Archive for January, 2014

Storytime: Afar.

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Courier Jessle, messenger of the word of Gelmorre, stood at the prow of the ship as the dinghies were made ready, eyes hunting through the deep-breathing mists that ate up the land in front of her.
For a small moment it heaved itself aside, and there it was: Threshold, the edge of the tip of the final stretched finger of civilization, separated from its trunk by a long, blue arm of waves and wind you could lose continents in.
Well, this one had been lost long enough, said Her Worship. And so the ships were masted and crewed and loaded and voyaged and after near-three-years this was what had been made. The virtues of human intellect, itself the virtue of human cooperation, because why bother being smart if you can’t show other people it. Jessle had heard many scholars rhapsodize on the intertwining of the two. Personally, she considered both overrated.
There it lay. No name for it but what it was: Afar.
Courier Jessle was a professional, which was to say that she was meticulous about her profession. And at the very core of the profession of Courier of Gelmorre was this: the will of Her Worship is to be heard, and it is to be fulfilled.
Nevertheless, that brief eyeful of Afar had led her to suspect that the cleverest thing Gelmorre could do would be to lose the damned place again, and more thoroughly this time.

A quiet man who called himself the commander of the outpost here explained himself, poorly, as Jessle pretended to listen. Nothing new was being said, nothing interesting. That would be for later, for the requests that would only be made of a Courier, that only a Courier would dare do. For now it was formalities pretending to be practicalities, an endless list of progress updates. So instead, she concerned herself with her bench.
The seat was made from local wood. As it should be. Gelmorre was what it was wherever it was, it needed no links to home because home was wherever it chose to be. This small bench – hewn together in three rough pieces by one rough man in less than an hour, by her guess – was a flag grander than any an embassy could fly.
Jessle had sat on more comfortable stones. The trees of this place did not appear to grow so much as elongate themselves into larger and larger splinters, and she dared not imagine the plane that could tame them, let alone the carpenter that would dare wield it.
“…and they did not return.”
Oh, a new part of the conversation. “What did the voyageurs report?”
The man managed to make his face grow blanker – an easy feat in the dim, foggy air of the building. Nothing seemed to keep the mist out here. “Courier?”
“You sent out voyageurs after that, yes? What did they report?”
“Commander, you may have misheard me. Our voyageurs did not return.”

Jessle’s aunt had been a voyageur. She’d lasted almost a decade before retiring with her three teeth and one arm and thirty-six years of age. She faded fast after that. They always claimed that sitting around caused the greatest fatality rate of any action Her Worship could request of them. It tore their nerves to pieces.
Sometimes she wondered if that was the real reason that Gelmorre’s voyageurs were the most glorified of all her forces. Whatever benefit they provided in deeds – and oh there were many, and oh they’d never shut up about them – they exceeded tenfold in morale. A woman could find all kinds of courage if the soldier beside her saw a battle coming on and started singing. Especially if the song was dirty enough, and they knew them all. Mostly because they invented them.
Jessle had been given one for her fifteenth birthday by that selfsame aunt, just a few months before she lay down with half a cabinet of Clearwater liquor and didn’t move at morning. After that, sharing it would’ve been wrong, so she hadn’t.
She was humming it now, she realized. That was not a good sign. She needed her mind on her task, even if right now that involved noticing just how much swampwater was seeping over the tops of her boots, or the number, kind, and disposition of the various small organisms she could feel fighting for survival over the surface of her stockings.
She hated the land here. Fog, trees, and mud, and the most solid surface you could find never stayed that way for more than an hour. She’d have given her grandmother’s old siege-gauntlet for a single dry stone, or a hillock that wasn’t coated in weeping ferns. And she would have traded the old bitch herself in for a bigger escort than a single scout.
Not like the gauntlet would do her much good now anyways.

“No iron,” the commander had told her. “If it’s iron, it stays inside the palisade.”
“Why? The perfect tool for a game hunt here, I’d suppose. The first logs said you so much as flashed it and it turned wolves into rabbits.”
He sighed, and Jessle saw that he was probably younger than she was, under the lines carved into his face by too much worry and too little sleep. “I’d almost wish for wolves here, to say nothing of rabbits. But yes, yes it did. We never went out without it until a week after landfall. Then people started blowing up. Took the voyageurs three days to track down the culprit, three days of walking around hunting imaginary monsters while the rest of us hid indoors. Then one of them – Ysko, I believe his name was – sat down on a patch of moss wearing iron-shoed boots and, well…”
“Iron makes the plants explode?”
“The mosses,” he corrected. “Well, at least one variety. It’s rather common, and more importantly it’s more common than the beasts out there. There might be others, and we haven’t been so lacking in work around here that we can afford time to experiment. For the time being, the iron stays in this building’s cellar.

