• Tag Archives magic
  • Eye of Newt and Tome of Fire – a flash fantasy story

    A bitter wind swept in through the windows of the wizard Safimir’s tower. I shivered as it snatched at my robes and those of my fellow servants, all lined up in the great hall.

    “Someone has stolen a Tome of Fire.” Spittle flew from Safimir’s lips, speckling his scraggly beard. “When I catch that person, I will destroy them and anyone hiding them.” He flicked his wand. One of the scullery maids turned into a toad. “If you see something and don’t tell me, you get the same.”

    He kicked the toad out of the window. Every one of us cringed, I more than most.

    “All of you,” he snapped, “back to work!”

    Six hours of cleaning cauldrons later, I was back in the room I shared with Boris, one of the cooks. I closed the door, listened in case anyone was approaching, and then reached into the hollow of my straw mattress.

    Out came the Tome of Fire, its cover bound by an iron clasp. Out too came my lock picks. It had taken me months just to get hold of this book. I had to make sure it was the right one before I left.

    I set the picks into the lock and began carefully working at the mechanism. To my surprise, there was very little resistance. Heat touched my fingers.

    I pulled out the picks and cursed at the sight of their melted ends. Drops of molten iron fell and congealed on the cold flagstones. Distracted, I only just noticed the footsteps in time to thrust the book back into hiding.

    Boris barged in, rubbing sweat from his gleaming bald head.

    “That’s weird,” he said, bending to peer at the droplets of cooling iron.

    “I was helping forge new wand tips,” I said. “Must have got some on my clothes.”

    Before he could look closer, I picked up the warm blobs of metal and flung them out the window.

    “Whatever you say,” Boris said, looking at me quizzically. “I just want to sleep.”

    *

    The next day, I got back before Boris again. This time, I brought a narrow-pointed knife I’d taken from the kitchen. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I forced the blade’s tip between the clasp and the cover of the Tome, trying to pry the lock off. But however hard I pushed, I could get no leverage.

    With a sigh, I set the knife down on one knee and the book on the other. Sooner or late, someone would work out what I had done. I needed to get this blasted thing open before then.

    Footsteps approached.

    I sprang to my feet, book in hand. The knife fell to the floor. I shoved the Tome back into its hiding place and kicked the knife under my bed just before the door opened.

    “It’s so stressful out there,” Boris said, flinging himself down onto his straw mattress. “Safimir turned one of his librarians into a newt then scraped his eyeballs into a potion, because he blames him for not guarding that book better. Someone had better find it soon or we’ll all end up as entrails.”

    “I’ll keep my eyes open,” I said, forcing a smile.

    Boris’s gaze shifted from me to the floor.

    “That’s odd,” he said.

    He got up, reached under my bed, and pulled out the knife. I silently cursed myself for not hiding it better. What would it feel like to briefly be a newt?

    “I’ve been looking for this all day,” Boris said. “Wonder how it got here?”

    “Remember that time you came back with two ladles through your belt?” I asked.

    Boris’s laughter sounded more real than mine.

    “Guess I’ve done it again,” he said. But as he lay back on his bed he gave me a puzzled look.

    *

    Tallow dribbled down my fingers, reddening my skin as I turned the candle. However long I held the flame to the Tome’s bindings, nothing happened. Not a single soot stain, never mind burning through the threads and breaking the book open.

    As I set there amid the rancid smell of cheap candles, I couldn’t help imagining the fate that awaited me. Turned into a mouse and tossed to Safimir’s cats, or left fingerless by my other employers for not getting the job done. Unless I got this thing open, there was no good way out.

     

    The door burst open. Boris stepped in. He stared at me, wide-eyed, then turned and ran off down the corridor.
    I wanted to run after him, but what was the point? Even while I begged my case, other servants would be listening. If I tried to run from the tower then the guards would stop me. There was no escape.

    I stared at the book, hating its every page.

    Boris reappeared. Instead of leading guards, he was holding a jug of water. He closed the door firmly behind him.

    “Listen, Boris,” I said. “Maybe we can-”

    He grabbed the tome and poured water across the spine. Red leather shrank and split. The book burst open, revealing the pages I had sought.

    “Fire magic hates water,” he said through a cloud of steam. “Haven’t you learned anything from working for a wizard?”

    “Why?” I asked. “Now he’ll turn us both into frogs.”

    “Tomorrow, you can escape,” Boris said. “Go out on an errand never to return. I’ll find the empty book bindings you leave behind. I get rewarded for finding the thief and everybody’s safe.”

    “Why not just tell on me?”

    “You’ve seen how Safimir acts.” Boris shook his head. “Would you ever hand him a win?”

    I sank back onto my bed, almost sobbing with relief.

    “Thanks, Boris,” I said. “You’re the best.”

