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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As the Gravity Flipped

“Janis, you awake?”

“Mat?” Janis rolled over in her bunk and rubbed her eyes, yawning. “Come in. Do you know what time it is?”

Mataes entered and sat on the end of her bunk. Damp socks draped over the mattress, and unwashed clothes lay scattered across the concrete floor. “I’ve brought you some food,” he said, pulling a half-loaf of black bread from his coveralls, unwrapping it from a piece of cloth.

She sat up with stiff joints, air ducts wheezing above. She grabbed the bread from his outstretched hand and took a large bite. “Where did you get this?” She looked into his dark eyes, smiling.

“I stole it from the higher-ups’ mess. They’re hoarding now.”

“Thank you.” The dry bread stuck against the roof of her mouth, but she savoured each mouthful, letting the bread soften on her tongue before swallowing. “Sorry, would you like some?”

“No thanks, why do you think it’s only half a loaf?”

“You’re amazing. If there’s any way I can repay you?”

“There is.”

“Oh.” Janis fell silent and stopped chewing. “What is it?”

“A few of us—.” Mataes hesitated, brushing his hand over his scalp as he faced Janis. “You want what’s best for everyone, don’t you?”

“Everyone? Who’s everyone?” She wiped breadcrumbs from her rough woollen blanket.

“All of us workers. We’re starving while the higher-ups are sitting on supplies. We’re still getting bills for power and water — what are you going to pay them with? It’s only a matter of time before things start getting violent. You don’t want that, do you?”

She shook her head. “I see.”

“A few of us have got a plan, but we need people we can trust to help us. I know I can trust you Janis — you’re a good person.”

“Is this ‘few of us’ Arfo?”

“Has he spoken to you?”

“No, but the way the pair of you have been going around lately, I could tell you were up to something.”

“You can get to the cleaning stores. No one would suspect you if you did,” he said, taking Janis’s hand.

She knitted her brow, pursing her lips as she considered his words. “I could get to the cleaning stores when I was working, but how am I supposed to get across to the other platform without raising suspicions? Haven’t the higher-ups stopped the capsules?”

“Arfo said he can fit you with a vacuum suit. He said you’d just need to go up the capsule tunnel to the other side.”

“Right.” The side of her mouth twitched.

“There won’t be anyone on that side except for a few of the higher-ups. We just need you to mix some cleaning chemicals.”

She pulled her hand back and scratched her head. “But we’re not meant to mix them — it’s a rule.” She shook her head. “Is there no one else who—.”

“There’s no one, Janis. I know you can do this.”

“Right.” She looked down at her chipped fingernails and gave a quivering sigh.

Mataes cupped her hands with his. “I believe in you, Janis Parvo.”

“Okay.” She gave him a nervous look. “And what should I say if I get stopped?”

“We’ll do it when the higher-ups are asleep. And if you are stopped, just tell them there’s an issue over on our side with the toilets. They’re not going to show their faces on this side any time soon.”

“When were you thinking?”

“There are a few things we need to prepare, but if you want to help us, it will mean so much to me. Being willing to make this sacrifice is amazing.” He cast his eyes to the door. “I like you, Janis.”

Janis smiled, then nodded. “If this is what we need to do to help everyone, I’ll do it.”

“That’s great Janis. That’s really great. I’ll let Arfo know you’re in. And remember — don’t say a word to anyone about this.”

She nodded. “I won’t. I wouldn’t.”

 

 

Janis stood with her arms outstretched and hair tied back as Mataes made the final adjustments to her vacuum suit. She winced as the suit squeezed around her thighs and forearms. Air ducts hissed as the station creaked with low syncopated ticks.

Steel beams and blue light tubes curved ten metres up to the tunnel entrance above. Without the workers boarding and alighting transport capsules, it was far too quiet. She leaned over the platform edge, expecting to see the top of a line of spherical capsules, but the hole was empty and black.

“I’m scared,” she said, stepping away from the concrete edge.

“You’ll be great,” said Mataes. “The suit’s just adjusting to you. And if it’s any consolation, you do look ridiculous.”

She laughed and struck him on the arm with a playful punch. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.

“Well, look at you two.”

She released him from her embrace and flushed. Arfo strode across the boarding platform towards them. He stood tall and thin, with sharp features and a thick black ponytail.

Mataes fumbled to fit Janis’s oxygen backup. “Good luck,” he whispered.

“Make sure your communicator’s off,” Arfo said. “We don’t want the higher-ups to listen in on any of this. Are you happy with the plan? Do you remember what to do?”

She nodded as a small bead of sweat collected on her forehead and dripped to the floor.

“Just keep going straight up the capsule tunnel and you’ll be fine,” Arfo said. “Try to accelerate to the point in the centre when you feel the gravity dip. When it flips you want to start decelerating. If you keep at a constant acceleration, the gravity’s going to give you a big speed boost, and you might lose control, so please be careful.” He glanced up at the tunnel and then leaned over the platform edge.

She gave an unsure nod.

“Just remember when you get to the middle, what you thought was up will become down. Just try not to get disorientated.” Arfo brushed back his hair and examined Janis’s suit.

She smiled as Mataes lifted the helmet over her head. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he said. “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”

The helmet clicked into place. She moved her head from left to right and up and down, testing its range of motion. She smelled her nervous sweat and the faint trace of ozone. Air pressure pushed against her ears.

Looking up, the capsule tunnel gave the illusion of a series of concentric steel rings. She gulped.

Arfo tapped her helmet twice and nodded. Taking a deep breath, she twisted the knob to open the propellant and floated up and into the tunnel.

She’d travelled back and forth along the capsule line thousands of times, but always within the confines of the windowless transport capsules. This was something different, both exciting and terrifying.

The gravity reduced the closer she came to the central point between the two platforms.

Then she stopped. Turning to her left, she gazed out of the window and realised it was the first time she had ever seen outside — the blackness of space; the dull orange surface of Titan; the vast swathes or white and orange and red across Saturn’s surface, its icy rings shimmering ghost-like against the distant white sun.

