Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Manager

Brian was in the middle of training the new boy, Tim, when the shop door crashed open violently. The normally timid bell dinged with a single note of such solid, bright clarity that Brian thought he was having a religious experience; he briefly wondered what it was about the pricing structure of reptilian eyeballs that had finally elevated his consciousness.

The thumping footsteps on the wooden steps down to the basement brought him back to reality. If he hadn’t renewed the wards this morning he might have worried about some mis-summoned creature, a Hathoid after the candle wax; a Patterkiller demon looking for a magically intense place to pupate; one of the eleven secret rhino gods of Kent, maybe.

But it was just a man. A young man, an overweight man, an out-of-breath man, but a man nonetheless. He wasn’t even possessed, not in the supernatural sense; although he did look quite ill-tempered. It would have been hard to tell from his eyes – bloodshot, baggy, narrowed – whether he was angry or upset or just tired. Brian thought a bit of all three. His clenched jaw definitely favoured anger above all else.

“Is this the Basement Emporium?”

Brian looked around. It would be better to humour this one, to calm him down and act respectfully. He never had been too good at that. He pointedly looked around at the ramshackle shelves, crammed with mystical whatnots, doodads and sundry other paraphernalia. Beneath a shelf filled with assorted knots was a shelf of what appeared to be brightly coloured novelty snails and shrivelled left hands (possibly monkeys’, possibly children’s). There was no apparent system and no space. Emporium was both the most appropriate and least fitting name. Brian looked at the stairs down which the stranger had stomped, and then upwards to where street level would be.

The man fumed.

“Yes?” Brian answered. In a way that asked what else it could be, and why was this man asking when he clearly already knew the answer or else why would he be here. It was quite an emotive ‘yes?’.

“I demand to see the manager.”

Tim looked mildly scared. If the boy couldn’t handle angry humans he just might not work out. Still, Aunt Henrietta would be worse to deal with if Brian didn’t at least give him a chance.

“Ah, and what would this be about? He doesn’t like to be disturbed.”

Tim looked at Brian with wide eyes, a little confused. Inevitably he would have had to tell him about the manager, but this was probably a little soon; after all, Tim had already balked at the dismembering process with the tree frogs.

“My girlfriend bought some stuff from you.”

Ah, that explained why he didn’t recognise the man. Although, to be honest, the long black hair (died, often in a pony tail), random piercings, long black jacket, black boots (Doc Martins or, increasingly, Nu Rocks) and clear lack of regular exercise (and personal hygiene) all began to look the same after a while. He was probably wearing a Cradle of Filth t-shirt under the jacket.

“Black candles? Rune set? Imp-bone chalk stick? Sacrificial dagger? I do always point out those are ornamental only.”

“What? Shut the fuck up, man. She was doing a sex rite,” (they always were) “from the Crimson Scrolls,” (oh shit) “and she bought everything from you, man.”

“Well we don’t sell the Crimson Scrolls. There’s a reason for that. But listen, come this way.”

He ushered the man towards the back of the shop, to a curtained doorway behind the till.

“After you.” He gestured, holding the heavy velvet curtain open just a little.

The room on the other side was mostly empty but for a large desk with an antique but comfortable looking wooden chair behind it. On the desk was an old typewriter, a sheaf of blank papers and the skeleton of a raven. After shop-hours Brian had been using the skeleton (so far unsuccessfully) to attempt to channel the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe. There was no one else in the room except Brian and, in front of him, the confused customer.


The Manager rested in a rack on the wall just to the right of the curtain; anybody walking straight into the room wouldn’t see it there unless they turned and looked behind them. With practiced ease Brian lifted it off the rack and drew the Manager in one quick, smooth motion. Economy of movement was the key, was what had drawn him to Iaido; measured violence; controlled explosions. Not unlike magic itself. He found the clear ringing tone of a good draw calming, too. He struck before the customer could turn and as he held his final position he closed his eyes. He waited for the body to crumple and the head to finish rolling before he opened them again.

Brian straightened up and smiled. In one movement he shook the blade free of blood and re-sheathed the manager, reverently placing it onto the wall rack once more, just below the ‘student discount’ wakizashi.

He thought he had best explain to Tim how the customer was not always right (hardly ever was, in fact) and about the true nature of the Crimson Scrolls and anyone who was exposed to them unprotected. He looked around the office. The boy probably wasn’t quite ready for the clean-up job though.

