Exterminator – a flash horror story

Joel walked into the kitchen. The linoleum was cold beneath his feet and the room smelt faintly of refuse, a reminder to take the bins out tomorrow. He should do the washing up too, but not at three in the morning.

He bumped into a chair, cursed, and walked back to the doorway. He flipped a switch and the light buzzed into brightness, the bare bulb casting a stark light and sickly shadows.

For a moment, he heard chittering, but then it vanished. Work was getting to him, imagining bugs where there weren’t any.

Joel walked over to the sink, rinsed the sticky dregs of beer from the bottom of a glass, and filled it with water. He reached inside his boxers and scratched his arse while he drank.

Through a gap in the curtains he could see his van with its company logo of a crushed beetle. His neighbours hated that van, but that didn’t stop them hiring him to deal with their infestations, from ants to woodworm to rats. Hypocrites, the lot of them.

There was the chittering again, and a single tap. Joel turned around to see a beetle lying on its back on his kitchen table.

He grabbed a pan off the stove and slammed it down, crushing the insect. He grinned as he did it, then grinned even wider as he pulled the pan away and saw the results. The biggest beetle he’d ever seen, and he’d crushed it.

Sometimes he dreamed of doing that to his neighbours too. Maybe one day. For now, he’d made do with laying down poisoned treats for number fifteen’s cat. He’d got some dark looks after that fleabag died, but no-one could prove anything, so fuck them.

The chittering came again. Two more beetles landed on the table, even larger than the last one. These ones scurried away fast and the pan hit the table with an angry but ineffective clang.

The bugs landed on the linoleum. There was a tickling as one ran across Joel’s foot and up his leg.

“Get off me, you bastard.” Joel swatted at the creature, but it scurried around the back and up his thigh. “Get the fuck off!”

He reached around and grabbed the bug. Pincers dug into the flesh at the top of his leg. There was a flash of pain as he wrenched the thing off and flung it away. Blood dribbled, hot and sticky, down the back of his thigh.

More skittering. The tap of bugs landing on the table. Beetles, maggots, cockroaches, worms. Joel’s eyes widened as he looked up. Shadows were moving inside the light bulb, turning into the outlines of creatures that emerged at the top, becoming real as they slipped between socket and glass.

Joel stumbled back across the kitchen, tripped over a chair and landed with a thud. His head hit a cupboard door and black dots danced across his vision. When he blinked them away, they were replaced by giant flies buzzing around him, beetles climbing up his body, maggots wriggling beneath, the touch of their bodies making Joel’s skin writhe in disgust.

“Get away from me!”

He grabbed the counter and hauled himself to his feet. Bugs fell away, pattering onto the floor, but more clung to him, digging their pincers into his flesh, crawling through his hair and towards his face.

The light. They were coming from the light. Turn it off and this nightmare would be over.

But as he reached for the switch more crawled out of it, cascading down the wall and across the floor.

“Help!” Joel screamed. “Someone help me!”

If his neighbours heard then none responded. Instead, a beetle seized its chance to climb into his open mouth.

Joel froze in horror as the thing wriggled across his tongue and brushed against the inside of his cheeks. Then it was at the back of his throat and it was too late to scream.

With a wild, flailing movement Joel slapped the light switch. Something crunched beneath his hand, spattering him with its insides, but he still hit the switch.

The light went out.

The chittering continued.

Joel sank choking to the ground. Bugs crawled across him as the world faded to black.

***

This story was inspired by an art exhibit at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, where bugs were emerging from light fittings. I’ve never seen contemporary art so clearly ready to inspire horror.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

The Awkward Love Lives of Gargoyles – a flash fantasy story

By the time the sun set, Darbelfang had spent the whole day building up his courage. Unable to move while humans roamed the world below, unable to even talk with his fellow gargoyles, he had spent hours working out what to say and to do. He knew he wasn’t worthy, but he was as ready as he would ever be.