The sounds of her body filled her ears — her breath, her heartbeat, the grinding of her teeth.

After drifting past the viewing window, her speed increased. The gravity flipped.

The suit jerked and she went into a spin. Closing her eyes, she tried to re-orientate her body to the new direction of gravity’s pull. She took a deep breath, reduced her acceleration and drifted down towards the work side of the station.

The gravity increased until it reached the station’s normal level. She made a final twist on the suit’s knob, stopping the propellant, and squeezed past the stationary capsules.

She switched on the suit’s internal communicator. With trepidation, she tapped on the side of a capsule — its hollow, metallic sound ringing out around her. She couldn’t switch on the suit’s external communicator, but she could hear her surroundings.

The platform mirrored the one she had left behind. The platform creaked and strained against the ubiquitous rumble of idling machinery, the low whine of air ducts, and the echo of her own footsteps against concrete and steel.

Her workplace was unfamiliar at this time of night. Gone were the crowds of workers and drones racing back and forth; gone were the bright daylight lamps lining the corridors; and gone was that sense of community, of belonging.

All was quiet. All was still. The silence terrified her.

She crept along the main corridor lit by strips of dim blue light. She passed by the drone control rooms and the administration offices, the medical bay, and security room with its reinforced doors framed by thick rivets. She passed the stairwell down to the farms, the air processing and water treatment levels. She passed the elevator up to the reactors and the higher-ups’ accommodation. The door to the main delivery dock loomed ahead. She stopped.

A distant rhythmic sound rang out behind her. She hugged her body against a doorway. The pulse in her head became louder and louder. She held her breath and strained to hear, but the internal communicator’s range wasn’t as good as her own ears. She unclicked the helmet. Her ears popped. The air was stale. The stench of something rotten lingered.

Placing the helmet next to her on the floor, she waited and listened, cupping her ear with her gloved hand. Nothing.

Shaking, sweating, she reached down and clicked the helmet back on. The pressure returned to her ears. The platform’s ambient sounds faded to little more than a compressed hiss. Her neck stiffened.

Crossing the corridor, she entered the cleaning store. She closed the door behind her, switched on the light and slumped onto her usual seat. She sighed as she considered the vats of chemicals stacked against the opposite wall.

If she wanted, she could turn back.

She got up and walked over to a trio of cleaning drones standing along the rear wall, each of them looming over her by half-a-metre. One-by-one, the drones came online as she keyed in their respective codes. She’d used these machines every day, but she had never considered using them for anything other than cleaning.

Squinting, she keyed in each of the drones’ manual overrides. She opened the containers of various cleaning chemicals, struggling and wobbling as she poured the first vat into the fluid cavities of each of the drones.

She turned off the suit’s internal communicator then poured the other cleaning fluids into the drones. She couldn’t smell the liquids, but she was confident the containers would be correctly labelled. Kneeling before each drone, she keyed in the commands for them to dump their payloads on the higher-ups’ accommodation level.

She held her breath when the three drones moved out with smooth motion. With slow, cautious steps, she followed as they called the elevator and waited — still, humming, ominous. They entered the elevator, the doors sliding closed behind them.

 

 

“Hey, are you okay?”

Janis snapped out of a trance as Mataes placed a reassuring hand on her bare shoulder. Scratching her head, she forced a smile. “Honestly, I feel terrible.”

“Come down to the common room, join us,” he said, perching on the edge of her bunk.

“I can’t. I feel so—.” She closed her eyes and held in a breath.

“You’re a hero, Janis,” he said, stroking her arm. “You saved us.”

“At what price?”

“You can sit here feeling sorry for yourself, or you can think what would the price have been if you hadn’t helped us. You were the only person we could trust who had access to those cleaning stores. And you did so brilliantly.”

She sighed and stared at her open palms — pale, small, wrinkled — the hands of a killer.

“Look at me,” Mataes snapped. He hooked her chin with a finger, his skin cold and rough. She met his gaze and blinked. “The higher-ups were keeping the stores for themselves. They’d locked us out. Hundreds of us would have starved. If they had done the right thing, kept things running, fed the workers — well, we wouldn’t be where we are.” His words were a slow and deliberate monotone.

She frowned. “I know. But have you ever—.” She paused, hesitating as she ran the words over in her mind. “You’ve never had to do what I did.”

“All you did was mix some chemicals and programme some drones. It’s what you’ve always done — nothing different,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Don’t play me for a fool,” she said, her voice rising. “I know what I did, and God will judge me for that. I poisoned eight people — people I’ve known all my life.”

He held her. After a moment of tension, she leaned her head onto his chest, tears filling her eyes.

“Think of it like this,” he said, stroking her hair. “If someone was going to open the airlocks on a platform and the only way to stop it was to kill that person, what would you do?”

She didn’t respond.

“It’s exactly the same. You saved many lives. What you did was difficult, but you were so brave. That’s why… that’s why I love you, Janis Parvo.”

Janis sat up and regarded Mataes. “What?”

“I love you,” he said, looking away.

“That’s not true.”

He reached out and stroked her cheek. “I’ve loved you for a long time and, well, when you kissed me before you saved us all, I knew then I wanted you. I wanted to be with you.”

She flushed. “I don’t know—.” She shook her head.

“Please say you feel the same,” he pleaded.

“I do,” she whispered, smiling. “I really do.”

“Then be with me, Janis. I’ll help you, I’ll be there for you. We can get through this, together.”

She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. They held each other. Pulling away, she smiled, then gestured for him to join her in bed.

“Do you want me?” she asked, slipping off her underclothes.

“Yes, I want you,” said Mataes, his breath growing heavier as he threw off his coveralls.

 

 

Janis hummed to herself, smiling as she held Mataes’s hand. Arfo rose from his seat to address the mess hall. She sat at the head of the table previously reserved for the higher-ups, with Mataes sitting to her right and Arfo to her left. Steaming potatoes, fresh breads, roasted chicken and apples piled high along the steel table. Workers clamoured to fill their bowls as the hall buzzed with conversation. The smells of cooked meats, baked bread and boiled vegetables hung in the air. The room loomed around her as daylight lamps glared down from high above: all clean lines and off-white walls.