“Here.”
Jessle glanced behind her. It was already invisible in the mist, but by her reckoning she’d still be within sight of Threshold’s walls if it were a clear day.
Her guide shook her head. “No, not where they vanished. This is where they started. They came here first. Look.”
Jessle followed the scout’s fingertip and wished she hadn’t. The corpse was still quite fresh, not more than a few days in age, but something was already attempting to nest in its open mouth. Any land is dry land enough.
More out of professional thoroughness than actual doubt, she checked the body. Yes, a clean kill. A single arrow right through the forehead. No other wounds, no trace of damage that hadn’t happened long after he’d been in any condition to care about it. “Where did he come from?”
“The south pools. Good fish there, if you’re careful not to get too close to the water’s edge. Lost a few legs at first. Now we just lose rods. And one hand.”
Poor luck to the slow of reflex. “A fisherman, then?”
“Day-laborer. Fisherman. Carpenter. Odd jobs. Lot of folk like that here.”
Jessle peered into the body’s eyes. “How did you say the man acted?”
“Regular-like or at the end?”
“Both.”
The scout shrugged. “Before, he was nothing special. His friends liked him and he had a few that hated him. Got a bit too surly after his drinks. Lazy without a goal, busy with. Could’ve come from a mould.”
“Her Worship’s barracks produce fine philosophers.”
The scout tensed, then saw the smile. “After… after it’s hard to say. Second person he met was in no state to say much for hours, and she’s still shaky from it. The closest anyone else got was enough to see she wasn’t lying. Then came the shot.”
“Tell me.”
“She said he was blank. Moved like a sleepwalker. Came out of the fog without so much as a splash, grabbed her head, and yanked. Didn’t pay any mind to what she yelled at him, didn’t blink until her finger went in the left eye. Didn’t pay any mind to that either – she got away when she stabbed him in the arm.”
Jessle glanced at the limb in question. “She got the muscle, that’s why. Pain wasn’t going to work: our man was higher than a snowcrasher on a scaffold.”
“Courier?”
She straightened up and wiped her hands on the most tattered part of her jacket. “His pupils are pinpricks. Anything around here that’ll do the job?”
“No. Not unless the rotgut’s stronger than they say, which it isn’t, and some fools have been trying to booze it up outside the walls, which they don’t.”
“And our man would scarcely be walking smooth after that.” Jessle shook her head. “How far are the south pools?”
“Twenty-minute walk, if you’re quick.”
“Get me there half-time,” she ordered, and wiped her hands again. “Second person he met?”
“At least.”
“Let’s find the first.”
As they left, she took one last look at the corpse before the fog swallowed it. Its hands were swollen from the beginnings of rot, but the rusty-red spackle that coated them still remained.

This body was less pleasant than the first, although there wasn’t as much of it.
“Thorough.” And colorful. It contrasted nicely with the roiling pale-white murk of the bubbling pools it lay next to. Just standing near them made her skin crawl; she wondered how anyone had worked up the nerve to fish there in the first place.
The scout settled for a nod in lieu of commentary.
“Matter of fact, downright meticulous. All it’s missing are labels – you’re sure he wasn’t a doctor? This looks downright surgical. For something that was done with nails and teeth.”
Jessle stepped back. “Still pretty, too. Not how I’d look after days in this murk, with my torso turned into seventeen different kinds of bait. There should be teeth-marks up one side and down the other of what’s left, and THAT shouldn’t be more than a rib and a half.” She shook her head. “Do your little rod-snatchers venture onto land here?”
Shake shake.
“Huh. Well, maybe the wildlife doesn’t bother coming here if there’s nothing to drink.”
Shrug.
“Plenty to see, though. Voyageur bootprint on the ground. Crushed undergrowth to the east. They weren’t too quiet when they came through here. Auntie always said they talked that more than they walked it, and well, maybe they’re right to do that. Just not this time.” She hissed between her teeth. “Confidence, overconfidence. It’s a fine line. East… you know the terrain?”
A slow, hesitant nod.
“Get going. And remember: I’m one step behind you.”
And she was, she really was. Exactly one step, almost unnaturally. Steady, firm, and careful. Because the fog was clotting thicker by the minute, and all she had to do was lose track of the bobbing, wavering boot in front of hers for a single stride and…
…she’d be lost. But not really, because she could just take her next step twice as quickly and…
…find nothing.
Jessle broke into a sprint that took her through three small streams and enough mud to build a small pyramid. Nothing.
Well. This was interesting.
She considered shouting and quickly dismissed the idea. Not only might she end up drawing the attention of animals, there was a not-insignificant chance that the scout had left her on purpose. Couriers were authority second only to Her Worship, yes, but authority was always tested by the desperate and deluded. Maybe the commander had done away with his voyageurs through ineptitude or malice and now he was hoping the courier’s death could be pinned on something big and ravenous enough that the outpost would be dismantled through no fault of his own, oh well, nothing he could do, everyone had best cease investigating and go home.
An idiot’s fantasy, but those were not uncommon.
At least backtracking was simple. Even in the fog, even in the endless mire, Jessle had left trail-marks. Out of habit, because the best habits were the ones that would keep you alive, and she tried to cultivate those. Bent grass, twisted reeds, stones turned over with a boot… she had made herself no highway, but it would suffice. Soon enough she would be back at the south pools, this time with her only company being a -
Something heavy and soft smacked into her boot, and she caught herself with half a curse between her and the ground.
Oh. There it was. And it hadn’t been improved when her foot entered its chest.
At least now she knew where she was. Or she would’ve, if this had been where they’d found the body. The pools were missing, she stood at the border of a small fen and a patch of unnaturally thick and glistening ferns.
She eyed them suspiciously. No, there was nothing there. No noise. Not even breathing. She could barely hear herself breathing.
So. The dead did not get up and walk. Or at least not the dead here. Probably.
Well, even if they did, they’d require functioning legs to do that, and this particular corpse was missing one. And there were no drag marks.
Experimentally, Jessle reached down and yanked at the corpse’s arms. Yes, quite heavy. And if her memory told her right, she was not particularly near to the pools.
So. Something had done this. Presumably it was not the scout unless she was secretly a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than she’d let on. Jessle allotted herself enough pride to admit she’d have spotted any human short of a voyageur on their trail.
So, an animal or animals. Potentially the same one that could kill a company of voyageurs together. Something quiet and quick and strong, with enough canniness in it to leave no footprints. An animal clever enough to try and frighten and confuse her, which meant it was probably at least sapient.
Well, confusion worked both ways. Now, if she’d laid a trap like this, what would she have expected? Horror. Shock. Panic. Headlong flight into the unknown.
Calmly and quietly, she picked up the largest, least-decomposed branch she could find, screamed once, and threw it into the bushes as far as she could, then dropped into the mud and froze for two minutes.
And that, decided Jessle, as she began to belly-crawl through the moss, an anonymous hummock among many others, was the saving grace of being hunted by things that could plan. They could plan poorly. She hoped it spent half the night out there looking for her.
After half an hour of perfectly-quiet, furious crawling she reached the pools, which was where she got up and ran. Her pursuer would be somewhere behind her, her run home was a simple one along a solid path, and she had the motivation. In no time at all, the fogs spread out to reveal the clearing around…
…the pools.
Jessle allowed herself four full seconds of silent inner fury before she resumed observations. That was when she saw that the corpse was there again. Only someone had propped it up. If there’d been eyes, she was sure they’d be gazing right at her.
She turned her back and walked again. North. North. The direction on her compass, she made sure of it. This time she went slow and low, took her time.
The pools again. Though this time there were two huddled forms at the water’s edge. The murderer and the victim, reunited. Someone had even taken the trouble to put their hands together. Resting lovers.
This time Jessle did not put her compass away. This time she crawled, one eye on the needle, one eye on her surroundings, her ears as strained as a new mother’s pelvis.
It was quiet, so quiet. Even her heartbeat seemed stifled. How anything could’ve been out there she had no idea.
But it was, because before long she was at the pools again.
Once, twice, thrice. Enemy action. And the corpses were gone now.
Arms closed around her, and it was only as she swore and elbowed simultaneously that she realized that she made no sound at all.
It was the scout, of course. Her elbow scraped along the bottom of the woman’s ribcage before skating smoothly into her solar plexus, and she convulsed onto her back. Jessle followed her down and assisted with the process, knee on her throat. She opened her mouth to ask why, how, what, and nothing came out. She was mute, the world was mute. Her aunt’s song rose to the back of her mind, but the tune was blank.
The other woman’s pupils were pinpricks, she saw faintly.
The scout’s hands were already grasping again, straining against the constraints of a body that wanted to remain still. Jessle considered her options, picked the least-jagged stone at hand, and forcibly placed her consciousness into recess.
No monster then, just marsh-madness? No. No, the scout hadn’t been the one that moved those bodies all those distances without so much as a mark. There was something else out there. There was something that was making her lose her way, making others lose their minds, cloaking itself in a silence that shouldn’t be and a mist that-
The mist. The mist was changing.
Jessle dropped the scout and looked around. Nowhere near but reeds and shrubs.
Well hell. Maybe the fishies would’ve given up after the last few days of quiet.
She rolled into the shallows of the pools and felt the squelching sensation of a half-dozen mud-dwelling little animals getting to know her better.