“‘Ood ‘uck,” Ordrasy said, grinning around the pipe that protruded from his mouth.

“‘Anks.”

Darbelfang hauled himself from his place above the church window and up the roof. Where the nave met the tower, he squeezed through a pointed window, his sandstone scraping against the frame, and lowered himself to the narrow ledge below.

There he saw her, carved from the purest marble, feathered wings sprouting from her back.

Mefolina.

He forced himself to stop staring and approach before his courage evaporated. As he got near, there was a low grinding noise and she turned to smile at him.

“Darbelfang,” she said through lips that had never been disfigured by a drainage spout. “It’s nice to see you.”

“‘Ou ‘oo,” Darbelfang said.

She was looking straight at him! He wanted to stare into those exquisitely carved eyes, but he was too nervous and had to look away.

“I ‘as ‘ondering,” he began. “’At is ‘o ‘ay-”

“I can’t understand you,” Mefolina said, looking at him quizzically. “Maybe this would be easier if…”

“Oh, ‘es!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. For the first time in days, his own lips met. “What I meant to say was, I think you’re really pretty and really smart, and I know I’m just an ugly brute with frogs legs and donkey ears, but-”

“I don’t think you’re ugly. The ears are sweet.”

Now he’d said something wrong! This was all going horribly. Darbelfang ran a hand across the course stone of his head and took a deep breath. Better to get it all over with now, to be shot down in one single, hideous go.

“I know you’re probably busy, and you won’t have the time, but I just thought maybe we could…”

“Could what?”

It was one thing to say this to an imaginary Mefolina, but saying it out loud, to the real her, and to face her response, it was all too much.

“Never mind.” He turned on the narrow ledge, ready to leave. “I’ll just go.”

A hand took hold of his, its surface as smooth and pale and beautiful as bone. Darbelfang quivered.

“I’m not good enough for you,” he muttered.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

She pulled him closer, smiling and unfurling her wings. Her face was inches from his. He leaned in closer, her lips parted, and-

“Ouch!”

“’Orry, ‘orry!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. “It comes out when I’m excited.”

Mefolina laughed, then covered her mouth.

“I didn’t mean to-”

Darbelfang leaned in again. But his clumsy frog legs lost their grip on the ledge. He tottered and started to fall.

Mefolina shot out a hand, grabbed him by the ears, and hauled him back to safety.

Sitting on the ledge, Darblfang stared disconsolately at the ground below. He’d dreamed of this moment as he slept through the long days of summer, but now it had come he had ruined it.

“I should go. I’m making a terrible mess of this.”

“Please don’t.” Mefolina bit her lip. “You’re funny and you’re smart and you’re one of the few gargoyles with the courage to come talk to me here. The problem isn’t you, it’s this stupid ledge.”

Darbelfang took a deep breath. He could barely bring himself to believe what she was saying, but…

“Maybe we could go up onto the roof?” he asked, daring to look at those finely carved eyes again. “We could catch pigeons and watch the moon rise.”

“I’d love that. Why don’t you lead the way?”

Darbelfang grinned and the pipe shot from his mouth once more. It was going to be a magical night.

***

This story started out as a silly comment on Twitter, about writing awkward urban fantasy romance. Once again, I will take inspiration from anywhere.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

***

The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

A Shrine to Rot – a flash fantasy story

The land had grown hard and dry, nothing stirring but dust in the wind. The only place where nature held was in the waste heap outside the village, where beetles and worms ate what people could not. Oxen stood gaunt at idle ploughs while seeds lay lifeless in the soil.

And so Cobark gathered her people and led them into the desert, carrying all that they needed to start again – their clothes, their tools, their blankets, and the last of their food.

They walked north for five days, into an ever fresher wind. The air became cool and damp and their flagging spirits rose.

They reached the coast and looked out across a salt sea that shimmered with the sheen of black oil. Nothing could live here except the birds that fed on rotting fish, and the people could walk no further.

So Cobark led them east, across the desert once more. They walked for five days, their steps growing slower and more weary, until they reached a city from the days before the flattening.