Arfo banged his bowl against the table three times until the workers fell silent. “For this meal, we have one person to thank.” He raised his bowl high above his head, grinning as the other workers echoed the gesture. “Let the name Janis Parvo ring through the generations as the person who freed us from our bondage — the woman who saved us all from starvation, the woman who saved us all from certain death.”

Janis squirmed as the three hundred or so men and women stared at her and banged their bowls in appreciation.

“Without Janis’s selfless bravery, we would still be living in uncertainty. We would all be wondering when our next pay would arrive, wondering how we could pay our bills, wondering how we could feed ourselves and our families. She is an example to us all — the risk she took was great, but the reward was greater.”

Janis scratched behind her left ear, then leaned forward to pick a slice of chicken breast from a tray being passed along the table.

“And this is true of all us,” Arfo continued. “A few of us are working to get the reactors back online and get back to work. But this won’t be work for the higher-ups — clawing for a measly wage which barely covers our bills — this will be work for all of us.”

Mataes squeezed Janis’s hand.

“I am not your leader and you are not lowly workers. We are all equal, all for one, working for the good of us all. No longer will you have to pay for power, for heat, for water, for food — we will work for the good of us all.” He brushed his hair back and scanned along each of the five parallel tables.

“Things will be difficult to begin with — things are always difficult in times of change and transition. But your lives will improve. We will build our own trade networks, reap the profits of our own exports and take control of our lives.”

The room filled with cheers and the loud rhythm of bowls banging against tables — metallic, sharp, deafening. There were stamps and whoops. Janis focused on the grip of Mataes’s hand.

“This evening is more than just a celebration of our bright new future,” Arfo said as the noise died down. “We’re also here to celebrate the coming together of Janis Parvo and Mataes Rafillio. The couple will make their union official once things settle down, but I think you’ll all join me in wishing them the greatest of luck.”

Janis’s cheeks flushed as the banging bowls rose again to a loud, thunderous crescendo. Arfo poured her and Mataes a cup of cider. She sipped and it tasted bitter on her tongue.

 

 

Janis awoke to find the bunk empty beside her. She placed her hand on the space where Mataes had been sleeping — it was cold.

“Mat?” she whispered. She listened in the darkness. She was alone.

She sat up and stretched. Yawning and blinking the sleep from her eyes, she slipped from the bunk and pulled the blanket around her shoulders.

Creeping through the bunkroom door on tiptoes, she turned right down a corridor, passing beneath a dozen dim blue light halos before making her way to the bathroom. She slunk down onto a toilet and yawned.

In the cold light, she heard the sound of low voices coming through the wall behind her. Not daring to flush, she stepped softly from the bathroom.

“You’ve got to keep her sweet,” the first voice said. “She’s a tool of the revolution, but you need—.” The words came muffled, unclear. “—the wedding will cement that—.”

Holding her breath, she moved a few steps closer, cupping her ears to listen.

“I know she’s thick, but that’s the point.” She heard Arfo’s voice, but it sounded harsh, threatening. “She’s obedient and malleable — you need to stick to the plan.”

She leaned closer, pressing her body hard against the cold metal wall, shrouded in the shadowy mid-point between two light halos.

“I can’t stand her though. She’s ugly, she’s boring — she does nothing for me. What am I getting from this?”

“You fucked her, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes — what would you have done if it was there in front of you?”

Janis froze.

“Look, we’re done with her now, surely?”

“If you don’t continue the engagement, people will suspect.”

She gasped as a sudden white-hot pain tore through her chest. She wanted to cry out, to scream, but instead she moved in silence back to her room.

She climbed into the bunk, wrapping the blanket tight around her. A numbness engulfed her. She lay for a long time, staring into the dark, listening to the air ducts hissing and wheezing through the night, pretending to be asleep when Mataes returned. He lay next to her, rigid, silent.

They both remained awake until morning, neither acknowledging the other.

 

 

“There they are, my favourite couple,” said Arfo as Janis picked at her porridge.

“She’s in a mood this morning,” Mataes said. He tipped a second boiled egg into his bowl.

“I’m not in a mood. I’m tired.”

“Well we’ve got a wedding to plan, haven’t we?” Arfo said, sitting to Janis’s left.

She pushed her spoon around her bowl, wishing he would go away.

“Come on — it’s not that bad,” he said. “We’ll do something really special.” Arfo smiled.  “You like apples? I know a great recipe for an apple cake — we could have that at the feast.”

She slid along the bench and rose to her feet. “I don’t like apples,” she spat, marching away from the table.

 

 

Janis wiped another tear away as she programmed the cleaning drones for another day’s work. She paid no attention to the smiles and greetings of other workers as she turned to the stairwell and made her way up to the upper levels.

She entered the former higher-ups’ living quarters, cupping a hand over her nose. The bodies had been removed and jettisoned from an airlock, but the smell of death still lingered — at least to her it did.

The level was quiet, save for the reactor’s hum and the occasional whistle of air ducts. With a deep breath, she pulled open the single door to the communications room and sat in front of the console. She spent several minutes examining the black sheen of the buttons and turning the receiver in her hand.

Nodding to herself, she switched on the console and opened the communicator to broadcast on all external channels. She wasn’t sure if this would register with those onboard the orbiter, but it was a risk she had to take. The betrayal was too much. They’d used her.

“Hello,” she said, her voice thin and trembling. “I’m on the Titan Orbiter and, well—.” She checked over her shoulder. “The workers have taken over. Please send help or something. Arfo and Mataes did it. They killed the higher-ups.” She frowned. “Please.”

With adrenaline rushing through her body, she got up quickly from the seat and left the room, unsure whether her message had worked.

 

 

Janis frowned as Mataes crawled beside her into bed. “I know what you and Arfo have been scheming,” she said through a lump in her throat. Sweat pooled on her brow and seeped from her armpits. Her heart raced in the darkness.