    “No,” he said. “I’m just not a bloody wizard.”

    * * *

     

    If you enjoyed this story, then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a flash story to your inbox every Friday, as well as news about my book and comic releases. Or you might want to try out my collection of short fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, for more stories of magic and dubious deeds.


  • Dreams and Dragon Sinew – a fantasy flash story

    Anna held her breath as she drew a dragon sinew from the jar. Slowly, carefully, she laid it into the groove she had cut in the ash rod. Only once she was sure that it was safely in place did she let herself relax and start considering the gold clasps that would complete the magic wand.

    The door opened and Master Bromhide strode in. The woman who followed him was as young as Anna and had a wild mass of black hair framing her face like a halo.

    “Anna, this is Helen, my other apprentice,” Bromhide said with a scowl. “Dealing with you separately has become too much work. Now you can sit together. Don’t let it distract you. I’ll know if the wands aren’t made right.”

    He walked back out, slamming the door behind him.

    Helen slung her bedding down in the corner of the room, then came to sit at the workbench.

    “How long have you been apprenticed to the old bastard?” she asked, testing the balance of an oak rod.

    Anna stared at her in shock and amazement. She would never have dared talk about Bromhide that way.

    “Three years,” she said.

    “Me too. Imagine the lengths he went to to keep us apart. What a control freak.” Helen glanced at Anna’s work. “Nice runes.”

    “Thank you.” A soft, tickling feeling filled Anna’s chest. “That’s, um, a good choice of wood.”

    “Wood’s never a good choice.” Helen sniggered and Anna looked at her in confusion. “Never mind.”

    Bromhide reappeared and flung two rolls of parchment down on the table.

    “This week’s orders, one list for each of you.” He picked up the wand that Anna had been working on. “What is this half-finished rubbish?” He smacked her across the back of her head, then did the same to Helen. “From now on, if one of you mucks up, you both get punished.”

    Then he stomped out, locking the door behind him.

    “I only just started,” Anna said, cradling the half-made wand in her hands.

    “Forget him.” Helen put an arm around her shoulders. Anna leaned in and felt some of her sadness float away. “Why don’t we work together?”

    “That would be more fun,” Anna said. “But are we allowed?”

    “Who’s going to know?” Helen unrolled one of the lists. “Let’s see what’s up first.”

    By the end of the day, two small stacks of completed wands sat on the end of the workbench. The apprentices alternated between working from each of their lists, making sure that they would each have something to show Bromhide. They talked and laughed as they worked, conjuring up dreams of running away to other cities where they could be wand makers in their own right. They described the grand houses they would live in, the noble clients they would serve, the fame they would earn. For the first time in three years, Anna’s workroom and home was a place of joy.

    The laughter stopped as a key turned in the lock. Each of them hunched over a half-made wand, serious expressions on their faces.

    Bromhide walked in. His habitual scowl eased a little as he looked at the pile of wands. But as he peered more closely, darkness descended.

    “I told you to each work on your own list,” he said.

    “We did,” Helen replied. “Look, we’ve each made some.”

    “This was on Anna’s list,” he said, picking up a slender ash stem wrapped around with unicorn hair and silver wire. “But you don’t tie them off this way. She does.”

    He pointed the wand at Helen and twitched the end. She gasped and fell convulsing to the floor.

    “Stop being so melodramatic,” Bromhide said. “Neither of you can make wands that powerful.”

    Anna stared in horror as her new friend writhed in pain. She had accepted so much cruelty over the years, telling herself she could bear it to learn her craft. Seeing someone else suffer was different.

    She grabbed one of the wands and pointed it at him.

    “Maybe we’re not that powerful on our own,” she said. “But together…”

    She twisted the wand in the air. Magic flowed from the ether, through the wand, and into the world. There was a sickening crunch as Bromhide’s arm bent back on itself. He screamed and his wand clattered on the floor.

    “I’ll see you both rot for this,” he bellowed.

    Anna stooped and helped Helen to her feet. The other girl was still shaking, but she was grinning too. She picked up the piles of wands.

    “You can’t punish us if you can’t catch us.” She turned Anna. “Would you like to run away to another city with me?”

    Smiling, Anna took her hand and led her out the door.

    Picture by Brenda Clarke via Flickr Creative Commons

    * * *

     

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  • Sometimes the Bad Guys Win – a story from the Gamblers Frontier

    Sometimes the bad guys win. Laughing Wolf had known that his whole life. How could he not know, when white men had been driving his tribe from their homes for generations?

    As he watched Alfonse King and his goons follow Lizzie out of the saloon doors into the street, Laughing Wolf knew that this was one of those times. Lizzie had tried to do the right thing, had risked her future for the sake of the people in this town. For that, she’d been robbed of her power and her future.

    Because sometimes the bad guys win.

