Friday flash fiction – Anarchy (in the EA)

In a grimy Soho bar in November 1975, nobody recognised her when the heir to the Empire of Albion walked in. As a human-saurian hybrid fashionably dressed in nearly-shredded jeans and a tartan waistcoat, she drew no particular attention. She ordered a vodka, received watery whisky paid for with crumpled counterfeit bills bearing her mother’s face, and set to work fomenting revolution.

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A band, already drunk and squabbling loudly as they set up their instruments, hid Violet from the disinterested view of the bar patrons. Most were there to see the short-fused gang of criminal miscreants calling themselves the Stegs, though it would be more precise to say the crowd were there to get mean-drunk and assault each other, to the beat of the Stegs’ recent hit “Tastes Like Chicken”.

Violet, on the other hand, was there to see a friend of the family. It occurred to her that the recent radical changes in her appearance – hair entirely shorn but for the glue-stiffened centre plume, pierced nose, ears and top lip, and the livid scar stretching from shoulder to clavicle – might confuse her contact, but Beryl spotted her at once and waved her over to a quiet table protected from the worst of the noise and thrown glass.

Beryl wrinkled her long nose in mock disgust. “This, of all places, is where you wanted to meet me?” Somehow she did not need to shout over the clamour of the Stegs’ amateurish sound check.

Violet waved a hand at the jostling crowd spilling flat beer and cheap liquor on the floor and each other. “Look at them Beryl. What do you see?”

“I see angry skinheads, drunken boors and young ladies who most certainly should consult a dictionary before getting tattooed,” replied the Great Dragon of Albion. In this grotty setting, her human presentation as an elegantly-dressed Middle Eastern woman of late middle age was barely less incongruous than a full-sized dragon would have been. She scrutinised Violet with an air of amused shrewdness. “Why, dear, what do you see?”

“I see a generation on the edge, great Wyrm. I see cynicism and hopelessness. I see the fruits of stagnation and corruption. I see youth with no cause for ambition and no heart for their future.”

Beryl twirled a fingertip in her drink, which was an implausibly colourful layered cocktail, complete with a paper umbrella. Violet has seen no such signs of sophistication when she’d visited the bar. At last Beryl said, “You speak of the youth of Albion, dear, as if you are not of an age with them. Tell me how you feel.”

Violet flushed, equally embarrassed and angry. “Does it matter?”

“Everything matters, my dear. The mind of the Empress is the will of Albion, and you will be Empress soon enough.”

The Stegs began to play something wildly cacophonous, less music than instrumental abuse. Violet’s glass splintered and shattered in her grip, spilling whisky. “That’s just it, isn’t it? What will I be Empress of?”

Beryl shrugged, perfectly able to hear and speak over the Stegs’ din. “The Empire of Albion embraces every corner of the earth, Violet. If that’s not enough for you, I understand there is talk among the more radical elements in the Society for Extranormal Research of mounting an expedition to the red planet.”

“It’s all just talk! All anyone does now is talk and get fat, unless they happen to be one of the billions who work their fingers raw to keep the Empire going.”

“There’s world peace,” observed Beryl. “Well, mostly. I admit things are a bit fractious here and there in the Americas.”

“Most of the world is a slave state making stuff to send back to England, to prop up a bloated, inbred ruling class!”

Beryl raised an elegant eyebrow. “Inbred, dear?”

Violet picked shard of glass from between the fine purple scales on her hand. “You do know that the Imperial Board of Heraldry is planning to recommend I be married off to one of Lord Growl’s great-nephews?”

“Snapmarrow? He seems like a nice lad.”

“He’s my second cousin!”

“So what are you saying, dear? Do you want me to help you get out of an ill-advised marital pairing?”

As the Stegs’ grand clamour climaxed in a collision of clashing drums, wailing guitars and guttural snarls, Violet scratched the symbolic A of the Empire into the table top, then slashed through it with her thumb-talon. “No, great Wyrm. I want you to help me free my people. All of them. Everywhere.”

“Well good for you, love. I think you’re right. It’s about time to move things along.”

Beryl winked. The idea of how it could be done, how their designs would unfold step by step, blossomed in Violet’s mind as if they’d been conspiring for months.

Into the tumultuous din between songs, Beryl issued a high-pitched warble. Every full-blooded and hybrid Saurian in the club, as well as most of the humans, fell quiet. They stared as she chirped something to the Stegs’ lead singer, who snarled quietly at the rest of the band.