In its ruins they found metal boxes with no opening, and when they broke into them some held precious food. But the first to eat from them became sick and twitched with a terrible fever. As they struggled to save him, monsters emerged from the city, some walking on two legs and some on four, all hungry for the people’s flesh. They fought them off and ran south, with the oxen in a long trail behind them.

After five days, with mountains rising to the east, they came to a canyon. It was as though a giant had taken an axe to the ground, leaving a deep gash where the earth had been. Desperate as they were, they could not cross it, nor could they climb the mountains.

And so, with a weary heart, Cobark pointed west. She let the others walk before her, for she was no leader any more. She had brought them forth and all they had found was misery, different places to die from hunger. She took the rear of the travelling column, and whenever someone fell she would lift them up and carry them until they had the strength to go on. When more fell than she could carry, she laid them on the backs of the oxen or made stretchers on which they could be dragged. Soon, half the people were taking the weight of the other half as they processed home to die.

In this way, it took them ten days to come back to the village. Most returned to their huts to wait for the end. But Cobark felt her failure. She did not deserve such comfort. So she walked out of the village and went to die by the waste heap, where she knew she belonged.

There she saw life. Seeds sprouting from the rotten pieces that people had thrown away. Cobark found hope, for herself and for her village.

She cracked open the hard soil and dug in the rotting waste. Within days the seeds, which had seemed set to lie dormant forever, began to sprout. The people rejoiced. Cobark returned smiling to her home.

And every year after, at the time of planting, they went to offer thanks at the shrine that was the waste heap.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Grave Wood – a flash fantasy story

Tohan crept into the grave wood, a basket of woven reeds strapped to his back, a thief in the most sacred of places. He hated coming here. Memories poured out of the shadows – images of Oela’s body, pale and wrapped in silk; of the mourners carrying her to her grave; of the goods laid with her and the dirt tumbling after, hiding her from him forever. He had shed tears enough to fill a lagoon. Yet here he was again, set on the most wretched of tasks.

Painted wooden grave statue

A figure loomed out of the trees, the first of the grave guardians. The statue’s wooden face had been worn smooth by the centuries, the features of the woman it protected obliterated by time. Only the eyes still had colour, a green that glowed in the darkness, a reminder that there was life after the body passed.

Tohan sidestepped around the guardian’s field of vision. With a creak of old wood, its head turned and he held his breath, then realised that he was standing on the grave it guarded. Another step and the movement stopped.

Tohan exhaled and walked on.

Deeper into the grave wood, his way became crowded with guardians. The oldest of the statues had been carved from living wood and the bodies they represented laid amid the roots. More recent guardians were carved in the town and brought here, to take a place wherever one could be found, to take up their eternal vigil.

He tried to tread a line between the graves, but they were packed tight together and his feet were those of a potter, not a dancer. Several times he stumbled, trod on sacred dirt, and saw the statues turn to face him. Every time, his heart raced and he quickened his step, afraid that if he stayed long enough at one grave then its guardian would turn on him.

At last he reached the place he sought. The grave was new, the paint on the guard clean and bold. Yellow skin, green eyes, black hair. Traces of gold embedded as jewellery around the neck.

There was a treasure buried here, its value beyond counting.

He knelt and drew a trowel from the basket on his back. With trembling hands, he dug into the loose dirt.

There was a creak.

The statue bowed its head to look down at Tohan.

He dug faster, using his hand as well as the trowel, casting aside great clods of earth. His chest felt tight, his muscles tense as bowstrings.

“Come on, come on…” he muttered as the dirt flew.

Another creak. The guard’s arms swung around.

If he wanted to stay free then he should back away now, abandon his prize and the statue guarding it. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not ever.

He scrabbled frantically in the dirt. A nail tore loose but he barely noticed the pain.

The guardian leaned closer. Cold yellow hands gripped Tohan’s shoulders.

