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What Does the Fox Hunt?

“Jacha-chacha-chacha-chow!” the voice boomed all around as Gary rustled around in the darkness.

“Fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow!” it came again louder this time. Gary put his paws over his ears but it seemed to echo round his skull.

“A-hee-ahee ha-hee!” Gary forced himself to backwards out of the darkness his tail swishing aside the detritus of the fallen human world as he fled the awful laughing sound.

“A-oo-oo-oo-ooo!” The voice roared in the black tunnel, chasing Gary as he popped out into the world of light and colour.

“The Fox says you’re an asshole Rob,” cursed Gary rubbing his eyes with his dirty paws and lashing out at the badger with his tail. Rob grabbed the fluffy red tail and used it like a microphone.

“Dog goes woof, cat goes meow, bird goes tweet, and mouse goes squeek.”

“Badger goes oww,” said Gary snatching his tail back from his smiling, black and white striped friend.

“That’s not how…” started Rob before Gary interrupted him with a vicious kick in the shin, “Oww.”

“Told ya,” said Gary with a grin.

‘Lol at Rob,’ chuckled Gary’s fun time brain.

‘Pigeon!’ retorted his food brain.

Gary – like all the foxes – had three distinct brains, the food brain, the fun time brain and thinking brain all fighting for control. There had been a time before the revolution  Gary’s food brain had taken up approximately 90% of his designated thinking time. However, with the humans gone and food now plentiful it had pretty much swung in favour of his fun time brain. He had even noticed that his lesser used thinking brain, which had previously filled in the statistically insignificant time in between his food and fun time brains, had crept up to almost double digits allowing Gary to find a place of his own in the City and hold down a job as a human spotter.

“Now can you please stop singing that damn song,” said Gary his thinking brain finally taking control for a minute.

“You said that last time.”

“Yes, well I didn’t think anything could be any more annoying than the last song…”

“Oh you mean; Badger, badger, badger, badger, badger, badger, badger, badger, badger, badger. Mushroom, mushroom, Oww…”

Gary waved his fist menacingly at Rob. “I told you what would happen if you sang that song again…”

“But don’t you think its fascinating?” asked Rob paws raised in surrender. “I mean they wrote all these songs about us they must have liked us right?”

“They also hunted us for fun,” Gary pointed out, remembering that day before the uprising when he’d nearly been trampled by a bunch of buck-toothed humans, blowing horns and swanning about in ridiculous clothes.

“I just can’t think they were all bad,” replied Rob.

“Look it’s not our job to judge,” said Gary putting his arm around the young badger. “Our job is to sniff them out if there are any here. We leave the judging to the egg-heads back at the office.”

“I guess,” sighed Rob. “I just really wish I could meet one of the nice ones; we could keep him as a pet.”

“I don’t think they’d like that.”

“We could make up our own songs about them,” said Rob skipping ahead a few steps a wide grin splitting his black and white face.

“Don’t…” began Gary.

“Human, human, human human, human, human, human, human, human, human, cheesecake, cheesecake…”

“Get back here you little…” cursed Gary chasing after the dancing badger.

—————————————————-

The best thing about being a human spotter for Gary was the fact that there weren’t really any humans left to spot. Gary had been a human spotter for about 3 months and he hadn’t spotted a single one. He had found lots of bins and bins meant ‘Chicken!’ shouted Gary’s food brain. His mouth started to water, his tail wagged from side to side as his food brain sang ‘chicken, chicken, chicken.’

“Human!!!” bellowed Rob dashing around the corner and snapping Gary out of his reverie.

“What? Where? What?” sputtered Gary.

Rob bent over and slapped his thigh, shit-eating grin plastered on his face. “Oh. You. Should. Have. Seen. Your. Face.” he wheezed between laughs tears stinging his eyes. “Hi-larious!” The best thing about being a human spotter for Rob was winding up Gary.

Gary took two steps forward and kicked Rob hard in the shin.

“Ow, ha, ha, ha.” laughed Rob.

“Prick,” cursed Gary. “You know one of these days we’ll see a human and then I won’t…”

“Human!!!” shouted Rob.

Gary spun around eyes wide. “Where? Where?” He looked wildly around then seeing nothing he focused on Rob who’s face was twisted as he strained not to laugh. Gary let out a roar Rob turned tail and ran laughing all the way.

Rob dashed across an abandoned square, slid under a rusty car and bolted into the open doorway of a tower block. Gary, hot on Rob’s heels, burst through the doorway seconds behind his friend and slammed straight into the his furry back.

“Mdfisdndfn welioehfsfs wefosdnqw0r,” said Gary his mouth full of badger fur.

“H-Hu-Human!” stuttered Rob.

“You won’t get me with that again,” said Gary scratching the fur of his tongue with his paws. “I mean…” he was cut off as Rob clamped his clammy paws around his head and tilted it to the right. Gary squinted for a second and then backed away pointing, in disbelief. “Human, Human! HUMAN!!!!”

The human, a bony unkempt thing with sunken cheeks and stringy red hair dropped the pigeon they were holding and stared with wide eyed terror at Gary.

“Pigeon!” shouted Gary’s food brain.

“She’s cute, lets pet her!” shouted Gary’s fun time brain.

“Remember your training, blow the whistle!” shouted Gary’s thinking brain.

All the idea’s collided in Gary’s brain short circuiting it and he dropped to the floor and lay still in an expanding puddle of drool. When he finally awoke he saw the terrified human curled in a ball as Rob combed her hair with his huge claws.

“Can I keep her? Can I keep her? Can I keep her?” said Rob making the human squirm even more.

“I don’t think the Mayor will like that,” said Gary. “It doesn’t look like the human would like it either to be honest.”

“Pish-posh,” said Rob waving a  paw at Gary. “She’s harmless I’m telling you. We’ll get some food into her, get her tidied up and the Mayor won’t be able to say no.”

“I don’t know, ” replied Gary. “She’s pretty good at saying no.”

—————————————————-

Two days later Rob and Gary presented Fluffy the human (Rob had picked the name, Gary had been against it) to the Mayor. Once they fed her she’d been surprisingly compliant allowing them to wash her in the river, comb the tangles from her hair and even dress her up in a little raincoat and booties.

She was like a completely different human, eyes bright, hair all curly and fluffy (hence the name) and cheeks rosy red. They had even managed to teach her a few words in animal common meaning she came when they called her and stayed when instructed.

“So this the infamous Fluffy,” said the Mayor coming down from her tree stump to get a  closer look.

“Yessir,” replied Rob holding out his arms to show her off.

“And you say she is a good girl?”

“Yessir,” said Rob petting her hand. “You’re a good girl aren’t you Fluffy?”

The human made some incomprehensible noises in human and Rob patted her on the hand again saying, “Yes you are, you’re a good girl.” in a sickly sweet voice.

“And she does as you say?”

“Well we’ve only taught her a few words but once we fed her she was pretty much our best friend. I think she was starving the poor thing these humans really can’t look after themselves.”

“And she hasn’t tried to hunt you at all?”

“Nope, no funny hats, no horse nothing.”

“Okay then.”

“You mean I can keep her?”

“Yes but you have to walk her every day and keep her fed and watered,” replied the Mayor. “It’s a big responsibility looking after a human.”

“Yes!” cried Rob Rob jumping up and punching the air.

“I think we’ll need to start sending out some more spotters,” said Mayor to herself as she went back up the hill to her tree stump. “See if there are any more of the poor wretches out there. Now one of them has a pet everyone is going to want one…”

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The Mother of Earthquakes

Orla wanders the world in silence, bound up by her sorrow. Her only confidants are the stones and the earth, and when they weep the tears she cannot, the very world shakes and rumbles. She is the Mother of Earthquakes.

* * *

In days long past she lived in peace with her five children, four boisterous, playful sons and one wise, blue-eyed daughter, all bright and brave and bold children. Their father had died of a fever when the youngest was not yet born, and so Orla had raised them alone. The daughter, eldest of the five, loved her brothers dearly, and her love and care bound them all together.

In those days there was no great blue canopy of sky, but rather the Sun and Moon drifted through the black void above the earth, shining their light down on men and birds and beasts. There was nothing above the mountains and trees but the black. One morning Orla’s daughter spoke to her of a strange dream; she and her brothers had drifted high above the world and had gone to speak with the Sun and Moon, who had a great and important task for them. Hearing their sister’s tale, Orla’s four sons all claimed to have had the same dream, and asked their mother what it might mean.

Orla told her children that it was only a dream, but a leaden weight of worry settled on her heart that day. The next four nights the children each had the very same dream; they drifted together up above the world, where the Moon and Sun told them that a great task was waiting for them. On the fifth night Orla could not sleep but sat before the fire, feeling the moon’s light on her back and wondering why the strange dream had come to her children, and what it might mean. Then Orla heard the clattering of window shutters and a great rushing of air poured through the small farmhouse. A chill piercing her heart, Orla ran upstairs and threw open the door to her daughter’s room. The window was open wide, and the bedcovers were thrown back, and her daughter was nowhere to be seen. Orla checked the other bedrooms, but in each there was an open window and missing children. She ran to her daughter’s window and as she looked into the night she cried out; far above, just visible in the Moon’s silver light she could make out the shapes of her five children, drifting high above the world.

Orla ran downstairs and, snatching up her husband’s old cloak and throwing it about her shoulders, she ran out into the night, following her children as best she could. But she was bound to the earth, as were all men and beasts and birds in those days, and she could not move fast enough. Soon her children were out of sight but still Orla ran, keeping the Moon before her and crying out to the silver orb to return her children. But whether the Moon could hear her or not as it sat high above in the blackness, it made no reply.

All through the night Orla ran, and on through the next day. The Sun, too, gave no answer to her cries, and Orla began to feel the sharp pain of despair clutching at her chest. At last she could go no further, and as she sank to the earth sleep claimed her almost at once.