“If you lead them, dear,” Beryl said, draining her drink and standing, “they’ll follow you.”

With a grateful nod to the green-faced Saurian singer, Violet claimed the microphone. The crowd grumbled at the interruption to the Stegs’ mayhem, ready to throw whatever was at hand. She silenced them with a full-throated growl.

“I’m Vee! Some of you might know my Mum,” she bellowed into the shocked silence. “I’ve got a message for you, so shut up and listen close. Tonight, every single one of you is going to go home and start a band. Spread the word to the far side of the world.”

She looked around at the Stegs, who took up their instruments, and then at Beryl, the Great Dragon of Albion, seated at the drums.

“This one’s called End of Empire. One – two – three – four!”


Today’s spark of revolution against a corrupt and broken world order is set in the same world as Four Letters Undelivered Due to the Present Difficulties, and is a successor to An Imperial Engagement. You don’t really need to have read them to get this story, unless you’d like to know why some of the characters are dinosaur-people.

I’m having a lovely family holiday in northern New South Wales, where the weather is warm, the surf is cool and the car air-conditioner is – oops, it’s broken. Well, at least the surf is cool.

I wish you all a safe and cheerful end to 2018, and I hope you are doing what you can to recharge and prepare yourself for the year to come. I am sure that 2019 will be historically quiet and unremarkable and not at all one continuous garbage fire of malfeasance, incompetence and general iniquity. All the same it’s probably best to be prepared. Just in case.

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Friday flash fiction – A Dispatch from the War for Xmas

We could call in an airstrike on the Alfkin stronghold, but the Gift is inside. Besides the engines on X25-12 Candystripe Strike Fighters don’t hold up to Antarctic conditions. Me and my squad hunker down to plan the assault.

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Back in the world, I went by Gwendoline Cordoba, but it was never my name to begin with. I renamed myself when I chose this life, and Red December Girls never look back.

“Sergeant Wreath, you have a suggestion?”

Lieutenant Ribbons is greener than fresh reindeer poop. I skimmed her file before we dusted off from Pole Charlie in Dunedin last week. She used to be one of those curse girls you read about; got put on ice back in the sixties by rivals in her own coven. Our boss Nick was the one who thawed her out, a couple of months before the Alfkin boxed him up.

“With respect, Sir/Ma’am, I know how the enemy think. They want us to give them a fair fight.”

“Fair?” I know that funny look. She’s eyeballing me like she can’t tell if I’m serious. I guess I can’t blame her. I still look like a nine year old. Witches have a lot going on, but they don’t know squat about shape shifting. “Since when do Alfkin engage in fair fights?”

My impatient huff comes out sulkier than I intended. Kid-sized physical forms don’t convey emotional nuance well. “Never, but we want them to think we will.”

This faction of my distant cousins we’re up against are called Humbugs. Haughty, arrogant ticks, even by Alfkin standards. Of everyone who took up the Queen of Winter’s banner, these were the hard-line crazies. Anti-Kringleist fanatics.

“You Alfkin, you’re all the same,” says Ribbons. “Everything’s a game to you, isn’t it?”

“If you say so, Sir/Ma’am.” If this looks like a game to her, it’s only because she doesn’t understand the rules.

The Lieutenant shakes her head. “Every day I ask myself, was this worth getting out of bed for?”

The Humbug stronghold is a cute little fairytale cottage snuggled in a shady woodland grove in the middle of the Antarctic Desert, three hundred kilometres southeast of McMurdo Station. Don’t be fooled by the postcard-picturesque appearance. The Queen is expending serious juice to keep it running in subzero conditions.

My plan’s pretty simple. The rest of the Red December Girls will split into fire teams and create a distraction by sabotaging the generators. Which is to say, the perimeter network of ancient, mystically-powerful elms that maintain this sun-dappled temperate forest inside a freezing blizzard.

The fire teams get to work setting fires, attracting all sorts of attention.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Ribbons and I walk up and knock on the front door. Alfkin magic works by certain rules, and one of the rules is, if a couple of shivering, unarmed girls knock on the door of an abandoned cottage in the middle of nowhere, it is bound to invite them to enter, usually to their extreme doom. Unfortunately for the Humbugs, Alfkin magic lacks an appreciation for such subtleties as one of the girls being a centuries-old changeling, and the other a smallish Croatian twenty-something, neither of whom requires weapons to go armed.