“Robber,” a rumbling voice intoned. “Despoiler.”

“Please,” Tohan mumbled, thrusting his hands deeper, feeling desperately for the thing he sought. “Please, I need this.”

He felt damp silk and the cold, unyielding flesh of the fresh corpse. His fingers brushed a leather cord.

“Criminal,” the guard intoned as it tightened its grip and pulled.

The magic of the grave wood was far stronger than Tohan. He was dragged up. He tightened his fingers around the cord, which resisted for a moment and then came.

“Robber!” the guard said, louder this time. Soon, people from the town would hear. They would find him, judge him, know his weakness.

Tears ran through the mud dappling Tohan’s cheeks.

He held up the cord and saw the pendant hanging there, a clay model of a boat, its blue enamel chipped. The first gift he had made for Oela, one she had worn every day since, right into the grave.

“Please,” Tohan whimpered. “I need something of hers. Some token to remember her by. Something to tell me that I’m not alone.”

He looked up into that face, carved with Oela’s long nose, her narrow brow, her broad smile. In place of her eyes, those shining green points, strange and yet familiar. His tears ran until they fell onto the wooden arms that gripped him so tight.

“Alone,” the statue said, its voice soft.

It lowered Tohan to the ground and let go. Painted hands shovelled dirt back into the grave, but made no attempt to take the pendant.

“Thank you,” Tohan whispered.

He stumbled back a step, one hand rubbing at his eyes, the other clutching his precious treasure. Then he turned and walked away through the grave wood.

The guards watched him every step of the way.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Inside the Alchemists’ Sewers – a flash fantasy story

A sewer of rough medieval stonework

Greb stood, pick in hand, grinning at the white, glistening barrier that blocked the tunnel.

“Look at that fat, Jonesy,” she said. “We’re going to be rich.”

“We’ll make a shilling apiece,” I said, wading through sewage to find a safe nook for my lantern. “Same as every tunnel we clear.”

“This is different.” Greb spoke in an awed whisper. “We’re near the alchemists’ district.” She ran a finger through the fat, then held it up near the lantern. Blue and red flecks gleamed. “Grimble dust. Frankincense. Maybe a little demon horn. I tell you, if we hit a rich seam then we’re set for life.”

I smiled and shook my head as I started shovelling. In Greb’s mind, every blockage was going to be the one. If the sewer was clogged with grease from the restaurants near the jewellers’ district then we’d find gold shavings and lost opals in there. Beneath the abattoirs we’d dig out priceless layers of unicorn fat. For all her dreams, we were still clearing sewers for the guilds at a shilling a time.

“We’re nearer the bath houses than the alchemists,” I said, filling the cart with shovelfuls of wobbling white mess. Two minutes in and the shovel was already slipping against my greasy gloves. It was going to be a long day.

I was on cart duty that morning. Greb thought I should enjoy these trips to the surface, the chance for a breath of fresh air. She was wrong. As long as I was down in the sewers I could get used to the stink, almost forget about it. Going to the surface meant starting afresh, being assaulted again and again by the stench of rot and sewage. Cart duty left my stomach heaving for hours.

As I returned from the fourth load, I found Greb leaning into a hole she’d dug down one side of fat-filled tunnel.

“You were right about the bath houses.” She turned to me, a grin on her face and blue-green grease full of tiny scales coating her hand. “Look, run-off from the mermaid pools. It’s the oil that protects their skin.”

“Lovely.” I started filling the barrow.

“Jonesy, you don’t understand.” There was a wild look in her eyes. “This stuff lets you breath underwater. It’s practically impossible to harvest, but if it’s been pooling down here then we can collect it. We’re rich, man! This time next week we’ll be sleeping in silk sheets and dining on unicorn steak.”

“Of course we will,” I said, wearily loading the cart.

Grabbing her spade, Greb hacked at the side of the fat plug, pushing herself into the gap she was making. Thick deposits wobbled to her right. For a moment, I thought I saw tiny bubbles escaping from the fat. I allowed myself to believe, just a little, in Greb’s wild hope.