Recommended reading: Sum by David Eagleman
(So this is slightly cheating... it's a published book, but (in the UK) it's a very successful collection of outstanding micro-fiction by a single author. Which should be an inspiration to any aspiring writer of micro (or flash) fiction.)

Managing the Basics: a Flash Fiction Primer by John Xero

Sunday, 23 January 2011


From somewhere in the grinding, glitching scratch of the music a deep, bass sound pounds out arrhythmically. Shadows dance in the strobing darkness, somehow holding the beat, sensing the change, a switch, a kick, a pop, a dip. They are oblivious to everything but their own existence, they are alone in a new cosmos of boundless energy and dark sound and yet, paradoxically, bound together as a single being. Hair sweeps wide, flesh glistens, sweat flies, muscles stretch and pull, feet stomp. All this in worship of a thumping, snarling god that tears its way through the air around them.

Starling stumbles, startled from her trance by the fickleness of her treacherous feet. She laughs, her damp face stretched in a grin of pure joy that ignites a playful spark in her cobalt blue eyes. She shakes her hair forward from where it has clung to her forehead, reaches up with her hands to check the bunches on the top of her head. Her hair is almost the same cobalt blue as her eyes, varying in shades as though it were her natural colour; the bunches are loose balls like half-open chrysanthemums. Her vest top is white, with a brown-grey cog pattern picked out in a different, gauzy material that reveals hints of the pale white flesh of her chest and abdomen. She tugs the short, a-line, denim skirt down, somewhat ineffectually, doing little to narrow the distance between its hem and the odd knee-high socks crumpled at the top of her old, loved boots.

She rocks a little on the balls of her feet, shifting slightly as her body finds its rhythm again, as she falls into the spirit that fills this place, as she closes her eyes and begins to dance.

Hours later she is still bouncing when the music ends and she joins her fellow grind fiends on their exodus to the real world. No one is alone when that glorious, savage industrial sound fills the air; in the music they are together in their individual release. But now the early sunlight scorches them, it separates them and scrutinizes them with its accusing glare.

Starling steps away from the others, turning down a quiet alleyway, falling apart, falling to the ground. She inspects herself in the daylight, curious, heads bobbing at an angle, interested. Someone steps around the corner and half of her startles, a flustered flurry of feathers. Then at some unspoken signal she takes to the air as a single flock. She wheels upwards in the narrow confines of the alleyway until she is above the surrounding buildings, until she is free to spread out and dance on shimmering wings across the city’s skies.

Recommended reading: Maps by Dee Harding

Startling Shifts in Form: I talk shape-shifting and ambiguity.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Love like a Shark

Rosco B (serious): I’m dying.

Charlie Ten (exhales involuntarily, eyes widen): ...

Rosco B: I’m sorry.

Charlie Ten (shakes head rapidly): No. No, you can’t die. They made you so you can’t die.

Rosco B (shakes head slowly): They fucked me, Charlie.

Charlie Ten: But, the telomethingy glands.

Rosco B: Telomerase.

Charlie Ten (pleading): Immortality. You said so.

Rosco B (sighs): When we left the London Arcology we escaped the Monarch, and the damned Beefeater Host, but I’ve been doomed the moment we set foot on true English soil.

Charlie Ten: What do you mean?

Rosco B: Radiation shielding in the Arcology walls, cancer suppressants in the water. Out here: none of that, and residual radiation levels. We were so naive to think we could be free.

Charlie Ten (swallows hard): Cancer? Cancer’s a disease of the old world, it doesn’t exist anymore. And we are free, look. This is what you talked about; trees, and free people, the ever-grey sky, wild animals.

Rosco B: Cancer doesn’t exist in the Arcology. But this is the old world we’re in now. Out here we may be free from the idealistic stranglehold of the Monarch but we become the subjects of a different power: the natural order; the way the world used to work.

Charlie Ten (lips turn down, voice pitches oddly): Then we both die out here. But at least we do it together; as the result of our choices, not the Monarch’s.

Rosco B (smiles sadly): No. You’ll be fine. I talked to the Free Celts medicine women; they’re quite advanced really. She says my healing system, the rapid cell regeneration, combined with the elevated telomerase levels in my cells is actually promoting the formation of cancers. The very thing that makes me and the other Beefeaters so formidable; it starts killing us the moment we step outside our jurisdiction.