“We’re in. What now?”

Lieutenant Ribbons tries to sound cool and focused, but there’s no shame in an awestruck reaction to Alfkin architecture. The interior of the cottage is a vast cathedral of bone and petrified wood, lit by wafting firefly lanterns and candlewax stalactites of glowing golden sap. It’s intentionally eye-catching.

“Get down,” I hiss, dragging Ribbons behind a bench made from the shoulder blade of a greater Pacific kaiju. Two strange shapes emerge through the great ribcage-doors to the inner compounds. Each figure is an entire Alfkin mobile artillery crew manning a heavy arbalest weapons platform, from which sprouts large avian legs. They stalk about like hungry scavengers, hunting us.

“Baba-Marshall Yaga should sue for copyright infringement.”

“Never mind the name dropping,” I snap. “Can you take the one on the left?”

“Five immortal fey on an oversized chicken-mounted crossbow?” scoffs Ribbons, flexing her hexing fingers. “I’d be chanted out of the coven if I couldn’t.”

“You were chanted out!”

“Just get them, Sergeant Wreath.”

The arbalesters fight hard, with spring-propelled spears, and razor claws, and cutlasses when we get close. But their fighting styles are a couple of centuries out of date, and Red December Girls are This-Minute-Or-Sooner, if you get me.

So before long me and the LT are wrestling to rein in our new ambulatory gun emplacements. It takes a few words of old Alfkin and a soothing hex to calm them enough to start hunting for the Gift.

Various problems arise: more chicken-crossbow crews; several enlarged leopard seals guarding various important doors; and more than a few arguments over whether to turn left or right at the animated statue of the Queen of Winter.

Neither, as it turned out. The Gift is hidden – or perhaps shoved negligently – beneath the flowing ermine robes of the Queen’s statue, out of sight and probably forgotten almost immediately by the sullen, feckless Humbugs.

“Do you want to open it?”

“Sir/Ma’am, how many times do I have remind you I’m a lot older than I look?” But the Gift has a bowtie and beautiful gold-green wrapping paper, so I open it.

Old Saint Nick’s snugged up asleep inside. “Same kind of heavy-slumber curse my coven laid on me,” says Ribbons, reversing it. “He should come to in three – two – one.”

“Ho ho ho?”

“Welcome back, Sir/Ma’am,” says Ribbons, snapping a salute.

“What time is it?”

I nod to the Big Man, who’s not technically in the chain of command. “December 24. I’m afraid we didn’t get you anything.”

Santa smiles, looking from me to Ribbons. “But I see I got you something. The gift of cooperation and mutual respect.”

We exchange a look of our own, and smirk. Maybe he’s half-right.

“With all due respect, Santa, next time I’d prefer world peace and a pony.”


Season’s greetings, one and all. Since this is more or less a sequel to Nestled In the Gift Wrapping from late December last year, I guess it is now a Friday flash fiction tradition to have an Xmas story starring Santa and various combative elves. You’re welcome.

As this Year of Trials comes to a close, we all must contemplate the uncertain specter of 2019. Will it be a harbinger of greater malignancy, or will it do us a solid by not abjectly sucking? The future is murky, but I offer this balm: my newsletter comes out once every six weeks or so with glad tidings, writing news and free fiction. Sign up using the form below to get all that goodness and a free ebook of my short story collection:


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Friday flash fiction – Everyone Dreams, Nobody Quits

Alison Trent listens to the bone-shuddering cries of the Stalker echo across the overgrown campus, waiting for the chance to sacrifice herself.

 She doesn’t know if the Stalker can be destroyed. Even the Yau, who were ancient long before life on Earth began, do not know. Nothing is certain but that the Stalker must be trapped, and she is the bait.

*

Caspian Gale and the Yau Coordinator Jasper have been inseparable for so long neither thinks of itself as an individual. “We are a bridge between worlds,” they insist, as they forge a mental link from the waking world to the realms of nightmares. “We are the interface between those who slumber and those who rose.”

“You are a conference call app,” Francesca Kincaid retorts. “Connect us already.”

Francesca’s dream form looks like something spray-painted on the side of a van – an imperious warrior-queen, sword in hand, armour the same dull grey-blue of the dreamscape, and carrying herself with menacing presence, like an epic hero looking for a foe to vanquish.