It should’ve come with fanfare, with dread. The ground should have quivered at its footfall, the stagnant swampwater should have surged against its body, and the air should have been filled with the deep ever-hissing endlessness of its breath.
But instead it was quiet, endlessly quiet, and with this it was almost not there at all. The fog wrapped around it so thoroughly that the only things that screamed of its presence to Jessle were the hairs at the back of her neck – though that might have been the squirming in the muck beneath her – and the slightest whorls in the mist at her left.
Something was in the bank of mist that swept over the clearing of the south pools, something big enough to make a team of hardened voyageurs vanish in the space of four hours. It was close enough for her to touch at a lunge, and she had no idea where – or what – it was.
The persistent tickling at her belly ceased. Then it swelled; up, up, up, turning into a flex that tipped her from the water to the land, a writhing, muscled force that curled at her sides and dropped her without effort. Cold scales touched her cheek.
And Jessle looked up into a pair of eyes the size of her head. Apart from the tiny ring of milk-white sclera that separated them from grey scales, they were purest black.
She held that gaze for a moment, just a moment, and she peered through those engorged pupils and into clarity. She saw sound torn away and shredded into nothingness. She saw mist exhaled like breath and breeding like roaches. She saw eyes drain away into empty dots and mouths close on tongues that had been robbed of speech. She saw bodies picked apart by proxy fingers placed as warning signs. She saw thoughts turned in circles for the sake of amusement. And she saw the sort of mind that would do those things. An intellect that had grown all out of proportion, not to show others how to do things, but to make them.
Courier Jessle did not hesitate, Courier Jessle did not scream. Instead, as she bit the inside of her cheek, Courier Jessle reached into the deepest pocket of her jacket and when her hand came out it was coated in her grandmother’s iron, and she struck at those eyes as hard as she ever had in her life.
The mist fell. The world poured back into her ears. And Courier Jessle ran, ran, ran as fast as her legs would carry her. And then she started screaming, but only a little. Because she needed her breath to move herself, and the silence was already starting to creep up her neck again, seething on the tendrils of onrushing fog.

