Friday 30 September 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 1

This was the dream that Katya always had. The world was spread out below her: fields, roads, towns, cities. The green breadth of nature punctured by the red and grey staccato wounds of civilisation as it pumped poison outwards on throbbing black veins. It was all nature, of course; man was a part of that, nature had always adapted to the dominant species, the dominant conditions. Man was both, now, and the rest of nature was struggling to keep up. In her dream, as she fell, that was important.

Her friends told her that everyone dreamt of falling, and woke with a start before they hit the ground, heart pounding, sweating, afraid of the impact. It’s just fear, they said, of things beyond your control. Katya never told them that she felt no fear. It was exhilaration that set her heart beating wildly as she awoke.

She never mentioned the wild thoughts that accompanied the whirling world below, man versus nature, man beyond nature. They were out of character, she was not the philosophical type, such things would just raise eyebrows amongst her friends and colleagues.

That morning she woke up on the sofa, to the letterbox chatter and soft tumbling thumps of new mail. Ever since Larry dumped her a week ago something had gone wrong with her head. She was having difficulty sleeping, and she was seeing things, colours, auras around people. When she did sleep the dream was waiting for her, and when she woke, after barely an hour or two, there was a sense of disappointment, of something she was about to remember, lost now, stolen by the rough, high winds.

Not to mention it was her birthday in two days. Thanks Larry. Thanks a bunch.

Today was Monday, her day off, and she had resolved to stop moping. She had planned to do things, make a start on all the DIY Larry had always promised he would do; write a long overdue letter to her mum; buy something special for herself... but she felt so weary.

She got up and went to the door. The usual suspects waited on the mat with smug inevitability, a bill, not yet red; a letter from her mother, who would also have emailed her to check she had received it, and make amendments; a catalogue offer from a company she had ordered a pair of knickers from, once, ages ago and a hearing aid brochure addressed to the previous owner, a man named David Krapowski who had died here eight years ago. Katya sighed.

Tea, that was the answer. She shuffled through to the kitchen, putting her fingers through her long black hair, trying to make something of the tangle. She listened to the excited pop and bubble of the water as the kettle began to do its thing and rubbed her eyes, not needing a mirror to see the dark bags underlining her dark pupils – her boring, dull pupils. The kettle climaxed and as she poured the steaming water into her Hello Kitty mug the letterbox clattered for attention again.

Postie must have missed a letter. She was surprised he hadn’t just put it through a door further down and relied on neighbourly charity to see it home safe. Then she told herself off for being uncharitable.

Leaving the tea to brew, she went back into the hall. How unusual, a black envelope. She turned it over, no address window, no writing, no stamp. Some gimmick then, some local business. Still, the paper of the envelope felt thick and textured, expensively tactile, as paper goes. The seal opened with a satisfying crackle as she slid her finger under it. There was no letter inside. She looked deeper, spreading the envelope wider. There was definitely something in there. She pulled it out.

Feathers. Small, black feathers about the length of her fingers, with downy tufts at the base. Five of them.

Something throbbed in her brain, a thick jab behind her left eye. Her vision doubled and she dropped the envelope as she put an arm out to steady herself on the wall. She screwed her eyes shut, unable to stop a short, breathy moan of pain fluttering out from somewhere inside.

She opened her eyes and the corridor swam. She focussed on the feathers. Black feathers. She felt cold suddenly, unsteady, then sweat prickled her skin and a wave of nausea broke over her. She gagged, dropping the feathers as she dashed for the toilet below the stairs.

The feathers drifted downwards, wafting a little, spinning and spiralling.

As the last one settled gently, tentatively, on the carpet, Katya retched, and vomited. It felt as if the world were shifting beneath her, as if the floor, ceiling, walls had become fluid and interchangeable. She clutched tightly at the white porcelain lest she be flung about and injured by a world suddenly unreliable, treacherous.