* * *

Orla slept for a day and a night, waking once more as the Sun shone down on the world. But as she opened her eyes, she saw that something had changed. The golden orb hung above the world as it always had, but now it drifted in an expanse of the purest, most beautiful blue Orla had ever seen. For a long while she could do nothing but gaze in wonder at the beauty of it, like an ocean over her head. But then another strange thing happened. As she sat looking up she heard a whispering sound and she felt a movement in the air about her, as though a gentle hand was brushing past her. It was a totally new sensation; all her life the air of the world had been still, but now it seemed to move, as though it were alive…

Soon Orla became aware of a cacophony of noise drifting toward her on another strange shifting of air. It was the sound of birds, many hundreds of them all cawing and croaking and singing at once. Curious, Orla moved toward the sound. Very quickly she saw where the noise was coming from; in the distance ahead the ground was covered by a shifting blanket of hundreds of thousands of birds, of every shape and size and colour. At the centre of the group was a huge eagle, deep golden and majestic, who was the only one not making any noise.

Finally the birds began to quieten, until finally there was no sound at all. Orla stood at the edge of this strange gathering, wondering what would happen next. Beside her a small, brightly coloured bird with a yellow-orange beak stood. He looked up at Orla curiously, and she did her best to smile at him. At the centre of the gathering the Great Eagle slowly turned around, looking all about him. Once he had made a full turn, he raised his voice and spoke.
“Fellow birds,” the Great Eagle said. “Thank you for coming. I have news for you, for us all, news that changes everything!”
There was a murmuring from the gathered birds at this, but it was quickly hushed and the Great Eagle continued.
“Last night, as I slept, I was visited by the Sun and Moon. They spoke to me, told me of the great gift they have given to the world. You all have seen the strange, beautiful blue that now sits above, through which the Sun and Moon drift. You each have felt the movements in the air which stir our feathers and tempt us upwards. These are the gifts the Sun and Moon have given, thanks to the kindness of five pure souls who aided them.”
Then a beautiful white swan called out, “But what are these things? What do they mean? What are they for?” A murmur of agreement rose, and the Great Eagle ruffled his feathers and stood taller.
“This blue canopy above, that is called the Sky. Those movements of the air, those are the Four Winds. As to what they are for…”

The Great Eagle spread his wings wide, and he shone golden in the sunlight. Then he raised them high and with a powerful stroke beat downward. Orla, as well as every bird in the clearing let out a gasp of wonder as the Great Eagle beat his wings and soared upward. Before that moment birds had flown, of course, but only from tree to tree, or gliding down to the earth; nothing like this. This was the wild, free flight of a bird no longer bound to the earth. The Great Eagle circled above the gathering of birds, calling down to them.
“This is the gift we have been given, my brethren! No longer shall we be bound to the earth as men and beasts are! And even they can attempt to claim the skies, if they try hard enough. Come, my brothers and sisters! Fly with me, spread the word through the world; the Sun and Moon have given us the Sky and the Four Winds, and no longer shall any creature of the world be bound to the earth if he does not wish it!”

There was a moment of stillness on the ground below, as all eyes watched the Great Eagle. But then, almost as one, a hundred thousand beaks cried out in joy and a hundred thousand pairs of wings beat at the air as every bird leapt upward. Orla covered her ears to block out the thunder of wings, staring in amazement at a blue Sky filled with birds.

She stood for a long time watching them as they explored this new territory, until at last they began to drift away, through the blue Sky to their homes. Finally Orla stood alone in the clearing, gazing at the Sun shining above.
“Five kind souls,” she whispered, sinking to the ground. “Is that what you have done with my children?”
Just then she heard a fluttering of wings, and the brightly coloured bird landed in front of her, looking at her curiously once again.
“Hello,” he said. “What is your name?”
“I am Orla, little bird,” she told him, and asked his name in return.
“I am the Bright Bird,” he told her, ruffling up his feathers. “Brightest of them all, I am. You look sad. What is wrong?”

So Orla told the Bright Bird what had happened to her, how her children had dreamt of the Sun and Moon for five nights, and how they had drifted into the darkness above the world on the sixth night. She told of her chasing after them for a night and a day and how, when at last she had slept, she had woken to find the world had changed. Then she had followed the noise of the birds, had heard the Great Eagle’s words; the Sun and Moon had given the Sky and the Four Winds into the world thanks to the kindness of five souls. Finally she told the Bright Bird that she now feared that those five kind souls were her four sons and her only daughter.

Once she had told the Bright Bird her tale she began to weep, for she did not know what she could do. The Bright Bird took pity on her and touched her hand gently with his wingtip.
“Do not weep, poor Orla. Perhaps if you speak to the Sun and Moon they will answer you, and can tell you if they truly have taken your children.”
“But I have called out to the Sun and Moon,” Orla told him. “I have called to them until my throat is raw, and they have not answered me.”
But the little Bright Bird chuckled and shook his head.
“They cannot hear you down here, it is much too far! But I will lead you northward to the tallest mountain in the world, and help you reach the top. From there I am sure that, if you call out to them, the Sun and Moon will answer.”
Orla thanked the little Bright Bird for his offer, and they set off together immediately.

* * *

The journey was long and hard, but eventually Orla and her new friend stood at the very peak of the tallest mountain in the world. All about them was the bright Sky, and through it the Four Winds gambolled and danced, tugging at Orla’s cloak and the Bright Bird’s feathers.

Orla took a deep breath and called out to the Sun and Moon, asking that they come down and speak to her. No reply came, and Orla cried out again, but again there was no answer. After Orla call out to them a third time and received no answer, the little Bright Bird grew angry. Furious, he beat his bright wings with all his might and flew up to the very top of the Sky where the Sun and Moon drifted, looking down over the world. When he found them there he swooped about them, pecking at them and scolding them for their rude treatment of his friend, until they at last agreed to come down to speak with Orla. The Bright Bird flew so close to the Sun and Moon that his beautiful bright feathers began to burn, and by the time he reached the mountain top again he was smoking all over. Orla pressed handfuls of cooling snow against him and the smoking and burning stopped, but the poor bird’s feathers were now black as jet, only his yellow beak retained its colour. The colour never returned to his once-bright feathers, and he was known as the Blackbird ever after.

Once sure that her friend was well, Orla stood and faced the Sun and Moon, and her sorrow and anger made her voice strong though her knees felt weak.
“Sun and Moon, I have lost my children. They dreamed of you for five nights, and on the sixth they were taken from our home, drifting into the blackness above the world to your domain. You have stolen them from me, and I want them back!”
And then the Sun and Moon spoke to Orla, in a voice unlike any she had ever heard. The voice was both man and woman, both young and old, both gold and silver. The Sun and Moon told her that her children had indeed come to join them in the place above the world, but they had made the journey willingly.

The Sun and Moon told Orla that they had sought throughout the world for the right souls, those with the purest hearts that could help them finish the world they had made. After countless years they had found those souls in her five children, and they had agreed to help them. The Sun and Moon explained that Orla’s daughter had become the Sky that sits above, and her sons had become the Four Great Winds that drift and dance through the Sky and across the world below.

“They have completed the world we began,” said the Sun and Moon. “They have made it whole so that birds and beasts and men may use the Winds to aid them, so that they can look up into the Sky and dream further and higher than before.”
Tears coursed down Orla’s cheeks as she spoke five words to the Sun and Moon.
“Please. I miss my children.”
There was sorrow in the voice of the Sun and Moon as they answered Orla. They told her that they could not keep her children against her will; if she were to demand it they would be returned to her. But if she were to take her children back, the Sky and the Four Winds would be lost, never to return. Birds would fly no more, and the hopes and dreams of all creatures, man and bird and beast alike, would be forever bound to the earth, unable to reach any higher.

Orla cried out in anguish, sure that her sorrows would drown her. But as she stood there at the very top of the world, she felt the playful caress of the Four Winds in her hair. In the whispering of the Winds she heard the mischievous laughter of her sons, and she realised that in the blue Sky was the colour of her daughter’s bright eyes. At last she nodded, knowing that her children had made their own choice. She wished to hold them in her arms again, but she knew in her heart that her own desire could not outweigh the hopes and dreams of the world.

Orla told the Sun and Moon that she did not wish to doom the world to sorrow, and they promised her that as longs as her children served the world as the Sky and the Four Winds, they would not die. And, so that they might not lose their mother’s love, neither would she. But Orla knew herself, too, and knew that she might not always be so strong in her resolve; some days she might feel too great a loss, too great a sorrow, and would demand her children’s return no matter the cost. Even at that moment she could feel it building in her, a dull ache at her core. So Orla thanked the Blackbird for his aid and then, standing before the Sun and Moon at the top of the very world, she swore a sacred, binding oath. She swore that she would speak no more words to any thing, man or beast or bird, above the earth for the rest of her life.

The Sun and Moon bowed low in respect for her sacrifice, and Orla turned away from them and began her long, silent journey down the mountain. The Blackbird went with her, riding on her shoulder. As they reached the foot of the mountains the Blackbird bade her farewell, promising to spread the story of the Sky and the Four Winds far and wide. As his tiny shape faded into the distance, Orla turned and began to walk, heading back into the world once more.

* * *

And so it was that the childless mother began to wander the world, caged in her own silence. She travelled far and wide, crossing oceans and mountains under the wide Sky and the Four Winds, and she never spoke to another living being.

But as she walked in silence, so too did she walk in sorrow. The ache grew in her still; the desire to see her children, to hold them once more. It grew and grew, like a scream of sorrow trapped in her throat, held there by force of will. And on the day that she thought the scream must break out of her, shattering her silent world, it was on that day that the stones spoke.

Night had fallen and she had stopped to rest in a small cave, a sheltering hollow in the earth, warm and welcoming in the fire’s glow. Orla lay in the darkness, thinking on her five children and the ache in her heart. As sleep gently reached out to her, guiding her downward, she heard the sighing, rumbling whisper of the stones and the earth.

We know you, Orla, they said. We have heard the story of your loss, your sacrifice. We know the tale of your silence; no word to man or bird or beast, from now till ever more. But we know, too, of the ache in your heart, and we would aid you if we can. So speak to us of your sorrow, mother, when you can be silent no more. When the pain becomes too great, speak to the stones and the earth. We will weep for you.

Orla woke the next morning and walked onward, but soon enough she felt that the ache in her chest had grown too great to hold, no matter the cost. So, remembering the words of the stones, she knelt and dug into the earth. She pushed her face into the earth and screamed, pushing the sorrow that had built in her deep down among the stones. No sound escaped into the world, the stones took it all. Finally, her throat raw and her eyes wet with tears, Orla covered the hole once more, burying her scream in the kind earth. So the stones took Orla’s sorrow, so that she might not break her oath.