Alison Trent spent just a short time in Francesca’s company,when she was still part of the dream world. She’s never seen Francesca’s waking form. She realises she probably never will. Their physical bodies might be continents apart. “I’m glad to see you’re still alive, Fran.”

She feels Francesca’s grimace before she sees it; the sensory feedback from the Gale/Jasper interface obeys its own laws. “Sorry, Ali. You won’t be so happy when you hear the plan.”

*

“I feel pretty good for someone who hasn’t moved in years.”

Alison’s only been awake for two hours, after sleeping for –well, nobody has admitted how long it’s been, but the campus is wildly overgrown with grass a body’s length taller than her, impassable shrubbery thickets, and ivy so dense in places as to pull walls from buildings.

Caspian Gale, the human half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid, hands her tarnished equipment and a stale energy bar. “Your Phyter – the Yau volunteer who sustained your life and held you safely in the dream state – also worked to build your muscle mass and flexibility.”

Alison winces at his quietly remonstrative  tone, but apologies are no use now. “Until I killed it, you mean. Did it have a name?”

“Yau names are fluid expressions of lineage, social function,gender identity, cultural accomplishments and preferred pastimes,” Gale said,though Ali suspected it was Coordinator Jasper’s reply. “They liked to be called Bob. They admired your tenacity, Alison.”

“I guess Bob would take satisfaction in knowing my last moments will be as horrible as theirs.”

“They would not. Bob wanted you to live, above all else. They cared for you more than anyone you’ve ever known.”

Alison thinks about her nightmares, where her husband Luke turned on her, over and over, again and again.

“Then I owe him one.”

*

While most of what remains of the human race squirms in the throes of Yau nightmares, Francesca Kincaid gathers her army. Nera Ramesh, her lieutenant, reshapes the illusory space into a stadium to accommodate the hundreds of dreamers who have resisted the Yau illusions. Almost all of them owe their heightened awareness to Francesca. Almost none of them thank her for removing the scales from their eyes.

“We get only one chance at this,” Francesca tells them. “If we screw it up, everything dies. Every Yau. Every human. So we don’t screw it up, okay?”

They roar assent. Francesca beckons them, and they fall into an untidy march behind her.

Nera says, too quiet for anyone but Francesca to hear, “What if we don’t screw it up? How many will die then?”

Francesca shrugs “Leave the accounting to whoever’s left.”

*

Ali’s role in the plan is simple: she runs.

The Stalker knows she’s awake; it has known since the moment she killed Bob and lost their protection. It homes in on her brain activity like a bloodhound in summer. Ali is prey.

“Where is it?” she huffs into a two-way transceiver.

Gale’s voice crackles through static. “We can’t be sure. We have very few observers. But it’s close to you. It’s getting closer.”

The roar, when it comes, is worse than before. It sounds like a half-frozen bear being dismembered by a rotary saw.

Ali runs. She scurries off campus, bounding along the rooftops of abandoned cars, heading for the crumbling city. Could she lose it in the decaying streets? Not for long. Maybe for long enough.

Unlike Gale/Jasper, the Stalker exists in both the real world and dreamscape simultaneously. Perhaps other worlds as well. But it is a singular being; it can’t quite be everywhere at once. There are some physical laws even it must obey.

She hears its pursuit. She hears cars shunted aside, the crack of splintering tree trunks and thudding feet. Not quite all the way to the presumed urban safety, Ali turns to confront it.

She fires a flare gun without aiming at a shadowy shape in full sunlight. It’s smaller than she expected – horse-sized at most, it is an unfixed ball of shifting spines, huffing mouths and glaring orange eyes. The searing red flash disorients the Stalker. Her tiny hope of disabling it dies at once.

Ali has no other weapons but a steel bar and bravado. “Come on then, you hungry mutt. Make it quick. Bob’s waiting for my apology.”

*

“God help us, it’s enormous.”

Two things: the Stalker has never been distracted before, and nobody has ever tried to surround it.

Francesca’s soldiers are nightmare-saboteurs. They have learned to turn the stuff of dreams into weapons capable of hurting the Yau.

But the Stalker is not the Yau, and dream-weapons do it no harm.

Instead, they dig a hole. A hundred weaponised dream-sappers crack the sleeping universe wide open.

