No Rehab for Wizards – a suburban fantasy tale

I cut off one of my eyelids today. It was definitely worth it.
“Now why on Earth would you want to do something like that?” Mum asks.
I shake my head, tut. “So I can control manatees,” I say.
“And what do you want to control manatees for?”
I shrug and turn the volume up on Match of the Day. Mum never gets me. She was banging on the other day about how I need to go into rehab. “There’s something not right about you, boy,” she said. “You’re always chopping bits off yourself. It’s not right.”
I tried to tell her there’s no rehab for wizards. Magic always has a price: a sacrifice of flesh always has to be made. A chunk of skin off your arm will give you control of a mayfly, but what’s the point in that? At least manatees have got a half-decent shelf-life.
I was telling her the other day about these wizards around Birmingham way who kill dogs and badgers for their magic. I asked if she’d rather me do that. She just cried.
The thing people don’t realise about using animals is that if you want to take control of dog, you have to kill about thirteen or fourteen of them. And even then, you only get to control one of those shitty little yappy ones. Seems pointless to me.
When Mum had a go at me for lopping off my little toe a couple of weeks back, I made a joke that I’d sacrifice her if she carried on having a go at me. She cried at that as well, and I really only meant it as a joke. Thing is, though, the more I think about it, the more it seems like a good idea.
I’d have to work out how strong the magic would be if I did it, though. I’m assuming it would be a bit like with the dogs. Kill a whole bunch of people to take control of a shitty one? I’d get in trouble for sure. But I’m thinking it’d probably count for a lot more if it’s your own mum. It must do.
I turn off Match of the Day and go upstairs.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Mum asks. “You’re not going to chop any more body parts again, I hope? What would your father say if he could see you now with all them bits hanging off?”
I turn back and smile. “I’m just going for a wee,” I say. “Stick the kettle on will you?”
When the kettle starts to boil, I reach behind the toilet and pull out my blade. I run my finger across its edge and grin as a small cut opens along my fingertip.
“Your tea’s on the hearth,” Mum says, shouting up the stairs.
“Coming.” I tuck the blade under my hoodie.
Limping back downstairs, I see Mum has put Eastenders on. “You don’t mind me watching this on catch-up do you?” she asks. “You’d turned your football off.”
“It’s fine,” I say.
I stand behind her and look down at her grey-streaked hair. I take the blade and bring it across her throat. She makes a weird gurgling noise.
I panic and run to the kitchen to grab some tea towels and kitchen roll. I try dabbing at the blood, but it makes a right mess.
Mum always said that when I started to get into one of my panics I should stop, take a deep breath, and have a nice cup of tea. So I sit down on the opposite sofa and sip my tea, my eyes half on Eastenders and half on my mum bleeding out all over her nice cream carpet.
If I let her keep bleeding, it will stop eventually. Then it will dry and be easier to mop up. I really don’t want to ruin any more tea towels, so it’s probably for the best to wait.
Then I remember: I’d forgotten to do the incantation. What a complete waste of time.
I turn Match of the Day back on. At least I still had my manatee.

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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