The gates were in sight already, somehow. Twenty minutes covered in ten had been covered in… three? Panic always made her internal clock fall apart. The gate was closed. Of course it was closed. She yelled and she screamed and whispers came out. Not that it mattered, because the guards on the gate stood silent and watching, eyes unblinking as she pounded on the door.
The thudding of her fists grew fainter, and she risked a glance over her shoulder. The mist was pouring into the clearing.
She drew back her gauntlet-clad fist, triggered a very, very small switch in the base of the palm, and reminded herself to leave another flower on her family’s stone this year. Maybe three. Auntie may have been a voyageur, but grandmother had been a siegebreaker captain, and although the regulations prohibited company equipment from being used as hand-me-downs, the old woman had never put any stock in them.
Even the numbness eating her ears couldn’t silence the roaring thunder of the siege-gauntlet’s impact. It had been meant to tear through reinforced doors of fortresses, a waterlogged and moss-laden wooden palisade presented it with as much trouble as paper.
Jessle moved at a sprint through the town, dodging from building to building. Splinters rained down on her head as alleyways were bulldozed to nothing behind her, crushed under a living battering-ram. The fog was outrunning her, and its master was only feet behind.
That was fine. Jessle was where she needed to be. She kicked the door of the garrison open and felt something in her heel give way at the force, but she was in a hurry and felt no mind. Stumbled inside over the weight that was her foot, slammed the door with both hands.
The roof groaned noiselessly over her head and vanished in a spray of mould and dust, vaporizing under a skull that outmassed a warhorse in full battle harness. Jessle looked up into those eyes, those eyes whose pupils had swallowed them whole, framed by a beak of bone that seemed to laugh at her as it worked itself.
That was fine. Jessle was doing what she planned. She held up her hand and made the simplest gesture she knew.
The eye twitched, the maw descended, and Jessle leapt backwards as it slammed into the planks of the floor…and down,
and farther,
all the way down into the cellar.
Confidence, overconfidence. It was such a fine line, as fine as a crack in a cellar’s floor-boards. As fine as the edges of the iron blades that lined the garrison’s cellar, where all the iron of Threshold lay that wasn’t decorating Jessle’s fist.
She knew it when it hit, she couldn’t have missed it. It was a roar without sound, and she felt it claw at the back of her head. For a moment, just an instant, just a second, she felt her body fight against her…
…and then there was noise, blissful, all-consuming noise as the walls collapsed and her siege-gauntlet hissed to itself and the screaming began outside.
Courier Jessle hugged herself and her broken foot and laughed until her stomach hurt for joy of the sound. And all the while, in the back of her head, a song was singing.

Storytime: Four Short Barely-Educational Fables.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

The Dolphin and the Shark
Once upon a time, a bottlenose dolphin and a sand tiger shark encountered one another in the shallow waters of the western Atlantic coast.
“Hello,” said the dolphin. “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”
“Yes indeed,” replied the shark. “Splendid.”
“Makes a man’s fancy turn to romance.”
“Indeed! Say, did you know that in order to mate I must severely bite the pectoral fins of my partner, in order to secure a grip?”
“I did not know that, and will inform my friends the next time we form a temporary coalition whose goal is to follow a female around and hem her in until she is ready to mate with us.”
“All very unpleasant, but of course it does lead to children, those little joyful bundles.”
“Of course. Except for those that belong to others of my kind. Those I will sometimes kill for fun.”
“Really? My own children devour one another in the mother’s womb until only two remain, one in each uterine horn.”
“Freak,” said the dolphin.
“Sicko,” said the shark.
They then swam their separate ways because neither had anything to gain from engaging in violence beyond severe injuries that very likely would have killed them both.
Moral: Nature tends to be grosser than you’d expect, but also less exciting.

The Tyrannosaurus’s Argument
Many, many years ago, during the Maastrichtian stage of the Cretaceous period, a Didelphodon was nosing about the forests of what would one day be Montana when it chanced upon a large clearing with a heap of rotting vegetation within it.
“Oh, a nest,” it said. “This will surely contain eggs, which I will consume as it matches my ecological role as a somewhat fox-like predator.”
“No, you won’t,” said the Tyrannosaurus that was returning to its nest, some twelve feet behind it. “Instead, I am going to consume you.”
“Wait, wait, wait, back up a bit,” squeaked the mammal. “That is clearly not what is supposed to happen here! You are a scavenging creature, and eating me would violate your natural place in the order of things.”
“You are talking nonsense,” said the Tyrannosaurus.
“Of course I’m not,” said the Didelphodon. “Your arms are tiny and incapable of gripping prey. You’re a scavenger if I’ve ever seen one!”
“My arms are not a highly-developed part of my predation strategy,” said the Tyrannosaurus, “but that is because they are extraneous. There are many entirely anachronistic predator ground-hunting birds I could use as examples who manage just fine hunting without the use of gripping arms. And this is granting you an unnecessary token in presuming their uselessness: they are quite powerful for their size, with strong gripping capability within their admittedly limited range.”
“Then what of your bulk?” pressed the mammal. “If you move above a trot you’ll fall over and turn into a pancake under your own mass! Catching prey is an impossibility!”
“Much of what I hunt moves not much faster, if that,” responded the Tyrannosaurus.
“Well, your jaws are clearly made to crack bones,” said the Didelphodon. “Marrow extraction is a prime goal for any carrion-eater.”
“Come off it,” said the Tyrannosaurus. “A bone-smashing bite matches my predation strategy perfectly: I charge full-bore into something, mash my teeth as deep as they’ll go, then drag them out and wait for them to bleed to death. Furthermore, my teeth would make shoddy molars: they can penetrate and smash, but they are poor crushers and chewers.”
“Surely your immensely powerful sense of smell makes you a dab hand at locating all those smelly carcasses, which you can easily secure with your powerful size?”
“You need more than a good nose to be an obligate or ‘pure’ scavenger; you also need a highly efficient means of locomotion. Almost all anachronistically-modern obligate vertebrate scavengers of the land are large birds which can drift on thermals at little to no energy cost, which also affords them easy and rapid access to corpses. I am forty feet long and must travel on foot, which makes waiting for corpses to make themselves known to me a much less economical action,” said the Tyrannosaurus, who was clearly losing patience. “Come now, be sensible. Almost no predator passes up carrion, but ones that settle for nothing-but are both extremely rare and physiologically distinct in a manner that I am not.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait a second,” said the Didelphodon, “even if you are an active predator – for the sake of the argument mind you not that I’m conceding anything – shouldn’t you not waste your stomach space on me? I am relatively nutrient-poor and bony.”
“This is true,” said the Tyrannosaurus. “However, you are endangering my young, and given that I’m spending much of my time guarding them, NOT eating you would be a senseless waste in and of itself.”
The Didelphodon was prepared to debate this point, but it was then that the Tyrannosaurus ate it.
Moral: Nobody likes pedants.