    Ernie appeared behind the bar and poured them each a large glass of whiskey.

    “This one’s on me,” he said.

    “Not today,” Laughing Wolf replied, pushing it away.

    With growing determination, he stepped away from the bar and out through the swinging doors. Bells and feathers rattled against the coup stick in his hand.

    This wasn’t over yet. He could start a new game, one where his coup magic would let him free Lizzie. But for that to work, he needed to start a fight.

    “Hey, Figgis,” Laughing Wolf said.

    King’s foreman turned just in time for Laughing Wolf’s fist to collide with his jaw. It was the most perfect and satisfying thing Laughing Wolf had ever done. Teeth and blood sprayed in a fine arc. The grumpy thug staggered back in shock and pain.

    The coup stick pulsed with power. The worse the odds, the more glorious it was to count coup, and here he was facing six men with six-shooters.

    As Alfonse turned to see what was happening, Laughing Wolf lunged at him with the stick.

    There was a bang. Pain smashed through Laughing Wolf like a sledgehammer. His leg gave way and he sank to his knees, staring in horror at the pulped muscle and shattered bone that had been his shin.

    He looked up. The world was spinning, but Alfonse King was perfectly clear, standing over him with a look of disgust. Beside him, smoke drifted from Figgis’s gun barrel, blood running from between his lips. Behind them, Lizzie looked lost and broken.

    “Idiot,” Alfonse said. “I won at the poker table. I won at the great chess game tying you all to this town. I’ve never found a game I couldn’t win at, but you keep challenging me.”

    “There are other games,” Laughing Wolf said, looking past them at Lizzie. “No-one wins by giving up.”

    Lizzie looked back at him. Her slumped shoulders straightened. She cast aside the pack of cards she had been clutching and looked around.

    Laughing Wolf could feel his strength fading. With a trembling hand, he raised the coup stick.

    “Still fighting?” King took the gun from Figgis. He pointed it at Laughing Wolf.

    There was another bang and a terrible burning pain in Laughing Wolf’s belly. He slumped forward, his face landing between King’s boots, his arm and the coup stick stretching out past the businessman.

    “Stupid fucking redskin,” Alfonse said.

    There was a click as the hammer was pulled back on a gun.

    As the world grew darker, Laughing Wolf saw a slender hand pick up his coup stick. There was a rattle of bells and feathers and the soft thud of wood tapping flesh.

    “What did you-” Alfonse began.

    “Stop talking,” Lizzie said, her skirts rustling inches from Laughing Wolf’s face. “I counted coup. You’re mine now.”

    Two of the other thugs were visible from where Laughing Wolf lay. They drew their pistols.

    “Tell them to drop the guns,” Lizzie said.

    “Drop the guns,” King repeated.

    “Are you sure, boss?” Figgis said. “All she’s got is a damn stick.”

    “A stick that could steal your boss’s soul,” Lizzie growled.

    Laughing Wolf laughed. That wasn’t how counting coup worked. It just gave you control over someone for a while. But then, white folks seldom bothered to learn about other people’s games. Away from the poker table, they were easy to bluff.

    Laughing brought blood to his lips. He wondered if it was better or worse that that didn’t hurt. But it was an idle sort of wondering. Everything seemed far away now.

    “Drop the guns,” King repeated.

    There was a thud of weapons hitting the dirt.

    “Now tell them to leave town,” Lizzie said. “And not to come back.”

    “Leave town,” Alfonse repeated. “Don’t return.”

    One by one, the men walked away. After a few minutes, there was a sound of hooves disappearing into the distance.

    “Ernie, grab a gun and keep it trained on Mister King here,” Lizzie said.

    She knelt beside Laughing Wolf, her face inches from his.

    “We’ll get you through this,” she said. “I’ll send for a doctor, and-”

    This time it hurt to laugh. But it was worth it. This was the way Laughing Wolf wanted to go. The punchline of a joke on every greedy bastard who’d ever tried to trample folks into the dirt.

    “Sometimes the good guys win,” he said.

    Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

    * * *

     

    As a writer, I have a habit of doing the worst things to the characters I love most. Even when I’m ghostwriting, the secondary characters I create to fill gaps will often be put through the wringer. Maybe it’s a sign of a sadistic streak. Maybe it’s just that attention it how you show a character that you care.

    Either way, it’s a habit that’s struck down poor Laughing Wolf, who wasn’t even in the original outline for this series. He emerged from between the details of Lizzie and Alfonse’s conflict, and now look at him.

    Aren’t writers the worst?

    If you enjoyed this, you can read the previous episodes of this little series here:

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    Next week, I’ll be returning to these characters one last time. What will happen to our nameless frontier town? Find out in seven days.


