Dismantling the barriers

It’s been quiet here since I closed up shop on Friday Flash Fiction.

eel in sand

https://pixabay.com/photos/sand-eel-fish-ammodytes-hexapterus-60593/

I’m not going to go into details here, but I’ve been unwell for some time. Writing, along with almost everything else, was a constant and increasingly unmanageable struggle. It was only through sheer force of habit that the last few FFF’s made it out into the world, and writing them took just about everything I had. I hit a crisis point around the middle of May, when stress and a cold both hit at the same time.

(Sorry for anyone who needed anything from me around that time. I didn’t have anything to give).

Weeks have passed. I’m generally feeling better. The effects of the cold are still lingering, but I can walk ten steps without a coughing fit now, so I’m calling it a win.

I’ve started writing again. It’s slow, tentative, like I’m having to learn how to do it all over again. Years ago, I had a pretty minor motorcycle accident that left me with a broken wrist and various other ailments. It could have been much worse, something I contemplated a lot while I was recovering. The next time I rode – months later – I was so nervous and overcautious I almost caused another crash.

This feels like that. Not the agonising wrist pain, but the rest of it.

For a while, thanks to the Friday Flash commitment, I was in a writing state where I couldn’t afford the time to overthink what I was writing. If I was going to make my deadlines each week, I usually had to take the first idea that occurred to me and run with it. There was no space in the process for painful deliberation over details and nuances. The point of the project was to post a story, polished or otherwise.

By the end I’d gotten to the point where I could do that almost without thinking. Not quite, but I had learned to ignore the more pedantic objections of my inner editor – the guy who can’t let anyone see a single word until the story’s been filed down to as sharp a point as I can make it.

Now I’m learning all over again how to dig in and write without filters. It’s not easy. That natural tendency to avoid risks, to overthink every step, is back in force. I’m not going to get my authorial drive back if I stop every few seconds at an editorial roadblock, get out of the driver’s seat and walk over to inspect the barrier to work out how hard it is. I just have to keep going. Over, around or through.

At least now, I have enough fuel in my tank to make a good run at it.

Friday Flash Fiction will be back, by the way. I’m pondering whether to make it a monthly or fortnightly thing. I’ve also started work on collecting them, which means editing the stories, probably expanding some (especially the ones that really creak under the limits of the thousand-word format) and writing a few new ones for spice. More news as I work out the details.

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Friday flash fiction – Centennial

Just before Mayor Infantino applied her oversized ribbon-cutting scissors to the task of officially opening the centennial celebrations, the aliens invaded.

a civic building

https://pixabay.com/photos/new-york-city-tweed-courthouse-urban-107001/

“This is Grace Cartilage of Ace News bringing you live footage of the gigantic intruders as they literally rain on Colossus City’s parade. Do we have some chemical analysis on the stuff they’re spraying from their dorsal spikes? Some kind of paralytic toxin? Respirators on and keep filming, team. This is the scoop of the century!”

#

Mother Sun and Sister Moon arced overhead, flung toward the great hovering monstrosities by their ally Cannonfire. They landed with Olympian grace on the gleaming head of an alligator-shaped alien the size of an office block. A sunburst flare eclipsed the alien as Mother Sun melted through the armour. Their intervention provoked an instant response. The two heroes vanished in a red haze as the four other gargantuan aliens turned crimson beams on them.

#

“Well once more this prompts the big question we’ve been asking on Colossal Gossip for months now, Trina. What possessed city founder Joshua Barraclough to spend his entire personal fortune to establish Colossus City on an isolated, practically uninhabitable coastal delta exactly one hundred years ago to this day? Does the keystone plaque of the Wrightson-Wolfman Centre hold a clue with its reference to “Five shadows over five fingers?” As the drama unfolds in the sky overhead, why don’t you recap some of the key points from our nine-part series from last year, Trina? Er, Trina. Hello? Did the connection drop out again?”