Mataes sat up and slid his legs from the bunk. “You’re already in on the plan — you know that,” he said in a low voice. “You’re tired. You should try to sleep.”

She clenched her jaw and sighed. “Just stop,” she snapped. “Just stop the lies. I heard you talking last night.”

Mataes stiffened.

“I heard you,” she repeated. “What was it you said? That I was thick? That I was boring? You weren’t saying that when you were inside me. How could you be so—.” She swung a fist against the wall.

Mataes stood. She waited for him to speak. “Are you going to say anything?”

“It’s not what you think,” he said after a long silence.

“Then explain it to me.”

“I… I can’t.”

“You thought you were so clever. You and Arfo. What was your plan? Trick the stupid cleaner lady in doing your dirty work?”

“Not—.”

“Stop lying,” she snarled. “I knew exactly what I was doing with those drones. You weren’t tricking me at all.” Her pulse thundered in her ears. “Well?”

“Well, what?” he huffed. “I don’t fucking know.”

She saw him as a faint outline against the dark as he paced back and forth, rubbing his hands on his scalp in a jerking motion.

Wrapped in her blanket, Janis sat up and switched on the light. She caught Mataes’s eye with a sharp glare and smirked to herself when his gaze shot to the floor.

“You’re pathetic,” she said. “I want you to take your stuff out of my bunk and get out of here.”

“Fair enough,” he mumbled.

She rose to her feet, her blanket dropping to the floor. Standing naked before Mataes, she leaned so her mouth brushed against his right ear. “You can tell Arfo I was in the communication room today,” she whispered. “You can tell him I sent a message to all open channels telling them what’s happened here.”

Mataes’s eyes widened. She pointed to the door. “Now leave.”

He hurriedly scooped up his belongings and left without another word. Janis leaned her back against the door, sobbing.

 

 

Janis closed the cleaning store behind her when the alarm sounded. Workers ran past her in all directions.

Flinching at the siren’s shrillness, she grabbed a man’s shoulder before he could pass. He squirmed as he stopped himself from tumbling. “What?” he snapped, his dark eyes wild.

“What’s with the alarm?”

“Some ships have docked.”

Janis stood motionless as the man turned and fled. The thin trace of a smile made its way across her face as she pictured the reactions of Arfo and Mataes.

Covering her ears, she backed her way through the door into the cleaning store, closing it behind her and noticed the vacuum suit hanging like a marionette from a peg on the far wall.

She took off her coveralls and examined the suit. Taking the suit down, she pulled it up her legs, her shoulders contorting as she reached into the arms. The suit’s material clung to her like a second skin. She checked and fastened the oxygen tanks. The noise from the alarm dropped as she clicked the helmet into place. She breathed a satisfied sigh.

Stepping into the main corridor, scores of panicked workers ran past her in dreamlike silence. Reaching the departure platform, the capsule stood, unmoving. Groups of men and women paced around in confused agitation.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped out over the platform edge, turning the knob to release the suit’s propellant. She rose past the capsules and the workers and up towards the darkness.

Her body jolted upwards as she ascended the tunnel. She drifted through weightlessness, adjusting the propellant as the gravity flipped. She did not stop to look out of the window.

The daylight lamps came into view as she drew closer to the side of the station.

Coming to a stop, she found the capsule platform empty. She removed her helmet and breathed. Placing the helmet on the platform, the alarms stopped, leaving behind an unnerving absence, a strange stillness.

She stepped through a large door into a corridor and crept past the kitchens. Most of the workers were on the other side of the orbiter during daylight hours, but this was too quiet.

Approaching the workers’ mess hall, she heard shouts coming from inside. She pressed herself against the wall at the sound of a loud bang, followed by a chorus of screams. Holding her breath, she moved to one of the mess hall doors and peeped through a thin crack.

Her eyes widened as two dozen men dressed in black uniforms stood over some of the workers. Three bodies lay on the floor, blood pooling around them. She almost called out as one of the uniformed officers lifted up a sidearm and shot a woman in the head.

Scores of familiar faces lined along the mess hall wall with their hands on their heads. She gasped at the sight of Mataes.

She moved away from the door and caught her breath at the snap of another shot.

Stepping into the kitchen, she walked past half-prepared meals and shouldered her way into a storage cupboard. Though not as well-stocked as her own, she found barrels containing various cleaning fluids. She rolled them over to the kitchen hatch, straining as she lifted them onto the worktop.

Ducking, she pressed the button to raise the serving hatch and tipped the containers into the mess hall. She scrambled back to the storage room. More shouts and cries came from behind her. She tipped all the containers out that she could before her lungs burned and vision blurred. Thick white mist gathered all around her as the chemicals hissed and fizzled.

She lay on the floor as the coughs and chokes from the other workers faded.

“Forgive me,” she whispered.

The End.

 

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Introducing: Jon’s Author Diary

Each week, I record an audio diary about my author journey. 

Find Jon Cronshaw’s Author Diary on your podcast app, or visit joncronshaw.libsyn.com to hear the latest episode.

Available now!

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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Clockwork Titan — a story in the Ravenglass Universe

The ancient titan stood in silence, facing the Braun Sea, its shadow etched against the passing glow of Nebel Hafen’s lighthouse. Heinrich Graf strode towards the statue, his head craned back as he gazed up at the steel limbs and clockwork joints. Tiny alchemical lanterns lined the path towards the titan, curving in a gentle swoop across the Meerand Gardens. Heinrich glanced to the side as clouds eddied across the moon.

Heinrich stood before the ravenglass plinth as a hand-sized black wyvern landed on top of the titan’s foot and stretched out its wings. “Waage,” Heinrich said. “Where have you been?”

The wyvern surveyed her surroundings, black eyes glimmering against the lanterns. “Lord Graf, forgive me,” she said, turning to him. “Do you have what I asked for?”

“Are you sure this will work?”

Waage hopped down to the plinth, folding in her wings. “I am confident, my lord.”