(looks wistfully up at the unfamiliar sky): I have denied death for so long, ever since we escaped I have felt it circling nearer. It preys on everything without discrimination and now, finally, it has my scent.

Charlie Ten (blinking, a damp sheen to his eyes): I can’t do this without you. Why would I do this without you?

Rosco B (takes hold of Charlie’s face, looks deep into Charlie’s eyes): You have to. The longer you live the more worthwhile this was. We have a while together yet, but when I am gone, remember me. Honour me with your life.

Recommended Reading: Taken for a Ride by Colette Coen on The Pygmy Giant.

Words like Sharks: a short ramble on inspiration.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Dull Sky Shook

The world has become blizzard. Thick flakes rage about him in such constant motion he can’t believe they are settling, but the snow beneath his feet is becoming deeper by the minute. The storm steals everything: sound, colour, distance. But it grants him cover too.

He feels the weather testing the edges of his armour, whispering in past plate and cloth, stealing moments of his movement to drop chill kisses across his skin. The suit is older than him, it has carried heroes through wars long past. The heavy plates still hold true but he has had to patch up the decaying joints with the flags of devoured countries, because that was what he had to hand. He never intended to be a warrior but, like the armour, he carries the experience; always in the wrong place, having to make do or die, having to learn fast just to stay alive.

Lian asked him why he remained, once, towards the end; what he had left now that everyone else was gone, dead, or worse - to the other side. Now that they had failed.

He hadn’t known, he had no answer for her. He hadn’t fought for their ideals, or their lost peoples; he had fought for them, just them, and now they were no more.

He wasn’t one for introspection, but this slow, trudging progress seemed to encourage it. He supposed, in the beginning, he had stayed because of Lian, he had wanted her and so he had done what he always did, set out to impress her, which had meant joining their scrappy rebellion. But it had become something more to him; somewhere he belonged, for the first time. Before it all went wrong, before it looked like they might do some real damage. And that had been their greatest mistake. As soon as they looked like a genuine threat they had been taken seriously, and they found out exactly how a thousand year empire had learnt to protect itself. They were taken apart, broken down, ended.


He endures. Just like his father.

He swallows down the bitterness and bile. The silhouetted corner of a building intrudes on the empty world, a light grey edifice in the blizzard. It could be anywhere, but his sense of direction is unerring, he knows this is the building he is seeking; the building where Lian is being held.

After all this time, that was what it came to. He had no real belief in their cause, harboured no sense of duty to their people, but he had never failed before and so she still had a hold over him. He still wanted her, still felt the need to impress her. And so he had come to rescue her.

He put a hand against the wall and edged his way along, towards the window. He already knew they hadn’t been able to move her before the storm struck. They had vehicles that could make it, but why take the risk? What danger could come to them when such terrifying, white silence roared through the world? This was weather that killed.

It was weather he brought inside with him in a shattering flurry of broken glass.

In that moment his armour became more than a cracked shell patched with old flags; it became ancient heroes and vengeful nations. And he became everything he had tried to avoid. He became hope. He became a sign.

The title, and some of the inspiration, came from a D.H. Lawrence poem.

"The snow descends as if the dull sky shook
In flakes of shadow down ; and through the gap
Between the ruddy schools sweeps one black rook.

Recommended reading: Those Who Remain by Jacqueline May on Every Day Fiction.

Shaking Things Up: talking micro-fiction and the internet.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Cold Snap

Sami huffed into the cold air. The ragged cloud of his hot breath reminded him of a drop of blood unfurling in water. He was wearing his thickest shirt and he tried not to shiver as they moved through the evergreens.

“We don’t really have much of a winter to speak of. This is about as cold as it gets.”

His diminutive companion remained silent.

Olla had arrived in their village three weeks ago on a crude sled pulled by white-furred dogs, the morning of the first frost when the wan sun was barely over the horizon. She had been unconscious, not too far from stepping the Bone Stairway, but Tuula the medicine woman had brought her back from the edge.

She was small and sleight enough that at first she had been mistaken for a child. Tuula had informed the village that the stranger was, in fact, a woman. Sami couldn’t imagine any man would have her for his wife though; she looked brittle, she would break too easily. He didn’t think she would survive a single childbirth.