-Part 2-
Fifteen Feathers is a short (6 part) serial. Come back next week for part 2! =)

Wednesday 28 September 2011

The Xeroverse and the End of the World...

While I'm between serials... I've been awarded the Versatile Blogger award again, this time by the lovely folk over at In Case of Survival.

It's a real pleasure to receive the award as one of the things I try to do here is produce a wide variety of work, in genre and style, and it's great to be recognised for that. So thank you, ICoS! ^_^

If you're into you're post-calamity scenarios then ICoS is there for you, particularly if you like your doomsday with a large dose of irreverent humour. They leave no apocalypse unturned, whether you're worried about zombies, what you can eat in the wild, if you want to know what place knitting has, post-civilisation, or what today's books, movies and games can tell you about the inevitable wasteland of the future.

They also publish the occasional apocalyptic flash fiction. The first ever of which was my very own Ragestorm Requiem.

And if you've come over here from In Case of Survival then here's a few stories you might like, from the archives... =)

Gunship Afterlife
When the world has ended and even the hardware is out to get you...

Orion and the Bear
Civilisation has collapsed and the gods walk the earth once more.

This Pale Stranger
Zombies in the old west.

A delirious hallucination of a world where death is not the worst you can wish for.

I keep trying to push myself, and try new things, so at the moment I'm experimenting with serials. My 6-part fantasy, Godstorm, has just finished (part 1) and this Friday my new serial, Fifteen Feathers, starts.

Friday 16 September 2011

Godstorm epilogue: Clear Skies

The Godstorm so far...
Part 1 - Clouds like Murder
Part 2 - Wailing Winds
Part 3 - Blood Rain
Part 4 - Dark Thunder
Part 5 - Bright as Lightning
And now, the Godstorm has blown over. The epilogue, Clear Skies

Ephea remembers little of his fight with Brattur. Whatever he did must have been enough, though. Certainly it was enough to see Elenor live, and honour her word.

Even with the return of Kraius he has been set free. He is Godska no more.

As he walks the streets of Vallya, heading for the gates and the outside world, the air feels clear, light. Before the murder there was an oppressive tension in the air, the gods could feel the coming storm, even as Kraius had foreseen it, though maybe not as clearly as Kraius had.

How Kraius returned is a mystery to him. He saw the godking die, witnessed the frenzy of the black shrikes. But, much like his life before he entered Kraius’ service, the events of the funeral are unclear, like the spectre of a memory. And no one has enlightened him.

Haftagg and Vorka seem to have some regard for him now. After he announced he would be leaving Vallya, the two gods of light, in turn, had grasped his hand and pulled him close, slapping his back in a warriors’ farewell. Even Shin and So, in their inscrutable bone masks, had bowed deeply; Ephea felt moved, it was as much emotion as he had ever seen from them before.

Kraius simply nodded gravely at his decision to walk the world, but Ephea had the feeling he approved. Elenor had smiled at him, quite fondly, he thought, though she was not his mother, and that had puzzled him the most. Maybe he had more of his father’s appearance than whoever his mother had been.

It was something to ponder, anyway, something to roll around in his mind as his meandered about the world. He wondered if he would find a purpose, a place, but he was in no hurry. He felt rejuvenated after his recuperation, revitalised. He took a deep breath, set the gods and their politics to his back and strolled down the slope, smiling, to his future.

Godstorm in a tea cup
On publishing a serial for the first time

One of the things I didn’t expect from writing a serial was the anxiety. There is freedom in writing a lone slice of flash fiction, each story is a fresh start. If someone likes it, they like it, if they don’t, well, next week there will be something different. I’m a notorious genre hopper, and I like to think that at some point I will hit the right genre/ story combo to please everyone (not everyone at the same time, but across the body of my work).

(Also, I’m not really notorious, not enough people read me, but I could be... ;) )

With a serial, you are tied to a genre (for the most part). Certainly, with Godstorm, if I’d broken out the rocket ships I think people would have shied away. This feels a little claustrophobic. Especially given that the next story (six parts, also) is something like supernatural suspense. That’s twelve weeks with nary a sign of science fiction! Much like in my reading, if I stay away from writing SF for too long, I get itchy...