  • Sometimes You’re A Player – a weird western story

    As Lizzie approached the town, a feeling of familiarity settled over her. It wasn’t the comforting feeling of seeing something well loved and long missed. It was the terrible familiarity of seeing something where it shouldn’t be.

    This town wasn’t similar to the one she had just left behind. It was the same town.

    Looking over her shoulder, she could see it behind her. A fistful of wooden buildings scattered along the dirt road, hills rising up to either side. The saloon called the Pawn Sacrifice stood out from the rest, with its balconies and its tall frontage.

    She looked ahead and there it was again – the Pawn Sacrifice, jutting out of the same string of buildings.

    With a snap of the reins, she urged Hunter to hurry through the town. They emerged on the far side, rounded a heap of rocks, and there the town was again. With growing speed and mounting frustration, she raced through the same streets a dozen times. Every time, she found herself back where she had started.

    At last, she pulled up out front of the Pawn Sacrifice. An exhausted Hunter guzzled eagerly from the water trough.

    “What the hell?” Lizzie yelled into the darkening sky.

    “I said good luck.” Laughing Wolf, the native she had played poker with, stood on the porch of the saloon. “Guess it didn’t work out.”

    “What the hell’s going on here?” Lizzie demanded, striding up to him.

    “It’s the railroad company,” Laughing Wolf said. “They set this up to stop anyone leaving. Drifters, hunters, traders, even wild animals that wander by, we’re all trapped here.”

    “Why?” Lizzie asked.

    Laughing Wolf shrugged.

    “It is what it is,” he replied. “Not my sort of magic. I just relax and enjoy what this place has.”

    “Not your sort of magic?” Lizzie asked. “Wait, did you know that I was using powers during our game?”

    “Didn’t bother me. You weren’t using them to win.”

    “That bastard Figgis,” Lizzie snarled. “I knew there was something strange going on. I’ll hunt him down and make him let me leave.”

    “No point. He’s just a pawn for his boss.”

    Lizzie pressed her fingers against her tired eyes.

    “Fine,” she said. “I’ll stay the night, get moving in the morning, or whenever this wears off.”

    “I wouldn’t mount your horse yet,” Laughing Wolf said. “It’s been like this for months.”

    “Months? I can’t stay in one place for months.”

    Lizzie tried to contain her growing sense of panic. She pictured the men she had fled from back east, men who nearly caught her a month before. Men with muscles and guns and debts they felt they were owed.

    “It’s not up to you,” Laughing Wolf said. “Sometimes you’re a player, sometimes you’re a piece. Just relax, drink whiskey, play cards, wait for this to pass.”

    “No. I need to get out of here. Who’s the top company man?”

    “His name’s Mr King.”

    A deeper discomfort settled across Lizzie.

    “Not Alfonse King?” she asked, without much hope.

    *

    Alfonse hadn’t changed since the day Lizzie gave him back his ring. His moustache was neatly waxed, every hair on his head perfectly in place, his suit fitting him like a second skin.

    “What an unexpected pleasure,” he said as his assistant showed Lizzie into his office.

    The door clicked shut behind her and the two of them were alone.

    “It’s certainly unexpected,” she said, surveying the room. A set of shelves held books on engineering, history, and games. Wine and spirits were lined up neatly next to glasses on a side table. The window behind the big wooden desk showed a view across low hills to where the railroad was being laid down.

    “Why did you do it?” Lizzie asked.

    “Do what?” Alfonse replied.

    “This trap.” Lizzie walked over to a low table by the shelves. A game of chess was in progress across a board she had seen many times. It radiated power, just as the cards did when she was in the middle of a game.

    “You always were smart,” Alfonse said. “I might as well tell, it’s not like you can get a message out.

    “I want my railway to be the only way into and out of this place. No-one will be able to walk, ride, or run away. I’ll control the flow of traffic into one of the most valuable regions of the west. Imagine how much that’s worth.”

    “You don’t need me to make your profit,” Lizzie said. “Can’t you let me go, for old times’ sake?”

    Alfonse laughed bitterly.

    “I should slap you for old times’ sake,” he said. “The humiliation you brought on me, my fiance running off like that.”

    “Then how about a game?” Lizzie asked, pulling out a deck of cards. “If I win, you let me move on. If you win, I marry you. You can put all that shame behind you, tell people that you brought me back into line, or whatever you need to feel powerful.”

    The thought of marrying him sickened her, but so did the dread at her pursuers catching up. It was a desperate gamble, but it was worth taking.

    Alfonse looked at the cards and then at Lizzie.

    “I don’t think so,” he said. “I know who’s after you. I know what they’ll do. And I’ll take more satisfaction in that than I ever could from keeping you in my life.

    “Goodnight, Lizzie. Enjoy your stay.”

    *

    Laughing Wolf looked up from his table as Lizzie slouched into the bar.