* * *

Orla wandered ever on across the world, and the years passed her by. When her pain and loss grew too great she gave it to the earth to hold for her, and when the earth could take no more sorrow it wept for Orla, as it had promised. The earth and stones rumbled and shook, crying out in pain and sorrow, weeping as she could not. So it was that in time, the ageless, sorrowful figure that walked quietly through the world became known as the Mother of Earthquakes, who asked the earth to speak where she could not. She wanders still.

Some day you may see her, a woman alone, bound in silence and sorrow. If you see her, watch her carefully. Because there are moments when you can see the Mother of Earthquakes lose sight of sorrow. A fleeting moment; when a blackbird sings, when the winds blow playfully, or when the sky is the bright blue of a young girl’s eyes. In those shining moments, Orla, Mother of Earthquakes, smiles…

Gruff pt. 2

N.B.  Hey, you crazy cats and dogs. Mealing here. I hope you don’t mind, but I decided to continue my story from May, Gruff. I hadn’t finished it (writing like a fool close to the deadline- YES, I ADMIT IT ARCHER. I SHOULD HAVE STARTED EARLIER BUT THIS WAS VERY UNLIKELY TO CHANGE). I think I want to extend this further again, so if anyone has ideas- holla at me. To read part one, click the smiley face that looks like it’s lying on the floor… 🙂 

Thank you for being lovely readers, readers. It’s, as expected, lovely to have a year’s worth of writing to account for. I, as I’m sure the others do, am grateful to our resident asshole, Archer, for facilitating this…whatever it is.

The room has been acidically white for 14 years. However, in my time here, I have decorated the place with desperate scratches and smatterings of now dry blood. Somewhere along the way, I stopped trying and began incubating, stewing in notions somewhat resembling an acceptance of my new, unwelcomed form. 7, maybe 8 years in. But it took barely an hour to learn that the mangled remnants of Capra’s body could appear, by a trick of the eyes, imprinted psychedelically upon the blank walls when I looked at them. When my nervous system kicked in, propelling my arms topped with hideous appendages in sporadic jolts until I had more fluid control over the stumpy little stalks, I’d crawl to the wall. I’d claw at the monster holding Capra’s head with its talon pierced in his eye, beat it with newly acquired fists until I bled a different blood. The grim, taunting image merely grinned and multiplied with each flicker of my eyes, vanishing and reappearing at a new slice of the chamber.  There was no relief when I gained control over the fleshy mechanics of my eyelids. Well, physically some relief. Unable to close for some time, my eyeballs itched something fierce as it accumulated invisible dirt and grime until I was able to coolly scrunch my eyes and blink it away. Yet I found that Capra’s image remained, presumably scorched into my retinas- but they weren’t even mine. Not my eyes, not my body. Only my brain remains from my old form. At least, I think it’s mine. I’m not sure how they did it, but…no, I no longer have any confidence to say that any part of me, the real physical me, still exists. Although my reflexes kicked in with the rest of my naked body and I could now begin to walk almost fluidly, I have largely been crumpled on the floor, head curved down and instinctively clutching my knees to my chest. Eyes loosely fixed and out of focus downstairs, my mind hopelessly bored and numb. The silently ringing and blaring whiteness will not end.

 

There’s a faraway noise.

I almost miss it, with my dormant brain and my unfocussed eyes weighing heavily, but it’s there. A succinct little tsuuum. A tsuum unlike any other I had seldom heard here from the monsters beyond the wall (though, I guess, that was more crackle-y and click-y than a tsuum but anyway). I press my head closely to the point in the wall I’d heard it from. Silence. Tsuum. More tsuums follow, the frequency now increasing within seconds. Squashing my face to the wall firmly now, more sounds appear. Squelchy. Painful. I think I hear a crackled roar. And now a thunk. Then no noise at all.  I ram my head closer, furrowing my brow in a way that will allow me the hear better. Nothing.

A whirring blade breaks through the wall, just a hair away from my nose. A noise emits from my mouth that neither myself nor the body I was forced into expects: sharp, brief and odd.  Regardless, I hurl myself into the centre of the blank space and watch the furious metal grind a circle into the white. For the first time in about 10 years, I’m desperate to move but my now gelatinous legs splay out and my arms are locked upright behind me. Instead I stare blankly, screaming, as a chunk of the wall hurtles towards my

Head. Is. Throbbing. Bruised. My eyes are closed, but I distinctively know that it is my loose jaw bone, flopped over entirely on its hinge, that is gently grazing my left ear. “I couldn’t leave him. He could be useful to us!” A blunt yet soothing voice fades into earshot. I roll my head to the side, inadvertently trapping my jawbone under my neck and letting out a feeble grunt. The voice stops, apparently halting mid argument with another voice, and soon I feel the warmth of two callused hands turning my head back up. My sore eyes open and I see a female two-leg staring back. I raise my head confused, wondering whose voice I had just heard, but the two-leg lowers it down with a gentle force. “Don’t rush yourself, take it easy” she says. Or, at least, I think that’s what she says. I’m now screaming in her face, my jaw wobbling and clanking loudly against whatever hard surface I’m laying on. Words. I heard and understood actual words. From her mouth. A two-leg’s mouth. She looks, understandably, concerned as I flail in blind panic in front of her. “It’s- uh- it’s okay. Don’t scream, I- god” she blathers at me. Which, of course, elicits additional, more aggressive screams. Into her face. She grabs a mottled grey slab, and whacks it into my

Face is very much swollen. My eyes are loosely shut again, and my tongue lolls further down my neck than normal. I go to move my head, but it feels like it’s being held down by two different hands across my forehead. Another 2 sets take the arms and legs. The one on my right leg is somewhat overzealous in his pressing. “Looks like he’s wakin’ up,” “Great, more screaming,” “Poor kid,” the woman sighs with a strain in her voice, “lord knows what they were doing to him in there”. My eyes bolt open as I hear the word kid. The trio holding me tense up, pressing down harder. “Kid?” I try to reason with my captors, but the lack of jaw turns it into a slurred, dribbling kuurg sort of sound. I seek the eye of the female who, despite being the subject of my previous unintentional screaming, seems the warmest of the three two-legs. She points a hand-sausage at my face. Somehow I know this is a good indicator to stop moving or trying to talk. “Don’t scream. No more screaming from you. No.” I blink in pain, trying desperately, as instructed, not to scream. “Good. Now, you can understand me yes?” I hesitate. How to communicate this without a scream or a fully affixed jaw… She realises the error. “Uh…Yeah. Right. Okay? Blink if you can understand me.” I’m not sure whether it’s my pre-existing subordinative relationship with the two legs (“eat this hay” means I eat hay) or the threat of being walloped in the head again, but I try incredibly hard to scrunch my eyes into the most definitive blink I can make. “Good. Blink twice if you agree not to scream again.” I scrunch my eyes twice. With an edge of caution, she softens. I guess she knows I was lying. Nevertheless, she releases her grip and instructs the other two to do the same, “Thanks guys, you can go.” “Sure?” “Yeah. I can take it from here”. They leave. We stare at each other in the silence.

She is dressed entirely in grey, save for a little fabric orange image on her left breast. It probably means something. Her legs are strongly planted and her arms folded. The rotund two-leg who came to the field every so often to feed us used to do that exact same pose. Father theorised it was a two-leg way of asserting dominance. Lying down, jaw misplaced and barely cowering, I know think there was something to the old goat’s thinking after all. She blows her cropped mane out of her face. “Sorry about the-“ She loosely points towards my head. I feel a half nod is probably appropriate now. She smirks and we return to silence. I fill the gap. “I suuhuuy  thurr err scheenging”. She nods back politely but blankly. Which is fair. Not even I could understand it. After a thought, she makes a definite hmm and wanders off around the corner behind a brown wall. I get a little lump in my throat as I take in the not-white surroundings. The lump gets harder, heavier, as I noticed the brown is mud. Close to home.

She reappears wielding a whirring metal thing. I do not like the whirring metal thing. It’s a different one to the one in the room but nevertheless it is whirring and metal and, I have recently discovered, I do not like those things. She lays her eyes my floppy jaw. Oh no.  “This might make things a little easier…” she grimaces as, and I don’t think she’s doing this on purpose, she abruptly whizzes the metal thing. I piss a little, anyways. She yanks the free end of my jaw up to my cheek and presses the soon-to-be whir-y barrel to it. I flail my right arm to claw the instrument away but she persists, deftly shooting her palm into the crook of my elbow and continuing the job one-handed. “Ready? The female grins through her jet black fringe. “N-“ The drill bites into the bone, a metallic hurricane spitting out slithers of flesh and bonemeal as it bores through my face. My head furiously knocks the table as the machine vibrates it. She pulls out the horrible metal thing  and replaces it with another, inserting it tightly into the hole. My hands claw the air as the whirring starts again.

It stops and she lets me go. I curl into a ball, clutching my jaw which now seems to be moving up and down like a gate rather than side to side like a horse’s tail. It works perfectly, but I still frown at her beadily. “Better now, huh?” I frown deeper. “Hey, don’t be like that. I helped you out here.” I frown slightly less. “Still,” she continues with a chuckle, “you didn’t scream as much as before.”

“I’d not heard-“ I suddenly stop mid-sentence, struck by the clarity of my speech. The woman acknowledges this and urges me to continue, which I do. Slowly. “Sorry. For screaming at you. I’d never understood a two-leg before.”

The female’s face drops, confused and concerned, “…two-leg?”

Amelia Munroe and the Starry Night

Amelia Munroe pulled her long dark blue coat close to her as the cool autumn wind drifted off the Seine and whirled around her. The smell of freshly baked bread called to her from each boulengerie she passed like a siren song, but she resisted each of them. Her morning routine was sacred to her – an early morning run around Le Jardin De Luxembourg, shower, coffee and catching up on news in her apartment, all before her short walk to work, stopping for breakfast (and another coffee) at the cafe closest to it.

She sat outside, despite the breeze, looking up the building which housed her office – the Musée D’Orsay. She loved the building itself, almost as much as the art it contained. The converted train station was more a home to her than any of the houses or apartments she’d ever inhabited, and it gave her butterflies every day she walked through the door to start her day. It had a buzz whenever it was open to the public – a quiet buzz, of course, but she could feel the awe experienced by everyone gazing at some of the finest art ever produced. It was tangible to her, a layer of group consciousness and connectedness.

