a hidden slit allowed me to reach across with my left hand and easily grasp my blade, the Feuerschwert.

A red-faced dancer stared at me as she swayed from left to right, turning and twisting her hands in time with the music. I smiled, but my smile was not returned. There was fear in those eyes.

The Feuerschwert rested cold against my skin. Though secured to my waist, I feared the ravenglass might cut into my flesh, bringing out its dormant power.

The scent of roasted pork hung in the air as I examined the revellers’ faces. I took care to note the features of each person in an effort to remember. A woman’s face sparked a memory when I saw her from the side, but when she turned to me with an unsure smile, it was clear we shared no recognition.

Just one smile, just one nod of recognition was all I craved. Someone to tell me who I am — to tell me my name.

I moved left along the wall as the beat continued. Though the festivities were held in honour of Jorg Shultz’s fiftieth year, the Viscount had retired to his chamber during the final course of the feast. I stepped around a stone bust of my target, staring expressionless from a marble plinth, and skirted past a colourful tapestry that was fifteen feet across. It showed a knight bearing the Ostreich sigil of a black basilisk on a yellow field thrusting a lance into the belly of a green-scaled wyvern.

Reaching the end of the great hall, I slipped through a half-open door. The alchemical glow faded as I made my way along a bare stone corridor illuminated by wall candles. The handle of the Feuerschwert brushed against my side as my steps grew urgent. I found my way to a spiral stairway.

I ascended the steps until I reached a thick door in varnished oak. I placed my ear against the door and listened. Hearing nothing, I turned the handle. I held my breath, pulled up the hood of my dress, removed my shoes, and stepped through the door.

The corridor was dark and the floorboards cold beneath my soles. A faint glow seeped out from beneath a door at the end of the passage. I reached into my dress, removed the Feuerschwert, trembling as I held it my hands. Its ravenglass blade was a deep black — a much deeper black than the darkness of the passage.

I unhooked the skirt from my dress and freed myself from the corset, dropping them in a heap next to me. I stepped towards the door and teased its handle. My heart thundered in my chest as I pushed the door open.

A fire burned in a hearth at the far-right of the room. Above it, a portrait of a long-dead Viscount looked on with a dark, disinterested gaze. Thick green drapes hung in front of the windows overlooking the Braun Sea. I heard a shuffle to my right — it was Jorg Shultz. Our eyes met.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked.

I said nothing and pricked the index finger of my left hand with the Feuerschwert. The Viscount’s eyes widened at the blade turned from deep black to a glowing red as it consumed the blood.

“Ravenglass,” he whispered, his eyes bulging.

I jumped back on my toes as he tipped his chair towards me. Jorg unsheathed a blade, longer and thicker than my own. With a fluid motion he rolled up his sleeve and sliced the blade across his left forearm. His blade too glowed red.

A wolfish grin rose beneath his thick blond moustache. Nobody had warned me about this.

My hands went slick with sweat. I danced on my tiptoes, feinted left, then right, trying to draw him into dropping his guard, to making a mistake.

“Who sent you?” he growled.

I shook my head. I was not going to answer him. How could I answer him?

He swung his blade in a broad vertical arc. I hopped to the right and stabbed forward with a twist of my wrist. He jerked his shoulder to the side. We both straitened up, regaining our stance.

We circled each other, his blue eyes locked with my own. I dived forward, striking the back of his leg. He let out an agonised scream as the blade hissed, its magic tearing through his flesh, burning him from within.

He swung and I moved to parry, but instead of the expected ricochet, his blade went through my own, like two jets of water crossing each other’s paths. His blade nicked my arm and I felt its fiery heat swell inside.

Neither of us bled from our wounds, but I sensed Jorg’s pain as it spread through his body. He fell backwards, looking up at me in terror. “What do you want?” he managed. His words were weak, his breath shallow.

I stood over him. His blade returned to black as it dropped from his convulsing hand. I pulled my hood down and pushed my blade into his chest.

“It’s you,” he gasped. “What—”

I pulled the Feuerschwert from his chest. “Wait,” I said. “Who am I?” I leaned down and shook him. “Please,” I pleaded. “Tell me who I am.”

But he was already dead.

The End.

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The Gibson Continuum

Sci-fi network 3D shape

The sky above the port was Ernest Cline blue, buffering. I brought up my HUD and stepped into the Squid and Mashed Potato.

The decor was all straight lines and battered sofas. The barman had Bart Simpson hair and a Tim Curry smile. “What can I get you?” he asked.

“Just a beer,” I said.

“The Squid and Mashed Potato don’t do ‘just a beer’,” said a girl perched at the end of the bar. She wore Terminator mirrorshades and a Tank Girl tank top. She sipped her beer.