The Stalker’s limbs flail. It falls shrieking through the gap between realities.

A stray tentacle plucks Francesca from her vantage point, and drags her down.

The gap closes.

The Stalker and Francesca are gone.


This week’s story is the latest instalment in a series I’m determined to eventually bring to an end, preferably before they become a novel told in thousand-word chapters. The series to date are Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake and The Nightmare Bargain. I’m not prepared to swear to the final count, but there’s going to be at least two more stories before the dream warriors wrap up.

This week’s title is freely adapted from my favourite line from Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (played by the magnificent Michael Ironside), who was objectively the best character in Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers. The line is “I only have one rule. Everyone fights, no-one quits. You don’t do your job, I’ll shoot you.”

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Friday flash fiction – Raku’s Dawn

When Princess Raku woke from her slumber, the world had changed. Where were the courtiers who should bring her uniform? Where was the barber who must harvest her wild tresses? Where, above all, was her mother, who was supposed to be waiting, to present her tools of office?

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The hatch on her capsule was spattered and caked with dust. It resisted when she pushed. She couldn’t turn or lift her head; her hair had grown to intertwine with the release mechanism. Nobody came when she called – timidly at first, and soon with a fear-tinged gusto. She cut herself free, hacking her hair to the scalp with ones of her knives.

Swearing mightily, she pushed the canopy open and sat up, seeing her bedchamber for the first time in…how long?

Her cryogenic internment had been set for two years – two years of induced coma to implant muscle enhancements, reinforce bone tissue, and graft extra organs into her torso. As she took in the pulverised furniture, scattered medical equipment, the ceiling cave-in, and the skinless bones scattered about the room, she understood that her mother, her courtiers, and her friends had all long since ceased to wait for her.

One skeleton, draped in a rotted gold cloak and bearing the tiara and wristlets of the Office of Laws, cradled a wooden box as though shielding it from whatever disaster had struck. Princess Raku stood over the skeleton for a long time, muttering prayers and gratitude for the woman who bore her. Then she carefully detached the box from its grip and opened it.

The badge was set into the underside of the lid, clean but faintly tarnished, and the guns occupied two depressions in the felt lining. Disoriented, and not only from dehydration, she set the box aside. She found her hat and uniform in the splintered remains of what had once been a priceless goldoak cabinet, the gift of some foreign dignitary hoping to curry favour with one of Raku’s ancestors. The clothes were stiff in their folds, settled into their shape.

She donned the raiment of her office: the strapped boots; the heavy blouse and pants with cunningly-sewn protective layers; the square-shouldered coat; the broad-brimmed hat of thick lizard leather.

“Someone should say something,” she observed, unable to bring herself to address her mother directly. “I suppose it must be me.”

She buffed the badge on her coat lapel and fixed it to her hat. Something clawed inside her throat, trying to hold back the words. “This was supposed to be a day of celebration. I should have been welcomed to my duty with joyous smiles.” She grimaced. Blinked. Tried the hat on. It settled loosely around her uneven haircut. “I’ll have to pad that with some paper.” She paused diplomatically for unheard laughter.

“I don’t know what’s befallen us,” she continued. “I don’t know what’s killed my mother, nor the rest of you. I can’t imagine what awaits me beyond those doors. But I know-”

The doors in question – thick iris airlocks designed to ensure atmospheric security in the sterile cryosleep chamber – creaked slowly open. Not under their own power, she noticed as she slipped behind her sleep capsule. Someone was winding a manual crank. Raku guessed there was little power in the palace; strong electromagnetic fields would have itched her upgraded senses.

“Tech and metal!” hissed a voice in a wholly unfamiliar accent. Other reptilian throats croaked agreement. “Strip it bare.”

Raku hesitated. Killers or just scavengers? Her fingers snapped the latch on the gun case and plucked her weapons from their beds. Already loaded and charged, they hummed fully awake as they scanned her thumbprints.

The first figures through the door were not human but canine; two creatures almost as much scratched plastic and tarnished chrome as sinewy tan hair. She knew these things as dinvolk; native dogs transfigured with cybernetic muscles, toughened bone and dermal armour. Her mother’s father had banned them as abominations before Raku was born. Not all their neighbours had shared his ethical qualms.