As she made her way through the employee entrance and into the main hall of the museum, she heard the familiar sound of Professor Carabin’s wheelchair approaching from behind.

“Bonjour Professor.” Amelia offered without turning, before he reached her.

“Bonjour Amelia, how are you this morning?” Came the reply, through the Professor’s thick French accent and weathered voice.

She turned to face her mentor; “Monet’s Poppies,” she pronounced cheerfully, “and you?”

“Boudin’s Port of Camaret. There’s someone here to see you.”

“A friend of yours?”

“I know him.”

“Not a friend then…”

“We used to be. I haven’t seen him for years.”

“What does he want?”

“He wouldn’t tell me, just that he needs to see you. He works for the British government Amelia.”

Amelia removed her coat and hat, and made sure her hair wasn’t about to embarrass her. “I suppose I shouldn’t keep him waiting then… My office?”

“No, I had him wait in your favourite spot.”

Amelia leaned down and gave the Professor a kiss on the cheek. “What would I do without you René?”

He smiled and let the rhetorical question float by him.

Amelia made her way upstairs to the North-East corner of the fifth floor, where she found a man in jeans and a leather jacket, staring out through the clock face which offered a view of the Jardin des Tuileries, and Sacré Coeur in the distance.

“What kind of government official wears jeans and a leather jacket?” She asked.

“The kind staying under the radar.” The man replied as he turned and offered a handshake.

“Amelia Munroe” she announced as she shook his hand.

“Richard Westbrook,” he replied, “I represent Her Majesty’s government.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise – we’ve been following your career with great interest.”

“Why does that always sound ominous?”

“It isn’t meant to. We simply keep an eye on persons of interest to us.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t make it better.”

“I know. But you needn’t worry, I’m merely here to offer you an opportunity… You have skills that are, how would you say, useful to my government. You graduated from Harvard and then Cambridge, worked at the Met for three years before leaving America – now unable to return, the reasons given by your CIA are typically vague. We lose track of you for a couple of years and then you turn up working here at the Musée D’Orsay under your former tutor at Cambridge, our mutual friend Professor Carabin, as an expert in impressionist art, and… how does one say it? And obtainer of pieces of interest.”

“Do you need me here for this conversation or should I get another cup of coffee?”

“Forgive me, I only meant to ask if you could fill in the gap for me – what did you do for those two years?”

“None of your business.”

“Amelia, I’m not here to dig into your past…”

“All evidence to the contrary.”

“Her Majesty’s government would like for you to perform a service for us.”

“Mr Westbrook…”

“Richard, please.”

“Richard, I’m an American. We’re not really accustomed to doing favours for Her Majesty’s government. Unless it’s bailing you out of a war of course.”

“I said a service, not a favour.”

Amelia paused and looked out through the clock face to the city spread out below them.

“What do you want, Mr Westbrook?” She asked, pointedly using his surname, which was not lost on him.

“We’d like for you to go to India for us, inspect a piece of art, verify its authenticity and if it is genuine, recover it for us.”

“And for this service, what do I get?”

“The thanks of a grateful government.”

“I hope that was your attempt at a joke.”

“What do you want?”

“My usual fee, all costs covered… René can give you the details.”

“This might exceed the bounds of your usual recoveries.”

“What haven’t you told me?”

“This piece isn’t… available. It’s in a private collection, and it’s meant to stay that way. It’s not available at any price.”

“Go on?”

“The piece is the property of Sanchit Singh, the business man. Do you know him?”

“I know of him.”

“He’s going to run for President of India next year. The British government can’t get involved with him, on any level. This piece of art was stolen from the Prado in Madrid a decade ago, taken to India, and Singh now hangs it in his main office, the penthouse suite of his flagship hotel in Mumbai.”

“You want me to steal from a man who might be the next President of India.”

“Given your attitudes towards your own Presidents in the past, I would have thought that would be no problem.”

“We have an expression where I come from; Take a hike. You came here to ask me to do something illegal for you, and I really don’t need that kind of trouble right now, so what are we talking about?”

“I can help you with the Americans.”

For all her headstrong attitude, and all her love of Paris, the smallest hint of being able to return home stopped Amelia in her tracks. “And I’m supposed to just trust you?”

“I realise it’s a stretch.”

She ran her hand through her hair to cover her face for a moment, buying herself a few seconds to compose her thoughts.

“If I do this, I’m not doing it for you, your government, or for the promise of whatever carrot you have to dangle in front of me. If I do this, the museum gets the piece when we’re done.”

“I can agree to that – but if you do this, there is no ‘we’ – you and I haven’t met, and you won’t see me again unless you’re successful.”

“I can live with the disappointment.”

He pulled a card from his inside coat pocket, “Call this number, whenever you’re in France, and someone will get a message to me securely. In India, you’re on your own. You’ll find your usual fee has already been transferred to your account.”

“You were sure I’d say yes?”

Richard started walking away as he responded; “No, but my guys have been listening in this whole time and they’ll have it done faster than you can check it.”

– –

“Comms check?” Amelia asked, holding her finger close to her ear, ready to adjust the position of the earpiece. She felt like a secret service woman, in her suit and sunglasses, but with none of the actual authority of those agents.

“Loud and clear Madam, no problems.” Bhavin replied. Nominally, Bhavin was her driver, but in reality he was more akin to a “fixer”. René had put them in touch after Westbrook’s visit, knowing anything Amelia needed, she could get from him. He had been a student of René’s at Cambridge a few years after Amelia had departed, and she was reliably informed that his various interests in Mumbai made him a considerable income each month, as well as possessing many useful contacts. He insisted on calling Amelia “Madam” regardless of the fact that he earned more than she did – Amelia assumed it was because he struggled to pronounce her name well. She didn’t care about that, but Bhavin’s insisted.

She looked up at the hotel. It had been built only a few years ago and named Singh’s Mumbai Grand Hotel. Nobody needed it explaining to whom it referred. However there was work constantly taking place in and around the structure, on scaffolding made of bamboo and strung together with rope. None of the angles seemed right to Amelia, the entire structure seemed to lean this way and that, but somehow it remained standing, even with the workers moving casually around it.

She glanced back to Bhavin, who had parked their car outside the main gate, pointing towards the expressway. Something in her gaze must have seemed uncertain as Bhavin’s voice came through their radio-link almost instantly.

“Good luck Madam, I’ll be here for you.”

“Thank you Bhavin. Keep the chatter to a minimum, okay?”

“Okay Madam, no problems.”

She walked forward and entered the building via the kitchen door. The staff glanced up, but only briefly. Amelia wondered if they spoke English, but kept her focus solely on making her way across the room and into the restaurant beyond. She avoided eye contact and as she reached the door on the far side of the kitchen, removed her glasses and let her hair out of the bun she had tied it in. She was less Secret Service now as just a business woman in a very westernised hotel. “Just blend in” she told herself. “Confidence is all it takes.”

At the last second, she spotted a Lazy Susan near the door and started wheeling it along herself.

“What are you doing?” a voice enquired.

“Taking this to Mr Singh’s suite.” she barked back. That seemed to settle all debate. It was a good lie, Amelia thought, since it was all true. She was taking it to Mr Singh’s suite. The fact that he was in Delhi for the weekend didn’t need to be a part of their discussion.

She crossed the restaurant and headed to the private elevator opposite. This would be more tricky. The kitchen staff wouldn’t keep such a close track of Singh’s movements, but the security guard at the top of his private elevator would know that he was not in residence. She proceeded regardless, pressing the button and entering the elevator when it arrived. She felt her throat tighten as she rode it to the penthouse suite, an invisible hand wrapped around it and slowly closing off her airway. The door opened and before her stood a man several inches taller than her, dressed in a dark suit with two obvious, awkward bulges – one over his left breast and the other on his right hip – both concealed weapons.

“What are you doing here?” he began, as Amelia wheeled the Lazy Susan from the lift. “This is Mr Singh’s private floor, how did you get up here?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Amelia stalled for a second. “I was just told to bring this food up…”

She waited for the man’s eyes to drop to the tray before suddenly ramming it into his knees. She jumped forward and thrust the palm of her hand up into his nose, causing it to bleed instantly and the man to yell out in pain.

She spun and kicked him in the head as it dropped to his hands, knocking him out. The thud he made as he hit the ground had an oddly satisfying sound to it, like dropping a sack of potatoes.

Such satisfaction however, could not be dwelled upon – Amelia moved quickly to the door of the office, locked with a combination. This was the first part of the operation that she and Bhavin had not been able to plan for. She took a blacklight from her pocket and shone it on the numbers. She could see which had been used and read them to Bhavin.

“Okay Bhavin, it’s a combination lock, numbers 0-1-4-5-7-8-9. There’s only five digits, it must be a six-digit code.”

Back in the car Bhavin sat waiting with an iPad. He typed the numbers as she spoke them.

“Give me a moment.”

Amelia looked around, noting the security cameras that Bhavin was supposed to have bypassed.

“You looped the security cameras, right Bhavin?”

“Oh yes Madam, everything’s tickity-boo.”

“Bhavin you went to Cambridge, you do realise nobody says that, don’t you?”

“Yes Madam. Can you read the numbers again?”

“0-1-4-5-7-8-9”

“Try 15-08-19-47”

“How did the iPad come up with that?”

“Not the iPad Madam, its my idea. That date is independence day. Singh is obsessed with politics.”

Amelia smiled, entered the number and the lock released. She walked calmly though the door.

“Bhavin, you’re a genius.”

“Thank you Madam.”

“When I get back, I owe you a… Holy shit.”

Amelia stopped in her tracks, seeing the piece of art that Richard Westbrook had told her about. Her heart seemed to slow down but beat harder, elongating the moment, as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone hung before her.

“Are you alright Madam?” Bhavin asked.

“I’m fine.” Amelia stuttered. “I’m in the office. The piece of art is Starry Night Over the Rhone.”

“I thought it was already in your museum?”

Amelia found her feet again and moved to it. “It is. That’s the point. One of them is a forgery.”

She examined the painting up close.

“Which one is… Hold on…” Bhavin’s voice suddenly had an edge and urgency that was not present until now.

“It’s this one. This one is real.” Amelia confirmed, oblivious to the change in his voice.