The other factor I wasn’t expecting was the expectation. In two senses.

The first is concerned with direction. People will expect the story to go in a certain direction (and, of course, different people will expect it to go different ways). Now, if they spot your plot ahead of time, you run the risk of not being exciting as a writer, and if you go somewhere unexpected, it has to be better than what the reader was expecting, because otherwise you’re letting them down. I hope I achieved this with Godstorm, I hope no one saw it coming, that my hints were subtle enough but not too subtle, and, more importantly, I hope the twist was satisfying.

The second sense of expectation is one of fulfilling a promise. This is related to direction, but this is the side that leads to anxiety. Once part one is out there, and people like it, the following parts have something to live up to. There is a commitment you are making to those who come back for the second, and subsequent, parts. They are reading your story, and coming back for more, and in return you must honour that commitment and continue to entertain them.

Before posting I was full of fear that I was committing myself to six weeks of flash that nobody might like. Once I got some really great responses to part one, I was filled with the fear of letting people down. My twist, which I knew from the beginning, was unconventional and I was worried that people might be enjoying the more conventional fantasy aspects but not appreciate the twist; that I would fail to meet my side of the commitment. At the time of writing I’ve received some really positive responses to the twist... I just hope everyone liked it as much.

My main regret with Godstorm is in the rushing from beginning to end, with so little middle. Maybe the storm should have had an eye, a moment of tense calm in the middle. A fantasy author once told me that writing is like music, it has to have its crescendos, and its bold forte moments, but it needs the quiet moments too. In hindsight, I can see the potential ‘middle’ for building characters and intrigue, multiple suspects, instead of introducing and revealing my villain in the same part. But this was Ephea’s story really... and besides, all that other stuff? That’s the book, isn’t it? ;)

I can’t see me not revisiting these characters. Even if the book never gets written I should think there will be more serialised flashes. Elenor’s history (Anjelstorm), Kraius and Elenor meeting, defeating the Star Father (Starstorm), revealing Khao as a traitor (Demonstorm), and, of course, the upcoming war - what parts Kraius, Elenor and Ephea play in the Dragonstorm... (you notice a theme there... this is your weather warning... ;) )

For now though, I set the gods and their politics to my back, and stroll off, smiling, into the future. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. =)

Fifteen Feathers will start in two weeks time, next week I will be posting two stories to Xeroverse: 101, to celebrate cracking 100 followers on twitter. Both based on prompts from followers. =)

Friday 9 September 2011

Godstorm pt. 5: Bright as Lightning

The Godstorm so far...
Part 1 - Clouds like Murder
Part 2 - Wailing Winds
Part 3 - Blood Rain
Part 4 - Dark Thunder
And now: Part 5 - Bright as Lightning

Ephea leaps in Brattur’s way, hoping beyond belief that a weapon from Kraius’ own armoury might take a blow or two from Thunder’s black blade. As the sword leaves its scabbard a stark flash of brightest white illuminates the hall. The sword in Ephea’s hand is alive, jagged with power. It is like looking at mirrors in the midday sun, blinding with afterimages.

Every god knows Thunder’s twin sword: Lightning.

Ephea does not understand. Legend holds that anyone not Starborn who wields Thunder or Lightning will be reduced to nothing but ash and memory. Yet somehow Ephea still stands. At the sight of the sword something stirs within him, something like nostalgia, the edge of something long forgotten, buried deep.

Reality crashes back in. Even with Lightning, Ephea knows he cannot beat Brattur; the godprince is a renowned warrior, veteran of countless battles. But the sword gives him hope that he might buy the godqueen time to recover. Beyond that, he cannot think. Brattur attacks.