#

Tremolo quivered in and out of equilibrium with standard space-time as she strained with the effort of scanning the aliens with vibrational pulse-waves. “I can’t get a clear reading on them,” she gasped, staggering to her knees before Sympath could catch her. “All I can see for sure is that they’re achronistic. They originated in another time. The future, I think.”

“Unless you’ve suddenly discovered a way to vibrate us both into orbit, Trembles, we have no way of getting up there to help,” said Sympath. She was preoccupied with psychically suppressing a city-wide panic, enhancing senses of personal safety while quelling potentially dangerous curiosity. While she was at it, she decided to surgically excise her personal dread of losing another partner and bolster her optimism. “But don’t worry. I’ve got a feeling something will turn up.”

“Er, hello? Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhear your conversation. I think I can fly the three of us up close to the aliens, if that would help.” To Tremolo and Sympath, who were both still in their early twenties, the newcomer in sparkling silver looked alarmingly young. “I’m…uh, until I think of something better, you can call me Ms Glitter. Give me your hands and I’ll get you where you need to go.”

#

An army of Colossus City’s heroes converged from all directions. With telepathic assistance from the newly-reformed Carmilla Superior, Diamondstrike coordinated the assault on the enormous aliens. The super-soldiers of Bastion Command parachuted from the Cloister, their low-orbit monitoring satellite. Spirit of ’89, the Battle Gurus’ armoured airship, disgorged brightly-coloured martial artists to scramble over the giants’ backs. The Society of Vigilance launched disruptor rockets from their hover-platforms and leapt into the fray. And Team Infinity appeared from nowhere, stepping out of a timewave like pro surfers ditching off the crest of a breaker.

#

Colossus City is built across a delta plain at the convergence of five rivers, along which spread the five city districts colloquially known as The Fingers – Thumb Valley, The Points, Midfinger, Ringborne and Pink Pines. The City was founded in the aftermath of the Great War by eccentric millionaire war hero Joshua Barraclough, whose declaration at the lavish ground-breaking ceremony is recorded on a plaque at City Hall. It reads in part: “Let this place stand watch, like a new colossus, against that which would disrupt an orderly future, from this day for one hundred years.”

– Excerpt from Hand of the Guardian: The Colossus City Story.

#

“These aren’t gator-aliens at all,” wailed Tyrannosaur as a tonsil-shaped mass extruded from the wall and walloped him like a back-swinging punching bag. “They’re biological starships!”

“The ships are self-repairing,” reported DupliKates 13 and 18 in unison. “They regenerate faster than we can damage them.”

“This technology is more advanced than any known alien society,” mused Romulus Brink, the Contemplator. “Observed anomalies verge on the irreconcilable.”

“Yeah, yeah, Rom, don’t strain yourself,” laughed Dingo Watkins. “We don’t get it either.”

“Speak for yourselves!” With a massive grin, Captain Silver criss-crossed the alien’s head, shoulders and back at lightning speed, until she found what she was looking for. “Team Infinity to all heroes! Be on the lookout for standard airlock hatches concealed under orange-red scales. Converge on alien command and control, presumably in the head.”

#

Having shepherded the foundling Colossus City through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression not only intact but flourishing, and just eight days after the emergence of Paragon Man, the first of the so-called “scientific phenomena”, Joshua Barraclough disappeared. He missed a city budget meeting for the new Englehart Bridge on 3 April 1935, and was never seen again. He left no statements, personal effects or will. Colossus City’s growing prosperity and its distinction of having the world’s greatest concentration of super-powered individuals remain his only legacy.

– Excerpt from Hand of the Guardian: The Colossus City Story.

#

Inside the lead alien vessel, while various heroes peeled off to cause as much distracting chaos as possible, a strike team crashed through robotic sentinels and the ship’s murderously animated furnishings. Ms Glitter smashed aside aggressive wall fixtures; Sympath hurled robots at other robots; Tremolo vibrated sealed bulkheads until they shattered.