“Madam, there are men on their way.” Bhavin continued with ever-increasing sharpness. “You have to take the painting.”

“Understood.”

Amelia looked around the room and saw a wardrobe in the far corner of the room. She rushed to it and flung the door open, finding a suitcase. In it she quickly stuffed a couple of suits to add padding, then returned to the painting.

“One minute Madam” Bhavin informed her “I can see them on the monitors – coming up the stairs”.

Amelia cringed, her stomach doing backflips and the lump in her throat growing by the second.

“Vincent Van Gogh, please forgive me…” she muttered as she took the painting from the wall and closed it into the suitcase. She then sprinted for the other room of the office, carrying the suitcase. She opened the door to the second room, and saw the terrifying task which was now before her. The window was open, leading to the bamboo scaffolding, which she would have to climb down.

The workers on the scaffold looked stunned, but apathetic, as Amelia climbed out through the window and onto the scaffold. Wind that had been non-existent on the ground now blew her hair around her face, obscuring her view for a second. When her vision returned she looked out from the tenth floor scaffold and saw nothing but the potential fall below her. The only crumb of comfort was seeing Bhavin’s car the other side of the wall at the bottom of the scaffold. She didn’t give herself time to dwell on the height, instead immediately lowering herself awkwardly from level to level within the frames. She felt her heart beating like a bass drum against her ribcage and sweat flowing from her forehead and hands as she moved. Carrying the suitcase with her slowed her considerably, and for a moment she weighed the risk of throwing it down before her, but decided against it.

She heard a shout from above her, quickly followed by a gunshot.

“Not the painting!” she found herself shout involuntarily from six floors below, before regaining a pinch of composure and wondering why she was more concerned with the painting than herself.

“Bhavin I’m at the fourth floor, start the car.”

“Already started Madam.”

She swung herself down another level, clattering the suitcase against the upright of the scaffold.

“I’m going to jump onto the wall.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea Madam…” Bhavin managed to get out half of his sentence before she jumped. He heard a thud and a groan through the radio, leaned out of the car and saw the suitcase and an arm, hanging over the wall. He deduced that Amelia was dangling from the other side moments before seeing her pull herself onto the two-storey-high wall. He heard two more gunshots as Amelia turned around and lowered herself as far down the wall as possible before letting go and falling to the ground and yelling in pain over the radio.

Bhavin flinched, then lurched the car forward to her and swung open the door.

“Come on Madam.”

Amelia threw in the suitcase and then lifted herself gingerly into the back of the car and closed the door.

“Just drive.”

Bhavin did – immediately blending in to the traffic heading towards and onto the expressway.

– –

Paris shimmered in the evening sun as Amelia looked out from her favourite window in the Musée D’Orsay, the quiet buzz of the museum comforting and consoling her while she felt her right ankle twinge as she put a little more weight onto it.

“That can’t feel right.” Richard Westbrook’s voice cut through the hum. “I hope it was worth it.”

“You should have told me.”

“What the piece was?”

“Yes.”

“Would you have still done it if you’d know?”

“Yes.”

“Easy to say now… Regardless, we appreciate your efforts.”

Amelia examined Richard’s face, finding no discernible expression to clue her in to his sincerity.

“I am curious about one thing.” he continued. “You wanted the museum to have the piece if you happened to recover it, before you knew it was one you already displayed.”

Thought we displayed.”

“Well, indeed. But given that you didn’t know yours was a forgery, what difference does it make?”

“It makes a big difference. Contrary to what you might think, it matters a great deal whether one it dealing with the genuine article. The original piece is the truth of what Van Gogh wanted to express, and he did it without the expectation of it being seen by very many people. Even the very slightest brush-stroke difference changes that truth. Art is our means of understanding our past, for better or worse, and if we disguise or distort that past, we don’t learn from it. Art has to belong to the people, not the select few who can afford to buy up our cultural history simply because it looks good on their office wall, or to show off their wealth.”

Westbrook half-smiled.

“I agree.” he said simply. “Why do you think we got in touch with you?”

“I honestly haven’t a clue.” Amelia replied. “Have you been to see the painting?”

“That’s my next stop.”

Amelia grinned the look of someone who knows what a treat their friend is about to experience. “It’s quite something.” She stated, mysteriously.

“I believe you.” Westbrook replied, with a voice that sounded kind for the first time. “We’ll be in touch, Miss Munroe.”

Amelia smiled and replied with a question; “Richard Westbrook? That isn’t your real name is it?”

“No it’s not.” He replied, turned and began to leave.

She laughed to herself. Spies would be spies, she supposed, wondering if her latest adventure made her one of them. She called after him, and was oblivious to his smile at her reference.

“Richard, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

A Heart Gifted

Once upon a time, some years ago, there lived a girl. Her fine auburn hair and bright green eyes could easily lead you to believe she was just another girl in just another story, but what would be the point of telling it if that were the case? No, this girl had something distinctly different about her, namely a small door in the centre of her chest. Now do not let your mind fool you, this is not a door to anywhere in particular and it is certainly not wooden or made of anything other than flesh. It was not put there by some witch’s curse or anything untoward at all; she was merely born in possession of a door to her heart.

Her mother, acknowledging that this was quite a peculiar situation, took the key born inside her navel and attached it to a fine silver chain that she wore around her neck, ensuring the security of her daughter’s heart. As she grew, her mother taught her as much as she could about life and love, filling their home with books of love stories of all kinds and regaling her with her own encounters so as to balance the knightly chivalry. But, as is often the case in these stories, not long after her sixteenth birthday, her mother fell gravely ill. Upon her deathbed, her mother took the fine chain from the safety of her neck and gave it to her daughter.
“Take care my wise and beautiful girl, for one day your heart will belong to another, but be sure that they offer their own to replace it.”

The girl had the gravediggers put her mother to rest in a clearing by the river so that she could always enjoy the rush of the water and the sway of the leaves. Every week the girl would walk the long journey to sit by her mother’s side at the water’s edge and tell her stories of her life. On one such day, as she dipped her toes into the cool river, a loud splash rang out from upstream. Poised to jump to the rescue she cast her eyes across the surface. After a moment or two a head broke through and proceeded to bob about in a most contented way. Relieved she settled herself again but found she was distracted from her usual routine. Instead she watched. Watched this boy with hair like corn and eyes like the sky swim from one bank to another, and as she did she felt a strange shift in her chest.

“I’ve seen you here before,” he said
He had caught her in a daydream, something similar to this but in slow motion, and so she hadn’t seen him swim right up next to her.
“Really? I haven’t seen you before.”
“I’m here every week as you are. I’m usually much quieter but I felt it was about time we met.”
“You’ve been spying on me?”
“At first I didn’t want to risk missing out on your stories, but then I realised if I didn’t introduce myself I might miss out on your stories.”

A smile flew to her lips and the shift in her chest became a pull, like her heart was trying to escape right through the door.
“What kind of story would you like to hear?”

They talked for hours until dusk fell. Every week she returned and he was there waiting for her. For months this continued until one day as they sat beneath the trees, droplets of rain began to fall, getting rapidly faster and harder. The boy took hold of her hand and they began to run. She lead him all the way back home and once inside she set a fire for them to warm themselves by. By the light of the flames he leaned in close, traced the line of her cheek, and delicately placed his lips to hers. As he pulled away he nervously whispered, “my darling girl, I think I love you.”

At that, a smile flourishing across her face, she took the fine chain from around her neck and placed the key carefully into the lock. With a small click, like the pop of bone, the door swung open to reveal her heart. She took it carefully in her hand, lifted it from where it had rested all her life, and held it to his chest. Gently, and without resistance, her heart melted through his skin until it disappeared, and as it did so did a heart appear within her momentarily empty chest.
“You have my heart,” she said
He looked into her eyes and shone a smile full of warmth, “and you mine”.

I would love to say, dear reader, that that is where the story ends, but as I mentioned before, what would be the point of telling the story if that were the case? They were together for many years, living happily, loving much, until one day the girl awoke and felt something quite strange. She sat up in bed and as she did so she felt a rattle come from inside her chest. She took the key from around her neck and fit it into the lock. As the door swung open she saw the boy’s heart, where it had been for many years, and yet there seemed to be a piece missing. She reassured herself it was nothing, closing the door in her chest.

Later that day, while the boy was out at the market, she settled down to read. As she did so she felt a sharp pain strike her chest. She once again took out the key, but this time as the door swung wide she found half a heart gently beating. Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes filled with tears. What had happened for her to lose his heart?

She set out for the market to find him, to try to understand. But everyone she asked at the market insisted they hadn’t seen him all day. All week in fact.

That night as the boy returned home the girl was sat there waiting by the hearth, embers growing cold.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“At market, as I said.”
“You’re lying. I went to the market and no one there had seen you. Not seen you all week they said.”
“Well then they are as blind as they are old.”
At that, the girl turned towards him and the boy saw the door to her heart wide open. Empty.
“Who has your heart now?” she asked.
“No one.”
“You lie. You do not fall out of love in a day. Tell me to whom it belongs.”
The boy looked down to his feet before replying. “I met her at the market only last week. We talked for hours each day, as we did all those years ago, then yesterday she kissed me. I’ve never felt anything like it. I saw her again today and now… She has my heart.”
“Then return mine,” replied the girl through gritted teeth and salty tears.
“I don’t think I can.”

That night, as the boy slept soundly on the sofa, the girl tossed and turned, unable to settle without the familiar beat of his heart in her chest. She rose from her bed and stood over him awhile, watching the familiar rise and fall. She reached out and placed her splayed palm over his heart to feel the beat. She thought back to the moment they declared their love and how easily her heart had slipped through his skin. As she held that memory in her mind she pushed gently with her index finger and felt the familiar pressure of his body slip away. Slowly, carefully, she pressed one finger after another through his skin and closed her hand around his heart.

The boy awoke with a start to see the girl looming over him and he could feel her hand clamped around his heart. It was like he couldn’t breathe. He swallowed great gulps of air but it made no difference. He tried to cry out but the pressure was so great he quickly choked on his own voice. She met his gaze with a calmness that felt colder than anything he had seen.
“I am taking back what’s mine.”

At this she drew back her arm and with it the boy’s beating heart. She watched him stare at it, pulsing pink in her hand, before he heaved one last breath and the glisten of life disappeared from his eyes. She took the key from around her neck and opened the door with a click, placing the heart carefully inside her own chest and shutting the door after it.