Brattur feints a strike to the right which twists into a sudden stabbing thrust at Ephea’s heart. Ephea stumbles, but the speed Lightning lends him brings the sword across in time to parry the blow. He pushes Thunder up over his shoulder, past his face. Ephea ducks as Brattur flicks the sword back and it grumbles just over his head.

When the swords clash Ephea feels the dark strength of Thunder pressing against him, it is like an invisible wave grabbing every particle of his body and shoving him back. But that feeling takes hold of something else within him; some strange recognition.

As they strike and parry, Ephea feels something swell inside him, a memory of strength and might, a memory of war, a memory of millennia. It is a complex of memories, but it has a single name. As the memories grow within him so he grows, filling his armour, becoming taller than his opponent. Swordplay becomes familiar to him, second nature, and Brattur is caught off-guard by Ephea’s metamorphosis, he does not understand what is happening. He does not understand that a godking needs more than might and posturing, a godking needs cunning and strategy and foresight.

What seemed brutal and powerful to Ephea mere moments ago now seems clumsy, and he avoids Brattur’s strikes with ease. Then he sees an opening. He takes Brattur’s sword hand off at the wrist, Lightning barely slowing as it carves through bone and flesh alike.

Thunder falls to the floor and Brattur grabs at the stump of his wrist with his left hand, red blood bubbling through his fingers in pulsing gushes. The godprince staggers backwards, eyes wide, mouth gaping as he looks disbelievingly at Ephea-who-is-no-longer-Ephea.

“Father.” Brattur gasps.

And as if to underline this simple statement the armour on the altar sags and crashes as it collapses, empty.

Ephea is no more, he remembers now that he is Kraius, that he created a larval form of himself, a godseed, when he sensed the winds of rebellion, when he foresaw his own murder but not the direction from which it would come. Lightning was the trigger, with the sword in his hand all his disembodied power would be drawn back to him, and with it, his memories and his might.

Kraius reaches down and picks up Thunder from the cracked floor, flicking Brattur’s hand away. He takes a step towards his treacherous son, who stands straight, defiant despite his grievous wound. The traitor expects death. Kraius raises his foot and kicks his son square in the chest, launching him halfway down the centre aisle of the hall. Everyone hears Brattur’s ribs crack, even over Thunder’s angry rumbling.

Kraius raises the swords high.

“I am Kraius.” He roars. “Godking.”

The answering roar is deafening and Kraius grins savagely. It might take cunning and intelligence, but it was the power they respected.

He feels a light touch on his back, a gentle, chill waft of air as wide wings fold into themselves. He leans into the godqueen’s touch.

“Elenor,” he says, softly, “my queen.”

“My king.”

And that will do them, for now.

Later, when they are alone, when they are no longer required to be king and queen in front of their subjects, they can be husband and wife, and say everything.

Later still, Elenor turns to Kraius.

“I made a promise, while you were... away. I would still see it honoured.”

The Godstorm is over... almost. Come back next week for the epilogue, Clear Skies.

Friday 2 September 2011

Godstorm pt. 4: Dark Thunder

The Godstorm so far...
Part 1 - Clouds like Murder
Part 2 - Wailing Winds
Part 3 - Blood Rain
And now... part 4 - Dark Thunder

Gods and more are gathered for the godking’s funeral.

Ephea stands beside the altar on which Kraius’ body lies. He has never seen so many gods gathered in one place. All of Vallya is here, and many foreign gods, lords and guests. He has never felt so self-conscious either; attention has always been on Kraius, while Ephea has always served quietly, invisibly, beside him. Now he stands up here with only the body of his king and the godqueen Elenor.

Elenor’s wings are spread wide and Ephea can feel the chill from where one passes behind him. Over her crisp, white skin sits the silver armour she wears in battle and she is blinding to look at. Ephea knows the armour is for more than show, the godqueen is expecting challenge, she is expecting poisonous conspiracy to reveal itself.