    “I told you,” he said. “We’re not the players. Sit back and try to enjoy the game.”

    Lizzie sighed and sat down beside him. There was a pack of cards on the table and a row of whiskey bottles behind the bar. There were worse ways to spend her final days.

    “Fine,” she said, accepting her fate. “Deal me in.”

    * * *

     

    This is the second in a series of flash stories I’m stringing together into something larger. If you want to find out more about how Lizzie got to this point, you can read the first part, The One Night Town. And if you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.

    Next time, events take a turn for the worse as the past catches up with Lizzie…


  • Salting the Soil – a flash fantasy story

    To Ellis’s relief, the rain had cleared as the sun came up. Dark banks of cloud still rolled over the windswept moors, but they were thinning as they headed toward the sea.

    Grumbling to himself every step of the way, Ellis pushed a rickety wooden barrow full of salt up the ridge line. He would have rather spent time at the plow or milking his cows, but both law and tradition were clear. After the rains, locals must re-lay the ward.

    Ellis hated the ward. Not just for the work of maintaining it and the poor recompense sent by the crown. It was the way it poisoned the soil, salt soaking in with every rainfall, creating a stretch of land where nothing could live and no man could farm.
    Such a waste.

    At the top of the ridge he stopped, took out his shovel, and started filling gaps in the thick line of salt that was the ward.

    A spirit approached from the other side. It didn’t even try to hide its nature. Though it was shaped like a woman, its body was the stuff of a fetid pond, all algae, thick weed, and dirty water. Its only clothing was wooden sandals.

    “Neighbour, will you leave a gap that I might get through?” the spirit asked. “I have business on the other side.”

    “I’m sure you do,” Ellis said, hurrying to fill nearby gaps. “Business stealing souls, no doubt.”

    “You don’t really believe that, do you?” the spirit asked, its voice dancing like a spring brook. “I’m no more a soul stealer than you are. I just want to get across to trade my wares.”

    It held up a sack and opened the mouth to reveal wild herbs, things that could heal injuries and preserve meat, plants that seldom grew on Ellis’s land. Things he needed.

    For a moment, he hesitated.

    “I know your game,” he said, reluctantly returning to laying salt. “You’re trying to tempt me. But letting you through will only lead to hurt.”

    “As opposed to this?” the spirit asked, pointing at the ward. “Poisoning your own land on the orders of people you’ve never met?”

    “Why would they have me do it if there weren’t danger?” Ellis asked.

    “Danger to them, not you. The conflict between our rulers goes back centuries. I could tell you about it if you like, though not until I’ve traded my herbs.”

    Ellis moved on to the next gap. None of the breaches in the ward were large enough for the spirit to cross, but if they grew it would be another matter.

    Assuming he wanted to stop her. Which he was almost sure he did.

    “Please,” the spirit said, lips trembling. “My name is Onina. I have a daughter. She is sick and needs medicine that does not grow on this side. I must get through to trade.”

    Ellis paused. He thought of his own Kara, playing with her straw dolls in the farmhouse kitchen.

    There was no-one else to see what he was doing. Still, instinct made him step close to the barrier and to Onina, speaking in a secretive tone.

    “How old is your daughter?” he asked.

    Onina took a step closer, almost touching the barrier. Her rippling green flesh shrivelled a little at the closeness of the salt and she winced.

    “Six years old,” she said. “Our children grow slower than yours, making them vulnerable for longer. It is as if she were a three-year-old human, burning with a terrible fever.”

    Ellis remembered the winter Kara had fallen sick, her little face screwed up in misery as she shivered and coughed. If not for the berries her grandmother had found she would have died.

    “If I let you through, you’ve got to promise to be back within a day,” he said. “I can disguise you in some of my wife’s clothes.”

    “Thank you,” Onina said, leaning her face closer through a small hole in the ward. “Just leave a gap, and I will be gone as soon as I am done.”

    “Someone might see that.” Ellis shook his head. “I’ll close it, then when you’re done I can make a gap again.”

    “In that case…”

    Onina shot out her hand, grabbing Ellis’s wrist. He fell in the salt, startled and bewildered, and she shoved him back and forth on the cold ground.

    “Now!” she shouted.

    A dozen more spirits appeared from hiding places across the countryside behind her.

    Horror grabbed Ellis. She was using him to break the barrier, his body scattering salt as he was shoved back and forth. The spirits would pour through. Who knew what they would do.

    He struggled, but Onina was twice as strong as him and he could not break free. He could not reach his shovel or the salt in the barrow. He did not dare grab any from the already weakened ward.

    The spirits rushed towards them.

    Onina shoved his face in the mud. Even that tasted of salt. The bitter flavour of his poisoned farmland.

    Poisoned to her as well as him.