This walk was the first time she had left the village and Tuula had insisted Sami escort her. The forests were not safe, especially at this time when prey was scarce and the wild animals hungry. Olla hadn’t seemed bothered by the cold but Sami had draped his fur over her anyway, it had made him feel colder to see her thin body in just a light shift. He decided she must be from much further north, where the climate was colder, snow a more permanent feature.

The village was out of sight now but Sami knew the forest well. Olla could wander wherever she liked and he would know the way home. There was a bear with cubs to the East, he knew to avoid her territory, but Olla had gone west anyway, towards Vaskya lake, the Vika lands and the fjords beyond. She was as silent and light on her feet as a hunter, avoiding dry branches as if it were second nature. The way she ghosted through the forest Sami felt she might disappear altogether if he didn’t keep his eyes on her.

He wasn’t the only one she spooked. Something about her paleness, her silence, her lack of presence and the piercing brightness of her ice-blue eyes had the sword-men muttering. They said she was a spirit, a sylph; that harbouring her could bring no good. When Tuula walked among them they said nothing; Tuula said she was a guest, and so she stayed, unharmed.

But Tuula wasn’t here now. Sami laid his fingers on the handle of his long knife. There was a lot that could happen between the dark pines. He needn’t even use his blade, a broken neck would be easier to explain.

Olla had stopped, distracted by something off the path. Sami moved softly up behind her, already seeing the whip of her silver hair in his mind’s eye as he twisted her head sharply. But before he could act a red splash caught his eye, where Olla was staring.

Brown red and blood red and dirty white and disturbed, bright snow. He stepped closer, his murderous intent allayed for the moment. It was a fox, torn into, torn apart, hot blood still steaming in the melting snow. Sami looked around, alert. Foxes were smart, cunning, and they were no beast’s prey. He drew his knife, watching the deep shadows intently.

Maybe the early frosts had driven something else south. The Northlanders had a hundred different names for things that Sami’s people would simply call monster.

Olla gasped.

Sami span, seeing where she was looking, seeing the matted grey fur, the bulk, the speed, the jagged claws, the bloody maw. A wolf that was nearer the size of a bear, leaping at the girl. He barged her with his shoulder, getting one hand under the wolf's chest and pushing it off-balance as its weight smashed him to the floor.

He was beneath it. His knife was out of reach. He felt the familiar battle-rage rising and dulling the pain from where claws had torn open his shoulder. This was a greater enemy than he had ever faced before. He felt nearer death than even the time Ulfrich the Mad had pinned him to the wall with one hand and swung at him with his own war axe. He could clearly see the furrows in the monster’s muzzle where its black lips were drawn back, baring its wicked teeth. Its yellowed eyes were bloodshot and wide.

He held its head up with his good arm, staring into its wild growl; his muscles tensed, straining against its bulk and strength. Its fetid breath misted across his face, thick drool and fresh blood spattering on his cheeks. It snapped at him and he pushed it one way, rolling his head the other. He grunted as its teeth nicked his ear. He tried to punch upwards with his injured arm, but it was weak, his shoulder was still trapped beneath the huge paw and the wolf barely felt it.

He saw a flicker of movement over the monster’s shoulder and then more weight pressing down on him, on the wolf. Slender arms reached round the head and before the monster could react they squeezed tight, small hands taking a firm grip. Then its whole head twisted violently as Olla flipped sideways off its back. There was a thick, tearing, snapping, cracking sound like when a tree trunk gives, but louder.

Then the weight on Sami was greater, but it was all dead weight.

He dragged himself painfully from beneath the wolf, the rage draining from him, leaving him cold. It was easily twice as big as the biggest he had ever seen. He would have difficulty dragging it back to the village.

He felt a touch on his torn shoulder.

Olla’s fingers were like ice, freezing, and Sami almost flinched away but there was some kind of relief in those chill fingers, dulling the pain. He blinked in disbelief as a patina of frost traced out across the wound from beneath her hand. The blood stopped, quicker than was natural.

She took her hand away. He flexed his arm; it felt numb, but it worked.


His mind felt numb in a different way. It tried hard to process everything that had just happened. He looked at Olla. “You broke its neck.”

“Better its neck than yours.” She looked straight into his eyes, “Or mine.”

* * *
(Snappy Titles: John Xero talks titles, narrative and names.)