“We have our own microbrewery,” the barman said. “We’ve got a new beer on draught we call the Steve Guttenberg Project.”

“Fine,” I said. My HUD flashed as seventeen credits vanished from my account.

The barman pulled the wooden beer tap slowly as the glass filled with nut-brown beer. A Huey Lewis and the News song blared through the bar’s hidden speakers—not “The Power of Love,” the other one.

“Thanks,” I said. I pulled up a barstool with a warm leatherette seat and tasted the beer. It was okay.

“How’s the beer?” the barman asked.

“It’s okay.” I turned to the girl. She was reading one of those analogue books with the words printed on paper. “What are you reading?”

“Neuromancer,” the girl said, not looking up.

“Like Duran Duran?”

The barman smirked and rolled his eyes.

The girl closed her book. “What?” Her tone was short, impatient.

“I’m Kevin,” I said, holding out my right hand.

“Like that kid from Home Alone?”

I sighed and sipped my beer.

“Do you enjoy being confusing?”

I shrugged. “When I can.”

The girl smiled with her lips sex-doll pink and her teeth like chrome. “What do you do?”

“I’m a self-contained multimedia node: blogger, vlogger, vrogger.” I reached for her hand to send her my channel, but she moved it away before I could touch her. “I’ve got a lot of followers.”

“Oh.” She reopened the book.

“Oh?”

“Oh,” the girl repeated.

“Why ‘oh’?”

“Because we’re all the same.” She shrugged. “We’re all multimedia nodes: doing new media, remixing old media, shifting paradigms. It’s always new. It’s always boring. It’s so 2020.”

“Oh.” I snapped a video of her sighing over her book and posted it onto my channel. “What’s the book about?”

The girl shook her head. “It’s cyberpunk. It’s about computers and cyberspace and stuff. It’s retro.”

“Cool, that’s what I’m doing my piece about.”

“What?”

“Cyberpunk, speculations on a pre-singularity internet, that kind of thing.” I gave my best warm smile.

“And you’ve never heard of Neuromancer? Don’t you think you should have done some research first?”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, I’ve only just started.”

The girl snorted.

I’d already received thirty likes on my video of the girl sighing over her copy of Neuromancer.

“Can I see?” I gestured to the book.

She passed it over and I felt its weight. It bore the pallid elfin face of a woman with blank white eyes. “She’s got your hair,” I said, handing the book back.

“It’s the look I’m going for.”

“I take it you’ve still got your pupils, though?”

The girl raised her mirrorshades to show her big manga eyes, Ernest Cline blue. I saved the image.

“Do you want to help me hunt ghosts?” I asked.

“Not really.” She gestured a yawn. “What kind of ghosts?”

I sipped at my beer. “The ghosts of cyberpunk: Compuserve, MS-DOS, Word Perfect, the information superhighway, Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Nokia 3210s, Bolt, floppy disks, the Millennium Bug, Hamster Dance, AOL CDs with thirty hours free internet.” I waved a hand. “You know, cyberpunk.”

The girl sneered. “That’s not cyberpunk.” She touched my hand and sent me a barrage of content: Gibson novels; a guy with a green Mohawk; a Nintendo Power Glove; Stephen Hawking saying something about space in a robot voice; a picture of Ronald McDonald wearing a Nazi uniform; the dog from Duck Hunt; a Commodore 64 covered in mud; a bag of amphetamine sulphate; the video to “Wired for Sound” by Cliff Richard; and wires—lots of wires.

I jerked my hand back as the opening lines to “A Little Respect” blasted through the bar. “This sums it up,” I said, gesturing vaguely to the hidden speakers.

“What does?”

“It’s all about erasure. It’s all about the traces of the past that linger, even if you think they’re gone. We’re just building on old foundations, but they’re not up to the task.”

“I know exactly what you mean.” Her tone was flat, listless.

“It’s like Derrida‘s ghost is hovering at the sidelines, flickering in the shadows, sailing in and out weeks. He’s not here, he’s not there. He’s gone, but he’s still somewhere. Always out of reach, always slippery.”

The girl hesitated, went as if to say something, and then sipped her beer instead.

“You can’t see it, but it exists.” I downed the rest of my beer and got up from my stool.

“Can I get you anything else?” the barman asked. “Have you tried the Mark Wahlberg salad?”

“No, what’s that?”

The barman met my gaze. “Inconsistent.”

I nodded at the girl and stepped outside. A semi-translucent DeLorean DMC-12 sped by. At 141.622 kilometres per hour, the car disappeared with a bright flash of electricity and dodgy special effects, two parallel trails of ignited lighter fluid following in its wake.