The strike team barged through one last barricaded portal into the alien control room, where they froze in astonishment. Standing between Mother Sun and Sister Moon was the last man anyone expected to see.

“Good afternoon, good afternoon. Ladies, please, come on in. At the risk of making an ass of myself, I declare myself tickled pink as a prize pig to see so many formidable warriors of the fairer sex here today!”

Ms Glitter’s face was concealed beneath her helmet, but her incredulity was unmistakeable. “Are – are you Joshua Barraclough?”

The man dressed in the old-fashioned suit, complete with cocked straw boater on his head and a silver watch chained to his breast pocket, beamed in delight. “Well, I reckon I am, after a fashion. It’s downright flattering to know I ain’t been forgotten.” Barraclough looked straight at Sympath. “I ain’t been forgotten, I hope?”

“Not for one second, partner,” she replied with a slow smile. Tremolo and Ms Glitter turned quizzically toward her, but before they could ask the obvious question, a figure emerged from a shadowed corner of the alien bridge.

“Welcome back, Tock Tock,” said Night Shrike. “Where have you been?”

Barraclough’s face blurred, momentarily revealing a frog-eyed metal face before reverting to Barraclough’s freckled, red-headed features. “Oh, I’ve been here and there,” he said airily. “I’ve been now and then. I’ve been him, her and them.”

“You never used to like riddles,” said Sympath, who had been Tock Tock’s crime-fighting partner for five years. “What happened to you?”

“Well, now, it’s a long story,” said Barraclough, “but the Reader’s Digest version is I didn’t really want a personal rerun of the 60’s, so I detached myself from linear time to give Doc Ontological the slip. Spent a little time with some time archaeologists in the 33rd century. Learned a few startling home truths.”

“Such as?”

“Well, did you know that Joshua Barraclough was a time traveller? Everyone in the 33rd knows it, only not a one knew his true identity. At least, not until I showed up and transformed into the portrait of carrot-headed magnificence you see before you.”

“Wait a minute,” said Tremolo. “You went back in time and founded Colossus City? Why?”

Mother Sun put her hand on Tock Tock-Barraclough’s shoulder. “He did it so that we would all be here in the hour of greatest need.”

Ms Glitter groaned. “Wait, I’m having trouble following the continuity here. Why would you set up the city in 1919 so there’d be a city to invade in 2019?”

Sister Moon put her hand on Tock Tock-Barraclough’s other shoulder. “This isn’t the invasion. These ships haven’t attacked us.”

Tremolo looked unimpressed. “Have you already forgotten the paralysing spray?”

Tock Tock-Barraclough looked sheepish. “Just a mild sedative. Figured it would get the right kind of attention and keep civilians from getting too jumpy.”

The famously impatient Night Shrike folded her arms. “If this is Colossus City’s hour of greatest need, but these ships aren’t an invasion fleet, what are they?”

“They’re our ride,” said Sympath. “I’m right, aren’t I? Where are we going, Tock Tock?”

Tock Tock-Barraclough spread his arms in welcome.

“There’s a problem in the 33rd century that could use a hundred heroes. Can I get any takers?”


Wow, did I really just finish my weekly Friday flash fiction project with a story about hope for the future at the expense of the present? A theme which didn’t occur to me for one moment during the writing process but is now, just a few hours later, crushingly obvious and on the nose? This is me giving my subconscious an ironic slow clap.

So yes, this is the 100th weekly Friday flash fiction story, and the last for a while. I’m not abandoning flash stories at all, but it’s time to take a break and work on some longer pieces for a while. I have settled on a new schedule yet, but Friday flash stories will certainly continue to show up from time to time. In the meantime I do have a novel I should be working a little harder on.