Ephea himself wears black armour. It is a little loose on him. It is forged for war but has never seen it, like Ephea, who has been trained to fight but never experienced real battle. Strapped to his side is the mottled white scabbard of the sword Kraius gave him not a week before his death. The queen has told Ephea he will be blooded before the day is out, that he will have a chance to serve his king one last time, in vengeance, and then she has promised he will be free.

Kraius’ corpse is dressed in his own armour, all but the breast plate. The dead god’s chest lies revealed, his gaping, ragged wound on display. Gods do not shy from death, they are prepared to stand witness to all its horror.

To the sides of the altar Kraius’ honour guard stand, Vorka and Shin on one side, Haftagg and So on the other. Besides them are Kraius and Elenor’s children, the legitimate ones; some sixteen gods. The eldest, Brattur, has returned from quelling dragon rebellions and a fresh scar puckers his face from brow to chin. Brattur has always looked angry whenever Ephea has seen him; with the scar and his father’s murder he looks furious. The youngest son, Shailan, still centuries older than Ephea, is glaring at him. Ephea wonders if perhaps what has always seemed like an insult, Kraius taking him as a servant, the only god to be such, was something more. Since he came into the godking’s service he has seen more of Kraius than any of his other children have.

The hall quiets and Elenor speaks of Kraius; of his strength, of his conquests and triumphs, of his greatness, of their loss. Then she announces what only Ephea is prepared for: that Kraius can have no replacement, that he has no equal, that there will be no godking after Kraius. That she alone will rule.

There is a moment of silence and stillness like fresh snowfall. Then the hall is in uproar. Ephea hears cheers, but he hears dissent too, and anger, and challenge.

There is commotion to the side, Brattur has pushed Vorka and Shin aside and is mounting the altar steps. He has something like a smile on his twisted face and Elenor nods at him warily as he approaches. It is good that he will show his support, Ephea thinks. He is very much his father’s son and the other gods respect his word and his power.

“Mother,” he says, with every bit his parents’ strength and presence in his voice, “I cannot allow this.”

He backhands her with such ferocity and unexpected speed that she can barely react as she is flung violently backwards.

He turns to the hall and raises his voice.

“And this.” His hand rests on the hilt of his sword, “Proves that the stars burn as fiercely in my blood as they ever did in my father’s. This proves my right to the throne.”

He draws the sword. An ear-splitting blast shakes the hall. It begins with a crack like splintering bone followed by a round, deep boom that Ephea feels to the core of his being. He knows the sword, though he has never seen it before. Every god knows that sword. That sword is Thunder. No god not born of the stars should be able to hold it and yet Brattur does.

He gestures at the ripe scar on his face.

“I have destroyed Archon, lord of the dragons. I have finished the job my father was afraid to. And I broke his magic, allowing free entrance to his chambers. I am greater than he.”

There are gasps and murmurs from the crowd. This is bigger than most of them can grasp. Brattur turns to where his mother is lying, covered in mortar and dust from her impact with the back wall. She is shaking her head to clear it.

“We will have war with the dragons. It will be glorious, and I shall lead us as godking, unchallenged.”

Thunder rumbles in Brattur’s hand.

Ephea knows he cannot defeat the godprince, but he does not think twice, he served the godking, his father, and now he will serve the godqueen. He will give her the chance she needs to recover, the chance she needs to stand and face Brattur on equal footing, to avenge Kraius.

He leaps in front of Brattur, braces himself and reaches for the sword Kraius gifted to him. He has never drawn the sword before. As it leaves the scabbard a blinding flash illuminates the hall, so bright that no shadow is left unpierced, so bright that every god in the room flinches. Bright as lightning.

Next week, part 5... Bright as Lightning

Recommended Reading:
Black Door, Part 1: Softly Does It by the lyrical Stephen Hewitt.
Meet Mr. Softly... "Nothing sees him coming, nothing sees him go."

And read more fiction serials (and serialised fictions ;) ) at Tuesday Serial.