Heinrich leaned back, his gaze shifting towards the titan’s mechanical head, its stern brow fixed. “Are you sure we can control this thing?”

“The archives were very specific.”

Stepping back, Heinrich reached into his overcoat and carefully removed two balls of cloth.

“Well, unravel them, then,” Waage snapped.

Heinrich’s eyes narrowed as he unwrapped the cloths, revealing a pair of black orbs. “They’re lighter than they look,” he said, offering them to Waage.

“They are pure ravenglass?” she asked, examining the orbs.

“I…They drink in the light.” He gestured to one of them. “Look how it seems to glow with black.”

The edges of Waage’s lips curled back in what might have been a smile. “Excellent.” She grasped the orb in her mouth, threw her head back, and swallowed.

“What are you doing?”

Waage made for the second orb, but Heinrich snatched it away, bringing it to his chest.

“Answer me, wyvern.”

“I need to carry the orbs, my lord,” she said, dipping her head. A shudder spread across her spine as she coughed up the orb, letting it roll along the ground, sending with it a trail a black saliva. “If we are to do this—”

“Yes, yes,” Heinrich growled, waving a hand. “It’s just…” He shook his head. “We have spent so long—”

“You can trust me, my lord. I want to see you rise to power just as much as you do.”

Heinrich stared down at Waage’s slumped body, her wings spread out from her sides in a submissive gesture. “Of course.” He raised his chin. “Forgive my trepidation. Please, continue.”

Waage bolted forward, her jaws snapping closed over the first orb. Swallowing, she looked up expectantly.

With a slight nod, Heinrich let the second orb roll from his palm and into the wyvern’s mouth. She swallowed, eyes twinkling as she stretched out her wings, black and leathery, flapping them until she rose from the ground, disappearing into the darkness.

“Good luck,” Heinrich muttered. He paced and squinted up at the titan’s head. Waage’s shadow passed as the lighthouse’s alchemical glow flickered by. He rubbed his beard, hands trembling. “Gods be damned.”

After several moments, Waage returned, landing on the titan’s foot.

“Well?” Heinrich asked.

“I placed the orbs.”

“And?”

“My lord, they are ravenglass.”

Heinrich frowned. “Do not talk in riddles, wyvern.”

Waage bowed, flattening her wings. “Ravenglass requires the blood of its creator.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“My lord, I require your blood.” Waage looked up with one eye open, her wings still flat.

Heinrich let out an incredulous snort.

“My lord, it is—”

“Wyvern, do not deceive me,” he snapped, raising a hand. “Return the orbs and I will let the blood myself, and then you can return them to their place.”

“Please understand, once enchanted, the orbs will be hotter than a thousand fires. I will not be able to carry them.”

Heinrich held her gaze for a long moment then sighed. “Do it.” Holding out his wrist, he squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his jaw as Waage drove her teeth into his flesh, swallowing his blood, lapping around the wound. “How much do you need?”

Waage did not respond, but kept drinking.

Groaning, Heinrich flicked his wrist and brought his arm up to his mouth, blood streaming from the tiny puncture wound.

With slow steps, Waage unfurled her wings and rose into the darkness.

Heinrich watched, the blood-flow slowing around his wound. He staggered back as the titan’s eyes glowed dull red.

Waage landed on his right shoulder, her claws sharp but delicate. They stared up as the titan’s gears started to turn.

Unable to sleep, Anna Halter gazed across the Braun Sea as the second sun emerged, red and dreamlike. She leaned on her folded arms, idly stroking the mane of a carved unicorn figurine, her fingernails tracing the etched lines that suggested hair. The light from her father’s lighthouse swept across the coastline, the palace shimmering white and green, the giant standing sentry, the harbour’s taverns and shops, the moored ships, and the chain stretching across the bay.

She followed the sweep of the light again, her gaze lingering on the giant. Blinking, she leaned forward, mouth falling open. The giant’s eyes glowed bright yellow. She blinked again, rubbing her eyes.

Pulling the window open, she shivered against the chill breeze, staring at the giant. She waved and the giant’s arm waved back.

Slamming the window shut, she ducked beneath the sill with her back against the wall, as deep, shuddering breaths erupted from her body. She closed her eyes, shaking her head, and peeped back over the ledge.

The giant’s eyes still burned bright and brilliant. She waved her hand again, her arms and legs tingling when the giant moved.

She dropped down to the floor and bit her bottom lip. Grabbing her unicorn, she got up and ran over to the door, taking the spiral stairs up a level, and banged on her father’s door. “Father,” she called, reaching up and rattling the door’s handle. “Wake up.”

Restless grunts came from the other side of the door.

The lock clicked and her father leaned out, led by the spluttering light of a tallow candle, its smoke smelling of cooked pork. “Anna,” he sighed. “Why do you never sleep, child?”

Anna looked down at her unicorn then up at her father, his blond moustache drooping past his lips. “The giant waved at me.”

He shook his head. “Anna, please. Go to sleep.”

“It’s true. It waved at me.”

Looking behind him, he crouched to one knee and reached out to stroke her hair. “I know things have been difficult since your mother died.”

She pulled her unicorn close to her chest. “It’s real.”

He raised a finger, pressing it against her lips. “Shh,” he said. “It was a dream, or it was in your mind.”

Anna looked down at her unicorn and shook her head. “I can show you.”

Yawning, her father ambled back into his chamber and shifted the drapes away from the window. “The first sun is rising soon,” he sighed. “Show me what you must.”

With tiny footsteps, Anna walked to the window, standing on her tiptoes as she pointed towards the giant. “Look. You can see its eyes glow.”

He leaned over her, gazing through the glass for a short moment before turning back inside. “It is but a trick of the light. Perhaps a reflection of the second sun, or the light of the lighthouse.”

“But it waved, father. Look.” She waved her hand, grinning as the giant returned her gesture. “See?” She turned to her father arranging his day clothes on the bed.

“Anna,” he sighed. “Please get ready for the day. I will make us breakfast.”

“But, father—”

“But, nothing,” he snapped.