Thanks to all the regular Friday flash readers and commenters, here and on Facebook. Every time someone’s told me they liked a character, or a joke, or a ludicrously self-indulgent turn of phrase, it has given this project another week or two of life. I would never have expected to keep up the pace for a hundred straight weeks, but having an audience makes all the difference. It probably sounds shallow to say it out loud, but the clapplause helps.

For any new readers – um, your timing is not terrific, but there’s a back catalogue to check out. ‘Centennial’ is a Colossus City story, and you can see the previous entries in that superheroic canon by clicking on this link (go back a page and start with ‘Mister Extra‘, if you want to make sense of this extraordinarily continuity-heavy story. Most of the Colossus stories can be read alone, just not this week’s). You can find those and the rest of the 100 Friday flash stories to date at this index right here. Dive in anywhere, the water’s (mostly) fine.

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Friday flash fiction – An End to Principalities

Five allies encircled a cauldron, watching as disasters played out across the surface of bubbling gruel. One moment, a wave of Nonemyr berserkers clad in bone armour and swinging ice-headed hammers descended on a golden army. The next moment, bat-winged lion-creatures fired their tail-spikes at a centaur cavalry. A thousand identical Witch-Princess Naomis charged the enemy horde, swinging black-flamed scornswords and singing choral enchantments of gleeful apocalypse.

Stew

https://pixabay.com/photos/stew-stew-cooking-goulash-party-1771096/

“That looks like a bloody big army to me,” said Miles Lorimer, looking at the teeming soldiers, monsters and warlocks seething toward the shining regiments of the Gleaming Principalities. “Didn’t you say the Nonemyr is a single entity?”

“Nonemyr is entropy with malice added,” offered Bruyalle the Crafty. “It takes any form that serves its purpose. We showed up with an army, so Nonemyr became a bigger one.”

“But thanks to the infiltration team, the wind changed, and now it’s stuck as an army.” Jeralzine Stewpot traced a finger through the gruel, temporarily striking out a Nonemyr Draco-Brigadier until the image shifted again.

“My boys,” murmured Flopknot the white rabbit. “My beautiful, beautiful boys.”

“So now what?” asked Friedland the Mighty. “We’re stuck here in Dimension None while they do all the fighting?”

Jeralzine put an arm around Friedland’s broad, hard shoulders. “We’re right where Princess Naomi need us to be.”

Bruyalle leaned in from the other side to embrace Jeralzine. “That’s right. Together.”

Lorimer glared at them across the cauldron. “Together? I met the three of you an hour ago. Are we supposed to bond now, is that it? Forge a magical friendship stronger than hatred and chaos to overcome the forces of evil?”

“For the sake of the universe, I hope not,” said Bruyalle. “You’re an ass.”

Flopknot’s ears shivered as she pulled herself up to her full height, barely coming up to the humans’ hips. “No, Miles, you’re done. We needed your DNA as Overzone CEO to authorise an override on the portal safety protocols. You got us to Dimension None safely. Thank you. You don’t need to stay.”

“What?” protested Miles. “You’re forcing me out, just like that? But what about -?”

None of them ever learned what he intended to complain about. His spot in the circle was suddenly vacant. The scene in the stew shifted to show Miles, pointing at his watch and shouting as a gang of knife-waving gremlins skittered across the battlefield. The scene changed before they reached Miles.

Flopknot looked around at the recreation of a cosy palace kitchen, conjured from Jeralzine’s mind. “What matters?” she asked suddenly. “Nonemyr exists to destroy what moves us. What is that for each of you?”

Friedland the Mighty, the savage warrior who, bare-fisted, once beat a company of Dwarf excavators in their clan drill-suits, scowled. “You want us to reveal our weaknesses, rabbit? What sort of game are you playing?”

“It’s not a game,” Flopknot replied. “I’m asking the only important question left. What matters?”

“Family,” said Bruyalle, staring into the fire beneath the cauldron. Licks of flames reflected off her dark eyes. “Mine didn’t do right by me, so I left to see the world. I didn’t know I was looking for a replacement until I found them.” She squeezed Friedland and Jeralzine’s hands, flashing a wicked smirk at their blushes.