The dinvolk issued throaty, radio-crackle growls as they sniffed out Raku’s presence. She stood, exposing her upper half, letting them get a good look at her. She returned their flat gazes with a thin smile. “You are not welcome here, dinvolk.”

As she expected, they answered with thunderclap barks and leaped directly at her. She raised both guns and fired a single shot from each at the open mouths, the only exposed part of the creatures not protected by a skin of ceramic mesh. The dinvolk folded over in mid-strike, crashing into the sleep capsule.

Shots crackled from the doorway, shattering the capsule’s ferroglass cover. Raku was already moving, taking cover behind a heavy diagnostic scanner. Sparks flew as the shooters adjusted their line. Raku counted three distinct weapons; two firearms, and kinetic projectile launcher. She leaned out and unleashed a barrage of shots at the two large men framed confidently in the doorway. They fell aside, revealing a third person frantically reloading a crossbow. He was a burly youth, with quick fingers that deftly slotted the bolt in place.

“Drop it,” she said. When his response was to twitch the end of his weapon up, she shot his hand and repeated her demand. This time the bloodied bow clattered to the ground.

“Who are you? Why are you in my mother’s palace?”

Clutching his ruined hand, the youth seethed, “We are the Wardogs of Akiszi. We recognise no claim on this place but our own.”

The names meant nothing to Raku. “What of the people who live here?”

“We claim them too.”

Before he knew what was happening, Raku twisted the boy’s wrists behind his back and tied him with oxygen tubing. “Consider the claim disputed. You are hereby deputised as my liaison to the wardogs, unless you’d prefer to be shot.”

The new world into which Raku led her prisoner had no further use for princesses.

What it had been waiting for was a protector.


Sleeping Beauty mashed up with The Dark Tower? Yeah, those are definitely things that go together, I will be taking no further questions on this subject.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever being quite as run down by the end of the year as I am right now. 2018 has certainly been a journey. I’m looking forward to a few weeks off soon, which in practice will mean pre-programming my Friday flash stories, driving off for a family holiday and otherwise staying off social media.

I can’t imagine any downsides to that last part of the plan, at any rate.

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Friday flash fiction – The Witch of the Forlorn Edifice

It was her boots who complained the most. She couldn’t take more than two steps up the mountain without her boots registering some grievance, or so it seemed to Jeralzine Stewpot.

https://pixabay.com/en/mountain-snow-mountain-summit-3225884/

“Be careful on those loose rocks! Do you want me to get scuffed?” and “All this alpine air is drying out my leather” and, inevitably, “Do you ever wash your feet, girl?”

“If you can’t show some gratitude, at least have some manners!” snapped her sword, its voice partially muffled by its scabbard. “Jerzy’s doing her best.”

Jeralzine winced at the name. She’s hadn’t been “Jerzy” since she was a child, as the sword well knew, but she knew better than to argue with it.

“Stop jabbering, you two!” boomed the voice of her armoured breastplate, so loud and deep Jeralzine felt it resonate in her lungs. “She needs to keep her mind on her quest!”

And that was another thing, Jeralzine thought, suppressing a bitter sigh. When, exactly, had this ill-wrought venture become her quest? She had set out only with the greatest reluctance, drawn into state-sponsored heroics and the business of witches very much against her better judgment. If Friedland hadn’t flexed those bare biceps of his; if Bruyalle’s batted eyes had been a slightly less compelling shade of emerald; if Voxxas hadn’t offered to pay half her contract up front? She might have found the voice to sensibly decline.

But no. Here she was, nearly at the peak of the most dangerous mountain in the Principality of Kepheleq, hungry, thirsty and sore all over, abandoned and alone but for the incessant howling wind and her equipment’s ceaseless bickering. The most she could look forward to was her inevitable death at the hands of the Witch of the Forlorn Edifice, which would at least deliver respite from these woes.

She hoped so, anyway. You could never be sure with witches.

“How can she forget?” demanded the boots. “The fate of the whole principality falls upon her shoulders.”

“Aye, and under-developed shoulders at that,” pronounced the breastplate gravely. “Girl, have you been following my lifting exercises at all? By now your pectoral muscles should be stretching my bindings!”

“Oh for Kurq’s sake!” The sword jumped from its scabbard into Jeralzine’s hand, who was so startled she almost dropped it. “Jerzy’s perfectly strong enough to chop off a witch’s head, Friedland. I’ll see to that. Stop being such a creep about her chest measurements!”