Anna flinched, staggering back as she pulled her unicorn close, tears welling in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softening. He crossed the room and kissed the top of her head.

Heinrich paced before the plinth, rubbing the back of his neck, squinting up at the titan’s glowing eyes. He turned to Waage, a deep line creasing his brow. “I had no part in that.”

Waage swooped in rising circles around the titan before diving towards Heinrich, squawking.

Staggering backwards, Heinrich flapped his hands wildly. “What are you doing?”

“It extended its arm thrice—do not lie to me.” Waage hovered in the air a few feet above him, her wings beating down, slow, bat-like.

The wyvern pecked at his hair. “I warn you. Do not lie to me, my lord. I have your blood in my bones. I can control you if you are lying.”

“Treacherous wyvern,” Heinrich spat. “Why did I trust you?” A quivering passed over his body as the wyvern tugged at his mind, bending his will, twisting his thoughts. “What…are…you…?”

“You are linked and you lie.”

“There is no link,” Heinrich said, shrinking back. He stumbled on an alchemical lantern, the tiny ball shattering into smoke. “I have no control over that thing.” He fell to the ground, head smacking against stone.

Waage looked up at the titan and stopped. “You are not linked. I misjudged you. Forgive me, my lord.” She tilted her head. “But there is a link to someone.”

Eyes widening, Heinrich shifted away from the wyvern, his arms out in front of him. “I promise you, there is no link.”

“Look,” she said, pointing a scaled wing towards the lighthouse.

Heinrich followed her gaze, shaking his head. “I see nothing.”

“Of course,” the wyvern mused. “You do not perceive enchantment as I.” She hopped down to Heinrich’s side, flattening her wings against the ground, her head held low. “The thread extends towards the lighthouse.”

“Do not speak in riddles, wyvern. Say your words.”

“My lord, I feel the titan has latched onto another host, like a duckling latching to the first thing it perceives.”

“But a lighthouse? How can that be? How can a lighthouse exert control? It has no will.”

Waage raised her head and met Heinrich’s gaze. “We must seek the keeper of the lighthouse.”

Anna ran her finger along the unicorn’s mane in an absent motion. She stared at nothing as her father stood over the cooking pot, stirring porridge, flames dancing around its base, sending flickering shadows along the stone walls. Pans hung around him and a sack of turnips sagged half-open at his feet. “Things will get easier, Anna,” he said, looking back at her, his feet shuffling. “These past months have been difficult—for both of us. I am sorry that I haven’t been as close to you as I should.”

“You have the lighthouse, father.” She looked to the window as the first sun soaked the Braun Sea in its yellow glow, its light filling the sky, washing out the second sun’s gloomy brown.

He raised a wooden spoon to his mouth, tasting the porridge.

Anna moved over to the window, gazing across the sea towards the giant, its eyes still fiery, even against the first sun’s burgeoning light. A warmth pushed against the top of her head, pressing down like a hand. It sunk into her, filling her, spreading through her—a tingling, electric sensation passing across her skin, stiffening the tiny hairs on her neck.

Her father’s words came out as an echo, distant.

For a moment, she looked down at a tiny cowering man. A wyvern flapped around her and pecked at her eyes. She stepped forward, her head turning with a slow metallic screech.

She jerked back, tumbling to the floor.

“Anna,” her father said, standing over her. “Anna?”

“Father…I…” She glanced at the window.

He took her by the hand and led her back to her wooden stool, smoothed by time. “This is why you should sleep more,” he said, shaking his head. “Here.” He handed her a clay cup of watered-down ale.

“I…I’m…” She rubbed her head.

“You do not have to eat now. Perhaps you should return to bed. Close your drapes. I will keep the porridge warm and stirred.”

Anna rose to her feet and let out a deep breath. “Yes, father.” She walked over to the door, avoiding the window.

“Your toy,” he said, gesturing to the unicorn.

“Thank you.” She took it and shouldered her way through the doors and up the spiral stairs. With a sigh, she stumbled into her bed chamber.

She dragged a leather shoulder bag from between her bed and side table and tipped its contents onto her blankets.

Turning, she glanced over to the window. A twitching sensation travelled along her arms and legs, running up her spine, the pressing, tingling warmth settling around her forehead. She shook her head as if freeing herself from a spider’s web, and reached for her tabard and leggings, pulling them on before stuffing her unicorn into the bag.

The giant called to her.

Breathing heavily, Anna ran down the stairs, bolting through the door before her father noticed.

A gust of wind from the east struck her, blowing hair across her face. She ran along the cliff’s path, winding down towards the harbour, thick clumps of grass making way for barnacle-coated rocks, their sides slick with seaweed. Foamy waves brushed against the sea wall as tall ships rocked in time with the tides.

Reaching the harbour, she skipped over an iron mooring, ducking past the shopkeepers and innkeepers opening their shutters for the day, and avoided the sailors staggering out of brothels.

The warmth around her head increased, surrounding her with a low, insistent hum. She saw herself from across the harbour, a tiny red-headed girl running through the crowds.

“There,” Waage snapped as the titan’s foot rose and fell, crashing to the ground, freeing itself from the plinth. “It is moving.”

Wide-eyed, on his back, and frozen in place, Heinrich stared up at the titan, his elbows poking into the soil. “I can see it moves,” he managed through gritted teeth.

“Not the titan,” she said, gesturing with her nose towards the harbour. “The enchantment. It moves.” Waage beat her wings, rising into the air.

“What do you see?” Heinrich asked, wobbling to his feet, dirt cascading from his overcoat.

“People are coming. Hundreds of them.”

“Gods be damned. We should leave before questions are asked.”

Waage swooped down, landing on Heinrich’s shoulder. “My lord,” she whispered as the first few men and women entered the gardens, their eyes cast up in wonderment. “Being here will only increase your status in the eyes of Nebel Hafen’s citizens.”

“And what of Count Schultz?”

The wyvern stretched out her wings, raising her chin. “What of him? Only last night—” Waage’s words stopped abruptly.

“Well?”