“Didn’t there used to be four of you?” said Flopknot.

“Voxxas was more of a business associate,” shrugged Bruyalle. “Pity he and Lorimer never met. They’d have got on well.”

Friedland looked at the hands resting on his, tiny compared to his spade-like mitts. “I was going to be an artist,” he said. “I was good too. Apprenticed to the portrait painter, Salini Gamliano.”

“The same Gamliano executed by Duke Balepaw?”

Friedland nodded. “The Duke took exception to my master’s talent for capturing likenesses. Gamliano was put to death, his works confiscated and his studio burned. I swore revenge and took up the sword.”

“So that’s why we took so many mercenary jobs in the Vale of Whiskers?” said Bruyalle. “You never said anything.”

“I didn’t want anyone else to carry my past for me,” said Friedland. “Better to put it in a box and lay it down.”

“I’ve dedicated my life to preserving the status quo,” said Flopknot. “Me and my boys, we saw to it the Princes needs were met, and in return they looked after us. Quid pro quo. I thought it was the perfect arrangement, until today. Today cost more than I could afford.”

Jeralzine Stewpot gestured around the likeness of the kitchen. “This is all I ever wanted,” she said simply. “This was a life with simple rules. Orphans at the bottom, doing whatever they were told. Stewpots.”

“Jerzy, that sounds miserable,” said Friedland.

“I’m glad we got you out of there,” said Bruyalle.

“But it wasn’t bad,” explained Jeralzine. “The kitchen masters watched me, they knew I wanted more. They put me to work doing everything until they knew what I was best at. What I most wanted to do.”

“And what was that?” said Flopknot.

Jeralzine indicated the cauldron. “I wanted to tend the stew. I wanted to make sure everyone was warm and had a full belly.”

Flopknot picked up a ladle and dipped it into a depiction of the Witch-Princess Naomis in furious battle. “Get a bowl,” she said. “Eat up.”

Friedland sniffed suspiciously. “Is it safe?”

“Of course,” said Flopknot, looking at Jeralzine. “Because it matters to her.”

Bruyalle asked, “Shouldn’t we be helping, not eating?” But she felt suddenly ravenous, and dipped a spoon into her stew.

“Nonemyr will erode the Gleaming Principalities,” said Flopknot. “It’s inevitable. Unstoppable. But Nonemyr draws its power to corrupt from Dimension None, and now we’ve contaminated Dimension None with Jeralzine’s compassion.”

Friedland gulped from his bowl. “Compassion tastes like carrots and barley.”

Jeralzine said,” But what happens next?”

“Who knows? A fair and just society? A collapse into agrarian utopia? The end of all Principalities?” Flopknot lapped stew from her paw. “Whatever happens, we’ll all need new jobs.”


This week’s melancholy tone is brought to you by the sudden and unexpected realisation that I’m going to miss these characters. Next week is the 100th Friday Flash Fiction story, and I’ll be going for a very different vibe.

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Friday flash fiction – The Unthinkable City

Once upon a time, in a land beyond reason and hope, two bunnies embarked on an adventure to the Unthinkable City.

A stone hallway

https://pixabay.com/photos/hall-architecture-stone-structure-2325353/

“This is the worst place we’ve ever been,” spluttered Mellowgrass, shaking rank sewer-water from his matted angora fur.

“It was your idea,” observed Cloudpuff. Somehow, he had escaped the worst effects of the Nonemyr city’s waste; his grey pelt was next to pristine.

“My idea was to send an elite force of highly trained commandos to disable the enemy’s communication networks. Nowhere did I mention requiring the services of a punch-drunk thug and an accountant.”

“Next time don’t leave room for interpretation.” The gas streetlamps made little impression on their foggy surroundings, but Cloudpuff’s ears turned this way and that, like bent, puffy radars. “I can’t hear anyone.”