Sun and Death

Caladen poked the bundle of black fur with the steel toe of his dust covered boot. The mound rolled forward, the heavy fur cloak flapping loose to expose the pale face of what used to be his friend Rolan. His mouth hung slack, the tongue lolling as the the head wobbled back and forth in parody of the life it once held. His pale blue eyes stared vacantly up at Caladen who bowed his head and cursed under his breath.

As a Captain in the great army Caladen had seen his share of dead men. From enemies he hacked to pieces like so much rotten wood, to friends he’d held in his arms, promising they’d be fine even as their torn guts steamed in the cold winter sun. This was something else. A few short weeks ago Rolan had been in the peak of health then as the days went on his back began to stoop, his step to falter and then last night he had fallen and could not rise. It felt as though he’d watched his friend age before his very eyes from the boisterous young warrior, he’d been when the journey began to the frail old thing that lay panting and sobbing in the sand. Caladen had called a halt to the march, hoping the rest would see his old friend return but in his heart of hearts he knew that his friend was dead.

Caladen shook off black fingers of depression he felt tickling the edge of his mind. He was here for a great purpose, when that was complete he would let himself grieve but now he had to stay strong. He took a deep breath and when he lifted his head his eyes were clear and his mind focused. “Take anything of value and bury the body,” he said to to his squire Tad who was hanging back a respectful distance.  “You have half an hour and then we start out again.”

——————————

Caladen struggled to his feet his muscles protesting as he slowly dragged himself out of the sandy depression that had been his bed for the night. His head swam and spots danced before his eyes. He doubled over screwing his eyes shut as the world tilted violently about him. He stayed that way eyes screwed shut teeth grinding until eventually after what felt like an eternity the world settled back to normality. He straightened again, slower this time and when opened his eyes there was nothing but the clear blue sky and the endless sea of sand.

Caladen looked behind him to his makeshift camp. Men were spread out below him in a small valley in the shifting sand. one or tow had tried to build crude shelters out of swords and cloaks but many had simply collapsed where they stood. Most of the men were snatching a poor breakfast of hard tack and dried beef before the long march started again; other walked between the still forms to wake the men still sleeping or strip the dead of any valuables; with each day of the march the later was happening much more than the former.

Caladen turned away with a sigh, his squire would be by soon with the tally of the dead, then they would continue their march. They no longer buried the bodies, they couldn’t spare the energy. If they made it across the desert by nightfall he’d have lost maybe a quarter of his men; if it took another week he’d likely lose half. It was hard but everything worth having was, they would make it God had promised him.

He fished his water skin from his belt squeezed some of the stale warm water into his mouth; the pain in his throat went from a scream of agony to a low murmur. Distant but always there at the back of his mind. He felt the eyes on his back and turned to where a man was staked out naked on the hot sand. Tears filled his eyes as he looked at Caladen with a look of pain and desperation. Caladen walked over to him and squatted down patting him on the head.

“Do you repent Olson?” he asked with in a kindly voice. “Do you repent for your blasphemy?”

The bound man nodded frantically, he tried to speak but the gag in his mouth muffled his words.

“You understand that God’s word cannot be questioned.”

The man nodded again.

“When God told us we would cross the great desert and find the rich lands beyond he was right was he not?”

Another nod.

“Thank you, I’d hate to leave knowing I’d lost a soul as well as a man.” Caladen stood. The man shouted through his gag and thrashed against the bonds, his muscles straining and tears running down his face. “Hush now, you’ll be with God soon.”

He turned to see his page waiting a respectful distance, at Caladen’s nod he approached and handed him a  piece of paper tallying the dead. Caladen pushed it into his pocket unread and signalled for Tad to sound the advance. A horn sounded and the men shouldered their packs and trudged forward, not one sparing a glance for the sobbing man staked out to die.

——————————

Caladen’s knees gave out half way up the huge sand bank and he collapsed to the floor choking on the endless red sand. He started to rise then with a heavy sigh he crumpled back to the floor. “Just five minutes,” he said his voice rasping out in a hoarse whisper. They’d run out of water two days ago, or was it three? Caladen couldn’t remember. The days all blurred into one now. Just hours and hours of focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the grinding of his joints until the light began to fade and he collapsed into a fitful, dreamless sleep. The pain in his stomach and burning in his throat we like old friends now, they were all that spoke to him in his small world of putting one foot in front of the other. He knew some of his men still lived for when he collapsed at night he heard them fall to the hard sand behind him, but gone were the songs, gone were the jokes all that remained were their ragged breaths and the dull thuds as one by one they fell and didn’t rise.

Had it been five minutes? A part of him was screaming for him to stand but it was a small part, small and quiet; the larger part whispered in his ear voice like honey. “Just five minutes more, then you’ll be ready to move, just five minutes more.”

He lay that way for what could have been a minute or an eternity then he felt a hand on his shoulder and the breath of a voice on his ear.

“What’s the matter Caladen, Don’t you trust me?”

He opened his eyes and saw the gleaming silver mask of Saraas, Saraas the Immortal, Saraas the God-King. Tears flooded Caladen’s eyes and his body was wracked with sobs. “My King, My God I have failed you. I have been weak when you asked me to be strong. I have stopped when you bade me continue. I have lost those you tasked me to protect. I have failed you.” Caladen’s broad shoulders shook as he sobbed bitter tears.

Saraas lifted him to his feet as if he were light as a child and with his arm over his shoulder he started to walk slowly up the sandbank. “You haven’t failed me Caladen,” he said softly.

“But I have failed my King,” wailed Caladen. “You asked me to cross the great desert as you once did, but I was too weak. I have failed.”

“Did I fail then?” asked the God-King. “You travelled as far as I did.” As The Saraas said this he saw a young man, his feet bare, his once fine clothes torn and stained stumble through the desert and collapse to the floor. Caladen and Saraas walked slolwy over to the young man and looked at his face. Caladen gasped. The face was thin and drawn but there was no doubt it was the same face carved into the silver mask of the man beside him.

“I too fell,” said Saraas waving to the young man laying in the dirt. “And when I thought I could go no further a man came and helped me take those final steps.”

As Caladen watched a small boy, no more than ten or eleven came over the top of the dune and seeing young Saraas in the dust ran over to him. He pulled a small skin from his belt, poured some water into Saraas’ mouth and helped him to his feet. Then the pair, with Saraas leaning heavily on the young boy climbed the sand bank and disappeared.

“As Kerodin was there for me I am here for you,” said the God-King by his side. “We shall take these last few steps together.” And so leaning heavily on Saraas, Caladen climbed the last few feet to the top of the sand bank. When he reached the top he saw not more sand rising forever in the distance but a vast range of mountains and at their foot a river.

“We made it,” rasped Caladen. “We really made it.” But when he looked over the God-King was gone and he stood alone looking down on salvation.

This is the end, my beautiful friend…

So I am sitting here listening to The Doors, reading the hand in’s for the previous month and realise that it’s the final time for me to do this. For those of you ready to do so, or those needing the links to read them and then vote, the voting page is now ready.

This time last year I made a pact with myself to start doing more creative shit. I’m not really one for acting, I do it now and again and I enjoy myself (especially if I get to improvise) but I’ve always held myself as a writer. So I put the idea in motion of getting a group of writers together and doing some sort of monthly challenge and generally just enjoying ourselves along the way. I didn’t know who the writers were gonna be, I didn’t think the idea would even get past me sitting and scribbling in a notepad. 12 months on however, I have had the pleasure of working with, reading and whining (they all bloody do!) with 9 incredible writers. Some haven’t made it to the end of the year, some joined us later, but all of them have been incredible throughout this process. 

Alright, before I start crying onto my keyboard, the final month’s challenge. Each writer has spent the last year responding to my absolute nonsensical demands and honing their craft and some just working what they already honed. So let’s see where they see themselves. Writers, you have 4 weeks to write a piece that you think is a typical YOU piece. A piece that has your style and character, something you believe that screams your name the moment someone reads it.
There is no example piece this time round.
My heartfelt and most sincere of thanks go to (in no particular order) Jonathan Parker, Matt Beames, Hannah Torrance, Kirsty Mealing, Leanne Pearce, Picto, Paul Rogers, Richard Leverton and Kyra Leigh.

Thanks for a hell of a year gang, I look forward to seeing who gets named Dagna’s Writer of the year. 
Peace out,

Archer

Last Flight of the Demonstar

“What have you done Steve? What have you started?”
The squirrel stared at me through the haze of smoke and grinned around the glowing stub of his cigar. He and three other strange figures sat at the coffee table in the middle of the main room of the suite, and Steve was dealing cards to each of them. All four had a pile of chips in front of them; the smell of fried potato was what had brought me out of the room in the first place.
“Relax Max!” he said, and blew out another cloud of smoke. “Me and the boys thought we’d just have a quick game. You want in?”
The squirrel gestured to the space between him and Feathers McGraw, a small hippo wearing a green waistcoat, a green bowler hat and who had a monocle clamped in one eye.
“No I don’t want in, Steve!” I resisted the urge grab him by the fur and shake him. “You can’t play a game now, the guys will be here in a minute!”

Furiously I waved at the cigar smoke that was rapidly filling the room, and moved to the window and thrust it open, gulping in the cold night air.
“What are they coming here for?” Steve demanded, sounding annoyed.
“Band meeting,” I told him. “We’re on in two hours, for Christ sake!”
“That explains your crazy get up then,” muttered Captain Squizzletips, delicately picking his nose with the tips of one of his tails.
“Says the bright blue monkey with three tails and yellow feathers!” I said, and snatched a magazine from the table by the window and threw it at him. “And don’t you dare wipe that on the sofa, use a tissue!” I turned back to look out the window, breathing deeply. I didn’t need this, not now. Not before a show.

I heard the soft scuffing of feet on the carpet and Sally came to stand beside me. She was the tallest of them, but the top of her head only reached my waist. I stared out at the city below, and then I felt a small clawed hand tugging at the hem of my shirt.
“Are you alright Max?”
Sighing, I looked down at her; her curious, crocodile-like body was covered by the brightly coloured summer dress, and I’d helped her cut slits in the back so that her white feathery wings could fit through.
“I’m alright,” I said. “I’m just… This is the last one, you know? Last Flight of the Demonstar…”
“But that’s good, isn’t it?” she asked, her eyes full of confusion. “You get to rest for a month or two, and then it’s back in the studio with the guys!” I shrugged, and the confusion changed to concern. “What is it?”