    Grabbing a handful of mud, Ellis flung it in Onina’s face. Green flesh shrivelled at the salt’s touch. She flung her hands up, letting him go.

    He leapt to his feet, grabbed his shovel from the barrow and swung it wildly. Salt sprayed through the air and the spirits jerked back mere feet from the gap. Another shovelful and the gap was too small to pass through. Two more and it was gone.

    The spirits glared and screeched at Ellis. Onina’s placid face became an ugly mess of teeth and hatred. But no more ugly than Ellis’s thoughts about her trickery and betrayal.

    Pushing his wheelbarrow ahead of him, he went eagerly to repair the rest of the ward.

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by R J Barker’s workshop on landscape and writing at Sledge Lit 2016. I left the workshop with a photo of a landscape crossed by a white barrier (snow, but it looked like it could be salt) and this is what it inspired. R J Barker’s first novel is coming out later this year, and if it has half the energy and inspiration of his workshop then it’ll be well worth a read.

    If you enjoyed this story then please share it. And remember, you can get more like it straight to your inbox every week by signing up to my mailing list.


  • Bartenders Save Humanity – a guest post from Paul Krueger

    Following on from my post yesterday about his book Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, today I’m delighted to share a guest post from author Paul Krueger in which he talks bartending, magic and creating a world where getting drunk gives you superpowers. Over to you Paul…

    blog image

    By now, I’ve had to quick-pitch Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge to a great many people. Over time, I’ve worn its concept down to a simple phrase I can throw out with rote fluency: “it’s about a secret society of bartenders who fight demons using alcohol magic.” The story is also about Chicago, and one’s relationship with their job, and the plight of the millennial college graduate in a post-Recession world, but the booze magic bit is always what seems to pique the most interest.

    I read a lot of different types of books, but urban fantasy will always be my comfort zone. I find something fascinating about the idea of pulling up the floorboards of our world to catch a glimpse of something bigger, scarier, and more wondrous just past the edge of what we know. But so much of the genre is crowded with magical law enforcement: cops, private eyes, and government spooks, all patrolling the night with badges and wands. When I sat down to write an urban fantasy of my own, I knew I wanted to highlight a different class of worker entirely: the women and men who work in food service.

    Last Call’s magic system came directly from the years I spent working in New York City restaurants. I was a barista, not a bartender, but the impetus was the same: find a way to showcase service industry professionals for the superheroes they are. It led me to creating a world where getting drunk literally gives you superpowers, instead of just making you feel like you had them. And it also literalized the idea that service jobs like bartending are deeply, deeply important, and that the people who do them are important, too.

    Cocktails lent themselves to this idea enormously. Their preparation has a ritualistic air to it, though professionals and enthusiasts will debate the particulars of it until the end of time. And the fact that alcohol consumption tends to be an evening activity gave me a stronger tie to the conventions of urban fantasy, whose best bits take place at night more often than not. And on top of that, it gave me an excellent excuse to take an in-depth approach to my research.

    But again, that magic system was just supposed to be a vehicle. The idea was always to democratize magic, and put it in the hands of people who were looked down on. It was supposed to be a skill anyone could learn, if they were curious enough, or brave enough, or humble enough to submit themselves to the service of others. All that might seem a bit high-minded for what was essentially just a silly idea I took way too seriously. But the truth is, people who work in food service are already superheroes.

     

     

    Paul Krueger is the debut author of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, published by Quirk Books, available from all good books stores in paperback, priced $14.99 (US) and £11.99 (UK). For more information, please visit www.quirkbooks.com, or follow Paul on Twitter @notlikeFreddy.

     


  • Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

    I think we can all agree that cocktails are a good thing, right?Last Call Tasty booze plus comedy names plus an element of craftsmanship equals a fun night of drinking. I’ve certainly had good times with cocktail parties and cocktail inventing bar crawls, one of which ended in my losing a whole city.

    But that’s a story for another time. For now, let’s look at a story about magical cocktails – Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger.

    This is a fun urban fantasy book whose central premise is that bartenders have two jobs – providing tasty booze and protecting the world from dark forces bent on devouring humans like so many tequila slammers at happy hour. Correctly mixed cocktails can give the drinker temporary superpowers, with their effect depending on the drink. Would sir like ice and telekinesis with that?

    Krueger is working well within the comfort zone of modern urban fantasy, and the story openly reflects its antecedents. We’ve got the Chicago setting of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. We’ve got the smart young graduate stumbling across the supernatural while looking for a career, like in Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guides. We’ve got Scott Pilgrim style oddball fights. And of course we’ve got references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the urban fantasy show people who’ve never heard of urban fantasy rave about.