“Of course not,” said Mellowgrass, as his tablet loaded a navigation app that was one part maths to three parts magic. “This is Orphexas, the Unthinkable City. Nobody lives here.”

Cloudpuff waited in vain for a punchline. “Nobody? Then why are there streets? Why are there buildings, and road signs, and gas lighting?”

Mellowgrass shrugged. “Cities are supposed to have those things. Even cities with no people.”

“But where did the sewerage come from?”

“Oh. That’s just because the city hates us.”

#

Orphexas the Unthinkable City was the throne of Nonemyr, if Nonemyr could be said to have a throne or a monarch to sit upon it. The bunnies crept through its misty laneways and alleys, leaping for cover whenever shadows loomed at them from the fog.

“I wish just for once you’d let me punch someone,” complained Cloudpuff, as they hunkered behind the tarnished statue of some ancient, tattered noble. Something soundless and shadowy seemed to lumber through the mist, just distant enough to obscure details beyond its sense of malice.

“I told you, there’s nobody here to punch.” Mellowgrass’ attention was fixed on the screen map, which displayed their position, surrounded by slow-moving dots.

“Then who’s searching for us?”

Mellowgrass counted slowly to twenty under his breath. Cloudpuff’s ignorance of the plan’s finer details, which he now felt strongly correlated with the snoring he’d heard throughout their briefing, was not the problem. What mattered was avoiding feeling the slightest sense of impatience, or anything else.

“Everything we’ve seen and heard so far is a distraction. Or rather, an invitation to be distracted. Chase after shadows, and they’ll become your greatest desire.” Mellowgrass sniffed the air and, sensing the danger had passed for the moment, stood up. “Someone to have an enormous fistfight with, in your case.”

“Wishes granted, huh?”

“Yes, but only in the twisted sense, like from a monkey’s paw or a drunk genie.”

Cloudpuff brightened at that. “Hey, remember that time I knocked a genie out?”

“You blindsided him with a sap made from compressed stardust and pixie hide while he was trying to chat up Flopknot.”

“Yeah,” said Cloudpuff happily. “Good times.”

#

At the heart of the Unthinkable City stood a throne, and upon it sat a king. They had not existed before the bunnies’ arrival, and would vanish the moment they were gone. But Mellowgrass hoped to find them, and so there they were, waiting.

That’s the King of the Nonemyr?”

The court was a plain stone hall, water-stained and smelling of mould. The colourless banners were limp and frayed. Yellow glass shards littered the floor below cracked picture windows depicting indecipherable tomes.

The throne was simple, wooden, and bent with rot. The withered King slumped slack on one arm.

“There is no Nonemyr King,” said Mellowgrass, not taking his eyes off the decayed figure before them. “There are no Nonemyr. It’s not a country. It’s not a people. It’s just a corrosive idea that wants to spread everywhere.”

With a voice like autumn leaves crushed beneath an armoured boot, the King said, “Have you brought my Champion?”

Cloudpuff cracked his knuckles and flexed his wrists. “So, this is Princess Naomi’s big play? The armies, the raids – those were all diversions so we could kick this raggedy dope’s bony rear?”

Mellowgrass shook his head. Now the moment was upon him, he was surprised to discover he didn’t need to marshal his emotions. Calm radiated through him, and whether it was down to the elegantly simple mathematics of the plan, or the cocktail of drugs in his bloodstream, didn’t matter one bit.

“Nonemyr is a corruption of the imagination. It exists to erode inspiration. And it’s drawn to the hopes and expectations it means to destroy. Cloudpuff, you hope to get the fight of your life here, and you will. But I hoped to be trapped by the Nonemyr essence in one of its centres of power, and so I have. It won’t let us leave until it has extinguished us.”

“I’m not following you.”

“Cloudpuff, we’re the diversion.”