The Sickle-Cell Child.
Far, far away, there lived a child, and that child suffered from headaches and bloody urine. For these deficiencies it was mocked by its peers, and it sought solace in the advice of its parent.
“Parent,” said the child, “why am I different, and why do the other children taunt me for this?”
“My child,” said the parent, “your physiological discomforts are the result of the heterozygous sickle-cell trait, meaning that you carry a single gene for sickle-cell anemia, which causes many of your red blood cells to be deformed into a collapsed ‘sickle’ shape. Your peers mock you because human social groups often become tighter-knit when they have a designated ‘other’ to contrast themselves against.”
“None of this is comforting to me in the slightest, parent,” said the child.
“Don’t worry,” said the parent. “There is an advantage in this. Trust me.”
The child was dubious, but it did trust its parent. And so it came to be that one day a major outbreak of malaria swept through the child’s home, killing a substantial portion of its peers but sparing the child due to the inhospitable nature of its ‘sickled’ blood cells for the malarial virus. The child was filled with despair and depression, but persevered, grew up, and had four children. As its mate was also a heterozygous carrier of the sickle-cell trait, one of their children was born without it, two were born with it, and the last inherited two copies of the sickle-cell trait and thus died early in life from sickle-cell anemia, all as statistics would predict.
Moral: Life is profoundly and innately unfair.

The Man Who Knew About Wolves
One night, a man went to a nightclub with some other men, who were his social acquaintances.
“Look over there,” said one of them. “There are some women. Let us attempt to flirt with them as a prelude to obtaining mutual sexual gratification.”
“No, said the largest man present. “They would not be interested in you. Women prefer alpha males: aggressive, physically-impressive, and dynamic.”
“You are generalizing a canine social habit into a biologically-ordained behavioural process of the human species,” said the first man. “Furthermore, the alpha-beta social complex of wolves, from which you have derived your theory, is in fact an anthropogenically-induced behavior caused by fragmented wolf packs composed of strangers being raised and studied in captivity. Naturally-occurring packs consist of a breeding pair and their offspring, and in these the theorem of a dominant ‘alpha male’ whose aggressive assertiveness leads to rulership of the pack is provably false.”
The largest man present, who was inebriated, took this monologue as an insult and punched the first man, who suffered a minor concussion. He was subdued by the club’s security staff and charged for assault and battery, which caused him some difficulties in securing a financially-rewarded career.
Moral: No, really, NOBODY likes pedants. And if you understand social relationships so well, you should be able to avoid getting punched in the face.

Storytime: A Bent Hook.

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Sometimes, I get folks that come to ask me a question. And it’s always the same question, and it’s always in the same way – timid, half-moused, delivered with a flinch and another dozen unsaid questions held behind it: “lady (hah!) Benthook, how do you fish so well?” Is it a secret? Is it a trick? Is it some rite you dance by moonlight, is it a chant that brings the fat ones up from below, is it a tallow you rub into your lines?
And each time I give them the long slow smile just far enough to make them start to twitch, and then I say, “why sir (or lady), I just remember the words my mother gave me to fish by,” as pretty and pious as a churchman. And it’s funny to see their faces light up like they do, or cloud over in disappointment (what’s she hiding behind that, huh?), because mama’s words were wise enough, but they weren’t any sort of magic.
“Listen, my oldest spawnlings,” old mama Benthook had whispered to me, hands busy with the lines and craggy head bent low to her knots. “The sea is for the failures. Every sorry thing with the wrong number of legs or eyes or heads sinks to the bottom of its big black heart and squirms there, hiding.” She pointed one long, scaly finger at us. “All you got to do to pull them out is be better than them. And no daughter of mine is a failure.”
Yes, mama’s words were wise enough.
Pity she weren’t always right.

“Get up, you.”
Grelly moaned at the bottom of her bed. I repeated myself, this time with my foot. Grelly arose. Simple story, same story every damned morning. Every one.
“Unnhh. Wurr. Whurr we goin’?”
“Fishing, Grelly. It’s a big moon, and that’s the ocean’s time. Get your mug and wipe the crud out of your eyes, it’s time.”
Grumbling and groaning followed, and before too long (it was always too long) we were pushing off the quay, hearing the same old waves smack against the same old wood and drinking the same old oily soup from the same old stone mugs. As the sun rose it would find us out in the shoals, first setting lines for the baitfish, then setting baitfish for the bigmouths, then (if we felt up to it) setting bigmouths for the razorjaws. And if we hooked one, I’d be the one to fight it, because when the stakes got high Grelly’s knees got weak and her palms got sweaty.
I heaved at my paddle and set to work, waiting a breath every four strokes to let my sister correct our course with her own lazy pulls. Simple story, same story every damned morning.
But not tomorrow.