“I can see more,” she said. “This is it!”

“Stop being an idiot, Greb,” I called out. “That whole section could-”

It was too late. A trembling layer of fat fell into Greb’s tunnel, and then another. The plug collapsed in on her narrow space, engulfing her.

My heart was in my throat as I rushed forward and dug desperately at the gleaming fat. I’d seen other tunnellers drown in the stuff, and I’d rather risk breaking Greb’s arm with my shovel than leave her to that fate.

There was no time to clear the whole deposit. I just dug another tunnel in towards Greb, praying to all the gods that it wouldn’t collapse too quickly. Fat trembled all around me, thick and glistening.

After a minute I saw a hand, fingers pushing towards me through a clear layer of coagulated grease. I thrust my hand in, closed it around her wrist and pulled, but she slipped from my grasp.

Unable to get a grip, I tore off my gloves and tried again, hoping that my fingers, not as infused with fat, might keep hold. I had to squeeze tight not to lose my grip on Greb, and she did the same, fingers digging painfully into my arm. I heaved and she wriggled towards me, the fat trembling at her desperate movements.

With a terrible squelching sound, the blockage fell in on me.

For a moment I was trapped in darkness beneath the thick goo. Then the whole mass shook. Chunks of fat were torn away all around me as the blockage broke, not in the controlled way we had planned, but suddenly, chaotically, swept away on a tide of long-contained sewage.

Still clinging to each other’s arms, Greb and I were buffeted by waves of filth. I would have thrown up, but that would have meant opening my mouth. My head hit the wall and it was all I could do not to yell in pain.

Deprived of air, my mind whirled. I fumbled around with one hand for my shovel, with no idea how I might use it, only that it was the tool I had.

Instead of the wooden handle I found a current of heavy grease running beneath the sewage. Tiny scales brushed my fingers.

Greb’s grip on me was loosening, her fingers going limp. But I remembered what she had told me about mermaid grease. I pictured those tiny bubbles escaping from the fat around it. In desperation, I closed my hand around a few of those oily scales and thrust them into my mouth.

There was a fizzing as the scales touched my tongue. Air expanded into my mouth. I drew an excited breath.

Sewage ran down my throat with the air. The taste of it, the stench of it, the greasy, lumpy texture of it mixed with the fizzing of the mermaid scales. Unable to stop myself, I vomited the whole mess back up. My throat burned as stomach acid streamed hot and acrid from my mouth.

My head was spinning. I could feel unconsciousness closing in. Dipping my hand into that low stream of fat, I dragged up another handful of scales.

This time I braced myself for what was to come. As I thrust the scales into my mouth, they started to fizz.

I opened my throat just a little. The taste of sewage was just as rank after vomit as it had been before. My stomach heaved, but I forced it to be still. I trickle of noxious air ran down my throat. My lungs inflated and my mind surged with life.

It was working!

Dragging Greb towards me, I found her face and thrust it into the mermaid grease. Her body felt corpse cold and dread gripped me in its icy fingers. But everything down there was cold. Perhaps there was a chance.

I prayed to the gods who had ignored me before.

It seemed that they accepted prayers when they weren’t for myself. Greb shuddered, heaved, and then sat up.

As the current of sewage kept flowing past us we sat in the dark, clinging to each other, breathing the tainted air that the mermaid scales were making in our mouths.

At last the currents began to settle. Still clutching each other’s hands, we fumbled through the darkness until we found a ladder. Slipping and sliding, we dragged ourselves up. An hour after the collapse we emerged, filthy, gasping for breath, and spitting mouthfuls of sewage.

I collapsed onto the cobbles, glad just to be alive.

“Look,” Greb croaked.

The grin on her face was at odds with my weariness and misery. I pulled myself up just enough to see the contents of the bottle she had pulled from her tunic.

It was full of clear grease and tiny, bubbling scales.