“Easy for you to say, Bruyalle,” scoffed the breastplate. “At least you’re going to get some action. What am I supposed to do against the witch? Block a rain of toads?”

As they fell once more into their usual arguments, Jeralzine contemplated their goal. The four of them had set out together to scale the mountain, find the Witch and stop her from carrying out her threats. Unless appropriately appeased, she had promised a generation of wrack and ruin upon Kepheleq– blighted crops, a cloudless summer, and swarm after swarm of fat, festering plague rats. Such dire peril demanded the greatest of heroes, and so had risen up a mighty warrior, a crafty bard, a potent wizard and…her.

Jeralzine the scullery maid, whose lifetime’s heroics had so far been confined to sweeping, stirring and washing every day since she was six.

The three heroes had invaded Princess Naomi’s kitchens, scared most of the servants away, and pointed at the one too slow and dumbfounded to run. “You there,” said the tall one with teak muscles and hair plaited with copper bands, “do you know what an adventure is?”

“Do you know how to cook trail soup and coal-bread?” purred the hawk-eyed battle-singer, balancing a knife on her calloused fingertips.

The wizard with the waterfall-spray beard asked, “Will you take a cash deposit?”

Without ever quite agreeing to it, Jeralzine Stewpot became a mercenary witch-hunter. The distant fourth of a hero band determined to scale the deadliest peak in the Gleaming Principalities and confront the cruel witch in her den.

Her companions promptly forgot about her unless it was time to set up camp, gather firewood or wield the dinner ladle. They spent all their attention on loud squabbles about methods for dispatching witches and the nature of a Princess’ gratitude.

These heated disagreements proved their downfall. Each in turn was killed in action. Friedland the Mighty was carried away and dropped from on high by a snarling pterosaur. Bruyalle the Crafty was spiked on the venomous tail of a manticore. Voxxas the Potent was incinerated when his own fireball reflected off a rebound trap.

And as each had died, Jeralzine found herself with a shiny new piece of startlingly talkative adventuring hardware.

“Quest insurance,” explained her new boots in the voice of Voxxas the Potent. “Tricky magic, but essential in these all-or-nothing quests. The last one standing benefits by the perpetual wisdom of her fallen companions.”

Standing at the crest of the Forlorn Edifice before a hut made of bronze feathers and gnawed bones, Jeralzine wondered about those words ‘wisdom’ and ‘essential’.

Friedland the breastplate was talking tactics. “We’ll go in through the roof. She’d never expect-”

From the hut emerged a middle-aged woman wearing hunting tweeds and peeling an apple with long fingernails. She peered at Jeralzine. “Is it just you, dear?”

Her magical accoutrements all shouted at once.

“Strike!”

“For Princess Naomi!”

“For the Principalities!”

But the witch silenced them with a waved hand. She looked at Jeralzine. “Well?”

“They sent four. I’m the last.” She decided not to disclose her qualifications, in case the witch took them as insult. “I – er, we are here to break your curse.”

The witch cackled, sounding more like a pastry cook than a sinister crone. “There’s no curse, dear. That was just advertising for a project I’m planning. Can I interest you in a multidimensional conflict between good and evil? It pays well.”

Jeralzine supposed it was either this or back to scrubbing pots.

“It depends,” she said. “Can I bring my friends?”


It’s been a while since I checked in on the Gleaming Principalities, but instead of featuring Flopknot and the other so-called mafia bunnies, I thought I’d look at what else might be going on. This story was almost called “Three Heroes and a Little Lady” but fortunately I was gripped by a sudden bout of good sense.

If you have no idea what the previous paragraph was gabbling about, I direct your attention to my previous stories The Overzone Rule, The Going Rate for Peace and Harmony, and The Nonemyr Play (the previous Gleaming Principalities stories), and of course, the classic 1991 Selleck-Guttenberg-Danson gay polyamorous parenting comedy Three Men and a Little Lady, a movie about which I remember absolutely nothing other than the title.

Oh, and the characters here are a fantasy riff on Rogue Trooper, a classic old-school comic strip by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, from that venerable British institution 2000 AD (which I read long before its name became a weird anachronism). I’m rather excited that there’s now a film version on the way, directed by Duncan “Moon” Jones and (possibly) scripted by Grant Morrison. Oooh!

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