On the nine hundredth stroke I stopped and sighed deep, tasted the air in all of my lungs. Yes, it was good here. The salt was flecked with that light oily scent that was the breath of fish, and lots of them. All packed together, side-to-side, with not an inch to spare. A mass of mouths all dying for a chance to stretch themselves and get some bites in.
I shook my head three times, stretched my arms, and started dumping my bait overboard.
“Cordill? What are you doing?”
I tipped the last of the four bait buckets overboard, humming a bit of an old song mama had taught me. It asked for fast jumps at the bobber and a strong pull in your arms.
“Cordill? We aren’t gonna have any left for later if you don-”
I reached out and grasped Grelly firmly by the nape, then heaved her overboard into the bait, face-first. She surfaced wasting her breath on swearing, and the more fool her because I had the paddle in my grip by then and a single whack drew blood and drove her back under.
Even with their brain banging against their skull, nothing outswims a Benthook, even Grelly. But mix that blood with the bait, and all those hungry mouths lurking all around you… well. I only needed the paddle three more times before she sank and didn’t come up again.
It was a quicker trip home that night, and with a bigger catch than usual in the canoe’s belly. A big old razorjaw, a matron, and with a belly ripe full of roe. Mama must’ve approved. I ate it raw, filled my mug and gullet with boiled oil from its liver, and threw my sister’s half-cracked cup into the midden with the first smile I’d owned proper in years.

I woke up early, heated up a morning soup with a rightful, uncompromising dose of salt, and paddled out farther offshore. Came back with a catch that nearly sank the canoe, spent the evening cooking, gutting, and carving, took the extra money left from the bigmouth cuts into town and bought a sack of red salt. Went to sleep early after filling in my sister’s bed with fresh dirt and a stone cap and drifted away as easily as if it were baiting a hook.
It was a good day. It was a new sort of day. It was the way all the days would be from now on, unless I decided to make them better yet. Maybe I’d even go hunting for a husband, now that the house had room…

Winter’s tail-end dripped away, along with the last of the morning mists. Now it was time for rain and sleet and fierce suns in dim skies, with waves that got angry and fast. Spring came with the big catches, but only if you had the teeth to bite into them and not let go.
Lightning struck the boat three times, an angry razorjaw nearly breached on me, and squalls broke out a half-minute from shining sunbeams every other day. Came back with the biggest hauls, week in, week out, and didn’t founder so much as once.
Maybe I’d get three husbands, and a cook. Maybe I’d get a warehouse. Maybe I’d hire out some hands to fish for me, like uncle did with mama, before the taste for the strong-sugar ate his teeth and wits right out of his skull. Not going to happen with me. Maybe uncle was a fool, but this daughter of Benthook wasn’t. The best vices were the safest vices, and those weren’t.
Then two months into spring I woke up, looked out the window, and saw a cherry-red sun rising into a sky already turning bluer than mama’s eyeballs. There was a hint of last night’s thunderheads slipping away over the far horizon on the back of a breeze that tugged heartstrings. A faint ghost of a big moon, a sea-moon, hung in the back of heaven.
It was a beautiful day. It was a perfect day. And it shouldn’t have been. We’d not even seen the face of summer yet, there should still be storms every week with daylong breaks for fog and dark. It got to me so bad I stopped by the churchstone before I left, to scrape a few prayers into the dirt at its base for the first time since mama died.
It would be fine. Just a gift for your hard work, that’s all. You’ve worked through the worst and come out shining bright as a fistful of diamonds, this is a chance to see what you can do with the best, that’s all. That’s all.

Went out farther than ever before. Didn’t even have to try to do it, the water was like a happy puppy under the bow, pulling me out and farther. Found myself taking breaks every fourth, like the bad old days – hah! There was no slacking here. Even the waves worked.
I stowed my paddle above a shoal so thick that the surface foamed. Tails and flukes broke water, now and then a little baitfish breached in the hurry of its attempt to avoid a happy bigmouth – usually failed.
The sky was empty. The wind was singing. My stomach was a nest of vipers.
I shook myself, stretched, and sighed in the air, felt the strong touch of the fish, then vomited into the bait bucket. I tried to breath, took in the smell again, and nearly choked as fresh heaves grabbed my gullet.
Fish, yes, there it was, there it was, but there was something else, something rancid and thicker than tar and familiar, something underneath…
Soft splinters reached my ears, and I looked downwards just in time to see the seams around the canoe’s keel double in width.
I stared. One hand groped for a bait-bucket as they doubled again. Then they tripled, then the water surged over my head.
All that water above me, but none around me – the fish were packed thick, like darting flies on a midden and three times as vicious. Baitfish tried to take shelter in my nostrils, bigmouths tasted at my fingers, and my claws did me as much good as spitting into a swell – blood flowed, but for no purpose.
I could feel a shriek brewing somewhere in my belly, and swallowed it. No failure. The canoe had split, but it would not have sunk. Up! Up! Swim, tear, pull up! No panic, feel the tug of the air in your lungs tell you the way! Up!
Light and dryness reached my fingertips even as more mouths worried at my heels, then my eyes slid above the glassiness and saw the shreds of the canoe’s starboard frame floating a reach away.
And stones-say, thank it all, the paddle was still there. I hauled out and clutched it with the love of a mother, gave myself a half-minute to curse and bless, then started the long, slow process of fighting back against that lovely breeze that had brought me here.