“You did it!” I exclaimed, suddenly indifferent to the filth soaking my skin. “We’re rich!”

“We did it,” Gleb replied.

I lay back in a puddle of sewage, stared up at the stars, and laughed.


In fantasy worlds, like the real world, not every job is glamorous. Pity poor Hercules clearing dung from the stables, or the sewer cleaner in any place and time.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’




Treasure Hoard – a flash fantasy story

Dragon eye

The troll stumbled into the cave, his club trailing on the ground behind him. The light coming in through an opening high above twinkled golden and gleaming off heaps of treasure that made his eyes go wide. But they were nothing compared with the creature that lay across them. The dragon flexed her coiled crimson body and peered down.

“Do you know what I do to intruders?” she asked, fire flickering between her teeth.

“Just want rest,” the troll said. “Heroes come, kill other trolls. They come for you next.”

“Let them try,” the dragon said, flexing a claw the length of a sword blade. “I’ll tear them to ribbons then roast their remains.”

“Please I stay here?” the troll asked, unable to keep the desperation from his voice. “Until they gone.”

“Nobody stays here but me,” the dragon said, raising her head. “This is my private domain. You can go face the heroes or you can burn here.”

“Why?” the troll asked.

“Because this is my treasure and no-one else can have it.”

“Don’t want it.”

“But it’s treasure! Great beautiful heaps of treasure.”

The troll shrugged.

“You beautiful. Treasure OK.”

“You think I’m beautiful?” The dragon smiled. “No-one ever says that. Of course, there’s never anyone here to say it.” She lowered her head and peered more closely at the troll. “Alright, you can stay. Find somewhere safe behind me until the heroes are gone.”

The troll abandoned his club and scrambled up the treasure heap. Gold doubloons and emerald necklaces slid away beneath him. A silver dish clattered as it hit the floor. He slid back down on a cascade of coins. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get any higher, and the heroes might be here any moment.

The dragon pinned the troll between a pair of claws, lifted him up, and deposited him by her shoulder, at the pinnacle of the heap.

Together, they watched the entrance to the cave.

The dragon’s neck drooped and she turned to the troll, her eyes downcast.

“I’m not going to win, am I?” she asked. “I’ve heard the stories.”

“You strong,” the troll said. “You smart. You crush heroes.”

“It’s sweet of you to say so, but dragons are always strong and smart. That doesn’t mean we get to win.”

The troll stroked the dragon’s scaly side.

“I sad too,” he said. “Had tribe. Had cave. Had idol of demon we pray to. All gone now.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you for listen. Was lonely. Good to have friend again.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

The dragon trailed her claws through the treasure heap.

“Centuries of hoarding,” she said, “just so that we can die on it.”

“Better than die alone in dark.”

Voices emerged from the tunnel, the distinctive sounds of a knightly oath and a wizard chanting incantations.

“Time come.” The troll sighed, stood up, and picked up a golden candelabra which he hefted like a club. “You fight, I fight with you. Die together.”

The dragon stood, sending treasure tumbling down the side of the hoard. She narrowed her eyes and flames flickered between her teeth as she looked across her life’s work one last time, seeing the sunlight gleam across the gold.

The fire subsided as she looked up at the opening high in the cave.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” she said, “but if I leave it all behind and fly away, would you like to come with me?”

The troll nodded. “I like live.”

The dragon laughed.

“Your simplicity is quite soothing,” she said.

“No, your simplicity soothing!” the troll shouted.

“It’s a compliment.”

“Oh. Then yes. I soothing.”

The voices came closer. The light of a burning brand flickered in the tunnel.

“Climb on my back,” the dragon said.

“OK.”

The troll climbed up. The dragon flexed her body and leapt, soaring into the air with long, graceful movements of her wings. As they reached the opening, the troll looked back and saw five figures far below, peering up at them in confusion.

They flew out into daylight and glided along the mountain side. The world around them was lush and green, the air fresh and full of possibilities.

“Where to?” the dragon asked.