The titan’s head turned and the crowd gasped. Waage rose into the air, circling above Heinrich. “I see the source of the link.”

Heinrich’s fists clenched. “Show me.”

“You see that little girl with the red hair?”

Anna’s focus drifted from the giant to the flickering wings of a black-scaled wyvern. She tilted her head as the creature stared at her with its deep black eyes, its wings holding it in midair like a marionette.

“The statue has come to life,” a thin man with bright green eyes said, smiling at her. “Let it rise and protect our shores from the Ostreich invaders.”

Reaching into her bag with trembling hands, Anna retrieved her unicorn, holding it close as she made her way through the crowd. She looked between the giant and the wyvern, her teeth biting into her bottom lip, breaking through the skin. The taste of blood filled her mouth.

“What is she carrying?” Heinrich asked, watching the girl as she approached the titan.

“It is inert,” Waage said.

“I will take it.”

“You would take a child’s toy in front of all these people?”

Heinrich tugged at his beard. “I am at an end, wyvern.”

“Perhaps we could take her to your manor, imprison her, and force her to command the titan to your will.”

“You vile, wicked creature.” Heinrich raised a hand to the wyvern. “Wait,” he said, hand dropping. “Take her blood. Control her with your enchantment.”

The wyvern landed on Heinrich’s shoulder, and brushed against his ear. “I can do that. She already has blood at her mouth.”

Anna stopped at the giant’s feet, placing a hand on the front of its big toe. “Hello,” she whispered as floods of warmth washed over her body.

With creaking joints, the giant leaned forward. The crowd jerked back. Some people ran away, while others stared, petrified.

Anna dropped her hand as the black-winged wyvern darted towards her, diving through the air, its wings swept back. She swung the unicorn, missing the wyvern as it tried to land on her head. Brushing it away, she cowered behind the giant’s foot.

She covered her ears, cringing at the wyvern’s squawks and screeches. The creature spiralled into the air and flew at Anna again. This time she crouched low, thrusting the unicorn around her in broad circles, missing the wyvern as it dodged and weaved her attempted strikes. “Leave me alone,” she cried. “Please.”

The sound of tearing metal echoed around her as the giant pivoted on its feet, swung a fist, and connected with the wyvern.

Anna cringed as the wyvern shot across the gardens, rolling into a crumpled, trembling heap in the dirt.

When the hand rested in front of her, she climbed onto its palm, hugging the little finger as the giant lifted her from the ground, raising her to its right shoulder.

Her breath caught in her throat when she looked down at the tiny faces staring up at her as a gust of wind tussled her hair and blew across her skin. She gazed across the rooftops, mouth agape, eyes lingering on her lighthouse across the harbour.

The giant stepped to the right and into the sea, waves crashing against its knees. Anna gripped the giant’s neck as it swayed with each step, seagulls circling around them as the lighthouse grew closer. She held her breath, trembling as she swept her eyes across the bay, taking in the boats and buildings, the shimmering stones of the palace, the crowds gathered on the lawn of Meerand Gardens watching in awe, a smile reaching her eyes. She threw her head back, loosening her grip. “This is glorious,” she cried.

Heinrich moved through the crowd, Waage perched on his shoulder. “Where am I going? This is not my will.”

“Your will is my will, my lord.”

“No, wyvern. You said—” His arms flailed uselessly as he stumbled onto the harbour wall, legs moving without consent, shins and toes stubbing against carts and walls.

“Enough,” Waage snapped. “I have a plan, but I am weakened.”

Sailors regarded him with confused expressions as he moved in fits and starts, feet jerking with each step. A woman selling shellfish jumped backwards, dodging his erratic movements. “Where are you leading me?” he groaned.

“To the lighthouse. That girl is the keeper’s daughter. We must use that knowledge to our advantage.”

Heinrich lurched forward as if being yanked by a rope, toes stubbing against the emerging rocks. “Wyvern, give me my will.”

“We must take that girl.”

“I will come voluntarily,” Heinrich pleaded. “You are hurting my feet and legs, and my shins are bruised and bloody.” He staggered forward, rolling to the ground as the wyvern released the enchantment. “Gahh! You wicked, deceitful creature. I should—” His words stopped, his mouth slamming tight. He mumbled inaudible curses as he clawed at his mouth, trying to pry it open.

“Voluntarily?” the wyvern asked, voice tinged with irony. “You must promise me that you will not try to hurt me.”

Heinrich nodded then gasped as his mouth unsealed. “Vile creature,” he spat.

“Keep your words. We have work to do.” She gestured to the titan striding across the bay, the waves crashing up to its waist. “It appears the girl is taking the titan home. I would like us to be there to greet them.”

Heinrich rose to his feet and brushed his overcoat down. “Why did I let you talk me into this?”

The wyvern marched ahead on spindly legs, following the curve of the rocks towards the lighthouse.

When they arrived, Heinrich rapped on the door with a fist, watching the titan’s approach.

“Yes?” A man with a drooping blond moustache leaned from the door.

“Let us inside. I must speak with you as a matter of urgency.”

The man glanced towards the wyvern and back to Heinrich, a frown knitting his brow. “I am very busy. We have nothing to discuss.”

“Do you know who I am?” Heinrich spat.

“Why, of course. Lord…I’m sorry. You’re the count’s nephew.”

“I am Lord Heinrich Graf.” He raised his chin. “And you are?”

“I am Karl Halter, keeper of the Nebel Hafen lighthouse.”

“You have a daughter?”

Karl’s eyes narrowed. “What is this about?”

“Your daughter has taken something that belongs to me, something very important.” Heinrich cleared his throat.

“My daughter is in her chamber.” Karl brushed his fingers along his moustache, shifting his gaze down to the wyvern. “I’m sorry. I must wish you a good day.”

Heinrich wedged his boot between the door and its frame when Karl tried to close it.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“I am Lord Heinrich Graf—”

“And you have no domain over this lighthouse.” Karl held Heinrich’s gaze, his face growing red. “What is it you believe my daughter has taken?”