    The result is like drinking a long island ice tea made in a high-class bar – it’s enjoyable, it’s well crafted, but it’s not going to surprise you. It’s a fun, frothy book that avoids taking itself or its likeable characters too seriously. Those characters are nicely brought to life and include a good mix of gender, ethnicity and sexuality without making that an issue.

    I was wary of this one at first, not sure Krueger had successfully combined the mundane and supernatural elements. But in the end, clear action and fun characterisation won through. It was the perfect palette cleanser after Kim Stanley Robinson’s bleakly substantial Aurora. If you’re looking for something fun, I totally recommend this.

     

    * * *

     

    Disclaimer: I got this book for free after being contacted by its publicist. The opinion above is still my real opinion – as I’ve said before, if I don’t like something I’ll usually just shut up about it.


  • Dancing in the Graveyard – a fantasy flash story

    Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr creative commons
    Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr creative commons

    We do not have much power, my little troupe and I. We are not truly of the Elect, and though the spirits speak through our dance, they do so weakly.

    Still we do what we can to brighten the life of our town, to bring joy and fertility with our footsteps, light shimmering from our fingertips as the power moves through us.

    Before the spirits touched us, we always used to dance in the graveyard. In the summer, it was the most open space not filled with crops. And so we return there now, my skirts swirling as I lead the way. It is a grim place, but would the spirits not want us to celebrate our ancestors? To brighten up the space in which they now dwell?

    My mother does not think so. She and the other temple elders stand by the rock pillar at the heart of the graveyard, arms folded across their winter cloaks, glaring accusingly at us.

    “Stop this at once,” my mother demands.

    We do not listen, but instead join hands as we trip lightly between the gravestones, our footsteps forming a glittering circle around these stern figures.

    “Very well then.” My mother draws a heavy book of scripture from within her cloak, and the others do the same. In unison, they sing a curse from one of the oldest books, droning words of condemnation meant for prisoners bound in chains.

    As the words surround us, I feel something drag at my arms and legs. It is as if they are bound to those of the dancer next to me. Looking around, I see that the others are struggling as I am, our light and floating magic turning into chains that bind us together in our ring.

    This spiteful restriction only makes me more determined in my defiance. Step by heavy step I draw the dance away from the stone and onto the graves themselves. We skip and spin between the gravestones.

    But the curses are growing louder, the bindings tighter, and it is becoming hard to move.

    One of the dancers stumbles and falls against a gravestone, dragging another down with him. I feel the strands of light that once invigorated me now dragging me down towards the ground.

    In desperation, I slam my arm against the nearest gravestone. Cold granite proves stronger than art or prayer, and the strands of magic shatter even as pain fills my wrist. For a moment the power turns once more to bright, sparkling light, falling like fragments of a rainbow before vanishing into the dead earth.

    Wearily, I look up at my mother. There is a grim sort of triumph on her face.

    That expression falls away as, from the graves around me, intangible figures rise up, the ghosts of a broken rainbow colouring their outlines. They hold hands as they rush between the stones, laughing and smiling as they once did in life.

    The magic of the dance fills the graveyard, and my heart.

    * * *

     

    This is a follow-up to ‘The Elect‘. Thanks to Steve Hartline for saying kind things about that story, and so encouraging me to write this one.

    If you enjoyed this then you might like to try By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of flash short stories. And if you enjoy any of the stories I post here then please share them.


  • The Midnight March – a flash fantasy story

    Picture by Carl Milner via Flickr creative commons
    Picture by Carl Milner via Flickr creative commons

    Hank stood on his lightless porch, furiously trying to drag calm from a cigarette. He could hear Grace pacing in the kitchen, waiting for an apology or another round of the row. He wasn’t ready for either yet, or sure which it would be. The row seemed to be all they had right now, but it was better than nothing.

    The garbage can fell with a clang, its lid rolling away as something scrabbled inside. Grace hated those racoons and the mess they left around the yard. Normally Hank chased them off. Today he was feeling more sympathetic to the critters.

    Something scampered out of the garbage can, a piece of old bacon between its teeth. It had matted fur, a face like the world’s wartiest child, and it ran, hunched over, on two legs. Spidery fingers trailed on the ground. It was like no racoon Hank had ever seen.

    Thoughts of Grace and their troubled finances lost to curiosity, Hank followed the creature out of the yard and down the street. It didn’t seem to notice him, focusing on where it was going, sniffing out a route with its long nose. As it emerged onto the deserted high street it was joined by a similar creature and a bearded man a foot tall. After a few minutes, Hank realised that the creatures’ shadows had grown, and they were now accompanied by seven feet of lumbering, ape-like darkness that strode to its own steady rhythm.

    More creatures joined them as they walked quietly through town, including that beast the Hendersons had always claimed was a dog, which howled softly as it rose up on two legs and joined the procession. Hank trailed behind, unwilling to let them out of sight, but scared of what might happen if they noticed him.