I shook my head, unwilling to voice the thoughts that were preying on my mind. I flashed her a grin, and turned back to the room, seeing that Steve and the others were still gathered round the table.
“Steve, I mean it!” I groaned, by body sagging with despair. “You can’t play now!”
“Just a quick one,” Steve said, not looking at me, “I’ve got a killer hand here…”
Just then there was a thumping at the door to the suite and Jake’s voice shouting through the door.
“Come on then, dickhead, let us in!”

Feathers let out a very un-hippo-like squeak, and ducked under the table. Steve threw his cards down angrily, glaring at the door.
“Who the hell is that?” he demanded. “What do they want?”
“It’s the rest of the band,” I told him. “Band meeting, like before every other show we’ve ever done!” I snatched the bin from beside the sofa and hastily swept the piles of chips off the table into it, leaving greasy smears across the expensive coffee table. Steve tried to protest but I pushed him away from the table. “Come on, you need to get out of sight!”

Grumbling incoherently Steve stomped across the room and threw himself into an armchair as the Captain and Feathers started to pick up the cards that had been dealt. I hissed at them to leave them and moved over to the door, turning to speak quietly over my shoulder before I opened it.
“Don’t worry, just keep out of the way, alright?”
They nodded, retreating to the same chair Steve was sulking in. Captain Squizzletips climbed up to perch on one arm, while Feathers scrambled gracelessly up to sit on the other. With a fluttering of her white wings Sally flew across the room and sat herself on the back of the chair. The chair was out of the way, and they should be safe enough there. Thankfully Sally’s wingbeats had also managed to banish the last of the cigar smoke from the room as well. I grinned at them and then opened the door.

“Hello lads,” I said, and grinned at my bandmates. Jake (lead guitar) stood with his fist raised ready to hit the door again, the rest behind him; Eric (rhythm guitar), Mikey (bass) and Pegs (drums).
“What took you so long?” Jake demanded as they passed by me into the suite.
“Sorry, was getting dressed.”
They moved to the sofas by the coffee table and arranged themselves in their usual places. The hotel suite, the city, even the country might be different each time, but this was Asteroid’s tenth world tour. We knew each other and we knew our routine. I moved to the wide black armchair between the sofas and sat, ready to start. Before I could speak, however, Pegs piped up, sniffing the air.
“What’s the smell?”
“Bloody cigars again, I’ll bet,” said Mikey. “You’re an odd one, Max. Why do you only smoke them when no one is here?”
“For the millionth time, Mikey, I don’t smoke!” I said, exasperated. I risked a quick, dagger-filled glance across the room to Steve, who stuck his tongue out at me. “Sometimes I light one and let it burn, that’s all. I just… like the smell.”
“Whatever you say…” Muttered Mikey, shaking his head. Then Pegs cut him off.
“And why does it stink of chips in here?”
“And there’s grease marks all over this table you know,” added Eric, and I laughed.
“Blood hell guys! Look, I was hungry, I ordered some chips from room service!”
“Didn’t they come on a plate?” Asked Pegs as he idly drew rude pictures in the grease marks.
“Oh fucking hell, enough!” Shouted Jake, and we all raised a middle finger in his direction. “Come on though, we’re on in two hours! Less, now!”
“Calm down dear,” Pegs mocked him. “You’ll still have time to do your hair before the show!”
We all laughed; Jake had a mane of blond hair he was very proud of, and we’d been late starting a gig more than once because he took so long to get ready. Still grinning, I shifted forward on the chair, perching on the edge and resting my hands on my shoulders.

“Jake’s right,” I said. “Time to put our game faces on.” The rest of them nodded, and I smiled. “So this is it guys; last one. Last show. It’s been a good one, and I don’t think we change anything tonight. The album speaks for itself, the songs work, I think we just give it everything for this last one.”
“What about the finale?” Eric asked. “We doing anything special?”
“Actually, yes,” I said, and four sets of eyebrows rose in surprise; I was never the one to suggest a finale, I usually left it to them to choose. They were intrigued, and so I did my very best to keep a straight face as I continued. “We’ll have to wing it, but I’m thinking we offer up an epic, fantasy thrash metal take on The Birdy Song.”
I grinned, waggling my eyebrows and waiting for the tirade of abuse, but the four of them sat there in silence. And then after a moment, all four of them nodded as smile spread over their faces.
“Nice,” Pegs said, “that’ll be fucking mental!”
“Guys… It a joke.”
“Oh,” said Eric, and all four of them looked slightly disappointed.

This is what it’d always been like with us; despite everything I seemed to manage to be the down to earth one, even with Steve and Feathers and the rest of them mucking about. Back when we were starting out, trying to come up with a band name, we were talking about our influences. We all agreed we were trying to create a kind of sound that was somewhere between the bands Thunder and Rush, both of whom we all worshipped like gods. So I jokingly said, if we’re aiming for a merging of the two, why not call ourselves ‘Thrush’.

I was expecting some rolled eyes, maybe a groan or two, but all four of them looked at me like I’d had the best idea in history. Took me half an hour to convince them I wasn’t being serious, and come up with something better… In the end I’d suggested Asteroid, and they’d all liked it; it was a nod to our geeky side, and also symbolic of the impact we wanted to make on the scene. Also, of course, it just sounded cool.

Back in the present moment, Eric leaned forward and grabbed a few of the cards that were scattered across the table and looked at them idly as the others were discussing songs for the finale. No one had an idea that felt right to everyone else, and in the end they looked to me again.
“Well,” I said quietly, “I thought maybe we hit them with a second go at Flight of the Demonstar.”
It was the main track of the album, a solid nine minutes of awesome; Demonstar, the reluctant hero of the story, tries to flee and outrun his destiny, but the Lord of Shadows, the antagonist, catches up with him and in the end he has no choice but to face him. It culminates in an epic crescendo of drums and guitar and towering vocals from me and a choir of vikings we’d brought in for the album recording, and who’d agreed to tour with us too. All of us agreed it was our best song, our best album.
“So that seems the only choice,” I continued. “But we really fucking smash it out, even more than usual. Make it an epic last flight for us and the fans too.”

No one spoke, but they were all nodding, faces split by wide grins. Across the room, Steve and the others gave me eight thumbs up. Well, Captain Squizzletips used his feet too, so technically it was ten.
“Fuckin’ yes,” Jake breathed. “Let’s do this!”
We talked about a few other things, but in a few minutes the guys were rising to go. We each had our own little routines before we did a show, and we knew they were important.

Eric was still holding the cards as he rose.
“What’s with the cards?” he asked, his eyes curious.
“I was playing solitaire earlier, that’s all.” Eric raised his eyebrows and dropped the cards onto the table.
“That’s an odd deck for solitaire,” he murmured. I looked down at the cards and saw they were an odd lot indeed. Some of them were ‘normal’ playing cards, a few were a DC Bombshells set (specifically Poison Ivy and Catwoman), and a few others appeared to be from Uno, and still others from Happy Families… Steve, you bastard, I thought furiously, but I shrugged and grinned.
“And it’s an odd hunger that makes you order a fuck ton of chips only to throw them away,” said Mikey, staring into the bin by the sofa. I shrugged again, wondering frantically what I could say, when Jake chimed in, chuckling.
“Hey, let the man be eccentric,” he said. “Whatever goes on in that crazy head, out of it come the songs that made Asteroid fucking legendary.”
“Speaking of which,” Pegs added, “what’s next? Got anything yet?”

I tried to ignore the cold weight that settled in my stomach and forced myself to relax. I shrugged and smiled.
“Not sure yet. Got some ideas, but nothing sure as yet. I mean, part of me even wonders…” Everyone was silent as I trailed off. I felt eight pairs of eyes intent on me; my band mates and my… Other friends. The words were there, but I couldn’t release them. Not yet. So I just shrugged and grinned, and my band mates relaxed.

We said our goodbyes, agreeing to meet in the lobby in an hour to head to the stage. As the door closed behind them I heard the flapping of wings and scurrying feet. In moments I was assailed by Steve and his companions.
“What the hell was that about?” Steve demanded and I shrugged.
“Nothing much. Just a thought I’ve been having. But we can talk about it after.”
“What is it, Max?” Sally asked, and once again her voice was concerned. I smiled and told her it was nothing, and wandered into the bedroom to finish dressing. Soon enough I was stage-ready; black boots, dark jeans, renaissance-style shirt and long black coat, a strange crossbreed of duster and pirate coat. As I turned away from the mirror I saw all four of them standing in a row, watching me with wide, worried eyes.
“What?” I asked, but neither of them spoke. I sighed. “Come on guys, I don’t have time for this.”
“We ain’t stupid you know,” Steve said, and Captain Squizzletips nodded.
“You might fool Jake and the others, but you can’t fool us.”
“Something’s wrong, Max,” Sally said. “We know it is. Talk to us.”

I tried to laugh it off, but it sounded hollow and false even to me. With a resigned sigh I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at them each in turn. They were an odd lot, to be sure, but they were also my friends. They might even be a part of me, though I still hadn’t come to any definite conclusion about that. It didn’t really make a difference; they’d always been true to me. They deserved my honesty. I look up at the ceiling for a moment, searching for the words to begin.
“I just keep thinking about what comes next, you know? I mean, everyone seems pretty unanimous that Flight of the Demonstar is the best thing we’ve ever done, and is truly one of the great albums in music history. And it’s true; I’m not being egocentric, but the fact is we were all at the top of our game creating it, and we’ve smashed this tour every single show.
“So I keep wondering, how do we follow this? How do I follow it? I don’t know if I can write songs like this again. And what if I try to, and it doesn’t work? What if we try and top this album, and we crash and burn?”