Patterns of sickly yellow light fell across them as the fallen glass rose from the floor and began to spin around an indistinct, inhuman cloud-person.

“Here is my Champion,” said the King, as the razor-skinned cloud raised arms like jagged swords.

Cloudpuff snarled and hopped forward, slashing flat-palmed at the glass creature. Shards splintered and flew away. Cloudpuff retreated, paws and wrists already bloodied.

“I get my fight,” he said, licking blood from a paw, grinning like a feral. “What do you get?”

Mellowgrass fell to his knees, breathless, and flopped sideways. The King cackled, but not with mirth. The Champion rattled liked a shattering window and waited.

“Mellowgrass!”Cloudpuff propped Mellowgrass up.

Mellowgrass’ smile wobbled. “I get to hold it here. Nonemyr won’t stop until it destroys my mind, but my mind’s going where it can’t follow.”

He opened his paw to reveal a crystal phial dotted with purple droplets.

“Courtesy of her Highness. Classic witch plan. S-sorry we couldn’t…sh-share it…with-”

His ears fell limp.

Cloudpuff set his friend down gently and turned to the King and its Champion.

“Captive audience, eh?” he said, shivering the blood from his fur. “Just how I like it.”


No, this is not fan service for people who think (no spoilers) that the Game of Thrones finale didn’t kill off enough characters.

Or is it? I have an extremely sucky cold and it feels like all my ribs are cracked from coughing, so it’s fair to say even I don’t know what I’m thinking any more.

This is the 98th consecutive week of Friday flash fiction (woo!), so I’m looking forward to probably taking a couple of weeks off in June to regroup. It won’t be the end of the FFF, though I haven’t quite worked out what schedule I’ll run with in the aftermath.

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Friday flash fiction – The Giant’s Tale

Hurgomath’s dead maternal ancestor towered behind his shoulder, whispering predictions of doom. “Do not allow yourself to fall with the Principalities, child. Their pitiful resistance will not forestall annihilation. What sort of Giant are you to tether your fate to these tiny lives?”

clay hand

https://pixabay.com/photos/india-god-godes-hinduism-religious-970452/

“My oath is pledged, First-Among-Mothers.” His enunciation was careful; his words were intended for other ears. “My loyalty has been bought with treacherous blood, in accordance with the ancient pacts. What more would you have of me?”

The spectre looked down upon Hurgomath with the same expression of pitiless contempt she invariably preferred during the latter centuries of her life. “Of what account is loyalty if the last Giants are consumed by ravening nothingness?”

“Without it, we shall already have passed beyond meaning.”

“Cheeky sod,” interrupted Princess Naomi. “Is that any way to speak to your mother?”

The Kepheleq ruler and part-time witch stood on a scaffold raised to Hurgomath’s full height. From her vantage point she could not only consult with her tallest advisor, but also supervise the counter-offensive against the Nonemyr’s insidious mental siege. Past the parade ranks of combat artists at their easels and canvasses she looked, to the battlegrounds beyond. The forces of the Gleaming Principalities, drawn from a dozen different worlds, gathered in landscapes of ice and glass, in withered ballrooms and galleries of misery, in streams choked with regret, and streets paved with grief. The enemy’s power to corrupt reality conveyed a withering advantage in the selection of favourable terrain.

“The First-Among-Mothers died a century ago,” replied Hurgomath. “This is nothing more than a Nonemyr spectre, conjured to sew mistrust and confusion.”

“There’s a lot of that going around.” Princess Naomi unrolled a canvas to show the Giant. Slashes of charcoal and smudges of blood depicted the artist, a centaur from a company of Zomandi skirmishers, surrounded by accusatory, screaming faces. “She charged onto her own long-spear rather than face the order to launch counter-sketches. Just one of dozens we’ve already lost.”

“Mortals are brittle, worthless things,” the ghost told Hurgomath. “A broken cup can be repaired. What can you do with broken mortals?”