Night came in before I’d guessed, and it brought teeth under the big moon. Traces of bait, vomit and blood clung to the timbers of the canoe like fleas, and with them came an audience of hopeful scavengers, and with them came their predators, and with THEM came the razorjaws, slim and elegant little men and the heavyset bulk of the women, on the lookout for whatever strange beast had gone and torn itself to bits to float at the surface. Nosy animals, with nothing to satisfy curiosity with but teeth. I paddled, I swatted, and at morning who knew how much progress I’d made in miles but I’d lost yards of my raft to jagged, greedy teeth.
It was still beautiful out there, as I strained against half a paddle. A perfect sun in a perfect sky, beating down on me and cooking through my scales. Nothing to drink but salt water, with my mug at the bottom of the ocean. Nothing to eat but the gore that clung to the paddle’s handle, where a small razorjaw’s skull had proved softer than I expected. Nothing to see but flat blue, flat blue against a featureless sky without even the wind to guide me.
The wood creaked.

I didn’t turn, only breathed. And I didn’t inhale, because I knew what I’d smell; it was pooling all around me, as thick as the water that lapped at my kneeling legs as the raft settled deeper under the fresh weight. It was rotten brine and fish guts, mixed up and spread over a faint, familiar scent.
“Get off.” I’d said that. I didn’t want to, but I’d said it, and the voice was too cracked to even be mine. Someone was pretending to be me. “Go away.”
No noise at all, which made no sense. She could never shut up when it mattered. Was she going to make me say it? Could she speak, or was all the world down there as cold and quiet as a razorjaw’s smile? “Go away!”
A soft sigh at my side. Something dripped onto my shoulder.

Oh mama. You were right and you were wrong, all at once. The sea is for failures, but they do better there than we, hidden down there where we can’t see their secrets. And no daughter of yours stays a failure for long.
Get off, Grelly!

Storytime: Coming down.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

It’s coming down out there. You’d better wrap up tight and snug before you go, unless you want a chill. Take your coat, your heavy pants, and the biggest boots in the house – no, not those boots, these boots. Bring the heavy shovel for the long stretches, and the small shovel for the corners and the stoop. Mind your footing on the front stair.

It’s really coming down out there. You might want to check on the neighbours. Ring the doorbell on the south side, call out your name and household promptly, then raise your hands in the air and do not make any sudden movements. Bring them this casserole and the finest of our deer hides. Don’t catch a chill while you’re out.

It’s coming down out there like it hasn’t in years. Better wake up grandma – she knew all the best ways to take. Turn off all the downstairs lights and turn on all the upstairs lights. Fill the tubs and the sinks and empty the cupboards, throw it all into the freezer and don’t open it again. Lock the front door and the back door, pile up furniture in front of the windows, and jam the locks. Did you leave the car alarm on? Do that, we’ll need the advance warning system. Be quick and quiet.

It’s coming down fast out there. We’d better get ready for the long haul. Break out the first aid, count the canned goods, and everyone reload. Keep your buddy with you at all times and don’t turn your back on the shadows. Did you have a hot meal? If you didn’t, it’s too late now. Remember, they’re more scared of us than we are of them, and don’t you let them forget that either. If you’re jonesing for a cigarette, don’t bother. We can’t risk open flame ‘till this morning.

It’s coming down thick and furious out there. This could be it. Raise the floodgates, hoist the sandbags, and don’t cry, please don’t cry. We knew it would be here someday, and today is someday now. Just keep your calm and your cool and your head about you and we’ll all be laughing about this years from now. Did you remember your locker combination? Get there soon, and bring back the syringes. If the worst comes to the worst, it’ll be okay.

It’s still coming down out there. It might never end, you know. Did you scout out the caches yet? Check the traplines? I hope you at least visited the lookout – have we heard from him recently? Did you bring him the box? The red one? I hope you did that, because that’s very important. How’s your digestion lately? No aches or pains? If you feel them that’s okay, but if they spread to your legs go to the sickbay yesterday and don’t come back ‘till you can say your name forwards and backwards without stammering, shaking, or crying. It will be fine there, they have sugar for your tea.

It’s truly coming down out there. Throw more on the bonfire and don’t say any words out there in a language older than the internet. Wash your hands before you go, but not your palms. Tuck your chin in and keep it up. Keep fire close at hand and yours wits closer. And for the love of whatever’s left, don’t breathe through your mouth – the mist will give your position away.

It’s coming down out there like there’s no tomorrow. Could very well be. Take this book, ring this bell, eat this candle. Chew it six times seven times more, and be sure to say the right words from the right pages. Don’t lift a hand against them, and they won’t be able to lay a hand upon you. Do not touch what you cannot keep. Walk swiftly and silently, and come home safe.

It’s all coming down out there. You might as well accept it. Can’t make much of a difference at this point. Still, we always knew this would happen, didn’t we? We’re not surprised, at least. We aren’t. Are we? It was going to be like this. Definitely.
Oh well.

Storytime: The Chronicles of Irrukkimosh Ironlord’s Annual Re-gifting List

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Grim-Faced Shieldwall of Gorbon
Gifter: Grirk of Gorbond
Rationale: Not my style, thank you very much. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer something you can get two hands around and really swing with.
Re-giftee: Srakeen the Shredder.

Treacherous, Scheming, Untrustworthy Lieutenant
Gifter: Lib the Mad
Rationale: Already got one.
Re-giftee: Lib the Mad. It’s not like he’ll remember giving it to me anyways. This is what, the fourth time?