“That,” Waage said, pointing to the titan with an outstretched wing.

Anna clung tight as the giant stepped from the sea and onto the rocks, its feet dripping with water and seaweed. Circling gulls called out with desperate squawks.

“There,” she said, pointing to the lighthouse. “You must meet my father.”

The giant followed the path to the lighthouse and Anna froze. “It’s that man,” she said. “And his wyvern.”

Creaking, the giant’s hand rose to its shoulder and waited as Anna clambered on. She laid low, spreading out on all fours as the giant crouched, lowering her to the ground. “Father,” she called, running towards him. “I have a new friend.” She came to an abrupt halt at the sight of the man with the wyvern, breath catching in her chest.

Heinrich grabbed Karl’s throat and thrust him head-first onto the ground.

“What—” Karl gasped.

Placing a boot on Karl’s back, Heinrich folded his arms and smiled at the girl’s approach. “Little girl, we meet again. I trust you remember my wyvern?”

“What are you doing to my father?”

“Anna, run,” Karl called.

“You had no right to take our titan,” the wyvern said. “We slaved over research and sourcing ravenglass, only for you to steal it from us like some common thief.”

Anna glanced behind her and cradled her unicorn. “It chose me. I did nothing.”

Waage hopped onto Karl’s back and frowned at Anna. “Perhaps you need—”

“Waage, Waage,” Heinrich said, his voice softening. “The girl wasn’t to know of our plans.” He turned to Anna. “Were you, Anna?”

“The giant saw me and talked to my mind.”

Heinrich smiled. “You see? All this can be resolved.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to command the titan.”

“I don’t know how it works.”

“You brought it here. All I ask is that you control it on my behalf and…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged. “I suppose I won’t kill your father.”

Anna stared up at Heinrich, wide-eyed. “What should I ask of the giant?”

A broad grin spreads across Heinrich’s face like oil on velvet. “My dear, it is very simple. I need the giant to retrieve Count Schultz from his palace and drop him into the sea, beyond the chains.”

A sharp breath caught in Anna’s throat. “But he will surely drown.”

“Indeed. But I must rule.”

“Anna, don’t,” Karl managed before Heinrich booted him in the side.

“What will it be? Help me or watch as I disembowel your father?”

Anna turned and walked to the giant’s feet, placing a hand against the warm metal.

“Do not agree to this man’s requests,” her father called through gritted teeth. “He is not to be trusted.”

“Father, please. I…I cannot be alone.”

“Where is your mother?” the lord asked. “Perhaps we could speak to her too.”

Anna’s bottom lip trembled. “She has passed on. All I have is my father.” She blinked away a tear.

A mirthless smile curled across the lord’s lips. “You see, Anna? Listen to what your heart is telling you. You do not want to see your father die. How could you live with yourself when you knew you could prevent it? Do you know what happens to orphans?”

A long silence hung in the air before she spoke. “I will assist you,” she said, finally. “But you must release my father.”

“I am a man of my word. If you help me, you will be lavished with gifts and you and your father will want for nought.”

She swallowed and dipped her head. “I agree.”

“Anna, what are you doing?” her father groaned.

Crouching at his side, she placed a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t want you to die.”

“There, there,” the lord said. “See? That wasn’t so hard.”

The giant bent to one knee and rested the back of a hand on the ground. “You should climb on,” Anna suggested, rising to her feet. “It will take you across the bay to the palace.”

The lord glanced at the wyvern. “I’m not so sure—”

“I did it,” Anna said, interrupting. “It was…it was amazing.”

“You’re not afraid are you, my lord?” the wyvern said.

The lord pursed his lips and raised his chin. “I have no fear. This is the day I go down in history.” He clambered onto the giant’s hand and gestured to the wyvern. “Are you coming?”

Anna’s father sat up, rubbing his jaw. “Anna, what are you thinking?”

“I’m doing as the lord asked. I didn’t want to see you hurt, father.”

The wyvern swept its gaze across the sea and waddled with the lord towards the giant’s hand.

“Command this titan,” the lord said. “Take me to the palace.”

Anna licked her lips, pulling her unicorn towards her, knuckles turning pale. She reached out for her father’s hand, watching as the giant lifted the lord to its shoulder. Her father got to his feet, standing at her side, staring at the giant, shaking his head.

The warmth filled her mind and she saw herself through the giant’s eyes.

“This is really quite high up,” Heinrich said, clinging to the titan’s neck. He called out a curse as the titan turned and stepped into the sea. “Gods be damned. We are going to fall.”

“Just hold on,” Waage said. “We will be at the palace before you know it.”

Heinrich let out a deep breath. “It really is high. Very, very high.”

The titan waded through the water, the waves sloshing against its knees.

“This swaying is making me feel woozy.”

“I hope she adjusts the course, we seem to be veering away from the palace.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you, father.”

“You know to tell me if you plan to leave the lighthouse. I thought you were still home.”

“My thoughts were not quite my own.” She glanced up at him and smiled. “You are safe now.”

He tugged at his moustache. “I’m afraid this is only the beginning. Lord Graf is a man who craves power above everything. With that monstrosity at his command and that wyvern whispering in his ear…” He shook his head. “I fear for our future.”

Waves crashed against the titan’s shoulders, sending jets of foam across Heinrich’s feet. “Turn, you foul thing. You’re going the wrong way.”

Waage swung her head around and gestured to shore. “We should make for the harbour.”

“We are too far away. We will both drown.”

Waage stretched out her wings, testing them. “I can glide.” She leaped from Heinrich’s shoulder, catching an updraft and shooting into the air.

“You cursed, retched thing. Come back.” Heinrich scrambled onto the titan’s mouth, clambering up its face as the water rose around him.

He climbed to the top of its head, sobbing as the waves washed over his legs and arms and chest, throwing him beneath the surface and deep beneath the sea.

Waage shuddered when the enchantment between herself and Heinrich snapped. “Cursed imbecile,” she muttered.

Turning in a slow loop, she scanned across the Braun Sea, bubbles marking the titan’s descent.

The End

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