Hurgomath worked a wad of clay the size of an ox into a rough humanoid shape. The voice of his parent pricked at his surface, but beneath lay calm certainty. “They can learn. They can live their allotted span fulfilled by whatever meaning and grace they may value.”

“They will throw their allotted spans away in a futile gesture of resistance against the Nonemyr.”

“As I said,” replied Hurgomath, as he fashioned slender limb and attached them to his piece, “they pursue that which they value.”

Princess Naomi signalled to the Captain of Brushes, a hulking blue ogre with a necklace of snake fangs and a tiger-skin coat, who waited at attention beside a blank canvas as tall as two men and as wide as a stream. The ogre dunked both hands into a cauldron bubbling red and scrawled war-poems across the canvas in elegant blood calligraphy. The marshalled combat artists, armed with brushes and pens, attacked their canvases in a frenzy of inspiration, expanding on the Captain’s themes and opening up new fronts to counter the dismal Nonemyr offensive.

“Highness, who do you see?”

Her rueful smile apologised in advance for a lie: “More ghosts that I can count.”

Hurgomath saw otherwise, with eyes undeceived by Nonemyr’s corrosive illusions. Princess Naomi was surrounded on all sides by phantoms of the wronged, the neglected, and every other victim of the Principality of Kepheleq’s institutions and social mores, which she had cultivated with ruthless patience across the many decades of her rule, but only one ghost stood close enough to make itself heard.

Centuries ago, Hurgomath had met the Warrior-Queen Desoldra, both in battle and afterwards. She had been formidable in life, no doubt, but her legend had grown beyond her accomplishments in the years since. Was Princess Naomi dangerously invested in achieving some impossible standard of leadership falsely attributed to the Gleaming Principalities’ founder? Likely, thought Hurgomath, but voicing his suspicions might strengthen them. This battle was hers to fight alone, and the outcome of their conflict would turn on neither her success nor her survival.

He hoped she’d live. Of all the Principalities’ rulers, he disliked her the least.

“That’s not a very good likeness,” remarked the seditious ghost, as Hurgomath’s thumbs pushed clay into crude, bulky armour and soft human features.

“In life, your criticisms were pernicious and insightful, First-Among-Mothers, but your comprehension of creativity was never nuanced. The Nonemyr overplay their hand to express opinions about art in your voice.”

The ghost was silent. The notion he had offended it momentarily amused Hurgomath, but he knew better. The Nonemyr were entropy itself, the slow collapse of mountains into dust, and they had no use for feelings other than as weapons slicked with venom.

Princess Naomi’s army deployed their art. Strife-poets casts sonnets of devious wit and cunning; dancers turned whirlwind pirouettes, scattering malicious ghosts; painters drowned despair in studies of light and colour. A song of defiance and hope rumbled across the fields of war, sung by a battalion of armoured unicorns.

“It won’t be enough,” said the voice of every ghost at once.

“They’re right,” said Princess Naomi, as she watched a desperate gloom settle on her soldiers.

A bard strangled a fellow with a steel harp string.

A minstrel silenced her song in an icy well.

A kerosene bath for cleaning brushes became a funeral pyre for a painter lost to hope.

“They are not,” said Hurgomath. He turned Princess Naomi gently to display his finished statue. His fingers were as cold as ice.

She beheld the statue’s face, which already shone like baked porcelain. “Is that the Stewpot girl? The kitchen-hand?”

“You chose her well,” said the Giant, turning pale. He had given his all to the artwork. “Let her inspire your people to their salvation.”

The howls of thwarted ghosts rose as Hurgomath’s final spark passed into the statue.


Today’s late posting is brought to you by general malaise and a rather overwhelming week. (But it’s still Friday, so it’s totally on time, shut up).

This is, of course, another Gleaming Principalities story with a discreditable lack of mafia bunnies. I’ll attempt to make up for that next time.

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