It sounded petty even as I was saying it, but Steve, Sally, Captain Squizzletips and Feathers McGraw all looked at me with sympathy and understanding. They got it. Sally stepped forward and gripped my hands with her scaly claws.
“Self-doubt is natural, Max. It’s a part of the creative process. But you can’t let it wipe away your self-belief. Look at what you’ve got; you’ve got a great band, you’ve got friends back home, you’ve got a home when you get to stay there. You’ve got your health.”
“Physically, at least,” Steve muttered, and Sally whacked him with one of her wings without turning from Max.
“You’ve got us four…” she finished. “You’ve got a lot to believe in.”
“Joking aside matey,” Steve added, “you’re where you are because of who you are. And you’ve got more songs in you. As good, if not better I reckon.”
I smiled, but before I could say thank you Feathers stepped forward. He held up two digits of his grey hippos paw and looked serious. I’d never heard him speak, never heard him make any noises beside the occasional un-hippo-like squeak in fact, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t.
“You have two things to say?” I ventured, and Feathers nodded. He pulled his small notebook and pen from his waistcoat pocket and scribbled for a moment, then he tore out the page and handed it to me. I read it curiously:

Worry

The unwise man
is awake all night
worries over and again.
When morning rises
he is restless still,
his burden as before.

“So you’re saying worrying about it isn’t helping me?” I asked, and the small hippo nodded. “Fair point. And the second thing is…?”
I was expecting a second note, but Feathers pocketed the notebook and pen again and took off his green bowler hat. He reached inside and pulled out a battered, slightly squashed, yellow and brown banana. He held it out to me, and gingerly I took it.
“A banana?”
Feathers nodded, looking very pleased with himself. His three companions looked as puzzled as I felt.
“Um. Thanks.”
After a moment Captain Squizzletips shook his head and spoke up.
“Look, I think what we’re all trying to say, albeit in very different ways, is we understand your worries. But we don’t think you should let them be the reason you stop doing what you love.”
The four of them nodded vigorously and I couldn’t help but smile.
“Thanks guys,” I said quietly, and they each grinned back at me. Then Steve pulled another cigar seemingly out of the air and planted it firmly in his mouth.
“Now get downstairs you great lump,” he said. “Get on that stage and sing your bloody lungs out!”

So that’s what I did.

* * *

Asteroid was famous for epic shows, and this latest tour was the biggest yet. There was video projection, animatronics, dancers, actual real Vikings… All this, and the five of us all loving every second of it. It was a show, a story, a journey we went on every night, telling the epic saga of Demonstar; a man of no consequence who stood alone against the vile Lord of Shadows, and did not quite die. Having fought his way back from the underworld he found that the world had united behind him, begging him to lead them to freedom. Fearing the responsibility he tried to run, until the love of a fearsome warrior princess and the sacrifice of a friend gave him the strength to face his destiny head on. It was epic. It was absurd. It was fucking glorious and the crowd, not to mention we, loved every moment of it. Finally the last chords faded to silence, and then the joyous screaming of the thousands in the audience crashed over us.

I shared a grin with Jake and the rest of the band, and then stepped to the mic. The crowd hushed quickly; usually we just launched into the encore, but this time I wanted to say something.
“Hey,” I said, and a roar went up. I grinned and rolled my eyes, waiting till it died away. “Thanks for coming. This is going to be our last song. Last song on our last show of the tour. So we wanted to finish on something… pretty epic.” Another roar crashed and faded. “It’s been an amazing journey for us so far, and who knows what comes next. But this tour has been something special, so we’re going to finish with…” A count of three… two… one… and I shouted “The Last Flight of the Demonstar!”

The crowd erupted, but their noise was drown as thirty actual Vikings started chanting the opening of our best ever song.
Steve and the others had watched the show from the side of the stage as they always did, but as I launched into the first verse they ran out on stage to join me. As Asteroid gave the best performance gave the best performance of our lives I danced and capered with Steve, Sally, Captain Squizzletips and Feather McGraw. No one else could see them, I probably looked like a madman, but I didn’t give a damn; they were my friends and this was the greatest night in the world.

All too soon the song drew to a crescendo, and Jake, Eric, Mikey, Pegs and I stood together as I belted out the final chorus, thousands of voices raised to join mine:

Demonstar!
The Lord of Shadows is coming for you
Demonstar!
The Night of Endings is starting for you
Dance away your final night
Raise your sword and show your might
Demonstar!
Demonstar!
Demonstar!
Time to save the world again!

The music faded into the euphoric roar of the crowd as the epic show came to a final close. I hugged the band, I hugged my friends, and I walked to the front of the stage and stood, feeling the noise of the crowd buffeting me. I couldn’t stop grinning. This was it. I opened my eyes and saw the Captain, Steve and Feathers running across the crowd, hopping from head to head as Sally glided over them. And in the night sky above them, nestled amongst the clouds, a great serpentine head looked down at me.
“A star dragon,” I murmured. “Star Dragon and the Night of Storms…”
It was no more than a title, not even an idea, not yet. But as the crowd’s roar crested again I looked up at the midnight blue dragon and it winked at me.

You’re probably wondering how does a rock and roll man like myself find time to stay sane in body and mind? The answer is… Well, one out of two’s not that bad, is it?

Incoming Inspirational Magnet

“I didn’t mean to.  It was an accident.”

Steve glanced across at Charley, unsure how she was going to react.  He could see her eyes dart about the kitchen trying to take it all in.  He’d fucked up big time and he knew it.

“I don’t see how this could be an accident Steve”
“I was just making toast”
“Well I gathered that much seeing as it’s right where the toaster used to be I just don’t understand how!”
“I don’t either!  Honestly!  I just put in a few slices”
“A few?”
“Well four”
“It’s a two-slice toaster Steve, how many times do I have to tell you?!”
“But it’s never done this before!”
“I can’t imagine any toaster has done this before!”
“How was I supposed to know…”
“What else did you do?  You must have done something!”
“No, honest!  I put the bread in and put the lever down, turned the grill on ready, then went to the fridge to get the cheese…  I can’t have been more than a minute!”
“Then what?”
“Then I turned around and it was…gone…”
“There must be something else, Steve.  A black hole doesn’t just materialise in the middle of a fourth-floor flat!”

Despite knowing exactly what he would see, Steve glanced over towards the counter where the toaster once stood.  In its place there sat a circle of black.  Well not sat exactly, hovered.  Hovered and swirled.  But it also didn’t swirl.  It was clearly constantly moving but it was so dark it was hard to tell quite what it was doing.  But swirling, it was definitely swirling.

“How the fuck, Steve?!  Like seriously!?  A fucking black hole!  I mean, you can’t even put flatpack together so how the hell you managed to create a black hole in the middle of the kitchen I have no idea!”

As Charley screeched on at him, Steve could see the magnets on the fridge rattling.  This was definitely not a good sign.

“Get down”
“What?  Are you even listening to me you idiot?!”
“I said get down!”

Steve launched himself across the kitchen island, grabbing Charley as he slid to the floor, just as one of her inspirational fridge magnets flew across the room, right through the space where Charley’s head had just been.

“What the fuck you idiot?  Get off me!”
“I just saved you from a fridge magnet through the brain!”
“If it weren’t for you this wouldn’t be happening in the first place!  This is ridiculous!”
“Did you get a receipt for the toaster?”
“I hardly think ‘transported to another universal plain’ comes under the twelve-month warranty, Steve!”
“But it must be defective or something”

All of a sudden, a violent rattle began to emanate from the cutlery draw.  They both turned, eyes wide as knives and forks hurtled across the kitchen, disappearing into the black hole which seemed to be growing with every item it engulfed.  The magnets were all gone, the larger utensils flew after the cutlery and the blender was edging its way down the counter.

“What have you done Steve?  What have you started?”

Returned

“You’re probably wondering how does a rock ‘n’ roll man like myself find time to stay sane in body and mind. The answer is vicious masturbatory habits.”

Six months ago, such a card combination would have been followed by raucous laughter, but now it barely elicited a murmur. They were slumped around a game of Cards Against Humanity, unsure what would happen next. Would one of them eventually summon the energy to laugh? Maybe the dusty radio sat on a high shelf would finally say something. Perhaps there would be a miracle, and there would be life after death again. But such hope had been disintegrated by a thousand explosions of searing light, wiping out millions of souls and the virus that bought them back. Each one of them had witnessed the devastation administered so quickly by god-like hands, and they were envious.

Karen was the first to throw in her cards, she’d pulled out another tooth out after lunch, and her softening bones burned from the inside out. Not a word was spoken as she limped to her cot and tugged a small box from underneath. It was her time to pass out of the world, to save the little dignity that had not been stolen from her wretched body. Taking the needle hidden safe inside, she sunk it deep into her arm, releasing the barbiturates with a push of her thumb. As the bitter drug slipped through her veins, she took comfort in the warmth of the companions that surrounded her, that laid their hands on her dying body as they had all done for those who went before her. Although the silence of death ushered her into cold and empty isolation, she would not take the final step alone.

It only took a few minutes for the rush of death to take over, suffocating her lungs and crushing her heart until her soul flew free. No longer held in agonising rictus, the body slumped, jaw hanging open to reveal the maw of necrotic flesh in her mouth that she had kept hidden for weeks now. Not one of them even grimaced as they picked up her remains, each aware of their own living rot.

The door might have only been a handful of feet from the table, but their wasted muscles cramped and cried under her meagre weight. They didn’t bother to don scarfs over their faces as they once used to when going outside. There wasn’t any point when the radiation carried in the eddies of dust also laced their water. It was not far from the door that they dropped the body, unable to care for it any longer, and with it they abandoned the meagre hope that they had carried with them since the world ended. Before the dead returned to walk with the living, before the governments, drowning in moral and bureaucratic fear, had taken to exterminating the virus without thought of consequence, Karen had been a person who blazed with furious life. But when the bombs exploded and the black rains ran, the brilliance had leached from her, the following dust storms scouring away what little remained. The death of someone so saturated in energy, so suited to the second life briefly offered, had eradicated the group’s will to survive. Collapsing into their cots, they each began to embrace the decay crawling through their limbs as if the maggots already feasted.

A hacking cough clawed through the quiet, accompanied by retching as someone cleared their lungs of phlegm. It spattered across the outside of the door. Three tentative knocks followed. One of them, having no fear left, eased themselves up to swing open the door. Karen stood at the threshold wiping the last of the sputum from her chin. A cheeky grin spread across her face as she watched the hope rekindle in the wasted faces before her as she strode in, no pain or exhaustion dragging at her steps.

“I’m gonna let you into a secret. I really shouldn’t be here.”