“East,” the troll said. “I know great cave. I bring thing for you to start new hoard.”

He waved the golden candelabra.

“For us to start a new hoard,” the dragon said.

***

Why shouldn’t the monsters get happy endings, that’s what I’d like to know.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Fleeting Thoughts – a flash fantasy story

I make my way to the back room of the library, a place of dust and shadows, of leather bindings and musty pages. The cold and the quiet should be soothing after weeks in the summer city heat, but what should and what is stand apart, separated by the finest of hairs. Instead of calm, I feel tension, my mind stretched out like the skin of a drum. The clatter of a chair down the room is like a drummer beating an irregular rhythm on my soul.

I set my bag down on a table and make for the folklore shelves. Near to them, that chair shifts again, its weary wood creaking beneath the weight of the room’s other occupant. His face is hidden beneath the hood of a Nike sweatshirt, but I can see jagged, broken fingernails tapping against an old biography of Descartes.

Even with company, I can always lose myself in books. I scan the spines, torn between researching animal myths and wanting to crack open a volume of local ghost stories. If I think about it, I’m sure I can wind the two together. After all, that’s what I do – follow the paths of logic and imagination, turning separate facts into links in a chain.

I catch a glimpse of movement just too soon to avoid human contact. The hooded man reaches out for a book on the shelf in front of me. I flinch and as I do so my hand brushes against his.

The touch of those ill-kept, twisted fingers sends a shudder through me, followed a moment later by something else. A rush of thoughts – incidents, facts, and connections, knowledge I didn’t have before. I let out a childish laugh and take a step back, pondering one of the strange creatures I’ve seen, like an old engraving of Black Shuck and yet not. I can use that. It’s perfect for… for… for something.

Now the image is gone. I shake my head, as though I might somehow shake the thought loose. There was a dog, wasn’t there? Some dark creature? Something I felt excited for?

I look at the man in the hooded. He looks back with soft, empty eyes.

“I saw…” I frown, almost cursing myself out loud. “Did you put something in my head?”

He takes a step back, arms held wide, face a picture of innocence.

“What are you?” I stare at him. There’s a smoothness to his face that isn’t quite right, like an oversized glossy cover hiding the stained bindings of a hardback. The musty smell of old books turns sour in the air.

Why am I looking at this man? I thought I knew, but that knowledge drifts away like a dust mote through a sunbeam, vanishing into shadow. I look him up and down, trying to make sense of it all. He’s wearing trainers, jeans, a hoody. His face is unsettling, unfamiliar, ghostly pale. And what are those soft shoes that he’s wearing?

He reaches out and again there comes a wave of insight. Thoughts of who he is, where he has been, what he has seen. I try to catch them as they pass but they slip through me and are gone.
I’ve spent years pursuing the supernatural, but if I’ve read of something like him then I can’t remember it. I spool through memories, long lines of ghosts, fey beasts, and urban legends. None quite fits, but which is closest?

As I try to recall them again, there’s nothing there. My own memories have been carried away with his.

“Know me,” he whispers, reaching out again.

I step back, hit a chair, and fall across it, landing with a thud on worn floorboards.

My mind burns for lost knowledge like a drowning man yearns for air. I try to find the thoughts I still have, to connect the links in the chain, to hold them together. I cling to anything I can. The logo on his sweatshirt, that symbol of victory, of sportsmanship, of an ancient god, of a brand contorting conformity and defiance as if the two could be one, of…

Why am I staring at a white tick on red cloth? It’s just a swoosh. A nothing.

He leans over. I still remember enough to make my heart race and the breath catch in my throat. The harder I struggle to focus, the more thoughts flee me, like sand trickling through my hands.

I force myself to close my eyes. To find shelter in simplicity. To follow the path of the Buddha, of the ancient ascetics, of…

Then comes the end of the chain. There’s nothing here. Just an emptiness where the things that matter to me were.

I look up into dark eyes set amid a pale face.

For one last moment, I think.