    They tramped out of town, up the hill to Epiron labs. Grace’s cousin Dill was a janitor there. He claimed to have seen pale, clammy men wandering the halls at night, bullet holes in the walls and fishmen bathing in vats of slime. But cousin Dill was thirty-four and still believed in Santa, so Hank had never paid him much mind. Not until now.

    The motley crowd stopped at the lab doors, which were locked for the night. The shadow thing picked up the creature from the trash can – Hank had decided it was a pixie – and flung it up onto the roof. There was a creak of metal slats bending, followed by ten minutes of silence. Then the lights went out, including the red LEDs that flashed on alarm boxes around the building. The swearing of a distant security guard echoed through the night.

    The Hendersons’ dog leaned against the door, which sprang open. Hank waited in the bushes as the creatures crept into the lab. The night was quiet and still, scented with pine and wild garlic. Then a rancid, sweaty smell returned as the monsters emerged. They were carrying a steel box, seven or eight feet long, and the twitchy quiet with which they had approached the building was replaced by solemnity. They processed in double file into the woods, and Hank followed them, trying not to tread on the noisy twigs. The moon spilt glorious white light across their path as it snaked between the trees, eventually emerging into a clearing.

    There was a pit in the middle of the clearing, wide enough to bury the box and at least six feet deep. It was flanked by four pale men in black coats, hunched crane-like over spades. They doffed their top hats as the procession approached, then took the box and lowered it carefully into the ground. Their arms extended, flesh and bone stretching into the depths before emerging empty-handed and taking up the spades.

    The creatures formed a ring, facing the trash-can pixie at the head of the grave.

    ‘He weren’t nice,’ it said, voice scratching through the thud of falling dirt. ‘He drank their blood and kicked our butts, and blamed everyone but himself for his lonely, bitter life. He hated most things, and cursed ’em all. But he was one of us, and losing him lessens us. I doubt we’ll miss him now, but someday we’ll miss every last lost bit of magic. I won’t say you should weep, but mourn while you can, ’cause it could be you next. Some day, they’ll get us all.’

    One by one, the creatures took handfuls of dirt and cast them onto the grave before disappearing into the woods. At last there was only the pixie and a soft mound of mourning.

    Hank stepped out of the treeline. Sadness drew him forwards despite his fear. He’d never seen these creatures before, but something about the dead guy and his lonely, angry existence struck a chord. It seemed right to pay his respects.

    ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, taking his turn with the dirt. ‘For you and for your friend. I know it ain’t worth much, but I am sorry.’

    ‘Thanks.’ The pixie gave a half smile, looking up at him with watery eyes. ‘It helps a little, and sometimes that’s all we’ve got.’

    It patted a last crum of earth onto the mound and turned away into the night.

    *

    Hank opened the kitchen door. Grace’s glare moved from him to the clock, then back again.

    ‘I’m sorry,’ Hank said. ‘I don’t rightly remember why, but I know it’s my fault and I’m sorry.’

    She hugged him, tears welling in her eyes. Hank had missed that embrace, but even now it didn’t feel right.

    ‘It’s good you can say that, Hank,’ she said. ‘But it just ain’t enough.’

    Hank nodded.

    ‘Guess this is how it feels when the magic dies.’

    Across town, the Hendersons’ dog howled.

    * * *

     

    This story was originally published in Bards and Sages Quarterly in April 2012. Life got in the way of me writing a fresh story for today, so I thought is was time this saw the light of day again.

    If you enjoyed this then you can get more like it straight to your inbox by signing up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book when you sign up, and can unsubscribe any time you like.


  • Making Fights Characterful – The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

    Tiger and WolfGood action in a story doesn’t just get your blood pumping through a string of blows and dodges. It makes the most of whatever’s unique in the fight to create something distinctive. Best of all, it reveals character.

    I’m currently reading The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and it’s a book that does this really well. The characters live in a fantasy world with similarities to the early Middle Ages. They are shapeshifters, each one able to transform into the animal associated with their tribe. But they don’t just go through action sequences as a human or a wolf/tiger/lizard. They shift between forms, making the most of each as the situation allows. How weapons, armour and clothes fit with these transformations is relevant to the fights, and this adds variety.

    The characterful part comes from the way that their animal forms fit with their characters, and how this affects their use of them. Whether fiercely predatory, playfully vicious or torn between two worlds, their transformations add to the action while revealing who the characters are, and filling out the readers’ understanding of the world.

    I’ll write about the whole book once I’ve finished it – and I’m definitely going to finish it, it’s really cool so far. In the meantime, I feel like I’m learning something as a writer from this book, as well as enjoying myself, and that’s awesome.

    The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky is out today. If you like fantasy with unusual twists on combat you should also check out his Guns of the Dawn, which I wrote about here.