A Pair of Inept Bungling Oafs Whose Loyalty is Only Exceeded by Their Stupidity and Capacity for Self-Destruction, complete with comically mismatched suits of armor
Gifter: Srakeen the Shredder
Rationale: Is she TRYING to get me killed? One is permissible, two is practically a death warrant for Nirtrazon himself. Besides, I already have Trulb. At least until I can find someone from a good home who wants him.
Re-giftee: Feed the Peasantry’s seasonal gift-box.

Peasant Child of Unknown Family With Secret Fire Smouldering in Her Eyes
Gifter: Trulb
Rationale: What exactly am I supposed to do with a fourteen-year-old? The only thing I hate more than kids is teenagers.
Re-giftee: Mong the Slavemaster. Maybe we can at least grind some labour out of the brat before it gets old and slow.

How To Escape Your Crumbling Stronghold, by Nol Oldlord
Gifter: Nol Oldlord
Rationale: Okay, explain to me this: who the darkhells is going to receive a seasonal gift implying that the gifter expects them to fail and fall like a bleating two-year-old goblin and be THANKFUL for it? Stupid old bat.
Re-giftee: Srakeen the Shredder. I think this one’s going to be making the rounds for a few years.

***

Capacious Darkplate
Gifter: Tordamore
Rationale: Doesn’t fit. I’m not entirely sure why people just go around ASSUMING that I’m a tub of lard, but this seems to happen far too often. The perils of spending most of your time either brooding in the shadows or sealed inside a big metal can, I suppose.
Re-giftee: Nol Oldlord. Two can play the gift-an-insult game, you self-important old prick.

A Handful of Blackened Ichor and Spittle
Gifter: Iz-Na!-Chlun!
Rationale: Seriously?
Re-giftee: Lib the Mad. He’ll probably eat it or something.

Tumultuous Ruin-mace, engraved with loving hands
Gifter: Mom
Rationale: In the name of all that is buried and foul, I have an image to maintain and that image does not include tiny puppies carved into obsidian.
Re-giftee: Trulb.

Giant Flogging-Whip
Gifter: Jormund the Tallest
Rationale: Ugh, ethnic gifts. Look, I don’t have anything against giants, I just don’t really care for their instruments of torture. They’re loud and clumsy and make no sense. Leave the giant implements of pain to the giants, leave the evil overlord implements of pain to me. Everyone’s happiest that way.
Re-giftee: Mom. I know she gets a kick out of this stuff. Wish Dad was still around to tell me why.

Tracking Dragon-Dogs
Gifter: The city of Backlebroad
Rationale: Couldn’t find a stupid escaped teenager, what CAN they find? Half their body weight at that age is smelly hormones and acne! A waste to feed them.
Re-giftee: Feed the Peasantry’s seasonal gift-box.

***

Seven-Hundred-and-Forty-Seven Pages of Scribbled, Crumpled Rantings on Bloodstained Parchment, in No Particular Order
Gifter: Lib the Mad
Rationale: Maybe I shouldn’t have sent him that ichor.
Re-giftee: Trulb. He’s been whining about running out of toilet paper for weeks now.

Giant and Unstoppable Doomaconda with Hypnotizing Eyes and an Eighteen-Syllable Name I Cannot Pronounce
Gifter: Oll the Serpent
Rationale: I can’t say it, I can’t spell it, and I don’t need it. Cold-blooded or no, that thing eats too much. Besides, the castle’s already heavily guarded. What more could I want?
Re-giftee: Mom. She’s been wanting a new pet for a while now, since CHRGHTM descended back to the lowest darkhell.

Towering Parapet
Gifter: Tordamore
Rationale: This fortress is tall enough already, I’m tall enough already, and if we improve on either of those things I’ll start to get dizzy. Besides, traditionally parapets are for brooding on, and I’m not that kind of tyrant.
Re-giftee: Jormund the Tallest. Maybe giants like this sort of thing.

Love Interest
Gifter: Mom
Rationale: Here’s a little bit about me: I am seventeen feet tall, completely sociopathic and happy that way, covered in spiky armour, shed hate and flame from every single inch of my steely hide, and am entirely lacking in genitalia. This tremulous little twerp is as useful to me as tits on a boar.
Re-giftee: ??? I already gave Srakeen a new dishwasher this year, and that’s about the heaviest labour I can see this waste of space doing. Might as well shut it in a tower until I figure out what to do about it.

Creaking and Ominous Graveyard, With Grandiose Mausoleum
Gifter: Nol Oldlord
Rationale: I prefer my victims burnt, and I will leave behind no physical corpse. Besides, I’m going to live forever.
Re-giftee: Nol Oldlord. Take a hint, wheezing dotard.

***

Giant Catapult
Gifter: Jormund the Tallest
Rationale: Worked for one hour, then destroyed by daring midnight raid.
Re-giftee: Dumpster.

Impenetrable Wall-Plating, Hand-Knitted
Gifter: Mom
Rationale: Penetrated.
Re-giftee: Dumpster.

Wailing Doom-Brigade of Chanting Maniacs
Gifter: Iz-Na!-Chlun!
Rationale: Read one augury, committed mass suicide without permission, formed convenient ramp across flarewater moat.
Re-giftee: Feed the Peasantry’s seasonal gift-box.

Trulb’s Heart
Gifter: Trulb
Rationale: It seemed really satisfying to tear it out at the time, but in retrospect he was the last lackey in the fortress.
Re-giftee: Whoever’s standing outside my window at this second.

How To Escape Your Crumbling Stronghold, by Nol Oldlord (used)
Gifter: Grirk of Gorbond
Rationale: Last chapter is missing.
Re-giftee: Fuck my fucking li