And then…

* * *

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

The Ocean’s Child – a flash fantasy story

The fog rose from the sea during the night, a white tide that engulfed the town, turning houses into looming grey crags and people into distant, shifting shadows. Land and sea no longer parted at the shoreline. The bodies of the living were as blurry, their features as faded as the memories of the dead.

I had waited a month for a morning like this. Waited ever since a chunk of driftwood had washed up on the shoreline, a splintered plank with the same blue paint as my father’s fishing boat. Waited with the dread of an eldest child, my fears buried beneath the resilience I had to show for my sisters. The resilience my father had taught me.

I walked the fog shrouded streets, cobbles slippery beneath my feet, down to the harbour. In my hands were the well-worn knife my mother used to clean the catch and the last chunk of the loaf that had fed us for three days. Traditional tools for ancient magic.

I kept walking, off the cobbles and onto the smooth stones of the harbour front, then down from them onto the sand, past boats drawn up above the tide line. No-one would be sailing today. Only a few old sailors looked up from scraping barnacles or spreading tar. None spoke. They had known my father. They knew why I was here.

Loose sand became damp and close-packed as I approached the sea. I stopped where the waves would pass in and out across my feet. I took a bite of the bread, its taste like dust in my mouth, and cast the rest into the sea. Then I ran the knife along the back of my hand, a sharp line of pain that pierced my numb heart.

I sank to my knees and thrust my bleeding hand into the surf. The water was icy cold and the wound stung but I didn’t flinch. Resilience, as my father had taught me.

Something stirred amid the waves. A figure, as grey and indistinct as any other, approached out of the fog and the ever-shifting ocean. As it came closer, I saw that it was made not of flesh but of water. Its beard was a tangle of kelp, its eyes cockle shells. Though I had last seen it as flesh and hair, I knew that face, and seeing it like this turned a long drawn out dread into terrible certainty.

“Father,” I said, the breath catching in my throat. “You’re dead.”

“A storm on the first night out,” he said, his voice the rattle of pebbles scraping across the ocean floor. “The boat was shattered and I was embraced by mother ocean.”

“I miss you,” I said. “And I’m scared. How will we get by without you?”

He cupped my face in his hands. That touch finally broke the dam inside me and tears streamed down my cheeks, running into the salt water that he had become.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, his gaze familiar and yet strange, the father I loved made uncanny by this body he wore. “Mother ocean sends me with a message. You are touched by the tide. You will sense its comings and goings, know when it is safe and when there is danger, when the fish will fill your nets and when they will be absent. This is her gift to you, in exchange for me.”

“I don’t want to make a trade!” I said. “I want you back.”

I tried to bury my face in his chest, as I had done when I was young and in need of comfort. But there was no warmth there, only the icy water.

“It is small recompense,” he said. “But it is all she offers and more than most receive. Please, my child, accept it. For your mother. For your sisters. For me.”

I fought down the trembling and nodded my head.

“I accept.”

The wave that was my father surged across me, soaking me through cloth, through flesh, through bone, to the spark of light that glimmers within. And then I stood alone at the tide line, without even a goodbye.

I wanted to break down weeping. Instead I looked out across the water, as my father had done so many times. The fog was fading, sunlight dancing once again on the tips of the waves. I could sense a shoal of cod approaching, silver bodies flitting in the deep.

I saw the future stretching out before me. Someone would grant me a place on their crew, for my father’s sake. I would guide them to the fish before others found them. I would earn my share and my place in that crew. In time I would buy my own boat. I would feed my mother, my sisters, and in time a family of my own. Mother ocean would be my lifeline and finally she would be my grave, as she had been for my father. Then I too would emerge to guide my child, before I joined my father at last and forever.

For the first time in weeks, I felt as though I was standing on solid ground. My father was dead but a part of him remained. Now was my time, not just to be resilient but to be strong.

I turned and walked through the fading fog back up the beach.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you can sign up to my mailing list – you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.

Why?

(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.