Accessing my HUD, I replayed the scene, but the DeLorean was never there. It was another ghost, another spectre, another mirage of my subconscious overlaying my subjective perception of the augmented reality construct with outdated references—this wasn’t my nostalgia.

The video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer was now at almost a thousand likes. Things were looking up.

I turned and the girl was standing next to me. “Did you see that?”

“The DeLorean?” She shook her head. “No.”

“Oh. Fancy getting something to eat?”

“Sure.”

The ghostly triangle of a Star Destroyer rumbled overhead.

“Now I know you can see that.”

“I see the ghosts.”

Reality shuddered, glitching for a brief moment as my mind autosaved to the cloud. “Sorry, what?”

“The ghosts are getting brighter, more frequent. Don’t you think?”

I nodded. “But why?”

“Maybe that’s what you should do your piece about.”

I shrugged. “Every time I re-watch a scene, the ghosts aren’t there. Look at this guy.” I gestured towards a semi-opaque T-1000 as it ran by with quicksilver flesh. “Now rewind.”

The girl waved a dismissive hand. “I know. I’ve tried it so many times, but they’re not real.”

“If they’re not real, how can we both see them?”

“Just because they’re not real, it doesn’t mean to say they’re not real.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“None of it makes sense.”

I sighed. “Where shall we eat?”

“I know a place.”

“Cool.” I said, gesturing. “Lead the way.”

The girl turned as she walked back into the Squid and Mashed Potato. “You need to try the Mark Wahlberg salad.”

“Oh.”

We returned to our stools. I pulled up the image of the girl’s manga eyes for a second. Beautiful.

“You never told me your name,” I said.

“I know.”

“Same again?” the barman asked.

I nodded. Another seventeen credits left my account.

“And you?” The barman smiled at the girl.

“Same. We’ll probably be ordering the Wahlberg salad.”

“To share?”

The girl shrugged.

“Do you see the ghosts?” I asked the barman.

The barman glanced up as he placed a beer in front of the girl. “Like those?”

I turned as four blocky, two-dimensional ghosts flicker by as they chased a translucent Pac-Man through the wall.

The girl and I exchanged glances. “Did it record?” I asked.

“They don’t, do they? They’re just echoes.” The barman frowned as he placed a beer before me.

I took a sip. It was okay.

“Where do they come from?” the girl asked.

The barman shook his head and turned his back to us.

The girl sipped her beer. As she placed the glass down, the faint trace of her sex-doll lipstick remained on its rim.

“Maybe that’s it.” I pointed to the pink smear.

“What?”

I reached over and picked up the glass, holding it up to the light. I showed her the lipstick. “Semiotic ghosts,” I whispered.

“So?”

“They must come from somewhere—they must be some kind of residue.”

The girl sighed and snatched her glass back. “I see…I just don’t see how it helps.”

The barman cleared his throat and placed a large bowl between us. He laid out a pair of forks and napkins.

The salad smelt good. There was the scent of lemon and a vinaigrette dressing. I pushed my fork into an area heavy with leaves and a cherry tomato, and took a mouthful. “This is good.”

“It’s okay,” the girl said.

I took another mouthful and spat it into my napkin. “That’s disgusting.”

The barman chuckled. “You don’t get consistency with Mark Wahlberg.”

I checked my HUD. The video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer was approaching seven million likes. I called up those manga eyes again for a second and then watched the other end of the bar as the flickering ghost of Ralph Macchio worked on his crane kicks.

“This is ridiculous,” I said, slamming a hand against the bar. “There must be more to this. If I’ve learned anything, there must be some conspiracy, some evil corporation, NASA, the government, the CIA.”

The girl sighed and opened her book. “Maybe it’s David Icke, risen from the dead.”

“This is serious,” I snapped.

“This is stupid.” She angled away from me.

“Fine.” I rose to my feet and downed my beer.

The barman looked at me with a raised eyebrow, his Tim Curry smile still fixed. “You’re not joking about these ghosts are you?”

“No, I’m not.” The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

The girl picked around the tastier parts of the salad.

The first notes of Rush‘s “Tom Sawyer” blasted through the bar. “This is real, isn’t it?” I gestured to the music.

“Of course,” the barman said. “Can I get you another beer?”

I nodded and slunk back onto the stool. I held my head in my hands as the barman poured the beer, seventeen credits leaving my account.

“I really thought you were joking about the ghosts,” the barman said.

“It’s okay. I just need to get my head around it.”

“It’s a bug with the latest update. They’re working on a patch. Don’t you check the newsfeeds?”

The girl laughed.

“Oh.” I checked my HUD and deleted the video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer. A dead channel, buffering.

The End.

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